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.



Imbolc & Candlemas – what’s the difference?

Whereas 1 February is Imbolc and Brighid’s Day, 2 February is Candlemas Day, the Christian feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to Mosaic Law, a woman is unclean for forty days after giving birth to a male child and needs to be purified before she can re-enter society, so after the Church decided to fix Christ’s birthday on 25 December (after celebrating it all around the calendar at various times), this dated the purification of Mary to the beginning of February.  It is said that as Mary entered the temple, an old man called Simeon recognized the baby as the promised Messiah and hailed him as a “light to lighten the Gentiles”. The Roman Catholic Church uses Candlemas as the time to bless the candles for the coming ritual year, and embraces the old Pagan symbolism of light redeeming the darkness in spring. 

The Celtic Church in Ireland, finding that the worship of the Pagan goddess Brighid was too deeply ingrained to be eradicated, turned her into a saint and gave her the role of nursemaid to the infant Jesus, even though St. Brighid was supposed to have lived in Ireland hundreds of years later in the fifth or sixth century CE. She is alleged to have distracted King Herod’s soldiers when they were pursuing the holy family by dancing with two candles, allowing the family to escape.

Like many Church feasts and customs, Candlemas was a direct takeover of pre-existing Pagan festivals. Pope Innocent asked “Why do we in this feast carry candles?…Because the gentiles dedicated the month of February to the infernal gods, and as, at the beginning of it, Pluto stole Proserpine, and her mother, Ceres, sought her in the night with lighted candles, so they, at the beginning of this month, walked about the city with lighted candles; because the holy fathers could not utterly extirpate this custom, they ordained that Christians should carry about candles in honour of the blessed virgin Mary: and thus what was done before to the honour of Ceres is now done to the honour of the Virgin.”

The purifications of the ancient Greek Lesser Eleusinian Mysteries were celebrated around the beginning of this month with candlelight processions in honour of the agricultural goddess Demeter and her daughter, the spring goddess Persephone (Ceres and Proserpine respectively in Roman mythology) and marked Persephone’s release from the underworld and her return to the land in spring. In Rome the Feriae Sementivae was held in honour of the agricultural goddess Ceres and Tellus (Mother Earth), with the protection of the goddesses invoked to defend the newly sown seed from bad weather and frost.  They were given sacrifices and offerings such as spelt bread, and small decorated clay discs were hung on the trees to ward off evil spirits and negativity. Also in Rome, candles were burned to the goddess Juno Februa, or Juno the Purifier (mother of the god Mars who protected the crops) to scare away evil spirits. The light of the candles echoes the increase of the sun’s light, and is perhaps an act of sympathetic magic, while fire, of course, is the ultimate agent of purification.

Though we now consider Twelfth Night to be the end of the Christmas season, in the past many considered it to be Candlemas; even now in Rome, the manger scenes are left up until Candlemas.  In England, the Yule log was often burned up until Candlemas Eve. Like Twelfth Night, it was marked by games, dancing and feasting presided over by the Lord of Misrule or Abbot of Unreason.  The coming of Candlemas was inextricably linked to the ending of the winter season of rest and withdrawal. Very little work was done on the land from Halloween till Candlemas and many Candlemas carols talk of the return to work. This was also the day that servants had to hand back the candles they had been given in the autumn to light their quarters, since it was considered that artificial light was no longer required after this point, which gave rise to the saying “Candlemas, candleless”.

© Anna Franklin, The Hearth Witch’s Year, Llewellyn, 2021


February, though it the shortest month of the year, is said to have the worst weather. Native American tribes called the full moon of February [1] ‘the Snow Moon’, ‘the Hunger Moon’ or ‘the Storm Moon’. [2] In the mornings, my garden pond is frozen and the plants are rimed with frost. A blanket of powdery white snow covers the earth, showing up the angular marks of bird feet, printed like runes on the ground, as the hungry birds try to find a fallen seed or a scrap of bread.  Winter seems to be dragging on, and if we didn’t see signs that spring is around the corner, it might be considered the dreariest month of all. Yet the rain, the cold and the snow are cleansing the face of the earth, destroying harmful bacteria, soaking the soil with life-giving moisture and filling the rivers and reservoirs, all of which will ensure good crops later in the year.

