Old English May Day And Other European Customs

Although summer doesn’t officially begin until June, the first of May, also known as Beltane, really marks its awakening. Much of the vibrant old customs associated with this day in Europe have largely disappeared, but ancestral folk memory dies hard and has managed to keep a tight grip on some of these old rites. Many of those who have celebrated the first of May over the past few centuries have had absolutely no idea of the true meaning behind these May Day celebrations.

May Day celebrations have their origins in an ancient Roman festival dedicated to Flora, the Goddess of flowers and fruit, which was held each year about this time. The festival itself dates back even further to a time of myth and deep ritual, perhaps as far back as the Palaeolithic. Cave paintings show evidence of practices designed to encourage the fertility of the land and its animals; as well as magical rites that would bring success to the hunt. The cult of Flora was brought to Britain by Belgic invaders towards the end of the first century B.C and in later times Christianity took this celebration over and adapted it to its own needs, but it has never completely lost its pagan roots.

For hundreds of years, especially during the Middle Ages, it was the custom to go ‘a-Maying’. Just after midnight, to the sounds of cow horns and drums, young men and women went to the woods where they collected tree branches and decorated them with bunches of flowers. They also re-enacted the blessed union of the god and the goddess so as to ensure the fertility of the land. Any children that were conceived during these ‘Green Marriages’ were known as ‘Merry Begots’ and were seen as a blessing.Today we celebrate May Day eleven days earlier than our ancestors did before the calendar was changed in 1752.

At sunrise, the young people returned from the woods and began decorating cottage doors and windows (especially of those who were unable to go to the bonfire festivities) with flowers and birch and larch branches. They also placed greenery at the foot of the maypole. Nettles and alder branches were kept for the unpopular villagers who didn’t agree with these goings-on!!!

Some of the young men who didn’t go into the woods would go ‘May Birching’ instead. This custom involved them placing mountain ash and hawthorn branches on the doors of girls that they loved. Sadly, if you were a girl that a boy didn’t love, you might have woken up to find thorns on your doorstep instead. And on the Isle of Man it was customary for the youngest member of the household to go and pick primroses and throw them at the front door.

Also around sunrise, young women bathed their faces in the morning dew to ensure a beautiful complexion and others laid down cloths on the grass which they then wrung out into bottles so as to be able to use it to cure ailments such as rheumatism, consumption and spinal weakness. Younger girls, not so worried about their looks would make May garlands. They did this with two hoops, one at a right angle inside the other and decorated them with leaves and flowers. Sometimes they put a flower especially to represent the Goddess of spring. In some parts of England it was customary for groups of children to carry May garlands around the village, singing, “Good morning, lords and ladies, it is the first of May. We hope you’ll view our garland, it is so very gay.” Afterwards they would hold out a collecting box.

During the rest of the day, there was dancing on the village green, archery contests and feats of strength among the men. The highlight was of course the crowning of the ‘May Queen’, the human representation of the goddess Flora. It was tradition for this young girl to be regally sat on a bower decorated with flowers and to watch the festivities, but not to take part. In Medieval times the young girl sometimes wore white muslin decorated with ribbons. With the arrival of Christianity the young girl was replaced by a statue of the Virgin Mary and the whole of the month of May was dedicated to her. So the wild and the fertile was replaced by the pure and the chaste.

The ‘Lord of the May’ (also known as the ‘May King’ or the ‘May Groom’) was once as important as the ‘May Queen’ and he would have had silk handkerchiefs tied round his legs and arms while carrying a sword. Summer itself was represented by a dancing man covered entirely with greenery. He was called ‘Jack-in-the-Green’ or ‘Jack-in-the-Bush’. In other parts of Europe he was known as ‘Green George’, the ‘Wild Man’, ‘Leaf Man’ or the ‘Green Man’. ‘Jack-in-the-Green’ can sometimes be seen in old church carvings, often with a face covered in leaves and twigs. This mysterious character was adopted by chimney sweeps whose annual holiday was on the first of May and he was a prominent figure in their processions. A single green figure covered in brightly coloured ribbons and tinsel among the black faced chimney sweeps.

One of the greatest symbols of May Day is undoubtedly the maypole which was a tall, thin tree with all of its branches cut off. It was painted in different colours and was carried in processions, with musicians playing before it. It was erected on the village green or in the market place where it was then decorated with garlands, ribbons and flowers and was the focal point of the festivities. There are no records of what kind of dances were performed around the maypole, but plaiting the maypole originates from southern Europe, where maypoles were shorter and the dances eventually became more and more ‘ladylike’.

The earliest recording in England of a maypole was in a charter granted by King John where it was called a ‘mepul’. Maypoles were made of pine, larch, elm, birch or ash and lasted for many years. They were only ever replaced if the wood at the bottom began to rot.

During the reign of Elizabeth I, a Puritan called Philip Stubbs wrote how the maypole (a stinking idol) was drawn by twenty or forty oxen with flowers tied to the tips of their horns. He described the maypole as being decorated with flowers and herbs bound with strings, from top to bottom. It was followed in a procession by two to three hundred men, women and children. Once erected the handkerchiefs and flags that were tied to the top would stream in the wind as everyone danced and leapt around it. Maypoles were increasingly seen as immoral by the Protestants and during the reign of Edward VI many were destroyed.

The most famous maypole to be destroyed was originally erected in London in the Strand in 1661 and stood there for more than fifty years. It was over 130 feet high and was so heavy that it took twelve sailors using pulleys and anchors and four hours to raise it. Many London parishes had a maypole and in 1552 the one outside St Andrew’s church was also taken down and chopped up after a local preacher declared that it was a pagan symbol and that the congregation were all idol worshippers.

The May Day festivities were always rounded off with the lighting of the hilltop fires that were once a sacrificial rite of Beltane. Bonfires were lit on top of hills and sheep and cattle were driven through them to prevent disease in the coming year and to ensure fertility. Young men leaped over the fires to show their prowess and woman jumped across in the hope of securing a husband or for the safe arrival of an unborn child. It was custom for newly wed couples to jump over the fire for luck and to conceive healthy children and for others, stepping over the dying embers symbolised safe travel or a new partner in their lives.

In Dorset England, the 180 foot Cerne Abbas Giant is believed to be a Celtic hill carving. Couples used to lay on his 8 foot penis in the belief that this would help them to conceive a child. Some historians believe that this act was part of an ancient Celtic fertility rite because the sun is directly in line with the figure at this time of year.

One very strange fertility rite involved women riding brooms hobby horse style across the fields. Leaping in the air it was believed that the crops would be encouraged to grow tall and strong. Menstruating women would also dance naked in newly sown fields because, unbelievably, they knew that menstrual blood was beneficial to the soil.

Something that still survives today, but barely, is Morris dancing and May 1st was the starting date for the year when the Morris dancers would perform at fairs and festivals throughout the summer and also at Christmas time with the mummers and their plays. There are many theories about the origins of this traditional dance, from a Moorish tradition to perhaps being brought to England from Spain, France or Belgium. Whatever the truth, we can safely say that it is a pagan dance, one that celebrated the rebirth of spring, ensuring a successful harvest and the fertility of the flocks and herds.

The dancers who were all men, stamped, kicked and clapped. enticing the crops out of the ground and the bells that were attached to their costumes tinkled loudly to wake up the earth spirits. Some dances even required staves, swords or handkerchiefs.

At the beginning of the 16th century, a Robin Hood play came into being and got mixed up with Morris dancing. The main characters in the play were of course Robin Hood, a Christianised form of Robin Goodfellow, the god of witches and Maid Marian, who perhaps was associated with Marian the moon goddess. During the play Robin died and came back to life again; encouraging the crops to grow and the summer to return. There is possibly a connection between the Green Man and Robin Hood.

Sword dances were also part of the May celebrations, brought to England from Denmark; a later relic of an ancient tradition that replayed the battle between the old year and the new. They were usually performed in the winter and involved a sacrifice, then a victim’s return to life. An old belief of survival, sacrifice and rebirth.During the industrial revolution these forms of dance gradually diminished as more and more rural communities began to break up.

In Cornwall and other parts of the country there used to be a Hobby Horse Festival held on May 1st. The Hobby Horse was a strange figure; a man standing inside a hoop which was covered with cloth with a head of a horse and a tail. Accompanied by singers and musicians, the Hobby Horse would go from house to house where people would wish each other good luck and happiness. Galloping after young women the Hobby Horse would trap them under its material covered hoop for luck; luck meaning to have plenty of healthy babies!!! Does this descend from an ancient pagan fertility rite perhaps? The women’s faces at one time were also smeared with soot as part of the initiation.

The Furry Dance that took place in Helston Cornwall was a remnant of a Celtic spring festival that honoured the goddess of spring. It was once a festival that took place in May, but eventually became associated with St Michael. ‘Furry’ probably comes from the old Celtic word ‘fer’ which meant ‘fair’. This day was a holiday and anyone caught working was forced to pay a fine or had to jump across the widest part of the river. Early in the morning young people went off to forage wild flowers and greenery, including hawthorn and throughout the day there were dances for the servants, children and the more wealthy of the town. A group of dancers then danced and sung their way through people’s homes, where the front and back doors were left open for the dances to go through and bring the luck of summer into the house.

Well dressing ceremonies were very common at this time of year with wells being decorated with flowers and other greenery. This practice goes back thousands of years to a time when people believed that wells were the dwelling places of spirits, nymphs or gods and goddesses, who all required offerings or sacrifices. The water was also seen as a source of sacred healing. They dipped torn pieces of cloth into the sacred water and hung them onto nearby tree branches for healing prayers. They believed that when the cloth completely rotted away the illness would leave the person’s body. With the arrival of Christianity the pagan gods of these sacred wells were given saints names or were named after the Madonna and eventually baptisms began taking place here. Frames depicting biblical scenes and wooden figures covered in clay, moss, petals, leaves and berries were left by many people who would continue visiting right throughout the summer.

The belief in faeries was very strong and it was thought that the fae folk were able to show us a glimpse into their world around this time. If the Queen of the Fae was to ride past someone on her pure white horse while they were sitting under a hawthorn tree, it was said that the person had to close their eyes and turn their head away so as not to be lured away for seven long years. It was also believed that faery children were often substituted for human children and were called ‘May Changelings’. To protect their homes from faeries on May Eve, people would place Rowan branches around their doors and windows. Bannock cakes and left over food were then left outside for the fae in the hope of winning their favour.

Many centuries previously, the Anglo Saxons called the month of May ‘Thrimilci’, which means the ‘three-milk month’. This would have been the very first time after an extremely long winter that cows could be milked three times a day. It was a grand occasion for our ancestors who could at last have themselves a full larder which signalled the end of having to ration food supplies.

The ancient Norse didn’t have a celebration equivalent to Beltane because summer comes much later in Scandinavia. However, they did have Maypole dancing and celebrations at Midsummer instead. The Maypole was a much later edition to the festivities arriving from Germany during the late Medieval period.

I have included the following European traditions because they not only include a maypole, but they are also very interesting too. And least we forget, many of our European traditions all stem from the same Indo European roots.

In Romania, the first day of May is called Arminden. The Romanians decorate their homes and pillars with spring garlands and some women and children still practice the tradition of wearing spring amulets called ‘Martisoare’ which they then tie to a blossoming tree; they believe that wishes will come true. A special bread is also baked and decorated with poppy seeds and leaves on the top. The Romanian version of the Maypole is the Armenden Tree which is considered to be sacred and made from a birch, beech or hornbeam tree. It is tradition to cut down one of these trees on May Eve and tie it to a gate post.

In Germany, the month of May was known as ‘Wonnemond’ meaning the ‘month of lovers’. The ‘Maibaum’ or the ‘May Tree’ was a symbol of marriage and was decorated with streamers and ribbons and was placed in front of the bride’s house. Unmarried men would also perform dances in the hope of attracting a future wife.

In many parts of Bavaria a maypole was put up in the middle of the village and it was tradition to steal the maypole of the neighbouring village whilst protecting your own village’s maypole. If a maypole was successfully stolen, it was held for ransom in exchange for two barrels of beer. Another Bavarian tradition was ‘maypole climbing’ (Maibaumkraxeln) where men tried to see who could climb up the smooth trunk the fastest. It was necessary to put tree sap or pitch on their hands to get a good grip. A prize of pretzels and sausages awaited the winner at the top of the maypole and hopefully a group of awestruck young girls at the bottom. These maypoles were extremely high; about 46 metres.

It is so heart warming to see that these traditions are being revived in Europe and our ancestral roots are growing strong and deep once more.

I hope you enjoyed reading about these wonderful traditions and ancient customs of Europe and Britain. If you know of any Beltane customs that I haven’t mentioned, then please feel free to share.

Brightest blessings,

Hazel

xxx

 

 

 

 

Celebrating Beltane

The rush of energy that we can feel around us at this time of year reaches its peak during the month of May and despite the days continuing to grow longer, this energy will gradually subside and flow steadily until the sun reaches its apex around the time of midsummer. Beltane is a joyful celebration of family, friends and lovers, of nurturing potential and most importantly of all; gratitude.

If you are wanting to celebrate Beltane this year, which for many pagans living in the northern hemisphere will be on May Eve, then here are a few simple ideas which you might like to add to your own celebrations.

The ancient pagan tradition of Beltane focuses greatly on the bel fire; the fire that not only cleanses, but also fuels the passions of life. If you are able to have a fire outside, then one thing you can do is to write down on small pieces of paper: healing prayers, wishes and dreams that you wish to manifest into your life or things that you wish to banish from your life. Roll these papers up and push them into the sides of a pine cone. Throw your pine cone onto the fire and allow your petitions to float up to the Gods, but be careful, as pine cones can make fantastic fire starters!

If you are unable to have a bonfire then something else you might like to do is a manifestation ritual. On a piece of paper write down all that you wish to bring into your life. Feel it, visualise it, use all of your senses to make it the truth. Hold a seed (I love using sunflowers for this. The largest flower of all!) in your palm and meditate over it, putting all of your energy that you have just raised a moment ago. Over a compost filled pot (preferably terracotta) burn your piece of paper, allowing the ashes to fall onto the soil. Mix the ash and the soil together and then plant and water your seed. Your wishes will now grow along with your seedling, but don’t just forget about your plant. Nurture it, be mindful and give it love.

The Maypole is an iconic representation of Beltane’s fertile energies and you can craft your own mini maypole by positioning a piece of dowling (or a fairly straight twig maybe) in the middle of a small terracotta pot and then fill it up with either filler or small pebbles to keep it in place. Hot glue ribbons from the top of the dowling rod to the edge of the pot at intervals. About five ribbons should do the trick. I glued a small ceramic circle on top of each ribbon end and a clay flower on the top of the maypole, but you can do whatever you want. Placing moss around the base of the maypole covers up anything unsightly. This mini maypole will make a wonderful centre piece for your altar if you have one.

Beltane is a time of primal power, the earth’s heart is beating at its loudest and drumming in time with her rhythm is a powerful experience. You don’t have to go on a shamanic journey to be able to connect with the spirits around you. I only have some small djembe drums and that hasn’t stopped me!

Tying strips of brightly coloured cloth or ribbons to tree branches called ‘clooties’ is an age old tradition. Our European ancestors would have soaked the fabric in the healing water of wells or natural springs and then tied them to tree branches usually near these water sources and left them to disintegrate in the hope that whatever infliction they were suffering from would disappear too. You could tie coloured pieces of cloth to your favourite tree and have different colours represent different things in your life. For example you could choose a green ribbon for prosperity, a yellow one for happiness and a blue one for healing. Don’t forget to leave an offering of gratitude for the tree and land spirits. Something like nuts and seeds or flowers and stones.

If you are able to visit a sacred site such as a well or standing stone have a look around you and see if there is any rubbish that can be picked up or native flower seeds and bulbs that can be planted. Just a small gift to Nerthus and a thank you.

The Hawthorn which is sometimes called the May tree, is in blossom around this time of year and is known to be a powerful tree for crafting protective charms. The Hawthorn’s leaves and beautiful white flowers can be used in tonics, tinctures and salads, but please do your own thorough research beforehand.

Gardens that are left alone to do their own thing are awash with the sunshine flower, the dandelion. This power house of healing (there is too much to mention here) of which the whole plant can be used can naturally treat a long list of ailments. Have fun crafting your own dandelion teas, jellies, biscuits (I know!!!) tonics, salves and oils. The leaves also taste great added to salads.

So that was just a few ideas for you for celebrating Beltane. If you have any ideas for celebrating that I haven’t mentioned then please share them and if you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask.

Brightest Blessings,

Hazel

xxx

 

Ostara The Creation of a Goddess

Ostara, as it is known by pagans today, is a spring festival which falls every year on the day of the vernal equinox and must be the only sabbat on the Wheel of the Year to incite so many opposing opinions about its origins and the validity of its namesake the elusive Goddess Eostre; a goddess who may or may not have existed before the nineteenth century. Up until recently, I believed wholeheartedly that Eostre was not a goddess at all, but simply the misunderstanding of an early Christian monk who had witnessed the first days of Britain’s conversion to Christianity; a misunderstanding which, across the centuries, flourished into an elaborate whimsical tale of a spring goddess who transforms a dying bird into a hare to save its life. However, with the spring equinox upon us, I decided to revisit this subject once more and I have discovered that things are not as clear cut as I had originally believed. So is it actually possible that Eostre was indeed a goddess that was honoured by the Anglo Saxons? Let’s look at the evidence.

The first piece of evidence begins with the Venerable Bede, a 7th century scholar and monk of the early Christian church who wrote of the Anglo Saxons; ‘Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated Paschal month and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.’ This is the only record we have that mentions an Anglo Saxon goddess named Eostre and this has led some scholars to understandably question Bede’s credibility because no other myths or images exist of her. Even though Bede lived at a time when he must have had direct contact with people who practiced the old ways and would have surely been aware of what gods and goddesses were being honoured, why then is his writing so vague?  It is extremely unlikely that he would have fabricated a goddess, considering the Church would have wanted to discourage any worshipping of pagan deities. Is it that he did know more about the Goddess Eostre, but did not want to offend the Church?

The Anglo Saxons named all of their months, apart from the two that Bede believed were named after goddesses, after seasonal weather conditions, customs or calendar events. Bede wrote that not only Eosturmonath (April) was named after a goddess, but also Hrethmonath (March) was as well. If these goddesses were so important, in the eyes of the Anglo Saxons, to have had months named after them, then why don’t we know a single thing about them apart from a couple of lines written by Bede himself? Perhaps these months were actually just like all of the others and their names simply reflected the time of year as well. The word “hrethe” can mean fierce, harsh and rough, which does describe March’s weather extremely well, so could this be the case or is “Hretha” an actual war goddess, as suggested by Kathleen Herbert in her book ‘Looking for the Lost Gods of England’? There is written evidence of a tribe called the Hrethgotan or Hreda’s Goths, but I believe that this name means ‘fierce Goths’ rather than a tribe that called themselves after a supposed war goddess. As for Eosturmonath, Ronald Hutton believes it is not named after a goddess of spring . In his book ‘Stations of the Sun’ he says. “Estor-monath” simply meant the ‘month of opening’, or the ‘month of beginning’ and that Bede mistakenly connected it with a goddess who either never existed at all or was never associated with a particular season but merely, like Eos and Aurora, with Dawn itself”.

In his book “Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World”, Philip Shaw explains that both Hretha and Ostara were goddesses local to Kent, a county in the south east of England, where Bede gathered most of his information from. If this is the case then it might explain why no other traces of Eostre have been found. He then goes on to say that Anglo Saxon missionaries took these names with them when they travelled to what is now France and Germany. I’m not too sure about that.

Another piece of evidence comes from Einhard (770-840) a Frankish scholar, historian and close advisor to Charlemagne. His work entitled “The Life of Charlemagne” chronicles his twenty three years of service in the powerful king’s court, a king who succeeded in uniting most of western and central Europe under his rule and who fought against the Saxons. Charlemagne Christianised the Saxons on penalty of death and destroyed all of their idols, even changing the Saxon names of the months of the year. So if Eostre was really a pagan goddess then why would a fanatical Christian king name the month of March ‘Oster-monath’ when all he would have wanted to do was to wipe everything pagan off the map? Perhaps he was not aware?

Many centuries later Jacob Grimm, of the famed ‘Grimms’ Fairy Tales’, who thought very highly of Bede’s work, published his book ‘Teutonic Mythology’ in 1835. In it he gives Eostre the name ‘Ostara’ and calls her a goddess of dawn, which he derives from the etymology of her name (‘eos’ being the Greek word for dawn). He writes, ‘the divinity of the radiant dawn…whose meaning could easily be adapted to the resurrection day of the Christian God.’ He continues, ‘This Ostara, like the Anglo Saxon Eostre, must in the heathen religion have denoted a higher being, whose worship was so firmly rooted that the Christian teachers tolerated the name and applied it to one of their own grandest anniversaries.’ (meaning Easter). So from the pages of ‘Teutonic Mythology’ Ostara as we know her today was brought into being.

However, the name ‘ostara’  is a plural noun and its singular form is actually ‘ostarun’ which Grimm explains away by saying that the spring festival lasted for several days. He assumes this is the case because Bede wrote ‘feasts’ and not ‘feast’ when discussing the honouring of Eostre.

Whatever festival Bede was describing it would have been a grand affair and a very large undertaking. There are Christian writings that describe oxen being sacrificed for pagan feasts that stretched over three days. Now oxen are very large creatures so there must have been many people gathered during these celebrations. We know that Snorri Sturlusson when writing about Olver of Eggja mentions that there were three sacrificial feasts a year, of which one was in the spring. So did the Anglo Saxons at least celebrate a spring festival the same as the Heathens did? In Germany today, some people still light a bonfire on Easter Sunday. Could this possibly be a remnant of an ancient pagan spring ritual?

The Grimm brothers, who were nationalists, lived at a time when Germany was not yet a country, but instead was made up of several different principalities. Their fervent research and writing of myths and folk tales was a way for them to reclaim their people’s ancestral culture which they believed had been lost to them for centuries under the rule of the Roman Catholic Church.  We could say that the creation of the modern day ‘Ostara’ was a brilliant attempt at pagan evangelism.

I find it extremely unlikely that pagans of northern Europe honoured a goddess called Eostre at the spring equinox due to the fact that April is the following month after the equinox takes place. If Heathens did honour a goddess around the time of the equinox then it would have been the goddess Hrede whose month Bede explains was called Hrethmonath, the Anglo Saxon name for March. So to call the spring equinox ‘Ostara’ in my opinion is actually quite confusing.

Since the nineteenth century, many tales and myths pertaining to Ostara have been told and sadly there is no great age to them. They are just simply modern day fairy tales. There has also been no evidence found, whatsoever, that associates rabbits, hares, eggs or spring with Ostara, despite what some pagans are led to believe.

Some pagans have also been misled to believe that the Christian holiday of Easter superseded Ostara and that Christianity is to blame for taking it away from the early pagans, but from what I have read and understood, the early Christians only took the name Ostara and never actually replaced a pagan festival because there never was one to replace. Bede insists that it was the English people that wanted to keep the old name (In German it’s Ostern) while interestingly enough other European countries accepted the Hebrew ‘Pesach’ which means Passover which was exactly what the Church wanted (Paques. Pasqua, Paske, Pascua, Pastele etc).

Historically, the equinoxes only became major pagan festivals due to the practice of Wicca and its Wheel of the Year. I don’t believe that our ancestors, who would have been preoccupied with sowing or harvesting, would have honestly had the time for organising a three day celebration.

We do need to be extremely mindful of modern pagan literature where opinion is stated as fact. This can be demonstrated with the origins of ‘painting eggs’ at this time of year for example. There is no actual pre-Christian evidence for this custom. The first mention of the Easter Rabbit and painted eggs dates back to sixteenth century German literature where it is written that good children were rewarded with painted eggs if they decorated their hats with nests. We also need to remember that eggs were one of the things that Christians were forbidden to eat during Lent, so Easter Sunday would have been an even greater cause for celebration when eggs were abundant once more. This time of year also coincided with chickens laying eggs again after the long winter.

A writer that comes to mind is Nigel Pennick who is one good example of fabricating facts. In his books he has claimed that Ostara was celebrated at the Vernal equinox, that her name comes from ‘estrus’ linking it etymologically to oestrogen and also that Saxon poets likened Ostara to the goddess Kali! This is pure unsupported nonsense and dangerous to those who believe this as truth.

After all I have read over these past few months, a seed of Ostara’s existence has been planted in my mind and perhaps there is a possibility that she was once a local goddess and that people did actually honour her. I don’t believe though that she was a goddess of spring nor that she was celebrated at the spring equinox. However, the wonderful thing about history is that it is not set in stone and archaeologists are discovering new finds every day that are constantly changing what think we know of the past. So who knows, perhaps one day an intrepid metal detector enthusiast will dig up a little piece of jewellery with Eostre’s image on it in the middle of a field in Kent?

I would love to know what your thoughts are on the existence of Ostara.

Brightest blessings,

Hazel

xxx

 

Sources:

The Pagan Book of Days and Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition Nigel Pennick

The Stone Men of Malekula 1942 and The Lady of the Hare 1944 by John Layard

Teutonic Mythology first published 1835 Jacob Grimm

Looking for the Lost Gods of England 1994 Kathleen Herbert

Stations of the Sun 2001 Ronald Hutton

History of the Goths 1990 Herwig Wolfram

Life of Charlemagne early 9th century Einhard  (can be found for free online)

Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World 2011 Philip A Shaw

The Moon, Myth and Image 2003 Jules Cashford

Heimskringla Snorri Sturluson 13th century (can be found for free online)

The Saga of Icelanders 2001 Penguin Edition

 

 

Northern European Spring Festivals And Rites

The very little evidence we have on how our northern European ancestors celebrated the return of spring, dates back only as far as the Mediaeval period. We can assume, however, that due to these festivals being closely connected to the agricultural year, that these rites have been passed down from generation to generation, in one form or another for thousands of years. Even up until the 1950’s, when these customs disappeared, there was still a deep desire to sow a successful harvest.

The timing of these spring festivals varied greatly and depended entirely on location and seasonal transitions; unlike today where most people who follow a nature based spirituality celebrate all on the same day, no matter where they are in the world. Our ancestors, however, having a much closer connection to the land, waited for the subtle signs before commencing their rites.

During the Middle Ages, the Christian church and its religious calendar appear to have taken control over these rites and the Plough Sunday and Monday celebrations always began with the local priest blessing a brightly decorated plough covered with ribbons and bows. These blessings would then have been said for whoever worked the land, as well as for a fruitful harvest. In the religious calendar ‘Plough Mundy’ or ‘Hansel Monday’ in Scotland, was traditionally the first Monday after the Epiphany (Twelfth Night). This date marked the beginning of the agricultural year and the end of the Christmas season.

Ploughtide was the time when farming tools were mended, cleaned and sharpened. The land having laid dormant since the last harvest was now ready to be ploughed. Everyone had to go back to work after the Christmas period with women returning to their spinning on St Distaff’s Day. Funnily enough St Distaff was never a real person or saint and a distaff was actually the name given to a spinning tool. It was customary on this day for men to try and steal the women’s flax and burn it; after which the women would pay the men back by throwing water over them!

After the blessing of the plough, thirty to forty men would assume the role of the oxen and pull the plough out of the church and into the village. Going from door to door the men would shout, “Penny for the Plough Boys”, as they collected money for the church. Other donations such as food was gratefully received especially as they would not have been paid during the Christmas holiday.

The money that was collected paid for the ‘Plough Candle’ which would burn before an image of a saint. The burning candle was believed to bless all of those who worked the land or who were connected with it in some way, such as the threshers, the reapers, the carters, the smiths and the millers.

The Plough Boys always wore white clothes that normally consisted of a shirt that was worn over a waist coat. Their arms and shoulders were covered in colourful ribbons tied in large bows and their faces were disguised under layers of black earth, soot or red ochre. On their heads sat a tall hat with small bunches of dried corn which fell to the ground when they moved.

The procession was accompanied by an old woman or a young boy dressed up as one, called the ‘Bessy’. Someone else would be dressed up as the ‘fool’, covered in fox fur, a hood and a tail. This character also carried a pig’s bladder on the end of a stick. It is believed that the character of the old woman might possibly be a remnant of an ancient mother/crone goddess from the Roman festivals called ‘Compitalia’. These extremely old festivals honoured the spirits of the family and home and could take place anytime between Saturnalia and 5th January.

It was traditional during Ploughtide to damage the front garden of anyone who refused to make a donation by using a plough. If this act of vandalism took place during Ploughtide it was not seen as a punishable crime.

The celebrations lasted several days and consisted of music, dancing around the plough and intricate sword fighting plays (folk plays that enacted a symbolic death and resurrection of one of the characters; a remnant of an ancient fertility rite). The dances were usually only performed by the farm workers who hoped that their high jumping would determine the height of the grain.

In Scotland, there used to be a rite called the ‘Streeking of the Plough, where the workers would symbolically wrap up a portion of their food and tie it firmly to the beam of the plough as well as pour some of their drink (normally whiskey) over it. The food that was tied to the plough was not to be touched or removed. This was seen as an extremely important custom to ensure a prosperous ploughing, sowing and subsequent harvest; perhaps an offering to the goddess. In Cairney, after the first furrow had been ploughed, bread, cheese and milk porridge was given to the ploughman and the first slice of cheese was always offered to the herd boy. The consistency of the porridge had to be just right because if it was too thin, then it didn’t bode well for the next season’s crops.

Good Friday was seen as a very unlucky day to start ploughing the fields in Scotland. This superstition was so strong that eventually all Fridays were seen as unlucky.

In Whittlesey, as part of the Ploughtide celebrations, a ‘straw bear’ man, completely covered in straw was led on a string and made to dance in front of every house in return for money. It is believed that the ‘straw bear’ represented the spirit of the corn bestowing its favours on every household and therefore ensuring a plentiful harvest. It is still a custom today and you can find plenty of photos online.

There is a strange tale that tells the story of a man and a boy who are in the fields ploughing one day when they both hear a little cry come from a nearby copse. They stop what they are doing and run towards the sound where they find one of the little folk sobbing that he has lost his pick. The farmer searches for the tool and eventually finds it for the little man, who rewards them both with cheese, bread and cider. The man eagerly eats the food, but the boy does not because he is a lot more wary of this gift. As time went on a practice known as The Cake in the Furrow evolved and people began leaving  offerings in the fields at the beginning of the ploughing season and some believe that this is how Plough Monday came to be in Worcestershire.

The Anglo Saxons, according to ‘De temporum ratione’ written by the Venerable Bede, named the month of February ‘Solmonath’; the month of mud or the plough (depending on how it is translated). People would offer cakes to the gods at this time of year, leaving them in the furrows. The only other time they did this was at harvest time ‘Hlaefmaesse’. It is interesting to note that they thanked the gods at the time of sowing and at the time of harvesting.

The Anglo Saxons also had a charm or blessing that they performed to encourage a plentiful harvest on a barren piece of land or to reverse a curse that had been placed on it. The aptly named ‘Field Remedy’ or ‘Aecerbot’ is a long complex ritual that requires specific list of ingredients to cleanse and heal the land. If you want to learn more about this incantation, then you can see it here http://www2.hawaii.edu/~kjolly/field.htm.  You will notice that there is a mixture of pagan and Christian elements within it.

No one knows for sure where these specific festivals originate from, however, there is one theory that points to the Danes. There is a possibility that the Danes could have bought these traditions over with them when they settled in England. The only regions where there is evidence of this type of festival being celebrated is in the north east of England and the east Midlands; regions that were under Danelaw. I highly recommend that you read the research of Pete Millington who goes into great detail and discusses the similarities and differences between the old Danish customs and the old English ones. If you do not have the time to read the whole paper then I suggest that you just read ‘Discussions’ and ‘Conclusion’. You can find it here http://petemillington.uk/ploughmonday/Origins.php

Plough Monday is believed by many to have heralded the start of the ploughing season, however, I am of the opinion that  this was only the case for southern Europe, but not for the north, because the earth would have still been far too hard to plough effectively. Perhaps rituals were performed at this time well before ploughing season so as not to miss the opportunity before the sun warmed the earth enough at the end of February or the beginning of March. In some areas ploughing would have actually taken place in the autumn.

If you know of any European spring rites that I haven’t covered here, then please share, as I would love to hear about them.

Brightest blessings,

Hazel

xxx

 

The sources that I used-

Chambers Book of Days by Robert Chambers (1864)

The Every Day Book by William Hone (1825)

Stations of the Sun by Ronald Hutton (2001)

The Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Weiser Francis (1958)

The English Year by Steve Roud (2008)

De temporum ratione by Bede (725)

 

 

 

 

Celebrating Imbolc And The First Signs Of Spring

Winter has at last loosened its iron grip around us and we can finally begin to feel the tentative sun rays on our face. Delicate snowdrops and crocuses are coaxed towards the increasing light and the excited chatter of birds fills the air with anticipation.  At this time of new beginnings, we too feel hope and excitement stir within us and we can at last shake off the cobwebs that have gathered during our long hibernation.

What better way to start afresh than to spring clean your home. Making your own natural cleaning products with added essential oils is a fabulous way to freshen and clear out stagnant energy. I love using lavender and tea tree essential oils in my own cleaners as well as white vinegar, bicarbonate of soda and Ecover washing up liquid. With no chemicals, these cleaning ingredients are kind to the environment and to us. There are many diy cleaning recipes on line that cover absolutely everything that you could possibly need. So have some witchy fun in the kitchen concocting your own cleaning brews, adding some cleansing and manifesting intentions to the mix while you are at it.

Now that your home is clean, decluttered and buzzing with positive energy, how about bringing in some fresh flowers, plants and candles to brighten up your space and bring a cosy welcoming atmosphere? Burn some incense and hang up little bamboo bags of charcoal air fresheners in each room. These are easy to find online and are fantastic for removing toxins and odours from the air. They also increase the number of negative ions in your home.

You can also give yourself a well deserved spring clean, by spending time thinking about what you are really feeding your mind, body and soul, while thinking about what you can let go of that no longer makes your heart sing. Make your own self care products, spend more time outside (no matter what the weather) and use these spring energies to plant the seeds of your goals, dreams and aspirations. A lovely little ritual that I do at this time of year to manifest my goals is to bury a seed with a piece of paper with my goals written on it into a pot with some compost. The more the seed grows, into a sunflower for example, the closer you get to manifesting your dreams.

Express your dreams and manifest them through expressive art, painting, poetry, journaling, collage or even creating a dream board.

If you still haven’t composted your old Yule tree and it is still lying about the garden, then maybe you could hold a ritual burning of the evergreens, along with any old natural garlands and wreaths that you have forgotten about. You can even add your Yule log if you didn’t manage to burn it all in December. Just remember to keep some back to light this year’s Yule log. In your bonfire or fire pit you can also burn a handwritten piece of paper with all of the things that you want to unburden yourself of. This is a beautiful way of saying goodbye to the old season and welcoming in the new.

Make the most of the lighter days to go out and explore your local area. Many of us plan of escaping to foreign lands, but we actually have so many hidden gems on our very own doorstep that are just waiting to be discovered. Explore your local parks and woodlands. The trees are slowly waking up from their winter slumber, so talk to them, meditate beside them and give them a big hug (of course, ask their permission first!). And before you go, leave them an earth friendly offering.

Imbolc and spring have always been a traditional time to visit holy wells and springs; their waters bursting with potent healing and cleansing properties. It was customary to soak small pieces of cloth or ribbon in the water and hang them on nearby tree branches if the person was poorly. It was believed that as these ‘clouties’ disintegrated, so too would the illness. Today we can do the same and it can also be an opportunity to let go off unwanted habits or negative thoughts.

Visiting a well or spring gives us the chance to tidy the surrounding area and plant native bulbs or wildflowers. Before leaving, an offering can be left for the spirit of the land, like some nuts, a natural weaving you have made or a lovely crystal for instance.

Litter picking is something we can do all year round, but especially during spring time when Mother Nature is waking up from her deep sleep and gasping for air. It is our responsibility as caretakers to do this, even when it isn’t us who have dropped the litter.

The growing season is upon us, so start flicking through those seed catalogues, plant some trees, plan some garden projects (an outdoor altar?) and begin improving the soil in your garden. If you don’t have a garden, then have a look around your apartment, your window sills, balcony or even doorstep. There is always a space where you can place a pot to grow something in.

And lastly, this is the perfect time to put up bird boxes. Just research what types of boxes are the best for your garden and what height you need to place them at. Even though the days are slightly warmer, the nights are still very cold so continue to leave out fresh food and water for the birds.

I hope you have found some of these ideas helpful and inspiring for celebrating the first signs of spring. Have a wonderful Imbolc and don’t hesitate to share your spring projects. I would love to hear about what you are planning to do.

Brightest blessings,

Hazel

xxx

Goddess Brigid And The Origins Of Imbolc

Imbolc means “the belly of the mother” or Oimelc “the feast of ewe’s milk” and its celebration falls around 1st February. This festival of light also known as Disfest and Candlemas is a time that balances between two worlds. We can still see and feel the fingers of winter resting on the land, but if you look closely enough there are signs of the promise of new life breaking through the fog and ice. The time for awakening is now. All of our dreams and aspirations that have been gestating over the past season are ready to break forth and are searching for the nourishment of the sun. The period of contemplation and inner workings has come to an end and our determination and drive are now needed to create momentum.

Our ancestors, like farmers today, would have been busy with the lambing season, as well as mending their ploughs ready for working the soil in preparation for planting. Moreover, it was a time for them to give thanks to the Gods and spirits of the land for not only future harvests, but for keeping their families and livestock safe during the bleak winter season.

At Imbolc today, many Pagans honour the Goddess Brigid the patron of midwives, blacksmiths, poets, fertility and healing, as well as corn and cattle. She is known by many names and there are just as many myths and legends about her too. Brigid is a fire Goddess who lights the hearths of the poor and who kindles the flames inside of us. Nourishing flames that sustain us in difficult times.

She is a Celtic Goddess who was incorporated into Saint Brigid of Kildare, Ireland, during the sixth century and Bride in Scotland. She is also linked with the Goddess Brig of the Brigantes, an ancient culture in the North of England. Personally, I believe that there are traces of her much earlier than this and you can catch glimpses of her during the time of the Picts and even as far back as the Neolithic.

This time of year was very important to the Celtic people and they had many customs and traditions that were handed down from generation to generation.

Doll like figures of Brigid called Brideog were fashioned out of barley. This sheaf traditionally had a shell or small crystal over the heart and represented the guiding star of Brigid. A talisman of protection and prosperity it was believed to bring good fortune for the coming year. The doll was often greeted and blessings were asked of her. During the winter the doll was returned to the fields or forests once the shell or crystal had been removed.

Goddess Brigid was said to visit people’s homes at Imbolc, so in preparation for this, a small bed was made for her out of a box or basket. By welcoming Brigid to stay overnight our ancestors were symbolically asking that her gifts of fertility and healing be bestowed upon the household. The hearth was also dedicated to Brigid; it was a sacred space for food preparation, family gatherings and a source of warmth and light.

Brigid’s cross and sun wheel were symbols of sympathetic magic and were used to encourage the sun to grow in strength again after the harsh winter months. These were also protective charms for thatchers.

It was customary to leave some bread, cake and milk for Brigid with a candle in the window so that she would know to come in. Another custom was to throw a sheaf of oats or some bread or cake against the front doorstep on the eve of Imbolc to drive away hunger during the coming months and an offering of hay, grass or corn was also made for Brigid’s cow.

In some areas of Britain a procession of young people would accompany Brigit around the village on Imbolc Eve to beg alms. Brigit was normally a girl dressed in costume or a doll. If it was a group of girls they would dress in white and sing and dance as they went from house to house. They were known as the Bride Maiden Band. In some villages, boys dressed up as girls and known as Biddy Boys went begging from door to door. This idea was probably to emulate Brigid’s good work as she was known to collect clothes, food and money for the poor. People would give cheese, eggs, butter, biscuits or money because it was thought that this would encourage a good harvest, prosperity and good luck.

Some stories say that Brigid had a magical cloak that possessed healing and protective powers and could expand for miles on end. The cloak’s colour was originally green, but when she became a saint the colour changed to white. It was said that if you left a piece of cloth outside on Imbolc eve then Brigid would bless it with the same powers of her cloak. This was beneficial for sick animals and would have been kept for the whole year until the following Imbolc when it would be blessed anew.

Brigid’s magickal girdle or belt had the same healing powers as her cloak and the four crosses that were said to be embroided on it symbolized protection at all four cardinal directions. People would craft a long belt from straw and step through it three times, kissing it as they went through right foot first. This was seen as a symbol of rebirth and would ensure good health and protection.

In ancient times pilgrims would travel from afar to bring offerings and ask for blessings at sacred wells and springs dedicated to Brigid. Long before coins were thrown into the waters, brass rings, silver and gold were offered. People would bathe in the healing waters and dress the well or spring with flowers, leaves and pieces of cloth.

Brigid is not the only Goddess that is remembered at Imbolc. The Cailleach was said to gather firewood at Imbolc so she would have enough to see her through to the warmer months. Legend says that if the Cailleach wants the cold to last a bit longer then Imbolc would be bright and sunny, so as to allow her to collect firewood. So you can imagine how relieved our ancestors must have been when Imbolc was overcast and wet. It meant that the Cailleach was fast asleep and Winter was almost over.

There are many more myths and legends surrounding Imbolc, particularly about Brigid and if you know of any I haven’t mentioned or you know of some traditions, then I would love you to share them.

Brightest Blessings,

Hazel

xxx

 

How Eating Mindfully Can Reconnect Us To The Earth And Heal The Land

The majority of us who walk an earth based spiritual path have at its core several seasonal celebrations. This ever changing cycle of seasons guides us and connects us to the natural world beyond our front door, from times of fertile abundance to times of stark simplicity. Celebrating each turn of the wheel has helped me to forge my own rituals and traditions that are in tune with where I live. By celebrating this way I am now more aware of the subtle signposts that Mother Nature leaves for me to follow and despite the passing of time never ceasing to rest, each moment has become so much more enriched and appreciated.

Up until recently I believed that what I was doing was not only reconnecting me to the land that I lived on, but also to the creatures and plants that shared this beautiful British landscape with me too. However, four weeks ago, I started coming across more and more information on the worrying subject of the growing water shortages across the world. I wasn’t purposefully researching or reading about this topic, but it just kept popping up over and over again. What I have read and consequently learnt has changed how I view and live the changing seasons forever and I believe that it will do the same for you too.

We live in a world of instant gratification that allows us to have almost anything we want, whenever we want. There is no longer the need to wait patiently and anticipate anything anymore. If you want to buy a new dress, no problem; pin number at the ready. If you need to research for a college project, no worries; your trusty smart phone has all the answers. (No dusty library books for you). If you fancy eating a tomato and cucumber salad sandwich in January, no sweat; it’s just another lunch break at the office.

