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 When it happened, I came to realise it had been entirely my fault; the Gods had not withdrawn from me, I had unwittingly withdrawn from them.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

Midsummer

The celebration of Midsummer is a pan-global custom. Every culture has, at some point in its history, marked the time and held it to be enchanted. The Celts, the Norse and the Slavs believed that there were three ‘spirit nights’ in the year when magic abounded and the Otherworld was close. The first was Halloween, the second was May Eve and the third was Midsummer Eve. On this night, of all nights, fairies are most active. On this night the future can be uncovered. As the solstice sun rises on its day of greatest power it draws up with it the power of herbs, standing stones and crystals. In the shimmering heat haze on the horizon its magical energies are almost visible. And as the mist gate forms in the warm air rising beneath the dolmen arch, the entrance to the Otherworld opens- Avalon, Tir nan Og, the land of Youth where it is always summer and death and old age are unknown. Shakespeare captured all the magic of the occasion in A Midsummer Night’s Dream where fairies, magic and mischief abound on one bewitched night in the forest.

Every ancient religion had its own customs and traditions associated with Midsummer. These appear in the lore of Greece and Rome, the myths of the Norse, the Maya, the Aztecs, the Slavs, the writings of the ancient Egyptians, and the Old Testament of the Jews, while the Celts has a large collection of myths associated with Midsummer. Vestiges of these festivities can still be witnessed today. In places we may still see the baal fires, the torchlight processions, the rolling of a sun wheel downhill, the casting of spells, divination, love magic, and the blessing of crops and animals with fire.

The cold, dark days of winter and blight are far away, the time of light and warmth, summer and growth are here.  The summer solstice is the longest day and shortest night of the year. It falls around June 21st in the northern hemisphere and around December 21st in the southern hemisphere. It is a natural time of celebration.

The sun is the largest and brightest object in our skies and all of life on earth is dependent on its light and heat. During our own temperate summer we have long, warmer days when animals produce young and plants flourish and bear fruit, but during the winter the days are short and cold, vegetation dies and animals struggle to find food – survival is harder and sometimes impossible. For our ancestors, winter often brought starvation and death.

The sun governs the pattern of life, its cycles dividing the hours, days, months and years, the round of sowing, growth, harvest and decay. The Egyptians called the sun the divine creator of all things, the master of time and the seasons. Its regular daily and seasonal rotations stand as a symbol of cosmic order. From where we stand on earth, each day the sun seems to rise in the east, scattering the powers of darkness and diffusing light and fertility as it climbs to its zenith at noon. Then it declines, descending into the west and eventually sinking below the horizon, only to return with the following dawn. The Egyptian sun god Ra was born as a baby each dawn, grew to maturity at noon and became an old man at sunset, ready for death. Each sunrise demonstrated the victory of life over the forces of death and darkness; it was a metaphor for human spiritual and physical life, reflecting our own experiences of birth, growth, decay and death, as well as our hope of rebirth, our struggles against negativity and the triumph of spirit. Thus, for our ancestors the eternal cycle of the sun was the central paradigm of their spiritual beliefs. Sun gods were:

“…the types and models of the divine potentiality…they were the mirror held up to men, in which could be seen the possibilities locked up in man’s own nature. They were type figures, delineating the divine life that was an ever possible realization for any devoted man. They were the symbols of an ever coming deity, a deity that came not once historically in Judea, but that came to ever fuller expression and liberation in the inner heart of every son of man. The solar deities were the gods that ever came, that were described as coming not once upon a time, but continuously and regularly. Their radiant divinity might be consummated by an earnest person at any time or achieved piecemeal.”  [1]

No wonder then that the sun was often the chief deity of the ancient world or at least, his or her emblem. There are thousands of sun gods and goddesses with remarkably similar characteristics: they battle the forces of darkness and dispel evil; they illuminate the sky; see everything on their path and uncover those secrets hidden by darkness (often in the form of prophecy); they represent truth, justice and enlightenment and they bring healing.

