An Interview with Ya Sezi bo Oungan / Joseph Alexander Robicheaux
In a new series of interfaith articles for Sacred Well Ministries we will be exploring spiritual traditions around the world and interviewing the people who are part of them today. Our third interview is with author, diviner, and Vodou priest Ya Sezi bo Oungan
In a number of spiritual traditions, from the end of October through mid November it is the time that the dead walk amongst us. All over the world there are cultural traditions of celebrating these special days, a liminal time when the boundary between our world and the otherworld can be accessed easily. The fascinating thing is that in almost every culture, there is a day specifically allotted to honoring the dead, and paying respect. The tone and festivities of each culture’s rituals vary, yet they all share the belief that during a specific time the veil between the living and dead is at its thinnest, and respect must be paid.
Grief and celebration seem like strange bedfellows at first glance, but both are emotions that overflow. The ritual practices that surround death and mourning as rites of passage help individuals and their communities make sense of loss through a renewed focus on continuity.
By performing the same acts as ancestors have done, we engage in venerated traditions to connect with something enduring and eternal. Boundaries between life and death, the sacred and the profane, are permeable. The dead seem less far away and less forgotten. It is a comfort to know that our beloved dead are nearby to guide us with their wisdom.
Ya Sezi bo Oungan / Joseph Robicheaux is intimately acquainted with these permeable boundaries in the context of several cultural traditions. As an Oungan of Haitian Vodou he serves and honors the Spirits and Ancestors which include the iconic Lwa known as the Guede. The celebration known as Fet Guede starts at the beginning of November.
Joseph is full of surprises, and one of them is that he also walks the path of Irish pagan spirituality. He is an accomplished diviner of the Ogham, an oracular system of the Celtic people. The fire festival called Samhain also falls on the dates at the end of October and beginning of November, and is also a time of honoring the Ancestors and the Beloved Dead.
Please tell us how and why these two paths came to intersect in your life. What does that look like for you?
My Identity as a Biracial man and the necessity to be evenly balanced between the two outwardly opposed worlds of White Irish and Scottish heritage, and the African descended, Creole heritage and ancestors of my Father’s family. Nothing is possible without the ancestors, and as someone who had to pick and choose how my interests in the rich cultures of my family would manifest, I do not spare anything when it comes to the spiritual celebration of either side of the ancestors, or my spirituality.
For me there is a near seamless interaction, there are many many examples from the spoken word poems – the Rosc poems of Ireland, and the Oriki poetry of West Africa. Everyone the world over saw the divine in nature. I think there are a lot of mutual agreements in how the divine is experienced in nature between the Celtic and African experience.
How do you celebrate Fet Guede?
Fet Guede for me is usually two parts, my own private observation of the Guede and Bawons. I make make a little table for them, cook some food, sing, pray, refresh old pacts and make new ones. All of November is for the Guede. I consider my Fete Guede day the 15th of November which is the feast Day of St. Martin of Porres, who is one of the Masks of Bawon La Kwa, the owner of the tombs, and head stones the one who keeps the cemetery full.
When I can, I will attend or host *One* Tambou/Drumming or Fete/Celebration for Guede. When I was first starting out in the tradition the Guede were my favorite. Even with doing Lesson Vodou/Readings they are still my go to. However the dead have no, little, or few boundaries, and they are not subject to the Morals of Guinea, so there’s no telling what the consequences are nor telling how high the Invoice is gonna be. I respect Guede, love Guede, in spirit much better than in my face as it turns out.
(an interesting syncretic observation – many followers of Celtic traditions believe that the Sidhe have similar tendencies toward lack of boundaries and unpredictability. K.B.)
Do you also celebrate Samhain? If so, what does that include?
The day before Samhain, the day of and the day after are reserved for my Ancestors and the Sídhe. Each day I offer very simple food offerings. The day before I offer Honey, Salt, Water, and alcohol. The day of, I offer game meat, beef, and pork, and the last day I offer butter, milk, and barley or another grain. I usually visit the cemetery the first day, some liminal space on the second and I see what opportunity the third day presents. One tradition I like to observe is keeping the fire lit throughout my three days of observation, and especially so throughout the night of Samhain.
