Wytch Hazel Cottage

Reclaiming Our Ancestral Folkways

Stripping Back To The Bare Bones

I was lost and confused as I stood in front of my altar no longer having the desire to pray, meditate or even connect with the guiding forces that had brought me to this very moment. My spiritual path tasted like saw dust on my tongue; tasteless and dry. I didn’t understand why this was happening to me, but gradually I became aware of an overwhelming longing to get rid of all of the physical things that I had been using for my spiritual practice and begin with a clean slate. I had a realisation that I needed to strip away the veneer, strip away the suffocating amount of objects distracting me from having a meaningful and authentic relationship with the land and spirits around me. Layer after layer would have to be stripped away so that eventually I would only be left with the bare bones of a spiritual practice. This happened three years ago during the weeks leading up to the Heathen celebration of Winter Nights. A time I associate with the releasing of all that no longer serves us so that we can walk into the season of hibernation unburdened.

Up until this point everything had been a distraction for me: the tarot decks, the new age books and all of the other paraphernalia that I had accumulated over the years, believing that these were things that I needed to be a pagan of today. Yet without even realising, it was actually leading me further and further away from the place I was aiming for. A place of wisdom and understanding.

The materialistic side of modern paganism is ugly. Thankfully I didn’t fall into the hole as deeply as some do, but when I first encountered pagan spirituality and began seeking like minded souls online, there was no way of avoiding the sparkly crystals, the hipster witchy books, the Heathen tattoos and the must have pentagrams, not forgetting the perfectly curated animal bones on altars.

When some of us begin exploring different spiritual paths, more often than not we have no one in our immediate environment to guide us through the mire of uncertainty, so instead we turn to online communities for guidance. We sit through hours of unboxings and witchy shopping hauls that all wax lyrical about this or that item, ‘the one item’ that will help you heal your shadows or your inner child or even help you reconnect with the divine feminine. Where is the value in this and what meaningful contribution is being made? Apart from encouraging consumerism and distracting people from true spiritual fullfilment, absolutely nothing whatsoever. Is this what we have come to, admiring other people’s possessions?

We don’t need stuff to help us build connections with the land and its inhabitants, but sadly as long as there are spiritual trends and people with credit cards there will always be some merchandise being forced down our throats. At one point for about a year I was deeply drawn to Norse paganism, reading the lore and studying as best as I could, but then it seemed that everyone and their uncle was a Norse Pagan and were more concerned with the cool aesthetics, the tattoos and the tacky mjolnirs from China than working towards anything spiritually meaningful. How quickly a spiritual revival can be turned into a fashion statement. I distanced myself from this trend very quickly because I did not want to be clumped together with these people who were giving sincere and honest heathens a bad name. This shallow trend however has everything to do with likes and followers and absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with a genuine interest in learning about the ways of an ancient European people. 

Deciding to follow my instincts, little by little I began letting go of my card decks, my books and so on; a process that I am still abiding by today. Now that I am older and I hope a little more wise, I have learnt to look towards my ancient ancestors for guidance instead of new age gurus. I turn within and listen to what courses through my veins. With less stuff I am no longer distracted, I am more focused and intentional with my time and continually deepening my relationship with the old ones of my homeland. 

I have donated or sold hundreds of books and from the two dozen decks that I once owned I now have the grand total of three. This allows me to bond with them on a much deeper level because I work solely with them on a daily basis. My altar is presently a lot smaller and is actually a stool on which I have a  handful of intentional items that mean something to me.

The process of letting go has trickled into other areas of my life. Now I only follow a small number of online content creators which frees up so much of my valuable time. I no longer submit myself to three hour long live videos of rambling nothingness repeating the exact same thing week in and week out that brings absolutely no benefit to my life at all. I no longer scroll through meaningless pretty photos with vague captions and now only follow accounts that share genuine and authentic content that brings value to my life. 

If you are where I was a few years ago before my journey of letting go of the unnecessary, then I wholeheartedly suggest that you try and start stripping back your own life to the bare bones and see what happens. Starting anew with both your surroundings and spiritual practice throws wide open the doors to mental clarity and enlightenment which allows room for true joy and contentment.

Our ancient ancestors’ possessions were few, but they were treasured. Handmade and lovingly cared for, every item, even a work tool was more often than not engraved or decorated and was blessed after each use. Their belongings lasted much longer than our throwaway plastic ones and when those objects had seen better days they would either have been repaired or perhaps offered up to a deity in gratitude. Our ancestors never sought to have more than they needed and instead of the fancy spiritual tools that we have today, they looked of course to the gifts of the land they lived on. We could all learn a thing or two from our ancestors. Following a simple, stress free and more intentional way of living is a great thing to aspire to indeed.

 

Rewriting The Past

Our past is being rewritten. This isn’t a recent phenomenon, but something that has been worming its way into every aspect of our culture for hundreds of years. Whether it is a new age author’s innovative interpretation of a certain spiritual tradition, an age old scholar under the patronage of a king or even a film portrayal of an historical event. Everyone has a bias and sometimes surprisingly an agenda too.

By reinventing our past to suit our needs we are not harmlessly changing a detail here or there for maximum effect in the retelling of an event or story. Whatever is changed, no matter how seemingly insignificant will eventually end up influencing our future. We are not playing an innocent game of Chinese Whispers. If one inaccuracy is placed on top of another inaccuracy then we will arrive at a point where we would have completely reshaped who we are: our traditions, our folklore, our mythology and our history; which in turn means everything that connects us to our ancestors.

Modern literature and films as well as television series that portray ancient history, mythology and spirituality are all gateways of inspiration for those of us who wish to return to a more meaningful life without the trappings of religion and consumerism. However, due to the fact that these gateways are so easily accessible and a huge part of today’s popular culture, many people accept these portrayals as fact, when sometimes this couldn’t be more further from the truth.

I fell into this trap myself in the beginning when I first began reading and researching European pre-Christian faiths and traditions. Thankfully, the phrase ‘Heathenry is the religion with homework’ saved me. By diligently doing my homework I began to realise that the more I was reading the more easily I was able to see discrepancies between different sources (dates, names and places for example) and this taught me very early on how to be more discerning when it came to the books I was choosing.

So how can we be sure that the sources we are using are the real deal? How can we sift through the lies to reach the truth? I am going to share with you some of the things I do to ensure, to the best of my knowledge, that I am reading facts not fiction when it comes to history, religion and mythology.

Firstly, I visit second hand shops and garage sales. These are excellent places to find old books especially published before 1945. After World War II particularly with the arrival of Wicca, it is important to understand that a lot more disingenuous information began being published. Of course I am not saying that everything you read before this date can be trusted either; just look at how Roman and Greek scholars portrayed the Germanic peoples or the Gauls for example. However, many authors before this date were not censored to the extent that we are today and I believe that they had an easier time as well when it came to finding original and authentic sources. So much material has been lost, destroyed or edited.

It is getting harder and harder to find old books, especially ones that are reasonably priced. So for those of us who are frugal I can assure you that you can continue saving your money. I rarely buy a book now unless I am one hundred percent sure of its integrity and instead I either borrow books from the library, many of which are very old or I make the most of public domain books online. These are the sites I use the most and that I recommend: gutenberg.org, sacred-texts.com, forgottenbooks.org and jstor.org. You will need to register for some of these, but it is free to do so. I guarantee that you will have several lifetimes of material to get stuck into with these websites. They are fantastic resources and I have read many great books.

I will add that when it comes to old history books be aware that some of them will have a heavy Christian bias and if you are reading books that have been translated, do your best to read the original translations. It has come to my attention that a certain modern translation of Eyrbyggja Saga has replaced the word ‘Yule’ with ‘Christmas’.

If you are wanting to buy a more recently published book then I would encourage you to lean more towards history rather than spirituality. You can learn so much about the spiritual practices of our ancestors from a history book based on facts with a decently sized bibliography rather than a neo pagan spiritual book which can be heavily biased towards the author’s own views and personal practice. Authors that I have recently read and respect are Kathleen Herbert, Stephen Pollington and Sinead Spearing.

Also, I would just like to add that there is nothing overly wrong with using the internet for information, but only use it as a springboard for getting a broad overview of a topic before diving in deeper with other sources.

Please be wary of new age books that are contributing to the rewriting of our past by completely innovating our ancient traditions. These books are guiding us along a disingenuous spiritual path that has no links to our heritage whatsoever. Be mindful of the bias, prejudice and assumptions that can be made and start making a conscious effort to be discerning with everything that you are reading and watching.

Lastly, when you come across someone on social media who is stating something as fact and you know that this isn’t the case; find the courage to speak up, kindly correct them and point them towards original authentic sources. These untruths worry me deeply and I hope that I have inspired you to think about how you search for and share information. It is our duty, as custodians of our heritage, to defend its integrity.

If you have any tips or tricks on how to be more discerning when it comes to choosing what you read then I would love for you to share them.

Reclaim Your Ancestral Roots

I believe that our DNA holds the key to our ancestral legacy. I say this because there is compelling evidence that memory is biologically transmitted. What this means is that the wisdom of our ancestors is somehow transferred from their memories to their genes allowing knowledge to be passed down from generation to generation.

However, these past few decades, British school children are being taught about the ancestors of other cultures; about the Egyptians and the Greeks or even the Japanese; all the while being under the impression that our “British” ancestral legacy begins with the arrival of the Normans; as apparently, Britain was a vacuum up until 1066.

I remember quite clearly learning about pre-historic Britain when I was at school in the seventies. Days that were barely holding on to our beautiful Isles’ incredible deep past. A school trip to the Iron Age fort of Maiden Castle was such an awe inspiring experience for me that it has stayed with me to this very day; thirty nine years later. Looking back with what I now know, I was truly blessed to have walked in the footsteps of my ancestors.

