CIDER VINEGAR

Raw cider vinegar is full of enzymes, vitamins, probiotics and minerals that pasteurised cider vinegars do not have, as they are destroyed by the heating process. All the healing benefits you have read about with cider vinegar are absent from processed products. If you have ever tried to buy it you will know that it is expensive compared to the heavily processed kind you get in the supermarket. Luckily, it is really easy to make!

 

  1. Take a large, wide necked jar. Sterilise it.
  2. Wash and chop your apples including the cores and peel (you can make this recipe just using the cores and peel after making an apple pie!), but remove the stalks. A mixture of different varieties makes a better tasting cider vinegar, but don’t worry if you can’t manage this.
  3. Put them in the jar, making sure it is half to three quarters filled.
  4. Cover them with water that has been boiled and cooled to lukewarm.
  5. Stir in a little sugar or honey to help the fermentation process.
  1. Cover the jar. When making wine, we use an airlock to keep out the bacteria that will cause it to turn to vinegar, but when making vinegar we actually want to encourage them, so instead the jar is just covered with cheesecloth secured with an elastic band.
  2. Stir daily for a week. It will begin to bubble and ferment from the natural yeasts in the apples, and you will be able to smell this happening.
  3. Strain out the apple pulp
  4. Return the liquid to the jar and cover again with cheesecloth. Leave in a warm, dark place for 4-6 weeks, stirring occasionally. The alcohol will transform into acetic acid or vinegar. A small amount of sediment will fall to the bottom, and what is called a ‘mother culture’ of dark foam will form on top – don’t worry about this, it is normal.
  5. Taste it to determine if it is ready starting after 4 weeks as it will get stronger the longer you leave it, and you can choose how you like it.
  6. Strain once more in clean glass jars or bottles. Store out of direct sunlight. Don’t worry if another mother culture forms on top, it isn’t going bad. Just strain again.

© Anna Franklin, from The Hearth Witch’s Compendium published by Llewellyn, 2017

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Aconite

With the turning of the year, thoughts turn to darker things…

Aconite [Aconite sp.] belongs to the family Ranunculaceae and should not be confused with winter aconite Eranthis hiemalis, which is not a true aconite. It was originally native to Europe, Asia and North America, thriving in windy mountainous regions and moist pastures. Aconite can be found growing wild in damp or shady places such as alder groves, and along stream courses, ditches or in highland meadows. Aconites need a fertile moist soil, preferably in sun or partial shade.  They may be propagated by division, but it is worth remembering that they do not like to be moved once established and seeds should be sown in spring where the plant is to grow.

There are more than 100 species, varying in height from 2-6 feet [60-1000 cm], all having dark green leaves which are glossy above, whitish green beneath and usually lobed.  The flowers, borne in loose erect clusters in shades of blue, purple, yellow or white in high summer, are designed specifically to attract bees, especially bumble bees.  The sepals, one of which is in the shape of a hood are purple, a colour bees particularly love.  The petals consist of two hammer shaped nectaries within the hood. The erect stem is covered with soft down and the fleshy taproot puts out new daughter roots annually. Regardless of species, all parts contain the toxic alkaloid, aconitine in varying amounts, mainly concentrated in the tuberous roots, which are pale coloured when young, developing a dark or sometimes black skin as the root matures. Some popular species are:

A. charmichaelii. Grows to 3 feet [ 1m] and has dark green deeply divided leaves. The blue-purple flowers come out in summer.

A. lycocctonum grows to a height of 4-5 ft [1.2-1.5m] with broadly lobed leaves and fibrous roots. The white to yellow flowers appear in summer. It is called wolfsbane.

A. napellus. contains the best alkaloids. This is a well known garden species which flowers a little later. The leaves are finely cut and divided and the blue, purple, pink or white flowers have well-developed hoods and appear in summer. It is called monkshood.

A. anglicum is the wild variety, flowering in early summer.

A. wilsonii. Is a tall variety, growing to a height of 6 feet [1.8 m].  It has deeply cut leaves and blue flowers which  appear during  late summer/early autumn.

A. paniculatum, A. Japonicum, A. autumnale, A. variegatum, A. pyrenaicum are also cultivated.

CAUTION: The deadly poison aconitine is present in all parts of the plant.  Care should be taken when handling aconites; wear gloves or wash your hands afterwards. It is not advisable to plant aconites in gardens where children and pets may come into contact with them. The poison at first stimulates, causes a burning sensation on the tongue, vomiting, stomach pains and diarrhoea then paralyses the central and peripheral nervous system and finally death.

