Category Archives: Trees

Frigga and Writing

Germane to my post last week on Frigga, here is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Divining with Animal Guides.

The origin of Germanic writing is complex. Late Bronze Age carvings and cave markings from Northern Italy to Sweden show some rune-like symbols, their meaning undeciphered. Readable runic script dates to the second century and was presumably derived from the Etruscan alphabet, with which it shares some symbols. The god Odin is credited with discovering the runes, eighteen of them to start, when he hung upside down from the world tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days and nine nights. It is essential to understand that runes are not and were not simply signs that could be manipulated to form language, although they certainly were used for that purpose. Runes have always been magical powers in and of themselves. They disclose hidden truths, they protect buildings, they form spells. They are the force behind what words they speak.

Since Odin found the runes while tied to the tree but did not invent them, we have to look deeper for their source. The deities who nourish Yggdrasil are the Norns Urd, Verthandi, and Skuld. They are the Norns we are usually talking about when we say “The Norns.” The Norns water Yggdrasil’s roots from a pool of water at the base of the tree. They are responsible for giving each person their destiny and can reveal the past, present, and future. They are usually the powers invoked when using runes for divination and they are the powers petitioned for changing life circumstances. In addition to tending the tree, the Norns tend a pair of swans who are said to be the parents of all swans in the world. The Norns themselves wear cloaks of swan feathers.

Another Germanic divinatory goddess is Frigga, who knows the future but seldom speaks of it. According to some sources it is she who bestows destiny on every child. Frigga’s distaff is in heaven and the stars revolve around it, which means she controls the calendar. Frigga wears a crown of heron feathers. Her sacred tree is the birch, probably the White Birch or Silver Birch. The white, supple bark of the birch has been used throughout northern Europe as a medium for writing and drawing. Natives in North America used the Paper Birch for similar purposes. Since bark is a degradable material it would be impossible to know how far back symbolic drawing on birch goes; extant pieces from Russia date to the twelfth century. Not much was recorded in Christian times about Frigga, despite her status as nominal head of the pantheon along with Odin, because clerics worked especially hard to erase all traces of her. Those who in later centuries recorded the Norse legends were men who would not have been privy to feminine traditions anyway. While Frigga is not explicitly documented as a writing goddess, information about her points in that direction.

Birch bark writing from Russia, 13th century. This is a young boy’s school lesson.

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Autumn Visage


Fall scenery from the Adirondacks. Enjoy!

autumn from Hearth Rising on Vimeo.

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Is Friday for Frigga or Freyja?

Frejya prizes her magic amber necklace. Amber from northern and central Europe is the fossilized resin of an extinct conifer.

Frejya prizes her magic amber necklace. Amber from northern and central Europe is the fossilized resin of an extinct conifer. Photo by Manfred Heyde.

While Frigga’s worship was prevalent in all regions of Germanic settlement, Frejya’s worship seems to have been concentrated in the Nordic countries. This supports the hypothesis that she was a latecomer to the pantheon, her relative prominence a sign that she was the principal deity of an indigenous people.

When Germanic tribes adopted the Roman calendar, the sixth day of the week, which the Romans dedicated to the goddess Venus, became Frejya’s day. Although Venus and Frejya are not terribly similar, Frejya does have the most Venusian qualities of the pantheon. Where Freyja was not the dominant goddess, the sixth day was dedicated to Frigga. The English Friday was clearly derived from Frigga, although in Scandinavian languages the name of the day probably came from Frejya.

Frejya is closely aligned with her brother the boar god Freyr, who is like his sister in many ways, aiding the harvest, bringing wealth and protecting children. While Frejya’s symbol is the vulva, Freyr’s is the phallus, and he was worshiped at a huge phallic monument. Frejya also has a lover, the god Oder, who has a tendency to wander, and Frejya will wander herself in search of him, leaving the earth cold and barren. Frejya wears a necklace of amber which she obtained from the dwarves. She also wears a cloak of falcon feathers and leather tunic and leather leggings. She has a lovely red mouth and is generous with her affection and her possessions.
The line of stars in the constellation Orion known as "Orion's Belt" has also been called Frigga's Distaff. Photo by Roberto Mura.

The line of stars in the constellation Orion known as “Orion’s Belt” has also been called “Frigga’s Distaff.” Photo by Roberto Mura.



