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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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Lammas/Lughnasa

Lughnasa is the modern Pagan celebration of the beginning of the harvest, the bounty of the earth, and the abundance of all that Mother Earth gives us. The modern festival has its roots in both the Irish Lughnasa and the Anglo-Saxon Lammas.

In England, the first day of August was known as Lammas, probably from the Anglo-Saxon hlaef-mass meaning ‘loaf-mass’. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 921 CE mentions it as ‘the feast of first fruits’. [1] It marked the time when the first of the grain crop was gathered in, ground in a mill and baked into a loaf. This first loaf was offered up as part of the Christian Eucharist ritual. In Ireland, Wales and England, Lammas was also the day for separating the lambs from the ewes, as it was thought to be luckier to do it on that day. Some even say that this is the origin of the word Lammas, as masses were said for the protection of the lambs on that day. Lammas appears just once in Old English poetry, in the calendar poem known as the Menologium. In the section for August, the poem describes Lammas and the coming of autumn: “… everywhere August brings/ to peoples of the earth Lammas Day. So autumn comes…Plenty is revealed, beautiful upon the earth.” [2]

The intense heat of the Dog Days has brought summer growth to its end, and the crops have ripened, ready for cutting. For the farmers, this is the most important time of year, the harvest – the gathering of the golden wheat and the silver oats, the root crops and the fruit, when they warily scan the skies and sniff the wind for the scent of rain. In the past, all the village would assemble to help, and itinerant labourers would be drafted in. Factory and school holidays were timed to coincide with the period, so that more people would be free to assist. However, where once lines of reapers crossed the fields with scythes and sickles, now there is a hum of machinery, often late into the night as the farmer tries to beat the weather. Sheltering and nesting mice and rabbits dash from the fields, and the face of the countryside changes from golden fields to dusty stubble.

Until the Industrial Revolution in Britain, Europe and the USA, most of the population worked on the land in a way that had changed little since ancient times. Even at the end of the nineteenth century much of the grain was cut by hand with the farmer and his labourers working side by side, mowing down the grain, then using sickles to gather it up into sheaves bound with straw which were left to dry before being threshed with hand flails to separate the grain from the chaff. Labourers, both local and itinerant, would gather at the appointed day at a given farmer’s field and begin work, fuelled with beer and cider and given dinner by the farmer’s wife. In some places the workers elected a foreman to negotiate with the farmer for wages and terms, and was addressed as ‘my lord’, was the first to eat and drink, and imposed fines and punishments on workmen who broke his rules. His deputy was the Lady of the Harvest.

According to the Irish, Lughnasa (1 August) is the last day of summer and the start of autumn, and therefore the correct day on which to begin the harvest.  To begin the harvest before Lughnasa was thought to be wrong, and even shameful, and only a very needy man or a bad farmer would do so. The Scots would exclaim “It’s lang to Lammas!” in jest when food was late to the table, reflecting the reality of scarcity when waiting for the harvest to begin. People looked forward to the day of first reaping when the hunger would be over. Everything that had been worked for was in reach. 

Around the world the first of the harvest, called the First Fruits, was offered to the Gods, and only after giving the Gods their portion, were people free to enjoy the rest. In ancient Greece, barley was offered as first fruits to Demeter and Persephone at the great temple of Eleusis, where underground granaries stored the produce. In some places, the First Fruits were believed to contain a spirit. Estonians would not eat bread from the new corn until they had bitten on iron to protect them from the spirit within. In Sutherland (Scotland), when the new potatoes were dug, the whole family had to taste them or the spirits in them would be offended and the potatoes would not keep. [3]

The idea that the grain contained a spirit persisted right into the nineteenth century in Britain, and even longer in other places around the world, possibly dating back to the ancient belief that the gods of the grain are ‘sacrificed’ and give their lives so that humankind might live, their flesh devoured in the form of bread or wheaten cakes. The followers of the Egyptian Osiris ate wheaten cakes marked with a cross which embodied the god, and today Christians eat the body of Christ in the form of bread wafers, similarly marked with a cross. In Greece, such deities were titled soter which means ‘one who sows the seed’, but which we often translate as ‘saviour’.

Many modern Pagans use the word Lughnasa for this festival. It is an Irish word, which translates as ‘the games/assembly of Lugh’, and the only time Lughnasa is mentioned in the Irish chronicles is in connection with the tribal assemblies held for the weeks each side of 1 August. It is always stressed that the events were presided over by kings, with the one near Tara headed by the high king of Ireland and the others by local kings.  The gatherings included the settling of tribal business matters, horse racing, athletic contests, martial contests, games, and even sometimes real fights for the right to rule and become king. They may have included rituals to ensure a plentiful harvest, though there is no record of this. [4] One chronicle does relate, however, that for the old Pagans, holding the fair ensured corn, milk and full nets, men like heroes, tender women and good cheer in every household; if it were not held there would be decay and immature kings. [5] Each assembly was held at the grave of a mythical woman who died clearing land for pasture, perhaps hinting at an earlier harvest celebration.  The eleventh century collection of Irish heroic tales known as the Ulster Cycle gives the four festivals of the old Irish year as Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Bron Trogain, rather than Lughnasa. Bron Trogain means ‘the earth sorrows under its fruits’ [6] and suggests the labour of the earth goddess in giving birth to the harvest.

© Anna Franklin, 2020


[1] King Alfred the Great, (trans. Rev James Ingram), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016 

[2] A Little History of Lammas, https://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.com/2017/08/a-little-history-of-lammas.html?fbclid=IwAR01BbnyJQP1mKPZ8r34JOcV5vA-kHIrcHYerMdjU8l0r4eekXm-byLDtlI, accessed 5.11.19

[3] James Frazer, The Golden Bough, Macmillan, London, 1976

[4] Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996

[5]  Roger Sherman Loomis, Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance, Constable, 1995

[6] The Táin: Translated from the Old Irish Epic Táin Bó Cúailnge, Penguin Classics, 2008

15 JULY – ST. SWITHIN’S DAY

English folklore has it that if it rains today, then it will rain for the next forty days:

St Swithin’s Day if thou be fair

For forty days ’twill rain no more.

St. Swithin’s Day if thou bring rain

For forty days it will remain.

Farmers once anxiously watched the skies on St Swithin’s Day as too much rain at this time of year would ruin the harvest. St. Swithin was a ninth century English Bishop. When his bones were removed from the churchyard into the cathedral he seems to have objected, as a thunderstorm broke and went on for forty days; he was weeping at the moving of his grave.

This is a month that celebrates many patron saints and deities of water, wells, grottoes and shrines.The feast of Sul (or Sulis), the patron goddess of the famous mineral springs at Bath in England, fell this month, while in ancient Rome, the Neptunaliawas heldin honour of Neptune as god of waters, along with festivals of  Salacia, goddess of salt water and inland mineral springs, and the goddess Furrina, patroness of freshwater springs. In Britain, many holy wells, which once would have been dedicated to a local deity, were assigned to St Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. (Her feast day is celebrated just before Lammas on 26 July.) The similarity of her name to that of the goddess Anu or Danu may have made it to easier to Christianise these ancient holy places. One of the best-known wells dedicated to her is that of the spa town of Buxton in the English Peak District, previously dedicated to Arnemetiae, the local water goddess.

Helps your skin to heal and renew, fights wrinkles and prevent acne. Gentle antiseptic for cuts, bruises, helps minimise scarring, relieves skin irritations.

Place lavender flowers in a jar, top with oil, leave 2 weeks in a dark place, shaking daily. Strain the oil onto fresh flowers and repeat till perfume strength desired is achieved.  Strain into bottle. Use directly on the skin or pour a little into your bath.

You also can turn your lavender oil into a salve by adding beeswax/soy wax. In a double boiler (or slow cooker) warm the oil. Add wax and melt. The more wax you add, the firmer the set will be. Pour into warm glass jars.

