Lughnasadh

Lughnasadh was on Tuesday this week, a festival I realise I tend to be slightly ambivalent about compared to the other fire festivals of the year. A fairly important family anniversary the day after Lughnasadh may have something to do with that, as well as the fact it normally features the grain harvest as its central message (thanks to its connection and confusion with Lammas, the Christian Loaf Mass) and I am allergic to wheat! However, this year Lughnasadh marked some major unexpected events for me that make me really look forward to the next year (more of which to follow) – so I was feeling puzzled as to why seeds are being madly sown in my life while the rest of the world is apparently at harvest, and wanted to explore some of the meanings of the festival a little deeper.

Lughnasadh, also spelt Lughnasa, Lughnasad, Lunasa etc, is an old Irish festival, named for the Celtic sun-God Lugh, and Nasadh meaning an assembly. It didn’t actually celebrate the harvest, which is frequently a little later in August; however, Lughnasadh was started as a result of the start of growing and harvesting crops. Besides, if the assembly was held at harvest time most able-bodied people would have been too busy to compete in any games!

When the Tuatha de Danaan invaded Ireland, the High King of the Fir Bolg, Eochaidh mac Eirc was killed in battle. His wife, Tailtiu, was then given a high-born son of the Danaan to raise as her own, as a mark of trust. Fostering children was a common way of creating peace between kingdoms, in the same way as marriage was used. The son she was entrusted with was Lugh.

Clearly as a way of inspiring loyalty, this was an inspired choice. Lugh flourished and developed incredible skills and talents, winning the titles Lamfhada, ‘of the long arm’ for his prowess with spear casting, and Samildanach, ‘master of all arts’. He went on to become High King, and was a Druid and a Warrior.

He remained very close to his foster mother, despite leaving to seek his fortune, and was devastated when Tailtiu died of exhaustion on 1st August after clearing a great forest on the plains of Brega in readiness for farming. (The Bronze Age had arrived in Ireland.) When the men gathered at her death-bed, she told them to hold funeral games and celebrations in her honour. As long as they were held, she prophesied Ireland would not be without song. This is of course what Lugh did.

The first games were held at the town now known as Teltown in County Meath, where they continued to be held until the Norman invasion – and informally in rural areas until the eighteenth century. They were known to include sporting contests in hurling, spear throwing, sword fighting, handball, running, wrestling, boxing, horse and chariot racing, staged battles and displays of Irish martial arts, as well as music, poetry, story-telling, singing and dancing, and competitions amongst craftsmen, such as goldsmiths, jewellers, spinners, weavers, and the forging of weaponry and armour. It was also the time that laws were made and announced to the people by bards, and contracts, politics and alliances were agreed between families. Even weddings or handfastings took place by linking hands through a hole in a stone, which could be dissolved the next year by walking away from each other if it didn’t work out. August remains one of the most popular times of year for weddings. Violence was not tolerated for the period of the festival, all those who came had to agree to a truce.

So it was Tailtiu who made the sacrifice so that man could plant corn, offering herself as the divine feminine. She was not afraid to work hard, and was an excellent mother in all senses of the word. Her festival reminds us to look at all our talents, use them, and as well as reaping our harvest, see what we can give back to others, and to the Earth. In that sense I now understand where my new seeds have come from, and what responsibility I have to nurture them and help them grow.

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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″)

A Very Small Dragon

Origami Dragon

Origami Dragon

Definitely Craft not Art – this is my poor attempt at following an origami Dragon design. It wasn’t intended for the tree, but then I had no idea quite how small it would turn out! I also had to miss out some of the shaping folds in wings, neck and tail given the thickness of paper to size just wouldn’t take it. In my defense however, I would say that my previous attempts at origami have only been the very simplest of beginner models, and frequently I have had to abandon even those when I just cannot work out what they have done.

Today I had help. Every time I got stuck, I checked back a few steps, puzzled over things, and then after I had a couple of attempts it was as if I was being shown how to do it. This Dragon really wanted to be created! Also I kept being pointed to my sewing cabinet: for a seam ripper to help with tiny folds, or needle and thread for hanging. Dragons clearly know no boundaries – I thought it was the kitchen where they wanted to be in my house, and one in the hall when I manage to carve it. This one chose the tree. Now I just have to make a much bigger one, or two, or … or … hmmmm I actually have a lot of butterflies on the wall which the Dragons apparently would prefer to outnumber!

Getting Back Into Glass (At Last!)

'Fire' Candle Holder

‘Fire’ Candle Holder

It’s been a while since I did any stained glass work, apart from sketching out design ideas. I’ve missed it. The last window I made was when pregnant with M – the Oak Sunrise window, which was pictured here in December last year when it finally got fitted. As M is the sort of child who still has to experience everything in a physical way, ‘no touching’ remaining an alien concept to her, I simply haven’t felt safe getting glass out around her yet. This simple candle holder was made for a friend, in a single day whilst M was elsewhere.

