- Listen to the sun.
- Answer foxglove bells.
- Heed the wisdom of animals.
- Open a portal.
- Glimpse the waking dream.
- Grab a handful of magic.
Valentine’s Day is not all hearts and flowers and Fanny Mae. But you probably already knew that. The origins and subsequent ‘celebrations’ of St. Valentine’s Day have lent themselves to some pretty gory stuff. How did romance and sentimentality get intertwined in it? Well…
“The course of true love never did run smooth.” — William Shakespeare
Grab some chocolates and read on to discover some origins of this strange but beloved holiday.
All Roads Lead To Rome
The ancient Romans had a holy day called Lupercalia, traditionally celebrated on February 15. This was the original feast upon which St. Valentine’s Day is based. Shakespeare’s famous play ‘Julius Caesar’ actually begins on Lupercalia. Soldiers Flavius and Marullus need to set up extra security, due to masses of reveling people:
FLAVIUS: Hence! home, you idle creatures get you home:
Is this a holiday?…
MARULLUS: You know it is the feast of Lupercal.
The real trouble, of course, will come a month later, at the Ides of March with the murder of Caesar. But Lupercal serves as foreshadowing. Trouble in the streets, bloodshed inevitable.
What exactly was the feast of Lupercal? There are, reportedly, a few different origins. Part of the celebration was in tribute to the goddess Juno, the patron of marriage and fertility.
Activities involved a lottery in which young girls’ names were written on slips of paper and thrown into jars to be picked out by the boys. The chooser and chosen would then be partnered for the duration of the Lupercalia festival. If you liked your partner, great. But if not, you were stuck.
The celebrations then continued in honor of Faunus or Pan, the god of shepherds. He represented fertility and the beginnings of spring. It was also a dedication to Lupa, the she-wolf. Legend has it that Lupa acted as a pseudo mom to the infant orphans, Romulus and Remus, suckling them from birth. Romulus and Remus grew up to be bad asses and also were the founders of Rome. Hence, the feast day was called Lupercalia, or ‘Wolf Festival’.
Lupercalia was a wild and reckless time.
The festival rites were conducted by an organization called Luperci — the ‘brothers of the wolf’. They were the high priests of Pan. The festival began with the sacrifice of two male goats and a dog. Next, two young priests were led to the altar, to be anointed on their foreheads with the sacrificial blood, which was wiped off the bloody knife with wool soaked in milk. (Interestingly, sheep and milk play an important role in the feast of Imbolc.)
Next – the fun part! The Luperci guys cut throngs from the skins of the animals. Interestingly, the goat throngs were called ‘februa’ — hence our month “February”. They then ran through the streets dressed only in goat skins and chased women, trying to hit them with the februa.
It may not have been as violent as it seems. Girls and young women would willingly line up to be touched by the februa which had magical powers and was thought to ensure fertility. The practice was therefore popular among women who were trying to get pregnant.
Shakespeare’s play has a reference to this belief as well. Caesar instructs Marc Antony to touch his wife Calpurnia with the throng:
CAESAR (to Calpurnia): Stand you directly in Antonius’ way,
When he doth run his course. Antonius!
ANTONY: Caesar, my lord?
CAESAR: Forget not, in your speed, Antonius,
To touch Calpurnia; for our elders say,
The barren touched in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse.
My Bloody Valentinus
How did the rowdy feast of Lupercalia become Saint Valentine’s Day?
The real Saint Valentine — aka Valentinus — was a conscientious 3rd century bishop.
During the reign of Claudius II, the Roman empire was on a decline due to oppression from the Gauls, Slavs, and other forces attempting to overthrow Rome. Claudius needed all the power he could get for his armies, and felt that married men could not possibly be good warriors. So he made marriage illegal. Valentinus, an advocate for human rights, would have none of this! Valentinus took it upon himself to perform secret marriages in opposition to the emperor’s laws. He was eventually arrested and sentenced to death.
But it wasn’t that simple. As fate would have it – Valentinus fell in love with the jailer’s daughter during his confinement. Before his death, Valentinus is said to have asked for a quill and paper. He wrote a farewell letter to his sweetheart from the jail and signed ‘From Your Valentine’. The expression stuck! 🙂
Linked together, the traditions all seem suspiciously similar. A lottery of valentines, the deliberate pairing of men and women, a celebration of fertility, a connection of death and love.
