Halloween. Sly does
Tiptoe catspaw. Slide and creep.
But why? What for? How? Who?
When! Where did it all begin?
You don't know, do you?
asks Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud climbing out
under the pile of leaves
under the Halloween Tree.
You don't REALLY know!
Bradbury from 'The Halloween Tree'
Samhain. All Hallows. All Hallow's Eve. Hallow E'en.
Halloween. The most magical night of the year. Exactly opposite Beltane
on the wheel of the year, Halloween is Beltane's dark twin. A night of
glowing jack-o-lanterns, bobbing for apples, tricks or treats, and
dressing in costume.
A night of ghost stories and seances, tarot card readings and scrying
with mirrors. A night of power, when the veil that separates our world
from the Otherworld is at its thinnest. A 'spirit night', as they say in
All Hallow's Eve is the eve of All Hallow's Day (November 1st).
And for once, even popular tradition remembers that the Eve is more
important than the Day itself, the traditional celebration focusing on
October 31st, beginning at sundown. And this seems only fitting for the
great Celtic New Year's festival.
Not that the holiday was Celtic only.
In fact, it is startling how many ancient and unconnected cultures (the
Egyptians and pre-Spanish Mexicans, for example) celebrated this as a
festival of the dead. But the majority of our modern traditions can be
traced to the British Isles.
The Celts called it Samhain, which means
'summer's end', according to their ancient two-fold division of the
year, when summer ran from Beltane to Samhain and winter ran from
Samhain to Beltane. (Some modern Covens echo this structure by letting
the High Priest 'rule' the Coven beginning on Samhain, with rulership
returned to the High Priestess at Beltane.) According to the later
four-fold division of the year, Samhain is seen as 'autumn's end' and
the beginning of winter.
Samhain is pronounced (depending on where
you're from) as 'sow-in' (in Ireland), or 'sow-een' (in Wales), or 'sav-en'
(in Scotland), or (inevitably) 'sam-hane' (in the U.S., where we don't
Not only is Samhain the end of autumn; it is also, more
importantly, the end of the old year and the beginning of the new.
Celtic New Year's Eve, when the new year begins with the onset of the
dark phase of the year, just as the new day begins at sundown. There are
many representations of Celtic gods with two faces, and it surely must
have been one of them who held sway over Samhain.
Like his Greek
counterpart Janus, he would straddle the threshold, one face turned
toward the past in commemoration of those who died during the last year,
and one face gazing hopefully toward the future, mystic eyes attempting
to pierce the veil and divine what the coming year holds.
These two themes, celebrating the dead and divining the future, are
inexorably intertwined in Samhain, as they are likely to be in any New
As a feast of the dead, it was believed the dead
could, if they wished, return to the land of the living for this one
night, to celebrate with their family, tribe, or clan. And so the great
burial mounds of Ireland (sidh mounds) were opened up, with lighted
torches lining the walls, so the dead could find their way. Extra places
were set at the table and food set out for any who had died that year.
And there are many stories that tell of Irish heroes making raids on the
Underworld while the gates of faery stood open, though all must return
to their appointed places by cock-crow.
As a feast of divination, this
was the night par excellence for peering into the future. The reason for
this has to do with the Celtic view of time. In a culture that uses a
linear concept of time, like our modern one, New Year's Eve is simply a
milestone on a very long road that stretches in a straight line from
birth to death.
Thus, the New Year's festival is a part of time. The
ancient Celtic view of time, however, is cyclical. And in this
framework, New Year's Eve represents a point outside of time, when the
natural order of the universe dissolves back into primordial chaos,
preparatory to re-establishing itself in a new order. Thus, Samhain is a
night that exists outside of time and hence it may be used to view any
other point in time. At no other holiday is a tarot card reading,
crystal reading, or tea-leaf reading so likely to succeed.
Christian religion, with its emphasis on the 'historical' Christ and his
act of redemption 2000 years ago, is forced into a linear view of time,
where 'seeing the future' is an illogical proposition. In fact, from the
Christian perspective, any attempt to do so is seen as inherently evil.
This did not keep the medieval Church from co-opting Samhain's other
motif, commemoration of the dead.
To the Church, however, it could never
be a feast for all the dead, but only the blessed dead, all those
hallowed (made holy) by obedience to God - thus, All Hallow's, or
Hallowmas, later All Saints and All Souls.
There are so many types of divination that are traditional to
Hallowstide, it is possible to mention only a few. Girls were told to
place hazel nuts along the front of the firegrate, each one to symbolize
one of her suitors. She could then divine her future husband by
chanting, 'If you love me, pop and fly; if you hate me, burn and die.'
Several methods used the apple, that most popular of Halloween fruits.
You should slice an apple through the equator (to reveal the
five-pointed star within) and then eat it by candlelight before a
mirror. Your future spouse will then appear over your shoulder. Or, peel
an apple, making sure the peeling comes off in one long strand,
reciting, 'I pare this apple round and round again; / My sweetheart's
name to flourish on the plain: / I fling the unbroken paring o'er my
head, / My sweetheart's letter on the ground to read.' Or, you might set
a snail to crawl through the ashes of your hearth.
little creature will then spell out the initial letter as it moves.
Perhaps the most famous icon of the holiday is the jack-o-lantern.
Various authorities attribute it to either Scottish or Irish origin.
However, it seems clear that it was used as a lantern by people who
traveled the road this night, the scary face to frighten away spirits or
faeries who might otherwise lead one astray. Set on porches and in
windows, they cast the same spell of protection over the household. (The
American pumpkin seems to have forever superseded the European gourd as
the jack-o-lantern of choice.)
Bobbing for apples may well represent the
remnants of a Pagan 'baptism' rite called a 'seining', according to some
writers. The water-filled tub is a latter-day Cauldron of Regeneration,
into which the novice's head is immersed.
The fact that the participant
in this folk game was usually blindfolded with hands tied behind the
back also puts one in mind of a traditional Craft initiation ceremony.
The custom of dressing in costume and 'trick-or-treating' is of Celtic
origin with survivals particularly strong in Scotland.
are some important differences from the modern version. In the first
place, the custom was not relegated to children, but was actively
indulged in by adults as well. Also, the 'treat' which was required was
often one of spirits (the liquid variety). This has recently been
revived by college students who go 'trick-or-drinking'.
And in ancient
times, the roving bands would sing seasonal carols from house to house,
making the tradition very similar to Yuletide wassailing. In fact, the
custom known as 'caroling', now connected exclusively with mid-winter,
was once practiced at all the major holidays.
Finally, in Scotland at
least, the tradition of dressing in costume consisted almost exclusively
of cross-dressing (i.e., men dressing as women, and women as men). It
seems as though ancient societies provided an opportunity for people to
'try on' the role of the opposite gender for one night of the year.
(Although in Scotland, this is admittedly less dramatic - but more
confusing - since men were in the habit of wearing skirt-like kilts
anyway. Oh well...)
To Witches, Halloween is one of the four High
Holidays, or Greater Sabbats, or cross-quarter days. Because it is the
most important holiday of the year, it is sometimes called 'THE Great
It is an ironic fact that the newer, self-created Covens tend
to use the older name of the holiday, Samhain, which they have
discovered through modern research. While the older hereditary and
traditional Covens often use the newer name, Halloween, which has been
handed down through oral tradition within their Coven. (This is often
holds true for the names of the other holidays, as well.
One may often
get an indication of a Coven's antiquity by noting what names it uses
for the holidays.) With such an important holiday, Witches often hold
two distinct celebrations. First, a large Halloween party for non-Craft
friends, often held on the previous weekend. And second, a Coven ritual
held on Halloween night itself, late enough so as not to be interrupted
by trick-or-treaters. If the rituals are performed properly, there is
often the feeling of invisible friends taking part in the rites. Another
date which may be utilized in planning celebrations is the actual
cross-quarter day, or Old Halloween, or Halloween O.S. (Old Style). This
occurs when the sun has reached 15 degrees Scorpio, an astrological
'power point' symbolized by the Eagle. This year (1988), the date is
November 6th at 10:55 pm CST, with the celebration beginning at sunset.
Interestingly, this date (Old Halloween) was also appropriated by the
Church as the holiday of Martinmas.
Of all the Witchcraft holidays,
Halloween is the only one that still boasts anything near to popular
celebration. Even though it is typically relegated to children (and the
young-at-heart) and observed as an evening affair only, many of its
traditions are firmly rooted in Paganism. Interestingly, some schools
have recently attempted to abolish Halloween parties on the grounds that
it violates the separation of state and religion.
