St Matthew’s Day

21 SEPTEMBER

The Church took over the autumn equinox for St Matthew, patron saint of tax collectors and bankers, and fixed this to 21 September. In the English Midlands, St Matthew’s Day is viewed as the first of three windy days, also called ‘windy days of the barley harvest’.as One of the many traditional English sayings associated with the day is:

St Mathee, shut up the Bee;

St Mattho, take thy hopper and sow;

St Mathy, all the year goes by

St Matthie, sends sap into the tree [1]

This indicates that it is time to shut up the bee hives and make the autumn sowing.


[1] From Blackburn, Bonnie & Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999

Rood Day

14 SEPTEMBER

Rood Day is said to commemorate the rescue of the True Cross by Emperor Heraclius of Constantinople in 614. There were several proverbs referring to the fact this is the time of deer mating: If the hart and the hind meet dry and part dry on Rood Day fair, for six weeks of rain there’ll be no mair.

On this day in 1752 Britain abandoned the Julian Calendar of Julius Caesar and adopted the Gregorian calendar, meaning that some days had to be dropped to fall into alignment with the new calendar.  It meant that they went to bed on 2 September and woke up on 14 September, having ‘lost’ eleven days. Some people really thought that they had been deprived of eleven days of their lives and there were riots in the streets. It is the reason that many of the feast days and calendar customs are elevens days adrift.

Red Poppy in Magic and Healing

Papaver rhoeas

Planetary ruler: Moon

Element: water

Associated deities: Agni,Aphrodite,Artemis,Ceres, Cybele, Demeter, Diana, Great Goddess, Hades, Harvest, Hera, Hermes, Hypnos, Jupiter, Harvest Goddesses, Mercury, Morpheus, Mother Goddesses, Persephone, Pluto, Proserpine, Somnus, Venus, Vulcan, Yama, Thanatos, Nyx

Magical virtues: fertility, death, mourning, dreamwork, meditation

LORE:

Poppies almost always accompany grain crops (or at least they did until the widespread use of herbicides) and a cornfield without poppies was unthinkable for the ancients.   The Greeks called it ‘the companion of the corn’, its presence deemed vital for the health of the crop, the lifeblood of the harvest goddess Demeter which nourished the fields.  They were offered, with some symbolic corn, to the goddess. 

MAGICAL USES:

Decorate the harvest loaf with poppy seeds. As flowers of death, mourning and rebirth, use poppies in funeral and memorial rituals. For spells and rituals of fertility,  carry poppy seeds in a sachet, use them in incense, charm bags, amulets and talismans, as well as adding them to food.  The seed and flowers are added to love spells and rituals, incense, oils, talismans and charms, the handfasting and incense.  The seeds and dried petals can be added to divination incense and potions. 

CULINARY AND HOUSEHOLD USES:

Poppy seeds can be scattered on bread, cakes, buns and rolls. The red flowers will add a red colour to syrups and beverages. Poppy petal syrup can be used in desserts, soups and stews.    Add the petals to summer salads. The new leaves can be eaten raw or cooked but are best picked before the plant flowers.  

COSMETIC USES:

Poppy seed oil boosts collagen production, relaxes wrinkles and helps prevent their formation.  The petals can be used in homemade skincare products.

HOME REMEDIES:

The leaves can be warmed and used as a poultice for neuralgia. A tea, glycerite or syrup made from red poppy petals may be used for coughs and catarrh, to remove excess mucus and soothe sore throat. The flower tea is mildly sedative and soothing.  Poppy flower or poppy seed tea, glycerite or syrup may also be used as a sedative in cases of insomnia and as a mild painkiller.  The seeds can be ground and made into a paste with a little water to apply in a poultice to swollen and painful joints.

CAUTION:

Red poppy flowers are mildly sedative, so exercise caution and do not drive or operate machinery after taking.   Do not use if you are pregnant or breastfeeding or taking other sedatives.  

The Magical Rowan Tree

The rowan tree (Sorbus aucuparia) is bound up with magic and enchantment. The genus name Sorbus means ‘stop’, possibly referring to the power of the rowan to prevent enchantment. The common name rowan is connected with the Gothic word runa ‘to know’, possibly referring to magic. In the Highlands the tree could only be used for ritual purposes. Evil witches had no power where there was rowan wood. Rowan twigs were commonly used as defensive charms in Britain, usually in the form of an equal armed cross bound together with red thread:

Rowan is connected with witchcraft, protection, divination and the dead. The berries are marked with the protective sign of the pentagram on their base, a sign of magic and the calling and banishing of spirits. The berries, wood and leaves can be dried and burned as an incense to invoke spirits, familiars, spirit guides and elementals.  Rowan wood may be used for making tools of divination. The berries or wood can be used in an incense to banish undesirable entities. A rowan cross, made of two twigs of rowan, tied with red thread, may be hung in the home for protection. A rowan wand is used for casting a protective circle. Plant a protective rowan tree near your house.

