When Things Don’t Go To Plan

Most of the time I write about successful craft projects on this blog. Today I’m not doing that. Today, I’m going to talk about a recent near-total failure.

I had an idea for a lino print Yule card, which I hoped would be quick and simple given my lack of available time this autumn. Since I have decided not to show it, given how things last forever on the internet and can become separated from the explanatory text, I’ll simply say that it was a very cute snowman with stick arms, coal for eyes, mouth and buttons, a stripy scarf, a carrot for a nose, and a robin sitting on the top of his old-fashioned hat. Unfortunately it didn’t work. I attempted to wash and recut the lino four times to improve it, but after the fourth attempt still wasn’t satisfactory, I finally gave up and had to accept that my efforts were simply not good enough.

Most sewing projects can be rescued. I usually persevere until I have got items at least wearable, preferably loved and well fitting. Yes I have resewn pieces, and occasionally even recut small parts if I have sufficient fabric and know it will then fit right. But when something has to be cut, like lino, or wood, or glass, or even some sewing aspects, I can’t undo and try again.

So I had a choice – to start completely afresh, or give up and buy cards this year. Time was already tight, sooo tempting! Not only that, but as I felt the design was fundamentally flawed, I needed a completely new approach which is sometimes hard to do under pressure.

However, I have learned more from this one disaster than all the previous prints I have made, about the fundamental character of lino and what is or is not possible. For example, leaving only small areas of ink means it slips on the paper – fine on a rubber stamp, or even a woodblock in a fixed press, but not for basic hand printing. Second, lino curls, and so unless it is mounted on a block and the roller held absolutely level, the ink is always going to touch the edges as you roll around the curves. And cutting the blank edges off is no good for then picking the piece up cleanly to place on the paper!

After quite a bit of thought, I somehow came up with another design. It has proved hard to light a fire in our new woodland, because the damp has been relentless and it is too young for much dead wood yet; green sycamore doesn’t make great kindling! My mind brought together these two failures to create some Yule magic. One working a spell for the other, as it were. I ask myself, can two failures make a success? I’ll post the final result at Yule…

Happy Yule!

Barn Owl Linoprint


I am not normally an owl person, but I seem to have been aware of them quite a bit recently and they seemed to want me to create some artwork with them. They are after all a common witch’s familiar, along with cat, frog and hare which have been with me for approximately 40, 10 and 2 years respectively. (I’m being selective here, penguins, dragons, snakes and butterflies don’t fit the witch image so well!)

The background idea for this card came to me in the autumn, as the trees lost their leaves and trunks were the most noticeable part. Some of the cards I printed gave the trees a misty effect. Not intentional, it is due to my inefficient inking, but I rather liked it and it matched the weather we were having at the time.

The barn owl is a beauty and one I have occasionally heard calling across valleys, usually when camping, without always knowing what it was. Quite different from the twit twoo of tawny owls! They are not actually woodland creatures, yet the only places I have ever seen them in the wild have been along the edges of woodland, where it opens out to fields.

Owls hunt at night, when it is dark to most creatures, as they have excellent eyesight, much better than their prey. They bring the gifts of far-seeing, and seeing what was previously unseen, into our lives. They also have particularly long necks, so can turn their heads to see what is behind them, or sideways. Sometimes it is good to look at things from another angle. Or sometimes there are things we simply haven’t seen and owl will bring them into focus. Illusions and secrets will be seen through.

Another gift is silence. Thanks to the shape of their feathers with soft edges, owls can fly with far less noise than most birds. The barn owl is particularly well adapted for silence, as it has very large wings so can fly very slowly with no sound. Instead they will be listening; owl hearing is acute as their ears are not symmetrical, allowing them to pinpoint sounds accurately, while their heart-shaped face directs any sounds towards their ears. Listen beyond the background noise to what is really being said.

Unfortunately the payback for soft feathers in Barn owls is a lack of waterproofing. They cannot fly in wet weather, so will sometimes be seen during the day if there have been several wet nights. Take opportunities when they are available, even if it is not what is usually done.

There are many superstitions about owls, especially the barn owl, appearing silently as a ghostly-white apparition in the moonlight. The most common is that they foretell a death. Given the huge numbers of mice and other small animals they must catch each night to feed their family, that is certainly true! Spiritually however, death is often close to change as it usually means the end of something in our lives, ready for something new. Owl does often seem to bring this message, often also bringing an increase of intuition helping to smooth the change.

The Celts believed owls sometimes accompanied souls on their journey to the other side, and owls were often regarded as gatekeepers to other realms.
Conversely the Ancient Greeks liked their protection, particularly in battle, because they were patient and ever watchful. Like the Goddess Athena, they are seen as being full of wisdom and knOWLedge…

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.

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

A Quest for Good Handwriting

About every eight or nine years I seem to have a sudden need to improve my handwriting, and have been struck by the urge again this week. For Yule I was given a very beautiful fountain pen with a barrel made from an old oak whisky barrel which I use for writing in my pagan journals – and then of course I have had no computer for a few days while it was being rebuilt (see previous post). I was amused to then discover it was National Handwriting Day last weekend; who knows if it influenced me subconsciously!

