Flowers, Myth and Magic

 

Happy Midsummer (or Midwinter)  Solstice!  There are a whole bunch of cool flowers said to have magical properties which are associated with the Solstice.  I thought it might be fun to review a few.  First let’s take a look at WILD PANSY.

Queen Elizabeth I may have avoided a husband and maintained a life of celibacy as a result of  this little flower.

According to Shakespeare,  in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”,  Cupid once aimed his arrow at  “A fair vestal, throned by the West”  (meaning a western virgin queen). Cupid “loosed his love-shaft smartly from his bow, as it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts.” The arrow, however, never made it to Cupid’s intended destination.

This “vestal” (or vestal virgin) was England’s reigning monarch, Elizabeth I.  Cupid’s arrow missed the Queen and landed instead upon a flower.  The flower  had previously been “milk white in color”, but now turned purple with the  wound from the arrow.

Because of this incident, Queen Bess was destined to never fall in love. Shakespeare says she “passed on in maiden meditation, fancy-free” forever known as The Virgin Queen. The flower, however, absorbed all the love potion from Cupid’s arrow.  On Midsummer night when Oberon the fairy king and his servant Puck decide to make mischief with star-crossed lovers, they of course use this flower.

‘The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid 
Will make or man or woman madly dote 
Upon the next live creature that it sees.”

The first creature Titania saw just happened to be a donkey 🙂

The flower ‘s technical name is viola tricolor. It has several fun nicknames, including heartsease, heart’s delight, tickle-my-fancy, Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me, come-and-cuddle-me, and Oberon’s favorite, love-in-idleness. 

In addition to being a love potion, wild pansy has been used in folk medicine to treat epilepsy, asthma, skin diseases, and eczema. It is a natural expectorant and is helpful with respiratory problems such as bronchitis, asthma, and the common cold.

HAWTHORN

Thomas the Rhymer was a 13th century  Scottish mystic and poet. He claimed he once met the Queen of Elphame (Elf’s Home) beneath a hawthorn tree.

“Her skirt was o the grass-green silk, 
Her mantle o the velvet fyne, 
At ilka tett of her horse’s mane 
Hang fifty silver bells and nine.” 

The Elphame Queen led him into the fairy Underworld for what Thomas thought was a brief visit. However, upon returning to the human world, he discovered he had been gone for seven years.

 “When seven years were come and gane,
The sun blink’d fair on pool and stream;
And Thomas lay on Huntlie bank,
Like one awaken’d from a dream.”

Themes of people being taken into the Underworld by fairy folk is common in Celtic mythology. The hawthorn tree is one of the most likely places where this could happen,  and Midsummer is one of the most likely days, so beware of standing near hawthorn trees today, unless you are planning a visit to fairyland!

The hawthorn is technically called Crataegus and is also known as thornapple, May-tree, whitethorn, and hawberry. It bears edible fruit, similar to small apples, which can be used in jellies or salads.

The fruit is quite healthy, containing phytochemicals such as tannis and flavinoids, valuable in purging toxins from the body.  In modern medicine, a salve made from hawthorn trees has been effective in the treatment of cardiovascular disease. (Further proving that the fairies give us some goodies along with their magical portals!)

FOXGLOVE

This lovely plant, which reaches full bloom at Midsummer is a favorite among fairy folk. Shaped like bells, it is said that the fairies designed them for foxes. One story tells of foxes wearing them around their necks. The ringing bells cast a spell to protect the animals from hunters.  The spots inside are made when fairies touch the flowers.

Another story tells of a fairy giving them to a fox to put on his toes so he could sneak into the chicken house and silently rob it without being caught.

The technical name for foxglove is Digitalis (derived from digit, meaning finger). They are also called witches’ glovefolks’ glove, (folk meaning fairy) and fey-glew, meaning ‘fairy music’.  (Listen closely to hear the bells!)

