This was originally published in the Mountain Xpress way back in 2000. I was looking at my woad yesterday and thinking about the best time to harvest the leaves for dye and thought of this piece. So I'm sharing it with you, as we in the Northern hemi prepare for Beltane. Some things have changed in my world since then--but the challenge remains the same. Hope you enjoy it!
Serving as a high priestess is a hard job. "The toughest job you'll ever love" may apply to military service, but it could just as easily be found in a Pagan-clergy handbook -- if there were such a thing.
Among my jobs as a high priestess are leading a weekly ritual with the home circle, a monthly open ritual on the full moon, and a monthly women's circle. I organize, write and conduct rites of passage (like weddings, First Bloods and funerals). I speak out on Pagan issues, counsel my parishioners, meet with local Episcopal clergy when one of our teens joins their church, in order to meet new boys. I teach classes, write protest letters, talk to King James Version-wielding fanatics who only want to save my soul. I interface with the dominant culture; I interface with the Pagan culture.
Don't get me wrong: I love my job. I chose it freely and would happily do it again. Celebrating the Turning of the Wheel with my circle family brings me incomparable joy. Helping a couple design their own unique handfasting ceremony is captivating and fun, and sharing a cup of sage tea with a menopausal friend is true companionship.
Parts of the job are easy, parts are difficult -- and one thing is, I confess, impossible. And that thing looms darkly on my horizon each year. As the glorious sun rises in the Midsummer sky, one thing becomes all-consuming, all-annoying, terrifying. Yet, it is a little thing, really.
Isatis tinctoria: woad. It is the dream of every Pagan I know to be decorated at Midsummer, like an extra in Braveheart: limed hair, bright blue swirls on face and body. And there's only one product that will do: the real thing, woad.
Isatis tinctoria is a common roadside weed in Europe and the U.S. -- hardy and invasive. It's a member of the Brassicaceae family, like mustard. It has rangy, light-green stems and tiny, brilliantly yellow flowers. The Picts (among others) used it to create blue dye for textiles, paint and to go on faces, because it was so readily available. They evidently piled heaps of it in a stone building, peed on it (to change the pH), and let it ferment. It turned blue (somehow), and the dyeing of tunic and torso commenced.
We got some Isatis tinctoria last year. Fairman Jayne at Sandy Mush Herb Nursery informed me that it is a self-seeding annual that likes full sun, but said he had never known it to reseed. He said it is pretty, though. I planted it in the back garden, in full sun, and it grew into a tall plant with yellow flowers, looking a lot like mustard (which I had also planted).
Come spring, there were mustardish, woad-like plants in the back garden. But were they woad or were they mustard? And if they were woad, what to do with them? There was not a lot of it, and I wasn't at all sure how to process it. Someone, somewhere, would know how to do it. I heard rumors that some Society for Creative Anachronism folks had access to processed woad -- that it comes in chunks, like carpenter's chalk-line chalk, only greasy. It might be mildly hallucinogenic; it might not. It might dye skin semi-permanently; it might not. Not for the first time in my career, I wished I could talk to a real, live, ancient Brit, circa 100 CE.
Why was it so easy for those tribal warriors? What technology did they have that I don't? I have a food processor and a microwave -- why can't I do this for my people?
Each year, after the Maypole is danced and the May-wine is drunk, we begin to talk about Midsummer and what we'll do. That's code for, "How will we decorate our bodies for the holy day? Will we have ... woad?"
Aarrgghh. I hadn't really given it much thought since Lughnasadh. Last year, we did henna, which didn't quite work -- and, besides, wasn't blue. We also did temporary tattoos, which the children loved, but the adults disdained a bit. It just wasn't sufficiently ... tribal, somehow.
I'd gone through the books back in the herb shelves at the Co-op. There were some interesting chapters on woad used as a textile dye, but most seemed to agree that indigo is a better choice. As a member of the cyber-Pagan community, I have also searched the Web. I'd been to The Woad Page, where there are detailed instructions (including litmus paper -- remember litmus paper?) for processing woad. I'd seen pictures of men in kilts with swirly blue designs on their rugged faces. I'd visited the Henna Page bulletin board, where folks chatted about Chinese vs. Celtic designs. One nice person even offered some "manly" designs that could be e-mailed as GIFs.
Recently, a colleague gave me a tip about a place in Hot Springs called Herb of Grace. Pretty name, huh? My friend had heard a rumor that these folks had some ... woad. Woad? Really? With Beltaine just around the corner and a crock of May wine readying in the cellar, was it possible that I'd found the pot of woad at the end of the rainbow? Would Herb of Grace save me the shame and humiliation of permanent Magic Markers?
Alas, it was not to be. The kind-hearted woman informed me that they did, indeed, have woad: seedlings, seeds, plants and products dyed with the rich blue mixture. But, processed woad? Sadly, her answer was "no". Maybe I could try "growing my own"?
There are still a few weeks left until the golden madness of Midsummer. I know the answer is out there. Somewhere. Will we be forced to lower our expectations once again? Or will I lead my people, like Queen Boadicca of the Iceni, to heights of blue and tribal joy?
I think I need a cup of chamomile tea.