Crafting Calendars

High days and holy days are one of the most pleasurable aspects of religious and spiritual practices. Festivals can have a variety of purposes, from simple celebrations marking the change of the seasons, to days given over to devotional activities for a particular deity or spirit. As pagans, our religious calendars should reflect our personal devotions and the land we live on. However most pagans and witches follow a series of seasonal rites most commonly known as The Wheel of the Year, a group of eight festivals connected to the British rural calendar.

The origins of the Wheel probably come from Ross Nichols and Gerald Gardner’s meetings at Spielplatz naturist club, where they formed the foundations for their interpretations of druidry and witchcraft. Drawing upon Irish and Northern European folklore, they devised an eightfold cycle, based around the dying and resurrecting sun, or sun god. The four festivals of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain are mentioned in the Ulster Cycle, a collection of medieval Irish legends and heroic tales, with the Winter and Summer Solstices being important to the folk of Northern Europe. The Equinoxes seem to have been added to give the Wheel an even, ordered structure, with a festival being celebrated roughly every six weeks.

This is the calendar most pagans follow, regardless of their location, climate and personal devotions. For those living in an area that roughly corresponds with a British agricultural year it will work for them. However for pagans living in Texas, or Malaysia, or Australia, the Wheel won’t work with their landscape.  Another consideration is that not all pagans are geared towards a land-based practice (Roman citizens who never stepped outside the city walls were pagans too), and trying to connect to a rural cycle may feel odd to them if they live surrounded by glass, steel and concrete. One way to address this is to craft our own sacred calendars.

Seasonal Rites
When creating a sacred calendar we need to determine what we want to celebrate or honour during the year. The most common theme is seasonal changes, marking the transition of Summer to Winter, or from a dry season to a rainy season. The key is to be in tune with what is going on around us. For example if you live somewhere where it never snows, trying to perform a Winter Solstice ritual full of cold, frosty symbolism would be counter-intuitive. We need to look at the changes in our climate and landscape. Have your harvest rites when the harvest is taking place. When the spring blossoms begin to appear craft a ritual to honour that, and the spirits of the land. If you are a civic pagan and have no real connection to the rural seasons, celebrate events such as the arrival of outdoors theatre in the Summer, or the return to the academic year by honouring deities of learning and study.

Holy Days
As well as the seasons, we can add in various holy days to honour any deities or spirits that we worship. We can draw upon lore for inspiration, such as honouring female ancestral spirits during the Disablot, or create ceremonies as we’re inspired to do so. I follow a calendar of Hellenic holy days, mostly connected to Dionysos, Demeter, Persephone, Haides and Hekate. There are festivals in antiquity that I observe, such as the Lenaia, Anthesteria and Kalamaia, but have also devised new rites around Hallowe’en to honour Haides and Persephone as the Lords of the Dead. There’s no history of these deities being honoured at the end of October, but as the veil is thin at the time, it seemed the perfect time to create a festival honouring Them. If there’s nothing in lore to tell you when to honour a particular deity, look at Their profile  for guidance, or do some divination and ask Them directly. Over time you can build up a series of holy days over the year.

Lunar Rites
As well as celebrating seasonal transitions, many pagans feel drawn to honouring the moon, or at least performing ritual during the new and/or full moon. In Greece the new moon was the end of the month and observed as a day sacred to the gods of the Underworld, especially Hekate. To mark this, the goddess was given a meal of bread, cheese, garlic, onions, eggs, cake and wine, left at a liminal location such as a crossroads, gateway or graveyard. While this isn’t a festival, the simple repetitive devotional act grows in power and meaning when repeated over the months and years. The monthly dates of the full moon can also be used to mark devotional work, either to a lunar deity or as a special day set aside for a deity you worship.

Personal Events
Births, marriages and deaths can also be incorporated into a sacred calendar. As I write this it’s the 23rd anniversary of my father’s death. I keep his image on my ancestor shrine, with some of his personal belongings, along with candles and offerings. Today I lit a special white candle and poured him a glass of whisky. Later I’ll offer tobacco and chocolates and pray that he and my other ancestors watch over our household and keep us well and safe. Again, this isn’t a large festival, but a small devotional act that has become fixed in my sacred calendar.

