This is the first chapter of the forthcoming book ‘The Witch’s Wheel’ written by Yvonne Owens and Jessica North O’Connell. Published here by permission of the authors.

“The doors of the sidh-mounds were open, and on this night neither human nor fairy needed any magical password to come and go.”

Jessica North O’Connell

‘Witch and Familiar,’ Photo by Kristin Sweetland

YVONNE: The ancient, Celtic year began at Samhain, where we now observe All Hallow’s Eve and Witch’s new Year. This was the occasion of the Pleiades constellation rising from the horizon, and marked the final harvest activities (in the Northern Hemisphere) of winnowing, beer brewing, late wine, preserving of foods, storage of goods and staples, and the preparation of domestic animals for stabling over the winter months. It also marked the occasion of acknowledging the dead, the ancestors, their contributions for good or ill, and laying to rest regressive influences – or ‘ghosts.’ The main theme of Samhain is death/rebirth, and the activity is that of “composting” the old, in order that its energy be released into new and vital forms, Samhain was celebrated as “New Years” by the pre-Romanized Celts, and the festival is called ‘Witches’ New Year’ by modern practitioners of the Old Religion. Samhain began the first month of the Celtic lunar calendar, with Birth month (Celtic/Gaelic Beith).

JESSICA: Samhain marks the beginning of winter and the Witches’ New Year. “Samhain, the Last Harvest – the Earth nods a sad farewell to the God.” Thus to economic uncertainty was added a sense of psychic eeriness, for at the turn of the year – the old dying, the new still unborn – the Veil was very thin. The doors of the sidh-mounds were open, and on this night neither human nor fairy needed any magical password to come and go. On this night, too, the spirits of dead friends sought the warmth of the Samhain fire and communion with their living kin. This was Feile na Marbh (pronounced “fayluh nuh morv”), the Feast of the Dead, and also of the White-Haired One, the Snow Goddess. It was “a partial return to primordial chaos…the dissolution of established order as a prelude to its recreation in a new period of time. Samhain begins the year (starting at sunset October 31); it is the third harvest of the year: “Crops, too, had all to be gathered in by the end of October, and anything still unharvested was abandoned – because of the Pooka (Puca), a nocturnal, shape-changing hobgoblin who delighted in tormenting humans, was believed to spend Samhain night destroying or contaminating whatever remained unreaped.”

Samhain is the third and final harvest of the year, By this time, our agrarian forbears would get an idea of how well-stocked their larders would be for the coming winter. They would also consider how many animals they could afford to keep (how many they could feed) and how many they would have to slaughter, which would then augment their foot stores. Being a fire festival, bonfires were lit, a fine way to burn off that which was left behind from the harvest and garden clean-up (and a good way to stay warm while gathered outdoors!) It is also a time to honor those who have died during the year, and it is customary to set a place at the table for the ancestors and the dead. It is said that the “veil between the worlds” is at its thinnest at this time, that it is easiest to contact the spirits of the departed, and for them to appear to us.

YVONNE: The constellation of the Pleiades becomes clearly visible above the horizon around All Hallows Eve. The “Seven Sisters” are prominent in the lore of the Celtic lunar year. Celestial patterns were often incorporated into the designs for the temple, sacred grove or temenos. The rising and setting of the Pleiades, starting with All Hallows, marked the sequence of the agricultural year, for purposes of winnowing, fallow periods, planting and harvesting. Colleges of star-gazing priestesses were the first agrarians and culture-builders, concerned with the conservation, storage, fertilization and germination of seed grain, ritual observances and accumulated wealth. These cycles colluded with the lunar fertility cycles of women, and women as “gatherers,” were the natural inventors of agriculture. (see also Geraldine Thorsten: “God Herself” re: development of agriculture)

Originally, the Celtic lunar calendar began on the first, last-quarter moon after the Fall Equinox, with the festival of Samhain (what we now observe as All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween). In the Northern Hemisphere this occasion marks the final harvest activities of winnowing, beer-brewing late wine-making, preserving of foods, storage of goods and staples, and the preparation of domestic animals for stabling over the winter months. It also marked the occasion for acknowledging the dead, the ancestors, their contributions for good or ill, and laying to rest regressive patterns or influences, otherwise known as “ghosts.” Departed spirits are celebrated, and seen to still be present within our ancestral or genetic memories. The are honored as an ongoing part of the collective and personal self. The theme of All Hallows is death/rebirth, and the activity is that of composting the old so that its energy can be released into new and vital forms. Whatever is obsolete, constricting or outgrown is transformed into new expressions of life. Z. Budapest calls this the “initiation of the soul,” winter’s portion of the year. According to Budapest, this initiatory period lasts until early February (Imbolc/Brigid’s Day) when spring is inaugurated.

