Calendar of Revelry and Sacred Days
Witches certainly require privacy to cast spells and for certain rituals, however witches around the world are also renowned (or notorious) for their partygoing and party-giving skills. Witches have a reputation as a restless bunch: they like to get out of the house frequently (or at least so says the stereotype), especially at night and especially when the night holds promise of high spirits and magical company.
Although perhaps any time is the right time for celebration, enchantments, and revelry certain times of the year are particularly associated with witches and witchcraft.
The witch’s calendar of revelry and sacred days includes celebrations of Earth and her powers, ancient Pagan festivals, and modern derivations of these festivals from Neo-Pagan as well as Christian sources.
Upon closer examination one will notice that although there are many localized names for these holidays, reflecting different cultures, languages, and spiritual orientations, most of them correspond in time to seasonal changes such as the solstices, equinoxes or periods immediately following or preceding them.
The modern perception is that people superimpose holidays and festivals on these time periods. The magical perception would suggest that ancient people were responding to Earth’s moods. The nature of the festivals (some are solemn, others wildly ecstatic) reflects Earth’s natural and consistent state at that time of year. Thus the many variations on specific themes may not all derive from one source; instead they may have emerged independently, in response to a natural phenomenon that, although obvious to our ancestors, may be imperceptible to many of us today.
These celebrations may be categorized thus:
Festivals honoring and acknowledging solstices and equinoxes: Midsummer’s, Mabon, Yule, and Ostara
Anarchist festivals when rules are defiantly broken: May Eve, Midsummer’s Eve, November Eve, and Yule
Nights that witches congregate and celebrate: Halloween, May Eve, Midsummer’s Eve, and Easter. (Easter? Yes, read on.)
The periods when the veil between realms is thin and dead souls return to visit the living: Halloween, Yule, and Lupercalia.
Times devoted to ritual purification and cleansing rites: Yule, Lupercalia, and the February Feasts.
Celebrations of the Harvest and the Corn Mother: Mabon, Lughnasa, and the February Feasts.
Different names are used for identical days representing different traditions, languages, cultures, and spiritual orientations.
See also February Feasts, Candlemas, Imbolc, and Lupercalia.
The Anthestheria, “the festival of flowers,” heralds the arrival of Dionysus, Lord of New Life and Wine, literally. It hails the birth of the deity plus the annual ritual opening of new casks of wine. The festival was devoted to birth, death, purification, and fertility.
Only one of several annual festivals honoring Dionysus in Greece, the Anthestheria was held for three days in the month of Anthesterion (February/March). According to some analyses of the festival (much is enshrouded in myth), the festival also corresponds with Dionysus’ birth. If there is such a thing as a “triple goddess” then Dionysus is the corresponding “triple god”; during this festival he is honored as infant, husband, and dying god.
Opening the new casks of wine isn’t as simple and forthright as it sounds. The wine casks were half-buried in Earth during the fermentation period, so their removal is like a birth, specifically like a Caesarian section and even more specifically like Dionysus’ own birth. Dionysus’ mother died before he was born; the unborn child was surgically removed from her womb and then sewed up within his father Zeus’ thigh, where he was allowed to mature in peace until the time was ripe. Ritually unearthing the casks and opening them is a metaphoric re-enactment of Dionysus’ birth. His devotees share in the deity’s essence by consuming him; drinking the wine accomplishes this purpose.
Initially the festival was apparently celebrated by women and children, but there are many gaps in the historical narrative. Many aspects of devotion to Dionysus fall under the category of “mystery traditions” and hence secrecy was always a component. In addition, the more femaleoriented aspects of his devotion ultimately became disreputable and illegal. Information regarding them was suppressed.
The first two days of the festival were devoted to honoring the deity and the new wine. The festival’s days (and nights!) were punctuated by secret celebrations for mature women, rituals of initiation for children, and general revelry and celebration for all. Everyone was invited to the party, including men, ancestral spirits, dead souls, and various spiritual entities.
There are two levels to this festival, however. It was a public festival, with some aspects were celebrated by all, but it was simultaneously also a mystery celebration. Dionysus’ most devoted servants, the maenads and others, celebrated secret rites in his honor, apparently including the Great Rite, the sacred marriage between deity and devotee. (See DICTIONARY: Great Rite.)
The festival’s three nights were reserved for women’s mysteries. The maenads celebrated privately in the mountains and forests. Little information survives, however mature women were understood to play the role of brides of Dionysus at this time. (In some legends, Dionysus’ marriage to Ariadne coincides with this festival; other legends suggest that the wedding was held on May Eve.) Among the festival’s goals was the stimulation of personal and agricultural fertility.
Rituals and celebrations evolve over time. Attitudes toward ghosts changed. What seems to have originally been a day devoted to honoring dead ancestors (see Dias de los Muertos; Festivals of the Dead) eventually became a time of fear. Household doorposts were smeared with pitch in an effort to keep ghosts out. Many shrines and temples were kept tightly sealed on this day, allegedly to prevent ghosts from entering and lingering longer than their allotted time on Earth. (Another explanation suggests that this day belongs only to Dionysus and Hermes; therefore other spirits are prevented from leaving their shrines and joining the rituals.)
The festival concludes when women carry pots of cooked grains and vegetables to the marshes to bid farewell to the dead with the ritual incantation “Begone Ghosts! The Anthestheria is over!”
If rituals are conducted correctly, the end result is the removal and purification of malevolent ghosts, low-level spirits, and spiritual debris. Modern versions and adaptations of the Anthestheria are celebrated by some Neo-Pagans.
See also Floralia, May Eve, Roodmas, and Walpurgis.
Beltane is the conventional modern spelling. Bealtaine is the traditional Irish spelling.
Beltane officially begins at moonrise on the evening before the first day of May. It is the Celtic festival corresponding to May Eve, which is metaphysically understood as the moment when Earth’s generative, reproductive, and sexual energies are at their peak. Beltane, thus, is among the many May festivals celebrating Earth’s sexual and reproductive powers; however Beltane has added resonance in Celtic lands as it also inaugurates the second half of the year.
Rituals are held during Beltane to enhance and increase the fertility of land, people, and animals. A celebratory feast welcomes the newly awakened Earth. Witches and fairies are out and about tonight.
The modern Western year is divided into quarters (spring, summer, fall, and winter). However, as well as can be understood based on limited surviving information, the ancient Celtic year was divided into halves:
The dark half is initiated with the festival of Samhain, which corresponds to October 31st on the modern calendar or Halloween.
The bright half is initiated by the festival of Beltane, corresponding to April 30th on the modern calendar or May Eve.
One may visualize this calendar as akin to a yinyang symbol, with Beltane proclaiming the start of the bright yang portion.
Much of what we know of Celtic festivals (and most of what has been incorporated into modern Wicca) derives from Ireland, although the Celts once dominated a good part of Europe. There are indications that similar festivals were held elsewhere in Celtic Europe, not least by the prevalence of May Day celebrations throughout the entire continent.
Known as Calan Mai in Wales, Beltane is the Celtic fire festival marking the beginning of summer. The name may derive from “bel” (light) or “bil” (luck) and the general consensus is that Beltane means “bright fire.” There have also been suggestions that the name honors someone named Bel or Belenus who may or may not be a Celtic deity. There was possibly a Celtic deity from Austria named Belenus. Another possibility is that Bel is either derived from or identical to the pan-Semitic fertility deity Baal.
Fire may be understood as a little bit of the sun on Earth. In the spirit of the metaphysical adage “as above, so below,” the magical power of the sun was rekindled and enhanced by the Beltane bonfires. These bonfires were known as “bel-fires” or bale fires. They joyfully celebrate and proclaim the return of fertility (life) to Earth. Beltane bonfires were ritual fires and were traditionally kindled by friction or by sparks from a flint. (To this day, some traditionalists resist the allure of matches or lighters and insist that others do so as well.)
The bonfires convey the magical, healing, energizing force of fire. In order to benefit from this positive magic radiant energy, people dance around the fire, jump over it, crawl through it once it gets low and also drive their livestock through. Although any animal can benefit from the magic of the bale fires, cattle, the sacred cows so intrinsic to Irish myth, are especially associated with Beltane. If there are twin fires or multiple fires, people will dance between them and lead animals between. The ultimate goal of these rituals is disease prevention and the termination of bad luck, as well as the renewal of fertility and creativity.
Although a sacred day, Beltane was a happy, raucous holiday, not a serious, solemn one. It is impossible to celebrate Earth’s sexuality with-out simultaneously reveling in human sexuality too. Beltane was one of those anarchic festivals where everyday constraints were thrown to the winds. The Christian Church would eventually condemn the carnal licentiousness of Beltane rites, accusing the populace of indiscriminate copulation. Although defamatory, these accusations weren’t without a vestige of truth (although it’s unlikely that sexual activity was ever as indiscriminate and random as the Church postulated), however disapproval stems from perspective and perhaps a wee bit of jealousy. After all, some people were having fun when others weren’t. (See May Day, page 211, for further information.) Children whose birthdays fell near the Celtic festival Imbolc, which occurs precisely nine months later, were affectionately known as “Beltane babies,” and were considered to be special children with strong psychic powers and favored by the fairies.
According to Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, “every woman who fetches fire on May Day” was considered a witch in sixteenth-century Ireland.
Beltane was understood as a witches’ festival, when witches came out to play, as well as a day that was sacred to devotees of the Fairy Faith. Perhaps their very visibility on this date made those with magical or pagan inclinations vulnerable to those with other orientations. Notions of sacrifice, and especially of sacrificial witches permeate many historic Beltane traditions, and May became a time when witches and their animal allies were persecuted.
Cats and rabbits discovered in the fields in Ireland during Beltane were traditionally understood as witches in disguise and frequently killed on the spot, often by being tossed into the bonfires.
Litters of kittens born during the entire month of May were feared as potential witches’ familiars and summarily drowned.
A tradition known as “burning the witches” persisted in the Scottish Highlands into the eighteenth century. Young men took bits of the burning Beltane bonfires onto pitchforks. They then ran through the fields shouting “Fire! Fire! Burn the witches!” The fire is scattered through the fields to enhance their fecundity—which, in fact, it does.
The joyful aspects of Beltane have been incorporated into contemporary Wicca. Aspects of the festival devoted to the sun, human sexuality, and the regeneration of life and magic power are emphasized.
See also February Feasts, Imbolc, and Lupercalia.
Candlemas is the informal English name given to the Roman Catholic feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin. Candlemas is the oldest of the festivals specifically honoring the Blessed Mother. It coincides in time with other purification festivals dedicated to other divine mothers such as Brigid (Imbolc) and Juno (the Lupercalia).
There is confusion as to when Candlemas is celebrated; depending on which version of the calendar is used, Candlemas falls on either February 2nd or February 15th, although always beginning the previous eve. The Lupercalia, Rome’s festival of purification and fertility that officially began on February 13th, was officially banned in 494 CE, although it’s believed to have survived in secret for longer. Candlemas is generally understood as an attempt to replace it.
Candlemas traditions in the form they exist today can be safely dated to the eleventh century. Candlemas also marks the official end of the Christmas season; Yule greens and decoration are now taken down.
Despite its ecclesiastical name, but perhaps because of positive association with candle magic (and maybe simply because many find it easier to pronounce), the name Candlemas is often used to refer to the modern Wiccan sabbat Imbolc. In other words, although the name Candlemas is used, rituals and practices belong specifically to Imbolc (see page 204).
Other Neo-Pagans understand Candlemas as a celebration of candles, now standard everyday witchcraft tools. Traditionally candles are set ablaze in every window and the night is considered ideal for candle magic and divination.
Candelaria is the equivalent of Candlemas in Spanish-speaking countries. Oya, the warrior orisha of Storms, is syncretized to the Virgin of Candelaria and shares her feast day. Oya sweeps the atmosphere clean using the powerful hurricane winds that blow annually from Africa toward the Caribbean. Oya’s traditional Candelaria offerings include nine purple candles, nine small purple eggplants, and a glass of red wine.
See also DICTIONARY: Orisha; Santeria.
Cross Quarter Days
The Cross Quarter Days are those that mark the half-way point between solstices and equinoxes:
May 1st, also known as Beltane, May Day, and Walpurgis
August 1st, also known as Lammas and Lughnasa
November 1st, also known as All Saints’ Day and Samhain
February 1st, also known as Candlemas and Imbolc
Pagan festivals and holy days correspond to each of the Cross Quarter Days. In addition, in various parts of Europe—notably Scotland and Ireland—the Quarter Days were when rents fell due to the landlord, perhaps necessitating the need for some extra magic.
Dias de Los Muertos/Mexican Days of the Dead
See also Festivals of the Dead, Halloween, and Samhain.
The Days of the Dead refers to a three-day festival that fuses pre-Columbian indigenous celebrations with those of Roman Catholicism. Because the Roman Catholic feast day that honors the deceased also incorporates a tremendous amount of older pagan spirituality and tradition, the modern Mexican Days of the Dead is a tremendously complex celebration.One must specify Mexican Days of the Dead because virtually every Latin American community throughout South and Central America also has some sort of commemorative feast, as do many communities elsewhere. Although the purpose is identical, traditions vary greatly. Aspects of the Mexican Days of the Dead have become increasingly influential over Neo-Pagan spirituality.
