December, the month of rebirth

Sheltered in our warm houses and able to buy food from the supermarket all year round, we find it hard to conceive what winter meant for our ancestors. Just imagine for a moment. During the summer, the long hours of light and warmth provided a bountiful harvest of greenery, grain and fruit. Animals had plenty of grazing and reproduced, supplying meat, milk and cheese. But then winter comes. Darkness and cold increase daily causing plants to shrivel and die and animals to perish while struggling to find fodder. Humans die from cold and hunger. The great source of life, the Sun, is weakening daily. Each day it is lower and lower on the horizon, and each day the hours of daylight grow fewer. Darkness is spreading; everything is winding down, threatening to come to a standstill. The year has declined and languishes in the season of its old age, standing on the edge of its grave.

If the Sun does not regenerate then time itself will come to an end, life will be extinguished and the world will return to the dark womb of chaos from which it emerged. And when the Sun decays towards its death at Yule, that primal chaos threatens to return.

In the myths of many cultures, before the Sun was set spinning on its course – creating the hours, days and seasons – there was only chaos; it was the beginning of regularised time that brought the cosmos into being. In Greek, chaos (χάος) did not mean ‘disorder’ as it does today, but primordial emptiness, space and darkness, a confused mixture of the four elements, a formless mass without order, but which contained everything in potential. The world began when Chronos, the god of time, set the world in motion, and confined the forces of chaos to the underworld. But although chaos was locked away, it continued to exert an influence. They believed there is a gateway to the underworld which cracks open as the Sun declines. As darkness increases (beginning at Samhain and culminating at Yule), the immortal spirits of chaos creep from the underworld. 

In many parts of the world it is thought that the dead return at Christmas. In Scandinavia the dead revisited their old homes and had to be made welcome. Before people went to bed, they made sure the house was left tidy with a fire burning in the hearth. Food and ale were left out on the table. [1] In Poland, the dead were invited inside to warm themselves and funeral foods were eaten. In Portugal the souls of the dead are welcomed at Christmas with crumbs are scattered for them on the hearth. In ancient times, seeds were left out for the dead so they could return with fruits and grains from the Otherworld at harvest time.[2] In Lithuania food would be left on the table as it was believed that once the family was asleep, the dead would come in and feast. [3] [4]

Only the Sun’s rebirth can send the spirits of chaos back and restore time and order to their proper courses. Until then, the world is turned upside down, and the Kingdom of Misrule is established.

The great source of life is failing. The Sun god is dying. Will he be overcome by the powers of darkness and chaos, or will he fight and overcome? The fate of the whole world rests with him. Eventually, everything comes to a standstill. For three days the Sun does not move on the horizon. The great wheel of the year has stopped turning. Then, on the shortest day, in the time of greatest darkness, the Sun is reborn.

Each sunrise, the Sun demonstrates the victory of life over the forces of death and darkness; it is a metaphor for human spiritual and physical life, reflecting our own experiences of birth, growth, decay and death, as well as our hope of rebirth, our struggles against negativity and the triumph of spirit. For our ancestors the eternal cycle of the Sun was the central paradigm of their spiritual beliefs. The Sun god is born at the winter solstice and grows until midsummer, afterwards declining towards his death at the midwinter solstice, where he languishes for three days in his grave before rising from his tomb, reborn.

The Roman Emperor Aurelian (270 to 275 CE) blended a number of Pagan solstice  celebrations of the nativity of such saviours into a single festival called Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered Sun’ on the winter solstice or December 25th.  Roman women would parade in the streets crying “unto us a child is born!”

The ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Teutons (among others) all had a twelve day festival around the winter solstice. The Twelve Days represent the twelve signs of the zodiac, or the twelve months, the Sun must past through in the coming year. The idea was adopted by Christianity in the fourth century.

Many of the ancient beliefs and customs surrounding the Twelve Days remain to this day. They are a time of danger, the eerie and the supernatural, haunted by spirits which might punish or reward. Many omens were taken from them. In England it was said that the weather on the first day would reflect the weather in January, the weather on the second day the weather in February and so on.

Modern gift-giving spirits, such as Santa Claus, have their origin in much older Pagan legends. The Hag Goddess comes into her power during the Twelve Nights and flies through the midnight skies, accompanied by wild women, ghosts and other spirits, collecting the souls of the dead, especially those unbaptised at the time of their death. Usually described as a spinner, or she is a crone with long nose, or perhaps a nose made of iron, or she has iron teeth.[5] She sometimes carried a pitcher of live coals or a cauldron to burn the distaffs of lazy spinners.[6] However, though she was severe in her punishments, she rewarded those who pleased her, and her passing blessed the land with fertility. It was she who gave newborns their destiny.

