The Runes: Thorn

In this blog series, we will go through the runes as they are recorded in the Anglo-Saxon or Old English Rune Poem.

The third rune, Thorn is a tricky one, as its meaning has shifted with the Anglo-Saxon language. In Old Norse, it is connected to thurs, a malevolent entity of raw power. Some accord this entity to the giants found in Old Norse literature. But in Anglo-Saxon, it is thought that the shape of the rune dictated the meaning, and so we have “thorn”.[1] It is believed that the change occurred during the Christian period, and so the younger Norwegian Rune Poem may hold an older vestige of this rune’s meaning.

Alaric Albertsson states that the rune means “hawthorn”.[2] This may be due to the laying of hawthorn hedges in the Anglo-Saxon agricultural world, and taking rest in their shade, albeit carefully. It may connect to the English thyrses in this way (Old Norse thurses) in that the hawthorn, being a tree of liminality especially in Celtic lore (a faery tree) allows beings to travel between the worlds and thus, assail humanity should they so wish. As far as I can tell from my research, this is, however, all conjecture.

Swain Wodening makes the connection between Thorn and the Old Norse god Thor (Thunor in Anglo-Saxon). He states that Thor had connections to many thorny plants such as nettle and thistle, plants which use thorns or spikes to defend themselves, much as Thor was the defender of humanity against the giants.[3] All in all, these are all theories, and you will have to make your own mind up regarding the various possible meanings that surround this rune.

In the Anglo-Saxon or Old English Rune Poem, the verse reads:

Thorn is painfully sharp to any warrior

seizing it is bad, excessively severe

for any person who lays among them.

Thorn relating to a warrior is interesting, in that when I first read this verse, the concept of the Celtic Fianna warriors running through the woods with braided hair as a test came to mind. Should any of their braids catch on branches or thorns as they raced through the forest, they failed their test. Though this is a purely Celtic concept, there are similarities between Celtic and Northern European cultures in aspects of spirituality, artwork, commerce and more. Though this may have nothing to do with the Fianna warriors, it may have something to do with being out in the wildness of nature as a warrior, otherwise why mention it in relation to the flora? This could just be a mix of metaphors from the Old Norse into Anglo-Saxon, where a warrior fought off thyrses or giants, rather than was overly wary of the surrounding plant life. Or maybe it was a caution against the abundance of nettles that can be found all across the UK!

I found out the hard way when I first moved to these lands of the power of nettle, after walking through a field thick with them, not knowing what they were, and coming away with stinging hands and legs. We didn’t have stinging nettles where I grew up in Canada. So, maybe this is a simple warning not to make your camp or sleep near nettles when you are doing your warrior thing!

Another thing that came to mind when I first read the Old English verse is the Christian clergy in the line “excessively severe for any person who lays among them”. Saint Benedict was said to have come across a blackbird (a bird of liminality and the Druids in Celtic lore) which stayed with him for a moment, close to hand, before flying off. After this, Benedict became overcome with carnal thoughts of a woman he had seen once, and in order to shake off these emotions, he threw himself into a patch of nettles and briars. This remedy was so successful, Saint Benedict claims he was never overcome with that sort of temptation again. Severe? Yes, indeed. Excessively severe? I would say so. So perhaps this rune has a relation to Saint Benedict, but perhaps from a more “moderate” Anglo-Saxon Christian viewpoint.

Blackthorn

From my point of view, I view thorn as a cautionary tale, based on my own experience with plants here in the UK which was hard learned. There are many spiky and stingy plants around here, such as hawthorn and nettle, but also blackthorn. Blackthorn has the longest, most vicious spikes of them all, and has a tendency to break off into the skin and then go septic. Unwary foragers, farmers and even horses can fall foul of the blackthorn. An extra element of Christianity comes into play with this as well, for it is said that the crown of thorns that Jesus wore came from the blackthorn.[4]

Whether you’re a warrior or a farmer, a forager or a gardener, being around thorns reminds you of the power of nature. A small plant may cause you great discomfort, a lapse of mindfulness can cause you great injury. Thorn reminds us of this, in that we need to take care, that we need to be aware of our surroundings (and this may again relate to the Old Norse thurs). Thorns can be seen as aggressive when we are on the receiving end, but we must remember that thorns protect a plant. Therefore, Thorn can be used in regards to workings of protection, although some may use it in the form of a curse. It is a good warding rune, to keep people away from you and your possessions. But it must be worked with carefully, lest you feel its sharp sting!

