Marie Laveau, Woman of Mystery

She was one of the most powerful and influential women of nineteenth century New Orleans, rumored to be a great priestess of Voodoo, as well as a practicing Catholic.  She was a healer, a midwife, possibly a hairdresser and mother of at least nine children. To this day, her ghost is said to haunt the streets of the French Quarter, and people come from all over the world to pay tribute to her at her grave.

I am speaking of course, of the famous Marie Laveau.

A great deal of myths and legends have grown up around her, everything from her holding wild orgies on the Feast of Saint John, to her keeping a magical snake called Zombi. But Marie Laveau, much like William Shakespeare, is one of those historical figures of which we know very little. In fact, we do not even have any concrete evidence that she actually was a Voodoo practitioner! Like the religion of Voodoo itself, Marie’s life is shrouded in mystery, and most of what we think we know about her has been passed down by word of mouth.

“Just The Facts, Ma’am”

Marie Catherine Laveau Paris was born around September 10, 1801 in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Her birthday is confirmed by her baptismal record. Approximately one week after her birth, Marie was baptized by a priest named Pere Antoine in Saint Louis Cathedral.   Marie’s father, Charles Laveau, was a wealthy businessman, a politician, and also a “mulatto”. (Mulatto is a rather obsolete term which means ½ black and ½ white.)

 Marie’s mother, Marguerite Darcantrel, was Charles’ Laveau’s mistress. She was also a freed slave. Marie was born in a cottage on Saint Ann Street, the home of her grandmother, known as “Miss Catherine”. It was Miss Catherine who raised Marie. The cottage would stay in Marie’s possession for all her life. The location of this house is marked as a Historical Site in the French Quarter. To this day, people bring trinkets and offerings for Marie, which they leave near the building. 

At age eighteen, Marie married a free man of color named Jaque Paris. She had two daughters with him before he died in around 1824. Following her husband’s death, Marie was ever after known as “The Widow Paris.” The two daughters probably died as well, as there are no further records of them.

Portrait of Marie Laveau, copied from the original, painted in the 1800s by artist George Catlin. This is probably the best rendition we have of her.

 Marie then apparently fell in love with a white man named Christophe Dumensnil de Glapion. She lived with Christophe, and they were together for around thirty years. As a biracial couple, it was illegal for them to marry.

Marie and Christophe had at least seven children together, according to baptismal records. (It is rumored they had as many as fifteen children, although some of these may have been grandchildren.)

Marie was a free person of color, and records show that she owned at least seven slaves in her lifetime. (It was not unusual for black people to own slaves in Louisiana. More on that later.)

An article in the New Orleans Republican published on May 14, 1871,  described Marie Laveau as a “devout and acceptable member of the Catholic communion.” We know that Marie was a practicing Catholic because of her baptismal, marriage and death records in relationship to the Church.

Marie died on June 15, 1881, in the same cottage on Saint Ann Street in which she was born.

Site of the house on Sant Ann Street today.

Medical records list the cause of death as “diarrhea” (yuck, I know) which most likely means Marie had dysentery or a similar illness. She would have been almost eighty years old, which is quite a ripe old age for a woman in those days.

Records show that politicians, lawyers, congressmen, bankers, and wealthy socialites had slush funds, which they tagged as “LAVEAU EXPENSES”, apparently intended to pay The Widow Paris for her services, whatever they may be…

 When Marie died, her obituary in The New York Times claimed: “lawyers, legislators, planters, and merchants all came to pay their respects and seek her offices.”  

 New Orleans Cemetery records prove that she was interred in the “Widow Paris” tomb in St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery.

And that’s it! That is all we know to be fact.

Ahhh, but the rumors! They are infinitely more interesting.

Born Free

Marie Laveau was the first child in her family to be born free – that is, a person of color born outside the bondage of slavery. Marie’s great-grandmother was believed to have been brought to New Orleans as a slave from West Africa in 1743. Marie’s grandmother, “Miss Catherine” was born a slave and was eventually bought by a free woman of color named Francoise Pomet. During her enslaved time, Catherine gave birth to Marguerite, but in future years she was able to buy their way out of slavery as well.

The phrase “free person of color” comes up often in discussions of historical New Orleans. There are many stories of slaves “buying” their way to freedom. How, exactly, was this done? Most of us think of slavery as a complete and final institution. Once born to it you were stuck, unless you wanted to risk running away, a dangerous endeavor indeed. If you were caught, you might be whipped, get your foot cut off, or just be killed altogether.

But in the colony of Louisiana, and later the Louisiana Territory, things were a little different. Louisiana had a law called “Coartacion”, under which, slaves were given the right to own property and purchase their freedom. Slaves could earn money by selling produce in the markets, working as nurses and artisans, and hiring themselves out as laborers. When they saved enough money, they were allowed to petition to their owners to buy themselves out of bondage. If you were a “good slave” — meaning you basically kept your mouth shut and were obedient — the master was legally obligated to accept your petition.

“New Orleans Free People of Color” Painting by Augustino Brunias, 1700s.

 The law of Coartacion existed only in Louisiana. It had impressive results. By the early nineteenth century, 1,490 blacks in New Orleans had acquired their freedom by cash payments. By 1810, the territory had 7,585 free persons of color, most of them living in New Orleans. Free people of color represented 44 percent of the city’s free population. In 1860, right before the Civil War, free people of color paid taxes on property valued at 15 million dollars – the equivalent of around $400 million in today’s money! Additionally, many free people of color were highly educated and had degrees from French universities.

