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

Dandelion Wine

23rd April (St George’s Day) is the traditional day to make dandelion wine, and indeed, this is the time when the dandelions are in full flower, sunny golden flowers covering the fields and verges. I will be gathering flowers for wine, which should be kept at least two years before it is drunk. 

Dandelion Wine

6 pints flower heads

3 lb. sugar

2 lemons

1 orange

1 lb. raisins

1 cup of black tea

1 gallon water

Yeast and nutrient

Gather the flowers when you are ready to use them fresh. Boil the water and pour over the flowers, stand for 2 days, stirring daily. Boil with the sugar and citrus fruit rinds for 60 minutes. Put it back in the bin and add the citrus fruit juice. Cool to lukewarm, add the tea, yeast and nutrient. Cover the bin and leave in a warm place for 3 days, stirring daily. Strain into a demijohn and add the raisins. Fit an airlock.

Old Fashioned Herbs – Sweet Cicely

My Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata) is starting to come up, lovely feathery, fern-like leaves that will have an umbel of frothy white flowers soon. The whole plant is aromatic, myrrhis meaning ‘smelling of myrrh’, and odorata meaning ‘fragrant’. Its folk names include British Myrrh or Wild Myrrh, as it is native to the British Isles.

It was used to scent furniture polish in the 16th and 17th centuries.  You can make your own by gently macerated the seeds in beeswax over a low heat before straining. The flowers and leaves can be dried and added potpourri or added to incense to lift the spirits and impart joy and happiness to ceremonies, particularly Beltane and Midsummer.

Every part of the plant is edible. It has an aniseed-like taste, very pronounced in the unripe green seeds, which can be eaten raw or roasted as a snack.

However, the important thing about sweet cicely is that it is sweet! It can be used as a sugar substitute. The natural sweetness of the leaves has been used to reduce sugar in recipes, especially when stewing fruits such as rhubarb or gooseberries, as they also help reduce the acidity.  They are calorie free and well tolerated by diabetics.

The stalks can be used much like celery, while the roots can be boiled or eaten raw. The raw leaves can be added to salads, even fruit salads. They can also be cooked into soups, stews and omelettes.

Medicinally, the plant is added to digestives and aperitifs to aid digestion and relieve flatulence.  Sweet Cicely is famously used by Carthusian monks to make the liqueur, Chartreuse. Try making your own aperitif by steeping the unripe seeds in vodka or brandy for two months before straining.

© Anna Franklin, April 2021

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.”

 

Samhain v. Halloween

I’m always amused by Christians condemning (and wanting to ban) Halloween as Pagan, when it is, in fact, a Christian holiday. Today we usually call the last day of October ‘Halloween’, a name that comes from the Roman Catholic Church’s Feast of All Saints’ Day, celebrated on 1 November but beginning at vespers on the evening of 31 October – hence ‘All Hallows Eve’ – and then extending into All Soul’s Day on 2 November, making a three day feast of All Hallows.

The Church of Rome probably instituted the festival to displace the Pagan Roman Feast of the Lemures, during which the dark and formless spirits of the angry dead not given proper burial were propitiated. St. Augustine described them as evil and restless manes that tormented and terrified the living. [1] It was a three day festival in May. The Church supplanted this with a feast of the Christian martyrs, celebrated since the mid-fourth century CE on 13 May. The Christian feast was moved to its current November date by Pope Gregory III (731–741), [2] though the Eastern Orthodox Church of the Byzantine Tradition continues to commemorate All Saints in the spring, on the first Sunday after Pentecost. The Irish Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee (eighth or ninth century) contains a note stating that All Martyrs was on 17 April and of All Saints of Europe on 20 April. [3]

However, the end of October and the beginning of November was the time from which northern Europeans reckoned that autumn tipped into winter, with all that this implied.  Henceforth comes a time of gloom, bleakness and cold. According to the chronicles of the monk Bede (c. 673 – 735 CE), there were two seasons in Anglo-Saxon England. Summer comprised the six months during which the days are longer than the nights, and winter the others, with winter beginning at the October full moon (the Anglo-Saxons followed a lunar calendar), during the month of Winterfylleth, roughly our October.  Winterfylleth marked the beginning of the Norse Winter, when preparations for winter began and sailing ceased. According to Nigel Pennick “Long distance sailing and other summer activities also stopped on this day, as preparations for the winter took priority.[4]

