This file contains 9 seasonal articles by Mike Nichols. They may be
freely distributed provided that the following conditions are met:
(1) No fee is charged for their use and distribution and no
commercial use is made of them;
(2) These files are not changed or edited in any way wit-
hout the author's permission;
(3) This notice is not removed. An article may be dist-
ributed as a separate file, provided that this notice is
repeated at the beginning of each such file.
These articles are periodically updated by the author; this version is
current as of 9/28/88.
The Eight Sabbats of Witchcraft
by Mike Nichols
copyright by MicroMuse Press
<1> Halloween P.2 - 5
<2> Yule P.6 - 8
<3> Candlemas P.9 - 11
<4> Lady Day P.12 - 14
<5> May Day P.15 - 17
<6> Midsummer P.19 - 22
<7> Lammas P.23 - 24
<8> Harvest Home P.25 - 27
<9> Death of Llew: A Seasonal Interpretation P.28 - 30
ALL HALLOW'S EVE
by Mike Nichols
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
* Halloween. Sly does it. Tiptoe catspaw. Slide and creep. *
But why? What for? How? Who? When! Where did it all begin?
* 'You don't know, do you?' asks Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud *
climbing out under the pile of leaves under the Halloween Tree.
* 'You don't REALLY know!' *
--Ray Bradbury from 'The Halloween Tree'
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Samhain. All Hallows. All Hallow's Eve. Hallow E'en. Halloween.
The most magical night of the year. Exactly opposite Beltane on the
wheel of the year, Halloween is Beltane's dark twin. A night of glowing
jack-o-lanterns, bobbing for apples, tricks or treats, and dressing in
costume. A night of ghost stories and seances, tarot card readings and
scrying with mirrors. A night of power, when the veil that separates
our world from the Otherworld is at its thinnest. A 'spirit night', as
they say in Wales.
All Hallow's Eve is the eve of All Hallow's Day (November 1st).
And for once, even popular tradition remembers that the Eve is more
important than the Day itself, the traditional celebration focusing on
October 31st, beginning at sundown. And this seems only fitting for
the great Celtic New Year's festival. Not that the holiday was Celtic
only. In fact, it is startling how many ancient and unconnected cultures
(the Egyptians and pre-Spanish Mexicans, for example) celebrated this
as a festival of the dead. But the majority of our modern traditions
can be traced to the British Isles.
The Celts called it Samhain, which means 'summer's end', according
to their ancient two-fold division of the year, when summer ran from
Beltane to Samhain and winter ran from Samhain to Beltane. (Some modern
Covens echo this structure by letting the High Priest 'rule' the Coven
beginning on Samhain, with rulership returned to the High Priestess at
Beltane.) According to the later four-fold division of the year, Samhain
is seen as 'autumn's end' and the beginning of winter. Samhain is pro-
nounced (depending on where you're from) as 'sow-in' (in Ireland), or
'sow-een' (in Wales), or 'sav-en' (in Scotland), or (inevitably) 'sam-hane'
(in the U.S., where we don't speak Gaelic).
Not only is Samhain the end of autumn; it is also, more importantly,
the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. Celtic New Year's
Eve, when the new year begins with the onset of the dark phase of the
year, just as the new day begins at sundown. There are many represen-
tations of Celtic gods with two faces, and it surely must have been one
of them who held sway over Samhain. Like his Greek counterpart Janus,
he would straddle the threshold, one face turned toward the past in
commemoration of those who died during the last year, and one face gazing
hopefully toward the future, mystic eyes attempting to pierce the veil
and divine what the coming year holds. These two themes, celebrating
the dead and divining the future, are inexorably intertwined in Samhain,
as they are likely to be in any New Year's celebration.
As a feast of the dead, it was believed the dead could, if they
wished, return to the land of the living for this one night, to celebrate
with their family, tribe, or clan. And so the great burial mounds of
Ireland (sidhe mounds) were opened up, with lighted torches lining the
walls, so the dead could find their way. Extra places were set at the
table and food set out for any who had died that year. And there are
many stories that tell of Irish heroes making raids on the Underworld
while the gates of faery stood open, though all must return to their
appointed places by cock-crow.
As a feast of divination, this was the night par excellence for
peering into the future. The reason for this has to do with the Cel-
tic view of time. In a culture that uses a linear concept of time,
like our modern one, New Year's Eve is simply a milestone on a very
long road that stretches in a straight line from birth to death. Thus,
the New Year's festival is a part of time. The ancient Celtic view of
time, however, is cyclical. And in this framework, New Year's Eve rep-
resents a point outside of time, when the natural order of the universe
dissolves back into primordial chaos, preparatory to re-establishing
itself in a new order. Thus, Samhain is a night that exists outside of
time and hence it may be used to view any other point in time. At no
other holiday is a tarot card reading, crystal reading, or tea-leaf
reading so likely to succeed.
The Christian religion, with its emphasis on the 'historical'
Christ and his act of redemption 2000 years ago, is forced into a linear
view of time, where 'seeing the future' is an illogical proposition.
In fact, from the Christian perspective, any attempt to do so is seen
as inherently evil. This did not keep the medieval Church from co-opting
Samhain's other motif, commemoration of the dead. To the Church, however,
it could never be a feast for all the dead, but only the blessed dead,
all those hallowed (made holy) by obedience to God - thus, All Hallow's,
or Hallowmas, later All Saints and All Souls.
There are so many types of divination that are traditional to
Hallowstide, it is possible to mention only a few. Girls were told to
place hazel nuts along the front of the firegrate, each one to symbolize
one of her suitors. She could then divine her future husband by chanting,
'If you love me, pop and fly; if you hate me, burn and die.' Several
methods used the apple, that most popular of Halloween fruits. You
should slice an apple through the equator (to reveal the five-pointed
star within) and then eat it by candlelight before a mirror. Your future
spouse will then appear over your shoulder. Or, peel an apple, making
sure the peeling comes off in one long strand, reciting, 'I pare this
apple round and round again; / My sweetheart's name to flourish on the
plain: / I fling the unbroken paring o'er my head, / My sweetheart's
letter on the ground to read.' Or, you might set a snail to crawl through
the ashes of your hearth. The considerate little creature will then
spell out the initial letter as it moves.
Perhaps the most famous icon of the holiday is the jack-o-lantern.
Various authorities attribute it to either Scottish or Irish origin.
However, it seems clear that it was used as a lantern by people who
traveled the road this night, the scary face to frighten away spirits
or faeries who might otherwise lead one astray. Set on porches and in
windows, they cast the same spell of protection over the household.
(The American pumpkin seems to have forever superseded the European
gourd as the jack-o-lantern of choice.) Bobbing for apples may well
represent the remnants of a Pagan 'baptism' rite called a 'seining',
according to some writers. The water-filled tub is a latter-day Cauldron
of Regeneration, into which the novice's head is immersed. The fact
that the participant in this folk game was usually blindfolded with
hands tied behind the back also puts one in mind of a traditional Craft
The custom of dressing in costume and 'trick-or-treating' is of
Celtic origin with survivals particularly strong in Scotland. However,
there are some important differences from the modern version. In the
first place, the custom was not relegated to children, but was actively
indulged in by adults as well. Also, the 'treat' which was required
was often one of spirits (the liquid variety). This has recently been
revived by college students who go 'trick-or-drinking'. And in ancient
times, the roving bands would sing seasonal carols from house to house,
making the tradition very similar to Yuletide wassailing. In fact, the
custom known as 'caroling', now connected exclusively with mid-winter,
was once practiced at all the major holidays. Finally, in Scotland at
least, the tradition of dressing in costume consisted almost exclusively
of cross-dressing (i.e., men dressing as women, and women as men). It
seems as though ancient societies provided an opportunity for people to
'try on' the role of the opposite gender for one night of the year.
(Although in Scotland, this is admittedly less dramatic - but more confusing
- since men were in the habit of wearing skirt-like kilts anyway. Oh
To Witches, Halloween is one of the four High Holidays, or Greater
Sabbats, or cross-quarter days. Because it is the most important holiday
of the year, it is sometimes called 'THE Great Sabbat.' It is an ironic
fact that the newer, self-created Covens tend to use the older name of
the holiday, Samhain, which they have discovered through modern research.
While the older hereditary and traditional Covens often use the newer
name, Halloween, which has been handed down through oral tradition within
their Coven. (This is often holds true for the names of the other holidays,
as well. One may often get an indication of a Coven's antiquity by
noting what names it uses for the holidays.)
