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Another Pagan History -- What's Really Old, and What Likely Ain't PART 6

Author: A.C. Fisher Aldag
Posted: December 24th. 2006
Times Viewed: 5,452

PART 6: The Pagan Holidays or Wiccan Sabbats

This continues the series of essays about the likely sources and inventions that contributed to neo-Pagan religions. In the last two articles, we discussed the probable origins of the Pagan holidays and Wiccan Sabbats from Imbolc to Lughnassadh. Some of these celebrations are authentically old, and were enjoyed by British hereditary Pagans. Other customs came from the Celts, the Anglo-Saxons, the Romans, and even from Christianity. Still other traditions were invented by modern Pagan authors such as Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente for the modern practice of Wicca.

Some of the original Pagan ceremonies or symbols were co-opted by other cultures and incorporated into their holidays, such as the Christian celebration of Christmas. Other customs became secularized, like the annual fall tradition of the county fair. Historians may have applied their own prejudices to their written accounts of our favorite ceremonies. Our ancestors didn't document their religious celebrations, they just enjoyed them, so we can't always tell "what is really old, and what likely ain't". Most of these essays have been, at best, an educated guess. The source material was taken from tourist websites, the authors cited within the body of the article, and from looking at artifacts in museums. I hope you've had as much fun reading about the holidays, ritual implements and Pagan beliefs as I have researching them!

In this installment, we'll explore the rituals, lore and symbolism of the holidays Mabon, Samhain and Yule.

Yet more about the Pagan Holidays or Wiccan Sabbats:

Mabon – Doreen Valiente probably named this holiday after the Welsh legend of Mabon, son of Madrone, which appears in the _Mabinogion_. The word might be the invention of Aidan Kelly. However, the name may come from the Goddess / heroine / fairy queen Mab. (More about her later, in a subsequent essay about the Goddess.) There is a St. Mabyn of Wales and Cornwell, about whom very little is known. The words Alban Elfed mean “time of autumn” or “light of the harvest” in old Welsh, and may come from Mr. Morganwg. In English, this holiday is sometimes called Harvest Home, possibly the invention of the Puritans, but it is likely based on older Pagan gleaning and threshing celebrations. The Muckle Supper, or harvest feast, was celebrated in the Orkney Islands. The word “muckle” meant plenty or large, as “pickle” meant little, but Muckle may also be a corruption of the name Michael. The Christian feast of St. Michael was held around September 24th as Michaelmas. Merry Night, a surviving Welsh tradition, is a day off from work to commemorate the conclusion of the harvest. The Ingathering, a Christian celebration, probably came from older Pagan harvest ceremonies.

One custom included throwing a sickle at the last sheaf of grain, so that the spirit of the corn would not blame any particular individual for its death. Farmers used straw from the final grain harvested to create various ornaments, including a “corn dolly” or woven wheat-straw figure. The dolly was often adorned with feminine clothing and ribbons, perhaps in honor of the goddess or spirit of the grain. Sometimes the straws were saved to make Brighid’s crosses or Bridey dolls in the early spring. Another tradition was to create a “bickle”, “bikko” or straw dog, and jestingly award it to the farmer who was the last to gather his harvest. Threshers would playfully spank the slowest farmer with a sheaf of his own grain. Other traditions included building a huge pile of straw on the back of a wagon, then parading it through the village, singing songs with both celebratory and funereal themes.

Of course after all this harvesting came the feasting. The modern American Thanksgiving Day, ostensibly “invented” by the Puritans, likely had its origins in older European traditions. Celebratory dinners, contests, drinking games, harvest dances and folksongs are well documented in numerous sources. Offerings were given to the Roman goddess Ceres or the local version of the grain goddess or harvest god in small roadside shrines. These locations later became dedicated to Catholic saints. This tradition also survived in the offerings left outside for fairies, sprites or the pookah. In many places, any fruit, grain or vegetables left outside after a certain date became the property of the spirits. Filling a cornucopia, or horn of plenty, was a custom that came from the Romans. Various goddesses are portrayed holding these woven wicker baskets overflowing with fruit, including Ceres, Hecate, Diana and the three Matronae, statues of which have been found in Britain.

