“And as in the morning the rose opens, receiving the dew from heaven and the sun, so Mary’s soul did open and receive Christ in the heavenly dew”[i]
Examples of knotted cord used in bewitchment were discovered in the 19th Century and are frequently called ‘Witch’s Ladders’, a term of unknown origin, or ‘garters’. In March 1965, the magazine Pentagram published an article in response to a reader enquiry with regards cord magic. The response came from hereditary witch and master of a traditional cuveen, Robert Cochrane, giving a small insight into the ‘Witch’s Ladder’, a traditional spell-working and devotional tool employed as a meditational device and arranged in a similar fashion to the Catholic Rosary.
In his seminal and sometimes controversial work, Mastering Witchcraft[ii], Paul Huson describes the cingulum, a witch’s cord or garter, used in measuring out the compass and as a “ritual rosary[iii]” in spellwork where repetition assists in binding the spell with incantations counted upon knots. Like Cochrane, who once stated in a letter to the American Joe Wilson, founder of the 1734 Witchcraft Tradition, Huson cites seven knots tied in the cord at intervals. However, both Robert Cochrane and his successor Evan John Jones make a separate mention of five and three knots tied upon the cord, which should be looped at one end and worn about the neck, symbolising the noose and subjugation to Hekate and Her will. This cord has more far reaching meaning and depth than simple folk magic, as we shall attempt to demonstrate. However, the reader is invited to experience the cord and rosary for what they are, a practical and devotional device in the attainment of gnosis and all phenomena that entails. The cord of five and three knots described by Cochrane and Jones leads us deep into the otherworld and the banks across the great river where the rose-garden and the Goddess await. This journey will, hopefully, indulge some meaning and praxis behind this meditational device, feminine tool of Wyrd, and ultimately lead us into an heretical transpose of the Catholic Rosary and the Hail Mary prayer often associated with it.
When writing the small article for the Pentagram magazine in the nineteen-sixties, Robert Cochrane was Magister of a cuveen in which he kept a traditional and mystical form of witchcraft alive. One of the more devotional aspects of the Clan of Tubal Cain, as Cochrane’s cuveen was and is still known, was the concept of the Rose Castle, the otherworld domain of past Clan members awaiting rebirth from the Cauldron until such time as the perfected soul achieves a higher plane of existence. This concept is not so unusual and the Rose Chapel has held a place in myth and religion, not least of which is Catholicism and Christian esoteric symbolism. The everlasting image of the distant castle upon a hill, approached by a winding road surrounded by red and white roses, has endured the ages and is found in artwork, as commented by Cochrane, including old Romany caravans, canal barges, as well as heraldry. In most depictions, the castle is usually reached by crossing water where fishes may be leaping, or sometimes a serpent. But what is the relevance of this to the witch’s cord?
In his article, Cochrane identifies the cord as being that of Fate, classically identified as three women playing individual roles in the forming of a great tapestry that depicts the unfolding universe. One Fate measures the threads, while another is responsible for weaving or knotting them together, the last holding the shears that will ultimately sever them. In Northern mythology, these sisters are today called Wyrd and are seen at the foot of the world tree Yggdrasil attending the well waters that feed the tree, despite the four harts that gnaw at the bark. These triune Ladies are responsible for keeping the cosmos in motion, spinning and weaving the threads of each soul, lacing them through the tapestry, knotting it with problems, interacting with others, until finally returning back to await another life. “In Christian mythology it is Mary… who weaves out of herself the struggling and suffering incarnation of the numinous principle.”[iv]
The cord, then, is the perfect symbol of the thread of one’s life, replete with fives knots denoting, as Cochrane and Jones tell us, the Round of Life and the three that are the triune lunar Goddesses and the three worlds. At one end, knotted into a noose, the cord symbolises both the umbilical that connects us to the magna mater as originator, while the other end becomes the instrument that will squeeze our last breath from our mortal body. The cord then has the feminine power of life and death, as the double-edged knife is to the male. Cochrane’s article makes reference to the game of snakes and ladders, suggesting that the snake, the Destroyer, marks our descent while the ladder denotes the means of ascent. Of course, all depends upon the roll of the die and the hands of chance. In this paragraph, though, Cochrane suggests something more powerful than a simple tool for petty magic. The implication is something of a higher, more mystic, gnosis.
