Colours for Summer

I have been rather uncreative for a few weeks, since wearing myself out sewing Morris dancing clothes… and then suddenly realised that the lack of a project was why I was feeling unfocused and lost this month. Clearly I don’t know myself, and what makes me happy, that well yet! Luckily finding a new project is not something I have trouble with – just keeping them within bounds given time and space constraints. (Building work continues in the house, making dust and chaos as well as preventing wood or glass work.)

So a week ago I had an idea to make my temporary seasonal display area (half a mantleshelf) a proper cloth cover, by buying a strip of fabric, edging it, and putting it in place in time for the summer solstice on Wednesday. If I found enough suitable fabrics, I could even change the colour for each sabbat. However, not only did I fail to get near any shops, it being too hot, I also should never really have imagined I could stop at something so simple.

Having visitors all weekend required an empty sewing table in order to eat off it, and a lot of thinking time. By Monday morning I had a plan – to use up my scrap pile and make a simple quilt-style top. One for each sabbat of course, starting with midsummer. That gave me Monday to make it.

Suddenly a difficult question loomed. What colours to use for midsummer? All the other seven sabbats have colours I associate with them, but not midsummer! How could this be? So I wrote a list, to see what was left over. (It is slightly different to other people’s lists, but then in trying to write this after finishing, I discovered a lot of variations!)

Imbolc – Greens and white – holly, snowdrops
Ostara – Pastel shades – eggs, new shoots, pussy willows, daffodils
Beltane – Greens and light colours – forgetmenots, tulips, honesty and ribbons
Litha – ???
Lughnasa – bright yellows – hot sun, ripe corn, poppies
Mabon – Reds and purples – apples, plums, late harvests
Samhain – Orange, red, brown, black – pumpkins, autumn leaves, and descent into dark
Yule – Greens, Red, Gold – holly and yew

And what I decided on was blue skies, sunshine, and a garden absolutely full of flowers. Mine is full of roses, campanulas, hardy geraniums, foxgloves and peonies right now, so they have inspired the colour choices.

My method of construction was very simple – strip piecing with only a few triangles and rectangles to break up the squares. The colours were arranged fairly randomly, and for once I didn’t worry too much if I sewed the wrong pieces together from my initial plan. Some of it will be covered anyway. There is no wadding, so it was just sewn onto some plain cotton for backing. Quilting is also very simple, just sewing around the edges of a few pieces through both layers – this also sewed up the hole. Total time to be useable was about 4 hours including cutting and laying out time for which I had help, with an extra ¾ hour on Tuesday morning to quilt it.

Here’s how it came out. A bit crazy, but fun. You might notice by the length that I have now managed to purloin the whole of the mantleshelf for my display!

Quilted Summer Solstice display cloth (8″ x 52″)

Oak Apples

Oak Apple

I found these decorative little apples on a walk last weekend, then returned later with my camera. Rarely have I seen them so beautifully coloured – just like the apples they are named after.

Oak apples and other galls have been used to make ink since at least Roman times, and it was the most commonly used ink from the 9th to the 20th century in Europe – it is still used for legal records in the UK such as birth, marriage and death certificates because it is both permanent and waterproof. Best used in a disposable quill pen rather than your best fountain pen!

To make it, first you need some galls that have been vacated by the wasp and are dry. Crush them to powder, then add warm water and iron in some form, eg rusty nails or filings, and cover. Keep in a warm place to ferment for a few days. Then drain off the ink, filtering out the solids if necessary, and store it in an airtight container. It has a fairly short shelf-life; oxidation reveals the ink and turns it darker on the page, but isn’t so helpful before it has been formed into writing! The ink is also quite acidic, being formed from tannic acid and iron – although apparently crushed egg shells can be used to neutralise it and prevent it from degrading the paper.

Oak Apple

Medicinally oak apples can be used like oak bark to stop internal bleeding. However while chewing bark is fine, I cannot recommend chewing an oak apple – they are about the most astringent of all vegetable compounds. Instead, use a decoction. They are also known for curing dysentery.

There is not a lot of folklore associated with the oak apple. However, it is said that if a “worm” (larva) is found inside the gall on Michaelmas Day (29th September) then the year will be pleasant and unexceptional, if a fly is found inside it will be a moderate season, but if a spider is found, then it will be a bad year with food shortages and ruined crops. If nothing is found however, then serious diseases will occur all that year.

