Friday, March 16, 2012

Everyday Rituals

{this is a recent post that I did over at my other blog and thought it was relevant for this one too}

After rising and making myself a little more presentable, before coffee or seeing what is going on in the world, the first thing I do in the morning is make an offering of thanks to all of Those I work with and Who protect our household. It is a quick and simple ritual consisting of lighting a candle, saying a prayer and a small offering.

This is the first of many rituals throughout my day. Being someone with a relatively short attention span, I also like to keep them short and sweet {there are not too many ceremonial rituals happening at my hands!}.

I am sure that many would bulk at the idea of doing multiple devotionals and blessings every day. To them it probably seems to be the jurisdiction of members of some religious order that are tucked away from the world. This is not the case for me though.

In my view there is no difference between the "mundane" and the "sacred". They are both inseparable. For those who see spirit dwell in all things and in all places, and who can feel purpose in every aspect of life, this will probably make sense. They might also see the sense in saying a blessing over a garden or giving a prayer and offering of thanks for a meal.

One could fairly say that for me ritual is routine; however it is certainly not devoid of meaning. I find life is a lot more enjoyable when there is intent behind my actions, as opposed to just going through the motions.

Tending to my home and land is no longer drudgery, but a series of spiritual acts. Besides, hearth-keeper sounds much more pleasant than housewife. ;)

On the subject of rituals, you should go give this wonderful post The Meaning of Ritual a read.



Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Recipe for Spring Cleaning {Physically & Spiritually}

{image source}

With the warming weather, it seems like a practical time to declutter our homes and to give them a thorough cleaning. I find that it is also a good time to clear out any unwanted energies in our home.

Below is a recipe of a homemade cleaner that I use year round in my home and one that I encourage clients to use to maintain the effects of a home blessing and clearing.

I make this when the Moon is in the waning phase, which is often thought to be the best time to do workings around banishment and clearing.

This recipe calls for a tablespoon of each:

Sweet Woodruff
Rowan berries
Birch bark {please only harvest from fallen trees or naturally shed bark!}
Juniper berries
Lemon Balm
Dandelion root
Witch Hazel
St. John's Wort
Garden Sage

Boil 3 cups of water and pour over ingredients in a glass mason jar. Let it steep for 3 hours. Drain liquid through cheesecloth {I dispose of the plant material in the compost once I am done with it}. Put tea mixture in with cider or white vinegar into a clean glass jar that has a non-metal lid. Keep in a refrigerator {should last to 3 months with no issues}. To use mix with 3 parts water in a spray bottle or mop bucket.



Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Common Bluebell {Hyacinthoides non-scripta}

A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power.
There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.
Yet I recall not long ago
A bright and sunny day,
'Twas when I led a toilsome life
So many leagues away;
That day along a sunny road
All carelessly I strayed,
Between two banks where smiling flowers
Their varied hues displayed.
Before me rose a lofty hill,
Behind me lay the sea,
My heart was not so heavy then
As it was wont to be.
Less harassed than at other times
I saw the scene was fair,
And spoke and laughed to those around,
As if I knew no care.
But when I looked upon the bank
My wandering glances fell
Upon a little trembling flower,
A single sweet bluebell.
Whence came that rising in my throat,
That dimness in my eye?
Why did those burning drops distil --
Those bitter feelings rise?
O, that lone flower recalled to me
My happy childhood's hours
When bluebells seemed like fairy gifts
A prize among the flowers,
Those sunny days of merriment
When heart and soul were free,
And when I dwelt with kindred hearts
That loved and cared for me.
I had not then mid heartless crowds
To spend a thankless life
In seeking after others' weal
With anxious toil and strife.
'Sad wanderer, weep those blissful times
That never may return!'
The lovely floweret seemed to say,
And thus it made me mourn.
~The Bluebell by Anne Bronte (1820-1849)

Other Names: English Bluebell, Auld Man's Bells, Ring-o'-Bells, Culverkeys, Wood Bells, Jacinth.