Heartbreaking as it is, how are we supposed to reconnect to our ancestral memories within us when the sound of our ancestors’ voices speaking their truth is being drowned out?

With the lack of knowledge of who we are and where we come from, is it any wonder that at their first opportunity young people are off backpacking across the world experiencing other people’s customs and faiths without even realising what beautiful cultures we have right here in Europe? We have our very own diverse heritage, we have our very own diverse indigenous spirituality and we have an identity that is ours despite being told otherwise. It is unrealistic to try and attempt to connect on a soul level to the folkways of other cultures because we do not share the same root systems; we do not share the same languages, we do not share the same histories nor do we share the same folkways; for all of these things are shaped by our landscape and our genealogy. Europe has become such a melting pot of cultural influences that we have completely lost sight of what is actually ours by birthright.

We have an incredible gift coursing through our veins. Everything that our souls are yearning for is embedded in our DNA. Our sense of place in the world, our identity, our home. If we don’t grasp the fact that what we need to do is to start looking inwards instead of outwards then that nagging feeling of something missing will never go away.

Many people find themselves yearning for another time or another place. At first there doesn’t appear to be any logical reason for this, but if they started chipping away at the surface they would soon discover that it is their blood calling them home. More and more people are hearing the voices of their ancestors, but they are finding it difficult to answer the calls because they cannot pinpoint the direction the voices are coming from. If only they could look a little closer for they would find that the voices are coming from the overgrown stones in the corner of a field, the remains of a windy hill fort or a cloutie tree that signposts a sacred place of pilgrimage. Honouring our ancestral past allows our children to have a future, but if we do not show a deep reverence towards our lands, our ancestors and our folkways, then how can we expect our children to care for these things and realise how greatly they matter.

In the distant past, our forebears through reciting their genealogies, telling tales of epic heroes and practising tradition, instilled in them the sense of being part of something larger than themselves. With the expansion of the Roman Empire, however, followed by the spread of Christianity and the forced migrations of thousands of Europeans, it didn’t take long for our ancestral roots to wither and almost die. The Industrial Revolution was the last nail in the coffin and today we are left with scores of people who don’t even know the names of their own grandparents. Even family heirlooms are a thing of the past as photos, personal items and the memories they once held are consigned to flea markets and car boot sales.

Do you feel spiritually lost with no traditions that ground you? Have you immersed yourself in other cultures, honoured their gods and practised their customs, but have never felt truly fulfilled or connected? I felt this way myself many years ago when I was cherry picking from different cultures from around the world. But little by little like Hansel and Gretel, I began following the breadcrumbs back to my ancestral spirituality and I have never felt more grounded.

If you are wanting to mend the broken threads that tie your ancestors and their folkways to yourself, but don’t know how to go about it because it just seems too overwhelming a task, then you can follow the easy steps that I am going to share with you and I promise that they will help you find the way back to where you belong.

I had wanted to take an Ancestry DNA test for a very long time because I felt that it would open up a doorway to my past and my roots. When I finally did and the results came back it was like a veil had been lifted from my eyes and I could see how everything made so much sense especially when it came to what I was instinctively drawn to. Folk memory dies hard and with a little nudge our amnesia can be lifted.

For the first time since leaving Christianity behind I could at last immerse myself in a meaningful spiritual practice that was rooted in my genetic makeup. I decided to explore my largest DNA percentage first because logically more of my ancestors from these regions had contributed to who I was. Therefore, I believed that this would make it easier for me to reconnect with them and I totally immersed myself in this branch of my tree.

If you choose to use a DNA test to help you gain insight and direction for your spiritual as well as your everyday life, then I would strongly suggest that you only work with one branch at a time. It just isn’t possible to connect meaningfully to every single branch of your family tree at once and in any great depth.

Reconnecting to our lost heritage reawakens our kinship to the lands, rituals and traditions of our people. The threads are terribly worn, but with patience and time we can weave new life back into our ancestral tapestry. It will never be the same as before, but if our hearts and minds are in the right place we can again become one with those who came before us.

However, we do need to put the work in to rediscover our ancestral folkways: the songs, the music, the dances, the myths and legends, the nursery rhymes and the fairy tales, as well as regional cuisine, art, literature and festivals. If you are able to, then visit and explore the regions or countries where your ancestors come from. You could decorate your home with items from that region or with family heirlooms, as well as visit museums, galleries and libraries. You will learn so much about yourself in the process as this whole new world opens up to you.

I have found the pre-Christian worldview and spiritual practices of my ancestors to be the most compelling aspect of my research and with so many passionate revivalists starting up groups in real life, as well as online, it has never been easier to find out about your ancestral folkways and connect with your tribe. For example, if you have French ancestry then you could find other people who practice Gaulish Polytheism or Frankish Heathenry. Or you could go even further back in time and dive deeper into the bear cult for instance or into the shamanistic practices represented in the prehistoric art of France’s infamous caves.

A huge component of reclaiming your ancestral roots has to be language. Linguistic diversity has been on the decline for hundreds of years and of the seven thousand languages spoken around the world today, half of them are endangered. Language is the greatest defining aspect of any culture and Wales is an example of a declining cultural identity due to English being more widely spoken now. Cornish and Manx are two examples of dozens of European languages that are critically or severely in danger of disappearing forever.

Some languages, however, are being thrown a lifeline with many groups pushing revitalising efforts. Scotland now has three Gaelic schools all at full capacity and in Sweden the ancient forest language of Elfdalian is being fought for with the help of schools and other language projects too (only sixty children actually speak it). Learning an ancestral language can be a wonderful way to meet like minded people and a fun project to do as a family. Learning the language of your ancestors makes it so much more easier to understand their beliefs, values and worldview. This way nothing can be lost in translation.

In 2015, The Heritage Crafts Association published ‘The Red List Of Endangered Crafts’ which highlights the plight of traditional craftsmanship. Two hundred and twelve crafts are currently on this list from broom making to arrowsmithing and oak bark tanning to slating. Every year sees more crafts being added or becoming extinct altogether because craftsmen and women are taking their skills to the grave.

The reasons for this are many fold. Firstly, the education system puts a greater emphasis on ‘intellectual’ subjects rather than life skills such as learning a traditional craft. Secondly, an interest in learning a craft is falling due to young people spending much of their down time online or trying to keep up with their heavy study workloads. Thirdly, families no longer have several generations living together anymore so older generations are just not passing their knowledge on to their children and grandchildren. Even if parents have ‘hands on skills’ they are too busy or too tired to even think about teaching their children. Traditional crafts were at one time deeply embedded in our culture due to these generational connections.

And lastly, in a day and age when most people want convenience, uniformity and cheapness over quality, authenticity and uniqueness, traditional craftsmen and women are fighting against the globalist beast. Do you honestly want the exact same item that a million other people own? Every piece an artisan creates has a little part of themselves crafted into it; their love, their passion and their determination to keep traditional crafts alive. Each and everyone of them is promoting a set of values that corporations will never have. Traditional crafts are another thread that connect us to our heritage and by not only buying from these artisans, but also learning a traditional craft, we can be proud of ourselves for preserving our heritage for future generations to enjoy. If you actually have a skill, then it is your responsibility to pass it on. Let us be creators not consumers.

Before I finish, I just wanted to say that if you are able to then please reach out to your living relatives and rebuild family bonds. Spend as much time with them as you can and get to know them on a deeper level. As for older members of your family, find out what you can about your heritage and don’t just ask for photos or dates, but also about your ancestors’ life stories, their heartbreaks and successes. I regret not having been interested in my family history when I was younger and had the opportunity to ask questions to my great grand mother and grandparents. Time is the essence.

The path back to our roots is not a simple straight one. It twists and turns leading us from one place to another with no rhyme or reason. Our roots are part of a complex knotted system which requires patience to unravel, so take your time and enjoy the journey all the way back to your beginning. And if you have children, please involve them as much as you can. Bushcraft, bake, sew, sing them nursery rhymes, tell them about your life and the life of your parents or grand parents if you can, for it is our duty as ancestors in training to pass on this sacred knowledge.

I hope that what I have written has given you some food for thought and has inspired you today to find out more about your heritage and what you can do to preserve your birthright.

Old English Spring Traditions

Humans have revered the hare for thousands of years and early hunters believed that the hare was a worthy kill due to the challenge of catching such an agile and swift creature. As centuries passed, a belief that the mysterious hare was from the Otherworld grew strong and as a result it was treated with such caution that it was taboo to eat hare in many parts of Europe including Wales, Germany, Breton, Switzerland and Denmark. Even Julius Caesar observed this behaviour among the Celtic people of Britain. In some regions just saying the word ‘hare’ was not tolerated and this went on right up until the 19th century. There is even a story of a Germanic tribe that once descended upon Rome at the very same moment a hare was seen dashing towards the city walls. On seeing the Teutons running behind the hare, the Roman soldiers immediately abandoned their positions.

The most well known story, however, which portrays the otherworldly attributes of the hare comes from the Iceni tribe and their goddess Andraste. Whether this goddess took the actual form of a hare is not known, but the Greek historian Dio Cassius, recorded that this war goddess was invoked by their queen Boudica before they revolted against Roman occupation.

“Let us, therefore, go against [the Romans], trusting boldly to good fortune. Let us show them that they are hares and foxes trying to rule over dogs and wolves.” When she [Boudica] had finished speaking, she employed a species of divination, letting a hare escape from the fold of her dress; and since it ran on what they considered the auspicious side, the whole multitude shouted with pleasure, and Boudica, raising her hand toward heaven, said: “I thank you, Andraste, and call upon you as woman speaking to woman … I beg you for victory and preservation of liberty.”

