Yule

The Wheel of the Year Series: Yule or The Winter Solstice

The holly and the ivy

When they are both full grown,

Of all the trees that are in the wood,

The holly bears the crown.

Chorus:

Oh, the rising of the sun

And the running of the deer,

The playing of the merry organ,

Sweet singing in the choir,

The holly bears a blossom

As white as lily flower,

And when the Sun is newly born,

‘Tis at the darkest hour

The holly bears a berry

And blood-red is its hue,

And when the Sun is newly born,

It maketh all things new.

The holly bears a leaf

That is for ever green,

And when the Sun is newly born,

Let love and joy be seen.

The holly and the ivy

The mistletoe entwine,

And when the Sun is newly born,

Be joy to thee and thine.

Chorus:

On, the rising of the Sun

And the running of the deer,

The playing of the merry organ,

Sweet singing in the choir.

Doreen Valiente, The Pagan Carol

The leaves have fallen off the trees, leaving them to brace naked against the cold, icy winds. The grass has died, and other than the evergreen trees and shrubs, the landscape is a mixture of browns and greys. The sky, although spectacularly pink and orange at sunrise and sunset, can seem too sunny or too overcast, depending on the day. In the colder climates, snow has begun to fall, coating the land in a blanket of brilliant white. Deer run freely in the forests and other animals have retreated to their fully-stocked burrows for the season. The days have been getting shorter and darker, but there is still light, in the form of fireplaces and multi-colored bulbs hung on houses. There is a spirit of kindness and giving in the air, of hospitality, love, and peace. It is midwinter, and it is almost Yule, a special time of year where we gather and feast, share gifts and stories, and celebrate the comings of the light.

In the pagan context, Yule is a sabbat on the Wheel of the Year that occurs around December 21st. Historically, Yule is an Old Norse celebration that took place at the Winter Solstice and lasted till the beginning of January (our modern calendar of course). Yule isn’t the only celebration of this time of year however, and although the word Yule and many of its customs can indeed be traced back to this specific festival, there are plenty of other Winter Solstice celebrations that have carried forward today. At its heart, Yule is a recognition of the Winter Solstice, the longest, darkest night of the year, and the fact that after this night, the light is coming again.

Origins of Yule

Strictly speaking, Yule originates in the celebrations of ancient Germanic tribes in Northern Europe. The word Yule comes from the Old Norse name for the celebration, Jól. (As a side note there is speculation that the proto-Indo-European root for jól means “joke, play”, and some believe the English word jolly also comes from jól). It is believed that the word originally referred to a month or two month period of Mid-November to January. The Norse celebration is tied to Odin (a more fierce-looking Santa Clause if you ask me), and the Wild Hunt, a folklore/legend motif of a “ghostly procession in the winter sky”.

The celebrations at Yule consisted of eating, drinking, and even making sacrifices, especially of remaining livestock for the winter. They would sacrifice the Yule boar in a sacred ceremony, burn a Yule log, decorate their houses with representations of the Yule goat, hang evergreen plants like mistletoe and holly, and even sing Yule songs.

Other Midwinter Celebrations

There are many other cultures that celebrate the Winter Solstice in ways that resemble the Germanic Yule, as well as ways that have carried forward to modern secular Christmas. Here are a few:

  • Modraniht – Recorded by Bede in the 8th Century, this was an Anglo-Saxon festival known as “Mother’s Night” that was celebrated on modern-day Christmas Eve. This ties to Disablot, an ancient Scandinavian sacrificial celebration presided over by women.
  • Saturnalia – the ancient Roman festival celebrated at the Winter Solstice. There was gift giving and feasting, as well as decorating with evergreen plants indoors. Rumor has it that there were also naked revelers singing in the streets, so sorta like caroling right?
  • Twelfth Night – sort of a mixture between pagan Yule and Christian Christmas, many similar customs, lasted for 12 days, Winter Solstice-January 6th ish. Had the King Cake, a precursor to the modern fruitcake.
  • Modern Yule – Most modern pagans celebrate Yule with aspects of the Druidic lore featuring the Oak King and the Holly King, symbolic of the rebirth of the “Great horned hunter god”. This is done with meals and gift giving.
  • Dongzhistival – A Winter Solstice Festival in China, celebrated by families gathering and eating special food.
  • Lohri – a Punjabi festival celebrating the Winter Solstice. Bonfire, singing children, and throwing sweets, peanuts, and popcorn into a fire.
  • Yalda Night – Iranian. Celebrated on the longest night of the year. Friends and family gather, eat, read poetry. Fruits, like watermelon and pomegranate are eaten bc they symbolize the ‘hues of dawn’.
  • Koliada – Used to be a pre-Christian winter festival, but has been incorporated into Christmas.

Yule to Christmas

I won’t spend too much time here, but since Christmas is probably the most widely celebrated ‘descendant’ of Yule, I thought I’d just quickly touch on it. Because Yule was a Northern European celebration and most of Europe was Christianized over the last thousand years, it is no surprise that this new Christ Mass would take on the trappings of the already existing pagan traditions. We see echoes of Yule in almost every part of Christmas from the Yule boar= Christmas ham, Yule songs = caroling and wassailing, Yule goat = ties to Santa/Old St. Nick, Yule log = Christmas tree, to the very heart of Yule being about the rebirth of the light (or Sun God) = Christ being born. If you really think about it, those Christmas lights are really just little reminders of this theme. The gathering, gift giving, and feasting are all remnants of Yule. The sacrificial animals, slaughtered for food for the winter months also tie into the sacrifice of Jesus, according to Christians. Christmas really is very much like Yule, just with the trappings of different religious beliefs. And of course, the pagan customs and folklore beliefs melted together with this so what many of us grew up with isn’t too far from the ‘original’ Yule.

Themes of Yule

As with all of the sabbats on the wheel of the year, the themes can be found by meditating on the energies of that time of year. As we’ve already seen, Yule is associated with the following themes:

  • The coming of the light/light returns/rebirth
  • Celebration/joy
  • Community
  • Giving/sharing/charity/goodwill
  • Sacrifice
  • Peace

Symbols of Yule

Symbols associated with Yule are:

  • Snow
  • Candles/lights
  • Evergreen trees and plants (spruce, fir, holly, pine, mistletoe, ivy)
  • Yule logs
  • Deer/Reindeer
  • Cakes/cookies/rich foods – feast
  • Bears

Correspondences of Yule

Some of the correspondences for are:

Stones: Clear Quartz, emerald, garnet, ruby, bloodstone, ‘fool’s gold’, orange calcite, red jasper

Colors: Gold, Silver, Green, Red, White, Blue

Herbs: rosemary, cinnamon, peppermint, clove, nutmeg, orange, bay, (non edible) – holly, mistletoe, ivy, evergreens, pine cones

Foods & Drinks: Mulled cider, gingersnaps, dried fruits, rich meats, fruitcake, eggnog, ham, puddings, wassail

Magick: Connecting with Oak or Holly King, depending on the angle you’re going for, spells for love, harmony, peace, healing, spells for seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, rituals of sacrifice (not human of course!), rituals to honor and recognize the longest night of the year.

Ways to Celebrate Yule

As modern witches and pagans, we have to find new ways to celebrate the Sabbats. Surprisingly, it is really fun and easy to come up with ways to celebrate that honor Yule and also fit into our busy lives. As with all magickal practices it is the intention that counts. If you are able to center in on the energies of Yule by meditating on its themes, colors, stones, and other correspondences, you don’t need a flashy ritual (although there’s nothing wrong with it if you want to do one!) to celebrate.

Here are some celebration ideas. I’ve made them as simple as possible, so you can add on your own touches as your practice allows.

  • Go crazy with décor! Just like Samhain, Yule is a time where the decorations in the stores match many of the traditional Yule symbols. You can easily deck your halls with Yule decorations, even in the broom closet. The fun part is that you know the symbolism and meaning behind the holly wreaths and mistletoe boughs.
  • Set up a Yule altar – similar to decorating, but here you can put a statue of the God/Goddess of your choice, maybe frame a Yule poem or prayer, and place more magickal items like crystals and herbs.
  • I got this one from Davy & Tracy. They suggested placing a clear crystal quarts on an east-facing windowsill to catch the first rays of light from the ‘reborn sun’. I love this, as it is easy and symbolizes the rebirth and hope themes of Yule.
  • Although it’s traditionally a “New Year’s Resolution”, Yule is the time to be considering things you want to change or make happen in the following year. You can do a small ritual for these resolutions or intentions to give them a magickal boost.
  • Tis the season! Meet with family and friends, share a meal, share gifts, and sit by the fire. Just know that this has been done for thousands of years at Yule and was NOT invented by the toy companies.
  • Volunteer at a shelter or other charitable institution, give to charity, or in some other way help others and your community.
  • Take some time to do a solitary meditation outside. Maybe just for a few minutes. Really breath in the cold air, notice the sounds, smells, and sights of Yule – connect to how the earth has changed and how it will continue to change as Spring approaches.
  • Light a few candles and really get in touch with the Yule theme of a light in the darkest night.
  • Do any number of Yule crafts – sachets or charms with Yule herbs, ornaments, etc.
  • Make Wassail or a Yule Log (see below) as part of your ritual or celebration.
  • Listen to ‘Christmas’ carols and really take the time to hear the Yule themes and symbols in them – could be a fun unofficial game!
  • Drink some tea with a friend by the fire. I offer this Yule Blend, a tart, fruity, yet warmly comforting mixture.

Yule Recipe

So many recipes…Again, I decided to go traditional here. Because the last two herbs weren’t edible. I’m giving you two recipes for the Yule post. One is for Wassail, the traditional apple-cider spiced drink that was carried by carolers as they were wassailing. Easy to make and delicious! The other recipe is for a Yule Log. The Yule Log has a long history of its own, as does the dessert version, so here I’m included just one set of instructions on how to make it. It is a decadent treat that is beautiful and can be decorated and tweaked as you like! Enjoy.

Christmas Crockpot Wassail
Yule Log Recipe and Video

Merry Yule!