On the surface, all of these appear to be your normal day to day mundane activities, nothing out of the ordinary you might say; but the way we live our lives today has consequences; some good and some bad. So what could possibly be one of the consequences of eating that tomato and cucumber sandwich on a January lunch break? Sadly, if you are living in the northern hemisphere, an extremely tragic one. What follows is everything that I have learnt over these past few weeks.

There are tens of thousands of cargo ships on our oceans that transport fruit and vegetables to our ports everyday to feed our growing need to eat what we believe to be healthy fresh produce all year round. A single one of these large ships emits more pollutants into our atmosphere, in one year, than all of the cars on the planet put together. As for cargo planes, they are able to burn four litres of fuel per second, needing almost 250,000 litres for just one trip. Pollution is not the only consequences of us eating fresh food that is not in season.

Transporting these huge amounts of perishable foods requires gallons and gallons of water, which in the form of ice keeps everything as fresh as possible during these very long journeys. This means that we are taking water from communities that already have so little, especially as the process of growing fruit and vegetables requires huge amounts of water in itself.

California has suffered on and off for years from droughts and more often than not the fault of global warming is cited as the cause. Personally, I believe that the huge burden that California has to feed the whole of the United States with fresh fruit and vegetables to be a more sensible reason for its water shortages. Ninety percent of the broccoli that Americans eat comes from California: ninety seven percent of kiwis, ninety seven percent of plums, ninety five percent of celery, the list goes on and on. California is also the number one American exporter of fresh produce to Canada, Europe and China and it is now turning into a desert.

Whereas California has the responsibility of feeding the United States, Spain has this honour in Europe. The country’s soil is being depleted of all of its nutrients. If you live in Europe, the next time you go to the supermarket have a good look at the fruit and vegetable labels. Nine times out of ten, when it isn’t the summer, they will say produce of Spain.

South Africa is another huge exporter of fresh produce and in three months time Cape Town will have completely run out of water. Residents are being heavily rationed and I dread to think of what will happen if it doesn’t rain before then. Is this another victim of the billion dollar fresh produce industry?

As you have surely realised by now, eating food that is not produced in your country and food that isn’t in season is not sustainable. How have we arrived at this point where we are not only harming whole communities, but the Earth’s resources, animals and plants as well? Industrial farming and all that it entails is destroying our beautiful world. It is blurring the distinct lines between our seasons and turning them into one big mono season. What we are eating is also dulling our taste buds to the extent that we no longer know what real food tastes like. We have so lost touch with the seasons that we no longer know what crops naturally grow on our land, when they are naturally in abundance and when they are not.

Have you ever asked yourself why tomatoes are crunchy and taste like water when you buy them in the winter? It’s because these tomatoes are actually green and unripe. Even if they are grown in heated, energy guzzling green houses in Spain they are unable to ripen. So to fool us into believing that they are ready to eat, the tomatoes are sprayed with a gas called Ethylene which turns them red. Yummy!!!

Thankfully, all hope is not lost and each and every one of us can do our bit by mindfully eating what is seasonally grown in our own country. My family and I have been eating seasonally grown food from the UK for the past month now and the positive ways it has affected our lives far out weigh the superficial loss of not eating bananas, avocadoes and cucumbers. We actually haven’t missed eating them at all and we now have an even greater respect for our ancestors who did perfectly well without them too. So what are some of these positives that I am talking about?

By buying local and seasonal food we are supporting our country’s farmers and producers. We are getting food that is at its prime freshness and cheapest too. I have actually saved money, even when buying organic. An abundance of crops pushes down the prices.

With less ingredients to cook with I did start to panic a little in the beginning, but honestly I didn’t have anything to worry about. Mother Nature knows best and everything that is harvested at the same time of year all goes perfectly well together. It has also given me the opportunity to experiment and try out new recipes. Bubble and Squeak anyone? ( It’s a British classic!).

Seasonal food is tastier, fresher (it isn’t days old before even arriving at the supermarket) and more nutritional. Food that is grown on the land where we live has all the minerals and vitamins that we need for that time of the year. Fruit and vegetables grown in the summer have a higher water content, perfect for hydrating us and are lighter to digest. The humble tomato which of course is a summer fruit contains Lycopene, which can actually protect our skin, to a certain extent, from the sun. Winter produce is more denser, grounding and filling, perfect for keeping us warm and satisfied. Like I’ve said before, Mother Nature knows best!

Buying seasonal food is a great way to connect with and learn more about our local landscape and all that live in it.

Eating mindfully and authentically allows us to appreciate the food that we have because we only have it for a short period of time. There is no chance of us getting bored before anticipating the arrival of the next season. Even before deciding to eat only fresh seasonal food, we have always only eaten British plums, strawberries and raspberries due to the superior taste compared to the produce from Spain. Which means that for a very long time we have only eaten these during the summer or early autumn.

Growing and selling food seasonally brings local communities closer together and encourages people to try out growing methods such as permaculture which our ancestors would have practised and it is heals the environment. Consequently, we are not exploiting the Earth’s resources or marginalised communities.

Here are some ideas that you may like to try out that will help you to eat more seasonally too.

  • Visit farmers’ markets and chat with the growers. Ask them questions about how they grow their produce. More often than not your small local growers are using natural growing methods and not herbicides, pesticides or artificial fertilisers.
  • Go to farm shops.
  • Read the food labels of fruit and vegetable packaging to find out where they are grown.
  • Notice what fruit and vegetables are the cheapest. Cheap normally means plentiful and in season.
  • Have a go at growing something yourself: on your balcony, your windowsills or even on your decking. You can find space if you look for it.
  • Once you have your beautiful home grown harvest, learn new skills and make jams, chutneys and sauces. You can also freeze most of it too.
  • See if there is an allotment or community project in your area.
  • Subscribe to a veggie delivery service. These are usually organic and everything is normally grown within 100 miles of where you live.
  • Especially buy apples from your own country. In Britain, due to intensive farming, property development and many supermarkets refusing to stock home grown fruit; 60% of apple orchards have been destroyed since 1970. Three thousand varieties of apples and pears have been lost. This not only damages the wildlife and landscape, but also the livelihoods of family businesses that have been working the orchards for generations. Orchards are a wildlife haven for so many mammals and insects especially foxes, badgers, bees and butterflies. Of course we mustn’t forget the humble mistletoe too. 680,000 tons of apples are eaten in Britain every year and are the second most popular fruit after bananas.

I believe that what we eat and where our food comes from not only affects us on a physical level, but on a spiritual level too. How can we truly forge a relationship with the changing seasons and the land we live on if we are not eating its seasonal bounties? The concept of harvest has a completely different meaning when we choose to wait patiently to savour a juicy tasty ripe tomato in August for example. I definitely have a deeper connection and respect now, not only for the land itself, but for those who came before me and who hunted, gathered and harvested its fruits.

For the past few weeks I have only bought seasonal fresh fruit and vegetables grown in the UK. The exception for three out of the four weeks has been onions from Holland (drying onions in the UK after harvesting them is extremely difficult and sadly they go mouldy very quickly). This month I have bought cabbages, leeks, Brussels sprouts, cauliflowers, carrots, potatoes, kale, turnip, parsnip, swede, beetroot, and apples (there is other produce available too) all UK grown. I have supplemented the fresh produce with organic dry beans, rice (I am looking into buying Italian rice) and tinned tomatoes. Canned and dry food has much less of an impact on the Earth than fresh produce from abroad and I am still doing my best to research about what comes from where. It isn’t always easy, but then change seldom is. It is a gradual process, but one that I know will definitely yield a positive outcome.

To mindfully shop for fresh seasonal food is possible. So let’s bring our seasons back to their former glory, heal the earth and banish the mono season forever.

Is this something that you have been doing or is it something that you would like to start trying? I would love to hear your thoughts or experiences of eating seasonally.

Brightest blessings,

Hazel

xxx

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrating Yuletide

Scandinavia has many ancient traditions, especially at Yule, which are rich in history and folklore. If you would like to add a little magic to your Yuletide, then here are some easy customs that you can integrate into this holiday season.

According to Norwegian tradition one should bake seven types of pastry at Yule. These include, gingerbread biscuits(pepperkaker), waffles (goro), ginger nuts (ingefaernotter), Berlin wreath butter biscuits (berlinerkranser), sand cakes (sandkaks), doughnut rings (smultringer) and syrup snaps (sirupsnipper). Just baking one of these would be a fun activity to do with friends or children. I can just imagine the delicious aroma.

Many Scandinavians today still believe in the tomten or fjosnisse; gnome like creatures that look after the home and surrounding land. So at Yule or Christmas, people leave out a bowl of porridge with plenty of butter on the top or left over food from the Christmas dinner. By leaving gifts of appreciation for these little folk, who work hard at keeping the land and home safe and happy, the tomten in return will bring good luck to the household.  If you offend one of them, then beware, as you risk bringing terrible misfortune. The tomten are shape shifters and are very hard to see, so an empty bowl of porridge is the only sign that will let you know that they are around. Leaving out a bowl of porridge is something that I will be doing over the next couple of days as part of my Yuletide celebrations.