Just as the Earth is being washed clean, many ancient festivals of February reflect the theme of purification. The name of the month itself is derived from the Latin februarius which means ‘purification’.  According to the Roman writer Ovid, in ancient times purgation was called Februa: “Of this our month of February came… For our religious fathers did maintain, purgations expiated every stain of guilt and sin”. [3] He explained that the custom had come from Greece where it was held that pure lustrations could cleanse any sin or impious deed. February was once the last month of the Roman year and the idea seems to have been to propitiate the spirits of the Gods and ancestors, atone for any offence given to them, and so prepare for spring and the coming year with a clean slate.

The ancient Greeks celebrated the Lesser Eleusinian Mysteries this month, during which those who were planning to participate in the Greater Eleusinian Mysteries in September went to Athens to be purified of any ritual impurity or sin (miasma). [4] As Clement of Alexandria wrote: “The mysteries of the Greeks begin with purification,” [5] and in most mystery traditions, ritual purification is necessary before the would-be initiate can approach the Gods. At the centre of the Eleusinian mysteries were the agricultural goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone, the goddess of spring who was associated with purity. [6] Representations show Demeter seated on the kiste (the basket which held the ritual implements of the Greater Mysteries which would not be revealed until the autumn), and the initiate holding out his hand to touch the snake which coils from the kiste to Demeter’s lap.  [7]  The snake symbolised mystery and rebirth, and the fact that the initiate was ready to receive the mysteries at the autumn equinox. 

Just as people purified themselves, their homes and the tombs of their ancestors at this time of year, there are many stories of goddesses cleansing themselves in sacred waters in order to renew themselves and restore their virginity. The Greek goddess of love Aphrodite renewed her virginity every year by bathing in the sea at her birthplace of Paphos in Crete. Artemis, the moon and hunt goddess, refreshed her virginity by bathing every year in a sacred fountain, while Hera, the Queen of Heaven, bathed in the spring at Kanathos near Argos in order to become a maiden once more.[8] Even in Christian lore, Candlemas (2 February) is the feast of the purification of the Virgin Mary. The maiden goddess is associated with purity, new beginnings and regeneration, so these seem to be metaphors for the old year being washed away and turned into spring, 

There was similarly a Scottish tradition that at the beginning of spring the Cailleach (‘Hag’ or ‘Veiled One’) drank from the Well of Youth and transformed into the youthful maiden Bride. [9] The Cailleach ruled the winter months, while Bride (Brighid/Brigit) ruled the summer months. [10] The Cailleach is the female personification of winter [11]. Her staff freezes the ground [12] and she brings storms and bad weather, though she protects deer and wolves, and is the mother of all the gods. [13] Là Fhèill Brìghde (St Bride’s Day, 1 February) was said to be the day that the Cailleach gathered her firewood for the rest of the winter. If she intended the winter to last a good deal longer, she made sure that the weather was bright and sunny so she could go out and gather plenty of fuel. [14] If the weather was terrible, it meant that the Cailleach was asleep and would soon run out of wood, so winter was nearly over. 

In Scotland, St. Bride’s Day was considered the beginning of spring, with Bride melting the river ice. [15] According to Scottish folklorist Alexander Carmichael “Bride with her white wand is said to breathe life into the mouth of the dead Winter and to bring him to open his eyes to the tears and the smiles, the sighs and the laughter of Spring. The venom of the cold is said to tremble for its safety on Bride’s Day and to flee for its life on Patrick’s Day.” [16] As Nigel Pennick puts it “…at this time of year, Brighid symbolises the opening out of enclosed, invisible nature concealed in the darkness of wintertide into the visible world of light.” [17]

In Scotland, the serpent, sometimes called the noble queen, is supposed to emerge from its hollow among the hills on St Bride’s Day:

On the day of Bride of the white hills
The noble queen will come from the knoll,
I will not molest the noble queen,
Nor will the noble queen molest me.

