A Witch or a Spae-Wife?

My friend Ash made a thoroughly enlightening video on IGTV the other day in which he explained the difference among the different kinds of Scottish folk practitioners. It was a delightfully succinct-yet-informative video, and it reminded me that Gaelic is not the only language of Scotland because he made sure to give Scots names for practitioners as well. It echoed the sentiments behind this piece from Cailleach’s Herbarium, in which Scott reminds us that “witches” were and are something quite specific in Scottish folk practice and that the idea that any practitioner of magical craft is a “witch” is a relatively new idea.

But Ash’s exploration of the differences among wise or canny folk and other practitioners of magic has led me down a research rabbit hole as I grapple with my own personal craft. I’ve spoken before about how I’m not really a witch (blighting cattle and consorting with the De’il isn’t really my cup of tea), and I had settled on the term “wise woman” as a way to describe what I do — a little wort cunning and herb lore, a little charm work, a little spirit travel, and a little divination. But my research is bringing me to the conclusion that my practice might be more akin to that of a spae-wife (or spey-wife), the diviner and seer of Scottish folk practice.

Because whenever I think about the conversation around the word “witch” and how it doesn’t really describe my practice, I also need to think about what words I do like to use for my practice, and “spae-wife” was a new word to me, learned from Ash’s video. And I like new words.

The word comes from the Old Norse word “spa,” which means to prophesy or foretell the future and was adapted into the Scots language to describe a woman who specialized in fortune-telling magic, although some accounts of the spae-wife painted her as similar to a wise woman, with aspects of medicinal or healing arts at her disposal. She might have been consulted for folk remedies, charms, or to help women in childbirth. In particular, though, the spae-wife specialized in divination, whether by dreams, cards, bones or stones, omens, or the traditional frith ceremony. The role seems to have been more common in the Orkney Islands, and the name “spae-wife” as opposed to “taibhsear” indicated that this was primarily a lowland role for magical practitioners.

And I love this. As I move through my practice, I’m finding myself more and more drawn to divination, seership, and my connection to the spirit world. It doesn’t hurt that my patron deity is a psychopomp of sorts, bridging the physical world and the world of the ancestors. So I am sampling this word, rolling it around in my mouth and brain and seeing if this might be a good word for my practice.

Part of coming into my own as a practitioner has been accepting that I am meant to share my craft with others. And part of that has been clearly revealed to me by doing a bit of a soft-opening of my divination services to my closer friends on social media. But this piece is also an announcement of sorts that I do offer divination services. I primarily use cards right now. I’m not really a medium, in that I cannot consistently and consciously channel spirits, though I get messages now and then, but I enjoy performing divination and passing messages along to those who seek them. If you are interested in a card reading, you can see more information on my Divination page. And hopefully, I can try to figure out how to offer remote readings of other kinds soon.

For now, I’ll remain an obscure online spae-wife, casting my stones and reading my cards, and waiting. Beannachd leat!

What is a Pagan?

This is an argument I’ve been following and I thought I would wade in because I have a different perspective. As a former classics student, my starting point with this question would not be to consult Google or a dictionary, but instead my Wheelock’s Latin textbook, where the word “paganus” is described as “a countryman, peasant.” It is also used as an adjective to mean someone that is from the country.

And this is where the word “pagan” comes from. But what did it actually mean? Like any language, words have connotations as well as denotations, and the connotation of “paganus” was more akin to “bumpkin” than simply “someone who happens to live outside the city.” Pagani were differentiated from the urban elites who considered themselves more intelligent, more educated, more cultured, and more worthy, and therefore when urban Romans referred to a “paganus,” it was not a complimentary word. And when they used the word to refer to religious worship, they likely referred to specific deities or epithets that were honored more by the country folk than by those in the cities, or specific practices and rites that differed from the “proper” urban practice.

So saying that “pagans” are defined by a nature-based religion isn’t exactly correct because by most modern definitions, they were all pagans before the 4th century CE. Of course, when Emperor Constantine began the process of legitimizing Christianity and pulling it into mainstream Roman society, and later Theodosius made it the official religion of the Empire, “pagan” would refer to anyone who wasn’t Christian, which was mostly outlying rural areas and those areas newly conquered by Rome. It more akin to the difference between Episcopalians and Baptists than Christians and polytheists.

