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

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Almond

Almond trees are associated with spring, regeneration, divination and fertility. In the near east, the appearance of almond blossom is considered the herald of spring. The Anatolian vegetation god Attis, who was reborn each spring only to die and be mourned each winter, was conceived when his mother Nana placed a ripe almond in her bosom, according to some versions of the myth.

Almonds are a wonderful food, rich in fibre, plant sterols and polyunsaturated fatty acids. They help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and increase HDL (good) cholesterol. They are rich in Vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant, and in magnesium, good for heart health. Sweet almonds pounded in water form ‘almond milk’ which can be used as a substitute for dairy products. The nuts can be eaten raw or roasted and marzipan is made from the ground nuts.

 Almond oil, the oil produced from almonds, can be used as a carrier for essential oils, or alone as a treatment for dry skin as it is a light oil, easily absorbed, emollient and nourishing.  Ground almonds mixed with honey make a great facial scrub.

 Almond oil is also often used as a base for magical oils, but should only be used for those connected with air, spring and its associated gods and goddesses. Almond oil can be used to anoint and consecrate the ritual sword. Almond wood may be used to make a wand of fertility and regeneration. The dried blossoms, wood and nuts may be added to incenses of the east, the element of air, the planet Mercury or the Sun, Ostara, divination rituals, the star sign of Gemini or to incenses of any of the almond’s associated deities. The blossoms may be used in chaplets and decorations at festivals to celebrate the spring.

ALOE VERA

Aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis) is a fascinating plant. Although it resembles a cactus it is actually a member of the lily family, and is a stemless succulent plant growing up to 40 inches tall. The botanical name aloe derives from the Arabic alloeh meaning ‘bitter and shiny substance’ and vera from the Latin word for truth. Despite the nomenclature barbadensis (‘of Barbados’) it is native to North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula and thrives in warm, dry climates.  It contains nearly 100 active ingredients including sugars, enzymes, lignins, amino acids, anthraquinones (aloin, aloe-emodin), saponins, fatty acids, salicylic acid, resins, sterols, chromones, protein, calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamins A, E and C, tannin and germanium.

I like to keep a plant in the kitchen, as it is a handy first aid remedy for fungal infections, ringworm, nappy rash, eczema, psoriasis, insect bites, minor burns, sunburn, cuts and skin abrasions – just take a fresh leaf and open it to extract the clear gel within and apply this directly to the affected area. It reduces pain, speeds healing and encourages cell repair, due in part to the presence of aloectin B which stimulates the immune system. Aloe is reputed to have potent anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects. It is useful for almost any skin condition that needs soothing. It is useful for cosmetic purposes too as it sooths and softens the skin, while its astringent properties help tighten it and minimise wrinkles. It helps heal acne and reduce scarring. However, while external use is generally considered safe some people are sensitive, and aloe juice should never be applied to deep cuts and wounds or severe burns.

More and more products are being created advocating the drinking of aloe juice, and this is a cause for concern. Though it does have a place in herbal medicine, aloe juice should not be taken internally as a matter of course or on a regular basis, and indeed, internal use is prohibited in some countries. If you have certain health conditions, it can be dangerous.

I’ve seen people blithely recommending it online for all kinds problems, and on Facebook, I’ve noticed that as soon as someone posts that they have a stomach complaint, there is an avalanche of people recommending aloe juice as a cure, and this really worries me. Aloe can actually cause abdominal cramping, constipation, dehydration, diarrhoea, electrolyte imbalance, excess bleeding, hepatitis, increased risk of colorectal cancer, increased risk of irregular heartbeat, kidney failure, liver toxicity, low potassium in the blood, muscle weakness, stomach discomfort, thyroid dysfunction, urinary stone, uterine contractions, and widespread inflammation of the skin (Source: Mayo Clinic).

The internal use of aloe should definitely be avoided by anyone who has heart disease, abdominal pain, appendicitis, intestinal problems, heart disease, haemorrhoids, kidney problems, diabetes, or electrolyte imbalances, or liver disease. It should be avoided before and after surgery (it increases the risk of bleeding) and during pregnancy or lactation. Aloe lowers blood sugar levels, and should not be taken by diabetics or hypoglycaemia. It certainly shouldn’t be taken if you are suffering from nausea and vomiting – vomiting causes an electrolyte imbalance, which will be compounded by taking aloe vera. It should not be used internally by anyone taking heart medications, steroids, blood thinning medication, thyroid medication, laxatives, liquorice root, or any medications for the stomach or intestines.