Description: The Common Bluebell is a perennial that is native to Britain. It can now also be found growing is some parts of North America, as well as other parts of Europe such as Portugal, France, and Ireland.

It is a bulbed woodland plant that is member of the Hyacinthaceae family. The plant has leaves that are a long lanceolate shape, which are located at the bottom half of the plant. The stem rises to a curve with spikes of their signature blue, pensile bell-shaped flowers on the top; the flowers themselves give of a wisp of a sweet fragrance.

It is thought that the Common Bluebell is under threat due to hybridization, and it is a protected species in the United Kingdom under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. You can view a video here on how to identify different types of Bluebells.

Warnings: As with all herbs, one should make sure to be thoroughly informed before ingesting them, and is best to do so under the guidance of a qualified healer.

From what I understand, all parts of the Common Bluebell are considered poisonous, especially the bulb.

In a report released by the Canadian government, there are cases of both people and livestock being poisoned after ingesting the plant.

Reported symptoms of poisoning for humans included: abdominal pains, diarrhea, heart rate slowed, flushed skin. For cattle symptoms included: slowed heart rate, shallow breathing, lethargy, and depressed temperature; for horses: abdominal pains, diarrhea, moist and cold skin, absent urination, depressed temperature, and vomiting.

So I think it's safe to say not to ingest any parts of the plant, and to make sure that pets and livestock don't either.

Cultivating: The Common Bluebell's natural habitat is deciduous {often ancient} woodlands, hedgerows, and sometimes in shady meadows. It typically does well between hardiness zones 5 to 7. Depending on your region, it will flower anywhere from April to June.

It is an excellent plant to have in a woodland garden, or in a spot that is part sun to dappled shade. It prefers a slightly acidic soil, and it is probably best to use a fertile loam. However, I have heard that it can also grow in a heavy clay, and it can grow in 'dry' soil, providing that it gets enough shade and moisture.

The best way to start Common Bluebells from seed is to grow them in a pot for the first year, after a period of about 5 weeks of a cold-moist stratification. It can then be planted in its permanent home in the second year, once the leaves are dormant {late summer or early fall}.
Before planting it is a good idea to prepare the soil with an organic fertilizer {like compost}, and to mulch afterwards.

Some great plants to grow with it are Ferns, Daffodils, Tulips, Sweet Woodruff, and Hostas.

Medicinal/Remedial Properties and Lore: Diuretic, styptic.

The Common Bluebell is rarely used for medicinal purposed today, although there is research on its potential use for treatment in cancer and HIV.

It was historically thought by some to cure snake bites, as well as calm the effects of a bee sting if the juices from the stem were rubbed on the wound.

Sir John Hill recommended it for as a styptic for leucorrhoea, by drying the bulb and making into a powder, but he warned not to use anymore than 3 grains in a dosage.

Magical/Spiritual Properties and Lore: This is one plant that is strongly associated with the Fair Folk, as well as death.

In English folklore, Faeries were thought to congregate in a
'Bluebell wood'. If one were to trample into such a wood they could be cursed by the Faeries. They would leave them maimed or sick{ultimately leading to their death}, or the carry them away to never be seen again.

To hear the ringing of the Bluebell would be a harbinger of death or a signal that a troop of malevolent Faeries were near by.

For those who want to attract the sympathies of the Fair Folk, you can grow Common Bluebells in your garden. To attract them at Bealtaine, make posies of the flowers (not sure about what the law in the UK would say about picking them in the wild, but of course, this should be done respectfully!) to adorn your altar or ritual space.

Common Bluebells are a
funeral plant, and some appropriate uses are planting it on graves to bring peace and blessings, or to decorate as a decoration for a funeral, as well as a ancestor altar at Samhain.

They can also be an excellent charm to sew into a dream pillow to ward off not only nightmares, but also protect someone from a potential run in with a Succubus.

Other Uses: At one time the juice from the bulb was used as a replacement for starch in the days when stiff ruffs were worn was much in request {Mrs Maude Grieve}; English herbalist John Gerard told of the juice's usefulness to set feathers onto arrows, and it was also popular at one time to create a gum to bind books.


Monday, March 12, 2012

Wonderful Maple Syrup: Some Lore & Customs

photo by Brad Smith

Maple syrup season has "officially" started in my area, which was ushered in this past weekend at a first tapping ceremony. So I thought that I would do a post about some folklore and customs around maple syrup and its production.

Production of maple syrup had been going on in North America prior to European colonization and is a craft that was discovered by the First Peoples of North America. {North American Maple Syrup Producers Manual}

My family's old farm in Restoule at one time had an active sugar bush, mostly for household and neighbour consumption. It was used for decades, but it was at most productive when diversified farming was still the norm here in Northern Ontario.

In her book Reflections of Restoule, June Hample writes:
"Many families {in Restoule} made maple syrup and maple sugar. Often this was the responsibility of the woman too, as her husband was in the logging camp or on the river drive at this time of year. The first buckets were hollowed-out blocks of wood and the first spiles were also made of wood. The sap was gathered by hand and carried to a huge iron kettle which was suspended over an open fire on a tripod of poles. When the syrup was almost thick enough, it was taken to the house to be finished where milk was added to it. As the syrup boiled up, the milk rose to the surface bringing all impurities with it. The foamy milk was then skimmed off leaving the syrup clear, pure and delicious; ready to be poured, piping hot, into empty whiskey bottles and stored for future use."

A little later on she says:

"The last boiling of the syrup was kept thin then cooled. Vinegar 'mother' was added to it and in a few weeks the vinegar was ready to be used for pickling and salads."
While settlers used block buckets, the Anishinabek people of the Restoule area seemed to prefer sticking to the birch bucket to harvest maple sap.
royalty free photo

Maple syrup season was quite a festive time of year, one that children of the village looked forward to almost as much as Christmas. Families would host "sugar on the snow parties". Today there are still various festivals to go to, including the local Powassan Maple Syrup Festival.

At the local first tapping they had a town-crier open up the festivities. In times past the "sugar on the snow parties" were kicked off by a reverend saying a prayer of thanksgiving.

Around Christmas some folks would sing to the sugar bush and give some of the older trees a wee drink of whiskey or ale. Sounds a lot like wassailing to me!

Apparently maple syrup season was important to the First Nations as well, who called this time "Sugar Month" or "Maple Moon". Some tribes celebrated with  various rituals including dancing to encourage the maple sap to flow. {The Maple Sugar Book by Janet Eagleson & Rosemary G. Hasner}

There are a few First Nations' legends about maple syrup and maple sugar. There is a story that I believe is local to Northern Ontario that can be found on the website of Professor Ian McKenzie {Nipissing University}.

First Nations woman tapping for maple sap, circa 1908
In this particular tale maple syrup flowed straight from the tree by simply breaking off a twig. That was until Manaboozho changed things. He was slightly peeved to find his people all lying down with their mouths open beneath a constant stream of syrup coming from the maple trees. So to keep them from being "fat and lazy", he pour baskets of water over every maple tree. With this all the trees would just produce sap, so to get syrup the people had to work for it.

Another legend says that maple sap was first discovered after Chief Woksis pulled his tomahawk from a sugar maple and sap flowed from it. His wife used the sap to cook dinner and it has been a dietary staple ever since {source}.

Besides its wonderful culinary uses, maple sap, sugar and syrup have a history in folk healing as well. Maple sugar was used by settlers for wounds and stomach problems, while some Natives used it for diarrhea and sore throats {American Folk Medicine: A Symposium Edited by Wayland D. Hand}. Breathing in maple steam while sitting in a sugar shack was supposedly used as way to cure colds {source}.

As far as magic goes, sugar maple products are not something that I
photo by Chiot's Run

use, so I am not too familiar with their properties. However, I do have a vegan friend who uses maple syrup in lieu of honey for honey jar spells and seems to think it does the trick.

