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.

 

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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.

 

Whole Herbs v. Supplements

Herbal supplements, also called botanicals, are classed by the FDA as dietary supplements. They usually come in the form of pre-packaged capsules or tablets containing plants or parts of plants such as flowers, leaves, bark, fruit, seeds, stems and roots, either singly or in combinations. Popular herbal supplements include echinacea marketed to prevent colds, ginkgo marketed to improve memory and flaxseed marketed to lower cholesterol and so on.

Herbal supplements are often promoted as being ‘all natural’ and because they are sold as dietary supplements rather than drugs, they are not as strictly regulated as medications. Reputable manufacturers are expected to follow good practice to ensure that supplements are processed consistently to meet quality standards and are free from contaminants such as pesticides and lead. While herbal products in the United States, the UK and some European countries are highly regulated, toxic ingredients and prescription drugs have been found in supplements manufactured elsewhere, particularly China, India and Mexico. Emeritus Professor Duncan Burns, an analytical chemist from Queen’s University Belfast’s Institute for Global Food Security, said in a press release. “We have found that these supplements are often not what customers think they are — they are being deceived into thinking they are getting health benefits from a natural product when actually they are taking a hidden drug.” A 2013 study published in the journal BMC Medicine found that one-third of herbal supplements sampled contained no trace of the herb listed on the label. The study found products adulterated with filler including allergens such as soy, wheat and black walnut. One bottle labelled as St. John’s Wort was found to actually contain Alexandrian senna, a laxative. Researchers at the University of Adelaide found in 2014 that almost 20% of herbal remedies surveyed were not registered with the Therapeutic Goods Administration, despite this being a condition for their sale. They also found that nearly 60 % of products surveyed had ingredients that did not match what was on the label. Out of 121 products, only 15 had ingredients that matched their TGA listing and packaging. In 2015 the New York Attorney General issued cease and desist letters to four major U.S. retailers (GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart) who were accused of selling herbal supplements that were mislabelled and potentially dangerous. 24 products were tested by DNA barcoding as part of the investigation, all but five contained DNA that did not match the products’ labels. The investigation was prompted by the 2013 BMC study.

The chemical makeup of a herb can vary, depending on environmental factors, so most herbal supplements come as standardised extracts to overcome this, in which one or more components are present in a specific, guaranteed amount. This practice developed out of the drug model of conventional medicine in which scientists have attempted to identify the components of a plant which have pharmacological activity in the body. Consequently, standardisation may concentrate one constituent at the expense of other potentially important ones (most St. John’s wort tablets and tinctures are standardised for hypericin, for example, but the latest research shows that hyperforin is the real active ingredient), while changing the natural balance of the herb’s components. Standardisation is based on the idea that isolated compounds are responsible for the action of a herb, but there is evidence that this is may not be the case. An article several years ago in JAMA on use of ginkgo biloba to counter dementia explained that no active ingredient from among the several hundred constituents present had been determined and it was, in fact, likely that the effect resulted from a complex, synergistic interplay of the parts. In other words, the whole plant contains a range of chemicals which seem to work in concert. This makes it doubtful that this type of standardised herbal extract can exhibit the same full spectrum of use as the whole herb. There is a second form of standardisation, however, which uses key components only as markers of identity while trying to maintain the same full spectrum of components as the whole herb, assuring that no major component has been removed in the extraction process, and if supplements are used, these are thought preferable by herbalists of the synergistic school of thought.

© Anna Franklin

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.