The Magical 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.”

 

September, the Month of Completion

September is a gleaming month of ripeness when the ripe red apples are ready for picking, branches bending under the weight of their fruit. We collect blackberries and elderberries in the hedgerows, hands sticky with purple juice.  The grapes are ripening on the vine. Mushrooms sprout and fruit under the harvest moon. It’s a busy month of picking and nutting, preserving and storing, cider making and beer brewing.  For the Anglo-Saxons this was Haefest monath (Harvest month), in Gaelic An Sultuine, the month of plenty [1] in Welsh Medi, the month of reaping. [2]

In the modern calendar, September is usually considered to be the first month of autumn, a word that comes from the Latin autumnus, which signified the passing of the year. In Germanic countries, the season was usually referred to by the term ‘harvest’ (Dutch herfst, German Herbst). In America, it is often called ‘fall’, probably referring to the falling of the leaves at this time of year or a contraction of the Middle English expression ‘fall of the year’.  [3] The message is clear – the agricultural work of the year, and the harvest, is almost completed, the days are getting shorter, and the weather is getting colder. The year is in decline.

In modern times, at the beginning of September, the last of the grain is usually cut, though of course, this depends on the weather and latitude. The invention of farm machinery means that the harvest is often gathered in before the end of August, but in earlier times it extended into mid-September in England, and even later in Scotland and northern areas. The Harvest Home festival was one of thankfulness and relief if the harvest had been good, and great joy in all that had been accomplished, as well as one looking forward to a period of rest and release. It was a time to celebrate with festivities and feasts, and was marked with rituals and customs to ensure that the stored harvest would be safe and that life would return to the fields in the spring.

The last sheaf to be cut obviously marked the successful completion of the work and so it was treated special attention. The corn spirit was considered ‘beheaded’ when the last sheaf was cut. The sheaf, accompanied by its cutter and all the reapers, was usually taken to the farmer’s house and made into a figure or doll. These corn dollies were then kept until the following year when they were ploughed into the earth on Plough Monday (January), which marked the new start of the agricultural year. In Wales, the seed from it was mixed with the seed at planting time ‘in order to teach it to grow’.

After the harvest came the Harvest Supper. On a small farm, the feast would have been held in the kitchen or on larger farms in the specially decorated barn. It was viewed as a right by the workers and could be a costly business for the host. In Sussex caraway seed cake was traditional and was served to the workers throughout the harvesting because it was believed that the seed provided strength for them and also increased their loyalty to their employer. After the meal, there was usually dancing to the music of the fiddle, with a plentiful supply of beer and tobacco. Songs were sung and the farmer was toasted.

 The Church disapproved of the overtly Pagan and raucous nature of the harvest celebrations. Many churches have harvest thanksgiving celebrations now, but these mostly date from Victorian times. In 1843 the Reverend R. S. Hawker decided to have a special service in his Morwenstow (Cornwall) parish. The idea spread and it became the custom to decorate churches with fruit, vegetables and flowers brought in from gardens (which are later distributed to the poor or used to raise funds) and to sing special hymns written for the occasion, such as ‘We plough the fields and scatter‘.

In the northern hemisphere, the month of September contains the autumn equinox. Afterwards the hours of darkness progressively become greater than the hours of light, with dawn getting later and sunset getting earlier each day – a process that will continue until the winter solstice. The Sun is in decline on its southward course.

© Anna Franklin 2020

Photo © Paul Mason

[1] Charles Kightly, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987

[2] Nilsson, Martin P, Primitive Time-Reckoning, Oxford University Press 1920

[3] https://www.etymonline.com/word/harvest, accessed 9.8.19

QUINCE (and quince jelly)

I’ve been given some quinces (Cydonia oblonga). Once very popular, quinces have fallen out of favour and few people grow them, perhaps because the fruits, which look like small, irregular golden apples, are virtually inedible when raw – however, they are deliciously sweet and fragrant when cooked, and well worth the effort.

Native to Southwest Asia, Turkey and Iran, the quince tree spread to Greece and later to Europe and America. It is found in the lore of ancient Greece, Roman cookery, mediaeval English recipes and is still popular in Spain, France, and Portugal.

Quince was also used in medicine, with the fruits made into syrup and taken for diarrhoea, or the mucilaginous seeds taken internally treat diarrhoea and inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract.

