Homemade Firelighters

Winter is coming… With the weather getting colder, thoughts turn to blazing fires in the hearth. Did you know that pine cones make great firelighters, especially if you dip them in wax? I picked these up on the walk home the other day, melted an old candle stub in a double boiler and using tongs, dipped the cones in the wax, then left them to set.

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DON’T CALL ME MABON…

The name ‘Mabon’ as a term for the neopagan festival of the autumn equinox (along with the Saxon term ‘Litha’ for the summer solstice) was introduced in 1973 by the American witch and writer Aiden Kelly (b. 1940). His blog for 21st September 2012 explains:

“Back in 1973, I was putting together a “Pagan-Craft” calendar—the first of its kind, as far as I know—listing the holidays, astrological aspects, and other stuff of interest to Pagans. It offended my aesthetic sensibilities that there seemed to be no Pagan names for the summer solstice or the fall equinox equivalent to Ostara or Beltane—so I decided to supply them… I began wondering if there had been a myth similar to that of Kore in a Celtic culture. There was nothing very similar in the Gaelic literature, but there was in the Welsh, in the Mabinogion collection, the story of Mabon ap Modron (which translates as “Son of the Mother,” just as Kore simply meant “girl”), whom Gwydion rescues from the underworld, much as Theseus rescued Helen. That’s why I picked “Mabon” as a name for the holiday…” bd

Curiously, his own tradition, the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn, did not follow him in this and instead called the autumn equinox ‘Rites of Eleusis’.  However, the term took off and was used in many American books, and by extension, the readers of those books in the UK and elsewhere.

The association of the god Mabon with the festival is certainly not an ancient or traditional despite the claims in various books and websites where you might read ‘the Celts celebrated the god Mabon on this date’.

In order to see why the name of Mabon for the autumn equinox is an inappropriate one we need to examine the tales of Mabon.

The Celtic God Maponius

There is certainly a Celtic god whose title was Latinized as Maponus, which is not an actual name but means something like ‘divine son’. He is known from a number of inscriptions in northern Britain and Gaul in which he is addressed as ‘Apollo Maponus’ identifying him with the Graeco-Roman sun-god Apollo. Like Apollo, all the evidence suggests that he was a god of the sun, music and hunting – significantly, he was not a god of the harvest or of the corn.

It is not known whether he was widely worshipped before the coming of the Romans, but with them his cult spread along Hadrian’s Wall amongst the Roman soldiers stationed there. Several stone heads found at the Wall are identified as representing Maponus.

He was also known in Gaul where he was invoked with a Latin inscription at Bourbonne-les-Bains, and on a lead cursing tablet  discovered at Chamalières, Puy-de-Dôme where he is invoked along with Lugus (Lugh) to quicken underworld spirits to right a wrong.

It is possible that there are some place names associated with him, such as Ruabon in Denbighshire, which may or may not be a corruption of Rhiw Fabon, meaning ‘Hillside of Mabon’. be During the seventh century an unknown monk at the Monastery at Ravenna in Italy compiled what came to be called The Ravenna Cosmography, which was a list of all the towns and road-stations throughout the Roman Empire. It lists a Locus Maponi (‘place of Maponus’) which has been tentatively identified with the Lochmaben stone site.

It is possible that Mabon’s Irish equivalent is the god Aengus, also known as the Mac Óg (‘young son’).

Literary Sources

A character called Mabon is found as a minor character in the Mabinogion, a collection of eleven – sometimes twelve – Welsh prose tales from the Middle Ages. He is called Mabon ap Modron, meaning ‘son of the mother’, which has led to speculation that his mother Modron (‘mother’) may be cognate with the Gaulish mother goddess Matrona. There are no inscriptions dedicated to her from ancient times, so this cannot be verified. Whether or not the Mabinogion tale of the hero Mabon stems from a thousand year old story of the god Maponus is uncertain, but since the stories contain the names of other known Celtic gods (transliterated into heroes) it is certainly possible.