Group of Oak Apples

The oak apples used to have a much greater significance in England, being used as decorations on Oak Apple Day, 29th May. The mid 1600s saw civil war in England, followed by a very Puritan Commonwealth rule. All sorts of traditional festivities and activities were banned, such as Maypole dancing, Christmas decorations or feasting, carol singing, theatres, inns, football or other sports, walking on a Sunday except to or from church, and even wearing colourful clothes or makeup etc. Even the various Medieval Saints’ Feast days were stopped, and instead Fast days were introduced once a month. It was on his birthday, 29th May, in 1660 that Charles II rode triumphantly into London to return as King. The day was declared a holiday and was entirely given over to dancing, feasting and merry-making – and the event was repeated every year. The story of how he hid in an oak tree to escape parliamentarian forces became widespread and led to the Oak tree becoming the symbol both for this day and of England. To show their loyalty and support for the monarchy and its restoration, doorways were decorated with oak boughs and people wore sprigs of oak in their clothing or on their hats – of which oak apples are the most decorative part at the end of May. They were liable to be punished with pinching or nettles if they failed to do so!

Oak Apple

While this holiday has become much less known since the Victorians removed it from the official calendar (a day given over to merry-making didn’t fit well in that period!) it is still celebrated in various villages and towns around the country – including Castleton in Derbyshire where they hold a garland parade every year on this day.

Happy Equinox

This year I have been asked to write a series of articles about the various Pagan festivals for a non-pagan audience, so I have been looking at the ‘basics’ of what is common to each festival rather than just relying on my own personal eclectic practices. Needless to say my online searches have turned up many short introductory articles, most of which repeat the same information, most of which is totally familiar. But just a few give me something that I didn’t know before, and in the case of the Spring Equinox, some of what I thought I ‘knew’ has proved to be just a little different.

1. I always had the impression that this festival and its September equivalent were less celebrated and therefore less important than the other sabbats.
However, several stone circles including Stonehenge and various circles in Derbyshire where I am getting to know them have alignments to the sunrise or sunset on this day. They wouldn’t have bothered if they weren’t interested!
I also suspect that the majority of celebrations were related to the farming year – it is always the time when I start my seed sowing, and it always feels entirely appropriate to start it with a ceremony.

2. It comes in the middle of the Pagan year.
Well it does if the year starts at the Autumn Equinox or at Samhain, but actually the spring equinox comes at the start of the modern Persian year, the old European year (on March 25th), the astrological year… The Romans also celebrated new year in March before they created January and February. Of those who didn’t, the Greeks celebrated at the winter solstice, and the Egyptians and Phoenicians started their year at the Autumn Equinox.

3. The name Ostara is used for this festival, the German equivalent of Eostre.
First there is the confusing claim that Eostre was only mentioned by Bede and nowhere else so he probably made her up… Given that Bede was pretty good on his knowledge on every other subject, I don’t see why he shouldn’t have known about the local Goddess where he lived! Evidence on many Celtic and Anglo-Saxon deities is pretty scanty at times, but there are always clues for those that wish to see them.
But, and this is a big but for me, I then read that Eostre’s day was the first full moon after the equinox, not the equinox itself. Given that Eostre is concerned with hares and eggs, this makes perfect sense that the full moon would be relevant, and also explains why Easter is the first Sunday after Eostre’s day. The only trouble is I shall no longer feel right celebrating eggs at the equinox, I will want to wait for the full moon. And it also means that Eostre (and if they are equivalent Goddesses, Ostara) had nothing to do with the Equinox – giving me a whole new set of challenges, and hopefully journeys of discovery, for next year.
Just to confuse things further, there are also those who claim Easter was named for Ishtar who, while still being a Spring Goddess, has a whole different mythology associated with her…

4. Egg hunts are just a fun thing for children to do.
Eggs have been apparently been decorated on every continent, the oldest yet discovered being South African and 60,000 years old. The ancient Egyptians decorated eggs. Almost every European country as well as several Asian and American ones have their own special egg traditions. Eggs can be cooked or blown, scratched, carved, coloured in many different ways, and then displayed in some form (often hung in a tree or by a well) or offered to another. They are not restricted to a particular day either; any time from early spring to the summer solstice seems to have been recognised in this way. But in Britain, eggs were apparently buried by Celtic Druids after being dyed red in order to encourage the life force to return to the Earth for new planting. More sinisterly if true, during difficult times in Europe eggs were hidden to avoid it being known that offerings were being made to the Goddess and children were apparently paid on finding and reporting these eggs. Hiding eggs so that they may be hunted for ‘fun’ seems to have started in England by the 1800s.