The famous Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, a folk custom at least 900 years old, occurs each year in early September near the autumnal equinox. Dancers called “deermen” carry wooden stags’ heads fitted with real antlers, perhaps to commemorate the deer rutting season or in memory of a hunting ritual. The horns have been dated as over 1, 200 years old, and come from a species of deer now extinct in Britain, or perhaps the antlers were imported from Scandinavia. The dance is quite similar to the Morris and hoodening rituals. A young man with a bow and arrows, a man dressed as a woman called Maid Marian, and various musicians accompany the deermen.

The autumn equinox and other harvest holidays are still celebrated with sports, games, parties, wine tasting festivals and bonfires throughout the U.K. and America. The tradition of the County Fair, with its contests, agriculture exhibitions and cooking awards likely came from these older harvest celebrations.

Samhain – This word is old Irish Gaelic for “summer is done”. “Ain” may be the origin of the word “ain’t”, although scholars have fits whenever I suggest it! The Welsh call this holiday Nos Galan Gaeaf, which means night before New Year’s Day or night of the winter calend. Nos Calan Gwaf is the Cornish version. This night is considered the Celtic New Year, or new year’s eve, which was widely celebrated across western Europe, especially in Ireland and Wales. Several cultures marked it as the beginning of the winter season. In many locations, the festivities lasted for three days. Historians have traced some Samhain lore to the 5th century B.C.E.

Numerous Celtic and Anglo-Saxon legends center on ghosts, frightening old hags, monsters and the gods of death, including the Wild Hunt riding to collect departed souls. The Cailleach Bheur is a fearsome crone representing winter in Ireland, while the Mailte y Nos is the night-hag of Wales, who rides along with the wild hunters. Perhaps the legends of darkness, death, and fierce supernatural beings associated with Samhain can be traced to actual events common in ancient Britain and Ireland at this time of year. This was typically the season to slaughter animals to provide enough food to last throughout the entire winter. It was also the final time to harvest the crops and gather wood from the forests before harsh rainy or snowy weather made it difficult to find sources of food or fuel. Other concerns included hunting and gathering enough medicinal herbs. Many of the ceremonies focused on preserving and maintaining the food supply. In several cultures, Death is personified as a specter or fearful entity, and with good reason. Ill preparation for the season could have meant starvation or hypothermia. This may be why ancient people seemed fixated on placating spirits and appeasing the gods. Much of our American Halloween celebration was likely derived from these British and Irish survival customs.

Samhain was considered to be outside of the calendar, a time when the boundaries between the material world and the unseen realms were able to be crossed. Several Halloween rituals involve contacting the spirits or protecting oneself from their wrath. Some rites include divination to learn about the events of the coming year. This included “scrying” or “kenning” using the flames of a bonfire or candle, gazing into a bowl of water or a dark mirror, and using natural objects such as stones or nuts for ritualized fortune-telling. In _The Golden Bough_, Sir James Frazer lists several older Samhain ceremonies, including divination and offering food to ancestors or spirits. The “dumb supper” may be one such ritual, or it could be attributed to spiritualism, which enjoyed a revival during the Victorian era. The dumb supper was practiced in Appalachia by Scots-Irish immigrants as a rite of prognostication or communion with a departed loved one, recorded by a folklorist in 1954. The table was to be set backward, with forks on the right. A plate of food was prepared for the dead ancestor, or empty plates left to represent future marriage prospects. Both ceremonies required all participants to eat silently. Some scholars believe this rite was not originally part of the Celtic holiday. Others think it was equated with offerings left out of doors for ancestor spirits.

Trick-or-Treating may come from the more recent Irish and English tradition of collecting “soul cakes” on All Soul’s eve, or it might derive from the ancient practice of giving wayfarers a dinner to show them hospitality. It was considered good luck to feed the first person to cross your threshold on New Year’s Day. Trick-or-Treating might also derive from the ritual of feeding ancestor spirits to honor or placate them. In the old days, fairies and unhappy ghosts were considered responsible for playing tricks. Parallel traditions to the modern Trick-or-Treat include mummery, plough plays, wassailing (caroling) , pace egging, and other house-to-house begging for coins and goodies by village youngsters or adult farm laborers. In Ireland, children requested “Money for the King, money for the Queen” on Samhain night, documented from the 1800s into the 1950s. The modern purpose of Trick-or-Treating has become less about survival and more about fun.

