Samhain Journey

As he journeys through the darkness of a cold night, the Fool meets an elderly woman gazing into a cauldron.

“The Wheel turns,” she tells him. “I am the Cailleach, daughter of the winter Sun and mine are the darkest months of the year. I bring an end to summer and growth as I harden the earth with frost. The gates of the Underworld begin to open and the spirits of bane, darkness, winter and chaos creep through. The Otherworld is close and we can speak once more to those who have gone before.

“It is the time for culling and death. Everything dissolves in my cauldron as all things return to the source. But as the mound is raised above the seed, the seed prepares itself for rebirth, and all things are transformed by death.”

From Pagan Ways Tarot by Anna Franklin, Schiffer, 2016

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Soul Cakes

SOUL CAKES

6 oz butter

6 oz caster sugar

3 egg yolks

1 lb plain flour

1 tsp mixed spice

3 oz currants

Milk

Mix flour and spice. Cream butter and sugar in a bowl. Beat in egg yolks. Add flour and spice mixture, and the currants. Add enough milk to form a soft dough. Make into flat cakes and mark with a cross. Place on a greased baking tray and bake at 350/180 degrees until golden brown, about 10-15 minutes.

From the Middle Ages until the 1930s, when the practice gradually died out, Soul Cakes were traditionally made for All Hallow’s Eve in England and given out to children and beggars who came to the door singing and pleading for treats:

A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Missis, a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Him who made us all.

We use Soul Cakes in our Samhain ritual, putting them out as offerings for the ancestors.

Death & Initiation at the autumn equinox

The eight seasonal festivals of the modern Pagan year teach us about the great cosmic pattern, showing us the ebb and flow of energy in the manifest world and the spiritual truths which underlie them. At the autumn equinox we experience the death that comes before resurrection. This mystery is exemplified by the myth of Demeter and Persephone and the Rites of Eleusis, for as Cicero said:

For among the many excellent and indeed divine institutions which your Athens has brought forth and contributed to human life, none, in my opinion, is better than those mysteries. For by their means we have been brought out of our barbarous and savage mode of life and educated and refined to a state of civilization; and as the rites are called ‘initiations’, so in very truth we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have gained the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope.

Cicero, Laws II, xiv, 36

The best known story of Demeter concerns her search for her daughter Persephone and it is told in The Hymn to Demeter, attributed to Homer but probably written later in the seventh century BCE to explain the mysteries of Eleusis. It contains a lengthy interlude which explains how Demeter came to Eleusis and established her cult there. It shares the same themes as the Syrian myth of Aphrodite and Adonis, the Phrygian myth of Cybele and Attis and the Egyptian story of Isis and Osiris in which a goddess mourns the loss of a loved one who personifies the vegetation which dies in winter only to revive in spring. d

According to the myth, Hades, the god of the underworld, conceived a passion for the maiden Persephone. With the collusion of his brother Zeus, he abducted Persephone as she picked blood red poppies in a meadow, accompanied by her nymph companions, and took her to dwell with him in his dark realm of the dead.

 

Knowing nothing of this, Demeter was distraught at the disappearance of her daughter, and disguised herself as an old woman called Doso to search the earth for Persephone.

Eventually, finding no trace of her missing child, she came upon the house of Celeus, king of Eleusis, and his wife Metaneira. Moved by the suffering they saw in the face of the old woman, they bade her be seated, offering her food and drink. However, she sat silently, refusing all nourishment. After much persuasion, she consented to drink a cup of barley meal mixed with water and mint (kykeon). She stayed at Eleusis, becoming the nurse of the king’s young son Demophoon. Under her care he grew as fast as a young god, for Demeter anointed him with ambrosia. Moreover, she planned to make him immortal by burning his mortality from him, placing him each night in the heart of a fire. Metaneira suspected that something strange was happening and kept watch one night. As she saw her son being plunged into the flames, she leapt forward and snatched the child from his nurse.  Demeter exclaimed that now, instead of being a god, he would be subject to the whims of death and moira (fate). She threw off her disguise and stood before the king and queen in her true, shining form, and asked that they should build her a temple at Eleusis.