Oddly I found an egg buried nearly a foot deep in my garden a month or so ago when planting a small tree. Probably a duck egg, white and quite large, and heavy as if there was an egg inside it. Having absolutely no idea where it came from or what to do with it (we have lived here for 19 years and have never kept ducks) I just left it on the surface of the soil to see what would happen. A week later it was still there, but after another week I saw its broken shell, and it was now definitely empty. Who or what ate it, and what condition or age it was, I have no idea.

Froggatt Edge Stone Circle

Finally. The first circle in my quest to visit, meditate at, and photograph all the stone circles in Derbyshire…

Froggatt Edge Circle

A first view of Froggatt Edge Stone Circle as approached from Curbar.

Froggatt Edge circle, also known as the Stoke Flat circle, is one I must have unknowingly walked past twenty years ago, yet never saw on the ground. Only a short way off the path, it is easily missed even in Winter unless you were deliberately looking for it. In Summer bracken would surround it and make it harder to spot. In my defence, at that time the circles I was most familiar with were Stonehenge and Avebury in Wiltshire, and possibly Castlerigg in Cumbria. I had no idea that such small, indistinct circles even existed. So when looking at options for a family walk, with requests for some rocks to climb and somewhere not too wet after a week of rain, I was keen to return to the area and see if there was anything there.

My former ignorance is fortunately not shared by others, and besides photographs and maps for most Derbyshire circles being available online, there is also an excellent book ‘Stone Circles of the Peak: A Search For Natural Harmony’ by John Barnatt, published 1978 with detailed drawings and alignments of each circle he surveyed. However, I made a decision not to research this circle in any way beforehand, reckoning that I should be able to find it with some fairly simple navigation from the map, so that I could have my own impressions uncoloured by others. I have instead used the information available to fill in the gaps afterwards.

Tall Rock

Tall rock by entrance.
(Click to enlarge)

The circle is actually quite large in the area it covers, approximately 18m across, but there is only one stone above waist height and a few knee high ones remaining. There is however a slightly raised bank forming the ring, so that the stones that remain do look and feel as if they are indeed part of a circle. Unusually the stones are on both sides of the raised ring, suggesting to me that either they have been moved at some point in the past, or it once had a double ring of stones, inside and out. (John Barnatt suggests the latter, in common with Ewden Beck / Broomhead circle some 12 miles further North into Yorkshire. But see also below.)

I took a few photographs as I approached the circle, then I put the camera away and entered by the tall stone as that felt like the ‘way in’. It had a deep hollow in its top, filled with water. After feeling my way to being at home in the circle, I then chose a rock to sit on – in this case a ‘smiling’ rock called to me and proved incredibly comfortable, the perfect height, size and flatness for sitting. I felt very welcome, and even loved as I sat there.

Smiley Rock at Froggatt Edge Stone Circle

Smiley Rock at Froggatt Edge Stone Circle, showing stones on the opposite side of the ring in the background.
(Click to enlarge)

The first thing that struck me was how peaceful it was. There were strong gales blowing that day, making walking difficult at times, but being just slightly back from the Edge the circle was almost windless. It also seemed undisturbed by the popular path running almost alongside; the only other people I saw take any notice of the circle that day were with someone who, judging by conversation, had recently done an archaeological survey of the area and wanted to show it to them. Everyone else simply walked on by.

Sometimes sitting on the edge of a circle makes me feel slightly uncomfortable, being aware of the boundary energy-wise. I didn’t feel that here – possibly because the boundary was further out, at the outer edge of the bank – but neither did I feel so energised that I couldn’t stay for very long within the circle as I have felt elsewhere. Instead I had a real sense of the circle as as a stable and complete form and me as part of that. This is a rare true circle, not egg-shaped as is common, and I could really feel that as a stillness and strength. (According to John Barnatt’s plan and geometry, I was also sitting along the side of a square within the circle; the entrance being through the point of the square. A perfect square would likely increase the solidity and stability of a circle form.)

Although the circle did not feel particularly powerful when I visited, as if the new moon was its weak time, I felt strong within myself by sitting there and feeling its energies. Like I could achieve anything I wanted to. A feeling of empowerment. That was something I carried with me for several days afterwards.