The witch is not alone in using knots upon a length of cord for meditational purposes and prayer beads have a long history originating, at best estimations, in India and among traditions that include Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim belief and practice. In Hinduism, for example, the prayer beads, Japa Mala, are held in the right hand between the middle finger and thumb and used while chanting mantra. The index finger is not used as it represents the ego. Early prayer beads were most frequently associated with the ancient cult of Shiva, whose first depictions almost always have him holding a rosary[v].
The word Rosary originates from the Latin Rosarium, translating as rose-garden. Its earliest and most prominent association in Christianity is with Mary as virgin and mother of the divine child. In Christian belief, as in witch tradition, prayer beads maintain a feminine character, being associated most prominently with Grace; this suggests Mary assumes that role cognate with the Shekhina, the earliest Hebrew Bride of God and Holy Spirit (ruach hakodesh). One Marian title is ‘Rose-Garden’ and Christian esotericism often appoints Jesus as the tender gardener and fruit of the Lady of the Rose, indicative of Mary’s status as consort and mother of an old/young God paradigm. Indeed, within the Marian cult, Mary is found in triplicity as virgin, bride and mother of God. In her seminal book, The Rose-Garden Game, Eithne Wilkinson suggests that “…the term Rosarium, ‘Rose-Garden’ was gaining currency by at least the beginning of the fourteenth-century… the symbolism of the rose-garden and rose-chaplet, however was much older[vi].” As the rose-garden, though, Mary is symbolically aligned with the inner sanctum itself.
Jewish scholar, Raphael Patai, describes Shekhina as being an independent aspect or attribute of Godhead that is purely feminine in nature, meaning literally “in-dwelling”. According to Patai, there was in Rabbinic writings “… a pronounced tendency to personify the Shekhina and to conceive of her as a manifestation of the deity in a lower form, capable of being perceived by the human senses. The Shekhina was the direct heir of the Biblical Cloud of Glory…[vii]”. Patai also demonstrates that the term Shekhina and Holy Spirit came to be used synonymously in the Talmudic period. In Her later capacity, Shekhina had the power to intercede on man’s behalf, admonishing God “…not to practice retribution and to refrain from punishing Israel”[viii]. This function would later develop in the Christian tradition in respect of Mary, mentioned within the Ave Maria (Hail Mary), the premier Marian prayer, in which she is beseeched to represent us at the moment of death[ix].
The prayer most commonly associated with the Rosary is the Hail Mary. Outside the doctrine of Catholicism, this prayer shows examples Mary assuming parallels with Kabbalistic Matronit-Shekhina[x], Grace or charis and Baraka[xi] (Hebrew Berakah), elevating Mary from being the human virgin-mother to the very indwelling spiritus, the Goddess Herself identifiable with Gnostic Sophia and the Holy Spirit. The association between Wisdom, Sophia, and Mary resonate throughout Gnosticism and Western Alchemy, where Mary becomes a symbol of the perfected soul. Indeed, sixteenth-century alchemists knew the rose as flos sapientum, “the flower of those who have ‘the Wisdom’”[xii] and the Virgin Mary is taken not only as the Holy Spirit but also as the soul of an initiate who has ‘attained the rose’. Within the symbol of the Rosary, Mary embodies the notion of ascendancy toward the rose-garden, Wisdom and unity with Godhead, the sacred marriage between heaven and earth, Hieros Gamos. “The Greeks called sexual union ‘golden Aphrodite’, and the Lady of the Rose is always the Bride as well as the Virgin and bears the love-child. As the type of the perfected soul she is the mother of whom the mystics say: Mary could not have borne Christ in the flesh if she had not first conceived him in the spirit.”[xiii]
The opening lines of the Hail Mary are taken directly from the Gospels where the Archangel Gabriel presents the Annunciation, preparing Mary for the Holy Spirit to dwell within her, causing God to manifest through her as the Christ child.
