Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Shortest Day: A Little Book of the Winter Solstice Review


Long-time reader Vixxia Wyrdwritere has sent me a few parcels over the past year packed with some wonderful goodies and thoughtful gifts.  Recently, she sent me a tiny book called The Shortest Day by Karen Cater and asked if I'd review it.  I'm always happy to oblige a review, especially when the item is particularly review-worthy!  Let's dive in!



The Shortest Day is a small book written and illustrated by author Karen Cater.  When I received the book, I was surprised at just how small it was - barely the length of my hand.  It truly is a little book.


But don't let its size fool you; big things come in small packages!  This book is chocked full of information about the upcoming holiday. A total of 63 pages, Cater makes the most of her limited space to provide a comprehensive look at the meaning of the solstice.


The book begins with a scientific view of Midwinter, explaining the name, the appearance of the sun's stance int he sky and how this cycles every year.  Cater then dives into the history of the solstice in Britain by visiting a number of neolithic sacred sites.  From the well-known Stonehenge to the village of Avebury, the author pinpoints the role of the solstice at these locations.  She continues on to the role of the Mistletoe plant in Yule and rounds the book out with historic customs and how they've evolved over the years.  It's surprising just how much information Cater was able to pack into 63 pages.  Even I learned something new!


While The Shortest Day overflows with information, you can't mention this book without also talking about Cater's fabulous artwork.  Bold, colorful prints grace the pages of this tiny book, highlighting new sections and chapters with a peek into the sites and historical lore.


Overall, I found The Shortest Day a fascinating read, perfect for the budding Pagan looking for some scientific and historical insight into one of the eight common holidays of the year.  The tiny book surprised me with just how much information is stored between its mere 60 pages.  Combined with vivid illustrations, this book would make a lovely addition to a Yuletide stocking or gift box this upcoming holiday!


It is also Familiar Approved!



Saturday, November 10, 2018

Natural Samhain Altar 2018


The air is cool and crisp.  I feel no breeze - only a chilled stillness as the world sits in an eerie silence.  In the wake of the morning, my footsteps in the blanket of dead leaves that line my yard are the only sounds to be heard.  Even my dog sits, calm yet attentive, at the foot of the stairway to the deck.  This quietness is a mark of the thinning of the veil that divides the living and the dead.  I can feel the tingle down my spine, the hairs raise on the back of my neck, and my awareness is heightened.  Samhain is indeed here.

While most celebrate Samhain on its traditional date of October 31st, I tend to feel the veil is at its thinnest at the exact midpoint between the equinox and the solstice.  This year, that fell on November 7th at an early 5:18 am.  A holiday of remembrance, we utilize our heightened awareness and that thinned veil to honor our ancestors, communicate with the spirit world and connect to our higher selves.  We might participate in a silent supper to dine with our loved ones who have passed, leave them food as an offering for their travels, or honor them with altars made of photos and trinkets that once belonged to them.  All things magical are strengthened on this holiday, so we turn towards spell work and divination as parts of our rituals.  As the first holiday in the darker half of the year, we look towards shadow work, poking around the darkest corners of our inner world to connect with our shadow selves.  For some, Samhain marks the beginning of the witch's new year, a celebration filled with goal-making and cleansing.  Whatever it is that you celebrate, this sabbat is certainly an exciting one!


During my end-of-the-year survey in 2017, readers asked for simple, more affordable and natural altars.  In response to that, I began a natural altar series on February Eve.  I continue that series today.  The rules are simple:

I cannot go out and purchase anything for these altars.
The altars must be made of natural items found around my house, in local parks and walking trails or items that I already own.
The value of already-owned non-natural items cannot exceed $5 and should be easily accessible.
The emphasis should be on natural items.
The altar can take no more than 10 minutes to put together and photograph.


For this altar, the only non-natural items used were the eight white candles that created one of many circles about the altar. 


Circles are symbols of cycles, be it life or seasons.  I wanted to create many circles to represent all these cycles we find within our lives, all the ebbs and flows, the deaths and rebirths that we experience.  I used eight candles specifically because that represented the eight sabbats - with this being both the last and the first for many witches who celebrate the Wheel of the Year. Eight is also a balanced number.  Balance is essential to managing these many cycles of our lives as well as balancing the living with the dead at this time of the year.  I chose white candles because, like the number eight, white is a symbol of balance.  It's also a cleansing color that is often associated with the spirit realm and the veil between their world and ours.


Inside the circle of candles, I placed a circle of toasted bread pieces.  This old bread would have gone to waste had I not toasted it up for use as croutons and stuffing later on.  Bread itself is a fertile symbol of life and earth.  The repurposing of this bread as it dried out and neared the end of its edibility is yet another symbol of death and rebirth, of balance, and of the cycles we find in our lives. Bread also makes a fantastic offering for the spirits that may visit during this holiday.


At the very center of these many circles sat an acorn squash.  In November, pumpkins are often far past their prime but sturdy squashes with hardened exteriors - much like that of the acorn squash - are still plentiful.  Squashes are a hardy seasonal vegetable often added to our traditional Samhain and Thanksgiving meals.  The way that squash grows, connected to one another in a community as they lie upon the ground, absorbing the element of earth, is a testament to how we ourselves live our lives: Connected, protected and grounded.  On the altar, I chose to display the acorn squash belly-up, showing off the rich orange color underneath the green.  This lively harvest color only comes from the shadows, the darkness, the earth, proof of connection and groundedness making us stronger and brighter in the darkest of times.