The Mabinogion is a collection of medieval Welsh stories which would have been recorded by Christian monks. They don’t seem to have been very widely known until they were translated into English in 1849 by Lady Charlotte Guest, who invented the title Mabinogion since each of the four branches ends with the words “so ends this Branch of the Mabinogi”. In Welsh, mab means ‘son’ or ‘boy’ or ‘youth’, so she concluded that mabinogi meant ‘a story for children’ and (erroneously) that mabinogion was its plural.  Another possibility is that it comes from the proposed Welsh mabinog meaning something like ‘bardic student’.

The stories now included in the Mabinogion are found in two manuscripts, the older White Book of Rhydderch (c.1300–1325) and the later Red Book of Hergest (c.1375–1425) and Lady Charlotte Guest used only the latter as her source, though later translations have drawn on both books.

The first four tales, called The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, are divided into Pwyll, Branwen, Manawydan and Math and each of these includes the character Pryderi. The Mabinogion scholar W.G.Gruffydd suggested that the four branches of the collection represent the birth, exploits, imprisonment and death of Pryderi.

Mabon is mentioned in the Mabinogion story of The Dream of Rhonabwy in which he is described as one of the King’s chief advisors and fights alongside him at the Battle of Badon. His biggest role comes in the story of Culhwch and Olwen (originally from White Book of Rhydderch). In it is the only known reference to Olwen, and Mabon is still a very minor character in the story, which, in brief, is as follows:

 Cylidd Wledig married a woman called Goleuddydd (‘bright day’) who became pregnant, but went mad. Her son Culhwch (‘pig sty’) was born in a pig-sty, his mother dying soon afterwards, and raised in secret by a swineherd until he came of age. 

Meanwhile, Cilydd killed King Doged, taking his widow, daughter and land as his own. Cilydd’s new queen invited Culhwch to court when she learned of his existence and suggested that he should marry her daughter, thus guaranteeing succession to the throne for both sides of the family. Culhwch refused, and this offended the queen so greatly that she put a curse on him – that he would marry no one but Olwen, the daughter of the fearful Ysbaddaden Pencawr (‘hawthorn’), king of giants.

Culhwch became intrigued with the tales of Olwen’s beauty – it was said that her hair was as yellow as the broom, her fingers pale as wood anemones and her cheeks the colour of roses, white flowers springing up in her footprints wherever she walked (hence her name which means ‘white track’). He became determined to win her. Advised by his father, he sought the help of his cousin King Arthur. Happy to help, Arthur sent out scouts to search for the maiden, but after a year they had found no sign of Olwen. Cei then suggested to Culhwch that they should look for themselves, and Arthur appointed several fine heroes to accompany them including Bedwyr, Gwrhyr and Gwalchmei.

The group reached the house of a shepherd, whose wife – the sister of Culhwch’s mother – advised them to give up their quest as all men who looked for Olwen were never seen again. However, on seeing that they were determined, she admitted that every Saturday Olwen came to her house to wash her hair. Culhwch waited and upon seeing Olwen, fell instantly in love.

His love was reciprocated by Olwen, but she warned him that her father Ysbaddaden was fated to die when she married and so discouraged suitors by setting them a series of impossible tasks before he would give his consent. Undeterred, Culhwch and his men followed Olwen to her father’s castle, attacked it by stealth, killing the nine porters and the nine watchdogs in the process, and entered the giant’s hall. Outraged, Ysbaddaden attempted to kill Culhwch with a poison dart, but was outwitted and wounded, first by Bedwyr, then by the enchanter Menw, and finally by Culhwch himself. Eventually, he agreed to give Culhwch his daughter on the condition that he completed thirty-nine impossible tasks (anoethau or ‘wonders’), including hunting the Twrch Trwyth (an Irish king who has been turned into a boar along with his seven sons ‘the young pigs’) and recovering the prisoner, Mabon son of Modron, the only man able to hunt the dog Drudwyn, in turn the only dog who could track the Twrch Trwyth. The final undertaking was to cut the hair and beard of the giant himself.

The first task was to find Wrnach the giant, whose sword was needed to kill Twrch Trwyth. When they found Wrnach, Cei tricked him into handing his sword over for sharpening, and beheaded him with it. 

