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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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EXPANDING CONSCIOUSNESS

I had already been a witch for twenty years when the Gods decided I needed to go deeper into the mysteries. This experience was spread over several years.  It began when I had a parathyroid tumour, and after the operation to remove it I was catapulted into full body tetany when each muscle in my body contracted, one by one, until I could not breathe. I thought then that my heart muscle would be the next one to cease functioning – that I was dying. Despite this, I realised that while my body was panicking around me, experiencing its own fears and the desire to survive, my conscious self was separated from these sensations, and was utterly calm. Above me I could see a doorway, the exit from life, and was silently begging for it to be opened so that I might pass through, but this was not to be. It had taken the medics nearly thirty minutes to respond to my panic button, but eventually I was given emergency treatment and brought back.

Later that night, shocked and now very frightened, the world became nothing but crimson light, out of which shadowy figures emerged, the only clear parts of them threatening teeth and pincers. They haunted me nightly while I was in hospital, and I was plunged into a state of such severe trauma that I began to experience my surroundings in a completely different way. Every sound around me, from the rumbling of hospital trolleys to the calls of the other patients, resonated in a different chakra: low tones were experienced in my root and spleen chakras, while high notes reverberate in my throat and third eye chakras.

After a couple of years, I developed a constant sore throat to the point where it became painful to speak, and eventually impossible; I had developed another growth, this time on one of my salivary glands. Even after this was removed, I began to grow more ill and the medication I was given caused a stroke. Trying to push through this and continue working as well as I could, I felt worse and worse, and eventually developed severe ME – my body and my psyche just could not cope with any more strain. From going about the world I became confined to the house, then to a room, and eventually to a bed. I was in constant pain so severe I wept. I was unable to feed myself and had to be spoon fed. I was unable to take myself to the toilet, to wash and clothe myself. I couldn’t hold a book to read it, and then I lost my eyesight for a time.

Everything I was had been stripped away from me. For the greater part of two years I lay in bed, feeling myself to be an empty shell, completely separated from the world and no longer part of it- it went on around me but I was caught in some hinterland between life and death. Each night I prayed that I wouldn’t wake up in the morning; that the gods would take me, but every day I woke up just the same. Each night I was plagued by dreams and visions of dark tunnels and monsters were teeth and claws that wished to devour me, that were devouring me. I was nothing, and I must either change or die. I surrendered myself to death.

Then one night I lay beneath an open window. The wind was fierce, and gusts played about my bed. “Come with us,” they said, and I left my body to travel the night with the storm, across the paddock and away over the fields. The next morning a phrase from a dream lingered in the air ‘the earth soul and the fire soul’. I understood that the earth soul stayed anchored in one place, while the fire soul was free to roam.  From then on, each night I travelled the world with the breeze.

Gradually, little by little, by sheer effort of will, I would crawl from my bed, and Chalky would take me out in the car. Each tree I passed was an immense presence, vibrating with life. I was taken to lie in the garden, and found I could understand the language of plants. Human speech was mostly just a buzz and a blur, but I, who had worked with herbs for many years, finally understood the spirits of plants directly. It seemed to me that I had slowed down so much that I had sunk deeper and deeper into a new level of consciousness, like a person falling into the mud at the bottom of the pond, while on the bright surface other people skittered, moving too fast with their everyday concerns to see what was really going on at the root of things.

Then, one autumn equinox, my friend Sue suggested that we go out for a drive. We decided to go where fate drew us, feeling for the pull of the web at the end of each road to decide which way we should turn. Fate took us to Croft Hill. Though it is only a few miles from my present house, I had never been there before.

Two women with severe ME climbing a steep hill doesn’t seem sensible, but we both knew this is what we were meant to do, struggling with trembling and weak muscles, panting with unfit lungs. Half way up, we stopped and looked back at the landscape laid out before us in the bright September sunshine. For the first time since falling ill, I felt a rush of joy and a sense of being part of the world. Nevertheless, as I struggled to the summit, I felt that the effort was too much and that I would literally die on reaching it. I laid myself on the cleft rock that tops the pinnacle, having the impression it was like a sacrificial altar, and I was willing to die there, in a beautiful place on a beautiful day, and be happy to do so; let the gods take me.

Instead I was aware of being drawn through the rock to deep within the hill. There the spirit of the hill appeared to me, the presence we were later to call Old Man Croft. He showed me many things, including how the hill mediated the power around the local landscape, how energy flowed in and flowed out, and how the rocky crest was the backbone of the hill, his backbone.

After what seemed like aeons I surfaced again and was led to a grove of hawthorns, which I realised made a perfect circle on the hillside. I sat beneath one, and the dryad of the tree emerged and told me to eat one of her fruits. I did. The hill had become part of the tree, and the tree became part of me, and thus we were all connected. I witnessed the souls of the other hawthorns come out and dance on the hillside, weaving a web with the land, the wind, the birds and the sunshine; I knew that the dance would change as the seasons changed. They drew me into the dance; I swayed as a tree, flew with the birds among the branches and blew with the wind about the summit, vibrantly aware of the energy flowing into and out of the hill.

Though I should, by rights, have been exhausted by the trip, when we returned I felt more vigorous than I had for several years, as though my soul was returning to my body. I was brimming with an inexpressible joy.

Croft Hill became a place of pilgrimage for us. On the Summer Solstice of 1999 I poured a libation of water into the summit cleft, and laid a bunch of camomile flowers at its foot. The hawthorns were beginning to form fruits and I reflected on how this was the time of fertilisation, the impregnation of the Earth Mother. However, it was not the day to linger at the hawthorns, so I set off to visit the oak in the hollow. As I sat beneath it, I watched a pillar of light travel upwards from the trunk into the sky, then down again through it into the earth: a cosmic axis. The oak explained that in each place, one tree takes on this role, though not necessarily the oldest one. I thought about the role of the World Tree with its branches in the heavens and thought ‘Well, trees are not that tall, not like mountains’ and the tree replied that its leaves were in more than one realm and that each leaf was a realm in itself.

The next day I was visiting my friend Angie, and when we returned to her house in Rugby we noticed a colossal flock of gulls circling the cornfield. What were so many sea birds doing inland at that time of year? More were flying in to join them all the time. I went across the road to see what was attracting them and they followed me. I went back to the house and again they followed me. Angie and I went inside to get them some bread and water, but when we went out again, they had completely vanished. I knew this must be an omen of something coming along the Web towards me.

That night I entered a trance and began to dance slowly. As I moved, I felt the energies fluctuate around me. I saw the strands of the Web and how things were connected. I understood how to change things by weaving the threads of the web, feeling and seeing which threads I needed – maybe this energy from an oak tree thread, this energy from the grass and the energy from this location and so on. I only needed to pull the energies along the web without involving physical objects at all. I discovered how to draw and weave the energies of stars, moonlight, place and people in ritual.

My illness had given me immeasurable gifts, and the things I saw and experienced were only possible because it changed my level of consciousness, because the world of everyday reality became distant for me and I was forcibly stilled to the point where I saw beyond it.

NON-ORDINARY REALITY

We’ve all experienced different levels of consciousness. The word ‘consciousness’ is derived from the Latin con-scire meaning ‘with-knowing’. Consciousness is a spectrum from wide-awake, logical thinking to daydreaming, dreaming and deep trance. In the modern western world, only logical thought is considered important and ‘real’, while dreams and visions are dismissed, though in the past people firmly believed that gods and spirits communicated with them in dreams and visions. This was true even in Christian countries where the clergy used meditation, fasting and flagellation to induce visions which gave the recipient both status and power. (However, any non-clergy having visions were subject to investigation and suspicion, especially if they were women.[i]) While in the west, only the state of being wide-awake is given credence as ‘reality’, in religious and shamanic world-views, other levels of consciousness are equally valid. In the world-view of tribal people everywhere, the realms we know from dreams and visions, the worlds inhabited by gods, spirits, animal powers and ancestors, are recognised as equally real. Moreover, these realms hold the key to solving problems, healing and knowledge.

 Carlos Casteneda coined the terms ‘ordinary reality’ and ‘non-ordinary reality’. Ordinary reality is the consensual reality we all experience everyday – we can all agree that there is a table over there, rain is wet, two and two make four and so on. We experience this reality through our five senses. It is often called the physical or material plane, the time-space world.

