Discover more from The Cauldron
Introducing the Witching Hour happy hour series! Plus everyday folk magic; dead gods and the spring equinox, aka Ostara; News from the Library, and a cocktail made for Thoth, Egyptian god of scribes!
Welcome back to The Cauldron, witches! (Salagadoola mechicka boola!)
Hey, witches! I’ve got SO much to share with you, but before we begin, some exciting news: I’m launching a virtual happy hour series for writers and the writing-curious called—you guessed it—The Witching Hour, beginning March 22 at 7 pm ET!
The Witching Hour Happy Hour Series
How it works: purchase a ticket for $10. (If that’s not doable for you, talk to me! We can work something out.) Your ticket counts towards a raffle, with a chance to win a Pick Your Potions cocktail/mocktail Zodiac Recipe Deck.
In advance of our March 22 gathering, I’ll send you a link to a strange or unusual story to read, plus the access link for the happy hour Zoom session. When we get together, we’ll chat, explore a creative writing prompt derived from the reading, share, sip, and enjoy. This event is BYOP—bring your own potion!
Join me March 22 at 7 pm ET on Zoom for the first Witching Hour! We’re reading “Help Me Follow My Sister into the Land of the Dead” by Carmen Maria Machado.
Everyday Folk Magic
In the fall of 2020, after ten years in Northern California, my hobbity-wizard love Jensen and I set off for Michigan in a 30-foot RV, our two cats in tow. The move was a longer-term plan that became the “right now” plan when Covid hit and everything turned upside down. I like Michigan in all its lush weirdness and tendency towards hedonism, and life here is easier in some ways. But California was my home. So I consciously brought pieces of it with me.
In the Bay Area, witchy stuff is ubiquitous. There are crystals and coven workshops everywhere and complete strangers will offer to cleanse you with sage. Michigan is another world entirely. There’s a church on every corner (and sometimes a mosque!) and deer season is a BIG deal. (Most-Michigan conversation ever overheard involved one middle-aged white lady telling another: “Her husband said he’s not doin’ any housework til deer season’s over.”) Yet witches abound. There are all kinds of pagan groups and each one has their own faire, with wide open spaces for archery and knife-throwing.
Magic abounds in more subtle ways as well. Not long after moving here, I started noticing stars on houses and barns (so many barns to look at), the likes of which I associated with Pennsylvania Dutch country, which is not Dutch at all but German, by the way. What do these signs mean? Well, in short, they’re magic, though the people who put them up probably don’t think of it that way.
Real magic is in the mundane; witch signs are everywhere.
Stars and Pentagrams
According to Atlas Obscura, the stars I noticed displayed on buildings are protective “hex signs,” or objects of folk magic, combining ancient pagan iconography with Christianity, as geometric designs are associated with divinity. If the stars have four or five points, they’re meant for good luck. Eight points call fertility, while sixteen points bring prosperity.
“Hex signs” include pentagrams. While most people associate the pentagram with the devil or chintzy pendants found next to the register at Hot Topic, it’s actually a symbol with thousands of years of varied and totally non-evil significance. The pentagram can be found on tombs and seals from Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece. Pythagoras adopted the pentagram as a symbol for himself and his nerd gang. And in ancient Judea, pentagrams appeared on pottery as an attempt to ward off the tax collector. (I’m guessing that backfired.) In the Middle Ages, the pentagram became a symbol of the five knightly virtues in Europe, which is how it ended up on contemporary barns belonging to pious farmers.
For modern witches and neo-pagans, the pentagram symbolizes the five elements: earth, air, fire, water, and space.
It’s worth noting many neo-pagans draw upon the mythology of their ancestors when choosing a ritualistic tradition to follow/riff off. Though I am called by ancient Greek and Sumerian mythos, my heritage is Jewish (German and Polish) and Ukrainian.
Jewish mysticism isn’t something I’ve heard a lot of Jews talk about, perhaps in part because of anti-Semitic associations between Jews, black arts, curses, misfortune, and nefarious deeds. There also exists a tension between “modern,” “rational” religion and the “old wives’ tales” of the ancient days, which hew a bit too close to the pagan ways.
Yet the Talmud is full of magic (with tips on how to deal with everyday demons) and the Hebrew Bible offers punishing words for witches, plus strict prohibitions against soothsaying and other arts. This is unsurprising, given the historically magical, cultic nature of the spiritual world in which Judaism developed. As in other cultures, skill in the magical arts is also found largely among women and gender non-conforming folks, who are viewed as possessing preternatural ability in this area. This belief, coupled with sexism and anti-Semitism, led to many deaths among Jews during the Inquisition and the witch trials of Europe.
Here’s an interesting Jewitch fact: During WWII, a group of 60 Jews in Palestine—led by a rabbi named Yehuda Fetaya—traveled to Rachel’s Tomb, a sacred spot near Bethlehem. There, they covered their heads with sacks filled with ash and, for 24 hours, chanted incantations. When night fell, they blew the shofarot (rams’ horns, serving as sacred musical objects) and called upon God to show the Jewish people mercy. Then they gathered their tears in cups, circled the tomb seven times, and seven times shouted for God to keep Hitler out of Jerusalem. I don’t know about you, but that story gives me goosebumps.
Much folk magic is designed to keep yourself and your loved ones safe from forces that wish you harm, whether spectral or corporeal. Hence this ubiquitous example of everyday Jewish magic: the hamsa, a divine symbol of protection which, according to the JTA, is shaped like a hand “to convey luck and Divine guidance. Sometimes, an eye is drawn in the palm of the hand; other times, its pinky finger is bent back to look like a second thumb.” The hamsa has also been referred to as the eye or hand of Fatima, or the hand of Miriam, signs of its significance among Islamic and Jewish cultures: one of the earliest and most prominent examples of this design can be found at a 14th-century Islamic fortress in southern Spain.
To go back even further, My Jewish Learning notes the human spirit (ka) in ancient Egypt was “represented by two arms reaching upward (forming a horseshoe shape), albeit with only two fingers on each hand.” The Phoenician lunar goddess Tanit was symbolized by the figure of a woman raising her hands: “Etruscans painted hands with horns on their tombs, and some Jewish burial practices featured images of hands (suggesting the priestly blessing) on stone markers of Levite graves. All of these could be considered very early precursors to the hamsa.”
Though Turkish, the Nazar Boncugu is also popular among Jews. You might know it as the evil eye, though its purpose is to ward off evil, meaning the envy of others. Dating back to at least 3300 BCE, the Nazar Boncugu is a shield, bright blue for the sky god of the Central Asian Seljuk Turks. The bead is glass, most likely handcrafted, and worn as a jewel, usually around the neck. Such charms are often bestowed on newborns, though anyone can wear it, especially at times of transition, such as during marriage.
In many ways, what qualifies as magic is a matter of perspective: typically the spiritual practices of the “other” are viewed as magical, for example, meaning unsophisticated, backwards, and unholy. Turn the tables though and the same practices appear intuitive or commonplace.
I see magic as an everyday component of spiritual belief and cultural inheritance. In the end, magic is simply ritual, performed with intention, drawn from the power within yourself to effect change upon the world.
Speaking of everyday magic, spring is springing! And Ostara is March 20!
Ostara is the spring equinox, a celebration of rebirth, renewal, and fecundity. Symbols of Ostara include eggs, rabbits, hares, and flowers. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Hmm, this sounds a lot like Easter,” that’s a gold star for you! Ostara is the root of Easter, adapted to suit the holy resurrection of Christ.
Of course, Christ was not the first figure of worship to die and live again. In chronological order, I present the following chthonic deities.
I admit it, I’m obsessed with Sumerian mythology, so much so that Inanna (later known as Ishtar, a more complex precursor to Aphrodite) features prominently in my next novel. One of the main characters, a middle-aged witch, follows the goddess’s footsteps through the Great Below. (Fun witchy-nerd fact! The only English word derived from Sumerian is “abyss,” from “abzu,” meaning the primeval sea, the waters of the life, the great void. So yeah there’s a black cat named Abzu in my next book.)
A goddess with dominion over many things, Inanna’s powers can be generalized as sex and war: creation and destruction. Worshipped as early as 4,000 BCE, there are various versions of Inanna’s journey to the underworld, the domain of her sister Ereshkigal. (Ereshkigal is an early Persephone. Both get abducted and end up queen of the dead. Efforts to rescue Ereshkigal, however, are unsuccessful. More on Persephone below.)
In The Descent of Inanna, the goddess goes to visit her sister—in some cases to comfort her over the loss of her husband, in other versions to usurp her. As she passes through the seven gates into the underworld, she’s stripped of her jewelry, garments, girdle, and crown, until she’s left naked. Powerless, Inanna is killed by Ereshkigal, who hangs her body on a peg.
With the help of a faithful servant, some sexless spirits, and the waters of life, Inanna is resurrected. But someone must take her place in the Great Below. The goddess selects her consort, the shepherd Dumuzi/Tammuz, who’s fails to properly mourn her. (Inanna’s courtship hymns are sexy and full of frank vagina talk. “Shepherd in the sheepfold” will never sound the same to you again!) Hence the reference in the Book of Ezekiel to women ritually weeping for Tammuz in the springtime.
Osiris is the ancient Egyptian god of fertility and ruler and judge of the dead. One of the most important gods in the Egyptian pantheon, the first depiction of the deity dates to about 2300 BCE. In Osiris’s resurrection story, he’s killed by the god Seth, who severs the body into 14 pieces. Isis and her sister collect and bury all the pieces—except the penis—bringing Osiris back to life. After that, his domain becomes the underworld. Greco-Roman authors drew connections between Osiris and their own Dionysus.
