Mabon

Ainsley Highland

This upcoming Tuesday is the Autumn equinox, the day when light hours and dark hours are exactly even. It is also the first official day of Autumn in the Northern Hemisphere and Spring in the Southern Hemisphere for the vast majority of countries that use the Gregorian calendar that is customary in Europe and the Americas.

Humans have been using the solstices and equinoxes to mark time and organize calendars for as long as records exist… and in the case of astronomically aligned structures such as Stonehenge in England or ‘Woodhenge’ in Cahokia, USA, well before records exist.

Although it’s not possible to know with any precision how or why prehistoric peoples marked the four cardinal points of the year, there is still thousands of years worth of history and traditions from all around the world once written records began.

September Equinox Traditions

Across the northern hemisphere, the fall equinox coincides with harvest time, and as a result, equinox harvest festivals abound!

Ancient Egypt is an interesting exception: though technically located in the Northern Hemisphere, the way agriculture was based off the Nile rather than purely the seasons, mean fall was actually the planting rather than harvesting time. Instead, Egypt celebrated the new year at the Autumn Equinox.

In China, the Harvest Moon Festival celebrates the successful harvest and offers thanks to the moon and is still celebrated in China and Vietnam today. The Chinese calendar is lunar based, rather than solar, and the Harvest Moon is the full moon that falls closest to the autumn equinox.

Ancient Greece had at least two different myths that attributed the shift in seasons to either the death or deep depression of different fertility gods, and various festivals and celebrations thanking these gods for the bounty of the harvest and encouraging their rebirth or return.

In Catholic areas of Europe, Michelmas, still celebrated as a minor festival today, was created as one of four “quarter days” celebrating various Christian ideals and spaced to fall on or near the equinoxes and solstices. Though ostensibly the feast of Saint Michael, Michelmas retains the older pagan strains of celebrating fall, the harvest, and the progression towards winter.

Throughout the British Isles, harvest festivals stretch well beyond recorded history, but since the introduction of Christianity, tend to occur on the Sunday of the full moon closest to the September Equinox. It is from this tradition that the modern pagan celebration of Mabon comes.

The British harvest festivals were also the source of the first “Thanksgiving” that is now celebrated on the third Thursday in November in the US. Although most Americans learn in school that the event commemorates a celebration between English pilgrims and Native Americans in the first British colony in Massachusetts, most of us do not learn that this original ‘thanksgiving’ occurred near Michelmas at the end of September and in celebration of the first harvest.

A Time for Thanksgiving

As you might have noticed from the brief summaries above, key themes surrounding harvest festivals involve giving thanks for the bounty of the land received, and a view that the Earth is dying, or entering a period of rest, before the rebirth or renewal of the next spring.

Although the aspect of literally bringing in the harvest may be less applicable in the modern context, many of these festivals also seek, in a spiritual and metaphorical sense to “reap what you have sown.” As gratitude for a literal harvest that is the difference between survival and starvation has receded in importance in the modern world, modern celebrations increasingly emphasize the symbolic nature of these ideas.

Many traditional symbols of the harvest remain ubiquitous to fall today: the cornucopia often seen in Thanksgiving imagery is also known as the Horn of Plenty, and has symbolized the wealth of harvest for centuries. Apples are another common symbol of the season in North America and Europe, as the apple harvest coincides with the season.

Especially in a year as challenging as this one, I believe it is all the more cathartic to acknowledge our connection to each other and the Earth, and to celebrate and give thanks for all the good things we have seen. Whenever possible, I like to mark the season by apple picking. It’s not only a wonderful and quintessentially Fall activity, that gets me outside and into the sunlight, but I like to think that at least symbolically, I’m participating in the rhythms of human life since the dawn of agriculture. In some indefinable way, acknowledging that deep history, and the triumphs of all those past humans who made my life possible fills me with a sense of connection to humanity and life itself, and make it possible to genuinely feel thankful for the blessing of life.

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Ancient Remedies - Medieval Hair Dye

Ainsley Highland

As many of you already know, the theory behind Lacewing & Kettle is to draw from the rich global tradition of cosmetics and skincare that women have passed down for millennia, and vet them through the lens of modern science and technology to create natural, effective skincare.

Because of that focus, I spend a lot of time looking at historic sources to see what ingredients were used, and how, and to look for themes and consistencies across time. Today I thought I’d share a recipe from possibly the first treatise specifically concerning women’s cosmetics and beauty aids, “De ornatu mulierum,” and take a look at how and why it might have worked.

Image from a 14th Century ed. of Trotula, sourced from Wikipedia with eternal gratitude to their CC0 class public domain images

Meaning literally “On Women’s Cosmetics” “De ornatu mulierum” is one of three distinct works comprising the 12th century Trotula manuscript, the most important medieval (European) compendium on women’s health.

The recipe I chose from that work is a black hair dye that the author identifies as “Saracen,” meaning it came from the Muslim world, a mere hop, skip and a jump from Salerno, the southern Italian city where the Trotula originated.

“A proven Saracen preparation. Take the rind of an extremely sweet pomegranate and grind it, and let it boil in vinegar or water, and strain it, and to this strained substance let there be added powder of oak apples and alum in a large quantity, so that it might be thick as a poultice. Wrap the hair with this, as though it were a kind of dough. Afterward, let bran be mixed with oil and let it be placed in any kind of vessel upon the fire until the bran is completely ignited. Let her sprinkle this on the head down to the roots. Then she should wet it thoroughly and again let her wrap her head (prepared thus in the above- mentioned little sack) in the same above-mentioned strained liquid, and let her leave it throughout the night so that she might be the better anointed. Afterward, let her hair be washed and it will be completely black.”

