Souling

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. [1] 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. [2] Parkin, a ginger cake, was popular in the north of England, while in Lancashire Harcake was offered to visitors on the day.[3]

Harcake

500 g fine oatmeal

60 g butter, softened

350 ml golden syrup (corn syrup)

15 g ground ginger

1 egg, beaten

200 ml Guinness

Pre-heat the oven to 190 C. Prepare a 10 x 8-inch baking tin by lining it with baking parchment. In a mixing bowl, rub the butter into the oatmeal. Add the ground ginger and syrup. Stir together, gradually add the beaten egg and then the brown ale. Pour into the tin and bake at 190 C for around 90 minutes, though this will depend on your oven, so keep checking. Keep checking and cover the top with foil if it is browning too much. Leave to cool and turn out before cutting into squares.


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

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

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

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. [1]


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

Halloween

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]

(We’ll look at Samhain [November 1] next week)

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


[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-loreA 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

Fairy Doctors

According to Lady Wilde’s book of 1887, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, if a country person suddenly became ill or encountered misfortune, they were suspected of coming under the malign influence of fairies, and a fairy doctor had to be called in at once.  

The first thing he or she had to do was to determine the cause of the problem, which could be one of three things – the fairy-stroke, the fairy-wind, or the evil eye. Someone who is fairy-struck suffers from an unknown fatigue or illness, and seem to be fading from our world, “for they are wanted in fairy-land as brides for some chief or prince, and so they pine away without visible cause till they die.” A fairy blast or fairy stroke is described as the evil power of the wind, and when the fairy strikes anyone a tumour rises, or they become paralysed. The evil eye is a malevolent look that causes injury or misfortune for the person it is directed at, and that could be caused by either fairies or witches.

Lady Wilde described the process by which the fairy doctor would determine which of these three things was the cause of the problem.

“The doctor always seems as if expecting you, and had full knowledge of your coming. He bids you be seated, and after looking fixedly on your face for some moments, his proceedings begin. He takes three rods of witch hazel, each three inches long, and marks them separately, ‘For the Stroke,’ ‘For the Wind,’ ‘For the Evil Eye.’

He then takes off his coat, shoes, and stockings; rolls up his shirt sleeves, and stands with his face to the sun in earnest prayer. After prayer he takes a dish of pure water and sets it by the fire, then kneeling down, he puts the three hazel reds he had marked into the fire, and leaves them there till they are burned black as charcoal. All the time his prayers are unceasing; and when the sticks are burned, he rises, and again faces the sun in silent prayer, standing with his eyes uplifted and hands crossed After this he draws a circle on the floor with the end of one of the burned sticks, within which circle he stands, the dish of pure water beside him. Into this he flings the three hazel rods, and watches the result earnestly. The moment one sinks he addresses a prayer to the sun, and taking the rod out of the water he declares by what agency the patient is afflicted. Then he grinds the rod to powder, puts it in a bottle which he fills up with water from the dish, and utters an incantation or prayer over it, in a low voice, with clasped hands held over the bottle…The potion is then given to be carried home, and drunk that night at midnight in silence and alone. Great care must be taken that the bottle never touches the ground and the person carrying it must speak no word, and never look round till home is reached. The other two sticks he buries in the earth in some place unseen and unknown.”

When things went wrong, or relationships with the fairies broke down completely, it was necessary to call in an expert: the wise woman, cunning man or fairy doctor. These were people with special gifts, who were often said to have gained their knowledge from the fairies themselves. Evidence of the continuity of these beliefs in Europe, and accounts of many such practitioners, is readily traceable from the Dark Ages onwards, through till the 1960s and beyond.

Though some were male, fairy doctors were generally old women who specialised in curing those ills afflicting humans and animals caused by fairy tricks and curses.  Each fairy doctor would have his or her own remedies, which were usually kept secret. They might include the use of incantations, certain herbal salves and potions or spells involving iron, silver or the bible. One fairy doctor would tear pages from the bible and roll them into pellets to feed to the victim; another would make them drink water from a silver platter.

The secret knowledge of a fairy doctor would be passed from generation to generation. Some thought that the fairies themselves imparted the knowledge. Though the term ‘fairy doctor’ is peculiar to Ireland, similar figures are found all over the world in the guise of witches, wise women, shamans and cunning men.

The Witch’s Garden

Witches garden a little differently; the garden is sacred space and gardening is magic at its rawest and most immediate.

We remember that our gardens don’t really belong to us, that we are only looking after them for the plants and creatures that live there, for the spirits that were there before we came and will be there long after we have gone. No matter how small the garden is, we are caretakers of the land and have a duty to it.

The garden is full of the power of the invisible. We recognise the spirits inherent in the garden and try to work in co-operation with them. We honour them and make offerings to them, season by season.