As free people of color became rich, they eventually purchased their own slaves. This was the sneaky catch of the law of Coartacion; it was not really a way to get more people free, but rather a way to increase slavery. It was believed that the institution of slavery would be kept stronger if free blacks began buying slaves along with white people, thus giving the institution a wider scope.

 In the end it all fell apart, but nonetheless, it was not unusual for free black people to own slaves in Louisiana. Marie Laveau herself is confirmed to have owned at least seven slaves during her lifetime.

Beauty Shop

Angela Basset as Marie in American Horror Story

It was rumored Marie worked as a hairdresser, although there are no historical records to prove this. It could very well be true. Marie was confirmed to have served politicians, and prominent people. Everyone knows beauty shop gossip runs rampant. It is therefore surmised that  while working as a hairdresser, Marie serviced elite women of the community and they opened their hearts to her. Thus Marie was privy to many secrets. It was said she had a wealth of information, and was therefore able to advise all the big shots in the community, to the point where they actually had “slush finds” to pay her! (See above.)

And, of course, along with all this juicy information, Marie’s so called psychic abilities also came in handy.

At any rate, Marie’s opinion and advice were well respected. An article in The New Orleans Times Picayune, dated April 1886 (five years after her death) described Marie as “gifted with beauty and intelligence, she ruled her own race, and made captive of many of the other.”

Regardless of what anyone believed about Marie’s “magical powers”, she definitely had a certain natural charm.

The Human Touch

Marie Laveau was known as a humanitarian and healer. She is said to have cured people of yellow fever, which ran quite rampant in New Orleans during this time. She would also go to prisons and visit inmates who had been sentenced to death. She would pray with the prisoners and serve them their last meal, employing Catholic traditions, and often helping them prepare for the afterlife.

 Marie often sought pardons and commutations of sentences for some of the prisoners. She’d wield her influence among authorities (or perhaps she’d threaten them with blackmail!) and was successful in her efforts. Some rumors (unconfirmed) claimed that Marie would give poisons to the prisoners before they went to the gallows, thus saving them the pain of the hangman’s noose.

Rumors circulated that Marie sometimes preformed Voodoo rituals in the prisons. After her death, Marie’s daughter Philomène stated during an interview with a reporter from the Picayune that “only Catholic traditions would take place during these visits.” Because Voodoo took on an undeserved “bad reputation”, it is believed Marie’s daughter may have been trying to downplay her mother’s Voodoo ties in order to keep Marie “respectable” in the public’s mind.

A Catholic, and/or Voodoo altar

That Voodoo You Do

Any report about Marie Laveau would be lacking if it did not have at least a brief analysis of Voodoo – perhaps the most exploited and misunderstood religion in American history.

Voodoo is, quite simply, a religion, just like Christianity or Judaism. Originally, it was called “Vodou” which, in its original African language means “pure light.” West African slaves brought the practice of Vodou to the Americas. They mostly practiced it in secret, and masked it with more acceptable Catholic rituals, so the slave masters did not know what they were up to.

The Voodoo religion relies largely upon communication with ancestors who have gone to the Otherworld, or Afterlife. It also centers around the worship of a variety of nature gods who represent the elements of earth, air, fire and water. Voodoo has ordained priests and priestesses who are trained in elaborate rituals.

In Louisiana, everyone spoke French. The literal translation of “Old Gods” in French is “Vieux Dieux”, pronounced voo doo.

Papa Legba, one of the Old Gods

So there you have it.

To be clear, Voodoo has NOTHING to do with killing chickens, drinking blood, creating dolls to torture people, or anything Hollywood has told you. Somewhere along the line, someone realized that the “exotic practices” said to be associated with Voodoo were a great money maker. Hence the rumors began. They persist to this day.

That being said, Marie herself may have actually been theatrical, and a great marketer, helping to spread the dark, forbidden image of Voodoo. She may very well have taken the “wilder” aspects associated with Voodoo and used them for her own gain. After all, a scary Voodoo priestess is much more likely to earn respect than a mild mannered Catholic. (Debatable, when you consider the Vatican… But that’s another topic altogether.)

Some of the rumors that circulated about Marie’s Voodoo practice involved wild orgies that took place at Saint John’s Bayou on Saint John’s Eve.

Interestingly, the Catholic Feast of Saint John takes place on June 23rd. This is around the time of the summer solstice. Every good Pagan knows the summer solstice, or Beltane, is a time for great merry making, fire festivals, and worship of the god Baal, the goddess Aine, the Oak King, or whatever tradition you happen to follow. In Catholicism, Saint John the Baptist was born around this time (six months before Jesus in December, and also six months before the winter solstice.)

John was known as a wild man. He spent a lot of time out in nature, scantily clad and baptizing naked people. He ate strange things, like locusts and honey. You can see how a tribute to Saint John might get out of hand, especially when combined with those exotic Voodoo practices.

No one knows what really went on in Saint John’s Bayou, but apparently the gossip was endless.

Marie was also rumored to have a snake named Zombi. This magical snake could do all kinds of weird stuff, including curses and blessings. SO WATCH OUT.

Sealed in a Stone-Cold Tomb

Marie’s tomb is located in Saint Louis No 1 Cemetery. Just like the house on Saint Ann Street, the gravesite has attracted numerous tourists. People believe that doing elaborate rituals around Marie’s grave will bring them luck and good fortune. Some of these rituals involve bizarre things like walking backwards around the grave, spitting on it, and drawing three X’s upon the tomb.

