It’s all in how you see it

August 30, 2012

The internets have been in a titter for a week, and no doubt every Blue Moon café, restaurant and tavern is in high celebratory mode. Really, the significance of the Blue Moon is that it is hard to categorize. Solar and lunar time only reconcile about every nineteen years, so there are twelve lunar cycles and some change in any solar year. Whether there are twelve or thirteen full moons depends on which day you start the calendar. Depending on the tradition (and the latitude), we label each month’s moon according to its seasonal significance. Thus the January moon is the “Wolf Moon”, the February moon is the “Hungry Moon,” the March moon is the “Storm Moon,” etc. What happens when you have two full moons in a month? You don’t know how to categorize the second one. It’s also an uncommon occurrence, occurring only about every three years.

A Blue Moon is a full moon in which you do something you wouldn’t ordinarily do, and something that you probably won’t do again for awhile. When I had a large teaching coven, the women would circle with the men on that night, just to show that we were not categorically opposed to it (but still not willing to make it a regular occurrence).

The color blue in lunar context has some significance. Red is ordinarily the color associated with the full moon (look at it closely some time), a phenomenon that was easier to see when the moon was closer to the earth. Red is a very powerful magical color, associated with the Mother and characteristic of the Dianic Tradition. White is the color of the waxing moon, associated with the Maiden, while black is the color of the Crone and the dark portion of the waning moon. Thus we have the three important magical colors of the Dianic Tradition and many others. Blue is a cooling color less frequently invoked, which nonetheless has its own important properties. If colors are invoked when casting a circle, blue is often linked with the direction of West. In shamanic traditions which are based on the number four, unlike Indo-European cultures, which are almost always based on the number three, blue is usually included as one of the four basic colors.

A lot of pagans are saying that the Blue Moon has very special powers, but I disagree with this. In and of itself, the Blue Moon only has meaning if you accept the validity of the Julian calendar. How many of us do? I accept that I have to work with this calendar, to navigate the business and larger social world, but magically my calendar is marked in different time, beginning on November 1st. Other people may start their year at the winter solstice, or the spring equinox, or at some other time. What gives the Blue Moon its significance is the the permission people give themselves to loosen up, be unorthodox, try something new. This is the special energy that drives the Blue Moon.

The Groundhog Powwow

August 24, 2012

Like Santa Claus, the Groundhog is normally celebrated only once a year. I recently drove through a place, however, whose entire claim to fame is the groundhog who bears the town’s name: Punxsutawney Phil. A statue of Phil stands at the center of the town square, and various memorabilia for tourists commemorates the town’s famous resident.

Punxsutawney is an unprepossessing village in an economically depressed corner of Pennsylvania — not the kind of place most people would visit unless they were taking part in the annual pilgrimage for the spring oracle. I passed though the place en route to the Lenape powwow, and I had to stop because groundhogs, gophers and prairie dogs are important animals for me, animals that I use in magical healing. I have been ribbed for years about my “gopher medicine” but I adhere to the belief that power should be accepted in the form it comes in.

With my meeting with the icon of Phil fresh in my mind, I asked one of the elders why the Lenape had asked the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation not to allow groundhogs to be hunted or harmed on state lands. I was told that the first animals came from inside Mother Earth, and the Groundhog was one of the first creatures to emerge from underground. Thus the Lenape do not hunt groundhogs, and refer to the Groundhog as Grandmother or Grandfather. It seems the German settlers knew the Groundhog was sacred to the Indians when transferring the Candlemas Bear or Hedgehog ritual onto this creature.

I also learned last week that “powwow” originally referred to a talented Northeast Native healer named something that sounded like “Powwow.” He attracted large groups wherever he went, and many Whites started calling any Indian gathering a powwow. In some parts of the country the word has retained its association with healing. The Pennsylvania Dutch still refer to their visits to a natural healer as “going to powwow.” So I guess “groundhog powwow” would be another way of saying “gopher witch.”

Good for Nothing But Luck and Friendship

August 17, 2012

Photo H. Zell.

In the spirit of tree worship that this blog has lately become, I thought I’d give a shout out to my alma mater and motherland, The Buckeye State. Perhaps you have to spend some time in Ohio’s capital city to recognize the frenzied devotion to this tree. It’s more than football fever, although the Buckeye is the sacred tree of sports and the mascot of The Ohio State University sports teams. If you’re born in Ohio, you’re a Buckeye. If you grow up in Ohio, you’re taught apocryphal Buckeye legends masquerading as Ohio History. If you go to Ohio State, you’re a Buckeye. If you root for the Buckeyes, you’re a Buckeye. And if you’re a Buckeye, your heart beats a little faster when you think of the nut of the Buckeye Tree, also called a Buckeye. People carry them around for good luck. I had a whole shoebox of them as a kid, one of my prized possessions.
Photo H. Zell.

What’s so special about the Buckeye Tree? I really don’t know. Unlike most sacred trees, it has no real economic value. The flowers are not showy, the tree is not particularly handsome or tall. I wouldn’t know what the wood is good for. The nut is poisonous, though it has some obscure medicinal uses. The nut is handsome, though, at least to a Buckeye. I honestly thought there was nothing strange about the Ohio State mascot being a person dressed like a nut until I heard some non-Buckeyes snickering about it.
Photo H. Zell.

Don’t believe me that Ohioans worship the Buckeye? You’ll have to go there, and feast your eyes on the most beautiful nuts in the world.

The Isle of Apples

August 10, 2012
Apple blossom with bee. Photo by Simon Eugster.