You can easily form the rune with your hands, with your left hand being straight and your right hand forming the sideways “v” shape. You can also stand in trance posture with your right arm at your hip, making the shape of the rune (and also giving off a “go on if you think you’re hard enough vibe).

Thorn is an interesting rune, in that its history is murky and muddied from different cultures. Yet it shows a great merging of understanding that I think is at the heart of Anglo-Saxon culture and tradition. Learn what you can from those around you, from the land itself, and let that inform your life. Take it all in. Use what works. The Anglo-Saxons were practical folk.

And watch out for thorns.


[1] Pollington, S. Rudiments of Runelore, Anglo-Saxon Books, (2011), p.18

[2] Albertsson, A. Wyrdworking: The Path of a Saxon Sorcerer, Llewellyn, (2011), p.98

[3] Wodening, S. Hammer of the Gods: Anglo-Saxon Paganism in Modern Times, Angleseaxisce Ealdriht, (2003) p. 185

[4] Don, M. “What’s Your Poison? Backyard Troublmakers”, The Guardian : https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2003/mar/09/gardens accessed 23 Sept 2020

Happy Equinox!

As we stand at the turning point of the seasons, we welcome this balance point, knowing that tomorrow we will welcome the growing darkness even as we welcomed the light in the spring. For without night there is no day, without spring no summer, without death there is no life. We are all a part of this cycle of manifestation, growth, decay and rejuvenation.

New Video: Turning Seasons, Summer Into Autumn now up!

A huge thank you to everyone who has supported me and my work.

I’ve got a new tier system on my Patreon page, where at the second and third tier you can have your name in the video credits at the end of each video! Also, for the third tier, you get special Behind the Scenes Footage 🙂

Blessings of the changing seasons to you all!

The Runes: Ūr (Aurochs)

In this blog series, we will go through the runes as they are recorded in the Anglo-Saxon or Old English Rune Poem.

downloadWe now turn to the second rune in the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc, which is Ūr. This rune perfectly follows Feoh, the first rune, as Feoh’s literal translation is “cattle”, meaning wealth. Ūr means aurochs, the bovine precursor to our domesticated cattle.

Ūr is pronounced “ooor”, with an elongated “ooo” sound, as in Sutton “Hoo”, or the word “boo” and is followed by a rolled “r”. In the Old English Rune Poem, the translation reads thus:

Aurochs is fierce and high horned

the courageous beast fights with its horns

a well-known moor-treader, it is a brave creature.”[1]

I think it’s important to understand the animal that lies behind each of the animal-based runes in the Futhorc in detail. So, as such, I’ll go into quite a bit of detail regarding aurochs!

Auroch skeleton Copenhagen

Aurochs skeleton from Copenhagen

Our own “taurine cattle” stem from one of two subspecies of domesticated aurochs, the other being zebu cattle from an Indian subspecies[2]. Aurochs were a wild bovine breed, which stood at around 5.5 feet high at the shoulder, on average.[3]  The European bison is a cross-breed developed from aurochs.[4] They had long forward facing horns, which curled upwards at the tips, not too dissimilar to the Highland Cow. In fact, it is thought that they also had a long curly forelock, like the Highland  Cow (so cute!). In aurochs, both the male and female carry impressive horns, whereas in most other bovine it is simply the bull that has horns. The horns were particularly prized, as we will see later.

Auroch Cave Painting Lascaux, France

Aurochs cave painting, Lascaux, France

Aurochs were solitary creatures for the most part, who gathered in small herds (less than thirty) at certain points in the year. They grazed heavily in the autumn, fattening up to survive the long northern winters.[5] In the Paleolithic era, aurochs were hunted by our ancestors as evidenced in the cave paintings found as Lascaux and Livernon in France. When not being hunted, aurochs generally ignored humans unless aggravated, whereupon they could attack with their horns, even throwing a man up in the air.[6]

Extinct in Britain by the 1200’s, the last surviving cow died on the continent died in 1627, in Poland.[7] What we know of aurochs stems from two sources. The first, Anton Schneeberger, was the last known person to have studied the aurochs in person in the 16th century.[8] The second is Julius Caesar, who in his Gallic War Commentaries stated:

“…those animals which are called uri. These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, colour, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied. These the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them. The young men harden themselves with this exercise, and practice themselves in this sort of hunting, and those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise. But not even when taken very young can they be rendered familiar to men and tamed. The size, shape, and appearance of their horns differ much from the horns of our oxen. These they anxiously seek after, and bind at the tips with silver, and use as cups at their most sumptuous entertainments.” – Julius Caesar. Gallic War Commentaries, Chapter 6.28

Taking down an aurochs was a rite of passage for young men, as stated by Caesar.[9] He also raised the importance of the horns as drinking vessels. In the evolutionary sense, horns were developed in cattle as a means of defense as well as attack, and as a show of power. Perhaps this is why they were used as drinking vessels, often richly decorated with precious metal to be used among the nobility. To drink from an aurochs horn not only showed your power, but perhaps even bestowed it through the magical laws of contagion to the person who was imbibing the beverage.

sutton hoo reproduction drinking horns

Replicas of Sutton Hoo drinking horns

The symbol of the horns can be seen in the rune itself. While aurochs horns faced mostly forward, rolling upwards at the tips, in the rune it shows the horns facing downwards. This is the bull or cow’s lowered head, ready for battle or to defend its territory or young. It is both an aggressive and defensive position. Ūr could also be seen as an aurochs in profile, the torso and legs, with the classic shoulder higher than the hindquarters which distinguishes it from many other bovine breeds.

In divination, Ūr could mean power, strength, a rite of passage, courage, bravery, a need for some solitary time or just some time spent out in the wilderness (as referenced in the “moor-treader” aspect of the poem), re-wilding, combativeness, a challenge of power (which you either need to ignore or act upon, like an aurochs would), a aggressive or defensive act, nobility, hardiness and vitality.

Using the Ūr rune magically can empower many rites, rituals, spells and talismans. But be warned – aurochs were wild creatures, that were extremely difficult to tame. The power behind Ūr has a similar wildness behind its power.

You can create the rune of Ūr in trance posture in two ways, as I have found. You can stand with your left arm against your side, and your right arm away from the body, bent at the elbow with the fingertips pointing down to the ground. This emulates the rune as we see it, and instils a protective sense, almost as if you are putting your arm around someone or something to protect it. You can also do a more aggressive trance posture with the rune, by bending down to face the floor at the waist at a 45 degree angle (hold in your lower belly to protect your lower back) and hold your hands over your head, angled slightly downwards to form the downward shape of the rune, as if you are a bull or a cow ready to charge. This rune is also easy to emulate with your left hand held out in front of you, fingers together, thumb separate, all pointing downwards.

Sources

[1] Pollington, S. Rudiments of Runelore, (2011) Anglo Saxon Books

[2] Bollongino, R. et als, “Modern Taurine Cattle Descended from Small Number of Near-Eastern Founders” (PDF). Retrieved 25 Aug 2020

[3] Kysely, R. (2008). “Aurochs and potential crossbreeding with domestic cattle in Central Europe in the Eneolithic period. A metric analysis of bones from the archaeological site of Kutná Hora-Denemark (Czech Republic)”. Anthropozoologica

[4] Cooper, A. et als (19 October 2016), “The Higgs Bison – mystery species hidden in cave art”, The University of Adelaide, retrieved 13 January 2017

[5] van Vuure, T. (Cis) (2005). Retracing the Aurochs – History, Morphology and Ecology of an extinct wild Ox. Sofia-Moscow: Pensoft Publishers.

[6] van Vuure, T. (Cis) (2005). Retracing the Aurochs – History, Morphology and Ecology of an extinct wild Ox. Sofia-Moscow: Pensoft Publishers

[7] Albertsson, A. Wyrdworking: The Path of a Saxon Sorcerer, (2011) Llewellyn

[8] Rance, S. The English Runes: Secrets of Magic, Spells and Divination (2017) Anglo Saxon Books

[9] Rance, S. The English Runes: Secrets of Magic, Spells and Divination (2017) Anglo Saxon Books

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Book Review: Lisa Chamberlain’s Wicca for Beginners and Wicca Book of Spells

I had already read a couple of Lisa Chamberlain’s books, (five, actually!) and so was very happy to review the new editions of Wicca for Beginners and Wicca Book of Spells. My favourites to date had been Wicca Finding Your Path: A Beginner’s Guide to Wiccan Traditions, Solitary Practitioners, Eclectic Witches, Covens, and Circles and especially the audio version of Wicca Living a Magical Life: A Guide to Initiation, Self-Dedication and Navigating Your Journey in the Craft. These new editions from The Mystic Library (Sterling Publishing) did not disappoint.

First of all, I LOVE hardcover books. These little introductory books (they stand at around 130 – 160 pages) are beautifully bound in hardcover, with gorgeous artwork throughout. I love a book that also has illustrations and artwork, as I believe it’s important to engage the imagination and appreciate more than just the written word. Good artwork can lift a book, as anyone who has worked with colour correspondences alone can testify. Wicca for Beginners has a lovely blue theme running throughout, and Wicca Book of Spells a purple and pink theme. They are just so nice to hold in your hands, hardcovers. And they last a whole lot longer than paperbacks.

Wicca Beginners GuideWicca for Beginners: A Guide to Wiccan Beliefs, Rituals, Magic and Witchcraft does just what it says on the tin. It’s a great guide for someone new to the path, or for anyone who wants to refresh their learning. In fact, if I were to recommend a beginner’s book to anyone new to the path, this book as well as Scott Cunningham’s works would be my first choice. Chamberlain goes into history of the tradition, which is something that Cunningham’s books are seriously lacking. She uses language that is easy and flowing, friendly and unassuming. I really like that in books that teach about anything, as I am easily put off with pomposity and obscurity.

Indeed, this book covers everything neatly and precisely: how the path evolved, the history, core beliefs, working with the divine, the altar, tools and clothing, ritual components and magic, as well as advice for aspiring Wiccans. It really covers a lot of material in an easy to swallow format. The author has really done her research, and has walked her talk, sharing and expressing her knowledge with skill and clarity, as well as her plain common sense.

Wicca Book of SpellsWicca Book of Spells: A Beginner’s Book of Shadows for Wiccans, Witches and Other Practitioners of Magic again covers a wide range of material. While a couple of paragraphs on what a Book of Shadows is would have been nice, this tome dives straight into spellwork such as love spells (with the usual caveats on manipulation of individuals), prosperity spells, health and well-being spells and an eclectic mix of spellwork in the final chapter that includes kitchen witchery, elemental magic and more. Again, there is common sense and a good framework throughout this book to help the reader on their forays into the realms of spellcrafting. One small critique is that I would like to know if the spells included in the book are traditional, or if the inspiration came from somewhere historically. I have no qualms in new spells vs old spells, and I am a strong believer in working with what you’ve got to hand. This information may have been left out in the editing process, to keep the book to a size that works for beginners, though this is purely conjecture on my part. The spells were easy to follow and understand, and Chamberlain, like myself, is not averse to substitutions to make it work on a more personal level.

All in all, I found both these books really charming, and well written. Lisa Chamberlain was a pleasure to correspond with as well via email, and I look forward to more of her work in the future. I think she is a real asset to the Wiccan community, providing good information delivered in a friendly manner that everyone can understand and work with on any level. If you are just starting out, or know someone who is, or simply want to add to your book hoard of good books, then look up Lisa Chamberlain and her work – I recommend it all.

The Inverse of the Summit

P1070184

White Peaks, Derbyshire, taken on a walking holiday

Most people who enjoy hiking know that getting to the top of a mountain can be difficult. But for those who are experienced, perhaps after about 40 years of climbing those mountains, we begin to understand that it is the descent that is actually the more challenging of the two. Sure, you become breathless as you make your way slowly up the mountainside, sweat on your brow and your legs muscles pumping.  But on the way down, you have to take special care, your balance comes into play, and one wrong move can leave you stranded on that mountainside awaiting rescue.

And it’s this analogy that I’ve come to understand as the integration of those rare moments of epiphany in our lives. Getting to the mountaintop can be the easy part; coming back home can be the more difficult. We got to the top, now we’re on our return journey, tired, but taking the memory and experience with us to internalise. Having the epiphany is easy – integrating it into every day is the more difficult part of the journey. It’s the inverse of the mountain’s peak, and once we’ve traversed this sometimes treacherous way, it’s then that we can find that lovely and level middle ground.

It doesn’t matter whether it was a small realisation or a grand epiphany that you’ve come to in your life; the really important thing is how to integrate it into your soul and your life. You can’t just have it and then forget about it – or, you could, but then what’s the point? The real point is to make it a part of your life, each and every day. To live the realisation, to make it a reality.

And it’s not easy. Our everyday lives can be so busy, and filled with a plethora of tasks and minutiae that can take precedence unless we are careful about how we manage our integration. It’s all good to go on a retreat, to meditate, to do pathworking or journeying work, even spellwork, but then it’s up to us to bring that into our lives as well, and not just let it rest “out there in the universe”. We have to make it manifest, we have to make time and integrate the work. We have to come down that mountain.

And it can seem dull and boring, all the repetitive tasks that we have to do each day, when we’d rather be receiving even more epiphanies. We have to do the dishes, clean the bathroom, cook our meals, teach our kids, feed the cats, mow the lawn, pay the bills, etc. We have to get on with the chores of the day.

P1050224 (2)

My little Kiri cat 🙂

But these elements, numerous as they are, form such a large part of our lives. So why shouldn’t we make them even more special, and give them more significance? Why can’t we internalise our hard work and let that inspiration flow out in everything that we do? It’s all a matter of perspective. On the summit, it’s easy to see all around you, to have that greater perspective. Scooping out the poop in the kitty litter box isn’t nearly as grand.

But that revelatory experience doesn’t have to fade with time. We can carry that in our souls, even when we’re running to the bin with a very stinky scoop of poop. For me, the act of service helps me to continue my revelatory experiences in everything that I do. It’s something that we’ve always taught at Druid College, and something which I’ve expanded even further in my studies and work with the Sisterhood of Avalon. That service, whether it’s working for your community or taking care of your stinky cats can be the thing that connects you to everything else. It is in those moments of interconnection that we realise that we are all a part of a greater tapestry of life, woven from many threads, stronger and even more beautiful when we support each other.

That larger perspective is carried in our hearts and minds, and into everything that we do, from the choices we make each and every day to the way we interact with people every single moment. And it’s not easy. Coming down the mountain there are loose rocks and stones that can trip us up or roll under our feet, causing us to lose our balance, wrench our knee, put our back out. But if we’re careful, if we’re mindful, we can hopefully get back to everyday life intact and in good condition to keep that momentum going. There are the pitfalls of losing our way, losing the daylight, losing the map or compass. But unless we’re really unlucky, most of us will make it back and into our nice, warm homes where we can integrate fully the experience. And it’s keeping that feeling in our hearts as we go about our daily tasks can be equally as challenging. That is the real inverse of the summit.

But once we have achieved that, then we find the level path that allows us a good vantage point, and is much easier to manage as well. We find that balance point in our heart and souls, and the way forward becomes more pleasant. So the next time you reach that mountaintop in your life, find a word that summarises the experience, something that you can recall when you are cleaning a clogged drain, dealing with a difficult neighbour, or sitting in a lonely silence. This is what you can use to make the vision real, to make the intangible, tangible. Manifest this in your life, and then all that work will truly be worth it.

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The valley where I grew up in Quebec, taken from the lovely and level trail of an old disused railway.

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