The winter solstice is probably the most ancient festival of all. Evidence for its celebration goes back at least 30, 000 years and is found on every continent of the world. Sheltered in our warm houses and able to buy food from the supermarket all year round, we find it hard to imagine what winter meant for our ancestors. During the summer, the long hours of light and warmth provided a bountiful harvest of greenery, corn and fruit. Animals had plenty of grazing and reproduced, supplying meat and milk. But then winter came. Darkness and cold increased daily, plants withered and animals expired while struggling to find fodder. Humans died from cold and hunger. Every day, the sun seemed to grow weaker, as if it too were dying. Every day, it rose lower and lower in the sky. Darkness and death threatened to overwhelm the world forever.

The sun governs the pattern of life on Earth, its cycles dividing the hours, days, months and years, and the round of sowing, growth, harvest and decay. It is only the movement of the sun that makes life possible. Its regular daily and seasonal rotations stand as a symbol of cosmic order.

Each day, up to the winter solstice, the sun grows weaker and weaker. 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. If the sun does not regenerate then time will come to an end, life will be extinguished and the world will return to the dark womb of night from which it emerged. And when the sun decays towards its death at Yule, that primal chaos threatens to return. Our ancestors thought that before the sun was set spinning on its course – creating the hours, days and seasons – there was only chaos; it was the beginning of regularised time that brought the cosmos into being.

At the solstice, the sun is still for three days as though time itself is frozen. Everything stands in suspension, waiting for the rebirth of the sun to chase the chaotic spirits back to the Otherworld and set time spinning on its course once again. In reflection of this, the Lapps forbade the turning of any kind of wheel, including cartwheels and churns. In many countries across Europe all forms of spinning and weaving were also prohibited. In Shropshire no spinning was done during the Twelve Days of Yule, for if any flax were to be left on the distaff, the Devil would cut it. In other places fairies or hag goddesses were said to destroy any spinning left at Yule.

As the sun winds down and darkness increases, our ancestors believed that the immortal spirits of chaos are released from the underworld and try to overtake the world. The threat of the longest night and dangerous Twelve Days that follow is reflected in the folk tales of ghosts and fairies temporarily freed from the underworld. In the Orkneys the evil trow fairies leave their mounds and dance. In Sweden the trolls were believed to be abroad, celebrating the dark time with dancing and revelry or flying to assemblies in the mountains in the company of witches, mounted on wolves, shovels or broomsticks. Passersby might hear their laughter and music. 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.

More frightening and closer to their original characters are the Greek Kallikantzaroi who appear during the Twelve Days. In Greek folk tradition it is believed that when Christ is born, so too are these winter spirits. 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. 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. In Poland, an excitable drunk is said to be like one ‘who runs amok at Christmas in a wolfskin’. In Campania, those born on Christmas night turn periodically into werewolves. In Naples, those born on Christmas day have tails and turn into werewolves. There are many stories of werewolf transformations at Christmas. The wolf is associated both with the wild side of nature and the time of chaos and boundaries. In France, the twilight is called ‘between the dog and the wolf’. 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.

In many parts of the world it is believed that the dead return at Christmas. In Hungary, troops of the dead returned at the Epiphany, accompanied by witches. In Scandinavia Christmas was the time when the dead revisited their old homes and had to be made welcome. Before people went to bed, they made sure the house was left tidy with a fire burning in the hearth. Food and ale were left out on the table. If earth was found on the chairs in the morning, it was known that a kinsman, fresh from the grave, had sat there. In Poland, the dead were invited inside to warm themselves and funeral foods were eaten. In Portugal crumbs were scattered for them on the hearth. In ancient times, seeds were left out for the spirits of the ancestors so they could return with fruits and grains from the Otherworld at harvest time.

Only the sun’s rebirth can send the spirits of chaos back and restore time and order to their proper courses. Until then, the world is turned upside down, and the Kingdom of Misrule is established on earth. The customs of the Lord of Misrule, along with most of our other Christmas traditions, seem to derive directly from the ancient Roman Saturnalia. Saturn (the Latin equivalent of the Greek Cronos) was the original king of the Golden Age which was temporarily regained at the Saturnalia. It was an annual period of license, when the customary restraints of law and morality were thrown aside and everyone gave themselves up to excessive mirth and jollity. Catullus called it ‘the best of days’. Masters changed places with their servants, and the slave might dine with his master or even be waiting on by him. Every house had its Saturnalicius Princeps (Master of the Saturnalia), the Lord of Misrule, chosen by lot, who had to act as foolishly as possible and was free to order others to do his bidding. His command was law, whether it was to dance naked, to sing, suffer a dunking in icy water, or carry a flute girl round the house.

At Yule, the old year dissolves back into the chaos and darkness from which it emerged as the world is reborn and a new cycle begins. At such a time, the pattern for the future could be set by sympathetic magic, and the future divined.

It was considered very important to complete the old year’s work before the New Year began: a magical act of leaving behind the past and being ready to embrace the future. In the same vein, there was also a sense that Yule was a time for settling moral accounts: bad behaviour in the previous year would be punished and good behaviour rewarded. Today’s Christmas celebrations still retain an element of this whereby children are told that of they are good, Father Christmas will bring them presents. Less common is the injunction that naughty children will be deprived of their goodies or left pieces of coal instead. In the past bad children were promised severe punishment and whipping by the Winter Spirits, and adults were just as likely to reap penalties ranging from bad luck to dismemberment and death. Yule was the time when the souls of the dead were collected, or returned in ghostly companies accompanying the Winter Hag or Wild Hunter. In Europe, Saint Nicholas and other gift-giving spirits had (and in some places still have) a variety of helpers that bear no resemblance to the cute elves of the American Santa. These are ragged, sinister spirits, sometimes horned, often hairy with blackened or hideous faces, which carry rods to punish naughty children and evil doers, even dragging some away to hell. They go by a variety of names in various regions and include Knecht Rupprecht, Pelznickle, Zwarte Piets, Furry Nicholas, Rough Nicholas and Klapperbock. They are often identified with demons or the devil himself.

