Candles for Rituals

Candles have apparently formed a part of ceremony and ritual for around 5000 years. A ritual without a candle (or a fire) burning, no matter what other offerings or symbols are on an altar or equivalent, to me is just a meditation. It might be very meaningful in itself, but there is no uplift. No Fire in its pure elemental form to create a transformation in my subconscious.

Now that M is at school, I find I have time and space to do more full rituals again – and having not managed much for a few years it is a good opportunity for me to re-examine what I do and why. (Oh the joy, and effort, of being a solitary!) However, I have been encountering two problems. Paraffin wax, which the majority of candles are made from, smells awful to me and gives me breathing difficulties even without any scents being added. Alternatively beeswax candles, a beautiful smelling natural product, are expensive especially as easily available nightlights don’t burn properly in the time a solo ritual generally takes. Unless a candle burns to its edges before being blown out, it will form a hole in the centre, making it difficult to relight. So for my typical 30 minute or so burn time, 2cm is probably the largest candle size to use. (Several years ago I bought some beeswax “birthday candles” for which I was kindly made a wooden pentacle holder, but these only burn 10-15 minutes each. Great for a spell or focused meditation, but simply too short for a ritual.)

Pagans luckily have an answer to this problem, I have recently discovered, in the form of Spell Candles. Usually around 1-1.5cm across and 10cm tall, many are made of beeswax and come in a variety of colours. Burn time varies from an hour to 90 minutes, depending on size and if they are rolled or solid. Prices vary with some people charging a premium, while others charge in proportion to the amount of wax required to make each candle. (Yes there are now many electronic effect nightlight candles around, and yes it does take fire elementals to create electricity so they would be present, but this isn’t my first choice if there is a natural and sustainable alternative available.)

So having finally established that there are suitable candles for me to buy, I then start considering candle holders. Not many are this small, and they will need to be sized fairly specifically to which candles I choose to buy. Sticking one in melted wax on a plate is basic but tempting! But there is also the question of how many candles to have, given candle holders often come in pairs.

One candle seems to me to be adequate for a ceremony, to be lit at the start, before any circle is cast, and extinguished at the end. It can represent anything and everything, and ultimately symbolises that all is one. Connected through the centre which is everywhere. However, many witches have candles for the God and Goddess, possibly in addition to a central or carried candle (which may also be used represent Fire on the altar), making two or three candles per ceremony. Some witches also like to light candles in each quarter, coloured for each element, giving a possibility of seven candles. (I am assuming any candles lit as part of a spell or a working are extras.)

At this point I spent some time in meditation. I asked, what does my ideal altar look like for use indoors?

The picture that came into my mind was this one:

Two candles at the back. That was a surprise because it isn’t what I usually do. They are equal, yet apart. Goddess and God, Mother Earth and Father Sky, female and male, dark and light, above and below, within and without, manifested and unmanifested. I realised we live in a world of duality and what I seek is balance. Then on the right side of my altar, an apple Wand (I wonder why apple? I’ll come back to this when I know… ), ready to pick up and use, while on the left, a silver (pewter) cup bearing water. In the centre at the front, my working area where I can place anything specific to that ritual, ideally on a pentagram disk of some kind, completing the five-pointed arrangement. Underneath is my portable table covered by a bright green cotton cloth. Behind on the wall is a beautiful fabric picture of a tree.

I share this because it is considerably more basic and simple than most witches use – and in fact than I normally use! Yet although I was then shown how it could be added to, the athame next to the wand, a bowl for salt next to the cup, Goddess and God statues behind the two candles, other items specific to the ritual such as gemstones, flowers, amulets, pictures, carvings etc, I realised it is perfection in its simplicity, with each item being hand made and beautiful in itself. Both male and female are present, as are all four elements, as is an ancestor connection. If my altar represents me in the higher planes, then I seem to be calm, peaceful, simple and uncluttered inside.

