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.
The eight seasonal festivals of the modern Pagan year teach us about the great cosmic pattern, showing us the ebb and flow of energy in the manifest world and the spiritual truths which underlie them. At the autumn equinox we experience the death that comes before resurrection. This mystery is exemplified by the myth of Demeter and Persephone and the Rites of Eleusis, for as Cicero said:
For among the many excellent and indeed divine institutions which your Athens has brought forth and contributed to human life, none, in my opinion, is better than those mysteries. For by their means we have been brought out of our barbarous and savage mode of life and educated and refined to a state of civilization; and as the rites are called ‘initiations’, so in very truth we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have gained the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope.
Cicero, Laws II, xiv, 36
The best known story of Demeter concerns her search for her daughter Persephone and it is told in The Hymn to Demeter, attributed to Homer but probably written later in the seventh century BCE to explain the mysteries of Eleusis. It contains a lengthy interlude which explains how Demeter came to Eleusis and established her cult there. It shares the same themes as the Syrian myth of Aphrodite and Adonis, the Phrygian myth of Cybele and Attis and the Egyptian story of Isis and Osiris in which a goddess mourns the loss of a loved one who personifies the vegetation which dies in winter only to revive in spring. d
According to the myth, Hades, the god of the underworld, conceived a passion for the maiden Persephone. With the collusion of his brother Zeus, he abducted Persephone as she picked blood red poppies in a meadow, accompanied by her nymph companions, and took her to dwell with him in his dark realm of the dead.
Knowing nothing of this, Demeter was distraught at the disappearance of her daughter, and disguised herself as an old woman called Doso to search the earth for Persephone.
Eventually, finding no trace of her missing child, she came upon the house of Celeus, king of Eleusis, and his wife Metaneira. Moved by the suffering they saw in the face of the old woman, they bade her be seated, offering her food and drink. However, she sat silently, refusing all nourishment. After much persuasion, she consented to drink a cup of barley meal mixed with water and mint (kykeon). She stayed at Eleusis, becoming the nurse of the king’s young son Demophoon. Under her care he grew as fast as a young god, for Demeter anointed him with ambrosia. Moreover, she planned to make him immortal by burning his mortality from him, placing him each night in the heart of a fire. Metaneira suspected that something strange was happening and kept watch one night. As she saw her son being plunged into the flames, she leapt forward and snatched the child from his nurse. Demeter exclaimed that now, instead of being a god, he would be subject to the whims of death and moira (fate). She threw off her disguise and stood before the king and queen in her true, shining form, and asked that they should build her a temple at Eleusis.
Then the witch goddess Hecate, bearing a torch in her hands, went to Demeter, and confided that she had heard Persephone’s cries as she was abducted. She suggested that Demeter ask Helios, the sun god who sees all things, for news. Helios told her of Hades’ kidnapping of Persephone, and Zeus’ part in it.
Demeter retreated into her temple and remained there, brooding on her loss. The following year, no crops grew. The trees refused to yield fruit and the buds withered on the vine. An endless winter descended on the earth.
Zeus realised that the whole of creation was doomed unless Demeter lifted her curse and sent Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, to plead with her to relent. Demeter refused. One by one, all the immortals visited her but she remained unmoved by any of their entreaties. Zeus finally realised that there was no other remedy but to restore Persephone to her mother and sent Hermes into the underworld to fetch her. However, Hades was unwilling to lose his lovely bride and cunningly offered her a sweet pomegranate as she readied herself to leave. Now he knew full well that anyone who eats the fruit of the underworld is doomed to remain there. Thus it fell that though Persephone was allowed to visit her mother, she was now bound to return. Persephone could spend two thirds of the year with Demeter but the remaining third of the year must be spent with her husband, Hades. From that time Hecate was minister and companion to Persephone.
With Persephone’s return, the earth quickly began to recover. Spring came and the frozen buds blossomed, the earth became green and fertile once more. But when Persephone returns to the underworld, Demeter decrees that barren winter shall cover the earth, but when she emerges in the spring, the earth blossoms in joy.
