Eight Sabbats of Witchcraft

By Mike Nichols

This file contains 9 seasonal articles by Mike Nichols. They may be

freely distributed provided that the following conditions are met: (1)

No fee is charged for their use and distribution and no commercial use

is made of them; (2) These files are not changed or edited in any way

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article may be distributed as a separate file, provided that this

notice is repeated at the beginning of each such file.

These articles are periodically updated by the author; this version is

current as of 9/28/88. Contact Mike Nichols at the Magick Lantern BBS

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or to leave your own comments on them.


The Eight Sabbats of Witchcraft


by Mike Nichols

copyright by MicroMuse Press

<1> Halloween

<2> Yule

<3> Candlemas

<4> Lady Day

<5> May Day

<6> Midsummer

<7> Lammas

<8> Harvest Home

<9> Death of Llew: A Seasonal Interp



by Mike Nichols

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Halloween. Sly does it. Tiptoe catspaw. Slide and creep. But

why? What for? How? Who? When! Where did it all begin? 'You

don't know, do you?' asks Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud climbing

out under the pile of leaves under the Halloween Tree. 'You don't

REALLY know!' --Ray Bradbury from 'The Halloween Tree'

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Samhain. All Hallows. All Hallow's Eve. Hallow E'en.

Halloween. The most magical night of the year. Exactly opposite


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Beltane on the wheel of the year, Halloween is Beltane's dark twin. A

night of glowing jack-o-lanterns, bobbing for apples, tricks or

treats, and dressing in costume. A night of ghost stories and

seances, tarot card readings and scrying with mirrors. A night of

power, when the veil that separates our world from the Otherworld is

at its thinnest. A 'spirit night', as they say in Wales.

All Hallow's Eve is the eve of All Hallow's Day (November 1st).

And for once, even popular tradition remembers that the Eve is more

important than the Day itself, the traditional celebration focusing on

October 31st, beginning at sundown. And this seems only fitting for

the great Celtic New Year's festival. Not that the holiday was Celtic

only. In fact, it is startling how many ancient and unconnected

cultures (the Egyptians and pre-Spanish Mexicans, for example)

celebrated this as a festival of the dead. But the majority of our

modern traditions can be traced to the British Isles.

The Celts called it Samhain, which means 'summer's end',

according to their ancient two-fold division of the year, when summer

ran from Beltane to Samhain and winter ran from Samhain to Beltane.

(Some modern Covens echo this structure by letting the High Priest

'rule' the Coven beginning on Samhain, with rulership returned to the

High Priestess at Beltane.) According to the later four-fold division

of the year, Samhain is seen as 'autumn's end' and the beginning of

winter. Samhain is pronounced (depending on where you're from) as

'sow-in' (in Ireland), or 'sow-een' (in Wales), or 'sav-en' (in

Scotland), or (inevitably) 'sam-hane' (in the U.S., where we don't

speak Gaelic).

Not only is Samhain the end of autumn; it is also, more

importantly, the end of the old year and the beginning of the new.

Celtic New Year's Eve, when the new year begins with the onset of the

dark phase of the year, just as the new day begins at sundown. There

are many representations of Celtic gods with two faces, and it surely

must have been one of them who held sway over Samhain. Like his Greek

counterpart Janus, he would straddle the threshold, one face turned

toward the past in commemoration of those who died during the last

year, and one face gazing hopefully toward the future, mystic eyes

attempting to pierce the veil and divine what the coming year holds.

These two themes, celebrating the dead and divining the future, are

inexorably intertwined in Samhain, as they are likely to be in any New

Year's celebration.

As a feast of the dead, it was believed the dead could, if they

wished, return to the land of the living for this one night, to

celebrate with their family, tribe, or clan. And so the great burial


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mounds of Ireland (sidh mounds) were opened up, with lighted torches

lining the walls, so the dead could find their way. Extra places were

set at the table and food set out for any who had died that year. And

there are many stories that tell of Irish heroes making raids on the

Underworld while the gates of faery stood open, though all must return

to their appointed places by cock-crow.

As a feast of divination, this was the night par excellence for

peering into the future. The reason for this has to do with the

Celtic view of time. In a culture that uses a linear concept of time,

like our modern one, New Year's Eve is simply a milestone on a very

long road that stretches in a straight line from birth to death.

Thus, the New Year's festival is a part of time. The ancient Celtic

view of time, however, is cyclical. And in this framework, New Year's

Eve represents a point outside of time, when the natural order of the

universe dissolves back into primordial chaos, preparatory to re-

establishing itself in a new order. Thus, Samhain is a night that

exists outside of time and hence it may be used to view any other

point in time. At no other holiday is a tarot card reading, crystal

reading, or tea-leaf reading so likely to succeed.

The Christian religion, with its emphasis on the 'historical'

Christ and his act of redemption 2000 years ago, is forced into a

linear view of time, where 'seeing the future' is an illogical

proposition. In fact, from the Christian perspective, any attempt to

do so is seen as inherently evil. This did not keep the medieval

Church from co-opting Samhain's other motif, commemoration of the

dead. To the Church, however, it could never be a feast for all the

dead, but only the blessed dead, all those hallowed (made holy) by

obedience to God - thus, All Hallow's, or Hallowmas, later All Saints

and All Souls.

