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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Facing Fear - or why I don't blog about heathenry often

     This is a blog I've needed to write probably since the beginning, but I have been putting off because it's personal, it's painful and it's messy. It's also unresolved, but it still needs to be said, and maybe saying it will help me push myself into blogging more about heathenry and related topics...
   People ask me sometimes why I write so much Celtic material if I am also heathen. Well there are two main reasons. Firstly I have studied the Celtic side of things for about 20 odd years now so its definitely my comfort zone; not that I know everything, or even comparatively that much, but I'm comfortable with Celtic mythology and paganism and feel confident talking about it. It's sort of my metaphysical comfy sweater.
  The second reason is that heathenry is a difficult emotional subject for me to talk about. On the one hand I love my kindred, and I very much enjoy the heathen practices in my life, which are probably more numerous than most people would assume. On the other hand I often find the larger heathen community enormously frustrating for me, personally. When I "converted" to heathenry in early 2006 it was the first time in my life I had ever moved from one religion to another - and initially it was a full conversion, only later did my religion become dual-tradition and only now is it evolving into something more synchretic as I explore Gaelic Heathenry, but I digress. The first several years went very well; I started a kindred, was hijacked by Odin, met lots of great people, and generally really liked it. And then the train de-railed in late 2008 when my youngest daughter, then only a year old, started really struggling with chronic health issues. I had to pull back from several community commitments and also had to start turning down invitations to other groups events. And in the middle of these months of feeling alienated from the larger community, feeling that I had failed at something that is a core aspect of heathenry, I had the inevitable crisis of faith. Oh it wasn't quite that clearly defined, since I had already been missing some aspects of my Irish practices and had already been reaching out to the Druid community in particular, but it was at this point that I really had a dark night of the soul experience. I missed the easy comfort of Celtic paganism and I felt that I had no connection to any of the gods (except Odin but he's an all around exception). I felt cut off from my new community due to my own inability to participate in it and while my kindred remained strong I felt increasingly alienated form heathenry at large. Which is a problem in a faith that is so deeply community based. I started to feel like I needed more to depend on, but was stuck in the Catch-22 of feeling like I had no one to go to to explain my nebulous feelings of insecurity, the nagging sense that I was doing it all wrong, which only fed into the feelings of failing at being a self-sufficient, persevering heathen. Now looking back I can see that a lot of this probably related directly to me projecting my feelings about my daughter's health issues onto my religion because I could not let myself feel weak or ineffective as her caregiver, as the person she depended on, but I could feel that way about my faith even though it made me totally miserable. I had my kindred who stood by me through everything, I had friends I could have gone to, I had people who I could have reached out to, but I convinced myself that my problems would be a waste of their time, or that I was already bothering them enough with other things going on at the same time. Maybe it was pride. Maybe it was fear of judgement. Either way I fell back into what was comfortable, my comfy sweater religion, only I didn't stop being heathen either - which was a very good way to alienate myself from both the CR and heathen communities, so maybe that was another subconscious expression...or maybe it's just that on a deep level I need both Celtic and Norse paganism to find any real balance in my life. I'm still sorting that one out, but it certainly is a system that works for me.
      Anyway, I never stopped being heathen, I just also had other separate Celtic practices and I struggled for a long time to find a balance between the two, in the end settling on an equal division of time.  I joke that I treat it like a divorced couple sharing custody, although as I mentioned earlier I am now exploring Gaelic Heathenry which is more directly synchretic in it's approach....I never stopped being dedicated to Odin (as if I could!), or being a gythia to my kindred, never stopped living the 9 noble virtues as best I could, or honoring the gods, vaettir, and ancestors with fainings, but these years of struggle and difficulty put me in a place where I feel very apart from the larger, and local, heathen community, a fact which in and of itself makes me feel worse about all of it; community is a huge part of heathenry, so feeling cut off from that, even if it's only in my own mind, makes me feel less heathen, less worthy. And that just sucks. I've made a right mess of things at my end and there is no easy way to fix it, so I keep stumbling on, one foot in front of the other.
  This all makes it hard for me to write about heathenry or my heathen practices, because it immediately pulls up a mess of emotions. But I realize that not doing it out of fear isn't helping anything, is just perpetuating the feeling. The only way to defeat fear is to face it, and I need to face this one, so I am going to start writing one heathen themed blog each week, on whatever topic comes up.
  So if you've ever wondered why my heathen themed content so far was limited mostly to book reviews, now you know. No one has as much power to mess us up as we do over ourselves.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Celtic Healing Magic - part 2