With such an important holiday, Witches often hold two distinct
celebrations. First, a large Halloween party for non-Craft friends,
often held on the previous weekend. And second, a Coven ritual held on
Halloween night itself, late enough so as not to be interrupted by trick-
-or-treaters. If the rituals are performed properly, there is often
the feeling of invisible friends taking part in the rites. Another
date which may be utilized in planning celebrations is the actual cross-
-quarter day, or Old Halloween, or Halloween O.S. (Old Style). This
occurs when the sun has reached 15 degrees Scorpio, an astrological
'power point' symbolized by the Eagle. This year (1988), the date is
November 6th at 10:55 pm CST, with the celebration beginning at sunset.
Interestingly, this date (Old Halloween) was also appropriated by the
Church as the holiday of Martinmas.
Of all the Witchcraft holidays, Halloween is the only one that
still boasts anything near to popular celebration. Even though it is
typically relegated to children (and the young-at-heart) and observed
as an evening affair only, many of its traditions are firmly rooted in
Paganism. Interestingly, some schools have recently attempted to abolish
Halloween parties on the grounds that it violates the separation of
state and religion. Speaking as a Pagan, I would be saddened by the
success of this move, but as a supporter of the concept of religion-free
public education, I fear I must concede the point. Nonetheless, it
seems only right that there SHOULD be one night of the year when our
minds are turned toward thoughts of the supernatural. A night when
both Pagans and non-Pagans may ponder the mysteries of the Otherworld
and its inhabitants. And if you are one of them, may all your jack-o'-
lanterns burn bright on this All Hallow's Eve.
MIDWINTER NIGHT'S EVE: Y U L E
by Mike Nichols
Our Christian friends are often quite surprised at how enthus-
iastically we Pagans celebrate the 'Christmas' season. Even though we
prefer to use the word 'Yule', and our celebrations may peak a few days
BEFORE the 25th, we nonetheless follow many of the traditional customs
of the season: decorated trees, carolling, presents, Yule logs, and
mistletoe. We might even go so far as putting up a 'Nativity set',
though for us the three central characters are likely to be interpreted
as Mother Nature, Father Time, and the Baby Sun-God. None of this will
come as a surprise to anyone who knows the true history of the holiday,
In fact, if truth be known, the holiday of Christmas has always
been more Pagan than Christian, with it's associations of Nordic divination,
Celtic fertility rites, and Roman Mithraism. That is why both Martin
Luther and John Calvin abhorred it, why the Puritans refused to acknowledge
it, much less celebrate it (to them, no day of the year could be more
holy than the Sabbath), and why it was even made ILLEGAL in Boston!
The holiday was already too closely associated with the birth of older
Pagan gods and heroes. And many of them (like Oedipus, Theseus, Hercules,
Perseus, Jason, Dionysus, Apollo, Mithra, Horus and even Arthur) possessed
a narrative of birth, death, and resurrection that was uncomfortably
close to that of Jesus. And to make matters worse, many of them pre-dated
the Christian Savior.
Ultimately, of course, the holiday is rooted deeply in the cycle
of the year. It is the Winter Solstice that is being celebrated, seed-time
of the year, the longest night and shortest day. It is the birthday of
the new Sun King, the Son of God -- by whatever name you choose to call
him. On this darkest of nights, the Goddess becomes the Great Mother
and once again gives birth. And it makes perfect poetic sense that on
the longest night of the winter, 'the dark night of our souls', there
springs the new spark of hope, the Sacred Fire, the Light of the World,
the Coel Coeth.
That is why Pagans have as much right to claim this holiday as
Christians. Perhaps even more so, as the Christians were rather late
in laying claim to it, and tried more than once to reject it. There
had been a tradition in the West that Mary bore the child Jesus on the
twenty-fifth day, but no one could seem to decide on the month. Finally,
in 320 C.E., the Catholic Fathers in Rome decided to make it December,
in an effort to co-opt the Mithraic celebration of the Romans and the
Yule celebrations of the Celts and Saxons.
There was never much pretense that the date they finally chose
was historically accurate. Shepherds just don't 'tend their flocks by
night' in the high pastures in the dead of winter! But if one wishes
to use the New Testament as historical evidence, this reference may
point to sometime in the spring as the time of Jesus's birth. This is
because the lambing season occurs in the spring and that is the only
time when shepherds are likely to 'watch their flocks by night' -- to
make sure the lambing goes well. Knowing this, the Eastern half of the
Church continued to reject December 25, preferring a 'movable date'
fixed by their astrologers according to the moon.
Thus, despite its shaky start (for over three centuries, no one
knew when Jesus was supposed to have been born!), December 25 finally
began to catch on. By 529, it was a civic holiday, and all work or
public business (except that of cooks, bakers, or any that contributed
to the delight of the holiday) was prohibited by the Emperor Justinian.
In 563, the Council of Braga forbade fasting on Christmas Day, and four
years later the Council of Tours proclaimed the twelve days from December
25 to Epiphany as a sacred, festive season. This last point is perhaps
the hardest to impress upon the modern reader, who is lucky to get a
single day off work. Christmas, in the Middle Ages, was not a SINGLE
day, but rather a period of TWELVE days, from December 25 to January 6.
The Twelve Days of Christmas, in fact. It is certainly lamentable that
the modern world has abandoned this approach, along with the popular
Twelfth Night celebrations.
Of course, the Christian version of the holiday spread to many
countries no faster than Christianity itself, which means that 'Christmas'
wasn't celebrated in Ireland until the late fifth century; in England,
Switzerland, and Austria until the seventh; in Germany until the eighth;
and in the Slavic lands until the ninth and tenth. Not that these countries
lacked their own mid-winter celebrations of Yuletide. Long before the
world had heard of Jesus, Pagans had been observing the season by bringing
in the Yule log, wishing on it, and lighting it from the remains of
last year's log. Riddles were posed and answered, magic and rituals
were practiced, wild boars were sacrificed and consumed along with large
quantities of liquor, corn dollies were carried from house to house
while carolling, fertility rites were practiced (girls standing under a
sprig of mistletoe were subject to a bit more than a kiss), and divinations
were cast for the coming Spring. Many of these Pagan customs, in an
appropriately watered-down form, have entered the mainstream of Christian
celebration, though most celebrants do not realize (or do not mention
it, if they do) their origins.
For modern Witches, Yule (from the Anglo-Saxon 'Yula', meaning
'wheel' of the year) is usually celebrated on the actual Winter Solstice,
which may vary by a few days, though it usually occurs on or around
December 21st. It is a Lesser Sabbat or Lower Holiday in the modern
Pagan calendar, one of the four quarter-days of the year, but a very
important one. This year (1988) it occurs on December 21st at 9:28 am
CST. Pagan customs are still enthusiastically followed. Once, the
Yule log had been the center of the celebration. It was lighted on the
eve of the solstice (it should light on the first try) and must be kept
burning for twelve hours, for good luck. It should be made of ash.
Later, the Yule log was replaced by the Yule tree but, instead of burning
it, burning candles were placed on it. In Christianity, Protestants
might claim that Martin Luther invented the custom, and Catholics might
grant St. Boniface the honor, but the custom can demonstrably be traced
back through the Roman Saturnalia all the way to ancient Egypt. Needless
to say, such a tree should be cut down rather than purchased, and should
be disposed of by burning, the proper way to dispatch any sacred object.
Along with the evergreen, the holly and the ivy and the mistletoe
were important plants of the season, all symbolizing fertility and
everlasting life. Mistletoe was especially venerated by the Celtic
Druids, who cut it with a golden sickle on the sixth night of the moon,
and believed it to be an aphrodisiac. (Magically -- not medicinally!
It's highly toxic!) But aphrodisiacs must have been the smallest part
of the Yuletide menu in ancient times, as contemporary reports indicate
that the tables fairly creaked under the strain of every type of good
food. And drink! The most popular of which was the 'wassail cup' deriving
its name from the Anglo-Saxon term 'waes hael' (be whole or hale).
Medieval Christmas folklore seems endless: that animals will all
kneel down as the Holy Night arrives, that bees hum the '100th psalm'
on Christmas Eve, that a windy Christmas will bring good luck, that a
person born on Christmas Day can see the Little People, that a cricket
on the hearth brings good luck, that if one opens all the doors of the
house at midnight all the evil spirits will depart, that you will have
one lucky month for each Christmas pudding you sample, that the tree
must be taken down by Twelfth Night or bad luck is sure to follow, that
'if Christmas on a Sunday be, a windy winter we shall see', that 'hours
of sun on Christmas Day, so many frosts in the month of May', that one
can use the Twelve Days of Christmas to predict the weather for each of
the twelve months of the coming year, and so on.
Remembering that most Christmas customs are ultimately based
upon older Pagan customs, it only remains for modern Pagans to reclaim
their lost traditions. In doing so, we can share many common customs
with our Christian friends, albeit with a slightly different interpretation.
And thus we all share in the beauty of this most magical of seasons,
when the Mother Goddess once again gives birth to the baby Sun-God and
sets the wheel in motion again. To conclude with a long-overdue paraphrase,
'Goddess bless us, every one!'