In ancient Greece the quince was sacred to Aphrodite, goddess of love. The Greeks associated the fruit with fertility, and included it in wedding feasts. It’s possible that when ‘golden apples’ are referred to in Greek mythology, it is actually the quince which is meant.   Remember the ‘golden apple’ inscribed with ‘for the fairest’ that Eris, goddess of discord, rolled into a gathering of the Gods that led to a dispute between the goddesses Hera, Aphrodite and Athena, who all tried to claim it?  The mortal man Paris was chosen to judge the contest and the three goddesses all tried to gain his favour, but Aphrodite promised him Helen of Sparta for his wife, thus winning the apple and leading to the events which sparked the Trojan War.

JAPANESE QUINCE

And then there is the Japanese quince, also called ‘the flowering quince’ (Chaenomeles spp.), which I do grow, and which is commonly found in gardens as an ornamental bush covered in red blossoms that emerge before the leaves and last into May. This is related to the tree quince (Cydonia oblonga) and produces similar looking yellow fruits. Did you know these are also edible? Most people don’t. They make the most delicious jelly, just like the tree quince. Furthermore, they also have herbal uses as an analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, astringent and digestive.

QUINCE JELLY

Quinces (either true quince or Japanese quince)

Water

Sugar

Take the stalks from the quinces and chop them up roughly. Put them, pips skins and all, into a large pan. Just cover them with water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer gently until they break down into pulp. This may take up to around 45 minutes.  Add more water if necessary.

Next you need to strain this – it is just the juice you want to make your jelly. You can suspend a jelly bag from a hook or beneath a chair and put the pulp in, and allow the liquid to strain into a large jug or bowl.  This will take quite a while (you can leave it overnight) but do not squeeze the bag as this will force through fibres that will cloud the jelly.

When you have your juice, measure it into a large pan. For every pint (20 fl. oz.) of juice, add 1 lb. of sugar.  Bring to the boil and continue boiling until the setting point is reached (see my previous post on plum jam).

Remove the pan from the heat and allow it to stand for a few minutes removing any scum that has formed on the surface. Pour the jelly into warmed, sterilised jars.  Cover the surface of the jelly with a waxed disc and put on a lid or cellophane cover, held in place with an elastic band.

© Anna Franklin, August 2020

CAN PAGANISM SAVE THE WORLD?

I sometimes wonder, in this time of climate crisis, whether the whole world needs to adopt a more Pagan perspective if we are to survive. Paganism is not a man-made religion created by a prophet or guru but one that continually evolves out of a spiritual relationship with the natural world. As well as providing shelter, food, medicine and all that is necessary for life, Mother Earth is the basis of our spiritual existence.  Paganism’s many gods and goddesses represent the diversity of the natural world, indwelling divinity present in all things from a blade of grass to a stream, and from a mountain to a galaxy, and we honour each and every one. When we open our souls to nature, we touch our Gods, but when we turn our backs on it, we feel a sense of alienation, of spiritual and emotional loss, because we are cut off from our divine source, and I think that is where the world finds itself.  As Pagans, when we bring our attention and intent into being aware of our feet meeting the earth as we walk, it becomes a spiritual practice and opens up a deeper reality, the great matrix of Nature connected in a unified, sacred whole. We recognise that the land beneath our feet is not merely dirt, but a fountain of energy that sustains animals, plants and people. When this realisation dawns, all space becomes sacred space, all time becomes sacred time, and all acts become sacred acts. How different that is from the cultural view that sees the world as something to be monetised and exploited.  Humans need a better relationship with their planet, and perhaps the rise of Paganism is the very thing that can bring this about? What do you think?

© Text and image Anna Franklin

Late August

The lush green growth of early summer is looking frowsy and starting to wear. Tree leaves spotted with brown and nibbled by insects. The wildflowers are going over a little, though I can still find mugwort, lady’s bedstraw, pink clover and rosebay willowherb in the field margins. A few heads of meadowsweet linger on, while yarrow, nipplewort, yellow hawkweed and blue skullcap begin to seed. Deadly nightshade and woody nightshade bloom in the hedgerows and the white trumpet flowers of bindweed rampage throughout the hedges. I can hear the crickets in the grass, rubbing their back legs together to make a chirping sound.

