Autumn Equinox Incense

½ part dried grains of wheat 

1 part dried rose petals

2 parts frankincense 

2 parts myrrh 

1 part apple wood (or hazel wood)

½ part red poppy petals, dried

Few drops rose oil (optional)

Few drops cypress oil

First of all assemble your ingredients, your pestle and mortar, your mixing spoons and your jars and labels ready for the finished product. 

All the measurements are by volume, not weight, and I use a spoon to measure out small quantities when I am making a single jar of incense, or a cup for large quantities and big batches.

Combine the resins and essential oils, stirring lightly with the pestle and left to go a little sticky before you add any woods. Next add any herbs and powders and lastly any flowers.

As you blend the incense concentrate on the purpose for which the incense will be used, and ‘project’ this into the blend. If you like you can make a whole ritual of the event, picking and drying your own herbs, then laying out the tools and ingredients on the altar, lighting a candle and asking the God and Goddess for help:

“God and Goddess, deign to bless this incense which I would consecrate in your names. Let it obtain the necessary virtues for acts of love and beauty in your honour. Let Blessing Be”.

To use your incenses, take a self-igniting charcoal block (available from occult and church suppliers) and apply a match to it. It will begin to spark across its surface, and eventually to glow red. Place it on a flame-proof dish with a mat underneath (it will get very hot). When the charcoal block is glowing, sprinkle a pinch of the incense on top: a little goes a long way.

© Anna Franklin

The Spiritual Quest

In every culture, there are tales of the hero or heroine who receives a message from the Otherworld and sets off on a quest, meeting characters who help or hinder him/her along the way. It’s a universal myth, and one that still appears in books and movies to this day.

This is a story also told in the Tarot’s Journey of the Fool. When we get to the Hermit card, the big questions of life have become overwhelming for our hero, and he sets off alone into the wilderness, in search of spiritual answers. Like the Hermit, most of us here are on a spiritual quest, actively searching for meaning.

The Hermit’s quest was triggered by the feeling that there must be more to life than the mundane round of eat, sleep, work and die. He longed for something more, something profound which would give meaning to his life. Every moment, most of us are thinking about the future or the past, chasing something pleasant or trying to avoid something unpleasant. But usually, in ways so subtle that they escape attention, we’re seeking something. For some people there comes a point where the questions demand answers: “Why? What’s it all about? Is this all there is?”

If this were all, then it might end there in disappointment, but often that longing triggers a response form the Otherworld and we glimpse something transcendent. Though fleeting, it changes everything.

In legend, King Arthur and his court had a vision of the Holy Grail, the quintessence of spiritual power, and all the Knights of the Round Table set off in pursuit of it, leaving behind their rich lives and noble pastimes to enter Forest Adventurous in pursuit of the mysterious chalice. There they underwent many tests and trials to determine their worthiness. On the way, the knights met with priests and wise women, angry warriors and seductive temptresses, grave perils and terrible dangers. Some didn’t look very hard and consequently found no trace of the Grail, others got bored and wandered away. Some found it too hard and ran away to seek an easier path. Some just returned to an easy life of sensual pleasures. Some were frightened away; others were tempted away. Others searched high and low, and died exhausted. Others railed in frustration, blaming the Heavens or King Arthur for sending them on a wild goose chase. The desire to find the Grail was not enough to discover it.

The knights were used to fighting flesh and blood enemies, but in the quest for the Grail, the search was really an inner one, and their enemies were their own egos and the darkness in themselves. 

In the end, it was the pure knight Galahad who found the Grail. He attained the Grail, not by years of exhaustive searching, but because of what lay in his heart.

The Grail is a symbol of the spiritual power that creates and nourishes the Cosmos. There are many other symbols of that power, and many names for it. Some call it enlightenment; some call it God. We call it magic.

The Grail brims over with the endless stream of Divine energythat flows throughout creation, underpinning all life and giving it meaning. It is filled with joyous spiritual and emotional sustenance for those who drink from it, with healing for the body, mind and spirit, and the plentiful flow of life. But though it is eternal and always present, the Grail is not given to all who covet it.

Paradoxically, though it is always there, the very act of searching for it can stop us finding it. Many of Arthur’s knights searched high and low, some for decades. The spiritual search we each undertake can become as frenetic as some of the knight’s adventures – dashing down one promising path after another without following any to its end, searching for guides who can simply put the Grail in our hands for the asking, talking about the path instead of walking it, comparing this spiritual technique with that one, or becoming addicted to ever more transcendent peak experiences. This is to fall into the trap of thinking that it’s the particular way of walking that will take you to your destination, instead of showing up for every step of it.

Sometimes, we forget why we are searching, and the search becomes an end in itself, a way of life.

Spirituality can turn into a kind of narcissism, especially here in the West, in which the path to non-self becomes instead a path of gratifying and pleasing the self. Yoga, meditation, ritual, entheogens, energy work – all of these can easily become about enlarging, and serving the little self, when they are meant to do the opposite. Spirituality can become a consumer lifestyle, and a way of enhancing and generally pleasing the all-important ME, ME, ME, the ego.

Galahad found the Grail by virtue of simply being who he was – a pure heart. He alone was able to remove his ego from the search and let whatever would come, come, without desire, without preconceptions. Only then could the Grail be seen. The Grail didn’t suddenly appear where it was not before: it was always there, but the knights were too busy looking for it to find it. It is only when we stop searching that we find what we are looking for.

If you ever watch children play, they are totally absorbed in what they do. The appearance of a butterfly can bring gasps of excitement and discovery – it is a new thing, and wondrous. We lose this wonder as we grow and become jaded with the experience of the passing years. We stop playing and start working. There was a Rabbi who often used to begin his lectures by announcing that a miracle had happened. When the audience begged him to reveal what it was, he would say, “The sun set”. We have lost our ability to see the miracles in front of us, to find in the setting sun the exemplification of all that is wondrous about living. As the Rabbi once put it, “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”

In the Craft, we call the energy of the Grail ‘magic’, defining magic as the quintessential spiritual energy that flows through all things, the thread that links the Cosmos.  When we perform an act of magic, we strive to become one with it, feeling magic flowing in our bodies as a living force. Each magical act is an act of creation with its roots deep in the source of creation.

There is an amazing temple in which the Divine is always present. It is called the world, and we already live in it. You can blinker your eyes, put your hands over years ears, block your mind with thoughts and say, “No, this is my wall, and I’m only going to look at my wall, my wall is safe, I am only going to think about my wall, I will paint my wall a nice colour, and that will satisfy me,” or you can turn around and look at the wonder that surrounds you, every day, every moment, waiting to be revealed.  Divine energy radiates in the Stones of Avebury, and in the pebbles in your garden. It swirls through the groves of the forest, and in the dandelions pushing through the pavement cracks on the High Street. If you open your eyes, you will see it. All the rooms of the temple are equally holy, but some will call you, some will have lessons for you. If you open your ears, you will hear them.  Stop facing that one, safe wall, even if it is your grove or circle. Be brave. Be ready to slip through into the Otherworld, to walk liminal worlds where ideas stream as lines of consciousness and thoughts flow as rivers.

Only the techniques of discovery can be taught, and it is up to you whether or not you use them, but the discovery itself is yours alone, a mystical knowledge which cannot be given, which cannot be taught. But it can only happen when the frantic searching stops and you become still, when the spiritual narcissism stops, and you allow the little self, the ego, to step aside. It can only happen when you open your heart to the universal flow of magic.  

Walk you path in honourable strength with your head held high, even when it is frightening, but think, never take it for granted and walk it to the end.

© Anna Franklin

The Crooked Path

“…you shall be taught to be wise, that in the fullness of time you shall count yourself among those who serve the Gods, among those who belong to the Craft, among those who are called the Mighty Dead. Let thy life, and the life to come, be in the service of our noble Lady and her gentle Lord.”

Witchcraft is often 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.

In the past, the Church saw witches as the antithesis of what a woman should be – meek, subservient, industrious and obedient (and some Christian traditions still maintain this). 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 principle 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 is male, and thus the only true gender is 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,” and “There are more women than men found infected with the heresy of witchcraft, ”.

“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 most damning of all “…women are weak in themselves, and can only perform magic in league with demons”.[iii] The clergy exclaimed

“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.”

“no one does more harm to the Catholic Church than midwives…the midwives exceed all other witches in deeds of shame”

“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 Ghanaian 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. The initiation oath of the Craft reminds us: “Remember the Burning Times, when all we could promise our brothers and sisters was a painless death before the flames took hold. Do you still desire to take that oath, knowing what has been may yet be again?”

We stand of the shoulders of giants, the witches who have gone before, those we call the Mighty Dead. Those who learned, those who suffered, those who forged the crooked path.

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. 

I gradually realised that such expertise formed the pattern of women’s lives for thousands of years and that women developed highly skilful methods in all these areas, even though no contemporary historian wrote about them or accorded women due status for their invaluable work.

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. Traditionally, covens are always led by a woman (which is something that some men and even some women struggle with). Moreover, the image of the older woman is positive and powerful. She is the wise one, the teacher, the witch. We look to the Crone goddesses, the witch goddesses, the mistresses of magic, the keepers of the secrets of life and death, Black Annis, Hecate, Ceridwen, Baba Yaga, the Cailleach, Kali, Lilith.

Witches in stories are described vas ugly old crones. Dictionaries describe the crone as an old, ugly, withered woman or ancient witchy female, or say that crone is a derogatory word for an old woman. It is a word derived from ‘carrion’ i.e. dead meat. In fairy tales the crone is always evil. However, this was not always the case. In previous ages, she was the respected elder, a woman with a lifetime’s garnered wisdom, incorporating that of maiden, mother, middle age and old age. She was the keeper of history, the fount of lore, the healer and midwife, the one consulted in time of trouble because her experience told her what to do. She was the Cailleach or veiled one, the coron or crowned one. She is the hag, another derogatory term now, but derived from hagia, which means ‘the sacred one’ (as in hagiography, the study of saints), or from heilig meaning ‘holy’. In Japan, older people are honoured as ‘living treasures’. In our own society, with its heritage of patriarchal monotheism, older women are seen as useless, and that seems to refer to any woman over 45. Today’s witches are trying to reclaim the title of Crone as an honourable and respected estate, in which an older woman is empowered to be herself: as wise, holy, rebellious, incorrigible, astute, funny, sexy, or irascible as she wishes.

Witchcraft is watching the sunrise or sunset, the forest in the light of a glowing moon, a meadow enchanted by the first light of day.   It is the morning dew on the petals of a flower, the gentle caress of a warm summer breeze upon your skin, or the warmth of the summer sun on your face.   Witchcraft is the fall of colourful autumn leaves, and the softness of winter snow.   It is light and shadow and all that lies in between.  It is the song of the birds and other creatures of the wild.   It is being in the temple of Mother Nature and being humbled in reverence.  The witchcraft method is experiential, personal and non-scripted. It is the path untrod… revelation through your own effort.

Witches are the canny, the riddlers, the healers and the givers of gifts. Witches weaver 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.

Like all secret arts, witchcraft is learned by apprenticeship. Its deepest secrets are printed nowhere.

© Anna Franklin

[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 Spirit-Haunted Forest

Trees and forests haunt our imaginations. We talk about the family tree, the tree of knowledge, the tree of life and still bring in trees at Christmas. Literature and fairy tales treat the forest as a place of mystery and magic, where we might meet magical beings, unicorns, wise hermits, princes under enchantment, Robin Hood, where the magical maiden comes to the aid of the knight on a quest, or a place of threat where we might encounter ogres, where Red Riding Hood meets the wolf and Handsel and Gretel meet the cannibalistic witch, where the overgrown path might take us to the fountain of youth, the witch’s cottage or as in Dante’s Inferno, the path to hell.

The edge of the forest marks the symbolic edge of civilization and the boundary of man’s authority; within it is raw nature, teeming with untamed plant and animal life, hidden from plain view by the shadowed canopy of trees. To enter it is to leave the familiar and cross the threshold into the unknown, a place of challenge and unpredictability. In myth and literature, it is a place where we project our deepest anxieties and fears, where the hero of the tale undergoes tests and initiations before becoming transformed.  The forest can be seen as a metaphor for the untamed inner landscape and the unconscious mind, with its labyrinth of tangled and hidden paths.

Here in Europe, we’ve always lived with trees and had a close relationship with them, and in mythology they have been viewed with a mixture of kinship and awe. The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote: “If you come upon a grove of old trees that have lifted their crowns up above and shut out the light of the sky by the darkness of their interlacing boughs, you feel that there is a spirit in the place, so lofty is the wood, so lonely the spot, so wondrous the thick unbroken shade.”

In some mythologies humans were believed to have been created from trees. In Greek myth, Zeus created mankind from ash trees, while in Scandinavian mythology Ask, the first man, originated in the ash tree, and the first woman Embla, from the elm. In India, Buddha was incarnated as a tree spirit forty-three times before receiving enlightenment under a bo tree.

Many people instinctively feel that a tree has a spirit or consciousness. They were widely believed to embody the spirit of a god or goddess, or that of a vegetation or nature spirit. While the lifespan of a man is short, trees can live for many centuries. Deciduous trees are renewed each spring (a symbol of rebirth and renewal), while evergreens remained unchanging, even in the death-time of winter.  As symbols of the god, or a god in actuality, trees were associated with fertility. At the festival of Dionysus anyone with a tree in the garden would dress it up to represent the god. At various other harvest and fecundity festivals trees would be decorated with wreaths and otherwise honoured. From this connection of the tree with virility comes our own customs of carrying tree sprigs in a wedding bouquet and such May Day observances such as the leaf-clad Jack in the Green dancer.

The tree itself was a cosmic axis with the roots extending into the underworld of the dead, tapping the ancestral wisdom there, and the branches extending into the realms of the sky gods, with the trunk connecting it to Middle Earth, our realm.

Sticks or wands were [and still are] carried by elders, kings, heralds, and military leaders as a symbol of god given authority, derived from the sacredness of the tree.

The use of sacred groves was widespread in many cultures; they were the places that the Gods could be contacted. They were important features of the religious practices of Celtic, Baltic, Germanic, ancient Greek, Near Eastern, Roman, and Slavic Paganism, and were also used in India, Japan, and West Africa.  In the Old Testament, altars were set up in groves or beneath particular oak trees. Both Pliny and Lucan wrote that druids did not meet in stone temples or other constructions, but in sacred groves of trees. Evidence of Celtic groves, or nemeton, has been found in Germany, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Hungary as well as France, England and Northern Ireland. One of the most famous of the many sacred groves in ancient Greece was the oak grove at Dodona, sacred to Zeus, where the god communicated through the whispering of the leaves.

Because of the late coming of Christianity to the Baltic states, sacred groves survived longer there than in other parts of Europe. The last extermination of sacred groves was carried out in the lands of present-day Lithuania after its Christianization in 1387 and Samogitia in 1413. The most famous sacred grove of Northern Europe was at the Temple at Uppsala in Old Uppsala, where every tree was considered sacred. The practice of blót – the sacrificial ritual in Norse paganism – was usually held in sacred groves.

Stories of the gods and spirits of the wood come down to us as folk tales of forest fairies, and there are vast numbers of forest fairies and spirits all over the world.  In Croatia, for example, Woodland Maidens are fairy girls, covered in hair. When humans leave food out for them, they will return the favour by cleaning their houses.  In Greece, the Sylvans are beautiful but dangerous, sometimes luring travellers to their deaths in the forests. In Hungarian fairy lore, the Forest Girl appears as a naked woman with hair so long that it sweeps the ground. When the forest rustles, it tells of her presence. In Scandinavia and Germany the forest spirits are often wild people covered in moss, or Moss Maidens. Among the southern and western Slavs, the Vile [‘Whirlwind’] dwell in woodlands, and ride about them on horses or on stags, hunting deer with their arrows and herding chamois. Some of the forest Vily are connected with particular trees in the manner of dryads and cannot venture far from them. In Dalmatia, they are described as the troop of Herodias, the witch queen. In Serbia they are called divna ‘the divine’.

To this day in Britain and Ireland, some special trees, especially those near holy wells and springs, are hung with gifts or rags to solicit blessings or healing from their spirits.

In Britain some of the ancient nature spirits and gods passed into lore as woodland fairies, often given the name of Hob or Robin. Robin Goodfellow is a mischievous English fairy who loves to play tricks on mortals, perhaps rushing between their feet as a hare, transforming himself into a horse and carrying them away, or appearing as a will o’the wisp. He sometimes leads people astray and a term for being lost is ‘Robin Goodfellow has been with you tonight’. Faith in Robin Goodfellow amongst the ordinary people was once absolute, though Reginald Scot wrote in 1584 that belief in him was less strong than it had been. However, he was to become to be a popular figure in ballads and mummers plays for many years afterwards, appearing wearing calfskin and carrying a broom or flail, with ruddy hands and face. He has the head of a handsome youth and like many other fairies, the body or legs of a goat, reminding us of the Greek god of wild places, Pan. Like Pan he has a lusty nature, small horns on his head, and carries musical pipes. It may be that he is the fairy remnant of an ancient horned god. He is never seen between Halloween and the vernal equinox and is usually accompanied by a variety of animals.

He was commonly seen with a bow and arrows, and these are associated with many fairies such as Puck, Spriggans, the Vile, the American Baykok, the Cambodian Präy and the German Pilwiz, to name but a few. When Stone Age flint arrowheads were found they were often called fairy arrows or elf bolts and attributed to fairy manufacture. Welsh legends tell of people being found dead in the forest shot with numerous tiny arrows. Fairy archers were much feared in Scotland and according to an old poem “We dare not go a-hunting/ For fear of little men! ” Anyone who went near the fairy mounds was likely to be struck with a fairy arrow. Attack by an evil spirit must have seemed the only explanation for the sudden one-sided paralysis of a stroke. 

This association of arrows and the spirit world is very ancient. Supernatural or divine bowmen appear in many mythologies. In Indian legend there is the god Rama, while in classical myth the arrows of Eros are tipped with gold to cause love and lead to extinguish passion. They never miss their mark. In the Bible we read of the mighty hunter Nimrod. The Persian god Mithras was a divine archer who shot an arrow into a rock from which water then sprang. Apollo is the Greek god of the sun with attributes of bow and lyre. The only straight thing in nature is the shaft of sunlight piercing the clouds – these shafts are spoken of as the ‘fiery arrows of the sun’ or ‘darts of the sun’. Apollo’s sister is the moon goddess Artemis. She too has a bow and arrows. Her bow is the crescent of the moon and her arrows the shafts of moonbeams. Like many moon goddesses she is the patroness of the hunt, sudden death, and the wild goddess of the woods who brings prosperity to those who honour her. Her name is found as a component of many fairy names. Our ancestors were hunter-gatherers prowling through the dark forests in search of game. To them, the bow was important, and the sound of the bowstring is often considered magical, attracting game. It is the precursor of such musical instruments such as the harp or lyre. The bowshot was a unit of length used to define boundaries and limits. It is also straight and straight lines were considered sacred.

It is possible that in the stories of forest spirits such as Robin Goodfellow we have the origins of the tales of Robin Hood.  Consider the fact that he is an outsider, his name, his green clothing, his forest home, and his deadly arrows – perhaps he was the nature god of the ordinary people who could seek him in the forest. A depiction of Robin and his men at the fourteenth century chapter house at Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire shows them as twelve green men merging with various sacred plants such as hawthorn, and ivy.

There are several hooded fairies, including Carl Hood, Grim and the Romano-Celtic Genii Cucullati [‘Hooded Spirits’]. Images of triads of hooded and cloaked dwarfs or giants appear all over Celtic Europe during the Roman period carrying eggs or displaying phalluses, obviously marking them as fertility spirits. An obvious association is the ‘hood’ of the phallus, the foreskin. This is further compounded by the fact that ‘Robin’ [as in Robin Hood] was once a nickname for the phallus. Another explanation might be that the hood conceals the identity of the supernatural being so that it might go amongst mankind undetected. Odin was called Grim meaning ‘hooded’ or ‘disguised’ as the god was often known to go among mortals in this aspect. For humans wearing a hood, mask or disguise may have a sacred or ritual purpose, relinquishing the old identity with the old clothes.

The colour green is very much associated with fairies. They are often described as wearing green clothes, coats and caps – some even have green skin. In Ireland green is so much the fairy colour that it is unlucky for humans to wear it, while in Scotland any woman dressed in green is sure to be a fairy. The fairies most associated with green are the nature spirits, woodland fairies, and those solitary fairies dwelling in the wild. Green of course, is the colour of growing things. After the cold, death-time of winter the spring returns with a flurry of fresh green growth. It is therefore a symbol of regeneration, the spirit of vegetation, hope, beauty, harmony and eternal life.

Ancient religion was largely concerned with agriculture and fertility, with entreating the gods and nature spirits to provide the corn. In Britain this spirit of vegetation is still portrayed on May Day by the Green Man, Jack in the Bush, or Jack in the Green, in the guise of a mummer clad in green leaves and fresh boughs. He also occurs on numerous pub signs and church carvings. May Day is also connected with Robin Hood; in fact, in England it was once called ‘Robin Hood’s Day’. In Germany the May King is concealed in a frame and covered with birch boughs and flowers. In parts of Russia and Balkans, the Green Man is called Green George, who masquerades as a tree. He was ducked in a pond to make sure enough rain would fall in the summer. Green is also connected with water as the bringer of life. In Muslim lore, the Green Man is Khidr who drank from the fountain of life and turned green. He now lives alone, travelling the world and protecting sailors. 

The Green Man has foliage for hair and either a leafy beard or with leaves growing out of his mouth and nose; sometimes he has horns on his head. The French called him tete de feuilles (head of leaves) and the Germans called him blattmaske (leaf mask). No one really knows the purpose of the Green Man in churches, and theories have extended from Pagans smuggling their old deities onto church premises to illustrations of the threatening character of the natural world which could only be redeemed by Christianity.

A huge number of nature spirits across the world are described as or partly or completely covered in hair and they are often horned with something of the animal about them. Wild men are often carved into church buildings, much like the foliate heads known as Green Men to which they are certainly related. We find the wildman in the Arthurian Yuletide tale of the Green Knight, a mixture of Pagan ritual and the teachings of medieval Christianity. The Green Knight has long green hair which covers his back, a green beard, and carries a holly club in one hand. He is beheaded but comes back to life, and through his sacrifice demonstrates that life still goes on. The wildman or woodwose was a common character at various festivities in mediaeval England from May Day to Yule. At Midsummer pageants and parades the frightening and comical woodwoses were commonly dressed in ivy and carried oak clubs. At the Scottish court at Yuletide, the Abbot of Unreason was attended by men dressed in “branches of pine, yew, oak, fern, boxwood, or flowering heath”. [1] Henry VIII held Yuletide festivities in 1515 with a play in which eight wild men, in green moss and with ugly weapons, fought eight knights.

For Christians, the Wildman was a dangerous and despised figure, a rebellious force that threatened the values of orderly society; he represented the anarchy of untamed Nature as opposed to rationalised Christian civilisation. He dwelt in the dark forests and wild woods, hidden by the trees from the light of heaven, which were still haunted by the ancient spirits of the Old Gods. He was raw nature, the shamanistic feral god of beasts and vegetation whose annual death and resurrection had to be acknowledged.

The forest has always been considered a spirit-haunted place of mystery and magic. It is a place of trial, danger, initiation and transformation, a place where outcasts have found refuge, where knights have quested for adventure, poets found inspiration and mystics have received enlightenment and encountered their gods.  Myths tell us that those who stayed at home in civilised and ordered safety experienced none of these things – never challenged themselves, never followed the labyrinthine forests paths to its enchanted heart or discovered the Grail. To achieve anything new or worthwhile we have to leave the safe and well trodden path.

We have always had a relationship with trees, both a practical one where we utilise the wood for fires, for fences, for dwellings and one where we appreciate them for their beauty which has inspired great art, music and poetry.

Moreover, we have a relationship with forests as sacred places.  Forest and tree mythology has embodied out concepts of safety and adventure, wildness and civilisation, salvation and damnation, of birth and death, of decay and regeneration.

Nearly everyone feels the need to be in contact with the natural world, to see, hear, touch and exist within it. Each of us feels a sense of quiet awe when we enter a forest. In its dappled shade, our overburdened minds relax, and we become more simply ourselves. For each of us the forest can be a temple where we can renew ourselves, physically, mentally and spiritually.

As the Buddha said “(the forest is) a peculiar organism of unlimited kindness and benevolence that makes no demands for its sustenance and extends generously the products of its life activity; it affords protection to all beings, offering shade even to the axe man who destroys it.”

© Anna Franklin, 2021

Photo by Paul Mason

[1] Thomas K. Hervey, The Book of Christmas, The Folklore Society, 1888

Early September

As we slip gently into autumn, we look to finish off the business of summer and prepare for winter, knowing that from the equinox, the darkness and cold will grow. Even at the beginning of September there is a nip in the morning air, and the luscious blooms of summer are starting to go to seed.

This is the time of abundance for me, with a profusion of fresh garden produce and foraged food available.  I’m harvesting main crop potatoes, carrots, swedes, turnips and beetroot, as well as cauliflowers, broccoli, beans, the last of the fresh salads, tomatoes, bell peppers, apples and pears. This is one of my favourite months for foraging too, and the hedgerows are bountiful with hazelnuts and sweet chestnuts, berries such as rosehips, elderberries, blackberries, rowan and hawthorn berries, and mushrooms spring up in the woods and meadows.  There are still fresh herbs around too, and I preserve them by drying them by hanging them in bunches in a well ventilated space, or by freezing them in water in ice cube trays (one can then be dropped into a soup or a stew). This is a very busy month when the harvest must be gathered in before the first frosts, and food must be prepared, stored and preserved for the dead time of winter to come, with freezing, drying, canning, jam and chutney making, brewing wines and beers, apple and pear brandy and making my yearly batch of cider vinegar.

Naturally, I also use September’s bounty for making herb simples like blackberry vinegar and elderberry glycerite.

Blackberry Vinegar

2 lb. blackberries

2 pt. malt vinegar

Place the washed blackberries in a bowl and break them up slightly with a wooden spoon. Pour on the malt vinegar. Cover with a cloth and stand for 3-4 days, stirring occasionally. Boil for 10 minutes, cool, strain and bottle the resulting liquid. This is very good for coughs. Quantities can easily be increased, allowing 1 lb. blackberries to 1 pt. fruit.

The same method can be used to make elderberry vinegar. Many people find this very good food colds – drink a tablespoon of blackberry or elderberry vinegar in hot water with a little honey.

Elderberry Glycerite

Ripe elderberries

Vegetable glycerine (food grade)

Strip the berries from the stem, using a fork. To make a glycerite put the berries into a clean jar and pour on slightly warmed glycerine until they are completely covered. Seal and keep in a warm place for 2-4 weeks, shaking daily. Strain through muslin and store in a dark bottle in a cool place for up to 2 years. Take a spoonful four times a day for colds and flu.

Mulled Hedgerow Punch

3 cups mixed autumn berries (such as blackberries, elderberries, hawthorn berries)

2 litres apple juice

2 star anise

2 cinnamon sticks

3 cloves

3 cm fresh ginger, grated

Put all the ingredients into a pan, bring to the boil, turn down the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain into mugs, serve hot and sweeten with honey, if desired.


“Standing on bare ground — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space — all mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; I am part and parcel of God.”

“ I was totally overwhelmed by spiritual sensations. Every molecule, every cell of the body I was inhabiting started screaming out in ecstasy. Suddenly, with no effort on my part, all of my senses became interchangeable and could perform the activities of any of the others. To my joyous disbelief, I could see with my ears and hear with my nose. I even tasted with my eyes.”

“Such clarity has left me shattered, left to stand naked before what I now know to be, and what I have been told is.  To now be so utterly awake to the knowledge that we all are already in perfect union with the Universe and its universal message of love, I know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that I have touched the Hand of the Divine.”[1]

“Your mind floats free, enjoying (or being overwhelmed by) images that no longer come from the physical world alone but from an ‘elsewhere,’ a new origin outside of normal reality.  It’s easy to see why you would feel that messages originate with a divine source, since they aren’t connected to a normal reality and can’t be correlated to the environment your senses tell you is there” [2]

Entheogens are substances that contain molecules closely related to human neurochemicals which have been shown to directly provoke mystical experiences. They mostly come directly from plant sources but some, like LSD, are made in the laboratory.

The term entheogen was invented by Gordon Wasson and means ‘god containing’ or ‘god filled’. Entheogens are psychoactive substances which have traditionally been used to induce a spiritual experience of transcendence and unite the user with god-consciousness.  They were used in the ancient world and are still used today in tribal and shamanic societies in conjunction with, or to support, other methods of changing consciousness such as meditation, drumming, chanting and so on. The plants are used as a sacrament, and this is the polar opposite of the recreation or habitual use of drugs in western society.  

Traditional shamanic rituals involving hallucinogenic plants are carefully structured experiences in which a small group of people come together with a respectful, spiritual attitude to share a profound inner journey of healing and transformation, facilitated by these plant allies.

Their ultimate goal isn’t a high or the ultimate trip, but a realisation of transcendence, with the plant taken with intent and expressly for this purpose.  All psychedelic experiences are not entheogenic experiences. Anyone can take psychedelics and see pretty colours, patterns, and have hallucinations. Even if there is some kind of wish-fulfilment ‘spiritual’ vision, such as meeting a beautiful lady or pulling a sword from a stone, there is still the sense of self in the vision, the everyday personality, the observer, the ‘I’. But in an entheogenic experience, in which mystical consciousness is attained, the ‘I’, the ego, dissolves like a drop of water merging with the ocean of the cosmos.

There are four main characteristics of such experiences –

  1. A slowing down of time and a focus on the present moment
  2. An awareness of the interdependence between seemingly opposite things or events, feeling yourself as the unified field of organism and environment
  3. An awareness of the relativity of personal identity, enabling you to see other I-centres as yourself – not your personal ego, but what Hindus call the paramatman, the Self of all selves
  4. An awareness of eternal energy, with the insight that all existence is a single energy, and that this energy is one’s own being

People who have taken the sacred vine ayahuasca have described a sensation of otherworldliness, where the feeling is that things are not as they used to be and the sense of entering into another, heretofore unknown, reality. With this otherworldliness comes feelings of sanctity as the ayahuasca drinkers usually feel they are the recipients of utmost grace. There is the experience of meaningfulnessand insight, where drinkers may “feel that they suddenly understand why things are as they are and discover a true sense of their own lives. Coupled with this is often a feeling of enchantmentand powerful energy, where drinkers come to see that the world is governed by invisible forces, energies, or beings, and that a tremendous force permeates and animates everything. It is also very common for drinkers to feel that they are rediscovering a facet of their existence that is actually very basic; it is as if life had estranged them from themselves and made them forget some very basic things about their very essence. Time and again, drinkers say that the brew brings them “back home” to the true essence of themselves from which they become distanced.

Some think that entheogens act to activate and unblock the crown chakra, an experience described as being like turning on a lamp in a dark room, giving the individual heightened awareness of internal and external realities.[3] Full activation of the crown chakra (even if only temporarily) leads to contact with the universal consciousness. Most accounts of entheogenic experiences describe connection with the ultimate reality, of being free of the body, time and conceptual limits, where all things, all beings, are united as a single whole, a single consciousness.

It used to be thought assumed that hallucinogens excite neurotransmission and overall brain activity, but recent findings suggest that the very opposite may be true, and the colourful effects that hallucinogens give rise to emerge from a brain with less neural activity than normal. Researchers discovered that psilocybin mushrooms decreased activity in several key areas of the brain, including the default-mode network, which is thought to play a role in high-level constructs such as the self or ego.  A relative deactivation of the default-mode network has also been discovered in experienced meditators both during the practice of meditation and in their ordinary resting states. In other words, the entheogenic state, and the state of very advanced meditation, is the same.

There are at least 120 species of plants across the world known to be used for intoxication. Most hallucinogens are alkaloids, a family of around 5,000 complex organic molecules that also account for the biological activity of most toxic and many medicinal plants. These compounds are found in various concentrations in different parts of the plant – root, leaves, seeds, bark or flowers. Since many of the hallucinogenic plants are closely related to deadly poisonous species, and many are fatal in higher doses, you wonder at the tenacity and bravery of their discoverers. 

They have traditionally been absorbed by the human body in an ingenious number of ways – smoked or taken as snuff, swallowed fresh or dried, drunk in decoctions and infusions, absorbed directly through the skin, and even administered as enemas. The Bushmen of Dobe, Botswana absorb the active compounds of kwashi (Puncratium trianthum) by cutting the scalp and rubbing the juice of the onion-like bulb into the open wound. The psychoactive constituents of fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), an hallucinogenic mushroom used in Siberia, pass through the body unaltered, and the psychoactive urine of the intoxicated individual may be consumed by the others, [4] and even the urine of reindeer that have consumed the fungus, is drunk. Some hallucinogens, such as belladonna (Atropa belladonna), henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) and datura (Datura metel) have active principals that can be directly absorbed through the skin [5] and were common constituents of the famous flying ointments used by witches.

Nearly every society in world history has used at least one of these hallucinogenic plants in a religious context or used it as a sacrament, a holy communion with the gods, as well as for divination and healing. 

There is plenty of archaeological evidence of psychoactive drug use among prehistoric and early historic cultures. Cannabis seeds and pollen were found at the Mesolithic site known as Abora in Latvia, and cannabis was cultivated around the Oslo fjord and parts of Sweden from the late first millennium BCE. [6] Petroglyphs from the same area indicate mushroom use. A Viking-age burial site with hundreds of henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) seeds was interpreted as evidence that the woman there interred was “a priestess, a seer, someone in touch with the other world”. In the Americas, seeds of the so-called mescal bean (Sophora secundiflora) and San Pedro cacti (Trichocereus pachanoi) have been discovered in association with human shelters from the end of the ninth millennium BCE, while peyote buttons (Lophophora williamsii) have been discovered at a site dating to the fourth millennium BCE. [7]

If we look at sacred texts, Gilgamesh, the hero of an ancient Sumerian epic, went on a quest for a miraculous herb, which he eventually discovered only to have it taken from him by its guardian, the serpent. This may have influenced the Bible story which is told with a different slant – it is the serpent that actually offers the fruit of knowledge to Eve.[i] This ‘forbidden fruit’ may have been an entheogen which opened the mind to the god-state. Eating the fruit of the tree of life unites man with the gods and eating it is forbidden in the Bible.

In the Indian Vedas, the same word (soma) is used for a ritual drink, a sacred plant, and its deity. Drinking soma produces immortality.  The Rigveda (8.48.3) says:

We have drunk soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered.

The references to immortality and light are characteristics of an entheogenic experience.

In ancient Egypt, the 16th century BCE Ebers Papyrus mentions the use of opium and cannabis. Initiation to the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece probably involved the use of psilocybin mushrooms.

Drugs and magical practices were inextricably related. The Greek pharmakon means ‘drug, medicine, remedy; poison, enchanted potion’, while pharmakeia is translated as ‘the use of drugs or spells; poisoning, witchcraft; medicine’.

The use of psychoactive drugs among indigenous peoples in modern times is well documented. In Siberia, Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) is attested from the early modern period,  [8] In the Amazon basin, the ayahuasca drink, has been used for ritual and healing purposes since pre-Colombian times, in Central and North American the use of Psilocybe mushrooms and peyote  is well documented, as is the South American use of the San Pedro cactus (Trichocerus pachanoi).  [9]

Psychoactive drugs are also common in European folk traditions. Mircea Eliade (1970) described the traditional use of mandrake for love magic and healing in his native Romania, and recipes for flying ointments often include psychoactive plants such as aconite, hemlock (Conium), deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), henbane, opium and mandrake. Henbane was also used as a common additive to beer until 1516, when the Bavarian Purity Law forbade such brewing practices. [10]

The vast majority of religions in the world have used psychoactive drugs in their rituals. However, in the monotheistic religions, the word of ‘god’ is always mediated by a priest and followers are not meant to seek any form of independent contact with divine realms. Any claim to mystical experience by lay members is a challenge to the authority of the ordained clergy. The Christian faithful are meant to reject the material world in order to embrace the spiritual one, as the two are considered to be diametrically opposed, and drugs are very definitely material and of this world – plant leaves, roots and bark – so trying to find the spiritual though use of the material would have been considered blasphemous.

By the time of the industrial revolution, the spiritual use of entheogens had disappeared in Europe, but colonisation and world trade soon meant that traditional intoxicants such as opium appeared as commodities for sale in European ports, and Thomas De Quincey in his Confessions of an Opium Eater, published in 1821, described his own use and abuse of opium, including visionary encounters with Egyptian and Indian deities. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Keats and other luminaries of Romanticism also indulged in opium-induced reveries.  [11]

The re-emergence of entheogen-induced spirituality into Western mainstream awareness probably came with the publication of Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. Huxley studied both of Western philosophy and Hindu Vedānta, and interpreted his experiences on mescaline – the active ingredient of peyote – accordingly. He believed that there was a shared universal truth behind all the world’s religions, but that though consciousness is limitless for reasons of biological survival it is transmitted to our human selves through the filtering mechanism of the brain, leaving us with only a tiny fragment of our true potential. Mescaline, he believed, cleansed his ‘doors of perception’ enabling him to gain access to what he understood as an unconditioned and primeval view of the world.


It has been suggested that entheogens played a part in the development of human consciousness. Why do plants across the world contain chemical compounds that closely resemble the neurotransmitters of the human brain? The presence of toxins in plants is generally thought of as an evolutionary deterrent to protect the plant from being eaten by animals, but these plants provide pleasurable rewards for the consumer.   Humans should not have evolved the neural circuitry that readily rewards the consumption of neurotoxins, but they have. [12] Drug reward is a paradox. [13]

There may have been a co-evolution of plants and mammal nervous systems, whereby mammals evolved the capacity to make use of the defensive compounds of the plants. This suggests that exposure to plant-based drugs extends far into our evolutionary past, and that mammals have been genetically equipped to deal with psychoactive drugs throughout their history. It seems quite probable that many eons ago, at the dawn of human existence, our early ancestors discovered the mind-altering potential of certain plants during the exploration of their environment for food. It has even been suggested that the ingestion of psychoactive substances may have helped stimulate cognitive developments such as existential and linguistic thinking in our proto-human ancestors.

Some regard the hallucinogenic state as an exemplar of a primitive or primary state of consciousness that preceded the development of modern, adult, human, normal waking consciousness.


When a shaman consumes hallucinogenic plants they create a template, as it were, upon which cultural beliefs and forces may be amplified a thousand times. What the individual sees in the visions is dependent not on the drug but on other factors –

  • the mood and setting of the group,
  • the physical and mental states of the participants,
  • his own expectations based on a rich repository of tribal lore
  • and, above all, the authority, knowledge and experience of the leader of the ceremony. The role of this figure is pivotal. It is he or she who places the protective cloak of ritual about the participants.

The ceremonial use of hallucinogenic plants in tribal societies is (most often) a collective journey into the unconscious. It is not necessarily – and in fact rarely is – a pleasant or an easy journey. It is wondrous and it may be terrifying. But above all it is purposeful. The participants enter the realm of the hallucinogenic visions not out of boredom, or to relieve an individual’s restless anxiety, but rather to fulfil some collective need of the group. Moreover the experience is explicitly sought for positive ends. It is not a means of escaping from an uncertain existence; rather it is perceived as a means of contributing to the welfare of all the people.

The effects are thus often dependent on user expectations and environment, resulting in considerable unpredictability; thus at the extremes, a user might on one occasion experience ecstasy and mystical union with the cosmos, while on another they might endure a hellish nightmare, extreme paranoia, feelings of insanity, and so on – the proverbial bad trip. Pharmacologically active components do not produce uniform effects; any psychoactive drug has within it a potential for good or evil, order or chaos.

Shamans speak of working with plants as working with spirit allies, and there are very definite constraints about the relationship. Plants are linked to the living Earth from which they spring, and individual herbs and plants can be befriended as allies to enable the practitioner to travel to Otherworldly places, and to become in tune with different energies. If the plant is taken with the wrong motives, if it is mistreated or misused, or taken for granted, it may cause discomfort, mislead or seek to gain control of the practitioner. If an enemy is made of the plant spirit, it can destroy.

The plant spirits of entheogens are among the strongest plant spirits, and the most difficult to deal with. They are often much stronger than the would-be user, and the relationship becomes one of slave to master, with the plant as master and user as slave when addiction ensues. Think how strong tobacco is, and how it can enslave the user. If you are addicted to smoking, you have become the plant’s slave. Anyone who uses a plant recreationally or habitually is subservient to a controlling plant spirit and can never use it as a sacred substance.

Remember too that most of the plants I’ve talked about, attractive as they sound in some of the accounts, are toxic, and the dose between one inducing visions and one inducing death, is often very close.

While most of the drugs that are regarded as entheogenic are not physically addictive, entheogens can induce states of consciousness that are regarded as rewarding, and this can lead to overuse. The craving for special experience, for being – yet again – freed from the ordinary and allowed to enter the realm of the gods is a danger, a trap on the path, because overdoing gets in the way of integrating the experience in your life and making it count in a permanent way. Such overuse doesn’t destroy the ego but rather increases it. Users may try to use drugs as spiritual short cuts, with nothing to support them, or use drugs as substitutes for personal developmental processes. Generally speaking, therefore, the spiritual usage pattern is characterized by infrequent drug use, allowing for plenty of time in ordinary life to work with and integrate insights and other material obtained in entheogen sessions. Cannabis in particular seems to lend itself to habitual use and is sometimes described as psychologically addictive.

Entheogen use may possibly result in lasting psychological damage.

The path of entheogenic spirituality therefore appears to be a challenging one, imposing a range of demands upon the self-awareness, willpower, and resilience of those traversing it.

© Anna Franklin, 2005

[1] The first was a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 essay called “Nature” and the second is from the spiritual leader Swami Krishnapada, and the third is from my own journal on the first time I had a spontaneous out of body experience while in a deeply meditative state.  To me, any of those experiences are completely interchangeable with the other.

[2] David Porush 1993 article in Omni “Finding God”




[6] Entheogenic Spirituality Conversations with Psychonauts Petter Grahl Johnstad

[7] Entheogenic Spirituality Conversations with Psychonauts Petter Grahl Johnstad

[8] Entheogenic Spirituality Conversations with Psychonauts Petter Grahl Johnstad

[9] Entheogenic Spirituality Conversations with Psychonauts Petter Grahl Johnstad

[10] Entheogenic Spirituality Conversations with Psychonauts Petter Grahl Johnstad

[11] Entheogenic Spirituality Conversations with Psychonauts Petter Grahl Johnstad



[i] Soma and the Fly-Agaric, (Ethno-Mycological Studies No. 2), by Wasson, R. Gordon, Cambridge, 1972

Witches and Fairies

Throughout history, there have been many people who have known and worked with spirits of the kind we now call fairies. Here in Britain, both the ancient Celts and Anglo-Saxons believed in such beings, a faith that has had a lasting legacy up until the present day.  The Celtic name for fairies is sidhe, aword that means a burial mound, hill or earth barrow, since this is where many fairies live. It is said that when the Celts invaded Ireland, the resident people, the Tuatha Dé Danaan who had supernatural powers, were forced to retreat into the hollow hills and were only occasionally seen after that, though people left offerings of meat and milk on their mounds.  They are very tall and thin, eternally young and beautiful in appearance, and generally dressed in white. The Anglo-Saxon term for similar spirits is elf or aelf, a word meaning something like ‘white spirit’, or ‘shining spirit’. They are tall and beautiful and shine with a kind of inner light. They also live in mounds, and people left offerings, called elf blots, of meat and milk on the mounds for them.

Fairies are said to inhabit a kingdom we call Fairyland, Elphame, or the Otherworld. This realm is not separate from ours, but overlays it, unseen except in special circumstances. Fairies are occasionally glimpsed in our world, but usually only in the blink of an eye or on the edge of dreams. However, there are places where the two worlds sometimes meet; natural power spots, bridges between the worlds where people have occasionally slipped from the everyday world into Fairyland, perhaps walking into the mist between two old stones, or stepping accidentally into a fairy ring, only to find themselves in a kingdom where it is always summer, where the orchards bear apples and flowers at the same time, and where death and old age are unknown.

There have always been legends of fairies; they exist in every country of the world. The people of ancient Greece and Rome worshipped the nymphs of meadows, streams and mountains, and the dryads who lived in trees. Ireland abounds with tales of people who have encountered leprechauns who showed them buried treasure at the end of rainbows, wailing banshees who heralded the death of relatives and drunken cluricauns who stole from wine cellars. In England there are old pamphlets describing the mischievous antics of Robin Goodfellow, the merry spirit of the greenwood who cared for its animals and played tricks on hunters, and stories of West Country pixies who led travellers astray, but who helped kindly farmers with their work. There are similar fables from Africa, Hawaii, the Americas, Australia, Europe, Japan, China and Russia.

A culture that believes in spirits is one fundamentally different from our modern Western materialistic society. It recognises that a life force suffuses the whole of Nature, an energy that manifests in a range of spirits that fill the meadows, streams, wells, forests and even the air itself. They guard fields and individual trees, mountains and hearth fires. They may bless or curse humans as they please and inflict sickness or health on the flocks and herds. Not so very long ago, an association with the fairies was a very real part of people’s lives. An excellent relationship with the ‘The Good Neighbours’- as the fairies were called – was essential for the well being and prosperity of anyone who depended on the land for his or her livelihood. Fairies were given offerings of milk on the old standing stones, bread and salt in the corners of fields, cream in saucers left on the hearth, and were left part of the harvest. Special stones – called dobby stones in the northern counties – had shallow depressions for making offerings to them, and were placed by field gates or the farmhouse door. Spiritual guardians called the Ward gathered at dusk in their sacred places, still known as ward trees, ward hills and ward stones, to guard villages. The Wild Hunt rode out to collect the souls of the wicked. For the countryman, fairies, elves and natural magic were part of the everyday experience.

As we humans moved away from our close connection to the earth, we lost our link with the wildfolk. We forgot how to see them, how to contact them, and how to treat them. Stories of them persisted, but they lost their awesome status; we diminished them, in our imaginations, into the cute Tinkerbells of nursery tales, the tiny, tutu-skirted, gossamer-winged beings of Victorian fable. Real fairies, on the other hand, are potent beings of earth, air, fire and water, of plant, stream, rock and place; creatures of raw nature, representing its power and energies. Some of them are benevolent, but some are downright dangerous.

Once, every village had a wise woman or cunning man who dealt with the wildfolk. Such people were common in Britain and Ireland right up until the end of the First World War. Their job was to maintain the balance between the human and fairy world, to mediate with the spirits, to solicit their blessings for good harvests, to repair any damage done to their relationships with humans, to placate the forces of blight, to heal and to remove curses. They inherited the mantle of the old Druids and the ancient priests and priestesses of the Pagan world, who became the witches and fairy doctors of later ages. Both the ancient Celts and Saxons had gifted individuals who were able to journey at will into the world of the spirits.  In later times, these people were called witches, a name that comes from the Anglo-Saxon wicce, or wise one.

Witches and fairies were often thought to have similar powers: both use magic and both can bless and curse. In fact, the old Romany word for ‘fairy’ is the same as the one for ‘witch’. The Irish believed that a witch was created when a young girl spent seven years in the Otherworld with her fairy lover, coming back somewhat aged, but with knowledge of herbs, philtres and secret spells. The famous witch Biddy Early insisted that her powers came from the fairies. She used a blue bottle, given to her by the fairies, for healing and prophecy. At her death in 1873 it was thrown into a lake so that no one else could attempt to use it.

The old witches worked their magic in conjunction with fairies, and there is plenty of evidence for this in the trial records; the accused often tried to explain that their powers came not from devils, but from the fairies. Elspeth Reoch of Orkney confessed, in 1616, that she had met a fairy man who offered to teach her to understand and see anything she wanted. In 1566, John Walsh of Netherberry in Dorset said that he knew when men were bewitched because the fairies told him. When he wanted to converse with fairies he would go to the hills where there were mounds of earth, and speak to them between the hours of one and noon, or at midnight. In 1587 John Penry of Wales spoke of swarms of soothsayers and enchanters who professed to walk, on Tuesday and Thursday nights, with fairies, bragging of having knowledge of them. Fifty years later, a Caernarvonshire man claimed to speak twice weekly with the fairies, again on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

In the 1600s, in the North of England, a man was taken into court on charges of witchcraft. He claimed to use a powder to heal sicknesses and offered to lead the gentlemen of the court to the fairy hill where he obtained the medicine. He had discovered the hill when he was destitute and agonising about how to feed his wife and children. A lovely woman had appeared to him and advised him that if he followed her counsel, he would get a good living from it. She led him to a little hill and knocked on it three times. The hill opened and they went in, coming to a fair hall, where a fairy queen sat in great state, with many people about her. She gave him a box full of white powder and taught him how to use it by giving two or three grains to any who were sick, which would heal them. The Judge asked whether the place within the hill, which he called a hall, were light or dark, and the accused replied it was like twilight. Being asked how he got more powder, he said that when he wanted it, he went to that hill and knocked three times, and said every time “I am coming, I am coming”, whereupon it opened.  Going in, he was conducted by the beautiful lady to the queen. The outraged judge said that if he were judged guilty, he would have him whipped all the way to the fairy hall, but the jury, since he had cured many with his white powder, acquitted him.  Similar stories of witches gaining their powers from fairies were told over and over again all around Britain.

This association of fairies and witches goes beyond the British Isles and seems to have an almost universal resonance in other parts of the world. For example, in parts of Eastern Europe, witches were called vilenice, which implies someone who deals with fairies [vile].  During an investigation during the late seventeenth century, a young vilenica confirmed that her powers had been granted to her by a fairy who had shown her the properties of herbs, and who could be called upon by virtue of certain herbs picked together with their roots. As in other places, there were tales of children and adults disappearing into the mountains for months or years, and returning with magical powers granted to them by the fairies. In northern Croatia, the people said that on each Good Friday a vile flies down from the sky to teach women how to heal people and be of benefit to them. The women had to go with their hair unbraided into the green grove, where two had to climb the old trees with the vile, and eat yarn, to better remember what the vile was teaching them; in this way they became vilenice. [i]

Scottish witch trials in particular were often notable for their accounts of the Fairy Queen, or Queen of Elfhame [‘Elf Home’]. Isobel Gowdie said that she met the Fairy Queen when she went into the hollow hills, and learned all her magic from the fairies whilst there. She spoke of the wildfolk that waited upon her coven as Robert the Jakis, Sanderis the Reed Reever, Thomas the Fairy and Swain the Roaring Lion, but she was stopped from speaking further by the interrogators, as she often was when she spoke of fairies, as can be seen from the transcripts. The interrogators only wanted to hear of devils and evil deeds.

In 1588 Alison Pearson was condemned for ‘haunting and repairing with the Good Neighbours and the Queen of Elphame’. It seems that the Fairy Queen sent messengers to summon likely witches. In 1670, Jean Weir said that when she kept a school at Dalkeith a tall woman came to her house. She had a child upon her back and two at her feet. The woman desired that Jean should employ her to negotiate on her behalf with the Fairy Queen. This was how Jean first became involved in witchcraft. Her brother Major Weir offered himself up and was executed as a witch in Edinburgh, refusing all attempts to convert him. In 1576 Bessie Dunlop stated that as she lay in childbed, a stout woman came and sat down beside her, comforted and drank with her. The coven leader told her that it was the Queen of Elphame, his mistress.

The old British witches called their supernatural mistress the Fairy Queen and it was she who led the Sabbat. Similarly, many Italian witches believed in the historical existence of a woman [or goddess] named Aradia, who brought about a revival of Italian witchcraft, travelling the country and preaching the old Pagan religion of Diana, whom they called Queen of the Fairies. There was a Rumanian Pagan sect known as the Callusari who, during the Middle Ages, worshipped a mythical empress who they sometimes called “Arada” [possibly Aradia] naming her as Queen of the Fairies. The Cǎlluşari dancers were the followers of the Fairy Queen, and their dances were thought to have originated in the Otherworld. Similar Macedonian dance troops were called Rusalia or ‘Fairies’. Like fairies, they were responsible for bringing fertility to the land.

The Italian carnival society of the Cavallino assembled under the banner of Erodiade, a name for the Queen of the Fairies, possibly synonymous with the witch goddess Herodias. The society grew to prominence in the Middle Ages, appearing in processions, pantomimes and healing sessions, but may have had a very ancient, Pagan origin. It was exclusively male, its members dressed in women’s clothes and wore make up. They always gathered in odd numbers, such as seven or nine or eleven. The Catholic Church persecuted them as Pagans who worshipped the goddess Diana.

Before the advent of Christianity, all the peoples of Europe acknowledged a multitude of spirits that inhabited the Earth; similar beliefs exist or have existed throughout the world. The spirits were as much a part of the land as the animals that lived upon it, the birds that flew above it and the fish that swan in the sea, and equally essential for its life, wellbeing and growth. Shrines to these beings were scattered across the countryside. Special trees were protected by fences and decorated with garlands. People made offerings on stones, at wells and rivers. Every sacred place had a spiritual guardian and a human guardian on whose land it happened to stand.

However, in the Christian world view, trees, rocks and stones have no spirit, no consciousness, and those who made offerings to the fairies within were deluded. Aelfric, an eleventh century inhabitant of the monastery of Cerne Abbas in England, denounced those who made offerings to ‘earth-fast’ stones, trees and so on ‘even as the witches teach’. The word he used for witches was Wiccan. [ii] Such people were condemned as Heathens and Pagans, words respectively meaning ‘people of the heath’ and ‘people of the countryside’. Missionaries destroyed Pagan temples and groves and cut down sacred trees in an attempt to banish the spirits that dwelt there. However, it was much harder to banish the fairy faith from the consciousness of the people who dwelt close to the land, who encountered its wildfolk on a regular basis. The notions of the country people have survived in folklore and folk practice to the present day in the shape of a belief in fairies.  

In Christian doctrine, any spirit that is neither saint nor angel is considered demonic in origin, and fairies are included under this heading.According to one Irish belief, those angels that were cast out of heaven for their pride became fairies. Some fell to earth and dwelled there long before man; others fell into the sea and became water fairies. Others fell into hell where the devil commands them. They dwell under the earth and tempt humans into evil, teaching witches how to make potions, spells, and enchantments. King James I’s book Daemonologie equated fairies with devils in no uncertain terms and advised people who had them in their homes to get rid of them immediately. Writing in 1701 the Orkney vicar Rev. John Brand said that fairies were evil spirits seen dancing and feasting in wild places. English Puritan writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries believed all fairies were devils.

If people worked with fairies, it was considered that they had renounced their Christian faith, something often reiterated in the trial records. In 1670 Jean Weir confessed that she had performed a ritual at the bidding of a fairy so that all her troubles would depart. Afterwards she found that she had wonderful ability with spinning, but this made her afraid, and she stayed indoors for twenty days weeping, because she thought that what she had done in working with a fairy was, in effect, a renunciation of her baptism. 

 Early Christians denounced the gods and spirits of the old Pagan religions as baneful and identified the old Pagan gods as devils. Nymphs, dryads, satyrs, vegetation spirits and fairies were condemned by the church as devils. It is often the practice of a new religion to demonize the gods and spirits of the old, rival religion. Sometimes the feeling was mutual, and in the nineteenth century, when at sea, fishermen on the Moray Firth would never mention such words as ‘church’ or ‘minister’. Any utterance suggestive of the new faith would be displeasing to the ancient spirits of the ocean and might bring disaster upon the boat.

According to the old lore, not everyone can see fairies; you have to be born with what the Scottish called ‘the sight’, an ability to see into the spirit world and to read the future. The future witch or shaman may be the lonely child who hovers on the edge of social groups, misunderstood by those around them because he or she is different, seeing things, hearing things, aware of things that others are not. This is reflected in fairy tales where it is always the orphan or the outcast who contacts the fairy or witch, and who has the adventures.

People who see the fairies are often called ‘fey’ themselves, i.e. fairylike. It was not unknown for seers to have some fairy blood in their veins. It was rumoured that fairies and humans often mated; preachers even denounced human and fairy liaisons from the pulpit. The offspring of such marriages were always wild and strange, their beautiful eyes and bold, reckless temperaments betraying their fairy blood. They were mystics and possessed second sight, or they became legendary warriors, bards or musicians. Many famous people are thought to have had one mortal and one Otherworldly parent, including Alexander the Great, the Queen of Sheba and Merlin. Even Shakespeare was said to have been part fairy. It is said that people with fairy blood are passionate, sensitive and psychic, and if they find their true path may develop into the artists, poets, seers, shamans and witches of our world: indeed, the heritage is sometimes called the ‘witch blood’.

Today people who see fairies and spirits are often derided as delusional, but in the past such people were highly honoured. Saxo, in the History of the Danes, written in 1182-1210, said that one had to be a gifted person to see spirits, and went on to explain that such people had probably experienced prophetic dreams in childhood, or had later undergone a sickness that opened the world of spirits to them, thus describing a classic shamanic initiation.[iii] We have already seen that witches derive their powers from fairy spirits, and this may follow a shamanic initiation, whereby a sickness or other desperate situation opens up the Otherworld of spirits to the witch. In 1588, Alison Pearson was introduced to the world of fairies, as she lay sick in bed, by her dead cousin William Sympson who appeared to her in fairy form. He came to her as a ‘green man’ and told her he would help her if she would be faithful to him. Then he vanished and reappeared with a group of faeries, who persuaded Pearson to take part in their merrymaking. Sympson also told her how to use herbal remedies. Whenever Pearson spoke about the fairies to others, she was tormented with blows that left insensitive spots on her skin.  She was convicted of witchcraft and burned at the stake.

In 1623 Scottish witch Isobel Haldane claimed that as she lay in her bed she was taken forth and carried to a hillside, the hill opened and she entered inside. She stayed for three days with the fairy folk, until she was delivered from Fairyland by a man with a grey beard. 

One tale that describes an Otherworld initiation is that of Thomas the Rhymer. He had beenplaying his lute beneath a hawthorn in the woods when a beautiful fairy, riding a white horse, emerged from the trees to listen. Eventually she dismounted and he couldn’t resist trying to kiss her. She warned him that such an act would bind him to her for seven years, but he did not hesitate. They journeyed together through the night to a bright meadow in which there were two paths, one to perdition and one to righteousness, but the Fairy Queen explained that for lovers and bards there was another path, a twisting third way that led to Fairyland. While in the fairy world Thomas was shown a mysterious tree which bore magical apples. The Queen of Elphame warned him that it bore all the plagues of hell, but it also conveyed the gift of prophecy.

After seven years Thomas returned home, but his songs were sweeter and more poignant than ever before. He was also able to foretell the future, as in Fairyland he had eaten an apple whose flesh had the power of truth, a parting gift from the Fairy Queen. On his seventy-eighth birthday, he was holding a party when he was told that two white deer, a male and a female, were heading through the village to his house. He knew this to be a summons to Fairyland and followed them back there, where he still sings and plays.

The apple is the fruit of Otherworld knowledge. The plagues of hell that accompany it are the suffering and pain the shaman must go through to win the sight. Once this is won, and the apple eaten, he or she will never be the same again, and is forever changed. The third way described by the Fairy Queen is the way of a walker between the worlds.

© Anna Franklin

[i] Institute of Ethnology and Folk-lore Research 2004,

[ii] Quoted in Brian Bates, The Real Middle Earth, p 107

[iii] Quoted in Brian Bates, The Real Middle Earth

The Marymas Bannock

This is a very traditional type of bannock and can be cooked outside on a pan or griddle over a fire or barbecue.

1 cup (1/4 lb.) (125 g) medium oatmeal

2 teaspoons melted butter

Pinch of bicarbonate of soda

Pinch of salt

1/4 cup warm water

Mix the oatmeal, salt, and bicarbonate of soda in a basin and stir in the melted butter. Add enough of the water to make a stiff paste. Roll into a ball and knead on a breadboard lightly dusted with oatmeal. Roll the dough out to 1/4 inch in thickness and trim to a circle using a plate. Sprinkle with a little oatmeal and cut into quarters. Cook on a warm lightly oiled griddle until the edges begin to curl. Flip the bannock over and cook the over side. Can be served hot or cold.

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

The Wheel – Beyond the Eight Sabbats

My year as a Hearth Witch is a cycle – the balmy days of spring, when life returns, and I begin work on the garden and go out to collect nature’s first wild gifts. The full days of summer when I am busy weeding and hoeing, collecting and preparing herbs and remedies to see me through the year. Then comes the abundant bounty of autumn, when the hedgerows are full of wild fruit and nuts, when all the work on the vegetable plot pays off, and I get busy preserving it, freezing and canning, making jams and wines. Finally come the frozen days of winter when I cleave to my hearth fire and turn my attention to indoor activities. Then the year begins anew, and the whole cycle starts again, never the same twice, but a continuing cycle nonetheless. The magical and spiritual rituals I celebrate throughout the year reflect this cycle.

The natural cycle of the year is the basis of the Eight Sabbats observed in modern Paganism – the first stirrings of spring at Imbolc, the gaining of the light after Ostara, the flowering of the earth at Beltane, the zenith of the sun at Midsummer, the first fruits at Lughnasa, the completion of the harvest at the autumn equinox as the light begins to decline, the death tide of Samhain with the coming of winter, and the rekindling of the year at Yule, as the sun is reborn.

However, for our ancestors, the cycle of the year was much more personal since most of them worked on the land and depended on it for survival. They were acutely aware of the tides of energy flowing into then out of the world, energy both spiritual and physical, and instead of trying to dominate these tides, worked with them, marking them with a myriad of feasts and festivals, myths and folklore. All these together give us half-blind modern Pagans, with all our distractions, cushioned by central heating and a constant supply of food from the shops, places to start to make our own profound connections.  