Before Hurricane Katrina, people were rather respectful of Marie’s grave. I know this for a fact because I was there in 2005 right before the storm. See how the grave is pristine?

New Orleans Cemetery
Me on the left, with my niece Lauren at Marie’s grave.

But after the storm folks got desperate. The grave was defaced multiple times.

The grave after Katrina. Triple Xs were thought to bring luck.

In January of 2014, someone decided it would be a good idea to paint Marie’s grave pink, the color of pepto-bismol. (The man was believed to be mentally ill.) He painted the grave, which damaged its surface. It took a lot of time and money to restore it. As a result, tourists can no longer visit Saint Louis No. 1 Cemetery, unless accompanied by a formal tour guide.

Paint it pink! Marie’s defaced grave.

Even with a tour guide, it is said you should never take anything from Marie’s grave. This includes rocks, stones and shells. A tour guide once told me that someone on his tour decided to take a stone from the land around the grave as a “souvenir”. Before the end of the tour, that person was stung by a wasp! So if you ever venture around Marie’s grave, please be respectful.

Regardless of what’s true and what’s false, it can’t be denied that Marie Laveau was an interesting woman, a force of nature, and a presence that has managed to live on for over two hundred years.

Happy Birthday Marie! I believe in you.

Wings & Fire, Our New Horror Anthology, Hits Number One!

Wings & Fire: A horror anthology with 23 stories from 15 authors (The Box Under The Bed Book 5) by [Dan Alatorre, Roberta Eaton Cheadle, MD Walker, Frank Parker, Dabney Farmer, Allison Maruska, Jessica Bakkers, Heather Kindt, Susan Lamb, Geoff LePard, Marjorie Mallon, Adele Marie Park, Alana Turner, Betty Valentine, Christine Valentor]

If you have been reading my blog for a while, you may know that I write for the BOX UNDER THE BED horror series. We have, to date, released five books, all of which I am very proud. Our latest release, WINGS & FIRE came out on December 31. I am ecstatic to announce that this week, our book hit the Number 1 slot on Amazon’s “Hot New Releases” page!!

WINGS & FIRE features 24 all-new, creepy, scary stories by 16 authors. (Two by me!) Other contributors include best-selling authors Dan Alatorre, Roberta Cheadle, MD Walker, Frank Parker, Dabney Farmer, Alison Maruska, Jessica Bakkers, Geoff LePard, and more!

“From the creators of the #1 bestselling horror anthology THE BOX UNDER THE BED and its #1 bestselling sequels DARK VISIONS, NIGHTMARELAND and SPELLBOUND comes WINGS & FIRE, a horror anthology with 24 stories from 16 authors.”

Two high school girls discover an old book with strange powers that causes strange things to happen. As they learn more, they realize the book may be a link to a mystical world and the people who “reside” there.

What follows is a trip into eerie places full of madness and murder, where readers encounter all things horrifying, hellish and haunting. Expect blood drinking, strange spells, love obsessions with the dead, battles of good vs. evil, and some dark, inexplicable events of real life history.

If you like my blog, you will love my horror stories! Copies available on Amazon.

And for those that can’t get enough of the macabre, please check out our previous release, SPELLBOUND, full of all-new, weird and wonderful witchy tales…

What’s in a Name? Mabon, Feast of Avalon and Others

Today, September 22, marks the second harvest festival in the northern hemisphere, usually called the Autumn Equinox. This is the balance between dark and light, the one day of the year when we have twelve hours each of daylight and night.

On the Wheel of the Year, this Sabbat is sometimes called Mabon. (And some folks adamantly argue that it should NOT be called Mabon.) I thought it would be fun to look at some of the names for this holiday, their origins, and help you choose one that resonates with you. So in case you don’t like Mabon, don’t worry! There are several alternatives.  

 The Mabinogian Make-Up

The name “Mabon” is not official, nor is it ancient. In fact, it has only been in the vernacular for about fifty years or so. Back in the 1970’s a writer named Aidan Kelly came up with it. Apparently he found it in the Mabinogion Collection as he was searching for a myth that (sort of) corresponded to Persephone’s descent into the Underworld.

According to Kelly, “It offended my aesthetic sensibilities that there seemed to be no Pagan names for the summer solstice or the fall equinox equivalent to Ostara or Beltane—so I decided to supply them… I began wondering if there had been a myth similar to that of Kore in a Celtic culture. There was nothing very similar in the Gaelic literature, but there was in the Welsh, in the Mabinogion collection, the story of Mabon ap Modron (which translates as “Son of the Mother,” just as Kore simply meant “girl”), whom Gwydion rescues from the underworld, much as Theseus rescued Helen. That’s why I picked “Mabon” as a name for the holiday.”

In Celtic mythology there is also a god called “Maponus”. His name has been translated as “divine son”. Some ancient writings also address him as “Apollo Maponus” therefore identifying him with Apollo, the Greek god of the sun. However, as a sun god, some folklorists argue he should have been associated with the Winter Solstice (return of the sun) rather that the Equinox. Which brings us to some other alternatives…

Mists of Avalon

The equinox is also known as the Feast of Avalon. The Isle of Avalon – also called the Isle of Apples — is the magic island of Arthurian legend. It is associated with Glastonbury, hidden beneath the mists and not visible to the human eye. King Arthur was taken there after his death. It was at Avalon that the enchantress Morgan La Fey, along with her eight sisters (Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thiten and Thiton) healed Arthur and brought him back to life.