 

Herbal Cough Drops

It seems that winter has not done with us yet, and at this time of year coughs and colds are doing the rounds. Here is a recipe for herbal cough drops:

Herbal Cough Drops
1 pint boiling water
½ tsp crushed aniseed
2 tbsp. elecampane
3 tsp grated fresh ginger root
2 tbsp. hyssop
1 tbsp. chopped marshmallow root
1 tbsp. thyme
12 fl. oz. honey
Cover the herbs with the boiling water and allow to infuse for 20 minutes. Strain. Use ½ pint of the resulting infusion and put it in a pan with the honey. Cook over a medium heat until the mixture reaches setting point – drop a bit of the mixture in very cold water and see if it sets to a hard lump. Remove the pan from the heat and pour the syrup into a greased baking tray. When it has cooled, you can break it into pieces.

Aniseed and elecampane are good for relieving coughs. Hyssop sooths and moistens sore throats. Ginger reduces inflammation and boosts your immune system. The mucilage in marshmallow is wonderful for inflamed throats and sooths coughs. Thyme is antibacterial and antiviral, while honey is soothing, antibacterial and antiviral.

If you don’t have all these herbs you can just use some of them or substitute anti-inflammatory chamomile, decongestant cinnamon, antiseptic cloves, immune boosting Echinacea, soothing liquorice, cough relieving mullein leaf, or sage, which is a great all-rounder for sore throats, coughs and inflammation.

Herbalist’s Prayer

This is an ancient prayer to Mother Earth from a herbalist:

Hear me, please, and favour me. This I ask of You, Holy Mother, and may You willingly give answer to me: May whatever herbs grow by Your providence bring health to all humankind. May You now send these forth to me as Your medicines. May they be filled with Your healing virtues. May everything that I prepare from these herbs have good result, each and every one in the same way. As I shall receive these herbs from You, so too shall I willingly give them out to others, so that their health too may be ensured through Your good graces. Finally, Mother Earth, ensure Your healing powers for me as well. This I humbly ask.

Antonius Musa (translation: M. Piscinus)
Antonius Musa was a Greek botanist and the Roman Emperor Augustus’s physician. In the year 23 BCE, when Augustus was seriously ill, Musa cured the illness with cold compresses and became immediately famous.

The Witch’s Kitchen

Food is one of the most basic necessities of life. Food is life, a gift of Mother Earth, and we acknowledge that gift only when we treat it with reverence. Preparing, cooking and serving food is a day-to-day ritual of hospitality, love and sharing, and expresses the cycle of the year when fresh, seasonal food is used.

Whether you are cooking for a sabbat or just for supper, treat it as a conscious act of magic and reflect that when you eat, you take in the life-energy of the food you are consuming, not just its nutrition. Each ingredient possesses its own virtues and energies, and you can utilise these gifts to create culinary magic. Do you want to add sage for wisdom, rosemary for remembrance, lemon balm for joy? You can cook up a love feast, a meal for peace and healing, or a dish of abundance. All nuts are associated with fertility, all grains with abundance, and most fruits with love. The kitchen is a magical workshop, the oven an alchemical tool that transmutes raw ingredients into sustenance for the body and spirit. Prepare your food with intent, stir your dishes sunwise to wind up the magic, eat consciously, and give thanks to Mother Earth for her gifts.

Maiden, Mother, Crone?

The Maiden, Mother, Crone archetype of the Goddess is an entirely modern myth, a misreading of ancient myth. Yes, there are triple goddesses in myth and legend, but they do not conform to this pattern, which may have been invented by Robert Graves. The Goddess Badbh appears in triad with Nemain and Macha under the collective name of Morrigan, and these do not appear to be maiden, mother and crone in any way; all are battle goddesses. Neither does Brighid who is a triple goddess: the Brighid of poetry, prophecy and inspiration who invented ogham; the Brighid of healing waters and midwifery; and lastly the Brighid of fire who oversees the hearth, and the forge and who is the patroness of craftsmen and women.