The serpent throws off its skin annually and is thereby renewed, making it an ancient symbol of regeneration. Snakes and maidens also featured in the February celebrations of the Roman goddess Juno Sospita (Juno the Saviour). At the beginning of February, the consuls made a sacrifice to her, while young girls offered barley-cakes to the sacred snake in her grove. If their offerings were accepted, their virginity was confirmed and the year’s fertility assured.

During this month animals begin to shake off their winter sleep and emerge from hibernation. Some are said to come out to check the weather on Bride’s Day or Candlemas, testing whether it is safe to emerge or if they need to go back to sleep. Badgers were reputed to emerge at noon and if they saw their shadows, they went back to their setts. If they didn’t see their shadows, they stayed out, and the worst of winter was over. In Huntingdonshire the day was even called ‘Badger’s Day’. [19] A similar folk belief persists in America as Groundhog Day.

The year is awakening, new and pure, waiting for life to mark it. The lengthening days that follow Imbolc hold the promise of spring and the rebirth of plant life, and the yearly cycle of work on the land begins once more as the earth is prepared for the seed. [20] I think of February as a time of purification during which we can banish negativity in all its forms, a time to cleanse, physically and spiritually, and prepare for the busy season to come as, day by day, the light increases, as we embark on the many personal and spiritual lessons the year will bring. 

[1] Every nineteen years there is no full moon in February at all

[2] The Old Farmer’s Almanac, https://www.farmersalmanac.com/full-moon-names, accessed 19.10.18

[3] Ovid, Fasti, (trans. J.Frazer), online at https://www.theoi.com/Text/OvidFasti1.html, accessed 13.5.19

[4] The Lesser Mysteries of Eleusis, Stephanie Goodart, MA, SRC, online https://cac45ab95b3277b3fdfd-31778daf558bdd39a1732c0a6dfa8bd4.ssl.cf5.rackcdn.com/05_goodart.pdf, accessed 13.5.19

[5] Quoted in The Lesser Mysteries of Eleusis, Stephanie Goodart, MA, SRC, online https://cac45ab95b3277b3fdfd-31778daf558bdd39a1732c0a6dfa8bd4.ssl.cf5.rackcdn.com/05_goodart.pdf

[6] The Lesser Mysteries of Eleusis, Stephanie Goodart, MA, SRC, online https://cac45ab95b3277b3fdfd-31778daf558bdd39a1732c0a6dfa8bd4.ssl.cf5.rackcdn.com/05_goodart.pdf

[7] The Lesser Mysteries of Eleusis, Stephanie Goodart, MA, SRC, online https://cac45ab95b3277b3fdfd-31778daf558bdd39a1732c0a6dfa8bd4.ssl.cf5.rackcdn.com/05_goodart.pdf

[8] Pausanias, ii.38.2, online at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0160, accessed 13.5.19

[9] Alexander Carmicheal, Carmina Gadelica, Volume 1, T. and A. Constable, Edinburgh

 1900, online at sacred-texts.com, accessed 17.10.18

[10] F. Marian McNeill, The Silver Bough, Vol.2: A Calendar of Scottish National Festivals, Candlemas to Harvest Home, William MacLellan, 1959

[11] Donald Alexander Mackenzie, Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend, 1917

[12] K. M. Briggs, The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature. University of Chicago Press, 1967

[13] Donald Alexander Mackenzie, Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend, 1917

[14] Katharine Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies. Pantheon Books, New York, 1976

[15] Donald Alexander Mackenzie, Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend, 1917

[16] Alexander Carmicheal, Carmina Gadelica, Volume 1, T. and A. Constable, Edinburgh
 1900, online at sacred-texts.com, accessed 17.10.18