Speaking as a Pagan, I
would be saddened by the success of this move, but as a supporter of the
concept of religion-free public education, I fear I must concede the
point. Nonetheless, it seems only right that there SHOULD be one night
of the year when our minds are turned toward thoughts of the
A night when both Pagans and non-Pagans may ponder the
mysteries of the Otherworld and its inhabitants. And if you are one of
them, may all your jack-o'lanterns burn bright on this All Hallow's Eve.
NIGHT'S EVE: Y U L E
Our Christian friends are
often quite surprised at how enthusiastically we Pagans celebrate the
Even though we prefer to use the word 'Yule', and
our celebrations may peak a few days BEFORE the 25th, we nonetheless
follow many of the traditional customs of the season: decorated trees,
carolling, presents, Yule logs, and mistletoe.
We might even go so far
as putting up a 'Nativity set', though for us the three central
characters are likely to be interpreted as Mother Nature, Father Time,
and the Baby Sun-God. None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who
knows the true history of the holiday, of course.
In fact, if truth be known, the holiday of Christmas has always been
more Pagan than Christian, with it's associations of Nordic divination,
Celtic fertility rites, and Roman Mithraism. That is why both Martin
Luther and John Calvin abhorred it, why the Puritans refused to
acknowledge it, much less celebrate it (to them, no day of the year
could be more holy than the Sabbath), and why it was even made ILLEGAL
The holiday was already too closely associated with the birth
of older Pagan gods and heroes. And many of them (like Oedipus, Theseus,
Hercules, Perseus, Jason, Dionysus, Apollo, Mithra, Horus and even
Arthur) possessed a narrative of birth, death, and resurrection that was
uncomfortably close to that of Jesus.
And to make matters worse, many of them pre-dated the Christian Savior.
Ultimately, of course, the holiday is rooted deeply in the cycle of the
year. It is the Winter Solstice that is being celebrated, seed-time of
the year, the longest night and shortest day. It is the birthday of the
new Sun King, the Son of God -- by whatever name you choose to call him.
On this darkest of nights, the Goddess becomes the Great Mother and once
again gives birth. And it makes perfect poetic sense that on the longest
night of the winter, 'the dark night of our souls', there springs the
new spark of hope, the Sacred Fire, the Light of the World, the Coel
That is why Pagans have as much right to claim this holiday as
Christians. Perhaps even more so, as the Christians were rather late in
laying claim to it, and tried more than once to reject it.
been a tradition in the West that Mary bore the child Jesus on the
twenty-fifth day, but no one could seem to decide on the month. Finally,
in 320 C.E., the Catholic Fathers in Rome decided to make it December,
in an effort to co-opt the Mithraic celebration of the Romans and the
Yule celebrations of the Celts and Saxons.
There was never much pretense
that the date they finally chose was historically accurate. Shepherds
just don't 'tend their flocks by night' in the high pastures in the dead
of winter! But if one wishes to use the New Testament as historical
evidence, this reference may point to sometime in the spring as the time
of Jesus's birth. This is because the lambing season occurs in the
spring and that is the only time when shepherds are likely to 'watch
their flocks by night' -- to make sure the lambing goes well. Knowing
this, the Eastern half of the Church continued to reject December 25,
preferring a 'movable date' fixed by their astrologers according to the
Thus, despite its shaky start (for over three centuries, no one
knew when Jesus was supposed to have been born!), December 25 finally
began to catch on. By 529, it was a civic holiday, and all work or
public business (except that of cooks, bakers, or any that contributed
to the delight of the holiday) was prohibited by the Emperor Justinian.
In 563, the Council of Braga forbade fasting on Christmas Day, and four
years later the Council of Tours proclaimed the twelve days from
December 25 to Epiphany as a sacred, festive season.
This last point is
perhaps the hardest to impress upon the modern reader, who is lucky to
get a single day off work. Christmas, in the Middle Ages, was not a
SINGLE day, but rather a period of TWELVE days, from December 25 to
January 6. The Twelve Days of Christmas, in fact. It is certainly
lamentable that the modern world has abandoned this approach, along with
the popular Twelfth Night celebrations.
Of course, the Christian version
of the holiday spread to many countries no faster than Christianity
itself, which means that 'Christmas' wasn't celebrated in Ireland until
the late fifth century; in England, Switzerland, and Austria until the
seventh; in Germany until the eighth; and in the Slavic lands until the
ninth and tenth. Not that these countries lacked their own mid-winter
celebrations of Yuletide. Long before the world had heard of Jesus,
Pagans had been observing the season by bringing in the Yule log,
wishing on it, and lighting it from the remains of last year's log.
Riddles were posed and answered, magic and rituals were practiced, wild
boars were sacrificed and consumed along with large quantities of
liquor, corn dollies were carried from house to house while carolling,
fertility rites were practiced (girls standing under a sprig of
mistletoe were subject to a bit more than a kiss), and divinations were
cast for the coming Spring. Many of these Pagan customs, in an
appropriately watered-down form, have entered the mainstream of
Christian celebration, though most celebrants do not realize (or do not
mention it, if they do) their origins.
For modern Witches, Yule (from
the Anglo-Saxon 'Yula', meaning 'wheel' of the year) is usually
celebrated on the actual Winter Solstice, which may vary by a few days,
though it usually occurs on or around December 21st. It is a Lesser
Sabbat or Lower Holiday in the modern Pagan calendar, one of the four
quarter-days of the year, but a very important one.
This year (1988) it
occurs on December 21st at 9:28 am CST.
Pagan customs are still
enthusiastically followed. Once, the Yule log had been the center of the
celebration. It was lighted on the eve of the solstice (it should light
on the first try) and must be kept burning for twelve hours, for good
luck. It should be made of ash. Later, the Yule log was replaced by the
Yule tree but, instead of burning it, burning candles were placed on it.
In Christianity, Protestants might claim that Martin Luther invented the
custom, and Catholics might grant St. Boniface the honor, but the custom
can demonstrably be traced back through the Roman Saturnalia all the way
to ancient Egypt. Needless to say, such a tree should be cut down rather
than purchased, and should be disposed of by burning, the proper way to
dispatch any sacred object.
Along with the evergreen, the holly and the
ivy and the mistletoe were important plants of the season, all
symbolizing fertility and everlasting life. Mistletoe was especially
venerated by the Celtic Druids, who cut it with a golden sickle on the
sixth night of the moon, and believed it to be an aphrodisiac.
(Magically -- not medicinally! It's highly toxic!) But aphrodisiacs must
have been the smallest part of the Yuletide menu in ancient times, as
contemporary reports indicate that the tables fairly creaked under the
strain of every type of good food. And drink!
The most popular of which
was the 'wassail cup' deriving its name from the Anglo-Saxon term 'waes
hael' (be whole or hale). Medieval Christmas folklore seems endless:
that animals will all kneel down as the Holy Night arrives, that bees
hum the '100th psalm' on Christmas Eve, that a windy Christmas will
bring good luck, that a person born on Christmas Day can see the Little
People, that a cricket on the hearth brings good luck, that if one opens
all the doors of the house at midnight all the evil spirits will depart,
that you will have one lucky month for each Christmas pudding you
sample, that the tree must be taken down by Twelfth Night or bad luck is
sure to follow, that 'if Christmas on a Sunday be, a windy winter we
shall see', that 'hours of sun on Christmas Day, so many frosts in the
month of May', that one can use the Twelve Days of Christmas to predict
the weather for each of the twelve months of the coming year, and so on.
Remembering that most Christmas customs are ultimately based upon older
Pagan customs, it only remains for modern Pagans to reclaim their lost
traditions. In doing so, we can share many common customs with our
Christian friends, albeit with a slightly different interpretation.
thus we all share in the beauty of this most magical of seasons, when
the Mother Goddess once again gives birth to the baby Sun-God and sets
the wheel in motion again.
To conclude with a long-overdue paraphrase, 'Goddess bless us, every
A N D L E M A S: The Light Returns
It seems quite impossible that the holiday of Candlemas should be
considered the beginning of Spring.
Here in the Heartland, February 2nd
may see a blanket of snow mantling the Mother. Or, if the snows have
gone, you may be sure the days are filled with drizzle, slush, and
steel-grey skies -- the dreariest weather of the year. In short, the
perfect time for a Pagan Festival of Lights.
And as for Spring, although
this may seem a tenuous beginning, all the little buds, flowers and
leaves will have arrived on schedule before Spring runs its course to
'Candlemas' is the Christianized name for the holiday, of course. The
older Pagan names were Imbolc and Oimelc. 'Imbolc' means, literally, 'in
the belly' (of the Mother). For in the womb of Mother Earth, hidden from
our mundane sight but sensed by a keener vision, there are stirrings.
The seed that was planted in her womb at the solstice is quickening and
the new year grows. 'Oimelc' means 'milk of ewes', for it is also
lambing season. The holiday is also called 'Brigit's Day', in honor of
the great Irish Goddess Brigit.
At her shrine, the ancient Irish capitol
of Kildare, a group of 19 priestesses (no men allowed) kept a perpetual
flame burning in her honor. She was considered a goddess of fire,
patroness of smithcraft, poetry and healing (especially the healing
touch of midwifery). This tripartite symbolism was occasionally
expressed by saying that Brigit had two sisters, also named Brigit.
(Incidentally, another form of the name Brigit is Bride, and it is thus
She bestows her special patronage on any woman about to be married or
handfasted, the woman being called 'bride' in her honor.)
Catholic Church could not very easily call the Great Goddess of Ireland
a demon, so they canonized her instead. Henceforth, she would be 'Saint'
Brigit, patron SAINT of smithcraft, poetry, and healing. They
'explained' this by telling the Irish peasants that Brigit was 'really'
an early Christian missionary sent to the Emerald Isle, and that the
miracles she performed there 'misled' the common people into believing
that she was a goddess.
For some reason, the Irish swallowed this.
(There is no limit to what the Irish imagination can convince itself of.
For example, they also came to believe that Brigit was the
'foster-mother' of Jesus, giving no thought to the implausibility of
Jesus having spent his boyhood in Ireland!) Brigit's holiday was chiefly
marked by the kindling of sacred fires, since she symbolized the fire of
birth and healing, the fire of the forge, and the fire of poetic
Bonfires were lighted on the beacon tors, and chandlers
celebrated their special holiday. The Roman Church was quick to
confiscate this symbolism as well, using 'Candlemas' as the day to bless
all the church candles that would be used for the coming liturgical
year. (Catholics will be reminded that the following day, St. Blaise's
Day, is remembered for using the newly-blessed candles to bless the
throats of parishioners, keeping them from colds, flu, sore throats,
The Catholic Church, never one to refrain from piling holiday upon
holiday, also called it the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed
Virgin Mary. (It is surprising how many of the old Pagan holidays were
converted to Maryan Feasts.)
The symbol of the Purification may seem a
little obscure to modern readers, but it has to do with the old custom
of 'churching women'. It was believed that women were impure for six
weeks after giving birth.
And since Mary gave birth at the winter
solstice, she wouldn't be purified until February 2nd. In Pagan
symbolism, this might be re-translated as when the Great Mother once
again becomes the Young Maiden Goddess.
Today, this holiday is chiefly
connected to weather lore. Even our American folk-calendar keeps the
tradition of 'Groundhog's Day', a day to predict the coming weather,
telling us that if the Groundhog sees his shadow, there will be 'six
more weeks' of bad weather (i.e., until the next old holiday, Lady Day).
This custom is ancient. An old British rhyme tells us that 'If Candlemas
Day be bright and clear, there'll be two winters in the year.' Actually,
all of the cross-quarter days can be used as 'inverse' weather
predictors, whereas the quarter-days are used as 'direct' weather
Like the other High Holidays or Great Sabbats of the
Witches' year, Candlemas is sometimes celebrated on it's alternate date,
astrologically determined by the sun's reaching 15-degrees Aquarius, or
Candlemas Old Style (in 1988, February 3rd, at 9:03 am CST). Another
holiday that gets mixed up in this is Valentine's Day. Ozark folklorist
Vance Randolf makes this quite clear by noting that the old-timers used
to celebrate Groundhog's Day on February 14th.
This same displacement is
evident in Eastern Orthodox Christianity as well. Their habit of
celebrating the birth of Jesus on January 6th, with a similar post-dated
shift in the six-week period that follows it, puts the Feast of the
Purification of Mary on February 14th.
It is amazing to think that the
same confusion and lateral displacement of one of the old folk holidays
can be seen from the Russian steppes to the Ozark hills, but such seems
to be the case! Incidentally, there is speculation among linguistic
scholars that the vary name of 'Valentine' has Pagan origins. It
seems that it was customary for French peasants of the Middle Ages to
pronounce a 'g' as a 'v'. Consequently, the original term may have been
the French 'galantine', which yields the English word 'gallant'. The
word originally refers to a dashing young man known for his 'affaires
d'amour', a true galaunt. The usual associations of V(G)alantine's Day
make much more sense in this light than their vague connection to a
legendary 'St. Valentine' can produce. Indeed, the Church has always
found it rather difficult to explain this nebulous saint's connection to
the secular pleasures of flirtation and courtly love.
Witches, Candlemas O.S. may then be seen as the Pagan version of
Valentine's Day, with a de-emphasis of 'hearts and flowers' and an
appropriate re-emphasis of Pagan carnal frivolity. This also re-aligns
the holiday with the ancient Roman Lupercalia, a fertility festival held
at this time, in which the priests of Pan ran through the streets of
Rome whacking young women with goatskin thongs to make them fertile.
women seemed to enjoy the attention and often stripped in order to
afford better targets. One of the nicest folk-customs still practiced in
many countries, and especially by Witches in the British Isles and parts
of the U.S., is to place a lighted candle in each and every window of
the house, beginning at sundown on Candlemas Eve (February 1st),
allowing them to continue burning until sunrise. Make sure that such
candles are well seated against tipping and guarded from nearby
curtains, etc. What a cheery sight it is on this cold, bleak and dreary
night to see house after house with candle-lit windows! And, of course,
if you are your Coven's chandler, or if you just happen to like making
candles, Candlemas Day is THE day for doing it.
Some Covens hold
candle-making parties and try to make and bless all the candles they'll
be using for the whole year on this day.
Other customs of the holiday include weaving 'Brigit's crosses' from
straw or wheat to hang around the house for protection, performing rites
of spiritual cleansing and purification, making 'Brigit's beds' to
ensure fertility of mind and spirit (and body, if desired), and making
Crowns of Light (i.e. of candles) for the High Priestess to wear for the
Candlemas Circle, similar to those worn on St. Lucy's Day in
All in all, this Pagan Festival of Lights,
sacred to the young Maiden Goddess, is one of the most beautiful and
poetic of the year.
L A D Y D A Y: The Vernal Equinox
Now comes the Vernal Equinox, and the season of Spring reaches it's
apex, halfway through its journey from Candlemas to Beltane. Once again,
night and day stand in perfect balance, with the powers of light on the
The god of light now wins a victory over his twin, the god
of darkness. In the Mabinogion myth reconstruction which I have
proposed, this is the day on which the restored Llew takes his vengeance
on Goronwy by piercing him with the sunlight spear.
For Llew was
restored/reborn at the Winter Solstice and is now well/old enough to
vanquish his rival/twin and mate with his lover/mother. And the great
Mother Goddess, who has returned to her Virgin aspect at Candlemas,
welcomes the young sun god's embraces and conceives a child. The child
will be born nine months from now, at the next Winter Solstice.
the cycle closes at last. We think that the customs surrounding
the celebration of the spring equinox were imported from Mediterranean
lands, although there can be no doubt that the first inhabitants of the
British Isles observed it, as evidence from megalithic sites shows.
it was certainly more popular to the south, where people celebrated the
holiday as New Year's Day, and claimed it as the first day of the first
sign of the Zodiac, Aries.
However you look at it, it is certainly a
time of new beginnings, as a simple glance at Nature will prove. In the
Roman Catholic Church, there are two holidays which get mixed up with
the Vernal Equinox.
The first, occurring on the fixed calendar day of
March 25th in the old liturgical calendar, is called the Feast of the
Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (or B.V.M., as she was typically
abbreviated in Catholic Missals). 'Annunciation' means an announcement.
This is the day that the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was
'in the family way'. Naturally, this had to be announced since Mary,
being still a virgin, would have no other means of knowing it.
scoffing, O ye of little faith!) Why did the Church pick the Vernal
Equinox for the commemoration of this event?
Because it was necessary to
have Mary conceive the child Jesus a full nine months before his birth
at the Winter Solstice (i.e., Christmas, celebrated on the fixed
calendar date of December 25).
