Wednesday, 21 December 2016


The Wassail is an ancient celebratory custom. The term comes from the Anglo-Saxon for 'good cheer' and refers to a midwinter custom intended to welcome in the new year. It often coincided with St Thomas's Day, 21st December, where the poor would go house to house a-Thomasing or a-gooding: collecting money, clothing or food.
Rather like modern carol singing, wassailers would go from house to house, often the largest ones, singing traditional songs on return for a liberal supply of beer, cider or pennies. This was collected in a bowl, kept by the King of the Wassailers.  In some cases the bowl was used for this purpose for a hundred years or more.

A Warwickshire wassailing song was:

Wassail, wassail, all over the town,
Our bread it is white and our ale it is brown,
Our bowl it is made of a map-a-lin tree,
And with our wassailing bowl we drink unto thee. 

Apple  trees are also commonly wassailed in winter to ensure good health the coming year. In some areas it took place on Christmas Eve, others on Twelfth Night (6th January,) or 17th January, which corresponds to Twelfth Night before the calendar alteration in 1752, a fact which reveals the age of the custom.
This wassailing involved pouring cider into the roots (and drinking liberal quantities at the same time) and often placing cider-soaked toast in the branches while singing songs which varied according to area.

As the pagan customs died out, the wassail tradition was transferred to the Christmas season, and is likely the origin of carol singing which is still going strong today.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

The Oak Moon

The full moon of December is often called the Oak Moon.

 December is the end of the year, when thoughts turn forwards and also back. We automatically consider the New Year as a time for a fresh start.
The oak is symbolic of this. The Celtic words for oak, duir or derw, have the same root as 'door'. And the oak was considered a gateway between lives, worlds, and spiritual stages of life. This is why the tree was sacred to the Druids - 'Druid' itself deriving from the same root.

 The Oak King ruled over the dying year, superseded by the Holly King of the new year. The oak is the last of the deciduous trees to lose its leaves in winter - they hang on well into December - giving another connection to the dying year. The holly is of course evergreen, and symbolises the continuing thread of life throughout the months of death.

 And so life goes on, through the doorway into the new year.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

The Mistletoe

Mistletoe is one of our most unusual - and therefore special - plants. It is parasitic, living high in the branches of other trees and living off their sustenance. Its near unique lack of connection with the ground led to its reverence in many cultures. It commonly grows in apple trees and oak trees, themselves both sacred in many belief systems, a fact which adds to its lore.
It was highly sacred in Britain, especially if growing in an oak tree. Pliny wrote an account of its harvesting in the 1st century AD. The Druids would harvest it with a golden sickle, catching it in a sheet so it didn't touch the ground and profane its sacredness. It was believed to cure infertility and provide an antidote to poison. ( It is in fact highly poisonous. ) It also warded off lightening and other evils.

In Norse myth, the god Baldur, who represented the divine light, was killed by a dart of mistletoe. Every living thing had been made to swear not to harm him, with this one exception, which was thought too innocent to cause harm.

And kissing under the mistletoe, a tradition at least 200 years old, still happens at Christmas today!

Friday, 25 November 2016

Our True Colours

Some say that all life forms have an aura, or energy field, surrounding them. This is what gives a living thing its vitality. A little-known fact is that this was once the subject of a rigorous scientific study.

A Russian husband and wife team named Kirlian in the 1950s photographed a strange luminescence radiating from living things, invisible to the naked eye. They photographed plant leaves and visualised bright energy flares radiating from healthy plants, but dramatically diminished in a diseased plant. Importantly, both plants appeared outwardly normal at the time of the photographs.

When the process was developed further, different colours were recorded, as were smaller flares emanating from specific areas of the leaves. These were distorted if the leaf was damaged and gradually diminished if allowed to die. This natural electrical charge was named 'bioplasma.'

Image result for KIrlian photography leaf
Bioplasma was also pictured in the human body, concentrated at several focal points. These points, it was noted, matched Chinese acupuncture points. Bioplasma was also very sensitive to magnetic fields. Intriguingly,  magnets  have become very popular in recent years with those following traditional healing programmes. They supposedly address diverse health issues.

Bioplasma is not contained within the body: it erupts into and interacts with the surrounding environment. It is interesting to note that people who are more psychically sensitive – able to perceive human emotions and spiritual and supernatural states – are often very prone to electric shocks, when touching car doors for example. Perhaps their energy field is naturally heightened, or the barrier between them and the rest of world is reduced, so they readily attract auric bioplasma and static electricity.

Although not visible to the naked eye, it is apparent that a lot of people do have an awareness of the aura's presence. We often have a gut feeling that something is wrong with someone we know well.The  discovery of the different colours in bioplasma seems particularly important regarding this point. Consider the words we use to describe general well-being: bright, dull and off-colour. A strange selection, until you recall that the Kirlians proved that the aura is the main gauge of health.
Many visionaries, to whom auras are clearly visible, claim that everyone's aura has different colours. When we know someone well, 'we see their true colours.'

