In Search of the Holey

honeycomb_2People who do magic, who really roll up their sleeves and have altar dust under their nails, know that is not a certain thing. I’ve been searching for a holey stone since I first heard of them over seven years ago. The are primal talismans, formed by wind and water cutting a perfect window into living stone. Lucky is the Druid who can find one.  Like any magical geegaw, they can be bought online, but that seemed like cheating. Power comes from rarity and from the effort in acquiring an object.

Push finally came to shove, and I needed some sort of holey stone for a particular piece of magical tech that I have been hankering to craft for nearly a year. That stone was the only thing holding me back from having quite a useful little ally in the ol’ esoteric toolbox. I’d been feeling called to visit Salem, and have found many strange and wonderful items along the beach and quay where the period ship is docked. And indeed I had seared for a holey stone there before, but never had any luck. This time I decided to prime the metaphysical gears thoroughly before I even set out on the journey.

I did a full Hekate supper in preparation that morning, calling upon the Fates, making offerings of eggs, honey, and incense. I asked the Weavers to help me find a holey stone in Salem, whether it be on the beach, in a shop, from a friend, or from a stranger–any (legal!) way they could deliver it into my hands.

What followed was a serendipitous series of events. Salem is always crazy this time of year, with the Halloween season bringing in witches and occultists of all shades of black white and gray. Despite arriving shortly after lunch on a Friday, there was no place to park. I crawled the car all the way to the top of a four-story garage and found nothing. Puffing out a sigh I began to creep my way back down and no sooner had I turned the first corner than I found not one, but two cars pulling out!

c18b63a5-155d-451f-674602e0ff3db01c-largeI headed for the Friendship of Salem, a replica ship that docks in the old harbor, but it sadly was out of its harbor for repairs. The New England sun cast four o’clock shadows though it was only 1 PM. I began making my way to the gravel and storm debris that lined the sides of the quay. I began on the eastern side, chanting “holey stone, holey stone, holey stone” in my head as my eyes scanned the deposits of rocks from the last summer storm. I had the image in my head of a thumb-sized rock, the hole perfectly centered, just laying there in the afternoon sun, begging for me to snatch it up. The angle of the light made it easy to see possible candidates, as any divots cast shadows across the surface of the pebbles.

Time and again I was disappointed. I did find a chunk of chert, an anomaly in the extreme. The only chert deposits in Massachusetts are far out to the west. Could it have washed up from down in Alabama? Could it have been carried across the Atlantic from the rich deposits in England? An eerie feeling stole over me as flint/chert nodules are one of the symbols I associate with closely with Gwynn ap Nudd. The piece in my hand had a deep groove and I wondered if perhaps I would have to make my own holey stone after all? But I kept going, finding pockmarked pebbles galore, but none with holes that went all the way through.

Reaching the lighthouse at the end of the quay, I paused to feel the water and wind. A busload of teenagers raced by, trying to push each other over the edge, arms wheeling and shirts grabbed. The water was cold, and, I fancied, hungry. I enjoyed the feeling of the sun on my back, the wind rough on my cheeks. Though I still had the beach proper to comb, I was getting anxious. Hekate’s rosary thumped on my hip as I walked; I still stopped occasionally but was no longer under the trance that had propelled me to the lighthouse.

Almost to the beach, a low patch of mugwort, young and green, called.  Picking some, I asked her to help me in my search.

Sister Mugwort, open my eyes,
help me find the hidden prize.

I inhaled her chrysanthemummy scent and felt myself slipping back into that walking, seeking trance. There were some long bones, maybe from a pig, and some smaller ones, likely from the chicken. Scattered all over the beach were these little round thin cardboard washers. I feared that perhaps the spirits had mistaken these for true holey stones. Or, perhaps they were just screwing with me.

I made three passes up and down the moon curve of the beach, and it was on the fourth that I spied an acorn resting atop a mat of seaweed.

That, right there, is what you call a sign.

It was the only terrestrial seed I had seen on the entire beach. I felt like I was being hit with the proverbial clue-by-four. Her voice said, “Dig deep, little druid, dig deep for what you seek. An acorn marks the spot.”

I scooped up the acorn and began sifting though the flotsam until I reached a layer of pebbles. I worked methodically, like I had been trained–though without the benefit of a GPS-sighted 10 m x 10 m grid system. Minutes passed. Breathe in the mugwort. Breath in, breathe out, dig deeper, dig wider.

