My year as a Hearth Witch is a cycle – the balmy days of spring, when life returns, and I begin work on the garden and go out to collect nature’s first wild gifts. The full days of summer when I am busy weeding and hoeing, collecting and preparing herbs and remedies to see me through the year. Then comes the abundant bounty of autumn, when the hedgerows are full of wild fruit and nuts, when all the work on the vegetable plot pays off, and I get busy preserving it, freezing and canning, making jams and wines. Finally come the frozen days of winter when I cleave to my hearth fire and turn my attention to indoor activities. Then the year begins anew, and the whole cycle starts again, never the same twice, but a continuing cycle nonetheless. The magical and spiritual rituals I celebrate throughout the year reflect this cycle.
The natural cycle of the year is the basis of the Eight Sabbats observed in modern Paganism – the first stirrings of spring at Imbolc, the gaining of the light after Ostara, the flowering of the earth at Beltane, the zenith of the sun at Midsummer, the first fruits at Lughnasa, the completion of the harvest at the autumn equinox as the light begins to decline, the death tide of Samhain with the coming of winter, and the rekindling of the year at Yule, as the sun is reborn.
However, for our ancestors, the cycle of the year was much more personal since most of them worked on the land and depended on it for survival. They were acutely aware of the tides of energy flowing into then out of the world, energy both spiritual and physical, and instead of trying to dominate these tides, worked with them, marking them with a myriad of feasts and festivals, myths and folklore. All these together give us half-blind modern Pagans, with all our distractions, cushioned by central heating and a constant supply of food from the shops, places to start to make our own profound connections.
The Greeks and Romans left us a wealth of written material documenting their beliefs and religious practices, but the Pagan Celts left us nothing – all we know of them comes from much later Christian chroniclers, who failed to record any earlier Pagan ritual practices. However, when the Christian church stamped out Paganism throughout northern Europe, the old festivals proved difficult or even impossible to get rid of, and they were forced to incorporate them into the liturgical calendar but appropriated to various saints’ days. Some of the old Pagan gods were even turned into Christian saints to make the transition easier. We can also look at the folklore customs of the year, which may stem from earlier Pagan practices in some instances, though this is debateable, but which were certainly practiced by people intimately concerned with the cycles of nature. These things taken together give us an insight into the year that goes beyond the Eight Sabbats.
But while we can look to the past, we must also recognise that we work here and now, and that cycles change. When the dinosaurs walked the earth, the planet was on the other side of the galaxy. In the Bronze Age, the solstices and equinoxes fell in different constellations to where they fall now. The hawthorn no longer blossoms at Beltane, because eleven days were dropped from the calendar in 1752, meaning that the cycle shifted on. Climate change brings larger swings still.
The spiritual lessons of the Gods are always there, if only we have the ability to look and see. Though we thirst for this knowledge, we can die of thirst beside its fountain without being aware of its presence. The pattern of the year tells us that there are times when it is easier to access – when there is a confluence of the season, the pattern of the stars, the time, the place, the preparation of ourselves and myriad other cycles that overlap. Sometimes only a few of those things converge, and we get a partial connection, or at another time different things converge, and we get something else again. And then there are the times when everything aligns, and we experience a profound and life changing gnosis. So we watch for the signs and signals – the pattern of the year, the currents and moods of Mother Nature, the places we work, the synchronicities that give us clues as to our direction: the clews that take us through the labyrinth. These opportunities are always flowing, always changing. The cycles that converge at one Samhain will never be repeated again – ever. Every year will be different. We can only try to discern the patterns, the myriad cycles, large and small, and find the intersecting points, where we can stand, and drink from the fountain of spiritual wisdom.
We can take inspiration from ancient practices, but we must put them into the context of our own time and place. Where you work is different, and if you are on a different continent, or in the southern hemisphere, it will be very different. Wherever we are, we need to go out and understand the natural cycles where we live, and respond to them, rather than imposing something that doesn’t fit.
According to our coven bard, Dave the Flute, witchcraft is like making good tea. If you follow the way of the Abrahamic Regions of the Book – referential, scripture based – you are told what to believe and the actions you must take to be successful. Take mug, put in tea bag, pour on boiling water, take teabag out, add milk and serve. In may be quite a foul cup of tea and you might have preferred some sugar, but you have done as you were told. But a witch would also prod the bag to see what it was doing, note the colour of the tea as it got stronger and compare with past experience of tea making, giving it a taste to try see how it was doing, and end up with an ace cup of tea. The witchcraft method is experiential, personal and non-scripted. It is the path untrodden – revelation through your own effort.
© Anna Franklin, The Hearth Witch’s Year, Llewellyn 2021
Illustration The Wheel from The Sacred Circle Tarot Anna Franklin and Paul Mason Llewellyn 1995