C A N D L E M A S: The Light Returns
by Mike Nichols
It seems quite impossible that the holiday of Candlemas should
be considered the beginning of Spring. Here in the Heartland, February
2nd may see a blanket of snow mantling the Mother. Or, if the snows
have gone, you may be sure the days are filled with drizzle, slush, and
steel-grey skies -- the dreariest weather of the year. In short, the
perfect time for a Pagan Festival of Lights. And as for Spring, although
this may seem a tenuous beginning, all the little buds, flowers and
leaves will have arrived on schedule before Spring runs its course to
'Candlemas' is the Christianized name for the holiday, of course.
The older Pagan names were Imbolc and Oimelc. 'Imbolc' means, literally,
'in the belly' (of the Mother). For in the womb of Mother Earth, hidden
from our mundane sight but sensed by a keener vision, there are stirrings.
The seed that was planted in her womb at the solstice is quickening and
the new year grows. 'Oimelc' means 'milk of ewes', for it is also lambing
The holiday is also called 'Brigit's Day', in honor of the great
Irish Goddess Brigit. At her shrine, the ancient Irish capitol of Kildare,
a group of 19 priestesses (no men allowed) kept a perpetual flame burning
in her honor. She was considered a goddess of fire, patroness of smith-
craft, poetry and healing (especially the healing touch of midwifery).
This tripartite symbolism was occasionally expressed by saying that Brigit
had two sisters, also named Brigit. (Incidentally, another form of the
name Brigit is Bride, and it is thus She bestows her special patronage
on any woman about to be married or handfasted, the woman being called
'bride' in her honor.)
The Roman Catholic Church could not very easily call the Great
Goddess of Ireland a demon, so they canonized her instead. Henceforth,
she would be 'Saint' Brigit, patron SAINT of smithcraft, poetry, and
healing. They 'explained' this by telling the Irish peasants that Brigit
was 'really' an early Christian missionary sent to the Emerald Isle,
and that the miracles she performed there 'misled' the common people
into believing that she was a goddess. For some reason, the Irish swallowed
this. (There is no limit to what the Irish imagination can convince
itself of. For example, they also came to believe that Brigit was the
'foster-mother' of Jesus, giving no thought to the implausibility of
Jesus having spent his boyhood in Ireland!)
Brigit's holiday was chiefly marked by the kindling of sacred
fires, since she symbolized the fire of birth and healing, the fire of
the forge, and the fire of poetic inspiration. Bonfires were lighted
on the beacon tors, and chandlers celebrated their special holiday.
The Roman Church was quick to confiscate this symbolism as well, using
'Candlemas' as the day to bless all the church candles that would be
used for the coming liturgical year. (Catholics will be reminded that
the following day, St. Blaise's Day, is remembered for using the newly-
blessed candles to bless the throats of parishioners, keeping them from
colds, flu, sore throats, etc.)
The Catholic Church, never one to refrain from piling holiday
upon holiday, also called it the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed
Virgin Mary. (It is surprising how many of the old Pagan holidays were
converted to Maryan Feasts.) The symbol of the Purification may seem a
little obscure to modern readers, but it has to do with the old custom
of 'churching women'. It was believed that women were impure for six
weeks after giving birth. And since Mary gave birth at the winter solstice,
she wouldn't be purified until February 2nd. In Pagan symbolism, this
might be re-translated as when the Great Mother once again becomes the
Young Maiden Goddess.
Today, this holiday is chiefly connected to weather lore. Even
our American folk-calendar keeps the tradition of 'Groundhog's Day', a
day to predict the coming weather, telling us that if the Groundhog
sees his shadow, there will be 'six more weeks' of bad weather (i.e.,
until the next old holiday, Lady Day). This custom is ancient. An old
British rhyme tells us that 'If Candlemas Day be bright and clear, there'll
be two winters in the year.' Actually, all of the cross-quarter days
can be used as 'inverse' weather predictors, whereas the quarter-days
are used as 'direct' weather predictors.
Like the other High Holidays or Great Sabbats of the Witches'
year, Candlemas is sometimes celebrated on it's alternate date, astrol-
ogically determined by the sun's reaching 15-degrees Aquarius, or Candlemas
Old Style (in 1988, February 3rd, at 9:03 am CST). Another holiday
that gets mixed up in this is Valentine's Day. Ozark folklorist Vance
Randolf makes this quite clear by noting that the old-timers used to
celebrate Groundhog's Day on February 14th. This same displacement is
evident in Eastern Orthodox Christianity as well. Their habit of celeb-
rating the birth of Jesus on January 6th, with a similar post-dated
shift in the six-week period that follows it, puts the Feast of the
Purification of Mary on February 14th. It is amazing to think that the
same confusion and lateral displacement of one of the old folk holidays
can be seen from the Russian steppes to the Ozark hills, but such seems
to be the case!
Incidentally, there is speculation among linguistic scholars
that the very name of 'Valentine' has Pagan origins. It seems that it
was customary for French peasants of the Middle Ages to pronounce a 'g'
as a 'v'. Consequently, the original term may have been the French
'galantine', which yields the English word 'gallant'. The word originally
refers to a dashing young man known for his 'affaires d'amour', a true
galaunt. The usual associations of V(G)alantine's Day make much more
sense in this light than their vague connection to a legendary 'St.
Valentine' can produce. Indeed, the Church has always found it rather
difficult to explain this nebulous saint's connection to the secular
pleasures of flirtation and courtly love.
For modern Witches, Candlemas O.S. may then be seen as the Pagan
version of Valentine's Day, with a de-emphasis of 'hearts and flowers'
and an appropriate re-emphasis of Pagan carnal frivolity. This also
re-aligns the holiday with the ancient Roman Lupercalia, a fertility
festival held at this time, in which the priests of Pan ran through the
streets of Rome whacking young women with goatskin thongs to make them
fertile. The women seemed to enjoy the attention and often stripped in
order to afford better targets.
One of the nicest folk-customs still practiced in many countries,
and especially by Witches in the British Isles and parts of the U.S.,
is to place a lighted candle in each and every window of the house,
beginning at sundown on Candlemas Eve (February 1st), allowing them to
continue burning until sunrise. Make sure that such candles are well
seated against tipping and guarded from nearby curtains, etc. What a
cheery sight it is on this cold, bleak and dreary night to see house
after house with candle-lit windows! And, of course, if you are your
Coven's chandler, or if you just happen to like making candles, Candlemas
Day is THE day for doing it. Some Covens hold candle-making parties
and try to make and bless all the candles they'll be using for the whole
year on this day.
Other customs of the holiday include weaving 'Brigit's crosses'
from straw or wheat to hang around the house for protection, performing
rites of spiritual cleansing and purification, making 'Brigit's beds'
to ensure fertility of mind and spirit (and body, if desired), and making
Crowns of Light (i.e. of candles) for the High Priestess to wear for
the Candlemas Circle, similar to those worn on St. Lucy's Day in Scan-
dinavian countries. All in all, this Pagan Festival of Lights, sacred
to the young Maiden Goddess, is one of the most beautiful and poetic of
L A D Y D A Y: The Vernal Equinox
by Mike Nichols
Now comes the Vernal Equinox, and the season of Spring reaches
it's apex, halfway through its journey from Candlemas to Beltane. Once
again, night and day stand in perfect balance, with the powers of light
on the ascendancy. The god of light now wins a victory over his twin,
the god of darkness. In the Mabinogion myth reconstruction which I
have proposed, this is the day on which the restored Llew takes his
vengeance on Goronwy by piercing him with the sunlight spear. For Llew
was restored/reborn at the Winter Solstice and is now well/old enough
to vanquish his rival/twin and mate with his lover/mother. And the
great Mother Goddess, who has returned to her Virgin aspect at Candlemas,
welcomes the young sun god's embraces and conceives a child. The child
will be born nine months from now, at the next Winter Solstice. And so
the cycle closes at last.
We think that the customs surrounding the celebration of the spring
equinox were imported from Mediterranean lands, although there can be
no doubt that the first inhabitants of the British Isles observed it,
as evidence from megalithic sites shows. But it was certainly more
popular to the south, where people celebrated the holiday as New Year's
Day, and claimed it as the first day of the first sign of the Zodiac,
Aries. However you look at it, it is certainly a time of new beginnings,
as a simple glance at Nature will prove.
In the Roman Catholic Church, there are two holidays which get
mixed up with the Vernal Equinox. The first, occurring on the fixed
calendar day of March 25th in the old liturgical calendar, is called
the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (or B.V.M., as
she was typically abbreviated in Catholic Missals). 'Annunciation'
means an announcement. This is the day that the angel Gabriel announced
to Mary that she was 'in the family way'. Naturally, this had to be
announced since Mary, being still a virgin, would have no other means
of knowing it. (Quit scoffing, O ye of little faith!) Why did the
Church pick the Vernal Equinox for the commemoration of this event?
Because it was necessary to have Mary conceive the child Jesus a full
nine months before his birth at the Winter Solstice (i.e., Christmas,
celebrated on the fixed calendar date of December 25). Mary's pregnancy
would take the natural nine months to complete, even if the conception
was a bit unorthodox.
As mentioned before, the older Pagan equivalent of this scene
focuses on the joyous process of natural conception, when the young
virgin Goddess (in this case, 'virgin' in the original sense of meaning
'unmarried') mates with the young solar God, who has just displaced his
rival. This is probably not their first mating, however. In the mythical
sense, the couple may have been lovers since Candlemas, when the young
God reached puberty. But the young Goddess was recently a mother (at
the Winter Solstice) and is probably still nursing her new child. There-
fore, conception is naturally delayed for six weeks or so and, despite
earlier matings with the God, She does not conceive until (surprise!)
the Vernal Equinox. This may also be their Hand-fasting, a sacred marriage
between God and Goddess called a Hierogamy, the ultimate Great Rite.
Probably the nicest study of this theme occurs in M. Esther Harding's
book, 'Woman's Mysteries'. Probably the nicest description of it occurs
in M. Z. Bradley's 'Mists of Avalon', in the scene where Morgan and
Arthur assume the sacred roles. (Bradley follows the British custom of
transferring the episode to Beltane, when the climate is more suited to
its outdoor celebration.)
The other Christian holiday which gets mixed up in this is Easter.
Easter, too, celebrates the victory of a god of light (Jesus) over darkness
(death), so it makes sense to place it at this season. Ironically, the
name 'Easter' was taken from the name of a Teutonic lunar Goddess, Eostre
(from whence we also get the name of the female hormone, estrogen).
Her chief symbols were the bunny (both for fertility and because her
worshipers saw a hare in the full moon) and the egg (symbolic of the
cosmic egg of creation), images which Christians have been hard pressed
to explain. Her holiday, the Eostara, was held on the Vernal Equinox
Full Moon. Of course, the Church doesn't celebrate full moons, even if
they do calculate by them, so they planted their Easter on the following
Sunday. Thus, Easter is always the first Sunday, after the first Full
Moon, after the Vernal Equinox. If you've ever wondered why Easter
moved all around the calendar, now you know. (By the way, the Catholic
Church was so adamant about NOT incorporating lunar Goddess symbolism
that they added a further calculation: if Easter Sunday were to fall on
the Full Moon itself, then Easter was postponed to the following Sunday
Incidentally, this raises another point: recently, some Pagan
traditions began referring to the Vernal Equinox as Eostara. Historically,
this is incorrect. Eostara is a lunar holiday, honoring a lunar Goddess,
at the Vernal Full Moon. Hence, the name 'Eostara' is best reserved to
the nearest Esbat, rather than the Sabbat itself. How this happened is
difficult to say. However, it is notable that some of the same groups
misappropriated the term 'Lady Day' for Beltane, which left no good
folk name for the Equinox. Thus, Eostara was misappropriated for it,
completing a chain-reaction of displacement. Needless to say, the old
and accepted folk name for the Vernal Equinox is 'Lady Day'. Christians
sometimes insist that the title is in honor of Mary and her Annunciation,
but Pagans will smile knowingly.
Another mythological motif which must surely arrest our attention
at this time of year is that of the descent of the God or Goddess into
the Underworld. Perhaps we see this most clearly in the Christian trad-
ition. Beginning with his death on the cross on Good Friday, it is
said that Jesus 'descended into hell' for the three days that his body
lay entombed. But on the third day (that is, Easter Sunday), his body
and soul rejoined, he arose from the dead and ascended into heaven.
By a strange 'coincidence', most ancient Pagan religions speak of the
Goddess descending into the Underworld, also for a period of three days.
Why three days? If we remember that we are here dealing with the
lunar aspect of the Goddess, the reason should be obvious. As the text
of one Book of Shadows gives it, '...as the moon waxes and wanes, and
walks three nights in darkness, so the Goddess once spent three nights
in the Kingdom of Death.' In our modern world, alienated as it is from
nature, we tend to mark the time of the New Moon (when no moon is visible)
as a single date on a calendar. We tend to forget that the moon is
also hidden from our view on the day before and the day after our calendar
date. But this did not go unnoticed by our ancestors, who always speak
of the Goddess's sojourn into the land of Death as lasting for three
days. Is it any wonder then, that we celebrate the next Full Moon (the
Eostara) as the return of the Goddess from chthonic regions?
Naturally, this is the season to celebrate the victory of life
over death, as any nature-lover will affirm. And the Christian religion
was not misguided by celebrating Christ's victory over death at this
same season. Nor is Christ the only solar hero to journey into the
underworld. King Arthur, for example, does the same thing when he sets
sail in his magical ship, Prydwen, to bring back precious gifts (i.e.
the gifts of life) from the Land of the Dead, as we are told in the
'Mabinogi'. Welsh triads allude to Gwydion and Amaethon doing much the
same thing. In fact, this theme is so universal that mythologists refer
to it by a common phrase, 'the harrowing of hell'.
However, one might conjecture that the descent into hell, or the
land of the dead, was originally accomplished, not by a solar male deity,
but by a lunar female deity. It is Nature Herself who, in Spring, returns
from the Underworld with her gift of abundant life. Solar heroes may
have laid claim to this theme much later. The very fact that we are
dealing with a three-day period of absence should tell us we are dealing
with a lunar, not solar, theme. (Although one must make exception for
those occasional MALE lunar deities, such as the Assyrian god, Sin.)
At any rate, one of the nicest modern renditions of the harrowing of
hell appears in many Books of Shadows as 'The Descent of the Goddess'.
Lady Day may be especially appropriate for the celebration of this theme,
whether by storytelling, reading, or dramatic re-enactment.
For modern Witches, Lady Day is one of the Lesser Sabbats or Low
Holidays of the year, one of the four quarter-days. And what date will
Witches choose to celebrate? They may choose the traditional folk 'fixed'
date of March 25th, starting on its Eve. Or they may choose the actual
equinox point, when the Sun crosses the Equator and enters the astrological
sign of Aries. This year (1988), that will occur at 3:39 am CST on
A Celebration of M A Y D A Y
by Mike Nichols
* * * * * * * *
'Perhaps its just as well that you
won't be here...to be offended by
the sight of our May Day celebrations.'
--Lord Summerisle to Sgt. Howie
from 'The Wicker Man'
* * * * * * * *
There are four great festivals of the Pagan Celtic year and
the modern Witch's calendar, as well. The two greatest of these are
Halloween (the beginning of winter) and May Day (the beginning of summer).
Being opposite each other on the wheel of the year, they separate the
year into halves. Halloween (also called Samhain) is the Celtic New
Year and is generally considered the more important of the two, though
May Day runs a close second. Indeed, in some areas -- notably Wales --
it is considered the great holiday.
May Day ushers in the fifth month of the modern calendar year,
the month of May. This month is named in honor of the goddess Maia,
originally a Greek mountain nymph, later identified as the most beautiful
of the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades. By Zeus, she is also the mother of
Hermes, god of magic. Maia's parents were Atlas and Pleione, a sea
The old Celtic name for May Day is Beltane (in its most popular
Anglicized form), which is derived from the Irish Gaelic 'Bealtaine' or
the Scottish Gaelic 'Bealtuinn', meaning 'Bel-fire', the fire of the
Celtic god of light (Bel, Beli or Belinus). He, in turn, may be traced
to the Middle Eastern god Baal.
Other names for May Day include: Cetsamhain ('opposite Samhain'),
Walpurgisnacht (in Germany), and Roodmas (the medieval Church's name).
This last came from Church Fathers who were hoping to shift the common
people's allegiance from the Maypole (Pagan lingham - symbol of life)
to the Holy Rood (the Cross - Roman instrument of death).
Incidentally, there is no historical justification for calling
May 1st 'Lady Day'. For hundreds of years, that title has been proper
to the Vernal Equinox (approx. March 21st), another holiday sacred to
the Great Goddess. The nontraditional use of 'Lady Day' for May 1st is
quite recent (within the last 15 years), and seems to be confined to
America, where it has gained widespread acceptance among certain segments
of the Craft population. This rather startling departure from tradition
would seem to indicate an unfamiliarity with European calendar customs,
as well as a lax attitude toward scholarship among too many Pagans. A
simple glance at a dictionary ('Webster's 3rd' or O.E.D.), encyclopedia
('Benet's'), or standard mythology reference (Jobe's 'Dictionary of
Mythology, Folklore & Symbols') would confirm the correct date for Lady
Day as the Vernal Equinox.