Some scholars have suggested that Ancient Samhain took place around the 14, or 15th of the month. To me there is not a lot of difference between Samhain and Fete Guede. In the Tale Tochmarc Étaíne (the wooing of Étaíne) Mider, a Foster of Angus is discussing the sticky situation of his birth and his inheritance, he is told to go and discuss this with his Father on Samhain because it is a day of peace and friendship amongst the men of Ireland. However he is told to be armed because just like Fete Guede, you never know what’s going to happen.
Guede is not an ancestor while being your ancestor: helpful tips when serving the Guede ‘Bosal’ or uninitiated
Guede is the dead that talks, and tells the truth within our grasp of time and space. In pretty much every culture save Victorian England (or so it seems) society tends to think the dead live out of time, and or entirely lose the sense of time passed, like why some early modern period Spiritualists get mistaken for Socrates or Solomon, for lack of understanding that time has moved on.
In the cosmology of Vodou, a deceased person is understood to lose their sense of individualism and grasp of time over a period of 40 days to a year after death. A deceased person ( Mô), can become Guede by telling you useful information. One of the classical signs is winning the lottery, but I’ll take virtually anything that is obviously real, and distinct enough in description. To make a deceased person a Guede you have to attend a ceremony called Recleman Anba D’lo, this is done for Assogwe Mambos and Oungans as a way of preserving their knowledge and practice.
Before the Guede were lascivious drunkards they were healers, they were the backed up information on the cloud of Vodou, life culture and personal matters. They oversee the ancestors coming home and the ancestors going to the Marketplace.
Regarding Maman Brijite – I’m not about to dissect the Irish thing.
(the popularly held belief that the Guede Maman Brijite originated from Saint Bridget / Brighid – it makes as little sense as the Ishtar/Easter connection in Western paganism, IMO. K.B.)
I’m going to offer you another origin story that to me makes a touch more sense. Makendal was a famous sorcerer and leader of Maroon people, or runaway slaves who lived in the mountains of Haiti. Makendal was married to a woman named Brijite. She would see and hear all the things that would go on in the camp. The man or woman who ran away, who’s wife, husband, or brother or son did not join him, can for now never join him. Trying to return to get them may jeopardize the individual or the whole group. She listened to people and saw who they were. The trustworthy and the weak, promises made and kept, or made and broken.
Maman Brijite is the prosecutor of the Dead, appealing to the court of Bawons on the actions of your life, to determine your usefulness in the world of the spirits or anything else that may be waiting in the beyond.
The Guede are usually the forgotten Dead, so that’s everyone that has ever died and not received last rites or peace.
When you want luck and love and a happy good life you go to Bawon Samedi, when you want to do anything in the cemetery you first ask Bawon Samedi, when you want to learn some Maji/travay you talk to Bawon La Kwa or Bawon Cimiteir.
Guede is not the name of any one spirit, it’s a classification name and quality.
Check out my book Guede, et Mô : A Workbook for more helpful tips, tricks and information:
Joseph, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and spiritual practices of Fete Guede and Samhain. You have such a depth of knowledge about both of these Festivals of the Dead, and great advice for those who would like to learn more. If we have people who are interested in consultations or readings, here are the best ways to make contact:
In a new series of interfaith articles for Sacred Well Ministries we will be exploring spiritual traditions around the world and interviewing the people who are part of them today. Our second article in the series is an interview with Hermeticist Maria Miles.
“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”
Blaise Pascal, 17th-century French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer, and philosopher,
The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word, limen, which means threshold. Liminal space is a doorway, a threshold, where you leave one state of being and are in transition to another one. A place of absolute pure potential, where anything is possible.
Liminality is the state that exists at the edges of boundaries, at dawn and dusk, in the moments before falling asleep and resurfacing from dreamtime into waking. It is a time that is often more vulnerable, but also more alchemically charged. The liminal state is not as fully formed as what is on either side of it, it partakes of both sides, and therefore it is an ideal state for creating new forms.