There are so many types of divination that are traditional to

Hallowstide, it is possible to mention only a few. Girls were told to

place hazel nuts along the front of the firegrate, each one to

symbolize one of her suitors. She could then divine her future

husband by chanting, 'If you love me, pop and fly; if you hate me,

burn and die.' Several methods used the apple, that most popular of

Halloween fruits. You should slice an apple through the equator (to

reveal the five-pointed star within) and then eat it by candlelight

before a mirror. Your future spouse will then appear over your

shoulder. Or, peel an apple, making sure the peeling comes off in one

long strand, reciting, 'I pare this apple round and round again; / My

sweetheart's name to flourish on the plain: / I fling the unbroken

paring o'er my head, / My sweetheart's letter on the ground to read.'

Or, you might set a snail to crawl through the ashes of your hearth.


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The considerate little creature will then spell out the initial letter

as it moves.

Perhaps the most famous icon of the holiday is the

jack-o-lantern. Various authorities attribute it to either Scottish

or Irish origin. However, it seems clear that it was used as a

lantern by people who traveled the road this night, the scary face to

frighten away spirits or faeries who might otherwise lead one astray.

Set on porches and in windows, they cast the same spell of protection

over the household. (The American pumpkin seems to have forever

superseded the European gourd as the jack-o-lantern of choice.)

Bobbing for apples may well represent the remnants of a Pagan

'baptism' rite called a 'seining', according to some writers. The

water-filled tub is a latter-day Cauldron of Regeneration, into which

the novice's head is immersed. The fact that the participant in this

folk game was usually blindfolded with hands tied behind the back also

puts one in mind of a traditional Craft initiation ceremony.

The custom of dressing in costume and 'trick-or-treating' is of

Celtic origin with survivals particularly strong in Scotland.

However, there are some important differences from the modern version.

In the first place, the custom was not relegated to children, but was

actively indulged in by adults as well. Also, the 'treat' which was

required was often one of spirits (the liquid variety). This has

recently been revived by college students who go 'trick-or-drinking'.

And in ancient times, the roving bands would sing seasonal carols from

house to house, making the tradition very similar to Yuletide

wassailing. In fact, the custom known as 'caroling', now connected

exclusively with mid-winter, was once practiced at all the major

holidays. Finally, in Scotland at least, the tradition of dressing in

costume consisted almost exclusively of cross-dressing (i.e., men

dressing as women, and women as men). It seems as though ancient

societies provided an opportunity for people to 'try on' the role of

the opposite gender for one night of the year. (Although in Scotland,

this is admittedly less dramatic - but more confusing - since men were

in the habit of wearing skirt-like kilts anyway. Oh well...)

To Witches, Halloween is one of the four High Holidays, or

Greater Sabbats, or cross-quarter days. Because it is the most

important holiday of the year, it is sometimes called 'THE Great

Sabbat.' It is an ironic fact that the newer, self-created Covens

tend to use the older name of the holiday, Samhain, which they have

discovered through modern research. While the older hereditary and

traditional Covens often use the newer name, Halloween, which has been

handed down through oral tradition within their Coven. (This is often

holds true for the names of the other holidays, as well. One may


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often get an indication of a Coven's antiquity by noting what names it

uses for the holidays.)

With such an important holiday, Witches often hold two distinct

celebrations. First, a large Halloween party for non-Craft friends,

often held on the previous weekend. And second, a Coven ritual held

on Halloween night itself, late enough so as not to be interrupted by

trick-or-treaters. If the rituals are performed properly, there is

often the feeling of invisible friends taking part in the rites.

Another date which may be utilized in planning celebrations is the

actual cross-quarter day, or Old Halloween, or Halloween O.S. (Old

Style). This occurs when the sun has reached 15 degrees Scorpio, an

astrological 'power point' symbolized by the Eagle. This year (1988),

the date is November 6th at 10:55 pm CST, with the celebration

beginning at sunset. Interestingly, this date (Old Halloween) was

also appropriated by the Church as the holiday of Martinmas.

Of all the Witchcraft holidays, Halloween is the only one that

still boasts anything near to popular celebration. Even though it is

typically relegated to children (and the young-at-heart) and observed

as an evening affair only, many of its traditions are firmly rooted in

Paganism. Interestingly, some schools have recently attempted to

abolish Halloween parties on the grounds that it violates the

separation of state and religion. Speaking as a Pagan, I would be

saddened by the success of this move, but as a supporter of the

concept of religion-free public education, I fear I must concede the

point. Nonetheless, it seems only right that there SHOULD be one

night of the year when our minds are turned toward thoughts of the

supernatural. A night when both Pagans and non-Pagans may ponder the

mysteries of the Otherworld and its inhabitants. And if you are one

of them, may all your jack-o'lanterns burn bright on this All Hallow's




by Mike Nichols

Our Christian friends are often quite surprised at how

enthusiastically we Pagans celebrate the 'Christmas' season. Even

though we prefer to use the word 'Yule', and our celebrations may peak

a few days BEFORE the 25th, we nonetheless follow many of the

traditional customs of the season: decorated trees, carolling,

presents, Yule logs, and mistletoe. We might even go so far as

putting up a 'Nativity set', though for us the three central


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characters are likely to be interpreted as Mother Nature, Father Time,

and the Baby Sun-God. None of this will come as a surprise to anyone

who knows the true history of the holiday, of course.