It appears in this case, that the hare was divine and possibly even revered by the Iceni tribe.

To understand the reasons behind why an animal is reviled we need to go back to the time of the Christian conversion and more often than not the trail leads back to a deity. With the arrival of Christianity, layer upon layer of superstition and fear were applied to these primal gods in an attempt to erase them from history, especially if they could not be moulded into the Christian mythos. An example of this comes from Germany with many tales of ghostly hares causing mischief particularly three legged ones. Yet, despite attempts to erase this sacred creature, the symbol of the hare has endured across the centuries hidden within the arts of folk medicine and magic.

Further evidence of the hidden symbolism of the hare can be found in Leicestershire. For there was once a tradition called ‘Hunting the Easter Hare” which took place on Easter Monday. A hare would be hunted then chased towards the Mayor’s house, after which a fine banquet was enjoyed with the hare being the main dish .

The Hallaton ‘Hare Pie Scramble’ has unknown origins, but a piece of land was once left to the rector of Hallaton village in order for him to be able to provide two hare pies and twenty four loaves for the local community on Easter Monday. Hares are not in season after March so mutton, steak and veal would have been used instead. Straight after morning mass the pies were blessed and all the food was shared among the local folk. In the afternoon a procession led by a man with a hare topped staff made its way to a place called Hare Pie Bank, that was situated on the south side of the village (in ancient times this would have been perceived as a sacred boundary). Once there a game of bottle kicking began.

The bottles were actually not bottles at all, but wooden casks two of which were filled with ale and the other which was left empty. Two teams of men, one from Hallaton and the other from the nearby village of Medbourne had to kick the casks over a water boundary of two streams. A full cask was thrown up in the air first and then fought for, followed by the empty one and lastly the remaining full one. The winners shared the ale between them which they received at a ceremony at the market cross. This tradition survives today and still takes place on Easter Monday. It is believed that the hare pie tradition goes back as far as Anglo Saxon times as part of a spring ritual sacrifice to a deity for a successful springtime sowing and autumn harvest. The bottle kicking tradition may go back even further than that, possibly  representing the symbolic struggle between winter and spring.

The name Simnel was applied to all cakes that were baked throughout the duration of Lent. Early Christians decorated these cakes with a figurine of Jesus or the Virgin Mary which gave them religious significance. On Simnel Sunday, young people would visit their parents with gifts of cakes and trinkets especially for the mother. Called ‘going a mothering’, this tradition eventually became Mothering Sunday. The word simnel which can also be spelt symel, simnell and simbling is very closely related to the Old Saxon ‘symbel’ meaning feast or banquet. These richly decorated cakes are very likely remnants of cakes eaten by the pre-Christian Anglo Saxons during celebrations, such as festivals that took place during the month of Solmonath. The Venerable Bede wrote that, ‘Solmonath can be called the month of cakes, which they offered to their gods in that month’. Simnel cakes made from fruit, spices and marzipan could at one time only be found in Lancashire.  Geoffroi Gaimer’s Anglo Norman story ‘Lay of Havelock the Dane’, written in the late 13th century, even mentions Simnel cakes.

The same can be said about hot cross buns (from the word bous meaning sacred ox) which some say are also likely to be a remnant of a much earlier pre-Christian observance. No doubt the church realised that they couldn’t stop people from offering cakes to their gods, so they absorbed this tradition into the Christian faith by adding a cross on top of them.

The symbol of the cross is much older than Christianity and Germanic people carved crosses onto ancient bridal and boundary oak trees (boundary oaks were a Saxon institution). An oak tree that grew near Dahl in Germany was at one time visited by newly wed couples who danced around it three times before carving a cross onto its trunk. Dr Thomas Kuhn, an American physicist, philosopher and historian believed that the cross was the original symbol of Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, which was used at one time to bless marriage unions. In the Poetic Edda’s Thrymskvitha, Thor dressed in a wedding gown has his stolen hammer placed on his lap.

Whether the cross symbolised Mjolnir or not we just don’t know, but we do know for sure that the oak tree was sacred to Thor and that hammers were used to consecrate weddings and also births for example. Interestingly, there is a Thor’s hammer pendant that was discovered in Iceland dated to the 10th century and it is in the form of a cross melding the pagan and Christian faiths together. Perhaps hiding the pre-Christian faith in plain sight?

For ease of conversion during Europe’s Christianisation, the early Church incorporated many of our pre-Christian customs and traditions into its own. The Church realised it could not stamp out the folkways of our ancestors entirely and conversion by sword and fire could only go so far. So despite their Christian veneer, the Old Ways are still with us today; if you know where to look.

Sources:

A Dictionary of Superstition, 1989, Oxford University Press

The Moon Myth and Image, 2003, Jules Cashford

The Easter Hare, 1892, Charles Bilson

Origins of English History, 1890, Charles Isaac Elton

Midsummer’s Eve Traditions

Midsummer’s Day marks the longest day and shortest night of the year, when the sun finally reaches its highest point in the sky and we can all enjoy over sixteen hours of daylight. Celebrations that take place at this time of year have their roots deeply embedded in Neolithic times when stone tombs and circles were built in alignment with the rising and setting of the sun at Midsummer.

On Midsummer’s Eve in most parts of Britain, our ancient ancestors would light fires on top of hills as darkness fell. These fires were originally called bonefires because they were often entirely made up of bones, but as time passed, oak, furze, bracken, coal and even tar were used; the gathering of which began the month before.

In Cornwall, lit torches crafted from pieces of material soaked in tar and then tied to a long pole or chain were carried in a procession. People danced and sang around a chain of fires while holding hands as a way of protecting themselves from evil spirits or witches. The first fire was lit in St Ives and then all through the night one by one fires were lit across the whole county from west to east. A young girl was chosen to be the ‘Lady of the Flowers’ and she would throw a sickle shaped bunch of flowers and herbs into the flames while saying an invocation. The Cornish called this time of year ‘Goluan’ meaning the light and joy of the Cornish Folk.

Here and elsewhere, when the fires began to die down, some people leapt across them hoping to ensure protection, purification, fertility or luck. It was common for courting couples to hold hands and jump over the dying flames three times, for it was believed that this would ensure a long, healthy and prosperous marriage with many children. Young men jumped over the flames to prove their courage and strength whilst young women jumped over the cooling embers with the hope of attracting a potential husband as well as boost her fertility. Cattle were guided over the fires’ embers while their backs were singed with a burning hazel twig. Burning gorse or furze were also carried around the animals to again bless and protect them from illness and misfortune.

In Ireland, the oldest woman in the community walked around the fire reciting prayers of protection and homes were decorated with birch, fennel, St John’s Wort and white lilies.

Another custom was to scatter what was left of the ashes around the outside of the home, as well as throwing some of them into the hearth. In the minds of our ancestors, the charred remains of these fires held protective powers so they crafted charms out of them for protection from injuries and bad luck. The ash from the Midsummer’s fires was also scattered around the fields to protect and encourage the crops’ growth and any remaining ashes were kept to form the foundation of the following year’s fire. Some people even lit hazel twigs from the fires and raced one another back home with them. The first person to arrive home was believed to receive blessings of prosperity for the coming year.

In earlier times, the Celts bound cart wheels with straw and set them alight before rolling them down the side of a steep hill. For them this symbolised the turning of the year and it was believed that if the cart wheel arrived, still lit, at the bottom of the hill, then the next harvest would be a good one.

Mistletoe was revered by the druids and was regarded as being particularly potent if found growing on an oak tree. Although we associate mistletoe with Midwinter, it was often ceremoniously gathered at this time of year when the plant was considered to be at the height of its power; and some of the cuttings were made into protective amulets. The Druids’ Midsummer’s rituals did not take place at Stonehenge as many people are led to believe today. There is no evidence to suggest that Druids had a connection to this megalithic stone circle.

In later times, the ceremonial fire was lit on the village green and children would dance around the ring first before the adults followed suite. As the sound of fiddles carried off in the night sweets were given out to the children.

The full moon in June is traditionally called the Honey Moon and was named after the mead drink that is readily available during the summer months. Mead played an important part in handfasting ceremonies that took place during Midsummer and was believed to be a divine solar drink that possessed magical and restorative properties.

The day before the Ferry Fair in South Queens-ferry, West Lothian Scotland, there was a very strange custom the origins of which are a mystery. For over 800 years the Burry Man walked the streets of South Queens-ferry, a figure covered from head to toe with thistle and teazle burrs and his face was concealed with flowers. It was tradition that no one recognise who the Burry Man was. He carried a staff in each hand as he silently walked through the streets receiving money from the homes he visited. This gesture was thought to bring good luck. Some believe that this tradition remembers the escape of King Malcolm III of Scotland, who evaded the English by covering himself with burrs and flowers. Another theory is that the Burry Man was originally someone who collected market or fair tolls.

‘Bawming the Thorn’ is one of England’s oldest summer traditions (bawming means to anoint or adorn). Instead of dancing around a maypole like at Beltane, the people of Appleton, Cheshire, danced around a hawthorn tree that had been decorated with flowers. It was believed that this tree was a cutting from the original Holy Thorn of Glastonbury. The villagers began the day with a procession through the streets including the children who were covered in garlands. Once they arrived at the tree the town’s folk would decorate it with offerings of flowers and ribbons. They also decorated the protective iron railings that surrounded it. After the tree had been decorated they danced around it. The custom of honouring trees goes back to the very beginning of mankind and our ancestors believed that trees were sacred and held a god or spirit within their branches. In early times they understood the wisdom of trees and village councils would meet under them to dispense justice.

