Tag Archives: paganism

Lughnasadh: Harvest of Life

The Irish Celtic Festival of Lughnasadh is traditionally celebrated on August 1st but extends throughout much of the month. It is the first genuine harvest festival of the year and it coincides directly with the Anglo-Saxon holiday of Lammas.



The holiday is named for Lugh, the Irish hero of light. His name derives from the word for lightning and illumination. Amongst Germanic peoples, this day was sacred to the god Thor: the god of thunder, storms and agriculture. Thunder and lightning are obvious signs of rain and storm which are naturally an important ecological phenomenon for agricultural societies.

Lugh is of course more than a simple agricultural deity. As a patron of light, Lugh is the embodiment of all things light represents: intelligence, knowledge, wisdom, enlightenment. Science and artistry are also considered to have been invented by Lugh. Considering his close association with the Roman god Mars, Lugh is a patron of martial prowess, which is perhaps best exemplified through his son Cuchulain. All of these attributes, whether agricultural or innovative attest to Lugh as a god of wealth, the guardian and benefactor of the tribe’s prosperity.  It is probably more than mere coincidence that this time of year in Anglos-Saxon tradition, bondsmen would pay their rent.

This holiday, along with Imbolc, Beltane and Samhain represent the four main festivals of the medieval Irish calendar.  As the first true harvest festival in the seasonal cycle, Lughnasadh has certain associations with death.  In fact, the name itself translates roughly as “the wake of Lugh.”  Whereas holidays in the earlier seasons coincide with increasing life, harvest festivals are the first signs of the summer’s demise.  With the summer day’s becoming noticeably shorter at this time, it becomes quite obvious that winter’s grip is only a short way off.  Although the theme of a wake is a significant part of the festival, the overall atmosphere is generally one of joy and revelry.



The legends tell us that Lugh established the harvest fair of Lugnasadh in honor of his foster-mother Tailtiu at the Town of Teltown in County Meath.  Tailtu’s death was a necessary component in establishing the growing of the crops and the abundant harvest that follows.  These celebrations quite often resembled today’s Scottish Highland Games. Lugnasadh often involved horse races, and martial arts displays or competitions.  Competitive games such as chess were also a part of the festivities, representing Lugh’s victory over the Fomorian King Bres who previously controlled the powers of the Harvest, establishing the Irish agricultural tradition.

Lugh is the hero of Light. For this reason he is often compared with the Sun, since the Sun is the greatest source of light with which humans and earthly crops interact. As a hero of Light, Lugh is also called Samh-ildánach, “the many gifted one,” because of his multiple skills in all the arts and trades.  Just as darkness represents ignorance, Light represents knowledge, and in this case knowledge of many, if not all things. In the old legends we find that Lugh (representing the Sun) conquers the Fomorians (representing darkness, ignorance and oppression). When this is done, Lugh wrestles from the King of primitive darkness the knowledge of cultivation and the harvest.

This is a celebration of the Harvest.  On this day families gather together to give thanks for the bounty of the Harvest and to reenact the mythological event that brought the Ancestors from a life of oppression and into a life of abundance with the knowledge of agriculture. It must be remembered that it is only with this knowledge that humankind has managed to not only survive, but to thrive in even inhospitable environments. It is agriculture that has allowed human beings to settle lands, build defensive structures and over all make life safer for acquiring food. This has allowed civilization to flourish and become specialized, developing art, literature, economics, and other remarkable aspects of material culture.



Finnegan’s Wake, a Glance at Irish Mysticism through Lyrical Satire

 

Finnegan’s Wake is amongst my favorite traditional Irish songs and it has been a staple of the Irish balladeer’s repertoire since the middle of the 19th century. Over the past several decades it has been covered by great and legendary Irish bands like The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem, The Dubliners, the Pogues, and most recently the Massachusetts-based Dropkick Murphys.  However, like much of Irish lyrical tradition stretching back to the ancient bards “Finnegan’s Wake” is in reality a work of deep esoteric value cleverly disguised as a silly drinking song that only the initiated were likely to fully comprehend.

At Face Value

The story tells of Tim Finnegan, a poor construction worker with a love for the liquor who drank a bit too much before work one morning, fell from a ladder, broke his skull and died. Upon the eve of his wake his friends and relatives arrive at his home to mourn him.  Biddy O’Brien begins crying loudly and is essentially told to shut up by one Paddy McGee.

Once Maggie O’Connor gets involved in the exchange telling Biddy she’s wrong, Biddy punches her in the mouth, leaving her ‘sprawling on the floor.”  Then all Hell breaks loose as the entire house becomes engaged in a brawl “woman to woman and man to man,” brandishing their shillelaghs, the classical Irish club.

