Category Archives: Storytelling

Datura inoxia

The Dark Year

By | Events, Herbalism, Storytelling | 30 Comments

This has not been my year. This has not been many people’s year. At first I tried to sugar coat it, telling myself that maybe things would get better… but they only got worse and then worse and then even worse. It all started with an outbreak of contagious walking pneumonia in my small town of six hundred people. There is only one bank, one pharmacy, one cafe and we all touched the same doors, the same bank machine… Walking pneumonia slowly takes your breath and energy away lasting from one to two months. You wheeze like an asthmatic, nap all the time, and can barely lift a finger. Everyone caught it, everyone. I had it for the full months of May and June and it turned into a sinus infection I couldn’t shake. I couldn’t plant my garden, I couldn’t clean my house, I couldn’t work my job. I would end up on the ground gasping for breath.

After multiple doctor visits I finally shook it at the beginning of July. My garden was late getting planted and a lot of potted plants died while they waited for me, but many more made it into the ground to my relief. And then the drought came. Don’t tell the farmers that climate change isn’t real. First they’ll punch you. Then they’ll weep uncontrollably. The Valley is known for its endless rolling green hills of fertile farms and many lost their crops this summer. My dug well ran dry. That was a bad day. My father hooked up the house to the cistern without checking the water first. It was contaminated and smelled like rotten sea water with maybe a dead snake or two in it. All the pipes in my house were contaminated, I had to wash dishes with that water and bathe my son in it even though it wasn’t safe. No filter would’ve been good enough. The cistern would have to be cleaned and bleached out but unfortunately it is pretty much inaccessible in my basement.

I put my foot down and we let the dug well recover, flushed out the pipes, and then restricted the well’s use to run the house only. The cistern later ran out from me using it only sparingly to water the garden. The plants loved the disgusting water. The rains still didn’t come. My only hope was to pump water from the creek to use for the garden… but the pump was broken. My father replaced it only to learn the whole line out to the creek was damaged. No water. It’s not a city person problem, but it’s real out here. I have three sources of water and all of them failed. Imagine not being able to even drink a glass of water from the tap let alone wash dishes, do laundry, take a shower, water your plants… My plants died. The ones that didn’t die from the drought died from worms and beetles. I lost not just my potatoes to potato beetles, but also all of my belladonna (they’re both nightshades, now you know). I lost my whole henbane crop and almost all of my root vegetables. The plants who did survive did poorly. I’m a plant person, so it’s like watching your beloveds die around you while you are helpless to do anything. I should’ve known it was foreshadowing.

August came with only more sadness. My mother’s mother, Grandma Mary, passed away a week before my birthday. I had loved her dearly and she was very special to me and always treated me like I was special too. We were both Leos and had many happy adventures together. She had been a teacher for special needs children and in retirement had travelled the world. She loved going to the symphony and art museums and always took me with her. I’d even lived with her in Toronto for a brief time when I was 19 before her Alzheimer’s had fully set in. She died a couple weeks shy of her 93rd birthday, in her room with family and her favourite music playing. Not even a week later my father’s father, my Poppa, died too. He’d been in and out of the hospital for years and had given us so many scares the priest had given him last rights seven times before. We thought this was just another scare because he always bounced back. But he didn’t wake up this time. Poppa was 83 and left behind his wife since the age of 19 and the huge family they’d created together and a close community full of friends and loved ones. Everyone loved Poppa, you couldn’t help it. He was so loud, disarming and friendly with his twinkling black eyes and Irish gift of the gab.

On my birthday weekend my family and I travelled to Montreal and Ottawa to bury them both. My Grandma was cremated and buried next to my Grandpa who’d died 3o years earlier. We each placed pink roses into her grave, said farewell and then went to a restaurant after and celebrated her life. It was simple and beautiful, in a beautiful part of Montreal full of ancient trees.  My Poppa was given the full Irish Catholic funeral with the two day wake, the black limos and hearse, and the full service in his church just a walk away from his house he’d lived in for the past 50 years. The church was packed and four priests showed up, not because it’s required, but because they had all loved him. His four sons, grandson, and grandson-in laws carried his casket to the graveyard behind the church and we buried him. There was a big reception after in the hall. Then just family met at my grandparents’ house after everything else and my uncles drank the cask of 45 year old Irish whiskey my Poppa had saved for his funeral and we put on the old Irish music and sang and my cousin danced for us while the great grandchildren played.

Maybe a week later I found out I am pregnant with my second child. Unlike my son, this one is a surprise, but a very welcome one for me and my partner and our families. A week after finding out it was time to fly off to the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference in New Mexico. Three planes from Canada and a lot of vomit later, I made it the airport in El Paso, Texas… and then was stranded by my ride at the airport. Oh yeah, I panicked. I didn’t have any contact info for the event and don’t own a cellphone. I thought I was going to have to go home, but a lovely lady at the info booth worked hard for an hour to figure out how to get me to the event site and a shuttle driver even turned around to come and get me. I thanked him and then the old cowboy sitting next to him for coming back for me. The cowboy said “I’m nobody important and ain’t in no rush.” I’d never met a real cowboy before, despite having lived in ranch country in the Okanagan. This one was in his late 70s and still working. Both were the sweetest men and offered to drive me all the way up the hotel for free, but thankfully the organizers had sent down a lovely woman to pick me up for the conference. We drove through a monsoon, hail, and a double rainbow up further and further into the mountains until the dry desert turned into spruce and oaks and ravens.

I was supposed to tent because the hotel was completely booked, but the camping was much further away then insinuated and when I arrived the ground was completely covered in hail the size of golf balls along with an insane monsoon of sheet rain, thunder, and lightning.  Luckily, the awesome organizer Kiva Rose found a solution. Another woman who was going to camp was able to get a room last minute in a hotel at the bottom of the hill from the conference site and was willing to share. And that is how I met the lovely Green Heart Woman, Gina. We were both so happy to get out of the weather and avoid tenting in the monster hail. We read tarot for each other and kept the room nicely smudged. It was worth it to have to hike up the mountain to get to the conference workshops.  I taught my presentation on the history, folklore, and medicinal uses of Belladonna, Datura, Henbane, and Mandrake to a full room and let people try out samples of my ointments after. The presentation was recorded, but I’m still waiting to find out if it turned out well enough to be usable (there were a lot of recordings made). The paper I wrote for the presentation can be downloaded with the 2016 Conference E-book here.

It was really hard to choose which presentations to attend. They all sounded amazing, but many were scheduled at the same time. My little moleskin notebook is packed full of notes. I enjoyed meeting and talking to Guido Masé, Dave Meesters, Jen Stovall, Rebecca Altman, and Jacques, a bone-setter and herbal healer from Québec. I met massage therapists, vendors, witches, herbalists in training, and fellow Canadians. Meeting and talking to all the wonderful people really made the event for me. So many green hearted plant people in one place and so many people shared their love of their favourite nightshades with me.

Guido fascinated me with the experiences of his medicinal uses of tinctures of datura and hemlock in his clinical herbal practice and urged me to speak up and go legit with my nightshade medicines. Because of him and one of his presentations on the future and legality of herbalism, I’m looking into willingly going through the formal process of asking Health Canada (our equivalent of the FDA) to scrutinize my ointments and creation processes so I can obtain NHPs (natural health product numbers) for my nightshade ointments. Dave, a fellow fan of Dale Pendell, talked about sun medicine vs moon medicine. Dave wrote this amazing piece called Dark Medicines: On Seeing Patients with ‘Bad Habits’ which I adore and I asked him to collaborate on some writing over the winter and he said yes. For those wondering or guessing, this was a very witchcraft, folk magic, fairy faith, and animist friendly conference.

After I returned home, caught up on endless shipping and product packaging, I thought maybe things would get better now. Maybe Saturn’s long retrograde had finally gone fully direct. I was wrong of course. This dark year took away a lot of my ability to hope. I was wrangling my freckled, curly headed toddler while trying to pack to go to a family reunion for Canadian Thanksgiving when I heard from a good friend back on the West coast in Seattle. He wanted to let me know our friend Seb had killed themself, he’d found them dead under a tree. Seb was one of my best friends and favourite people in the whole world. The friend you have who you want every other friend of yours to meet. An amazing artist in any medium they touched, an amazing cook, a forager, herbalist, gardener, shaman, healer, bone collector… Seb could do or make anything. They were awesome.

I looked at Seb’s prints and paintings on my walls and fridge, I looked at the woodcarvings they’d made me beside my bed, I looked at the perfect witch hat mushroom lamp they’d crafted, and I saw their homemade jams, vinegars, and pine sugar in my pantry. I cried and cried until snot ran down my face. Seb had had not just a dark year, but two dark years of constant bad luck and I think the heaviness of the hopelessness overwhelmed and crushed them. You feel so much more helpless when you lose a loved one over suicide than natural old age. There was nothing I could do or my friends could do. We all chipped in to pay for Seb’s cremation and memorial services. We all shared happy memories, our favourite works of Seb’s art, and gave comfort to one another. It’s still hard to look at facebook, it’s only been just over a week. Seb suffered from depression and PTSD. No matter how loved they were or how wonderful, smart, and funny everyone knew they were, Seb would never believe it about themself. I hope that part of them is gone now and they see it’s true: they are an amazing, wonderful, loving being who was well loved by everyone who knew them in life.

Seb Barnett – Fine Art & Illustration

Green Stag Spirit Work

Remembering Seb Barnett

Seb Barnett Walks into a Forest: An Interview and an Aftermath

Seb Barnett Memorial Fund

Seb is not the only one with a dark year, and I know I am not the only other one with a dark year. I have so many friends and acquaintances locally and afar who have had a very bad year in different degrees. My intent in sharing my year of death with you is not to depress you, but to make you realize your year could maybe have been darker. Some of my friends lost their children, some lost their water, their livestock, their health… One of my mother’s classic sayings is “life’s not fair and then you die.” She would say it whenever me or my sister were whining over something she knew was small in the grand scheme of things. This dark year has taught me life is short. Appreciate what you have and who you have because it can all be taken away. We’ve seen so much taken away from people across the world this year by earthquakes, hurricanes, war, and hate. Love deeply and fearlessly, spend more time with family and friends, learn how to say no to things that do not serve you, and yes to things that are good for you (even if you are scared or it means change). Learn how to ask for what you need from the people in your life and listen to them in kind. Life is short, so go live it.

A Wintry Day in the Life

By | Storytelling | 20 Comments

I awake in the morning before the sun at 6am when the sky is still dark blue and the bright moon shines into my bedroom window. When I make breakfast and bring my two year old downstairs, the sun is rising through the kitchen windows, touching the monochrome grey world with golden yellow light and then a flood of bright colour erupts over the snow covered landscape. After the wee man is changed and fed and happy I clean the ashes out of the wood cook stove and dump them outside in the ash bin and then light a fire –streaking my forearms with black soot every time. I make tea, I wash dishes, and I play with my son in the early morning hours. I’ve been a single parent since December and am still trying to get the hang of juggling all the things. Sometimes for a change of scene me and the kid walk over to my friend’s cafe for tea and breakfast and to chat up the locals before the work day starts.

Wintery Day in the Life

Mostly though, I usually wake up to being snowed in and having to dig myself out again so I can get out of the house and into town, so my employees can park in my driveway, and so I can get to the garage and wood shed. Alex and Errol can only come into work after they dig themselves out too. My snow blower was awesome until it stopped working and I was left with drifts of 2-5 feet of snow to clear out. It amuses me greatly that when New York and New Jersey got hit with a big snow storm, it was all over the news and social media. We get a nasty snow storm here almost every week and the world cares not –neither do the townsfolk. They know the snow is coming and they bring in extra firewood, buy their groceries, and hide inside until the snow stops. You shovel your driveway only after the plows have gone by, or your driveway will simply be blocked again by a mountain of snow from the road.

Some older houses in town have bad insulation and poor heating. I feel really lucky that I have a furnace and a wood stove. Visitors always comment on how warm and cozy my little house is. I’m glad I have the furnace as back up. If you only have fire and your fire goes out, your pipes freeze and burst. Errol says he feels like Cinderella because he’s bound to his fire, but he can pack it with wood and forget about it until sunset and it will still be burning. My wood cook stove is vintage from the 1950s and full of holes, letting in air and burning up all the wood every hour, making it inefficient and needing to be replaced before next winter. I feel like Seymour constantly feeding Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. “Feed me Seymour, feed me!”

At home

When late morning comes, my forager and shop assistant Alex walks over from his place just up the street and my shipper Errol drives in from his tiny house on Morning Glory Farm. Alex starts processing herbs and making herbal products for the shop and Errol starts to print invoices and work on shipping out orders. I cook brunch for us while chasing the toddler around and out of the kitchen. He is constantly trying to get into everything right now –climbing and grabbing at everything and giggling and running away… A troublesome blend of extreme cuteness and endless mischief.

He goes down for a nap after we eat. The silence is beautiful, but we fill it with conversation and music; blues, folk, hip hop, rap, electronic… I lend a hand and try to get as much work done as possible while the little man sleeps, helping with shipping, labelling, inventory, photos, or answering emails.

Cooking and herbalism

We three are kindred spirits, of a similar age and mindset, and new to town. If you’ve been hanging around this blog for a while you know I give everyone nicknames. Alex is The Greenman (aka The Forest Spirit) and Errol is The Psychonaut. We’ve all been classified as hippies by the locals. And we are. Anti-capitalist communist hippies of a discordian anarchist persuasion who look forward to the inevitable fall of civilization… but you know with goals of brotherly love, environmental awareness, and self-sufficiency. We each moved to Killaloe to get away from the city and the currently unrealistic life that is expected of our generation: go to school, get a degree, get a job, get married, buy a house and cars, have kids, and retire happily ever after. What do you do when you can’t afford school or hated it, can never afford a house in a city, your marriage only leads to unhappiness, and you can’t get a job or can only get one that sucks away your soul?