In AD 1572, Pope Pius V officially gave papal recognition to the 15 mysteries of the Rosary. These once totalled 150, being three times 50, but were later reduced to three times five. Correlation can be seen with the three worlds and the five senses and the pentagram of the elements, with spiritus at its head. The modern Rosary has four ‘decades’ of ten beads with the addition of a fourth mystery in the early twentieth century. It is interesting for our purpose to note, however, the Rosary acknowledged by Pius V as having fifteen mysteries via three lots of five beads or knots to create the chaplet.
In Cochrane’s Craft, the cord described in the Rite of the Castle of the Four Winds consists of five and three knots. Interestingly, this numbers eight, but, employing the principle of the 16th century Rosary, it could as easily be three times eight – 24+1 (plus one more), the number of winds one might find in a Cochranian Rose Compass[xiv]. Perhaps of interest to students of Cochrane’s Craft legacy is to note the importance with which both past Magisters of the Clan of Tubal Cain write that it is not eight knots upon the cord, but five and three. This, then, on the Rosary, becomes fifteen and nine knots when applied to the principles of ingress, congress and egress and all that entails. Indeed, further exploration into these three realms would produce insight into the use of the cord as a Rosary, utilising it as a devotional ladder in order to achieve the Three Rites.
In a so-called ‘lesson plan’ attributed to Robert Cochrane, the ring, wheel or compass is explained. In it, the ring is described as corresponding to the “Garter, or Ladder of Devotion”[xv]. The old name for a compass of the winds used for navigation long before modern techniques is ‘Rose Compass’ due to the floral pattern made by the points. So the Rosary, from the Latin for rosarium, can be identified as having practical use within the witch tradition of Robert Cochrane.
As part of what is today called ‘Last Rites’, a Catholic on their deathbed may receive certain rites from approved priests to assist them on their way to the afterlife. One of the most common was ‘Extreme Unction’, whereby the patient was anointed in order to invoke the Holy Spirit in those about to pass on and renew the hope of life after death through salvation. It bestows Grace and delivers forgiveness for sins, or transgression from the path. In addition, a vigil of the Rosary may also be employed whereby Ave Marias are recited over the patient. As previously stated, Mary achieved the divine position as matron, enabling her to intercede on man’s behalf; this made last minute appeals to her the most direct and favourable root to Divinity in Catholicism.
In Her name, the Rosary, Her symbol of life, death and resurrection, is a tool through which we can produce actual results. Whilst the witch may utilise whichever spell, prayer or incantation they please, there is one that historically would raise no suspicion and fulfil a purpose entirely. The Hail Mary, in conjunction with the Rosary, is a direct appeal to the supreme Goddess as Daughter (Virgin), Bride and Mother of God; communion with the forces of Fate represented in the knots of birth, youth, maturity, old age and death - five in number.
In the first part of the prayer, the Lady of the Rose is described as being completely imbued with Grace - in classical form the Charites that are three Ladies who attend Hekate and Aphrodite. The Greek Charites, more frequently depicted accompanying Aphrodite, signify those qualities such as charisma, divine presence, Beauty and charm; it is divine empowering presence or virtue. The Rose, as a pre-Christian symbol, long represented certain divine qualities to the ancient mystery schools, among them beauty, love, which are names of Charites, in addition to Wisdom, the highest name of the Goddess. The five petalled rose was an ancient symbol of Aphrodite, later Roman Venus and symbolised Grace, later becoming a sign and epithet of the Mary who was mother to the christos in Christian liturgy. Such titles given to Mary include Rose of Sharon and Rose without Thorns, as well as Lady of the Rose and Rose-Garden. The association between Aphrodite and Mary is profound within the symbolism of the rose, often associated with Eros and agape.