In many parts of Europe, the gift giver is St Nicholas, allegedly a fourth century bishop though his historical validity is in some question, as he does not appear on any contemporary list of bishops. He seems to have taken over the legends and functions of the gift giving Pagan spirits of the season. In the Netherlands, children put their wooden clogs (or sometimes baskets) by the hearth on the Eve of St. Nicholas, hoping that St Nicholas, riding through the air on his white horse, will pause, come down the chimney and fill them with sweets.

In Europe, Saint Nicholas and other gift-giving spirits had (and in some places still have) a variety of helpers that bear no resemblance to the cute elves of the American Santa. These are ragged, sinister or devilish spirits, sometimes horned, often hairy with blackened or hideous faces, which carry rods to punish naughty children and evil doers, even dragging some away to hell. They go by a variety of names in various regions and include Knecht Rupprecht, Pelznickle, Zwarte Piet, Furry Nicholas, Rough Nicholas and Klapperbock.

Modern Christians celebrate 25 December is the birthday of Jesus Christ, but this is a date that was not fixed until the fourth century and which is still not accepted by some Eastern Churches. Various sects have celebrated Christmas on one hundred and thirty-six separate dates and every month of the year as been mentioned as the possible one in which Christ was born.  The first evidence of the birth of Jesus being celebrated was in Egypt in around 200 CE, when it was celebrated on 25May.  The Nativity of Christ was not considered an important festival by early Christians, unlike Easter (which celebrated the resurrection). The celebration of a birthday was rejected as a Pagan tradition by most Christians during the first three hundred years of Christianity. However, partly in reaction to the claims by Gnostics that Jesus had not been mortal, Christians began to emphasize the Nativity, though a date could not be agreed.

The celebration of Christmas arrived in Britain around the early fifth century. By 1100 Christmas was celebrated all over Europe. The Protestant Reformation in sixteenth century Europe saw a rejection of the Roman Catholic Church, and turning to the Bible, they found no evidence of a date for Christ’s birthday, and no commandment to celebrate it. Puritans called Christmas by such pejorative names as ‘Old Heathen Feasting Day’ and abolished the Christmas celebration by an act of Parliament in 1647, a ban not lifted until the Restoration. Parish officers were subject to penalties for allowing the decking of churches and allowing services to be conducted on Christmas Day. However, the much loved feast was not so easily suppressed and many people protested; there were riots in several places. In 1647 evergreen decorations were defiantly hung up in London, and the Lord Mayor and City Marshal had to ride about setting fire to them.

The Puritans had a point – every element of the Christmas story, and every Christmas custom is Pagan in origin. But while Christians see time as linear and believe that the birth of the divine child came but once, two thousand years ago, Pagans view time as cyclical, and know that the Child of Light, and with him the world, is reborn and renewed every year.

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


[1] http://www.abcog.org/xmas2.htm

[2] http://christmas-world.freeservers.com/portugal.html

[3] Lithuanian Customs and Traditions, http://ausis.gf.vu.lt/eka/customs/tradc.html

[4] ibid

[5] The Russian witch goddess Baba Yaga had iron teeth and flew with witches at the summer solstice.

[6] Max Dashu http://www.suppressedhistories.net/secrethistory/witchtregenda.html

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Dates – myth, magic & healing

Phoenix dactylifera

Planetary ruler: Sun

Element: air

Associated deities: Amon-Ra, An, Anubis, Apollo, Artemis, Ashur, Clio, Demeter, Hathor, Helios, Herakles, Hermes, Inanna, Ishtar, Isis, Lat, Leto, Mullissu, Mylitta, Nepthys, Nike, Thoth

Magical virtues: aphrodisiac, potency, virility, love, fertility, abundance, good luck, wealth, victory, counter magic, immortality, peace

LORE:

The species name, dactylifera, is based on the Greek words daktylos (digit) and fero (I bear), because dates resembled fingers as they grow. Cultivated for at least 5,000 years; there are many references to the date palm in the ancient world, as well as in the texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In Mesopotamian art, the palm tree was used to symbolize Mylitta, the goddess of love and fertility. The Babylonian goddess Inanna was called ‘Our Lady of the Date Clusters’. It is also a symbol of immortality; the Egyptian goddess Nepthys was sometimes depicted as a palm tree with two arms, one hand presenting a tray of dates to the deceased soul, and the other hand presenting the waters of life. Excavations have uncovered mummies robed in date palm leaves.

MAGICAL USES:

Pieces of dried date can be added to incenses, herbal talismans and amulets used for fertility magic and abundance. Incense containing dried date, or dates may be used as offerings in rites of any of the above deities. Use dates in funeral and memorial rites to acknowledge the immortality of the soul.

