Witch of the Week: Rhiannon and the Winter Solstice

“Rhiannon rings like a bell through the night

And wouldn’t you love to love her?

Takes to the sky like a bird in flight

And who will be her lover?”

She may not exactly be a witch. Depending on who you talk to, Rhiannon may be a Celtic goddess, a Christian queen, a Welsh sorceress, or a Scottish fairy. Nonetheless, these origins are witchy enough. Rhiannon had some magickal powers, and a special connection to the Winter Solstice, which is now upon us.

On this, the longest night of December 21st, it is said that Rhiannon rides on a white horse through the dreams of her people. During this supernatural intervention, she is able to bring humans to liminal spaces and Otherworlds. There, mere mortals are able to create their own visions of glory, and make their deepest desires come true! For this reason, the night of the Winter Solstice was called “Wish Night” in Wales and Scotland.

But who was Rhiannon, and why did she have such magickal powers?

The first writings about Rhiannon appear in the Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh mythology, written between the 11th and 13th centuries. The Marinogion is considered one of the earliest works of British storytelling. However, her roots trace back much earlier, to the ancient Celts, where she appears as a sun goddess. She is associated with horses and birds, especially songbirds. Rhiannon was said to have kept three pet songbirds who tweeted melodies that had the power to wake the dead, or lull an army to sleep! She is also said to rule the element of wind.

Interestingly, the Stevie Nicks song has references to birds and wind, although Nicks claims that at the time she wrote it, she was unaware that Rhiannon had this association.

“She rules her life like a fine skylark

And when the sky is starless

All your life you’ve never seen a woman

Taken by the wind…”

Her name, “Rhiannon” comes from the Common Brittonic word for “queen”.

She is portrayed as wise, intelligent, powerful and strategic. She also had superhuman strength. Like King Arthur, Rhiannon is said to have ruled during the Early Middle Ages, between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of modern Britain.   

In the Mabinogion, Rhiannon starts out as a fairy princess from the Welsh Otherworld, the daughter of a great fairy king. She was betrothed to marry a man named Gwawl, but she was not happy with this engagement. Instead, she was interested in a man named Pwyll—a human who also had supernatural powers and happened to be a king. It was Pwyll who drew Rhiannon into the human world.  

Love at First Sight

One day Pwyll went to a fairy hill, and Rhiannon appeared to him as a goddess riding upon a magnificent white horse.

Needless to say, he was smitten, and rode after her. Since she knew every man loves a chase, Rhiannon outran Pwyll. The race lasted for three days, but finally Rhiannon allowed herself to be caught. Pwyll immediately proposed to her, and she happily accepted, as this would keep her from marrying the dreaded Gwawl. Rhiannon and Pwyll conspired together to fool Gwawl and get Rhiannon out of the betrothal.

As it turned out, most of the conspiring was done by Rhiannon. Pwyll seems to not have been very clever, and in the Mabinogion, Rhiannon says of her husband, “Never was there a man who made feebler use of his wits.” It was perhaps for this reason that Rhiannon, as queen consort, was said to rule early Briton, and is sometimes compared to King Arthur.

A few years after marrying Pwyll, Rhiannon gave birth to their son, a child born on May Eve, and named ‘Pryderi’. But tragically, the infant disappeared one night while under the care of his nursemaids. Because the nursemaids were scared that they would be accused of kidnapping, they came up with a plan to frame Rhiannon. (That’s loyalty for you!) Here’s where it gets really gross, so be warned.

Blood and Sacrifice

The nursemaids killed a puppy and then smeared its blood on the face of their sleeping queen. When she awoke, with blood all over her face, Rhiannon was accused of not only killing, but eating her son!

As penance, Rhiannon was made to sit outside the castle walls, and tell passersby what she had done.

“I am she who killed my only child, and this is my punishment, to sit here and tell my tale to all comers.”

This punishment went on for four years. Pwyll remained loyal to her during this time, never believing that his wife was capable of the heinous act. Rhiannon, it seems, accepted her fate and was obedient to her punishment. This, however, was a strategy as well, because as the punishment went on, the people became more loyal to Rhiannon and didn’t believe her to be guilty. Rhiannon gained the people’s acceptance through her unfair sentence. Also, by making a pubic display of things, Rhiannon knew the news of the prince’s disappearance would travel far and wide. Rhiannon realized that eventually, word may get around that her son was missing, she had been targeted unfairly, and thus he would be returned.

Return of the Son and the Sun

After the four year punishment was finished, the son did, in fact, return. He was travelling with a lord named Tyrnon, his adopted father. Because of his special fairy genes, the son had grown far beyond his four years, and now appeared as a young man. Tyrnon and Pryderi came as guests to Rhiannon’s castle. His parents suspected immediately that he was their lost boy.