Solar myths explain the sun’s daily movement across the sky from east to west and its disappearance at night as a journey taken by the god, usually travelling across the heavens in a chariot or boat. In Scandinavian and Celtic countries many Bronze Age carvings show the sun disc being pulled along on a cart. The Greek Helios (or Apollo) drove his fiery chariot through the sky by day, and by night he floated back across the ocean in a golden bowl, only to mount the chariot again the next morning. Ra travelled across the sky in his sun-boat and passed through the Duat (underworld) each night, bringing light to the souls imprisoned there and defeating the demon Apep before escaping with the dawn. The Navaho call their sun god Jóhanaa’éi (‘Sun-bearer’) and every day he hauls the sun across the sky on his back. At night, he hangs the sun from a peg on the wall and rests. In Australian aboriginal mythology, the sun goddess Wuriupranili lights a torch and travels from east to west, extinguishing the torch in the western ocean. She decorates her body with red ochre which represents the colour of the sun rise and sunset. Dawn and dusk were often spoken of as gates. In Norse myth the sun emerged each day from deling’s dore (‘dawn’s door’), and for the Canadian Bella Cool Indians the doors are guarded by a warrior called the Bear of Heaven. Shamash entered the Gate of the East onto the Mountains of Sunrise and travelled to the Mountains of Sunset and exited through the Western Gate of Heaven. [2] Where the sun went at night, and whether it would return, was a matter for grave concern. What would happen if the sun god failed to defeat the monsters of darkness and not rise each dawn? Life on earth would come to an end. The sun god could be benign and friendly, spreading his light and warmth, or he could be cold and indifferent, withdrawing his gifts; he could even be cruel and destructive, shrivelling living things with his overbearing heat. It was necessarily to propitiate him, and in some places human sacrifices were offered in order to bring back the sun at the winter solstice.

As well as the sun’s daily birth and nightly death, the sun is seen to wax and wane during the year. After midwinter the sun begins to grow stronger and the days lengthen up until midsummer, when the opposite happens and the days gradually grow shorter and colder. At midwinter and midsummer the sun apparently changes its course. In midwinter having reached the lowest point in its path, it turns about and begins to mount the skies; conversely at midsummer, having attained the highest point it reaches, the sun seems to turn about once more and descend. Consequently it was often imagined the sun god was born at the winter solstice and grew until midsummer, afterwards declining towards his death at the midwinter solstice, before being reborn and the whole cycle beginning again. Hurs or Hors was the Slavonic god of the old winter sun who became smaller as the days grew shorter and died on korochun (the winter solstice) defeated by the dark powers of Chernobog. The next day Hors was resurrected as the new sun, Koleda. (Koleda survives in the modern Slavonic languages as the word for Christmas.) Because of his transformation the Slavs worshipped Hors as the god of healing and the triumph of health, [3] a characteristic shared by most of the sun gods around the world. The rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice meant that the hope for the renewal of the cycle of the seasons was accomplished, and the wheel of life would spin on. In many countries this festival season was known as yole or yuul, meaning ‘wheel’ from the word hiaul or huul, which even to this day signified the sun in some languages. The wheel is one of the ancient symbols of the sun, the spokes representing its rays and the wheel’s turning the sun’s passage through the year.

We experience changing seasons because the axis of the Earth – an imaginary line between the north and south poles – is tilted from true by 23.5 degrees. As our planet revolves around the sun, this means that part of the earth tilts towards the sun, then away again.  Between June and September the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun and gets more light, experiencing the season of summer. At the same time the Southern Hemisphere experiences winter.  Between December and March the Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun and experiences less light and warmth, while the Southern Hemisphere enjoys summer. Just how much sunlight you experience depends on the latitude you occupy. By June 21st there are twenty-four hours of daylight above the Arctic Circle, while below the Antarctic Circle there are twenty-four hours of darkness.  During spring and autumn, both hemispheres experience milder weather and the two equinoxes mark the junctures when the Earth’s axis is pointing sideways. Without the tilt in the Earth’s axis we would have the same degree of light and warmth – or dark and cold – all year round, and have no seasons at all; the sun’s rays would always be directly over the Equator. The solstices and equinoxes are the four stations of the sun during the year, represented by an equal armed cross; there is a frequent connection between sun gods and crosses.

The word solstice is derived from Latin and means ‘sun stands still’. The sun usually rises at a different point on the horizon each day (it only rises due east at the spring equinox). It travels north-east to its furthest position at the summer solstice and appears to stand still for a few days before heading south-east, reaching its southernmost position at the winter solstice where it seems to rest again for a few days before heading north once more. The summer solstice is celebrated when the sun reaches its most northerly position. Moreover, during the winter the sun does not rise so high in the sky and the shadows are longer. During the summer it climbs high and strong in the sky and shadows are short.

