Publishing Bandwagons

I just read a review of The Hearth Witch’s Compendium that claimed I was an author jumping on the bandwagon of the current trend for natural living (though to be fair, she did give it four stars). I don’t actually take much notice of reviews, as they usually say more about the reviewer than the book in this Pagan bubble of ours, but it did make me reflect on the weird world of publishing.

The business is often a frustrating one for the writer. Readers sometimes mistake the books an author has had published for the books the author wants to get published, when in fact, they are only the books that a publisher is willing to publish. I’ve lost count of the number of times an editor has asked me to dumb down my books with the words ‘that’s too difficult for the reader, take that out and put some spells in’, or ‘angels/crystals/fairies/Celts are popular, can you write a book about angels/crystals/fairies/Celts?’.

I wrote the original Hearth Witch fifteen years ago to describe the way I have lived for more than thirty years,  but I couldn’t get any interest from publishers at the time (not a trendy subject then), so I self-published it in 2004. Self-publishing, both in print and e-books, is a growing trend for authors. It enables us to put out new work that doesn’t have mass-market appeal, and rescue out of print books from oblivion, or even put out unbowdlerised versions of them.

It’s either that or keep the manuscript in a drawer and hope it becomes fashionable…

The Hearth Witch’s Compendium came out at a time when the subject is getting trendy (it always was for me!). It is published by Llewellyn, and I have to say, they did a great job with it, and I had a brilliant, really helpful editor – it makes all the difference.

The Spiritual Quest

The Hero’s Journey tells us that the universal tale is the one of the hero who receives a message from the Otherworld and sets off on a quest, meeting characters who help or hinder him along the way. [1] 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 nasty. But usually, in ways so subtle that they escape attention, we’re seeking something. For many 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. The Grail brims over with the endless stream of Divine energy that 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. [2]

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, or talking about the path instead of walking it, or comparing this spiritual technique with that one, when it is not the way of walking that will take you to your destination, but the act of continuing to put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes, we forget why we are searching, and the search becomes an end in itself, a way of life. Spirituality can become a consumer lifestyle, and a way of enhancing and enlarging the all-important 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”. As the Rabbi once put it, “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.” [3]

There is an amazing temple in which the Divine is always present. It is called the world, and we already live in it. 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.

Ultimately, 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. However, 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 which is the essence of the Grail.

Walk your path in honour and strength, but walk it to the end.

[1] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Fontana Press, 1993

[2] Anna Franklin, Pagan Ways Tarot, Schiffer, 2015

[3] http://www.quotes.net/quote/14167

Calendula Treats for Your Skin

Calendula has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. As lotion, cream or ointment it speeds up healing and counters infection in sunburn, minor burns, insect bites and stings, acne, cuts, abrasions, inflamed rashes, nappy rash, haemorrhoids and varicose veins. Make sure you correctly identify your plant as Calendula officinalis, the pot marigold.

Calendula Infusion

1 oz. dried herb or 2 oz. chopped fresh herb

1 pint boiling water

Put the herbs in ceramic heatproof pot and pour on the boiling water. Cover (or put the lid on the teapot) and infuse for 20 minutes, covered. Strain before use. Will keep about two days in the fridge. Calendula flower infusion, applied externally, is excellent for the treatment of burns, wounds, conjunctivitis, varicose veins, bed sores, ulcers, bruises, gum inflammations, corns, warts, eczema and skin rashes. Calendula has anti-fungal actions and can be used externally for athlete’s foot pour into a foot bath and soak for 15 minutes daily), ringworm and as a douche for vaginal thrush.

Calendula Infused Oil

Calendula is good for any skin type but especially dry, acne-prone or aging skin, soothing, cooling and plumping it up. To use it, you can make a calendula infused oil. Fats and oils extract the oily and resinous properties of an herb, and these are often the antibacterial, antifungal and wound-healing components. To make a cold infused oil cut up the herb and cover with vegetable oil (olive, sunflower etc.) in a glass bottle or jar, Leave on a sunny windowsill for 2 weeks, shaking daily. Strain into a clean jar. Infused herbal oils may be used as they are, applied directly to the skin. Unlike essential oils, they do not need to be diluted for use.

