Witch Lit Wednesday: The Lost Apothecary

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner on a wooden plank floor surrounded by various glass bottles, an herb cutter, and a mortar and pestle. Photo by M. A. Phillips 2022.

I recently finished reading The Lost Apothecary, a debut novel by Sarah Penner. While not what most would consider Witch Lit, I’m going to make a case for its inclusion in the fold.

These days, I normally want to read books with a heavy bit of romance, but a tale about a hidden poison shop to help women take revenge against the men who wronged them? Sign me up for that! Penner’s novel focuses on friendship, self-care, and falling back in love with old interests. The plot deftly jumps back and forth between time and three characters – Nella, Eliza, and Caroline. After a slow start, I was soon on the edge of my seat!

Caroline lives in present-day America. She travels to London following her husband’s infidelity and uses the trip that would have celebrated their ten-year anniversary as a means of reflection. She ends up finding an old apothecary bottle and, driven by curiosity and a desperate need for distraction, she rediscovers her penchant for research and English history.

Now let’s dig into the witchy characters. Nella and Eliza are from the past. The first is an older woman who owns an apothecary. She is the sort many (especially in the past) would label a witch. Well-versed in plants that can heal and maim, loner Nella uses her knowledge to help women in need from the outskirts of society. She has a deep respect for the plant kingdom, but she adamantly puts her trust in their properties and her humble understanding of science rather than spirits.

Eliza, on the other hand, believes in magic and ghosts. As a child who unexpectedly enters Nella’s life, the girl believes she is haunted and hopes the old woman has the means to assist her. Throughout the course of the novel, Eliza pursues a magical book and eventually uses it in an attempt to save them both. Though a much more subtle development, the girl grows into the early version of a modern witch.

Perusing other reviews, this seems to be the sort of novel people either enjoy or hate. I’ve seen some disdain toward certain characters’ melodrama, but given what they’re going through, their insecurities and fears made sense to me. When faced with upheaval, we may not always behave in ways society deems rational. We may jump fences or bridges and put all our hope into a potion, and yet that is what witchcraft can be for many. Groping in the dark, seeking the unknown to find ourselves, to remake ourselves. The allure of powerful plants is there for those who feel their back against the wall. I believe that certain detractors may have missed the subtleties in Penner’s use of genre, and I argue The Lost Apothecary is both historical fiction and magical realism, especially toward the end.

If you enjoy plant lore, coming-of-age, historical dramas, and what is often referred to as “chick lit,” you should pour yourself a cup of tea and cozy up with this novel.

Looking Ahead to 2022

Preparing to sain (purify) the home for the new year with incense, blessed water, wand, and protective dried rowan berries. Photo by M. A. Phillips, 2022.

Here I sit, January 1, 2022, realizing that I don’t have a new planner! I personally find something cozy and soothing about taking a moment at the beginning of the year, the month, the week, to sort my mind by way of paper and pen. Until I get that covered, I thought I’d hop on my blog and share my goals here! Some of them are very obviously religious in nature, but others are more creative or related to self-care. I share them here, in no particular order, as a form of accountability.

