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HEARTH WITCHERY

This is the ancient wisdom of the grandmothers, the wise women, once passed down from mother to daughter and crone to apprentice, and then improved by a lifetime of study and the daily observation of the patterns of nature.

In bygone ages most of us lived much closer to nature than we do now. Once every woman had to be something of an herbalist and healer, responsible for her household’s health, since professional medical help was either unavailable or too expensive (and possibly dangerous to boot). Every home kept some drying herbs and flowers to make herbal infusions, powders, oils and poultices, brewed wine and ale, preserved fruit, made jams and jellies, pickles and chutneys, and many also made inks, dyes, soaps and household cleaners. A girl would be initiated into the secrets of these family formulas by her mother, along with her knowledge of folklore, stories, healing potions, minor surgery, gardening, brewing and wine making, spinning, weaving, dyeing, childcare, home management, animal husbandry, bee-keeping, fortune telling and cookery know-how.

And then there were those in the community who knew that little bit more, the village wise woman or cunning man. When joined my first coven Julia, our high priestess, told us stories of the herb wives of the past, who cared for the bodies and spirits of those around them, telling their fortunes, treating their bodily ailments with herbs, dowsing their lost property, and physicking their farm animals. She held them up to us as examples of powerful, magical women in an age when women otherwise had little influence. They were the midwives who brought new life into the world, she said, and who laid out the dead at the end of life. Though such stories have often been wildly romanticised, folklore records and accounts do show that virtually every village seems to have had a wise woman or a cunning man of some sort. These village shamans had different names in different places, including handywomen, blessers, witches, conjurors, herb wives, wild herb men, snake doctors, fairy doctors and currens. These practitioners didn’t use athames and magic swords but everyday objects – stones, keys, shears, sieves, pitchforks, brooms, divining rods, wax, bottles, paper and anything that came readily to hand from the kitchen or farm.

This is the ancient wisdom of the grandmothers, the wise women, once passed down from mother to daughter and crone to apprentice, and then improved by a lifetime of study and the daily observation of the patterns of nature. Such expertise formed the pattern of women’s lives for thousands of years and that women developed highly skilful methods in all these areas, even though no contemporary historian wrote about them or accorded women due status for their invaluable work. Women’s knowledge has been derided and ignored for most of our history, and this is just as true today in western culture, in which knowledge is ‘owned’ by experts (mainly men) and can only be passed on through state-approved academic institutions, and where those seeking to follow traditional or alternative paths – such as herbalism – are dismissed as uneducated, naïve or even dangerous.

But this is our knowledge, our heritage – as women and as witches, both male and female. Discovering it and practicing my Craft has been a marvellous adventure for me, and it never ceases to fill me with wonder and awe at the power of Mother Nature. It makes me aware of the magic that flows throughout the world in every uncurling oak leaf in spring, every blushing rose petal, every humming summer bee, every rutting stag, and every misty shore. This is the reward of the path of the hearth witch.

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Hypatia, a Pagan Martyr

I’ve always been fascinated by Hypatia, a Pagan female scholar from Alexandria. In the year 415 CE, she was torn from her chariot by a fanatical Christian mob, the clothes ripped from her body, her flesh scraped from her bones with sharp abalone shells, and ‘her quivering limbs delivered to the flames’.

Hypatia was a mathematician, physicist and astronomer who worked at the Alexandrian library in a position similar to the modern equivalent of professor with chairs in both philosophy and mathematics. She was a prominent Pagan and head of the Neo-Platonist school of philosophy which sought revelation of the Divine through knowledge. She was a great beauty with many suitors, but rejected them all in favour of learning. A pupil of her father’s, the mathematician Theon, she quickly outstripped him, revising his two commentaries and writing two of her own on algebra and conic mathematics. Her pupil Cyrene described her as ‘the illustrious and God-beloved philosopher’. Synesius tells us that she was brilliant, the greatest teacher of her age.

Alexandria was cosmopolitan, and a cultural hub, with wide streets, marble palaces, central heating, gardens, museums, a medical school and several universities. It was a Pagan centre of learning based around the great library where the best minds gathered to evolve a systematic study of mathematics, physics, biology, astronomy, literature, geography and medicine. Their discoveries are still regarded as the foundation of modern learning. Books were gathered from every part of the globe, including Africa, Persia, India and Israel. Scientific research was financed and encouraged. Eratosthenes accurately calculated the size of the earth and argued that India could be reached by sailing west from Spain. Euclid produced a text book on geometry which remains in use today. People came from all over the world to trade and learn.

In Hypatia’s Alexandria, women had high status, social freedom and access to learning, while marriages were not enforced.

However, the growing Christian church was attempting to consolidate its power by eradicating Pagan culture and learning. The ideas of St Augustine and Origen were gaining ascendance; they loathed the flesh and blamed women for sin; learning, philosophy and independent thinking were associated with Paganism. Instead of allowing this learning to continue and evolve, the Christian Church deliberately condemned the western world to a thousand years of poverty and ignorance. Hypatia was the last scientist who worked at the great library. The Library was burned to the ground, its precious books destroyed by a rampaging Christian mob.

