Monday, May 31, 2010

Iron Magic

Take a breath.

The iron in your blood is carrying the oxygen you just breathed to your entire body, where each oxygen molecule releases so you can live. Iron is the central atom of every heme group in your blood, and the atom of iron is necessary for oxygen bonding. Without those iron atoms, you would die.

Take another breath. The iron atoms in your blood come from one source: the supernova of a star. All the iron on earth - and there is a lot of it, iron is the most abundant element on earth - comes from stellar supernova, or stellar nucleosynthesis. Iron is thus the sixth most common element in the entire universe. Your hemoglobin comes from those stars. And so does your cast iron skillet, your grape arbor, lots of the parts in your car, and all the steel in modern cities.

We are all the product of supernovas.

The word for iron in Indo-European languages actually comes from a non-Indo-European one: Etruscan. In Etruscan, iron is aisar meaning "the gods." (ok how cool is that??) From aisar we get the Old English eisern and then to the modern word iron.

The many different iron ages that sprang up in history developed with not the smelting but the carburization of iron. Smelted iron is fairly weak; heat it over and over with lots and lots of pounding, and you get wrought iron, and then heat that slowly over charcoal with a quenching in hot oil, and you get a surface of steel. Blacksmithing was born. (All that charcoal does indeed turn you black.) The earliest iron age in the world began in Eastern Niger in Africa around 1500 B.C.E., making it the earliest known iron smelters in human history. Archaeologists have found carbon steel in Tanzania, dating it to 2000 years ago, making these the earliest steel findings in human history.

In Europe the iron age begins with Halstatt Culture around the 8th century B.C.E. By 500 B.C.E. the Celtic La Tene culture exploded iron production into all aspects and tools of culture. As Celtic culture spread across Northern Europe, the iron technologies spread as well. Iron is intrinsic to Celtic society, and the Celts brough Europe into the iron age. And as we know, the earlier cultures and then the Celts, proceeded to bung all their lovely iron into wells and bogs and rivers and lakes.

I want to look at the magic of ironworking itself, though, long before offering the knife or sword to a Goddess.

I know a modern smith who smelts his own iron, collected from rocks on his property. He then forges the iron into what is similar to medieval wrought iron. Then he pattern welds the wrought iron with heat, pounding, and carburizing to create steel. His period authentic knives and swords have many a historical re-creationist salivating!

As a beginner smith, I get to watch this stuff while I learn the beginning techniques of making the fires, heating steel, learning to use my hammer and tongs. (Tongs are everything. . . and I hope within the next year to start making my own.) At a recent SCA open forging event, I had reached the point where Bjorn helped the other newbies while, vivat!, I got to work with some low carbon steel and forge a shawl pin all by myself. I burned a huge blister on my thumb - through gloves no less, but for the first time did not drop my piece all over the place, and in very little time had a very primitive shawl pin. ("It's not symmetrical," Bjorn pointed out. I had to grin and tell him, "I know." "Don't you want to fix it?" "No.")

Yet while I worked at my beginning level, Bjorn took an old wrought iron piece from a manure spreader, heated it and worked it down, and pattern welded a piece of steel. The heat and hammering opens the low carbon wrought iron, and he added extra mass and carbon with folding in band saw blades. Flux (household borax typically) is used to keep oxygen from the welding. Then the process of pattern welding re-formed the molecular structure of the wrought iron, from the grainy, pliable wrought iron, into a much stronger piece of metal that will eventually hold an edge, be incredibly strong, while retaining flexibility. Watching an old piece of manure machinery turn into pattern welded steel is magic.

As I've written before, it is a magic that women have learned for centuries. Yet in all the wonderful pagan and Christian webpages out there, I see little to encourage women into blacksmithing. And the SCA forge was a more typical smithing atmosphere than my wonderful antique tractor group. Yes the boys talked endlessly about who has the bigger hammer and sticking stuff into the fire and who is the cutest babe on Mythbusters. A dear Bridget loving Christian friend of mine has suggested I start snapping tongs about as a means to stop this kind of sexist banter. (He himself is a master carpenter and just assumes I have the technical skill to snap tongs in a threatening manner! However, it is a great suggestion, and I will keep practicing!)Anyway, no, I wouldn't want my son or daughter listening to this stuff while they learn smithing.

So what I hope to do is to get my gentle readers, male and female, into blacksmithing, and I hope I can bring encouragement to all to explore this amazing craft. It is magic in front of your eyes! And it is not all that expensive. Bjorn likes to head into the woods and smelt his iron and hammer on rocks. At the same SCA event I came home with a used hammer and a piece of railroad track for an anvil. A pair of tongs and some heat resistant bricks and some charcoal and I am in business. Yup, you can use hairdryers for bellows. Propane forges are as cheap as $200 on ebay if you don't want to make your own. I know a lovely youtube link for making a forge with a cheap $20 weed burner, which I already have. Yes, amazing pattern welded steel takes time to learn. But shawl pins and candle holders are easy to learn in a few days.

So consider blacksmithing! It's an art, it's fun, it's sacred to Bridget.

It's also amazing magic.

(Take another breath. . . you have it in you already. . .)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A garden to Bridget

Ok! Enough with thinking, how about some action?

It is springtime and I need to be gardening! I have already transplanted roses and groundcovers, day lilies and herbs, and I just built four new raised beds plus a huge witchy flower border along my lower driveway. I have spent the last month busily filling my new beds or mixing compost or hauling leaves about the yard (and, this being central Appalachia, hauling rocks as well!) I am never happier than when I am with my kids or my flowers!

With all this new bedding space, I wanted to add plants for Bridget. I already have masses of roses and lilies - those superb Marian plants, but I wanted to expand to some Bridget offerings as well. A little research, and I am on my way. . .

Some plants to Bridget:

St. Brid's Comb

This was an obvious choice! Also known as betony, betonica officinalis or stachys officinalis, Bishopwort and Bishop's Elder, it is a longtime herb for the healer's garden. Some authors trace it back to the Greeks (and Antonius Musa, physick to Emperor Augustus, wrote a treatise on it). In the Medicina Britannica (1666) the author wrote: 'I have known the most obstinate headaches cured by daily breakfasting for a month or six weeks on a decoction of Betony made with new milk and strained.' In the middle ages, betony was gathered without iron as a dried herb for dozens of complaints. Fairy folk take note of the tradition to not touch betony with iron!


Mugwort is common wormwood, or St. John's plant (not St. John's wort - a different and wonderful plant). Wormwood is one of the artemesias, sacred to Diana/Artemis, and a long standby in my own garden. All artemesias are useful for protection and to identify your home as a witchy one. Wormwood is also a strong smelling plant, used all over the world for healing and to guard against bad spirits. (Also great to keep moths out of your spinning wool). Some writers consider wormwood to be the flower of the Isle of Man, and others associate it with Bridget because it's strong scent induced prophecy!


Angelica is an obvious choice, with its divine associations! Because of its name, angelica archangelica, it is listed in magical herbals as a protective plant. Used medicinally, it has been a tonic and strengthener. Sugar the flowers to decorate cakes, a traditional midsummer treat. Seeds are used to flavor gin. An all purpose herb, then!


Another sacred herb in Ireland and the Isle of Man, Ragwort has other wonderful names:
St. James' Wort, staggerweed, Mare's fart, and Dog Standard and Cushag (its Manx name, hence the poem:

Now, the Cushag, we know,
Must never grow,
Where the farmer's work is done.
But along the rills,
In the heart of the hills,
The Cushag may shine like the sun.
Where the golden flowers,
Have fairy powers,
To gladden our hearts with their grace.
And in Vannin Veg Veen,
In the valleys green,
The Cushags have still a place.

Ragwort is poison to cattle and horses, and a constant source of weeding for farmers in the UK and Ireland).

Despite this, however, ragwort is also well known for bee stings and eye problems. It is a famous green dye for wool.