Birds such as jays, jackdaws and finches are swooping down to feast on the gleanings in the harvested fields. The young birds are maturing, and there are pheasant chicks in the woods. The cuckoo is silent now and the young birds, reared by strangers, will leave soon leave for warmer climes. This is the month when birds fall silent as they go into moult and gain their new coats ready for winter. The only sounds to be heard are a few notes from the goldfinch, though the robin recovers first and by the end of the month most birds will be back in song.

This is the time of summer ripeness and I have an abundance of fresh produce from the vegetable garden, including tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, baby carrots, broccoli, cabbage, beetroot, cauliflowers, fresh salad, courgettes, beans and peppers. It’s a time of harvesting and weeding, barbecues and picnics, or just sitting back with a cup of tea and watching all my hard work paying off.

We start to move into the sign of Virgo, and for the ancients, the themes of the constellation echoed what was happening in the physical world. Virgo is the largest of the zodiac constellations, visualised as a maiden holding an ear of wheat in one hand and a palm branch in the other.  She represents the harvest goddess presiding over the sky at the time of the grain harvest. Most of the fertility and harvest goddesses of the Mediterranean and Middle East are in some way associated with Virgo including Ishtar (Babylonian), Isis (Egyptian), Ceres (Roman), Demeter and Persephone (Greek) and Erigone (Greek), as well as the Christian Virgin Mary.

Virgo’s brightest star Spica (‘ear of grain’) was associated with the Sumerian goddess Shala, entitled ‘Lady of the Field’. The heliacal rising of Virgo’s third brightest star, Vindemiatrix (‘wine gatherer’) similarly announced the time to pick the grapes. Aratus called it the ‘fruit-plucking herald’. [1]

Virgo is only visible from spring to later summer, and many fertility goddesses have myths associating them with a lover or daughter who dies with the harvest and who returns in spring after the goddess has fetched them from the underworld – the seasonal disappearance and re-appearance of Virgo may have been seen as a heavenly representation of this. For example, in the story of Ishtar and her consort the vegetation god Tammuz, Tammuz died in autumn and was taken to the Underworld. The grieving Ishtar travelled there to secure his release, but she was taken prisoner. During the period of her absence (i.e. while Virgo is absent from the sky) the earth was unfruitful and barren.  When the gods saw this, they secured her release.

 

© Text and Illustration Anna Franklin, 2020

[1] Aratus, Phainomena, (3rd century BCE), Harvard Heinemann, Loeb Classical Library

MUGWORT AND MAGIC

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) is starting to flower in the hedgerows, as well growing as opportunistically all over my herb garden, so I’ll be able to gather plenty.

I was introduced to mugwort by my first Craft teacher many years ago, and after that, I noticed it grew everywhere in the hedgerows. Julia called it ‘the witch herb’ and told me it was sacred to the goddess of the moon, so we should use it in rituals dedicated to her, and because she is the protectress of women, for ‘female complaints’. We added it to incense we used when seeking visions or working on exercises of astral projection, Julia told me to put a leaf beneath my pillow when I was seeking clarity of some issue, and I would dream the answer and she further advised that I should put a sprig in my shoe to prevent tiredness on long journeys and hang some up to protect my house from lightening.  This was the old cunning woman knowledge of the herb.

Though generally thought of as a fast spreading tall weed by most people in Britain and America today, the plant has been known and valued from China to the Americas, mentioned in Chinese poems as far back as 3 BCE, by the ancient Greek physician Galen as a remedy for amenorrhea (absent menstruation), and used by Roman soldiers in a salve to keep their feet from getting tired.   It has been used as a food, a medicine, a spice, for flavouring beer (hence the name ‘mug’ wort), as an insect repellent, a yellow dye, as an incense, for moxibustion and of course, in magic.  Once you identify mugwort, you’ll wonder why you never came across it before.

It was certainly an important plant in the British magical tradition, known as the Mother of All Herbs, and called ‘the oldest of plants…mighty against evil’ in the tenth century Anglo Saxon Lacnunga or Nine Herbs Prayer.[1] In the Middle Ages in Europe, it was considered a protective herb particularly utilised on St John’s Eve and St John’s Day, (i.e. Midsummer, the approximation of the summer solstice) when fairies and spirits of bane were thought to be especially active.  Mugwort gathered on St. John’s Eve was said to give protection against diseases and misfortunes of all kinds, and to save them from evil spirits, people wore garlands of mugwort on St John’s Day. The herb was even called cingulum Sancti Johannis (‘the girdle of St John’) or ‘St. John’s plant’, from a myth that St John wore a girdle of it while in the wilderness.

