Category Archives: Notes

On Old Christmas

Traditional craft groups often observe holy days which fall outside of the 8-fold wheel of the year. It’s strange for us to be asked what we did for Yule, for instance. While some of our holidays align with the familiar neopagan wheel of the year, the winter solstice (and new Christmas) are but minor concerns filled with celebration and gifts and gin punch.

For our hearth, the more serious observance is Old Christmas, which, by happenstance, co-occurs with Epiphany.

Some of you may be thinkng – “Christmas? Epiphany? But, these are Christian holidays, not Pagan ones!” But many holidays observed by traditional witchcraft groups have distinctly Christian origins, sometimes with a thin Christian gloss over older traditions, sometimes not. The presence of these (albeit heretical) Christian observances makes these Traditional Hearths not distinctly pagan faiths, but something born of both.


Epiphany is the 12th day of Christmas, the official close of the Christmas season. It is a holiday celebrating the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, represented by the Magi, as related in Matthew 2:1–12. There are a lot of European traditions involving the “three wise men”, who are seen as magicians, scholars, diviners and astrologers and kings from the east where they may be petitioned as saints for assistance in magic. For this purpose, we recently formulated an incense from the traditional gifts they offer –gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

One of our initiating traditions taught us that Epiphany or 12th night is the end of Misrule, when order is restored and the pattern of the world fixed anew. All New Year’s luck spells should be finished by this time in order to be woven into the pattern of things to come. Though the wild hunt still rages on certain dark nights throughout the winter and protections should remain in place, the power of chaos to interfere and intrude upon our lives is diminished outside of the liminality of Misrule.

Old Christmas

Old Christmas is a cultural phenomenon amongst some mountain communities in Appalachia and remote parts of the UK owing to an 18th century calendar shift. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII amended the Julian calendar which had shifted forward ten days since the time it was adopted by the ancient Romans. Since King Henry VIII had already removed England from the remit of the Holy Roman Empire, the new calendar (named the Gregorian calendar) was ignored by Britain and her subjects. By the mid-18th century the calendars were separated by 11 days, and when Parliament decided to adopt the new calendar in 1752, they dropped Sept 3-13 of that year. British subjects in far removed places, like Appalachia, (and parts of Scotland, Wales and the West Country too) who refused to move Christmas based on government interference and the influence of the Catholic church, counted forwards 11 days to celebrate Christmas on the old date—January 5th. By the 1880’s the calendars had separated by another day, shifting “Old Christmas” to January 6th. In many places in Appalachia from the late 1800’s on, both holidays were celebrated, with New Christmas taking on a festive outgoing party tone, and Old Christmas retaining a more serious family oriented religious nature. Old Christmas was documented as being observed in a number of places in WV, KY, NC, TN, and GA until the time of the Great War and many folks in the mountains remember their grandparents and other old timers talking about celebrating Old Christmas.

There is traditional lore concerning certain mystical occurrences on Old Christmas Eve that are of interest to witches. One is that animals are gifted the power of human speech precisely at midnight. If one were seeking to have the ability to communicate with animals, or you have a burning question to ask your cat, it’s an appropriate time for such an undertaking. Bees within the hive were supposed to awaken from their winter slumber and sing the 100th psalm on Old Christmas Eve, offering thanksgiving to the Lord. It’s certainly a good time to bless the hives in the middle of their winter sleep. Additionally, like the mystical appearance of fern seed at Midsummer, certain Elder trees were supposed to burst forth in golden bloom at midnight on Old Christmas Eve, and if that’s not a witchy thing, I don’t know what is.

Finally, Old Christmas Eve is the traditional time for the apple tree wassail. A meal of hard cider and spice cake is taken into the orchard and shared with the trees with a charm of blessing that they “bud and blow and bear” an abundance of apples. Evil sprites are scared away with banging pans and firing shotguns.