Despite strong scientific evidence for the existence of bioplasma, the Kirlians' work went no further. A few fringe scientists tried to continue their research, but it was rapidly dismissed as 'quack' science and its supporters ridiculed. It is just left to a few psychics to understand what our life-force is truly about.

Monday, 14 November 2016

The Mourning Moon

As well as being a 'super moon', the full moon of November is often called the Snow Moon or the Mourning Moon. November is when winter truly starts. On higher ground, the first snows will appear on the hills.

 In the Celtic calendar the month begins with the festival of Samhain, midway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. Samhain mourns the end of summer and the start of the winter trials which many, human and beast, would not survive. It was a time to think about the ever-turning wheel of time, of the passing seasons and the passing of life into death. Many cultures still use this date to commemorate the dead.

 When the mourning is over, it is time to think about survival.

Monday, 7 November 2016

The Owl

The owl is the bird of the night, never seen but seeing all, the guardian of secrets. It is no surprise then that the owl has become a symbol of cryptic wisdom and has led to the saying 'as wise as an owl'.

The owl was the totem of the Greek Goddess Athena, patron ofAthens. As such the owl was considered sacred by the Athenians, and when it was seen they believed that the Goddess was nearby.

The owl is one the traditional witches' familiars, as all Harry Potter fans will know. The owl has very highly developed night vision, and this may explain its 'seeing' other worlds, explaining its connection with both Gods and wisdom, and also its darker side.

The owl as always had an association with death and all things uncanny, in both ancient cultures and more recent superstition.
The witches of Shakespeare's Macbeth used among other nefarious ingredients 'an owlet's wing' in their cauldron-stirring scene. In Britain it was said that if an owl alights on the roof of a house a death is sure to follow. Similarly in Sicily a tradition says that the horned owl sings next to a sick man's house, three days before his death.
A barn owl especially was feared as a terrible portent in Britain. It was incredibly unlucky to see it gliding silently past on ghostly white wings. How very different to today, when to see a barn owl is one of our most special sights. A particularly elusive and rare bird, it certainly seems to mean something when one passes by at night. And now the nights are drawing in, it is definitely something to look out for.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

The Hedley Kow

The Hedley Kow is one of the strangest creatures of folklore.

 Hedley on the Hill is a small village in Northumberland, a few miles south of Newcastle. The Kow was well known in the area and written accounts of its tricks date back 300 years.
It favoured schoolboy pranks on unwitting victims, usually adopting a different guise each time then revealing itself by its strange braying laughter.

          The wild landscape of Northumberland was once the home of many strange creatures.

 An old woman in the 19th century found a bundle of straw in the road and picked it up to take home. It got heavier and heavier as she went until she was forced to put it down. She set off again, but the same thing happened. Then the bundle jumped up and danced a jig in the road, laughing its braying laugh. It then flew off never to be seen again.

 A farmer around the same time harnessed his mare to go to market, but the horse kept shying along the lane then refused to go any further. The farmer suspected the Kow and went a different route, but the same thing happened again. He tried to calm the horse to no avail and she smashed from the cart and took off. Then he heard the laughter coming from mare itself. It was the Kow in disguise. He walked home and found the mare in the stables where she had been all along.

 These are just two of many equally bizarre stories about this creature, which thankfully seems to appear no more.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Dawn and Dusk

Neither night nor day, light nor dark. The times of sunrise and sunset or the 'times-between-times' have always had particular importance in mysticism and folklore. It's not just about celebrating sunrise on the solstice  at Stonehenge or Newgrange, as is becoming increasingly popular. Many religious rituals took place at sunrise or sunset, and in some cases still do. Cultures from the Egyptians to the Celts revered this time.  

Sunrise and sunset were  important in marking the progress of the year, vital when life depended so much on the seasons, but there is more to it than that.
In a world which is composed of opposites – day and night, sun and moon, good and evil, masculine and feminine, positive and negative, and so on – instances when these boundaries are blurred attract great attention.  Because when opposites combine, something extraordinary is formed.
Male and female combine to produce life. Positive and negative combine on a subatomic level to form atoms, and then molecules, and then the entirety of existence. And so dawn and dusk are considered times of transcendence, times when the soul can attain a higher level of consciousness, times when the portals open and it is possible to cross to other realms.

The reason is linked to energy flow. A natural energy current flows through both the Earth and all living things. When the sun is on the horizon, it exerts a gravitational pull which amplifies this energy, as is seen in the tides of the sea. We, like most living things, can sense this surge of energy and are uplifted in more ways than one. Everybody feels something special in watching a sunrise or sunset. And this is what triggers the religious, spiritual and metaphysical associations of the times-between-times.
Everyone feels the tranquillity and peace of watching the sun sink beyond the horizon, and everyone feels happier for having done so. This is the reason why.

Monday, 17 October 2016

The Hunter's Moon

The full moon in October is known as the Hunter's Moon. It shines down on the start of the autumn hunting season.

In many cultures which depended on hunting game for survival, it was taboo to hunt pregnant or nursing animals, essential as they were for the future of both hunted and hunter. But in autumn when the year's young were weaned and often searching for a territory of their own, and the old and weak were declining in fitness as food became scarce, the hunting season began.