A bottle of whiskey is thrown across the room, just barely missing Mickey Maloney, and instead landing on Tim Finnegan’s bed with the whiskey scattering all over his body. At that point Tim revives and “rises from the bed,” and delivers the punch line of the ballad; “Whittle your whiskey around like blazes, Thanum an Dhul![1] Do you think I’m dead?”

 

The Mystery Unveiled

While this ballad is typically considered a comical drinking song, it actually gives us a glimpse into an old Irish and western mystical tradition.

Tim Finnegan is a construction-worker. Although this was a common vocation amongst Irishmen throughout the 19th century, there is much more being said here than meets the eye, or ear.  As the lyrics clearly tell us “to rise in the world he carried a hod.” A hod is a tool used for carrying bricks and mortar, telling us that Mr. Finnegan was, in fact a mason. Since no later than 1717 AD the repository for esoteric wisdom in Western countries has been the order of Free and Accepted Masons who trace their historic origins to the medieval stone masons guilds, and from there symbolically to the ancient builders of Greek, Egyptian and Israelite temples.

Let us also take note that Tim Finnegan carries his hod “to rise in the world.” In Freemasonry, it is said that a candidate is “raised” to the degree of a Master Mason. Freemasonry also makes use of the symbolism of death and resurrection through the allegory of the architect Hiram Abiff.

Architecture, construction work and craftsmanship have been metaphors for mystical knowledge going back thousands of years. In ancient Irish mythology the three brothers Luchta, Goibniu, and Credne are known as the Trí Dée Dána (the three gods of art).  Each represented the respective trades of carpentry, blacksmithing, and silver-smithing, and they crafted the weapons which the Tuatha Dé Danann (Irish ancestor gods) used to conquer the Fomorians (Irish beings of chaos and darkness).

In ancient Egypt, the god Ptah was the patron of craftsmen and architects, and he was closely associated as an aspect of the dying and resurrecting god Osiris.  Both of these deities were incorporated by the Greeks into the god Dionysus, well known as a patron of wine and spirits.  It is more than coincidence that Jesus of Nazareth, perhaps the most well-known dying and resurrecting god is often cited as having been a carpenter before he began his spiritual mission and he, much like his forebears also had an affinity toward life-giving and preserving drink.

A further look at the lyrics of this ballad reveals that at the wake of Finnegan they placed a gallon of whiskey at his feet and a barrel of porter at his head. This sentiment is echoed in the Irish ballad “Jug of Punch” in which the balladeer requests upon his death “just lay me down in my native peat with a jug of punch at my head and feet.”  This is a particularly Irish rendition of the tradition found amongst the world’s cultures of making sacramental offerings to the dead.  The making and pouring of libations is well documented in European traditions.

As mentioned previously, Jesus, Osiris and Dionysus are not only associated with death and resurrection, they are all three also closely associated with drinking rituals. Amongst other things, Dionysus is a god of wine. Osiris is said to have taught the world the art of brewing.  Jesus turned water into wine. Similarly, the Irish craftsman-god Goibniu also brewed the beer of immortality.

The English word whiskey is derived from the Irish Gaelic uisce beatha which translates as “the waters of life.” So when the whiskey scatters across the corpse of Tim Finnegan, it literally, magically and sacramentally imbues him with life; a spiritual conception which stretches back through centuries of esoteric tradition.

Conclusion

The dying and resurrecting god is not just a rhetorical device for dramatic affect. To ancient civilizations death and rebirth are symbolic of the annual cycle, the dying and rebirth of the summertime, the growing season and of the sun, so often symbolic of divinity. This symbolism has been revised, reincorporated and redistributed as a multitude of myths, legends and doctrines throughout the world in order to teach each civilization or cult’s particular perspective on the meaning of creation.

A creator god’s primary attribute is creativity, and this trait has been imitated through the creative works of humans whom are believed to be made in the divine image. Art, music, agriculture and most especially architecture has long been associated metaphorically if not literally with godliness, and enlightenment.
Finnegan’s Wake is far more than just another drinking song. It is a humorous retelling of an ancient initiation myth.  Tim Finnegan is not just a drunk construction worker who died and came back to life.  He is the personification of the mystery of the dying and resurrecting god represented in the form of Irish lyrical satire.

[1]d’anam ‘on Diabhal. a common curse: your soul to the Devil, from the Irish D’anam don Diabhal

Midsummer

Midsummer is a traditional holiday celebrated throughout many of the world’s cultures, with ancient origins.  It is the celebration of the summer solstice, an important astronomical date on the annual cycle.  It is celebrated on or near the 21st of June. In many Celtic communities it is commonly celebrated on June 24th.

Due to its connection with the agricultural cycle, Midsummer is most often celebrated on the 21st of June by modern Heathens and neo-pagans as one of the eight sabbats. In Revival Druidry it is called Alban Heruin and is one of the four high holidays.

The summer solstice is the longest day of the year, with the sun at its strongest, therefore Midsummer represents the triumph of light over darkness.  The solar hero born at Yule and celebrated as the child of light is now at his peak.  He overthrows the oppressive king of winter and takes his rightful place upon the throne of the earth.  Just as in our time today, in ancient days marriages often occurred at Midsummer.

As an agricultural holiday, in many parts of the world this is the earliest time that a harvest can be made since the springtime sowing; therefore it is a festival of first fruits. Traditional Midsummer rites are often centered on bonfires.  New fires would be kindled and offerings of flowers were made to them.  In many communities an effigy of a person would be burned in the bonfire.  Similarly to Beltane, cattle would be driven through the smoke of the fires as a means of blessing, protecting and enhancing the livelihood of the tribe and community.  Torches were lit from central bonfires and carried home where the hearth was lit.  Participants would dance around these fires and tend them throughout the night.  This all-night affair was commonly called “the watch,” and it was an integral part of the festivities.  Near the early morning when he fires had died down some, some of the revelers would jump over the flames for good luck and to encourage the crops to grow.

Midsummer Bonfire in Freiburg im Breisgau

Similar traditions are found on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.  Native American communities such as the Creeks, Seminoles, Cherokee, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and many others of the Eastern Woodland traditions celebrate the Green Corn rite: the new fire ceremony, the New Year, the greatest fast culminating in the first feast of the year.

At this time in the environment, the wild flora is also at its peak, especially of the medicinal variety, so this holiday also has a focus on gathering and honoring medicine.  Blackberries and wild plums are also ripening, making for natural symbols of this season. On the Muskogee calendar, June is Kvco Hvse or “Blackberry Sun.”

In many Germanic countries the Maypole is celebrated at Midsummer.  In some communities the Maypole was left up from Beltane and burned at Midsummer. Midsummer is the height of the spiritual year.  Medicine is strongest at this time.  Spirits of nature and of the ancestors, both good and malevolent are very active on a Midsummer’s night which inspired one of Shakespear’s most classic works; A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Imbas Fire

I got fire in the head!

Imbas on the inside, so red!

A cauldron of poetic frenzy brewing the content of the universe

Translating, melding it down, an inspired stew-in-verse

More than a measure of grammar, meter and rhyme

Through head, heart and gut, universal space and time

Twisting like a whirlpool spinning mastery of words

Spitting reddening satire – the kind that really burns

But it’s just prophecy in motion, the wisdom of a bard

Passing judgments with clarity till you know who you are!

(This poem was originally written in 2004 as a final exam for an undergraduate anthropology class. – I got an A. – I was looking through some old writings and it just felt relevant again.)

These Woods

On a quest to find my healing rock. #river

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These woods are like home to me.  Whenever I return it is as if I have come back to my spiritual center.  This is where it truly began for me.  I was a misguided youth full of angst and hostility, disillusioned by the world, and spiritually injured. But these woods are a place of healing and renewal, and they changed me. Over the years I’ve seen other people changed by these woods as well.

The medicine is strong along this creek.  The waters are crisp, clear and purifying, and I swear I can hear the voices from generations of spirits echo through the clay-bank valleys, enticing me to release the stresses and pains of my mortal existence, bringing my spirit back to light.

I had my first powerful vision here, where I was healed and transformed into something that could be of better service to my people; something I’m ashamed to admit I had strayed too far from over recent years.

I have experienced giving, sharing, and loving in these woods that is too rarely found in the outside world.

Fairy Altar in the deep woods. #woods #spirit

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We’ve had gatherings of great souls, teaching circles, solstice and equinox festivities.  Barefoot hippies, country kids, urbanites rediscovering themselves and an assortment of other wanderers have met here as family to share in each other’s good graces.  Bonfires and drums, maypoles, and moonlight dancing bringing people together in love and laughter.  Here, we are free.

I remember a stew once made.  A dozen camps contributed to it.  The missing ingredient to tie it all together, an onion was nowhere to be found. Then down the trail came some new arrivals for the evening, and packed in their gear was just such an onion which they gladly contributed. “I don’t even know why I packed it.” He said. “I just grabbed it and threw it in my cooler because I thought it might come in handy.”  So into the stew pot it went, to simmer over the open flames.  A dozen camps were fed from this stew and there was an abundance that never seemed to end.  It was like a true “loaves and fishes” story.

Here we were free to be in our spirits, and the only law was love. Not a law to be rigidly enforced, but simply lived. This is where I learned to love openly.  I felt the darkness I carried with me lifted and I was made new.  It was beautiful.  It is beautiful. And it is where I learned to see beauty in this world that I had for so long been so cynical about.