Our own Old Christmas rites are conducted by lantern light beneath the slowly revolving winter stars. Central to our rites is the apple tree and the serpent that dwells within it. We wassail the apple trees so that they may be fruitful (and we may make more cider) and offer to our spirits so that the compact between us may be renewed. Through our Hearth’s celebration of Old Christmas, and our particular current of witchery, the symbols of the season are united– the Lucifer, the Christ child, the light in the dark, the light of knowledge and indwelling divinity, the themes remain the same. May the light crystallize in your blood and reveal to you the secret fire.

Shop Update: Dreaming Harvest

Yesterday was a beautiful East Tennessee day, with blue skies and an early autumn sun.  While walking in the fields along the river, Tom and I wild-harvested passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) growing amongst the datura for our dreaming tea.  And then last night, we harvested wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa) under the full moon, and began the process of tincturing it to create a dreaming potion. It’s shockingly green!

A Method of Dream Discernment

Here, gentle reader, I continue the theme from our last post–Dreaming. As I said last time, the importance of prophetic or true dreams, dream congress with spirits, and dream travel in this world or the other is emphasized in many traditions of modern witchcraft, including our own. Many Appalachian families were (and are) known to have the ability to Dream True (a term that both encompasses prophetic dreaming as well as getting information like the location of lost objects), while some have the ability to meet with the spirits of the dead in Dreams. Many magical practitioners who lack these abilities still get deep insights into their lives and inspiration through the rich symbolism of their Dreams.

The magical application of different types of dreams have been utilized for a very long time. The Ancient Greeks and Romans practiced dream incubation, often in a healing context. They differentiated between true and false dreams, which were said to come from different gates in the underworld, made of horn and ivory respectively.

“Two gates the silent house of Sleep adorn;
Of polish’d ivory this, that of transparent horn:
True visions thro’ transparent horn arise;
Thro’ polish’d ivory pass deluding lies.”
~Virgil, The Aeneid: Book 6 [John Dryden translation]

Symbolic dream interpretation is utilized in the Bible (notably by Joseph of Technicolor Dreamcoat fame), hence its persistence in folk magic of all kinds. A root of early modern witchcraft, the Witches’ Sabbat, is grounded in dream flight and sorcery. And all that still persists into modern practice.

I personally conceptualize dreams as 5 different types (though one dream can have elements of more than one type):

  • Prophetic Dreams (Dreams of things that Shall Come to Pass)
  • Symbolic Dreams (Communication using the language of symbolism, either personal or universal, to impart information)
  • Dream Travel (Faring forth in Dreams, either in this world or the other)
  • Dream Congress (meeting and interacting with spirits and/or other practitioners in Dreams)
  • just dreams (your brain processes a lot of information and does some pretty cool biochemistry at night, sometimes dreams are just the result of this–note the lowercase, these are not magically significant)

But how does one discern between something significant and magical and something that’s merely what we do when we sleep? Many Dreamers will tell you that there’s a different quality to a Dream, a difference in the light. Some will say that they just know, and there’s a certainty that it means something. Those are both well and good, but magicians of old also developed another method–divination through geomancy.

I love geomancy, and we’ve written about the use of geomantic figures in our magic before. It’s also one of the methods we utilize in readings and consultations for clients. As a divination system, it’s elegant, simple, and practical. And it’s useful for determining whether a dream is a Dream or not (for which Renaissance magicians employed it). [If you too want to delve into your own love affair with geomancy I recommend John Michael Greer’s excellent book on the subject. Also check out Dr Al Cummins who also loves geomancy and gives lectures and workshops on the subject.]

So on to the method, which briefly is: Ask if the dream in question is significant. Cast a geomantic chart. Look at the figure in the
9th house, which rules dreams. If the geomantic figure there is one of the stable figures (Acquisitio, Albus, Caput Draconis, Carcer, Fortuna Major, Populus, Puella, or Tristitia) then the dream is significant, and you can rely on the information gained, start delving into the symbols, or work on developing or furthering a relationship with the spirit you’ve encountered.

