MYTHS – STORIES THAT TEACH US HOW TO LIVE

Ancient cultures sought to understand their existence and explain their connection to the world through myths and rituals.

Myths are the body of stories and legends that a people perceive as being an integral part of their culture. Before the invention of writing, these stories and legends were handed down from generation to generation in the form of rituals and oral traditions. The reappearance of certain themes, time and again, in different mythologies, leads to the realization that these themes portray universal and eternal truths about mankind.

Myth basically serves four functions:

  1. The first is the mystical function – realizing what a wonder the universe is, and what a wonder you are, and experiencing awe before this mystery
  2. The second is a cosmological dimension, showing you what shape the universe is, but showing it in such a way that the mystery comes through.
  3. The third function is the sociological one – supporting and validating a certain social order.
  4. But there is a fourth function of myth, and that is the teaching function, illustrating how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.” [1]

At their core, all myths exist to teach us. They teach us about ourselves and others, and they show us how to live our lives. Myths serve more than just the folkloric functions in society of “do this”, “don’t eat that”, “be careful when travelling there”, and so on; myths are the guidebooks for life itself, with all its beauty and mystery. Myths are the keys to understanding the whole of human experience.

Myths are not literal truths. Myths are not lies. Mythology is poetry: it is metaphorical. It is said that mythology is the penultimate truth – penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words; it is beyond words, beyond images, beyond music.  Mythology stretches the mind beyond that point, to what can be known but not told.

All cultures create ‘masks’, which are the names and images for the divine, and they serve as metaphors for an inexpressible transcendence, being beyond all being and the idea beyond all thought.

The idea of the divine as being something over and above the natural is a destructive idea. In the Middle Ages this was the idea that finally turned that world into something like a wasteland, a land where people were living inauthentic lives, never doing what they truly wanted to because supernatural laws required them to live as directed by the church. In a wasteland, people are fulfilling purposes that are not properly theirs but have been imposed upon them as inescapable laws.

This is destructive to the soul. The spirit is really the bouquet of life. It is not something breathed into life, it comes out of life. This is one of the glorious things about the mother-goddess religions, where the world is the body of the Goddess, divine in itself, and divinity isn’t something ruling over and above a fallen nature. The story of the fall in the Garden of Eden sees nature as corrupt, and that myth corrupts the whole world for us. Because nature is thought of as corrupt, every spontaneous act is sinful and must not be yielded to. You get a totally different civilization and a totally different way of living according to whether your myth presents nature as fallen or whether nature is in itself a manifestation of divinity, and the spirit is the revelation of the divinity that is inherent in nature.” [2]

Joseph Campbell, the great writer on mythology, said many times that a new global mythology was arising based on the concept of Gaia, the Earth Mother.

 Which brings us to the big question – who or what are the Gods? Are they just stories, the dreams of men, metaphors? Or do they exist?

There are hundreds of thousands of god and goddess names, some of whom were worshipped in Britain, many more that were not. We find that within a single pantheon that the names of the gods are not always consistent; some gods absorb the names, titles and attributes of another with the passing of the centuries. Mythologies evolve and change, are absorbed and assimilated into other cultures.

The question that every individual Pagan must resolve for themselves is does this mean we are to believe literally in all these differing deities? If we do, where do we choose a particular time in history to fix the names and attributes of the gods we chose to worship? To choose to be a Celt of 300 BC as opposed to a Celt of 100 AD, or a Viking of 50 BC as opposed to a Viking of 300 AD involves serious logical and spiritual dichotomies. Even if it is possible to make these decision, can we really enter into the ‘world view’ of an older culture without imposing our modern preconceptions on it?

In the Craft we are taught that “…beyond the two is the One, which we cannot name or limit, for the One is without limit, therefore we do give our worship unto the Lady and her Lord.”

This is far from being a belief in a supreme monotheistic god who is separate from his creation; it means that everything, even the gods and goddesses, are part of a single great whole, a manifestation of pure consciousness, Divine energy.

The Craft view is that in the process of manifesting, consciousness divides itself into two parts, God and Goddess, yang and yin, define it how you will, which, though seeming to be separate, cannot exist without one another, any more than a coin can have one side.  Only when they combine can action, movement and creation arise.

Through the splitting of the primordial principle at the beginning of creation, the duality within our lives came into being, together with a strong force that is constantly striving to re-unite with the other part.

