When Faeries Are Near

Ever get the feeling you’re being watched? Perhaps you’ve lost a favourite earring – and find it somewhere unexpected, or you spy an orb of light from the corner of your eye. You might just be in the presence – usually a benevolent, playful one – of a Faerie. Here are some signs that you’ve been visited by one of the Wee Folk:

If you encounter a complete ring of toadstools, you’ve discovered the place where faeries danced the night before. You also may have stumbled upon a portal from their realm to ours, so beware! You may be whisked away to the Land of the Fae for many years should you enter the circle!

The scent of violets in the spring, sweetgrass in summer, autumn apples or petrichor any time of year is the beguiling aroma of faerie perfume. (What’s petrichor? you ask. Some people says it’s the distinctive smell of raindrops hitting dry earth, but we know better.)

A softly-chiming bell announces the presence of the Wee Folk. That’s why I like to wear one of those chiming necklaces to call them to me; it is also thought that gently ringing a bell over a spring or pond will attract them. Take care, however, for a loud peal or gong will scare the magickal ones away!

An eddy of blowing leaves or a sudden breeze that lifts the hair from the back of your neck is caused by the fluttering of faerie wings. An unexplained, gentle whirlwind may just be a sign that the faerie nearby likes your company.

Faeries love music and dancing (see above). Have you ever heard faint, ethereal music emanating from a source that you just can’t track down? That’s the faerie Hit Parade!

If a crow or raven follows you, you have an escort sent by the faeries. But lo! Should the bird call thrice, it is a harbinger of certain death!

Faeries are irresistibly attracted to small, shiny objects, and they will steal them if they can. We once had a beautiful antique crackled blue glass marble that we left deep in the forest for the Fae to use as a gazing ball. The next morning, it was gone! If you tend to “lose” your keys, jewellery or spare change, you’re not becoming forgetful – the faeries have spirited them away. Be kind to them, and they will (almost) always bring your lost treasures back.

When you encounter a tree with an “eye”, which appears at first glance to be a hollowed-out knot, it is a type of magickal security camera. In other words, the Wee Folk are watching you.

Do you sometimes see what you think are fireflies in June? Those twinkling luminescent orbs over the meadow or amongst the trees aren’t insects at all; they are actually tiny, portable faerie lanterns! Similarly, the little folk use pearly white Indian Pipes (Monotropa uniflora, shown), also known as ghost pipes, to light their way through the darkest woods.

When plants sprout and flowers bloom in strange places (e.g. from the asphalt of a parking lot, between cracks in a wall), you’ll know that they were sown there by a sprinkling of faerie dust. The fact that a tree can flourish from the side of a sheer cliff, or a mushroom appears or a flower blooms when there was no plant there hours before is proof of High Magick, indeed!

There are many species of faerie which vary in size and appearance. The smallest ones like to use dragonflies and bumblebees or even small wrens or sparrows as transport. A Faerie Queene will always use a hummingbird as her jewel-studded Royal Coach.

Faeries also love a good feast (and they’ll raid your larder if you’re not careful). But that’s a story for another day!


Five-pointed Protection

A small pentagram made from reclaimed pine branches

The pentagram (or pentacle, if it is surrounded by a circle) is an ancient symbol which has been used by many cultures and belief systems. It is a positive symbol of light and love, nature, connectedness and good, white magick. Its five points represent north, south, east, west and the spirit (the topmost point) as well as the four elements (earth, air, fire and water) and life energy. In some cultures, the points represent wood, earth, water, fire and metal.

Used as a talisman or amulet, the pentagram is thought to protect the wearer and banish negative energies. Some believe that the material the symbol is made from further enhances its power. A silver pentacle, for example, might be associated with the Moon; a gold one is linked to energy and mental clarity.

I made this large 10-inch pentagram of juniper, one of my favourite woods. Tied securely with twine, it protects my bedroom at our cottage.