Then the witch goddess Hecate, bearing a torch in her hands, went to Demeter, and confided that she had heard Persephone’s cries as she was abducted. She suggested that Demeter ask Helios, the sun god who sees all things, for news. Helios told her of Hades’ kidnapping of Persephone, and Zeus’ part in it.

Demeter retreated into her temple and remained there, brooding on her loss. The following year, no crops grew. The trees refused to yield fruit and the buds withered on the vine. An endless winter descended on the earth.

Zeus realised that the whole of creation was doomed unless Demeter lifted her curse and sent Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, to plead with her to relent. Demeter refused. One by one, all the immortals visited her but she remained unmoved by any of their entreaties. Zeus finally realised that there was no other remedy but to restore Persephone to her mother and sent Hermes into the underworld to fetch her. However, Hades was unwilling to lose his lovely bride and cunningly offered her a sweet pomegranate as she readied herself to leave. Now he knew full well that anyone who eats the fruit of the underworld is doomed to remain there. Thus it fell that though Persephone was allowed to visit her mother, she was now bound to return. Persephone could spend two thirds of the year with Demeter but the remaining third of the year must be spent with her husband, Hades. From that time Hecate was minister and companion to Persephone.

With Persephone’s return, the earth quickly began to recover. Spring came and the frozen buds blossomed, the earth became green and fertile once more. But when Persephone returns to the underworld, Demeter decrees that barren winter shall cover the earth, but when she emerges in the spring, the earth blossoms in joy.

At Eleusis (‘Advent’) Demeter taught Triptolemus (the brother of Demophoon) the principles of agriculture, which he taught others in turn, and this was how humankind learned how to farm, it was said. ‘I am Demeter, revered by all, the power most useful for gods and men,’ she said, according to the Homeric Hymn.

For two thousand years, the Mysteries of Eleusis were sacred, biannual rituals performed a few miles west of Athens in honour of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone. Large crowds of worshippers made the pilgrimage to the rites from all over Greece, and later from all over the Roman Empire.  It is possible that the mysteries evolved from an agrarian cult dating back to the Mycenaean period, and there are parallels with the cults of other grain and earth-mother goddesses of the Near East, such as Cybele and Isis.

Initiation was open to all, Greeks and foreigners (as long as they could speak Greek), men and women, freemen and slaves, only on the condition that they had not committed the sin of murder. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, King Celeus is said to have been one of the first people to learn the secret rites and mysteries of her cult and became one of its first priests, along with Triptolemus his son. Around 300 BCE, the state took over control of the Mysteries and they became controlled by two families, the Eumolpidae and the Kerykes. According to Plato, “the ultimate design of the Mysteries … was to lead us back to the principles from which we descended … a perfect enjoyment of intellectual (spiritual) good.”

In many parts of Greece the rites of Demeter and Persephone remained orgiastic, but in Eleusis they were celebrated as a spiritual mystery.  From February 1 to 3 the Lesser Eleusinian mysteries celebrated the return of Persephone from the underworld. The Lesser Mysteries took place in the month of Anthesteria (February) when participants would sacrifice a piglet to Demeter and Persephone and then purify themselves in the River Illisos. Afterwards they were called mystai (‘initiates’) and deemed worthy of witnessing the Greater Mysteries. Each new initiate would receive instructions and guidance from an experienced sponsor or mystagogos. A mystes who returned a second time to Eleusis for induction into the highest levels of esoteric knowledge was known as an epoptes.

Every fifth year for nine days from 23 September the greater Eleusinian Mysteries were celebrated with October 4 marking the departure of Persephone to the underworld.[1] The precise nature of the mysteries is unknown since initiates were forbidden from writing or speaking of it, but an analogy seems to have been made between the resurrection of the corn and the return of Persephone from the underworld with the mystery of death and rebirth.

The first act was the bringing of the sacred objects from Eleusis to the Eleusinion, a temple at the base of the Acropolis. On the day before, the participants would gather in Eleusis and proceed with much pomp to the sanctuary of Demeter in Athens. On the following day the actual festival commenced with the Agyrmos (the gathering), the hierophants (priests or ‘those who show the sacred ones’) declared prorrhesis, the start of the rites, and carried out the hiereía deúro (‘hither the victims’) sacrifice. The halade mystai (‘seawards initiates’) began in Athens with the celebrants washing themselves in the sea at Phaleron to purify themselves and sacrifice a suckling pig in honour of Demeter.