 LORE:

Aconite is a fatal poison, often causing death within a few minutes, and so the plant’s reputation is a dark one, associated with death, black magic and the underworld. In Anglo-Saxon it was called thung, which simply means a poisonous plant.

Throughout history aconite has been used as a method of murder. In Greek legend when the hero and Minotaur slayer Theseus returned to Athens, he found that the sorceress Medea had become his stepmother. Though his father, King Aegeus, did not recognise him she did, and knew he was the rightful heir to the throne. She grew jealous on behalf of her son Medus, and persuaded Aegeus that Theseus was an assassin. They cunningly invited him to a feast at the newly completed temple of Apollo the Dolphin and Medea prepared a cup containing aconite. As he stepped forward to take the cup, his father knew him by the sword, which hung at his belt, and the assassination was prevented.

It is said that Aristotle once foiled a plot to kill Alexander the Great by means of a woman who had saturated her lips with a lethal dose of aconite. When men became old and useless on the island of Chios they were given aconite to help them on their way. The Emperor Claudius and his son were murdered with aconite, as was Pope Adrian VI. It seems to have been a popular device for removing obstacles in the Middle Ages, when career advancement in the clergy often relied on the death of a superior.

The plant is also called ‘wolfsbane’ as it is said to have been used to poison spears and arrows employed for killing wolves. A further association with wolves comes from the fact that the Scandinavians called it ‘Tyr’s Helm’ [the small flowers look like helmets]. Fenris was the wolf-son of the trickster god Loki. The ferocious and monstrous creature grew apace until the gods were afraid he would over run the world. They decided that he must be bound, but no chain would hold him. Eventually they consulted the dwarfs who fashioned a slender thread, made with the footfall of a cat, the beards of women, the breath of fish and other such impossible and rare ingredients. The gods coaxed Fenris to try the strength of the rope, saying that since he had broken all the other ropes and chains it could not possibly hold him. However, he suspected the trick and said that he would only do so if Tyr, the god of war, put his hand in his mouth while he did so. The brave Tyr agreed and the wolf was bound, but Tyr lost his hand.

Aconite is associated with the underworld for the obvious reason that it causes death. Hecate, the Greek witch goddess, is said to have created aconite from the deadly spittle scattered by Cerberus, the three headed dog who was the guardian of the underworld, when Herakles dragged him out of Tartarus [the underworld] and fought with him on the hill Aconitus in Pontica. Aconite was said to grow at Heracli in Anatolia, which was one of the gateways to the underworld. Aconite was poured as a libation to the ghosts of the men who were sacrificed when the foundations of buildings were laid. It was used in funeral incenses, planted on graves and used for both suicide and euthanasia.

Aconite was known as a witches’ plant and it was believed that it was used to poison the tips of elf bolts, the darts that witches and fairies threw at their victims. In ancient times the Thessalian witches used it in the manufacture of a flying ointment; used to anoint the skin it would cause hallucinations, visions and the sensation of flying. It appears as an ingredient in mediaeval flying ointment recipes. However, the dose of aconite needed to achieve hallucinations falls within the lethal range, and unless the practitioner was very skilled death would probably be the result, and the trip one to the underworld.

It is not known when aconite was introduced into Britain, but it appears in many early herbals. It was grown in monastery gardens and used in the infirmaries as an external oil rub for rheumatism.

The herbalist Gerard described it as venomous and deadly, though he thought it was an antidote against other poisons:

‘…so forcible that the herb only thrown before the scorpion or any other venomous beast, causes them to be without force or strength to hurt, insomuch that they cannot move or stir until the herb be taken away’.

 Ben Jonson in his tragedy Sejanus said:

‘I have heard that aconite

Being timely taken hath a healing might

Against the scorpion’s stroke.’

Christian lore associated aconite with St. Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury born in Glastonbury in 924 AD. He had a dream of the Britain of the future, converted to Christianity, symbolised by a huge tree whose branches were covered with monk’s cowls and which stretched all over Britain. Aconite is sometimes called ‘monkshood’ as the flowers may be seen to resemble monk’s cowls.

