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 Keller 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 Keller, “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 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!

 

 

 

The Pendle Witches on Good-Fryday

 

“their Children and Friendes laboured a speciall meeting at Malking Tower in the Forrest of Pendle, upon Good-fryday, of all the most dangerous, wicked, and damnable Witches in the County farre and neere. Upon Good-fryday they met with great cheare, merry company, and much conference…” —  From The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in Lancashire County by Thomas Potts

On Good Friday, April 10, 1612, the men and women who came to be known as the “Pendle Witches” held a feast at Malkin Tower, the home of one Elizabeth (Lizzie) Device.  The group were later arrested by the local sheriff, Roger Nowell. According to Nowell, the witches at the Good Friday feast were planning and plotting — specifically —  to “kill M. Cowell, and blow up Lancashire Castle [using] all their Murders, Witchcraftes, Inchauntments, Charmes, & Sorceries…”

One week before, on April 2, 1612, Lizzie’s mother, Elizabeth (Bess) Southerns (aka “Old Demdike” ) and her sixteen-year-old daughter Alison had been arrested for witchcraft. Also arrested were their neighbors, Anne Whittle (aka “Old Chattox”) and her daughter Anne Redfearne.  The women were being held at the Well Tower  — which was actually a dungeon — in Lancaster Castle  — which was actually a medieval fortress. There they awaited trial, to be held at the August Assizes, which meant four months in prison.

According to Sheriff Roger Nowell, it was entirely plausible that Old Demdike’s daughter would carry out a plan to kill Thomas Cowell (the coroner appointed by King James to investigate the case) and blow up Lancaster Castle in order to free her loved ones.

The Pendle Witch trials are among the most famous in British history, and the only witch trials ever that had a court journalist– one Thomas Potts — who recorded the testimonies and then wrote a book, The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in Lancashire County published in 1613.

But who were the Pendle Witches, why were they so notorious, and did they even commit the crimes they were accused of?

Pendle Forest Cunning-Woman

At the time of her arrest, Bess Southerns was around eighty years old, and had been previously known as a healer and cunning-woman. Her folk magick practices had included midwifery and saving people from plagues and other ailments. She was arrested on charges of consorting with spirits and using charms to instill sickness and death.  Furthermore, years earlier she had supposedly encountered a faerie named Tibb and made a bargain with him:

“Elizabeth Sowtherns confesseth, and sayth; That about twentie yeares past, as she was comming homeward from begging, there met her neere unto a Stonepit in Gouldshey in the Forrest of Pendle, a Spirit or Devill in the shape of a Boy… who bade this Examinate that if she would giue him her Soule, she should have any thing that she would request. Whereupon she asked his name? and the Spirit answered, his name was Tibb: 

and so this Examinate in hope of such gaine as was promised by the sayd Devill or Tibb, was contented to give her Soule to the said Spirit: And next after, the sayd Spirit or Devill appeared at sundry times unto her alwayes bidding her stay, and asking her what she would have?”

During this time, a neighbor named Richard Baldwin had taken sick – after having had a verbal altercation with Bess in which she had  somewhat flippantly told him “I will pray for you.”  (It was largely believed that a witch’s prayers could bring harm…) Soon after, Baldwin’s young daughter became ill and died. Needless to say, the death was blamed on Bess and her pact with Tibb.

Anne Whittle had a similar story. Bess had allegedly been her mentor.

“Anne Whittle, alias Chattox, sayeth, that about foureteene yeares past she entered the wicked perswasions and counsell of Elizabeth Southerns, alias Demdike, and was seduced to condescend & agree to become subject unto that devilish abhominable profession of Witchcraft: Soone after which,  at around Midnight, the Devill appeared unto her in the likeness of a Man…

whereupon the said wicked Spirit mooved this Examinate, that she would become his Subject, and give her Soule unto him:”

Further deaths in the Pendle Forest were blamed on the two women and their so called pact with the devil.

“… many sundry Person haue been bewitched to death, and by whom they were so bewitched: Robert Nuter, late of the Greene-head in Pendle, was bewitched by Demdike, and Widdow Lomshawe, (late of Burneley) now deceased.

And she further sayeth, that she had bewitched to death, Richard Ashton, Sonne of Richard Ashton of Downeham Esquire.”

