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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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The Amazing Birch Tree

After the glaciers of the last Ice Age receded, birch was one of the first trees to re-colonise the land. Though it is a slender and graceful tree, it is amazingly resilient, and rarely has one species of tree been so important to so many different peoples. Our ancestors used it to make shelters, canoes and coracles, fibre, medicine, ‘paper’, magic and even brewed wine and beer from it.

As it is one of the first trees to come into leaf in the spring, it is associated with regeneration and new beginnings. In Scandinavia the appearance of leaves marked the beginning of the agricultural year and the farmers took it as a sign to sow their spring wheat. In the Northern tradition the birch (Beorc, Byarka, or Berkana) is a symbol of Mother Earth and represents the feminine powers of growth, healing and the natural world. May poles were made of birch, associating the birch with the May Day revels of sympathetic fertility magic.

The white bark of the birch also connects it with purification. The Anglo-Saxon name for the tree was beorc means ‘white’ or ‘shining’. Birch rods are used in country ritual for the driving out of the old year. Another possible derivation is the Latin ‘batuere‘ meaning ‘to strike’, referring to the birch rods use for flogging.

Birch is considered a protective tree, believed to guard those who carried a piece of it, and to keep livestock safe when attached to their barn or shelter. In some parts of England a birch was hung with red and white rags and leant against stable doors at Beltane (May Day) to prevent horses being ‘hag-ridden’, i.e. being taken out by spirits or witches and ridden.

The leaves, bark, twigs are all used medicinally.

Birch contains the natural pain reliever and anti-inflammatory salicylate, the same compound found in aspirin. This is especially useful for arthritic conditions and muscle pain. You can prepare a poultice of fresh bark and apply it directly (the inner bark against the skin) to the affected areas, or make macerated oils of the leaves or bark to apply externally. This will help to relieve both the pain and inflammation of arthritis. These same salycilates in the bark make an effective wart treatment.

As birch is a blood purifier, a decoction of the twigs or bark can be helpful when used as a wash for boils and sores. Make a tincture of birch buds for the treatment of small wounds and cuts. This has antibacterial, antiviral and cell regenerative qualities.  A decoction or macerated oil made from the bark or leaves is antibacterial and anti-inflammatory and useful for skin conditions such as eczema. Use as a skin wash or add to the bath.

Birch bark and leaves are diuretic, with the added benefit of being anti-bacterial. Taken as a decoction they help to eliminate excess fluid and toxins from the body which can help with arthritic conditions, urinary tract infections, cystitis and help to dissolve kidney stones.

The young shoots and leaves are used as a laxative, but the bark is useful in the treatment of diarrhoea.

The betulin compound found in birch bark is under investigation as a treatment for the herpes viruses, AIDS, and cancer.

An essential oil of birch bark is available. This pale yellow oil has a balsamic scent, and is extracted from the leaf-buds by steam distillation. Birch oil is good for dermatitis, dull skin, eczema and psoriasis, and also eases the pain of arthritis, rheumatism and sore muscles.  Birch oil blends well with benzoin, sandalwood and rosemary. However, it should be used with caution and highly diluted, and never when pregnant.

In magic birch is used for protection, purification, against negativity, love, new beginnings, changes, Ostara and Beltane.  It is associated with Aphrodite, Freya, Brigantia, Brighid, the Earth Mother, Thor, Frigga, Idunna, Nethus, Persephone, Sif and Venus.  It is ruled by the planet Venus, the element of water and the sign of Cancer.

Birch represents the power of cleansing and purification in preparation for the new beginnings. When the tree is opened to extract the sweet sap the essence of the tree is released to give its power to the waxing year and the strengthening sun at the vernal equinox, when the light begins to gain on the dark. This can form part of the ritual of Ostara. Honour the sun god with birch sap wine the following year.

Birch Sap Wine

8 pints birch sap (Betula spp.)

½ lb. raisins

2 lb. sugar

Juice of 3 lemons

Yeast

Boil the sap and add the sugar. Simmer for 10 minutes. Pour the liquid over the raisins and lemon juice. Cool the mixture to 20oC and add the started yeast. Ferment in a brewing bucket for 3 days, then strain into a demijohn and fit an airlock.

