Witches and Fairies

Throughout history, there have been many people who have known and worked with spirits of the kind we now call fairies. Here in Britain, both the ancient Celts and Anglo-Saxons believed in such beings, a faith that has had a lasting legacy up until the present day.  The Celtic name for fairies is sidhe, aword that means a burial mound, hill or earth barrow, since this is where many fairies live. It is said that when the Celts invaded Ireland, the resident people, the Tuatha Dé Danaan who had supernatural powers, were forced to retreat into the hollow hills and were only occasionally seen after that, though people left offerings of meat and milk on their mounds.  They are very tall and thin, eternally young and beautiful in appearance, and generally dressed in white. The Anglo-Saxon term for similar spirits is elf or aelf, a word meaning something like ‘white spirit’, or ‘shining spirit’. They are tall and beautiful and shine with a kind of inner light. They also live in mounds, and people left offerings, called elf blots, of meat and milk on the mounds for them.

Fairies are said to inhabit a kingdom we call Fairyland, Elphame, or the Otherworld. This realm is not separate from ours, but overlays it, unseen except in special circumstances. Fairies are occasionally glimpsed in our world, but usually only in the blink of an eye or on the edge of dreams. However, there are places where the two worlds sometimes meet; natural power spots, bridges between the worlds where people have occasionally slipped from the everyday world into Fairyland, perhaps walking into the mist between two old stones, or stepping accidentally into a fairy ring, only to find themselves in a kingdom where it is always summer, where the orchards bear apples and flowers at the same time, and where death and old age are unknown.

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 wildfolk. 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 fairies, 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. They inherited the mantle of the old Druids and the ancient priests and priestesses of the Pagan world, who became the witches and fairy doctors of later ages. 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 similar 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.

The old witches worked their magic in conjunction with fairies, and there is plenty of evidence for this in the 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.

In the 1600s, in the North of England, a man was taken into court on charges of witchcraft. He claimed to use a powder to heal sicknesses and offered to lead the gentlemen of the court to the fairy hill where he obtained the medicine. He had discovered the hill when he was destitute and agonising about how to feed his wife and children. A lovely woman had appeared to him and advised him that if he followed her counsel, he would get a good living from it. She led him to a little hill and knocked on it three times. The hill opened and they went in, coming to a fair hall, where a fairy queen sat in great state, with many people about her. She gave him a box full of white powder and taught him how to use it by giving two or three grains to any who were sick, which would heal them. The Judge asked whether the place within the hill, which he called a hall, were light or dark, and the accused replied it was like twilight. Being asked how he got more powder, he said that when he wanted it, he went to that hill and knocked three times, and said every time “I am coming, I am coming”, whereupon it opened.  Going in, he was conducted by the beautiful lady to the queen. The outraged judge said that if he were judged guilty, he would have him whipped all the way to the fairy hall, but the jury, since he had cured many with his white powder, acquitted him.  Similar stories of witches gaining their powers from fairies were told over and over again all around Britain.

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.

In 1588 Alison Pearson was condemned for ‘haunting and repairing with the Good Neighbours and the Queen of Elphame’. It seems that the Fairy Queen sent messengers to summon likely witches. In 1670, Jean Weir said that when she kept a school at Dalkeith a tall woman came to her house. She had a child upon her back and two at her feet. The woman desired that Jean should employ her to negotiate on her behalf with the Fairy Queen. This was how Jean first became involved in witchcraft. Her brother Major Weir offered himself up and was executed as a witch in Edinburgh, refusing all attempts to convert him. In 1576 Bessie Dunlop stated that as she lay in childbed, a stout woman came and sat down beside her, comforted and drank with her. The coven leader told her that it was the Queen of Elphame, his mistress.

The old British witches called their supernatural mistress the Fairy Queen and it was she who led the Sabbat. Similarly, many Italian witches believed in the historical existence of a woman [or goddess] named Aradia, who brought about a revival of Italian witchcraft, travelling the country and preaching the old Pagan religion of Diana, whom they called Queen of the Fairies. There was a Rumanian Pagan sect known as the Callusari who, during the Middle Ages, worshipped a mythical empress who they sometimes called “Arada” [possibly Aradia] naming her as Queen of the Fairies. The Cǎlluşari dancers were the followers of the Fairy Queen, and their dances were thought to have originated in the Otherworld. Similar Macedonian dance troops were called Rusalia or ‘Fairies’. Like fairies, they were responsible for bringing fertility to the land.