[17] Nigel Pennick, The Goddess Year, Capall Bann, Chieveley, 1996

[18] Alexander Carmicheal, Carmina Gadelica, Volume 1, T. and A. Constable, Edinburgh

 1900, online at sacred-texts.com, accessed 17.10.18

[19][19] Nigel Pennick, Folk-lore of East Anglia, Spiritual Arts and Crafts Publishing, Cambridge, 2006

[20] Trefor M. Owen, Welsh Folklore Customs, Gomer Press, Llandysul Dyfed, 1994


February opens with Imbolc, one of the quarterly festivals of the old Irish, and one of the eight sabbats of the modern Pagan year. The term Imbolc (alt. Imbolg/ Oimelc) only occurs in the literature of Ireland, and probably means ‘parturition’ or ‘lactation’. [1] A fifteenth century quatrain said this of Imbolc:

“To taste of every food in order,

This is proper at Imbolc,

Washing of hand and foot and head;

It is to you thus I relate.” [2]

This suggests it might have been a time of feasting and purification. Little else is recorded of its customs except that it was accounted the first day of spring and the time ewes came into milk. In Christian times it seems to have been completely subsumed in the feast day of St Brighid (alt. Brigid/Bride/Brigit), [3] and indeed, modern Pagans often celebrate Imbolc as the festival of the goddess Brighid. The tenth century Cormac’s Glossary tells us that:

“Brigit i.e. a poetess, daughter of the Dagda. This is Brigit the female sage, or woman of wisdom, i.e. Brigit the goddess whom poets adored, because very great and very famous was her protecting care. It is therefore they call her goddess of poets by this name. Whose sisters were Brigit the female physician [woman of leechcraft,] Brigit the female smith [woman of smithwork]; from whose names with all Irishmen a goddess was called Brigit. Brigit, then, breo-aigit, breo-shaigit, ‘a fiery arrow’.” [4]

This single source gives us most of the ideas we have today about the goddess Brighid: three sisters or a triple deity with the Brighid of poetry, prophecy and inspiration; the Brighid of healing, and the Brighid of fire who oversees the hearth and forge and who is the patroness of craftsmen and women.

Most of the tales we have that expand these concepts come from the later legends of the saint the Christian Church turned her into. [5] However, since many of the practices around the saint’s feast day concern fire, fertility and the birth of young animals, it seems entirely probable that these originally related to the goddess Brighid at Imbolc. [6] While Cormac’s interpretation of her name as ‘fiery arrow’ may be fanciful, she was certainly connected with fire. [7] In one tale, St Brighid was born at sunrise on threshold of the house as her mother was on her way out to milk the cow, and immediately a tower of flame emerged from her forehead that stretched from earth to heaven, fulfilling a druid’s prophecy that she would be neither born inside or out, or during the day or night. Later a house she was in flamed up to heaven and a fiery pillar rose from her head. She also hung her cloak on sunbeams, cow dung blazed before her, and flames engulfed her body without burning her. In another tale, she carried a burning coal in her apron. Furthermore, the saint is said to have founded an abbey at Kildare (Cull Dara = ‘Temple of the Oak’), where a perpetual fire, said to burn without ash or waste, was kept burning by a college of nineteen women called Inghean an Dagha (‘Daughters of the Flame’) who fed the fire each night and kept it from dying; on the twentieth day it was believed that Brighid herself tended the flame.  Men were forbidden to enter this sanctuary.  This sounds very much like the rites of a Pagan temple, a sacred hearth tended by virgin priestesses akin to the fire of the Vestal Virgins of Rome, given a thin Christian veneer.  Nevertheless, the abbey kept the flame burning until 1220 CE when Henry de Loundres, the Archbishop of Dublin, shocked at this evidence of fire-worship, issued an edict ordering the flame to be extinguished, condemning it as “pagan superstition”.[8]

In 1969 the Catholic Church officially removed Brighid from the list of accepted saints, finding no evidence that she ever existed.  The goddess Brighid, however, was certainly a pan-Celtic deity. Her association with the hearth fire, by way of the erstwhile saint, persists in Ireland to this day. Within living memory, the domestic fire was kindled with invocations to Brighid: [9]