To obtain the sap, bore a small hole into the tree, just inside the bark, and insert a narrow tube, sloping downwards. Sap should start running from the tree (if it doesn’t, it is the wrong time of year). Put the free end of the tube into your container (eg a plastic soda bottle), which you can tie onto the tree.  Don’t take too much from one tree. When you have what you need, remove the tube, put a piece of cork into the borehole, and the birch tree will seal itself after a short while. In very early spring (late February or early March here in the UK, depending on the weather) you should be able to draw off enough sap for a gallon of wine in a day.

 I also came across this old English recipe for birch beer, though I haven’t tried it yet:

“To every Gallon of Birch-water put a quart of Honey, well stirr’d together; then boil it almost an hour with a few Cloves, and a little Limon-peel, keeping it well scumm’d. When it is sufficiently boil’d, and become cold, add to it three or four Spoonfuls of good Ale to make it work…and when the Test begins to settle, bottle it up . . . it is gentle, and very harmless in operation within the body, and exceedingly sharpens the Appetite, being drunk ante pastum.”

Ostara

Ostara celebrates the vernal equinox when day and night stand at equal length (twelve hours each) but the light is gaining and the days are getting longer. We can really feel spring in the air, and notice the ever increasing warmth and the burgeoning of life. We experience a resurgence of vigour and hope as the energies of the natural world shift from the lethargy of winter to the lively expansion of spring. The flowering of the gorse, daffodils, primrose and coltsfoot – sun coloured spring flowers – celebrate and reflect the increasing strength of the sun. Animals and birds are nest building and mating.  At Ostara, the gods and goddesses of fertility return to the land, and we see new growth everywhere.

Two thousand years ago, across the world, there were a variety of Pagan religions with markedly similar themes of a god who dies and is reborn at this time. He represents the vegetative cycles of the year: the grain grows and is cut down only to be reborn again; the trees lose their leaves and seem to die only to bud once more. In Phrygia, for example, the spring equinox marked the resurrection of Attis, a vegetation god and lover of the goddess Cybele. In ancient Rome, the ten day festival in honour of Attis began on March 15. A pine tree, which represented Attis, was chopped down, wrapped in a linen shroud, decorated with violets and placed in a sepulchre in the temple. On the Day of Blood or Black Friday, the priests of the cult gashed themselves with knives as they danced ecstatically, sympathizing with Cybele in her grief and helping to restore Attis to life. Two days later, a priest opened the sepulchre at dawn, revealing that it was empty and announcing that the god was saved. This day was known as Hilaria or the Day of Joy, a time of feasting and merriment. This is a theme also explored in the Christian feast of Easter.

According to the 7th to 8th-century English monk Bede, the Christian holiday of Easter was named after a Saxon goddess of spring, Eostre. [1] He wrote that Ēosturmōnaþ (Old English – ‘Month of Ēostre’) was an English month, corresponding to April when feasts of Eostre were celebrated by Pagans. Building on this, Jacob Grimm, in his Deutsche Mythologie, described Eostre as the divinity of dawn, “of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted into the resurrection-day of the Christian God”. [2] Despite this – or perhaps because of it – there have been many scholarly efforts to discredit Bede’s claims of the existence such a goddess, disputing Grimm’s linguistic connections of Ostara, east and dawn. [3] One suggestion is that the name of the month simply arises as a loan-translation of the Latin term albae, meaning both ‘white’ and ‘dawn’, since white robes were worn by churchmen at Easter. [4] There is certainly no evidence that Eostre was a pan-Germanic goddess of spring, as many modern Pagans often claim, but before we dismiss her existence completely, there is convincing etymological evidence (in the form of historical place and personal names) to suggest that she may have been a purely local goddess, worshipped in Kent. [5] If this is the case, Bede may simply have used the local name for the month, indeed named after a local goddess [6] – Anglo Saxon Christians were certainly happy to make use of Pagan names for days of the week. [7] Bede’s book became one of the essential textbooks of the early Middle Ages, widely circulated in Europe, and it would be nice to think that in this manner he was perpetuating the feast of a local goddess.