It is believed that Arthur will one day return again to be the future king of Great Britain.

The Isle of Avalon can definitely be associated with this time of year, as it relates to death, and all things in nature begin dying. Also, it is appropriate for its association with the apple harvest. The apple itself is a symbol of beauty, life, immortality and healing.

Did you know there is also a secret pentagram within the apple?

If you cut an apple in half, you will find five points. These represent the five elements of Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Ether (or Spirit). They also represent the directions of East, West, North, South and Within.

Vikings

In Norse mythology, the Autumn Equinox is called Gleichentag, which means “Even Day”. The festival honors Sif, the Norse goddess of grain, for the harvest she has provided and also the god Thor, for his protection of the crops.

Sif is known as the Golden Goddess, named for her long golden hair. The Edda states that Loki, the trickster god, once deceived Sif by cutting off all her hair while she slept.

When she woke up, Sif was horrified to find herself bald. She immediately sent Loki to the Elves and he had them create a new head of hair. The new hair was magic and golden, the color of wheat. It gave Sif dominance over crops and the harvest.  

The Vikings knew winter was coming. The Even Day of light and dark was an important time to celebrate Sif’s bounty, and give thanks for all the food that had been stored for the upcoming cold season.  

Stab It With the Steely Knife…

In another Germanic/ Scandinavian tradition, the Autumn Equinox was called Haust Blot, meaning “Autumn sacrifice”. The first animal to be sacrificed was slaughtered on the equinox and eaten as a meal with the whole community.

This was a time to pray and thank the “landvaettir” – the spirits of the soils and land, for their bounty. People also prayed to the Elves and the goddess Freya, who worked along with the land spirits to keep the soil fertile.   

When people left the celebration, they lit their torches from the communal bonfire and took the flame home to light their own hearths. (This may or may not have been the inspiration of the modern day Olympic torch, but it sound pretty similar to me!)

Eastern Dreams

In Slavic tradition, the modern Autumn Equinox is called Dożynki, meaning “to reap”. It is currently celebrated in Poland and other Eastern European countries. Celebrations include dancing, feasting and parades.

Interestingly, Slavic folklore held the belief that the world was organized according to the oppositional, yet complementary cosmic duality of light and dark. This was expressed through the Belobog (“White God”) and the Chernobog (“Black God”). These deities collectively represented the  heavenly-masculine and earthly-feminine, and also the waxing and waning of light in relationship to seasons. Therefore, the equinox was an extremely important time.

 Villagers celebrated by baking a giant pancake made of wheat. It was believed that the larger the pancake, the better the harvest for next year was guaranteed to be. Grains of wheat were also woven into wreaths and decorated with flowers. The wreaths were a central part of the celebrations. They were stored over the winter and used in the spring as a gift to the land in exchange for good crops.   

There is a sketchy mythology around which deities were honored, but here are a few: Marzana, the rural goddess of winter and death (also personified as the witch Baba Yaga). Mokosh, the goddess of grain, earth, the harvest, and weaving. Uroda, the goddess of ploughed land, and Karna, the goddess of funerals.

Regardless of what we decide to call it, the Autumn Equinox is a sacred time. There are several ways you can celebrate.

  • Do some baking. It is a great time to bake an apple pie, bread or cookies. Maybe even try your hand at a giant pancake!
  • Go for a walk. The lovely colors of fall are just beginning and it is a great time to appreciate them.
  • Do some fall cleaning. It is said that the dark goddesses of autumn love a clean house! Welcome them, and prepare your home for hibernation.
  • Plant bulbs. They will have all winter to germinate, and give you something to look forward to when they bloom in spring.
  • Sip a hot tasty beverage such as apple cider, tea or hot chocolate as you take in the first chills and contemplate autumn.
  • Light a candle for your favorite deity. Use candles scented with apple, cinnamon, chestnut, or something rich and spicy to remind you of the harvest.

However you choose to celebrate, and whatever you choose to call it, have a blessed and happy Autumn Equinox!

Appreciating Black Cats

 

Cat, Domestic, Black, Animal, Pet, Cute, Cat Eyes, Eyes

“This was a remarkably large and beautiful animal, entirely black, and sagacious to an astonishing degree.”
― Edgar Allan Poe, The Black Cat

Have you hugged your black cat today? If not, you should. Today, August 17, is National Black Cat Appreciation Day!

And why (you may ask) do we need an appreciation day for black cats?

Well, they deserve it!  Look at the bad rap they have gotten over the ages. Lots of superstition has grown around them and left a dent in the collective consciousness. Some people are afraid of them to this day. People may, for example, avoid getting in the way of a black cat, believing them to be bad luck if they cross your path.

Black cats, however, were not always considered bad. In fact, in some cultures they were quite revered.

Spirits of Ancient Egypt

The Ancient Egyptians loved and worshiped black cats. This love came from a belief that black cats were associated with the gods. The Egyptian goddess Bast was known as the “cat goddess” and used black cats as symbols to represent her. She was often depicted as a goddess with a human body and the head of a cat.

Early Egyptians also prized cats because of  their great ability to eliminate rats, mice, and other unhealthy pests.  Having a cat meant a cleaner house, cleaner food, and all around better health. The Egyptians took their love of black cats seriously.  Killing a black cat in Ancient Egypt was a capital offense and the murderer would be put to death! (Sounds like a good law to me. Maybe we should bring it back..)

Egyptians were obsessed with the afterlife, but they also believed their cats would come with them. When the Egyptian family cat died, he would be mummified and buried within the family tomb. The family would also take time to mourn his death.

Ah but this veneration of the black cat would not last! Egyptian civilization fell and so did the status of the beloved kitties. By the Middle Ages, our feline friends were acquiring their evil reputation. Many myths and legends contributed to this.

Black Magic Woman

One story that circulated around Europe told of a black cat running into the house of a witch. According to this legend, a father and son were walking across the road when they noticed the cat. Apparently, the two were not animal lovers, because they began pelting stones at the cat. Scared and defenseless, the kitty ran into a house that — according to the local gossips — was the home of a woman who did spell casting.

I’d say the cat was pretty smart, running away from two attackers.

According to the legend, the next day the father and son encountered the woman who lived in the house, and she was limping. Thus it was assumed that the witch had shape shifted to a black cat and received an injury from the rocks that were thrown at her.

The story spread and the long association of black cats and witchcraft became ingrained in folklore. Black cats were believed to be witches in disguise, witches’ pets, or even demons sent by witches to spy on humans.

This folklore actually took on a legal ramifications when the Catholic Church took issue with cats!

In 1233, Pope Gregory IX drew up a decree to condemn black cats as evil, satanic creatures. This led to a widespread extermination of black cats. They were killed in droves, drowned, burnt, fed poison and hung.

A Plague Upon Their Houses

Exterminating black cats was a really dumb thing to do, as later realized, because cats were a major force in killing off diseased rats that brought in the Black Plague. The great outbreak of the Black Death in the 14th century may have been in part due to this mass extermination of back cats. The Pope would have done much better to just leave the kitties to their work of killing vermin!

Because they were considered to be witches’ familiars, black cats  were often burned at the stake or hung, along with an accused witch. This practice remained in effect between the 13th-17th centuries when witch hunts were rampant.

Luckily, as witches, women and animals earned more rights, these superstitions faded as well. Most witchcraft laws were repealed by the 20th century, and animal rights groups have come to the rescue of cats.

To this day, black cats remain associated with Halloween, which can be a particular time of cruelty for them.  For this reason, many shelters prohibit the adoption of black cats in the month of October. (Please note, they are available all other months and make excellent pets!)

Lucky Charms

Black cats are known to be among the most affectionate and entertaining of felines. Besides that, there are plenty of good superstitions about black cats.

  • In England a black cat on a ship was considered lucky. Many sailors believed that a black cat could ensure a safe voyage and keep the ship from storms.

  • Pirates believed black cats could portend the future of their ship. For example, if the cat walked on and stayed on the ship, it meant good luck. But if the cat walked on and then off again, this was a bad sign that the ship would sink. (Hopefully the pirates baited the kitties with some tasty treats, like fresh fish, to make them stay!)

  • Wives of fishermen often kept black cats, as they were considered good luck charms to help the fishermen make a safe return home.
  • In Japan, black cats were symbols of financial fortune and prosperity.
  • In Scotland it was believed that women who owned black cats would have lots of male suitors.

So, you see, these clever felines really do deserve a day all to themselves, to help their human friends realize how great they are.

Jasper says, “Have a lovely Black Cat Appreciation Day! And be kind to a black cat.”

Image may contain: cat

 

 

 

Frau Perchta, Witch of Twelfth Night

And so. Another Yuletide ends. But not so fast! Before we take down the mistletoe and finish off the sugar plums, there is one more celebration which should be recognized. This is the legend of Frau Perchta, Witch of Twelfth Night.

Perhaps you have never heard of this obscure character. But if you happened to be living in Bavaria or Austria during the Middle Ages, you might have been quite troubled as the Christmas season came to an end. During this time Frau Perchta would be on the loose, doling out punishments and rewards for the naughty and nice, respectively.

The “official end” of Yuletide in many traditions is January 6th, also known as Twelfth Night or Feast of the Epiphany. It was on this night that Frau Perchta would drop in for a visit. If you had been good over the past year, you would be rewarded with a piece of silver. But if you had been bad – watch out! Frau Perchta was a stern distributor of justice. In fact, she was also called “the belly slitter” because punishment for bad behavior consisted of Frau Perchta cutting open the offender’s stomach, removing the inner organs, and replacing them with straw and pebbles. Ouch!

In Christian traditions, January 6th is  Feast of the Epiphany. It commemorates the visit of the Magi to the manger where Christ was born. According to the Bible, three mages from Persia, following a bright star, made their way to Bethlehem to greet and bestow gifts upon the baby Jesus. Webster defines “epiphany” as an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being.”

The Twelfth Night is a time of great wonder and revelation. So why all the terror and judgement associated with Perchta? I wondered how Frau Perchta got such a bad rap.

The True Goddess

I did some sleuthing and found out that Perchta has a very interesting story. She wasn’t always an evil witch. In fact, she was at one time a greatly loved Germanic goddess. She is also called Berchta or Bertha.  The name Bertha literally means “bright” or “shining one”.  In ancient, pre-Christian times, Berchta was a powerful figure, worshiped by both Celtic and Germanic tribes. It was her job to protect babies, women and children. She was associated with birch trees (in Old High German birch is birka which also means “bright”.) She was a protector of forests and wildlife. She was also a “psychopomp” – that is, a spirit who guides the dead into the Afterlife.