In ordinary life, we are focused on the business of living, yet while we are dreaming or meditating, we experience other kinds of realities.  In dreams and visions, we might meet dead relatives, other beings, speak with animals and experience the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. Non-ordinary reality is only encountered during an altered state of consciousness. This form of reality is experienced by an individual; he or she sees things that are meant for him alone, and they are generally witnessed by no one else.  The exception to this is the work of a close magical group who are trained to change consciousness together using specific methods.

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY CONSCIOUSNESS?

 Dictionary Definition of Consciousness

  • The quality or state of being aware especially of something within oneself
  • The state or fact of being conscious of an external object, state or fact
  • The upper level of mental life of which the person is aware as contrasted with unconscious processes

 According to The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness: “Anything that we are aware of at a given moment forms part of our consciousness, making conscious experience at once the most familiar and most mysterious aspects of our lives.”

We take in the information that is provided by our five senses – sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell, and the brain processes them to give us a picture of our surroundings and what is happening. This gives us a consensus of ‘reality’. For example, when you hold a flower, you see the colours, you see its shape, you smell its scent, and you feel its texture. Your brain manages to bind all of these perceptions together into one concept of a flower.

However, if we encounter something outside of the ‘reality’ we have logged in our internal data banks, we can overlook it or even not see it. Native American Indians on Caribbean Islands couldn’t see Columbus’s ships as ships because they were beyond their knowledge. They just saw them as features of the horizon. It was only when the shaman was taken on board one of the ships, could walk around it and see how it related to his world, that he was able to process it and share this knowledge with the rest of the tribe.

A classic experiment on visual processing involved asking people to watch a video of six people passing a basketball, and press a button every time a particular team has possession. Invariably only about half the people tested ever notice a woman in a gorilla suit walking across the middle of the screen during the game. We don’t see things in front of our eyes if we’re not looking for them.

The brain processes 400 billion bits of information per second, but we are only aware of about 2000 of them. The brain receives the rest of the information, but we don’t integrate that knowledge; we are only aware of the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what the brain receives. Our eyes see far more than we process, but we only process and integrate the things we need, or which seem to be what we need or which fit in with what we expect to see. [ii]

Everyone’s senses are not the same though. Synaesthesia is a condition in which one sense (for example, hearing) is simultaneously perceived as if by one or more additional senses such as sight. Another form of synaesthesia joins objects such as letters, shapes, numbers or people’s names with a sensory perception such as smell, colour or flavour. Imagine that when you see a cloud, you taste blackberries. Or when you hear a violin, you feel a tickle on your left knee. Or you are completely convinced that Wednesdays are red. [1] Many researchers are interested in synaesthesia because it may reveal something about human consciousness. One of the biggest mysteries in the study of consciousness is what is called the “binding problem.” Synesthetics might have additional perceptions that add to their concept of a flower.[2]

UNIVERSAL CONSCIOUSNESS?

Consciousness is one of the biggest mysteries in the universe. There is no real consensus of what it is and how it arises.

The materialist viewpoint states that consciousness is derived entirely from physical matter, that it is a random function generated by the brain. This raises the question of how and when consciousness emerged, and how exactly did consciousness emerge from something non-conscious?  The second theory is Dualism which holds that consciousness is separate and distinct from physical matter, that consciousness is a kind of ghost in the machine of the body.

However, increased understanding of quantum physics has led to a growing band of scientists and philosophers who believe that consciousness permeates the whole of reality. Rather than being just a unique feature of human experience, it’s the very foundation of the universe, present in every particle and all physical matter – every single particle in existence has a simple form of consciousness. This isn’t meant to imply that particles have a coherent worldview or actively think, only that there’s some inherent subjective experience of consciousness in even the tiniest particle. These particles come together to form more complex forms of consciousness. The Integrated Information Theory argues that something will have a form of ‘consciousness’ if the information contained within the structure is sufficiently “integrated,” or unified, and so the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Because it applies to all structures—not just the human brain— this means that physical matter has innate conscious experience: rocks will be conscious, spoons will be conscious, the Earth will be conscious – any kind of aggregation gives you consciousness.

An alternative theory holds that, rather than individual particles holding consciousness and coming together, the universe as a whole is conscious. This would explain the phenomena of quantum entanglement—the finding that certain particles behave as a single unified system even when they’re separated by such immense distances there can’t be a causal signal between them— and suggest the universe functions as a fundamental whole rather than a collection of discrete parts. Physicist Sir Roger Penrose believes consciousness to be a fundamental property of the universe, present even at the first moment of the universe during the Big Bang.

PAGAN CONSCIOUSNESS

That’s a very Pagan way of looking at things.

In the monotheistic worldview, supported by western materialism and rationalism, man is the only entity in creation that has consciousness, the pinnacle of creation, above the rest, made in god’s image, the only being that can pray and be elevated to a holy state. The rest of creation is lesser, not conscious, transient and there just to be used.

But this approach is a reflection of a culture that sees the spiritual and physical as separate. If we think of consciousness pervading all things, nature becomes a single whole. Traditional Pagan societies have always recognised that the spiritual and the physical are indivisible and that one is a reflection of the other. To the Ojibwa Native Americans, ‘persons’ comprise one of the major classes of things to which the self must become orientated. This can include animals, plants and inanimate objects.

From a practical perspective, we see everything in life as a distinct, separate entity, with its own unique properties that set it apart from anything else. Essentially, though, this is a construct of the mind, a way to order the world so as to create a structure that is familiar and in which we feel safe to live. It’s not true.

Even your body is not a solid object that carries you through life. It is a network of energy and information in dynamic exchange with the world around you. With every breath, every mouthful of food, every noise you hear and sight you see, your body changes. In the last few seconds, it has exchanged four hundred billion trillion atoms with your environment.[iii] The body only appears to be static because the changes taking place are too small to see. Every year 98% of the atoms have been exchanged.

“Any glass of water you drink might contain one or more water molecules that were previously drunk and later excreted by, say, Isaac Newton. Since water makes up a large percentage of our tissues, your morning coffee probably contained a molecule or two that was once an active part of Newton’s brain. You possibly also have some molecules that were in your own body on the day you were born but then were excreted, recycled through rivers and seas, the sap of trees and the bodies of other creatures, only to turn up a second time in your food.” And if these molecules contain a proto-consciousness, and once formed the consciousness of another entity, what does that mean for our consciousness?

The body is an energy that exists in a constant state of transformation. At the deepest level of existence, we truly are one with the Cosmos.

If we recognise that there is no such thing as ‘me’, ‘mine’, but a flow of creation, and not separate at all, this involves a whole new way of seeing, acting and belonging. We call this letting go of the ego, the ‘I’, an essential stage in changing consciousness.

Text © Anna Franklin 2017

Illustration © Anna Franklin 2017

 

[1] https://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/syne.html

[2] ibid

[i] David Lewis Williams & David Pearce, The Neolithic Mind, Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 2005

[ii] What the Bleep Do We Know, http://www.thebleep.co.uk

[iii] What the Bleep Do We Know, http://www.thebleep.co.uk

Horsetail – more than just a weed

The common horsetail (Equisetum arvense) is one of the most widely distributed species along stream banks and meadows of Europe, North America and Asia.  Most people see it as a nuisance weed, and indeed, it is impossible to eradicate if you have it in the garden.

Horsetails have existed little changed for more than 400 million years. During the Carboniferous period, there were many more varieties than exist today, some growing into trees 50ft [15m] tall and dominating tropical forests. Fossil specimens of Equisetum have been found dating from the Jurassic Period.

Using horsetail:

However, it is a very useful plant. Gather only the sterile green stems that appear in the summer.  Cut the plant above the ground and dry quickly in an airy place.

Common horsetail is sometimes used in Europe as a home remedy for kidney and bladder diseases.  The stems contain so much silica that they are used by European craftsmen to polish furniture, wooden floors and pewter.

The plant produces a light green dye suitable for dying natural fibres.

 Its antiseptic properties make it valuable as a pan scourer, particularly useful when camping. Before the advent of detergents and disinfectants, horsetail ferns were gathered by dairymaids and used to scour milk pails and dairy equipment.

Medicinal uses:

The astringent qualities of the horsetail help to heal wounds and haemorrhages. Chemicals in horsetail have an astringent effect that may lessen bleeding when applied to minor injuries such as cuts and scrapes.

