I was asked some time ago to contribute an article to this blog on the topic of "The Role of Men in Wicca". Since then I pondered, in the ponderous manner that is characteristic of my thinking, this topic in some detail, and from several angles. Time passed, and I was also asked, since the previous article was still yet to materialise, if I'd mind terribly writing something about Imbolc, and then Ostara.
Then Beltane rolled around and finally my ideas began to coalesce into one reasonably strong premise: The role of men in Wicca has a lot to do with Imbolc, Ostara and Beltane. "There," I told myself, "I can write something about that". But another incident occurred just prior to Beltane that gave me pause to consider something else, namely that there is something, or things, that tie the former premise into a much larger and more significant premise: "The role of Men in Wicca is not an issue".
So, how to write an article that not only has two premises but two premises that appear to contradict one another? Some may suggest "systematically". Others may suggest "with a strong basis in contemporary research". I know some witches to whom the liberal application of footnotes and appendices induces such bacchanalian fits of rapture and ebullience that one had best stand clear, or carry an umbrella. Personally, I'm more one for hyperbole and rambling, so I'll stick with them.
The role of men in Wicca has been covered before by a number of people, and as far as I can tell the conclusion invariably depends upon the author's political disposition. Like most people, I'm prone to categorisation and generalisation, but feel rather uncomfortable about being too unconditional in their use. And so it is here. The terms of the premise must be defined. I know this, because I am unlike the greater proportion of men in the world because I have been awarded a post-graduate qualification. So right off the bat the term "men" becomes divisible by the number of them that might have pursued higher education. This could go on endlessly, like Zeno's paradox about Achilles and the tortoise (See? Now I'm just showing off) so I will opt to get over my squeamishness and say that, at least for the purposes of this article, the term "men in Wicca" means pretty much what you would expect the term to mean, that is "the male human adherents of Wicca". I added "human" there just to avoid the inevitable "but my dog's a Wiccan" counter-claims. The heck with that.
But, all of this blather has been avoiding the really sticky definition, which is that of "Wicca". What does that mean? I could be annoying and say "It means all things to all men", and that's not too far off the mark these days. The term has been picked up and run with by many an aspiring witch and kicked around now for so many decades that its original meaning, however much some people would like to disagree on this point, is largely irrelevant to everybody except those to whom it means something in itself, which is to say the followers of Gerald Gardner, who is widely accepted as the first to coin the term in reference to a "system" of ritualised witchcraft. The thing is, there can be such a rift between what one man calls Wicca and what another calls Wicca that they would both be talking about entirely different things (there's some parable about blind men and an elephant that fits quite nicely here). Indeed, there are some brands of Wicca that men are forbidden to claim a part in altogether.
So it's a bit of a pickle. I could go down the "pagan" route, but it's not true that all Wiccans are pagans. Also, to compare some pagan men with some Wiccan men would be like comparing battle-axes with bluebells, and isn't at all useful for my purposes. Eclectic witchcraft has, it would appear at least, decided to put a stop to the confusion by embracing "Eclectic witchcraft" as a collective term in itself. However, I was asked to talk about men in Wicca, and whilst many Wiccans can be quite eclectic in their manner of practice (not least of all those famous progenitors, Gardner and Sanders) most of the "traditional" Wiccans have enough in common that I can probably make do without having to embrace "eclecticism".
So, questions that have been asked include, "are Wiccan men submissive to the women in a group?" Or, "do Wiccan men have a problem with being primarily goddess-worshippers?" And more often than not "so, do men choose a Wiccan path to get all sky-clad and stuff with female witches?" It is sometimes implied that Wicca is something of a gynocentric path, and that men are perceived as similar to the self-castrating priests of Cybele, the Gallai, subservient to the High Priestess in all matters. I have heard of some groups who operate in a strictly gynocentric manner, and that all men, even the High Priest, are subservient to the High Priestess. I have also heard of cases where the opposite is true. I can't speak for all men, but I would suggest that the reasons for seeking the Wiccan path must vary considerably from one man to the next. My own experience has changed as my understanding of the Craft has developed. At first one of the attractive features of Wicca to some of the other paths I had pursued was that there was an equal role for both men and women. Not even so much that there was an equal role but that equality was an essential element of practice.
So let's look at the sabbats. Imbolc, even while the days and nights are still cold, it's generally the time when I find I catch the first whiff of Spring. Everyone knows what I mean, it's a certain something in the air that marks the beginning of the end of Winter. For men, it's the first stirrings of the return of the God, or god-paradigm, if you like. In Central Victoria it's also roughly around the time when lambing season begins, which fits in well with the definition of the term "in the belly". The snowdrops always come out at this time, so I always feel that it is rather portentous. As a man, I see it as being a return to the time of year when the god makes his presence felt most strongly, and my head-space begins to shift with it.
Ostara, the vernal equinox, is very nearly my favourite time of year. It is accompanied by a much more distinct change in the air, at least in this part of the world. One recognises the lengthening of days (even if it's only by how long the kids think they're allowed to play outside before coming in for dinner) but again, importantly for men, it is that quite palpable sense of power as the god returns to make his presence felt. This is entirely my point of view, and some may think that perhaps I suffer from some kind of seasonal affective disorder, but it's nothing like that. It's not as though the god begins to take over, it's just that the more contemplative, darker aspect of the god throughout the Winter months changes character into the more fecund, playful and youthful aspect we see culminate at Beltane. I understand the Druids (at least the modern variety) consider these three sabbats as being one cycle, and I'm inclined to agree. It feels like a gradual build-up of male essence that begins, almost quietly, at Imbolc, and is given release at Beltane. Hail the Summer! Men of the Wiccan world, take up thy staff and well, you know...!
Some have attempted to draw me into discussions about gay or trans-gendered men on this point. To them I have but one reply - if you identify as a man then this is the time of year when you should celebrate your masculinity! Your tradition will have its own means of doing so, but really all one has to do is look around to see how that vitality should be brought into being. It's happening everywhere. The world begins to hum, to vibrate with energy. Get outside, put your hands in the soil and feel life. Furthermore, some of you may be thinking this is all rather androcentric and I am neglecting the feminine in all this. Well, that's true, because I'm talking about men in Wicca and I think a woman is far better qualified than I to describe how they perceive the return of the God during this part of the year. Some might even go so far as to suggest that celebrating masculinity is unnecessary because we already live in a patriarchal society where such things are not only celebrated but sensationalised. Whilst it may be true that we live in a patriarchal society, that's a political matter and as such has nothing to do with how I practice my spiritual beliefs. I'm a firm believer in keeping politics and spirituality separate. People tend to agree with me when the spirituality in question is Islam or Christianity, but Wicca is ok? Please feel free to comment below should you happen to disagree. I feel myself drifting off-topic. Time to move on.
Just before Beltane I had cause to remind someone of some of the basic tenets of Wicca, which are not by any means secret, but are at least to my mind fundamental to correct practice. They are humility, discretion and the ability to remain silent. These ideas aren't exclusive to Wicca, and there is a good argument to be made that they are really pretty basic common sense. But also they are what make being a man in Wicca a non-issue. Regardless of your gender I think to find fulfilment in your practice you must adhere to these basic principles. Men in Wicca must be humble, and that humility is what people often mistake as submission. Men in Wicca must employ discretion in their actions and decisions, because the ability to discern the correct path is essential to the way of a witch. Finally, it takes strength and conviction, along with humility and discretion to know when to remain silent, and when to speak out. This is not exclusively related to men, but rather all witches. So really, being a man in Wicca is a question of adhering to basic values. Know thyself! Be true to your own values and to your gods. Wicca is about celebrating all that is female and all that is male, and all that comes about when the two meet. If you are of the Wicca, being a man ceases to be an issue, it's just simply as it must be.
IDOLS OF THE GRAIN.
"We have ploughed, we have sowed,
We have reaped, we have mowed,
We have brought home every load,
Hip, hip, hip, Harvest Home!"
"Now Lammas comes in,
Our harvest begin,
We have done our endeavours to get the corn in;
We reap and we mow
And we stoutly blow
And cut down the corn
That did sweetly grow…."[i]
How many of us have looked at Lammas rituals and found the suggested altar decoration or recommended craft as "Corn Dollies"? And how many of these rituals never actually say what Corn Dollies are, let alone their history, how to make them or even why you should have them on your Lammas altar?