I picked up yet another cratered pebble like the scores I had uncovered before it. This time, light shone all the way through near the very edge. But when I held it up to my eye, I couldn’t see anything. The angle was such that the light could pass through but I still couldn’t see through the hole.

“Not good enough,” I muttered, reburied it.

I shuffled further into the setting sun, shoved aside another patch of seaweed, dug down to the stone layer. More time passed, ankles sore, back hunched. Another dozen pockmarked rejects fly away from my frustrated fingers. Then.

A tiny, black pebble in my palm, a small hole board through and through its side, perfect in its asymmetry. I held it up to my eye, just to make sure. The tiny aperture warped the sun-striped beach, wavering my vision with the wind. A window to the Otherworld. He was not at all what I had imagined, but he was perfectly suited to the task.

Body stiff and cracking, I walked pack towards the low stone seawall.  I poured out an offering of water, scattered some nuts for the birds.  Ate some chocolate and fruit leather to bring myself back from that place where I dug into the Otherworld and with the spirits’ blessings, pulled a little piece of it back into my own.

Magic isn’t an easy thing. It’s rarely certain. At best it can tip Fortune’s wheel a bit more in our favor. At worst it leads to delusions and insanity. But when it works, when you have that bone-deep certainty that the Others have your back, nothing is more beautiful.

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Loosing Strife, Druid-Style

9594875574_9417ba690fThe purple loosestrife just started to bloom down by the brook. It’s an undeniably spectacular plant, bringing color to parched summer meadows and brook edges.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it blooms in the hottest months.

That’s when strife’s stranglehold needs the most loosening, after all. Violent crime rates, including those for aggravated and sexual assault, notoriously spike up to 12% higher during the hot summer months. But that’s just the general yearly (sadly predictable) increase in violence and irritability.

And now there’s the added complication of climate change coming into play.  An interesting article published in Science back in 2013 explores the influence of climate change on human conflict. From the abstract:

We find strong causal evidence linking climatic events to human conflict across a range of spatial and temporal scales and across all major regions of the world. The magnitude of climate’s influence is substantial: for each one standard deviation (1σ) change in climate toward warmer temperatures or more extreme rainfall, median estimates indicate that the frequency of interpersonal violence rises 4% and the frequency of intergroup conflict rises 14%. Because locations throughout the inhabited world are expected to warm 2σ to 4σ by 2050, amplified rates of human conflict could represent a large and critical impact of anthropogenic climate change.

The times, they are a-changin’. Culture (rednecks taking up arms against white supremacy?) climate (iceberg the size of Delaware?), certainty (Social Security? Don’t bet on it, you entitled Millennials)–they’re all a-changin’.  Stability comes with a price as old as Cain and Able and we’ve repeatedly sacrificed resiliency for efficiency and profit.  There comes a point when the supply lines are so fragile that any shift will cause catastrophic changes. The Tower will tumble.

Amidst the almost nostalgic mobilization of “grassroots” and “drops in the ocean,” loosestrife can help ease our families and communities through these changes. Allying with loosestrife can help you bring peace to your three feet of influence.  It’s one of the plants I use magically on a regular basis during the summer, a charm to ease anxiety and tension. A vase or two of the flowers in your home will help mitigate the rising tempers that inevitably come with August heat. Or, see what it does for you on the rush-hour subway.

Loosestrife is invasive. Loosestrife changes the land, one of the plants of Tower Time.  It continues its steady expansion across the marshes, pushing out native species. Yet what we called “manifest destiny” for our white European selves, we decry in a plant as being “alien” and harmful to the status quo.  One of those “damned immigrants” taking other plants’ jobs. There is a touch of irony that a plant named “loose strife” has inspired such a crusade against it.

It’s no esoteric accident that purple loosestrife has proliferated in a time of such conflict. Loosestrife’s march is a warning, and a needed ally.  If we are to bring her back into balance in our ecosystems, we must also master the same imbalance within ourselves.

Don’t hate the mirror that reflects your own shortcomings.

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.

The Grass is Always Greener

IMG_0558Last week coming home from work, I stopped at the farmers market hosted by one of the rest stops on the Mass Pike.  A woman, a bit older than I, was selling a variety of hand-milled goat milk soap. Local hand-made soap in and of itself is nice, but what really attracted my attention was the variety of herbs she incorporated into her bars and lotions, and the fact that she made very good use of their natural medicinal properties. They smelled absolutely wonderful, and as I browsed we began chatting.