Horsetail contains chemicals that have a mild diuretic action. Taken orally for a few days, at most, horsetail may relieve swelling due to the excess accumulation of water in the body. It has also been used to treat bladder, kidney, and urinary tract infections. As a tea, it is used for the treatment of inflammation or benign enlargement of the prostate gland.

In some cases it has been found to help ease the pain of arthritis. Horsetail contains relatively large amounts of silica and smaller amounts of calcium. horsetail may have some pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effects.

An infused oil made from horsetail fern may safely be used in the treatment of external otitis [infection of the outer ear].

 Horsetail Tea

A tea may be made from soaking one or 2 teaspoons of dried horsetail in about 6 ounces of boiling water for 5 minutes and then straining out the solid particles. Up to three cups of horsetail tea may be consumed per day.

Horsetail Bath

Steep 3 ½ oz of the herb in hot water for 1 hour.  Add this to the bath. This may help in rheumatic pains and help to heal chilblains.

CAUTION:  Horsetail may contain nicotine, which is more likely to cause potentially serious side effects in children than in adults. Therefore, horsetail is not recommended for individuals under the age of 18. The diuretic effects of oral horsetail may worsen heart or kidney conditions by decreasing the levels of potassium in the body, therefore individuals with such conditions should avoid taking horsetail. Horsetail is known to block the absorption of thiamine, one of the B vitamins. If it is taken for more than a few days, a thiamine deficiency is possible. Avoid if you are taking prescription diuretics.  Do not take at the same time as herbal or prescription laxatives.

© Anna Franklin 2020

The Magic and Mystery of the Butterfly

Butterflies and moths both belong to the order of insects known as lepidoptera, a Greek word meaning ‘scaled wing’. Lepidoptera have a five-stage life cycle: first an egg, then a caterpillar, followed by a pupae that matures into a chrysalis which, after a dormant period, breaks to reveal the butterfly. The ancients marvelled at the amazing transformation from a crawling worm-like creature that seems to ‘die’, become entombed, and then emerges as a glorious butterfly that spreads its wings and flies. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that the life cycle of the butterfly, with its many transformations, became an allegory for the existence of a human, who at first crawls on the earth, dies, and emerges from the mortal shell as a transfigured soul. Depicting a creature with butterfly wings marked it out as a creature of spirit, and this is why angels and fairies are often depicted with butterfly wings.

The Celts suspected that butterflies might be human souls in actuality, and wore butterfly badges as a mark of respect for their ancestral spirits. It was said that the soul of a newly dead person could sometimes be seen hovering over the corpse in the form of a butterfly, and this was a good omen for the fate of the soul. However, in some cases the butterfly might be the soul not of a dead person, but of a dreamer, flying free while the body slept, and some say the soul-butterfly’s ability to leave the body in sleep accounts for dreams. In any case, it was taboo to kill a butterfly, since it might mean destroying a human soul.

The Celts saw the butterfly as symbol of renewal and rebirth. At the festivals where all torches and lights were extinguished and re-lit from a central bonfire [such as Samhain], the brand was called a ‘butterfly’.

Butterfly never appears as a personal power animal, but can be a wonderful spirit helper that shows the way to personal growth. She indicates a total transformation in your life. This might be very frightening, as we tend to cling to what is known, what feels secure. However, movement and development are necessary if you are to grow beyond what you are at this moment in time. If the caterpillar did not surrender itself to a painful change, it could never achieve its ultimate glory as a butterfly and take flight. You should not try to remain in any life phase forever, but recognise when the time has come to move on.

It is important to accept that life has cycles and stages, some active and expanding, some passive and contracting. Sometimes you might experience rapid change, at other times nothing may seem to be happening but it is important to realise that, as deep within the chrysalis, radical alterations are taking place, even though you can’t see them. Remember that it isn’t possible to have everything at once, but each thing comes in its own time and season. Every stage of your life has its purpose and its own rewards. You need to understand what this phase is teaching you, and how you can use that knowledge to progress. You are not only sum of your life experiences, but also of how you have used the knowledge with which they presented you.

 There is a theory that says if a single butterfly flaps its wings in Indonesia, the effects of that action will continually travel outwards, like the ripples in a pond, and may eventually cause a storm in, say, Mexico. This story warns you to be aware of the effects of your words and actions, as they are not isolated in time, but continue to affect you and other people. If the gentle flapping of a butterfly’s wings can cause a devastating storm, imagine the end result of an aggressive or selfish act magnified. Imagine too how the effects of a good deed might snowball.

Text © Anna Franklin, The Celtic Animal Oracle, Vega, 2003

Illustration © Paul Mason, The Celtic Animal Oracle, Vega, 2003

Ritual Bread

Bread has been one of the primary staple foods in almost every culture. Archaeologists have found grinding stones dating back to around 30,000 BCE used to crush the grains of wild grasses and the roots cattails and ferns into a paste which could be placed over a fire and cooked as a kind of flatbread to provide vital carbohydrate-rich nutrition for the hunter-gatherers who followed herds of wild animals across the land.  The world’s oldest evidence of bread-making has been found in a 14,500-year-old site in Jordan’s north-eastern desert. Around 10,000 BC, with the dawn of the Neolithic age and the spread of agriculture, grains became the mainstay of making bread and bread as we know it developed in the Neolithic Era in Mesopotamia. Clay tablets from Sumer describe wheat planting, harvesting and bread production.

Though the ancients had many types of grain, including barley, spelt and rye, they discovered that wheat made the best bread. Though they would not have known it, this is because wheat contains the highest levels of gluten, which binds the tiny carbon dioxide bubbles produced by the fermentation of the yeast, which enables the bread to rise well. Yeast is a common form of fungus and it occurs naturally on grapes and other organic substances including on the surface of cereal grains, so any dough left to rest leavens naturally. However, early breadmakers often used beer as a rising agent; evidence from pottery indicates that fermented grain water was turned into beer as early as 9500 BCE.  Pliny the Elder reported that the Gauls and Iberians used the foam skimmed from beer called barm to produce “a lighter kind of bread than other peoples”.

The Religious Significance of Bread in the Ancient World

Bread has a significance beyond mere nutrition in many cultures. Bread is called ‘the staff of life’ and came to ritually symbolise all other food. Grain is one of the most important symbols of the nurturing Goddess, sacred to agricultural goddesses such as Demeter and Ceres. It was often seen as her son who awakens in the spring, grows through the summer and matures in the autumn, only to be harvested and die. The shed seeds lay dormant in the cold, winter earth, the belly of the Earth Mother, ready to shoot again in the spring. This was a never ending cycle of life, death and rebirth, a cycle also promised to worshippers. This story was recalled in songs among farming folk until recent times:

 There were three men came out of the West

Their fortunes for to find,

And these three men made a solemn vow,

‘John Barleycorn must die’.

They’ve ploughed, they’ve sown, they’ve harrowed him in

Through plods of barley’s head,

And these three men made a solemn vow,

‘John Barleycorn is dead’.

They let him lie for a very long time,

‘Til the rains from heaven did fall,

And little Sir John sprung up his head

And so amazed them all.

They’ve let him stand until Mid-Summer’s Day

‘Til he looked both pale and wan,

And little Sir John’s grown a long, long beard

And so become a man.

They’ve hired men with the scythes so sharp

To cut him off at the knee,

They’ve rolled him and tied him by the way

Serving him most barbarously.

They’ve hired men with the sharpest hooks

Who’ve pricked him to the heart,

And the Loader, he has served him worse than that,

For he’s bound him to the cart.

They’ve wheeled him around and around a field

‘Til they came unto a barn,

And there they made a solemn oath

On poor John Barleycorn.

 They’ve hired men with the crofting sticks

To cut him skin from bone,

And the Miller, he has served him worse than that,

For he’s ground him between two stones.

And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl,

And he’s brandy in the glass,

And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl

Proved the strongest man at last.

The huntsman he got off the fox

Oh so loudly to blow his horn,

And the tinker he can’t mend kettle nor pots

Without a little Barleycorn.

The narrative is clear- John Barleycorn, the spirit of the corn, is cut down and buried in the earth, seeming to be dead, but when the spring rains come he is resurrected and grows with the summer sun. With the late summer he begins to wither and weaken, and his head droops. He ages as autumn comes and his enemies cut him down. They tie him up on a cart (the sheaves of corn are gathered, tied and carted away), they beat him up (flail the grain), wash him, toss him about (winnow the grain), roast the marrow from his bones (scorch the grain) and grind him between two stones (mill the grain), then drink his blood (the alcohol brewed from the barley).