We recognise that plants have spirit. For the Pagan everything possesses spirit, a living force within it. When working with plant allies, the spirit of the plant is more important than any ‘active ingredient’. Each plant is a living teacher and must be approached as an individual, which may (or may not) become your ally. The plants you grow will be much more powerful for your magical and healing practice than any you buy. It is a knowledge that cannot be bought, and which cannot be learned from books, but only by doing. 

We look on the garden as belonging as much to the wildlife and it does to us. We see the creatures that visit as make their homes there as garden familiars. They can also aid us in our work, if we treat them properly, and they may be agents of the spirit world to us.

The garden has its own soul, the anima mundi or ‘soul of place’.

Everything we do in the garden is done with magical intent. Seeds are with intent, care for them with love, and open yourself to communicating with their spirits. This is the meeting of human and plant spirit, and it should benefit both.

Traditionally the wise woman’s garden contained plants for food, herbs for the kitchen and for healing, dye plants, plants to delight the senses with beautiful colours and perfumes, plants to attract insects and feed familiars, plants to contact the spirits, plants for magic, divination and spells, and trees like rowan and holly for protection. However, what you grow is entirely up to you. You might like to grow beautiful flowers, good things to eat, focus on herbs for healing, plants for vegetable dyes, or plants to help you with your magic. What you can grow will depend on several things – where you live and what your climate is, what your soil is like, what you want your plants for, and how much space you have. 

Finally, we know that the witch’s first duty is to maintain balance. In the garden, this means balancing the needs of all that lives there and maintaining the land and its ecosystem in harmony.

HOW YOUR GARDEN BENEFITS THE ENVIRONMENT

If you have been gardening for a couple of decades or more, you will have noticed that the climate is changing. Shifting weather patterns can bring increased rain or increasing levels of drought, higher or lower temperatures for the season. We may not be able to grow the things we are used to. Soon, many native plants may no longer be able to survive in their historic range, and the wildlife they support will be decimated.  However, no matter how small your garden is, it can have a big impact on the local environment and in protecting wildlife. No matter how big or small, your garden:

Improves Air Quality

Plants take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through their leaves and expel oxygen, as well as helping to remove toxins from the air. Your plants will help the local environment.

De-toxifies the Ground

Plants also absorb through their roots, including chemicals and heavy metals in the soil and groundwater, gradually converting it into healthier ground. Naturally, this is not good for the particular plant, but a sick plant can alert you to soil problems.

Carbon Capture

Trees can absorb and store carbon pollution from the atmosphere. If every one of America’s 85 million gardening households planted just one tree in their backyard those trees would absorb more than 2 million tons of CO2 each year. [1]

Natural Shade

Shade trees planted near your home can also reduce energy used for cooling in the summer.

Reduces Your Carbon Footprint

Growing some of your own food, this will reduce your carbon footprint – fewer trips to the shops, no food-miles, less waste.

Prevents Soils Erosion

Plant roots bind soils together, making them less likely to wash away.  

Replenishes Nutrients in the Soil

Topsoil is created by organic materials, such as leaves, that fall from plants. Decaying organic material provides nutrients, and some plants fix these into the ground.  

Helps to Reduce Noise Pollution

Vegetation absorbs sound, so hedges, trees and shrubbery reduce noise pollution.

Helps Wildlife

The more plants and trees you have in the garden, the more you will be encouraging the local wildlife, especially if you include some native plants. Birds, insects and other animals need them to survive. If you live in a built-up area, providing spaces for insects, birds and small mammals is important.

MORE YOUR GARDEN CAN DO FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

While almost every garden helps the environment, you can do even more:

Plant Native Species

Including native plants in your garden help to maintain important pollinator connections and ensure food sources for wildlife. You can plant shrubs with berries for birds, plus bee and butterfly friendly plants.

Rewild Part of Your Garden

This means giving part of your garden back to nature, and letting nature do its thing – including letting the native ‘weeds’ (I call them wildflowers) grow, which provide food for the local insects.  Remove any non-native plants from it. Increasingly, over time, it will become a complex ecosystem. 

If you can’t do this, avoid large paved areas and artificial grass.

Create a Wildlife Pond

A garden pond, whether large or small, can be a haven for wildlife, and the wildlife will find it pretty quickly. It is vital habitat for wetland creatures such as frogs and dragonflies, and great for many species of insects, birds and mammals. Remember to make one side shallow, so that frogs and small mammals can climb out.  It is best to have some shade over part of the pond to reduce algae growth, but at part should be in full sun. Fill it with rainwater if you can, but if tap water must be used, be sure to let it naturalise for at least a week before adding any forms of life, including plants.