Fair Folk – The Lhiannan Shee

The Lhiannan Shee is a fairy from the Isle of Man whose name means something like‘fairy love’, ‘fairy sweetheart’ or ‘fairy mistress’. The sole purpose of her existence is to find a human man to love her. Since she is very lovely and seductive, very few men can resist her charms, and as a lover she is very passionate, but her love comes at a terrible price. Her embrace draws both life and breath from the human, while she becomes bright and strong. The Manx fairy sometimes takes blood too and is a true vampire.

Poets, artists and musicians often seek out a fairy sweetheart, since she is a muse who will inspire them to write great verses, paint wonderful pictures or sing remarkable songs. When she is absent, they cannot work, pining away with longing. When she is present, they forget all else and grow pale and thin, forgetting to eat and sleep. The lovers of the Lhiannan Shee may have brilliant careers, but will die young. Sadly, many are soon forgotten.

There have been many such men, and the legend of the Lhiannan Shee has been used to explain why so many writers, artists, and musicians burn out and die young. Sometimes men have used alcohol and drugs to find her, but these only hasten her departure.

© Anna Franklin, The Fairy Ring Oracle, Llewellyn, 2000

Illustration Paul Mason

Are We Seeing the Death of Magical Groups?

Get any group of middle-aged witches, ritual magicians or druids together, and they will lament the decline of committed working groups. Membership is falling across the spread of hundred-year-old magical orders, and even open Pagan groups and Druid groves have an increasingly elderly and shrinking population of committed members who do all the organisational work. I know priests and priestesses with a lifetime of service who are quitting in despair.

“But,” I hear you say, “Paganism is a growing movement; there is more interest in magic, witchcraft and Druidry that ever before!” True, but most of those interested people work individually for the most part, do things with a few friends occasionally, or just go to moots, conferences and camps when they want to celebrate with others on an ad hoc basis, if what is on offer looks interesting or fun.

Part of the problem is undoubtedly a numbers game. I live in a village, and there used to be one shoe shop, and it did very good business. Then for some strange reason, suddenly there were six shoe shops, and not enough custom to go round – they all went out of business. There are so many covens, groups, moots, camps and conferences now, that the actual audience is spread increasingly thin between them.

And then there is the C word – commitment. Hardly anyone wants to make the commitment to a group; they want to dip in and out of all the myriad goodies on offer.  Meanwhile, those of us who try to provide moots, camps or groves are under pressure, because we often have to do it without much help and keep them going with falling numbers. A friend who runs a well-known grove complains there are two people who do everything, and despite having a large list of people who count themselves members, few attend regularly, most only dropping in for rituals once a year. I recently closed down the Outer Circle I ran for 40 years, partly because despite having 120 nominal members, we often didn’t get the 25 needed to pay for the room, but mostly because the people attending didn’t actually want an Outer Circle (a committed teaching group which is a prelude to joining a coven) but simply a social moot which they could drop into occasionally, and I am way past doing that. The only groups that are growing are the ones that don’t ask for much in the way of commitment or work.

Does any of this even matter? After all, there are thousands of books available, and you can find any information you want online – there are no secrets. Is this not just the democratisation of information? I’m reminded of the computer in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which, when asked “what is the meaning of the Universe?” answered “42”. Information can only take you so far. Knowledge and wisdom live on separate shores, and that’s where a teacher who has already walked the path comes in. But no, we live in an age of anti-intellectualism, when experts who have studied a subject for thirty or forty years are discounted because all opinions are equally valid, even if they are only based on a few Facebook memes.  It is a peculiarly modern Western view of spirituality, that it can be scavenged without much work or study, or that someone else should provide it without any conditions, or that it is there to support the desires of the ego, and even that it can be bought.  We live in a society that expects instant gratification, big rewards for little effort, and most resist the idea that self-discipline, hard work, commitment, and giving service in return is necessary.