In the Craft it is believed that the Divine Spirit is not separate from creation, it is creation. It is us, and everything else. There is no real difference between spirit and matter – gods, humans, and everything else are part of each other, part of the One.

The oldest Pagan gods were always embodiments of natural forces – vegetation, storm, sun, moon, sea, wind, sky, storm, thunder, fire, earth, water, rain, fertility, creation and destruction.  For me, these are facets of the Divine we can approach and work with. When you invoke the name of a deity, you are invoking a particular facet of the Cosmos. If you invoke the Norse god Thor, you are invoking an aspect of thunder, but this is not the same as invoking Taranis, the Celtic god of thunder, which has a somewhat different energy, while still embodying thunder. That doesn’t mean that the energies – or gods – are metaphorical, or products of the human mind, it just means their nature is beyond human understanding, and we work with what we can comprehend.

Myths are stories that give us clues to the nature of life, temporal and spiritual, manuals to the whole experience of ourselves and others. Used wisely, myths initiate the individual into the realities of his or her own psyche and become guides to spiritual enlightenment.

No matter the culture or tradition, the hero of every myth takes the same journey. Each hero departs, interacts with other archetypal beings and encounters difficulties and trials, completes his quest or fulfils his purpose (which is sometimes not to complete his quest) and returns, changed in some way. As King Arthur and his knights sat feasting, there appeared the mysterious Holy Grail in their midst. All the knights set out on the quest to find it. They had many adventures and many of them perished in the quest, until at last it was found by Galahad, the perfect knight.

The adventure can be one of inner exploration and spiritual seeking as well as some kind of high adventure. This mythic journey is present—and nearly identical—in many major religions. Buddha, Moses and Jesus, for instance, all embarked on spiritual quests, met with allies or enemies, were tested and each returned transformed. Prince Siddhartha Gautama at the age of twenty nine left his palace to meet his subjects. Despite his father’s efforts to hide from him the sick, aged and suffering, he saw a bent old man. When his charioteer explained to him that all people grew old, the prince went on further trips beyond the palace. On these he encountered a diseased man, a decaying corpse and an ascetic. These depressed him, and he initially strove to overcome aging, sickness, and death by living the life of an ascetic, then left the palace to live the life of a mendicant.  During this time, he was offered a throne, asked to be the spiritual heir of two yoga teachers but refused them all, still searching for enlightenment. He tried self-mortification and fasting, nearly starving himself to death until a village girl saved his life by feeding him.  After this he began to reconsider his path, and decided that this was not the way.  He realised that extreme asceticism did not work, and began to focus on meditation, discovering what Buddhists call the Middle Way, a path of moderation. Eventually, sitting under the Bodhi tree and after forty nine days of meditation, he achieved enlightenment.

Each of us has embarked on a journey, whether we like it or not – the journey of life. Powerful forces have made a gateway for each of us to be incarnated in this place and time. Myths are guides to how we live life, and whether we live life heroically is up to us.

If Frodo and Aragorn had decided just to stay in the pub, instead of returning the ring, it would have been a very short book in which evil prevailed. If Stephen Hawkins had just curled up in a corner when he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease instead of immersing himself in his work and living life as fully as he could, he probably would have died really quickly and we wouldn’t have A Brief History of Time and all his scientific discoveries.

Our names might not go down in history, but each of us is the hero of our own story. The life quest is different for each person. It might be a spiritual quest, as when Siddhartha Gautama left behind the life of a rich man and sought enlightenment.  For you, the quest might be to be a good healer, a wonderful parent, a skilled carpenter or blacksmith, an inspired musician, a poet, artist or spiritual initiate. Maybe the quest involves a few or even all of these.

So, are you the hero in your own life-quest, or are you playing the sidekick in everybody else’s story?  Do you act or just react to the people and situations around?

Usually, we don’t have a handle on is what our story is or we let other people tell us what our story should be. Basically, our story is whatever we believe about ourselves to be true. The way you tell yourself your own story can make you the eternal victim of childhood abuse, or can make you the hero who overcame it.  Myths can teach us how to live.

What myths—all myths—tell us is that the meaning of life is the experience of life. Eternity isn’t some later time, eternity isn’t a long time: eternity has nothing to do with time. It is that dimension of here and now which thinking and time obscures.

