On Teaching

Hildegard von Bingen

Despite the fact that I started this space as a place to share what I’ve learned in my two decades as a pagan and magical practitioner, I have never considered myself a teacher. I am just a person who has had experiences in the craft that might be different from what you have experienced and telling you about them might help you come to new realizations about your own practice. But as this space has gone in directions I never anticipated, I’ve found myself increasingly asked to teach, to act as an authority.

And when my spiritual guides entered the mix, I knew it was only a matter of time before I found a way to teach in earnest.

I think I’ve found that way, and this Friday, I will be launching “Auntie Eobha’s Folk Magic Course” on my Patreon at the Apprentice tier. You can find more information here, but I thought I would talk a bit here about my teaching philosophy and how I see the teaching of magical craft.

It is no secret that I post most of my content to TikTok, where I have the largest following. And on TikTok, there are certain creators who have obviously made their pages educational spaces. They present information and post references in the comments and field questions from their audience. It’s very similar to a college class, especially a smaller lecture, where the professor has time to address most of the questions from the group, but the primary format is presenting information formally. But these videos are necessarily able to be viewed as one-off snippets of information, for the most part, because there is no telling what the TikTok algorithm will decide to push out widely and it would be counter-productive to expect casual scrollers to go back through a profile to find the context of a given video.

And, unfortunately, the information I have to present is a bit more nuanced and does, to some extent, require a cumulative amount of background information. I have practiced since adolescence and every twist and turn of my own personal journey is part of the development of my current craft. There is no shortcut. And in some cases, there are aspects of folk craft that I need to communicate before getting into the “fun” aspects, like spells and tools. Folk craft is context-heavy and nuanced and not at all suited to a platform where an external algorithm rule all. In fact, it’s not even suited to this space where a single post could be indexed and searched through a search engine without context.

And so I’ve chosen to go through Patreon, where I can have a smaller group of serious students who are interested enough in the topic that they will put in the work to learn the context before the exciting stuff. We’re not just going to learn about candles, herbs, and spells. We’re going to learn about context. The first module of my course is about the historical and cultural context of both magic and the sources we have about it. We’re going to learn how to read sources critically and how to talk about magical practice in a way that doesn’t alienate marginalized people. And, yes, we will also learn some fun stuff.

Cycles in Life and in Craft

There is a lot going around social media and Witchtok about how other people’s craft or practice might not look like yours and that’s okay. But I think it is also important to talk about how your craft might not always look the same from day to day. In addition to developing over the years, your craft may fluctuate in a cyclic faction, just like everything else does. Though I am no adherent to the Wiccan “Wheel of the Year,” I do recognize the inherent cyclic nature of our lives and how that can affect the craft.

In my practice, I am very seasonal. I recognize the seasonal landmarks — the cross-quarter days that were marked with fire festivals in the ancient worlds, the natural events that signified important events both physically and metaphysically, and the changes in weather that can affect the energies present in my practice. And recently, I was made aware of a very strong cyclic influence in my practice: I am a dark-half-of-the-year practitioner.

Now, Samhain and Bealltainn are the two festivals that influenced Wicca that I honor the most regularly, along with Brigid’s Day, because they are important in Scottish folk tradition. And Samhain/Bealltainn specifically mark a transition point. People talk about “the veil being thin” at Samhain, but forget that Bealltainn is the other side of that coin. Charms are made at both festivals and divination is performed traditionally. And for me, a lot of their importance comes from their places at opposite sides of the year — Samhain is where the world feels like it is cooling down and darkening, while Bealltainn is where the world is warming up and brightening.

And I am very much a lover of the cold and dark. My primary deity is a storm goddess who is associated with winter in much of folklore. She is also sometimes oversimplified in modern neopaganism as a “dark goddess” because of her association with aging, winter, and the cycles of life and death, though the Cailleach is more than just a dark or death goddess. But I definitely feel her influence much more strongly in the time following Samhain and then feel it wane as we approach Bealltainn.

Well, recently, I got a birth chart reading where the astrologer (a fantastic friend of mine, Joshua Maria Garcia) pointed out that my chart is very one-sided and that my yearly cyclic influences will show a strong sense of rootedness in the winter months with growing feelings of disconnection during the height of summer. And I think this is part of why I have felt slightly disconnected from my practice in recent weeks and months.

And that’s okay. Our practices will not be the same from year to year, month to month, or day to day. The idea of a “daily practice” doesn’t mean you have to get up and do the same thing every day. It’s more of a daily check in. So now my “daily practice” consists of passive things like wearing devotional jewelry and maybe lighting a candle or reading some folklore. But my real workings will start back up with the colder weather.

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.

Thoughts on The Triple Goddess

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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.

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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.

The Veiled Lady

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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

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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.

Herbs for the Otherworld with Asia Suler of One Willow Apothecaries

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Samhain is traditionally the time when the boundary between our world and the Otherworld is at its thinnest, and, like many of us, I have felt the tug of the Otherworld leading into Samhain and since. So to encourage, support, and connect with those impulses, I thought I would add to my herbal education with a course from Asia Suler at One Willow Apothecaries called “Herbs for the Otherworld.”

While this is not a recap or review of the course, I will say that right from the start, I appreciated Asia’s teaching style. She started with a meditation to ground and focus us so that we would be more receptive to the exercises she prompted us to go through as we moved through her presentation. The class is an audio file that I could listen to when I had some time, which I appreciated, since uninterrupted time is a luxury in my life right now. But throughout the presentation about the nature of the Otherworld and the associated spiritual ideas, she sprinkled in times to reflect silently and write out intentions and experiences.

It was through one of these exercises that I realized that, in my exploration of my ancestral wisdoms, I was neglecting my father’s ancestral line. In particular, one of her exercises led me to realize that one of the feelings this Samhain season has dredged up has been a feeling of disconnect with my father’s father’s ancestral line. My paternal grandfather was the first one to instill in me a love of the outdoors, ancestral plant wisdom, and traditional crafts. And in neglecting to explore that side of my lineage, I was approaching my ancestral truth from a very lopsided perspective.

One of the reasons I find that Celtic spirituality resonates with me is because of the vague idea that I have Scottish heritage, although I have little to go on besides the religion with which I was raised and some vague ideas my mother has about “family over in Scotland.” But when I took this prompt, realized that I was being called to pay more attention to my paternal grandfather’s line, I went into my genealogy and almost immediately found that one of my ancestors along that line had an ancient Dal Riatan surname that indicated migration from Ireland to Scotland, likely in the Middle Ages.

From there, I took the lessons of shamanic connection and spiritual journeying and started exploring on my own. I found a local mushroom farm that sells a reishi mushroom elixir. And I also decided to include my own intuitive herbal ally, my mugwort, to create a reishi and mugwort tea for Samhain Eve. Practicing with some of the Otherworld connection techniques from the course, I was able to deepen my Samhain practice and reach out to that ancestral line that had requested attention.

I was also intrigued by her discussion of “ghosts” are more than just departed people, but any departed energy that was still “haunting” us. It was interesting because most of what resonated with me in the course, was this idea of needing to connect, with ancestors and with this Otherworld. But I recognized that when listening to the section about banishing ghosts that there are still energetic aspects of my past that still linger and are not serving me. Since I don’t have Angelica accessible to me right now, I chose to use my Reishi tincture along with my carnelian stone and sat with this idea of connecting to and banishing my ghosts. And what more fitting day than Hallowe’en to work with ghosts?

The course offered not only a lot of information about the plants and techniques and context of the Otherworld, but helped walk me through these offerings to help me build my own relationship with the Otherworld. In connecting with these practices, I not only deepened my practice, but added to it. And that was a profound thing.

Plants and Ancestors with Regina Pritchett of In Her It Blooms

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I mentioned in passing that I had participated in a class called “Plants and Ancestors” with Regina Pritchett of In Her It Blooms, but I felt compelled to write a post specifically discussing my experiences of the class and how it has deepened my practice over the last week or so. The class was in response to the many Instagram posts and Stories Regina shared over the last several months about cultural appropriation in the herbal community, a topic that interests me greatly, and about which I plan to write in more depth in the near future.

But the essence of this class was learning what ancestral herbalism is and how to connect with your own ancestry, regardless of your knowledge of your specific genealogy or biological heritage. Personally, I have both started working on a genealogy, given that I have the privilege of a white descendent of Europeans, and have had my biological heritage mapped by 23andme (although, I’m planning on testing with another company sometime to explore how the results compare). The results are not surprising. I am completely European, within the limits of accuracy of those tests. The largest percentage is of the British Isles, particularly greater London and some parts of Ireland. Matching up to my genealogy, my Gaelic ancestors likely emigrated from Ireland to Scotland in the Middle Ages, and then later to England, based on surnames.

And yet, even knowing this, Regina’s class was illuminating. It is one thing to know who your ancestors are on paper, but quite another to engage with them through an ancestor-veneration practice. In Celtic paganism and Druidry, ancestor veneration is an integral part of the practice, and one that had eluded me as someone with a complicated family dynamic. Of course, there are others with much less access to information about their heritage. So the class focused more on how to intuitively connect with one’s ancestors.

At the end of the discussion, Regina led us in a guided meditation to meet an ancestor who was particularly in need of attention. Interestingly enough, the ancestor who came to me in this vision was a relative of my only living grandparent, my first-generation American grandmother, born to Magyar immigrants who came from Hungary and Romania in the early 20th century. This also happens to be the side of my ancestry that I ever truly had experience with, as my grandmother tried to maintain this tie to her heritage, and I was the one who chose to learn at least some of it from her, mostly in the form of cooking.

And so, beyond considering how to add regular ancestor veneration to my practice, including blending my very disparate Germanic, Norman, Celtic, and Magyar heritages together, I have been reminded that ancestor veneration is about keeping tradition alive. Sometimes that means setting an altar, lighting a candle, and giving the offering (my grandfathers both love whiskey), and sometimes that means regarding the baking of many rolls of walnut beigli and enjoying it with some Romanian fruit tea as a form of veneration.

Beyond that, it has led me to even further investigate the herbal practices of my ancestors. I know my great-grandmother ran a homestead where they lived in Ohio, and that she came from a small, poor, rural village in Hungary, where it was likely in addition to making all of their food, she likely would have used herbal remedies on her family. My mother has some vague memories of home remedies. But now I can research and find things like nettle and elder on the Magyar side, and linden and blaeberry on the Celtic side.

And so I keep reminders of my particular ancestral heritage close to me. It has become less of an academic exercise, tracing the lines and links, and more personal.