Valentinus was executed as a Christian martyr on February 14, 270 AD. The figure of Saint Valentine was eased in as Christianity spread through the Roman Empire. Around 500 AD, Pope Gelasius officially declared February 14 as St. Valentine’s Day, ending the Lupercalia celebration for good.
The Birds and the Bees
During the age of chivalry and courtly love, the St. Valentine’s tradition began to take on a more romantic meaning. In the Middle Ages, Valentine began to be celebrated as a heroic and romantic figure amongst people in England and France.
Remember Geoffrey Chaucer? We all get a dose of him in high school and he is often called the ‘Father of the English language’. But he did more than write the Canterbury Tales. UCLA medieval scholar Henry Ansgar Kelly, author of Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine, credits Chaucer as the one who first linked St. Valentine’s Day with romance.
In medieval France and England it was believed that birds mated on February 14. Hence, Chaucer used the image of birds as the symbol of lovers in poems dedicated to the day. In Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowls, the royal engagement, the mating season of birds, and St. Valentine’s Day are related:
“For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.”
In Chicago we have our own version of the day of love, commemorated by the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. On this day in 1929, famous gangster Al ‘Scarface’ Capone staged a shoot out against his rival and fellow bootlegger, George ‘Bugs’ Moran. It was an ingenius plan.
Slick Al Capone had his men pose as police officers, complete with uniforms and billy clubs. They then infiltrated a garage on Chicago’s north side which was a base of Moran’s operations. In the name of the law, they lined Moran’s men against the wall, pulled their tommy-guns and aimed. What resulted was the bloodiest annihilation in gangster history.
It is still a bit of a mystery as to why Capone chose Valentine’s Day to stage his greatest hit. Or perhaps it was very deliberate.
Astonishingly, the weasely Al Capone was never convicted of the murders. Later, however, he was captured and sent to the then maximum-security prison of Alcatraz. His crime? Income tax evasion!
On this Valentine’s Day, count your blessings and share the love!
The celebration of Imbolc is always a bit of a puzzle. Here in the Midwest, at the beginning of February we are still in winter’s deep freeze, with plenty more snow on the way.
And yet. There has to be some hope of spring. Enter Imbolc, the cross quarter fire festival that should help motivate us. This festival is often underplayed and really shouldn’t be. We all need a pick me up from winter doldrums. And besides, it is also a help to anyone suffering from post-Christmas depression 🙂
What It Is
The word ‘Imbolc’ (pronounced ‘immolk’ – silent b) literally means ‘Ewe’s milk’. It also can mean ‘In the belly’. Thus Imbolc traditionally marks the lambing season, the laying of seed, pregnancies (both physical and metaphysical) and new beginnings.
Imbolc is like a breath of fresh air, the very first stirrings of spring that help get us through the leftover dark days. Imbolc marks the midway point between Yule and Ostara, a cross-quarter Sabbat. It is celebrated on February 1st and 2nd.
The goddess of Imbolc is Brighde (pronounced ‘Breed’. Also called Brigid or Bride.) She is a fire goddess of spring and fertility. The goddess Brighde was apparently so well loved that the Christians adopted her as Saint Bridget. Bridget of Kildare is a patron saint of Ireland. Her feast day is (you guessed it!) Feb. 1. Bridget is, interestingly, also the patron saint of milk maids, dairy farmers and midwives.
The goddess Brighde rules in unison with the winter crone Cailleach. (Pronounced ‘Kay-lek’.) Cailleach (also called The Blue Hag) rules from Samhain till Beltane. Brighde and Cailleach are thought to be opposite representations of the same entity. February 2nd is sort of a stand off – Cailleach is still in power for winter, but Brighde is making her presence known through tiny stirrings, underground bulbs, sap inside trees and pregnant ewes.
Legend has it that on February 2nd Cailleach takes a walk through the forest at sunrise.
If Cailleach wants to prolong the winter, she will make a bright sunny day – a teaser of sorts – to remind people that, while she may allow a bit of sun, she is still in control of winter darkness. Thus we are granted one day of reprieve, but watch out – cold days will follow. Alternately, Cailleach may choose to make February 2nd gray and sunless. This (confusingly!) means she will send an early spring.
Cailleach’s method serves to remind us, nothing is as it appears to be. In fact, things are often the opposite of what they seem.
