Something Witchy This Way Comes!

As the two-year anniversary of this blog fast approaches, I recall one of my very first posts about books featuring wise women and witchery. This subject matter, it seems, never strays far from my bookshelf, and I’ve been happily engaged in reading another stack of necromancing novels. Some are new, some hark back a few decades, but, for various reasons, they’re all worthy of a look.

The Witches of New York by Ami McKay (Vintage Canada, 2017)
Against the bustling backdrop of 1880s New York City, a trio of proudly independent young witches, each with her own secrets and struggles, operates a tearoom that dispenses more than just orange pekoe and oolong. Accepted by desperate-to-believe customers and reviled by others, the women stand against antifeminism and religious zealotry – and stumble down dark alleys and dank cellars into mystery and danger. McKay, author of The Birth House and The Virgin Cure, has clearly done her research. Her evocative descriptions of the city’s history and culture drew me into the genteel world of the well-heeled, the city’s poor and seedy underbelly, newfangled inventions and sensations such as the Egyptomania inspired by Cleopatra’s Needle. Victorian-style news clippings and advertisements for cure-all potions and fortune tellers illustrate the chapters and help propel the narrative. I did like the book, but the author’s penchant for cramming in every imaginable type of paranormal activity turned me off, so much so that I put the book down for several months before finishing it. I was glad I picked it up again, however. If you’re willing to suspend your disbelief in a big way, I think you’ll find the novel’s atmosphere and historical tidbits entertaining and informative.

The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart (Knight, 1973)
This children’s book, originally published in 1971, comes from the author of my favourite travel-romances and the Arthurian masterpieces, The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment. I’m so happy to have tracked down a secondhand copy of this slim, 127-page novel, which I read in one avid sitting. It didn’t take long before the plot and many of the story’s elements began to feel hauntingly familiar. A lonely, awkward child of absentee parents is summoned to attend a college for witches. Amidst flying broomsticks (including a detailed description of the latest, most high-tech and expensive model), animal familiars, eccentric professors, creepy classrooms and magickal spells for Invisibility and Transformation, I couldn’t help but feel I’ve read and watched all these things before… . Could it be the author of that extraordinarily famous work (the best-selling book series in history, as a matter of fact) took her inspiration 20+ years later from Stewart’s little novel? I’ll never know, but I do know that I adore her tight narrative and descriptive passages – spare, yet so effective – such as this one:

“The trees were a dim shadowed huddle beyond the lawn. The hanging clouds above them had withdrawn a little, to show, beyond, a faint inlay of silver star-dust. The air was motionless. Two storeys below, on the darkness of the lawn, nothing stirred.”

Dark Witch by Nora Roberts (Berkley, 2013)
Having never read Roberts before, I picked this novel up only because it and its sequels, Shadow Spell (2014) and Blood Magick (2014) were bargain bin purchases. I’m always a bit leery about popular authors with dozens of titles to their names. I was half right in approaching this trilogy with caution. I liked the premise: modern American woman travels to England to meet long-lost cousins, one of whom is the local wise woman dispensing lotions and potions from her village workshop. The newcomer soon discovers a family talent for witchcraft, a new love, and an ancient enemy who traverses the ages to wreak his revenge. The prose can be repetitive – if I read the assertions “we’re family; we’re of the blood” one more time in the third volume which I’ve yet to tackle – I’ll surely cast a curse on someone! However, I am a sucker for herbs and cauldrons and the like, so this one was mostly my cup of tea. For more on the trilogy, see this post.

Witch by [Elizabeth Peters writing as] Barbara Michaels (Harper, 1973)
Note: This author is not to be confused with Ellis Peters, who wrote the most excellent Brother Cadfael series. Set in Virginia, this story follows the oh-so-familiar plot of single woman in a new town (this one full of narrow-minded, superstitious wackos), fixer-upper cottage in a secluded, mysterious wood, handsome neighbour, etc., etc. Michaels is another prolific author whose work I hadn’t previously sampled, and although this novel is suitable for a light read of a summer’s evening, it can’t hold a bell, book or candle to far superior efforts it tries to emulate (see a list here). Michaels fails to explore what could have been ghostly goodness; the eponymous “witch” is woefully underused, and the final twist too easy to decipher long before the story ends.