Before I get into how and why the ingredients might serve as an effective dye, let’s take a look at the dyeing process. Unlike modern hair dyes that would lift the cuticle and deposit a pure pigment in the core, this recipe functions along the same lines as any other process to affix natural dyes to natural fibers and would be closer to the hair staining process used in semi-permanent and temporary hair dyes.

In order to permanently dye a natural fiber, a natural plant extract is combined with a mineral mordant (or dye fixative). For high protein fibers — which in this case includes human hair — acid dyes are generally most effective. The basic process is to soak your fiber in the mordant for a while, and then add the dye. If you were paying close attention to the recipe, you may have noticed that the dye process came in two stages, and sure enough, these are neatly broken down into mordants and color. Now let’s take a look at the ingredients:

The main ingredients are:

        • Pomegranate Skins
        • Vinegar
        • Oak Apples
        • Alum
        • Ash (from Bran & Oil)

Pomegranate Peel

As most people know, pomegranate is incredibly rich in antioxidants. Pomegranate peel is particularly rich in one category of antioxidant called polyphenols, which include specific antioxidants tannins and catechins. While antioxidants in general are good at protecting from sun damage, and tannins in particular have been demonstrated to protect colored hair from fading, tannin is a fantastic mordant, used today in both wood staining and natural fiber dyeing.

Vinegar

Vinegar is effective at removing buildup from hair, increasing shine, and sealing the cuticle. Today we would use a weaker vinegar to help seal the cuticle after coloring, not as an ingredient in the dye. However, I expect that the reason vinegar was recommended, but not required here, is that it would lower the pH of the overall dye, making it more effective on a protein-rich fiber such as hair.

Oak Apples

Not a fruit at all, oak apples are a type of gall, or abnormal outgrowth, occurring in a particular species of oak tree. Caused by a specific form of wasp, oak apples have been used since Roman times to make to make ink, and are another source of tannic acid (a specific form of tannin) that - drum roll please - act as a mordant. Indeed, the word “tannin” actually comes from the Latin word for oak bark.

Alum

Alum is the last mordant on the list, and it’s possibly the heaviest hitter. Alum remains one of the most popular mordants today, and one of the reasons it is so popular is that it can be used at the same time as the dye without pre-seasoning.

Bran & Oil

It is interesting that neither the type of bran nor oil is explicitly specified here, but I suspect the reason is that as long as it blackened when burned, it didn’t much matter, because the burned bran is our only clear dye, and it would have been black. If the bran was oat bran however, it may have had the added benefit of having a high iron content, which would have further darkened the dye, and added a hint of brown. Iron is still used today to create a range of beautiful browns, and was the other component of that Roman ink dye I mentioned earlier, which is properly termed “iron gall ink.”

Conclusions:

Taking a look at this recipe piece by piece, I have the sneaking suspicion that it would have worked incredibly well. After all, it’s basically what you would do to permanently dye wool black today.

In fact, if I have concerns about this dye at all, it’s the possibility that it would be too harsh to use safely. Alum is one of the safest mordants you can use, but it can still cause irritation, burns and respiratory issues if inhaled. Similarly, tannins are safe in foods, but concentrated tannic acid can be toxic if applied directly to the skin. However, while I tend to doubt that pomegranate skins can yield a sufficient concentration to be dangerous, I do not know whether oak galls would be. After all, around this time, people were still applying lead to their faces and belladonna to their eyes, both of which are now known to be extraordinarily toxic.

Credit: 13th Century French copy of the Trotula, again shamelessly lifted from Wikipedia thanks to their public domain images.

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Lammas

Ainsley Highland

 

“May your harvest be bountiful and sustain you through the cold winter months ahead. May the love of friends, family and the goddess warm you always”

This Saturday is August First, a major milestone in the solar calendars, and a traditional holiday period, and we choose to celebrate it by offering this Lammas blessing.

Solar calendars mark the longest and shortest days of the year, the summer and winter solstices respectively, and the autumn and spring equinoxes when day and night are equal. Lammas is a cross quarter day, marking the midpoint between equinox and solstice, and further subdividing the calendar into eighths.

Although many peoples following a solar (as opposed to lunar) calendar had a first harvest day on or near Lammas, the name comes from the first of three harvest festivals celebrated in the British Isles. We mark the day as Lammas, as opposed to Freyfaxi (from the Norse) or Pachamama Raymi (from the Quechua of Peru and Ecuador), because the Celtic festival has survived continuously from truly ancient roots through to the present day, and as such has accrued a rich and well-attested set of traditions.

Many summer cross quarter observances feature a celebration of the first harvest, athletic competitions and feasting, intended to give thanks for the already harvested, and prayers for the safety of the remaining season. Lammas in particular is marked by bread baked with flour ground from the the first harvested wheat, blueberry or blackberry harvests, and prayers offered for the safety of still-ripening crops. Athletic games and weddings are also common celebrations of the bounty of the season.

Even if you choose not to bake a Lammastide loaf, or run a race, take a moment this year to reflect on the balance, bounty and majesty of the natural world we so benefit from, and the hard won wisdoms and keen observations our ancestors made in order to continue human life to the present.

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