On the fifth day the celebrants went in formal procession from Athens back to Eleusis, swinging branches called bacchoi, bearing the sacred hiera (holy relics) as well as a statue of the boy-god Iacchos. At a certain spot along the way, they shouted obscenities in commemoration of Iambe (or Baubo), an old woman who, by cracking dirty jokes, had made Demeter smile as she mourned the loss of her daughter. The procession also shouted “Íakch’, O Íakche”’ referring to Iacchus.

Upon reaching Eleusis, there was a day of fasting in commemoration of Demeter’s fast while searching for Persephone. The abstinence was broken with a brew made from barley and water mixed with fresh pennyroyal mint leaves.  Some scholars have argued that this may have contained a psychedelic agent such as ergot, opium or hallucinogenic mushrooms which would heighten the initiates’ perceptions and explain the transformative experiences they had. Wasson proposed the mushroom Claviceps purpurea as holding the secret to the Eleusinian Mysteries:

The Greek ekstasis meant the flight of the soul from the body. I am certain that this word came into being to describe the effect of the Mystery of Eleusis. Can you find a better word than that to describe the bemushroomed state?” e

The Greeks called mushrooms the ‘food of the Gods’ (broma theon) and Porphyrius is quoted as having called them ‘nurslings of the Gods’ (theotrophos).

Then the initiates entered a great hall called Telesterion, in the centre of which stood the Anaktoron (‘palace’), which only the hierophants could enter, where the sacred objects were stored. Before mystai could enter the Telesterion, they would recite, “I have fasted, I have drunk the kykeon, I have taken from the kiste (‘box’) and after working it have put it back in the kalathos (‘open basket’)”. Clement of Alexandria wrote that they had to utter the words “I fasted; I drank the kykeon; I took from the kiste; having done my task, I placed in the basket, and from the basket into the kiste”.f

What happened next is not known. The spoken words were followed by secret rites carried out in silence, completing the first part of the initiation. The second phase of the initiation was a spiritual experience. Aristotle commented: “The initiates were not meant to learn anything, but rather, to experience certain emotions and moods.” g  However, based on the statements of Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian, it is thought that the Mysteries comprised of three main elements:

The first was called dromena (‘things done’), a dramatic re-enactment of the Demeter/Persephone myth, perhaps with the participants searching for Persephone through passages representing the underworld, followed by the joyful moment of her resurrection shared by the initiates who had shared her experience.

The second element was the deiknumena (‘things shown’), during which the hierophant displayed sacred objects. It is not known what these were, but various theories have suggested wheat ears, bread, a stylised phallus and pudenda, a golden serpent, an egg or seeds sacred to Demeter. The Church Father Hippolytus, writing in the early third century, said that

The Athenians, while initiating people into the Eleusinian rites, likewise display to those who are being admitted to the highest grade at these mysteries, the mighty, and marvellous, and most perfect secret suitable for one initiated into the highest mystic truths: an ear of corn in silence reaped.”

The Roman Varro interpreted the whole of the Eleusinian mysteries as relating to the corn which Demeter had discovered and to Persephone who, he said, signified the fecundity of the seeds, stolen away by Hades and detained in the underworld. Augustine reported that Varro continued:

“…that many things were taught in her mysteries which had no reference but to the discovery of the corn.” h

The third century Roman theologian Hippolytus of Rome also said that the most complete epoptic mystery was an ear of cut-wheat and wrote that:

“At night in Eleusis, (the Hierophant) appearing in the midst of many fires, proclaims the great and secret mystery, saying, ‘The Holy Brimo has borne a sacred child, Brimos, that is, the mighty has borne the mighty”. i

Finally came the legomena (‘things said’), commentaries that accompanied the deiknumena. Combined, these three elements were known as the apporheta (‘unrepeatables’) and the penalty for divulging them was death. It was for this crime (among others) that Diagoras received the death penalty, while the tragic playwright Aeschylus was allegedly tried for revealing secrets of the Mysteries in some of his plays, but was acquitted.