This echoes the story of the Egyptian Osiris imprisoned in a coffin (buried), dismembered and scattered (the corn is winnowed and the seeds scattered) and resurrected (the seed-corn grows in the spring). The followers of Osiris ate wheat cakes, marked with a cross (a sun symbol), which embodied the god.

In Greece and the near East, Adonis, Tammuz and Dumuzi are also torn apart, forced to go into the underworld and are resurrected in the spring. The death and rebirth of the Goddess Cybele’s lover Attis was celebrated at the spring equinox, first with a day of blood on Black Friday and culminated after three days in a day of rejoicing over his resurrection. Sound familiar? It gets more so. Attis was born of a human woman, a virgin named Nana on 25th December. He was known as a saviour of humankind by way of his sacrificial death, crucified on a pine tree so that his holy blood could pour down to redeem the earth.

Vegetation gods were often given the title ‘saviour’ because they give their lives so that mankind might live, often spoken of as incarnated gods, like Osiris and Dionysus. The flesh of such gods was eaten in the form of wheaten cakes.

For a thousand years before Christianity, Mithras was worshipped widely among the Persians, Indians, Romans and Greeks, up till around 400 CE. Mithras was born in a cave of a virgin mother, attended by shepherds, on December 25th and his religion spread with the Roman Empire and nearly took over the known world. He was the known as the ‘Light of the World’, ‘The Redeemer’ and ‘The Good Shepherd’. He baptised his followers and shared a Last Supper. An inscription on the temple of Mithras which lies beneath the Vatican reads:  “He who will not eat of my body, nor drink of my blood, so that he may be one with me and I with him, shall not be saved,” a saying later attributed to Jesus. He travelled far and wide as a teacher and had twelve companions. He was buried in a tomb and rose again at the spring equinox, which was celebrated with great rejoicing.

In Mexico, the god Xiuhzilopoctli was commemorated in the festival of ‘eating the god’ when people ate a dough image of the god raised on a cross.

When vegetation gods die they are said to go into the underworld (the seed is planted beneath the earth). Here they often become kings of the underworld and the dead- Crom Dubh was underworld ruler of the mounds, Osiris was Lord of the Dead, Dumuzi was Lord of the Abyss, Adonis became the lover of the Queen of the Underworld and so on.

An ear of corn was the central mystery of the worship of Demeter at Eleusis. Bread was eaten at the rites of Artemis and Cybele and other earth and moon goddesses, often baked in circles and marked with a cross, representing the four directions, the four phases of the moon and the four solar festivals.  This is still seen today in our hot crossed buns eaten at Easter, which was once the springtime celebration of the resurrection of the vegetation god, as well as the Christian’s communion wafers.

The bread is sometimes dipped in salt, which preserves foods and makes them incorruptible, representing permanence and immortality. It also symbolises wisdom and truth, and was formerly used in funeral rites to keep the soul safe from evil spirits. For the same reason it was placed on the tongues of newly born children. Bread and salt represented hospitality and to share them imposed obligations on both the giver and receiver, the sacred duties of host and guest.

Ritual Breads

Bread also has a symbolic roles in Judaism and Christianity. During the Jewish festival of Passover, only unleavened bread is eaten, in commemoration of the flight from slavery in Egypt. The Israelites did not have enough time to allow their bread to rise, and so ate only unleavened bread matzo.

In the Christian ritual of the Eucharist, bread is eaten as a sacrament either as a symbolic representation of the body of Christ or, as in the Catholic liturgy, as a real manifestation of the body of Christ.

More personal variously shaped and marked ritual breads were – and in some cases still are – used in many cultures and played a significant role in family, folk and annual ceremonies symbolising a desire for fertility, abundant crops, family prosperity and all good things. The round shape symbolises the cycle of life, the Sun, infinity, perfection and God. [1]

In many parts of Europe there are traditional designs of bread, baked at times of festival and celebration. Their designs are ancient and symbolic, and differ according to the time of year they are made. Designs vary locally, but each one is specific to its corresponding time, and is immediately recognized by local people for what it is. In Bulgaria, for example, every folk festival had its own bread, prepared and decorated in different ways. Traditionally the flour was sieved three times and the dough was mixed with ‘silent’ water – one brought by a maiden in absolute silence – in which flowers and herbs had been soaked. Different objects were represented on top. Christmas bread (Bogova pita or ‘Lord’s bread’) is decorated with varied representations such as pens full of sheep, wine casks, etc. depending on the occupation of the master of the house. Wedding breads are abundantly decorated with spirals, rosettes and figures of doves meant to symbolize good luck and blessings. Carol singers are given specially made rolls of bread which they string up on the tops of their shepherd’s crooks. In North-West Bulgaria, on the holiday of Mladentsi (the Day of the Holy Infants) the saint is venerated with a small loaf of bread shaped to represent a human figure. In Eastern Slovakia kračun or Christmas bread was enriched with various ingredients, such as various grains, garlic and chives, to ensure good health and good crops.  A variety of figural breads were also prepared at Christmas, such as bread in the shape of birds for carol singers.

Ritual bread was often consecrated and broken cross wise. [2] Several pieces were usually left as an offering to God, and other pieces buried near animals pens and corn fields as a fertility blessing.

Ritual Consumption of Bread and Wine in Modern Pagan Ritual

Foods have always played a key part in rituals and the worship of the Gods. Without food we would not live at all, and its production was one of the central themes of ancient religions. Mysteriously, the small seed planted beneath the dark earth would shoot and grow into something that would provide a sustaining meal. It was as though by placing it in the womb of Mother Earth she would nourish and sustain it, magically transforming it just as a woman would nurture the seed in her womb to produce a child.

The dedication of the bread and wine is one of the central points of every modern Pagan ritual. Eating bread and drinking wine was an important part of the rites of harvest goddesses and vegetation gods throughout the world, and pre-dates Christianity by millennia.

Festival bread is made especially for the ritual. It is made with due ceremony and intent; buying a machine-made loaf from the supermarket just isn’t good enough as an offering to the Gods. In many parts of the world, different breads are made for different occasions, their shapes and varieties reflecting the festival and its symbolism. Traditional loaf-shapes are based upon binding knots or in the shape of suns and moons, animals and humans.  [i] It would be appropriate to have a sun-shaped loaf for Midsummer, or one in the form of a sheaf of wheat for Lughnasa, and so on.  Breads can be scored with symbols, runes or sigils that open up as the bread cooks.

Catholics believe that the bread and wine is the transubstantiated flesh and blood of God, in other words, the bread and wine become the flesh and blood of God with the act of consecration. For ancient Pagans, grain and wine were god-essences intrinsically. When we consecrate bread and wine in a ritual, we invoke this god-essence, the spiritual core of the food; through it, we absorb the power of the Gods. When we eat the bread, we take in the life-force of the Corn God and it nourishes us, physically and spiritually.[ii]

© Anna Franklin 2019

[1] http://www.uluv.sk/en/web/magazine/archive/year-2004/rud-022004/rastislava-stolicna-ritual-bread-in-traditional-slovak-culture/

[2] http://www.omda.bg/public/engl/ethnography/ritual_bread.htm

[i] Nigel Pennick, Natural Magic, Lear Books,

[ii] Nigel Pennick, Natural Magic, Lear Books,

THE MYSTERIES OF ARIANRHOD

Arianrhod, great cosmic mother

You create from yourself alone

Spinning the stars upon your silver wheel,

Spiral goddess of the whirling galaxies,

Weaving your web from the threads of time,

All that is, all that was, and all that shall be

Endlessly becoming, spinning life into being. [i]

You are the sacred strand in all things,

Weaver of wisdom, weave us closer to you.

Arianrhod is the queen of the spiral castle, the swirling galaxy of stars. She is the goddess who spins the cosmos, the mistress of time and the seasons. She is the goddess who challenges. She is the divine initiator. Hers is not an easy path.

In Welsh myth Arianrhod is the daughter of the chief goddess Dôn, from whom all the Welsh gods descended and the god Beli Mawr (‘Beli the Great’). Beli is cognate with the continental Belenos or the Irish Bel, the sun god called the Fair Shining One, or The Shining God, a pan-Celtic deity associated with Beltane, the horse and the wheel.  Arianrhod’s maternal uncle was Math the magician, and her siblings included Gwydion, a magician-poet and Math’s heir, and Govannon, god of the forge.

