Fire and Rhubarb

I mentioned last week, in Happy Samhain, that I have been working quite a bit with the elements over the past year. Not for the first time, in fact the third, but I seem to go deeper and take longer each time. On this occasion I stayed with each element, exploring through meditation, ritual, appropriate outdoor activities and music, for around 6-8 weeks, and then mostly had a quick end when I realised I was going too far out of balance. Earth I gradually became ‘stuck in the mud’ and lethargic, not getting anything done. I also had molehills appear all over the place, in the middle of winter when I wasn’t otherwise digging the ground, forcing me to connect directly with the soil more than just walking. Water saw me crying a lot, and it raining a lot. The washing machine broke two pumps and flooded the kitchen on more than one occasion. My daughter suddenly decided she was ready to visit the swimming pool at last, enabling me to go too. Air saw strong winds and many ideas, if often impractical or challenging intellectually. The fence blew down. Fire saw drought and moorland fires, but I was being scared of it and in hindsight didn’t really open up to its teachings.

I ask myself, was I just more aware of each of these things because I am thinking about their element? No, I haven’t mentioned all of the occurrences, and there were way too many coincidences for it to simply be awareness, but that is part of being with the element too. I can say that within the year just gone they were the most extreme periods for each type of weather. But as I said, I didn’t really do Fire. I remember feeling relieved that I got through unscathed, no burning the house down or major temper outbursts, because I was deliberately keeping it in balance with the other elements.

However, I am now realising that fire is determined to teach me. The fire is relit within me and new projects are taking off – but I need to direct my energies better. In two weeks I have managed to burn an oven mitt, a pillowcase, a wooden spatula, and yesterday a pan that boiled dry. Finally I recognise what I am being shown. So having got the message at last, now I need to sort it out. Make my connection to Fire in a positive way, and use it to not only be creative but follow things through. To take action where action is needed.

Meanwhile, the totally blackened pan won’t scrub clean, so I look online for ideas. Vinegar and baking soda. Bio washing liquid. Well each did get it a bit better, but not so you’d notice if you hadn’t seen how it started out. Rhubarb, I thought. Was there any left? Despite the recent frosts there were four thin stems still with colour on them. I picked two, and boiled them in the pan. A bit of scrubbing, mainly with the burnt spatula, and I can see silver again. Fighting fire with fire.

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Happy Samhain!

I spent the day yesterday pumpkin carving, preparing for the festival of Samhain and having a really joyful celebration of the year gone and the year coming.

This was the first truly joint pumpkin I have carved with my daughter, as her design input was equal to mine. After explaining that we weren’t going to carve a scary face, because Samhain isn’t intended to be a scary time of year (more connecting and thanking the dead, our ancestors, those who have gone before rather than being scared by ghosts) we thought about what things we were thankful for. Fairies. Flowers. Trees. Frogs. We can use cookie cutters, she said.

I have spent quite a bit of time over the past year going through the elements, so I decided to make my own thanks and celebration by organising them into four elemental groups, with three things for each one. We also had a five-pointed star for our lid, so that made a perfect 13 holes to be carved in the pumpkin.

My daughter’s washable pens were perfect for drawing the design on, especially as any traces can be easily removed afterwards, and where we had a suitable cutter she drew round them for me. Where we didn’t she found me a picture in one of her books to copy … luckily the pen can be rubbed out and corrections made!

I used a knife to cut the lid, then a melon baller has proved the most useful tool to cut through seed strings. This year I also used it to remove half the flesh from the inside so that the walls weren’t too thick to cut through, then cooked what I removed for pies later. Experience has taught me that a cookie cutter doesn’t cope with curved pumpkin skin very well, so after having drawn around them, I used a hacksaw blade taped to a piece of wood, which has been my trusty pumpkin carver for over a decade now. It turns corners better than a knife, although can leave edges ragged if not careful.

All four sides have holes in, making it hard to photograph, but right for us. Earth on the side that was on the ground, fire upwards to the sun, water and air in between. Some are animals, some, such as a musical note or the heart, are symbolic.

May you have bright blessings and a peaceful new year.

Elemental Pumpkin, showing Earth and Air, with Fire on the wall behind.