November Eve and the days immediately before and after are internationally considered the time when the dead visit the living. Depending upon perspectives toward the nature of the dead, some cultures find this a scary time. In other words, if the revenant dead can only be up to no good, then the time when they return is a time of great danger.
In traditional Mexican culture, however, the dead are welcomed, feasted, propitiated, and then sent safely on their way. This is the natural order: it is natural for the dead to appear at this time and it is natural for them to depart afterwards. The dead who are not propitiated and treated with respect, love, and honor are those who may linger and become troublesome ghosts. It is in the community’s interest for this not to occur, and the Days of the Dead are celebrated by individuals and families but also by communities at large. To witness Days of the Dead celebrations in Mexican villages is to understand how festivals like Beltane, Midsummer’s or Samhain must once have been an entire community’s affair.
Extremely similar festivals honoring the dead were once held at this time of year throughout Italy, most especially in Salerno. The practice was banned by the Church in the fifteenth century.
There isn’t just one fixed way to celebrate the Dias de los Muertos. Traditions vary depending on location and region, however some themes and traditions remain consistent. Each day of the three-day festival is dedicated to a different community of the deceased. The dead are envisioned as a parade of spirits, arriving in scheduled hosts arranged according to age and manner of death.
The Mexican Days of the Dead is a celebratory festival, combining humor with devotion, a lust for life with an acceptance of death. Traditional Aztec culture didn’t fear death. Death was understood as a period of deep sleep or true reality, while life (or lives) was the dreams experienced during this sleep/death. Modern Mexican culture revels in humorous, grotesque, defiant artistic celebrations of death, which simultaneously celebrate life, too. Death isn’t a topic to be avoided but instead it is defied and mocked while simultaneously respected and revered.
Images of skeletons and skulls are omnipresent.
Decorated sugar skulls fill the stores in the period leading up to the holiday in the same manner that pumpkins and Halloween-oriented cookies and candies do at this time in the United States.
Special holiday foods are prepared and served only at this time of year, including certain moles (Mexican stews featuring bitter chocolate) and the “Bread of the Dead”—a sweet loaf decorated with skulls and crossbones.
An ofrenda, translated into English as an “offering table” or altar, is set up in the home. The ofrenda serves as the magnet that guides and welcomes the spirits of the deceased. A table is beautifully decorated and laden with the feast to be shared by the living and the dead.
Technically the festivities begin the eve of October 31st in conjunction with the Roman Catholic festival of All Hallows Eve, however, depending upon region or village, it may begin as early as October 27th. Commemorations prior to the 31st are more openly pagan in orientation than the official three-day period, which is technically a Roman Catholic feast.
What follows is a standard calendar for the Days of the Dead. However be advised that this is subject to variation.
October 27th is dedicated to those who died without families, whose families have since died out or to those who, for whatever reason, have no one to welcome them and create an ofrenda for them. Sad, lonely, and potentially jealous and resentful, if left hungry and unpropitiated these are the spirits who can potentially become dangerous, malevolent ghosts. Bread and water is placed outside for them.
October 28th is dedicated to those who died violently, whether by accident or through intention. They, too, are given fresh bread and water.
In both these cases, food and drink is placed outside, not inside the home. The intention is to prevent the phenomenon of destructive, malicious, “hungry ghosts,” not to have the ghosts become so comfortable that they decide to move in.
October 29th is a day of preparation.
October 30th is dedicated to pagan babies and babies in limbo, those children who died without baptism or unknown wandering children’s souls. Bread, water, and small things that would please a child (sweets, toys, juice) are placed outside.
Up until this point, any food offered is not shared by the living. Once given, it is left outside.
The night of October 31st may be dedicated to dead children while November 1st is for deceased adults. In some communities, however, November 1st is the Dia de los Angelitos (the Day of the Little Angels). Children’s graves are given special attention and ofrendas devoted to children are erected.
October 31st is offered to dead children whom a family knew and loved. The offering is made in the home; the dead souls from this point on are welcomed into the home.
November 1st is dedicated to deceased adults, friends, family members, loved ones or those whom one admires and wishes to honor. Offerings may be made at home or brought to the cemetery, where living and dead may feast together.
By the evening of November 2nd, the dead should be gone, well on their way back to where they came from. Trails of shredded yellow marigold blossoms may be laid to lead them back to the family plot. Stubborn, lingering ghosts are sent on their way by masked mummers. This once would have been the shaman’s job.
See also Ostara.
In Ireland as well as the United Kingdom and her former colonies, the witches’ party night is Halloween. In Germanic and Slavic lands, witches fly on Walpurgis Night. In Sweden, the witches fly on Easter Eve. Easter? Yes—pagan traditions permeate Easter and not only in Sweden.
Although Easter is frequently considered the most sacred day of the Christian calendar (in some areas it supersedes Christmas) many of its beloved folk customs have nothing to do with Christianity—most obviously egg-delivering bunnies.
Easter corresponds approximately with the vernal equinox, the beginning of spring, and as such is a celebration of new life, including flowers, eggs, and babies. The vernal equinox corresponds with the beginning of the astrological sign of Aries, the very first sign of the zodiac and hence the beginning of a new annual cycle.
Easter’s name honors the Germanic deity whose name is variously spelled Astara, Easter, Eostre, and Ostara and is believed to mean “Radiant Dawn.” Ostara is the spirit of spring and the returning season of fertility. Her annual return was traditionally celebrated with flowers, bellringing, and singing. New fires were lit at dawn.
Ostara manifests as a beautiful young woman, with flowers in her hair. Her male consort takes the form of a rabbit. Sometimes he is the size of a full-grown human male; at other times he’s a little bunny that Ostara cradles in her arms. Ostara and her frisky rabbit bring the eggs that signify Earth’s resurgence of fertility.
Easter celebrates the magical energy and power that encourages and stimulates new beginnings. It is a festival of fertility and efforts to enhance fertility. These aspects of the holiday may be ignored or passed over, however they are not hidden or obscure. Until not that long ago, it was traditional in French, German, and Italian villages for special phallic-shaped cakes to be carried in procession to the local church at Easter.
Easter’s pagan components include the following.
Eggs are symbolic of new life, new beginnings and fertility. They are a component of countless magic spells. Decorating, preserving, hiding, and burying eggs are only a few of the techniques used in ancient spells from around the world. The goals of most spells incorporating eggs include protection, purification, spiritual cleansing, wish fulfillment (the goose with the golden eggs), prosperity, and abundance including personal reproductive abundance. When a major fertility symbol like a rabbit presents another fertility symbol, like an egg, a very clear message is being sent. (For those unfamiliar with the basics of the birds and the bees, in real life rabbits do not hatch eggs, ever. Should a rabbit ever be seen with an egg, something magical is going on.) (See ANIMALS: Chickens; Rabbits.)
Easter eggs are decorated with magic symbols. In Greece, they were traditionally dyed red. Easter eggs are given as gifts or hidden so that hunts may be held for them. Once upon a time, the person who found the missing egg, the most eggs or the golden or otherwise special egg could expect to have all her wishes fulfilled in the coming year. (In other communities, she’ll be the first to wed or have a baby.) Hardboiled eggs may be served in their decorated shells as part of the ritual meal, or conversely chocolate eggs, often accompanied by chocolate rabbits, are seasonal treats. Old chocolate rabbit molds are now used to craft beautiful rabbit candles.
Among the most famous of Easter eggs are pysanky or Ukrainian Easter eggs. Pysanky (singular: pysanka) have an ancient history and were created before Christianity arrived in the Ukraine, however they are now an important component of the Easter holiday. Pysanky are beautifully decorated with beeswax and dyes.
The creation of pysanky is considered a feminine sacred art; what may seem to be merely decorated eggshells has deep spiritual resonance for Ukrainians, many of whom believe that each time a woman makes a pysanka, the devil, representing the principle of evil and blight, is pushed further down into captivity and further from humanity. Through an act of creation utilizing symbols of life and the goddess, such as eggs and beeswax, women become spiritual warriors against forces of depravity, evil, and death. As long as women create pysanky, the powers of life prevail but it is also believed that when the last woman to make pysanky stops doing so, then evil will reign triumphant over Earth.
Pysanky are traditionally given as gifts to those one loves or wishes to honor.
The Easter season is when Swedish witches (and those in parts of Finland, too) traditionally join together in celebration. The Easter witches’ holiday begins on the night before Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday). Beginning then and continuing through Easter Eve, witches mounted on brooms fly up chimneys, together with their faithful cats. Easter witches typically don’t dress up in special clothing like pointy hats and cloaks. They wear regular ordinary clothing; flying on a broom is considered sufficient evidence to recognize them. Invariably the Swedish witch carries a coffee pot; that magical elixir is necessary for the long ride with its many reststops, as well as for the festivities once she arrives.
Not that long ago, people were scared of the Easter witches. Doors to homes and barns were locked during this time; chimney flues were closed, perhaps to keep those with wanderlust inside. Anything that could potentially be converted into a witch’s vehicle (brooms, pitchforks, rakes) was locked up, lest the neighbors accuse you of helping the witches have fun. Crosses were drawn on the door with chalk to let the witches know they were unwelcome. Fires were kept burning in the hearth to keep it from being used as a portal. Firecrackers were set off in hopes that witches would be startled and fall from their brooms. On a dare, young men would hide out overnight in church bell-towers waiting for the witches. When traveling by broomstick, frequent stops for rest and refueling are necessary. Allegedly grease from church bells is among the ingredients needed to fuel flying broomsticks and so church towers are where witches congregate on their way to festivities on remote mountain peaks.
Today, Holy Thursday or Easter Eve is when Swedish children, boys and girls both, dress up as Easter hags and witches. They parade in costume and pay social calls on neighbors begging treats. There’s no pretense of being scary or grotesque witches; instead these small children are very cute and completely unthreatening, dressed up as little old babushka-ladies with headscarves and old-fashioned dresses. Some children carry an empty coffee pot, which neighbors can fill with treats. Others leave small decorated cards, known as “Easter letters,” which include small poems and pictures of witches, their cats and broomsticks, similar to a Halloween card elsewhere. The identity of the sender is sometimes secret; unsigned cards are slipped into mailboxes or beneath doors. It is up to the recipient to figure out the giver’s identity and reciprocate with a small treat.
The word “esbat” is believed to derive from the Old French s’esbattre, which means “to frolic and amuse oneself” or “to celebrate joyfully.” Esbats are among the sacred, celebratory days of Wicca.
At present, there is only one known pretwentieth-century reference to an “esbat.” It derives from the memoirs of the witch-hunter Pierre de Lancre, published in 1613. The word is used in a quotation from a witch. Margaret Murray picked up the reference and used it in her writings, which were to have tremendous influence on Gerald Gardner. Esbats are now an integral part of Gardnerian Wicca and the word has entered the general witchcraft lexicon, although it is not used in a consistent fashion.
The modern definition of “esbat” is somewhat loose and one cannot assume that everyone defines the word identically. At its least rigid definition, esbats refer to any scheduled ritual. It is most often intended to indicate the meeting of a coven, however independent practitioners also celebrate esbats, and will do so in solitary fashion if they choose.
How and when esbats are celebrated depends upon how each tradition, coven or individual defines the word:
Some use “esbat” as a synonym for “sabbat” or to refer to one of the four lesser Wiccan sabbats (see Sabbat, page 214).
Esbats may be specifically identified with lunar devotions. In this case, esbats are celebrated in conjunction with either the new or full moon, so that there are 13 annual esbats (or if the full moon is observed, the occasional additional blue moon, too). When esbats are associated with the full moon, some prefer celebrating sky-clad (without clothes) so that moonlight is better able to charge the body with its magical energy, however this depends upon coven and individual.
Some covens use the term “esbat” to refer to any regularly scheduled meeting.
See HALL OF FAME: Gerald Gardner; Margaret Murray.
Feast of St Lucy or Santa Lucia
The Feast of St Lucy is celebrated on December 13th. In the Germanic world, the Eve of St Lucy’s is renowned (or notorious) for an upsurge in spirit activity, most notably by the passage of the Wild Hunt. Witches and practitioners go out to join the Hunters, although others may hide behind locked doors and amulets.
Before the Gregorian calendar reform of 1582, the Feast of St Lucy fell on the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, a day of tremendous spiritual power. Apparently the calendar change means little to the spirits because they’re still out riding around.
The festival officially commemorates St Lucy, an early virgin martyr. Lucy, a beautiful young noblewoman from Sicily, had made a vow of chastity. When her father made arrangements for her marriage, Lucy bet that if she literally removed her eyes, the chosen groom would change his mind and quickly retract his proposal. She wasn’t wrong but luckily for Lucy, God was so impressed by her determination that he stuck her eyes back in, healed them and miraculously gifted her with sight once more. St Lucy is now the matron saint who heals afflictions of the eye and who averts and removes the Evil Eye (see DICTIONARY: Evil Eye).