Hypatia’s influence over the Roman prefect Orestes had earned her the antipathy of Bishop Cyril who wanted to expel the city’s 40,000 Jews; she had persuaded the prefect to allow them to remain. Cyril led a mob that burned down the synagogues and the houses of the Jews, stoning any Jews they found. Orestes tried to stop the mob, but was attacked by fanatical Christian monks. Fighting back, he managed to capture one of his attackers, a monk called Ammonius, and had him executed for breaking the law. Cyril promptly declared him a martyr and spread the rumour that Hypatia was preventing a reconciliation between himself and Orestes. A brutal Christian mob tore her from her chariot and flayed her alive. Cyril was made a saint.

© Anna Franklin

Lip Salve

January is taking its toll on my skin, especially my poor chapped lips, so I am whipping up some lip salve:

6 tbsp. beeswax (or soy wax), grated

7 tbsp. olive oil

2 tsp. runny honey (optional)

In a double boiler, warm the oil and honey together (do not boil). Remove from the heat and stir in the wax until it has melted. Pour into small pots and seal.

Wassailing

January is the month for wassailing the orchards, waking up the spirit of vegetation and the land itself, and energising the move towards spring.

Today, most people think of wassailing only in connection with toasting the apple orchards. However, in the past, wassailing was a wide-spread custom associated with wishing health to people, crops and animals; apple trees were wassailed to make them bear fruit, and even bees were wassailed to make them produce more honey.  Cattle were toasted to keep them healthy. The prize cow was given a special cake with a hole in the middle (a symbol of the sun) and regaled with the words: “Fill your cups my merry men all!/ For here’s the best ox in the stall!

Oh he is the best ox, of that there’s no mistake,/ And so let us crown him with the Twelfth cake!” The cake was hooked over one of its horns. In parts of Scotland, the sea was similarly honoured, with ale poured into the waves in hope this would encourage good fishing in the coming year. [1] Wassailing the orchards usually involved either the land owner or specially selected bands of wassailers, visiting the orchard at night, selecting the oldest or most fruitful tree (known in Somerset as the Apple Tree Man) to represent the whole orchard.  The tree might be beaten with sticks in order to wake it up after its winter sleep. Bread or cakes soaked in cider would be placed in the tree’s branches and the wassail song sung, then loud noises made to frighten winter spirits away from the orchard. 

The word ‘wassail’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase Wæs hal, which was used as a greeting. Wæs means ‘to be’ and hal means ‘hale’ or ‘whole’. The greeting often accompanied the welcoming of a guest with a cup of ale or mead, and so became a toast (the correct response to which is Drinc Hale meaning “I drink to your good health”) and eventually wassailing, the act of toasting someone or something on special occasions with spiced ale or wine.

In the coven we see it as the last of our three rituals of the Yuletide season that finally closes the barren winter cycle and brings back the energy of growth into the land. We tap the tree three times to wake it up, pour cider onto its roots, and put apple cake or toast into its branches to honour it. It’s a very joyful occasion when we wear garlands of ivy, and bang drums to banish all the spirits of winter bane, before passing around the wassail cup, full of spiced cider or apple wine – at which point it gets even merrier. We take it in turns to host the event; some of us only have one apple or pear tree, others several. If you don’t have fruit trees of your own, perhaps you can get together with friends who do, or even perform the ritual in a local orchard or park where fruit trees grow. Wassailing ceremonies are becoming more and more popular, even among non-Pagans.

Wassailing Ritual

The ritual is carried out in the fruit orchard. Wear a garland of ivy.  Choose the largest and most productive tree on the plot, which stands for all the rest. Tap the trunk of the tree three times to ‘wake it up’ with your wand and say:

Apples and pears with right good corn,

Come in plenty to every one.

Eat and drink good cake and hot ale,

Give Earth to drink and she’ll not fail

Places the cake in the main fork of the tree. The wassail drink is thrown three times at the roots of the tree and chant:

“Here’s to thee, old apple tree!

Whence thou may’st bud,

And whence thou may’st blow

Hats full! Caps full! Bushel-bags full!

And pockets full too!”

The wassail bowl is recharged and all drink the health of the orchard with the word ‘wassail’.

Drums and musical instruments are played to wake up the spirits of vegetation and drive away the spirits of winter.

You can then take a burning brand and carry it around the property to infuse the spirit of warmth and fire into the earth, to purify it and bring luck for the coming year.

Everyone gathers around the fire and recharges the wassail bowl for a final toast of ‘wassail’.

Wassail

2 ¼ pt hard cider

3 apples, grated

2 oz brown sugar

½ tsp. ground ginger

Grated nutmeg

Method

Put a ¼ pint of cider in a pan and add the grated apples.  Cook until the apple is soft and add the brown sugar, ginger and the other 2 pints of cider. Heat through but do not allow to boil. Add some grated nutmeg and pour into a large cup or bowl.

Dorset Apple Cake

100 gm sugar

1 egg, beaten

100 gm butter

225 gm self-raising flour

Pinch salt

225 gm apples (peeled, cored and finely chopped)

1 egg (beaten)

Milk

Using your fingertips, rub the butter into the flour and salt until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add the apples and sugar, then mix in the egg and enough milk to make a stiff dough. Pour into a 20 cm (8 inch) tin and bake at 190 C/375 F/ gas mark 5 for 45 minutes.

