June is when the Meadowsweet blooms, steeping boggy buggy weedy places in a sweet pervasive perfume. This is a medium-sized shrub with clusters of white flowers, a Eurasian transplant to the Northeastern United States but not a troublesome one. Meadowsweet is one of the nine herbs transformed into the flower-faced maiden Blodeuwedd in the romance Mabinogion. This plant also goes by the name Bridewort, and it is associated with weddings and used in love spells. It once had a function in funerary rites.
Meadowsweet was the first plant from which salicylic acid, or aspirin, was synthesized. It has traditionally been used for digestion as well as inflammation and pain, unlike plain aspirin which is hard on the stomach. Perhaps people were buried with Meadowsweet for a pain free experience in the afterlife.
John Lust, The Herb Book (New York: Bantam Books, 1974).
Patricia Monaghan, The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore (New York: Checkmark Books, 2008).
The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, “Druid Plant Lore,” http://www.druidry.org/druid-way/teaching-and-practice/druid-plant-lore
The White Goddess, “Meadowsweet,” http://www.thewhitegoddess.co.uk/herborium/meadowsweet.asp
Barbara G. Walker, The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988).
Among the many things that the rose symbolizes is recognition of an achievement. A diva is presented with bunches of roses following a star performance. The winning horse at the Kentucky Derby is draped with a blanket of red roses. For the unfortunate soul Lucius the rose came to symbolize attainment of the blessed life offered to those who follow the goddess Isis.Lucius relates that he was on a business trip in Thessaly when his luck began to go sour in every way possible, culminating with his being transformed into a donkey. Lucius presents himself as a man in search of nothing more than comfort, amusement, and conviviality. He possesses neither malice nor ambition, and he goes where life takes him. He is certainly not a spiritual seeker, and it is only a long journey as a miserable ass that brings him into contemplation of the Goddess. Her famous words in response to Lucius’s prayer are
I am Nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are. My nod governs the shining heights of Heaven, the wholesome sea-breezes, the lamentable silences of the world below. Though I am worshipped in many aspects, known by countless names, and propitiated with all manner of different rites, yet the whole world venerates me…. I have come in pity of your plight, I have come to favour and aid you. Weep no more, lament no longer; the hour of deliverance, shone over by my watchful light, is at hand.
Isis then instructs Lucius to approach one of her High Priests at a procession he will be attending the next day in his captive donkey guise. The priest will be carrying a garland of roses.The next day unfolds for Lucius as Isis promised. The priest is expecting Lucius and holds the sweet garland out for the donkey to eat. Lucius is transformed back into a man, and he leaves with the entourage of Isis to be initiated as one of her priests.If you have never read The Golden Ass, the first century novel from which this story comes, I recommend that you add it to your list. Despite being informative and worthwhile ancient literature, it is an entertaining read that can also be enjoyed simply for the story. The translation by Robert Graves is considered the best.Apuleius. The Transformations of Lucius Otherwise Known as The Golden Ass. Robert Graves, trans. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951.
Magical herbology is an area every witch needs to develop competency in, whatever her eventual area of focus. The challenge is to gain more than an abstract knowledge of herbs, to find opportunities for hands-on learning. A Kitchen Witch’s World includes tips on ways to work herbs into your daily life and your magical routine. Over 150 common herbs are covered, which for most witches includes all that will ever be needed. Most of the herbs are easily obtained, although one important herb – mandrake – is hard to find in the United States. (Occult stores will try to sell you mayapple as “American Mandrake” instead.) The entries for each herb are fairly short, but contain a brief description of the plant or its growing habitat, which I believe is important because most beginning witches first encounter these herbs in a package.I think what I like most about this book is that it doesn’t indulge in a plethora of correspondences. The tendency to go overboard with correspondences, to the point where it begins to inhibit learning rather than adding to it, is the bane of beginners – yet correspondences do have an important, necessary role in herb magic. I think this book sets the right balance to a thorny issue.If you already work a good deal with magical herbs, to the point where you have begun growing your own, this book is probably not for you, and if you decide to make this your area of expertise you will outgrow this book in a few years. This is not an encyclopedia, and I think we’ve come to expect the encyclopedic approach to herbs, whether for magic or healing. If you would like to use magical herbs a bit more than you do at present, this would be a good resource to have.A Kitchen Witch’s World of Magical Plants and Herbs is due out this fall and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.