In fact, if truth be known, the holiday of Christmas has always

been more Pagan than Christian, with it's associations of Nordic

divination, Celtic fertility rites, and Roman Mithraism. That is why

both Martin Luther and John Calvin abhorred it, why the Puritans

refused to acknowledge it, much less celebrate it (to them, no day of

the year could be more holy than the Sabbath), and why it was even

made ILLEGAL in Boston! The holiday was already too closely

associated with the birth of older Pagan gods and heroes. And many of

them (like Oedipus, Theseus, Hercules, Perseus, Jason, Dionysus,

Apollo, Mithra, Horus and even Arthur) possessed a narrative of birth,

death, and resurrection that was uncomfortably close to that of Jesus.

And to make matters worse, many of them pre-dated the Christian


Ultimately, of course, the holiday is rooted deeply in the cycle

of the year. It is the Winter Solstice that is being celebrated,

seed-time of the year, the longest night and shortest day. It is the

birthday of the new Sun King, the Son of God -- by whatever name you

choose to call him. On this darkest of nights, the Goddess becomes

the Great Mother and once again gives birth. And it makes perfect

poetic sense that on the longest night of the winter, 'the dark night

of our souls', there springs the new spark of hope, the Sacred Fire,

the Light of the World, the Coel Coeth.

That is why Pagans have as much right to claim this holiday as

Christians. Perhaps even more so, as the Christians were rather late

in laying claim to it, and tried more than once to reject it. There

had been a tradition in the West that Mary bore the child Jesus on the

twenty-fifth day, but no one could seem to decide on the month.

Finally, in 320 C.E., the Catholic Fathers in Rome decided to make it

December, in an effort to co-opt the Mithraic celebration of the

Romans and the Yule celebrations of the Celts and Saxons.

There was never much pretense that the date they finally chose was

historically accurate. Shepherds just don't 'tend their flocks by

night' in the high pastures in the dead of winter! But if one wishes

to use the New Testament as historical evidence, this reference may

point to sometime in the spring as the time of Jesus's birth. This is

because the lambing season occurs in the spring and that is the only

time when shepherds are likely to 'watch their flocks by night' -- to

make sure the lambing goes well. Knowing this, the Eastern half of

the Church continued to reject December 25, preferring a 'movable


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date' fixed by their astrologers according to the moon.

Thus, despite its shaky start (for over three centuries, no one

knew when Jesus was supposed to have been born!), December 25 finally

began to catch on. By 529, it was a civic holiday, and all work or

public business (except that of cooks, bakers, or any that contributed

to the delight of the holiday) was prohibited by the Emperor

Justinian. In 563, the Council of Braga forbade fasting on Christmas

Day, and four years later the Council of Tours proclaimed the twelve

days from December 25 to Epiphany as a sacred, festive season. This

last point is perhaps the hardest to impress upon the modern reader,

who is lucky to get a single day off work. Christmas, in the Middle

Ages, was not a SINGLE day, but rather a period of TWELVE days, from

December 25 to January 6. The Twelve Days of Christmas, in fact. It

is certainly lamentable that the modern world has abandoned this

approach, along with the popular Twelfth Night celebrations.

Of course, the Christian version of the holiday spread to manycountries no faster than

Christianity itself, which means that

'Christmas' wasn't celebrated in Ireland until the late fifth century;

in England, Switzerland, and Austria until the seventh; in Germany

until the eighth; and in the Slavic lands until the ninth and tenth.

Not that these countries lacked their own mid-winter celebrations of

Yuletide. Long before the world had heard of Jesus, Pagans had been

observing the season by bringing in the Yule log, wishing on it, and

lighting it from the remains of last year's log. Riddles were posed

and answered, magic and rituals were practiced, wild boars were

sacrificed and consumed along with large quantities of liquor, corn

dollies were carried from house to house while carolling, fertility

rites were practiced (girls standing under a sprig of mistletoe were

subject to a bit more than a kiss), and divinations were cast for the

coming Spring. Many of these Pagan customs, in an appropriately

watered-down form, have entered the mainstream of Christian

celebration, though most celebrants do not realize (or do not mention

it, if they do) their origins.

For modern Witches, Yule (from the Anglo-Saxon 'Yula', meaning

'wheel' of the year) is usually celebrated on the actual Winter

Solstice, which may vary by a few days, though it usually occurs on or

around December 21st. It is a Lesser Sabbat or Lower Holiday in the

modern Pagan calendar, one of the four quarter-days of the year, but a

very important one. This year (1988) it occurs on December 21st at

9:28 am CST. Pagan customs are still enthusiastically followed.

Once, the Yule log had been the center of the celebration. It was

lighted on the eve of the solstice (it should light on the first try)

and must be kept burning for twelve hours, for good luck. It should


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be made of ash. Later, the Yule log was replaced by the Yule tree

but, instead of burning it, burning candles were placed on it. In

Christianity, Protestants might claim that Martin Luther invented the

custom, and Catholics might grant St. Boniface the honor, but the

custom can demonstrably be traced back through the Roman Saturnalia

all the way to ancient Egypt. Needless to say, such a tree should be

cut down rather than purchased, and should be disposed of by burning,

the proper way to dispatch any sacred object.