The year has declined and languishes in the season of its old age, standing on the edge of its grave. The rich and fruitful days of summer have given way to the dreary days before the winter solstice, and flowers have given way to naked branches. Each day grows a little shorter. The great source of life is failing, overcome by the powers of darkness and chaos. The sun god is dying. Will he be overwhelmed, or will he fight and overcome? The fate of the whole world rests with him.

Then, on the shortest day, in the time of greatest darkness, the sun is reborn.
For our ancestors the eternal cycle of the sun was the central paradigm of their spiritual beliefs. There are thousands of sun gods and goddesses with remarkably similar characteristics: they battle the forces of darkness and dispel evil; they illuminate the sky; see everything on their path and uncover those secrets hidden by darkness (often in the form of prophecy); they represent truth, justice and enlightenment and they bring healing. 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. Sun gods born at the winter solstice include Zeus, Dionysus, Bacchus, Osiris/Horus, Adonis, Zeus, Chris of Chaldea, Mithras, Sakia of India, Chang-ti of China, Jesus and Krishna.

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 Bruma, the winter solstice or December 25th. Roman women would parade in the streets crying “unto us a child is born!”

The worn-out age (or year) is defeated and imprisoned with the other forces of chaos, and the new age (or year) begins. Even today we have the familiar image of Father Time (Saturn or Cronus), usually depicted as an elderly bearded man carrying a scythe, who is the personification of the Old Year who passes the duty of time on to the New Year baby. At Yule, 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.

It is impossible to separate the celebrations of the winter solstice and Christmas, as all of the myths, symbols and customs of Christmas are Pagan in origin. But while Christians see time as linear and believe that the birth of the divine child came but once, two thousand years ago, Pagans view time as cyclical, and know that the Child of Light, and with him the world, is reborn and renewed every year.

Anna Franklin, abridged from Yule, History Lore and Celebration, Lear Books, 2010



In Europe, Saint Nicholas and other gift-giving spirits had (and in some places still have) a variety of helpers that bear no resemblance to the cute elves of the American Santa. These are ragged, sinister spirits, sometimes horned, often hairy with blackened or hideous faces, which carry rods to punish naughty children and evil doers, even dragging some away to hell. They go by a variety of names in various regions and include Knecht Rupprecht, Pelznickle, Zwarte Piets, Furry Nicholas, Rough Nicholas and Klapperbock. They are often identified with demons or the devil himself.

The English Father Christmas was a very different figure to the American Santa Claus until the mid-twentieth century. Before then, he personified the good will and cheer of the season, depicted in a variety of clothes, and never climbed down chimneys, had reindeer or filled stockings.

He was banned by the Puritans, along with mince pies and games. Occasionally secret publishers would print broadsheets with a verse about ‘Old Christmas’. He became the personification of everything the British people held dear about Christmas.

In the eighteenth century, Father Christmas began to appear in the Christmas plays of itinerant players. In the middle of the play, he would appear, heavily disguised, shouting his challenge, “In comes I, Old Father Christmas. Be I welcome or be I not – I hope that old Christmas will never be forgot!” He was used as a symbol of good living and gaiety in the eighteenth century in order to ridicule the Puritan objections to Christmas.

Charles Dickens, in A Christmas Carol, described the Spirit of Christmas as a jolly character clad in a green robe and wreathed with holly, and Victorian illustrators usually depicted him as a very Pagan character with icicles or ivy round his head in robes of various colours.

As more influence came to Britain from America after World War II, Father Christmas was presented as a fat and jolly character, who filled stockings, and occasionally gave guest appearances at civic and public places. By the twentieth century, he was a common figure in most department stores the length and breadth of the British Isles. He was often austere looking and would ask children questions about their prayers, their reading, writing and arithmetic. If they had been naughty, he would tell them they must improve or he would not visit them at Christmas.

The American Santa Claus is generally stated to have his origins in Saint Nicholas, but modern representations of him don’t seem to bear much relation to a bishop. In 1809, Washington Irving published his satirical A History of New York poking fun at New York’s Dutch past. He represented St Nicholas as a jolly pipe-smoking Dutchman with baggy trousers, who rode over the tops of trees in a horse-drawn wagon dropping presents on children’s houses as he went. However, rather than the austere bishop, he was drawing on the tradition of the saint’s helpers, the Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) who dressed in baggy trousers and wore pointed caps of the same colours.

St Nicholas was known as Sinterklaas in Holland. Children there would put their shoes in front of the fireplace with a present for his horse and sing songs such as:
Sinterklass, castrated cock
Throw something in my show
Throw something in my boot.
In 1821, a New York printer named William Gilley issued a poem about a Santeclaus who dressed all in fur and drove a sleigh pulled by one reindeer.

On Christmas Eve of 1822, another New Yorker, Clement Clarke Moore, wrote down and read to his children a series of verses; his poem was published a year later as An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas (more commonly known today by its opening line, “‘Twas the night before Christmas . . .”). Moore gave St. Nick eight reindeer (and named them all), and devised the now-familiar entrance by chimney. Moore’s Nicholas was still a tiny figure, a ‘jolly old elf” with a miniature sleigh.

The image further developed in 1863 when an American political cartoonist called Thomas Nast was commissioned by Harper’s Weekly magazine to produce a Christmas cartoon, and drew one of Santa. As time went on, his annual cartoon developed and incorporated a range of Christmas imagery drawn from around the world. In 1866 the cartoon was published in colour for the first time, giving us Santa’s familiar red suit. Nast drew him walking on rooftops and going down chimneys, and gave us Santa’s workshop at the North Pole and his association with Mother Goose characters.

