Becoming

It’s almost Yule time once again. While I love Yule, this time of year is rough for many reasons and this year seems to be more depressing than most. I’ll also be turning 30 in less than two weeks and life has certainly not gone the way I expected it to the last few years.

Yule magic, Christmas magic, Hanukkah magic, Hogmanay magic, Nickanan magic, Jul magic, Saturnalia magic, or whatever you want to call it, this time of year has the power to bring people together and to allow us to acknowledge the possibility of magic in ways that usually we easily ignore or forget to believe in. Everything is possible this time of year. We ask for magic constantly and expect miracles to happen. This is the time of year that even the most prosaic can secretly believe.

This is the time of year that I love to turn to an old childhood favorite, The Velveteen Rabbit. I give this book to all my friends having children, because if you have read The Velveteen Rabbit and have loved it as a child, you are already prepared a little bit more for the world .

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There was once a velveteen rabbit, and in the beginning he was really splendid. He was fat and bunchy, as a rabbit should be; his coat was spotted brown and white, he had real thread whiskers, and his ears were lined with pink sateen. On Christmas morning, when he sat wedged in the top of the Boy’s stocking, with a sprig of holly between his paws, the effect was charming.

Like all of us, the Velveteen Rabbit starts out perfect, shiny and new, ready to be loved and to enjoy the life he is given. But soon, he is forgotten and becomes depressed and disillusioned. The Velveteen rabbit has to go through a painful transformation before he can truly become a part of the world around him. He has to suffer pain and sorrow before he can become real.

The Skin Horse, an old nursery toy, gives him advice, as all, old wise elders do. The Skin Horse has been worn down by the life he was given, but he is more powerful because of it. The horse is representative of sovereignty over yourself and having control of the world around you, and the Skin Horse is no different. He has mastered himself and is willing to share that knowledge with the Velveteen Rabbit.

The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

the skin horse

There are a lot of people who don’t understand, who forget, who allow hatred and fear blind them to everything else. We are all constantly worn down and broken. It is those of us who can flex and bend and accept that make it through. Becoming real is hard. It hurts. But once it happens, like an initiation, it can’t be taken away from you.

“The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

The Rabbit sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.

As a witch, I see one of the things I am actively doing is seeking that realness. I look for the magic around me and work to make it happen. I don’t ignore the process, I assist it. It might be painful, but it is necessary. It is not an easy path, but it is a path that leads to truth and light and even more importantly love. Love truly is the greatest power in the world and while it might seem old and cliched, the power of love can do things nothing else can. I wonder, if we loved more, what would the world around us be?

I’m not a White Lighter. I believe in the power and the need for the dark, for death, for all those things the end and close cycles. I believe in balance and the need for pain and struggle. I embrace the shadows, because they give us insight that we can’t find in the light. But this time of year is the one time of year that I actively seek that light, because I know that the darkness is about to give way to new things.

These past two years have worn away at me. I have become shabby, just like that old rabbit. But I still have love and in the end, that is more important than anything else that has happened. It is also my best defiance to all of those that have enjoyed my pain and sorrow, who have denied aid or rational thought and who have actively worked to harm me and mine without greater understanding.

I still have love. I still have happiness. The dark has not swallowed me yet. I stand here despite all of it.

I will accept the sacrifices and the suffering, because in the end I can take it in ways that most others cannot. And from it, something better will come.

I may have gotten older, shabbier and lost much of the light I started out with, but that darkness that has creeped in is what allows the light to shine even brighter.

You may laugh at me and tell me that its just a children’s book and ask what truth there can possibly be in a story about a stuffed rabbit that becomes real through the power of love?

But if I have learned nothing else as a witch, it is that those old stories have truths and wisdoms and teachings about power that nothing else can provide. We learn magic from these stories and begin to understand how to hope. I love that this is a fairly new story, but that it captures the heart of all the old ones.

Neil Gaiman wrote: “A world in which there are monsters, and ghosts, and things that want to steal your heart is a world in which there are angels, and dreams and a world in which there is hope.”

My family may have become some of those monsters, but The Velveteen Rabbit reminds me that everything has a reason and that this too shall pass. Even the monster plays a role and helps transform the hero into something better. I can accept being cast in the role of the monster, because I know where it will bring me. And in the end, the Goddess is always waiting to carry me elsewhere.

I may not be real yet, but someday I will be.

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If you have not read The Velveteen Rabbit, you can find it here for free.

When I wrote this, this morning, I didn’t realize that it had published today in 1922. Happy Birthday to The Velveteen Rabbit!

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Fairy Horses

I’m getting ready to start graduate school. I’ve been putting it off for years, but things have finally clicked into place and away I am about to go.

I received my first syllabus tonight. The first book that I have to have read (by the first class, yay grad school!) is Jane Eyre. That’s easy enough, it’s not like I haven’t already read it several times, so it will just be a matter of rereading it and giving it a more “critical” look.

One of the things I love most about this story is that Jane Eyre thinks she has a brush with a piece of folklore.

As this horse approached, and as I watched for it to appear through the dusk, I remembered certain of Bessie’s tales, wherein figured a North-of-England spirit called a “Gytrash,” which, in the form of horse, mule, or large dog, haunted solitary ways, and sometimes came upon belated travellers, as this horse was now coming upon me. It was very near, but not yet in sight; when, in addition to the tramp, tramp, I heard a rush under the hedge, and close down by the hazel stems glided a great dog, whose black and white colour made him a distinct object against the trees. It was exactly one form of Bessie’s Gytrash — a lion-like creature with long hair and a huge head […], with strange pretercanine eyes […]. The horse followed, — a tall steed […]. Nothing ever rode the Gytrash: it was always alone […].  ~ Jane Eyre Chapter 12

Jane Eyre has an encounter with a Gytrash…at least she thinks she does. In reality, this is the scene where she meets Mr. Rochester, her mysterious employer and the hero (anti-hero possibly?), for the first time.

A lot of scholars like to use this as an example of Romanticism in Bronte’s writing. But I think that a lot of it simply has to do with the fact that the Gytrash was a piece of British folklore that most people probably still regularly had encounters with and would have talked about. People were probably warned to watch out for the Gytrash as they traveled through unfamiliar countryside

The Gytrash falls into that category of spirits that haunt lonely roads and weary travelers. Usually appearing as a horse, a dog or sometimes a mule, the Gytrash can either be helpful or harmful.

Jane Eyre is not the only famous piece of literature to depict a Gytrash. The legend of a Gytrash also shows up in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles nearly 60 years later.

There are many types of spirits like this that people would have been weary of meeting on a deserted country road. We’ve all heard of the Will-O-the-Wisp, which are present even in American folklore. The Bridgewater Triangle in Massachusetts is famous for sightings. They even come up in children’s movies these days!

Kelpies and Pukas are also similar to the Gytrash. These water horses can bring good or bad fortune to whoever they encounter. The Puka is known for showing up as a horse, a goat or a rabbit. It is usually associated with Samhain, since it was known for demanding an offering from the last harvested crops. Without the offering, they would cause trouble for the whole community. The Puka can also speak with a human voice and was known for trying to tempt people to come out of their houses at night. (The Puka is also a character in one of my favorite novels, Peter S. Beagle’s Tamsin. If you’re interested in British folklore this is a great book to check out).

Kelpies could appear as beautiful women who would lure men to their watery deaths. The Kelpie usually liked to eat its victims. Sometimes also appearing as a horse, it would tempt someone to get on it’s back and then ride them into a body of water where they could drown and devour their victim. One of the more famous stories of the Kelpie was about one who had convinced nine friends to get on its back. The tenth refused, but put his hand on the Kelpie’s nose. The hand became stuck there and instead of getting on the horses back as the others had done, the tenth child cut off his hand and escaped.

There are also many stories of Kelpies kidnapping women to be their wives in their watery homes which were usually at the bottom of the local loch. (As I write this, my partner is at GenCon without me. This year their guest of honor is another one of my favorite authors…Mercedes Lackey. One of Lackey’s less well-known works is The River’s Gift, a story about a Kelpie. I also recommend this book).

These types of creatures are also related to the Mari Lwyd. The Mari Lwyd or the Grey Mare is a Welsh tradition. Men would carry a horses skull (usually made out of wood or cardboard), decked out in a white sheet (that disguised the man carrying it), ribbons, and a hinged jaw that could snap at people door to door as they wassailed the new year in. Unlike England, where the focus of the wassail ritual was on the birds and the crops, the Welsh focused on the Mari Lwyd, which was a tradition that connects back to the goddess Rhiannon.

We meet Rhiannon in the Mabinogion. Rhiannon is an underworld woman who appears to the hero Pwyll on top of a fairy mound riding a horse. After they are married (which is a long story in and of itself), she is accused of eating her newborn son. In recompense she has to bear men on her back like a horse and tell them what she has done.

The penance that was put on her was as follows: she was to stay at the court of Arbeth for the duration of seven years. There was a mounting-block by the gate. She had to sit beside it every day telling anyone coming by the whole story (of those she supposed did not know it) and offering whichever guest and stranger would allow themselves to carried, to be carried on her back to the court. But only rarely did anyone allow the carrying. In this way she passed the next part of the year.

~ From the third part of the First Branch of the Mabinogion

And while Rhiannon’s son is eventually returned and all is well, it seems as though Rhiannon has to go through her own initiation to lose her underworld nature and does so in this way.

Rhiannon is also usually known for embodying an example of the idea of Celtic sovereignty. Rhiannon represents the land, Pwyll has to marry her to have the right to rule over the land. The book Women of the Celts discusses this idea at length if you’re interested in that.

Rhiannon Alan Lee Illustration, 1984

Rhiannon
Alan Lee
Illustration, 1984

In general, these horse spirits seem to be tied into the land. They either haunt travelers who are in their territory, or they are a part of the rituals of the harvest and the turning of the Wheel. Rhiannon is a goddess that is a big part of my own work. I love that the mythology of the original horse goddess still remains present in a great deal of folklore and literature. I don’t know what I would do if I were to meet a Gytrash or a Puka on the road. They are seductive creatures and even though I know better, even I might be tempted to see where one would lead me…

Other Readings:

The Great Queen and the Sovereignty of Self

Rebellion of the Queen

The Wedding of Sir Gawain & Dame Ragnell

The Celtic Goddess of Sovereignty as Warrior: Boudicca and the Death of a Druid Prince

And another Yule has passed…

I hope this finds everyone well and that you all survived the holiday madness. Here was this year’s Wassail. It turned out pretty tasty…

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Today was my 27th birthday and as I enter into my Saturn Return, I can only hope the peace of these last few days will remain throughout the year. If not, at least that means some interesting blog posts for all of you reading this…

New Orleans has some fabulous Holiday traditions, I’ll leave you with my friend’s blog The Yuletide Joy of Unregulated Pyrotechnics, which more than adequately explains my favorite one. Those Cajuns don’t do anything half-way…

Yule and holiday blessings a little late from down here in New Orleans! And a very Happy New Year!

Wassail!

I’m reposting this from my Pagan Household column because I think you all will enjoy it as well.

Happy Holidays!

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve had a hard week. So I’ve decided to turn my mind to the things I am looking forward to about the upcoming holidays. And one of the things that I like best about Yule is Wassail.

For those of you who are not familiar with this delicious Yule treat, Wassail is an old Saxon tradition. The word breaks down to ‘Waes Hail’ or ‘Good Health,’ and it was traditional to drink to the ‘good health’ of the village for the year. The young men of the village would go door to door on Yule singing a Wassail song. Each household would give them silver to “pay” the young men to drink for the good health of the household and their fields for the new year. This is where caroling comes from, and in many small towns in England, this old tradition is still carried on to this day. (Bobbing for apples probably came from the wassail tradition as well).

Wassail is a hot punch that brings comfort and cheer, though I wouldn’t recommend it for the children. (Unless of course, you want your children to sleep very soundly that night. In all honesty, you can make this completely alcohol free, though traditionally the alcohol is an important component, ritually and practically).

Wassail Recipe –

2 apples

2 pears

cloves

1 gallon local cider

1 or 2 bottles ale (whatever brand you prefer, I like to use locally brewed)

A fifth of brandy (again, whichever brand you prefer)

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon ginger

1 teaspoon nutmeg

First you should clove your apples and pears. All you need to do for this is to take your apples and pears and spear them with cloves all over. Some people do it in orderly rows  or patterns (we’re not that picky in my household). When the fruit is liberally stuck with cloves, set them aside until later.

Next you must mull your cider. To mull, pour a jug of cider into a large stock pot and heat it until it’s almost boiling. When it’s almost boiling, you add in one or two bottles of ale and a fifth of your preferred brandy. The amount of each alcohol can vary, depending on how strong you like your Wassail.

After this mixture has heated back to almost boiling, add in your cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. The amounts of these are again a matter of taste, I would start with a teaspoon each and then taste and see how you feel about it. After you add in your spices, drop in the cloved apples and pears. Gently stir at a constant temperature for about five minutes.

Serve and keep it warm for as long as people want to keep drinking it. (I’ve seen people put it in a Crockpot and set it on low if your event or party is lasting for a while).

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After making your Wassail, make sure everyone has a glass and raise a Bragi Toast, which is an old Viking tradition. Make vows for the things that you plan to do in the new year. Traditionally people standing in a circle would make a vow and take a drink, one after another until the Wassail was all gone. This is where our modern New Year’s Resolutions come from.

Don’t be surprised if you become tipsy enough to vow to invade Iceland. (Gotta watch out for that one…)

You could also sing a Wassailing song or two…

Old Apple tree, old apple tree;

We’ve come to wassail thee;

To bear and to bow apples enow;

Hats full, caps full, three bushel bags full;

Barn floors full and a little heap under the stairs.

Or…

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Hopefully the Wassail will remind you, like it does me, of all the things we have in our lives that make them wonderful. And when the Joulupukki comes for your leftovers on Yule night, he will be just as pleased and leave even more presents under the Yule tree.

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