A Lady Slipper is an orchid that grows throughout the northern hemisphere. There are several species, and all of them are rare to uncommon depending on the country. This beautiful orchid is difficult to cultivate, even as orchids go. It requires a special soil fungus for seeds to germinate, and the Lady Slipper does not transplant well. To make matters worse, there is a special demand for this orchid, and not just from gardeners who feel they must have one. The root stock has calming, pain relieving, and hallucinogenic qualities that have prompted overharvesting of the plant, which is never abundant even under ideal circumstances.I have had the good fortune of stumbling across this flower on occasion, ever since I was a girl in Ohio. Last week I was hiking on a popular mountain path when I spied two blooms right next to the trail. I decided to come back early the next day to take a picture, crossing my fingers that no one would arrive before me and take the plants. Sure enough, when I returned the next morning they were gone. I scouted around the area, however, and I found a nice specimen that was slightly better hidden. In researching this post I discovered that one variety of Lady Slipper does indeed look like a shoe. I had always assumed from looking at the flower that the name referred to a different kind of “slipper.” What would you think? Before heading down the mountain with my photographic trophy, I decided to bushwhack to an open ledge for a snapshot of the view, and I came across a whole clump of Lady Slipper plants. There were seven blooms, one for each of the Seven Sisters (Pleiades). These nymph siblings are priestesses of Artemis. SourcesGraves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1960.McGhan, Patricia J. Ruta. “Pink ladies slipper (Cypripedium acule Ait.)” US Dept. of Agriculture.
The lily is the symbol of the Hebrew great goddess Asherah. Although her cult was heavily suppressed, we know about this goddess from archaeology and passing references from her detractors. The lily is also sacred to Juno, the Latin goddess of being or essence. Recall from the earlier article about Juno that in the form of a lily she impregnated herself with her son Mars. Marija Gimbutas found lilies among the many recurring symbols in the archeology of Old Europe. Usually these images are painted on pottery, but one terra-cotta frog with a lily head from the sixth millennium B.C.E. is quite similar to an image Gimbutas found of wooden frog lily on a nineteenth century Lithuanian tombstone.The lily has survived as a religious symbol in Christianity with a totally different meaning. The resurrection of Christ by the Father God is symbolized by the Easter lily, and the white lily also symbolizes the purity (as in asexuality) of the Virgin Mary. The lotus is the Eastern equivalent of the lily and has historically been considered a close relative. Biologists say that despite the similarities between the true lily, the water lily and the lotus, these plants are unrelated and developed along different evolutionary lines. Nevertheless all three are involved in similar creation stories. In Hindu religion the world emerged from the womb of a golden lotus. This lotus was called Matripadma, and was a manifestation of the goddess Lakshmi, worshiped today as the bringer of wealth and good fortune.Just as Christianity changed the lily-goddess in the Mediterranean, Buddhism changed the lotus-goddess in the East. In this case the function of lotus as creation source remained the same, but the sex of the lotus creator became male. As Padmasambhava, the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara created himself from a lotus. Avalokitesvara is the most important figure in Buddhism next to the Buddha himself. The Lotus Sutra is a sacred text describing his teachings and his 33 manifestations. In China “he” manifested as the bodhisattva Kwan Yin (Guanyin). Feminists have speculated on what native East Asian goddess may have been merged with Avalokitesvara to become Kwan Yin. Not to discredit the conflated deities hypothesis, it might not have made sense to people introduced to this lotus self-generating deity to conceive of Avalokitesvara as male, if they associated the lily/lotus — not to mention birth — with the Great Mother. (Notice the lotus in the left hand of the Kwan Yin statue in this previous article.)Is the lily part of a shared creation myth that stretches very far back in pre-history, or did these myths develop along separate evolutionary lines like the flowers themselves? Certainly the lily belongs with the Goddess religions, and we should not be shy about taking this symbol back, despite its prominence in Christianity and Buddhism.SourcesBlofeld, John. Bodhisattva of Compassion. Boston: Shambhala, 1977.Douglas, Nik and Penny Slinger. The Secret Dakini Oracle. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1979.Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.Jordan, Michael. Encyclopedia of Gods. New York: Facts on File, 1993.Monaghan, Patricia. The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1990.Walker, Barbara. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.