Still is still moving to me. #river #woods #nature

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This is why these woods and this river are the place I return to when my spirit needs healing, or if I just need to get away from the noise and distractions that cloud my visions and confine my inner light.  Meditation is stronger here.  Prayers become reality and love can be embraced.

Though I have experienced many great lands and beautiful environments, I’ve never known another place quite like this.

 

We all need something like this in our lives.

 

This is sacred space.

Sunset through Blackwater Forest #nature #October #woods

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Yuletide and the Real Reason for the Season

Candle on German Christmas tree. Creative Commons, Wikimedia

Yule is an ancient Germanic midwinter celebration better known today by the name Christmas.  Being associated with the winter solstice, Yule is traditionally a twelve-day festival centered near the days of December 21st.  Although Yule is a holiday of Germanic origin, the traditions and symbolism associated with it have been absorbed by the Christmas holiday and practiced in variations throughout the world.  Similarly the Romans celebrated the Saturnalia: a festival of great significance on December 25th, the date that was adopted as the official date for Christmas.  Due to Christianization, these similar holidays are now united throughout most of Western society as Christmas, but many of the traditions associated with it are of pre-Christian, and Heathen origin.



Over the centuries through colonialism, missionary infiltration, and technological development unrelated and often foreign mythologies were grafted onto the significant dates so that the original meanings and reasons for our oldest holidays have been all but forgotten in popular culture.  It’s not just coincidence that the Yuldetide falls at the solstice time.  That is precisely the point.

Solstice time is significant to human society for a number of reasons.  Since the beginning of autumn as the earth has tilted on its axis, the sun’s rays have begun to hit the earth’s northern hemisphere less directly causing the air to cool off and the seasons to change into winter.  Winter in Northern Europe was a perilous time for the ancient tribal peoples of Northern Europe with average daily temperatures consistently below freezing.  Crops will not grow. The herds are thin and wild animals that were so abundant in the summer are scarce.   The grass is brown with death and trees stand naked, stripped bare save for the evergreen which has taken on the symbolism of everlasting life.  For our ancestors, the people fared little better.  We have a term for this time of year, “the dead of winter.” Since the harvest, death has seemed to surround the tribe.

During winter the daylight hours appear dimmer and get progressively shorter and the nights longer and colder.  Winter solstice is the shortest day of the year.  It is the longest night and symbolically at least, the coldest of the winter nights.  It sounds depressing doesn’t it? For a lot of people it is. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real winter-induced condition that has otherwise been colloquially called the “winter blues” and has been documented in Northern Europe since the 6th century.  Recommended treatments include Light Therapy, exposure to bright light.  And what is Christmastime without Christmas lights? These LED bulbs that we cover our houses, yards and Christmas trees in are easily traced back to festive Christmas candles and most anciently and significantly the hearth fire, the social and spiritual center of the traditional Western home.



Notice the Yuletide is the annual time for good cheer. Why the middle of winter instead of any other time of year?   Because during no other time of year are people in need of such uplifting sentiment and behavior than in the dead of winter in Northern Europe.  Of course it is the darkest and often most depressing time of the year that the people would choose to lighten the mood with shimmering lights and “making spirits bright.” This ages old Yule tradition of decorating the house with lights, wreaths, ribbons, and shiny, joyous symbols is a wonderful way to lift the mood when it’s needed most.

And these festivities center and culminate around these particular dates in December for specific astronomical reasons.  At this point the Earth begins to tilt on her axis in a manner that allows for more of the sun’s rays to shine directly upon the northern hemisphere, allowing the days to grow longer and the frigid nights to grow shorter.  These are the first stirrings of the coming summer.  In contrast with the atmosphere of death that has surrounded the people through the autumn, we can now look forward once again toward spring and summer, the time of life and abundance.  It is almost as if the new year has been born again and we are saved.

Joseph Campbell took great effort to document the depth and breadth of the solar hero motif in its various forms from the divine child to the dying god, and metaphorically, poetically it’s a powerful image. This distinct relationship between the earth and the sun is likened to a procreative act that bares life and provides the conditions for abundance. The winter solstice bares the New Year sun like a child who will grow into a hero and eventually die before being reborn over and over again.  The hero’s life is a personified metaphor for the annual cycle.  The birth of the solar hero, the sun god, the god of the tribe is the first step toward the fulfillment of an annual prophecy: a divine promise that the summer will come again, that life will flourish once more on the earth.  The passing of these last days of the most deadly time of winter is celebrated with revelry at the birth of the sun, the personification of the sacred year.