Dressing up in costume may originally have been a shamanic ritual, revived during the Renaissance with the people’s love of theatre. Wearing a disguise may have been intended to fool angry spirits or to trick the gods of death. It may also have arisen from the ritual of hoodening, a continuous practice throughout the British Isles up to at least the 1930s. Hoodening is wearing the disguise of a stag, bull, ram or horse and going door-to-door, singing traditional songs and performing a ritual dance or theatre skit. Participants were rewarded with apples, nuts and small change. In Scotland, costumes are called “guises”, and Trick-or-Treating is called “guising”. Dressing in costumes made of straw, called ‘skekling’ was a Halloween custom in the Orkneys, Shetland Isles and remote locations of Ireland, suggesting a Scandinavian or Saxon influence. There are also skeklers, straw men and straw bears in modern-day Germany, parading through villages on All Hallow’s Eve and other traditional Pagan holidays.

Bobbing for apples is a genuinely older custom. One ritual includes naming a particular apple for one’s intended lover, then attempting to capture it in a sympathetic magic ritual for catching that person. Apples, quite abundant at this time of year, were considered the symbolic fruit of Avalon (Island of Apples) representing the fairy realm and the underworld. An apple can be cut around its middle to reveal a pentagram within the seed cavity. Even though my favorite custom, the Samhaine rotten-apple fight, might be a recent invention, I’m willing to bet that a few of my ancestors indulged in this tradition. Seriously, apples were easy to keep throughout the cold winter months, as preserves, dried or as apple cider. They may have been one of the main staples of the British and Irish peoples’ diet.

Samhain was another traditional fire festival, documented by various writers from the time of Julius Caesar. Bonfires were a common sight in the British Isles and America well into modern days. In the 1860s, one Scots Protestant clergyman despaired, “The practice of lighting bonfires prevails in this and the neighboring Highland Parishes.” In _Irish Druids and Old Irish Religion_, James Bonwick wrote, “In the Western Islands (of Ireland) the old superstition is dying very hard, and tradition is still well alive.” In some locations, all of the hearth fires were extinguished and re-kindled from a common village bonfire. In other places, this ritual was performed on Yule, Bealtaine, or all of these holidays. Fire was used as a fertility symbol, to protect animals, to scare away harmful entities, and in some cases to light the way for friendly spirits. Burning rushes or torches were often paraded through town. Turnips, or beets were hollowed out and filled with oil, or carved and placed over a candle, to create a light to scare off baneful specters or welcome ancestors to the home. They may have been used to fetch a coal from the communal “need fire”. This custom later evolved into the legend about “Jack of the lantern”, a dead man forced to wander earth searching for an honest person. Irish immigrants brought the tradition to America, and soon found that pumpkins were much easier to carve into Jack O’Lanterns. The familiar orange gourd may have taken its name from “punkies”, the gourds or turnips used as containers for fire in Somerset, England at Samhain.

Yule or Alban Arthan – Although some websites claim this means “light of Arthur”, this is not true. The name actually signifies the time of winter or light of winter in old Welsh. It has also been translated as “point of roughness”, perhaps describing the stormy winter weather. The holiday is also called Yule, the Norse word for wheel, which may derive from the Anglo-Saxon “Yula”. This holiday was originally spelled Iul or Jul, since the Norse language had no letter Y. Jul might be the root word of the term jolly. The name may have come from the old Welsh “heul”, which means sunlight, or the English word yew, as in the tree. Astronomically speaking, this is the shortest day and longest night of the year, when the earth begins to tilt toward the sun.

In Ireland, the Newgrange monolithic tomb is arranged so that the first light of the winter solstice falls upon what is believed to be an altar stone. Stonehenge also marks the winter solstice as an important date. While the Druids did not build these structures, the artifacts discovered within show that the Bronze Age and Iron Age Celts likely used them for worship rites. Other sacred sites have similar architectural features which align with astronomic events.