Cold and flu season is upon us, and herbalists are writing about garlic, echinacea, mullein, honey, and a host of other beneficial plants. Irish herbalists saw the blessing of the goddess Aine (pronounced ON-ya) as a necessary catalyst in these herbal concoctions. Aine is a fire goddess whose spark makes its circuit throughout the body commencing with every sunrise. Aine often takes the form of a red mare, as in Celtic lore horses are equated with the sun. At Midsummer Aine’s protection for livestock would be invoked by waving torches over animals.Probably due to her fiery nature, Aine appears in stories as a lustful woman with many lovers. She bore many children, and Irish rulers often traced their family lineage to her. She is said to have a stone birthing chair cut into the side of a mountain. Those who sit in this chair become insane, and the insanity is permanent if they repeat this procedure three times. But insanity can also be cured by sitting on Aine’s chair, so perhaps no lapse of sanity is incurable.Like many healing goddesses, Aine has a wrathful side. In one legend she curses her rapist by sucking the skin off his ear and depriving him of his possessions. My guess would be that this is based on an older story related to a broken taboo at Samhain (Halloween). Aine also had a legendary father who was cruel to her. After her escape she became a spinner of sunbeams in the forest (another allusion to her origin as sun goddess) where she tutored wives in the art of slowly debilitating their husbands through herbal interventions. I’m guessing that the debilitated husband story refers to the aging process measured by the movement of the sun, as well as Aine’s role as teacher of herbology.Aine is believed to be the same goddess as Anu, about which little is known aside from her prehistoric monument of twin hills capped with cairns to look like nipples. She has also been equated with Danu, the legendary mother of the Irish gods, which would explain why so many rulers sought to legitimize their reign by claiming to be her descendents.SourcesCeltic Mythology. New Lanark, Scotland: Geddes and Grosset, 1999.
Matthews, Caitlin and John Matthews. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom. Shaftesbury, UK: Element Books, 1994.Matthews, John and Caitlin Matthews. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Myth and Legend. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2004.Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Checkmark Books, 2008.
Continuing our exploration of the sacred trees of the goddess, we turn this week to the Egyptian goddess we know by the Greek name of Hathor. I had research to do for this, because I did not know why Hathor carries the title “Lady of the Sycamore” or why she had a shrine of sycamores in her city along the Nile. My first step was to learn more about the sycamore tree, and I quickly discovered that the tree known as “sycamore” in northern climates is unrelated to the sycamore of Africa and the southern Mediterranean. Hathor’s sycamore is the sycamore-fig, the earliest cultivated fig tree. Its fruit is orange-red, rounder than the common fig, and slightly less sweet. The milky juice of the unripened fruit is used medicinally for skin conditions. The fruit and the wasps pollinating the fruit attract a variety of birds. The tree is long-lived and grows along riverbanks to a height of about sixty feet, much larger than the common fig. The sycamore is a generous tree, offering its fruit year round.The association of the fig with Hathor evokes the idea of fig wine, as Hathor is a goddess of intoxication. Her new year rites were revels of dancing, music and wine, drawing large numbers of participants. Her priestess cult was an ecstatic one, with a strong emphasis on music. As Patricia Monaghan describes her,
…she was the patron of bodily pleasures: the pleasures of sound, in music and song; the joys of the eye, in art, cosmetics, the waving of garlands; the delight of motion in dance and in love; and in all the pleasures of touch.