Mary's pregnancy would take the natural
nine months to complete, even if the conception was a bit unorthodox. As
mentioned before, the older Pagan equivalent of this scene focuses on
the joyous process of natural conception, when the young virgin Goddess
(in this case, 'virgin' in the original sense of meaning 'unmarried')
mates with the young solar God, who has just displaced his rival. This
is probably not their first mating, however. In the mythical sense, the
couple may have been lovers since Candlemas, when the young God reached
But the young Goddess was recently a mother (at the Winter
Solstice) and is probably still nursing her new child. Therefore,
conception is naturally delayed for six weeks or so and, despite earlier
matings with the God, She does not conceive until (surprise!) the Vernal
This may also be their Hand-fasting, a sacred marriage between
God and Goddess called a Hierogamy, the ultimate Great Rite. Probably
the nicest study of this theme occurs in M. Esther Harding's book,
Probably the nicest description of it occurs in M.
Z. Bradley's 'Mists of Avalon', in the scene where Morgan and Arthur
assume the sacred roles. (Bradley follows the British custom of
transferring the episode to Beltane, when the climate is more suited to
its outdoor celebration.)
The other Christian holiday which gets mixed
up in this is Easter.
Easter, too, celebrates the victory of a god of
light (Jesus) over darkness (death), so it makes sense to place it at
this season. Ironically, the name 'Easter' was taken from the name of a
Teutonic lunar Goddess, Eostre (from whence we also get the name of the
female hormone, estrogen).
Her chief symbols were the bunny (both for
fertility and because her worshipers saw a hare in the full moon) and
the egg (symbolic of the cosmic egg of creation), images which
Christians have been hard pressed to explain. Her holiday, the Eostara,
was held on the Vernal Equinox Full Moon. Of course, the Church doesn't
celebrate full moons, even if they do calculate by them, so they planted
their Easter on the following Sunday.
Thus, Easter is always the first
Sunday, after the first Full Moon, after the Vernal Equinox.
you've ever wondered why Easter moved all around the calendar, now you
(By the way, the Catholic Church was so adamant about NOT
incorporating lunar Goddess symbolism that they added a further
calculation: if Easter Sunday were to fall on the Full Moon itself, then
Easter was postponed to the following Sunday instead.) Incidentally,
this raises another point: recently, some Pagan traditions began
referring to the Vernal Equinox as Eostara. Historically, this is
incorrect. Eostara is a lunar holiday, honoring a lunar Goddess, at the
Vernal Full Moon. Hence, the name 'Eostara' is best reserved to the
nearest Esbat, rather than the Sabbat itself. How this happened is
difficult to say. However, it is notable that some of the same groups
misappropriated the term 'Lady Day' for Beltane, which left no good folk
name for the Equinox.
Thus, Eostara was misappropriated for it,
completing a chain-reaction of displacement. Needless to say, the old
and accepted folk name for the Vernal Equinox is 'Lady Day'.
sometimes insist that the title is in honor of Mary and her
Annunciation, but Pagans will smile knowingly. Another mythological
motif which must surely arrest our attention at this time of year is
that of the descent of the God or Goddess into the Underworld. Perhaps
we see this most clearly in the Christian tradition.
Beginning with his
death on the cross on Good Friday, it is said that Jesus 'descended into
hell' for the three days that his body lay entombed.
But on the third
day (that is, Easter Sunday), his body and soul rejoined, he arose from
the dead and ascended into heaven. By a strange 'coincidence', most
ancient Pagan religions speak of the Goddess descending into the
Underworld, also for a period of three days. Why three days?
remember that we are here dealing with the lunar aspect of the Goddess,
the reason should be obvious. As the text of one Book of Shadows gives
it, '...as the moon waxes and wanes, and walks three nights in darkness,
so the Goddess once spent three nights in the Kingdom of Death.'
modern world, alienated as it is from nature, we tend to mark the time
of the New Moon (when no moon is visible) as a single date on a
calendar. We tend to forget that the moon is also hidden from our view
on the day before and the day after our calendar date.
But this did not
go unnoticed by our ancestors, who always speak of the Goddess's sojourn
into the land of Death as lasting for three days. Is it any wonder then,
that we celebrate the next Full Moon (the Eostara) as the return of the
Goddess from chthonic regions? Naturally, this is the season to
celebrate the victory of life over death, as any nature-lover will
And the Christian religion was not misguided by celebrating
Christ's victory over death at this same season.
Nor is Christ the only
solar hero to journey into the underworld. King Arthur, for example,
does the same thing when he sets sail in his magical ship, Prydwen, to
bring back precious gifts (i.e. the gifts of life) from the Land of the
Dead, as we are told in the 'Mabinogi'. Welsh triads allude to Gwydion
and Amaethon doing much the same thing.
In fact, this theme is so
universal that mythologists refer to it by a common phrase, 'the
harrowing of hell'.
However, one might conjecture that the descent into
hell, or the land of the dead, was originally accomplished, not by a
solar male deity, but by a lunar female deity.
It is Nature Herself who,
in Spring, returns from the Underworld with her gift of abundant life.
Solar heroes may have laid claim to this theme much later. The very fact
that we are dealing with a three-day period of absence should tell us we
are dealing with a lunar, not solar, theme.
(Although one must make
exception for those occasional MALE lunar deities, such as the Assyrian
At any rate, one of the nicest modern renditions of the
harrowing of hell appears in many Books of Shadows as 'The Descent of
the Goddess'. Lady Day may be especially appropriate for the celebration
of this theme, whether by storytelling, reading, or dramatic
For modern Witches, Lady Day is one of the Lesser Sabbats
or Low Holidays of the year, one of the four quarter-days.
And what date
will Witches choose to celebrate? They may choose the traditional folk
'fixed' date of March 25th, starting on its Eve. Or they may choose the
actual equinox point, when the Sun crosses the Equator and enters the
astrological sign of Aries. This year (1988), that will occur at 3:39 am
CST on March 20th.
A Celebration of M A Y D A Y
'Perhaps its just as well that you won't be here...to be offended by the
sight of our May Day celebrations.'
Lord Summerisle to Sgt. Howie from 'The Wicker Man'
There are four
great festivals of the Pagan Celtic year and the modern Witch's
calendar, as well.
The two greatest of these are Halloween (the
beginning of winter) and May Day (the beginning of summer).
opposite each other on the wheel of the year, they separate the year
Halloween (also called Samhain) is the Celtic New Year and
is generally considered the more important of the two, though May
Day runs a close second. Indeed, in some areas -- notably Wales -- it is
considered the great holiday.
May Day ushers in the fifth month of the
modern calendar year, the month of May.
This month is named in honor of
the goddess Maia, originally a Greek mountain nymph, later identified as
the most beautiful of the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades. By Zeus, she is
also the mother of Hermes, god of magic.
Maia's parents were Atlas and
Pleione, a sea nymph.
The old Celtic name for May Day is Beltane (in its
most popular Anglicized form), which is derived from the Irish Gaelic 'Bealtaine'
or the Scottish Gaelic 'Bealtuinn', meaning 'Bel-fire', the fire of the
Celtic god of light (Bel, Beli or Belinus).
He, in turn, may be traced
to the Middle Eastern god Baal.
Other names for May Day include:
Cetsamhain ('opposite Samhain'), Walpurgisnacht (in Germany), and
Roodmas (the medieval Church's name). This last came from Church Fathers
who were hoping to shift the common people's allegiance from the Maypole
(Pagan lingham - symbol of life) to the Holy Rood (the Cross - Roman
instrument of death).
ncidentally, there is no historical justification
for calling May 1st 'Lady Day'. For hundreds of years, that title has
been proper to the Vernal Equinox (approx. March 21st), another
holiday sacred to the Great Goddess.
The nontraditional use of 'Lady
Day' for May 1st is quite recent (within the last 15 years), and seems
to be confined to America, where it has gained widespread acceptance
among certain segments of the Craft population.
This rather startling
departure from tradition would seem to indicate an unfamiliarity with
European calendar customs, as well as a lax attitude toward scholarship
among too many Pagans.
A simple glance at a dictionary ('Webster's 3rd'
or O.E.D.), encyclopedia ('Benet's'), or standard mythology reference (Jobe's
'Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore & Symbols') would confirm the
correct date for Lady Day as the Vernal Equinox.
By Celtic reckoning, the actual Beltane celebration begins on sundown of
the preceding day, April 30, because the Celts always figured their days
from sundown to sundown. And sundown was the proper time for Druids to
kindle the great Bel-fires on the tops of the nearest beacon hill (such
as Tara Hill, Co. Meath, in Ireland).
These 'need-fires' had healing
properties, and sky-clad Witches would jump through the flames to ensure
Sgt. Howie (shocked): 'But they are naked!' Lord Summerisle: 'Naturally.