The next task was the search for Mabon ap Modron, who was imprisoned in a watery Gloucester dungeon. Arthur’s cousin Mabon had been taken from his mother Modron when he was only three nights old and no one knew whether he was alive or dead. Now Gwrhyr knew all the languages of the birds and the beasts, so when they came to the oldest known creature, the Blackbird of Cilgwri, Gwrhyr asked the bird about Mabon’s whereabouts, but the bird replied that though it had been there so long it had worn away its beak on a smith’s anvil, it knew nothing of Mabon, and directed them to a creature older than itself, the Stag of Rhedynfre. Again Gwrhyr asked about Mabon but the stag replied that it had roamed the plain since the first oak sapling had grown to become an oak of one-hundred branches, but had never heard of Mabon, and sent them to the even older Owl of Cwm Gwlwyd. The owl said it had been around long enough to see the wooded glen uprooted twice and a third forest grown in its place but had never heard of Mabon. It, in turn, directed them to the Eagle of Gwernabwy, who, on being questioned, replied that it was very old and widely travelled, and had pecked stars from a rock each night, so that now the rock was a span high, but knew nothing of Mabon. The eagle sent them to the oldest creature of all: the great Salmon of Llyn Llyw.

The salmon recalled hearing of Mabon, and told them that as he swam daily by the wall of Caer Loyw, he heard a constant lamentation. The salmon took Cei and Gwrhyr upon his back to the castle, and they heard Mabon’s cries bewailing his fate. Mabon could not be ransomed, so seeing that force was the only answer, the knights fetched Arthur and his war band to attack the castle. Riding on the salmon’s back, Cai broke through the wall and collected Mabon, both fleeing on the back of the salmon.

Later in the tale, Mabon mounted on his steed Gwynn Mygdwn (Fair Dun-mane) and pursued the Twrch Trwyth into the river Severn and snatched the shears, comb and razor that lay between his ears, and Twrch was driven into the sea and drowned.

Finally, Arthur himself killed the Black Witch, taking her blood to soften the beard of Ysbaddaden. With these tools, Culhwch cut Ysbaddaden’s hair and shaved his beard to the bone. Ysbaddaden died, allowing Culhwch and Olwen to get married.

Mabon is named as one of the ‘Three Exalted Prisoners of the Island of Britain’, stolen when he was only three days old “from between his mother’s side and the wall,” in one translation.

The three exalted prisoners of Britain were Llyr Half Speech (possibly the Llyr who was the father of Manannan the sea god), Mabon son of Modron and Gwair son of Geirioedd who was bound by a heavy blue chain in the underworld.

Let us suppose for a moment that the god Maponus and the literary hero Mabon are one and the same. We must remember that all the evidence points to Maponus being the young sun god, his youth meaning that he would represent the morning sun or the sun newly reborn after the winter solstice. His theft from his mother after three days would make sense in this light – the three days being the three days the sun stands still at the winter solstice. The imprisonment of the young god underground equates to the sun in the underworld before he is ‘released’ to begin his reign as the new sun. In Culhwch and Olwen, Mabon is said to be imprisoned inside a tower in Gloucester, from which he is freed by Cei and Bedwyr in order to go hunt the Twrch Trwyth. The ‘missing sun’ or ‘imprisoned sun’ is a premise found in the solar myths of many cultures to explain the night or the shorter days of winter, especially those around the three days of the winter solstice. Such tales often include themes of captivity or the theft of the sun (i.e. the god or object that represents it) and its rescue by a band of heroes, such as Jason and the Argonauts rescuing the Golden Fleece (the sun) from the dragon or the Lithuanian sun goddess Saule, was held in a tower by powerful king, rescued by the zodiac using a giant sledgehammer, or the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu hiding in a cave.

An earlier source that mentions Mabon is the tenth century poem Pa Gur, in which Arthur recounts the great deeds of his knights in order to gain entrance to a fortress guarded by Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr. In this, Arthur describes Mabon fab Madron as one of his men, and says that Mabon is a servant of Uther Pendragon. A second Mabon is mentioned, Mabon fab Mellt (‘Mabon Son of Lightning’) and this is interesting, since the sky/storm god is often the father of the sun god in myth, as Zeus is the father of Apollo.