Following this section of the Mysteries was the Pannychis, an all-night feast accompanied by dancing and merriment. The dances took place in the Rharian Field, rumoured to be the first spot where grain grew. A bull sacrifice also took place late that night or early the next morning. That day the initiates honoured the dead by pouring libations from special vessels, the consecrated liquid flowing in the eastward and westward directions.

The initiates (probably exhausted at this point) would then return to Athens singly or in small groups. There does not appear to have been any organized procession; this was a time for reflection and meditation. Sophocles spoke for the initiates when he said:

Thrice happy are those of mortals, who having seen those rites depart for Hades; for to them alone is granted to have a true life there. For the rest, all there is evil.”

 In 170 CE, the Temple of Demeter was sacked by the Sarmatians but was rebuilt by Marcus Aurelius who was then allowed to become the only lay person to ever enter the anaktoron. Julian, the last Pagan emperor of Rome, was also the last emperor to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. With the growing dominance of Christianity Theodosius I decreed that the sanctuaries should be closed in 392 CE. With the invasion of the Christian Goths four years later, the old sanctuaries were destroyed.

© Anna Franklin, excerpt from Autumn Equinox, History, Lore and Celebration, Lear Books

 

[1]           (Demeter’s other festivals were 13th and 24th December, while the twelfth day of the waxing moon and the second day of the waning moon were sacred to her.)

 

SPIRITUAL FALLOW PERIODS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Flax and the Weaver Goddess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CAUTION: IMMATURE SEEDS CAN BE POISONOUS

 

 

 

 

Summer Roses

The garden is full of roses this week. They flop over the fences and scramble up the trellis, their soft, sensual blooms filling the air with a voluptuous perfume. It is easy to understand why they are sacred to so many gods and goddesses of love – Isis, Aphrodite, Venus, Eros, Cupid, Inanna and Ishtar to name just a few. I bless the plants and gather armfuls of flowers.

I take them into the house and lay them on the kitchen table and begin to separate the red flowers from the white. I’m reminded that in one Greek tale, when the goddess Aphrodite first arose from the ocean and stepped onto the shore, the sparkling sea foam fell from her body in the form of pale white roses and took root, but later, as she pursued the beautiful youth Adonis, she caught herself on a thorn and her blood dyed the roses crimson red, symbolising innocence turned to desire and maidenhood turned to womanhood. [1] For magical purposes, while my white roses stand for purity, perfection, innocence, virginity and the moon, the red roses represents earthly passion and fertility. Wound together, they signify the union of opposites, symbolism we use at Beltane to celebrate the sacred marriage of the God and Goddess, an act which reconciles male and female, summer and winter, life and death, flesh and spirit, and brings about all creation, driven by the most fundamental and powerful force in the universe – love.

It was Midsummer a short while ago, and roses often play a part in our solstice ritual since, like other flowers with rayed petals, they are an emblem of the sun. Like the sun, which dies each night and is reborn each day at sunrise, the rose is an emblem of renewal, resurrection and eternal life, which is why the Celts, Egyptians and Romans used them as funeral offerings. [2] [3] [4]

I’m still left with an abundance of blossoms. I take down two clean glass jars from my cupboard and pack both of them with the scented petals I carefully pull from the stems. One jar I top up with white vinegar and set it on the sunny kitchen windowsill. I will leave it there for two weeks before straining the liquid into a clean jar. My resulting rose vinegar can be used as a delicate salad dressing, as an antiseptic wash for wiping down my kitchen surfaces, or dabbed onto my forehead to relieve headaches.  The second jar of rose petals I fill up with one part distilled water to three parts vodka.  I label it and put it in a cool, dark place in my pantry where it will stay for three weeks. When it is ready, I will strain the liquid into a clean jar, and lo and behold, I have made my own rose hydrosol.  I use it just as it is as a skin toner, but I could chill it to make a compress for puffy eyes, or use it as a final conditioning rinse for my hair. Next month I will incorporate some into skin lotions and creams.