Wands and Weather

Back in February when I was redesigning and simplifying my altar, I learned that I ‘had’ an apple wand. This made very little sense to me at the time for two reasons. First, that I have never used a wand finding my finger a pretty good tool for most things, and second because I had very little connection to apple as a wood. Since then I have made some progress in understanding these two difficulties, so am now ready to write a bit more.

A wand is always associated with witches and other magic workers in fiction, but in modern witchcraft rarely gets more than a passing mention. For those in a coven it may be obvious as to when a wand is employed, but for those like myself who read, experiment, meditate, and talk to dragons or other spirits, it seems of much less concern. Most books seem to promote the athame as the primary tool for casting a circle and directing energy, and for the great rite (although this has less relevance for a solitary witch!) But a wand is frequently the subject of a single paragraph, saying that it can be used to direct energy, without explaining how or when; and that it is usually associated with Fire as it represents Will, while the athame is Air and connects more to the mind. (Some say the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deliberately reversed these in order to keep occult practices secret. There is logic both ways, since a blade is forged by Fire while a tree branch grows through the Air, but I know it is my Will I am directing through my finger or a wand and not just my thoughts!)

However there were also good reasons for not using an athame as my primary tool: the intention of a blade is usually to cut, whereas my aim is usually to direct energy; elementals don’t like blades being used, iron or other materials, so if outside I would need an alternative; and finally, laws in this country make it very difficult to legally carry a knife anywhere outside the home. I couldn’t help wondering if witches did use knives for casting their circles in days gone by, whether this was for protection against being seen before the circle was complete, that the knife was then in heir hand ready for use. I also find it very hard to believe that the average witch could afford a knife that was used purely for witchcraft or circle casting; I think most were practical people who took whatever household items were most suited to their purpose and sometimes a knife was appropriate to have at hand.

So having accepted a wand as my tool, I realised that the wood Apple is generally associated with Air, the fey, and music. Now I was getting a hint of why Apple might be right for me! I have recently been trying to sing the songs suggested to me by stones or water, and finding each to have its own character and be unique. Different types of stones, soil, sand, pure water or polluted water, each expressed its character through the song I sang with it, and area I have been developing and want to do more with. But was that the only reason? I decided to ask Oak about it, and have now had several discussions with him and various other allies.

The first discussion – I already have apple trees in my garden who would like to be used, I don’t have my own oak tree! And apple will lend its gentle aid, being strong and unweilding but also add a loving, peaceful, sharing influence.

The second discussion, after more reading and still feeling very little connection with Apple – yes other woods will do, but get to know apple! Apple brings calm and peace to its work, along with maturity. Not fast like Rowan, or straight like hazel, but loving and giving. Different doorways to Oak. Female. Time to set the Eve story in its proper place.
I then cut a short length and whittled the corners off while fresh from the tree, and was overwhelmed by the amount of love coming from the tree. It now takes its place on my altar until I have finished making my wand.

The third discussion – following on from learning about trees dying, (see ‘When is a plant dead?’) a certain consciousness exists in any piece of wood, and how it works will depend on the original tree, where it is cut from the tree, what is carved in it, how I add to it and add my consciousness to it. (This is why no one should borrow a wand!) I should use it for sun circles, sabbat celebrations, casting circles, love, friendship, for myself spiritually eg gaining wisdom, knowledge, singing, meeting goddesses. One day I’ll want a moon wand for working outside at night, hazel, and a yew wand for different work. But Apple first and for now. (A few weeks later I realise that the three woods are all female to me, and represent maiden, mother and crone. I discover unexpectedly that I have recently fully embraced motherhood; not by having a daughter who I am slowly teaching independence to, but by taking in houseplants that will need nurturing care for their whole lives (see ‘Bringing Plants Indoors’) so this shift in me is why I must make the Apple wand first; then go back and make Hazel. I’m not quite a Crone yet, so Yew could be a few years off.)

There was nothing suitable I wanted to prune from any of my apple trees, so I investigated my collection of stored wood – and found four pieces of apple from our garden already cut and seasoned from previous prunings. However, none seemed ideal for a wand being either too small once the bark was removed, or too large.