Herb of Grace by [Shelley Adina, writing as] Adina Senft (FaithWords, 2014)
Book One of the Healing Grace trilogy, this novel, which I picked up on spec from a convenience store on holiday two years ago, is set in the Pennsylvania Amish community and involves not a witch, pagans or the occult but a herbalist/healer-in-training on track to becoming the town Dockterfraa. References to medicinal plants abound (‘herb of grace’ is a folk name for rue), as do well-researched and respectful insights into Amish culture. Herb of Grace is nicely-written with a concise plot and good character development, served up with a gentle sweetness that I quite enjoyed. Needleworkers take heed! Senft has also published an Amish Quilt series.


Scenes from a Witch’s Cottage (Part 1)

Where I live, the woods are greening nicely, fruit trees have finished blooming, and lilacs are coming to their end. Now is the time for longer, warmer days with lots of sunshine, perennials … and herbs. I yearn for a garden, but, living in an apartment, the most I’ve managed so far this year are pots of lavender, thyme and basil. But I have fond memories of herb gardens past, and, if I had a plot of land, I’d devote it to a few old-fashioned flowers, lots of vegetables and tons of herbs. It seems only natural, then, that my theme this month is In the Herb Garden.

I’m currently reading Dark Witch by Nora Roberts (Berkley, 2013) – first in the Cousins O’Dwyer trilogy along with Shadow Spell and Blood Magick (both published in 2014). Set in Ireland, the story involves the descendants of a 13th century sorceress, magick passed down through generations, and the power of strong women and family. I’m not happy with the inclusion of hokey elements such as the witches’ ability to conjure fire from their hands, make plants grow with a flick of a finger, and send up fountains of water with a thought. But there are spells and misty woods and a workshop filled with the scents of rosemary, basil and lavender. And the main character works in a riding stable and communes with horses: something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s light reading that I enjoy in the morning when I’m gearing up for the day, with a pot of tea and delicious local wildflower honey.

The book inspired this vignette:

Ancient sandalwood a-waft i’ the air;
strong tea brewed with sweet water.
In rich black soil she pots the herbs,
her bench alight with bees’ candles.

Scenes from a Witch’s Cottage, Part 1
© 2017, Valerie Barrett



Fillet of Fenny Snake & Samhain Spirits

Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,…
… Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
– Macbeth, Act IV, Scene I

20161031_144210-11In this fabulously eerie scene from Shakespeare’s tragedy, the three witches brew up an evil potion whilst reciting a litany of shiver-inducing ingredients. But are the ‘fenny snake’, ‘scale of dragon’ and ‘baboon’s blood’ which they add to the pot really as ghastly as the playwright would like us to believe? Were the crones actually using juicy amputated animal gobbets to weave their spell, or is this an allegorical device? What really was the ‘tiger’s chaudron’ dumped into that hellish cauldron?

Turns out we shouldn’t take the recipe quite so literally. ‘Eye of newt’ and ‘wool of bat’ et al. are simply arcane and exotic-sounding aliases for ordinary plants and animals that by their true names would have been well-known to most Tudors. The witches are casting a hocus pocus spell – deception by bedazzlement – in order to trick Macbeth and the audience into thinking he’s all-mighty and invincible. Witchcraft was reviled at the time the Bard wrote this scene, and practitioners were in constant danger of persecution, as well as theft of their spells by other witches. By using fancy-pants words for common objects, the hags are covering their own sackcloth-clad cabooses by keeping the components of their craft secret.

Shakespeare probably consulted a herbalist to get his facts straight; many of these plants had real medicinal applications or are irritating, foul-smelling or toxic. Perfect ingredients for a nasty hell-brew!

I’ve listed some of them here, in the order they appear in the play:

Fenny snake:  Fenny refers to the boggy fens of eastern England; probably not a snake at all, but a leech (‘snake’s head’), which was used extensively in medicine for bloodletting.

Eye of newt:  Any flower with “eye” in its name, eg. Eyebright or Ox-eye Daisy (which means ‘day’s eye’), most of which were associated with the sun, health and protection. Another interpretation is black mustard seed, which was thought to be vital for casting a spell of discord, confusion and disruption.