 Though she is mentioned in the Welsh Triads, the only full tale of Arianrhod still in existence is found in the Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh stories recorded by Christian monks in the mediaeval period.

The Story of Arianrhod

King Math ruled Gwynedd, but was under a taboo that his feet should always rest his feet in the lap of a virgin during peacetime. Sadly, his nephew Gilvaethwy lusted after the footholder, Goewin. He confided his secret to his brother Gwydion and, as they knew that Math was released from the taboo in time of war, by some clever machinations, provoked a war with their neighbour King Pryderi. Math was forced to go off to battle, leaving his footholder behind. Gilvaethwy seized the opportunity and raped Goewin.

Naturally, Math was furious when he returned, punishing his nephews severely by turning them into a series of mated pairs of animals.

In an attempt to regain Math’s favour, Gwydion suggested his sister Arianrhod for the position of footholder. When Arianrhod was asked if she was a virgin, she replied that she was morwyn, a word that means ‘little girl’ [ii] and might be construed as implying an unmarried state.

However, a magical trial of her status was required – to test her purity she had to step over Math’s wand, but as soon as she had done so, she gave birth to a golden-haired boy called Dylan (which means ‘Son of the Second Wave’), who immediately jumped into the sea and swam away. Arianrhod indignantly walked out of the door.

No one but Gwydion saw her drop a bundle, an unformed lump of boy-flesh.

Gwydion secretly raised the child himself. His growth was rapid; when he was four years old, he was as tall as a boy of eight.

When Gwydion took the boy to her castle, Arianrhod refused to recognise him as her son, saying that he should never have a name until she gave him one. This was a serious thing as to be without a name was to be nothing, in this world or the next.

 Gwydion came up with a plan to trick Arianrhod into naming her son. By magic he formed a boat from seaweed and rushes and some beautiful leather from sedge. Disguised as shoemakers, Gwydion and Llew sailed up to Arianrhod’s castle and began to sew the leather. Arianrhod looked down from her balcony and thought that she would like some new shoes, so she sent her maid down to the shore with her measurements. Gwydion knew that he must force her to come out and first made some shoes too big, then some to small, though both pairs were exquisite. Eventually Arianrhod went down to the boat to be fitted in person.

While Gwydion was fitting the shoes a wren came and perched on the boat. The boy took out his bow and shot the wren through the leg. Arianrhod was impressed. “Truly,” she said “the fair-haired one (“lleu”) has a skilful hand (“llaw gyffes”)!” “Thank you,” Gwydion said, “the boy now has his name – Llew Llaw Gyffes!”

Angry at being tricked, she declared that the boy should never have arms unless she should bestow them.

Nevertheless, Gwydion took Llew home to Dinas Dinllev and brought him up as a warrior. When he was ready, the two returned to Caer Arianrhod, this time disguised as bards. The goddess received them kindly, pleased to hear their songs and stories.

The next morning Gwydion cast a powerful spell that made it appear as though a vast army was descending on the castle. The air rang with shouts and trumpets and the bay seemed full of enemy ships. Arianrhod became afraid and asked Gwydion what she should do. “Give us arms,” he replied, “and we will defend you.” While her maidens armed Gwydion, Arianrhod herself strapped armour onto Llew. Instantly the glamour ended, and it was seen that no army threatened.

Realizing that she had been tricked again, Arianrhod laid a further taboo on Llew – that he should never marry a woman born of the race of men.

Gwydion and his fellow magician Math ap Mathonwy gathered the flowers of oak, broom and meadowsweet to fashion a lovely maiden as a bride for Llew. She was called Blodeuwedd (‘Flower Face’).

Llew and his flower bride lived happily until one day Llew was away and a hunting party arrived, led by Gronw Pebyr. Gronw and Blodeuwedd immediately fell in love and plotted to rid themselves of her husband.

The problem was that he could be killed neither by day nor by night, indoors or out of doors, clothed or naked, riding or walking, nor by any lawfully made weapon. Blodeuwedd tricked Llew into revealing to her that he could only be killed at twilight when on the bank of a river with one foot on the back of a he-goat and the other on the rim of a bath, under a canopy. The spear needed to kill him would take a year to make, working only on Sundays. Armed with this information, Gronw set about making preparations.

When all was ready Blodeuwedd asked Llew to show her how he could balance on a goat and bath at the same time. Llew was more than ready to indulge his young wife’s curiosity and took up his position with one foot on the rim of a bath, the other on the he-goat.

As he teetered there Gronw emerged from the trees and hurled the magical javelin at him, wounding him in the thigh. However, instead of dying, Llew turned into an eagle and flew away.

When Gwydion learned what had happened he set off to find his poor nephew. He searched far and wide until one day he discovered a sow behaving very strangely. It was devouring the maggots and gobbets of flesh that fell from an eagle perched in an oak tree. Gwydion immediately recognized that the eagle was the mortally wounded Llew. Using his magical powers he transformed his nephew back into human shape and took him home to nurse him back to health.

When news of Llew’s recovery reached Blodeuwedd and Gronw they realized that all was up and took flight. With her servants Blodeuwedd tried to cross the river, but her maids were in such a panic they all drowned in the swift flowing waters.

Left alone, the Flower Maiden was soon discovered by Gwydion, who revenged his nephew by changing her into an owl, the most hated of all birds.

Gronw tried to treat with Llew and offered him land and money in reparation. This Llew refused and demanded that Gronw meet him in the place of his treacherous act and allow him to return the favour under the exact same circumstances. The two came to the bank of the river and Gronw took up his position on the goat and cauldron, but pleaded with Llew that since he had come to this pass through the wiles of a woman, Llew should allow him the boon of placing a stone between himself and the blow. This Llew granted, but when he hurled his spear it pierced through the stone and through Gronw too, breaking his back. The stone still lies on the banks of the river Cynfael, with the hole through it, and it is called Llech Gronw or ‘Gronw’s Stone’.

How are we to interpret the myth?

While Arianrhod claims to be a virgin, she gives birth to twin sons.

The story of a birth of a god from a virgin mother is a common one in myth. She is the goddess who creates without needing any external agency. The divine son of a virgin mother is usually a seasonal death and resurrection god, as here Llew clearly is. Many goddesses were called ‘virgin’ despite being married or having lovers.

Twin sons are also fairly common in myth and represent polarities such as the light and dark or summer and winter who fight for rulership of the year. Dylan is the ‘son of the wave’ and Gronw Pebyr is ‘lord of the lake’, another metaphorical twin and rival of Llew in the seasonal battle for the love of the goddess Blodeuwedd, or nature.

Why did Arianrhod seem so harsh? Why did she seem to be denying her son his rights?  And why is she so powerful that Gwydion has to work so hard to outwit her?

Arianrhod the Initiatrix

In myths the hero meets a supernatural figure, perhaps a god or goddess, who sets them upon the path to their destiny.  Often they are associated with a spindle or a wheel, representing fate, and with riddling or testing. Arianrhod gave young Llew his fate when she laid on him three taboos. Her pronouncements are not curses; what she actually says is: “I swear a destiny upon the boy”.

Arianrhod challenged and pushed her son through the path of becoming a man, gaining a name, arms and a bride. She didn’t hand these things to him on a plate, but made him strive for them. He had to accept the will of the Goddess, but he did not surrender, did not give in, but worked within the challenges she set him in order to triumph.

The famous poem of the Welsh bard Taliesin states that he was three times in the castle of Arianrhod, or in other words, he travelled in spirit three times to the mystery at the heart of the universe to gain poetic inspiration directly from its source, the Goddess.

In the court of Ceridwen I did penance,

Pursued by a smiling black hag;

I fled with vigour, I have fled as a frog,
I have fled in the semblance of a crow,

I have fled as a roe into an entangled thicket
I have fled as a wolf cub,

I have fled as iron in a glowing fire,
I have fled as a spear-head,

I have fled as a bristly boar in a ravine,
I have fled as a white grain of pure wheat.
Into a dark leather bag I was thrown,
And on a boundless sea I was sent adrift.
I have been on the galaxy at the throne of the Distributor;
I was in the court of Don before the birth of Gwydion.
I have been three periods in the fort of Arianrhod,
Then I was for nine months
In the womb of the hag Ceridwen.
I was originally little Gwion,
And at length I am Taliesin. [iii]

Like Ceridwen in the story of Gwion who became Taliesin, Arianrhod is a challenging goddess who pushes the hero into wisdom and greatness.