Groundhogs, Candles and Farmers
This story might sound familiar. You may recall the ground hog. Punxsutawney Phil. Yeah him!
If he sees his shadow on the morning of February 2nd, indicating a sunny day, we are in for six more weeks of winter. If he does not see his shadow, spring will come early.
The Christian feast of Candlemas also is celebrated on February 2nd. Candlemas commemorates the day Jesus was brought into the temple for presentation and purification, according to Jewish tradition. Some people believe this was the church’s version of Imbolc, Jesus being the Light of the world, and candles representing that light.
Interestingly, farmers seemed to have had their own ideas about the Cailleach/ ground hog prediction:
“If Candlemas day be sunny and bright, winter will have another flight; if Candlemas day be cloudy with rain, winter is gone and won’t come again.”
— Farmer’s Proverb
Anyone who lives in the Midwestern United States knows that no matter WHAT happens on February 2nd, we are in for six more weeks of winter. Maybe more. Forget Cailleach and Punxsutawney Phil. Winter is long, snow-covered, devastating and cold. Period. Nonetheless, we can celebrate Imbolc to help us perk up.
What can we do to honor Imbolc?
Imbolc is a festival of light, and candles should be included in any altar. White candles are great, as they signify purity. Some other traditional symbols of Imbolc are: white feathers, the swan and snowdrop flowers.
Traditional colors are white, blue and lavender. For stone circles, use milky quartz, moonstone, lapis, turquoise and amethyst. Amethyst is the birth stone of February, great for maintaining inner strength and developing intuition.
Imbolc is also a great time to plant an indoor herb garden. Basil, dill and lavender can be started inside in bio-degradable planters. Later, after the last frost, the planters can be moved outside to begin your spring garden.
On February 2nd take a walk in nature. Notice the emerging greenery, even though most of it will be hidden. Pay homage to Cailleach and Brighde. Set intentions for personal goals and growth as the new year continues to unfold.
Oh yeah, and you can always watch ‘Groundhog Day.’ In this thought provoking movie, Bill Muray gets stuck in a time warp, reliving the same day over and over.
Not only is this movie hilariously funny, but it helps us realize – it’s never too late to change, to begin again, or even to start the day over. Until we get it right 🙂
Freed from darkness, new sun calling.
Today, June 24th is International Fairy Day! Yes — we have a day for everything – from black cats, to goths, to grandparents, so it should not surprise us that fairies also get their due!
Whether you think of them as dryads, sprites, red caps or the tall stately race of Sidhe, today is a day to honor them – and possibly lift the veils that separate our world from theirs. Fairies are a topic close to my heart, so I thought I’d do some sleuthing to give you some weird, scary and thought provoking facts.
A (Very Brief ) History of the Fae
The word “fairy” derives from the Latin fata, meaning “goddess of fate” and from the Old French faerie, meaning “enchantment”. Hence, a fairy tale is a tale of enchantment, not necessarily about fairies. Fairy folklore has been explored in just about every culture known to humankind.
The earliest recorded mention of fairies comes from 1000 BC in The Iliad, where Greek poet Homer wrote “watery fairies dance in mazy rings”. The next oldest recordings come from 12th century England, by historian Gervase of Tilbury. He wrote of small fairies called ‘portunes’, and a fairy hill where a knight could call for a stallion at midnight, then challenge a fairy to a duel. Gervase also wrote about fairy lovers — troops of naked men and women who appeared at night, and mentioned the idea of human virgins being given ‘Second Sight’. Geoffrey Chaucer, circa 1380, also alluded to fairies in The Wife of Bath’s Tale from Canterbury Tales.
How did fairies come to be? There are several legends that explain the origins of fairies. One belief is that when Lucifer was cast out of heaven, some of the angels followed him. Most of them ended up in hell, but some got stuck in a type of earthly realm, or interdimensional earth. This was the realm of fae, where they remained.
Another belief holds that fairies are simply nature spirits, ever present in the elements. They always have been and they always will be — sylphs of the air, nereids of the water, gnomes of the earth and salamanders of the fire.
Another theory states that fairies are spirits of the dead, changed to a supernatural form. This theory became popular during Victorian times, when ‘death cults’ were a large part of society.
Although fairies are always in vogue, they seemed to have had their literature and publicity heydays particularly in the 16th – 18th centuries. Some folklorists claim that during these simpler, more naturalistic times, fairies were visible and even lived side by side with humans.
However, as our world became more industrialized, fairies, being allergic to metal and machinery, had to hide deeper within their realms. Eventually human beings could scarcely see them at all.
Shakespeare & the Changelings
Of course, Shakespeare famously wrote of fairies in his play ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, and also in ‘The Tempest’. During Shakespeare’s childhood years in Stratford, most folk had a very real belief in fairies. Fairies were more than just ethereal and transient beings, but part and parcel of the culture. One theme of Midsummer Night’s Dream is the changeling child that fairy queen Titania tries to protect.
Country folk in Shakespeare’s time had a deep fear of changeling encounters. They thought fairies would come at night and kidnap their babies – leaving a replacement called a ‘changeling’ which was often a sick or weak fairy.
Fairies were particularly eager to kidnap human boys, and for this reason, boys were dressed in girl’s clothes. Their hair would be let to grow long – thus fooling the fairies into thinking the boy was a girl, and therefore saving him from being kidnapped. When the little boy was seven years old, he could finally be ‘breeched’ – that is, put in his first pair of britches rather than a girl’s gown – and his hair could finally be cut.
The Unusual Case of Brigid Cleary
One horrific, real life fairy encounter happened in 1895 Ireland, when Michael Cleary, a Tipperary farmer, threw his wife Brigid in the fire because he believed she was a changeling.
Sounds bizarre, right? Especially since it occurred at the relatively late date of 1895.
Brigid, reportedly a hot, 26 year old girl-about-town, either got caught up with the wrong group of fairies, or took ill, depending on how you look at it.
One court transcript of the case states: “Michael Cleary claimed that his wife Brigid had been taken by fairies and they had left a changeling in her place. On the 15th of March, 1895, Michael Cleary, having spent three days in various rituals intended to force the changeling to leave and bring his wife back, set fire to her.”
And Michael was not working alone! He and nine other relatives of Brigid were put on trial for her death. In the end, Michael and two other men were convicted and served time.
Fairies and Witches
Of course, the fairies aren’t all bad; they also teach us things, give clairvoyance and grant magical powers. Fairies have a longstanding symbiotic relationship with witches. There are several historical documents which attest to this.
A 1566 pamphlet printed in London detailed the interrogation of the ‘Cunning Man’ (aka witch) John Walsh, who claimed to have midnight meetings with the Fey court on various mounds and barrows in Dorset.
In 16th century Wales, historian Giraldus Cambrensis wrote an account of a boy named Elidorus who was led to an underground realm where he met “an honorable and devout fairy race” who taught him their language.
A Scottish woman named Elspeth Reoch was accused of witchcraft and tried in Kirkwall on March 12, 1616. At her trial, Elspeth claimed she had received instructions on how to acquire magical powers when she was twelve years old, staying with an aunt in Lochaber. There she saw “two fairy men” by a loch. After taking her a little way away from her relatives’ home, one of the men offered to teach her how to gain the second sight:
“And she being desirous to knaw said how could she ken that. And he said tak an eg and rost it. And tak the sweit of it thre Sondais and with onwashid handis wash her eyes quhairby she sould sei and knaw any thing she desyrit.”
(My best translation – she boils an egg and uses the water to wash her eyes for three consecutive Sundays. She is then given clairvoyant powers.)
Elspeth also professed to being able to cure illness by reciting chants while plucking petals from the melefour herb. She was a vagabond wanderer and a ‘loose woman’ — having had many sexual encounters with men, both human and fairy. She gave birth to several children who may or may not have been entirely human…
Elspeth was found guilty of witchcraft and executed by strangulation.
Andro Mann, who was put on trial for witchcraft at Aberdeen in 1598, spoke of his many encounters with the Queen of Elphame (queen of elves realm.)
“The Quene of Elphen, promesit ot the, that thow suld knaw all thingis, and suld help and cuir all sorts of seikness, except stand deid… and thow confessis that thow can heal the falling seikness [epilepsy], bairnes, bed and all sort of vther seikness…”
(My best translation – the fairy queen teaches him to cure all sorts of sickness, but not to raise the dead. He cures epilepsy, helps babies, and cures many other things…)
Mann also confessed that on the Holy Rood Day, the Queen of Elphame and her court appeared out of the snow, riding white horses. She and her companions had human shapes, “yet were as shadows”, and that they were “playing and dancing whenever they pleased.” Andro also stated the Queen was a shape shifter and “she can be old or young as she pleases”.