Then finally, I use my wand, under the guidance of Dragon. Some weather working is needed, and I am told to use my wand to call a wind and shift the clouds that have brought persistent fog for days now. I try holding it, knowing by now how it needs to be carved, and feel its energy through my arm and hand. I direct energy with it, and feel how much more effective it is than just me. Later I go back to my pieces of wood and can feel exactly which one it is carved from. The clouds start to clear; the next day is bright sunshine. The weather forecast has apparently ‘changed’.

I use my wand again a week later, first holding it too tight, then realise my mistake. This wand is very exacting! I finally understand that I am needed for weatherworking because I am not attached to any particular weather; I am actually happiest with the variety England normally gets. In early March I had asked if I should shift the snow, but was told it was necessary to rebalance the world and for humans to start to become aware of how they are affecting their environment, and there would be another 3 weeks of cold. There was. This time I was told it was right to shift the fog, and later to rebalance again, and therefore felt confident in doing so. Ultimately I need to keep balance, because humans are out of balance with themselves, and with the weather, wanting only sunshine. The problem is a result of humans, therefore humans must be involved in its solution, if we want to continue to work with the Earth. I have worked locally for several years, (see previous posts) but now also sometimes nationally when my awareness is capable. I share because more people around the world are needed to do this work. I didn’t choose it or ask for it, but seem to have been given the responsibility for it.

I was reminded by Dragon to say again that it is not me changing the weather, I am simply doing the asking and providing the energy for it to happen. I need to be in tune with what is happening, and to always ask as I have done so far, and to find ways of directing and raising energy that suit me and are appropriate to the level needed. It can be ritual, or singing when I need more energy than is easy for me, but I also need to learn more about the various winds and which one to call up, as well as the trade winds. Apple is keen to help with this and to bring more abundance of fruits to the land.

And finally, I find myself working on a writing project with the fey. I can’t help wondering if Apple has provided the link!

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.

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.

Dragon Hill

I found it. Next to the White Horse at Uffington is a small, flat-topped hill, supposedly where the dragon was slain by St George. Or St Michael. Nothing will grow there now; the dragon’s blood has apparently spilt everywhere and poisoned it.

Stories of dragons being killed are not likely to induce me to visit a place by themselves; given that Fireball had said he would meet me there (see previous two posts) my immediate reaction was to try and investigate the truth of the hill. It turns out to be quite interesting. The hill is entirely natural, but its top was quarried off in the bronze age or earlier to leave a flattish wide area a little larger than the average stone circle. The reason nothing grows is because there are very high levels of potash in the soil, indicating that huge numbers of fires have been laid there over a long period of time. So I was quite looking forward to what I might find there.

A visit was planned (it wasn’t too far from where I grew up), the day booked, the forecast was good. Then as the day approached, the forecast got worse and worse – I had no walking boots or waterproof trousers with me having traveled light on the train with M, and while a small amount of dampness could be coped with, the promised day-long deluge could not. So the evening before, when everything looked impossible, I said to Fireball that if he wanted to meet me on Dragon Hill then he would have to do something about the rain!

Luckily he did. The morning started badly with one delay after another, but then I decided to trust that there was a reason for all the delays, the weather was checked again and lo and behold the front had moved much faster than previously expected and should be clearing around lunchtime. We took a dry diversion to look at some medieval stained glass on the way, and did indeed arrive exactly as the rain eased, giving us a dry picnic and afternoon. Thanks Fireball!

I visited the horse first, which having just had its annual ‘chalking’ completed the day before was looking stunning. It is amazing to think that if just ten years went by with no one rechalking the horse, it would be lost, probably forever. The horse has now been shown to be over 3,000 years old, thanks to methods of dating the soil in the bottom of the pits containing the chalk. In that time the horse has gradually worked its way UP the hill, so is now more easily seen from the sky than by people in the area – there are suggestions it once acted as a ‘flag’ for the tribe who lived there. Maybe there were once many more such pictures on the hillsides, such as the Cerne Abbas Giant and the Long Man of Wilmington, but they simply weren’t cared for over the centuries.