  Celtic healing magic, like all Celtic folk magic, relies on some basic principles: use of objects, both natural and man made, transferring the spirit of one thing - in this case the illness - into nature, and the power inherant in certain items. By understanding these principles and how to apply them in different situations a person may effectively use folk magic healing in a Celtic style whenever there is a need for it.
  Many types of Celtic folk healing relies on the use of objects and these fall into two categories: man-made and natural. In many spoken charms a metal knife, pin or other sharp object is used to threaten the afflicted area with the belief that this action will drive out the spirit that is the source of the affliction; there are several examples of this in the Carmina Gadelica. Another example of a man made charm used in healing is the brat Bhride, or Bride's Mantle, a piece of cloth that is left out on Imbolc eve with the belief that the goddess Brighid (or Saint Brigit) will pass by in the night and touch the mantle imparting some of her healing power to it. The Mantle can then be used throughout the year for healing people or animals by placing it over them, generally over their head. The Mantle is recharged each year on Imbolc by being left out; some believe the Mantle attains full power after seven years, while others say that after seven years it should be destroyed and a new Mantle created. In Scotland there is also the use of different colored thread for healing purposes. Red thread was worn during childbirth, and was worn with amber beads for protection. As well Rowan twigs were formed into a solar cross and wrapped with red thread for protection, especially of the home. Blue thread was worn as a charm against fevers, particularly in nursing mothers, and often these threads were passed down through a family. Black thread was tied with 9 knots and worn as a cure for a sprain, something that could easily be ocmbined with any of the spoken charms for sprains.
   Natural objects were also commonly used for healing purposes. One common item thought to have healing powers were herbs, but not taken as a medicine, rather worn on the body often by being sown into the clothes. Several of th eherbal charms in the Carmina Gadelica refer to this practice, but the herb was believed to work only if no one else knew you were wearing it. In addition there were very specific ways te herb must be gathered, generally before breakfast and without intent - meaning that you could not go out meaning to find that particular herb, but must find it as a lucky accident. All herbs gathered on Beltane have great power for good or ill, but they must not be pulled or broken by hand so the folklore discusses several means of gathering the herbs safely, such as tying a string to the herb and a dog so that the dog is the one to pull the herb, or else putting your right hand out through your left sleeve and then pulling th eherb back through your garment. Lady Wilde lists 7 herbs of great value in her book, and these are: ground ivy, vervain, eyebright, groudsel, foxglove, the bark of the elder tree, and the young shoots of the Hawthorn. Additionally several sources list Yarrow was the most powerful healing herb for any purpose.
   Another natural object used in healing are stones. These seem to fall into two categories, clear quartz stones and natural river or ocean stones. Round quartz stones were used for both healing and cursing. In Scotland such a stone might be set in silver and several examples of these were passed down as relics within different clans. Called Clach Bhuai (powerful stone) or Clach Buaidh (Victory stone) they were believed to grant victory in battle and cure diseases. The stone would be dipped in water while a prayer was recited and then the ill person or animal would drink the water, or else the stone would be touched to the afflicted body part. When used on Beltane it was believed that such stones could cure elfshot or any type of bewitchment. In contrast curing stones were stones that were found in a river, stream, or the ocean and were believed to have healing powers. Curing stones are often white, sometimes green or black, and less often red or blue. The use was similar to the Clach Bhuai, with the stone being dipped in water which is then drunk, or else rubbed on the injured area; if applied to a specific area a prayer would be said three times, ending with "This day well, next day better, after that naught but a scar." according to George Fraser Black. Curing stones were used for sterility in women, with the stone being placed in a south flowing stream in which the woman washed her feet. Generally obtaining a curing stone meant going out between midnight and dawn to a south flowing stream in total silence, finding the stone, and returning again also in silence. Even a single word would dispel any healing magic the stone possessed before it was safely acquired. Such stones were kept wrapped in wool or linen cloth when not in use.
  Often any charm that used an object would also involve a spoken component, either a prayer or a spoken charm. Examples of such were given in teh last blog. The words of the chram were combined with the proper action to achieve the desired result.
  Part 3 of this will look at healing water, sacred wells, and the clootie trees

