Samhain Decoration Idea: An Ancestor ‘Family Tree’

A Samhain ancestor tree created by Paige.

A Samhain ancestor tree created by Paige.

Flittering about the Interwebs of an evening, I came across this image of a “Samhain Tree” that a Flickr user named Paige (ladybird.ladybird) created for the centerpiece to her dumb supper table.  When I first saw it, the curmudgeonly part of me grumbled “Holy mackerel!  We string crap on trees for just about every holiday lately, don’t we?”  See, I have a thing against all the “Easter Egg trees” and “Valentine’s Day trees” and “Thanksgiving trees” I see in women’s magazines at every turn of the wheel.  In my book, the only tree-decorating holiday should be Yule.

A close-up of some of the ancestor ornaments.

A close-up of some of the ancestor ornaments.

However, the more I looked at Paige’s decorated branches, the more I realized she was essentially making a literal “family tree” from photographs of ancestors.  The concept was really simple:  Take two scalloped circles of orange-and-black scrapbooking paper, sandwich a loop of orange or black ribbon between them, and glue them together.  Then, cut out a circle around the face of a printed photograph of your ancestor and (optionally) a slightly larger circle of another decorative paper to frame the photo.  Glue the two the the front face of the scalloped circle.  Additionally, you can cut out a second circle of the second decorative paper and write the name of your ancestor on it before gluing it to the ornament’s back.  That’s really all there is to making the ornaments, which–being flat pieces–will easily store in an envelope between Samhains.

I really enjoyed the “bring the metaphor to life” aspect of this family tree, but I thought it had great practical benefits, too.  It allows you to attractively elevate your ancestor photographs on an altar so that you can place other seasonal items, various ancestor items, and plates for the dumb supper below.  If you’re anything like me, the Samhain altar gets awfully crowded, so something like this can really save your hide come circle time.

Making the tree itself is also dead simple:  you just cut generous lengths of thinner, nubbly branches from a local tree and group them in a vase.  Inserting them into marbles or glass chips will help hold them in place, and a tall, cylindrical vase (like the one shown) will help keep the branches from spreading outwards overmuch.  For extra seasonal tie-ins, the vase can be decorated with orange and black ribbon, as Paige has done here.

Samhain Decoration Idea: A Skull Bead Garland

A bit of my new Samhain Garland

A bit of my new Samhain Garland

This garland was the bane of my existence for a solid twelve months.  It started back when I first visited my coven sister V. in March 2012.  During that visit, she took me to Shipwreck Beads, in Lacey.  There, I came across these dyed magnesite skull beads, which had been mismarked at $2.49 for a strand of 22 beads (others of that size were $4.20).  I bought four strands and decided that I would make a garland with them, but I wanted the skulls to be interspersed with Samhain-colored orange and black beads.  Unfortunately, Shipwreck didn’t have any bright orange beads that weren’t plastic or seed beads, so the skull beads languished in a drawer until November 2012, when I visited a Gem Faire in Tacoma.  I miraculously found some orange-dyed stone beads and black wooden round beads from a vendor there, and picked up some stringing supplies at Shipwreck later that week.  Thus began my real frustrations.

It became very apparent after stringing my first foot that I would need to knot between each bead.  Due to the fact that most of the garland is made of stone, it is quite heavy, and the force of a train of beads slamming into each other on a loose string meant that the beads might get nicked up or split, and a lot of friction would be put on the string.  Eventually, that string would break and I’d have a huge mess to clean up.  But knotting was hard. I was using the method shown in the video below, but after about 20 beads, I realized it was very laborious to string one bead down 17 feet of cord (I wasn’t sure how long the finished garland was going to be, so I made sure to get a lot of cord). In order to keep the cord from tangling, I tried to wind it around a pair of spools, but that got very tiresome very quickly. So I took a break and loosely strung all the beads I was going to use onto the length of cord.

