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Walpurgisnacht

“Walpurgis Night was when, according to the belief of millions of people, the devil was abroad—when the graves were opened and the dead came forth and walked. When all evil things of earth and air and water held revel.”

Bram Stoker, “Dracula’s Guest

“There is a mountain very high and bare…whereon it is given out that witches hold their dance on Walpurgis night.”

Jacob Grimm, 1883

In the Germanic countries of central Europe, there is what is essentially a second Halloween, Walpurgis night, or as it’s often referred to in its German form,  Walpurgisnacht, falling exactly six months from All Hallow’s Eve, or Samhain.

Many of the ancient cultures divided the year into just two seasons, summer and winter. The dividing line between the two seasons were Beltane and Samhain, with Beltane being one of eight solar Sabbats in the pagan calendar, its date based on the sun.

In Britain, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, Beltane often begins at sunset on April 30 and continues through May day. Since the medieval era at least, it was believed that the veil between the world of the living and dead is thinnest on both the night of Halloween and the night before Beltane.

As a result, not just the ghosts of the dead, but fairies, shapeshifter and in regards to Walpurgis, witches were at their most powerful and could more easily cross between the two worlds.

Walpurgisnacht and Beltane

Despite sharing the same date and many customs, there is a distinct difference between Walpurgis and Beltane. At its most basic, Beltane is primarily Gaelic and celebrated on May 1, whereas Walpurgis is Germanic and often celebrated the night before Beltane. If you were able to go back in time however, you’d realize you’re dealing with rural customs, in areas quite often cut off from much contact with the outside world. From that perspective you’d likely see little difference between the two holidays.

The primary difference between the ancient times and more modern history, is Walpurgis has developed a distinctly witchy flavor. Walpurgis in the Middle Ages concerned itself with protecting yourself from or driving away witches.

Today, as the fear of the craft fades slowly into the past, it’s all about celebrating witches.

Walpurgis throughout Europe

Walpurgis celebrations have continued unabated throughout Europe, in its homeland of Germany, as well as the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Lithuania, Latvia, Finland and Estonia.

Germanic folklore is ripe with tales of witches, and there the holiday is also known as Hexennacht, from the Dutch (Heksennacht) meaning Witches’ Night.

In Sweden, which has a particularly vibrant association with the holiday, it’s knowns as Valborg, and heavily tied to a celebration of the end of winter and the beginning of spring. It has very little to do with religion and everything to do with the arrival of spring. In Sweden typical holiday activities include the singing of traditional spring folk songs and the lighting of bonfires.

“The first of May is a great popular festival in the more midland and southern parts of Sweden. On the eve of the festival, huge bonfires, which should be lighted by striking two flints together, blaze on all the hills and knolls.” 

Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough

There is a practical reason as well as religious or reasons dealing with folklore, for celebrating on this day. During the Middle Ages, the legal or administrative year ended the last day of April. As a result, it was treated as a community wide holiday, celebrated with bonfires, trick or treating for the children, as well as traditional dances and songs relating to the beginning of spring.

In Sweden, the bonfires can only be traced back to the early 18th century, but they are in all likelihood a continuation of ancient ceremonies, the original purpose long since forgotten.

Both Beltane and Samhain relate to agriculture, but these two specifically to herding, rather than growing crops. It was at this time that the animals were let out for grazing, or brought closer to home for the winter. Bonfires has an added benefit of frightening away predators.

Trick or treating, in a fashion, was once celebrated on Valborg in southern Sweden. Though no longer popular, children went to the woods and collected branches of greenery to decorate the village houses, where they were paid in eggs.

In Finland, Walpurg is referred to as Vappu (or Vappen), and borrows the Germanic tradition of celebrating witches. It’s one of the four biggest Finnish holidays and is the biggest carnival day of the year, celebrated in no small part by excessive intake of alcohol.

Estonia too once looked on Walpurgis as the date when witches gathered, and referred to it as Volbriöö. It preceded the day of  Kevadpüha which was celebrated as the arrival of spring. Volbriöö still sees carnivals, celebration and drinking, often by people dressed as traditional witches.

It’s worth noting that unlike many of today’s modern witches and pagans, there is no desire to pretty up witches. Instead the tendency is to go with the old stereotype witch as hag. These are countries where witches were once feared after all.

In the Czech Republic, winter is brought to an end on May 30 in a festival called pálení čarodějnic (“burning of the witches”) or čarodějnice (“the witches”). Witches made of rags and straw are burned, sometimes just a broomstick, though in the modern era it’s more of an excuse to get drunk around the fire.

When a burst of black smoke is emitted from the blaze, a cheer goes up as the witch is said to fly away. As the fire dies down and midnight approaches, it’s off to the woods to search for cherry blossoms. It’s thought that a young woman kissed under a cherry tree that night, and ideally through the next day if one has the stamina, will keep both the tree and the young lady from drying up. To Czechs, it’s a day all about love.

The Roots of Walpurgisnacht

Walpurgis: The story behind the name

The first known mention of S. Walpurgis Nacht or (S. Walpurgis Abend) is to be found in the Calendarium perpetuum of Johann Coler (1603). It was also mentioned in the writings of Johannes Praetorius in 1668. Translated into English and stripped of its Catholic connotation, Saint Walpurgis Nacht becomes Walpurgis Night.

If you want to get technical, the holiday is called Walpurgisnacht [valˈpʊʁɡɪsˌnaχt], which is used in both the Dutch and German Language. In English it’s translated to Walpurgis Night, as it is the eve of the feast day of Saint Walpurga.

Saint Walburga

Saint Walburga was an English nun, born in Devonshire in 710, sent as a missionary to Germany to start churches. She died in Heidenheim on February 25, 777 as best as we can tell.

As Walpurga’s feast was held on May 1, she became associated with May Day, especially in the Finnish and Swedish calendars.The eve of May Day, traditionally celebrated with dancing, came to be known as Walpurgisnacht.

She is the patron saint of Eichstadt, Oudenarde, Furnes, Antwerp, Gronigen, Weilburg, and Zutphen. She also might be of assistance against hydrophobia, and in storms, and also by sailors, if you’re into that kind of thing.

She first seemed to have landed on the European continent in Mainz, under the care of her uncle, St. Boniface. Named abbess of Heidenheim, she was aided by her brother, St. Winibald, who governed an abbey in the same town. You think you have trouble living up to the expectations of your family? Try competing with your brother who is a saint.

When Winibald died, she took over the monastery he governed as well.

How does a Catholic saint become the namesake of a holiday dedicated to witches? It’s in part because of the name of Heidenheim. The abbey itself was called Heidenheimer Kloster, which translates to Heathen-home Cloister. Heidenheim it seems was named after a holy spring there, Heidenbrunnen, which was famous for having been where many heathens, or pagans as we like to call ourselves now, were baptized.

The name stuck, even if the meaning for the name was lost to time.

She became associated with May 1 because she was canonized as a saint on that day. The reason she became a saint was in no small part due to a strange occurrence on her burial. Her rock tomb began oozing a healing oil, and it was declared a miracle. So much so that her body was chopped up and sent all over France and German to spread the miracle.

People, still clinging to their pagan traditions were already celebrating May 1 in their heathen manner. This was of course frowned upon by the church, but under the auspices of celebrating St. Walburga’s feast day, the celebrations were able to continue.

If one inspects the stone carvings found in chapels dedicated to Walburga, you’ll find certain recurring symbols, typically a bundle of grain and a dog.