Calendula Salve

You can also thicken your oil into a salve by warming it gently, and adding beeswax. When the beeswax has melted, remove from the heat and pour into clean glass jars.  The more wax you add, the harder the set. This will keep at least a year.

Dandelion – for your skin and hair

This is the very best time of year to pick dandelion flowers, when they are in full bloom, and today I have been making dandelion oil. This is really simple – pick your dandelion flowers in full sun, and choose only the best specimens from a place you know is free of pesticides and chemical residues. Pack them in a sterile glass jar and top up with vegetable oil, making sure the oil completely covers the flowers. Leave this on a sunny windowsill for two weeks, shaking daily. Strain and bottle your dandelion on in a sterilised glass bottle.

Dandelion flower oil can also be used as a fabulous anti-oxidant rich moisturizer for the body and face. It can be used as it is, or to make salves and creams for wrinkles, age spots, dry skin, sunburn and chapped skin. Rich in vitamins and minerals, the oil makes a great treatment for your hair, and may even help combat dandruff. Simple warm the oil slightly, apply it to scalp, massaging with small circular motions, and comb through the length. Wrap your head in a towel to keep the warmth in, and leave for at least two hours. Shampoo as normal.

You can also use the oil in body massage, as it helps relieve tension and relax muscles, and is good for stiff and tired muscles.  It may be of benefit for arthritis and gout as it contains anti-inflammatory properties too.

Every part of the much maligned dandelion can be used medicinally, though the root is most often used in a decoction or tincture. Dandelion is a good all round health tonic, rich in vitamins and minerals. Dandelion root is a powerful detoxifying herb, working on the liver and gall bladder to remove waste products, stimulate the kidneys to remove toxins in urine and encouraging the elimination of toxins due to infection and pollution, including hangovers.  I used dandelion tea to help me recover from jaundice last year. It is useful for constipation, acne, eczema, psoriasis, nettle rash, boils, and arthritic conditions including osteoarthritis and gout.

Dandelion leaf is a powerful diuretic which can be used without the consequent loss of potassium of orthodox drugs. It stimulates the kidneys and can be used for water retention and is helpful in treating urinary tract infections. The leaves can be eaten fresh in a salad or taken as an infusion. For rheumatism and arthritis take an infusion of the leaves to help the joints and eventually remove acid deposits. The roots and leaves may help to prevent gallstones and the leaf is reputed to help dissolve already formed gallstones.

The root is roasted and ground as a substitute for coffee. Young dandelion leaves can be used in salads or cooked.  Pick the leaves in early spring for eating, the older leaves in summer for teas, and for medicinal purposes at any time. Gather the roots during the spring or autumn for dandelion coffee, and in summer for medicinal purposes.

The dandelion is very much associated with solar energies, and it closes its petals to protect itself from the fierce noonday sun. Its golden colour and nourishing vitamin and mineral content make it a plant of bright energy and vitality. It can be added to sun incenses to increase their power. Dandelion leaf tea may be taken to enhance psychic powers and the flowers may be added to divination incenses.

The white, downy seeds also associate the dandelion with lunar energies, supplying the balancing spirit. Collect these seeds under the light of the full moon and use them in incenses and talismans.

The traditional time to make dandelion wine is St. George’s Day, April 23. St. George may well be the Christian incarnation of a much earlier vegetation deity who overcame the dragon of winter and ushered in the summer.

Dandelion Wine

6 pints flower heads

3 lb. sugar

2 lemons

1 orange

1 lb. raisins

1 cup of black tea

1 gallon water

Yeast and nutrient

Gather the flowers when you are ready to use them fresh. Boil the water and pour over the flowers, stand for 2 days, stirring daily. Boil with the sugar and citrus fruit rinds for 60 minutes. Put it back in the bin and add the citrus fruit juice. Cool to lukewarm, add the tea, yeast and nutrient. Cover the bin and leave in a warm place for 3 days, stirring daily. Strain into a demijohn and add the raisins. Fit an airlock. The flavour of this wine is much improved with keeping, and it should not be drunk for at least a year (I like to keep mine for three years).