By Celtic reckoning, the actual Beltane celebration begins on
sundown of the preceding day, April 30, because the Celts always figured
their days from sundown to sundown. And sundown was the proper time
for Druids to kindle the great Bel-fires on the tops of the nearest
beacon hill (such as Tara Hill, Co. Meath, in Ireland). These 'need-fires'
had healing properties, and sky-clad Witches would jump through the flames
to ensure protection.
* * * * * * * *
Sgt. Howie (shocked): 'But they are naked!'
Lord Summerisle: 'Naturally. It's much too
dangerous to jump through the fire with your clothes on!'
* * * * * * * *
Frequently, cattle would be driven between two such bon-fires
(oak wood was the favorite fuel for them) and, on the morrow, they would
be taken to their summer pastures.
Other May Day customs include: walking the circuit of one's
property ('beating the bounds'), repairing fences and boundary markers,
processions of chimney-sweeps and milk maids, archery tournaments, morris
dances, sword dances, feasting, music, drinking, and maidens bathing
their faces in the dew of May morning to retain their youthful beauty.
In the words of Witchcraft writers Janet and Stewart Farrar, the
Beltane celebration was principly a time of '...unashamed human sexuality
and fertility.' Such associations include the obvious phallic symbolism
of the Maypole and riding the hobby horse. Even a seemingly innocent
children's nursery rhyme, 'Ride a cock horse to Banburry Cross...' retains
such memories. And the next line '...to see a fine Lady on a white
horse' is a reference to the annual ride of 'Lady Godiva' though Coventry.
Every year for nearly three centuries, a sky-clad village maiden (elected
Queen of the May) enacted this Pagan rite, until the Puritans put an
end to the custom.
The Puritans, in fact, reacted with pious horror to most of
the May Day rites, even making Maypoles illegal in 1644. They especially
attempted to suppress the 'greenwood marriages' of young men and women
who spent the entire night in the forest, staying out to greet the May
sunrise, and bringing back boughs of flowers and garlands to decorate
the village the next morning. One angry Puritan wrote that men 'doe
use commonly to runne into woodes in the night time, amongst maidens,
to set bowes, in so muche, as I have hearde of tenne maidens whiche
went to set May, and nine of them came home with childe.' And another
Puritan complained that, of the girls who go into the woods, 'not the
least one of them comes home again a virgin.'
Long after the Christian form of marriage (with its insistence
on sexual monogamy) had replaced the older Pagan handfasting, the rules
of strict fidelity were always relaxed for the May Eve rites. Names
such as Robin Hood, Maid Marian, and Little John played an important
part in May Day folklore, often used as titles for the dramatis personae
of the celebrations. And modern surnames such as Robinson, Hodson,
Johnson, and Godkin may attest to some distant May Eve spent in the
These wildwood antics have inspired writers such as Kipling:
Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight,
Or he would call it a sin;
But we have been out in the woods all night,
A-conjuring Summer in!
And Lerner and Lowe:
It's May! It's May!
The lusty month of May!...
Those dreary vows that ev'ryone takes,
Ev'ryone makes divine mistakes!
The lusty month of May!
It is certainly no accident that Queen Guinevere's 'abduction'
by Meliagrance occurs on May 1st when she and the court have gone a-Maying,
or that the usually efficient Queen's Guard, on this occasion, rode
Some of these customs seem virtually identical to the old Roman
feast of flowers, the Floriala, three days of unrestrained sexuality
which began at sundown April 28th and reached a crescendo on May 1st.
There are other, even older, associations with May 1st in Celtic
mythology. According to the ancient Irish 'Book of Invasions', the
first settler of Ireland, Partholan, arrived on May 1st; and it was on
May 1st that the plague came which destroyed his people. Years later,
the Tuatha De Danann were conquered by the Milesians on May Day. In
Welsh myth, the perennial battle between Gwythur and Gwyn for the love
of Creudylad took place each May Day; and it was on May Eve that Teirnyon
lost his colts and found Pryderi. May Eve was also the occasion of a
fearful scream that was heard each year throughout Wales, one of the
three curses of the Coranians lifted by the skill of Lludd and Llevelys.
By the way, due to various calendrical changes down through the
centuries, the traditional date of Beltane is not the same as its ast-
rological date. This date, like all astronomically determined dates,
may vary by a day or two depending on the year. However, it may be
calculated easily enough by determining the date on which the sun is at
15 degrees Taurus (usually around May 5th). British Witches often refer
to this date as Old Beltane, and folklorists call it Beltane O.S. ('Old
Style'). Some Covens prefer to celebrate on the old date and, at the
very least, it gives one options. If a Coven is operating on 'Pagan
Standard Time' and misses May 1st altogether, it can still throw a viable
Beltane bash as long as it's before May 5th. This may also be a con-
sideration for Covens that need to organize activities around the week-end.
This date has long been considered a 'power point' of the Zodiac,
and is symbolized by the Bull, one of the 'tetramorph' figures featured
on the Tarot cards, the World and the Wheel of Fortune. (The other
three symbols are the Lion, the Eagle, and the Spirit.) Astrologers
know these four figures as the symbols of the four 'fixed' signs of the
Zodiac (Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius), and these naturally align
with the four Great Sabbats of Witchcraft. Christians have adopted the
same iconography to represent the four gospel-writers.
But for most, it is May 1st that is the great holiday of flowers,
Maypoles, and greenwood frivolity. It is no wonder that, as recently
as 1977, Ian Anderson could pen the following lyrics for Jethro Tull:
For the May Day is the great day, Sung along the old straight
track. And those who ancient lines did ley Will heed this
song that calls them back.
A M I D S U M M E R ' S CELEBRATION
by Mike Nichols
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The young maid stole through the cottage door, And blushed as
she sought the Plant of pow'r;-- 'Thou silver glow-worm, O lend me
thy light, I must gather the mystic St. John's wort tonight, The
wonderful herb, whose leaf will decide If the coming year shall make me
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In addition to the four great festivals of the Pagan Celtic year,
there are four lesser holidays as well: the two solstices, and the two
equinoxes. In folklore, these are referred to as the four 'quarter-days'
of the year, and modern Witches call them the four 'Lesser Sabbats', or
the four 'Low Holidays'. The Summer Solstice is one of them.
Technically, a solstice is an astronomical point and, due to the procession
to the equinox, the date may vary by a few days depending on the year.
The summer solstice occurs when the sun reaches the Tropic of Cancer,
and we experience the longest day and the shortest night of the year.
Astrologers know this as the date on which the sun enters the sign of
Cancer. This year (1988) it will occur at 10:57 pm CDT on June 20th.
However, since most European peasants were not accomplished at reading
an ephemeris or did not live close enough to Salisbury Plain to trot
over to Stonehenge and sight down its main avenue, they celebrated the
event on a fixed calendar date, June 24th. The slight forward displacement
of the traditional date is the result of multitudinous calendrical changes
down through the ages. It is analogous to the winter solstice celebration,
which is astronomically on or about December 21st, but is celebrated on
the traditional date of December 25th, Yule, later adopted by the Chris-
Again, it must be remembered that the Celts reckoned their days
from sundown to sundown, so the June 24th festivities actually begin on
the previous sundown (our June 23rd). This was Shakespeare's Midsummer
Night's Eve. Which brings up another point: our modern calendars are
quite misguided in suggesting that 'summer begins' on the solstice.
According to the old folk calendar, summer BEGINS on May Day and ends
on Lammas (August 1st), with the summer solstice, midway between the
two, marking MID-summer. This makes more logical sense than suggesting
that summer begins on the day when the sun's power begins to wane and
the days grow shorter.
Although our Pagan ancestors probably preferred June 24th (and
indeed most European folk festivals today use this date), the sensibility
of modern Witches seems to prefer the actual solstice point, beginning
the celebration on its eve, or the sunset immediately preceding the
solstice point. Again, it gives modern Pagans a range of dates to choose
from with, hopefully, a weekend embedded in it.
Just as the Pagan mid-winter celebration of Yule was adopted by
Christians as Christmas (December 25th), so too the Pagan mid-summer
celebration was adopted by them as the feast of John the Baptist (June
24th). Occurring 180 degrees apart on the wheel of the year, the mid-winter
celebration commemorates the birth of Jesus, while the mid-summer celeb-
ration commemorates the birth of John, the prophet who was born six
months before Jesus in order to announce his arrival.
Although modern Witches often refer to the holiday by the rather
generic name of Midsummer's Eve, it is more probable that our Pagan
ancestors of a few hundred years ago actually used the Christian name
for the holiday, St. John's Eve. This is evident from the wealth of
folklore that surrounds the summer solstice (i.e. that it is a night
especially sacred to the faerie folk) but which is inevitably ascribed
to 'St. John's Eve', with no mention of the sun's position. It could
also be argued that a Coven's claim to antiquity might be judged by
what name it gives the holidays. (Incidentally, the name 'Litha' for
the holiday is a modern usage, possibly based on a Saxon word that means
the opposite of Yule. Still, there is little historical justification
for its use in this context.) But weren't our Pagan ancestors offended
by the use of the name of a Christian saint for a pre-Christian holiday?