“Nine nights before the first of May is Walburga in flight, unceasingly chased by wild ghosts and seeking a hiding place from village to village. People leave their windows open so she can be safe behind the cross-shaped windowpane struts from her roaring enemies. For this, she lays a little gold piece on the windowsill, and flees further. A farmer who saw her on her flight through the woods described her as a white lady with long flowing hair, a crown upon her head; her shoes were fiery gold, and in her hands she carried a three-cornered mirror that showed all the future, and a spindle, as does Berchta. A troop of white riders exerted themselves to capture her. So also another farmer saw her, whom she begged to hide her in a shock of grain. No sooner was she hidden than the riders rushed by overhead. The next morning the farmer found grains of gold instead of rye in his grain stook. Therefore, the saint is portrayed with a bundle of grain.” 

E.L. Rochholz, 1870

This is of course less like a matronly Catholic saint, and more like the tale of a Germanic goddess. The connection grows when one looks at the dog symbol in relation to Walburga. German goddesses were often associated with dogs, the Hilfstier, which is something quite like a witch’s familiar. It was thought that speaking the name Walburga could tame an angry dog.

The Windhound is frequently tied to fertility and abundance in the home and fields, and in some places is called the Nourishment-Hound or Nahrungshund. The Windbound also rears its canine head particularly during the spring fertility festivals.

The spindle and the grain noted in Rochholz’s writings are both associated with Germanic gods and the celebration of the coming of spring.

This miracle reminded men of the fruitful dew which fell from the manes of the Valkyries’ horses, and when one of the days sacred to her came on May first, the wedding-day of Frau Holda and the sun-god, the people thought of her as a Valkyrie, and identified her with Holda.

Like a Valkyrie, she rode armed on her steed, she scattered, like Holda, spring flowers and fruitful dew upon the fields and vales.

Even the slime oozing from her tomb becomes an association with pagan goddesses, as it tended to remind  people of the dew which dripped from the manes of the Valkyries’ horses. May 1 was also the birthdate of Holda, whom Jacob Grimm claimed was a Germanic goddess, though that might be a bit of a stretch.

There is no denying Holda’s connection to the supernatural. Her art was spinning and weaving, which formed another connection to Walpurga and the spindle. Spindles and thread were often thought to be essential ingredients for love spells cast during the heathen May celebrations, when love and fertility seemed to be on everyone’s mind.

Holda also rode through the night, albeit on distaffs, which was much like a witch’s broom. She was believed to have presided over all female spirits, who became known as Hulden. According to the Canon Episcopi, the Hulden would slip ”out through closed doors in the silence of the night, leaving their sleeping husbands behind”. They would travel vast distances through the sky, to great feasts, or to battles amongst the clouds.

The Catholic church of course frowned on such behavior and made it known that flying through the night on broomsticks was not only forbidden, but punishable by penance of a year. The ninth century Canon Episcopi came down on ladies who claimed to consort with a “crowd of demons.” In the later De arte magica, the church went even farther, “Have you believed there is some female, whom the stupid vulgar call Holda [or, in some manuscripts, strigam Holdam, the witch Holda], who is able to do a certain thing, such that those deceived by the devil affirm themselves by necessity and by command to be required to do, that is, with a crowd of demons transformed into the likeness of women, on fixed nights to be required to ride upon certain beasts, and to themselves be numbered in their company?”

To go even farther down this path, farmers who had yet to plough their field by May 1 were often given a straw doll, called a Walpurga. This was an identical practice connected to not only Holda, but another goddess as well, Berchta, only theirs were given out during Yuletide, and to women.

And so it seems that Walburga became merged with Holda, which isn’t all that surprising, and the B in her name changed to a P. Germanic goddesses were often known by different names in different places. The Catholic church even went as far as to associate Holda with Diana.

“On Walpurgis Night as on Hallowe’en strange things may happen to one. Zschokke tells a story of a Walpurgis Night dream that is more a vision than a dream. Led to be unfaithful to his wife, a man murders the husband of a former sweetheart; to escape capture he fires a haystack, from which a whole village is kindled. In his flight he enters an empty carriage, and drives away madly, crushing the owner under the wheels. He finds that the dead man is his own brother. Faced by the person whom he believes to be the Devil, responsible for his misfortunes, the wretched man is ready to worship him if he will protect him. He finds that the seeming Devil is in reality his guardian-angel who sent him this dream that he might learn the depths of wickedness lying unfathomed in his heart, waiting an opportunity to burst out.”

“Wild desires, woken in our heart, which life has not fulfilled”

“For you see, pastor, within every one of us a spark of paganism is glowing. It has out-lasted the thousand years since the old Teutonic times. Once a year is flames up high, and we call it St. John’s Fire. Once a year comes Free-night. Yes, truly, Free-night. Then the witches, laughing scornfully, ride to Blocksberg, upon the mountain-top, on their broomsticks, the same broomsticks with which at other times their witchcraft is whipped out of them,–then the whole wild company skims along the forest way,–and then the wild desires awaken in our hearts which life has not fulfilled.”

Suderman, St. John’s Fire

In our pagan past, there were certain days and nights where the normal restraints of society were loosened, and people were free to revert back to nature. Some celebrations loosened the libido, some broke down social barriers that separated the various classes of society, such as the Roman Saturnalia. Walpurgis night and Beltane was such a time as well.

Is it now? Certainly in some quarters, yes. And perhaps that’s how it’s always been, for Walpurgis, though a night celebrated together, was also a night celebrated in isolation and secrecy. Is it any wonder that sexual fascination has taken hold with these holidays, for nothing is known of the facts of the past. Just whispered rumors that might have never been anything more than suppressed Victorian sexuality run amok in the mind.

It was common practice for the church to attempt to plaster over society’s pagan roots. So Beltane became a feast day for Walburga, a Christian saint. In the same vein, pagan sites were rededicated to Walpurgis. There are a wealth of sites in the Netherlands, Belgium, Saxony, and other regions of northern Germany dedicated to her – temples, wells and springs, features of the landscape like mountains and hills, as well as trees associated with heathen worship.

But rather than the saint making these days and sites more Christian, Walburga became more pagan.

According to Rochholz, “The greatest number of the oldest churches in lower Germany are dedicated to this same saint.” Jacob Grimm wrote “The witches invariably resort to places where formerly justice was administered, or sacrifices were offered. …Almost all the witch-mountains were once hills of sacrifice, boundary-hills, or salt-hills.”

The Brocken

“The Witches’ excursion takes place on the first night in May…they ride up Blocksberg on the first of May, and in 12 days must dance the snow away; then Spring begins… Here they appear as elflike, godlike maids.”

– Jacob Grimm.

In the book Harzreise, or A Harz Journey, Heinrich Heine, wrote in 1826 “The mountain somehow appears so Germanically stoical, so understanding, so tolerant, just because it affords a view so high and wide and clear. And should such mountain open its giant eyes, it may well see more than we, who like dwarfs just trample on it, staring from stupid eyes.”

The Harz Mountains lie between the rivers Weser and Elbe in center of Germany. Of those wooded hills, the tallest peak, standing at just over 1,140 meters tall, is Blocksburg. How it came to be called the geographic epicenter of Walpurgisnacht is a tangled tale.

Witches were associated with Blocksberg since Charlemagne was emperor, though in truth they were likely just people celebrating the old religion, worshiping the pagan gods which held sway before the coming of Christianity. The remote, rugged location afforded privacy, which was important during the years when worshiping the gods of your choice could get you burned at the stake.

