Category Archives: Fae & Folklore

Hammer of the Witches – honouring the past

I cannot remember the first time I became enchanted with the idea of the “other” being real. I often tell the story of the fairies at the play park when I talk about my connection with the Fae but when I take time to examine it (as I have done very recently), there is a sense that my relationship began as a combination of factors rather than one pivotal moment. I grew up in a home filled with fantasy and science fiction in a time when fantasy and fiction weren’t really mainstream reading material. The Sci Fi section in both WH Smiths and the local library rarely extended beyond one or two shelves on a bookcase, but my dad and I could spend hours together choosing our books, it was our special time, sacred. I blame my dear old dad for my love of books and my reading tastes because of it; in my teens when my friends were completely hooked on Sweet Valley High, I was memorising the “Litany Against Fear”.*

I suspect I read hundreds of books growing up, although I never counted. There was one summer break where a friend’s mother handed me several carrier bags with about 40 books contained inside, mostly historical romances. I took to my bed to read, only rising to eat, relieve myself, and occasionally shower. I was a teenager and a filthy mutt, please don’t judge. There I stayed for the entire 6 weeks, the unread stack on one side of the bed slowly shrinking and read side growing. My parents despaired, but at least I wasn’t out getting into trouble somewhere, so they mostly suffered my withdrawal from the world. 

Despite my voracious appetite some books stuck rather than fading into the morass, one book from my childhood stood out for me over and above all others, so clearly that even decades later as I was writing Urban Faery Magick it became a bit of an obsession. I purchased a copy and it sat on my desk throughout the entire process. It was often the book I reached for if I wanted to relax, to tune out and escape the world. Guess what? its a fairy story and a really jolly good one too. It’s the story of two Cornish children and their family and what happens when they find and take a Changeling into their home. Its filled with little snippets of lore wrapped up in a children’s tale, its funny, its heart warming and its so sad that it’s haunting. I am convinced that had I not read that book as an impressionable young child I would not be interested in the subjects I study and write about today. A work of fiction is responsible for and has informed my practise, gasp horror! Never again will I roll my eyes at the “Mists of Avalon” brigade.

BTW – If you’re interested the book is called “A Year and a Day” by William Mayne, it’s a little dated, but an enchanting read so if you happen upon a copy somewhere grab it, it won’t take you more than a hour, two tops.

Why am I writing about this today? Well today I was accused of being evil because I have read (and recommended that someone else read) the Malleus Maleficarum. In fairness it is a document written by a religious zealot who was so vile that he was in essence single handedly responsible for the majority of deaths during what we now call the “Burning Times”. This was a time in history when somewhere between 60 and 90 thousand women, and more than a few men across Europe and the Americas were accused of witchcraft and/or heresy and then put to death. In some countries this was by burning, but it was just as common to be strangled or hung or both! Some excitable folks have suggested that it was 100’s of thousands or even millions but the academic evidence does not support this, the numbers however are horrific enough without the exaggeration so I don’t want to detract from what happened. That is not the purpose of this post.

Despite its awful history, the Malleus Maleficarum and subsequent documents such as James I’s Daemonologie give us a unique insight into the world during that period and like it or not, in books like these we can see little snippets of magical practises used even today.  Sorry folks, I know it’s uncomfortable, but forget Crowley, there’s demons and witch hunters in your Wicca! and you know what, that’s absolutely OK, because if we stop examining our history, if we stop taking what works from it and refining it, then we are bound to make the same mistakes in our future – we become stagnant.

If we declare a book or a set of teachings wholly fictional or worse still wholly evil then that is the path we are destined to tread, one of wilful ignorance doomed to repeat history time and time again. Instead if we read, and learn about history from all angles in an objective manner we can see how to move forward. From there we can innovate, improve and help others do the same. No book is evil, regardless of how distasteful it is. A book does not have a morality in and of itself, after all they just contain words, the morality comes from those who read it and how they act upon the words inside. Books aren’t evil, people are, and sticking your fingers in your ears and pretending that they never existed it foolish at best, and at worst downright disrespectful to those who suffered as a result. You want to be a “witch”, then learn what it meant to be accused of being a witch, learn what you were supposed to be able to do (you might be surprised) and honour the poor souls who passed by ensuring you are informed enough to never let it happen again!

