Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Samhain!

Hoof and horn
Hoof and horn
All that dies shall be reborn

Corn and grain
Corn and grain
All that falls shall rise again

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Tools: The Cup / Chalice

On the surface the cup, or the chalice, seems to be a simple tool - a vessel to hold liquid during ritual. Beyond the surface we find complex symbolism, similar to that of the cauldron. For many the cup is associated with water, and is considered a feminine tool, as it can be likened to the womb. (Bet you'll never look at a drinking cup the same way again...) It is a tool of creation and transformation.

The cup can preform several roles in ritual. The most obvious use is holding water or some other drink that will be consumed, or given in offering (or a bit of both), during ritual. In this way it can be seen as a tool of the life giving hearth, a symbol of fertility and abundance. In this way, it also becomes an important part of rituals that focus on the sacred meal.

The cup also plays an important role in rituals of hieros gamos, that is, holy marriage. Many are probably familiar with the Wiccan form, The Great Rite. Rich in sexual symbolism, the plunging of the knife into the cup to represent the union of the Goddess and God. Outside of the Wiccan mythos, it can still represent the union of opposites. Fire and water, conscious and subconscious, seen and unseen, and the lower/instinctual self and higher self.

The cup can come in many shapes, and be made of many materials - anything from a simple clay bowl to a fancy gem-encrusted silver goblet. Sea shells, drinking horns, dried gourds, and coconut shells are all other examples of items that can be used. Material, color, and design all really depend on what the cup means to you, and how you will use it. When doing rituals at home or in the yard, I use a blue ceramic chalice (pictured above). However, when I'm out on longer treks into the forest, I find a small wooden bowl works much better. It's easier to transport, and won't chip or break if it bumps against something else in my pack.

October Snow Storms

I was supposed to go to a Halloween party tonight. Instead? I'm snowed in. This is the first time I've ever seen a snow storm like this so early in the year. It's more than a little disconcerting... Earlier in the afternoon I was outside, and it was just another autumn day. A few trees have shed all their leaves, but most are still covered in leaves - some still green! Now? There's about five inches of snow on the ground, accompanied by the occasional rumble of a snow plow making the rounds. It's like someone hit the fast forward button and skipped me ahead about two months...

The leaves still being on the trees is causing problems in a lot of places. The snow is sticking to the leaves, causing the branches to bend and break under the weight. A couple of trees in the yard are normally too high for me to touch, but the tips are now dragging on the ground.

Well, and now we've just lost power. So, that's that. Time to publish and shut down.

*This was all written last night. In the light of day I bring you...

(Oh, and thankfully power is back on this morning - although a lot of people are still without...)

Friday, October 28, 2011


These are Teaberry plants. (Gaultheria procumbens.) Also called American wintergreen.

They're very small plants, usually only growing a few inches off the ground. They are common plants in pine forests. They are evergreens - although sometimes you find them with a dark red leaf. This seems to happen when the leaf is not getting sun because something is covering it. The fruits last through the winter, as well. The plant is a source of food for squirrels, chipmunks, deer, bears, turkeys, and some other animals.

Teaberry is an edible plant for humans as well, both berries and leaves. Best picked after the first frost, the berries have a mild minty flavor. They can be added to pies, cakes, and jams, if you're able to get enough of them. The leaves, when crushed, give off a strong wintergreen scent. The leaves can be eaten right from the plant (young leaves seem to have a nicer flavor). They can also be dried and used to make a mild mint tea. To get any stronger flavor, the leaves must actually ferment in warm water for several days. This water can also be used as a flavoring in other drinks. The essential oil can also be used to flavor foods. (If you've ever heard of Clark's Teaberry gum - which is making a bit of a come back these days - that's an example of a candy flavored with Teaberry, as you might guess by the name.)

Medicinally the plant can be used to treat minor aches, as well as being an anti-inflammatory. A salve can be made from the oil which can be applied to sprains and other such aches. Historically Teaberry was also used to aid troubled breathing. Teaberry tea can also help upset stomachs and nausea.  The essential oil of the plant, in large doses, is toxic - so if you do plan to use it, please do your research and watch your dose carefully. (This really goes for ANY plant.)