Well, to begin with, their theological sensibilities may not have
been as finely honed as our own. But secondly and more importantly,
St. John himself was often seen as a rather Pagan figure. He was, after
all, called 'the Oak King'. His connection to the wilderness (from
whence 'the voice cried out') was often emphasized by the rustic nature
of his shrines. Many statues show him as a horned figure (as is also
the case with Moses). Christian iconographers mumble embarrassed exp-
lanations about 'horns of light', while modern Pagans giggle and happily
refer to such statues as 'Pan the Baptist'. And to clench matters,
many depictions of John actually show him with the lower torso of a
satyr, cloven hooves and all! Obviously, this kind of John the Baptist
is more properly a Jack in the Green! Also obvious is that behind the
medieval conception of St. John lies a distant, shadowy Pagan deity,
perhaps the archetypal Wild Man of the Wood, whose face stares down at
us through the foliate masks that adorn so much church architecture.
Thus medieval Pagans may have had fewer problems adapting than we might
In England, it was the ancient custom on St. John's Eve to light
large bonfires after sundown, which served the double purpose of providing
light to the revelers and warding off evil spirits. This was known as
'setting the watch'. People often jumped through the fires for good
luck. In addition to these fires, the streets were lined with lanterns,
and people carried cressets (pivoted lanterns atop poles) as they wandered
from one bonfire to another. These wandering, garland-bedecked bands
were called a 'marching watch'. Often they were attended by morris
dancers, and traditional players dressed as a unicorn, a dragon, and
six hobby-horse riders. Just as May Day was a time to renew the boundary
on one's own property, so Midsummer's Eve was a time to ward the boundary
of the city.
Customs surrounding St. John's Eve are many and varied. At the
very least, most young folk plan to stay up throughout the whole of
this shortest night. Certain courageous souls might spend the night
keeping watch in the center of a circle of standing stones. To do so
would certainly result in either death, madness, or (hopefully) the
power of inspiration to become a great poet or bard. (This is, by the
way, identical to certain incidents in the first branch of the 'Mabin-
ogion'.) This was also the night when the serpents of the island would
roll themselves into a hissing, writhing ball in order to engender the
'glain', also called the 'serpent's egg', 'snake stone', or 'Druid's
egg'. Anyone in possession of this hard glass bubble would wield incredible
magical powers. Even Merlyn himself (accompanied by his black dog)
went in search of it, according to one ancient Welsh story.
Snakes were not the only creatures active on Midsummer's Eve.
According to British faery lore, this night was second only to Halloween
for its importance to the wee folk, who especially enjoyed a ridling on
such a fine summer's night. In order to see them, you had only to gather
fern seed at the stroke of midnight and rub it onto your eyelids. But
be sure to carry a little bit of rue in your pocket, or you might well
be 'pixie-led'. Or, failing the rue, you might simply turn your jacket
inside-out, which should keep you from harm's way. But if even this
fails, you must seek out one of the 'ley lines', the old straight tracks,
and stay upon it to your destination. This will keep you safe from any
malevolent power, as will crossing a stream of 'living' (running) water.
Other customs included decking the house (especially over the front
door) with birch, fennel, St. John's wort, orpin, and white lilies.
Five plants were thought to have special magical properties on this
night: rue, roses, St. John's wort, vervain and trefoil. Indeed, Mid-
summer's Eve in Spain is called the 'Night of the Verbena (Vervain)'.
St. John's wort was especially honored by young maidens who picked it
in the hopes of divining a future lover.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
And the glow-worm came
With its silvery flame,
And sparkled and shone
Through the night of St. John,
And soon has the young maid her love-knot tied.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
There are also many mythical associations with the summer solstice,
not the least of which concerns the seasonal life of the God of the
sun. Inasmuch as I believe that I have recently discovered certain
associations and correspondences not hitherto realized, I have elected
to treat this subject in some depth in another essay. Suffice it to
say here, that I disagree with the generally accepted idea that the
Sun-God meets his death at the summer solstice. I believe there is
good reason to see the Sun-God at his zenith -- his peak of power -- on
this day, and that his death at the hands of his rival would not occur
for another quarter of a year. Material drawn from the Welsh mythos
seems to support this thesis. In Irish mythology, Midsummer is the
occasion of the first battle between the Fir Bolgs and the Tuatha De
Altogether, Midsummer is a favorite holiday for many Witches in
that it is so hospitable to outdoor celebrations. The warm summer night
seems to invite it. And if the celebrants are not in fact skyclad,
then you may be fairly certain that the long ritual robes of winter
have yielded place to short, tunic-style apparel. As with the longer
gowns, tradition dictates that one should wear nothing underneath --
the next best thing to skyclad, to be sure. (Incidentally, now you
know the REAL answer to the old Scottish joke, 'What is worn underneath
The two chief icons of the holiday are the spear (symbol of the
Sun-God in his glory) and the summer cauldron (symbol of the Goddess in
her bounty). The precise meaning of these two symbols, which I believe
I have recently discovered, will be explored in the essay on the death
of Llew. But it is interesting to note here that modern Witches often
use these same symbols in the Midsummer rituals. And one occasionally
hears the alternative consecration formula, 'As the spear is to the
male, so the cauldron is to the female...' With these mythic associations,
it is no wonder that Midsummer is such a joyous and magical occasion!
L A M M A S: The First Harvest
by Mike Nichols
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Once upon a Lammas Night
When corn rigs are bonny,
Beneath the Moon's unclouded light,
I held awhile to Annie...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Although in the heat of a Mid-western summer it might be difficult
to discern, the festival of Lammas (Aug 1st) marks the end of summer
and the beginning of fall. The days now grow visibly shorter and by
the time we've reached autumn's end (Oct 31st), we will have run the
gamut of temperature from the heat of August to the cold and (sometimes)
snow of November. And in the midst of it, a perfect Mid-western autumn.
The history of Lammas is as convoluted as all the rest of the old
folk holidays. It is of course a cross-quarter day, one of the four
High Holidays or Greater Sabbats of Witchcraft, occurring 1/4 of a year
after Beltane. It's true astrological point is 15 degrees Leo, which
occurs at 1:18 am CDT, Aug 6th this year (1988), but tradition has set
August 1st as the day Lammas is typically celebrated. The celebration
proper would begin on sundown of the previous evening, our July 31st,
since the Celts reckon their days from sundown to sundown.
However, British Witches often refer to the astrological date of
Aug 6th as Old Lammas, and folklorists call it Lammas O.S. ('Old Style').
This date has long been considered a 'power point' of the Zodiac, and
is symbolized by the Lion, one of the 'tetramorph' figures found on the
Tarot cards, the World and the Wheel of Fortune (the other three figures
being the Bull, the Eagle, and the Spirit). Astrologers know these
four figures as the symbols of the four 'fixed' signs of the Zodiac,
and these naturally align with the four Great Sabbats of Witchcraft.
Christians have adopted the same iconography to represent the four gos-
'Lammas' was the medieval Christian name for the holiday and it
means 'loaf-mass', for this was the day on which loaves of bread were
baked from the first grain harvest and laid on the church altars as
offerings. It was a day representative of 'first fruits' and early
In Irish Gaelic, the feast was referred to as 'Lugnasadh', a feast
to commemorate the funeral games of the Irish sun-god Lugh. However,
there is some confusion on this point. Although at first glance, it
may seem that we are celebrating the death of the Lugh, the god of light
does not really die (mythically) until the autumnal equinox. And indeed,
if we read the Irish myths closer, we discover that it is not Lugh's
death that is being celebrated, but the funeral games which Lugh hosted
to commemorate the death of his foster- mother, Taillte. That is why
the Lugnasadh celebrations in Ireland are often called the 'Tailltean
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The time went by with careless heed
Between the late and early,
With small persuasion she agreed
To see me through the barley...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
One common feature of the Games were the 'Tailltean marriages', a
rather informal marriage that lasted for only 'a year and a day' or
until next Lammas. At that time, the couple could decide to continue
the arrangement if it pleased them, or to stand back to back and walk
away from one another, thus bringing the Tailltean marriage to a formal
close. Such trial marriages (obviously related to the Wiccan 'Handfasting')
were quite common even into the 1500's, although it was something one
'didn't bother the parish priest about'. Indeed, such ceremonies were
usually solemnized by a poet, bard, or shanachie (or, it may be guessed,
by a priest or priestess of the Old Religion).