The many non-Christian winter solstice traditions suggest that the ancients really did celebrate this holiday. Decorating with greenery was a common practice. Traces of evergreen branches have been found in several Neolithic sacred sites as well as the excavations of older private dwellings. Fire rituals were frequent as well. Some of the prehistoric temples were found to have yew or birch wood burned in their fire pits. More recent ceremonies included setting fire to brush piles, old furniture and wagon wheels. The custom of lighting bonfires on hilltops continued well into the 20th century. These traditions may be connected to observing the return of the sun. This would seem logical, to create more light on the shortest period of daylight during the year.

Mummers’ plays, believed by some scholars to have ancient origins, were presented at Christmas time right up to the 1930s in many isolated communities. This tradition of street acting is depicted on the stained glass window of Betley Hall, and is referred to in a much older manuscript from the 1300s, describing the same scene found on the window. Shakespeare also made mention of the custom. Mummers’ plays feature characters who represent light and dark, or good and evil, one of whom wounds or kills the other. A comic doctor, jester, dame or old witch named “Besom Betty” revives the injured or dead character and restores him to health with a magic potion. This folk custom might have led to Gardner’s “Oak King / Holly King” dramatization. It may carry a reference to the victory of sunlight over darkness, which begins on the winter solstice. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the “bad guy” arrives carrying holly, perhaps to represent winter. Sir Gawain’s name in Welsh is Gwalchmai, which means “hawk of the May”, which might represent summer. The two engage in battle, with Gawain winning, perhaps symbolic of summer’s victory over winter. This poem may have inspired the Gardnerian Wiccan ceremony for Yule.

The custom of the Mari Llwyd, or “old grey mare” still exists in Wales and Cornwall as a tourist attraction on New Year’s Day or Twelfth Night. A horse skull is decorated with ribbons, cloth flowers, bottle-glass eyes and trinkets, and carried from house to house while participants sing bawdy songs, tell bad puns, and perform a rambunctious dance. Often a Mari has a skirt for the operator to hide beneath, so that the skull seems animated, and the songs and puns are attributed to the dead horse. Sometimes a candle is burned inside the skull. The procession often culminated at the village tavern. This practice is thought to be historically Pagan and probably originated in ancient times as a tribute to the personification of Death. (Or possibly as laughing in the face of death.) The Mari is paralleled by hoodening rituals, the Hobby Horse / Obby Oss, the horse character in some mummers’ plays, and other folk customs where a person is disguised as an animal such as a horse, bull, ram or stag. In Derbyshire, a ram skull called the “Derby Tup” is similarly decorated and paraded through the villages.

Another Welsh tradition includes hunting and killing a man dressed as a stag on the winter solstice, perhaps a form of the hoodening ritual. A parallel custom is the Welsh and Irish “Hunting the Wren” on St. Stephen’s Day, which is observed on Dec. 26th. The “Cutty Wren” song is sung by participants. Since “cutty” in a Northumberland dialect means old, worn out and shabby, it may refer to the past year. These traditions probably derive from much older hunting ceremonies. Santa’s reindeer may also have their origin in the hoodener or shamanic huntsman.

Perhaps Santa Claus himself came from the Pagan gift-giving traditions of the Celts or the Roman celebration of Saturnalia. Dedicated to the god Saturn, this holiday was brought to Gaul and then Britain by Roman soldiers during the invasions. The Saturnalia festivities include a gift exchange, attributed to an elderly white-bearded god. Some historians believe that Santa was actually modeled on Saturn, or perhaps the god Odin of the German, Icelandic and Scandinavian pantheons. Santa’s reindeer chariot may have come from the Finnish legend of Vainamoinen, who also lived in the north, had a magical workshop, and wore a long white beard.