Frigga is wife of the Germanic god Odin, who is the chief male shamanic deity. Odin obtained most of his magic by threatening and confronting various goddesses and priestesses. He is no match for Frigga, however, who can always best him in a battle of wits. Before Odin arrived on the scene, Frigga’s principal male deity was probably her son Balder. She doted so much on her son that she extracted promises from every living thing on earth never to harm him. She overlooked the poisonous mistletoe, since it is such an innocuous looking plant, and was tricked into revealing her oversight. Frigga’s loss of her son and their subsequent reunion mirrors the dormancy and regeneration of vegetation. In pre-patriarchal societies, the role of goddesses as sisters and mothers rather than wives is emphasized, since children belong to the mother’s family.

Frigga cries tears of gold when she mourns and has a great love of adornment, wearing precious jewels and a showy crown of heron feathers. She dresses in finely woven cloth. Her spinning wheel revolves in the night sky as a constellation. Frigga is a generous goddess like Frejya, but in one area she is famous for her stinginess: she usually refrains from divulging prophecy, even though she knows everything which is to come.

This is by no means a complete picture of either Frejya or Frigga, but by now a picture should be emerging of two goddesses who can neither be conflated nor made entirely distinct. The best way to get to know them is to take a meditative journey to meet them face to face.

This is the final installment of this series on Frejya and Frigga. Also see an earlier post on Frigga as goddess of the birch. The following list of sources is for the entire series (seven installments).

BBC. “Boar Watching.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Wild_boar#p0087k14

BBC. “Pigs Have Evolved to Wallow in Mud.” http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_9464000/9464994.stm

Barrett, Clive. The Egyptian Gods and Goddesses: The Mythology and Beliefs of Ancient Egypt. London: Diamond Books, 1996.

Cooper, D. Jason. Using the Runes. Wellingborough, UK: The Aquarian Press, 1986.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Gyrfalcon.” http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/gyrfalcon/lifehistory

Gimbutas, Marija. The Living Goddesses. Miriam Robbins Dexter, ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.

Guerber, H.A. The Norsemen. London: Senate, 1994.

Hopman, Ellen Evert. A Druid’s Herbal of Sacred Tree Medicine. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 2008.

Monaghan, Patricia. The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1990.

Ombrello, T. “Conifer Cones.” http://faculty.ucc.edu/biology-ombrello/pow/conifer_cones.htm

Sullivan, Janet. “Picea Abies.” U.S. Dept of Agriculture, 1994. http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/tree/picabi/all.html

Taylor, Thomas (trans). “The Orphic Hymns.” http://www.theoi.com/Text/OrphicHymns1.html#15.

Tekiela, Stan. Trees of New York. Cambridge, MN: Adventure Boooks, 2006.

Vikernes, Varg. Sorcery and Religion in Ancient Scandinavia. London: Abstract Sounds, 2011.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983.

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Gyrfalcon Circling the Spruce: Another Frejya Episode

Gyrfalcon. Plumage ranges from dark gray to brown to white and varies greatly. Photo by Omar Runolfsson.

Gyrfalcon. Plumage ranges from dark gray to brown to white and varies greatly. Photo by Omar Runolfsson.


Frejya has appeared to me as a stocky young woman against a backdrop of tall spruce forest, standing on the snow beside the kind of weaving, shallow streams that develop in the north as winter moves into spring. She comes as a spring goddess, evidenced by the height and intensity of the sun. (One of the nice things about a vision is that you can look directly into the sun without feeling pain in your eyes.) When I say she is stocky, I don’t mean fat: her shoulders are broad and she is proportioned like a tall woman. Her rib cage is large, like the stout breast of the gyrfalcon. She has a brown cloak, curling brown hair and glistening brown eyes. Some describe Frejya as blond, but to me she appears in falcon coloring. What those who have seen Frejya mostly comment on, however, is her mouth: a small, very red, well-shaped mouth with lips curved in a joyful yet seductive smile. It is an entrancing smile, a smile that says she knows just about everything. I do not believe that Frejya would have had to have slept with the dwarves to obtain the Brisingamen Necklace; she must have done so only to please herself. To obtain the necklace she would only have had to spread those red lips in the smile no creature could resist. But I digress.

Frejya’s Amazonian proportions and her seductive manner place her in the “maiden” category for those who see goddesses in terms of maiden-mother-crone. Yet the fertile, family-focused boar is usually associated with motherhood, and Norse pagans appear to have regarded Frejya as a benevolent goddess bestowing wealth and favors. Her rune is among the most auspicious, and Cooper describes its divinatory meaning as “Good fortune, fertility, increase in property and success in endeavors.” These are qualities that proclaim “mother.”