Two days later I was able to do a journey back to the circle. I wanted to ask if there was anything I had missed, or should have done, whilst there.

Water offering

Water offering

The first seemed frustratingly obvious in retrospect – I should have taken some of the gift of water at the entrance that was there for me! I find it hard now to believe that I didn’t and am really puzzled by why I didn’t, but it serves as a reminder for next time. Recognise and accept gifts offered, and connect with all four elements when there is an opportunity to do so.

Beyond that, I’m glad to say I learned new information. I discovered that the circle was anchored through all worlds on Earth, and is a place where it is possible to move easily between the worlds, and the worlds come together. By this I am including lower and middle worlds, and worlds of the fae (another lower world but, to me, in a different place than that of animals). I didn’t specifically explore any world of ancestors (I haven’t tried that before) but I did have a strong sense that the circle was built by and used by people. More specifically, I seemed to see two rings of stones, with the inner ring being used to sit on as I had done, and the centre of the circle for dancing. This is different to Stanton Nine Ladies circle, where I have sensed any ‘audience’ would stay outside the circle while not taking part, whereas here some, or even all if only a small group was present, would be inside. I had an impression of the circle belonging to a family or clan or tribe who loved and looked after the circle. They lived some distance away on the moor where there was water, not by the river although they could see it and used it for a trading or travelling route. It was safer up on the moor.

Within the circle itself, I sensed that an energy vortex could form at the centre when at its peak time, that is when the sun or moon was fuller, and also dancing was used to raise the energy. I couldn’t get any idea of how this energy was used however – beyond it being slightly different to an experience I had regarding Wet Withens circle a couple of years ago. (Saved for when I revisit.) Clearly each circle type, and possibly each circle, has its own distinctive character.

Alignments made by John Barnatt show that the circle has been built to line up with the midsummer full moon over Arbor Low and midwinter full moon at Win Hill – a very distinctive, pointy hilltop which rises abruptly out of flattish moorland. While his sunset positions seem a bit non-specific to the horizons, he then points out that when sitting the midwinter sunset is in the centre of the tallest stone. Additionally, Imbolc / Samhain sunset is at the stone next to this, and midsummer sunset one further along. It is possible that missing stones once marked the other key sunsets through the year.

Froggatt Edge Stone Circle.

Froggatt Edge Stone Circle looking towards the Edge and the footpath. Sunset stones on the side nearest the trees.


Update
As the project continues, and I find out more information, it grows… Within the boundaries of Derbyshire, I am now aware of:
5 possible Henge sites, all on ‘White Peak’ or Limestone, of which only Arbor Low has any stones and is sufficiently intact to see the whole ring.
33 probable stone circle sites, all on ‘Dark Peak’ or Gritstone – of which 23 are known to have stones remaining.
4 sites which may be stone circles but are more likely ring or kerbed cairns – 1 of which has stones.
9-10 destroyed circle sites. (Debateable if the village of Ringstones had a stone circle, but it seems to be generally assumed that there was one once. Nine other circles have been recorded at some point since 1800, but are now lost.)
3 modern circles.
And a lot of confused grid references, or multiple names for the same circles… I can see why a GPS might come in handy!

Happy Imbolc

The 1st/2nd February may be the start of Spring, but Imbolc was not a sunny day here this year!

Maybe I should be glad – it is said in Scottish folklore, that if the Cailleach wishes to make Winter last longer, she will ensure Imbolc is bright and sunny so she may gather lots of firewood. If the weather is foul that day, the Cailleach is fast asleep and Winter is nearly over. It was so windy that I had trouble taking any photographs at all, although at least our everlasting fog has been blown away. The poor snowdrops in my garden, pictured in snow at the start of February two years ago, have not had enough warmth or sun to open properly yet this year and are now looking ragged.

Rosemary flowering for Imbolc

Rosemary flowering for Imbolc

But an unexpected find: Rosemary just coming into flower. It is a wonderful Winter herb, full of flavour through the darkest months when nearly all the softer herbs have lost their leaves or disappeared below ground, as well as giving shape to the garden. Then just when I start thinking the ‘evergreen’ plants are looking stiff and tired they spring into new growth, or bring out these wonderful blue flowers. It makes a great herbal tea, full of robust energies – as well as being anti-bacterial anti-septic, and an antioxidant. I also like it mixed with my other winter herb, Thyme, which is great for coughs.

Happy New Year … Again!