[1] Bede, De Tempore Ratione, The Reckoning of Time, trans. Faith Wallis,  Liverpool University Press, 1999

[2] Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, trans. James Stallybrass, Dover, New York, 1882

[3] Sermon, Richard (November 2008). “From Easter to Ostara: the Reinvention of a Pagan Goddess?”, Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture 1

[4] Johann Knobloch, ‘Der Ursprung von nhd. Ostern, engl. Easter’, Die Sprache, 5: 27-45

[5] Philip A. Shaw, Pagan Goddesses in the Earl Germanic World, Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of the Matrons, Bristol Classical Press, Bloomsbury Academic, London, 2011

[6] ibid

[7] ibid

Almond

Almond trees are associated with spring, regeneration, divination and fertility. In the near east, the appearance of almond blossom is considered the herald of spring. The Anatolian vegetation god Attis, who was reborn each spring only to die and be mourned each winter, was conceived when his mother Nana placed a ripe almond in her bosom, according to some versions of the myth.

Almonds are a wonderful food, rich in fibre, plant sterols and polyunsaturated fatty acids. They help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and increase HDL (good) cholesterol. They are rich in Vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant, and in magnesium, good for heart health. Sweet almonds pounded in water form ‘almond milk’ which can be used as a substitute for dairy products. The nuts can be eaten raw or roasted and marzipan is made from the ground nuts.

 Almond oil, the oil produced from almonds, can be used as a carrier for essential oils, or alone as a treatment for dry skin as it is a light oil, easily absorbed, emollient and nourishing.  Ground almonds mixed with honey make a great facial scrub.

 Almond oil is also often used as a base for magical oils, but should only be used for those connected with air, spring and its associated gods and goddesses. Almond oil can be used to anoint and consecrate the ritual sword. Almond wood may be used to make a wand of fertility and regeneration. The dried blossoms, wood and nuts may be added to incenses of the east, the element of air, the planet Mercury or the Sun, Ostara, divination rituals, the star sign of Gemini or to incenses of any of the almond’s associated deities. The blossoms may be used in chaplets and decorations at festivals to celebrate the spring.

ALOE VERA

Aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis) is a fascinating plant. Although it resembles a cactus it is actually a member of the lily family, and is a stemless succulent plant growing up to 40 inches tall. The botanical name aloe derives from the Arabic alloeh meaning ‘bitter and shiny substance’ and vera from the Latin word for truth. Despite the nomenclature barbadensis (‘of Barbados’) it is native to North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula and thrives in warm, dry climates.  It contains nearly 100 active ingredients including sugars, enzymes, lignins, amino acids, anthraquinones (aloin, aloe-emodin), saponins, fatty acids, salicylic acid, resins, sterols, chromones, protein, calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamins A, E and C, tannin and germanium.

I like to keep a plant in the kitchen, as it is a handy first aid remedy for fungal infections, ringworm, nappy rash, eczema, psoriasis, insect bites, minor burns, sunburn, cuts and skin abrasions – just take a fresh leaf and open it to extract the clear gel within and apply this directly to the affected area. It reduces pain, speeds healing and encourages cell repair, due in part to the presence of aloectin B which stimulates the immune system. Aloe is reputed to have potent anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects. It is useful for almost any skin condition that needs soothing. It is useful for cosmetic purposes too as it sooths and softens the skin, while its astringent properties help tighten it and minimise wrinkles. It helps heal acne and reduce scarring. However, while external use is generally considered safe some people are sensitive, and aloe juice should never be applied to deep cuts and wounds or severe burns.

More and more products are being created advocating the drinking of aloe juice, and this is a cause for concern. Though it does have a place in herbal medicine, aloe juice should not be taken internally as a matter of course or on a regular basis, and indeed, internal use is prohibited in some countries. If you have certain health conditions, it can be dangerous.

I’ve seen people blithely recommending it online for all kinds problems, and on Facebook, I’ve noticed that as soon as someone posts that they have a stomach complaint, there is an avalanche of people recommending aloe juice as a cure, and this really worries me. Aloe can actually cause abdominal cramping, constipation, dehydration, diarrhoea, electrolyte imbalance, excess bleeding, hepatitis, increased risk of colorectal cancer, increased risk of irregular heartbeat, kidney failure, liver toxicity, low potassium in the blood, muscle weakness, stomach discomfort, thyroid dysfunction, urinary stone, uterine contractions, and widespread inflammation of the skin (Source: Mayo Clinic).