It is speculated that Nast based his image of Santa Claus not on Saint Nicholas, but on Pelznickle, his helper. Unlike Saint Nicholas in his bishop’s robes, the saint’s companions were hairy, bearded and fur clad. Nicholas didn’t come down the chimney, but his helpers did, and were subsequently covered in ashes and soot. The helper carried the bag and handed out the treats (or punishments) to children, not the saint.

There is an urban legend that an advertising campaign by Coca Cola created our modern image of Santa Claus. It is true that Haddon Sundblom, in 1931, created a series of Santa Claus ads for Coca-Cola, but his Santa image was very close to Nast’s, though it emphasised the red and white nature of the robes to echo Coca Cola’s famous brand more closely.

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

Samhain Journey

As he journeys through the darkness of a cold night, the Fool meets an elderly woman gazing into a cauldron.

“The Wheel turns,” she tells him. “I am the Cailleach, daughter of the winter Sun and mine are the darkest months of the year. I bring an end to summer and growth as I harden the earth with frost. The gates of the Underworld begin to open and the spirits of bane, darkness, winter and chaos creep through. The Otherworld is close and we can speak once more to those who have gone before.

“It is the time for culling and death. Everything dissolves in my cauldron as all things return to the source. But as the mound is raised above the seed, the seed prepares itself for rebirth, and all things are transformed by death.”

From Pagan Ways Tarot by Anna Franklin, Schiffer, 2016

Soul Cakes


6 oz butter

6 oz caster sugar

3 egg yolks

1 lb plain flour

1 tsp mixed spice

3 oz currants


Mix flour and spice. Cream butter and sugar in a bowl. Beat in egg yolks. Add flour and spice mixture, and the currants. Add enough milk to form a soft dough. Make into flat cakes and mark with a cross. Place on a greased baking tray and bake at 350/180 degrees until golden brown, about 10-15 minutes.

From the Middle Ages until the 1930s, when the practice gradually died out, Soul Cakes were traditionally made for All Hallow’s Eve in England and given out to children and beggars who came to the door singing and pleading for treats:

A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Missis, a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Him who made us all.

We use Soul Cakes in our Samhain ritual, putting them out as offerings for the ancestors.

Death & Initiation at the autumn equinox

The eight seasonal festivals of the modern Pagan year teach us about the great cosmic pattern, showing us the ebb and flow of energy in the manifest world and the spiritual truths which underlie them. At the autumn equinox we experience the death that comes before resurrection. This mystery is exemplified by the myth of Demeter and Persephone and the Rites of Eleusis, for as Cicero said:

For among the many excellent and indeed divine institutions which your Athens has brought forth and contributed to human life, none, in my opinion, is better than those mysteries. For by their means we have been brought out of our barbarous and savage mode of life and educated and refined to a state of civilization; and as the rites are called ‘initiations’, so in very truth we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have gained the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope.

Cicero, Laws II, xiv, 36

The best known story of Demeter concerns her search for her daughter Persephone and it is told in The Hymn to Demeter, attributed to Homer but probably written later in the seventh century BCE to explain the mysteries of Eleusis. It contains a lengthy interlude which explains how Demeter came to Eleusis and established her cult there. It shares the same themes as the Syrian myth of Aphrodite and Adonis, the Phrygian myth of Cybele and Attis and the Egyptian story of Isis and Osiris in which a goddess mourns the loss of a loved one who personifies the vegetation which dies in winter only to revive in spring. d

According to the myth, Hades, the god of the underworld, conceived a passion for the maiden Persephone. With the collusion of his brother Zeus, he abducted Persephone as she picked blood red poppies in a meadow, accompanied by her nymph companions, and took her to dwell with him in his dark realm of the dead.


Knowing nothing of this, Demeter was distraught at the disappearance of her daughter, and disguised herself as an old woman called Doso to search the earth for Persephone.

Eventually, finding no trace of her missing child, she came upon the house of Celeus, king of Eleusis, and his wife Metaneira. Moved by the suffering they saw in the face of the old woman, they bade her be seated, offering her food and drink. However, she sat silently, refusing all nourishment. After much persuasion, she consented to drink a cup of barley meal mixed with water and mint (kykeon). She stayed at Eleusis, becoming the nurse of the king’s young son Demophoon. Under her care he grew as fast as a young god, for Demeter anointed him with ambrosia. Moreover, she planned to make him immortal by burning his mortality from him, placing him each night in the heart of a fire. Metaneira suspected that something strange was happening and kept watch one night. As she saw her son being plunged into the flames, she leapt forward and snatched the child from his nurse.  Demeter exclaimed that now, instead of being a god, he would be subject to the whims of death and moira (fate). She threw off her disguise and stood before the king and queen in her true, shining form, and asked that they should build her a temple at Eleusis.

Then the witch goddess Hecate, bearing a torch in her hands, went to Demeter, and confided that she had heard Persephone’s cries as she was abducted. She suggested that Demeter ask Helios, the sun god who sees all things, for news. Helios told her of Hades’ kidnapping of Persephone, and Zeus’ part in it.

Demeter retreated into her temple and remained there, brooding on her loss. The following year, no crops grew. The trees refused to yield fruit and the buds withered on the vine. An endless winter descended on the earth.

Zeus realised that the whole of creation was doomed unless Demeter lifted her curse and sent Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, to plead with her to relent. Demeter refused. One by one, all the immortals visited her but she remained unmoved by any of their entreaties. Zeus finally realised that there was no other remedy but to restore Persephone to her mother and sent Hermes into the underworld to fetch her. However, Hades was unwilling to lose his lovely bride and cunningly offered her a sweet pomegranate as she readied herself to leave. Now he knew full well that anyone who eats the fruit of the underworld is doomed to remain there. Thus it fell that though Persephone was allowed to visit her mother, she was now bound to return. Persephone could spend two thirds of the year with Demeter but the remaining third of the year must be spent with her husband, Hades. From that time Hecate was minister and companion to Persephone.