The Vision of Endymion (1902) by E. J. Poynter; (c) Manchester City Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Night’s Garden Tea

Andrew Chumbley, in his essay ‘Provenance, Dream, and Magistry‘, discusses the importance of Dreaming in the Craft as he knew it. “An important dimension of magical and folk religiosity was the oneiric or dream realm.” In dream, one may attend the Dream Sabbat, a “convocation of magical ritualist’s souls, animal selves and a vast array of spirits, faeries and Otherworldly beings. It is considered that the location of the Sabbath is at the crossroads of waking, sleeping and dreaming, that is the state of True Dreaming – the realm in which the Lady Moon, the nocturnal sun, illumines a world beyond the reach of the uninitiated.”

This emphasis on dream travel and congress with spirits in the dream realm (along with seeking prophetic or true dreams) is encountered in many different traditions of witchcraft, including our own. As magical herbalists, Tom and I have studied and experimented with herbal allies that assist with Dreaming. About a decade ago we started offering a workshop dealing with this aspect of magical herbalism which was, at that time, not often discussed–covering herbs which facilitate trance, dreaming, and spirit contact.

Night’s Garden Tea arises from some of that work and is designed to aid the Dreamer in their explorations. While every witch’s physium and subtle body is different, and many factors including sleeping habits, stress levels, and various spirituous criteria affect the efficacy of certain herbs to the work, this blend includes nervines (which calm the mind and relax the body making one receptive to dream and trance states), oneirogens (which enhance the dreaming state) and herbs which are used to strengthen the subtle body which fares forth in the dream realm. Though herbs are never a substitute for natural talent and hard work, they can be powerful allies to the witch.

To that end, we spent the summer growing and wild harvesting ingredients for this tea, following ritual protocol for harvesting and making due sacrifice to the plants themselves. They were subsequently dried, processed, and blended into this tisane in a magical setting.

Jasmine and rose (being flowers– the portion of the plant most aligned to the Dream) are included to strengthen the dreaming body. In addition summer roses lend their power to the other oneirogens, while jasmine, allied to the moon and the night, blesses the wings of dream flight. The powers of mugwort, vervain and passionflower (all potent magical plants) have been covered previously on this blog. The mugwort in this blend, being a witch-grown, local variety, is less bitter than the cut-and-sifted mugwort that one often acquires from herb suppliers and is a particularly powerful dreaming and trance ally.

An additional ingredient is lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). Writing in 1589’s Magia Naturalis, Giambattista Della Porta recommends this herb “to cause merry dreams. When you go to bed, to eat Balm, and you cannot desire more pleasant sights then will appear to you, fields, gardens, trees, flowers, meadows, and all the ground a pleasant green, and covered with shady bowers. Wheresoever you cast your eyes, the whole world will appear pleasant and green.” In the practice of the spagyric alchemists, lemon balm is made into preparations that provide renewal and and strengthen the brain and memory. Lemon balm helps one relax, improves dream recall, and as Porta states, brings a vivid quality to dreams.

The seventh and final ingredient in the tisane is peony flowers. Esteemed in China as a refreshing tea which spread in popularity throughout the middle ages, this ingredient is added at the suggestion of one of our teaching spirits. The plant does have some dreaming lore about it; the roots and seeds of peony have been used in protective magic against nightmares, night terrors, and predatory night spirits for centuries. Again, the subtle nature, scent, and taste of flowers lend themselves well to the subtle arts of Dreaming.

Though we do not offer medical herbal advice as a rule, in general with lunar potions such as this one, women are advised caution. The same plants which ally the subtle body to the rhythms of the night and moon and effect the body of the dreamer are often those which cause changes to women’s cycles and flow.

In a graveyard at the dark of the moon

“I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger…”

In our last post, I mentioned that I planned to blog more about cemetery work and ancestor veneration. Cemeteries are one of the working sites important to our craft and the location to perform many traditional Appalachian spells. We prefer those that are somewhat secluded and yet “awakened”– that is, they possess a ineffable presence, something lying under the feeling of peacefulness, a sense of being observed.