Arianrhod is the initiator, the goddess who challenges the candidate and pushes them to achieve the next step.

The Three Taboos

The first taboo Arianrhod imposes on her son is that he will have no name until she gives him one. She doesn’t say that she is denying him a name.

In earlier times, and today in tribal societies, the naming of a thing or person was a great responsibility. The true name of something encapsulates its essential nature. Even today a child is named in a solemn ceremony and there is a belief that the name chosen will affect the child, in some way shaping its character. Often a child is not felt to be a person at all – or to have its own individual identity – until it is formally named. A person may take a new name with a change of status; for example a boy will assume a new name when he comes to manhood, a woman when she marries, a priest when he is ordained, and a witch when initiated. Taking a new name means taking on a new role and new identity.

Guided by his experienced magician uncle, Llew uses cunning, magic and skill to gain a name from the goddess. Arianrhod sees him hit a wren with his sling, and then names him ‘The One of the Skilful Hand’. With this, he becomes an adult – the child he was, with only the concerns of a child, is left behind.

The shooting of the wren is significant – it is the bird of the sacred king, and it foreshadows his own wounding later in the story. The wren is, in fact, himself. In ancient Welsh tradition the wren is the King of the Birds, triumphing over the Eagle, so this is an act of sacrificial kingship. The wren is hunted and killed at the winter solstice. In stories, kings are often wounded in the leg or groin prior to their demise. When he shoots it, and accepts his name, he assumes the role of the king who must serve the Goddess and sacrifice himself for the land.

Like Llew, the neophytes, guided by magician elders, must learn skill, cunning and magic in order to present themselves to the Goddess for initiation. The first degree initiation changes the status of a member of the coven – with it, they become a priest or priestess.  With it, they accept the path of service, just as Llew does, when he shoots the wren. The initiate takes a new Craft name to denote that they have died and been reborn as a priest or priestess.

The second taboo which Arianrhod pronounces is that he shall have no weapons until she arms him herself. This is very clearly an initiation test, a simple case of “you will receive arms when you have demonstrated your courage and earned the right to them”. The arms he gains will be used to defend his people.

In the second degree, the candidate is summoned to the edge of the circle and asked what they seek within this degree. Whereas in the first degree the candidate replied that they seek knowledge, in this degree the candidate responds that they seek “to better serve the Lord and Lady”. The first degree is about seeking knowledge, about learning, including the difficult job of learning about the self. In the second degree, this must have progressed to the point where the desire has become to serve – not because it makes the priest feel good, or makes people admire him, but because service to others is the way of the priest.

The third test pronounced by Arianrhod is that Llew shall never marry a mortal women. It seems cruel, but we must remember that he is a god and a sacred king. The primary relationship of the Celtic sacred king was with the land. Woven throughout the stories and myths of Celtic heroes and gods is the concept of Sovereignty, the right and authority to rule the land.  This right and authority is derived not from the right of inheritance or brute force, but a woman/goddess who represents the land. By denying him marriage with an ordinary woman, Arianrhod ensured that he would marry the sovereign goddess. Again, Llew could have given up or despaired at being denied a bride, but he sought the help of his uncles, Gwydion and Math, who created a bride out of flowers – oak, broom and meadowsweet – in other words, out of nature itself.

The story of Llew illustrates that the king must only take power in order to serve the land. The third degree initiate takes the grade only in order to serve others more fully. The person who takes it must not do so for his own glory, and must function in an unselfish way, putting the needs of the group or community first.

The Silver Wheel

But there are deeper mysteries here. Arianrhod’s name may derive from the Welsh words arian ‘silver’ + rhod ‘wheel, though her name is also given as Aranrhod from aran meaning ‘immense’ or ’round’ + rhod, meaning ‘wheel’.

Many Celtic gods are depicted with wheels, indicating movement and the passing of time and the seasons.

In Welsh folklore, the Northern Crown, the Corona Borealis, is called Caer Arianrhod, meaning Arianrhod’s Castle. It is near the Pole Star, but not so near that it does not rise and set.

The names of the various castles in Welsh myth relate to the celestial – the Milky Way was Gwydion’s castle, the Corona Borealis was Arianrhod’s castle, and the constellation of Cassiopeia was the location of the Court of Don. Caer Sidi, the revolving castle, is the Pole Star, the still point around which the stars spin, revolving through the seasons.

From our point of view, the stars revolve around the sky, and throughout the year the sun passes through each constellation of the zodiac, which is itself seen as a wheel that weaves our fates.

Arianrhod’s wheel spins the cosmos, weaving the silver threads of the stars and galaxies, and therefore time, the seasons, and fate.  She controls the maelstrom of creative forces at the heart of the cosmos.

The Goddess of the Labyrinth

Another goddess associated with the constellation of the Corona Borealis is the Greek goddess Ariadne, who helped Theseus defeat the Minotaur and escape the labyrinth at Knossos by means of a thread she gave him to lay a trail to the passage through the labyrinth. The jewelled crown he gave her was placed in the stars after her death as the constellation. One name for the Minotaur was Asterion, meaning ‘Starry’, implying a connection of the turns of the labyrinth and the motions of the stars.

In order to win a name, Gwydion and Llew come to the goddess disguised as shoemakers. Both the Irish and Welsh Llew pose as a shoemaker to gain access to a highborn girl or queen. In myth, there is a mysterious connection between sacred kings, shoemakers and labyrinths. In Poland a traditional shoemakers’ dance was connected with a labyrinth. In England the Patriotic Company of Shoemakers had their own turf maze at Kingland near Shrewsbury.

The spiral labyrinth reflects the arms of the Milky Way. The spiral shape, which is the basis of the spider’s web, is an ancient and almost universal symbol of regeneration and rebirth. Spirals are marked on many ancient tombs, coins, floors, and cave walls. They represent the path of the Sun throughout the year, from birth to death and rebirth (the same journey promised to the human soul), the labyrinth that the soul travels into death and the underworld and outward to rebirth. Taliesin wrote that he had been three times in the castle of Arianrhod, indicating a three-fold initiation, treading the path of that labyrinth.

The spinning goddesses of fate are often associated with the stars. In Viking mythology, Frygg’s spindle is said to be the stars of the belt of Orion. Spinning was the province of women and goddesses only, a magical act as the movements imitated the spinning of the cosmos.  Spinning goddesses were once considered to be the most powerful deities of all, and they appear in many mythologies.

Nwyvre

Arianrhod’s husband is Nwyvre (pronounced NOOiv-ruh). His myths have been lost, and there are only a few mentions of him in the Triads remaining. His name comes from nwyf, which means ‘vivacity’, ‘vigour’ or ‘energy’ and rhe, ‘a swift motion’, so his name means something like ‘swiftly moving energy’.

Nwyvre is thought of as the life force that infuses and animates all things, similar to the concept of prana or chi, [iv] giving them health and vitality. Those things that lack nwyvre are dead.

Arianrhod is the active principle, spinning starry matter with threads of magic from the heart of the Cosmos, the source of the divine spark of inspiration. In this regard, Arianrhod and Nwyvre might be compared to Shakti and Shiva in Hindu mythology.

Between the Mabinogion and the Triads, Arianrhod and Nwyvre are said to have four sons:

Gwynn (White)
Fflam (Flame)

Dylan (Wave)

Llew

These can be seen as representing the four elements, with the two great forces of the universe coming together to bring all things into being.

Arianrhod Invocation

Arianrhod, great mother,

Your womb is the dark void of space

Which holds the seed of all potentials

 You are the wheel of life,

You are the beginning and the end and the beginning once again

 Yours is the spiral castle of the stars,

Where we are remade.

 May we glimpse eternity,

And know your light.

 Blessed Be.

 

© Anna Franklin 2020

[i] line Inspired by She Who Altar http://spiralgoddess.com/SheWhoAltar.html

[ii] Jean Markale, Women of the Celts, Inner Traditions International, Vermont, 1986

[iii] Abridged from the original

[iv] The Barddas of Iolo Morganwg, Vol. I., ed. by J. Williams Ab Ithel, [1862], at sacred-texts.com p. 372 p. 373

WHAT IS INITIATION?

The Craft is a mystery tradition that has formal degrees of initiation. In this, it differs from most other forms of modern Paganism.

