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HEARTH WITCHERY

This is the ancient wisdom of the grandmothers, the wise women, once passed down from mother to daughter and crone to apprentice, and then improved by a lifetime of study and the daily observation of the patterns of nature.

In bygone ages most of us lived much closer to nature than we do now. Once every woman had to be something of an herbalist and healer, responsible for her household’s health, since professional medical help was either unavailable or too expensive (and possibly dangerous to boot). Every home kept some drying herbs and flowers to make herbal infusions, powders, oils and poultices, brewed wine and ale, preserved fruit, made jams and jellies, pickles and chutneys, and many also made inks, dyes, soaps and household cleaners. A girl would be initiated into the secrets of these family formulas by her mother, along with her knowledge of folklore, stories, healing potions, minor surgery, gardening, brewing and wine making, spinning, weaving, dyeing, childcare, home management, animal husbandry, bee-keeping, fortune telling and cookery know-how.

And then there were those in the community who knew that little bit more, the village wise woman or cunning man. When joined my first coven Julia, our high priestess, told us stories of the herb wives of the past, who cared for the bodies and spirits of those around them, telling their fortunes, treating their bodily ailments with herbs, dowsing their lost property, and physicking their farm animals. She held them up to us as examples of powerful, magical women in an age when women otherwise had little influence. They were the midwives who brought new life into the world, she said, and who laid out the dead at the end of life. Though such stories have often been wildly romanticised, folklore records and accounts do show that virtually every village seems to have had a wise woman or a cunning man of some sort. These village shamans had different names in different places, including handywomen, blessers, witches, conjurors, herb wives, wild herb men, snake doctors, fairy doctors and currens. These practitioners didn’t use athames and magic swords but everyday objects – stones, keys, shears, sieves, pitchforks, brooms, divining rods, wax, bottles, paper and anything that came readily to hand from the kitchen or farm.

This is the ancient wisdom of the grandmothers, the wise women, once passed down from mother to daughter and crone to apprentice, and then improved by a lifetime of study and the daily observation of the patterns of nature. Such expertise formed the pattern of women’s lives for thousands of years and that women developed highly skilful methods in all these areas, even though no contemporary historian wrote about them or accorded women due status for their invaluable work. Women’s knowledge has been derided and ignored for most of our history, and this is just as true today in western culture, in which knowledge is ‘owned’ by experts (mainly men) and can only be passed on through state-approved academic institutions, and where those seeking to follow traditional or alternative paths – such as herbalism – are dismissed as uneducated, naïve or even dangerous.

But this is our knowledge, our heritage – as women and as witches, both male and female. Discovering it and practicing my Craft has been a marvellous adventure for me, and it never ceases to fill me with wonder and awe at the power of Mother Nature. It makes me aware of the magic that flows throughout the world in every uncurling oak leaf in spring, every blushing rose petal, every humming summer bee, every rutting stag, and every misty shore. This is the reward of the path of the hearth witch.

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SENSATIONAL SAGE

Sage is a hardy, aromatic, evergreen shrub that grows to a height of 1-3 ft. The common sage is a native of the Mediterranean. It likes a position in full sun and light, well-drained soil. Plants should be cut back after flowering. For drying purposes the leaves should be harvested just before the plant flowers. They should be dried slowly to avoid mould forming and then crumbled and stored in an airtight container.

Cooks use the leaves and stems with meats, in stews and soups, with cheese, pasta, in herb butter and in stuffings.  Make a sage honey by infusing the leaves in gently warmed honey – this is good for coughs, and can be used to dress desserts. The plant also is brewed to make tea.  Sage leaves and flowers can be frozen in ice cubes and added to summer drinks.

Add the fresh leaves to the bath for an invigorating wash. It is a natural disinfectant and deodoriser. Used as a rinse, an infusion of sage leaves benefits the hair and darkens greying hair. Sage can be made into a cleansing lotion or used in an astringent facial steam it will tighten the pores.

Sage is used for coughs and colds, or use the infusion as a gargle for sore throats, tonsillitis, and as a mouthwash for inflamed gums and mouth ulcers. Sage tea helps menopausal women with hot flushes, night sweats and other menopausal symptoms – sip the tea during the day. An infusion of the leaves is useful for the treatment of diarrhoea, depression, rheumatism, anaemia, menstrual problems, and migraine, for lowering fevers, and indigestion.  It also helps improve the memory and reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol. Externally it can be used as a wash for acne, eczema, wounds, scabs, insect bites and stings. Sage is antiseptic. The fresh leaves can be rubbed on stings or bites.

Midsummer Herb Craft

As the Midsummer the sun reaches the point of greatest light, it imbues herbs with powerful magical and healing properties. This is the most potent time for gathering herbs, especially sun-coloured flowers such as St. John’s wort. Other plants acquire strange properties; an elder cut on Midsummer Eve, for example, will bleed real blood, or fern seeds can confer the gift of invisibility if gathered at midnight. Anything round and rayed suggests the sun itself, including the rose and daisy.

A belief in the magical powers of herbs at Midsummer was common throughout Europe and the Middle East. At one time plants were hung up all over on St. John’s Eve. In 1598 the historian John Stow wrote of the sight in London:

‘Every man’s door was shaded with green birch, fennel, St. John’s wort, orpin, white lilies, and the like, ornamented with garlands of beautiful flowers. They…had also lamps of glass with oil burning in them all night; and some of them hung out branches of iron, curiously wrought, containing hundreds of lamps lighted at once, which made a splendid appearance.’[1]

This is a fertile time of year when flowers bloom in abundance. In the Western Mystery Tradition it is counted as the time when the opening flower is fertilized, when the God impregnates the Goddess. For the Welsh it was sacred to the goddess Blodeuwedd, the Flower Bride, created by magic from nine types of flowers to marry the god Lleu Llaw Gyffes. The Celts made floral sacrifices at Midsummer. Well into the nineteenth century the custom was carried on in Britain by placing flowers on the largest stone on the farm. Protective plants were hung above the door and cattle stalls, including St. John’s wort, rue, orpine, trefoil, rowan and red thread, vervain and fennel.

The following herbs all take on special meaning at the summer solstice:

ANGELICA Angelica sp.

Angelica is a member of the parsley family and is probably a native of Europe. There are about thirty varieties. Angelica is invested with the power of the sun and light, the ability to cast off darkness and negativity. Use in incenses for Midsummer to celebrate the healing power of fire and the sun to overcome winter, decay and negativity. It was used in mediaeval Europe to deter evil spirits, especially at Midsummer when they were thought to roam freely.

 ASH Fraxinus sp.

Ash trees attract lightening in the summer months, the fertilizing power of the Sky God, darting from the heavens to be transmitted to the belly of Mother Earth through the agency of the tree. This makes it a World Tree, linking all the planes of existence. The ash is a tree of the sun, and the bark and leaves can be used in sun incenses or to purify the aura and infuse it with the vitalizing, healing energy of the sun. At one time people ate ash buds at the summer solstice to protect themselves from enchantment.

