Letter 4 - Part One

Hedge Witch: A Guide to Solitary Witchcraft - Rae Beth 2014


Letter 4
Part One

New Green

Avonford

20th February 1987

Dear Tessa and Glyn,

I promised to tell you more about the God and Goddess of the witches. We have also just celebrated Imbolg (Brideday) and I should like to put this festival in context, to give a whole view of the witches’ year. As I said in my last letter, these two things are related, for the eight festivals are celebrations of events in the Earth life of Goddess and God manifest. I can write about both subjects in the same letter.

Not all witches understand this story in exactly the same way. It is a poetic statement, not a chemical formula. So there are many ways to interpret it, as with any symbol or image sequence. You will relate to it in a way that is your own. That way will change, in time, just as you will change. The first understanding will be modified by intuition and experience, with the gathering of new knowledge.

Here is my current understanding, to get you started. It begins with a paradox. I happen to pick a new year and say, ’This is where the cycle begins.’ But there is no start or finish in a circle. And the year has a cyclical rhythm, not a linear progression. Samhain (Hallowe’en) was the Celtic New Year and it is celebrated as such by most witches. The winter solstice is another obvious contender. But the festival to which it is most easy to relate for a new start is Imbolg. It is early spring. The very first of fresh new growth is just beginning. The Goddess is young again, virgin, and the God, reborn at the winter solstice, now appears as a young man. Their love promises all fulfilment, growth and fertility. At the next festival, the spring equinox, light and dark will be equally balanced, day and night of equal length, but the light is waxing. Here, the Young God ’breaks the chains of winter’, finally.

Now they are pledged to each other and their sexual union brings all life into a new balance.

At Beltane, the May Eve festival which follows on from the spring equinox in the annual cycle, the Goddess and God are ’married’.

Of course, it is impossible that the Goddess should be anyone’s wife in a Christian sense. But that is not what is meant. Rather, they become bonded as true partners, in love. For love exists as a subjective and objective fact, and the ultimate in all of our psychic-emotional range of experience. Love is of the Goddess. And it is also of the God, in his role as the young Eros, ecstatic, with that blend of reverence and desire which both transforms and renews. When love is genuine, it is both impersonal, recognizing the god or goddess in every man or woman, and it is intensely personal, being centred intimately on the one beloved. At Beltane, then, God and Goddess are ’married’.

Paradoxically, in the past, this festival was celebrated in orgies by Pagans. Sexual love, desire, both the personal and the impersonal kind. Can we know either type of love in its purest essence if we have not experienced the other type? I do not think so.

In folklore, the Goddess turns into a white hart on May Eve. The young God is a hunter. He pursues her into the forest and catches her. She turns, at bay, and becomes a beautiful woman. He makes love to her and dies of love in her arms, to be instantly reborn, but as a changed being. The Goddess, too, is changed, for she is now fruitful. Life and creativity are ensured.

Sexual imagery is the strongest recurrent theme in witchcraft. It is the witches’ main symbol of integration. In this image, the witch seeks to harmonize with the natural flow of life, as well as to reconcile the intuitive and the rational, the inner and the outer, the passive and the active, within his or her own nature. For this is the inner marriage of Sun and Moon. Sex is also stressed because it is the means by which we enter life. To a witch, therefore (I will say it again, it is worth saying), sexuality is sacred. Sexual pleasure is a true celebration of life, an act of worship. It is the mystery, the force behind the stars.

Perhaps this is the moment to explain more fully the nature of both God and Goddess. As I have said, the God is often depicted as half man and half beast, being strongly sexual, wild, untamed and wise. He is, in fact, the Father of All Life, Father Nature.

He was always known as the God of the countryside, and worshipped by the country people in many guises and under many names. Among these, were the Greek Pan, with his horns and cloven hoofs, and the Celtic Cernunnos, or English Herne, with antlers. He should really be thought of as instinctive life energy. In the realm beyond life, he is guardian and guide, and one of his many names is Lord of Death, the death that leads on to rebirth. Whilst the Goddess is a trinity of persons, three in one, the God is two. As God of the waxing year and God of the waning year, his two selves are reconciled by love of the Goddess. This keeps them in relationship, one to the other.

He is also Lord of Day and Lord of Night. As Lord of Day, he is young, strong, virile, a hunter who takes with gratitude only that which is needed. In recent times, the native American men, the Red Indians, have lived this aspect of him thoroughly enough to have become the archetypal example within western culture. Once, all men lived like that, and then, perhaps, it could be said that the Horned One truly walked on Earth. The Lord of Night is a wiseman, tribal shaman. He understands the mysteries and can heal wounds. Poet, storyteller, teacher and spellcaster, his inner core is wisdom and he can transcend all boundaries, including the one between life and death. His spirit travels.