Foxglove was once thought to be effective in  epileptic seizures, but this idea has since has been debunked as quackery. Some historians believe that Vincent Van Gogh suffered from digoxin toxicity from the foxglove that was used at the time to treat his epilepsy.

It has been speculated that Van Gogh’s frequent use of the color yellow in his painting (art historians call it his “yellow period”)  may have been due to the disease. Victims often see the world in a yellow green tint, or surrounded by yellow spots. Cutting off his own ear may have been caused by grief and complications from the disease as well.

Also, Van Gogh painted a portrait of his doctor, Paul Gachet, holding a strand of purple foxglove, so the flower must have had significance.

At any rate, the plant is highly toxic and should never be eaten! Foxglove are also called Dead Man’s Bells. Consider yourself warned.

Have a safe, happy and healthy solstice!

 

 

 

 

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Lucia and Lussi: Celebrating the Darkness and the Light

 

Lucia 1

Today, December 13, marks the well known festival of Saint Lucia. But it is also a celebration for her lesser known counterpart, the witch Lussi. This is a magical time of delicious darkness as we wait for the Winter Solstice. Fairies, elves and all sorts of supernatural beings are said to be out and about on their Wild Hunt.

The Christian feast day of Saint Lucia is celebrated with songs, a procession, and a young girl being selected to play the role of Lucia. This girl wears a white robe with a red sash, and a crown of lingonberry greens with seven candles.

(A strategic balancing act! No fires reported so far.)

SantaLucia

Originating in Sweden, these processions are now conducted in Finland, Denmark and Norway. (And sometimes the US and Canada.)  In these cold and bleak nights before the Solstice, the vibrant figure of Lucia wearing a wreath of candles is a great reminder that the sun will soon be returning.

The chosen Lucia is at the center of a procession of girls, all clothed in white robes with red sashes as symbols of purity. They sing hymns and carry special cakes  (called lussekatter.)  However, the fairies and elves are also out on their Wild Hunt    (called Oskoreia.)  Traditions holds that if during the procession the girls hear the sound of the Wild Hunt behind them, they should toss one of the cakes over their shoulder to appease the elves.

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Who was the real Santa Lucia? Ironically, she did not start out as a Swede. She was originally Sicilian. The story goes that Lucia was helping Christians hiding in the catacombs by bringing them food and water while they dodged persecution from the evil ruling empire. Lucia, always a resourceful girl, put candles on her head to light her way and was thus able to hold more food in her hands.

Lucia was martyred for her Christian activities in 304 CE.  Legend has it they attempted to burn her on a pyre, but she remained alive. A Roman soldier then tried to kill her by slicing her throat. No luck. Stubborn Lucia did not die until she was given the Christian sacrament of Extreme Unction.

She became a very popular saint, and by the 6th century her feast day was honored in Anglo-Saxon England. Gradually she was acknowledged in Northern Europe, although the first Lucia candle processions were not recorded until the 19th century.

However, as with many legends, there is another, darker side to the story! Enter the witch Lussi.

lussi 3

Who is Lussi?  A Nordic sorceress, close in parallel to the Germanic goddess Holle or Perchta.  Not much is known about her, but she is said to be a powerful figure. She is the initiator of the Oskoreia and rides through the air with  Odin and their followers – a troupe of wandering elves, fairies, nymphs and the like. They are called the Lussiferda, a band of trouble-making nuisances, out on a Wild Hunt intended to cause chaos and frighten humans.

wild hunt

December 13 is called Lussinatta or Lussi Night, a time to honor and fear her.

If you happen to see Lussi and her elven group, beware!  Any human who encounters the Wild Hunt might be abducted to the Underworld. It is also believed that people’s spirits can be pulled away during their sleep to join the cavalcade.  (So be very conscious of your dreams tonight. You might want to skip sleep altogether… More on that later.)

During the long nights between Lussinatta and Yule, trolls, daemons and the spirits of the dead are thought to be swirling about outside, enjoying the darkness. They are particularly active on Lussi Night.  Naughty children are advised to hide away.  According  to some traditions, Lussi herself can come down through the chimney and abduct children who have been bad.