Build Insect Hotels

Insects pollinate your plants, aerate the soil and provide food for birds. The beneficial insects in your garden need somewhere to hibernate for the winter, so why not make them their own five-star bug hotel? It is best to do this in the early autumn, when there is plenty of suitable material available, such as dry leaves, twigs, hollow stems, dead grass, pinecones and bits of bark, and it will give the insects time to settle into their new home before the cold comes.  There are some great ideas online for making bug hotels, and kids will love to get involved. Otherwise, you can simply make a log pile in a shady area for centipedes, woodlice and beetles or a pile of pinecones and leaves is good for ladybirds and lacewings. 

Have Holes in Your Boundary Walls

It is important for wildlife to be able to move around from one place to another. A hedgehog, for example, can travel up to a mile in a single night, looking for food. One of the reasons for declining populations is the high, solid fences that some people have around their gardens. You can help by putting small holes in the bottom of your fences – as long as your neighbour agrees.

Reconsider Your Garden Lighting

Blue and white toned lighting often used in gardens is one of the major factors in biodiversity collapse. Leave areas of your garden in darkness, and don’t use your lights all the time. You can get red-tone lights that don’t affect insects as much. Try to use energy efficient products in your garden. Replace energy hungry outdoor bulbs with LEDs, or better still, use solar lighting. 

Reduce the Use of Power Tools

Avoid using power tools, such as leaf blowers and lawnmowers, as much as you can. Using a gasoline-powered mower for an hour pollutes 10 to 12 times more than the average car. [2] If you can, switch to hand tools and push-lawnmowers. The air from leaf blowers kills small creatures, and I would urge you not to use them at all.

Install a Rain Barrel

Install a rain barrel to collect free rainwater, and your plants will like this much better than tap water. You can prevent water loss from your plants by mulching around them.

Make a Compost Heap

Building a compost heap (or using a purchased compost bin) is a wonderful way to reduce your impact on the environment and create a great free source of nutrients for your garden. You can add virtually all food waste and organic matter to your compost bin – fruit and vegetable peelings, leftovers, twigs, leaves, non-seeding weeds, eggshells, egg boxes, cardboard, tea bags (if they don’t contain plastic), coffee grounds and even your old wool jumpers.  I also add the sawdust bedding and poo cleaned out from my chickens to mine. You will need to add something to ‘activate’ your compost (i.e. get everything working) and for this you will need to add soft greens, manures or urine (yes, you can use your own, though male urine is said to work better than female).

Don’t Rake Your Leaves

While you might need to remove slippery leaves from paths, in the rest of the garden fallen leaves provide a habitat for many over-wintering wild creatures. Some beneficial insects lay their eggs in leaf litter, and by raking up the leaves you will be curtailing their life cycle.  If you do rake them up, put them on the compost heap, or bag them and save them to use as mulch in the spring.  Lay a mulch of fallen leaves around plants (about 3 inches deep) and allow it to rot down into the soil. The earthworms will love it, and you will be adding nutrients and organic matter into the soil. Leaf mulch maintains soil moisture and soil temperature, prevents weeds, soil erosion and compaction.

Ditch the Chemicals

A few decades ago, chemicals were promoted as an easy technical solution to all cultivation problems – synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and weedkillers became commonplace not only on farms, but also in domestic gardens. We now know that these products are having a disastrous effect on ecosystems, wildlife and human health. [3] 

Pesticides from treated plants and soil reach surface water through runoff. More than 90% of water and fish samples from all streams in the US contained one or more pesticides,  [4] and wild salmon are swimming around with dozens of synthetic chemicals in their systems.[5] In the UK half of rivers and freshwaters exceed chronic pollution limits and 88% of samples showed pesticide contamination. [6] We are now seeing the wholesale pollution of most of our streams, rivers, ponds and coastal areas from agri chemicals.

Chemical fertilisers are equally problematic. When the excess nutrients run off into our waterways, they can cause algae blooms that are sometimes big enough to make waterways impassable. When the algae die, they sink to the bottom and decompose in a process that removes oxygen from the water. Fish and other aquatic species can’t survive in these ‘dead zones’. 

It’s time to ditch the chemicals and look for natural solutions.

© Anna Franklin, 2021


[1] https://www.nwf.org/Our-Work/Environmental-Threats/Climate-Change/Greenhouse-Gases/Gardening-for-Climate-Change, accessed 13.10.21

[2] https://washingtoncitypaper.com/article/222039/straight-dope-how-much-pollution-do-gasoline-powered-lawn-mowers/

[3] https://policy.friendsoftheearth.uk/opinion/effects-pesticides-our-wildlife, accessed 6.10.21

[4] Aktar MW, Sengupta D, Chowdhury A. Impact of pesticides use in agriculture: their benefits and hazards. Interdiscip Toxicol. 2009;2(1):1-12. doi:10.2478/v10102-009-0001-7

[5] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-fertilizers-harm-earth/ accessed 6.10.21

[6] https://policy.friendsoftheearth.uk/opinion/effects-pesticides-our-wildlife, accessed 6.10.21

Logs to Burn!

As the colder weather comes, most of my work moves indoors, and the hearth fire becomes all the more important. Our wood burning stove powers the central heating for the whole house in winter, and getting enough fuel to keep it going is a year-long quest. However, not all wood is equal, and some is hardly worth the effort of storing and burning, as the old rhyme tells us:

Logs to burn! Logs to burn!

Logs to save the coal a turn!

Here’s a word to make you wise

When you hear the woodman’s cries.

Beechwood fires burn bright and clear,

Hornbeam blazes too,

If the logs are kept a year

To season through and through.

Oak logs will warm you well,

That are old and dry

Logs of pine will sweetly smell

But the sparks will fly

Birch logs will burn too fast

Alder scarce at all,

Chestnut logs are good to last

If cut in the fall.

Holly logs will burn like wax

You may burn them green,

Elm logs like to smouldering flax

No flame to be seen.

Beech logs for the winter time

Yew logs as well,

Green elder logs it is a crime

For any man to sell.

Pear logs and apple logs

They will scent your room,

Cherry logs across the dogs

Smell like flower of broom.

Ash logs, smooth and grey

Burn them green or old,

Buy up all that come your way

They’re worth their weight in gold! [1]

Pine Cone Firelighters

I collect fallen pine cones in the park to make into firelighters. Dipped in melted wax, they are excellent for starting the fire.


[1] Attributed to Honor Goodhart, printed in Punch, 27 October, 1920.

Initiation & the Ego

Initiation is a process of uncreation.

Our nature is divine, and we are always connected to the divine. The soul knows it is the light of pure consciousness and can be no other. It is blissful, needing nothing to be happy, its essence is pure love, it is connected to everything else, it is eternally existent, and cannot be created or destroyed. But why don’t we always experience the spiritual, blissful part of ourselves, the part of us that is spirit?

In the physical realm we forget our real nature. We experience all the opposites of what we truly are in essence – fear, unhappiness, suffering and the illusion of separateness. We identify with our thoughts and emotions. We identify ourselves as separate from the divine, and from everything else.  In spiritual terms, this is called the ego-consciousness, the “I” ness that makes us feel separate. There is me, and there is the other (everything else).

To compensate for the loneliness and vulnerability this brings, we seek pleasures, status and fame and to make us feel good. We use people and situations to validate us and make us feel significant. The ego is created as a way to cope with separation and to navigate life. This is why the ego is concerned with our own safety and our own sense of self-importance. It tries to build up an identity for us, to tell us who we are so we can navigate the world.

In many respects, most people’s egos are built up for some kind of social approval. Even people in the counterculture such as Pagans and hippies usually have a group of people with whom they can identify with and get social approval for going against social norms. Social approval is a kind of success and reassurance to the ego.

The ego expresses itself in a belief that you need something “out there” to complete you. Most of our thoughts are about things we want, or resistance to things that are happening.

The ego is a grouping of personality traits and selected stories from your life. Maybe in a certain group of people you gained approval, and your ego thinks ‘this is part of my identity’. Maybe you were told you were bad or worthless as a child, and deep down this becomes part of the story you tell yourself about who you are. 

Emotional wounds from childhood often support the creation of the personality-self or ego that is preoccupied with getting attention, approval and safety. The ego is the part of us that gets jealous, possessive, anxious, judgmental, fearful and self-conscious. In reality, the ego wants to protect us, but it often manages to do so in unhealthy, painful and inauthentic ways.

The ego becomes a reference point from which you relate to the world around you, no matter how wrong and twisted its messages are.

Most people are unconscious of their egos. They simply assume that they are the way they are, and they want the world to relate to them in ways that work within ways their own egos understand things.  The ego like a mask that you’ve always worn. You never explored what’s on your face or what you are presenting to the world. You simply took it for granted, and you kept adding things to this mask without knowing what you were adding to it. But the ego is a fiction created in the mind, by the mind.

When people embark on a spiritual path, they often assume this is another layer they can add to the ego-identity, another thing they can add to the ego-validation of who and what they are, another set of people they can gain approval from. We usually allow our egos to define what being on a spiritual path means, instead of our souls. The more we do this, the less we identify with the spirit within us.  That’s why being on the spiritual path includes times of such fierce purging of the old that it becomes almost unbearable.

Plato used the allegory of a cave in which prisoners are kept. These prisoners have been in the cave since their childhood, and each of them is held there in a peculiar manner. They are all chained so that their legs and necks are immobile, forced to look at a wall in front of them. Behind the prisoners is a fire and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, on which people can walk.