The gorgeous fresh petals I have left could be baked into cakes and cookies, made into a delicate jam or a wine for next year’s Midsummer solstice, or crystallised for cake decorations.  Tonight I will drop some petals into my bath to make a relaxing soak after a hard day in the garden, and before I go to bed I will put a handful into the teapot and infuse them in boiling water to make a subtle, fragrant tea, which is mildly sedative and good for tension headaches.

I spread out more petals on a tray and put them to dry in the airing cupboard. These dried petals are not only good for rose tea later in the year and the usual potpourri, but can be employed in magical talismans, charm bags and incense –  red for love, yellow for Midsummer, renewal and the sun, and white for moon rituals. So many virtues in just one plant, and I’ve only scratched the surface of what the rose has to offer. Each day, Mother Nature has a different gift for me.

[1] Jennifer Peace Rhind, Fragrance & Wellbeing: Plant Aromatics and Their Influence on the Psyche, Singing Dragon, London, 2013
[2] Miranda Green, Gods of the Celts, Sutton Publishing Ltd, Stroud, 1986
[3] Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix, The Ultimate Guide to Roses, Macmillan, London, 2004
[4] Laurie Brink and Deborah Green, Commemorating the Dead: Texts and Artifacts in Context. Studies of Roman, Jewish and Christian Burials, de Gruyter, Berlin, 2008

 

Midsummer Herb Craft

As the Midsummer the sun reaches the point of greatest light, it imbues herbs with powerful magical and healing properties. This is the most potent time for gathering herbs, especially sun-coloured flowers such as St. John’s wort. Other plants acquire strange properties; an elder cut on Midsummer Eve, for example, will bleed real blood, or fern seeds can confer the gift of invisibility if gathered at midnight. Anything round and rayed suggests the sun itself, including the rose and daisy.

A belief in the magical powers of herbs at Midsummer was common throughout Europe and the Middle East. At one time plants were hung up all over on St. John’s Eve. In 1598 the historian John Stow wrote of the sight in London:

‘Every man’s door was shaded with green birch, fennel, St. John’s wort, orpin, white lilies, and the like, ornamented with garlands of beautiful flowers. They…had also lamps of glass with oil burning in them all night; and some of them hung out branches of iron, curiously wrought, containing hundreds of lamps lighted at once, which made a splendid appearance.’[1]

This is a fertile time of year when flowers bloom in abundance. In the Western Mystery Tradition it is counted as the time when the opening flower is fertilized, when the God impregnates the Goddess. For the Welsh it was sacred to the goddess Blodeuwedd, the Flower Bride, created by magic from nine types of flowers to marry the god Lleu Llaw Gyffes. The Celts made floral sacrifices at Midsummer. Well into the nineteenth century the custom was carried on in Britain by placing flowers on the largest stone on the farm. Protective plants were hung above the door and cattle stalls, including St. John’s wort, rue, orpine, trefoil, rowan and red thread, vervain and fennel.

The following herbs all take on special meaning at the summer solstice:

ANGELICA Angelica sp.

Angelica is a member of the parsley family and is probably a native of Europe. There are about thirty varieties. Angelica is invested with the power of the sun and light, the ability to cast off darkness and negativity. Use in incenses for Midsummer to celebrate the healing power of fire and the sun to overcome winter, decay and negativity. It was used in mediaeval Europe to deter evil spirits, especially at Midsummer when they were thought to roam freely.

 ASH Fraxinus sp.

Ash trees attract lightening in the summer months, the fertilizing power of the Sky God, darting from the heavens to be transmitted to the belly of Mother Earth through the agency of the tree. This makes it a World Tree, linking all the planes of existence. The ash is a tree of the sun, and the bark and leaves can be used in sun incenses or to purify the aura and infuse it with the vitalizing, healing energy of the sun. At one time people ate ash buds at the summer solstice to protect themselves from enchantment.

BAY Laurus nobilis

The sweet bay is an evergreen tree naturalized around the Mediterranean. Bay is used in incenses or offerings to invoke sun gods and goddesses, and gods and goddesses of the dawn. As a herb of protection, bay has the power of banishing negativity and darkness.

 BIRCH Betula sp.

The European birch tree has a bright, white bark and is associated with the sun. Birch bark may be added to incenses of purification and protection, and incenses celebrating the passage of the sun. In country ritual leafy branches of birch were used at Midsummer to bedeck houses and even signposts throughout the villages. It forms the May and Midsummer maypole, sometimes called ‘the summer tree’.

CEDAR Cedrus sp.

True cedars belong to the genus Cedrus, and are native to mountainous areas of North Africa and Asia. The fragrant wood has been used in incenses for millennia. It drives away ghosts and evil spirits and dispels negativity. It is associated with eternity and preservation from decay and corruption. It represents the continuation of the soul.

CHAMOMILE Anthemis nobilis, Matricaria chamomilla

Chamomiles are native to Europe, North Africa and temperate Asia. They are sacred to the sun and sun gods including the Egyptian Ra and the Norse Baldur. Chamomile connects with the sun god’s power of healing, regeneration and protection. It may be used in incenses with these intentions or added to herbal talismans to boost them with the sun god’s power. Chamomile is one of the sacred herbs of Midsummer and may be used in the incense, or simply thrown onto the festival fire as an offering.

 DAISY (ENGLISH) Bellis perennis

The daisy is a hardy perennial that is native to Europe and Asia. Its central yellow boss with white petals arrayed around it was thought to resemble the sun. It is sacred to sun gods and goddesses and is associated with purity, innocence and faithful love. The daisy is sacred to the Baltic sun goddess Saule. Daisies picked between noon and one o’clock on Midsummer Day have special magical qualities. They bring success in any venture when they are dried and carried.  The English name ‘daisy’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon daeges eage meaning ‘day’s eye’, and refers to the flower opening its petals during daylight hours and closing them at night.

DILL Anethum graveolens

Dill is an aromatic, upright, annual herb native to the eastern Mediterranean, India, Iran, Russia and western Asia. It was known as one of the St. John’s Eve herbs and was valued as a protection against witchcraft.

ELDER  Sambucus nigra

Elder is the name of a group of thirty species of small trees that grow in temperate areas of the Northern Hemisphere. It is said that where the elder grows, the Goddess is not far away. The elder has several stations throughout the year and its character changes at each. The sweet blossom can be collected in June and make a good fixative for herbal incenses. The leaves should be gathered on Midsummer morning to add to healing incense. Add the blossom to Midsummer incense, and incense to invoke dryads and fairies.

FENNEL

Fennel was held in high esteem by the Romans and was one of the nine sacred herbs of the Anglo-Saxons. During the Middle Ages fennel was hung over the door on Midsummer’s Eve as it was believed to keep away evil spirits. It is one of the sacred aromatic herbs of Midsummer used as incense or thrown on the bonfire. It has a long association with the sun and fire. In Greek mythology the titan Prometheus used a hollow fennel stem to steal fire from the sun and bring it to humankind. Greek islanders still carry lighted coals around in the pith of giant fennel.

FERN

Fern is the common name for any spore-producing plant of the phylum Polypodiophyta.  It is associated with sun gods and goddesses, and gods and goddesses of the dawn, such as Daphne. It is also sacred to the Great Goddess and the sky gods of thunder, lightning and Midsummer. At the turning of Midsummer and Midwinter it allows access into the Otherworld and contact with its inhabitants. It was sacred to the Baltic sun goddess Saule who appeared on the horizon at Midsummer, wreathed in apple blossom and red fern blossom (i.e. red clouds). Use fern in incenses at Midsummer to protect the household and for divination purposes. Known as the ‘treasure fist’ or ‘death flower’ it was popularly thought to only bloom and produce seed on Midsummer Eve, when the seeds can be collected to make the bearer invisible, help him find wealth or give him magical powers, though he will have to battle the evil spirits that protect them. In Finland the seeds were thought to be gathered by trolls who would snatch them away from any human collector and make him go insane. In Britain the seeds could only be gathered on pewter plates, since they would pass through any other material, though in Lancashire it was held that fern seed collected on the family bible conveyed invisibility. In the far north, where there is barely any darkness at the summer solstice, the seeds are said to glow like embers, and their appearance to be announced by a peal of thunder. In a German story, a hunter is said to have procured fern seed by shooting at the sun at noon on Midsummer’s Day. Three drops of blood fell down, and these were the fern seed. The blood is clearly the blood of the sun from which the fern seed is directly derived.

