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Who are the Ancestors?

Two weekends ago, Tom and I took Otherworld Apothecary to our local pagan pride day in late September. The theme of this year’s gathering was “Ancestral Rites”, and I was asked to give a lecture on “Who are the Ancestors?” The talk was scheduled as the first of the day as a basic introduction, to be followed by talks on particulars of ancestral devotion, shrines, offerings and related topics. While not quite what I was contemplating speaking about (the influence of Spiritualism in early 20th century occulture), the lecture seemed to be well received. Following are my notes written up in long form for anyone who may be interested in my perspective and thoughts on the topic.

A simple ancestor shrine

Hello, and welcome to East Tennessee’s Pagan Pride Day 2017. Before I get started with the lecture, while folks continue to wander in a bit, a little about me and my background. I’m Jack, and I’m half of Otherworld Apothecary, a magical shop operating since 2004, selling herbs and resins, oils, incense, potions, and other such things as well as doing consultations and magic on behalf of clients. I am a traditional witch of two admissions — an initiatory pre-Gardnerian British witchcraft tradition, and, more recently, the old Kentucky line of Gardnerian craft. I also am the Magister of a small hearth and a practitioner of Appalachian folk magic. Specifically to this topic, I’ve maintained an ancestral devotional practice for nearly two decades.

I’ve been asked today to give a talk on “Who are the ancestors?” Most pagans and magical practitioners spend a part of their ritual year, typically the fall and early winter — generally around Halloween/Samhain — thinking about and working with their ancestors. Other traditions, such as mine, work with them year round, but find these practices heightened during this season. A commonly heard phrase, borrowed from spiritualism, is that “the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest at this time”. So you’re likely to start hearing a lot more about “the ancestors” as the weather shifts and the leaves begin to change and the mist comes over the mountains.

But “who are the ancestors?” This is a question with a lot of different kinds of answers. There’s one pretty straightforward answer: the word ultimately comes from the Latin “antecessor” meaning one who goes before. Ancestor means a person from whom one is directly descended. They’re the people, now dead, whose genetic material combined in the great dance of life and ultimately gave rise to your physical body.

This straightforward dictionary answer is unsatisfactory in depth for a 45 minute talk, though, and additionally there are other answers to the question “who are the ancestors?” that depend on culture, tradition and circumstance. This is my take on the topic, drawn from my own personal practice and my informing traditions. I will also attempt to bring in lore from outside my own experience that I’ve picked up over the years in conversations with others from other traditions and perspectives.

To begin, I’m defining ancestors as “dead folks,” so, though one’s parents are technically “ancestors”, I don’t consider the word applicable to them until after they’ve shuffled off this mortal coil. There are different types of dead people, categories if you will, I’m going to discuss 6 of them and for ease of discussion I’m arranging them into 3 groups. Though these are not hard and fast or mutually exclusive groups, they’re a good way of conceptualizing. The first group is the one closest to you, and generally the easiest one to contact and start working with. These are your Blood Ancestors—your own lineage, and include 1. The Beloved Dead and 2. The Ancestral Stream. The second group is based on where you live and the culture you’re a part of; they’re a part of your place and the stories you tell and partake in. These are 3. The Dead of the Land and 4. Heroes and Saints. The last group is of interest if you’re a witch, if you have The Sight, or you’re otherwise tied into magical currents. They’re 5. the Mighty Dead and 6. The Restless Dead. I’ll discuss each of these groups in turn, and then give a few thoughts on why any of this is at all important.

Old Grey Cemetary, Knoxville TN

1. The Beloved Dead

This is most often what people mean when they talk about “ancestors”. These are people you knew in life bound to you with love: your grandparents and great-grandparents, aunts and uncles, and may include friends and lovers. This is the easiest group of ancestors to contact and work with, and generally the most healing to do so. You know these people, what they enjoyed in life, their history and their stories, you miss them and want them to be well wherever they are now.

Often, people have a shrine to the beloved dead in their home. In southern Appalachian culture, this is fairly ubiquitous, even in homes where no one practices any kind of occult or magical work. It may be called a memory wall or memory table and is often along or under the stairs, hallway, or other liminal space and consists of photos and objects belonging to the beloved dead as well as members of the ancestral stream.

Working with these folks can involve simple practices, such as leaving flowers in a vase or a nod and prayer to your Gran for strength. Spiritual practices can also include providing vessels of fresh cool water to magnify their presence, offering special or favorite foods, and communicating through spirit boards.

2. The Ancestral Stream

In my tradition’s worldview, and many others I know of (Germanic heathenry and other Northern European traditions, Celtic Reconstructionism, Anglo-Saxon sorcery, and others) the soul is composed of multiple parts. This soul conglomeration dissociates upon death, and the different parts go their separate ways. One of these pieces is the ancestral stream. Like the beloved dead, these are your blood ancestors, but farther back than people you knew in life. You are bound to them with your blood and body. From one perspective, outside of the here and now, you’re already dead and part of this stream.

Old lore may speak of the ancestral stream as the Distaff and Spear, which refers to the female and male branches of your family, respectively. In Germanic heathenry, particularly powerful members of the ancestral stream are known as Disir and Alfar. You may find, as you develop your ancestral practice that you’re contacted by some of these particularly powerful individuals, or specific members with which you resonate for a variety of reasons. Generally, though, the ancestral stream tends to speak as a collective, or as indistinct voices offering wisdom, guidance and strength.

3. Dead of the Land

In contrast to the previous groups, which are the ancestors of blood, the dead of the land are based on where you live and the culture of which you’re a part. For our culture, particularly, Appalachians tend to be very placed based; these are folks who lived in the shadow of these mountains and loved them just like we do. Their hearts and memories are tied to the land we live on. Your relationship with these ancestors is based in the land. You have an intimate bond with the dead buried in the land you live on. Their bodies are interred in the ground, break down into soil nutrients and are taken up by plants, which you then consume for food, medicine and magic. In times past, these place-based dead were blood ancestors, but nowadays, folks tend to live outside of their ancestral homesteads and instead the dead of the land are other East Tennesseans, Knoxvillians, and mountain folk.

The dead of the land can be powerful place based guardians. This may be one of the intentions behind the building of mounds for dead, the merging of human dead with land wights to become powerful persistent guardian spirits. In southern Appalachian lore, the first (or most recent) person buried in a graveyard becomes the guardian spirit of that place, and should be petitioned and acknowledged before any magic is performed there. Additionally, practitioners who work outside in lonely eldritch places will often meet the dead of the land at their working sites, and it behooves us to remember that they, too, are our ancestors of a sort.