© Anna Franklin


[1] Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gaedelica,

Plough Monday

Men did not return to work until after Plough Monday, the traditional start of the agricultural year falling the first Monday after Twelfth Night. References to Plough Monday date back to the late fifteenth century.

In some areas, particularly in northern England and East Anglia, a plough was dragged from house to house in a procession, with the ploughmen collecting money. They were often accompanied by musicians, an old woman or a boy dressed as an old woman called the Bessy, and a man in the role of the fool, who wore animal skins, a hairy cap and had an animal tail hanging from his back, in the manner of our friend the wildman. 

In the Isles of Scilly, locals would cross-dress and then visit their neighbours to joke about local occurrences. There would be ‘goose dancing’ and considerable drinking and revelry. [1]

It was a day for mumming plays. In Derbyshire: 

“On Plough Monday the ‘Plough bullocks’ are occasionally seen; they consist of a number of young men from various farmhouses, who are dressed up in ribbons…. These young men yoke themselves to a plough, which they draw about, preceded by a band of music, from house to house, collecting money. They are accompanied by the Fool and Bessy; the fool being dressed in the skin of a calf, with the tail hanging down behind, and Bessy generally a young man in female attire. The fool carries an inflated bladder tied to the end of a long stick, by way of whip, which he does not fail to apply pretty soundly to the heads and shoulders of his team. When anything is given a cry of ‘Largess!’ is raised, and a dance performed round the     plough. If a refusal to their application for money is made they not unfrequently plough up the pathway, door-stone, or any other portion of the premises they happen to be near.[2]

‘Plough Pudding’, a boiled suet pudding containing meat and onions was eaten in Norfolk on Plough Monday.

Plough Monday customs declined in the nineteenth century but have now been revived in many places, and celebrated with a plough procession, morris and molly dancing.

© Anna Franklin, Yule, History, Lore and Celebration, Lear Books 2010


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plough_Monday

[2] Clement A. Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan, T. Fisher Unwin, 1912

Epiphany

In the Christian calendar this is the Feast of the Epiphany, latterly said to mark the visit of the Wise Men to the infant Jesus, though in some parts of the early church it was considered Christ’s birthday. St. Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 315–403 CE) wrote that that 6 January was Christ’s epiphany (‘appearance’): “Christ was born on the sixth day of January after thirteen days of the winter solstice and of the increase of the light and day… For on the twenty-fifth day of December the division takes place which is the solstice, and the day begins to lengthen its light, receiving an increase, and there are thirteen days of it up to the sixth day of January, until the day of the birth of Christ… for it needs must have been that this should be a figure of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and of His twelve disciples, who made up the number of the thirteen days of the increase of the light.’ [1]

However, this day was previously celebrated as the birth or epiphany of the vegetation and vine god Dionysus.  Indeed, Epiphanius complained: “… the leaders of the idol-cults…in many places keep highest festival on this same night of Epiphany … at Alexandria, in the Koreion as it is called – an immense temple – that is to say, the Precinct of the Virgin; after they have kept all-night vigil with songs and music, chanting to their idol, when the vigil is over, at cockcrow, they descend with lights into an underground crypt, and carry up a wooden image lying naked on a litter…And they carry round the image itself, circumambulating seven times the innermost temple, to the accompaniment of pipes, tabors and hymns, and with merry-making they carry it down again underground. And if they are asked the meaning of this mystery, they answer and say: Today at this hour the Maiden, that is, the Virgin, gave birth to the Aion.’ [2][3]

Aion or Aeon was a syncretic god, usually identified as Dionysus, but also containing elements of Cronos, Osiris and Apollo, worshipped in multicultural Alexandria, a god of time, the revolutions of the stars and the zodiac, eternity and the afterlife. [4] He was generally depicted as a young man, but also as an old man who sloughs off age to become young again – an image of a god (or year) reborn annually.

Like other feast days around this period, Epiphany was widely associated with the Winter Crone. In Carinthia the Epiphany was called Berchtentag, [5] after the hag Bechta, and in Italy, the hag goddess of the Twelve Nights is Befana, her name a corruption of Epiphania (‘epiphany’). Though her role has largely been taken over by Santa Claus in modern Italy, she was once the yuletide gift bringer. Sicilians especially honoured Befana, also called la Strega (‘the witch’)or la Vecchia (‘the old woman’).  Befana descended from the mountains, riding on her broom, and entered houses through the chimney, leaving presents for children. Children left notes for her in the chimney. For those children who had been naughty, she left only coal (shops sold carbone, a sweet that looks like coal) or a birch rod (to be spanked with). Witch-like images of Befana were placed in the windows of houses, and there were processions through the streets. Singers serenaded houses where cloth images of Befana were placed in the windows, or carried her image from house to house while carolling. The Befana dolls were afterwards burned, probably in token of the passing of the old year. Omens were taken from the fire. If the smoke blew towards the east, it was an indication that the harvest would be good. If the smoke blew towards the west, it would be poor.