I sometimes wonder whether we have made it all too easy, whether trying to publicly provide service and teaching has backfired. In the old days, it was hard to find a coven, never mind join one. You had to decode messages on bookshop notice boards or attend vaguely spiritual groups that shielded coven members who might approach you if you looked likely. If you applied to join a coven, your first letters would not be answered, or you might be sent away for a year. These were tests of commitment and intent. And maybe secret knowledge is always more attractive…

Meanwhile what happens when the largely older group of people who currently run the moots, camps and groups die out? No doubt something will still run, but I have lost track of the number of people I have seen who have read a single book or been in their friend’s self-taught coven for a year and set themselves up as high priestesses, and pass on their garbled ‘knowledge’ to those who know no better; I could name a few fairly prominent ones right now. They may be all we are left with. The coven I have run for forty years is still going, but we are all over fifty now. I worry that unless the true teachings are passed on, which can only be done through experience and by experience, it will die out, and we will be left with something superficial, the palest glimpse of what was.

The work of a committed magic group is vitally important, sparks of illumination in a sea of ignorance. Public rituals always fail to reach the levels of achievement of those of a working group for obvious reasons; they merely touch the mental plane of ceremony. In contrast, a close-knit working group has trained together, knows and trusts each other on a profound level, shares a tradition, uses common symbols, mythology and ritual formats and over time, forges its connections with the Gods. It can draw on the knowledge and experience of each person, and can balance the energy of each person within the ritual, subsumed into the group-mind. The power that six or twelve people wielded this way creates something far greater than the sum of its parts. With public rituals, little or none of this is true. People who have only ever been to public rituals have no idea of what a ritual can be.

Those who give of themselves receive blessings in return, experiences beyond any that can be achieved alone, forging a powerful path, together to understanding, and bringing that back into the world.  If ever we needed that, we need it now.

© Anna Franklin, July 2021

Linden Tea

LINDEN TEA

The perfume of the linden tree and the elder flowers drench the air. Linden is one of my favourite herbs collected this month, used for stress and anxiety; it usually starts flowering around the solstice, and it is in full bloom now:

Linden (Tilia spp.) Tea

2 tsp. fresh new flowers

1 cup boiling water

Put the flowers into a teapot and pour on the boiling water. Infuse for 5 minutes and strain. This is good to drink when you are stressed and need to wind down.

NB: Do not use over a period of more than four weeks. Do not take if you are on Lithium.

Spiritual Fallow Periods

I’ve talked to so many people lately complaining that their spirituality seems to have dried up, or that they have stopped feeling any connection. After what we have all been through over the last eighteen months, many of us are left feeling depressed by our enforced isolation,  and despairing of the state of the world.

Spiritual withdrawal happens; I’ve experienced it myself many times. I’ve always come to realise it had been entirely my fault; the Gods had not withdrawn from me; I had unwittingly withdrawn from them.

We talk about magical and spiritual currents, and this is quite literal – if you stop plugging in, you stop being connected. It’s no good complaining the toaster won’t work if you haven’t plugged it into the socket and turned the power on, and it is the same with spiritual energy and connection with a tradition.

I believe that the power of the Gods flows throughout creation, underpinning all life and giving it meaning. It can be a joyous spiritual and emotional sustenance for those who connect with it, but though it is eternal and always present, each day we can choose to be open to it and accept it or we can reject it, ignore it, or put up emotional barriers to it. Compassionate love is the free flowing energy of the soul, but selfishness, hatred and resentment dries and dams it up. Circumstances sometimes mean that we are isolated and afraid, and this has its effect too.

Spiritual disconnection can occur during difficult life events. When you go through something traumatic or sad, it is natural that your efforts are directed to sorting out your problems. If you have a spiritual response, it might just be to ask for things (sort this out for me, stop it happening) or berate and blame the Gods and for what has happened (why me? why are you punishing me?) and by extension your spiritual path for not giving you immunity. These are barriers we might inadvertently erect to connection with the free flowing of spirit. As Pagans, we believe that we weave our own wyrd, through action or inaction, and are responsible for our own fates, but that often flies out of the window in such circumstances, and we demand that the Gods bend to our will.

Of course, the opposite can happen, and when something bad occurs, like a serious illness, it can bring you closer to spirit as the concerns of the mundane world drop away, and the connection is like a tap being turned on, and I’ve experienced this too on several occasions. During periods of long-lasting serious illness, I have experienced vision after vision of the flow of spiritual power. That didn’t stop me feeling sorry for myself when recovery was slower than I hoped, and being disappointed that the visions had stopped before I realised I needed to change my approach and reconnect.