References:
 Irish Cures, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions by Lady Wilde
 Scottish Charms and Amulets by George Fraser Black
 The Silver Bough, volume 1 by F. Marian McNeill
  Carmina Gadelica by Alexander Carmichael
 Lore of Ireland by Daithi O hOgain

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Celtic Healing Magic - part 1

(this is the handout for my class from Changing Times, Changing Worlds 2011 on healing magic in the Celtic tradition, with the emphasis on folk magic. In the next blog I will post the outline and shortened version of the class itself - and I feel that I should add that all classes from CTCW 2011 will be available in the next few weeks on CD, you can check the website for details)

From Irish Cures and Superstitions by Lady Wilde:
  To Cure a Fever: “Place the patient on the sandy shore when the tide is coming in, and the retreating waves will carry away the disease.”
  (In modern practice you could visualize this or create a chant using this imagery.)
For Hip Disease: Take three green stones, gathered from a running brook, between midnight and morning while no word is said. In silence it must be done. Then uncover the limb and rub each stone several times closely downwards from hip to toe, saying,
          “Wear away, wear away
            There you shall not stay
            Cruel pain, away, away.”
A Very Ancient Charm Against Wounds or Poisons: (Hold your hands over the wound or affected area and chant)
             “The poison of a serpent, the venom of the dog,
               The sharpness of spear, does not do well in man.
               The blood of one dog, the blood of many dogs,
               The blood of the hound of Fliethas– these I invoke.
It is not a wart to which my spittle is applied.
I strike disease; I strike wounds.
I strike the disease of the dog that bites,
Of the thorn that wounds
Of the iron that strikes.
I invoke the three daughters of Fleithas
Against the serpent
Benediction on this body to be healed;
Benediction on the spittle;
Benediction on him who casts out disease.”

From Scottish Charms and Amulets by George Fraser Black:
 To Bless Water with a Healing Crystal: Dip the healing crystal in the water while saying,
         “Let me dip you in the water
           You beautiful gem of power
           In water of purest wave
          Which Bridget kept pure
           A blessing on the gem
          A blessing on the water and
          A healing of bodily ailments
          To each suffering creature.”              

From the Carmina Gadelica Volume 2 by Alexander Carmichael
Charm for the Rose [Mastitis] 124
THOU rose deathly, deadly, swollen,
Leave the udder of the white-footed cow,
Leave the udder of the spotted cow,
Leave, leave that swelling,
     And betake thyself to other swelling.
Thou rose thrawn, obstinate,
Surly in the udder of the cow,
Leave thou the swelling and the udder,
Flee to the bottom of the stone.
I place the rose to the stone,
I place the stone to the earth,
I place milk in the udder,
I place substance in the kidney.

Tooth Charm 126
THE incantation put by lovely Bride
Before the thumb of the Mother of God,
On lint, on wort, on hemp,
For worm, for venom, for teeth.
The worm that tortured me,
In the teeth of my head,
Hell hard by my teeth,
The teeth of hell distressing me.
  *       *       *       *
The teeth of hell close to me;
As long as I myself shall last
May my teeth last in my head.
VARIANTS--
On lint, on comb, on agony.
On sea, on ocean, on coast.
On water, on lakes, on marshes

Charm for a Sprain 130

BRIDE went out
In the morning early,
With a pair of horses;
One broke his leg,
With much ado,
That was apart,
She put bone to bone,
She put flesh to flesh,
She put sinew to sinew,
She put vein to vein;
As she healed that
May I heal this.

From By Land, Sea, and Sky by Morgan Daimler
Charm for Mastitis
    When performing these charms a sharp object such as a knife or pin should be held towards the body part, you should spit on your fingers and trace a triskele on the area while invoking land, sea, and sky. This follows a common method of folk healing where the illness or injury is threatened as if it were a sentient thing, and ordered to leave the person it is tormenting. All healing charms would be recommended in addition to traditional and alternative medical treatments for the conditions.
Charm  122See, Blessed Brighid
The breast of this mother is swollen:
May you give peace to this breast
May you subdue the swelling;

May you give peace to this breast
May you subdue the swelling.
I see it myself, Brighid,
The suffering of this mother
May you appease this breast,
May you subdue the swelling;

May you appease this breast,
May you subdue the swelling.
See, Healing Goddess
Midwife of all mothers,

May you appease this breast,
May you subdue the swelling;

May you appease this breast,
May you subdue the swelling
Brighid sees the suffering
And she does what is needed
She gives ease to the breast
And rest to the swelling;
She gives ease to the breast
And rest to the swelling
            
