You Call it May Day, We Call it Beltane

You Call it May Day, We Call it Beltane

Author: Peg Aloi

The season of spring has arrived! The rites of fertility have begun! This is a holiday with a colorful past, and strangely enough, one of the only major festivals on the pagan calendar which has never been Christianized. But as we shall see, it is a holiday with two distinct flavors of celebration throughout history…

But first, some nostalgic wanderings…

April 30th, 1972.

Somewhere, I must have learned about May Baskets. I think my favorite third grade teacher mentioned them briefly in Social Studies class (she often talked about holidays and their origins), and then I wanted to find out more about this wacky custom. I was a precocious reader as a kid so it may have been almost anywhere: the Encyclopedia Britannica, Woman’s Day magazine, maybe even Playboy. I don’t recall where, but I know once I learned about the custom of giving them to some one special, I was determined to make one and leave it in secret for my favorite third-grade teacher, Miss V.

I took a small box (about half the size of a shoebox) and glued lavender construction paper to it. I also fashioned a handle out of the same paper, gluing it to both sides. I cut out flower petals shapes in different colors and glued those on, too. Very tasteful, I thought. I cut some daffodils and lilacs from the yard, and put them inside. I had already asked my aunt if she could drive me over to her house, having cleverly looked up her address in the phone book earlier. (Now, these days we would call such behavior something less innocent than childlike admiration; we might call it, oh, stalking). As we drove up with the basket to my teacher’s house, at around 6 pm, I found myself thinking, gee, what if she sees me? I got out of the car, ran on tiptoe (as if that would make me less visible) and put it on her porch. As I turned, the front door opened.

As luck would have it, I was busted: by Miss V. herself! She saw me, then the basket, and figured it out. She smiled and thanked me and said it was very sweet of me. I was mortified that she found me out. But then the next day in school, she made me a card with flowers on it. The front said “Thank you” and the inside said “for delighting my day with a May Basket.” So I got to put that card on my desk like a little teacher’s pet. Of course, I did not think that at the time; at the time I was simply very proud. And realized if I had not gotten “busted” she might never know who brought the May Basket, and I’d have my secret, but only that. This way, maybe the other kids would think of making May Baskets for someone: a teacher, a parent or grandparent. Of course, all I knew was I made something cool and gave it to someone special.

May 1st, 1988

I’m in graduate school. Living in a cool two-bedroom apartment above a funeral home. I have just started really getting into the whole paganism thing. Not in a coven yet, but doing the beginner stuff: practicing a bit of spellcraft, making little altars in my room, going to meetings of the Pagan Students’ Organization, buying books by Margot and Starhawk and Janet and Stewart… So I know it’s Beltane. But not to the extent that I know how to really celebrate it as a true pagan. (Not to worry, within a year or two I would be dancing ’round maypoles, washing my face in the dew and “going a Maying” like a veteran!)

So I get up in the morning and dress in something kinda frilly and festive, not all that atypical for me but I wanted to feel like I was observing the season today. I leave my apartment to go to class, and what do I find on my doorknob but a garland of flowers! Shaped like a crown to be worn. Wow. I don’t even have a clue who it might be from (but I have my suspicions). I take it with me and carry it around to classes that day. I finally run into a male friend of mine who knows I ma into this pagan stuff. He apparently knows a thing or two about May Day folklore, and I eventually find out he left it as a sign he was interested in dating me. Which was rather sweet. This was a very shy young man who I cannot imagine actually asking me out on a date. But his leaving a relic of ancient paganism on my door, well, that was impressive. We did date for a while. He was a nice guy and very smart. At the time all I knew was, he made something cool and gave it to me, so he must have thought I was special.

Beltane: a Pre-Christian Fire Festival

“But they are… naked!”
“Well, naturally, it’s far too dangerous to jumo through the fire with your clothes on!”

–Lord Summerisle explaining Beltane to Sergeant Howie in the 1973 film “The Wicker Man”

According to an article entitled “The Merry Month of May” on (link) “The first day of May is still celebrated as a pre-Christian magical rite in some parts of England. Local people dance around a maypole (an ancient fertility symbol), in what was once one of England’s most important festivals of the year.” May Day and Beltane obviously have much in common, as both celebrate new growth and fertility. Even when May Day celebrations were banned in the late 16th century for being immoral, the customs died hard and it wasn’t long before the festivities were once again widespread. But long before the May Day celebrations, with their maypole dancing, garlands and dances became popular, the ancient fire festival of Beltane took place for centuries.

It is not clear where or how the festival of Beltane first came about; Ronald Hutton in The Stations of the Sun mentions the first recorded instance of a bishop in Lincolnshire complaining about local priests who “demeaned themselves by joining games which they call the bringing-in of May” in 1240. May Games were recorded in Scotland in 1432. There is some speculation that Beltane and May Day is related to the ancient Roman festival of Floralia. According to the article, this was “a six-day party in honor of Flora, the goddess of Spring and Flowers, the Floralia was a time of singing, dancing and feasting in the ancient capital.” Dressed in bright colors in imitation of spring flowers, citizens would decorate the entire city with fresh blooms. “Hares and goats, symbols of fertility, would be let loose in gardens as protectors of Flora, and great singing and stomping would be heard in order to wake up Spring.” Of course, dancing is a large part of May Day celebrations as well. Apparently, Flora was also the patron of prostitutes, and during this festival the Roman “working girls” participated enthusiastically, performing naked in theatres and taking part in gladiatorial events. The themes of fertility and sexuality are obviously still very much associated with Beltane and May Day amongst modern pagans… but let’s look more closely at the ancient history of Beltane in the British Isles.

First of all, the origin of the name “Beltane” is disputed. The holiday was also known as “Roodmass” in England and “Walpurgisnacht” in Germany. Alternately spelled Bealtaine, Beltaine, and any number of Gaelic derived-spellings, it is also the Irish word for the month of May, and is said to mean anything from “Bel-fire” Feast of the god Bel” to “bright fire.” Janet and Stewart Farrar, in Eight Sabbats for Witches offer an excellent tracing of the holiday’s Irish roots, and particularly the European fire-god Belenus whom they believe this festival is named for (a name possible traced back to Baal, the bible’s only pagan god, whose name simply means “Lord”). Ronald Hutton states that since the Celtic word “bel” means bright or fortunate, this is adequate to explain the translation as being “lucky fire” or “bright fire.”

For FIRE is what this festival is all about. It is one of the two great fire festivals of the wheel of the year (the other is Samhain). It also falls upon the cross-quarter days, which mark the astrological movement of the sun. In ancient times, the calendar days for these holidays would have been roughly seven to eleven days AFTER we now celebrate them (usually on the first of the month). The way to know for sure is to observe when the sun reaches 15 degrees of the zodiac sign. For Beltane, this is Taurus, the Bull (the sun reaches 15 degrees Taurus on May 5th this year). At Lammas, Leo; at Samhain, Scorpio, and at Imbolc, Aquarius.