  

* “I must not fear, fear is the mind-killer, fear is the little death that brings total obliteration, I will face my fear, I will permit it to pass over me and through me, and when it has gone past, I will turn my inner eye to see its path, where the fear has gone there will be nothing, only I shall remain” – The Litany Against Fear, Frank Herbert Dune. That is some deep shizzle right there, but I  might talk about that on another day.

When the Wheel falls off your year!

I laid in bed this morning sometime after dawn, the birds were singing, the dog was quietly snoring and for the second year in a row I realised that I hadn’t crawled out of bed at some ungodly hour to greet the sun. Not that it’s really that sunny here at the moment, the weather quite predictably for mid June is warm, muggy, plenty of thunderstorms and overnight rain, but often quite overcast.

I’ve been contemplating my apparent ritual apathy for a while, last year I wrote at length as to how you can use Solstice to connect to the Fae and it struck me this morning that I had shared a very personal solitary rite, not a group affair, and I realised how it was indicative of my current personal mindset. It’s really easy to blame Covid and three lockdowns, but the reality is though that the wheel has fallen off my year, I think I’ve been missing a wheel on my wagon for sometime now and surprisingly I feel ok with that. I don’t think it’s heresy to not celebrate the wheel of the year (all or part) and I do think you can still call yourself Pagan (if that is what floats your boat) if you don’t adhere to an agrarian based ritual construct.

Ritual is really important, it is what gives us meaning and comfort and the ability to cope when life throws us a curve-ball. Patterns and certainties sustain us, as humans we look for them all the time to explain how we think, how we feel, what we believe. Group ritual based upon those patterns, something that I normally deeply crave, is a way for community to draw together to celebrate life’s cycles, births, deaths and marriages, successes and failures. It bonds us in shared experience, shared tears, shared laughter. In short, ritual IS magic. That is the biggest mystery of all and unless you experience it, you will never know it.

So how do I reconcile this? I work within two traditions that have a heavy ritual focus that hangs quite literally upon the wheel of the year, Druidry and Initiatory Wicca.

Its OK to use another pattern!
Image by Avi Chomotovski from Pixabay

Until now I haven’t. I’ve skipped sleep or dragged myself out of my bed to drive to a cold dark field to “do ritual” more often than not for other people. I’ve opened my home time and time again, cooking and cleaning, preparing space for people to celebrate, and clearing up after, because “community right?”. I’ve waxed lyrical for years saying this is what it means to be “priesthood” and I still believe that to be true, don’t call yourself a priest or priestess unless you are willing to serve. If you want to do it like the ancestors then you need to accept that the Shaman was as hobbled as the Blacksmith, tied to a community they had no choice but to serve. 

So how am I ok with not celebrating the wheel if I believe this? Because at the end of the day the Wheel is just a pattern, one that most people can get behind, they can see the changing season, they can experience the biting cold of the longest night, the may blossom scented joy of that first warm night outdoors with a bonfire, the sensation of the wild hunt chasing at their heels as the nights draw in and the leaves scurry around their ankles. They make sense, until they don’t. Because the wheel of the year isn’t the only pattern and if you or your community find a pattern that works better for you then you would be foolish not to use it. Don’t tie yourself to a man made construct just because.

My own practise for now seems to be moving closer and closer to a pattern that loosely follows the lesser Sabbats and for some time the irony of Solar and very masculine worship somehow taking the forefront in Pagan practise hasn’t escaped me. Everything in its balance though and there is the ‘gotcha’ I’ve still lit a candle, I’ve still chosen a solar incense for my altar this morning. I have still acknowledged the pattern and both given and drawn energy from it. Maybe because I’m not quite ready to go full on heretic and divorce myself completely from what is now quite a powerful egregore. Or am I? Maybe now is the time? Do I have a better pattern? Do you?