CULINARY & HOUSEHOLD USES:

Dates are eaten fresh or dried and may be added to both sweet and savoury dishes. Fresh dates can be pressed to extract a sweet juice. Date mash ferments into an alcoholic drink called arak. The tree sap is used as a beverage, fresh or fermented, and a type of sugar can be extracted from it. The tender terminal buds may be eaten as a vegetable.

COSMETIC USES:

Used as a fruit mask, dates possess antibacterial, antifungal, and moisturising properties, which may also help rosacea. An oil extracted from date kernels reduces wrinkles.

HOME REMEDIES:

Dates can be used to relieve constipation – soak a handful of dates in water overnight and consume both dates and liquid.  The same remedy may relieve a hangover.

CAUTION:

None known.

© Anna Franklin, 2022

Catherine – Goddess of the Wheel

In the Christian calendar, November 25th is St Catherine’s Day. She was supposed to be yet another Christian virgin who refused to marry a Pagan though, in this case, an emperor. He ordered her broken on a wheel, making her the patron saint of all who use wheels – spinners, carters, wheelwrights and so on. Fire came down from heaven and the wheel broke so she was beheaded, which led to her becoming the protector of unmarried women and the accidental inventor of the spinning Catherine Wheel firework.

In folk custom, her festival was celebrated mainly by unmarried girls making merry together, which they called ‘Cathar’ning’, usually a simple procession with a girl representing Catherine, dressed in white and collecting money, apples and beer. A favourite game involved jumping over a two-foot tall ‘Cattern Candle’ without putting out the flame, which meant bad luck:

“Kit be nimble, Kit be quick,

 Kit jump over the candlestick.”

In England it was a day for eating sweet Cattern Cakes flavoured with caraway, and in Somerset farmers had special Cattern Pie shaped like a wheel and filled with mince, honey and spices, and washed down with ‘hot pot’ made from warm beer, rum and eggs.

She was deleted from its official list of saints in 1969 as there was no evidence of her ever having really existed. It is probable that she was a Christianised version of an earlier goddess, represented as she is with a wheel, as were so many deities of the Sun, fate, time and the seasons. As such, I honour her today.

Cattern Day Ritual

I take this as an opportunity to celebrate the Goddess of the Wheel, keeping the light burning in the darkness. Place a symbol of a wheel on the altar (you can draw one if you don’t have anything suitable). Have ready a large, white candle – I use a 50 hour one, and light it each night from now till Yule, and some Cattern cakes.

Light the candle on your altar or hearth, and offer one of the cakes beside it with the words:

Goddess of the Wheel

Keep this light burning in the darkness

As a symbol of our hope

For we know the wheel will turn

And all things shall pass

And be remade anew

Cattern Cakes

½ cup (4 oz. / 125 g) butter

½ cup    (4 oz. /125 g) superfine (castor) sugar

1 ½ cups (8 oz./250 g) self-raising flour

1 large egg

½ level tsp ground mixed spice

4 level tbsp. ground almonds

1/3 cup (2 oz./60 g) sultanas

Cream the butter and sugar together. Gradually beat in the egg with a spoonful of the flour to prevent curdling. Sift in the rest of the flour and spice, add the almonds and currants. Mix well until the dough binds together. Knead lightly and roll out on a floured board to ¼ inch [1/2 cm] thick by 8 inches [20 cm] wide. Cut into ½ inch [1 cm] strips and twist round to make about thirty flattened spiral shapes – or Catherine Wheels.

© Anna Franklin, Hearth Witch’s Year, Llewellyn, 2020

Moon Phases for Magic

Particular moon phases are used for different rituals and magic. It has four phases – waxing, full, waning and dark.

Waxing (Maiden)

The waxing (growing) moon begins as a slender bow in the sky, gradually broadening out over the next two weeks.  Waxing moon energy concerns growth, increase and surging power. It is a time for beginnings, things that will grow to fullness in the future.  It is a good time for starting new projects, new relationships and for planting. Anything you do to strengthen your body, to fortify yourself, is much more effective that when the moon is waxing.

Full Moon (Mother)

The moon reaches its glorious, pregnant fullness, sailing majestically through the night sky and illuminating the night. The moon has reached its maximum strength and energy and is very powerful for magic. The full moon is used for positive magic – healing, blessing, love, friendship, success, scrying and other psychic work, initiation, consecrating magical tools, and charging potions and crystals under the moon.

Waning Moon (Crone)

The waning (shrinking) moon follows the three days of the full moon, and the powerful energy ebbs and starts to draw inwards, the right-hand side vanishing bit by bit until she becomes a silver sickle in the night sky. The magic of the waning moon is concerned with diminishing, with winding down, letting go of bad habits and negative thinking.

