Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Churchyard Yews

There are yews, and there are yews. Most of us in the US are familiar with the ornamental shrubbery Taxus canadensis, the ubiquitous straggling evergreen beloved of landscapers. We had them at our last property; they can grow quite tall under the right conditions, and produce abundant red berries. They also require a lot of attention to keep them looking nice in a landscape. Their nature is to sprawl and shoot out random branches.

Fortingall Yew
The yew commonly found in Europe and the British Isles is Taxus baccata, a quite different species. T. baccata is a proper tree, rather than a shrub, and can reach rather dramatic proportions. They are known for achieving rather dramatic ages, as well, with known specimens thought to be thousands of years old. The Fortingall yew, for example, is thought to be between 2,000 and 5,000 years old. It can be found in a churchyard in Perthshire. Other famous specimens can be found in Wales, Belgium, and Ireland; and notably, all are found in churchyards.

Knowlson, writing in The Origins of Popular Superstitions and Customs, has this to say about yew trees in churchyards:

Some authorities ascribe it to the adoption of ancient funeral rites; others to the prosaic notion of keeping the wind off the church; others, again, to the warlike need of bows and arrows--yew being especially serviceable. A large body of writers believe the use of the yew was symbolic--it typified by its unchanging verdure the doctrine of the resurrection. A few cynically assert that yews, being gloomy and poisonous, are rightly used for churchyard decoration; and there are not wanting writers who see in the practice a tribute to the superstitious regard men have always paid to trees. We may examine one or two of these suggestions, although no definite conclusion may be possible. We know that the ancient Britons planted yews near their temples long before Christianity was introduced into England, and this would suggest a custom on the island not necessarily Roman or Christian.

Knife with yew hilt
One of my personal tools, my curfane or harvesting knife, has a grip of churchyard yew. (I even have a photo of the churchyard and yew involved!) Given the yew's associations with death, this seems an appropriate usage.  (Note: The knife did not "harvest" the fellow next to it.) Because of the poisonous nature of even the wood itself, it is a powerful-feeling tool and one that I use with great care and respect. It is eminently suited to "sacrificing" a purposefully baked loaf, for example. In the past, I've used it on the altar in a Wican "white handled knife" context, but it felt frankly dissatisfied with the role; some tools have their own agendas, and this one clearly felt constrained by the rules that bound the WHK in that system. Now wild again, it awaits its next task--most likely, the carving of the bread I'll bake at the autumnal equinox. The harvest season is upon us, after all.

Friday, August 19, 2011


The hagstone is a traditional and naturally-occurring witch's amulet particularly valued in the British isles. Known variously as hagstones, holed stones, holy or holey stones, hex stones or adder stones, they range in size from pebble to boulder, and are characterized by having one or more holes running all the way through. They are most prized as found objects, as they are relatively rare, and are variously used for protection, fertility, and scrying. A woman wishing to conceive might crawl through the opening in a very large standing hagstone, or carry a small one in a pocket or a mojo bag (and an enterprising woman wishing to avoid conception could of course invert the spell and use the holed stone as a charm against fertility). Once thought to be protective charms against witchcraft, they can certainly be used to protect oneself from the negative workings and influences of others, magickal or mundane, and hanging one from a red thread above the bed can allow the nightmares to pass through the hole and safely away from the sleeper. In Dartmoor it is said that looking through the hole in the stone enables one to see the piskies, and that wearing one would repel the evil eye by distracting the caster thereof.

One of the things that attracted me to our previous home was the number of largeish stones arranged about the property in a casual but appealing attempt at natural landscaping. At least three of those stones had depressions or true holes through them, which was even more appealing to me. The one you see on the left was in front of the house, in the garden beyond the edge of the deck. (You can see the base of the classical goddess statue at the upper right. The daffodils are ones I planted.) The hole is to the right on the central stone, and you can see the large crystal protruding from it that we placed therein. Another holed stone to the far right of that one, not visible in the photo, I typically used for making small offerings; one day I was about to place something in there only to startle a young brown snake who'd curled up within! The third of the stones, the one with a deep depression that did not go all the way through, was beside the side door of the house; that one often received offerings of acorns and such, or the occasional bit of wine or water or bread. I miss those rocks, but they came with the property and when we left, they stayed with the property; they were mine to tend, but not to keep.