Errol left engineering school for the military and has now just left his position as an army medic after seven years to become a nomad with his tiny house on wheels. Alex left the city and his job as a prison guard to become a forager travelling between Ontario and Quebec. I left library school a few years ago to run my own business and more recently left Vancouver to be a herbalist in rural Ontario. And here we are. We sit at my kitchen table and dream of spring and of foraging and homesteading. I need lumber, guns, and honey bees for the spring. We want to grow edible and medicinal mushrooms in a shed in the yard, learn to hunt deer, keep honey bees, go on foraging trips… to be wild and rewild. How cool is it that our team building exercises for work are plant journeys, drum circles, product testing, and will soon be foraging trips, camping, hiking, canoeing, and hopefully paintball. There are farmers’ markets, workshops, the Killaloe Herb Gathering, and Raven’s Knoll events to get involved with… I have a good feeling about this year.

Herbal goodness

Serendipity has been a recurring theme for me since moving to this small town. What I’ve needed, I’ve been provided with in short order. I needed help with the shop and found Alex and Errol simply by running into the right people at the right time. It’s just icing on the cake that we all have skills the others lack and want to learn from each other. I will share my knowledge of plant and tree identification, foraging, herbalism, gardening, permaculture, and butchery. Alex has experience with honey bees, is our resident forager and mushroom expert, and is apprenticing to learn how to do everything I can do as a herbalist.

Errol is a retired army medic and Alex is a former army cadet so they will teach me to shoot, though they are both partial to crossbows. Errol just built his tiny house on wheels last year and will likely help us build the mushroom shed and maybe a smokehouse or two… Once upon a time I used to be a professional cook, particularly skilled in butchery. My parents are planning on getting more pigs on their farm this year so I can teach us all how to ethically slaughter and butcher them in an area that is full of livestock farmers and hunters, but surprisingly few abatoires and small scale butchers.

Errol and his tiny house

Yes, we’re dreaming big. Because why not? And then why not actually do all these things when spring and summer come? We aren’t the only ones with wild stars in our eyes. There are many young people in the area doing their best to rewild, live off-grid, homestead, or just enjoy sleepy small town life. It is quite the contrast to see many local youths eager to leave this small town for the city, while at the same time, young people disenchanted by the city are moving here on purpose to live a more rural, practical life with a focus on tight-nit community. Part of me believes it has always been this way since we started to congregate in cities at the dawn of civilization.

Me so thrilled to shovel all that snow

We talk about these things and and so much more from science to the realm of the absurd. And then the kid wakes up and I finish my work and go get him. I play with him in the living room or take him outside if the weather and the snow cooperate while the guys finish their work for the day. Sometimes I cook dinner and we hang out, sometimes they head home. Tuesday nights are for potluck and Friday nights are pizza night at Garth’s Cafe. I’ve started hosting a trance drum circle at my house twice a month. There’s a winter farmers’ market and then a dj and dancing at the Lion’s Hall once a month for kicks. Winter seems endless sometimes, but keeping socially active makes it not only bearable, but wonderful.

The sun sets in a glorious wash of pink outside my large living room windows and then the world darkens to monochrome blue grey again and the town becomes eerily silent. The little man goes to bed for the night, I finish up any work that needs to be done, clean up, put away laundry, take out the compost, bring in firewood in the snow, shovel snow, and then usually fall asleep myself.

a day in the life

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The Witch and the Wild

By | Animism, Ecological Consciousness, Storytelling, Witchcraft & Magic | 15 Comments

If you have not yet done so, please go and read Peter Grey’s life-altering essay “Rewilding Witchcraft” before continuing with my piece. The co-owner of Scarlet Imprint has much to say that desperately needs to be heard by the magical community. I will sit here and wait and sip my tea while you do so. Then come back and I’ll pour a mug for you and we’ll talk.

we are doomed. The earth and nature are not doomed. We are doomed, we humans. If we want to be honest with ourselves about the future of life on earth then we must be on the side of nature and not on the side of humanity. We have made the earth uninhabitable for ourselves, but nature will survive and notice our decline and demise as much as a the ocean notices one boat sinking into its depths. Green vines will swallow our cities of concrete and metal, trees will uproot parking lots and highways, animals will nest in our abandoned houses, the roofs of our temples will collapse letting in sunlight and starlight… and nature will not care, nature will not laugh, nature will not cry.

Our witchcraft, nay, our very being must become more wild, more intuitive, and more accepting of nature’s amorality and our inevitable demise if we are to make any difference at all. If we are to preserve what we’ve left behind of the earth in our destructive wake, and if we are to survive in any number as a species, we must rewild ourselves and learn how to live outside of civilization. We must lose our faiths, our religions, our meaningless attachment to nitpicketity details only we as individuals and not a whole care about. We who are importers of foreign magics and alien gods. We must become a different kind of witch. Something that needs no definitions, no boundaries, and no expectations. Something more primal and raw than our current incarnation. Something small, something just outside your door…

Local food, local beer, local products… the locavore movement invades the Pacific Northwest like an organic cotton-wearing hippie invades a farmer’s market with the best of intentions, but whose naïveté fails to see that paying more for something local will make absolutely no difference on the environment or the decline of our civilization (this is coming from someone who shops at farmer’s markets and buys local). What we need instead is local knowledge, local medicine, and local witchcraft. What do your local spirits care about you and your family’s survival? You who have never spoken to them or left them an offering? You who doesn’t know their names, powers, or dwelling places. They have no vested interest in you. They will dwell in the trees growing over our mass grave one day and not weep for us… after all, wasn’t it our ancestors who clear cut the forests that were their homes when we came to this land? Wasn’t it our ancestors who polluted their rivers and oceans and fished all their food until it couldn’t be renewed? Why would these spirits teach us their magic and medicine? One would have to put in a lot of hard work to simply get their attention, and years of it for them to start trusting and helping one local spirit worker, let alone all of us.

What did the ancient  magicians, shamans, sorcerers, and witches do to gain the favour of the spirits? The literally went wild. Off they would go into the uncivilized world of nature without any comforts, without any companions. They would learn to hunt and forage for food, how to clothe themselves only with what nature provided, how to make tools, how to follow the migrations of animals, and learn how to predict the weather and the seasons. So wild they would become that speech, manners, and morals would be forgotten. When they would return home five to ten years later, they would be unrecognizable: feral, dangerous, mad. Accounts in Ireland even speak rumours of cannibalism. It would take a long time to bring them back to civilization and they were never fully comfortable in it again, living on the outskirts of town. But their people believed their madness was worth it for the knowledge they brought back; for these wild men, these woodwoses, were now encyclopedias and intermediaries of the genius loci – the local spirits of nature. And they were invaluable to the people’s survival.