This time of year is a bittersweet occasion. There is a poignancy about it, as well as a healthy, irreverent jollity, perhaps best expressed in the attitude of Mexico’s Day of the Dead. With this festival, the spirits of the dead are affectionately mocked. They are remembered with celebratory meals consisting of the foods the departed souls most enjoyed while they lived. Offrendes – or offertory shrines for the deceased – are constructed in tribute. Upon the offrende altar are placed mementos, photos, objects once loved by the deceased, and food offerings. Candles are lit and, most importantly, those who are no longer with  us within a mortal life are given the gesture of remembrance (important for us to do and, one must suppose, for them to see – at least the part of them that lives on in us). More than anything else, at Samhain we give ourselves messages onf continuity, transfiguration and resurrection – the true significance of adopting new personae, or “masks”

Samhain marked the New Year for pre-Roman Celts, and is still celebrated as Witches’ New Year by modern practitioners of the Old Religion. Hallow’s Day began the Celtic lunar calendar with Birch month, or Beith. There is speculation that there were once thirteen, lunar cycle-oriented, zodiacal signs observed by ancient star-gazers, the thirteenth being an archetypal spinner and weaver like the thirteenth fairy in Sleeping Beauty. If this is so (and it does seem logical),  the solarization of astrology is probably responsible for her eclipse, she who was once the ruler of the zodiac itself, as the Cosmic Spider in Her Silver Web, or Celestial Loom. In any event, the zodiacal attributions still agre fairly well, thematically, with the lunar calendar. Birch month begins about ten days into Scorpio, with its esoteric significance of mystical death, resurrection and rebirth. The Rune for Birch is Berkano, gestation and nourishment – the seed in the earth awaiting the Spring. The Gaelic name for Birch is Beith, and its letter is B.

The inventors of astrology (in the form we now recognize) were the priestly casts of Sumer, Assyria, Canaan and other civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia. The early symbol for Scorpio was the hieroglyph for “snake,” its outlines still apparent in the current symbol. Snake sheds her skin and is renewed, transformed and regenerated within the same lifetime. As the starting point of the new yearly cycle, Birch month augers the darkening of the light, a turning within to conserve vital energy for winter, the beginning of hermetic withdrawal and introspection. Natural processes are essentialized and hidden, in a state of hibernation or incubation. Earth’s energies draw deep within, in order to re-emerge rejuvenated in spring. The Birch is a supple, youthful, slender tree which stands in the forest like the image of renewal. Other images appropriate for Birch month are the eagle or Phoenix, significant of new life rising out of the ashes of the old.

In Eurasian shamanic lore, Birch hoops were used for initiatory portals or thresholds. In fairytales, they betoken a magical shape-shifting. In the Isle of Man, Birch “flails” or rods were applied to criminals in order to drive out regressive behavior up until, and into, the twentieth century, in a process called “birching,” reflecting a custom once prevalent across Europe. Initiatory practices of Siberian shamans included purification by means of ritual scourging with Birch rods. The Altaic shamans, took would be cleansed by leaping through a Birch hoop, and were required to demonstrate the ability to climb the World Tree in the form of a Birch pole. Asiatic shamans of the Altai, Magyar and Tatyar tribes employed a Birch hoop to transform or “shape-shift” into and out of animal bodies. This explains the incidence in Eastern Europe folktales of magical characters (or reconstituted shamans) causing wolves to pass through Birch hoops, that they have the ability to “turn back into men.” The ability of Birch to “resurrect” the soul is reflected in these  elements of folk and fairy tales. Such practices were rooted in beliefs surrounding the magical properties of Birch to redeem, renew or cleanse. We get both the words “Birch” and “birth” from Gaelic Beith, or Beth (in Gaelic, “th” is pronounced “ch”). According to the ancient tree wisdom, both words convey the same meaning. In Finland, cleansing saunas were constructed of Birch and used also as birthing chambers.