  • Deepen my understanding of Ogham through further study and introspection. This will involve completing my set of oak fews I’ve been working on.
  • Do more with my grove! The last two years have been so hard, and 2021 found me positively burnt out, especially with digital anything. However, I want to revisit options for the winter. I want to schedule a nature walk with everyone! We keep talking about it–let’s do it! I need to prioritize maintaining and strengthening my circle as I’m so blessed to have it.
  • On a similar note, I want to focus more on the Pagan community physically around me – both in Northern NY and Upstate in general. The pandemic made me turn online more. While I’ve made some valuable connections and friendships there (here?), I’ve withdrawn from the people around me. I’m not sure what this will entail…but I want to communicate more with friends in other group in my area. I’d like to strengthen our fellowship. I don’t say this to diminish the bonds I and others have formed online. Those are very special and real (and definitely worth maintaining due to safety and accessibility concerns), yet I crave the workshops and festivals I used to know. I crave in-person fellowship once more. This will largely depend on everything else, but reaching out is a start.
  • For writing, I want to “finish” and tidy up my manuscript, “Plant Lady,” so it’s presentable for my editors. This will require a few personal rounds of revisions and editing, then some beta readers, then more tweaking. Ideally, I’d have something to submit by the end of the year, but it may be an early 2023 goal. That’s okay.
  • Write another short story. Not sure about what. Maybe it will feature characters from Rituals of Rock Bay. Maybe not. More than likely “Witch Lit.”
  • Read a writing craft book. I have two on my shelf, and I should dedicate some time to at least one.
  • Read more for joy! I have a TBR pile a mile long! At the very least, I want to read the books my mother and sister gave me for Winter Solstice last year. I also want to read and review more Witch Lit! And, of course, at least three books pertaining to my religious practice.
  • On the arts and crafts front, I intend to sew more fabric art dolls. I’ve been feeling the pull recently, and a friend who runs a gallery has been urging me to get back into it. Taking it as a sign!
  • I’m going to be modest with garden plans this year, but I intend to add more to the shrine garden and continually improve existing beds.
  • Do more hiking! I want to make this the year we climb Cascade, one of the 46 high peaks in the Adirondacks. Let’s do it!!!

If you read this far, thanks for your time and support. Best wishes to you and yours this 2022! I hope to share some of my progress here and on my various social media haunts.

Book Review: The Return of the Light

A photo of the book “The Return of the Light” arranged on fallen evergreen branches and pinecones. A bookmark from The Little Bookstore peeks out. Photo by M. A. Phillips

While browsing my favorite local bookshop during “Shop Local Saturday,” I came across this little gem tucked among the various winter holiday selections. I was so delighted by the inclusion, I simply had to bring home The Return of the Light: Twelve Tales from Around the World for the Winter Solstice by Carolyn McVickar Edwards. I have a small collection of picture books related to the occasion, but my daughter is getting older. Her tastes and attention span are maturing! I thought this chapter-book-length addition could be an enjoyable shared reading.

Indeed, she listened to a couple stories, but she didn’t find them as exciting as the usual fantasy we read together. All the same, I’ve savored each tale like a small snack before bed throughout our Yuletide celebrations. They are enjoyable and very refreshing. Nearly all were unfamiliar to me and come from Indigenous cultures around the world.

The myths are not specifically about the Winter Solstice, but each relates to the sun in some way. Spirits attempt to steal the sun or return it to the people. In others, the sun is slowed to promote better fertility on Earth. These are largely pourquoi tales – stories that explain why things are as they are. You and your older children may enjoy learning a mythological explanations for why some hummingbirds have red throats or roosters have their crowns.

This is not an academic examination, but it is a great introduction to comparative mythology. There’s an extensive bibliography at the end, but the newest titles are from the ’90s and appear to be from a largely white authorship*. So, again, this is a fun starting point, but definitely not an “own voices” peek into Indigenous mythology, though Edwards uses a respectful tone throughout. Please don’t make this your only foray into such stories.

The end of this short read also contains various suggestions for children-friendly rituals, activities, and even carols tweaked to be more sun-centric.

The Return of the Light is an enjoyable little book that I will no doubt turn to again for seasonal inspiration. As an introduction to multicultural solar lore aimed at a younger audience, it fills a niche. Ideally, publishers would strive to create an anthology which works with authors representative of their respective cultures in the future.

*I did look up a few of the titles listed to verify, but I did not review every single item in the bibliography. The purpose of this review is not to dismiss these works but simply to point out the need for more diverse resources.

Birthday Reflections

Today is my birthday! I’m 36, but I donned the old Simba birthday pin I’ve had since elementary school. I found it recently and wore it with pride. I’m sure I come across as overly enthusiastic, perhaps even childish, about my birthday to some people, but I truly enjoy celebrating life with others. Though hard to believe, I’ve outlived some high school classmates, dear friends, and grovemates. Each passing has taught me to seize the day and do what makes me happy because we never know what’s coming. Death teaches me to live with more passion and authenticity, and for me that’s meant starting a Druid grove, dipping my toes into cosplay, publishing books, filling the yard with plants, and, yes, wearing chunky childhood pins.