Charm for a Toothache 126
The incantation put by Brighid
Before the Mother of the Gods,
On sea, on ocean, on coast.
For painful aching teeth.
The pain that tortured me,
In these teeth in my head,
Agony hard with my teeth,
This agony distressing me.
I put this pain far from me;
As long as I myself shall last
May my teeth last in my head.
To Remove Blood from Urine 180
By the tides of the eternal sea,
by the bedrock of the firm earth,
by the ceaseless winds of sky,
So shall this be.
Great wave, red wave,
strength of sea, strength of ocean
the nine wells of Mac Lyr
to pour help on you
Put a stop to the blood,
Put a flood to the urine
Charm for Tumors

This is the only charm which does not come from the Gadelica. I've used it before for cancer patients with success, and so have chosen to include it here.  It is a heavily rewritten version of a Pow-wow chant; I would recommend the book Pow-wows, or Long Lost Friend for more on this school of folk magic.
    The charm should be chanted while holding your hands over the afflicted area, or a picture of the person. I highly recommend doing this charm on a set regular basis, for example three times a day for a series of nine or 27 days. In order for the charm to be effective it must be done often and consistently.

A Charm to Reduce and Heal Tumors
 Nine waves upon the ocean
The nine become eight,
The eight become seven,
The seven become six,
The six become five,
The five become four,
The four become three,
The three become two,
The two become one,
One becomes none;
Out from the marrow into the blood,
Out from the blood into the flesh,
Out from the flesh into the skin,
Out from the skin into the hair,
Out from the hair to the healing earth

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Celtic Healing Deities

(this is the hand out from my class on Celtic healing deities from Changing Times, Changing Worlds 2011. The beginning of the class we talked about how, IMO, instead of the common modern "cafateria" approach it is better to nurture a relationship with one or two specific deities associated with healing if a person is interested in being a healer or in having a healing-specific deity to call on. We talked about ways to do this including a client-type relationship, devotional work, offerings, setting up an altar for the deity, and establishing the expectations and boundaries of the relationship. After that we talked about several Celtic deities who were either known as healing gods or had healing shrines. Information was presented in a broad format to allow the individual to get an overview of the subject)
 
                               Celtic Healing Deities

Brighid – also Brigit, Bríd, Brig, Bric, Bride, Brigantia, Brigandu. A pan-Celtic goddess, in Ireland she was a deity of healing, poetry and smithcraft, sometimes seen as a single deity and sometimes as three sister deities. Her name may mean “exalted one”. Brighid is a goddess associated especially with childbirth and fertility, and any healing relating to issues around those topics, but she is often called in folk charms for any type of healing at all, from toothaches to blood in urine. Brighid was said to possess two great oxen who would cry out during periods of pillaging, as well as a boar who was called “king of the swine”; she was also strongly associated with sheep. As a patroness of farm animals she is often called on for healing animals, something that can be very useful in modern times. Brighid has a special healing well and site at Kildare and is associated with water that has healing powers, as well as a special talisman called a brat Bhride which is a small piece of cloth left out on Imbolc eve to be blessed by the goddess/saint which would then have healing properties throughout the year. Offerings to Brighid often include milk, butter, cheese, and bread, and in some cases chickens. Her special bird is the oystercatcher, which in Scottish is named Bridein, Bride’s bird, and Gille Bride, paige of Bride. The linnet is also special to the goddess and is named bigein Bride, little bird of Bride. Brighid’s flower is the dandelion.

Airmed –  also Airmid, Airmeith and Airmedh, she is the daughter of the healing god Dian Cecht and sister of Miach. Irish goddess associated with herbal healing. In one version of the story of the healing of the king Nuada by Miach, after Miach died Airmed found healing herbs growing from his grave and harvested them; she laid all the herbs out on her cloak and organized them to preserve the knowledge of their properties. Some sources say the herbs numbered 365, with one for each of his sinews and joints, and one for every possible bodily ailment. Many people today associate her especially with herbal healing. I have often used a mortar and pestle to represent her on my altar; she is also associated with the cloak or mantle, called a brat in Irish.