The rites of the Epiphany signal that the darkest time has ended. [6]

© Anna Franklin


[1] The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, (trans. Frank Williams), online at https://archive.org/stream/EpiphaniusPanarionBksIIIII1/Epiphanius%20-%20_Panarion_%20-%20Bks%20II%20%26%20III%20-%201_djvu.txt, accessed 9.1.20

[2] The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, (trans. Frank Williams), online at https://archive.org/stream/EpiphaniusPanarionBksIIIII1/Epiphanius%20-%20_Panarion_%20-%20Bks%20II%20%26%20III%20-%201_djvu.txt, accessed 9.1.20

[3] Hugo Rahner, Greek Myths and Christian Mystery, Biblo-Moser 1963

[4] http://hermeticmagick.com/content/deities/aion.html

[5] Ibid

[6] Max Dashu http://www.suppressedhistories.net/secrethistory/witchtregenda.html

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night (5 January) and Twelfth Day (6January) are generally considered to be the ending of the Christmas season. Today most people just think of it as the time to take down the Christmas decorations, but in the past it was a major festival, surrounded by its own myths and customs. It was a time for one last fling with games, dressing up and plays, all managed by the Lord of Misrule who held sway during the season of Yule and the Twelve Days that followed it. The Tudor court held huge feasts, while in Victorian England the shops were open late, selling cakes decorated with stars, castles, lions, dragons, kings, knights and serpents, painted onto white icing. The king and queen of the feast were chosen by a concealed ring in the cake, or a pea and bean hidden in the cake. [1] [2]

It was both a propitious and a dangerous time, standing between the holiday period and the return to work, between winter and the coming spring, between the Old and New Year. Any such liminal time is surrounded by taboos and propitiations.  In many places bonfires were lit, sometimes thirteen fires, one for each of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and a thirteenth called the Judas Fire which was put out during the proceedings to extinguish any negativity that might attach to the coming year. [3]

Many of the customs of Twelfth Night concern the Crone or Hag Goddess, who rules the winter quarter of the year, like the German Perchta, to whom this night is sacred, and who was placated with houses decorated with evergreens and food left out for her on Twelfth Night. [4] If she was pleased, she would leave small presents and treats for the children.

Twelfth Night and Twelfth Day was the time to expel the winter spirits of chaos and bane and send them back to the underworld [5] in a ritual battle between the forces of growth and summer, and the forces of death and winter. The malicious Greek Kallikantzaroi appear during the Twelve Days and the signal for their final departure comes on Twelfth Night with the Kalanda festival, when the ‘Blessing of the Waters’ ceremony takes place. Some holy water is put into vessels and with these and with incense, the priests make a round of the village, sprinkling the people and their houses which makes the winter spirits flee.

Twelfth Night Cake

2 ¼ lb. mixed dried sultanas, raisins and currants

2 oz mixed peel

2 oz glace cherries

2 oz chopped walnuts

¼ pint whisky

¼ pint milk

12 oz muscavado sugar

12 oz butter

4 eggs

1 lb. 4 oz plain flour

1 level tbs. baking powder

2 level tsp. mixed spice

Method

Place the dried fruit and peel in a bowl. Stir in the whisky and milk, cover and leave overnight. Heat the oven to 140oC /gas mark 1. Oil a large tin [approx. 12 inch x 10 inch] and line the base and sides with grease proof paper. Brush the paper with oil. Cream the butter and sugar, add the beaten eggs a little at a time. If the mixture curdles add a little flour. Sift the flour, baking powder and spice and fold into to the creamed mixture. Add the fruit, nuts and whisky. Stir well.  Turn into the tin. Bake in the centre of the oven for 2 ¼ to 2 ½ hours. Leave to cool in the tin. Turn out and remove the paper.  If you really must, you can sprinkle more whisky. The cake can be iced and decorate with stars, ribbons, wheat ears, nuts and glace fruit.

© Anna Franklin


[1] Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Blitz Editions, Leicester, 1990

[2] http://www.pepysdiary.com

[3] Steve Roud, The English Year, Penguin Books Ltd., 2006

[4] Clement A. Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan, T. Fisher Unwin, 1912

[5] Clement A. Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan, T. Fisher Unwin, 1912

New Year’s Day

We still celebrate New Year as an important holiday and a day of firsts. Its ancient customs have persisted into the modern age – a firm break with the past and the previous year must be made, and all tasks must be finished before the New Year begins. In the past, everything done or seen on New Year’s Day had a magical or symbolic significance, and it was important to begin the year as you meant to go on. This included feasting well  to ensure food for the coming year, not starting the year as a debtor and not giving anything away, which would be giving your luck away. No substance of any kind was allowed to be removed from the house on New Year’s Day – not even dirty water, sweepings from the floor and ashes from the heath. One of the unluckiest things to do was give a neighbour fire from your hearth, which would ensure a death within that family during the coming year. 

In ancient Rome, in celebrations that might still seem entirely familiar to us today, the Kalends (first day) of January were celebrated with singing and dancing all night long in the streets, men wearing women’s clothes and people wearing masks and disguises. Libanius, the famous Greek sophist of the fourth century CE wrote:

“The festival of the Kalends is celebrated everywhere as far as the limits of the Roman Empire extend…. Everywhere may be seen carousals and well-laden tables; luxurious abundance is found in the houses of the rich, but also in the houses of the poor better food than usual is put upon the table. The impulse to spend seizes everyone. He who the whole year through has taken pleasure in saving and piling up his pence, becomes suddenly extravagant.” [1]

The Christians took a dim view of this continuation of Pagan customs. Caesarius of Arles (sixth century CE) castigated that: “…the heathen put on counterfeit forms and monstrous faces….Some are clothes in the hides of cattle, others put on the heads of beasts…furthermore those who have been born men are clothed in women’s dress…blushing not to clothe their warlike arms in women’s garments…[2]  Even priests were accused of wearing masks, dressing as women and singing lewd songs.

