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Posted by on in Culture Blogs
The Holy and Sacred Chocolate

Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus was certainly right when he gave the cacao tree the genus name Theobroma, which means “food of the gods.” Those of us in the throes of winter take comfort in wrapping our cold hands around a steaming mug of hot chocolate.
        The Maya, Aztec, and Olmec regarded cacao as a sacred plant. In Mayan and Aztec mythology, the plant was a gift from the feathered serpent god. The seeds were used as offerings to deities, often sprinkled with blood from priests who ceremonially cut themselves and was given to victims prior to sacrifice. A cup of chocolate would provide more solace and a last cigarette.
        The Aztec belief that cacao was an aphrodisiac lingered in Europe after it was introduced in the sixteenth century. In Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations, cacao is placed on home altars and at gravesites to share with loved ones who have passed and ancestors.
        Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as white chocolate. After cacao seeds are shelled, they are ground into a liquid from which the fat (cocoa butter) is separated from the cocoa powder. Later in the chocolate making process the two ingredients are reunited. Cocoa butter is the basis of white chocolate along with milk, sugar, and a few other ingredients. BTW, you’re not seeing typos, the spelling cacao refers to the raw beans and cocoa, a product made from the beans.
        Magically cacao is associated with happiness (that’s no surprise), love, prosperity, and sex, which is why it makes perfect sense to give your lover a box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day or any occasion. As part of a spell to attract prosperity and wealth, wrap a cacao bean in the highest denomination bank note you have in your wallet. When celebrating an esbat, place a piece of round white chocolate on your altar. And there’s nothing better to ground and center your energy after magic and ritual than eating a piece of chocolate. Blessed be.

 

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Posted by on in Culture Blogs
Mistletoe: What’s Love Got to do With It?

Our holiday decorations often include a sprig of mistletoe hung in a doorway or in the middle of a room. We may put it in place and think of the elaborate cutting ceremonies of the Druids as noted by Pliny or associate it with the Norse god Balder who was slain with it but later resurrected. Today, kissing under the mistletoe is a token of love, a wish for peace, and a bid for good luck.
        In the past in England, it was believed that sweethearts who kissed under a sprig of it were destined to marry but only if the mistletoe was burned on Twelfth Night (January 6th). A woman who was single and not kissed under it would forever be a spinster. But where did the smooching come from?
        It harkens back to the Roman Saturnalia, which generally took place from December 17th to the 23rd. Held in honor of the god Saturn, it was a celebration of the end of agricultural work for the year and the winter solstice. It was a time to kick back and enjoy revelries and excesses. There was a suspension of rules and anything goes promiscuity. Mistletoe was a prominent part of the decorations and an import symbol.
        Mistletoe was revered because of its liminal nature but even more so when it grew on an oak tree, an uncommon occurrence. Oak trees were associated with the most powerful gods in many cultures and mistletoe berries were believed to confer the power of fertility because they held the male/life force essence of the god. More than love and happiness, mistletoe symbolized the desire for fertility and not just for husband and wife. Sprigs were hung in cattle sheds, too, although I doubt that Elsie the cow received a smooch.
        As with other things, Roman customs were taken to Britain. Christmas in England was close enough to coincide with Saturnalia. The Christmas revelries went on for twelve days and was a celebration of the end of the annual agricultural work. The medieval Church put a damper on Pagan associations but people still decorated their homes with the traditional greenery, which of course, included mistletoe. Eventually, they all found their way into churches, too.
        By the eighteenth century, kissing boughs were adorning kitchens. In the nineteenth century there was a rule that a man could kiss any number of women under the mistletoe but he had to pick a berry from the bough for each kiss until there are no more left and the kissing was supposed to end.
        While we may not have mistletoe rules and the beliefs and reasons for hanging it may have changed, I think it’s nice to know that we are carrying on a very ancient Yuletide tradition. And that’s what love’s got to do with it. We’re using an ancient symbol that has been associated with love for centuries to mark our own celebrations and revelries. So, raise a glass under the kissing bough and give a toast to Yule past, present, and future.

 

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Posted by on in Culture Blogs
Flowers to Honor the Dead

Samhain, Day of the Dead, All Soul’s Day: From October 31st to November 2nd is a time to remember and honor our ancestors and loved ones who have passed. This is a time to invite their spirits to come close, as the barrier between the worlds of the seen and unseen is thin. For millennia, flowers have been used to honor the dead, perhaps because they represent the fragility of life. But also because of their beauty, often for their symbolism, and for practical reasons at funerals to mask odors.
          Lilies are an iconic funeral flower. The Greeks and Romans used them at funerals to memorialize the deceased. Lilies were depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphics and dedicated to Isis. In England, white lilies were believed to ward off evil influences and were grown in gardens to keep ghosts away. As a symbol of hope and peace, they represent the wish that the deceased continue into a good new life.
          In the Roman ceremony of Rosalia, rose petals were scattered on the graves of loved ones, symbolizing the start of a new state of being. Rosalia evolved into a springtime feast to honor departed loved ones and to offer their spirits food garnished with rose petals. The Greeks also strew petals over the graves of loved ones and made wreaths of rose canes (branches) to place on graves.
          While the ancient Romans regarded the anemone as a lucky flower, in later centuries in other parts of Europe it was regarded as the flower of the dead. A wood anemone was sometimes worn as an amulet for protection against sorcery. The wood anemone is also known as devil’s bite and evening twilight.
          Carnations were used in funeral wreaths by the Greeks and Romans. In Italy, it was associated with death well into the Middle Ages. When placed on a grave, carnations were a symbol of love for the deceased. Carnations are also known as pinks and gillyflowers.
          In France, Italy, Spain, and Germany the common chrysanthemum was a symbol of grief and used to honor loved ones. It became known as Fiori dei Morte, “flower of the dead.” Because of this association, it was sometimes considered unlucky to take chrysanthemums inside the home.  
          In addition to purple being a color for mourning, lilac flowers were often used to line coffins and placed on graves to add beauty and offer solace. Elderflowers were associated with death and funerals. They were buried with the deceased or sprinkled over the grave to aid a loved one’s passage into the otherworld.
          For a time in Italy, periwinkle was regarded as a plant of the dead and used for children’s funeral wreaths. Periwinkle’s power was used to detect witches, break spells, and heal demonic possession. It also served as an amulet against the evil eye and ghosts. Periwinkles are also known as blue stars and sorcerer’s violet.
          Considered the flower of the dead by the Aztec, marigolds are used on altars for Day of the Dead observances in present-day Mexico and represent the tenuousness of life. According to legend, the reddish-brown splotches on the flowers were from the blood of people killed by Spanish conquistadors. Aztec marigold is also known as African marigold.
          Samhain, Day of the Dead, All Soul’s Day also marks a time for introspection in preparation for the new cycle that begins at Yule, a symbolic death before renewal.


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Posted by on in Culture Blogs
Autumn Magic with Hawthorn

As leaves begin to fade, hawthorn berries blaze into bright red for autumn. In Ireland and parts of Britain it was believed that ash, oak, and hawthorn growing in the same place made the invisible world of the faeries visible. It was also believed to mark a threshold into the faery realm. For centuries, hawthorn has been an important component of Britain’s hedgerows and the flowers used in Beltane celebrations.

            The name hawthorn evolved from the Old English word, haegthorn, “hedge thorn.” It is also known as haw bush, fairy thorn, Maybush, quickthorn, whitethorn, wishing tree. Usually called haws, its oval, red fruit is also known as pixie pears and has a five-pointed star on the bottom.

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Posted by on in Culture Blogs
Peonies: Powerful Protection

With large, fragrant flowers, the peony has been a garden favorite for centuries. My parents grew them, my grandmother grew them, and almost everyone seemed to have peonies in their gardens. Artists have also had a passion for these flowers, but there’s a lot more to peonies than their beauty.
         The Greeks believed peonies could glow night because they came to earth from the moon. The plant was believed to chase away evil spirits and protect the house where it grew. Wearing a necklace of peony seeds was said to ward off bewitchment. However, the roots were regarded as especially powerful and a carved one served as a protective amulet against faeries and goblins.
        According to Pliny the Elder and others, a necklace made from the roots could ward off nightmares as well as the incubus. Anglo-Saxons wore it to cure lunacy and illness caused by demonic possession. Heavily promoted by physicians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, polished pieces of root were made into beads and worn as an amulet called an anodyne necklace. In addition to a range of ailments including teething babies, the necklace was said to cure the “secret disease” (venereal disease).
        In addition to gracing your garden, try a little modern magic with peonies. For a good luck charm, dry and polish a piece of root to carry with you. A sachet of dried petals on the bedside table invites faeries into your dreams; it will also dispel bad dreams or negative thoughts that keep you from falling asleep.

 

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Forget-Me-Not: Sweet But With a Dark Side

Forget-me-not is a charming little plant with soft blue flowers that the Victorians regarded as a symbol of fidelity and love. It was given as a token of remembrance, a sweet request to not be forgotten.

I had never grown forget-me-not in my garden until last year when a little plant cropped up between the iris and daisies. With property surrounded by meadows and woods, wild flora and fauna turn up in my garden on a regular basis. I decided to let the little blue-flowered visitor stay. After all, it has been considered a lucky plant.

By early autumn, I began to change my opinion. One of the folk names for forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides) is scorpion grass, which is also reflected in its species name. Prior to blooming, the flower stalks are tightly curled resembling a scorpion tail. This should be a warning that it wields a metaphorical sting. Forget-me-not doesn’t ask sweetly to be remembered, it clings like a vengeful lover who refuses to be set aside.

During autumn cleanup, I discovered that forget-me-not had made itself at home in the peripheral gardens. It won’t let go; the tiny seeds attach to anything (garden gloves, pant legs, sweatshirt sleeves) and stick like Velcro. This spring, it has turned up everywhere. It will not let you forget it.

Magically, the ancient Egyptians used forget-me-not to aid in receiving visions during the month of Thoth (approximately September 11 to October 10) by placing a few leaves over their eyes. As mentioned, it was considered a lucky plant and in Germany it was used as a talisman for finding hidden treasure, especially if it was guarded by the fae. Forget-me-not was often used for protection from faery mischief; however, judging by the plant’s behavior, I think it is faery mischief.

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Hollyhocks: Old-fashioned Beauty and Magic

I purchased hollyhocks for my garden this spring. Here in northern New England it’s early spring; the daffodils haven’t bloomed yet. One reason I chose hollyhocks was that they were in the gardens of my parents and grandparents. Those tall spires of large flowers were impressive (and still are) as they reach six to eight feet tall.
     The common hollyhock (Alcea rosea) is also known as althea and rose mallow. The five overlapping petals create a bowl-shaped flower that ranges from white to pink to purplish red. The hollyhocks I bought are a cultivar with dark purples, almost black, flowers. Hollyhock has large, heart-shaped leaves with three to seven lobes. They grow up to eight inches long, but become progressively smaller toward the top of the stalk.
     Hollyhocks were a mainstay in cottage gardens and used to treat a range of ailments including snakebites and scorpion stings. They were also grown for beauty; the medieval commoner’s roses. Hollyhocks were also believed to provide protection from the devil and other perceived evils.
     A seventeenth century recipe listed hollyhock as an ingredient for fairy oil, which when anointed to the eyes made the usually invisible fae visible. An elaborate ritual was used to gather the ingredients, which also included grass from a faery circle. With the proper incantations, the oil was also used to conjure a faery known as Elaby Gathon. Nannies called upon this faery to protect babies as they slept to prevent bad faeries from substituting changelings.
     Hollyhocks in the garden attract abundance, prosperity, and happiness. After moving to a new house, crumble a handful of dried flowers, and then sprinkle them around, inside and out, to help you and your family feel at home. Of course, also look for faeries who may also feel at home in your garden with the hollyhocks.

 

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