Along with the evergreen, the holly and the ivy and the mistletoe

were important plants of the season, all symbolizing fertility and

everlasting life. Mistletoe was especially venerated by the Celtic

Druids, who cut it with a golden sickle on the sixth night of the

moon, and believed it to be an aphrodisiac. (Magically -- not

medicinally! It's highly toxic!) But aphrodisiacs must have been the

smallest part of the Yuletide menu in ancient times, as contemporary

reports indicate that the tables fairly creaked under the strain of

every type of good food. And drink! The most popular of which was

the 'wassail cup' deriving its name from the Anglo-Saxon term 'waes

hael' (be whole or hale).

Medieval Christmas folklore seems endless: that animals will all

kneel down as the Holy Night arrives, that bees hum the '100th psalm'

on Christmas Eve, that a windy Christmas will bring good luck, that a

person born on Christmas Day can see the Little People, that a cricket

on the hearth brings good luck, that if one opens all the doors of the

house at midnight all the evil spirits will depart, that you will have

one lucky month for each Christmas pudding you sample, that the tree

must be taken down by Twelfth Night or bad luck is sure to follow,

that 'if Christmas on a Sunday be, a windy winter we shall see', that

'hours of sun on Christmas Day, so many frosts in the month of May',

that one can use the Twelve Days of Christmas to predict the weather

for each of the twelve months of the coming year, and so on.

Remembering that most Christmas customs are ultimately based upon

older Pagan customs, it only remains for modern Pagans to reclaim

their lost traditions. In doing so, we can share many common customs

with our Christian friends, albeit with a slightly different

interpretation. And thus we all share in the beauty of this most

magical of seasons, when the Mother Goddess once again gives birth to

the baby Sun-God and sets the wheel in motion again. To conclude with

a long-overdue paraphrase, 'Goddess bless us, every one!'

C A N D L E M A S: The Light Returns



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by Mike Nichols

It seems quite impossible that the holiday of Candlemas should be

considered the beginning of Spring. Here in the Heartland, February

2nd may see a blanket of snow mantling the Mother. Or, if the snows

have gone, you may be sure the days are filled with drizzle, slush,

and steel-grey skies -- the dreariest weather of the year. In short,

the perfect time for a Pagan Festival of Lights. And as for Spring,

although this may seem a tenuous beginning, all the little buds,

flowers and leaves will have arrived on schedule before Spring runs

its course to Beltane.

'Candlemas' is the Christianized name for the holiday, of course.

The older Pagan names were Imbolc and Oimelc. 'Imbolc' means,

literally, 'in the belly' (of the Mother). For in the womb of Mother

Earth, hidden from our mundane sight but sensed by a keener vision,

there are stirrings. The seed that was planted in her womb at the

solstice is quickening and the new year grows. 'Oimelc' means 'milk

of ewes', for it is also lambing season.

The holiday is also called 'Brigit's Day', in honor of the great

Irish Goddess Brigit. At her shrine, the ancient Irish capitol of

Kildare, a group of 19 priestesses (no men allowed) kept a perpetual

flame burning in her honor. She was considered a goddess of fire,

patroness of smithcraft, poetry and healing (especially the healing

touch of midwifery). This tripartite symbolism was occasionally

expressed by saying that Brigit had two sisters, also named Brigit.

(Incidentally, another form of the name Brigit is Bride, and it is

thus She bestows her special patronage on any woman about to be

married or handfasted, the woman being called 'bride' in her honor.)

The Roman Catholic Church could not very easily call the Great

Goddess of Ireland a demon, so they canonized her instead.

Henceforth, she would be 'Saint' Brigit, patron SAINT of smithcraft,

poetry, and healing. They 'explained' this by telling the Irish

peasants that Brigit was 'really' an early Christian missionary sent

to the Emerald Isle, and that the miracles she performed there

'misled' the common people into believing that she was a goddess. For

some reason, the Irish swallowed this. (There is no limit to what the

Irish imagination can convince itself of. For example, they also came

to believe that Brigit was the 'foster-mother' of Jesus, giving no

thought to the implausibility of Jesus having spent his boyhood in


Brigit's holiday was chiefly marked by the kindling of sacred


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fires, since she symbolized the fire of birth and healing, the fire of

the forge, and the fire of poetic inspiration. Bonfires were lighted

on the beacon tors, and chandlers celebrated their special holiday.

The Roman Church was quick to confiscate this symbolism as well, using

'Candlemas' as the day to bless all the church candles that would be

used for the coming liturgical year. (Catholics will be reminded that

the following day, St. Blaise's Day, is remembered for using the

newly-blessed candles to bless the throats of parishioners, keeping

them from colds, flu, sore throats, etc.)

The Catholic Church, never one to refrain from piling holiday upon

holiday, also called it the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed

Virgin Mary. (It is surprising how many of the old Pagan holidays

were converted to Maryan Feasts.) The symbol of the Purification may

seem a little obscure to modern readers, but it has to do with the old

custom of 'churching women'. It was believed that women were impure

for six weeks after giving birth. And since Mary gave birth at the

winter solstice, she wouldn't be purified until February 2nd. In

Pagan symbolism, this might be re-translated as when the Great Mother

once again becomes the Young Maiden Goddess.

Today, this holiday is chiefly connected to weather lore. Even

our American folk-calendar keeps the tradition of 'Groundhog's Day', a

day to predict the coming weather, telling us that if the Groundhog

sees his shadow, there will be 'six more weeks' of bad weather (i.e.,

until the next old holiday, Lady Day). This custom is ancient. An

old British rhyme tells us that 'If Candlemas Day be bright and clear,

there'll be two winters in the year.' Actually, all of the

cross-quarter days can be used as 'inverse' weather predictors,

whereas the quarter-days are used as 'direct' weather predictors.

Like the other High Holidays or Great Sabbats of the Witches'

year, Candlemas is sometimes celebrated on it's alternate date,

astrologically determined by the sun's reaching 15-degrees Aquarius,

or Candlemas Old Style (in 1988, February 3rd, at 9:03 am CST).

Another holiday that gets mixed up in this is Valentine's Day. Ozark

folklorist Vance Randolf makes this quite clear by noting that the

old-timers used to celebrate Groundhog's Day on February 14th. This

same displacement is evident in Eastern Orthodox Christianity as well.

Their habit of celebrating the birth of Jesus on January 6th, with a

similar post-dated shift in the six-week period that follows it, puts

the Feast of the Purification of Mary on February 14th. It is amazing

to think that the same confusion and lateral displacement of one of

the old folk holidays can be seen from the Russian steppes to the

Ozark hills, but such seems to be the case!


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Incidentally, there is speculation among linguistic scholars that

the vary name of 'Valentine' has Pagan origins. It seems that it was

customary for French peasants of the Middle Ages to pronounce a 'g' as

a 'v'. Consequently, the original term may have been the French

'galantine', which yields the English word 'gallant'. The word

originally refers to a dashing young man known for his 'affaires

d'amour', a true galaunt. The usual associations of V(G)alantine's

Day make much more sense in this light than their vague connection to

a legendary 'St. Valentine' can produce. Indeed, the Church has

always found it rather difficult to explain this nebulous saint's

connection to the secular pleasures of flirtation and courtly love.

For modern Witches, Candlemas O.S. may then be seen as the Pagan

version of Valentine's Day, with a de-emphasis of 'hearts and flowers'

and an appropriate re-emphasis of Pagan carnal frivolity. This also

re-aligns the holiday with the ancient Roman Lupercalia, a fertility

festival held at this time, in which the priests of Pan ran through

the streets of Rome whacking young women with goatskin thongs to make

them fertile. The women seemed to enjoy the attention and often

stripped in order to afford better targets.

One of the nicest folk-customs still practiced in many countries,

and especially by Witches in the British Isles and parts of the U.S.,

is to place a lighted candle in each and every window of the house,

beginning at sundown on Candlemas Eve (February 1st), allowing them to

continue burning until sunrise. Make sure that such candles are well

seated against tipping and guarded from nearby curtains, etc. What a

cheery sight it is on this cold, bleak and dreary night to see house

after house with candle-lit windows! And, of course, if you are your

Coven's chandler, or if you just happen to like making candles,

Candlemas Day is THE day for doing it. Some Covens hold candle-making

parties and try to make and bless all the candles they'll be using for

the whole year on this day.

Other customs of the holiday include weaving 'Brigit's crosses'

from straw or wheat to hang around the house for protection,

performing rites of spiritual cleansing and purification, making

'Brigit's beds' to ensure fertility of mind and spirit (and body, if

desired), and making Crowns of Light (i.e. of candles) for the High

Priestess to wear for the Candlemas Circle, similar to those worn on

St. Lucy's Day in Scandinavian countries. All in all, this Pagan

Festival of Lights, sacred to the young Maiden Goddess, is one of the

most beautiful and poetic of the year.


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L A D Y D A Y: The Vernal Equinox


by Mike Nichols

Now comes the Vernal Equinox, and the season of Spring reaches

it's apex, halfway through its journey from Candlemas to Beltane.

Once again, night and day stand in perfect balance, with the powers of

light on the ascendancy. The god of light now wins a victory over his

twin, the god of darkness. In the Mabinogion myth reconstruction

which I have proposed, this is the day on which the restored Llew

takes his vengeance on Goronwy by piercing him with the sunlight

spear. For Llew was restored/reborn at the Winter Solstice and is now

well/old enough to vanquish his rival/twin and mate with his

lover/mother. And the great Mother Goddess, who has returned to her

Virgin aspect at Candlemas, welcomes the young sun god's embraces and

conceives a child. The child will be born nine months from now, at

the next Winter Solstice. And so the cycle closes at last.