A Black Dog and Communion Wafers

Young Alison Device had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. She had been walking upon a road in Colne when she saw a peddler – a man named John Law. (I am not kidding. His name was actually John Law. No offense to the Police Department 😊 )

In general, the people of Pendle Forest were poor. Many went barefoot with tattered clothes. Alison had the need for some pins to mend her crumbling kirtle. She asked John Law to “open his sack so she might purchase some.” He refused. Alison then shouted some choice words at him, upon which a black dog came running out of the forest. John Law fell to the ground (in modern times we would say he suffered a stroke.) Nonetheless, it was assumed that the black dog was Alison’s “familiar” – a spirit who arrived on the scene to do Alison’s evil bidding.

The significance of pins should be noted. Aside from holding a kirtle together, pins were seen as necessary for certain witchcraft practices (akin to voodoo) such as sticking them into dolls or “poppets” meant to represent people one wanted revenge on. John Law, perhaps knowing the reputation of Alison’s grandmother, may have hesitated to sell them to her.

James Device, the twenty-year-old grandson of Bess, confessed to stealing communion wafers for his grandmother, digging up skulls and bones, and consulting with a familiar he called “Dandy”.  James Device was believed to have what we would now consider a learning disability. After being starved in prison he became so weak he could barely stand up when brought to trial.

“Being brought forth to the Barre, to receive his Triall … James Device was so insensible, weak, and unable in all thinges, as he could neither speak, hear, or stand, but was holden up when hee was brought to the place of his Arraignement, to receive his triall.”

This further leads us to believe that the prisoners received terrible, inhumane treatment in the dungeon, not to mention coerced confessions.

Out of the Mouths of Babes

To make matters worse, in court Alison’s nine-year-old sister Jennet Device testified against her own family, accusing them all of murder.  The child’s stories were taken extremely seriously by the magistrate.

Little Jennet had been in the custody of Roger Nowell since her mother was hauled off to prison. He had most likely coached her to condemn her own family. Nonetheless, Jennet’s accusations became a precedent for children accusing adults of witchcraft. (This practice was later used at the Salem Witch Trials in the American colonies when a group of children accused over 200 people of witchcraft.)

To this day, the outrageous nature of the confessions is questioned by historians.  Some believe that Roger Nowell embellished them. Torture was “forbidden” in England, but other practices, such as starvation and sleep deprivation were often used to coax confessions out of those accused.

King James and the Occult

Roger Nowell had a lot of stakes in the trials. It was to his advantage to prove witchcraft under the reign of King James.  The King, a self-described “witch expert”, had an obsession with the occult and actually believed his throne was threatened by witches.

James himself had written a book about witchcraft titled Daemonologie. He also changed several witchcraft laws to make arrests and convictions easier. This lead to the deaths of many accused. Even Shakespeare’s play Macbeth was written in part as propaganda to appeal to King James, then head of the production company.

Interestingly, the spells recited by the witches in court do not seem devil-based at all, but rather adhere to teachings of the Catholic Church, with references to the angel Gabriel, the twelve apostles and the Mother Mary.  Catholic (Papal) practices had been forbidden under King James, a Protestant. However, the county of Lancashire had always been a Catholic stronghold, and it was known that folks practiced the “Old Faith” in secret.

One such “Good Friday” charm, recited in court by James and Jennet Device is as follows:

A Charme

Upon Good-Friday, I will fast while I may

Untill I heare them knell Our Lords owne Bell,

Lord in his messe With his twelve Apostles good

What hath he in his hand? Light in leath wand

 What hath he in his other hand? Heavens doore key

Open, open Heaven doore keyes, Stuck, stuck hell doore.

Let Crizum child Goe to its Mother mild,

What is yonder that casts a light?

 Mine owne deare Sonne that’s nailed to the Tree.

He is nailed sore by the heart and hand,

And holy harne Panne, Well is that man That Fryday spell can,

His Childe to learne; A Crosse of Blew, and another of Red…

 Sweete Jesus our Lord, Amen.

