The graceful Birch is the White lady of the Woods. It is fitting that these trees,
ghostly in twilight, should stand at either side of the gate of the Celtic New
Year of October 31st, for it has come down to us that passing among the
birches can take you into the Otherworld.
New Beginnings by Jennifer Vranes
Birch, white stemmed birch
Stands pale in the dark forest.
A rod of Birch will cleanse us of evil
And usher us through November’s long doorway…
There was an old Samhain tradition of running down an avenue of birch trees
while being flogged with the twigs as a means of purification for the New Year.
This birch portal at the gate of the New Year mirrors its position as first of the
letters, for it is the opener of the gate to the Ogham, the creation of Ogma
Sun-Face, God of Eloquence.
Birch was traditionally used to make cradles for babies to protect them from
being stolen by the Siddhe. It seems typically paradoxical that the tree that
opens the doors to the Otherworld would be used to protect a child from
possession by it, but perhaps the birch bark cradle served to fool the Gentry
into thinking the child was already theirs…
In Britain, the maypole is made of birch while the wonderful scraggly birch twigs
are used to kindle the Beltane fires. The best witches brooms are made of birch with those wonderful black twigs as sweepers.
There is an old tradition of burying the dead with conical birch bark hats on their heads to insure the purification of their souls.
The lines are from the English ballad: The Wife of Usher’s Well. The lady’s sons appear wearing their birch bark hats — proof that they are dead.
It fell about the Martinmass,
When nights are lang and mirk,
The carlin wife’s three sons came hame,
And their hats were o the birk.
Imagine the birch trees standing across from each other, their topmost branches in the shape of a Gothic arch. On the other side, calling you with its mysterious, mist filled grandeur is Faery. If you walk through, you will enter the trance that allows divination by the Ogham.
Divination by Birch: Protection from harm both physical and magical. Cleansing, leaving the negative, life draining energies behind to start over refreshed. A time of going inward to store power in purity. Clear the ground of
obstructions so that new things may grow. Change comes gradually with the turning of the Wheel.
Magic can be done for fertility and creativity, healing and protection.
Tie a red ribbon around a birch tree to ward off negative energies. Hang birch twigs over a new baby’s cradle. Use birch bark as magical parchment to keep your writings safe.
Ogham Letter: Beth
Deities: The White Goddess, Belin, White Ladies of the Forest
Animal: White Cow
Herb: Fly Agaric Mushrooms — The Flowers of Annwn
According to the Irish Bards of old, the Ogham was received by a great poet, mac Elatha mac Delbeath from the God Ogma Grian-ainech or Ogma Sun-Face, a mercurial God of language and poetry. It was instantly conceived as a magical tool. One only has to cast the mind back to the times when uttering spells and charms was enough to change reality at will, or to recall the opening of the Bible, “In the beginning was the WORD”, in order to grasp the power of letters and language in the old world before books usurped the power of communication and turned language into a standard collection of letters printed on pieces of parchment. Of course every witch knows that books themselves in those times were believed to be magical, and for some of us, they still are.
The first letter written was the Ogham for Birch, Beth, carved seven times on the birch bark paper by Ogma for the God Lugh, as an oracle to warn him that his wife would be carried away.
Blogger, Kevin Jones, at: www.taliere.tripod.com, has these interesting things to say about the word Ogham:
Ogham is named after Ogma. However, in Greek ogmos means a line, row or
furrow, which is quite an apt description of Ogham… In Scots Gaelic the word
for Ogham, oidheam, means ‘a notion of anything, an idea, an inference, hint’.
This is an accurate description of the Ogham. The cognate word in Latin,
agmen, means both ‘boatmen’s oars’ and ‘speech’, which is very apt! There is
also the rather obscure word ogygia which is best translated as primeval or
‘before time’. This may or may not be related but if it is, it is apt since the
Ogham does concern primeval things.
Primeval…yes! What could be more primeval than the trees and the sky and
the birds and the earth?
Deer nibbling the leaves of the Ash Tree
that is also like a door into the Otherworld.
Two trees on either side of a path can be perceived as gateways
into the Otherworld. Therefore you must pass between two birches on the Eve
of Samhain, or All Soul’s Night, to begin your journey around the Wheel of the
Year through the grove of sacred trees.
As pretty as the correspondences are, I feel the current popular trend of creating Celtic Tree calenders with Birch on the threshold of January is wrong. The Ogham is an ancient Celtic system. The ancient Celtic calender, and one adopted by many who follow a magical Celtic path, begins at Samhain and the Rites of the Birch are meant to be carried out at that time.
Robert Graves, author of The White Goddess, was among the first to popularize the Ogham as the sacred alphabet of the Celts. He also claimed that all true poetry sprang from this sacred source, magical words formed of magical letters seeded in the subconscious of the inspired poet, and behind that was the power of the Great Goddess. His description of this alphabet, which he called Beth, Luis, Nion, or Birch, Rowan, and Ash respectively, follows the Celtic year of thirteen lunar months. beginning on November first.
I am following the order of trees in a poem I wrote in the early 1980’s called Witches Wheel. I wrote this poem under the influence of The White Goddess, well before the New Age version of Ogham hit the bookstores under the guise of “Celtic Astrology”. Each tree in this book is accompanied by a stanza of this old poem of mine, which was the first poem I ever had published. Even this order is unusual, but it the one that works for me. I give my reasons in the text, though I wrote the poem in a completely intuitive, stream of consciousness state that intellectually justified none of my choices.
The truth is that the idea of a Celtic Tree calender has more to do with the Celtic Twilight of the Victorian Age than with any historical facts. Nevertheless, it is still a beautiful concept that inspires the imagination and gives us a sense of place in a world where human beings are increasingly alienated from nature.
As one who resonates with the most primal levels in magic, I will attempt to reach back intuitively into the origins of the Ogham in the mists of the “Dark Ages” on the British Isles. Fact or fantasy? Who cares!
Time to lay out a feast and invite them to dine, to share their presence with us while the veil is thin.
So, in respect for those who came before, I have made a small Ancestral Gallery of Witches. Give them a smile, tip your hat, light a candle and say thank you for blazing the trail and holding open the gates of Elfhame. It took a lot of courage, in those old days, to walk between the worlds. My original plan was to give space to thirteen of our forebears in one blog post, but i realized, not everyone would know them, so I shall make a series of posts with three in each — a good magical number. It is amazing to discover these great teachers and mentors all over again and to remember how they kept magic alive for all of us, sometimes at great personal risk.
The three following Witches carried the movement forward each in their different ways.
Stewart Farrar, the journalist, wrote many books that dispelled the negative perception of Witchcraft and made it approachable, almost acceptable.
Sybil Leek — well she was the first Witch I ever knew of. She was a public personality in the 1960′s in America and her book Sybil Leek’s Love Signs or something to that effect was all over the place. I almost didn’t include due to the cheesiness of my her 1960′s PR, but I have discovered in my research, a very interesting person.
Doreen Valiente was the poetess who increased the deep glamor of the Craft with evocative imagery and emotional power. She did not approve of the attention seekers, yet still found herself in the spotlight.
Charm Against an Egg-boat
You must break the shell to bits, for fear
The witches should make it a boat, my dear:
For over the sea, away from home,
Far by night the witches roam.
Stewart Farrar: Born: June 28, 1916 / Entered Faery: Feb 7, 2000
Stewart Farrar was an unlikely witch.
Farrar was one of the first British officers to enter Auschwitz, an experience that greatly influenced his personal and political beliefs. It led him to explore philosophies such as Marxism, and at the time he met Alex and Maxine Sanders, he was an agnostic with only a marginal interest in witchcraft.
Farrar was a natural and prolific writer. Back in England after the war, he began a career as a journalist and also wrote detective fiction. It was when he was sent to cover a screening of The Legend of the Witches that he met Alex and Maxine. Though he wasn’t sure of Wicca, she was fascinated by them. The result was one of the most important books on witchcraft, What Witches Do and Farrar’s initiation into the Sanders’ coven. The term Alexandrian Tradition was coined by Stewart Farrar.
While working magic with the Sanders, Farrar met Janet Owen who was to become hos seventh wife. They came to prominence as Alexandrian Witches writing many important books together. The most well know is A Witches Bible.
Witches are practical people;
philosophy to them is not just an intellectual exercise -
they have to put it into practice in their everyday lives,
and in their working,
if philosophy is to have any meaning.
From: A Witches’ Bible, by Janet and Stewart Farrar, published by Phoenix Publishing (1984).
All human beings have magic in them. The secret is to know how to use this magic, and astrology is a vital tool for doing just that…
~ Sybil Leek, 1972.
Sybil Leek had an utterly amazing life. Like a character in a romantic novel, she was born into a wealthy Staffordshire family that was fascinated by the magic and the occult, beginning in the 16th century with her ancestor, Molly Leigh. Her father taught her about nature and the power of herbs, talked to her about deep metaphysical subjects on long walks over the hills. Her grandmother taught her Astrology, psychic arts, and divination.They entertained great thinkers like H.G.Wells, and even Aleister Crowley who encouraged her to become a poet.
She married a concert pianist at 16 and was widowed at 18. To recover from her grief, her grandmother sent to her to coven in France to be their High Priestess. When she returned to England she lived in the New Forest, the place that Gerald Gardner claimed to have been schooled in Witchcraft. Bored by the place, she ran off with the Gypsies!
Chased out England, she moved to America where she became a regular on talk shows and wrote sixty books on Witchcraft, Magic and Astrology, as well as stories about her extraordinary life. While in L.A. she met Israel Regardie with whom she studied Qabbalah and practiced Golden dawn rituals. She is credited with being the one of the first environmentalist Witches.
Sybil Leek was an excellent Astologer and this is an amusing quote from one of her many books:
Sometimes astronomers and scientists make dogmatic statements in print that “they have never discovered any truth in the claims of astrology.” What they probably mean is that they have not taken the trouble to study it other than simply reading a three-line version of Sun-sign astrology in their local newspaper. Such dogmatic statements should really open up a whole forum in which the scientist should truthfully answer the question “Have you ever studied astrology?” I can only presume that fear is the basis of all such statements. Why do people become illogical and emotional when they speak of astrology? Are they afraid we may all regress into a primitive state in which their work may not be justified or appreciated? Are they afraid that astrology may be opening doors to new scientific discoveries and new dimensions of reality and may upset their status quo? Of course, anything written in a controversial vein about astrology generally hits the headlines, but it is the idea of controversy, not the validity of an argument, that really makes news…
Doreen Edith Dominy Valiente:
Born: Jan. 4, 1922/ Entered Faery: Sept. 1, 1999
I find this photo above most mysterious. I think its the intensity of her face that does it.
She is the poet of the Craft. Her version of the Charge of the Goddess has come down to us as the primary invocation
to the Queen of Heaven, the Great Goddess in all her forms.
You will have to scroll down below the Bluebeard’s Castle stuff to find it.
Doreen Valiente was High Priestess in Gerald Gardner’s Bricket Wood coven. While he loved the limelight, she felt the Craft should maintain its age-old secrecy. I find it interesting that the Priestesses of two major covens of this period, Doreen, Maxine Sanders, were very reluctant to go public with their Path, while connected to men who wanted gloried in the attention. Perhaps that is because the history of the Witch Craze suggests that those who ere put to death were predominantly women, or maybe that women enjoy the hidden, more subtle, magical powers of moonlight.