Pagan Paths

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Deep in the forest something stirs ...



Winter and springtime are the ideal times for getting to know the woodland because our knowledge is starting out as a blank canvas.  The leaves have been stripped from the trees and the undergrowth knock back by frost and a blanket of snow.  The only colour comes from the two sacred trees the holly and the ivy, so famous from the Yuletide carol and thought to have Pagan origins that could date back over 1000 years. It is most unusual for a carol like the Holly and the Ivy to have survived over the years especially during the stern protestant period of the 17th century but holly and ivy have always been taken indoors during the winter in the hope that the occupants would survive the difficult conditions just like the hardy holly and ivy.


As the sheltered woodland grows marginally warmer, one of the first plants to put forth its tender leaves is the woodbine or wild honeysuckle.  With tough woody stems, the honeysuckle can grow from ten to twenty feet and always twines from left to right as it travels upward to seek the light before the summer leaf canopy plunges it into shade.  In early spring, dog violets and the creamy-white wood anemone are among the first flowers to burst through the mulch on the woodland floor but none of these flowers are merely the first harbingers of spring.  All part of our native wort-lore and recorded by Nicholas Culpeper in his The Complete Herbal, published in 1649, and it’s here that we begin to identify each one of these precious plants.


Although not generally acknowledged, there are still areas of the forest, known as the Wild Wood that are dark and untamed where unearthly and potentially dangerous beings are still to be found.  This is not always welcoming and many urban witches never get over an ‘atavistic fear of Nature uncontrolled’.  On a magical level, the Wild Wood refers to those strange, eerie places that remain the realm of the ‘horned god’ and untamed by man. Ancient gnarled oaks, festooned with ferns and draped with lichen, carry an air of solitude and remoteness that is deeply unnerving – here birdsong and the trickle of the stream are the only sounds to break the silence. 


Nevertheless, it is amongst the trees of ancient woodland that we come face to face with the Old One, or in some cases, are pursued by Him.   Who has not experienced the Presence when walking alone in the woods and suddenly feeling that we are being hunted, or that rushing feet are coming up behind us, only to turn and confront – nothing?  Except for the unearthly sound of laughter fading in the undergrowth.  This is the realm of Pan – the Renaissance image of Pan Pangenetor, the All-Begetter - creative energy in its most material form. Here among the trees, we are never sure that what we see is reality or illusion.


Natural sites also have guardians which, as Philip Heselton explains in Secret Places of the Goddess , can be sensed by both physical and Otherworld components.  “Often you will find your eye drawn to some feature, a tree which is distinctive in some way, or a rock formation.  You certainly get human guardians of some sites who appear from nowhere – the woman walking her dog, the old laborer, even a child.  Animal guardians can also be striking – a wild animal that comes surprisingly close and watches you for longer than seems natural.”


Equally as important is an adeptness in identifying the location of nature sprites or ‘numen’ – the spirit-essence dwelling in each natural object: a tree, a spring, the earth, or more correctly: where the presence of ‘deity’ is suspected but undetermined. As Philip Heselton also observes: “Many of us had our first experience of the numinous – that living spirit which lies behind physical form – through walking in the woods.  Indeed, this is so universal in those I have talked to, that I suspect it to be of a fundamental and archetypal nature.” Although numen are usually considered to be an ‘essence of deity’ rather than deity itself, the Old Craft witch treats them with the utmost reverence and respect.


The usual concept of such ‘spirits’ is of neutral powers, that might be hostile if neglected, similar to those of ancient Rome,which if duly placated with offerings will be friendly and give health and prosperity.  As a result, any site that inspired status on account of its own magical power, became sacred because it was “the dwelling of a spirit, or had been touched by its power”.  These sentiments were also expressed by the poet Ovid: “There is a lake, girt with the dark wood of the valley of Aricia, sanctified by an ancient feeling of awe …” and “There was a grove below the Aventine dark with the shade of holm-oaks, and when you saw it, you might say ‘there is a spirit there’ …”, although this was a cult of individual natural objects, and in no sense a worship of the powers of nature.


The Old Craft witch should also be able to differentiate between the energies of the spirits residing in the woods surrounding cultivated land and those of the agricultural hedgerows per se, since the ‘wild borderland spirit’ being more in touch with untamed Nature, has the gift of prophecy.  The significance of all these places of ‘time between times’ is the sometimes over-powering generation of magical energy that can be terrifying if encountered unexpectedly and not fully understood.  Combine the powers of the wood-field margin with owl-light (dusk) and experience the sensation of Nature at its most raw and untamed.


Melusine Draco is author of Traditional Witchcraft for Woods & Forests, Moon Books


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Mélusine Draco originally trained in the magical arts of traditional British Old Craft with Bob and Mériém Clay-Egerton. She has been a magical and spiritual instructor for over 20 years with Arcanum and the Temple of Khem, and writer of numerous popular books on magic and witchcraft. Her highly individualistic teaching methods and writing draws on ancient sources, supported by academic texts and current archaeological findings.


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