Magically the plant can be used as an aid in protection workings, as well as bringing good fortune and harmony to the home.

Fall Friday!

Sorry it's a little dark. I'm hoping to get a shot earlier in the day of this particular tree, it's got some great colors on it right now.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

First Snow

I'm dreaming of a white Samh... no wait. That's not right, is it. And yet...

Large heavy flakes, sticking just a little now, but it's pretty wet snow so it won't be around for very long. It'll be gone by the time I wake up tomorrow, but it's a reminder that winter is quickly approaching.

There's a lot to do before then. First, on the physical level, there are things that need to be done around the home. The heaters need to have the dust cleaned off of them, and be turned on for a while to make sure they work without any issue. Time to put the winter quilts on the bed. The winter jackets, boots, hats, scarves and gloves need to come out of storage. A winter kit for the car (in addition to the usual items, flashlight and such, extra gloves, scarves, blankets and snacks are stored in the car). It's also time to sort through all the stored food, see what needs to be eaten soon, needs to be replaced. (I've been called paranoid, but it's not like power outages that last a few days are uncommon here in New Hampshire. Better safe than sorry - and hungry!) Soon it will be time to get the car checked up for winter, and the snow tires put on. A last good cleaning of the house while the windows can still be open for part of the day, without it getting too cold...

It's a lot of work, physically speaking, but spiritually speaking the time after Samhain is a time of rest and reflection before the rebirth of the year at Yule. We look back on the year that's just passed, and at the death of the year we make an effort to let go of old habits that have held us back or harmed us in another way. As we head into winter, a time to draw back into the home with family and friends, it can also be a time to evaluate our relationships. Which would we be better off without? They are not easy questions, but we need to decide what we do not wish to carry through to the birth of a new year.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Misconceptions About Samhain Within Paganism

Every year around this time I see the same incorrect phrases pop up.

"Samhain is the pagan new year."
"Samhain is the witches' new year."

No. No it's not. A new year for some pagans, witches, and Wiccans? You bet. The new year for all pagans and witches? Not even close.

Both paganism and witchcraft are hugely diverse groups, and that includes holidays. The Wheel of the Year is not universal among all pagans and witches. Not all pagans/witches even celebrate Samhain, let alone consider it the new year. Some follow totally different holidays. For example, many Kemetic (Egyptian) pagans celebrate their new year - Wep Ronpet - with the rising of the star Sirius, currently around the beginning of August.

For those that do celebrate the Wheel? The new year doesn't always fall at Samhain. Many choose to celebrate the New Year with the rebirth of the sun at Yule. I have also met several pagans who prefer to place the new year at Imbolc, or even Ostara. This can be true of Wicca, as well. Many Wiccans do celebrate the new year at Samhain, but many celebrate at Yule as well.

Some argue that since Samhain was the Celtic new year, it's wrong to do it differently. That doesn't really make sense for two reasons, though. The Wheel also includes Yule, which was the Germanic new year. More importantly, the Wheel isn't a reconstruction of any one culture. It's a mash up of different holidays and traditions. Given that, is it really so strange we sometimes celebrate in different ways?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Fall Friday

Wow, has it been another week already? Sometimes I'm not sure where the time goes... Hopefully I'll have a bit more time for posting next week!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Wheel of the Year : Light Half

Continuing from yesterday's post, the Wheel of the Year is split into two halves, the light half and the dark half, and there are several ways to do this. For some the dark half begins at Samhain, and the light at Beltane, running off the tradional Celtic view of summer ending with Samhain (which means something like "summer's end") and winter ending with Beltane. Others view the light half as starting with Yule - when the sun begins to wax, and the dark half as starting with Litha, when it begins to wane. I have even seen those who start the light with Imbolc and the dark with Lammas.

Personally though? I follow the teaching of splitting the year at the equinoxes. The Light half begins with Ostara, and the dark with Mabon. Thus the light half of the year is the part of the year where there is more day than night, and the dark half refers to the half of the year when the nights are longer than the day.