It is a place between energy and matter. It is a place of transition where normal limits are suspended – a situation which can lead to new perspectives. Those who can tap into the realms that exist beyond our ordinary perception have been honored and reviled, considered sacred and profane throughout human history.
There are many kinds of beings who exist in a liminal state.. Transgender persons, two-spirit persons, and others of ambiguous or fluid orientation, those who exist in a metamorphic state of shifting identities.
The artist, shaman, oracle, prophet, mystic, seer, or visionary is one who is able to enter liminal space and emerge from it with some insight to share. Maria Miles is one such being, who has danced along the edges of liminal space since childhood.
Maria, please share with us a bit about the beginnings of your magical path:
It began during my childhood with books of folklore and the zodiac for kids. I was fascinated by faeries and giants and all the mythical things most children are told about in stories but I was always adamant that they were real. I could see spirits, especially out in nature. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest you get to spend a lot of time in the woods for fun.
By the age of 13 I began getting interested in divination. Tarot cards, runes and ogham were all things I read about but the cards were my first tool I picked up and began to use as a diviner. At 16 I began to study I Ching, thanks to an obsession with the author Philip K Dick who used this oracle to help write some of his novels which I thought was really cool.
Astrology really entered my world around that age too. I found myself looking at my birth chart and the birth charts of all my friends, girlfriends and family members. At the time I only really had exposure to modern psychological astrology and sun sign astrology but I knew there was something there under the surface that I couldn’t grok yet. So I kept looking.
This was also the age I picked up my first grimoires: the Keys of Solomon, the Lemegeton and the Grimorium Verum, in the form of A.E. Waite’s “Ceremonial Magic” that I found at a local bookstore. That one absolutely fascinated me, the way demons and spirits were talked about so matter of factly. At the time it largely served as an inspiration for lyrics for the bands I played in as a teenager, but by my late teens/early twenties it became more of a formal study with an interest in practice.
Can you give us an overview of your study of the Hermetic arts?
Hermeticism entered my life in my early 20s, though it took me a while to realize It was my worldview/religion. The Hermetic arts of Alchemy, Astrology and Magic have been a core part of my studies and praxis for the last 7 years now. Alchemy is the one I have moved the most slowly in and only began to practice lab alchemy this past year. These three arts form one key, each unlocking the other.
Astrology tells us when to perform certain rites or to begin certain alchemical operations which are produced by the work of the mage, be it the production of a talisman or of a spagyric. They are the same thing only in a different fashion. The medieval grimoire Picatrix tells us that alchemy is the work of body upon body, and magic of spirit upon spirit. Both serve to elevate the one who partakes in it. One without the other is lost in my opinion.
Part of how I see magic in my practice is through theurgy, or god working. The goal is to exalt the mage and elevate them to the same status as the Gods by participating actively in the process of creation. Alchemy prepares our body for this, magic fortifies our spirit for this, and astrology gives us an understanding of our fate so that we can actively take part in it. Hermeticism provides the path, and the arts provide the keys to the many doors you will find along it.
There are several schools of Astrology including Western, Vedic, Traditional, and others – which of these do you practice?
I practice what is called Traditional Astrology. It is essentially the astrology practiced by the medieval Persio-Arabic sages who preserved the art as an inheritance from the Hellenistic world. All so-called “Western” astrology has its roots in ancient Greece. They got it from the Egyptians and Sumerians, but the Greeks were the ones who codified it.
We owe a great debt to people like Vetius Valens and Ptolemy, but an even greater debt is owed to astrologers like Abu Mashr, Mash’allah, Al-Kindi and countless others who transmitted this knowledge through time. My primary sources are texts a thousand years old at least, and stemming from other sources that are at least 1000 or 2000 years old.
Why do I use sources that are so old? Because the techniques work better than anything modern astrology has to offer. Traditional astrology entails a coherent worldview as to why things are as they are. Why the signs are ordered the way they are, why the planets are assigned certain virtues and principles, all of these are things traditional astrology explains when you learn the basics, because without them you are lost. Personality analysis really isn’t that useful compared to being able to predict when things will happen in your life. Forewarned is forearmed.
How do you prepare yourself to do a reading for someone?
I usually do at least a half hour of prep work, about a day in advance of the reading so I have time to let things stew. The natal chart is a tremendous source of contemplation. Natal astrology really is a form of meditation on ourselves and our fate and how we fit into the world. Whether I am doing it for myself or others, it takes me a bit of time sitting with the chart.
When it comes to the day of the reading I have a bit more to do beforehand. While astrology is not a psychic art, it is a form of divination anyone, with or without mediumistic talent can practice by learning the techniques. I do include a bit of ritual beforehand. Every divinatory consult is a crossroads where two fates meet, that of the querent and that of the diviner.
Prior to beginning the call with my client I start off by offering a glass of cool water and candle to my spirits along with a battery of prayers. I’m a little ol Catholic grandma when it comes to prayers and pray the Pater Noster, Ave Maria and Gloria Patrii along with a more general prayer from the heart asking for guidance in helping my client.
One of the traditions I come from is Spiritism, which is part of why I do these prayers and offering of water and fire. Usually within moments of beginning the prayers and the reading the glass of water will become full of bubbles as if it were a carbonated drink. This sort of thing is a sign of the presence and activity of spirits. It’s a way of seeing that they’re at work.
And when I do a reading they really do put in the work. It shows too. Often I will see things in the chart I hadn’t before or make connections I hadn’t thought of because I have them guiding me. That’s where a highly technical art like astrology meets my mediumistic practice.
What other types of magic and divination do you practice?
I’ve been reading cards, both tarot and playing cards since I was 13 and that was how I discovered my talent for prediction. It used to surprise people, myself included, with how accurate I could get with cards. I don’t use them as much now since moving my professional practice to exclusively astrology but I have a fond place in my heart for cartomancy.
Aside from talismans and theurgy my other favorite has long been the controversial art of Goetia, (Ars Goetia, The lesser Key of Solomon). I’ve grown far more cautious when I do this, because it can certainly be like using a shotgun to kill a squirrel, but I must certainly mention it because it was what truly taught me we are not alone. I’ve burned my fingers more than once when playing with hellfire.
A lot of people are scared by the idea of Goetia, others proclaim it to be harmless, or relish the darkness in it, making it an aesthetic life choice. I would say after the experiences I’ve had from the mistakes I’ve made it is not something to do lightly or without preparation. The knowledge of how to keep these energies within certain boundaries is essential. This is actually how I began my work with the Saints and Archangels.
I wear many masks when it comes to religion, afterall the Divine One wears many masks, so why not their servants? I have a devout practice of Marian devotion especially, which I will attest to saving my life more than once. She is the fastest to intercede and I am very happy to share her name.
My primary practice now is with the Dead, both my ancestors and friends who have passed. Maintaining my boveda is at the heart of all I do on a regular basis. I have discovered that most things I need to do can be accomplished with a prayer, a candle and a glass of water at my ancestor altar. A measure of most magicians’ salt: can you manifest your work with those three essentials? If not, there may be a reason why.
Never take for granted that we have our Dead watching over us. They can see clearly what is needed and what is not. Too many consider magic the cheat codes for life. It isn’t. It is a source of active participation in fate. But it cannot negate fate. And why should it? We are inseparable from our fate. We would not be who we are without it. So why fight it? I’ve read enough Greek tragedy to know that is not the way. God is good, and has ordained our fate. Working alongside God in the fulfilment of our fate is the highest good one can do.
Maria, thank you so much for sharing your spiritual story with us. There is a lot of information to unpack here, in all of its colorful and vibrant complexity. If our readers have questions about the information shared here or would like to book a reading with you, how shall they contact you?
In a new series of interfaith articles for Sacred Well Ministries we will be exploring spiritual traditions around the world and interviewing the people who are part of them today. Our first article in this series is with Ifawale Abiola Agboola, a practising Ifa priest who lives in Nigeria.