Blocksburg is snow covered for much of the year, melting off in May. It’s perpetually shrouded in mist and fog, up to 300 days out of the year. With frigid temperatures, it’s not a hospitable place. Today, trails wind through the the forest and up the mountain. The winds have caused the trees to twist and grow gnarled and moss covered. Strange rock formations break through the forest and have such poetic names as the Devil’s Pulpit and the Witch’s Altar.

And then there’s the specter of the Brocken, Walking on the mountain when the sun begins to set, your shadow becomes magnified and is projected onto the low lying clouds or mist, with a rainbow or halo around the head. The first victim was a climber, who lost his balance when he became frightened of a haloed figure coming towards him from the mist. He literally died from being afraid of his own shadow, falling to the rocks far below.

Old pagan myths say that on the night of April 30th a devil named Wotan married his love Freya on the Brocken in Schierke, on the slopes of the Broken on the night before Beltane. This myth and others became the seeds of scenes from the musical drama, Faust, written by Johann Wolfgangvon Goethe

Through Goethe’s poetic use and incorporation of these myths into his famous play, this myth remains today. There are two scenes of interest here, in Faust Part One, Walpurgisnacht, and in Part Two, Classical Walpurgisnacht.

Now to the Brocken the witches ride;
The stubble is gold and the corn is green;
There is the carnival crew to be seen,
And Squire Urianus will come to preside.
So over the valleys our company floats,
With witches a-farting on stinking old goats.

Goethe may have gained inspiration from two rock formations on the mountain’s summit, the Teufelskanzel (Devil’s Pulpit) and the Hexenaltar (Witches’ Altar).

Goethe was drawing on folklore and legends for these scenes, and they give us a glimpse into a world where witches and demons were feared by everyday people. His sources spoke of a bevy of witches who came by night to the top of the Brocken, to celebrate and show their devotion to Satan in ways incredibly sexual, which culminated in each kissing the ass of a goat.

Goethe tempered the legends quite a bit in the end, downplaying the sexuality considerably. And Goethe wasn’t the only writers of the age to tell of the mysteries of Walpurgis Night.

Bram Stoker, who wrote Dracula, the book that spawned a zillion films, also wrote a short story along the same theme, Dracula’s Guest. In the story, an Englishman en route to Transylvania arrives in Munich on Walpurgis Night. The owner of the inn where he stays warns him against going out in the evening, advice the gentleman ignores. He abandons his carriage and sets off on foot towards an abandoned village, believed to be unholy.

“Walpurgis Night, when, according to the belief of millions of people, the devil was abroad – when the graves were opened and the dead came forth and walked. When all evil things of earth and air and water held revel…It took all my philosophy, all the religion I had been taught, all my courage, not to collapse in a paroxysm of fright.” 

Bram Stoker, Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Tales

Walpurgistide Customs

Like May Day celebrations, dancing or even leaping about, particularly in conjunction with fire is one of the staples of Walpurgis Night. The lady of the house would customarily leap over her broom. Grain would grow as high as the farmer could jump on Walpurgis Night.

In addition to leaping over or dancing around, Walpurgis Night fires had other uses. It was considered good luck to burn anything that had worn out over the previous year in that night’s fires. Straw men were made and endowed with things like illness and disease, melancholy, even downright bad luck and burned in the fires as well.

If you wanted to avoid bad weather and ensure good crops, you might put out bread with honey and butter for the Ankenschnitt, or Windhound.

There were many things thought to go bump on this night, in addition to witches. To keep them at bay, children would gather greenery from ash, hawthorn, juniper, and elder, which was then hung around the house and barns. Ironic that this was once done to appease the goddesses, then later to scare away the witches.

On Walpurgis Night precaution must be taken against witches who may harm cattle. Blessed bells were hung from cow’s necks. The stable doors are locked and sealed with three crosses.

Not everyone wants to miss out on the witches. Put on your clothes wrong side out and walking backwards to a crossroads might make them visible to you. So would wearing a wild radish around your neck or on your person.

Love potions were thought to be exceptionally potent on Walpurgis Night. Divination worked better as well. Sleeping with one stocking on, you checked it the next morning, and if you found a single hair, the color would indicate the hair color of your eventual spouse. Keep a linen thread near a statue of the Virgin Mary on Walpurgis Night, and at midnight, unravel it and recite the following:

“Thread, I pull thee;
Walpurga, I pray thee,
That thou show to me
What my husband’s like to be.”

They judge of his disposition by the thread’s being strong or easily broken, soft or tightly woven.

Dew on the morning of May first makes girls who wash in it beautiful.

“The fair maid who on the first of May
Goes to the fields at break of day
And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree
Will ever after handsome be.”

Encyclopedia of Superstitions

Speaking of garments and material, clothes worn on May Day, made from thread spun on Walpurgis night, would bring luck in the next day’s shooting competitions. To those he holds in high regards, the Devil turns his ammunition to freikugeln, which are bullets that always hit their mark.

What Does This All Mean?

In days of old, winter was a damned hard season to survive. A good crop or the goodwill of your neighbors was essential. If you had neither, less work in the fields and pastures during the snows left you working to stay alive. It’s no wonder people went a bit bonkers come the arrival of spring.

Walpurgis Night was the kissing away of all of that, in preparation for the celebrations of Beltane. It was the last gasp of darkness over the land before the light started shining a bit more bright.

Both Walpurgis Night and Beltane contain an element of raw, unbridled sexuality. It was the ideal time to mate after all. A woman who found herself with child conceived during this time would only be five months along at the beginning of October, when the crops were brought in, which meant you didn’t have to struggle through a summer’s worth of work, laden with child.

Fertility celebrations are often thought of as a time for licentiousness of all sorts. Excessive drink goes along well with unbridled sexuality, and so even if the sexual overtones are downplayed, Walpurgis Night is still celebrated in many places as a time for drinking.

Goddesses revered for their abilities to aid in fertility were celebrated at this time. The fertility of the crops were magically transferred to people, or perhaps it was the other way around.

The arts of the cunning women, or wise women of the forest were especially potent during this time. Their magic often revolved around love, sexuality and fertility, and this is the ideal time for it, as seeds begin to sprout, animals started to mate, and the world around them passed from the darkness of winter into the light of spring.

One of the drawbacks of having an illiterate populace, is that people tend to learn by oral tradition. Storytellers in other words. As anyone who has studied the history of oral tradition, or even had a grandfather who was fond of tall tales can attest, that while poetic in a sense, oral tradition begets a range of themes. We see the importance of an event in different ways, based on our own loves, fears and prejudices. And so depending on who tells the story, we can get the same story told in a variety of ways. Which imparts a variety of meanings.

As the old gods faded into the background, the collective memory of the people called out by nature for substitutes. The church provided these in the forms of saints and their holy days. And so on a day once celebrated in the name of a goddess, we find the same attributes of that deity transferred onto a Catholic saint, mainly because their holy day shared the same date.

We find that St. Walburga takes on the mantle of an ancient deity, be it Nehalennia, Nerthus, Holda, Berchta, and over time becomes along with Walpurgis Night, the celebration of the witch. The woman behind the saint is forgotten, except for a handful of anecdotes and historical records, lost to time. When the pagan goddesses were shoved back even farther into disrepute, those who still worshipped the old ways had to go further afield to celebrate.