Some Pagans condemn covens for their exclusivity, their systems of degrees and their titles of high priest and high priestess.  This criticism is understandable when we have characters like Lady Tiggywinkle, who read a book on the Craft a year ago and now she is a high priestess and has even written her own book about it. Or Darth Moloch who is magus of his own dark coven – or at least he is when his Dad lets him stay out late.  Such people have always existed of course, and are found in every branch of Paganism, but it is true to say that the Craft, with its hierarchies and titles, is a magnet for the egomaniacs and lunatic fringe.

However, the Craft degree system – and its hierarchy – provides a stable and firm foundation to assist individual spiritual progress. Candidates are enabled to develop at their own pace by a supportive group setting, under the guidance of an experienced teacher. As they progress, they become able to train and help the less knowledgeable – with each degree comes greater responsibility. Those groups that try to run as democracies where those with no know-how have as much say as those with a great deal, or those groups run by inexperienced [and all too often inflated-ego] individuals with no proper training tend to fall apart very quickly, as do those groups where people are advanced too quickly through the degrees. Over the many years I’ve spent in the Craft, I’ve learned the hard way that the traditional coven set-up is the by far the best way of organising and running a magical group. Every time I, in my ignorance or arrogance, have deviated from its rules, the consequences have been disastrous.

The Craft is a mystery religion, and a system of initiation through various degrees is implicit, and in this it follows very ancient principles. The word ‘mystery’ comes from the Greek musterion meaning a secret rite or doctrine. A follower of the mysteries in ancient Greece was a mystes  or ‘initiate’, a term originating in the word myein meaning ‘to close’ or ‘to shut’ i.e., to close or shut the eyes and mouth, since only initiates were allowed to observe the rituals and these were not to be spoken of to the uninitiated. In the ancient world, the mysteries were not open to everyone, but only to those who were properly trained and prepared, those who were mature and responsible enough to approach them with due reverence and ready for the profound inner changes it would create.

Initiations centered around the theme of death and rebirth, the candidate undergoing the same journey as the God or Goddess; thus the candidates became the ‘twice-born’. They followed the same basic pattern that most Craft initiations follow today, first with training, then the rite proper with ritual purification, warnings and challenges, an ordeal, a binding oath, revelation of the deity and secret symbols, rebirth and consecration as an initiate, followed by a proclamation of the new status of the candidate to all assembled.

Reputable covens ensure that the training for priesthood is thorough and monitored at every stage so that the priest/ess is ready for the degree conferred, is effective, competent, and works connected to the Gods. This training is difficult and requires a high level of commitment over many years. Most people are not willing to put in the time and effort, and this is the main reason why initiation is reserved for a few.

Putting aside those traditions that ‘initiate’ new members as soon as they arrive [in which ‘initiation’ is merely an acceptance into the coven and signifies nothing more] initiation confirms that the candidate has completed adequate training and achieved sufficient spiritual advancement as will enable them to function as a priest/ess.

Many beginners think that initiation is conferred by the ceremony, and that the person involved is thus promoted to a higher rank rather like an army officer. This is far from the truth. The neophyte, having undergone training and taken part of various rituals and spiritual practices, starts to experience a heightened state of consciousness and awareness. He or she is often very confused at this stage, suddenly aware of entities, archetypes, spirits, concepts and ideas that may seem contradictory and confusing. Many people take fright at this point and back away, but providing that the candidate handles this properly, accepting guidance from the elders, initiation will occur as a fundamental change of consciousness, a progression to the next stage. An experienced high priest/ess will recognise when this juncture is reached, and the candidate will be formally initiated: a ritual and magical event that triggers the next stage in the process.

At this point the initiation may fail, leaving the candidate in a spiritual limbo. This can happen for one of two reasons. Firstly, unless the candidate is set, properly prepared and ready to receive and return the power, no initiation can take place; Plato remarked ‘Many who beat the wand, but few who become Bakchoi.[i] Secondly, if the initiator is not in contact with the spiritual forces, he or she will fail to initiate the candidate.[ii] There are plenty of people out there claiming higher degrees who don’t even realise they have never had a true initiation.

Initiation is a death and rebirth not symbolically, but in a very real sense. In some tribal societies, the candidate is thought of as a ghost for the duration of the process, until the new birth takes place. He might be buried or coffined in some way, returning to the primordial earth-womb of the Goddess. Often, the initiate identifies himself with the reborn god. In Egypt, for example, in one initiation ceremony described in the Leyden Magical Papyrus, he ‘participated’ in the reconstitution of the scattered body of Osiris, and was reborn with the reincarnated god.[1] The old self can never be reclaimed, and a new self emerges from the old shell: the process is traumatic. It is said of several mountains in Wales, that if one were to spend a night there, one would either come down mad, or a poet [i.e. a bardic initiate]; true initiation is a harrowing process, and one which may lead equally to enlightenment or madness.

This threshold point was deliberately provoked in the initiation rituals of some mystery schools, when the candidates were put through terrifying ordeals involving burial or entombment for days, or being led through the darkness of a labyrinthine cave. In tribal cultures, suffering may be deliberately induced to mimic the crisis which sometimes triggers a shamanic initiation. Shamans may experience ‘death’ by being entombed for up to seven days, during which they experience being dismembered by demons before being re-assembled with new bodies that contain psychic powers. In all parts of the world the dawning of the shaman’s enlightenment begins with a ‘shamanic crisis’, often in adolescence, but sometimes much later.[2] This is a severe illness or breakdown which actually threatens his life, and he lingers for a time between on the threshold of life and death. The shaman is reduced, by the trauma of this incident, to a primal way of thinking and being, and only then can he enter the archetypal primordial state where humans can converse with gods, animals and plants. He experiences the sensation of dissolution and the separation of body from spirit, something that only usually occurs in physical death, and which cannot be compared to astral travel or out of body experiences, or even an initiation in other magical traditions.

Returning from his crisis, the shaman knows, from his own encounters, that the world is alive, that everything has spirit and that we are surrounded by spirits, a viewpoint called animism by anthropologists. When he interacts with the world of spirit, he is practising shamanism, and only then. He may work with a variety of supernatural beings and from these learn how to cure specific illnesses, divination, the mastery of fire, weather magic, hunting magic, the retrieval of lost souls or the accompanying of the souls of dead to the Otherworld, and the removal of curses. He can travel great expanses in spirit flight, hear what is going on at a remote place, send messages over a distance and even shapeshift. Furthermore, he may take on the role of the priest of a community, becoming the bridge between the world of spirits and humankind.[3]

Plutarch commented that the soul at the point of death undergoes the same experience as those who have been initiated into the great mysteries:

“…at first wandering to and fro, and journeys with suspicion through the dark as one uninitiated, and then come all the terrors before the final initiation, shuddering, trembling, sweating, amazement: then one is struck with a marvellous light and is received into pure regions…and bearing his crown joins in the divine communion… and the initiate beholds the uninitiated …huddled together in mud and fog, abiding in their miseries through fear of death and mistrust of the blessings there.[iii]

We can find many such descriptions of initiations in the ancient accounts, in stories from shamanic cultures, but also in more recent times here in Britain, deriving from the shamanic traditions of our Celtic and Anglo-Saxon ancestors [see my Path of the Shaman for a more full account of this].

Not every aspirant will gain true initiation in this lifetime. If a person encounters many difficulties in the path of initiation the Gods may be telling them they are not ready, or it may just be that they are being tested to see whether they are committed enough to overcome any obstacles. The Gods often interfere in someone’s life to point them in the right direction, or deter them from following the wrong path for them. This is why barriers are placed in the path of the would-be initiate, sometimes by the Gods, and always by the coven. Tests are made ensure the suitability of the candidate – who might not even be aware that they are being tested. In our coven, quests are given that must be pursued and resolved before initiation is even considered.

We do not recognise self-initiation at all. This is not to say that self-initiation is impossible, but successful self-initiation is rare. When people talk about self-initiation, they generally mean what we would refer to as Dedication, a promise to honour and love the Gods and learn of them. True initiation is something much more profound. I’m not even sure it is possible to be your own teacher – you are trying to teach yourself something you do not know, and this is a paradox. It is true that the real teaching comes from the Gods and spirits, but until you have learned how to contact them, how to recognise illusion and self-delusion from truth, this is fraught with danger. Furthermore, the changes the process effects are very difficult to deal with alone. An experienced high priest or priestess will be able to guide the initiate through the stormy waters.  A person can never initiate themselves into a tradition from which they have never had training or approval.