Growing wild in my yard, but hard to transplant to my beds, Cowslip is also known as Lady's keys, Our lady's keys, Mayflower (when it blooms), Fairy Cups, Key Flower and Key of heaven. The common primula, then, is a wonderful magical herb. Still used in medicines, primula is an expectorant and diuretic, but more commonly its known for the famous cowslip wine of Victorian writers. It also goes in teas and vinegar, and my great grandmother used it in salads as a potherb.

Queen of the Meadow

Long one of my favourite plants: Eutrochium, Queen of the Meadow is a huge, pink, wayside wildflower also known locally in New England as Joe Pye Weed, in the south as Purple Boneset and Kidney Root. I love its pink, towering plumes in August! With its name, and its size, it is a must in my garden.

Lady's Mantle

Also known as bear's foot and stellaria, Lady's Mantle is long associated with the Virgin Mary. The leaves of Lady's Mantle, placed under one's pillow, should bring a good night's sleep without bad dreams. As a tea, it is good for "women's problems" from cramps to heavy bleeding.

More common herbs:

I've also included traditional culinary herbs in my beds and border: sage and thyme, mints and lavenders, dill and fennel. (Some writers connect fennel to Bridget as well!) I put tarragon and chives in for my son, who loves them both, and sweet woodruff, my longtime favorite little mulchy groundcover, grows apace throughout my entire yard! Down the road, creeping thyme will go in the holes in the cement blocks used for my raised beds (here in the mountains, soil is strongly acid, which is great for those roses, but the cement gives me a little alkaline for things like thyme. )I added bags and bags of sand and pebbles, to counter the heavy clay that is Appalachia. And I have four new rose beds planned for June, when I hope we see some sunshine.

I will post picture updates as my garden grows! In the meantime, try gardening for magic, prayer and puja.

What do you want to grow?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Cattle Raid of Cooley and Star Wars. . .

(Picture of Maeve's tomb, Co. Sligo)

Part of being a Celtic Christian or Celtic Pagan (or both) is reviving the many traditions of the bronze, iron and medieval ages from Celtic lands. Bridget's fire in Kildare, now alight once more at Solas Bride, or chant workshops on Iona, are both examples of using Celtic traditions in modern worship. For many, including yours truly, Celtic traditions have brought a deep and connected meaning to my spiritual life.

So. . . that leads to finding traditions, reclaiming traditions, creating new traditions (such as candle lighting for Ord Brighideach. . . or doing puja to the Morrigan. . .) And where do modern Celtic pagans and Christians go?

Often to early modern texts, written by Roman Christian monks centuries after the original tales were told. The Tain bo Cualigne, or Cattle Raid of Cooley, factors as one of the most famous of these 12th century texts. Famed for including the Irish queen Medb (Maeve), the introduction of Irish hero Cuchulainn, and telling the long story of a war between Connacht and Ulster, the Tain is one of the most cited of Irish pagan stories. Pagans quote the Tain; historians use the Tain to explain Celtic history; Christians Celts use the Tain for both a polytheistic and a monotheistic underpinning to church worship.

Yet rarely does anyone analyze the Tain, or any other early history myth or text floating out of monastic writings.

What are these stories? Laws? (I recently participated in a lengthy discussion about the Brehon laws and the position of women in pre-historical Celtic worlds. Modern pagans started throwing about the Brehon laws, as re-written monastically in later centuries, as proof that women in Celtic Ireland were literal slaves to husbands and fathers. Such a conversation grew heated, as men and women quoted their favorite historian on the Brehon laws, essentially arguing that texts reclaimed centuries later actually represented a complete historical reality. Aughhhh!!!!!

Yours truly was pulling her hair out in dismay!)

So how about we look at the written works handed down through monastic authors in the modern era, all re-writes of possible stories and laws from centuries before. And we of course immediately enter that world I want to push onto all modern Celtic worshipers - Pagan or Christian or Celtic or some combination thereof. Hermeneutics, people; hermeneutics.

Did monastic artists in the 12th century write down the exact myths of first century Ulster? Well, duh, seems highly unlikely. And did those monastic artists care about accurately portraying early Ulster, if they even could?

Duh again.