What is the ancient purpose of a witch or shaman? To be an intermediary between the spirits and humanity. To be translator, negotiator, salve, and warrior if need be. In rewilding witchcraft, this is what we must learn, this is what we must become. We must be able to commune with the spirits of nature; of animals, insects, plants, waters, forests, mountains, plains, deserts, elemental forces, and also with the dead. In order to commune with the spirits we must become them, we must live with them, we must speak to them even if they do not answer back for years whether due to our untrained ears or their chosen silence. Wherever you live, you must allow yourself to be absorbed into the very land itself, immersed in the genius loci until their secrets and wisdom pour into you. We must become village witches, regional witches, shamans who speak for the spirits where we live.

I live in the Pacific Northwest. I live between ocean and mountain. My corner of the world is full of spirits both benevolent and malevolent, great and small, named and unnamed. Some have no equal anywhere else in the world, some uncannily resemble foreign spirits or spirits found in too many cultures to count. In Russia, Old Woman is Baba Yaga. In the highlands and islands of Scotland she is the Cailleach Bheur. In the Pacific Northwest she is Asin, Monster-Woman-of-the-Woods, or Basket Woman. They are all very different, and yet they are the same. They protect the forest,  they are wild, they are the land, and though they eat people (especially children) they are also initiators of spirit workers who are brave or foolish enough to seek them out. The world of spirits is often a paradox and linear thinking is of little use. I have said it many times. If you live in the Pacific Northwest, you must go into the wild unknown over and over and over if you want to learn how to speak to spirits and learn their magics. The same goes if you live elsewhere.

Let us journey into the wild…

Hear the rain softly falling on the leaves and the louder drops rolling down the branches to drip onto the ground. Smell the air as each drop falls releasing the musky, earthy scent of centuries upon centuries of a humus composed of decaying cedar trees and plant leaves.  See the thick mosses carpeting the forest floor and the bark of wizened old hazel and maple trees. See the fungi covering dead stumps, climbing up vast tree trunks and spreading its invisible mycelium network beneath their roots. See their colours ranging from purple and pink to brightest yellow and orange, to unassuming browns and the nefarious red-capped toadstools with white spots.

Tilt your head back and look up into the canopy of trees: Cedar, Fir, Alder, Poplar, and Big Leaf Maples so tall you cannot see where their branches end. They must touch the roof of the sky itself. See in their branches the dark shapes of crows cawing their messages and prophecies in a cacophonous symphony. Be silent and you may hear the croak of a raven,the cry of an eagle, the hoot of an owl, the rustling of a black bear through the deep woods. Be still and you may see a wild hare, a white-tailed deer, or a serpent slithering back to its hole in the earth.

Climb a hill or a tree and see the vast mountain ranges around you with their summer snow-dusted peaks and you will know the world when it was young. Look below the saw-toothed mountains and you will see the raging rivers, the snaking fingers of streams and waterfalls running down mountain sides, and the outlines of inlets – waters reaching inland from the great pouring sea. Follow the rivers and inlets back to the source where all water flows: the Pacific Ocean. Here its vastness is dotted with lush green islands of solitary hills and mountains hidden by mists and fog. They are an otherworld all of their own.

What do you see in the waters between the chains of these wild hilly islands? A massive grey whale and closer still, orcas, their skin shining black and white with proud upright fins cutting through the salt water. Deeper still the ocean conceals its mysteries: giant squid that would crush your bones as easily as the frame of a wooden boat, neon jellyfish full of stings and fire, and colourful red and green salmon fattening in the sea before their homeward journeys back to the rivers of their births. You travel back to the sea shore and find it covered with barnacles, mussels, clams, crawling crabs, and the odd stranded purple starfish. On the rocks nearby you see a family of black-eyed seals sunbathing on a rock, furry body upon furry body, happy and fat after a feast of fish.

You stand on the shore and remember you drank from the mountain springs, you ate the forbidden berries bursting with tart juices, you sucked the flavour out of roots, you filled your mouth with catkins and bitter green leaves, and you stuffed the flesh of fish, hare, and bird with mushrooms and tender fir tips and roasted them over a fire on lonely hungry nights under the stars. You ate and ate until your skin turned green with leaves and moss, your blood turned to sap, flowers spilled out of your mouth, roots sprouted from the soles of your feet, fur grew down your back and feathers from your finger tips.  You are what you eat and you ate the wild — shape-shifted into it.

You look up and see you are in a sacred places where land, sea, and vast sky are all present. You have unknowingly stepped into the spirit world and into the ancient past. You touch your head and waist and find them wreathed in delicately needled hemlock branches. You touch your face and find it painted. You touch your shoulders and find them cloaked in familiar feathers. You touch your neck and find it draped in necklaces of teeth, claws, bones, and magical roots of native species.

Dig a small hole in the wet sand with your hands, feel its coolness and leave an offering; small stones and spring water from the mountains, wild flowers from a meadow, a sprig of cedar, a bundle of feathers, a perfect clam shell, and berries you foraged along your journey. You stand over your offering and drum and sing, calling the spirits and the act being an offering in and of itself. When you are spent you thank the spirits for all they have revealed to you; how the land is connected and interdependent, how powerful and important each feature, element, and creature is. Then you start the long journey home knowing you are wild again.


WANT MORE?

Apocalyptic Witchcraft by Peter Grey

Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram

Journey into Bioregional Herbalism by Kiva Rose

The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram

Unlearn, Rewild by Miles Olson

Wild Earth, Wild Soul by Bill Pfeiffer

great-below

The Call from the Great Below

By | Folk Magic, Storytelling | 34 Comments

TThe Three who are in the earth, the Three who are in the air, the Three who are in the heavens, the Three who are in the great pouring sea. Two years ago the old fairy doctor with her long white hair used the words translated from Scots Gaelic I too use in my rites to cast a protective caim. The trance came on easily with the soothing sound of the familiar words, this world fading and turning black. She took us to an island whose earth was made of the bones of the dead and yet still covered in green growth. An island in the centre of our hearts. There on the white beach, trees behind me, sea in front of me, she asked what we were to create and build in the near future. The ground shimmered in front of me and first appeared my wood carving tools. They soon disappeared and were replaced by a small cedar wood cradle.

It alarmed me to say the least. At the time I was single, living alone, and juggling two businesses plus web design work and a busy social life – a baby was the furthest thing from my mind. I started dreaming of a little boy and once saw a friend playing with him in a rare taibhsear’s waking vision. In the dreams there was such fierce love and happiness, I would weep quiet tears when I awoke. Tears for things as simple as having never snuggled, bathed, or played with a child that is mine. Tears for never having seen them smile or laugh with joy. It was out of character for my normally sarcastic, non-weepy, busy self. I hadn’t wanted children before. My heart seemed to know something was coming that my head wasn’t aware of yet.

My good friend Nikiah is many things and one of those things is a storyteller. I love her version of the tale of the goddess Inanna’s descent into the underworld. She tells it when “birthing” drums with people and she tells it when hosting mother blessings, beating her red drum, blue eyes sparkling while silver spills from her tongue. “From the great above she set her mind toward the great below.” It is magical and perfect how the most ancient of myths and folktales can mirror our own lives.

Our Forest Handfasting

The Poisoner and I being handfasted, wreathed in hawthorn

I had a plan for my life and my work… but then, of course, I fell in love. Love is a funny, unpredictable thing and can change you in ways you never dreamed. My heart softened, my tongue sweetened with honey, my actions were more and more selfless. The Poisoner won me over wholely with his patient but insistent love and his perfect words that always matched the trueness and sweetness of his actions. What is a woman to do but to completely let go of control and allow herself to be loved so deeply? I was stripped naked as Inanna was upon her descent to the underworld, pride demolished, but for the better.

What happens when two people are deeply in love? Passion, yes, but also other desires. We made up our minds to be wed, to be handfasted in a beautiful forest surrounded by our family and friends, to feast and dance into the night by the bonfire under the summer’s stars. We made up our minds to create new life, to start a family of our own, whispering to each other in the dark all the things we would teach our child and our hopes for who they could become. Shared intent and will are powerful between two magicians, there was no trying, the baby simply appeared — and before we’d even had time to make it to our handfasting! Everyone thought we would have a girl and even the local diviner, with her incredible accuracy rate and my ring spinning, suspended over my swelling belly from one of my hairs, was sure. I said nothing but remembered my dreams and sure enough the tiny life growing inside me turned out to be a boy.

What is it like to pull up a soul from the underworld, to pull down a star from the heavens? Uncomfortable, painful, gore-filled. Most people won’t warn you of the vomit, the blood, or the feces-laced waters – only of the pain. But it wasn’t frightening, it was what it was moment to moment. “It’s just a moment in time. Step aside and let it happen.” I remembered all the blessings my friends had given me. I let my body do all the work and shut off my brain, knowing my body was designed to do this and knew better than me, knowing countless women before me going back into the far reaches of time had given birth and trusted in their bodies.

Seven months pregnant

Seven months pregnant

We happened to drive by the graveyard on the way to the hospital and I prayed to the ancestors. Again I let go of control. Again I was Inanna descending to the underworld, being stripped of all my being until there was nothing left but meat and bones. This time rebirthed by the Queen of the Underworld to become Mother.

“Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld, is moaning
With the cries of a woman about to give birth.
No linen is spread over her body.
Her breasts are uncovered.
Her hair swirls about her head like leeks.”

He arrived on the day of Saturn under the influence of the full moon; the worm moon named for the warming earth teeming with worms to be eaten by robins, also named the sap moon for the return of the flow of sap to the trees in early spring. He arrived with the sun on the Ides of March, the new year of the oldest Roman calendar, once marked by the full moon.  Crow sentinels circled us every hour while in the hospital, circled the car on the way home, and continue to caw outside the bedroom window every day – a guardian gift from Grandmother Crow.

Labour was so fast and intense that there was no time for anything but a completely natural birth. The midwives were shocked since he is my first. One asked me what my secret was and the only thing I could think of was surrender. The Poisoner and I’s little Yew Tree was born big, strong, and healthy. We took him home the next day. Both of Scots blood, we performed a simple rite based on one of old to protect from evil, illness, the evil eye, and the fey. I blessed a fresh portion of holy water, sprinkling it on the thresholds, the altar, and marked crosses on our three foreheads to sain us. Then the Poisoner walked sunwise around the baby and I in bed with a burning brand. He laid his iron spear across the bed. He left an offering of bread, cheese, and whiskey on the altar for our familiar spirits and another offering of the same outside to appease and keep away the unwelcome outdwellers. “Good keep in, evil keep out.” It was done.

Friends washing my nine-months-pregnant swollen feet at my mother blessing

Friends washing my nine-months-pregnant swollen feet at my mother blessing

Sain my little child,
Shield him from death,
Hasten him to health,
As thou desirest,
Pain and sorrow
To thine injurer,
A thousand welcomes to thee,
Life and health be thine,
The age of joy be thine,
In every place,
Peace and growth to him,
Strength and worth to him,
Victory of place,
Everywhere to him

~ Saining Lullaby from the Carmina Gadelica

Being a superstitious folk magician, who is perhaps too well-versed in old Scoto-Scandinavian superstitions, another old tradition we are enforcing is to keep myself and the baby at home and away from other people for as long as possible with only close family and the midwife allowed to visit after a good handwashing. Confinement is usually associated with traditional Chinese culture, but was practised by Celtic and Germanic peoples as well. Mother and baby would be “quarantined” at home for up to one to two months to protect them from illness and the evil eye – which they were believed to be very susceptible to with birth being its own kind of magical threshold, causing a door to be opened between worlds.

Though based in superstition, I see reason in it. A newborn is still building an immune system and the mother will take weeks to recover from giving birth, which is quite a shock to the body. It being the tail end of winter, people are still passing around viruses – the less exposure the better! I know that I’m lucky having my parents, my auntie, and my sweet man to help me while I heal and our little one grows strong. One more superstition; I won’t be posting photos of the baby publicly for privacy’s sake as well as the Scots belief that it was bad luck for people to praise a newborn.

And now to continue on this new and unexpected adventure, to surrender and to revel in the joys to come!

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The Girl Who Found a Feather

By | Animism, Bones & Blood, Charms and Talismans, Spirit Work, Storytelling, Witchcraft & Magic | 8 Comments

A Journey into the Magic of Birds and Feathers

Originally published in issue 25 of Witches & Pagans Magazine, September 2012.

The story of Raven stealing the sun was always my favourite as a child. The idea of that great black bird creating humans and stealing fire and light for us humans made perfect sense to my little head stuck in a book of Native folktales from the Pacific Northwest. There’s no proof, but I would highly suspect my early love of fairy and folk tales may be what led to me becoming an animist, worshipping nature and all its creatures with awe and wonder. That and my earthy backwoods parents who like to live away from cities and talk to plants and animals I’m sure.  Along with folktales, I fell in love with birds at a young age and quickly claimed my mother’s field guide to North American birds as my own. I remember memorizing their names and the colours and patterns of their feathers. I loved to watch them from my window and out in nature and listen to all their songs from the beautiful ones of robins to the cacophonous croaking of crows and ravens.

Birds are deeply magical creatures. They are reptiles who, instead of dying with the rest of the long-dead dinosaurs, transformed themselves by growing feathers, taking flight, and surviving to become an entirely new creature made of air itself with their feathers, hollow bones, and reversed lungs. Feathers are essentially the fur or hair of reptiles, reptiles who have been around millions of years longer than we humans with their sharp, ancient, reptilian brains which we are only just beginning to comprehend the intricacy and intelligence of today (although I think our ancestors knew better). There’s very ancient and powerful spirits flying above our heads in the form of these winged creatures of the sky. In some Pagan pantheons it can be difficult to separate a god from an animal such as Bran and Raven, Perun and Eagle, Thoth and Ibis. I like to think the worship of gods may have started out as animal worship and over time our wild shape-shifting animal deities evolved to be more human in appearance as we left the wilds and animism behind for cities and agriculture. If such a thing were true than birds would be the oldest of our ancestor’s gods.