Marion Grant, of the same coven as Andro Mann, claimed to witness the queen as a “fine woman, clad in a white walicot.” Similarly, accused witch Isobel Gowdie’s confession described the “Qwein of Fearrie” as handsomely (“brawlie”) clothed in white linen and in white and brown clothes, and providing more food than Isobel could eat.
Dead Man Talkin’
Bessie Dunlop, who was accused of witchcraft in 1576, confessed that she had contact with the spirit of a dead man named Thom Reid. Thom was one of “the good neighbours or brownies, who dwelt at the Court of Faery and gude wychtis that wynnitin the Court of Elfame.”
** I should note that the ‘good neighbors’ are a general term for fairies, and ‘brownies’ are a certain type of house fairy who may inhabit your home to do some cooking and cleaning. (I know! I want one!)
Bessie stated the fairy court had come to take her away, but she refused to go. This angered Thom. Thom then took Bessie by the apron and “wald haif had hir gangand with him to Elfame.” (Thom forced her into going with him to elves’ realm.)
Bessie was told that the queen had secretly visited her before, and according to Thom, when Bessie lay in bed in child-birth, it was the “Quene of Elfame” who in the guise of a stout woman, had offered her a drink and prophesied her child’s death which came to pass.
** It is helpful to remember that all these people were under oath and on trial for their lives. This leads me to wonder – if the stories of Elphame were NOT true — why would they volunteer such detailed and elaborate lies? They had to know they would definitely anger the authorities, thus ensuring their own deaths. Hmmm…
Fairies and UFOs
Now the fun part!
The 20th and 21st centuries have seen a plethora of recorded data on people who claim to have been kidnapped by aliens. However, many of these encounters have astonishing similarities to changeling stories and fairy encounters of old.
Some UFO investigators believe that so called ‘extra terrestrials’ are actually beings of planet earth. They have been living here the whole time, but hidden in other dimensions. These are called ‘Ultra terrestrials’.
Consider some astounding similarities of alien encounters and fairy encounters:
1) Both are kidnappers! Fairies are well known for kidnapping people. UFO aliens are also known to kidnap people, abduction being the most common recorded encounter.
2) Time is different. Those who are abducted by aliens report incidents of missing time, a phenomenon very similar to time lapses reported by people taken to and returned from “fairyland”. (One day in fairy land might equal a whole year in human time. )
3) They look alike! Fairies, like modern aliens, are usually slim creatures with large magical eyes, high cheekbones and pointed ears.
4) They both use magical devices. Many reports of alien abduction include “power rods” used to paralyze abductees — just as fairies wield “magic wands”.
5) Both are obsessed with human fertility and stealing babies. A large part of modern UFO literature involves aliens abducting women, impregnating them, and later abducting them again to take the unborn baby right out of the womb. Abductees also report of eggs and sperm being taken. Besides the changeling phenomenon, fairy encounters often tell of men and women becoming sterile or barren after their visit.
6) Fairies are closely associated with nature, just as modern aliens also display a certain obsession with environmental issues. One common alien abduction scenario involves aliens showing ‘movies’ that depict environmental degradation, then giving their victims lectures on caring for the earth before they release them.
Beam Me Up, Scottie!
Quantum physicists tell us that many additional dimensions of reality actually do exist. There are, reportedly, eleven different dimensions that can be mathematically proven on a quantum level. In these added dimensions, it is possible to move through time and space with ease, be two places at once, and do other cool Star -Trekkie type things. This too is the stuff of fairyland. Besides, everybody knows that Spock is actually a fairy 🙂
If Extra/ Ultra Terrestrials can exist “above” or “beyond” our normal time-space reality, that means they can easily see us, trick us, manipulate us and meddle in our affairs. Which is what fairies have been doing for years! We, on the other hand (usually) can’t see them at all.
Seeing and Attracting Fairies
Fairies are known to cross the veils mostly during the Sabbats – especially Beltane, Midsummer and Samhain. However, International Fairy Day — although a modern creation — must be an excellent time to attract them as well!