And Walpurga, an English woman who went to Germany to do god’s work, takes on the memory of Holga, a Germanic goddess, and is branded as a witch.

by Todd Attebury

https://www.gothichorrorstories.com/author/turnicate/

St. Patrick and the Serpent

Saint Patrick’s Day in the United States has devolved from what was once a Catholic feast day into something almost unrecognizable. As we have reexamined the way that Cinco de Mayo is celebrated across the country, people of Mexican and Latin American descent have advocated for a more respectful celebration of the holiday, without the sombreros and caricatures of the culture. St. Patrick’s Day is a celebration which could benefit from some of the same.

Images of drunkenness and one dimensional stereotypes are hurtful for people of all cultures. Since the early days of Irish immigration to the United States, one of the most common insults of Irish immigrants is that they were drunks. In this day Irish people have battled that image, and are assimilated and make up a large percentage of the American population — yet Irish culture to some is still synonymous with the overindulgence of alcohol.

Aside from green beer, there is the also the cocktail known as the Irish Car Bomb. it contains Guinness, Bailey’s Irish Cream, and Jameson Irish whiskey. The Irish Car Bomb brings up memories of violence and conflict for many and shouldn’t be ordered in Ireland or anywhere else. One way to put it into perspective is to imagine how Americans would feel to have a drink named after something like 9/11 — horrible, right? 

Those of us who venerate the Old Ways of various cultures such as the Celtic spiritualities and the African Diaspora religions have our own concerns surrounding Saint Patrick. Many people view the image of the serpents being driven out of Ireland as a representation of the destruction of the indigenous faiths.

Serpents are and have been powerful icons in cultures across the world throughout the ages.

Historically, serpents and snakes represent fertility or a creative life force. As snakes shed their skin through sloughing, they are symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing. The Ourobouros is a symbol of eternity and continual renewal of life.

In Hinduism the Kundalini is a coiled serpent. The Vision Serpent is a symbol of rebirth in Mayan mythology. Aidophedo of the West African Ashanti people, Quetzalcoatl in Central America. The list goes on and on.

The African Diaspora faiths that evolved from the enslavement of their people during French and Spanish colonialism in the U.S., the Caribbean, and Latin America have survived by syncretizing their Spirits with the Catholic saints, so that their religions could be practiced in secrecy.

Damballah, one of the most beloved of the Lwa in Haitian Vodou is syncretized with Saint Patrick. His Fet, or Feast Day is March 19th, and so is celebrated very close to St. Patrick’s Day. He is commonly represented as a large white horned serpent.

Ya Sezi bo Oungan writes of his experience with Damballah:

“Damballah Wedo is the cosmic serpent divinity of wisdom, purity, coolness, education, reincarnation, birth rebirth and wealth, his counterpart and wife Ayida Wedo, is about the invisible world becoming visible, second sight, and the female side of the tasks Damballa oversees. Damballah and Ayida Wedo can be addressed in nature in several places. Waterfalls, Rivers,and giant ancient trees to name a few. Damballah is often envisioned as a giant white serpent, in some houses he is described as a horned serpent. No matter who he appears to and how he appears in spirit he is an extremely powerful force that is easy to underestimate. Damballah Wedo, among many other Lwa like Papa Loko, Sobo, Bade, and so on are called Racine Lwa, or Root Lwa, they represent the lwa that are the foundation of the tradition. Spirits that were brought from West Africa. Damballah was one of the first Lwa to make their presence known to me.

I used to attend highschool in the Niagara Region of upstate NY, I would often go to Goat island national park to watch the river, and see the falls. At this point in time my time spent with vodou was minimal, my knowledge of local folklore was pretty good though. The early Native Americans from the Hopewell societies worshiped a horned serpent that lived in the lakes, rivers, falls, and other similar areas. When the Iroquois made their way north, they destroyed many things associated with the serpent deities. The last two were said to have avoided destruction by hiding under the falls and under the whirlpool found a mile or so from the falls.

Standing at the falls on both the American and Canadian sides, letting the mist touch you, hearing the tremendous roar of the falls, and the peace that can be found in the crashing of water. It was here that I made a connection for the first time with Damballah. A space that was once the place of reverence for a serpent spirit was nice, but that’s not what was there that day for me. It is important that people seek out the Lwa in the land they are on, from here in New Orleans, to people in the deserts of Arizona, the tech cities of the West, everywhere, the Lwa exist everywhere. Haiti is where their worship is known, but borders are human, and the Lwa transcend human experience, they are bigger than we can comprehend. Vodou is a living religion, the spirits can be experienced by the seeker. There may be lwa that are only in Haiti, but we should ask ourselves the “Why” that has no answer.

The image below was put together by myself based on my experiences, and personal interactions, and painted by S. Alderney it depicts Damballah Wedo, as a horned serpent, above him Sobo, and to the right, Bade in the forms of rams draped in fire, in the mist other smaller horned serpents are seen Ayida Wedo as the rainbow spans the sky.”

As we approach Saint Patrick’s Day, the Spring Equinox, and the Fet Damballah, there is much to celebrate! How we choose to do so will be a reflection of our consciousness and respect for the cultures and traditions we hold.

It is claimed that Saint Patrick recommended partaking of “a wee dram of whiskey” in his honor, for those who are so inclined. Perhaps the wearing of the green – or for Damballah wear white. Honor the Spring as a time of joyously affirming the source of life as the sap rises and the flowers bloom, and the creatures of the Earth awake from Winter’s sleep.

Blessings of Spring!

Rev. Kathi Bonnabel

(cover photo at the top is Damballa Wedo by Haitian artist Andre Pierre (1916-2005)

https://haitianartsociety.org/pierre-andre-haitian-1916-2005

Brighid’s Healing Well

There are many kinds of healing – spiritual, emotional, and physical healing. Healing for the Earth, for all those suffering oppression and poverty. Healing for communities and individuals as they struggle to grow and to change.  All of this, and more can be found through the blessings of the Lady Brighid.

The waters from Brighid’s Well are an ever-flowing source of sustenance, strength, abundance, and healing.    This is the source of life itself.  Like Brighid’s Well, your cup is ever flowing and abundant. This is your cup of healing waters.   Know that these waters of hope, healing, and wholeness are there for you whenever you need them.

We invite you to join us and ask for her blessings on February 2nd which is the celebration of Imbolc, or Candlemas. It signifies the life that is stirring in the Earth, the hope of renewal and Winter’s end.

For more information, a copy of the ceremony, or a link to the virtual gathering please email: Revkb@sacredwellministries.org

Winter Solstice Greetings

December 2020

Winter Greetings Dear Ones,

The Wheel of the Year is approaching the Winter Solstice.  It is a time for us to take a breath, a moment to reflect upon the intense experiences we have gone through in the past several months.  Change is afoot in so many aspects of our world.  It leaves us bewildered, confused, and even frightened at times.   One of the things that can sustain us during times of great upheaval and transformation are the bonds that we have formed with those we care about, our chosen spiritual family.

One of the central concepts behind Sacred Well is to help keep our community connected, to forge relationships that allow us to work together, support each other and share knowledge and resources with one another.  How we go about doing this right now looks a lot different than what we have done in the past.  Though we miss the experience of in-person celebrations, our virtual gatherings have been helping us to fill that void to some degree.  Hopefully if we all do what we must now, we will be able to be together again in the not-too-distant future.

We may fumble through the technological aspects` of it from time to time, but the learning curve is improving!  Several different people have hosted virtual celebrations, and if this is something that you would like to involved in, please let us know.  We would love to get more people involved and have a wider variety of offerings throughout the coming year.