4. Heroes and Saints

Another class of ancestors, based around the culture we belong to and the stories we tell and partake in, are those dead considered heroes and saints. The veneration of deceased heroes started in classical culture, where people gave offerings to particularly powerful heroes that were in the process of becoming divine and which could aid them from the afterlife. For the most part, these are localized dead who are culturally famous in a specific place, though individuals like Odysseus, Heracles, Ariadne and Orpheus are also among them. The notion of hero cults extended into the rise of Christianity where saints, many of them again powerful localized dead, were able to help those who venerate them. Saints feature in many magical traditions and spells today, like the charming traditions of magic from Ireland and Scotland (see the Carmina Gadelica and other sources), Iberian folk magic (see the work of Jesse Hathaway Diaz), and some African traditional religions.

British cultural heroes, like King Arthur, have a played a fairly large part of the modern pagan revival. They were invoked to lend their aid by Dion Fortune to save Britain from the Nazis and are also still worked with by the Gardnerian Tradition. Though modern Americans don’t really have cognates to cultural heroes like King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, or localized powerful Saints outside of Latin America, the idea can still be applied in the form of People’s Saints. These are cultural figures whose life is notable and exemplary, who may be venerated, emulated and invoked for aid in certain areas of one’s life. For instance, those working for environmental causes may declare John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold as people’s saints and invoke their aid in raising awareness of environmental issues and protecting land and resources. [I’m planning a future blog post on People’s Saints soon]. These are just a few ways that cultural ancestors are still relevant to modern practice.

5. The Mighty Dead

A fifth class of ancestral spirits relevant to those who are witches and/or initiated into specific magical lineages are those called the Mighty Dead. Gardner believed they were witches who no longer reincarnated, but instead acted as teaching spirits to currently practicing witches. In Witchcraft Today he says: “But I am told that in time you may become one of the mighty ones, who are also called the mighty dead. I can learn nothing about them, but they seem to be like demigods — or one might call them saints.” They are also sometimes termed the Hidden Company (as Evan John Jones calls them in Witchcraft: A Tradition Renewed). The Secret Chiefs or Ascended Masters of Theosophy and Dion Fortune’s Society of Light and The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn are a related concept, seen as mysterious specific teaching ancestors and guiding spirits of the order.

As a class, the Mighty Dead are practitioners of the magical arts bound to you by lineage and virtue; when joining an initiatory tradition, they’re often specifically named and formally introduced to you. This hidden company of witches guide and teach, protect and sometimes cause mischief, and help the living members of the group develop and grow. They are honored and participate in the rites because they are still a part of the circle of Art and still a part of the People. For those who work on an apprenticeship model, the mighty dead may also be part of the chain of Virtue from teacher to student down through the years. For those not of an initiatory lineage, they may still make their presence known through Dreams and spirit contact.

Critically, though this is a concept shared by many magical groups by different names, the names are not simply interchangeable. Each group or tradition has a distinct set of master practitioners who have gone before. Therefore it is useful to not jumble terminology, as Ascended Masters and the Hidden Company, for example, are the same only in concept, not in membership.

6. Restless Dead

The last class of spirits I’m going to talk about are the outliers here. They’re not really ancestral spirits. In fact, you don’t want your ancestors to end up in this category. They are the restless dead, those who in Appalachia we call ‘haints’. People have encountered and feared the restless dead since ancient times. There are all sorts of spells for protection and for laying or getting rid of the restless dead from the Ancient Greeks on down. These are people who died badly, who have unfinished business, who are forgotten, stuck, hungry. Part of the work of ancestral devotion is so that your ancestors do not end up as restless dead.

Appalachian family afternoon

Why ancestral work?

Which brings me to the close of my talk, a few notes on why it matters.

The first answer I have to offer is simply: Because we should. Without any magical benefits or considerations of spirit contact at all, it’s human nature to remember the dead. It’s natural to want peace and light for people you love and who are now gone from this world. We owe a great debt to the people who came before us; a great many of them paved the way for us to have the life we do, in a world of more freedom and more opportunity, just as we strive to make our world better for the future.

This brings me to my second reason for ancestral devotion: increased luck. Your ancestors lived their life so you could live yours, you are the continuation of their legacy and they want what’s best for you. They want you to have a happy, full life with opportunity and love. They can help open opportunities, and smooth things in your life. Essentially ancestral spirits improve and safeguard the luck of their family and descendants.

Relatedly, your ancestors can also offer protection. This is both spiritual protection as well as protection of a more mundane nature — using your intuition to warn you about being in the wrong place at the wrong time, ward your house from fires and theft, etc.

I was taught that regular devotion to your ancestors also builds your might in the spirit world. Practice contacting the spirits of your ancestors means you will have the skills to contact people who are not your dead, but who might be helpful in some capacity. We start with those closest to us, our lives and our sphere of influence and eventually are able to interact with a whole host of spiritual entities and forces. Other spirits will also notice the might you gain from regular ancestral devotion.

Lastly, wisdom, guidance, and magic may be had from the ancestors in their whisperings if you only listen. One of my blood ancestors got me into genealogy and guides me in finding the branches of our family, their names and their stories. Another has given me recipes for healing teas a few days before I came down with a cold. I assure you, your lives and your magic will be enriched through ancestral practice.

I leave you today with a quote by the brilliant Nobel Prize winning physicist, Erwin Schrodinger. He said “No self is of itself alone. It has a long chain of intellectual ancestors. The “I” is chained to ancestry by many factors… This is not mere allegory, but an eternal memory.”

On Herbal Correspondences

Recently one of our students asked us about correspondences for planetary ruler and element for herbs and resins. In the process of explaining where those come from and the underlying theory for deriving these correspondences, Tom and I took the opportunity to revisit and update the ones listed for the botanicals on the Otherworld Apothecary website. We thought we’d write an article to share this information with you, dear reader, as well.

Like many occultists when they first start learning magical herbalism, Tom and I supplemented our early botanical learning, gleaned from gardens and woodland wanderings as young witchlings, with the magical information found in the one of most common books on the subject at the time: Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. Though not without its flaws, it is a thorough introduction to magical herbalism, and for every entry Cunningham gives planetary and elemental correspondences. But where do these come from? Why do some herbal sources disagree on these associations?

Planetary and Elemental correspondences arise from classical medicinal herbalism, where the practice of herbalism was coupled with medical astrology– a system which started in ancient Greece and continued through the medieval period into early modern medicine. In this philosophy, all herbal medicines and remedies used in treatment have their own inherent Nature and Temperament reflected in the traits of the plant. They also have, through these qualities and virtues, certain astrological affinities with specific planets and signs of the zodiac. In essence, a plant’s astrological and elemental attributes are a sort of filing system to categorize their specific Natures and their action upon the human physium.