MEDICINAL:

Aconite is no longer used in herbal medicine, but is commercially collected for the recovery of aconitine, which is used in pharmaceutical remedies for neuralgia and rheumatism and is still a much valued as a homeopathic remedy. In former times an ointment of aconite was applied externally for rheumatism. Aconitine, is odourless but has a pungent taste and should be stored in a dry place as the highly toxic alkaloids it contains are unstable and change on contact with water.

Parts used: the root

Constituents: alkaloids aconitine, benzaconine, aconine, the alkaloids aconitine, benzaconinine and aconine; starch

 Actions: anodyne, diuretic, diaphoretic, diuretic, diaphoretic,

In 1805, Samuel Hahnemann published a paper on the proving of aconite which became one of the founding drugs of homeopathy. A homeopathic preparation of aconite is used for is used for patients with extreme anxiety, apprehension, with a vivid imagination and many fears, angina, palpitations, rheumatism, shock, tension, facial neuralgia, headaches, piles, and spasmodic croup.

 

Cider Vinegar

Raw cider vinegar is full of enzymes, vitamins, probiotics and minerals that pasteurised cider vinegars do not have, as they are destroyed by the heating process. All the healing benefits you have read about with cider vinegar are absent from processed products. If you have ever tried to buy it you will know that it is expensive compared to the heavily processed kind you get in the supermarket. Luckily, it is really easy to make!

  1. Take a large, wide necked jar. Sterilise it.
  2. Wash and chop your apples including the cores and peel (you can make this recipe just using the cores and peel after making an apple pie!), but remove the stalks. A mixture of different varieties makes a better tasting cider vinegar, but don’t worry if you can’t manage this.
  3. Put them in the jar, making sure it is half to three quarters filled.
  4. Cover them with water that has been boiled and cooled to lukewarm.
  5. Stir in a little sugar or honey to help the fermentation process.
  6. Cover the jar. When making wine, we use an airlock to keep out the bacteria that will cause it to turn to vinegar, but when making vinegar we actually want to encourage them, so instead the jar is just covered with cheesecloth secured with an elastic band.
  7. Stir daily for a week. It will begin to bubble and ferment from the natural yeasts in the apples, and you will be able to smell this happening.
  8. Strain out the apple pulp
  9. Return the liquid to the jar and cover again with cheesecloth. Leave in a warm, dark place for 4-6 weeks, stirring occasionally. The alcohol will transform into acetic acid or vinegar. A small amount of sediment will fall to the bottom, and what is called a ‘mother culture’ of foam will form on top – don’t worry about this, it is normal.
  10. Taste it to determine if it is ready starting after 4 weeks as it will get stronger the longer you leave it, and you can choose how you like it.
  11. Strain once more in clean glass jars or bottles. Store out of direct sunlight. Don’t worry if another mother culture forms on top or a white jelly-like scoby, it isn’t going bad.

© Anna Franklin, from The Hearth Witch’s Compendium published by Llewellyn, 2017

THE WITCH’S FAMILIAR

We are used to stories of witches having familiar spirits. What is not generally realized is that these familiars were often considered to be fairies, whether in the guise of humans, imps or animals such as fairy cats or dogs. Familiars often shared the common names of the local fairies- Robin, Jack, Tom, Hob, Jill, Peg and so on, though in the trial records they were also termed demons and devils. Though familiar spirits are reported in a minority of witch trials, it is a significant minority, and the accounts of meeting the familiars and the witch’s dealings with them, are remarkably consistent. John Beaumont, in 1705 [Historical, Physiological, and Theological Treatise of Spirits] wrote extensively of the popular belief in familiar spirits. Robert Kirk [The Secret Commonwealth] wrote about the common use of familiars by Scottish seers, and in 1654 Durant Hotham claimed that the familiar spirit was a standard magical aid:[i]

“…he was of the sort we call white witches, which are such as do cures beyond the ordinary reasons and deductions of our usual practitioners, and are supposed [and most part of them truly] to do the same by the ministrations of spirits.”[ii]

 Reginald Scot wrote that the witch would heal by means of her charms and familiars. [iii]

In 1646 John Winnick confessed that one Friday he was in his barn when a black shaggy spirit appeared to him, with paws like a bear, though it was smaller than a rabbit. The spirit asked him why he was so unhappy, and John replied that he had lost a sum of money, and the spirit agreed to help him. Stories of gaining a familiar often have similar, common elements- people in trouble or sick people are visited by a fairy who promises them a gift which is then faithfully delivered. The gift is usually one of knowledge- the power to cast spells, make herbal potions and cures and so on- in other words, the power to become a witch.