Mabon defeats the monstrous boar, and in myth the boar is often a symbol of winter and the underworld, just as the sun after the winter solstice defeats winter. Mabon then is the divine sun-child born at the winter solstice and this is his festival – he is not the aged god of the harvest or the seed in the ground as Kore is in Greek myth. As Sorita d’Este says:

“Honour Mabon as a Wizard, a Merlin type figure, as the oldest of men and beasts, honour him as the Son of the Mother, and a hero – don’t take that away from him by ignorantly using his name as if it is a different word for Autumn Equinox.  If you really believe that the Old Gods of these lands still live, that they should be honoured and respected, then do that.  Don’t join the generations who tried to belittle the Gods in an effort to diminish their power.”[1]

 

[1]              http://sorita.co.uk/goatssheep

 

CIDER VINEGAR

Raw cider vinegar is full of enzymes, vitamins, probiotics and minerals that pasteurised cider vinegars do not have, as they are destroyed by the heating process. All the healing benefits you have read about with cider vinegar are absent from processed products. If you have ever tried to buy it you will know that it is expensive compared to the heavily processed kind you get in the supermarket. Luckily, it is really easy to make!

 

  1. Take a large, wide necked jar. Sterilise it.
  2. Wash and chop your apples including the cores and peel (you can make this recipe just using the cores and peel after making an apple pie!), but remove the stalks. A mixture of different varieties makes a better tasting cider vinegar, but don’t worry if you can’t manage this.
  3. Put them in the jar, making sure it is half to three quarters filled.
  4. Cover them with water that has been boiled and cooled to lukewarm.
  5. Stir in a little sugar or honey to help the fermentation process.
  1. Cover the jar. When making wine, we use an airlock to keep out the bacteria that will cause it to turn to vinegar, but when making vinegar we actually want to encourage them, so instead the jar is just covered with cheesecloth secured with an elastic band.
  2. Stir daily for a week. It will begin to bubble and ferment from the natural yeasts in the apples, and you will be able to smell this happening.
  3. Strain out the apple pulp
  4. Return the liquid to the jar and cover again with cheesecloth. Leave in a warm, dark place for 4-6 weeks, stirring occasionally. The alcohol will transform into acetic acid or vinegar. A small amount of sediment will fall to the bottom, and what is called a ‘mother culture’ of dark foam will form on top – don’t worry about this, it is normal.
  5. Taste it to determine if it is ready starting after 4 weeks as it will get stronger the longer you leave it, and you can choose how you like it.
  6. Strain once more in clean glass jars or bottles. Store out of direct sunlight. Don’t worry if another mother culture forms on top, it isn’t going bad. Just strain again.

© Anna Franklin, from The Hearth Witch’s Compendium published by Llewellyn, 2017

Aconite

With the turning of the year, thoughts turn to darker things…

Aconite [Aconite sp.] belongs to the family Ranunculaceae and should not be confused with winter aconite Eranthis hiemalis, which is not a true aconite. It was originally native to Europe, Asia and North America, thriving in windy mountainous regions and moist pastures. Aconite can be found growing wild in damp or shady places such as alder groves, and along stream courses, ditches or in highland meadows. Aconites need a fertile moist soil, preferably in sun or partial shade.  They may be propagated by division, but it is worth remembering that they do not like to be moved once established and seeds should be sown in spring where the plant is to grow.

There are more than 100 species, varying in height from 2-6 feet [60-1000 cm], all having dark green leaves which are glossy above, whitish green beneath and usually lobed.  The flowers, borne in loose erect clusters in shades of blue, purple, yellow or white in high summer, are designed specifically to attract bees, especially bumble bees.  The sepals, one of which is in the shape of a hood are purple, a colour bees particularly love.  The petals consist of two hammer shaped nectaries within the hood. The erect stem is covered with soft down and the fleshy taproot puts out new daughter roots annually. Regardless of species, all parts contain the toxic alkaloid, aconitine in varying amounts, mainly concentrated in the tuberous roots, which are pale coloured when young, developing a dark or sometimes black skin as the root matures. Some popular species are:

A. charmichaelii. Grows to 3 feet [ 1m] and has dark green deeply divided leaves. The blue-purple flowers come out in summer.

A. lycocctonum grows to a height of 4-5 ft [1.2-1.5m] with broadly lobed leaves and fibrous roots. The white to yellow flowers appear in summer. It is called wolfsbane.

