The Silver Bough, and Samhain in a Stone Circle
Article ID: 3044
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 6,567
Times Read: 23,675
Author: Peg Aloi [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: October 28th. 2000
Times Viewed: 23,675
"Three unbreathing things paid for only with breathing things: an apple tree, a hazel bush, a sacred grove." --The Triads of Ireland, refering to a law against the felling of sacred trees.
"For if an apple is halved cross-wise each half shows a five-pointed star in the center, emblem of immortality, which represents the goddess in her five stations from birth to death and back to birth again." --Robert Graves, The White Goddess
"Our hair the hue of barley sheaf,
Our eyes the hue of blackbird's egg,
Our cheeks like asphodel.
Here the wild apple blossom yet,
Wrens in the silver branches play,'
And prophesy you well."
--The Sirens' Welcome to Cronos
At this time of year, with the air full of the scent of ripening apples and decaying plants, with bright blue skies a thrilling backdrop to the changing trees in their reds, oranges, golds and scarlets, I am always brought to my knees in awe of nature. Autumn is the time of new beginnings and profound changes in humans and in nature, and as we move ever faster towards the cold fallow time of winter, I think we tend to enjoy these fleeting autumn days that much more. The beauty of the colors (green to gold, crimson to brown), the smells (decaying plant matter tiurning to mulch, spiced cider, the fruits of harvest), the sounds (crunching leaves and nutshells beneath our feet, geese honking overhead) awakens our senses and sharpens our minds.
Many pagans notice that deja vu occurs more often in fall; that their dreams are more vivid at night, their tendency to daydream increased...are we more prone to psychic sensitivity because we are moving closer to the thinning of the veils at Samhain? Or are we simply more alive to all things in nature and in ourselves, in the midst of the darkening days and burgeoning dormancy around us?
For the first time, I will be travelling to Britain in autumn, a land of profound magic and beauty. I will spend Samhain within the Rollright Stones. I will be among orchards where the apples have odd names we rarely hear in the States: pippins and russetts. Many of our pagan festivals are descended from agricultural rites and celebrations based in western Europe, particularly England. (Ronald Hutton, in his wonderful book on ritual customs and beliefs in Britain, Stations of the Sun, details the many rich traditions from rural areas in ancient times, many of which still continue to this day). Today's British pagans often celebrate their rites within stone circles or at sacred sites, just as their ancestors may have done hundeds or even thousands of years ago.
As some of you know, I travelled to England this past solstice with a freind who is a photographer, and attended the open celebration at Stonehenge and visted a number of sacred sites. (Witchvox will be offering coverage with photos by Berta Daniels some time in the next few weeks.) We also travelled to Glastonbury, land of legend and religious pilgrimage. While today's Glastonbury is the home of a grand old abbey (a popular tourist attraction) with herb gardens, and dozens of pagan and new age shops, its most striking feature is the Tor: a huge man-made hill which spirals upwards and seems to stand sentinel over the entire town. There is a small tower at the top, a remnant of Christian worship. But the Tor is said to be an ancient site once trod by King Arthur and other players in his myth: Queen Guinevere, Morgan le Fay, even Merlin.
There are also ancient wells of healing and magic here: the Chalice Well flows directly out of the hills at the base of the Tor and is piped into the town's water supply. Pilgrims and visitors can fill bottles of water from the White and Red wells (representing the male and female principle, respectively) from open founts set in stone walls.
While I enjoyed the town itself, and met some wonderful magical people there, pagans and non, my priority while at Glastonbury was to visit the apple orchards.
The apple has always been my magical tree. Perhaps it is because I grew up in western New York state, land of many orchards and birthplace of many hybrid and discovered varieties (like Cortland, Macoun, Jonathan, Spy, Paula Red, and others). We often went picking when I was a kid, and would climb into the sturdy low branches of trees, eating as many as we ended up putting in our baskets.