Because it was the start of a whole new year, it was a day for taking omens. In the eleventh century, Buchard of Worms wrote “Have you celebrated the calends of January according to pagan customs?… to wit: arranging stones on your table or giving a feast, leading dancers or singers through the streets and squares, taking a seat upon your roof while wearing your sword in order to see and know what will happen in the new year, sitting atop of a bull’s hide where the roads cross to read the future, on the night of January 1 cooking bread for yourself to know whether the new year will be prosperous according to whether the dough rises? If yes, because you have abandoned God your creator, and have turned to vain idols and become apostate, you will fast on all the official days for two years.” [3]

Divinations continued to be widely practiced into very recent times. In Lithuania on New Year’s Eve, nine sorts of things (money, cradle, bread, ring, death’s head, old man, old woman, ladder and key) were baked into dough, and laid beneath nine plates, and everyone had three grabs at them. Whatever he got would be his lot during the year. Germans put a leaf of periwinkle on a plate filled with water and if it remained green until the following night, good health was assured for the coming year. If it stained though, it meant illness; if it turned black, death would follow. In Macedonia St. Basil’s Cake was baked with a silver coin in it. The person who found coin in his piece would prosper during the year. On the Isle of Man it was a custom to fill a thimble with salt and upset it on a plate, one thimbleful for each person in the house. This was put aside for the night and examined the next morning. If any of the heaps of salt had fallen over that person would die in the coming year.

In Britain, in the spirit of ensuring prosperity for the coming year with sympathetic magic, gifts were once given at New Year, rather than Christmas. [4]  Children in West Glamorgan went from house to house with good wishes for the New Year, carrying apples stuck full of corn, variously coloured and decorated with a sprig of evergreen. [5] For the same reason, on the Scottish Borders, care was taken that no one entered a house empty-handed on New Year’s Day and in England, a visitor had to bring something to eat or drink.  Rumanians threw handfuls of corn at one another with some appropriate greeting, such as:

May you live,

May you flourish

Like apple-trees,

Like pear-trees

In springtime,

Like wealthy autumn,

Of all things plentiful. [6]

In Russia, corn sheaves were piled upon a table and in the midst of them was set a large pie. The father of the family took his seat behind them, and asked his children if they could see him. When they replied in the negative, he would declare that he hoped that the corn would grow as high in his fields that he would be just as invisible when he walked there at harvest time. 

On the first day of the New Year, the first drawn water from a well or spring gained magical properties. A Highland practice was to send someone on the last night of the year to draw a pitcher of water in silence, and without the vessel touching the ground. The water was drunk on New Year’s morning as a charm against witchcraft and the evil eye. At Bromyard in Herefordshire it was the custom, at midnight on New Year’s Eve, to rush to the nearest spring to snatch the ‘cream of the well’ (the first pitcher of water) and with it the prospect of the best luck. In Pembrokeshire, early on New Year’s morning, crowds of boys went round the neighbourhood with a vessel of cold spring water and using a twig of box, rosemary or myrtle they would sprinkle the hands and faces of anyone they met in return for a copper or two. [7]

© Anna Franklin


[1] Quoted in C. Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan,   T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1912

[2] Quoted in John Matthews, The Winter Solstice, Godsfield Press, Arelsford, 2003

[3] Quoted in Prof. Philippe Walter, Christianity, The Origins of a Pagan Region, Inner Traditions, Vermont, 2006

[4] Charles Kightly, The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain, Thames and Hudson, London, 1986

[5] Gentleman’s Magazine, March 1819

[6] C. Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan,   T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1912

[7] Trefor M. Owen, Welsh Folk Customs, Gomer Press, Llandysul, 1994

New Year’s Eve

New Year’s Eve is a day of omens and taboos when people believed that it was important to banish the old year completely and ensure good luck and prosperity for the new one. Creditors had to be paid off to avoid starting the New Year in debt, and thus setting a pattern for the future. Lending as much as a light for a candle was considered very unlucky. If you get up early on New Year’s Day, you would be an early riser for the rest of the year and so on.

As the liminal point when one year shifts into the next, New Year’s Eve was often considered a dangerous and magically charged night of the year, making it necessary to protect the home and its inhabitants from the supernatural. In Iceland, for example, cows gain human speech, seals take on human form, the dead rise from their graves and the elves move house. In the Scottish Highlands houses were decorated with holly to keep out the fairies. It was the tradition to keep the fire, which was usually damped down at night, burning away merrily all through New Year’s night, fuelled along with a special incantation. If the fire went out that night, it was a very bad omen for the coming year. In Silesia it was the custom to fire shots into bushes and trees to drive out evil spirits and witches. Fireworks were traditional in Germany for the same reason. In Denmark the same thing is done with the aim of chasing away trolls and evil spirits. This seems to be an end of year custom designed to make enough noise to chase away the spirits of darkness. [1] In Switzerland, the people parade through the streets dressed in costumes and hats, representative of good and evil spirits.