The Feather Bearer by Sarah Anne Lawless

The Feather Collector

I don’t dare admit the size of my feather collection as it has become a large beast of all colours, stripes, and spots with long flight feathers, soft breast feathers, and beautiful wings. It all started innocently enough with a large feather I had found in the wilds of the North while hunting along riverbanks for bones and stones as a child. I didn’t know anything of feathers’ history of sacred use, but I knew they were special and treated feathers I found with much care over many moves across province and country collecting more along the way. It seems I am always collecting feathers; feathers of light, feathers of dark, feathers of song, feathers to carry prayers, feathers to banish, feathers to bless and heal, and feathers to fly between all three realms of earth, sea, and sky. Some feathers I found along my walks in the wild forests of impossible tall cedars and hemlocks along the Pacific Northwest coast; little hints of movement and colour against brown earth and dead leaves turning out to be feathers of tail, wing, or down shed from the many different birds haunting the woods. Other feathers and wings I sought myself from hunters and taxidermists.

The majority of my feathers came to me as gifts for, you see, once you tell people you collect feathers they tell everyone they know and suddenly feathers are slipped into cards for you or handed to you in bundles – the proud collectors beaming with smiles and saying “I found these for you”. My mother, who lives on an 83 acre homestead, sends me feathers from her chickens, from ducks that swim in the marsh, from wild turkeys and grouse in the forest, and from the birds that come daily to devour seed and suet at her bird feeders. My sister sends me feathers from her African Grey parrot tucked in birthday cards and now are tucked in one of my hats. My Pagan friends, who also collect feathers, trade and gift feathers and wings to me. People started requesting specific feathers from me for use in their own spiritual practices – which I usually just happened to have. Soon, what started as an innocent collection turned into a role and, before I knew it, I had become the feather collector.

The Bone Collector

Of course it’s only natural for people finding feathers for you to escalate into people calling you to say they found a dead bird and do you want it and if not what they should do with it. Shortly after this you end up as the very eccentric witch whose freezer becomes a temporary morgue for panicking dead-bird-finding members of your local Pagan community. I was already looking quite strange enough leaving chicken guts on my roof for the crows of my neighbourhood alongside the usual feeders of sunflower seeds and beef suet. Without looking or intending too, I started to find dead birds as well – apparently the gods and spirits heard I was collecting feathers and wanted to give me more of a challenge to see what I would do. When life gives you lemons, or dead birds, you make something of it. I decided I would honour these sacred creatures, who I had held in awe as powerful spirits for so long, and do right by them. I became a bone collector: not one who kills things for bones, but one who collects the bones of creatures already dead (whether naturally or killed by another animal or a vehicle), and reverences them through burial or the crafting of sacred ritual tools. I had lived on a farm and was used to burying animals who didn’t make it and I had grown up in the North with fishing and hunting. I was a cook for many years and trained in butchery and preservation. I made the possibly controversial decision to delve into death work and taxidermy as part of my spiritual practice.

Owl Fetish by Sarah Anne Lawless

The birds that had been dead too long and were a danger to health were reverentially buried whole in the woods or in planters if their bones would be kept and cleaned.  Protected and threatened species were also buried whole to return to the wild forest they belong to; their bones left alone to turn to dust  and then to forest earth. Birds that had been dead only a day or two I processed like I would a chicken or turkey on the farm after first being frozen to kill any mites and other pests. After performing a ritual of release of the soul and smudging the little creatures with smoke, wearing gloves, a mask, and an apron, I kept the wings, tail fans, and some feathers from the body and put them between layers of borax, cornmeal, salt, or a mixture thereof to dry. If the skull wasn’t damaged I buried it with the rest of the body, in a ritual with offerings of the bird’s preferred foods, to be dug up months later for the bones which would then be whitened and sterilized in hydrogen peroxide for a couple of days before they were ready for ceremonial use. I met other collectors of bones and feathers and together we shared our rites and different practices of cleaning, preservation, and crafting. I felt a little less creepy and eccentric knowing there were others out there with a love and passion for birds who had also become bone collectors and ritual tool makers thanks to what was at first an innocent collection of feathers. Spending time with them was, and still is, dear to me and working together we found more birds and I amassed even more feathers.

The Ritual Tool Maker

What was I to do with all these feathers I had collected from childhood into adulthood? Some of you may be asking that very same question about your own feathers. Ever the practical witch, I knew I had to discover their sacred uses, their magico-religious history, and put them to work – for it is in the doing and the practice of magical things that I truly learn my art. I read every book and article I could get my hands on about ancient and modern ritual tools and ritual costumes. I looked at endless images of the sacred art of Animistic and Pagan cultures. And I found feathers everywhere: feathers buried as offerings to gods and spirits by the Native tribes where I live and by my ancestors across the pond in Scotland; feathers painted onto frame drums and cave walls; ancient art and sculptures of winged supernatural beings called psychopomps; feathers stitched onto the ritual robes, headdresses, and masks of shamans from the British Isles across to the Far East and from the Pacific Northwest down to the jungles of South America; feathers tied to shamans’ staffs, wands, drum beaters, and ritual pipes; and feathers crafted into fetiches and charms like dream catchers, spirit traps, and the handspun witches’ ladder curses of English and Italian witches. Wherever I looked I saw that I was not alone in holding birds as sacred and having strong desires to incorporate their feathers into ceremonial tools to be used in my magic and ritual. I was only doing what every other animistic magician across cultures and times  had done: surrounded themselves with feathers.

I took up charm making and ritual tool making becoming a skilled carver of wood and bone. I hung feathers from spirit traps, rowan crosses, and other charms of protection. I tied feathers to wooden staffs and wands I carved from sacred woods which I had ritually harvested in the forest. I started crafting fetiches of bird skulls, bones, and feathers for other magicians to tie to their staffs and beloved ritual tools. I hung feathers from ritual masks or painstakingly covered their faces in layers of feathers. I designed smudge fans of feathers and wings attached to handles of bone and wood. Most importantly, I began using feathers as tools in my own magic and ritual.

The Feather

Wood and Wing Smudge Fan by Sarah Anne LawlessI use a feather in my ceremonies to invoke the element of air in place of the usual athame, sword, or wand. The long and razor-tipped flight feathers are the best-suited to be used in ritual in place of an athame or sword for casting a circle and cutting it down again as well as to protect from and banish spirits and to cut energy as with a ritual blade.  Along with the feather, I use earth collected from the forest to invoke the earth element, local spring or sea water to invoke the water element, and a candle flame for the fire element. I find having all the elements themselves present in ritual over symbols of them leads to powerful experiences full of spirits, especially when I perform rituals outdoors.

For a simple prayer, breathe on a feather to activate and charge it and then whisper your petition or blessing across its surface. Set the feather free into the wind to carry it to the spirits like you would blow the down of a dandelion wish into a breeze.