Perhaps it is my Celtic blood: my mother is Irish, Scottish and English. I have always felt an affinity for Celtic mythology and the first time I travelled to the British Isles, over twelve years ago, it felt like coming home. The Celts were people who lived at one with nature, and modern Brits are not much different. Most of them have gardens, from elaborate designs to humble kitchen gardens with a few culinary herbs, to the famous English love affair with roses.
We may not know who the Druids were, or what they were doing (to quote a well-loved movie), but we do know they were involved in tree worship, and composed poems, chants, songs and educational texts about them. Poet and philsopher Robert Graves wrote a creative and richly-detailed exploration of how these tree myths inform the poetic imagination in his excellent book The White Goddess He pays particular attention to apple trees, as so many cultures, but particularly the Celts, revere its mythic properties.
Blossom, Leaf and Fruit
"With what talisman was Bran summoned by The White Goddess to enter the Land of Youth? With 'a silver white-blossomed apple branch from Emain in which the bloom and the branch were one.'" --Robert Graves, The White Goddess It has been said that a branch of an apple tree which contains blossom, leaf and fruit (what would seem to be a seasonal impossibility) is a very magical item. It can grant safe passage to and return from the Underworld, and in some myths, denotes immortality unto the bearer. In The Silver Bough, F. Marian McNeil writes: "the apple was the talisman that admitted a favored mortal to the Otherworld and gave him power to foretell the future."
McNeill also identifies Samhain rites of bobbing for apples as probably descending from the Druids, who would have seen the ritual of passing through water to obtainan apple as paralleling the passage through water to Annwn, to Avalon, the Land of Apples, world of the Immortals. Mrs. McNeill also mentions the border ballad "Thomas the Rhymer" which describes the gift of second sight bestowed upon Thomas by the Faerie Queen; he is then able to enter the land of Avalon as an initiate. McNeill's book contains many fascinating examples of folk rites and divination practices gathered from folklore, all involving the use of apples.
When I was in the orchards of Glastonbury, two days after the summer solstice, small apples had already appeared upon the trees. I walked through one orchard at the foot of the Tor, admiring the gnarled old trees and peaceful calm that pervaded the area. In the weeks surrounding solstice, many travellers (hippies, new agers, pagans, etc.) travel to Glastonbury, many of them camping outdoors. Unfortunately, some of them leave behind trash in the pristine sacred sites they visit. (WHY DO PEOPLE DO THIS??? As the Ancient Sacred Landscapes Network, or ASLaN, says on their t-shirts, "Don't change the site; let the site change you.")
I noticed a pile of campers' leavings beneath the boughs of one particularly beautiful old tree. I decided I would pick up the trash and dispose of as much of it as I could. There were food wrappers, tin cans, an old cooking pot with food burned into it, bottles, etc. Before beginning to clean up, I went to sit within the curving boughs of the tree, which formed a semi-circle close to the ground. As I sat on one of the branches which acted as a sort of chair, I noticed one single blossom growing on a branch that had two small apples. My mouth dropped open in wonder.
This is a magical occurrence. One I had never seen, nor thought ever to see.
I know I should have marvelled at it and left it there. But I wanted to possess that blossom, since my own magical identity and work are so bound up with the mythology of apple orchards. (My magical name, Albion Summerisle Morrison, refers to the mythical site in the Scottish Hebrides where apples grew abundantly; Albion, an ancient name for England, comes from the same Indo-European root which means "apple.") I silently made a pact with the tree: I would clean up and remove every scrap of garbage from the orchard, if I could be allowed to pluck that one blossom, symbol of immortality upon a branch bearing leaf and fruit. I communicated my intention, touching the branch, and I sensed the tree would allow this. I murmured my thanks, and went to work.
I walked down the hill to where I saw some other campers (a couple and their infant son) and asked if they had a spare plastic bag I could use for trash. I told them I was cleaning up in the orchard. They seemed distressed that other pagans had left a mess. I had not travelled to the UK in over seven years, and had noticed an alarming trend which has overtaken the country in those few years: public littering, even in rural areas. I had mentioned it to several people I met there and they were as perplexed as I as to why it was occurring in a place where people usually took such pride in keeping public spaces clean. The most distressing aspect of it is that there were so many pagans and new agers who did this exact same thing. I could not, and cannot, fathom this, but it is certainly true that the same phenomenon occurs among America pagans.