BAY Laurus nobilis

The sweet bay is an evergreen tree naturalized around the Mediterranean. Bay is used in incenses or offerings to invoke sun gods and goddesses, and gods and goddesses of the dawn. As a herb of protection, bay has the power of banishing negativity and darkness.

 BIRCH Betula sp.

The European birch tree has a bright, white bark and is associated with the sun. Birch bark may be added to incenses of purification and protection, and incenses celebrating the passage of the sun. In country ritual leafy branches of birch were used at Midsummer to bedeck houses and even signposts throughout the villages. It forms the May and Midsummer maypole, sometimes called ‘the summer tree’.

CEDAR Cedrus sp.

True cedars belong to the genus Cedrus, and are native to mountainous areas of North Africa and Asia. The fragrant wood has been used in incenses for millennia. It drives away ghosts and evil spirits and dispels negativity. It is associated with eternity and preservation from decay and corruption. It represents the continuation of the soul.

CHAMOMILE Anthemis nobilis, Matricaria chamomilla

Chamomiles are native to Europe, North Africa and temperate Asia. They are sacred to the sun and sun gods including the Egyptian Ra and the Norse Baldur. Chamomile connects with the sun god’s power of healing, regeneration and protection. It may be used in incenses with these intentions or added to herbal talismans to boost them with the sun god’s power. Chamomile is one of the sacred herbs of Midsummer and may be used in the incense, or simply thrown onto the festival fire as an offering.

 DAISY (ENGLISH) Bellis perennis

The daisy is a hardy perennial that is native to Europe and Asia. Its central yellow boss with white petals arrayed around it was thought to resemble the sun. It is sacred to sun gods and goddesses and is associated with purity, innocence and faithful love. The daisy is sacred to the Baltic sun goddess Saule. Daisies picked between noon and one o’clock on Midsummer Day have special magical qualities. They bring success in any venture when they are dried and carried.  The English name ‘daisy’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon daeges eage meaning ‘day’s eye’, and refers to the flower opening its petals during daylight hours and closing them at night.

DILL Anethum graveolens

Dill is an aromatic, upright, annual herb native to the eastern Mediterranean, India, Iran, Russia and western Asia. It was known as one of the St. John’s Eve herbs and was valued as a protection against witchcraft.

ELDER  Sambucus nigra

Elder is the name of a group of thirty species of small trees that grow in temperate areas of the Northern Hemisphere. It is said that where the elder grows, the Goddess is not far away. The elder has several stations throughout the year and its character changes at each. The sweet blossom can be collected in June and make a good fixative for herbal incenses. The leaves should be gathered on Midsummer morning to add to healing incense. Add the blossom to Midsummer incense, and incense to invoke dryads and fairies.

FENNEL

Fennel was held in high esteem by the Romans and was one of the nine sacred herbs of the Anglo-Saxons. During the Middle Ages fennel was hung over the door on Midsummer’s Eve as it was believed to keep away evil spirits. It is one of the sacred aromatic herbs of Midsummer used as incense or thrown on the bonfire. It has a long association with the sun and fire. In Greek mythology the titan Prometheus used a hollow fennel stem to steal fire from the sun and bring it to humankind. Greek islanders still carry lighted coals around in the pith of giant fennel.

FERN

Fern is the common name for any spore-producing plant of the phylum Polypodiophyta.  It is associated with sun gods and goddesses, and gods and goddesses of the dawn, such as Daphne. It is also sacred to the Great Goddess and the sky gods of thunder, lightning and Midsummer. At the turning of Midsummer and Midwinter it allows access into the Otherworld and contact with its inhabitants. It was sacred to the Baltic sun goddess Saule who appeared on the horizon at Midsummer, wreathed in apple blossom and red fern blossom (i.e. red clouds). Use fern in incenses at Midsummer to protect the household and for divination purposes. Known as the ‘treasure fist’ or ‘death flower’ it was popularly thought to only bloom and produce seed on Midsummer Eve, when the seeds can be collected to make the bearer invisible, help him find wealth or give him magical powers, though he will have to battle the evil spirits that protect them. In Finland the seeds were thought to be gathered by trolls who would snatch them away from any human collector and make him go insane. In Britain the seeds could only be gathered on pewter plates, since they would pass through any other material, though in Lancashire it was held that fern seed collected on the family bible conveyed invisibility. In the far north, where there is barely any darkness at the summer solstice, the seeds are said to glow like embers, and their appearance to be announced by a peal of thunder. In a German story, a hunter is said to have procured fern seed by shooting at the sun at noon on Midsummer’s Day. Three drops of blood fell down, and these were the fern seed. The blood is clearly the blood of the sun from which the fern seed is directly derived.

FLAX Linaceae. Sp.

The flax family is a member of the order Linales, the most ancient class of flowering plants native to almost all tropical and temperate regions. Flax thread is intimately connected to the life maze and to the web of life. Flax may be used in incense to consecrate the ritual wheel or sun/moon disc or zodiac symbol. Flax may be thrown onto the fire at Midsummer. The Lapps offered flax on the altars of the sun goddess as many sun deities are associated with spinning, whether spinning the cosmos itself or with spinning sunbeams.

GORSE Ulex eurpaeus

Furze, or gorse, is native to Europe and is widely cultivated. It was burned at Midsummer and blazing branches of gorse were carried round the herd to bring health to the cows and good luck for the rest of the year. In some parts of the British Isles the Midsummer fire was lit with a branch of furze.

HAZEL Corylus avellana

Hazel is the common name applied to trees and shrubs of the genus Corylus, found throughout the temperate regions of North America and Eurasia. A branch of hazel cut on Midsummer Eve will guide you to hidden treasure. It must be cut at night by walking backwards with both hands between your legs.

HEATHER Calluna vulgaris

Heather is an evergreen shrub belonging to the family Ericaceae found throughout Western Europe and in parts of North America. It is sacred to the goddess of Midsummer, who was often designated as queen bee, as bees love to drink from heather flowers. Cybele is the queen bee for whom her priests castrate themselves to become her drones. The honeybee, which orientates itself on its journey from the heather to the hive in relation to the position and angle to the sun, was regarded by the Celts as a messenger travelling the path of the sunlight to the spirit world. In legend Cybele imprisoned Attis in heather at Midsummer.

HONEYSUCKLE Lonicera caprifolium

The family Caprifoliaceae contains about four hundred species and occurs mainly in the Northern Temperate Zone.  Add the flowers to Midsummer incenses.

LAVENDER Lavendula officinalis

Lavender is the name given to twenty-eight species of the genus Lavandula native to the Mediterranean region. Lavender purifies, heals and cleanses. Add to incense for calm meditation and to bring peace and harmony in the home, or at difficult discussions and meetings. Add to the Midsummer incense.

MALLOW Malva sylvestris

In Ireland the young people gathered sprigs of mallow on Midsummer Eve. It was considered to be a protection from some of the more dangerous spirits at large on this night. They would then touch their relatives and friends with the leaves, before throwing the leaves onto the bonfire.