Cornwall is a county that has always had a strong belief in fairies, spirits and witches. One of the best times for fighting the forces of evil was believed to be Midsummer’s Eve. At St Cleer, near Liskeard, a huge fire used to be lit on a hill and a witch’s broom and hat were thrown into the flames as a warning to witches to stay away from the area for a year. To break a spell that a witch may have cast, forty types of herbs and flowers were cast onto the fire. A wooden sickle, cut from oak was also thrown onto the fire; perhaps a symbol of the human sacrifice that was offered up in ancient times.

A very strange and old belief was that fern seed (fern spore) if found, could render a person invisible, as well as protect them from demons and witches. The seed also allowed the person to divine successfully. However, the seed was thought to only become visible on St John’s Eve and that it was guarded by the Queen of the Fairies. It was believed that the devil and his imps, as well as witches and fairies did everything they could to stop humans from finding it.

Midsummer’s Eve festivities, with the arrival of Christianity, became known as Midsummer’s Day or St John’s Day. The church wanting to discourage any pagan practices had the celebrations the following day instead and because in the bible John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus, Midsummer was the perfect time for his feast day.

The following are very old English divination practices that were used at this time of year.

An ancient form of love divination was the sowing of hemp seeds on Midsummer’s Eve by a young girl as she walked around the churchyard or the village at midnight. This was popular in Sussex, Herefordshire, Oxfordshire and Devonshire. In Norfolk a hole was dug and the hemp seeds sown inside.

“At eve last Midsummer no sleep I sought, but to the field a bag of hemp seed bought: I scattered round the seed on every side and three times, in a trembling accent cried-‘This hemp seed with my virgin hand I sow, who shall my true love be, the crop shall show.’ I straight looked back and if my eyes speak truth, with his keen scythe, behind me came the youth”. (The Shepherd’s Week, 1714).

‘The Church Porch Watch’ was a custom where people used to sit in the church porch all night on Midsummer’s Eve, in order to see the spirits of the living who would die in the next twelve months. If any watcher fell asleep during this time then it was believed he would die before the next night watch.

The following were used to be popular sayings, beliefs and more divination of days gone by.

“It is unlucky to let the fire go out on Midsummer night”.

“St John’s Wort is a preventative against the efforts of witches and demons.”

“If it rains on Midsummer Eve the nuts will be spoiled.”

“Demons and witches are especially active on St John’s Eve.”

“The beasts in the field go down on their knees at midnight of Midsummer Eve.”

“On Tarberry Hill, Harting, Sussex, the fairies dance in the Pharisees’ rings on Midsummer Eve.” (Pharisee is an old Sussex name for fairy).

“Pluck a rose at midnight and wear it to church and your intended will take it out of your button-hole.” (Western Antiquity, vol. 3, 1884).

“It is said that if a young woman, blindfolded, plucks a full blown rose on Midsummer Day, while the chimes are playing twelve, folds the rose up in a sheet of white paper and does not take out the rose until Christmas Day, it will be found as fresh as when gathered. Then if she places it on her bosom, the young man to whom she is to be married will come and snatch it away.” (Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy, Anna Eliza Stothard, 1879).

“Midsummer Eve night is the pretty maid’s night of night. If the moon is growing, it is the time of her life. She must go into the churchyard and wait for the clock to strike twelve. In her hand she must have rose leaves or some herb like rosemary. When the first strike of the bell sounds, she must start to run round the church, scattering the leaves and singing softly: “Rose leaves, rose leaves. rose leaves I strew; he that will love me come after me now.”

To divine her marriage prospects, a young woman picked some St John’s Wort on Midsummer night and if it was not as fresh as when she had picked it, then the forecast was a sad one.

An old custom was for a girl to plant two Livelong plants, also called Midsummer Man, together side by side on Midsummer Eve. One plant represented her and the other her lover and if his plant turned towards her then he would be faithful (Trans. Herts.Nat. Hist. Society, vol.4, 1887).

In some counties especially Cornwall, Devon and Sussex, a well known form of divination was to wash a night shirt and turn it inside out to dry on a chair near the fire. It was hoped that the future husband would enter the room and turn the night shirt back the right way.

Egg divination was another form of divination practiced in Devon, where an egg was broken into a glass mug at noon on Midsummer’s Day and signs were read of a future husband (Trans. Devon. Assoc, vol.9 Plymouth, 1877).

An unmarried woman who fasted on Midsummer Eve and at midnight laid a clean cloth with bread, cheese and ale and began to eat was supposed to see the figure of her future husband appear at the door she had left opened on purpose as the clock striked twelve (History of the Fylde of Lancashire, John Porter, 1876).

“Exactly at twelve on Midsummer Day, pour some fully molten pewter into a bowl of water. when it is cold, take it out and you will find emblems of your future husband.” (The Royal Fortune Teller).

“Make a new pin-cushion of the very best silk velvet, black (none other will do) and in one side stick your name in the smallest pins you can buy; on the other side, make a cross with some large pins and surround it with a circle. Put the cushion into your right stocking when you take it off at night and hang it at the foot of your bed. All your future life will pass before you in a dream.” (Nummits and Crummits, Sarah Hewett, 1900).

Painting by Edward Robert Hughes, Midsummer Eve, 1908

Old English May Day Traditions

Although summer doesn’t officially start until June, the first of May, really does mark its awakening. Much of the vibrant old European traditions associated with this day have largely disappeared, but ancestral folk memory dies hard and has managed to keep a tight grip on some of these ancient customs. Many of those who have celebrated the first of May over the past few centuries have had absolutely no idea of the true meaning behind these celebrations.

May Day celebrations have their origins in an ancient Roman festival dedicated to Flora, the goddess of flowers and fruit, which was held each year about this time. The festival itself dates back even further to a time of magic and myth, perhaps as far back as the Palaeolithic. Cave paintings show evidence of practices designed to encourage the fertility of the land as well as shamanistic rites that would ensure a successful hunt. The cult of Flora was brought to Britain by Belgic invaders towards the end of the first century B.C and in later times Christianity took this celebration over and adapted it to its own needs, but it has never completely lost its pagan roots.

For hundreds of years, especially during the Middle Ages, it was the custom to go ‘a-Maying’. Just after midnight, to the sounds of cow horns and drums, young men and women went to the woods where they collected tree branches and decorated them with flowers. They also re-enacted the blessed union of the god and the goddess so as to ensure the fertility of the land. Any children that were conceived during these ‘Green Marriages’ were known as ‘Merry Begots’ and were seen as a blessing. Today we celebrate May Day eleven days earlier than our ancestors did before our calendar was changed in 1752.

At sunrise, the young couples returned from the woods and began decorating cottage doors and windows with flowers and birch and larch branches, especially of those who were unable to go to the bonfire festivities. Inside the cottages, hawthorn branches were hung up to ward against witchcraft while nettles and alder branches were kept for the unpopular villagers who didn’t agree with these goings-on!

Some of the young men who didn’t go into the woods would go ‘May Birching’ instead. This tradition involved them placing mountain ash and hawthorn branches on the doors of girls they loved. Unfortunately, if you were a girl that a boy didn’t love, you might have woken up to find thorns on your doorstep instead.

Around sunrise, young women bathed their faces in the morning dew to ensure a beautiful complexion and others laid down cloths on the grass which they wrung out into bottles so as to be able to use them to cure ailments such as rheumatism, consumption and spinal weakness. Younger girls, not so worried about their looks, would make May garlands. They did this with two hoops, one at a right angle inside the other and decorated them with leaves and flowers. Sometimes they put a flower especially to represent the goddess of spring. In some parts of England it was customary for groups of children to carry May garlands around the village, singing, “Good morning, lords and ladies, it is the first of May. We hope you’ll view our garland, it is so very gay.” Afterwards they would hold out a collecting box.

During the rest of the day, there was dancing on the village green, archery contests and feats of strength among the men. Milk maids would also dance around garlands decorated with valuable items.

The highlight was of course the crowning of the ‘May Queen’, the human representation of the goddess Flora. It was traditional for this young girl to be regally sat on a bower decorated with flowers and to watch the festivities, but not take part. In Medieval times the young girl sometimes wore white muslin decorated with ribbons. With the arrival of Christianity the young girl was replaced by a statue of the Virgin Mary and the whole month of May was dedicated to her. So the wild and fertile was replaced by the pure and chaste.

The ‘Lord of the May’ (also known as the ‘May King’ or the ‘May Groom’) was once as important as the ‘May Queen’ and he would have had silk handkerchiefs tied round his legs and arms while carrying a sword. Summer itself was represented by a dancing man covered entirely with greenery. He was called ‘Jack-in-the-Green’ or ‘Jack-in-the-Bush’. In other parts of Europe he was known as ‘Green George’, the ‘Wild Man’, ‘Leaf Man’ or the ‘Green Man’. ‘Jack-in-the-Green’ can sometimes be seen in old church carvings, often with a face covered in leaves and twigs. This mysterious character was adopted by chimney sweeps whose annual holiday was on the first of May and he was a prominent figure in their processions. A single green figure covered in brightly coloured ribbons and tinsel among the black faced chimney sweeps.

One of the greatest symbols of May Day is undoubtedly the maypole which was a tall thin tree with all of its branches cut off. It was painted in different colours and was carried in processions with musicians playing before it. It was erected on the village green or in the market place where it was then decorated with garlands, ribbons and flowers and was the focal point of the festivities. There are no records of what kind of dances were performed around the maypole, but plaiting the maypole originates from southern Europe, where maypoles were shorter and the dances eventually became more and more ‘ladylike’.

The earliest recording in England of a maypole was in a charter granted by King John where it was called a ‘mepul’. Maypoles were made of pine, larch, elm, birch or ash and lasted for many years. They were only ever replaced if the wood at the bottom began to rot.