 

I do believe in Flower Fairies

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Arthur Rackham

For many of us our first encounter with the kingdom of fairy is as a child. Girls in particular seem to get targeted with a whole range of books, toys, and clothing featuring fairies. My daughter drove me mad collecting the Rainbow Magic series when she first started reading, with such heroines as Poppy the Piano Fairy, Scarlett the Garnet Fairy and Olivia the Orchid Fairy. This isn’t a new idea either over 80 years ago illustrators such as Cicley Mary Barker and Arthur Rackham were creating delightful images of tiny fae that were associated with the seasons, trees, sacred sites, fruits and flowers. And the images they created found themselves into collections of fairy tales, play manuscripts, children’s television programs, films and books. In a bizarre way the western world has been indoctrinating their children to have an animistic world-view for over a century and not even realising it. Which secretly I find rather excellent.

The concept of a fairy or spirit being associated with a particular plant has a bit of a spotted history. The new age movement is much taken with the idea of “Plant Deva” divine spirits also known as ’shining ones’. These are connected or possibly the actual essence of each living thing. My researches seem to suggest that this name was probably first broached by the Theosophist Geoffrey Hodson but whilst the use of the old sanskrit word Deva maybe a little dubious, the idea is sound. Most of the Shamanic Cultures (North and South) have a long history of working with spirits of particular plants, rocks, and stones etc. But are they Fae? My considered opinion is yes they are, for once you work with them their sentience shines through loud and clear.

I am not a herbalist, or even a very competent amateur and cannot imagine a time where I would ever be, it’s not really my thing. But on a nature walk I’m pretty good at identifying different trees, plants and flowers and there are times when a particular plant will jump out at me. I remember the first time I consciously examined and took notice of the Blackthorn, it was like a presence inside it spoke to me. Before it was a tree that I just about recognised in late Autumn when the sloes were ready to be harvested. Because there is nothing like a good homemade Sloe Gin at Yule so picking the fruit had a purpose. I am all about purpose. However, afterwards even in winter I could even recognise the bare wood. I’d walk down paths I’d walked a hundred times before and be shocked to realise that the hedgerow was primarily Blackthorn, at times I would dream of those trees and a humanoid spirit with violet eyes and no sclera would peer at me through the branches. When I had need of a sturdy walking stick it was a Blackthorn cane I automatically picked out of a bundle at a village fair. In later years Blackthorn would come to me in my dreams, one memorable time to warn me of the destruction of the ancient hedge near where I was living. Blackthorn wasn’t and isn’t just an essence, it is a sentient tangible entity. Akin to a Dryad.

And Blackthorn isn’t the only one. Scarlet Pimpernel works with me often in the summer months. I remember being enchanted when I saw these tiny delicate orangey flowers with a deep crimson centre. So petite it’s easy to miss them, it foretells of good times and bad. Once known as “Old Man’s Weather vane” its little flowers close in foul weather, Ive come to realise that this little plant spirit most often reveals itself to me when there is a promise of good things to come. Turning up unexpectedly in unlikely locations on a memorable day, I always take note of what Pimpernel has to say.

It’s really easy to connect with these Plant Fae. If you can plant them then do, watch them and learn from them, talk to them, meditate with them, cook with them and bathe with them even, assuming that’s appropriate. The more you assimilate the physical plant the easier it is to connect to the Fae who are attached to them. And I specifically use the word attached because  it is definitely a case of individual spirits of a particular species that belong to that specific plant. But once you’ve made connection with one, it’s a lot easier to make connection with others. Like learning French from a native speaker and then going to visit France. Makes communicating so much more simple.