 MARIGOLD  Calendula officinalis

Marigold is a hardy, annual herb native to central and southern Europe and Asia. Use it in incense dedicated to the sun, the element of fire, the star sign of Leo and to invoke sun gods. Marigold is a herb of healing and protection, and can also be added to incenses for prophetic dreams, love, divination and used to consecrate divinatory tools such as crystal balls. The name of this plant comes from the Latin calends or kalendae, the word for the first day of each month and the origin of our ‘calendar’. In ancient Rome the calendula was said to be in bloom on each calend throughout the year. The specific name officinalis shows that it was included on the official list of herbal medicines. In ancient Egypt it was used as a rejuvenating herb, while the Persians and Greeks used it for cooking, and the Hindus to decorate their altars and temples. At Midsummer garlands of marigold flowers hung on doors prevent evil from entering. Marigold petals were also scattered on the floor under the bed to offer protection to sleepers.

MEADOWSWEET Filipendula ulmaria / Spiraea ulmaria

Meadowsweet is a member of the rose family native to Europe, temperate Asia and eastern North America. The generic name spiraea is the root word for ‘aspirin’ and meadowsweet has long been used for pain relief and the treatment of fevers. Meadowsweet was one of the three most sacred herbs of the druids (the others were watermint and vervain). The druids are believed to have made use of the plant’s anodyne qualities. It is sometimes known as Queen of the Meadows which was one of the titles of the Celtic goddess Blodeuwedd. It is also sacred to the Celtic goddesses Aine and Gwena and the Roman love goddess Venus.

OAK Quercus robur

There are more than six hundred species of oaks, all of which grow naturally only in the Northern Hemisphere. The primary power plant of the summer solstice is the oak. In ogham the oak is duir meaning ‘door’ in Gaelic. The word for door and oak, and perhaps druid, come from the same root in many European languages. The oak flowers at Midsummer and marks the door opening on one side to the waxing and on the other to the waning year. Oak was the most sacred tree of the druids and stood for a cosmic axis, and was the doorway to knowledge. Oak wood constituted the sacred fires of Midsummer. The flowers and wood are used at Midsummer.

ORPINE

A purple flowered stonecrop (Sedum) known as Midsummer Men. Orpine is the French word for stonecrop. The plant is also called ‘live long’ as it will live for months after it is cut, if only it is sprinkled with a little water. It was set in pots on Midsummer Eve and hung up in the house as a form of love divination. If the leaves bent to the right this signified that a lover was faithful, if to the left the true love’s heart was cold and faithless. [2] If two slips are stuck together in a crack and lean together, the omen is good for a relationship.

REED Phragmites communis

The reed is found growing in marshes, at water edges and in moist woodland in almost all countries of the temperate and warm regions. In myth the reed bed was seen as the entrance to the underworld from which the sun was reborn. Because reeds are filled with air- or spirit- reeds are associated with the speaking of the spirits. They are a symbol of royalty and sun gods, employed as sceptres.

ROSE Rosa sp.

The rose is a symbol both of the sun and the Goddess.

ROSEMARY Rosemarinus officinalis

Ruled by the sun and the element of fire, rosemary is a hardy perennial native to the Mediterranean region. A piece of rosemary wood cut on Midsummer morning is said to preserve youthful looks.

JOHN’S WORT Hypericum perforatum

St. John’s wort is a hardy perennial herb native to Europe and western Asia. It is one of the many herbs that gain special powers at Midsummer, when it should be collected for magical purposes. The golden flowers are associated with the sun and the flames of the Midsummer fires. The Irish called it ‘life-renewer’ (beathnua) and the Welsh ‘the blessed one’s leaf’ (dail y fendigaid). Mediaeval herbalists reckoned it as the golden herb which ‘shines like the sun in the darkness’ on St. John’s Eve. It is a protective and counter-magic herb. The botanical name ‘hypericum‘ comes from the Greek and means ‘to protect’ or ‘over an apparition’. This refers to the belief that the plant could make evil spirits disappear. It was also called Fuga Daemonum (‘flight of demons’) because it repels evil spirits.  It was believed to possess the quality of protecting the wearer against all manner of evil. Legend has it that the plant moves around to hide from those who seek its powers on at Midsummer when it is made into garlands and charms to protect the home and livestock. It had to be gathered in a particular manner:

St. John’s wort, St. John’s wort,

I deem lucky the one who will have you;

I harvest you with my right hand,

I store you away with my left hand;

Whosoever finds you in the fold of young animals

Will never want for anything.[3]

Country folk often picked bunches of the herb and hung them in byres and stables to frighten evil spirits and keep the devil away. It was tossed onto the baal or hearth fires and allowed to burn to protect the home against lightning and storms. St. John’s wort gathered at noon on Midsummer Day was reputed to be effective against several illnesses. It was also believed that the dew collected from the plant on Midsummer morning would preserve the eyes from disease, while the roots gathered at midnight on St. Johns Eve would drive the devil and evil sorcerers away.

SUNFLOWER

Nothing evokes the warm summer sun as much as the giant yellow face of the sunflower, which moves during the day to follow the path of the sun across the sky. Magically it represents strength, courage and action. The petals may be dried and used in incenses during sun rituals or during meditations and exercises designed to increase your confidence and self-image, or to determine a course of positive action.

 VERVAIN Verbena officinalis

Vervain is a hardy herbaceous perennial native to Britain, Europe, North Africa and West Asia. For magical purposes vervain should be gathered at the summer solstice. Gather enough for one year. Any vervain that has been left over from last year’s gathering should be cast onto the Midsummer bonfire.

Photograph Paul Mason

[1] John Stow, Survey, 1598

[2] Brewer, E. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Cassell and Co., London, 1885

[3] Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh, 1928

Midsummer

The celebration of Midsummer is a pan-global custom. Every culture has, at some point in its history, marked the time and held it to be enchanted. The Celts, the Norse and the Slavs believed that there were three ‘spirit nights’ in the year when magic abounded and the Otherworld was close. The first was Halloween, the second was May Eve and the third was Midsummer Eve. On this night, of all nights, fairies are most active. On this night the future can be uncovered. As the solstice sun rises on its day of greatest power it draws up with it the power of herbs, standing stones and crystals. In the shimmering heat haze on the horizon its magical energies are almost visible. And as the mist gate forms in the warm air rising beneath the dolmen arch, the entrance to the Otherworld opens- Avalon, Tir nan Og, the land of Youth where it is always summer and death and old age are unknown. Shakespeare captured all the magic of the occasion in A Midsummer Night’s Dream where fairies, magic and mischief abound on one bewitched night in the forest.

Every ancient religion had its own customs and traditions associated with Midsummer. These appear in the lore of Greece and Rome, the myths of the Norse, the Maya, the Aztecs, the Slavs, the writings of the ancient Egyptians, and the Old Testament of the Jews, while the Celts has a large collection of myths associated with Midsummer. Vestiges of these festivities can still be witnessed today. In places we may still see the baal fires, the torchlight processions, the rolling of a sun wheel downhill, the casting of spells, divination, love magic, and the blessing of crops and animals with fire.

The cold, dark days of winter and blight are far away, the time of light and warmth, summer and growth are here.  The summer solstice is the longest day and shortest night of the year. It falls around June 21st in the northern hemisphere and around December 21st in the southern hemisphere. It is a natural time of celebration.