November 5th  of the Roman/Gregorian calendar is now American Election day but it was once the occasion of Celtic “Clans Festival,” a gathering of the tribes where matters of clan rule, regency, chieftainship, kinship bonds, social obligations and tenures were clarified. This coincided with the major fire holiday of Celtic New Year, with feasting, gifting, lauding of the harvest wealth, contests, races, matchmaking, a general de-lousing and preparation for stabling of beasts and life indoors for the human community. Purification with fire was a venerable part of the proceedings. Contemporary Veterans’ Day (November 11th) occurs within a few days of several archaic political ceremonies. Revolutionary France observed a “Celebration of the Goddess of Reason,” were upon a woman dressed as a Juno/Justice-type Goddess was paraded through the towns. Closer to the sacrificial tone of Veterans’ Day was ancient Egypt’s celebration of Isis’ resurrection of Osiris (November 12th) In the myth of Osiris, Isis re-integrates the dismembered God, gathering the scattered parts of His body and revivifying Him.

November 16th marks a folk festival still observed in some parts of the U.S. – Sadie Hawkins Day – the day when women are empowered to propose,, initiate dates or ask the men to dance. Long before this, the day was observed throughout the Roman Empire as a similar kind of folk festival popular with rural people. It was called “Hecate Night” and it celebrated women’s initiative. This was the occasion when women initiated whatever they wanted to manifest over the course of the year, setting their hopes and intentions deep into the hidden realm, like seeds below the Earth. In ritual fashion, they began to incubate a new reality or set of possibilities in a manner both magical and psychologically natural. Whatever is begun this day will characterize the remainder of the year, setting the theme.


JESSICA: In our book, The Witch’s Book of Days (Beach Holme, 1993), the Hallows, or sacred tools of the Craft, have these correspondences:

The Athame/Blade/Sword represents the Element of Air, the East dirction, Spring and Dawn

The Wand/Staff represents the Element of Fire, the South direction, Summer and High Noon

The Chalice/Cup/Cauldron represents the Element Water, the West direction, Autumn and Evening

The Pentacle represents the Element of Earth, the North direction, Winter and Midnight

The Seasonal Associations of the Hallows, as they occur on the Witch’s Wheel are as follows:

WINTER months: Birch/Rowan/Alder – Pentacle & Wand (staff, pen, broom); Winter Solstice (Samhain associated with Elder and falls on the last day of that lunar month.)

SPRING months: Willow/Ash/Hawthorn – Blade (Athame, Sword) & Chalice (Cauldron); Imbolg, Spring Equinox

SUMMER months: Oak/Holly/Hazel: Wand & Pentacle; Beltaine, Summer Solstice

AUTUMN months: Vine/Ivy/Reed: Chalice & Blade; Lammas, Autumn Equinox

This is meant as a guideline only, relating the Hallows (or Tools) to the seasons. Move when it is appropriate to you, acquiring what you need in your own time. Never haggle about the cost; you do not need to purchase it if you do not want to do so. If something is commissioned for you, trust your intuition about the craftsperson – would you want them handling your tools if they were not the maker?


YVONNE: Samhain was originally timed for the first last-quarter moon after the fall equinox. It corresponds to Christian All Hallow’s and the 1st of November is Christian All Saints’ Day or All Souls’ Day. M. Esther Harding states in “Women’s Mysteries” that Samhain constitutes the primary festival of ancient Britons as the antique New Year festival and the advent of winter. “All Hallows” signifies “those who are sacred,” as ancestor spirits or magical allies and guides. The term also makes reference to the “Thirteen Hallows of Britain,” magical tools that descended into the Underworld at Samhain, having been abducted by the Underworld powers. Arthur, as solar hero and sacred king, makes a descent into the Underworld in order to reclaim them and bring them back to the world above. This symbolizes the renewal of the land at the advent of the sun’s return after the Winter Solstice. The return of the Hallows to the daylight world above occurs at Imbolc, and is yet another image of springtime renewal.