Dark Moon (Dark Mother)

For three days, the moon is swallowed by darkness. But just as all life generates in the darkness of the womb or seeds in the dark earth, during this dark phase, the moon somehow regenerates itself and begins life anew, growing to maturity in the light before ageing and dying and returning to the darkness where life begins again, month after month, season after season, year after year. The days of the dark moon are good for deep inner journeys and meditations, rather than the outward expression of the life-journey. Now is not the time to act, but to retreat, think and meditate. You may find that your dreams and intuitions are very powerful at this time.  

Cumin

(Cuminum cyminum syn. Cuminum odorum)

Planetary ruler: Mars

Element: fire

Magical virtues: love, faithfulness, fidelity

LORE:

Cumin is often confused with caraway (Carum carvi), and many European languages do not differentiate between the two, so it is frequently impossible to know whether cumin or caraway is referred to in older books. In Mediaeval Europe, it was said that cumin seed prevented lovers from straying – young women gave their sweethearts bread seasoned with cumin or wine with cumin and it was baked into the loaves of bread sent with soldiers off to war.  It often featured at weddings and was believed that a happy life awaited the bride and groom who carried cumin seed throughout the wedding ceremony.

MAGICAL USES:

The primary magical virtues of cumin are faithfulness and fidelity. Cumin seed can be baked into cakes and breads to keep a lover faithful, added to handfasting and wedding food and wine, or pop a few seeds in your lover’s pocket.

CULINARY AND HOUSEHOLD USES:

In Greece and Rome, a dish of cumin seeds was placed on the table to be used much as pepper is today. Cumin is used as a flavouring agent in cheeses, pickles, sausages, soups, stews, curries, chilli powders, stuffing, rice and bean dishes, biscuits, cakes and liqueurs.

COSMETIC USES:

Cumin is wonderful for the skin, a rich source of vitamin E which helps the skin repair itself and fight the free radical damage that cause wrinkles, sagging and age spots. Use the freshly ground seeds mixed with honey as a naturally antibacterial and lightly exfoliating to scrub.

HOME REMEDIES:

Theantispasmodic activity of cumin helps with minor digestive problems. The aroma activates the salivary glands while its thymol stimulates bile secretion, so it improves digestion. As an expectorant, cumin is useful for coughs and colds. 

CAUTION:

Cumin is considered safe in food amounts and non-toxic in moderate doses. Allergic reactions to the herb can occur in people who are allergic to other plants in the Apiaceae family.  To be on the safe side, it should not be used in medicinal doses during pregnancy or breastfeeding. It should be avoided by those suffering from oestrogen receptor positive tumours.

© Anna Franklin, 2022

Spells

Magic is the essence of being a witch, and spells are a part of this magic. I suspect the ‘spells’ are the first thing a beginner flicks to in a book, thinking that here are all the answers they need, and they needn’t bother with the rest. Because all you have to do is mix a few ingredients, maybe sprinkle some glitter on it and that’s it – magic achieved, right? Wrong! 

The physical part of the magic – the herbs, candles, stones etc. you might use – provide the focus and anchor of the spell, but the real magic comes with the intent, preparation, visualisation and charging, and without these, the candles, herbs and jars are just a collection of objects.

Do spells they work? In the experience of most witches, the answer is yes, they do, as long as they are carefully prepared and performed, with a clear intent and properly charged to nudge the flow of energies in the desired direction. When they don’t, it may be because one of these things is neglected or misjudged, or because the magic tries to push too far against the natural flow.

ETHICS

The funny thing about magic is that it always seems that you are given what you need, not what you may think you want. If you perform a spell to win the lottery, for example, it won’t work. But if you are desperate for a little money to pay your rent and have tried every honest means of getting it, a money spell may turn up a few lost banknotes in a pocket or down the back of the sofa, or perhaps an unexpected gift from a distant aunt.  One example of the justified use of magic occurred when my friends Phil and Sara lost the house they had been renting because the owner decided to rent it out as a summer let for a vastly increased sum. They were in danger of becoming homeless, and with two young children this was a serious business. Consequently, we cast a spell to ask for help in getting them somewhere to live, with the promise that it would become a House of the Goddess and a place of healing and worship. Sure enough, a beautiful cottage soon became available. It was several hundred years old, with oak beams and a wonderful atmosphere. It even had a niche in the wall that was perfect for holding the altar. It was a very special place to gather for rituals and to feast in afterwards. When Phil and Sara left it, it went to another witch.