It reminded me just how much I love everything about glass. The light coming through it, the colours, the feel of a large piece in my hand, the act of cutting it and listening for the sound all the time. Lifting the cutter out of holes where there are faults in the glass. The careful snap, or easing a cut, or occasionally tapping the back of a sharp curve to control the line of cracking. Glass may be man-made, yet it shares many properties with crystals and gemstones – and each colour seems to have its own cutting character influenced by the specific minerals which make the colour. Red, made with gold, tin or selenium, is always really nice to work with! The opposite of green, made from iron or chromium, which can be one of the flakiest and always the most likely to give me nicks. Amber is harder, iron plus sulphur, good bottle glass.

Copper foiling isn’t my preferred technique, but appropriate here so I dutifully wrapped each piece in the required sticky copper tape before the joy of soldering. The acid tang and spicy smell of the flux, so different from the tallow I use on lead. And the way molten solder behaves is just so fascinating. Sometimes it melts cleanly, other times it feels more solid depending on the exact temperatures. Most of the time it flows beautifully into a joint, making a raised silver bead, but occasionally it reminds me of my lack of practice recently when it hisses and spits gently where there is an air pocket, or even runs straight through when it gets too hot. And when it runs out it makes a beautiful silver puddle, ready to be gathered up again with the iron tip and reused. And the final stage is so simple – a bath in warm soapy water. No mess.

Crafting Ceremonial Tools

Every witch or book on witchcraft will tell you that tools are not needed to direct energies or to do magic – it comes from within, and a finger can work just fine. (Is seven years as an active, circle-casting witch a record for still using a finger most of the time?)

The other great wisdom often quoted is that you can find tools anywhere, and they will feel right to you. Well I have looked many times, but none of the huge number of ‘witches tools’ offered for sale have ever felt right to me.

Tools I have looked for include a wand, a chalice, and an athame. I have acquired various knives for ceremonial cutting of plants or for whittling, dedicated several household objects I already had and loved for use in ceremony, such as a suitable bowl for water, plate for offerings, and candle holders, and even created an altar cloth, clothes and jewellery to wear. It was only in the last month or two however that I realised the best person to make the tools I want to use is me – so that they may be crafted in harmony with the natural materials around me, and full of the intentions of the use to which I wish to put them.

As with previous craftings, I am not going to show photographs of any finished items I use in ceremony. However here is my mostly finished athame I have been whittling out of a Prunus Pandora tree that is very special to me, and which had to be pruned this month. There were really too many side shoots for a perfect blade, but that is the way cherry grows. My first attempt was actually in Holly which was much smoother and more even, but just too hard for my knife to work. I may have kept it too long before starting, or it may simply not have been the right wood for me for this purpose. One day I may find something even better, but until then I am really enjoying using the cherry and it fits nicely in my hand.

Athame made from Cherry

Athame (not finished) made from Cherry

One of the side shoots left a hole in the handle, which I turned into the centre of a triple moon symbol; there will be some carving on the other side as well. I found it was an interesting wood to whittle, being a novice at this type of woodworking, quite hard but straight grained and with thicker bark than I anticipated. When freshly cut the bark was very pale and green inside, but on exposure to the air turned this richer brown colour. It is not the black of traditional athames, but is dark enough for me. I originally started making it as a single bladed knife, changing my mind as I realised a dagger shape would make better use of the hardest wood down the centre of the knife; the point is surprisingly hard and capable of cutting a candle should I wish. Also being symmetrical it has the advantage of directing energy straight down the centre line of the branch. However the blade will need some protection, such as oiling it, if I wish to dip it into liquids regularly. (I anticipate doing a bit more smoothing too, before it is declared finished and ready for consecrating!)

It occurs to me that a boline would be great fun to whittle, if I found a suitably curved branch of light-skinned ash or similar! Meanwhile I may look out for some wand material, and I’ve always wanted to carve a bowl in the shape of a leaf… The tool I use all the time though is a staff, which I really should complete one day! I have used a particular staff when journeying in the lower worlds ever since I found a hazel pole about five years ago. When I journey it is always complete, in ordinary reality it isn’t. And recently I have acquired a second staff for mainly upperworld journeys – which I am told I should use for ceremony as well. So I have two to make now! Watch this space, as they say…

A Soggy Imbolc

I am feeling a bit of a theme to Sabbats at the moment – all of the recent ones seem determined to get me wet! However it was not from above that I got a soaking, but from below.