Perhaps the most famous practitioner of this sort of herbalism was Nicholas Culpeper, an early 17th century English botanist, herbalist, physician, and astrologer. Culpeper revolutionized medicine through the development of a sophisticated system of herbal-astrological medicine, applying reason and the scientific method to study, offering cheap and easy herbal treatments, and by attempting to educate laypersons about their health through the publication of his books. Of note is his popular and widely available herbal, “The English Physician or The Compleat Herbal”, which has been an influential text for Tom and me and countless other practitioners. Our herbal correspondences are based upon his foundation.

Planetary Correspondences

The planetary association of herbs arises from two theoretical underpinnings: plant traits and medicinal action on the physium. As mentioned above, a plant’s astrological correspondence is a way to categorize its specific Nature, which is reflected in the traits of the plant, including growth form, color of its flowers, leaf shape, scent, taste, reproductive structures, habitat and other characteristics of note. This is also coupled with the effect that the plant has upon the human body and used to assign a particular planetary affiliation.

For example, evergreen herbs like rosemary, whose expression of the Life Force is steady and constant like the Sun, are considered solar, as are plants that possess yellow flowers like calendula or those that look like the sun like eyebright. Medicinal actions that are solar in nature include: strengthening the heart (associated with the astrological sign of leo, and ruled by the sun), bringing a feeling of warmth and ease and well-being, and stimulating or clearing the eyesight. So, for instance, St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perfoliatum) blooms around midsummer, has flower buds which produce an amber red fluid, has bright yellow solar flowers and is used to dispel anxiety and promote feelings of wellbeing, thus it is an herb of the sun par excellence.

Where a plant grows is also a trait that can also be an indication of its planetary nature. For example, herbs that grow in waste places like graveyards and ditches are generally plants of Saturn. Culpeper’s entry on Henbane from The Compleat Herbal states: “I wonder how astrologers could take on them to make this an herb of Jupiter; and yet Mizaldus, a man of a penetrating brain, was of that opinion as well as the rest; the herb is indeed under the dominion of Saturn, and I prove it by this argument: All the herbs which delight most to grow in saturnine places, are saturnine herbs. But Henbane delights most to grow in saturnine places, and whole cart loads of it may be found near the places where they empty the common Jakes, and scarce a ditch to be found without it growing by it. Ergo, it is an herb of Saturn.” That henbane is also a poisonous herb only adds to its Saturn nature.

Elemental Correspondences

The elemental correspondences of herbs arise from humoral theory–the four humors or temperaments are elemental in nature and are a combination of two different axes: Hot vs. Cold and Wet vs Dry. Here are some action keywords that describe the differences.

Cold: Sedating, quieting, slows
Hot: Exciting, activating, moves and circulates
Dry: Focuses, Constricts, constrains, dries, irritates
Wet: Expansive, diffuses, infilling, moistens, eases

As you can see from the chart at right, herbs that are cold and dry are those associated with elemental Earth, those that are cold and wet are elemental water, hot and dry elemental fire, while herbs that are hot and wet are elemental air.

To determine elemental attributes under this system, one considers the plants Nature with regard to the two axes. For example, patchouli is exciting and activating and so is “hot’, and also is expansive and diffusive into a space, and so it is “wet”. Thus, even though it has an earthy smell, patchouli’s nature is of elemental air. This is also reflected in patchouli’s magical use—it’s used in money magic to increase flow and commerce (an air trait), in lust magic to increase and inflame passions (like air on a flame), and also in divination and sight blends (also an air quality).

Myrrh is another good example. It’s sedating; if you’ve ever been in a room clouded with myrrh smoke you know the feeling of heaviness that it causes. Thus it’s “cold” on the hot vs. cold axis. It’s also focusing and constricting and drying (used medically to dry up wounds), so is “dry”. Thus myrrh’s nature is cold and dry–elemental earth. While it is used in trance (often thought by magicians to be a “water” trait) myrrh’s nature is of earth, and is used for “earthy” necromancy, preservation and protection.

And so on, for each we considered.

In many cases our judgement agrees with Culpeper and Cunningham, and in other cases we differ, as is to be expected given different people working in different places and times and giving different weight to the various aspects of the plant under consideration.

Initially, we included the planet and element as a sort of key or guide on the herb labels for those shopping in our festival booth. They then transitioned over to the website since they were already in the database, where they persist (along with an embarrassingly large number of the original label descriptions!). We feel these categorizations are useful to occultists for a variety of reasons, from making fluid condensers to gaining a richer understanding of the energetic subtleties between similar aromatic resins. We hope you are able to make use of them, and that this insight into our process aids in that as well.


One of the important parts of our personal practice is the regular undertaking of a rite of purification. Public discussion of modern witchcraft tends to avoid the whys and hows of the regular performance of purification rites. This is possibly because so many of us reject the notions of moral purity common to many forms of Christianity and its attendant teachings on sin and penance. I certainly do; I’m more inclined to agree with Mary Oliver in her poem “Wild Geese”:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

But sin and moral impurity are not the kind of pollution that I’m addressing here, where failure to abide by a list of rules makes one unclean. Instead, spiritual pollution is a consequence of living; psychic or energetic pollution would also be appropriate terms. Just as the physical body gets dust and dirt on it from going about the world, so too does the energetic body. Purification, then, as a remedy, cleanses, provides expiation, and re-sets boundaries and order. I tend to refer to spiritual pollution as miasma–up until the turn of the 20th century, miasma referred to contaminated or unhealthy air thought to bring disease and was the precursor to germ theory. It comes from the Greek word for spiritual pollution which had to be removed through purification rites before contact with the gods was made. In our practice and experience, energetic or spiritual pollution is a dark, sticky fog that impairs the aetheric body of the witch and comes from a number of sources.

Sources of Spiritual Pollution
Graduate school taught Tom and Kate and I a lot about the importance of regular ritual purification, mostly because it was a high-stress environment. We were surrounded by people in agitated emotional states coping (or not coping) with large amounts of anxiety, and being immersed in such an atmosphere built up pollution. Our covenmate Kate describes this source of pollution as “emotional detritus”. This unpleasant atmosphere slowly clouds and clings to the aetheric body and eventually clogs energetic centers. People often experience this source of pollution in emotionally charged situations like funerals.

In addition to this sort of passive contamination, modern life affords us the opportunity to come into contact with and be affected by toxic people and people who are jealous of us. It’s a basic tenet of magic that thoughts are things, that deeds and words carry spiritual weight. Appalachian lore tells us about the power of focused jealousy, envy and anger to hex and harm and befoul. One doesn’t need to be in graduate school to experience this; stress from a competitive work environment can be just as bad.

