Category Archives: Festivals

The Nine Sacred Woods of the Need Fire

This year has been very much about me challenging my beliefs and why I do certain things. Ive been trying simultaneously to pare down my practise cutting out the unnecessary whilst also *upping my game* magically with a deeper understanding of things that I have just previously taken as the ‘truth’. Partly this is because I am teaching a lot more than I have done previously and there is nothing like new eyes to make you challenge how you understand and practise things. Partly because I feel that people should periodically examine their beliefs, practises, habits etc. It is in my opinion necessary for strong, well adjusted personal growth.

So I am sitting here on a glorious spring morning. The birds are singing and I am contemplating. This evening is May Eve or Walpurgisnacht. The beginning of Summer. Tomorrow is Beltane or Calan Mai. Quite an important festival for me but maybe not for the reasons that most people would assume. For the kindling of the Bel fire is to me representative of the kindling of the fire beneath the Cauldron of Inspiration. And it is the time when my work with Ceridwen begins. Beltane through to Samhain after all would have been the prime times for collecting herbs for a magickal brew.

This time would also coincide with the battle between Gywn Ap Nudd and Gwythyr Ap Greidol for the hand of Creiddylad. A battle that is to be fought “every May day forever from that day forth until Judgement Day”.[1. How Culhwch Won Olwen – The Mabinogion Oxford University Press] This battle is one that within my ritual landscape persists until Samhain where the balance tips back into Gwyn Ap Nudd’s favour. This tipping of the balance is the tipping/cracking of the Cauldron, the time of the ‘chase’. For within my personal and geographical ritual landscape it is easy to see the Goddess during the darker months in her many zoomorphic forms. Rushing helter skelter along with the wild hunt across the wind swept peaks of the Berwyns at the very tip of the Clwydian range, down into the Dee Valley, and onto the White Kingdom and Llyn Tegid as she runs down the boy Gwion Bach.

So Beltane and Samhain are intrinsically linked. Points in my ritual year where the veil thins, and time and reality warps. Our Gods and Goddesses change shape, events happen perpetually and simultaneously. And both points are triggered with with the kindling of a fire. This fire is often called the Bel or Need fire and it is often said that it must be kindled by Nine sacred woods. I realised I didn’t know where these nine woods came from or why it was important to use them so I thought I would have a good look around and try and uncover some sources.

The first and easiest source is of course the neo-pagan poem entitled rather erroneously as ‘The Rede of the Wiccae’. Without getting into a whole debate as to why this isn’t actually the same as the Wiccan Rede lets just take it as red that this delightful piece of popular culture has little to do with initiatory craft and move swiftly onwards. Within this poem is the following line:

“Nine woods in the Cauldron go, 
Burn them fast and burn them slow.”

After which nine of the Ogham woods are listed. But as this poem dates probably no earlier than the 1970’s I thought I would try and find other provenance for the nine sacred woods. The Cad Goddeu (or Battle of the Trees) which in its written form  dates from somewhere around the 9th-10th century does mention nine trees, or forms related to the creation of the flower maiden Blodeuedd by Math and Gwydion. [2. Kat Goddeu – Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin CMCS Aberystwyth] But it also lists many more than nine during the actual battle part of the poem. So whilst the imagery of the flower maiden is a very fitting ritual motif for the folk practise of bringing in the May, it doesn’t really enlighten us any further as to the origins of the sacred woods.

The following poem attributed to Ossian a legendary Irish bard provides us with many woods, some of which have explicit instructions not to burn. The remaining woods either come with warnings, an explanation of their qualities or an explicit instruction to burn. This curiously leaves us with Nine woods. Being Rowan, Briar, Alder, Whitethorn, Birch, Aspen, Ash, Holly & Yew.  Not all of these choices are ones that automatically spring to mind as part of a Bel or Need fire.

O Man that for Fergus of the feasts dost kindle fire,
Whether afloat or ashore burn not the king of woods.