These people are puppeteers, and they are carrying objects, in the shape of human and animal figures, as well as everyday items. The prisoners could only see these flickering images on the wall, since they could not move their heads; and so, naturally enough, they presumed the images to be real, rather than just shadowy representations of what is actually real.

The images on the wall would be so real that the prisoners would assign prestige among each other to the one who could recall the most detail about the shapes, the order in which they appeared and which might typically be found together or in tandem. Of course, this was hollow praise since, in fact, the images were not real.

But what if one of the prisoners were to be freed and made to turn and look at the fire? The bright light would hurt his eyes, as accustomed as he was to the shadows, and even in turning back to the wall and its flickering images (which would only be natural), the prisoner couldn’t help but notice that they weren’t real at all, but only shadows of the real items on the walkway behind him.

If the prisoner was then taken from the cave and brought into the open, the disorientation would be even more severe; the light of the sun would be much more brilliant than the fire. But, as his eyes adjusted, the newly freed prisoner would be able to see beyond only shadows; he would see dimensions and reflections in the water (even of himself).

After learning of the reality of the world, the prisoner now sees how ‘pitiable’ his former colleagues in the cave really are. If he returned to the cave and re-joined them, he would take no pleasure in their accolades or praise for knowledge of the shadow-figures. For their own part, the prisoners would see him as deranged, not really knowing what reality is and would say of him that he left the cave and returned with corrupted eyes.

Spiritual awakening – or true initiation – is like a big bang that realigns everything inside your heart, body, mind, and soul. You are never the same again. It’s a brand-new universe, and you can’t go back, although a lot of people may try to.

In true spiritual awakening, the ego, constructed from personality traits, the desire for social approval and the stories you tell yourself about yourself, dissolves.  The universe is not what you thought it was. To the unconscious ego, this looks like the end of the world, and it fights back. 

This is the point where many people try to run back into the cave. They may immediately run away from spiritual concerns or go back to searching and striving for something else, something easier, something that doesn’t challenge their carefully constructed ego-identity.

Even after the dawning of spiritual awakening, many people are still really committed to their old ego habits and patterns. It doesn’t really matter what the story is – victim, perpetrator, comedian, leader, drama queen, mother, father, mover, shaker, whoever. If you are attached to a certain idea of yourself, the process of awakening, of initiation, is very difficult.  Because the true you is not an idea.

The sacred destruction of the old self is part of making space for new growth. Without it, you will always be split. The ego foundation, on which we build our ideas of who and what we are, is full of lies. Many of the attachments, stories and emotions that are part of the ego will arise during the initiation process. The awakened self leaves no aspect of ourselves untouched and no stone unturned. Still, the ego may cling, frantically, to anything and everything. It will cling to spiritual teachers. It will cling to victim identities. It will cling to old relationships.

A spiritual awakening forces us to tear them down.

During an awakening, so much is shifting and changing that you feel like you don’t know who you are. You will try to hold on to the old ideas about who and what you are.When you have the humility to let go, you have come to a very profound space. 

After the Buddha had been enlightened, he was travelling through India teaching.  People could tell there was something different, something special about him. And so one day some people came up to him and asked “are you a god?”  And the Buddha replied “no.”  “Are you the reincarnation of a god?”  “No.”  “Are you a wizard or a magician?”  “No.”  “Are you a man?”  “No.”  “Well, then what are you?”  And the Buddha answered, “I am awake.”

Most people have a goal of an awakening (which we call true initiation) which allows them to keep the ‘I’ intact, thinking they will add qualities to the ego-clutter that already exists, without realising that in a true awakening, a true initiation, the ego, the me, is the dream we wake up from.  

© Anna Franklin, 2021

Horse Chestnut Salve

Horse chestnuts

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

Horse chestnut tincture (optional)

Beeswax

Double boiler

Small glass jars

Labels

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

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

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

Atonement

In October, as the world descends into the dark half of the year, Mother Earth draws her energy back into her womb to protect the sleeping seeds (and the dead) that lie within it, deep in the earth. It was for this reason the ancients made offerings and poured libations into caves and chasms at this time of year, to nurture the regenerative underworld.

The old myths show us a world in which everything is alive and connected by the great matrix of Nature and demonstrate that the relationship between us and the Gods, between us and Mother Earth, should be a reciprocal one. This was the covenant the old Pagan religions recognised – a sacred agreement to maintain the balance. This is a covenant that the modern world has broken [1] where Mother Earth is seen as a commodity, raped and pillaged for her gifts. We should take heed, because the old myths also tell us what happens when the covenant is broken and balance is lost, when the scales tip too far for the balance to be restored, we see the final triumph of chaos, of Ragnarök, [2]  the Apocalypse,.  With the climate crisis, the impoverishment of soil through modern farming methods, and the mass destruction and pollution of habitats causing mass extinctions, we are at that tipping point.