WHEN SPELLS GO WRONG

Spells can go wrong. Rarely a week goes by when I don’t get a message from someone suffering from the effects of a misjudged spell or being afraid of what they have set in motion. My friend Pamela Mitchell says “I am a specialist ward and charm maker, the two most asked for items from newbies are one – something to attract money/ power, or two, something to get revenge for whatever reason! I point to items to help get a way to earn money and protective items against harmful vibes. I even had to explain to someone that calling on Nemesis to demand “justice” would put them in the firing line to be checked out for their misdeeds! Dangerous territory indeed.” [1]

When you cast a spell, you invoke a very particular energy (healing, love, abundance etc.), and put yourself in direct contact with that energy. This is why cursing and hexing can prove dangerous to the caster, as well as the recipient. All actions have consequences for good or ill, and magical acts are not exempt.

Magic is energy, and energy is never destroyed. It does not last a few days or weeks then fizzle out. It reverberates outwards, like ripples moving out from a stone thrown into a pond. Magic has consequences that continue to reverberate for a very, very long time. There is no time limit on a spell unless you put one on. No spell should have an ending that includes the word forever, or any similar expression. In magic forever means exactly that.  Imagine doing a love spell that binds you forever to a lover you really like – and then you go off him. Getting him out of your hair could prove extremely difficult. He could pester you for life. Both of you would be unhappy. You could then find he pops up in your next life and the one after that. You did say forever! 

FORMULATING A SPELL – THE FIVE ESSENTIALS

Spells do not have to be complicated or involve many exotic ingredients. In fact, the more complicated it is, the more things there are to go wrong. You can use the ingredients you find in your immediate environment, and these herbs, stones, feathers, shells etc. will be far more powerful in your spells than something you have bought off a shelf, because they resonate with what is close to you, and you will have sought them and chosen them with care and intent.

  1. Intent

Magic is never performed for its own sake, but always has a very specific, closely defined purpose to change something. You have to be very clear what the intention of the spell/ritual is and express it unambiguously. Anything open to misinterpretation will be misinterpreted; magic, like water, always seeks the easiest course to the sea.

Spells alter things so never cast a spell to keep something the same. For example, if you have a boyfriend that loves you, don’t cast a spell to keep him. The spell will alter the flow of energies and disrupt the relationship.

When preparing to cast a spell, you need to think very carefully about what the intention of it is and how you want it to manifest. For example, if it is a spell of healing, you want the recipient to be whole and well, and everything works towards this in a positive way. You never bring the negative aspects into the spell, what you don’t want, as the spell would amplify those things, so you would never say ‘may auntie Joan be free from cancer’ as you are bringing the energy of cancer into the spell and magnifying it. You might say ‘may auntie Joan be whole and well’.

An essential part of the preparation is the cultivation of a positive state of mind; you must believe that you can and will succeed. Your state of mind when working the magic affects the energy it puts out; if you go into it in a negative, confused or angry state of mind, the magic magnifies these and reflects them back to you.

  • Preparation

This is about choosing the right time to perform the spell (the right day or phase of the moon) and getting everything ready. Choosing the physical ingredients (herbs, cords, crystals etc.) which form the anchor of the spell and keep it present and manifesting. Each ingredient must be chosen for its inherent properties and magical correspondences to reinforce the intent and energy of the spell as much as possible. For a healing spell, for example, you would choose herbs, symbols and colours of healing and might decide to call upon gods of healing from your tradition. Conversely, if you use a lot of things with unsuitable energies, they can diffuse the spell before it has even started or send it completely awry, so it is worth while preparing your ingredients carefully.

After this you might compose a verse to chant while you mix and empower your spell. It doesn’t have to rhyme though this is traditional and helps you realise you are speaking words that are not from the everyday world. These words help to focus the magic.

  • Visualisation

As each ingredient is assembled in the spell (adding ingredients to a pouch or jar, for example), the intent is kept in mind, the outcome you want. With our healing spell, you may say as you add each ingredient, ‘may auntie Joan be whole and well’, and visualise her shining with wellbeing. You should not allow your mind to wander to other things, particularly the illness, as these will also then become part of the spell.

  • Charging

This is the part of the spell that activates all the magic, holds it together and starts it manifesting in the world. It is done by appealing to the higher forces – the Gods – for help, imbuing the physical anchor of the spell with what you desire as hard as you can, and speaking the words of the spell, all the time concentrating on the desired outcome. Remember that the Gods and spirits are not your servants and may not be interested in your whims. Wait until you are properly acquainted with any deity before you start appealing to them – it is only polite after all.