Related to the negativity clinging to ourselves accumulated directly or indirectly from others is that from spiritual sources. Like attracts like, after all; this is the cornerstone of sympathetic magic. One of my favorite terms for spiritual pollution is flocculum abominii— little clouds of negativity that drift about and attach themselves to people and places. Those of an animist or spiritist bent may think of this clinging pollution as attracting little imps that feed on or delight in such energy. And then, there are other more directed spiritual sources of pollution: inherited ancestral baggage, angry ghosts haunting you, offended landwights, the evil eye, and maleficia.

But it doesn’t really have to be anything so dramatic as all that. Spiritual pollution accumulates from living. Life contains hard and terrible things after all. The ancients held that exposure to such things– death, sickness and disease, war, violence, bloodshed, and chaos– caused miasma. Modern life is in no way removed from these, making regular and consistent ritual purification not only a good idea, but also rather necessary. As Ian Corrigan succintly put it: “If it makes you feel fucked-up, it’s pollution. It is the psychic or spiritual or magical residue of those encounters, those feelings, those small, biting imps, which we mean to wash away with ritual purification.”

It should be obvious, then, that one further source of potential pollution comes from ourselves and our personal failures both in word and in deed. Jesse Hathaway Diaz in his blog post recently on the power and place of St Peter within Iberian witchcraft states rather poignantly:

“It is in the small betrayals, not the treason planned and strategized, but in the tiny broken promises of our failed resolve that we find sympathy with Peter. Well-intentioned promises that when put to the test fail, even beyond our wish to keep them. What makes us fail? Were we wrong about ourselves? What we desired? If we hold the straw-man of our idealized self to the flame, will it survive? The cock crows either way. We strive to keep our word… But when we fail, do we become failure instead? How do we react to this failure?”

Though Diaz wasn’t addressing purification, I found his words resonant with this source of potential pollution I believe many people encounter. One of the basic powers of the witch, the sorcerer, and the alchemist is that of transformation. We may take this failure to live up to our own ideals, the self-pollution of disappointment in not being who we would like, and the guilt we may inflict upon ourselves for wrongs caused and transform it. We can strive to make amends and do better. Magicians may destroy who we were, and direct the fire of that destruction toward becoming who we envision. Truthfully, such magical acts go beyond undertaking simple rites of regular purification, but it is a necessary first step on the path.


Having covered potential sources of miasma and spiritual pollution, what should one expect to gain by getting rid of it? The most basic reason for doing regular purification rites is to feel better. The effects of spiritual pollution are decidedly unpleasant and we are better off without them. For witches and sorcerers, an added benefit to doing these rites are better and more beneficial relationships with spirits and more pleasant journeys into the otherworld. Not carrying a bunch of energetic pollution with us into the otherworld means we’re less likely to attract nasty or dangerous spirits through the principle of sympathy. When the aethric body is free of clinging clouds of negative energies, it becomes easier to send that body forth in dream and trance. Lastly, regular purification offers us a better relationship with luck. A proper discussion of luck is a topic for a whole other post sometime, but the important thing to note is that luck is a thing which can be lost or gained, stolen or accumulated. Cleansing spiritual pollution affords us a better channel for luck to work within our lives.

This brings us to the practical discussion of how one performs ritual purification. Many magical groups have a similar process, and it at its base consists of 3 parts: Ablution, Fumigation and Earthing.

The first step involves cleansing with water to dissolve and wash away. Bathing in the sea is traditional, as is standing under a waterfall. You may take a ritual bath of mixed sea salts. Lavender, as its Latin name lavandula (to wash) suggests, is an appropriate additive to ritual purification baths, as is vervain. You may also decide to bless holy water and cleanse the body with it. Please note, this should be more than token sprinkling with an apserger. There are many sources of water that can be used in ablution–water from the sea, waterfalls, sacred springs, holy wells, violent thunderstorms, but in general the water should be from a moving source as this helps to break up and disperse energetic pollution.

This is accomplished through the use of incense to cleanse and restore order to the aetheric body and energetic centers. Fumigation has been performed in both the new and old world throughout history, from the smudging practices of first nations peoples, to old anglosaxon and celtic practices of fumigation and recaning. Many plants and resins can be useful in this sort of work; our own blend uses juniper, rosemary and frankincense. Creating thick white smoke that you can brush with a bird wing or feather fan is particularly effective.

Earthing is the same concept as grounding energy promoted by most eclectic modern pagans; the point is that the spiritual gunk you clean off is put somewhere so it doesn’t get on someone else and it can go on to wherever such things go. This step is implied in ocean cleansing, you’re in a very large body of water with a lot of dissolved minerals. This part of the purification rite may also be effected by standing on iron, or in a ring of chalk, bone ash or eggshell, or upon stones at a holy site.

Try to perform ritual purification at least once a month for 6 months or so. If you do, you’ll start to get a sense of when you need to perform it, timed to your own lifestyle and practice.


Traditional Weather Witching

As I write this article a summer storm has blown in from the west. The sky is dark and lightning is striking towards the ridge. The wind has picked up and there’s a charge in the air. I’ve got the windows open; this is my favorite part of late summer — the thunderstorms. Years ago, I used to stay at my grandparent’s ranch during the summer. Late summer was the time for haymaking, an activity made complicated by summer thunderstorms. You need enough rain for the hay to grow but also enough sun once the hay was cut to that it could dry before being baled and put away. I can understand why charming the weather would be a useful skill.

The weather’s always had a “make or break” influence over humanity, but especially so in late summer when crops depend on rain without devastating storms. As such, magical folk throughout time have been messing with the weather for the good and ill of humanity. Indeed the only law of the Christian Empire against magic made by Constantine in 321 AD exempts magical “steps taken in country districts, that there may be no apprehension of (heavy) rain when the grapes are ripe, or that they may not be dashed to pieces by the force of hailstorms.” There are references to weather magic as early as ancient Greece, as in this quote by Empedocles:

And you’ll stop the force of the tireless winds that chase over the earth
And destroy the fields with their gusts and blasts;
But then again, if you so wish, you’ll stir up winds as requital.
Out of a black rainstorm you’ll create a timely drought
For men, and out of a summer drought you’ll create
Tree-nurturing floods that will stream through the ether
And you will fetch back from Hades the life-force of a man who has died.

You can find spells and charms to influence the weather in a ton of cultures, right up through the modern age, and I’d be writing chapters on them if I were to cover the subject thoroughly.


“I’ll give thee a wind.
Thou’rt kind.
And I another.
I myself have all the other,
And the very ports they blow,
All the quarters that they know
I’ the shipman’s card.”
~The Tragedy of Macbeth, I, iii

One of the most basic magical ways for calling up a wind is whistling. Tales in Appalachia tell of those gifted with the talent of “whistling up a wind”. Those who aren’t gifted naturally with this talent can make whistles out of alder wood to conjure the wind. Incidentally the predecessor of the Irish tin whistle, the Feadan, is made from alder wood. Maybe it’s because anyone who could charm the wind surely could charm an audience.