Other things that have worked out well are the simultaneous spellwork groups for a common cause.  It has proved to be a powerful way to combine our energies and direct them in a unified effort.  We would really like to see more of that type of cooperative action.  Do you have ideas for something along those lines?  Let us hear about it, and maybe put something together for people who want to participate.

And also know, Dear Ones, that you are loved and supported whether you are able to engage right now or if things just seem like too much.  Winter Solstice is the time to go within – to nurture yourself, give your spirit time to heal and regenerate itself.  Let yourself just be, with no expectation or judgement.  We will be here for you.

With Love & Blessings,

Rev. Kathi Bonnabel

Sacred Well Ministries

THE PILLARS OF CREATION

Named for the nebula in the featured photo from the Hubble telescope, this ceremony celebrates the Life Forces of the Universe, and how they combine to create all that we see and all that we are. We are made of stars – look at the night sky and feel your connection to all that is.

You may use this as you wish in your personal practice or in groups. It can be adapted for many occasions. In a group, divide the parts to be read in different voices. Or use it as a meditation piece. All we ask is to acknowledge the source material. It was written by Rev. Katherine Bonnabel of Sacred Well Ministries, with excerpts from other authors cited at the end of the script.

With love and blessings,

Rev. Kathi B.

The Pillars of Creation

For this ceremony you will need on your altar:

A cup or chalice of Water -west

A lantern or some other flame. – south

Incense or Feather – east

Bowl of Salt – north

A pentacle. – center

 Place each symbol in the direction of its corresponding element

Also on (or near) the altar:

A sword, Athame, or Wand

A white candle

A chalice of wine or juice

A Broom

A small cauldron or bowl

A Cake (cookie or bread)

A gong, bell, or chime

Pick up a bell, chime, or gong and sound instrument to begin the rite. (three times with a slight pause in between each)

Take up the broom and begin to sweep (widdershins) in the East with a stroke from the center of the Circle out, ending the words and sweeping at the north saying:

All things evil or malignant be,

Know this place is not for thee.

Be thou gone! Depart from me!

And by my Will, SO MOTE IT BE.

            now sweeping deosil and sweeping with a motion from the edge of the Circle inward) and travels around the Circle, ending at the east, saying:

Red spirits and black,

White spirits and gray,

Come ye, come ye, come who may.

Around and about,

Through in and throughout,

The good come in, and the ill keep out!

On the last two words, stamp your foot as you say “Keep Out”

            All that is dreamed may come to be…                                                

            Welcome here and Blessed Be.

Pick up Air symbol. Salute the East and say:

Hail, guardians of the East,

You who are the breath of life,

you who are the words of the magician.

come to us with your gifts of knowing and intellect.

So mote it be. 

pick up the symbol of Fire and go the south.  After salute, say:

Hail, guardians of the South, 

You who are the fire that burns in our bellies,

 you who are the dance of the warrior. 

come to us with your gifts of will and action.

So mote it be. 

pick up the symbol of Water and go to the west. After salute, say:

Hail, guardians of the West,

You who are the blood in our veins,

you who are the rains, the rivers, the tides

come to us with your gifts of emotion and feeling.

So mote it be.

pick up the symbol for Earth and go to the north.  After salute, say::

Hail, guardians of the North,

 You who are the bounty of the fields,

 you who are the realm of the mighty mountains. 

come to us with your gift of strength and stability.

 So mote it be. 

take up the (sword/staff/athame/wand) and go to the east. raise it casting (deosil) all the way around the Circle, completing the casting back at the east.

I cast this circle, woven in light and mist

Guarded by the Ancient Ones

Surrounded by shields of Spirit

A place of protection, blessed and sealed

Which shall contain within all energy here.

Sphere be Blessed!  Circle be consecrated!

Naught but love shall enter in and naught but love shall emerge.

So Mote it Be.

Pause a moment to center yourself, take 3 deep breaths and slowly exhale.  Feel the energy that you have created to build this sacred space. 

As Above, so Below

As the Universe, so the Soul

As Within, So Without

Time without Time

Place without Place

Beginnings without Endings

The Circle is cast and the time of Magic begins.

We gather to honor the Forces of Creation in their many aspects.

We open our minds and hearts to their Mysteries.

Before we call upon the Sovereigns of the Heavens, we shall ask the Wild Ones to join us.

Call to The Warrior, the Hunter, the Green One, the Heart of the Forest.  Call to the other aspects of the Spirits of Nature as you chant for them to be with us tonight.

(chant)

Hail, Divine Ones,

Spirits shining bright

Keepers of the Mystery

Bless this rite

(repeat 3X)

Now we call to the Sovereigns of the Heavens, they in Their many guises: the Dancers in the Stars, Weavers of the Web, Ancient Wisdom Keepers, and other aspects of They who are the Creative Force of the universe.

(chant)

Hail, Divine Ones,

Spirits shining bright

Keepers of the Mystery

Bless this rite

(repeat Three times)

(Light the white candle in the center of the altar, symbolizing the presence of Deity arriving, and ring the chime one time) – This section may be used as a meditation piece. If doing so, you will close your eyes, and take three deep breaths and slowly exhale between each, and allow yourself to relax and listen.

These are the words of the Spirits of Nature, they who sing the songs of our Ancestors and guard the Mysteries of Life, Death, and Rebirth:

I am the wild hunter of the forest deep.   I am the fire upon the hill
And I am the sower of the seed. And the tiller of the soil of the earth.

And I am the golden warrior whose arrows are the shafts from the sun
The thunder is my hoof fall, The wilderness my shrine.

I wield the oaken staff.  The elements at my call
By day am the Sun, by night I ride upon the wild winds.

I am a wolf, a tree and mountain.
In the wilderness doth my spirit dwell.

All wildlings and fugitives of oppression are cherished within my heart.

To such as thee, my hidden children, am I provider and protector
For all things wild and free are in my keeping.”

(Ring the Chime once)

Listen to the words of the Sovereigns of the Heavens, They who of old were called among mortals by many names in many lands,

“Hear me child, and know Me for who I am. I have been with you
since you were born, and I will stay with you until you return to Me.
I am the Muse who inspires the poet to dream.

I am the Force that will not be ruled, the Weaver of Time, the Teacher of Mysteries. Find your way and come to me, and you will discover true beauty, strength, and courage. 

I am the fury which rips the flesh from injustice.

I am the glowing forge that transforms your fears into tools of power.

Open yourself to my embrace.”

(Ring the Chime once)

This is one of the Mysteries, to know that within the Light there is the Dark, and within the Dark the Light also resides:

“I have been here from the beginning of life.

 My ancient names are still called by those

who seek my wisdom and protection. 

And all things of beauty and freedom and life are joy unto my spirit;
Swiftly I come to merriment and laughter, for these are my invocations

For I am the keeper of all life.  Yet also I have a dark face
For I am Death.    The Reaper of Souls.
And terrible is this, my dark face, to those who know not the mystery.

Yet to my hidden children who know and love my spirit
My dark face is also sweet, for tis the face of deep and hidden wisdom.

For I am the giver of knowledge.  Life and death are mine to keep.
From death thou shalt be reborn unto new life and love.
Therefor seek my spirit and know me, Bright and dark
Then shalt thou know my mystery.”

(Ring the Chime once)

            Know that Those Who Walk Among the Stars are here to guide and protect us.  Their wisdom leads us to deeper knowledge of our connections to all that surrounds us:

“I am the velvet depths of the night sky, the swirling mists of midnight,
shrouded in mystery.  I am the chrysalis in which you will face that which terrifies you and from which you will blossom forth, vibrant and renewed.