The sun is the largest and brightest object in our skies and all of life on earth is dependent on its light and heat. During our own temperate summer we have long, warmer days when animals produce young and plants flourish and bear fruit, but during the winter the days are short and cold, vegetation dies and animals struggle to find food – survival is harder and sometimes impossible. For our ancestors, winter often brought starvation and death.

The sun governs the pattern of life, its cycles dividing the hours, days, months and years, the round of sowing, growth, harvest and decay. The Egyptians called the sun the divine creator of all things, the master of time and the seasons. Its regular daily and seasonal rotations stand as a symbol of cosmic order. From where we stand on earth, each day the sun seems to rise in the east, scattering the powers of darkness and diffusing light and fertility as it climbs to its zenith at noon. Then it declines, descending into the west and eventually sinking below the horizon, only to return with the following dawn. The Egyptian sun god Ra was born as a baby each dawn, grew to maturity at noon and became an old man at sunset, ready for death. Each sunrise demonstrated the victory of life over the forces of death and darkness; it was a metaphor for human spiritual and physical life, reflecting our own experiences of birth, growth, decay and death, as well as our hope of rebirth, our struggles against negativity and the triumph of spirit. Thus, for our ancestors the eternal cycle of the sun was the central paradigm of their spiritual beliefs. Sun gods were:

“…the types and models of the divine potentiality…they were the mirror held up to men, in which could be seen the possibilities locked up in man’s own nature. They were type figures, delineating the divine life that was an ever possible realization for any devoted man. They were the symbols of an ever coming deity, a deity that came not once historically in Judea, but that came to ever fuller expression and liberation in the inner heart of every son of man. The solar deities were the gods that ever came, that were described as coming not once upon a time, but continuously and regularly. Their radiant divinity might be consummated by an earnest person at any time or achieved piecemeal.”  [1]

No wonder then that the sun was often the chief deity of the ancient world or at least, his or her emblem. There are thousands of sun gods and goddesses with remarkably similar characteristics: they battle the forces of darkness and dispel evil; they illuminate the sky; see everything on their path and uncover those secrets hidden by darkness (often in the form of prophecy); they represent truth, justice and enlightenment and they bring healing.

Solar myths explain the sun’s daily movement across the sky from east to west and its disappearance at night as a journey taken by the god, usually travelling across the heavens in a chariot or boat. In Scandinavian and Celtic countries many Bronze Age carvings show the sun disc being pulled along on a cart. The Greek Helios (or Apollo) drove his fiery chariot through the sky by day, and by night he floated back across the ocean in a golden bowl, only to mount the chariot again the next morning. Ra travelled across the sky in his sun-boat and passed through the Duat (underworld) each night, bringing light to the souls imprisoned there and defeating the demon Apep before escaping with the dawn. The Navaho call their sun god Jóhanaa’éi (‘Sun-bearer’) and every day he hauls the sun across the sky on his back. At night, he hangs the sun from a peg on the wall and rests. In Australian aboriginal mythology, the sun goddess Wuriupranili lights a torch and travels from east to west, extinguishing the torch in the western ocean. She decorates her body with red ochre which represents the colour of the sun rise and sunset. Dawn and dusk were often spoken of as gates. In Norse myth the sun emerged each day from deling’s dore (‘dawn’s door’), and for the Canadian Bella Cool Indians the doors are guarded by a warrior called the Bear of Heaven. Shamash entered the Gate of the East onto the Mountains of Sunrise and travelled to the Mountains of Sunset and exited through the Western Gate of Heaven. [2] Where the sun went at night, and whether it would return, was a matter for grave concern. What would happen if the sun god failed to defeat the monsters of darkness and not rise each dawn? Life on earth would come to an end. The sun god could be benign and friendly, spreading his light and warmth, or he could be cold and indifferent, withdrawing his gifts; he could even be cruel and destructive, shrivelling living things with his overbearing heat. It was necessarily to propitiate him, and in some places human sacrifices were offered in order to bring back the sun at the winter solstice.

As well as the sun’s daily birth and nightly death, the sun is seen to wax and wane during the year. After midwinter the sun begins to grow stronger and the days lengthen up until midsummer, when the opposite happens and the days gradually grow shorter and colder. At midwinter and midsummer the sun apparently changes its course. In midwinter having reached the lowest point in its path, it turns about and begins to mount the skies; conversely at midsummer, having attained the highest point it reaches, the sun seems to turn about once more and descend. Consequently it was often imagined the sun god was born at the winter solstice and grew until midsummer, afterwards declining towards his death at the midwinter solstice, before being reborn and the whole cycle beginning again. Hurs or Hors was the Slavonic god of the old winter sun who became smaller as the days grew shorter and died on korochun (the winter solstice) defeated by the dark powers of Chernobog. The next day Hors was resurrected as the new sun, Koleda. (Koleda survives in the modern Slavonic languages as the word for Christmas.) Because of his transformation the Slavs worshipped Hors as the god of healing and the triumph of health, [3] a characteristic shared by most of the sun gods around the world. The rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice meant that the hope for the renewal of the cycle of the seasons was accomplished, and the wheel of life would spin on. In many countries this festival season was known as yole or yuul, meaning ‘wheel’ from the word hiaul or huul, which even to this day signified the sun in some languages. The wheel is one of the ancient symbols of the sun, the spokes representing its rays and the wheel’s turning the sun’s passage through the year.

We experience changing seasons because the axis of the Earth – an imaginary line between the north and south poles – is tilted from true by 23.5 degrees. As our planet revolves around the sun, this means that part of the earth tilts towards the sun, then away again.  Between June and September the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun and gets more light, experiencing the season of summer. At the same time the Southern Hemisphere experiences winter.  Between December and March the Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun and experiences less light and warmth, while the Southern Hemisphere enjoys summer. Just how much sunlight you experience depends on the latitude you occupy. By June 21st there are twenty-four hours of daylight above the Arctic Circle, while below the Antarctic Circle there are twenty-four hours of darkness.  During spring and autumn, both hemispheres experience milder weather and the two equinoxes mark the junctures when the Earth’s axis is pointing sideways. Without the tilt in the Earth’s axis we would have the same degree of light and warmth – or dark and cold – all year round, and have no seasons at all; the sun’s rays would always be directly over the Equator. The solstices and equinoxes are the four stations of the sun during the year, represented by an equal armed cross; there is a frequent connection between sun gods and crosses.

The word solstice is derived from Latin and means ‘sun stands still’. The sun usually rises at a different point on the horizon each day (it only rises due east at the spring equinox). It travels north-east to its furthest position at the summer solstice and appears to stand still for a few days before heading south-east, reaching its southernmost position at the winter solstice where it seems to rest again for a few days before heading north once more. The summer solstice is celebrated when the sun reaches its most northerly position. Moreover, during the winter the sun does not rise so high in the sky and the shadows are longer. During the summer it climbs high and strong in the sky and shadows are short.

