New Year’s 2017 Ogham Divinations

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Following the deer trail deep into the woods.

New Year’s ended up being a fabulous women’s retreat at a dear friend’s home in Maine.  There was as much laughter, tears, and divine ridiculousness as five women could possibly summon!

We kept with our Grove’s New Year’s tradition of a divination extravaganza after the stroke of midnight, January 1st.  W. did wonderful tarot spreads for all us ladies, but I also kept with my yearly drawing of the ogham for a month-by-month forecast of 2017.  Being a Druid, I use a tree ogham, but of course there are color, bird, and even word oghams that could be substituted.

Since there weren’t any ogham sets handy, I instead cut 25 slips of paper and used those for the fews. (This is one of the nice things about both runes and ogham as divinatory systems: they can be constructed on the fly with whatever materials are at hand.)

January-ioho/yew
February-beith/birch
March-oir/spindle
April-saille/willow
May-ruis/elder
June-uilleand/gooseberry or honeysuckle
July-ur/heather
August-luis/rowan
September-fearn/alder
October-tinne/holly
November-quert/apple
December-ohn/furze or gorse

The lessons of Ioho are already apparent only a few days into the month of January.  One political regime is giving away to another in the U.S. and people are looking to their ancestors for wisdom and guidance in surviving whatever lies ahead.  This is the shaman’s tree, the axis mundi, evergreen and sometimes bleeding.  Sharing in its strength can only bolster us for what lies ahead.

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Review: A Deed Without a Name

jhp502a54bb94476This is truly a little gem of a book.

The first thing that strikes me about this book is how well written it is. Morgan creates rich images with his sparse prose. He manages to sharing meaningful personal experiences (both his own and those of other witches) without sacrificing the mystery of this path.  Morgan promises a synthesis of practical experience and scholarship, and judging by his footnotes I would say he delivers. It’s rare to find such a satisfying combination of learning and skill in the esoteric genre, so pardon me if I come off as a touch enthusiastic.

There is undeniably a lot of literature to wade through on this topic, and Morgan does an impressive job of summarizing it for a 201 or even 301 student. He seizes on a number of European cultures to illustrate his points, not just the standard witchcraft documents from the British Isles, but accounts from Italy and eastern Europe as well. Most importantly, he makes it relevant for the modern practitioner, detailing how various manifestations manifestations were dealt with historically and how we today as spirit workers can adapt these methods and attain similar experiences.

Oineric woodcut illustrations by Brett Morgan accompany each chapter, inviting the reader to dive more deeply into the many layers of the text. I’m admittedly a sucker for woodcuts, but these alternately fascinate and repulse–just like witchcraft itself.

Now, the following quibbles are really nitpicky things that my own copy-editor brain picked up on and just wouldn’t let go, and would probably not disturb the average reader. There are a few odd editing choices which detract from the overall flow of the book, especially the lack of chapter numbers within the text itself despite these being listed in the table of contents.  The book has a gentle flow from historical evidence to modern accounts, but also might have benefited from some broader subject headings. Chapter 21 on, for instance, is really more of a practical grimoire than the previous historical and folkloric comparisons; this is somewhat indicated by the ToC, but is lacking in the text body itself. Still, these points do not really detract from the message and value of the book overall.

A neighbor of mine who is just beginning to explore the Pagan/Occult paths has been asking me for books to read. I started him out with Phillip Carr-Gomm’s What Do Druids Believe? When he returns it next week, A Deed Without a Name will surely be my next recommendation.

Morgan, Lee. 2013. A Deed Without a Name: Unearthing the Legacy of Traditional WitchcraftAlresford, UK: John Hunt Publishing.

Books Read 2015: Herbs of the Northern Shaman

510-iHrDINL.jpgHerbs of the Northern Shaman was an extremely frustrating read. It’s unclear whether the cause of that frustration can be laid at the feet of the author for writing a book with so much potential that then fell short, or at my own for expecting too much.

What I expected: a detailed catalogue of northern European plants, with explanations of habitat, identification, dosages, and related ritual contexts.

What I got: a catalogue of plants quite literally above the Equator, with inconsistent descriptions, artsy photographs often useless for identification, no information on preparations or dosages, and no mention of appropriate ritual contexts. There are no citations for the authors various assertions, such as “It [Fennel] was once used by the Romans to increase stamina and courage” (p. 41).  Oh, really?  That’s nice, where’s your source?

In addition, several species are included from the Asian continent. At the risk of appearing blatantly Eurocentric, CM herbal preparations are not something I’m particularly interested in, and their inclusion frankly felt jarring. They are technically not outside the bounds of the book since it includes all of the northern hemisphere, but Andrews makes no mention of Chinese culture or traditions in his introduction. If Asian traditions are going to be included, own them up front with the rest of the cultures mentioned in the introduction (Nordic, Russian, Celtic, and Native American), which by themselves lead the reader to assume a European/North American expectation for the species covered.