The Italian carnival society of the Cavallino assembled under the banner of Erodiade, a name for the Queen of the Fairies, possibly synonymous with the witch goddess Herodias. The society grew to prominence in the Middle Ages, appearing in processions, pantomimes and healing sessions, but may have had a very ancient, Pagan origin. It was exclusively male, its members dressed in women’s clothes and wore make up. They always gathered in odd numbers, such as seven or nine or eleven. The Catholic Church persecuted them as Pagans who worshipped the goddess Diana.

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. The spirits were as much a part of the land as the animals that lived upon it, the birds that flew above it and the fish that swan in the sea, and equally essential for its life, wellbeing and growth. Shrines to these beings were scattered across the countryside. Special trees were protected by fences and decorated with garlands. People made offerings on stones, at wells and rivers. Every sacred place had a spiritual guardian and a human guardian on whose land it happened to stand.

However, in the Christian world view, trees, rocks and stones have no spirit, no consciousness, and those who made offerings to the fairies within were deluded. 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 folklore and folk practice to the present day in the shape of a belief in fairies.  

In Christian doctrine, any spirit that is neither saint nor angel is considered demonic in origin, and fairies are included under this heading.According to one Irish belief, those angels that were cast out of heaven for their pride became fairies. Some fell to earth and dwelled there long before man; others fell into the sea and became water fairies. Others fell into hell where the devil commands them. They dwell under the earth and tempt humans into evil, teaching witches how to make potions, spells, and enchantments. King James I’s book Daemonologie equated fairies with devils in no uncertain terms and advised people who had them in their homes to get rid of them immediately. Writing in 1701 the Orkney vicar Rev. John Brand said that fairies were evil spirits seen dancing and feasting in wild places. English Puritan writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries believed all fairies were devils.

If people worked with fairies, it was considered that they had renounced their Christian faith, something often reiterated in the trial records. In 1670 Jean Weir confessed that she had performed a ritual at the bidding of a fairy so that all her troubles would depart. Afterwards she found that she had wonderful ability with spinning, but this made her afraid, and she stayed indoors for twenty days weeping, because she thought that what she had done in working with a fairy was, in effect, a renunciation of her baptism. 

 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. It is often the practice of a new religion to demonize the gods and spirits of the old, rival religion. Sometimes the feeling was mutual, and in the nineteenth century, when at sea, fishermen on the Moray Firth would never mention such words as ‘church’ or ‘minister’. Any utterance suggestive of the new faith would be displeasing to the ancient spirits of the ocean and might bring disaster upon the boat.

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. The future witch or shaman may be the lonely child who hovers on the edge of social groups, misunderstood by those around them because he or she is different, seeing things, hearing things, aware of things that others are not. This is reflected in fairy tales where it is always the orphan or the outcast who contacts the fairy or witch, and who has the adventures.

People who see the fairies are often called ‘fey’ themselves, i.e. fairylike. It was not unknown for seers to have some fairy blood in their veins. It was rumoured that fairies and humans often mated; preachers even denounced human and fairy liaisons from the pulpit. The offspring of such marriages were always wild and strange, their beautiful eyes and bold, reckless temperaments betraying their fairy blood. They were mystics and possessed second sight, or they became legendary warriors, bards or musicians. Many famous people are thought to have had one mortal and one Otherworldly parent, including Alexander the Great, the Queen of Sheba and Merlin. Even Shakespeare was said to have been part fairy. It is said that people with fairy blood are passionate, sensitive and psychic, and if they find their true path may develop into the artists, poets, seers, shamans and witches of our world: indeed, the heritage is sometimes called the ‘witch blood’.

Today people who see fairies and spirits are often derided as delusional, but in the past such people were highly honoured. 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] We have already seen that witches derive their powers from fairy spirits, and this may follow a shamanic initiation, whereby a sickness or other desperate situation opens up the Otherworld of spirits to the witch. 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.

In 1623 Scottish witch Isobel Haldane claimed that as she lay in her bed she was taken forth and carried to a hillside, the hill opened and she entered inside. She stayed for three days with the fairy folk, until she was delivered from Fairyland by a man with a grey beard. 

One tale that describes an Otherworld initiation is that of Thomas the Rhymer. He had beenplaying 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 a walker between the worlds.

