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


Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: