Once again, pre-Christian Celtic and pre-Christian Slavic magico-religious observances overlap at this time of year. While many Pagans in the Northern Hemisphere celebrate May 1 as Beltane, and bring the greenery o’ the Wildwood into their homes and ritual spaces, my Serbian Witch self celebrates this Friday as Biljini Petak, the “Friday of Gathering Wild Herbs and Flowers.” Celtic or Slavic, this time of year is held sacred as the start of summer, and some very ancient Powers are revered and thanked for Their blessings of returning the earth to vibrant life and verdant fecundity after the barrenness and tedium of winter.
In Serbian folk belief, it’s considered unlucky to bring wild-grown plants into the home prior to this Friday before St. George’s Day (May 6)—note the parallel taboos observed in Ireland and other Celtic countries regarding bringing in wildflowers before Beltane (especially if the flowers in question are blossoms of the hawthorn tree, which is sacred to fairies!)—so this date is eagerly anticipated by witches (vještice), healers, and (male) sorcerers (vračari), all of whom know that herbs and other medicinal plants have to be gathered today for their utmost magical potency.
As Serbian Traditional Witch Radomir Ristic states,
Collecting herbs was a community event; young women adorned themselves with wildflowers, and they sang and danced together while they collected the herbs. It was a celebration for the arrival of spring and the awakening of the spirits of the plants. … In eastern Serbia this holiday was continued in front of a cave, where bonfires were burned in honor of the underworld demons, that is, the spirits of vegetation. The collected herbs were dried and used throughout the year. (Balkan Traditional Witchcraft, p. 208)
I woke up earlier than normal this morning, knowing that I would have to be in my local paupers’ graveyard just before sunrise in order to (1) wash my face with the morning dew; and (2) harvest the red clover, dandelion, elecampane, and array of wildflowers I would put to magical use this year. Per the time-honored Serbian custom, you must be facing east and in total silence when you wash your face with the dew. And when it comes to harvesting the herbs (digging up the entire plant, roots and all), no metal implements of any kind can be used: sticks or stones and your hands, that’s it!
My heart was extremely joyful because I felt the Presences of the Slavic Powers Who reign supreme at this time of year: the youthful God Jarilo or Djurdev (the latter became absorbed into the cult of St. George, whose Feast Day [Djurdevdan] in the Serbian calendar is May 6), Who is thought to bring the greening of the land upon His release from the Underworld (some say it’s His uncle, Veles, Who holds Him captive there), and the flower-bedecked Vesna, the Maiden of Spring. (In eastern Slavic lands such as Russia, the Maiden is also popularly known as Lada.)
A layer of mist hovered above the dew-kissed ground, making me feel all the more excited that spirits were awake and aware of this special day and of my magical intent in harvesting the plants that I came to collect. Of course, I never approach the spirits in the paupers’ graveyard (be they human dead or land spirits) empty-handed: I toted a small carton of rich cream, a full bottle of Crown Royal Whisky, and a small circular loaf of home-baked bread (lepinja; I made it yesterday afternoon). But my first order of business was to set everything on the ground just after I entered the gates, kneel, and wash my face with the chilly dew. I faced east and silently uttered a prayer.
Elecampane: One of My Most Beloved Plant Spirit Allies
I’m very fortunate to have readily available Elecampane (Inula helenium) growing wildly in close proximity to where I live. Variously known by folk names such as Elfwort, Horseheal, and Wild Sunflower, Elecampane is an herb ruled by Mercury (Cunningham p. 98). In Serbian lore, it is an herb par excellence for spiritual protection, even burned during exorcisms conducted by the Serbian Orthodox Church (along with Sweet Basil and Hyssop, those other staples of apotropaic magic). Its root is dried and sewn into clothes or otherwise made into amulets; it’s also fed to livestock to protect them against evil and disease (Ristić p.216).