Today the Church acknowledges that Lucy’s hagiography is built on legend and folklore. Many believe that forbidden but formidable female deities hide behind the saint’s respectable mask.
In the Mediterranean St Lucy is identified with the Italian deity Juno Lucina, Juno the Lightbringer (see Lupercalia). However, nowhere is St Lucy more beloved than in Scandinavia where that shape-shifting witch-goddess Freya is believed to have assumed the saint’s guise. As a goddess, Freya leads the Norse warrior spirits, the Valkyries. She welcomes fallen battle heroes; half will spend joyous eternity partying in her hall, while the other half accompanies Odin. As deities of witches (or as disciples of the devil, if you prefer that perspective) Odin and Freya are among the leaders of the Wild Hunt. Freya also has dominion over love, romance, sex, and fertility. She typically manifests as a golden woman who shines like the sun. In Norway, virginal St Lucy has something of a reputation as a loose woman, even as a goblin (defined as a malevolent fairy). She even sometimes leads the Wild Hunt.
In Sweden, the Feast of St Lucy is celebrated with a beloved ritual enactment. One of a household’s young girls or women, usually either the eldest or youngest daughter, ritually embodies the saint. She rises before dawn to fix coffee and breakfast for her family. Ritual foods are served such as the pastry known as lussekatter, “Lucy’s cats,” saffron buns, cross-shaped pastries also frequently flavored with saffron (saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, is a potent natural dye; it turns food and drink golden), and glogg, hot spiced wine with aquavit.
The girl dresses up as St Lucy and brings breakfast to everyone else’s bed. Intrinsic to the ritual is her crown of lit candles. The crown usually incorporates either seven or nine candles, although this varies depending upon household and region. The Santa Lucia crown may be built upon a wreath created from fresh greens, often rue, and is decorated with scarlet ribbons.
In Switzerland, St Lucy is a gift-giver; she strolls around together with Father Christmas (who may be her old partner Odin in disguise). She distributes gifts to girls, while Father Christmas gives gifts to the boys. In Swiss folklore, St Lucy is often understood to be Mrs Christmas, Santa Claus’ wife, which one imagines would have greatly distressed that young Sicilian martyr.
In Hungary, St Lucy’s Day is associated with divination. Bands of boys known as the “cacklers” or the fortune-tellers, used to proceed from house to house, singing ancient fertility songs, similar to the tradition of Yule carolers. The cacklers requested hens, geese, eggs, and blessings. The mistress of the house was somewhat obligated to welcome the singers and give them their traditional offering of dried pears as if this was done, her home was considered blessed for the year to come. If the cacklers aren’t welcomed, her clutch of chickens, however many there might be, is allegedly doomed to be reduced to one blind hen. (The curse of St Lucy’s eyes!)
Once upon a time, if someone in Hungary wished to know the identity of a village’s witches, St Lucy’s Day was the time to begin building a magical chair from nine different types of wood, put together without nails. (This spell apparently must be constructed without iron.) Known as a “Lucy Chair” one could work on it daily until Christmas when, if you hadn’t changed your mind, it would be placed at the very back of the local church. Should the maker stand upon it during Midnight Mass, the witches would be identified by the horns now revealed on top of their heads. These horns are invisible to everyone but the one with the Lucy chair, who is now in the position to expose these witches.
Of course, this was no secret ritual; on the contrary someone standing on an unusual homemade chair during Midnight Mass would be quite conspicuous. Whether he saw the witches or not, they would certainly see him and so the end of the spell instructs him to run home as quickly as possibly immediately after Mass. Hopefully he’s remembered to fill his pockets with poppy seeds which may be tossed behind him to distract the witches, who by now would be in hot pursuit. (Russian fairy tales also advise tossing poppy seeds should Baba Yaga ever be in pursuit.) Allegedly the witches will be forced to stop and pick up these sacred seeds. Once he was home, the chair must immediately be burned, which is perhaps why so few survive! (At least one, however, is on display in Budapest’s Ethnographic Museum.)
See BOTANICALS: Opium Poppy; DIVINE WITCH: Freya: Odin.
February Feasts of Purification and New Life
The month of February leads to the spring equinox, Earth’s awakening after her long slumber. It is a monumental threshold because, of course, what if Earth doesn’t awake? What if the winter is endless, food-stores run out, and so forth. (This isn’t mere anxiety but may reflect vestigial memories of Ice Ages.)
The spring equinox was understood as the birth of a New Year. This was eventually literalized with formal calendars. Many traditional New Years all over Earth are initiated at the equinox, not least the zodiacal calendar, whose first sign Aries begins on that day. February then is the solar month leading up to the month containing New Year’s Day. Festivals in February are frequently devoted to spiritual and magical preparations for this new cycle.
The very name “February” derives from the Latin for purging and purification. This time period is devoted to crucial magical and spiritual rituals intended to protect Earth, cleanse it of accumulated psychic debris, and encourage the regeneration of fertility.
As the element with the most profound (although dangerous) powers of purification, fire is often featured in these festivals. Candle processions, for instance, are common motifs honoring Brigid, Juno Februa, Oya, and St Agatha. However, masculine fire is balanced by feminine liquid. Many of these feasts honor life-sustaining beverages. All milk ultimately comes from mothers, whether human, bovine or ewe. The February feasts celebrate and seek to protect these mothers.
Among these February festivals are the Anthestheria, Candlemas, Little Candlemas, the Lupercalia, and Imbolc, which possess their own entries; however there are also many other festivals with similar themes at this time.
The Dionysia/The Festival of St Trifon
In many cultures, milk is a drink reserved for children. Adults must find alternatives. Dionysus, Lord of Wine, is believed to have first emerged as a prominent power in Thrace, present-day Bulgaria. Wine is his sacrament; an ancient legend proclaims that Dionysus was able to convert water into wine.
Various festivals were held in his honor, characterized by ecstasy and intoxication (and also theatrical competitions!) as befitting this shamanic deity. Dionysus is not a fire deity, quite the contrary; liquid devotions are more his style. However in some areas devotion to Dionysus included snake handling and sometimes fire-walking (the shamanic feat of walking over glowing coals). This particular festival corresponds to the time when casks of new wine were annually, traditionally opened and enjoyed.
When Bulgaria became Christian, names of festivals were changed. However, the celebrations survived. St Trifon is now the patron saint of viticulture. Ritual purifications of the vineyards were once held in February. Today St Trifon’s Day honors the fruit of the vine, the vintners who create it, the deities who oversee it, and all those who enjoy it. Dates of the festival vary depending upon location; sometimes it is early in February, the third or fourth day (and because of the nature of the celebration, there is a tendency perhaps to linger). Other communities celebrate St Trifon on February 15th; Valentine’s Day festivities, which were largely unknown in Bulgaria until recently, have crept in and so now the wine is frequently accompanied by chocolate hearts. (See Lupercalia, page 209.)
The Feast Day of St Agatha (February 5th)
St Agatha, another Sicilian martyr, allegedly died c. 250 CE. She is believed to have served as direct inspiration for St Lucy. St Agatha’s fate was particularly horrific and brings to mind the brutal violence so often historically (and presently) inflicted upon women. St Agatha, who according to legend wished to be a virgin martyr, was sent to a brothel where she was repeatedly raped. Deprived of food and water, she was then racked, beaten, her flesh was ripped by iron hooks, her breasts were cut off and she was burned with torches. Agatha was then rolled over broken potsherds and live coals until she died.
Early Christian icons depicted Agatha carrying her breasts on a plate (as Lucy carries her eyes). They were eventually confused for bells (or were they?) and so St Agatha reigns today as the matron saint of bell makers. Her symbolic objects include a bell, a brazier filled with smoking coals, and a pair of iron tongs. St Agatha allegedly once saved her hometown Catania from Mount Etna, the volcano, where Hephaestus, the Greek sacred smith, had his forge. Sacred images of Agatha almost always depict the volcano as well; it is frequently drawn so as to resemble a huge breast, threatening to overflow with milk rather than lava.
Here’s the thing: if one examines St Agatha’s iconography completely out of Christian context, Agatha looks amazingly like the pagan spirit of Mount Etna. From that perspective, Agatha is a fire spirit who presides over smithcraft: her brazier and iron tongs are the symbols of that magical craft. Bells, her emblem, are magical tools of purification crafted by metalworkers. (And, in fact, St Agatha today is an official matron of metalsmiths and bell foundries.)
Even Agatha’s name resonates of paganism, deriving from a Greek word, agathos, meaning “good.” It was also the name of a beneficial serpent deity who was widely venerated. And what was Hephaestus the Smith’s sacred creature, by the way? A serpent. (Among the many gifts St Agatha bestows upon people is protection from venomous snakes. Allegedly if you drink Holy Water on her feast day, snakes will not harm you.)
It is not uncommon for female deities from Mediterranean regions to be depicted cradling and lifting their naked breasts toward their devotees as if they were nursing mothers offering comfort and nourishment to a very young child. And, in fact, St Agatha is matron saint of wet-nurses and nursing mothers as well as those who are hungry, who cry out for the goddesses’ breast when there is no other food to be had.
St Agatha heals those who suffer from afflictions of the breast—not only breast cancer but mastitis and other conditions that interfere with breast-feeding or that make it painful or difficult. Of course, all those old bare-breasted deities kept theirs on their chests whereas with St Agatha it is as if all her old icons and sacred images were turned against her. The very things that were once sacred (coals, iron implements, earthenware shards, fire, sex, the female parts of the body) became vehicles of torture, humiliation, and annihilation.
There is something uncomfortably lascivious in discussions of Agatha’s torture. During a time when people didn’t discuss sex—all discussion was considered inappropriate—still there was a willingness to dwell in detail on Agatha’s rape, the brothel, the amputation of her breasts and the sadistic mortification of her flesh. The word “brothel” wouldn’t have been mentioned in polite company, certainly not mixed company, and yet exceptions were made in Agatha’s case. Her saga, in many ways, bears the aura of violent misogynist pornography—or of elaborately detailed witch-trial transcripts. If one understands “virgin” in its pre-Christian sense, i.e., as an independent, autonomous woman beholden to no one (as in the virgin fertility goddess Artemis or in Vodou’s wanton virgin Ezili Freda-Dahomey), then it is very tempting to see hidden in the tale of Agatha’s torture a warning or foreshadowing of tortures and oppression to come.
Throughout Italy special breast-shaped pastries called “St Agatha’s Breasts” are eaten on her feast day. Although St Agatha’s official feast day is February 5th, the festivities in Catania, Sicily, her hometown, begin on February 1st. She is feted with candle processions, fireworks, music, and poetry contests.
St Agatha protects Catania from fires, earthquakes, and volcanic eruption. Her veil, which was taken from her tomb and is preserved at Catania, is said to keep Mount Etna under control. The annual display of her veil is accompanied by tambourine performances that would have done Isis or any number of pagan deities proud. (There are those who perceive Isis, Mistress of Magic, hidden under Agatha’s veil. Isis, too, has affiliations with snakes and protection.)
The Festival of Juno Sospita
Juno’s name derives from the same roots as the word “one.” One is her sacred number and the first day of each month is dedicated to her. The festival of Juno Sospita, Juno the Savior or Defender, was held on February 1st. Juno the Savior was considered the Mother of Rome, Matron Deity of the Republic.
On Roman coins, dating from 105 BCE, Juno Sospita is depicted clad in goatskins complete with horns. Sacrifices were made to Juno the Savior on February 1st, and young girls offered barley cakes to the sacred snakes who lived in her grove. (See also Lupercalia, page 209.)
Festivals of the Dead
Halloween, Samhain, and the Days of the Dead are not unique. Virtually every culture had, at least at one time, some sort of ceremonial honoring ancestors, dead souls or those who have passed on to the eternal Summerlands or Elysian Fields. The following are only some of the most famous.
The Egyptian Feast of the Dead
This, one of the earliest known festivals commemorating dead souls, may be the most ancient root of Halloween. The festival was held annually corresponding to modern mid-November. It commemorates the day Osiris was killed by his brother Seth.
Osiris subsequently became the Lord of the Dead. The festival specifically honored him. During the festival, people mourned for Osiris. Oil lamps were lit outside homes and left burning through the night. The days surrounding the festival were considered times of danger and vulnerability but were simultaneously highly magically charged. Osiris’dead body was sometimes depicted with corn sprouting from it. While alive, Osiris was renowned as the one who taught people the secrets of agriculture. One may understand his myth as an early retelling of the story of the dying grain, which must be cut down so that people may eat, survive the winter and have new seeds to plant for the year to come. (See ERGOT.)
In Abydos, the sacred city devoted to Osiris, an eight-act drama portrayed the saga of Osiris’ life, death, and resurrection. According to Plutarch, the festival lasted for four days and was also a general commemorative feast for the dead.
One of several Roman festivals of the dead, most of what we know regarding the Feralia, the surviving information, derives from Book 2 of Ovid’s Fasti. The Feralia began on February 21st and was the day to appease ancestral spirits.