At Eleusis (‘Advent’) Demeter taught Triptolemus (the brother of Demophoon) the principles of agriculture, which he taught others in turn, and this was how humankind learned how to farm, it was said. ‘I am Demeter, revered by all, the power most useful for gods and men,’ she said, according to the Homeric Hymn.
For two thousand years, the Mysteries of Eleusis were sacred, biannual rituals performed a few miles west of Athens in honour of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone. Large crowds of worshippers made the pilgrimage to the rites from all over Greece, and later from all over the Roman Empire. It is possible that the mysteries evolved from an agrarian cult dating back to the Mycenaean period, and there are parallels with the cults of other grain and earth-mother goddesses of the Near East, such as Cybele and Isis.
Initiation was open to all, Greeks and foreigners (as long as they could speak Greek), men and women, freemen and slaves, only on the condition that they had not committed the sin of murder. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, King Celeus is said to have been one of the first people to learn the secret rites and mysteries of her cult and became one of its first priests, along with Triptolemus his son. Around 300 BCE, the state took over control of the Mysteries and they became controlled by two families, the Eumolpidae and the Kerykes. According to Plato, “the ultimate design of the Mysteries … was to lead us back to the principles from which we descended … a perfect enjoyment of intellectual (spiritual) good.”
In many parts of Greece the rites of Demeter and Persephone remained orgiastic, but in Eleusis they were celebrated as a spiritual mystery. From February 1 to 3 the Lesser Eleusinian mysteries celebrated the return of Persephone from the underworld. The Lesser Mysteries took place in the month of Anthesteria (February) when participants would sacrifice a piglet to Demeter and Persephone and then purify themselves in the River Illisos. Afterwards they were called mystai (‘initiates’) and deemed worthy of witnessing the Greater Mysteries. Each new initiate would receive instructions and guidance from an experienced sponsor or mystagogos. A mystes who returned a second time to Eleusis for induction into the highest levels of esoteric knowledge was known as an epoptes.
Every fifth year for nine days from 23 September the greater Eleusinian Mysteries were celebrated with October 4 marking the departure of Persephone to the underworld. The precise nature of the mysteries is unknown since initiates were forbidden from writing or speaking of it, but an analogy seems to have been made between the resurrection of the corn and the return of Persephone from the underworld with the mystery of death and rebirth.
The first act was the bringing of the sacred objects from Eleusis to the Eleusinion, a temple at the base of the Acropolis. On the day before, the participants would gather in Eleusis and proceed with much pomp to the sanctuary of Demeter in Athens. On the following day the actual festival commenced with the Agyrmos (the gathering), the hierophants (priests or ‘those who show the sacred ones’) declared prorrhesis, the start of the rites, and carried out the hiereía deúro (‘hither the victims’) sacrifice. The halade mystai (‘seawards initiates’) began in Athens with the celebrants washing themselves in the sea at Phaleron to purify themselves and sacrifice a suckling pig in honour of Demeter.
On the fifth day the celebrants went in formal procession from Athens back to Eleusis, swinging branches called bacchoi, bearing the sacred hiera (holy relics) as well as a statue of the boy-god Iacchos. At a certain spot along the way, they shouted obscenities in commemoration of Iambe (or Baubo), an old woman who, by cracking dirty jokes, had made Demeter smile as she mourned the loss of her daughter. The procession also shouted “Íakch’, O Íakche”’ referring to Iacchus.
Upon reaching Eleusis, there was a day of fasting in commemoration of Demeter’s fast while searching for Persephone. The abstinence was broken with a brew made from barley and water mixed with fresh pennyroyal mint leaves. Some scholars have argued that this may have contained a psychedelic agent such as ergot, opium or hallucinogenic mushrooms which would heighten the initiates’ perceptions and explain the transformative experiences they had. Wasson proposed the mushroom Claviceps purpurea as holding the secret to the Eleusinian Mysteries:
“The Greek ekstasis meant the flight of the soul from the body. I am certain that this word came into being to describe the effect of the Mystery of Eleusis. Can you find a better word than that to describe the bemushroomed state?” e
The Greeks called mushrooms the ‘food of the Gods’ (broma theon) and Porphyrius is quoted as having called them ‘nurslings of the Gods’ (theotrophos).