As it turned out, Pryderi had been kidnapped by a monster. Lord Tyrnon had rescued him and raised him as his own. The young man, however, looked so much like  Pwyll there was no doubt to his true paternity. Thus, the story had a happy ending. Pryderi remained at the castle with is true parents.  Rhiannon was declared innocent of any wrongdoing. And when Pwyll died, Pryderi took over the kingdom and was a great ruler in his own right.

And as for Rhiannon…

“She is like a cat in the dark

And then, she is the darkness.”

Rhiannon went on to do many magickal things with her fairy ways. She was said to be a great mathematician, and the patterns of the solstice were calculated by her. This may have been the reason why she had special powers during the winter solstice, which is also, it should be noted, the return of the sun!

On this night, Rhiannon has the ability to infiltrate the dreams of humans. It is said she can then transport them to Otherwords, and Otherlands. Here, where time and dimensions are different, mere mortals are given the gift of creating their own visions. Hence, they can make manifest their deepest desires.

So be careful what you wish for tonight. Rhiannon may visit you, transport you to the Otherworld, and help make your dreams come true!

The Virgin of Guadalupe

She is known as “Our Lady”, the virgin mother of Jesus, and the Patron Saint of the Americas. Her shrine at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City is the most-visited Catholic shrine in the world, and the world’s third most-visited sacred site.

Today, December 12, marks the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

She is said to have appeared to a man named Juan Diego in 16th century Mexico. Her image, which was left on Juan Diego’s cloak, is now enshrined in the Basilica. And weirdly, the image has not tarnished nor faded in almost five hundred years!

But who is the famous lady, and what did she want with Juan Diego?

Juan Diego was an indigenous Mexican peasant and a member of the Chichimec tribe. He was over fifty years old at the time of the apparitions. He was basically a nobody, an old man by standards of the time—but he was unique in the sense that he was a baptized Catholic.

 According to Nican Mopohua, a 17th-century account written in the native Nahuatl language, which Juan Diego spoke, the Virgin Mary appeared four times to him, and once to his uncle, Juan Bernardino. The first apparition occurred on the morning of Saturday, December 9, 1531.  While walking down the road, Juan Diego saw a vision of a young woman at a place called the Hill of Tepeyac, which later became part of Villa de Guadalupe, in a suburb of Mexico City. The woman spoke to Diego in his native Nahuatl language (the language of the Aztec Empire), identified herself as the Virgin Mary, “mother of the very true deity”. She asked Juan Diego to petition for a church to be built at that site in her honor.

Poor Juan Diego! He must have been amazed, confused, and flabbergasted, but what could he do? He went to the Archbishop of Mexico City, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, and told him what had happened.

The archbishop wasn’t buying it.

He sent Juan Diego away with no plans for the new church. But later that day, the Virgin appeared to Diego again and told him not to give up.  And so, the next day, Sunday, December 10, 1531 Juan Diego spoke to the archbishop a second time.

This time, the archbishop wanted proof. He instructed Diego to return to Tepeyac Hill. He was to ask the woman of a miraculous sign to prove who she was. So, Juan Diego returned, and saw the Lady for the third time. She agreed to give him a fool proof sign on the next day, which would be December 11.  

But then tragedy struck!

On Monday, December 11, Juan Diego’s uncle, Juan Bernardino, became ill. Since Diego had to attend to his uncle, he could not visit the Virgin that day. Instead, he stayed with his uncle, whose condition deteriorated. On the next day, December 12, Diego journeyed to Tlatelolco to get a Catholic priest to hear Juan Bernardino’s confession and help minister to him on his deathbed.

Now Juan Diego was embarrassed! He had not kept his part of the bargain, and had not met the Virgin on Monday. He was scared, and wanted to avoid her. So, he took an alternate route around Tepeyac Hill, as he went to get the priest.

Yet the Virgin would not be outdone. She intercepted him and asked where he was going. Juan Diego explained what had happened. The Virgin then asked: “¿No estoy yo aquí que soy tu madre?” (“Am I not here, I who am your mother?”). She then assured him that his uncle was now fully recovered.

The Virgin then instructed Juan Diego to accompany her to gather flowers from the summit of Tepeyac Hill. This should have been impossible, as it was the dead of winter and the land was barren. But! You guessed it. When Diego went to the hill, he found a beautiful garden of Castilian roses in full bloom. Not only were the roses blooming, but this particular strain was not native to Mexico, so the occurrence was doubly strange.

The Virgin arranged a bouquet of roses inside Juan Diego’s cloak. The fresh roses were meant to be the “miraculous sign” the archbishop had asked for. Diego then went to see Archbishop Zumárraga. When he opened his cloak, the flowers fell to the floor. But there was more! Not only did the miraculous roses tumble to the ground, but the Virgin had left her own image in the fabric.

It is that fabric that remains in the Basilica today.

Needless to say, after a sight like that, the archbishop hopped to it! He got his men to erect a makeshift church in honor of the Lady.

But there’s more to the story.