Lammastide was also the traditional time of year for craft festivals.
The medieval guilds would create elaborate displays of their wares,
decorating their shops and themselves in bright colors and ribbons,
marching in parades, and performing strange, ceremonial plays and dances
for the entranced onlookers. The atmosphere must have been quite similar
to our modern-day Renaissance Festivals, such as the one celebrated in
near-by Bonner Springs, Kansas, each fall.
A ceremonial highlight of such festivals was the 'Catherine wheel'.
Although the Roman Church moved St. Catherine's feast day all around
the calender with bewildering frequency, it's most popular date was
Lammas. (They also kept trying to expel this much-loved saint from the
ranks of the blessed because she was mythical rather than historical,
and because her worship gave rise to the heretical sect known as the
Cathari.) At any rate, a large wagon wheel was taken to the top of a
near-by hill, covered with tar, set aflame, and ceremoniously rolled
down the hill. Some mythologists see in this ritual the remnants of a
Pagan rite symbolizing the end of summer, the flaming disk representing
the sun-god in his decline. And just as the sun king has now reached
the autumn of his years, his rival or dark self has just reached puberty.
Many commentators have bewailed the fact that traditional Gardnerian
and Alexandrian Books of Shadows say very little about the holiday of
Lammas, stating only that poles should be ridden and a circle dance
performed. This seems strange, for Lammas is a holiday of rich mythic
and cultural associations, providing endless resources for liturgical
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Corn rigs and barley rigs,
Corn rigs are bonny!
I'll not forget that happy night
Among the rigs with Annie!
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
[Verse quotations by Robert Burns, as handed down through several
Books of Shadows.]
H A R V E S T H O M E
by Mike Nichols
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
There were three men came out of the West,
Their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow,
John Barleycorn must die...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Despite the bad publicity generated by Thomas Tryon's novel,
Harvest Home is the pleasantest of holidays. Admittedly, it does involve
the concept of sacrifice, but one that is symbolic only. The sacrifice
is that of the spirit of vegetation, John Barleycorn. Occurring 1/4
of the year after Midsummer, Harvest Home represents mid-autumn, autumn's
height. It is also the Autumnal Equinox, one of the quarter days of
the year, a Lesser Sabbat and a Low Holiday in modern Witchcraft.
Technically, an equinox is an astronomical point and, due to the fact
that the earth wobbles on its axis slightly (rather like a top that's
slowing down), the date may vary by a few days depending on the year.
The autumnal equinox occurs when the sun crosses the equator on it's
apparent journey southward, and we experience a day and a night that
are of equal duration. Up until Harvest Home, the hours of daylight
have been greater than the hours from dusk to dawn. But from now on,
the reverse holds true. Astrologers know this as the date on which
the sun enters the sign of Libra, the Balance (an appropriate symbol
of a balanced day and night). This year (1988) it will occur at 2:29
pm CDT on September 22nd.
However, since most European peasants were not accomplished at
calculating the exact date of the equinox, they celebrated the event
on a fixed calendar date, September 25th, a holiday the medieval Church
Christianized under the name of 'Michaelmas', the feast of the Archangel
Michael. (One wonders if, at some point, the R.C. Church contemplated
assigning the four quarter days of the year to the four Archangels,
just as they assigned the four cross-quarter days to the four gospel-
-writers. Further evidence for this may be seen in the fact that
there was a brief flirtation with calling the Vernal Equinox 'Gabrielmas',
ostensibly to commemorate the angel Gabriel's announcement to Mary on
Lady Day.) Again, it must be remembered that the Celts reckoned their
days from sundown to sundown, so the September 25th festivities actually
begin on the previous sundown (our September 24th).
Although our Pagan ancestors probably celebrated Harvest Home on
September 25th, modern Witches and Pagans, with their desk-top computers
for making finer calculations, seem to prefer the actual equinox point,
beginning the celebration on its eve (this year, sunset on September
Mythically, this is the day of the year when the god of light is
defeated by his twin and alter-ego, the god of darkness. It is the
time of the year when night conquers day. And as I have recently shown
in my seasonal reconstruction of the Welsh myth of Blodeuwedd, the
Autumnal Equinox is the only day of the whole year when Llew (light)
is vulnerable and it is possible to defeat him. Llew now stands on
the balance (Libra/autumnal equinox), with one foot on the cauldron
(Cancer/summer solstice) and his other foot on the goat (Capricorn/winter
solstice). Thus he is betrayed by Blodeuwedd, the Virgin (Virgo) and
transformed into an Eagle (Scorpio).
Two things are now likely to occur mythically, in rapid succession.
Having defeated Llew, Goronwy (darkness) now takes over Llew's functions,
both as lover to Blodeuwedd, the Goddess, and as King of our own world.
Although Goronwy, the Horned King, now sits on Llew's throne and begins
his rule immediately, his formal coronation will not be for another six
weeks, occurring at Samhain (Halloween) or the beginning of Winter,
when he becomes the Winter Lord, the Dark King, Lord of Misrule.
Goronwy's other function has more immediate results, however. He
mates with the virgin goddess, and Blodeuwedd conceives, and will
give birth -- nine months later (at the Summer Solstice) -- to Goronwy's
son, who is really another incarnation of himself, the Dark Child.
Llew's sacrificial death at Harvest Home also identifies him with
John Barleycorn, spirit of the fields. Thus, Llew represents not only
the sun's power, but also the sun's life trapped and crystallized in
the corn. Often this corn spirit was believed to reside most especially
in the last sheaf or shock harvested, which was dressed in fine clothes,
or woven into a wicker-like man-shaped form. This effigy was then
cut and carried from the field, and usually burned, amidst much rejoicing.
So one may see Blodeuwedd and Goronwy in a new guise, not as conspirators
who murder their king, but as kindly farmers who harvest the crop
which they had planted and so lovingly cared for. And yet, anyone
who knows the old ballad of John Barleycorn knows that we have not
heard the last of him.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
They let him stand till midsummer's day,
Till he looked both pale and wan,
And little Sir John's grown a long, long beard
And so become a man...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Incidentally, this annual mock sacrifice of a large wicker-work
figure (representing the vegetation spirit) may have been the origin
of the misconception that Druids made human sacrifices. This charge
was first made by Julius Caesar (who may not have had the most unbiased
of motives), and has been re-stated many times since. However, as has
often been pointed out, the only historians besides Caesar who make
this accusation are those who have read Caesar. And in fact, upon
reading Caesar's 'Gallic Wars' closely, one discovers that Caesar
never claims to have actually witnessed such a sacrifice. Nor does he
claim to have talked to anyone else who did. In fact, there is not
one single eyewitness account of a human sacrifice performed by Druids
in all of history!
Nor is there any archeological evidence to support the charge.
If, for example, human sacrifices had been performed at the same ritual
sites year after year, there would be physical traces. Yet there is
not a scrap. Nor is there any native tradition or history which lends
support. In fact, insular tradition seems to point in the opposite
direction. The Druid's reverence for life was so strict that they
refused to lift a sword to defend themselves when massacred by Roman
soldiers on the Isle of Mona. Irish brehon laws forbade a Druid to
touch a weapon, and any soul rash enough to unsheathe a sword in the
presence of a Druid would be executed for such an outrage! Jesse
Weston, in her brilliant study of the Four Hallows of British myth,
'From Ritual to Romance', points out that British folk tradition is,
however, full of MOCK sacrifices. In the case of the wicker-man, such
figures were referred to in very personified terms, dressed in clothes,
addressed by name, etc. In such a religious ritual drama, everybody
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
They've hired men with scythes so sharp,
To cut him off at the knee,
They've rolled him and tied him by the waist
Serving him most barbarously...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In the medieval miracle-play tradition of the 'Rise Up, Jock'
variety (performed by troupes of mummers at all the village fairs), a
young harlequin-like king always underwent a mock sacrificial death.
But invariably, the traditional cast of characters included a mysterious
'Doctor' who had learned many secrets while 'travelling in foreign
lands'. The Doctor reaches into his bag of tricks, plies some magical
cure, and presto! the young king rises up hale and whole again, to
the cheers of the crowd. As Weston so sensibly points out, if the
young king were ACTUALLY killed, he couldn't very well rise up again,
which is the whole point of the ritual drama! It is an enactment of
the death and resurrection of the vegetation spirit. And what better
time to perform it than at the end of the harvest season?
In the rhythm of the year, Harvest Home marks a time of rest
after hard work. The crops are gathered in, and winter is still a
month and a half away! Although the nights are getting cooler, the
days are still warm, and there is something magical in the sunlight,
for it seems silvery and indirect. As we pursue our gentle hobbies
of making corn dollies (those tiny vegetation spirits) and wheat weaving,
our attention is suddenly arrested by the sound of baying from the
skies (the 'Hounds of Annwn' passing?), as lines of geese cut silhouettes
across a harvest moon. And we move closer to the hearth, the longer
evening hours giving us time to catch up on our reading, munching on
popcorn balls and caramel apples and sipping home-brewed mead or ale.