There is always a price to pay for possessing a fairy familiar. The Belvoir witch Margaret Flower, tried in 1619, said that she promised her familiars to fulfil their needs, in return for which they fulfilled her desires.  The desires of fairies ranged from bowls of milk and offerings of bread, to human company, music and even human blood.

Familiars were often said to drink the blood of their witches, sometimes by nipping or scratching, sometimes from specially formed ‘teats’ on the witch’s body, known as the ‘Devil’s Mark’. Ellen Shepherd, a Huntingdon witch, in 1646 said that she had four familiars in the shape of grey rats, which she fed with blood from her hips, and in return, they granted her ‘all happiness’. In 1645 Thomas Everard, a Suffolk with, said that something like a rabbit asked for his allegiance, and when he gave his consent, it scratched him under the ear and drank his blood.[iv] The Suffolk witch Elizabeth Hubbard [1645] said that three things in the likeness of children said that if she would cleave to them, she would want for nothing. They then scratched her back to make the marks, and afterwards sucked from them.[v] In 1582 Margery Sammon was given two familiars by her mother, two toads called Tom and Robin. Her mother advised her to feed them on milk; otherwise they would want to suck her blood.[vi]  In 1644, a Yarmouth witch claimed that a tall man came to her door in the moonlight, and asked for her hand, and pricked it with a knife so that the blood flowed, and the mark remained for some time afterwards.[vii]

The Irish always advocated leaving out water for fairies at night; otherwise they would be angry and suck sleepers’ blood.  In one story from Glen Rushen, on the Isle of Man, the fairies went onto a house one night to do some baking. The family had put no water out for them; they were heard to say, “We have no water, so we’ll take blood out of the toe of the servant who forgot our water.” From the girl’s blood they mixed their dough and baked their cakes, eating most of them, and poking the rest up under the thatch. The next day the servant-girl fell ill, and remained ill until she was given a piece of the fairy cake that was hidden in the thatched roof.

On other occasions, familiars were simply fed with ordinary food, such as milk, water and chicken. Margaret Moone fed her twelve imps with bread and beer, and Elizabeth Francis fed her familiar on bread and milk. This has direct parallels with the feeding of a shaman’s spirit allies in other cultures. In Malaysia, for example, a Bajang [a spirit/fairy] can be kept as a familiar by a magician who feeds it on eggs and milk.

This is reminiscent of the many stories of fairies being fed in return for their help. Bowls of fresh milk and cream were left by the hearth for brownies and other house fairies, like the German Chimke. Robin Goodfellow’s standard fee was a mess of white bread and milk. Before setting out on a journey, offerings of bread and milk were made to the Fridean, Scottish fairies that guard the roads. In Gotland, offerings of milk, beer and flax seeds were made to the Disma by being poured into a fairy ring.

[i] Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits,

[ii] John Webster, The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, London 1677

[iii] Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft,

[iv] Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits,

[v] Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits,

[vi] The Witch’s Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England and Scotland

Folk-lore,  Oct, 2000  by Emma Wilby

[vii] Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits,

ARE YOUR PAINKILLERS MAKING YOUR PAIN WORSE?

Is this scenario familiar? You are in pain, so you go to your GP and he or she gives you a prescription for painkillers. They help but a few weeks later the pain feels worse again, so you go back and get a stronger dose. A while later, the pain is bad again…a year or two down the line, and you are on a lot of different painkilling medications and still in pain – in fact the pain is worse than ever and it seems that your condition is deteriorating. That may indeed be the case in some instances, but ironically, in others, the increased pain may actually be CAUSED by your painkilling medicine.

Opiate (derived from opium poppies) or opioid (synthetic opiates) painkillers include codeine, co-codamol, morphine, dihydrocodeine, tramadol and fentanyl, and they are really effective for no more than a month or two; after that you develop a tolerance to them and to achieve the same effect, the dose has to be increased. And then increased again… Sufferers understandably believe they need stronger painkillers in ever stronger doses because they are getting worse.