There’s a curious way to harvest it per Serbian folk belief, and I made sure I had a good-sized stone at the ready before I began digging into the wet earth with my sturdy deer antler and my hands. (This dig was tremendously helped by the fact that the Chicago area received over 3″ of rainfall in a little over 24 hours!) First I poured out both cream and Crown Royal to the spirit residing in the Elecampane, announcing that I was a friend to all in the paupers’ graveyard, that I tended to the dead, that I am a Witch who is excited to transfer the Elecampane into my own spiritually vibrant home. I would sing to and feed the plant spirit regularly, asking in exchange that it extend its powers of spiritual protection into every nook and cranny of my home.
Next, I dug, feeling giddy as the soil made squishing sounds once my deer antler made pick-axe-like jabs at creating a circle around the entire plant. I kept digging, occasionally eying the stone I had found nearby and placed to my right. Once I had dug far enough around the perimeter of the root system, not just the right width but the depth, I grabbed the stone and tossed it high into the air. I had less than 2 seconds from that point to completely uproot the Elecampane. I sighed with relief as soon as the tossed stone landed with a thud a few feet away: I had scooped up the entire plant in time!
I gingerly placed the plant, root system and all, into a bucket I’d brought with me. I thanked the earth for allowing the plant to grow as tall as it had since Spring Equinox and I poured more cream and whisky into the noticeable hole I’d created. I then began to slowly make my way southwards, towards the entrance gates, stopping three more times to harvest wildflowers that I’ve yet to identify! My goal is to create something of a conservation zone for endangered plants on my east-facing balcony.
The City of Chicago’s Park District technically owns the land of the paupers’ graveyard, and when folks come to mow the grass, they unfortunately mow down all of the herbs and wild flowers as well. I recently spied some intriguing little white and purple flowers, and, not knowing what they are but wanting to spare them from getting mowed down this month, I decided to bring them home with me and introduce myself to their indwelling spirits. You can see these flowers to the left and the right, respectively, of my Jarilo statue:
Folks, if you know what these delicate little flowers are, do Comment below this post! Thank you in advance.
Let Us Greet Fair Jarilo Upon His Return from the Underworld!
It’s easy to see why the Church grafted the story and some of the visual iconography associated with the Slavic God Jarilo/Djurdjev onto that of the Christian Saint George. There’s obvious solar symbolism associated with the Saint: he is astride a white horse (the sun), engaged in combat with a dragon (a creature of the Underworld, i.e., the Slavic God Veles Who holds Jarilo captive in the Underworld during the autumn and winter months). He’s typically depicted as a young man, clean-shaven.
A folk song sung throughout the former Yugoslavia declares,
“Gde Djurdjev hodit, tam vam polje rodit”
“Where Djurdjev walks, there your field gives birth”
He is a Blessed God of Life and Light, renewed from His release from the Darkness. Where He treads, the ground literally sprouts with vegetation: the blessed herbs, trees, and flowers Slavic Witches find indispensable to their Craft. His beguiling song summons everyone to dance, to frolic and carry on amorous adventures amidst the greening boughs of this month of May. What God could be more appropriate to Hail and Welcome in your ritual gatherings at Beltane?
Even though you may not be well-versed in the Slovenian language, I encourage you to watch this contemporary pop music video about Jarilo (named Zeleni Jure in Slovenian, or “Green George” in English… the Slavic equivalent of Britain’s Jack-o’-the-Green). The song, “Zeleni Jure” (2010), is performed by the Slovenian pop sensation, Roberto Magnifico. Note the theme of “eternal recurrence,” of how the Zeleni Jure mythos is cyclical. Note also the amazingly bedecked women in traditional Slovenian costume and sing along with their chorus of “He’s passed by / He’s coming / Zeleni Jure.”
A Blessed Biljini Petak and Beltane to all who celebrate!
May the Holy Powers bring abundance and health to your home and joy to your heart!
So Mote It Be!
Cunningham, Scott. Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1997.
Ristić, Radomir. Balkan Traditional Witchcraft. Trans. Michael C. Carter, Jr. Sunland, CA: Pendraig Publishing, 2009.