A. napellus. contains the best alkaloids. This is a well known garden species which flowers a little later. The leaves are finely cut and divided and the blue, purple, pink or white flowers have well-developed hoods and appear in summer. It is called monkshood.

A. anglicum is the wild variety, flowering in early summer.

A. wilsonii. Is a tall variety, growing to a height of 6 feet [1.8 m].  It has deeply cut leaves and blue flowers which  appear during  late summer/early autumn.

A. paniculatum, A. Japonicum, A. autumnale, A. variegatum, A. pyrenaicum are also cultivated.

CAUTION: The deadly poison aconitine is present in all parts of the plant.  Care should be taken when handling aconites; wear gloves or wash your hands afterwards. It is not advisable to plant aconites in gardens where children and pets may come into contact with them. The poison at first stimulates, causes a burning sensation on the tongue, vomiting, stomach pains and diarrhoea then paralyses the central and peripheral nervous system and finally death.

 LORE:

Aconite is a fatal poison, often causing death within a few minutes, and so the plant’s reputation is a dark one, associated with death, black magic and the underworld. In Anglo-Saxon it was called thung, which simply means a poisonous plant.

Throughout history aconite has been used as a method of murder. In Greek legend when the hero and Minotaur slayer Theseus returned to Athens, he found that the sorceress Medea had become his stepmother. Though his father, King Aegeus, did not recognise him she did, and knew he was the rightful heir to the throne. She grew jealous on behalf of her son Medus, and persuaded Aegeus that Theseus was an assassin. They cunningly invited him to a feast at the newly completed temple of Apollo the Dolphin and Medea prepared a cup containing aconite. As he stepped forward to take the cup, his father knew him by the sword, which hung at his belt, and the assassination was prevented.

It is said that Aristotle once foiled a plot to kill Alexander the Great by means of a woman who had saturated her lips with a lethal dose of aconite. When men became old and useless on the island of Chios they were given aconite to help them on their way. The Emperor Claudius and his son were murdered with aconite, as was Pope Adrian VI. It seems to have been a popular device for removing obstacles in the Middle Ages, when career advancement in the clergy often relied on the death of a superior.

The plant is also called ‘wolfsbane’ as it is said to have been used to poison spears and arrows employed for killing wolves. A further association with wolves comes from the fact that the Scandinavians called it ‘Tyr’s Helm’ [the small flowers look like helmets]. Fenris was the wolf-son of the trickster god Loki. The ferocious and monstrous creature grew apace until the gods were afraid he would over run the world. They decided that he must be bound, but no chain would hold him. Eventually they consulted the dwarfs who fashioned a slender thread, made with the footfall of a cat, the beards of women, the breath of fish and other such impossible and rare ingredients. The gods coaxed Fenris to try the strength of the rope, saying that since he had broken all the other ropes and chains it could not possibly hold him. However, he suspected the trick and said that he would only do so if Tyr, the god of war, put his hand in his mouth while he did so. The brave Tyr agreed and the wolf was bound, but Tyr lost his hand.

Aconite is associated with the underworld for the obvious reason that it causes death. Hecate, the Greek witch goddess, is said to have created aconite from the deadly spittle scattered by Cerberus, the three headed dog who was the guardian of the underworld, when Herakles dragged him out of Tartarus [the underworld] and fought with him on the hill Aconitus in Pontica. Aconite was said to grow at Heracli in Anatolia, which was one of the gateways to the underworld. Aconite was poured as a libation to the ghosts of the men who were sacrificed when the foundations of buildings were laid. It was used in funeral incenses, planted on graves and used for both suicide and euthanasia.

Aconite was known as a witches’ plant and it was believed that it was used to poison the tips of elf bolts, the darts that witches and fairies threw at their victims. In ancient times the Thessalian witches used it in the manufacture of a flying ointment; used to anoint the skin it would cause hallucinations, visions and the sensation of flying. It appears as an ingredient in mediaeval flying ointment recipes. However, the dose of aconite needed to achieve hallucinations falls within the lethal range, and unless the practitioner was very skilled death would probably be the result, and the trip one to the underworld.

It is not known when aconite was introduced into Britain, but it appears in many early herbals. It was grown in monastery gardens and used in the infirmaries as an external oil rub for rheumatism.