On a final note, I find that maple syrup is a suitable and well received offering to local and nature spirits here in Northern Ontario.



Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Poetic Weather Forecasting

royalty free photo

Before we had modern technology to forecast weather, folks had relied on obervations of the natural world to see what weather was in store for them. Some of these methods are still with us today, if only in rhymes.

I think that it would be to experiment with them to see which ones are reliable or not. There is a list of weather proverbs that have teeth according to the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society. And below are some of my favourites that I grew up with:

Birds flying low, expect rain and blow.

Sound travelling far and wide, a stormy day betide.

Mackeral sky and mares' tails, make tall ships carry short sails.

If a cock crows upon going to bed, expect to wake with a watery head.

Clear moon, frost soon.

Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.

When clouds look like rocks and towers, we will be refreshed by showers.

If bees stay at home, rain will soon come. If they flay away, fine will be the day.

When a cow endeavors to scratch her ear, it means a rain shower is very near. When she thumps her ribs with an angry tail, look out for thunder, lightning and hail.

A cold and wet May, expect a barnful of hay.

When spiders' webs in air do fly, the spell will soon be very dry.

If February brings no snow or rain, tis not good for neither grass nor grain.

A ring around the sun or moon, means rain or snow coming soon.

When leaves show their undersides, be very sure that rain betides.

Feel free to share your own favourites in the comment section.



The Art of Horse Whispering

This is an entry that I had originally posted over at my other blog about three years ago. It is a topic I hope to expand on over here at some point.

Whistlejacket  by George Stubbs, circa 1760
The idea of training horses in a humane way while studying and mimicking equine body language was largely popularized by horseman and author, Monty Roberts.

However, Monty Roberts is certainly not the first person to wear the title of 'Horse Whisperer'; there is a long history of training horses without the use of cruelty and brute force. One such person was John Solomon Rarey whose techniques for taming abused and dangerous horses made him famous in the 19th century. His method really took off when he came to work with one of Queen Victoria's horses.

Some of his training techniques have been depicted in the film The Horse Whisperer. He also wrote a book entitled The Complete Horse Tamer, which much of it can be viewed here.

Going back even further, horsemen such as farriers and farmers would usemore arcane methods to gentle horses.

From areas in England like Cornwall and East Anglia, as well as Scotland, there are stories of folks using witchcraft to tame and train horses, and there were even secret societies established for these horse whisperers.
At the Plough, End of the Furrow  by Peter Henry Emerson, circa 1887
One such group is The Society for the Horseman's Word, which reputedly began in the 18th century and ended in the 1930's in Scotland {although some suspect that it still may be practised in remote places in Scotland}. The Society eventually made it's way down to England where the Society of Horsemen was formed.

To become a member of the Society, a horseman was invited by an established member, and the calling card was a single horsehair. He would go through an initiation ceremony and ordeals, and take a series of oaths; in return he would learn the guarded knowledge of the Society.

The actual 'Horseman's Word' was passed to members after initiation, and it probably differed from region to region. The Word was used to tame and bewitch the horse.

There were also the practitioners called the Toadmen in East Anglia, whose practices also spread out to other parts of England, like Cornwall, as well as to Wales.

artwork done by Edward Robert Smythe, circa 1899

The Toadman was initiated through a rather gruesome ritual that involved killing and skinning a toad {less often a frog}, and retrieving a V-shaped bone {perhaps the pelvic bone} from the animal. To see details of the actual ritual, click here and here.

The bone was a charm used to 'jade' or bring the horse to a stop. Another charm was made from milt to 'draw' or attract a horse. The milt is a substance found in a foal's mouth right after birth, that looks something like liver. It was carefully removed from the foal's mouth and dried to be worn by the horseman.

There were other substances used to draw and jade a horse; oils were often smeared on the bodies of the horsemen such as a mixture of oil of origanum, oil of rosemary, oil of cinnamon, and oil of fennel {source here} to draw. Substances such as stoat's liver and rabbit's liver, dried and powdered up with dragon's blood/palm resin {source here}.