Bullroarers (a long flat wooden blade on a string) can also be whirled around in the air to call up the wind, especially when made of lightning struck oak (though in Cornish craft, such tools are used to call spirits). Specially made weather working brooms can be swung about your head in the same manner. Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius) is an appropriate material for a broom made to stir the winds in the sky. Its pungent yellow blossoms are allied with the creatures of the air and its seeds are dispersed over great distances by the wind. Regardless of the method you choose to call the wind, make sure your hair is unbound and loose; binding and knotting are ways to capture the wind, not call it.

winds resized
A male witch selling wind knots to a group of sailors from the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, by Olaus Magnus (1555).

In a woodcut (above) housed in the collections of the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall, you can see a male witch selling a wind charm to sailors. This was a common and well-known practice in pre-gardnerian witchcraft found in Devon and Cornwall. According to Cecil Williamson “There were well known sea witches selling the wind in each of the following places: Sennen, St.Ives, Appledore, Lee, Lynton and Porlock, where one found Mother Leaky still trying to flog her wind strings with their knots, right up to the mid 1930’s.”

These charms are made by going to a high-windswept place, and tying a certain sailor’s knot into a stout piece of rope to capture the wind. Winds from different directions or of varying forces may be captured using this method. Three such knots are tied in the charm, often with each containing a wind of varying strength. Traditionally this charm is then sold to sailors, but good luck getting a sailor, fisherman, or navy man to buy it nowadays.

According to De Lamiis Libre (or the Book on Witches) written in 1577 by the Dutch physician and demonologist Johann Weyer (quoted by Murray in God of the Witches), witches were said to bring rain “by casting flint stones behind their backs towards the west, or flinging a little sand into the air, or striking a river with a broom and so sprinkling the wet of it towards heaven, stirring water with the finger in a hole in the ground, or boiling hogs’ bristles in a pot.” These are all quite good and time honored methods for calling forth rain but let’s focus on three of the more practical methods for conjuring rain: more broom charms, incense, and water on stones.

As brooms can be used to stir the winds in the sky, they can also be used to bring rain. The broom end is splashed in freshwater (a river, spring, stream, or basin filled with water from such a natural source) and the drops are flung into the air over your head. Though there are many different plants that have rainbringing properties, perhaps the plant par excellence associated with weather charming (and the one best used to make a rain-bringing broom) is Heather (Calluna vulgaris). Heather is allied with the realms of mist and rain, and grows upon the wild heaths of the British Isles. It’d be an excellent herb to include in weather spells of all kinds.

In fact, a medieval incense recipe specifically to make it rain includes heather. This incense, calls for henbane, heather and fern to be mixed together and smoldered beneath the sky to bring forth rain. Many old spells recommend burning various herbs to call rain, most likely because such plants are so allied with the realms of water, mist, and rain that by burning them, you’re calling the rain to put out the fire on their beloved plants.

Lastly an old method for causing rain is to fling water or pour it through a sieve (the ones used for winnowing grain) onto a stone. The stones specified are usually ones considered in folklore to be under the protection of “the Folk” or in some way allied to old pagan religions. If you don’t happen to have standing stones haunted by “the good neighbors” close by, your hearth stone or (one specially designated) will substitute. Pour fresh water (again from a natural source) through a sieve onto the stone, or fling it using your heather broom, while praying and saying charms to bring the rain.

Protection from Storms
The last category of weather spells that need to be covered is the protection from and prevention of storms. Dame Natura isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, storms can be deadly and destructive. Hailstorms, flooding, gale winds and lightning can destroy homes and crops; there’s a wealth of traditional charms to prevent this from happening.

In the mountains of the Appalachians and the Ozarks there are a whole host of spells to prevent storms. One is to take an axe that you’ve used to chop wood and rush in the direction of the approaching storm with it over your head and swing it into the ground at the edge of your property (and presumably the edge of the field or garden that could be damaged by the storm). This will split the storm and save your land. Pocket knifes can also be used in the same manner to nail down, and thus delay, the storm or to cause it to blow over and hit elsewhere. Like most magic in Appalachia, the ability to do this is said to be one that’s taught or a natural skill some folks have (often called knack or gift).

And lastly, there are charms to protect your house and person from lightning. According to East Anglian lore, a houseleek (Sempervivum spp.), known around here as hens’n’chicks, planted on the roof protects the home from lighting, though it “must never be cut down or destroyed or its former protective power will be reversed, and catastrophe will ensue.” Other methods of protection are to plant a rowan tree (Sorbus spp.) at the front door and an elder (Sambucus spp.) at the back of the home, or to hang a pouch of mistletoe (Viscum album) from the roof.

And with that, I’m going to hang mistletoe from the roof of the porch, just in case, pour a glass of sweet tea and head outside to enjoy the summer storm.

Wild Harvesting

Though it’s generally preferable to grow plants for magic yourself, or buy them from reputable merchants who do so (organically, sustainably, and ethically), there are occasions when one needs to turn to the wild. This could be because the plant you need isn’t in commerce or is very difficult to find. Often it’s because you want something partaking of the essence of a particular location; plants that have grown in certain sites are part of the spiritual ecology of that place. Sometimes it may be that you want to ensure that proper harvesting protocol is adhered to, or that harvesting occurs under certain astronomical conditions. In many cases, the procurement of plant material from the land of wandering becomes a magical-religious rite in itself.

The hunt for ginseng in the traditional practice of the Appalachians is one good example– the root and the hunter both involved in a relationship in the wooded hollows. In this case, because the plant has been harvested by one’s own hand, one can be assured that no poaching has occurred, the roots were not over-harvested from particular patches, and that the ripened fruits of the plant were replanted by the hand that gathered it. Additionally, in this way, the root carries potency and virtue, because it recognizes the sorcerer in a relationship of mutual respect.

This mutual respect is essential for the practice of magical herbalism, regardless of the species sought and worked with. Here are my thoughts, suggestions, and guidelines (both practical and esoteric) when seeking and harvesting plants from the wild.

The first step in wild harvesting is preparation, which involves both mental and physical components. Like all works of magic, having a clear intent is necessary.