 The experience of eternity, the infinite, right here and now is the function of ritual. In ritual, we create sacred space, outside of normal space and time. We empty ourselves of thoughts and desires in order to cultivate ritual consciousness – which is not thinking, not looking to the past or future but being completely present and open. Only then can we connect with the infinite. Only then, does pantomime and ceremony become lifted to the level of sacred ritual. Only then do we realise that all the Gods, all the heavens, all the world, are within us.

Ritual lies at the heart of what we do, and it is the part that most people struggle with. I always say to aspirants that unless you can come to ritual properly prepared, and work with ritual consciousness, you will experience nothing but pantomime and find it empty. After a while, if you work on it, you may attain ritual consciousness for a second or two, when you feel a deep connection, before it disappears. The aim is to be able to sustain it throughout the ritual .In a group, the aim is for the whole group to experience it together for the duration of the ritual.

Don’t be put off – if you create a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.

© Anna Franklin 2017

[1] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

[2] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

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THE WAY OF THE MIGHTY DEAD

“…you shall be taught to be wise, that in the fullness of time you shall count yourself among those who serve the Gods, among those who belong to the Craft, among those who are called the Mighty Dead. Let thy life, and the life to come, be in the service of our noble Lady and her gentle Lord.”

Witchcraft is often called ‘The Crooked Path’, because it is the path of the outsider. Witches were driven out of society, cloaked in the garb of otherness.  While historical druids were an elite class of men, pillars of the establishment, the historical witch was always an outsider, the despised or excluded person who threatened the established order and – of all the most dreadful things imaginable – usually a woman with power in a world where women were often otherwise powerless.

The Church saw witches as the antithesis of what a woman should be – meek, subservient, industrious and obedient. Any woman who was a free-spirits independent and sexually active must be a witch.  During the times of witchcraft persecution- the days we call The Burning Times- it is estimated that 50,000 to 100,000 people were executed, 80% of them women.

In 1484, in response to reports that many women were engaging in sorcery “to make the conjugal act impossible”, Pope Innocent VIII appointed two German Dominicans, Jakov Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, to pursue witches. They wrote the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, which means “Hammer of Evil Doers” or “Hammer of the Witches”. So popular was their book that it ran into nineteen editions and was a principle text for the Inquisition.

They wrote that “woman is an imperfect animal, and always deceives….

In Christian lore, women are responsible for the fall of humankind and its expulsion from paradise, since Eve was tempted to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge and persuaded her husband Adam to do the same.[i]

For the Christian thinker, God is male, and thus the only true gender is male.[ii] From the very beginning, they argued that women were inferior to men, as Eve was made from Adam’s spare rib, and being formed by a bent rib she was naturally flawed.

Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote “Every girl child is a defective male, conceived only because her father was ill, weak or in a state of sin at the time,” and “Life comes from the male sperm, and the woman merely serves as the soil in which it is planted.”

According to the Malleus Maleficarum: “Women are intellectually like children” and

“All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.”

The Church felt that women were more carnal than men, as was clear from their many ‘abominations’; women menstruate, get pregnant and give birth, all evidence of the sexual activity which was reviled as sinful by the Church. The Malleus Maleficarum was very unambiguous in its references to women’s sexuality as an evil force. A woman was said to be impure “during her monthly periods.”

Tertullian called women the “devil’s gateway”. Like Eve, all women were considered temptresses, inciting men to seek the forbidden fruit of lust. If a woman was raped, it was considered to be her own fault.

St Thomas Aquinas wrote “Women exert an evil influence over men which causes them to have involuntary erections, and thus distracted them from contemplating God.”

According to the Malleus Maleficarum: “Any woman knows more magic than a hundred men,” and “There are more women than men found infected with the heresy of witchcraft, ”.

“A woman is by her nature more quicker to waver in her faith and consequently quicker to abjure the faith, which is the root of witchcraft” and most damning of all “…women are weak in themselves, and can only perform magic in league with demons”.[iii] The clergy exclaimed

“Blessed be the Highest who has so far preserved the male sex from so great an evil”

While any woman practicing fortune telling, midwifery or herbalism could be executed as a witch, male doctors, astrologers and alchemists were left unscathed. The fifteenth century Council of Trent specifically forbade women from having anything to do with medicine, a profession they were not to be re-admitted to until the late nineteenth century. If any women stood before a tribunal accused of practising medicine or healing it was automatically assumed that she must have achieved any cure by witchcraft and she was put to death [iv] According to the Malleus Maleficarum “If a woman dare to cure … then she is a witch and must die”. Male doctors were trusted implicitly by the authors: “Although some of their remedies seem to be vain and superstitious cantrips and charms… everybody must be trusted in his profession.”