The Sanskrit root of the word summer means ‘half year’, suggesting the light and dark halves of the year were marked by the two solstices. [4] This division of the year by the two solstices into two halves was common in the ancient world. The Saxon year began at the winter solstice and the summer solstice marked its mid-point.  They called the month of June Aerra Litha meaning ‘before Litha’, and July Aeftera Litha meaning ‘after Litha’ [5] leading some to speculate that the Saxon name for the festival was Litha. The Icelandic lida or litha means ‘to move’, or ‘pass over’, in other words, the sun passing over its highest point or the month of the sun’s descent. J.R.R.Tolkien used the term for a midsummer festival in the fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings and some Pagans, particularly in the USA, have lately adopted the name for the midsummer festival. While the solstice generally falls round the 21st June [6] Midsummer’s Eve is fixed as 23rd June, and Midsummer’s Day (or St John’s Day) as 24th June. Then again, we find references to Old Midsummer Eve and Old Midsummer Day in early July. It is generally accepted that the Christian missionaries persuaded the old Pagans to move their celebrations of the summer solstice to the feast of St John on 24th June, pegging a moveable solstice feast to a definite date. However, it is noticeable that while most parts of Europe celebrate on St John’s Day, a significant number of individual areas celebrate on St Peter’s and St Paul’s Day, 29th June. At least part of the confusing results from changes made to the calendar. In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII wiped out ten days from the old Julian calendar to make it astronomically correct. However, the Gregorian calendar was not adopted in Britain till 1752 and Ireland in 1782, by which time eleven days had to be dropped. Some towns refused to move their holidays, and Whalton in Northumberland still lights its fire on old Midsummer Eve, 5th July.

The Pagan festivities of the summer solstice were appropriated to the Feast of St. John the Baptist, the cousin who baptised Jesus and announced that he was the saviour foretold by the Hebrew prophets. The baal fires became the fires of St. John, whom Jesus called “a bright and shining light”. In the Middle Ages, Christian mythographers declared that St John was born at the summer solstice at the time of the weakening sun, announcing his own power would wane with the birth of Christ at the winter solstice, the time of the strengthening sun. [7] John the Baptist is reported to have said of Jesus “He must increase, but I must decrease.” [8] John is the only saint whose feast day is celebrated on the day of his birth, rather than his death. Christian scholars incorporated Pagan symbolism into their iconography to associate Christ with the waxing year and John with the waning, represented by the holly and oak respectively, though neither tree had any connection with Christianity or Judaism. The evergreen holly persisted through the winter death-time and so was identified with Christ, the white flower emblematic of his purity, the prickles his crown of thorns, and the red berries the drops of his shed blood: “…of all the trees that are in the woods, the holly bears the crown” in the words of the old carol. [9]

There are a number of customs associated with Midsummer, most of which celebrate the time of greatest light and encourage the power of the sun with sympathetic magic in the form of bonfires, rolling wheels, circle dances and  torchlight processions. Because the energy of the sun infuses the whole of nature, it is a potent time for gathering plants, seeking healing or practicing divination. However, Midsummer is also a dangerous time when the wild forces of the spirit world are close and threaten, and precautions have to be taken against them.

© Anna Franklin, author of Midsummer, History, Lore and Celebration, Lear Books

 

 

[1] Alvin Boyd Kuhn, The Great Myth of the Sun-Gods, 2005

[2] John Matthews, The Summer Solstice, Godsfield Press, London, 2005

[3] http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/Hors

[4] Dr E.C.Krupp, Beyond the Blue Horizon, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992

[5] Nigel Pennick, Runic Astrology, The Aquarian Press, Wellingborough, 1990

[6] It can vary between 19th– 23rd June

[7] Phillipe Walter, Christianity, the Origins of a Pagan Religion, Inner Traditions, Rochester, 2003

[8] John, 3:30

[9] John Williamson, The Oak King, the Holly King and the Unicorn, Harper and Row, New York, 1986

Witches and Fairies

There have always been legends of ‘fairies’; they exist in every country of the world. The people of ancient Greece and Rome worshipped the nymphs of meadows, streams and mountains, and the dryads who lived in trees. Ireland abounds with tales of people who have encountered leprechauns who showed them buried treasure at the end of rainbows, wailing banshees who heralded the death of relatives and drunken cluricauns who stole from wine cellars. In England there are old pamphlets describing the mischievous antics of Robin Goodfellow, the merry spirit of the greenwood who cared for its animals and played tricks on hunters, and stories of West Country pixies who led travellers astray, but who helped kindly farmers with their work. There are similar fables from Africa, Hawaii, the Americas, Australia, Europe, Japan, China and Russia.

A culture that believes in spirits is one fundamentally different from our modern Western materialistic society. It recognises that a life-force suffuses the whole of Nature, an energy that manifests in a range of spirits that fill the meadows, streams, wells, forests and even the air itself. They guard fields and individual trees, mountains and hearth fires. They may bless or curse humans as they please, and inflict sickness or health on the flocks and herds. Not so very long ago, an association with the fairies was a very real part of people’s lives. An excellent relationship with the ‘The Good Neighbours’- as the fairies were called – was essential for the well being and prosperity of anyone who depended on the land for his or her livelihood. Fairies were given offerings of milk on the old standing stones, bread and salt in the corners of fields, cream in saucers left on the hearth, and were left part of the harvest. Special stones – called dobby stones in the northern counties – had shallow depressions for making offerings to them, and were placed by field gates or the farmhouse door. Spiritual guardians called the Ward gathered at dusk in their sacred places, still known as ward trees, ward hills and ward stones, to guard villages. The Wild Hunt rode out to collect the souls of the wicked. For the countryman, fairies, elves and natural magic were part of the everyday experience.

As we humans moved away from our close connection to the earth, we lost our link with the spirits of the land. We forgot how to see them, how to contact them, and how to treat them. Stories of them persisted, but they lost their awesome status; we diminished them, in our imaginations, into the cute Tinkerbells of nursery tales, the tiny, tutu-skirted, gossamer-winged beings of Victorian fable. Real spirits, on the other hand, are potent beings of earth, air, fire and water, of plant, stream, rock and place; creatures of raw nature, representing its power and energies. Some of them are benevolent, but some are downright dangerous.

Once, every village had a wise woman or cunning man who dealt with the wildfolk. Such people were common in Britain and Ireland right up until the end of the First World War. Their job was to maintain the balance between the human and fairy world, to mediate with the spirits, to solicit their blessings for good harvests, to repair any damage done to their relationships with humans, to placate the forces of blight, to heal and to remove curses. Both the ancient Celts and Saxons had gifted individuals who were able to journey at will into the world of the spirits.  In later times, these people were called witches, a name that comes from the Anglo-Saxon wicce, or wise one.

Witches and fairies were often thought to have the same powers: both use magic and both can bless and curse. In fact, the old Romany word for ‘fairy’ is the same as the one for ‘witch’. The Irish believed that a witch was created when a young girl spent seven years in the Otherworld with her fairy lover, coming back somewhat aged, but with knowledge of herbs, philtres and secret spells. The famous witch Biddy Early insisted that her powers came from the fairies. She used a blue bottle, given to her by the fairies, for healing and prophecy. At her death in 1873 it was thrown into a lake so that no one else could attempt to use it.