 Caution: Dandelion is considered safe for most people. However, medicinal amounts are best avoided during pregnancy or breastfeeding to be on the safe side. Dandelion may decrease the efficacy of some antibiotics, so check with your healthcare provider. Do not take medicinal amounts internally if you are on lithium or taking other diuretics.

 

 

Arianrhod and the Mysteries of Initiation

It is the custom for each coven to be formed under the patronage of a goddess, since it is always a goddess who guards the hearth fire. This goddess affects the current of energy the hearth works with. Our coven is called the Hearth of Arianrhod. Arianrhod is the queen of the spiral castle, the swirling galaxy of stars. She is the goddess who spins the cosmos, the mistress of time and the seasons. She is the goddess who challenges. She is the divine initiator. Hers is not an easy path.

In Welsh myth Arianrhod is the daughter of the chief goddess Dôn, from whom all the Welsh gods descended and the god Beli Mawr (‘Beli the Great’). Beli is cognate with the continental Belenos or the Irish Bel, the sun god called the Fair Shining One, or The Shining God, a pan-Celtic deity associated with Beltane, the horse and the wheel.  Arianrhod’s maternal uncle was Math the magician, and her siblings included Gwydion, a magician-poet and Math’s heir, and Govannon, god of the forge. Though she is mentioned in the Welsh Triads, the only full tale of Arianrhod still in existence is found in the Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh stories recorded by Christian monks in the mediaeval period.

King Math ruled Gwynedd, but was under a taboo that his feet should always rest his feet in the lap of a virgin during peacetime. Sadly, his nephew Gilvaethwy lusted after the footholder, Goewin. He confided his secret to his brother Gwydion and, as they knew that Math was released from the taboo in time of war, by some clever machinations, provoked a war with their neighbour King Pryderi. Math was forced to go off to battle, leaving his footholder behind. Gilvaethwy seized the opportunity and raped Goewin. Naturally, Math was furious when he returned, punishing his nephews severely by turning them into a series of mated pairs of animals.

In an attempt to regain Math’s favour, Gwydion suggested his sister Arianrhod for the position of footholder. When Arianrhod was asked if she was a virgin, she replied that she was morwyn, a word that means ‘little girl’ [i] and might be construed as implying an unmarried state. However, a magical trial of her status was required – to test her purity she had to step over Math’s wand, but as soon as she had done so, she gave birth to a golden-haired boy called Dylan (which means ‘Son of the Second Wave’), who immediately jumped into the sea and swam away. Arianrhod indignantly walked out of the door. No one but Gwydion saw her drop a bundle, an unformed lump of boy-flesh.

Gwydion secretly raised the child himself. His growth was rapid; when he was four years old, he was as tall as a boy of eight. When Gwydion took the boy to her castle, Arianrhod refused to recognise him as her son, saying that he should never have a name until she gave him one. This was a serious thing as to be without a name was to be nothing, in this world or the next. Gwydion came up with a plan to trick Arianrhod into naming her son. By magic he formed a boat from seaweed and rushes and some beautiful leather from sedge. Disguised as shoemakers, Gwydion and Llew sailed up to Arianrhod’s castle and began to sew the leather. Arianrhod looked down from her balcony and thought that she would like some new shoes, so she sent her maid down to the shore with her measurements. Gwydion knew that he must force her to come out and first made some shoes too big, then some to small, though both pairs were exquisite. Eventually Arianrhod went down to the boat to be fitted in person.

While Gwydion was fitting the shoes a wren came and perched on the boat. The boy took out his bow and shot the wren through the leg. Arianrhod was impressed. “Truly,” she said “the fair-haired one (“lleu”) has a skilful hand (“llaw gyffes”)!” “Thank you,” Gwydion said, “the boy now has his name – Llew Llaw Gyffes!” Angry at being tricked, she declared that the boy should never have arms unless she should bestow them.

Nevertheless, Gwydion took Llew home to Dinas Dinllev and brought him up as a warrior. When he was ready, the two returned to Caer Arianrhod, this time disguised as bards. The goddess received them kindly, pleased to hear their songs and stories. The next morning Gwydion cast a powerful spell that made it appear as though a vast army was descending on the castle. The air rang with shouts and trumpets and the bay seemed full of enemy ships. Arianrhod became afraid and asked Gwydion what she should do. “Give us arms,” he replied, “and we will defend you.” While her maidens armed Gwydion, Arianrhod herself strapped armour onto Llew. Instantly the glamour ended, and it was seen that no army threatened.