The Greeks and Romans left us a wealth of written material documenting their beliefs and religious practices, but the Pagan Celts left us nothing – all we know of them comes from much later Christian chroniclers, who failed to record any earlier Pagan ritual practices. However, when the Christian church stamped out Paganism throughout northern Europe, the old festivals proved difficult or even impossible to get rid of, and they were forced to incorporate them into the liturgical calendar but appropriated to various saints’ days. Some of the old Pagan gods were even turned into Christian saints to make the transition easier. We can also look at the folklore customs of the year, which may stem from earlier Pagan practices in some instances, though this is debateable, but which were certainly practiced by people intimately concerned with the cycles of nature. These things taken together give us an insight into the year that goes beyond the Eight Sabbats.

But while we can look to the past, we must also recognise that we work here and now, and that cycles change. When the dinosaurs walked the earth, the planet was on the other side of the galaxy. In the Bronze Age, the solstices and equinoxes fell in different constellations to where they fall now. The hawthorn no longer blossoms at Beltane, because eleven days were dropped from the calendar in 1752, meaning that the cycle shifted on.  Climate change brings larger swings still.

The spiritual lessons of the Gods are always there, if only we have the ability to look and see. Though we thirst for this knowledge, we can die of thirst beside its fountain without being aware of its presence. The pattern of the year tells us that there are times when it is easier to access – when there is a confluence of the season, the pattern of the stars, the time, the place, the preparation of ourselves and myriad other cycles that overlap. Sometimes only a few of those things converge, and we get a partial connection, or at another time different things converge, and we get something else again. And then there are the times when everything aligns, and we experience a profound and life changing gnosis. So we watch for the signs and signals – the pattern of the year, the currents and moods of Mother Nature, the places we work, the synchronicities that give us clues as to our direction: the clews that take us through the labyrinth. These opportunities are always flowing, always changing. The cycles that converge at one Samhain will never be repeated again – ever. Every year will be different. We can only try to discern the patterns, the myriad cycles, large and small, and find the intersecting points, where we can stand, and drink from the fountain of spiritual wisdom.

We can take inspiration from ancient practices, but we must put them into the context of our own time and place. Where you work is different, and if you are on a different continent, or in the southern hemisphere, it will be very different. Wherever we are, we need to go out and understand the natural cycles where we live, and respond to them, rather than imposing something that doesn’t fit.

According to our coven bard, Dave the Flute, witchcraft is like making good tea. If you follow the way of the Abrahamic Regions of the Book – referential, scripture based – you are told what to believe and the actions you must take to be successful. Take mug, put in tea bag, pour on boiling water, take teabag out, add milk and serve. In may be quite a foul cup of tea and you might have preferred some sugar, but you have done as you were told. But a witch would also prod the bag to see what it was doing, note the colour of the tea as it got stronger and compare with past experience of tea making, giving it a taste to try see how it was doing, and end up with an ace cup of tea. The witchcraft method is experiential, personal and non-scripted. It is the path untrodden – revelation through your own effort.

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

Illustration The Wheel from The Sacred Circle Tarot Anna Franklin and Paul Mason Llewellyn 1995

House Spirits

There was once a general belief that spirits or fairies dwell in human homes, guard them, and occasionally undertake domestic tasks in return for a small reward, such as a bowl of cream or a warm place by the hearth. Such spirits are found throughout the world, from the Hawaiian menahune to the Scottish brownie, the Spanish duende, the German hausmänner, the Russian igosha, the Finnish kodin-haltia, the North American shvod and the Cambodian àràk. There are hundreds- if not thousands- of other examples world-wide. Recorded folklore tells us that house fairies were once a common feature of English domestic life. In the twelfth century a spirit called Malekincaused a commotion in the Suffolk home of Sir Osborn de Bradwell by discoursing learnedly in Latin on scriptural subjects. A Danish kobold even became clerk to an archbishop.[1]

House fairies often have a mischievous side and like to play tricks on the human inhabitants of a dwelling. Such pranks might include rattling the fire irons, smashing crockery, hiding objects, or making a mess. House fairies are notoriously hard to please, capricious and easily offended. Some house fairies object to the presence of a cat or a dog, and most of them will disappear for good if given a suit of clothes.

A belief in house spirits is very ancient. In Persia and China it was always the custom to make offerings to the house spirit before entering a dwelling, while a similar custom in northern Europe involved taking bread and salt when visiting a home.[2] In modern Indonesia elaborate ceremonies are performed to protect people entering a new home and to propitiate the spirits within it. In times past, in many parts of the world, blood sacrifices were made to the spirit of the place whenever foundations were laid for a building. Animals or even human victims were buried alive under the cornerstones to provide protective spirits- it is still thought lucky to live in a corner house. Animal and human skulls were embedded in the walls to placate the household deities. In Bolivia llama foetuses are sometimes still buried under the foundations of a house.

Fairies are much associated with the domestic hearth. They often try to gain access to a house in order to warm themselves by it and are much angered if they are kept out. They like to dance on the hearth and often enter by flying down the chimney or exit by flying up it. A discovered changeling will make its escape up the chimney. Some fairy homes lie beneath human hearths, and the hearthstones are their doors.  Sometimes the fairies living there will reach up and steal cakes baking on the hearth.[3]

The hearth was once the central focus of the home, providing warmth and food. It was the place of the fire, which meant the difference between freezing and surviving, eating and starving. As such it was sacred and the focus of many customs. The fire had to be kept burning, and was only put out at certain times of year, to be re-lit from a sacred flame. Because the smoke rose to the sky, it was a message rising to the spirits or gods, while below the hearthstone lay the underworld. Therefore the hearth was also a domestic axis mundi via which the gods or spirits could enter the home and a shaman’s spirit could travel out. This is possibly why Father Christmas enters the house via the chimney. House fairies, such as brownies, may be derived from ancient belief in household gods or spirits that protected the home. The hearth was their means of entrance and egress, their shrine and altar flame.

The ancient Romans honoured protective brownie-like spirits called Laresand Penates. The best known is theLar Familiaris [‘household lar’], which protected the home. It was given monthly offerings of garlands on the hearth as well as daily offerings at mealtimes. The lar protected the house and its wealth and was invoked on family occasions. Though there was a single lar to each house, lares were usually depicted in pairs. According to Ovid a small dog was often portrayed with a Lar, as both stood for watchfulness. He said that both guard the house, both are faithful to their masters, and lares are as wakeful as dogs. He adds that crossroads were dear to the lares and dogs alike. [4]

The Penates dwelt with particular families to help and protect them. Images of the Penates were made of wax or ivory and had special shrines in the house.  They were worshipped along with the domestic goddess Vesta and were responsible for the house’s food supply and the success of the harvest.  A fire was kept burning in their honour and they were given salt and the first portion of each meal. They were once gods of the storeroom, but were later demoted to fairy status. They were connected with the lares; the spirits of the dead or ancestors and the terms are sometimes interchangeable.

As well as domestic spirits, the lares and penates played a wider role. The Penates Publici were the protectors of the Roman state and were worshipped in a state cult. The Lares Grundules[‘Grunting Lares’] are named after the traditional sacrifice of a pig to the lares.   They are thirty in number and protected the thirty civil divisions of ancient Rome. The Lares Praestites protected the citizens of ancient Rome. The Lares Semitales were venerated for their protection of paths [semitae],  the Lares Viales protected highways [viae].

There was a public cult of the Lares Vicinales [‘Neighborhood Lares’]. Freedmen mayors and slave attendants supervised their regular worship in each district. Augustus Caesar converted the cult of the lares vicinales into the worship of Lares Augusti, Lares of ‘Increase’ associated with the worship of his genius, his personal creative force.

The Lares Compitales guard boundaries [a compita is the marker of a boundary].  At important intersections marble altars stood, with temples housing statues of two lares accompanied by a Genius Loci. At small intersections there might be an altar of stuccoed brick against a wall, on which would be a painting of two lares, dressed as Greeks with goblets, together with a toga clad genius, holding a sacrificial saucer and cornucopia. Many boundaries run along a path or road and the lares compitales were worshipped at both rural and urban crossroads. Sometimes they were the chief deities of a hamlet. At the junction of two roads two lares would be worshipped. The title ‘lar’was also applied to some gods such as Silvanus, god of the forest.

The annual feast of the lares was the Compitalia, celebrated soon after the winter solstice, when merrymaking accompanied the performance of theatrical farces. Some other elements of the festivals gave rise to later Christmas customs. The Compitalia called for the use of artificial light, and the lares traditional sacrificial victim was the pig, traditional Christmas fare for centuries. Slaves and freedmen especially venerated the lares, as it was one of the few state cults to which people of all stations were admitted.

Though some Victorian writers claimed that the concept of household spirits may have spread with the Roman empire, there is enough evidence to prove that a belief in such spirits evolved independently in places as far apart as China, Western Europe and South America. In later ages this creed dwindled to a superstition about naughty fairies and today is reduced to belief in good or bad atmosphere in a house.  

© Anna Franklin

Illustration Paul Mason

[1] Eric Maple, ‘The House’, Man, Myth and Magic,

[2] Eric Maple, ‘The House’, Man, Myth and Magic,

[3] W.W. Gill

[4] Ovid, Fasti translation J.G.Frazer