Pretty impressive stuff.

Berchta was associated with the cycle of life, death and rebirth. She was depicted as a beautiful woman with long hair. She wore a white gown and was often called the White Woman or the Lady in White.  She was considered a triple goddess (perhaps because of her association with life’s cycles) and was able to take on forms of the maiden, mother and crone.

As a guide into the Afterlife, Berchta was a tender and caring figure that helped souls in their transition. There is one tale in which a grieving mother sees an apparition of her recently deceased little son. He is with a group of children along a hillside. The children are following a woman in a white gown. The little boy breaks away to speak to his sorrowful mother. The boy tells his mother not to weep, for he is safe and under the watch of the White Lady.

Berchta also had shapeshifting abilities. She was described as sometimes having the feet of a goose, and she also took on the form of a swan. As the protector of animals, she was  called “Guardian of Beasts”.

A Tainted Image

In the later, scary tales of Perchta, she is represented exclusively as a crone – more specifically, a scary old hag. She wears a disheveled dress, has a face made of iron and a nose like a beak.

She carries a knife beneath her cloak (in case she needs to slice open someone’s belly!) And of course, she has those strange looking goose feet.

So how did Berchta become Perchta? How did this benevolent goddess get demonized and transformed into an evil witch? Three words: The Medieval Church.

Christianity became powerful in Bavaria in around the 6th century. The Pagan cults that had evolved around Berchta were pretty strong and set in their ways. Worshippers of Berchta refused to be absorbed into the new Christian traditions. And so, for conversion purposes, the Church resorted to fear.

Her name was changed, among other things.  The word “perchten” means scary monsters, so Berchta became “Perchta, leader of the Perchten.”  Berchta, the wise white lady, was thereafter known as Perchta, a crooked-nosed, belly-stabbing hag.

As centuries went on, the worshippers of Berchta proved a stubborn lot. They were not willing to give up their goddess. The Church took further action. According to a religious document known as the Thesaurus Pauperum, the cult of Berchta was outlawed in 1468.  This document specifically condemned the practice of leaving food and drink offerings for Berchta during the Christmas season.

You might be wondering, as I did, what the heck is a Thesaurus Paupernaum?

Well, it had nothing to do with a thesaurus as we know it. Rather, it was a collection of recipes and natural medicinal cures, presumably for the benefit of poor people (paupers/ paupernaum) who could not afford expensive doctors. Interestingly, this document is cited as containing such information as: medicinal values of precious stones, herbal medicines for childbirth, astrological charts and a table for the uses of precious metals.

Hmmm. Magical crystals, herbal medicines and astrology. Sounds kinda Pagany to me…

The Thesaurus Paupernaum was written by prominent church officials such as Pope John XXI and Saint Albertus Magnus, with contributions from mineralogist George Frederick Kunz. Its recordings span a period of about seven centuries, and it is included in the Library of Congress Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts Collection.

So, for Medieval folks it was a big deal. Something they had to pay attention to.

Yuletide was her special time and Frau Perchta became a figure akin to Krampus, the evil counterpart of Saint Nicholas.

Propaganda and the Burning Times

There were tales of Frau Perchta capturing children and eating them. There were tales of Frau Perchta as the Christmas hag, who would stuff the bad kids into her giant sack. She would visit on Twelfth Night expecting food as an offering, but if she was displeased with what someone left, she would slit the person’s belly open and stuff him or her with garbage. She was also a stickler for clean homes, and the completion of spinning. So if women had neglected their housework or their flax, they could expect the belly slitting as well.

The repression of Berchta and subsequent scary tales of Perchta took place during an interesting period. In Europe, the years between 1450 and 1700 are known as The Burning Times. During these years, Protestant Reformations began, splitting the Christian Church into various factions. Instability caused even more paranoia. It is estimated that around 100,000 men and women were put to death for witchcraft, many of them burned at the stake.

Germany, a major proponent of the Reformations, was one of the worst offenders. Historians report that entire populations of women in towns and villages were sometimes eliminated.

Keeping Berchta Alive

Despite the church’s attempts to get rid of Berchta, she lives on. A Halloween like celebration in which children would dress as demons (Perchten) during Yuletide was observed in some parts of Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. Some families would prepare a porridge called “Perchtenmilch.” Part of the porridge would be consumed by the family, with a portion set aside as an offering for Perchta and her Perchten.

In the 19th century, even the Brothers Grimm had their say about Perchta. According to Jacob Grimm, who translated texts from Old High German, she was spoken of as Frau Berchta, a white-robed goddess who oversaw spinning and weaving and was sometimes the leader of the Wild Hunt.

By honoring her as a scary witch, we keep the name of Perchta alive. She, along with Krampus and other monsters have enjoyed a rejuvenation in recent years. Some folks prefer a bit of  horror in their Christmas.

(The above photo was taken by Sean Gordon. Lookin’ good, ladies!)

The goddess Berchta will never be forgotten. Her bright beauty is evident in Yule’s return of the sun, in the new fallen snow, in white swans and in the magnificence of the Alpine Mountains she hails from.

This Twelfth Night, you may want to take some time out to honor Berchta/ Perchta. An altar could include white candles, birch branches, or white feathers. You can meditate on loved ones who have crossed over and ask Berchta for a safe passage.  You may want to leave her an offering of cake or porridge. And – it might be wise to keep the house clean – just in case!