© Anna Franklin


[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

June, the Month of Glory

June comes and light blazes across the land. Now is the time of brightness and warmth when the Sun God stands in all his glory, with long days and short nights. According to the early chronicler Bede, the Anglo Saxons called the month Litha,[1] which probably means ‘light’. Basking in the light of Father Sun, Mother Earth is in the full flush of her maturity, soft and ample; foliage is lush and the perfume of flowers fills the air. The crops have been planted and are growing away nicely, the young animals have been born. The hay fields stand tall, shivering in the summer breeze, ready for haymaking.  Winter seems far away. We unsurprisingly feel more joyful and want to spend more time in the open air – it is a natural time of celebration.

The name ‘June’ comes from Juno, the Roman goddess of women, marriage and childbirth, wife of the sky god Zeus. Her name is derived from the Latin name iuvenis (as in juvenile) which was used to indicate a young woman ready for a man, and probably refers to the ripening of the crops. This month the Sun and Earth consummate their union and the seed of fire kindles the Earth to swell with fruit so that autumn and harvest can come in turn. In Scots Gaelic, it was An t’Og mhios, the young month, while in the Slavonic languages it was named as the linden month and the rose-blossoming month. [2]

In the northern hemisphere, the summer solstice falls this month. It marks the zenith of the Sun, the longest day. The word ‘solstice’ is derived from Latin and means ‘sun stands still’. For three days around the winter and summer solstices, the sun appears to rise and set at almost exactly the same place, so it seems to be standing still on the horizon.  However, while the date of the solstice varies between 19-23 June, the official calendar ‘Midsummer’ is pegged to 24 June, which is St. John’s Day in the Christian almanac, and to which the earlier Pagan festivities of the solstice were appropriated. 

Every ancient religion had its own customs and traditions associated with the summer solstice, and they date back into pre-history. Midsummer was – and still is – an important festival for those who live in the far north. There are many folk customs associated with it, most of which celebrate the light and encourage the power of the Sun with sympathetic magic in the form of bonfires, rolling wheels, circle dances and torchlight processions.

Midsummer fires once blazed all across Europe and North Africa, and were believed to have the power to protect the revellers from evil spirits, bad fairies and wicked witches, as well as warding off the powers of blight, disease and death. In England, every village would have its own fire, while in towns and cities the mayor and corporation actually paid for its construction, and the jollities accompanying it were often very elaborate. Large bonfires were lit after sundown, and this was known as ‘setting the watch’ to ward off evil spirits.  Men and women danced around the fires and often jumped through them for good luck, and afterwards a smouldering branch was passed over the backs of farm animals to preserve them from disease. As late as 1900 at least one old farmer in Somerset would pass a burning branch over and under all his horses and cattle. [3] The Cornish even passed children over the flames to protect them from sickness in the coming year.

Instances of wheel rolling were recorded right into the twentieth century. In the Vale of Glamorgan (Wales) a large cartwheel was swathed with the straw and set alight and the wheel rolled downhill. If the fire went out before it reached the bottom, this indicated a good harvest.[4]

Torches would be lit at the bonfire and these would be carried inside the milking parlour to keep milk and butter safe from evil magic, then around the fields and growing crops as a protection and blessing. The ashes of the bonfires were scattered in the corn as an aid to fertility.[5] In towns, some of these torchlight processions reached lavish proportions. Garland-bedecked bands of people, sometimes called a marching watch, carried cressets (lanterns on poles) as they wandered from one bonfire to another. Often morris dancers attended them, with players dressed as unicorns, dragons and hobby-horses.

Midsummer was a potent time for magic and divination. The twelfth century Christian mystic Batholomew Iscanus declared ‘He who at the feast of St. John the Baptist does any work of sorcery to seek out the future shall do penance for fifteen days.’ [6] More recently, young girls would use the magic of the season to divine their future husbands. According to one charm a girl should circle three times around the church as midnight strikes saying: Hemp seed I sow, Hemp seed I hoe,/ Hoping that my true love will come after me and mow. Looking over her shoulder she should see a vision of her lover following her with a scythe. 

The raising of the midsummer tree, identical to the maypole, is a midsummer custom found in many areas, including Wales, England and Sweden. It was decorated with ribbons and flowers, and topped by a weathercock with gilded feathers, the cock being a bird of the Sun. 