Pentagrams fashioned from wood evoke the natural world. They are easy to make using branches reclaimed from the forest floor or your garden. I took a ramble through the little wood at our island cottage and gathered species with ancient Celtic meaning:

A 5-inch red pine pentagram

Cedar – arborvitae, or the Tree of Life; protection from harm
Pine – hardiness; purification
Juniper – to attract love and discourage thieves
Oak – the King of Trees; protection, strength, success and stability

I built the rustic pentagrams starting from the bottom left point – the way you’d draw a five-pointed star without lifting your pencil from the paper. Each of the five sticks is laid one atop the other, with each juncture tied tightly with string or twine. There’s no need to use glue or nails – just keep readjusting as you work until you get a pleasing shape. (It might help to have someone hold the pentagram while you wrap and tie.) Tie three more times where the sticks cross in the centre to completely secure the structure.

This 6-inch pentagram is made from gnarled old cedarwood, the Tree of Life.

The pentagrams can be placed anywhere you wish for security or protection, or to evoke magick. The largest one shown here hangs on a wall inside the cottage as a house blessing. I placed the four smaller pentagrams in the same species of tree from which they were made (for double the magick). Ranged along the lakeshore to the north, south, east and west, they serve as the property’s protective guardians.

A pentagram of hardy oak stands guard over the southern shore.


Just sneaking in under the wire for this week’s One-a-week Photo Challenge!

The week’s prompt has been Shadow. Of course, I couldn’t take that literally, so here’s my interpretation based on a Book of Shadows. This one happens to be a chapter heading from the wonderful Solitary Witch: The Ultimate Book of Shadows for the New Generation by Silver RavenWolf, whose many talents include a blog here on WordPress.

Many of the objects in my photo have appeared in previous posts, particularly those of October 2016, so this image also represents shadows of things past!

Thanks to nanacathydotcom and Wild Daffodil for this challenge. I’m looking forward to the next prompt, Rust!

Ill Humours & Old Medicine

dsc_3166-6In medieval Europe, herbalism and medicine were practiced chiefly by monks, barber surgeons and village wise women. These healers would base their treatments on what they saw in nature; they’d note the plants that animals ate and the effects the plants had, and would then use the same ones on their patients. Sometimes plants would be used to treat the body part they resembled, or would be chosen for the warming or cooling effect they were thought to have on the body’s constitution. Charms, curses and counter-curses were also important tools of the trade! Monasteries maintained charitable healing centres where folk could come for their cures; herbs commonly found in infirmary gardens included betony, chamomile, comfrey, dill, hyssop, lavender, rue and sage.

If you were living in, say, 12th century England, you would most likely be familiar with the following ailments, as well as their remedies and the people who administered them. (Hark! If squoodgy things make your tum-tums go weak as water, read no further.)

Ague:  Fever and chills

Barber Surgeon:  Trained in monasteries, barber surgeons looked after soldiers during and after battle, and were expected to do everything from cutting hair, giving enemas and pulling teeth to bloodletting, setting broken bones, amputating limbs and other surgeries. Talk about multitasking!

Bloodletting:  3,000-year-old medical procedure still in use today. In the past, patients would be bled from various parts of the body to regulate the humours [See Humours] and “cure” their disease. Unfortunately, this procedure weakened the patient and encouraged infection, and patients sometimes died not from their malady but from the therapy itself. (Charles II and George Washington are famous victims; Washington, suffering from a throat infection, was drained of 3 litres of blood in less than 10 hours and died the next day.) Modern bloodletting is known as therapeutic phlebotomy and is used in western medicine to treat conditions requiring the reduction of the number of blood cells. See Scarification.

Botch:  A bump or sore on the body

Bubo(e):  Also known as gavocciolo, a swelling of the lymph nodes in the groin, armpits or neck, usually oozing pus or blood; the most common symptom of (but not limited to) bubonic plague

Catarrh:  Acute influenza; inflammation of the mucous membranes

Chilblains:  Painful, itchy red or purple swelling on the hands or feet from prolonged exposure to cold

Dead Man’s Tooth:  Application of the tooth of a deceased person to heal an open wound

Fat of a Hanged Man:  After a hanging, the body was left to dangle for days, probably as a cautionary example to the public. As putrefaction progressed, greasy excretions would drip and form a puddle under the deceased. Gross, but, hey, it is almost Hallowe’en! This fat (and other body parts) would be collected by the executioner, who did things like set broken bones and sell herbal medicine on the side; it was rendered and made into a salve thought to benefit a number of ailments, including arthritis, lameness and broken bones. Shakespeare refers to this practice in Macbeth: The three witches add “grease that’s sweaten / From the murderer’s gibbet” to their bubbling potion.