Samhain and Beltane divide the year into two distinct halves of great importance to agrarian-based societies (as in western Europe, where our Celtic calendar of eight major seasonal festivals originates). In F. Marian McNeill’s book The Silver Bough, she states: “At Beltane, flocks and herds went to their summer pastures; as Hallowmass (Samhain) they returned to their winter quarters. Beltane may be regarded as a day of Supplication, when a blessing was invoked on hunter and herdsman, on cattle and crops.” Whereas Samhain was a “Day of Thanksgiving, for the safe return of the wanderers and the renewal of the food supply.”

Fire festivals in ancient times were seen as times of propitiation and purification. Propitiation, says McNeill, “means sacrifice; to propitiate the mysterious forces of nature and ensure fertility in field and fold and on the hearth.”

“You’ll simply never understand the true nature of sacrifice.”
–May Morrison to Sergeant Howie, “The Wicker Man”

Human sacrifice was still practiced in Gaul as late as the 1st century BC, and was later replaced by sacrifice of animals (most notably the Bull – another Taurus connection?), and later an offering of specially consecrated cakes or loaves, as in the sun-shaped loaf in “The Wicker Man.” “The life of the fields: John Barleycorn.” But of course, by the film’s end, more than bread was consumed by the flames.

(Never seen The Wicker Man? It’s a cult classic well-loved by pagans for its deliciously politically-incorrect sacrifice of a morally-uptight police sergeant when he visits and island renowned for keeping the “old ways.” The film’s events take place on the days leading up to Beltane.)

As for purification, fire has always been seen as its chief agent. Traditionally, all domestic fires in Irish, English and Scottish households were extinguished on Beltane Eve, after having been kept lit continuously all year. Just before dawn, villagers would process with their animals up the hillsides to the highest point where fires would be kindled and relit for people to see for miles around. It was also traditional to build these fires out of nine of the sacred woods from Druidic folklore, including oak, ash, thorn, rowan, apple, birch, alder, maple, elm, gorse, holly, hawthorn, and others.

The bonfires were lit so that a narrow passage existed between two fire, so that cattle and other livestock could be led between the fires, to purify them from disease or sterility for the coming year. Torches of dried sedge, gorse or heather were also lit and carried around remaining flocks or stables, to further purify the air.

Fire, Water…

Water, the other element of purification, also plays a strong role in Beltane custom. Spring was the traditional season of “well dressing” particularly in Ireland where wells were seen as holy places (even with the advent of Christianity, when many wells dedicated to pagan goddesses were re-dedicated to the Virgin Mary). But even more specific to Beltane, morning dew was seen as sacred and magical. To this day, young women all over the British Isles rise at dawn to wash their faces in dew (dew from oak and rowan trees is said to be particularly well-suited). It was and is believed doing so would enhance a woman’s beauty and health in the coming year, and if she uttered an appropriate charm while doing it, she might also meet her future husband in the coming year.

This poem was written by someone who observed young women engaging in this practice in King’s Park in Edinburgh:

“On May Day in a fairy ring,
We’ve seen them round St. Anton’s spring,
Frae (from) grass the caller dew-drops wring,
To weet their een (to wet their eyes)
And water clean as crystal spring
To synd them clean.”

Village elders also left libations and offerings of food to guard their flocks against any evil from the fairy folk, or from the ravages of storms, floods, or disease. Butter, eggs, milk and cheese were left in hollow stones, or poured into the ground. Alternately, ale or fresh-baked bread was offered, with the idea that a gift of the finest the household could provide was the most suitable offering.

In Aberdeenshire, McNeill tells of a custom of kindling fires on May 2nd, as it was believed “witches were abroad then.” Beltane, like Samhain, was the time when the veils between the worlds were thinnest, and like fairy folk, “witches” were thought to be fond of this time and to use it for magical rites. Keep in mind, in those days, the “witches” were the ones that country folk worked magic against, and those of us today who call ourselves “witches” are actually closer in spirit to those village wise women and cunningmen, who used folk magic and spells to protect their homes and families and flocks. The Aberdeenshire citizens believed witches would steal milk from cows, and ride stolen horses to their meetings. Fires were lit and villagers would hold hands and dance around them three times deosil (sunwise) – does this sound familiar? Except they would then yell out “Fire! Blaze and Burn the witches! Fire, Fire! Burn the witches!” Thanks goodness we have moved far beyond these, ahem, heathen customs!

Earth and Air…

Dancing was a common way to celebrate the season. The Maypole rites being an obvious example, but before this practice became widespread, dancing without benefit of a giant pole was also common. Dancing round the bonfires was seen as a way to partake of the purification of its flames. Women wanting to get pregnant would perform fertility dances at the fireside. Once the Beltane fires were relit on the hillsides, villagers would carry a flaming torch, the “need-fire, ” back to their homes and relight their hearthfires with it. On the way, it was customary to dance and sing the season in. Records of may dances and songs go back to well before the 16th century. The songs affirmed the purpose of the fire ceremonies: protection and purification. The protective power of the magical woods was thought to affect any who lit their households with their flames. The sight of the bright flames on the hills, and the line of people processing with torches in the dark, must have been an awesome sight to behold.

(This year in Ireland, a huge ritual will be held to re-kindle the ancient fires of Beltane. It was nearly cancelled due to foot and mouth disease, but now it looks like this ancient ritual of healing the land and its creatures will take place after all, and not a moment too soon.)

The most protective wood of all was rowan, and prior to the Beltane Eve bonfire lighting, branches of rowan were cut in huge amounts and used to decorate the homes of all. Branches tied with red thread (signifying the rowan berries, and a favorite color of fairies) were hung in doorways of homes, stables, barns and sheepfolds, and, as McNeill states, particularly “in the midden, which was a favourite of the black sisterhood.” (I think she meant witches.) In the Highlands of Scotland, girls tied sprigs of rowan in their hair or on their clothing just after washing in may dew. (Incidentally, in “The Wicker Man” the hapless Sergeant Howie is first sent for to investigate a missing girl, whom he believes intended for human sacrifice: her name is Rowan.)

Just as rowan branches were seen as protective, people also gathered armsful of tree branches in blossom to decorate their homes in honor of the arrival of spring. This custom was usually fulfilled the following day, on Beltane proper, after the midday sun brought the blossoms to the fullest size and fragrance. In later years, when May festivities spread to England, these branches were carried from door to door, offered with songs, in the expectation that gifts of sweets, money or food and drink would be offered. This in turn led to the “garlanding” customs popular in southern England, once the province of women but later an activity popular for young girls and sanctioned by local schools and parishes. No matter what the blossom, it was known as “gathering the May.” Hawthorn was most common, and so one of its folk names is “May.” (Rowan Morrison’s mother’s name is May, as well). “Going a Maying” innocently refers to the custom of young people gathering blossoming tree branches; but later became a common euphemism for what happened after the branches were gathered in the woods, and before they were brought home.

