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Another Pagan History -- What's Really Old, and What Likely Ain't PART 4

Author: A.C. Fisher Aldag
Posted: December 10th. 2006
Times Viewed: 6,145

In the last installments of "Another Pagan History", we explored the idea that Gerald Gardner may actually have had contact with hereditary practitioners of genuine British Traditional Witchcraft. Gardner and his contemporaries might have studied folkloric magical-religions, and used their customs, ritual implements and beliefs in his development of Wicca. We also discovered many of the other sources for modern neo-Pagan ceremonies, ritual tools and liturgy.

This essay will begin to explore the history of the Pagan holidays and / or Wiccan Sabbats. While some of the celebrations we enjoy today were recently invented, others were genuinely old, practiced for centuries in the British Islands. Other holiday traditions were brought to England, and thus to Wicca, from other civilizations. Some died out and were revived. Others survived into the present day, with little or no change. Gardner and others brought many of these customs into the modern practice of Wicca.

The Pagan Holidays or the Wiccan Sabbats:

Anthropologists and folklorists have various theories about the eight “Wheel of the Year” Sabbats, or holy days related to the seasons and positions of the sun. Many sources show that all of these holidays were observed by the ancient Britons. Others believe that prehistoric societies celebrated just the Solstices and Equinoxes. Some maintain that the Druids only held rites on the “cross-quarters”: Imbolc, Bealtain, Lughnassadh and Samhain. These “quarter days” were used in the British Isles to divide the year for the purpose of paying rents, taxes and wages. Dr. Margaret Murray found evidence to support the idea that the Saxons brought the equinox holiday customs to Britain, but other archeologists argue that the seasonal holidays were celebrated long before the Celts began trade with the Germanic tribes.

There are debates about whether the Celtic holidays began at sunset, moonrise or the first full or new moon before or after the day, and whether they were solar events, seasonal celebrations, fire festivals, agrarian (farming) holidays, animal herding schedules, secular observations, or all of the above. Some scholars suggest that the eight holidays were created by Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams) and Rev. Edward Celtic Davies during the “romantic Druid revival” of the late 1700s. Others think that Gardner and his contemporaries wholly invented the Sabbat rituals. It’s interesting to note that the ceremonies in the original Gardnerian Book of Shadows have plain English names, such as August Eve or Spring Equinox. Of course, the word “Sabbat” itself came from the “Sabbath” of the Judaic tradition or perhaps from the French word for “celebration”. Both of these sources have roots in the Greek word “sabatu”, or the Latin “sabbatum”, which roughly translates as “to rest”.

I personally believe that all eight seasonal holidays were celebrated in the British Isles from at least the Neolithic era until the present day. Evidence includes the placement of dolmens, tomb doorways and the architectural design of various sacred sites to align with sunrise, sunset or moonrise and moonset on these specific days. The Sequani Calendar, a bronze tablet discovered near Coligny France in 1897, depicts solar and lunar events during the Solstices and Equinoxes, as well as the cross-quarter days. Many of these events correspond with the constellations, linking sacred astronomy, archeology and geometry. Most of the holidays coincide with astrologic occurrences, such as the Sun entering Libra on the fall equinox. Artifacts relating to the Sabbats have been found within sacred sites and in the excavations of ordinary homes and businesses.

And no matter what some scholars write, there are plenty of modern celebrations that correspond to the wheel of the year. To me, it’s just too coincidental that so many Christian holidays occur close to the events related to Pagan sabbats. Not to mention that so many customs and ceremonies associated with the holidays have nothing whatsoever to do with Christian belief or practice. Many holiday traditions endured in the rural working-class of Britain and America until the early twentieth century, documented by historians and family archives. Some customs are no longer practiced, but several of them survived to the present day.