Romans stayed home. Sanctuaries were closed. No weddings were held; only offerings to the spirits of the dead and their presiding deities were given. Visits were made to family tombs. According to Ovid, offerings typically consisted of votive garlands, sprinklings of grain, a few grains of salt, violets and bread soaked in wine. The dead had modest desires; what they wanted most of all was recognition and remembrance.
The Lemuria was the second annual (but oldest) Roman commemoration of the dead. It was held on three odd days in May—May 9th, 11th, and 13th. During these days, the dead walk the Earth and must be propitiated. Lemures was the term used for these walking revenants, hence the name of the festival in their honor. They were understood as the angry, volatile, dangerous dead and so appeasement and protection was particularly crucial.
According to Ovid the holiday derives from the death of Remus, whose death at the hands of his brother Romulus is reminiscent of the biblical Cain and Abel. Remus’ blood-stained ghost appeared to Romulus and demanded a festival in his honor. Remuria eventually became Lemuria. (There are also suggestions that the festival predates the arrival of the Romans in the region and has its origins in an Etruscan holy day.)
There is a description of the festival in Book 5 of Ovid’s Fasti. The paterfamilias, the male head of the household, arose at midnight. He made the life-affirming gesture of the fig-hand (thumb between first and second fingers mimicking the sexual act) and then cleansed his hands in pure water. He walked barefoot through his home, spitting beans while saying “With these beans I redeem me and mine.”
This ritual was repeated nine times. At the conclusion, the paterfamilias ritually bathed, then banged on metal pots and pans proclaiming “Begone, ancestral spirits!” nine times.
The Festival of Mania
The Roman Festival of Mania was held on August 24th. The modern term for “ancestor worship” is manism. The name derives from the manes, Rome’s deified ancestral spirits. The goddess Mania presides over this host of spirits. On this day, Rome’s “ghost stone,” the cover that shielded the entrance to Hades, was lifted so that the ghosts had easy access. In addition to the ancestral spirits, the day honors Mania and Ceres, the Corn Mother. (For further information, please see DIVINE WITCH: Mania.)
The Buddhist festival Obon is celebrated annually from the 13th to the 15th day of the seventh month of the Japanese calendar, which corresponds to the Western July 15th if the lunar calendar is used or August 15th if the solar. Obon commemorates the ancestors who are believed to return to Earth at this time to visit surviving relatives and descendants.
Rituals vary depending upon region and family, however Obon is typically characterized by lanterns, which are hung in front of houses to guide dead souls back home. Visits to the cemetery are customary. Offerings to the ancestors traditionally include cake, fruits and flowers, rice, and vegetables. These are placed on altars at home or in shrines and temples. Traditional dances (bon odori) are believed to comfort and please returning ghosts.
When Obon is over, the lanterns are placed in living waters, such as streams, rivers, lakes, and seas. There they float and will guide the ghosts back to their own realm.
This eight-day Roman festival in February honored dead ancestors. All temples were closed, no marriages took place and government officials were forbidden to wear their robes in public. Individuals visited the graves of their parents and other relatives, bringing offerings of milk, wine, honey, oil, and spring water. Some brought sacrificial blood from bodies of black animals. Graves were decorated with roses and violets and a ritual meal was eaten at graveside. The festival’s ritual greeting and farewell were the words, Salve, sancte parens, “Hail, holy ancestor.” The Vestal Virgins, guardians of Rome’s sacred hearth and fire, had their own particular rituals during this time, where they honored the group’s sacred “ancestor.”
The Floralia was the festival in honor of the Roman deity, Flora, for whom flowers are named. (Yes, there is another goddess named Fauna.) Flora was indigenous to the Roman region although she was there before the Romans. She is believed to be of Sabine or Oscan origin.
Flora is the spirit of blossoming flowers and springtime. She embodies the flowering of all nature, including human. Flowers indicate the promise of reproduction. Flowers lead to fruit as surely as sexual intercourse leads to babies. Flora is the spirit who embodies both the pleasures of the moment and the promise of the future.
The Floralia is believed to be the ancestor of all May Day celebrations. It was celebrated annually from April 28th through the beginning of May. The Floralia honored the female body. Beautiful Flora may be understood as the original Queen of the May. The festival was celebrated in the nude until the third century CE when Roman authorities demanded that revelers be clothed. The festival survived in this fashion until the next century, when all pagan festivals were banned. Although all flowers are sacred to Flora, her favorites are fragile, transient bean blossoms.
See also Festivals of the Dead and Samhain.
Also known as All Hallows, All Hallowmas, All Saints’ Day, Hallowtide, and November Eve.
No night is more identified with witchcraft, magic, spirits, and ghosts. This is the night when the veil between realms is so thin as to be nonexistent. It is thus the perfect night for divination, magical ritual and spells, petitions to spirits and communication with the dead. The Wild Hunt rides on Halloween and the fairy mounds open up. This is one of the few nights when the trooping of the fairy folk is visible and changelings can be rescued. (See DICTIONARY: Wild Hunt.)
“Hallow” derives from an Old English word for “holy.” Until the early sixteenth century, the word was usually applied only to saints and so it is essentially an archaic word for “saint.” All Hallows Eve is the vigil preceding All Saints’ Day, the Roman Catholic festival corresponding to ancient feasts of the dead. “Hallow” however has since gained the meaning of “holy” or ”sacred,” as in “hallowed ground,” so Halloween may also be understood as “Sacred” or “Holy Night”—which for witches and those who love them, it is. (Those who fear them, on the other hand, would say that this is a night for staying inside because witches, demons, ghosts, and fairies are at the height of their powers!)
The Feast of All Hallows is thus synonymous with the Feast of All Saints. All Hallows’ Even became Hallowe’en, which eventually became Halloween when the apostrophe was lost sometime during the mid-twentieth century.
In some areas (particularly those where witches are most active on May Eve or Midsummer’s) the Feast of All Saints is a serious, solemn, devout festival completely devoted to Christian prayer. In other areas, historically in Ireland and the British Isles, Halloween retained its anarchic associations with witchcraft festivities and as such is a holiday devoted to fun, pranks, magic, and divination, to varying degrees, depending upon individual orientation. Maybe some witches still fly off on their broomsticks to deserted mountain peaks. Others attend Halloween parties, witches’ balls, and dumb suppers. It is a sacred night for witches, the perfect moment for spells, rituals, and devotions to the spirits. For others, it’s the night to dress up as witches and go out and revel in the spirit of fun and freedom that witches allegedly always enjoy.
Halloween is a time for making wishes and for rituals to obtain good fortune.
This entire ritual, from the moment you leave your home until the handkerchief filled with graveyard dust is safely hidden, must be done in complete silence. Not a peep or your wishes allegedly won’t come true!
1. Purchase a new cotton handkerchief before Halloween begins. Don’t use it; keep it clean and reserve it for the following ritual.
2. As early as possible on November 1st, as early as one minute past midnight, leave home, taking the handkerchief, and go to a cemetery, entering by the main gate.
3. Walk along the path to the wall opposite the main gate. At some point on this walk, pick up a little dirt, put it in a corner of the handkerchief and make a wish while knotting that corner shut.
4. Retrace your steps exactly (or even walk backwards!) out the main gate.
5. Go to a second cemetery and repeat steps 2, 3, and 4, knotting the pinch of dirt up in a different corner of the hanky.
6. Go to a third cemetery and again repeat steps 2, 3, and 4. At this point you will have gathered three pinches of dirt and formed three knots in the handkerchief.
7. Go home and hide your handkerchief on a high shelf or within the rafters or somewhere where it won’t be disturbed. Your wishes will allegedly come true.
Halloween is a complex festival with many roots. In its present form it is an amalgamation of the Celtic festival Samhain with the Roman celebration of Pomona, the spirit of crops, fruit, nuts, and seeds, and with assorted other Pagan festivals of the dead, including those devoted to the Corn Mother, as well as of magic power and women’s “witch power.” It is no accident that Halloween (and many festivals of the dead) fall within the zodiac sign of Scorpio, which has dominion over reproduction, the mysteries of sex, and the portals of birth and death.
Pomona, the Apple Queen, was the Roman deity of fresh fruit and fruit trees, especially apples. Her name derives from the Latin pomum, similar to the French word pomme or “apple.” Pomona was a wood-nymph whose attribute is a pruning knife. (The Romans were responsible for domesticating wild apples, transforming the sour fruit into the juicy, delicious one of today.) The beautiful Pomona was sought after by many, including the goat-god Pan, but rejected them all, preferring to remain independent. She was finally wooed and won by Vertumnus, the male deity of the shifting seasons, who became her consort. Vertumnus represents the year in its guise as shape-shifter. Pomona initially rejected him too, until he gained her trust by approaching her in the form of an old woman—a classic bit of ancient Halloween masquerading.
Halloween also falls within the period when the dead are understood to return to their old haunts. Traditionally at Halloween, children costumed as spirits of the dead or ghosts went begging from door to door, where they were given the seeds of life in the form of nuts and fruits, especially apples and hazelnuts.
Recently Halloween has become characterized by the grotesque and gross in the same manner that once suspenseful “horror” films have been replaced by gore. In Victorian days, Halloween was a romantic holiday to rival St Valentine’s Day. (Both days may derive from similar roots; see Lupercalia, page 209.) Halloween cards were given to one’s beloved in the way that one may now receive a Valentine’s card. (Cards were frequently decorated with images of witches, more often beautiful and seductive than grotesque.) It is also the perfect night to engage in romantic divination and love magic.
Halloween is traditionally a time for games and fortune-telling. Many techniques are reserved for this night alone:
A Simple Halloween Divination: Go to a crossroads on Halloween and make an invocation to the deity, angel or ancestor of your choice. Listen to the wind or any words you hear at midnight (e.g., passing car radio or human voices) to hear your oracle for the next year.
“Dumb suppers” earned their name because the entire ritual is conducted in silence from start to finish. No matter what happens or who shows up for dinner, it is vital to remain silent and to reserve discussion for after it is very clear that the ritual is over. Traditionally, dumb suppers serve either of two purposes:
Romantic divination—dumb suppers serve as divinatory methods of discovering your true love or your destined spouse (ideally but not always one and the same!) When you prepare the dumb supper, set the table for two. Allegedly your other half will come and dine with you. (This is not necessarily meant literally; expecting immediate literal results from magic spells leads to disappointment. Spells can come “true” in various magical ways.)
Necromancy—the dumb supper serves as a type of séance. It may derive from rituals similar to those of the Dias de los Muertos celebrations where the living dine with the souls of the deceased.
There are all sorts of variations on the Dumb Supper. Here are two:
Dumb Supper One: Starting at the stroke of midnight, set the table while consistently walking backwards, so that there are nine things on the table to eat. (Things like salt and pepper or butter count among the nine.) Then silently honor those who have passed on.
Dumb Supper Two: Set the table for two or more as desired. Each living person gets a plate; a setting is also laid for each anticipated invisible guest. Do not expect them to serve themselves. If this is a group dinner, guests are invited to bring photos or images to represent the souls of the deceased to whom invitations have been extended.
1. Leave all the doors and windows unlocked. (If possible, leave them open, although depending on where you are, nights at this time of year can be very chilly.)
2. Reverse the supper. Set the table in reverse; serve the food in reverse order, beginning with coffee, tea and dessert and working backwards.
Ancient traditions re-emerge in surprising new ways. The vestiges of “tree-worship” that have survived for so many centuries as Christmas trees, Yule logs, Maypoles and Easter egg trees have been joined in very recent years by a brand new tradition: the Halloween tree.
Similar to those other holiday “trees” named above, Halloween trees are lovingly decorated with charms and ornaments inspired by the holiday and by witchcraft. Many ornaments for instance are crafted in the image of witches or their accoutrements.
Unique and very appropriate to this holiday, however, before being decorated, Halloween trees are completely bare. Halloween trees are either deciduous trees that have dropped all their leaves or are, in fact, dead trees, perhaps the equivalent of ghost trees. Sometimes miniature Halloween trees are crafted from black wrought iron or other metals.
November 16th is the night dedicated in honor of the witch deity Hecate. It is not the only night of the year sacred to her. Hecate claims dominion over all dark moon nights as well as the final day of each month (October 31st, the Feast of All Hallows is particularly sacred to her). Rituals and petitions to her are considered especially potent on any of these days, however the festival on November 16th recalls that Hecate was once a great goddess complete with temples and shrines, venerated by many, not only her spiritual daughters, witches. Hecate keeps nocturnal office-hours and this festival is no exception.
It begins at nightfall. Animal sacrifices were once offered in Hecate’s temples in what are now Greece, Turkey, and Georgia; however those rites have been lost and are no longer appropriate. Gifts that memorialize her ancient sacrifices as well as her sacred animals are appropriate, however—votive imagery of dogs, wolves, pigs, horses, and snakes.