Corn is a word used to incorporate all types of grain, however the one most commonly used for weaving is wheat, because of its flexible yet durable qualities. Dolly is a corruption of the word "Idol", so Corn Dollies are of course grain idols.
Grain has been an essential part of the community since humanity first decided to settle down and grow their own food rather than having to hunt it or gather as they followed the prey. But the crops were fallible. A storm could come at the wrong time, mice could eat the seeded grain, etc. and such a disaster could mean the difference between survival and starvation. So a new culture was built around the cycle of the all-important crops.
One of the most important and dangerous times of the year was during the harvest. If the crops were ripe and not yet safely gathered, they were vulnerable to all sorts of natural hazards which occurred according to the whims of the gods. So people did everything they could to assure that the harvest was safe and that the grain would rise again the following year.
It has been speculated that a god or spirit of the grain lived in the grain until the grain was harvested and then was released. However, once the god was released, there was no guarantee that it would return. So people may have begun the earliest corn dollies as a form of trapping the god so that it would not be freed, but would continue to grow good crops thus ensuring the survival of the community.
It was also a common concept to hold sacrifices to a god or goddess for a successful outcome. This also occurred to ensure the fertility of the field and the success of the crop. Often the two concepts were combined, so that a sacrifice was encapsulated in the last few stalks of grain to be harvested from the field, such as the tradition associated with the "Knack" or "Neck" from Devon. Oral tradition has it that the story behind this particular design is that a person walking past the field when the last few stalks of grain were harvested was seized and ritually sacrificed and the body rolled in the last few stalks of grain.
Christina Hole[ii] records a ritual associated with this particular design (called "Crying the neck"), however she does not mention the human sacrifice part. It was also recorded in William Hone's Everyday Book published in 1838[iii], and appears to be a custom based around Devon and Cornwall:
"An old man, or someone else well acquainted with the ceremonies used on the occasion…. goes round to the shocks and sheaves, and picks out a little bundle of all the best ears he can find; this bundle he ties up very neat and trim, and plats and arranges the straws very tastefully. This is called "the neck" of wheat, or wheaten ears. After the field is cut out, and the pitcher once more circulated, the reapers, binders, and all the women, stand round in a circle. The person with "the neck" stands in the centre, grasping it with both his hands. He first stoops and holds it near the ground, and all the men forming the ring, take off their hats, stooping and holding them with both hands toward the ground. They then all begin at once in a very prolonged and harmonious tone to cry "the neck!" at the same time slowly raising themselves upright, and elevating their arms and hats above their heads, the person with "the neck" also raising it on high. This is done three times. They then change their cry to "wee yen!" - "way yen!" - which they sound in the same prolonged and slow manner as before, with singular harmony and effect, three times. This last cry is accompanied by the same movement of the body and arms as in crying "the neck"… they all burst out into a kind of loud and joyous laugh, flinging up their hats and caps into the air, capering about, and perhaps kissing the girls…"
Another example from the Cotswolds reports a similar ceremony:
"When they have cut the corn, the reapers assemble together: "a knack" is made, which one placed in the middle of the company holds up crying thrice "a knack" which all the rest repeat. The person in the middle then says - "Well cut! Well bound! Well shocked! Well saved from the ground!" He afterwards cries "whoop" and his companions hollow as loud as they can."[iv]
In both cases the sheaf would then be born home (often in its own wagon) sometimes reported as being adorned with flowers and ribbons, and hung there until next planting, when it was returned to the soil. Often the Harvest Home festival was known as the Horkey or Hawky, and the cart bearing the last load of corn, and the Corn Dolly or Harvest Queen was known as the Horkey Cart.[v] In some areas the dolly was ploughed under the soil, in others placed in the centre of the field and blessed, and in others it was fed to the plough horses, and would end up being part of the soil in a slightly more fertile manner!
Other Harvest activities closely associate horses and grain. In Herefordshire there is the custom of "Crying the mare" where the image of a horse was made out of a small patch of corn left standing in the field. Sickles were thrown to cut the legs of the "mare"; the winning man was then made the most important person at the subsequent celebration.[vi] A similar ceremony, called "Y Gaseg Fedi" was also recorded in Wales. In Suffolk the corn dollies are often made in the shape of horseshoes or whips, as horses were a prominent feature of that county. However they were all supposed to incorporate the corn heads in their design, to fulfil their function as the receptacle for the spirit of the corn. Similarly, the Essex Terret designed to be worn as ornaments on the harness of the horses that drew the carts of reaped corn.
In Wales and Scotland there is also customs involving the corn dolly being referred to as a "hag" or "cailleagh" and was regarded as unlucky and fearsome, and awarded to the farmer who was late with his harvest. In Germany it was often referred to as the Old Woman or the Old Man, and the woman who bound the last sheaf was sometimes herself called the Old Woman and it was said to be a good sign that she would marry in the following year. But often it was also awarded to the last farmer to harvest his fields, and it was considered unlucky to be awarded the Old Woman. Perhaps this is where the card game of "Old Maid" originated, where the object of the game is to be the person not left with the Old Maid.
The Old Maid is also reflected in the Scottish custom of the "Old Wife". The first farmer to have reaped his field made a doll of some of the corn, the "old wife", which was then sent to the next neighbour etc. until it remained with the last person to harvest his fields, and he had to keep 'the old woman" for that year. On the Island of Lewis, the Old Wife is actually dressed to look as much like an old woman as possible, including sickle, and she is regarded as helping with the harvest.[vii]
Often the Corn Dollies were regarded as talismans or tokens. A case of one is reported by Christina Hole of a "Kerne Baby" a sheaf dressed in women's clothes, placed near a gate to avert storms.[viii] The Corn Dollies were made up to resemble a human figure in many areas, such as the Ivy Girl of Kent. Similar customs from Germany were also recorded in Fraser's Golden Bough.[ix] In some villages of Styria, the dressed sheaf, or Corn-mother, is placed at the top of a pole and paraded around the village. The Corn-mother then presides over the feasting, and later over the threshing. The man unfortunate enough to give the last stroke at threshing is called the "son of the Corn-mother" and is tied up in the Corn-mother and beaten. The grain is then scattered among the young corn and the straw placed with the cattle.[x]
In some areas of Scotland the last sheaf of grain was referred to as the Maidhdeanbuain (the shorn Maiden) and the person who gains this can see it as a sign that they will be married in the following year. That person was often then accorded the honour of being the king or queen at the Harvest Home feast:
"Upon the finishing of the harvest the last handful of corn reaped in the field was called the maiden. This was generally contrived to fall into the hands of one of the finest girls in the field, and was dressed up with ribands, and brought home in triumph with the music of fiddles or bagpipes. A good dinner was given to the whole band, and the evening spent in joviality and dancing, while the fortunate lass who took the maiden was the queen of the feast…"[xi]
The sheaf was then plaited and decorated with ribbons and hung in the farmhouse and believed to be a protection against fairies and witchcraft.[xii]
Some Corn Dolly designs, especially in the Welsh border region, are fringed or ringed and Lambert, in A New Golden Dolly, speculates that this may have been a survival of the Scandinavian sun worship, as straw figures resembling the sun are still made for the Midsummer's Day festivities. Some circular fringed corn dollies have also traditionally been made in Yorkshire.[xiii]
Stack ornaments were the folded and twisted ornaments made at the top of the straw stack and tied with binder twine. They were protective ornaments, generally featuring birds, crosses, crowns etc. The purpose of these were originally supposedly to either stop witches from landing on the stacks during their flights, or else to entertain them so that they wouldn't waste time putting spells on the stack![xiv]
Later, intricate corn dollies were woven by rural lads when they were courting and given as a token of their favour. In East Anglia, for example, it was the custom that a lad was only allowed to be alone with his sweetheart while he was weaving a corn dolly. Doubtless it was intended to keep his hands chastely occupied, however it did result in some intricate designs being woven!