Flux:  Excessive discharge or hemorrhage of bodily fluids, especially diarrhea; also a women’s menses

Humours:  It was believed that all diseases were caused by the imbalance of the body’s four “humours” (blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile, which correspond to the elements of earth, air, fire and water). Bloodletting and purging were the chief methods of ridding the body of ill humours.

Gout:  Known since antiquity as “the king of diseases and the disease of kings”, this is the red, tender, hot swelling of a joint (inflammatory arthritis) usually caused by genetics, obesity and a diet high in rich meats and alcohol.

Gripes:  Digestive upset or food poisoning, usually caused by eating unrefrigerated or improperly cured meat

Headache:  A mixture of goat’s cheese and bull’s blood was drunk to cure an aching head. No guarantees as to what it did to the stomach.

Herbarium:  A room housing a collection of preserved plant specimens and their associated data

King’s Evil:  Scrofula or tuberculosis of the neck and lymph glands; so-called from the time of Edward the Confessor because it was believed disease could be cured by the king of England’s touch.

Leeches and Maggots:  Introduced to a wound to help prevent blood poisoning and infection. By sucking blood, leeches draw away toxins, and maggots consume decaying flesh, thus cleaning the wound.dsc_3194-4

Lepers:  Known to the ancient Greeks as elephantiasis, and today as Hansen’s disease, leprosy is a not-very-contagious bacterial infection thought to be caused by respiratory droplets. An effective cure, discovered in the 1940s, involves using antibiotics for several months. Before this, however, leprosy was thought to be highly contagious, spread simply by being near an infected person, and there was no cure. (The other common belief, that leprosy causes toes and other appendages to rot and fall off, is a myth; nerve and tissue damage and secondary infection are the real culprits.) Lepers caused fear and panic wherever they went, and as a result became social outcasts, relying on religious houses for charity and medical assistance. In the Middle Ages, they were required to carry a bell to announce their presence; this also served to attract attention for charity. Leprosy features prominently in two excellent books:  The Leper of St. Giles, a Brother Cadfael mystery by Ellis Peters, and The Island by Victoria Hislop.

Mandrake:  Perhaps because of its resemblance to the human body and the fact that it’s hallucinogenic – as well as extremely poisonous and potentially deadly – Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), a member of the nightshade family, has a long history of use in magic ritual and medicine. It’s mentioned in the Bible as an aphrodisiac/fertility aid and appears many times in literature (Shakespeare, Donne, Beckett, Steinbeck, Conan Doyle, Rowling) and on screen (Excalibur, Robin of Sherwood, Harry Potter), particularly as protection against the devil.

Mould Poultice:  Bread or yeast soaked in honey and applied to an open wound to halt infection

Officina:  The storeroom in a monastery where herbs and medicines were kept. The species names officinale or officinalis (eg. lemon balm, Melissa officinalis) are a clue that the plant was used by monastic healers.

Physician:  Not the neighourhood GP, but medieval academics who worked in universities as medical observers and consultants. Although they often took up residence in castles to tend their wealthy patrons, physicians considered surgery beneath them, and rarely performed it.

Purge:  An emetic to rid the body of poisons; purging often made the condition worse, not better, as it tended to dehydrate the body

Rale:  Wheezy, congestive rattle in the lungs, and the “death rattle” often heard just before the patient shuffled off this mortal coil

Scarification:  One of several types of bloodletting, in which a scarificator, a small box containing multiple sharp blades, was used to scrape open the skin. Other methods of bloodletting included arteriotomy (puncturing a vein at the temple), venesection (at the elbow), cupping (placing a heated glass dome over broken skin to remove air and blood by suction) and the application of leeches.