A traditional offering to nature spirits is the feather down of a bird covered with red ochre or a red juice like pomegranate or beet, to mimic the blood that would’ve once been used, and left in a shallow pit in the earth. It is also an excellent offering to ancestral spirits and underworld deities.

The Smudge Fan

The smudge fan can be just a simple but beautiful wing or feather up to an elaborate tool with a wood, leather, bone or stone handle and sometimes carvings or gemstones. They aren’t just used for fanning the smoke of incense and smudging herbs – wing or feather smudge fans can be used to cleanse and bless sacred space for ritual in place of sweeping with a besom. Feathers and smudge fans can be used to energetically cleanse and heal people by running feathers over their body to sweep away what needs to be released or by using the feathers to control the flow of smudge smoke around their body so it touches and fumigates every part of them and their spirit, not overlooking the soles of the feet. Smudging with feathers can also be used to cleanse objects (talismans, ritual tools, statuary, etc), altars, temple rooms, an entire house, an outdoor ritual space, and even your car to cleanse and purify to remove any past or present negative influences, and, of course, to chase away any evil spirits.

The Staff

Magician's Staff by Sarah Anne LawlessThe staff is a symbol of the World Tree the bridge or axis between the worlds found in man cultures’ mythologies. It is used to aid in travelling between worlds acting as a shaman or spirit-worker’s horse to the Otherworld granting them the ability to travel anywhere between the upper world, middle world, and underworld. Not a literal horse, but a horse as in a symbol of transportation, in this case to the spirit world. Think of the staff as having your own personal World Tree or, at least, a key to the real one. Feathers are tied to the staff to symbolize wings and flight – the spirit-worker’s soul taking flight and leaving the body. Birds and the air element rule travel and communication and the staff is used to aid in communion with the spirit world and for one’s soul to fly there. Feathers and bells also just happen to look gorgeous streaming from a wooden stave on leather or ribbons maybe with your main animal guide’s head carved at the top or a fetiche of a bird skull with feathers tied to it… but I digress. Hold on to your staff when you invoke your gods and spirits, when you pray, and when you wish to stand between worlds and see and hear spirits. Tap your staff on earth, stone, or water to open doors to the Otherworld.

The Headdress

The shamans of many animistic cultures wear headdresses of feathers to symbolize their mind’s connection to their soul, the higher level of awareness and intelligence that comes with it, the attainment of divine wisdom, and to aid in their communication with the supernatural beings of the spirit world (2). To mimic this practice tuck a feather in your hair when meditating at your altar, when invoking spirits and gods during ritual, and when travelling between worlds. If you have short hair or no hair, hold a feather to your forehead over your third eye after charging it with breath instead. Another option is to craft a bird mask with feathers to use in your rituals of spirit work and shape-shifting. Or, to kill two birds with one stone, you could make a hooded feathered cloak for yourself.

The Feather Cloak

In my chasing down of animistic ritual tools I found feathered ritual costumes are common in shamanism around the world. The feathers are sewn or tied to clothing still symbolizing the shaman’s connection to the spirit world and ability to travel there. There are ancient Irish legends describing the feathered cloaks of shaman-like magicians, layer upon layer of white and black feathers covering hood and shoulders, and their spotted bird masks which they together used to leave their bodies and shape-shift into birds to travel far distances quickly, to spy on their enemies, and to travel to the Otherworld (3). Make your own feathered cloak by sewing feathers onto a wool cloak or ritual robe.

The Witches’ Ladder

A witch’s ladder, or witches garland, is a fetiche charm from folk magic and examples of its use have been found in England and Italy by folklorists in the late 1800s (5). This charm is thought to be traditionally used for cursing, but can be applied to blessing and other spell work too. It’s name gives away its purpose which is to allow the intent of the witch’s spell to “climb” to the spirit world via the feathers so it may be heard and manifest in our world. The process of creating one involves spinning a thick cord with feathers twisted into it during the act of hand spinning on a drop spindle. If you have no idea how to hand spin it is a common practice today to braid a witch’s ladder instead. In your magical working you can use any colour of thread and feathers to correspond to the purpose of your spell, such as peacock feathers with blue wool to protect from the evil eye or black chicken feathers with black wool for a curse. To stop the charm’s effectiveness you must unravel your spinning or braiding or throw the charm into running water.

Witch's Ladder by Sarah Anne Lawless

The Dream Walker

Now that I had my feathered ritual tools and knowledge of the sacred meanings and uses of feathers, it was time to work with them.  For me magic and ritual are mainly an internal thing. I do most of both in the Otherworld so the most natural next step for me was dreams. I am a dreamer. I dream of messages and the future for myself and others. I also practice dream walking: using dreams as a bridge to travel between worlds when one is between the states of consciousness and unconsciousness.  I go dream walking to speak to spirits but also to shape-shift and to fly. Feathers aid in all these things; feathers hanging from the dream catchers over my bed and feathers tucked under my pillow. I started dreaming of birds and feathers, of finding impossible large and soft Raven feathers, of grooming a family of thrushes, and of being surrounded by a council of owls. One of my most memorable dreams was when three birds native to the forest where I lived visited me. The messengers came to me together and gave me of their feathers; the softest silence of Screech Owl feathers, the jewelled blackness of Crow feathers, and the camouflage cloak of Red-Tailed Hawk feathers.

Screech Owl left its feathers on the stone wall of a cave for me. Owl is the messenger of the underworld. Owl belongs to Old Woman as the White Bone Mother, guardian of the gate and crossroads of the underworld. Owl serves her as messenger of death and psychopomp for the spirits of the dead. Owl is silent as a ghost; revelling in the darkness of night and its mysteries. Owl brings messages from her mistress and from the dead. Owl helps you to travel to and from the underworld safely and its ability to see in the dark can light your way in the blackest depths.

Crow Stang by Sarah Anne LawlessCrow shed its feathers for me on the green grass beneath the trees. Crow is messenger of the middle world. Crow belongs to Old Woman as the trickster witch-hag lost in the ancient woods. Crows are creatures of the daytime and scavengers eating the leftovers of hunters and warriors. Crows are not of death and darkness (though they follow it closely for scraps), but are tricksters, humour, curiosity, family, and fellowship. Crows are reflections and shadows of we humans. They are territorial guardians and watchers for the other creatures of the earth warning of dangers, predators, bad weather, outsiders, bad luck, and misfortunes. This is where their bad reputation comes from, but they’re just trying to help. Crow is messenger of the creatures and spirits of the middle world; of the animals, plants, wights, and elemental forces all around us every day.

Red-Tailed Hawk dropped its feathers for me from high in the sunny blue sky and they slowly floated down to my feet. Hawk, flying ever so high, is messenger of the upperworld and of is deities and spirits. Hawk belongs to the Sun and Mercurial spirits. Hawks deliver messages pertaining to the bigger picture, ones that will affect your life and your spiritual path. When hawk brings you a message it is time to borrow its sharp all-seeing eyes and fly high enough with its strong wings to view a situation or path from above and understand the full picture – the past, present, and future. Other times Hawk delivers messages to and from the gods and spirits of the upperworld. Belonging to the upperworld doesn’t mean sweetness and light though; Hawk is a predator and a warrior after all.