© Anna Franklin, 2022

Marymas

The cult of the Virgin Mary absorbed the attributes and celebrations of earlier goddesses, and many of her soubriquets and festivals were taken wholesale from her Pagan predecessors.  

Marymas is the Scottish name for the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on 15 August. In more northerly latitudes the harvest is later, and Marymas, rather than Lughnasa, marked the start of the harvest and was surrounded by its own customs, many of which survived well into the nineteenth century. [1] The assumption of Mary into heaven supposedly took place at Ephesus, a famous sanctuary of the goddess Artemis who was represented there by a many-breasted statue, symbolising the productive and nurturing powers of the Earth.

The Marymas start of reaping was a day of celebration and ritual with distinctly Pagan overtones. Whole families would go to the fields dressed in their best clothes to hail the god of the harvest. The father of each family would lay his hat on the ground and face the Sun. Taking up his sickle he would cut a handful of corn which he passed three times around his head whilst chanting a reaping salutation. [2] The rest of the family would join in, in praise of the God of the harvest who provided bread, corn, flocks, wool, health, strength and prosperity.

The Lammas Bannock, made from the new wheat, would be dedicated to Mary Mother of God, and elaborate rituals surrounded its preparation.  Early in the morning the people would go out into the fields to pluck the ears of the new corn. These would be spread over rocks to dry and then husked by hand. After being winnowed and ground in a quern, the flour was mixed into dough and kneaded in a sheepskin. It was traditional to cook the bannock over a fire of rowan, then the father of the family broke it into pieces to be shared with his wife and children. They would sing the Ioch Mhoric Mhather or ‘Paean of Praise to the Holy Mother’ whilst walking in a procession sunwise around the fire with the father in the lead and the rest of the family following in order of seniority. The family then proceeded sunwise around the outside of their house, and sometimes around the fields and flocks while reciting a protection charm. [3]

We can celebrate Marymas in our own way, as praise and thanks to the Goddess of the Harvest.


[1] Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh, 1928

[2] Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh, 1928

[3] Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, Floris Books 2001

The Apple in Magic & Medicine

Planetary ruler: Venus

Element: water

Associated deities: Aphrodite, Apollo, Arthur, Athene, Bel, Ceridwen, Demeter, Diana, Dionysus, Dumuzi, Eve, Flora, Grannos, Hera, Herakles, Hermes, Hesperides, Iduna, Inanna, Juno, Mabon, Manannan, Maponus, Mêliae, Modron, Morgana, Nehallenia, Nemesis, Olwen, Olwen, Pomona, Solar Heroes, Sun Gods, Tellus Mater, Titaea, Venus, Vertumnus, Vishnu, Zeus

Magical virtues: love, fertility, abundance, otherworld travel, divination

LORE:

The apple (Malus spp.) was one of the most sacred trees of the ancient Europeans; under Celtic law, to fell one was punishable by death. For many centuries artists used the apple as an allegory for erotic love.   Paris, Prince of Troy, to make the choice. Hera offered him wealth and power while Athene offered him fame and wisdom, but Aphrodite won by promising him the most beautiful woman alive, Helen, an act which led to the Trojan War.  The connection with love, marriage and fertility was preserved in folklore In England apples were often used in love divination. Juno Pomona ruled the month of November, the season of apples and fruit. A banquet was laid out before images of Jupiter, Juno, Minerva and Feronia in November. In Wales at Halloween, apples were roasted in the chimney corner, suspended on twine, and were added to ale and brandy in the wassail bowl with raisins, spices and sugar.

As part of Yule festivities apple trees were wassailed to encourage them to crop heavily in the coming year. The trees were visited, and cakes or bread soaked in cider were placed in the branches, and cider poured over the roots. When an apple is cut in half across the middle, it reveals a clear pentacle.

MAGICAL USES:

Apples or apple wands are used in spells, incense and charm bags for love magic. Dried apple bark, blossoms, peel and pips may be used in incenses for the planet Venus and the element of water, and to invoke associated gods. The blossom can be used in temple decorations or chaplets, apples can be added to the cakes at Samhain, and cider used to replace the ritual wine. Wassailing should be part of the Yule festivities.  

CULINARY & HOUSEHOLD USES:

The culinary uses of apples are well known, and there is not enough space to go into them all!  They are rich in pectin, and apple can be added to set jams and jellies made from pectin poor fruits like strawberries. Cider vinegar is one of the best natural cleaning agents there is; its antimicrobial properties destroy a variety of harmful organisms.