 

Lussi 2

(Seems to me Lussi might be in kahoots with Krampus and Old Saint Nick…)

But adults should beware too.  Lussi is particularly sensitive to all those dull and time consuming chores that must be done before Yule. You know — gathering wood for the fire, stocking the larder, salting the meat and making jam…  If you (lazy human!) have not completed your winter tasks, you just may be abducted, along with your nasty children!

Some people do not want to take that chance, even in their dreams!

In a tradition called Lussevaka, folks would stay awake all through the long Lussi Night in order to guard themselves and their households against abductions.  However, in the 21st century, Lussevaka has apparently taken on a different form.  It’s called partying till the break of dawn!

If you don’t make it through the entire night, it still might be fun to stay up extra late tonight, light a few candles and be on watch for Lussi and her band of fairies.

Whether you choose the reverent road of singing hymns for Saint Lucia, or the decadent road of partying all night in hopes of seeing the Wild Hunt, have a jolly and elegant season as we wait for the return of the sun.

yule

 

 

 

 

Yuletide

Here Comes The Sun!  Wishing You a Blessed Yule.

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The winter solstice of 2015 will occur in the United States on December 21 at 11:48 pm, Eastern Time. This is a cause for celebration!  It means the return of light, longer days, more sunshine, and relief for those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder.  Plus, you get to enjoy all the lovely, fantastic light displays which I hope are gracing your neighborhood and your home!

What exactly is the winter solstice?  It marks the longest night, and the shortest day of the year.  In scientific terms this means the earth is now angled at the farthest point away from the sun. (To clarify, I am speaking of the northern hemisphere. The southern hemisphere now celebrates the summer solstice, exactly the opposite.  All the Aussies down under have been enjoying summer as we in the north have been shriveling away. Now we switch!)  The northern hemisphere will gradually move closer and closer towards the sun as the year goes on.

In Pagan terms, the winter solstice is called Feast of Yule, and is part of the calendar of eight that divides the wheel of the year.  This is, in effect, the Pagan New Year.  Yule was a big deal among our ancestors. They worshipped the sun.  Of course they did!  What else can give such enormous sustenance of life?  When the sun began gradually disappearing in the autumn, our ancestors panicked.  The sun was their livelihood and surely they would die without it.   However, careful observation taught them; the sun started its decline with the summer solstice in June, and by mid December it was at its weakest.  Ancient Pagans learned to trust and rely on its return.   Some archeologists  believe that structures like Stonehenge were built as temples and designed to catch specific angles of sun light.

solstice 3

The original name of Yule was ‘Juul’, so-named by the pre-Christian Scandinavians.  The Scandinavians, as you can imagine, had many reasons to celebrate the return of the sun, living in 24 hour winter darkness as they did.   The Scandinavian winter solstice was celebrated by lighting great bonfires, which symbolized the sun and called for its return.  There was a custom of cutting a huge log from the forest which was brought to the hearth to honor the Norse god Thor. The Juul or Yule log was then burned for 12 days.  In medieval times Christians began celebrating the 12 days of Christmas, which is really a remnant of this Norse custom. (More on that later.)

In  Celtic tradition, it is believed that the Oak King or the Green Man is reborn to  replace the Holly King as ruler of the forest.

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The Oak King and the Holly King are thought to be dual aspects of the Horned God, each aspect ruling for ½ of the year. The young Oak King, as new ruler, will warm the earth as the days grow longer.   Astrologically, December 21st marks the beginning of the month of Capricorn, the Goat, also a representation of the Horned God.  ‘Saturnalia’ was another ancient Pagan festival celebrated at this time. The sign of Capricorn is ruled by the planet Saturn.

a capricorn-2151

In Greek mythology, the Horned God can be represented as Dionysius, Pan and Robin Goodfellow. (Or anyone who happens to have hoofs!)  And yes, in case you are noticing a pattern here — horns, hoofs — the goat was given a bad reputation.   Completely undeserved!