If you would like to encounter fairies, it is best to keep yourself attuned with nature and tapped into meditative states. Also, they often appear in dreams.
The best places to see them are: river banks, seashores, beaches, intersections of roads, foothills, thresholds, stairwells, landings and hallways. (In short, where one thing turns into another — water turning into earth, rooms connecting, etc )
The best times to see them are daybreak, noon, sunset and midnight, (This too is when one time turns in to another — day to night, AM to PM.)
Legend has it that they are partial to sweets and milk – so if you want to attract them, it is best to leave some sweets on your table or in your garden.
Also, they like bells! Hang a wind chime in your window, and let it ring out in the open breeze, and one of them just may come through your window…
But be careful. Fairies are known to be kinky, provocative, sexually aggressive and mischievous! If you end up in fairyland you will be changed forever 🙂
Happy Fairy Day!
“The gift of flight will come at Walpurgisnacht,” Granny Magda tells me. “We will travel airborne upon our besoms to the Brocken. You will then learn of your blessings, all the goddess has deemed to give you.”
“What will they be, my blessings?” I ask impatiently. I have waited all of my sixteen years for this nacht, for the firefest of summer. It will be the first time I go to the mountaintop. The first time I, as a daughter of Hekate will become a coven member and know my true and unique power.
“Hush child,” Magda orders. “Speak of them no more! What is yours is already yours.” She puts a hand to my cheek and smiles through crinkled eyes. “Trust me. The gifts will come.”
The month of April rolls by with its rain and wind, daffodils and tulips blooming in our meadow. On my calendar parchment I count the days, marking them off with a charcoal crayon. The time cannot go quick enough.
Two days before Walpurgis, Peter the goat boy appears at our door. He brings me a bouquet of wildflowers, colored blooms that float like a sparkled rainbow from his hands. “For you Kathe,” he says, “In honor of your special nacht which is soon to come.”
Peter! He is an annoyance, always milling around me, nosing in my business, cheating me at games and sport! He has been my chief nemesis for years. And now he brings flowers? An offering of peace, just as I am soon to come into my powers? Reluctantly I accept, but only out of politeness. “What do you know of it?” I snap.
“Peter knows plenty,” Granny Magda shouts from the kitchen. “You’d be wise to listen to him.”
Never do I have a moment’s privacy in this cottage! Granny Magda is always hovering over me, like a bee to a honeyflower. She now takes Peter’s flowers and places them in a vase.
“Have a seat boy,” she nods to Peter. “I trust you will stay for supper?”
Peter shakes his head. “The invitation is most kind Frau Magda, but I cannot. I am just returning from the mountain, my goat herd outside. I fear they are most cumbersome, and I only stopped to give Kathe the flowers and wish her well.”
“Nonsense!” Magda has already placed a root stew on the table and set a trencher for him. She glances out the window, waves a hand at the goats who then stand still as statues.
“The animals will keep,” she says. “Kathe, fetch the ale for our guest.”
Taking a ladle to the pail I serve up three helpings of ale. Peter nods. “Most gracious.”
We bless our food, toast good health and begin eating. I sit next to Peter. His clothes are soiled and he smells of his goats. He also smells of the meadow, of earth and something more. What is it? A sly masculinity, a scent lacking in Magda and myself. Despite my annoyance I scoot closer to him.
“Your comment, Granny,” I say later as we eat dessert, a cake with fresh berries I gathered from our orchard. “You say I must listen to Peter. Why is this?” Peter stops mid bite, red berries making a stain on his lips. His eyes, blue as the river, pop wide.
“Do not ask foolish questions, child.” Magda says. “Now Peter,” she looks out the window and waves her hands at the goats who instantly begin bleating. “I wager your goats need milking. Be off with you afore the late sun sinks on its horizon! Auf Wiedersehen.”
Peter stands and bows before us. “I thank you for the victuals, my lady.” He takes Magda’s old withered hand and kisses it. He then turns to me. “And you Kathe, I trust I will see more of you in the near future.” With awkwardness he grabs my hand and kisses it as well. I catch his eye, nod and curtsey before he exits.
I have known Peter all my life, since I came to live with Granny Magda as a two year old orphan. We played together, leap frogging in the meadow, tumbling down the rolling hills. It was he who taught me to catch fish in the river, he who taught me to shoot a crossbow. He who, in his boyhood always shot more bullseyes than I. But Peter is no longer a boy.