Halloween Horror! The Titillating, the Terrifying, the Campy and the Creepy

 

The spooky season is upon us, and you greatly deprive yourself if you do not take the time to watch some scary movies! I love horror, and here are some of my favorites — the fun, the freaky and the forgotten.  In no particular order.

Crow Haven Farm – When a distant relative dies and leaves a generous will, New Yorker Maggie (played by Hope Lange) inherits a farm in Massachusetts. She and her husband are delighted to leave the big city and move into their new digs. However, upon entering the new house, Maggie has the strangest feeling she has lived there before. Is reincarnation possible?

Of course it is! But matters get complicated when Maggie and her husband adopt a witchy ten year old girl. Through the child, Maggie discovers her previous life involved the betrayal of a 17th century coven. They now plan to exact their revenge…

The Howling II “Your sister is a werewolf.” – Ben’s sister is transformed into a werewolf and killed. Determined to find answers and justice, Ben and his girlfriend Jenny travel to Transylvania with werewolf hunter Stefan (played by Christopher Lee) to investigate. There they find themselves in the midst of the Wolf Festival. A strange tribe of werewolves are led by immortal Queen Stirba who, as it turns out, is Stefan’s sister.  There are plenty of chills and thrills (plus a great Goth wardrobe!) in this borderline erotic story.

Let’s Scare Jessica To Death – After suffering a nervous breakdown, Jessica has just been released from treatment in a mental institution.  What she needs most is fresh air and a fresh start. Jessica and her husband decide to purchase a country house in upstate New York where they can get some peace and quiet to help Jessica’s recovery.  Or so they think. When they discover a young hippy squatter on the premises, Jessica decides to invite the girl to move in rather than banish her.  Bad decision!  

This woman strangely resembles old photographs left in the house…  Is the young woman really an immortal vampire? Or is Jessica simply going insane?

An American Werewolf in London – American college students David and Jack are backpacking through northern England.

They stop at a pub for some hot food, but unfortunately, the locals are none too friendly.  In fact they are downright rude, except for their simple advice. “Stay to the road and beware the moon.” 

Realizing they are unwanted, the boys head out to the moors, amidst fog and cries of a howling wolf.  They are, of course, attacked.  Jack  is killed, but David is merely wounded — and therefore left to carry on the curse of the werewolf. This truly classic film  manages to be funny, likable and shocking all at the same time.

The Witches of Eastwick – Three dissatisfied women (played by Cher, Michelle Pheifer and Susan Sarandon) live in a sleepy New England town. There, they bide their time with hobbies and gossip, not really fitting in with the locals, and longing for excitement.  One night they fantasize their perfect man and invite him to the neighborhood.  When Darryl Van Horn (played by Jack Nicholson) arrives on the scene, he is intriguing, a bit repugnant, and weirdly irresistible. Van Horn trains the women for a witchy life — including teaching them to fly, all the while keeping them under his seductive power. Then one day, the ladies become more powerful than Darryl…

Practical Magic – The Owens women, witches by birth, suffer a curse. No man should ever fall in love with them or he is fated to die — young and way before his time.  When sisters Jill and Sally (played by Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock) both fall in love, fate takes its toll.  Can the curse be broken? While it is not really “scary” this movie is great fun and perfect for Halloween, when the Owens women fly off the roof!

The Witch: A New England Folk Tale – Journey back to 17th century New England for some spine tingling dealings with real witches and a goat named Black Phillip. A family of English settlers are banished from Plymouth Colony for being “too devout.” In other words, they out-Puritan the Puritans, and the community sends them away.

The family’s luck gets worse as crops spoil and their baby is kidnapped. To make matters worse, something strange is going on in the woods… This involves unction oils, naked witches, and signing of the book in blood. Plus Black Phillip is more than a mere goat…

Kudos to director Robert Eggers for keeping it Puritanical. Eggers went to great efforts to replicate the speech and costumes of the era. He also claimed he wanted to make his “childhood witch terrors” come to life.  I know people who are so scared of this movie, they will not watch it alone!

Interview With The Vampire – I have mentioned this gem before, but no Halloween would be complete without a visit to New Orleans with the infamous Lestat, and the innocent Louis, the vampire he created to keep him company. When Louis can no longer live with the existential crises of having to kill to stay undead, all hell breaks loose. Anne Rice’s masterpiece brought to the big screen.

The Salem Witch Trials – Originally filmed as a made for TV mini series, this six hour presentation is a must see. Most folks take Arthur Miller’s Crucible as fact – it was, however, heavily fabricated to meet Miller’s dramatic goals. This mini series offers a more historic (and scary!) view of the witch trials, with great performances by Kirstie Alley and Shirley Maclaine.

Doctor Faustus – Based on Christopher Marlowe’s play. Richard Burton stars as Faustus, the occult dabbling doctor who wonders if it would be possible to summon the Devil and strike a bargain with him – a soul in exchange for worldly goods. Yes. It is possible. The movie also stars Elizabeth Taylor (Burton’s then wife) as temptress Helen of Troy.

Although it is a bit campy and the acting is over the top, I still say,  Burton, Taylor and Marlowe — What’s not to love?

The Exorcist – Some folks think this is the scariest film ever made. Although it shows it’s age, there are still plenty terrors to be had in this story of Reagan, an innocent twelve year old who inexplicably finds herself possessed by the Devil. When all cures prove futile, an exorcist is called in. Not for the faint of heart, but if you have a strong stomach, it is a must see.