Over thousands of years the prominence of one mythology over another distanced the people more and more from the astronomical significance and the agricultural affects associated with the winter solstice.  Depending on the region of the world different characters are associated with the holiday. For many people today Christmas is about the birth of Jesus.  For others the central figure is Santa Claus, a popularly marketed fusion of an old Christian Saint Nicholas and Odin, the Nordic Allfather.  In other countries there a witches, demonoid monsters, and logs that represent the winter holiday.  Otherwise the oldest and most traditional symbols of the Yuletide remain pretty consistent with their seasonal significance.

When we consider the Yuletide and are faced with deciphering the meaning of it all, or the reason for the season it’s important to remember it is the astronomical relationship between the earth and the sun which has caused the northern hemisphere to experience conditions antagonistic to survival.  It’s cold. It’s dark. It can be depressing.  So we light up and try to spread good cheer to each other during these times.  At the worst part of the year is the winter solstice and for the most part the worst of the winter is behind and we have the joys and abundance of summer ahead.  That is something worth celebrating.



Thanksgiving, Legend, and American Indians

the_first_thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of the United States’ most significant national holidays. It’s probably second in popularity only to Christmas. Like most Americans, I grew up with it. There’s really not much to it other than cooking a lot of food and having a feast in the middle of the day, during which we are supposed to express our appreciation for all our good fortune as Americans. It has a slightly religious tone to it, but that is overshadowed by its more nationalistic implications.

 

Along with Columbus Day, and the Fourth of July/Independence Day celebration, the Thanksgiving story has served as one in the series of origin myths to help establish European roots in North America. It’s ritualistic like any holiday as we loosely reenact the nation’s “First Supper.”




The myth tells that in 1621 after the pilgrims came to America they failed to properly work the land and were in danger of suffering famine. The local Wampanoag Indians took pity upon the new arrivals and taught them how to work the land and most importantly how to grow corn. I seem to recall as a child I learned that the Indians taught the Pilgrims to plant their seeds with a fish and this insured a strong and healthy crop, but I haven’t encountered this part of the myth as an adult. After the Pilgrims had a successful harvest they invited the Wampanoag to a great feast to celebrate. The two peoples partied and had a Kumbaya moment. The Pilgrims made this an annual tradition and this became Thanksgiving. There isn’t much truth to this story, but it seems harmless enough.

 

Of course Thanksgiving has taken some flack in recent decades for its usage of Native Americans as props in a story that seems to essentially justify the usurpation of American Indian title to the North American continent by colonial society. Now there is even a video circulating on TeenVogue that uses teenage girls to try to convince us that Thanksgiving actually has its origins in feasts that white people celebrated after fighting and extinguishing a Native community. It really comes off as the type of faux-outrage you’d expect from half-educated adolescents with angst. I’ve been there. I think the real shame is that it’s lazy, shallow research. Myths and legends are one thing but this is almost a crime against history.

 

Thanksgiving is in reality a part of a long tradition of Anglo-Saxon harvest festivals that were celebrated every fall going back into historical obscurity. These were like any of the similar harvest celebrations held by agricultural communities throughout the history of the world including North America. It is essentially a part of the European wheel of the year, a vestige from the white continent’s indigenous and tribal past, but that’s true of most holidays.




Some people think Indians shouldn’t celebrate Thanksgiving for political reasons. I could never get onboard with that idea. Overall I don’t have any real problem with the holiday or its symbolism. I can get annoyed by the stereo-typical white-man’s Indian play-acting, redface, and other embarrassing behaviors it encourages in non-Indians from time to time. I am left feeling bereft at the sense of equality and brotherhood it depicts between whites and Indians that rarely if ever really existed, especially when today Native communities are still being deprived of rights, and resources by the colonial governments, and the dominant society seems so unmoved and so unconcerned by it. Considering how little attention Indians get in American history and modern social and political discourse I guess we should be glad we get to be the second most significant part of the country’s second most significant holiday.

 

At the end of the day I am an advocate for all people returning to their roots and their native traditions adjusted to their modern geographic and political circumstances. In large part that requires a meaningful celebration of the seasonal cycle for all people. Thanksgiving is a day, or an entire weekend for some folks to take time and celebrate the earth’s bounty and to strengthen our bonds with family, clan, tribe, and nation. I see a national harvest celebration as part of this ancient tradition kept alive in modern America with a uniquely American symbolism.

 

Some people will choose not to celebrate Thanksgiving for reasons they attribute to their values, and that’s cool with me. For me Thanksgiving is a real time of gratitude, reflection, and preparation for the road ahead. I’ll get back to work after the festival.

 

Happy Thanksgiving.




