The Sabbats of Witchcraft


by Mike Nichols
copyright by MicroMuse Press

Halloween
Yule (Christmas)
Candlemas (Valentine's day)
Lady Day (Easter)
May Day
Midsummer
Lammas
Harvest Home
Death of Llew: A Seasonal Interpretation










LADY DAY: The Vernal Equinox (Easter)


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. Therefore, 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 instead.)

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 tradition. 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 March 20th.




MAY DAY


'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 nymph.

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 woods.

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 breaks.
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 unarmed.

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 astrological 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 consideration 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 MIDSUMMER'S CELEBRATION


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 a bride.

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 Christians.

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 celebration 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 explanations 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 suppose.

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 'Mabinogion'.) 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, Midsummer'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 Danaan.

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 kilt?')

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!




LAMMAS: The First Harvest


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 gospel-writers.

'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 harvest.

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 Games'.


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 celebration.


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.]




HARVEST HOME


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 21st).

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 played along.


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 majestic!


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.




THE DEATH OF LLEW - A Seasonal Interpretation


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 mid-summer.

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 (representing 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 Blodeuwedd 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 the surface.


Site Map - Pagan Traditions


Book Reviews
More Reviews
Some More
Other
Connections
anthropology
astronomy
biography
ecology/nature
evolution
history
history of science
mind
mythology
parenting/kids
philosophy
physics
popular science
religion
science fiction
Home
other
discussion list
quotations
what's new
email
backlinks
link here
mirror
search