  • Afterwards

Then you step away and leave it to work. When a ritual or spell does not seem to have immediate effects, the temptation is to perform another one. The reality is that it may take months or longer for the results of a spell to work itself to you. If you keep working more spells for the same thing, you are necessarily putting out different energies each time and the energies become conflicting and chaotic. If the first spell is working the second spell will often send it off course, because you have altered the instruction by word or deed. Add a third to that and who knows what will happen. Resist any temptation to meddle with it and repeat it. This would be disastrous. You must perform magic for that purpose only once. It may take some time, don’t expect immediate results, and unless you have been very specific, it may not happen in the way you want it to.

Wait until the spell has worked, then you can dismantle the object and bury any herbs etc. so that they may return to Mother Earth. Any crystals can be cleansed and re-used.

© Anna Franklin


[1] Pamela Mitchell, pers comm.

The Crone Goddess

This is the death time of the year, when Mother Nature sleeps and the world falls silent, and we enter 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, and Saelde amongst numerous others.

In Scotland she is the Cailleach Bheur(‘The Blue Hag’), whose face is blue with cold, her 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 she is Germany Frau Holda (or Frau Holle) who makes it snow when she shakes her feather pillows out.  In Leicestershire, my home county, she is Black Annis, the blue-faced hag who haunts the Dane Hills, dealing death.

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, so it is not surprising that the Hag of Winter is a death goddess and a collector of souls. 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 are the túnridur, the‘hag riders’, or the gandreid ‘witch ride’. In Norway, the goddess Reisarova leads the aaskereida (‘lightning and thunder’), a spectral host who rode black horses with eyes like embers, while in Germany the Furious Host rode is led by Frau Holle, Percht or Berchta (‘Shining’).  Slovenians call the goddess leading the hosts 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 Maiden begins it, the Mother bears it, and the Harvest Queen reaps it, the fertility of the next year’s harvest is fundamentally the Crone’s gift – the sleeping seeds in the underworld are in her care.

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 – 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 a secret that only the wise may know.


[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

Halloween – the historical basis

Today we usually call the last day of October ‘Halloween’, a name that comes from the Roman Catholic Church’s Feast of All Saints’ Day, celebrated on 1 November but beginning at vespers on the evening of 31 October – hence ‘All Hallows Eve’ – and then extending into All Soul’s Day on 2 November, making a three day feast of All Hallows.

The Church of Rome probably instituted the festival to displace the Pagan Roman Feast of the Lemures, during which the dark and formless spirits of the angry dead not given proper burial were propitiated. St. Augustine described them as evil and restless manes that tormented and terrified the living. [1] It was a three day festival in May. The Church supplanted this with a feast of the Christian martyrs, celebrated since the mid-fourth century CE on 13 May. The Christian feast was moved to its current November date by Pope Gregory III (731–741), [2] though the Eastern Orthodox Church of the Byzantine Tradition continues to commemorate All Saints in the spring, on the first Sunday after Pentecost. In 1890 the folklorist Sir James Frazer suggested that the feast was moved to the beginning of November to replace the festival of Samhain in the public mind in Celtic countries, so Samhain must have been a feast of the dead. [3] However, the church in Germany was celebrating All Saints Day on 1 November when the church in Ireland was still celebrating it on 20 April, so this is unlikely. [4]  The Irish Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee (eighth or ninth century) contains a note stating that All Martyrs was on 17 April and of All Saints of Europe on 20 April. [5]

However, this was the time from which northern Europeans reckoned that autumn tipped into winter, with all that this implied.  Henceforth comes a time of gloom, bleakness and cold. It was widely believed that the powers of increase and the good spirits retire from the land now, taking its goodness with them, which is why crops and wild fruit picked after a certain date were said to be cursed or unfit to eat. The powers of darkness, blight and bane start to emerge from the underworld to wreak havoc. In Ireland, Halloween is often called Phooka Night and after this time the Phooka fairy renders all the crops not collected unfit to eat and spoils the blackberries, while Welsh gryphons blight any crops left in the field after Halloween. [6] Wicked fairies, such as the Scottish Unseelie Court, become very active, along with the Cailleachs, hag fairies and winter witches.  This is a process that escalates throughout November and December, until the rebirth of the Sun/son at Yule/Christmas starts to send them back to the underworld.