Frejya's rune Feoh.

Frejya’s rune Fehu (FAY-who).

The point of intersection between the fir, falcon, and boar is, of course, death. The gyrfalcon is a fierce hunter who winters in the frozen world. The Norway Spruce thrives in cold environments and remains forever green. The boar is also fierce in her own way, and carrion is a major part of her diet. As described in the last post, there are dying and resurrecting gods and goddesses from other European and Middle Eastern cultures with pine, pig, or falcon associations, but we don’t really need these examples to establish the point.

Frejya’s representation throughout the lifecycle suggests an affinity with the sun, which defines the cycle of the year. Her association with both the winter and the summer solstices reaffirm this connection, as does the Yule fire and the summer bonfires. Frejya’s amber necklace represents her command over the sun and hence the passage of time. Those who see Frejya as blond may be focusing on her sun aspect, perhaps dazzled by the brightness of her nimbus. It is interesting in this regard that the Egyptian sun god Horus also takes the form of a falcon.

Although Frejya is a goddess for all seasons and all ages, I want to explore Frejya’s death aspect more closely. I will do so in a later installment of this series.

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Frejya’s Three Forms

So what does boar, fir and falcon say about Frejya?

Let’s look first at the falcon. Freya’s falcon is probably the Gyrfalcon (JER-falcon), the largest falcon, who likes the northern climates. If she migrates at all, she is driven by scarcity of food, and she will sometimes winter at sea over ice. The Gyrfalcon is the preferred falcon for hunting. She mostly hunts birds, including other raptors, although she will also take small mammals. Other predatory birds leave her alone, as she is fierce. She has a varied hunting strategy and is considered very intelligent. The goddess Frejya has a cloak of falcon feathers reaching to the ground. With her characteristic generosity she loans this cloak to the other gods when they need it to move quickly. Falcons in general are associated with the sun or with death. Other important falcon deities include Circe, the witch who trapped Odysseus and changed his sailors into pigs, and Horus, the Egyptian sun god who avenged the death of his father Osiris and performed an important funerary rite for him.

Boar piglets. Photo by Tiia Monto.

Boar piglets. Frejya and Freyr are brother and sister boar gods. Photo by Tiia Monto.

The boar is the wild predecessor of the domestic pig. While only the male domestic pig is called a boar, in the wild there are boar sows and boar piglets. Boars like most wild animals prefer to avoid people, but both males and sows will charge anything that threatens them. With their huge size and thick skulls they are formidable, even more so if they are adult males with curving tasks. Boars chase away other predators to eat carrion. They are mostly scavengers, digging up roots and grubs in addition to scavenging dead carcasses. Sows prefer to raise young together, and males remain with their mothers until they are full grown. Boars are prolific breeders, something that was never a problem until they became protected in certain areas. The boar has always been preferred quarry for hunters – originally because he provided a great deal of tasty meat, only later because the danger involved provided excitement for sportsmen. The boar was also prized for his dense fur. Frejya often rides on the back of a boar. Her brother Freyr can also take the shape of a boar. Sows in general are associated with motherhood, probably due to their large extended families and high fertility rate. These qualities, plus their generous size, may account for their association with abundance. The crepuscular scavenging and carrion eating habits of boars may account for their being linked with death and the underworld. In both Celtic and Germanic cultures boar was eaten at the winter solstice feasts. Goddesses associated with the boar or sow include the Greek goddess of agriculture and fertility Demeter, the Welsh goddess Cerridwyn in the form of a white sow, and the Continental Celtic goddess Arduinna. The Babylonian god Tammuz, the Egyptian God Osiris, and the Greek God Adonis die after being gored by a boar.