We think that the customs surrounding the celebration of the

spring equinox were imported from Mediterranean lands, although there

can be no doubt that the first inhabitants of the British Isles

observed it, as evidence from megalithic sites shows. But it was

certainly more popular to the south, where people celebrated the

holiday as New Year's Day, and claimed it as the first day of the

first sign of the Zodiac, Aries. However you look at it, it is

certainly a time of new beginnings, as a simple glance at Nature will


In the Roman Catholic Church, there are two holidays which get

mixed up with the Vernal Equinox. The first, occurring on the fixed

calendar day of March 25th in the old liturgical calendar, is called

the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (or B.V.M.,

as she was typically abbreviated in Catholic Missals). 'Annunciation'

means an announcement. This is the day that the angel Gabriel

announced to Mary that she was 'in the family way'. Naturally, this

had to be announced since Mary, being still a virgin, would have no

other means of knowing it. (Quit scoffing, O ye of little faith!)

Why did the Church pick the Vernal Equinox for the commemoration of

this event? Because it was necessary to have Mary conceive the child

Jesus a full nine months before his birth at the Winter Solstice

(i.e., Christmas, celebrated on the fixed calendar date of December

25). Mary's pregnancy would take the natural nine months to complete,

even if the conception was a bit unorthodox.

As mentioned before, the older Pagan equivalent of this scene

focuses on the joyous process of natural conception, when the young


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virgin Goddess (in this case, 'virgin' in the original sense of

meaning 'unmarried') mates with the young solar God, who has just

displaced his rival. This is probably not their first mating,

however. In the mythical sense, the couple may have been lovers since

Candlemas, when the young God reached puberty. But the young Goddess

was recently a mother (at the Winter Solstice) and is probably still

nursing her new child. Therefore, conception is naturally delayed for

six weeks or so and, despite earlier matings with the God, She does

not conceive until (surprise!) the Vernal Equinox. This may also be

their Hand-fasting, a sacred marriage between God and Goddess called a

Hierogamy, the ultimate Great Rite. Probably the nicest study of this

theme occurs in M. Esther Harding's book, 'Woman's Mysteries'.

Probably the nicest description of it occurs in M. Z. Bradley's

'Mists of Avalon', in the scene where Morgan and Arthur assume the

sacred roles. (Bradley follows the British custom of transferring the

episode to Beltane, when the climate is more suited to its outdoor


The other Christian holiday which gets mixed up in this is Easter.

Easter, too, celebrates the victory of a god of light (Jesus) over

darkness (death), so it makes sense to place it at this season.

Ironically, the name 'Easter' was taken from the name of a Teutonic

lunar Goddess, Eostre (from whence we also get the name of the female

hormone, estrogen). Her chief symbols were the bunny (both for

fertility and because her worshipers saw a hare in the full moon) and

the egg (symbolic of the cosmic egg of creation), images which

Christians have been hard pressed to explain. Her holiday, the

Eostara, was held on the Vernal Equinox Full Moon. Of course, the

Church doesn't celebrate full moons, even if they do calculate by

them, so they planted their Easter on the following Sunday. Thus,

Easter is always the first Sunday, after the first Full Moon, after

the Vernal Equinox. If you've ever wondered why Easter moved all

around the calendar, now you know. (By the way, the Catholic Church

was so adamant about NOT incorporating lunar Goddess symbolism that

they added a further calculation: if Easter Sunday were to fall on the

Full Moon itself, then Easter was postponed to the following Sunday


Incidentally, this raises another point: recently, some Pagan

traditions began referring to the Vernal Equinox as Eostara.

Historically, this is incorrect. Eostara is a lunar holiday, honoring

a lunar Goddess, at the Vernal Full Moon. Hence, the name 'Eostara'

is best reserved to the nearest Esbat, rather than the Sabbat itself.

How this happened is difficult to say. However, it is notable that

some of the same groups misappropriated the term 'Lady Day' for

Beltane, which left no good folk name for the Equinox. Thus, Eostara


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was misappropriated for it, completing a chain-reaction of

displacement. Needless to say, the old and accepted folk name for the

Vernal Equinox is 'Lady Day'. Christians sometimes insist that the

title is in honor of Mary and her Annunciation, but Pagans will smile


Another mythological motif which must surely arrest our attention

at this time of year is that of the descent of the God or Goddess into

the Underworld. Perhaps we see this most clearly in the Christian

tradition. Beginning with his death on the cross on Good Friday, it

is said that Jesus 'descended into hell' for the three days that his

body lay entombed. But on the third day (that is, Easter Sunday), his

body and soul rejoined, he arose from the dead and ascended into

heaven. By a strange 'coincidence', most ancient Pagan religions

speak of the Goddess descending into the Underworld, also for a period

of three days.

Why three days? If we remember that we are here dealing with the

lunar aspect of the Goddess, the reason should be obvious. As the

text of one Book of Shadows gives it, '...as the moon waxes and wanes,

and walks three nights in darkness, so the Goddess once spent three

nights in the Kingdom of Death.' In our modern world, alienated as it

is from nature, we tend to mark the time of the New Moon (when no moon

is visible) as a single date on a calendar. We tend to forget that

the moon is also hidden from our view on the day before and the day

after our calendar date. But this did not go unnoticed by our

ancestors, who always speak of the Goddess's sojourn into the land of

Death as lasting for three days. Is it any wonder then, that we

celebrate the next Full Moon (the Eostara) as the return of the

Goddess from chthonic regions?