The next day, December 13, Juan Diego found his uncle fully recovered as the Virgin had assured him. Juan Bernardino claimed that he had seen her at his bedside.  She had instructed him to inform the archbishop of her presence, and of his miraculous cure. Also, she had told him she desired to be known under the title of ‘Guadalupe’.

On December 26, 1531, a procession formed to transfer the cloak with the miraculous image back to Tepeyac Hill. There it was installed in a small, hastily erected chapel. The Indians were celebrating, and it was the custom of the Chichimecas to play with bows and arrows. While some celebrants fired arrows into the air in jubilation, one of them accidentally pierced the throat of an Indian who was walking with a group. The Indian was killed instantly.

But! The corpse was carried into the chapel and laid beneath the sacred image. The arrow was extracted, and crowd prayed aloud to Our Lady of Guadalupe for a miracle. And… You guessed it! Minutes later, the man regained consciousness and rose, completely healed. Only the scar remained visible until the day he died.

This miracle was a catalyst for conversion. Following this impressive feat, 9 million Indians converted to Christianity. Spaniards and Mexicans who had previously been mortal enemies, now joined together in faith of the Virgin.

In the end, it seems, the Virgin’s work was all about bringing people together.

Have a holy and sacred Feast of Guadalupe.

Saint Nicholas and the Prostitute Stockings

“The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there.”

So goes the line from the famous 19th century poem, “The Night Before Christmas”. But it is an odd custom, isn’t it? Why would anyone ever come up with the idea of filling a bunch of smelly socks with candy and gifts? I wondered. So I did some sleuthing and found out, according to legend, the origin of this custom.

Today, December 6th, marks the Feast of Saint Nicholas, and of course his evil counterpart Krampus, who tags along with him on his gift giving. While Nicholas is the “good saint” distributing gifts to children who have been virtuous, Krampus deals with the bad kids, often flogging them with a whip and carrying them away to unknown destinations. Krampus served to teach kids that they must be good all year long, or they’d be in for some SERIOUS punishment…

But back to the stockings. Many people have a tradition of hanging stockings by the fireplace during the Christmas season. The belief is that Santa (or Saint Nick) will come and fill the stockings with goodies. Indeed, the “Stocking Stuffer” business is huge among retail stores, as they sell all kinds of little baubles and goodies, enticing shoppers to buy, since those stockings MUST be stuffed! Many countries in Europe have a tradition of filling children’s stockings, and also shoes, with treats on Saint Nicholas Day.

But the stuffed stockings actually have a deeper, more profound meaning. Would you believe that stuffed stockings once saved three women from a life of prostitution?

The real Saint Nicholas was Nicholas of Myra (15 March 270 – 6 December 343), also known as Nicholas of Bari. He was an early Christian bishop of Greek descent from the maritime city of Myra in Asia Minor, what is now modern-day Turkey.

 Nicholas was known to do all kinds of good deeds, and there are many legends about him. But I found one particularly intriguing.

It was said in a village near Myra there lived a man with three daughters. The man had lost his fortune and was destitute. Since daughters, in those days, were somewhat of a burden, he had one goal in mind: to marry them off and get them out of the house. But alas, since they were so poor, the man had no dowry to give to his daughters. And without a dowry — well — there’d be no gain in marrying them. Hence, no decent man would ever ask for their hands.

(By the way, YES! It’s appalling! But that’s how they did things back then. Women were like cattle, to be raised and traded off, with essentially no worth except what their father could offer into the marriage bargain, usually a large dowry.)

Since there was no hope for these three daughters, the only thing to be done was that they be sent out into the world to become prostitutes. (Yeah, of course. Logical solution, right?)

The night before the girls were planning to report to the local pimp, they washed their stockings, as having clean feet would be necessary for their new profession. Since they had no modern-day dryers or laundromats, the girls hung the stockings above the hearth to help them dry. Then they went to bed, terrified about what the next day would bring.

But something happened to change the course of their lives.

Enter the good Saint Nicholas.

According to the legend, Nicholas threw a bag of gold through the window. As the bag flew through the air, some of the gold coins flipped out and landed in the stockings!

Hence began our custom of hanging stockings by the chimney in hopes that they will be filled with goodies by the benevolent Santa Klaus!

The girls woke up to find the bag of gold, and the stray coins that had fallen into their stockings. At this point they decided to reassess their decision to become street walkers…

But good old Saint Nick did not stop there! It is said on the next night he repeated the procedure, and then again on the next night, so that there were, altogether, three bags of gold for the sisters. The girls were DEFINITELY NOT reporting to the local pimp!

Since it was the 4th century, and women had very few choices, it is said that the father used the gold for the girls’ dowries, and in turn got them married off to some respectable men. And they lived happily ever after.

But I like to think that maybe the girls went into business together, opened a sock shop, made a fortune and lived happily ever after…

At any rate, what we know for sure is that Nicholas himself was a generous soul, a giver of gifts, and someone who looked out for those less fortunate than himself.

Happy Saint Nicholas Day, and may your stockings always be stuffed with good things.