With Persephone’s return, the earth quickly began to recover. Spring came and the frozen buds blossomed, the earth became green and fertile once more. But when Persephone returns to the underworld, Demeter decrees that barren winter shall cover the earth, but when she emerges in the spring, the earth blossoms in joy.

At Eleusis (‘Advent’) Demeter taught Triptolemus (the brother of Demophoon) the principles of agriculture, which he taught others in turn, and this was how humankind learned how to farm, it was said. ‘I am Demeter, revered by all, the power most useful for gods and men,’ she said, according to the Homeric Hymn.

For two thousand years, the Mysteries of Eleusis were sacred, biannual rituals performed a few miles west of Athens in honour of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone. Large crowds of worshippers made the pilgrimage to the rites from all over Greece, and later from all over the Roman Empire.  It is possible that the mysteries evolved from an agrarian cult dating back to the Mycenaean period, and there are parallels with the cults of other grain and earth-mother goddesses of the Near East, such as Cybele and Isis.

Initiation was open to all, Greeks and foreigners (as long as they could speak Greek), men and women, freemen and slaves, only on the condition that they had not committed the sin of murder. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, King Celeus is said to have been one of the first people to learn the secret rites and mysteries of her cult and became one of its first priests, along with Triptolemus his son. Around 300 BCE, the state took over control of the Mysteries and they became controlled by two families, the Eumolpidae and the Kerykes. According to Plato, “the ultimate design of the Mysteries … was to lead us back to the principles from which we descended … a perfect enjoyment of intellectual (spiritual) good.”

In many parts of Greece the rites of Demeter and Persephone remained orgiastic, but in Eleusis they were celebrated as a spiritual mystery.  From February 1 to 3 the Lesser Eleusinian mysteries celebrated the return of Persephone from the underworld. The Lesser Mysteries took place in the month of Anthesteria (February) when participants would sacrifice a piglet to Demeter and Persephone and then purify themselves in the River Illisos. Afterwards they were called mystai (‘initiates’) and deemed worthy of witnessing the Greater Mysteries. Each new initiate would receive instructions and guidance from an experienced sponsor or mystagogos. A mystes who returned a second time to Eleusis for induction into the highest levels of esoteric knowledge was known as an epoptes.

Every fifth year for nine days from 23 September the greater Eleusinian Mysteries were celebrated with October 4 marking the departure of Persephone to the underworld.[1] The precise nature of the mysteries is unknown since initiates were forbidden from writing or speaking of it, but an analogy seems to have been made between the resurrection of the corn and the return of Persephone from the underworld with the mystery of death and rebirth.

The first act was the bringing of the sacred objects from Eleusis to the Eleusinion, a temple at the base of the Acropolis. On the day before, the participants would gather in Eleusis and proceed with much pomp to the sanctuary of Demeter in Athens. On the following day the actual festival commenced with the Agyrmos (the gathering), the hierophants (priests or ‘those who show the sacred ones’) declared prorrhesis, the start of the rites, and carried out the hiereía deúro (‘hither the victims’) sacrifice. The halade mystai (‘seawards initiates’) began in Athens with the celebrants washing themselves in the sea at Phaleron to purify themselves and sacrifice a suckling pig in honour of Demeter.

On the fifth day the celebrants went in formal procession from Athens back to Eleusis, swinging branches called bacchoi, bearing the sacred hiera (holy relics) as well as a statue of the boy-god Iacchos. At a certain spot along the way, they shouted obscenities in commemoration of Iambe (or Baubo), an old woman who, by cracking dirty jokes, had made Demeter smile as she mourned the loss of her daughter. The procession also shouted “Íakch’, O Íakche”’ referring to Iacchus.

Upon reaching Eleusis, there was a day of fasting in commemoration of Demeter’s fast while searching for Persephone. The abstinence was broken with a brew made from barley and water mixed with fresh pennyroyal mint leaves.  Some scholars have argued that this may have contained a psychedelic agent such as ergot, opium or hallucinogenic mushrooms which would heighten the initiates’ perceptions and explain the transformative experiences they had. Wasson proposed the mushroom Claviceps purpurea as holding the secret to the Eleusinian Mysteries:

The Greek ekstasis meant the flight of the soul from the body. I am certain that this word came into being to describe the effect of the Mystery of Eleusis. Can you find a better word than that to describe the bemushroomed state?” e

The Greeks called mushrooms the ‘food of the Gods’ (broma theon) and Porphyrius is quoted as having called them ‘nurslings of the Gods’ (theotrophos).

Then the initiates entered a great hall called Telesterion, in the centre of which stood the Anaktoron (‘palace’), which only the hierophants could enter, where the sacred objects were stored. Before mystai could enter the Telesterion, they would recite, “I have fasted, I have drunk the kykeon, I have taken from the kiste (‘box’) and after working it have put it back in the kalathos (‘open basket’)”. Clement of Alexandria wrote that they had to utter the words “I fasted; I drank the kykeon; I took from the kiste; having done my task, I placed in the basket, and from the basket into the kiste”.f

What happened next is not known. The spoken words were followed by secret rites carried out in silence, completing the first part of the initiation. The second phase of the initiation was a spiritual experience. Aristotle commented: “The initiates were not meant to learn anything, but rather, to experience certain emotions and moods.” g  However, based on the statements of Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian, it is thought that the Mysteries comprised of three main elements:

The first was called dromena (‘things done’), a dramatic re-enactment of the Demeter/Persephone myth, perhaps with the participants searching for Persephone through passages representing the underworld, followed by the joyful moment of her resurrection shared by the initiates who had shared her experience.

