Wassailing

Old Twelfth Night (17the January) This is one of the traditional days (along with Twelfth Night, Twelfth Day and Old Twelfth Day) for wassailing the apple and pear orchards, waking up the spirit of vegetation and the land itself, and energising the move towards spring.

Today, most people think of wassailing only in connection with toasting the apple orchards. However, in the past, wassailing was a wide-spread custom associated with wishing health to people, crops and animals; apple trees were wassailed to make them bear fruit, and even bees were wassailed to make them produce more honey.  Cattle were toasted to keep them healthy. The prize cow was given a special cake with a hole in the middle (a symbol of the sun) and regaled with the words: “Fill your cups my merry men all!/ For here’s the best ox in the stall!

Oh he is the best ox, of that there’s no mistake,/ And so let us crown him with the Twelfth cake!” The cake was hooked over one of its horns.      In parts of Scotland, the sea was similarly honoured, with ale poured into the waves in hope this would encourage good fishing in the coming year. [1] Wassailing the orchards usually involved either the land owner or specially selected bands of wassailers, visiting the orchard at night, selecting the oldest or most fruitful tree (known in Somerset as the Apple Tree Man) to represent the whole orchard.  The tree might be beaten with sticks in order to wake it up after its winter sleep. Bread or cakes soaked in cider would be placed in the tree’s branches and the wassail song sung, then loud noises made to frighten winter spirits away from the orchard. 

The word ‘wassail’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase Wæs hal, which was used as a greeting. Wæs means ‘to be’ and hal means ‘hale’ or ‘whole’. The greeting often accompanied the welcoming of a guest with a cup of ale or mead, and so became a toast (the correct response to which is Drinc Hale meaning “I drink to your good health”) and eventually wassailing, the act of toasting someone or something on special occasions with spiced ale or wine.

In the coven we see it as the last of our three rituals of the Yuletide season that finally closes the barren winter cycle and brings back the energy of growth into the land. We tap the tree three times to wake it up, pour cider onto its roots, and put apple cake or toast into its branches to honour it. It’s a very joyful occasion when we wear garlands of ivy, and bang drums to banish all the spirits of winter bane, before passing around the wassail cup, full of spiced cider or apple wine – at which point it gets even merrier. We take it in turns to host the event; some of us only have one apple or pear tree, others several. If you don’t have fruit trees of your own, perhaps you can get together with friends who do, or even perform the ritual in a local orchard or park where fruit trees grow. Wassailing ceremonies are becoming more and more popular, even among non-Pagans.

Wassailing Ritual

The ritual is carried out in the fruit orchard. Wear a garland of ivy.  Choose the largest and most productive tree on the plot, which stands for all the rest. Tap the trunk of the tree three times to ‘wake it up’ with your wand and say:

Apples and pears with right good corn,

Come in plenty to every one.

Eat and drink good cake and hot ale,

Give Earth to drink and she’ll not fail

Places the cake in the main fork of the tree. The wassail drink is thrown three times at the roots of the tree and chant:

“Here’s to thee, old apple tree!

Whence thou may’st bud,

And whence thou may’st blow

Hats full! Caps full! Bushel-bags full!

And pockets full too!”

The wassail bowl is recharged and all drink the health of the orchard with the word ‘wassail’.

Drums and musical instruments are played to wake up the spirits of vegetation and drive away the spirits of winter.

You can then take a burning brand and carry it around the property to infuse the spirit of warmth and fire into the earth, to purify it and bring luck for the coming year.

Everyone gathers around the fire and recharges the wassail bowl for a final toast of ‘wassail’.

Wassail

2 ¼ pt hard cider

3 apples, grated

2 oz brown sugar

½ tsp. ground ginger

Grated nutmeg

Method

Put a ¼ pint of cider in a pan and add the grated apples.  Cook until the apple is soft and add the brown sugar, ginger and the other 2 pints of cider. Heat through but do not allow to boil. Add some grated nutmeg and pour into a large cup or bowl.

Dorset Apple Cake

100 gm sugar

1 egg, beaten

100 gm butter

225 gm self-raising flour

Pinch salt

225 gm apples (peeled, cored and finely chopped)

1 egg (beaten)

Milk

Using your fingertips, rub the butter into the flour and salt until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add the apples and sugar, then mix in the egg and enough milk to make a stiff dough. Pour into a 20 cm (8 inch) tin and bake at 190 C/375 F/ gas mark 5 for 45 minutes.

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


[1] Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gaedelica,

Plough Monday

Farm workers did not return to work after Christmas until after Plough Monday, the traditional start of the agricultural year falling the first Monday after Twelfth Night. References to Plough Monday date back to the late fifteenth century. In some areas, particularly in northern England and East Anglia, the plough might be blessed at the church, and then dragged from house to house in the village, in a procession with the ploughmen collecting money, a necessary seasonal supplement to income when there was no work on the land; if anyone refused to contribute, they might find their front gardens ploughed up. They were often accompanied by musicians, and winter characters like the hag and the wild man with a boy dressed as an old woman called the Bessy, and a man in the role of the Fool, who wore animal skins, a hairy cap and had an animal tail hanging from his back.

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

Colds & Flu Home Remedies

Honey and Lemon Tea

Put the juice from one lemon (rich in vitamin C) into a cup and top up with boiling water. Add a couple of teaspoons of honey (which has antiviral properties). Drink when cool enough.

Peppermint and Eucalyptus Steam

Boiling water

6 drops peppermint oil

6 drops eucalyptus oil

Put a heatproof bowl on a heatproof mat and pour in the boiling water. Add the essential oil. Lean over the bowl and put a towel over your head and inhale the steam. Steam treatments help sooth mucus membranes and moisturise the respiratory tract. The menthol in peppermint oil soothes the throat and acts as a decongestant. Eucalyptus helps expel phlegm, decongest the airways and boosts the immune system.

Caution: Avoid the use of peppermint oil if you are pregnant.

Rosehip Tea

1 oz. fresh rosehips (from Rosa canina, the wild or dog rose)

½ pt. water

Dash of lemon juice

Cut the rosehips open and put them in a pan with the water and bring to the boil. Turn off the heat and allow the rosehips to infuse for 15 minutes. Strain the liquid through a very fine sieve or a coffee filter (rosehips contain irritant hairs). Add the lemon juice. Rosehips contain twenty times more vitamin C than oranges, so they are an excellent immune system booster to prevent or treat a cold.

Rosehip Syrup

Rosehips (Rosa canina, the wild or dog rose)

Water

Sugar

Crush the rosehips (or preferably chop them up in a food processor) and put them in a pan. Cover with water, bring to the boil and then turn down the heat and simmer for 20 minutes, uncovered. Strain through fine muslin (rosehips contain very fine irritant hairs, so don’t be tempted to squeeze it through the bag) and measure the liquid. For each pint you will need 11 ounces of sugar. Put these in a large pan, heat slowly, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved. Turn up the heat and bring to the boil for 3 minutes, skimming off any scum that appears. Pour into pre-warmed and sterilised bottles and seal. Allow the bottles to cool and label. This will keep unopened for 3-4 months, but refrigerate after opening.  Rosehip syrup is a well-known childhood remedy for boosting vitamin C levels and keeping winter infections away.

Elderberry Rob

2 ½ lb elderberries

½ lb sugar

Simmer together in a saucepan until it thickens to the consistency of runny honey. Strain and bottle. Take a couple of tablespoons in warm water for colds, fevers and coughs. If you like, you can add a little whisky.

Anti-Viral Tincture

4 cloves garlic

1 onion

2 tbsp. grated fresh ginger root

4 tsp fresh chillies

Cider vinegar

Chop the fruits and vegetables and pack into a jar. Cover with cider vinegar and put on a sunny windowsill for two weeks, shaking daily. Strain through a fine cloth into a clean jar and label. Make this in advance of the winter and take two teaspoons up to five times a day when you have an infection.

© Anna Franklin, The Hearth Witch’s Compendium, Llewellyn, 2018

Rite of the Winter Crone

Like other feast days around this period, Epiphany was widely associated with the Winter Crone. In Carinthia the Epiphany was called Berchtentag, after the hag Bechta, and in Italy, the hag goddess of the Twelve Nights is Befana, her name a corruption of Epiphania (‘epiphany’). Though her role has largely been taken over by Santa Claus in modern Italy, she was once the yuletide gift bringer. Sicilians especially honoured Befana, also called la Strega (‘the witch’)or la Vecchia (‘the old woman’).  Befana descended from the mountains, riding on her broom, and entered houses through the chimney, leaving presents for children. Children left notes for her in the chimney. For those children who had been naughty, she left only coal (shops sold carbone, a sweet that looks like coal) or a birch rod (to be spanked with). Witch-like images of Befana were placed in the windows of houses, and there were processions through the streets. Singers serenaded houses where cloth images of Befana were placed in the windows, or carried her image from house to house while carolling. The Befana dolls were afterwards burned, probably in token of the passing of the old year. Omens were taken from the fire. If the smoke blew towards the east, it was an indication that the harvest would be good. If the smoke blew towards the west, it would be poor.

The rites of the Epiphany signal that the darkest time has ended.

Hag Goddess Ritual

I shall be honouring the winter witch goddess tonight, decorating the altar with evergreen and my witchy dolls, and lighting a candle to her, saying:

Hag Goddess who comes at twilight,

With your wind shredded clothes

And witch’s hat

All hail to you!

This is your season,

And I give you due honour

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

The Fearful Woman of Power

Witchcraft is sometimes called ‘The Crooked Path’, because it is the path of the outsider. Witches were driven out of society, cloaked in the garb of otherness.  While historical druids were an elite class of men, pillars of the establishment, the historical witch was always an outsider, the despised or excluded person who threatened the established order and – of all the most dreadful things imaginable – usually a woman with power in a world where women were often otherwise powerless.

The Church saw witches as the antithesis of what a woman should be – meek, subservient, industrious and obedient. Any woman who was a free-spirits independent and sexually active must be a witch.  During the times of witchcraft persecution- the days we call The Burning Times- it is estimated that 50,000 to 100,000 people were executed, 80% of them women.

In 1484, in response to reports that many women were engaging in sorcery “to make the conjugal act impossible”, Pope Innocent VIII appointed two German Dominicans, Jakov Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, to pursue witches. They wrote the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, which means “Hammer of Evil Doers” or “Hammer of the Witches”. So popular was their book that it ran into nineteen editions and was a principal text for the Inquisition. They wrote that “woman is an imperfect animal, and always deceives….

In Christian lore, women are responsible for the fall of humankind and its expulsion from paradise, since Eve was tempted to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge and persuaded her husband Adam to do the same.[i] For the Christian thinker, God was male, and thus the only true gender was male.[ii] From the very beginning, they argued that women were inferior to men, as Eve was made from Adam’s spare rib, and being formed by a bent rib she was naturally flawed. Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote “Every girl child is a defective male, conceived only because her father was ill, weak or in a state of sin at the time,” and “Life comes from the male sperm, and the woman merely serves as the soil in which it is planted.”

According to the Malleus Maleficarum: “Women are intellectually like children” and “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.” 

The Church felt that women were more carnal than men, as was clear from their many ‘abominations’; women menstruate, get pregnant and give birth, all evidence of the sexual activity which was reviled as sinful by the Church. The Malleus Maleficarum was very unambiguous in its references to women’s sexuality as an evil force. A woman was said to be impure “during her monthly periods.” Tertullian called women the “devil’s gateway”. Like Eve, all women were considered temptresses, inciting men to seek the forbidden fruit of lust. If a woman was raped, it was considered to be her own fault. St Thomas Aquinas wrote “Women exert an evil influence over men which causes them to have involuntary erections, and thus distracted them from contemplating God.”

According to the Malleus Maleficarum: Any woman knows more magic than a hundred men “a woman is by her nature more quicker to waver in her faith and consequently quicker to abjure the faith, which is the root of witchcraft” and that “…women are weak in themselves, and can only perform magic in league with demons”.[iii] They declared that  “Blessed be the Highest who has so far preserved the male sex from so great an evil” While any woman practicing fortune telling, midwifery or herbalism could be executed as a witch, male doctors, astrologers and alchemists were left unscathed.

The fifteenth century Council of Trent specifically forbade women from having anything to do with medicine, a profession they were not to be re-admitted to until the late nineteenth century. If any women stood before a tribunal accused of practising medicine or healing it was automatically assumed that she must have achieved any cure by witchcraft and she was put to death [iv] According to the Malleus Maleficarum “If a woman dare to cure … then she is a witch and must die”. Male doctors were trusted implicitly by the authors: “Although some of their remedies seem to be vain and superstitious cantrips and charms… everybody must be trusted in his profession, ” while “no one does more harm to the Catholic Church than midwives…the midwives exceed all other witches in deeds of shame” because “A midwife is guilty of sinning if she eased a woman’s pain during childbirth, since that suffering was imposed by Jehovah as a punishment on all women for Eve’s transgression.” (Clerics reminded Queen Victoria of this when she asked for chloroform in the royal labour ward.)

There are still parts of the world that prosecute and burn witches. Women in Papua New Guinea still face violence if they are accused of sorcery or black magic. In Ghana, women (usually elderly widows) have formed “witch camps” and “witch villages,” as safe refuges for those accused of witchcraft in their communities. As many of the supposed Ghanian witches are widows, the accusation can be seen as a ploy by the family to take their property. “’The camps are a dramatic manifestation of the status of women in Ghana,’ says Professor Dzodzi Tsikata of the University of Ghana. ‘Older women become a target because they are no longer useful to society.’ Women who do not conform to society’s expectations also fall victim to the accusations of witchcraft.

Since we inherit a worldview that sees man as reason and woman as nature, we are still in the grip of the beliefs that fostered witch burning. While the vast majority of society see the druid as a benign eccentric and the shaman as a hippy with a drum, witches are still feared. We are still outsiders.

When joined my first coven Julia, our high priestess, told us stories of the herb wives of the past, who cared for the bodies and spirits of those around them, telling their fortunes, treating their bodily ailments with herbs, dowsing their lost property, and physicking their farm animals. She held them up to us as examples of powerful, magical women in an age when women otherwise had little influence. They were the midwives who brought new life into the world, she said, and who laid out the dead at the end of life. These village healers and magicians had different names in different places, including handywomen, blessers, witches, conjurors, herb wives, wild herb men, snake doctors, fairy doctors and currens. [1] In some parts of England they had the title of Old Mother Redcap, since the red cap was a badge of office amongst wise women. There was often some oddity of dress among wise women and cunning men, such as odd socks or a garment worn inside out. [2] These practitioners didn’t use athames and magic swords but everyday objects – stones, keys, shears, sieves, pitchforks, brooms, divining rods, wax, bottles, paper and anything that came readily to hand from the kitchen or farm. 

Women’s knowledge has been derided and ignored for most of our history, and this is just as true today in western culture, in which knowledge is ‘owned’ by experts and can only be passed on through state-approved academic institutions, and where those seeking to follow traditional or alternative paths – such as herbalism – are dismissed as uneducated, naïve or even dangerous. But this is our knowledge, our heritage – as women and as witches, both male and female.

In the Craft, women have power. Traditional covens are always led by a woman (which is something that some men and even some women still struggle with).

Witches are the canny, the riddlers, the healers and the givers of gifts. Witches weave in and out of the fabric of fairytales with wiles and guiles and the truth that every woman (and every man) must learn their own magic.

© Anna Franklin, 2022

Illustration Pagan Ways Tarot © Anna Franklin, Schiffer, 2015


[1] Nigel Pennick, Secrets of East Anglian Magic, Capall Bann, Milverton, 2004

[2] ibid


[i] This is a misreading of a far more ancient Mesopotamian Goddess myth. The name Eve, in Hebrew Hawwah, is from the Akkadian word Hayah meaning “to live”. She is thus called Hawwah because she was Mother of All Living” according to Genesis. This was a title of the Sumerian goddess Ninhursag. In the Sumerian myth the god Enki (possibly cognate with Yahweh or Jehovah) was cursed by Ninhursag because he stole forbidden plants from paradise. His health began to fail and the other gods prevailed on the Mother Goddess to help him. To do this she created a goddess called Ninti (literally nin= lady, ti= rib ie lady of the rib, a play on words since the phrase also means “to make live”). He claimed his rib hurt him and she healed him. 

[ii] This is still argued by people who deny that women can be Christian ministers.

[iii] Jani Farrell Roberts, The Seven Days of My Creation, iUniverse Inc, Lincoln, 2002

[iv] ibid

The Wolf Month

As the days lengthen, the cold strengthens, as the old saying goes. January is a time of ice and snow, sleet and hail, bitter winds and biting rain. It is such a wild and threatening month that in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, January was called the Wul-manoth (‘wolf month’) and in Scots Gaelic it was faoilteach or faoilleach, which means both ‘wild’ and ‘wolf’. For the Lakota Sioux of the Eastern USA, the month of January was the period of ‘the hardship moon’, and the Germans once called it ‘the hard month’. [1] It was a cruel month for our ancestors, with short hours of daylight, frozen, unyielding ground, no fresh food, and the weather preventing both work and travel. It is still a hard month for wildlife, and for many creatures, especially small birds, finding enough food to survive takes up almost every hour of daylight.

In January, we are deep in the winter season of the Crone Goddess, who comes into her full power during the Twelve Days of Yule, accompanied by various spiteful winter spirits.  In some German speaking regions, in the spirit of Yuletide misrule, guisers dress up as the host of Perchta, the winter crone, in horned wooden masks with snouts and beaks, black sheepskins or hoods of badger or bear fur. They take part on in processions and ecstatic dances, blowing horns, clashing symbols and bells, threatening bad children and rewarding good ones. The Perchten run through the streets with glowing embers in their mouths, as if breathing fire. They rush into houses to ‘clean’ them and chase the shrieking children. The guisers claim the offerings which have been set out for Perchta.[2]  They appear alone or in groups, especially on three specific winter nights, called the ‘rough nights’ (the Eve of St. Nicholas, the Eve of the Winter Solstice and before Epiphany). They carry bells and other loud instruments to dispel the winter. It is believed that the quality and abundance of the next harvest, as well as the well-being of the people, are dependent on the performances of the Perchten.

Our modern calendar is based on the old Roman one, which ordered the months from January to December from about 700 BCE.  The Romans called the first month Januarius after the god Janus (‘Door’), [3] the two-faced god who simultaneously looked back to the past and forward to the future, and presided over all beginnings and endings, movement and change. [4] He was considered the initiator of all things, [5] and was worshipped not just at the new year, but at the beginning of any enterprise, such as the harvest and planting times, marriages, deaths and other commencements. In Rome, any rite or religious act began with an invocation of Janus first, and finished with an invocation to Vesta, the hearth goddess. [6]

Though the days are cold and dark, we passed the shortest day in December, with the rebirth of the Sun at Yule, and though we know that though January and February will be the coldest, wettest and windiest of the year, we can comfort ourselves that, inch by inch, minute by precious minute, the days are gradually getting longer. This is not really very noticeable until Imbolc, but it is happening. The Sun Child, born at Yule, is growing and gaining strength.

January is the time for the comfort of the hearth fire, warmth and hearty food, curtains shut tight against the cold and dark. A time to withdraw from the hustle and bustle of the busy warmer months and let the direction of the coming year emerge. January brings a whole new year, yet to unfold, full of possibilities for the next twelve months. The rituals of January are concerned with setting the tone for the coming year with acts of sympathetic magic, banishing the baneful spirits of the darkest days, and waking up the land, ready for the return to work on it.

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

Illustration © Anna Franklin


[1] Martin P. Nilsson , Primitive Time-Reckoning, A Study in the Origins and First Development of the Art of Counting Time among the Primitive and Early Culture Peoples, Gleerup, 1920

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

[3] F. Altheim, History of Roman Religion, London, 1938

[4] Macrobius Saturnalia I 9 7:

[5] Macrobius. Saturnalia, I, 9, 16.

[6] Ovid Fasti I 173-4.

The Once and Future King

Modern druids refer to the winter solstice as Alban Arthur, or Arthur’s Time. Several things point us in the direction of Arthur being a sun god or at least a solar hero in the manner of Herakles, whose twelve labours describe the sun’s journey through the twelve signs of the zodiac during the year. Like other sun gods, Arthur died and rests in a cave (or under a hill) until he shall return as the ‘once and future king’. He is associated with the Wild Hunt – as king of the dead he rides out during the winter months to collect souls. There was a battle between the forces of light and darkness, and Arthur died, though his return is promised. According to Nennius, he fought twelve battles against the Saxons, which may relate to the sun’s journey through the twelve signs of the zodiac. He was defeated in the final battle, wounded in the head, which may characterise the failing sun and dying old year before the winter solstice. [1] Arthur was taken away in a barge by three queens, or according to legend, was borne to the heavens on a celestial barge, alternately called Arthur’s Chariot and Arthur’s Wain (Wagon), corresponding to the Plough stars, or the barque of the sun as it sails into the underworld before returning with the dawn as the reborn sun.

Arthur’s name means ‘Bear-Man’ or ‘Great Bear’ or perhaps even ‘Wonderful Bear’. He was associated with the constellation of the Great Bear which was called Arthur’s Wain (wagon), or sometimes Arthur’s Plough. The constellation of the Great Bear circles around the unmoving Pole Star during the course of the year. To this day the Welsh refer to the circumpolar region of the stars as the Bwrdd Arthur (‘Arthur’s Table’), described as round. Following the Great Bear is the constellation of Boötes, the herdsman, with its brightest star Arcturus or ‘Bear Keeper’.  When it first rises over the eastern horizon, not long after the winter solstice each year, it means that spring is on its way as the sun gains strength. Arcturus is known as ‘The One who Comes’.  

The bear hibernates in the winter, entering a cave or some quiet, secluded place. It emerges in the spring with the female often having given birth in the meantime and appearing with cubs in tow. This led to the bear being associated with regeneration and rebirth, adopted as a solar symbol.

The pattern of the night sky changes hour by hour and season by season as it whirls around the still hub, Polaris, the Pole Star. [2] This was readily taken by many cultures to mean that the polar region of the stars was the centre of the Cosmos, the point in the heavens where the central pole – the cosmic axis – connected. It was called the Nowl in Norse lore, which means the ‘navel’ or the ‘nail’ which holds the sky in position.

The circumpolar stars never sink below the horizon and were called the undying or imperishable ones, the eternal ones which never enter the underworld as all other constellations do. This gave them a special role in stellar mythology, making them the place of eternity and the everlasting. For the Greeks, the three stars in the tail of the Bear were the three apples of immortality which Herakles, for his eleventh labour, stole from the garden of the Hesperides (identified with the stars of Ursa Minor) which contained the World Tree. [3] For these reasons, the North is the most sacred direction in modern Paganism. In Celtic tradition, the Spiral Castle of Arianrhod (the Corona Borealis) surrounds the North Star, and this is the place that souls travel to at death or for initiation.

Circling the Pole Star are the two bears, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (which actually contains the Pole Star), which also never set. [4] The constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear, can be seen from nearly everywhere in the world, but is most prominent in the northern hemisphere. In ancient Greece, Babylon, India, China and in North America, it was imagined as a she-bear. Some have even suggested that its identification as a bear could date back to the Ice Age 50,000 years ago when a Palaeolithic bear cult existed. [5]

The Great Bear is probably the most widely recognized because of its distinctive asterism (a group of stars within a constellation) which forms the Plough.  The shape of the asterism resembles an old-fashioned plough, which gives it its English name, or some say a ladle or saucepan, which gives the constellation its American name, the Big Dipper. The right-hand side of the Plough has two stars that point to the Pole Star, the last star in the tail of the Little Bear, and these are called ‘the Pointers’. The stars were used as an aid to navigation by travellers on both sea and land as they indicate the way north.

The orientation of the bear figures changes dramatically through the course of the night. The movement of the Plough around the Pole Star, and its changing position, charts the passage of time. As the seasons turn, it moves around the sky, rotating a quarter of a circle each season. After a year, it is back at the same point in the sky. Many cultures used it to pinpoint the calendar, or as a marker for various ceremonies. [6] Its continual circling of the axis stands for eternity, cosmic order, ordered change, cyclical change, and in some cultures, the authority of the king. [7]

Some have suggested that the four seasonal points of the Plough is the origin of the swastika, an ancient symbol of movement and change. For the Egyptians the constellation was Meskhetiu, which represented immortality because it never went into the underworld.

A common name for the seven major stars of the Great Bear is ‘the Wise Men’. In Hindu tradition they are sapta-riksha, or Seven Sages or Seven Poets.  In China, the seven stars correspond to the Seven Rulers. In Siberia the seven stars are the Seven Blacksmiths or Seven Watchmen. It may be that this is the origin of the wise men who greet the newborn Son of Light (the Bible mentions a visit by wise men, not kings, and does not number them as three).

The most common name for the constellation is the wagon. Homer and Hesiod both give the Great Bear the secondary appellation of the wagon. As far back as the seventh century BCE, the Mesopotamians called it Ma-Gid-Da or ‘wagon’. For the Anglo-Saxons it was Irmin’s Wagon, for the Norse Odin’s Wagon and for the Teutons it was Woden’s Wagon, or Karl’s Wagon, which later became Charles’ Wagon in England. The Italians called it Carro (wagon). In Britain it was known as Arthur’s Wagon.

Following the Great Bear is the constellation of Boötes, the herdsman who rules the spring and summer skies, with its brightest star Arcturus (‘Bear Keeper’). When it first rises over the eastern horizon in January, it is a sign that spring is on its way. Arcturus is known as ‘The One who Comes’, rising not long after the winter solstice each year, just as Arthur is known as the ‘Once and Future King’ who sleeps until the day of his promised return.[8] In Ancient Egypt Arcturus was Smat ‘The One Who Rules’ and Bau, ‘The Coming One’. The Celtic goddess Brighid was styled ‘daughter of the bear’, because her spring festival of Imbolc follows the rebirth of the sun and the rising of Arcturus. 

© Anna Franklin, Yule, History Lore and Celebration, Lear Books 2010


[1] Owen Morgan, The Light of Britannia, 1892

[2] This is the current Pole Star, though previously it was Draco and in 14,000 years time it will be Vega

[3] The three stars in the tail of Ursa Major are called ‘pointer stars’ as they point the way to the Pole Star.

[4] The bears now set except in high latitudes, but in Homer’s day and before, these stars did not sink below the horizon.

[5] http://www.aavso.org/myths-uma

[6] It may be that the Greeks saw the Plough as the wheel of Ixion spinning around the North Star, Polaris. Ixion (possibly ‘Axle’), King of Lapiths, was the first man to murder a kinsman. Hermes chained him by hands and feet to a wheel which constantly revolves around the sky.

[7] Dr E.C.Krupp, Beyond the Blue Horizon, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1991

[8] Madeleine Johnson, Arcturus Rising, http://www.yewgrove.demon.co.uk/starsong/arcturus.htm, ©1997

The Rebirth of the Sun

The winter solstice is probably the most ancient festival of all. Evidence for its celebration going back at least 30, 000 years and is found on every continent.  The word solstice is derived from Latin and means ‘sun stands still’. The sun usually rises at a different point on the horizon each day (it only rises due east at the spring equinox). It travels north-east to its furthest position at the summer solstice and appears to stand still for three days before heading south-east, reaching its southernmost position at the winter solstice where it seems to rest again for three days before heading north once more.

We experience changing seasons because the axis of the Earth – an imaginary line between the north and south poles – is tilted from true by 23.5 degrees. As our planet revolves around the sun, this means that part of the earth tilts towards the sun, then away again.  Between June and September, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun and gets more light, experiencing the season of summer. At the same time the Southern Hemisphere experiences winter.  Between December and March, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun and experiences less light and warmth, while the Southern Hemisphere enjoys summer. Just how much sunlight you experience depends on the latitude you occupy. By June 21st there are twenty-four hours of daylight above the Arctic Circle, while below the Antarctic Circle there are twenty-four hours of darkness.  Without the tilt in the Earth’s axis, we would have the same degree of light and warmth – or dark and cold – all year round and have no seasons at all; the sun’s rays would always be directly over the Equator. The solstices and equinoxes are the four stations of the sun during the year, represented by an equal armed cross and there is a frequent connection between sun gods and crosses.

At midwinter and midsummer, the sun apparently changes its course. In midwinter having reached the lowest point in its path, it turns about and begins to mount the skies; conversely at midsummer, having attained the highest point, the sun seems to turn about once more and descend.  Consequently, it was often imagined the sun god was born at the winter solstice and grew until midsummer, afterwards declining towards his death at the midwinter solstice, before being reborn and the whole cycle beginning again. The Sanskrit root of the word summer means ‘half year’, suggesting the light and dark halves of the year were marked by the two solstices.[1] This division of the year by the solstices into two halves was common in the ancient world. The Saxon year began at the winter solstice and the summer solstice marked its mid-point.

The winter solstice is generally considered to be the start of winter, and the three winter months are reckoned as December, January and February. However, the ‘solar winter’- the period with the fewest hours of daylight and the weakest sunlight – stretches from November 1st to February 1st with the solstice marking Midwinter.  Though the Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year, it is not the date of either the earliest sunset or the latest sunrise. The earliest sunset occurs around Little Yule on 13th December, and the latest sunrise around New Year at the beginning of January.

The sun governs the pattern of life on Earth, its cycles dividing the hours, days, months and years, and the round of sowing, growth, harvest and decay. It is only the movement of the sun that makes life possible. The Egyptians called the sun the divine creator of all things, the master of time and the seasons. Its regular daily and seasonal rotations stand as a symbol of cosmic order. From where we stand on earth, each day the sun seems to rise in the east, scattering the powers of darkness and diffusing light and fertility as it climbs to its zenith at noon. Then it declines, descending into the west and eventually sinking below the horizon, only to return with the following dawn.