Realizing that she had been tricked again, Arianrhod laid a further taboo on Llew – that he should never marry a woman born of the race of men.

Gwydion and his fellow magician Math ap Mathonwy gathered the flowers of oak, broom and meadowsweet to fashion a lovely maiden as a bride for Llew. She was called Blodeuwedd (‘Flower Face’). Llew and his flower bride lived happily until one day Llew was away and a hunting party arrived, led by Gronw Pebyr. Gronw and Blodeuwedd immediately fell in love and plotted to rid themselves of her husband.

The problem was that he could be killed neither by day nor by night, indoors or out of doors, clothed or naked, riding or walking, nor by any lawfully made weapon. Blodeuwedd tricked Llew into revealing to her that he could only be killed at twilight when on the bank of a river with one foot on the back of a he-goat and the other on the rim of a bath, under a canopy. The spear needed to kill him would take a year to make, working only on Sundays. Armed with this information, Gronw set about making preparations. When all was ready Blodeuwedd asked Llew to show her how he could balance on a goat and bath at the same time. Llew was more than ready to indulge his young wife’s curiosity and took up his position with one foot on the rim of a bath, the other on the he-goat. As he teetered there Gronw emerged from the trees and hurled the magical javelin at him, wounding him in the thigh. However, instead of dying, Llew turned into an eagle and flew away.

When Gwydion learned what had happened he set off to find his poor nephew. He searched far and wide until one day he discovered a sow behaving very strangely. It was devouring the maggots and gobbets of flesh that fell from an eagle perched in an oak tree. Gwydion immediately recognized that the eagle was the mortally wounded Llew. Using his magical powers he transformed his nephew back into human shape and took him home to nurse him back to health.

When news of Llew’s recovery reached Blodeuwedd and Gronw they realized that all was up and took flight. With her servants Blodeuwedd tried to cross the river, but her maids were in such a panic they all drowned in the swift flowing waters. Left alone, the Flower Maiden was soon discovered by Gwydion, who revenged his nephew by changing her into an owl, the most hated of all birds.

Gronw tried to treat with Llew and offered him land and money in reparation. This Llew refused and demanded that Gronw meet him in the place of his treacherous act and allow him to return the favour under the exact same circumstances. The two came to the bank of the river and Gronw took up his position on the goat and cauldron, but pleaded with Llew that since he had come to this pass through the wiles of a woman, Llew should allow him the boon of placing a stone between himself and the blow. This Llew granted, but when he hurled his spear it pierced through the stone and through Gronw too, breaking his back. The stone still lies on the banks of the river Cynfael, with the hole through it, and it is called Llech Gronw or ‘Gronw’s Stone’.

How are we to interpret the myth? While Arianrhod claims to be a virgin, she gives birth to twin sons. The story of a birth of a god from a virgin mother is a common one in myth. She is the goddess who creates without needing any external agency. The divine son of a virgin mother is usually a seasonal death and resurrection god, as here Llew clearly is. Many goddesses were called ‘virgin’ despite being married or having lovers. Twin sons are also fairly common in myth and represent polarities such as the light and dark or summer and winter who fight for rulership of the year. Dylan is the ‘son of the wave’ and Gronw Pebyr is ‘lord of the lake’, another metaphorical twin and rival of Llew in the seasonal battle for the love of the goddess Blodeuwedd, or nature.

In myths the hero meets a supernatural figure, perhaps a god or goddess, who sets them upon the path to their destiny.  Often they are associated with a spindle or a wheel, representing fate, and with riddling or testing. Arianrhod gave young Llew his fate when she laid on him three taboos. Her pronouncements are not curses; what she actually says is: “I swear a destiny upon the boy”. Arianrhod challenged and pushed her son through the path of becoming a man, gaining a name, arms and a bride. She didn’t hand these things to him on a plate, but made him strive for them. He had to accept the will of the Goddess, but he did not surrender, did not give in, but worked within the challenges she set him in order to triumph.