To celebrate, my husband and daughter made me a delicious mermaid-themed chocolate cake. Yet more whimsy, and such a wonderful reminder of one of my proudest accomplishments in life – publishing my first novel, River Magic.
So here’s to another trip around the sun with dear ones! I thank everyone who has sent kind wishes and love my way. đź’šđź’šđź’š

Roses: My Lifelong Plant Allies

Knockout Roses – Photo by M. A. Phillips

My first experience with roses was in my mother’s garden. For some reason, she only had one when I was younger. A lovely pink specimen that never got very large and only blossomed once a year–in June. This event was a moment to celebrate, and that joy overshadowed roses’ reputation for fussiness.

I didn’t learn about their notoriety until I was a teenager researching roses for a garden I started in my parents backyard. I never got very far because I soon started college. Between assignments, work, and then moving in with my boyfriend, I didn’t have time in that little garden bed. Then I moved north and spent a decade or so renting apartments. I grew herbs and vegetables in containers but hesitated to grow potted roses because I worried they wouldn’t survive our harsh winters. (This was before I knew there were pots specifically designed to withstand temperature shifts.)

For many years, having a rose garden was tied up with the dream of owning a home and working with the land. One of the first plants I adopted and added to our backyard was, of course, a small rose bush. In the spring of this year, my husband and I worked together to begin what is becoming our rose garden, and I brought in climbers, ramblers, and a variety I’ve been wanting for years: apothecary roses. They’re still small, but they’ll eventually produce many rose hips I can brew into tea.

A collection of rose thorns and hips. Photo by M. A. Phillips

As I prepared my many thorny friends for the winter by pruning, removing spotty leaves, and insulating their crowns for the impending cold, I kept some thick stems aside. I was reminded of part of what attracted me to roses in the beginning. They’re beautiful, enchanting, and bring happiness, but they also know how to protect themselves. I’ve always found their thick, spiny branches as beautiful as they are imposing. Working with roses is an exercise in care and mindfulness. Clumsiness and distraction lead to pricks or even some nasty scratches, especially as they grow large and long. Keep these, they whispered.

As I plan for improving the rose garden next year, I’m also making note of what I need to better preserve and prepare my harvest. I’m looking forward to making rose water for food and skin care, to drying petals and hips for teas…But I’ve also kept some thorns from my pruning this year. I can’t believe I never considered how useful those prickers could be for protective magic!

The nights grow colder. Each morning, a thicker layer of frost covers the garden. Soon, a blanket of snow then ice will replace that. I embrace the seasonal shift and the opportunity to rest from the physically demanding job of tending a garden, but I also look forward to spring and continuing to learn from one of my first plant teachers, the rose.

I carefully hold thick rose branches before removing thorns for spellwork. Photo by M. A. Phillips

Land Acknowledgement and Reflection on Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Three spires of cornflowers reaching toward blue sky and sunshine in my backyard. Photo by me, 2021.

It is Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and perhaps a good time to acknowledge that I live, work, and pray on Haudenosaunee land. I am always learning and striving toward a better tomorrow, and while I know that simply saying that is never enough, it is a step in the right direction. If you are not Native, take time to learn about the land on which you live. If you live in North America, you live on tribal land on Turtle Island. Learning and reading are always a start, but never the end.  

This is a photo of the corn I’m growing in my garden with the Three Sisters method. Indigenous people taught this companion planting to the original colonizers here. I think about this whenever I work in that garden bed. That skill helped some of my ancestors survive, but I also know many of my ancestors did not treat the Indigenous people well in return. I don’t know the specifics in my case, but I know (and continue to relearn) the country’s history. I know people who look like me hurt and oppressed Native People while others let it happen. I know I benefit from that system and enjoy a lot of privilege. 