It's much too dangerous to jump through the fire with your clothes on!'
Frequently, cattle would be driven between two such bon-fires (oak wood
was the favorite fuel for them) and, on the morrow, they would be taken
to their summer pastures.
Other May Day customs include: walking the
circuit of one's property ('beating the bounds'), repairing fences and
boundary markers, processions of chimney-sweeps and milk maids, archery
tournaments, morris dances, sword dances, feasting, music, drinking, and
maidens bathing their faces in the dew of May morning to retain their
In the words of Witchcraft writers Janet and Stewart
Farrar, the Beltane celebration was principly a time of '...unashamed
human sexuality and fertility.' Such associations include the obvious
phallic symbolism of the Maypole and riding the hobby horse. Even a
seemingly innocent children's nursery rhyme, 'Ride a cock horse to
Banburry Cross...' retains such memories. And the next line '...to see a
fine Lady on a white horse' is a reference to the annual ride of 'Lady
Godiva' though Coventry. Every year for nearly three centuries, a
sky-clad village maiden (elected Queen of the May) enacted this Pagan
rite, until the Puritans put an end to the custom.
The Puritans, in
fact, reacted with pious horror to most of the May Day rites, even
making Maypoles illegal in 1644.
They especially attempted to suppress
the 'greenwood marriages' of young men and women who spent the entire
night in the forest, staying out to greet the May sunrise, and bringing
back boughs of flowers and garlands to decorate the village the next
One angry Puritan wrote that men 'doe use commonly to runne
into woodes in the night time, amongst maidens, to set bowes, in so
muche, as I have hearde of tenne maidens whiche went to set May, and
nine of them came home with childe.' And another Puritan complained
that, of the girls who go into the woods, 'not the least one of them
comes home again a virgin.'
Long after the Christian form of marriage (with its insistence on sexual
monogamy) had replaced the older Pagan handfasting, the rules of strict
fidelity were always relaxed for the May Eve rites. Names such as Robin
Hood, Maid Marian, and Little John played an important part in May Day
folklore, often used as titles for the dramatis personae of the
celebrations. And modern surnames such as Robinson, Hodson, Johnson, and
Godkin may attest to some distant May Eve spent in the woods.
These wildwood antics have inspired writers such as Kipling:
Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight,
Or he would call it a sin;
But we have been out in the woods all night,
A-conjuring Summer in!
And Lerner and Lowe:
It's May! It's May!
The lusty month of May!...
Those dreary vows that ev'ryone takes,
Ev'ryone makes divine mistakes!
The lusty month of May!
It is certainly no accident that Queen Guinevere's 'abduction' by
Meliagrance occurs on May 1st when she and the court have gone a-Maying,
or that the usually efficient Queen's Guard, on this occasion, rode
Some of these customs seem virtually identical to the old Roman
feast of flowers, the Floriala, three days of unrestrained sexuality
which began at sundown April 28th and reached a crescendo on May 1st.
There are other, even older, associations with May 1st in Celtic
mythology. According to the ancient Irish 'Book of Invasions', the first
settler of Ireland, Partholan, arrived on May 1st; and it was on May 1st
that the plague came which destroyed his people. Years later, the Tuatha
De Danann were conquered by the Milesians on May Day. In Welsh myth, the
perennial battle between Gwythur and Gwyn for the love of Creudylad took
place each May Day; and it was on May Eve that Teirnyon lost his colts
and found Pryderi.
May Eve was also the occasion of a fearful scream
that was heard each year throughout Wales, one of the three curses of
the Coranians lifted by the skill of Lludd and Llevelys.
By the way, due
to various calendrical changes down through the centuries, the
traditional date of Beltane is not the same as its astrological date.
This date, like all astronomically determined dates, may vary by a day
or two depending on the year. However, it may be calculated easily
enough by determining the date on which the sun is at 15 degrees Taurus
(usually around May 5th).
British Witches often refer to this date as
Old Beltane, and folklorists call it Beltane O.S. ('Old Style'). Some
Covens prefer to celebrate on the old date and, at the very least, it
gives one options. If a Coven is operating on 'Pagan Standard Time' and
misses May 1st altogether, it can still throw a viable Beltane bash as
long as it's before May 5th.
This may also be a consideration for Covens
that need to organize activities around the week-end. This date has long
been considered a 'power point' of the Zodiac, and is symbolized by the
Bull, one of the 'tetramorph' figures featured on the Tarot cards, the
World and the Wheel of Fortune.
(The other three symbols are the Lion,
the Eagle, and the Spirit.)
Astrologers know these four figures as the
symbols of the four 'fixed' signs of the Zodiac (Taurus, Leo, Scorpio,
and Aquarius), and these naturally align with the four Great Sabbats of
Witchcraft. Christians have adopted the same iconography to represent
the four gospel-writers.
But for most, it is May 1st that is the great
holiday of flowers, Maypoles, and greenwood frivolity. It is no wonder
that, as recently as 1977, Ian Anderson could pen the following lyrics
for Jethro Tull:
For the May Day is the great day,
Sung along the old straight track.
And those who ancient lines did ley
Will heed this song that calls them back.
M I D S U M M E R ' S CELEBRATION
The young maid stole through the cottage door, And blushed as she sought
the Plant of pow'r;
'Thou silver glow-worm, O lend me thy light, I must gather the mystic
St. John's wort tonight,
The wonderful herb, whose leaf will decide If the coming year shall make
me a bride.
In addition to the four
great festivals of the Pagan Celtic year, there are four lesser holidays
as well: the two solstices, and the two equinoxes. In folklore, these
are referred to as the four 'quarter-days' of the year, and modern
Witches call them the four 'Lesser Sabbats', or the four 'Low
The Summer Solstice is one of them.
Technically, a solstice
is an astronomical point and, due to the procession to the equinox, the
date may vary by a few days depending on the year. The summer solstice
occurs when the sun reaches the Tropic of Cancer, and we experience the
longest day and the shortest night of the year.
Astrologers know this as
the date on which the sun enters the sign of Cancer.
This year (1988) it
will occur at 10:57 pm CDT on June 20th.
However, since most European
peasants were not accomplished at reading an ephemeris or did not live
close enough to Salisbury Plain to trot over to Stonehenge and sight
down its main avenue, they celebrated the event on a fixed calendar
date, June 24th.
The slight forward displacement of the traditional date
is the result of multitudinous calendrical changes down through the
ages. It is analogous to the winter solstice celebration, which is
astronomically on or about December 21st, but is celebrated on the
traditional date of December 25th, Yule, later adopted by the
Again, it must be remembered that the Celts reckoned their
days from sundown to sundown, so the June 24th festivities actually
begin on the previous sundown (our June 23rd). This was Shakespeare's
Midsummer Night's Eve.
Which brings up another point: our modern
calendars are quite misguided in suggesting that 'summer begins' on the
solstice. According to the old folk calendar, summer BEGINS on May Day
and ends on Lammas (August 1st), with the summer solstice, midway
between the two, marking MID-summer.
This makes more logical sense
than suggesting that summer begins on the day when the sun's power
begins to wane and the days grow shorter.
Although our Pagan ancestors
probably preferred June 24th (and indeed most European folk festivals
today use this date), the sensibility of modern Witches seems to prefer
the actual solstice point, beginning the celebration on its eve, or the
sunset immediately preceding the solstice point.
Again, it gives modern
Pagans a range of dates to choose from with, hopefully, a weekend
embedded in it. Just as the Pagan mid-winter celebration of Yule was
adopted by Christians as Christmas (December 25th), so too the Pagan
mid-summer celebration was adopted by them as the feast of John the
Baptist (June 24th).
Occurring 180 degrees apart on the wheel of the
year, the mid-winter celebration commemorates the birth of Jesus, while
the mid-summer celebration commemorates the birth of John, the prophet
who was born six months before Jesus in order to announce his arrival.
Although modern Witches often refer to the holiday by the rather generic
name of Midsummer's Eve, it is more probable that our Pagan ancestors of
a few hundred years ago actually used the Christian name for the
holiday, St. John's Eve.
This is evident from the wealth of folklore
that surrounds the summer solstice (i.e. that it is a night especially
sacred to the faerie folk) but which is inevitably ascribed to 'St.
John's Eve', with no mention of the sun's position.
It could also be
argued that a Coven's claim to antiquity might be judged by what name it
gives the holidays. (Incidentally, the name 'Litha' for the holiday is a
modern usage, possibly based on a Saxon word that means the opposite of
Yule. Still, there is little historical justification for its use in
But weren't our Pagan ancestors offended by the use of
the name of a Christian saint for a pre-Christian holiday? Well, to
begin with, their theological sensibilities may not have been as finely
honed as our own.