This is the night to be initiated into Hecate’s Mysteries. Hecate Suppers were once held. Celebrants share a feast in Hecate’s honor; a full plate for the goddess is left at a crossroads. (Whatever is left is considered given; do not use your finest china plate unless it is intended as part of the offering. It is forbidden to take anything back that has been given to Hecate.) Appropriate foods for the ritual dinner include cheese, honey, garlic, eggs, mushrooms, fish including red mullet (a scavenger which was taboo elsewhere) and honey cake for dessert. Leave the offering for Hecate and do not look back. If someone else picks it up, whether human or animal, this is wholly appropriate and Hecate’s desire. Should you hear a dog bark it is highly auspicious. Allegedly Hecate roams the Earth on this night with her pack of hounds and wolves, accompanied by a host of ghosts, blessing those who left offerings for her.
Imbolc is among the February feasts of purification. The festival falls on the Cross Quarter Day marking the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. This Celtic festival begins the evening of February 1st and continues through the next day. Imbolc is understood to mean “purification,” however the literal translation is “in the belly” or “in the womb.” This has been euphemized to mean “in the Earth” indicating agricultural promise, however, the Celtic deity Brigid who is celebrated on this day is also a spirit of fertility and sexuality. Babies conceived at Beltane would, if brought to full term, be born at this time.
Imbolc is one of the ancient Celtic pastoral holidays. It celebrates the lambing season and the first lactation of the ewes. An alternative name for Imbolc is Oimelc, which is believed to mean “ewe’s milk.” Imbolc celebrates the first fluttering of life in Earth’s womb, the “quickening” that in the days before pregnancy testing was the first confirmation of pregnancy.
Imbolc is a fire festival celebrating light and new life. Earth awakens. Animals like bears and hedgehogs emerge from hibernation. The first spring flowers, like crocuses, begin to peek through the Earth. This is the day when the hedgehog, among Brigid’s sacred creatures, comes out of hibernation. Whether it sees its shadow and returns to hibernation or not is believed to foretell the length of winter. (Migrants to North America wishing to retain this custom but lacking hedgehogs, substituted groundhogs instead.)
The pagan deity Brigid was assimilated to the Roman Catholic Church as St Brigid. February 1st is her official feast day and is believed to be her birthday. Coincidentally perhaps, the goddess and the saint accept identical offerings.
Brigid’s pagan epithets include “Fiery Arrow,” “The Bright One,” “The Flame Without Ashes,” and “Moon Crowned Queen of the Undying Flame.” She is a spirit of healing, poetry, music, and smithcraft. She is the matron of artists, poets, craftspeople, and livestock. She may manifest as a pillar of fire or, alternately, a flame may shoot from her head. She is also sometimes depicted with a serpent wrapped around her head like a wreath. Her sacred animals include cattle, horses, wolves, and snakes.
St Brigid also has profound associations with fire. In one story she carries a burning coal in her apron but miraculously doesn’t burn. In another, flames shoot out of her head or engulf her but miraculously she is not burned.
Offerings to Brigid include poetry written in her honor, dishes of milk and blackberries as well as offerings given on behalf of her sacred creatures. On Imbolc Eve, it was traditional in Ireland to place a loaf of bread on the windowsill for Brigid, together with an ear of corn for the white cow with red ears who is her traveling companion. Sheaves of wheat are woven into x-shaped crosses known as “Brigid’s crosses” and hung from the rafters to serve as protection from fire and lightning.
Russian Midsummer’s Eve, Ivan Kupalo, is the day to regenerate human sexuality and fertility. Ivan Kupalo is a magical time for witches, sorcerers, shape-shifters, and household (and other) spirits. It’s a time for gathering magical and medicinal herbs. For maximum power, the morning dew should still cling to the botanicals. On the night of Ivan Kupalo, it’s believed that witches traverse the land, lighting the darkness with their magical fires. They make trees talk and put silver into water.
Who is Ivan Kupalo? Good question. “Ivan” is the Slavic version of “John” and refers to John the Baptist; tacit acknowledgement that, officially at least, this is St John’s Eve. The word “kupalo” is described as deriving from kupat “to bathe.” However, Kupala is also the ancient Slavic spirit of water, magic, and fertility. Midsummer’s Eve, the summer solstice, is her sacred day. The festival of St John the Baptist was superimposed over her day, which features ritual bathing as well as magical bonfires. (His associations with baptism, the holy, magical, and cleansing powers of water, lend themselves to a Pagan water festival.) The festival, even one that remained as stubbornly pagan as Ivan Kupalo, was more acceptable if it bore a man’s name.
Ivan Kupalo, like other Midsummer’s Eve festivities, celebrates the marriage of fire with water, male with female, and the subsequent bounties of Earth. Ivan Kupalo marks the consummation of Earth’s marriage with the Sun. They are never closer than today. To preserve and partake of this energy, people celebrate sexual union, too.
The oldest written report of the festival of Ivan Kupalo comes from twelfth-century Russian Church chronicles, which describe girls dressed as brides who are taken to the river to dance and jump, worship Kupala, tell fortunes and bring sacred river water back to villages to sprinkle over houses and possessions. Bonfires were lit at night and villagers jumped over them.
A Midsummer’s doll is made and decorated with branches and flowers. A girl is designated to represent Kupala. Holding the doll, she leads others, both male and female, to jump over the bonfires. With variations, this tradition is common to all areas with strong Slavic influence.
Fear of witchcraft is demonstrated too—the fear that some have secret knowledge that enables them to make private use of magical energy for personal (and perhaps selfish) benefit. In Belorussia, Baba Yaga is accused of leading witches, her devotees, in rituals that siphon solar energy into private magical fires during Ivan Kupalo.
The word “Lammas” derives from the Old English hlaf (“loaf”) and maesse (“mass” or “feast”). It was a harvest holiday of the early English Church celebrated on August Eve. Loaves baked from the year’s first ripe grain were blessed in Church.
There are two versions of the origins of this feast:
Lammas is an attempt to integrate the Celtic pagan festival of Lughnasa into the Christian calendar. Although also a harvest festival, Lughnasa honored the important Celtic solar deity Lugh.
Devotion to Lugh may have been superimposed on an earlier holy day dedicated to the Corn Mother and her dying son. The Corn Mother mourns her son, eventually transforming into the Mater Dolorosa, the Mother of Sorrows.
Lammas is celebrated as one of the important Wiccan sabbats. Although either name may be used, the Anglo-Saxon Lammas tends to be favored in modern Wicca.
Lammas, August Eve, is often a night devoted to romantic enchantment.
Please see Lughnasa (page 207) for further details.
The Wiccan sabbat that corresponds to the Summer Solstice and thus to Midsummer’s and St John’s Eve, is Litha. However, unlike Midsummer’s, there is no fixed calendar date. Rather Litha is celebrated at the exact conjunction of the solstice, on whatever day it falls—approximately June 21st—when the sun is at its height, the longest day of the year.
The name “Litha” seems to derive from the ancient Germanic calendar, which was apparently divided six-fold rather than twelve-fold as is the modern Western calendar. Each year was divided into 60-day tides, what might be considered a “double-month.” Litha seems to have named the summer tide. (See also Midsummer’s Eve and Ivan Kupalo.)
Pronounced Loo-nah-sa. Also spelled Lughnasad. See also Lammas.
Lughnasa Day is an ancient Celtic harvest feast celebrated on August 1st and for the fortnight preceding and following that date. Four weeks are dedicated to honoring the Celtic solar deity, Lugh, Spirit of Craftsmanship, Light, Victory, and War: the last two weeks of July and the first two weeks of August, which roughly correspond to the dates when the sun is in the astrological sign of Leo, the sign that belongs to the sun and epitomizes its power. In modern Irish Gaelic, the month of August is known as Lunasa.
Lughnasa is an agricultural rather than a pastoral celebration. It was a late introduction, at least in its present form, to Irish festivals, brought perhaps by continental devotees of the deity Lugh, a relative late-comer to the Irish pantheon. There are various legends about how and why Lugh initiated the festival that bears his name. Those legends about Lugh may be correct; however, just as Christianity would eventually transform Lughnasa into its harvest feast Lammas, so Lughnasa is superimposed on an earlier holy day devoted to the Corn Mother and her dying son.
Although the modern Wiccan sabbat is almost always devoted solely to the eve of July 31st leading into Lughnasa Day on August 1st, ancient people may have had more leisure time and more time to devote to spirituality (and fun). August 1st was merely the culmination of a month of celebrations. The three days prior to Lughnasa Day were particularly sacred and devoted to purification. Those three days are dedicated to Ireland’s ancient solar goddess Ana; an earlier, more primordial deity than Lugh, the entire festival may once have belonged to her.
Although it’s still hot in August, the festival marks the waning of the sun. Days are noticeably shorter than they were at the last major festival, Midsummer’s Eve, which corresponds roughly with the Summer Solstice. The beginning of the end of summer is in sight.
Lughnasa is a celebration of the harvest but also a sacrifice of the Harvest King. John Barleycorn must die if the people are to live or, as that other proverb goes, you shall reap what was sown. The festival was intended to ensure a plentiful harvest. During Lughnasa, Lugh fights the Evil Lord of Blight for possession of the harvest. (See ANIMALS: Wolves and Werewolves: the Livonian werewolf; DICTIONARY: Benandanti.)
Lughnasa was a fire festival characterized by bonfires. Fire may be understood as pieces of the sun brought down to Earth. During the three days leading up to the Celtic festival, water was taboo. There was no bathing and no fishing prior to the Sacrifice of the Grain King (or the Grain Bear, Grain Horse, or Grain Wolf).
Lugh was an extremely important Celtic deity, not least because (along with Brigid) the widespread veneration of Lugh indicates the existence of pan-Celtic spiritual traditions (at one point, the Celts ruled a huge swathe of continental Europe before being forced to the very edges of the land mass). However we don’t really know all that much about Celtic cosmology and ancient religion. The Celts left very little if any writing, and what exists is filtered through the eyes of outsiders, like Romans or Celtic Christian converts.
Lugh’s name is spelled variously depending on location. Lugh is the Irish spelling; in Wales he is Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the “Bright One of the Skillful Hand.” He was known as Lugos, which means “raven,” in Europe and was an important figure in Gaul.
At least 14 European cities are named for Lugh including Laon, Leyden, Loudon and Lyon. Lyon’s old name was Lugdunum, the fortress of Lugh. The city is believed to have been his cult center. Coins associated with that ancient city bore the images of ravens, which may be a reference to Lugh (or Lugos as he was known there). Carlisle in England, the former Lugubalium, is also named in Lugh’s honor. (It’s been suggested that many European churches dedicated to St Michael the Archangel were built over sites once dedicated to Lugh.)
Lughnasa means “the marriage of Lugh.” There is a tremendous romantic component to the celebration. Lugh the sun and the Earth Mother renew their wedding vows annually during the full moon in August and invite all to gather and revel with them. Lughnasa celebrates the consummation of their sacred relationship. It precedes the spring festival of Beltane, which symbolizes the birth of the bright half of the Celtic year, by exactly nine months. It’s not an affectation to say that this is the day the solar deity weds the Earth. Once upon a time, that was meant quite literally. This was the day when a High Priestess, channeling the goddess who embodied the land of Ireland, ritually wed the High King of Ireland. The consummation of their marriage enabled him to rule for yet another year.
Although the sacred marriage and the Corn Mother’s sacrifice of her son or young lover no doubt precedes Lugh’s associations with this date, there are also various versions of how Lugh became involved.
Lugh ordered a commemorative feast to honor his foster-mother, Tailtiu. On August 1st, a great festival was held at Teltown on the Boyne River in Ireland. The town allegedly takes its name from Lugh’s foster mother who is buried there. Lugh instituted games in her honor.
An ancient marital fair took place in Teltown, perhaps initiated by Lugh. It was a time to begin as well as formalize relationships. Men would stay on one side of the fair, women on the other, while gobetweens served as mediums to make arrangements. (Similar marital fairs still occur in rural Berber areas of North Africa.)
Lugh has two wives, granddaughters of the King of Britain. When they died, Lugh requests that these women’s lives and memories be commemorated every August 1st. His wives’ names are Nas and Búi. (Búi is another name for Cailleach Bhéara—see HAG: Cailleach Bhéara.)
Lughnasa is an occasion for blessing and harvesting botanicals for the coming year. In Northern climates, plants and their volatile oils are at the height of their power just before decomposition begins.
In Britain, Lughnasa and similar festivals weren’t banished but were integrated into Christianity. St Columba, for instance, allowed his monks to maintain their Lughnasa celebrations although he renamed it the “Feast of the Ploughman.” Lughnasa evolved into the festival of Lammas.
A deity who identifies himself as a sorcerer is attractive to those who practice witchcraft. Lugh or Lugos seems to have been a very important deity in Europe; post-Christianity, devotion to him seems to have gone underground, at least for a while, based upon reports of witches’ sabbats held at the Puy de Dome, the 5000 foot peak in the Auvergne region of France, full of caves and grottoes, where Lugh maintained a sanctuary. (See PLACES: Puy de Dome.)
The August Herbs
In Northern Europe, August Eve, the night preceding Lughnasa, is the opportunity to create the botanical amulet known as the August Herbs. If proper ritual is followed, it’s believed that these nine sacred herbs will bestow various blessings during the upcoming year including protection from malevolent magic and volatile weather. They attract love, stimulate romance, enhance sexuality, and ease labor pains as well as the passage into death.