FLAX Linaceae. Sp.

The flax family is a member of the order Linales, the most ancient class of flowering plants native to almost all tropical and temperate regions. Flax thread is intimately connected to the life maze and to the web of life. Flax may be used in incense to consecrate the ritual wheel or sun/moon disc or zodiac symbol. Flax may be thrown onto the fire at Midsummer. The Lapps offered flax on the altars of the sun goddess as many sun deities are associated with spinning, whether spinning the cosmos itself or with spinning sunbeams.

GORSE Ulex eurpaeus

Furze, or gorse, is native to Europe and is widely cultivated. It was burned at Midsummer and blazing branches of gorse were carried round the herd to bring health to the cows and good luck for the rest of the year. In some parts of the British Isles the Midsummer fire was lit with a branch of furze.

HAZEL Corylus avellana

Hazel is the common name applied to trees and shrubs of the genus Corylus, found throughout the temperate regions of North America and Eurasia. A branch of hazel cut on Midsummer Eve will guide you to hidden treasure. It must be cut at night by walking backwards with both hands between your legs.

HEATHER Calluna vulgaris

Heather is an evergreen shrub belonging to the family Ericaceae found throughout Western Europe and in parts of North America. It is sacred to the goddess of Midsummer, who was often designated as queen bee, as bees love to drink from heather flowers. Cybele is the queen bee for whom her priests castrate themselves to become her drones. The honeybee, which orientates itself on its journey from the heather to the hive in relation to the position and angle to the sun, was regarded by the Celts as a messenger travelling the path of the sunlight to the spirit world. In legend Cybele imprisoned Attis in heather at Midsummer.

HONEYSUCKLE Lonicera caprifolium

The family Caprifoliaceae contains about four hundred species and occurs mainly in the Northern Temperate Zone.  Add the flowers to Midsummer incenses.

LAVENDER Lavendula officinalis

Lavender is the name given to twenty-eight species of the genus Lavandula native to the Mediterranean region. Lavender purifies, heals and cleanses. Add to incense for calm meditation and to bring peace and harmony in the home, or at difficult discussions and meetings. Add to the Midsummer incense.

MALLOW Malva sylvestris

In Ireland the young people gathered sprigs of mallow on Midsummer Eve. It was considered to be a protection from some of the more dangerous spirits at large on this night. They would then touch their relatives and friends with the leaves, before throwing the leaves onto the bonfire.

 MARIGOLD  Calendula officinalis

Marigold is a hardy, annual herb native to central and southern Europe and Asia. Use it in incense dedicated to the sun, the element of fire, the star sign of Leo and to invoke sun gods. Marigold is a herb of healing and protection, and can also be added to incenses for prophetic dreams, love, divination and used to consecrate divinatory tools such as crystal balls. The name of this plant comes from the Latin calends or kalendae, the word for the first day of each month and the origin of our ‘calendar’. In ancient Rome the calendula was said to be in bloom on each calend throughout the year. The specific name officinalis shows that it was included on the official list of herbal medicines. In ancient Egypt it was used as a rejuvenating herb, while the Persians and Greeks used it for cooking, and the Hindus to decorate their altars and temples. At Midsummer garlands of marigold flowers hung on doors prevent evil from entering. Marigold petals were also scattered on the floor under the bed to offer protection to sleepers.

MEADOWSWEET Filipendula ulmaria / Spiraea ulmaria

Meadowsweet is a member of the rose family native to Europe, temperate Asia and eastern North America. The generic name spiraea is the root word for ‘aspirin’ and meadowsweet has long been used for pain relief and the treatment of fevers. Meadowsweet was one of the three most sacred herbs of the druids (the others were watermint and vervain). The druids are believed to have made use of the plant’s anodyne qualities. It is sometimes known as Queen of the Meadows which was one of the titles of the Celtic goddess Blodeuwedd. It is also sacred to the Celtic goddesses Aine and Gwena and the Roman love goddess Venus.