Thus the season of danger, chaos and the world turned upside down begins. John Stow, in 1603, wrote: “These Lords beginning their rule on Alhollon Eve [Halloween], continued the same till the morrow after the Feast of the Purification, commonly called Candlemas day: In all which space there were fine and subtle disguising, Maskes and Mummeries…” [7] In the reign of Charles I. the young gentlemen of the Middle Temple (trainee lawyers) considered All Hallow Tide as the beginning of the Christmas season.[8]  Children celebrated it as Mischief Night, playing pranks such as knocking on doors and running away, hiding objects left outside, or tying door latches. [9] [10] Often they wore masks or were otherwise disguised to avoid being recognised. [11]

The three-day Christian Feast of All Hallows, in combination with existing local folklore, gave rise to a variety of interesting customs, likely a curious intermingling of Christian and Pagan belief. It was widely supposed that the dead could return at Hallowmas [12] and the three days of All Hallows were certainly regarded as a time of especial supernatural activity when ghosts, spirits and witches were abroad, and particular precautions had to be taken against them. Candles were lit to ward them off and if the candle continued to burn after midnight, its possessor would be immune from the attentions of witches during the coming year. [13]  Prayers were said to shorten the time souls might be spending in Purgatory and the church bells were rung – either to comfort the dead or ward them off, depending on which source you read. Bonfires were built in churchyards to ward off spirits, according to some [14] or to light the souls out of purgatory according to others. [15] Visits to the tombs of dead relatives were made, sometimes laying flowers or pouring holy water or milk on the graves.  [16] In many places feasts were laid out for the dead, while in others, cakes and bread were baked and distributed to the poor in return for their prayers on behalf of a soul in purgatory. [17] ‘Soulers’ went from door to door in England, soliciting money or food in return for a prayer for the dead. The cakes they were given were called ‘soul cakes’ for as one rhyme had it: “A soul cake, a soul cake/have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake.[18]

As an uncanny period it was a time for divination and taking omens, and these were many and varied, some in fun, and some in deadly earnest.  In England, for example, Halloween was occasionally called ‘Nut Crack Night’ from the custom of taken omens from the cracking of nuts in the hearth fire. For instance, you might find out whether your sweetheart would be true by naming two nuts and seeing whether they burned together or jumped apart, or by naming the nuts for two possible partners and seeing how they burned. [19] [20] More gloomily, in Scotland, a blindfolded seeker might divine what the future had in store by reaching towards three dishes – meal for prosperity, earth for death and a net for tangled fortunes – and the first he or she touched would be their lot. [21] To ascertain who would live for another year, each person in the family filled a thimble with salt, and emptied it out in a little mound on a plate. If any heap were found fallen over by morning, the person it represented was destined to die within a year. In Scotland and on the Isle of Man, the ashes of the hearth would be smoothed over, and the next morning inspected for marks and prints, and fates deduced from them. [22]

As part of the festival of All Hallows, people, mainly children, in England went out ‘souling’ going from door to door or travelling around the local farms, singing songs in return for apples, soul cakes or ale. The practice started in the middle ages when the cakes were offered in return for prayers for those souls suffering in purgatory, but after the Protestant Reformation, which did away with the notion of purgatory, the custom became one of just giving out the cakes as gifts. [23] Sometimes, people would keep the cakes for good luck. The recipes for the cakes varied, sometimes they were made of oats, some contained currants and spices, and in some areas it was traditional to consume seed cakes during All Hallows which coincided with the end of winter wheat-seed sowing. [24] Parkin, a ginger cake, was popular in the north of England, while in Lancashire Harcake was offered to visitors on the day.[25]

© Anna Franklin, extract from The Hearth Witch’s Year, Llewellyn, 2020


[1] St. Augustine, The City of God, 11.

[2] All Saints Day,” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd edition, ed. E. A. Livingstone, Oxford University Press, 1997

[3] James Frazer, The Golden Bough, (1890), Macmillan Press Ltd, London, 1976

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

[5] http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/G200001/

[6] Anna Franklin, The illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies, Paper Tiger, London, 2004

[7] John Stow, Survey of London, 1603, Adamant Media Corporation, 2001

[8] Clement A. Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, 1912, www.sacred-texts.com, accessed 11.9.19

[9] Brian Day, A Chronicle of Folk Customs, Hamlyn, London, 1998

[10] In some areas, this took place on the night before Halloween, or the night before Bonfire Night.

[11] Brian Day, Chronicle of Celtic Folk Customs, Hamlyn, London, 2000

[12] Nicholas Rogers, Halloween, From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002

[13] T.F.Thistleton Dyer, British Popular Customs, Past and Present, G. Bell, London, 1876

[14] Nicholas Rogers, Halloween, From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002

[15] http://www.wyrdwords.vispa.com/halloween/history/ accessed 4.10.19

[16] Nicholas Rogers, Halloween, From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002

[17] David Cressey, Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England, Oxford University Press, New York, 1997

[18] Georgina Frederica Jackson, Shropshire Folk-lore: A Sheaf of Gleanings, Trübner & Company, 1883

[19] Sharpe’s London Magazine of Entertainment and Instruction for General Reading. Volume: v.27, 1865