Ritual purification was common. On the last night of the year, Strathdown Highlanders would bring home great loads of juniper, which was kindled in the different rooms, with all the windows and doors closed, to fumigate all the household members and all the farm animals. [2] In Germany, juniper twigs collected during the year were brought in and burned to protect the house. Austrians considered this a rauchnacht or smoke-night when all rooms and animals must be purified with the smoke of burning wormwood and holy water.

In several places, it was customary to ‘burn out the old year’ with bonfires. In Herefordshire and surrounding counties, one tradition was the weaving a of a globe of hawthorn twigs which was then set alight and carried around the fields. The custom was widespread on farms and in villages in Herefordshire and Radnorshire during the nineteenth century. In parts of Worcestershire, on New Year’s morning, a crown was made of blackthorn which was then baked in the oven before being burned to ashes in a cornfield, the ashes then being scattered over the ground.

This is also St Sylvester’s Day.  Sylvester means ‘forest’ or ‘wood’. An Austrian custom involved a masked figure called the Sylvester (a sort of Wildman) who hid in the corner at inns and leapt out when a young man or woman passed to give them a kiss. The Sylvester wore a wreath of mistletoe, perhaps an emblem of the fertility which he bestows with the kisses. When midnight came, he was driven out of the room as a representative of the old year. [3]

It was important to ‘let the New Year in’ in the proper manner. First footing customs are found throughout Britain.  It was considered most important that the first-foot (i.e. the first person over the threshold after midnight) should not come empty-handed but must offer a gift of spiced ale, whiskey, shortbread, oak cakes, sweets or fuel for the fire. An offering of food or drink must be accepted by sharing it with everyone present, including the visitor. Fuel must be placed onto the fire by the visitor with the words “A good New Year to one and all and many may you see”. The first foot had to be a man or a boy, and preferably dark haired, as it was very unlucky for a red-headed man – or in some places, a fair-haired man – to ‘let in’ the New Year. [4]

Divinations were also practiced. One involved placing a ring in the filled bowl, with young unmarried people dunking for the ring; the one who succeeded in retrieving it without the use of his or her hands was guaranteed to be married within the year.

In Lithuania on New Year’s Eve nine sorts of things (money, cradle, bread, ring, death’s head, old man, old woman, ladder and key) were baked into dough, and laid beneath nine plates, and everyone had three grabs at them. Whatever he got would be his lot during the year.

In Germany it was also a time of divination – if you put a leaf of periwinkle on a plate filled with water and it remains green until the following night, you can expect health during the coming year. In Macedonia, St. Basil’s Cake was baked with a silver coin and a cross in it. The person who found the cross or coin in his piece prosper during the year. On the Isle of Man it was a custom to fill a thimble with salt and upset it on a plate, one thimble for everyone in the house. This was put aside for the night and examined the next morning. If any of the heaps of salt had fallen over that person would die in the coming year. The coming weather was also considered. According to one rhyme:

If New Year’s Eve night wind blows South,

It betokeneth warmth and growth;

If West, much milk and fish in the sea,

If North, much cold and storms there will be;

If East, the trees will bear much fruit;

If North-east, flee it, man and brute.

© Anna Franklin


[1] Prof. Philippe Walter, Christianity, the Origins of a Pagan Religion, Inner Traditions, Vermont, 2006

[2] W. Grant, Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, Archibald Constable,  London, 1823

[3] Prof. Philippe Walter, Christianity, the Origins of a Pagan Religion, Inner Traditions, Vermont, 2006

[4] Trefor M. Owen, Welsh Folk Customs, Gomer Press, Llandysul, 1994

Twelve Days Out of Time

The Twelve Days of Christmas officially begin on 26 December, Boxing Day. According to some they are the last six days of the old year and first six days of the new year. The ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Teutons (among others) all had a twelve day festival around the winter solstice. The idea was adopted by Christianity in the fourth century, because, the apologists said, it took the Wise Men twelve days to find Jesus. They start on Boxing Day because ‘Christmas Day was a holy day’, or maybe because the old way of counting days was that they began at Sunset, so Boxing Day starts on the eve of 25 December. If, as Pagans, we celebrate the solstice on 21 December, that neatly and conveniently takes the Twelve Days of Yule to New Year’s Day.

The sun reborn at Yule is a weakling babe and for twelve days all is still uncertain. Only at their conclusion does the sun gain enough power to turn the tide and send the winter spirits back to the underworld. These first twelve days are the most dangerous and uncanny days of the year. They exist outside of normal time and do not belong to the year proper – time is in suspension. Finnish shamans call this period ‘the Dreaming’ or ‘God’s Trance Hour’.[1] The strangeness of these days is reflected in many of their other names: the Balkan ‘unbaptised days’; the Slovenian ‘wolf nights’; the Germanic ‘raw nights’ and the Bulgarian ‘heathen days’ or ‘dirty days’ when demons attack the World Tree.[2]  In Scotland, no court had power during the Twelve Days. In Finland and Sweden the Twelve days of Christmas were declared to be time of civil peace by law and anyone committing a crime during them could expect a stiffer sentence than normal.