For the mental preparation, make sure you know the plant and are sure of its identity. What is the extant lore about it’s Nature? Are there harvesting taboos, and does it have preferred offerings? Lore provides knowledge from our ancestors and we should take advantage of it. Practically, make sure you can recognize the plant in the wild and know about its ecology so you have an idea of where it can be found. Harvesting the wrong plant is needlessly wasteful and disrespectful, and can also be dangerous. Is the plant you’re wanting to collect threatened, endangered or sensitive? Is it overharvested? Introduced or native to your bioregion? How much material do you need and are you collecting leaf, flower, fruit, bark, root? Plan to collect far away from human habitation. This helps to avoid obnoxious people intruding on your magical outing as well as avoiding plants tainted by heavy metals and pollutants and spirits twisted by human development.

The physical part of preparation mostly involves purity. Like draws like, as above so below, as within so without–these are maxims of the art magical. You don’t need to attract negative wights and sprites, nor should you take your aetheric baggage into hallowed ground, so purity of the physical and the aetheric bodies is important. Take a saltwater bath, cense with a purification blend. Some traditions dictate that you should lightly fast and abstain from sexual activity for a period before-hand; in many ways, these are gestures of devotion and respect. Practically, make sure you have clean tools and clean boots to avoid tracking fungal spores, pathogens, and microbial contaminants from one place to another and infecting the plants and the landscape from which you’re harvesting. Wipe tools and boots both with high proof alcohol. Additionally, because this is a magical rite, take your power with you. I don’t mean that you should wear a crushed velvet cloak and all your magical bling, but anointing oil, discreet amulets, and sigils of power drawn on the skin all are useful. You’re a sorcerer engaged in a relationship with the living spirits of the land.

On the Journey:
Again, remembering that this is a magical rite, be present fully in what you’re doing. When you’re journeying forth into a place, you should become fully present as a part of that place, otherwise one is an intruder. Silence and a observant, focused mind are tools as imporant as a sharpened pair of hand pruners.

Knowing the land is essential. If you’re unfamiliar with the location, you should scout the place first, noting impressions from plant communities and the genius loci. Your intent should be spoken humbly to the spirits of place, and you should take an honest read of the place, notice signs, and/or use divination to ascertain their reply. Offended landwights and unheeded omens tend to mean bad things for sorcerers and witches: poison ivy, stinging nettles, bothersome insects, treacherous ground and getting lost at the least. Elf-shot, blasted luck, and attached spirits are also within their power.

On Arrival:
This is the obviously magical part of the trip. The plant in question should be hailed with an invocation and offerings given. There are many such examples of how this is done in published folklore. I’ve given some examples in the posts on mugwort and vervain. A further example may be found in Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology:

‘Our forefathers also held the Ellhorn [black elderberry (Sambucus nigra)] holy wherefore whoever need to hew it down (or cut its branches) has first to make request “Lady Ellhorn, give me some of thy wood and I will give thee some of mine when it grows in the forest” – the which, with partly bended knees, bare head and folded arms was ordinarily done, as I myself have often seen and heard in my younger years.’

If there’s no extant lore on how to do this, devise your own rites along these lines. Give offerings– though some plants have stated preferences (blood, sexual fluids, wine, etc.), honey and incense are good standby’s. We have a standard incense offering we use; I’ll share the recipe in a later post.

Have the proper tools for the job. One of my personal pet peeves is this whole business of the taboo against iron and steel. The Good Neighbors’ avoidance of cold iron is well known and bandied about in magical circles and urban fantasy novels alike. However, modern tool production has given us the ability to have finely honed precise blades of stainless steel for the harvesting of wood, herb and root. Gold, silver, or copper sickles and knives are unweildy and do not hold an edge. A wooden blade is just clubbing the plant into submission. Much like surgery on humans or cats, harvesting from plants should be done with a precise, clean cut. Modern horticulture tools like hand pruners have been designed to cause minimal damage to plants, and stainless steel involves other metals besides iron to render it incorruptible. Invest in proper tools and consecrate them to your work.

Be aware of the health of the environment. If the plants are stressed due to drought or other disturbance, don’t harvest them. Plants change their chemistry in response to stresses like drought and insect and pathogen attack, and you should avoid them. Additionally it will increase the likelihood of the plants surviving for you to harvest later if you aren’t cutting bits off.

Take lateral branches, not leaders. Avoid injuring bark of trees overmuch, as this will result in a slow death. If you need to collect bark, take from newly downed trees or from small areas on random branches. To avoid over harvesting any one population, move around collecting only a small amount of plant material from any one population. Leave healthy seed producing plants in the population to reproduce. Leave the portions you’re not harvesting at the site; that biomass represents nutrients for the rest of the ecosystem, food and habitat for wildlife, and genetic material for the population of plants. Don’t harvest more than you need or can store properly over the next year. Some good numbers to follow for harvesting amounts at a single location are given by Daniel Schulke in Ars Philtron:

• If harvesting the entire plant, take a maximum of one tenth of the total individuals in a given location.
• If harvesting stem or root, a maximum of one sixth of individuals. Dig up and take lateral roots from the plant, leaving the vertical root and some lateral roots intact and then replant. If you harvest the root crown (where the stem meets the root) the plant will die.
• If harvesting flowers or fruit, one fifth of total individuals present.
• If harvesting seeds, one fifth of total individuals present.

Put the plant parts in clean cloth bags (which can be decorated and charmed as you see fit) and process and dry them properly upon arriving home.

foxfire ginseng smaller

Photo of Harv Reid with Ginseng from Foxfire 1

On Setting Lights

“It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

It’s fairly common to hear modern-day magical practitioners mention “burning a candle” for someone who needs help in much the same way Christians will mention praying for someone. Generally the setting of these lights are meant to ease suffering and impart blessing and healing. This sort of work has a long history.

Oil lamps predominated in early Egyptian and Jewish temples wherein they represented the light of the spirit world. Magic lamps are found throughout the Greek Magical Papyri (a collection of spells, formulae, and rituals from 100 BCE – 400 CE Graeco-Roman Egypt), and directions are given for a number of divination, dream, and love spells involving lamps. The Picatrix, an Arabic manuscript on magic and astrology written around 1000 CE, mentions both candles and lamps used for magical and ritual purposes. Torches were specifically associated with certain religious rites in the ancient world and seem to fulfill a magical purpose; for instance instead of specifying an appropriate incense offering, the orphic hymn to Nyx recommends “The Fumigation with Torches”.

During the Roman empire, candles and lamps were often used as part of the religious and magical work itself, being lit as petitions (votives) to the Gods and spirits, particularly by those who were not priests. Early Christians adopted this practice and it continues to flourish in the Roman Catholic church. By the medieval period, beeswax candles had overtaken the popularity of lamps in magic and ritual.