Lille Julaften or Little Christmas Eve takes place on the 23rd of December and in Norway, while making final Christmas preparations including the decorating of the tree, bowls of rice porridge called risgrot (risengrysgrot) with an almond hidden inside are served to members of the family. Lots of this porridge is eaten, as you can imagine, as everyone wants to find the lucky almond in their bowl. The lucky person wins a marzipan pig and in Germany these are given out in the New Year for good luck and are called glucksschwein.

On Mothers’ Night, the eve of Yule, it was traditional to honour the mothers of our ancestral line and the female spirits that looked over our families, as well as the Goddesses Freyja and Frigg. This can be done anytime throughout the year, but Yuletide is an extra special time as the veil between our worlds is at its thinnest, making it easier for them to hear and talk to us. Just lighting a small candle and conveying our gratitude to them is a meaningful gesture; for without their sacrifices and love we wouldn’t be here today.

The ancient symbol of the sun wheel or cross, used in sympathetic fire magic to invoke the return of the sun, can be easily crafted with small branches and evergreens. Thrown onto a Yule fire as an offering to the Gods or just simply hung up as a decorative wreath, the sun cross is a powerful image that brought hope to our ancestors during the long harsh winters of the north. Small ones can also be crafted and put on the Yule or Christmas tree.

The Yule Goat is a Yuletide figure from Scandinavian mythology, going back to the myths of Thor and his magical goats who pulled his wagon across the skies. Modern day versions are crafted out of straw and decorated with red ribbon and used as Yule ornaments. Yule Goats made out of felt or clay would also be a great craft to do.

If you are wanting to build a relationship with the Gods and Goddesses of the north, then those who have a connection with winter and the dark half of the year are Skadi the Goddess (and giantess) of winter, hunting and mountains, Ullr the God of hunting, skiing and sledding (these two did not get married after Skadi’s failed marriage to Njord the God of the sea), Nott the Goddess of night, Freyr the God of fertility and agriculture and Odinn, the all father of many names including  God of death and the Wild Hunt. Two of his names are actually Jolnir and Ylir which associate him with Yule. Thor would have been honoured at this time as well, as he is the protector of mankind. And last but not least, Sunna or Sol the goddess of the sun. I won’t add Hel (the goddess of Helheim, the world of the dead) to this list because just like Loki she was never honoured by our ancestors.

There is much debate as to whether the figure of Odin eventually morphed into the Father Christmas that we know of today. Earlier depictions of Father Christmas were of an older man, dressed in blue and green, much thinner than the Coca Cola version and much more Odin like. The eventual story of the eight reindeer could possibly be descended from the eight legs of Odin’s horse Sleipnir and the reindeer names Donner (German) and Blitzen (Old English) which mean thunder and lightning might be a connection to Thor the god of thunder. Whatever the truth, many children in Scandinavia leave straw in their boots or stockings as a treat for the reindeer or Sleipnir. Much better than a carrot!

Without doubt, food plays an important role at this time of year, so if we want to feast like a viking what do we need to serve up for the Julebord (Jule feast)? Ham, sausage, meatballs, pork ribs, mutton ribs, dumplings, pickled herrings, salmon, red beet salad with pickled vegetables and potato salad are some of the many delicacies eaten. Quite often there are dishes of moose and reindeer too.

The Scandinavians love Yuletide so much that there is an extended period between Christmas and New Year’s Eve called Romjul or Julefred which means Christmas peace. This is a quiet time where many of the shops are closed and people spend this week with family, enjoying some downtime or winter sports. All hunting is prohibited at this time as well. This period is a perfect excuse to reflect on the past year and to think ahead to the next twelve months; learning from past lessons and setting future goals. Then perhaps swearing an oath to the Gods on Nyttar (New Year’s Eve). At your peril of course 😉

Wishing you all a lovely Christmas, God Jul and a wonderful New Year,

Brightest Blessings,

Hazel

xxx

 

 

 

 

Ancient Winter Rites

Yule as a twelve day celebration is a modern concept inspired by the Christmas carol, ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’. In fact, this midwinter celebration only spanned three nights, most likely during the three nights of the full moon, much like other ancient Scandinavian festivals such as Winter Nights.

The word Yule has Indo European roots that are still visible in northern Europe today. In Denmark, Norway and Sweden it is called Jul and in Iceland and the Faroe Islands it is Jol. The proto Germanic word for Yule was Jehwla and the old English word used by the Anglo Saxons was Giuli and the whole season which roughly corresponded to the months of December and January was called Geola. December, in Anglo Saxon England was referred to as aerra Geola meaning the time before Yule and January was called fterra Geola meaning the time following Yule. In Bede’s ‘The Reckoning of Time’, he wrote that Giuli was the day that the sun turned back before increasing in light again. The Anglo Saxons made this day the first of their new year and began their celebrations with Modranecht (Modraniht). Bede explained that these old festivities were celebrated at the same time as Christmas because back when the Julian calendar was used, the 25th of December was the time of the winter solstice.  Bede, being a Christian monk, does not go into any details about how these rites were celebrated.

Modranecht took place on the eve of the midwinter festival. Mothers’ Night was spent honouring all mothers and also the disir (female spirits that looked over the family). Mothers, who through both their suffering and joy enabled their children to grow and thrive; life giving like the sun. There is a lot of evidence of there once being a Germanic Mother cult, but we are not sure whether this cult had anything to do with Mothers’ Night. There is no evidence of Modranecht ever being observed in Scandinavia, but that doesn’t mean that it never was.

The word Jol in Swedish means wheel; the seasonal wheel that turns and represents the cycle of life. Goddess Frigg, the wife of Odin while in her palace spun clouds that floated down to the human world of Midgard. Perhaps this wheel is reminiscent of Frigg’s own spinning wheel.

Yule is rarely mentioned in the Icelandic Sagas, but from what little is written we do know that this time of year was celebrated with much feasting, singing and drinking. However, nothing is said about the rituals or prayers that were performed, due mainly to the fact that the authors of these ancient texts were Christian.

In the Saga of Hakon the Good, the Norwegian Christian king Hakon passed a law that all Pagan and Christian festivities were to be celebrated at the same time. He also stipulated that during this period four gallons of ale were to be drunk by every man.This was known as ‘drinking jol’. King Hakon was extremely tolerant of his Pagan subjects and did not force his own faith upon them and they were very accepting of their Christian king too.

Animals would have been sacrificed for the Yule feasts and were also offerings to the Gods, especially horses. King Hakon was once invited to a pagan Yule feast where he refused to eat the horse meat that was being served because the act of doing so was pagan. In the end, to keep the peace, he compromised and just smelt the aromas of the cooked meat. At another Yule feast, things didn’t go as smoothly and it is said that Hakon was forced to eat some horse liver without being able to make the sign of the cross beforehand.

In Svarfdaela Saga, there is mention of a warrior who postpones a fight until after Yule and there is a detailed account of a Yule feast in Egil’s Saga Skallagrimssonar. In the Saga of Grettir, two Norwegian farmers drink ‘Yule’ together and in the Saga of the Greenlanders, Eric the Red is worried that he will not be ready to host a Yule feast. However, he is saved when Thorfinnar brings malt with him to make ale. Lastly there is a funny story about a farmer called Ingjaldur who pushes aside his dislike of foreigners so he can buy some decorative Yule evergreens for his feast from a Norwegian merchant. Being a good host was seen as extremely important, so the food, drink and even the décor was seriously undertaken.

The swearing of oaths was seen as extremely grave and important during the Viking age. Oaths were ironclad and if broken could be punished by death if they were not fulfilled. Oaths made at Yule were even more seriously undertaken and some appear to have been marriage related, such as in Hervarar saga ok Heidreks and Sturlaugs saga starfsama. The oaths were made by swearing on a boar’s head like Helgi did in Helgakvida Hjorvardssonar.

There used to be a ritual where men would toast to their future deeds; much like New Year’s resolutions, but more meaningful and serious. Again hands were laid on a boar’s head and the sacrificial animal was offered up to the Gods with the sworn oath. A sacred oath to Freyr perhaps because the boar was associated with him.

One of the oldest symbols of this time of year is the Yulebukk or the Yule Goat, which is believed to have its roots in Indo European folklore. In Scandinavia today the Yule Goat is an ornament made out of straw and decorated with red ribbon. It is traditional for some people to burn the straw Yulebukk as an offering to the Gods on their Yule fire. The Yulebukk has an ancient connection to the God Thor and his magical goats, Tanngrisni (Gap Tooth) and Tanngnost (Tooth Grinder) who pull his wagon across the sky. Large versions of the Yule Goat can be found in towns and cities all over Scandinavia at this time of year. The best known one is the Gavle Goat which is erected at the beginning of Advent.