“no one does more harm to the Catholic Church than midwives…the midwives exceed all other witches in deeds of shame”

“A midwife is guilty of sinning if she eased a woman’s pain during childbirth, since that suffering was imposed by Jehovah as a punishment on all women for Eve’s transgression.” (Clerics reminded Queen Victoria of this when she asked for chloroform in the royal labour ward.)

There are still parts of the world that prosecute and burn witches. Women in Papua New Guinea still face violence if they are accused of sorcery or black magic. In Ghana, women (usually elderly widows) have formed “witch camps” and “witch villages,” as safe refuges for those accused of witchcraft in their communities. As many of the supposed Ghanaian witches are widows, the accusation can be seen as a ploy by the family to take their property. “’The camps are a dramatic manifestation of the status of women in Ghana,’ says Professor Dzodzi Tsikata of the University of Ghana. ‘Older women become a target because they are no longer useful to society.’ Women who do not conform to society’s expectations also fall victim to the accusations of witchcraft.

Since we inherit a worldview that sees man as reason and woman as nature, we are still in the grip of the beliefs that fostered witch burning. While the vast majority of society see the druid as a benign eccentric and the shaman as a hippy with a drum, witches are still feared. We are still outsiders. The initiation oath of the Craft reminds us: “Remember the Burning Times, when all we could promise our brothers and sisters was a painless death before the flames took hold. Do you still desire to take that oath, knowing what has been may yet be again?”

We stand of the shoulders of giants, the witches who have gone before, those we call the Mighty Dead. Those who learned, those who suffered, those who forged the crooked path.

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.

These village healers and magicians had different names in different places, including handywomen, blessers, witches, conjurors, herb wives, wild herb men, snake doctors, fairy doctors and currens. [1] In some parts of England they had the title of Old Mother Redcap, since the red cap was a badge of office amongst wise women. There was often some oddity of dress among wise women and cunning men, such as odd socks or a garment worn inside out. [2] 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.

I gradually realised that 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 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.

In the Craft, women have power. Traditional covens are always led by a woman (which is something that some men and even some women struggle with). Moreover, the image of the older woman is positive and powerful. She is the wise one, the teacher, the witch. We look to the Crone goddesses, the witch goddesses, the mistresses of magic, the keepers of the secrets of life and death, Black Annis, Hecate, Ceridwen, Baba Yaga, the Cailleach, Kali, Lilith.

Witches in stories are described vas ugly old crones. Dictionaries describe the crone as an old, ugly, withered woman or ancient witchy female, or say that crone is a derogatory word for an old woman. It is a word derived from ‘carrion’ i.e. dead meat. In fairy tales the crone is always evil. However, this was not always the case. In previous ages, she was the respected elder, a woman with a lifetime’s garnered wisdom, incorporating that of maiden, mother, middle age and old age. She was the keeper of history, the fount of lore, the healer and midwife, the one consulted in time of trouble because her experience told her what to do. She was the Cailleach or veiled one, the coron or crowned one. She is the hag, another derogatory term now, but derived from hagia, which means ‘the sacred one’ (as in hagiography, the study of saints), or from heilig meaning ‘holy’. In Japan, older people are honoured as ‘living treasures’. In our own society, with its heritage of patriarchal monotheism, older women are seen as useless, and that seems to refer to any woman over 45. Today’s witches are trying to reclaim the title of Crone as an honourable and respected estate, in which an older woman is empowered to be herself: as wise, holy, rebellious, incorrigible, astute, funny, sexy, or irascible as she wishes.

Witchcraft is watching the sunrise or sunset, the forest in the light of a glowing moon, a meadow enchanted by the first light of day.   It is the morning dew on the petals of a flower, the gentle caress of a warm summer breeze upon your skin, or the warmth of the summer sun on your face.   Witchcraft is the fall of colourful autumn leaves, and the softness of winter snow.   It is light and shadow and all that lies in between.  It is the song of the birds and other creatures of the wild.   It is being in the temple of Mother Nature and being humbled in reverence.