Hope that gives you some viewing ideas!

Have an Happy and Horrifying Halloween!

 

 

 

We Dare To Dance

 

Upon Walpurgis Night we dare to dance

the potent potions serving third eye sight

Black earth beneath bare feet, the ghost’s advance,

as bonfires glitter golden cleansing light.

 

Ancestors seen (and unseen) in a glance,

they knock the wood of oak and broomstick flight

where bluebells sprout like fingers, risking chance

of transport into faerie’s eerie plight.

 

The velvet dark, the Pan of necromance,

to shed mundane illusion and all fright.

Hooves hard, the thud and crash of gritty prance,

deep teeth enmeshing blood’s forbidden bite

 

Here lies the edge and nether world’s expanse

Upon Walpurgis Night we dare to dance.

Walpurgisnacht,  the Witches’ Night, is upon us! The veils are thin on this May Eve. Use your power, spells and concoctions to make your deepest dreams come true. Blessed Be.

“WalpurgisNight when the devil was abroad— when graves opened and the dead came forth and walked. When all evil things of earth and air and water held revel.” — from Dracula’s Guest by Bram Stoker.

 

 

 

Anne Sexton’s Ominous Fairy Tales: Part One, Snow White

 

“The speaker in this case
is a middle-aged witch, me-
tangled on my two great arms,
my face in a book
and my mouth wide,
ready to tell you a story or two.
I have come to remind you,
all of you:

Do you remember when you
were read to as a child?”

So begins Anne Sexton’s book Transformations,  a dark and prophetic retelling of fairy tales. True to the Brothers Grimm, she did not balk at gory details, but rather added her own peculiar and twisted endings where the characters live not so happily ever after. Anne Sexton took on many topics with her unique brand of “Confessional” poetry, but her fairy tale interpretations are perhaps the most interesting.

Into the Forest Dark

Most fairy tales, before they were Disney-fied, were pretty terrifying. Don’t forget their origins. They were told by Medieval grandmothers in thatched cottages who had a vested interest in notifying the children of all the evil and malicious things that lurked before them. Death, plagues and hunger were rampant, not to mention wild animals, thieves and kidnappers.  Children had good reasons to be scared. It was a dangerous business, going outside your door. Fairy tales could act as a sort of guide to warn them and toughen them to the fact that life would not be easy.

Anne Sexton’s life was not easy either, fraught with mental illness, an abusive childhood and finally ending in suicide at age forty-six.

Fellow poet and editor Maxine Kumin has said that Anne Sexton read and referenced fairy tales like most writers read the Bible or Greek myths. She was always attracted to the work of Andersen, Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. She herself had been read to as a child by her beloved grandmother.

In Transformations, Sexton takes these tales and revises them for the 20th century, warning the reader of modern day evils.  The princesses and heroines, rather than living happily ever after, end up in the quagmire of trappings that include jealousy, egotism, mediocrity, old age, and just plain bad marriages.

I’ll be looking at several of these poems over the next few days. Stay tuned as I explore Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, and more. But first up — that innocent ingenou with skin white as snow and hair black as coal, who decidedly had an aversion to apples…

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 

Beauty fades, but dumb is forever. Furthermore, no one escapes the ramifications of vanity… There is an evil queen, a fragile virgin, a hunter, some helpful dwarfs and, of course, a handsome prince.

“Once there was a lovely virgin
called Snow White.
Say she was thirteen.
Her stepmother, 
a beauty in her own right, 
though eaten, of course, by age, 
would hear of no beauty surpassing her own.”

“Beauty is a simple passion, 
but, oh my friends, in the end
you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes…”

The evil queen is so jealous, she orders her huntsman to track down Snow White, kill her and bring back her heart for the queen to eat.  But the huntsman cannot bring himself to kill the girl. Instead he kills a boar and brings back that heart.

“The hunter, however, let his prisoner go
and brought a boar’s heart back to the castle.
The queen chewed it up like a cube steak.
Now I am fairest, she said, 
lapping her slim white fingers.”

This is the first of many times Snow White will escape death.  She then ventures further into the forest where “the birds called out lewdly and the snakes hung down in loops, each one a noose for her sweet white neck.”

Eventually she comes upon the cottage of the seven dwarfs, and all should have gone well. Except the evil queen returns, still seeking to kill Snow White who makes the dumb mistake of opening the cottage door. Thus she falls prey to the queen’s poison dress and comb. After saving her twice, the dwarfs warn her not to open the door to strangers, but Snow White just can’t seem to learn her lesson.

“Snow White, the dumb bunny, 

opened the door
and she bit into a poison apple
and fell down for the final time.”

The dwarfs put her in a glass coffin. A prince, passing by, sees the coffin and decides he must have the beautiful creature inside it. While his men carry the coffin home, Snow White’s body is jarred, causing her to spit up the poisoned apple. She then awakens.

Of course, she marries the prince. But what will be her final fate?

“Meanwhile Snow White held court, 
rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut
and sometimes referring to her mirror
as women do.”

The poem bleakly suggests that Snow White will become exactly like her evil stepmother, a vain and aging one-time beauty, haunted by, and beholden to her own reflection in the mirror.  The entire poem can be read HERE.

And finally, here is a lovely word/ music/ pictures rendition of this poem. (Running time 7 minutes.) Hope you like it!