All three messengers belong to the crossroad and World Tree. Winged mercurial beings are they. Now, thanks to this dream, when one of the three come to me with news of the three realms I will know what kind of message they bring and from where and whom it comes. Now when one of the three comes for me I will know for whence we ride.

When you dream of finding a feather, or of a bird gifting you of its feathers, it can mean many things: that you need that magic or medicine of that bird in your life right now (or alternately that you’ve mastered their particular medicine), that the bird is offering to be a spirit guide, or that the bird has a message for you from gods or spirits. When you have such dreams pay attention to what specific species of bird the feather is from, where you found the feather, and what you do, if anything, with the feather in your dream whether it be actions, rituals, or the crafting of magical tools. To receive messages in dreams from your spirits or to have prophetic dreams, put a bundle of your spirit guide’s feathers under you pillow or mattress at night when you go to sleep. The feathers of underworld and water birds are the most-suited to this for their connections to the subconscious and the emotions which are linked to the dream world.

The Psychopomp

The psychopomp is a bird shape-shifting magician who acts as a guide or transporter of the souls of the dead. In my magical work with birds I had become a psychopomp of their dead with my rites aiding in the release of their souls to their underworld journey by treating them with love and reverence in death and by using their feathers to aid in the underworld journey of other spirits.

Psychopomps are a very ancient idea found in many different mythologies as magicians and supernatural beings. In myths, folktales, and legends around the world birds most commonly enact the role of messenger between our world and the spirit world, mortals and deities, the living and the dead. Many culture’s folklore describes birds as being the spirits of the dead visiting this world or travelling on their way to the underworld and so were held sacred because any bird could possibly be housing the spirit of one’s ancestor. Their role as psychopomps gives our feathered friends an association with the ancestors as well as deities – the underworld and the upperworld – death and rebirth. Further associations with this death-role can be found in myths of bird women harvesting the souls of the dead as the Valkyrie of the Norse, the Russian Rusalka, the Slavic Vila, the Greek Harpies and Sirens, all often associated with ravens and swans, who also share similarities with the Baobhan Sith, Badbh, and The Morrigan of the Gaels who are female crow and raven spirits associated with death and soul-harvesting. These supernatural psychopomps can often be found serving chthonic goddesses like the Norns, Persephone, and Baba Yaga.

I swear when I collect the small light bodies of dead birds, and carry out my funerary rites for them, that I can hear the flapping of wings following me and sometimes I wonder if they are the swan and raven wings of these psychopomp spirits or the deities they serve.

The Bird Woman

And so here I am still on my journey with birds surrounded by feathers, still ever learning from them of their languages, their behaviours, their omens and messages; still working with them to strengthen my practices of bone collecting, spirit-flight, dream walking, shape-shifting, psychopompery, and the creation of sacred ritual tools. My feather collection will never dwindle as, even though some I gift and some I turn into tools for other magical practitioners, my friends the birds will always lay more feathers across my path. Next time you pick up a feather on your journey through this life, I wonder, where will it take you?

References

  1. Andrews, Ted. Animal-Speak. Llewellyn Publications: St. Paul, MN, 1994.
  2. Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2004.
  3. Harris-Logan, Stuart A. Singing With Blackbirds: The Survival of Primal Celtic Shamanism in Later Folk Traditions. Grey House in the Woods: United Kingdom, 2005.
  4. Illes, Judika. Encyclopedia of Spirits. HarperCollins: New York, 2009.
  5. Valiente, Doreen. An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present. St Martin’s Press: New York, 1973.

Appendixes

I. Disclaimer and Legal Note

Do not attempt to handle dead wildlife with your bare hands, especially if you do not know how long the animal has been dead. Animals can carry diseases and parasites that may be harmful to us if touched or breathed in and much care should be taken. Educate yourself and children about how to handle dead wildlife to avoid illness and legal issues.

Many migratory songbirds, raptors, and endangered species are protected and the possession of their feathers can be regulated or prohibited with penalties of fines and jail time. Permits for legally scavenging and possessing dead bird parts are given by the US Fish & Wildlife Service. In Canada  permits are dispensed by the Provinces’ individual ministries of wildlife and natural resources.


II. Caring for Feathers

Feathers found in the wilds, farms, and cities should be cleaned before being put to sacred use. I put feathers and wings new to my collection in the freezer first for 2-3 days to kill any mites or other unwanted pests. Some feathers may need a bit of washing to remove dirt and bird droppings. Gently wipe them with a soft, warm, damp cloth until clean and then carefully brush them back into place if disarrayed before leaving to dry. After being frozen and cleaned, put your feathers into a mix of borax and salt to sterilize and completely dry them; start with a layer then lay down the feathers on top and gently add another layer of the mixture so as not to harm the feathers to keep their shape. The feathers of wings should be fanned out before drying so the wings remain open. Some people pin the wings open on a wooden board and others weigh them down once spread open with borax, salt, or cornmeal or a mixture thereof. After a couple of weeks for individual feathers or a 1-2 months for wings, remove them from the mixture and carefully shake out and brush off all remaining particulates. Now your feathers are ready to use for magic and ritual.

Feathers can be stored in a vase or lidless jar of a suitable height. When your most sacred feathered tools wrap them in a cloth of a natural fibre such as linen, silk, cotton, or wool, and place them in a wooden box or drawer laying down. Cedar is an excellent wood for feather storage as it naturally repels insect pests, but you can also craft a sachet of cedar wood chips as well as other insect repellent herbs like mugwort and yarrow to store with your feathers and protect them. With proper care and storage your feathers might even outlast you.


III. Birds & Deities

  • Crow/Raven – Apollo, Athena, Baba Yaga, Badbh Catha, Baobhan Sith, Bran, Branwen, Lugh/Llew, Macha, Morrigan, Nephthys, Odin, and the Valkyrie
  • Crane/Heron/Egret/Ibis – Aoife, Ariadne, Esus, Frigg, Hekate, Manannan mac Lir, and Thoth
  • Dove – Aphrodite, Hera, and Yemaya
  • Eagle – Lugh/Llew and Zeus
  • Goose – Aphrodite, Hathor, Holle/Hulda, and Nicnevin
  • Hawk – Freyja and Horus
  • Owl – Ares, Athena, Baba Yaga, Blodeuwedd, Ereshkigal, Lakshmi, Lilith, and Santa Muerta
  • Peacock – Hera and Yemaya
  • Robin – Green Man, Puck, Robin Goodfellow
  • Swallow – Aphrodite and Freyja
  • Swan – Aphrodite, Brighid, Caer Ibormeith, Norns, Rusalka/Vila, and the Valkyrie
  • Vulture – Ares, Athena, Brighid, and Nephthys

Article and illustrations © 2012 Sarah Anne Lawless. Do not copy or use this article or its artwork without the express permission of the author.