Corn Dollies became a dying art in the time of industrial harvesting, however it was fortunately revived in England in the 1850s. Many of the traditional designs are preserved, being simple plaits and spirals, which may not have changed for thousands of years, and new ones are being developed all the time to incorporate more modern ideas and the cross-cultural pollination of the Twentieth Century.
How to make Corn Dollies.
The best grain to use for corn dollies is wheat, because it is both flexible and strong. Other grains such as oats can be used for decoration in bundles such as used in the core of the Knack. The best time to cut the wheat is when the stalks are just turning from green to yellow, and the stalks should be cut just above the ground. Look for wheat with long, hollow stalks. Make sure the wheat is thoroughly dried. Peel the outer leaves from the stalks and cut just above the joint closest to the head.
Then soak the wheat for at least 2 hours, or overnight. If wheat is purchased from florists, it will generally need to be soaked for longer than two hours, as the freeze-drying process employed by florists tends to make it more brittle then if it is dried naturally.
Use at least 2 dozen straws with large heads for the core of the dolly and tie tightly just below the heads. Cut the stems to the desired length of the dolly, and tie at the other end. Use another 20-30 smaller stalks for the next section of the core and another 20-30 even smaller for the middle section. These should all be tied onto the original straws, so that the core is tapered at both ends. See diagram.
Evenly tie five straws around the core beneath the heads. Fold the straws outward to form a square, with two straws at one corner of the square. Starting at the corner with the 2 straws, fold the under straw up and over the straw on the next corner. Turn the core a quarter turn as you work, so that the working straw is brought to the front. Take the new under straw of the corner with 2 straws and fold it up and over the next corner. Continue in this square design. When the end of the straw is reached, cut the head off a new straw and insert the narrow end inside the hollow end of the working straw. Continue until the end of the core is reached, then continue the same folding and turning. The plait should now produce a braid that can be bent over to form a loop at the top of the dolly. The plaiting straws can then be slotted back through the folds of straw around the dolly, then the ends cut off.
A bow of ribbon is generally tied around the heads of the wheat. The traditional colours for the ribbon are as follows: white for purity, blue for the cornflower, red for the sun and the poppy, gold for the Goddess and the grain and green for the rebirth of the seed in the spring.[xv]
[i] William Hone The Everyday Book and Table Book Thomas Tegg and Son, London, 1838. Vol. 2 p.1164 & 1169.
[ii] Christina Hole English Folklore. B.T.Batsford, London, 1940. P. 44
[iii] William Hone, op. cit. p.1170- 1171.
[iv] Ibid, p.1161- 1162.
[v] Enid Porter Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore. Routledge & Kegan, London, 1969. p. 120-122.
[vi] P. Heskath (ed) The Women's Institute Book of Country Crafts - A Collection of Traditional Skills, Corn Dollies. Chancellor Press, London, 1994. p. 12-13.
[vii] Sir James George Frazer The Golden Bough - Part V Spirits of the Corn and of the Wild. Third Edition. MacMillan, London, 1976. p. 140-142.
[viii] Christina Hole, op. cit.
[ix] Frazer, op. cit. p. 134
[xi] William Hone, op. cit. p. 1175.
[xii] Ibid. p. 155-161.
[xiii] M. Lambeth A New Golden Dolly. Cornucopia Press, Cambridge, 1966. p. 66.
[xiv] Ibid. p. 91-92.
[xv] Ibid, p. 19.
Sir James George Frazer The Golden Bough - Part V Spirits of the Corn and of the Wild. Third Edition. MacMillan, London, 1976.
P. Heskath (ed) The Women's Institute Book of Country Crafts - A Collection of Traditional Skills, Corn Dollies. Chancellor Press, London, 1994.
William Hone The Everyday Book and Table Book, Thomas Tegg and Son, London, 1838, Vols 1, 2 and 3.
William Hone The Year Book of Daily Recreation and Information, William Tegg and Son, London, 1878, Vols 1 and 2.
Christina Hole English Folklore. B.T.Batsford, London, 1940.
Doris Johnson and Alex Coker The Complete Book of Straw Craft and Corn Dollies - Techniques and Projects. Dover Publications, New York, 1987.
M. Lambeth A New Golden Dolly, the Art, Mystery and History of Corn Dollies Throughout the Ages describing all types and how to make them. Cornucopia Press, Cambridge, 1966.
Morgyn Geoffrey Owens-Celli Wheat Weaving and Straw Craft, from simple plaits to exquisite designs. Lark Books, North Carolina, 1997.
Enid Porter Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore. Routledge & Kegan, London, 1969.
The Rites and Customs of Spring.
The Spring Equinox is a time of change in the natural world. A time of buds opening, or renewed energy and life, when animals are being born and plants reborn, a time of resurrection that goes way beyond the later, Christian interpretation put upon it. I will be looking at many of the customs which have sprung up around this time, some quite old and others not so old, and exploring the theory that many of these customs spring from universal human desires as a response to the changes occurring around them.
Most of the customs I am referring to have their origins in Britain. I have chosen this because many of us here are Wiccan, and Wicca originated in Britain. Also, if I had not chosen a limiting factor, then I would probably be here all day and I wouldn't have had time to do much else with my life in the last 6 months! Either that or I could not have dealt with any of the customs in any detail, which would have been a great pity.
Firstly let me state that there is no historical evidence that pagan Britons celebrated the equinoxes. There are no calendar or medieval writings that mention it. And some of the so-called pagan symbols, associated with the equinox were imported at a later date. The only evidence that something might have been celebrated at this time lies in the origins of the name given to the festival celebrated in the Northern Hemisphere at this time of year - Easter. According to Bede (the venerable Bede!), it is the name of a Germanic Goddess, and this may be so although She is not mentioned anywhere else. Eostre is a word whose derivations mean east, or dawn, both of which are appropriate for this time of year.
I will also mention several of the customs which grew up around this time of year and which were celebrated by people with great gusto. For it is my belief that many popular customs are ones that are essential to human nature, no matter the religion which supports or denounces them.
In medieval and later times the festival of Easter normally began at Shrovetide. This was celebrated on the 7th Sunday before Easter, and people had until the following Tuesday (known as Shrove Tuesday) to eat up many commodities such as meat, eggs and cheese before the fasting of Lent commenced. And given that winter was just over, supplies of meat and cheese would have been rapidly dwindling anyway, however with the return of the Spring sunshine the hens would have been starting to lay again, so there would have been an increasing supply of eggs. And as will be discussed later, eggs played a reasonably large role in the festivities of this time of year. And also it was the time of year where Spring was just beginning to be apparent - the crops were beginning to sprout in the fields, lambs were being born, and Spring-Cleaning could commence. So it would have been a time of renewed energy and hope, and all the things we associate with Spring.
However it must also be kept in mind that in Britain, climactic conditions could vary considerably, and many of the things we associate with Spring would naturally occur somewhat later in the colder areas such as in the Highlands of Scotland.
In the Highlands and Western Isles, it was known as "Inid" and seen as opening another time of the year, and another time for "saining" (along with Yule). It was a time when juniper was burnt as a purifying and fumigating agent, both for the cattle and in the houses. But it was a time of year largely associated with sporting games of 2 types in particular.
The first was the sport of cocking, both cock fighting and a sport which has fortunately died out called "cock threshing". This was where a cock was killed by having stones or pieces of wood thrown at it. It was extremely widespread, and apparently quite popular, until the early eighteenth century. It was banned in London in 1704, followed by other areas of Britain, however it was still recorded as happening in rural Wales in 1870. Cockfighting was made illegal on a national level in the 1830's however was still known to be happening in Cornwall in the 1880's.
And then there was the other really popular sport. "Nothing but beastly fury and extreme violence, wherof procedeth hurt." [i] This sounds a little familiar, doesn't it - rather like some of our sports today like the AFL or Rugby. And that was in fact what Sir Thomas Elyot was describing, or rather their earlier derivations, in 1531. Ballgames were immensely popular in Britain at Shrovetide in the past. And what are we doing this weekend? Celebrating the finals of the AFL and the NRL! How little things have changed!