In Japan too, in Japan, there is an ancient custom of hanging mugwort and iris leaves together outside homes in order to keep evil spirits away. It is said that evil spirits dislike their smell.

Burning the herb to release both its fragrance and its virtues is an interesting facet of its properties. The herb is quite complex with over 75 unique chemicals that have been identified. It contains volatile oils, giving it a strong bitter aroma with mint undertones. I learned to use it in incense when I was a teenager, without knowing that in Korean, Japanese and Chinese medicine mugwort (Artemisia argyi) is used for moxibustion, burned to release its heat and scent in combination with acupuncture, either attached to acupuncture needles or rolled into bundles and lit to use in a similar manner to a smudge stick.  Studies have shown this to be effective for joint pain and arthritis.

MUGWORT INCENSE BUNDLE

  • Mugwort stems and leaves, fresh
  • Cotton string (it is important you do not use synthetic materials)

Gather your herbs and loosely bunch them. Begin wrapping fairly loosely (this allow drying and also burns better when you come to use your bundle) with the string.  Tie it off and trim any loose edges. Hang up to dry out for around 8 weeks.

CAUTION: Mugwort may cause an allergic reaction in individuals who are allergic to the Asteraceae/Compositae plant family.

 

© Anna Franklin, August 2020

[1] Lacnunga British Library MS. Harley 585, online at http://www.wyrtig.com/GardenFolklore/NineHerbsPrayer.htm, accessed 29.11.19

Using Your Lavender Flower Bounty

I’m harvesting lavender (Lavendula spp.) flowers.  The flowers should be collected just before they open. They should be dried gently, flat on a tray or hung upside down in small bunches.

Did you know you can cook with lavender? Lavender can be used in cooking, cakes, biscuits and ice creams, but the secret if to be very, very sparing with it.

Lavender Biscuits

2 eggs

115 gm butter

200 gm sugar

½ tsp lavender flowers, ground

200 gm plain flour

2 tsp baking powder

½ tsp salt

Preheat the oven to 190C (375F). Cream the butter and sugar. Gradually add the eggs. Fold in the lavender, flour and baking powder and salt. Drop a teaspoonful at a time onto a baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes.

The genus name lavendula comes from the Latin lavare and means ‘to wash’. The Greeks, Romans and Carthaginians used lavender in bath water for both its scent and its therapeutic properties. Used as a bathing herb since Roman times, lavender is used in perfumes, cosmetics and soaps. Lavender helps skin to heal and renew itself, fights wrinkles and helps prevent acne. It is a natural deodorant.  Make a lavender bath bag by putting lavender flowers into a muslin bag and drop into the water. Or add your own infused lavender oil:

Infused Lavender Oil

This is simply made by placing lavender flowers in a jar, topping up with oil, and leaving for a couple of weeks in a dark place, shaking daily. Strain the oil onto fresh flowers and repeat. You can do this several times until the strength is as strong as you would like it, then strain into a clean bottle and keep in a dark place.

Lavender Hydrosol

To make a home-made distilled lavender flower hydrosol, take a large pan and put a trivet on the bottom of it. Pack your rose petals around it and add just enough distilled water to cover them. Put a small heat proof bowl on top of the trivet. Bring the water to the boil. Now place a large heat proof bowl on top of the big saucepan and fill it with icy cold water and ice cubes. This will cause the rising steam to condense back into water droplets and drop back down onto the plate. (Add more ice if it starts to warm up.) Simmer for a while before carefully removing the pan from the heat, and taking out the small bowl – there will be some condensed liquid in it. Allow it to cool. The condensed water is lavender hydrosol (lavender water).

Lavender Salve

Once you have made some oil, you can turn it into a salve by adding beeswax. In a double boiler, warm the oil. Add beeswax and melt. The more wax you add, the firmer the set will be. Pour into warm glass jars. Alternatively, if you don’t have any infused lavender oil, or prefer a vegan option, put some coconut oil and lavender flowers into a double boiler and simmer very gently for an hour. (I use a chocolate melter, which works equally well, or you can use a slow cooker.)

During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries it was grown extensively in monastery gardens for its medicinal properties. The glove makers of Grasse used liberal amounts of lavender oil to scent leather and it was said that they seldom caught the plague, so people began to carry posies of lavender to ward off the disease. It was also strewn on the floors of churches to avert the plague. Throughout the Middle Ages it was a popular strewing herb. It was also placed in linen cupboards to deter moths and keep away flies. It was distilled and had wide use for disguising household smells and the stink from the streets. Today we still use the dried flowers in potpourri, in sachets to freshen stored linen and deter moths and insects, or as a general air freshener.