The Yorùbá people, who inhabit a significant part of Western Africa have been practicing their unique set of religious customs for centuries. Although it is most commonly found in countries like Nigeria, Benin, and Togo, for the past several decades Yoruba religion has also been making its way to the United States.
There’s a religious paradox in the African Diaspora. While evangelical Catholicism and Protestantism are the fastest growing faiths in the Motherland, African indigenous faiths are growing among African descendants in the Americas.
Under colonial rule and religious pressures, traditional beliefs and practices were discriminated against. The Ifa priests have only modest means to maintain the tradition, transmit their complex knowledge and train future practitioners. With the population of Nigeria being roughly 50% Christian and 50% Muslim, there had to be some sort of integration for the Yoruba culture to survive. About 20% of the population in Nigeria identify as Yoruba.
Although many Yoruba people have become Christian and Muslim since colonization, those who practice the traditional religious beliefs of their ancestors have managed to coexist peacefully with their non-traditional neighbors. While traditional Yoruba are celebrating their Orishas,for instance, their Christian friends and family members are offering thanks to their own God. People come together for this dual-faith celebration to honor two very different types of deities, all for the good of the entire community.
Ifawale, please tell us a bit about the story of Ifa:
To be a Babalawo, priest of Orunmila, is a great honor and with its great responsibility comes great respect. But why is Orunmila so important? Who is Orunmila?
Orunmila, also known as Orula or Orunla (sometimes mistaken as IFA) is a very important Orisha, or divinity, to the Yoruba people and those that follow the Yoruba diaspora traditions of Santeria, Lukumi, and others. His priesthood is separate and set aside from the other priestly initiations of any other Orisha.
Orunmila was a great healer in the lands of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. He traveled great distances with his Akose, or medicine, healing people that would come to him. Even though he was a great healer, out of 10 people that came to see him, only 8 would be completely cured of their illnesses and bad circumstances. Two, however, would either not be cured or see their conditions returned. So Orunmila saw it fit to travel to the Temple of Olodumare, creator of all things, in heaven since it was Olodumare that sent him and gave him all his abilities.
After several trips to the temple, Olodumare gave Orunmila 16 sacred palm nuts, ikin, and said to him, “So you do not have to keep coming to my temple to hear my voice, I give you these 16 sacred palm nuts, this is Ifa. They will be my words to you and I will speak to you when you need me at any point in time.” Orunmila took these 16 ikin and returned to the earth. From that day forward all his patients were cured of their problems because he can now see it all and he was able to continuously speak with Olodumare by means of the ikin and interpretation of Ifa. He would later initiate 16 men to become the first ever Babalawos. The first of which were Akoda and Asheda.
Therefore, Orunmila is very important. He was given Ifa, the words of Olodumare, to help all of creation. He would not only divine for humans and help humanity. Among the many verses of Ifa are stories where Orunmila divines Ifa for snails, the winds, trees, etc. as well as for other Orishas.
Ifá teaches that there’s a consciousness to everything, and the tangible part of Ebó has a vibration or quality that resonates with Òrìṣà and spirit to help us influence an outcome.
In the daily life of the Yoruba and those that follow the Yoruba tradition in the diaspora, Orunmila is an orisha that is praised every day and his assistance is sought at any time of day and any day of the week. Those wishing to do anything major in life or go on a long journey will first go to Orunmila to ask Ifa if everything will come out well for them. In conclusion, Ifá has answers for all questions.
What is a Babalawo? And how does one learn to become one?
The training to become a babalawo is an intense process. There are in principle 256 chapters in the divination process, called Odu, each one contains elaborative narratives of mythic stories related to history, events, ritual practices, etc… Importantly, the Odu is an oral tradition, and thus the babalawo-in-training must memorize all or most of the 256 Odu in order to be qualified to be a babalawo.
A divination session between the babalawo and the inquirer involves paying homage to Orunmila and the other ancestral babalawos who had performed successful divinations in the past, saluting the principal powers of the cosmos, invoking the mystical mothers, without whose help the rituals will not be efficacious. Then the diviner engages the inquirer, who takes a coin or paper, touches his forehead, whispers his/her prayers and requests, and asks for the secret behind his problem to be revealed, along with an appropriate solution.