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Katabasis

Dionsysos descends at the midnight of the year. He is enthroned beneath Gaia’s surface, seated in a gleaming star-lit cavern, where he shares rule with His holy mother and the King of the Dead. We shall call Him up at Lenaia and He will return to us in the spring, but for now He sits upon His ebon throne and holds court with the Dionysian dead.

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Fae Folk: Selkie

“For I am a man upon the land
I am a Selkie on the sea…”

Selkie are fae folk from Orkney, Shetland and feature in Irish folklore. The word “selkie” is simply Orcadian for “seal”, and the selkie of folklore are shapeshifters, beings who assume human form on the land but who become seals when they swim in the sea. When they come ashore, the leave behind their seal skins, and if a mortal man takes a selkie maid’s skin, he can force her to marry him.  A selkie bride will always attempt to find her skin and return to the sea, leaving behind any children she may have had with her mortal husband.

Male selkies are said to be unfriendly to fishermen, causing storms and overturning boats, but desirable to mortal maids, upon whom they father children. According to folklore, if a mortal maid cries into the sea she will call a selkie lover from the depths, who will be handsome, wild and mysterious. The folk song The Great Selkie of Suleskerry tells of a woman who is visited by the selkie father of her child. He reveals he has come to take their son to be raised among the selkies but before he leaves he predicts that the woman’s next husband will kill him and their son.

 

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Punkie Night

“It’s Punkie Night,
It’s Punkie Night,
Give me a candle,
Give me a light,
If you don’t, you’ll get a fright!”
-Traditional Punkie Night song.

Celebrated in South Somerset, the last Thursday in October is called Punkie Night and is a precursor to our modern trick or treating traditions. The word “punkie” comes from the Somerset word for will-o’-the-wisps, and refers to the turnip jack o’ lanterns that were carried by children, or as a variation on the Irish Gaelic word pooka, meaning a type of goblin or fairy which were thought to be especially active at this time of year.

In the villages of Hinton St George, Long Sutton and Lopen (which are all within a 5 mile radius of my home!), children would carry carved manglewurzel (turnip) lanterns through the streets, singing the song above, or a variation of it, and beg for candles or pennies. The lanterns were also placed around farms to ward away troublesome spirits or given to travellers to light their way and keep them from being “pixie led”.

The tradition has been somewhat revived in more recent years, with processions of children parading the streets and having their “punkie” judged in Hinton St George village hall.

Punkie Night 2016

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Magic in Ancient Greece

Disclaimer
This post is meant to be a very brief introduction to the magical practices of early Greece. This is a huge subject, not easily covered by a single blog post. If you are interested in looking further into the history and general practices of magic in Greece please take a look at the further reading list provided at the end of the post. I will also be expanding on certain practices in future posts.

Magic in Ancient Greece
To understand what Greek magic might have looked like and comprised of, we first have to understand how the Greeks viewed magic. This is tricky. There is no single unified definition of magic that can hold true for all Greek peoples living in all areas of Greece from between the Greek Bronze Age up to the Byzantine Empire. We also have the barrier of cultural and historical differences to consider; what the ancients saw as magical may be different to what we would define as magic.

It’s likely that early Greek religion and magic were entwined, and not considered separate practices. These included initiations into various mystery cults, necromancy, purification rites, private religious practices that were not part of any civic cults, and trance ecstasy. The historian Fritz Graf is of the view that these practices were hived off from socially acceptable religious practices due to two factors; philosophical musings about the nature of the divine, and the growth of natural science. On the side of philosophy this lead to a concept of deity as pure from all mortal imperfection and thus incorruptible, placing it at odds with those who sought to obtain divine favour. On the side of science, medicine was looking at the natural world as a closed system, without divine intervention, and as sickness to be attributed, and therefore cured, by physical means only. This caused an altered concept between the realm of the divine and the realm of men, and the practices utilised by religious specialists operating outside of the official city cults were now categorised as magic. The concept of magic at first differed from how we would define it, and was essentially a term for describing the difference between acceptable and unacceptable religious practices. We don’t know when or how the concept of magic was stripped of its association with mystery rites. Nor do we know when or how the concept of magic that was shared between a few philosophers and doctors became widely accepted.  Certainly by Classical Greece, the 5th and 4th Centuries BCE, our definition of what constitutes magical practice, and that of the Greeks, was more or less the same.