This worked out quite well for a couple of feet, since I could use the “short” end of knotted beads to slide through the loop and form a knot. But the short end didn’t stay short for long and once I got to about 5-6 feet of knotted beads, I realized it was taking up to 10 minutes to slide down one bead and tie one knot. Very often, I’d create a tangle, or–worse–get everything in line but end up tying a knot too far away from the bead and then waste a lot of time trying to pick the knot open again.  I soldiered on for another couple of weeks until I managed about 7 or 8 feet until, frustrated, I boxed up the entire project and set it aside until the middle of March 2013.

At this point, I brought out the project and set it up on my bed. With some fiddling, I realized if I kept a couple feet of ’empty’ cord between the stream of loose beads and the stream of knotted beads, I could essentially leave both these streams in two compact heaps. All I need to do was twist the empty middle into a loop, pinch the crossed of the strands with one hand, while using the other to simultaneously hold the loop open while gliding the bottom of the loop under the heap of knotted beads. Thanks to sitting on a soft surface, the loop would slide under cleanly and not tangle up in the beads. This would essentially give me a huge, loose knot. It was a simple matter of sticking a pair of tweezers into that loop right in front of the bead and then tightening the loop to create a knot. In the time it took to watch three episodes of West Wing, I finished knotting the garland.


The finished garland is a whopping twelve feet long, and it weighs 1 pound and 3.125 ounces.  I think it looks nice just wound around objects on my altar, but it could also be draped above the altar or around it.  I could also heap it into a glass bowl or drape it onto different items like framed photographs of my ancestors.  It’s the cord of life and death that links us all together.

The “10 Native American Commandments”

The Ten Native American Commandments

“The Ten Indian Commandments”, a more attractive image that the one I originally saw and with the same content, even if it is in a different order.

Today as I was scrolling through my Facebook front page, I noticed that one of my friends had posted an image that looked like it was cobbled together with MS Paint.  The majority of the image was a plain, mustard-yellow background with a painting of a Native American Chief in the upper left corner, a black and white meme font in the upper right reading “The 10 Native American Commandments” and then a list of ten sentences in a sort of maroon font below that.  These ten commandments were as follows:

  1. Treat the Earth and all that dwell thereon with respect.
  2. Remain close to the Great Spirit.
  3. Show great respect for your fellow beings.
  4. Work together for the benefit of humankind.
  5. Give assistance and kindness wherever needed.
  6. Do what you know to be right.
  7. Look after the well-being of mind and body.
  8. Dedicate a share of your efforts to the greater good.
  9. Be truthful and honest at all times.
  10. Take full responsibility for your actions.

When I first read through these commandments, I thought “Well aren’t those lovely ethical guidelines.  Certainly you could do worse than that!”  My next thought, though, was that they didn’t sound particularly Native American.

A little bit of searching led me to the origin of this document.  Unfortunately, it is not flattering.  The fact of the matter is that these commandments were created in 1989 (and again when it was reprinted in 1993), by the company Viesti Associates (still in business, though now focusing on selling stock images) who then sold a poster displaying the image of a Native American man, the captions “The Ten Indian Commandments”, and the above sentences.   It was sold under the pretense that the tribal communities lived by a 10 commandment code that my have predated those carried by Moses.  Effectively, it does no more than perpetuate the stereotype that our Native cultures are mystic peoples who do nothing more than live in harmony with nature.

Yeich.  Talk about a rock and a hard place.  On the one hand, I do not want to contribute to the continuation of this stereotype (or using the now politically incorrect term ‘Indian’), on the other, I really do like these commandments.  If someone held a gun to my head and said I had to imitate the “Hobby Lobby” style of Display Christianity and decorate my home with weirdly crafted aspects of my religious beliefs, I’d be darn proud to embroider these commandments onto a sampler.  Even if these precepts do have a troubling origin, I kind of think the best thing to do here is roll your eyes and say “Whatever.  They’re just commonsense rules,” and embrace them.  It’s not like the pagan community hasn’t done this with other parts of our religions.

Maybe the Pagan community should issue their own “10 Pagan Commandments” poster (maybe swapping out “Great Spirit” for “your Gods”).  That would probably be way more culturally appropriate…and the plagiarism would definitely be keeping with our community’s sense of “open source spirituality”.

