Witch Festivals

Witchcraft for Tomorrow - Doreen Valiente 1993

Witch Festivals

The four Greater Sabbats of the witches’ year are Candlemas, May Eve, Lammas and Hallowe’en. The four Lesser Sabbats are the equinoxes and the solstices. These are the natural divisions of the year, and all of them were celebrated by our pagan Celtic ancestors in Druidic times.

No one knows how old the Greater Sabbats really are. It has been suggested that they are connected with the breeding seasons of animals, in which case their origins are exceedingly primitive.

The Greater Sabbats are sometimes referred to as fire festivals, because they were celebrated with bonfires. So also was the midsummer festival at the summer solstice or so-called longest day. Midsummer celebrations are still held in Cornwall, and the old bonfires still blaze from hilltops. Sometimes today, however, such fires are described as being ’to burn the witches’; but originally they were the witch-fires of the old pagan religion.

Our winter solstice festival has its counterpart of the midsummer bonfire in the traditional Yule Log, though few people today have a fireplace big enough to burn the huge log that was carried in for this purpose in the olden time.

Further details of the old Sabbats are given later in Liber Umbrarum; but we may notice here their particular connection with fire, in the shape of blazing bonfires, torchlight processions and so on. Many of these old customs have been noted by the Cornish antiquary, T. F. G. Dexter, in his now rare pamphlet Fire Worship in Britain. Mr Dexter traces the connection of these picturesque survivals, some of which have lasted well into the present century, with the old Celtic festivals. He notes that a number of place-names throughout the country preserve the memory of the spot where the bonfires used to be lighted, in the form of ’Tan Hill’, ’Tain Hill’, or some similar name. This is sometimes Christianized into ’St Anne’s Hill’; but its real derivation is from the old Celtic tan or teine, meaning ’fire’.

The ashes of the ritual bonfires used to be preserved and scattered over the fields, in the belief that they helped to fertilize the soil and produce better crops. This is another sidelight on the importance of fertility, the life-spirit, in the practices of the old paganism.


The Eight Ritual Occasions

Fire, water, air and earth were the four elements of life to the ancient occult philosophers, because without them life could not manifest in this world. All were sacred; but fire was regarded as being peculiarly so because of its mysterious nature, its apparent closeness to pure energy. Hence the importance of candles, ever-burning lamps, and such practices as the keeping of a perpetual sacred flame in ancient sanctuaries. Many of these practices have been inherited by the Christian church, an instance of which may be seen in those churches which keep a small sanctuary lamp perpetually burning. The sacredness of fire probably goes back a very long way indeed into human pre-history, because the mastery of fire was one of primitive man’s greatest discoveries, and helped to raise him above the level of the beasts.

Blazing bonfires are part of the traditional scene of the witches’ Sabbat. In olden times, they served the practical purposes of giving light and warmth, as well as that of celebrating a ritual occasion. People brought their food to be cooked at them, having what today we would call a barbecue. They had probably come quite long distances to forgather at the Sabbat and intended to stay out most of the night, so they needed a hot meal. Moreover, the heat of the merry blaze encouraged them to throw off their clothes and take part in the naked dancing that the Sabbats were famous for. In olden days, when the countryside was much less populated than it is at present, such gatherings in remote parts were quite feasible. Among the vagrant classes of society, the ’rogues and vagabonds’ outside the bounds of respectability, such merrymakings lingered on for a very long time. They were known as ’buff-balls’, because those who took part in them were ’in the buff’, or naked.

An interesting record of such a gathering is preserved in an old diary written by one John Manningham in the year 1602-3: ’About some three years since there were certain rogues in Berkshire which usually frequented certain shipcoates every night. A justice having intelligence of their rabblement, proposing to apprehend them, went strong, and about midnight found them in the shipcoate, some six couple men and women dancing naked, the rest lying by them; divers of them taken and committed to prison.’

A ’shipcoate’ is an old word for a sheep-pen. C. L’Estrange Ewen, who quotes this in his book Witchcraft and Demonianism, remarks that unfortunately no details of the depositions at the trial of these people seem to have been preserved, as the incident has every appearance of being a witch meeting. What gives it this appearance, of course, apart from the naked dancing, is the number of dancers involved: the traditional six couples. Six couples and a leader form the ideal combination for a working coven of thirteen.