OAK Quercus robur

There are more than six hundred species of oaks, all of which grow naturally only in the Northern Hemisphere. The primary power plant of the summer solstice is the oak. In ogham the oak is duir meaning ‘door’ in Gaelic. The word for door and oak, and perhaps druid, come from the same root in many European languages. The oak flowers at Midsummer and marks the door opening on one side to the waxing and on the other to the waning year. Oak was the most sacred tree of the druids and stood for a cosmic axis, and was the doorway to knowledge. Oak wood constituted the sacred fires of Midsummer. The flowers and wood are used at Midsummer.

ORPINE

A purple flowered stonecrop (Sedum) known as Midsummer Men. Orpine is the French word for stonecrop. The plant is also called ‘live long’ as it will live for months after it is cut, if only it is sprinkled with a little water. It was set in pots on Midsummer Eve and hung up in the house as a form of love divination. If the leaves bent to the right this signified that a lover was faithful, if to the left the true love’s heart was cold and faithless. [2] If two slips are stuck together in a crack and lean together, the omen is good for a relationship.

REED Phragmites communis

The reed is found growing in marshes, at water edges and in moist woodland in almost all countries of the temperate and warm regions. In myth the reed bed was seen as the entrance to the underworld from which the sun was reborn. Because reeds are filled with air- or spirit- reeds are associated with the speaking of the spirits. They are a symbol of royalty and sun gods, employed as sceptres.

ROSE Rosa sp.

The rose is a symbol both of the sun and the Goddess.

ROSEMARY Rosemarinus officinalis

Ruled by the sun and the element of fire, rosemary is a hardy perennial native to the Mediterranean region. A piece of rosemary wood cut on Midsummer morning is said to preserve youthful looks.

JOHN’S WORT Hypericum perforatum

St. John’s wort is a hardy perennial herb native to Europe and western Asia. It is one of the many herbs that gain special powers at Midsummer, when it should be collected for magical purposes. The golden flowers are associated with the sun and the flames of the Midsummer fires. The Irish called it ‘life-renewer’ (beathnua) and the Welsh ‘the blessed one’s leaf’ (dail y fendigaid). Mediaeval herbalists reckoned it as the golden herb which ‘shines like the sun in the darkness’ on St. John’s Eve. It is a protective and counter-magic herb. The botanical name ‘hypericum‘ comes from the Greek and means ‘to protect’ or ‘over an apparition’. This refers to the belief that the plant could make evil spirits disappear. It was also called Fuga Daemonum (‘flight of demons’) because it repels evil spirits.  It was believed to possess the quality of protecting the wearer against all manner of evil. Legend has it that the plant moves around to hide from those who seek its powers on at Midsummer when it is made into garlands and charms to protect the home and livestock. It had to be gathered in a particular manner:

St. John’s wort, St. John’s wort,

I deem lucky the one who will have you;

I harvest you with my right hand,

I store you away with my left hand;

Whosoever finds you in the fold of young animals

Will never want for anything.[3]

Country folk often picked bunches of the herb and hung them in byres and stables to frighten evil spirits and keep the devil away. It was tossed onto the baal or hearth fires and allowed to burn to protect the home against lightning and storms. St. John’s wort gathered at noon on Midsummer Day was reputed to be effective against several illnesses. It was also believed that the dew collected from the plant on Midsummer morning would preserve the eyes from disease, while the roots gathered at midnight on St. Johns Eve would drive the devil and evil sorcerers away.

SUNFLOWER

Nothing evokes the warm summer sun as much as the giant yellow face of the sunflower, which moves during the day to follow the path of the sun across the sky. Magically it represents strength, courage and action. The petals may be dried and used in incenses during sun rituals or during meditations and exercises designed to increase your confidence and self-image, or to determine a course of positive action.

 VERVAIN Verbena officinalis

Vervain is a hardy herbaceous perennial native to Britain, Europe, North Africa and West Asia. For magical purposes vervain should be gathered at the summer solstice. Gather enough for one year. Any vervain that has been left over from last year’s gathering should be cast onto the Midsummer bonfire.

Photograph Paul Mason

[1] John Stow, Survey, 1598

[2] Brewer, E. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Cassell and Co., London, 1885

[3] Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh, 1928