In the ‘Annunciation’, the Archangel Gabriel descends upon Mary, in her capacity as virgin, to proclaim that she is to become the vessel of God’s manifestation in the material world. The Coptic Greek word used here is Theotokos, which literally translates as ‘God-bearer’ or ‘one who Gave birth to the Person who was man and God’, suggesting association with Matronit-Shekhina. The Archangel Gabriel commonly has water and moon associations and, in the Gnostic text Pistis Sophia, Jesus informs his disciples that he, as Holy Spirit, sent an emanation of Himself in the form of Gabriel to visit Mary. We could possibly draw a conclusion that Gabriel is in fact the form of God that visits Mary, as the vessel, and fills her with the Grace of God, Shekhina descending upon Mary that she may conceive of the God-man, Adam Kadamon.
The first line of the Ave Maria concludes with “the Lord is with thee” (dóminus técum), suggesting, in the context of the prayer[xvi], the sacred marriage of God with Mary as Bride, the Heiros Gamos which is symbolised by the number five, the number of petals found upon the rose. This is confirmed, perhaps, in the following line that praises the “fruit of thy womb, Jesus” where we see Mary as Mother.
In the second line of the prayer, Mary and Jesus are both described as “blessed”, which in Hebrew is rendered as Berakhah. In Kabbalist lore, specifically those tracts which relate to Merkavah[xvii] and associated mystical practices, Berakhah denotes the presence of God’s essence; a blessing[xviii]. In Sufism, Baraka is akin to charisma as divine presence and the flow of Grace from Godhead. In the final part of the prayer, the supplicant appeals directly to Mary to bestow favour upon them when they die, implying she has both foreknowledge and control over the event and the ability to purify the soul and gather it up to the Rose-Garden.
In Anglo-Saxon England, the cult of the virgin possessed the minds of the population and prayer books of the period contain a number of prayers to the Virgin. In her role as virginal maid (kore) and mother (demeter), we can see remnants of an older Goddess mystery shining through. In terms of the Craft, one of Mary’s major roles and powers in early Christian practice is intercession. In this capacity, Mary is prayed to in order to mediate between heaven and earth. Christianity in early Britain enjoyed a period of inclusion with its indigenous beliefs and it was not uncommon for pagan imagery to appear side-by-side with Christ or Mary upon private altars. Indeed, early Catholicism, like new religions before it, was keen to demonstrate the efficacy of its own magical approach over those used by those indigenous practices. “…the Apostles of the early Church attracted followers by working miracles and performing supernatural cures…missionaries [in the Anglo-Saxon Church] did not fail to stress the superiority of Christian prayers to heathen chants”[xix].
So important was supernatural favour for a person or endeavour that it produced a dedicated sect amongst those taking a religious vocation. Called ‘bedes-folk’, ‘bedesmen’, or ‘bedeswomen’, these people typically were expected to pray for their benefactor’s soul – countering the sins they readily committed. The word bede has an Old English meaning to denote prayer and a ‘bedesman’ was literally a ‘prayer-man’. Often, these were almsmen, responsible for distributing to the poor, who received the favour of a benefactor or monarch in exchange for prayer on their behalf for good fortune. In Scotland, they were nicknamed ‘Blue Gowns’ in deference to their attire, accompanied as it was with a pewter badge upon the right arm[xx]. These people clearly held a position comparable to an enchanter, uttering their prayer or incantation to higher powers to intercede with Fate for some good purpose. It is tempting to believe that a blue dye, usually obtained from indigo, might fade to a vibrant green, or that there may be some other reason they might also come to be called ‘Green Gowns’, as Cochrane refers to his people in history, but this is speculation. The image of a bedesman can be found at Norbury, Derbyshire, at the feet of Sir Ralph Fitzherbert, (d. 1483), along with a beast often described as a lion. Whilst some bedesman may have wandered the countryside up until the 19th Century, most were to be found in alms-houses and hospitals, where they commonly numbered thirteen.