 

“To Be Hung By the Neck Until You Are Dead”

Various other deaths and sicknesses were blamed on the Pendle Witches. In the end, of the twelve originally arrested, ten were sentenced to death. These were:

Anne Whittle, known as Chattox
Anne Redfearne, daughter of Chattox
Elizabeth Device, daughter of Demdyke
James Device, son of Elizabeth Device
Alison Device, daughter of Elizabeth Device
Alice Nutter
Jane Bulcock
John Bulcock, son of Jane Bulcock
Katherine Hewitt, known as Mouldheels
Isabel Robey

Elizabeth Southerns died in Lancaster Gaol before the trial began. Some say she used her cunning powers to escape trial. Most likely, the hideous conditions of the prison contributed greatly to her demise. (It was quite common for accused women to die in prison of dysentery or malnutrition, especially the elderly.)

What do you think of the Pendle Witches? Let me know in the comments.

Have a blessed Good-Fryday!

 

Pendle Forest

 

 

 

March 1692: The Salem Witch Trials

 

March is International Women’s History Month. It also marks the beginning of the Salem Witch Trials. Since this disturbing event in American history was centered largely around women, I thought it might be fun to explore the specifics!

Witch Trials continue to fascinate and puzzle historians. Witchcraft hysteria ran rampant throughout Europe in the 15th – 17th centuries, and carried over to the American colonies, solely driven by religious beliefs and outrageous superstition. But there was much more to the Salem Witch Trials than overactive imaginations…

Don’t Have a Hissy Fit!  But They Did…

In the winter of 1692, in Salem Village, nine year old Betty Parris and her eleven year old cousin Abigail Williams  began to have uncontrollable fits. The girls would scream, run around and throw things. They claimed they were being hit and attacked by some unknown presence. Luckily, Betty’s father Samuel Parris happened to be a Puritan Reverend and he had a perfect explanation: the Devil was afoot in New England.

Puritans had a strong belief in the Devil. He walked among men, unseen. He needed to get his bidding done, so he would recruit humans. Sometimes he chose men, but mostly he chose women — as they were weak, vulnerable and easily persuaded. You know. Like Eve.  Old Scratch would bring his book to sign – and it had to be signed in blood.  Once the transaction was complete, a woman gave away her soul and body, leaving the Devil to do with them as he pleased.

As Betty and Abigail continued to have their incurable fits, doctors were brought in. After several weeks, no one could diagnose the problem, but finally the girls blurted out that it was, in fact, the witchy spirit of Tituba, the family slave, who had been harming them.

There was a thing called ‘spectral evidence’ which became very important during the witchcraft trials. Any accuser could claim that the specter or spirit of a witch was harming them, and that claim was taken seriously.  It was not even necessary that another person actually see the specter.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a girl named Anne Putnam was experiencing the same kinds of fits. She claimed the witches attacking her were two women – the neighborhood beggars – one Sarah Goode, and one Sarah Osborne.

Sarah Osborne was what Puritans would call a ‘loose woman’. She had lived with a man out of wedlock and did not attend church services. Osborne was elderly and also known to be argumentative.  Sarah Goode was married with a young daughter, but even her own husband suspected she was a witch. Both women were poor.

So, the first women accused were a slave and two social rejects. But the accusations didn’t stop there. They would go on to reach epic proportions. In order to understand the mentality of the trials, it is necessary to look at the outlying events which took place simultaneously.

Blame it on Politics

In 1692’s bleak winter, Salem Village was in bad shape. Fields were frozen and people were starving. Indians, wolves and other wild animals were a constant threat. To make matters worse, the territories of North America were engaged in a civil war.

In 1689, English rulers William and Mary had started a war with France in the American colonies. Known as ‘King William’s War’, or ‘The Second Indian War’, it ravaged regions of  what is now upstate New York, Massachusetts, Nova Scotia and Quebec. Homeless  refugees traipsed into the county of Essex and, specifically, into Salem Village.

The displaced people created a strain on Salem Village’s resources. The harsh terrain of New England had never been very fruitful, and there was only so much firewood and food to go around. Hunger, cold and poverty were rampant. In addition to all this trouble, the village’s two most prominent families – the Putnams and the Porters – were engaged in a power struggle.

Two Households, Both Alike in Dignity

The Putnam family had always been powerful in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  This stemmed from an English land grant given to their grandfather, way back in 1640.  The Putmans were farmers.  But in the rising change of fortune, new and lucrative opportunities were coming from the busy colony seaport. Commerce and trade, not farming, would be the business of the future.  The Putnams were losing their stronghold. The Porter family – up and coming sea merchants – were the ‘new money’ in Salem Village.