Another problem is that many of the entries are included because there are compounds in the plants that are known to be psychoactive, but there is no evidence or experience of them being used historically or currently in a ritual or shamanic context–if that’s the case, why include them?  For example the entry on Meadow Buttercup:

According to author Gareth Rose in his booklet The Psychedelics, early Chinese literature states that a flower that grew by streams and brooks could cause delirium…Some authorities [who?] feel that the herb referred to is the common species of Buttercup.  Far more investigation is needed to confirm whether or not the species described actually is the Meadow Buttercup, as the leaves of this type are not really “rounded”. (pp. 15-16)

So, an unverified herb from China, asserted to be a Meadow Buttercup (R. acris) by some unknown “authorities”, may or may not have psychoactive properties. Just how, exactly, is this information either relevant to the topic at hand? In Andrews’ favor, where he does have experience with a particular plant and its effects he details them.  It’s just that those little jewels are few and far between–the exception being the 7-page love letter to Cannabis  (when most entries are 1 1/2 pages at most), which nearly resulted in the book being thrown across the room.

The bibliography does have a few solid sources in it, such as Culpeper and Grieve, and frankly one would be better served in many ways to consult these books directly. There are a couple of other useful titles included there that I may add to my reading list. It’s a fairly “old” bibliography, however, most of the books being from the 1990s or earlier.

I’m more than a little uncomfortable writing this, as I received Herbs of the Northern Shaman as a review copy, and I very much would have liked to give it a good one.  The best I can say for it is that it can serve as a starting point for shamanic herbal exploration. However, to expect anything more of it is to invite disappointment.

*Andrews, S. 2010. Herbs of the Northern Shaman. Winchester: O Books.

Global Mercury Rite

 As those of you who have read this blog for any amount of time know, I’m a big fan of Jason Miller’s Strategic Sorcery materials.  One of the nice things is that once you’ve signed up for the course, you will get invitations to participate in world-wide rituals, usually focused on some sort of planetary energy.  A few days ago, I received a PDF with instructions for a global Mercury rite to be performed between July 29th and August 1st.  So after getting Hufflespawn  to bed, I read through the ritual and decided to stretch the ol’ magical muscles.

One of the things I really dig about Miller’s rituals are that they’re pretty flexible and can easily be combined with other paths and traditions–or perhaps that’s also a function of OBOD rituals and the two just complement each other nicely.  I tend to set up an OBOD grove initially, then move into Miller’s script for the main event–and of course add herbs and spices as desired!  (‘Cause magic really is like cooking–it’s not your recipe until you fiddle it to your tastes.)

I waited until 9:44 PM, the beginning of the hour of Mercury, on the Day of Mercury, to start the rite.  The Moon was in Capricorn, and waxing/almost full, which should lend a more mature and stabilizing influence to all that Mercury energy flying around.  For offerings I used cinnamon incense, dried Nicotiana sylvestris from last year’s garden, and apple cider.  I set up the circle with eight beeswax candles and my own personal Mercury sigil, in addition the to usual ritual paraphernalia.

A couple of immediate takeaways:

  • Even the most eloquent orators have practiced their art.  I botched reading one section of the rite pretty badly.  I took a deep breath and delivered it again, and woah, there a punch there that I lacked before!  The story about William Jennings Bryan practicing speaking in the woods comes to mind.
  • Sometimes clouded vision produces rainbow or other sights of beauty–but to see clearly you still have to wipe them away and stare into the hard edges of the fire.
  • Steady breeze from the West during the entire ritual.
  • The following phrase floated out of the ether into my brain as I closed down the grove: “Three again, and three times three, As I will so must it be.” Now curious about repetition of 12 in magical practice.  Must go research!
  • Very much inspired to make a set of 100 beads for longer ritual chants.  Most of my rosaries tend to be in sets of 3, 4, 7, or 9.  I’ve consciously avoided multiples of ten since that’s what the Catholics do, but they tend to use repeats of five decands, so I think I’m good.
  • I can still pronounce Latin really easily aloud.  Thank you, Dad.

Definitely another ritual for the every-growing grimoire. I’m looking forward to whatever Mr. Miller chooses to tackle next.

New Incarnation of Altars

Thank you again for joining us for a brand new episode of “This Old Altar,” with your host, Bob Vila! Er wait, that’s not quite right…let’s try this again:

When I moved into my neighbor’s house last year, it was probably one of the best decisions I could have made during the divorce process. I loved living with B. and she gave me a safe place to begin healing. However, I was only renting a room, and that did not leave me much space for altars. I used an old nightstand as my spiritual focus area, and switched out statues depending on whom I was moved to honor in the moment.

Now that I’m in a place of my own, I have the luxury of being able to set up several smaller altar spaces. Each one serves a different function, and has different layers of public and private meaning. As I was writing this, it occurred to me that each alter combines a primary element with a secondary in order to give it a unified aesthetic.