It’s not totally necessary to understand its medicinal purpose or the folklore associated with it the plant, but I do find that it helps to understand the nature of what this “Shining One” is trying to say or it will suddenly make that initial connection easy.  Currently my latest stalker plant is Black Nightshade. I came across a patch whilst playing a scavenger hunt in central London some weeks back and its been stalking me ever since, appearing in places I’ve walked and worked for years and I know I have never noticed this plant before. Its season is nearly over, but still I am finding it in flower in all sorts of places so I always stop and acknowledge it. Gently touch a flower or leaf and ponder why it is that I am only now noticing its presence. I can’t wait to find out what this little creature has to teach me about the Otherworld and myself.

A Sense of the Sacred

Ive just spent a lovely half hour walking my mothers dog. We wandered down to the pebbly beach and I collected hagstones, an item of great worth in my work with the fae. It’s an amazing beach, it is probably one of the most bountiful in its provision of holed and unusual stones that I have ever come across. Just a few minutes will yield a pocket full of stones. Most of which I return at the end of my stay. Although sometimes, just sometimes the odd one makes it way permanently into my life. It’s a very special place, its seen me snuggled under a duvet watching the stars with what was then my soon to be husband. It comforted me as I howled at the moon whilst grieving the loss of my father. It welcomed my small daughter summer after summer, watching her grow into a strong and independent woman. In short, it is personally one of the most sacred places in the world as far as I am concerned.

Sacred doesn’t have to mean a long archeological provenance. It neednt be a place of worship. Nor do the Ancestors, Guardians, Old or Mighty Ones have to be involved. No magickal beings have to be in evidence. Although in reality I tend to find they seem to crawl out of the woodwork (quite literally) once you acknowledge the hallowed nature of a place. It’s actually why I tend not to cast a circle at all outdoors. I don’t banish. I work in harmony with the energies of the place. It’s why choosing your ritual locations is quite important. Picking a spot because its easy to get to, infamous or just because you are curious about it isnt’ always going to give you the results you expect.

I live within a 40 minute drive of the near legendary Alderley Edge, well known by certain initiatory Wiccans and practitioners of several Trad craft lineages. Ive tried working formal magick there. Normally with others who think it would be really cool “Coz witches do stuff there” ! Ive stood back as they have cast a circle or bellowed out an LBRP*. And Ive felt the place close down, it feels thick and muddy, and I can sense this treacle like sensation spread out into the woods which then fall eerily silent and still. But equally I have sat very quietly against the trunk of one of the giant beech trees that line the route to Stormy Point. Letting the darkness creep in around me. Ive listened to people congregating at the Druids circle totally oblivious to the Magick (and the magickal people) going on around them. Ive regularly seen a Goat like figure wander along the pathways. Stop to observe me, bow its head in acknowledgement before silently moving on. At that moment the whole place is overwhelmingly sacred. But because I am in communion with it.

This doesn’t mean that you cannot practise formal ritual in chosen places of power. It means that a relationship has to be built. Permission has to be given. Experiences shared. My beach has seen me invoking the planetary powers, at sunset and sunrise. Long formal Orphic hymns used as the invocations. A circle scratched in the sand with the planetary symbols etched around its circumference. A rite of balancing and growth. Considering the history I have with the place it was the ‘only’ location right for the ritual. The Ocean has silently observed my passing years. Whilst to it my existence is but a blink of an eye, it knows me, it knows my energy. And that is the key.

*Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram

When is a Fairy not a Fairy

The Lampades are underworld nymphs in Greek mythology. They are nocturnal and are recorded as accompanying Hekate in her night time travels. They are also closely linked to the rites of Demeter at Eleusis and so play a part in the initiatory process. It was probably this early connection with nature spirits that eventually led Hekate to be named as a leader of the fairies hoards in Shakespeares play.

And we fairies that do run, by the triple Hekate’s team, from the presence of the sun, following darkness like a dream.