But secondly and more importantly, St. John himself
was often seen as a rather Pagan figure.
He was, after all, called 'the
Oak King'. His connection to the wilderness (from whence 'the voice
cried out') was often emphasized by the rustic nature of his shrines.
Many statues show him as a horned figure (as is also the case with
Christian iconographers mumble embarrassed explanations about
'horns of light', while modern Pagans giggle and happily refer to such
statues as 'Pan the Baptist'. And to clench matters, many depictions of
John actually show him with the lower torso of a satyr, cloven hooves
and all! Obviously, this kind of John the Baptist is more properly a
Jack in the Green!
Also obvious is that behind the medieval conception
of St. John lies a distant, shadowy Pagan deity, perhaps the archetypal
Wild Man of the Wood, whose face stares down at us through the foliate
masks that adorn so much church architecture. Thus medieval Pagans may
have had fewer problems adapting than we might suppose. In
England, it was the ancient custom on St. John's Eve to light large
bonfires after sundown, which served the double purpose of providing
light to the revelers and warding off evil spirits.
This was known as
'setting the watch'. People often jumped through the fires for good
luck. In addition to these fires, the streets were lined with lanterns,
and people carried cressets (pivoted lanterns atop poles) as they
wandered from one bonfire to another. These wandering, garland-bedecked
bands were called a 'marching watch'.
Often they were attended by morris
dancers, and traditional players dressed as a unicorn, a dragon, and six
hobby-horse riders. Just as May Day was a time to renew the boundary on
one's own property, so Midsummer's Eve was a time to ward the boundary
of the city. Customs surrounding St. John's Eve are many and varied.
the very least, most young folk plan to stay up throughout the whole of
this shortest night. Certain courageous souls might spend the night
keeping watch in the center of a circle of standing stones. To do so
would certainly result in either death, madness, or (hopefully) the
power of inspiration to become a great poet or bard.
(This is, by the
way, identical to certain incidents in the first branch of the 'Mabinogion'.)
This was also the night when the serpents of the island would roll
themselves into a hissing, writhing ball in order to engender the 'glain',
also called the 'serpent's egg', 'snake stone', or 'Druid's egg'.
in possession of this hard glass bubble would wield incredible magical
Even Merlyn himself (accompanied by his black dog) went in
search of it, according to one ancient Welsh story. Snakes were not the
only creatures active on Midsummer's Eve.
According to British faery
lore, this night was second only to Halloween for its importance to the
wee folk, who especially enjoyed a ridling on such a fine summer's
night. In order to see them, you had only to gather fern seed at the
stroke of midnight and rub it onto your eyelids.
But be sure to carry a
little bit of rue in your pocket, or you might well be 'pixie-led'. Or,
failing the rue, you might simply turn your jacket inside-out, which
should keep you from harm's way. But if even this fails, you must seek
out one of the 'ley lines', the old straight tracks, and stay upon it to
This will keep you safe from any malevolent power, as
will crossing a stream of 'living' (running) water.
included decking the house (especially over the front door) with birch,
fennel, St. John's wort, orpin, and white lilies. Five plants were
thought to have special magical properties on this night: rue, roses,
St. John's wort, vervain and trefoil. Indeed, Midsummer's Eve in Spain
is called the 'Night of the Verbena (Vervain)'. St. John's wort was
especially honored by young maidens who picked it in the hopes of
divining a future lover.
And the glow-worm came
With its silvery flame,
And sparkled and shone Through the night of St. John,
And soon has the young maid her love-knot tied.
There are also many
mythical associations with the summer solstice, not the least of which
concerns the seasonal life of the God of the sun. Inasmuch as I
believe that I have recently discovered certain associations and
correspondences not hitherto realized, I have elected to treat this
subject in some depth in another essay.
Suffice it to say here, that I
disagree with the generally accepted idea that the Sun-God meets his
death at the summer solstice. I believe there is good reason to see the
Sun-God at his zenith -- his peak of power -- on this day, and that his
death at the hands of his rival would not occur for another quarter of a
Material drawn from the Welsh mythos seems to support this thesis.
In Irish mythology, Midsummer is the occasion of the first battle
between the Fir Bolgs and the Tuatha De Danaan. Altogether, Midsummer is
a favorite holiday for many Witches in that it is so hospitable to
The warm summer night seems to invite it.
the celebrants are not in fact skyclad, then you may be fairly certain
that the long ritual robes of winter have yielded place to short,
tunic-style apparel. As with the longer gowns, tradition dictates that
one should wear nothing underneath -- the next best thing to skyclad, to
(Incidentally, now you know the REAL answer to the old Scottish
joke, 'What is worn underneath the kilt?')
The two chief icons of the
holiday are the spear (symbol of the Sun-God in his glory) and the
summer cauldron (symbol of the Goddess in her bounty).
meaning of these two symbols, which I believe I have recently
discovered, will be explored in the essay on the death of Llew. But it
is interesting to note here that modern Witches often use these same
symbols in the Midsummer rituals.
And one occasionally hears the
alternative consecration formula, 'As the spear is to the male, so the
cauldron is to the female...' With these mythic associations, it is no
wonder that Midsummer is such a joyous and magical occasion!
L A M
M A S: The First Harvest
Once upon a Lammas Night When corn rigs are bonny,
Beneath the Moon's unclouded light, I held awhile to Annie...
Although in the heat of a
Mid-western summer it might be difficult to discern, the festival of
Lammas (Aug 1st) marks the end of summer and the beginning of fall.
days now grow visibly shorter and by the time we've reached autumn's end
(Oct 31st), we will have run the gamut of temperature from the heat of
August to the cold and (sometimes) snow of November. And in the midst of
it, a perfect Mid-western autumn.
The history of Lammas is as convoluted
as all the rest of the old folk holidays. It is of course a
cross-quarter day, one of the four High Holidays or Greater Sabbats of
Witchcraft, occurring 1/4 of a year after Beltane.
astrological point is 15 degrees Leo, which occurs at 1:18 am CDT, Aug
6th this year (1988), but tradition has set August 1st as the day Lammas
is typically celebrated.
The celebration proper would begin on sundown
of the previous evening, our July 31st, since the Celts reckon their
days from sundown to sundown. However, British Witches often refer to
the astrological date of Aug 6th as Old Lammas, and folklorists call it
Lammas O.S. ('Old Style').
This date has long been considered a 'power
point' of the Zodiac, and is symbolized by the Lion, one of the 'tetramorph'
figures found on the Tarot cards, the World and the Wheel of Fortune
(the other three figures being the Bull, the Eagle, and the Spirit).
Astrologers know these four figures as the symbols of the four 'fixed'
signs of the Zodiac, and these naturally align with the four Great
Sabbats of Witchcraft.
Christians have adopted the same iconography to
represent the four gospel-writers. 'Lammas' was the medieval Christian
name for the holiday and it means 'loaf-mass', for this was the day on
which loaves of bread were baked from the first grain harvest and laid
on the church altars as offerings. It was a day representative of 'first
fruits' and early harvest.
In Irish Gaelic, the feast was referred to as
'Lugnasadh', a feast to commemorate the funeral games of the Irish
sun-god Lugh. However, there is some confusion on this point. Although
at first glance, it may seem that we are celebrating the death of the
Lugh, the god of light does not really die (mythically) until the
And indeed, if we read the Irish myths closer, we
discover that it is not Lugh's death that is being celebrated, but the
funeral games which Lugh hosted to commemorate the death of his foster-
That is why the Lugnasadh celebrations in Ireland are
often called the 'Tailltean Games'.
The time went by with
careless heed Between the late and early,
With small persuasion she agreed To see me through the barley...
One common feature of the
Games were the 'Tailltean marriages', a rather informal marriage that
lasted for only 'a year and a day' or until next Lammas. At that time,
the couple could decide to continue the arrangement if it pleased them,
or to stand back to back and walk away from one another, thus bringing
the Tailltean marriage to a formal close.
Such trial marriages
(obviously related to the Wiccan 'Handfasting') were quite common even
into the 1500's, although it was something one 'didn't bother the parish
Indeed, such ceremonies were usually solemnized by a
poet, bard, or shanachie (or, it may be guessed, by a priest or
priestess of the Old Religion).
Lammastide was also the traditional time
of year for craft festivals.