I do keep a small, smooth hagstone as a personal amulet; it's pocket-sized and useful for a number of things. I like it as a sort of "worry stone," something to caress while in deep contemplation, among other things. It came to me quite a while ago, so long now that I don't recall the circumstance. It's not the only one that I have, but it seems the most potent.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Poetry: Edgar Allan Poe

This poem has always, for me, seemed to hold the essence of being a witch; it captures that ineffable sense of otherness that is at the core of it.


From childhood's hour I have not been
As others were---I have not seen
As others saw---I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow; I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I lov'd, I loved alone.
Then---in my childhood---in the dawn
Of a most stormy life---was drawn
From ev'ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still:
From the torrent, or the fountain,
From the red cliff of the mountain,
From the sun that 'round me roll'd
In its autumn tint of gold---
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass'd me flying by---
From the thunder and the storm,
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view.

Thoughts? Discuss.

Monday, August 15, 2011

She Goes Into The Countryside

I make no secret of my indoorsy proclivities, and have discussed them at length elsewhere; but on occasion, even I go outdoors, and sometimes while I'm there I get lucky.

Found objects are not ordinarily my forte; I've never been so fortunate as to come across a really amazing find while out walking. This weekend, however, I quite accidentally managed to find not one but two small treasures. (What I did not have, of course, was my camera, or I'd have photographed them in situ. The small trip off the beaten track was unintended,)

I was at an historical event, garbed as an 18th century woman (albeit a very heavily armed one, but that's just me), and making my precarious way down a stepped slope in wildly inappropriate footwear. As I clutched at a sapling to keep myself upright, I happened to glance to my left, whereon I spied a large rock upon which rested a perfectly centered, immaculate blue jay feather; it was as if it had been quite deliberately placed there. I left it there--in part because I couldn't remember if jays were a protected species in that particular state, and in part because the tableau was too lovely for me to disturb--and took away the memory, along with a mental note to consider the blue jay and what lessons it might bring.

Jays are related to crows, and carry some similar characteristics of behavior. They're chatty and aggressive, and fiercely protective; I once passed too closely by a jay's nest as a child and she chased me all the way back inside my house. Looking at the lore of the jay as a totem, I find that some consider it a trickster character, and one given to mimicry and mockery, so perhaps these are things in myself that need attention at the moment, a tendency toward such actions which may or may not be serving me. One source indicates that they are highly resourceful and adaptable, and capable of getting along with the least amount of effort, and that when jay shows up one should look into one's own tendencies toward being a "dabbler" and not following through with things. Ahem.

Seeking shade and wondering how to get down to the creek, we found a path and started along it, only to find very near its entrance a small scattering of bones--deer, from the look of them, intact and mostly clean, scavengers having already done the hard work. Again, it was a little too perfect, all neatly displayed for me to go all forensic-anthropologist on ("This femur shows signs of having been stripped of its flesh by some scavenger") without having to mess with anything rotting in the midday sun (I prefer my bones to arrive already defleshed, thanks). A lovely femur, a scattering of ribs, right at the edge of the trail where anyone might find them and cart them away. And you know what? I didn't. I left those beautiful bones right where I found them, and not only because, as my husband so helpfully reminded me, I already have a deer femur. The land we were on is often used by scouting groups, and in fact there was a troop of them on site that day; and it occurred to me that maybe those kids needed the thrill of finding bones in nature and trying to identify them more than I needed to bring them home. If I enjoyed it that much, they probably would, too.

Now, had it been a skull, all bets would've been off. I'd have shown it to the scouts as I gleefully carted it off.

What have we learned? To keep our eyes open. To know the difference between what we want and what we need. And to persevere; because just a short way on down that path, past those ever-so-distracting bones, I was awarded with the vista of the creek, and the remaining foundations of the mill, and the mostly intact waterwheel that I had no idea was still standing.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Company of Witches

Cottage in Blaise Castle estate. Photo by Angi Nelson.
In some of the British wiccan traditions descended from Gerald Gardner, you may come across the saying "You cannot be a witch alone;" but this of course is not always the case. When imagining the classic figure of the witch, the image is often that of a very solitary figure: the herb-wife or cunning man of the village, living alone and plying their trade unobtrusively, set apart by talent and temperament if nothing else, separate from village life but an inextricable part of it as well. Certainly the witch of fairytale lore is a lonely soul, hidden away in the dark forest in her slightly sinister but oh-so-very-attractive cottage. The soul brave enough to seek out and enter the witch's cottage may find therein the answer to her wildest dreams...or the loss of her very soul or sanity. In legend, of course, that cottage may symbolize the deepest part of our unconscious, the place where the demons dwell, and the witch residing therein the keeper of the mysteries of ourselves that we have yet to uncover; to seek then to enter that cottage, and to learn from that witch (or, even better, to become such a being) is to seek our own soul-knowledge and mastery.