When the work of the growing year is done and we move into the reflective period of winter, it is time to take stock and examine what it is in our lives, and in the world around us, that has slipped out of balance, and strive to return it to equilibrium. This is when we make atonement, a word that has come to signify making reparation for a wrong, but which originally meant at-one-ment, the state of being at one, in harmony, with the world and other people, and moreover, with the Gods. Where we have strayed, we must bring ourselves back to the path.

The relationship between us and other people, between us and the Gods, us and the Earth, should be a reciprocal one. There is a sacred agreement between us and the Gods to maintain the balance.  October is the time we renew our covenant with the Gods.

Ritual of Covenant

Spend some time in meditation, reflecting on what you may be doing or thinking that puts you out of balance with the Gods, with other people and with Mother Earth. What thoughts or actions might you take to put you back in harmony? What actions might you take to restore harmony to the world? This is at-one-ment, making yourself at one with the Gods.

Write a covenant between you and the Gods. This should not be long, complicated and too detailed, but might say something like:

“I will honour the Gods and listen to their guidance. I will honour Mother Earth as sacred. I will honour and protect all life, whether human or of fur and feather, scale and fin, leaf or shoot. Where I take, I will also give, and thus maintain the balance. This I vow.”

Or perhaps:

“I pledge allegiance to Mother Earth, who sustains us, treading lightly upon this sacred world, treating all the Mother’s creatures with compassion, uniting us all in harmony.”

Go to your altar, hearth or sacred place. Light a purple candle and call your Gods to be present. Make an offering of incense to them and call upon them to witness your covenant. Read it out loud.  Roll it up and tie it with a red ribbon and place it on your altar or in another safe place. Take it out periodically during the year to re-read it, and reflect how well you have kept your promise, and what you can do better. Renew it each October, rewriting your vows to account for changing circumstances and insights if you wish.

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


[1] Alex Evans, The Myth Gap, Penguin Random House, London, 2017

[2] This myth does say that two humans will repopulate the world, after the destruction.

Why Myths are Important

 Ancient cultures sought to understand their existence and explain their connection to the world through myths and rituals. 

Myths are the body of stories and legends that a people perceive as being an integral part of their culture. Before the invention of writing, these stories and legends were handed down from generation to generation in the form of rituals and oral traditions. The reappearance of certain themes, time and again, in different mythologies, leads to the realization that these themes portray universal and eternal truths about mankind.

Myth basically serves four functions.

  1. The first is the mystical function – realizing what a wonder the universe is, and what a wonder you are, and experiencing awe before this mystery
  2. The second is a cosmological dimension, showing you what shape the universe is, but showing it in such a way that the mystery comes through.
  3. The third function is the sociological one – supporting and validating a certain social order.
  4. But there is a fourth function of myth, and that is the teaching function, illustrating how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.” [1]

MYTHS AS TEACHING STORIES

At their core, all myths exist to teach us. They teach us about ourselves and others, and they show us how to live our lives. Myths serve more than just the folkloric functions in society of “do this”, “don’t eat that”, “be careful when travelling there”, and so on; myths are the guidebooks for life itself, with all its beauty and mystery. Myths are the keys to understanding the whole of human experience.

Artemis is the goddess of the moon and brother Apollo is god of the sun in classical Greek myth.  She rides her silver chariot, pulled by silver stags, across the sky and shoots her arrows of silver moonlight to the earth below. When Zeus asked her what gift she would like, she replied “I want to run forever wild and free with my hounds in the woods and never marry”. Behind this classical myth, however, there was an older Artemis, the free spirit who likes to roam the solitary woodland grove and the bare mountainside, a huntress who carries a silver bow, the protector of wild animals.  This Artemis is the goddess of wild and remote places, unsullied land far from the reach of man. Her nymphs are the spirits of its trees, streams, rocks and flowers, the souls of nature embodied, while Artemis herself is the imminent goddess of Nature in its raw and untamed state. She is a maiden, chaste, eternally young and virginal.  Those men who defiled her mysteries she ruthlessly hunted down and killed. One such was Actaeon, a hunter who caught sight of Artemis while she was bathing. The goddess, thus profaned, punished him by turning him into a stag whereupon his own hounds, not recognising their master, tore him to pieces.

Artemis is the least civilised of the Greek goddesses, and perhaps the oldest, dating from a time before the land was cultivated. She is also the wild and untamed part of ourselves. While her brother Apollo, is logical, dignified, lord of the sun and daylight, she is animal instinct, impulse, intuition, freedom, the lady of the moon and night. They represent the two sides of human consciousness, both necessary in balance.

Artemis is the goddess that women called upon when they were in trouble or abused, protecting the abused and punishing the abuser. Needing no romantic partner to make her life complete, she goes where she wants and does what she wants without having to seek the approval of another. She doesn’t deny her own nature to satisfy someone else.  