Next, the diviner takes palm nuts from a divination bowl, tries to grab from his other hand most of the palm nuts, and then — with the remaining one or two palm nuts — marks the results of his activity in the powder in the divination tray. This process is then repeated until the diviner can make four sides on the divination tray.
The result of this randomizing process is the Odu divination sign that the babalawo then recites. The client listens and interprets, and then the babalawo gives a solution. Sometimes a consensus is reached in which the babalawo and client agree to do another session in order to determine if they got the exactly correct answer. The process clearly relies plenty on human interaction, as well as the randomized patterns seen in the palm nuts in the Ifa bowl.
Who are the Orisas?
For the more than 50 million Yoruba people who live in Nigeria and around the globe, the world (aye) is governed and controlled by the numerous orisa who inhabit the world, but have access to the habits and occurrences in the upper world (orun [heaven]) and the underworld (Ile).
We lovingly acknowledge the Òrìṣà or spirit who help us manifest good fortune and thank them.
Orunmila, the god of divination, is regarded as one of the numerous deities and Ifa is his divination process. The occurrences, events, and activities are revealed to humans through the elaborate divination process of Ifa.
What is highly emphasized by Orunmila is the completion of Ebo, or sacrifice, which is prescribed by Ifa for certain situations. As it was once told to me, “There isn’t a problem on earth that does not have its solution.” And this is at the heart of Ifa. Even death has its solution in Ifa. Poverty, sickness, war, loss, they all have their solutions through Ebo prescribed by Ifa. In this, Orunmila is also the spirit of Ela, or salvation.
What is Ebo?
Ebó translates to “sacrifice,” and to many of us who grew up in Western cultures, the word “sacrifice” stirs up deep emotions and conjures up negative imagery. Perhaps the apprehension comes from years of conditioning by Hollywood horror movies and religious influences. But to the Yorùbá who follow Ifá, it is the normal “give and take” of life; necessary to restore order and maintain harmony and balance with the natural world.
Ebó is central to Ifá; it reinforces the notion that everything in the natural world is connected; like the cells of an organism working in unison for a common purpose; life. Nothing thrives in a vacuum and sacrifice is for the sake of the whole.
Most offerings consist of “adimu” (food offerings). In some cases, if it involves an animal for celebrations and initiations; it is first prayed upon by priests so that the animal spirit is elevated, then lovingly thanked for the sacrifice. Under these situations, life-force offerings are always consumed and enjoyed by the community to receive the Às̩e̩ (life-force blessing). When making offerings, always offer a taste to Èṣù/Ẹlégbá first, who is the divine messenger and takes your prayers and offerings to its destination.
The word “sacrifice” implies that we’re giving up something of value or hold dear, including our time and effort. Much of our focus when making Ebó is in the tangible offerings. But, when divination comes Ibi (off-path), it is crucial that we heed the call for corrective action; a change of behavior; a change of heart.
Ifawale, we are so grateful to you for sharing your knowledge with us. There is so much more to learn about your tradition. If our readers have questions, seek more information, or even perhaps a reading, here is his contact information.
At sunset on June 23rd an ancient fire festival is celebrated in many countries across the world. This midsummer festival has been known as Bonfire Night, and also Saint John’s Eve.
In Croatia, the feast is called Ivanje (Ivan being Croation for John). It is celebrated in mostly in rural areas. Festivals celebrating Ivanje are held across the country. According to the tradition, bonfires (Ivanjski krijesovi) are built on the shores of lakes, near rivers or on the beaches for the young people to jump over the flames.
The Danes often meet with family and friends to have dinner together. If the weather is good, they then proceed to a local bonfire venue. According to popular belief, St John’s Eve was charged with a special power where magical forces were also at work. People believed that the witches flew past on their broomsticks on their way to the Broken.
In some rural parts of Ireland, particularly in the north-west, Bonfire Night is held on St. John’s Eve, when bonfires are lit on hilltops. Many towns and cities have “Midsummer Carnivals”, with fairs, concerts and fireworks, around the same time. In County Cork in Southwest Ireland & County Louth in Northeast Ireland the night is commonly referred to as Bonfire Night and is among the busiest nights of the year for the fire services.