A permanent altar with lots of things on it is not something that feels right to me because I live with non-Pagans who would have no use for such a thing and not treat my tools as sacred; when I am not using them, they (bell, athame, swan feather, cups, offering plates, etc) are safe inside my desk, along with all the other sacred objects, talismans, divination aids, space clearing tools etc that I possess. Our ‘seasonal displays’ on the mantleshelf act as a permanent focus with the various quilt tops I have made changing for each sabbat – they are based around the pagan year, which is of course the solar year so easily understood by all including visitors to the house. Our two dining candles live there when not in use, creating a parallel with my altar. I also have various locations in the house where there are power items that are left out all the time, and a place where I leave offerings in the garden. So after a bit of thought and experimentation, I find a really simple altar inside gives me the freedom to set it up quickly and easily when I want it (and dismantle it again before collecting M from school), and I have the flexibility to add any statues or symbols or flowers etc that are befitting to the ritual.

The loss of some tools does, however, feel like I am breaking a lot of rules! I clear space before casting a circle, so these tools are kept nearby, but I won’t now be putting them on my alter after use. My wooden athame I made has not seen much use, and it was interesting while exploring altars and candles to read other people’s comments that they don’t use an athame outside for fear of upsetting elementals – any blade is objectionable, not just an iron one. (I wondered if some witches used knives originally so that they had one to hand in case protection is needed. Also I suspect only rich witches in times past would have had a spare knife for magical purposes! Another area to come back to…) Incense I don’t use because I can’t cope with smoke – but I do sometimes use natural sprays while cleansing the space so I’ll have to find a way to work these in. Also my apple wand will need consecrating when I have made it, so I’ll have to find a way of doing this that doesn’t involve smoke!

I am amused that I started out just trying to work out what candles to buy, and have ended up redesigning my altar, and probably the whole way I celebrate. Sometimes all it takes is a small thing for us to make the big changes that we simply couldn’t see before.

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Imbolc Quilt

Quilt for Imbolc

Here is my quilt for Imbolc, season of Winter thawing to Spring. It is always a special festival to me, celebrating Brigid, the one Goddess I have had a really long term relationship with, and I wanted to reflect the square shape of her cross in the quilt. So this has a more organised colour pattern than the previous seasonal quilts I have made.

I’m still managing to use up scraps, although a certain amount of trust is now being called for that I won’t run out before I finish the series. Having enough backing fabric is also starting to get tricky – for this one I used white as without wadding any other colour showed through the white squares on the front, but I had to make it in three pieces.

The colours of Imbolc always make me think of snowdrops, which are often associated with Brigid and the festival itself – despite having only been introduced to Britain in the 1500s. It is true that they often flower at the right time of year, although this year one clump of mine were showing white just a day or two after the winter solstice.

This quilt has again raised the question of when to create a display for each Sabbat. Mostly I change things a few days or a week before, except the Yule display was started at the beginning of December. However, there seems to be a strong tradition around here of removing all Christmas things on or by the 5th January, which leaves a surprisingly long time for an empty display! So I waited a few days and then put out the new Imbolc quilt, but found I was then ready to clean the house and bring the freshness in! Did Spring arrive early this year? I now understand why Steiner schools sometimes have the addition of ‘Mrs Thaw’ to fill this gap, although she could come any time up until May depending on the weather!

Yule Quilt

Yule Quilt

This is now the fifth quilt I have made in the series of 8 for each sabbat display, and the first where the colours had a small amount of planning in their arrangement – rather than just the total random, ‘scrappy quilt’ look. I did not have many suitable fabrics for Yule, 3 golds, 3 greens, and 4 reds although one was in very short supply. Had I started with this quilt, I would have probably made it far more definite in its design by using some colours for the stars and different colours for the borders, yet this interests me precisely because it wasn’t done that way. It draws me in more.

The stars made me think of spiky holly with its bright berries, as well as poinsettia plants sold everywhere but needing more warmth than our house generally offers on a winter’s night. There is also the coming of the light, directly from the sun as we celebrate its return – and for two months of the year I have an unobstructed view of the sunrise through trees from my bedroom window. Most years (but no longer guaranteed) there is also light reflected by snow, bringing a wonderfully uplifting feel at what is generally a dark time.