I will build the hearth
As Brighid would build it.
Guarding the hearth, guarding the floor,
Guarding the household all

© Anna Franklin, The Hearth Witch’s Year, Llewellyn, 2021

Illustration © Anna Franklin, Pagan Ways Tarot, Schiffer, 2015

[1] Dr. Dáithí Ó hȮgáin, Myth, Legend and Romance, An Encyclopaedia of Irish Folk Traditions, Prentice Hall Press, New York, 1991

[2] Kuno Meyer’s translation as found in Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson’s Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry

[3] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999

[4] Cormac’s Glossary, online at https://archive.org/stream/sanaschormaicco00stokgoog/sanaschormaicco00stokgoog_djvu.txt, accessed 10.4.19

[5] Gilbride & Aster Breo, Finding Brighid in the Ancient Lore, https://clannbhride.wordpress.com/articles-and-essays/finding-brighid-in-the-ancient-lore, accessed 26.9.18

[6] [6] Dr. Dáithí Ó hȮgáin, Myth, Legend and Romance, An Encyclopaedia of Irish Folk Traditions, Prentice Hall Press, New York, 1991

[7] Gilbride & Aster Breo, Finding Brighid in the Ancient Lore, https://clannbhride.wordpress.com/articles-and-essays/finding-brighid-in-the-ancient-lore, accessed 26.9.18

[8] Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick, A History of Pagan Europe, Barnes and Noble, 1995

[9] Kevin Danaher, The Year in Ireland, Leinster Leader Ltd., Kildare, 1972

Fairies- Spirits of the Dead?

A Cornishman called Noy met his dead sweetheart among the fairy hoards One day he set out for an inn but when three days had passed and he hadn’t returned home his servants went to look for him. He was discovered in a ruined barn and was amazed to discover that he had been missing for three days. He had got lost on the moor trying to take a short cut, but had discovered a farmhouse where they were holding a Harvest Home supper. Inside hundreds of richly dressed people were feasting, but they all looked rather small. He was staggered to recognise his former sweetheart, Grace Hutchens, dead four years. He knew then that the company inside the house were fairies. Grace warned him not to touch her, eat the fairy food, or drink the cider, or he would be unable to leave. Mr Noy believed he knew a way to rescue them both and took his hedging gloves from his pocket, turned them inside out and threw them among the fairies, who vanished taking Grace with them. (W. Bottrell, Traditions and Hearthside Stories of the West of Cornwall, Penzance, 1870)

The folklorist Katherine Briggs noted that the dead and fairies were curiously entangled in popular tradition; fairies and the dead were often seen mingling together to the extent that they often seem to be one and the same. In Armagh fairies were thought to be spirits of dead friends and it was said that if you had many friends among the departed you would have many friendly fairies, but that if you had many enemies among the dead there would be many fairies trying to do you harm. The Fairy Market was called ‘The Fair of the Dead’ and was held on All Hallows Eve and it is sometimes the dead and sometimes the fairies that hold the market, though they are often confused as one and the same.

In Ireland it was said that they were glimpsed carrying human coffins along with the pall bearers, and in Wales that they never failed to follow a corpse. One young man was imprudent enough to go out on All Hallows Eve and encountered King Finvarra and his Queen Oonagh. Their company was full of merriment and passed around much food and wine, but ‘for all that they were the company of the dead’. He recognised a neighbour who had died many years before. In other parts of Europe, fairies are said to be the ghosts of suicides, murder victims, unbaptised children or women who have died in childbirth.