Naturally, this is the season to celebrate the victory of life

over death, as any nature-lover will affirm. And the Christian

religion was not misguided by celebrating Christ's victory over death

at this same season. Nor is Christ the only solar hero to journey

into the underworld. King Arthur, for example, does the same thing

when he sets sail in his magical ship, Prydwen, to bring back precious

gifts (i.e. the gifts of life) from the Land of the Dead, as we are

told in the 'Mabinogi'. Welsh triads allude to Gwydion and Amaethon

doing much the same thing. In fact, this theme is so universal that

mythologists refer to it by a common phrase, 'the harrowing of hell'.

However, one might conjecture that the descent into hell, or the

land of the dead, was originally accomplished, not by a solar male

deity, but by a lunar female deity. It is Nature Herself who, in

Spring, returns from the Underworld with her gift of abundant life.


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Solar heroes may have laid claim to this theme much later. The very

fact that we are dealing with a three-day period of absence should

tell us we are dealing with a lunar, not solar, theme. (Although one

must make exception for those occasional MALE lunar deities, such as

the Assyrian god, Sin.) At any rate, one of the nicest modern

renditions of the harrowing of hell appears in many Books of Shadows

as 'The Descent of the Goddess'. Lady Day may be especially

appropriate for the celebration of this theme, whether by

storytelling, reading, or dramatic re-enactment.

For modern Witches, Lady Day is one of the Lesser Sabbats or Low

Holidays of the year, one of the four quarter-days. And what date

will Witches choose to celebrate? They may choose the traditional

folk 'fixed' date of March 25th, starting on its Eve. Or they may

choose the actual equinox point, when the Sun crosses the Equator and

enters the astrological sign of Aries. This year (1988), that will

occur at 3:39 am CST on March 20th.

A Celebration of M A Y D A Y


by Mike Nichols

* * * * * * * *

'Perhaps its just as well that you won't be here...to be offended

by the sight of our May Day celebrations.'

--Lord Summerisle to Sgt. Howie from 'The Wicker Man'

* * * * * * * *

There are four great festivals of the Pagan Celtic year and the

modern Witch's calendar, as well. The two greatest of these are

Halloween (the beginning of winter) and May Day (the beginning of

summer). Being opposite each other on the wheel of the year, they

separate the year into halves. Halloween (also called Samhain) is the

Celtic New Year and is generally considered the more important of the

two, though May Day runs a close second. Indeed, in some areas --

notably Wales -- it is considered the great holiday.

May Day ushers in the fifth month of the modern calendar year,

the month of May. This month is named in honor of the goddess Maia,

originally a Greek mountain nymph, later identified as the most

beautiful of the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades. By Zeus, she is also

the mother of Hermes, god of magic. Maia's parents were Atlas and

Pleione, a sea nymph.


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The old Celtic name for May Day is Beltane (in its most popular

Anglicized form), which is derived from the Irish Gaelic 'Bealtaine'

or the Scottish Gaelic 'Bealtuinn', meaning 'Bel-fire', the fire of

the Celtic god of light (Bel, Beli or Belinus). He, in turn, may be

traced to the Middle Eastern god Baal.

Other names for May Day include: Cetsamhain ('opposite Samhain'),

Walpurgisnacht (in Germany), and Roodmas (the medieval Church's name).

This last came from Church Fathers who were hoping to shift the common

people's allegiance from the Maypole (Pagan lingham - symbol of life)

to the Holy Rood (the Cross - Roman instrument of death).

Incidentally, there is no historical justification for calling

May 1st 'Lady Day'. For hundreds of years, that title has been proper

to the Vernal Equinox (approx. March 21st), another holiday sacred to

the Great Goddess. The nontraditional use of 'Lady Day' for May 1st

is quite recent (within the last 15 years), and seems to be confined

to America, where it has gained widespread acceptance among certain

segments of the Craft population. This rather startling departure

from tradition would seem to indicate an unfamiliarity with European

calendar customs, as well as a lax attitude toward scholarship among

too many Pagans. A simple glance at a dictionary ('Webster's 3rd' or

O.E.D.), encyclopedia ('Benet's'), or standard mythology reference

(Jobe's 'Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore & Symbols') would confirm

the correct date for Lady Day as the Vernal Equinox.

By Celtic reckoning, the actual Beltane celebration begins on

sundown of the preceding day, April 30, because the Celts always

figured their days from sundown to sundown. And sundown was the

proper time for Druids to kindle the great Bel-fires on the tops of

the nearest beacon hill (such as Tara Hill, Co. Meath, in Ireland).

These 'need-fires' had healing properties, and sky-clad Witches would

jump through the flames to ensure protection.

* * * * * * * *

Sgt. Howie (shocked): 'But they are naked!'

Lord Summerisle: 'Naturally. It's much too dangerous to jump

through the fire with your clothes on!'

* * * * * * * *

Frequently, cattle would be driven between two such bon-fires

(oak wood was the favorite fuel for them) and, on the morrow, they

would be taken to their summer pastures.

Other May Day customs include: walking the circuit of one's

property ('beating the bounds'), repairing fences and boundary


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markers, processions of chimney-sweeps and milk maids, archery

tournaments, morris dances, sword dances, feasting, music, drinking,

and maidens bathing their faces in the dew of May morning to retain

their youthful beauty.