Modern Pagan / Wiccan names for the holidays:

Feb. 2 – Candlemas, Lady Day, Brigit’s Day, Imbolc
March 21 – Oestara, Ostara, Eostare, Eostre, Spring Equinox
May 1 – May Day, Beltain, Beltane
June 21 – Summer Solstice, Leitha, Litha, Midsummer Day
August 1 – Lughnasa, Lughnassadh, Lammas
Sept. 21 – Mabon, Madron, Fall Equinox, Autumnal Equinox
Oct. 31 – Hallows, Hallowmas, Hallowe’en, Samhain, Celtic New Year
Dec. 21 – Winter Solstice, Yule, Midwinter Day

Welsh Names:

Feb. 1 – Calan Fair, Nos Gwyl Fair (was not widely celebrated in Wales)
Spring Equinox – Alban Eilir, Gwyl Canol Gwenwynol
May 1 – Bealtaine, Calan Mai, Nos Galan Mai
Summer Solstice – Alban Hefyn, Alban Hefin, Alban Heurin, Gwyl Canol Haf
August 1 – Calan Awst, Nos Gwyl Awst, Gwi Awst, Ffhaile Llew, first harvest (was not widely celebrated in Wales)
Fall Equinox – Alban Elfed, Gwyl Canol Hydref, second harvest
Oct. 31 – Calan Gaeaf, Nos Galan Gaeaf, various other spellings, final harvest, New Year, Merry Night
Winter Solstice – Alban Arthan, Gwyl Canol Gaeof

In addition to these, there are a lot of other Welsh holidays – Pagan, Christian and national, including St. David’s day on March 1, Rhiannon’s day on Dec. 18, Merry Night whenever you’re finished harvesting, and many more.

Irish Names:

Feb. 7 – Oimelc, Imbolg, La Fheile Brighde
Circa March 21 –Mean Earraigh (not widely celebrated in Ireland)
May 6 or 7 – Beltaine, Beltene, Beltine, Cetsamhain, Sam (beginning of summer)
Circa June 21 to 24 – Mean Samraidh
August 6 or 7 – Lughnasa, Lunasa, Lughnassadh
Circa Sept. 21 to 23 – Mean Foghamar (not widely celebrated in Ireland)
Oct. 31 to Nov. 7 –Samhain, Samhaine, La Samhne, Gam (beginning of winter)
Circa Dec. 21 – Mean Geimhridh

In Ireland the year is divided into “Raitheanna”, quarters and cross quarters, headed by “Raithe”, the beginning day of the quarter. The “true quarters” are Samhain, Imbolg, Beltain, and Lughnassadh. The others are called “crooked quarters” and refer to either the seasonal solstices and equinoxes or Christian holidays such as St. John’s Day on June 24th. Some believe that these sacred days were celebrated on the new or full moon following the solstice, equinox or true-quarter day.

The dates listed above may have shifted to the present holiday dates after the adoption of the Gregorian calendar. This measurement was designed to show the actual length of time it takes for the Earth to orbit the Sun. In 1582, Pope Gregory decreed that calendars should drop 15 days to rectify solar time with the actual date. The Protestant Germanic countries didn’t change their calendars until 1700. By this time, the calendar date trailed the seasons by 11 days. Britain finally changed from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian system in 1752.

There are many other English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh holidays with Pagan overtones, including Twelfth Night, Plough Monday, Witsunday, Martinmas, Rag Day, Up Hella Aa, Hogmany, the Muckle Supper and so forth. For expedience I’ve listed some of them under the modern neo-Pagan name for the holiday (see below) .

Rituals: What the ancients (probably) did:

*Honored the fertilization, pregnancy and birth of people and animals
*Lighted fires on hilltops and within holy sites, burned sacred wood
*Divination using natural methods such as the flight of birds
*Worshipped at sacred wells and springs
*Shamanic trancework, ecstatic rituals
*Hoodening – dressing in animal skins for the purpose of hunting or animal fertility
*Burned a Wicker Man or other effigies
*Used natural events to schedule actions related to nomadic herding – moving to new graze land, slaughter of herd animals
*Brought greenery indoors in winter, decorated with greenery and flowers in springtime
*Herbalism for healing, protection and magic
*After agriculture was invented, celebrated the planting, harvest, and threshing of grain
*Created talismans for homes, barns, workplaces and travel
*Performed rites to promote craftsmanship, hunting, fishing, and domestic harmony
*Plow ceremonies on Imbolc, planting rituals between Spring Equinox and Bealtaine
*Harvest ceremonies between the first of August and the last day of October
*Ritual cleaning of the home
*Held dances and agricultural fairs with games, feats of skill and sporting events
*Told and acted out stories in a ritualistic manner
*Placed holy objects onto sacred trees or bushes, decorated trees with ribbons or trinkets
*Held gatherings at sacred sites, including Newgrange and Stonehenge