Here We Come A-Wassailing; The Roots of a Christmas Tradition

It’s not Christmas without Christmas carols.  Many of our most traditional carols are filled with lyrics and lines that leave the modern caroler bewildered.  One of my favorite holiday tunes is “Here We Come A-Wassailing,” also commonly known as “Here We Come A-Caroling.”  Just what is wassailing?  Is it just an archaic word for Christmas caroling?  Actually no, it isn’t.  While the two terms have become generally accepted as interchangeable, caroling is just one aspect of a much deeper and more profound tradition of wassailing.

wassail

Wassail is also a common name for a variety of mulled or spiced beverages such as apple cider, served hot and traditional during the winter months, especially at Christmastime.  In medieval England wassail was a common fermented drink, a type of ale, or mead, served with bread or toast and consumed ceremonially and socially like beer or wine in modern society.  Typical ingredients of wassail included sweetened apple cider, spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger.  Modern popular varieties may use a fruit juice, ale, or wine as a base, sometimes spiked with liquor.  Originating in England, wassail was traditionally used as a beverage for making important ceremonial toasts, a ritual closely related to the sumble.  The word itself is derived from the Middle English term waes hael, which means “good health to you.”  Similarly it corresponds to the Old English “wes hal,” and the Old Norse “ves heill.”

wassail-herveygoat2

In ancient Europe, wassailing was an important element in the highly tree oriented Anglo-Saxon religious complex.  The Yuletide rite consisted of a parade of revelers singing hymns and playing their drums and other musical instruments, roving between the orchards, leaving offerings and pouring libations.  The ceremony was intended to awaken the apple trees and chase away malevolent spirits in order that the trees should be healthy and produce an abundant crop the following year.  Hot mulled cider, prepared from the recent harvest was the traditional and symbolic drink consumed and offered at these ceremonies.

During the medieval period, under feudalism the wassail developed into a midwinter ritual in which the wealthy Lord would distribute goods from his storehouses to the peasants who worked his lands.  In exchange for gifts of his best foods, beers, ales, and wines, the Lord could be assured his people’s allegiance and fealty for the next year.  During the late sixteenth century, bands of young men would travel from orchard to orchard on Twelfth Night, performing the wassailing rite.  They would take their wassail bowl with them and leave offerings of bread or toast on the roots or branches of trees.  Libations of cider were poured on the roots in order that the trees would produce an abundant harvest the following year.  Wassailing cups and bowls were important communal ceremonial items used within all levels or society.  Wassail vessels came in many varieties from the large and intricately decorated silver goblet used by the Worshipful Company of Grocers guild, to the simple white maple bowls used by commoners.

santa-Wassail

During the later historical era wassailing became associated with roving bands of the poor who would descend upon their wealthy neighbors’ homes at Christmastime.  Singing and dancing, they wassailers would demand entrance into the house, and shares of the residents’ best liquors and deserts.  This rite is forever enshrined in the words to the popular carol We Wish You a Merry Christmas; “Now give us some figgy pudding,” and “we won’t go until we get some!”  The estate’s owner was fully expected to play along and contribute to the “good cheer.”  If he didn’t, he could expect his reputation to plummet and possibly his property vandalized.  The old Yuletide holiday was celebrated in a fashion more similar to Halloween and trick-or-treat than to our modern Christmas. This drunken disorderliness is one of the reasons used to outlaw Christmas celebrations by the newly empowered puritans in the Commonwealth of England during the mid seventeenth century.  Over the past few centuries, the roving gangs of wassailers have become tamed into the serene image of the Christmas caroler singing from door to door in the white winter weather, sipping on hot apple-cider.  The hooligan shaking down the neighborhood for treats has been reserved for Halloween.

Wassailing in the old way however, is still practiced especially in the cider-producing western counties of England.   In Carhamptona and Whimple, Wassails are held on Twelfth Night, January 17th*, as a means of asking God to bless the community with a healthy orchard and a plentiful apple harvest.  A Wassail king and, queen are selected to lead a procession from orchard to orchard as the participants sing and play music.  During this rite, the wassailers drink large droughts of cider until they are quite full of good cheer. Upon entering an orchard the participants form a circle around the largest apple tree.  The Wassail queen is lifted into the branches where she leaves a piece of toast dipped in wassail as an offering to the “tree faeries,” or the “good spirits,” commonly represented by the local robins.  A blessing to the tree is recited and near the conclusion of the ceremony a man fires a shotgun in the air to frighten away the evil spirits.  Then the revelers begin beating drums, some using pots and pans while singing a traditional invocation for a rich harvest before proceeding to the next orchard.  A popular wassailing song from nineteenth century Somerset County, England went as follows;

 

“Apple tree, apple tree, we all come to wassail thee,

Bear this year and next year to bloom and to blow,

Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sack fills,

Hip, Hip, Hip, hurrah, Holler biys, holler hurrah.”[5]

 

Another old lyric from England says;

 

“Wassaile the trees, that they may beare

You many a Plum and many a Peare,

For more or lesse fruits they will bring,

As you do give them Wassailing.”