It was widely believed that when winter comes, the powers of increase and the good spirits retire from the land, taking its goodness with them, which is why crops and wild fruit picked after a certain date were said to be cursed or unfit to eat. The powers of darkness, blight and bane start to emerge from the underworld to wreak havoc. In Ireland, Halloween is often called Phooka Night and after this time the Phooka fairy renders all the crops not collected unfit to eat and spoils the blackberries, while Welsh gryphons blight any crops left in the field after Halloween. [5] Wicked fairies, such as the Scottish Unseelie Court, become very active, along with the Cailleachs, hag fairies and winter witches.  This is a process that escalates throughout November and December, until the rebirth of the Sun/son at Yule/Christmas starts to send them back to the underworld.

Thus the season of danger, chaos and the world turned upside down begins. John Stow, in 1603, wrote: “These Lords beginning their rule on Alhollon Eve [Halloween], continued the same till the morrow after the Feast of the Purification, commonly called Candlemas day: In all which space there were fine and subtle disguising, Maskes and Mummeries…” [6] In the reign of Charles I. the young gentlemen of the Middle Temple (trainee lawyers) considered All Hallow Tide as the beginning of the Christmas season.[7]  Children celebrated it as Mischief Night, playing pranks such as knocking on doors and running away, hiding objects left outside, or tying door latches. [8] [9] Often they wore masks or were otherwise disguised to avoid being recognised. [10]

The three day Christian Feast of All Hallows, in combination with existing local folklore, gave rise to a variety of interesting customs, likely a curious intermingling of Christian and Pagan belief. It was widely supposed that the dead could return at Hallowmas [11] and the three days of All Hallows were certainly regarded as a time of especial supernatural activity when ghosts, spirits and witches were abroad, and particular precautions had to be taken against them. Candles were lit to ward them off and if the candle continued to burn after midnight, its possessor would be immune from the attentions of witches during the coming year. [12]  Prayers were said to shorten the time souls might be spending in Purgatory and the church bells were rung – either to comfort the dead or ward them off, depending on which source you read. Bonfires were built in churchyards to ward off spirits, according to some [13] or to light the souls out of purgatory according to others. [14] Visits to the tombs of dead relatives were made, sometimes laying flowers or pouring holy water or milk on the graves.  [15] In many places feasts were laid out for the dead, while in others, cakes and bread were baked and distributed to the poor in return for their prayers on behalf of a soul in purgatory. [16] ‘Soulers’ went from door to door in England, soliciting money or food in return for a prayer for the dead. The cakes they were given were called ‘soul cakes’ for as one rhyme had it: “A soul cake, a soul cake/have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake.[17]

As an uncanny period it was a time for divination and taking omens, and these were many and varied, some in fun, and some in deadly earnest.  In England, for example, Halloween was occasionally called ‘Nut Crack Night’ from the custom of taken omens from the cracking of nuts in the hearth fire. For instance, you might find out whether your sweetheart would be true by naming two nuts and seeing whether they burned together or jumped apart, or by naming the nuts for two possible partners and seeing how they burned. [18] [19] More gloomily, in Scotland, a blindfolded seeker might divine what the future had in store by reaching towards three dishes – meal for prosperity, earth for death and a net for tangled fortunes – and the first he or she touched would be their lot. [20] To ascertain who would live for another year, each person in the family filled a thimble with salt, and emptied it out in a little mound on a plate. If any heap were found fallen over by morning, the person it represented was destined to die within a year. In Scotland and on the Isle of Man, the ashes of the hearth would be smoothed over, and the next morning inspected for marks and prints, and fates deduced from them. [21]

As part of the festival of All Hallows, people, mainly children, in England went out ‘souling’ going from door to door or travelling around the local farms, singing songs in return for apples, soul cakes or ale. The practice started in the middle ages when the cakes were offered in return for prayers for those souls suffering in purgatory, but after the Protestant Reformation, which did away with the notion of purgatory, the custom became one of just giving out the cakes as gifts. [22] Sometimes, people would keep the cakes for good luck. The recipes for the cakes varied, sometimes they were made of oats, some contained currants and spices, and in some areas it was traditional to consume seed cakes during All Hallows which coincided with the end of winter wheat-seed sowing. [23] Parkin, a ginger cake, was popular in the north of England, while in Lancashire Harcake was offered to visitors on the day.[24]