What the ancient Celts did NOT do:

*Build the standing stone monuments… most were erected by earlier inhabitants
*Lighted candles on Imbolc – this tradition likely dates to Medieval times
*Colored Easter eggs – This custom came from the Slavic and Baltic territories, by way of the Saxons, probably during the early Middle Ages; however, there is some evidence that the Celts dyed eggs red with ochre or madder to represent birth.
*Lammas Loaf – The ancients probably never baked anything with trinkets in it, such as figgy pudding with a sixpence, or a loaf of bread with prizes. These customs likely developed in more modern times, with the invention of the brick or iron oven. This may date the practice as a “mere” two thousand years old. Some traditions had objects associated with divination hidden in mashed potatoes or turnips.
*Called the Fall Equinox holiday “Mabon” – this name was likely invented by Valiente or perhaps Aidan Kelly
*Trick-or-Treat – Not as we know it today. Mummers’ plays, wassail processions, hoodening parades and other house-to-house customs may have contributed to the modern tradition.
*Carved pumpkins – Instead they carved turnips, placed lights in small clay or chalk vessels, or used burning rushes or torches in processions.
*Put a Yule tree in the house – Ancient people often decorated trees outside using ribbons, rags, food offerings, trinkets, coins, and sacrificial animals (sorry – the Romans wrote about this often enough for it to be true.) Many ornamented trees or bushes are found near sacred wells in the British Islands up to the present day. Tying a rag or ribbon to their branches is believed to have magical or healing effects. The custom was not specific to any one holiday. The decorated Yule tree was a later tradition brought from Scandinavia and Germany.

Which leads us to – The meaning behind the Pagan holidays:

Much of the information Mr. Gardner found about the “Wheel of the Year” holidays came from Sir James G. Frazer’s book of comparative folklore, _The Golden Bough_, first published in 1890 and revised in 1922. Some scholars like to say that Frazer was “discredited”, but this is not true. Frazer was a Fellow at Cambridge University, where he translated classic literature, including Homer. He wrote over twenty other books, several of which are still in print and used to teach mythology in college courses today. Frazer’s theory about every religious system containing a “sacrificial king” hasn’t held up to scrutiny, but many of his other ideas have been supported by historians.

For _The Golden Bough_, Frazer did ethnographic studies of European Pagan customs by sending letters to missionaries who had witnessed the ceremonies firsthand. (So yes, they said things like “The Celts worshipped the trees” because in the context of the late 19th century, that is what they thought they were observing.) Frazer then paralleled the European traditions with Christian legends, as well as Greek and Roman literature, in which he is still considered to be an expert. He wrote extensively about his findings, noting similarities and differences and making speculations about the origins of worship. Other writers, sociologists and folklorists have made similar observations about these Pagan holiday customs.

A popular historian recently accused some of the anthropologists of manipulating data on the seasonal ceremonies. Supposedly, they asked participants to include certain elements such as “fire worship” in their rituals. However this does not take into account the similarities found in ceremonies held across Europe during nearly 150 years of study. Many of these traditions were also documented by local folklore societies or family historians, who interviewed older residents with the intent of preserving individual town histories. Some of the rites vary in minor ways, such as the wording of song lyrics. Many of the traditions that Frazer wrote about were photographed, often by family members with no scholarly agenda, and these pictures now appear online. Several of the customs are still practiced in isolated European communities, or are being revived in the present day. Here are a few:

Imbolc, Imbolg, Oimelc – Translations: In Belly, In the Bag, Sheep’s Milk. This was one of the four holidays believed to be celebrated by the ancient Irish. The day was originally intended to commemorate the birth of lambs, an economically important event in past times. Several rituals were performed to enhance the fertility of the flocks, such as wreathing them with ribbons and blessing them, or putting up talismans in barns. Other sheep-related rites including drinking ewe milk and eating the last stored mutton. Cheese made from sheep milk was sometimes served for breakfast.

