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Another Pagan History -- What's Really Old, and What Likely Ain't PART 5

Author: A.C. Fisher Aldag
Posted: December 17th. 2006
Times Viewed: 5,261

PART 5: In our last installment, "Pagan Holidays or Wiccan Sabbats", we explored some of the likely origins of the modern Pagan holiday celebrations. We took a look at some of the older names, calendar changes, and possible meanings behind the festivals. We also discussed two of the holidays, Imbolc and Oestara. For these holidays I'm using the most popular versions of their names, and outlining some of the historic practices as well as the current Wiccan and neo-Pagan rituals.

In this essay, I will discuss the practices and customs of Bealtaine, Leitha, and Lughnassadh. Some of the sources for these holidays may be ancient; some may be more recent. Some came to the British Islands with the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, or were even taken from Christianity. Others were the folkloric traditions of hereditary Pagans. Aidan Kelly, Gerald Gardner, Doreen Valiente and others may have invented some of the rituals. But what's really old, and what likely ain't? We can't always tell.

More Pagan Holidays or Wiccan Sabbats

Bealtaine: There are varying spellings and pronunciations, including "Bell-tawn-yah". Bel, Bile, Belatucadros, Belenus or Belanos is the British or Gaulish sun god, called Beli Mawr in Welsh. "Bel" is an older Irish and Welsh word for fire or brightness. "Tain" is a word for fire in Welsh, or raid in Irish. Belisama is a British or Gaulish fire goddess. The Basque god Bel also had his holy day on May 1st. Calan Mai is Welsh for the first day of May, or calend of May. It was called Walpurgistag in Germany after the saint Walpurgia, or possibly an older Pagan deity.

Catholics celebrated this holiday as Roodmas. This name comes from the Holy Rood, or the thorn tree that was the legendary wood used for the crucifixion (or perhaps the crown of thorns). One ceremony includes 'bauming the thorn', adorning a hawthorn tree with ribbons and trinkets. This may have been an older custom that was Christianized, as hawthorns were sacred in many Pagan traditions, providing visionary capabilities, homes for fairies, and protection against baneful magic. This parallels the custom of the clootie tree, although these decorated trees are not always hawthorns. Much lore about the hawthorn tree survive, including the belief that bringing the flowers indoors on Mayday is good luck, but previous to that date the flowers are unlucky. Similar tales are also told of rowan trees that may be found at the middle of fairy rings.

Bealtaine was / is celebrated in Britain, Wales, the Isle of Man and Cornwall continually up to present times, documented well before Mr. Gardner wrote about Wicca. The holiday was definitely observed as a fire festival. In a book first published in 1894, _Irish Druids and Old Irish Religion_, a folklore scholar named James Bonwick compared the elder Mayday customs to ceremonies performed in his time. He interviewed local historians, including a Mrs. Bryant, listed as an 'expert on Irish Celts', who said, "There is more trace of sun and fire worship in the peasantry lingering among us today, than in the Bardic literature of the remote Irish past."

Several other Bealtaine customs are related to fire, including the well-known bonfire jumping by a couple to ensure their fertility. Fires were kindled on hilltops, and often were the focus of all-night May festivities. In some localities, hearth fires were extinguished, later to be rekindled by a coal from the community 'balefire.' This word is derived from the Anglo-Saxon languages, and may have the connotation of holding 'baleful' or bad influences at bay. The word bonfire may have come from 'bone fire', or fires that were composed of animal bones. It may also have arisen from the French 'bon', or good. In Scotland, an elaborate ritual was enacted to kindle the fire, as documented by Robert Burn's patron, Lord John Ramsay. Across the UK, cattle were driven between two fires for their spiritual protection. And couples would sometimes lay by the fires to engage in more pleasurable activities.

Some Bealtaine traditions may have come from the Roman Floralia, or Flora’s day, when revelers adorned their homes with flowers in honor of the spring goddess Flora. The ‘Furry Dance’ or Flora’s Dance of Cornwell is listed on several town websites as an older Pagan custom. Participants garland buildings with greenery and flowers, and dance through the villages in a daylong celebration, singing folk songs. ‘Bringing in the May’, or wearing flowers and leafy branches, is practiced at dawn accompanied by music and dancing throughout Europe. Churchmen were forbidden to participate in this rite as far back as the 1200s. In some costal locations a wreath of flowers and leaves was made to adorn boats, or thrown into water to appease the sea. Some of the materials used included hawthorn flowers, commonly called ‘the May’, birch branches, apple blossoms or greenery from the rowan tree.