The Renaissance magician Agrippa stresses the importance of candles or lamps in the performance of magic. In his Three Books of the Philosophy of Natural Magic, he postulates that Light originates in the One, diffuses through the three worlds (Divine, Celestial and Material) and is related intimately to the fire within all things. He states:

The Celestial, and bright Fire drives away spirits of darkness; also this our Fire made with wood drives away the same, in as much as it hath an Analogy with, and is the vehiculum of that Superior light; as also of him, who saith, “I am the Light of the World”, which is true Fire, the Father of lights, from whom every good thing that is given comes; sending forth the light of his Fire, and communicating it first to the Sun, and the rest of the Celestial bodies, and by these, as by mediating instruments conveying that light into our Fire. As therefore the spirits of darkness are stronger in the dark: so good spirits, which are Angels of Light, are augmented, not only by that light, which is Divine, of the Sun, and Celestial, but also by the light of our common Fire. Hence it was that the first, and most wise institutors of Religions, and Ceremonies ordained, that Prayers, Singings, and all manner of Divine Worships whatsoever should not be performed without lighted Candles, or Torches. (Hence also was that significant saying of Pythagoras. Do not speak of God without a Light.)

As time went on, more and more of the magical actions associated with a working were fulfilled by the candles originally used in the work to bring and augment the power of good spirits. By 1913, A.E. Waite described ceremonial magic workings using candles with color correspondences, placement, and planetary and angelic sigils carved on them for specific purposes. Sigils and charms which would have been written out on paper or parchment began to be carved into candles or placed around the glass of novena candles. With the discovery and growth in availability of paraffin and aniline dyes, color symbolism started being incorporated into the candles as well. With Henri Gamache’s publication of The Master Book of Candle Burning in 1942, describing a Protestant variation of the types of candle burning already popular within the African diasporic traditions, elaborate candle burning rituals were cemented into modern folk magic.

Today, candles of pure beeswax or colored paraffin in various sizes and shapes are carved with sigils of magical intent, anointed with scented oils, and dressed with herbs and minerals to be burned alone as a complete spell or incorporated into a complex magical working. Novenas — candles lasting several days — are used to petition saints, angels, and archons. Additionally, candles may be used as devotional sacrifices for spirits. The power of candle magic to fuel a spell or feed spirits comes from the consumption of the wax and transformation into light; using the candle this way substitutes the wax for your own energy. The appropriate signs and symbols, herbs and oils focus the process, harnessing the energy released by the flame to a specific end.


Tonics–Spring Cleaning for the Blood

Perennial roots, tall leaves, O the winter shall not freeze you delicate leaves,
Every year shall you bloom again, out from where you retired you shall emerge again; O I do not know whether many passing by will discover you or inhale your faint odor, but I believe a few will; O slender leaves! O blossoms of my blood!
~Walt Whitman, Scented Herbage of my Breast

Sanguinaria canadensis

The bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), an early spring ephemeral wildflower native to the woodlands of Eastern North America, is blooming in our woodland garden which means spring has officially sprung. The blooming of this dainty white flower (named for it’s fleshy root whose sap runs thick and red like blood) signals that the Virtue of the Land is rising from its winter sleep. This also means it’s the proper time to prepare and take our annual spring tonic.

What follows is a repost of an article we wrote a few years back on the old Appalachian theory behind the use of blood tonics. Continue reading Tonics–Spring Cleaning for the Blood

The Origins of the Feast of Hecate

Hecate Altar
This year, the Feast of Hecate, which we’ve adopted into our own craft, falls on the Dark Moon and the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. Several years ago, we published an article on Hecate and the origin of her festival on August 13. In the early 2000’s this festival was commonly ascribed to an aspect of Hecate known as the Lady of Storms with some notion that part of the reason for the festival was to propitiate Her to protect the harvest. Our work and experiences with Our Lady of Night have changed and evolved since that time, and as the feast date continues to grow in popularity, we thought we’d revisit the article.

Back in 2007 we wrote:

There’s not much in the classical literature about [Hecate] being associated with storms, beyond that Zeus ‘gave’ her power over all realms. Her dominion here instead seems to grow out of the “dark and stormy night” image that she developed during the middle ages. There is, however, widespread belief among modern worshipers that she has a feast day on August 13 to protect the crops from violent storms.

Wikipedia is perpetuating this belief, citing Leo Ruickbie’s “Witchcraft out of the Shadows” (2004). In a side-box he claims that the ancient Greeks observed a feast day on August 13 in which Hecate was propitiated to not send storms to destroy the growing crops. Ruikbie, in turn, cites his source as Diane Stein’s “The Goddess Book of Days” (Llewellyn, 1997). Her original calendar was published in 1988 and does not give a primary source.

Various Internet sites claim that this occurred in the House of Storms and Fertility, that it was a Festival to Hecate of the Moon, or that it was part of the Festival of Hecate and Artemis. Mikalson, in The Sacred and Civil Calendar of the Athenian Year lists for Metageitnion 16 that “the sacrifical calendar of the deme Erkhia prescribes sacrifices on this day to Kourotrophos and Artemis Hekate.” Metageitnion is the Attic lunar month that lines up with late July/August. The 16th would be two days after the full moon (July 31, this year). Unfortunately, I cannot find what occurred during the rite (if anything specific at all). Still, this doesn’t explain why August 13 was chosen, fixed as it is to the Roman solar year instead of the lunar calendar used by the ancient Greeks.

Also, there is never any mention as to why Hecate would be called to protect crops (as opposed to children and mothers-to-be). According to Brumfield in his book The Attic festivals of Demeter and their Relation to the Agricultural Year (1976), during the time of the year we call August, the grain harvest had been completed and the grape harvest would not have begun until September. August was a lull in the agricultural year and nothing needed to be protected from violent storms.

A few clues come to light when we stop looking for ancient Greek sources. In Rome, The Festival of Torches was held on August 13, called the Nemoralia. In it, woman would walk from the city of Rome carrying torches to a lake sacred to Diana where they would offer their petitions. There was a strong conflation between Artemis and Hecate in Greece, with Hecate taking on a number of Artemis’ roles. Diana and Hecate were also conflated some, but typically maintained separate spheres of influence. Still, this seems to be a likely source for fixing the ritual on that particular date.

Additionally, in 1986 a ritual performed on August 14, 1985, was published in Circle Network News which invoked Hecate Chthonia and incorporated a Hecate Supper. A web page by that author claims that a similar ritual incorporating much of the same text was performed at the MoonStone Circle of the Aquarian Tabernacle and published in Panegyria on August 13, 1988. The original date it was performed, August 14, 1985, was a dark moon, which has been a sacred time for Hecate since classical times. The other date, though, perhaps inspired by Stein’s recently published Goddess Book of Days, was a waxing gibbous.