Any man may express or manifest either side or both sides of the God, if he is at one with life and reconciled within himself. Then his life will be lived as priest and son of the Horned God. Of course, in our culture, the Horned God is not acknowledged, so there is no encouragement given to men who are determined to do this. For the Horned God is not interested in capital or profit, still less in the rape or domination of either women or the whole natural world. He is interested in joyful sex, play, mischief, music, dance and the inner quest for wisdom. He just likes being alive. His way was followed when the world was much younger, when humankind lived in ecological balance with nature. When the Triple Goddess was worshipped universally.

Witchcraft is a Goddess-centred religion. I should, perhaps, have begun with a description of her qualities. (Not that I can ever ’sum up’ either deity: it would be like trying to put life inside a box.) But the Horned One may, perhaps, need more explanation, for it is he, the Goatfoot, half man and half beast, to whom the Christians turned for a ’scapegoat’. They turned his imagery of horns and cloven hooves and strong sexuality into their idea of the Devil, principle of evil. And now the world is worse than grey without the Horned One and his laughter, freedom, happy, honest lustfulness and music. It is a terrible and dangerous thing when men are on hostile terms with the life force, secretly or openly hating their bodies, women’s bodies and the Earth itself, and hiding behind their credit cards, their fast cars and missiles. The Horned One has no hatred. He is constantly fulfilled by his own dance of life, his own part in creation. If the Goddess is the ground of our being, he is that which surges forth, travels and yet returns to her, enriched with loving wisdom. If she is silence and peace, then song and dance are the Horned One’s domain. He is joyful and always free. For women, he is the ’inner male’, somewhat like the animus described by Carl Jung. For men, he is that which moves their very bones to action.

The Goddess, the threefold creator of life, has been known by many names. To some witches, she is called Aradia. She is also known as Bride, Diana, Ashtoreth, Marian, Artemis and Ceridwen. As Mother Earth, she is called Gaia. To list all of her names would take too long, but they are found in the myths and folk stories of every land. You may name her ’Great Goddess’ or ’Mother’ or ’Lady of Wisdom’ — whatever seems right to you. She was worshipped throughout the prehistoric world and is always with us, even when we do not worship or acknowledge her. For the Goddess, like the God, is not an abstraction, in whom we need to ’have faith’. But unlike him, she contains and sustains us, constantly. She is the felt essence at the heart of things. We meet her in rocks, trees, pools, oceans, all living creatures. And her mystery is that which we perceive, the one we can feel. She is not only the Moon in its three phases, but also Mother Earth and all the expressions of the Moon on Earth; and she is the whole infinite host of the stars. Above all, she is the spirit within all these things, and the essence of peace and wholeness within each one of us.

She is also the process of death which makes way for new life. She is death-in-life, as well as life-in-death, for in her these opposites are reconciled as the Circle of Rebirth. In her, all things shift shape, all change is made, through the constantly moving and every varying dance of life.

She is the ground of our being, in so far as we can ever know it. Most often, she is seen as Goddess of the Moon, or of the Moon on Earth, because of the Moon’s connection with female cycles and with the processes of conception, generation and birth; also, because the Moon shines for us at night, time of mystery, poetry, enchantment and dreams, time of intuition, the wisdom of femaleness.

The first of her three phases is that of Maid. She is the untamed, unstructured beginning of life. She initiates things. Journeys into uncharted places belong to her, whether into the world or into the self. One of her names is Lady of the Wild Things. She is at home in wild places, far from the cities. Any woman can show attributes of the Maid, whatever her physical age.

The Mother is the one who brings birth. She is there whenever we complete a book or poem, song or picture; or when we fulfil a dream or see a project right through to the end. She has given birth to everything: all the worlds and all the birds and beasts, the fishes and the rocks, the trees and flowers. In sex, she is the orgasm. In life, she is fulfilment, the completion. She is primary, the source of all life. Before her there was the primal unity, that which existed, paradoxically, before all life began, and which will exist at the end of life, before rebirth. This is complete harmony, a true union of the sexes and a state of only latent possibilities. But once manifest life exists in any way, then the Mother of Life has brought forth. Prehistoric figurines show her with pregnant belly and huge breasts, squatting to give birth. These emphasize the blood and milk of motherhood, the physical reality and the immense power, along with the nurturing and tending qualities.

