Thursday, July 31, 2014

Weather Magic and Folklore (Part 2 of 2)

Weather Divination

How often have you heard the phrase, “Red sky at night, sailors’ delight, red sky in the morning, sailors take warning?” This saying actually originates in the Bible, in the book of Matthew: He answered and said unto them, When it is evening, they say there will be fair weather for the sky is red. And in the morning, there will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and lowring.

While there is a scientific explanation for the accuracy of this expression – relating to weather patterns, dust particles in the atmosphere, and how they move across the sky – our ancestors simply knew that if the sky looked angry in the early hours of the day, they were probably in for inclement weather.

In the northern hemisphere, the celebration of Imbolc, or Candlemas, coincides with Groundhog Day. While the notion of holding a fat rodent up to see if he projects a shadow seems quirky and campy, it’s actually something similar to weather predictions done centuries ago in Europe. In England, there's an old folk tradition that if the weather is fine and clear on Candlemas, then cold and stormy weather will reign for the remaining weeks of winter. Scotland's Highlanders had a tradition of pounding the ground with a stick until the serpent emerged. The snake's behavior gave them a good idea of how much frost was left in the season.

Some weather prediction folklore related to animals. In Appalachia, there’s a legend that if the cows are laying down in their fields, it means rain is on the way, although this may well be something that mountain folks tell outsiders – most cows seek shelter under trees or in a barn when bad weather comes. However, there are also stories that if a rooster crows in the middle of the night, it is foretelling rain the next day, and that if dogs begin running in circles, poor weather is coming. It is also said that if birds build their nests closer to the ground than usual, a hard winter is on its way.

The term “weather magic” is one that is met with a variety of reactions in the Pagan community. The very notion that a single practitioner could generate enough magical power to control such a powerful force as the weather is one that should be met with a degree of skepticism. Weather is created by a complex combination of forces all working in tandem together, and it’s unlikely that you’re going to bump into someone who has the skill, the focus, and the knowledge to actually control anything as vast as weather patterns.
This is not to say that weather control magic is impossible – it certainly is, and the more people involved in it, the more likely the chances of success.

It is indeed a complex process, and one unlikely to be carried out by an inexperienced and unfocused solo practitioner.
However, it is often possible to influence existing weather systems, particularly if you’re looking at a short-term need that has to be met. After all, how many of us remember doing some sort of “snow day” ritual the night before a big test, in hopes that school would be cancelled? While it’s unlikely to work in May in Texas, you’ve got a reasonably good chance of success in, say, February in Illinois.

In the book Nebraska Folklore, author Louise Pound describes the efforts of early homesteaders to make it rain on their fields – particularly since they knew that the local Native American tribes had rituals that were credited with controlling weather. In the nineteenth century, large groups of settlers often stopped what they were doing at a designated time so they could embark on a mass prayer for rainfall.

There is a legend in northern Europe of magicians who were able to harness the wind. The wind was imprisoned in a magical bag with intricate knots, and could then be unleashed to cause devastation to one’s enemies.

Snow days in particular are one of the most popular targets of weather folk magic. Spoons under your pillow, pajamas worn inside out, ice cubes in the toilet bowl, and plastic bags over the socks are just a few of the legends that school children have used for years in hopes of finding the white stuff blanketing their neighborhoods.

In many magical traditions and modern Pagan paths, if one wishes to have good weather for an outdoor ritual or special occasion, a petition and offering can be made to the gods of that tradition. If they see fit, they may just grant you a bright sunny day to suit your needs!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Weather Magic and Folklore (Part 1 of 2)

In many magical traditions, weather magic is a popular focus of workings. The term “weather magic” can be used to mean anything from divination and forecasting to actual control of the weather itself. When you consider that many of today’s folk magic customs are rooted in our agricultural past, it makes sense that an ability to foretell or change weather patterns might be considered a valuable skill. After all, if your family’s livelihood and life depended on the success of your crops, weather magic would be a handy thing to know.


Dowsing is the ability to find a water source in a previously unknown area via divination. In many parts of Europe professional dowsers were hired to locate new places to dig wells. This was typically done with the use of a forked stick, or sometimes a copper rod. The stick was held out in front of the dowser, who walked around until the stick or rod began to vibrate. The vibrations signaled the presence of water beneath the ground, and this was where villagers would dig their new well.
During the Middle Ages this was a popular technique for locating new springs to use as wells, but it later became associated with negative sorcery. By the seventeenth century, most dowsing had been outlawed because of its connection to the devil.

Harvest Predictions

In many rural and agricultural societies, fertility rituals were conducted to ensure a strong and healthy harvest. For instance, the use of the Maypole during the Beltane season often tied in to the fertility of the fields. In other cases, farmers used divination to determine whether the grain season would be successful – a few kernels of corn placed on a hot iron would pop and jump around. The behavior of the hot kernels indicated whether or not the price of grain would go up or down in the fall.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Tortoise and Turtle Magic and Folklore

The tortoise and its smaller water-dwelling cousin, the turtle, has appeared in myth and legend for ages, in numerous cultures and societies. These relics of the prehistoric era are often found in creation stories, but can be associated with a variety of other magical and folkloric aspects. Before we get started, let’s take a quick look at the differences between the tortoise and the turtle.

Both the tortoise and the turtle are reptiles, and part of the family Testudines. The tortoise lives on land, gets fairly large – some species regularly weigh in at hundreds of pounds - and has a pretty long lifespan. It’s not uncommon for a tortoise to live over a hundred years, and many records reveal tortoises in captivity that have reached nearly two hundred years of age. By contrast, turtles are much smaller, and generally live in or near water. Turtles typically live from twenty to forty years, although some species of sea turtles have been documented at nearly seventy years of age.

Because of their slow, meandering ways and their long lifespans, turtles and tortoises often appear as symbols of longevity, stability, and wisdom. Let’s look at some of the ways that tortoises and turtles have appeared in myth, magic and legend, throughout the centuries.
In China, tortoise shells, which represent unchangeability, were used as a method of divination. In Chinese legend, the turtle is strongly associated with the element of water, for obvious reasons, and in many tales symbolizes both order, and the creation of the universe.

A number of Native American tribes include the tortoise in their creation stories. The Mohawk people tell of a World Turtle, who carries the earth on her back – and when the earth shakes and moves, it’s because the World Turtle is stretching underneath the weight of all she carries on her shell. Both the Lenape and Iroquois have similar legends, in which the Great Spirit placed all of creation on top of the shell of a giant tortoise.

Turtles appear in folk magic as well. Folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt, who wrote numerous volumes about the magical culture of the southern United States, says it was common knowledge in some rural areas that carrying a turtle bone in your pocket would bring good fortune your way. In some traditions of hoodoo and rootwork, a turtle’s shell can be used in certain lunar-related spellwork, because the shell is often divided into thirteen sections – the same number as there are lunar months in a calendar year.

The shell of the tortoise also appears in African diasporic religions. The turtle’s shell can be used in rattles or fetishes, and the tortoise appears in several Yoruban folktales as a trickster and troublemaker. The turtle is also sometimes offered as a sacrifice to the gods in Santeria and other Afro-Caribbean religious practice.

Here are some ways you can incorporate the magic of the turtle and tortoise into your life:
  • In Feng Shui principles, the turtle has several important meanings. Placed at the north of your home, a black turtle will help attract smooth energies in matters of business. At your back door, a turtle represents strength, and offers protection.
  • Carry the bone of a turtle in your pocket or wear it as an amulet for good fortune.
  • Use an empty turtle shell for divination purposes – you can fill it with water and use it for scrying, or use it as a catching bowl for bone or stone divination.
  • Do you have a pet turtle? They symbolize the strength and stability of your home – keep your turtle happy for a long and healthy life, and he’ll watch over your house and keep you secure.
  • If you’re out and about, enjoying nature, keep an eye out for tortoises and turtles. They’re associated with our need for purpose and focus, perhaps because of their slow, deliberate pace. If you see a tortoise or turtle, follow it for a while to see where it goes – and as you do, think about all of the places you need to go yourself.
  • Wear turtle earrings or a necklace to bring security and stability into your life.
  • If you find a turtle shell that’s no longer inhabited by its original occupant, bring it home and place it near your front door for protection of the house and those who live within.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Wolf Folklore and Legend

Few animals capture people’s imagination quite like the wolf. For thousands of years, the wolf has fascinated us, frightened us, and drawn us in. Perhaps it’s because there’s a part of us that identifies with that wild, untamed spirit we see in the wolf. The wolf features prominently in myths and legends from many North American and European cultures, as well as from other places around the world. Let’s look at some of the stories still told today about the wolf.

Celtic Wolves:

In the stories of the Ulster cycle, the Celtic goddess Morrighan is sometimes shown as a wolf. The connection with the wolf, along with the cow, suggests that in some areas, she may have been linked to fertility and land. Prior to her role as a warrior goddess, she was linked to sovereignty and kingship.
In Scotland, the goddess known as Cailleach is often associated with wolf folklore. She is an old woman who brings destruction and winter with her, and rules the dark half of the year. She is portrayed riding a speeding wolf, bearing a hammer or a wand made of human flesh. In addition to her role as destroyer, she is depicted as a protector of wild things, like the wolf itself, according to the Carmina Gadelica.

Native American Tales:

The wolf features prominently in a number of Native American stories. There is a Lakota tale about a woman who was injured while traveling. She was found by a wolf pack that took her in and nurtured her. During her time with them, she learned the ways of the wolves, and when she returned to her tribe, she used her newfound knowledge to help her people. In particular, she knew far before anyone else when a predator or enemy was approaching.
A Cherokee tale tells the story of the dog and the wolf. Originally, Dog lived on the mountain, and Wolf lived beside the fire. When winter came, though, Dog got cold, so he came down and sent Wolf away from the fire. Wolf went to the mountains, and found that he liked it there. Wolf prospered in the mountains, and formed a clan of his own, while Dog stayed by the fire with the people. Eventually, the people killed Wolf, but his brothers came down and took revenge. Ever since then, Dog has been man’s faithful companion, but the people are wise enough not to hunt Wolf anymore.

Wolf Mothers:

For Roman Pagans, the wolf is important indeed. The founding of Rome – and thus, an entire empire – was based on the story of Romulus and Remus, orphaned twins who were raised by a she-wolf. The name of the Lupercalia festival comes from the Latin Lupus, which means wolf. Lupercalia is held every year in February, and is a multi-purpose event that celebrates the fertility of not only the livestock but people as well.
In Turkey, the wolf is held in high regard, and is seen in a similar light as to the Romans – the wolf Ashina Tuwu is the mother of the first of the great Khans. Also called Asena, she rescued an injured boy, nursed him back to health, and then bore him ten half-wolf half-human children. The eldest of these, Bumin Khayan, became chieftain of the Turkic tribes. Today the wolf is still seen as a symbol of sovereignty and leadership.

Deadly Wolves:

In Norse legend, Tyr (also Tiw) is the one-handed warrior god – and he lost his hand to the great wolf, Fenrir. When the gods decided Fenrir had been causing too much trouble, they decided to put him in shackles. However, Fenrir was so strong that there was no chain that could hold him. The dwarves created a magical ribbon – called Gleipnir -- that even Fenrir couldn’t escape. Fenrir was no fool, and said he'd only allow himself to be tied with Gleipnir if one of the gods was willing to stick a hand in Fenrir's mouth. Tyr offered to do it, and once his hand was in Fenrir's mouth, the other gods tied Fenrir so he couldn’t escape. Tyr's right hand got bitten off in the struggle. Tyr is known in some stories as the "Leavings of the Wolf."
The Inuit peoples of North America hold the great wolf Amarok in high regard. Amarok was a lone wolf, and did not travel with a pack. He was known for preying upon hunters foolish enough to go out at night. According to legend, Amarok came to the people when the caribou became so plentiful that the herd began to weaken and fall sick. Amarok came to prey upon the frail and ill caribou, thus allowing the herd to become healthy once more, so that man could hunt.


Monday, July 21, 2014

Frog Magic and Folklore

Frogs and toads feature prominently in magical folklore in many societies. These amphibious critters are known for a variety of magical properties, from their ability to help predict the weather, to curing warts to bringing good luck. Let’s look at some of the best known superstitions, omens and folklore surrounding frogs and toads.
  • In parts of Appalachia, it is believed that if you hear a frog croaking exactly at midnight, it means rain is on the way. However, in some societies it’s just the opposite - frogs croaking during the day indicate coming storms.
  • There’s an old British legend that carrying a dried frog in a pouch around your neck will prevent epileptic seizures. In some rural areas, it’s just the frog’s liver that gets dried and worn.
  • Live frogs appear in a number of folk cures. It is believed that putting a live frog in your mouth will cure thrush, and that swallowing live frogs - presumably small ones - can cure whooping cough and tuberculosis. Rubbing a live frog or toad on a wart will cure the wart, but only if you impale the frog on a tree and let him die.
  • Some cultures believe that a frog coming into your house brings good luck - others say it’s bad luck - the Xhosa tribe says that a frog in your house might be carrying a spell or a curse. Either way, it’s usually considered a bad idea to kill a frog. The Maori people believe that killing a frog can bring floods and heavy rains, but some African tribes say that the death of a frog will bring drought.
  • For the ancient Egyptians, the frog-headed goddess Hekt was a symbol of fertility and birth. If you wish to conceive, touch a frog. The association of the frog with fertility has its root in science - each year, when the Nile river flooded its banks, frogs were everywhere. The annual flooding of the delta meant rich soil and strong crops - so the croaking of millions of frogs may well have been an indicator that farmers would have an abundant season.
  • Frogs have only been in Ireland for a few hundred years, since students from Trinity College released them into the wild. However, there are still some frog folktales in Ireland, including that you can tell the weather by the color of a frog.
  • Ranidaphobia is the fear of frogs and toads.
  • In the Christian Bible, a plague of frogs swarms over the land of Egypt - this was the Christian god’s way of showing dominance over the gods of ancient Egypt. In the Book of Exodus, the following verse details how frogs were sent to frighten the people of Egypt into rejecting their old gods: Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Let my people go, that they may serve me. 2 But if you refuse to let them go, behold, I will plague all your country with frogs. The Nile shall swarm with frogs that shall come up into your house and into your bedroom and on your bed and into the houses of your servants and your people, and into your ovens and your kneading bowls. The frogs shall come up on you and on your people and on all your servants.”

Friday, July 18, 2014

Legends and Lore of Bees

In the middle of spring, a magical thing begins to happen outside. In addition to the greening of the earth, we notice a change in the local wildlife. Suddenly, squirrels and chipmunks are everywhere.

Birds are twittering away madly in the trees, worms are popping up right and left in the soil, and everywhere you look, life has returned. In particular, you'll see bees buzzing around your garden, partaking of the rich pollen in your flowers and herbs. The plants are in full bloom at this time of the spring, and the bees take full advantage, buzzing back and forth, carrying pollen from one blossom to another.

In addition to providing us with honey and wax, bees are known to have magical properties, and they feature extensively in folklore from many different cultures. These are just a few of the legends about bees:
  • In some areas of New England and Appalachia, it was believed that once someone died, it was important for the family to "go tell the bees" of the death. Whoever kept the bees for the family would make sure the bees got the news, so that they could spread it around.
  • Ancient Egyptian pharaohs used the honeybee as the royal symbol, during the period between 3000 b.c.e. and 350 b.c.e.
  • The Greeks believed that a baby whose lips were touched by a bee would become a great poet or speaker.
  • If a bee flies into your house, it means that someone is coming to visit. If you kill the bee, the visitor will bring you bad news.
  • Several deities are associated with bees and honey - Aphrodite, Vishnu, Pan, Cybele, and Ra, just to name a few.
  • Ever hear the phrase "busy as a bee"? Bees in a hive work repetitively a the same task all day long. A bee who goes out foraging may fly as many as ten miles a day, gathering pollen and nectar to bring back to the hive, over and over again. According to the National Honey Board, a bee may visit more than two million flowers to gather enough nectar to make just one pound of honey. Thus, bees are associated with hard work and diligence.
  • If a bee lands on your hand, it means money is coming your way.
  • Bees are, in some cultures, associated with purity. This is because the worker bees that produce honey never mate.
  • Author J.K. Rowling named Professor Albus Dumbledore for an archaic English word related to bees. She says that when writing, she imagined the headmaster of Hogwarts "wandering around the castle humming to himself," and so chose to associate his name with bees.
  • In Celtic mythology, the bee is a messenger between our world and the spirit realm. Bees are also associated with wisdom.
  • Bees and honey appear in the Norse eddas, often connected with Yggdrasil, the World Tree.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Rabbit Magic and Lore

Spring equinox is a time for fertility and sowing seeds, and so nature's fertility goes a little crazy. The rabbit -- for good reason -- is often associated with fertility magic and sexual energy.

So how did we get the notion that a rabbit comes around and lays colored eggs in the spring? The character of the "Easter bunny" first appeared in 16th-century German writings, which said that if well-behaved children built a nest out of their caps or bonnets, they would be rewarded with colored eggs. This legend became part of American folklore in the 18th century, when German immigrants settled in the eastern U.S.

In medieval societies in Europe, the March hare was viewed as a major fertility symbol -- this is a specific species of rabbit that is nocturnal most of the year, but in March when mating season begins, there are bunnies everywhere all day long. The female of the species is superfecund and can conceive a second litter while still pregnant with a first. As if that wasn't enough, the males tend to get frustrated when rebuffed by their mates (go figure) and bounce around erratically when discouraged.

Ever hear the phrase "mad as a March hare"? There's a reason for that -- this is the time of year when rabbits tend to go a bit bonkers. Although the phrase itself is often attributed to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland adventures, it actually appears much earlier. A similar expression is found in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, in the Friar's Tale:

For though this man were wild as is a hare,
To tell his evil deeds I will not spare.

Later, it appears in both the writings of Sir Thomas More, and in a 16th-century book of proverbs.
So how can you channel this frantic, fertile energy into a magical working? Let's look at some possible uses for some of that "mad March hare" energy in magic.
  • Fertility rituals: place a rabbit skin under your bed to bring fertility and abundance to your sexual activities. If you're opposed to the use of real fur, use some other symbol of the rabbit that you're more comfortable with.
  • The obvious one -- a rabbit's foot is said to bring good luck to those who carry it, although one might argue that it's not so lucky for the rabbit.
  • To bring yourself boundless energy, carry a talisman engraved or painted with a rabbit's image.
  • If you have wild rabbits or hares that live in your yard, leave them an offering of lettuce, shredded carrots, cabbage, or other fresh greens. In some magical traditions, the wild rabbit is associated with the deities of spring.
  • Rabbits and hares are able to go to ground quickly if in danger. Add a few rabbit hairs to a witch bottle for protection magic.
  • In some legends, rabbits and hares are the messengers of the underworld -- after all, they come and go out of the earth as they please. If you're doing a meditation that involves an underworld journey, call upon the rabbit to be your guide.


Monday, July 14, 2014

Black Cats

Black cats are usually portrayed with its back arched, claws out, and occasionally wearing a jaunty pointed hat. Local news channels warn us to keep black cats inside on Halloween just in case the local hooligans decide to get up to some nasty hijinks.
But where did the fear of these beautiful animals come from? Anyone who lives with a cat knows how fortunate they are to have a cat in their life -- so why are they considered unlucky?


Divine Cats:

The ancient Egyptians honored cats of every color. Cats were mighty and strong, and held sacred. Two of the most amazing goddesses in the Egyptian pantheon were Bast and Sekhmet, worhsipped as long ago as 3000 b.c.e. Family cats were adorned with jewelry and fancy collars, and even had pierced ears. If a cat died, the entire family went into mourning, and sent the cat off to the next world with a great ceremony. For thousands of years, the cat held a position of divinity in Egypt.


The Witch's Familiar:

Around the time of the Middle Ages, the cat became associated with witches and witchcraft. Around the late 1300's, a group of witches in France were accused of worshipping the Devil in the form of a cat. It may be because of the cat's nocturnal nature that it became connected to witches -- after all, night time was the time they held their meetings, as far as the church was concerned.


Contemporary Cats:

Around the time of World War Two, when the American tradition of Halloween as trick-or-treat time really got underway, cats became a big part of the holiday decoration. This time around, however, they were considered a good luck charm -- a black cat at your door would scare away any evil critters that might come a'calling.
Most people are far less superstitious today than they were in the Middle Ages, but the black cat remains part of our late October decor.


Black Cat Folklore and Legends:

  • Sixteenth-century Italians believed that if a black cat jumped on the bed of an ill person, the person would soon die.
  • In Colonial America, Scottish immigrants believed that a black cat entering a wake was bad luck, and could indicated the death of a family member.
  • The Norse goddess Freyja drove a chariot pulled by a pair of black cats.
  • A Roman solder killed a black cat in Egypt, and was killed by an angry mob of locals.
  • Appalachian folklore said that if you had a stye on the eyelid, rubbing the tail of a black cat on it would make the stye go away.
  • If you find a single white hair on your otherwise-black cat, it's a good omen.
  • In England's border countries and southern Scotland, a strange black cat on the front porch brings good fortune.


Friday, July 11, 2014

Legend and Lore Of Owls

Owls are a bird that features prominently in the myths and legends of a variety of cultures. These mysterious creatures are known far and wide as symbols of wisdom, omens of death, and bringers of prophecy. In some countries, they are seen as good and wise, in others they are a sign of evil and doom to come. There are numerous species of owls, and each seems to have its own legends and lore. Let's look at some of the best-known bits of owl folklore and mythology.

Athena was the Greek goddess of wisdom, and is often portrayed with an owl as companion. Homer relates a story in which Athena gets fed up with the crow, who is a total prankster. She banishes the crow as her sidekick, and instead seeks out a new companion. Impressed with the owl’s wisdom, and levels of seriousness, Athena chooses the owl to be her mascot instead. The specific owl that represented Athena was called the Little Owl, Athene noctua, and it was a species found in great numbers inside places like the Acropolis. Coins were minted with Athena’s face on one side, and an owl on the reverse.

There are a number of Native American stories about owls, most of which related to their association with prophecy and divination. The Hopi tribe held the Burrowing Owl as sacred, believing it to be a symbol of their god of the dead. As such, the Burrowing Owl, called Ko’ko, was a protector of the underworld, and things that grew in the earth, such as seeds and plants. This species of owl actually nests in the ground, and so was associated with the earth itself.

The Inuit people of Alaska have a legend about the Snowy Owl, in which Owl and Raven are making each other new clothes. Raven made Owl a pretty dress of black and white feathers. Owl decided to make Raven a lovely white dress to wear. However, when Owl asked Raven to allow her to fit the dress, Raven was so excited that she couldn’t hold still. In fact, she jumped around so much that Owl got fed up and threw a pot of lamp oil at Raven. The lamp oil soaked through the white dress, and so Raven has been black ever since.

In many African countries, the owl is associated with sorcery and baneful magic. A large owl hanging around a house is believed to indicate that a powerful shaman lives within. Many people also believe that the owl carries messages back and forth between the shaman and the spirit world.
In some places, nailing an owl to the door of a house was considered a way to keep evil at bay. The tradition actually began in ancient Rome, after owls foretold the deaths of Julius Caesar and several other Emperors. The custom persisted in some areas, including Great Britain, up through the eighteenth century, where an owl nailed to a barn door protected the livestock within from fire or lightning.

The owl was known as a harbinger of bad tidings and doom throughout Europe, and put in appearances as a symbol of death and destruction in a number of popular plays and poems. For instance, Sir Walter Scott wrote:

Birds of omen dark and foul,
Night-crow, raven, bat, and owl,
Leave the sick man to his dream --
All night long he heard your scream.

Even before Scott, William Shakespeare wrote of the owl’s premonition of death in both MacBeth and Julius Caesar.

Much of Appalachian tradition can be traced back to the Scottish Highlands (where the owl was associated with the cailleach) and English villages that were the original homes of mountain settlers. Because of this, there is still a good deal of superstition surrounding the owl in the Appalachian region, most of which are related to death. According to mountain legends, an owl hooting at midnight signifies death is coming. Likewise, if you see an owl circling during the day, it means bad news for someone nearby. In some areas, it is believed that owls flew down on Samhain night to eat the souls of the dead.

If you find an owl feather, it can be used for a variety of purposes. The Zuni tribe believed that an owl feather placed in a baby’s crib kept evil spirits away from the infant. Other tribes saw owls as bringers of healing, so a feather could be hung in the doorway of a home to keep illness out. Likewise, in the British Isles, owls were associated with death and negative energy, so feathers can be used to repel those same unpleasant influences.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Magic Of Crows and Ravens

Although crows and ravens are part of the same family (Corvus), they’re not exactly the same bird. Typically, ravens are quite a bit bigger than crows, and they tend to be a bit shaggier looking. The raven actually has more in common with hawks and other predatory birds than the standard, smaller-sized crow. In addition, although both birds have an impressive repertoire of calls and noises they make, the raven’s call is usually a bit deeper and more guttural sounding than that of the crow.
Both crows and ravens have appeared in a number of different mythologies throughout the ages. In some cases these black-feathered birds are considered an omen of bad tidings, but in others they may represent a message from the Divine. Here is some fascinating crow and raven folklore to ponder:
In Celtic mythology, the warrior goddess known as the Morrighan often appears in the form of a crow or raven, or is seen accompanied by a group of them. Typically, these birds appear in groups of three, and they are seen as a sign that the Morrighan is watching – or possibly getting ready to pay someone a visit.
In some tales of the Welsh myth cycle, the Mabinogion, the raven is a harbinger of death. Witches and sorcerers were believed to have the ability to transform themselves into ravens and fly away, thus enabling them to evade capture.
Crows sometimes appear as a method of divination. For the ancient Greeks, the crow was a symbol of Apollo in his role as god of prophecy. Augury – divination using birds – was popular among both the Greeks and the Romans, and augurs interpreted messages based on not only the color of a bird, but the direction from which it flew. A crow flying in from the east or south was considered favorable.
The Native Americans often saw the raven as a trickster, much like Coyote. There are a number of tales regarding the mischief of Raven, who is sometimes seen as a symbol of transformation. In the legends of various tribes, Raven is typically associated with everything from the creation of the world to the gift of sunlight to mankind. Some tribes knew the raven as a stealer of souls.
For those who follow the Norse pantheon, Odin is often represented by the raven – usually a pair of them. Early artwork depicts him as being accompanied by two black birds, who are described in the Eddas as Huginn and Muinnin. Their names translate to “thought” and “memory”, and their job is to serve as Odin’s spies, bringing him news each night from the land of men.
In parts of the Appalachian mountains, a low-flying group of crows means that illness is coming – but if a crow flies over a house and calls three times, that means an impending death in the family. If the crows call in the morning before the other birds get a chance to sing, it’s going to rain. Despite their role as messengers of doom and gloom, it’s bad luck to kill a crow. If you accidentally do so, you’re supposed to bury it – and be sure to wear black when you do!
Even within the Christian religion, ravens hold a special significance. While they are referred to as “unclean” within the Bible, Genesis tells us that after the flood waters receded, the raven was the first bird Noah sent out from the ark to find land. Also, in the Hebrew Talmud, ravens are credited with teaching mankind how to deal with death; when Cain slew Abel, a raven showed Adam and Eve how to bury the body, because they had never done so before.


Monday, July 7, 2014

Serpent Magic and Symbolism

Spring is the season of new life, and as the ground warms, one of the first denizens of the animal kingdom we begin to notice emerging is the serpent. While a lot of people are afraid of snakes, it's important to remember that in many cultures, serpent mythology is strongly tied to the cycle of life, death and rebirth.

In Scotland, Highlanders had a tradition of pounding the ground with a stick until the serpent emerged. The snake's behavior gave them a good idea of how much frost was left in the season. Folklorist Alexander Carmichael points out in the Carmina Gadelica that there's actually a poem in honor of the serpent emerging from its burrow to predict spring-like weather on "the brown day of Bride".

The serpent will come from the hole
on the brown day of Bride (
though there may be three feet of snow
on the surface of the ground.

In some forms of American folk magic and hoodoo, the snake can be used as an instrument of harm. In Hoodoo and Voodoo, Jim Haskins relays the custom of using the serpent's blood to introduce snakes into the human body. According to this hoodoo traditions, one must "extract the blood from a snake by puncturing an arteryĆ¢€¦ feed the liquid blood to the victim in food or drink, and snakes will grow inside him."

A South Carolina rootworker who asked to be identified only as Jasper says his father and grandfather, both rootworkers, kept snakes on hand to use in magic. He says, "If you wanted someone to get sick and die, you used a snake that you tied a piece of their hair around. Then you kill the snake, and bury it in the person's yard, and the person gets sicker and sicker each day. Because of the hair, the person is tied to the snake."

Ohio is the home of the best-known serpent effigy mound in North America. Although no one is certain why the Serpent Mound was created, it's possible that it was in homage to the great serpent of legend. The Serpent Mound is about 1300 feet in length, and at the serpent's head, it appears to be swallowing an egg. The serpent's head aligns to the sunset on the day of the summer solstice. The coils and the tail may also point to sunrise on the days of the winter solstice and the equinoxes.

In the Ozarks, there is a story about a connection between snakes and babies, according to author Vance Randolph. In his book Ozark Magic and Folklore, he describes a tale in which a small child goes outside to play and takes along with him a piece of bread and his cup of milk. In the story, the mother hears the child chattering and assumes he's talking to himself, but when she goes outside finds him feeding his milk and bread to a poisonous snake -- typically either a rattlesnake or a copperhead. The old timers of the area warn that killing the snake would be a mistake -- that somehow the child's life is magically connected to that of the snake, and that "if the reptile is killed the baby will pine away and die a few weeks later."

The serpent is instrumental in the Egyptian myth cycle. After Ra created all things, Isis, the goddess of magic, tricked him by creating a serpent which ambushed Ra on his daily journey across the heavens. The serpent bit Ra, who was powerless to undo the poison. Isis announced that she could heal Ra from the poison and destroy the serpent, but would only do so if Ra revealed his True Name as payment. By learning his True Name, Isis was able to gain power over Ra. For Cleopatra, a serpent was an instrument of death.

In Ireland, St. Patrick is famous because he drove the snakes out of the country, and was even credited with a miracle for this. What many people don't realize is that the serpent was actually a metaphor for the early Pagan faiths of Ireland. St. Patrick brought Christianity to the Emerald Isle, and did such a good job of it that he practically eliminated Paganism from the country.

When it comes to symbolism in general, the snake has a lot of different meanings. Watch a snake shed his skin, and you'll think of transformation. Because snakes are silent and move stealthily before attacking, some people associate them with cunning and treachery. Still others see them as representative of fertility, masculine power, or protection.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

What is an Animal Familiar?

In some traditions of modern Wicca and Paganism, the concept of an animal familiar is incorporated into practice. Today, a familiar is often defined as an animal with whom we have a magical connection, but in truth, the concept is a bit more complex than this.

History of the Familiar

During the days of the European witch hunts, familiars were "said to be given to witches by the devil," according to Rosemary Guiley's Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft. They were, in essence, small demons which could be sent out to do a witch's bidding. Although cats -- especially black ones -- were the favored vessel for such a demon to inhabit, dogs, toads, and other small animals were sometimes used.
In some Scandinavian countries, familiars were associated with spirits of the land and nature. Fairies, dwarves, and other elemental beings were believed to inhabit the physical bodies of animals. Once the Christian church came along, this practice went underground -- because any spirit other than an angel must be a demon. During the witch-hunt era, many domestic animals were killed because of their association with known witches and heretics.
During the Salem witch trials, there is little account of the practice of animal familiars, although one man was charged with encouraging a dog to attack by way of magical means. The dog, interestingly enough, was tried, convicted, and hanged.
In shamanistic practices, the animal familiar is not a physical being at all, but a thought-form or spiritual entity. It often travels astrally, or serves as a magical guardian against those who might try to psychically attack the shaman.
Today, many Wiccans and Pagans have an animal companion that they consider their familiar - and most people no longer believe that these are spirits or demons inhabiting an animal. Instead, they have an emotional and psychic bond with the cat, dog, or whatever, who is attuned to the powers of its human partner.


Finding a Familiar

Not everyone has, needs, or even wants a familiar. If you have an animal companion as a pet, such as a cat or dog, try working on strengthening your psychic connection with that animal. Books such as Ted Andrews' Animal Speak contain some excellent pointers on how to do this.
If an animal has appeared in your life unexpectedly -- such as a stray cat that appears regularly, for instance -- it's possible that it may have been drawn to you psychically. However, be sure to rule out mundane reasons for its appearance first. If you're leaving out food for the local feral kitties, that's a far more logical explanation. Likewise, if you see a sudden influx of birds, consider the season -- is the ground thawing, making food more available?
If you'd like to draw a familiar to you, some traditions believe you can do this by meditation. Find a quiet place to sit undisturbed, and allow your mind to wander. As you journey, you may encounter various people or objects. Focus your intent on meeting an animal companion, and see if you come into contact with any.
In addition to familiars, some people do magical work with what's called a power animal or a spirit animal. A power animal is a spiritual guardian that some people connect with. However, much like other spiritual entities, there's no rule or guideline that says you must have one. If you happen to connect with an animal entity while meditating or performing astral travel, then that may be your power animal or it may just be curious about what you're up to.