There are many holiday foods associated exclusively with the winter solstice. Figgy pudding containing a sixpence, or plum pudding with trinkets, likely became popular during the late Iron Age, when brick or iron ovens were invented. Cookies or cakes shaped to represent human and animal figures, perhaps as a poppet or to align oneself with a certain totem, were eaten as well. Wassailing, or singing from house to house, is also an older custom. Wassail is a drink made from hard apple cider or mulled wine mixed with spices and herbs. It was also sprinkled on the apple trees to ensure their fertility. Several wassail bowls dating from Medieval times can be found in British and Welsh museums. The name may derive from the Saxon “waes heil”, a greeting that means “to your health”. Gingerbread cookies were believed to have been eaten during the harvest holidays, but today they are a popular Yuletide treat.

The traditional Welsh carol “Deck the Halls” makes reference to decorating with greenery and burning the Yule log. Originally called “Nos Calan”, which means new year or night of calends in Welsh, the song may have first been performed at Halloween. There is much debate about the Yule log, and whether its use began with the British Celts or if it was a Saxon custom brought to England. Burning a fire all night may have been intended to protect people during the longest night of the year, or to remind the sun to return. In some places the log is called the “Cailleach Block”, referring to the crone goddess who represents death, winter and darkness. One tradition includes burning a whole tree for twelve days, perhaps referring to the Twelve Days of Christmas, Twelfth Night or the Epiphany, or it may come from an older custom.

As stated previously, the decorated Yule tree may have derived from the raggy bush or clootie tree, although these were not holiday-specific. Evergreen trees were adorned at Yule in Scandinavia and Germany as far back as the year 500, before Christianity was widely accepted by the working-class people of those nations. Most of the trees were kept alive outdoors. In Latvia, a tree was adorned with cloth flowers, paraded through town, used as the center of a circle dance, then burned. In Denmark during Medieval days, a tree was brought indoors in the wintertime, but they hung it upside down from the rafters to save space. As were many other customs, the decorated tree was adopted by Christians. Queen Victoria introduced the Christmas tree to England, and immigrants brought it to America where it remains a staple of holiday fun.

Most of these traditions have little or nothing to do with celebrating the birth of Jesus at Christmas, yet they still continued to be practiced around the winter solstice time. As the Christian religion became established in Britain, the older beliefs were incorporated into the new holy day, such as decorating with greenery, caroling, and using glass balls for ornamentation. It’s possible that the date of Christmas, December 25th, came from the birth of Mithras, whose worship was brought into Great Britain and Gaul by Roman soldiers. As with other Pagan holidays, Christians adopted the calendar date for their own use.

Of course, just because a custom is ancient does not mean that it’s something you are required to do to celebrate a holiday. And newer Pagan practices are just as magically valid. Our family enjoys coloring eggs for Alban Eilir, going to the beach on Midsummer, and cutting our Yule tree at a farm. Any ritual that commemorates the season and honors your own spirituality is wonderful!

In the next few installments of "Another Pagan History" we'll take a look at the God and Goddess of Wicca, with the goal of trying to discover what beliefs actually survived from ancient times to the present day. Some of the gods and goddesses we'll discuss include Mab, the Cailleach, Diana, Danu, Herne, Cernunnos, Lugh, the Green Man, Hecate, the Matronae, Herodias, Brighid, and Coventina, all of whom were worshipped in the British Islands at one time or another. But what is really old, and what is a reconstruction or revival? We can't always tell. Hee hee, only the Gods know for sure!

If I listed all of my sources, it would actually take up more space than any one of these essays. I suggest that you check each subject I've mentioned, using Google, and looking up the books and authors referenced in the article. 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. 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, or it was the result of interviewing both neo-Pagans and people with some traditional religious heritage. Several of both the former and latter don’t want their names mentioned because of the publicity – they remember what happened to Sybil Leek! Much of the information presented in this essay was documented in more than one source. Some of it 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 typing in each subject, such as “pellar” or “stagpole”. Then weed out the obvious, such as a Pellar Corporation or pole dancing at stag parties. Try a combination of subjects, 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. Good luck!

Copyright: Copyleft 2006 by A.C. Aldag. Reprint as you wish, 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: Some of the ceremonies mentioned in this article were performed by A.C. and her family long before they became popular with modern Wiccans. Ace has appeared as the Crone (Besom Betty) in local folkplays and ceremonies since 1989, at least fifteen years before photos of this archetype appeared on the Internet. These photographs are believed to have been taken in England around 1910. 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! :-)

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