Day 338: Hagal’s Aett, Jera

As I've mentioned before, all the information below comes not from Roderick's book, but from Diana L. Paxson's Taking Up the Runes.

As I’ve mentioned before, all the information below comes not from Roderick’s book, but from Diana L. Paxson’s Taking Up the Runes.

Pronunciation:  “YARE-a”
Meaning:  Year
Supporting Meanings:  Harvest, bounty, season, appropriate time, balance, reward of balance.

Ancient Meanings:  According to Diana Paxson, jera is the year, but more specifically its culmination, or the season of Harvest.  In the Anglo-Saxon rune poem, ger (a different symbol, but with the same meaning as the Elder Futhark jera), is associated with joy at the earth’s bearing of fruit for both rich and poor.  The Icelandic poem says that “harvest is a blessing to men and good summer and fully ripe crops”, though the Hávamál tempers this by admonishing all not to take a harvest for granted, since “weather wrecks the acres.”  The Norse poem, too, says that “Harvest is a blessing to men”, but ends with “I say that Frodhi (possibly Freyr) was liberal”, so the overall association with harvest and jera is largely positive.

Modern Meanings:  Edred Thorsson identifies jera as a model of the universe’s cyclical pattern, and especially links it with the sun’s yearly cycle–especially the summer half where crops are sown, grown, and harvested.  It represents the natural law of cause and effect (if you sow your crops at the right time and tend them well, you will most likely yield a good harvest, barring ‘acts of god’).  For Freya Aswynn, it is a rune of time and, like the cycle of the season, jera manifests the principle of eternal return.  Osborn and Longland focus on jera’s associations with farming and interpret it to mean “season” and feel that it sows the complementary nature of ice and warmth in making grain grow.  Kveldulf Gundarsson reminds us that in the north, the year was only divided between winter and summer, and that a good ‘year’ was on in which all had been done according to the natural timetable to fulfill the cycle.  Spiritually, jera governs the natural and harmonious unfolding of awareness, a productive progress that requires patience, planning, and continued care.  Generally, it is agreed that jera is a rune of transformation and balance, the expression of the cycle of seasons in general and the balance between the primary forces of warmth and cold.  When balanced, these provide the motion necessary for things to change and grow.

My Take-Away of the Meanings:  To everything there is a season.  There’s a time to reap and a time to sow, and paying attention to these times and doing all as should be done in its time will lead to a bounty.

Paxson’s Interpretation and Use:  Jera can be used to move energy through the body and to tune into cosmic forces.  It should be used in healing to encourage natural bodily processes to move back into alignment.  It’s complementary energy can be used to vivify a relationship.  It’s also one of the primary runes to use in gardening.  In readings, it may indicate the harvest season or that the querent will reap a reward for previous efforts.  In general, this is positive.  However, if the work done was negative, the ‘reward’ will be negative, too.  Peterson says it can mean prosperity for a whole community.  It is used in charms to invoke abundance.  Physically, jera is most likely to indicate prosperity, reward for labor, etc.  Spiritually, it should relate in some way to the need for movement or balance.  Magically, it can be used generally to rebalance things that have fallen out of alignment.  Freya Aswynn says jera is almost always encouraging in readings with its potential to create gentle changes.  It rules the creative process.

Paxson’s Practice for Living Jera:  One way to experience the energy of jera is to work with growing things–even a potted houseplant.  Better still is planting a plot of ground.  If you’ve had little luck with other plants, try a pot of herbs, which are generally quite hardy and have myriad uses, both in the kitchen and in magic.

Day 337: Hagal’s Aett, Isa

As I've mentioned before, all the information below comes not from Roderick's book, but from Diana L. Paxson's Taking Up the Runes.

As I’ve mentioned before, all the information below comes not from Roderick’s book, but from Diana L. Paxson’s Taking Up the Runes.