As we have seen here and elsewhere, the symbol of the Rose has ancient provenance, but it is nearly always associated with those qualities exemplified by the charites and best called Grace, as well as with death and resurrection, making it the perfect symbol in Christian mythology to retain the Goddess as ‘Mother of God’ (mater dei, theotokos). In Imperial Rome, the Rosalia was adapted from the Greek Anthesteria, both titles being literally “Rose Festival”[xxi]. In the course of the three-day festival of Dionysus, a ‘King’ was appointed whose consort was offered to the god in sacred marriage. The festival took place around or during the full moon between January and February, roughly coinciding with the feast of Candlemas in our modern calendar. The Rose Festival of the Classical world was also a feast of the dead, paralleling in Candlemas the rite of Hallowmas as referred to in the writings of Evan John Jones[xxii]. The third and final day of the celebration was dedicated to Hermes Chthonios, perhaps comparable to the witch God as psychopomp, who assists in the departure of all souls. In the Christian calendar, of course, the festival was known significantly as the Purification of the Virgin Mary. Robert Cochrane’s Candlemas ritual as described in a letter to occultist William G. Gray[xxiii] begins with the confession, expiation and purification[xxiv].
It is to be expected at this point that some readers will be suspicious of such mention of Christian practices and regard the use of the Hail Mary or Rosary as unlikely in historical witchcraft. However, confessing to the Inquisition, one 16th Century French witch, Jeanne Hervillier, admitted to using the Gospel of John, Pater Noster and Hail Mary, three times each, to summon Lucifer[xxv]. The witch appealed her sentence, which was transformed from maleficium, causing death by bewitchment, to plain heresy. She was summarily burnt at the stake in 1582. Of course, employing the Rosary and the Madonna to summon Lucifer, the light-bringer, would still be regarded as blasphemous in the eyes of the Church. However, consider that “…the Lady in Christianity is always a guide towards her Son, a light increasing in luminosity as the devotee approaches the True Sun, Sol Justitiae…”[xxvi]
Of course, Christianity holds no exclusivity over prayer beads and indeed the Rosary appears to have been around a lot longer in Christian practice than the legend of its origin with Saint Dominic attest[xxvii]. The use of knotted or beaded cord for repetitive devotional prayer or mantra is found far back in history; the earliest, found in India, are most commonly associated with Shiva as creator and destroyer. Indeed, it is curious that the prayer bead entered Christianity at all as repetitive prayer or incantation is regarded in the Bible as that practice given to ‘heathens’ and not to be mimicked. Matthew 6:7: “but when ye pray, use not vain repetitions as the heathen do.” The Rosary, however, functions on precisely this principle. The history of prayer beads incorporates a great deal of lore and mythology rendering it futile to attempt a discourse on it all here. However, it is interesting to note the materials used throughout history, from the earliest knotted wool, to bone (human skull-bone among certain Tibetan Buddhists), miniature skulls of bone or ivory, even supposedly dead men’s teeth among the Shaktas in India. Snake bones are common and reunite the prayer beads with serpent, even as unicorn horn held a special place within Christian esotericism!
Repetition of the curse or prayer was employed in the manufacture of the ‘Witch’s Ladder’ along with animal bones and feathers at certain points or knots. Most frequently, the number of knots equalled nine, or three times three, paralleling the charms used in the confessions of Jeanne Hervillier. Magister of the Clan of Tubal Cain, Robert Cochrane, once wrote of the ‘Witch’s Ladder’ “…when worked up properly, they should contain many different parts – herbs, feathers and impedimenta of the particular charm.”[xxviii] The earliest apparent find identified as a ‘Witch’s Ladder’ was in Wellington, Somerset and was first published in the Folklore Journal 1887[xxix]. Curiously, the item found does resemble the cord often described in traditional witch practices, i.e. made of three strands and looped at one end. Another distinguishing fact was the male goose feathers knotted into the cord at manufacture. Of the Rosary, we can draw some comparison in that many strange artefacts have been historically employed in prayer beads, supposedly as counters. “Most curious for use as counters are feathers, fish-bones, roots and bezoars (animal’s gallstones).”[xxx]