Hercules was a demi-god, a great hero and warrior, but violent and easily angered. This made him formidable in battle, but in a state of bling rage incited by the goddess Hera, he murdered his entire family, and was punished by having to complete twelve labours. This is a lesson on not allowing others to affect you so much that you lose control of your emotions and actions, and spend the rest of your life paying for it.

Remember too the story of Icarus and his father Daedalus, who built the labyrinth for King Minos to house the Minotaur. Minos trapped them there, so its secrets might not be betrayed, but the ingenious Daedalus built his son wings to help him fly to safety. He warned him not to fly too high, or he would fall. Icarus didn’t listen,  and was so full of youthful arrogance that he ignored the considered advice of his father in his excitement in being able to fly, and flew too close to the sun. The wax that held the wings together melted, and he fell to his death. This is a story about listening to the advice of those who might be older and wiser, and also about not being so arrogant that you over-reach yourself.   

There was once as young man who was so beautiful that many sought his affections, but he was so proud that he distained them all and broke many hearts. The goddess of vengeance, Nemesis, noticed this behaviour and lured Narcissus to a pool, where he saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it, not realizing it was merely an image. Unable to leave the beauty of his reflection and his unrequited love, Narcissus lost his will to live. He stared at his reflection until he died. Narcissus is the origin of the term narcissism, a fixation with oneself and one’s physical appearance and/or public perception, a love that can never be requited, and which will be destroyed by time. In the story, the nymph Echo came upon Narcissus as he gazed into the pool at himself and fell in love with him, but he, in love only with himself, ignored her, until she faded away to nothing more than an echo – which is what happens if you fall in love with a narcissist.

THE TRUTH OF MYTH

Myths are not literal truths. Myths are not lies. Mythology is poetry: it is metaphorical. It is said that mythology is the penultimate truth – penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words; it is beyond words, beyond images, beyond music.  Mythology stretches the mind beyond that point, to what can be known but not told.

All cultures create ‘masks’, which are the names and images for the divine, and they serve as metaphors for an inexpressible transcendence, being beyond all being and the idea beyond all thought.

The idea of the divine as being something over and above the natural is a destructive idea. In the Middle Ages this was the idea that finally turned that world into something like a wasteland, a land where people were living inauthentic lives, never doing what they truly wanted to because supernatural laws required them to live as directed by the church. In a wasteland, people are fulfilling purposes that are not properly theirs but have been imposed upon them as inescapable laws.

This is destructive to the soul. The spirit is really the bouquet of life. It is not something breathed into life, it comes out of life. This is one of the glorious things about the mother-goddess religions, where the world is the body of the Goddess, divine in itself, and divinity isn’t something ruling over and above a fallen nature. The story of the fall in the Garden of Eden sees nature as corrupt, and that myth corrupts the whole world for us. Because nature is thought of as corrupt, every spontaneous act is sinful and must not be yielded to. You get a totally different civilization and a totally different way of living according to whether your myth presents nature as fallen or whether nature is in itself a manifestation of divinity, and the spirit is the revelation of the divinity that is inherent in nature.” [2]

Joseph Campbell, the great writer on mythology, said many times that a new global mythology was arising based on the concept of Gaia, the Earth Mother.

WHO OR WHAT ARE THE GODS?

Which brings us to the big question – who or what are the Gods? Are they just stories, the dreams of men, metaphors? Or do they exist?

There are hundreds of thousands of god and goddess names, some of whom were worshipped in Britain, many more that were not. We find that within a single pantheon that the names of the gods are not always consistent; some gods absorb the names, titles and attributes of another with the passing of the centuries. Mythologies evolve and change, are absorbed and assimilated into other cultures.

The question that every individual Pagan must resolve for themselves is does this mean we are to believe literally in all these differing deities? If we do, where do we choose a particular time in history to fix the names and attributes of the gods we chose to worship? To choose to be a Celt of 300 BC as opposed to a Celt of 100 AD, or a Viking of 50 BC as opposed to a Viking of 300 AD involves serious logical and spiritual dichotomies. Even if it is possible to make these decision, can we really enter into the ‘world view’ of an older culture without imposing our modern preconceptions on it?

In the Craft we are taught that “…beyond the two is the One, which we cannot name or limit, for the One is without limit, therefore we do give our worship unto the Lady and her Lord.” 

This is far from being a belief in a supreme monotheistic god who is separate from his creation; it means that everything, even the gods and goddesses, are part of a single great whole, a manifestation of pure consciousness, Divine energy.

The Craft view is that in the process of manifesting, consciousness divides itself into two parts, God and Goddess, yang and yin, define it how you will, which, though seeming to be separate, cannot exist without one another, any more than a coin can have one side.  Only when they combine can action, movement and creation arise.