Imbolc was the day to begin plowing the fields, as the climate was warmer during the Bronze and Iron ages. Pliny the Elder noted in the first century C.E. that the Celts had better plows than the Romans, and that they began plowing “early”. These tools were also used to cut turf for fuel. Plowing games and races were enjoyed, with attendant feasting. Some customs, such as Plough Monday, now celebrated in Britain near Twelfth Night or the Christian Epiphany, may have originally been related to Imbolc. A plow is decorated and carried from house to house by plow boys, plow jacks or plow stotts, young men dressed in rags with blackened faces who sing rowdy songs and beg for treats. Sometimes they were even called “plow witches”. Homeowners that refused to give them an offering would risk having their front yard plowed up. The Ploughboys are sometimes accompanied by a Molly or Malkin, a man dressed as a woman who performed a lively rustic dance. This custom was first written about in the sixth century, when some plow jacks got into trouble for plowing up the kirkyard in Scotland.

The custom of dressing a Straw Man or Straw Bear and parading him through the streets is also part of this holiday in Scotland, Ireland and Northern England. This may have come from the Germanic countries, because the Saxons had outposts in these locations. A similar straw figure is used in Norway and Germany in recent times. This figure may originally have been related to the fertility of the fields, or he may have served as a symbolic scarecrow. Imbolc was also the day that greenery left over from Christmas or Yule was removed from the home. It was often ritually burned. In some locations, it wasn’t removed until spring. Both the straw bear and the greenery may have protective or talismanic qualities, removing “evil” from the locality.

Brighid’s Day or Bridget’s Day was adapted by the Catholic Church as a saint’s day on February 1st or 2nd, very probably derived from ancient Irish worship of the goddess Brighid. It was celebrated on the Continent as well as in the British Islands. In Britain, it was observed as the Wives’ Feast. This holiday was never that important to the Welsh or Scots. Irish women create equal-armed Brighid’s crosses, which may have been an older custom which was Christianized during the Middle Ages. These crosses were made from rushes or straw saved from the last sheaf of grain harvested in the fall, and were used to bless and protect the home or cattle barn. Like the Celtic cross, they may represent the sun or the compass points. Women would also create “Bridey” dolls of straw and cloth. These were taken to sacred wells to be anointed and blessed. Villagers would decorate these holy wellsprings on Brighid’s Day, including the font at Kildare in Ireland dedicated to St. Bridget. There are hundreds of symbols, sacred sites and legends of Brighid, both as goddess and Catholic saint. Many can be found online.

Oestara – The use of the name may be old, or may be the invention of Doreen Valiente, who sought balance with the divine feminine. The word Easter may have come from a little-mentioned Teutonic goddess Eostare or Oestara, or possibly Esther, Astarte or Ishtar. It might derive from the Norse “aestur” which means to “grow warm”. After the rise of Christianity, the Venerable Bede wrote about “Eostur Monath” or “Eastre”, which took place in April on the European continent. It’s notable that he used this name rather than calling it “Paschal month” for Passover or the passion of Christ. Alban Eilir can be translated as Time of Spring or Light of Earth in old Welsh. . The equinoxes mark a time of equal daylight and darkness, and the dates when the sun crosses the celestial equator.

Dr. Margaret Murray wrote that the equinoxes were never celebrated in Britain until the Saxon invasions – but that would make the holiday “only” 1, 600 years old. There is archeological evidence that spring equinox customs may have been celebrated in ancient times in Great Britain, then died out during the Iron Age, and later revived during the Roman occupation. The Sequani Calendar marks the equinoxes as astronomic events, as do various sacred sites of the British Islands

The Romans used either the first of March or the spring equinox to mark the first day of the new year. With the changeover from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian in Europe, the day of the new year moved from sometime between March 25th (Lady Day) and April 1st, to the first day of January. This change may be the precedent for April Fool’s Day. People who still celebrated the new year around the equinox were called “April fish”. Some of the current April Fool customs may be related to the first day of spring, or they might have come from the tomfoolery originally associated with Bealtaine.