The Crone, the Old Wisewoman, is about earth wisdom and star wisdom. She is the distillation of all experience and intuition. She can heal. She knows about herbs. She also knows all the mysteries. Therefore, she sees patterns, knows the future and can give advice. Inner knowing, skill in trance, divination and psychism are all hers. She brings an end to things, clearing away the outworn to make way for new life. She is the power of the waning Moon. In her, we look for knowledge of the roots of things, or draw our own power back down to our own roots, as a plant does in the winter.

But there are not three Goddesses. Rather, there is one, the Triple Goddess, three in one. For she is simultaneously each of the above three phases.

So, after this long pause at Beltane, I will go on with the story of the year’s eight festivals, which show the Goddess and the God creating and sustaining life and bringing change together. In reality, to talk of either of them separately, is a bit like talking of the night without the day, or vice-versa.

At the summer solstice, a peak of fulfilment is reached. In this moment, the tide turns. The God is a man at the height of his strength and virility, and the Goddess is Queen of Summer. They have reached the full culmination of an outward flowering. They are a man and a woman at the peak of their physical love and perfection. Nevertheless, the Sun of this great celebration, as well as of the Earthly year, will now begin to wane, and the inward journey to the realm of afterlife, the ’Summerlands’, has now begun. Therefore, the God is inwardly transformed. ’He has set sail for the Isle of Rebirth’, is how this change is spoken of and symbolized. Outwardly, in nature, his power now goes into the grain, as the Sun ripens what Mother Earth is producing.

The Goddess is all beauty and abundance at this time. She presides over the God’s transformation for it happens through love of her. And it is in their shared ecstacy that he becomes his other self. She is fulfilment, the green leaves and many-coloured flowers of high summer, and all enjoyment, love and passion. She simply is, abundantly, and in her, we are fulfilled.

At Lammas (Lughnasadh) the Goddess gives birth. It is the festival of the First Fruits of the Harvest. The God again dies for the Goddess. His power has gone into the corn and now it begins to be reaped, for the Goddess must take his energy, his life, that new life can be born. She becomes ’the Implacable One, the Grim Reaper’ as well as the Abundant Mother, Lady of the Harvest. The God, after his sacrifice as Corn King, is reborn, the bread of life. (The Christian story of death, resurrection and the bread which is the body, is a particular variation of this, the original story.) And the images this time are burial and birth, as well as bread. A sacrifice so that life may go on.

In ancient times, the God’s sacrifice was sometimes enacted by the actual killing of a man, but this is thought by some to have been done only at those periods of history (or pre-history) when Pagan practice had departed from its original purity and become decadent. The evidence of myth and legend shows that the sacrifice was often (and perhaps originally) a substitute for a man, in the shape of an animal or image. And in Ireland, there was a legend surrounding the burial of a man up to his neck in earth for three days at Lughnasadh. On the third day, he was released. However gently this festival is celebrated in modern times, there is evidence that blood was often spilled in the past, but not the rivers of blood demanded in modern warfare as a sacrifice to the god of money. (For it is arms dealers who profit in any war.)

At Mabon, autumn equinox, we meet the Lord and Lady of Abundance. This is the Harvest Festival. They are surrounded by the fruits of their lives and their love. Now light and dark are once again in balance, but the light is waning. The God is a great deal older than he was at the spring equinox. This is a time of reckoning as well as of thanksgiving. This is the harvest as against the loss, a time of weighing up and looking back, from the perspective of mature judgement. Wisdom must be called upon to make these assessments. Now, the Sun King has become the Lord of Shadows. Nevertheless, the Goddess gives us laden tables and full barns and cupboards at this time. There is fruit on the trees for birds, and animals gather their winter stores, from what she has provided. This is a festival of celebration, a thanksgiving.

At the festival of Samhain (Hallowe’en) we begin the New Year. We end in the beginning, and we begin in the end. This is the Festival of the Returning Dead. The gates of life and death and those between the worlds are open. The living may meet with the dead and the unborn, to exchange love and information, if they so wish. Witches don’t ’call back’ the dead. They regard this as a wrong thing to do. The dead are not, and should never be, at our beck and call, for death involves many stages, processes of both purification and spiritual rebalancing, and rest and deep communion with the source of all life. There may be stages of learning and preparation for new life, the next incarnation. However, on this night of the year’s death, witches make a (psychic) space for the Beloved Dead to come back, if they want to and are able.

The Goddess has become the Old Crone, Wisewoman, at Samhain. She brings knowledge that may be bitter at first, but which leads on to wisdom. The God is the Lord of Death, guide through the dark days, the winter.