Once the fires were relit on Beltane Eve, and children put to bed, and the wee hours of Beltane morning arrived, the more adult festivities began. And that includes the traditional activities associated with fertility (remember Flora and her fondness for prostitutes? Kinda along those lines). Newly wed couples and new brides were expected to perform fertility rites around the bonfires, to take advantage of their potency and purification. Humans were much more closely connected with the rhythms of the earth in those days, to put it mildly, and no doubt the running of sap in trees, the blossoms and buds bursting forth, the scents of flowers and new growth and damp soil and rain, all stirred the senses and reawakened the body—these days we call it “spring fever, ” but in antiquity, indulging such urges was completely normal and expected.

Or, in the words of Lerner and Lowe, from the musical “Camelot”:

“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! ”

Naturally enough, unwed men and women would also partake of the spirit of these rites, and find themselves venturing off into the nearby fields or forest to perform their own fertility rites. Blessed by the gods on this sacred night, such unions were seen as wholly proper, even when not blessed by marriage; they were referred to as “greenwood marriages.” It is also true that betrothed couples would make love at Beltane, and if the union did not prove fruitful, i.e. no pregnancy resulted, they might dissolve the partnership before marriage without repercussion. In fact, the origin of the “year and a day” handfasting custom observed by modern pagans, in which they renew their vows after one year, dates back to this. If new marriages did not produce children within one year, couple often split and married others, with no penalty.

But why sex? If the point of these festivals was to preserve the land and the flocks, why not simply observe fertility in the birth of lambs, the growth of plants? Ah, but ancient peoples believed in sympathetic magic: that practice of a small, symbolic action representing a larger one. By making love in the fields, human beings believed they were helping make the earth more fertile, blessing it with their own activity of producing new life and abundance. And even if the ultimate goal of such unions was not pregnancy, it couldn’t hurt to help the magic along!

Which brings me to what is often considered a wholly sexual symbol, and main feature of ancient May Day and modern Beltane celebrations: the maypole.

Phallic Symbol? Or Tree Worship?

Beltane celebrations in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and parts of Britain later became intertwined with May Day rites derived from the Floralia (due to the Roman invasion of Britain, mostly). But more importantly, the different customs associated with May 1st became very diverse and widespread to such an extent that these practices were banned on a wide scale. Though complaints about “immoral” practices started early on (as in the 1240 reference from Hutton), the Protestant, well, protest against May rites came to a head in 1555, when May Day observances were banished by Parliament. This mainly had to do with the “Maying” rites, which uptight clergy believed were merely opportunities for fornication in the fields and defiling of young women (mistakenly believed to come away pregnant more often than not. Hutton notes that later demographic research showed no concomitant rise in pregnancy rates at this time of year; in fact, late summer was a much more common time for conception).

By 1565, the common practice of electing “an Abbott of Misrule” and other ritual roles, like Robin Hood, Maid Marian and others, was also banned by law. Such plays had become commonplace, as had Morris dancing, sword dances and other celebratory ways of “dancing in” spring. Margaret Murray, in “The God of the Witches” noted the similarity between Robin and his typical band of 12 men being modeled on a “Grandmaster and his coven.” Although it is just as clearly related to Jesus and his disciples. In any case, the traditional green costumes and elaborate dances, as well as Robin Hood’s association with Robin Goodfellow, or Puck, were also connected to fairy tradition and so seen as “heathen” by the clergy. Some have speculated that this tradition of using Robin and Marian as May Day “deities” actually has its origin in Diana and Herne: goddess of the hunt and forest creatures, and god of the wild hunt. Indeed, Herne is seen as one aspect of the Green man, and many May Day rites also featured The Green Man. Diana is also a predecessor of the Queen of the May, a role later usurped by Marian… but Diana’s virgin aspect makes her a likely model for such a role.

The maypole itself was banned in 1644. By 1660, when it became clear the monarchy would be restored, May Day rites were once again permitted and in fact spontaneously reappeared across the country. But by then the holiday had lost much of its earlier sexual significance; May Day had replaced Beltane, if you will. But it is also true that by this time, the dancing of the Maypole had become the central “ritual” of this holiday, not the bonfires. Only in remote parts of Ireland and Scotland did the fires apparently continue as the dominant feature.

It is not clear when the maypole first became part of the May festivities, or what its exact origin is. Our post-Freudian society naturally wishes to call it a “phallic symbol” and have done with it, and indeed this seems fitting. A wonderful scene in the oft-mentioned “The Wicker Man” finds the young male students dancing round the maypole, while the female students watch them from their classroom, in which they listen to a lecture about the rites and rituals of May Day (even their textbooks have a chapter on it!), and all the girls in unison know the answer to what the maypole represents: “phallic symbol.” The teacher, Miss Rose, says it is the penis, “revered in religions, such as ours, as the generative force in nature.”

But according to Ron Hutton, other explanations present themselves. Some authors, including Sir J.G. Frazer in The Golden Bough, refer to it as “the repository of a fertility-giving tree spirit.” Many years earlier, Thomas Hobbes suggested the maypole was meant to honor the Roman god of male potency, Priapus. Hutton himself suggests they are just as likely symbols of tree worship (particularly since the earliest maypoles were living trees, stripped of all leaves but for a tuft of greenery at the top). He also mentions the Northern European concept of the divine tree which connects the earth tot he world of the divine, and the maypole as a connection between them. Finally, he credits Mircea Eliade for his theory that it is “merely a way of rejoicing at the returning strength of vegetation.”

Modern Traditions

“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…
Pass the cup, and pass the Lady,
And pass the plate to all who hunger,
Pass the wit of ancient wisdom,
Pass the cup of crimson wonder.”

Jethro Tull, “Cup of Wonder, ” from the 1977 album Songs From the Wood

Modern pagans celebrate Beltane as a festival of reawakening spring, of fertility, of the renewal of the lifeforce, of creativity, or rebirth, of love and sexuality, or birth and regeneration. Janet and Stewart Farrar, whose work forms the basis for many Wiccan groups, offer a ritual for Beltane in their Eight Sabbats for Witches in which they feature the Oak King as a symbol of the death of the old season, and a “bel-fire” is rekindled to usher in the new season, along with lyrics from Rudyard Kipling’s famous song of tree worship in England, “Oak and Ash and Thorn.”

“Oh do not tell the priest our plight, for he would call it a sin,
But we’ve been out in the woods all night a-conjuring summer in;
And we bring good news by word of mouth, for women and cattle and corn,
For now is the sun come up from the South by Oak and Ash and Thorn.”

Some covens kindle their own bonfire, using nine of the sacred woods. Others celebrate the Great Rite, the sacred marriage of the god and goddess, in symbolic or actual fashion according to their tradition. Solitary practitioners often choose Beltane as a time to reaffirm their dedication to the path; and couples in a magical partnership might choose this auspicious time to work sex magick, to achieve a chosen goal.

Larger pagan gatherings feature maypole dancing; I have attended a number of these over the years and there really is nothing like a fifty-foot tall maypole with a hundred people dancing around it with ribbons!