Making a series of quilts that are supposed to be an exact size has also been a learning experience. My sewing accuracy wasn’t bad before, but sew each 1/4inch seam just 1/2mm out, and over 25 seams you have gained or lost a whole inch, 25mm. That is assuming my cutting was accurate to within the same tolerances! So it took me to quilt 4 to get almost the right finished size, and this one is just slightly long. Given they are all made slightly wide, long looks good. The other good thing I have finally learned is how to work methodically when picking up each pair of pieces to sew, in order to keep them in the same position and rotation. It has taken me a long time to master this basic skill!

Normally I change the display about a week before a sabbat, but it felt appropriate to get this out last weekend. Not because lights and decorations are up everywhere else and M enjoys them being up in our house as well, but because winter arrived with the last leaves falling off the trees, two dustings of snow and ice on the pond. Autumn has passed, it is dark outside, and I feel ready to close the curtains and be looking within. Enjoying candlelight, being cosy in the long dark evenings, and preparing for what is to come. In my case, a completely crazy, exciting, holiday season with so much packed into about 3 weeks that I have had to write down what I need to do when.

Black Bryony

Black Bryony berries garlanding its way through the ivy.

All autumn I have been enjoying the sight of black bryony berries garlanding the hedgerows. They are of course a fairly common plant in most of England, but one I only tend to see once the bright red berries have ripened. The flowers are fairly small and insignificant.

Black Bryony in Hawthorn hedge.

I have wanted to take a picture of the berries before, but mostly I see them while cycling, along roadside hedges that are not always good places to walk with a camera. They also drape themselves so sparsely that they don’t frame well. Then this year a new cycle route was opened up to me (see earlier post, Cycle Roads) and it grew in these traffic free hedges in such profusion that I wanted to have a go. A month ago the leaves were still yellowing and showing their bindweedy shape, but now they hang brown or have dispersed into the hedge bottom to be recycled into next year’s crop. Getting camera, weather, time and leg that can be walked on all together has taken some time… (These were taken with our old compact camera – the DSLR camera I got this year would have done a better job at putting the background out of focus and letting the berries shine, but would have added an extra weight / balancing challenge I wasn’t ready for. Work in progress!)

There are two bryonies, named white and black after the colour of their roots, both looking very similar for most of the year since they each have mid-green ivy-like leaves, small insignificant greenish white male and female flowers followed by red berries, and they climb up hawthorn with abandon. However they are completely unrelated to each other. White bryony, Bryonia dioica, is a member of the curcurbitae family (ie courgettes and melons) so climbs with tendrils, and is dioecious, while Black Bryony, Tamus communis, belongs to the Dioscoreaceae family (ie yams), climbs by twining, and is monoecious. Both are poisonous in all parts.

Black Bryony berries and ivy.

Black bryony berries and juice or pulp from the root have been applied directly to the skin for bruises, strains, gout, rheumatism and hair loss because the calcium oxalate it contains as crystals irritate (or stimulate?) the skin. It has also been used to cause vomiting in careful doses, and when mixed with wine or honey, black bryony has been used for gravel or asthma. An overdose is likely to cause a painful death however. All parts also contain saponins, another poison, although one which is normally deactivated by cooking – but the young shoots are cooked and eaten like asparagus in southern France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Croatia and Greece.

I managed to meet Black Bryony in meditation, and found a very interesting energy which was willing to communicate with me, appearing briefly in a dark female form and very beautiful. Its element is fire, and its focus is transformation – hence is medical uses. But transformation can be destructive to some if they are not willing to change, to let some parts die down. It was used in alchemy for this purpose. [I cannot find any evidence for this as yet, although I’m not an alchemist so it may turn up…] It has been particularly active along the lane to create the transformation that I have seen this year. It has developed strong roots in the course of this work so will continue to grow well there, but doesn’t need to spread further. It also brings harmony, creating links between species. It does not help the fiery aspects of will, or of strong focus and intention.

Black Bryony makes a garland under a hawthorn branch.

Samhain Quilt

As the pagan New Year approaches, I have been making preparations by completing the next quilt (or altar cloth or display cloth depending on who I am talking to) for my display, and also buying a pumpkin and deciding what to carve into it.