Ball games in Britain in the past were somewhat less disciplined than the football we watch today. They were played in the streets, with whole towns usually being the playing field, and in some cases with a cast of thousands. The goal posts were landmarks often a mile or more out of town on either side, and the game often ended up in nearby rivers, where it continued to be played. The record for largest number of participants was held during a match between townsmen and local villagers in Derby in the 1800s involving up to 2000 players. The goals were the gate of a nursery ground a mile at one end of town and the wheel of a mill a mile at the other. In most years the play ended up in the river Derwent.
Thousands of spectators usually turned up to cheer on the players, and unpopular or richly dressed spectators were often pelted with soot. Shopkeepers closed up for the day and generally boarded up their windows for fear of the overly rough play of the participants, which were mostly young men from the town. Normally half the town played the other half, and the results were seldom noted. The main aim seemed to be the excitement and danger of the event.
And before we condemn this as an act of unruly testosterone brought on by the Spring growth and the upcoming restrictions of Lent, let it be noted that there was one town, Little Inverness in Scotland, where it was actually the women who played in this game. The married women versus unmarried women. Apparently the married women always won! Now why this was so I won't care to speculate.
However the ballgames tended to degenerate into a time of licensed misrule in some areas. In Stuart times riots are reported as occurring, some involving thousands of people. The targets for these riots mostly involved places such as brothels and playhouses. Also the tradespeople were not really taken with the idea of the games - they didn't appreciate either the loss of custom because of having to shut for the day or the smashed windows. And a growing population made these games impractical in many areas as well. A few of them survived, often by being moved to a nearby field or the outskirts of town, or by being downscaled. Probably the death knell for these games was the passing of the 1835 Highways Act, which banned sport from public thoroughfares. However as we can see, sometimes an idea is so firmly fixed in popular mind that it never truly dies.
There was also a custom of begging, known as "shroving" which occurred around this time. It was similar to our modern "trick or treating" in that a threat was often made to people who refused to play along, that is who refused to be charitable. A rhyme would normally be chanted at each door, and if the person refused to pay up, then potsherds would be left on the offender's doorstep (or thrown at their door), a much greater badge of shame when getting along with one's neighbours had greater significance than today!
Some of the rhymes went like this:
I've come a shrov'in
Vor a little pancake
A bit of bread of your baikin'
Or a little truckle cheese o' your maikin':
If you gie me a little, I'll ax no more,
If you don't gi me nothin', I'll rattle your door.
Pancake in a pan,
Pray ma'am give me some,
You've got some and I've got none,
So pray ma'am give me some."[ii]
This custom was also known as Lent Crocking, Pan Sharding, Lent Sherding, Drawing of Cloam, Duppy-Door Night and Nicky-Nan Night. And it is interesting that the custom of knocking on a person's door and then running away is still referred to as "Nick Knocking".
The making of pancakes was begun as a way of using up any eggs before the fast of Lent. I told you I would refer to the eggs again. In Scotland it was the bannock which was made. In the eighteenth century pancake tossing grew into a sport, and it is still traditional on Shrove Tuesday (which is also now known as Pancake Tuesday) to make and toss pancakes, and have pancake tossing races. And this is a custom that has endured, as pancake-tossing races still seem to be featured on various news bulletins as customs of this day, though many people have forgotten why.
A Scottish custom during this time involved making one particularly large bannock, which contained various other small objects such as rings, and which were used to foretell the recipient's future. It was known as the dreaming-bannock, or the sauty bannock, or the dumb-cake, or the sooty-bannock. Part of the ritual involved it having to be cooked in complete silence, however part of the fun was to try to provoke the cook into speech or laughter, thus ensuing a new cook! Once cooked, the bannock was cut into as many pieces as there were unmarried people in the room, and the pieces were then distributed in various manners.
After the fun of Shrove tide was the denials of Lent - no meat, no eggs, no dairy food and worst of all - no sex! However things were lessened slightly after Tudor times when Henry VIII declared that his subjects could eat dairy products because of the high cost of fish. It was also a time of great industry, where most of the ploughing and sowing happened. In London at this time an effigy was made of straw and hung in a public place for 6 weeks. It was known as "Jack O' Lent", however not much is known of the reasons for this custom, or its origins.
The Mid-Lent Sunday became known as Mothering Sunday, a day for people to remember their families and in particular their mothers. Special cakes were made from fine flour (known as simnel), which later became spicy and filled with fruit and was washed down with braggert - hot spiced ale. This custom was another that later resurfaced as our modern Mothers Day, reinvented and given a different date by Americans but honouring basically the same ideas.
And then of course another day which has come down to modern times - "All Fools' Day" on April 1st, which is now often known as April Fools Day. This was another period of misrule, where the object was, and still is, to deceive others and make them objects of fun. This is not a modern concept, nor is this a particularly modern festival. It was actually first recorded in the 1680's, and if the jokes that are perpetrated still are any indication, it is another enduring idea.
The Thursday before Easter was known as "Maundy Thursday", and in Scotland it is recorded that people made offerings to the sea. On the island of Lewis it was a goat which was carried onto the ocean and had its throat slit so that no drop of blood fell onto the land. Other parts of Scotland offered gruel to the sea, with the saying: "Oh God of the Sea/ Put weed in the drawing wave/To enrich the ground/To shower on us food." The seaweed was very important to the islanders, as it was a major source of fertiliser. This is a similar invocation to that which was traditionally offered to the sea god Shony at Samhain. Inland Scots carved crossed onto rowan branches, dipped them into gruel and hung them over stable doors. These crosses were taken down and blessed at Beltaine, then rehung to guard the stables until the next Maundy Thursday.
Also before Easter children would go on another begging round, to supply food for the holiday feast. Again appropriate chants and threats were used. In the North West of England it became the custom to entertain people as well, by dancing and reciting verses. These were generally young men, sometimes with a couple of them dressed as women. There was also generally included a character known as "Tosspot" who carried a container which was usually initially to collect eggs, and then in later times, money. The rest of the characters usually sang and capered around him. In some areas they blackened their faces and wore animal skins, in others they wore masks and ribbons. They were known as the "Peace Eggers" or "Pace Eggers" or "The Jolly Boys".
Some of the chants were ones like this:
"Herrings herrings white and red
Ten a penny Lent's dead
Rise dame and give an Egg.
Or else a piece of Bacon
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Jack a Lent's all
Away Lent away."
And if they were rewarded with an egg they sang:
"Here sits a good wife
Pray God save her life
Set her upon a hod
And drive her to God."
But if they were not rewarded then they sang this:
"Here sits a bad wife
The devil take her life
Set her upon a swivel
And send her to the Devil."[iii]
The pace-eggers sang:
"We are a two-three jolly-boys, all of one mind,
We are come a pace-egging, and we hope you'll prove kind.
We hope you'll prove kind with your eggs and strong beer,
And we'll come no more a-pace-egging until another year."[iv]
In other areas they carried a horse's head on a pole, which was taken about by men with blackened faces or masks. This was usually an actual horse's skull with bottle ends for eyes, clashing jaws and a sackcloth or calfskin body. In Lancashire it was known as "Old Ball". It used to wander the streets, snapping its jaws at passers by. Mummers Plays were also performed, originally derived from the older winter ones with the same themes of death and resurrection. These were known as the "Pace-Egg Plays" and in North-West England these centred on St. George's battle to win the hand of the Daughter of the King of Egypt. First George fights and kills the Slasher, who is revived by the Doctor. Next he faces the prince of Paradine (or Paradise) and kills him as well. The victorious George announces that he has won the right to wed the Prince's sister, while her father, the King of Egypt, calls for someone to avenge his son. Hector, the Trojan hero, volunteers, but George wounds him and he's forced to flee. Finally, when it appears that no one will avenge the Prince of Paradine, the Fool steps forward. He and George agree to fight, but separate and leave without doing battle.
People also made Hot Cross Buns at this time, which are treats readily available to us all at Easter still.
Hot Cross Buns!
Hot Cross Buns!
Hot Cross Buns!
Folklore says that they never moulder (and apparently - thought I haven't tried this - if made in the traditional manner and kept in a dry place this is indeed the case!). They were kept all year and if you developed digestive troubles you could supposedly scrape a little of the bun into cider or milk or water for a cure. They were also supposed to cure things like dysentery, whooping cough, diarrhoea and a complaint known as "summer sickness" (whatever that was!) A few were generally set aside each year and hung from the ceiling until they were needed. In Devon it was said that they do mould, but that the mould would cure any disease if mixed with water. Perhaps they were on the road to developing penicillin.