In the witch trial records, the accused often tried to explain that their powers came not from devils, but from the fairies. Elspeth Reoch of Orkney confessed, in 1616, that she had met a fairy man who offered to teach her to understand and see anything she wanted. In 1566, John Walsh of Netherberry in Dorset said that he knew when men were bewitched because the fairies told him. When he wanted to converse with fairies he would go to the hills where there were mounds of earth, and speak to them between the hours of one and noon, or at midnight. In 1587 John Penry of Wales spoke of swarms of soothsayers and enchanters who professed to walk, on Tuesday and Thursday nights, with fairies, bragging of having knowledge of them. Fifty years later, a Caernarvonshire man claimed to speak twice weekly with the fairies, again on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

This association of fairies and witches goes beyond the British Isles and seems to have an almost universal resonance in other parts of the world. For example, in parts of Eastern Europe, witches were called vilenice, which implies someone who deals with fairies [vile].  During an investigation during the late seventeenth century, a young vilenica confirmed that her powers had been granted to her by a fairy who had shown her the properties of herbs, and who could be called upon by virtue of certain herbs picked together with their roots. As in other places, there were tales of children and adults disappearing into the mountains for months or years, and returning with magical powers granted to them by the fairies. In northern Croatia, the people said that on each Good Friday a vile flies down from the sky to teach women how to heal people and be of benefit to them. The women had to go with their hair unbraided into the green grove, where two had to climb the old trees with the vile, and eat yarn, to better remember what the vile was teaching them; in this way they became vilenice. [i]

Scottish witch trials in particular were often notable for their accounts of the Fairy Queen, or Queen of Elfhame [‘Elf Home’]. Isobel Gowdie said that she met the Fairy Queen when she went into the hollow hills, and learned all her magic from the fairies whilst there. She spoke of the wildfolk that waited upon her coven as Robert the Jakis, Sanderis the Reed Reever, Thomas the Fairy and Swain the Roaring Lion, but she was stopped from speaking further by the interrogators, as she often was when she spoke of fairies, as can be seen from the transcripts. The interrogators only wanted to hear of devils and evil deeds.

Before the advent of Christianity, all the peoples of Europe acknowledged a multitude of spirits that inhabited the Earth; similar beliefs exist or have existed throughout the world. Early Christians denounced the gods and spirits of the old Pagan religions as baneful and identified the old Pagan gods as devils. Nymphs, dryads, satyrs, vegetation spirits and fairies were condemned by the church as devils. Aelfric, an eleventh century inhabitant of the monastery of Cerne Abbas in England, denounced those who made offerings to ‘earth-fast’ stones, trees and so on ‘even as the witches teach’. The word he used for witches was Wiccan. [ii] Such people were condemned as Heathens and Pagans, words respectively meaning ‘people of the heath’ and ‘people of the countryside’. Missionaries destroyed Pagan temples and groves, and cut down sacred trees in an attempt to banish the spirits that dwelt there. However, it was much harder to banish the fairy faith from the consciousness of the people who dwelt close to the land, who encountered its wildfolk on a regular basis. The notions of the country people have survived in folk-lore and folk practice to the present day in the shape of a belief in fairies.

According to the old lore, not everyone can see fairies; you have to be born with what the Scottish called ‘the sight’, an ability to see into the spirit world and to read the future. It is a talent possessed by the genuine wise woman, the shaman, the witch. Saxo, in the History of the Danes, written in 1182-1210, said that one had to be a gifted person to see spirits, and went on to explain that such people had probably experienced prophetic dreams in childhood, or had later undergone a sickness that opened the world of spirits to them, thus describing a classic shamanic initiation.[iii] In 1588, Alison Pearson was introduced to the world of fairies, as she lay sick in bed, by her dead cousin William Sympson who appeared to her in fairy form. He came to her as a ‘green man’ and told her he would help her if she would be faithful to him. Then he vanished and reappeared with a group of faeries, who persuaded Pearson to take part in their merrymaking. Sympson also told her how to use herbal remedies. Whenever Pearson spoke about the fairies to others, she was tormented with blows that left insensitive spots on her skin.  She was convicted of witchcraft and burned at the stake.

One tale that describes an Otherworld initiation at the hands of fairy spirits is that of Thomas the Rhymer. He had been playing his lute beneath a hawthorn in the woods when a beautiful fairy, riding a white horse, emerged from the trees to listen. Eventually she dismounted and he couldn’t resist trying to kiss her. She warned him that such an act would bind him to her for seven years, but he did not hesitate. They journeyed together through the night to a bright meadow in which there were two paths, one to perdition and one to righteousness, but the Fairy Queen explained that for lovers and bards there was another path, a twisting third way that led to Fairyland. While in the fairy world Thomas was shown a mysterious tree which bore magical apples. The Queen of Elphame warned him that it bore all the plagues of hell, but it also conveyed the gift of prophecy. After seven years Thomas returned home, but his songs were sweeter and more poignant than ever before. He was also able to foretell the future, as in Fairyland he had eaten an apple whose flesh had the power of truth, a parting gift from the Fairy Queen. On his seventy-eighth birthday, he was holding a party when he was told that two white deer, a male and a female, were heading through the village to his house. He knew this to be a summons to Fairyland and followed them back there, where he still sings and plays.

The apple is the fruit of Otherworld knowledge. The plagues of hell that accompany it are the suffering and pain the shaman must go through to win the sight. Once this is won, and the apple eaten, he or she will never be the same again, and is forever changed. The third way described by the Fairy Queen is the way of the walker between the worlds – the shaman, the witch.

© Anna Franklin

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles and a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Midsummer, Lughnasa, The Hearth Witch’s Compendium, Pagan Ways Tarot,  Herb Craft,  The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies, Working With Fairies, Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, Pagan Ritual and The Path of the Shaman. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

Illustration Paul Mason

 

 

[i] Institute of Ethnology and Folk-lore Research 2004, www.ief.hr

[ii] Quoted in Brian Bates, The Real Middle Earth, p 107

[iii] Quoted in Brian Bates, The Real Middle Earth

5 ESSENTIAL HERBS

I was giving a talk at the Staffordshire Pagan conference at the weekend, and a woman, who knew nothing about growing and using herbs, asked me what five herbs I would recommend to a beginner. I thought that they would have to be multi-purpose herbs, useful for cooking, magic and personal care, and also easy to grow for a beginner. I didn’t get the chance to answer her fully, so here is what I came up with:

ROSEMARY

Rosemary is a hardy, evergreen perennial that grows to a height of 3-6 ft. It likes a sunny position where it is protected from cold winds, and a limy, free-draining soil. Leaves can be collected all year round as required but the aroma and flavour is best just before the flowering. Sprigs of rosemary may be tied in small bunches and hung upside down to dry. The branches should be stripped before storage. The leaves should be crushed just before they are used.

Rosemary is a well-known culinary herb and goes with all manner of soups, stews, roasts, breads, cheeses and vegetables, but try it on unripe peaches and figs too. Use a rosemary twig as a toothpick, or as a skewer for canapes and kebabs, where it will impart a rosemary flavour. Make a rosemary syrup and add it to drinks.  Infuse a few sprigs of rosemary in oil to make rosemary oil, or try a few sprigs infused in vinegar for salad dressing. Sprigs of rosemary can be placed in drawers and cupboards to deter mice and insects.  