In what was perhaps a desperate attempt to use religion to gain back his influence, Thomas Putnam enlisted the services of Reverend Samuel Parris.

The Reverend Parris had not always been a reverend. He was, in fact, a struggling salesman who had lived most of his life in Barbados. He came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and took to the pulpit only after his business ventures had failed miserably.  He brought with him his wife, his daughter Betty, his niece Abigail Williams and two slaves – Tituba and John Indian.

Reverend Parris was not popular. People thought he was greedy. For example, one law was imposed requiring villagers to give up their firewood as a new taxation plan that gave the wood to the Reverend. His sermons were guilt inducing, full of fire and brimstone. He strongly warned of dealings with the Devil. Many folk opted to attend a different church in Salem Town, rather than sit through Parris’ sermons. The influential Porters went to church in Salem Town.

It was as though there were two separate cities, and two separate philosophies. Salem Village was ‘Putnam-land’ –  backwater, bumpkin, farm-bound and superstitious.  Salem Town was ‘Porter territory’ – progressive, sophisticated, merchant-driven and logical.

Lizzie and Joseph: Forbidden Love

The story gets better!

Thomas Putnam had a half brother named Joseph. Joseph was the product of his father’s second marriage to one Mary Veren. When the father died in 1686, he left a good deal of his land holdings to young Joseph. Thomas and his brother Edmund were jealous, to say the least. They challenged their father’s will in court, but to no avail. Young Joseph Putman was known as the wealthiest man in Salem Village. And who did Joseph fall in love with? You guessed it – a Porter!

Seventeen year old Lizzie was the pride of the Porter family. Her father Israel was fond of Joseph, and also eager to wed his daughter to a rich landholder.

Twenty one year old Joseph married Lizzie on April 21, 1690. Needless to say, the wedding was much frowned upon by his half brothers. Thomas Putnam now stood to lose even more of his dwindling wealth and power.

Not coincidentally, the girls that made the first witchcraft accusations all had some tie to  Thomas Putnam.  These were: Betty (the Reverend’s daughter) Abigail (the Reverend’s niece) Anne Putman Jr. (Thomas’ daughter) Anne Putnam Sr. (Thomas’ wife) and Mary Walcott (Thomas’ niece).

Similarly, many of the accused had some tie to the Porter family.  These were: Rebecca Nurse, Giles and Martha Corey,  John and Elizabeth Proctor, and George Burroughs — all neighbors and associates of the Porters.  John Proctor and Giles Corey were landholders who sat in at town council meetings and were likely to cast votes to favor Israel Porter. (Of course, once accused of witchcraft, one’s land went forfeit and they no longer held that position… ) George Burroughs had been the Reverend of the church in Salem Town.

‘Fess Up!

On March 1, 1692, Tituba, Sarah Osborne and Sarah Goode were taken for questioning. Tituba confessed, telling a wild story of how the Devil had recruited her, but now she was repentant and wished forgiveness.  Osborne and Goode insisted upon their innocence. On March 7, the three were jailed in Boston.

Astonishingly, Sarah Goode’s four year old daughter Dorothy was put in jail as a witch also, making her probably the youngest prisoner ever. Months later, the child was released on a 50 pound bond — the equivalent of around $10,000 in today’s money.  Dorothy was referred to in court records as “it” rather than “she”.

Tituba was no fool. Puritan law at the time would allow an accused person freedom ONLY if he or she confessed. Those that would not confess would be hung. (Sarah Goode was later hung and Sarah Osborne died in prison.)

The accusers may have started by singling out the lowest of society, but eventually they made their way up the ladder. On March 19, Abigail accused a woman named Rebecca Nurse. Rebecca was considered a pillar of the community. She was kind, charitable, church-going and flawless. Fear spread like wildfire. If Rebecca could be accused, anyone could.

And anyone was! Before the trials were ended, over two hundred people were accused of witchcraft and jailed. Nineteen were hung, one was pressed to death, and at least four died in the squalid conditions of prison.

The Governor, Sir William Phipps, established a Court of Oyer and Terminer to investigate the allegations. It was presided over by all the top officials: Lieutenant Gov. William Stoughton, Nathaniel Saltonstall, Bartholomew Gedney, Peter Sergeant, Samuel Sewall, Wait Still Winthrop, John Richards, John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin.