Lavender Bags for Linen

Simply take some dried lavender flowers and sew into small squares of cloth. You can place these amongst your linen stores, or even place one beneath your pillow to help you sleep.

Lavender has been used in folk medicine for many years as a remedy for various complaints, and has been recognised in the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia for over two hundred years. Many country homes would keep a bottle of lavender oil (see above for instructions on how to make this) for aches and pains, bruises and burns. Lavender flowers soaked in gin or brandy was a popular farmhouse remedy.

Lavender Gin

500 ml gin

3 sprigs lavender

Pour gin into a bottle and add the fresh lavender. Seal and leave at room temperature for 2-4 days depending on how strong you would like the lavender flavour. Strain the bottle contents, discarding the lavender.

Lavender Tincture

The above is, of course, a recipe for a tipple, preferably enjoyed with tonic water and ice. Country people would have made a far stronger infusion, i.e. a tincture, used to treat their ills. You can make a lavender tincture for treating ailments by packing a jar with lavender flowers, covering with vodka or brandy for 2-3 weeks, and straining off.

Today, an infusion of the flowers is effective in the treatment of headaches, depression, nervous debility, exhaustion, insomnia, indigestion, stress, dizziness, halitosis, nausea, flatulence and colic. It can also be used as a general tonic and to help with respiratory problems, tonsillitis, colds, flu and high temperatures. It can be used as a mouthwash for oral thrush. Take the tea or tincture for a soothing effect on the central nervous system, mild pain relief, to sooth nervous tension or to act as a mild sedative in cases of insomnia.  Make a gentle antiseptic salve for cuts, bruises, to help minimise scarring and relieve skin irritations.

Lavender Infusion (Tea)

½ cup boiling water

4 tsp. of fresh lavender buds

Put in a teapot (or covered cup) and leave to infuse for 10 minutes.

Strain and drink.

Magically, lavender is a potent magical plant which purifies, cleanses and brings inner stillness and peace during meditation. Burn to bring about harmony during meetings and rituals as well as within the home. It may be used as an incense to explore the element of air, to develop the intellect and powers of logical thought. It can be thrown onto the solstice fire as a sacrifice to the Old Gods, as it is one of the sacred, aromatic herbs of Midsummer. Lavender also has underworld connections and may be used to honour underworld Cernunnos and crone aspects of the Goddess, including Hecate, Circe and Medea. It may be added to love incense, oils, sachets and charm bags, or used in love spells.

 CAUTION: Lavender is considered safe for most adults in food amounts, and probably safe when taken orally, applied to the skin, or inhaled in medicinal amounts, though it can cause irritation in some individuals. Do not use medicinally or use the oil if you are pregnant or breast feeding, for two weeks before surgery or if you are taking barbiturates. Do not use lavender oil on pre-pubescent boys.

 

© Anna Franklin, August 2020

LUGHNASA , THE TIME OF HARVEST

The intense heat of the Dog Days has brought summer growth to its end, and the crops have ripened, ready for cutting. For the farmers, this is the most important time of year, the harvest – the gathering of the golden wheat and the silver oats, the root crops and the fruit, when they warily scan the skies and sniff the wind for the scent of rain. In the past, all the village would assemble to help, and itinerant labourers would be drafted in. Factory and school holidays were timed to coincide with the period, so that more people would be free to assist.

According to the Irish, Lughnasa (1 August) is the last day of summer and the start of autumn, and therefore the correct day on which to begin the harvest.  To begin the harvest before Lughnasa was thought to be wrong, and even shameful, and only a very needy man or a bad farmer would do so. The Scots would exclaim “It’s lang to Lammas!” in jest when food was late to the table, reflecting the reality of scarcity when waiting for the harvest to begin. People looked forward to the day of first reaping when the hunger would be over. Everything that had been worked for was in reach.