The second element was the deiknumena (‘things shown’), during which the hierophant displayed sacred objects. It is not known what these were, but various theories have suggested wheat ears, bread, a stylised phallus and pudenda, a golden serpent, an egg or seeds sacred to Demeter. The Church Father Hippolytus, writing in the early third century, said that

The Athenians, while initiating people into the Eleusinian rites, likewise display to those who are being admitted to the highest grade at these mysteries, the mighty, and marvellous, and most perfect secret suitable for one initiated into the highest mystic truths: an ear of corn in silence reaped.”

The Roman Varro interpreted the whole of the Eleusinian mysteries as relating to the corn which Demeter had discovered and to Persephone who, he said, signified the fecundity of the seeds, stolen away by Hades and detained in the underworld. Augustine reported that Varro continued:

“…that many things were taught in her mysteries which had no reference but to the discovery of the corn.” h

The third century Roman theologian Hippolytus of Rome also said that the most complete epoptic mystery was an ear of cut-wheat and wrote that:

“At night in Eleusis, (the Hierophant) appearing in the midst of many fires, proclaims the great and secret mystery, saying, ‘The Holy Brimo has borne a sacred child, Brimos, that is, the mighty has borne the mighty”. i

Finally came the legomena (‘things said’), commentaries that accompanied the deiknumena. Combined, these three elements were known as the apporheta (‘unrepeatables’) and the penalty for divulging them was death. It was for this crime (among others) that Diagoras received the death penalty, while the tragic playwright Aeschylus was allegedly tried for revealing secrets of the Mysteries in some of his plays, but was acquitted.

Following this section of the Mysteries was the Pannychis, an all-night feast accompanied by dancing and merriment. The dances took place in the Rharian Field, rumoured to be the first spot where grain grew. A bull sacrifice also took place late that night or early the next morning. That day the initiates honoured the dead by pouring libations from special vessels, the consecrated liquid flowing in the eastward and westward directions.

The initiates (probably exhausted at this point) would then return to Athens singly or in small groups. There does not appear to have been any organized procession; this was a time for reflection and meditation. Sophocles spoke for the initiates when he said:

Thrice happy are those of mortals, who having seen those rites depart for Hades; for to them alone is granted to have a true life there. For the rest, all there is evil.”

 In 170 CE, the Temple of Demeter was sacked by the Sarmatians but was rebuilt by Marcus Aurelius who was then allowed to become the only lay person to ever enter the anaktoron. Julian, the last Pagan emperor of Rome, was also the last emperor to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. With the growing dominance of Christianity Theodosius I decreed that the sanctuaries should be closed in 392 CE. With the invasion of the Christian Goths four years later, the old sanctuaries were destroyed.

© Anna Franklin, excerpt from Autumn Equinox, History, Lore and Celebration, Lear Books


[1]           (Demeter’s other festivals were 13th and 24th December, while the twelfth day of the waxing moon and the second day of the waning moon were sacred to her.)



The name ‘Mabon’ as a term for the neopagan festival of the autumn equinox (along with the Saxon term ‘Litha’ for the summer solstice) was introduced in 1973 by the American witch and writer Aiden Kelly (b. 1940). His blog for 21st September 2012 explains:

“Back in 1973, I was putting together a “Pagan-Craft” calendar—the first of its kind, as far as I know—listing the holidays, astrological aspects, and other stuff of interest to Pagans. It offended my aesthetic sensibilities that there seemed to be no Pagan names for the summer solstice or the fall equinox equivalent to Ostara or Beltane—so I decided to supply them… I began wondering if there had been a myth similar to that of Kore in a Celtic culture. There was nothing very similar in the Gaelic literature, but there was in the Welsh, in the Mabinogion collection, the story of Mabon ap Modron (which translates as “Son of the Mother,” just as Kore simply meant “girl”), whom Gwydion rescues from the underworld, much as Theseus rescued Helen. That’s why I picked “Mabon” as a name for the holiday…” bd

Curiously, his own tradition, the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn, did not follow him in this and instead called the autumn equinox ‘Rites of Eleusis’.  However, the term took off and was used in many American books, and by extension, the readers of those books in the UK and elsewhere.

The association of the god Mabon with the festival is certainly not an ancient or traditional despite the claims in various books and websites where you might read ‘the Celts celebrated the god Mabon on this date’.

In order to see why the name of Mabon for the autumn equinox is an inappropriate one we need to examine the tales of Mabon.

The Celtic God Maponius

There is certainly a Celtic god whose title was Latinized as Maponus, which is not an actual name but means something like ‘divine son’. He is known from a number of inscriptions in northern Britain and Gaul in which he is addressed as ‘Apollo Maponus’ identifying him with the Graeco-Roman sun-god Apollo. Like Apollo, all the evidence suggests that he was a god of the sun, music and hunting – significantly, he was not a god of the harvest or of the corn.

It is not known whether he was widely worshipped before the coming of the Romans, but with them his cult spread along Hadrian’s Wall amongst the Roman soldiers stationed there. Several stone heads found at the Wall are identified as representing Maponus.

He was also known in Gaul where he was invoked with a Latin inscription at Bourbonne-les-Bains, and on a lead cursing tablet  discovered at Chamalières, Puy-de-Dôme where he is invoked along with Lugus (Lugh) to quicken underworld spirits to right a wrong.

It is possible that there are some place names associated with him, such as Ruabon in Denbighshire, which may or may not be a corruption of Rhiw Fabon, meaning ‘Hillside of Mabon’. be During the seventh century an unknown monk at the Monastery at Ravenna in Italy compiled what came to be called The Ravenna Cosmography, which was a list of all the towns and road-stations throughout the Roman Empire. It lists a Locus Maponi (‘place of Maponus’) which has been tentatively identified with the Lochmaben stone site.