Toe of frog:  A species of buttercup, Ranunculus bulbosus, otherwise known as ‘Frog’s-foot’; toxic to livestock when fresh.

Wool of bat:  English holly (Ilex aquifolium) leaves, otherwise known as Bat’s Wings. Holly is toxic (although not usually fatal) to humans, and the berries act as an emetic.

Tongue of dog:  Houndstongue (Cynglossum officinale), a herb once carried by thieves because it was believed to stop dogs from barking.

Adder’s fork:  Either Plantain or Adder’s-tongue fern (also known as Christ’s spear), both of which are reputed to have healing properties.

Blind-worm:  Okay, this one’s not allegorical; it’s a tiny, venomous snake.

Owlet’s wing:  Possibly cleavers or goosegrass, a straggling, creeping plant with sticky hairs that clings to animal fur. Can cause an unpleasant rash but was also used medicinally and cooked as food.

dsc_3738-7Scale of dragon:  Possibilities include Calamus (Dragon’s Blood), Tarragon, a.k.a. Little Dragon, for its potent taste, or Bistort, which was also called Dragon Wort.

Witches’ mummy:  Powdered mummy (as in ancient Egyptian, not your mother) was used as medicine for conditions such as epilepsy and gout.

Root of hemlock:  Deadly poisonous hemlock, which is referred to elsewhere in the play as the insane herb, “digg’d i’ the dark”. Shakespeare may have been referring to the traditional practice of sowing and harvesting crops and foraging for food and medicinal herbs by the light of the moon, according to the time of month or season. Or maybe just ’cause it’s spooky.

Slips of yew:  This tree was often planted in graveyards, and the wood is an irritant and poisonous; thus, a double association with death.

Tiger’s chaudron:  This one really is gory – the entrails of a tiger.

Baboon’s blood:  A spotted gecko, which was known in alchemical circles as a Hamadryas Baboon. Also, blood referred to a tree’s sap or the juice from a plant.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

Such a spine-tingling way to welcome Samhain! From sunset to sunset October 31 to November 1, we celebrate the ancient Gaelic festival of the final harvest, the coming of winter, and the beginning of the Celtic New Year.

dsc_3995-5Samhain marks the halfway point between Mabon (the autumnal equinox) and Yule (the winter solstice). Pronounced variously SAH win, SOW in, SEW in, sah MAIN or sew VAN, this time of feasting and sacred ritual melded over time with the Roman Catholic holy day of All Saints, or All Hallows (November 1), and All Hallows’ Eve (or Even), October 31, lending many of its pagan rituals and symbols to the modern-day Hallowe’en.

The foundations of this festival are the end of summer and the beginning of the darkest part of the year, fire and its association with the life-giving Sun, and communion with the souls of the dead.

To prepare for winter, folk brought their livestock in from summer pastures, passing the healthy ones through the purifying smoke of bonfires, and culling the old or weak ones for food. Fire was thought to hold back the darkness of winter (we still do this today whenever we light a candle) and was used for divination. Home fires would be extinguished, then relit from a communal bonfire, serving to strengthen the bond between one villager and the next.

Most importantly, Samhain is the time when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is at its thinnest, and communication with the spirits of deceased kin was considered possible. This tenuous “twilight” was mysterious but not frightening, and was welcomed with food, drink and partying. Places were set at the feasting table for the souls of departed loved ones. Costumed mummers, impersonating winter spirits (or possibly disguising themselves from mischievous faeries, which could cross the otherworldly boundary along with the good spirits) would put on entertainments in exchange for refreshments. The custom of children dressing up as scary beings (to confuse those pesky sprites), carrying turnip lanterns and going from door to door asking for sweets and money, originated in places such as Ireland and the Isle of Man – and, of course, still goes on today.

Samhain symbols include the sickle, scythe and ale (the harvest), candles, fire, turnips and pumpkins (keeping darkness and evil at bay), nuts, apples and bones (used to predict the future), masks (worn by mummers) and besoms (sweeping out the old year, negativity and evil influences).


To honour my English, Irish and Scottish roots, I carved this primitive turnip lantern for Samhain.