May wine is a traditional drink of the season: to make your own, simply add dried or fresh meadowsweet to white wine. Let it steep for at least 24 hours. You can either leave the herb in the wine or strain it out. The herby, vanilla-like fragrance and taste are indescribable, and really say “Beltane!” I have also seen recipes for “May Cup” on the net. And this is a fine time to experiment with aphrodisiac brews, for example adding damiana to some white zinfandel.

Perhaps it is best to remember this as the time when Aphrodite, who rules the sign of Taurus, is coming into her own. She presides over the realms of love and sex and beauty, but also over the flowers and fruits which brig us such pleasure: delighting our senses with their colors and scents and tastes and juices. She fills blossoms with nectar, and her body is beneath us as we walk and dance upon the newly-yielding, softened earth, alive again after the dormancy of winter, full of new life. She is in the animals, the lambs born at Imbolc who frolic among spring meadow flowers, the other creatures who come into their mating seasons at this time. And she is in us, offering her discernment of beauty, blessing our eyes with new awareness of color and texture in nature. In our hearts which beat quicker with the warmth of the sun and the fires rekindled within us. In our minds, alive to possibility and creativity, awakened and reborn with new energy. And in our bodies, walking on hills and in meadows and forests, dancing around our own fires and in circles with like-minded loved ones, sharing laughter and song and love, enjoying and creating the feast, the celebration, the magical birthright that is life on Earth.

May your fires burn bright!

Peg Aloi

History Of Lammas

Lammas/Lugnasadh Comments

History Of Lammas

In medieval times the feast was sometimes known in England and Scotland as the “Gule of August”, but the meaning of “gule” is unclear. Ronald Hutton suggests following the 18th-century Welsh clergyman antiquary John Pettingall that it is merely an Anglicisation of Gŵyl Awst, the Welsh name of the “feast of August”. OED and most etymological dictionaries give it a more circuitous origin similar to gullet; from O.Fr. goulet, dim. of goule, “throat, neck,” from L. gula “throat,”. A Welsh derivation would point to a pre-Christian origin for Lammas and a link to the Gaelic festival of Lughnasadh.

Several antiquaries beginning with John Brady offered a back-construction to its being originally known as Lamb-mass, under the undocumented supposition that tenants of the Cathedral of York, dedicated to St. Peter ad Vincula, of which this is the feast, would have been required to bring a live lamb to the church,or, with John Skinner, “because Lambs then grew out of season.” This is a folk etymology, of which OED notes that it was “subsequently felt as if from LAMB + MASS“.

For many villeins, the wheat must have run low in the days before Lammas, and the new harvest began a season of plenty, of hard work and company in the fields, reaping in teams. Thus there was a spirit of celebratory play.

In the medieval agricultural year, Lammas also marked the end of the hay harvest that had begun after Midsummer. At the end of hay-making a sheep would be loosed in the meadow among the mowers, for him to keep who could catch it.

In Shakespeare‘s Romeo and Juliet (1.3.19) it is observed of Juliet, “Come Lammas Eve at night shall she [Juliet] be fourteen.” Since Juliet was born Lammas eve, she came before the harvest festival, which is significant since her life ended before she could reap what she had sown and enjoy the bounty of the harvest, in this case full consummation and enjoyment of her love with Romeo.

William Hone speaks in The Every-Day Book (1838) of a later festive Lammas day sport common among Scottish farmers near Edinburgh. He says that they “build towers…leaving a hole for a flag-pole in the centre so that they may raise their colours.” When the flags over the many peat-constructed towers were raised, farmers would go to others’ towers and attempt to “level them to the ground.” A successful attempt would bring great praise. However, people were allowed to defend their towers, and so everyone was provided with a “tooting-horn” to alert nearby country folk of the impending attack and the battle would turn into a “brawl.” According to Hone, more than four people had died at this festival and many more were injured. At the day’s end, races were held, with prizes given to the townspeople.

Can You Think Like A Witch?

Can You Think Like A Witch?

Author:   T.L.   

There has always been a strong connection between Witches and Fairies known to all students who study Fairy lore. Several Pagan traditions have come to choose the term Fairy (or Faerie or Faery or Feri) as a result of Fairy mythology and scholarly research regarding Fairies in the past. In the late 1990’s, the year before her death, my 90-year-old paternal aunt, Nina Sutter, told me that our ancestors who lived in Mecosta County, Michigan, were Fairies. She also told me that “those people all stuck together” and that they were “like the Indians.” Because of what she told me and other family memorabilia I have, I believe it is possible that Wicca is a survival religion associated with Fairies. At the time my aunt spoke to me, I do not think she knew what a Fairy might be—just that this was something she was told and something that she sensed was important. I knew nothing about Wicca at that time, and I did not know what a Fairy was either. Several years went by before I figured it out what she was talking about.

My paternal great-grandmother, Alta Isadore Gould (born in 1851) published a book of story-length Civil War poems in 1894. The Veteran’s Bride And Other Poems was very popular for its day, going through five editions (and six printings) in four years. Gould integrates Wiccan symbolism in various ways within her published stories that are best understood within the context of their underlying themes, that include the myths of the Wheel of the Year, the myth of the Dying God, the Missing Cauldron of Cerridwen, and Hestia of the Hearth. When I realized that my great-grandmother’s book was about Wicca, I finally was able to figure out what it meant to have ancestors who were Fairies.

Gould’s metaphors are enhanced by hidden Wiccan symbols within each of her nine engravings. My aunt showed me one of those symbols—an “athame” hidden as a spire at the top of an arch in one of the engravings—except that she called it a “knife.” I do not think she knew the purpose of the “knife, ” just as she did not know the significance of “Fairy.” The knife was just something she had been shown and something she sensed was important. My aunt showed me the knife, just like her mother showed her the knife, just like her mother showed her the knife. This transfer of knowledge from my great-grandmother, to my grandmother, to my aunt, to me, shows that the knife was consciously positioned as a spire in Gould’s engravings and its presence is not just a matter of interpretation.

It is the culmination of Gould’s writing, her engravings, and other memorabilia I have regarding her life that makes me believe all of what my aunt said was true. My aunt was an honest woman, a Methodist, who would have had no motive for aligning the family with Paganism. The fact that she embraced these sparse memories in her old age, and wanted to share what little she knew with me before she died, shows she harbored warm feelings regarding this facet of our family’s history, and speaks positively of Wicca.

Obviously, I do not know what it means to have ancestors who say they were Fairies. More importantly, I do not know what being Fairies meant to them. It is possible that Alta Gould’s own ancestors, just like founders of Pagan traditions today, chose the term Fairy to describe themselves and created their own Witch-religion as a sort of secret society that encompassed all aspects of their lives. Theoretically, if there were multiple pockets of people similar to Gould’s group scattered throughout America, Canada, and Europe, perhaps something like this is the Witch-religion that Gerald Gardner ultimately was exposed to.