I also associate each holiday with a time of the day. For me Ostara is the sunrise of the year, it begins the day, brings the light. Mabon is the sunset, it ends the day, brings the night, brings the darkness. Today though, I'll just be talking about the "day" of the year, the light half.

Ostara is the spring equinox (around March 21st), the first day of spring. Here in New Hampshire, that can be hard to tell though... (In fact, this year we had a snow storm the day after Ostara!) Still, the first signs are there to those who look. Like watching the sun slowly peak up over the horizon. We can still feel night, still see it if we look to the west, but we know the light is now here. It is a time to welcome the light, and bid farewell to the dark.
It is a day of near perfect balance, day and night are equal length - and from here on the days will begin to be (or will soon be) longer than the nights. It is a day of new beginnings, new life. A time to make plans and goals, to pick the seeds we will cultivate, and to prepare for the planting.

After Ostara comes Beltane (May 1st), the peak of the spring season. While we were seeing the first rays of dawn at Ostara, the morning is now in full swing. It may also help to think of the seasons as a moon phase - Ostara would be the new moon, and Beltane the full - coming back to the next new moon at Litha. Belatine is all about fertility and the new life that is now clearly all around us. The time to plant, to tend the new sprouts. Not just physical fertility and planing, but a time to inspire and nurture all creative acts and new goals/projects.
Many know Samhain as a time when the boundary between the worlds is at it's thinnest point, but its partner Beltane is another such time. At Samhain we honor the dead, but at Beltane it is a time to honor the spirits of Nature that are all around us.

Litha, the Summer Solstice (around June 21st). High noon of the year, this is when the sun is at it's peak and we are in the middle of the light half of the year. It is the longest day of the year, although from here out the days begin to shorten bit by bit. A time to celebrate the light, but also to acknowledge the bit of darkness that is always present, the darkness that will always return.
Still, nature is in full bloom, gardens have been planted and are growing, it's a time of abundance and celebrating the light and the growth all around us. We feast and play games, but it is still a time of work, of tending to the seeds we planted in spring, making sure they come to fruit.

Lammas, August 2nd. It's late in the afternoon now. The sun is still shining away, but it is noticeably closer to the horizon now. We begin the scurry of finishing the day's work before the night arrives. Although this is the peak of the summer season, it is also the first of the three harvest festivals.
A time to celebrate the mysteries of the sacred meal. The mysteries of the grain which was a small seed saved from the previous cycle, connected to all cycles before it. A seed planted deep within the earth, which has grown up into the sky with water and the light/fire of the sun. The crop that carries the very spirit of the land it has grown on. The seed which knowing the mysteries of the elements, becomes the crop, that has now been harvested and made into food which sustains us. Likewise, the wine, which we sip and feel our inhibitions leaving us (letting our subconscious minds come forth a bit more), is also imbued with the elements and the essence of the land.

The light half of the year closes with Mabon, and the dark half begins... but, that's another post, for another day.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Wheel of the Year

The Wheel of the Year can mean different things to different Pagans - and to be sure, not all Pagans call their holidays by this name / celebrate the same holidays, or celebrate them in the same way. For many the Wheel refers to a series of eight holidays - the four quarters (the solstices and equinoxes), and the four cross-quarters (the points between solstice and equinox). It can also include the lunar cycles, as well. This series of eight holidays was likely not known as a whole to any ancient pagan group, and is instead a mash-up of a few ancient European calendars.

Before we get into the details, let's look a bit closer at some of these terms. The Wheel part is a fairly easy one to understand, as the year can be seen as cylindrical. Eventually we always come back to the same spot. It's October 18th today, a year from now it will be October 18th again, and a year from that we'll still be at October 18th. Since we're never truly at the same point in time again, some prefer to see the passage of time as a spiral. We started in the center, and each year we move out a ring. We come to the same point on the ring over and over, but it's always a new ring. The rings of a tree are also a good metaphor to examine.