But that's the inner working; at the external level, there is also the very concrete reality of the witch's work, whether it be done alone in a cottage at the edge of town, or amongst compatriots in a coven. One certainly can be a witch alone, but sometimes one wants or needs the company of like-minded persons; hence the coven, where witches may meet for esbat or sabbat to work magick, dance, feast, or get up to other varieties of No Good. The woodcuts that so many of us find so evocative often portray what could be considered a coven: rings of witches dancing in a circle, often around a sinister horned figure. The modern reality tends to look a bit different, as it's difficult to fit a 20-foot-tall goat-man into a suburban living room; and many modern covens are more celebratory and, dare I say, religious in nature, gathering more for social purposes than magickal ones. (I frankly am less concerned about what the local coven may be getting up to than what's going on at the megachurch down the way, but in terms of actual impact it's easy to see which of those entities has the advantage.) There are benefits to having a support structure like a coven, like the sense of belonging and connection that can arise from being a part of a group, of a lineage, of a tradition with a real history about it; but such connections are not strictly necessary for one to be a witch.

The ideal situation for many would be to have a coven to meet with for certain occasions or purposes, while maintaining a vigorous personal practice on an as-needed basis. I have always found this model to be most effective for me. Having a network of trustworthy fellow practitioners with whom to discuss the art is highly desirable and, in the modern age, perhaps easier than ever to come by thanks to the internet; and having others with whom to gather and do the work of the witch can be extremely satisfying and enlivening. But even covened witches should remember that their work is sometimes best done alone, free of distraction, in that secluded cottage or forest glade or living room. You can be a witch alone, or witches all together; the work, and the wisdom, are the final determinants.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

All Fly Away

Long before I'd ever heard the word "Wicca," witchcraft looked a lot like this to me (albeit sometimes rather more clothed). The image of the witch was already perfectly formed, it seemed, from the books I so voraciously read. She might be young or old, pretty or not; garbed all in black or cloaked only in the sky. She--or he, for there were male witches and sorcerers and warlocks about, as well--might have a companion in the form of a cat or a bat, a toad or an owl. Certain implements seemed to be necessary: brooms, cauldrons, staffs, knives, wands, swords. The witch might be alone, or with others--dancing in a ring, perhaps, or getting up to what was certainly no good in a forest glade beneath a shadowed moon. This was after-hours stuff, the things that went on after normal decent folk were long abed and dreaming. But was it the stuff of pure imagination, or was there something more to it?

It was disheartening and disillusioning, later on, to finally meet other witches--Real Witches, they assured me--and discover that the roots of their witchcraft seemed as firmly planted in a lascivious old man's fantasies as in anything truly occult. It was absolutely shattering to try at first to find a place in that paradigm and then, later, to escape it. There were things that I found that felt like Real Witchcraft to me--chants and spells and dances, folkloric elements with the aura of age and agelessness about them--and others that emphatically, even violently did not--the expectation of compulsory sexual behaviors and imported possessory rites for which there was no cultural framework to provide support and context. In order to be the kind of witch I wanted to be, I had to disassociate myself from that milieu, after which I could begin to examine what I had been passed, what I had been taught, what I had discovered for myself, what needed to be kept, and what could be discarded or altered. And how, at last, to be a Witch.

And so my partner and I, after well over a decade of strife and struggle, found our way to this place and this practice that we can call Classic Witchcraft. To an initiate of the many branches of traditional Wic(c)a, it will look familiar, though not without alterations that might make you uneasy; to a practitioner of the non-wiccan variety, there would certainly be recognizable elements as well. To the non-initiate, well, I hope that it would look very much like what you would imagine Witchcraft to look like, even lacking the cottage in the woods and the cauldron bubbling on the hearth. Here in the 21st century, even Classic Witches sometimes live in the city and do their conjurings in a well-equipped modern kitchen!