Next I walked down to Dragon Hill, a large zig zag of a path at present to reduce the damage of walking down the steep spur of the hill. The alternative route is less steep, but doesn’t connect the two. I mention this, because once I was at the top of Dragon Hill, what really made an impression on me was the way in which each part connected. The fires of the hill, huge, held at times of passing or special ceremonies, had most of the watchers down below on a flatter area. Then the procession up, along the line of the horse, to the fort beyond. However, after sitting a bit longer I felt that for a small number of people the journey would be in the other direction. Possibly their last journey on this Earth. Most people would not have walked the line of the horse however; unless they or the event was special in some way, they probably would have taken a route nearer to the zig zag one I took, part of which was worn deep into the ground. Finally I looked down to the area called The Manger, where the horse is said to descend to graze on moonlit nights, and realised how green it was there compared to the dry chalkiness of the ridgeway. It would have been an excellent place for animals to graze, as it still is now.

I returned to the area later in a meditation journey, and realised I had already received one of the most important ‘lessons’ for me at this special place: to look at the relationships between different aspects of places, seeing a more holistic view of the landscape rather than just one key point. The shape of the land, to really feel it and connect with it, how it was formed, how the different aspects relate to each other and why this site possesses such innate power. This power was of course recognised by the bronze age tribe who lived there, and I started to see glimpses of what might have been.

Some distance away is a long barrow known as Wayland’s Smithy, or on older maps as Wayland’s Smith Cave. Legends also connect this to the white horse, who is said to go there every hundred years to be shod. (The last time he went was apparently in 1920, so a visit is almost due…) However I was surprised to feel little connection between the two sites, and unlike the similar, larger barrow at West Kennet, did not feel any strong energy flows here. My feeling was that it was used at a different time period to the fire hill, possibly also by people who lived in the fort and deliberately planned it some distance away in order that it may be quiet there. Separated by space. It does however have a magic of its own due to the trees that surround it. Beech and not particularly old, they provide shelter and protection, preventing the energies of the place just rushing out along the much used track which is the ridgeway. It is static, feminine, and a good place to connect with the Earth since the chambers are so low that it is necessary to crouch down very small.

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.

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

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.

Tree Stories 11 – Elder

Elder is now published on its own page, under Tree Stories or click here.

Elder tree

Elder tree

Technically Elder, Sambucus nigra, should probably be a shrub rather than a tree. It does have a bole where the roots and branches meet but it scarcely has a trunk, its branches are hollow, and it is currently classified as being in the Adoxacae family along with Moschatel. (Previously it was with honeysuckle and snowberry in the dipsacale or teasel family.) However Elder towers over most other shrubs and grows to the size of a small tree, so in folklore it is a tree.

The name is thought to come from the Anglo-Saxon aeld, fire, as its hollow sticks were used for encouraging a good blaze. They also called it ellaern, meaning hollow tree. Other names include Ellhorn and Bour (pipe) tree.

Elders like to grow in full sun and will romp away in a hedge overshadowing the hawthorn, but are also frequently found in damp shady areas of woodland forming part of the understory. It has a very strong life force and great powers of regeneration, being quite hard to remove should you wish to. However not much will grow under it so it is difficult to place in a garden.

A wide range of wildlife lives off elderflowers and berries, hence it will often grow near rabbit or badger setts after they have helped the seed along its way. Caterpillars also like the foliage. Elderberries can be mildly toxic to humans unless cooked, particularly if still unripe. Medicinally, however Elder is a very valuable tree. The berries and also the bark were used as a purgative, for rheumatism, or for colds and flu or sore throats and for asthma; breathing through a hollowed out stick was also a remedy for asthma. The leaves are good for bruises, sprains and strains or chilblains, or for insect repellant as a bunch to keep flies out of the kitchen or off horses, or soaked and the liquid used on the human body against midges. The flowers are good as a tonic or for epilepsy or sinusitis.

Other uses from the tree include: berry juice as a blue or purple dye, or for making wine, pies, jams, vinegar, chutney; flowers for sparkling wine or cordial, or in salads or cakes; bark for black dye, leaves for green; sticks for blowpipes, whistles, pegs, skewers, or making small whittlings; and the pith for fishing floats or to hold samples on microscope slides. The wood polishes up well when the bark is removed, and the bole is very dense.