It was the tradition for people watch the Sun go down on St. John’s Eve, then to stay awake for the entire length of the short night and watch the Sun come up again. In the sixteenth century John Stow of London described street parties when people set out tables of food and drink which they invited their neighbours to share, made up their quarrels, lit bonfires and hung their houses with herbs and small lamps.[7]

In Britain it was the custom to visit holy wells just before sunrise on Midsummer’s Day. The well should be approached from the east and walked round sunwise three times. Offerings, such as pins or coins were thrown into the well and its water drunk from a special vessel. [8]

The magic of June is concerned with light, fire, warmth and growth, the heat and light of Father Sun bringing Mother Earth to bear fruit.

© Anna Franklin 2020

Illustration by Paul Mason


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

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

[3] R.L.Tongue, Somerset Folklore, Folklore Society, 1965

[4] Marie Trevelyan, Folk Lore and Folk Stories of Wales, 1909

[5] This has a scientific basis- wood ash provides a high potash feed for plants.

[6] Mediaeval Handbooks of Penance, ed. J.T.McNeill & H. M. Garner, New York, 1938

[7] A Survey of London, ed. C.L. Kingsford, Oxford, 1908

[8] F. Marian McNeill, The Silver Bough, Cognate Classics, Edinburgh, n/d

The Magical Birch Tree

After the glaciers of the last Ice Age receded, birch was one of the first trees to re-colonise the land. Though it is a slender and graceful tree, it is amazingly resilient, and rarely has one species of tree been so important to so many different peoples. Our ancestors used it to make shelters, canoes and coracles, fibre, medicine, ‘paper’, magic and even brewed wine and beer from it.

As it is one of the first trees to come into leaf in the spring, it is associated with regeneration and new beginnings. In Scandinavia the appearance of leaves marked the beginning of the agricultural year and the farmers took it as a sign to sow their spring wheat. In the Northern tradition the birch (Beorc, Byarka, or Berkana) is a symbol of Mother Earth and represents the feminine powers of growth, healing and the natural world. May poles were made of birch, associating the birch with the May Day revels of sympathetic fertility magic.

The white bark of the birch also connects it with purification. The Anglo-Saxon name for the tree was beorc means ‘white’ or ‘shining’. Birch rods are used in country ritual for the driving out of the old year. Another possible derivation is the Latin ‘batuere‘ meaning ‘to strike’, referring to the birch rods use for flogging.

Birch is considered a protective tree, believed to guard those who carried a piece of it, and to keep livestock safe when attached to their barn or shelter. In some parts of England a birch was hung with red and white rags and leant against stable doors at Beltane (May Day) to prevent horses being ‘hag-ridden’, i.e. being taken out by spirits or witches and ridden.

The leaves, bark, twigs are all used medicinally.

Birch contains the natural pain reliever and anti-inflammatory salicylate, the same compound found in aspirin. This is especially useful for arthritic conditions and muscle pain. You can prepare a poultice of fresh bark and apply it directly (the inner bark against the skin) to the affected areas, or make macerated oils of the leaves or bark to apply externally. This will help to relieve both the pain and inflammation of arthritis. These same salycilates in the bark make an effective wart treatment.

As birch is a blood purifier, a decoction of the twigs or bark can be helpful when used as a wash for boils and sores. Make a tincture of birch buds for the treatment of small wounds and cuts. This has antibacterial, antiviral and cell regenerative qualities.  A decoction or macerated oil made from the bark or leaves is antibacterial and anti-inflammatory and useful for skin conditions such as eczema. Use as a skin wash or add to the bath.

Birch bark and leaves are diuretic, with the added benefit of being anti-bacterial. Taken as a decoction they help to eliminate excess fluid and toxins from the body which can help with arthritic conditions, urinary tract infections, cystitis and help to dissolve kidney stones.

The young shoots and leaves are used as a laxative, but the bark is useful in the treatment of diarrhoea.

The betulin compound found in birch bark is under investigation as a treatment for the herpes viruses, AIDS, and cancer.

An essential oil of birch bark is available. This pale yellow oil has a balsamic scent, and is extracted from the leaf-buds by steam distillation. Birch oil is good for dermatitis, dull skin, eczema and psoriasis, and also eases the pain of arthritis, rheumatism and sore muscles.  Birch oil blends well with benzoin, sandalwood and rosemary. However, it should be used with caution and highly diluted, and never when pregnant.