One good thing about social media is that participants do not have to yield to some higher authority in order to have their stories told. Currently, experts in Wicca claim there is no hard evidence that Wicca existed before Gerald Gardner–but it is hard to visualize what the hard evidence they seek might be. Although I do not have a stone tablet of Wiccan runes spelling out its history, or an ancient, crumbling Wiccan charter retrieved from a locked vault, the limited evidence that I do have is very real. It involves interpretation of texts, symbols, photos, and memorabilia, and is the closest and best thing to hard evidence of a Witch-religion prior to Gardner that, I believe, exists to date. One might critically say that my interpretation of these texts, symbols, objects, and memorabilia are just one of many. But the truth is, not all interpretations are equal. Some interpretations are better than others—and my interpretations are good, solid, and apparent. Interpreting texts, objects, and family histories has long been a tried, true, and accepted way of learning about the past and of doing research.

Even the work Ronald Hutton engages in involves interpretation. There is not (and never will be) a long buried stone tablet affirming that Wiccan imagery comes from the Romantic poets. Even though he will never find “hard” evidence to support his thesis, his research nevertheless is interesting. I know that I am not Ronald Hutton—far from it. But, on the other hand, Ronald Hutton’s aunt did not tell him that his ancestors were Fairies, and his great-grandmother did not write a book with an interwoven Wiccan subtext.

The biggest problem with my research is that first someone has to actually read it. I have written a book (Remembering A Faery Tradition: A Case Of Wicca In Nineteenth-Century America) . I am not a professional academic, but I did the best that I could to write about my discoveries and place them within an interesting context. I am sure my book has many faults, but my main message is very tangible. Also, I have made a web site that discusses much of my research and includes a chapter from my book. It is not a professional web site, but it serves a function. I have items and photos and letters that someone else, beside myself, would have to look at. Finally, and most importantly, someone else besides myself would have to read my great-grandmother’s book, front to back, perhaps several times, with a critical eye. If you understand how poetry is written and how metaphor is used, and if you are Wiccan, and if you are able to think like a Witch (surviving within a Christian culture) , you should be able to understand her poetry.

Social media allows me to put all of this “out there” whether anyone ever looks at it or not in current time. Perhaps someday new information will come out that will cause some other researcher to want to look at my research, and then my research might either provide a lead or confirm another finding. Perhaps there are other people, like myself, whose ancestors described themselves as Fairies, who will recognize some of the things that I talk about in my research, and then go public with their information also. Even though it seems that there is not even a small audience interested in the history of Wicca in America—for myself it has been exhilarating, thought-provoking, and a whole lot of fun.

Alexandrian Wicca

Alexandrian Wicca

By , Guide

Origins of Alexandrian Wicca:

Formed by Alex Sanders and his wife Maxine, Alexandrian Wicca is very similar to the Gardnerian tradition. Although Sanders claimed to have been initiated into witchcraft in the early 1930s, he was also a member of a Gardnerian coven before breaking off to start his own tradition in the 1960s. Alexandrian Wicca is a blend of ceremonial magic with heavy Gardnerian influences and a dose of Hermetic Kabbalah mixed in.

Alexandrian Wicca focuses on the polarity between the genders, and rites and ceremonies often dedicate equal time to the God and the Goddess. While Alexandrian ritual tool use and the names of the deities differ from Gardnerian tradition, Maxine Sanders has been famously quoted as saying, “If it works, use it.” Alexandrian covens do a good deal of work with ceremonial magic, and they meet during new moons, full moons, and for the eight Wiccan Sabbats.

Influences from Gardner:

Similar to the Gardnerian tradition, Alexandrian covens initiate members into a degree system. Some begin training at a neophyte level, and then advance to First Degree. In other covens, a new initiate is automatically given the title of First Degree. According to Ronald Hutton, in his book Triumph of the Moon, many of the differences between Gardnerian Wicca and Alexandrian Wicca have blurred over the past few decades. It is not uncommon to find someone who is degreed in both systems, or to find a coven of one tradition that accepts a member degreed in the other system.

Mabon, Son of His Mother

Mabon, Son of His Mother

Gender Relations in Celtic Myth and Prehistory After the One Mother Goddess’s Passing


by Melanie Fire Salamander

This holiday is named for the Welsh god Mabon ap Modron — Son, son of Mother, or Mothers. A mamma’s boy, a mother’s son, a young god, it seems, from a time when it was most important that a god be the son of his mother. A matrilineal time, with a different sort of gender relations than we have now.

In 1985, I could have told you just what that meant. Mabon, I’d have said, came down from the misty early days when the One Mother Goddess held sway over Europe and the Near East — the Goddess of the Moon, Goddess of mares and sows, darkness and nature, death and life — and the Celts danced to her measure. To support me, I would have drawn on Starhawk, the Farrars, Robert Graves, Sir James Frazer, Joseph Campbell and a host of others.

Good-bye to the One Mother Goddess

But the reign of the One Mother Goddess is not a concept you can assert anymore without challenging yourself, I think. Academia has been steadily questioning this idea since the 1970s. Most recently for pagans, Ronald Hutton in his 1999 book The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft has carefully delineated the flaws in the One Mother Goddess idea, and delved into why Victorian and Edwardian scholars and later British and American witches so wanted to believe it. The book makes fascinating reading, even if (especially if) you still hold great affection for the old shibboleth. In showing the passions behind the idea, the idea itself collapses still further, convincingly, into dust.

For all his sledgehammer work, Ronald has not got the last word. Many of the conclusions he draws beg for review. Several times, he asks other researchers to follow in his steps and check his claims. He’s also careful to say that the idea of the one European Mother Goddess cannot be disproved: “It must be stressed once more that none of these developments had disproved the former worship of such a deity; they had simply shown that it could not be proven.” And earlier: “All parts of (the idea) were to some extent anchored in real, proven data, even though it ran beyond this to a very significant extent.”

He also points out a few holes in his own argument, making it clear that the idea of a cross-cultural Mother Goddess can be supported by artifacts in Southern Europe and the Near East, though not so much in Great Britain. Marija Gimbutas, a front-rank archaeologist who to the end of her life in 1994 supported the idea of a cross-cultural European goddess cult in the Neolithic, did her main work in Greece and the Balkans, where Hutton says the idea makes more sense than in Britain. The archaeological community has questioned Gimbutas’s findings; Hutton writes: “Her ideas have met with an increasing volume of criticism from fellow archaeologists… although, in view of the quantity of censure which they have attracted, it may be worth pointing out that at the time of writing they are by no means disproven, and may well never be. The controversy has centered upon the issue that the evidence is susceptible of alternative interpretations.” Academe has marginalized the One Mother Goddess, but she is not gone.

But the era in which one could confidently point to One European Mother Goddess at the Beginning of Time is gone, and we’re standing in the cold morning after.

Reading Triumph of the Moon, I did feel nostalgic. I wanted a ruling Mother Goddess because I’m a pagan and a feminist — that is, I want equal civil and cultural rights for women. I have looked to the past, particularly the past of my British and Northern European forebears, to find a society where women’s rights were upheld, if not in the terms I want today, at least so that women were treated as full human beings. If possible, I’d like to find an earlier pagan society with egalitarian values, study its rituals and adapt them to my usage.