[20] Mary E. Blain, Games for Hallow-e’en, (1912), Historical Books Limited, 2016

[21] Ruth Edna Kelley, The Book of Hallowe’en, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co., Boston, 1919

[22] Ruth Edna Kelley, The Book of Hallowe’en, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co., Boston, 1919

[23] Brian Day, A Chronicle of Folk Customs, Hamlyn, London, 1998

[24] J. Brand, Popular Antiquities Volume 1, F.C. And J. Rivington and Others, London, 1813

[25] Brian Day, A Chronicle of Folk Customs, Hamlyn, London, 1998

Punkie Night

A Somerset tradition called Punky Night still takes place on the last Thursday in October in Hinton St George. According to a local legend, all the men of Hinton St George went off to Chisleborough Fair, but to get home they had to cross a dangerous ford in the dark. The women decided to go out and meet them and made lanterns from mangle wurzles (large root vegetables) hollowed out and fitted with candles. This seems to be a story to explain the tradition of Punkie Night, when children beg for candles to put inside carved mangles or turnips called ‘punkies’, though it seems to have more to do with Halloween (see below). The children go out in groups and march through the streets, their lanterns dangling on strings, singing traditional punkie songs:

It’s Punkie Night tonight; it’s Punkie Night tonight,

Give us a candle, give us a light,

If you don’t, you’ll get a fright

It’s Punkie Night tonight; it’s Punkie Night tonight,

Adam and Eve would never believe it, it’s Punkie Night tonight. A punkie king and queen lead the proceedings, chosen for their lantern designs, which usually consist of flowers and animals rather than the more recent Halloween spooky offerings.

Kwan Yin

Never will I seek nor receive private, individual salvation;

 Never will I enter into final peace alone; but forever and everywhere,

Will I live and strive for the redemption of every creature

Kwan Yin’s Pledge

Kwan Yin is the best loved Chinese goddess, known throughout Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Burma, Thailand and other countries. She is also known as Kuan Yin, Quan’Am (Vietnam), Kannon (Japan), and Kanin (Bali). It is said that every Chinese household worships Kuan Yin. She is claimed as a patron deity by both the Taoists and the Buddhists and worshipped especially by women. The name Kwan Yin means She Who Hears the Cries and Comes. She is the embodiment of compassionate loving kindness and mercy, who responds to everyone who calls her name in their suffering, but especially women who are trying to conceive.

With the sweet drops she sprinkles from her vase, she relieves the suffering of beings everywhere, blessing them with physical and spiritual peace. Her right hand often points downward, with the palm facing outward, the posture of granting a wish. Her body and garments are both of brilliant, translucent white light. Her feet rest upon a beautiful red lotus flower above a vast ocean. The lotus is a Chinese emblem of summer and fruitfulness, and a Buddhism symbol of purity since it grows out of the mud but is not soiled by it.

In legend, there was a king with three daughters. The youngest was Kwan Yin who exhibited a great compassion for all living things. This meant nothing to her father who planned to marry her off to some rich man in the hope of attaining an heir in the form of a grandson. However, Kwan Yin refused and pleaded with her father to allow her to enter a Buddhist nunnery. He agreed, but grudgingly, determined to undermine her resolve by asking the convent to give her the meanest and most degrading tasks. However, she bore these without complaint, and her determination only grew stronger. This moved her father to such rage that he ordered her to be executed. But when the executioner struck Kwan Yin with his sword, it broke into a thousand pieces. Her father ordered her to be strangled, and it was thus that she met her death. When she reached the underworld, her glorious light lit its gloominess, and changed it to a paradise. King Yama, the ruler of the underworld, didn’t like her cheering up his realm, and returned her to life. She spent nine years on a small island living a holy life and healing the sick.

Then it so happened that her father was struck by a dreadful disease that could only be cured by the hand and eye of the “Never Angry One.” Kwan Yin, on hearing this, allowed her hand to be cut off and her eye gouged out. Reduced to an ointment, these parts immediately effected a cure. When the king discovered what she had done for him, he was repentant.

In Buddhist tradition, Kwan Yin was created the Celestial Bodhisattva of Compassion.

She refuses to enter heaven until all suffering on earth ends. She brings comfort and consolation to the sick and the grieving, offering relief from pain. She offers shelter to the abused and frightened, and forgiveness and redemption for the sinner.

Her lesson is that our hearts must always be open to love and compassion, that we must treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves. We must show tender kindness to all living creatures and do our best to relieve suffering wherever we find it. Kwan Yin offers a peaceful, quiet place within the heart where the spirit finds refuge, and where all is love.

© Anna Franklin