COSMETIC USES:

Bathe fingernails in apple cider vinegar to strengthen them. Apple cider vinegar can be added to a final hair rinse to treat dandruff.  Diluted apple cider vinegar on a cotton ball makes a simple facial toner to help prevent breakouts and fade bruises. Apple cider vinegar helps kill odour-causing bacteria, so dab a bit under your arms for a natural deodorant. Apple juice combined with malt vinegar imparts a golden colour to fair hair when used as a final rinse.

MEDICINAL USES:

Apples help neutralise the acid products of gout and indigestion. They contain pectin, which helps bulk up the stool to treat diarrhoea and constipation. The cultivated apple makes a good herb tea for fevers, arthritic and rheumatic conditions; wash, peel and boil gently until soft, strain and add some honey or brown sugar. Apples can be used to neutralise toxins in the blood, benefit the gums and reduce cavities in the teeth by clearing away plaque deposits.

Raw cider vinegar has many uses. It can be added to footbaths for athlete’s foot and to reduce the odour of sweaty feet. It has antibacterial properties, making it useful for infections. Gargle with a mixture of apple cider vinegar mixed with warm water for sore throats. You can apply it directly to the irritated skin or add a cup to your bath.  Apple cider vinegar detoxifies and is helpful for arthritis, gout, rheumatism and skin conditions.

© Anna Franklin, 2022 ( draft extract from the forthcoming Hearth Witch’s Concise Herbal, Llewellyn, 2023)

Witchposts

When I was in Yorkshire recently, I came across this witch post. They were built into fireplaces in the north of England to prevent evil coming down the chimney to enter the hearth and home and keep away evil witches. It was said that a witch could not pass the rowan wood post and the cross carved upon it, or the crooked silver sixpence that was kept in a hole at the centre of the post. The sixpence itself had magical properties and if the butter would not turn, you prised it out and put it in the churn.

Carnation

Dianthus spp.

Carnations are native to the Mediterranean. The Greek philosopher Theophrastus (371 –287 BCE) called them dianthus from the Greek words dios (‘divine’) and anthos (‘flower’). [1] The common name carnation comes either from the Latin corona meaning a crown, since it was one of the flowers used in Roman chaplets, [2] or fromthe Latin caro meaning ‘flesh’, a reference to the colour of the flower. [3] They are also called ‘pinks’ a name that doesn’t come from the colour, but from the Old English word pynken, meaning notched or cut, referring to the edges of the petals – we still use this word for pinking shears, the serrated scissors used in dressmaking. In the past, they were sometimes called gillyflowers meaning ‘July flowers’, since this is when they usually bloom. Along with the original pink (Dianthus caryophyllus), the name carnation is also applied to the other 300 varieties of Dianthus grown as annuals, biennials or perennials. Growers in the sixteenth century developed the deep red and white varieties that are still extremely popular today.

Pinks were used to impart a slight clove flavour to wine and ale (the caryophyllus part of the name refers to cloves), especially the sweet wine presented to brides at the wedding ceremony, hence the folk name, sops in wine.  [4]In the Middle Ages, clove pinks were used as a substitute for the prohibitively expensive cloves (Eugenia caryophyllata) in spiced wine and beer. Chaucer wrote of “clove-gilofre… to putte in ale, whether it be moyste or stale”.  It is said that the Spaniards and Romans used carnation flowers as a spicy flavouring in wine.  [5]

Carnations are associated with love in many parts of the world, a symbol of fascination, marriage and conjugal harmony. [6] In China, the carnation is the flower most frequently used flower in weddings,[7] while in the west, carnations are a traditional first wedding anniversary flower. Naturally, this meant that they were employed in love potions. In the late seventeenth century, the countess of Dorset was said to have used carnations in a love potion along with bay leaves, marjoram and lavender. In the Victorian Language of Flowers, the various colours of carnation had different meanings – deep red carnations indicated love, paler red carnations meant admiration, white carnations represented pure love, striped ones indicated regret that love could not be returned, and purple carnations indicated capriciousness.

In France, purple carnations are a symbol of mourning and condolence used in funeral flowers. Red carnations symbolise workers’ movements in Europe. [8]

According to a Christian legend, carnations first appeared at the crucifixion when the Virgin Mary shed tears for her son, and carnations sprang up from where they fell. Thus, the carnation became the symbol of a mother’s undying love. [9] [10] This is perhaps one of the reasons it is a traditional Mother’s Day symbol in the USA. The meaning has evolved over time, and now a red carnation is be worn if one’s mother is alive, and a white one if she has died. Similarly, in Korea, carnations are worn on Parent’s Day.

At the University of Oxford (UK) carnations are traditionally worn to all examinations; white for the first exam, pink for interim exams and red for the final exam. An apocryphal tale relates that a white carnation was kept in a red inkpot between exams, so by the last exam it was fully red. It is true that a white carnation placed in a coloured liquid (such as food colouring) will absorb colour into the flower. The green carnations worn in the USA on St Patrick’s Day are made this way, as was the green carnation popularised by the gay writer Oscar Wilde as a symbol of homosexuality, and referenced by gay composer Noël Coward’s song, ‘We All Wear a Green Carnation’.