Pronunciation:  “EE-sa”
Meaning:  Ice
Supporting Meanings:  Danger, bridge, stillness in motion

Ancient Meanings:  According to Diana Paxson, the Anglo-Saxon rune poem presents isa or ice as the picture “of an element whose very beauty makes it more perilous, with the hard clarity of crystal.  It’s qualities are all in the extreme–overcold, immeasureably slippery.  Ice is dangerous, but ‘fair to be seen.'”  In the Norse and Icelandic poems, the images are harsher.  The Norwegian poem picks up the image of a slippery floor, but makes it a bridge–very trecherous when iced–or worse an ice bridge over a crevasse in a glacier.  And not only must you be careful of yourself–you must lead the ‘helpless blind.’  The icelandic poem paints a still harsher picture.  There, ice encases natural features–specifically water that should be flowing.  It covers rivers as bark covers a tree trunk; the ice flose roof the tossing waves.  Hávamál images reflect the Old Norse attitude to ice.  In verse 90, women’s love is compared to riding on ice with a young horse that has not been shod with winter shoes.  The surface is motionless, but those who are above can slide to destruction if they are not careful.  Ice is also included in the list of things that must not be trusted until they have been done with.  However, it is to be noted that even the most slippery ice may be successfully crossed, and–in days gone by–ice actually improved transportation since boats need not be relied upon to cross rivers, wide lakes, and various inlets.

Modern Meanings:  Edred Thorsson extrapolate’s ice’s physical characteristics to create a metaphysical situation in which isa is the primal ice that was melted to reveal the world.  Therefore, isa is antimatter, gravity, inertia, entropy–the inertia and stillness that attracts the active force of melting fire.  Isa is also the center of the hailstone:  it holds together ego awareness and provides a psychic bonding that can help an individual survive stress.  Kveldulf Gundarsson backs Thorsson up.  Gundarsson calls isa the elemental rune if Niflheim and gives it the qualities of solidity, contraction, stillness, calmness, and unchangeability.  He suggests that the broad bridge is the bridge to the Underworld and is extremely low and easy to attain.  But he cautions against thinking that the ice shield is sufficient against all danger:  if it breaks, you will drop into the lethal waters below.  Freya Aswynn believes that ice acted as an evolutionary ‘hardening measure’ for the Northern peoples.  This may be pushing matters, but it should be noted that environmental extremes have similar effects on society–it limits the size of social groups, but strengthens ties within them.  It should be noted that the Eskimos, who have lived more intimately with ice than any other human group, have a peaceful and cooperative culture.  Osborn and Longland interpret the Anglo-Saxon poem to mean that isa represents that which is static:  beautiful, but useless; the wealth that is not shared.  Paxon comments that Primal Ice can be good or evil depending on whether or not it is part of a balanced process, for action and inertia must exist in balanced tension for inner and outer health.  She also notes that isa can represent the inner stillness that is one goal of mediation and that one interacts with isa on two levels:  the outer treacherous surface that acts as a shield or barrier, and the inner view of ultimate integrity and the core of stillness.

My Take-Away of the Meanings:  Isa can provide connections, but it does so by first imposing a trial.  If one develops the flexibility to walk upon the ice, you can be a part of it and be one with its inner stillness–but a stillness in motion.

Paxson’s Interpretation and Use:  In a reading, isa indicates the progress of the matter under consideration will be ‘frozen’ for the present but may ‘defrost’ later.  It may also mean that something is frozen beyond thawing.  Aswynn points out that on its own, isa is inert and simply preserves.  It is the “I”, the ego, the core of personality and the will, so she suggests using it in focusing, concentrating the will, and protecting one’s center.  As such, it is useful in magical shielding and protection and can help cool a tense situation down.  It can balance thurisaz, but requires the balancing energy of kaunaz or sowilo to change.  In divination, it can indicate a frustrating situation with no change in sight.  Gundarsson notes that it can magically be used to bind active forces, either of growth or disintegration.  It can calm confusion or hysteria and numb pain, but in excess can cause barrenness, paralyzing fear, dullness or obsession.  It can be the clarity of a cold anger–which is more dangerous than fiery rage–but it is brittle, and one should be aware of the energy that will be released when the ice breaks.  It can also be used to invoke physical cold.