 

Our modern tradition of wassailing has taken an intriguing path on its way to us.   Now we can make a little more sense out of the opening lines of that old favorite at Christmastime.  “Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green,” is reminiscent of the old ritual of visiting the orchards, singing to the health of the apple trees to ensure the following year’s harvest.

“Love and Joy come to you,

and to you your wassail too,

And God bless you and send you a happy new year.”

* The date of Twelfth Night is in dispute in certain parts of Britain.  The date on the Gregorian calendar corresponds to January 6th, or the eve of January 5th.  The pre-Gregorian, Julian date which is followed by the old traditionalists falls on January 17th.

Eight Christmas Characters Most Americans Don’t Know

To most Americans Santa Claus is the face of the Christmas season popularized most heavily by the poem T’was the Night before Christmas which essentially codified the Santa tradition in the United States.  Based heavily off of the earlier European models like Sinterklaas, Father Christmas, Old Man Winter, and of course St. Nicolas, the poem took these old world variations and developed the jolly old elf we know and love today, complete with his sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.  Rudolf would have to wait until much later to be introduced into the mythology.  But throughout Europe there is a broad range of Christmas characters less familiar to Americans, who reveal the richness of this holiday tradition.  Here are eight Christmas characters most Americans don’t know.

 

1) Yule Lads

In Iceland, 13 mischievous Yule Lads start coming to town one a day beginning thirteen days before Christmas, each one staying for two weeks.  They appear to be quite troublesome spirits, partaking in all sorts of impish behavior, robbing, pulling pranks on, and generally harassing the townspeople.  Each of the thirteen Yule Lads or Yulemen have rather unique names that express the character of their misdeeds such as Meat-Hook, Window-Peeper, and Sausage-Swiper.

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2) Christkind

Christkind is the Christ child, or the baby Jesus.  While Christmas is commonly celebrated as the birth of Christ, He is typically not thought of as the Christmas gift-giver in the United States.  In several Eastern European and Latin American countries this little Jesus comes secretly and leaves presents for the children set up around the Christmas tree. Christkind was popularized by Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation as a reaction against the overly Catholic symbol of St. Nicolas.  He is usually depicted as an angelic child complete with wings.  The name Christkind has been suggested as the origin of Kris Cringle, one of Santa Claus’ many names.

3) Knecht Ruprecht

In German folklore the Servant Rupert, is a companion of Sinterklaas.  He is depicted as a man with a long beard, dressed in fur, covered in soot, carrying a walking staff and a sack of ashes with jingle-bells hanging from his clothes.  He is sometimes in the company of fairies and men with blackened skin dressed as old women.  When he arrives, he asks the children if they know how to pray.  Those children who can are rewarded with fruits, nuts and cookies.  Those children who cannot pray, he beats with his sack of ashes.  In the shoes of naughty children he places lumps of coal, rocks, or switches for their parents to use in spanking them.

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4) Befana

To Americans witches are associated with Halloween and are the furthest things from our minds during the season of cheer and good will.  That’s not the case in Italy where the Befana is the popular symbol of the Christmas season.  Befana is an old woman who brings presents to the good Italian children on January 5, the Eve of the Epiphany.  Instead of a jolly old elf, she is known as a raucous and shameless Witch.  Instead of a sleigh, Befana flies through the air on that most traditional instrument of witchy aeronautics, her broom.  For the good children she leaves presents and candies in their socks. For the bad children she leaves a lump of coal.

 

5) Krampus

Krampus is a popular Christmas spirit especially around Austria and Hungary.  A traveling companion of St. Nicolas, he is charged with punishing the naughty children.  He appears as a fearsome beast like a goat dressed in black rags, carrying old heavy chains.    Some traditions tell that Krampus is the devil and the chains are representative of his servitude in Hell.  At the beginning of December, especially on the night of December 5, men don regalia made from goat-hair, hideously detailed masks with red horns, long tongues and chains.  They get drunk and wander the city streets with switches to threaten and frighten the children.  Late at night, when St. Nicolas is preparing to visit a house and leave his presents, the children are warned that they must go to sleep and not try to peak out and catch a glimpse of St. Nicolas, otherwise the Krampus might snatch them up and carry them away in his sack.