– A Midsummmer-night’s Dream Act 5 Scene II

And it is probably Hekate’s guiding hand that first had me wandering through nocturnal landscapes in search of “the other”. Although in truth, all night time shenanigans and tom foolery is now entirely of my own fault, no deity blaming required. And in the last 6 months or so I’ve been doing quite a lot. Anyway, I’ve been out 3 of the last 4 nights either on my own or with friends and on each occasion there have been energies present to sense. And it would be very easy to always say that what we were experiencing was “Faeries”. But its not always the case and I figured that my insights and those of my friends were worth sharing.

Sunday saw me out with my friend Mark on an interesting guided walk facilitated by Northern Earth Walks. We heard about some of the more strange and unusual occurrences in Todmorden’s recent history including a lucky dog, UFO’s, a grizzly murder that could have been the inspiration for the game of Cluedo and to our delight the story of Old Scraper, a supernatural being who wandered a certain track upon on the ridge above the town. He was said to appear to any who raised a tool aloft. There was nothing for it. It was going to have to be investigated. So despite lacking tools bigger than penknives we headed up an increasingly steep and muddy track in hot pursuit of our quarry.

A View of Todmorden from Old Scraper’s Lair

The view at the top was pretty spectacular and as we walked we certainly sensed a number of things, but not all the same. In fact it appeared that two distinct sensations were present. And after some thought and discussion it was surmised that Old Scraper was probably neither entirely ghost nor fae, but something older belonging to the land, a guardian of a barrow or other sacred space long lost and forgotten. Left for potentially millennia he had taken on aspects of the elementals around him. Fed off the energy of the folklore surrounding him. Becoming part thought-form, part landscape, a hybrid, and as a result he had survived. I suppose the clue that he wasn’t entirely fae was in the manner in which he was to be summoned. With tools! It’s a pretty well known fact that most of the Fae aren’t so keen on iron, So you can be pretty sure that your average common or garden fairy wouldn’t have come within a million miles of somebody brandishing a ferrous object.

This blending is not an uncommon occurrence, particularly when the realms of mankind and faerie meet and is something I discuss in some detail in my upcoming book, Spirits in a Broken Land. But it isn’t the only time that a feeling or sensation is something other than unadulterated fair folk making you feel a little uncomfortable. Much has been written of late regarding the theory that the trees can, and do communicate with each other. As a result I am now starting to suspect that it goes much further than that. A mere 24 hours after my escapades in the woods, I found myself on the glorious Formby beach with my friend Brian. The evening was almost balmy for a January night and being the little creature of water that I am, I threw caution to the non existent wind and went wading far deeper than was probably wise. After a lovely warming cuppa to recover from my little splash about, we decided to take a wander into the woodland that borders the spectacular sand dunes.

As we walked into the woods the scent of fox was fairly overwhelming and at least one dog fox could be heard barking somewhere in the darkness in front of us. A three way crossroad lay before us. Which way to go, how would we decide? Left, we would go left. And the smell of fox grew stronger. Its that time of year, they are finding their mates and doing what all good foxes do to ensure that little fox cubs are brought into this world.  But as we progressed a feel of unease fell upon us. Brian asked if I had noticed it. And indeed I had, a feeling like we weren’t wanted there. Which was strange as the woods had felt so calm and serene as we had walked down to the beach only and hour earlier. We debated what might have happened to change the feeling so drastically. We had seen two cars come streaking down the track towards the squirrel reserve only to turn round quickly when they saw us. Up to no good I suspect. But then it hit me, we would disturb the foxes, we were being warned away by the very place itself so as to protect the privacy of the woodland inhabitants. This was no malevolent fae, but a living breathing woodland caring for its inhabitants. How wonderful!

So it got me thinking. How often when we walk, we have these sensations and we always just give it the title of fairy or spirit of place. How inadequate these titles are, when sometimes its both more and less. Sometimes its so phenomenally mind blowing that you cannot help but believe that there is sentience and divinity in every atom of the world around us. So next time you go out walking. It doesn’t have to be in the dark, any time of day will do, just take a moment when that sense of otherness over comes you. Really sense it. Look at the landscape you are in, ask aloud for it’s story. Ask, is it really a fairy?