There Was an Old Woman

Casting circle for me is one of most integral parts of a Wiccan ritual. I love sweeping and I love the song we use to sweep, but the chant I was originally taught when I came into my tradition that I have been using for casting was just ho hum and I just don’t like casting a ho hum circle!

This chant was not the first circle casting used by my tradition and it certainly won’t be the last, but this particular one never sat right for me when I used it. There are several versions of it around and none of them felt right either.

And while it was suggested that I could write my own, I am a terrible poet and I have a love/hate relationship with Wiccan rhyming anyway.

So, I’ve been looking for something different for a while and I think that finally found the one that works for me!

This rhyme is an old Morris dance that was adopted in the 1700s as a Mother Goose rhyme. There are several versions of it around, but I like the old Morris one the best:

There was an old woman tossed up in a blanket
Ninety nine miles beyond the moon.
And under one arm she carried a basket
And under the other she carried a broom
Old Woman! Old Woman! Old Woman! cried I!
Oh wither! Oh wither! Oh wither so high!
I’m going to sweep cobwebs beyond the sky
And I’ll be back with you by and by.

Morris dance is a great tradition to draw on for folkloric practices anyway. While we can argue over how old the practice of modern Wicca is, I think that details like this prove the very long actual folkloric practices of particular rituals and actions in Britain. Morris dance is very good proof of just how long these practices and beliefs have existed.

I love the imagery of the old woman being tossed up with her broom into the sky to make sure there are no cobwebs. It works for new moons when the moon is unseen and for full moons when the moon is blazing. And what is more traditional in witchcraft than an old woman doing things that no one else will?

Plus it just makes me want to dance as it rolls off the tongue, and what could be better?

The energy of my circle has picked up quite a bit and it definitely took my coven a few circles to deal with the change in energy. It has been both uplifting and energizing!

This website traces a piece of artwork that is tied to the literary history of this poem and also introduces this other, similar yet much longer version:

THE OLD WOMAN AND HER CAT

There was an old woman, who rode on a broom,
With a high gee ho! gee humble;
And she took her Tom Cat behind for a groom
With a bimble, bamble, bumble.

They travelled along till they came to the sky,
With a high gee ho! gee humble;
But the journey so long made them very hungry,
With a bimble, bamble, bumble.

Says Tom, ‘I can find nothing here to eat,
With a high gee ho! gee humble;
So let us go back again, I entreat,
With a bimble, bamble, bumble.’

The old woman would not go back so soon,
With a high gee ho! gee humble;
For she wanted to visit the man in the moon,
With a bimble, bamble, bumble.

Says Tom, ‘I’ll go back by myself to our house,
With a high gee ho! gee humble;
For there I can catch a good rat or a mouse,
With a bimble, bamble, bumble.’

‘But,’ says the old woman, ‘how will you go?
With a high gee ho! gee humble.’
You shan’t have my nag, I protest and vow,
With a bimble, bamble, bumble.’

‘No, no,’ says old Tom, ‘I’ve a plan of my own,
With a high gee ho! gee humble;
So he slid down the rainbow, and left her alone,
With a bimble, bamble, bumble.

So now if you happen to visit the sky,
With a high gee ho! gee humble;
And want to come back, you Tom’s method may try,
With a bimble, bamble, bumble.

I love the rainbow bridge idea, which of course makes me think of the messenger Goddess Iris and the Norse Bifröst. The rainbow is good example of something that is a boundary between the worlds, which is exactly what one needs to think about while casting a circle. This old children’s rhyme also shows how much magical lore and theory can be found in the rhymes and fairy tales that we grew up with. I keep telling my students that you have to know your fairy tales and children’s rhymes for when you are practicing spell work.

One of my favorite fairy tales is “The Buried Moon.” In this strange story, the moon decides to investigate what sorts of evil creatures come out to haunt the bog when she isn’t shining in the sky and gets captured under a large rock! When the moon disappears, the villagers get worried and are frightened. Eventually a traveler hears her cries and seeks out the village wise women to figure out what the villagers should do to rescue her. The wise women tells the villagers: “Go all of ye, just afore the night gathers, put a stone in your mouth, and take a hazel-twig in your hands, and say never a word till you’re safe home again.” Hazel is a wood associated with knowledge and stones can both ground you and allow you to see the fairy world. Its these types of tidbits that we can certainly still learn from today! If you want to read the full story, it can be found here.

What circle castings do you use and why?

Enter Freely and of Your Own Will

This is from a column I wrote for The Pagan Household on June 3rd, 2013 and is a follow up to my last post:

 

A few weeks ago I wrote a column about magical etiquette. I thought I would expand on that topic a bit more and talk about what to do when you invite guests to your rituals.

When you invite someone to a ritual, don’t assume that they know or understand anything about what you’re doing, because, well…they probably don’t. Even if this person has been in the Pagan community for years, that does not mean that they will be familiar with the sort of ritual that you’re doing.

Make sure to give them some background about your group or tradition and explain what you’ll be doing in ritual. It can be confusing going to a new ritual; giving a guest some basic background information can help them understand your ritual a little better and allow them to ask appropriate questions. It also lets them know what they should be doing during ritual.

Explain your altar and the tools on it. Tell the guest a bit about why they’re there, what you will be doing with them and how the guest should act around them. Don’t want your guest to touch things? Tell them that, and explain why. You don’t have to give away secrets, you don’t have to go into a three hour lecture, you can just say hey…this is my athame, I’ll be using it to direct energy, please don’t touch it.

Make sure to explain any stances that you might be doing within ritual and let them know whether you expect them to follow along or not. I always explain what we will be doing at different points in ritual, why we do it and let the guest know that they can do the stance or feel free to just stand politely throughout. Not everyone’s comfort level is up to following along. It can also help to explain why you’re using a particular stance. In my rituals, we do a stance when we are calling quarters. It’s not only a stance that’s respectful, it’s also one that helps you ground the energy that we work with.  Clarifying things like this helps people be more comfortable with what they are doing.

And most importantly, explain what will be happening in ritual. Let them know what the point of the ritual is, what you will be doing at certain points and all the things that will be used in ritual. My significant other went to a ritual where they drank wine in the ritual. Sounds pretty standard right? It wasn’t until later that he found out that there was semen and menstrual blood in the wine. If you’re doing something like this, tell your guests, they have a right to know and the right to make a choice about whether or not to partake or to participate. If you’re going to be upset if someone does not want to partake or participate, then this is a ritual where you probably should not invite guests.

In this scenario, warning your guests about the possibility of death would be appropriate.

In this scenario, warning your guests about the possibility of death would be appropriate.

Make sure to take a minute or two here or there to see if your guest has any questions. This doesn’t have to take away from your ritual, there are always moments in ritual when you can pause and check on your guest. If there really isn’t a spot to pause, make sure to check in after ritual is over and make sure your guest understood everything that you did.

Rituals with guests should also not be long, drawn out affairs. People have a short attention span and when you’re a guest you aren’t usually expecting to end up participating in a five hour ritual. Would you want to be involved in a five hour ritual if you weren’t familiar with the people involved or a ritual that you weren’t familiar with? One of the worst rituals I ever went to as a guest ended up being a five hour ritual. Keep it short.

Having feast after ritual? Make sure to inquire into your guests dietary needs. If the person has a dietary need that you can’t meet, let them know that they should bring something that they can eat. Don’t wait until the meal itself to realize that you don’t have anything other than celery stalks for someone who is vegan.

There’s this idea in the Pagan community that you have to have perfect love and perfect trust for everyone in your ritual. (I see this a lot at public Pagan events). This comes from the line in the Wiccan Rede, which most Neo-Pagans misquote. The line is “Bide ye Wiccan laws ye must, in perfect love and perfect trust”. This has nothing to do with loving and trusting everyone perfectly in a Circle; this is about the laws of the Wicca and really doesn’t have anything to do with non-Wiccan circles. This is a fallacy that is dangerous. If you have a guest, treat them like a guest. This is obviously someone you trust to a certain extent, since you’ve invited them to a religious ritual. This might even be a longtime friend that you do love and trust. Most of the time though, this is not the case. This is someone that you just met and they expressed interest in what you’re doing, or it’s a friend of a friend. Don’t hand someone your house keys just because you’re inviting them to your ritual. The gods are not asking us to be stupid.

Having a guest to ritual can be both fun and educational. It can help people understand a very important part of your life, or help them in being able to be a part of something different than what they usually do. But keep in mind that this is a guest and don’t expect them to understand everything. Think about how you would feel if you were going to a strange ritual and treat a guest accordingly. It’s easy enough to have a bad experience just because you don’t understand what’s going on around you. Sometimes the little explanations make the most difference.

The Forgotten Tools of Wicca

It seems like everyone has an Athame, a Chalice and a wand these days. But some of the other basic tools of a traditional Wiccan altar seem to be overlooked. Let’s take a look at some of them:

Boline:

The Boline is a white handled knife that is usually used as the working altar knife. If the Athame is one of the spiritual tools of the altar, that cuts or draws magical energy in ritual and spell working, the Boline is the physical tool used in basic altar needs and in preparing for any ritual work that you might do, such as in carving candles, trimming wicks, and cutting cords. I’ve heard the Boline compared to a utility knife and I think this is a pretty good analogy for the role that it plays.

The Boline is still a magical tool. It’s energy is just as important as one’s Athame. Most people who work with them still consecrate them like any other altar tool and keep them away from the hands of strangers. The Boline is the knife that you can carry with you out to the garden to cut herbs, it’s the tool to get down and dirty with. It’s a very practical sort of magical tool. While one probably only uses one’s Athame (in traditional Wicca at least) during ritual and as a symbolic tool, the Boline is often carried about and used in much more of a practical manner for ritual or spellwork.

The Bolines sold in most stores these days are shaped like a scythe. While a scythe shaped Boline is traditional, I find that it isn’t always good for anything other than cutting herbs and the garden. I prefer something a little more along the lines of this one…

A Boline like this is much more practical for any sort of task you might come up against.

The use of the Boline shows up in traditional training and it’s not something that you usually find in books. Because of this, it seems to be largely forgotten. In traditional Wicca, there is actually two different types of “practical knives”, the Boline and a separate tool just called the White-Handled Knife. In this scenario, the Boline is used primarily for gardening and the White-Handled knife for carving and cutting on the actual altar. For the most part, in most BTW, these two different knives have evolved into being the same thing. (I’m sure that not all teachers would agree with this). There is also a great debate over whether the Boline/White-Handled Knife is actually a magical tool. I personally see it as being an extension of any magical work I’m doing and treat it as any of my other magical tools, but the way this tool is handled probably depends on the person using it and the tradition that they are in.

Pantacle:

The Pantacle is almost entirely forgotten. The Pantacle is a plate that sits on the altar and is used as a teaching tool. It is traditionally round with symbols carved into it to help students learn the lessons of the Craft. In the past it was made of wax, so it could be broken up and thrown into the fire if the Inquisitors showed up. It is often confused with a Pentacle. A Pantacle is not a Pentacle, a Pentacle is simply a symbol of the Craft.

Pantacle

Pantacle

In these modern days, there seems like there is little need for something like this. We have the internet, we have books: a great deal of written information is always available. In the past, information was not accessible and most people didn’t read information the way we do now. The Pantacle was a simpler way of passing on Craft knowledge.

The Staff:

The Staff is traditionally the tool of the Summoner, who protects the Circle from outside intrusion. It can be used as a form of physical protection and also one of spiritual protection in grounding the energy of the Circle. One of the summoner’s main jobs is to monitor the Circle and ensure that people aren’t over extending themselves in whatever ritual or work is going on. The staff helps the Summoner work with anyone who is not grounded during magical workings.

The staff was the tool of the common man. Weavers used staffs to set the loom so that things could be woven. The weaver could walk from home to home, farm to farm and set a woman’s loom without any suspicion. In this way knowledge of the times and places of meetings could be passed. Staffs are also common as walking aids, someone could travel using a staff and no one thought it odd. While the gentry carried swords, the commoners used staffs as one of their main weapons. No one would take notice of a man with a staff. To read more about the use of the Staff and the role that the Summoner plays, go read my S.O.’s book The Flowering Rod.

The Coven Sword:

The Coven Sword represents the lineage of the coven. It represents anyone who has ever been initiated into that coven. Being tied to the sword ties you to anyone else who has ever been tied to that coven. Some people use the Coven Sword to cast the circle, but as my S.O. puts it, that’s sort of like “using a Howitzer to swat a fly”. The Coven Sword is not usually found on the altar itself, but nearby in a place of honor.

Besom:

A witches’ Besom is more than just a broom to sweep the ground with. The Besom is used in casting the circle. Traditionally the besom is made with ash for the handle, broom for the broom bottom, willow bindings and a secret acorn at the join between the ash and the broom. The Besom is another ordinary household item that could not be held up in a court as a symbol of witchcraft. The Besom is used in handfasting ceremonies, as a household charm for fertility, and several other things. Usually the Besom is also used as a symbol of protection after the Circle has been closed. Go and look up Besom-lore, it is some of my favorite traditional folklore out there.

Book of Shadows:

People think that a Book of Shadows is any book used in the Craft. A true Book of Shadows is used by a coven to preserve the coven’s tradition. In traditional coven training a student is not given access to a full Book of Shadows until they are a third degree initiate. The grimoire is the personal journal that the student keeps until they are initiated fully. Obviously, with the internet, we have full access to many Books of Shadows, such as Gardner’s. It’s not hard these days to just pick up a BOS and read it, understanding it, however, is another matter entirely if you have not been taught the Craft. I live with a third degree elder, I suppose I could steal his BOS and read it, but why, as a student of the Craft, would I want to? Everything in it’s time and place.

Most people have a grimoire, which is a working journal for anyone studying the Craft. Most people keep many grimoires over the course of a lifetime of working in the Craft, where you record your magical thoughts, your spells, your herblore and any other knowledge used in everyday magical working.