According to Dave the Flute, witchcraft is like making good tea. If you follow the way of the Abrahamic Regions of the Book – referential, scripture based – you are told what to believe and the actions you must take to be successful. Take mug, put in tea bag, pour on boiling water, take teabag out, add milk and serve. In may be quite a foul cup of tea and you might have preferred some sugar, but you have done as you were told. But a witch would also prod the bag to see what it was doing, note the colour of the tea as it got stronger and compare with past experience of tea making, giving it a taste to try see how it was doing. And ends up with an ace cup of tea. The witchcraft method is experiential, personal and non-scripted. It is the path untrod… revelation through your own effort.

The Witch sees the sacred within the physical, the magical in the mundane, and uses this knowledge to incorporate spiritual practice into her everyday life, treading lightly on the Earth and seeking to harm no-one. She draws her strength from the sacred flame that burns in her hearth, from the earth that sustains her, the water that nourishes her, and the inspiration of her breath.   She finds her gods in the land around her: the spirits of water, stone and tree, Earth, Moon, Sun, Stars and Sky. She needs no watch, calendar or magical almanac to tell her when to work her magic, but works with the observable ebb and flow of the changing seasons, the rising and setting of the sun, and the waxing and waning of the moon. A Witch is drawn to the traditional ways, the rhythms of nature and the call of the wildwoods.  It is a path as old as time and as new as the newest witch.

Witches are the canny, the riddlers, the healers and the givers of gifts. Witches weaver in and out of the fabric of fairytales with wiles and guiles and the truth that every woman (and every man) must learn their own magic.

If you do not feel the pull of Mother Nature than this is not a path you will be able to, or want, to follow, you won’t understand it or see its value. If you measure success in terms of money and fame it is not for you. But if the starlit night draws you from the comfort of home and fire, if your heart swells at the sight of a swathe of woodland anemones in the spring, you will already know what I mean.

Like all secret arts, witchcraft is learned by apprenticeship. Its deepest secrets are printed nowhere.

© Anna Franklin

[1] Nigel Pennick, Secrets of East Anglian Magic, Capall Bann, Milverton, 2004

[2] ibid

[i] This is a misreading of a far more ancient Mesopotamian Goddess myth. The name Eve, in Hebrew Hawwah, is from the Akkadian word Hayah meaning “to live”. She is thus called Hawwah because she was Mother of All Living” according to Genesis. This was a title of the Sumerian goddess Ninhursag. In the Sumerian myth the god Enki (possibly cognate with Yahweh or Jehovah) was cursed by Ninhursag because he stole forbidden plants from paradise. His health began to fail and the other gods prevailed on the Mother Goddess to help him. To do this she created a goddess called Ninti (literally nin= lady, ti= rib ie lady of the rib, a play on words since the phrase also means “to make live”). He claimed his rib hurt him and she healed him.

[ii] This is still argued by people who deny that women can be Christian ministers.

[iii] Jani Farrell Roberts, The Seven Days of My Creation, iUniverse Inc, Lincoln, 2002

[iv] ibid

The Mystery of the Mistletoe

In Pagan times, the mistletoe was considered a potent magical plant because it did not grow on the earth, but on the branches of a tree in a ‘place between places’. It grows into a ball, imitating the sun, and the leaves are fresh and green all year long, making it a plant of immortality and life surviving in the dead time. The berries ripen in December as though it is not affected by the seasons and the winter cold.

Mistletoe is an evergreen, woody parasite growing on the branches of trees, mainly apple and pear, but occasionally on ash, hawthorn and oak trees. It is native to Europe, North Africa and central and western Asia. It may form a bush of up to 5 ft.

In Cornish, its name is ughelvarr; in Breton uhelvarr; in Welsh, uchelwydd, all meaning ‘high branch’ signifying its growing habit or perhaps even its high status. In Irish, it is uil-ioc, meaning ‘all heal’. In Anglo-Saxon it was mistiltan, from tan meaning ‘twig’ and mistl meaning ‘different’ from its habit of growing on other trees. The missel thrush is said to be so called from feeding on its berries.

Pliny said that the mistletoe was one of the most important magical plants of the Celts and served as a symbol for the winter solstice. He recorded that the druids called mistletoe by a name which meant ‘all healing’. They made preparation for sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees and brought forth two white bulls whose horns were bound for the first time. Robed in white the druid ascended the tree and cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle (probably gilded bronze in actuality) and it was caught by others in a white cloak. The bulls were then killed, accompanied with prayers.