At the winter solstice, the whole cycle begins again. Not, as we might expect, with a progression from Old Crone to Maid, following the normal sequence of the Moon’s phases. It is the darkest night. There is a pause, a waiting. Will the light be reborn? Will the Sun return? Deep, black darkness reigns, like the inside of the cauldron of the Great Mother. In this vessel of transformation, the ancient Lord of Shadows becomes the new Sun King, the newborn Child of Promise. In other words, at Yuletide, all must return to the Mother (the old correlation between tomb and womb). At the Christian festival of Christmas, people still celebrate the birth of a Sun child, Jesus, the Church having chosen this time as the most appropriate for the event. And we all (as though, perhaps, obeying an ancient inner call) return to our personal mothers, to the family home. Unless, that is, we are mature women, in which case we are in some sense, mothers, welcoming and tending to our family or friends. Or unless we are mature men, supporting the mother, as her consort. But the father’s role is a shadowy one, like that of the Christian Joseph. He stands, in a sense, for the year that has passed. His son/rival, God of the Waxing Year, is being born, a process acted out in many ancient mummers’ performances, like that of the Marshfield Mummers, in Marshfield, Avon, each Boxing Day morning.

In personal terms, a man who is sensitive to his own inner changes may feel a reorientation towards life, during or just after the winter solstice.

For women, the experience is also one of transformation and renewal, but whereas she is actually the medium through which a man is restored to himself, reborn, when it is her turn, he simply supports and guides her in giving birth to herself. His role is a protective one.

And so, all having returned to the Mother, we start again. The wheel turns. At Imbolg the Maid appears, together with the young God who was born at the winter solstice.

At Yule, the winter solstice, the most magical event of all the year takes place. Within a timeless moment, all things are made new. Not only does the Lord of the Waning Year die, to be reborn as the Lord of the New Waxing Year, but the Goddess gives birth to her own younger self. All of nature is restored.

In celebrating all these festivals, keeping pace with them in our lives, we harmonize with the year. This is the natural year on whose rhythms we all depend for food and so for life (however far we may be from the countryside). Thus, we integrate with the archetypal patterns of change and growth, yearly and in a lifetime.

I have to acknowledge that my vision of the Goddess and God of the witches is exclusively heterosexual. And it is fair that you should know this, for others may comment upon it. Through this outlook, I run the risk of giving offence to some other witches, because of misunderstanding. So I must explain that since the year’s mythology is about physical fruitfulness, is about nature and reproduction, it can only be about love between man and woman. Now as an image of inner and outer fruitfulness and creativity, this need not give offence, as it holds good whether individual witches are homosexual, bisexual or, as is the case with each of you heterosexual but single, or married (to someone of the opposite sex). It is not a vision relevant only to those of ’straight’ sexual orientation, since it is an image of the processes of all conception and of all fruitful union of opposites.

The dates of the Sabbats (festivals) are generally agreed upon for the four ’quarters’, Imbolg, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. Those for the ’cross quarters’ (equinoxes and solstices) will vary from year to year. These should be checked in a current ephemeris.

Yule/winter solstice

20th—23rd December

Imbolg/Candlemas

2nd February

Eostar/spring equinox

20th—23rd March

Beltane/May Eve

30th April

Litha/summer solstice

20th—23rd June

Lughnasadh/Lammas

1st August

Mabon/autumn equinox

20th—23rd September

Samhain/Hallowe’en

31st October

I would like to make one last comment about this old knowledge kept alive in witchcraft. We may be celebrating the old festivals and calling ourselves modern Pagans (which indeed we are), but our practices are radically different from those of our forebears. We cannot help but be of the twentieth century, be what we are, if our worship is to be genuine and alive. Otherwise, our rites and ceremonies will be merely ’picturesque’ and empty of all meaning. We must reinterpret old beliefs in the light of present-day knowledge of disciplines like psychology, feminist theory, environmentalism, new physics, psychic research and psycho-drama. Modern witchcraft is a new religion. It grows from the seed of the old Pagan tree, but it is not that tree, it is a new one. The old Paganism died in Europe, was killed in fact, deliberately, during the great persecution of witches (now called the Burning Times).

The basic themes of old Paganism underlie all forms of life. They are about archetypal patterns and, for that reason, the oldest of all religions had to be reborn. But within modern witchcraft, there are many new styles and approaches. My aim, as hedge witch, working independently from any coven, is to find the essence, the true spirit of the craft, in the simplest, least complicated of ways.

Anyway, I think this is enough for now.

Blessed be,

Rae