It is possible that Mabon’s Irish equivalent is the god Aengus, also known as the Mac Óg (‘young son’).

Literary Sources

A character called Mabon is found as a minor character in the Mabinogion, a collection of eleven – sometimes twelve – Welsh prose tales from the Middle Ages. He is called Mabon ap Modron, meaning ‘son of the mother’, which has led to speculation that his mother Modron (‘mother’) may be cognate with the Gaulish mother goddess Matrona. There are no inscriptions dedicated to her from ancient times, so this cannot be verified. Whether or not the Mabinogion tale of the hero Mabon stems from a thousand year old story of the god Maponus is uncertain, but since the stories contain the names of other known Celtic gods (transliterated into heroes) it is certainly possible.

The Mabinogion is a collection of medieval Welsh stories which would have been recorded by Christian monks. They don’t seem to have been very widely known until they were translated into English in 1849 by Lady Charlotte Guest, who invented the title Mabinogion since each of the four branches ends with the words “so ends this Branch of the Mabinogi”. In Welsh, mab means ‘son’ or ‘boy’ or ‘youth’, so she concluded that mabinogi meant ‘a story for children’ and (erroneously) that mabinogion was its plural.  Another possibility is that it comes from the proposed Welsh mabinog meaning something like ‘bardic student’.

The stories now included in the Mabinogion are found in two manuscripts, the older White Book of Rhydderch (c.1300–1325) and the later Red Book of Hergest (c.1375–1425) and Lady Charlotte Guest used only the latter as her source, though later translations have drawn on both books.

The first four tales, called The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, are divided into Pwyll, Branwen, Manawydan and Math and each of these includes the character Pryderi. The Mabinogion scholar W.G.Gruffydd suggested that the four branches of the collection represent the birth, exploits, imprisonment and death of Pryderi.

Mabon is mentioned in the Mabinogion story of The Dream of Rhonabwy in which he is described as one of the King’s chief advisors and fights alongside him at the Battle of Badon. His biggest role comes in the story of Culhwch and Olwen (originally from White Book of Rhydderch). In it is the only known reference to Olwen, and Mabon is still a very minor character in the story, which, in brief, is as follows:

 Cylidd Wledig married a woman called Goleuddydd (‘bright day’) who became pregnant, but went mad. Her son Culhwch (‘pig sty’) was born in a pig-sty, his mother dying soon afterwards, and raised in secret by a swineherd until he came of age. 

Meanwhile, Cilydd killed King Doged, taking his widow, daughter and land as his own. Cilydd’s new queen invited Culhwch to court when she learned of his existence and suggested that he should marry her daughter, thus guaranteeing succession to the throne for both sides of the family. Culhwch refused, and this offended the queen so greatly that she put a curse on him – that he would marry no one but Olwen, the daughter of the fearful Ysbaddaden Pencawr (‘hawthorn’), king of giants.

Culhwch became intrigued with the tales of Olwen’s beauty – it was said that her hair was as yellow as the broom, her fingers pale as wood anemones and her cheeks the colour of roses, white flowers springing up in her footprints wherever she walked (hence her name which means ‘white track’). He became determined to win her. Advised by his father, he sought the help of his cousin King Arthur. Happy to help, Arthur sent out scouts to search for the maiden, but after a year they had found no sign of Olwen. Cei then suggested to Culhwch that they should look for themselves, and Arthur appointed several fine heroes to accompany them including Bedwyr, Gwrhyr and Gwalchmei.

The group reached the house of a shepherd, whose wife – the sister of Culhwch’s mother – advised them to give up their quest as all men who looked for Olwen were never seen again. However, on seeing that they were determined, she admitted that every Saturday Olwen came to her house to wash her hair. Culhwch waited and upon seeing Olwen, fell instantly in love.

His love was reciprocated by Olwen, but she warned him that her father Ysbaddaden was fated to die when she married and so discouraged suitors by setting them a series of impossible tasks before he would give his consent. Undeterred, Culhwch and his men followed Olwen to her father’s castle, attacked it by stealth, killing the nine porters and the nine watchdogs in the process, and entered the giant’s hall. Outraged, Ysbaddaden attempted to kill Culhwch with a poison dart, but was outwitted and wounded, first by Bedwyr, then by the enchanter Menw, and finally by Culhwch himself. Eventually, he agreed to give Culhwch his daughter on the condition that he completed thirty-nine impossible tasks (anoethau or ‘wonders’), including hunting the Twrch Trwyth (an Irish king who has been turned into a boar along with his seven sons ‘the young pigs’) and recovering the prisoner, Mabon son of Modron, the only man able to hunt the dog Drudwyn, in turn the only dog who could track the Twrch Trwyth. The final undertaking was to cut the hair and beard of the giant himself.

The first task was to find Wrnach the giant, whose sword was needed to kill Twrch Trwyth. When they found Wrnach, Cei tricked him into handing his sword over for sharpening, and beheaded him with it. 

The next task was the search for Mabon ap Modron, who was imprisoned in a watery Gloucester dungeon. Arthur’s cousin Mabon had been taken from his mother Modron when he was only three nights old and no one knew whether he was alive or dead. Now Gwrhyr knew all the languages of the birds and the beasts, so when they came to the oldest known creature, the Blackbird of Cilgwri, Gwrhyr asked the bird about Mabon’s whereabouts, but the bird replied that though it had been there so long it had worn away its beak on a smith’s anvil, it knew nothing of Mabon, and directed them to a creature older than itself, the Stag of Rhedynfre. Again Gwrhyr asked about Mabon but the stag replied that it had roamed the plain since the first oak sapling had grown to become an oak of one-hundred branches, but had never heard of Mabon, and sent them to the even older Owl of Cwm Gwlwyd. The owl said it had been around long enough to see the wooded glen uprooted twice and a third forest grown in its place but had never heard of Mabon. It, in turn, directed them to the Eagle of Gwernabwy, who, on being questioned, replied that it was very old and widely travelled, and had pecked stars from a rock each night, so that now the rock was a span high, but knew nothing of Mabon. The eagle sent them to the oldest creature of all: the great Salmon of Llyn Llyw.

The salmon recalled hearing of Mabon, and told them that as he swam daily by the wall of Caer Loyw, he heard a constant lamentation. The salmon took Cei and Gwrhyr upon his back to the castle, and they heard Mabon’s cries bewailing his fate. Mabon could not be ransomed, so seeing that force was the only answer, the knights fetched Arthur and his war band to attack the castle. Riding on the salmon’s back, Cai broke through the wall and collected Mabon, both fleeing on the back of the salmon.

Later in the tale, Mabon mounted on his steed Gwynn Mygdwn (Fair Dun-mane) and pursued the Twrch Trwyth into the river Severn and snatched the shears, comb and razor that lay between his ears, and Twrch was driven into the sea and drowned.

Finally, Arthur himself killed the Black Witch, taking her blood to soften the beard of Ysbaddaden. With these tools, Culhwch cut Ysbaddaden’s hair and shaved his beard to the bone. Ysbaddaden died, allowing Culhwch and Olwen to get married.

Mabon is named as one of the ‘Three Exalted Prisoners of the Island of Britain’, stolen when he was only three days old “from between his mother’s side and the wall,” in one translation.

The three exalted prisoners of Britain were Llyr Half Speech (possibly the Llyr who was the father of Manannan the sea god), Mabon son of Modron and Gwair son of Geirioedd who was bound by a heavy blue chain in the underworld.

Let us suppose for a moment that the god Maponus and the literary hero Mabon are one and the same. We must remember that all the evidence points to Maponus being the young sun god, his youth meaning that he would represent the morning sun or the sun newly reborn after the winter solstice. His theft from his mother after three days would make sense in this light – the three days being the three days the sun stands still at the winter solstice. The imprisonment of the young god underground equates to the sun in the underworld before he is ‘released’ to begin his reign as the new sun. In Culhwch and Olwen, Mabon is said to be imprisoned inside a tower in Gloucester, from which he is freed by Cei and Bedwyr in order to go hunt the Twrch Trwyth. The ‘missing sun’ or ‘imprisoned sun’ is a premise found in the solar myths of many cultures to explain the night or the shorter days of winter, especially those around the three days of the winter solstice. Such tales often include themes of captivity or the theft of the sun (i.e. the god or object that represents it) and its rescue by a band of heroes, such as Jason and the Argonauts rescuing the Golden Fleece (the sun) from the dragon or the Lithuanian sun goddess Saule, was held in a tower by powerful king, rescued by the zodiac using a giant sledgehammer, or the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu hiding in a cave.

An earlier source that mentions Mabon is the tenth century poem Pa Gur, in which Arthur recounts the great deeds of his knights in order to gain entrance to a fortress guarded by Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr. In this, Arthur describes Mabon fab Madron as one of his men, and says that Mabon is a servant of Uther Pendragon. A second Mabon is mentioned, Mabon fab Mellt (‘Mabon Son of Lightning’) and this is interesting, since the sky/storm god is often the father of the sun god in myth, as Zeus is the father of Apollo.

Mabon defeats the monstrous boar, and in myth the boar is often a symbol of winter and the underworld, just as the sun after the winter solstice defeats winter. Mabon then is the divine sun-child born at the winter solstice and this is his festival – he is not the aged god of the harvest or the seed in the ground as Kore is in Greek myth. As Sorita d’Este says:

“Honour Mabon as a Wizard, a Merlin type figure, as the oldest of men and beasts, honour him as the Son of the Mother, and a hero – don’t take that away from him by ignorantly using his name as if it is a different word for Autumn Equinox.  If you really believe that the Old Gods of these lands still live, that they should be honoured and respected, then do that.  Don’t join the generations who tried to belittle the Gods in an effort to diminish their power.”[1]


[1]              http://sorita.co.uk/goatssheep



With the turning of the year, thoughts turn to darker things…

Aconite [Aconite sp.] belongs to the family Ranunculaceae and should not be confused with winter aconite Eranthis hiemalis, which is not a true aconite. It was originally native to Europe, Asia and North America, thriving in windy mountainous regions and moist pastures. Aconite can be found growing wild in damp or shady places such as alder groves, and along stream courses, ditches or in highland meadows. Aconites need a fertile moist soil, preferably in sun or partial shade.  They may be propagated by division, but it is worth remembering that they do not like to be moved once established and seeds should be sown in spring where the plant is to grow.

There are more than 100 species, varying in height from 2-6 feet [60-1000 cm], all having dark green leaves which are glossy above, whitish green beneath and usually lobed.  The flowers, borne in loose erect clusters in shades of blue, purple, yellow or white in high summer, are designed specifically to attract bees, especially bumble bees.  The sepals, one of which is in the shape of a hood are purple, a colour bees particularly love.  The petals consist of two hammer shaped nectaries within the hood. The erect stem is covered with soft down and the fleshy taproot puts out new daughter roots annually. Regardless of species, all parts contain the toxic alkaloid, aconitine in varying amounts, mainly concentrated in the tuberous roots, which are pale coloured when young, developing a dark or sometimes black skin as the root matures. Some popular species are:

A. charmichaelii. Grows to 3 feet [ 1m] and has dark green deeply divided leaves. The blue-purple flowers come out in summer.

A. lycocctonum grows to a height of 4-5 ft [1.2-1.5m] with broadly lobed leaves and fibrous roots. The white to yellow flowers appear in summer. It is called wolfsbane.

A. napellus. contains the best alkaloids. This is a well known garden species which flowers a little later. The leaves are finely cut and divided and the blue, purple, pink or white flowers have well-developed hoods and appear in summer. It is called monkshood.