Generally when I have worked on my penmanship skills as an adult, it has been to look at an aspect of calligraphy rather than my basic handwriting, concentrating on writing slowly and beautifully. But this isn’t necessarily useful for every day, which has made me question what actually makes ‘good handwriting’?

To help me in my own handwriting improvement endeavours, I tried writing out the alphabet and various short phrases in as many different ways and styles as came easily to me. The slower I wrote the more rounded the letters were able to be, and more regular the size and slant of letters. Some of it looks great, but when I tried to write something longer my writing returned to my usual style again: small, with a slightly irregular forward slant, angular not curvy (which I prefer to look at), and longer down strokes than fit standard proportions. Better than what I learned at school, but not something instantly pleasing to the eye or easily readable by other people.

Most of what I currently write by hand is in personal notebooks, such as recording journeys, or moon jottings, or ideas for stories, or other personal writings. Pretty much all pagan-related in some way, and not generally for anyone else to read. I do, however, need to write at a reasonable speed or else the time lapse between thought and pen becomes too great. I could of course spend several hours practicing letter forms so that neater writing became more natural to my fingers, but I’m still not sure that would create the fast, relaxed writing style I want.

Then I realised I had missed an interesting aspect of handwriting – that it gives something of the character and feelings of the person who wrote it. In this modern age when almost everything else I do is typed, and I can type quicker than write, there is far less need for regularity of handwriting. If I need ‘regular’ for a letter or card, then I can use a suitable type face, or do calligraphy if it is only a few words. But for fast writing that only I see, why not let my writing express something of me? If the lines rise in excitement, or fall in frustration, why does it matter? I would rather be someone who is looking forward, impulsive, imaginative, and has my feet on the ground, than be a conventional, copy-book writer with no outlet for self-expression. I have finally realised I don’t need to change it.

Although I have been inspired to improve my calligraphy further…

Merry Yule!

Lino print Holly Man

Lino print Holly Man

Greetings to all my readers. May this holly man bring you good cheer in these dark winter days, as we greet the return of the sun!

Some consider the Holly King to be the ruler of winter, while the Oak King rules the summer – although the exact date when each is supposed to be killed and give way to the other seems to vary through almost every season of the year depending on the source used.

In Roman times holly was used to honour Saturn, the God of Agriculture, celebrated at Saturnalia on 25th December. This has led to suggestions that the name Holly is related to Holy, and has a connection with the crown of thorns used at Easter in the Christian calendar. Since the holly man is often depicted in red with white beard an hair, and a sprig of holly tucked away somewhere, it has been suggested that he is a model for Santa Claus, via a connection with Odin.

To me Holly is a plant of winter, the shiny leaves reflecting light, while red berries are the colour of a low sun in the sky. Both the leaves and the berries are eaten by animals and birds in winter, but not summer when other food sources are more plentiful.

This is of course a lino print – it is my first use of colour, and I have a bit of learning still to do! The green was done in one piece, then the red berries were done as a trio mounted on a short dowel and treated as a stamp. Next year I must start earlier to allow for drying time…

Tree Stories 10 – Scots Pine

Scots Pine story is now posted on its own page, under tree stories. Please click here or follow the links above.

Probably my nearest Pine Trees...

Probably my nearest Pine Trees…

This is a tree I have been familiar with all my life, and yet never really known; it has always felt rather remote. In its wild state, it stands high on the hillside on dry soils, often in small groups pointing the way. The Six Pine Trees of Pooh Bear’s world are a landmark and indicated on the map although little featured in the stories. Arthur Ransome had a pine tree to hold a lantern marking the way through the rocks into harbour in ‘Swallows and Amazons’, then in ‘Swallowdale‘ a row of four pine trees pointed the way on an otherwise bare hillside. Alfred Watkins wrote in ‘The Old Straight Track’ that Scots Pines had been marking ancient sites on Leylines for millennia, despite the fact that he admitted to never having seen an old tree. He was most likely wrong in the timing, since many Scots Pines were planted in England by Landscape gardeners and artist landowners of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries seeking to romanticise the countryside, tumuli being particularly prone to new plantings of Pines or Beeches, but right in them as a landmark. Single trees were often left when others were cut down in order to mark drovers’ paths, some of which may themselves have followed leylines. Single trees were also planted in the Highlands of Scotland to mark the burial sites of warriors, allowing their spirits to climb the tree into other worlds.

Scots Pine is one of our three native confer trees (the others being juniper and yew), with the Caledonian forest dating back to the last ice age. It is a fast-growing, short-lived tree compared to many, but will grow from seed in its own shadow and thus regenerate without the need for a natural disaster. It will also grow happily with other trees such as birch or larch, sheltering them as they grow without casting too much shade. Many animals rely on pine forest, or the blaeberries and cowberries that frequently grow in its shade. Notable species include red squirrels, pine martens and Scottish wildcats, as well as birds such as Scottish Crossbills, Black Grouse and Capercaillies. Roe and Red deer like eating pine so much they prevent the natural regeneration of the forest. Wolves, Bears, Elk, Beavers and Lynx all used to live in the pine forests, the latter two may do again as there are many who wish to see their reintroduction. Sadly it is often treated as a monocrop in plantations to produce construction and joinery timbers, or telegraph poles, forests which have no understory and support very little wildlife.