Then the initiates entered a great hall called Telesterion, in the centre of which stood the Anaktoron (‘palace’), which only the hierophants could enter, where the sacred objects were stored. Before mystai could enter the Telesterion, they would recite, “I have fasted, I have drunk the kykeon, I have taken from the kiste (‘box’) and after working it have put it back in the kalathos (‘open basket’)”. Clement of Alexandria wrote that they had to utter the words “I fasted; I drank the kykeon; I took from the kiste; having done my task, I placed in the basket, and from the basket into the kiste”.f
What happened next is not known. The spoken words were followed by secret rites carried out in silence, completing the first part of the initiation. The second phase of the initiation was a spiritual experience. Aristotle commented: “The initiates were not meant to learn anything, but rather, to experience certain emotions and moods.” g However, based on the statements of Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian, it is thought that the Mysteries comprised of three main elements:
The first was called dromena (‘things done’), a dramatic re-enactment of the Demeter/Persephone myth, perhaps with the participants searching for Persephone through passages representing the underworld, followed by the joyful moment of her resurrection shared by the initiates who had shared her experience.
The second element was the deiknumena (‘things shown’), during which the hierophant displayed sacred objects. It is not known what these were, but various theories have suggested wheat ears, bread, a stylised phallus and pudenda, a golden serpent, an egg or seeds sacred to Demeter. The Church Father Hippolytus, writing in the early third century, said that
“The Athenians, while initiating people into the Eleusinian rites, likewise display to those who are being admitted to the highest grade at these mysteries, the mighty, and marvellous, and most perfect secret suitable for one initiated into the highest mystic truths: an ear of corn in silence reaped.”
The Roman Varro interpreted the whole of the Eleusinian mysteries as relating to the corn which Demeter had discovered and to Persephone who, he said, signified the fecundity of the seeds, stolen away by Hades and detained in the underworld. Augustine reported that Varro continued:
“…that many things were taught in her mysteries which had no reference but to the discovery of the corn.” h
The third century Roman theologian Hippolytus of Rome also said that the most complete epoptic mystery was an ear of cut-wheat and wrote that:
“At night in Eleusis, (the Hierophant) appearing in the midst of many fires, proclaims the great and secret mystery, saying, ‘The Holy Brimo has borne a sacred child, Brimos, that is, the mighty has borne the mighty”. i
Finally came the legomena (‘things said’), commentaries that accompanied the deiknumena. Combined, these three elements were known as the apporheta (‘unrepeatables’) and the penalty for divulging them was death. It was for this crime (among others) that Diagoras received the death penalty, while the tragic playwright Aeschylus was allegedly tried for revealing secrets of the Mysteries in some of his plays, but was acquitted.
Following this section of the Mysteries was the Pannychis, an all-night feast accompanied by dancing and merriment. The dances took place in the Rharian Field, rumoured to be the first spot where grain grew. A bull sacrifice also took place late that night or early the next morning. That day the initiates honoured the dead by pouring libations from special vessels, the consecrated liquid flowing in the eastward and westward directions.
The initiates (probably exhausted at this point) would then return to Athens singly or in small groups. There does not appear to have been any organized procession; this was a time for reflection and meditation. Sophocles spoke for the initiates when he said:
“Thrice happy are those of mortals, who having seen those rites depart for Hades; for to them alone is granted to have a true life there. For the rest, all there is evil.”
In 170 CE, the Temple of Demeter was sacked by the Sarmatians but was rebuilt by Marcus Aurelius who was then allowed to become the only lay person to ever enter the anaktoron. Julian, the last Pagan emperor of Rome, was also the last emperor to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. With the growing dominance of Christianity Theodosius I decreed that the sanctuaries should be closed in 392 CE. With the invasion of the Christian Goths four years later, the old sanctuaries were destroyed.
© Anna Franklin, excerpt from Autumn Equinox, History, Lore and Celebration, Lear Books
 (Demeter’s other festivals were 13th and 24th December, while the twelfth day of the waxing moon and the second day of the waning moon were sacred to her.)