Around the world the first of the harvest, called the First Fruits, was offered to the Gods, and only after giving the Gods their portion, were people free to enjoy the rest. In ancient Greece, barley was offered as first fruits to Demeter and Persephone at the great temple of Eleusis, where underground granaries stored the produce. In some places, the First Fruits were believed to contain a spirit. Estonians would not eat bread from the new corn until they had bitten on iron to protect them from the spirit within. In Sutherland (Scotland), when the new potatoes were dug, the whole family had to taste them or the spirits in them would be offended and the potatoes would not keep. [1]

This time of year is concerned with the rites at the beginning of the harvest, the offering of the First Fruits, and the sacrifice of the gods of the grain, so that we might eat. August begins with Lughnasa, the modern Pagan celebration of the beginning of the harvest, the bounty of the earth, and the abundance of all that Mother Earth gives us. The modern festival has its roots in both the Irish Lughnasa and the Anglo-Saxon Lammas.

In England, the first day of August was known as Lammas, probably from the Anglo-Saxon hlaef-mass meaning ‘loaf-mass’. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 921 CE mentions it as ‘the feast of first fruits’. [2] It marked the time when the first of the grain crop was gathered in, ground in a mill and baked into a loaf. This first loaf was offered up as part of the Christian Eucharist ritual. Many modern Pagans use the word Lughnasa for this festival. It is an Irish word, which translates as ‘the games/assembly of Lugh’, and the only time Lughnasa is mentioned in the Irish chronicles is in connection with the tribal assemblies held for the weeks each side of 1 August. The gatherings included the settling of tribal business matters, horse racing, athletic contests, martial contests, games, and even sometimes real fights for the right to rule and become king. They may have included rituals to ensure a plentiful harvest, though there is no record of this. [3] One chronicle does relate, however, that for the old Pagans, holding the fair ensured corn, milk and full nets, men like heroes, tender women and good cheer in every household; if it were not held there would be decay and immature kings. [4] Each assembly was held at the grave of a mythical woman who died clearing land for pasture, perhaps hinting at an earlier harvest celebration.

Rite for Lughnasa

Lughnasa celebrates the fruition of the year’s work with the start of the grain harvest, the weaning of calves and lambs, the first apples, pears, bilberries, blackberries and grapes. For your Lughnasa celebrations gather a basket of assorted ripe fruit and vegetables and place it on the altar, or decorate the ritual area with fruits and grain. They may be blessed during the course of the ritual and shared out at the end of the evening for luck, if you share the occasion with others. Have ready bread and wine. Place one brown and one yellow candle on the altar.

Say:

I come to celebrate the rite of Lughnasa as the time of the harvest is here. The fields are golden in the Sun with ears of ripe grain. It is a time of rejoicing, for we see the fruits of our labours. It is a time of sacrifice, when the Corn Lord gives of himself, so that we may have our bread.

Light the brown candle and say:

Come Great Goddess,

Mother Earth, whose body supports us,

Lady of Life and Lady of Death,

Be welcome here as Queen of the Harvest.

Light the yellow candle and say:

Welcome O Corn Lord,

Golden haired son of Mother Earth,

Lover of the Sovereign Goddess of the land,

Sacred King who meets death at the Queen’s hand.

Take up the bread and say:

The year did spin and spring come round

While our dear Lord lay in the ground

Till rain fell thick upon his bed

And slowly then he raised his head

And grew apace till Midsummer’s Day

When with his flowering bride he lay

But the year does spin and he must die

And as a seed must once more lie

We hunt him down with sharpened sickle

To pierce his heart and see blood trickle

To flay his skin from off his bones

And grind him up between two stones

Our dying Lord has lost his head

But with his death we have our bread.

 

When you are ready, take up the wine and say:

 The first of the harvest is always for the Gods.

 Pour some wine on the earth (or into a dish on the altar, which you can take outside later). Say:

The first of the harvest if for the Gods.

Hold the cup and say:

 I drink and salute the Queen of the Harvest, and as that as I drink, I may know abundance, Blessed Be.

Drink. Take up the bread and say:

The first of the harvest is always for the Gods.

 Put a piece on the ground or on a dish on the altar, which you can put outside later. Say:

I eat, but it is not bread I eat, but the body of the God, sprung from the womb of the Earth, ripening under the Sun. I thank the God for his sacrifice, and ask that as I eat, I may know his compassion.

 Eat some bread.

Take some time for meditation and consider what you have received this year, what you have harvested. How have you used this? What do you need to sacrifice? When you have finished say:

I give thanks to the Goddess of the Earth. Lady, grant me your blessings. Be with me in my life, as you once were to those of old. Grant me your wisdom. Blessed be!