We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves – or the Gods. The connection is there, waiting for us to open our hearts to it.

© Anna Franklin, June 2021

Nasturtiums – Food, Healing & Magic

I love nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus): they grow quickly and provide a riot of hot-coloured flowers and juicy round leaves throughout my garden in pots and containers, trailing over walls and fences all summer long. They are good value too, for the thrifty gardener: a single plant can cover three square yards, as well as being one of the easiest plants to cultivate, thriving on neglect, and not even minding whether they are in the sun or the shade. In the autumn, I save the many seeds they produce for next year’s crop.

The sixteenth century English herbalist Gerard considered it a kind of cress because it has a spicy, peppery taste and grows in a similar way, and described it alongside common watercress (Nasturtium officinale), though the plants are unrelated. This is where it gets its common name ‘nasturtium’ (literally ‘nose-twister’ from the spicy taste); it is sometimes still called Indian cress.

Nasturtiums come from South America and the Incas used them as a salad crop. Indeed, all parts of Tropaeolum majus are edible – the flowers, leaves and seeds.  Nasturtium leaves are rich in Vitamin C and contain flavonoids, iron, sulphur, manganese and amino acids, while the flowers contain vitamins B1, B2, B3 and C and as well as manganese, iron, phosphorus and calcium. The pretty flowers have become quite a fashionable garnish for salads today, though this is merely a modern rediscovery of an old practice. The flowers taste slightly peppery, rather like a mild watercress or rocket. The leaves have a stronger, more piquant taste, so pick the leaves young and add them chopped or shredded to salads or pop directly into a sandwich.

Pickled, unripe nasturtium seeds have long been used as ‘poor man’s capers’. (Real capers are pickled buds from the caper bush).

Poor Man’s Capers
Use the still green unripe nasturtium seeds. Drop them into a jar and cover with spiced vinegar.

The flowers, leaves, seeds are used medicinally, but they must be used fresh, which may be why they don’t feature in treatises on herbalism very often. The plant contains compounds that help loosen phlegm, and make breathing easier, so it is useful in respiratory tract infections. The leaves have been found to contain powerful antibiotic, antimicrobial and antioxidant compounds, as well as vitamin C, and may help prevent and relieve coughs, colds and flu, as well as boosting immunity. It can be taken as a tea or vinegar made from the leaves and flowers:

Nasturtium Tea

3 tsp leaves and flowers

½ pint boiling water

Pour the water over the leaves and flowers. Infuse 10 minutes, strain and drink.

Nasturtium Vinegar

½ pint fresh leaves and flowers

1 clove garlic

1 pint vinegar (cider or white vinegar)

Put the flowers and garlic in a jar, and cover with the vinegar (add enough to make sure the plant material is fully covered). Seal and leave for a month, shaking daily. Strain and bottle. or make a nasturtium vinegar and take a teaspoon two or three times a day.

Because of its peppery taste, the astrologer herbalists placed nasturtium under the rulership of the planet Mars and the element of fire. Linnaeus’ daughter Elizabeth-Christine, a botanist herself, noticed that on hot summer days at dusk, the stamens and styles at the heart of nasturtium flowers, emit a spark.  The flowers and leaves can be dried and added to incenses and oils of Mars and fire, or the plant may be used in spells, rituals, incenses, oils and potions for vitality, positivity, strength and recovery after depletion of mental and physical energy, and necessary change.

The plant has a strong protective reputation, perhaps partly from the symbolic shield shape of the leaves, although gardeners know that it is useful companion plant that helps repel bugs from the vegetable patch and orchard; it is said that woolly aphids and white fly are repelled by nasturtiums. Plant a red nasturtium by your front door (or have one in a hanging basket) to deter unwanted visitors and keep negative influences from your home. Daub Nasturtium Tea around your window and door frames for protection.

CAUTION: To be on the safe side, avoid medicinal amounts of nasturtium if pregnant or breastfeeding, if you have kidney disease or stomach ulcers.  