What about "quarter" and "cross-quarter" though? Draw, or imagine, a circle. Then put a line down the center of the circle, vertically. Next, horizontally. The north/upper spoke on the wheel is the Winter Solstice. The southern/lower spoke it's counterpart, the Summer Solstice. The east/right point the Spring Equinox, and the west/left point the Autumn Equinox. Those are the four quarter holidays, and as you can see, the divide the year into four quarters. These holidays are usually called Yule, Ostara, Litha, and Mabon. (But remember, names can vary quite a bit!) Quarter Days are sometimes referred to as the "lesser Sabbats."

The solstices and equinoxes are not on fixed dates. Although they usually happen around the same times each year, the exact date can vary. The Summer Solstice was on the 21st of June this year, but will be the 20th of June next year.

Next come the cross-quarter days, these dates cross the quarters, so draw an X through the circle which splits it into 8 equal pie sections. These are the Holidays Imbolc, Beltane, Lammas, and Samhain. (Google image search "wheel of the year" for tons of pictures of this sort of chart.)

Since Samhain is the next approaching, let's use that for the next example. There are two ways to calculate the date for Samhain, and the other cross quarter days (sometimes called the "greater sabbats" or "fire festivals."). One is to go by fixed dates - Samhain would fall on the same date every year, usually starting at sundown on Oct 31st and running to sundown of Nov 1st. Why sundown? The Celtic calender is one the modern Wheel is based off of, and they began their day at sundown. (Similar to the Jewish and Islamic calenders.)
The other way to do this is to calculate the exact point between the Fall Equinox and Winter Solstice - this year that would be Nov 7th. Since the solstices and equinoxes shift slightly each year, so would these dates. Which method you use is a personal choice.

Now if you're in the Southern Hemisphere? Same thing, but flipped. While in the Northern Hemisphere we just celebrated the Autumn Equinox, in the Southern the Spring Equinox has just passed by - meaning they are getting ready to celebrate Beltane next, while in the North we are waiting for Samhain.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Tools: The Censer

Simply put, a censer is a holder for burning incense. For many it is a tool associated with air, or not given much thought because the actual incense becomes the main focus.

For me, it's a rather special tool - an altar unto itself, able to represent all four elements, as well as a place to make offerings and open the way to the Unseen World. Starting with the bowl itself, my censer is cauldron shaped, linking it with water. It is filled with finely ground grain, linking it with earth. In it burns a charcoal round, fire. On it incense smolders, creating smoke - air. Through the fire offerings are given to the Spirits, Ancestors, or Gods - our words carried to Them on the scented smoke.

It takes time to prepare the censer for ritual use, going through the steps helps one to enter into a ritual mindset. It begins with selecting what to fill the censer with. You should fill it with something to help keep the censer itself from becoming too hot. Again, I use a ground grain... usually corn, as it's a local grain connecting it to this land - but other grains are sometimes used, barley for Artemis, as an example. However, there are other options to choose from. Some use sand (which you can also find in a variety of colors), dirt, salt, rice, or ash. Grains will burn a bit under the charcoal, but this can be a nice scent, and will be gone by the time the charcoal is ready for the incense.

Which brings us to the next step, lighting the charcoal. Using a pair of metal tweezers or tongs (metal chopsticks can also be used, for those with the skill to use them), hold the charcoal over an open flame. A taper candle or lighter works well - matches usually don't stay lit long enough. Set the charcoal into the censer. Don't push it down into the filling, there needs to be some oxygen flow around the sides for proper burn. (There is a way to use ash to cover the charcoal, leaving a little vent to heat a small metal plate of incense instead of directly burning it. Look up Japanese incense ceremony techniques for more information on other ways to burn the charcoal.)

Always be sure to use incense charcoal and not BBQ bricks! They are made differently, and it is important to use the correct charcoal. It's also best to do this outside, or in a well ventilated room. We want to smell the scent of the incense, a little bit of smoke coming from the incense is pleasant to look at -- but too much smoke isn't good for us, and can even take us out of the right frame of mind for ritual.