 Great Lord and consort of the Goddess, grant blessing to this land.. Be with me in my life as you once were to those of old. Grant me your blessing. Blessed be!

 I have celebrated the rite of Lughnasa. I have witnessed the harvesting of the grain and the sacrifice of the Corn Lord. I have honoured the Lady and her Lord. Let this ritual end with love and blessings. Blessed be.

© Anna Franklin 2020

Image © Paul Mason from The Sacred Circle Tarot, Anna Franklin and Paul Mason, Llewellyn, 1998

[1] James Frazer, The Golden Bough, Macmillan, London, 1976

[2] King Alfred the Great, (trans. Rev James Ingram), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016

[3] Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996

[4]  Roger Sherman Loomis, Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance, Constable, 1995

Black Annis – Leicester’s Own Hag Goddess

To view Black Annis’s eye, so fierce and wild;
Vast talons, foul with human flesh, there grew
In place of hands, and her features livid blue,
Glar’d in her visage; whilst her obscene waist
Warm skins of human victims embrac’d.

John Heyrick

Black Annis [also called Black Anna, Black Anny, Black Agnes and Cat Anna or Cat Annis] is a blue faced hag who haunts the Dane Hills of Leicestershire in central England. She is very tall with tattered hair and long, yellow or white fangs. Some say that she has only one eye. She lived in a cave called Black Annis’ Bower, which she scraped out of the rock with her own sharp fingernails. In front of the cave was an oak where she hid in order to dash out and ambush lambs and young children who wandered too far from home, drink their blood, eat their flesh and hang their skins up in her cave to dry. She wore a skirt sewn from the skins of her human prey. Children around Leicester used to warn each other not to go out after dark, lest Black Annis should get them!

Until just after the First World War, her bower existed on a small natural outcrop on the Dane Hills, west of the city towards Glenfield. (It now lies under the Dane Hills housing estate.) A secret tunnel was reputed to join it to Leicester Castle. Black Annis also haunts the gateway of the castle, travelling in a secret underground tunnel from the Dane Hills, and sleeping in the castle cellars.

Black Annis is said to be the crone who confronted King Richard III on his way to the nearby  Battle of Bosworth [1585]. His spurs struck a stone pillar on Leicester’s Bow Bridge and the hag declared that it would be his head that hit the post on the way back. After losing the battle, his naked body was thrown across the saddle of a horse and his head, hanging down as low as the stirrups, hit that very stone.[1] A tablet was put on the re-rebuilt bridge in the nineteenth century saying “his head was dashed and broken as a wise-woman had foretold, who before Richard’s going to battle being asked of his success said that where his spur struck his head would be broken”. [2]

Though she may have lost her bower, legends of Black Annis still had the power to frighten people in 1941, when an evacuee related the following story to the folklorist Ruth Tongue. [3] Three children collecting fire-wood began to get frightened as dusk fell, knowing that Black Annis only emerged after dark as ‘daylight would turn her to stone’. Sure enough, they heard a snuffling and, looking through the hole in their witch-stone [a naturally holed stone] saw Black Annis. Dropping their bundles of faggots, they fled as fast as they could. Black Annis stumbled on the dropped sticks, and cut her legs so badly that the blood flowed down them. Mumbling to herself, she caught up with them before their cottage door. Just as she was about to lay her hands on them, their father emerged with his axe, and hit her full in the face with it. She ran off shrieking ‘Blood! Blood!’ but just then the Christmas bells began to peal and she fell down dead.

In Leicester it was rumoured that Black Annis’s howling could be heard as far as five miles away and, when she ground her teeth the sound was so loud that all the people had time to lock and bar their doors. Precautions had to be taken against her attentions, and witch-herbs were tied above the windows to stop her reaching inside and grabbing the babies. This was why Leicester cottages only had one small window. She appeared in a Victorian Melodrama called ‘Black Anna’s Bower, or The Maniac of the Dane Hills’ a tale about the murder of the landlady of ‘The Blue Boar’.