During the reign of Elizabeth I, a Puritan called Philip Stubbs wrote how the maypole (a stinking idol) was drawn by twenty or forty oxen with flowers tied to the tips of their horns. He described the maypole as being decorated with flowers and herbs bound with strings from top to bottom. It was followed in a procession by two to three hundred men, women and children. Once erected, the handkerchiefs and flags that were tied to the top would stream in the wind as everyone danced and leapt around it. Maypoles were increasingly seen as immoral by the Protestants and during the reign of Edward VI many were destroyed.

The most famous maypole to be destroyed was originally erected in London in the Strand in 1661 and stood there for more than fifty years. It was over 130 feet high and was so heavy that it took twelve sailors using pulleys and anchors and four hours to raise it. Many London parishes had a maypole and in 1552 the one outside St Andrew’s church was also taken down and chopped up after a local preacher declared that it was a pagan symbol and that the congregation were all idol worshippers.

The May Day festivities were always rounded off with the lighting of the hilltop fires that were once a sacrificial rite. Beltane, meaning bright fire or bel-fire was the Irish Gaelic celebration in honour of the god Bel or Belanus meaning ‘Bright One’. Bonfires were lit on top of hills and sheep and cattle were driven through them to prevent disease and to ensure fertility. Young men leapt over the fires to show their prowess and women jumped across in the hope of securing a husband or for the safe arrival of an unborn child. It was customary for newly wed couples to jump over the fire for luck and to conceive healthy children. For others, stepping over the dying embers symbolised safe travel or a new partner in their lives.

In Dorset England, the 180 foot Cerne Abbas Giant is believed to be a Celtic hill carving. Couples used to lay on his 8 foot penis in the belief that this would help them conceive a child. Some historians believe that this act was part of an ancient Celtic fertility rite because the sun directly aligns with the figure at this time of year.

Another fertility rite involved women riding brooms hobby horse style across the fields and leaping in the air was believed to encourage crops to grow tall and strong. Menstruating women would also dance naked in newly sown fields because, unbelievably, they knew that menstrual blood was beneficial to the soil.

Something that still survives today but barely is Morris dancing. The first of May was the starting date for the year when the Morris dancers would perform at fairs and festivals throughout the summer and Christmas time. There are many theories about the origins of this traditional dance; from a Moorish tradition to perhaps being brought to England from Spain, France or Belgium. Whatever the truth, we can safely say that it is a pagan dance, one that celebrated the rebirth of spring and ensured a successful harvest as well as the fertility of flocks and herds.

The dancers who were all men, stamped, kicked and clapped, enticing the crops out of the ground. And the bells that were attached to their costumes tinkled loudly to wake up the earth spirits. Some dances even required staves, swords or handkerchiefs.

At the beginning of the 16th century, a Robin Hood play came into being and got mixed up with Morris dancing. The main characters in the play were of course Robin Hood, a Christianised form of Robin Goodfellow god of witches and Maid Marian, who perhaps was associated with a moon goddess. During the play Robin dies and comes back to life again; encouraging the crops to grow and the summer to return. There is possibly a connection between Robin Hood and the Green Man.

Sword dances were also part of the May celebrations. Brought to England from Denmark they were later relics of an ancient tradition that replayed the battle between the old year and the new one. They were usually performed in the winter and involved a sacrifice that returns to life (an ancient belief of survival, sacrifice and rebirth). During the industrial revolution these forms of dance gradually faded away as more and more rural communities began to break up.

In Cornwall and other parts of the country there used to be a Hobby Horse Festival held on the first of May. The Hobby Horse was a strange figure of a man standing inside a hoop which was covered in cloth with a handcrafted horse’s head and tail. Accompanied by singers and musicians, the Hobby Horse would go from house to house with people wishing each other good luck and happiness. Galloping after young women the Hobby Horse would trap them under its material covered hoop for luck (luck meaning having plenty of healthy babies!). Does this descend from an ancient pagan fertility rite? The women’s faces at one time were also smeared with soot as part of the initiation.

The Furry Dance that took place in Helston Cornwall was a remnant of a Celtic spring festival that honoured the goddess of spring. It was once a festival that took place in May, but eventually became associated with St Michael. ‘Furry’ probably comes from the old Celtic word ‘fer’ which meant ‘fair’. This day was a holiday and anyone caught working was forced to pay a fine or had to jump across the widest part of the river. Early in the morning young people went off foraging for wild flowers and greenery including hawthorn. Throughout the day there were specific dances just for servants, children and the more wealthy of the town. A group of dancers would also dance and sing their way through people’s homes who left their front and back doors open. Having these dancers make their way through your home was believed to bring the luck of summer into the household.

Well dressing ceremonies were very common at this time of year with wells being decorated with flowers and other greenery. This practice goes back thousands of years to a time when people believed that wells were the dwelling places of spirits, nymphs or deities who all required offerings or sacrifices. They dipped torn pieces of cloth into the sacred waters and hung them onto nearby tree branches as healing prayers. They believed that when the cloth completely rotted away the illness would leave the person’s body. With the arrival of Christianity the pagan gods of these sacred wells were given saints names or were named after the Madonna and eventually baptisms began taking place here. Frames depicting biblical scenes and wooden figures covered in clay, moss, petals, leaves and berries were left by many people who would continue visiting them throughout the summer.

The belief in faeries was strong and it was thought that the faery folk were able to show us a glimpse into their world around this time. If the Queen of the Fae was to ride past someone on her pure white horse while they were sitting under a hawthorn tree, it was said that the person had to close their eyes and turn their head away so as not to be lured away for seven long years. It was also believed that faery children were often substituted for human children and were called ‘May Changelings’. To protect their homes from faeries on May Eve, people would place rowan branches around their doors and windows as well as over the entrance of the cow barn because it was believed that faeries would steal the milk and butter. Bannock cakes, honey, milk and left over food were often left outside for the faeries in the hope of winning their favour.

Many centuries previously, the Anglo Saxons called the month of May ‘Thrimilci’, which means the ‘three-milk month’. This would have been the very first time after an extremely long winter that cows could be milked three times a day. It was a grand occasion for our ancestors who could at last have themselves a full larder which signalled the end of having to ration food supplies.

The ancient Norse didn’t have a celebration equivalent to Beltane because summer arrives later in Scandinavia. However, they did have Maypole dancing and celebrations at Midsummer. The maypole was a much later edition to the Midsummer festivities arriving from Germany during the late Medieval period.

I have included the following European traditions because they are just too interesting to leave out. And lest we forget, many of our European traditions all stem from the same Indo-European roots.

In Romania, the first day of May is called Arminden. The Romanians decorate their homes and pillars with spring garlands and many women and children still practice the tradition of wearing spring amulets called ‘Martisoare’. They believe that their wishes will come true if they tie them to a blossoming tree. A special bread is also baked and decorated with poppy seeds and leaves. The Romanian version of the maypole is the Armenden Tree which is considered to be a sacred symbol made from birch, beech or hornbeam. It is customary to cut down one of these trees on May Eve and tie it to a gate post.

In Germany, the month of May was known as ‘Wonnemond’ meaning the ‘month of lovers’. The ‘Maibaum’ or the ‘May Tree’ was a symbol of marriage and was decorated with streamers and ribbons and was placed in front of the bride’s house. Unmarried men would also perform dances in the hope of attracting a future wife.

In many parts of Bavaria a maypole was put up in the middle of the village and it was customary to steal the maypole of the neighbouring village whilst protecting your own village’s maypole. If a maypole was successfully stolen it was held for ransom in exchange for two barrels of beer. Another Bavarian tradition was ‘maypole climbing’ (Maibaumkraxeln) where men tried to see who could climb up the smooth trunk the fastest. It was necessary for them to put tree sap or pitch on their hands to get a good grip. A prize of pretzels and sausages awaited the winner at the top of the maypole and hopefully a group of awestruck young girls at the bottom. These maypoles were extremely high; about 46 metres!

It is so heart warming to see these traditions being revived in Europe and our ancestral roots growing strong and deep once more.

Now the bright morning star, day’s harbinger,
Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her
The flow’ry May, who from her green lap throws
The yellow cowslip and the pale primrose.
Hail, bounteous May! thou dost inspire
Mirth and youth and fond desire;
Woods and groves are of thy dressing,
Hill and dale doth boast thy blessing.
Thus we salute thee with our early song,
And welcome thee and wish thee long.
                                                                                                      -Milton
Sources:
Traditions, Superstitions And Folk-lore, Charles Hardwick, 1872
A Calendar Of Country Customs, Ralph Whitlock, 1978
British Calendar Customs, A.R Wright, 1936
A Year Of Festivals, Geoffrey Palmer, 1972
The Painting is called The Procession of the May Queen by Herbert Wilson Foster (1846-1929).

Eostre; The Creation Of A Goddess

Ostara, as it is known by pagans today, is a spring festival that is celebrated around the time of the vernal equinox. There are many opposing opinions about its origins as well as the validity of its namesake the elusive goddess Eostre; a goddess who may or may not have been honoured before the nineteenth century.

Up until recently, I believed wholeheartedly that Eostre was not a goddess at all, but simply the misunderstanding of an early Christian monk who had witnessed the first days of Britain’s conversion to Christianity. Across the centuries, this misunderstanding flourished into an elaborate whimsical tale of a spring goddess who transforms a dying bird into a hare to save its life. However, with the celebration of Ostara upon us, I decided to revisit this subject once more and I have discovered that things are not as clear cut as I had originally believed. So is it possible that Eostre was indeed a goddess that was honoured by the Anglo Saxons? Let’s look at the evidence.