As her cult spread, Hathor assumed a variety of attributes, even becoming merged with the lion goddess Sekhmet, but she was usually portrayed as a cow, a cow-headed woman, or a woman with cow-horns and moon disk, sometimes suckling her son Ihys (himself a complex deity).As is sometimes the case with life sustaining goddesses, Hathor is also guardian of the dead. Hathor does not seem to have a “death aspect” or twin, but is the same generous, nourishing goddess in life and death. The spirits of the dead hang on her sycamore trees, and she wanders through the groves offering them fresh water. Sycamore was the preferred wood for sarcophagi, and one tomb painting depicts a sycamore tree with singing birds.Even before Hathor’s cult became assimilated with others, her mysteries were probably far more complex than we can fathom from this distance. Clive Barrett conjectures:
The association of joy and intoxication on one hand and death and the underworld on the other suggests that her rituals involved some kind of shamanic practices. Divine madness freed her priests or followers from the mundane world, and with the correct training they were able to move onto other planes and walk with the gods.
Whether the sycamore-fig was ever fermented for Hathor’s rites I was unable to discover through my books and an Internet search. I found that this fig is indeed sometimes fermented into wine, but that it has a vinegary taste that makes it more suitable for medicine than enjoyment. The common fig and the grape, both more suitable for winemaking, had been introduced to Egypt by at least 3000 b.c.e., and there are extensive written records on the production of grape wine. Still, according to Meir Lubetski “The pairing of the sycamore fig and wine was firmly anchored in the cultic practices and in the prevalent landscape of the ancient Egyptians.” He also says that in one funerary ritual the newly deceased king would be fed figs and wine.The sweeter common fig never supplanted the sycamore-fig as an important staple in the Egyptian diet. Hathor’s cult likewise, though it widened and changed, remained popular long into historical times. We generally think of death goddesses as unyielding of temperament like the Sumerian Ereshkigal, frightening in appearance like the Hindu Kali Ma, or stern and scary like the northern European crone goddesses. The worshipers of Hathor had a beautiful, happy lady with them in death. Small wonder the cult of Hathor was one of the most tenacious the world has seen.SourcesBarrett, Clive. The Egyptian Gods and Goddesses: The Mythology and Beliefs of Ancient Egypt. London: Aquarian Press, 1992.Iziko Museums, Figweb.Lubetski, Meir. “Lot’s Choice: Paradise or Purgatory?” in Biblical, Rabbinical and Medieval Studies, Judit Targarona Borras and Angel Saenz-Badilles, eds. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Academic, 1999.Monaghan, Patricia. The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. St Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1990.Ray’s Figs website.Wilson, Hilary. Egyptian Food and Drink. Buckinghamshire, UK: Shire Publications, 2008.
Let’s examine the phenomenon of flying.Recall that Doreen Valiente attributes the belief that witches fly on brooms to the traditional riding-pole dance. Participants would stradle their staves and jump high to encourage the crops to grow tall. This agricultural fertility rite continued well into Christian times, with the phallic carved ends of the poles hidden by birch twigs when not in use – presumably to hide the practice from inquisitive eyes, but perhaps for some other purpose. We have already seen how during the persecutions witches were frequently said to be flying on staves rather than brooms. Maybe during the fertility rites they really were flying. Many of us modern-day witches have had the experience of dancing ecstatically during ritual and discovering that our feet were no longer touching the ground, that we were “dancing on air.”Another theory about flying has to do with “flying ointments.” These had some kind of grease as a base, with extracts of hallucinogenic plants mixed in, especially belladonna. This plant reportedly gives the user the sensation of flying. Some say the ointment was applied to the labia, so that it could be more easily absorbed through the skin. It was never used internally because belladonna and similar plants are so highly toxic. In Apuleius’ second century Latin novel The Golden Ass, the sorceress applies the ointment, assumes the form of an owl, and flies away. Other accounts of eyewitnesses say the ointment users writhed or remained inert on the floor, in an unconscious state, then wakened after about an hour reporting that they had flown. Some have conjectured that the ointment may have been applied to the broom handle, the witch rubbing her genitals against the handle until she absorbed just enough to lose consciousness. (I have a difficult time accepting this explanation, as rational as it sounds from a standpoint of safer flying.)With or without flying ointments, European shamans took trance journeys where they flew with broom-like implements. The Friulian benandanti were Christians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who