Taking opiate painkillers actually increases your sensitivity to pain and decreases your natural ability to tolerate pain. The body stops producing endorphins (the body’s natural painkillers) because it is receiving opiates instead. The brain increases the number of receptors for the drug, and the nerve cells in the brain cease to function normally. According to Roger Knaggs, associate professor of pharmacy at Nottingham University and a council member of the British Pain Society, opioids ‘up-regulate’ the body’s pain system so our natural painkilling chemicals, such as endorphins, become less sensitive and effective. He says “Patients affected by opioids in this way will often complain that the nature of their pain has changed or it has spread to other areas, but, in fact, this could be caused by their drugs”.

Separate from their pain-blocking interaction with receptors in the brain, opioids seem to reshape the nervous system to amplify pain signals, even after the original illness or injury subsides. A new study in rats demonstrated that an opioid sets off a chain of immune signals in the spinal cord that amplifies pain rather than dulling it, even after the drug leaves the body. The experiment induced neuropathic pain (the kind that might be experienced from traumatic nerve injury, stroke or nerve damage caused by diabetes) by loosely constricting the sciatic nerve in the thighs of rats. The rats received morphine or a saline control for five days via injections under the skin. As expected, the neuropathic pain due to sciatic nerve constriction continued for another four weeks in the rats that had received the saline, but for the rats that had received morphine, the neuropathic pain continued for 10 weeks – the five-day morphine treatment more than doubled the duration of neuropathic pain. A separate experiment in the same study showed that morphine also worsened neuropathic pain, an effect that lasted for more than a month after morphine treatment had ended.

It used to be thought that pain signalling was a dialogue between nerves, but it has now been shown that it involves glial cells, which provide nutritional support for nerves and clear away metabolic waste. Glia recognize chemical signals from nerves and respond by releasing chemical immune signals that influence communication between nerves. With abnormal pain signalling from nerves, glia respond by turning up the volume in spinal cord pain pathways. This results in the adaptations of painful sensations being exaggerated. Opioids are also a chemical signal for glia. In the study, when morphine was administered in the presence of neuropathic pain, the glial cells went into overdrive. The glia released more immune signals, keeping the ‘pain volume’ turned up higher and for longer.  After morphine, the researchers found, those pain-activated glial cells became more sensitive to the next pain stimuli. As the researchers put it, “Opioids exaggerate pain.”

Sometimes people are surprised to discover that when they stop taking opioid medicines, their pain goes away or at least is substantially reduced. Many GPs and therapists have encountered the sheer panic, distress and numerous justifications for continuance from patients when it is suggested that their pain medication is not helping and should be stopped or reduced. This is partly because the patient naturally fears the pain will get worse, but mostly because they are now physically and emotionally addicted to the painkiller.  Even the lower dose 8mg codeine or 8/500 co-codamol available to buy from pharmacies can become addictive after just three days of use.

No one should just stop taking opioid painkillers but must work out a scheduled withdrawal programme under the supervision of their GP. The degeneration of the nerve cells in the brain causes a physical dependency on an external supply of opiates, so reducing or stopping intake of the drug causes a painful series of physical changes called the withdrawal syndrome. ‘Going cold turkey’ is associated with intense withdrawal symptoms which can be prolonged, characterized by severe discomfort, including diarrhoea, abdominal pain and cramping, vomiting, runny nose, eye tearing, yawning, sweating, agitation, restlessness, twitching and tremors, back and bone pain, and intense craving for the drug. The patient takes the pills and feels better, so assumes that the medication is working, when it is only staving off withdrawal.

The use of opioids has serious side effects. Opioids affect the area of the brain responsible for respiration and some can depress the rate of breathing, occasionally leading to accidental death. Other side-effects include constipation and drowsiness, impairment of the immune system making people more prone to infections and an increased risk of heart disease. They also reduce levels of oestrogen and testosterone.

Opiate/opioid painkillers have an important place in medicine, but where they were once only prescribed short term after trauma injury or as palliative care for people dying of cancer, in recent years they have been increasingly prescribed for long term conditions such as back pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia and endometriosis. So why are GPs writing out more opioid prescriptions than ever? The trouble is that when a patient presents with pain, the hard pressed GP has few options. There is no time in a 10 minute consultation to talk to patients about lifestyle choices such as exercise, diet, physical therapies, giving up smoking or losing weight, which can all affect pain, and little option in today’s cash-strapped NHS to send people to physiotherapists or pain clinics, so the GP has to reach for the prescription pad. Now they have been advised not to prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs to some patients because of concerns about a higher risk of gastric bleeding and heart attacks, or paracetamol, which is associated with an increased risk of gastric bleeding, cardiovascular disease and impaired kidney function, they are left wondering what they can do for patients for long-term pain.