Under a Mother Goddess seemed to be the place to look. It was what Riane Eisler promised me, in her book The Chalice and the Blade, a prehistory in which neither patriarchy nor matriarchy held sway but the sexes were equals and friends under the aegis of a loving Mother Goddess. Even if Eisler’s theory is flawed (she based a lot of her work on Gimbutas), she made many points about reinterpreting prehistory through a less patriarchal lens that still hold true. But there’s a very strong chance she read her prehistory wrong.

Realizing why and how I wanted the Mother Goddess is important. One useful development of the social sciences in the last few decades has been the concept of reflexivity. Hutton in his preface to Triumph of the Moon defines it so: “Reflexivity is the readiness of scholars to be openly aware of their prejudices, preconceptions, instincts, emotions, and personal traits which they bring to their studies and the way in which these can influence the latter. It can also include the impact of the process of study itself upon the personality and attitudes of the scholar.”

Interestingly enough, Hutton rejects reflexivity for his own work. Apparently it was too painful for him: “In the end, lying awake one night at 3 a.m. I decided to excise the whole passage (dealing with the topic)…. There were a number of less pleasant experiences, and whereas on the Pagan side they tended to diminish with time, in the wider society, including the university system, they tended to worsen. To retain the whole section carried the risk of perpetuating the very discomforts to which I have referred, and so deprive myself of the chance that, with the publication of this book and a turn to other subjects, I can finally draw a line beneath them.” Clearly this was a painful struggle for Hutton, but to my mind, he lost it. I want to know the lens through which he gazed at his evidence. Did he wish for a universal Mother Goddess, or was the concept repugnant to him? It does matter; at one point, he thought so himself.

Hutton’s reaction aside, I think that the application of reflexivity to one’s own work is useful. Knowing my Goddess-desires and their source lets me factor them out, so that I can be careful not to view prehistory and myth completely through them. To understand the things I see, I must look at the past as clearly as I can, reviewing my world-view and comparing it with the new information that comes to me. I cannot let my desires paint the past to my liking and expect also to know the truth.

But I can look at the past truly and find in its sometimes disappointing patchwork inspiration for my life and ritual. I don’t need to have a paradise behind me to take from history, prehistory and myth lovely hints, gestures, modes of dress, alliances and feelings, chants and songs to inspire my rituals.

At this point, the One Mother Goddess seems mainly to stand in my way, as a distorting lens. It may still be that if I study the past truly, I’ll find her. But these days, I need to be careful not to project her before me.

Her image set aside for now, it looks as if gender relations in the pagan past were a mixed bag. Not surprising, assuming human nature hasn’t changed that much, and altruism and selfishness have always had interplay. Women had certain powers in certain places, held in position by culture or by law. Men had other powers, and almost always the power of force, which often trumps. In Crete, well-respected archaeologist Gerald Cadogan indicates in Palaces of Minoan Crete, women’s power may have been strong early in the civilization, then eroded. In Sumer, the same seems to hold true: an early, more egalitarian society’s equal civil rights disintegrated under the rule of the patriarchal Akkadians, as Iris Furlong writes in “The Mythology of the Ancient Near East” in The Feminist Companion to Mythology, edited by Carolyne Larrington. In Britain and Northern Europe, the early power structure is less clear.

In all these cases, division of powers seems to be the rule. There might not have been One Mother Goddess, but often there were strong goddesses. Hutton echoes feminist pagans of my acquaintance: “The evidence from the historic ancient world was full of unmistakable proof of the widespread veneration of goddesses, often locally represented as superior to gods and associated with functions — rulership, justice, city-building, industry, agricultural processing, learning — which could make excellent role models for modern feminists.” Among the division of powers, I find glimmers and hints of the balance I desire.

Welsh Myth: Mabon and His Like

To return to Mabon, Son, Son of Mother: Celtic mythology and prehistory is a tapestry of these egalitarian glimmers and hints. There shine forth many strong women and goddesses, sometimes literally strong: goddesses who defeat men in battle, goddesses who train heroes in arms. Naming a god “Son of Mother” is such a hint.

The legend of Mabon ap Modron appears in the Welsh tale collection The Mabinogion in the story “Culhwch and Olwen.” His presence is incidental to the story line; he is merely one of a list of things retrieved so that Culhwch, a young prince, can woo the maiden Olwen from her father, Ysbaddaden Chief Giant. Mabon steps in, steps out; elsewhere he is noted as one of Arthur’s warriors; and that’s it.

But he was not always such an incidental character. Welsh myths come down to us in a Christianized, demythologized folktale form, and only the more-than-human attributes of certain princes and ladies, birds and beasts, along with supporting evidence such as inscriptions, show these figures’ former status of divine. Welsh scholar Gwyn Jones in his introduction to his and Thomas Jones’ Everyman version of The Mabinogion (1993 revision) wrote, “That such personages as Bendigeidran (Bran), Rhiannon, Math and Mabon son of Modron are in both the literary and mythological sense of divine origin, is so conclusively to be proved from the Mabinogion itself, from the rich and extensive Irish analogues, and from our knowledge of the myth-making and myth-degrading habits of our remote world-ancestors, that the theme needs no development at our hands. Euhemerized though such personages are, they remain invested with a physical and moral grandeur which amply bespeaks their godlike state and superhuman nature.”

“Culhwch and Olwen” tells us a little about Mabon. In the tale, Culhwch applies to his cousin King Arthur for help obtaining the 39 wonders (three 13s) that Ysbaddaden Chief Giant requires in exchange for Olwen. Of all the marvels that Culhwch is to get, Arthur suggests they go after Mabon first. Arthur’s lieutenant Cei and the interpreter Gwrhyr, who knows all tongues, with several others seek Mabon by following the advice of five marvelous animals, each older than the previous: an ouzel bird, a stag, an owl, an eagle and a salmon. It takes all the great age of the salmon to recall hearing of Mabon, but the salmon can help. At the wall of Caer Loyw, where the salmon swims daily, he hears a constant lamentation. The salmon takes Cei and Gwrhyr there; they find the crier is Mabon. Arthur sets him free, and he continues with the band to obtain the other treasures, fighting in the lists.

Culhwch mainly requires Mabon so as to play houndsman to a famous hound, Drudwhyn the whelp of Greid son of Eri, for the purpose of hunting a famous boar, Twrch Trwyth. Mabon’s being sought first underlines his importance; the talent for which he’s important is the control of animals. Mabon seems thus to have features of the Lord of Animals.

He’s no mere human huntsman. Mabon appears in inscriptions in northern England as Maponus, according to R.J. Stewart in Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses. In a Romano-Celtic inscription, Stewart writes, Mabon is equated with Apollo Citharoedus, Apollo the lyre-player. The connection points to Mabon’s being a musician, a patron of the arts, a god of light. His lamentation, then, at times becomes a song. Mabon was also said to have made prophesies while in imprisonment, another connection to Apollo, patron of oracles. Mabon was the son of a human father; such half-breed children often retain some mortal status. In the Greek myth of Castor and Pollux, the divine twin gives up half of his divinity so that his beloved brother can live half of each year; each of the twins spends half the year in the underworld. Commentators similarly associate Mabon’s prison-castle with the Celtic underworld or other world. His imprisonment is intriguing; when the light of the sun is imprisoned, we have winter. A half-god, half-human being, imprisoned half the year in the underworld — light that trades place with darkness? The light twin of a pair of brothers? We can’t know, but the idea is tantalizing.