The quilt design is still based on 2” squares, but this time there are many triangles incorporated – which sometimes combine to make diamonds. I wanted a lot more movement in this quilt than the one for the equinox, reflecting the flames of this fire festival. Change can happen. New seeds can be sown in the Earth to put down roots through the winter. Ancestors can peek through the cracks and offer their advice and support. My colours are perhaps a little clichéd, but they are what felt right from my scraps pile – which may even fit in its cupboard again by the time I finish all 8 quilts… Now I just have the enjoyable task of creating my display on top, which like all of our displays will find ways of connecting to the seasons as well as the Sabbat, in this case Samhain and our ancestors being remembered.

Samhain Display Quilt


The vibrant orange in the quilt is almost identical in colour to the pumpkin I have found for this year. Pumpkins are a vegetable I have been carving for over 40 years now; I can remember primary school days when other children brought in carved turnips and swedes, and thinking what hard work it looked and why didn’t they just use a pumpkin? The bits we cut out of pumpkins tasted good in pies as well, mixed with enough sugar, eggs, cream and spices, whereas I don’t think we even ate turnips in our house. However as a child I just carved a face each year, whereas as an adult I like to carve more meaningful designs. One side to represent what has been important to me in the past year, the other to sow my seeds, hopes and dreams for the next year. I usually start thinking about what I will carve a week or so before the day, when I see what size pumpkin I have.

While planning a design always involves a period of reflection for me, as all spiritual art must come from within, this autumn it has been particularly intense.

I mentioned when writing about my Mabon quilt that I had hurt my hip and leg. I have no idea what I did, or exactly what is wrong, but walking and sewing are still very tricky for me, and as for any of the plans I had for when M was in school full time, my leg is clearly telling me they were the wrong plans. Luckily I have found cycling is even better than the physio exercises and really enjoyable in this mild autumn weather. Meanwhile I have had a lot of meditation time to think about what direction I should be going in.

The strange thing is that at the end of all this, I realised there is nothing I need to be doing right now except what I have been able to do – which is to look after my family and myself. Except now I have a very small difference in my approach. I value each person equally, including myself as an equal. I am ignoring messages from the media of what I should be doing to value or look after or pamper myself, because I don’t need it. I have no lack, and I have nothing to prove. As a result I am happier than I have ever been before as an adult. I know that even though I cannot do much right now, I should just enjoy the resting period. The future might suddenly be a lot busier.

So after all this thought, I plan to make this year’s pumpkin a joint family carve, using cookie cutters to make pictures since the first two requests of fairy and frog should be easier cut that way than freehand. I did a frog last year as well; it must have worked since our tadpoles have been hopping around the garden for the last two months. This year it might go on the thank you side.

Mabon Quilt

Quilt for the Autumn Equinox / Mabon.

Here is my quilt for Mabon, or the Autumn Equinox. This quilt is about harvest, not just in its ripe fruit colours but in the fabrics themselves, for which I think I counted 19 in total. Some are from previous quilting projects, such as the three tree series I made, giving a nice link to the harvest of tree fruits (apples and plums in particular). Several squares were cut from scraps leftover from dressmaking, some of them clothes I made for M which are now too small for her but also one of mine which I still wear. And finally the music fabric, leftover from a ‘baby quilt’ and saved for quite a long time because these small pieces were all that was left. It represents another joy in my life right now, to play with the morris dancing group. Again, nothing has been bought new. So to look at this quilt brings happy memories. (To me, it is all the more remarkable because the difficulties I had actually sewing it were beyond anything I have done recently, as since August I have been suffering from a very sore hip and leg and at times can barely sit or stand. Sewing was done in very short bursts, left-footed. But that is a story for another time.)

Since both equinoxes are all about balance, I have also been testing an urban myth that has been puzzling me since I discovered it last Spring. There is a much repeated story on the internet that it is possible to balance an egg on its end at the equinox. I tried this, and failed. Then I read it was at the moment of equinox. I have no idea if the Earth is acutely aware of the moment of equinox or not, as with the moment of solstices. There is however a moment when the tides turn, which are of course affected by sun and moon so I didn’t just dismiss it out of hand. So since I missed the right time last time, and it was quite a convenient time this time, I thought I would have a go in the spirit of scientific enquiry. This time I also invited company.