Monarch of Innisfail’s forests the woodbine is, whom none may hold captive;
No feeble sovereign’s effort is it to hug all tough trees in his embrace.

i>The pliant woodbine if thou burn, wailings for mis-fortune will abound,
Dire extremity at weapons’ points or drowning in great waves will follow.

Burn not the precious apple-tree of spreading and low-sweeping bough ;
Tree ever decked in bloom of white, against whose fair head all men put forth the hand.

The surly blackthorn is a wanderer, a wood that the artificer burns not ;
Throughout his body, though it be scanty, birds in their flocks warble.

The noble willow burn not, a tree sacred to poems ;
Within his bloom bees are a-sucking, all love the little cage.

The graceful tree with the berries, the wizard’s tree, the rowan, burn;
But spare the limber tree ; burn not the slender hazel.

Dark is the colour of the ash ; timber that makes the wheels to go;
Rods he furnishes for horsemen’s hands, his form turns battle into flight.

Tenterhook among woods the spiteful briar is, burn him that is so keen and green ;
He cuts, he flays the foot, him that would advance he forcibly drags backward.

Fiercest heat-giver of all timber is green oak, from him none may escape unhurt ;
By partiality for him the head is set on aching, and by his acrid embers the eye is made sore.

Alder, very battle-witch of all woods, tree that is hottest in the fight
Undoubtedly burn at thy discretion both the alder and whitethorn.

Holly, burn it green ; holly, burn it dry ;
Of all trees whatsoever the critically best is holly.

Elder that hath tough bark, tree that in truth hurts sore;
Him that furnishes horses to the armies from the sidh burn so that he be charred.

The birch as well, if he be laid low, promises abiding fortune ;
Burn up most sure and certainly the stalks that bear the constant pods.

Suffer, if it so please thee, the russet aspen to come head-long down ;
Burn, be it late or early, the tree with the palsied branch.

Patriarch of long-lasting woods is the yew, sacred to feasts, as is well-known ;
Of him now build ye dark-red vats of goodly size.

Ferdedh, thou faithful one, wouldst thou but do my behest :
To thy soul as to thy body, O man, ‘twould work advantage. [3. Song of the Forest Trees – The Poem Book of Gael]

A Scottish poem which can be found in the Carmina Gadelica [4. Carmina Gadelica – A compendium of folklore and prayers and poetry from the late 19th & early 20th century.] provides eight woods under the title “Choice of timber”. This list only has a few commonalities with the earlier list however, which isn’t very helpful. However the ‘feel’ of the poem certainly feels more magical.

Choose the Willow of the streams
Choose the hazel of the rocks
Choose the Alder of the marshes
Choose the birch of the waterfalls

Choose the Ash of the Shade
Choose the Yew of resilience
Choose the Elm of the brae
Choose the Oak of the Sun

Academia is ominously quiet about the components of the Need or Bel fire. However Professor Ronald Hutton mentions it in Stations of the Sun calling it the tein-eigin and goes to some length as to how various methods were used to kindle the fire. He also provides an excellent description from Marie Trevelyan in Glamorgan in the 1830s who stated that:

“Nine men would turn their pockets inside out, and see that every piece of money and all metals were off their persons. Then the men went into the nearest wood and collected sticks of nine different trees. These were carried to the spot where the fire had to be built. There a circle was cut in the sod and the sticks were set crosswise. All around the circle the people stood and watched the proceedings. One of the men would then take two bits of oak, and rub them together until a flame was kindled.” [5. Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (p. 221). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.]

Professor Hutton is however dubious about the ancient provenance of the practise and provides no further evidence as to the composition of the fire itself other than it was “ of nine different trees”.  Which to be frank is a little frustrating as it leads me to believe that this may be somewhat of a modern practise. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is bad or that we should discard it. I have spoken at length about the worth of modern festivals before (you can read it here). But what it does mean is that perhaps we do not necessarily need to enslave ourselves to the commonly accepted ideas either.