Interesting aside — John Hathorne was an ancestor of author Nathaniel Hawthorne of Scarlet Letter fame.

Nathaniel changed the spelling of his name to avoid association with the elder Hathorne, who was the only judge that never apologized for his part in the witch trials.

The accusing girls were at first revered by the community. They had rock-star status, traveling around pointing the finger at anyone they pleased, while onlookers begged to touch their garments.  However, as the accusations accumulated and crept steadily into the elites of society, folks became suspicious. Finally, the girls went too far.

One story claims that an accusation was made against the Governor’s wife, Mary Spencer Phipps.

The Governor adored and cherished his wife. The idea of her being a witch was abominable to him. Plus, by then he may have had his doubts about the accusations — as any reasoning human being would.  At any rate, in October of 1682, Governor Phipps dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer. In November he declared that spectral evidence would no longer be considered valid.  In May of the following year, Phipps pardoned all the remaining accused witches.

Fun Facts:

  • Tituba Indian was, in fact, a Native American Indian. Conquered Wampanoags from New England were often brought to Barbados as slaves. Historians believe Tituba was raised on a Barbados plantation, but was a member of the Wampanoag Tribe.

  • Although Tituba is often associated with voodoo, there is no historical evidence that she had knowledge of it. By her own confessions, any witchcraft she knew was taught to her by English mistresses.
  • Tituba even baked a ‘witch cake’ according to English traditions,  made with urine and rye, then fed to a dog who would reveal the true witches. (This tactic either did not work, or people did not believe the dog.)

  • Elizabeth Proctor was an herbal healer and may have been the only true witch in the bunch. She was pregnant at the time of her arrest and her life was spared, although her husband John was hung.
  • Giles Corey was pressed to death with boulders because he refused to declare himself innocent or guilty. Puritan laws stated that once an accused person acknowledged himself as innocent or guilty, his land would be forfeit. Not wanting to give up his land, Giles stubbornly succumbed to the crushing death, asking only for “More weight.”

  • Giles’ efforts paid off. The Corey land was kept in the family up to the 21st century!
  • Accused victims were made to pay for their own room and board in jail. The fees were collected from any savings they may have had. Freed persons usually left jail penniless, or in debt to the state for their rat infested stay.
  • Having confessed, Tituba was never put to death. However, after being released she was unable to pay her fees and was sold again into slavery.
  • Abigail Williams – portrayed as the ‘Femme Fatale’ of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, was, in fact only eleven years old. Miller recreated her as a seventeen year old who had an affair with John Proctor. Sex sells. The play was a huge hit!

  • Years after the trials, Anne Putnam Jr. admitted that she had lied about the accusations. However, she took no personal responsibility, insisting she had been under the influence of Satan. The Devil made her do it.
  • After the tragedy of the Salem Witch Trials, folk finally started to realize how ridiculous Puritanism was.  The religion was abandoned.

Happy Women’s History Month!

 

 

Lussi Nacht

 

On the night of December 13th, the dark witch Lussi (counterpart to the benevolent  Santa Lucia) flies on her broom with the Wild Hunt of Odin.

Beware gentle humans! For if you encounter this merry band of hunters, they just may abduct you to the Underworld.

But hey, it might not be a bad thing…  🙂

In Norse mythology, the Underworld was known as ‘Hel’  or ‘Helheim’ (Hel’s realm.)  It was presided over by a goddess, also called ‘Hel’.  But don’t confuse the Norse Hel with the Christian concept of Hell. Although the names have the same  Germanic language roots, the two places have nothing in common. Nordic Hel was definitely NOT a place of eternal suffering.

In Hel, you’d get to hang out with Odin, eat, drink, fight, love, celebrate and practice magick. In the Norse underworld, life apparently continued in much the same way as it was known to Vikings on earth.

Nordic pagans had several different forms of the afterlife, including Valhalla, Folkvang (Freya’s realm) and the underwater abode of Ran. However, no afterlife community was a place of punishment, nor of reward. The afterlife was, in fact, teeming with actual life. The dearly departed would dwell there indefinitely.  Eventually they might be reborn as one of their own ancestors, or as an elf.

So if Lussi and her band of hunters do happen to carry you off tonight, have no fear.  It’s sure to be a win -win situation! (Cue diabolical laughter. Mwuah-ha-ha!)

Happy Lussi’s Night!

Lussi Nacht 1