It must be remembered that initiation is not an end goal and the candidate is not perfected at the point of initiation; it is a mark post on the journey of the spirit which is a continuing succession of trials, revelations, back-sliding and progress.

© Anna Franklin, extract from Pagan Ritual, The Path of the Priest and Priestess, Lear Books, 2008

Illustration © Anna Franklin, Pagan Ways Tarot, Schiffer 2015

[1] Christian Jacq, Magic and Mystery in Ancient Egypt

[2] In some places, the role of shaman is hereditary, but only if the spirits have chosen the successor, and he has undergone the crisis.

[3] Anna Franklin, Path of the Shaman, Lear Books,

[i] Quoted in Mircea Eliade From Primitives to Zen, Collins, London, 1967, p 305

[ii] Dion Fortune, Applied Magic, The Aquarian Press, Wellingborough, 1981, p 28

[iii] Quoted in Mircea Eliade From Primitives to Zen, Collins, London, 1967, p 302

CORIANDER – love, cookery and healing

My baby coriander (Coriandrum sativum) plants are coming on. Coriander is a marmite herb – people either love it or hate it.

In Britain, both the fruit (seeds) and fresh leaves are called coriander, while in the US, the seeds keep the name coriander but the leaves take the Spanish name for the plant, cilantro, owing to their extensive use in Mexican cookery.  The Romans were very fond of coriander. They used it in a sophisticated seasoning mixture which included wild celery, coriander, mint, onion, pennyroyal, rue, savory and thyme. Coriander (cilantro) leaves are best used fresh to preserve their volatile oils responsible for the taste and aroma. They can be chopped and sprinkled on curries, stir fries, added to salsas and so on. Try making a coriander pesto instead of a basil one for a taste sensation, or add to your juicer to benefit from coriander leaf’s antioxidants.  The dried seeds, are available whole or ground, but for best results, buy them whole and crush them lightly in a pestle and mortar just before use. They flavour curries, breads, sauces, soups, stews, pastries and sweets and are used commercially to flavour gin.

The leaves and fruit are rich in volatile oils beneficial for the digestive system, what herbalists call a carminative, useful for bloating, gas and indigestion. If coriander is added to the diet, these symptoms may reduce.

Coriander is used as a natural treatment for high cholesterol levels. The acids (linoleic acid, oleic acid, palmitic acid, stearic acid and ascorbic acid) found in coriander help to lower ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL) and raise ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL). [1] Add some coriander to the diet and add the fresh leaves to fruits and vegetables in your juicer.

Regular consumption of coriander has been shown to reduce blood pressure in many patients suffering from hypertension.[2]

The volatile oils in coriander possess anti-rheumatic and anti-arthritic properties.

Cineole, a phytochemical found in coriander, is thought to have an anti-inflammatory effect. For arthritis and rheumatism, use some coriander in the diet, apply a coriander salve, coriander infused oil or pulverise the leave and use as a poultice.

The volatile oils found in fresh coriander leaves are antiseptic, antimicrobial and healing, and a rinse of coriander leaf infusion will help treat mouth ulcers.

 A well-known home remedy for conjunctivitis is to bathe the closed eyelids with coriander seed tea.

Coriander leaf contains antioxidants to combat damaging free radicals, minerals and vitamins that help in the battle against wrinkles and sagging skin.  They also have a cooling, antiseptic, detoxifying and soothing action. Try making a paste of fresh coriander leaves and mixing them with a little honey, apply to the face, leave 20 minutes and rinse off with warm water.

A hair rinse made from coriander leaf tea will promote new hair growth.

Coriander was used magically too. Pliny wrote that fresh coriander was believed to be aphrodisiac, adding that some thought it beneficial to place coriander beneath the pillows before sunrise. There is some evidence that coriander seeds were placed in Egyptian tombs as a symbol of eternal love and enduring passion. [3] Similarly, in Chinese tradition it was considered both a herb of immortality and an aphrodisiac. [4] It is mentioned several times in the Arabian Nights as arousing sexual desires, and in Europe in the Middle Ages and Renaissance it was considered to provoke lust and love and added to love potions. The seeds were put into the popular drink hippocras which was commonly drunk at Tudor weddings. Culpeper designated coriander as “hot in the first degree”, a herb of Mars, and rather than romantic gentle love and friendship, it is used in spells of lust and passion. Coriander is widely used in love spells, charms and incenses. It can also be used to anoint the candles used in love magic. It can be included in the ritual cup at handfastings and Great Rite celebrations. Add to the handfasting cake.

You can throw coriander seeds instead of confetti at handfastings, and indeed, coriander seeds may have been the original ‘confetti’. The fruits used to be made into the sweets called confits, coated in white or pink sugar. These were thrown into the crowds from the backs of carnival wagons. However, eventually this was thought to be wasteful, and they were replaced by bits of coloured paper, but kept their original name ‘confetti’. [5]

The word coriander is believed to be derived from the Greek word koris which means ‘a bedbug’,  [6] and this is  thought to refer to the strong scent of the leaves, caused by the aldehydic components of the essential oil present, which some people hate and others, like me, love. It is certainly named after a bug in several languages, but the earliest attested form of the word is the Mycenaean Greek written in Linear B syllabic script, reconstructed as koriadnon or koriandron. [7] Now ari means ‘most’ and adnos means ‘holy’ and this is also the derivation of the name of the Minoan goddess of the labyrinth Ariadne’s name, so there may be a lost legend here connecting the two, or at least, coriander must have been considered a very holy herb. Coriander is certainly associated with the Phoenician/Canaanite warrior goddess Ana (Anatu/Anahita), titled Virgin, Mother of Nations, She Who Kills and Resurrects, the consort of Ba’al who wore horns and carried a moon disc. She wore coriander perfume and purple make up for battle. The greatest of gods were afraid of her. Coriander was much valued as a perfume in the ancient world. [8]

CAUTIONS:

Coriander is considered safe in food amounts and when taken by mouth in appropriate medicinal amounts for most people. When coriander comes in contact with the skin it can cause skin irritation and inflammation or an allergic reaction in some people. As always, if you are pregnant or breast-feeding, stay on the safe side and stick to food amounts.  Coriander can slightly lower blood sugar levels, so if you are diabetic, you should monitor these carefully.  It can also lower blood pressure, so if you take medications for hypertension or have low blood pressure, monitor levels carefully. Coriander seeds can have a narcotic effect when consumed in excessive quantity which is perhaps how it became to be known as ‘dizzycorn’.

Coriander Leaf Tea

1 tbsp. fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves

250 ml boiling water

Pour the boiling water over the leaves. Cover and infuse for 5 minutes, strain and drink.

 

Coriander Seed Tea

1 teaspoon of coriander seeds

250 ml water

Lightly crush the seeds and put in a pan with the water, simmer for 15 minutes, remove from the heat and leave to stand for another 5-10 minutes, strain and drink.

 

Infused Coriander Oil

1 tablespoon coriander

250 ml vegetable oil

Crush the coriander seeds in a pestle and mortar. Put into a jar with the oil, fit the lid and leave on a sunny windowsill for 2 weeks, shaking daily. Strain the oil into a sterilised bottle.

 

© Anna Franklin, condensed extract from The Hearth Witch’s Kitchen Herbal, Llewellyn, 2019

[1] P. Dhanapakiam, J. Mini Joseph, V.K. Ramaswamy, M. Moorthi3 & A. Senthil Kumar, The cholesterol lowering property of coriander seeds, (Coriandrum sativum): Mechanism of action, Journal of Environmental Biology, Journal of Environmental Biology January 2008

[2] Qaiser Jabeen, Samra Bashir, Badiaa Lyoussi, Anwar H.Gilani, Coriander fruit exhibits gut modulatory, blood pressure lowering and diuretic activities, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Volume 122, Issue 1, 25 February 2009, Pages 123-130

[3] Spices of Life in Ancient Egypt, http://www.history.com/news/hungry-history/spices-of-life-in-ancient-egypt, accessed 26.9.17

[4] Julie Brunton-Seal & Matthew Seal, Kitchen Medicine, Merlin Unwin Books Ltd, London, 2010

[5] J.O. Swain, The Lore of Spices, Grange Books, London, 1991

[6] J.O. Swain, The Lore of Spices, Grange Books, London, 1991

[7] John Chadwick, The Mycenaean World. Cambridge University Press, 1976

[8] ibid