Perhaps you will take time this night to honour in your own way the old traditions and remember the cherished spirits of those who have passed before us to the Otherworld.

Stay tuned for November’s theme: The Charm of Making

Witches, Get Your Broom On (or, Get On Your Broom)!


Miniature besoms using a variety of materials on linden wood handles. Top, L to R: rosemary, pine needles, yew, sage. Bottom: linden twigs

When most people think of witches, what more iconic (albeit laughable) image is there than a warty old hag flying across the face of the full moon on a crookedy old broomstick? Where did that stereotype come from, anyway?

The story goes that, back in the Middle Ages, witches made “flying ointments” using hallucinogenic herbs such as mandrake and belladonna. They would smear the stuff on their bodies (possibly applying it with broom plant fibres), then run around fields mounted on their broomsticks, jumping up and down to “teach” the crops how high to grow. The psychoactive drugs would enter their bloodstream and produce a feeling of flying.

Besom (BEE zum) is just another word for the household broomstick, which was traditionally made with broomcorn stems or birch twigs lashed by thin willow withies to a stave (handle) of ash, hazel or hawthorn. All of these plants had symbolic or sacred significance, and modern-day pagans have adopted the besom for ritual cleansing of a space or readying a circle for casting. In handfasting ceremonies, an ancient Celtic tradition, couples join hands and jump over a broom to celebrate fertility, sexuality and the unification of male (ash, and the handle’s shape) and female (birch, and the triangular shape of the bristles).

Besoms are seen as protective symbols to be placed standing upright outside a door. Smaller versions can be hung in other parts of the house as a blessing. They are used to sweep prosperity in – always through the front door – and negative influences out through the back door. Usually this is done symbolically, with the end of the broom held a few inches off the ground. I’ve even seen a Pinterest article showing how to make paintbrush besoms from twigs and herbs!

I spent yesterday afternoon making up several small besoms, each a little different. They don’t cost much to make. I already had almost everything I needed from foraging outdoors and from my crafting; I purchased the fresh herbs from the grocery store and will use them for cooking later.

The method is pretty straightforward. Although I like to keep my crafts as natural as possible, I did use a glue gun on the twig and pine needle besoms; for the others, I used a twist tie to keep the stems in place while I was arranging and tying them.

The besoms shown here are 6 to 9 inches long. Of course you can make yours any length you want, including full size, but they won’t hold up to actual use. Real broom-making is quite a skill and art. If you’re interested in functional broomsticks, see this wonderful tutorial from craft broom maker, Shawn Hoefer.


Using a pyrography tool, I woodburned the bindrune for joy, protection and harmony on the linden wood stave.

• Small branch or wooden dowel for the handle, cut to desired length
• Bristle material: twigs, shrub stems, herb sprigs, raffia, straw, pine needles, etc., cut to desired length, either all the same or slightly different lengths for a rustic look
• String to tie on the bristles and for a hanging loop: household or baker’s string, twine, raffia, jute, hemp, embroidery cotton, ribbon or wire
• Scissors, utility knife or pruning shears
• Twist tie or rubber band
• Drill or Dremel™ tool, or eye hook (both optional)
• Hot glue gun (optional)
• Sturdy needle (optional)
• Optional adornments:  woodburning tool, markers or paint to decorate handle; crystals or beads; pentacle, etc.

If you’ll be hanging the besom, drill a small hole through the stave (handle) about ¼ inch from the top. (Alternatively, screw an eye hook into the flat top end.) • Cut a handful of bristles to length, either all the same or varied for a more rustic look. • Arrange bristles around the bottom inch or so of the handle, laying them side by side as flat as possible. Make sure to cover enough stave so you can wrap string a few times around to secure the bristles. • Use a twist tie or elastic band to hold them down temporarily as you work, or hot glue in place. • Tie a long piece of string tightly around the bristles and thread free end onto needle. • Pulling tightly as you go, wrap string around bristles several times until they feel secure. If desired, use the needle to thread under existing loops for extra security. • Tie off the string with a knot and trim, tucking the end under some of the loops or hot-gluing it down for a neater look. • Trim the bristle ends into desired shape. • You may wish to decorate the handle or add other embellishments; for my twig besom, I woodburned a bindrune using a pyrography tool.