What we have in the Cattle Raid of Cooley, is a mishmash of story and myth that resonated with medieval monastics, and that still stir imaginations to this day. Yet it is high time that Celtic religious people call modern "scholars" on their use of these texts to illustrate damn near anything about the pre-literate Celtic world. Mary Condren uses the stories as an example of the downfall of women in Indo European culture. . . Fergus Kelly uses Brehon laws to define women's status as slave in pre-Christian Ireland. . . Peter Berresford Ellis uses those same laws to show the relative freedom of women in pre-Christian Ireland. . . Jean Markale uses the same myths to show that women had more freedom in pre-Christian Ireland. . . which all begs the question "whom do you believe???"

Of course, I love to look to archaeology. Modern archaeologists, remember, eschew the word Celtic at all, noting that Britain/Ireland before the Romans had at least 5 distinct cultures, from the social stratified world of central Ireland (the Ulster where the Cattle Raid of Cooley descends), to class free cultures like the Broch world in Scotland, to the already Romanized southern nations in what would soon become part of Rome. The differences in these cultures is profound: Romanized southern Britains either welcomed the Romans or fought them, depending on national position (less wealthy British culture welcomed the Roman stability that brought taxes but ended neighboring raids). The classless broch culture, still being excavated in Scotland, reflects an agrarian society with shared work and a central community. And over in class stratified Ulster, that "women as slave" society actually showed tremendous respect for earlier, stone age monuments to earth and agrarian culture.

(and all of these cultures bunged their swords into bogs. . . that were usually named after women. . .)

The Cattle Raid of Cooley only tells us something about that Ulster culture with its huge communal halls built over centuries and centered on shared feasting and celebration. Yet the Cattle Raid hardly seems like a literal history. Historians, so addicted to text, need to quit treating it as such.

This is where I turn to Star Wars. Some future historian may dig up the movie or script and use it as a literal history of our own times. Princess Leia will become the example of how our culture treats women; The Force will be seen as the religion of our time, and religious leadership will be defined by Jedi knights. I can see future historians writing long and probably erroneous dissertations based on Star Wars.

Of course this is less likely to happen in the future, due to the plethora of written resources from our times. Yet imagine that somehow Star Wars is all that survives of our culture, and what it would reflect. Perhaps some future historian will accurately guess that Star Wars is a story, told around our now proverbial fires of mall cinemas. She will probably find her research laughed at!

What is missing from so much of historical analysis of the Cattle Raid, the Mabinogi (14th century Welsh texts), and even analysis of Brehon laws, is the possibility that early tales from Ireland, Wales and Scotland, might actually reflect just that: early stories. Just as we today discuss Star Wars and Avatar and Harry Potter, early Ulster citizens might have enjoyed their own version of drama in stories and song. We do know that even medieval Ireland and Wales had a strong bardic tradition, so why is that medieval tradition not offered as explanation for earlier tales than the idea that the tales represent real live history?

The evidence counters the Tain as history viewpoint. Archaeologists do find evidence of raids between early British nations in pre-Roman southern England: with bodies buried and fortifications indicating hostilities. No such evidence exists for a similar war between Connacht and Ulster. Indeed, the buildings being recovered in Ireland today, from the same pre-Roman period, speak of highly concentrated efforts toward ritual and public communal space, both in Connacht and in Ulster. Though the cultures were different, there is no archaeological sign that they were in conflict.

To analyze Brehon laws, written down centuries later by same said monastics, I turn to modern laws. The Defense Against Marriage Act today could be used by future historians to show that gays and lesbians in our modern world faced slavery and discrimination.(well. . .) Yet such a picture is obviously incomplete! Gays and lesbians are marrying, having children, holding jobs and living with discriminatory laws. That the Brehon laws - as written down centuries later - have discriminatory actions against women is not definitive proof for how women in that pre-Christian world lived.

Some historians are doing this level of work - often turning to archaeology to do so. Historian Jenifer Ni Gradaigh has done extensive work on Brehon laws and embroidery, showing that women used the Brehon laws to their economic benefit in finding contracts for their needlework. Hardly a picture of women as slaves! And Ni Gradaigh notes that if you ignore women as embroiderers, you can easily miss positive examples of women using the Brehon laws. . . Other historians are doing similar work on women stonemasons in the early Christian church.