Paxson’s Practice for Living Isa:  Isa is the ice rune, carrying all the connotations that implies.  To understand it, one must explore the implications for good or for ill of stillness, inertia, and rest.  It is also, by extension, a rune of winter.  To understand it, one may meditation upon the function of winter in temperate climates, killing some, but also protecting and allowing the hidden seeds time to germinate and the soil time to rest.

Thoughts on the Witches of East End Pilot

Something wicked is coming to the 2013-2014 American television season.  With both Lifetime’s Witches of East End and FX’s American Horror Story:  Coven, witches are certainly getting quite the media spotlight.  In fact, I can’t recall so much witchy TV-hype since the days of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed, which were certainly helped out by movies like The Craft and Practical Magic.

But, if memory serves, the witchcraft community isn’t likely to respond positively to these Hollywood representations.  “It’s all lies!  Misinformation!” they’ll cry.  I can understand this.  Even I got a little techy when I saw the flaming pentagrams in Lifetime’s promotional trailer for East End.  But I hope this won’t be our only reaction.  After all, fictional witches are not and never have been real witches…and this is not a bad thing.  In fact, I think fictional witches can be a great resource for our community in creating a better understanding with the larger culture around us.  If we look back through the last thirty years or so, I think we’ll find that the years in which fictional witchcraft ‘enjoyed’ more prominence in pop culture coincides with periods of interest in and subsequent growth of our community.  It’s a truth that seeing fictional witchcraft in the media makes people curious about the ‘real witches’ they’ve heard about, and that pushes them to find out more about us.  Some turn into seekers, but more develop a greater respect for our beliefs.

I think that’s where we’ll eventually fall out with East End.  Those flaming pentacles gave me pause, but my fears were set aside right after the title card when the show proved to ultimately be a pleasant puff piece.  It’s far more concerned with love triangles, self-discovery, and the fight between good and evil than it is with contemporary Wicca.  Actually, it is to the producer’s credit that they never once called fictional witchcraft “Wicca” like, say, Charmed or Buffy the Vampire Slayer did in the 1990s.  Quality wise, I thought the show was middling at this stage.  The pacing was incredibly rushed and I wasn’t seeing a strong cast chemistry quite yet.  The show is also no cerebral drama…but the writing enjoys some nice humor and wit, the actors do a lovely job bringing life to their own characters, the special effects are convincing, and it is evident that the photographers are really trying to use images to tell the story.  Many of the cinematographer’s shots do as much of the story telling as the script and the actors do, which is very heartening for the series’ overall quality.

Actually, the attention to visual detail really impressed me, especially with two subtle architectural homages to two of the most popular witch-related flicks of the 1990s.  The first one I noticed was the visual similarity and initial presentation of the Beauchamp house, which made me do a double take.  It’s almost identical to how the Halliwell manor was introduced in Charmed‘s pilot episode!

The Halliwell manor is pictured on the left and the Beauchamp house is on the right.

The first shot of the Halliwell manor is pictured on the left and the first shot of the Beauchamp house is on the right.

How similar are these pictures?  Not only are both houses shown at night, but they’re practically the same house.  Both share Victorian architecture, though the Halliwell’s San Francisco home is appropriately more ornate than the Beauchamp’s, which is near Long Island.  Indeed, the basic framework of the houses are almost mirror images of each other.  If the Beauchamp house didn’t have the wrap-around porch or the second-story addition on the left, they’d be perfect exterior mirrors. Even more amusing is that the two houses use similar colors and decorative details, what with the dark red siding and lighter trim and stained glass details. A further comparison of the homes in daylight really highlights their visual similarities.

The second architectural homage I noticed was a reference to Practical Magic in the Beauchamp’s kitchen.  I think this is far more than coincidental, given how iconic the Practical Magic aunts’ kitchen is.  After the movie came out, viewers were so curious about the set design and details that Victoria Magazine devoted a huge feature story (and tons of images) to it in their October 1998 issue.  More recently, a couple contracted Derek M Design to build a house inspired by the movie, and its kitchen is a near clone.  There’s just something powerful about the Practical Magic kitchen that speaks to people, and apparently the Witches of East End producers wanted a little of that magic for their own.