“Are you heading home?” she asked.

“Yes, I work down in Greenwich, Connecticut on weekends.”

“Oh? What do you do down there?”

“Believe it or not, I’m an archaeologist.” This is the point in the conversation when most folks get this rather starry eyed look, and the soap lady was no exception.

“I was so interested in that sort of thing back in high school!” she gushed. “But then I got to college and had no idea how I would make a living at it. What’s the job market like?”

“Truthfully, I’ve been very lucky. I only have a AB, but through my advisor was able to get my current position after I didn’t get into grad school. But most people aren’t so lucky. That being said,” I added, “I’m only a research archaeologist. I don’t do any fieldwork, or go on digs, or discover new artifacts. I just sit at a desk and help edit papers.”

“But still, that’s amazing! I wish I had been able to do something like that.” She swiped my debit card and finished wrapping up my soap selection, a lovely calendula-lemongrass  blend. “You’re really an inspiration.”

I blushed, embarrassed. “Um, thanks.” This is the point in the conversation where I always feel like a fraud, because no matter how many disclaimers I make, that Indiana Jones archetype seems to override all of my caveats. I forced myself to meet her eyes. Blue and clear, the first signs of crows feet perched in the corners.

In a rush I said, “You know, this is what I really want to be doing.” I gestured at the soaps and herbs displayed on her table. “I’m an amateur gardener and herbalist, and I’d love to make a full-time go of it. So really, to me, you’re an inspiration, too.”

“Me? I’m just a farm girl.”

“Yeah,” I sighed. “The grass is always greener.”

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!

Motherwort and Other Characters

This past week has been one of splendiferous adventures in plant identification.  My best friend recently introduced me to the New England Wildflower Society’s plant ID website, and it has been so much fun tracking down all manner of flowering plants.  Blooming this week in the Assabet River bioregion, we have Common Cinquefoil, White Campion, Motherwort, Sweetfern, and Horsenettle.

 Motherwort set me off on this journey of discovery.  You see, there was this strange little seedling in my garden plot this spring, but it looked so purposeful, that I talked with my row partner and we decided to leave it and see what happened. Now, she (the mystery plant, not my row partner!) is about two feet tall and happily feeding the bees. Motherwort is also a friend to humans, especially women, with many useful medicinal properties. We’ve decided to transplant her to the community herb garden, marking her with a sign as medicinal.

Common cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex) was another little mystery flower that had been bugging me this year.  Some sources claim cinquefoil as a fairly common medieval spell component, I’m guessing because the five finger leaves are reminiscent of hands. It’s astringent, antiseptic, soothing for the skin, and the powdered roots can be used to stop bleeding.

Every year I forget the name of White Campion (Silene latefolia) and have to look up. Maybe this year it will finally stick.  While it doesn’t have any medicinal uses, being high in saponins (much like quinoa), simmering the root will create a sort of soap. And, it’s just plain pretty to happen upon in the meadow.

Sweetfern is one of the first plants I got to know when I moved to my current home. It is very much associated with poor soils and stands of pine, both of which happened to be abundant on our property. Sweetfern can make a very nice tea and be useful in a variety of ailments, especially as an astringent. I’ll likely be harvesting it this year to experiment with as an insect-repellent incense.

Horsenettle is a member of the nightshade family–Solanum carolinensis to be specific. It’s often classified as a noxious weed, and I’ve had trouble finding any constructive use for it (if someone in the audience knows of one, leave a comment!). It’s the only member of the Solanums that has thorns, which makes its removal particularly tricky.

Lastly, I helped my father identify this little fellow as Sheep Sorrel, a member of the vast dock and sorrel genus. It’s been driving him crazy in the garden, as it sends its roots right underneath other plants and makes it extremely difficult to remove. He noted with some dismay that it doesn’t even have the decency to wilt after it’s been picked!  On the bright side, it is edible, and lens a lemony flavor to salads and soups.

I’ll be harvesting the Motherwort and Sweetfern, along with Mugwort, Agrimony, and Feverfew over the coming days.  I’m finally feeling like I have enough a) reading knowledge and b) glass jars to try making tinctures.  Agrimony is one of the things that keeps me from turning into an absolute badger in March/April when Seasonal Affective Disorder seems to hit me hardest.  I’ve made tea from the dried leaves in the past, and have taken a commercial tincture, but I’m looking forward to trying some of my own brew.

Oh, and the first blackberries are also ready to pick.  Just one more reason to love the Solstice season!