Pine is very high in vitamin C, and the needles can be used to brew a healing tea for bronchitis and other chest complaints. The smell of fresh pine is good for clearing congestion, clearing the blocks in what we can see and uplifting us. Pine trees reach for the sky. This is particularly relevant in the middle of winter when many of us need a boost, and gives us a good reason to have a pine tree in the home for a few weeks! In fact it was the huge pine bonfires lit at Yule in various parts of Northern Europe which gave rise to the tradition of the Yule Log, and later the Yule or Christmas tree.

In Roman times it was not Yule that celebrated the pine tree however, but the Spring Equinox. The Earth Goddess Cybele turned Attis, her lover, into a pine tree after an incident in which he was unfaithful to her and then castrated himself in remorse. In some versions online he appears to have been tied to the tree and gored by a bull or a wild boar. I have read two endings to this sorry tale, that the tree was burned after three days and Attis was reborn from the ashes, and that Zeus later made him evergreen so that Cybele could have him as a companion all year. The Spring rites paralleled those often enacted in late summer with the corn spirit: in a three day ceremony, March 22nd-25th each year, an effigy of a man was made and attached to a pine trunk and bedecked with flowers. The second day trumpets were blown, and on the third a sacrifice, usually of blood from the Priest, was made to appease the Earth Goddess in order that Attis may be resurrected and the fertility of the Goddess restored.

The pine cones were often seen as phallic, continuing the male fertility theme from Attis and Cybele – despite actually being the female flowers. The double spiral formed by the seeds was also a symbol of life and fertility. This may be where the idea of pine being an aphrodisiac came from… Pinecones are sometimes fixed to the end of a staff or wand and used in fertility magic, while pine needles are sometimes used to purify a space and remove any negativity.

Finally from an art and crafting point of view, pine is used to make paper, the sap is used to make turpentine for painting and varnishing, and rosin used for giving friction to violin bows. And when a break is needed, it formed brewer’s pitch to line beer casks, and its close relative sabina pine flavoured retsina wines.

Solstice Preparations

Celebrating the sabbats gives a focus to the seasons for me, and I like to mark them all in some way because they add meaning to my life. They are always high points, coming at random mid-week and interrupting routines. Yule is the biggest and the only one with significant preparations well in advance of the day. However, this year even more than previously I have been asking myself what preparations do I want to do as a pagan? What will add meaning for me, rather than just going along with what everyone else does?

The Winter Solstice does of course celebrate the return of the light. This can be interpreted in many ways, including the birth of the sun god. Mithras, Sol Invictus, or Jesus, whichever sun god you prefer to celebrate. So I have been making a gold star for the top of our tree (not finished yet!), and hung many gold decorations. Dried orange slices, or clove oranges are also great decorations that I would love to do in a future year. The tree being evergreen represents everlasting life, and brings warmth and protection to the household through the darkest days. I will keep the decorated tree until the mornings finally start getting lighter around 5th January, long after the shortest afternoon.

December Candle

December Candle

We have had a “December candle” for the first time this year, burning for 45 minutes each dinner. This provoked an interesting discussion with a friend who is an Anthroposophist, who after some thought said she felt everything should be building up to the birth of Christ, not decreasing. She liked the Advent wreaths in which an increasing number of candles are lit each week. However I feel that our candle represents the diminishing sunlight, which then returns when we reach the big event on the Solstice. (Our celebrations involve getting up to see the sunrise, and then sharing gifts after that. Yes we open ours a few days before everyone else…) The candle is surrounded by an ivy ring, which fits with Yule meaning wheel. The year is at its turning point, and is a time of rebirth and transformation. The light returns, and all is renewed to grow again.

Feasting is a major part of Yule, because when it is dark and cold outside we need suitably warming and sustaining food, for our spirits as well as our physical bodies. We have lost the natural rhythms to our lives over the past century or so; before the electronic age most people would have spent Winter evenings around a fireside, entertaining each other by whatever means they felt suited to and generally resting instead of working outdoors until late at night. Storytelling and singing was popular, as well as other forms of communal entertainment. Today illness frequently forces us to rest. But the return of the sun gives an extra reason to celebrate and have a bigger or fancier meal than every day, with decorations and joyous feasts to welcome it back. The winter may be far from over, but the light is increasing again each day.

However there is one aspect which has puzzled me for a while now. There are various chambered cairns in the rocky parts of our islands, thought by some to have been used for shamanic practices such as initiations or retreats or communications with ancestors, since most contain very few actual remains. Some are carefully aligned to the Winter Solstice, so that the sun enters only on a few days each year in midwinter – bringing light to what is otherwise a perpetually dark space. A famous example is Newgrange in Ireland. But Maeshowe in Orkney, or Clava Cairns near Nairn are both aligned to the setting sun, rather than to the rebirth in the morning. So what exactly were our ancestors celebrating, and what form did these celebrations take?