But if Mabon is the Son of Mother, who is his mother? Inscriptions from Celtic times across Britain, Stewart writes, often refer to the local goddess simply as Mother — “Modron.” As a group, the Mothers seem to have been earth-guardians, spirits of place that looked after a certain hollow, a certain dell, a certain stream, requiring worship as these places were approached. Mother goddesses also have some background in Celtic myth. The Irish Tuatha de Danann were called the children of the goddess Danu, a goddess also named Anu, called by the medieval Cormac’s Glossary “the Mother of the deities of Ireland.” A recurring figure in Celtic mythology also is the goddess of sovereignty, the goddess of the land that is married to a king, god or hero. Only from her does the king or god get his legitimacy.

Such a mother, it seems, is Mabon’s — female place, female lineage, femaleness as the generative power. Maybe each Modron was local, but the cult of Modron was still strong.

But if we’re looking at gender relations, the tale tells little; Son never relates to Mother in the myth. All the interaction we see between the two is that Mabon was stolen at three days old — “from between his mother’s side and the wall,” in one translation. Was his mother not strong enough to protect him? If he’s imprisoned in the underworld, though, it’s quite possible an extraordinary force brought him there, which no amount of protection would have prevented. So too was Welsh goddess Rhiannon’s son Pryderi stolen, though six women were there to keep watch, in a fort full of soldiers. Perhaps the myths connect; perhaps Mabon is an older or worn-down version of Pryderi. Whether or no, we can usefully look at Rhiannon and Pryderi for a mother’s relation to her newly found son.

When Pryderi meets again his mother Rhiannon, years after his abduction, he comes to her at his father Pwyll’s castle. There, for killing her son (which the six watching women accused her of), she has taken the penance of carrying each visiting man into court, like the mare with which she is associated. Pryderi refuses to treat his mother so. But it is not till the feast that night with Pwyll that Pryderi’s parentage is made clear. In response to the knowledge, “Rhiannon said, `I should be delivered of my care if that were true'” (from the Everyman Mabinogion). The boy’s future name, Pryderi, is taken from her rejoinder — Pryderi means Care or Thought. Here too the mother names the son.

But the myth only nods to matrilineality and female power. In common usage, Pryderi is called son of Pwyll, for all that his given name comes from his mother. Most of the power in The Mabinogion lies in men’s hands. In a myth set when Pryderi is king, “Manawydan Son of Llyr,” he offers his mother to the king Manawydan without even telling her beforehand.

Yet there is an interplay, and a place for strong women and goddesses. When Manawydan meets Rhiannon, “Manawydan and Rhiannon began to sit together and converse, and with the converse his head and heart grew tender towards her, and he admired in his heart how he had never beheld a lady more graced with beauty and comeliness than she. `Pryderi,’ said he, `I will abide by what thou didst say.’ `What saying was that?’ asked Rhiannon. `Lady,’ said Pryderi, `I have bestowed thee as wife upon Manawydan son of Llyr.’ `And I too will abide by that, gladly,’ said Rhiannon.” Manawydan does not take Rhiannon by force but woos her; his affection for her and turnabout is important to him for marriage; and Rhiannon agrees to that marriage as well.

Irish myth: The Morrigan and Maeve

In Irish myth, we find goddesses more powerful than The Mabinogion’s Rhiannon. Scholars have long argued that females seem stronger in Irish myth because, unlike with Wales, the Romans never conquered Ireland; except for the Norse, the country stayed relatively free of non-Celts until the English won the Battle of Boyne in 1690. Consensus seems to be that because of this relative noninterference, the Irish preserved their female-forward traditions later than the Welsh.

Take the war goddess Morrigan’s relations with the hero of Ulster Cuchulain, for example. She presents herself to him first in the guise of a woman, but no such biddable woman as Rhiannon in The Mabinogion, to be given in marriage will she or not. The Morrigan chooses her own lover. “They went on till they met with a chariot, and a red horse yoked to it, and a woman sitting in it, with red eyebrows, and a red dress on her, and a long red cloak that fell on to the ground between the two wheels of the chariot, and on her back she had a grey spear. `What is your name, and what is it you are wanting?’ said Cuchulain. `I am the daughter of King Buan,’ she said, `and what I am come for is to find you and to offer you my love, for I have heard of all the great deeds you have done.’ `It is a bad time you have chosen for coming,’ said Cuchulain, `for I am wasted and worn out with the hardship of the war, and I have no mind to be speaking with women.’

“`You will have my help in everything you do,’ she said, `and it is protecting you I was up to this, and I will protect you from this out.’ `It is not trusting to a woman’s protection I am in this work I have in my hands,’ said Cuchulain. `Then if you will not take my help,’ she said, `I will turn it against you; and at the time when you will be fighting with some man as good as yourself, I will come against you in all shapes, by water and by land, till you are beaten.’ There was anger on Cuchulain then, and he took his sword, and made a leap at the chariot. But on the moment, the chariot and the horse and the woman had disappeared, and all he saw was a black crow, and it sitting on a branch; and by that he knew it was the Morrigu had been talking with him” (from Lady Augusta Gregory’s Cuchulain of Muirthemne).

The war-goddess has been Cuchulain’s patroness and protector as he learns the art of war from the goddess Scathach and when he fights the warrior-queen Aiofe, by whom he had a son. But during the Cattle Raid of Cuailgne he refuses the Morrigan his love, so when Loch son of Mofebis comes against Cuchulain she begins her revenge: “The Morrigu came against Cuchulain with the appearance of a white, red-eared heifer, and fifty other heifers along with her, and a chain of white bronze between every two of them, and they made a rush into the ford. But Cuchulain made a cast at her, and wounded one of her eyes. Then she came down the stream in the shape of a black eel, and would herself about Cuchulain’s legs in the water; and while he was getting himself free of her, and bruising her against a green stone of the ford, Loch wounded his body. Then she took the appearance of a grey wolf, and took hold of his right arm, and while he was getting free of her, Loch wounded him again.” Despite the Morrigan’s interference, Cuchulain kills Loch, but she tricks him into healing her wounds with three blessings she gets from him, in return for three drinks of milk she gives him, as an old woman milking a cow by the side of the road.

Her enmity doesn’t stop there; throughout the Cattle Raid, the Morrigan harries Cuchulain, stirring up trouble between the fighting armies: “And in the night the Morrigu came like a lean, grey-haired hag, shrieking from one army to the other, hopping over the points of their weapons, to stir up anger between them, and she called out that ravens would be picking men’s necks on the morrow.” In the end, she forces Cuchulain to break a geas, which leads to his death. He has insulted the goddess as a woman, and it is the female power of sex and death who brings him down. But she has loved him, and she hates to see him die. On the day his death is foretold, his chariot is found broken, “and it was the Morrigu had unyoked it and had broken it the night before, for she did not like Cuchulain to go out and to get his death in battle.”