 Types of Magical Practices
Daniel Ogden in his book Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds suggests that the earliest form of Greek magician would have been shamanic in nature, goetes, a term that is likely derived from the verb goan, meaning to lament over the dead. A goes is a practitioner who detaches his or her soul from their body by a method of ecstatic trance, entreats the gods and spirits for help in curing the sick, calls animals to the hunt and goes into the Otherworld on voyages of discovery. Little written evidence for this kind of practice exists in later Greece, and these skills were possibly adopted into Mystery Cultus. Some other practices include epodos, singing incantations, especially healing charms over the sick, pharmakeia, the use of herbs, poisons, philtres and drugs, rhizotomia, rootwork, katadesmoi, curses and binding spells (and by the 4th Century BCE also erotic binding spells) and nekromanteia, consulting with the spirits of the dead. While these would have been specialist practices initially, it’s probable that they all became merged into the general heading of magic or sorcery later, and that practitioners employed several of these techniques in their work.

Elements of Greek Magic
From what texts and archaeological evidence that has survived there appear to be several elements that make up magical practices in Ancient Greece;

1) Appeal to a supernatural power. Surviving magical texts contain incantations that call upon the presence and blessing of a supernatural being, be it a God or a spirit. Some of these evocations threaten or command the entity, while others read more like devotional prayers.

2) Physical components. Spells and charms usually mention some kind of physical component to be working upon. For example PGM I. 262-347, an invocation to the god Apollon, calls for a sprig of laurel, a lamp, a special robe, an ebony staff, various resins and herbs to be burnt on coals, libations and other materials for the rite to work.

3) A spoken incantation. Most magical workings appear to require the practitioner speaks, or usually sings, an incantation to call up the supernatural powers and to work the sorcerer’s will. The practice of epodai is especially connected to singing and chanting, usually healing charms over a sick person.

A Note on Divination
Divination was not included in the general collection of practices that were considered magical and was an acceptable religious practice. Many ancient Greek peoples would have encountered some form of divination every few days, usually as part of a sacrifice. Divination determined the will of the gods and asked Their counsel through oracular speech, dream interpretation, reading of entrails, casting knucklebones, reading of bird flight patterns and other methods, and was considered rational as opposed to the dark and irrational practices of magic.

Further Reading
Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion
By Christopher A. Faraone
ISBN: 978-0195111408

Greek Necromancy
By W. R. Halliday
ISBN: 978-1163022887

Ancient Greek Love Magic
By Christopher A. Faraone
ISBN: 978-0674006966

Ancient Greek Divination
By Sarah Isles Johnston
ISBN: 978-1405115728

Magic in the Ancient World
By Fritz Graf
ISBN: 978-0674541535

The Seer in Ancient Greece
By Michael Flower
ISBN: 978-0520259935

Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World
By John G. Gager
ISBN: 978-0195134827

Greek and Roman Necromancy
By Daniel Ogden
ISBN: 978-0691119687

Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds
By Daniel Ogden
ISBN: 978-0195385205

The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation: Including the Demotic Spells
By Hanz Dieter Betz
ISBN: 978-0226044477

Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in Greek and Roman Worlds
By Georg Luck
ISBN: 978-0850305890

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Witching Trees: Rowan

“Rowan tree and red thread, leave the witches all in dread.”

Rowan

Family: Rosaceae
Genus: Sorbus
Latin Name: Sorbus aucuparia
Folk Names: Mountain Ash, Quickbeam, Witch Tree, Witchbane
Ogham Letter: Luis
Planetary Ruler: The Moon
Element: Water
Sacred To: Thunar, Brighid, Brigantia

Botany: Rowan are a deciduous tree or shrub growing between 30 to 70 feet in height. The trunk is usually slender with silvery grey bark in younger trees, ageing to a brownish grey on older trees. Leaves are feather-shaped, with leaflets either side of a central stalk, and are a mid-green shade. Rowan flowers are a creamy white colour, becoming scarlet berries in the autumn. They are native to most of the Northern Hemisphere.

Crafts: Rowan has a creamy sapwood surrounding a reddish-brown heartwood, and is often used in woodcarving and turning. Walking sticks and tool handles are frequently made from rowan wood, and the bark has been used to dye fabric. Rowan fruit can be made into jelly to accompany cheese and meat, and fermented into wine.

Healing: Rowan berries contain a goodly amount of vitamin C and can be made into syrup to help prevent coughs and colds. A tincture made from rowan berries may be used as a gargle for singers and storytellers.