In folklore elder was inhabited by the Elder Tree Mother, Hylde-moer, who needed to be appeased before any part of the tree was cut. She would haunt any timber from the tree, not necessarily in a good way, so making furniture from it was generally avoided. Witches were said to be able to turn into elder trees at will. However as protection elder was apparently great for driving away evil spirits or witchcraft, so branches were hung over doorways and buried in graves. Flutes made from elder were used to summon spirits, while twigs woven into a headdress are said to enable the wearer to see spirits. Alternatively they will undo evil magic; a necklace made from elder beads can also be used for protection. To have a self sown elder tree near your house was regarded as particularly auspicious, and they were often planted by bake ovens to keep the devil away. Fairies are said to particularly like the music from elder pipes or flutes, but it is generally advised to avoid sleeping under an elder tree unless you wish to be taken by them. Food left under elder trees overnight will be considered to belong to the fae.

To me the elder is a tree I have always been a little ambivalent towards, and the many contradictions in its character and uses are possibly the reason why. However, I then found a transcript of a conversation between an elder tree interpreted by Verena Stael von Holstein, and Wolfgang Weirauch, which showed me how the strength and spiritual gifts of this species come from precisely this contradictory nature. The many connections the Elder has with spirits and otherworld beings may not be entirely coincidental. As a witches tree, it is without parallel.

Elder Tree: “For human beings there are various paths to seek initiation into the world of spirit: firstly through thinking, clarity of thought; then the path which corresponds more to me is a path rooted in one’s own culture. … On the one hand such a person needs to be formed in a relatively gnarled way, but on the other hand he needs an unimpeded lightness – as you find in my timber. From the outside my wood looks completely gnarled, but inside I am almost cotton-like. As trees we need a harder exterior form, but within I’m the opposite of heaviness: a matter that is almost dissolving. This shows I’m a kind of connecting radiance between this world and the world of spirit. … This permeation with spirit informs my whole being and substance.
On the one hand my substance is very stable, on the other it is in dissolution. For instance, see the feathery quality of my pinnate leaves, through to the tips of each leaf, which are pointed and dentate, or toothed. Due to my transitional and gateway function, my leaves are flame shaped. In the flame you meet the world of spirit in tangible form.

A sulphurous quality comes through [the smell of my leaves.] The world of spirit does not necessarily smell very good for earthly senses. You would need to completely refashion your sense systems to really endure spirituality. If you want to develop your clairsentient faculties of smell, you can school your senses with the scent of crumbled elder leaf. On the other hand, my blossoms give of a fragrance that you probably find wonderful, which has an intoxicating effect and which you use to make sparkling wine. The scent serves at the same time as a warning not to get intoxicated.

As for the berries being poisonous when green and only edible when fully ripe:

Elder tree: “When you are still green you should not pass across to the other side, for then spirituality can endanger you. You first have to attain a certain soul maturity to cope with the full reality. The guardian of the threshold and I have a very close relationship. Wherever elder grows you can encounter your guardian.

Elder has a cleansing effect on the body. You can’t cross over the threshold in an impure state.

I belong to the cultural inheritance of northern Europe, and thus to the forces that come from the North and Teutonic cultures. I belong to people of the central European cultural epoch and their roots. … I am not so important to Asiatic peoples.”
Q: “There are said to have been times when people took off their hats as a mark of respect when passing an elder tree. Why did they do this?”
Tree: “Because they knew unconsciously that the place surrounding an elder tree is sacred. That’s why they removed their hats in the same way as going into church. At the same time people knew unconsciously that higher beings were connected with the elder tree, such as the guardian of the threshold, or Mother Holle, who is a fairytale image of the figure of the guardian.”

From: Nature Spirits of the Trees.

The strange thing to me is that I never liked the taste of elderberry, just the flowers, so I have most of a box of ‘medicinal’ tea on my shelf that I save for when I have a bad cough or cold. However, since writing this story and becoming closer to the tree, I have found I now rather enjoy it.

Ripening elder berries

Ripening elder berries