Sweet apple-tree of delicate bloom
That grows in concealment in the woods,…
While my reason had not strayed, I rested by its side
With a fair gleeful maiden of perfect slender form.
Black Book of Caermarthen XVII

These words, attributed to Merlin, are part of a spell invoking the aid of the apple tree in defense against a Saxon invasion. The “gleeful maid” refers to the womanly aspect of Nimue (NEE-way), who appears in Welsh romances as Merlin’s apprentice and sometime nemesis. Nimue is the white goddess of the Otherworld who brings sweetness and sometimes death. The apple tree is not so much her symbol as her manifestation. The Celts of the British Isles envisioned the afterlife as an island covered with apple trees in perpetual bloom.

The flowers of the apple tree have a heady, pervasive fragrance that attracts legions of bees. The ripe fruit, which also has a strong pleasant odor, is fermented with honey to make traditional mead, the intoxicating gift of this lovely goddess. Trees which attract bees are usually associated with an important goddess, while goddesses associated with sweet-smelling flowers are often death goddesses. (The decaying corpse has a sweet odor.) Goddesses (and gods) associated with death are often revered by the shaman, because divination and magic require moving into incorporeal space. Intoxicating substances are sometimes used as tools for shamanic visioning, and this visioning is compared to a state of intoxication even when substances are not used. Small wonder that Nimue permeates the legends of the great magician Merlin!

The apple tree, which is a member of the rose family, originated in central Asia but was cultivated widely in the early agricultural societies. The tree must be grafted to produce a reliable fruit; most apples grown from seed are sour or bitter. It is not known when the first apple was cultivated in Wales. Many assume the apple tree came with the Roman occupation, but this does not appear to be supported. A white flowering crabapple is native to the British Isles, so the legends may have originally grown around this tree. How long apple (or crabapple) trees have been worshiped in the region also cannot be known. The romances were penned by Christians in the seventh through the eleventh centuries, and the Celts absorbed a great deal from pre-Celtic cultures in their settlement areas. The hawthorn might also have been a precursor or stand-in for the apple. In one story Nimue imprisons Merlin in a tower of hawthorn bushes. The hawthorn is closely related to the wild crabapple: both are members of the rose family, both have white flowers, both bear small fruit, and both have thorns.

The apple remains an important ingredient of modern witchcraft, especially prominent in Halloween rituals. The fruit is cut through its equator and placed on the altar flesh side up, so the five-pointed star in the center can be seen. This is the source of the sacred pentagram.


Matthew, Caitlin and John. Ladies of the Lake. London: Thorsons, 1992.

Meyer, Kuno, trans. Voyage of Bran. From Originally published 1895.

Scudder, Vida Dunn. Le Morte d’Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory and Its Sources. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1921.

Skene, William F., trans. The Four Ancient Books of Wales. From Originally published 1868.

University of Illinois Extension. Apple Facts.

The Cedar Forest

August 3, 2012


They stood at the edge of the Cedar Forest,
marveling at the great height of the trees.
They could see, before them, a well marked trail
beaten by Humbaba as he came and went.
Far off they saw the Cedar Mountain,
sacred to Ishtar, where the gods dwell,
the slopes of it steep, and rich in cedars
with their sharp fragrance and pleasant shade.
Gilgamesh, Stephen Mitchell, trans.

Extensive cedar forests once covered Lebanon, Western Syria and parts of Turkey. Cedars in this region are known as Lebanon Cedars and are not closely related to the many other trees around the world called cedar, such as the White Cedar, which is a cypress, or the Red Cedar, which is a juniper. What trees bestowed with the name cedar seem to have in common is an aromatic wood resistant to insects and to rot. They may also have a fine resin; the Lebanon Cedar resin was exported to Ancient Egypt for embalming.

Cedar forest in Lebanon. Photo by Jerzy Strzelecki.

It was to the great cedar forests west of Mesopotamia that the hero Gilgamesh and his partner Enkidu journeyed on what was essentially a timber raid. In order to take the trees, the giant tree guardian Humbaba, servant of the god Enlil, had to be vanquished. Humbaba is a protective deity whose image is displayed in Mesopotamian seals and wall plaques. Gilgamesh relished the thought of slaying Humbaba, at least at the onset of the journey. He did have attacks of cowardice as the confrontation grew near, yet he overcame his terror and killed the giant.
Humbaba. Circa 1700 b.c.e.

With Humbaba out of the way, the heroes cut choice trees from the forest, binding the logs together to make a raft. They decided to set aside the best cedar for a giant door in Enlil’s temple — a good move, since Enlil was displeased about the slaying of his servant. Interestingly, the deity who did not seem miffed with the lumber thieves and giant murderers was Ishtar, the one whose forest had been plundered. When Gilgamesh returned to his city, she asked him to be her lover, offering him jewels, a chariot and a large cedar house.

Ishtar is the Mesopotamian deity who brought prosperity, technology, music, dancing, writing and many other gifts to humanity. She is a generous goddess, unlike her father Enlil who can sometimes be stingy or destructive. She delights in helping civilization to flourish. Ishtar is usually categorized as a fertility goddess, or a goddess or sexual love, which is certainly true, but it does not capture her complete essence. She is like cedar wood, a pervasive fragrance instinctively drawn in. With her concern for providing well for her cities, she would have naturally choosen to bestow a tree with a long lasting wood ideal for building.
Cones of Lebanon Cedar. Photo by Line1.


Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1992.

George, Andrew, trans. The Epic of Gilgamesh. London: Penguin Books, 1999.

Jewell, Eleanor. Facts About Cedar Trees.

Ketchledge, E.H. Forests and Trees of the Adirondack High Peaks Region. Lake George, NY: Adirondack Mountain Club, 1996.

Mitchell, Stephen, trans. Gilgamesh: A New English Version. New York: Free Press, 2004.

World Biomes. Lebanon Cedar.