As opposed to the Christian festival of Halloween on October 31st, for modern Pagans, November begins with the festival of Samhain.Samhain was one of the four quarter-festivals of the early Irish, though it was not mentioned in contemporary Scottish, Welsh or Continental literature at all. [25] The Irish word ‘Samhain’ is usually glossed as ‘summer’s end’, from sam ‘summer’ and fuin ‘end’, though others argue that it may derive from the Proto-Celtic word *samani meaning ‘assembly’, as great tribal assemblies were held on at Samhain. [26] We can speculate that with the agricultural work of the year completed, and the warring and trading season over, it would have been the time when travellers returned home to their hearths with new stories to tell and experiences to share.

 

Sadly, we don’t know how the Pagan Irish celebrated Samhain or even how they regarded it, or whether the Celts in other areas marked the occasion at all. Samhain certainly appears in many Irish stories recorded during the Christian period, and was recorded as a Pagan festival by the Christian chroniclers, but while some describe great assemblies on that date, none of them mention any religious or druidic rites (unlike the many practices attested around Beltane) though doubtless there were some. [27]

In 1890 the folklorist Sir James Frazer suggested that the feast of All Hallows was moved to the beginning of November to replace the festival of Samhain in the public mind in Celtic countries, and therefore Samhain must have been a feast of the dead. [28] However, the Church in Germany was celebrating All Saints Day on 1 November when the church in Ireland was still celebrating it on 20 April, so this is unlikely. [29]  Where known European feasts of the dead took place, whether Christian or Pagan, they were part of a spring purification to prepare for the year ahead. When the Catholic Church introduced the doctrine of purgatory, where souls spent a time of suffering before going to heaven, the medieval church did gradually instituted a three day festival of the dead called All Hallows, as it was believed that the prayers of the living could alleviate the suffering of those in purgatory.  However, this was developed in Germanic countries and only later spread to Celtic lands. [30]

The suggestion that it was the Celtic New Year dates back no earlier than 1886 and was proposed by John Rhys in his Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom, [31] who asserted that because the Celts marked their days from the evening before (as did the Saxons, Jews and Muslims amongst many others, though he didn’t mention this) they must start their year in winter, even though no contemporary classical source mentioned it. James Frazer (The Golden Bough) used Rhys’s idea to support his own theory that Samhain had been the Pagan Celtic feast of the dead. After the introduction of the Roman calendar, Samhain was certainly associated with All Hallows in Ireland.

However, the one thing we know for certain is that it was considered the start of winter in Ireland. In the fifteenth or sixteenth century manuscriptTochmarc Emire, the hero Cúchulainn explains the structure of the Irish year: “For two divisions were formerly on the year, namely, summer from Beltane the first of May, and winter from Samhain to Beltane.”  [32] The Brythonic Celtic languages simply name the day the ‘first of winter’, from the Latin calend which denotes the first day of a month, so in Welsh it is  Nos Galen-Gaeaf (‘Night of the Winter Calends’), in Breton as Kala-Goañv and in Cornish Kalann Gwav. [33] It ushered in the dark and cold season, when death was close, when the spirits of blight and bane were released onto the land.

Nevertheless, as Pagans, we take our cues from the natural world, which is the manifestation of the spiritual. It is time to acknowledge the role of death, seasonally and personally, to mourn what has passed and to remember what has been. We think of all the lives that have touched ours, and the ancestors that have brought us to this place.

© Anna Franklin, October 2020

Illustration © Anna Franklin, Pagan Ways Tarot, Schiffer 2015


[1] St. Augustine, The City of God, 11.