The internal use of aloe should definitely be avoided by anyone who has heart disease, abdominal pain, appendicitis, intestinal problems, heart disease, haemorrhoids, kidney problems, diabetes, or electrolyte imbalances, or liver disease. It should be avoided before and after surgery (it increases the risk of bleeding) and during pregnancy or lactation. Aloe lowers blood sugar levels, and should not be taken by diabetics or hypoglycaemia. It certainly shouldn’t be taken if you are suffering from nausea and vomiting – vomiting causes an electrolyte imbalance, which will be compounded by taking aloe vera. It should not be used internally by anyone taking heart medications, steroids, blood thinning medication, thyroid medication, laxatives, liquorice root, or any medications for the stomach or intestines.

 

Herbal Cough Drops

It seems that winter has not done with us yet, and at this time of year coughs and colds are doing the rounds. Here is a recipe for herbal cough drops:

Herbal Cough Drops
1 pint boiling water
½ tsp crushed aniseed
2 tbsp. elecampane
3 tsp grated fresh ginger root
2 tbsp. hyssop
1 tbsp. chopped marshmallow root
1 tbsp. thyme
12 fl. oz. honey
Cover the herbs with the boiling water and allow to infuse for 20 minutes. Strain. Use ½ pint of the resulting infusion and put it in a pan with the honey. Cook over a medium heat until the mixture reaches setting point – drop a bit of the mixture in very cold water and see if it sets to a hard lump. Remove the pan from the heat and pour the syrup into a greased baking tray. When it has cooled, you can break it into pieces.

Aniseed and elecampane are good for relieving coughs. Hyssop sooths and moistens sore throats. Ginger reduces inflammation and boosts your immune system. The mucilage in marshmallow is wonderful for inflamed throats and sooths coughs. Thyme is antibacterial and antiviral, while honey is soothing, antibacterial and antiviral.

If you don’t have all these herbs you can just use some of them or substitute anti-inflammatory chamomile, decongestant cinnamon, antiseptic cloves, immune boosting Echinacea, soothing liquorice, cough relieving mullein leaf, or sage, which is a great all-rounder for sore throats, coughs and inflammation.

Herbalist’s Prayer

This is an ancient prayer to Mother Earth from a herbalist:

Hear me, please, and favour me. This I ask of You, Holy Mother, and may You willingly give answer to me: May whatever herbs grow by Your providence bring health to all humankind. May You now send these forth to me as Your medicines. May they be filled with Your healing virtues. May everything that I prepare from these herbs have good result, each and every one in the same way. As I shall receive these herbs from You, so too shall I willingly give them out to others, so that their health too may be ensured through Your good graces. Finally, Mother Earth, ensure Your healing powers for me as well. This I humbly ask.

Antonius Musa (translation: M. Piscinus)
Antonius Musa was a Greek botanist and the Roman Emperor Augustus’s physician. In the year 23 BCE, when Augustus was seriously ill, Musa cured the illness with cold compresses and became immediately famous.

The Witch’s Kitchen

Food is one of the most basic necessities of life. Food is life, a gift of Mother Earth, and we acknowledge that gift only when we treat it with reverence. Preparing, cooking and serving food is a day-to-day ritual of hospitality, love and sharing, and expresses the cycle of the year when fresh, seasonal food is used.

Whether you are cooking for a sabbat or just for supper, treat it as a conscious act of magic and reflect that when you eat, you take in the life-energy of the food you are consuming, not just its nutrition. Each ingredient possesses its own virtues and energies, and you can utilise these gifts to create culinary magic. Do you want to add sage for wisdom, rosemary for remembrance, lemon balm for joy? You can cook up a love feast, a meal for peace and healing, or a dish of abundance. All nuts are associated with fertility, all grains with abundance, and most fruits with love. The kitchen is a magical workshop, the oven an alchemical tool that transmutes raw ingredients into sustenance for the body and spirit. Prepare your food with intent, stir your dishes sunwise to wind up the magic, eat consciously, and give thanks to Mother Earth for her gifts.