Through the window I watch as he rounds his goats, whistles to his collie dog. He has grown tall, his shoulders broad. His lanky frame casts a long shadow across the cobbled road. As he walks away I notice his swaggering hips, his bowed legs.
“How old do you suppose Peter now is?” I ask.
“Two winters past you child.” Granny Magda puts a hand to my head and unwinds my tight braids. “Come the Yule last he reached his eighteenth name day.”
“He has quick grown to a man.” I glance one last time before he turns into the forest, his goats following in a gray blur.
“Ja child, that he has.” She tilts her head. “And your thoughts of this?”
“I have no thoughts, it is mere curiosity!” I hiss. Granny smiles.
Finally Walpurgisnacht arrives. I stand naked in the meadow with the other women. Magda rubs my body with unctions, a rich combination of oils and nectars that will, coupled with my own magic, give me the ability to fly.
When the sun sets we mount our besoms. Soon the wind begins to blow and we rise, steady in the air, a team of thirteen, Hekate’s witches, gliding through the sky with the skill of crows. Higher and higher we rise. Soon we are bobbing amongst stars, drifting under the light of the moon.
On the mountaintop we land near the Bergwasser, a crystal stream that flows, now icebroken with the onset of summer.
“Your baptism will be tonight, Kathe,” Granny Magda tells me.
I have never before met the high priestess who now stands before me, clad in robes of black. “I am Lucinda,” she says. Taking my hand she guides me down the stone steps into the water. She lifts her wand, a branch of heavy oak inlaid with rich jewels, rubies and sapphires.
“Kathe,” Lucinda begins. “I baptize thee, in the name of the Mother, the Crone and the Holy Maiden. You, a daughter of the line of Hekate, now come full of age, are on this evening of Walpurgisnacht to enter into our coven.”
With that she pushes me underwater. The stream is cool on my head. Opening my eyes I see an array of fish before me, yellow as lemons in the blue water. I watch as they dart and bolt, thinking of this baptism, this instant I have waited for my whole life. What is to happen? The water is a silent chamber around me.
When I can hold my breath no longer I ascend. Gasping, I lie in the grass. Magda clothes me in a white robe.
“The ability to breathe underwater,” Madga smiles, “was not your gift.”
What will it be? What will it be?
“Time will tell, my girl,” Lucinda says. “Before rise of the May day sun you shall know it.” Lucinda’s gift is surely the reading of minds. Granny Magda’s is the taming of animals. And mine? The suspense haunts me.
Lucinda reads from the Book of Freya. She lights a great bonfire. Together we chant and dance around it. Holding hands we skip in unison. Even Granny Magda, now well beyond her dancing years, kicks her heels like a young maiden.
In the distance I hear a drumbeat. Approaching over the hills I see them, the tribe of Pan. They are thirteen men, goatskins over their thighs, naked from the waist up. On their heads they wear crowns of horns and masks of feathers and fur.
The balefire rages and the drums beat. Magda leans and whispers in my ear, “Granddaughter. You are ready. You will bleed to bless the earth which has blessed you. Only through this can you find your womanhood.”
One of the thirteen men then approaches me, takes my hand and joins in the dance. All is a blur of color and sound, the dance faster and faster. Soon I am on the grass, flat on my back, the tribesman atop me.
I am not the only one. Other women have been taken as well. All around me the couples are a whirl of flesh, thighs upon thighs, breath heavy, hair streaming. Wails, screams and moans fill the night air, voices desperate and satisfied.
Magda had said I am ready, but am I? My heart pounds, my whole body pulsed to the music. I am frightened but then the tribesman pulls me closer, his face next to mine. His scent is of goats but also of the earth and our meadow, a musk that lures me like subtle perfume, releasing a passion I did not know I possessed. Although he wears a mask I recognize his eyes, blue as the river. His look is the question and I nod my answer: Yes.
His mouth is firm on my lips, his tongue sweet, his thighs braced against me. My secrets are wet as the mountain stream that baptized me and in an instant he is inside me. It hurts but only for a moment until my hips synch in rhythm with his. My body quivers and I hear him breathe my name, feel his spill within me.
Before rise of the sun we anoint ourselves with unction again, then mount our besoms. The men disappear into the mountains as we fly away.
It is finished.