Young men wearing elaborate leafy costumes called ‘Jack in the Green’ parade through the streets of Great Britain on Mayday, accompanied by young ladies with flowery crowns or chaplets. While Jack in the Green can only be traced to the mid-1700s, practiced by chimney sweeps in urban areas, the custom might have been brought to the cities by rural youths longing for greenery. A similar ritual was enacted in several English locations, including the construction of a female foliage statue. These traditions may have been originally performed in honor of various forest deities and fertility goddesses. They could be related to the ‘Woodwose’, or wild man of the woods, a legendary figure sometimes portrayed as half-man, half-plant.

The custom of the May basket may be an older one, related to courtship. Often they were hung over the doorknob for the lady of the house to find. In more recent days, baskets of flowers, or bouquets called nosegays or posies were given to mothers, teachers and sweethearts. In Victorian times, the flowers came to have symbolic meaning, such as violets for remembrance. May baskets were also placed on top of the Maypole.

As previously mentioned, the May pole might have come from the Saxon incursions, or it may have been an expansion of the clootie tree rites or bauming the thorn. The Saxon tradition of using only red and white ribbons may have come from healing bandages, similar to the barber pole. An elaborate stained glass window in Betley Hall, probably dated from the early 1500s, shows one such maypole. Some earlier English records indicate that maypoles weren’t originally decorated with ribbons, but with paint or garlands of greenery and flowers. Later societies used various colors of ribbon. There are town maypoles in Germany which are over 1, 600 years old, still in use today. A similar ritual was reportedly practiced in ancient Greece. A group of men carrying something that looks remarkably like a maypole is depicted on the Gundestrup cauldron. The Basque people may have originated the custom, and still hold maypole dances for tourists and their own enjoyment in France, Spain, and Boise, Idaho. May branches decorated with flowers and streamers are an old Welsh tradition, possibly related to these spring totems. One custom includes adorning the May branch with hollow colored eggs.

‘Rushbearing’, or bringing in rushes to cover cold stone floors, was a Mayday practice that was later Christianized. The rush leaves were also used as materials for baskets and Brighid’s crosses, or bound and used as torches for Samhain and Yule. Decorated ‘rushcarts’ overflowing with rush leaves, accompanied by dancers and street actors, could be found in small towns across the UK until the late 1870s. Some carts were formed into images, rather like a parade float. The celebration has been revived as a community festival for tourist enjoyment.

Morris dancing and mummersˇ¦ plays, or folkplays performed by street actors, may be more recent Bealtaine traditions, possibly based on elder rites. These folk customs involve a dance or dramatization presented outdoors or taken from house to house by amateur performers. The first known written reference to mumming is from 1377. The stained glass window in Betley Hall portrays mummery characters and Morris dancers, as well as a king and queen of the May. The earliest known record of the Morris dance dates from 1448, but Geoffrey of Monmouth made an observation about a similar dance being held at Stonehenge. Dancers wear bells on their legs, matching outfits, and sometimes wave handkerchiefs, sticks or swords. Many Morris ‘sides’ or dance teams include a fool, a Molly or man dressed in women’s clothes, and a person wearing an animal costume. The famous Hobby Horses or ‘Obby Oss’ of Padstow and Minehead in Cornwall and the ‘Ooser’ of Dorset, England are favorite Mayday spectacles that often accompany mummers or dancers. Both of these customs are likely related to the rite of hoodening or guising, wearing masks and disguises for ritual purposes.

Hoodening, wearing animal skins with horns or antlers, was practiced in many British villages from ancient times until the present day. This custom may have arisen from primitive hunting rituals or shamanic rites. Sometimes a ‘hooden horse’ is used in a comic play with rural characters trying to shoe or ride an obstinate steed. Hoodening and similar folk dances are all performed several times a year in various locations throughout Western Europe, especially at Bealtaine. In the early nineteenth century, folklorists and the participants themselves called them ‘ritual dances’. Several of the dance troupes carried a maypole, a small branch decorated with ribbons and tipped with garlic.

Some scholars believe that these folk dances are not really Pagan in origin, because the Morris was documented as a fad amongst the British nobility during the late middle ages. These historians speculate that the Morris craze spread from the upper classes to the ‘common’ people. I believe these scholars may have it backwards. Like modern rap music, the Morris could have originated with working-class individuals, and then spread to the leisure class. While the nobility got bored with the Morris fad, the chimney sweeps and milkmaids continued their tradition. As one Morris website points out, “Nobody asked the (chimney) sweeps”.