On the outermost edge of the altar, I placed a ring of rosemary.  Rosemary is known as the herb of remembrance and is commonly associated with dying and death.  We use the herb for incense, magical seasoning, and spell work during this time of the year. 


One specific spell often involves tying together three pieces of rosemary with three colors of ribbon: White, black and red.  The colors represent life, death, and rebirth - the cycle of life.  Upon the altar, I placed three sprigs of rosemary sticking upward and into the circles, showing how life, death, and rebirth often interrupt the other cycles of life.  They are the common denominator, the experience we will all have, the cycle that we will all experience in the end.


Finally, around the base of the stump, I added a large amount of toasted bread as a final offering to the spirits and entities of the holiday.


Overall, this altar is about cycles and balance.  As we go through our lives, we experience many cycles, big and small.  From the smallest cycle of our daily tasks to the yearly seasons, from the beginning, middle, and end of a good book to the ebb and flow of relationships in our lives, there is one common cycle we all will experience: We are born, we live, we die, and we are born again.  No matter what other cycles we experience, this is the common denominator, the connecting factor.  This holiday is a reminder of those cycles but particularly the one of our own mortality.

I'll leave you with a visual explanation of the altar.  Enjoy!


I hope everyone had a blessed Samhain!

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

13 Essential Gemstones Series: Amber


In this series, I will be exploring 13 common minerals and gemstones used in the Craft, dissecting their meaning from science, history, culture and my own experiences.  

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Amber


Color: Comes in a variety but most commonly "honey" colored - yellow, gold, red or brown.  
Appearance: Transparent, sometimes with fossilized insects.
Hardness: 2.5.  You could scratch it with a nail.
Other Notable Qualities: Amber is actually a resin, not a gemstone.  It's also often created synthetically.  Real amber will have a sweet smell to it and can be scratched with a nail or melted with a hot needle.



Scientific Correspondence:
Earth - Death

Unlike other stones in this series, amber is not actually a crystal.  Instead, it is fossilized resin - not the interior sap but the sticky substance trees emit to seal a wounded area.  While most decay over time, resign in the right oxidation and polymerization conditions forms the valuable stone we know today.  Because amber is fossilized tree resin, we associate this stone with earth.

Often, amber includes fossilized creatures fully intact and forever immortalized through the resin.  A variety of animals ranging from frogs to lizards and components such as snake skin and bird or dinosaur feathers have been preserved in amber.  The honey-colored fossil is also known to contain bugs like flies, ants, beetles, moths, spiders, bees and more.  Ancient Egyptians considered amber a gem of the grieving and lonely because they felt it represented the tears of Ra in its drop-like shape and because it contained such insects and animals.  Amber would be placed in tombs and used in funeral rites.  Each individual animal preserved in amber can alter the direct meaning of the stone, but the fact that so many animals have often lost their lives to this substance qualifies it to be associated with death and the spirit world.


Historical Correspondence:
Attractant - Protection

Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus noted that, when rubbed with silk, amber wold spark, attracting dust and feathers.  This force was called electricity based on the Greek word elektron, and literally translates to "amber."  Electricity was thought to be unique to amber from when it was discovered in 600 BCE all the way to the 16th century.  Because the electricity would attract dust and feathers, amber was used as a dusting and lint-rolling tool in days past.  In this context, amber attracts and beckons.

Finally, ancient Egyptians and Romans alike would use amber to protect.  Ancient Egyptians associated amber with children and often gave them amulets to protect them.  Romans would give amber to gladiators and it was used in the netting between said gladiators and the audience to keep the spectators safe.  This combined with the scientific fact that resin was meant to protect and heal tree wounds means that amber exhibits qualities of protection.



Cultural Correspondence (USA/Midwest):
Creativity

Amber has been highly prized throughout history, causing it to be imitated in a number of ways.  In modernity, the plastic era created a means by which imitators could strongly mimic realistic-looking amber.  This substance, known as "bakelite," began being sold in Europe in the early 1920s.  The popularity of Jurassic Park created a secondary rise in the need for imitation amber with inclusions like bugs and feathers.  These amber pieces may even have lumps of plastic that resemble the "crust" that forms on natural amber, and imitators will even go as far as to dip these pieces in oil that smells like the resin.  Fortunately, tests for real amber exist. True amber typically smells like pine resin, is surprisingly warm to the touch and very easy to scratch with a knife or nail.  While plastic might stick to a needle, true amber will chip off in a powdery-like substance.  Real amber will also float in salt water!  As you can tell, amber has caused us to get very creative in our ability to mimic the stone.


Sigil to Invoke Amber


Utilize this sigil as a way of invoking the properties of amber if you have none available to you.  You are welcome to print this sigil, place it in a grimoire, use it on a spell or put it in your blog with proper credit.  Do not claim this sigil as your own.

References
WebMineral: Amber
Mindat.org: Amber
The Swedish Amber Museum: Amber
Minerals.net: Amber
Ancient History Encyclopedia: Amber in Antiquity
Crystal Vaults: Amber

**Images of the gemstone were found via a search labeled for reuse.
If you would like an image removed or credited, please let me know.**

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Previously
Clear Quartz

Coming Soon
Amethyst
Bloodstone
Carnelian
Citrine
Hematite
Lapis Lazuli
Obsidian
Rose Quartz
Selenite
Tiger's Eye
Turquoise