Holly

I smelt the rich scent of the heating spices; and admired the shining kitchen utensils, the polished clock, decked in holly, the silver mugs ranged on a tray ready to be filled with mulled ale for supper; and above all, the speckless purity of my particular care – the scoured and well-swept floor.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë

History of Holly

Much like mistletoe, the holly plant has a long and magickal history. The ancient Celts and Romans used it during Winter Solstice celebrations, and over time this shifted into the Christian tradition of ‘decking the halls’ with holly during Christmas, and the Holly King, a precursor to Santa Clause, is tied to holly folklore. An evergreen plant with violent red berries, holly has magickal associations with fertility, protection, familial connection, sacrifice, and life, among other things. Let’s explore this fascinating and mystically wintery history of holly.

What is holly?

Holly is a plant belonging to the Ilex genus. Ilex aquifolium is the holly that most westerners think of around Christmas. Like the mistletoe berries, Holly has ‘berries’ that ripen in the winter, turning a vibrant red color. This contrast, the dark green and red in the midst of the cold, gray white of winter, has led to this plant being revered and used to brighten up households for centuries. Ilex means something like “evergreen oak” and aquifolium means “sharp leaf” – both very fitting because holly’s leaves are evergreen and they have sharp, almost thorn-like pokers (see picture below). The English word holly is interesting because it comes from Old English “holen”, which comes from a long line of words whose root means “to prick”.

Prickly leaves make holly, which have given it its name.

The Ancient Romans and Celts

The history of holly stretches back to ancient Rome at least. Saturnalia was a Roman festival that occurred on the Winter Solstice. The people would honor Saturn by giving gifts to each other and it is recorded that they hung holly up on or above their doors to keep ‘evil’ out.

Holly was also sacred to the ancient Celts, especially the Druids. They also hung holly branches in their homes for protection and used it to heal those that were ill. It is with this culture that we see the myth of the Holly King, who was thought to rule during the winter months (more on that in the next section). Because of it being evergreen and its bright red berries, the Druids associated holly with fertility and immortality. They sometimes wore holly in their hair as a way of carrying its protection with them at all times.

One interestingly specific belief was that holly was said to protect one from being struck by lightening. This stems from holly’s Norse association with Thor, the god of thunder.

Although it was often considered bad luck to cut down holly, it was sometimes used to feed livestock in the winter (the leaves). It also had associations with control and virility, so there were those who used holly wood to make whips or handles for some tools. (Fun side note, Harry Potter’s wand was made with holly).

The Holly King

 The Holly King's Song

 Through smiling eyes to you I say,
'Blessings on this Yuletide day!'
For though my reign is at an end;
Good cheer and joy to you I send.
Celebrate now, the return of the sun/son!
The Oak King's reign has just begun.
Through the turning wheel of time,
Each will have their turn to shine.
So relax. Be still, for this Yuletide spell;
Send love to all and all will be well! 

Patti Wigington from Learnreligions.com has this to say about the Holly King “In many Celtic-based traditions of neopaganism, there is the enduring legend of the battle between the Oak King and the Holly King. These two mighty rulers fight for supremacy as the Wheel of the Year turns each season. At the Winter Solstice, or Yule, the Oak King conquers the Holly King, and then reigns until Midsummer, or Litha. Once the Summer Solstice arrives, the Holly King returns to do battle with the old king, and defeats him. … In some Wiccan traditions, the Oak King and the Holly King are seen as dual aspects of the Horned God…

As you can see from the images, the modern-day Christmas Santa Claus seems to resemble the Holly King an awful lot. Although the background is different, it is certainly a tie-in to what much of the world practices now.

Christians and Christmas

As Christianity spread around Europe, the old holly traditions continued, taking on Christian-themed elements. For a time, pagan and Christian beliefs existed side by side. Holly was thought to ward off evil and wreaths were hung inside during the Yule season. Some believed fairies or elves could hide among the holly while waiting for St. Old Nick. Some people kept a spring of holly for good luck year round. Even the churches would hang holly inside and give a piece to their congregations as a way of spreading luck and cheer.

Apparently, in early Christianity the phrase ‘templa exornatur’ is written on Christmas calendars. This phrase means roughly ‘churches are decked’, and because holly was always used to decorate, we now have the Christmas phrase/song “Deck the halls with boughs of holly”. In German holly is called “christdorn” or Christ Thorn, showing how it has been associated with Christianity throughout the years.

Of course Christmas is just another way of celebrating the Winter Solstice, as is Yule, and as you can see, the traditions of this time of year are quite similar to those practiced thousands of years ago.

Like most plants, there is a myth that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus hid from King Herod in a holly tree and because of its hiding them, it was allowed to stay green all year. There is an association of Jesus’s blood with the berries and his crown of thorns with the spikey leaves.

Holly Toxicity

Holly is toxic. The berries can cause nausea and vomiting, among other things. It takes about 3 berries before an adult will feel these symptoms, but children and pets can be affected by much less so be careful if you are decorating or using real holly.

In Magickal Workings

The magickal properties of holly are closely associated with its history. Like mistletoe, holly is toxic and should not be ingested. If you have children or pets, and you want to work with real holly, take care not to leave it out where they might ingest it. With that said, here are some magickal properties of holly:

  • Protection
  • Fertility
  • Fairy/Elf magick
  • Immortality
  • Winter Solstice/Yule rituals
  • Sacrifice
  • To connect with the Holly King or similar figures
  • Divination

You can do a lot with holly for magickal purposes. If you have real holly (or fake if you are more comfortable with that) you can hang it not just for decoration, but for protection. You can create your own wreath of holly and invite the fairies to stay (if you work with fairies), you can do a holly meditation to get in touch with the Holly King and Yule, you can use it in spells or rituals having to do with fertility, with making a sacrifice, and even for divination. Wear holly in your hair for extra protection or carry it with you for the same. You can also use holly for spells that you wanting to give an extra long life to – because of its association with immortality.

Back to Herbal Encyclopedia

Holly “Recipe”

So, this is more of a meditation or sacred reading activity. I think it will help you get in touch with the energies of holly from the myths above. Think of it as a sort of meditation on the Winter Solstice/Yule, the Holly King, and the energies of holly.

Sacred Imagination


Although it doesn’t have holly in it, I wanted to add on here that my new YULE BLEND of enchanted herbal tea is out now. Check it out so you can get yours in time for Yule!

Mistletoe

The mistletoe hung in the castle hall,

The holly branch shone on the old oak wall;

And the baron’s retainers were blithe and gay,

And keeping their Christmas holiday.

The baron beheld with a father’s pride

His beautiful child, young Lovell’s bride;

While she with her bright eyes seemed to be

The star of the goodly company.

Oh, the mistletoe bough.

Oh, the mistletoe bough.

The Mistletoe Bough, by Thomas Haynes Bayly

History of Mistletoe

Mistletoe is a plant that has an extensive magickal history. Tied to Druidic, Norse, and Greek mythology, mistletoe has long been associated with fertility, protection, peace, and love. In Europe, mistletoe is connected to the Winter Solstice/Yule as well. Magically, mistletoe is very powerful and can be used (non-internally) for fertility, protection, love, and healing. Let’s look more closely at this parasitic, toxic, and mysterious plant.

What is Mistletoe?

Most of us have heard of mistletoe. We may have stood beneath it during a Christmas party (probably a faux version), or even more likely we’ve seen it depicted in movies or cartoons. Few of us probably know what mistletoe actually is in it’s natural state though right?

It may surprise you (I know it surprised me), to know that mistletoe is a hemiparasitic plant that grows on other trees, sometimes in a strange, ball-shaped form. Known in officially as Viscum album, mistletoe in English gets its name from the Old English tan (“twig”) and mistel, an Anglo-Saxon (or possibly even Old German) word for “dung”. What’s really fascinating about this etymology is that it shows that these older cultures had an idea of how mistletoe grew. You see, birds eat the seeds and when they, errrr go poo, the seeds drop down and attach themselves to the host trees. Mistletoe then grows from that spot and grows as a half parasite, using the tree for energy and nutrients.

Mistletoe is evergreen, meaning in the winter you will see it as a bright green growth on an otherwise dead tree. This perhaps accounts for why it has been associated with winter; it would stick out against the otherwise colorless landscape and inspire thoughts of strength and magic. Mistletoe is toxic if eaten, although not usually responsible for deaths (you know, just blurred vision, diarrhea, vomiting, and cardiac problems).

Mistletoe Mythology

Hornel, Edward Atkinson|Henry, George; The Druids: Bringing in the Mistletoe; Glasgow Museums; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-druids-bringing-in-the-mistletoe-84452

Mistletoe is found in myths and legends of many different cultures. Some of the associates are quite sexual in nature. Pre-Christian and Celtic cultures apparently regarded mistletoe’s white berries as representative of semen.

In Rome, mistletoe was associated with the Saturnalia festival, and Romans hung mistletoe over doorways for protection. They also believed mistletoe was associated with love, peace, and understanding. People may have ended up kissing under the mistletoe during early marriage rights, a precursor to the more modern practices.

To the Druids, mistletoe was sacred. It was used in the Ritual of Oak and Mistletoe, a ritual which was recorded by Pliny the Elder in the 1st century. This is his account:

We should not omit to mention the great admiration that the Gauls have for it as well. The druids – that is what they call their magicians – hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is a hard-timbered oak [robur].. Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon…. Hailing the moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things,’ they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to a god to render his gift propitious to those on whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poisons. (Plinty the Elder, Natural History)

The Norse had an extensive mythology around mistletoe, and it is their stories that also helped shape the use of mistletoe in popular Christmas customs. The Norse story is as follows:

The story goes that Mistletoe was the sacred plant of Frigga, goddess of love and the mother of Balder, the god of the summer sun. Balder had a dream of death, which greatly alarmed his mother, for should he die, all life on earth would end. Balder could not be hurt by anything on earth or under the earth. But Balder had one enemy, Loki, god of evil and he knew of one plant that grew neither on the earth nor under the earth, but on apple and oak trees. It was lowly mistletoe. So Loki made an arrow tip of the mistletoe, gave to the blind god of winter, Hoder, who shot it, striking Balder dead. For three days each element of universe tried to bring Balder back to life. Frigga, the goddess and his mother finally restored him. It is said the tears she shed for her son turned into the pearly white berries on the mistletoe plant and in her joy Frigga kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which it grew. The story ends with a decree that who should ever stand under the humble mistletoe, no harm should befall them, only a kiss, a token of love. (Source)

In the Middle Ages, mistletoe continued to be tied to fertility and luck, and hung in doorways for protection as well. In more modern European-based cultures, mistletoe is known as a Christmas decoration under which people kiss.