In 1899, a folklorist and musician named Cecil Sharpe witnessed rural British men dancing the Morris on Whitsun Day (‘white Sunday’), a Christian holiday celebrating the Pentecost which takes place fifty days or seven Sundays after Easter, usually in mid-May to early June. (Other sources indicate that Sharpe first viewed the dance on Boxing Day, Dec. 26th.) Sharpe began documenting various Morris tunes, dances and customs, theorizing that these ‘ritual dances’ had origins in an older Pagan tradition. As a result, the dance began a revival. Sharpe was accused of both gentrifying and Paganizing the tradition. Several Morris dances and folk plays reflect Pagan themes, including nature and hunting symbolism.

Leitha: The name is possibly the invention of Aidan Kelly, or perhaps it is derived from an Old English (Anglo Saxon) word for leaves. The Venerable Bede called both June and July ‘Litha Monath’. The word may also have roots in the Scottish village of Leith. In the nineteenth century, Leatha was a popular name for women. Alban Hefyn means ‘time of warming’ or ‘light of summer’ in old Welsh, but using this name for the holiday may be Iolo Morganwg’s contribution. It can also be spelled Alban Hefin. On the modern Welsh calendar it is listed as Gwyl Canol Haf, or first day of summer. The Irish name ‘Samraidh’ can be translated as ‘summertime’. Christians celebrate St. John’s day anywhere from June 23rd to June 25th. Midsummer, as the name implies, was the midpoint of summer to some of the Celtic nations, whose summer season began at Bealtaine. It was the observation of the date between sowing seeds and harvesting the crop. Other civilizations recognized June 21st as the beginning of summer, when the earth begins to tilt toward the sun. The Solstice has the longest day and shortest night, which was likely significant to ancient people.

There is considerable evidence that shows that older civilizations celebrated Midsummer as a holy day. Several stone-age monuments, including the famous Stonehenge, and the ruins of buildings have architectural features corresponding to the solstice sunrise or moonrise. The Scottish dolmens at Callanish on the Isle of Lewis also feature summer solstice markers, and one legend says that ‘the shining one’ visited this monument at Leitha. (Could the island be named for the god Lugh / Llew / Lugos?) The Sequani Calendar links Midsummer Day to several astronomic events.

Midsummer traditions included bonfires, games, music, agricultural fairs, and divination using a glass ornament or crystal called a ‘glaine’ or witch’s ball. Several fragments of these glass balls, also called ‘Druid’s glass’, have been discovered buried within sacred sites. Many different fire customs, including rolling a burning wagon wheel or carrying buckets of lit tar, were documented since the medieval period. Some of these are attributed to burning St. Catherine’s torture device, or burning a scarecrow symbolizing Guy Fawkes, yet other rites seem authentically pre-Christian. Processions using lit torches were documented from Roman days. The burning of a Wicker Man on the solstice holiday was recorded both by Claudius Caesar and the Normans, and the custom survived until the mid-1880s, as observed by Mr. Bonwick. Wicker men were burned in Russia and the Germanic territories as well. Straw effigies were also set on fire in other locations. Harvest customs such as wearing straw costumes or leafy branches were practiced at Midsummer and survived in the British Islands until the 1930s. These traditions may point to a time when criminals were used as a human sacrifice. Later, scarecrows and straw men were burned instead.

Another favorite custom involves the gathering of oak, ash and thorn sprigs at Midsummer, immortalized in Rudyard Kipling’s _Tree Poem_. Oak represents strength, hawthorn was a protection against baneful magic, fairies and more mundane thieves, and ash was commonly used for arrow shafts, as well as a charm against fire. This is because in a forest fire, ash wood often does not burn. The three twigs are tied together with red ribbon and used as a talisman to protect the home, barn or workplace.

Many Midsummer customs involve fairies and other spirit beings, either the desire to see them or protection against their pranks. Sleeping beneath an elderberry bush on Midsummer night was guaranteed to make fairies appear, but the seeker was advised to wear her clothing inside out and carry a sprig of rue to prevent bewitchment. Milk and strawberries were left outdoors, often on the back step, to appease the fairies. Elves were said to create tangled ‘elf locks’ in the manes of horses or lovers caught sleeping outdoors on the shortest night. And of course Shakespeare’s _Midsummer Night’s Dream_ contained legends of the fairy folk, including the playful Puck. In many localities, belief in fairies, elves and sprites long outlasted the advent of Christianity.

Leitha was a favorite time for pilgrimages to sacred wellsprings, where the font would be decorated with flowers, green branches, straw decorations and trinkets. These holy wells, often dedicated to goddesses, fairies or water nymphs, were believed to have purifying or healing properties. Sometimes the legend was altered to include a Catholic saint as the founder of the well. However, Pagan rituals associated with wellsprings were practiced right up to the present day. Approaching the well before dawn, circumnavigating the water three times, leaving an offering of silver, bathing in the spring for healing or purification, praying to the spirit of the well, and other overtly Pagan rituals were common at Midsummer as well as on the designated saint’s day. Some of these rites were documented as banned by the Church, although that didn’t seem to have much effect on their practice. Many photographs of these sacred wells appear online.