In the words of Witchcraft writers Janet and Stewart Farrar, the

Beltane celebration was principly a time of '...unashamed human

sexuality and fertility.' Such associations include the obvious

phallic symbolism of the Maypole and riding the hobby horse. Even a

seemingly innocent children's nursery rhyme, 'Ride a cock horse to

Banburry Cross...' retains such memories. And the next line '...to

see a fine Lady on a white horse' is a reference to the annual ride of

'Lady Godiva' though Coventry. Every year for nearly three centuries,

a sky-clad village maiden (elected Queen of the May) enacted this

Pagan rite, until the Puritans put an end to the custom.

The Puritans, in fact, reacted with pious horror to most of the

May Day rites, even making Maypoles illegal in 1644. They especially

attempted to suppress the 'greenwood marriages' of young men and women

who spent the entire night in the forest, staying out to greet the May

sunrise, and bringing back boughs of flowers and garlands to decorate

the village the next morning. One angry Puritan wrote that men 'doe

use commonly to runne into woodes in the night time, amongst maidens,

to set bowes, in so muche, as I have hearde of tenne maidens whiche

went to set May, and nine of them came home with childe.' And another

Puritan complained that, of the girls who go into the woods, 'not the

least one of them comes home again a virgin.'

Long after the Christian form of marriage (with its insistence on

sexual monogamy) had replaced the older Pagan handfasting, the rules

of strict fidelity were always relaxed for the May Eve rites. Names

such as Robin Hood, Maid Marian, and Little John played an important

part in May Day folklore, often used as titles for the dramatis

personae of the celebrations. And modern surnames such as Robinson,

Hodson, Johnson, and Godkin may attest to some distant May Eve spent

in the woods.

These wildwood antics have inspired writers such as Kipling:

Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight,

Or he would call it a sin;

But we have been out in the woods all night,

A-conjuring Summer in!

And Lerner and Lowe:

It's May! It's May!

The lusty month of May!...


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Those dreary vows that ev'ryone takes,

Ev'ryone breaks.

Ev'ryone makes divine mistakes!

The lusty month of May!

It is certainly no accident that Queen Guinevere's 'abduction' by

Meliagrance occurs on May 1st when she and the court have gone

a-Maying, or that the usually efficient Queen's Guard, on this

occasion, rode unarmed.

Some of these customs seem virtually identical to the old Roman

feast of flowers, the Floriala, three days of unrestrained sexuality

which began at sundown April 28th and reached a crescendo on May 1st.

There are other, even older, associations with May 1st in Celtic

mythology. According to the ancient Irish 'Book of Invasions', the

first settler of Ireland, Partholan, arrived on May 1st; and it was on

May 1st that the plague came which destroyed his people. Years later,

the Tuatha De Danann were conquered by the Milesians on May Day. In

Welsh myth, the perennial battle between Gwythur and Gwyn for the love

of Creudylad took place each May Day; and it was on May Eve that

Teirnyon lost his colts and found Pryderi. May Eve was also the

occasion of a fearful scream that was heard each year throughout

Wales, one of the three curses of the Coranians lifted by the skill of

Lludd and Llevelys.

By the way, due to various calendrical changes down through the

centuries, the traditional date of Beltane is not the same as its

astrological date. This date, like all astronomically determined

dates, may vary by a day or two depending on the year. However, it

may be calculated easily enough by determining the date on which the

sun is at 15 degrees Taurus (usually around May 5th). British Witches

often refer to this date as Old Beltane, and folklorists call it

Beltane O.S. ('Old Style'). Some Covens prefer to celebrate on the

old date and, at the very least, it gives one options. If a Coven is

operating on 'Pagan Standard Time' and misses May 1st altogether, it

can still throw a viable Beltane bash as long as it's before May 5th.

This may also be a consideration for Covens that need to organize

activities around the week-end.

This date has long been considered a 'power point' of the Zodiac,

and is symbolized by the Bull, one of the 'tetramorph' figures

featured on the Tarot cards, the World and the Wheel of Fortune. (The

other three symbols are the Lion, the Eagle, and the Spirit.)

Astrologers know these four figures as the symbols of the four 'fixed'

signs of the Zodiac (Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius), and these


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naturally align with the four Great Sabbats of Witchcraft. Christians

have adopted the same iconography to represent the four


But for most, it is May 1st that is the great holiday of flowers,

Maypoles, and greenwood frivolity. It is no wonder that, as recently

as 1977, Ian Anderson could pen the following lyrics for Jethro Tull:

For the May Day is the great day,

Sung along the old straight track.

And those who ancient lines did ley

Will heed this song that calls them back.



by Mike Nichols

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The young maid stole through the cottage door,

And blushed as she sought the Plant of pow'r;--

'Thou silver glow-worm, O lend me thy light,

I must gather the mystic St. John's wort tonight,

The wonderful herb, whose leaf will decide

If the coming year shall make me a bride.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In addition to the four great festivals of the Pagan Celtic year,

there are four lesser holidays as well: the two solstices, and the two

equinoxes. In folklore, these are referred t