If you’re going to undertake magical work in graveyards and churchyards, it’s important to develop a relationship with these places. Walk around in the day and try to get a feel for those whose bones lie in the land, whose hearts and minds are tied to it. Do some research into who they were. In the old days you’d know the dead and their stories, because they’d be your kith and kin, your family and extended community. Though we’ve had the good fortune to work in many mountain family plots, it’s common nowadays to end up living rather far from your ancestors’ resting place. In our experience, all awakened cemeteries may be used as a liminal point of contact between the worlds of the living and the dead. And so, at this powerful place on this past dark moon, we set out to do some Work.

The blessing of myrrh to strengthen its necromantic virtue:

On the night of the dark moon, Tom and I made our way to one of our local working sites, a cemetery, for the interment of myrrh to be used in necromancy, ancestor veneration, and contact with the spirits of the dead.

In the dead of the night, anointed with wormwood and cypress and carrying offerings, a jar of myrrh, and trowels, we make our way to the Northern Gate. We hold our breath, bow our head, stamp 3 times with our left heel and enter, the familiar motions of entering the hallowed burial ground helping us begin our descent into trance.

Once inside the cemetery bounds, we seek out the Guardian. In Appalachian lore, this is generally thought of as the spirit of the first person interred in the graveyard, and it may have it’s origins in the Brythonic spirit known as the Ankow (also spelled Ankou or Anghau). Many urban legends repeated by spook huntin’ teenagers report seeing hooded or cowled figures or large black dogs (perhaps a continuation of the British folklore) at night in certain cemeteries; this is the Guardian– a sort of genius loci of the burial ground, linked to the stones and the trees and the dead. We get a sense of his attention, an unnerving feeling of intense focus upon us, and we state aloud why we have come. We give him offerings of incense and Tennessee whiskey and the unnerving feeling abates. We ask to be hidden from the eyes of the curious and to perform our night’s work in peace.

Continuing, we wander a bit in our trance state and find grave beneath a large black walnut tree that “feels right”. Just then, the churchbells chime, tolling the lateness of the hour as we lie on our backs on the cold grave. We petition the spirit whose body lies 6 feet below us and offer an ancient compact: in exchange for disturbing the peace of her grave and using it as a portal to the Great Below, we will offer prayers on her behalf. She assents, and the night wind stills as we sit up and begin to dig. Digging down deep, removing dirt to be replaced later, we bury a large mason jar full of high quality tears of myrrh to be blessed with the power of this liminal place, a key to the realm of the dead. We light a vigil candle on top of the freshly packed earth, and begin to sing.

Grave Vigil,

Three nights, with prayers and candlelight offered each night, the myrrh laid interred in the darkness of its grave as the moon passed into the sign of sign of Scorpio. Upon being dug up, it was placed in the depths of our working cauldron on our hearth to leaven and has not been exposed to daylight since. We offer it in our shop, and will also use it in incense preparations for our own work with the dead through the growing dark of the year.

To Our Lady of the Churchyards

We’ve been quiet here for the last couple of weeks, but we’ve been fairly busy.

We celebrated Lammastide by feasting on fresh produce from the garden and performing our traditional rites of purification and transformation. We bid farewell to the Red King (Le roi est mort, vive le roi!), and drank good Kentucky bourbon in his honor. And, as always in this red season, when summer hasn’t lost its heat yet the knife-edge of autumn begins to be noticeable in the early morning, our thoughts become somewhat darker.

We ponder graveyard work to be done in the coming months, and begin crafting products to assist with communication with the dead. And we and a number of our friends are wrestling with fresh loss and grief. And so it goes.

Part of our regular practice includes tending an ancestral shrine and offerings to the spirits of the dead. I’ll blog more about that in the coming weeks leading up to Hallows, but for now, I’ll offer this simple prayer to Our Lady of the Underground written by an anonymous author. For those of you looking to start working with the spirits of the dead, or for those of you who have recent losses, it’s a fine place to start.

“Lady of the oldest churchyards,
Lady of moss-covered stone,
Lady of the land where row upon row
Of crosses stand, hold out your hand
And soothe the souls that come your way.
Show them through the shining door,
Rock them gently in your arms
To slumber in more peace and calm
Than they ever found in life.
Lady of the quiet slant of sunlight
On the crumbling words of grief,
Wash the sorrow from our eyes
As from the souls of the fearful dead,
And help us come to peace as well
With all the mournful losses of the world.”