A. anglicum is the wild variety, flowering in early summer.

A. wilsonii. Is a tall variety, growing to a height of 6 feet [1.8 m].  It has deeply cut leaves and blue flowers which  appear during  late summer/early autumn.

A. paniculatum, A. Japonicum, A. autumnale, A. variegatum, A. pyrenaicum are also cultivated.

CAUTION: The deadly poison aconitine is present in all parts of the plant.  Care should be taken when handling aconites; wear gloves or wash your hands afterwards. It is not advisable to plant aconites in gardens where children and pets may come into contact with them. The poison at first stimulates, causes a burning sensation on the tongue, vomiting, stomach pains and diarrhoea then paralyses the central and peripheral nervous system and finally death.


Aconite is a fatal poison, often causing death within a few minutes, and so the plant’s reputation is a dark one, associated with death, black magic and the underworld. In Anglo-Saxon it was called thung, which simply means a poisonous plant.

Throughout history aconite has been used as a method of murder. In Greek legend when the hero and Minotaur slayer Theseus returned to Athens, he found that the sorceress Medea had become his stepmother. Though his father, King Aegeus, did not recognise him she did, and knew he was the rightful heir to the throne. She grew jealous on behalf of her son Medus, and persuaded Aegeus that Theseus was an assassin. They cunningly invited him to a feast at the newly completed temple of Apollo the Dolphin and Medea prepared a cup containing aconite. As he stepped forward to take the cup, his father knew him by the sword, which hung at his belt, and the assassination was prevented.

It is said that Aristotle once foiled a plot to kill Alexander the Great by means of a woman who had saturated her lips with a lethal dose of aconite. When men became old and useless on the island of Chios they were given aconite to help them on their way. The Emperor Claudius and his son were murdered with aconite, as was Pope Adrian VI. It seems to have been a popular device for removing obstacles in the Middle Ages, when career advancement in the clergy often relied on the death of a superior.

The plant is also called ‘wolfsbane’ as it is said to have been used to poison spears and arrows employed for killing wolves. A further association with wolves comes from the fact that the Scandinavians called it ‘Tyr’s Helm’ [the small flowers look like helmets]. Fenris was the wolf-son of the trickster god Loki. The ferocious and monstrous creature grew apace until the gods were afraid he would over run the world. They decided that he must be bound, but no chain would hold him. Eventually they consulted the dwarfs who fashioned a slender thread, made with the footfall of a cat, the beards of women, the breath of fish and other such impossible and rare ingredients. The gods coaxed Fenris to try the strength of the rope, saying that since he had broken all the other ropes and chains it could not possibly hold him. However, he suspected the trick and said that he would only do so if Tyr, the god of war, put his hand in his mouth while he did so. The brave Tyr agreed and the wolf was bound, but Tyr lost his hand.

Aconite is associated with the underworld for the obvious reason that it causes death. Hecate, the Greek witch goddess, is said to have created aconite from the deadly spittle scattered by Cerberus, the three headed dog who was the guardian of the underworld, when Herakles dragged him out of Tartarus [the underworld] and fought with him on the hill Aconitus in Pontica. Aconite was said to grow at Heracli in Anatolia, which was one of the gateways to the underworld. Aconite was poured as a libation to the ghosts of the men who were sacrificed when the foundations of buildings were laid. It was used in funeral incenses, planted on graves and used for both suicide and euthanasia.

Aconite was known as a witches’ plant and it was believed that it was used to poison the tips of elf bolts, the darts that witches and fairies threw at their victims. In ancient times the Thessalian witches used it in the manufacture of a flying ointment; used to anoint the skin it would cause hallucinations, visions and the sensation of flying. It appears as an ingredient in mediaeval flying ointment recipes. However, the dose of aconite needed to achieve hallucinations falls within the lethal range, and unless the practitioner was very skilled death would probably be the result, and the trip one to the underworld.

It is not known when aconite was introduced into Britain, but it appears in many early herbals. It was grown in monastery gardens and used in the infirmaries as an external oil rub for rheumatism.

The herbalist Gerard described it as venomous and deadly, though he thought it was an antidote against other poisons:

‘…so forcible that the herb only thrown before the scorpion or any other venomous beast, causes them to be without force or strength to hurt, insomuch that they cannot move or stir until the herb be taken away’.

 Ben Jonson in his tragedy Sejanus said:

‘I have heard that aconite

Being timely taken hath a healing might

Against the scorpion’s stroke.’

Christian lore associated aconite with St. Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury born in Glastonbury in 924 AD. He had a dream of the Britain of the future, converted to Christianity, symbolised by a huge tree whose branches were covered with monk’s cowls and which stretched all over Britain. Aconite is sometimes called ‘monkshood’ as the flowers may be seen to resemble monk’s cowls.


Aconite is no longer used in herbal medicine, but is commercially collected for the recovery of aconitine, which is used in pharmaceutical remedies for neuralgia and rheumatism and is still a much valued as a homeopathic remedy. In former times an ointment of aconite was applied externally for rheumatism. Aconitine, is odourless but has a pungent taste and should be stored in a dry place as the highly toxic alkaloids it contains are unstable and change on contact with water.

Parts used: the root

Constituents: alkaloids aconitine, benzaconine, aconine, the alkaloids aconitine, benzaconinine and aconine; starch

 Actions: anodyne, diuretic, diaphoretic, diuretic, diaphoretic,

In 1805, Samuel Hahnemann published a paper on the proving of aconite which became one of the founding drugs of homeopathy. A homeopathic preparation of aconite is used for is used for patients with extreme anxiety, apprehension, with a vivid imagination and many fears, angina, palpitations, rheumatism, shock, tension, facial neuralgia, headaches, piles, and spasmodic croup.