In the USA, the latest CDC guidelines state that opioids should be avoided if possible, with the exception of cancer pain and end-of-life palliative care.

REFERENCES

https://www.spine-health.com/treatment/pain-medication/pain-killer-addiction-treatment
http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/05/why-taking-morphine-oxycodone-can-sometimes-make-pain-worse
Morphine paradoxically prolongs neuropathic pain in rats by amplifying spinal NLRP3 inflammasome activation http://www.pnas.org/content/113/24/E3441
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-3470091/Opioid-painkillers-make-chronic-pain-worse-Endorphins-effective-make-people-sensitive.html#ixzz4pjVcntKH
http://theconversation.com/do-opioids-make-pain-worse-60587

SPIRITUAL FALLOW PERIODS

I’ve had several people contacting me lately complaining that their spirituality seems to have dried up, or that they have stopped feeling any connection.

Sometimes this happens; I’ve experienced it myself many times. When it happened, I came to realise it had been entirely my fault; the Gods had not withdrawn from me, I had unwittingly withdrawn from them.

We talk about magical and spiritual currents, and this is quite literal – if you stop plugging in, you stop being connected. It’s no good complaining the toaster won’t work if you haven’t plugged it into the socket and turned the power on, and it is the same with spiritual energy and connection with a tradition.

I believe that the power of the Gods flows throughout creation, underpinning all life and giving it meaning. It can be a joyous spiritual and emotional sustenance for those who connect with it, but though it is eternal and always present, each day we can choose to be open to it and accept it or we can reject it, ignore it, or put up emotional barriers to it. Compassionate love is the free flowing energy of the soul, but selfishness, hatred and resentment dries and dams it up.

Sometimes spiritual disconnection occurs during difficult life events. When you go through something traumatic or sad, it is natural that your efforts are directed to sorting out your problems. If you have a spiritual response, it might just be to ask for things (sort this out for me, stop it happening) or berate and blame the Gods and for what has happened (why me? why are you punishing me?) and by extension your spiritual path for not giving you immunity. These are barriers we might inadvertently erect to connection with the free flowing of spirit. As Pagans, we believe that we weave our own wyrd, through action or inaction, and are responsible for our own fates, but that often flies out of the window in such circumstances, and we demand that the Gods bend to our will.

(Of course, the opposite can happen, and when something bad occurs, like a serious illness, it can bring you closer to spirit as the concerns of the mundane world drop away, and the connection is like a tap being turned on, and I’ve experienced this too on several occasions. During my recent illness I experienced vision after vision of the flow of spiritual power. That didn’t stop me feeling sorry for myself when recovery was slower than I hoped, and being disappointed that the visions had stopped before I realised I needed to change my approach and reconnect.)

Sometimes after initiation into the Craft people experience a spiritual fallow period. I think occasionally the Gods give them a breathing space to absorb what has happened, but more often it is because the candidate considers that now they have achieved their goal they can stop trying, sit back and the sparks will fly on their command. The truth is that they have been unalterably changed by the initiation – which is the point – and thus their approach and means of connection need to change and be redoubled as a responsible priest/priestess.

 

 

Flax and the Weaver Goddess

Linen, the oldest known textile, is made from the flax plant. Its association with mankind goes back to around 8000 BC with the cloth being used by prehistoric cave dwellers in Europe. Fragments of clothing, linen fishing nets and unworked flax have been found in Switzerland in the remains of Stone Age lake dwellings, and decorated spindle whorls (holed stones used to weight the spindle whilst spinning thread) have been found in prehistoric cave dwellings. Linen shrouds and seeds have been found in Egyptian tombs, several of which depict flax cultivation in the wall decorations. Homer mentions white linen sails in the Odyssey and the plant is mentioned several times in the Bible, including the ‘fine twined linen’ prescribed for the temple veil. A passage in Joshua describes the flax being pulled and tied in bundles and retted in water for several weeks, a method still used today.