Dionysus is a nature god, devoted to abundance and fecund flora, (in)famous for wine and ecstasy. In the Orphic version, Dionysus is the son of Zeus and Persephone. In other iterations, his mother is Semele, princess of Thebes. Zeus’s sister-wife Hera is eternally jealous of all her husband’s conquests, rapes, and affairs, so she manipulates Semele into asking Zeus to appear to her in his true form, which no mortal can behold and survive. Zeus goes along with this and Semele gets blasted by thunderbolts. Yet, Zeus rescues his child by sewing him into his thigh, where he gestates until ready for birth. In this way, Dionysus is considered “twice born.” In other versions of his origin story, Dionysus is torn apart by the monstrous giants the Titans.
A god of fertility, Dionysus is represented by rich sap, and lavish festivals are held in his honor. The Dionysian cult of the all-female maenads is infamous for wild runs through the woods, where they tear animals apart with their bare hands. Dionysus himself often takes the shape of an animal and is represented by depictions of the phallus and randy satyrs.
FYI the booktail-ized novel ARIADNE is a contemporary re-telling of the story of Dionysus’s mortal wife, and a pretty enjoyable read.
Persephone is the daughter of the harvest goddess Demeter/Ceres. Unbeknownst to Demeter, Zeus makes a deal with Hades to let him take Persephone as his bride. It goes down like this: while picking flowers, Persephone is drawn to a particularly captivating bloom. As she reaches for it, the ground splits open and Hades rides out on his chariot. He snatches her up and disappears back into the darkness.
Devastated by her daughter’s disappearance, Demeter wanders the Earth, neglecting her grain goddess duties. Hecate, dark goddess of the moon, witchcraft, magic, and more, hears her cry and lights Demeter’s way with her torch.
Finally, to keep humanity from starving, the other gods agree Hades has to give Persephone up. But the girl has consumed pomegranate seeds, the symbol of life, and therefore the food of the dead. She’s bound to the Underworld now. As a compromise, she spends half the year with her ghoulish husband, the other half with her mother. Some timeshare.
News from the Library
Featuring news and updates on authors and their booktail-ized books!
Abigail Stewart’s new novel FOUNDATIONS is out from Whiskey Tit! “A steely-eyed feminist, multi-generational novel,” the story is told in three parts via the lives of three women. Stewart’s novel THE DROWNED WOMAN was the first booktail featured in “Booktails from the Potions Library” in Electric Literature!
And now, a creamy cocktail made for a god!
Depicted as an ibis or baboon, Thoth is one of the most intriguing deities of the ancient Egyptian pantheon, and that’s really saying something! You may not recognize his name, but his role will likely be familiar to you: recording the results of the weighing of the heart against Ma’at’s Feather of Truth, the ritual that determines whether a deceased person’s soul goes on to the Afterlife, or is devoured by the goddess Ammit, a lion-hippo-crocodile hybrid and the Devourer of the Dead.
Thoth is the deity of the moon, sacred texts, math, science, and magic. A master of knowledge and patron of scribes, he delivers message for the divine. Thoth also acts as a mediator and voice of reason among the gods. He has no mother, having sprung from the lips of Ra in one tale, creating himself at the start of time in another. As an ibis, it’s Thoth who lays the cosmic egg that holds all creation.
This particular recipe mirrors the flavors of the Thoth truffle created by Vosges, one of the world’s best chocolatiers. (What, did you think my decadence only extended to cocktails?) In truth, I designed the drink for Vosges, and while I received a positive response from the company’s CEO, the partnership has yet to take off. In the meantime, I see no reason why you shouldn’t be invited to enjoy my creation.
Made with moon-white cream, rich pistachio, and fragrant botanicals, the Thoth cocktail is truly… divine.
1/4 c meltable dark chocolate
1.5 oz gin
1 oz pistachio syrup (see recipe)
1 oz amaretto
0.5 oz heavy cream
1/8 tsp rose water
Dried organic rosebuds or petals
First, prepare the syrup. Once ready, coat the inside of the glass with melted dark
chocolate. To melt the chocolate, microwave in a small bowl for 45 seconds,
then stir. Continue microwaving in 15 second intervals, stirring in between, until
the chocolate is melted smooth. Then, tilt the glass and slowly pour
chocolate down one side, coating a portion of the rim and bottom. Set in the fridge to harden. Once ready, add the syrup, gin, amaretto, cream, and rose water to a shaker with a large ice cube. Agitate vigorously, then strain into the prepared glass. Garnish with a rosebud or petals.
1 c pistachios, unsalted and shelled
1/2 c simple syrup
1/2 c water
1 tsp salt
Dash ground clove
Combine all ingredients in a blender and mix on medium-high to high speed until smooth. Pour into a mesh or cloth nut bag, then milk the liquid into a bowl. Discard the paste. Store the syrup in a glass bottle or jar and keep refrigerated.