Those animals which wouldn't survive the winter were culled, which then left what food there was for those able to breed next season. And those fit young animals which were now surplus to requirements often went the same way.

Thus the delicate balance between hunter and hunted, life and death, each equally dependent on the other, was carefully maintained to enable that balance to perpetuate into the future.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

The Fruit of Wisdom

The apple carries a vast amount of symbolism and esoteric wisdom. It has been associated with immortality, truth and purity  since time immemorial and so has the greatest role in folklore of all fruits. 
When an apple is cut in half horizontally, the five seeds form a pentagram, the ancient and sacred symbol of power and wisdom, and this may explain its mythical significance. 

The apple is most famed as the  fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, although interestingly this is not  actually specified in the Book of Genesis, it is a later addition to the story. As it was an apple that ultimately led to Adam and Eve's eviction from Eden and the fall of man, it is often now considered the fruit of the devil by some Christian groups.

The British paradise of Avalon and the Irish paradise of  Emain Ablach both derive from the term 'land of apples,' and both places are filled with this divine tree. And the apple features much in Celtic myth, particularly in hero-quests. For example the early Welsh poem Yr Afallennau, (the apple tree) tells of the prophet Merlin's madness until he takes refuge in a magical apple tree.

In Norse myth the apple was the symbol of youth and immortality. In Greek myth, the Golden Apples of the Hesperides were given to Hera, Queen of the Gods, on her wedding day by Gaia, the Earth, and are representative of the wisdom of Mother Earth. They were stolen by Hercules as one of his twelve labours.

It was an apple which started the Trojan War:  Eris, Goddess of Discord, threw an apple into a wedding celebration marked 'for the fairest'. Three goddesses claimed the prize and the Trojan Prince named Paris was appointed judge. He chose Aphrodite, and she gave him the fabled Helen in reward. The only problem: Helen was already married. Her husband Menelaus  took exception to her abduction and so began this most famous war. 

In more recent myths, we have the unicorn, the animal of purity, who lives beneath an apple tree;  William Tell, shooting an apple from his son's head; Snow White, eating a poisoned apple and falling into an enchanted sleep; and the tree at the centre of Narnia, C.S. Lewis' philosophical creation, which was, you guessed it, an apple.

The final word has to go to the great Isaac Newton, said to be the first of the scientists and the last of the mystics. He  knew full well the esoteric significance of the apple. And it  is no accident that he discovered the nature of gravity, opening countless doors to scientific revolution, because of... an apple.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Harvest Home

Harvest marks an ending. The end of the farming year, the end of the life cycle for plants cultivated and wild. The seeds then mark a beginning - the beginning of the next year as the eternal cycle of life continues.
And as harvest is the beginning of an end, so its end was celebrated with gusto in all rural communities. The time when all men, women and children worked sun up to sun down to bring the harvest home, cementing friendships and a sense of shared struggle which forged a community spirit, was over for another year.

The harvest festival, intended to give thanks to the gods (or later God) for their success and to provide an auspicious start for the new season, is still a ubiquitous aspect of rural life as it has been in cultures worldwide for millennia.

In Britain, the final load was brought home with great ceremony. The horse and wagon were bedecked with flowers and ribbons, and all men and boys would ride atop the wagon and sing hearty songs.

Up! Up! Up! A happy harvest home!
We have sowed, we have mowed
We have carried our last load!

I have ripped my shirt

And teared my skin
To get my master's harvest in!

This was followed by a grand supper where all the workers and their families sat down to tables laden with beef, vegetables and plum pudding. These harvest suppers still survive in some places, although far removed from their original form.

Like many British traditions, the Harvest Home was barely remembered after the First World War. A generation of rural workers lay under foreign soil, and an ancient custom, passed down for generations from old to young, was broken.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

The Corn Spirit

In Celtic Britain, people believed that all animate and inanimate objects possessed an aspect of the great divine spirit which encompassed the entirety of existence.
The corn fields were especially imbued with this spirit, epitomised as the Dying-and-Rising God - he who lives, dies and  is reborn in constant flux. In popular culture today, this spirit is known as John Barleycorn.
As harvest progressed, the corn spirit was condensed into an ever-decreasing area until it was contained in the final sheaf to be mown.
This sheaf  was never stored in the barn and threshed with the rest of the crop. It was carefully  preserved and scattered back on the fields on spring, thus returning the corn spirit to the fields. Failure to observe this ritual would result in bad luck, crop failure and famine during the coming year. This tradition was upheld into the 20th century, in countries across Europe from Britain as far as Russia. This hints at the antiquity of  the custom. 
Long after the original esoteric meaning of this tradition  was forgotten, lost among the new rites of Christianity, the custom clung on in many forms. The sheaf was hung up on New Year's Day in Midland Britain for hungry birds to peck. Corn dollies are another offshoot of the tradition.
This is not much done now, but if you see a sheaf of corn hanging somewhere, you can bet it contains the corn spirit, waiting to be returned home.