The fresh or dried leaves are used medicinally. Rosemary is thought to strengthen the brain and help the memory, hence the proverb ‘rosemary for remembrance’. Students in Greece and Rome in ancient times wore rosemary wreaths to help them memorise their lessons.

Studies have shown there is some truth in the idea that rosemary helps memory. It stimulates the circulation, eases headaches and migraines, and may be helpful for vertigo. It is said to raise the spirits and may be helpful in cases of mild depression. Rosemary tones and calms the digestive system. Rosemary’s anti-inflammatory and mild analgesic actions may be helpful for rheumatic pain and aching joints. The tea can be used as an antiseptic gargle or mouthwash. Externally it can be used to heal wounds, bruises, strains and bumps.

An infusion of rosemary can be used as a final hair rinse to treat dandruff, or rub an infused oil into the scalp. For a tonic effect, add ground rosemary to body scrubs.

 Magically, rosemary is ruled by the Sun and the element of fire. In Italy and Spain rosemary was considered a protection against evil spirits. The old French name for rosemary incensier denotes its use in incenses, particularly exorcism incenses.

Rosemary is also considered to be a herb of love. In some places rosemary is a wedding herb, all guests being greeted with a branch of rosemary wrapped in gold and ribbons. Sometimes it was used as a garland for brides, even for queens. The wood was employed to make musical instruments used to accompany love songs. In the language of flowers rosemary is seen as the symbol of fidelity, love, remembrance and friendship. It also has connections with birth and was used to stir the cup at christenings. Rosemary has a deep folk association with graveyards and funerals, making those who saw it growing remember friends who had died. For centuries rosemary was included in the funeral wreath and, until early the twentieth century, in northern Europe sprig of rosemary was placed in the folded hands of the deceased. Mourners would also carry sprigs of rosemary to help them remember.

Rosemary is a cleansing herb and repels negativity. It may be used in washes to purify the temple or working area and magical tools or in incenses or smudges used to expel negativity. It can be used in the ritual bath to purify the body and mind. A sprig may be hung in the home to keep the atmosphere pure.

SAGE

Sage is a hardy, aromatic, evergreen shrub that grows to a height of 1-3 ft. It likes a position in full sun and light, well-drained soil. Plants should be cut back after flowering and woody plants should be replaced every four or five years. For drying purposes the leaves should be harvested just before the plant flowers. They should be dried slowly to avoid mould forming and then crumbled and stored in an airtight container.

Cooks use the leaves and stems with meats, in stews and soups, with cheese, pasta, in herb butter and in stuffings.  Make a sage honey by infusing the leaves in gently warmed honey – this is good for coughs, and can be used to dress desserts. The plant also is brewed to make tea.  Sage leaves and flowers can be frozen in ice cubes and added to summer drinks.

The dried or fresh leaves are used medicinally. Sage is used for coughs and colds, or use the infusion as a gargle for sore throats, tonsillitis, and as a mouthwash for inflamed gums and mouth ulcers. Sage tea helps menopausal women with hot flushes, night sweats and other menopausal symptoms – sip the tea during the day. An infusion of the leaves is useful for the treatment of diarrhoea, depression, rheumatism, anaemia, menstrual problems, and migraine, for lowering fevers, and indigestion.  It also helps improve the memory and reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol. Externally it can be used as a wash for acne, eczema, wounds, scabs, insect bites and stings. Sage is antiseptic. The fresh leaves can be rubbed on stings or bites.

Sage can help keep teeth clean in a toothpowder – add powdered dried sage leaves. The fresh leaves can be rubbed onto the teeth to whiten them. Add the fresh leaves to the bath for an invigorating wash. Used as a rinse, an infusion of sage leaves benefits the hair and darkens greying hair. Sage can be made into a cleansing lotion or used in an astringent facial steam it will tighten the pores. It is a natural disinfectant and deodoriser.

Sage was a sacred herb to the Romans who believed that its use benefited most illnesses with the ability to save and create life. It was collected ritually by a priest dressed in a white tunic, barefoot and ceremonially bathed. The sage would be cut by a tool that contained no iron after sacrifices of bread and wine were offered. Sage was dedicated to their chief god Jupiter. The Greeks believed that sage improved both the mind and the body and dedicated it to Zeus. It is also a sacred herb amongst the Native American peoples, who have used it for purification, healing and cleansing.

Magically, it is ruled by the planet Jupiter and the element of air. Sage is a herb of purification and its smoke may be directed to cleanse the aura, the working area and magical tools. An infusion of the leaves may also be used for the same purpose. Sage tea may be taken whilst fasting to purify the body and spirit. Dried sage leaves may be smoked to connect with the plant’s energies. It can be used for spells to attract abundance, in incense, charm bags and powders.

LAVENDER

Lavender is a hardy, aromatic, evergreen shrub that can grow to a height of 18-30 inches. It prefers a well-drained, sandy soil in a sunny and open position. Faded flowers should be removed and the plants can be trimmed in the autumn. The flowers should be collected just before they open. They should be dried gently, flat on a tray or hung upside down in small bunches. The leaves can be collected as required.

Lavender can be used in cooking, cakes, biscuits and ice creams, but the secret if to be very sparing with it. Use the dried flowers in potpourri, in sachets to freshen stored linen and deter moths and insects, or as a general air fresher.

Medicinally, the fresh or dried flowers are used. An infusion of the flowers is effective in the treatment of headaches, depression, nervous debility, exhaustion, insomnia, indigestion, stress, dizziness, halitosis, nausea, flatulence and colic. It can also be used as a general tonic and to help with respiratory problems, tonsillitis, colds, flu and high temperatures. It can be used as a mouthwash for oral thrush. Take the tea or tincture for a soothing effect on the central nervous system, mild pain relief, to sooth nervous tension or to act as a mild sedative in cases of insomnia.  Make a gentle antiseptic salve for cuts, bruises, to help minimise scarring and relieve skin irritations.

Used as a bathing herb since Roman times, lavender is used in perfumes, cosmetics and soaps. Lavender helps skin to heal and renew itself, fights wrinkles and helps prevent acne. It is a natural deodorant.  The genus name lavendula comes from the Latin lavare and means ‘to wash’. The Greeks, Romans and Carthaginians used lavender in bath water for both its scent and its therapeutic properties.

Lavender was dedicated to the Greek goddess Hecate and her daughters Medea and Circe. It was used to avert the evil eye. It is ruled by the planet Mercury and the element of air. Lavender is a potent magical plant which purifies, cleanses and brings inner stillness and peace during meditation. Burn to bring about harmony during meetings and rituals as well as within the home. It may be used as an incense to explore the element of air, to develop the intellect and powers of logical thought. It may be added to love incense, oils, sachets and charm bags, or used in love spells.