The first piece of evidence begins with the Venerable Bede, a 7th century scholar and monk of the early Christian church who wrote of the Anglo Saxons; ‘Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated Paschal month and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month’. This is the only record we have that mentions an Anglo Saxon goddess named Eostre and this has led some some of us to question Bede’s credibility because no other Germanic or Scandinavian myths, images or Medieval texts exist of her. Even though Bede lived at a time when he must have had direct contact with people who practised the old ways and would have surely been aware of what gods and goddesses were being honoured, why then is his writing so vague?

It is extremely unlikely that he would have fabricated a goddess, considering the Church would have wanted to discourage any worshipping of pagan deities. Bede may have known more about the goddess Eostre, but wanted to stay clear of any pagan associations. Or perhaps it truly was a misunderstanding and Eostre was actually the name of a festival and not a goddess. We do need to keep in mind, however, who Bede’s audience was, the censorship involved and any assumptions or personal opinions he may have had.

The Anglo Saxons named all of their months, apart from the two that Bede says were named after goddesses, after seasonal weather conditions, customs or calendar events. Bede wrote that not only Eosturmonath (April) was named after a goddess, but Hrethmonath (March) as well. If these goddesses were so important, in the eyes of the Anglo Saxons, to have had months named after them, then why don’t we know a single thing about them apart from a few lines written by Bede himself? Perhaps these months were in fact just like all of the others and their names simply reflected the time of year.

The word “hrethe” can mean fierce, harsh and rough, which does describe March’s weather extremely well, so could this be the case or is “Hretha” an actual war goddess, as suggested by Kathleen Herbert in her book ‘Looking for the Lost Gods of England’? There is written evidence of a tribe called the Hrethgotan or Hreda’s Goths, but I believe that this name means ‘fierce Goths’ rather than a tribe that called themselves after a possible war goddess. As for Eosturmonath, Ronald Hutton believes it is not named after a goddess of spring. In his book ‘Stations of the Sun’ he says. “Estor-monath” simply meant the ‘month of opening’, or the ‘month of beginning’ and that Bede mistakenly connected it with a goddess who either never existed at all or was never associated with a particular season, but merely like Eos and Aurora, with Dawn itself”.

In his book “Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World”, Philip Shaw explains that both Hretha and Ostara were goddesses local to Kent, a county in the south east of England, where Bede gathered most of his information from. If this is the case then it might explain why no other traces of Eostre have been found. He then goes on to say that Anglo Saxon missionaries took these names with them when they travelled to what is now France and Germany. I am doubtful that was the case.

Another piece of evidence comes from Einhard (770-840) a Frankish scholar, historian and close adviser to Charlemagne. His work entitled “The Life of Charlemagne” chronicles his twenty three years of service in the powerful king’s court; a king who succeeded in uniting most of western and central Europe under his rule and who fought the Saxons. Charlemagne Christianised the Saxons on penalty of death and destroyed all of their idols, even changing the Saxon names of the months of the year. So if Eostre was genuinely a Saxon goddess then why would a fanatical Christian king name the month of March ‘Oster-monath’ when all he would have wanted to do was to wipe everything pagan off the map?

Many centuries later Jacob Grimm, of the famed ‘Grimms’ Fairy Tales’, who thought very highly of Bede’s work, published his book ‘Teutonic Mythology’ in 1835. In it he gives Eostre the name ‘Ostara’ and calls her a goddess of the dawn, which he derives from the etymology of her name (‘eos’ being the Greek word for dawn). He writes, ‘the divinity of the radiant dawn…whose meaning could easily be adapted to the resurrection day of the Christian God.’ He continues, ‘This Ostara, like the Anglo Saxon Eostre, must in the heathen religion have denoted a higher being, whose worship was so firmly rooted that the Christian teachers tolerated the name and applied it to one of their own grandest anniversaries’. So from the pages of ‘Teutonic Mythology’ Ostara as we know her today was brought into being.

However, the name ‘ostara’  is a plural noun and its singular form is actually ‘ostarun’ which Grimm explains away by saying that the spring festival lasted for several days. He assumes this is the case because Bede wrote ‘feasts’ and not ‘feast’ when discussing the honouring of Eostre.

Whatever festival Bede was describing it would have been a grand affair and a very large undertaking. There are Christian writings that describe oxen being sacrificed for pagan feasts that stretched over three days. We know that Snorri Sturlusson when writing about Olver of Eggja mentions that there were three sacrificial feasts a year, of which one was in the spring. So did the Anglo Saxons at least celebrate a spring festival at the same time? In Germany today, many people celebrate traditions that have been passed down from pre-Christian times. The town of Lugde and its famous Osterrader is one of them.

The Grimm brothers, who were nationalists, lived at a time when Germany was not yet a country, but was made up of several different principalities. Their fervent research and writing of myths and folk tales were ways for them to reclaim their people’s ancestral culture which they believed had been lost to them for centuries under the rule of the Roman Catholic Church. The creation of the modern day ‘Ostara’ was a clever attempt to incite a pagan revival.

I find it extremely unlikely that pagans living in northern Europe honoured a goddess called Eostre at the vernal equinox due to the fact that April is the following month after the equinox. If the early Anglo Saxons did honour a goddess around the time of the equinox then it would have possibly been the goddess Hrede.

Since the nineteenth century, many tales and myths pertaining to Ostara have been told and sadly there is no great age to them. They are just simply modern day fairy tales. There has also been no evidence found, whatsoever, that associates rabbits, hares, eggs or spring with Ostara, despite what some pagans are led to believe.

Some pagans have also been misled to believe that the Christian holiday of Easter superseded Ostara and that Christianity is to blame for taking it away from the early pagans, but from what I have read and understood, the early Christians only took the name Ostara and never actually replaced a pagan festival because there never was one to replace. Bede insists that it was the English people that wanted to keep the old name (in German it is Ostern) while interestingly enough other European countries accepted the Hebrew ‘Pesach’ which means Passover which was exactly what the Church wanted (Paques. Pasqua, Paske, Pascua, Pastele etc).

Historically, the equinoxes only became major pagan festivals due to the practice of Wicca and its invention of the Wheel of the Year. I don’t believe that our ancestors, who would have been preoccupied with sowing or harvesting, would have honestly had the time for organising a three day celebration at these times of year.

We do need to be extremely mindful of neo-pagan literature where opinion is stated as fact. Some neo-pagan writers have great difficulty with staying impartial and their personal beliefs naturally influence their writing. This can be demonstrated with the origins of painting eggs at this time of year for example. There is no actual pre-Christian evidence for this custom. The first mention of the Easter Rabbit and painted eggs dates back to sixteenth century German literature where it is written that good children were rewarded with painted eggs if they decorated their hats with nests. We also need to remember that eggs were one of the things that Christians were forbidden to eat during Lent, so Easter Sunday would have been an even greater cause for celebration when eggs were abundant once more. This time of year also coincided with chickens laying eggs again after the long winter.

A writer that comes to mind is Nigel Pennick who is one good example of fabricating facts. In his books he has claimed that Ostara was celebrated at the vernal equinox, that her name comes from ‘estrus’ linking it etymologically to oestrogen and also Saxon poets likened Ostara to the goddess Kali! This is pure unsupported nonsense and dangerous to those who believe it as truth.

After all I have read over these past few months, a seed of Ostara’s existence has been planted in my mind and perhaps there is a possibility that she was once a local minor goddess and the Anglo Saxons of Kent did indeed honour her. There is no evidence that she was a goddess of spring nor that she was honoured at the vernal equinox. However, the wonderful thing about history is that it is not set in stone and archaeologists are discovering new finds every day that are constantly changing what we think we know of the past. So who knows, perhaps one day an intrepid metal detector enthusiast will dig up a little piece of jewellery with Eostre’s image on it in the middle of a field in Kent.

Sources:

The Pagan Book of Days and Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition Nigel Pennick

The Stone Men of Malekula 1942 and The Lady of the Hare 1944 by John Layard

Teutonic Mythology first published 1835 Jacob Grimm

Looking for the Lost Gods of England 1994 Kathleen Herbert

Stations of the Sun 2001 Ronald Hutton

History of the Goths 1990 Herwig Wolfram

Life of Charlemagne early 9th century Einhard  (can be found for free online)

Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World 2011 Philip A Shaw

The Moon, Myth and Image 2003 Jules Cashford

Heimskringla Snorri Sturluson 13th century (can be found for free online)

The Saga of Icelanders 2001 Penguin Edition

De Temporum Ratione, 725, Bede

The painting is by Marie Spartelli Stillman

Ploughtide Traditions

The very little evidence we have on how our northern European ancestors celebrated the return of spring, dates back only as far as the Medieval period. We can assume, however, that due to these festivals being closely connected to the agricultural year, that these rites have been passed down from generation to generation, in one form or another for thousands of years. Even up until the 1950’s, when these customs disappeared, there was still a deep desire to sow a successful harvest.

The timing of these spring festivals varied greatly and depended entirely on location and seasonal transitions; unlike today where most people who follow a nature based spirituality celebrate all on the same day, no matter where they are in the world. Our ancestors, however, having a much closer connection to the land, waited for the subtle signs before commencing their rites.

During the Middle Ages, the Christian church and its religious calendar appear to have taken control over these rites and the Plough Sunday and Monday celebrations always began with the local priest blessing a brightly decorated plough covered with ribbons and bows. These blessings would then have been said for whoever worked the land, as well as for a fruitful harvest. In the religious calendar ‘Plough Mundy’ or ‘Hansel Monday’ in Scotland, was traditionally the first Monday after the Epiphany (Twelfth Night). This date marked the beginning of the agricultural year and the end of the Christmas season.