The Catholic Rosary, as has been seen, was used for administering to the sick and dying, having an overt emphasis upon healing, particularly atonement. As healing and cursing are twin aspects of the same coin, it is not inconceivable that prayer beads could be utilised for either purpose. Indeed, the triad of mysteries suggests the triplicity inherent in the aforementioned aspects of creation, preservation and destruction. Whilst many an amateur scholar would dismiss the account of Jeanne Hervillier’s confessions as being submitted under extreme duress, there is nevertheless a certain ring of truth in the form given. It was not, perhaps, quite so unusual for witches of past centuries to utilise Christian prayers in their rituals as modern neo-pagans might imagine. Furthermore, the three prayers mentioned in the confession suggest the Trinity, while it is stated that they were recited three times each. If the Hail Mary is the hymn of the Mother, the Pater Noster is most assuredly that of the Father. The opening part of the Gospel of John talks of the coming of Jesus and the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Shekinha) is complete and comparable to the myth of Osiris, Horus and Isis. As Eithne Wilkinson notes, a distinction between the religious and magical is unclear “…and therefore rosaries are everywhere liable to be used also for magical purposes, either as a means of warding off evil or as a means of casting or removing spells.”[xxxi]
In conclusion, the rose-garden and the witch’s cord possess powerful symbolism, which become more apparent when activated from a mystic perspective. The cord is the thread of Fate, each knot representing our own ‘passions,’ reflecting our inner nature as christos and the promise of resurrection via the rose-garden. The Lady of the Rose presides over an alchemical process that elevates us to a gnosis, guiding us to the True Sun, Sol Justitiae, and ultimately back to the Rose-Garden, that universal symbol itself.
i) Sermones XXI super Confraternitate de Rosacceo, Cornelius van Sneek, Paris 1514
ii) Mastering Witchcraft, Paul Huson, Perigee First Edition 1980
iv) The Rose-Garden Game, Eithne Wilkinson, The Camelot Press Ltd, 1969
vii) The Hebrew Goddess, Raphael Patai, Avon Books 1978
viiii) “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death”
x) Fourth in the Kabbalistic Tetrad representing the Daughter, the matron, the essential link between Above and Below “… and the occurrences through which human fate… is propelled forward” – The Hebrew Goddess.
xi) “blessing” in Arabic and Hebrew denotes more than simple benediction, as we shall explore.
xii) The Rose Garden Game, Eithne Wilkinson, The Camelot Press Ltd, 1969
xiv) See The Roebuck in the Ticket, Robert Cochrane, Evan John Jones (Ed. Mike Howard), Capall Bann & The Robert Cochrane Letters, Robert Cochrane, Evan John Jones, (Ed. Mike Howard), Capall Bann.
xv) Seekers will discover this material themselves.
xvi) The opening lines of the prayer refer directly to the in-dwelling spirit filling Mary in the mystical sense (gratia plena) and thereby preparing her to conceive of the Christ child. Christian esotericism is, incidentally, full of explicit erotic symbolism leaving no room for ambiguity. Unfortunately, later sanitisation has removed many such depictions.
xvii) A specific tradition of mysticism relating to the chariot as found in Ezekiel, for example.
xviii) The Bahir, Aryeh Kaplan, Weiser 1988
xviiii) Religion and the Decline of Magic, Keith Thomas, Penguin 1991
xx) Wikipedia entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bedesman
xxi) See Wikipedia entry
xxii) The Roebuck in the Thicket, Robert Cochrane, Evan John Jones, (Ed. Mike Howard), Capall Bann
xxiii) The Robert Cochrane Letters, Robert Cochrane, Evan John Jones, (Ed. Mike Howard), Capall Bann
xxiv) See Sin-Eating and its Relevance to the Craft, by Shani Oates, White Dragon No. 60 Lughnasa 2009
xxv) Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, Jeffrey Burton Russell, Cornell University Press 1984
xxvi) The Rose-Garden Game, Eithne Wilkinson, The Camelot Press Ltd, 1969
xxvii) Again, earliest descriptions of Mary’s appearance to St. Dominic describe an erotic scene whereby the Saint suckles the breast of the mater dei! Such imagery was abhorrent to later Christianity.
xxviii) Pentagram magazine, Robert Cochrane, March 1965
xxviiii) Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witch's_ladder
xxx) The Rose-Garden Game, Eithne Wilkinson, The Camelot Press Ltd, 1969