Many of the ancient beliefs and customs surrounding the Twelve Days remain to this day. They are a time of danger, the eerie and the supernatural, haunted by spirits which might punish or reward.

As the Twelve Days represent the twelve months of the coming year, and many omens were taken from them. In England it was said that the weather on the first day would reflect the weather in January, the weather on the second day the weather in February and so on.

The threat of the precarious Twelve Days that follow before the Sun gains enough power to combat it is reflected in the folk tales of ghosts and fairies temporarily freed from the underworld. In Guernsey the powers of darkness are supposed to be especially active between St. Thomas’s Day (21 December) and New Year’s Eve, and it is dangerous to be out after nightfall. In the Orkneys, precautions had to be taken against supernatural visitors, especially from the influence of the trows, the ugly and malicious fairies of the Northern Isles who leave the underworld at Yule. [3] In the Scandinavian countries on Christmas Eve people stayed indoors so as not to meet the spirits. In Sweden the trolls were abroad.  In Iceland the thirteen Yule Lads or Jolasveinar appear. Though today they have become cuddly gift bringers, leaving presents for good children and potatoes for naughty ones, originally they were terrifying characters, the sons of two undead trolls, Gryla and Leppaludi who stole and ate naughty children. The Yule boys start arriving during the days before Christmas to cause mischief. 

The Hag Goddess comes into her supremacy during the Twelve Nights and flies through the midnight skies, accompanied by wild women, ghosts and other spirits, collecting the souls of the dead, especially those unbaptised at the time of their death. Usually described as a spinner, she is a crone with long nose, or perhaps a nose made of iron, or she has iron teeth.[4] She sometimes carried a pitcher of live coals or a cauldron to burn the distaffs of lazy spinners.[5] However, though she was severe in her punishments, she rewarded those who pleased her, and her passing blessed the land with fertility. It was she who gave newborns their destiny.

Frau Gauden and her twenty four daughters were often seen during the Twelve Nights, and where she passed by with her dogs, the harvest would be good. Folk songs remember Fru Gauden as a giver of auspicious gifts to children. In northern Germany the Hag was Frau Holle or Frau Holt. To placate the goddess and her host, people would leave out offerings. In Germany the Hollenzopf (‘Hölle’s braid’) plaited loaf was left out. Holda, whose name means ‘the kindly one’ brought rewards for diligent spinners, and on every New Year’s Eve, between nine and ten o’clock, she drove in a carriage full of presents through villages where respect had been shown to her. At the crack of her whip the people would come out to receive her gifts. In Hesse and Thuringia she was imagined as a beautiful woman clad in white with long golden hair, and, when it snows hard, people said “Frau Holle is shaking her featherbed.” She is derived from the Germanic sky goddess Holda or Hulda, who was also a goddess of fertility, the hearth and spinning.[6]

More frightening still are the Greek Kallikantzaroi who appear during the Twelve Days. They are half-animal, half-human monsters, black, hairy, with huge heads, red eyes, goats’ or asses’ ears, lolling red tongues, ferocious tusks, long curved claws and animals’ feet. Though they normally live in the underworld, at this time they attempt to climb up the World Tree to emerge on earth. In the Macedonian plain of Saraghiol, the Kallikantzaroi emerge from a stone named Kiatra Schuligan, beneath which an abyss opens, black and deep, and the sound of laughter, sobs and screams can be heard issuing from it, along with the sounds of pipes and beating drums.  [7] The signal for their final departure does not come until Twelfth Night with the Kalanda festival, when the ‘Blessing of the Waters’ ceremony takes place. Like other such creatures elsewhere, they are often said to be spirits of the dead. Children born at Christmas are susceptible to becoming Kallikantzaroi, as are people with inept guardian angels. In some places they are thought to be transformed humans placed under a spell after being born with a caul during the Twelve Nights.   

This is a characteristic they share with the werewolf, a man who is supposed to change into a ravening wolf – ‘man-wolves’ is the name given to the Kallikantzaroi in southern Greece. The connection between Christmas and werewolves is not confined to Greece. According to a belief in the north and east of Germany, children born during the Twelve Nights become werewolves, while in Livonia and Poland that period is the special season for the werewolf’s rapacity.[8] The wolf is associated both with the wild side of nature and the time of chaos and boundaries. In Norse myth the Fenris wolf embodies the forces of night and chaos and will bring about Ragnorok, when those forces will overwhelm the world.

Only when the reborn Sun gains sufficient strength, at the end of the twelve days, will the spirits of chaos be sent back to the underworld and the new year can begin in proper form.

© Anna Franklin


[1] Nigel Jackson, Compleat Vampire, Capall Bann, Chieveley

[2] The “Pagan Days” by Max Dashu, http://www.matrifocus.com/IMB07/scholar.htm

[3] Anna Franklin, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies, Vega, London,

[4] The Russian witch goddess Baba Yaga had iron teeth and flew with witches at the summer solstice.