flew on the backs of animals carrying bunches of fennel to wield against witches bearing stalks of sorghum. Grocery store fennel looks like celery, but the plant gets quite large and rangy in the wild. Sorgham grows in large stalks that can sweep the air like a broom. Livonian Christians of the same time period assumed wolf form to fight witches who had stolen sheafs of grain. These werewolves wielded iron whips while the witches fought back with brooms. Despite their assertions that they were good people fighting bad witches, both the Friulian and Livonian shamans were persecuted by the Inquisition.Christian authorities frequently bemoaned the peasant superstition that witches used their brooms to change the weather. A witch reportedly would sweep the air with her broom to make it rain or to bring damaging storms that devastated neighbors’ crops. I’m not into storm magic myself, but many witches report that it’s fairly easy to raise winds and storms through magic. Theoretically it would be possible to raise enough wind to fly through the air, although it would take quite a bit of control to stay astride that broom, and there would be the issue of flying debris to contend with.Astral projection is yet another way to fly, one that doesn’t require a broom. I’m talking about a trance state where the body is inert but the spirit is flying in the regular world, not the otherworld. I used to do a bit of window shopping this way, especially when I lived in San Francisco. It was easier than getting around on buses. One day when I was flying in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, a woman walking along the sidewalk chatting to friend looked up at me and said “Oh, hello!” This is the only time this has happened to me, and I found it so disconcerting that I stopped flying for awhile. The incident proved to me that a person flying in spirit form can sometimes be noticed. Presumably, before perceptions had been distorted by modern narrow-mindedness, more people would have been able to recognize witches flying around.So there are lots of ways those legendary witches really could have been flying: trance journeys in another world, trance journeys in this world, ecstatic dancing, drug experiences. It’s too bad they’re not here to show us all the ins and outs, but at least the art of flying is still with us.SourcesApuleius. The Transformations of Lucius Otherwise Known as the Golden Ass. Robert Graves, trans. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951.Douglas, Adam. The Beast Within: A History of the Werewolf. New York: Avon Books, 1992.Ginzburg, Carlo. Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991.Kors, Alan Charles and Edward Peters, eds. Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.Morgan, Adrian. Toads and Toadstools: The Natural History, Folklore, and Cultural Oddities of a Strange Association. Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts, 1995.
Last week I talked about the handle of the broom, which is usually made of ash. Ash wood represents Yggdrasil, the World-Tree of Germanic lore, and symbolizes nourishment, health and all-around good luck.The brush part of the broom is traditionally made with birch twigs. Birch is a tree of purification, also associated with death and ancestors. Gentle flagellation with birch twigs is used in some purification rituals to drive pollution out of the body. In old-style Swedish saunas, people emerge from the heat, roll in the snow, then are lightly beaten with birch twigs. The sauna is still used for physical purification, but it was once used for spiritual and emotional cleansing as well.The broom is used at the very beginning of ritual to cleanse the energies in the area of worship. The broom does not sweep or touch the floor but is held above the head with two hands as the priestess walks the perimeter of the ceremonial space. Since it drives away impure energies, the broom can be used as a guardian for the doorway to a ritual space. The broom may also be used in more aggressive banishing rituals to drive out negativity. Routine purification for ritual preparation is done with feathers or fans, but the broom may be passed over the body in situations requiring more extreme cleansing, such as disease or trauma. The broom was used in purification ceremonies following childbirth back when infant and maternal mortality was higher due to bacterial infections.The birch twigs are bound to the traditional witch broom with strips of willow bark. White willow bark is a widely used anodyne, from which aspirin was originally synthesized. Willow is sacred to Hecate, a patron goddess of witches, and is associated with water and the moon.In folklore there are many taboos about brooms. I view these taboos as a reminder of the power of the broom, a power that must be wielded with caution.Still to come: Marriage and the Broom plus Astral Travel.Sources:Campanelli, Pauline. Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1990.Cooper, D. Jason. Using the Runes. Welllingborough, England: Aquarian Press, 1986.Grimassi, Raven. Old World Witchcraft: Ancient Ways for Modern Days. San Francisco: Weiser Books, 2011.Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.