Another popular tradition is ‘dressing the well’, which occurs in the Peak district of England in small villages each summer. Well-dressing involves pressing flowers, leaves and other natural materials into a clay-lined frame to create a design or picture. The image is paraded through town and displayed at the site of a sacred well (or lacking that, the public water pipe or horse trough). Originally believed to be a Celtic custom, well-dressing was noted by the Roman Seneca. The first modern reference to dressing the well is from Tissington in Derbyshire, documented in 1349. Local ministers have since Christianized the practice, with Biblical-themed pictures and blessings. This tradition is enjoyed from Ascension Day, forty days after Easter, until early autumn. Many of the wells are adorned around Bealtaine, Leitha and the summer bank holiday. Images can take days to create, but are rather ephemeral, lasting a mere week on the average. Most tourist websites about dressing the well cheerfully acknowledge the custom’s Pagan origin, possibly related to water worship or association with the goddesses of the sacred wells.

Lughnassadh: This was / is a two-week to month-long harvest festival in Ireland, celebrated with county fairs, dances, abundance rituals, sheep shearing contests, greased pig chases, kissing games, and other fun activities. The name may have come from the feast day of Lugh, a god associated with the sun, gaming, sports and skilled labor. His name is also given as Lug, Lugos, Llew, Lleu and Louis. The name Lunassa was used on the Isle of Man until recent times. Several small towns in England, Scotland and Cornwall still hold harvest ceremonies on or around August 1st. It was and is only a minor observation in Wales.

The holiday was not called Lammas, or Loaf-mass, until after the Anglo-Saxon invasions. This term may have come from the Middle English ‘hlaef masse’, which means loaf mass or bread ritual. The custom of baking trinkets into a loaf of bread, as mentioned previously, occurred after the invention of iron ovens. Each trinket represents a prediction, such as a coin for wealth or a ring symbolizing marriage. Another possible origin of the word Lammas may come from the old Spanish or old French word for lambs. In several locations, a roast lamb or whole side of mutton was roasted over a fire on the closing day of the Lammas festival. The word may also come from the name of a special harvest drink, La Mas Ushal.

Mr. Bonwick wrote that the Lughnassad customs survived until the mid-1800s in Ireland as ‘Lucaid lamh fada’, which he translates as ‘festival of love’. This may have a relationship to the trial relationships or ‘greenwood’ marriages that took place during the holiday. The term ‘Telltown marriage’, or a marriage lasting for a specified period of time, may have come from the name Tailltiu, who was Lugh’s mother.

In older times in Ireland, the entire month of August was traditionally the season for trade, convening court, and settling debt. Picking bilberries was a traditional Lughnassadh pastime, documented in the theatrical production Dancing at Lughnasa. Throughout Europe, Lughnassadh was the day to begin brewing beer from grain and hops. Harvest Home, the Ingathering and Muckle Suppers were celebrated from August to mid-September by Christians as a commemoration of the harvest (which we'll discuss in the next installment of "Another History of Modern Paganism").

In the next essay, we'll take a look at Mabon, Samhain and Yule, and try to discover "What's Really Old, and What Likely Ain't".

Most of the information used to write these articles was found online, or in the sources cited. More information is becoming available each year with the discovery of 'new' artifacts and archeological sites and translations of ancient literature. Fortunately, we now have the Internet, with the folklore, photos, and the speculations of historians readily available. Google it yourself! Some of it even came from news articles found in 'The Wren's Nest' here on 'The Witches'Voice'. Other stuff was found on tourist websites for the various locations and holiday celebrations mentioned in the essay. Decide for yourself. Draw your own conclusions. You don't need any 'experts' telling you what to think.

Copyright: Copyleft 2006 by A.C. Aldag. You can use the information found in the article on your own site or blog, but please give credit to the sources cited, including me. Thanks!


A.C. Fisher Aldag

Location: Bangor, Michigan


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

Bio: Some of the ceremonies mentioned in this article were performed by A.C. and her family long before they became popular with modern Wiccans. Caer na Donia y Llew, a legal Pagan church in southwestern Michigan, is one organization working to preserve and revive the artform of ritual theatre. We sincerely hope that modern Wiccans and other neo-Pagans enjoy the revival of hereditary Pagan practice!

Other Articles: A.C. Fisher Aldag has posted 16 additional articles- View them?

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