Bonfire ashes would be scattered on the crops for good luck. Most troublesome local weeds would be burned in the bonfire to help stave them off. People might strike each other lightly with hocusfian (this may be the stalks of gunnera or giant rhubarb plants growing along the riverbanks) to ward off future illnesses. Farmers walk through their fields with lit torches and then toss those torches on the bonfire for crop blessing.
In coastal areas of Ireland, fishermen’s boats and nets would be blessed by priests on St John’s Eve. A communal salmon dinner was traditionally served on this day in County Antrim. The sweet milky dish called goody was also served, which sometimes would be prepared at the bonfire in a large pot to be served to younger people.
Traditionally, several species of plants are collected on St. John’s Eve. These vary from area to area, but mostly include fennel, rue and rosemary. On the Feast of St. John, it is customary to gather the perennial herb St. John’s Wort. Since medieval times, the herb has been hung over doors, windows and icons for protection.
Yarrow has been used since ancient times for healing wounds, and its essential oil has anti-inflammatory properties. Yarrow was also used as a ward against evil, and traditionally it was burned on the eve of St John’s Day.
Bracken (Pteris aquilina) is sometimes called “brake” or “female fern”. The minute spores of this fern were reputed to confer invisibility on their possessor if gathered at the only time when they were said to be visible, i.e., on St. John’s Eve at the precise moment at which the saint was born.
In Denmark, the celebration is called sankthans or sankthansaften (“St. John’s Eve”). It is the day when the medieval wise men and women would gather special herbs that they needed for the rest of the year to cure people.
On the island of Puerto Rico, which had been named San Juan Bautista, after the saint, a night-long celebration, called “La Noche de San Juan” is held. After sunset, people travel to a beach or any accessible body of water (e.g. river, lake or even bathtub) and, at midnight, fall backwards into it three, seven or twelve times. This is done to cleanse the body from bad luck and give good luck for the following year.
The traditional midsummer party in Spain is the celebration in honor of San Juan This is especially strong in north-western areas of Spain where San Xoán festivals take place all over the region; bonfires are lit and a set of firework displays usually takes place.
Many other cities and towns all across Spain having their own unique traditions associated with the festival. Bonfires of Saint John are the most important festival, and take place from June 20th to June 24th.
Bonfires are also used in the Basque Country to celebrate San Juan Eguna (the feast of St. John the Baptist), which marks the Basque Summer Solstice. In some towns the celebration is supplemented with more festivities and dances.
In Castille and Leon it is highlighted the Firewalking Festival where barefoot men cross the live coals of a prepared bonfire.
Historically, Saint John’s Eve, as well as the night of the feast day, has been venerated in the practice of Vodou (or voodoo) in Louisiana. The word Vodou is Creole French (Kreyol), of West African origin, meaning “spirit” or “god” and is the name of an animist, spiritual folkway practice which features elements of traditional African spirituality. Roman Catholic iconography became part of these practices during the Diaspora that spread the African people and their traditions all over the Caribbean, Central and South America.
Famous 19th century names in the practice of New Orleans Vodou are the original Doctor John and Marie Laveau, the famous Vodou priestess who is said to have held ceremonies at the lake end of Bayou St. John, commemorating St. John’s Eve. Quite a few New Orleans residents keep these traditions alive today.
Vodou priestess Sallie Ann Glassman performs a cleansing ritual on St. John’s Eve on the bayou’s Magnolia footbridge with participants all wearing white and invoking the spirit of Marie Laveau as the sun goes down. Drumbeats and dancing continue late into the evening.
The rich history of this day lives on in each celebration and in the heart of each celebrant. In whatever way you carry the flame forward, we wish you all the blessings and the bounty that the Midsummer season brings!
“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 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 Episcopicame 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 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
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.
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)
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
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.
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 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.
Hail, Divine Ones,
Spirits shining bright
Keepers of the Mystery
Bless this rite
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.
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
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)
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