What a wonderful time Harvest Home is! And how lucky we are to live
in a part of the country where the season's changes are so dramatic
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
And little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl--
And he's brandy in the glass,
And little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl
Proved the strongest man at last.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
T H E D E A T H O F L L E W
A Seasonal Interpretation
by Mike Nichols
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Not of father, nor of mother
Was my blood, was my body.
I was spellbound by Gwydion,
Prime enchanter of the Britons,
When he formed me from nine blossoms.
--'Hanes Blodeuwedd' R. Graves, trans.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In most Pagan cultures, the sun god is seen as split between
two rival personalities: the god of light and his twin, his 'weird',
his 'other self', the god of darkness. They are Gawain and the Green
Knight, Gwyn and Gwythyr, Llew and Goronwy, Lugh and Balor, Balan and
Balin, the Holly King and the Oak King, etc. Often they are depicted
as fighting seasonal battles for the favor of their goddess/lover, such
as Creiddylad or Blodeuwedd, who represents Nature.
The god of light is always born at the winter solstice, and his
strength waxes with the lengthening days, until the moment of his greatest
power, the summer solstice, the longest day. And, like a look in a
mirror, his 'shadow self', the lord of darkness, is born at the summer
solstice, and his strength waxes with the lengthening nights until the
moment of his greatest power, the winter solstice, the longest night.
Indirect evidence supporting this mirror-birth pattern is strongest
in the Christianized form of the Pagan myth. Many writers, from Robert
Graves to Stewart Farrar, have repeatedly pointed out that Jesus was
identified with the Holly King, while John the Baptist was the Oak King.
That is why, 'of all the trees that are in the wood, the Holly tree
bears the crown.' If the birth of Jesus, the 'light of the world', is
celebrated at mid-winter, Christian folk tradition insists that John
the Oak King (the 'dark of the world'?) was born (rather than died) at
It is at this point that I must diverge from the opinion of Robert
Graves and other writers who have followed him. Graves believes that
at midsummer, the Sun King is slain by his rival, the God of Darkness;
just as the God of Darkness is, in turn, slain by the God of Light at
midwinter. And yet, in Christian folk tradition (derived from the older
Pagan strain), it is births, not deaths, that are associated with the
solstices. For the feast of John the Baptist, this is all the more
conspicuous, as it breaks the rules regarding all other saints.
John is the ONLY saint in the entire Catholic hagiography whose feast
day is a commemoration of his birth, rather than his death. A generation
ago, Catholic nuns were fond of explaining that a saint is commemorated
on the anniversary of his or her death because it was really a 'birth'
into the Kingdom of Heaven. But John the Baptist, the sole exception,
is emphatically commemorated on the anniversary of his birth into THIS
world. Although this makes no sense viewed from a Christian perspective,
it makes perfect poetic sense from the viewpoint of Pagan symbolism.
(John's earlier Pagan associations are treated in my essay on Midsummer.)
So if births are associated with the solstices, when do the symbolic
deaths occur? When does Goronwy slay Llew and when does Llew, in his
turn, slay Goronwy? When does darkness conquer light or light conquer
darkness? Obviously (to me, at least), it must be at the two equinoxes.
At the autumnal equinox, the hours of light in the day are eclipsed by
the hours of darkness. At the vernal equinox, the process is reversed.
Also, the autumnal equinox, called 'Harvest Home', is already associated
with sacrifice, principally that of the spirit of grain or vegetation.
In this case, the god of light would be identical.
In Welsh mythology in particular, there is a startling vindication
of the seasonal placement of the sun god's death, the significance of
which occurred to me in a recent dream, and which I haven't seen elsewhere.
Llew is the Welsh god of light, and his name means 'lion'. (The lion
is often the symbol of a sun god.) He is betrayed by his 'virgin' wife
Blodeuwedd, into standing with one foot on the rim of a cauldron and
the other on the back of a goat. It is only in this way that Llew can
be killed, and Blodeuwedd's lover, Goronwy, Llew's dark self, is hiding
nearby with a spear at the ready. But as Llew is struck with it, he is
not killed. He is instead transformed into an eagle.
Putting this in the form of a Bardic riddle, it would go something
like this: Who can tell in what season the Lion (Llew), betrayed by
the Virgin (Blodeuwedd), poised on the Balance, is transformed into an
Eagle? My readers who are astrologers are probably already gasping in
recognition. The sequence is astrological and in proper order: Leo
(lion), Virgo (virgin), Libra (balance), and Scorpio (for which the
eagle is a well-known alternative symbol). Also, the remaining icons,
cauldron and goat, could arguably symbolize Cancer and Capricorn (rep-
resenting summer and winter), the signs beginning with the two solstice
points. So Llew is balanced between cauldron and goat, between summer
and winter, on the balance (Libra) point of the autumnal equinox, with
one foot on the summer solstice and one foot on the winter solstice.
This, of course, is the answer to a related Bardic riddle. Repeatedly,
the 'Mabinogion' tells us that Llew must be standing with one foot on
the cauldron and one foot on the goat's back in order to be killed.
But nowhere does it tell us why. Why is this particular situation the
ONLY one in which Llew can be overcome? Because it represents the equinox
point. And the autumnal equinox is the only time of the entire year
when light (Llew) can be overcome by darkness (Goronwy).
It should now come as no surprise that, when it is time for Llew
to kill Goronwy in his turn, Llew insists that Goronwy stands where he
once stood while he (Llew) casts the spear. This is no mere vindictiveness
on Llew's part. For, although the 'Mabinogion' does not say so, it
should by now be obvious that this is the only time when Goronwy can be
overcome. Light can overcome darkness only at the equinox -- this time
the vernal equinox. (Curiously, even the Christian tradition retains
this association, albeit in a distorted form, by celebrating Jesus'
death near the time of the vernal equinox.)
The Welsh myth concludes with Gwydion pursuing the faithless Blod-
euwedd through the night sky, and a path of white flowers springs up in
the wake of her passing, which we today know as the Milky Way. When
Gwydion catches her, he transforms her into an owl, a fitting symbol of
autumn, just as her earlier association with flowers (she was made from
them) equates her with spring. Thus, while Llew and Goronwy represent
summer and winter, Blodeuwedd herself represents both spring and fall,
as patron goddess of flowers and owls, respectively.
Although it is far more speculative than the preceding material,
a final consideration would pursue this mirror-like life pattern of
Llew and Goronwy to its ultimate conclusion. Although Llew is struck
with the sunlight spear at the autumnal equinox, and so 'dies' as a
human, it takes a while before Gwydion discovers him in his eagle form.
How long? We may speculate 13 weeks, when the sun reaches the midpoint
of the sign (or form) of the eagle, Scorpio -- on Halloween. And if this
is true, it may be that Llew, the sun god, finally 'dies' to the upper
world on Halloween, and now passes through the gates of death, where he
is immediately crowned king of the underworld, the Lord of Misrule!
(In medieval tradition, the person proclaimed as 'Lord of Misrule' reigned
from Halloween to Old Christmas -- or, before the calender changes,
until the winter solstice.)
Meanwhile, Goronwy (with Blodeuwedd at his side) is crowned king
in the upper world, and occupies Llew's old throne, beginning on Halloween.
Thus, by winter solstice, Goronwy has reached his position of greatest
strength in OUR world, at the same moment that Llew, now sitting on
Goronwy's old throne, reaches his position of greatest strength in the
underworld. However, at the moment of the winter solstice, Llew is
born again, as a babe, (and as his own son!) into our world. And as
Llew later reaches manhood and dispatches Goronwy at the vernal equinox,
Goronwy will then ascend the underworld throne at Beltane, but will be
reborn into our world at midsummer, as a babe, later to defeat Llew all
over again. And so the cycle closes at last, resembling nothing so
much as an intricately woven, never-ending bit of Celtic knotwork.
So Midsummer (to me, at least) is a celebration of the sun god at his
zenith, a crowned king on his throne. He is at the height of his power
and still 1/4 of a year away from his ritual death at the hands of his
rival. However, at the very moment of his greatest strength, his dark
twin, the seed of his destruction, is born -- just as the days begin to
shorten. The spear and the cauldron have often been used as symbols
for this holiday and it should now be easy to see why. Sun gods are
virtually always associated with spears (even Jesus is pierced by one),
and the midsummer cauldron of Cancer is a symbol of the Goddess in her
fullness. If we have learned anything from this story from the fourth
branch of the 'Mabinogion', it is about the power of myth -- how it may
still instruct and guide us, many centuries after it has passed from
oral to written tradition. And in studying it, we have barely scratched