The altar I use most frequently is the one next to my stove, what I call my hearth altar (auto-correct said “heart sculpture” and that’s an apt description, too). It’s predominantly rooted in the Earth element of the North, but with a strong overtone of Fire. The statues represent Gwydion and Aranrhod, though that is not what the artists originally intended. (Yes, these two are sharing space; no this has not caused issues.)  Gwydion is my wild magician, and often appears to me as having features of the boar, wolf and/or deer that he was changed into as punishment for Goewin’s rape. Aranrhod (“a fun ride”: WTF auto-correct?) is not only a celestial goddess, but the goddess of the waters. And since I’ve always had trouble giving Don a face (which according to Kristoffer Hughes is actually appropriate as this goddess was in fact faceless), I rededicated her statue in Aranrhod’s name.  The little fellow playing the flute is a wight from my father’s garden.  The sprig of lavender represents peace and beauty, and the turkey feather represents family; the spiral plate is carved Welsh slate that I brought back from the 2002 National Eisteddfod. This is where I perform morning prayers and my work with the Sun Mirror; it is also the altar that my son likes to help light to thank the Ancestors when we begin cooking a meal.

Right next to the back door in the South is my working altar, the one I use for daily divination or more involved magical workings. It serves to anchor my work in the cunning arts and with the Strategic Sorcery system, which is why Hekate presides over it. In addition there are representations for spirit allies that I work with on a regular basis. Both the sword and spear are ritual as well as martial tools, and at the moment I have wands of Poplar and Willow drying and waiting to be carved.  This altar is the polar opposite of the hearth altar, being a manifestation of the Fire of will, grounded in the Earth.

To the West I have an altar space dedicated to the Makers: Bridget, Cerridwen, and Wayland. This is an altar to creative inspiration, and where I give thanks for the gods’ aid in music, poetry, and assorted crafting endevors. Hufflespawn particularly likes the Wayland statue, and even made him a little helper at school which he insisted on placing right next to the Master Smith. Cerridwen is accompanied by tokens from pig and chicken, which refer back to her animal shapes in her pursuit of Gwion Bach. Bridget has bone weaving tools dedicated to her, and a harp tuner. In front of Wayland sits a chunk of iron slag that I found on the beach in Salem Massachusetts, a gift that seemed most appropriate.  Air is the ruling element here, with a secondary infusion of Water (and Fire, too, if I’m honest, even though it messes up my nice, neat classifications).

The next two altars are a bit more “work-in-progress.” First is a home for various local spirits and wights. Thus far Turkey, Crow, Datura, Boar and Snail are represented. I will also likely include guardians from my OBOD work here as well. On top of the shelf is a ceramic Dragon my soul’s sister made for me, which eerily matches a spirit guide of mine. Water rules here, not least because one of my allies from this land is a river wight, but also because this is an area which very much requires dreams and intuitions to access fully. Air is the breath which stirs the surface of the Water.

Finally we have this very much WIP altar, which seems to be shaping into a repository for images of Divine Queens. It may end up being more of a display for statuary that I like than an actual working altar, but I think there’s a place for both in one’s home. This sort of feminine strength and inspiration is something I’ve needed greatly over the past two years, and I’ll be interested to see whether this altar remains dedicated to that casue, or whether I will eventually repurpose it for something else.

So, after only having had a single altar space for year, I may have gone a little crazy with all these! Still, it feels good to be able to move from altar to altar, and to have specific foci for various parts of my life.  More likely than not things will get pared down after a little while, but for now, this suits my needs quite well.

Taking in the Midsummer Harvest

Midsummer is really the beginning of summer here in central Massachusetts.  We are about six weeks off from the traditional British harvest holidays, with the cross quarter fire festivals marking the height of each season rather than its beginning. At least that’s been my experience.

There are a number of sacred herbs that can be harvested from my land. Midsummer seemed like a good time to accomplish this, but I also wanted to incorporate some lunar correspondences. The Full Moon was in Capricorn just after Midsummer, which traditionally is a time where  pruning, or harvesting, is done to promote more vigorous growth in the plant. (Although why I would want this for the Mugwort is beyond me.)

And then it rained on the day of the full moon. All my lovely plans were foiled.

So, I went out the next morning, which was still within 12 hours of the moment of the Full Moon. It was the hour of Venus on a Thursday, the day of Jupiter, both of which should be auspicious for harvesting healing herbs. I managed to bring in the Motherwort, Agrimony, and Mugwort then. For future reference, I will be harvesting Motherwort much sooner next year, as it’s seedpods are very sharp and spiky.

Unfortunately I had to complete my harvest in the afternoon, which is when the essential oil concentrations are the lowest. On the “bright” side (ha!) this was now during the hour of the Sun and I brought in Sweetfern, Lavender, and Feverfew.

I had spied a glorious Yarrow by the side of the road earlier that morning. Sadly, someone mowed it down between that time and when I went out in the afternoon to harvested. I was really cheesed off. I did find a couple of other smaller sprigs though, and I’ll see what wild crafting I can do down in the conservation land for this little herb.

I’ll likely be doing another round of harvesting during the Dark Moon, especially for Mugwort (and probably the Agrimony as well, just because I don’t want it going to seed). I’ll probably wait until the next Full Moon for the rest of my culinary herbs like Sage and Oregano.  But for now, it looks like a goodly supply drying on the walls of my kitchen!