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Gabble Ratchet

As a young woman, I fell in love with the work of Mary Stewart and have read all of her books.  There is one that is set in Lebanon called The Gabriel Hounds and from it I learned the phrase "gabble ratchet" which is a folk corruption of "Gabriel's hounds." It means the sound of wild geese flying, a sound that is evocative of a pack of baying hounds. In folklore, the Gabriel hounds are sometimes the souls of unbaptized children crying in the night, or they may foretell a death or they're thought to be the hounds of Hel(l).

In my heart, though, that eerie sound--so full of longing and grief--always evokes the Ancestors, the Beloved Dead. My writing desk sets by a west-facing window and that window looks out over the French Broad River. The Canada geese use the old river as a flight path that sweeps them northward to a couple of good feeding grounds and a man-made lake. In the spring, we are rewarded with the site of families of the gabble ratchets with their fuzzy chicks, grazing on the chickweed near the old railroad tracks.

This past weekend, I taught at a long-running herbal conference in a nearby camp, one I've attended for most of its years. A woman came up to me after my workshop and asked if I remembered her from last year.  I was honest--I didn't.  She was gracious, though, and reminded me that she was the one who engaged us in a conversation about the difficulty of dealing with the death of someone with whom you have a strained or broken relationship.  In this case, it was her mother.  They had been estranged for years and the mother had died without any healing of the rift.  I remember talking about what I believe happens when we make the transition from matter to spirit and that we Living folk can still communicate with the spirits of the Dead. And sometimes we can come to a state of grace with the ones who've gone on.

At that point, we heard above us and to the right of our tent a fierce and exultant crying as a v-formation of geese flew low but swiftly through the camp, heading to the upper lake.  I raised my face to the sound and exclaimed aloud--"Gabble Ratchet! The Ancestors are winging their way north."

There was a murmur through the group...gabbleratchet gabbleratchet.  I told them the story of the sky-hounds and the passing of souls.  That I'd always believed the sound to be a good omen, a sign of the love and kinship that lasts even into the Vales of the Dead.

This young woman reminded me of that moment last year and how she felt the Gabble Ratchet had brought her to a place of peace with her motherloss and her sadness, that she felt her mom had finally gone home.

Gabble ratchet...what do you hear when the wild geese cry?  I hear omens of luck, the laughter of those long past, the wistful passing of the Honored Dead.

Even now, they ride the wind, sweeping south, the gabble ratchet.

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H. Byron Ballard is a ritualist, teacher, speaker and writer. She has taught at Sacred Space Conference, Pagan Unity Festival, Southeast Her essays are featured in several anthologies, including “Birthed from Scorched Hearts“ (Fulcrum Press), “Christmas Presence“ (Catawba Press), “Women’s Voices in Magic” (Megalithica Books), “Into the Great Below” and “Skalded Apples” (both from Asphodel Press.) Her book Staubs and Ditchwater: an Introduction to Hillfolks Hoodoo (Silver Rings Press) debuted in June 2012. Byron is currently at work on Earth Works: Eight Ceremonies for a Changing Planet. Contact her at,


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