Witches Familiars: The Witchery of Birds

Flight has always belonged to Witches, therefore we share a kinship with the birds.

There are as many different types of Witches and there are of birds as well. Each have their own qualities, abilities and traditions.

Here I will list a three birds that have been special to me: the Swan, the Crow, and the Owl.

I hope you will be inspired by my list to suggest some of your own.

Part 1: The Swan

The White Swan has been my familiar for a very long time. I was first given Whiteswan as a spiritual name by a Salish Indian spiritual leader who said he saw it in me. Later on, I had a Vedic, or Indian, Astrological Reading that revealed the symbol of the white swan in my seventh house. I was told the white swan in a Vedic horoscope is a sign of enlightenment. It is also significant that my rising sign, Taurus, is also ruled by Venus, the Goddess associated with swans. I think the spiritual leader “saw’ some real stuff!

Swans have an ancient association with the Goddess’s of Love due to their great beauty, and their tendency to mate for life. Ungainly on land, they blossom on the water like translucent lotuses, and in the air, they soar higher than almost any other bird. Because of their power of flight, birds, in general, represent the Soul rising heavenward. But, especially in Irish tradition,  the swan has also been associated with the journey of the soul  going over the sea into the west, the direction of the setting sun, to the Country of the Dead.

The White Swan shines like the moon on the water. The swan has always been a symbol of romance, sacred to Venus and Aphrodite.  The Black Swan can be said to represent the Dark Side of the Moon, and of Love. Together, the white and black swans are a perfect reflection  of the Goddess in her dual aspect of Love and Death, as well as in her cycle of Death and Rebirth.

The swan is mute, but legend has it that, at death, the swan sings its passage into the Otherworld. I know when I have done really deep Shamanic work, it has been the swan’s plaintive cry that has led me over the threshold into the Kingdom of Shadows.

Aphrodite and the Swan

I love what Buffie Johnson says about This sculpture in  her fabulous book, Lady of the Beasts:

A Greek terra-cotta (sixth century B.C.E.) shows Aphrodite standing in somber splendor on a giant swan. She wears a high tower crown and  carries a small casket, a reference to her possession of the hidden knowledge of death and the sectret of new life…A large and powerful bird, the swan is one of the earliest in the evolutionary chain, with an extra vertebrae in its spine and a mechanism above its beak to adapt to either salt or fresh water. The swan’s whiteness alludes to Aphrodite’s purity and dignity. Throughout the Bronze Age the swan acts as her epiphany or alternate form. Later, she no longer takes the form of the bird; she rides on it.

The black swan is the familiar of the Gorgon. She is called Golden Winged Medusa when she appears with the double wings of the black swan. These double wings along with her body tattoos, rosettes, swastikas, lozenges, and plant motifs reveal her a an embodiment of the Old Goddess. Her fangs and lolling tongue were a symbol of her power to draw rain, making her a important deity for farmers. The swastikas on the black swans’ wings turn both right and left to indicate that life and death move one into the other with ease. It was Medusa’s power over this that caused those who looked at her to be turned to stone.

The Divinity of Pale Creatures

White animals have been seen in many primal cultures as being spirit animals. I think this partly because of their eerie, ghostly appearance as well their association with the north. Souls, especially Witch souls, come down through the lunar tides to the North Pole, before being grounded in the womb.  I think the linking images of white and snow and stars glistering the winter skies during the dark of the moon, contribute to this perception.

The swan is a liminal creature. There is a twilight quality to the swan. It lives by sea and lake, flies high and dives deep under the water. When I was in Ireland in 1996, I went to Innishmore. It was a beautiful day, so a friend and I bicycled to the very tip of the island where the ruins of a 4000 year old ring fort faced a 300 foot sheer drop to the ocean crashing below. Peaked rocks went out like standing stones into the surf and the sun was almost touching the waves, turning the sea to molten silver when we decided it was tme to turn back.

We took the route that went along the shore on opposite side from which we had come. Heaped on our right side were little stone enclosed pastures and on our left, the darkening sea. The sky was turquoise and the moon was just in front of us, huge and full and the color of amber. Beyond the moon was the flash of a lighthouse guiding us back to the town.

We turned a bend and I had to stop. There was a little lagoon with a spit like row of standing stones going out along it. A heron sat at the end of the spit barely visible in the twilight. Then I saw a flash of white brilliance as on the far side of the lagoon, at the edge where the land met the sea, a white swan stood up, went down to the water, and floated there with the moonlight shining in its feathers.

This was surely a vision of the divinity of Earth.

Swans as familiars of the Gods

Swans have been connected to Gods as well as Goddesses.

Zeus famously turned himself into a swan to ravish Leda who then gave birth to Helen of Troy — a true priestess  of the Goddess of Love and War, whose extraordinary beauty brought the ancient world to its knees.

For male witches and Aradia fans, I found this lovely sculpture of Apollo with the swan. Here the swan is the moon,  sister of the God of the Sun.

The snake-like neck of the swan makes it a perfect masculine fertility symbol. The bird can even be said to combine both male and female elements in its form. The swan’s refection of the Inner Marriage is probably why it is included as an emblem in Alchemy in which it represents the aetheric, or shapeshifting, body.

Also see my article on Heimdall which the Swan brought to me in a dream.

Heimdall, Rowan, Aquarius, Winter Dreams

Celtic Tradition

It never ceases to amaze me how a soul can draw to itself congruent images. I have long been into Celtic Tradition, dating back to my first exposure to folk music from Ireland and Scotland as a child.

The Goddess, Brighid  therefore was a special deity for me especially when my Faery Seership reached its peak in the mid 1990′s.

The presence of the Swan is very strong in Celtic Tradition, being  associated with deities like Brighid who  participate in the symbiosis of the healing waters and the sun. They are associated with music, poetry, love, purity and the soul. They are shape-shifters, can take human form, and have mastered the elements of water, earth and air.

Among Druids, the Swan represents the soul, and in accordance with its death aspect,  is associated with the Festival of Samhain. The swan aids us in traveling to the Otherworld. Swans are also sacred to Bards, and their skin and feathers were used to make the tugen, the ceremonial Bardic Cloak.

Irish tales

Swans appear throughout Irish folklore. An Otherworldly bird, they are often the disguise of Fairy Women. At certain times of year, a swan maiden can transform herself back into a human, such as at Summer Solstice, Beltane or Samhain, when the veils between the worlds are thin.

The White Swans of the Wilderness were children of the Tuatha de Danaan, who settled Ireland, and became the sidhe after the invasion of the Milesians.

Grail Swan by Arlene deWinter

Grail Swan by Arlene deWinter

The Swan and the Holy Grail

I cannot leave this topic without sharing what I know about  the Swan’s relationship with the Holy Grail.

The Grail Mystery was the driving force of my spiritual path long before I was even aware of it. The tie in of the Swan with the Grail has double significance for me.

As I said above, there is a Hermetic aspect to the swan, which makes it not only a great Witches Familiar, but also a perfect companion for the Ceremonial Magician who works with the Grail Mysteries..

Aphrodite was in very ancient times associated with the Morning Star, as was Lucifer.  Her chariot was drawn by swans. I feel the blood in the Grail is the blood of the Swan in its role as Sacrificed God. What that means in this context is the Grail is meant to give the one who attains its vision, life immortal, but this eternal life is not granted without sacrifice.  An example would be Percival’s sister, Dindrane, who dies giving her blood to the dying Goddess to bring her back to life and fitness to rule — for Dindrane’s blood is charged with  the inborn power of the Grail. Because of this, she is transmuted into the form of a spiritual guide, or Muse, that powers the Grail Ship and brings her brother and his fellow knights into the Holy City. In that sense, Dindrane is like the white swan, the boat, the famous Swan Boat, and her death, a song.

My actual experinece of the Grail and Swan comes from my inter-dimensional contact with the Faery race of teh Tuatha deDanaan who brough the Grail Procession and the deeper Grail Mysteries into my house in the mid 1990′s. Because of the power of these visitations, I know I have a Faery soul whic, in Celtic Tradition, is associated with the White Swan. It is not an easy power to have. It is intense and cycles from light to dark to light often. It is much like what I show in the painting above which is the rear side to my Grail Keepers Tarot:

The swan bleeds into the Grail charged with Lucifer’s lost emerald of Gnosis. The Swan’s magical blood sets it alight, as the Swan dies and is reborn in the Grail. The stars are in the pattern of the Sign Aquarius, my sun sign and the emblem of the Grail Bearers.

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Summer Solstice: The Rite of Inner Marriage

It is deep twilight. The altar is decorated with a hot red cloth, and a dozen red roses fan out brightly against the blue gray light at the windows. Just under the roses is a stag’s head whose branching antlers hold two silver candles that are anointed with rose oil. To his left is a round silver hand mirror, and to his right, a red dish filled with blackberries. Five goblets of red wine ring the altar, five more candles ring the circumference of the circle.

I wear only a long wedding veil, for the Summer Solstice is a time for the Alchemical Marriage as the Goddess and God join in the love that is death, for darkness encroaches on the threshold of Summer, as the strength of the sun begins to fade at the very height of his glory.

I cast the Circle round, pointing with a sharpened bone wound with a red ribbon, and charged with a white swan’s feather.

As I light the candles, I call the God to come through the Stag, and ask that the Goddess’s face shine in the Mirror. The berries are for the Faeries, who love brambles and black wine. I lay at the foot of the altar a plate of crescent shaped white cakes. All of this is for them, my gifts of gratitude for my good fortune and fulfillment of my dreams.

Shaking a deer-toed rattle, I go into the North where the God waits for me under an oak. My journey begins at the door in the Oak, the hollow in the tree that leads to the Green Land in the Hollow Hills. As the way of the North is before me, with its old moon like a hook of silver in the sky, the energy of the South comes through me, bringing the brightness of the Sun to illuminate the darkness.

Between the worlds, I fall into heavy trance where I dance with the Horned One, on a floor of thorns and roses,  the spiral dance that erases all duality.

The Goddess of the Moon and the Sacrificed God

Diana of the Moon and Hunt

Diana of the Moon and Hunt

This Summer Solstice is most powerful. I am writing this on June 22, the day after the Solstice proper, and the night of the New Moon.

New Moons are excellent for new beginnings, for as the Moon grows, your desires will manifest in much the same way that flowers will bloom and the tides come into the shore.

I love to explore symbols and see where they take me.

The year of this Summer Solstice is 2009. Nine is the Qabbalistic Number of the Moon. It correlates to the dewy atmosphere between the Moon and the Earth where life is created and sustained. Mistakenly referred to as the ‘astral plane’ by Theosophists, the ancients described this sphere, more accurately, as the Sub-Lunar Realm.

2+9 = 11 a  master number of psychic potency. Eleven is a bridge between the divine and mortal worlds.  The Moon is called the Treasure House of Images, the dispenser of dreams. She is the Goddess of Romance, for is it not the illusion of true love that compels us to regenerate our species? And is not the Moon the force of fertility, of the Mother and Child, in nature, of which we are a part?

The Illusion fostered by the Moon as 9, and the psychic perception of the 11, which is the two ones in relationship, conjures an image of the Stag God, Acteon, who dared to gaze upon the naked form of the Moon Goddess, Diana in her bath. It is the energy of the Quester lost in the dark forest with only the moon to guide him. The moonlight shimmers and makes one thing seem like another until he is, not guided at all, but lost, confused,  prey to madness as he is stalked by unseen creatures of the night.

The Moon as Virgin

After the sexual awakening of Beltane, Summer Solstice is meant to  be a time  of consummation,  the joyous celebration of the marriage of the Goddess and the God. Bonfires are lit, the marriage rite is enacted, but it always ends in death.

At one time the sacrificial victim was placed in a Wicker Man and burned. Over time this ritual killing  was replaced by the making of bread figures representing the Sacrificial Victim. They were often hung in trees, and eaten at the conclusion of the Rites. Always, there is this theme of love and death. After the marriage with the Goddess, who is the land, the God’s representative is sacrificed so that his now divinely illuminated blood,  source of life and power, is spilled upon the earth, charging the land to make it bear and bloom.

This year, the Solstice moon is an old moon, in the sign of Capricorn. Capricorn is the sign of the Horned God. On this night, he barely appears. Like an old antler, he is soon shed into the darkness. Cancer, sign of the Moon, of the Great Mother Goddess, is now in the place of the Sun. She has become the Sun. Moon and Sun combine within Her in an Inner Marriage. Now She is One Unto Herself, Virgin, no longer in need of an Other to complete her.

The Moon/ Sun in the sign of Cancer strengthens this idea, for Cancer is the crab living in its shell under the sea, isolated, hidden, moving sideways over land, to slip away under the waves, back to the safety of its dark, enclosed little world of tides and currents moved by the pull of the Moon.

No longer needed, indeed internalized, the Old God, Capricorn, retreats into the abyss of stars.

Eros Riding Capricorn

Eros Riding Capricorn

Capricorn, the Sacrificed God

But Capricorn is traditionally symbolized by the mountain goat with a fishes tail. He reaches the stars with His horns, and plunges into the depths of the sea with His tail, where Cancer, the Moon Goddess hides…He won’t allow Her to forget Him!

This Summer Solstice, the Virgin Moon waits for a fortnight for the Full Moon to arrive in the sign of Capricorn, the Horned God in all His splendor, reflecting the brilliance of the Goddess of Moon and Sun in the Mirror of Himself. But this Summer Moon will be eclipsed; He will not be able to meet the Goddess full on, for the Earth shall cast its shadow over the him, casting him out beyond the pale.

As Moon, reflecting the potentized lunar Sun, Capricorn continues to follow the cycle of the Sun, but does it as the Moon. Another kind of Inner Marriage thus takes place.

There should be no surprise that the planet Pluto, God the Underworld Kingdom of the Dead, should be waiting at the star gate of Capricorn to receive the God into His dark kingdom. Yet in the darkness of the Underworld, the God shall gain the great power of Pluto, planet of transformation, transmutation, and transcendence through cycles of death and rebirth.

The Goat is one the most commonly sacrificed animals in the ancient world. It where the term ‘scapegoat’ comes from. The sins of the tribe were placed on the goat, and he was turned loose to wander alone in the desert to die, and take the sins away with him…Perhaps the universe is playing out this scapegoat theme, for the sins of humanity have been very great as, in our refusal to sacrifice even the simplest of things, we come close to destroying the earth.

But It’s All Right…

Venus and Mars

Venus and Mars by Sidney Harold

While all this drama, this Greek Tragedy, is going on between the Sun and Moon, all this Inner Marriage and Virginity and Sacrifice, good old Venus and Mars are getting it on together in the most earthy of signs, Taurus!

The fertility of the earth shall continue in its creative, fertile duality with these two opposites attracting, magnetically, electrically, and in every other way. Add the sextile of Uranus in Pisces for thunder and forked lightening, a charged meeting of serpent power rising in the midst of the more earthy marriage!

This is a most powerful Summer Solstice! I am glad I took the effort to celebrate it!

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