What we proved is: some people can balance eggs. Duck eggs, chicken eggs, they will apparently all stand on their ends for as long as is required of them. The equinox makes no difference to those capable of balancing an egg, as the trick was quite happily repeated the next day. I, however, am still incapable of balancing an egg on a smooth, hard surface, no matter what time of day. Although I can have fairly good results if I use a non-flat surface…

Lughnasadh Quilt

Continuing my series of quilted display cloths I have been making, here is my finished quilt for the beginning of August and the colours of the grain harvest.

Lughnasadh Quilt


The design is still based on squares, as I did for Litha, but this time I did not have so many suitable fabrics available to me so decided to make some of the shapes bigger. This made it quite entertaining to sew together, since I could never follow any regular pattern!

I have deliberately used some of the same fabrics as for Litha, and would like to make that a passing theme through the year: that each quilt has a relationship to the ones either side through sharing some colours, as well as having some that are unique to only that quilt. In this case I am unlikely to use the brightest yellows for anything other than Lughnasadh, but I used the gold prints for the Litha quilt, and will use the darkest red / orange fabric for Mabon and also for Samhain if I get stuck with a lack of other suitable fabrics.

It is now forming part of my display as we prepare for the coming festival, and has been adorned with candles, flowers, and some corn dollies we made last year. For the first time we have some wheat in the garden, sown by M at school as part of her ‘Spring Garden’ and transplanted here in April. We will be able to ceremonially cut it on the day and place it centre stage.

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″)

Apple Blossom

Apple Cordons in full blossom

Following on from the Blackthorn blossom a couple of weeks ago, I am now seeing the best display of apple blossom ever in my garden! I had always believed apples needed sufficient cold to set flower buds, but clearly that isn’t the case. Having had warm winters two years in a row, and small crops for the last two years as well, I think the trees have gathered their energies into production. It is of course possible that my pruning has improved and had some effect, but I’m not aware of it. I think it is just a good year for fruit blossom around here.

Blossom from ‘Bountiful’ opening from dark pink to white.

I really enjoy the different colours from different plants, and the change as the petals open.

Anyway as apples are such a great Pagan fruit, I just wanted to share it this week. Pagan because they make a five-pointed star inside, and because anything regarded as totally sinful and at the same time the fount of all wisdom must be good… They are pretty good for promoting harmony and love as well!

Arthur Turner Blossom

Crabapple ‘Laura’ Blossom. The fruit is dark red all the way through.

In Praise of Lamb’s Lettuce

Lamb's Lettuce after a shower of rain

Lamb’s Lettuce after a shower of rain

This modest little annual never ceases to amaze me, as it continues to grow all through the winter producing little bites of freshness whenever I want some salad leaves. Unlike many winter leafy plants (eg land cress, mizuna or pak choi) it does not become tough or peppery in flavour, but remains slightly sweet and crunchy all year. It seeds itself everywhere, covering the ground with a green carpet, so where I do not want it, such as on the gravel pathways, I eat it. (Preferably before it runs to seed!) Lettuce does not overwinter, but Lamb’s Lettuce does – and makes a great addition to soup or steamed as a vegetable if not wanted fresh.

Botanically known as Valerianella locusta, it is also commonly known as Corn Salad thanks to its propensity to grow as an edible weed in wheat (corn) fields, and as Mache or Rapunzel in Europe, although this last name is also applied to Campanula rapunculus.

I like the idea of Lamb’s Lettuce being the plant referred to in the Rapunzel story, and it makes perfect sense to me that a pregnant woman would be desperate to eat some in the middle of winter. I can imagine her sitting at her window, in a barren, cold and frosty land, desperate for something nice and fresh to eat that won’t make her stomach turn. There is nothing to eat in her garden and just stodgy old root vegetables left in store, but next door, where the witch lives, there is a carpet of edible green that no one is touching. Oh how that would make her pine for it each day! And yes, the first time she persuades her husband to go, it is even better than she had hoped, for she sends him again…

So there you have it – Rapunzel’s mother was pregnant in winter, and desperate for something crisp and fresh, and packed with nutrients (Vitamins A, B6 and C, plus iron and potassium) that would help her through. Pretty and edible as the Campanula is, I can’t see it inducing any kind of desperation in late spring when so many other plants are also abundant.