SWEET BASIL

Basil is a tender plant, very sensitive to the cold, so it is usually treated as an annual, meaning that you will have to sow new plants each year.  Basil requires full sun and a well-drained soil. The seeds can be sown in pots or directly into the ground once any danger of frost is passed, and will germinate in about a week.  Basil will also grow quite happily in pots on your kitchen windowsill.   Harvest your basil plants regularly, picking off the leaves as required; if the plant is outdoors, it is best do this on a sunny day to avoid any moisture on your harvest. Basil is always best used fresh or made into oils and vinegars.

Basil is often called the king of the culinary herbs. If you are cooking with basil it is always best to use it fresh and add it towards the end of the cooking process to retain the scent and flavour of its volatile oils.  There is something about the pairing of basil and tomatoes that makes food magic, and basil can be added to all tomato based pasta sauces, pizzas, tomato soup and lasagne.   Basil leaves add a fresh peppery zing to salads and sandwiches, and work particularly well with mozzarella or feta cheese and tomatoes.

You can use basil to repel insects from your garden and house plants by boiling water, liquid castile soap and basil leaves together before straining and putting into a spritzer bottle to spray your vulnerable plants.  Dried basil leaves and flowers make wonderful potpourris, herbal sachets and dried bouquets which will repel flies and mosquitoes. The antifungal and antibacterial properties of basil make it useful in making household cleaners.

Basil has been used in traditional and folk medicine for thousands of years to treat a variety of conditions, including anxiety, stress, congestion, coughs, colds, colic, constipation, cuts and wounds, diarrhoea, flatulence, headaches, indigestion, insect bites, muscle tension and sore throats. It is a particularly important herb in Ayurvedic medicine, where holy basil is used as a treatment for gastric, liver, respiratory and inflammatory diseases, and features in over 300 remedies. Despite the glut of articles appearing about the almost miraculous healing powers of tulsi, holy basil and sweet basil actually have very similar medicinal qualities.

Not only is basil delicious and healing, it also has some amazing benefits for your skin. It contain antioxidants which help protect it from the oxidative stress and free radical damage that lead to fine lines and wrinkles, and also helps tighten the skin, improve its tone and boosts the growth of new skin cells.

Basil has amazing benefits in hair care too. It stimulates hair follicles, increases blood circulation in the scalp and promotes hair growth, as well as adding shine to dull hair. The magnesium in basil helps protect hair from breakage, the antioxidant properties protect the hair from environmental damage, and its antiseptic and antifungal properties treat dandruff and an itchy scalp.

Basil’s reputation as a high holy herb is reflected in its botanical name basilikon from the Greek basileus meaning ‘king’, indeed, in France it is often called Herbe Royale. The genus name Ocimum is from the ancient Greek word okimon, meaning ‘smell’ in the sense of ‘to be fragrant’.

The basil plant is a protective spirit that deflects negative energy from its surroundings, bringing peace, prosperity and blessing into the home.  Basil is connected with love and used in love spells, incense and charm bags. It is ruled by the planet Mars and the element of fire.

MINT

It is generally accepted that there are about six species of mint with more than six hundred varieties available. Mints generally like a position in either full sun or partial shade and a moist, well-drained soil which is rich in nutrients. Mint is very easy to grow and it hybrids readily. It can be propagated by stem or root cuttings which root easily when placed in water. Large plants can be divided during the spring or autumn. They should be grown in large pots or polythene bags to restrain the roots. To avoid cross pollination, all flowering stems should be removed. Mint is suitable for growing indoors. Avoid planting mint near to parsley as they do not grow well in each other’s company. The leaves should be picked before the flowers open.

Mint leaves are used as flavouring in cookery, in sauces and sweets.  They can be frozen, dried or infused in oil or vinegar.

The aerial parts are used medicinally. Mints are a general tonic and an antispasmodic. They have antiseptic and anaesthetic properties. A mild infusion acts as a sedative whilst a stronger infusion acts as a stimulant and a tonic. Mint helps relieve nasal congestion and catarrh and may be used for colds, coughs, catarrh insomnia and dyspepsia. Mint infusion can be used as a gargle for sore throats, mouth ulcers and toothache. It can be applied externally as a skin wash for cuts, bruises and wounds. It can also be sipped cold for hiccups and flatulence. Menthol (from the volatile oil contained in the leaves) is antiseptic, antifungal, and has pain killing properties when applied to the skin, although it can irritate. Fresh leaves rubbed on the affected area will reduce the pain of bee and wasp stings. Peppermint is particularly good for calming the nerves, insomnia and anxiety. It has been used for hundreds of years for digestive problems, increasing the flow of bile, and helpful for indigestion, bloating, wind, dyspepsia, diarrhoea and constipation, flatulence and nausea.

A mint infusion can also be used as a hair rinse or in a footbath for tired feet. A decoction of the leaves can also be made for the treatment of chapped hands.

Magically it is ruled by the planet Venus and the element of air. Mint is a herb of prosperity, and a leaf can be carried in the purse or wallet to attract money, while the dried leaves can be added to charm bags, incense or spells to attract abundance. It is also an herb of protection and purification. It can be hung in the home or used in charm bags and protection amulets. A mint infusion can be used to cleanse the ritual area, working tools, added to the final rinse for robes or added to the pre-ritual bath.

Making Cold Infused Oils

Fats and oils extract the oily and resinous properties of a herb, and these are often the antibacterial, antifungal and wound-healing components we really want.

Choose your leaves or flowers. Don’t wash them before use – not only will this destroy some of their delicate oils, but as soon as you introduce water into the mixture, you are setting it up to develop mould. (One of my friends was complaining that his nettle oil had an unpleasant odour, which it really shouldn’t, nettle has a fresh, rather lovely scent as an oil. I discovered that he had been rinsing the herbs before packing them in the jar.) To avoid this, make sure you pick your herbs on a dry, sunny day, and pick them from an unpolluted location

To make your cold infused oil, take your fresh herbs, cut them up, pack them tightly into  a glass jar, and cover with vegetable oil (olive, sunflower etc.). Leave on a sunny windowsill for 2 weeks, shaking daily. Strain into a clean, dry jar, label and keep in a cool, dark place for up to a year.

Infused herbal oils may be used as they are or thickened into salves with beeswax. Unlike essential oils, they do not need to be diluted for use.

Primrose – the Fairy Flower

I love primroses, they tell us that the tides of spring and summer are turning, and they have such a magical reputation. In Ireland they are called ‘fairy flowers’ and it is said that eating them is a sure way to see fairies. According to legend, if you touch a fairy rock with the right number of primroses in a posy, it will open to fairyland and fairy gifts, but the wrong number opens the door to doom.

They are very much associated with the currents of lusty fertility that surround Beltane. Shakespeare wrote about the “the primrose path of dalliance”, in Hamlet, and to present a woman with a bunch of primroses, was to comment on her morals!

This time of year I always make infused primrose oil to use in skin care products, as they are great for mature and dry skin. Not many people realise they both the leaves and flowers are edible, and make a pretty addition to salads. I also like to crystallise the flowers to use for pretty cake decorations.

A cup of tea, make from the leaves or flowers is a mild painkiller, and can help a headache.

Caution: Avoid medicinal use if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, sensitive to aspirin or taking anti-coagulant drugs.