(The next time you pick up your embroidery needle, gentle readers, realize that you have strong economic ties to early Irish women! and perhaps it is time for me to learn some stonework. . .)

Likewise, what can modern Celtic worshipers do with the Tain, the Mabinogi, the Irish Invasion stories and the like?

Well, I suggest building a fire, sitting about with marshmallows on sticks, and telling the stories for fun and inspiration. As stories they are no different than many others: you find in them what you like or don't like. I dislike the fighting, yet my warrior kids love a good fighting tale. Well, we can tell the tales differently then.

And like bards of old, I suggest taking the stories and changing them: make them better, add new elements, delete boring parts. Stories live best not when preserved under museum glass, but when told and re-told for new delight and new meaning. Women and men all over the planet have globbed on to the more egalitarian roles open to women in these early tales: so why nail them down as hostages to historical accuracy when they can be re-worked, re-told, and once again celebrated?

Stories aren't history, and were never meant to be. Archaeologists are finding wonders in current digs, freeing history from this endless worship of text as history. The complexity and diversity in pre-Roman Britain is inspiring enough all on its own.

Maeve and Cuchulain we can leave be as good characters in good stories. They can join Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker and Yoda and other literary icons. Our kids can dress up as Rhiannon and Scathach and Finn and Pryderi, as well as Robin Hood, Marion and Indiana Jones. Fan fiction can include new adventures for Blodeuwedd and Maeve. And Cwllwch and Olwyn has long needed some new additions. . .

Let's grow these old tales, instead of freezing them. After all, that 6th century mega blockbuster, the Cattle Raid of Cooley, has many new paths to explore.

(For those interested in RPG, try the free mabinogi game, based on Pwyll, and let me know whatcha think. . .)

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Trusting Hawks and Celtic Augury

I wanted to reclaim my Cherokee ancestry back when I was in college, and have tried to study some Cherokee traditions for many years. Some traditions lasted in my oh-so-passing family, especially about plants and animal lore, and one cultural tradition that my family did pass on to me was to watch and follow birds. Birds as messengers, birds as bringers of fortune, birds as signs of weather and seasonal cycles, all were part of my childhood. Later, in the UK and Ireland, I learned more of Cornish, Irish, Welsh and Scottish bird lore, and thus began my still ongoing studies in augury.

Augury means divining the future from the study of natural animal movement. Birds have been especially important in multiple cultures - the Romans had entire religious orders established around reading the auspices. (In brief, mark out a field - called a templum, build a camp, call in flutists and harpers, draw the auspices - which means dividing the field and sky into sections that indicate signs and derive their powers from the gods, light a fire, throw in incense, play the music, and wait for the augur to make a pronouncement.) Bird lore, often as intensely complicated, exists world wide. (You can watch bird tracks, bird flight, bird nesting, bird migration, and of course those infamous bird entrails.)

I was brought up to believe hawks brought luck. The bigger the hawk, the greater the luck would be (sorry Cooper's hawks!). During one of the hardest times of my life, when dealing with my infertility, the one thing that kept me going was the many hawks here in the Allegheny mountains, including the Red Tail that lived in my woods during those ugly years of fertility specialists and awful drugs. I walked daily, and saw that Red Tail daily, and held on to the signs that somehow in all the ugly infertility mess, the auspices were auspicious! Certainly that dreadful time was especially marked with daily Red Tail sightings, a record number of hawk visits that still stands out in my life.

(And now, 16 years and 3 adopted children later, I have to admit that that neighborly hawk was absolutely right. The signs, though I couldn't see them through the treatments and sense of failure, were auspicious indeed: apologies, gentle readers, but I have the best children in the world!)

Early on, after my eldest's birth, I remember seeing the red tail (though I still walked daily, with babe in sling) less often, but offering my prayers of thanks to her when she did wing by. Hawks lived on in our woods, Red Tail, Cooper's and Harris, and watching them for signs of luck became second nature. Unsure of my road ahead, I watch hawks when I take job and school applications to post; feeling overwhelmed with work, kids, school, church, I take comfort from hawks perched on street lights overhead. A hawk winged above on the way to dd's music competition this past weekend, and yes, she won. Hawks and I have a special bond.

And yes there are other birds. I am deeply connected to my beloved carolina wrens; here on the northern edge of their range, carolina wrens need my feeders to get through cold snaps, and I need their bug-eating to survive summers of chiggers and mosquitos. Little brown flit-flits, carolina wrens are happy, cheerful and domestic, busy with their small territories, busy rooting out bad bugs and keeping woods and garden neat and tidy. For work at home moms like me, carolina wrens are soul mates and happy reminders of the importance of home and hearth - and hearths, of course, are ever sacred not only to children and pets, but also to Bridget. Since I hear endless comments of the "oh you don't really work" variety, the cheerful companionship of wrens is an endless source of support.

The easiest way to learn augury is to begin watching birds. Hang some bird feeders, spend time outside watching trees and sky, and start checking out what the birds evoke in you. Hawks meant luck to Cherokee traditions, but hawks may mean something else to you. I have a good friend who loves ravens; many, many friends love owls (we had a barred owl waking us up all winter), and my youngest daughter loves the cheerful and talkative chickadee. All of these birds bring different messages and different auspices.

You can take augury to more complicated heights. Drawing a templum on land or sky, and dedicating, say, the NE corner of your yard to Bridget, adds meaning to bird sightings in that area of your yard. A crow in the NE corner could then mean some trickster energy in your hearth, inspirational life, or your crafting. Crow energy is ever fun to translate and predict! (Or you could see that oh-so-social bird as indication of a future handcrafting party. . . or connected to Morrigan's ravens and indicators of battle. . . )

Dedicate the SW corner of the sky over your home to Cailleach, and an owl flying there at daybreak could mean dawning wisdom. Or from Cherokee and Creek traditional beliefs, an owl would mean approaching death. Back to me and my wrens, in many Welsh legends, wren is the trickster, often wise and vanquishing other birds. Of course Boxing day, is the day of wrens, the King of the Birds in so many legends. So put the wren in that SW corner dedicated to Cailleach, and you have a message of intelligence, wisdom, trickery, and kingship!

Augury, then, requires only two things: learning bird lore, and practicing. It is thus one of the cheapest of divination practices, and also one of the most personal. (Perhaps carolina wrens have an utterly different meaning for you. . .)

Augury also brings us to tending, that oh so Bridget activity. Birds, like our planet, are in increasing trouble. Tending to the planet, to the pesticides on our lawns and the chemicals in our foods, is the only way we and our birds will survive. I keep my small two acres organic, and a safe haven for birds escaping my Scotts lawn, shrub trimming neighbors. My yard is a Back Yard Habitat, certified by the National Wildlife Fund (which offers a sign for sale after you get certified, to show your neighbors why you only mow twice a month and never trim your bushes at all. . .) Putting out small offerings to the birds, from peanut butter or lard on stale bread, to pine cones trimmed with sunflower seeds, to hanging old apples and oranges, all are not only offerings to the birds, but as messengers to the gods, feeding birds is an offering to the holy.

And the results are neverending and profound. My youngest, budding ornitholigist who knew the names of about 20 backyard birds at age 2, and I have fallen in love with the Franklin Institute Hawk Cam where two parents are daily caring for their three nestlings. Youngest and I have spent the spring watching the mom lay 3 eggs, watching the long and boring nesting, and screamed in delight when the 3 eggs finally hatched. Now the nestlings are growing quickly, and youngest and I worry daily that they are going to fall from the nest in downtown Philly, as the fledglings start to explore their wings. It is a daily drama to watch the 3 baby birds wiggle near their nest edge.

My eldest, however, has no patience for this. Eldest is my warrior, interested in swords and battle and black belts. Hearing me and youngest bemoan the birds antics, my eldest offered this pearl, which I now share with you:

"Mom, just trust in the hawks," eldest told me, hands in the air for emphasis, "just have faith in the hawks."