My old friend, Gerald Gardner, told me an amusing story of a present-day witches’ Sabbat (or at any rate, one that took place not very many years ago) in the Cheshire region, which was interrupted by the law, though with less unfortunate effects for the witches. It seems that a number of them met at a lonely crossroads on a heath, for the purpose of holding a Sabbat dance in the nude. It was such a remote spot that they thought it unlikely anyone would come by late at night, so they threw off their clothes and were dancing a merry round, when to their horror they saw the headlights of a lorry approaching. Fortunately, they were provided with black cloaks, so they hastily covered themselves and fled. Not, however, before the lorry driver had seen them; he looked out of his cab and then, rather to their surprise, increased his speed and drove on. After a breathless pause, two of the men volunteered to return to the spot and gather up any odd garments or witchcraft things that might have been left behind. They had just finished doing this when they saw the lorry returning. Hastily, the men dived behind some convenient bushes to watch developments.

This time the lorry stopped. They were able to see that the driver was accompanied by a very sceptical village policeman. In the still midnight air snatches of something like the following conversation carried to the ears of the cloaked and concealed listeners:

’But I tell you I saw them … they were here … dancing in a circle … witches.’

’Ho … well, they’re not ’ere now, are they?’

’Well … they’ve disappeared.’

’Ha … flown off on their broomsticks, no doubt,’ (these words uttered with heavy sarcasm).

’Well …’ (further description by the now embarrassed lorry-driver, followed by very decided utterance from the policeman).

’Now, look ’ere! I don’t want to hear any more about any naked witches. You just turn around and drive me back. And you mark my words, if you go telling any more yarns like this to the law, you’ll find yourself in serious trouble!’ (Exit policeman and lorry-driver, while the witches strive to stifle their laughter.)

This story was a standing joke with old Gerald and his Cheshire friends; but it is a good practical illustration of the value of the traditional black cloak as camouflage. In the past, such incidents have probably given rise to many tales of supernatural disappearances, whereas what really happened was that, as in this instance, the witches simply swathed themselves in their cloaks and melted into the shadows of the night. ’We just ran for the nearest hollow, threw ourselves down on the heath, and lay still,’ they said afterwards. ’We knew the place well, so we knew where to run.’

Whether or not they had a bonfire burning, I do not know. The story did not mention one; but, even if they had, it would only have been a small one, suitable for what old Gerald used to call ’these lean-faced times’. The usual expedient in such cases is to have a good can of water handy, to douse the fire instantly. Once again, this could give the impression that the witch-fire had suddenly disappeared. One recalls those tales from ancient records, of how some traveller upon a lonely heath came within sight of the ungodly revels of the Sabbat, and how upon his making some pious Christian exclamation, the whole phantasmagoria (by the power of Satan, of course) was made suddenly to vanish!

Another expedient of witches in olden times was to impersonate the Wild Hunt, when they wanted to ride abroad by night. The story of the Wild Hunt is found in differing versions all over Europe. Sometimes it consists of a phantom cavalcade of wildly galloping riders, dressed in the costumes of an earlier age, and headed by some mythical figure or ancient hero. In the northern lands its leader was Woden or Odin; in the west country of Britain, King Arthur or King Herla; in the forest of Fontainebleau in France, Le Grand Veneur; in Windsor Forest, Herne the Hunter, whose ghostly appearances are still recorded even in our own day. Sometimes the Wild Hunt is an eerie visitation, as on Ditchling Beacon, the highest point of the South Downs, when on winter nights, as old Sussex people tell, the sound of the Wild Hunt, with its galloping horses, baying hounds and yelling hunters, approaches and rushes by, though nothing at all can be seen. To meet either manifestation is considered dangerous and ill-omened both to body and soul, so ordinary people would have given any mysterious cavalcade a wide berth if they met it after dark.

I remember in this connection that I once went to a small witch meeting in some woodlands quite near London. It was a full moon Esbat of about half a dozen people. We made our invocation, drank a toast to the Old Gods, and then danced in a circle. By the time the rite ended, we were all merry and exhilarated. It was a mild, clear night, with a silver moon shining through the trees. Somehow, instead of dispersing quietly, we continued to dance through the woods. I had brought along an old hunting horn, which the leader borrowed, and at the sound of this we laughed, leaped, shrilled the old cries and ran down the path between the trees, still attired in our hooded cloaks. Eventually, we came to a breathless halt at the edge of the woods, where lighted roads and civilization began. We looked at each other, and the leader said to us, ’You know what we’ve been doing? We’ve been playing the Wild Hunt!’

We realized that he was right. Some atavistic impulse seemed to have taken hold of us. It was a strange, uncanny experience, and one that I shall never forget.

The Esbat is the monthly meeting of the coven, held at every full moon. There are on an average thirteen full moons in a year, another instance of the witches’ number thirteen. Indeed, this may be the oldest origin of the sacredness or magical nature of this number. The old pagan year was reckoned as consisting of thirteen months of twenty-eight days each, or thirteen lunations. This gave it a total of 364 days, to which one day had to be added to bring it in line with the solar year. Hence the expression ’a year and a day’, which frequently occurs in fairy tales and legends. It is a relic of an older system of computing time.