The fir or conifer tree thrives in all but the driest and coldest environments. Conifer forests define “tree line” at extreme latitudes and altitudes, the point where plant growth becomes scrubby. Freya’s fir is the Norway Spruce, which despite its name is prevalent throughout the northern and mountainous regions of Eurasia. Like most spruce trees it is a cold loving tree and it is hardy to the Arctic Circle. It is a particularly beautiful tree that is planted as an ornamental in North America. It grows very tall, 100 feet or more, and typically lives a few hundred years. It produces a nice canopy and is used as a wind breaker. It is a fragrant tree that produces a sweet smelling resin. The cones of the Norway Spruce grow very long, up to 8 inches, and they are quite attractive. The fir’s link with Freya probably comes from the evergreen boughs that decorated halls of feasting during the Winter Solstice observances. These festivities lasted several days or weeks. In a sense, with the great fire, drinking, roast boar, festive attitude, and greenery, Pagans were re-creating Freya’s hall of Sessrymnir, while the dark, cold and frozen landscape outside created a simulation of death. The Norway Spruce used to be the quintessential Christmas tree, although the Scotch Pine works better in today’s commercial environment. Trees in the pine family are associated with winter, rebirth, immortality, strength and sometimes fertility, possibly due to the phallic shape of the cone. Pine has been a preferred wood for coffins due to its association with immortality as well as its availability and workability. Other deities associated with trees in the pine family include the Anatolian Cybele, with her dying and resurrecting lover Attis, the Roman-Persian sun god Mithras, the Greek resurrecting god Dionysus, and the Greek healing god Ascelpius. The pine tree is one of the seven important “chieftan trees” in Celtic druidry, associated with the hero Bran who brought the Irish tales of the isles of paradise in the west.

So this is some background on the boar, fir and falcon. With some reflection you can see how the three fit together to give a deeper understanding of Frejya. I will examine the connection between the three more thoroughly in next week’s post.

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The Fir and Falcon

Norway Spruce forest. The English word "fir" and its equivalents in other Germanic languages refers to an evergreen tree with needles, although in biological taxonomy that definition has changed. Photo by Kristaga.

Norway Spruce forest. The English word “fir” and its equivalents in other Germanic languages refers to an evergreen tree with needles, although in biological taxonomy that definition has changed. Photo by Kristaga.


The Fir and Falcon sounds like a good name for a medieval tavern. I can picture the large room with the riotous crowd, a bit too warm from the bodies and the fire in the hearth. The orange glow in the room flickers and dances in the torchlight even before the mead is poured. The patrons are mostly men, some with their wives or sweethearts, along with a few women of the sort men are happy to drink with but fear to meet on the battlefield. There is only one maid serving, and though her shoulders are broad and her arms strong from lifting innumerable tankards, she has a buxom figure, bright eyes, and lovely red lips that smile easily. She doesn’t mind the appreciative looks from the men, and she will laugh at a ribald joke, but none dare treat her with disrespect. Everyone knows they drink mead and eat boar in this hall at her pleasure. This is the Sessrymnir (SESS-rim-nir), “the roomy-seated hall,” home of the warriors who died most bravely, and it is the goddess Frejya who presides.

Frejya (FRAY-yah or FRY-yah) leads the Valkyries (val-KEER-ease), the nine thin white-armed maidens who carry the dead from the battle fields, and she gets first choice of the slain heroes, a mark of her position in the warrior societies within Germanic cultures. There is much that we do not know about the mythology and magic of the non-warrior societies, particularly as they relate to women. Early recorders of Germanic mythology and tradition were mostly Norse Christians in the first centuries of conversion, who sought both to exalt these traditions and to reconcile them with Christian values of the time. Goddesses did not fare well in this context. Still, there is a larger medieval record of Freya than any other Germanic goddess. We know that the Summer Solstice was her biggest festival, and that on that evening many bonfires would be lit along the shoreline, simulating the special necklace she wore, the amber Brisingamen (BREE-sing-AH-men) necklace. We know that she was appealed to for good harvest, wealth, fertility and love. And we know that the tree she with which she was most closely associated was the fir; the animal, the boar; and the bird, the falcon.

I need to digress here to explain something not generally understood about the Goddess in her biological forms. Many European goddesses have three manifestations, whether or not they are considered “triple goddesses.” (Semitic goddesses, on the other hand, usually have twin forms.) Take for example the goddess Athena. Robert Graves, recognizing Athena as a pre-Indo-European goddess despite the early Semitic influences on Greek culture, looked at two forms of Athena, the snake and the owl, and tried to find a third animal to complete the triad. He chose the goat for Athena’s third form, an association so tenuous and obscure only a scholar with his depth of knowledge could have found it. What Graves did not know, perhaps because his research centered on the Mediterranean, is that Old European goddesses have an earth animal form, a bird or sky animal form, and a tree form. This is what completes the triad. Knowing this we can immediately recognize Athena’s third form as the olive tree. It is represented on nearly all her coins, along with the owl. Cultivation of the olive tree was a huge achievement in agricultural production, and the owl and the snake also furthered agricultural production by keeping rodent populations in check. Looking at owl, snake and olive together backs up Graves’ assertion that Athena is primarily an agricultural goddess, and that her association with technology and highly organized society grew from that primitive role.