Ploughtide was the time when farming tools were mended, cleaned and sharpened. The land having laid dormant since the last harvest was now ready to be ploughed. Everyone had to go back to work after the Christmas period with women returning to their spinning on St Distaff’s Day. Funnily enough St Distaff was never a real person or saint and a distaff was actually the name given to a spinning tool. It was customary on this day for men to try and steal the women’s flax and burn it; after which the women would pay the men back by throwing water over them!

After the blessing of the plough, thirty to forty men would assume the role of the oxen and pull the plough out of the church and into the village. Going from door to door the men would shout, “Penny for the Plough Boys”, as they collected money for the church. Other donations such as food was gratefully received especially as they would not have been paid during the Christmas holiday.

The money that was collected paid for the ‘Plough Candle’ which would burn before an image of a saint. The burning candle was believed to bless all of those who worked the land or who were connected with it in some way, such as the threshers, the reapers, the carters, the smiths and the millers.

The Plough Boys always wore white clothes that normally consisted of a shirt that was worn over a waist coat. Their arms and shoulders were covered in colourful ribbons tied in large bows and their faces were disguised under layers of black earth, soot or red ochre. On their heads sat a tall hat with small bunches of dried corn which fell to the ground when they moved.

The procession was accompanied by an old woman or a young boy dressed up as one, called the ‘Bessy’. Someone else would be dressed up as the ‘fool’, covered in fox fur, a hood and a tail. This character also carried a pig’s bladder on the end of a stick. It is believed that the character of the old woman might possibly be a remnant of an ancient mother/crone goddess from the Roman festivals called ‘Compitalia’. These extremely old festivals honoured the spirits of the family and home and could take place anytime between Saturnalia and 5th January.

It was traditional during Ploughtide to damage the front garden of anyone who refused to make a donation by using a plough. If this act of vandalism took place during Ploughtide it was not seen as a punishable crime.

The celebrations lasted several days and consisted of music, dancing around the plough and intricate sword fighting plays (folk plays that enacted a symbolic death and resurrection of one of the characters; a remnant of an ancient fertility rite). The dances were usually only performed by the farm workers who hoped that their high jumping would determine the height of the grain.

In Scotland, there used to be a rite called the ‘Streeking of the Plough, where the workers would symbolically wrap up a portion of their food and tie it firmly to the beam of the plough as well as pour some of their drink (normally whiskey) over it. The food that was tied to the plough was not to be touched or removed. This was seen as an extremely important custom to ensure a prosperous ploughing, sowing and subsequent harvest; perhaps an offering to the goddess. In Cairney, after the first furrow had been ploughed, bread, cheese and milk porridge was given to the ploughman and the first slice of cheese was always offered to the herd boy. The consistency of the porridge had to be just right because if it was too thin, then it didn’t bode well for the next season’s crops.

Good Friday was seen as a very unlucky day to start ploughing the fields in Scotland. This superstition was so strong that eventually all Fridays were seen as unlucky.

In Whittlesey, as part of the Ploughtide celebrations, a ‘straw bear’ man, completely covered in straw was led on a string and made to dance in front of every house in return for money. It is believed that the ‘straw bear’ represented the spirit of the corn bestowing its favours on every household and therefore ensuring a plentiful harvest. It is still a custom today and you can find plenty of photos online.

There is a strange tale that tells the story of a man and a boy who were in the fields ploughing one day when they both heard a little cry coming from a nearby copse. They stopped what they are doing and ran towards the sound where they found one of the little folk sobbing that he had lost his pick. The farmer searched for the tool and eventually found it for the little man, who rewarded them both with cheese, bread and cider. The man eagerly ate the food, but the boy does not because he was wary of the gift. As time went on a practice known as The Cake in the Furrow evolved and people began leaving offerings in the fields at the beginning of the ploughing season and some believe that this is how Plough Monday came to be in Worcestershire.

The Anglo Saxons, according to ‘De temporum ratione’ written by the Venerable Bede, named the month of February ‘Solmonath’; the month of mud or the plough (depending on how it is translated). People would offer cakes to the gods at this time of year, leaving them in the furrows. The only other time they did this was at harvest time ‘Hlaefmaesse’. It is interesting to note that they thanked the gods at the time of sowing and at the time of harvesting.

The Anglo Saxons also had a charm or blessing that they performed to encourage a plentiful harvest on a barren piece of land or to reverse a curse that had been placed on it. The aptly named ‘Field Remedy’ or ‘Aecerbot’ is a long complex ritual that requires specific list of ingredients to cleanse and heal the land. If you want to learn more about this incantation, then you can see it here http://www2.hawaii.edu/~kjolly/field.htm.  You will notice that there is a mixture of pagan and Christian elements within it.

No one knows for sure where these specific festivals originate from, however, there is one theory that points to the Danes. There is a possibility that the Danes could have bought these traditions over with them when they settled in England. The only regions where there is evidence of this type of festival being celebrated is in the north east of England and the east Midlands; regions that were under Danelaw. I highly recommend that you read the research of Pete Millington who goes into great detail and discusses the similarities and differences between the old Danish customs and the old English ones. If you do not have the time to read the whole paper then I suggest that you just read ‘Discussions’ and ‘Conclusion’. You can find it here http://petemillington.uk/ploughmonday/Origins.php

Plough Monday is believed by many to have heralded the start of the ploughing season. I am of the opinion, however, that this was only the case for southern Europe because the earth would have still been far too hard to plough effectively in northern regions. Perhaps rituals were performed well before the ploughing season so as to have plenty of time to prepare before the earth had warmed up. In some areas ploughing would have actually taken place in the autumn.

Sources:

Chambers Book of Days by Robert Chambers (1864)

The Every Day Book by William Hone (1825)

Stations of the Sun by Ronald Hutton (2001)

The Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Weiser Francis (1958)

The English Year by Steve Roud (2008)

De temporum ratione by Bede (725)

The Goddess Brigid And Imbolc

Imbolc means “the belly of the mother” or Oimelc “the feast of ewe’s milk” and its celebration falls around 1st February each year. This festival of light also known as Disfest and Candlemas is a time that balances between two worlds. We can still see and feel the fingers of winter resting on the land, but if you look closely enough there are signs of the promise of new life breaking through the fog and ice. The time for awakening is now. All of our dreams and aspirations that have been gestating over the past season are ready to break forth and are searching for the nourishment of the sun. The period of contemplation and inner workings has come to an end and our determination and drive are now needed to create momentum.

Our ancestors, like farmers today, would have been busy with the lambing season, as well as mending their ploughs ready for working the soil in preparation for planting. Moreover, it was a time for them to give thanks to the Gods and spirits of the land for not only future harvests, but for having kept their families and livestock safe during the bleak winter months.

Many modern day pagans honour Brigid at this time; who is a goddess of midwives, blacksmiths, poets, fertility and healing, as well as corn and cattle. She is known by many names and there are just as many myths and legends about her too. Brigid is a fire goddess who lights the hearths of the poor and who kindles the flame inside of us; the nourishing flame that sustain us in difficult times.

Brigid is a Celtic goddess who was absorbed into the Christian faith as Saint Brigid of Kildare, Ireland, during the sixth century and as Bride in Scotland. She is also associated with the Goddess Brig of the Brigantes, an ancient culture in the North of England. Personally, I believe that there are traces of her much earlier than this and you can catch glimpses of her during the time of the Picts and even as far back as the Neolithic.

This time of year was very important to the Celtic people and they had many customs and traditions that were handed down the generations.

Doll like figures of Brigid called Brideog used to be fashioned out of barley. This sheaf traditionally had a shell or small crystal over the heart and represented the guiding star of Brigid. A talisman of protection and prosperity it was believed to bring good fortune for the coming year. The doll was often greeted and blessings were asked of her. During the winter the doll was returned to the fields or forests once the shell or crystal had been removed.

Goddess Brigid was said to visit people’s homes at Imbolc, so in preparation for this, a small bed was made for her out of a box or basket. By welcoming Brigid to stay overnight our ancestors were symbolically asking that her gifts of fertility and healing be bestowed upon the household. The hearth was also dedicated to Brigid; it was a sacred space for food preparation, family gatherings and a source of warmth and light.

Brigid’s cross and sun wheel were symbols of sympathetic magic and were used to encourage the sun to grow in strength again after the harsh winter. These were also protective charms for thatchers.

It was customary to leave some bread, cake and milk for Brigid with a candle in the window so that she would know to come in. Another custom was to throw a sheaf of oats or some bread or cake against the front doorstep on the eve of Imbolc to drive away hunger during the coming months and an offering of hay, grass or corn was also made for Brigid’s cow.

In some areas of Britain a procession of young people would accompany Brigit around the village on Imbolc Eve to beg alms. Brigit was normally a girl dressed in a costume or simply a doll. If it was a group of girls they would dress in white and sing and dance as they went from house to house. They were known as the Bride Maiden Band. In some villages, boys dressed up as girls and known as Biddy Boys went begging from door to door. This idea was probably to emulate Brigid’s good work as she was known to collect clothes, food and money for the poor. People would give cheese, eggs, butter, biscuits or money because it was thought that this would encourage a good harvest, prosperity and good luck.

Some stories say that Brigid had a magical cloak that possessed healing and protective powers and could expand for miles on end. The cloak’s colour was originally green, but when she became a saint the colour changed to white. It was said that if you left a piece of cloth outside on Imbolc eve then Brigid would bless it with the same powers of her cloak. This was beneficial for sick animals and would have been kept for the whole year until the following Imbolc when it would be blessed anew.

Brigid’s magical girdle or belt had the same healing powers as her cloak and the four crosses that were said to be embroided on it symbolised protection at all four cardinal directions. People would craft a long belt from straw and step through it three times, kissing it as they went through right foot first. This was seen as a symbol of rebirth and would ensure good health and protection.