Thinking these thoughts but hoping to spread some "Keep Sacred Britain Clean" energy, I went back to the tree. I picked up every item of trash, filling the bag to the brim. I put it aside, and returned to the branch. I touched the blossom, and waited until it felt right in my fingers. I decided if it did not come away easily from the twig, that I would leave it there. But it did.
I placed it in my pouch I wore around my neck (green leather with a Celtic triple horse design). I then stood and noticed some fallen twigs which contained moss. I put those in my pocket. And then, I got greedy. I picked two small apples from the tree.
I still have the blossom, or its remains, in my pouch. But I got busted at the airport for carrying foreign plant material and had to surrender those apples. (The customs guys were nice about it when I explained they were spiritual items; but I still had to give them up). I guess I know why; next time I will be more grateful for the wondrous magic I am given as a gift.
Several weeks ago, I went apple picking in an orchard in Peabody, Mass. with a friend. There had been two frosts but the apples were still looking great. We decided to wander through the part of the orchard that was empty of other pickers, and was also the location of where my friend and his partner had been handfasted last Beltane.
As I told my friend about finding the blossom at the orchard in Glastonbury, he stopped me mid-sentence and said "Peg, look." He pointed to a branch on the tree (green apples, Northern Spys, I think) where there was not one, but an entire cluster of blossoms, seven in all.
A cluster of pink-white apple blossoms. In October. On a tree covered in fully-ripe fruits. After two frosts had occurred.
We were both thrilled. I picked the blossoms, after asking the tree's permission and promising to honor the goddess of the orchards (Pomona to the Romans, Avellenau to the Celts). I also placed these in my pouch a few days later, after placing the twig in water so all the blossoms could open.
For such a thing to occur twice in one year, in summer and fall, seems to me a portent of immense significance. Now if I could only figure out what it means...
And now I journey once again to the White Island, home of the Land of Apples, the ancient holy land of Arthur and his knights, of his women wise in magic. The land of the Druids, the land of warriors and poets and bards and mystics, wizards and witches.
I will spend Samhain within a small and magical stone circle called the Rollrights. (To hear more of the story of this special place and those who are its caretakers, The Rollrights Trust, go to www.rollright.demon.co.uk; see also Witchvox's coverage of the recent sale of the stones and the land surrounding them). This circle, surrounded by rolling hills and barley fields, is one of the most magical places I have ever been in. After I left in June I knew I must return there as soon as possible. I have never been to Britain in autumn, and expect it to be an exciting and magical time to be there. It gets cold there this time of year I am told, and damp, and I know I will feel the same brush with mortality and hard, true Nature as my ancestors felt, when faced with the coming season of silence and sleep.
I go in search of orchards, and apples, and to connect with the ancient spirits of the land. To meet friends old and new. To see the Circle of Stones dimming in autumn's twilight. To dance in the season of dark and dormancy. To sing in the shadows, the old songs of wisdom and fearsome magic. I go to find myself. And to return home again, more myself than when I began my journey.
(Albion Summerisle Morrison)
Photo Credit: the amazing image in the center of this article was captured in England earlier this year by Berta Daniels (website www.badcam.com).
Bio:: Born 10/23/63, Peg is a freelance writer and artists' model, and a Witch of Celtic/Sicilian heritage. She has taught classes in film, literature, writing, herbalism, and calligraphy, and is also a singer, actress, astrologer and perfumer (gotta love that Libra/Scorpio cusp). As a performer, she has made music with a number of Pagan artists, including MotherTongue(tm), Urban Myth, and bard Olvardil Prydwyn. She reviews films for the Boston Phoenix, and is Associate Editor of Obsidian Magazine. She loves single malt scotch, apple orchards, Xena, Jethro Tull, and her three grey kitties, Ziggy, Zeus and Trivia.
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