Elder month of the Celtic lunar tree calendar begins just after the beginning of October. Its 28 days bring us full circle to Celtic New Year’s Eve on Samhain (October 31st ), Witches’ New Year. Elder month is the threshold moon, favoring a retrospective view to composting old patterns, emotional baggage and regrets.

JESSICA: Elder is the Spirit of Samhain: “Elders were considered ‘Witch Trees.’ They were thought  to actually be the Wise Ones in repose. It was considered the

height of folly to axe an Elder without gaining its permission.”

All Hallow’s Eve occurs on the last night of the Celtic lunar month of Elder. The quintessential plant of the third and final harvest of the Northern year, humanity’s relationship with Elder reaches back to the Stone Age, where evidence of her cultivation was found at archeological sites in present-day Switzerland and Italy. Her name, possibly derived from the Anglo-Saxon “Ellaern” or “Aeld,” means “fire” or “kindle,” as her hollow stems were used for fire kindling. Planting an Elder tree near the house was believed to protect it against being struck by lightning and was reputed to defend against magic and guard against evil. Throughout the ages, humans have found multiple uses for Elder’s parts, from the manufacture of instruments (the Greeks made harps and Pan pipes from her branches) to shoemaker’s pegs, butchers’ skewers, net-weaving needles and medicines, as well as delightful pies, conserves, cordials and the famous Elderberry wine, an old European tradition.

There are certain uses that our forbears assiduously avoided, however. It was considered “unlucky” to make a child’s cradle or bed from Elder. (Some varieties are poisonous!) Farmers refused to use her wood to make a cattle-driving switch. Some people throught putting Elder on a fire would produce the vision of a demon. Others believed Elder would only thrive where blood had once saturated the ground. The Elder Rune is Raido, signifying journeying, putting thins in order, the travels of the sun across the sky (through the Zodiac), priorities and shamanism. The Gaelic name of Elder is Ruis (pronounced  roo eesh) and the letter is R.

Elder grows around the world in temperate climates and appears in a number of varieties, of which I have found no less than ten types: Sambucus candensis (American Elder); S. canadensis ‘Aurea’ (Golden American Elder); S. nigra (Common, Black or European Elder); S. nigra ‘Aurea’ (Golden Elder); S. racemosa (Red Elder); S. ebulus (Dwarf Elder); S. canadensis Maxima; S. nigra Guincho Purple; S. racemosa Plumosa; and S. racemosa Plumosa Aurea. Some varieties feature black berries, some red. Herbal authors are somewhat divided regarding their information concerning the berries.

The evaporated syrup made from the juice of the dark purple berry of Sambucus canadensis has been used as a purgative and as an ointment for burns when mixed with lard or a other ointment base. Cooked berries are considered safe and often used in making pies and jams. Tea made from the dried berries is useful for cholera and diarrhea. An infusion made from th flowers, when taken warm, promotes seating, soothing headaches due to colds and rheumatism; when taken cold, is a diuretic. An infusion made from the leaf bud is a strong purgative and an infusion made from the leaves and flowers is useful as an antiseptic wash for wounds and inflammations. Some First Nations peoples used a root-bark tea to promote labor at the end of pregnancy, and for headache and congestion. However, ALL parts of the fresh plant may potentially cause poisoning.

The purply-black berry of Sambucus nigra is used in cosmetics, jellies, jams and liquers. A cough syrup was made from the juice of this berry, and those with colds found comfort in a cup of hot mulled Elderberry wine. The jam is useful for inflamed or irritated bowels and is mildly laxative. One author advises against eating the raw berry or juice, suggesting that one lightly cook them before ingesting. Tea made from the flowers was used as a mild laxative, diuretic and sudorific (promoting perspiration). This Elderflower water is mildly astringent and useful in skincare. Both the fresh bark and root have been used in small doses for their diuretic and purgative effects. An overdose can cause vomiting, diarrhea and inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. Most authors consider all parts of this variety poisonous and advise against taking them internally (with the exception of the cooked berries).