Magical Uses: Rowan is well-known as a tree associated with witchcraft and protection. Traditionally, crosses of rowan wood, as well as strings of rowan berries, are hung up in the home to protect against lightning strikes and malefic witchcraft. Rowan wands are especially useful in casting protective circles, and the dried leaves, berries and wood shavings can be added to protection incense and to banish malicious entities. Sprigs of rowan berries may be offered in feasts to the spirits of the dead.

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Herbal Reading

Some suggested reading for budding, and experienced, herbalists!

Bartram, Thomas. Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine

Blamey, Marjorie. Collins Gem Guide: Wild Flowers

Breverton, Terry. Breverton’s Complete Herbal

Carpenter, Jeff & Carpenter, Melanie. The Organic Medicinal Herb Farmer

Culpeper, Nicholas. Culpeper’s Complete Herbal

Fitter, Alastair. Collins Gem Guide: Trees

Franklin, Anna & Lavender, Susan. Herbcraft: A Guide to the Shamanic and Ritual Use of Herbs

Gerard, John. The Herbal: A General History of Plants

Grieve, M.. A Modern Herbal

Harding, Patrick. Collins Gem Guide: Mushrooms and Toadstools

Hoffman, David. The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal: A Safe and Practical Guide to Making and Using Herbal Remedies

McIntyre, Anne. The Complete Herbal Tutor: The Definitive Guide to the Principles and Practices of Herbal Medicine

Miller, Richard Alan. The Magical and Ritual Use of Aphrodisiacs

Muller-Ebeling, Claudia, Ratsch, Christian & Storl, Wolf-Dieter. Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants

Parkinson, John. Theatrum Botanicum: The Theater of Plants

Pendell, Dale. Pharmako Gnosis: Plant Teachers and the Poison Path
Pharmako Dynamis: Stimulating Plants, Potions Herbcraft
 Pharmako Poeia: Plant Powers, Poisons, and Herbcraft

Thiselton-Dyer, T.F. The Folk-lore of Plants

Watson, Giles. A Witch’s Natural History

Wong, James. Grow Your Own Drugs: Easy Recipes for Natural Remedies and Beauty Treats

Yronwode, Catherine. Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic

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Thalusia

The Thalusia was a harvest festival held in Ancient Greece in honour of various Deities, especially Demeter. The purpose of Thalusia appears to have been to offer sacrifices of the “first fruits” (although sometimes oxen) to the Gods in thanks for a good grain harvest. In Theocritus’s Idyll VII, he describes a Thalusia rite and how a sacrifice of fruit and barley was heaped onto Demeter’s altar, beneath an image of the Goddess with bunches of poppies placed in Her hands. There is no definite date given for the Thalusia, but as it is a rite of offering fruit and not connected specifically to the grain harvest, I place Thalusia at the date of the Autumn Equinox, when the Earth is offering up Her rich, colourful bounty of all kinds of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds

 So on Equinox night, Somerset Druid and I gathered in front of the small altar set out for our ritual and called in the Gods we honour, our local land spirits and our ancestors to bless the space and to partake of the offerings we had to give them. I always begin by addressing our local nymphs and pouring them an offering of full-fat milk, feeding the land spirits keeps a bond of respect between us as we only dwell on their sacred land while they truly inhabit it

 We then performed our rite, thanking Demeter, Triptolemos, Gaia, Zeus and the nymphs for Their blessings on the land and for bringing it into fruition. We offered homemade seeded bread, locally harvested apples and plums, grapes (which don’t grow so well in an English climate) and local cider and mead.

 I also made a batch of Melomakarona (Greek honey and walnut biscuits) shaped like pigs, as pigs are sacred to Demeter and used to be sacrificed to Her. We then toasted to the Gods and spirits and invited Them to join our feast, a spicy vegetarian curry to warm us on what was becoming a rapidly chilly evening.

Blessings of the turning of the seasons be with you!

 

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Witchcraft and Spirits

Somewhere along the way, humankind lost its connection to the spirit world. The majority of modern magical theory is based upon the magic as a science concept, with much less emphasis upon spirit work. This is likely born out of a mingling of the interest in presenting magic as a little-explored science, the schools of psychology that reduce the spirit world to nothing more then concepts and archetypes, and that the idea of genuine contact with spirits, daimons and deities actually frightens some folks, even those who profess to work with sorcery, witchcraft and magic.