The herbalist Gerard described it as venomous and deadly, though he thought it was an antidote against other poisons:

‘…so forcible that the herb only thrown before the scorpion or any other venomous beast, causes them to be without force or strength to hurt, insomuch that they cannot move or stir until the herb be taken away’.

 Ben Jonson in his tragedy Sejanus said:

‘I have heard that aconite

Being timely taken hath a healing might

Against the scorpion’s stroke.’

Christian lore associated aconite with St. Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury born in Glastonbury in 924 AD. He had a dream of the Britain of the future, converted to Christianity, symbolised by a huge tree whose branches were covered with monk’s cowls and which stretched all over Britain. Aconite is sometimes called ‘monkshood’ as the flowers may be seen to resemble monk’s cowls.

MEDICINAL:

Aconite is no longer used in herbal medicine, but is commercially collected for the recovery of aconitine, which is used in pharmaceutical remedies for neuralgia and rheumatism and is still a much valued as a homeopathic remedy. In former times an ointment of aconite was applied externally for rheumatism. Aconitine, is odourless but has a pungent taste and should be stored in a dry place as the highly toxic alkaloids it contains are unstable and change on contact with water.

Parts used: the root

Constituents: alkaloids aconitine, benzaconine, aconine, the alkaloids aconitine, benzaconinine and aconine; starch

 Actions: anodyne, diuretic, diaphoretic, diuretic, diaphoretic,

In 1805, Samuel Hahnemann published a paper on the proving of aconite which became one of the founding drugs of homeopathy. A homeopathic preparation of aconite is used for is used for patients with extreme anxiety, apprehension, with a vivid imagination and many fears, angina, palpitations, rheumatism, shock, tension, facial neuralgia, headaches, piles, and spasmodic croup.

 

Cider Vinegar

Raw cider vinegar is full of enzymes, vitamins, probiotics and minerals that pasteurised cider vinegars do not have, as they are destroyed by the heating process. All the healing benefits you have read about with cider vinegar are absent from processed products. If you have ever tried to buy it you will know that it is expensive compared to the heavily processed kind you get in the supermarket. Luckily, it is really easy to make!

  1. Take a large, wide necked jar. Sterilise it.
  2. Wash and chop your apples including the cores and peel (you can make this recipe just using the cores and peel after making an apple pie!), but remove the stalks. A mixture of different varieties makes a better tasting cider vinegar, but don’t worry if you can’t manage this.
  3. Put them in the jar, making sure it is half to three quarters filled.
  4. Cover them with water that has been boiled and cooled to lukewarm.
  5. Stir in a little sugar or honey to help the fermentation process.
  6. Cover the jar. When making wine, we use an airlock to keep out the bacteria that will cause it to turn to vinegar, but when making vinegar we actually want to encourage them, so instead the jar is just covered with cheesecloth secured with an elastic band.
  7. Stir daily for a week. It will begin to bubble and ferment from the natural yeasts in the apples, and you will be able to smell this happening.
  8. Strain out the apple pulp
  9. Return the liquid to the jar and cover again with cheesecloth. Leave in a warm, dark place for 4-6 weeks, stirring occasionally. The alcohol will transform into acetic acid or vinegar. A small amount of sediment will fall to the bottom, and what is called a ‘mother culture’ of foam will form on top – don’t worry about this, it is normal.
  10. Taste it to determine if it is ready starting after 4 weeks as it will get stronger the longer you leave it, and you can choose how you like it.
  11. Strain once more in clean glass jars or bottles. Store out of direct sunlight. Don’t worry if another mother culture forms on top or a white jelly-like scoby, it isn’t going bad.