In the book Pictish Warrior AD 297-841 by Paul Wagner & Wayne Reynolds the claim is made that the art of horse whispering was practiced by the Picts.
Quasar  by Gypsy Moon Creations

They apparently used spells and wortcunning to jade and draw horses. The authors make the argument that the Picts had may in fact been the very first horse whispers, whose techniques were inherited by later horsemen such of those of the horsemen fraternities, and the Toadmen.

One may not be keen on turning to the esoteric for their horse training needs, but there is certainly enough literature out there now, as well as courses and trainers, that there is no reason to 'break' a horse to train them.

The equine are wonderful creatures and make excellent co-workers and companions, and I think it is high time that people stop practicing barbaric and cruel training methods, and go for the kinder and gentler {and in the long run more effective!} route.



Thursday, March 1, 2012

Sweetfern {Comptonia peregrina}

Other Names: Sweet-fern, Sweet Fern, Fern Gale, Spleenwort Bush, Sweet Ferry, Meadow Fern.

Description: The name 'Sweetfern' can be a tad bit misleading, since it is actually not a fern but a deciduous shrub. When one sees it, especially when young, it is understandable why it has 'fern' attached to its name; the foliage strongly resembles narrow fern leaves.

Sweetfern grows to about 3 feet high, its trunk is brown with a hint of red and can sometimes be quite hairy. The whole plant can smell very pleasant, especially the leaves when the are rubbed or bruised.

It is native to North America, and can be found growing in the wild from Quebec to the East, Saskatchewan in the West, to about North Carolina in the South. It is in the Myricaceae family, and the Bayberry is a close relative.

Warnings: As with all herbs, one should make sure to be thoroughly informed before ingesting them, and is best to do so under the guidance of a qualified healer.

photo by dogtooth77
Cultivating: Sweetfern can be found growing on hillsides, open fields, and in places where pine trees thrive. It does well to hardiness zone 3, and needs to be grown in full sun. It is drought resistant and prefers soil that is sandy, acidic and well-drained. It makes an excellent ground cover on land that has very poor quality soil!

You can buy plants at nurseries, but it maybe a little difficult to find. Another option is to propagate it through root cuttings, instead of seeds {unless you are up for an extreme challenge!}. Once Sweetfern has made itself at home, it needs very little upkeep and will spread very well via its rhizomes. It is a perennial and will mature around its third year.

One disease to be aware of is Sweetfern blister rust, which can also spread to various pines including Jack Pine, Scots Pine, and Ponderosa Pine.

Medicinal/Remedial Properties and Lore: Anti-inflammatory, aromatic, astringent, emollient, haemostat, stimulant, tonic.

Sweetfern has been used by both Natives and settlers to treat various different ailments. One of its most popular uses that is still appreciated today is as a tonic. All parts of the plant would be used, especially the top leaves in a tea to promote overall good health.

A decoction was used internally to treat dysentery, leucorrhea, rheumatism, diarrhoea, and internal bleeding. Henriette's Herbal recommends a dosage of from 1 to 4 fluid ounces, 3 or 4 times a day.

It is apparently quite effective when used topically to sooth Poison Ivy and other irritations, and can be used in this manner to treat rheumatism as well.

Magical/Spiritual Properties and Lore: According to Melvin Gilmore in Some Chippewa Uses of Plants,  Sweetfern was burnt as an 'incense' in religious ceremonies by some Indigenous poeple.

European settlers would sometimes use it in folk magic for love talismans and spells, and was sometimes planted in their farm fields in the hopes that some of its hardy properties would brush off on to their own crops.

photo by peganum
Other Uses: The nutlets are edible and apparently quite tasty! The leaves can be used to season foods, such as poultry or fish as well. Growing it in the garden is handy as it improves the soil by fixing the nitrogen, and is an excellent plant for wildlife. Deer, birds, and butterfly larvae will feed on Sweetfern, and birds such as grouse and killdeer will nest underneath it.