We have finally reached the last of the ‘New Years’ for the winter – the one generally celebrated across the country! As a pagan I normally like to work with the rhythms of nature rather than an arbitrary date, so have celebrated a new year’s cycle beginning at the start of the dark at the Autumnal Equinox, the general Pagan new year at Samhain, and the return of the light at the Winter Solstice. And yet besides being the day we turn all the calendars over, 1st January probably has one of the strongest rituals I can think of associated with it as people who share the Gregorian Calendar all around the world make resolutions for the year ahead. To be part of a collective humanity is valuable – just like any shared activity, or shared and repeated ritual, the more often it is repeated the more the power within it can grow and be used positively.

The only reason for making new resolutions or promises that I can see is to shine a light onto my path ahead and see what I need to do or what choices I need to make about my direction. Last January I had a list of various specific things I wanted to achieve – sewing projects, glass, swimming, drumming etc – most of which has been written about here over the course of the year. It was helpful in focusing my mind when I was struggling to see what was important to me independently of the rest of my family.

Now I am noticing how the different areas of my life have become more interrelated as time goes on, one influencing another and all becoming part of a whole which is me moving closer to living in harmony with everything around me. I made a list of what I wanted to do, and achieve, and then realised that every single one of them depended on me finding quiet space and time to really connect at a deep level. Being out in nature walking, swimming or gardening; taking photographs; writing; carving wood; looking after M; creating a home… So for this year, I have just one resolution – which covers just about every area of my life:

I will take more time for meditation – to include attuning myself to what I am doing, just being, and learning to stay calm.

It is not as if I don’t meditate now; I do, at least once every day, although it is often quite short. But I have been thinking a lot recently about this quote by Saint Francis de Sales, a Swiss clergyman who lived 1567-1622:

“Half an hour’s meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed.”

The first time I read this I laughed, assuming either he was making a joke, or he was saying that we needed to cut back on some of what was filling the time up, that we were overdoing it. However as I looked at what changes I wanted to make in my life, I have seen that meditation is related in some way to all of them.

The first is simple. If I am too busy to meditate, I won’t get any answers from within and therefore will not move forwards – besides not reaching the still point of Just Being that is so valuable and only seem to comes when I have dealt with any pressing issues. I am finding that out of stillness arises creation.

After dwelling on this quote a little longer however, I started to see the idea of being busy and needing longer to meditate differently. There are always going to be more things I want or need to do than I can fit, because that is the way I am. If I don’t seem to be managing to do everything, meditating seems to help me focus on what is important and how to do it easier, and which things maybe I can leave out. A daily set time and place is difficult for me as it gets squeezed out too often, but when I don’t manage my ‘regular’ slot I need to make another space.

The second part is to make a more conscious effort to meditate in different places – attuning myself to the environment through meditation, either to make a connection with the environment, or as part of whatever work or craft I am doing. Outside before I begin gardening for example, if I am serious about wanting to work with the nature spirits in the garden. When working with glass to literally work with glass and be part of it, or with wood, or with anything else I wish to craft, such as I just discovered with the origami dragon and its bigger brother from red shiny wrapping paper that is now nestled in the tree. The whole process of creation changes and becomes bigger than just me.

Finally the third and fourth parts are related, as I have learned to ‘just be’ in some circumstances and not others. I know, this could take a lifetime or more to master! In the short term however, am hoping improved meditation can help me stay calm even when provoked, or that I can see alternative ways of handling difficult situations. Anger or frustration I see as emotions intended to force or inspire change so not negative in themselves, but they need channeling and directing and that, for me, starts with meditation. Or at least it will this year.

It has also been a very interesting experience having committed to writing weekly, as the writing itself has almost become a meditation exercise. While some weeks it has been clear to me exactly what I want to talk about, other times I have got to Saturday evening or even Sunday morning and still have no idea. However, in every case these have been the posts I personally have learned the most from because there always seems to be some subject hovering around the edges of my consciousness that needs bringing into the open and properly examining instead of shying away from. They are not always the stories that make me look good, and sometimes I have had to think quite hard about whether or how to share. Admittedly a few end up in my ‘unpublished blogs’ file, but the writing of them was still a valuable experience which wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I have learned an awful lot in this way, and I hope that by sharing more of my own stories other people have also found them helpful. Even this one – which has strayed a very long way from my original list I started a week ago!

Solstice Greetings!