Next you must wait for the charcoal to be glowing red all across it, and covered with a fine layer of ash. Fanning or gently blowing on the charcoal can aid this process. Then the charcoal is ready for the incense. Add just a pinch or two at a time, so you don't end up with too much smoke, or smothering the charcoal which would put it out. You may want a little metal spoon to add the incense, and to scrape ash off the charcoal when too much has built up. When incense is burned as part or a larger ritual, adding the incense can become a little ritual within ritual.

The charcoal will usually burn for about an hour, perhaps a bit less. If you need to put it out before then, push it down into the filling to smother it. (This doesn't work so well with ash.) Or pour water into the censer if you do not want to use the filling again. Remove any unburned charcoal, scoop out any ash  - or just mix it in. The filling can be reused several times, of if it is grain it can be left as an offering after the ritual/working. Always be sure the charcoal is out, and there's nothing burning or hot when you're at the clean up stage.

If you like cone incense (and honestly, I prefer it for inside use - and so does my fiance, who is a bit sensitive to smoke/scents) a smaller bowl can be used, but the same effect had. Small cauldron or cup for water, earth filling, the fire which burns the cone, and the smoke which rises into the air. Cones are nice for shorter rituals (say, daily morning prayers), as they don't burn as long as the charcoal.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Fall Friday

This week started off with some unseasonably beautiful weather - sunny, and in the high 70s, low 80s. It felt like summer was giving one last show before the cold set back in. The week has ended with cooler temperatures, 60s, with a good bit of rain. More like the October I know...

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Pumpkin and Apple Butter Pie

Pumpkins and apples are both in season at this time of year, and this is a great recipe to use up a bit of that seasonal harvest. Not up to making your own pumpkin puree and apple butter? No problem, both are readily available at many grocery stores! Adding apple butter gives the familiar old pumpkin pie an interesting new twist.

3 eggs
1 1/2 cup pumpkin puree (about one 15oz can)
*1 cup apple butter
1/3 cup brown sugar
3 tbsp honey (or maple syrup, yum!)
1 5oz can evaporated milk
1/4 cup whole milk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground clove
1/8 tsp ground star anise
1/8 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1 unbaked pie shell (9 inch)
Melted butter

Preheat the oven to 400F. In a large mixing bowl lightly beat the eggs. Add the pumpkin puree, apple butter, brown sugar and honey - mix well. Then add the two milks, vanilla, spices, and salt. Mix until combined. Pour into a unbaked pie shell. Cover the crust with tin foil. Bake for 30 minutes (the foil will help keep the crust from burning). Remove the tin foil, lightly brush the crusts with a bit of melted butter. Bake for about 20 more minutes.The pie is done when a knife inserted close to the center comes out clean. Serve with a bit of fresh whipped cream.

*A note on apple butter - depending on how spiced your recipe is, you may want to adjust the spice levels in the pie a bit. If you don't add much spice to the apple butter, add another 1/2 tsp of cinnamon. If your apple butter (or pumpkin puree) is a bit on the watery side, cut back on the whole milk.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Photo Day: Water

Slightly off-season, but I feel this picture captures water fairly well. This is a photo I took after an ice storm last winter. Usually destructive storms, but always beautiful... (As always, click for a larger version.)

Welcoming the Lady of the Hearth - Part Two

Continuing from my last post...

Deciding that I wanted to get to know this Lady, I set out to create a ritual to preform in Her honor each evening. The first thing that had to be done was preparing the space to be welcoming to the Goddess. This involved a deep cleaning of the kitchen (where Her shrine would be kept), the kind of clean I would do when expecting a visit from guests, which seemed fitting for this Lady. Which lead to the next thing to consider, what ritual purification would I preform on myself? In the end I found it most fitting to do a simple hand washing at the sink - exactly as I would do before preparing a meal for family. (This might make more sense later in the post.)

The space was ready, I was ready, it was time to set up the shrine. Two white bowls on each side for offerings, and a pillar candle holder in the center. I put a mixture of the herbs and spices I use most often in the candle holder - salt, pepper, basil, oregano, sage, cinnamon, nutmeg, red pepper, garlic, lavender, and a bit of cornmeal - to act as a perpetual offerings of sorts. (They'll be changed out each month with a special prayer.)

