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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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Grieving for Lost Species Ritual

Attendees are asked to research a lost species, or something else they want to grieve, perhaps a meadow or woodland lost to housing development. They are also given a card ‘tombstone’, on which they will write an epitaph.

The sacred space is set up. The altar is set up in the centre of the circle, with a large cauldron, and lit tea lights, one for each species we wish to honour, grieve and remember.

Celebrant 1: In this place that is not a place, in this time that is not a time, we gather together to mark the death time of the year. All things young and fair must fade, all that is vital eventually grows weary, all that is strong becomes weak, and all that is full of promise and hope must pass away. We remember our ancestors, we remember loved ones who have passed away. But who stands for the species that have become extinct, that die unmarked and unmourned?

All (together): We stand. We stand for them. We mourn them.

One by one, each person comes forward in turn and speaks about their animal, and expressed what they want to say. They put out one tea light, and place their tombstone against the cauldron.

Celebrant 2:  The Goddess is always with us, the steady heartbeat that supports us always as we remember and honour those that have gone before. (Begins a quiet, slow drum beat like a heartbeat, and chants) Honour, remember, honour, remember, honour, remember…

All: Honour, remember, Honour, remember,, Honour, remember,

Celebrant 3: All things return to the womb of the Goddess, the great cauldron of creation, there to dissolve and be remade and await another dawn.

Here is the cauldron of Ceridwen which transforms all things, which can regenerate all things in her underworld womb. In her lies our hope.

(Places the extinguished lights in the cauldron.)

The ocean of time is wide and as your spirits sail upon its winds and tides know this –
nothing passes from the records of the keepers. Each leaf, each feather, each child, each joy, each life is noted. Is recorded. Is held. All beings across time are potent within the record. All are held in the womb of the Goddess, ready that when the time is right, they can and will return.

Remember that what is lost to the mundane lives on within the Universal Spirit.

You have the power within you to elicit change. And change elicits the returning of life.
And all things, when the time is right, may return.

Go forth and make change.
You are the life bringers……….

This rite is ended, blessed be.

From the forthcoming Hearth Witch’s Ritual Year by Anna Franklin, Llewellyn 2020

The Season of the Crone

The wheel of the year turns, and everything changes. As November comes, the golden days of autumn give way to winter; the hours of daylight dwindle, night comes early and dawn comes late. The fields, once lush and golden with corn, are brown and devoid of life, rough furrowed under the plough. In the hedgerows, all that was fair and blossoming lies rotting on the sodden ground, swathed in tendrils of mist and clinging dew. We are surrounded by a rank and decaying earth. The powers of growth are winding down, and the powers of darkness and cold gain ascendancy.

As the sunlight fails during this month, the fox will take to its earth, hedgehogs, dormice, badgers, squirrels, bats, snakes, newts and lizards, will seek their nests and burrows to sleep until spring. Snails huddle together for the winter under piles of dead plants or woodpiles – they hate the cold and glue themselves together and withdraw into their shells. Butterflies will hibernate in hollow tree trunks, and the corners of sheds and houses till spring.  Wood mice may be driven into sheds and out buildings. Many small animals and birds will die over the winter of starvation and cold.

It feels like a melancholy month when the colours have faded out of the world, and all becomes grey – grey skies and grey heavy mist, heavy moisture in the air clinging to hair and clothes. Tired leaves fall to earth and carpet the ground, their green summer youth forgotten, the bare trees left to their leafless dreaming.  This month sees the last of the berries and the first of the snows and killing frosts.

We enter the death time of the year, when Mother Nature seems to sleep and the world falls silent.

This is the season of the Crone, the Hag of Winter. Beware, this is no gentle old lady – she is wild, fierce and elemental, just like winter itself. She is the storm rider, the shapeshifter, the ground freezer, the plant witherer, the bringer of death and the collector of souls.  She has had many names in many places – Ceridwen, Hecate, Frau Gauden, Perchta, Nicneven, Reisarova, Frau Holda, Befana, the Hag of Beare, Babushka, Beira, Gyre-Carline, Mag Moullach, Gentle Annie, Lussi, Saelde, and Black Annis amongst many others.

In Scotland she is the Cailleach Bheur (‘The Blue Hag’), whose face is blue with cold, hair as white as frost.  With her holly staff in her hand and a carrion crow perched on her shoulder, she strides across the land, beating down the vegetation, and hardening the earth with ice. [1] In her great cauldron, the whirlpool of Corryvreckan, she washes ‘the plaid of old Scotland’ until it is white with snow. [2] In Edinburgh, it was said that snow was the result of ‘the Old Woman over in Fife’ plucking her geese. [3] In Germany it was held that when it snowed Frau Holda (or Frau Holle) was shaking out her feather pillows. Fog was smoke from her fire and thunder was Holda reeling flax.