Miach – Irish god associated with restoring the lost limb of the god Nuada and healing physical injuries up to those that are immediately fatal. He is the son of Dian Cecht and brother of Airmed. In some versions of the story of his healing of King Nuada his father was so jealous of his healing powers that he dealt him four blows, the first three Miach healed but the fourth killed him; after this every healing herb in the world grew up from his grave and Airmed was organizing them when Dian Cecht scattered them (however in other versions Miach is not killed). This is a reflection of the belief that the plants that grow on a person’s grave hold some of their spirit, and so what grew from the grave of the healing god were all the healing plants in the world. Of course being a god his death was not permanent, but may have served the purpose of giving such plants to the world, in my opinion.

Dian Cecht – also spelled Dian Céacht, an Irish god associated with physicians, healing, and restoring the body. Dian Cecht was considered the supreme physician of the gods and possessed a well or cauldron into which the wounded could be placed and from which they would emerge restored. His name may mean “swift traveler” and he is called “the healing sage of Ireland” and “god of health”. He is the father of two other Irish healing deities, Miach and Airmed, and in the mythological cycle is referred to as having three brothers who are also healers. Not only a god of active healing but also of the knowledge of healing arts and of healing magic. He is known as a superlative healer of any method. Some say he created his great healing well by placing one of every healing herb into it, and in mythology he is known to heal grievous wounds and cure plagues in the guise of dragons. The cauldron or well could be used as his symbol, perhaps with herbs in it.

Nodens – also known in Wales as Nudd, or Llud Llaw Eirent (Llud the silver handed), sometimes equated to the Irish Nuada, and on the continent as Noadatus. A pan-Celtic deity synchronized with Mars, sometimes Silvanus, and in one case Neptune. His name may mean “Cloud Maker” or “Spirit of Water”. A god of healing who had a shrine in Gloucestershire where votive offerings where made of bronze objects representing the area of the body the person needed to be healed, particularly limbs and eyes. He is especially associated with amputees because he was believed to have lost an arm in battle, which was later replaced with a silver one, hence the epithet “silver hand”. His companion is a dog who can heal wounds by licking them. Besides dogs, he is particularly associated with salmon and trout which may make good offerings to him.

Sulis – also known as Sul, Sulei, and Sulla, she is synchronized with Minerva. Inscriptions at one of her sacred sites, the hot springs at Bath, imply that she may be a triple goddess, referred to as the Sulevi. Her/Their worship has been found from Switzerland to Britain and is always associated with hot springs. Sulis is associated with healing diseases and with childbirth. Coins and votive offerings were left on her shrines and in the water, generally after being purposefully damaged.

Belenus – another pan-Celtic god, he is variously known as Bíle (to the Irish), Bellinus (in Britain), Belen (Welsh), and also Belenos, and Bel. His name likely means “the shining god” and he is associated with the sun and sacred fire and synchronized with Apollo. Some authors think his healing associations may relate to his solar connection. He had temple sites in many parts of the Celtic world but a significant one at Burgundy where people would travel seeking cures for illnesses. Clay horses were left as offerings here to the God indicating that horses may have been one of his sacred animals. In a modern setting Belenus may be called on especially for illnesses, and I think, for issues that the sun is a good treatment for such as seasonal affective disorder. Images of horses could be offered to him as could written prayers.

References:
Brighid: Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend by Miranda Green
            The Lore of Ireland by Dáithí O hOgáin         
            Carmina Gadelica, volume 1 by Alexander Carmicheal
Airmed: Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan
             The Lore of Ireland by Dáithí O hOgáin
Miach: Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan
            The Lore of Ireland by Dáithí O hOgáin
Dian Cecht: Myth, Legend, and Romance: an encyclopedia of the Irish folk tradition by Dáithí  O hOgain
            Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend by Miranda Green
            The Lore of Ireland by Dáithí O hOgáin
Belenos: Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend by Miranda Green
Sulis: Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend by Miranda Green
Nodens: Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Preperations