The famous poem of the Welsh bard Taliesin states that he was three times in the castle of Arianrhod, or in other words, he travelled in spirit three times to the mystery at the heart of the universe to gain poetic inspiration directly from its source, the Goddess.  Like Ceridwen in the story of Gwion who became Taliesin, Arianrhod is a challenging goddess who pushes the hero into wisdom and greatness. Arianrhod is the initiator, the goddess who challenges the candidate and pushes them to achieve the next step.

The first taboo Arianrhod imposes on her son is that he will have no name until she gives him one. She doesn’t say that she is denying him a name. In earlier times, and today in tribal societies, the naming of a thing or person was a great responsibility. The true name of something encapsulates its essential nature. Even today a child is named in a solemn ceremony and there is a belief that the name chosen will affect the child, in some way shaping its character. Often a child is not felt to be a person at all – or to have its own individual identity – until it is formally named. A person may take a new name with a change of status; for example a boy will assume a new name when he comes to manhood, a woman when she marries, a priest when he is ordained, and a witch when initiated. Taking a new name means taking on a new role and new identity.

Guided by his experienced magician uncle, Llew uses cunning, magic and skill to gain a name from the goddess. Arianrhod sees him hit a wren with his sling, and then names him ‘The One of the Skilful Hand’. With this, he becomes an adult – the child he was, with only the concerns of a child, is left behind.

The shooting of the wren is significant – it is the bird of the sacred king, and it foreshadows his own wounding later in the story. The wren is, in fact, himself. In ancient Welsh tradition the wren is the King of the Birds, triumphing over the Eagle, so this is an act of sacrificial kingship. The wren is hunted and killed at the winter solstice. In stories, kings are often wounded in the leg or groin prior to their demise. When he shoots it, and accepts his name, he assumes the role of the king who must serve the Goddess and sacrifice himself for the land.

Like Llew, the neophytes, guided by magician elders, must learn skill, cunning and magic in order to present themselves to the Goddess for initiation. The first degree initiation changes the status of a member of the coven – with it, they become a priest or priestess.  With it, they accept the path of service, just as Llew does, when he shoots the wren. The initiate takes a new Craft name to denote that they have died and been reborn as a priest or priestess.

The second taboo which Arianrhod pronounces is that he shall have no weapons until she arms him herself. This is very clearly an initiation test, a simple case of “you will receive arms when you have demonstrated your courage and earned the right to them”. The arms he gains will be used to defend his people. In the second degree, the candidate is summoned to the edge of the circle and asked what they seek within this degree. Whereas in the first degree the candidate replied that they seek knowledge, in this degree the candidate responds that they seek “to better serve the Lord and Lady”. The first degree is about seeking knowledge, about learning, including the difficult job of learning about the self. In the second degree, this must have progressed to the point where the desire has become to serve – not because it makes the priest feel good, or makes people admire him, but because service to others is the way of the priest.

The third test pronounced by Arianrhod is that Llew shall never marry a mortal women. It seems cruel, but we must remember that he is a god and a sacred king. The primary relationship of the Celtic sacred king was with the land. Woven throughout the stories and myths of Celtic heroes and gods is the concept of Sovereignty, the right and authority to rule the land.  This right and authority is derived not from the right of inheritance or brute force, but a woman/goddess who represents the land. By denying him marriage with an ordinary woman, Arianrhod ensured that he would marry the sovereign goddess. Again, Llew could have given up or despaired at being denied a bride, but he sought the help of his uncles, Gwydion and Math, who created a bride out of flowers – oak, broom and meadowsweet – in other words, out of nature itself. The story of Llew illustrates that the king must only take power in order to serve the land. The third degree initiate takes the grade only in order to serve others more fully. The person who takes it must not do so for his own glory, and must function in an unselfish way, putting the needs of the group or community first.

But there are deeper mysteries here. Arianrhod’s name may derive from the Welsh words arian ‘silver’ + rhod ‘wheel, though her name is also given as Aranrhod from aran meaning ‘immense’ or ’round’ + rhod, meaning ‘wheel’. Many Celtic gods are depicted with wheels, indicating movement and the passing of time and the seasons.

In Welsh folklore, the Northern Crown, the Corona Borealis, is called Caer Arianrhod, meaning Arianrhod’s Castle. It is near the Pole Star, but not so near that it does not rise and set.