Practical Magic Kitchen vs Beauchamp Kitchen

The Practical Magic kitchen on left compared with the Beauchamp’s on right.

As we can see, both kitchens have prominent heavy wood details; just look at the heavy trim around the Beauchamp’s door and compare it with Practical Magic‘s beams.  Both also have darker wood floors that ground an otherwise light and airy kitchen.  Both use white cabinets with more exposed uppers, and both highlight the all-important stove with a wonderful tiled hearth in light colors.  And, of course, a huge table extends out from the stove in each.  The Beauchamp kitchen uses more trendy finishes and details than the ‘timeless’ Practical Magic kitchen, but the bones of each are the same.

I think I’m going to continue to watch East End.  I have hopes that the series will find a stronger coherence as the season progresses and become truly addictive mind candy.

Day 336: Hagal’s Aett, Naudhiz

As I've mentioned before, all the information below comes not from Roderick's book, but from Diana L. Paxson's Taking Up the Runes.

As I’ve mentioned before, all the information below comes not from Roderick’s book, but from Diana L. Paxson’s Taking Up the Runes.

Pronunciation:  “NOWD-heez”
Meaning:  Need
Supporting Meanings:  Restriction, oppression, creativity within, trials, response to stress.

Ancient Meanings:  According to Diana Paxson, the “N” rune is related to the Old English word nyd, meaning need or distress, and the Old Norse naudhr, which has the same meaning with an added connotation of restraint.  The idea in the Scandinavian verses is that naudhiz takes away choice, especially in the social realm where it leaves nothing but oppression and endless hard work.  They relate to man’s inability to control his environment, and the almost hopeless work ahead when he tries to do so.  The Anglo-Saxon poem is a little more hopeful.  While it does not deny the distressfulness of need, it suggest that its constraints have something to teach those who understand them.  It counsels the sufferer to let himself be toughened by adversity.

Modern Meanings:  Edred Thorsson maintains that naudhiz is the thesis and antithesis whose resistance to each other shapes the fate of the world:  it is both trouble and deliverance.  It is the friction that makes the fire.  Freya Aswynn relates the rune to the concept of debth and the fine paid in attempt to compensate for a crime.  This aspect of debt also connects naudhiz to the idea of karma.  Gundarsson states that naudhiz can be used to give strength to meet and overcome trials, and can help one deal with stress.  It is a rune of the inner stresses that can either drive an individual to greatness or destroy him.  It can cause compulsive behaviors or obsessions in its more negative aspects.  Paxon notes that the concept of need in naudhiz resembles the Greek concept of Ananke–or necessity, as discussed by James Hillman.  It’s root involves concepts of constraint and narrowing, or the factors in life that cannot be escaped.  However, this constraint can have a creative function.  This suggests that one way to deal with this necessity is to use it to identify our own deepest needs and purposes, to find out who we really are.

My Take-Away of the Meanings:  Need can be restrictive, but it can also provide the constrictions that engender great creativity.  These limiting factors can crush our spirits, but they can also provide the infrastructure to allow us to achieve greatness, depending on our self-awareness and karma.

Paxson’s Interpretation and Use:  In readings, naudhiz can indicate problems that weigh on the spirit; frustrations, blocks, and constraints that can become helpful if properly used.  The problem may be an opportunity for change and growth.  The need may also be for action.  Osborn and Longland call it a change rune, the necessity for transformation.  Magically, Gundarsson feels that naudhiz is the rune of banishings and cleansing by fire and can imbue other spells with the force of necessity.  He suggests that when doing rune reading or other divination, it should be drawn on the forehead or over the runes to strengthen their link with destiny.

Paxson’s Practice for Naudhiz:  Studying Naudhiz provides a great opportunity to take stock of your life.  List the things you need.  List the changes that must occur if you are to get them.  And while you are on the subject, look back at your life and try to understand the forces that put you where you are today.  What fate, in terms of heredity and environment, was wished upon you at your birth?  How has your background bound you?  How have you transformed or transcended it?  Ponder the relationship between fate and free will.