Linoprint Phoenix

Linoprint Phoenix

Here is my Winter Solstice picture for this year, the Phoenix or Firebird. It is a linoprint again, like the previous two years, but with a watercolour background.

I realise that the Phoenix is not a conventional choice for the Winter Solstice, but when the idea came to me a couple of months ago, it seemed to fit the idea of the sun being reborn and the light returning. However, before I went ahead with planning my design I thought it might be a good idea to try and make contact with one in meditation and make sure it was happy to be featured, and see if it had any additional messages for me. The experience I had and answers I got were somewhat unexpected in light of what I thought I ‘knew’ about Phoenixes from popular culture. Here are the notes I made at the time:

Met with Dragon [who else for a mythical animal?] to ask if I could talk to a Phoenix. Wanted to check it was okay to send an image on Yule card, and if it had any messages for me. Very reluctant at first – said I wasn’t a fire person and should not be trying to work with it. Did agree to talk to me, although I found it very proud and touchy!

“It is a comet, or a shooting star, or a fireball like when a planet burns up.”
“Like a salamander?”
“No, they are mere striplings on Earth. Phoenix sphere is the cosmos, they are much greater. They cause huge destruction in their fires, which are absolutely necessary for rebirth.”

It was happy to be better known, however, and better understood, as its role is a vitally important one. Exactly right for Yule and rebirth. Also acts as a warning of change coming, and that is a good thing this year, even if only a few people heed the warning. Advised not to call upon the Phoenix, however, unless want a completely fresh start and are prepared to have everything go up in flames.

“Fire colours for picture please – not rainbow as a few people have done. Preferably hissing and spitting sparks as well.”

More recently I have tried to research the Phoenix mythology that exists from around the world. Here is a brief summary:

In Greece the Phoenix is said to come from Arabia, larger than an eagle with brilliant scarlet and gold feathers and a beautiful voice. It was said that only one phoenix existed at any one time, with a life span of 500 years or more. As the end of its life approached, the phoenix would build a nest of aromatic branches and spices such as cinnamon and myrrh, set it on fire, and be consumed in the flames. After three days, a new Phoenix arises from the pile of ashes, young and powerful – or alternatively like a worm at first. It then embalms the ashes of its predecessor in an egg of myrrh, and flies with it to the city of the Sun, Heliopolis, where it deposits the egg on the altar of the Sun God.

In Persia the Huma bird looks similar to a golden griffin and it spends its entire life flying invisibly high above the earth. In some versions it is said to have no legs, for it never lands. It embodies both male and female natures, each having one wing and one leg where it has legs. It is also said to consume itself in fire every few hundred years. It cannot be caught alive, and a person killing a Huma will die in forty days – but to see its shadow or even a glimpse of one is sure to bring happiness for a lifetime.

In China the phoenix or Feng Huang was thought to be a gentle creature, alighting so gently that it crushed nothing, and it ate only dewdrops. It was originally a pair of birds, male and female, but later was considered female, while the dragon was its male partner. It is said to be made of celestial bodies: sky, sun, moon, earth, wind, planets, and to have the beak of a cock, the face of a swallow, the neck of a snake, the breast of a goose, the back of a tortoise, hindquarters of a stag and the tail of a fish – although these animals changed over time – while its feathers were the five fundamental colours of black, white, red, green and yellow. It has been pictured attacking snakes with its talons and its wings spread, or with scrolls in its beak. It represented power sent from the heavens to the Empress, and symbolised loyalty and honesty; it would not stay where there was darkness or corruption.

In Japan phoenixes or Ho-Oo fly in pairs, the Ho being male and the Oo being female. They nest in paulownia trees but were thought to only appear at the birth of a virtuous ruler or to mark a new era – after which they would return to their celestial abode.

In ancient Egypt the Bennu was a sun bird, a living Osiris, like a heron with two long flame-coloured feathers or a sun disk on its crown. It was born from flames at the top of a Persea tree that stood on the top of an obelisk and renewed itself in the sun’s rays every day. Some say it helped the sun to rise and set, and the Nile to flood each year bringing fertility to the land, and its cry helped the world to form and bring order out of chaos.

In Russia and Eastern Europe the Zhar-ptitsa was a large firebird whose gold and silver feathers emit red, orange and yellow light the colour of flames, and do not cease glowing even if removed; one feather is enough to light a large room. Some say it flies at night, and eats golden apples, while valuable pearls may fall from its beak when it sings. It was able to heal the sick and cure the blind by its chanting.