1. For maximum power, pick the August herbs before sunrise while maintaining complete silence.
2. The original instructions suggest that the harvest must be accomplished while naked but if this is unrealistic then at least be barefoot and bareheaded.
3. Gather a bundle of arnica, calendula, dill, lovage, mugwort, sage, tansy, valerian, and yarrow. No iron can be used in the harvest, so no modern knives. Gather the herbs with your hands or with a ritual stone or crystal knife. If they’re hard to pick, you can bite through the stems. Don’t petition for blessings but keep a still, serene, blank mind.
4. Ornament the bundles with blue cornflowers and red corn cockles. Add a border of low growing herbs like chamomile or mother-of-thyme.
5. Place a stalk of millet, rye or other grain in the very center of the bundle, tie with a red ribbon and hang it within your home.
Lughnasa or Lammas is one of the more obscure witches’ holidays. Pagan aspects of the festival were suppressed long ago and the Christian feast of Lammas was never entirely reinstated in Britain after the Reformation. Lammas is considered amongst the eight major sabbats of the Wiccan Wheel of the Year, however the roots of this holiday are so agricultural and rural that it often stymies modern Neo-Pagans, frequently no less urban than anyone else in the twenty-first century. Modern Lammas festivals often focus on the romantic aspects of the feast. It’s a wonderful night for love magic as well as for enjoying the first fruits of the harvest, including grain and wine.
See February Feasts, Candlemas, Little Candlemas, and Imbolc.
The Lupercalia was a complex and ancient Roman festival of purification that also served to celebrate and generate human fertility and honor wolves. Although standard explanations suggest that this festival of fertility and purification was initiated by Romulus and Remus in honor of the she-wolf who rescued and nursed them, the festival is believed to be far more ancient.
The deities who preside over the Lupercalia are Juno and the wild horned spirit Faunus. (See HORNED ONE: Faunus.) Faunus is the primordial spirit of wild nature, the male generative principle. He also mediates the balance between wolves and their prey and between shepherds and wolves.
The religious ceremonials at the heart of the Lupercalia purified the land and its inhabitants for the New Year. (February was the last month of the ancient calendar; the New Year began with the vernal equinox, when the sun entered the first astrological sign, Aries.)
The name “February” derives from two meanings:
Februare: to cleanse
Juno Februata: Juno of the Fevers of Love or Juno Who Provides Purification
Juno, the ancient Matron of the city of Rome, is the only deity with two months named in her honor: the eponymous June and February. Juno—or Uni—was an Etruscan deity whose presence in the Eternal City pre-dates the Romans.
During the nine days of the Lupercalia, from February 13th through the 21st, dead souls wandered the Earth, consuming the essence of the food and drink that the living offered them.
Today February 14th is St Valentine’s Day, a holiday that for many signifies nothing more than the obligation to buy flowers and chocolates. The roots of Valentine’s Day go deeper. February 14th marked the first day of the Lupercalia. The day honored Juno, in her fertility aspect, and the male spirit Faunus, or Lupercus. On February 14th, Juno and Faunus respond to women’s pleas for fertility.
The annual festival opened with the arrival of the Luperci, Faunus’ “wolf-priests,” at the Lupercal, the cave on the Palatine Hill where the wolf nursed Romulus and Remus. Dogs were sacrificed for purification, goats for fertility. These were eaten by the priests.
Following the priests’ meal, the goatskins were cut up. The Luperci smeared themselves with the blood and dressed themselves in “Juno’s cloak,” the torn patches of goatskin. Pieces of goatskin were formed into whips, known as a februa. Either the priests or specially chosen young boys would then run around the Palatine Hill striking at people with these whips, particularly barren women. Women struck by the februa were believed to be rendered fertile. Conception was believed ensured as was easy childbirth and healthy babies. Women positioned themselves strategically around the hill to guarantee that they would be struck, usually upon their outstretched hands.
Mabon coincides with the autumn equinox, approximately September 21st. Day and night are temporarily equal; it is considered a time for contemplation and reflection. According to the old Celtic calendar, Mabon was the “second harvest” following Lughnasa. It is a harvest festival in the manner of traditional Thanksgiving harvests. Mabon is the time to honor the trees. Its symbol is the cornucopia.
It is among the more difficult feasts for modern people to appreciate; it is more than just acknowledgement of the equinox and the coming of the winter season. This festival was a crucial spiritual experience for those responsible for gathering their own food, whether through the seasonal harvest or the seasonal slaughter. Food production was once a communal activity; in essence, the harvest, whether flora or fauna, sacrifices their lives so that people can live. Mabon is the festival of thanksgiving and purification that attempts to maintain vital spiritual balance.
The name “Mabon” derives from a hunting deity, the child of Modron. Modron and Mabon may be titles, rather than names. Modron is believed to mean “mother” or “divine mother.” Mabon may mean “young man” or “son.”
Mabon is simultaneously the youngest and oldest of souls. He is eternally young and embodies male fertility. Reminiscent of stories of changelings, Mabon was stolen from Modron three days after birth and disappeared for many years; he is believed to have been held captive in the otherworld. Mabon fades into the afterworld at Samhain to emerge in spring, a male counterpart to Persephone.
See also Beltane, Floralia, Roodmas, and Walpurgis.
Earth’s innate sexual energy and forces are at their height on May Eve. The intent of this festival is to celebrate these forces and partake of their power. If May Eve could be characterized in one word, it would be “joy” or perhaps “ecstasy.” Traditional rituals include bonfires, dancing around a maypole, gathering May morning dew and the crowning of a May Queen and sometimes also a king.
The May festival is a time for romance. Prohibitions against getting married in May (allegedly it’s unlucky) didn’t exist prior to Christianity. The month of May was eventually dedicated to Mary and thus to chastity. May was traditionally understood as time of rampant sexuality. Babies conceived at May Day will, if brought to full term, be born around Candlemas/Imbolc. Children born on May Day can allegedly see and converse with fairies.
Although May Eve is a fire festival complete with bonfires, it was also a water festival. Special herbal baths were known as “May Baths.” Sometimes these were solitary but other times communal or group celebratory rituals.
On May Day, the radiant sun emerges to celebrate with its beautiful bride, the flower bedecked Earth. Although sex was never as indiscriminate as the Church alleged, sexual activity was once part of May Eve traditions. It is a festival that celebrates sexual energy as well as the potential for fertility (see Floralia, page 201). Sex was understood as a sacrament. By coordinating sexual activity with that of the world’s male and female principles (the Sun and the Earth or fire and water) magical energy was generated, which was believed beneficial to individual participants and also to all of creation, to the whole Earth and thus to the entire community. Sex was not perceived as potentially sinful but as potentially holy.
Once upon a time, really way back when, major festivals were the only times when different tribes would rendezvous and intermingle. Perhaps the seeds that would eventually become distorted in witch-hunters’ fantasies of orgiastic sabbats were first laid here. Throngs of people would converge at crossroads (there weren’t many other roads!) or places of power; no need for a written calendar, if one follows the sun, the equinoxes, solstices and the days related to them are simple ones of which to keep track. It was the time to meet and greet and for what still exist as “marriage fairs.” These were crucial because everyone within a small, closely knit tribe might be closely related; in terms of the need for genetic variety, these festivals were the time to find a mate, whether permanently or temporarily. Traditions lingered long after the technical need existed.
Communities would elect a King and Queen of the May who embodied the best of the male and female principles. The Maypole represents the unification of female and male energies; it marks Earth’s pregnancy. May Day also contains vestiges of old tree worship—as demonstrated most obviously by the Maypole, a survival of tree worship and old phallic cults. The Maypole was once burned after the completion of festivities, similar to the Yule log. Ashes were kept as amulets for fertility.
Dancing around the Maypole, together with singing and feasting, are all traditional components of May Day. Special aromatic beer and May Wine are often part of the festivities.
May Eve is the night when witches traditionally gather to dance and celebrate. Conversely their enemies know where to find them. Perhaps the custom of marking the holiday by dressing children as witches began as a cover; if everyone is dressed as a witch, then it can be difficult to determine which are the real ones.
In some cases tables were turned and May Eve festivities were intended to ward off, rout out, harm or even permanently eliminate witches.
Midsummer’s Eve or St John’s Eve
Midsummer’s Eve was originally intended to coincide with the summer solstice, the day when the Sun enters the sign of Cancer, the astrological sign that belongs to the moon, and Earth’s magical forces are at their height. Midsummer’s Eve is a major holiday for witches and those who love them. Because fixed calendars came into existence, Midsummer’s, especially in its guise as the Feast of John the Baptist, does not necessarily correspond exactly with the solstice. (The solstice moves; the Feast doesn’t.) Modern Neo-Pagans, however, frequently coordinate Midsummer’s with the solstice and so this festival may be celebrated anytime, depending upon place, traditions, and participants, from approximately June 20th through the 24th. A wild anarchic joyous festival, the ancients would have had no objection to it lingering for three or four days.
Midsummer’s Eve is a fire and a water festival characterized by ritual baths and bonfires. Bonfires are built upon carefully selected magical wood with special aromatic herbs thrown into the fires. The ashes are later preserved as amulets. Bonfires are built on the shores of lakes, rivers, streams, and oceans. Just as livestock is driven between or around bonfires, so they were once driven into the sea to be buffeted by spiritually cleansing and magically empowering waves.
Midsummer’s marks the convergence of Sun and Moon. The sun is at its zenith but the zodiac has entered the watery sign of Cancer, the only sign ruled by the Moon. Children born during this 30-day period are known as Moon Children. Lunar deities like Artemis, Diana, and Hecate have powerful associations with fire and water as well as botanical magic.
Midsummer’s is considered the absolute optimal moment for harvesting magical and medicinal plants. Plants are ideally picked at midnight or when the first dew forms. (Rolling in the dew is believed beneficial for people, too.) Special, unique plants such as the fern seed that provides invisibility are available only on this night. Witch-hunters claimed that this was the night witches rode off to join Satan; witches, on the other hand, claimed that this was the night they congregated to celebrate the Earth and to harvest botanicals for the coming year’s spells. According to the tenets of Russian witchcraft, the most powerful botanicals in the world are ritually harvested on Midsummer’s Eve atop Bald Mountain.
This is the time to stay out all night reveling and then gather plants before calling it a night. It is a magical time for divination, communing with the spirits, and finding true love—or at the very least romance, flirtation, and fun.
Although Midsummer’s Eve was Christianized as St John’s Eve, this is perhaps the church holiday with the thinnest veneer. In Siberia a popular name for St John’s Day is Ivan Travnik (John the Herbalist) or Ivan Koldovnik (John the Magician).
In Denmark, Midsummer’s Eve has been celebrated since at least the time of the Vikings and is associated with Odin. Healers gathered their botanical supplies for the year on this night. Bonfires were lit, a tradition that survives today, however, visits to healing springs were once incorporated into the festival as well. Bonfires are still sometimes built on beaches. In Scandinavia, “maypoles” are sometimes erected at Midsummer’s instead.
Midsummer’s Eve bonfires and water celebrations were particularly beloved in Mediterranean regions. Midsummer’s pre-dates Christianity and Islam, and although the later associations have diverged from each other (on the Mediterranean’s southern shore, in Muslim Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, the festival is identified with Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter rather than with John the Baptist), the rituals and associated botanicals are virtually identical on either side of the sea.
John the Baptist is much venerated by Freemasons. There is a tremendous Masonic component in Vodoun. In Haiti, John the Baptist is considered among the lwa; his feast day is celebrated with bonfires, ritual bathing and ceremonial. Whether these celebrations arrived in Louisiana from Haiti, directly from France or even perhaps directly from Africa are unknown.
The most important annual New Orleans ceremonial during Marie Laveau’s time was held on St John’s Eve at the Bayou St John, the natural waterway which once connected Lake Pontchartrain, popularly known as St John’s Lake, with the Mississippi River and the heart of the Vieux Carré. When these ceremonials began is unknown. Marie Laveau presided over St John’s Eve ceremonials at the Bayou St John for years. (See HALL OF FAME: Marie Laveau.) Celebrations included bonfires, ritual bathing, ancient snake rites, drumming, dancing, singing, and a communal meal. Once secret and forbidden, the festival’s reputation (and remember, ostensibly at least this is an official Churchsanctioned feast, although certain practices—those snakes!—were consistently condemned) spread and by 1831, the Pontchartrain Railroad began running special cars to the lake for the festivities for tourists and spectators, not for the participants.
Eventually St John’s Eve Voodoo celebrations became a tourist attraction. Tourists, non-practitioners, and observers came to watch, not to participate. Eventually tourist shows began to be staged for which fees were charged. Once again, it became necessary to hold true ceremonials in private. Post Civil War, the tourist fascination with Voodoo culture waned, resulting in periods of great oppression. By the late 1890s, private ceremonies as well as St John’s Eve celebrations at Lake Pontchartrain were routinely broken up by police.
See also Easter.