Ancient man would have realised that we depend on the sun for life – in the summer the long hours of daylight and warmth make the crops grow but in the winter darkness and cold, they shrivel and die. Each day, up to the winter solstice, the sun grows weaker and weaker. 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. As the Roman writer Lucan (39-65 CE) described it:

“Nature’s rhythm stops. The night becomes longer and the day keeps waiting. The ether does not obey its law; and the whirling firmament becomes motionless, as soon as it hears the magic spell. Jupiter – who drives the celestial vault that turns on its fast axis – is surprised by the fact that it does not want to turn.”

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

Sheltered in our warm houses and able to buy food from the supermarket all year round, we find it hard to imagine what winter meant for our ancestors. During the summer, the long hours of light and warmth provided a bountiful harvest of greenery, corn and fruit. Animals had plenty of grazing and reproduced, supplying meat, milk and cheese. But then winter came. Darkness and cold increased daily, causing plants to shrivel and animals expired while struggling to find fodder. Humans died from cold and hunger. Every day, the sun seemed to grow weaker, as if it too were dying. Every day, it rose lower and lower in the sky. Darkness and death threatened to overwhelm the world forever.

And yet, in the very moment of greatest gloom, the sun was reborn. Life and hope were rekindled – the light would grow, warmth would increase, spring, summer and harvest would come. The Wheel of the Year, which had been briefly stilled, would spin on.  

It is impossible to separate the celebrations of the winter solstice and Christmas, as all of the myths, symbols and customs of Christmas are 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, Yule, History Lore and Celebration, Lear Books 2010


[1] Dr E.C.Krupp, Beyond the Blue Horizon, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992

17 December – Saturnalia begins…

Many of our customs of Christmas stem from the Roman Saturnalia, a winter festival spanning several days beginning on 17 December. Saturn (equivalent of the Greek Cronus) was a major Roman god of the seasons, the calendar, agriculture and the harvest, depicted holding a sickle in his left hand and a bundle of wheat in his right. In Roman mythology after Jupiter defeated him, Saturn fled to Rome and established a Golden Age there as an earthly king, a time of perfect peace and harmony. When the era was over, Saturn departed to lie asleep on a magical island, but will one day return and bring back another golden age. The Feast of Saturnalia was meant to recapture something of this perfect time – no taxes could be collected, no wars declared, and no prisoners executed. Presents were given and feasts and merrymaking were the order of the day. 

It was an annual period of license, when the customary restraints of law and morality were thrown aside, and everyone gave themselves up to excessive mirth and jollity. [1] Catullus called it ‘the best of days’. Masters changed places with their servants, and the slave might dine with his master or even be waiting on by him. Every house had its Saturnalicius Princeps (Master of the Saturnalia), the Lord of Misrule, chosen by lot, who had to act as foolishly as possible and was free to order others to do his bidding. His command was law, whether it was to dance naked, to sing, suffer a dunking in icy water, or carry a flute girl round the house. Trees were decorated and houses hung with holly and other greenery. Slaves wore the badge of freedom known as the pillius and were exempt from punishment; there was a school holiday and a special market. Senators left aside their togas for more informal clothes, and people greeted each other with “Io Saturnalia” (‘Hail/praise Saturn’) rather in the manner we say, “Merry Christmas”.

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


[1] James Frazer, The Golden Bough, Macmillan Press, London, 1976

December 16- official start of the micepie season!

Mincemeat

1 lb currants

1 lb raisins

1 lb sultanas

1 lb cooking apples, peeled, cored and finely chopped or coarsely grated

1 lb chopped vegetarian suet

3 ½ oz blanched almonds, roughly chopped

1 lb light muscovado sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

1 pinch grated nutmeg

1.5 tsp mixed spice

1 lemons, grated rind and juice

1 oranges, grated rind and juice

7 oz mixed candied peel, chopped

7 fl oz dark rum

9 fl oz dry sherry

Mix everything together in a really large bowl. It’s a good idea to get stuck in and use your hands for this. Cover the bowl and leave on one side for a day so that the flavours can develop. Give it a good stir now and again. Pack the mincemeat into sterilised jars, seal with greaseproof paper jam pot covers and tight-fitting lids. Store in a cool place – if you have the time, let the mincemeat mature for 2-3 weeks before using it for mince pies.