It was traditional to sacrifice a goat as well as cattle and horses during the long dark winter months, but with the arrival of Christianity, animal sacrifice was forbidden. Pagans, therefore, began to dress themselves up in goat skins and wear masks, going from door to door, singing, dancing and offering blessings to the household in exchange for food, drink or money. Even today children in Scandinavia dress up in masks and go knocking on people’s doors, singing and receiving sweets.

In Finland children are visited by the Joulupukki, the Yule goat, and this is very similar to an ancient Finnish tradition where people called the Nuutipukkis used to dress up in goat hides and dance around singing.

The Joulupukki goes from house to house on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, knocking on doors and asking if there are any good children living there. If so, then presents are given and opened. The Joulupukki wears a red coat and walks with a wooden walking stick. His workshop is in Korvatunturi, Lapland and he is married to Joulumuori (Mother Yule).

Another Yule character was the Yule Cat and in the 19th century good children used to receive new clothes at Yule while naughty children were taken away by the Yule Cat.

One of the most ancient symbols of all is the sun cross that goes back as far as the Neolithic and Bronze age periods. The sun cross looks like a circle with a cross inside of it and can also resemble a wagon wheel with spokes. Also known as Odin’s wheel it was often made with evergreens and tree branches (like a wreath) and thrown onto the Yule fire to invoke the sun’s return. Other folk would set a large sun wheel on fire and roll it down a hill, with the same intention of invoking the sun that blessed the earth with life and abundance.

There was an old Scandinavian custom that used the last ear of corn reaped at the last harvest to bake a loaf of bread in the shape of a boar.

A tomte (Sweden), nisse (Norway and Denmark) or tonttu (Finland) is a little creature from Scandinavian folklore that is associated with Yule. He has a long white beard, a tall pointy red hat and is a mischievous gnome who looks after the farm and its inhabitants including the livestock. His name means ‘homestead man’.

A tomte doesn’t ask for much in return for his hard work, just a bowl of porridge at Yule/Christmas with plenty of butter on top. A well looked after farm is one that has a happy tomte living there. Tomten are even prepared to steal from neighbouring farms to keep things running smoothly. A solitary figure, the tomte does not take kindly to interference or foolery and can resort to nastiness if he isn’t pleased; from small pranks to killing livestock. In Sweden, the Yule Tomte accompanies the Yule Goat who pulls a sleigh full of gifts for all the children. The tomte was also known as the haugkall which translates to ‘mound farmer’. As the ancestors were buried in mounds and were believed to live there, it is more than likely that this figure from folklore has roots in an ancestral cult. If a farm was doing much better than its neighbours, then a farmer could be accused of having a tomte that was carrying out ungodly work and stealing from other farms. At the time this was seen to be as terrible as witchcraft.

If you know of any European folklore or customs that are associated with Yule then I would love to hear about them.

Lastly, I have had to anglicise some of the Scandinavian names as I am typing on an English keyboard.

Wishing you a beautiful Yuletide,

Brightest Blessings,

Hazel

xxx

 

 

 

 

Old English Christmas Part 3

The 26th of December commemorates the death by stoning of the first Christian martyr, St Stephen. On this day there used to be bird shooting, as well as wren and squirrel hunting (hunting for squirrels was a very ancient sport that was practised for many centuries in England especially in the New Forest). The 26th of December is called ‘Boxing Day’ and in Norfolk it was called ‘Offering Day’, from an ancient custom of giving and receiving gifts, usually money, clothes and food. Those who usually received a Christmas Box were servants and workers such as errand boys and postmen.

The Christmas box in question was an earthenware box with a slot in the side or top which was large enough for coins to be pushed through it. To access the money, the box had to be smashed. As the years progressed, the Christmas box became books, gloves, chocolate or similar.

Hunting the wren was a very old custom which is steeped in oral tradition. Young boys would carry a cage of dead wrens, going from door to door asking for money. A wren’s feather was then given in return. It appears that a feather from a wren killed on St Stephen’s Day averted the danger of a shipwreck. St Stephen’s Day was also known as Wrenning Day.

In Brighten there was a custom of bowling with oranges along the high streets. The one who hit another players orange with his own won that orange.

It used to be a common practice to bleed horses and cattle on St Stephen’s Day as it was believed that periodical bleeding was good for the health of hard working animal (Naturalists’ Field Club, 1877). ” If you bleed your nag on St Stephen’s Day, he’ll work your ‘wark’ for ever and A.”

The wish to end the Old Year and begin the New Year joyously has been achieved for hundreds of years by celebrating ancient customs passed down from generation to generation. Happy gatherings in the home and street, drinking from the wassail bowl and the pealing of the church bells all signalled the start of another twelve months.

It was customary in the 16th and 17th centuries to have late evening parties at home or to join merry crowds in the streets, where young boys and girls went freely among the gatherers disguised as mummers. Many kept up the old tradition of sitting up until about half an hour after midnight to listen to the ringing of the bells and to exchange new year’s wishes with their family and friends.

In Northumberland it was customary to decorate the last ‘corf’ of coal brought up from the coal mine with lighted candles in anticipation of the coming new year.

In the north of England and Scotland the last day of the old year is and was called ‘Hogmanay’ and so was the gift of an oatmeal cake, for which children went around begging on that day. Spice bread and cheese were also eaten. The oldest forms of the name were ‘Hogmena’ and Hagmena’. The Scandinavian celebration was called Hoggo-nott’ and it is most likely that the Vikings brought this tradition with them when they landed in the Orkney Islands. The church disapproved unsurprisingly of these celebrations, “It is ordinary among some Plebians, in the south of Scotland, to go about from door to door upon New Year’s Eve, crying Hagmane.” ( Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence, 1693).

It was customary in Yorkshire for the keeper of the pinfold (an Anglo Saxon word for an area where stray farm animals were rounded up) to knock on people’s doors singing. He was followed by a group of adults and children who would shout “Hagman Heigh” at the end of every verse.

In many parts of England the most popular form of divination at midnight on New Year’s Eve was to simply open the bible by chance and to glean any message about the good and bad luck of the coming year from that page. The text on which the fore-finger of the right hand rested was suppose to foretell the future. A pin was sometimes used as well. This was something mainly practiced by older women.

Young women who wanted to know the first letter of their future husband’s name turned to the bible and key divination. A large key was inserted into the pages of the bible, exactly over the 6th and 7th verses of the last chapter of Solomon’s Song. The girl who was wanting an answer then tied the bible with the garter from her right leg and with a female friend placed each a finger under the bow of the key. The girl then repeated the two verses for each letter of the alphabet. It was believed that when she reached the letter of his first name the bible moved. If the bible didn’t move then she was to remain unmarried (The Vocabulary of East Anglia 1830).

There were many ways that young women used divination to discover the identity of a likely husband. A table might be laid for herself and her future husband or a fresh egg was pricked with a needle and three drops of the white were allowed to fall into a bowl of water. The fantastic shapes that appeared were then read for omens. Some young women washed their sark (a Scottish word for a night shirt or chemise) and left it to dry on the back of a chair. They would lie awake waiting and hoping to see the form of their future husband appear and turn over their sark.

In Suffolk it was known for four girls to prepare dinner for five and then for each of them to sit in a corner of the room until midnight and wait for one of their future husbands. (Country, vol. 1 by Lady Eveline Camilla Gurdon 1893).

To know of any warnings for the coming year, there were divinations by the means of the ashes and the midnight watch in or near a church porch.

These are some popular sayings and beliefs of the time.

“It is very unlucky to let the fire go out on the night of New Year’s Eve.”

“It is unlucky to give fire or a light out of the house on New Year’s Eve.”

To take a silver coin out of the house during the night of New Year’s Eve, to hide it and then to bring it back into the house the following morning was believed to insure a supply of money during the coming year ( In Cornwall).

“It is unlucky to continue the knitting of a stocking into the New Year.” (Household Tales, Sidney Oldall Addy, 1895).

It was seen as unlucky to start a journey or venture on New Year’s Eve because of the assumption that there was a connection with Judas.

The well of St Euny in Cornwall was believed to be at its most powerful healing capacity on the last day of the year (The History of Cornwall, Rev. R. Polwhele 1816).

I am sad to say that this is the final part of my Old English Christmas Customs Series. I must say that I have learnt a lot from my research. Some of these traditions are fantastical, while others I can actually see myself using.

If you know of any European Traditions pertaining to this time of year, for example La Befana, the Christmas witch from Italy, then I would love to hear about them.

Brightest Blessings,

Hazel

xxx

 

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