© Anna Franklin, June 2021

24 June Midsummer’s Day

The date for celebrating the moveable summer solstice became fixed on the Day of St John the Baptist, thus enabling the Catholic Church to associate many of the ancient summer solstice customs with his worship. The solstice fires became the fires of St. John, whom Jesus called “a bright and shining light”. The early Christians had a deliberate policy of transforming Pagan celebrations into church occasions. Some of the representations of John are rather strange for a Christian saint. He is often depicted with horns, furry legs and cloven hooves, like a satyr or woodwose or satyr. His shrines too are often of a rather rustic nature, ostensibly because John was fond of wandering in the wilderness. It is possible that John not only took over a Pagan Midsummer festival for his feast day, but also the attributes and shrines of an earlier green god. Other midsummer symbols accumulated around St John and he was made the patron of shepherds and beekeepers.

In the Middle Ages, Christian mythographers declared that St John was born at the summer solstice at the time of the weakening Sun, announcing his own power would wane with the birth of Christ at the winter solstice, the time of the strengthening Sun, [1] associating them with the oak and holly respectively, perhaps drawing on earlier myth and folklore. The evergreen holly persists through the winter death-time and so was identified with Christ, the white flower emblematic of his purity, the prickles his crown of thorns, and the red berries the drops of his shed blood: “…of all the trees that are in the woods, the holly bears the crown” in the words of the old carol. [2]

Illustration Paul Mason


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

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

23 June Midsummer’s Eve

While the solstice date varies, Midsummer’s Eve is fixed on the calendar as 23June, pegging a moveable feast to a fixed date, and the folk customs of the solstice moved with it. 

It was widely believed that spirits gathered on Midsummer Eve. In parts of England it was the convention to light large bonfires after sundown to ward off evil spirits; this was known as ‘setting the watch’. [1]

Midsummer Eve was believed to be one of the great fairy festivals [2] when fairies are abroad, moving amongst human kind, frolicking around the Midsummer bonfires and playing all sorts of tricks ranging from stealing human brides and performing innocent pranks to inflicting horrible curses and even death. [3]In the Shetlands, the mysterious selkies come ashore. They normally look like grey seals but on this night they shed their skins to become human and dance on the shoreline. If they are disturbed they will grab their skins and run back to the sea, though if a man can steal and hide the skin he can force a selkie maid to marry him, but if she ever finds her skin she will put it on and be off back to the sea. In Russia, the green-haired Rusalka fairies walk the land at Midsummer, and where they tread, flowers appear, and when they move through the grain it causes it to grow. The mischievous Robin Goodfellow or Puck is about in English woodland, playing tricks on unwary travellers and leading them from their paths. Certainly we had a strange experience in the coven one solstice, when we turned away from the circle and couldn’t find our way back, even though it was only a few yards away and knew the woods intimately. Eventually, after walking a just few paces, we found ourselves at the other side of the woods, at least a mile away, so I do believe it happens! 

According to fairy lore, if you want to see fairies then you will need the aid of certain magical herbs such as thyme. In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon tells Puck “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows/ Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,” because at midnight on Midsummer’s night the King of the Fairies dances with his followers on wild thyme beds. It was an ingredient of many magical potions, dating from around 1600, which allowed the user to see fairies. One simple charm was to make a brew of wild thyme tops gathered near the side of a fairy hill plus grass from a fairy throne. It was also an ingredient of the fairy ointment which was applied to the eyes of new-born fairy babies to enable them to see the invisible. Like other fairy flowers, wild thyme is unlucky if brought indoors. It is one of the best herbs used to attract and work with the fairy wildfolk, in offerings, incense and spells.

Illustration Paul Mason


[1] R.L.Tongue, Somerset Folklore, Folklore Society, 1965

[2] According to the folklore, good fairies start to come out around the vernal equinox, are very animated by Beltane, and at the peak of their activities by Midsummer. By Halloween, most of the good fairies have disappeared from sight and the bad fairies, such as goblins, rule the winter period.

[3] W.B.Yeats, Folk and Fairy Tales of the Irish Peasantry, 1888