Even in the myths of Cuchulain, for all that his story is mostly arms and battle, women play as great a role as men. When he is brought low, “`without the spells of the children of Calatin, the whole of them would not have been able to do him to death.'” The children of Calatin are three witches — including Badbh, another war-goddess and a double of the Morrigan — who plot revenge against Cuchulain because he killed their father. Doubly the war-goddess brings the great god-hero low. Men’s strength falls at last before women’s.

Cuchulain’s greatest human opponent in myth is Maeve, later considered a queen of the Sidhe or fey folk, which often denotes a fallen goddess. Maeve sponsors the children of Calatin in their revenge, and she sends man after man to kill Cuchulain. He wins her animosity during the Cattle Raid of Cuailgne because he protects the Brown Bull she has sworn to steal.

Maeve begins the raid in a fit of royal pique. Her husband, King Ailell, has complacently complimented her, “`You are better today than the day I married you.'” She retorts, “`I was good before I ever had to do with you” and goes on to list her attributes, including: “`of the six daughters of my father Eochaid, King of Ireland… as for dividing gifts and giving wages, I was the best of them, and as for battle feats and arms and fighting, I was the best of them. It was I had fifteen hundred paid soldiers, and fifteen hundred more that were the sons of chief men.'” She doesn’t mention weaving or singing or womanly arts. She has the strengths of a man.

On top of that, she has the allure of a woman. She lists her many suitors and says she chose Ailell because for her marriage portion she required a man “`without stinginess, without jealousy, without fear…. It would not be fitting for me to be with a man that would be cowardly, for I myself go into struggles and fights and battles and gain the victory; and it would be a reproach to my husband, his wife to be better than himself. And it would not be fitting for me to be with a husband that would be jealous, for I would never hold myself to be bound to one man only.'” As much as any man, she claims the right to go to war and take lovers.

Her marriage portion having been Ailell’s good nature, she in turn gave him costly wedding gifts. In the end, she says, “`the riches that belong to me are greater than the riches that belong to you.'” Ailell disputes this statement; the two compare their wealth. Their riches prove exactly equal, except that Ailell has in his herd a fine bull, Fionnbanach, the White-Horned, who’d been calved among Maeve’s cattle. “But he would not stop in Maeve’s herds, for he did not think it fitting to be under the rule of a woman.” Maeve has no such bull, so she resolves to steal Donn Cuailgne, the Brown Bull of Cuailgne, twice as good as Fionnbanach, so that her riches beat Ailell’s.

Cuchulain ends up defending the bull single-handed against Maeve’s armies for quite a while, because the men of Ulster are under a curse of pain like a woman’s in labor. He kills Maeve’s heroes one after the other; Maeve relentlessly drives her men on. While Ulster’s men are beset by women’s pains, she fights as well as any man; when Cethern of the North weighs in on Ulster’s side, he reports: “There came at me a beautiful, pale, long-faced woman, with long, flowing yellow hair on her, a crimson cloak with a brooch of gold over her breast, and a straight spear shining red in her hand. It was she who gave me that wound, and she got a little wound from me.” Cuchulain names the woman who wounded Cethern as Maeve. Says Maeve’s champion Ferdiad to her, “It is a fit queen you are for Cruachan of the Swords, with your high talk and your fierce strength.'” Generous, warlike, sexual, Maeve is the picture of a queen, equal to her husband or any man.

But Ferdiad regrets Maeve’s war: “‘This army is swept away today; it is wandering and going astray like a mare among her foals that goes astray in a strange place, not knowing which path to take. And it is following the lead of a woman,’ he said, `has brought it into this distress.'” The Morrigan and Maeve live in a world where female and male power are balanced, blended, mixed. Maeve loses the Cattle Raid of Cuailgne to Cuchulain, in the end. Though the hero is broken and bloody, Maeve’s warrior Fergus, Cuchulain’s brother-in-arms from Scathach’s training, surrenders the battle to him. The Morrigan, in contrast, wins against Cuchulain in the end, but her goddess’s heart regrets it.

Maeve and the Morrigan are not the One Mother Goddess but specific goddesses, with specific realms; their attributes are not particularly motherly, though each is a mother. But in studying their aspects, and those of other Celtic goddesses and heroines, we see models of female strength. Like Welsh myth, Irish myth has its patriarchal aspects — men generally rule; sons inherit from fathers and are known by their names; fathers give daughters away in marriage. But strong women and goddesses fight their way through and make their mark on the stories.

From a handful of Celtic myth, I’ve picked some shimmering bits. What I see among these shining ogham pieces is that Celtic myth, like the present, shows us a world of divided powers. In some places and situations, men or gods rule, in others women or goddesses. In the variegated world of Celtic myth, shot with fear, silvered with pleasure, with women and men jostling for power, I can find shards that help me create the egalitarian rituals I want. I can use the past for inspiration, without pretending what I’m doing is authentic to the rituals as done before — it can’t be — and without creating a past to suit my fancy.

If I need One Mother Goddess, I can find her in many pagan rituals — and it’s true if you call the One Goddess with a true heart, she will come. If I need a specific goddess, I can find her too. I don’t need a perfect past for that. Then as now, the world is mixed. I want to start from what actually comes to us from the past, patched and tattered though it be, full of nightmares and dreams, and then move forward.

Deities of the Day for August 15th is The Hooded Spirits

Hooded Spirits

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Hooded Spirits or Genii Cucullati are figures found in religious sculpture across the Romano-Celtic region from Britain to Pannonia, depicted as “cloaked scurrying figures carved in an almost abstract manner” (Henig, 62). They are found with a particular concentration in the Rhineland (Hutton). In Britain they tend to be found in a triple deity form, which seems to be specific to the British representations (De la Bedoyère).

The hooded cape was especially associated with Gauls or Celts during the Roman period. The hooded health god was known as Telesphorus specifically and may have originated as a Greco-Gallic syncretism with the Galatians in Anatolia in the 3rd century BC.

The religious significance of these figures is still somewhat unclear, since no inscriptions have been found with them in this British context (De la Bedoyère). There are, however, indications that they may be fertility spirits of some kind. Ronald Hutton argues that in some cases they are carrying shapes that can be seen as eggs, symbolizing life and rebirth, while Graham Webster has argued that the curved hoods are similar in many ways to contemporary Roman curved phallus stones. However, several of these figures also seem to carry swords or daggers, and Henig discusses them in the context of warrior cults.

Guy de la Bédoyère also warns against reading too much in to size differences or natures in the figures, which have been used to promote theories of different roles for the three figures, arguing that at the skill level of most of the carvings, small differences in size are more likely to be hit-and-miss consequences, and pointing out that experimental archaeology has shown hooded figures one of the easiest sets of figures to carve.