[2] All Saints Day,” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd edition, ed. E. A. Livingstone, Oxford University Press, 1997

[3] http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/G200001/

[4] Nigel Pennick, The Pagan Book of Days, Destiny Books, Rochester, 1992

[5] Anna Franklin, The illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies, Paper Tiger, London, 2004

[6] John Stow, Survey of London, 1603, Adamant Media Corporation, 2001

[7] Clement A. Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, 1912, www.sacred-texts.com, accessed 11.9.19

[8] Brian Day, A Chronicle of Folk Customs, Hamlyn, London, 1998

[9] In some areas, this took place on the night before Halloween, or the night before Bonfire Night.

[10] Brian Day, Chronicle of Celtic Folk Customs, Hamlyn, London, 2000

[11] Nicholas Rogers, Halloween, From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002

[12] T.F.Thistleton Dyer, British Popular Customs, Past and Present, G. Bell, London, 1876

[13] Nicholas Rogers, Halloween, From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002

[14] http://www.wyrdwords.vispa.com/halloween/history/ accessed 4.10.19

[15] Nicholas Rogers, Halloween, From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002

[16] David Cressey, Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England, Oxford University Press, New York, 1997

[17] Georgina Frederica Jackson, Shropshire Folk-loreA Sheaf of Gleanings, Trübner & Company, 1883

[18] Sharpe’s London Magazine of Entertainment and Instruction for General Reading. Volume: v.27, 1865

[19] Mary E. Blain, Games for Hallow-e’en, (1912), Historical Books Limited, 2016

[20] Ruth Edna Kelley, The Book of Hallowe’en, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co., Boston, 1919

[21] Ruth Edna Kelley, The Book of Hallowe’en, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co., Boston, 1919

[22] Brian Day, A Chronicle of Folk Customs, Hamlyn, London, 1998

[23] J. Brand, Popular Antiquities Volume 1, F.C. And J. Rivington and Others, London, 1813

[24] Brian Day, A Chronicle of Folk Customs, Hamlyn, London, 1998

[25] Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the British Isles, Blackwell, Oxford, 1991

[26] J.A. MacCulloch, The Religion of the Ancient Celts, Createspace Independent Publishing, 2018

[27] Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996

[28] James Frazer, The Golden Bough, (1890), Macmillan Press Ltd, London, 1976

[29] Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996,

[30] Ronald Hutton, Halloween? It’s more than trick or treat, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/28/halloween-more-than-trick-or-treat-origins?fbclid=IwAR13rqBx10qclv4giBmWmYstGVhsyM9GxrOxP8Q8Jo7e0_j3zBs2xsZ0o6U, accessed 5.11.19

[31] Sir John Rhys, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom, HardPress Publishing, 2012

[32] Online at https://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/emer.html, accessed 20.11.18

[33] Samhain: Season of Death and Renewal Samhain, by Alexei Kondratiev, 1997, onlne at http://www.imbas.org/articles/samhain.html, accessed 20.12.19

Fuchsia Jam

Yes, you heard me right – fuchsia jam! Many of us grow fuchsias in our gardens, but did you know that from the flowers to the berries, every part of the fuchsia is edible? You can add the flowers to salads or use them to decorate cakes, but the berries are a revelation and full of vitamin C. However, some varieties have better tasting berries than others with flavours from sweet or peppery, to downright disappointing. One variety is even sometimes marketed as the ‘edible fuchsia’, Fuchsia splendens, through all varieties are non-toxic and can be eaten.

Before we get to the recipe, let’s talk about fuchsias, a genus of about 105 species of flowering shrubs and trees with many varieties and hybrids. They are native to the tropical and subtropical regions of Central and South America to New Zealand and Tahiti and are named after the German botanist Leonhart Fuchs (1501–1566).

They were brought to Britain in the eighteenth century where they soon became popular in gardens and greenhouses. Most fuchsias are not frost hardy and here they have to be grown under glass or in pots that can be taken into the greenhouse in the winter, though the Fuchsia magellanica is hardy outdoors and is naturalised in several places. You can even see it in hedgerows in some locations.  

As usual with imported plants, Europeans soon sought to connect it with Christian lore, claiming that the fuchsia sprang from the blood of Christ dripping to the foot of the cross, and its pendant flowers dangle because it hangs its head from sorrow.  In both Britain and Ireland its folk names include Lady’s Eardrops/Earrings and God’s Teardrops.