Coloring eggs may have had a ritual significance as early as the Bronze Age on the European continent and in the Scandinavian, Baltic and Slavic countries. Fragments of dyed eggs have been found in excavations of Saxon homes, and creating elaborate multicolored eggs are a Scandinavian art. Pace Egging endures as a working-class tradition in rural England and Ireland and may be based on a Pagan rite, although the name likely derived from “paschal”. On Easter, eggers go from house to house, singing songs, performing short plays and begging for colored eggs or treats. One description of the eggers says that they originally wore animal skins, linking the custom to hoodening. The term “egging him on” came from the bad puns and insults which Pace Eggers yelled at those who refused to give them a treat. An older celebration included looking for bird’s eggs in nests, because birds will not usually lay their eggs until the weather is warm enough for their survival. This information would be vital to an agrarian society, and the need to plant crops after all danger of frost is past.

Folklore relating to hares and rabbits comes from both Celtic and Saxon traditions. The moon in March is called the “Hare Moon”, and the saying “mad as a March hare” refers to the crazy behavior of mating bunnies. Witches were said to transform themselves into hares, which may be the remnant of a shamanic belief in animal totems. (The word totem is used here to mean a spirit being, helper or guide in the form of an animal, or a special creature which the seeker has an affinity with.) Seeing a hare before sundown was said to bring good luck, but after sunset it may be an ill omen. And “hare pie” was a favorite dish amongst peasants and nobility alike.

Hot cross buns may have been baked as a Pagan tradition, before their use as an Easter treat. The cross may represent the directions, the quarters of the moon, or it may be a solar cross. In some locations they were hidden away in the attic as talismans.

The early Catholic Church held St. Patrick’s feast Day on March 17th and Lady Day on March 25th, both close to the spring equinox. The Christian holy day of Easter is held on the Sunday following the first full moon following the spring equinox, which has distinct Pagan overtones. The rites of spring were celebrated in Wales with sowing and planting activities, including plowman games. This may be patterned after the Roman rites of spring, which was also a time of feasting and games. Of course, the pre-Lenten Carnival or Mardi Gras activities have their roots in Pagan celebrations

Our next installment of "Another Pagan History", PART 5, will include the Sabbats from Bealtaine to Lughnassadh. PART 6 will include the holidays from Mabon to Yule. Ya'all come back!

If I wrote a bibliography for this essay series, it would probably be fifty pages long, so please go explore for yourself. All of the information contained in the text was either found online, in books attributed to the authors mentioned, in artwork or artifacts found in museums. Some of the information even came from news articles found in “The Wren’s Nest” here on “The Witches’ Voice”.

If you wish to explore a topic for yourself, I suggest using and typing in each subject, for instance, Gardner + “Book of Shadows”, “Gwen Thompson” + Rede, England + “harvest rituals”, pentagram + “witches foot”. Try using different wording, such as England + folklore, or Britain + folklore.

You’ll find some sources that insist that a custom is really old, especially on local history sites, in museums, and tourist excursion brochures. Others will be just as adamant that a custom is newer and without Pagan roots, such as the folkplay study. Many of the sites that I used to learn about the holidays / sabbats are from British and Irish tourist websites, which have really cool pictures of the customs.

Copyright: Copyleft 2006 by A.C. Aldag. Please feel free to reproduce this essay series, but please give credit where credit is due. Thanks!


A.C. Fisher Aldag

Location: Bangor, Michigan


Author's Profile: To learn more about A.C. Fisher Aldag - Click HERE

Bio: A.C. and her family practice a family folkloric tradition, which has been embellished by considerable book learnin'. Some of the practices outlined in these essays, we did before they became popular. A.C. is one of the founders of Caer na Donia y Llew, which is re-creating many of the older tradition for participants' and bystanders' enjoyment.

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