So what does boar, fir and falcon say about Frejya? As this article is getting a bit long, the question will be explored in next week’s post.

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The Alder Tree

The Black Alder is renowned for thriving in marginal environments. Photo by Johan Fredriksson.

The Black Alder is renowned for thriving in marginal environments. Photo by Johan Fredriksson.


What can no house ever contain?
Answer: The piles upon which it is built.


This riddle refers to the alder wood base that ancient houses were built upon, before the concrete cinder blocks or stone-and-mortar that are used today. Alder was the preferred wood because it is resistant to water decay.

Alder is considered a core magical tree. It corresponds to the letter Fearn of the Irish Ogham alphabet and to the rune Isa. It is sacred to the Greek goddesses Circe and Calypso.

In Finnish the word for alder is derived from a word meaning “blood,” which refers to the red sap the tree oozes when cut. Red pigment from the bark was once used as a dye and a face paint. There is an old superstition against cutting down the alder tree, ostensibly because it “bleeds.” This seems to me a strange rationale, since a pig or any other edible animal also bleeds when killed. However, there are ecological reasons for leaving a stand of alder trees unmolested in certain cases, since the alder is an important pioneer species, fixing nitrogen to the soil in marginal growing areas.

In some stories the Black Alder is substituted for the Black Poplar. For example, in the myth of the Greek sun god Phaeton, the god’s sisters turn to poplars at his death in one version and to alders in another. Substitutions such as this can give a clue as to the magical properties of the tree. Both the Black Alder and the Black Poplar grow in wet soil or along riverbanks. They are also pioneer species, meaning they are early volunteers on cleared land or nutrient poor soils. The riverbank association would link the alder with death, while the pioneer aspect evokes the concept of resurrection. (For a discussion of the relationship of rivers with death see Hecate and the Waterway.)

The death aspect is unmistakable with the lovely goddess Calypso, who has a thicket of alder, poplar and cypress growing at the entrance to her island cavern. Calypso amuses herself pulling drowning sailors from the sea and taking them to her love cave. In the mythology of Greece, Scandinavia, Britain, and Ireland, islands are otherworld places where the dead are received or where magical events occur. The Greek goddess Circe, who transforms men into animals, has a ring of alder trees surrounding her island.

Bran the Blessed, who carries an alder branch, is certainly associated with death and resurrection. The giant king gives his Irish in-laws a magic cauldron as a peace offering, a cauldron which brings to life any dead thing that is put inside it. Bran repents of his gift when he goes to war against the Irish, because they revive their dead warriors with the cauldron. When Bran later dies, he tells his comrades to cut off his head. This in itself is not unusual, as the Celts often brought home the heads of their fallen heroes when for some reason they could not bring the whole body. But the disembodied head of Bran is rather remarkable. For the next 87 years it recites poetry, performs divination, and tells stories from the past, serving as a bridge between the otherworld and the land of the living.

The fairies bring another link between the alder and magic by virtue of their own otherworld connection. Green is the color usually worn by fairies, and they are said to dye their clothing from the immature alder catkins, which produce a green pigment. Of course, the red pigment from the bark would link the alder tree to the blood of the womb, often represented by the cauldron, a symbol of death and rebirth.





Sources

Basic Runes

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1960.

Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1948.

Hybrid Poplar

Lefevre, Francois, Agnès Légionnet, Sven de Vries Jozef Turok. Strategies for the conservation of a pioneer tree species, Populus nigra L., in Europe, 1998.

Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Checkmark Books, 2008.

Walker, Barbara. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.

Woodland Trust. Common Alder.

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The Yule Fire


In early December, the equivalent in Pagan households to “Where did we store the Christmas lights?” is “What did we do with the Yule log?” A piece of wood from last year’s Winter Solstice ritual fire is always saved to burn on the next year’s fire. This is a throwback to times when a perpetual fire was burned at the community shrine or temple, and it symbolizes the continuity of tradition.