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’).
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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  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,
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.
In the ancient world, the constellations of Orion and Canis Major (especially the Dog Star, Sirius) were calendar markers for planting and reaping. Sirius, the Dog Star, sets in the west in spring and is absent from the sky for seventy days, then its heliacal (just before dawn) rising in the east marked the beginning of the Dog Days when the sun was said to burn at its most fierce and rainfall to be at its lowest level. The Old Farmer’s Almanac of 1792 lists the timing of the Dog Days as the days beginning July 3rd and ending on August 11th (Old Lughnasa), and they are traditionally listed as such in the present day. They are a period of desiccating heat, when summer growth and moistness ends, and the sun dries the corn ready for harvesting, ushering in the Autumn and the gathering of the First Fruits.
Sirius (‘Scorching Star’) is the brightest star in the sky, and lies in the constellation of Canis Major, the ‘Greater Dog’ which, along with Canis Minor the ‘Little Dog’, follows the constellation of Orion the hunter across the sky, helping him pursue Lepus the Hare or confront Taurus the Bull. Canis Major has been associated with dogs from the earliest times. The ancient Assyrians called the Dog Star the ‘Dog of the Sun’ or ‘Star Dog of the Sun’. The Assyrian month of Abu (July-August) signified ‘fiery hot’ because the sun was in Leo and therefore raging like a lion.
The Romans sacrificed a red-coloured dog in May, when Sirius disappears for seventy days below the western horizon, to ensure the health of the forthcoming crops. The hottest part of the year, which dried the grain ready for harvesting, they called the dies cani cultriac or ‘Dog Days’. They thought that Sirius was a distant sun (the central sun of the Milky Way, in fact) which during the Dog Days rose with our sun to add its own heat, making the weather unbearable. Its influence was considered baneful and malign. Pliny wrote that Sirius burned with “…a bright fire and sheds a killing light’ and went on to say that ‘this is the constellation which has the most widespread effects on earth. At its rise the seas are rough, wine in the cellars bubbles, marshes are stirred.”  Aristotle said “…this is a period of great upheaval when the sea is extremely rough and amazing catches are made, when fish and mud rise to the surface.” 
Hesiod described it as ‘a desiccating sun’, burning up plants and making the seeds in the earth sterile by depriving them of food. Animals die of thirst, vines are burned and humans are prostrated with fevers and illness, especially siriasis (a type of meningitis which attacks young children). According to these ancients, the Dog Days are a time of cruel heat when men’s skins are burned and their throats parched with thirst. Those afflicted with hydrophobia were said to have been driven mad by Sirius. In fact, the Greeks imagined the constellation of Canis Major in the form of a rabid dog with its tongue lolling and its eyes bulging. The astronomer Manilius said: “…such is the heat diffused among the constellations, and everything is brought to a halt by a single star.” He went on to relate how the heat brought out the worst in people, with anger, hatred and fear, impetuosity, frayed tempers and arguments, all fanned by alcohol.
It was during this time that the Adonia Festival was celebrated in Greece, as Theophrastus said ‘when the sun is at its most powerful’. During the festival women would plant small gardens – called Gardens of Adonis and dedicated to the vegetation god – in clay pots or wicker baskets. These were composed of wheat, barley, fennel and lettuces. The women would climb ladders up to their rooftops, thereby placing the little gardens as close to the sun as they could. During this time of year the great heat gives an impetus to a plant’s growth, but this can become leggy and spindly with the plant outgrowing its strength, while young shoots wither in dryness. The gardens were left to grow for only eight days to come to maturity, in contrast to the eight months taken by the cereal crop under the auspices of the goddess Demeter. At the culmination of the festival the gardens were taken from the roofs and cast in to the sea or into springs. Thereafter August was sacred to the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone.