Therefore as I rather like the Seven of the Eight woods described in the “Choice of timber poem” I will happily include them in my Bel fire, however with the scarcity now of Elm I would probably exclude that wood in favour of Holly and as my Bel fire is just that, a Beltane fire, I would of course include Hawthorn.

The Eternal Flame of Bride

The weather has been quite literally foul today, I drove through snow, thunder and lightning all at the same time. Whilst walking between buildings I stopped to enjoy the sunshine whilst being pelted with hail. Much to the amusement of my work colleagues. Truly a day of change. And according to some folk lore, if Brides Eve is fair then the Callieach will venture out for some time to come. But if the weather is foul, the. spring is just round the corner. So if my day was anything to judge, I’m hoping for a balmy Saint David’s day.

My Imbolc this year could not be any more different if it tried. 12 months ago found me in a quiet woodland grove in silent contemplation on a cold, crisp and very much still winters night. I contemplated the nature of The Goddess and the lessons (and gifts) she had for me. This year I find myself early to bed, a wondrous weekend of magic and transformation ahead of me, and a beautiful afternoon of snowdrops and cleansing ritual behind me. A time of new beginnings, I stand on the cusp of a time of change which like an enchantress tempts me forward.

It’s fair to say Bride has been a quiet but constant companion for me this year, she shares many of the same traits as other deities I work with such as Hekate and Ceridwen, so it’s not very surprising. She has province over flame, and Water, of healing and of transformation. She is a fierce protectress for those she names as her own. But isn’t above also teaching strict lessons to those who fail to heed her words and gifts. So to honour her I thought I would share this prayer of protection from the Carmina Gaedelica by Alexander Carmichael a folklorist from the 19th Century. Although the contents of this work often has much older providence. I have adapted it somewhat to make it slightly less Christian but believe it keeps its essence beautifully. A truly powerful prayer indeed.

Adapted from a Traditional Scottish Gaelic Supplication of Saint Brigit

Brigit of the mantles,

Brigit of the peat-heap,

Brigit of the twining hair,

Brigit of the augury.

Brigit of the white feet,

Brigit of the calmness,

Brigit of the white palms,

Brigit of the kine.

Brigit, woman-comrade,

Brigit of the peat-heap,

Brigit, woman-helper,

Brigit, woman mild.

Brigit, Goddess of the Well,

Brigit, Nurse of infant child,

Each day and each night

That I say the Descent of Brigit,

I shall not be slain,

I shall not be wounded

I shall not be gashed,

I shall not be torn asunder,

I shall not be despoiled

I shall not be down-trodden

I shall not be made naked,

I shall not be rent

Nor will the Goddess Brigit forsake me

Nor sun shall burn me,

Nor fire shall burn me,

Nor beam shall burn me,

Nor moon shall burn me.

Nor river shall drown me,

Nor brine shall drown me,

Nor flood shall drown me,

Nor water shall drown me.

Nightmare shall not lie on me,

Black sleep shall not lie on me

Spell sleep shall not lie on me,

Nor will the Goddess Brigit forsake me

For I am under the keeping of the Eternal Flame of Bride

And So the Wheel of Hekate slowly turns

LoI think it’s fair to say that this years Perseid celebrations were quiet for me. I celebrated a small rite with a group of friends and used the ritual to clear out some baggage that I’ve been carrying around this past year which was phenomenally cathartic. This year has seen some massive changes both personally and professionally. What with resigning from the Covenant of Hekate and starting my own business.

Despite it being low key I have been blown away by the energy of the last few weeks. I can only attribute that to the sheer quantity of Hekate devotees who now celebrate either the Perseids, the new Hekatesia on the 13th, or Nemoralia (The festival of torches) on the full moon just past. I sat in the dark late yesterday evening watching a golden glowing orb rise into the night sky. A fire burnt at my feet, I listened to the sound of the waves gently breaking just a couple of metres away. And I was quite literally filled with bliss, a sense of rightness and calm. A completion of a cycle. The wheel of Hekate has once again turned.