None of this explains a connection with storms or harvests, however. This strikes me as a purely Neopagan phenomenon rising out of widespread observance of harvest-type rituals during early August, the most common being the Celtic feast of Lughnasadh.

Eight years later, we still suspect the modern Feast of Hecate held on August 13 comes from the Nemoralia, the festival of Diana held in the groves at Nemi. This cult has a long association with modern paganism, being the inspiration and central study in Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough which, in turn, formed a pillar of the neo-pagan movement.

The goddess Diana as she was worshiped in the groves as Nemi possessed a triple form, not unlike the triform figure of Hekate that is familiar to many modern witches. One of the three was known classically as Hecate or Proserpina, something which has troubled me. Why is a Latin Goddess being called by the name of a different Greek goddess? Is it syncretism, like the conflation of Artemis and Hecate, and Artemis and Diana. CMC Green in Roman Religion and the Cult of Diana at Aricia offers this plausible explanation: “The identification of Diana with Hecate (a Greek name) has been made unnecessarily complicated. Diana the Huntress was identified with the moon, as Apollo was with the sun. As the moon grows dark once a month it is inevitable that a moon-goddess will have some part of her identity located in the underworld. Hecate is simply the Greek name for that part of her identity.” The names Hecate and Proserpina were also likely considered safe substitutes for the true name of the Underworld Moon.

There are numerous classical references to this association. One of Horace’s Odes mentions Diva Triformis, and Virgils Dido calls on “tergeminanque hecaten, tria virginis ora Dianae.” Isodore of Seville writing in the first century explains: “Concerning which Virgil writes..the three faces of the virgin Diana, because the same goddess is called Luna, Diana, and Proserpina”. This tripartate Diana persisted through the centuries, showing up in triple form in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and John Skelton’s Garland of Laurels in 1523 (“Diana in the leaves green, Luna that so bright doth sheen, Persephone in hell”). As mentioned previously, her cult instigated James Frazer’s life work The Golden Bough and influenced Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, through which the concept of the triple goddess was introduced to modern Wicca.

To return to the August festival which honored the three-fold goddess, Green’s translation of one of the poems composed by the Latin poet Statius in the 1st century CE is appropriate:

It is the season when the most scorching region of the heavens takes over the land and the keen dog-star Sirius, so often struck by Hyperion’s sun, burns the gasping fields. Now is the day when Trivia’s Arician grove, convenient for fugitive kings, grows smoky, and the lake, having guilty knowledge of Hyppolytus, glitters with the reflection of the multitude of torches; Diana herself garlands the deserving hunting dogs and polishes the arrowheads and allows the wild animals to go in safety, and at virtuous hearths all Italy celebrates the Hecatean Ides.

Finally, Green (really, just go pick up her book) suggests that the festival lasted 3 days, starting with her decent to the underworld on the Ides (August 13th) where she would be known as Hecate, and culminating on the 15th of August when she ascended as the Queen of Heaven, the full moon. Incidentally the 15th is celebrated as the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, Queen of Heaven, in the Christian church, who may have adopted this (non-infernal) part of the festival.

Today, the August 13 Feast of Hecate has grown immensely in popularity among modern pagans, and includes many individual observances as well as larger public rites such as Hecate’s Feast hosted by the Temple of Witchcraft. We conclude that the Hecate honored at these rites isn’t necessarily the Greek goddess of boundaries or Lady of Storms, but they are an indirect continuation of rites to the dread face of Diva Triformis as goddess of night, the queen of the dark moon roaming the underworld. This year, in addition to feasting on delicious Mediterranean food and wine, we’ll celebrate by giving offerings at the crossroads under the shower of falling stars and ritually blending an offertory incense for use in the coming year, Hecate the Saffron Clad. From the classical torch-lit rites within the grove at Nemi to modern observances by pagans and witches, August 13 brings together all those who form the conclave of the goddess of night. May she bless you all.

The Tinners Rabbits

tinners rabbits

The above symbol, known as the Tinners’ Rabbits or the Three Hares, is the one we adopted for our personal working group. This symbol is associated with the British west country, particularly in churches in the regions of Dartmoor and Devonshire, but also found in other areas in Europe and as far away as China. It was once adopted as a mark for tin mined in Devonshire. We have a special affinity for the magic and folklore of the West Country of Britain, particularly Somerset and Devon, so this symbol seems fitting.

Though hares are not native to the eastern United States, they have a close cousin in the eastern cottontail rabbit. When Tom and I began working traditional witchcraft, we saw rabbits everywhere; we surprised them when skulking out to working sites and had dreams and visions of white hares running through moonlit meadows.  Male rabbits are known as “bucks”, while male hares are called “jacks”— names which (at least poetically) have a long association with the nameless art.  In addition a “malkin”  (as in Greymalkin from Macbeth) could refer to either a cat or a hare.

Indeed the lagomorph (the scientific term for a rabbit or hare) has an ancient history with witches. In 1662, Isobel Gowdie, a young housewife from the highlands of Scotland, confessed that her coven possessed the ability to transform into hares by repeating the following charm three times:

I shall go into a hare,
With sorrow and sych and meikle care;
And I shall go in the Devil’s name
Ay while I come home again.

To return to their human form they said,

Hare, hare, God send thee care.
I am in a hare’s likeness just now,
But I shall be in a woman’s likeness even now.

The belief in the power of witches to change their shape into hares and go roaming about at night dates from much earlier. In fact, Giraldus Cambrensis, writing almost 500 years earlier in the Topography of Ireland reported “It has also been a frequent complaint, from old times as well as in the present, that certain hags in Wales, as well as in Ireland and Scotland, changed themselves into the shape of hares…” Remnants of this belief can still be found in the numerous folk stories about hares that were shot at night to find a local woman with a shoulder wound the next morning or parsons surprising a coven of witches and finding hares in their place the next instant.

In addition with being associated with witches, hares and rabbits are associated with the lunar cycle, fertility, longevity, and rebirth. They’re seen as moving easily between this world and the other (think of the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland). We associate the rabbit or hare with the eastern road of earth and the tides of spring and dawn and the bright queen of Faerie. In addition, the ears of the creatures in the Tinners’ Rabbits form the triangle of manifestation within the ring of art, which gives form to force.

Lastly, Marc Michael Epstein writing in “Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature” has this to say about the medieval image of the hare: “The beastiarists deemed the hare’s sex to be ambiguous, and its mode of reproduction strange. They included the hare in a group of several beasts that they asserted had been declared unclean in the Mosaic law because of their alleged sexual deviance . . . Moses Azikri (1533-1600) wrote that one who is involved in homosexual relations is reincarnated as a hare.”

(“Personally I think it makes a very lovely transmutation.” )

As queers, people of the earth, and moon-mad witches, “we shall go into a hare”….