  Tomorrow I head out to the changing times changing worlds conference up at Amherst in Massachusetts, which runs from Friday through Sunday. This is the conference's second year and I am excited to see how it has grown since last year. The main theme of this year is healing/wholing/holistic and the workshops cover a variety of topics under that theme. My own contribution is four workshops: healing magic and chronic illness, the shadow of death (how healers relate to the concept of death), the healing well and clootie tree (healing magic in the Celtic tradition), and Under Airmed's cloak (healing with Celtic deities). I am also on three panels: Otherworldly guides, Offerings and the modern practitioner, and teaching children. I'm pretty excited about all of this, but especially the two Celtic classes I am doing. And of course besides my own workshops there are many interesting workshops I would like to go to, so I expect the weekend to be busy and educational.
  After the conference I will blog about how it goes and also post my handouts from my classes along with an abridged version of the class itself. I have had a lot of fun researching the healing deities especially as I leanred about several that I had never previously interacted with at all.
  Have a great weekend everyone, I will be back to blogging on Monday, but I leave you all with a W. B. Yeats quote from 1902:
 “I believe when I am in the mood that all nature is full of people whom we cannot see, and that some of these are ugly or grotesque, and some wicked or foolish, but very many beautiful beyond anyone we have ever seen, and that these are not far away. I will not of a certainty believe that there is nothing in the sunset, where our forefathers imagined the dead following their shepherd the sun....If beauty is not a gateway out of the net we were taken in at our birth, it will not long be beauty, and we will find it better to sit at home by the fire and fatten a lazy body or to run hither and thither in some foolish sport than to look at the finest show that light and shadow ever made among green leaves. I say to myself, when I am well out of that thicket of argument, that they are surely there, the divine people, for only we who have neither simplicity nor wisdom have denied them, the simple of all times and the wise men of ancient times have seen them and even spoken to them.”

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Book review - Heathen Gods

  I'm doing my weekly book review on Thursday this week...
  I have a new book to add to my recommended reading for new heathens: Heathen Gods by Mark Ludwig Stinson. This book is a great way for anyone to get a feel for what heathenry is and not only learn the basics of it but get some good advice about starting out as a new heathen, starting a group, and living as a heathen.
  The book itself is a collection of short essays, each of which has a different topic. It is broken into roughly 7 sections: Essays for new heathens, Building a kindred or tribe, Maintaining a kindred or tribe, Living a heathen life, Personal and miscellaneous essays, Iceland trip journal, and Poetry by the author. It also includes a good recommended reading list at the back. Each of the first 4 sections contains around a dozen individual essays that fall under the larger section topic, such as "What is a Heathen?", "Differing Views within the Heathen Community", "Why Start a Kindred", and "Wyrd and Worth", to name but a few. The final three sections are much more personal to the author's life and experiences, including personal anecdotes and reflections as well as his journal about a trip to Iceland and provide a look at one person's journey living as a heathen.
  One of the main strengths of this book for me was the way that it touches lightly on many important topics without overwhelming the reader or getting bogged down in details or history. The writing style is engaging and interesting while still being informative and the author tackles difficult topics in a way that encourages the reader to think about the issues. It manages to present a workable modern heathenry in a way that is both understandable and often unflinching to the realities that people in community-based faith face, such as jump-starting spiritual practice and dealing with bad experiences in the community.
   Another thing that I really like about the book is the essay-based format. I admit initially I was unsure about it because I wasn't sure how all the short essays would flow together, but I found that it was perfect for reading a few a day, or skipping around to whatever essay seemed most appropriate each day. It made referencing specific ideas much easier and having the material organized the way it is actually does flow very well.
  All in all a good addition to any heathen's library and definitely a good starting place for a new heathen looking for a better understanding of what modern heathen practice is.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Green Faced Witches