It is the fire and not the log that is the central theme of the Yule ceremony. The hearth fire is the manifestation of the ancestral spirits and the generating force of new human life. According to Clement A. Miles in Christmas Customs and Traditions: “Ancestral spirits, it seems, were once believed to be immanent in the fire that burned on the hearth, and had to be propitiated with libations, while elsewhere the souls of the dead were thought to return to their old homes at the New Year, and meat and drink had to be set out for them.” This sounds a lot like the holy day of Samhain that just passed on October 31st. Euro-Pagan religions which preceded Christianity are essentially systems of ancestor worship, so we would expect the ancestors to play a role in holy days throughout the year. Also keep in mind that Celtic and Germanic cultures absorbed much of the religion already practiced in the regions they settled, and thus there is duplication.

In Neolithic European cultures, the hearth was the center of worship, so much so that many objects found in the vicinity of the hearth during excavations are assumed to have religious importance. Greek and Roman writings also identify the hearth as the focus of the family’s spiritual life, and indeed the Latin word for “hearth” is “focus.” Olivia Robertson, co-founder of The Fellowship of Isis, has written “The religion of the Goddess centres around the Hearth. Whether this be the inner sun flaming within the matrix of our earth, or the sun itself, this is the source of manifested life.”

Although I frequently reference my symbol encylopedia, interestingly enough I had never until today looked up the entry for “hearth.” The description is short, so I will quote it in full:

An omphalos; the interior spiritual centre; the transference of the spirit by fire. The centre of the home; feminine domination; fire in its feminine-earth aspect, but the fire can also take on the masculine aspect with the earth as the feminine; warmth; provision of food. The Vedic round hearth is the earth, the realm of man, while the fire to the East is the realm of the gods. Among South American Indians the hearth-stone is named the ‘bear’, signifying subterranean powers and the point of communication with them. In Celtic countries the cult of the dead centred on the hearth.

I especially like the part about feminine domination.

German fireplace of Roman era and style. Photo by Mediatus.

Oak is usually, but not always, the traditional wood for the Yule log. (In Provence the log would be from a fruit tree.) Oak is the tree of the Roman god Jupiter and the Lithuanian god Perkunas. Oak is the most sacred tree of the Druids, whose very name was derived from a word for oak. I believe the leafy-faced “Green Man” is actually an anthropomorphized oak tree. Miles (writing in 1912) says that “Among the Serbs and Croats on Christmas eve two or three young oaks are felled for every house, and, as twilight comes on, are brought in and laid on the fire.”

The procession of bringing the Yule log from outdoors into the house used to be an important part of the ceremony. Sometimes the log was decorated with ribbons or vines before being taken inside. Once in the house, it was lit right away. Bread or grain along with wine or mead was thrown on the burning log. An orange might also be offered to the fire. In Croatia the metal part of the plow would be placed at the fire’s edge. In Tuscany the children were blindfolded and beat the log with tongs.

Especially in places where wood was scarce, two tallow candles representing the goddess and god would be lit instead of a log. Bayberry candles at some point became popular, bayberry being a pleasant smelling and expensive wax.

The remains of the candle or log were believed to have magical properties and were often saved. In Sweden the plow would be smeared with leftover tallow. The ashes could enhance fertility of the spring fields or protect from lightening. In Germany a piece of the charred wood was called a Christklotz “Christ Log,” and burned during stressful times to fend off bad weather or misfortune.

In books describing Yule ceremonies, I do not find a mention of cleaning, smudging and purifying the hearth or campfire area beforehand, which I consider essential. Sometimes it is difficult, especially for urban dwellers, to get a suitable log of oak. Really any wood will do, and if you don’t have a fireplace a nice candle is a fine replacement. I usually do not decorate the new designated Yule log, although I think this year I will wrap it like a present. I like to burn juniper berries or use juniper oil. Balsam, citrus or wintergreen fragrance is also nice. These fragrances have a sweet yet purifying quality to them. A prayer to the ancestors and to the Goddess and her Divine Child should be made when the flame is lit. The offering can be bread, fruitcake, cookies, or any holiday delicacy. You don’t have to throw the offering into the flame (although there are some fruitcakes that could probably start a good fire). Sweet foods and relaxed, rather than ecstatic, merriment are an important part of this ritual. Don’t clean out the hearth for at least three days, and remember to save some ashes. If the fire burns so hot and so completely that you can’t salvage a piece of wood for next year, or you forget to save it, or the wood accidentally gets used on a different ritual fire, or you can’t find the old piece of log again when you need it (not that any of these things have ever happened to me), this is not something to get upset about. It is merely a sign that you are in some way breaking with your past tradition. There’s nothing really wrong with this, although at the darkest point of the year we usually take the greatest comfort from tradition. That is no doubt why this very pagan holiday became such an important part of Christianity.