The medieval guilds would create elaborate
displays of their wares, decorating their shops and themselves in bright
colors and ribbons, marching in parades, and performing strange,
ceremonial plays and dances for the entranced onlookers.
must have been quite similar to our modern-day Renaissance Festivals,
such as the one celebrated in near-by Bonner Springs, Kansas, each fall.
A ceremonial highlight of such festivals was the 'Catherine wheel'.
Although the Roman Church moved St. Catherine's feast day all around the
calender with bewildering frequency, it's most popular date was Lammas.
(They also kept trying to expel this much-loved saint from the
ranks of the blessed because she was mythical rather than historical,
and because her worship gave rise to the heretical sect known as the
At any rate, a large wagon wheel was taken to the top of a
near-by hill, covered with tar, set aflame, and ceremoniously rolled
down the hill.
Some mythologists see in this ritual the remnants of a
Pagan rite symbolizing the end of summer, the flaming disk representing
the sun-god in his decline. And just as the sun king has now reached the
autumn of his years, his rival or dark self has just reached puberty.
Many commentators have bewailed the fact that traditional Gardnerian and
Alexandrian Books of Shadows say very little about the holiday of
Lammas, stating only that poles should be ridden and a circle dance
This seems strange, for Lammas is a holiday of rich mythic
and cultural associations, providing endless resources for liturgical
Corn rigs and barley
rigs, Corn rigs are bonny!
I'll not forget that happy night Among the rigs with Annie!
[Verse quotations by
Robert Burns, as handed down through several Books of Shadows.]
A R V E S T H O M E
There were three men came out of the West, Their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow, John Barleycorn must die...
Despite the bad publicity
generated by Thomas Tryon's novel, Harvest Home is the pleasantest of
Admittedly, it does involve the concept of sacrifice, but one
that is symbolic only.
The sacrifice is that of the spirit of
vegetation, John Barleycorn. Occurring 1/4 of the year after Midsummer,
Harvest Home represents mid-autumn, autumn's height.
It is also the
Autumnal Equinox, one of the quarter days of the year, a Lesser Sabbat
and a Low Holiday in modern Witchcraft. Technically, an equinox is an
astronomical point and, due to the fact that the earth wobbles on its
axis slightly (rather like a top that's slowing down), the date may vary
by a few days depending on the year.
The autumnal equinox occurs when
the sun crosses the equator on it's apparent journey southward, and we
experience a day and a night that are of equal duration.
Harvest Home, the hours of daylight have been greater than the hours
from dusk to dawn.
But from now on, the reverse holds true. Astrologers
know this as the date on which the sun enters the sign of Libra,
the Balance (an appropriate symbol of a balanced day and night).
year (1988) it will occur at 2:29 pm CDT on September 22nd.
since most European peasants were not accomplished at calculating the
exact date of the equinox, they celebrated the event on a fixed calendar
date, September 25th, a holiday the medieval Church Christianized under
the name of 'Michaelmas', the feast of the Archangel Michael.
wonders if, at some point, the R.C. Church contemplated assigning
the four quarter days of the year to the four Archangels, just as they
assigned the four cross-quarter days to the four gospel-writers. Further
evidence for this may be seen in the fact that there was a brief
flirtation with calling the Vernal Equinox 'Gabrielmas', ostensibly to
commemorate the angel Gabriel's announcement to Mary on Lady Day.)
Again, it must be remembered that the Celts reckoned their days from
sundown to sundown, so the September 25th festivities actually begin on
the previous sundown (our September 24th). Although our Pagan ancestors
probably celebrated Harvest Home on September 25th, modern Witches and
Pagans, with their desk-top computers for making finer calculations,
seem to prefer the actual equinox point, beginning the celebration on
its eve (this year, sunset on September 21st). Mythically, this is the
day of the year when the god of light is defeated by his twin and
alter-ego, the god of darkness. It is the time of the year when night
And as I have recently shown in my seasonal reconstruction
of the Welsh myth of Blodeuwedd, the Autumnal Equinox is the only day of
the whole year when Llew (light) is vulnerable and it is possible to
defeat him. Llew now stands on the balance (Libra/autumnal equinox),
with one foot on the cauldron (Cancer/summer solstice) and his other
foot on the goat (Capricorn/winter solstice).
Thus he is betrayed by
Blodeuwedd, the Virgin (Virgo) and transformed into an Eagle (Scorpio).
Two things are now likely to occur mythically, in rapid succession.
Having defeated Llew, Goronwy (darkness) now takes over Llew's
functions, both as lover to Blodeuwedd, the Goddess, and as King of our
own world. Although Goronwy, the Horned King, now sits on Llew's
throne and begins his rule immediately, his formal coronation will not
be for another six weeks, occurring at Samhain (Halloween) or the
beginning of Winter, when he becomes the Winter Lord, the Dark King,
Lord of Misrule.
Goronwy's other function has more immediate results,
however. He mates with the virgin goddess, and Blodeuwedd conceives, and
will give birth -- nine months later (at the Summer Solstice) -- to
Goronwy's son, who is really another incarnation of himself, the Dark
Llew's sacrificial death at Harvest Home also identifies him with
John Barleycorn, spirit of the fields.
Thus, Llew represents not only
the sun's power, but also the sun's life trapped and crystallized in the
Often this corn spirit was believed to reside most especially in
the last sheaf or shock harvested, which was dressed in fine clothes, or
woven into a wicker-like man-shaped form.
This effigy was then cut and
carried from the field, and usually burned, amidst much rejoicing. So
one may see Blodeuwedd and Goronwy in a new guise, not as
conspirators who murder their king, but as kindly farmers who harvest
the crop which they had planted and so lovingly cared for. And yet,
anyone who knows the old ballad of John Barleycorn knows that we have
not heard the last of him.
They let him stand till
midsummer's day, Till he looked both pale and wan,
And little Sir John's grown a long, long beard And so become a man...
Incidentally, this annual
mock sacrifice of a large wicker-work figure (representing the
vegetation spirit) may have been the origin of the misconception that
Druids made human sacrifices.
This charge was first made by Julius
Caesar (who may not have had the most unbiased of motives), and has been
re-stated many times since.
However, as has often been pointed out, the
only historians besides Caesar who make this accusation are those who
have read Caesar. And in fact, upon reading Caesar's 'Gallic Wars'
closely, one discovers that Caesar never claims to have actually
witnessed such a sacrifice. Nor does he claim to have talked to anyone
else who did. In fact, there is not one single eyewitness account of a
human sacrifice performed by Druids in all of history! Nor is there any
archeological evidence to support the charge.
If, for example, human
sacrifices had been performed at the same ritual sites year after year,
there would be physical traces. Yet there is not a scrap. Nor is there
any native tradition or history which lends support.
In fact, insular
tradition seems to point in the opposite direction.
reverence for life was so strict that they refused to lift a sword to
defend themselves when massacred by Roman soldiers on the Isle of Mona.
Irish brehon laws forbade a Druid to touch a weapon, and any soul rash
enough to unsheathe a sword in the presence of a Druid would be executed
for such an outrage! Jesse Weston, in her brilliant study of the Four
Hallows of British myth, 'From Ritual to Romance', points out that
British folk tradition is, however, full of MOCK sacrifices.
In the case
of the wicker-man, such figures were referred to in very personified
terms, dressed in clothes, addressed by name, etc. In such a religious
ritual drama, everybody played along.
They've hired men with
scythes so sharp, To cut him off at the knee,
They've rolled him and tied him by the waist Serving him most
In the medieval
miracle-play tradition of the 'Rise Up, Jock' variety (performed by
troupes of mummers at all the village fairs), a young harlequin-like
king always underwent a mock sacrificial death.
But invariably, the
traditional cast of characters included a mysterious 'Doctor' who had
learned many secrets while 'travelling in foreign lands'.
reaches into his bag of tricks, plies some magical cure, and presto! the
young king rises up hale and whole again, to the cheers of the crowd. As
Weston so sensibly points out, if the young king were ACTUALLY killed,
he couldn't very well rise up again, which is the whole point of the
ritual drama! It is an enactment of the death and resurrection of the
And what better time to perform it than at the end of
the harvest season? In the rhythm of the year, Harvest Home marks a time
of rest after hard work.
The crops are gathered in, and winter is still
a month and a half away!
Although the nights are getting cooler, the
days are still warm, and there is something magical in the sunlight, for
it seems silvery and indirect.
As we pursue our gentle hobbies of making
corn dollies (those tiny vegetation spirits) and wheat weaving, our
attention is suddenly arrested by the sound of baying from the skies
(the 'Hounds of Annwn' passing?), as lines of geese cut silhouettes
across a harvest moon. And we move closer to the hearth, the longer
evening hours giving us time to catch up on our reading, munching on
popcorn balls and caramel apples and sipping home-brewed mead or ale.