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6) Zwarte Piet

Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) is an elfin figure with blackened skin stained from the soot of all the chimneys down which he descends on Christmas.  A popular character in Belgium and the Netherlands, Zwarte Piet is a companion of Sinterklaas and shows up during the weeks preceding the Feast of St. Nicolas.  The Zwarte Pieten entertain children and toss out cookies and candies.  The origin of Zwarte Piet is mysterious.  One tradition says that Sinterklaas defeated Satan and pressed him into service but, in the 19th century Zwarte Piet was remade to resemble a Moor.  Some traditions say that he was a slave named Peter, rescued and liberated by the Sinterklaas, becoming his regular companion.  In modern festivals Zwarte Piet is depicted with black skin, red lips, dressed in bright, colorful Renaissance attire.  To the good children Zwarte Piet brings presents and candy.  For the bad children he carries a bundle of birch branches for their parents to use in punishing them.  Especially naughty children face the prospect of Zwarte Piet throwing them in a giant sack and spiriting them away to Spain.

 

7) Tió de Nadal

The tradition of Tió de Nadal comes out certain regions of Spain such as Catalonia and Aragon.  In some ways it bears a striking resemblance to the Yule Log, common in Anglo and Germanic countries.  The iconic Tió is a hollowed out log, roughly one foot in length, often with one end painted with a smiling face, set up as a decoration in certain households.  Beginning on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, and throughout the Christmas season the Log is cared for like an idol.  He is treated with offerings of food every night from the Feast until Christmas.  At night someone in the house will cover the Log with a quilt to keep him warm.  Although similar in theme to the Germanic Yule Log, the Tió differs in a quite profound and rather unique manner.  Another name for the Tió de Nadal is Caga tió, or the “pooping log.”  On either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day the household sings traditional Christmas songs associated with the Tió while beating him with sticks, encouraging him to poop.  When the Tió opens up he “poops” candy, dried fruit, and nuts which everyone share together.

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8) Yule Goat

The Scandinavian Santa Claus and is often referred to as the Yule Goat, a tradition native to Northern Europe.  Yule is the old Germanic name for the Midwinter festival that became associated with Christmas, on which day the Yule Goat was slaughtered and eaten.  Scholars connect this tradition with Thor, the Nordic god of thunder who rode his chariot through the night sky at Yule drawn by two goats named Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr.  In countries such as Finland the Yule Goat was a horrid beast that terrified children and could only be pacified with gifts rather than delivering them.  In other parts of Scandinavia the Yule Goat was a benevolent spirit who monitored the Yule festivities to assure that the rituals were performed properly.  One tradition has a man dressing in the furry costume of the Yule Goat, complete with long horns which was theatrically sacrificed and resurrected to the tune of a traditional Yule song.  Modern Yule Goats however, are often ornaments fashioned from straw into the shape of a goat and adorned with red ribbons used to decorate for the Christmas season.  Larger than life sized Yule Goats, also made from straw are set up around town and are often the unfortunate targets of hooligans who set them on fire on the days leading up to Christmas.

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A Scandinavian Yule Goat

Sumble: The Origin of Toasting

Toasting is a peculiar custom in Western society.  Nearly everyone who has a drink makes toasts, but few realize that they are taking part in an ancient custom with roots in the old pre-Christian religions of Northern and Western Europe: the Sumble.




The Sumble is an ancient communion rite that was historically practiced by Germanic and Celtic peoples.  This rite is portrayed in the epic poem Beowulf and other sources of Germanic and Nordic folklore.  Sumble is closely related to the English tradition of Wassailing, popular especially as part of the Yuletide.

The majority of those whom actively participate in Sumble today are religious Heathens, practitioners of the old Germanic and Celtic religions.  They base their rite directly off of the 11th and 12th century Nordic customs as recorded in their respective texts.  In its most basic elements it consists of a gathering into a drinking hall, or a circle, a blessing or consecration is recited over the drink, a libation, and a sharing of the sacrament by the participants from the same vessel.

The sacrament is usually ale or mead, and historically it was served with toast.  This is where the term toast originates, as in drinking a toast.  A series of rounds of toasting take place.  In rites in which the Sumble is the central or sole focus there are typically a minimum of three rounds.  In traditional Heathenry it is standard for the first round to be dedicated to gods, the second round is dedicated to heroes and the third round is dedicated to ancestors.

The leader of the ceremony typically makes the first toast to a patron deity, takes a drink from his drinking horn.  Then, the next person in order makes his toast.  This continues in order until all have had a chance to toast.  Then that round is ended and the second round begins.  After the third round the rite may come to an end or it may continue.

If the Sumble continues any number of themes may be proposed.  Common themes are boasts in which the participants are allowed a chance to tell a tale of their own great successes.  Oaths may be sworn, goals may be professed, and gifts may be exchanged.  Open rounds may also be called in which anything of value may be offered to the community: stories, songs, poems, or prayers.  This may continue to a specified number of rounds, until the sacrament is completely consumed or until the participants have nothing more to contribute.

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