In the weeks after Walpurgisnacht we live quietly. I am changed but still the same, although Magda no longer hovers over me, no longer calls me ‘child’. All is well until the day the constables come, riding up our path upon their sleek stallions. They dismount and look suspiciously about the cottage. One knocks on our door, holding a warrant for our arrest.
“Which warrant and how so?” I demand. “Arrested for what?”
“For witchcraft Fraulien,” the constable says. His face is like a hard brick, impenetrable, a moving mouth with two tiny slits of eyes.
“We have done nothing wrong!” I shout.
“You both have been seen cavorting in the meadow, spreading yourselves with evil unctions and potions, then taking flight to the sky on your brooms.”
“And who has been harmed by it?” I scream. My head is burning.
“All are harmed by it! All good honest folk. You women, by your madness and your lasciviousness, violate the very decency of mankind!”
I attempt to protest but a hand slaps my mouth. Just then another constable grabs Magda and binds her wrists. I charge at him, but the next constable overpowers me, this one tall as a tower and twice as strong. He pulls me away, knotting my arms.
“My Granny is frail,” I scream again. “She does you no harm! What satisfaction do you get to badger an old woman?”
“Hold your tongue Fraulien, lest I gag your foul mouth,” the third constable orders. I fight with all my strength but in the end they win. Granny Magda and I are put onto a rickety old cart and brought south to the village of Stuttgart.
We are thrown in a slimy, rat infested dungeon where we live in squalor for weeks. Our food is gruel and brackish water, the meals so meager I fear Granny Magda will perish. Others join us, country women and bumpkins, some midwives, some herbalists, all innocent of the crimes they are accused. Yet when we are taken to trial the jury declares us guilty before we are given a chance to speak.
We are sentenced to be burned at the stake. “Consumed by the hell fire from whence ye came,” the judge declares.
Like cattle we are led to the pyres. A hooded executioner binds our bodies to the stakes and the fires are lit. I hear the crowd around us yell, “Brennen die Hexen! Burn the witches!”
Granny Magda gives me a look, hopeful in her sunken eyes. I nod. Just as the flames begin to creep around us I shout:
“As the powers within me rise, so this man-made fire now dies!”
The flames sputter and vanish as if drenched by a thousand buckets. I watch as the crowd of people turn pale with horror. “Relight the flame!” someone yells. “They must be burned! These witches must die!”
“Brennen die Hexen!” the crowd chants again. “Burn the witches!”
The executioner moves to relight the flames, but the embers are cold. He tries again and again, adding more wood, more torches, but the fire only sparkles and dies. He then stares at me, eyes wide. He crosses himself and moves away as if I am carrying the plague. “Hexe!” he whispers.
“You can relight the flames all you want and they will never grow,” I say calmly. I then begin to laugh, loud and haughty, my voice echoing on the wind. The crowd stares at me as if I were a madwoman.
“There will be no burnings today,” I say richly.
One by one they turn away in fear. Women lift their skirts, scurrying away and men run fast as their boots will carry them.
Just then I see his body in the crowd, the lanky frame and broad shoulders. Peter approaches, pulls a knife from his pocket and slices the ropes that bind me. He then rescues Magda and the other women.
“You should not have allowed it to go so far,” he says quietly.
“O, but it was well worth it! Just to see the looks on their faces,” I answer brightly. “You must admit it was a picture.” I run a finger across his cheek.
“That it was, wife.” He smiles. “As long as no harm comes to the child.” He lays a hand on my belly.
“The child is fine,” I assure my husband. “Her gift from Hekate will be the same as mine. She too will have the ability to control fire, and she too will never be burned at the stake.”
** NOTE: The real witch persecutions and Burning Times occurred in Europe during 1450-1700. Historians estimate that over 100,000 accused witches, both men and women were killed during this time. The majority of burnings took place in Germany, in some cases wiping out entire populations of women in small Medieval towns.
The real Brocken is the highest point of the Harz Mountain range in northern Germany. The Brothers Grimm spent a good deal of time in the small villages at the foothills of the mountains collecting tales of local folklore. From these tales came stories such as Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel and Rumpelstiltskin.
Walpurgisnacht (pronounced :Vol-POOR- gus-nokt) is celebrated on April 30. Witches then gather in the Brocken and other sacred places to conduct rituals of spring.
The goddess Eostre
dressed in splendor, finally