   One thing that never changes about the larger pagan community is that there are always trends going around. This year I keep running across a poem written in 1999 by "Angel" that talks about witches being depicted with green faces as a result of torture ( Halloween Witch if you want to read it). It's been going around for a while of course but this year it seems to have really gained steam and more than that people are believing it and repeating the idea that witches were believed historically to have green faces and that the green color was actually a result of being tortured during trial. One site even went so far as to describe a very long theory about the green faces being the result of gangrene, while another had people linking it to Celtic mythology. Suffice to say I am sufficiently annoyed by this trend now that I have decided to devote a whole blog to trying to educate people about the reality of where the green faced witch came from and why it has nothing to do with the witch hunts.
  So just to get this out of the way - as far as I have been able to find the earliest appearance of a green faced witch is in the Wizard of Oz movie - the movie specifically because in the book the character of the Wicked Witch of the West did not have a green face. It seems likely that this was a purely cinematic decision, based on a desire to show off the new technology of color film (Gerry, 2011). I suspect that the Wicked Witch in the movie was so scary and so memorable that after the movie came out the idea of green faced witches became embedded in our collective minds.
  Now that we have that out of the way lets look at the idea - visceral and emotional - that victims of torture would have green faces and that people seeing this would think it was a sign of witchcraft. Everyone knows that older bruises turn greenish colored so at first glance this idea seems plausible. But lets stop and think about this for a minute. First of all is it possible to bruise someone's entire face - every inch of it? I don't think so; the shape of the face with it's curves and crevices would make such a thing very difficult and unlikely and the way blood pools would mean that you would never see any kind of even coloring that could be described as "green faced". Secondly this idea assumes that the people seeing the person would not realize that it was bruises turning green and I find that highly unlikely. People hundreds of years ago may have had less technology and a more primitive understanding of physiology but they weren't stupid; they knew as well as we do about bruises and the colors they turn over time. These accused witches were members of the community, well known to friends and neighbors and don't think for a moment that everyone didn't know that the person had been tortured. Thirdly most accused witches were tortured in complex ways but not necessarily beaten - and remember the point of the torture was to gain a confession so beating the person around the face in a way that might limit their ability to speak would be counter-productive. Finally, this green-faced theory assumes a fairly quick turn over between confession and execution which is also unrealistic. In fact an accused person was involved in a long trial where witnesses spoke against them and they may be tortured but often with a week or more between each interview with the court (Kors & Peters, 1972).
    And since this sometimes was mentioned on some of the sites, I want to be perfectly clear that none of the Salem witches were tortured to obtain confessions. The only person who could have been said to be tortured was Giles Cory and that was because he refused to enter a plea either innocent or guilty; without a plea either way his land could not be seized and he could not be brought to trial (Giles was pretty darn smart, even if he was crushed to death under big freakin' rocks). Nobody was burned at Salem either - they were all hung or died in prison during their extended stay. Never trust any source that says different.
    As to the idea of gangrene being the cause of the green face - gangrene is not actually green. The word gangrene comes originally from the Greek gangraina which means an eating sore, and that says a lot right there. It is an infection that occurs when blood flow is cut off and tissue dies and there are multiple types of gangrene; however in this case wet gangrene is the only possibility. When caused by trauma it creates a tight red swelling that slowly turns purplish-blue and then black and can cause a secondary septic infection which is fatal. I'll spare you the visual and won't include pictures but trust me it doesn't include the color green that I have ever seen or heard of and large infections will kill you, especially if they happen to be on your face. If you don't believe me you can read more here: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/gangrene/DS00993/DSECTION=symptoms
   Now finally the Celtic mythology link. I have read stories that link the color green to fairies and stories about green skinned children that came from the world of faery. I have read stories about "green" hags who lurked in rivers and ate children. And I am familiar with the idea of people wearing green, or described as wearing green, being connected to faery. But I have never personally read anything or heard anything about green skinned witches in Celtic mythology; if anyone can point me towards any such evidence I would certainly be interested in seeing it, but until then I have to conclude that people talking about green faced witches in Celtic myth is a mistaken conflation of the two separate mythologies.
   During the period of the witch hunts witches were not seen as ugly or scary to look at. In point of fact they weren't seen as only being women; both men and women were suspected, accused, and tried. The Malleus Maleficarum has an entire section on male witches, for example. That same text makes a point of noting that witches could be anyone, young or old, and would often use their beauty to lure good men into sin (hey, it's considered a glaring example of misogynistic writing for a reason). That was part of what drove the hysteria, the idea that absolutely anyone could be a witch.
   So basically I think there is no basis for believing that the green faced witch is anything but a modern 20th century invention. I also think that we need to seriously consider how disrespectful we are being by creating this false history of the green faced witch as a sort of emotional touchstone for modern pagans. Real people, men, women, and children, died during the witch hunts and those people deserve to be respected and remembered not exploited as yet another thing for neopagans to hold up as a symbol of modern "persecution".

References:
 Gerry, D (2011). The Secret Symbolism of a Witch's Wardrobe. http://www.life123.com/holidays/halloween/witches/witch-symbolism.shtml
  Kors, A. and Peters, E. (1972). Witchcraft in Europe 1100 - 1700. University of Pennsylvania Press