Unbaptised childrenare at particular risk of being kidnapped by fairies and swapped for changelings. The Huldra[‘Hidden Folk’] are Scandinavian elves who take away unbaptised children and replace them with umskiptinger or changelings. The name may be derived from the goddess Hulda. Many fairies are said to be the souls of unbaptised children. These include the SlavonicVila, the Mexican Jimaninos, the hounds of the Wild Hunt or the spirits that accompany Frau Holda’s hunt. In Russian lore theIgoshahouse fairy is the spirit of an unbaptised child, as is the English pinket, the Southern SlavonicSamovily, the Scottish Spunkiesand various Will O’the Wisps. Other fairies are the spirits of unborn or stillborn children, including the Cambodian Prãyand the Malaysian Bajang.

Many fairies are expressly spoken of as ghosts, and even some of their names their names simply mean ‘dead’. The Russian Mavky [‘Dead’] are the souls of children drowned by their mothers or drowned unbaptised. In summer, they are found swimming in the rivers and lakes. They may also live in the woods or on the steppes where they are sometimes heard crying pitifully that their mothers allowed them to die unbaptised. If you happen to hear one weeping in this way you should say “I baptise thee in the name of the Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit” and this will set them free. If after seven years no one has performed this service for them they become water fairies. Cognates are the Navjaci [‘Dead’], Southern Slavonic fairies, the spirits of unbaptised children. As they wander around, pitifully weeping and searching for their own mothers they attack women in childbed. If a kind person says the baptismal words over them, they will be set free. In a similar fashion, the Navky[‘Dead’] are water fairies of Finland who appear as ravens or crows or as pale children who cling to the branches of riverside trees and wail piteously. In this guise, they try to lure people into the water by pretending to be drowning. Sacrifices were once made to the navky or their permission asked before crossing a stream or swimming in a lake.

Fairies are often also ancestral spirits. In the original story of Cinderella, the fairy godmother was the spirit of her dead mother. The Dísir[‘Goddesses’] are supernatural females in Scandinavian myth who dispense fate in the role of fairy godmothers and were sometimes referred to simply as ‘dead women’. They appear in folklore as female ancestral spirits or house fairies.

This idea of ancestral spirits residing with the family and constituting their luck is a common motif. The Hamingja or Hamingia [‘Luck’] is the spirit of a person’s or a family’s luck in Norse myth, often personified as a stately woman. In one of the Icelandic sagas a man dreams that a lovely woman is travelling towards him from a certain direction and interprets this as his grandfather having died and his hamingja now coming to live with him.

Similar protective house spirits, thought of as house fairies, are found throughout the world. In ancient Rome the Penatesdwelt with particular families to help and protect them, and offerings were made to them at every meal. They were connected with the Lares; the spirits of the dead or ancestors, and the terms are sometimes interchangeable.

House fairies are often spoken of as the ghosts of dead family members or servants. In the Shetland Isles, in the early eighteenth century, every family of substance had a brownie to which they made sacrifice. When the milk was churned a few drops were sprinkled in every corner of the house for him. When they brewed a few drops would be sprinkled into the hole in the ‘brownies’ stone’. There was also a special stack or corn called the ‘brownie’s stack’, which was never fenced or roped like the others, but which no wind ever seemed to blow away. Some think brownies are Teutonic in origin, since the term ‘brownie’ appears where the Teutons settled, spreading up into the lowlands of Scotland and into the Orkneys and Shetland

The Celts held themselves to be descended from the god of the underworld, the Lord of the Dead who came out of the west. This has led some writers to assume that fairies are nothing more than ancestral spirits. The Roman writer Pomponius Mela wrote that the Celts believed that souls were eternal, and another life went on in the infernal realms. For this reason, they were buried with things appropriate to them in life. He said that there were even those who would fling themselves on the funeral piles of their relatives in order to share their new life with them. Caesar also commented that the Celts left offerings for the departed. Cups containing milk and food were left at wells, groves and sacred stones as offerings.

Contrary to the bowdlerised Victorian idea of cute fairies, their intentions were generally malicious. Many fairies try to draw people to their deaths to join their ranks.In many parts of the world the will o’the wisp is attributed to the bog fairies or mischievous imps who appear as balls of light to lead travellers astray or fairies who carry lanterns to guide the unwary over cliff tops or into marshland. As the playwright John Fletcher said in The Shepherdess:

No Goblin, Wood-god, Fairy, Elfe or Fiend,

Satyr or other power that haunts the Groves,

Shall hurt my body, or by vain illusion

Draw me to wander after idle fires.