It hasn’t always been this way however. Witches and sorcerers in antiquity frequently called upon the help of the spirit world for their magical workings. The Greek Magical Papyri, the name given to a large body of spells, rites and curses from Greco-Roman Egypt, contains a number of formulae for the conjuration of various deities and spirits, witches employed the familiar, a spirit that formed a symbiotic relationship with the witch, and elements of Hoodoo and Rootwork call upon the power of the Saints to intervene and lend their aid.

A World of Spirits
Spirits can be found anywhere in any place. The forests are filled with dryads, the sea with undines and the mountains with oreades. Graveyards are home to spirits of the dead, as are places where battles were once fought and lost. Your home may be a refuge for brownies or pixies and your garden houses spirits associated with plants. The spirits of your deceased loved ones may be close to you, especially on special dates, such as their birthdays or the date of their death.

Spirits also dwell in the Otherworld, one or more astral planes of existence, and may be called from there to receive an offering or make a bargain. Contrary to one popular belief amongst some magical practitioners, spirits mostly don’t object to being called from their dwelling place, if done so respectfully and made suitable offerings. The 17th century grimoire, The Lesser Key of Solomon, lists formula for evoking demons and angels and is still very much in use today. Magicians and sorcerers aren’t stupid, if something doesn’t work it’s soon abandoned. The popularity of the Key of Solomon is a testament to long and successful working relationship between magicians and spirits.

Working With Spirits
How does one work with spirits? If you are more ceremonially minded you can purchase a copy of the Lesser Key of Solomon, or the True Grimoire, or any number of reputable grimoires and follow the formulae for conjuring up the spirits listed. If you find trance and altered states of consciousness easier then you can engage in astral journeying and soul-flight to visit the spirits on their own ground.

Nature spirits can be approached in special places, though rarely on well-trodden paths. Go deep into the woods or find a sheltered cove, take offerings for the spirits that live there and make contact with them. Nymphai in particular seem to enjoy sweet things, like honey, mead and fruit. Other wights may prefer milk, beer, or bread and cake. You’ll soon get a feeling for what is acceptable to them. Don’t ask for anything initially, simply make your offers and sit, getting them used to your presence. If you receive a strong feeling of rejection, don’t force yourself upon the spirits. Respect their wishes and search for other spirits.

Ancestors
Ancestors are spirits with the most invested in us personally. We are of their blood and while there are always difficult family relationships, generally speaking ancestors have our best interests at heart. If you have a deceased loved one then set up a shrine in your home with photographs of him or her. Add candles, flowers and make offerings of their favourite food and drink. The dead want to be remembered and to be fed with attention and offerings. Make that connection and they can give you their help.

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Witching Plants: Monkshood

Monkshood
Family: Ranunculaceae
Genus: Aconitum
Latin Name: Aconitum napellus
Folk Names: Monkshood, friar’s cap, devil’s helmet, bears foot, blessed lady’s gloves
Planetary Ruler: Saturn
Element: Earth
Sacred To: Hekate, Kirke (Circe), Medea, Kronos, Hel, Frau Holda, Cerridwen

Botany: Monkshood is an erect perennial growing up to a little under 5 feet in height and 2 feet spread. The leaves are palmate with jagged edges, usually dark green with an alternate arrangement on the stem. Flowers are hood-shaped, hence the common name, and a deep bluish violet shade.

Healing: Due to its highly poisonous nature, monkshood is rarely used in modern herbal medicine. However, when made into an ointment and applied externally, monkshood has been used to treat rheumatism.

Magical Uses: The mythical origins of monkshood are mentioned in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, the plant springing from Kerebos’s saliva as it dripped from the dog’s jaws. As a plant of Saturn, monkshood is sacred to deities of the dead, especially Hekate. It was used by Medea in an attempt to poison Theseus and juices from the plant have been used to coat spear tips and arrow heads. Monkshood is one of the ingredients in the classic witches’ flying ointment.

Unless you are familiar with the right dosage of monkshood, it is not advised to use the physical components of this plant in incenses, ointments or oils. If you are careful however, the petals may be added to necromantic charms, given as offerings to the khthonic powers or made into a tincture to consecrate magical tools. As a plant used in flying ointment, monkshood’s spirit may be petitioned as an aid to travelling in the Otherworld, although mandrake is a gentler guide.

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