The Sanskrit root of the word summer means ‘half year’, suggesting the light and dark halves of the year were marked by the two solstices. [4] This division of the year by the two solstices into two halves was common in the ancient world. The Saxon year began at the winter solstice and the summer solstice marked its mid-point.  They called the month of June Aerra Litha meaning ‘before Litha’, and July Aeftera Litha meaning ‘after Litha’ [5] leading some to speculate that the Saxon name for the festival was Litha. The Icelandic lida or litha means ‘to move’, or ‘pass over’, in other words, the sun passing over its highest point or the month of the sun’s descent. J.R.R.Tolkien used the term for a midsummer festival in the fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings and some Pagans, particularly in the USA, have lately adopted the name for the midsummer festival. While the solstice generally falls round the 21st June [6] Midsummer’s Eve is fixed as 23rd June, and Midsummer’s Day (or St John’s Day) as 24th June. Then again, we find references to Old Midsummer Eve and Old Midsummer Day in early July. It is generally accepted that the Christian missionaries persuaded the old Pagans to move their celebrations of the summer solstice to the feast of St John on 24th June, pegging a moveable solstice feast to a definite date. However, it is noticeable that while most parts of Europe celebrate on St John’s Day, a significant number of individual areas celebrate on St Peter’s and St Paul’s Day, 29th June. At least part of the confusing results from changes made to the calendar. In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII wiped out ten days from the old Julian calendar to make it astronomically correct. However, the Gregorian calendar was not adopted in Britain till 1752 and Ireland in 1782, by which time eleven days had to be dropped. Some towns refused to move their holidays, and Whalton in Northumberland still lights its fire on old Midsummer Eve, 5th July.

The Pagan festivities of the summer solstice were appropriated to the Feast of St. John the Baptist, the cousin who baptised Jesus and announced that he was the saviour foretold by the Hebrew prophets. The baal fires became the fires of St. John, whom Jesus called “a bright and shining light”. In the Middle Ages, Christian mythographers declared that St John was born at the summer solstice at the time of the weakening sun, announcing his own power would wane with the birth of Christ at the winter solstice, the time of the strengthening sun. [7] John the Baptist is reported to have said of Jesus “He must increase, but I must decrease.” [8] John is the only saint whose feast day is celebrated on the day of his birth, rather than his death. Christian scholars incorporated Pagan symbolism into their iconography to associate Christ with the waxing year and John with the waning, represented by the holly and oak respectively, though neither tree had any connection with Christianity or Judaism. The evergreen holly persisted through the winter death-time and so was identified with Christ, the white flower emblematic of his purity, the prickles his crown of thorns, and the red berries the drops of his shed blood: “…of all the trees that are in the woods, the holly bears the crown” in the words of the old carol. [9]

There are a number of customs associated with Midsummer, most of which celebrate the time of greatest light and encourage the power of the sun with sympathetic magic in the form of bonfires, rolling wheels, circle dances and  torchlight processions. Because the energy of the sun infuses the whole of nature, it is a potent time for gathering plants, seeking healing or practicing divination. However, Midsummer is also a dangerous time when the wild forces of the spirit world are close and threaten, and precautions have to be taken against them.

© Anna Franklin, author of Midsummer, History, Lore and Celebration, Lear Books

 

 

[1] Alvin Boyd Kuhn, The Great Myth of the Sun-Gods, 2005

[2] John Matthews, The Summer Solstice, Godsfield Press, London, 2005

[3] http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/Hors

[4] Dr E.C.Krupp, Beyond the Blue Horizon, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992

[5] Nigel Pennick, Runic Astrology, The Aquarian Press, Wellingborough, 1990

[6] It can vary between 19th– 23rd June

[7] Phillipe Walter, Christianity, the Origins of a Pagan Religion, Inner Traditions, Rochester, 2003

[8] John, 3:30

[9] John Williamson, The Oak King, the Holly King and the Unicorn, Harper and Row, New York, 1986

Witches and Fairies

There have always been legends of ‘fairies’; they exist in every country of the world. The people of ancient Greece and Rome worshipped the nymphs of meadows, streams and mountains, and the dryads who lived in trees. Ireland abounds with tales of people who have encountered leprechauns who showed them buried treasure at the end of rainbows, wailing banshees who heralded the death of relatives and drunken cluricauns who stole from wine cellars. In England there are old pamphlets describing the mischievous antics of Robin Goodfellow, the merry spirit of the greenwood who cared for its animals and played tricks on hunters, and stories of West Country pixies who led travellers astray, but who helped kindly farmers with their work. There are similar fables from Africa, Hawaii, the Americas, Australia, Europe, Japan, China and Russia.