The bringing of greenery into the house is a common practice for many times of year. We are all familiar with the old custom of bringing holly and mistletoe into the house at Yule. At Easter the custom was to bring branches of willow and hazel inside. The buds and catkins of these would have been symbolic of the coming of Spring and renewed life. Apparently they were made into a sort of St Andrew's cross shape, with a few tufts of catkins at each point, and were bound with knots and bows of ribbons.
Bringing the greenery into the house generally coincided with Palm Sunday, however at Pontsford Hill in Shropshire this became entwined with another custom known as "Seeking the Golden Arrow". Large numbers of people went to the top of the hill in the early morning to gather greenery and make merry, but also to supposedly seek the Golden Arrow. Curiously enough, nobody seemed to know what this arrow was, or how to find it, but there were several legends that grew up to explain it. One involved some story involving a fairy and an ancient curse that needed to be lifted, others involved great estates and rightful heirs to be discovered. There was a solitary yew tree at the top, which was supposed to be haunted, possibly by this same fairy, and it was thought to be lucky to be the first to gather a spray of greenery from it on Palm Sunday. Once the gathering was over, the young people would race down the hillside to a stream, endeavouring to do so without falling. They would then dip the fourth finger of their right hand into the water, in order to be ensured of marrying the first person of the opposite sex he or she next encountered.
Another symbol of renewed life was, of course the egg (back to eggs again!) As surplus food became a reality with more people, the decoration of eggs became widespread. Originally some record is made of eggs which were gilded by some members of the aristocracy and given out as gifts, however it became a widespread custom by the mid-eighteenth century. Eggs were more often boiled with onionskins to give them a golden glow, or wrapped with gorse flowers and boiled. They were given as presents, or used as decorations in homes or as items in competitions.
Children made games of rolling them down hillsides, and sometimes rolled themselves as well! They were known as "pace eggs", and the game of "egg-pacing" was to roll your egg down, and whosever egg goes farthest wins! Or else the one whose eggs remains undamaged the longest wins. In the Hebrides this was used as a form of divination. Each player marked his or her egg with an identifying sign, and then watched to see how it went as it rolled down the slope. If it reached the bottom unscathed, then this was a sign that good luck would follow through out the year. However if it was broken or damaged, then misfortune would follow before the year was out! In another Scottish village it was the custom for unmarried men and women to roll their eggs to determine who would be the first to marry.
Or there was the game of "jauping pace eggs" where 2 eggs are punched together until one cracks, who is then the loser, and had to give his or her broken egg to the winner to eat! Or "Egg-shackling" where eggs were put into a sieve and shaken - the last one left unbroken is the winner. Another game was where eggs were tossed into the air and caught again as they fell. The player who dropped one had to pay a forfeit.
In one village in Wales, the unmarried women threw 24 tennis balls, half white and half-covered with black leather, over the church to be scrambled for by the people waiting in front of the building. An unusual custom that may originally have been a fertility rite, though there is no direct evidence for this.
The Easter hare, who later became the Easter Bunny (or in some places of Australia even the Easter Bilby!) was a German custom, introduced to Britain in the 19th century. It was supposed to bring eggs for the children, which were cunningly hidden in house and garden, which is a popular custom among children today!
However hares did feature in other Easter festivities. Hare-hunting was common on Easter Monday, and everybody was supposed to eat something with hare in it. The Hare Pie Scramble of Hallaton involved baking a huge hare pie, then cutting it into pieces and tossing it into the crowds, along with 2 dozen loaves and a quantity of ale. Then 3 mini kegs (2 empty one full) are rolled out and people try to kick them to their respective parishes, a game known as "Bottle -Kicking". In some years a sitting hare on a pole was carried in procession to the rising piece of ground known as Hare-Pie Bank. Any attempt to substitute more dignified customs were met with fierce opposition from the townsfolk with one eighteenth century rector copping the piece of graffiti "No pie, no parson, and a job for the glazier!"
Or there was the game of "Hunting the Buck" in Dorset, where one person was the buck (male hare), and others knelt around him. The Buck tried to escape from the circle, while the kneelers attempted to stop him. When he did finally break free, a dance was held in the streets.
In Leister they had "Hunting the hare" where a dead cat soaked in aniseed was dragged around town, and then up to a cave known as "Black Annis' Bower". Later hunters and their hounds and foot runners would follow the trail, cheered on by numerous spectators. This was quite an old custom - it was recorded in the Town records of 1668 as an "ancient custom", so it had probably been going for a good number of years before that date. There are a few other similar games mentioned in various other parts of England, where hares were hunted, often for rewards. Black Annis was a cannibal hag with a blue face and iron claws. She was supposed to hide in an oak at the mouth of the cave and she was supposed to leap out from it to catch stray children and lambs, scratch them to death, suck their blood and hang up their skins to dry. I guess it was a good way to ensure your children never strayed! The hunt was stopped in the 18th century, however Black Annis' legend lives on, because there is a description of her recorded in the 1940s from an evacuee of the area:
"Black Annis lived in the Danehills.
She was ever so tall and had a blue face and had long whitish teeth and she ate people. She only went out when it was dark.
My mum says, when she ground her teeth people could hear her in time to bolt their doors and keep well away from the window. That's why we don't have a lot of big windows in Leicestershire cottages, she can't only get an arm inside.
My mum says that's why we have the fire and chimney in a corner. The fire used to be on the earth floor once and people slept all around it until Black Annis grabbed the babies out of the window. There wasn't any glass in that time.
When Black Annis howled you could hear her 5 miles away and then even the poor folk in the huts fastened skins across the window and put witch-herbs across it to keep her away safe."[v]
Black Annis seems to be similar to another legendary figure, the Cailleach Bheur of the Highlands of Scotland, who is also a blue-faced hag, and said to personify winter. She was reborn each All Hallows and went about smiting the earth and calling down snow until May Eve, whereupon she threw her staff beneath a holly tree or a gorse bush and turned into a grey stone. There are also versions that tell of her originally being an ugly old woman but on occasion turning into a beautiful maiden. She is a fairly widespread phenomenon throughout the British Isles, and may possibly represent an ancient memory of a primitive goddess.
A very popular game was that of Hokking, on the "Hokedays" which were around the end of Easter, most commonly Easter Monday and Tuesday. This involved groups of one sex pursuing and capturing the members of the opposite sex. These were then released on the payment of a forfeit. Sometimes men were the pursuers on one day and women on the next, however in general it was mostly the women who were the pursuers, and captured males and held them to ransom. This reversal of the social norm was part of the general theme of misrule that was common in medieval holidays. And it was a fairly old custom - the first certain references to this custom occurring was in London in 1406. Christina Hole[vi] speculates that it was part of an ancient sacrificial tradition, however it was later attributed as commemorating the massacre of the Danes by King Ethelred in 1002.
The women usually raised a most impressive sum each year for the church from their Hokking activities - in fact in most cases they were much more successful than the men, in the areas where men actually were a part of the custom. The women were sometimes even rewarded for their efforts with a special feast. The customs varied according to the area - some customs were more decorous than others were. The descriptions of the women also varied quite considerably as well!
In Coventry there was a Hock Tuesday play which celebrated the theme of the defeat of the Danes. At the end of the play the foreigners were led off in chains by the women of England. At one time when Hokking was threatened by Protestant reformers, the citizens of Coventry cunningly performed this play for Queen Elizabeth. Queens Elizabeth was most impressed with the idea of the women of England being victorious over foreigners and her support ensued the continuance of the festivities in Coventry for a least a while. Unfortunately however it became one of the many customs suppressed by evangelical Protestants, however faint survivals of it were recorded as late as early this century.
A similar custom was that of heaving or lifting which generally occurred on the Easter Saturday, where members of the opposite sex were placed in a chair. They were then lifted into the air three times, at the end of which the lifters were entitled to claim a kiss and a small gift of money. In the country areas this was a charming custom, however in the larger towns it became more boisterous. Unruly crowds seized people on the streets, and respectable girls stayed at home behind locked doors until noon was past. Or in the case of the alternate sex, timid men stayed home. It seems to be quite an old custom, and a later explanation used was that it was to commemorate the resurrection of Christ, however it is entirely possible that the origins were older and had more to do with the raising of the crops. However again there is no historical evidence for this.