Seek me with an open heart, and you shall be transformed, for once you look upon my face, you will know your true self.

I am the fire that kisses the shackles away.

 I am the cauldron in which all opposites grow to know each other in Truth. I am the web which connects all things.

I am the Healer of all wounds,

the Warrior who rights all wrongs in their Time.

 I make the weak strong. I make the arrogant humble.

 I raise up the oppressed and empower the disenfranchised.

I am Justice tempered with Mercy.”

“Seek me within and without. Know me so that you may awaken to Balance, Illumination, and Wholeness.

Take our Love with you everywhere and find the Power within.

For we are the Ancient Ones:  Our faces outnumber the stars.

We have been with you from the beginning, and we remain as eternal as the spark of life that resides within each and every one of you.”

(ring the Chime once)

Place the cauldron or bowl upon the pentacle.

Add some Water from the West chalice -the waters from which all life emerged

three pinches of Salt from the Earth bowl – The essence of the life-giving Earth

 and add a small amount juice or wine – The sustenance for our bodies

Let us chant together to charge this cauldron with the energy of these Life Forces combined.   We do this to honor the Divines Ones and that spark of them that burns within each of us:

Forces of Nature

The ebb and the flow

Eternally changing

Above and below

(repeat Three times)

Stir the contents of the cauldron together, and hold it up in blessing:

            In the Union of the Elements of Life and all that lies between,

In the Perfect Balance does Creation sing,

Of Sun and Moon, of Light and Dark, of Above and Below,

And by this Mystery is the Universe created!

So Mote it Be!

(Place it back upon the Pentacle.  Dip your finger into the cauldron)

Anoint yourself: 

 Crown Chakra – connection to the Universe and the Divine

   Throat Chakra – to speak your truth, authenticity, creativity

    Heart Chakra – For unconditional love and compassion 

(hold your hands over the Cakes & Ale, and say this blessing)

It is traditional to celebrate our gatherings with cakes and ale.  

May the fullness of life be a blessing to us all.

And may the strength of our souls be like a bright flame.

(Sip the wine/juice and consume the Cake – save a portion of each as an offering to take outside as libations.  Also save the remaining contents of the cauldron as a libation.)

            The dance is done; the songs are sung…

Our promise is kept, oh Ancient Ones.

Our thanks and blessings go with thee…

Farewell we bid you — Blessed be.

(Extinguish the central altar candle, as we bid farewell to Deity)

The rite is done. 

            Undo the Circle.

             Begin at the end and end at the beginning.

(raise Symbol of Earth)

Guardians of the North, Element of Earth,

We thank you for your presence in our circle.

Go back to your realms with our blessings in peace.

Hail and Farewell!

(replace Earth symbol, pick up the symbol for Water, go to the west point and hold it high)

Guardians of the West, Element of Water,

We thank you for your presence in our circle.

Go back to your realms with our blessings in peace.

Hail and Farewell!

(replace Water symbol, picks up the symbol for Fire, go to the south point and hold it high)

Guardians of the South, Element of Fire,

We thank you for your presence in our circle.

Go back to your realms with our blessings in peace.

Hail and Farewell!

(replace Fire symbol, picks up symbol for Air from the altar and go to the east point and hold it high)

Guardians of the East, Element of Air,

We thank you for your presence in our circle.

Go back to your realms with our blessings in peace.

Hail and Farewell!

The last symbol is replaced.

May we all share our Love and our magic

In all the Circles of Time.

This Rite ends in Joy.

Pick up the Sword/athame/wand/hand,  hold it up and rotate widdershins while saying:

The Circle is open,

But never broken.

Merry meet, merry part,

And merry meet again!

May the Gods preserve the Craft

As the Craft preserves the Gods!

Then the final grounding:

Oh Spirits whom this Circle has drawn,

We thank thee and ask that you now be gone.

Back to your realms with our blessings in peace;

As we do will, so mote it be.

With points drawn down, we make the slash:

Each to their own:

From first to last!

Excerpts from : The Charge of the Dark God, author unknown

                  The Charge of the Dark Goddess by Tiger Eye

The Ritual of Lothlorian, Circle Closing

by Rev. Paul Beyerl, Rowan Tree Church

            Final Grounding by Blacksun, ATC/Starwyrm Coven

The Feast of Hekate

A History of the Feast of Hekate

To read the entire article, refer to the original source:  https://www.otherworld-apothecary.com/blog/2015/08/the-origins-of-the-feast-of-hecate/

(Edited for length)

There’s not much in the classical literature about [Hecate] being associated with storms, beyond that Zeus ‘gave’ her power over all realms. Her dominion here instead seems to grow out of the “dark and stormy night” image that she developed during the middle ages. There is, however, widespread belief among modern worshipers that she has a feast day on August 13 to protect the crops from violent storms.

A few clues come to light when we stop looking for ancient Greek sources. In Rome, The Festival of Torches was held on August 13, called the Nemoralia. In it, woman would walk from the city of Rome carrying torches to a lake sacred to Diana where they would offer their petitions. There was a strong conflation between Artemis and Hecate in Greece, with Hecate taking on a number of Artemis’ roles. Diana and Hecate were also conflated some, but typically maintained separate spheres of influence. Still, this seems to be a likely source for fixing the ritual on that particular date.

Additionally, in 1986 a ritual performed on August 14, 1985, was published in Circle Network News which invoked Hecate Chthonia and incorporated a Hecate Supper. A web page by that author claims that a similar ritual incorporating much of the same text was performed at the MoonStone Circle of the Aquarian Tabernacle and published in Panegyria on August 13, 1988. The original date it was performed, August 14, 1985, was a dark moon, which has been a sacred time for Hecate since classical times. The other date, though, perhaps inspired by Stein’s recently published Goddess Book of Days, was a waxing gibbous.

We still suspect the modern Feast of Hecate held on August 13 comes from the Nemoralia, the festival of Diana held in the groves at Nemi. This cult has a long association with modern paganism, being the inspiration and central study in Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough which, in turn, formed a pillar of the neo-pagan movement.

The goddess Diana as she was worshiped in the groves as Nemi possessed a triple form, not unlike the triform figure of Hekate that is familiar to many modern witches. One of the three was known classically as Hecate or Proserpina, something which has troubled me. Why is a Latin Goddess being called by the name of a different Greek goddess? Is it syncretism, like the conflation of Artemis and Hecate, and Artemis and Diana. CMC Green in Roman Religion and the Cult of Diana at Aricia offers this plausible explanation: “The identification of Diana with Hecate (a Greek name) has been made unnecessarily complicated. Diana the Huntress was identified with the moon, as Apollo was with the sun. As the moon grows dark once a month it is inevitable that a moon-goddess will have some part of her identity located in the underworld. Hecate is simply the Greek name for that part of her identity.” The names Hecate and Proserpina were also likely considered safe substitutes for the true name of the Underworld Moon.

There are numerous classical references to this association. One of Horace’s Odes mentions Diva Triformis, and Virgils Dido calls on “tergeminanque hecaten, tria virginis ora Dianae.” Isodore of Seville writing in the first century explains: “Concerning which Virgil writes..the three faces of the virgin Diana, because the same goddess is called Luna, Diana, and Proserpina”. This tripartate Diana persisted through the centuries, showing up in triple form in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and John Skelton’s Garland of Laurels in 1523 (“Diana in the leaves green, Luna that so bright doth sheen, Persephone in hell”). As mentioned previously, her cult instigated James Frazer’s life work The Golden Bough and influenced Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, through which the concept of the triple goddess was introduced to modern Wicca.