© Anna Franklin, from The Hearth Witch’s Compendium published by Llewellyn, 2017

THE WITCH’S FAMILIAR

We are used to stories of witches having familiar spirits. What is not generally realized is that these familiars were often considered to be fairies, whether in the guise of humans, imps or animals such as fairy cats or dogs. Familiars often shared the common names of the local fairies- Robin, Jack, Tom, Hob, Jill, Peg and so on, though in the trial records they were also termed demons and devils. Though familiar spirits are reported in a minority of witch trials, it is a significant minority, and the accounts of meeting the familiars and the witch’s dealings with them, are remarkably consistent. John Beaumont, in 1705 [Historical, Physiological, and Theological Treatise of Spirits] wrote extensively of the popular belief in familiar spirits. Robert Kirk [The Secret Commonwealth] wrote about the common use of familiars by Scottish seers, and in 1654 Durant Hotham claimed that the familiar spirit was a standard magical aid:[i]

“…he was of the sort we call white witches, which are such as do cures beyond the ordinary reasons and deductions of our usual practitioners, and are supposed [and most part of them truly] to do the same by the ministrations of spirits.”[ii]

 Reginald Scot wrote that the witch would heal by means of her charms and familiars. [iii]

In 1646 John Winnick confessed that one Friday he was in his barn when a black shaggy spirit appeared to him, with paws like a bear, though it was smaller than a rabbit. The spirit asked him why he was so unhappy, and John replied that he had lost a sum of money, and the spirit agreed to help him. Stories of gaining a familiar often have similar, common elements- people in trouble or sick people are visited by a fairy who promises them a gift which is then faithfully delivered. The gift is usually one of knowledge- the power to cast spells, make herbal potions and cures and so on- in other words, the power to become a witch.

There is always a price to pay for possessing a fairy familiar. The Belvoir witch Margaret Flower, tried in 1619, said that she promised her familiars to fulfil their needs, in return for which they fulfilled her desires.  The desires of fairies ranged from bowls of milk and offerings of bread, to human company, music and even human blood.

Familiars were often said to drink the blood of their witches, sometimes by nipping or scratching, sometimes from specially formed ‘teats’ on the witch’s body, known as the ‘Devil’s Mark’. Ellen Shepherd, a Huntingdon witch, in 1646 said that she had four familiars in the shape of grey rats, which she fed with blood from her hips, and in return, they granted her ‘all happiness’. In 1645 Thomas Everard, a Suffolk with, said that something like a rabbit asked for his allegiance, and when he gave his consent, it scratched him under the ear and drank his blood.[iv] The Suffolk witch Elizabeth Hubbard [1645] said that three things in the likeness of children said that if she would cleave to them, she would want for nothing. They then scratched her back to make the marks, and afterwards sucked from them.[v] In 1582 Margery Sammon was given two familiars by her mother, two toads called Tom and Robin. Her mother advised her to feed them on milk; otherwise they would want to suck her blood.[vi]  In 1644, a Yarmouth witch claimed that a tall man came to her door in the moonlight, and asked for her hand, and pricked it with a knife so that the blood flowed, and the mark remained for some time afterwards.[vii]

The Irish always advocated leaving out water for fairies at night; otherwise they would be angry and suck sleepers’ blood.  In one story from Glen Rushen, on the Isle of Man, the fairies went onto a house one night to do some baking. The family had put no water out for them; they were heard to say, “We have no water, so we’ll take blood out of the toe of the servant who forgot our water.” From the girl’s blood they mixed their dough and baked their cakes, eating most of them, and poking the rest up under the thatch. The next day the servant-girl fell ill, and remained ill until she was given a piece of the fairy cake that was hidden in the thatched roof.

On other occasions, familiars were simply fed with ordinary food, such as milk, water and chicken. Margaret Moone fed her twelve imps with bread and beer, and Elizabeth Francis fed her familiar on bread and milk. This has direct parallels with the feeding of a shaman’s spirit allies in other cultures. In Malaysia, for example, a Bajang [a spirit/fairy] can be kept as a familiar by a magician who feeds it on eggs and milk.

This is reminiscent of the many stories of fairies being fed in return for their help. Bowls of fresh milk and cream were left by the hearth for brownies and other house fairies, like the German Chimke. Robin Goodfellow’s standard fee was a mess of white bread and milk. Before setting out on a journey, offerings of bread and milk were made to the Fridean, Scottish fairies that guard the roads. In Gotland, offerings of milk, beer and flax seeds were made to the Disma by being poured into a fairy ring.

[i] Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits,

[ii] John Webster, The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, London 1677

[iii] Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft,

[iv] Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits,

[v] Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits,

[vi] The Witch’s Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England and Scotland

Folk-lore,  Oct, 2000  by Emma Wilby

[vii] Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits,

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.