Another custom which was fairly widespread was the idea of extinguishing and relighting all the fires and lights in the homes and churches on Easter Saturday. This is quite an ancient custom, the idea of rekindling the sacred flame. It was also the time when it was beginning to be warm enough for fires to be no longer needed so much, and so they could be cleaned and the hearths strewn with rushes and flowers.
Another fairly common belief was that the sun danced for joy on Easter morning. It was essential to wear new clothes on the day, and people would go to a hilltop on Easter Eve and await the sunrise. Some people danced along with the sun, or did somersaults, other simply watched or celebrated mass on the hilltop at dawn. There was also the idea that it was possible to see visions in the sun at this time. On Anglesea people carried wisps of straw with them and watched the sun dance through them, and in Wales (and also parts of Norway) they carried a bowl of water to catch the sun's first rays. In Herefordshire it was said that well-water turns to wine between 11.00PM and midnight on Easter Eve (and also on New Year's Eve). So I guess that was one area which was never short of alcohol for it's festivities!
Water was also a feature of a custom from Lincolnshire, where seven elderly women were paid to wash the grave image of Lady Tournay, a 14th century noble woman, on Good Friday. The women had to be virgins and the water they used came from the holy well at Newell, a few miles away. This was known as the "Molly Grime" dole, Molly Grime being a corruption of malgraen (holy image).
A more common custom was that of wishing success to the sprouting crops. This was known as "corn-showing" or "walking the wheat". It generally involved farmers or bailiffs walking around their fields on Easter day and eating a meal in the fields. This meal usually consisted of cider, plum cakes and cheese, and the diners would eat and rink good fortune to the crop. In some areas, pieces of the plum cake were buried in the fields, or scattered around them.
Then Easter Monday was normally a time for sports and fairs. There were archery contests, hare hunting on horseback, dances, Morris dancing, maypoles, gaming, horse races, dog races, stag hunts, athletics, handball competitions and many other games.
So now as we go out to celebrate the Spring Equinox, with our games and festivities and sport, we can perhaps appreciate that our desires and needs aren't really all that different to those of our ancestors throughout the centuries.
With many thanks to Jenny Gibbons for her help.
Katherine Briggs. (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies, Allen Lane, London.
The Carmina Gadelica.
John Chadwick. Folklore and Witchcraft in Dorset and Wiltshire. NJ Clarke Publications, Lyme Regis.
Christina Hole (1986) A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Paladin Grafton Books, London.
Christina Hole, (1940) English Folklore, B.T.Batsford Ltd, London.
Ronald Hutton, (1996) The Rise and Fall of Merry England, Oxford UP, Oxford.
Ronald Hutton, (1997) The Stations of the Sun - A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Oxford UP, Oxford.
Charles Kighley, (1986) The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain, Thames and Hudson, New York.
[i] Hutton, Ronald. (1996) The Rise and Fall of Merry England, Oxford University Press, p.19
[ii] Hutton, Ronald, (1997) Stations of the Sun, Oxford University Press, p. 165.
[iii] Ibid, p. 198-199.
[iv] Christina Hole (1986) A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Paladin Grafton Books, London, p.226.
[v] Katherine Briggs. (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies, Allen Lane, London. P. 24-5.
[vi] Christina Hole, op.cit, p. 145
The Triple Goddess.
By Ambriel and Hiraeth.
The Goddess is generally portrayed in modern Neopagan iconography as being a tri-form Goddess, of Maiden, Mother and Crone. In this view we see the Maiden as the woman, complete unto herself, who has not yet given birth. The Mother is the bounteous fertile one, delivering and caring for her children. The Crone is seen as representative of the post-menopausal woman, and emblematic of wisdom and experience, but also of death and the Underworld.
Some have posited that the Triple Goddess is in fact a totally modern construct, along with the idea of a 'Universal Goddess' and that these ideas in Neopaganism have no historical validity. This argument is in fact decidedly flawed, with examples of Triple or Tri-form Goddesses abounding throughout history, and the concept of a single 'all-Goddess' was well espoused by Apuleius1 writing of the Eleusinian Mysteries in the 2nd Century CE. It is however far more correct to state that the common Neopagan understanding of a Triple Goddess as Maiden/Mother/Crone is in fact a modern reinterpretation of an ancient theme.
The beginnings of this may be seen in late Hellenic religion, when Hecate (as Goddess of Dark Magics, witches, and the Moon) was conflated with Artemis/Selene, to form what may have been the prototype for a Maiden/Mother/Crone triplicity. This is an obvious and understandable development for a Moon Goddess, especially in a period where pantheons of deities were being simplified and rationalised, and the neat fit of a triple formed Goddess with the Lunar phases is still obvious and appealing today.
To a degree this Maiden/Mother/Crone pattern does reflect the expectation of women's life experience, yet it is also a simplification, no matter how chronologically satisfying. Some women never give birth for one reason or another, some through choice, others through unavoidable circumstance. According to this model these women would never experience the stage of the Mother. Some women reach menopause many years before others, and some are mothers before ever a Maiden in the sense it is often meant in Neopagan literature.
It is also often argued that the 'Triple Goddess' in general Neopaganism is derived directly from Gardner's Wicca, and there is some truth in this. Yet Gardner did not necessarily mean the Triple Goddess to be merely representational of life stages.
Just as the seasonal sabbat cycle represents far more than the changing of the natural seasons, so the aspects of the Goddess represent far more than the changing stages of life. In an essay on the Triple Goddess, now in the collection of materials bought from Ripley's and held by the James of the Wiccan Church of Canada, Gardner referred to the Triple Goddess as representing three of the Wiccan Mysteries - Love, Death and Rebirth.
"The triad of the Goddess to which I refer can best be summed up by the words LOVE:DEATH:REBIRTH".2
While on the surface this may appear almost identical, there is in fact no chronological imperative implied in Gardner's arrangement. Though the Maiden, Mother, Crone was one model Gardner recognised, it isn't definitive or exclusive. So let us look at the Goddess again, in Her three aspects. Maiden, Mother, Crone.
Most people see these images as a beautiful young Maiden, a wise and kindly Mother and a fearsome old Hag. But was this truly the case? The Goddess of Death does not need to be the Crone, for instance, and indeed in many historic examples she was more like the modern Neopagan concept of the Maiden. In many instances she is a beautiful young woman. Persephone, or the Morrigan, both spring to mind as examples, as do the Valkyries, who can all appear in their death aspects as young and gorgeous. Even compassionate.
The Crone or Hag is not necessarily an old woman, but rather a woman who has attained wisdom as a result of experience. Some women never become Hags - some go through their whole life never learning wisdom from experience. Others gain it while still very young. Just to complicate matters you have Goddesses who are creatrixes, the various Calleachan who form mountains and the like who are Hags, or those who appear in any guise they wish, young or old as they please. Indeed, this was a common trait of Goddesses of Sovereignty as portrayed in later Anglo-Celtic and Mediaeval mythologies like the Arthurian corpus. Gardner says:
"The aspect of death is probably the most widely known, the most usually misinterpreted of the Goddess. It is the Hag aspect, the epitome of the ugly old crone on a broomstick, for generations used to frighten children, along with bogey-men and such. But the true image is not frightening, on the contrary, it is comforting. True the physical portrayals give little consolance, the crone and the mighty undefeatable Goddess of sudden death, the Greek Artemis. But how could such an image be shown"?3
The Hag can be a woman of any age. As can the Maiden, often portrayed as the implacable huntress, Artemis, Diana, much more a Goddess of the Mysteries of Death than Love, at least some of the time. Sometimes such attitudes are necessary at any stage of life. And the Mother isn't necessarily a physical Mother but one who has understood the lessons of compassion and nurturing. The Mother too can have her dark side, such as Medea, the Mother who killed her young children.
It is also interesting to note, both historically, and within more traditional Wiccan practice, that while the Goddess may be portrayed as tri-form, the God is a dual God of Life and Death. We see in him a matching expression of the mysteries of Love, and of Death, but not of (Re)birth. Men can participate in the act of love, and all of us eventually partake of the Mystery of Death, but only women can give birth, at least physically.