In Italy, carnations were considered a protection from witchcraft on the dangerous night of St John’s Eve (Midsummer’s Eve) – give a witch a flower and she will have to stop and count the petals. [11]


[1] David Gledhill, The Names of Plants, Cambridge University Press, 2002

[2] Donald Watts BA MIL, Elsevier’s Dictionary of Plant Lore, Academic Press, London, 2007

[3] Carl Linnaeus, Species Plantarum, Stockholm (1753)

[4] Donald Watts BA MIL, Elsevier’s Dictionary of Plant Lore, Academic Press, London, 2007

[5] The Biology of Dianthus caryophyllus L. (Carnation), Australian Government Dept. of Health, Version 2.1, February 2020, http://www.health.gov.au, accessed 25.9.20

[6] Donald Watts BA MIL, Elsevier’s Dictionary of Plant Lore, Academic Press, London, 2007

[7]  Anthony S. Mercatante, The Magic Garden: the myth and folklore of flowers, plants, trees, and herbs, Harper & Row, 1976

[8] Donald Watts BA MIL, Elsevier’s Dictionary of Plant Lore, Academic Press, London, 2007

[9] http://www.teleflora.com/carnation/flowers-plant-info/carnation-detail.asp, accessed 11.9.21

[10] Donald Watts BA MIL, Elsevier’s Dictionary of Plant Lore, Academic Press, London, 2007

[11] Donald Watts BA MIL, Elsevier’s Dictionary of Plant Lore, Academic Press, London, 2007

August – the First Harvest

The intense heat of the Dog Days has brought summer growth to its end, and the crops have ripened, ready for cutting. For the ancient Romans, August fell under the protection of Ceres, the grain goddess. The Anglo-Saxons called it the Harvest Month,  [1] in Ruthenia it was the Sickle Month, in Moravia the Cutting Month, in Bulgaria the Fruit Month, while and in Denmark, it was the Corn-Month. [2]

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

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

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

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

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

This month is concerned with the rites at the beginning of the harvest, the offering of the First Fruits, and the sacrifice of the gods of the grain, so that we might eat. The Mother Goddess become the Queen of the Harvest.

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


[1] Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987

[2] Nilsson, Martin P, Primitive Time-Reckoning, Oxford University Press 1920

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

Borage

Borago officinalis

Planetary ruler:Jupiter

Element: air

Associated deities: warrior gods, Euphrosyne

Magical virtues: courage, strength, warrior magic, joy, gladness, expansion

LORE: Its common name may come from the Latin corago (cor meaning ‘heart’and ago meaning ‘I bring’). Borage has been a valuable medicinal herb since ancient times, and as a remedy for depression it has been extolled by herbalists through the centuries. 

MAGICAL USES:

Borage is used in charms, spells, rituals and potions to stimulate courage and strength.  Carry some flowers in a small pouch close to your heart when you need these.  Use dried borage flowers and leaves in preparations of Jupiter, evoking expansive feelings of joy and enthusiasm.

CULINARY USES:

All parts of the plant have a delicate flavour reminiscent of cucumber. The bright blue flowers may be picked and eaten fresh in salads or candied for cake decoration.  Add fresh flowers to a glass of Pimms or freeze them in ice cubes to be added to cocktails, lemonade and summer drinks. Gather the young leaves when the plant is coming into flower, add to poultry, fish and cheese dishes, most vegetables, used fresh in salads, or added to pickles and salad dressings.  When steeped in water, borage leaves and flowers add a cool cucumber flavour – just add lemon to make a refreshing summer drink. 

COSMETIC USES:

Borage is a cooling, cleansing herb with skin softening and anti-inflammatory properties.  Use steam-wilted borage leaves in a face mask for dry skin. 

MEDICINAL USES:

An infusion of the flowers and leaves in wine can be used to stimulate the adrenals and increase the ability to cope during times of stress. It can be used for fevers and during convalescence. Borage tea has been used for many years as an antidepressant.

A poultice of the leaves can be used to soothe bruises and inflammations, insect bites, rashes and inflamed skin. 

CAUTION:

Borage herb should not be taken by people with liver conditions.  Pregnant women and epileptics should not take borage seed oil (starflower oil).  Do not use internally if you are on blood thinning medication (including aspirin), or are taking blood thinning herbs such as danshen, devil’s claw, eleuthero, garlic, ginkgo, horse chestnut, panax ginseng, papain, red clover, or saw palmetto.

Extract from © Anna Franklin, The Hearth Witch’s Concise Herbal, Llewellyn, 2023