To return to the August festival which honored the three-fold goddess, Green’s translation of one of the poems composed by the Latin poet Statius in the 1st century CE is appropriate:

It is the season when the most scorching region of the heavens takes over the land and the keen dog-star Sirius, so often struck by Hyperion’s sun, burns the gasping fields. Now is the day when Trivia’s Arician grove, convenient for fugitive kings, grows smoky, and the lake, having guilty knowledge of Hyppolytus, glitters with the reflection of the multitude of torches; Diana herself garlands the deserving hunting dogs and polishes the arrowheads and allows the wild animals to go in safety, and at virtuous hearths all Italy celebrates the Hecatean Ides.

Finally, Green suggests that the festival lasted 3 days, starting with her descent to the underworld on the Ides (August 13th) where she would be known as Hecate, and culminating on the 15th of August when she ascended as the Queen of Heaven, the full moon. Incidentally the 15th is celebrated as the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, Queen of Heaven, in the Christian church, who may have adopted this (non-infernal) part of the festival.

Today, the August 13th Feast of Hecate has grown immensely in popularity among modern pagans, and includes many individual observances as well as larger public rites such as Hecate’s Feast hosted by the Temple of Witchcraft. We conclude that the Hecate honored at these rites isn’t necessarily the Greek goddess of boundaries or Lady of Storms, but they are an indirect continuation of rites to the dread face of Diva Triformis as goddess of night, the queen of the dark moon roaming the underworld. From the classical torch-lit rites within the grove at Nemi to modern observances by pagans and witches, August 13th brings together all those who form the conclave of the goddess of night. May she bless you all.

changing times

July 25, 2020

As we learn to navigate these unprecedented times, our spirits can sometimes be put to the ultimate test of fortitude and resilience. Essential workers have had to push themselves to the limits of endurance and beyond. Many of us have been isolated from loved ones, and feeling disconnected from our communities.

Sacred Well has had its own challenges with this, but we are determined to do our very best to find ways to keep our connections alive and vital. We have not had a large online presence. We hope to grow and learn, and be able to expand our reach to include those near and far who wish to join us in community.

SO – with that we are planning our very first online ritual for Lughnasadh, using Zoom as our platform. We will send out copies of the ritual to those who wish to join us, or for those who cannot, we can still provide you with a copy so that you may adapt it as a solitary ritual.

For more information on the ritual, to request a copy, or other questions please email us at revkb@sacredwellministries.org

And as always, we welcome your input. What kinds of things do you want to see on our web page? Is there a ritual that you would be interested in exploring? This is your community, and we need as much participation as possible for it to grow and thrive and flourish. We may not be able to host live events for quite some time but we can still find ways to come together. Sending you blessings, of health, abundance, hope, and love!

Sacred Well Ministries

Imbolc Blessings

In the Celtic calendar, the first of the four fire festivals of the year is Imbolc. It is celebrated on the second day of February.

The divinity acknowledged in these early Spring rites is the goddess Brigid, the queen of heaven. She is a primary member of the Celtic divinities and is closely associated with the land. She is the protector of the wells and springs. She is the guardian of nature, and therefore agriculture. She is specifically associated with livestock.  Brigid is also the patron of the poets, artists, and others who create.

The symbolism of wells and springs reflects the connection to the waters of life that emerge from unseen sources. In psychological terms, this could signify the wisdom of the unconscious that flows from mysterious origins. The key is developing a practice of receptivity. For example, contemplating our dreams can open us to an awareness greater than our conscious knowing.

Brigid’s protection of agriculture and poetry underscores the need to tend our inner fertility. Tending our forms of creativity is crucial to a fulfilling life.  Her association with fire also pertains to the creative life. Finding passion in our work is of great importance.

The plume of fire radiating from her head connects her to the life of the mind. Learning can be a form of service to the divinities. She is also the protector of travelers. This applies to both those who explore new terrains and those seekers who are on inner journeys.

One traditional practice on her day was to put baked goods out on the doorstep. They were called cakes for the queen of heaven. These offerings were often eaten by hungry travelers in her name. We might honor this custom by giving money to the homeless for something to eat on Imbolc. The idea is to find a way to share the boon. Those who have been blessed in life are called upon to develop some practice of service to others.

Photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash

Sacred stories continue to touch our souls. We become aware of a dimension of significance in the turning of the seasons that is nothing short of radiant.

So, let us honor the Great Mother, the Queen of Heaven. May we be open to her many gifts of inspiration in this season of renewal.

Blessings of the New Year

Looking back on the past year, Sacred Well has enjoyed much success in its mission of bringing us together as a community in so many ways.

We started at Imbolc, or attempted to do so but the Forces of Nature had other plans. The Imbolc retreat is our time to plan for the coming year, celebrate the Sabbat, and enjoy the fellowship of our extended family. A freak snowstorm dumped nearly 3 feet of snow on our retreat site, and the park rangers did not have the equipment or the personnel to clear the roads for us. It was just as well, as we didn’t want our people to be out in those dangerous driving conditions. We will keep our fingers crossed for this year!

Beltane was a wonderful gathering at the MoonStone Circle Covenstead, where we celebrated with a Maypole, a merry bonfire, and a seasonal feast. Of course with plenty of small ones in attendance there were lots of high spirits and Maypole mayhem, as is befitting the season.

As the Wheel turned to Midsummer, the Covenstead had an impressive pile of brush from the property maintenance which provided more than adequate fuel for a very impressive Summer Solstice bonfire. With the help of all in attendance we were able to make our way through it with not much left over. Pagans are a fire-loving bunch of humans!

While all of this was going on, our Ritual Drama retreat staff was busy behind the scenes, working away on The Mysteries of Orpheus. The magic was strong, and everyone gave of themselves to this project without reservations. The presentation of this immersive ritual drama at the end of September was without a doubt one of the most powerful experiences many of the community have experienced. Our eternal gratitude goes out to everyone who gave so much of themselves to make this happen.

Samhain preparations came close on the heels of the Ritual Drama. We were able to host two celebrations this year, one playful Full Moon for the wee ones, and then on November 2nd we had a Rite of Release for our beloved Dead.

The Covenstead hosted a Winter Solstice gathering which was quite well attended. It included a guided meditation in the classroom downstairs, followed by a wonderful feast. We saw many new faces and were excited to welcome them into our community. We hope that you can join us too!

Stay tuned for our upcoming events in 2020, and thank you for subscribing to The Voice of the Well.

Rev. Kathi Bonnabel

Blessed Samhain Eve

The Ancient Celtic Otherworld

First Appeared in Ripples, The Quarterly Journal of Shining Lakes Grove, Yule, 1995.

Few areas of Celtic lore are more confused by the ravages of time and cultural intrusion than the phenomena of death and the afterlife. The coming of the new Christian faith to Northern Europe signaled a radical change in our traditional understanding of death and rebirth as new characters and biblical theology were superimposed on aboriginal mythology. This hybridization of belief systems created a uniquely Celtic Christianity that, while greatly enhanced by popular folk belief, was in many ways very different from our pre-Christian understanding of the world.