A triple aspect doesn’t even apply to the moon, which has four phases, not three. A thirteen day waxing phase, one day of full moon, a thirteen day waning phase, and a one day dark moon phase, a ratio pf 13:1:13:1. The moon phases are:

11 days waxing
3 days full
11 days waning
3 days dark
1 day new

The lunar cycle is 29 days not 28 (or actually 28 and a bit, nearly 29 for the pedants)

Now the waxing moon is supposed to be maiden, the full moon mother, the waning, the crone. The dark phase isn’t mentioned, though presumably it equates to death. How does this tie in with the life of a woman?

In representations of maiden, mother and crone, the maiden is usually depicted as a girl of fifteen or sixteen, the mother as a woman of twenty five or so, and the crone as a woman in her eighties at least. There is a gap of ten years between the first and second stage, but a gap of sixty years between second and third stage, so most of a woman’s life is lost in some kind of archetype-less limbo.

The received Pagan wisdom [at least of the last forty years or so] is that the Maiden represents the young Goddess and is “initiated” by the blood mystery of menarche. The Mother represents the fullness of the mature and ripe womb and is initiated by the blood mystery of pregnancy and birth, either literally or metaphorically. The Crone aspect of the Great Goddess represents the elder years of wisdom and is initiated by the blood mystery of menopause.

Maidenhood doesn’t seem to include childhood, but starts at the onset of puberty, so the maiden phase lasts possibly from twelve to sixteen i.e. four years, give or take a couple of years either side. After the loss of virginity, embarkation on sexual activity and the possession of a fertile womb, a woman is said to enter a mother phase. But is a barren or childless woman still in her mother phase, or is she booted straight to crone? And when does the crone stage begin exactly? At twenty five when fertility starts to wane? When the menopause starts, anytime from the early thirties to the late fifties? Or at a woman’s last menstrual cycle, anytime from her thirties to her sixties? Can a woman of thirty two, in early menopause, really be a crone? Read any Pagan book and it will say something like: “The crone is the wise old woman at the end of her life, she represents decline and death on the way to transition of new life.” At thirty two, when she probably has sixty years of actual life left? If we accept this we are accepting the patriarchal view of a non fertile woman as redundant and useless

So, a woman is maiden for four years, mother for, say, twenty to twenty five years, and crone for up to sixty years or more? A ratio of 4:25:60- how does that fit our archetype of equal thirds maiden, mother and crone? It doesn’t. The archetype doesn’t fit at all unless we conform to the patriarchal stereotype of woman as nubile at puberty, fertile mother, and useless crone as fertility begins to wane. Thus a woman is booted into cronehood in early middle age, well before we account old age to have begun in today’s society. Like the Church of the Middle Ages, modern Paganism deems her to be in decline. This is not an image that empowers women.

If we really want to equate the stages of a woman’s life with the moon there are four phases. It seems obvious that the missing stage begins at menopause and ends at the onset of old age- which is not the same thing. A woman in her middle years is often at the most creative and active phase of her life. These women are lawyers, politicians, doctors, artists, scientists, world leaders, musicians and carers making important contributions to society. In the real world menopausal women are in mid-career, not on the decline or verging on retirement. A menopausal woman is just entering into her power, whereas the crone is passing it on, is in the process of passing away in late old age. Thus the menopause is a powerful stage of transition, an initiation into mature power.

In one of the Strega [Italian witchcraft] traditions there are 4 names and aspects to the Goddess: Diana the waxing moon (maiden) Losna the full moon (light mother) Manea wanning moon (dark mother) and Umbrea the dark moon (crone). After all, there are four seasons, four directions and four elements. Donna Henes, urban shaman, writes:

We have outgrown our tenure as Maidens and as Mothers, yet old age no longer follows immediately after menopause, which is why so many midlife women don’t see ourselves (yet) as Crones. Where is the authentic archetype for us?

And this of the Queen:
Still active and sexy, vital with the enthusiasm and energy of youth, she is tempered with the hard earned experience and leavening attitudes of age…She is the Queen of Her Self, the mature monarch, the sole sovereign of Her own life and destiny. Here, finally, is an archetype that fits.