Winter is a time of death, the death of plants, the death of animals, and the death of those humans for whom the season is too harsh, particularly children, so it is not surprising that the Hag of Winter is a death goddess and a collector of souls, particularly the souls of children, In this role she often leads the Wild Hunt, flying through the midnight skies accompanied by wild women and ghosts, gathering the recently dead.  In Norse myth these were the túnridur, the ‘hag riders’, or the gandreid ‘witch ride’. In Norway, the goddess Reisarova led the aaskereida (‘lightning and thunder’), a spectral host who rode black horses with eyes like embers., while in Germany the Furious Host rode was led by Frau Holle, Percht or Berchta (‘Shining’).  Slovenians called the goddess leading the souls of the dead Zlata Baba or ‘Golden Crone’.

The Tyroleans said that whoever got in Wild Berchta’s way as she tore through the night with the Wild Hunt would sink into trance and upon awakening, be able to predict how the next harvest would be, and this leads us to something important about the Hag of Winter – there is a deep connection between fertility and winter death.  Perchta fructified the land by ploughing it underground, while her heimchen (the souls of the dead babies she collected) watered the fields. While the Maidens and Mothers might bring it forth, the fertility of the next year’s harvest is fundamentally the Crone’s gift

The fierce and powerful vision of the Crone Goddess found in myth is fundamentally at odds with the sanitised and patronising view of her I often come across on Pagan websites and in Pagan books – the Crone as the kindly wise old woman, waiting for death, who exists solely to patiently pass on her years of accumulated wisdom – a concept reflecting our own society, with its heritage of patriarchal monotheism, where old women are seen as useless, past sex, past childbearing, past working.   That characterisation doesn’t fit any of the old ladies I know – most of whom are pretty formidable – and it certainly doesn’t fit the stories of the Hag who might be considered the most elementally powerful goddess of all.

At this dark time of year, we might be drawn to consider our own personal November, our own cronehood, however far away it might be. At some point in our lives we are forced to acknowledge that beauty must fade, physical strength decline, and that one day we too will die. And yet…and yet…in this dismal season, when the earth is bare and the trees skeletal, when everything showy is stripped away, we feel the underlying bones of creation and we see more clearly into its deepest secrets, we approach its elemental power, and this is the true knowledge of the Crone, the coron or crowned one, the Cailleach the veiled one, the hag, ‘the sacred one’.

And this is the secret that only the wise may know.

Illustration from The Pagan Ways Tarot, by Anna Franklin, Schiffer

[1] F. Marian McNeill, The Silver Bough, Vol. 3, Stuart Titles Ltd., 1961

[2] Donald Alexander Mackenzie, Wonder Tales From Scottish Myth & Legend, Franklin Classics, 2018

[3] F. Marian McNeill, The Silver Bough, Canongate Publishing, Edinburgh, 1989

 

Pear Brandy

Pear Brandy

Pears

Brandy

Sugar

Spices to taste (optional)

Pick over the pears, remove the stalks, peel and chop the whole fruit, cores and all, discarding any bruised or damaged parts. Put them into a large glass jar so that it is a half full, layering with a small sprinkling of sugar, and cover brandy, adding any spices you wish (e.g., a cinnamon stick, fresh ginger, a few cloves) but be sparing with them. Make sure the pears are fully covered. Fit the lid. Leave the pears in the brandy for as long as you can resist it. Remember to keep checking it to make sure the fruit remains covered, or the top layer will go mouldy. The brandy can be strained and drunk after six months, but if you can keep it for at least two years it will be even better.

Crab Apple Liqueur

Crab Apple Liqueur

Crab apples

Whisky, gin, brandy or vodka

Sugar

Spices to taste (optional)

Pick over the crab apples, remove the stalks, and chop the whole fruit, cores and all, discarding any bruised or damaged parts. Put them into a large glass jar so that it is a half full, layering with a small sprinkling of sugar, and cover with your chosen spirit, adding any spices you wish (e.g., a cinnamon stick, fresh ginger, a few cloves) but be sparing with them. Make sure the apples are fully covered. Fit the lid. Leave the apples in the spirit for as long as you can resist it. Remember to keep checking it to make sure the fruit remains covered, or the top layer will go mouldy. The liqueur can be strained and drunk after six months, but if you can keep it for at least two years it will be even better.