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Samhain

 I love this time of year. Halloween has been my favorite holiday for as long as I can remember and when I became pagan I incorporated the practices that I loved about Halloween with the ones I learned went along with Samhain; luckily for me trick'or'treating and dressing up in costume are pretty strongly connected to the old Celtic custom of guising which have continued until today. In Ireland up until around  a hundred years ago there was still a practice of  a small parade led by someone dressed as a white mare that would go from house to house singing and asking for "tolls" (Estyn Evans, 1957; Danaher, 1972) . In some parts of modern Ireland  children still  chant “Help the Halloween party! Any apples or nuts?” when trick or treating (Danaher, 1972)  All through Scotland it was the custom of groups of boys in costume to go door to door  asking for money or treats, often while singing or chanting which slowly became the custom of younger children that we consider trick or treating in modern times (McNeill, 1961) .
   I took my children out trick or treating, with the girls dressed up as Cleopatra and a pirate queen respectively. It was extremely fun being out at night with the children, under the crescent moon, with the snap of snow in the air. We had actually had an unusual early snow storm last Saturday that knocked out power and generally mucked things up for awhile, but by yesterday everything was enchanted.
 Now the modern dating of Samhain is given as October 31st and this is when I choose to celebrate it for convenience, but in reality the date was originally not a set calender or astrological date, as far as we know, but rather was an agrarian date In Ireland and Scotland; although the Coligny calendar of Gaul does list three specific days as "Trinuoxtion Samonii" or the three nights of summers end (Kondratiev, 1999). In practice Samhain celebrations occurred in November because this was the end of the harvest and the time when the herds were brought back in from the fields, but it wasn't until the Catholic church moved their celebration of All Saints and All Souls day to the first days of Novemeber that Samhain seem to have gotten a set calendar date in a modern context (Estyn Evans, 1957; McNeill, 1961). Of course then the switch was made from the Julian to Gregorian calendar and so you still see people celebrating Samhain on November 12th, refusing to acknowledge the change (McNeill, 1961). I debated for awhile trying to hold to a more traditional agrarian marking of the date, perhaps at the first hard frost each year, but with the kids it was just too difficult to get them engaged and excited about it when it seemed random to them. I do however follow what Caesar said about the Celts starting the new day at sunset and the new year at Samhain and begin my celebrations at sunset of the 31st and I also generally make it a three day celebration, something that is supported by the Coligny calendar and at least tenuously by the Irish belief that it was actually on November 2nd that the spirits of the dead returned to visit the living (Freeman, 2002; Danaher, 1972).      
    After trick or treating we came home and had a small ceremony together. We lit a candle for those we love who have passed and talked about them, things we remembered and missed.
My cauldron with the candle for the ancestors burning inside; the skull in front is from my ancestor altar and represent all of my ancestors whose names I do not know, but who are still with me, who I also honor
It was an old practice in Ireland to light a candle for each deceased member of the family and to leave the doors unlocked - in some cases even open - and to leave out either fresh water or porridge as an offering to those ancestors who chose to visit (Estyn Evans, 1957; Danaher, 1972). Our lighting the candle carved with their names is our way of carrying on this tradition. Then, in honor of the idea of leaving out food for the dead, we took a cake that we had baked earlier in the day and put pieces outside for the Gods, daoine sidhe, and ancestors, all in different places, as well as leaving out something for any wandering spirits. And we went back inside and each had a little piece of cake ourselves. Then the children went to bed and I did some divination on my own.
  Tonight is the second night of my Samhain celebration. I will honor an Morrigan and an Dagda who united on Samhain, and who are both deities I am personally close to. I will kindle a sacred fire symbolically relighting the fire of my hearth and of the world* and  I will do some more divination and make charms to bless my home in the coming year; Samhain was associated with a solar cross charm similar to the Brighid's cross of Imbolc and with using fire to sain the property (Danaher, 1972; McNeill 1962). Tomorrow will be focused especially on honoring the dead and on blessing the people of the house for the year to come using the ashes of tonight's fire. And then Samhain will be over for another year.

 References:
Danaher, K., (1972) . The Year in Ireland. Mercier Press
Estyn Evans, E., (1957) . Irish folk Ways. Routledge and Kegan Paul
Freeman, P., (2002) War, Women, and Druids. University of Texas Press
Kondratiev, A., (1998) . The Apple Branch: a path to Celtic Ritual. Citadel Press.
McNeill, F., (1961) . The Silver Bough, volume 3: Halloween to Yule. Stuart Titles Limited


* If anyone is curious about why I place the ceremony with the ritual fire on the second day and not on the first where it should more logically be - the first night is very much about doing as much as I can with my children and my youngest daughter, at this point, has several issues that make anything involving total darkness a bad idea. I am still working out what exactly should go where, ritually speaking, and next year I hope to have the fire on the first night in a more "traditional" way since fire was such a major part of this holiday. But this year, this is how things worked out. Sometimes you just have to roll with it.