But this word “paganus” didn’t refer to Jews, not because the Roman Christians felt any kinship with the Jews — in fact, most of Constantine’s contribution to the early Christian church was to explicitly separate it from Jewish tradition. It was simply that Judaism predates the founding of Rome by a thousand years (at least) and therefore was just considered separate from the issues related to Romans. Jews weren’t considered Romans, so it didn’t make sense to divide them into urban or pagan. And, of course, the word “paganus” didn’t include Muslims because they wouldn’t exist for another couple hundred years after the adoption of Christianity as the official Roman religion. So the distinction of “pagan” as “non-Abrahamic” is meaningless in the context of the original word, since there was no such thing (and really, still isn’t) a concept of unified “Abrahamic” religions. There were the ruling Christians and the peasant or conquered Christians.

Then, there is the fact that using the word “pagan,” which derives from an empire that primarily focused its rule on modern-day Europe, western Asia, and a little bit of northern Africa does not take into account a large swath of the earth’s population. The word “paganus” didn’t refer to Hindus, Buddhists, or Taoists, despite the fact that they absolutely existed at the same time as the Roman Empire because they were never conquered by the Romans, and so were not part of the dichotomy of ruling urban elites vs. country bumpkins. It didn’t include a large portion of traditional African religions, and it certainly wouldn’t include any of the practices of what we now call the Americas. So why do we cling to a naming convention that is defined in relation to an empire that fell over a thousand years before the modern pagan revival?

Well, a lot of that has to do with the European Enlightenment era idolization of classical Rome, and by extension classical Greece. Because they grew disillusioned with medieval Church domination of knowledge and philosophy, they sought to return to pre-Christian traditions, and of course looked to ancient Rome and Greece for philosophical guidance. And in their minds, reclaiming the word “pagan” further separated them from medieval Christianity, which had stuck to its Roman roots by using the word “pagan” pejoratively to refer to any non-Christian.

So where does that leave us with the word today? Dictionaries will say that “pagan” is anyone who holds beliefs “outside those of the main world religions,” which is a laughably broad definition, since there is no indication what constitutes a “major” world religion. Many define it as Abrahamic religions, which is both a false conflation of three religions that have historically been at odds, as well as inappropriate on a strictly statistical level, since there are more Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs than Jews in the world. Plus, there are many religions with non-European origins that would be frankly offended to be called “pagan.”

Here is my suggestion: a pagan is someone who identifies as a pagan.

I see no reason to insist upon labeling someone else’s religion in a way that is contrary to how they label themselves. If someone wants to call themselves an animist, but not a pagan, that is their business. And, after all, this was originally used as a pejorative, and reclamation of a pejorative should be up to the population reclaiming it. We don’t insist women appreciate being called bimbos simply because some women have reclaimed the word. And we should not insist on calling others pagans who haven’t claimed that word for themselves.

And if you meet someone who seems to have the exact same worship as you, but doesn’t want to be called a pagan when you do? That isn’t your problem, or theirs. In fact, it isn’t a problem. Their identification has nothing to do with you. So, while it may differ from the dictionary and many “official” sources, there is my definition of a pagn.

But am I a pagan? I call myself that, as it suits me. I call myself witch as it suits me. I call myself animist as it suits me. Honestly, in my personal belief system, spirituality is something personal, a relationship between myself and the powers I believe in and honor. I hope that satisfies you, but if it doesn’t, I don’t know what to tell you.

The Kinship of Magic and Herbalism

IMG_0891

One of the earliest written accounts of the use of herbs in European history is the Physica of Hildegard von Bingen, a medieval nun, mystic, and scholar of natural science from Germany. From her writings, it is clear that herbal healing and knowledge of natural remedies was intimately linked to concepts of magic and spirituality. From the introduction of her chapter on plant lore, she says that different plants have the ability to not only affect the physical body, but the spiritual one as well.