Then it was time to prepare the candle that would act as the Lamp of Westya. Quite simple, really. I took a bit of good olive oil from the same bottle I cook with, and anointed the candle while saying "Be pure, Lamp of Westya. Be sacred, Lamp of Westya."

(As a note, from here on all prayers were written by Ceisiwr Serith, with only a few small modifications, whose prayer and ritual books I highly recommend!)
For the first lighting of the candle I wanted to light it at my stove, the actual "hearth" of my home. It's recommended to actually light the candle, using a match as middle man, from the stove's fire - but I have an electric stove, so lighting it at the stove was next best. On this first night, and every evening since, I light the candle while saying "Westya is here, heart of our home." The candle is not a symbol of the Goddess, but Her Living Flame. After lighting, I carefully moved the candle to the shrine. (After the first night I just lit the candle in the shrine after the hand washing, while reciting the same prayer. When a new candle is needed, I'll repeat lighting it on the stove.)

After lighting the candle, I make the first offering, a "base" material that is used in cooking... milk, honey, flour, salt, oil, or clarified butter. This is to be symbolic of Westya being the base, the foundation of the family home. Four spoons of the offering go into the bowl, reciting a line from this prayer with each spoon full...
Burn on our hearth, Westya,
source of all that is holy.
Bless us who dwell here,
and smile on our home.
After the first offering, I go on to cook dinner. This is our largest meal of the day, and the one where we are really able to sit and eat as a family. After dinner is cooked, the second is made, it is a bit of the family's meal. This offering represents the transforming and sustaining power of Westya. With this offering a personal prayer is said.

After dinner is done, there's a bit of clean up, and when done in the kitchen the candle is put out. Before putting the candle out, I take a few moments of silent meditation, then say...
You are always the shining fire,
here in home's heart.
Stay with us,
stay in our home,
and each day I will honor you.

And extinguish the candle.

Later in the evening the offerings are removed (I am placing them outside at this time), the bowls washed, and returned to the shrine for the next day.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Welcoming the Lady of the Hearth - Part One

I've had a small kitchen shrine off and on for a few years now. There were a few times in the past where I would try to dedicate it to a particular hearth Deity, but it never quite felt right... So I figured it wasn't meant to be (at least not at that point in time), and gave up on that idea for a time.

That is, until reading a book by Ceisiwr Serith called Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. The Proto-Indo-Europeans (PIE) were a loose grouping of peoples who spoke, you guessed it, Proto-Indo-European. They lived sometime around 4000 BC, give or take a thousand years or so, depending on exactly which time period we're looking at. The PIE people didn't write, so we reconstruct their language by looking at the many descendant languages (Latin is one, as is Old Norse, Old English, Old Irish, among quite a few others.) We also reconstruct elements of their culture and religion through such methods, as well as through archeological finds.

In the book Serith lists some of the Gods and Goddesses of the PIE peoples. One of these Goddesses is a hearth Goddess. The name for Her that the PIE used is unknown. Serith suggests Westya, from the same root as Vesta. Westya meaning something like "She of the Household." He also gives a few other possibilities... Xasanoya (Hearth+Deity name suffix+feminine ending - Xasa/no/ya), or Parunoya (similar to the last, but with fire instead of hearth), or Demspotni (Lady of the Household). For now, I'll stick with Westya.

I was quite taken with his description of Her, and the rituals/prayers he provides for Her, and felt called to look deeper into the subject...

Looking into a reconstructed Goddess, who's name didn't even survive. I was not entirely sure where to start. I tried to do some of my own research into the subject, which as expected isn't exactly easy - there's not a lot out there.

So what can I say about Her? She is a hearth Goddess, but more so She present in the actual hearth fire itself. The hearth is the heart of the home, the foundation, through the holy hearth fire we sustain our families. It is also through fire that many traditions give sacrifice to the Gods, and so it can be seen as a link or doorway to Them. (Smoke from the fire, or from burned incense, can be viewed in a similar way.)

So, I was left with just jumping in and seeing where this would take me. I was going to invite this Lady of the Hearth into my home, and see where it would lead me...