[5] Max Dashu http://www.suppressedhistories.net/secrethistory/witchtregenda.html

[6] Anna Franklin, The Illustrated Fairy Encyclopaedia, Vega, London 2002

[7] This Macedonian lore of the kallikantzaroi connects high rock formations with the dead, especially infants who died without baptism. Similar associations were made by the Scots, who used to have a custom of burying unbaptised babies among inaccessible rocks. The child’s spirit entered into the rocks and became the echo (called ‘child of the rock’ in Gaelic).

[8] Nigel Jackson, Compleat Vampyre, Cappall Bann. Chieveley, 1995

The Winter Solstice

The word solstice is derived from Latin and means ‘Sun stands still’. The Sun usually rises at a different point on the horizon each day and travels north-east to its furthest position at the summer solstice, where it appears to stand still on the horizon for three days, before heading south-east, reaching its southernmost position at the winter solstice where it seems to rest again for three days before heading north once more.

During the summer, the long hours of light and warmth provide a bountiful harvest of greenery, grain and fruit. Animals have plenty of grazing and reproduce. But then winter comes. Darkness and cold increase daily causing plants to shrivel and die and animals to perish while struggling to find fodder. The great source of life, the Sun, is weakening daily. Each day it is lower and lower on the horizon, and each day the hours of daylight grow fewer. Darkness is spreading; everything is winding down, threatening to come to a standstill. The year has declined and languishes in the season of its old age, standing on the edge of its grave.

The great source of life is failing. If the Sun does not regenerate then time itself will come to an end, life will be extinguished and the world will return to the dark womb of chaos from which it emerged. And when the Sun decays towards its death at Yule, that primal chaos threatens to return. The Sun God is dying. Will he be overcome by the powers of darkness and chaos, or will he fight and overcome? The fate of the whole world rests with him.

Eventually, everything comes to a standstill. For three days the Sun does not move on the horizon. The great Wheel of the Year has stopped turning.

Then, on the shortest day, in the time of greatest darkness, the Sun is reborn. Life and hope are rekindled – the light will grow, warmth will increase, spring, summer and harvest will come. The Wheel of the Year, which has been briefly stilled, will spin on.  The old year, the old cycle of existence and time, dissolves back into the primordial chaos. The Sun reborn and the new year represent the world rejuvenated and reality renewed.

For many of our ancestors the eternal cycle of the Sun was the central paradigm of their spiritual beliefs. The Sun god is born at the winter solstice and grows until midsummer, afterwards declining towards his death at the midwinter solstice, where he languishes for three days in his grave before rising from his tomb, reborn. The Roman Emperor Aurelian (270 to 275 CE) blended a number of Pagan solstice  celebrations of the nativity of such saviours into a single festival called Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered Sun’ on the winter solstice, which fell on December 25th in the Roman calendar.  Roman women would parade in the streets crying “unto us a child is born!”

Modern Pagans usually call the festival Yule, the modern English version of the Old English words ġeól or ġeóhol (the festival of Yule) The etymology is uncertain.  According to The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, Yule is derived into modern English from Jól deriving from Old Norse hjól, meaning ‘wheel’. 

Rite for Yule

I’ve written this ritual here so that it can be performed alone, or easily adapted for group work, with the parts shared out. Make a representation of the old year. This should be a dark, bent misshapen thing that holds everything outworn and spent that you want to pass away with the year. It can be made of crumpled paper if you like, or you can come up with something much more inventive if you wish. We generally make a boat that is holed, with bent masts and crooked decks.

In the centre of the circle is a lit brazier (you can substiture a cauldron or metal dish with a candle in it), representing the cauldron-womb of the Goddess at the core of creation, around it is a spiral of unlit lamps or candles. Say:

The year has reached its lowest ebb, all is darkness and death. The forces of chaos threaten to overwhelm the world. The Sun has ceased in his course, lingering three days in his grave. Time itself stands still.

Carry the symbol of the Old Year along the spiral on an inward course to the centre, saying:

Go back to the Source, your time is over.

At the centre say:

Goddess, great mother,

Your womb is the dark void of space

Which holds the seed of all potentials

You are the beginning and the end and the beginning once again

Take back the spent year and all its forces of chaos.

The Symbol of the Old Year is burned on the brazier. Say:

In this darkness we must find hope. In this darkness we must find light. The wheel of the year must spin on. The Sun must be reborn!

Goddess,

Great Cosmic Mother,

Your celestial womb

Is the source of all things, it births the elements,

Goddess,

Great Cosmic Mother,

Give us the spark of life,

The reborn Sun

Renew creation, so that the wheel of life spins on

Take a light from the brazier, and gradually light the lamps (or candles) of the spiral, so that the light begins at the brazier, which represents the womb of the Goddess at the centre of the Cosmos, and travels outwards until it reaches the edge. As you light each lamp say:    

Death moves to life and dark turns to light

The light is reborn!

The Wheel spins on.

Life is renewed.
With the Sun we are each reborn. Blessed Be!

In the coven, after we have performed this ritual, we go indoors to the hearth fire and the sparkling Yule tree, and exchange presents. These are always handmade, and we have an injunction that they should not cost more than a pound (just over a dollar) per person. It’s amazing what people come up with under these guidelines, and we’ve had far more meaningful and personal gifts that we would have done if they had been bought. Coveners have knitted hats, made sets of runes, incense, candles, bath salts, engraved glasses, pyrographed place mats, baked cakes and sweets, and home-made liqueurs.