However this is of course only looking at the outward forms. As Wicca is a religion that emphasizes polarity, we do of course have elements of the opposite sex contained within ourselves. While as females we contain the Mysteries of the Triple Goddess in our outward form, within we contain the Mysteries of the God, and for men it is vice versa. In the Underworld the God is the Lord of Death and Rebirth. He is the one who holds our souls to give birth on the inner levels, as physically the female gives birth on the outer levels.
So the understandings of Birth and Death are somewhat different, between Goddess and God. Mythically, the God dies, and is reborn through his Son. The Goddess presides over his death, mourns her lost love, but unlike the God she does not die, at least not within most modern Neopagan mythologies - rather she is the harvester who reaps the grain, the Bringer of Death. The God, who has died, rules then as Lord of the Underworld, giving peace and rest to those who die, until they are ready to be reborn again through the agency of the Mother, and both are essential for the completion of the Cycle.
These aspects are not necessarily life stages, and to view them as specifically linked to chronological age is ultimately limiting. We can experience these Mysteries at different times in our lives, sometimes again and again, with deeper levels of understanding to be gained after each experience. Many times throughout our lives we can experience the Mystery of Death, not necessarily to ourselves but also to our loved ones, or through a more esoteric experience of Death as change or initiation.
If we choose to think only of the Mystery of Death as something which we attain at the end of our lives then we miss out on so many of the experiences before that time. To do this we must be willing to see these changes as events that are a part of nature and life. By being willing to accept these changes and grow from them we no longer see the Mystery of Death as one of suffering. By attesting ourselves as willing to suffer we can transcend this and see death for what it is - a part of the natural cycle. There is no place in the pagan Summerland for martyrs. The enjoyment of suffering is not a part of our religion.
Also, while a chronological progression of Maiden to Mother to Crone corresponds moderately well to a woman's ageing, and to the changing phases of the moon, in many interpretations of the Wheel of the Year this cycle is not reflected so well.
Within one such interpretation of the sabbat cycle the Goddess never does become an old woman. As the Crone, the layer out of the God at his death, she is young and beautiful and pregnant. And yet she also sacrifices the God to ensure the life of the crops even before she becomes a mother. She descends into the Underworld to meet with the God again before she gives birth at Yule.
There is so much that can be gleaned from a deeper look at the Triple Goddess, even without considering the equally important aspects of Earth Goddess and Star Goddess as portrayed in Doreen Valiente's ubiquitous "Charge of the Goddess". To say that the Triple Goddess is merely representative of stages of life is to miss out on so much of what is really going on beneath the surface of the myth cycles, and to lose a great source of richness within our practice that is there, if only we seek for it.
1 Apuleius, Lucius., "The Golden Ass", Penguin Classis, 1964, Edinburgh UK.
2 Gardner, Gerald B., "The Triad of the Goddess", unpublished manuscript, 1958, Gardner Collection, Ontario Canada.
4 Valiente, Doreen., "The Charge of the Goddess".
Wheels of Fire.
Power of flame and power of fire,
Power of all our vast desire,
Light of dark and light of day,
Spin the Wheel evo-hey!
In times past the Midsummer fires burned across Europe, especially in countries settled by people of Scandinavian origin. Fires on the mountains and hills, and fires in the lowland. Fires to drive away evil spirits and guard against plague and other kinds of sickness. Fires of protection and fires of divination. Fires to help the crops grow high and fires to preserve animals against disease.
Midsummer Eve, or Midsummer Day, when the sun appears for the longest in the sky, was the time used by many cultures in Europe for the kindling of these great fires. In some fires bones and other items were burned to make noxious fumes to drive away evil. In many areas cattle were driven through the smoke to protect them from illness and other misfortunes. In parts of Ireland the fires were lit to the side of the crops and the smoke allowed to drift across the fields as a protective measure for these crops. Ashes from those fires were also thrown on the fields in many areas to protect and fertilise them. It was recorded that the fires made only of bones was called a bonfire, the fires made only of wood were called a wakefire and the fire made of bones and wood was called a St John's fire (St John's Day being the 24th of June which was commonly regarded as Midsummer's Day). However the etymology of the word bonfire is uncertain, with some people suggesting that it could derive from the word "boon", as in good will, or from the Danish word baun, meaning beacon, or bane as in bane-fire, meaning that the fires were the bane of things evil.
On other fires herbs associated with midsummer such as St John's Wort, vervain and mugwort were thrown into the flames with wishes for the future. Household fires were rekindled from the Midsummer fires and pieces of charred sticks were removed from it as tokens for luck and protection. The Midsummer fires were also associated with fertility and to jump the embers of the fire was especially lucky in some areas. In some areas the fires were kindled from three or nine woods, and in Cumbria the traditional fuel for the fires was the rowan tree.
The Whalton Baal Fire at the village of Whalton in Northumberland is considered by some folklorists to be a genuine survival of the ancient Midsummer fires. It is traditionally performed on the 4th of July, old Midsummer, and takes place near the village pub in the main street. Traditionally the fuel was carted only to the boundaries of the village, and then transported by hand with much noise and ceremony. The whole community then turned out to watch it being stacked, and before it was lit the children of the village joined hands and danced around it. While it was blazing there was much beer consumed, and later couples jumped the embers for luck. In Cornwall blazing tar barrels were carried through villages and a custom known as Swinging the Fireballs was performed. Wire netting globes packed with fuel soaked rags were set alight and swung on long chains overhead, supposedly to ward off witches and evil spirits, and ensure prosperity.
In some areas various effigies were burned on the fires, similar to the Guy Fawkes customs celebrated on the 5th of November. Some were in the form of witches and others were meant to symbolise local legends.
In the lowland areas of Scotland, Christian Ministers waged a determined battle to try to stop the people burning fires at this time of year and carrying them around their fields. In the 1580's the Christian clergy, without success, forbade the fires. By the 18th century the fires were pretty widespread in the lowland areas, with some districts continuing to carry the flames three times sunwise around their fields, flocks and herds. This was also common in other areas of Scandinavian influence in Scotland such as the Orkneys and Shetland, where the Johnsmas fires continued into the mid twentieth century. Such fires continue even today in parts of Ireland, where to jump three times backward and forward over the fire is considered to give you great power over the forces of evil, many children and good luck in the afterlife.
One fire custom associated with Midsummer was that of making a wheel and setting fire to it. Wheels were commonly made of cartwheels bound with straw, with a long axle tree by which it could be controlled by the young men who guided it on its course. It was usually taken to the top of a hill, set ablaze and rolled down. Such an act was believed to bring great luck and prosperity to the crops and animals - failure to do so could be ruinous. Especial luck occurred if the wheel made it as far as a river at the bottom of the hill without the flames going out.
This custom is quite old. It is definately recorded in the 4th century in Aquitane, and it is mentioned that the charred pieces of the wheel were then reassembled in the temple of a sky god. Writers who implied that it was a common practice across Northern Europe described this custom again in the 15th and 16th centuries. In some parts of Europe discs were made, set alight and thrown into the sky.
In the 12th century the penance given for divination on St John's Day was 15 days. The length and duration of the burning wheel was used as one divination technique, and others involving certain herbs and actions were commonly employed.
Here in Australia we are faced in many areas with different problems in summer. For many of us who live in fire prone areas fire restrictions mean that making a sun wheel is not always feasible. However the protective influence of the Midsummer fires is a notion that has come down to us in our culture. But a word of warning from someone who has built a Fire Wheel and used it in ritual - make sure your axle pole is fairly long or else you will have problems! We nearly ended up with burnt offerings one year as the pole was a bit short and the flames ended up singing the males at each end! The wheel need not be covered with straw either - usually tightly bound rags soaked in kerosene are effective and the sight of the wheel flaming down the hillside is very evocative of the descent of the sun with the decline of the year. Even if you never set it on fire you can decorate it with some of the St John's Wort growing by the side of the road in many places in Australia along with any other plant you find flowering at that time of year and the Wheel can still be a part of your summer solstice celebrations, as it has in many parts of Europe for centuries.