This completion couldn’t have been made more clear when I woke this morning, our glorious summer weather has turned. It’s still fairly warm, but now it’s blustery and rainy. We still have hope for more spells of warm; but it’s now that season where with every squall the returning fair weather will be each time just that little bit cooler. Then before we know it Autumn will be upon us. Listening to the wind blowing in the trees outside my bedroom window made me think about Hekate and the weather. She must have had some control over it, for she was purported to help sailors to bring in a good catch and that can be very weather dependent. But for the life of me I cannot bring to mind any specific references. Or even a grasp of how the ancient Greeks understood *weather*.

I have a grasp of their calendar systems, their seasons, even their notion of the winds. But they are quite a tract concepts aren’t they? I think I feel a project coming on.

And in the absence of facts…..Modern Festivals to Hekate

If there is one subject that is guaranteed to get some folks hot under the collar it has to be the trend of celebrating thoroughly modern and historically inaccurate festivals. It is a practise that until just a few years ago I disagreed with quite vehemently. Looking back now it is fair to say that in the early days of writing Temple of Hekate I felt that it was very important that people understood how the ancient Attic calendar really worked and wrote upon it at some length. Although those pages didn’t make the editorial cuts I felt strongly enough about it that at a later date I posted a blog entry so the details were available for all to see. This opinion hasn’t been a passing fad either, but as I stated when I discussed the Deipnon way back in 2009 and is worthy of repeating, I am not a reconstructionist, far from it. But I was and still am very heavily invested in debunking some of the more common “myths” that I had stumbled over myself in my early days of research and practise, so I tended to shy away from the modern, the unverified, and the inaccurate.

I’ve done some perspective changing since that time, quite surprisingly so. I think the first inkling of the change was when we realised that Her Sacred Fires was here to stay. Now hurtling towards its 7th anniversary and showing no signs of slowing down we appear to have created a thoroughly modern festival enjoyed by thousands. And this isn’t the only one. August the 13th is another, a modern date fixed as the result of a mis-understanding of how the Attic calendar worked, but it has grown and swollen and truly become a thing, a world-wide thing. A thing that people can get behind, work together with, create and share and laugh and love. How can this thing be bad?

Furthermore we have literally just celebrated Hekate’s Day on the 16th of November in The Sanctuary of Hekate Enodia. When Mima, my friend and CoH Torchbearer who co-runs the Sanctuary with me suggested we do something to mark the date I nearly fell off my chair. This festival doesn’t even have the dubious honour of being a festival that once existed and got dumped into a modern calendar. This festival has, as far as I am aware, no historical precedence whatsoever. In fact it is the epitome of everything I hate about modern practise, a new thing pretending to be something old. And then it hit me, it’s not the celebration that I hate, in fact I love a good excuse for our Sanctuary to come together and do work. It is the belief that it dates back to some long ago historical practise that fills me with dread.

So we put up some information regarding the provenance of the festival and ahead we went. And all I can say was that the connection between some of the group was quite startling. We were all working remotely but the imagery shared was so similar. So similar that I had to feel that we were getting nothing less than a resounding stamp of approval for our actions and the work and effort we have all been putting in recently. We certainly shall be celebrating this date again, along with Her Sacred Fires and August 13th (which traditionally is the Roman festival Nemoralia and the ill dated Festival of Kourotrophos, Artemis and Hekate – which should actually be celebrated on 16 Metageitnion but let’s not split hairs). At the end of the day the religion of the Greeks and Romans and many others was fluid, it grew and changed and was subject to regional variations. Somethings were adopted, others allowed to pass into memory only, some lost to the ages. If we fail to recognise that then we fall into dogma and fundamentalism. An ethos I decided I did not agree with a long long time ago.

So we shall celebrate these rites, knowing their true nature we shall perform them anyway. We shall lift our heads proudly and say, we created this in honour of the Goddess Hekate, we honour you just as our ancestors did but in times and climes appropriate to us.

En Erebos Phos!