I like to make Brigid Crosses to honour the goddess at this time of year, and although I have used crocosmia stems from my garden successfully in the past, this year they were well past it and shredded for compost. So instead I went on a search for the traditional plant used, the common or field rush, Juncus effusus, being a good Brigid green all year.

Rushes are not a plant that grow in abundance where I live – which is on the top of a hill – even in this damp year we have been having. However a drainage ditch put in a few years ago alongside a minor road a short distance from me has been colonised by some very interesting flora, including rushes. So on Sunday afternoon, once the rain had stopped, we had a family walk returning by way of the ditch so that I could cut a few stems.

This year the timing of the verge cutting left no rushes growing out of the top of the ditch. The only plants with leaves long enough to cut where those growing low down near the water level, out of the sides of the gabions from which the ditch is constructed. It wasn’t deep, I had wellies on, so I jumped in next to the first likely looking plant – and yes was able to cut several stems that were suitable. But not enough for a cross, unless I left the poor plant with nothing left to grow from. (There is not an abundance of rushes here!) So I asked for a hand out of the ditch, and then stepped down again at the next place where there were three rush plants growing close together. All good, until I tried to climb out again.

Having moved downstream, the layer of mud in the bottom of the concrete-lined ditch was about twice as deep as my first place. Wellie was not released by said mud, and instead bent over at the top and filled with water. Result: one very wet foot. The rushes were exacting their payment. Brigid was anointing me with her water. And I was laughing too hard to do anything.

The strange thing is since that event, I have felt her presence very strongly back in my life, guiding me forward. I have been exploring other directions a little over the winter, and become very aware of Elen of the Ways, the only horned goddess, amongst others. I realise that each year I seem to experience a different goddess in Winter when Brigid is less present, Danu and Hecate both having been strong forces in recent years. Yet now Spring has returned it is Brigid again, with her crafting skills in particular. It is a familiar, comforting and relaxing feeling to return to what I know. However, she has been showing me how I can use my own crafting skills to bring more love into the world thus taking what I know to a new level, as well as how I can work with water, Earth’s “living love”, to honour the Earth and help bring healing. I will of course be writing as much as I am able here, fulfilling the third of Brigid’s three aspects…

Making Mushrooms

It has been half term here this week, so all normal activities were suspended. Instead we have been getting seasonally creative with as many craft activities as I could come up with… This is the first wood carving I have done since M was born. I have had the wood for some years, so it was well seasoned and definitely needed a mallet to carve! I did the two small ones first to see if I could make something I was happy with; both were carved from a hazel branch about 1.5” diameter. The larger mushroom was from Silver Birch, about 4” across or so. This was rather softer, and when cutting with the grain to form the stalk, it split rather satisfyingly. It is just tool finished, using a skew chisel. I would probably make the stalks thinner next time…

Hazel and Silver Birch Mushrooms

Hazel and Silver Birch Mushrooms

Here they are forming part of my Samhain display.

Life

What is life for? How do we define a good life, or a bad life? How can we judge anyone else’s life, or even our own for that matter while we are living it?

This morning I watched M emptying the clothes from the washing machine into the basket for me, while I cleared away breakfast. She does not find this easy yet, and needed some help to position herself and the basket, but such is her delight in each item she manages to get out of the machine it becomes infectious. In some cases she names the owner of the item, or when it is hers, gives a cry of pleased recognition. I almost wanted a video camera. Then when she had got it all out, she half-carried, half-slid the full basket across the kitchen to me, feeling ever so proud of herself. Finally she climbed onto the tall stool I put by the sink all by herself, so that she could supervise me washing up.

In the eyes of Rudolf Steiner, she is learning about life through doing, and through imitation. She is enjoying helping with jobs I once detested and put off for as long as possible, because I saw them as jobs. I learned some years ago to simply see them as things that need doing, so got on with it. Then when M was small they were an escape to normality, an opportunity to do something worthwhile and productive, and a bit of breathing space! Now I see them as opportunities for enjoyment and sharing. Yet they are the same jobs.

There is much written about spending ‘quality time’ with your children. I confess, I do not know what this means. I do not often ‘play’ with M, because I do not seem to be able to conjure up an imaginary world, and her language development is such that she wouldn’t understand it if I did. So instead I do the things I either want or need to do but find ways for her to join in. When sewing she hands me pins, and has learned not to pull them out until I am sewing the fabric together. She will also play with fabric, or indicate by the actions the song ‘Wind the bobbin up’. And can go off to any of her other ‘toys’ when she gets bored of me. When drawing, she will join me for some of time with her own pencil and paper. When cooking she will stir the soup, or fetch me any ingredient within her reach, or come outside to pick herbs or dig up a leek. She comes shopping with me, and to the library. It is only when I am at the computer that she cannot join me at all, so instead I have constant interruptions for stories or songs. I try to limit my activities to short bursts, which can make me surprisingly productive!