In Germanic myth, the mistletoe was sacred to Donar, the thunder and lightning god. In German, the plant was called Donnerbesen or ‘thunder broom’. The Christians demonised it as a plant of the witches, calling it hexennest (‘witch nest’) or teufelbesen (‘devil’s broom’).

In Norse mythology the mistletoe was used to slay the sun god Balder. One day, Odin discovered Hel was preparing for Balder’s arrival in the Underworld and the Vala prophesied that he would have a child with Rinda the earth goddess who would be called Vali and would avenge Balder’s death. The gods persuaded everything on earth to swear not to harm Balder, except the mistletoe growing on the oak at the gate of Valhalla as it was thought that such a puny plant could not harm him. The gods amused themselves by casting harmless darts at Balder. Loki, god of fire, was jealous of Balder and made a shaft from the mistletoe and tricked Hodur, the blind and dark brother of Balder, into throwing it and killing him. Odin sent Hermod to ask Hel for Balder’s return and she agreed, on condition that all things should weep. All did, except Thok, a giantess, who may have been Loki in disguise, so Balder had to stay in the Underworld. In due course, Vali was born and on the same day, slew Hodur.

This is obviously a seasonal myth relating to the winter solstice. The sun (Balder) is killed by the darkness (Hodur). Vali’s revenge is the breaking forth of new life after the winter darkness. The tears symbolise the spring thaw, when everything drips with moisture. Thok (‘Coal’) alone refuses to weep as she is buried deep in the earth and does not need the light of the sun. After Balder had been resurrected, owing to the pleadings of the other gods and goddesses, the mistletoe was given into the keeping of Frigga, the goddess of love, and it was ordained that anyone who passed beneath the mistletoe should receive a kiss to show that it had become a symbol of peace and love.

Though other evergreens were included in the decorations of churches, mistletoe was the one omission, being considered a Pagan plant. The exception was at York, where on the eve of Christmas-day mistletoe was carried to the high altar of the cathedral and a general pardon and season of peace was proclaimed.

Because the evergreen mistletoe bears its fruit in winter, it is an emblem of fertility. In Swabia, people bound mistletoe to fruit trees during winter in the hope that it would ensure a good fruit harvest. In Austria people put mistletoe in the bedroom to ensure the conception of a child. In Switzerland, it was included in the bridal bouquets to ensure a good marriage.

The mistletoe formed the ‘kissing bough’ and often still does. There was a tradition that the maid who was not kissed under it, at Christmas, would not be married in that coming year. With each kiss, a berry had to be plucked off with each kiss for luck. This seems to have been a purely English custom, though in Lower Austria a pine wreath was hung from the ceiling, while a masked figure hid in a dark corner. Known as ‘Sylvester’, he had a flaxen beard and a wreath of mistletoe. If a youth or maiden happened to pass under the pine wreath, Sylvester sprang out and imprinted a rough kiss. When midnight came he was driven out as the representative of the old year.

Many traditions associate the mistletoe with the New Year, rather than Christmas. In West Shropshire tradition, the bough was not to be put up until New Year’s Eve. Worcestershire farmers gave their Christmas mistletoe to the first cow to calve in the new year to bring luck to the dairy. At New Year, the first person to enter a house should carry a sprig of mistletoe in one hand and a sprig of evergreen in the other. Until quite recently in some rural areas farmers would burn a globe made of mistletoe and hawthorn or blackthorn in the New Year. The ashes would then be thrown onto the field that was to be ploughed first.

At midwinter the berries are ripe and should be cut. Mistletoe berries are used at the midwinter solstice in rituals to give strength to the weakened sun. Mistletoe is seen as a herb of fertility, and a symbol of rebirth. Hang over the doorway at Yule, tied with red ribbon for harmony and to represent a welcome to all who visit, all year round. Replace at the next Yule, throwing the old piece in the Yule fire to burn away the old and welcome the new.

Though the berries of the mistletoe are toxic, the leaves and stems of the mistletoe have been used in herbal medicine. European mistletoe contains eleven proteins and substances called lectins which are currently being investigated for anti-cancer effects.

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

YULE – THE WORLD RENEWED

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

THE EVOLUTION OF SANTA

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

SOUL CAKES

6 oz butter

6 oz caster sugar

3 egg yolks

1 lb plain flour

1 tsp mixed spice

3 oz currants

Milk

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.