A Guide to Witch’s Beads aka Pagan Prayer Beads or Pagan Rosaries

Catherine wearing the Sacred Heart Rosary necklace with micro-faceted garnets. Hand wrapped, inspired by antique rosary chain.
Catherine wearing the Sacred Heart Rosary necklace with micro-faceted garnets. Hand wrapped, inspired by antique rosary chain.
White Heart Rosary
White Heart Rosary

The use of a strand of beads in prayer is universal across almost all faiths, but is best know in the form of the Catholic rosary.  I have collected rosaries since I was a teenager.  Often I would find them in the street or in thrift shops, or in pieces at swap meets. I have refurbished them and sold them whole again or I have also listened to them– many would like to be something else entirely and perhaps this is why they found their way to me.

The Wellington Witch Ladder, wikipedia commons
The Wellington Witch Ladder, wikipedia commons
Black Hearted Love-- vintage rosary fragments given a new life.
Black Hearted Love– vintage rosary fragments given a new life.

I have always loved them, perhaps because they were the first meditations to the goddess I had ever known, even before I knew there was such a thing as being Pagan or Heathen.

Some pagans have come from a Christian path and may miss certain aspects of those rituals.  A wonderful article about this can be found on Patheos, Retooling the Rosary. The meditative rhythms of the beads reflect the rhythms of the earth.  Pagan prayer beads can use may of these for their structure– the four seasons, the phases of the moon, the 8 Sabats or 13 Esbats, the 24 runes in the Elder Furthark.   I am partial to nines. Odin hung on the tree for 9 days, there are 9 worlds  in the Norse cosmos, the fascinating mathmatical patterns using 9 as well as the many uses of 9 maidens in folklore inform these desgins.

The Hare Bell Witches Beads or Pagan Prayer Beads
The Hare Bell Witches Beads or Pagan Prayer Beads

I have made devotional chains in the past for clients, dedicated to a specific deity or tradition. I welcome the opportunity for this kind of custom work. But even in my secular jewellery, the hand wrapped rosary links I make are very meditative and in some designs take on a devotional feeling as I make them, much like the rhythms of tying a witches ladder.

Traditional ladders used knots with feathers attached. Used in binding spells: for instance,  to bind an illness the knotted cord was worked up and then thrown into a pond or river– presumably the ailments with it. Any research on the subject is bound (ha!) to turn up the use of knot magic in cursing. We must cast a critical eye on the remnants of history left to us by those who wished to distort our traditions.  This work was most likely also used for other benevolent purposes as well as ill.  In modern wicca, the knots are used to seal a working and chanting can be part of it.

Owl and Moon Rosary
Owl and Moon Rosary

A variation on the traditional chant:

Knot one, the work’s begun.
Knot two, my aim is true.
Knot three, it will be.
Knot four, power’s stored.
Knot five, the work’s alive.
Knot six, the work’s fixed.
Knot of seven, the truth given.
Knot eight, will be fate.
Knot nine, the work is mine!

As in prayer and spell work, words are more powerful if you use your own. In my other life as a poet I have been obsessed by the sestina form, a six-stanza poem that ends in a three line envoy. The end words of each line are rotated through the stanzas, as strands in a braid. This form was arguably invented by a 13th century troubadour, Arnaut Daniel, who called it a cledistat, which means “to interlock”.  Here is a wonderful graphic that shows the structure of the sestina as a series of beads or knots on a spiral thread.

By Phil wink - Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19446455
By Phil wink – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19446455

I am constantly amazed at the correspondences between creative work.  The same attention to detail that went into writing my sestinas is manifested in my hand wrapped rosary chains.  They are from the heart.

The Bawming of the Thorn

Appleton Thorn by Robert Bateman, 1880. Warrington Museum.
Appleton Thorn by Robert Bateman, 1880. Warrington Museum.
Tree of Life Necklace by Feral Strumpet.
Tree of Life Necklace by Feral Strumpet.

Once there was a time when we knew the trees and they knew us.  They were planted in the middle of villages and were considered guardians of a place.  On Old Midsummer Day, July 5th,  the third Saturday in June or there abouts, these guardian trees were adorned with garlands, ribbons, flowers and flags. Appleton Thorn in Cheshire is named after such a hawthorn tree and here this tradition, called the Bawming of the Thorn, continues.  The  tree there is said to be an offshoot of the legendary Glastonbury thorn, a tree with its own fascinating history.  Legend claims it was brought from Jerusalem to Glastonbury by Joseph of Aramathea and was the same tree from which the crown of thorns was made.  Others claim this fantastic story was a creation of the monks who wished to discourage the use of the Hawthorn in pagan rituals and yet still wished use its power to promote their Christian faith.

Tree of Life Earrings in silver by Feral Strumpet
Tree of Life Earrings in silver by Feral Strumpet
Sarah wearing the Tree of Life in Brass
Sarah wearing the Tree of Life in Brass

The hawthorn is the May Tree or White Thorn– with it’s beautiful white flowers juxtaposed against its sinister thorns. Washing in the dew gathered from the white petaled flowers was a Old Tyme beauty tip. Witches made their brooms from them– perhaps because the hawthorne is the gateway to the fairy realms, the Otherworld.  Vivian imprisoned Merlin in a cage of Hawthorne branches, using his own spell against him and it was under a Hawthorne that the Queen of May captured Thomas the Rhymer. Hawthorns often stand guard over sacred wells– and in these manifestations in story and landscape do seem to suggest the Yggdrasil, a tree linking this world with other realms.

What survives of these notions fascinates me. These happy village fetes, celebrating a tree with song and dance– is this a kind of Druidic hold over? A dream writ in Ogham on our collective subconscious? In England these ancient ideas manifest with fanfare– brass bands and Morris dancing. People still gather– they say it is for the sake of tradition– that it as has always been so, but I like to think there is something else here, feeding the imagination, talking back to our ancient guardians telling them we have not forgotten them.

World Tree Earrings in Brass by Feral Strumpet
World Tree Earrings in Brass by Feral Strumpet




Walking with Giants

Hableton Street, the ancient moorland road.
Hambleton Street, the ancient moorland road.

Yesterday Mike and I went hiking on the Arden Great Moor, down the ancient road which once joined Scotland to York, called Hambleton Street. Now just a stony track, it was once the main thoroughfare for cattle traders coming drown from Scotland to the markets in York. But it is certainly much older than the 17th century rovers who used it historically. It is one of the oldest roads in Britain and was once used by the Roman Legions and before them, the Brigantes– though we have no evidence of this, nor of the Norse settlers using this road during the Viking Age–no evidence save a claim made by ancestral memory from the folklore that has grown up around it.

Pile of stones marker on Hableton Street.
Pile of stones marker on Hambleton Street
Land wight. Anthropomorphic face in stone on a marker on Hambleton Street.
Land wight. Anthropomorphic face in stone on a marker on Hambleton Street.


Norse belief in land wights, or genius locii, starts to make perfect sense on these ancient roads. Here in the photo on the right, a stone watchman takes shape in the topmost stone.

Piles of stones along the way mark resting points.  Along with lonely moorland crosses and standing stones, these place markers are full of mystery.  Piles like the one pictured above were said to have fallen from the apron of the giantess Bell, wife of Wade– the namesake of another ancient moorland road, Wade’s Causeway. The giant Wade has Norse origins– in Old Norse his name is Vadi.  He is the son of a Norse King and a mermaid, according to the Vilkina Saga. He is the father of the mythic Smith Wayland whose name is synonymous with other sacred sites in England.

Wade could wade through the ocean, and he and his wife Bell had only one hammer between them, so they had throw it through the air to each other, over the moors.  Much of Wade is lost to us– save a bawdy mention of his boat in Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale and a Latin fragment of his story mentioning elves and adders and nickers (water spirits), yet the land of the moors is marked by the giant (even his legendary grave is here at ruins of Mulgrave Castle near Whitby).

The landscape of the moors is still marked by ancient migrations– mythic and literal– the Romans may have left many structures and written documents of the Northern land they struggled to conquer, but it’s the unwritten legends of the Norse and Anglo Saxon people that linger in the land, waiting for the new inhabitants to know them.

Hand-forged Anglo-Saxon Pennanular Brooch in Bronze by Feral Strumpet.
Hand-forged Anglo-Saxon Pennanular Brooch in Bronze by Feral Strumpet.


Oak Apple Day

The mounted Garland King, Castelton, Derbyshire (source-- wikipedia commons)
The mounted Garland King, Castelton, Derbyshire (source– wikipedia commons)

Yesterday was that abolished holiday, Oak Apple Day, celebrating the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660.  Charles II, before he regained power, hid himself in an oak tree, or so the story goes. For the last 400+ years, Britain has used this as a way to worship a tree king.  Ancestral memory dies hard in these parts.

Before the holiday was abolished in the mid 19th century, shops and churches, horses and railway engines were adorned with oak boughs. Anyone who failed to wear a sprig of oak on the day risked being pelted with eggs or scourged with nettle.

Some customs from the holiday survive in recent memory, taking on aspects of the pagan green man in their celebrations.  In Castleton in Derbyshire, the Garland King procession continues.  A man, mounted on a horse, is completely covered in a cone of flowers– the topmost posey is called “The Queen” and crowns him.  The village follows him (along with a good number of day-trippers) from pub to pub, brass band in tow. At the end of the day’s journey, the floral cone is hoisted by a rope from the church tower, looking very much like the head of a vanquished foe on display. All across the isle, from the Burryman in Queensferry to the Jack in the Green in Hastings, the leafy king sacrifices himself so that we may have a few summer days. If you’ve lived through one wet Yorkshire summer, you know why this is worth a blood sacrifice, even by proxy!

The Oak King's Bride in copper plate by Feral Strumpet
The Oak King’s Bride in copper plate by Feral Strumpet

Here is my Oak King’s Bride. It’s a design I made three years ago. It was one of the first in my shop and it has since become a best seller as well as a signature design.  I make it in copper plate, brass and sterling silver plate (the Oak King’s Bride in Winter).  For more Oak King inspired designs, go here.

The Molecatcher

Mole, from Wind in the Willows

But Mole stood still a moment, held in thought. As one wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to recall it, but can recapture nothing but a dim sense of the beauty in it, the beauty! Till that, too, fades away in its turn, and the dreamer bitterly accepts the hard, cold waking and all its penalties.
― Kenneth GrahameThe Wind in the Willows

York is a city only in name, it gets this honor from its grand Minster. Beyond it there is the countryside. Farms, moorland, with all their mysteries and cruelties, fresh to this city girl. How like Mole I am in my reveries of this landscape, which is a hard-working one as well as a place of beauty. And this work, it’s harsh and full of penalty.

I was leaving Bolton Castle when I saw a peculiar thing just outside, tied to the fence– they had the look of cloth scraps. On closer inspection these things were tiny corpses, in various degrees of decomposition.  Full of pathos, these bodies were no longer recognisable creatures– penal indeed was the display, like some ancient ritual meant to warn off trespass, ye olde heads on the stakes at the city gates.  It wasn’t until I had a good look at the last one, bloated, distended, but the pink-nosed blindness and cunning little hands were a giveaway. These were moles– a whole labour of them.

Some Googling later, I found that this is how the mole catcher gets paid, per mole. The display is an economic transaction. Writing in the 19th century, John Clare “Northamptonshire’s Peasant Poet” describes it as an ad for the molecatcher’s services or, more strangely, as a warning to other moles.

And as a triumph to his matchless skill,
On some grey willow where a road runs by,
That passers may behold his power to kill,
On the bough’s twigs he’ll many a felon tie;
On every common dozens may be met,
Dangling on bent twigs bleaching to the sun,
Whose melancholy faces meet no regret,
Though dreamless of the snare they could not shun.

A couple hundred years ago, a mole was a mouldywarp or “dirt tosser”. These chthonic beings are suspect, or so says Leviticus. They are counted among the  unclean “creeping things that creep on the earth.” Apollodorus of Athens tells us that the ancients believed eating the heart of a mole would give one the gift of divination– the ability to metaphorically see into darkness, and Pliny the Elder claims moles can hear you talking about them.  Moles are of the dark company, the sort that make pacts with witches. Isaiah tells us enlightened men will toss their idols of gold and silver to the moles and bats.

In Germany they are a protected species but in the UK they are considered a pest, molehills supposedly ruining the lawns of golfcourses and gardens and disrupting fields. They are one of the demonised of the countryside, along with the badger and fox, our sins projected onto such creatures with “science” in tow, justifying culls and exterminations.

The Molecatcher is an old profession in Britain. There is a “British Traditional Molecatcher Register”. There’s also the Association of Professional Molecatchers and The Guild of British Molecatchers.  It’s like something from a Pratchett novel.

Ancient superstitions are knitted into folk ways, come to us in bawdy songs like The Molecatcher.  I’m quite taken by this ghostly, melancholy version of the tune by Harp and a Monkey, its lament a fitting soundtrack to my recent discovery.

Moles tied to a fence outside of Bolton Castle.

The Druid’s Well

Beltane fires were burned upon the crags here in bygone centuries.

The Northern Antiquarian.

Last weekend M hiked to the Druid’s Well in Bingley and took many wonderful photos of this holy well.  The photos reveal a lush Seelie Court. It is a place of historic fairy sightings and where the destroying angel mushroom grows.

The Druid’s Spring, Bingley, West Yorkshire

The companion well, The Altar Well, seems now buried but the Druid’s Well still swells from the earth in a sandy bed, fern-draped and lush with lichen. Also called the Druid’s Spring or Hollin (Holy) Well.  M washed his face there.

Perhaps I can visit one day– though the way is quite steep and my dodgy foot often will not allow me such daring.

Beltane Bride Set, inspired by the lichen of the Druid’s Temple in Ilton, West Yorkshire. For more jewellery inspired by fairy landscapes, please visit my Etsy shop.