From there, we can look at Nicholas Culpeper’s English Physician (later retitled The Complete Herbal) and see how, in his descriptions of plants and their preparation and use, he takes into account not only the physical properties of each plant, but the metaphysical. He discusses the astrological correspondences of plants alongside the physical effects in the body.

This is why I am so insistent upon studying the history of my paths. While in the modern day, herbalism has take steps to become “more scientific” in an attempt to gain legitimacy among the world of “modern” medicine, the fact remains that the earliest roots of herbalism are entwined with the roots of magic, witchcraft, and metaphysical study.

And so much of medicine and healing, in any tradition, is intuitive and undefined. When I was being treated for migraine headaches, the doctor told me that there is not as much science behind treating migraines because it’s not entirely known what treatments will work for which people. He started me out with a medication that I knew worked for my mother because those sympathies often exist, but it was a guess. In the same way, how often have you heard a story of a medical issue where the doctor “had a feeling” they should try something, despite not seeing clear signs outwardly in tests?

In the same way, herbalism embraces this vagueness and uncertainty. The herbalist strives to treat the whole person. In a similar way, my experience with acupuncture showed me the benefit of treating the whole person, not just the specific complaint. I had gone to the acupuncturist for help conceiving, but found that the most fruitful sessions we had were those in which he treated my past grief. Medical science is only recently catching up to the ways in which the body is interconnected and seemingly distinct issues are part of a whole.

So in the same way that modern medicine grew out of the herbalism that was intimately interconnected with folk magic, we are still learning and expanding that story in ways that we don’t yet understand. We know these connections are there, but we don’t know exactly what they are. They are like the explanations for the cycles of eclipses or the changing of the seasons before we had observed them through space exploration. The human body will always be that which is most familiar and yet often most foreign to us. And what else is that which we know exists but don’t yet understand but magic?

Thoughts on The Triple Goddess

IMG_0884

When I first discovered paganism and witchcraft, like many children in the ’90s, I first found Wicca. There, I learned of the divine feminine and the Triple Goddess of Maiden, Mother, and Crone, which represented the three phases of a woman’s life. Since then, I’ve experienced living as a woman, for nearly forty years, and I realize that this framework is needlessly reductive.

Wicca grew out of the neopagan revival of the 19th century, and with that, Victorian-era gender politics bled in. It was in the mid-19th century that “The Angel in the House” was published and popularized the ideal of the woman as ruler of the domestic sphere. The Triple Goddess, while created in an attempt to subvert patriarchal Christian Trinity, actually reinforces the idea that women are defined by their relationship to their reproductive system.

As I grew up and grew older, I realized there was more to it than that. It was many years before I decided I even wanted to have children, so I spent over a decade in a liminal space where I was neither Maiden, nor ever likely (in my mind) to become the Mother. What is a woman in between?

Since then, I’ve turned to more folkloric-driven paganism and witchcraft and have found that the neopagan idea of the Triple Goddess is new indeed. There are three-part or three-fold deities in folklore, but they rarely follow the archetypes of Maiden-Mother-Crone. One that comes to mind readily is Hekate, who is a goddess of liminal spaces and crossroads, symbolized by a three-faced form, with a face to watch each of the roads at a three-way crossroads.

In Celtic folklore, the Morrigan is often used as the example of a “triple goddess,” because she is often described as a composite goddess, made up of three sisters. But this might have less to do with an inherent three-fold nature and more to do with the fact that “Mor Rigan” is a title, not a name, and the various deities that are considered “part of the Morrigan” are simply those who have held this title, similarly to how the Cailleach is often considered a title that has been variously associated with different deities.

Brigid is another who has been considered to fit the mold of Triple Goddess, with various aspects of Brigid associated with various things that she is supposed to rule. But those aspects don’t follow the Maiden-Mother-Crone model of the neopagan Triple Goddess. Instead, they give a picture of Brigid as a well-rounded deity of many interests — poetry, smithing, midwifery — rather than reducing her to her biological functions.

And that is the trouble with the neopagan Triple Goddess: it is exclusionary and reductive. It not only reduces women to their biological functioning, but it excludes those women who don’t necessarily have those functions inherent in their bodies. Trans women, nonbinary people who wish to interact with their goddess nature, women who don’t have a reproductive system at all. And women who don’t find fulfillment in the Victorian ideal of womanhood.

But Trinity is something that exists cross-culturally. Not all trinity is the Holy Trinity of Son, Father, and Spirit (which the neopagan trinity mirrors). In many cultures, there is an idea of the trinity being male, female, and neutral. In many cultures, the first three colors named are black, white, and red, usually representing dark, light, and blood, or birth, death, and life.

So in that vein, I like to think of trinity as the necessary result of trying to define a binary. Two points define a line, but in between is the line. And so, rather than trying to explicitly define three points or three phases, that trinity becomes the two points and the infinite possibility in between.

In my own practice, this comes up primarily in my own form of candle magic. I generally use three colors of candles: white (or raw beeswax), black, and red. While there are rough correspondences to the three main deities I honor currently, these are also colors that, to me, can represent any goal I might have in my magic or prayer. White for healing and nurture, red for action, black for internal work. These do not have to correspond to any particular phase of my life. And they go beyond the Maiden-Mother-Crone framework.

If you identify with the neopagan Triple Goddess, that is wonderful. But if you’ve ever felt like there was some disconnect, I encourage you to explore the idea of trinity outside of the rigidly defined rules of neopaganism. Because, honestly, trinity is simply the recognition of a world outside the binary.

Imbolc and the Cailleach

Imbolc, or Brigid’s Day, was traditionally the beginning of the spring season in the ancient world. It was largely marked by the beginning of lambing, the return of milk from dairy livestock, and the blooming of the blackthorn. But it is still the dark half of the year and the time of the Cailleach, and there is a lot of folklore connecting Imbolc and the Cailleach.

In one of the most well-known, the Cailleach is associated with the Winter Queen Beira, who ages throughout the year and then bathes in a magical spring once a year to restore her youth. It is said that the spring’s magic is at its most potent on the first day of spring, or Imbolc, which is when the aged hag of winter bathes in the waters and transforms into the spring maiden. As the year once again progresses, she ages, until by Samhain she is once again the hag of winter, ruling the dark half of the year.

But in other versions of this story, Beira captures the Summer Queen Bride (associated with Brigid), and keeps her as a drudge. But on the first day of spring, the Summer King Angus rescues her and names the day “Bride’s Day,” which is how the day is known in Scottish folk tradition. This struggle of Angus against Beira, and the liberation of Bride, represents the cycle of the seasons, with Beira representing the stormy time of winter and early spring, while Bride represents the calm times of summer and autumn.

One of the aspects I find so fascinating about this tale is the seeming inversion of the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone. Now, many modern enthusiasts and folklorists have taken another look at the myth of Persephone and Hades with the question of whether Persephone really was abducted, or if she was honestly in love with Hades and sought to escape an overbearing mother. In the same way, I like to take a second look at the story of Bride and the Cailleach and wonder if there is some other tale that has faded into the recesses of unrecorded history.

Finally, my favorite story of the Cailleach at Imbolc is the inspiration for a beloved American tradition. It was said that each year at Imbolc, the Cailleach gathers the rest of the kindling and wood she will need to keep warm until the storms of winter pass and spring and summer return. Because she controls the weather, she makes the day fair if she needs to be out for a long time to gather a lot of wood, but if she doesn’t make nice weather, it is because she doesn’t need much more wood because she foresees a short rest of winter. Now, this story has been change in the States and the wizened figure of the hag of winter has morphed into another familiar creature that is consulted as a weather augury around the beginning of February: a groundhog.

Blessed Imbolc and may the winter end soon!

[NB: You can find the stories of Beira, Bride, and Angus in Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend by Donald Alexander Mackenzie]

Brigid: The Healer

Content warning: Mention of pregnancy loss.

IMG_0859

As January reaches its apex and slides into February, I can feel the influence of Brigid more strongly in my life again. We are nearing her feast day, La Fheile Bride, Imbolc, Candlemas. She has been a healing presence in my life since the loss of my first pregnancy over three years ago and her celebration, and the traditional beginning of spring, is always a bright spot in my year.

Brigid, or Bride, is one of the few pre-Christian goddesses who has been syncretized explicitly into Scottish folk practice, appearing in the Carmina Gadelica as the midwife of Mary, foster-mother to Jesus. The songs make it clear that this is not really a fifth-century Irish saint, but instead a goddess-like figure who appeared at the Nativity in a radiant golden light. She is invoked as an equal to Mary and is often associated with midwifery and fire, like the pre-Christian Brigid.

My experience with Brigid began about three years ago as I was trying to heal after losing my first pregnancy. Brigid is associated with grief and the loss of a child and so she was one of the goddesses I invoked to aid me. While her gentle presence was a balm to my grief, I found her most powerful when I invoked her on behalf of another. Shortly after my loss, a dear friend fell dangerously ill, and I was so worried for her that I prayed to Brigid to please protect her and help her heal. She made an astonishing recovery after that, faster than anyone expected. From then on, I knew that, while An Cailleach is my primary focus, Brigid would be a part of my life for good.

I associate Brigid with fire and water, so I invoked and honor her with a candle and either an offering of clean, consecrated water, or else a tea session with my favorite Baozhong oolong, which holds a deep association with water for me. Her presence is soothing, like a mother’s embrace, and as her feast day approaches, I feel the dark and cold of winter shaking loose from my bones and the warm hope of spring kindling in me.

In folklore, Brigid is the daughter of the Dagda, a goddess of poetic inspiration, healing, and smithing. She is honored with perpetual flames as well as holy springs and wells. This trinity is sometimes made explicit, with Brigid having two sisters, also named Brigid, making her a sort of triple goddess. In some folklore, she is associated with tricolor animals, such as calico cats. During the first battle of Magh Tuireadh, her son is killed and it was from her wailing in grief that the practice of keening was brought into the world. She is both revered as a spring or summer maiden, as in the stories of Bride in Scottish folklore, as well as a mother and midwife, in the stories of her grief and the syncretic practices of honoring her connection with Jesus.

Having felt her warm, gentle presence, I understand why the Irish and Scots wished to keep her in their traditions, despite the incursion of Christianity. And, perhaps, this benevolent presence is why the early Christian missionaries accepted her into their traditions, even going so far as to rewrite the Nativity for her.

Red Thread and Fiber Magic

IMG_0851

One of my favorite book series as a girl was Tamora Pierce’s Lioness Quartet. The books follow the life of a young magic-user in a fantasy realm, but one aspect of the story that I always found fascinating was when the main character is teaching a group of young people to act as their village’s magical practitioners and is teaching them the crafts involved in enchanting using household tasks, particularly fiber.

As someone who crochets, spins, and sews, fiber arts are something that intrigue me in the context of my craft, and in the folk practices that call me, thread and string are key players in common charms. So when I saw that my go-to yarn source had come out with a new three-ply wool yarn, I decided to look into string and thread charms more deeply.

My first stop was my book on Scottish charms and the writings of Scott Richardson-Read of Cailleach’s Herbarium. My trusty book of Scottish charms and amulets talks of the “rowan and red thread” charm, where two crossed sticks of rowan wood are tied together with red thread. Incidentally, this charm reminds me a bit of the “god’s eye” charms we made in elementary school. The color red has associations with protection and counteracting harmful magic across cultures. And Scott has written of the snaim, or three-knot charm, using red, three-ply wool string to perform a ritual knotting and chant to banish the evil eye.

Though I have no cattle to be blighted or any mysterious illnesses of my own, the use of folk protections like this appeals to me, especially when it involves a medium that I feel a close connection to. I’ve taken up spinning because I appreciate the meaning and symbolism of both spinning a thread, as well as the focus that goes into it. While my current batch of wool is undyed grey Shetland wool, perhaps I should consider dyeing some red fiber to spin my own thread for protection charms. Even without the threat of baneful practitioners who might curse me, a little protection is never a bad idea.

And this is the philosophy of practice that I find so attractive about traditional folk magic — it is not about large rituals, but about weaving magic in with the mundane. In the same way that the pre-Christian beliefs were intertwined and syncretized with Christian belief, the mundane and the sacred are blended in such a way that the magic imbues all areas of daily life. It isn’t about specific rituals, but about finding the magic in small charms. As I crochet a project, sew an apron, spin a skein, prepare a meal, or simply make a cup of tea, intent and focus lend magic to all of these actions, making them into small workings, even when I am not sitting down to “do magic.” It is all magic.

Eventually perhaps I may need to put some of these ideas together. I’ve thought for a while of creating my own special shawl to wear when I’m doing particular workings. While I had hoped to use my own handspun yarn, I worry that it will not be rugged enough to stand up to near-daily wear, so I have been looking at using commercial yarn. And crochet is similar to a series of knots. Perhaps a three-repeat pattern would be a powerful way to knot intention into the piece. And perhaps I should run a red thread through it to remind me of the protection of mundane crafts.

The Veiled Lady

HeadScarf2

Recently, I posted a picture of myself working on my Materia Medica in which I am wearing a head covering. I tried to pre-emptively explain it because in the past, when I’ve covered my head in public, I’ve gotten a fair number of comments or questions about it. But then a friend pointed out that it is only natural that I would feel drawn towards head covering or veiling, as my main deity is known solely as “the veiled one.”

Head covering or veiling exists in many spiritual and religious traditions for many reasons. Sikhs cover their hair to protect their crown chakra; Jewish people cover their head as a representation of their observance of Jewish law and custom; some Christian faiths cover, either all the time or specifically during services; and Muslim women will take the hijab as an expression of their faith. In pagan communities or among other practitioners, veiling is seen as an act of connection with a deity, or else a way to protect spiritual energy that is expressed through the hair or head.

Historically, head coverings also have a long and global history. My own covering is inspired by medieval European coverings, as well as by modern head scarves. I have found myself falling in and out of covering my head for various reasons — for hair protection, to keep things clean, to cover them when they’re not, and as a way to alleviate the pressure of updos on days when I have a headache. It was not until my friend’s comment that I realized that some of this was subconsciously an expression of my connection to a deity who is named for her head covering.

I have always felt the need for a shawl or veil while meditating. In fact, I have one shawl in particular, a black-and-white plaid, that holds a special connection to my spiritual practice and that I often use during my practice. And shawls, scarves, and blankets are a large part of my own personal ability to feel secure in an environment. It probably has a bit to do with why I feel most connected to my spiritual path during the colder months.

So as I found myself deepening my practice and my connection to the Cailleach, I also found myself covering my head more often. And with that, I felt the desire to have a special wrap. So I made it. It is made from unbleached natural linen and hand-sewn, with my intentions and attention sewn into every seam. It is easy for me to tie and secure and washable so I can use it to help keep my hair clean. It is both practical and a wonderful way to feel connected to my practice, even on days I don’t do some kind of formal working.

If you’re interested in more writings about veiling, from the perspective of a Jewish witch who addresses both Jewish and modern witchcraft traditions of veiling, Z from Jewitches has a beautiful post that helped me on my journey. All of her writings are fantastic.

Midwinter: The Return of the Light

IMG_0825

Whether you call it Midwinter, Yule, the Winter Solstice, Mean Geimhridh, Alban Arthan, Mother Night, or any number of other names, the celebration of the longest night is a celebration of the return of the sun. Interestingly, I think this has been the natural festival that I have been celebrating for the longest in my life. No, not because we celebrated Christmas while I was growing up, but because I learned from a young age that this “first day of winter” was the day when the days started getting longer and brighter.

My father used to bring his guitar to play songs during our Christmas dinners with family and he loved to sing The Beatles “Here Comes the Sun” after going through some typical Christmas songs as a reminder that this was also the time when the sun was returning. Later in my life, I was a long-distance runner, and would wake up early in the morning to go on my run before class or work, and I would count the days leading up to the solstice because the sun’s return meant that I would have more time to run without having to leave before sunrise.

In folk tradition, the end of December and beginning of January (or the end of the Gregorian calendar), was a time of feasting and celebration. In Scottish tradition, Nollaig and Hogmanay are celebrations of Christmas, the new year, and the return of light. They will bless their space and possessions, and recite prayers for the season, using their unique syncretic blend of Celtic deities and Christianity.

Like much of the dark half of the year, it was also a time during which the fairies were supposed to be active. On Hogmanay, you’re supposed to protect your house with boughs of holly to deter them. In Norse tradition, the winter solstice was also the time of the Wild Hunt, which has be adopted to some extent into Scottish folklore.

As I mentioned at Samhain, the popular misconception that winter was the lean time of year is disproven with the widespread feasting at Midwinter. This is the time of year where there isn’t a whole lot to do in order to make food. The harvests have been reaped, it is too early to sow, the cows have probably gone dry for the year and the cheese made. It is a time of leisure and enjoyment of your stored bounty. Time enough to work when the world warms again.

This year, our traditions are disrupted by the pandemic and we aren’t going to celebrate Christmas with family, but we are still able to take off Nollaig, the week between Christmas and New Year. So while most of our festivities will start on the 24th, I have made some space to celebrate the day of the solstice, and the return of light and warmth to the world.

In addition to my pine-infused bath soak, to bring warmth to my body, I’ve made two cypress bundles to use for smoke cleansing my space: one for Midwinter day and one for Hogmanay. I’ve also set aside a special candle light for a Midwinter vigil. Beyond that, there will be plenty of special baking, perhaps including some family recipes. I hope your holiday season is a blessed one.

Folklore and Felines: The Cat Sith

IMG_0625

Cats have always been tenuously domesticated, at best. The relationship between human and feline is one of decided economic exchange, with little of the emotional bond that one sees throughout history between human and canine. That is not to say that our feline companions do not have a fondness for us, but the nature of cats is more solitary in many ways. And folklore echoes this human unsureness about the relationships they have with their cats.

In Scotland, the legendary Cat Sith may have been based on feral and wild cats who roam the area, or even the hybrid Kellas cat, which shares some striking similarities to the descriptions of the Cat Sith. But the Cat Sith was essentially a fae cat creature, capable of cursing households and stealing the souls of the dead. Folkloric descriptions of the Cat Sith is a cat as big as a dog that is all black, except for the white patch on its breast. Looking at images of the Kellas cats of Moray, it’s easy to see where the comparisons are drawn.

But the Cat Sith came to be associated with the folktale character of The King of Cats, as described in a story that was first recorded in the 16th century in William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat. In the story, a man was hailed by a cat in the forest and told to tell his own cat that “Grimalkin is dead.” When he gets home, he tells his wife the story, and their cat jumps up and says that “if Grimalkin is dead then farewell” and left, never to be seen again. Interestingly, in this first written version, the man’s cat is female, as evidenced by the pronoun used by the mysterious cat in the woods.

Later on, this story is expanded upon. The man comes across not a single cat who hails him, but a group of cats carrying a coffin, who tell him that the king of cats is dead, and upon hearing this, the man’s cat jumps up and declares that they are the new king of cats and leaves. Of course the implication was that not only was the man unaware his cat was feline royalty, but also they could talk.

And I think this says a lot about the relationship between man and cat. While wild canines do exist, and were a threat to humans for millennia, cats are somewhat different outside of areas with large cats like lions, jaguars, and tigers. On the isle of Britannia, cats were generally either domesticated, or one of the increasingly small population of wild cats. But even domesticated cats are not entirely domestic, up to the present day. Plenty of people “own” cats who come and go as they please. While our own cat is exclusively an indoor cat, she does enjoy watching the exploits of the neighbor cats who roam the yard.

As a final note, mythology of the Cat Sith includes the ritual of leaving a saucer of milk out for the creature on Samhain eve so that they will bless your house (and to avoid the curse if the cat doesn’t get their milk). There was also a legend that the Cat Sith was a witch who could transform into a cat nine times, and on the ninth time would stay a cat forever, and may be the origin of the idea that cats have nine lives.

So as you enjoy the company of your feline friends, remember to be respectful. You never know when you might be in the presence of the next King of Cats.