Every day is the start of a new opportunity to right past wrongs and heal past wounds. It will likely take generations, but seize the moments. 

I’m listening and trying, and I will continue to try. It’s hard, and we’ll make mistakes, but it’s important work.

Let’s respect the treaties. Let’s stop Line 3. Let’s listen to our Indigenous neighbors. Let’s no longer celebrate monstrous colonizers who get all the credit. 

(To learn about whose land you live on, check this site!)

Brigid’s Light: Cover Reveal and Pre-Order!

The beautiful cover featuring art by Stuart Littlejohn.

I’m delighted and honored to share that my short story “Sisters” will be published in a new anthology next year through Weiser Publishing! The book is called Brigid’s Light: Tending the Ancestral Flame of the Beloved Celtic Goddess edited by Cairelle Crow and Laura Louella. May my latest story honor Brigid and my Irish ancestors.

Currently, you can preorder this beautiful work at Barnes and Noble or, for those who prefer to support indie bookstores, through Malaprop’s Bookstore.

Here’s what I can share so far courtesy of the editing team:

We are thrilled to officially share “Brigid’s Light” with the world, coming in Spring 2022, available for pre-order now!

Editors Cairelle Crow and Laura Louella have gathered art, poetry, stories, spells, rituals, recipes, and traditions as an homage to the worldwide influence of Brigid’s magic and lore, especially among the descendants of immigrants to the Americas. In compiling these individual works, Cairelle and Laura have given voice to those traveling ancestors by showcasing a rich and beautiful heritage manifested through embodiments of devotion by their descendants, as well as others touched by Brigid.

The contributions are beautiful, funny, delicious (yes, delicious!), and powerful. All proceeds are earmarked for non-profit donation (and more about that soon). We’re very proud of this compilation of works that were created in honor of our beloved Brigid!

You can learn more about the Sanctuary of Brigid and their work here. Stay tuned for more!

A Brigit of Ireland Devotional: Sun Among Stars — A Review

Ebook cover of A Brigit of Ireland Devotional by Mael Brigde against a green velvet background. Surrounding my phone are items associated with the goddess – dried rowan berries, Brigid crosses, acorns, candles, and handspun yarn.

As many of you know, I worship and serve the goddess Brigid*. One reason I wrote my novels is out of service to her; to portray modern, polytheistic devotion to her and other members of her godly family. So when I was given the opportunity, I jumped to review an ARC (advanced reader copy) of A Brigit of Ireland Devotional: Sun Among Stars by Mael Brigde.

This book, like the goddess herself, is multifaceted. Part devotional poetry, part mystical reflection, and part resource, this text belongs on the shelves of all who devote themselves to Brigid. I don’t have much space in my little home, and I tend to buy ebooks these days, but I plan to purchase a physical copy of this as I sense it will become an old friend.

The poetry itself flowed from the page to my heart. While not all pieces will impact readers equally, there are verses reflective of many life experiences. I can see myself revisiting the tome again and having a completely different reaction. Favorites of mine include: “Brigit’s Garden,” “Otherworld Gate,” “Ancestral Dream,” and “Ogam Reading.” Some jumped out as prayers I want to commit to memory such as “Threshold Blessing” and “Kindling.”

Those who are familiar with Irish lore will recognize when the author taps into some older poetic forms as in “Song of Brigit,” but other entries take on a more conversational tone such as the excited, childlike “Everywhere.” Some ask the same queries I have about her mysteries.

What really touched me about the author’s writing, poetry and prose, is her humility and love for the goddess. She repeatedly speaks with an adoring tone, and it’s clear she has felt this love reciprocated over many years. The book ends with footnotes and short essays describing how the author’s intellectual understanding of Brigid has shifted over time. She humbly admits that some of her older poems were written based on misunderstandings or concepts passed on from Victorians and modern Neo-Pagans rather than Irish and Scottish sources, but she wanted to preserve them as part of her journey. Her wording is never accusatory or belittling to those who may still embrace those ideas. She simply describes her process of sitting with new information, letting go, and finding her relationship with Brigid has only strengthened as a result. Seeing this process in print without a condescending tone is both refreshing and very needed.