Our Lady Underground

Shop Update

If you’ve been paying close attention, you’ll notice that things have a fresh look here at Otherworld Apothecary. We’ve been busy taking new photos, updating product descriptions, and re-working our website design. We’ve also started blogging with more regularity about magical herbalism, traditional witchcraft, and our personal practice; we’re aiming to have new posts on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Our blog updates are posted at our facebook page as well– feel free to comment over there or here. If you have topics you’d like to see covered, let us know.

We have a number of new products planned, including the rose tincture, dreaming tea, our personal purification incense, and a few limited release products and tools, so stay tuned for those.

We’ve also decided to offer $5 shipping on all orders!


Making Rose Tincture

The sunrise is golden with a few wisps of pink clouds over the ridge line. As the dew evaporates in the summer morning, I anoint my brow with the oils of saffron and cedar and frankincense. Barefoot and bare headed and silent, I pour out fresh milk and honey in front of the rosebushes. I inhale their scent– spicy and floral with a bit of citrus– and carefully use the curved knife to harvest the heirloom field roses and sprays of soft pink Victorian climbing roses, the richly-scented damask roses, and the golden yellow musk roses. I place the blossoms gently in the tincturing vessel and the potion begins.

We’ve been using Tincture of Roses for a few years now and are planning to add it to the shop this summer. No simple love philtre, this. Rose tincture is added to the sabbat wine to strengthen the bonds between the company of witches, both those in body and in spirit, as well as with tutelary spirits of the group. It may also be used for a period of time to fortify and balance the aetheric body in preparation for works of dreaming, faring forth and spirit contact. Finally, a few drops placed in the mouth before summoning assists in compelling spirits and lends cunning power to the voice of invocation.

Tincture of roses resized

A Prayer to Aradia

This morning while pruning the rosehips to force a second flowering, I was thinking about Aradia. I recently reread Charles G. Leland’s Aradia, Gospel of the Witches. The book purports to be a collection of traditional witchery collected from worshipers of the goddess Diana in Northern Italy and was an influential text on the modern witchcraft movement.

Aradia is a complex figure who possibly has her origins in Herodias and her daughter Salome who conspired in the death of John the Baptist. In the medieval period, Herodias was one of the names (along with Diana, Holda and Abundia) of the Lady of Night, the supernatural leader of a cult of witches who flew forth by night and traveled in spirit and got up to all sorts of mischief. Carlo Ginsberg’s Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath deals with this extensively.

In Leland’s text, Aradia is a messiah figure, the daughter of Diana, sent to the Italian peasants to teach them witchcraft. The arts she teaches them (in addition to operative magic for the attainment of desires) are also tools of subversion and rebellion against the rich who hoard wealth while people suffer, the government that supports this inequality, and the dominant religion which oppresses them. While the Gospel of the Witches is a legend set against the background of medieval or renaissance Europe, it was published in 1899 and certainly also could reflect social inequality and injustices of the industrial revolution. Sadly, it’s also still relevant to modern times. Income inequality, racism, homophobia– these problems are currently all too real and prevalent. Aradia, “the first of witches known”, was sent to teach witches the tools to end oppression, destroy the systems and people who would subjugate them, and to bring liberty and happiness to the Children of Night.

I think perhaps many of us could use her help. To that end, this beautiful prayer to Aradia, written by Jonathon Sousa may prove useful.

Thrice I speak thy sacred name,
Thrice I chant and thrice I sing –
Erodiade, Erodiade, Erodiade –
Daughter of the Moon and Sun,
Queen who reigns at the Mother’s side,
Lady of the Woods,
Protectress of the outcast and marginalized,
Messiah and Second Eve to the Witches of Earth,
come, fierce Erodiade,
called also Herodias and Aradia,
moved by my entreaties.
To the weak, bring strength.
To the oppressed, bring liberty,
with liberty, the knowledge to enjoy it,
and – in that knowledge – the wisdom
to claim its power responsibly.
To the lovelorn and lonely,
bring companionship,
and the reminder of their especial bond
with All That Is, a most intimate lover.
To the despondent and broken,
bring healing and peace.
Erodiade, Beloved Daughter,
Soul of Earth, Leader of the Fairy Rade,
Bride of the Goat-footed Angel,
accept this sacrifice of words –
forge it into a garland
worthy to crown your head.
Salve, Erodiade, figghia di Diana,
ascolta a mia scongurazione,
aora e sempre!
~Jonathan Sousa