Whether for ritual, decoration, a blessing or drying herbs, hand-made besoms are a personal way to bring natural materials and a bit of history into the home. So mote it be!

For the pine needle besom, I laid the needle clusters (they usually come off the tree in bundles of 2 or more, depending on the species) with the sharp ends pointing to the handle’s top, and the clustered end (where needles are attached to each other) flush with the stave bottom – this is where I added tiny dabs of hot glue. I wrapped the bristles a couple of times with string, then gently bent the needles back over themselves and the string toward the stave bottom. Fresher needles will flex; some will break. Holding them in place temporarily with a twist tie, I did the finally wrapping and tying off with the same piece of string, which I brought up through the bristles to the outside.

I had fun making these besoms. They smelled lovely as I was working with them, and each has its own character. I might hang one from the mirror in my car; the besoms made with rosemary and sage are a cute way to dry the herbs for later use!

Cauldron Bubble: 7 best books featuring wisewomen, witches and woad

DSC_8657 (3)Fragrant bunches of rosemary and thyme, hung to dry from the beams of a thatched monastery workshop. An old village healer, stirring mandrake into a simmering potion as her lovestruck client looks anxiously on. The nurse with an interest in botany, searching for a rare medicinal plant amongst ancient stones. Girls warding off evil spirits with curses from their Book of Shadows.

Any novel featuring such characters or scenes has me from the faded title on its well-thumbed front cover. An introverted and highly impressionable youngster, I always had my nose buried in a book, often sneaking reads by flashlight long past bedtime. I was entranced by the, er, charms of fantasy and historical fiction, especially if those stories involved herb-growing, mortar and pestle-wielding, spell-casting crones. I longed to be there with them, in that dimly-lit herbarium, grinding exotic cardamom to a fine powder and concocting chilblain-busting salves. My fascination with herbs and, more widely, things mystical and magickal, owes a great deal to these shiveringly evocative tales.

The very same volumes which kindled such sparks within me as a child and young adult still grace my dusty bookshelves today, alongside more recent and equally entertaining efforts. On the parchment below, in no particular order (I cherish them all), I hereby enscribe my seven favorite witchy works:

  1. The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (Dell, 1958). A wise woman and her young apprentice, both social outcasts, face prejudice, ignorance and accusations of witchcraft in 17th century New England. 1959 Newbery Medal winner for best American children’s literature.
  2. Double Spell by Janet Lunn (Peter Martin Associates, 1968). This spooky mystery involving an antique doll takes place in my native Toronto. Not a lot of witchery here, but … Toronto!
  3. Victoria by Barbara Brooks Wallace (Dell, 1972). A huge influence on my preteen self, this coming-of-age novel makes delicious use of an isolated boarding school, secret societies and a little black book.
  4. Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, The Crystal Cave / The Hollow Hills / The Last Enchantment (Hodder and Stoughton, 1970 / 1973 / 1979). The Arthurian legend masterfully told from the wizard’s perspective.
  5. Brother Cadfael, a 12th century crusader-turned-healer/monk, steeps herbs and solves murders in The Cadfael Chronicles, Ellis Peters’ prolific series, beginning with A Morbid Taste for Bones (Macmillan, 1977). Perfectly interpreted for 1990s British TV by the great Derek Jacobi.
  6. Thornyhold by Mary Stewart (Hodder and Stoughton, 1988) blends some of the best and most effective ingredients into the brew: plucky, resourceful woman, deserted English cottage, herb-filled stillroom, ghosts and a gall-darned happy ending. A clue to the book’s magickal motif comes from the heroine’s name – Geillis (Gilly) – a traditional moniker for a witch. Reference is made to real-life Geillis Duncane, who was tried for witchcraft in 16th century Edinburgh.
  7. Geillis Duncan appears again, this time alongside time-travelling healer Claire and her Scottish wonder, James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser, in Diana Gabaldon’s outrageously popular Outlander book and TV series (Delacore Press, 1991). [Haven’t heard enough about Outlander yet? Dinna fash! I may just mention it a wee bit more!]