Spinning and weaving was always the business of women. Girls were taught the arts as part of their rite of passage at puberty. We still call the female side of the family ‘the distaff side’.

The circular action of the spinning wheel is associated with the turning of the zodiac through the heavens, the turning of day and night, the passage of the seasons and the cycle of life itself.  The movement of the spindle, both back and forth and in a circular motion, is sometimes seen as an image of the cosmos, making the continuous thread of life.  For this reason the flax is sacred to the Weaver Goddess, who spins the thread of life and weaves the fabric of the cosmos, the warp and weft of fate. The Weaver Goddess appears in many mythologies in various forms.  In Greek myth the Three Fates or Moerae appear, always clothed in white. Their Greek name means ‘phase’ as in the phases of the moon, the spinner and measurer of time. The thread of life is spun on Clotho’s spindle, measured by the rod of Lachesis and snipped by Atropos’ shears.  In stature Atropos was the smallest of the three, but by far the most feared, relating as she does to the crone of winter, the death goddess. According to Greek custom, family and clan marks were woven into a baby’s swaddling bands, allotting him his place in society. The Three Fates of Greek myth are paralleled in Norse lore by the Three Norns who weave the web of fate.

The weaver goddess is always associated with magic.  The Egyptian Isis was the patroness of weaving but she also wove magic and could heal, while Meith was also known as a magician and her symbol was a weaver’s shuttle. She was titled ‘The Opener of the Ways’ and conducted souls to the underworld. This idea of following a linen thread into or out of the underworld is echoed in other myths such as Ariadne leading Theseus out of the labyrinth of the Minotaur by means of a thread, and the witch goddess Hecate leading the corn goddess Demeter into the underworld with a thread to find her daughter Persephone. The latter was re-enacted by the initiates of the Eleusinian mysteries.

The growing of flax was surrounded with ritual. The old Prussians performed a ceremony to make the crops grow high.  The tallest girl of the village stood on one foot on a seat, with a lap full of cakes, a cup of brandy in her right hand and a piece of elm or linden bark in her left, praying to the god Weizganthos that the flax might grow as high as she was standing.  She would then drain the cup, have it refilled and pour it onto the ground as an offering to the god.  Then she threw down the cakes for his sprites.  If she managed to remain steady on one foot, it was a good omen.  If she put her left foot down, it was an omen that the crop might fail. This standing on one foot is a shamanic practice and denotes having one foot in the manifest world and one foot in the Otherworld. In the Tyrol, a fir tree was topped with a figure called ‘a witch’ and burned on the first Sunday in lent.  The embers were planted in the flax fields to keep vermin away. When the flax waved in the wind, the people of Magdeburg said: ‘It will be a good year for flax.  The flax mother has been seen.’ In Swabia, young men and women would join hands and leap the midsummer fire, shouting ‘Flax, flax, may the flax this year grow seven ells high.’  In Switzerland the fire was leapt over as high as possible to make the flax grow.

Linen robes make one of the best magical garments. A linen thread may be employed in initiation rituals where the candidate must find his or her way to the centre of a maze, or flax threads may be woven by members of a magical group in a ritual to bind them to each other in friendship. Flax may be used in an incense, an infused oil or an infusion to consecrate the ritual wheel or sun/moon disc or zodiac symbol.  Flax incense may be used to invoke the Goddesses Arachne, Athene, Arianrhod, Brighid, the Fates, Frigg, Hulda, Inanna, Isis, Meith, Minerva, Neith and the Norns. Flax may also be used in incenses of the planet Mercury and the element of fire or be thrown onto the ritual fire at Midsummer. Linen fibre from the perennial flax can be used to make paper for magical scripts.

The common flax is also used medicinally. Country people would boil the fresh, whole herb and take it for rheumatic pains, colds, coughs and dropsy. Linseed oil, made from flax seeds, is added to cough medicines and used medicinally as an infusion for the treatment of colds, coughs, catarrh, bronchitis, urinary infections and pulmonary infections. The infusion can be used externally for boils, ulcers, cuts and inflammations. For a poultice the seeds can be boiled until soft or they can be pulverised and placed between two gauzes applied as hot as tolerable to rheumatic aches and pains or applied when cooler for ulceration, inflammation, irritation and pain.

CAUTION: IMMATURE SEEDS CAN BE POISONOUS