Much of the thinking that resulted from this course of events has been passed down through the centuries to us in folk tales and continues to distort our views of ancient cosmology today. Many of these ideas even continue to be upheld and promoted by modern Neopagan lore as tales are retold and studied for use in revivalist movements. To gain a clearer understanding of our cosmological heritage we must attempt to identify and remove these external influences of late history to reveal a functional and internally consistent world view. While we can not hold out much hope for a truly precise picture of our ancestors’ beliefs, these efforts will carry us much closer to that goal.

The Myth of the Sidhe Gods

The Gods and Goddesses of our ancestors were seen as very powerful. They existed in this world and could move freely between the realms. They were intimately tied to the activities of the world and had an active role in daily events. Many were involved directly in the very cycles upon which life depended.

When Christianity came to the fore people slowly adapted their understanding of these older deities to the new faith. A theology developed to explain the deities’ loss of power to the Christians God which described them as being defeated and relegated to the margins of the world. This belief was a continuation of our traditional view of supernatural relegation. The Celtic Deities were forced to live underground in the same way that they had once forced older pre-Celtic Gods to move out into the Sea.

Today the myths that have been passed through time to us contain stories of how the Gods were forced to live beneath the ground in caves and burial mounds. They began to be referred to as the Sidhe from the Gaelic term for under the hill . Stories abound of fantastic underworld palaces where the former Gods, in diminished form, host marvelous banquets for the dead and heroes of old. These themes are repeated in other tales which picture these palaces as hostels or bruidhen. These accounts have contributed much confusion to a clear understanding of ancient cosmology as they unjustly cast most of the major Irish deities in the role of the Celtic Otherworld God.

As the Christian view of the sinister nature of death and the Otherworld took hold, attitudes toward the old Gods became rooted in suspicion and fear. In late times our view of the Gods became so diminished that they began to be thought of as fairies, sprites, elves, dwarves, etc. These characters maintained their sinister and dangerous nature until recent times when the New Age movement and modern Disney stories turned them into cute but inconsequential playthings.

The Schizophrenic Horned Man

A very popular figure in modern day Neopaganism is the horned man, often given the name Cernunnos taken from a single inscription in Gaul. This modern horned man is a strange mixture of a number of ancient deities from Pan through the Green Man through Hermes through Arawn to Gwyn ap Nudd created through the syncretic power of Wiccan theology. He is seen as a representation of the wild and lusty force of nature while at the same time embodying a sinister otherworldly soul hunter character.

I believe that some of the content of this deity is the result of the collision of the ancient Welsh Otherworld God Arawn with the Christian Devil which occurred as Annwn slowly became synonymous with the Christian Hell. Other portions come from Gwyn ap Nudd, who was once a Welsh hunter God but later became the leader of the wild hunt where the forces of chaos and evil roamed the countryside seeking lone travelers for the opportunity to snatch their souls.

As the aboriginal view of death as a natural passage in the never-ending cycle of life was overtaken by Christian concepts, the previously benevolent Otherworld God took on the sinister and fearful characteristics of a demon. The festival of Samhain slowly turned from a respectful honoring of those who had passed beyond into a time to hide in our homes for fear of having our souls snatched away. Tales that once told us how to welcome the honored dead into our homes were reversed to teach us how to protect ourselves from them and bar them from our doors.

The horned man is indeed one of oldest known deities of Western Europe. But far from being a soul snatching Death God he was the protector of animals and the forest creatures. He was intimately connected with the deeply spiritual, but hardly sinister, activity of hunting and was honored widely as vital to the delicate dance of life. In this original form he is a very appropriate deity for our modern movement at a time when environmentalism is practically a spiritual imperative.

The Sea God King of the Otherworld

The ancient Celtic Otherworld had little to do with the underground. In fact, it is more readily identified on the horizontal plane as outward from the center rather than downward. It was associated strongly with the sea, and for this reason occupies a place as a realm in the triad of land, sea and sky. The dead are envisioned as living on beautiful islands or in magical lands under the surface of the waves.

The Otherworld is a happy place of peace and harmony, an idealized mirror image of this world. There is no pain, sickness or aging as the dead enjoy beautiful music and endless banquets of delight. The heroes of the ages entertain themselves with all sort of sports and good-natured athletic competitions as all await their time of return to this world.

The king and host of this wondrous realm is a Sea God. For Shining Lakes Grove he has been identified as Manannan mac Lir. His functional equivalent in the Welsh pantheon is the God Arawn. Both of them are far from demonic characters. Manannan is a wise and gracious host who has many wondrous abilities and possessions such as magical horses who can stride on the surface of the ocean, a cloak of invisibility and magical pigs.

Other Otherworldly Characters and Concepts

The Irish Celts have a tale of the first mortal ever to die. Just prior to their landfall upon Ireland, the sons of Mil are stricken by a mishap. One of their number, a fellow named Donn is drowned by the Goddess Eriu after he insults her. From this point on he appears in the tales as the keeper of the first guidepost on the journey to the Otherworld. The dead were believed to have briefly visited or passed by his house just after the moment of death. This house is located on an island off the coast of Ireland called TechnDuinn or House of Donn. This tale is undoubtedly of ancient origin as it is present in other forms in the larger body of Indo-European lore such as the Vedic Yama.

The battle hags of Celtic lore are closely associated with death. They are often seen transformed into ravens who hang around battlefields to feast on the gory remains. They are closely associated with the destiny of warriors and are usually triple Goddesses. Examples are Badbh, Nemhain, Macha and the Morrigan. They do not, however, seem to have anything to do with the realm of the dead itself and rather are mostly concerned with the moment of loss of life and possibly transportation of the soul to that realm.

There are also female characters who can be more readily seen as Goddesses of the Otherworld. They are generally very beautiful women who have great regenerative and healing powers. They are strongly associated with swans or songbirds with beautiful plumage and magical voices. The Goddesses often have the ability to transform themselves into the form of these birds. Examples of these Goddesses are Fand, Be Lind, Fi Band, Naiv, Rhiannon and probably Epona. In later tales they were seen as enchantresses who lured heroes into Otherworld adventures.

Living mortals also occasionally entered the Otherworld. A large number of the tales that have been passed down to us concern mortal adventures into the Otherworld and encounters with its inhabitants. Bold heroes such as Pwyll, Cu Chulainn, Bran, Finn and Conaire all found or fell upon a way to transgress the boundary between the worlds. These tales provide a wealth of knowledge about the nature of the Otherworld while pointing the way for modern practitioners to access and explore this realm. This is particularly true of those tales surrounding the God Manannan mac Lir.

A final character that should be mentioned is the Otherworldly dog or hound. As with many of the Indo-European people, the Celts also had such beasts in their mythology. Kings of the Otherworld such as Manannan and Arawn had special dogs which were red and white or speckled in appearance. They served their masters as hunting dogs or guard gods. When they were viewed by mortals they were seen as omens of impending death.

Conclusions for Neopagan Theology

Through the careful study and adoption of the principals outlined above we will be able to cultivate an understanding of death and the Otherworld that is much closer to that of our ancestors. The concept of the Otherworld as a peaceful and benevolent respite has important implications to our funerary and worship practices while permitting us to evolve a much more balanced and less-fearful approach to the journey beyond the veil.

The understanding of the genealogy of the Sidhe God tales is particularly important to our revival of faith in the old Gods. The fact that these Gods have been freed from their underground prisons to rule the world again has great power to bring them into our lives and show us their relevance to the interworkings of life. As we have begun to learn in Shining Lakes Grove this belief that the Gods can be once again seen and felt in nature around us has great power to intimately connect our acts of love and worship to the ever changing force of life around us.