Scattering Violets

An exploration of funerary traditions and innovations, care of the dead, and pagan perspectives on death

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Grains, Spirits, and the Spurtle

It started when I was having trouble buying grains -- rice, flour, oats, you name it -- due to the quarantine panic. I looked in the pantry and realized that we had somehow previously amassed 10 lbs of grits along with 5 lbs of cornmeal -- plenty to get us through a temporary grain shortage. I was relieved, and my gratitude made me think of my ancestors and their reliance on grains, and of the ancestors of peoples around the world who did the same. Grains are sacred everywhere, although the specific grains will differ according to location.


On the Eve of Epiphany, Frau Perchta of the Tyrolean Alps is offered a bowl of porridge with milk and a pat of butter, left on the doorstep or on the roof to gain Her favor as She rides past in the night. A meal of fish and pancakes or dumplings is also traditionally eaten in Her honor that night. Similar goddesses -- ladies of the land, of home crafts and agriculture, of birth and death -- are also connected to the production of grains. Because we live in the South, maize feels appropriate, and we leave out a bowl of grits for the Mothers who ride past our home at the turn of the year.


Thinking of all this, I began researching the history of grits, which led me to porridge, which led me to a Scottish tool called a spurtle. A spurtle is a kind of rod used to stir porridge as it cooks so that it doesn't form clumps, much like a whisk. Spurtles are also used to stir broths, soups, and any other food with a liquid consistency that requires mixing.


The wood used to make a spurtle is typically harvested from trees native and common to the location in which it's made: in Scotland, beech is preferred; in Canada, maple; in the U.S., cherry. In this sense, spurtles are an expression of the land, embodying some of its character and power. Spurtles can range in style from very simple to ornate, and they look quite a bit like a wand: tapered at the stirring end with some sort of design at the handle. Scottish spurtles often have a thistle design on the handle, evoking the national flower of Scotland in all its bright, prickly glory.


Spurtles are believed to have first been created in the 15th century, and since then folklore has built up around them -- a natural result of a tool made from the land, crafted with skill and thoughtfulness, and one that plays an important role in the household. Its relative newness does not make the spurtle any less powerful or its folklore any less authentic: we are just as capable of hearing spirits -- their stories and truths -- as our most ancient ancestors were, and so were the ancestors in the medieval period who bridge our connection to deeper ancestors across time. The only difference is how those stories and truths are colored by the values and perspectives of the people who receive them.


Perhaps the most intriguing bit of folklore about spurtles is in regard to stirring: one is cautioned to always stir clockwise (i.e. sunwise or deasil). If one stirs counter-clockwise, or widdershins, it's said one might invoke the devil. But I think it's a little broader than that. In other folklore, widdershins is often associated with Otherworld spirits. For example, in the English folktale "Childe Rowland," Burd Ellen and her brothers enter Elfland by walking widdershins around a hill (likely an ancient burial mound and the dwelling place of elves in folklore). Circumambulation, or walking in circles, is an ancient method of marking sacred spaces as well as attuning oneself to sacred forces. So it may be that stirring a spurtle widdershins indeed calls forth spirits. Other lore recommends giving spurtles to spirits and being rewarded by them in return.


I've been branching out in my home crafts and skills, and a lot of them have had to do with grains, like milling my own flour and culturing sourdough starter. It didn't take me long to start thinking about how I could make my own spurtle. We have a lot of native cherry trees (black cherry and chokecherry) in our woods, but there's also a sprawling old sugar maple in our backyard that's struck me as powerful ever since I first laid eyes on it. I went over to it one day and found a long, slim branch that had fallen during a recent storm. I cut the straightest section, which was roughly a foot long, and shaved off the bark. I chiseled it into shape over the next few days, then sanded it smooth. Next was burning a design into the handle. I wanted something that expressed its own personality and power, so I put it under my pillow one night and dreamed of stirring a cauldron. I used that as inspiration for the symbols burned into the handle. When it was done, I rubbed some food-grade mineral oil onto it to protect it, which I do each time I clean it.


It really does feel very much like a wand when I hold it, and there's a special sense of intimacy in using a tool I've made with my own hands from raw materials found at home. I've also enjoyed having the opportunity to share spurtle folklore with my family as I made it, passing along ancestral lore and a spirit-rich worldview. Sharing folklore keeps it alive and relevant, and it fills our lives with wonder and meaning. We see clearer with folklore as a lens. Now, whenever my six-year-old sees me stirring with my spurtle, he asks, "Spirits?" and thus far, I've answered, "Not yet."

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, and spirit worker and traveler. Her work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans and Hagstone Publishing's Stone, Root, and Bone ezine. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  


  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Saturday, 25 April 2020

    It's my understanding that cherry wood is toxic containing cyanide. Your land spirits are looking after you to have left the maple branch for you.

  • The Cunning Wīfe
    The Cunning Wīfe Sunday, 31 May 2020

    Cherry wood does contain traces of cyanide -- definitely not good to eat (unlike the fruits)! Because the wood contains such a small amount and isn't consumed itself, it's considered safe as a cooking tool, however. But I am very pleased with the maple -- it's beautiful, sturdy, and fine-grained.

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