The names of the various castles in Welsh myth relate to the celestial – the Milky Way was Gwydion’s castle, the Corona Borealis was Arianrhod’s castle, and the constellation of Cassiopeia was the location of the Court of Don. Caer Sidi, the revolving castle, is the Pole Star, the still point around which the stars spin, revolving through the seasons.

From our point of view, the stars revolve around the sky, and throughout the year the sun passes through each constellation of the zodiac, which is itself seen as a wheel that weaves our fates.

Arianrhod’s wheel spins the cosmos, weaving the silver threads of the stars and galaxies, and therefore time, the seasons, and fate.  She controls the maelstrom of creative forces at the heart of the cosmos.

Another goddess associated with the constellation of the Corona Borealis is the Greek goddess Ariadne, who helped Theseus defeat the Minotaur and escape the labyrinth at Knossos by means of a thread she gave him to lay a trail to the passage through the labyrinth. The jewelled crown he gave her was placed in the stars after her death as the constellation. One name for the Minotaur was Asterion, meaning ‘Starry’, implying a connection of the turns of the labyrinth and the motions of the stars.

In order to win a name, Gwydion and Llew come to the goddess disguised as shoemakers. Both the Irish and Welsh Llew pose as a shoemaker to gain access to a highborn girl or queen. In myth, there is a mysterious connection between sacred kings, shoemakers and labyrinths. In Poland a traditional shoemakers’ dance was connected with a labyrinth. In England the Patriotic Company of Shoemakers had their own turf maze at Kingland near Shrewsbury.

The spiral labyrinth reflects the arms of the Milky Way. The spiral shape, which is the basis of the spider’s web, is an ancient and almost universal symbol of regeneration and rebirth. Spirals are marked on many ancient tombs, coins, floors, and cave walls. They represent the path of the Sun throughout the year, from birth to death and rebirth (the same journey promised to the human soul), the labyrinth that the soul travels into death and the underworld and outward to rebirth. Taliesin wrote that he had been three times in the castle of Arianrhod, indicating a three-fold initiation, treading the path of that labyrinth.

The spinning goddesses of fate are often associated with the stars. In Viking mythology, Frygg’s spindle is said to be the stars of the belt of Orion. Spinning was the province of women and goddesses only, a magical act as the movements imitated the spinning of the cosmos.  Spinning goddesses were once considered to be the most powerful deities of all, and they appear in many mythologies.

Arianrhod’s husband is Nwyvre (pronounced NOOiv-ruh). His myths have been lost, and there are only a few mentions of him in the Triads remaining. His name comes from nwyf, which means ‘vivacity’, ‘vigour’ or ‘energy’ and rhe, ‘a swift motion’, so his name means something like ‘swiftly moving energy’. Nwyvre is thought of as the life force that infuses and animates all things, similar to the concept of prana or chi, [ii] giving them health and vitality. Those things that lack nwyvre are dead.

Arianrhod is the active principle, spinning starry matter with threads of magic from the heart of the Cosmos, the source of the divine spark of inspiration. In this regard, Arianrhod and Nwyvre might be compared to Shakti and Shiva in Hindu mythology. Between the Mabinogion and the Triads, Arianrhod and Nwyvre are said to have four sons: Gwynn, Fflam (Flame), Dylan (Wave) and Llew. These can be seen as representing the four elements, with the two great forces of the universe coming together to bring all things into being.

 

[i] Jean Markale, Women of the Celts, Inner Traditions International, Vermont, 1986

[ii] The Barddas of Iolo Morganwg, Vol. I., ed. by J. Williams Ab Ithel, [1862], at sacred-texts.com p. 372 p. 373

The Amazing Birch Tree

After the glaciers of the last Ice Age receded, birch was one of the first trees to re-colonise the land. Though it is a slender and graceful tree, it is amazingly resilient, and rarely has one species of tree been so important to so many different peoples. Our ancestors used it to make shelters, canoes and coracles, fibre, medicine, ‘paper’, magic and even brewed wine and beer from it.

As it is one of the first trees to come into leaf in the spring, it is associated with regeneration and new beginnings. In Scandinavia the appearance of leaves marked the beginning of the agricultural year and the farmers took it as a sign to sow their spring wheat. In the Northern tradition the birch (Beorc, Byarka, or Berkana) is a symbol of Mother Earth and represents the feminine powers of growth, healing and the natural world. May poles were made of birch, associating the birch with the May Day revels of sympathetic fertility magic.

The white bark of the birch also connects it with purification. The Anglo-Saxon name for the tree was beorc means ‘white’ or ‘shining’. Birch rods are used in country ritual for the driving out of the old year. Another possible derivation is the Latin ‘batuere‘ meaning ‘to strike’, referring to the birch rods use for flogging.

Birch is considered a protective tree, believed to guard those who carried a piece of it, and to keep livestock safe when attached to their barn or shelter. In some parts of England a birch was hung with red and white rags and leant against stable doors at Beltane (May Day) to prevent horses being ‘hag-ridden’, i.e. being taken out by spirits or witches and ridden.

The leaves, bark, twigs are all used medicinally.

Birch contains the natural pain reliever and anti-inflammatory salicylate, the same compound found in aspirin. This is especially useful for arthritic conditions and muscle pain. You can prepare a poultice of fresh bark and apply it directly (the inner bark against the skin) to the affected areas, or make macerated oils of the leaves or bark to apply externally. This will help to relieve both the pain and inflammation of arthritis. These same salycilates in the bark make an effective wart treatment.

As birch is a blood purifier, a decoction of the twigs or bark can be helpful when used as a wash for boils and sores. Make a tincture of birch buds for the treatment of small wounds and cuts. This has antibacterial, antiviral and cell regenerative qualities.  A decoction or macerated oil made from the bark or leaves is antibacterial and anti-inflammatory and useful for skin conditions such as eczema. Use as a skin wash or add to the bath.

Birch bark and leaves are diuretic, with the added benefit of being anti-bacterial. Taken as a decoction they help to eliminate excess fluid and toxins from the body which can help with arthritic conditions, urinary tract infections, cystitis and help to dissolve kidney stones.

The young shoots and leaves are used as a laxative, but the bark is useful in the treatment of diarrhoea.

The betulin compound found in birch bark is under investigation as a treatment for the herpes viruses, AIDS, and cancer.

An essential oil of birch bark is available. This pale yellow oil has a balsamic scent, and is extracted from the leaf-buds by steam distillation. Birch oil is good for dermatitis, dull skin, eczema and psoriasis, and also eases the pain of arthritis, rheumatism and sore muscles.  Birch oil blends well with benzoin, sandalwood and rosemary. However, it should be used with caution and highly diluted, and never when pregnant.

In magic birch is used for protection, purification, against negativity, love, new beginnings, changes, Ostara and Beltane.  It is associated with Aphrodite, Freya, Brigantia, Brighid, the Earth Mother, Thor, Frigga, Idunna, Nethus, Persephone, Sif and Venus.  It is ruled by the planet Venus, the element of water and the sign of Cancer.

Birch represents the power of cleansing and purification in preparation for the new beginnings. When the tree is opened to extract the sweet sap the essence of the tree is released to give its power to the waxing year and the strengthening sun at the vernal equinox, when the light begins to gain on the dark. This can form part of the ritual of Ostara. Honour the sun god with birch sap wine the following year.

Birch Sap Wine

8 pints birch sap (Betula spp.)

½ lb. raisins

2 lb. sugar

Juice of 3 lemons

Yeast

Boil the sap and add the sugar. Simmer for 10 minutes. Pour the liquid over the raisins and lemon juice. Cool the mixture to 20oC and add the started yeast. Ferment in a brewing bucket for 3 days, then strain into a demijohn and fit an airlock.

To obtain the sap, bore a small hole into the tree, just inside the bark, and insert a narrow tube, sloping downwards. Sap should start running from the tree (if it doesn’t, it is the wrong time of year). Put the free end of the tube into your container (eg a plastic soda bottle), which you can tie onto the tree.  Don’t take too much from one tree. When you have what you need, remove the tube, put a piece of cork into the borehole, and the birch tree will seal itself after a short while. In very early spring (late February or early March here in the UK, depending on the weather) you should be able to draw off enough sap for a gallon of wine in a day.