There are many more groups we could join, and sometimes I have found it hard to meet people away from groups because they maintain a full timetable up to the point they return to work. But for us, three mornings a week seems to work well, leaving plenty of time for other activities as well as time to just Be. I don’t want life to pass me by, I want to experience whatever is happening, while it is happening, and enjoy it. Life is what you make of it.

Tree Quilt Triptych – Part 3

Autumn Quilt

Autumn Quilt

I finally finished the third quilt of my tree-inspired series and got it hung on the wall this week. It was the autumn leaves last year that inspired the idea, and since the leaves have been changing rapidly I thought I had better get on with it!

The pattern block is called ‘Maple Leaf’, although I mostly did not quilt this in blocks. I started that way at the top, but then had to explore other ways of working… I have made more mistakes and unpicked more seams in this quilt than I have ever done in my life. Even at the layering and safety-pinning stage (no I don’t have time, space or patience to hand baste!) I saw a row of three units I had managed to sew upside down and had to redo them. Hopefully I can use what I have learned from this quilt for future projects.

To quilt it I used a spiral design I made up after many scribbles on paper, which seemed to flow really well. The angular patchwork seemed to call for some softening curves, and it echoes the idea of leaves blowing around in the wind – as well as energies spiralling down into the Earth at this time of year. My free-motion quilting still leaves a lot of room for improvement, but at least each one is better than the one before.

It is a very fiery quilt as it hangs on the wall. I am glad to have it there to liven things up and add warmth as we head towards Winter, but am also glad I made the decision to rotate the quilts with the seasons. It would need a much bigger space, and a different wall colour, if it was to hang there permanently.

This was intended to be the last quilt in the series, but I have been persuaded that it would be good to do a Spring quilt. So much like Douglas Adam’s ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ trilogy, this may be a triptych with more than three parts…

Why Write?

Ever since I was a teenager I have liked to explore ideas through writing about them. Strangely I got into writing because I was very poor at expressing myself by talking; the words I wanted always seemed to arrive long after the time they were needed. I started keeping a diary as a teenager, like so many people do, and found an outlet, a way of exploring what I was feeling, of working out what I should have said at the time. The diaries (there were two) served their purpose in allowing me to express myself and work out what I was feeling, but gradually they went from a daily exploration to something to be written when I was feeling unhappy or lonely. They became downward spirals, dwelling on what was wrong without any balance of what was right, or even any plans for the future. When I found them during a clear-out in my early twenties, I burned them. I had moved on and didn’t want that in my life; with hindsight transforming them with fire was probably the best thing I could have done.

A little later I became a letter writer. This was a much happier form of writing, as there was someone to respond to and it was a two-way process. The friendship aspect of this was and is important to me, but on a personal level there was a greater benefit. I came to realise that by the time a letter arrives any negative thoughts no longer apply; they frequently either made no sense to the recipient, or else simply worried the recipient into thinking there was something wrong when in fact it was now fine. I therefore found myself editing them out and trying to put a more positive spin on what I was trying to say. It helped me to see things in a different way as well, and with a bit of distance, see what I learned from whatever experiences I had been through. I found this a helpful process in my life.

Earlier this year I started this blog, for a whole range of reasons, but a key one was that some of my letter writing was coming to an end and I wasn’t ready to stop writing down my experiences in a way that I could continue learning from them. One of the most fascinating things I have found is how I sometimes find myself writing truths that I didn’t know I knew. For example, the new page I have created, “About this blog”, wrote itself from just the germ of an idea, triggered by this post, and I now fully understand why I am a witch and not a shaman or a druid. Aconitum (12 July) told me about itself as I was writing, and I made the hitherto unconsidered connection with Yew. There have been others, including some still unpublished posts, where I started with one idea and then learned something quite unexpected.

There are of course many other benefits to writing a regular blog. It gives me a reason to write regularly and not make excuses as to why I can’t find the time this week. Another is maintaining my sense of self, not always easy with a toddler underfoot. It even gives me an incentive to complete a craft project that seems to be taking weeks, or to go out with a camera when I want to include some photos in a post.

However there is a good reason why witches often carve runes or sigils or other forms of writing onto candles before using them as part of a spell. Words have power and intent, and used positively, can create real change. For example, I can have an idea of something I would like to do, but the chances of success are around 30% at best. Writing down my ideas or desires increases the likelihood of them happening – because I have stated my intent clearly, and over-ridden some of my doubts or negative programming. I probably have a 60% success rate when I do this. But telling others of my intentions, such as blogging about them, increases this power to the point that, provided the circumstances don’t change, they happen. Success rate is at least 90%. Magic.