Ostara is the Anglo-Saxon spelling of the name of the Germanic deity of spring, whose celebration closely coincides with the vernal equinox. Among her sacred attributes are rabbits, painted eggs, babies, and children. Although “Ostara” and “Easter” are merely slight variations on the same name, Ostara still holds pagan resonance and lacks the profound identification with Christianity that Easter has; Ostara is the name most frequently used by Neo-Pagans. It names one of the Wiccan sabbats.
Celebrations and rituals of Ostara correspond with pagan Easter practices. Further details will be found in the entry for Easter.
The word “sabbat” has two completely different definitions that are only tangentially related. When one hears or reads the word it is important to distinguish which meaning is intended.
Witch-hunters used the term to refer to mass gatherings of witches. Witch-hunters spun fantastic tales about what occurred at these sabbats that distort or have little, if any, relationship to true witchcraft practices.
Modern Wicca has reclaimed the word and uses it to refer to eight holy days marking the Wheel of the Year. The four major sabbats are Beltane, Lughnasa, Samhain, and Imbolc. The four minor sabbats are Mabon, Yule, Litha, and Ostara.
It is crucial to emphasize that witch-hunters’ fantasies may have had little to do with witchcraft practices of their own time. Their fantasies have nothing to do with modern witchcraft or with Wicca.
Because the two definitions are so different, they are addressed separately, in historical order.
At its most bare-bones definition, the pre-Gardnerian definition of a witches’ sabbat indicated a mass convergence of witches. When considering the “witches’ sabbat” it is almost impossible to determine what’s real and what stems from the witch-hunters’ fears, prejudices, and fantasies. Virtually the only surviving descriptions and information regarding European witchcraft and post-Christian pagan practices derives from witch-hunters’ records. To put this in modern context, it is as if knowledge of achievements by those of African-derived ancestry was dependent on records written by the Aryan Nations, Ku Klux Klan or similar white supremacist organizations. It is as if the only information regarding thousands of years of Jewish history were written by Nazis. And yet, regarding European witchcraft that is what there is. Nothing can be taken entirely at face value. One must constantly analyze, weigh the motivation and read between the lines.
Did magicians and devotees of ancient spiritual traditions gather secretly in remote areas such as caves, forests, mountain tops or swamps? If they did, wouldn’t they do so on magically charged nights like the equinoxes or solstices or those periods when the veil dividing the realms is at its most permeable?
The very name “sabbat” is an invention of the Inquisition. Nothing indicates that witches ever used that word until it was introduced by the Inquisition. It is not a coincidence that “sabbat” sounds amazingly similar to the Jewish “sabbath.” They are frequently spelled identically, with the final “h” or without. (English spelling wasn’t formalized until quite late.) The spelling “sabbat” is used exclusively here, as it is in modern Wicca, to avoid confusion and demonstrate that only witchcraft is being discussed.
Attempts were made by the Church to associate witchcraft and sorcery with Jews or viceversa; defiant, disobedient people who refused to accept Christianity were initially all lumped together. Before witches had “sabbats” the Church claimed they had “synagogues.” This was not intended as a compliment or as acknowledgement of witchcraft as religion. During the Middle Ages, official Christianity considered the beliefs and rites of Jews to be the absolute height of perversion. (After Jews were banished from many regions, the spotlight would be turned on witches.) To call something a “synagogue” or “sabbat” was intended as a vile insult.
In the Middle Ages, Church authorities used the term “synagogue” to describe any gathering of heretics; it was widely used by judges and inquisitors until the late sixteenth century. Sabbat, used as a synonym, became exclusively identified with conventions of witchcraft.
Sabbat was but the most popular of the many names for conventions of witches. Scholarly synonyms included sagarum synagoga and strigiarum conventus. Popular synonyms included
Akelarre: a Basque term deriving from akerra or “billy goat”
Hexentanz: German for “witches’ ball”
Striaz, striazzo and stregozzo: Italian terms for meetings of witches
According to witch-hunt trial records, the general format of witches’ sabbats is as follows:
Male and female witches gather en masse at night, usually in remote or solitary places.
Although sometimes the staging arena is a local cave or forest, in many cases, particularly for major, very well-attended sabbats, the location was distant and remote. Participants couldn’t realistically get there and back in the time allotted, usually overnight. Thus witches were said to “fly” to sabbats using different methods including ointments, transformation, vehicles like broomsticks, on animals or on hag-ridden victims.
The witch-hunters’ sabbat is presided over by a male devil or demon. First-timers must renounce the Christian faith and offer homage to the devil, who appears in various forms, human or animal.
Then there’s a big party: dancing, feasting, orgies. Before leaving, the witches receive a gift (sort of like a goody-bag) of evil ointments, especially ointments enabling them to return or to commit maleficarum (evil witchcraft).
Negative stereotypes feature prominently in descriptions of sabbats including indiscriminate, incestuous orgies, killing babies, and ritual cannibalism, especially of babies. (Abortion wars may be at play here; images that depict women bringing baskets of dead babies to lay at the devil’s feet could serve as modern anti-choice propaganda.)
Divinity is worshipped in the form of an animal; devotees copulate with the devil, often in the form of an animal, most frequently a goat, donkey, black cat or dog. They pay him homage in grotesque, obscene, sexually charged fashion.
When did sabbats allegedly take place?
The answer depends upon which trial transcript one depends upon. There are many variations.
Sabbats were held weekly for the local coven or community. Fourteenth-century depositions from Toulouse emphasize that sabbats were held on Friday evenings, similar to Jewish devotionals. The Basque akelarre was usually held on Friday evenings, as allegedly were Italian witches’ sabbats. Why? All kinds of possibilities exist:
because of attempts to defame witches by associating them with Jews?
because of attempts to defame Jews by associating them with witches?
because Friday belongs to the Goddess of Love?
because Christ was crucified on a Friday and so this was the utmost disrespect?
There were also seasonal, ceremonial sabbats, three or four times a year, the equivalent of High Holy Days, when witches journeyed from far and wide. Meetings at the Brocken on Walpurgis or Midsummer’s may be understood in this context. (See PLACES: The Brocken.)
Witches’ sabbats were always nocturnal and always ended at daybreak. The rooster crows and witches disperse. Before there were notions of Dracula and bloodsucking bats, the word “vampire” was used in the Balkans to refer to witches. The legend that vampires must hide from sunlight and that their power is broken at dawn may derive from this concept.
Where do witch-hunters say witches convene? At crossroads, cemeteries, and ruins (and what ruins were these? Frequently old pagan sites; ruins were often all that was left of previously sacred places); in the woods, in a cave, sometimes at the foot of the gallows, in the churchyard (which typically serves as graveyard, hallowed ground for the faithful), sometimes even inside the Church. Huge, major sabbats were held in far-away remote areas, typically high mountain peaks like Bald Mountain, the Blokula or The Brocken. Many of these places are genuine Pagan sites or areas that witches would value as magically charged. (And not everyone understands the cemetery to be a threatening place. Those who venerate their ancestors will find comfort there.) Nothing indicates that witches didn’t meet at night.
Upon what, if anything, did the witch-hunters base their distorted notions of the sabbat? Survival of the Bacchanalia? Survival of other Pagan rites? Resentment that other people were indulging in parties? Quite possibly.
How did the witches know when to attend the sabbats? According to witch-hunt era legend, witches and sorcerers have a small mark (sometimes described as “blue”) somewhere on their body, which tingles or throbs at Satan’s summons. (This image was evoked in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in the death-eater’s mark.)
If all the superimposed demonology is stripped away, what did witches actually do at sabbats?
They feasted. What did they eat at those sabbat feasts? According to trial transcripts, menus varied depending upon location; however, allegedly the following was served:
in Alsace: fricassee of bats
in England: roast beef and beer
in Germany: sliced turnips, allegedly as a parody of the host
in Lancashire: mutton, best if stolen
in Savoy: roasted children
in Spain: exhumed corpses, preferably close relatives
Regardless of what they ate, prisoners generally told their inquisitors that the food was cold and tasteless, presumably so that they wouldn’t feel bad about not being invited to the party. A point is typically made that salt was omitted, as it is when offerings are made to djinn or fairies.
Attendees sang special songs, known as “Litanies of the Sabbat.” During the late Middle Ages, witches allegedly sang lists of angels, cherubim, seraphim, spirits, demons, and so forth requesting compassion, generosity, and mercy. It is fascinating to compare these songs to the contemporaneous sorcerer’s practice of commanding and compelling spirits. A similar type of litany may be heard in the New Orleans musician Dr John’s recording “Litanie des Saints,” which he describes in the CD liner notes as a mixture of Gris-Gris, Voodoo, Catholic, and African religions. These medieval witches’ litanies may also be understood as the practice of simply listing names of spirits, a practice which survives among modern goddess-devotees as a way of honoring spirits and keeping them alive. Sometimes the only surviving aspect of a spirit or deity is an unforgotten name.
According to witch-hunters’ fantasies, it’s not enough for the witches to eat, drink, and be merry at sabbats. That’s not bad enough. They must also mock and desecrate Christian rites.
One can actually observe this process during witch-trial transcripts. The witches initially discuss fairies or their equivalent. The witch-hunters aren’t interested. They’re theologians, sometimes men of science. Old wives’ tales don’t hold their attention, any more than they would a modern scientist. They have bigger theological fish to fry: they desire heresy. Under pressure and torture, the fairies eventually evolve into demons.
This is clearly seen in Isobel Gowdie’s testimony. Isobel Gowdie is famed as the Scottish woman who, for whatever reason, voluntarily confessed to witchcraft. She initially describes fairies. Her inquisitors were bored and dissatisfied with this. Her Fairy Queen soon emerges as a male devil.
According to early modern Hungarian witchcraft-trial transcripts, somewhat less influenced by demonology than many other regions, the sabbat might better be described as a witches’ party or ball, a gathering characterized by fun and merriment, attended by witches, their spirit doubles and/or spellbound victims. (Hungarian witch trials liberally feature accusations of kidnapping by witches. Witches transport the victims to sabbats and other locations.)
Hungarian and Italian women who were accused of journeying to sabbats described beautiful fairy-like sabbats, full of music, dance, and sensuality. Wonderful food and drink is served, better than daily reality. Their sabbats are pleasure dreams, not nightmares. Going to the sabbat was akin to a trip to fairyland, reminiscent of the fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” where the girls slip out at night to revel so hard in magical underground grottoes that their shoes wear out.
Sabbats of Modern Wicca
Witch-hunters’ descriptions of sabbats have no relevance to modern practice. In Wiccan parlance, Sabbat is the term for eight seasonal festivals, marking the Wheel of the Year based on the ancient Celtic calendar.
The four great fire festivals include Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasa, and Samhain. Samhain marks the beginning of the dark half of the year, the descent into winter. Beltane marks the beginning of the light half. These are the two portals of the year, birth and death. (Interestingly ancient Babylonian astrology also contains portals of birth and death, corresponding respectively to the Summer Solstice and the Winter Solstice, which correspond to the witchcraft celebrations of Midsummer’s and Yule.) Imbolc marks the quickening, the first approach of spring. Lughnasa marks the sacrifice of the harvest, the preparations for winter.
Mabon, Yule, Ostara, and Litha are frequently described as the lesser sabbats, although some traditions do consider all of equal importance. Each of the eight sabbats is discussed within its own entry.
Pronounced “Sow’en.” Corresponds in time to Halloween.
Samhain translates prosaically as “summer’s end.” It marks the end of the light half of the Celtic year and the beginning of the dark half. The border between years is distinguished by the lack of the border between worlds.
The notion of the year being split into dark and bright halves isn’t limited to Celtic areas. In Russia, for instance, the dark half of the year belongs to the spirits. It’s the perfect time for story-telling, magic, and divination, culminating with May Day.
The Celtic New Year begins at nightfall on October 31st—the beginning of the Gaulish month Samonios, the first month of the year. The veil between realms may be penetrated. Barrow wights, ghosts, fairies, and other spirits roam through the night. According to Irish tradition, the barrows and mounds where the fairies dwell open up on Samhain so that the fairies can come out to revel. And so, what kind of spirit-working witch would wish to stay home, at least unless she was occupied by rituals there?
Although modern Halloween celebrations and Neo-Pagan Samhain are based largely upon traditions of Ireland and Britain, there is no reason not to think that similar commemorations didn’t exist throughout Celtic-influenced Europe, if only because the Church felt it important enough to create the Feast of All Saints to substitute for these concurrent festivals of the dead. It is a Breton custom to pour libations over gravestones and tombs at this time.
Metaphysics aside, Samhain was also an ancient Celtic pastoral festivity. It signaled the end of the grazing season, when only breeding stock was set aside from the end-of-the-year slaughter. The harvest was brought in at this time. There is an Irish superstition that crops left out after November 1st would be spoiled by the fairies. (Although perhaps this camouflages an older belief that crops left out after November 1st belonged to the fairies and hence were no longer safe to be touched.)
This may have been a time of sacrifice for the Irish Druids. Some suggest that human sacrifice may once have occurred at this time but there’s no way of currently knowing whether that was ever true or whether that information is based on attempts to defame and discredit the Druids. Horses were also once allegedly sacrificed.