The ancient Celts also celebrated Yule by lighting bonfires. Apples and other fruits were made into ‘wassail’, a hot punch seasoned with cloves. The tradition of ‘wassailing’ meant going from house to house and singing songs for the neighbors.  Your pay was then a refill of punch.  This eventually morphed into the tradition of Christmas caroling.

The Celts decorated their homes with evergreen, holly, ivy and mistletoe. Evergreen, which never died, was a symbol of immortality.  Holly, ivy and mistletoe were symbols of fertility.  In the 19th century, Victorians began the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe.

solstice 5

This, of course,  is ironic, because the Victorians were known for their chastity.  Just goes to show you – everything is the opposite of what it appears to be 🙂

Yule, like many other Pagan holidays, was assimilated into Christian culture.  It is interesting how this happened.  In case you don’t know I will explain it: Sometime around the 4th century, Emperor Constantine, who basically ruled the world, decided to convert the Roman Empire (which was then all of Europe and the U.K.)  to Christianity.  The Christian Church decided to conveniently place the birth of Christ on December 25th, a few days after the beginning of Yule.  That way, they did not upset the apple cart too much.  People were already celebrating.

I have heard many modern-day bible scholars insist that NO WAY  was Jesus born in December!  They apparently have scientific methods of calculating this.  I have been told that proof is the fact that shepherds were out and about on the night of Christ’s birth, and shepherds cannot be out and about in December.  Way too cold.   However, December 25th was the day Constantine chose, and so it was.  After all, he was the Emperor!  Who could argue?

I should note –  Pagans celebrated the return/ rebirth of the SUN – whereas the Christians began celebrating the birth of the SON  (Jesus Christ, son of god.)  See what they did there?  Clever.  English and many Germanic languages have this similarity.

Medieval and Renaissance Europeans also celebrated the twelve days of Christmas.  This was an exchange of gifts which began on December  26th and ended on January 6th (which was also called Twelfth Night. Yes, yes! Shakespeare wrote a play called Twelfth Night, but that is another topic for another blog!)   Thus, the original Pagan custom of burning the Yule log for twelve days became the Christian custom of the twelve days of Christmas.

Sometime in the 18th century, they published a song about the Twelve Days of Christmas, something involving a partridge in a pair tree, etc…  You may have heard it.

solstice 6

The 6th of January, or Twelfth Night, became known as the Feast of Three Kings. It was believed that it was on this day the Magi  first arrived to visit the Christ child.  (Which, some bible scholars argue, was actually impossible, because Jesus was not born in December.)

Other celebrations occurring at this time of year include Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.   In Judaic tradition, Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple.  It is also a festival of light, which involves daily lighting the eight candle Menorah.  Kwanzaa is a pan-African festival which celebrates family and community. During Kwanzaa’s seven day duration, the seven candle ‘kinara’ is lit.  Iranians celebrate the ancient Yalda, or  Shab-e Chelleh (‘night of forty’ the ‘longest and darkest night of the year’.)  Families gather together to eat traditional foods, stay up past midnight and read poetry.

No matter which holiday you celebrate, the return of the sun is a sacred time of year.

What can you do to celebrate Yule in modern times?  If you do not have a fireplace for a Yule log, try burning some  incense. Pine or cedar would be great.   Use scented candles, colored red and green.  Cinnamon will make your home smell delicious! Give gifts of apples and oranges, which symbolize the sun.  Hang sprigs of mistletoe and holly berry, boughs of evergreen or a wreath, which represents the circle of life.  If you cannot get to Stonehenge, create your own stone circle. Use colorful stones; green aventurine for prosperity, red carnelian for health, and quartz crystals to magnify your power and desires!

Meditate with music.    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbltFs7G8UQ

If you are really ambitious, try your hand at a traditional wassail punch.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWuI6LK0tss

Whatever you do,  enjoy this winter season, and Blessed Be!

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