Once widely used throughout Europe in home remedies and by the medical profession alike, the rootstock of the Dwarf Elder, Sambucus ebula, has diuretic and laxative properties. This variety produces a shiny, black berry containing four seeds, which is considered poisonous. Modern homeopathy, however, still uses S. ebula in some of its remedies.

Sambucus racemosa, Red Elder, is one of my personal allies. Many years ago, during my first marriage, we lived in the Kootenays on 93 acres of wooded land. Two Elders grew on the property, one next to our communal garden. The general concensus was to enlarge the garden, which meant the little Elder would be right in the middle of the proposed site. Because of her size, I felt it unnecessary to remove her but, to my dismay, my husband cut her down one day when I was away on errands. Grieving, I planted my infant son’s placenta on the spot where she once stood as an offering.

A few weeks later when we were on vacation, visiting relatives  in Montreal,  my family and I were involved in a near-fatal car accident, my husband being the most severely wounded, but there were no fatalities. That summer marked the end of our marriage; I stayed in Montreal, working with a band and, finally, returning to University. Twenty-four years later, I still have yet to revisit our former homestead. Esoterically, Elder represents a doorway, or corridor, between the realms of life and death, her powers intimately intertwined in the processes of death/rebirth and transformation.

Here are some interesting uses for that Queen of Samhain:

In the garden: Make a wash against aphids using Elderberry leaves by simmering eight ounces of the leaves in four cups of water for an hour. Stir the mixture well, strain off liquid and cool. In a separate container, dissolve a teaspoonful of pure soap flakes or an environmentally-friendly detergent (such as Dr. Bronner) in two cups of cold water. Add the cooled Elderberry water. Use immediately. Don’t forget to rinse.

Cosmetic use: Use Elderflower water as a skin toner. She is reputed to soften skin, diminish wrinkles and soothe sunburn, and is recommended for mature skin. Fill a canning jar with blossoms, (a jam jar is fine unless you plan to use a larger amount, then use a quart jar). Fill to the top with boiling water and put on the lid. Let stand for two hours. Strain and keep in the refrigerator, using as needed. Very nice and refreshing in a spritzer bottle!

Medicinal use: Elderflower tea is helpful in cases of bronchial and other upper respiratory ailments. As a tea, she is also reputed to help alleviate the symptoms of hayfever. The cold tea may be used as an eye wash for conjunctivitis. Use as a gargle to relieve sore throats and tonsillitis.

And here is a delightful traditional recipe (though you’ll have to wait until spring to try it out):

Elderflower “Champagne”


juice from 1 lemon

6 Elderflowers, dry, newly opened and picked before noon

2 tbsp good quality cider vinegar

3 3/8 unrefined sugar

Combine flowers, lemon juice, vinegar and sugar in a large pan. Cover with water and stir to dissolve the sugar. Cover pan and let steep for 2 days. After the second day, strain off the liquid and bottle in brown or green glass bottles with screwtop lids. Store bottles on their sides for two or three weeks. This period allows the “sparkle” to develop. Serve chilled, with a lemon slice. Do not store for longer than one month.

Serve Elderberry jam or a berry pie at your Samhain feast. Honor her wonderful versatility and her ancient history – ancestor to our ancestors. Respect her awesome powers and listen to her voice amidst the leaves rustling in the winds.

Blessed be!

“In the Mysteries of Isis and Osiris, the Goddess searches the Underworld for four days, finally finding Osiris upon the fifth day. His body had been interred within a tree by Seth, his dark brother. On the sixth and final day of the Isia, October 31st, Isis resurrects Osiris, breathing new life into him with the help of Her dark sister, Nephthys.

Yvonne Owens

YVONNE: the late harvest festival means commemoration or remembrance in many cultures. Rosh Hashanah is the New Year Festival of the Jewish sacred calendar, which also follows a lunar system and observes the advent of the year at the harvest. Rosh Hashanah is known as the first of “The Ten Days of Repentance,” and is observed for two days over October 1st and 2nd. Yom Kippur (October 10th and 11th) follows up on this theme in Jewish observance as “The Day of Atonement,” when worshippers ask forgiveness from others for wrongs committed against them and, in return, forgive those who have wronged them. Yom Kippur is considered by Jews to the holiest day of the year and it, like all truly ancient holidays of lunar calendars, begins at sundown.