No tome concerning Brigid would be complete without reflecting on the question we all encounter: where does the goddess end and the saint begin? Are they different or the same? She continues to help me heal after converting from Catholicism, but has also acted as a bridge between me and my monotheistic family members. Like other flametenders and priests of Brigid, the contradiction has become less of a hinderance and more of a meditative concept that deepens our compassion for self and others over time. When there seems to be some new drama in the online Pagan community every day, I felt a medicinal sort of kinship with Brigde while reading her words.

Mael Brigde’s conclusions may surprise you, but she does not insist other’s embrace her perspective. She leaves it open, as each devotee must figure that out with Brigid herself. The figure(s) loom so large in Irish culture, both on the island and among the diaspora, that surely she(they) evolve with the times. She loves her devotees, whether Druid, witch, nun, Wiccan, Catholic, or polytheist. This book of poems will provoke your meditations but ultimately comfort you on your journey with Brigid. You are not alone, and the goddess is here to inspire and guide you on the way to be both a better priest to her and your community.

…and like the wild fox

race across the plain

leap into the jumping chariot


beneath her cloak

prepare to do anything she wants of me because I love to do as she has asked

Mael Brigde

You can read more about the author, Mael Brigde, here. She also regularly updates a blog (here) with reflections on Brigid, including more poetry, Pagan practice, the goddess in contemporary cultures, and book reviews (fiction and non-fiction).

* You’ll notice I spell the goddess’ name differently. The name can vary depending on region, culture, time period, colonial influence, etc. This is just another example of how multifaceted she is.


An in-progress Ogham set. Three sanded staves without symbols form an Awen beside a white organza bag. Through the fabric, many staves wait in their bark. A silver knife rests on the other side. All on rough gray stone. Photo by M. A. Phillips


By M. A. Phillips

From the dark cauldron

From the tall altar 

You grow anew

Your roots will delve deep

Your branches reach high

Though few will see

You wax with the moon

You are becoming

A new ally

Camping With Fire, Water, and Tree

I went away for several days; off to where Lake Ontario spoons the shores of Upstate New York. The beachline stretched beyond my sight, past buoys marked for ‘swim at your own risk,’ private residences, and wildlife management areas. Fresh water, sometimes smooth as a reflecting pool, other times choppy and reminiscent of ocean surf, extended until the horizon kissed the sky. As the thirteenth largest lake in the entire world, it is one of those landforms that washes me with humility and awe.

It almost seems as if a watchful eye observed our after-dinner stroll. (Almost sunset peeking through clouds over a glittering, calm Lake Ontario in the background. A few people linger on the beach. Dunes, beach grass, and wooden fence in the foreground.) Photo by M. A. Phillips.

Another couple and their child invited us to the getaway months ago. Their site had room for another tent, and we’d been talking about camping for some time. Friends and grovemates, it meant for a peaceful time away from obligations among people with whom I can be myself. As I sat on a sandbank, foamy waves splashed against me as one friend shared an experience with Manannán mac Lir, and then we felt the god there with us in waters that would flow through the St. Lawrence and reunite with the Atlantic Ocean.

We took shelter from the sun in the shaded areas of the camp, renewing my gratitude for trees. Our first day there, my daughter and I made offerings and said a prayer of thanksgiving to the green sentinels who guarded our refuge. When we left, the children and I placed kisses on the grass.

As the sun arched low, we built fires for warmth and even cooking. I had another humbling experience in which I burnt the peach cobbler I’d attempted to make, but I successfully cooked chili over the flames, and in the mornings I boiled water for tea. We made offerings to the fire, to Brigid, and cozied beside her. Our final day coincided with my flame-tending shift, and I now see ways I can deepen that practice with new skills.

Returning to the comforts of home, especially our soft mattresses, was welcomed, but I do miss falling asleep to the lullaby of a crackling bonfire on the sand, wind through the trees, and waves rolling toward the dunes.