Through the splitting of the primordial principle at the beginning of creation, the duality within our lives came into being, together with a strong force that is constantly striving to re-unite with the other part.

In the Craft it is believed that the Divine Spirit is not separate from creation, it is creation. It is us, and everything else. There is no real difference between spirit and matter – gods, humans, and everything else are part of each other, part of the One.

The oldest Pagan gods were always embodiments of natural forces – vegetation, storm, sun, moon, sea, wind, sky, storm, thunder, fire, earth, water, rain, fertility, creation and destruction.  For me, these are facets of the Divine we can approach and work with. When you invoke the name of a deity, you are invoking a particular facet of the Cosmos. If you invoke the Norse god Thor, you are invoking an aspect of thunder, but this is not the same as invoking Taranis, the Celtic god of thunder, which has a somewhat different energy, while still embodying thunder. That doesn’t mean that the energies – or gods – are metaphorical, or products of the human mind, it just means their nature is beyond human understanding, and we work with what we can comprehend.

We, the Gods, and all beings, are of the same stuff and the same Universe. But our limit of interaction is the limit of our human perception. We don’t have the capacity to fully comprehend our Gods, so we have to just see and work with the facets of them that we can grasp.

Then we become aware even more of how they influence, interact with and are a part of our world. We, the Gods, our ancestors and our children’s children are part of the same web, so it should be possible to connect with the past, the future, our Gods and ourselves. And for me this is done in ritual circle.

MYTHS AS SPIRITUAL GUIDES

Myths are stories that give us clues to the nature of life, temporal and spiritual, manuals to the whole experience of ourselves and others. Used wisely, myths initiate the individual into the realities of his or her own psyche and become guides to spiritual enlightenment.

No matter the culture or tradition, the hero of every myth takes the same journey. Each hero departs, interacts with other archetypal beings and encounters difficulties and trials, completes his quest or fulfils his purpose (which is sometimes not to complete his quest) and returns, changed in some way. As King Arthur and his knights sat feasting, there appeared the mysterious Holy Grail in their midst. All the knights set out on the quest to find it. They had many adventures and many of them perished in the quest, until at last it was found by Galahad, the perfect knight.

The adventure can be one of inner exploration and spiritual seeking as well as some kind of high adventure. This mythic journey is present—and nearly identical—in many major religions. Buddha, Moses and Jesus, for instance, all embarked on spiritual quests, met with allies or enemies, were tested and each returned transformed. Prince Siddhartha Gautama at the age of twenty nine left his palace to meet his subjects. Despite his father’s efforts to hide from him the sick, aged and suffering, he saw a bent old man. When his charioteer explained to him that all people grew old, the prince went on further trips beyond the palace. On these he encountered a diseased man, a decaying corpse and an ascetic. These depressed him, and he initially strove to overcome aging, sickness, and death by living the life of an ascetic, then left the palace to live the life of a mendicant.  During this time, he was offered a throne, asked to be the spiritual heir of two yoga teachers but refused them all, still searching for enlightenment. He tried self-mortification and fasting, nearly starving himself to death until a village girl saved his life by feeding him.  After this he began to reconsider his path, and decided that this was not the way.  He realised that extreme asceticism did not work, and began to focus on meditation, discovering what Buddhists call the Middle Way, a path of moderation. Eventually, sitting under the Bodhi tree and after forty nine days of meditation, he achieved enlightenment.

Each of us has embarked on a journey, whether we like it or not – the journey of life. Powerful forces have made a gateway for each of us to be incarnated in this place and time. Myths are guides to how we live life, and whether we live life heroically is up to us.

If Frodo and Aragorn had decided just to stay in the pub, instead of returning the ring, it would have been a very short book in which evil prevailed. If Stephen Hawkins had just curled up in a corner when he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease instead of immersing himself in his work and living life as fully as he could, he probably would have died really quickly and we wouldn’t have A Brief History of Time and all his scientific discoveries.

Our names might not go down in history, but each of us is the hero of our own story. The life quest is different for each person. It might be a spiritual quest, as when Siddhartha Gautama left behind the life of a rich man and sought enlightenment.  For you, the quest might be to be a good healer, a wonderful parent, a skilled carpenter or blacksmith, an inspired musician, a poet, artist or spiritual initiate. Maybe the quest involves a few or even all of these.

So, are you the hero in your own life-quest, or are you playing the sidekick in everybody else’s story?  Do you act or just react to the people and situations around?

Usually, we don’t have a handle on is what our story is or we let other people tell us what our story should be. Basically, our story is whatever we believe about ourselves to be true. The way you tell yourself your own story can make you the eternal victim of childhood abuse, or can make you the hero who overcame it.

Myths can teach us how to live.

© Anna Franklin


[1] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

[2] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth