Flying Ointment, the poisonous balm that aided witches in flight, has many recipes. Modern ones might not get you there, as the most potent and potentially lethal ingredients will have been omitted. In this necklace, however, I’ve included three of the most dangerous. Datura, henbane and nighshade are represented with Czech glass flowers and the beautifully detailed little Queen stands in for the beeswax vehicle. Soot is often mentioned as an ingredient– hence the black colourway of the piece. I’ve included the skulls because if the recipes for flying ointment teach us anything, it’s that witches were skilled poisoners as well as herbalists, and the nuanced proportions of ingredients in the ointment could either aid in soul flight, alleviate the pain of childbirth or other woes through “twilight sleep”, or of course, kill you.
One of the oldest recorded accounts of the use of flying ointment is from the 2nd century in Apuleius’ delightful Golden Ass. There are also recipes mentioned in Margaret Murray’s exhaustive (and exhausting) Witch Cult in Western Europe, which modern day witches can only read critically, trying to decipher the truth through the lens of these “confessions” often elicited under torture. Much of the evidence we have left to us from our powerful female ancestors is weighted with such distortions. Perhaps by flying ourselves to visit them, through soul-flight and meditation, we might know a better truth. Often witches are depicted flying in groups, communing– there are few solitaries where flight is concerned! So were such ancestral Sabbats the ultimate destination of their night flights as well? Did they also meet with those who’d come before, not at a literal Brocken but somewhere else beyond this time and space?
This necklace was made to honour the hedge riders of the past who risked everything for wisdom and the healing of others.
My recent designs have been inspired by organic lines and shapes, and the power behind certain materials that have come my way. Ritual enters into it, and the afterglow of superstition. And there’s the wild kitsune-fuel of Vali Myers who I fancy is overseeing the process.
I have written previously about the quartz stones which came to me in a large lot, earth still on them. I have cleaned them– both literally and ritually— and they have soaked up the full-moonlight of the Longest Night.
The other objects are ancient beads from, I believe, Mali. These stone beads defy dating, and are a contentious subject. It is certain they are not modern. Dirt from burial still clings to them, and they vary in material and size. My research has put some as neolithic, others 600-300 years old. One thing they have in common, they all look like hag stones.
Hag stones are naturally occurring stones with a hole– they are also called adder stones, druid’s eggs, Odin stones or sometimes holey stones. A traditional holey stone was originally thought to be made by water coursing through a stone to make the hole. Pliny claimed they were made from the saliva of a congress of snakes which I kind of wish were true. No doubt this is where the “adder stone” moniker comes from. It reveals the way language works in correspondence with the will– even if the drool of knotted snakes didn’t make them, surely the chthonic energies of earth and water did.
So when I say these old beads look like hag stones, I know they are not. A hag stone is naturally made, and these are stone beads are most definitely handmade. I am interested in these contradictions, and in simulating excavated talismans, perhaps from a fairy people of my own imagining. Vali whispers in my ear.
This Samhain passed quietly, without a single trick or treater, despite our expertly carved pumpkin in the window. People don’t really celebrate Halloween here– it is seen as a crass commercialisation of an ancient Celtic holiday, a “Yank” import.
It remains my favourite holiday, and really, I celebrate it all year round. Last night we had to decide what horror movie to watch. I don’t like to watch anything too scary at night. I love horror films but I have to watch them during the day. So that ruled out most things, leaving us with our Hammer boxed set, Ginger Snaps, and Season of the Witch from 1972.
George Romero’s little known masterpiece of Suburban witchcraft is a nod to the pyschological horror of Hardy’s The Turn of the Screw while still being a feminist meditation on the mainstreaming of non-conformity happening in the early 1970s. It is also proof of the power of a title– marketed as “Hungry Wives” in the US and “Jack’s Wife” in the UK, both distort for me the heart of the film. The thrill of watching this is similar to seeing the seductive and colourful British folk customs through a cinematic distortion in original The Wicker Man.Here we get to glimpse of the pagan rituals of a solitary witch who later joins a coven, all glamorised for the big screen. Of course, this might seem cliche– we have had many witches on mainstream telly in recent years. But Jan White’s sincere performance of a woman coming to power strikes me as very real in a film genre that is full of histrionics and dazed women victims. As she discovers who she is, you feel as if you are seeing this moment of transformation for the first time as well. Romero says it is the only one of his films he would like to remake, and I would be curious to see that happen.
This track has haunted me for years. It’s from the fascinating CD, Songs of Witchcraft and Magic compiled by the Museum of Witchcraft in Cornwall. The delicate shifting harmonies of the two women’s voices seem to mimic the shimmering silver mackerel darting in the sea, or the twisting bulk of the worm or serpent that was once a boy. In the Northumbrian version of the story, the wyrm is a cursed girl named Margaret and she is saved by her brother’s kiss. He has come to slay the serpent that has menaced his people when at the last minute he recognizes his sister as the creature and saves her with a kiss.
But in this version the serpent sings of his transformation and that of his mackerel sister Maisry– so close to misery, and strung out in the ballad as a three-pearl-syllable. The mackerel consols the wyrm every Saturday at noon– in this verse they have knees and comb each other’s hair, suggesting at that one moment they may be human again. The witch who has transformed them is as usual a wicked step mother. Once caught, she calls the mackerel with a silver horn and all the fish in the sea come to her (what an image!). But the mackerel refuses to obey, and stays a fish. “No more will I be changed by thee!” It cries.
The song closes with the terse couplet–the father goes to the “merry green wood” to gather hawthorn to build a “good bonfire to burn his lady in”.
I highly recommend this CD not only for its rousing strangeness but for the intelligently written booklet with lyrics and notes.
Last night I went to see a metal triple bill at the Luminaire: Wolf People, Graveyard and Witchcraft. The venue was way too small and was oversold. Swedish metalheads were crowded in with hipsters still in their office-wear. Why do they pay for a £12 ticket and drink £4 crap drinks all night while trying to shout over a heavy metal band? Isn’t there an easier way to earn some lifestyle cred?
Graveyard were dull and painfully loud, even for a metal gig. They clearly had the amps set to 12. It wasn’t that thundering base loudness of Mastadon, etc. It was this weird, treble-y, hornets-in-your-ears kind of sound. If I am going to have tinnitus the next day it better be for something good. Even though Wolf People were supporting them you could see the Graveyard guys watching Wolf People open for them and they seemed worried.
Wolf People are the only London band I’ve ever seen live (It seems London now has to import most of its rock and roll…I have many theories for this…). Wolf People are melancholy, lyrical and stormy–the flute-player wasn’t there, so they sounded less Jethro-Tully and more like a tightly spectral CCR.
Witchcraft–freaky Swedish wizards–were haunting and slightly dorky. They actually did a Roky Erickson song–White Faces (one of his “Horror Rock” songs and a favourite of mine.) Spooky Texas rock by way of Swedish wildmen…brings out the white of the devil in me.