In ancient times pilgrims would travel from afar to bring offerings and ask for blessings at sacred wells and springs dedicated to Brigid. Long before coins were thrown into the waters, brass rings, silver and gold were offered. People would bathe in the healing waters and dress the well or spring with flowers, leaves and pieces of cloth.

Brigid is not the only Goddess that is remembered at Imbolc. The Cailleach was said to gather firewood at Imbolc so she would have enough to see her through to the warmer months. Legend says that if the Cailleach wants the cold to last a bit longer then Imbolc would be bright and sunny, so as to allow her to collect firewood. So you can imagine how relieved our ancestors must have been when Imbolc was overcast and wet. It meant that the Cailleach was fast asleep and winter was almost over.

Being Mindful Of The Land

The majority of us who walk an earth based spiritual path have at its core several seasonal celebrations. This ever changing cycle of seasons guides us and connects us to the natural world beyond our front door; from times of fertile abundance to times of stark simplicity. Celebrating each turn of the wheel has helped me to forge my own rituals and traditions that are in tune with where I live. By celebrating this way I am now more aware of the subtle signposts that Mother Nature leaves for me to follow and despite the passing of time never ceasing to rest, each moment has become so much more enriched and appreciated.

Up until recently I believed that what I was doing was not only reconnecting me to the land that I lived on, but also to the creatures and plants that shared this beautiful British landscape with me too. However, four weeks ago, I started coming across more and more information on the worrying subject of the growing water shortages across the world. I wasn’t purposefully researching or reading about this topic, but it just kept popping up over and over again. What I have read and consequently learnt has changed how I view and live the changing seasons forever and I believe that it will do the same for you too.

We live in a world of instant gratification that allows us to have almost anything we want, whenever we want. There is no longer the need to wait patiently and anticipate anything anymore. If you want to buy a new dress, no problem; pin number at the ready. If you need to research for a college project, no worries; your trusty smart phone has all the answers; no dusty library books for you. If you fancy eating a tomato and cucumber salad sandwich in January, no sweat; it’s just another lunch break at the office.

On the surface, all of these appear to be your normal day to day mundane activities, nothing out of the ordinary you might say; but the way we live our lives today has consequences. So what could possibly be one of the consequences of eating that tomato and cucumber sandwich on a January lunch break? Sadly, if you are living in the northern hemisphere, an extremely tragic one. What follows is everything that I have learnt over these past few weeks.

There are tens of thousands of cargo ships on our oceans that transport fruit and vegetables to our ports everyday to feed our growing need to eat what we believe to be healthy fresh produce all year round. A single one of these large ships emits more pollutants into our atmosphere, in one year, than all of the cars on the planet put together. As for cargo planes, they are able to burn four litres of fuel per second, needing almost 250,000 litres for just one trip. Pollution is not the only consequences of us eating fresh food that is not in season.

Transporting these huge amounts of perishable foods requires gallons and gallons of water, which in the form of ice keeps everything as fresh as possible during these very long journeys. This means that we are taking water from communities that already have so little, especially as the process of growing fruit and vegetables requires huge amounts of water in itself.

California has suffered on and off for years from droughts and more often than not the fault of global warming is cited as the cause. Personally, I believe that the huge burden that California has to feed the whole of the United States with fresh fruit and vegetables to be a more sensible reason for its water shortages. Ninety percent of the broccoli that Americans eat comes from California: ninety seven percent of kiwis, ninety seven percent of plums, ninety five percent of celery, the list goes on and on. California is also the number one American exporter of fresh produce to Canada, Europe and China and it is now turning into a desert.

Whereas California has the responsibility of feeding the United States, Spain has this honour in Europe. The country’s soil is being depleted of all of its nutrients. If you live in Europe, the next time you go to the supermarket have a good look at the fruit and vegetable labels. Nine times out of ten, when it isn’t the summer, they will say produce of Spain.

South Africa is another huge exporter of fresh produce and in three months time Cape Town will have completely run out of water. Residents are being heavily rationed and I dread to think of what will happen if it doesn’t rain before then. Is this another victim of the billion dollar fresh produce industry?

As you have surely realised by now, eating food that is not produced in your country and food that isn’t in season is not sustainable. How have we arrived at this point where we are not only harming whole communities, but the Earth’s resources, animals and plants as well? Industrial farming and all that it entails is destroying our beautiful planet. It is blurring the distinct lines between our seasons and turning them into one big mono season. What we are eating is also dulling our taste buds to the extent that we no longer know what real food tastes like. We have so lost touch with the seasons that we no longer know what crops naturally grow on our land, when they are naturally in abundance and when they are not.

Have you ever asked yourself why tomatoes are crunchy and taste like water when you buy them in the winter? It’s because these tomatoes are actually green and unripe. Even if they are grown in heated, energy guzzling green houses in Spain they are unable to ripen. So to fool us into believing that they are ready to eat, the tomatoes are sprayed with a gas called Ethylene which turns them red. Delicious!

Thankfully, all hope is not lost and each and every one of us can do our bit by mindfully eating what is seasonally grown in our own country. My family and I have been eating seasonally grown food from the UK for the past month now and the positive ways it has affected our lives far out weigh the superficial loss of not eating bananas, avocadoes and cucumbers. We actually haven’t missed eating them at all and we now have an even greater respect for our ancestors who did perfectly well without them too. So what are some of these positives that I am talking about?

By buying local and seasonal food we are supporting our country’s farmers and producers. We are getting food that is at its prime freshness and cheapest too. I have actually saved money, even when buying organic. An abundance of crops pushes down the prices.

With less ingredients to cook with I did start to panic a little in the beginning, but honestly I didn’t have anything to worry about. Mother Nature knows best and everything that is harvested at the same time of year all goes perfectly well together. It has also given me the opportunity to experiment and try out new recipes. Bubble and Squeak anyone? It’s a British classic!

Seasonal food is tastier, fresher (it isn’t days old before even arriving at the supermarket) and more nutritional. Food that is grown on the land where we live has all the minerals and vitamins that we need for that time of the year. Fruit and vegetables grown in the summer have a higher water content, perfect for hydrating us and are lighter to digest. The humble tomato which of course is a summer fruit contains Lycopene, which can actually protect our skin, to a certain extent, from the sun. Winter produce is more denser, grounding and filling, perfect for keeping us warm and satisfied. Like I’ve said before, Mother Nature knows best!

Buying seasonal food is a great way to connect with and learn more about our local landscape and all that live there.

Eating mindfully and authentically allows us to appreciate the food that we have because we only have it for a short period of time. There is no chance of us getting bored before anticipating the arrival of the next season. Even before deciding to eat only fresh seasonal food, we have always only eaten British plums, strawberries and raspberries due to the superior taste compared to the produce from Spain. Which means that for a very long time we have only eaten these during the summer or early autumn.

Growing and selling food seasonally brings local communities closer together and encourages people to try out growing methods such as permaculture which our ancestors would have practised and it heals the land. Consequently, we are not exploiting the Earth’s resources or marginalised communities.

Here are some ideas that you may like to try out that will help you to eat more seasonally too.

  • Visit farmers’ markets and chat with the growers. Ask them questions about how they grow their produce. More often than not your small local growers are using natural growing methods and not herbicides, pesticides or artificial fertilisers.
  • Go to farm shops.
  • Read the food labels of fruit and vegetable packaging to find out where they are grown.
  • Notice what fruit and vegetables are the cheapest. Cheap normally means plentiful and in season.
  • Have a go at growing something yourself: on your balcony, your windowsills or even on your decking. You can find space if you look for it.
  • Once you have your beautiful home grown harvest, learn new skills and make jams, chutneys and sauces. You can also freeze most of it too.
  • See if there is an allotment or community project in your area.
  • Subscribe to a veggie delivery service. These are usually organic and everything is normally grown within 100 miles of where you live.
  • Especially buy apples from your own country. In Britain, due to intensive farming, property development and many supermarkets refusing to stock home grown fruit; 60% of apple orchards have been destroyed since 1970. Three thousand varieties of apples and pears have been lost. This not only damages the wildlife and land, but also the livelihoods of family businesses that have been working the orchards for generations. Orchards are a wildlife haven for so many mammals and insects especially foxes, badgers, bees and butterflies. Of course we mustn’t forget the humble mistletoe too. 680,000 tons of apples are eaten in Britain every year and are the second most popular fruit after bananas.

I believe that what we eat and where our food comes from not only affects us on a physical level, but on a spiritual level too. How can we truly forge a relationship with the changing seasons and the land we live on if we are not eating its seasonal bounties? The concept of harvest has a completely different meaning when we choose to wait patiently to savour a juicy tasty ripe tomato in August for example. I definitely have a deeper connection and respect now, not only for the land itself, but for those who came before me and who hunted, gathered and harvested its fruits.

For the past few weeks I have only bought seasonal fresh fruit and vegetables grown in the UK. The exception for three out of the four weeks has been onions from Holland (drying onions in the UK after harvesting them is extremely difficult and sadly they go mouldy very quickly). This month I have bought cabbages, leeks, Brussels sprouts, cauliflowers, carrots, potatoes, kale, turnip, parsnip, swede, beetroot, and apples; all of which are UK grown. I have supplemented the fresh produce with organic dry beans, rice (I am looking into buying Italian rice) and tinned tomatoes. Canned and dry food has much less of an impact on the Earth than fresh produce from abroad and I am still doing my best to research about what comes from where. It isn’t always easy, but then change seldom is. It is a gradual process, but one that I know will definitely yield a positive outcome.

To mindfully shop for fresh seasonal food is possible. So let’s bring our seasons back to their former glory, heal the land and banish the mono season forever.

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