According to legend, the Irish deities the Dagda and the Morrigan consummate their relationship today to ensure the fertility of land, people, and animals for the year to come. The Dagda, “the good god,” is the tribal father god; the Morrigan, “the phantom queen,” is often described as a “battle goddess” although that only hints at her powers. She begins the Great Rite in the form of an old hag but is rejuvenated by the union, regaining her youth and beauty.
A false suggestion is frequently made that the holiday is named in honor of a deity named Samhain. There is no such deity, however a French statuette identifies Cernunos, the horned Celtic deity with the Roman deity Dis, Lord of the Underworld. It’s possible that he was worshipped at Samhain.
The Three Spirit Nights
In Welsh tradition, these are the nights when all kinds of spirits and denizens of various other realms are free to ramble and roam around Earth. If you wish to rendezvous with them or you have some practical business involving these spirits, the three spirit nights provide your maximum opportunity: May Eve; Midsummer’s Eve and Halloween.
Time of Day
Some points of the day are more powerful than others.
At certain moments or times the thresholds between realms are more tenuous and more easily penetrated:
Noon: the precise moment at midday when the sun passes from East to West.
Geisterstunde, “The Hour of Spirits”: in certain areas of Germany, this is the hour between 11 p.m. and midnight, excellent for magic and divination.
Midnight, the Witching Hour.
The Hour of the Wolf: despite the name, this isn’t one precise moment but the wee still hours after midnight but before dawn when sounds, emotions, and dreams are magnified in power.
There are those who believe that the hour immediately proceeding midnight, culminating at the stroke of 12, is ideal for benevolent magic, while the hour immediately following is the most powerful for magical spells stemming from anger and a fierce desire for justice.
Twelve Nights of Christmas
See also Yule.
The famous Christmas carol celebrates the gifts given on each of the twelve days of Christmas. Witches celebrate during the twelve nights. Ever wonder why the Wild Hunt rides at Christmas time?
According to ancient Celtic, German, Greek, Roman, and Slavic calendars, a gap in time occurs in midwinter for twelve nights, which now correspond to the Twelve Nights of Christmas. This period begins with what is now Christmas Eve and continues until what is now the Feast of the Epiphany.
During this period, there’s a gap, a void where the veil between realms is particularly thin or even non-existent. During these twelve days and nights, the dead roam the Earth and the Spirits join together with their devotees.
Known in Germanic lands as the “Zwölften” or “Twolven,” this was the time when Woden and Frigg held forth.
The Twelve Nights are a wild, raucous time devoted to merry-making, gift-giving, masquerading, divination, spell-casting, and magic ritual. Festivities during this period once had more in common with Valentine’s Day or romantic Halloween celebrations than with modern conventional, staid Christmas devotions.
See DIVINE WITCH: Odin.
See also Floralia, May Day, and Beltane.
Walpurgisnacht, Walpurgis Night, is the Germanic celebration of May Eve. Walpurga is a Germanic woman’s name, sometimes given as Walburga or Waldborg. The earliest Walpurga was a spirit or goddess. Walpurga manifests as a beautiful white lady with long flowing hair wearing a crown and fiery shoes. She carries a spindle and a three-cornered mirror that reveals the future. Her memory survives in the popularity of spindles and thread used in divination and love spells on the night named in her honor.
Once upon a time, Walpurga was involved in rituals intended to evade the forces of winter and allow the emergence of summer. For nine days before May Day, the Wild Hunt pursues Walpurga. She is their quarry. Walpurga, in turn, seeks refuge among local villagers who leave their doors and windows open so that the Lady of Summer can find safety from frost. According to one legend, Walpurga begged a farmer to hide her from the Wild Hunt in his stack of grain, which he does, not realizing she’s the goddess. By the next morning, she’s gone but he finds grains of gold sprinkled amongst his rye crop.
Under Christian influence, Walpurga’s Night eventually transformed into a time to drive out the forces of paganism rather than the forces of winter. In the eighth century, Walpurgis Night was remade into a holiday honoring a saint, not a goddess or summer.
St Walpurga or Walburga, the niece of St Boniface, was an English abbess who founded religious houses in Germany during the eighth century, and is believed to have been born in approximately 710 in Wessex. She became a missionary-abbess in St Boniface’s church and presided over a community of nuns in the German town of Heidenham. This Walpurga was canonized as an official saint of the Church following her death in 779.
After St Walpurga’s body was interred at Eichstadt, miracle-working oil is said to have begun to trickle from her tomb. Her relics were eventually distributed amongst various churches across Europe. St Walpurga assumed many of the functions of Pagan Walpurga. She offers protection against plague, famine, crop failures, and the bites of rabid dogs. The matron saint of the city of Antwerp, St Walpurga is often depicted carrying a sheaf of grain. Above all, St Walpurga protects and defends against witchcraft.
German witches defied her by riding to their sabbats on the night before her feast day on May 1st. Villagers lit bonfires that night, allegedly to prevent the witches from landing. Others shot guns into the air so as to blast witches. According to pagan tradition, residences and barns were ornamented with certain special May Eve botanicals. Once upon a time, these plants carried the powerful blessings of witch-deities. Ornamentation with these same botanicals continued post-Christianity, only now, allegedly, these identical plants warded off witchcraft and prevented witches from visiting.
Elder wood was hidden in barns or homes ostensibly to protect against witchcraft, although the original reasons for these practices may be forgotten.
Others placed alder branches against their home to keep witches away on Walpurgis Night. (Alder is known as the Walpurgis tree.)
Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea or Nepeta hederacea) allegedly breaks magic spells. It’s woven into garlands and worn on Walpurgis to protect from witches with evil intent.
Walpurgis Night was the witches’ major sabbat. Mass convergences of witches allegedly took place on high mountain peaks identified with the witch goddess Freya.
The ancient Germanic calendar was divided into six periods of 60 days each, known as tides. Each tide was the equivalent of two modern months. Yuletide refers to the two-month tide corresponding to modern December and January. The winter solstice falls within this period, as does the 12-day period commemorated as the Twelve Days of Christmas. Similar to Halloween or the February Feasts of Purification, the veil between realms is thin during this time and ghosts and spirits walk the land.
Yule may be defined either of several ways:
as the Nordic pagan festival that once began at the Winter Solstice
as an alternative name for Christmas; those who use that name tend to emphasize pagan survivals within Christmas, however not necessarily to the exclusion of Christian elements. This Yule begins on the evening of December 24th, regardless of the specific timing of the Solstice.
as the modern Wiccan sabbat that corresponds to the Winter Solstice
The word “Yule” may derive from the name of a Nordic festival. Juleiss was the name of the Gothic month of celebrations and fun. In Dutch, “joelen”means loud, fun, raucous partying. (My Dutch source suggests that joelen is what the crowd does during a football match!) Yule may also derive from the Anglo-Saxon word for “wheel,” commemorating the cutting and rolling of the Yule log.
Christmas is permeated with Pagan traditions. The period of time beginning with the Winter Solstice and continuing for at least the next twelve days was a popular time for festivals in the pre-Christian world. Many traditions and rituals have since been absorbed into the Christian celebrations.
These December festivals included:
The Nordic festival of Yule. Its elements included the yule log, the yule boar, and devotion to evergreen trees. Odin, the shaman god, sometimes resembles the jolly gift-giver alternately known as Santa Claus, Father Christmas or Old Saint Nick. Odin studied shamanism with the neighboring Saami and perhaps learned something about herding reindeer, too. Although Odin isn’t the elven king—that’s Freyr’s job—the elves and Odin do come from the same territory.
The Saturnalia and the Feast of Ops: the Roman festival in honor of Father Time, also known as Saturn, and his consort Ops. For the Romans, Saturn was king of an ancient “golden age” of perfect happiness, before people had to farm for a living. His festival looks back to that early age with nostalgia. The Saturnalia celebrated the solstice and sought to protect winter-sown crops, but above all the Saturnalia was a joyous, merry festival characterized by gift-giving, especially to children. The Saturnalia counts among the wild, anarchic festivals. There are rituals to encourage fertility. Gambling and gaming was encouraged; crossdressing was popular. Social distinctions were reversed, so for a few days a slave could be master. The ancient deity Saturn also bears something of a resemblance to that white-bearded old gentleman, Good Saint Nick.
The Rural or Lesser Dionysia: allegedly the most ancient of the Greek festivals honoring Dionysus. Held at the very beginning of January, on this day even slaves enjoyed freedom. A procession was held which included a goat bearing a basket filled with raisins. An erect wooden pole carved to resemble a phallus and decorated with ivy was carried in the procession too.
The Mothers’ Night: a Germanic midwinter festival associated with the Norse deity Odin. According to the monk, historian, and scholar the Venerable Bede (c. 672—May 25, 735 CE) the Mothers’ Night corresponded in time with Christmas Eve and was the most important pagan festival in eighth-century Britain. Little information about the holiday survives. Mothers were apparently honored as were perhaps the ancient European deities known as the Matronae or “The Mothers.” Divination was practiced at this time. Dreams on this night were believed to reveal the future.
In Russia, the season coinciding with Christmas was a time traditionally celebrated with crossdressing, dressing as animals, masking and mumming.
December is a time for dancing, singing, and feasting, a time when men masquerade as animals and especially as the Horned God. The Horned One carries a small broom of birch twigs with which to generate and enhance fertility power. His face is blackened with soot or charcoal dust so that he looks as if he’s come down the chimney. (It’s meant to emphasize his fertility and immortality, similar to the way ancient Egyptians painted Osiris black when they wished to emphasize his resurrection from the dead and the immortal life he had achieved.)
These wild defiant celebrations found their place within Christmas. To this day conservative evangelical Christians discourage pagan elements within the holiday, suggesting that followers “put the Christ back into Christmas.” Until fairly recently, Christmas, and particularly these pagan elements, was considered somewhat disreputable. It was once considered a wild and raucous holiday, which the defiant, anarchist forces of Earth attempted to dominate.
The New England Puritans refused to celebrate Christmas, for instance, while, in 1801, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives forbade masquerading at Yule. The punishment was to be no more than three months imprisonment and a fine between $50 and $1000, which was an incredibly large sum of money in those days. And in 1881, Philadelphia law banned Christmas Eve masquerading. (Not a problem; revelers simply moved their festivities to New Year’s Eve. Many customs now associated with New Year’s Eve were once identified with Christmas.)
Why? What were people doing?
Celebrations of the Horned One, excised from May Day, Midsummer’s and especially Halloween, survive at Christmas time. This is particularly apparent in the parts of Europe where Father Christmas has an official helper, like Black Pete or Krampus. Santa Claus himself may be the Horned One, albeit now in a padded suit. (See HORNED ONE: Krampus.) German immigrants to the United States formed a sizable community in the state of Pennsylvania. They brought their raucous Yule traditions with them.
In addition to Santa and his helpers, pagan elements of Yule include:
The Christmas Tree: this is a survival of ancient devotion to trees. An evergreen, symbol of eternal life, is decorated, honored, and feted. Whether the ancients would have approved of chopping down so many trees during this season is subject to debate.
The Yule Log: a log (or at least a large chunk of one) is decorated and burned on the Eve of the Solstice. To put this in context, one must recall that pagan goddesses, including Diana and Hera, were once worshipped in the form of a piece of log. The modern Yule log has powerful associations with Frigg, who is married to Odin. The Yule log is incorporated into fertility spells as well as in spells for protection. The ashes or charred bits of wood are preserved until the following Yule. The “buchenoelle” is a cake shaped to resemble a Yule log. The Yule log is often cut from a yew tree and some believe that the name “yule” derives from “yew.”
The Yule animal, the boar or male pig, commemorates the sacrificial boar offered to Freyr in winter. Whole roast pig is the traditional Yule feast in some regions. In Sweden, yuletide cakes are still baked in the shape of a boar. In Britain, pink hard candy pigs were once customarily presented following the Yule feast. Smashed with a hammer, the pig broke into bits so that there was a piece of the “sacrifice” for everyone at table.
Have we mentioned mistletoe? The golden bough is hung over thresholds with scarlet ribbons. According to tradition, should a couple of people find themselves simultaneously under the mistletoe, they must kiss. (Much maneuvering may be spent getting people underneath the mistletoe…)
Witches play their part during Yule time too.
The witch Befana gives children in Italy gifts on Christmas Day, much as Santa Claus or Father Christmas is the primary gift-giver elsewhere in the world. Befana flies on a broom or arrives riding a donkey.
The German witch Lutzelfrau prefers to receive gifts. In a Yuletide version of “trick or treat” Lutzelfrau flies through the air on her broom creating havoc in the homes that have neglected to honor her with small offerings.
In parts of Austria and Germany, children celebrate Christmas by going door-to-door wearing masks and costumes (frequently but not always conforming to the stereotype of ugly witches) and carrying brooms. They beg small treats in the name of the witch-goddess Perchta.
Various witch-goddesses including Perchta, Hulda, Herta, and Freya lead the Wild Hunt at this time of year, sometimes in conjunction with Odin (who may or may not be the male pagan deity who hides under the mask of Father Christmas).
See also DIVINE WITCH: Befana; Freya; Herta; Hulda; Odin; Perchta.