Horse Chestnut Salve

Horse Chestnut Salve

I always look forward to finding horse chestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum) in autumn, the shiny brown ‘conkers’ once beloved by schoolchildren for their games, but they are so much more useful than that.  The tree is so named because the nuts used to be made into liniments to treat muscle sprains in horses. They contain aescin, a compound which has anti-inflammatory properties equally effective for human sprains and bruises, as well as treating varicose veins, spider veins, haemorrhoids and cellulite. NB: Horse chestnuts are slightly toxic and must not be eaten.

Horse Chestnut Salve

Horse chestnuts

Vegetable oil (you can use olive oil, sunflower etc.)

Horse chestnut tincture (optional)

Beeswax

Double boiler

Small glass jars

Labels

First peel the nuts. Pup them into a coffee grinder and powder them up as much as possible. Put powdered/chopped nuts into a double boiler and just cover them in vegetable oil. Put this on the stove over a low heat for around two hours, making sure the water in the double boiler does not boil away. You don’t want the nut/oil mixture to boil or simmer, just be gently warmed for the duration. Remove from the heat and allow the oil to cool before straining through a coffee filter. Now take the oil and gently warm it through again over a low heat and add your beeswax. How much wax you add depends on how runny or set you want your salve to be. I use about 20 gm beeswax per 100 ml of oil, but you may like to vary this. There is no right or wrong way, and part of the fun is using your initiative. (Remember, you can always reheat and add more wax, but you can’t take it away.) Take it off the heat. At this stage, you can also add some horse chestnut tincture for an extra boost to the salve’s effectiveness if you wish (at about 5%), whisking briskly until it is incorporated. Pour into small glass jars, fit the lids and label. Use the salve on affected areas once or twice a day.

Making Raw Cider Vinegar

We had a bit of a cider vinegar making session at the weekend.
CIDER VINEGAR
Raw cider vinegar is full of enzymes, vitamins, probiotics and minerals that pasteurised cider vinegars do not have, as they are destroyed by the heating process. All the healing benefits you have read about with cider vinegar are absent from processed products. Raw cider vinegar is best for all the recipes in this book, and if you have ever tried to buy it you will know that it is very expensive compared to the heavily processed kind. Luckily, it is really easy to make:
1. Take a large, wide-necked jar. Sterilise it.
2. Wash and chop your apples including the cores and peel (you can make this recipe just using the cores and peel after making an apple pie), but remove the stalks. A mixture of different varieties makes a better tasting cider vinegar, but don’t worry if you can’t manage this.
3. Put them in the jar, making sure it is half to three quarters filled.
4. Cover them with water that has been boiled and cooled to lukewarm.
5. Stir in a little sugar or honey to help the fermentation process start.
6. Cover the jar. When making wine, we use an airlock to keep out the bacteria that will cause it to turn to vinegar, but when making vinegar we actually want to encourage them, so instead the jar is just covered with cheesecloth secured with an elastic band.
7. Stir daily for a week. It will begin to bubble and ferment from the natural yeasts in the apples, and you will be able to smell this happening.
8. Strain out the apple pulp
9. Return the liquid to the jar and cover again with cheesecloth. Leave in a warm, dark place for 4-6 weeks, stirring occasionally. The alcohol will transform into acetic acid or vinegar. A small amount of sediment will fall to the bottom, and what is called a ‘mother culture’ of dark foam will form on top; don’t worry about this, it is normal.
10. Taste it to determine if it is ready starting after 4 weeks as it will get stronger the longer you leave it, and you can choose how you like it.
11. Strain once more into clean glass jars or bottles. Store out of direct sunlight. Don’t worry if another mother culture forms on top, it isn’t going bad. Just strain again.

Elderberry Glycerite

I’ve been making elderberry glycerite, one of my favourite remedies for winter colds. Elderberry is very effective against colds and flu, particularly when taken during the first 48 hours of infection. You can make elderberry syrup, but I like to make an elderberry glycerite. This is a very simple process using vegetable glycerine. Glycerine can be purchased from pharmacies, and is a syrup made from vegetable oil. It can be used to extract phytochemicals from herbs in the same way that alcohol is used to make a tincture. This is useful for people who don’t want to take alcohol, or for children. Make sure you use a food grade glycerine.

 

To make elderberry glycerite half fill a jar with the berries pour on slightly warmed glycerine, enough to cover them. Seal and keep in a warm place for 2 weeks, shaking daily. Strain through muslin and store in a dark bottle in a cool place for up to 2 years.