A favourite pastime of children used to be making a lady or flower fairy from fuchsia flowers by trimming the petals and stamens to make a skirt and legs, sometimes with a twig for the arms. They would also suck the sweet nectar from the flowers. However, in both Britain and Ireland it was considered unlucky to bring the flowers into the house.

The fuchsia is also used in traditional medicine. In Transylvania, the fresh leaves are applied to wounds and skin inflammations,[1] while in South America the flowers are used on bites, scratches and grazes and the berry juice to relieve itching and redness of the skin, inflamed blisters and sunburn. [2] In Māori traditional medicine, the tree fuchsia (Fuchsia excorticata) is used as a vapour bath after childbirth.  Research has shown that fuchsias are high in anthocyanins which are strong antioxidants.

You’ve been patient long enough – here’s the jam recipe:

Fuchsia Berry Jam

680 gram ripe fuchsia berries

1 apple, peeled, cored and chopped finely (for the pectin)

450 gram sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 tbsp. lemon juice

Over a low heat, melt the sugar in the water and lemon juice. Add the berries and apple, bring to the boil and maintain a rolling boil until you reach the setting point.  Pour into warmed, sterilised glass jars and seal.

© Anna Franklin, September 2020


[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7070992/

[2] https://academicjournals.org/journal/AJB/article-full-text-pdf/2AAF79325190

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

QUINCE (and quince jelly)

I’ve been given some quinces (Cydonia oblonga). Once very popular, quinces have fallen out of favour and few people grow them, perhaps because the fruits, which look like small, irregular golden apples, are virtually inedible when raw – however, they are deliciously sweet and fragrant when cooked, and well worth the effort.

Native to Southwest Asia, Turkey and Iran, the quince tree spread to Greece and later to Europe and America. It is found in the lore of ancient Greece, Roman cookery, mediaeval English recipes and is still popular in Spain, France, and Portugal.

Quince was also used in medicine, with the fruits made into syrup and taken for diarrhoea, or the mucilaginous seeds taken internally treat diarrhoea and inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract.

In ancient Greece the quince was sacred to Aphrodite, goddess of love. The Greeks associated the fruit with fertility, and included it in wedding feasts. It’s possible that when ‘golden apples’ are referred to in Greek mythology, it is actually the quince which is meant.   Remember the ‘golden apple’ inscribed with ‘for the fairest’ that Eris, goddess of discord, rolled into a gathering of the Gods that led to a dispute between the goddesses Hera, Aphrodite and Athena, who all tried to claim it?  The mortal man Paris was chosen to judge the contest and the three goddesses all tried to gain his favour, but Aphrodite promised him Helen of Sparta for his wife, thus winning the apple and leading to the events which sparked the Trojan War.

JAPANESE QUINCE

And then there is the Japanese quince, also called ‘the flowering quince’ (Chaenomeles spp.), which I do grow, and which is commonly found in gardens as an ornamental bush covered in red blossoms that emerge before the leaves and last into May. This is related to the tree quince (Cydonia oblonga) and produces similar looking yellow fruits. Did you know these are also edible? Most people don’t. They make the most delicious jelly, just like the tree quince. Furthermore, they also have herbal uses as an analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, astringent and digestive.

QUINCE JELLY

Quinces (either true quince or Japanese quince)

Water

Sugar

Take the stalks from the quinces and chop them up roughly. Put them, pips skins and all, into a large pan. Just cover them with water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer gently until they break down into pulp. This may take up to around 45 minutes.  Add more water if necessary.

Next you need to strain this – it is just the juice you want to make your jelly. You can suspend a jelly bag from a hook or beneath a chair and put the pulp in, and allow the liquid to strain into a large jug or bowl.  This will take quite a while (you can leave it overnight) but do not squeeze the bag as this will force through fibres that will cloud the jelly.

When you have your juice, measure it into a large pan. For every pint (20 fl. oz.) of juice, add 1 lb. of sugar.  Bring to the boil and continue boiling until the setting point is reached (see my previous post on plum jam).

Remove the pan from the heat and allow it to stand for a few minutes removing any scum that has formed on the surface. Pour the jelly into warmed, sterilised jars.  Cover the surface of the jelly with a waxed disc and put on a lid or cellophane cover, held in place with an elastic band.

© Anna Franklin, August 2020

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