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!

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Happy Equinox

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unexpected Festivals

It is always a challenge, living as a Pagan in a Christian country, to decide how to celebrate festivals. It is even more of a challenge to explain to M why we are celebrating on different days to everyone else in the country. Normally I try and think through what my approach will be to each festival before it arrives. And then one catches me completely by surprise.

Today is apparently Mother’s Day. Originally known as Mothering Sunday, it was the day when young girls in service would return home to go to their mother church and has been celebrated in England since at least the sixteenth century. They would pick flowers along the way to give as an offering, either to the church or to their mothers. The day was also known as Pudding Pie Sunday, Simnel Sunday, Refreshment Sunday or Rose Sunday, being a short break from the general austerity on week four of Lent so that the underfed daughters could have a good meal and possible something to take back with them.

Mothering Sunday has morphed into Mother’s day over recent years, maybe because fewer people go to church or feel strongly allied to a particular church, or maybe because of influences from the American Mother’s Day – which has an entirely different history. Ann Reeves Jarvis began organising mother’s groups, along with various other women, in the 1850s to promote peace and tackle issues such as infant mortality and milk contamination. They tended to both sides during the civil war in the 1860s, and in 1868 a Mother’s Friendship Day was held for mothers of fallen soldiers to mourn together, whether they were union or confederate. Her daughter Anna Jarvis then created Mother’s Day in May 1908 to honour her mother (who died in 1905), as a local event in their home state of Virginia and after much lobbying, nationally from 1914. She later tried to have the holiday stopped after it became too commercial.

I have never celebrated Mother’s day before, nor wanted to. It hasn’t felt right to me to annex a Christian festival to gain recognition – something which is either there anyway, or won’t come because of one day. Neither have I ever felt comfortable with the commercialisation of the American Mother’s Day. Other mothers may feel differently about this, and that is fine, but that is how I have felt. So it was very disconcerting to say the least to find my daughter presenting me with flowers and card she had made at nursery this week!

As it would have been churlish of me to refuse the gift offered, it has made me re-examine my feelings towards Mother’s Day. Most likely I became biased against the day over many years of not being able to have children – there is nothing like a yearly reminder of something I haven’t got to make me reinterpret the situation into something non-threatening. And then reading about the history, I discovered that, like so many other Christian festivals, it may have a Pagan root.

The Ancient Greeks celebrated the Earth Goddess Rhea, the Mother of the Gods and Goddesses, every Spring with festivals of worship. The Romans celebrated her better known counterpart, the Phrygian Goddess Cybele in March with offerings of flowers, reeds, pine and oak. Unfortunately at this point the ‘may’ of pagan history comes into play. Every online source I found states as fact that the March Hilaria is a precursor to Mother’s Day, and at least three of the twelve or fourteen days are celebrating Cybele and motherhood; but a key focus of the festival is the death and resurrection of her lover Attis, which to me is an Easter story. However, since Cybele was known as The Great Mother, and this was her festival in March, the connection to Mother’s day appears to have stuck. Two thousand years on it is difficult to know which aspect, motherhood or resurrection, was more important.

So I have now come to see Mother’s Day as a way to celebrate all mothers, from the Earth mother down through dynasties of Goddesses and humans, to myself as a mother on this Earth. It is a festival of Spring, of fullness, of flowers and trees, and of joining families together through the power of the mother. I will go and enjoy the sunshine with my own family.

I now wait and see if there will be a similar offering for Father’s day…

Tree Stories 8 – Blackthorn

Blackthorn is now published on its own page; please use the link above.

Ripening Sloes

Ripening Sloes

There are many blackthorn bushes mixed into the hawthorn hedges around where I live, and some years I have picked the sloes for gin or syrup. They are best after the first frosts. Both can just be enjoyed as a drink, but are also good for coughs and sore throats. Blackthorn flowers and leaves can be helpful for depression, as well as a good general tonic. Birds also enjoy the berries. The flowers are a useful source of nectar and pollen for bees, while several butterfly and moth caterpillars enjoy the leaves.

The wood is particularly hard and dense, being traditionally used for cudgels, blasting sticks and Irish shillelaghs, as well as tool handles and walking sticks. It is very much associated with witches, with the thorns being considered ideal for spellwork such as piercing a wax poppet, although in past times it was the witch hunters who used it; blackthorn seems to be the tree most likely to be used by someone wishing to harm others. The Ogham name for blackthorn, Straif, strife in modern English, is a good descriptor for it. A hard tree to love, it nevertheless does a useful job of keeping cattle in the fields, and in some versions, keeping princes out of Sleeping Beauty’s castle becoming impenetrable to all except true love. Similarly Rapunzel, where the prince looses his eyes on blackthorn bushes, to have it restored by his true love’s tears. Those who hold onto their pain and anger rarely have an easy time with blackthorn and are likely to get scratched by thorns with a reputation for turning cuts septic.

More positive interpretations and uses of Blackthorn vary widely. Some use it for facing death, and it is usually associated with the dark Goddess, Morrigan or Cailleach. Others for piercing negative attitudes in themselves or others, and befriending it can bring understanding of what causes negativity in your life. Yet more use it for protection, either psychically or physically, or as a wand for a banishing spell. My own interpretation, for strength in times of adversity, covers most of these at a deep level.

The Blackthorn was traditionally followed by its sister tree Hawthorn when used for healing – gentling and bringing love where blackthorn has pricked the hidden sores.