The more I discovered these parallel myths, the more I felt that the information I received fitted in. Just like Noah and his boat surviving the floods appears in multiple sources around the world, with evidence now becoming more available to us to prove there were huge floods that drowned civilisations 12,000 years ago, or the way angels appear in almost every culture and religion, so I believe it is with the Phoenix. We catch glimpses, we have stories passed down to us, one day we may see the whole.

I will finish with a quote from the Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’:

“I flew straight out of heaven, a mad bird full of secrets. I came into being as I came into being. I grew as I grew. I changed as I change. My mind is fire, my soul fire. The cobra wakes and spits fire in my eyes. I rise through ochre smoke into black air enclosed in a shower of stars. I am what I have made. I am the seed of every god, beautiful as evening, hard as light. I am the last four days of yesterday, four screams from the edges of earth – beauty, terror, truth, madness – the Phoenix on his pyre.
“In a willow I make my nest of flowers and snakes, sandalwood and myrrh. I am waiting for eternity. I’m waiting for four hundred years to pass before I dance on flame, turn this desert to ash, before I rise, waking from gold and purple dreams into the season of god. I will live forever in the fire spun from my own wings. I’ll suffer burns that burn to heal. I destroy and create myself like the sun that rises burning from the east and dies burning in the west. To know the fire, I become the fire. I am power. I am light. I am forever. On earth and in heaven I am. This is my body, my work. This is my deliverance.
“The heat of transformation is unbearable, yet change is necessary. It burns up the useless, the diseased. Time is a cool liquid; it flows away like a river. We shall see no end of it. Generation after generation, I create myself. It is never easy. Long nights I waited, lost in myself, considering the stars. I wage a battle against darkness, against my own ignorance, my resistance to change, my sentimental love for my own folly. Perfection is a difficult task. I lose and find my way over again. One task done gives rise to others. There is no end to the work left to do. That is harsh eternity. There is no end to becoming. I live forever striving for perfection. I praise the moment I die in fire for the veils of illusion burn with me. I see how hard we strive for Truth, and once attained how easily we forget it. I hold that fire as long as I can. My nose fills with the smell of seared flesh, the acrid smoke of death, so that years from now I might look on that scar and remember how it was to hold the light, how it was to die and come again radiant as light walking on sand.
“I change and change again, generation after generation. I find anguish then peace. I am satisfied with my birth and the faith to which it led me. I do not regret the discomforts and terrors of my mortality any more than I regret the company of angels. I have entered fire. I become invisible; yet I breathe in the flow of sun, in the eyes of children, in the light that animates the white cliffs at dawn. I am the God in the world in everything, even in darkness. If you have not seen me there, you have not looked. I am the fire that burns you, that burns in you. To live is to die a thousand deaths, but there is only one fire, one eternity.”

– The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day

Happy (Belated) Samhain

To many, and usually me, this is the Pagan New Year. The start of the dark time, just as all the old festivals start with the night and follow with the day. This year, however, I was feeling increasingly confused as Samhain approached, given that the new Sun cycle started in September, and the calendar year doesn’t start until January. How was I to celebrate the middle of three ‘New’ year moments? Was I going to be able to make it special?

I did the usual preparations, carving a pumpkin with pictures or symbols that were significant to me, some for the past year and some for the coming year. This year M and I chose four animals, one for each element, two seen in the garden and two that exist in other realms. These were frog (water), snake (fire) as we had a brief visit from a grass snake a few days before, dragon (air, in this case) and lynx (earth). All the useful pumpkin flesh that could be removed was cooked and turned into pies and soup, before cutting the designs with my trusty converted hacksaw blade. Then I lit a candle inside, gave my thanks, and waited to see what would come.

Well I have never before experienced such a dramatic shift into the dark of the year. The clocks changed making the evenings dark. The season changed, becoming cold and frosty with the remaining leaves making a rapid descent from the trees. The second term of the school year started, bringing new activities at seed stage to hopefully flourish in performance next Spring. But also, something shifted within me changing my path going forwards. The direction I thought I was going in suddenly no longer feels right, yet at the same time other avenues have opened up and feel really positive. I will use the dark to explore this further, make new plans, and gently ease myself out of a lot of attachments I have made over the past few years. Some will be reformed into new relationships, others may not survive. I shall be busy this dark time!