What a wonderful time Harvest Home is! And how lucky we are to live in a
part of the country where the season's changes are so dramatic and
And little Sir John in
the nut-brown bowl - And he's brandy in the glass,
And little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl Proved the strongest man at
DEATH OF LLEW
A Seasonal Interpretation
Not of father, nor of mother Was my blood, was my body.
I was spellbound by Gwydion, Prime enchanter of the Britons,
When he formed me from nine blossoms.
'Hanes Blodeuwedd' R. Graves, trans.
In most Pagan cultures,
the sun god is seen as split between two rival personalities: the god of
light and his twin, his 'weird', his 'other self', the god of darkness.
They are Gawain and the Green Knight, Gwyn and Gwythyr, Llew and Goronwy,
Lugh and Balor, Balan and Balin, the Holly King and the Oak King, etc.
Often they are depicted as fighting seasonal battles for the favor of
their goddess/lover, such as Creiddylad or Blodeuwedd, who represents
The god of light is always born at the winter solstice, and his
strength waxes with the lengthening days, until the moment of his
greatest power, the summer solstice, the longest day.
And, like a look
in a mirror, his 'shadow self', the lord of darkness, is born at the
summer solstice, and his strength waxes with the lengthening nights
until the moment of his greatest power, the winter solstice, the longest
Indirect evidence supporting this mirror-birth pattern is
strongest in the Christianized form of the Pagan myth. Many writers,
from Robert Graves to Stewart Farrar, have repeatedly pointed out that
Jesus was identified with the Holly King, while John the Baptist was the
That is why, 'of all the trees that are in the wood, the Holly
tree bears the crown.' If the birth of Jesus, the 'light of the world',
is celebrated at mid-winter, Christian folk tradition insists that John
the Oak King (the 'dark of the world'?) was born (rather than died) at
It is at this point that I must diverge from the opinion of
Robert Graves and other writers who have followed him. Graves believes
that at midsummer, the Sun King is slain by his rival, the God of
Darkness; just as the God of Darkness is, in turn, slain by the God of
Light at midwinter. And yet, in Christian folk tradition (derived from
the older Pagan strain), it is births, not deaths, that are associated
with the solstices.
For the feast of John the Baptist, this is all the
more conspicuous, as it breaks the rules regarding all other saints.
John is the ONLY saint in the entire Catholic hagiography whose feast
day is a commemoration of his birth, rather than his death.
ago, Catholic nuns were fond of explaining that a saint is commemorated
on the anniversary of his or her death because it was really a 'birth'
into the Kingdom of Heaven. But John the Baptist, the sole exception, is
emphatically commemorated on the anniversary of his birth into THIS
Although this makes no sense viewed from a Christian perspective,
it makes perfect poetic sense from the viewpoint of Pagan symbolism.
(John's earlier Pagan associations are treated in my essay on
So if births are associated with the solstices, when do the
symbolic deaths occur? When does Goronwy slay Llew and when does Llew,
in his turn, slay Goronwy? When does darkness conquer light or light
Obviously (to me, at least), it must be at the two
At the autumnal equinox, the hours of light in the day are
eclipsed by the hours of darkness. At the vernal equinox, the process is
reversed. Also, the autumnal equinox, called 'Harvest Home', is already
associated with sacrifice, principally that of the spirit of grain or
vegetation. In this case, the god of light would be identical.
mythology in particular, there is a startling vindication of the
seasonal placement of the sun god's death, the significance of which
occurred to me in a recent dream, and which I haven't seen elsewhere.
Llew is the Welsh god of light, and his name means 'lion'.
(The lion is
often the symbol of a sun god.)
He is betrayed by his 'virgin' wife
Blodeuwedd, into standing with one foot on the rim of a cauldron and the
other on the back of a goat. It is only in this way that Llew can be
killed, and Blodeuwedd's lover, Goronwy, Llew's dark self, is hiding
nearby with a spear at the ready. But as Llew is struck with it, he is
He is instead transformed into an eagle.Putting this in the
form of a Bardic riddle, it would go something like this:
Who can tell
in what season the Lion (Llew), betrayed by the Virgin (Blodeuwedd),
poised on the Balance, is transformed into an Eagle? My readers who are
astrologers are probably already gasping in recognition.
The sequence is
astrological and in proper order: Leo (lion), Virgo (virgin), Libra
(balance), and Scorpio (for which the eagle is a well-known alternative
symbol). Also, the remaining icons, cauldron and goat, could arguably
symbolize Cancer and Capricorn (representing summer and winter), the
signs beginning with the two solstice points.
So Llew is balanced
between cauldron and goat, between summer and winter, on the balance
(Libra) point of the autumnal equinox, with one foot on the summer
solstice and one foot on the winter solstice.
This, of course, is the
answer to a related Bardic riddle. Repeatedly, the 'Mabinogion' tells us
that Llew must be standing with one foot on the cauldron and one foot on
the goat's back in order to be killed. But nowhere does it tell us why.
Why is this particular situation the ONLY one in which Llew can be
Because it represents the equinox point. And the autumnal
equinox is the only time of the entire year when light (Llew) can be
overcome by darkness (Goronwy). It should now come as no surprise that,
when it is time for Llew to kill Goronwy in his turn, Llew insists that
Goronwy stands where he once stood while he (Llew) casts the spear.
is no mere vindictiveness on Llew's part. For, although the 'Mabinogion'
does not say so, it should by now be obvious that this is the only time
when Goronwy can be overcome.
Light can overcome darkness only at the
equinox -- this time the vernal equinox. (Curiously, even the Christian
tradition retains this association, albeit in a distorted form, by
celebrating Jesus' death near the time of the vernal equinox.)
myth concludes with Gwydion pursuing the faithless Blodeuwedd through
the night sky, and a path of white flowers springs up in the wake of her
passing, which we today know as the Milky Way.
When Gwydion catches her,
he transforms her into an owl, a fitting symbol of autumn, just as her
earlier association with flowers (she was made from them) equates her
Thus, while Llew and Goronwy represent summer and winter,
Blodeuwedd herself represents both spring and fall, as patron goddess of
flowers and owls, respectively. Although it is far more speculative than
the preceding material, a final consideration would pursue this
mirror-like life pattern of Llew and Goronwy to its ultimate conclusion.
Although Llew is struck with the sunlight spear at the autumnal equinox,
and so 'dies' as a human, it takes a while before Gwydion discovers him
in his eagle form.
We may speculate 13 weeks, when the sun
reaches the midpoint of the sign (or form) of the eagle, Scorpio -- on
Halloween. And if this is true, it may be that Llew, the sun god,
finally 'dies' to the upper world on Halloween, and now passes through
the gates of death, where he is immediately crowned king of the
underworld, the Lord of Misrule! (In medieval tradition, the person
proclaimed as 'Lord of Misrule' reigned from Halloween to Old Christmas
-- or, before the calender changes, until the winter solstice.)
Meanwhile, Goronwy (with Blodeuwedd at his side) is crowned king in the
upper world, and occupies Llew's old throne, beginning on Halloween.
Thus, by winter solstice, Goronwy has reached his position of greatest
strength in OUR world, at the same moment that Llew, now sitting on
Goronwy's old throne, reaches his position of greatest strength in the
However, at the moment of the winter solstice, Llew is born
again, as a babe, (and as his own son!) into our world.
Llew later reaches manhood and dispatches Goronwy at the vernal equinox,
Goronwy will then ascend the underworld throne at Beltane, but will be
reborn into our world at midsummer, as a babe, later to defeat Llew all
over again. And so the cycle closes at last, resembling nothing so much
as an intricately woven, never-ending bit of Celtic knotwork.
Midsummer (to me, at least) is a celebration of the sun god at his
zenith, a crowned king on his throne.
He is at the height of his power
and still 1/4 of a year away from his ritual death at the hands of his
rival. However, at the very moment of his greatest strength, his dark
twin, the seed of his destruction, is born -- just as the days begin to
The spear and the cauldron have often been used as symbols for
this holiday and it should now be easy to see why.
Sun gods are
virtually always associated with spears (even Jesus is pierced by one),
and the midsummer cauldron of Cancer is a symbol of the Goddess in her
fullness. If we have learned anything from this story from the fourth
branch of the 'Mabinogion', it is about the power of myth -- how it may
still instruct and guide us, many centuries after it has passed from
oral to written tradition. And in studying it, we have barely scratched