In magic birch is used for protection, purification, against negativity, love, new beginnings, changes, Ostara and Beltane.  It is associated with Aphrodite, Freya, Brigantia, Brighid, the Earth Mother, Thor, Frigga, Idunna, Nethus, Persephone, Sif and Venus.  It is ruled by the planet Venus, the element of water and the sign of Cancer.

Birch represents the power of cleansing and purification in preparation for the new beginnings. When the tree is opened to extract the sweet sap the essence of the tree is released to give its power to the waxing year and the strengthening sun at the vernal equinox, when the light begins to gain on the dark. This can form part of the ritual of Ostara. Honour the sun god with birch sap wine the following year.

Birch Sap Wine

8 pints birch sap (Betula spp.)

½ lb. raisins

2 lb. sugar

Juice of 3 lemons

Yeast

Boil the sap and add the sugar. Simmer for 10 minutes. Pour the liquid over the raisins and lemon juice. Cool the mixture to 20oC and add the started yeast. Ferment in a brewing bucket for 3 days, then strain into a demijohn and fit an airlock.

To obtain the sap, bore a small hole into the tree, just inside the bark, and insert a narrow tube, sloping downwards. Sap should start running from the tree (if it doesn’t, it is the wrong time of year). Put the free end of the tube into your container (eg a plastic soda bottle), which you can tie onto the tree.  Don’t take too much from one tree. When you have what you need, remove the tube, put a piece of cork into the borehole, and the birch tree will seal itself after a short while. In very early spring (late February or early March here in the UK, depending on the weather) you should be able to draw off enough sap for a gallon of wine in a day.

 I also came across this old English recipe for birch beer, though I haven’t tried it yet:

“To every Gallon of Birch-water put a quart of Honey, well stirr’d together; then boil it almost an hour with a few Cloves, and a little Limon-peel, keeping it well scumm’d. When it is sufficiently boil’d, and become cold, add to it three or four Spoonfuls of good Ale to make it work…and when the Test begins to settle, bottle it up . . . it is gentle, and very harmless in operation within the body, and exceedingly sharpens the Appetite, being drunk ante pastum.”

 

September, the Month of Completion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Anna Franklin 2020

Photo © Paul Mason

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

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

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

CAN PAGANISM SAVE THE WORLD?

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

© Text and image Anna Franklin

Late August

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© Text and Illustration Anna Franklin, 2020

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

MUGWORT AND MAGIC

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

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

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

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

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

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

MUGWORT INCENSE BUNDLE

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

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

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

 

© Anna Franklin, August 2020

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

Using Your Lavender Flower Bounty

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

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

Lavender Biscuits

2 eggs

115 gm butter

200 gm sugar

½ tsp lavender flowers, ground

200 gm plain flour

2 tsp baking powder

½ tsp salt

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

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

Infused Lavender Oil

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

Lavender Hydrosol

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

Lavender Salve

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

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

Lavender Bags for Linen

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

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

Lavender Gin

500 ml gin

3 sprigs lavender

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

Lavender Tincture

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

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

Lavender Infusion (Tea)

½ cup boiling water

4 tsp. of fresh lavender buds

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

Strain and drink.

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

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

 

© Anna Franklin, August 2020

LUGHNASA , THE TIME OF HARVEST

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

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

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

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

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

Rite for Lughnasa

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

Say:

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

Light the brown candle and say:

Come Great Goddess,

Mother Earth, whose body supports us,

Lady of Life and Lady of Death,

Be welcome here as Queen of the Harvest.

Light the yellow candle and say:

Welcome O Corn Lord,

Golden haired son of Mother Earth,

Lover of the Sovereign Goddess of the land,

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

Take up the bread and say:

The year did spin and spring come round

While our dear Lord lay in the ground

Till rain fell thick upon his bed

And slowly then he raised his head

And grew apace till Midsummer’s Day

When with his flowering bride he lay

But the year does spin and he must die

And as a seed must once more lie

We hunt him down with sharpened sickle

To pierce his heart and see blood trickle

To flay his skin from off his bones

And grind him up between two stones

Our dying Lord has lost his head

But with his death we have our bread.

 

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

 The first of the harvest is always for the Gods.

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

The first of the harvest if for the Gods.

Hold the cup and say:

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

Drink. Take up the bread and say:

The first of the harvest is always for the Gods.

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

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

 Eat some bread.

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

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

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

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

© Anna Franklin 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Black Annis – Leicester’s Own Hag Goddess

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

John Heyrick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REFERENCES

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

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

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

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