In Norse myth the Dog Star Sirius is called Lokabrenna (‘the Burning of Loki’ or ‘Loki’s Brand’). Sif was the wife of Thor, the god of thunder. She had beautiful golden hair until Loki cut it all off for a prank. Thor was so angry that he wanted to kill the trickster, but Loki was able to persuade the dwarfs to make some magical hair for Sif, which once it touched her head, would grow like her own hair. It is clear that Sif’s hair is the golden corn, which is cut and regrows with the next year, making her a corn or harvest goddess. Her husband is the thunder god who brings the fertilizing rain to the earth in the summer, to make the corn grow. Loki, usually described as a god of wildfire and heat, is associated here with Sirius and the heat of the Dog Days, which causes the ripening and subsequent cutting of the grain.
The Feast of St. Christopher falls on 25th July. He is the patron saint of travellers, portrayed in the Eastern Church as a man with the head of a dog. He has two festivals on May 9th (in the Eastern Church) and July 25th (in the Western church) and these dates correspond to the setting and rising of Sirius, the Dog Star. This suggests an interesting Pagan origin for the Christian saint who carried the Christ Child across a raging river in a storm, and thus he became the patron of travellers who often wear St Christopher medals for protection.
In ancient Egypt, Sirius was the main seasonal marker which mobilised the whole calendar.  In contrast to elsewhere, the Egyptians thought its heliacal rising after its absence from the sky for seventy days brought the Nile inundation, the annual floods which carried rich alluvial mud for planting, and began the Egyptian year in the month Wep-renpet, ‘Opener of the Year’. They thought of Sirius as a feminine sun which added its own power to the usual sun, and the festivities at the Temple of Hathor in Dendera were chiefly concerned with the birth of this new sun. People would gather on the roof of the temple to see her rise with the sun Ra, sitting on the prow of his solar boat and uniting her rays with his as they melted into the dawn light. The Egyptians called the star Septit  (or Sothis in the Greek form), titled ‘the Water Bringer’ and identified it with Isis. During the festivities at Dendera, a statue of Isis/Hathor was carried up to the roof to face Sirius and the rising sun. Isis appears in the Pyramid Texts as the chief mourner for her husband, the vegetation god Osiris (identified with the constellation Orion), whom she brought back to life with magic. The rising of Sothis was considered to be the goddess coming to mourn her husband and revive him (as corn god) with the flooding of the Nile.
Sirius disappears from the sky for seventy days before its heliacal rising. This marked its death and rebirth and re-started the calendar. The Egyptians noted that every ten days one of the thirty six decans (the stars that kept the calendar, chosen because they followed the same pattern as Sirius) disappeared into the west and remained unseen for a period of time before reappearing with the dawn in the east. As one ‘died’ another was ‘reborn’ every ten days, according to Papyrus Carlsburg 1. During the period the star was missing, it was said to have entered the Duat (‘Embalming House’) or netherworld, where its impurities were shed, preparing it for rebirth.  The Egyptian mummification process took seventy days, the period of time the decans spent in the Duat.
Of all the stars only the heliacal rising of Sirius coincides with the length of our solar year of 365.25 days. Each year it started time – and therefore order, the seasons and creation – and because of this it was sometimes linked with the benu bird of creation. The benu had alighted on the primordial mound which had emerged from the elemental waters, the only place not submerged and when it flew away, the sun rose for the first time and brought light and life to the world, just as the heliacal rising of Sirius did each year. The Greeks identified the benu with the phoenix. Tacitus (1st century CE) reported that it took 1461 years for the benu to fly to the east and back. This was because the Egyptians calculated that Sothis took 1461 years to recycle through their 365 day calendar, moving forward by a day every four years (which accrued because they had no leap year). This was called a Sothic Year.
© Anna Franklin, heavily condensed from Lughnasa, History, Lore and Celebration by Anna Franklin, Lear Books
 Pliny, Natural History. II
 Aristotle Hist. An.
 Hydrophobia is better known as rabies, one of the symptoms of which is a blazing thirst but a fear of water.
 Marcel Detienne, The Gardens of Adonis, Princeton University Press, 1977
 Dr. E.C. Krupp, Beyond the Blue Horizon, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1991
 A Greek form of her Egyptian name Aset or Eset, meaning ‘throne’.
 Dr. E.C. Krupp, Beyond the Blue Horizon, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1991