Sukkoth follows in the Jewish calendar, beginning at sundown on October 15th and lasting for eight days. It is one of the three “Pilgrimage Feasts,” and is named for the practice of building little booths (sukkot) in the fields during harvest, and as temporary dwellings during the flight from Egypt. It is a feast of thanksgiving, like the four-day Thesmophoria of the same time-frame, which commemorated Demeter’s regaining of her divine child, Persephone – or the six-day Isia, which marked the wandering in the wilderness undertaken by Isis to find the dismembered body of her husband, the harvest-god, Osiris. In the Mysteries of Isis and Osiris, the Goddess searches the Underworld for four days, finally finding Osiris upon the fifth day. His body had been interred within a tree by Seth, his dark brother. On the sixth and final day of the Isia, October 31st, Isis resurrects Osiris, breathing new life into him with the help of Her dark sister, Nephthys.

Coffin Text and the Book of the Two Ways, Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead.’

From the coffin text liturgy of Osiris:

Whether I live or die I am Osiris,
I enter in and reappear through you,
I decay in you, I grow in you,
I fall down in you, I fall upon my side.
The gods are living in me
for I live and grow in the corn
that sustains the Honoured Ones.
I cover the earth, though I am cut down
I rise again
whether I live or die I rise again
For I am Barley.
I am not destroyed.
I have entered the Order,
I rely upon the Order
I become Master of the Order,
I emerge in the Order,
I make my form distinct,
I am the Lord – of the Granary
I have entered into the Order,
I have reached its limits.

Female vegetation deities who depart from the world above during winter season, like Kore, Persephone, or Ereshkigal (the dark, underworld sister of Inanna), do not die but simply depart and return, as they embody the all-inclusive, eternal quality of their goddess mothers. Their process is in the shamanic ‘soul retrieval’ pattern of Psyche and Eros, Kore and Hades, or Orpheus and Eurydice. The male divine offspring, on the other hand, have to die and become resurrected, often after begin thrashed, threshed, winnowed, ‘harrowed’ and ‘buried’ (or planted). This occurs in the mythic pattern of self-sacrifice for divine wisdom, or ‘Mystical Death and Resurrection.’

The cycle might more accurately be called shamanic Death, Dismemberment and Rebirth, for its ‘harrowing’ significance in agriculture. This is because the sacrificial ‘sons’ are figured as being generously, voluntarily self-sacrificing, the conscious vegetation gods of the grain (corn, barley, etc.). In this, the agrarian grain sacrifices and offerings resemble the sacred victims of hunter-gatherer societies, where the prey animal is seen to come willingly to their death by the hunters’ arrows or spears.

Yvonne Owens is a past Research Fellow at the University College of London and a Professor of Art History and Critical Studies. Her publications to date have mainly focused on representations of women and the gendering of evil “defect” in classical humanist discourses, cross-referencing these figures to historical art, natural philosophy, medicine, theology, science and literature. Her book, Abject Eroticism in Northern Renaissance Art: the Witches and Femme Fatales of Hans Baldung Grien, was published by Bloomsbury London in 2020. She also writes art and cultural criticism, exploring contemporary post-humanist discourses in art, literature and new media. She serves as  Editor for an anthology of essays titled Trans-Disciplinary Migrations: Science, the Sacred, and the Arts, forthcoming from Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Jessica North-O’Connell is a co-founding Priestess and Elder of 13th House Mystery School and founder of its Faerie Mound Mystery School Hive. She is author of Runemal: The Ritual of Runeplay, co-author of The Witch’s Book of Days, with Yvonne Owens and the late Jean Kozocari, and former publisher/editor of HICK: H.A.G.S. in the Country and Kin magazine. Jessica is the operator Great Goddess Alive! Alchemical Arts & Services, which offers a variety of programs and services, including Soul & Property Realignment, to assist clients in their own creative and spiritual recovery. She resides in Courtenay, with her Black Cord Priest husband Sean O’Connell, where she is happily learning to play the harp.



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