Diana resized

Geomantic Sigils

We often get asked about the origin of and the meaning behind the symbols drawn on our working oils. The short answer is that they’re our versions of specific geomantic figures that are resonant with the nature and planetary force of each oil.

Working Oils

Geomancy was a method of divination widely practiced through the Renaissance in both Europe and the Middle East and originating in the interpretation of markings in dirt or the pattern of cast pebbles. It was refined over time and became a sophisticated method of practical prediction thought to communicate with the world soul. The practice of geomancy was later resurrected by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, but remains underutilized in modern magic. I first encountered the art of geomancy and the sixteen geomantic figures reading Paul Huson’s Mastering Witchcraft (where he refers to them as witch runes) as a young witchling, and then again later in reading Agrippa (there’s a section in Pseudo-Agrippa’s Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy dealing with the practice of geomancy). I find it a highly useful method of divination, and I’ll probably blog more about my work with it and how it fits into our practice in the coming weeks.

The geomantic figures are sixteen figures formed by dots– 4 lines of either one or two dots stacked on top of one another. For divination, you come up with figures using some method of generating random numbers (e.g. random scratches in the dirt, coin flips, the number of chirps in a cricket’s song, the number of pebbles snatched from a stream, etc.) and these figures are combined, arranged and interpreted. These figures have specific meanings, areas of influence, combinations of elemental forces, and associated planets, zodiac signs, and symbols. Thus, much like the runes, they could be said to be specific magical forces that can be used for practical spellwork in addition to divination. This is how they’re used with regard to our working oils.

In the above product photo you can clearly see our sigil on the bottle of The Oil of Influence; this is our version of the figure conjunctio. Conjunctio’s nature is that of the crossroads, the meeting of different forces which interface and work together and is ruled by the planet Mercury, the quicksilver conjurer. Below, you can see the “dot form” of conjunctio on the left, and our sigil for influence on the right. When developing sigilized forms of the geomantic figures, you should retain the underlying double points and single points, but these can be embellished with diamonds, triangles, dots, crosses or open circles, and connected with straight lines or arcs as you see fit. The end result here is an interlocking symbol, bringing together the target of the spell with the magician doing the work. The symbol sort of looks like two tongues, appropriate for work that involves exerting control over people and institutions through communication. Additionally, the center of the figure shows a fixed eye. In many forms of folk magic, including Appalachian practice, “the influence”–a force of compelling fascination, is put on people through the fixed gaze of the witch.


In Frances Barrett’s The Magus, you can find alternative forms of the more familiar patterns composed of dots. Studying these forms carefully will give you some idea of how the dots are connected to form these sigils and from this knowledge you can develop your own versions of the geomantic figures like we did.

Here are another couple of examples of the layered meanings behind our versions of the figures.

The geomantic figure for Love Oil is that of puella. It’s classical meaning it that of love and beauty and femininity and the figure is associated with the handmirror of Venus. In addition to these meanings, our sigil incorporateds the form of a vessel or chalice, bringing to mind the ace of cups in the tarot. This could be the spell of the “loving cup” with the love philtre pouring in, or a representation of the blade conjoining the cup as in the great rite. It’s also a fairly vulvic symbol, appropriate for an oil ruled by Venus, the mistress of love, beauty and pleasure.

For Blasting Oil, the geomantic figure used is cauda draconis, associated with the volatility of fire, disaster and calamity, and combines the forces of the malifics Saturn and Mars. The cross pieces on our sigil are reminiscent of an old alchemical symbol for poison. In addition, the sigil is a clear representation of a forked stave, invoking the poisonous tongue of the Serpent of Old and the forked blackthorn blasting rod.