The earliest version of the old English ballad, Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar, begins thus:

But how many merry monthes be in the yeare?

There are thirteen, I say;

The mid-summer moon is the merryest of all,

Next to the merry month of May.

A verse full of allusions to the festivals of witchcraft! Some versions of the story of Robin Hood tell us that he was the leader of a band of outlaws who, together with Maid Marian, numbered thirteen in all, which probably means that they were followers of the Old Religion.

When I visited Sherwood Forest a few years ago, I was shown the venerable tree called the Major Oak, widespreading and evidently of great antiquity. It is hollow within the massive trunk, to which access can be gained by means of a small opening. Local legends say that Robin Hood and his outlaws hid in the tree to escape pursuit; but there is another tradition, vague and less well-known, of young couples consummating their love within the hollow trunk of the oak, which is quite big enough for this purpose. This is probably a folk-memory of the old fertility rites of the forest, and ties up with the story of Robin Hood as a witch leader.

Old myths and legends often tell of significant companies of thirteen. There were, for instance, King Charlemagne and his twelve Paladins; the Danish hero Hrolf and his twelve Berserks; Romulus, the founder of Rome, and his twelve followers called lictors; some version of the story of King Arthur say that his Round Table consisted of twelve principal knights, namely Sir Galahad, Sir Bedivere, Sir Lamarok, Sir Gareth, Sir Gawaine, Sir Kay, Sir Geraint, Sir Percival, Sir Tristram, Sir Gaheris, Sir Bors and Sir Lancelot. There were many other knights of the Order; but these were the knights who actually sat with King Arthur at the famous Round Table, which was made by Merlin ’in token of the roundness of the world, for by the Round Table is the world signified by right’.

Another thirteen which figures in ancient British myth is the Thirteen Treasures of Britain, which Merlin took with him when he vanished into the Land of Faery. Perhaps a figure of speech for the lost knowledge of ancient times?

A very strange story of a company of thirteen may be found in Atlantis in Andalucia: A Study of Folk Memory, by Mrs E. M. Wishaw. Various rather garbled versions of this story have appeared elsewhere, and as Mrs Wishaw’s book is long out of print and hard to come by, I think it worth-while to put the facts straight, as they take the significance of thirteen back to Neolithic times.

Mrs Wishaw carried out extensive research into the archaeology and anthropology of Spain, which she believed to show traces of colonization from Atlantis in prehistoric times. In her book she tells the story of the Cave of the Bats, a Neolithic sepulchre which was first described by a Spanish savant, Don Manuel de Gongora, who wrote about it in 1868. The cave is a large natural cavern near the town of Albunol on the coast of the province of Granada. It takes its name from the great horde of bats which flew out of it when it was first discovered in 1851. For some time the cave was used as a shelter for wandering shepherds, after it had been cleared of centuries of bat droppings, which the local farmers utilized as manure. Then one day a visitor from the town, who had some archaeological knowledge, noticed that some great stones in the cavern had evidently been placed there as if to wall up something. The stones were removed and behind them another cave was found.

In the inner cavern thus revealed was found a remarkable royal burial of Neolithic times. Altogether fifty-eight skeletons were discovered, one of them wearing a splendid golden diadem which was eventually sent to the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid. But the most curious discovery was that of the skeleton of a woman, seated in an easy posture against the wall of an alcove, with the head leaned upon one hand as if she had fallen asleep there. Around her, carefully arranged in a semi-circle, were twelve other skeletons.

She was dressed in a tunic of skin and a necklace of sea-shells, with a boar’s tusk pendant (the boar’s tusk is still used as an amulet in our own day). Each of the twelve skeletons around her had a bag of finely-woven esparto grass beside it, but the contents had long since turned to black earth. However, among the many small objects found in the cave were the withered remains of a great many poppy heads, of the kind known as Papaver ibericum, from which the Romans used to obtain a very strong variety of opium.

None of the skeletons in the cave showed any sign of violence. It was as if they had all laid down and died of their own free will, in a drugged sleep. Then the cave had been sealed up from outside and the site marked by a great monolith some seven metres high, which Senor de Gongora observed a moderate distance away from the cave entrance. He regarded this as a landmark set up to the memory of this prehistoric king and his court, who had perhaps chosen to die together rather than yield to some long-forgotten invader.

However, in view of the similar discoveries of Sir Leonard Woolley in the tombs of ancient Chaldea, we know that sometimes when a monarch died his whole court followed him into the land of the shades, lying down in the tomb and swallowing a fatal draught of some opiate poison. The discovery in the Cave of the Bats may have been a Neolithic version of the same amazing custom; amazing, that is, to us in the scorn that it showed of the fear of death. All the king’s people had accompanied him in his journey into the other world, including the priestess and her coven.

Some anthropologists now believe that observation of the moon and its phases and lunations goes back not only to Neolithic times but even earlier. Dr Alexander Marshack, in particular, has suggested that some of the markings found in caves used by men of the Old Stone Age were the beginnings of a lunar calendar. So the sacredness of the thirteen lunar months may, indeed, go back literally to the beginnings of recorded time.

Witches of the present day take note of the waxing and waning of the moon to assist their spells. The waxing moon is the time to invoke for the things you want, while the waning moon is the time to banish those things you wish to get rid of. The waning moon was also used as the time to put curses on people, on those rare occasions when it was felt that such conduct was justified in self-defence. Hence, the old word ’wanion’, meaning a curse put on in the waning moon.

The full moon is the high tide of psychic power, and recognized as such in other religions besides the pagan faith of the witches. The Buddhists, for instance, honour the full moon of May, the Wesak Moon as it is called, because at that time Prince Gautama, seated all night in meditation beneath a tree, achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha. Many pictures of the Hindu god Shiva represent him as a yogi, seated in meditation by the light of the full moon.

Sometimes, however, the influence of the full moon is believed to be dangerously unsettling upon people of disturbed mind. The old word ’lunatic’ actually means someone influenced by Luna, the moon. The belief that the moon has a subtle effect upon the human mind is a very old one, which consequently fell into disrepute with the arrival of the scientific rationalism of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, it has received some confirmation in our own day, now that scientists are becoming somewhat less materialistic than they were, and more willing to investigate the subtle forces that affect human life.

The tiny electrical currents which flow along the nerves, when measured with a micro-voltameter, have been found to exhibit violent fluctuations when such tests were carried out at the times of new moon and full moon. The more excitable or unstable the person being tested was, the greater this effect seemed to be. The pioneer of this research has been Dr Leonard J. Ravity, a neurologist of Duke University, Illinois. This may be the reason why crime figures, especially those of crimes of a violent or bizarre nature, tend to increase at the time of the full moon.

Independent research by scientists in America and Australia, who have been concerned with collecting and studying weather statistics, has indicated the truth of another old belief. The idea that the moon affected the weather, though firmly believed in by country folk, has been dismissed with ridicule by the more sophisticated. However, the collected weather data show that there often is a rainy period two or three days after the new moon and the full moon, just as the old weather lore said.

The effect of the moon upon the tides of the sea is well known. It will be seen that these observed influences of the moon as described above, correspond with them. That is, the high and strongly flowing tides, called spring tides, occur just after the new moon and the full moon. The lower and weaker tides, called neap tides, occur just after the other phases of the moon, the first quarter and last quarter.

We may then summarize these important lunar tides as follows:

Waxing moon: the time of construction, invoking.

Full moon: the time of integration, perfecting.

Waning moon: the time of destruction, banishing.

This may well be the real inner meaning of the tryfoss or triskelion, the emblem consisting of three radiating curves or legs, which occurs so frequently in ancient Celtic art and in the arms of the Isle of Man. It is the ever-returning cycle of lunations, the three phases of the moon. The Scandinavian people also revered it, regarding it as a sign of life and light.

There are also four tides or cycles in the solar year, commencing at the equinoxes and solstices. These bear some resemblance to the quarters of the lunar month, though upon a larger scale, so to speak. Of these, the tides which commence at the two equinoxes, those of spring and autumn, are strongly flowing, like the spring tides. Hence occult orders and those who practise magic make use of these occasions for the purpose of launching an idea or a thought, sending it out upon the flowing cosmic tide. The tides of the solstices, at midsummer and midwinter, are quieter and more gentle, rather like the neap tides. Hence these are more often occasions of holidaying and rejoicing, as at the festivals of Midsummer and Yule.

Now, the Great Sabbats take place about midway in each quarter of the year, between the equinoxes and the solstices. So it will be seen that the Lesser Sabbats are the releasing of the new cosmic tide at each quarter of the year, and the Greater Sabbats are its culmination, mid-point or perfection.

These festivals of immemorial age have been found to be marked upon the very landscape of Britain itself. Alignments radiating from stone circles, or through other mark-points, indicate the place of sunrise or sunset, either at the equinoxes and solstices or at the beginning of May and November. A former Astronomer Royal, Sir Norman Lockyer, observed this at Stonehenge at the beginning of this century. Then in the 1920s Alfred Watkins of Hereford made his now famous discovery of the system of ancient alignments all over Britain, which he called ’leys’. His work has been enlarged upon in our own day by John Michell and Paul Screeton.

In Paul Screeton’s book Quicksilver Heritage he notes that in all there are eight days in the year at which observations of such astronomical alignments may have been made, namely the equinoxes, solstices and half-quarter days. These are, in fact, the eight ritual occasions of the witches.