A culture that believes in spirits is one fundamentally different from our modern Western materialistic society. It recognises that a life-force suffuses the whole of Nature, an energy that manifests in a range of spirits that fill the meadows, streams, wells, forests and even the air itself. They guard fields and individual trees, mountains and hearth fires. They may bless or curse humans as they please, and inflict sickness or health on the flocks and herds. Not so very long ago, an association with the fairies was a very real part of people’s lives. An excellent relationship with the ‘The Good Neighbours’- as the fairies were called – was essential for the well being and prosperity of anyone who depended on the land for his or her livelihood. Fairies were given offerings of milk on the old standing stones, bread and salt in the corners of fields, cream in saucers left on the hearth, and were left part of the harvest. Special stones – called dobby stones in the northern counties – had shallow depressions for making offerings to them, and were placed by field gates or the farmhouse door. Spiritual guardians called the Ward gathered at dusk in their sacred places, still known as ward trees, ward hills and ward stones, to guard villages. The Wild Hunt rode out to collect the souls of the wicked. For the countryman, fairies, elves and natural magic were part of the everyday experience.

As we humans moved away from our close connection to the earth, we lost our link with the spirits of the land. We forgot how to see them, how to contact them, and how to treat them. Stories of them persisted, but they lost their awesome status; we diminished them, in our imaginations, into the cute Tinkerbells of nursery tales, the tiny, tutu-skirted, gossamer-winged beings of Victorian fable. Real spirits, on the other hand, are potent beings of earth, air, fire and water, of plant, stream, rock and place; creatures of raw nature, representing its power and energies. Some of them are benevolent, but some are downright dangerous.

Once, every village had a wise woman or cunning man who dealt with the wildfolk. Such people were common in Britain and Ireland right up until the end of the First World War. Their job was to maintain the balance between the human and fairy world, to mediate with the spirits, to solicit their blessings for good harvests, to repair any damage done to their relationships with humans, to placate the forces of blight, to heal and to remove curses. Both the ancient Celts and Saxons had gifted individuals who were able to journey at will into the world of the spirits.  In later times, these people were called witches, a name that comes from the Anglo-Saxon wicce, or wise one.

Witches and fairies were often thought to have the same powers: both use magic and both can bless and curse. In fact, the old Romany word for ‘fairy’ is the same as the one for ‘witch’. The Irish believed that a witch was created when a young girl spent seven years in the Otherworld with her fairy lover, coming back somewhat aged, but with knowledge of herbs, philtres and secret spells. The famous witch Biddy Early insisted that her powers came from the fairies. She used a blue bottle, given to her by the fairies, for healing and prophecy. At her death in 1873 it was thrown into a lake so that no one else could attempt to use it.

In the witch trial records, the accused often tried to explain that their powers came not from devils, but from the fairies. Elspeth Reoch of Orkney confessed, in 1616, that she had met a fairy man who offered to teach her to understand and see anything she wanted. In 1566, John Walsh of Netherberry in Dorset said that he knew when men were bewitched because the fairies told him. When he wanted to converse with fairies he would go to the hills where there were mounds of earth, and speak to them between the hours of one and noon, or at midnight. In 1587 John Penry of Wales spoke of swarms of soothsayers and enchanters who professed to walk, on Tuesday and Thursday nights, with fairies, bragging of having knowledge of them. Fifty years later, a Caernarvonshire man claimed to speak twice weekly with the fairies, again on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

This association of fairies and witches goes beyond the British Isles and seems to have an almost universal resonance in other parts of the world. For example, in parts of Eastern Europe, witches were called vilenice, which implies someone who deals with fairies [vile].  During an investigation during the late seventeenth century, a young vilenica confirmed that her powers had been granted to her by a fairy who had shown her the properties of herbs, and who could be called upon by virtue of certain herbs picked together with their roots. As in other places, there were tales of children and adults disappearing into the mountains for months or years, and returning with magical powers granted to them by the fairies. In northern Croatia, the people said that on each Good Friday a vile flies down from the sky to teach women how to heal people and be of benefit to them. The women had to go with their hair unbraided into the green grove, where two had to climb the old trees with the vile, and eat yarn, to better remember what the vile was teaching them; in this way they became vilenice. [i]

Scottish witch trials in particular were often notable for their accounts of the Fairy Queen, or Queen of Elfhame [‘Elf Home’]. Isobel Gowdie said that she met the Fairy Queen when she went into the hollow hills, and learned all her magic from the fairies whilst there. She spoke of the wildfolk that waited upon her coven as Robert the Jakis, Sanderis the Reed Reever, Thomas the Fairy and Swain the Roaring Lion, but she was stopped from speaking further by the interrogators, as she often was when she spoke of fairies, as can be seen from the transcripts. The interrogators only wanted to hear of devils and evil deeds.