At the Dane Hills every Easter Monday [known as Black Monday] the Mayor and the dignitaries set off for a ‘hare hunt’ at noon. Actually, the object of the hunt was a dead cat, soaked it in aniseed [the cat annis?], and tied it to the tail of a horse for a drag hunt, dragged from the Bower, through Leicester’s streets to the Mayor’s door. In later years, the hunt gave way to an annual event known as the Dane Hills Fair. [4]

Black Annis may be connected with the other crone-like Annies and Annises found throughout Britain, such as the Scottish Gentle Annie (or Gentle Annis). Many hags are described as ‘blue faced’ such as Scotland’s Cailleach Bheur. These hags were once winter goddesses, their faces blue with cold, who brought in the time of cold, dissolution and death. It is likely that Black Annis is a crone aspect of Anu, or Danu, and that the bower was once the cave womb where she was worshipped. Some think she may be a local version of Brighid or Brigantia, or the dark mother goddess who took the souls of human children into her care. The Dane Hills [possibly from Danu] may have been the centre of her cult. If Black Annnis was a winter hag, she would have had a summer form as a lovely maiden which is lost to us. However, her husband may have been Leicester’s Bel [‘Bright’], for whom the bel fires are lit at Beltane (May Day). Bel was a giant who boasted that he could reach Leicester in three large leaps. He mounted his sorrel mare at Mountsorrel and took one leap to Wanlip. The next leap burst the mare’s heart and harness at Birstall and the last leap, which was too much for horse and rider, killed them. They were buried at Belgrave, just north-east of the Dane hills.

Black Annis is the crone goddess who brings the winter; the dark lady holds the souls of the dead in her embrace. However, the wheel turns, and in the spring she transforms into the bright maiden, and her underworld tomb becomes the womb of rebirth. The hag aspect of the goddess presides over the winding down of the year, dissolution, decay and conclusion. One thing must end for another to begin, and the wheel moves on.

© Anna Franklin, The Oracle of the Goddess, Vega, 2003 (illustrated by Paul Mason)

REFERENCES

[1] Arthur Mee, ‘Leicestershire and Rutland’ Hodder & Stoughton 1937

[2] Susan Green ‘Selected Legends of Leicestershire’ Heart of Albion Press

[3] Katharine Briggs: ‘Dictionary of British Folktales and Legends: Narratives’

[4] C.Hole, ‘Dictionary of Folk Customs’, Paladin, 1986

Goddesses of Water Ritual

It seems to have been raining for weeks here. We might get fed up with it, but let us remember that water is a blessing. We need water, it is a source of life, fertility, nourishment, cleansing and healing. For the ancients it was sacred, and water has often been considered to be a living thing, with individual wells, streams, springs, seas and rivers, worshipped as living deities. It flows and moves, like life itself, like our emotions.

This is a month that celebrates many patron saints and deities of water, wells, grottoes and shrines. The feast of Sul (or Sulis), the patron goddess of the famous mineral springs at Bath in England, fell this month, while in ancient Rome, the Neptunalia was held in honour of Neptune as god of waters, along with festivals of  Salacia, goddess of salt water and inland mineral springs, and the goddess Furrina, patroness of freshwater springs. In Britain, many holy wells, which once would have been dedicated to a local deity, were assigned to St Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. (Her feast day is celebrated just before Lammas on 26 July.) The similarity of her name to that of the goddess Anu or Danu may have made it to easier to Christianise these ancient holy places. One of the best-known wells dedicated to her is that of the spa town of Buxton in the English Peak District, previously dedicated to Arnemetiae, the local water goddess.

Take a large glass bowl of water and a large seashell to drink from. Say:

Spirits of water,

Come to my aid.

Pour forth your healing power into this vessel.

Let us be filled with vital health and life,

in body, mind and soul.

Protect me from all ill.

Spirits of water,

Come to my aid.

Put your hand over the bowl of water and say:

Wellspring of creation

Ocean of dreams; the universe drinks from your Source. 

You are the Lord and Lady, whose life-streams drink of intermingling Oneness,

Your fountains are the Gods, the waters of life and death

Your tides are our lives and stories, your eddies our dreams.

Here are your waters and your watering place.

Lord and Lady, unite our personal rivers with the original sea

That in this fractured world we may drink from the Source

That quenches the thirst of longing; drink and be whole again

As in the long ago when we dreamed the Gods and they dreamed us. [1]

Step forward and drink from the wellspring, Dip the shell into the bowl of water and drink. Pause for a while and absorb the power of water, and understand its sacred nature. When you are ready say:

Let this ritual end with love and blessings. Blessed be.

© Anna Franklin 2020

[1] Poem written by Pamela Harvey, and published in The Wellspring, by Anna Franklin and Pamela Harvey, Capall Bann