Simpling; Simples:  Distilling and brewing herbs; the resulting medicinal brews and distillationsdsc_3227-8

Stillroom:  The distilling room in a great house or castle where herbs and flowers were hung to dry, and medicines, preserves, cosmetics, alcoholic beverages, cleaning products and soaps were made. The final products would be stored and dispensed here as well, making the stillroom part laboratory, part brew house, and part infirmary. Think:  Claire’s work- and storeroom at Castle Leoch in Outlander.

Tetter:  Sore, pimple, mark or scar; the scab of a healing wound

The English Sweate:  Sweating sickness was a baffling and highly contagious disease which ravaged England and Europe in a series of epidemics during the 15th and 16th centuries. The cause is still unknown, but a form of hantavirus has been suggested as the culprit. The onset and progression of the Sweate was sudden and dramatic; one could wake up in the morning feeling perfectly fine and be dead before nightfall. Symptoms included an immense sense of dread followed by chills, then the “hot” (sweating) stage, followed by extreme exhaustion, collapse and, finally, death. Some people did manage to recover from the earlier stages, but that didn’t guarantee immunity; many suffered multiple relapses before finally succumbing. It was believed at the time that bloodletting and working up a “natural sweat” by vigorous exercise could ward off the disease. The outbreaks stopped as quickly as they had come, and by 1578 had completed disappeared from England.

Wale, weal, welt:  Ridge or line on the skin

Wen:  Benign boil or cyst, usually on the scalp or face

Whelk:  Raised lesion on the skin; acne

Wine & Egg Whites:  After a patient had been bled, the incision would be dressed with a mixture of strong wine and egg whites. This isn’t as odd as it seems:  the alcohol’s anaesthetizing and sterilizing properties as well as the astringency and binding qualities of egg whites may actually have helped.

Worms:  Were thought to cause cavities

Mabon • Harvest Home • Second Harvest • Autumnal Equinox

dsc_2112-9“Some bless the Cart; some kiss the sheaves; Some prank them up with Oaken leaves.”

(Excerpt, “The Hock-Cart” by Robert Herrick (1591-1674). A hock-cart was the last wagon, usually decorated, brought in from the harvest.)

Today marks the autumnal equinox, when the sun crosses the equator on its southward journey, and day and night are of equal duration. Nature is in balance — temporarily. From now on, the hours of darkness increase, and the warm days are followed by the longer chill of clear autumn nights.

This special time has been celebrated by the Celts since 3,000 BCE; the word Mabon (‘divine youth’) is a modern invention. Mabon occurs after the second harvest and is a time to rest and remember the warm embrace of the sun, celebrate the reaping of crops, and prepare for winter. We give thanks for any bounty we may have and the circumstances that have led us to this point near the closing of the year. It’s a time to take stock of our strengths and weaknesses, to cull whatever is no longer spiritually or physically useful or needed, perhaps start a new venture, and to share what we have with others.

20160922_145013-8Mabon symbols include ears of corn, wheat sheaves, a loaf of bread, the grape and apple, a chalice of wine and the cornucopia, a Mediterranean symbol of plenty adopted by the Celts.

Ways to celebrate Mabon for the next few days:  Take a walk in the woods or park and (lawfully) gather acorns, grasses, pine cones and colorful fallen leaves, taking a moment to give thanks to the field or trees which offered them. Harvest apples at a local pick-your-own orchard, or visit a pumpkin patch for gourds. Use them to decorate your home or altar. Make a corn dolly or a symbolic besom or broom. In the evening, light a beeswax candle and perform your autumn ritual, perhaps by repeating an invocation like this:

Mabon brings the scent of autumn
Golden glow and sun’s soft kiss.
Magick swirls and eddies onward
Season’s end demands all this.

The fruits are heavy on the trees
Yellow, gold, and orange leaves
Nature’s show of alchemy
Ever clear to you and me.

(Mabon Invocation excerpt, Solitary Witch: the Ultimate Book of Shadows for the New Generation by Silver RavenWolf, 2003)

Happy Autumn and Blessed Be!