 I also came across this old English recipe for birch beer, though I haven’t tried it yet:

“To every Gallon of Birch-water put a quart of Honey, well stirr’d together; then boil it almost an hour with a few Cloves, and a little Limon-peel, keeping it well scumm’d. When it is sufficiently boil’d, and become cold, add to it three or four Spoonfuls of good Ale to make it work…and when the Test begins to settle, bottle it up . . . it is gentle, and very harmless in operation within the body, and exceedingly sharpens the Appetite, being drunk ante pastum.”

Ostara

Ostara celebrates the vernal equinox when day and night stand at equal length (twelve hours each) but the light is gaining and the days are getting longer. We can really feel spring in the air, and notice the ever increasing warmth and the burgeoning of life. We experience a resurgence of vigour and hope as the energies of the natural world shift from the lethargy of winter to the lively expansion of spring. The flowering of the gorse, daffodils, primrose and coltsfoot – sun coloured spring flowers – celebrate and reflect the increasing strength of the sun. Animals and birds are nest building and mating.  At Ostara, the gods and goddesses of fertility return to the land, and we see new growth everywhere.

Two thousand years ago, across the world, there were a variety of Pagan religions with markedly similar themes of a god who dies and is reborn at this time. He represents the vegetative cycles of the year: the grain grows and is cut down only to be reborn again; the trees lose their leaves and seem to die only to bud once more. In Phrygia, for example, the spring equinox marked the resurrection of Attis, a vegetation god and lover of the goddess Cybele. In ancient Rome, the ten day festival in honour of Attis began on March 15. A pine tree, which represented Attis, was chopped down, wrapped in a linen shroud, decorated with violets and placed in a sepulchre in the temple. On the Day of Blood or Black Friday, the priests of the cult gashed themselves with knives as they danced ecstatically, sympathizing with Cybele in her grief and helping to restore Attis to life. Two days later, a priest opened the sepulchre at dawn, revealing that it was empty and announcing that the god was saved. This day was known as Hilaria or the Day of Joy, a time of feasting and merriment. This is a theme also explored in the Christian feast of Easter.

According to the 7th to 8th-century English monk Bede, the Christian holiday of Easter was named after a Saxon goddess of spring, Eostre. [1] He wrote that Ēosturmōnaþ (Old English – ‘Month of Ēostre’) was an English month, corresponding to April when feasts of Eostre were celebrated by Pagans. Building on this, Jacob Grimm, in his Deutsche Mythologie, described Eostre as the divinity of dawn, “of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted into the resurrection-day of the Christian God”. [2] Despite this – or perhaps because of it – there have been many scholarly efforts to discredit Bede’s claims of the existence such a goddess, disputing Grimm’s linguistic connections of Ostara, east and dawn. [3] One suggestion is that the name of the month simply arises as a loan-translation of the Latin term albae, meaning both ‘white’ and ‘dawn’, since white robes were worn by churchmen at Easter. [4] There is certainly no evidence that Eostre was a pan-Germanic goddess of spring, as many modern Pagans often claim, but before we dismiss her existence completely, there is convincing etymological evidence (in the form of historical place and personal names) to suggest that she may have been a purely local goddess, worshipped in Kent. [5] If this is the case, Bede may simply have used the local name for the month, indeed named after a local goddess [6] – Anglo Saxon Christians were certainly happy to make use of Pagan names for days of the week. [7] Bede’s book became one of the essential textbooks of the early Middle Ages, widely circulated in Europe, and it would be nice to think that in this manner he was perpetuating the feast of a local goddess.

[1] Bede, De Tempore Ratione, The Reckoning of Time, trans. Faith Wallis,  Liverpool University Press, 1999

[2] Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, trans. James Stallybrass, Dover, New York, 1882

[3] Sermon, Richard (November 2008). “From Easter to Ostara: the Reinvention of a Pagan Goddess?”, Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture 1

[4] Johann Knobloch, ‘Der Ursprung von nhd. Ostern, engl. Easter’, Die Sprache, 5: 27-45

[5] Philip A. Shaw, Pagan Goddesses in the Earl Germanic World, Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of the Matrons, Bristol Classical Press, Bloomsbury Academic, London, 2011

[6] ibid

[7] ibid