Before the advent of Christianity, all the peoples of Europe acknowledged a multitude of spirits that inhabited the Earth; similar beliefs exist or have existed throughout the world. Early Christians denounced the gods and spirits of the old Pagan religions as baneful and identified the old Pagan gods as devils. Nymphs, dryads, satyrs, vegetation spirits and fairies were condemned by the church as devils. Aelfric, an eleventh century inhabitant of the monastery of Cerne Abbas in England, denounced those who made offerings to ‘earth-fast’ stones, trees and so on ‘even as the witches teach’. The word he used for witches was Wiccan. [ii] Such people were condemned as Heathens and Pagans, words respectively meaning ‘people of the heath’ and ‘people of the countryside’. Missionaries destroyed Pagan temples and groves, and cut down sacred trees in an attempt to banish the spirits that dwelt there. However, it was much harder to banish the fairy faith from the consciousness of the people who dwelt close to the land, who encountered its wildfolk on a regular basis. The notions of the country people have survived in folk-lore and folk practice to the present day in the shape of a belief in fairies.

According to the old lore, not everyone can see fairies; you have to be born with what the Scottish called ‘the sight’, an ability to see into the spirit world and to read the future. It is a talent possessed by the genuine wise woman, the shaman, the witch. Saxo, in the History of the Danes, written in 1182-1210, said that one had to be a gifted person to see spirits, and went on to explain that such people had probably experienced prophetic dreams in childhood, or had later undergone a sickness that opened the world of spirits to them, thus describing a classic shamanic initiation.[iii] In 1588, Alison Pearson was introduced to the world of fairies, as she lay sick in bed, by her dead cousin William Sympson who appeared to her in fairy form. He came to her as a ‘green man’ and told her he would help her if she would be faithful to him. Then he vanished and reappeared with a group of faeries, who persuaded Pearson to take part in their merrymaking. Sympson also told her how to use herbal remedies. Whenever Pearson spoke about the fairies to others, she was tormented with blows that left insensitive spots on her skin.  She was convicted of witchcraft and burned at the stake.

One tale that describes an Otherworld initiation at the hands of fairy spirits is that of Thomas the Rhymer. He had been playing his lute beneath a hawthorn in the woods when a beautiful fairy, riding a white horse, emerged from the trees to listen. Eventually she dismounted and he couldn’t resist trying to kiss her. She warned him that such an act would bind him to her for seven years, but he did not hesitate. They journeyed together through the night to a bright meadow in which there were two paths, one to perdition and one to righteousness, but the Fairy Queen explained that for lovers and bards there was another path, a twisting third way that led to Fairyland. While in the fairy world Thomas was shown a mysterious tree which bore magical apples. The Queen of Elphame warned him that it bore all the plagues of hell, but it also conveyed the gift of prophecy. After seven years Thomas returned home, but his songs were sweeter and more poignant than ever before. He was also able to foretell the future, as in Fairyland he had eaten an apple whose flesh had the power of truth, a parting gift from the Fairy Queen. On his seventy-eighth birthday, he was holding a party when he was told that two white deer, a male and a female, were heading through the village to his house. He knew this to be a summons to Fairyland and followed them back there, where he still sings and plays.

The apple is the fruit of Otherworld knowledge. The plagues of hell that accompany it are the suffering and pain the shaman must go through to win the sight. Once this is won, and the apple eaten, he or she will never be the same again, and is forever changed. The third way described by the Fairy Queen is the way of the walker between the worlds – the shaman, the witch.

© Anna Franklin

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles and a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Midsummer, Lughnasa, The Hearth Witch’s Compendium, Pagan Ways Tarot,  Herb Craft,  The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies, Working With Fairies, Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, Pagan Ritual and The Path of the Shaman. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

Illustration Paul Mason

 

 

[i] Institute of Ethnology and Folk-lore Research 2004, www.ief.hr

[ii] Quoted in Brian Bates, The Real Middle Earth, p 107

[iii] Quoted in Brian Bates, The Real Middle Earth

Arianrhod and the Mysteries of Initiation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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