Cooper, Quenten and Sullivan, Paul. (1994) Maypoles, Martyrs and Mayhem, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, London.
Frazer, Sir James George (1976) The Golden Bough , Third Edition. MacMillan, London.
Hole, Christina (1940) English Folklore. B.T.Batsford, London.
Hone, William (1838), The Everyday Book and Table Book, Thomas Tegg and Son, London, Vols 1, 2 and 3.
Hutton, Ronald. (1996) Stations of the Sun, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Kighley, Charles. (1986) The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain, Thames and Hudson, London.
The Seasonal Procession in Modern Paganism
- The Wheel of the Year -
by Wolf MacDonald
Almost anyone who has so much as heard of Paganism is familiar with the concept of the Wheel of the Year, the seasonal calendar which is widespread throughout most forms of neo-pagan practice today. I've often seen this referred to as being ancient Wiccan, or Druidic in origin, and almost universally regarded as being Celtic, yet the truth is far more complex and interesting than this.
A quick survey of festival dates in England, or indeed anywhere else in the world, reveals that the concept of eight (more or less equidistant) festivals is pretty much unknown. The main cross-quarter celebrations, Wicca's Greater Sabbats, are indeed mostly Celtic in derivation, but even then there are some specific differences between the way these festivals are viewed in Paganism today and the original Celtic festivals.
Partly this is due not only to the origin and nature of the various festivals, but also to the concept of a seasonal cycle itself. This is, I believe, quite novel. I don't mean to imply that our forefathers didn't observe or celebrate the changing seasons, but rather that those celebrations were not necessarily interwoven so tightly in a single mythic fabric, nor were they necessarily viewed as being equal installments of one myth cycle.
Emma Restall-Orr has claimed that the 8-fold Wheel of the Year as we know it originated with Ross Nichols (of O.B.O.D. fame) who was a friend of Gerald Gardner, and that it moved into Wicca from there. Needless to say, from Wicca it quickly became de-facto standard within much of pagan thought and practice. While Ms. Restall-Orr's conjecture is interesting it isn't, to my mind, necessarily the most compelling explanation, though lacking evidence all we are really left with is conjecture.
It is interesting to note the way in which certain festivals were viewed in Anglo-Saxon culture, for there are some fascinating insights for modern practitioners to be gained. In Gardner's two non-fiction books on Witchcraft he often referred to the Sabbats he mentioned by popular name (Lammas, Hallow'een etc.) rather than by the Celtic festival names which have become so popular now.
I have sometimes heard it remarked that it feels almost like some of the Sabbats double up, and the connection between what are basically 'start of season' and 'mid season' celebrations is obvious. Personally I find it quite significant that Gardner's earliest writings make mention only of the Cross Quarter days, and much of the ideas about Druid ritual extant from the 18th Century revivals onwards was focused on the Solstices and Equinoxes. While I have yet to see any conclusive evidence as to exactly who, how, or when these two separate cycles seem to have merged, it does seem reasonable to argue that either Gardner, Nichols, or (more likely perhaps) a collaboration of the two may have been responsible. Further evidence of the development of the structure of an 8-fold cycle is given by Doreen Valiente, who commented to Professor Hutton on the changing status of the Lesser Sabbats within the Gardner's Hertforshire Coven in the 50's. She recalled the time that the coven actually wished to accord more importance to the Lesser Sabbats, as previously they had been celebrated at the nearest full moon, rather than being held as a festival date in their own right.
Certainly there did exist the broadest concept of the Cross-Quarter days being 'Witch festivals' in popular culture, as was the idea (however historically dubious) of the Druids worshipping with a seasonal calendar of Solstice and Equinox. Thus, in many ways the foundations for a more comprehensive unified 'Seasonal Myth Cycle' was already present, and there were two competing paradigms for this. In retrospect a merging of these ideas, and festivals into a single, all encompassing format is not so surprising.
One possible explanation for the ease of this assimilation of myths does actually lie in the checker-board history of Britain. Many of the associations of the Saxon Yule festival are almost identical to those of the Celtic Samhain. Both are festivals where uncanny things are common, when the veil is considered thin, and a Wild Hunt may roam. Both have that element of death and darkness in them, and the setting aside of natural order. This resonance can be found in any number of Celtic or Saxon feast days or celebrations. Yet each has its own flavour, and individual elements.
Perhaps the best example of the way a festival has been reinterpreted, and its mythology merged to fit this unified cycle is the Celtic Lughnassadh. In most pagan systems this is seen as a time of harvest, the beginning of the fallow times before winter, and is generally associated with the death of the God as the Sun's strength wanes. Traditionally Lughnassadh does have some of these associations, it is the time of the Tell-town games, held in honour of Lugh's foster mother as her funeral games. Lugh himself does not die however, nor is he really a Solar deity in any way connected with the waning of the year. Some of the roots of these modern pagan interpretations can also be traced back to the Saxon festival of Lammas (or Hlafmas, the loaf mass) which is far more closely related to autumn harvesting, and has acquired overtones of such folk-mythology as John Barleycorn, and tied into concepts of the God of the Grain.
This blending also highlights one of the other interesting features of the Wheel of the Year, because what we see is a melding of Agrarian Harvest themes with a more Pastoral Herding and Warrior based themes. This has led to some interesting extrapolations and interpretations of the Wheel as an holistic cycle. Perhaps the most commonly seen are those which focus more or less exclusively on one of these mythic paradigms.
One trend tends to see a more pastoral warrior cycle, with emphasis on the battle between a Light and Dark God, Winter and Summer, perhaps the Oak and Holly King, and possibly seen as Father and Son. The battle between Light and Darkness, Increase and Decrease of the Sun, Summer and Winter is one which cycles back and forth throughout the year, though the main combative events tend to be represented as the Equinoxes, when light and dark stand equally poised, and the Summer Solstice, when at the height of its strength the Sun begins to wane. The Farrar's cycle as presented in 'Eight Sabbats for Witches' tends to reflect this mythos, although they added a twist all their own by representing Samhain and Beltain as occasions for battle between the Holly and Oak Kings. A more insightful look at this kind of cycle, and one tailored to Australia, can be found in Julia and Matthew Phillips' 'The Witches of Oz'.
The converse trend is to focus more on the Solar-Grain connection, and to see the God in terms of the ripening Grain, cut down at harvest time, and reborn anew in the new year, and many representations utilising this more agricultural Grain Cycle, while representing the struggle between life and death, reap and sow, do not contain any battle element at all.
Still others blend or combine elements of both. Perhaps the best example in print of a more Agrarian based Cycle, but maintaining the Warrior conflict and the Father-Son tension, is that portrayed by Vivianne Crowley in her 'Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Millennium'. This book also demonstrates quite clearly the other development in the concept of the Wheel of the Year as a unified cycle, a growth which has enriched the Seasonal Cycle and given it a greater depth; the integration of the Seasonal Mythological cycle as a pattern for our own development and personal growth. Though couched in terms of Jungian Psychology this is a fascinating read for any who interested in doing more than just recognising the passing of the seasons, and for some it is the key to the Mysteries.
Thus we see the modern pagan Wheel of the Year as an extension of a number of different mythic themes and celebrations from Celtic and Saxon paganism, intertwined with a continuing body of folk lore, and then reinterpreted in a modern context as a unified cycle. This has allowed not only a common pagan framework for the celebration of the seasonal change within nature, but also given us an extremely effective tool to relate those myths, changes and metaphors to our own personal situations, to effect real insight and personal growth. Is the Wheel of the Year truly an ancient pagan survival - as it stands no. But, just like most forms of pagan practice there is a thread of continuity in themes, myths and inspiration which continues to inform and direct our more modern forms, and as such is a link both to our past and our future.
Crowley, Vivianne, (1996) Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Millennium, Thorsons, London.
Gardner, Gerald, (1999) Witchcraft Today, Mercury Publishing, USA.
Gardner, Gerald, (1999) The Meaning of Witchcraft, Mercury Publishing, USA.
Hutton, Ronald, (1996) The Rise and Fall of Merry England, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Hutton, Ronald, (1997) The Stations of the Sun, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Phillips, Matthew and Julia, (1994) The Witches of Oz, Capall Bann, UK.