Sunflowers

Yellow Sunflower

Yellow Sunflower

There is a patch of garden, next to the pond we created in Spring, that is going to be subject to quite a bit of earth moving. I didn’t want to fill it with perennial plants and shrubs that would establish themselves just at the point I needed to move them, nor did I want to leave it bare. So I decided to plant annuals there.

Not all that I planted has thrived, and not all the seeds have turned into plants. It is too shady, too dry, and too many plant predators were made homeless just before I created the bed – but there is one plant that has grown better than any previous attempts of mine: Sunflowers. Standing taller than almost anything around them, they haven’t needed staking or care and have produced several flowers each.

As we approach the festival of Lughnasadh (or Lammas if you prefer), it is always this colour that is in my mind. The hot sun, the ripening barley in the fields, summer holidays. They bring smiles to my face, reaching for the sky, as they flower for weeks. They are strong, bending in the wind, yet flexible enough to follow the sun in its path every day. Several religious or spiritual groups around the world have used sunflowers as a symbol for both reaching for the light and being or bringing light.

I will be leaving the flowerheads to ripen for the birds and look forward to seeing how long they last. Along with the teasels and the various tree berries (hawthorn, rowan) they should create a natural storecupboard for a few months to come.

Sunflowers on one stem

Sunflowers on one stem

Conscious Participation

I have been exploring the idea of conscious participation over the past few weeks, inspired by a comment I read from Laurie Cabot (Salem, Massachusetts witch and writer) suggesting there is no such thing as a passive observer; you are always a participant.

This makes a lot of sense to me, as the human influence can be seen working at every level: in quantum physics where light can behave as particles or as waves depending on which you are looking for; in mind experiments controlling where a ball falls; in dowsing where clear results come for anyone openminded enough to believe in the possibility – and frequently not working at all for people convinced it won’t.

At a group M and I enjoy, the person who runs it thanks everyone for being there at the end of each session. Not for coming, for being there. I found this odd the first time, that she should be thanking us rather than the other way around, but now recognise that she is acknowledging how each person’s presence influences the group and is welcome. I notice how I learn different things and have different experiences depending on who is there and how they are being, and it is frequently precisely whatever I am needing at the time.

In canoeing there is an often repeated phrase for swimmers (ie those who are unintentionally parted from their boat in whitewater) that they are not a victim, they are an active participant in whatever rescue is needed. I have been on both sides of this, rescuer and swimmer, many times, and know there is nothing to be gained except a feeling of helplessness if I don’t take an active part when needed. Sometimes that job is to observe, especially in a group situation, as signals might need to be passed up or down river. But passive observation it is not! Alternatively, even at the distance of a few years since I was last in a boat, for any rescue I can remember (and there are a few!) I can still picture every person who was there, even if they were merely passing along the footpath. Sometimes I made use of complete strangers, having to use intuition for who I could trust to help.

Similarly, in any situation of performing in front of an audience: musicians, actors, dancers, speech givers, and in every situation from concert halls and theatres to office boardrooms to the street, every person present or passing by is a participant if only they knew it! The most uninterested or bored observers will have an effect on the performance just as much as those clapping or cheering.

This is also true in witchcraft. I would never invite anyone to ‘observe’ a spell or healing I was doing, but if I felt their energies were positive might ask them to participate – the intentions of each person present and assisting will influence the outcome. After all, we ask the stars and planets to aid us in our magic, just as I am discovering many do in biodynamic gardening, which is a pretty subtle influence – as are other correspondences such as crystals or herbs used. But they can all add up to a very powerful whole.

So as this weekend was Beltane, I have of course been celebrating. Some folk might talk of ‘observing’ a festival – but this is not the pagan way. For several years now I have actively created a ritual at each Sabbat so that I may learn something from it. These are generally solo and thus fairly simple meditations and activities that I have used to give my life greater depth and meaning, connecting to the Earth as the seasons progress. However this weekend I have finally understood why many pagans talk (or write) of helping to keep the wheel of the year turning. It is not that it would stop without our efforts, (actually it might if Earth enters a higher state of consciousness, but that is a different story!) it is more that by actively participating in the celebration of the seasons, I become part of it too. By showing my love to each sign of Spring I add my consciousness. I am not a mere ‘audience’, I add my appreciation and encourage the flowers, the birds, the sheep and other field animals, the bees, the ladybirds, to greater efforts. I have become a co-creator with nature: an active participant, part of the turning wheel. That to me is something worthwhile.