Once upon a time, not so very long ago, witches came from miles around to meet in the woods and learn from each other about cursing and warding magic. I remember walking a dense spiral path formed by trees and earth alone, the mossy ground slimy under my feet and covered in mushrooms and the tiniest of toads. I caught the toads and they baptized my hands with their poison. There was a clearing with four stangs in each corner adorned with skulls and antlers, their feet covered in offerings. It was a place full of genius loci and magical potency, but I spent most of my time on a forest path sitting at the door of the sacred mound of gnome home, offering smoke as well as blood via mosquitoes to the nisse.
I remember cooking in large iron cauldrons over a hot fire under the hot sun and needing to jump in the river to cool off. I remember people feeding me bannock dripping with honey and my fingers bloody from eating a rare cow heart cooked over the flames, the women shouting “Khaleesi!” Words fell out of my mouth and sang a song of henbane; its history, folklore, magical uses, medicinal uses, how to grow it, what to harvest, and preparations for the pleasure of the herb alone. I remember the witches dancing wildly around a bonfire and casting a powerful curse of protection as the sun set and the world grew dark.
As the hour grew late, I remember wearing my floor length red dress and putting on red lipstick, my long dark hair curled from the heat and humidity. I remember a man sharing the good whiskey with me possibly because of these facts. I remember the hem of my dress dragging across the dirt path as I led the midnight procession of endless people dressed in white into the pitch black of the forest. I led them with no lantern, just my night-seeing eyes and my voice singing a chant of cleansing (strong like the ocean/gentle like rain/river wash my tears away/aphrodite).
We turn right at the crossroad and curve like a snake around sacred groves until we come to a sandy clearing with some stars visible through a clouded sky. The sound of the frogs is so loud it drowns out all other sounds. There is a large fire with a darkly bearded man in black standing next to it holding a large staff and at his feet is a deer hide with a skull, a bird wing, bottles, bowls, and herbs. The people’s eyes widen, but the man is only the firekeeper and steps back into the shadows. To the left of the fire are two large candles struck into the ground, with white and red rose petals on the sand forming an entrance way into an unseen pool of water; all that lays beyond is a heavy darkness. It is called “The Cauldron” and is fed by an underground aquifer. It goes deep.
I briefed everyone before we began the procession. They were to wear white or be naked if they were comfortable doing so. This was to be a purification ritual, a spiritual cleansing. It may seem reverent to some and playful to others, and it will be both. I told them to focus on a prayer and hold it in their mind when they go in the water and put their heads under. What do they wish to be cleansed of? A curse, an evil eye, an attached spirit, unhealthy thoughts, illness, stress, frustrations, unhappiness, bad experiences… I told them the cleansing may have consequences. It could result in your wish coming true in unexpected ways: a broken relationship or friendship, the loss of a job or living situation… that most people would be fine, but those at major crossroads in their lives may have some fallout. My warning came to pass for some and my heart goes out to them.
At the sandy shore of the Cauldron in the darkness, I loudly called to the directions of east, south, west, north, above and below and asked the spirits of the land to witness and guard our rite. Juniper, Janine, and I cleansed the participants. Janine smudged them with burning sage and the bird wing to purify their spirits. I passed forth a bottle of my blackcurrant mead and had them paw at a jar of raw honey with their hands and lick it off. “For sweetness in life,” I repeated.
Then Juniper and I sprayed their faces and bodies with fine mists of red wine and mead spat from our mouths. We looked at each other for a moment with wicked smiles, turned and sprayed each other head to toe. It sounds cruel, but it is a common folk practice of spiritual cleansing around the world. In Scotland, the healer’s mouth was sacred and their saliva could turn water or alcohol into holy water. Most people laugh, some frown. To be sweet again I had them all dip their hands in a bowl of deliciously scented rose water and white rose petals and anoint themselves with it, rubbing it on their faces and necks… but then after I splashed the remains wickedly all over their feet so they were cleansed from head to toe. I sweetened them and cleansed them so they would feel clean after a hot, humid, and sweaty day, but more so to cleanse them so their human-ness would not offend the spirits of the spring.
How many miles to Babylon?
Three score miles and ten.
Can I get there by candle-light?
Yes, and back again.
If your heels are nimble and light,
You may get there by candle-light.
~ Mother Goose
Divided into three groups, I instruct each to follow the path of rose petals and run into the darkness through the tall candles. I pull my dress over my head and lead the first wave of naked and white-clothed people splashing into the depths of the black water. The water is glorious and pleasurable, perfect. They hold their heads under for six seconds and pray. They come out again and the next wave goes in, and the next until they have all baptized themselves –I’m proud to say: even the ones who were afraid of the water. I look into the darkness with my cat eyes and make sure each person comes back out. I bless them: “May you be cleansed of your curses, your evil eyes, your unwanted spirits, your problems! May you have happiness, prosperity, love, and laughter!” And they laugh with joy and their eyes sparkle. Some of us go back into the water because it is so perfect and the stars are so beautiful and the chorus of frogs is incredible. People linger and hug and then we all slowly walk back into the forest and off to the dreamtime.
I return home recharged and full of joy, feeling ever more the strange and wild witch-like creature I am. Happiness is being in the company of witches and knowing nothing you do or say will upset them because they are the same type of strange creature. I feel blessed to have such a gathering only a blink away from my home and hope you will join us one year to celebrate your own strangeness.
Blessings of the dark and the wild,
Image of the Bonnchere River by D. Gordon E. Robertson.