If a person follows one, they may meet their death in a bog or a deep pool.  Some say that the lights are the souls of dead children. Others say that will o’the wisps are the souls of greedy men with hidden treasure, money lenders and swindlers, or people neither good enough for heaven nor evil enough for hell. In Northern Europe such lights are seen hovering over the tombs or burial mounds of warriors, and thought to be the souls of the dead, guarding the treasure buried within the grave. In German and Swedish lore the lights belong to the souls of those who, in life, disregarded boundary markers and stole a neighbour’s land. In Italy they are souls in purgatory. Seeing a will o’the wisp, sometimes called a corpse candle, may be an omen of death, either for the person who sees it, or for someone they love.

© Anna Franklin

Illustration Paul Mason

Crane Folklore

Cranes are solar birds, and when they returned in springtime, they were thought to bring the sun back with them. Standing by the waters, cranes and herons are among the first birds to greet the dawn. The Celts associated marsh birds with the supernatural, dwelling as they do in a misty ‘place between places’ that is neither land nor water, thought to be one of the entrances to the Otherworld. It was commonly believed that the crane was the epitome of vigilance, standing on one leg and holding a stone in its raised foot; if the bird fell asleep, the stone would drop, waking it. Cranes were sentinels at the castle of the sea god Manannan on the Isle of Man.

Cranes were sacred to gods and goddesses who presided over the mysteries of death and rebirth. Flying cranes are sometimes said to be the souls of the dead or mark the death of the old year. The mating dance of cranes was once thought to be a magical ritual and the movements were imitated by human dancers. It was performed round a horned altar and represented the labyrinth- the twisting path into the Otherworld.

Two girls called Aoife and Iuchra both fell in love with Ilbrec, the son of the sea god Mannanan. Iuchra deftly rid herself of her rival by turning Aoife into a crane. In this form, Aoife lived on the Isle of Man for two hundred years, and when she died, her skin was made into a bag for Mannanan. It became one of his most important possessions, as he kept five magical items in it. Some suggest that these were the five letters of the ogham alphabet. The Druids kept their ogham lots in craneskin bags, with the carved letters being pulled out as a rite of divination. The god Ogma was said to have invented ogham after watching the flight of cranes, with the shapes of the birds against the sky giving him the idea for the angular letters.

In Ireland, the sudden appearance of a crane heralded the cessation of hostilities in a war. If a warrior on his way to battle chanced to see one, he was doomed, since the sight of it would rob him of his courage. For this reason, cranes were often engraved on shields and pieces of armour to strike terror into the enemy.

The crane was a hallowed bird, and its meat was forbidden. Breaking this taboo would result in ill fortune, the loss of courage, illness, or perhaps even death. This prohibition was preserved in folklore well into the seventeenth century when Scotsmen would get rid of unwelcome guests by inviting them to eat the flesh of cranes.

© Anna Franklin & Paul Mason, Celtic Animal Oracle, Vega, 2003

Juniper Lore & Magic

In the ancient world, juniper was connected with the dead and in the underworld, perhaps because its fragrance was used to cover the scent of death. The ancient Egyptians used it in the embalming process, while in ancient Greece it was used to invoke Hecate and other chthonic deities. In Christian lore, it was believed that fumigations of juniper had the power to eradicate evil, a reward to the tree for having once sheltered the infant Jesus. In mediaeval Europe, the home of a dead person was smoked with juniper. In Scotland, it was used as a sain at Hogmanay (New Year), while in Czechoslovakia stables were fumigated to expel demons.  

Juniper Berry Tea

Juniper berry tea can be useful for frequent urinary tract infections such as cystitis and fluid retention.  It is used for digestive problems including upset stomach, flatulence, heartburn and bloating.