Roman coin of the hearth goddess Vesta.

Sources

Campanelli, Pauline. Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1990.

Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia Of Traditional Symbols. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.

Fellowship of Isis Central Site and News, Facebook Group, November 29, 2012.

Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.

Miles, Clement A. Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance. 1917 Reprint. New York: Dover, 1976.

Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Checkmark Books, 2008.

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Not Just Any Nuts


A little update on my post about the Buckeye Tree, where I made the assertion that school spirit at The Ohio State University is legendary and the enthusiasm for the Bucks has to be seen to be believed. I now offer exhibits A-Z: Ohio State fans, in defense of their team which was banned by the NCAA from bowl game participation this year for financial rule-breaking of coaches and players, actually petitioned Barack Obama for a presidential pardon. “Please exercise your executive power to pardon the NCAA’s excessive sanctions placed on The Ohio State Buckeyes to enable a rightful, satisfying culmination to the college football season for the American people.” Needless to say, this went nowhere. Maybe with all the attention from the past presidential race, Ohio has gotten a bit delusional about the importance of its place in the world. Or maybe faith in the lucky mojo of the Buckeye just won’t quit.

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Hecate and the Waterway

White willow. Photo by Willow.


Throughout most of human history, the primary method of travel was via water rather than road. Even in the Ice Age, settlement patterns and artifacts reflect reliance on river trade, sometimes over long distances. Considering the primacy of early water travel, it is not surprising that the route to the afterlife is via river in many cultures.

Water is also linked with birth as well as death, since the fetus grows in a sack of liquid which opens at birth. The moist birth canal can be compared to a small waterway. Water nourishes all animal and plant life. Water is the most basic and important substance of healing.

Water has a special relationship with the moon. The full moon’s influence on the tides is the most obvious, but the moon has a subtle effect on other waterways, including the waters of the womb. While scientists scoff, midwives and others involved in obstetric care firmly believe the full moon is capable of inducing labor. “As the moon empties, so does the womb.” The moon’s reflection on slow-moving rivers and pools of fresh water magically charges the water with the moon’s life-giving energies.

In the northern hemisphere the most ubiquitous tree along rivers is the willow. This tree produces a strong yet pliable bark that is useful for basket weaving. The birch twigs of the witch’s broom are traditionally latched to the ash handle with strips of willow bark. Dowsers generally use willow (or hazel) twigs for divining underground water sources. The willow is certainly in the top five preferred trees for magic wands, partly because it grows along riverbanks and is thus nurtured with water charged by the moon.

Willow catkin

The willow is one of the first trees to reawaken in early spring, and the fibrous blossoms (called catkins) have in bygone eras provided nourishment during this hungry time. Bees also feast on catkins as they emerge from their hives. The most important contribution of willow to humankind, however, is as a medicine. The bark of the willow tree contains an important pain relieving anti-inflammatory substance from which aspirin was originally derived. While aspirin, both synthetic and derivative, is a relatively new arrival, the use of willow bark is documented in early medical texts.

The white willow tree (Salix alba), which produces the preferred bark for pain relief, is native to Europe and western Asia. It is called a “white” willow because the underside of the leaf is covered with silky white down that gives the tree a silvery appearance. This is the tree sacred to the goddess Hecate. She is a goddess associated in classical times with death and travel, and her followers at that time were primarily healers and primarily women. It was once common for Hecate shrines and offerings to be located along roads or at crossroads. As goddess of death she became linked with the dog, while as goddess of the road she became linked with the horse, but Hecate’s worship predates the domestication of both the dog and the horse. I believe she was originally worshiped as Queen of the Waterways in the form of the willow tree. This is how she received her association with healing and with the moon. Her association with death relates to the dark waters flowing quietly back to the source.

Hecate is sometimes called a “crone goddess,” but despite her death aspect she appears as a youthful woman, reminiscent of the pliant willow which alleviates the effects of time on the body. She has dark hair, large black eyes, and luminous white skin. Like her tree she has a large, beautiful and unassuming grace.



Sources

Monaghan, Patricia. The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1990.

Plants for a Future. Salix alba.

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