Mistletoe Customs

So as we can see from these many myths and ancient customs, the more modern customers came directly from them. Hanging mistletoe in the home during Yule, the Winter Solstice, Christmas, or whichever holiday you choose harkens back to the ancient practices. Kissing under the mistletoe goes back to ancient Rome, and just the association with love, peace, or even sexuality goes back to the Druidic and Nordic myths.

In Magickal Workings

The magickal properties of mistletoe are closely associated with its history. However, like belladonna, mistletoe is toxic and should not be ingested. If you have children or pets, and you want to work with real mistletoe, take care not to leave it out where they might ingest it. With that said, here are some magickal properties of mistletoe:

  • Protection
  • Fertility
  • Love/friendship/peace
  • Romance/love
  • Winter Solstice/Yule rituals

To me, mistletoe is similar to belladonna in that you probably won’t go out and get it to work with. However, using a faux version, using literature/poetry/spells with mistletoe imagery, or even creating a representation can all bring in the properties of this ‘herb’. You can then use this representation or these magickal words about mistletoe to perform spells or rituals needing the above energies.

Back to Herbal Encyclopedia

Mistletoe “Recipe”

So, this is more of a meditation or sacred reading activity. I think it will help you get in touch with the energies of mistletoe from the myths above. My personal choice is to do this with the Druid ritual, but you could also do it with the Norse myth.

Sacred Imagination

*This is a ‘religious’ practice, but the process is amazing for connecting to a piece of ANY literature. (I got this idea from Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast). Below is from the source linked above. Simply replace the biblical phrases with elements from the Druid ritual. Listen to my podcast episode for a detailed breakdown for the Druid passage.

  1. Select a passage from one of the Gospels in which Jesus is interacting with others.
  2. Recall what one is doing in engaging with the Word of God and what one desires from this encounter. God is present and because God is present one relies on God.
  3. Read the Gospel passage twice so that the story and the details of the story become familiar.
  4. Close one’s eyes and reconstruct the scene in one’s imagination. See what is going on and watch the men and women in the scene. What does Jesus look like? How do the others react to him? What are the people saying to one another? What emotions fill their words? Is Jesus touching someone? As one enters into the scene, sometimes there is the desire to be there. So a person can place oneself in the scene, perhaps as an observer, as one lining up for healing, or as one helping others to Jesus.
  5. Some people’s imaginations are very active so they construct a movie-like scenario with a Gospel passage. Others will enter the scene with verbal imagination, reflecting on the scene and mulling over the actions. Vividness is not a criteria for the effectiveness of this kind of prayer. Engagement is and the result is a more interior knowledge of Jesus.
  6. As one finishes this time of prayer, one should take a moment to speak person to person with Christ saying what comes from the heart.

Nutmeg

I had a little nut tree,

Nothing would it bear

But a silver nutmeg,

And a golden pear;

The King of Spain’s daughter

Came to visit me,

And all for the sake

Of my little nut tree.

Her dress was made of crimson,

Jet black was her hair,

She asked me for my nut tree

And my golden pear.

I said, “So fair a princess

Never did I see,

I’ll give you all the fruit

From my little nut tree.

Traditional English Folk Rhyme, 16th Century Origins

History of Nutmeg

Nutmeg, like cinnamon and cloves, was an important commodity during the Spice Trade of the 16th and 17th Centuries, so much so, that one of its bloodiest incidents occurred over this particular spice. But the world carried on, and with its sweet, delicate flavor, nutmeg made its way into cuisines from all over the world. Both sweet and potentially toxic, nutmeg has some surprising associations and properties. Magically it is tied to luck and prosperity. Nutmeg is also considered a Yule spice and is often used in Yule magick and food. Let’s take a look at the rich and disturbing history of nutmeg.

A Fragrant Seed

The outside is the fruit, the orange lacey covering is mace, and the inside seed is what is ground up to create powdered nutmeg.

For starters, let’s look at what nutmeg is. Like cinnamon and cloves and all the other ‘spices’ at the supermarket, many of us don’t actually have a clue what the original form of the spice is. Nutmeg is the seed or nut of a tropical evergreen tree. The tree produces fruit, and inside that fruit is a seed (much the same size as an avocado or peach pit). The outer covering of the seed looks like a little net and is known as mace (no relation to the pepper spray) and is also used in cooking. The seed inside is nutmeg and that is what is ground up, either by hand with a grater or bought already powdered.

Nutmeg’s Latin name is Myristica fragrans. These two words have roughly the same connotation. Myristica comes from the Greek “myristikos”, which means “fragrant” or “for annointing”, and fragrans meaning “aromatic”, “fragrant”, or “odorous”. This of course reflects nutmeg’s sweet, aromatic smell that most bakers of holiday foods are familiar with. In English, the word “nutmeg” seems to come from an Old French description – “nois muguete”, meaning something along the lines of ‘a nut smelling like musk’. It was apparently included in a c. 1300 reference on “cookery” and was referred to as “note-mug”. No super exciting meanings hidden within these names for nutmeg, but from them we know that nutmeg has always been noticed and praised for its aroma.

One thing to keep in mind is that, like cinnamon, nutmeg has many different varieties that were grown after the spice trade collapsed and other places began producing nutmeg. The true nutmeg is the Myristica fragrans referenced above, but there are other varieties that are sometimes used to adulterate the true spice.

Origins of Nutmeg

Nutmeg originated in the Banda Islands, which are located in what the Europeans called the Spice Islands in Indonesia. Those native to the island grew the nutmeg trees with care, eating the fruit and selling the mace and nutmeg seed to China, India, and eventually the Arabs. Arab traders eventually gained the monopoly on selling and trading spices from these islands, nutmeg included. By the 1st Century, nutmeg had been introduced to the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations.

In Ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder wrote about nutmeg, describing its aroma as a if cinnamon and pepper were mixed together. According to Greek theory, nutmeg was a “hot food” which was used to balance out “cold foods” like fish and veggies, so it was often paired with these items. It is also thought that Roman priests burned nutmeg as an incense. In the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, the port city of Venice became the import location for the rest of Europe. Europeans believed nutmeg was a cure for viruses, and like the other spices (cinnamon, cloves) it was worth a fortune.

By the 1400s, Portugal had started trading in the Indian Ocean. They didn’t have complete monopoly, but their involvement eventually lead to a takeover by the Dutch East India Company in the 17th Century. We’ll talk about that terrible time period next.

The Bandas Massacre

The Dutch traders were not friendly and used ruthless tactics to gain control of the Spice Trade. In the case of the Bandas Islands and nutmeg, the Dutch were particularly cruel. Whereas the Arabs, Portuguese, and other traders had offered to trade with the Bandanese for nutmeg with comparable things like copper, porcelain, steel, or silver, the Dutch would only trade with useless items like wool clothes, which couldn’t be used in the tropics. This created tension and showed disrespect from the Dutch to the Bandanese.

Things went from bad to worse. The Eternal Treaty (not a promising name…) was a forcefully signed document giving the Dutch complete control of the Bandas spices. The Dutch also put more reinforcements at Fort Nassau, their stronghold on the island. The Bandanese retaliated and killed a Dutch admiral and kill 40 soldiers. The Dutch left no holds barred after this. Historians call what happened next a genocide on the Bandanese population. Before 1621 there were about 15,000 Bandanese on the island. The Dutch massacred most of this number, leaving only about 1,000 remaining, who were then forced to work as slaves in the nutmeg plantations.

Culinary Uses of Nutmeg

Once the Spice Trade fell, nutmeg, like the other spices, was grown in other places and became readily available all over the world. Despite this horribly bloody history, today nutmeg is thought of as a nice addition to holiday baking or as an ingredient in Indian or Chinese cuisine. Nutmeg has other uses, especially its essential oil, but overall, nutmeg is a culinary ‘herb’, so that’s what we will explore next.

Nutmeg is an interesting spice, because it works very well in many different flavor profiles. It can be used in cheese sauces as well as baked goods. It is also found in recipes from all over the world, making nutmeg a very versatile spice.

In India, nutmeg is used in garam masala, in sweet foods, and is also sometimes smoked. In the Middle East, it is usually used in savory foods. In Europe, nutmeg as used to flavor meats, soups, potatoes, and baked sweets. It is identified specifically in the colder winter month recipes for mulled wine and cider, and the holiday drink, eggnog. It is often sprinkled on top of coffee or hot chocolate as well.

One thing we may not be aware of (I know I wasn’t!), is that nutmeg is actually toxic, can be a danger to pregnant women, and can cause hallucinogenic effects. A large dose, which is apparently around 6 teaspoons or more can cause convulsions, nausea, dehydration, and heart palpitations. It can also cause mild euphoria, similar to MDMA…however using it to achieve a high is a bad idea. It doesn’t taste pleasant on its own, and it will cause the previous issues before any potential euphoria is felt. There is actually a term called “nutmeg poisoning”, during which a person is panicked, has an impending sense of doom, and is agitated. Nutmeg poisoning has resulted in death and is also considered an abortifacient in high doses.

In Magickal Workings

The magickal properties of nutmeg are just as varied as its culinary uses. Some relate to its history, while others play off its strong taste and potentially toxic effects. It can be used in the spellwork for:

  • Luck
  • Prosperity/money
  • Legal matters
  • Love/comfort
  • Divination/clairvoyance

As always, I like to go a little non-specific with my suggestions for magickal applications because I think creativity is part of the beauty of spellwork. However, here a few ideas to get you started. One idea I love is to wear a whole nutmeg as a necklace. Put a specific intention related to one of the magickal properties into the nutmeg seed, then make a whole in the nutmeg and put a string through it. I also like the idea of anointing a green candle with nutmeg (and other prosperity spices) as part of a prosperity/money spell. You could also buy a lottery ticket and sprinkle nutmeg on it. A simple spell is to share a coffee/hot chocolate/eggnog with nutmeg sprinkled on top with a loved one to increase the bond between you. You can also use nutmeg in Yule celebrations and rituals.

Back to Herbal Encyclopedia

Nutmeg Recipe

I’ve been talking a lot about eggnog in this post, so here you go – homemade holiday eggnog! This drink is perfect for cold winter nights and for Yule or Winter Solstice gatherings. The touch of nutmeg in the drink and sprinkled on top is enough to get you in touch with the lucky, lovely, and rich properties of the herb.

Creamy Holiday Eggnog

Rosemary

For you there’s rosemary and rue. These keep

Seeming and savor all the winter long.

Grace and remembrance be to you both,

And welcome to our shearing.

Act IV Scene IV, The Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare

History of Rosemary

Rosemary, like lavender, is a well-known and easily accessible herb with a long history of medicinal and culinary uses. Associated with protection, cleansing, and especially remembrance, rosemary has been used for centuries as a symbolic way to remember those who have gone, as well as to literally help with the memory. Rosemary is a magickal herb with a plethora of practical and energetic applications, each of which taps into this herb’s unique design, flavor, scent, and energies. Let’s look at the wonderful, festive rosemary!

Dew of the Sea

Rosemary’s official name is Salvia rosmarinus. Rosmarinus in Latin means “dew of the sea”, a poetic name for a this plant which is native to the Mediterranean region. Salvia refers to the Latin salveo, meaning “to save/heal”, and so we can see by the official name of the herb that it was associated with healing. There is also a legend which tells of Aphrodite wearing a wreath of rosemary when she rose from the sea, giving this herb an association with love as well as the ocean.

The common name in English, rosemary, was drawn from this Latin name, but it has its own associations. (Isn’t it interesting how languages exchange and put meaning on things!?). The story says that the rosemary plant is named as such because of the Virgin Mary, who hid among the rosemary when fleeing to Egypt. She draped her blue cloak on the bush, turning the flowers blue, and hence, the herb was named “Mary’s Roses”, which morphed into Roses of Mary, hence rosemary.

Rosemary also has a few common names, such as herb of crowns, compass-weed, and polar plant.

History & Uses of Rosemary

Rosemary has been around for a long time. It was first mentioned in cuneiform tablets from 5000 BC and has been found in the tombs of Ancient Egypt and like many other herbs, was included in De Materia Medica, authored by Discorides. The first record of rosemary in Britain was in 1338, in a letter and cuttings were sent to Queen Phillipa, and the plant was grown in the royal garden. Its likely that rosemary existed in the country before this, however this is the first formal reference.

Rosemary boasts many medicinal uses throughout history, many of which have been unsubstantiated. One such use was to cure baldness and dandruff. Interestingly enough, in the essential oil community, rosemary is often suggested for hair rinses for this very reason. Rosemary was also used to treat a paralyzed queen, as well as skin and respiratory problems. In quite a few pieces of literature, such as Don Quixote and works by Charles Dickens, rosemary is described as an ingredient in healing balms and concoctions.

Rosemary has always been used as a fragrance ingredient. The Egyptians used it in their unguents, it was rubbed on the body as perfume in ancient Greece and Rome, and was used as a smudging and incense ingredient to add its distinct clean scent to rooms in the home or purify ‘sick rooms’.

Rosemary is used to flavor many foods, such as meats and vegetables. It was probably used to cover up the scent and flavor of rotten meat in the Middle Ages, but rosemary is a delightful addition to such dishes as roast chicken, pork, and lamb, as well as potatoes, carrots, and other root veggies.

Rosemary in Folklore

Rosemary is steeped in folklore with the two most prominent beliefs revolving around remembrance and love. In ancient Greece, rosemary was worn as a crown or braided into the hair of scholars to help them strengthen their focus on their studies (a form of remembering). Rosemary was also used in a more melancholic way to remember the dead. In some countries, rosemary is thrown into graves during funerals and placed on top of coffins before being buried. Rosemary sprigs were also worn during memorials or remembrance days, especially for those lost during war.

Rosemary was also associated with fidelity and love. In the European Middle Ages, rosemary was worn by brides as a symbol of this fidelity, and often a rosemary bush would be planted outside the newlywed’s home to bring luck to the marriage. A common saying sprung up from this practice, “where rosemary flourishes, the lady rules”, and the running joke is that husbands would uproot the rosemary bushes in the garden as an act of rebellion against this line of thinking. Finally, one folk believe said that if you touched a person with a sprig of rosemary that was in bloom, they would fall in love.

Like many other herbs, rosemary was placed under pillows for protection and to ward off nightmares or spirits. It was thought that if you carried a rosemary twig you could ward off the evil eye, and if you hung twigs of rosemary over a cradle you would keep fairies from taking your child.

One final folklore believe ties into the Christian association of the name. It was believed that rosemary bushes lived for 33 years, the age of Christ when he died.

In Magickal Workings

The magickal properties of rosemary reflect the history and folklore associations above. Rosemary is a hardy and sturdy plant, with clear, strong magickal properties. It can be used in the spellwork for:

  • Protection or purification
  • Spells having to do with memory – that is focus, strong mental ability, and clarity
  • Spells or rituals of remembrance
  • Love spells – romantic and familiar
  • Spells for self-love and for empowerment

Some practical suggestions for using rosemary in your practice are to create a crown out of rosemary springs for a spell or ritual calling for or necessitating focus and mental ability. Placing rosemary in a sachet or charm for a presentation or job that requires the same. Performing a ritual or even divination with rosemary strewn about. Using rosemary essential oil to scent a sacred space. Including rosemary in an incense or burning it to purify a space. Wear rosemary as a token of remembrance, or wear it (or give it as part of a corsage/bouquet) during a wedding or handfasting ceremony. Use a rosemary herbal rinse to induce focus and memory retention. Simply keeping rosemary in your garden or home to protect and ward off negativity. Because Yule is approaching, you may also consider using rosemary in your decorations for this sabbat.

Back to Herbal Encyclopedia

Rosemary Recipe

For this recipe I chose a dish that is hearty and comforting. Rosemary is often considered a winter herb as it stays vibrant and aromatic during the colder months, therefore I chose a recipe that can be made on the chilly winter evenings and even for the upcoming holidays as a side dish. This recipe is for regular potatoes, but you can probably use the same rosemary seasoning for sweet potatoes, carrots, cauliflow er, or any other kind of vegetable depending on your food needs.

Rosemary Roasted Potatoes

Learn Tarot with Harry Potter: Strength

The card on the left is from the most well-known and often used decks in the world of tarot called the Rider-Waite. I’ll be using the images and traditional meanings from this deck to discuss tarot in the Learn Tarot with Harry Potter series. The artwork of Luna belongs to Felicia Cano.

Traditional Meaning of Strength

As we study the Strength card from the Rider-Waite deck we see several variations of the theme of strength. A woman clothed in a loose white tunic tenderly leans over a ferocious lion. She peers into his sharp-toothed mouth and gently hold his head in place with her hands. It is hard to tell whether she is keeping his mouth open or shut, or maybe even petting him, but whichever it is, she is in control. His tail is tucked between his legs and he gazes up at the woman in submission. A garland of roses twists around her waist and an infinity symbol hovers over her head like a halo. Despite being in what seems like a dangerous position, the woman looks not only calm, but serene; completely at ease with how close she is to the mouth of the lion. Behind her is a bright yellow sky, and below their feet is a lush green landscape.

In some ways the strength card’s themes are obvious – it speaks to inner strength and courage, of not being afraid of the ‘beast’ before us, but it also brings nuances to the idea of “strength” and helps us examine what being strong means to us. The woman is strong, not because of her brute force and physical strength, but rather because of some inner calm and confidence she possesses. True, she isn’t afraid of the lion, an animal which is renown for its prowess in overpowering and brutally killing its prey, but it isn’t just that she isn’t afraid, she has actually tamed it. Her peaceful nature and inner calm have somehow subdued this ferocious beast. The Strength card tells us that we can do this to the ‘beasts’ in our lives, through calm, gentle action and inner courage. The Strength card tells us to go through life with a kind of grace and a gentle handle on things, and to be consistent and patient in our dealings to come out on top. It reminds us that having courage and believing in one’s self puts us in control, even in the most precarious situations.

Luna Lovegood as Strength

If there is one character that embodies the Strength card in the Harry Potter series, it’s Luna Lovegood. I mean, there are plenty of strong female characters in the series, but none have the inner calm and fortitude that Luna does. To understand why Luna personifies this card more than all of the other strong females, we need to take a look at who she is and how she behaves in the series.

We first meet Luna in Order of the Phoenix, which is Harry’s fifth year at Hogwarts. Harry, Ginny, and Neville are looking for a place to sit on the Hogwarts Express and end up in the same cabin with Luna. The first impression we get of her is of someone quite strange. She is wearing a butterbeer cap necklace, has her wand behind her ear, and she is reading a magazine upside down. Throughout the ride, she pops up from her magazine to interject weirdly observant (and truthful) comments, and even laughs hysterically at one of Ron’s jokes, to the point where he doesn’t know if she’s laughing at him or not. She seems like a silly side character, but when the train arrives at Hogwarts and Harry notices the thestrals for the first time, it is only Luna who steps in to affirm what he is seeing. From this point on, Luna grows into an important character in the series, and a perfect representative of both inner and outer strength.

Firstly, Luna shows inner strength by not caring what others think. She wears what she wants, reads what she wants, and is open to strange theories even when others make fun of her. The picture above, and one of the cutest scenes from the books, is when Luna wears the animated lion hat to support Gryffindor in the Quidditch match. It roars out loud and is absolutely ridiculous, and draws stares and ridicule, but in typical Luna fashion, she doesn’t care and rocks the hat anyways. Luna never tries to change who she is, despite being made fun of. We get the sense that she is ‘silly’ or ‘out there’ but if we look deeper, we see how much courage and inner strength it takes to be who you are no matter what others think of you.

Secondly, Luna remains calm in the face of adversity, almost to the point of absurdity. We see this most pointedly in the scene from Order of the Phoenix when she is being held by Umbridge and the Slytherin Prefects, and when she talks to Harry at the end of the year. In the first instance, she is being held tightly by the thugs in Umbridge’s office. All of the other characters are struggling and being beaten up, but Luna is described as staring out the window and looking unbothered by it all. Somehow she manages to remain completely calm despite the violence being done to her and to those around her.

In the last scene of book five (and one of my absolute favorite moments), Harry runs into Luna when he’s trying to avoid the end of the year feast. He is feeling isolated and angry about Sirius’s death. Luna is putting up flyers to ask for her belongings back. Harry becomes angry as he hears how each year the students steal Luna’s things, but Luna remains remarkable calm and serene. She remarks nonchalantly that her things always turn up, she just wanted to pack early, but she is going to have a dessert because she knows she’ll get them back by morning. She proceeds to have a profound conversation with Harry about death, and leaves him feeling a little less burdened by his grief. Luna never seems bothered – which can be seen as weakness by some, but really, she is one of the only characters to not become enraged and still make it to the end, loved and respected by others. (Harry even names his kid after her).

Luna is also a support system for others. She is always seen comforting, listening to, or encouraging the other characters. We see this most specifically with Harry, in her willingness to sit with him in his grief over Sirius. She doesn’t make him talk about it or ask him questions, she simply sits with him where he’s at. Because she has gone through similar grief, she is able to hold that grief with others, which shows her amazing inner strength, patience, and wisdom really. She also is seen comforting Ginny and even Hermione at times, and states truths that others need to hear, even if they are uncomfortable with the observation.

Lastly, Luna shows courage and bravery in her actions. She ventures with the group to the Ministry and plays an integral role in the battle there, faces Umbridge and her thugs before going to the Ministry, joins Dumbledore’s Army, and even though we don’t see it firsthand, we hear how she has sided with the students in rebellion in The Deathly Hallows. She is kept prisoner for several months in book seven, but even this doesn’t seem to wither her inner strength or faith in Harry and his mission. She fights bravely and with courage, making her a perfect representation of the Strength card.

The portrait of Luna above really relates to he imagery in the Strength card. There is the same message of strength and hope, especially when we consider the context of Luna and the lion hat. Obviously, the hat itself ties into the imagery on the Strength card, and although it is different (Luna is in its mouth), it is apparent that Luna is in control and wearing the hat; that the hat isn’t wearing her. Her good nature, serenity, and inner strength shine through in her eyes, her expression, and her hand gesture, just like in the Strength card.

How Luna as Strength Helps Us Read Tarot

Luna Lovegood as Strength helps us read tarot because as we think about how Luna stays true to herself, keeps her calm, and exerts courage, we can think about these elements in our own life. Let’s look at a few questions about Luna from book five onward. They are asked with Luna and the Strength card’s themes in mind:

  • How does Luna react when she is being ridiculed and why do you think she acts this way?
  • What do you think Luna’s inner process is – what goes on in side her head, especially when faced with adversity?
  • Do you read Luna’s calm detachment as a weakness or a strength? What beliefs inform this opinion?
  • What do Luna’s fashion/reading choices tell us about her strength of character?
  • What’s your favorite instance of Luna being a support system for others in the books?
  • How does Luna as a character influence your thoughts on the theme of strength?

How We Can Ask These Same Questions of Ourselves

As we ponder the above questions about Luna, we can turn these questions towards ourselves. This is helpful as a fun way to self-reflect, but more importantly, if we contemplate these questions, we can tie them into any tarot reading where Strength comes up. Whether is for yourself or a querent, think about these questions when the Strength card appears in a reading:

  • How do you react when you face adversity in your life? Why do you react this way? Do you think it is coming from a place of strength?
  • What is your inner process when faced with these tough “beasts” of situations in your life?
  • If you were to be able to react to adversity with detachment or calmness, would you feel this was based in weakness or strength? What beliefs inform this opinion?
  • What do your ‘lifestyle’ choices say about your strength of character?
  • How do you provide strength for others, or others for you? Where do you find sources of strength in the world?
  • Think about the theme of strength or inner strength – what does it mean to you? What words do you associate with it? What experiences? What type of people?

This post should get your started thinking about the Luna Lovegood, the Strength card, and your own thoughts and reflections on the theme of strength. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, I’d love to hear any observations you have from the stories or in how this helped you read the Strength card in tarot!

Next week we will explore Remus Lupin as card number IX, The Hermit.

Listen to the podcast episode of Luna as Strength :

Learn Tarot with Harry Potter: The Chariot

The card on the left is from the most well-known and often used decks in the world of tarot called the Rider-Waite. I’ll be using the images and traditional meanings from this deck to discuss tarot in the Learn Tarot with Harry Potter series. The artwork of Harry on his Firebolt belongs to Art of Spiris

Traditional Meaning of The Chariot

The Chariot is an interesting card in the Major Arcana. In it we see a man standing in a stone chariot. He is dressed as a nobleman or high-ranking warrior, with fierce looking soldier’s uniform. He wears a diadem of sorts with a bright gold star. Above him is a light blue canopy, also covered in stars. In his hand is a spear, and on the front of his chariot is a symbol that is connected to solar energy and chariot mythology. The sphinxes at the front of his chariot are black and white, reminiscent of the pillars in the High Priestess card, and also representing the four elements. The background of the card boasts a city with many tall, wealthy towers, and the sky, ground, and wheels of the Chariot are the same gold as the star on his headpiece.

The Chariot is a card that speaks to us about direction, travel, control, movement, and making choices. It also talks about success and victory, or a hurdle overcome so to speak. The charioteer stands strong and sure, denoting that he is secure in the choices he has made and is sure of where he is headed. He is off in a new direction, but he hasn’t made the choice willy-nilly; he has used his past experiences to help him in the decision. The stars above him relate to the Star card, which not only propose happiness and fulfilled wishes, but also astrological guidance, like sailors who used constellations to sail around the world on new adventures. The card tells us to be confident in our decisions, walk boldly in new directions, and take the reigns in our own lives to steer them to where we want to be. Choice, direction, and control are keywords of this card.

The Firebolt (and Nimbus 2000) as The Chariot

I think you can probably start to see why I’ve chosen Harry’s broomsticks as the best representations for the Chariot card. If we zoom out and take an overview of Harry’s life there is only one place he feels completely free, alive, and in control, and that is on his broomstick. In all other settings, Harry is controlled or restrained somehow. He is being ‘directed’ by others or priorities that are expected of him. At Privet Drive it’s the Dursley’s, at Hogwarts it’s classes, friends, and Dumbledore, in Grimmauld Place it’s the memory of Sirius, and even at the Burrow, as comfortable as Harry is there, he is still a guest and often has outside concerns weighing on his mind. But on a broomstick, especially on the Quidditch field, Harry is completely free. He directs his own actions and speed, and he can focus on his singular goal which is finding the Golden Snitch.

In The Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry flies on a broom for the first time. Harry and company are at their first flying lesson with Madame Hooch. Nothing much happens until Neville loses control of his broom and gets injured. That’s when Malfoy snatches Neville’s Remembrall and begins talking *ish. Despite never having been on a broom before, Harry jumps on and chases Malfoy. It is a feeling Harry has never had before. He has complete control over the broom – it goes exactly where he directs it, he even ‘tells’ us that it seems like the broom can read his mind. He catches the Remembrall in a fantastic nose-dive, impresses McGonagall, and is given a place on the Gryffindor Quidditch team as the youngest Seeker in a hundred years.

If we look at the illustration of Harry on his Firebolt, we can see many similarities with the Chariot card. Although they are in different proportions, there are similar blues, reds, and golds. Like the charioteer in his armor, Harry is dressed in his Quidditch uniform, putting him in the goal-oriented mindset. Both Harry and the charioteer have determined looks on their faces and they are both using their means of transport to achieve their goals. Each of them is in complete control, the charioteer of his stone chariot and Harry of his broom stick, directing it where they want it to go. There is clear movement in each picture as well; both of them are in motion, actively seeking their target. And let’s not forget the ‘gold’ motif – the colors in the Chariot card and the Golden Snitch in Harry’s picture.

We can’t discuss Harry on his broomstick without talking about some of the connections between Quidditch and the Chariot card. One interesting thought is that Quidditch is played in a stadium. If we think about the idea of a Chariot or charioteer, we probably think of the Roman chariot races in the colosseum.

Roman chariot racing reenactment

The Quidditch stadium and the matches that take place there reflect this association. There is action, violence, and victory there. The times after his victories are the times that Harry is treated most like a champion – it is the time he feels most ‘normal’ and not like ‘The Chosen One’. So, much like a chariot racer in Roman times would be cheered like a star athlete, Harry is cheering and adored after playing Quidditch. We also see this in Goblet of Fire, when Harry uses his Firebolt against the dragon in the first task. His skill on the broom shows just how in charge he is when on the Firebolt, and he is cheered for his performance afterwards.

As a Seeker, Harry has one of the most important positions in the game. Even if the other team is ahead, when Harry catches the snitch it ends the game and gives his team 150 points, usually causing a win. To catch the snitch, Harry has to have complete control over his broomstick. He must swoop and dive, out-fly and maneuver against his opponents and through all the other action on the field. Just like the Chariot, he has to know where he is going and steer his broom to get there. When Harry is in control it is magnificent; however, when something happens to Harry’s broom to interfere with this, it causes chaos. We see this happen when Harry is subject to Quirrell’s curse in book one, when he breaks his arm in book two, and when the dementors attack in book three. These are the only time we see Harry struggle with his broom and each time is catastrophic for him. This matches up with one negative reading of the Chariot card in which we consider what happens when the chariot itself is thrown off course or tipped over.

Another ‘shadow side’ of the Chariot card is the way that the confidence of the charioteer can possibly lead to being overly confident, egotistical, or arrogant. Although we don’t see this with Harry, we do with other Quidditch players. Cormack McLaggen , most Slytherin players, and even Harry’s own dad fall prey to this theme of the Chariot card and each of them is like Harry in terms of his broomstick riding abilities.

One last element to consider ties into the tarot story itself. In the tarot deck, the Chariot card is sometimes considered to be the ‘youth’ aspect of the fool, meaning that the charioteer is the Fool, just more experienced and unlike in card 0, here he is making a calculated decision in where he wants to go and what he’s going to do. This play in perfectly with Harry’s story as the Fool. When Harry gets on the broom stick, and especially when he begins playing Quidditch, it is the first time he feels entirely at home in the wizarding world. He feels like he belongs on the broom, it is the first time he thinks he has found a natural talent and isn’t worried about not fitting in or knowing enough about being a wizard. He isn’t lost either, in terms of where to go, he knows his mission is to catch the snitch and that’s what he does. As he gets older, Harry even becomes Quidditch captain, showing his progression through the Fool’s journey, just as the Chariot card shows us progression for the Fool.

How the Firebolt as The Chariot Helps Us Read Tarot

The Firebolt as the Chariot help us read tarot because as we think about the way in which Harry controls and directs his broom, and how this makes him feel, we can think about the same themes in our own life. Let’s look at a few questions about the Firebolt. They are asked with the broomstick and the Chariot card in mind:

  • What sticks out to you when you think about Harry on his broomsticks? Name any emotions, sensations, or images that come to mind.
  • Harry’s first broomstick is actually a toy one that Sirius gets him for his 1st birthday. According to a letter from Lilly, Harry zooms around the house and even knocks over a vase! What does this tell you about Harry’s innate abilities on a broomstick?
  • What causes Harry to lose control of his broom and what are the consequences?
  • Why do you think Harry likes flying/playing Quidditch so much? What about it does he enjoy?
  • Why doesn’t Harry becomes egotistical or arrogant despite all of his skill and ability?
  • We really only see Harry ride his broom during Quidditch, if he had been allowed to ride it elsewhere, where might he have gone? How might this have changed the story?

How We Can Ask These Same Questions of Ourselves

As we ponder the above questions about the Firebolt, we can turn these questions towards ourselves. This is helpful as a fun way to self-reflect, but more importantly, if we contemplate these questions, we can tie them into any tarot reading where the Chariot card comes up. Whether is for yourself or a querent, think about these questions when the Chariot appears in a tarot reading:

  • When you think about grabbing the reigns and taking control of your life, what comes up for you? Names any emotions, thoughts, images, fears, etc. that pop up.
  • As children, we are often comfortable being in the “Chariot” position, but it can become harder as we get older. What kind of child were you in this regard and how has this affected your ability to direct your life as you get older?
  • What influences have caused you to ‘lose control’ or ‘steer off course’ in your life? What were the consequences of these moments?
  • When are the times you feel most in control and/or confident about your decisions? What about this is enjoyable to you?
  • Do you struggle with arrogance or pride in any aspect of your life – or do you have the opposite problem of lacking confidence or self-worth?
  • Are there any instances in your life where you wish you’d been more in control or chosen a specific course of action? How would things be different if you had? What can you learn from this going forward?

This post should get your started thinking about the Chariot, Harry and his broomsticks, and the Chariot themes in your life. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, I’d love to hear any observations you have from the stories or in how this helped you read the Chariot card in tarot!

Next week we will explore Luna Lovegood as card number VIII, Strength.

Listen to the podcast episode of the Firebolt as the Chariot :

Learn Tarot with Harry Potter: The Lovers

The card on the left is from the most well-known and often used decks in the world of tarot called the Rider-Waite. I’ll be using the images and traditional meanings from this deck to discuss tarot in the Learn Tarot with Harry Potter series. The artwork of James and Lilly belongs to ribkaDory.  

Traditional Meaning of The Lovers

Ah, the Lovers card. Who doesn’t want this card in a reading! In the Lovers, number VI in the Major Arcana, we see two people, a man and a woman, standing naked in a strange garden. They stand facing both frontwards and towards each other, hands open and slightly out to their sides. The woman’s head is turned up towards the angelic figure above, while the man looks directly at her. At their feet lays a lush green carpet of grass and a mountain rises (wink wink) in the background between them. Behind the male figure is a tree with leaves of fire, and behind the woman, an apple tree with a looooong green snake wrapped around it. (Can we say Adam and Eve ya’ll?). Above them is a luminous figure rising out of the clouds, its red wings spread wide, its arms spread even wider, wearing a purple robe. This being’s hair looks like fire and blends in with the sun it sits in front of.

This card is chock-full of symbolism and meaning. Firstly, there is the association with the story of Adam and Eve from the Christian Bible. According to the story, Adam and Eve were created by God as perfect mates for one another. They live blissfully in the Garden of Eden until Eve is tempted by the serpent, eats the forbidden fruit, and causes their ‘fall’ from grace. This story hints at some themes for this card – namely that in love, we have times of perfection and utter happiness, but also times for trials, arguments, and potential moments for complete betrayal and heartache. Love is never a straight road and it takes work and working together to make it last.

Other symbols in the card offer more insight into the message of the Lovers. The third figure in the card is Archangel Raphael, who is associated with healing and love. He offers the advice of following your heart and making a commitment to be there for another person. The fire tree represents the passion of love and its flame-like quality, while the apple tree with the snake represents temptation and wisdom, as well as sticking to the boundaries created in a healthy relationship. The garden floor represents potential for growth and a healthy, vibrant relationship. The mountain can represent virility and sexual conquest of one another, or possibly obstacles to overcome in order to come together. The naked figures communicate vulnerability and openness. Overall, this is a card that speaks to love, perfect union, soulmates, and a meeting of hearts. It signifies more than a simple relationship, leaning more towards a person to whom you have an intense soul tie or twin flame aspect with.

James & Lilly Potter as The Lovers

There’s no shortage of couples in Harry Potter. We have Harry and Ginny, Ron and Hermione, Lupin and Tonks, Molly and Arthur, and Bill and Fleur, but the relationship that most represents the deep connection of the Lovers card is that of Lilly Evans and James Potter. Their love was typical in some ways, but in others, it showed itself to be the kind of sacrificial love that many of us can only hope to have. Even in death, the love of Lilly and James, and the manifestation of their love – Harry himself, lived on and was able to withstand the darkest magic ever seen and eventually defeat it. Pretty powerful if you ask me!

If we compare the image of the Lovers with the image of the Potters, we see a few similarities. Firstly, we see a couple in love, being both vulnerable and sensual with each other. Their hands are openly touching, and Lilly is looking up at James, while James is looking directly at her. What really strikes me are the leaves falling around them, which are the same shape and color as the leaves of fire (and the angel’s hair) in the Lovers card. James and Lilly are definitely a more modern representation of the Lovers, less allegorical and more realistic. One addition thing to consider is the snake imagery. Much like the snake is wrapped around the tree in the Lovers card, we know Voldemort (hello snake connections – Slytherin, Nagini, snake-like face) is lurking just beyond the perimeters of the picture, waiting to strike and ruin this perfect union.

As ‘soulmates’ James and Lilly had an ironically bad start. They meet during their first year at Hogwarts, where James and his friends are bullying Lilly’s best friend Severus Snape. James is described as conceited and spoiled, yet smart, a good friend, and an even better Quidditch player. Lilly is described as kind, clever, good at potions and charms, outgoing, with solid principles of fairness and equality. In their 5th year, James intensely bullies Snape, and Lilly lets him have it. (There’s more to that story, but for Lilly and James I’ll leave it at that). Although James has had a crush on Lilly for a while, it hits full force after this. By their 7th year, he has matured and grown out of most of his cocky ways and manages to snag a date with Lilly. She must see good in him, because they fall madly in love, marry right after Hogwarts, and have Harry shortly after.

We know they were deeply in love, but one thing to consider about James and Lilly, and what makes them so representative of the Lovers card, is that their love for one another is immortalized in time. Let me go a bit further…

We don’t actually get to ‘meet’ James and Lilly in the books. Not as presently living, breathing characters anyway. We are introduced to bits and pieces of them. First through Harry’s eyes in the Mirror of Erised (a fantasy), then through the photo album Hagrid gives Harry (frozen memories). We hear Lilly’s scream when Harry meets the dementor on the Hogwarts Express (PTSD/Trauma). Next we see them in the wedding photo Sirius gives Harry (frozen memory), then in the Occlumency lessons taught by Snape (flashback), through the words of Lupin, Sirius, Dumbledore, and Slughorn (recollections), then in the Penseive (memories), in the Priori Incantatem spell (not ghosts but not alive), and finally though the Resurrection Stone in The Deathly Hallows, which is probably the closest to their being alive we get.

All of this is important because just like the theme of love, especially romantic love, so much is dependent upon fantasy vs reality. James and Lilly obviously loved each other. They were willing to get married during The First Wizarding War, defy Voldemort three times, and go into hiding while Lilly is pregnant. James loves Lilly and his son so fiercely that he willingly faces Voldemort unarmed to give them time to flee. We know he loses his life, and then Lilly, who is given a chance to save her own life, refuses, dying for her son – which you know, sort-of created the entire situation for the books. Harry himself is the manifestation of James and Lilly’s love; he is a symbol of their soul tie, and this is why they both die trying to save him.

However…what is often not considered, in new, exciting love, is the other side. What would have happened had things gone differently? Lilly and James were only 21 years old when they died – extremely young. Did they really have time to delve into the darker themes of the Lovers card, like temptation, growing apart, resentment, and just…time? We see them immortalized as this ultimate loving couple, and while my personal opinion is that they really were, it does raise the same concern as the Lovers card does, which is whether or not two people have what it takes to make it for the long-term. Unfortunately we don’t get to explore this idea thoroughly with James and Lilly, but, what we do know of their relationship majorly connects to the initial themes of the card. They really do seem like the perfect match. Lilly inspires James to be a better man, and he provides her with love and support. Heck, even their Patronuses are the perfect match – Lilly’s is a doe and James’ is a stag. This actually reminds me of the imagery on the Druid Craft tarot’s Lovers card (see below). In Harry Potter, the message of the Lovers card is clear: Love conquers all. Literally. Harry IS James and Lilly’s love personified and in the end, this is what vanquishes evil and makes life worth living for.

The Lovers from the Druid Craft Tarot. Doe and Stag imagery? I think yes.

How James & Lilly as The Lovers Helps Us Read Tarot

Lilly and James as the Lovers helps us read tarot because as we think about how these two were so perfectly matched despite their differences, and how their love transcended time, space, and even death, we can think about the same themes in our own life. Let’s look at a few questions about James and Lilly’s relationship. They are asked with the couple and the Lovers card in mind:

  • Were Lilly and James a perfect match? If so, what made them perfect for each other?
  • What made Lilly and James’s relationship such a good one, according to those who speak about them in the book?
  • How did Lilly and James’s love ‘heal’ others throughout the series?
  • Lilly and James were married very young – do you think if they had lived their relationship would have changed? If so, how?
  • What challenges did Lilly and James face as a couple? What joyful moments did they have?
  • Do you believe it was love at first sight for James or Lilly? Why or why not?
  • What kind of work do you think went into Lilly and James’s relationship behind the scenes (the ‘real’ stuff we don’t see through all of the rose-colored remembrances)?
  • What statement does James and Lilly’s relationship make about the nature of true love?

How We Can Ask These Same Questions of Ourselves

As we ponder the above questions about James and Lilly, we can turn this questions towards ourselves. This is helpful as a fun way to self-reflect, but more importantly, if we contemplate these questions, we can tie them into any tarot reading where the Lovers card comes up. Whether is for yourself or a querent, think about these questions when the Lovers appear in a tarot reading:

  • Do you believe you have a perfect match? What will/does make someone a perfect match in your eyes?
  • What makes a relationship healthy and happy? What traits can each partner bring to the table for a ‘good’ relationship?
  • How can real love bring healing to your own life? To others?
  • How has your idea of ‘true love’ changed throughout the years? How do relationships grow and change as you get older?
  • What challenges have you faced in your relationship(s)? What are some of your best relationship moments?
  • Do you believe in love at first sight or soulmates or twin flames? Why or why not?
  • What is some of the hard work that goes into relationships that we often don’t consider when in the ‘honeymoon’ phase? Are you ready to put in this work? Do you do it already?

This post should get your started thinking about the Lovers, James and Lilly’s relationship, and the Lovers themes in your life. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, I’d love to hear any observations you have from the stories or in how this helped you read the Lovers card in tarot!

Next week we will explore the Firebolt as card number VII, The Chariot.

Listen to the podcast episode of James and Lilly as The Lovers :

The Wheel of the Year Series: Samhain

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,

         Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,

Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,

         The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,

         The swallow twitt’ring from the straw-built shed,

The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,

         No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,

         Or busy housewife ply her evening care:

No children run to lisp their sire’s return,

         Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,

         Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;

How jocund did they drive their team afield!

         How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, Thomas Gray

The air is crisp and cool. Jewel-colored leaves litter the ground, crackling and scraping as the wind pushes their dry edges across the sidewalks and streets. Bright orange pumpkins sit on doorsteps, some already transformed into Jack-O-Lantern’s with faces carved into their skin. Night comes earlier now, the darkness creeping in deeper and darker than in the previous months, and twilight seems to hold an almost magical power. It is a time of darkening, a time of twilight, and a time of solitude. A time of remembering what once was and of preparing for the long winter months ahead. A time of gathering around and telling stories, some for fun and some for solemnity. And it is a time for crossing over into the worlds beyond, as the veil lifts and we feel the otherworld so close that we can almost touch it. Yes, it is that time; the time of Samhain.

Samhain is the third and final harvest festival on the Wheel of the Year, the others being Lughnasadh and Mabon. The original Gaelic festival of Samhain took place around October 31 or November 1 (on our modern calendar), and marked the beginning of winter. The festival was a time of feasting and drinking, of telling stories and of communing with those that came before. It was associated with the dead, with the otherworld, and with divining the secrets of the year to come. Modern Halloween uses many themes and customs that originated in this ancient festival, making it familiar and relatable to many practitioners who grew up outside of paganism. In this post, I’ll be looking at the origins of Samhain, some of the customs observed for the celebration, as well as its themes, correspondences and symbols, and how to celebrate this truly magickal sabbat.

History of Samhain

Although the exact origins of Samhain are unknown, it is believed to be an ancient festival that was celebrated in Ireland and Scotland. It marked the end of summer and heralded the winter to come. The most concrete references to Samhain we have are found in 10th century manuscripts, however there is evidence that the seasonal timing of the festival was important, even in Neolithic times. The Mound of the Hostages and Hill of Tara are both Neolithic era tombs which align with the sunrise on Samhain, indicating the importance of the date.

From what researchers have pieced together, the festival of Samhain was when the many tribes of an area would come together. Herds of cattle were brought in from the upper fields where they had grazed during the summer and usually a prized cow would be slaughtered and included in the feasting. It was the last big gathering before the winter halted travel, so these tribes often marked this time as the last time to trade with one another. It also marked a time of peace, as any tribal warfare was halted during Samhain and throughout the winter. There is also research that insinuates that every so often, during the Samhain gathering, the tribes would revisit their governing laws and payment systems and make changes. Because everyone was together, the festival was the perfect time to make new edicts and such.

Samhain was also a time for stories. Celtic culture was rooted in the art of oral storytelling. Not only was Samhain an ideal time for telling these important cultural stories, but many of the stories themselves take place on Samhain. Most of these stories tell of liminal spaces, open ‘doorways’, supernatural beings, otherworlds, and souls of the dead revisiting the land of the living. Some such stories are found in The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn, Colloquy of the Elders, and The Adventure of Nera. These stories include wisdom from ancestors, fairy mounds that open as portals into the otherworld on Samhain, and killer werewolves.

A custom that ties closely with this theme is that people tried not to offend the “aos sí”, a sort of mythical race of elves or fairies, on Samhain. To stay out of their way at twilight and nighttime, people would turn their clothes inside-out in hopes to trick them. The tradition of mumming and guising began in connection with these aos sí. People dressed up to protect or disguise themselves from these spirits and sometimes went door-to-door to collect offerings for them. By the 1500s, mumming or guising had become part of the Samhain celebrations. By the 1700s “mischief nights” became common, which also probably originated with the idea of spirits wreaking havoc. Instead, youths would dress up or blacken their faces with ashes from the bonfires, and threaten mischief if they weren’t given food as they went door-to-door.

Of course we cannot forget the precursor to the Jack-O-Lantern, the carved turnip. These pranksters and mummers would carve a turnip and place a light inside to light their way. In addition, people would carve them and place them in windowsills to illuminate the path for wandering spirits.

In terms of the customs practiced on Samhain, one main staple was the bonfire. It is believed that the these bonfires had special powers. The hearth fires were put out, and relit from the main bonfire as a way to banish evil. The fires symbolized the sun, and kept the darkness away during the night, and they were though to have protective powers. Some researchers say that people and animals walked between two bonfires to be cleansed.

At Samhain, people also honored the dead. It was thought that the souls of the departed would visit their former homes on this night, where families would set a place for them at the table and welcome them for the night. There was also the business of slaughtering animals for the winter. Although this would have been business as usual in ancient times, the symbols of blood, sacrifice, and death have been woven into this celebration.

Divination was also a big part of Samhain. There was a divination ritual which involved laying stones, each representing a specific person, around the bonfire. When the fire had burnt out, the stones were examined and their future was told based on certain outcomes. Apples, which we know are associated with the otherworld, and hazelnuts, were used in many rituals. Apple bobbing was a form of divination, as was peeling an apple and throwing the peel over one’s shoulder. The letter formed by the peel was said to reveal the first letter of the person’s future partner. Another fun form of divination was to bake a cake or loaf of bread with items like a coin or ring inside. These items were said to tell the future for the person who got them – a ring symbolized marriage or engagement for example.

Themes of Samhain

As with all of the sabbats on the wheel of the year, the themes can be found by meditating on the energies of that time of year. As we’ve already seen, Samhain is associated with the following themes:

  • Death/Dying
  • Sacrifice
  • Ancestors
  • Mischief
  • Guising/costuming
  • Preparing for the dark times ahead
  • The otherworld/otherworld spirits
  • Stories/traditions
  • Divination

Symbols of Samhain

Symbols associated with Samhain are:

  • Bones-skulls, skeletons, etc.
  • Otherworldly creatures
  • Black animals – cats, crows
  • Cauldrons
  • Bonfires
  • Cemeteries
  • Costumes/mummers guising
  • Carved turnip/pumpkin/apples
  • Crossroads/liminal spaces

Correspondences of Samhain

Some of the correspondences for are:

Stones: Obsidian, bloodstone, smoky quarts, onyx, fossils

Colors: Orange, black, gold, white, silver, dark red/maroon

Herbs: rosemary, sage, pomegranate, sandalwood, patchouli, wormwood, mugwort

Foods & Drinks: Apples, pumpkins, cider, root veggies, potatoes, stew, beef…

Magick: Harvest rituals, rituals or connecting to the ‘Dark Mother’ goddesses such as Hecate, Persephone, or Morrigan. Any kind of divination. Banishing or protection spells. Communing with the dead. Gaining clarity. Exploring past lives. Death/endings/letting go.

Ways to Celebrate Samhain

As modern witches and pagans, we have to find new ways to celebrate the Sabbats. Surprisingly, it is really fun and easy to come up with ways to celebrate that honor Samhain and also fit into our busy lives. As with all magickal practices it is the intention that counts. If you are able to center in on the energies of Samhain by meditating on its themes, colors, stones, and other correspondences, you don’t need a flashy ritual (although there’s nothing wrong with it if you want to do one!) to celebrate.

Here are some celebration ideas. I’ve made them as simple as possible, so you can add on your own touches as your practice allows.

  • Go crazy with décor! Seriously. Samhain is one of the sabbats that has really strong ties to the secular Halloween. Most Halloween decor is based on symbols and themes of this celebration, so now is the time to take advantage of that, especially if you are in the broom closest.
  • Create your own ritual involving a ‘veil’. This could be a simple setup where you hang a sheer curtain in a room or hallway and walk through it to symbolize moving into a sacred or otherworld space. A nice touch to add some deeper feeling to a Samhain ritual
  • Take a trip to a liminal space (cemetery (if allowed), forest, bridge or just under a tree) and practice some sort of scrying or divination. Really cool if you can do it at twilight.
  • Have a bonfire (or firepit). Tell stories, eat, practice divination while sitting around it. Maybe even light a candle insight from the flames to mimic the Samhain ritual.
  • Have a dumb supper for your ancestors, or one in particular.
  • Simply practice divination of any kind. One idea is my Samhain tarot spread. (I also have an ancestor spread and a shadow work spread).
  • Look at old family pictures (with others or by yourself). Tell family stories.
  • Go on a nature walk – again especially if you can go at twilight or dawn
  • Carve pumpkins or turnips with the origins in mind
  • Do a meditation where you let yourself imagine you are at an ancient Samhain festival OR where you travel down a crossroads into the otherworld
  • Commune with spirits however you choose
  • Drink some tea with a piece of barmbrack (recipe below). I offer this Samhain Blend with pomegranate, sage, black tea, and star anise.

Samhain Recipe

Although there are many fun recipes for Samhain, I wanted to go traditional for this one. As I mentioned in the history above, one of the Samhain customs was to bake a loaf of cake or bread with trinkets inside that would foretell what was to come for the recipient. The traditional Irish bread was called barmbrack or “speckled bread”, and its roots go back to druidic tradition. This recipe for barmbrack is from Gemma from Bigger Bolder Baking (I really love her channel and recipe for two-ingredient ice cream…). She is actually Irish, and this recipe is from her very Irish mother. The link talks about the history of the bread and how it ties into Samhain, so I thought it was a perfect fit. It’s not too hard to make and even gives a few suggestions of items you can put into the bread =)

Traditional Irish Barmbrack

Happy Samhain!

Wormwood

Player Queen

O, confound the rest!

Such love must needs be treason in my breast:

In second husband let me be accurst!

None wed the second but who kill’d the first.

HAMLET

[Aside] Wormwood, wormwood.

Player Queen

The instances that second marriage move

Are base respects of thrift, but none of love:

A second time I kill my husband dead,

When second husband kisses me in bed.

Act III, Scene II, Hamlet, William Shakespeare

History of Wormwood

Wormwood, an herb closely related to the mysterious mugwort, has earned itself a place in the ‘notorious’ plant category. Used as a main ingredient in the reportedly mind altering spirit Absinthe in the 19th century, wormwood was both touted as a creative wonder drug and demonized as the cause of violent homicidal madness. Less dramatically, wormwood boasts many medicinal and folkloric uses, and is associated with immorality, ancestor, protection, and reversal magick. Let’s take a closer look at this bitter and notorious herb.

The Bitter Herb

Wormwood’s official name is Artemisia absinthium. A cousin to mugwort, wormwood is part of the genus Artemisia, and boasts many of the same energies. Artemisia refers to the Greek goddess Artemis, who was connected to the wilderness and forests, as well as the moon, childbirth, femininity, and healing. According to the Herbarium of Apuleius, this family of plants was discovered by Artemis and given to Chiron (the figure who taught Achilles how to use yarrow), after whome he named them. Absinthium is from the Greek “apsinthion”, which most likely came from a Persian or Hebrew word for ‘bitter’. Once source even suggested that the Greek word had the connotation of ‘undrinkable’ or ‘unenjoyable’.

Wormwood was referred to as absinth in English even before the infamous green liquor was created; however it is from this etymology that the drink was named – which we will explore later in this post – but the source of the word is kind of a mystery. Etymology.com suggests a folk etymology of Old English “wermod” -similar to Old Saxon “wermoda” or Dutch “wermoet”. The theory is that it has something to do with ‘man’ and ‘courage’, or that it was used as a way to get rid of parasitic worms. It is also related to “vermouth”, an alcoholic beverage flavored with wormwood. Wherever it came from, wormwood is indeed bitter and was used for many purposes. Some of its common names were wormseed, sagewort, old woman, lad’s love, sloven wood, santolina, and sweet Annie.

Medicinal & Folkloric Uses

Before we get into the Absinthe issue, we should look at the traditional uses of wormwood. It was used for centuries for many different reasons. In ancient Egypt is was an antiseptic. In Medieval Europe it was used as a flea and mite repellant, and unsurprisingly, it was often used to get rid of intestinal worms. In 1597, one herbalist wrote, “wormewood voideth away the wormes of the guts”. It was used to treat stomach pains, gas, nervousness, and to stimulate the appetite. It was also known as a fever reducer, and to treat various bites and stings, as well as a method of inducing mensuration or childbirth.

It was used in wines and other alcoholic beverages before Absinthe as well. Romans used it in victory wine to remind themselves that victory has a bitter side to it. There were also folk drinks made with wormwood, such as wormwood wine and crème d’absinthe.

In medieval England people carried it on them to ward off the plague and burned it in their houses after a bout of plague. In Russia, wormwood was worn as protection against Rusalki, water spirits with sharp claws who roamed in the forests and along rivers.

There is a folklore belief that when the devil left the Garden of Eden, wormwood sprung up after him, therefore wormwood has long been associated with snakes, and was used to keep them at bay by being planted in gardens and near home entries.

In Popular Culture

Because of its reputation as a bitter and effective herb, and later, its notoriety which stemmed from the Absinthe controversy, wormwood has been portrayed in different lights in popular culture. Below I’ll look at a few examples from famous pieces of literature, and then I’ll (as briefly as possible) delve into wormwood’s notoriety.

Literature

The quote at the beginning of this article is from Hamlet, but this isn’t the only time Shakespeare mentions wormwood. In Romeo & Juliet, the nurse speaks of wormwood as a method of weaning Juliet from breastfeeding. “And she was wean’d (I never shall forget it), Of all the days of the year, upon that day; For I had then laid wormwood to my dug, Sitting in the sun under the dovehouse wall. My lord and you were then at Mantua. Nay, I do bear a brain. But, as I said, When it did taste the wormwood on the nipple Of my dug and felt it bitter, pretty fool, To see it tetchy and fall out with the dug! (Act I, Scene III).

In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte, a character writes in their diary, “He hath made my chain heavy. He hath filled me with bitterness – He hath made me drunken with wormwood.” This describes their sour mood at the situation.

In Pollyanna by Eleanor Porter, two characters are talking about the bad attitude of another. They say, “It begun then — at the time of the trouble with her lover,’ nodded Old Tom; ‘and it seems as if she’d been feedin’ on wormwood an’ thistles ever since–she’s that bitter an’ prickly ter deal with.”

The phrase “gall and wormwood” appears in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, E.W. Hornung’s Dead Men Tell No Tales, and Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge, Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte, and The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (again by Dickens), proving that the saying was extremely popular and common, and as always, wormwood was associated with bitterness.

One last mention is in An Old Maid by Honore de Balzac. It reads, “Before Madame du Bousquier returned to town, Madame du Ronceret, one of her good friends, had driven out to Prebaudet to fling this corpse upon the roses of her joy, to show her the love she had ignored, and sweetly shed a thousand drops of wormwood into the honey of her bridal month”. I’m not familiar with the story, but I really like this quote in showing the versatility with with authors used wormwood to indicate bitterness, sadness, unhappiness, and general annoyance.

Absinthe

Ah, now to the most intriguing part of the history of wormwood – its notorious ties to Lee Fee Verte (The Green Fairy). Although I’d love to go into an entire essay here about this drink (and believe me it is fascinating), I’ll try to stick to the basics and what is relevant to learning about wormwood’s actual properties and associations.

The origins of Absinthe originated in Northern Africa, when French soldiers, amounting to about 100,000 by 1840, were stationed there after the conquer of Algeria. The soldiers experienced fever, dysentery, and constant insect attacks. To treat these problems, they were given wormwood. Because of its bitterness, they put it in their wine, creating a unique, bitter flavor, that they became accustomed to. When they returned home, they brought this acquired taste with them. The drink was a vibrant shade of green, and they called it “une verte”. Soon, civilians and soldiers were asked for ‘the green’…you see where this is going right?

The drink’s popularity grew, and people began to partake in the ‘green hour’ in the evenings. Tales grew of the drink’s hallucinogenic properties, and artists, poets, and other ‘bohemian’ types began drinking it and touting its mind altering powers. Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Alfred Jarry, Pablo Picasso, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, and Edgar Allen Poe are all among the legendary artists who partook in the Green Fairy’s delights.

Then a man named Valentin Magnan, a respect psychiatrist and physician-in-chief of France’s foremost asylum came along. Like most ‘witch-hunts’ in the world, they start with one fanatic who has power, influence, and a strong moral conviction. He believed France was going downhill and that Absinthe was to blame. He dubbed the word “absinthism”, and performed experiments to show just how bad this wormwood infused drink was. (If you want to read my source in full, click here ). His methodology, unsuprisingly, was flawed, but nevertheless, became popular; and thus the reputation of The Green Devil was created.

In 1905, the Lanfray murders pushed the frenzy to a breaking point, and by 1914 Absinthe was banned. The article states: “Absinthe faded into lore, kept alive through the stories of Parisian decadence. What remained were caricatures of mad geniuses who roamed from café to café calling out “une verte!” as they chased that next great insight, the transcendent perspective available only through the grace of the Green Fairy. Of course, anyone who knows this kind of story—romantic, poetic—knows the Green Fairy can never really die”.

So what are the facts? The facts are that Absinthe had an outrageously high alcohol content – up to 80% in fact. This, combined with the notoriously lax standards of production of the times, means that the ‘devil’ in the Green Devil was probably the actual alcohol or other adulterators (copper, sulfate, chloride), NOT wormwood. Wormwood does contain thujone (which we looked at in the mugwort post), but tests have shown that not only is thujone not a hallucinogen, but it was usually never found in high enough levels to produce toxic results. Thujone can cause serious complications, convulsions, or death, but to get those high doses you’d have to drink undiluted distilled wormwood oil, OR you’d have to drink so much Absinthe that you’d be dead from the alcohol long before the thujone reached toxic levels.

So it seems that wormwood got its bad reputation for nothing! Yes, it can be toxic and should be used with caution, but it isn’t as dangerous as myth would have it be. Same warnings apply as with mugwort-don’t use if you are pregnant or allergic to plants in the same family, and always take care to do your research, but wormwood probably isn’t as dangerous as it has been made out to be.

In Magickal Workings

The magickal properties of wormwood are many, some surprisingly gentle for an herb that supposedly caused people to go mad. Here are a few examples of the type of magick you can use wormwood in:

  • Calling spirits & ancestor work
  • Divination
  • Love magick
  • Sending spells/curses back to who cast them
  • Protection
  • Spells for vengeance or where bitterness is required
  • Astral projection
  • Creativity
  • Letting go of bitterness

Like mugwort, wormwood can be purchased quite easily online ( I use Starwest Botanicals). You can use the dried herb in incense blends or in teas. In tea, it is extremely bitter, and is mostly recommended at 1 tsp to 12 oz of water. Otherwise, you can use the herb as you would other herbs – as ingredients in spellwork, to anoint candles, or in charm bags. Wormwood is great for communing with ancestors (think Samhain ritual), and if you’re into darker magick, it can be used to perform revenge spells. This makes sense as it’s historically associated with bitterness. Overall, wormwood is fairly safe, just take the same precautions as with mugwort.

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Wormwood Recipe

Right. Wormwood tea doesn’t sound that appealing, although it could be worth a try, but the allure of Absinthe still holds sway. There’s something about the myths and legends of the Green Fairy that make me want to try it. Therefore, I’ve hunted down an at-home recipe for Absinthe – I take no responsibility for this recipe, but it seems legit from what I’ve read about the liquor. It is pretty simple, but you will need quite a few herbs. I’d say give it a try and report back!

Absinthe Recipe