Juniper has anti-inflammatory properties and can be taken internally as a tea or applied externally as a salve for arthritis, gout and other rheumatic conditions.

Crush a tsp. berries.

Steep in boiling water 15 minutes.

Strain and drink.

The Queen of Elphame

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

In 1588 Alison Pearson was condemned for ‘haunting and repairing with the Good Neighbours and the Queen of Elphame’. It seems that the Fairy Queen sent messengers to summon likely witches. In 1670, Jean Weir said that when she kept a school at Dalkeith a tall woman came to her house. She had a child upon her back and two at her feet. The woman desired that Jean should employ her to negotiate on her behalf with the Fairy Queen. This was how Jean first became involved in witchcraft. Her brother Major Weir offered himself up and was executed as a witch in Edinburgh, refusing all attempts to convert him. In 1576 Bessie Dunlop stated that as she lay in childbed, a stout woman came and sat down beside her, comforted and drank with her. The coven leader told her that it was the Queen of Elphame, his mistress.

The old British witches called their supernatural mistress the Fairy Queen and it was she who led the Sabbat. Similarly, many Italian witches believed in the historical existence of a woman [or goddess] named Aradia, who brought about a revival of Italian witchcraft, travelling the country and preaching the old Pagan religion of Diana, whom they called Queen of the Fairies. There was a Rumanian Pagan sect known as the Callusari who, during the Middle Ages, worshipped a mythical empress who they sometimes called “Arada” [possibly Aradia] naming her as Queen of the Fairies. The Cǎlluşari dancers were the followers of the Fairy Queen, and their dances were thought to have originated in the Otherworld. Similar Macedonian dance troops were called Rusalia or ‘Fairies’. Like fairies, they were responsible for bringing fertility to the land.

The Italian carnival society of the Cavallino assembled under the banner of Erodiade, a name for the Queen of the Fairies, possibly synonymous with the witch goddess Herodias. The society grew to prominence in the Middle Ages, appearing in processions, pantomimes and healing sessions, but may have had a very ancient, Pagan origin. It was exclusively male, its members dressed in women’s clothes and wore make up. They always gathered in odd numbers, such as seven or nine or eleven. The Catholic Church persecuted them as Pagans who worshipped the goddess Diana.

King James I’s book Daemonologie equated fairies with devils in no uncertain terms and advised people who had them in their homes to get rid of them immediately. Writing in 1701 the Orkney vicar Rev. John Brand said that fairies were evil spirits seen dancing and feasting in wild places. English Puritan writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries believed all fairies were devils. If people worked with fairies, it was considered that they had renounced their Christian faith, something often reiterated in the trial records. In 1670 Jean Weir confessed that she had performed a ritual at the bidding of a fairy so that all her troubles would depart. Afterwards she found that she had wonderful ability with spinning, but this made her afraid, and she stayed indoors for twenty days weeping, because she thought that what she had done in working with a fairy was, in effect, a renunciation of her baptism. 


© Anna Franklin, extract from Working With Fairies, Career Press

Illustration © Anna Franklin & Paul Mason, The Fairy Ring Oracle Llewellyn

Houseleek in Herbalism

The houseleek is regarded by herbalists as one of the safest treatments for inflammations, burns, scalds, swellings, bruises, cuts, stings, bites and ulcers, with similar properties to aloe vera.  The bruised leaves of the fresh plant, or its juice, can be applied as a poultice. Choose a thick, fleshy leaf and remove from the plant.  It can be peeled or pressed and applied directly to the affected area.  Use in a salve for burns, scalds and skin inflammations. 

Houseleeks provide a healing gel with similar properties to aloe vera and make a viable alternative. Houseleek gel helps skin repair and regeneration, it moisturises and firms the skin, and can be used in anti-aging preparations.  It has a mild skin lightening effect and can be used in creams to treat age spots on the hands.

Houseleek leaves are cooling and astringent and houseleek tea may be used as a skin toner, or houseleeks may be added to your homemade skin toners. Add the leaves to a facial steam or bath.