The ancient Celts and Europeans, on first glance do not seem inordinately afraid of death; in fact, many literary heroes hardly even notice their death until long after the fact. After all, “A brave man dies but once–a coward many times.” In the case of the Celts, there are references to ancient Celts loaning money and expecting repayment in the next life. People would keep the heads of enemies or friends, occasionally talking and giving them a feast. But, how the average Joe McBlow felt is less certain. Perhaps, it’s along the lines of “It’s a good day to die…tomorrow” or “Who wants to live forever? Okay, but who ELSE?” or “I am not afraid to die, I just don’t to be around when it happens.”
In Celtic myth, there are tales of Avalon (island of apples,) Tir nan Og (land of youth,) Islands out West over/under the Ocean (America?,) Hybrasil, Annwyn (in the Tales of Pryderi,) and the Faery underworlds of mounds and tombs. (See the Voyage of Mael Dun for another interesting journey by boat.) A general sense of connection is thought to exist in the same place, like parallel universes, that are crossed-over sometimes (especially on holidays like Beltane and particularly Samhain.) Ghosts, spirits, saints, saints, monsters, faeries are rampant in their mythology that continues to this day.
So, finally, as you know, the greatest traditional remnant concerning death is the great fire-festival of Samhain (or the triple holiday of Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.) You’ve read already read oodles about Samhain on the internet, you know its roots and know all that stuff about it being a Celtic new-year (a new calendar year in the NRDNA.) I’m a “do-er” not a “liturgist,” festivals for me are about doing interesting related projects.
Samhain Essay: Prophesizing
A Druid Missal-Any, Samhain 2002
By Stacey Weinberger
Samhain, the beginning of the Season of Sleep in the Druid calendar, marks the end of the Celtic year and the beginning of the new, a time the veil between the worlds is the thinnest, when the door to the Otherworld opens and spirits walk the earth, and when communication with the dead is possible. This is the most important High Day in the Celtic calendar.
Samhain is a time associated with prophesizing and foretelling of the future. It was commonly believed that children born on Samhain were gifted with Second Sight or the ability to foresee events and objects. This was time when divination rites were practiced and there are many tales and traditions surrounding them.
In the Book of the Dean of Lismore, a mortal man, Fingein mac Luchta is visited by a ban-sidhe every Samhain who would tell him of all the marvels in all the royal strongholds of Ireland. She tells him of three chief artefacts of Ireland that were found and revealed this night, the headpiece of Briun mac Smethra, a helmet that had been hidden in the well of Sidh Cruachan from the Morrigu; the fidchell board of Crimtham nia Nar left in an adventure and was hidden in the rath of Uisneach; and the minn (diadem) of Loeguire mac Luchta Limfinn that had been hidden since the birth of Conchobar until this Samhain night. The ban-sidh also relates to Fingein other events that come to pass in the next twelve months
In modern times divination rites were still practiced in the Celtic countries at Samhain. Grain, vegetables, and fruit were used indicating the close association of Samhain with the Harvest. These were the foods that would sustain tribes through the winter. Apples and hazel nuts that played an especially important part to the early Celts: they were foods of the Otherworld, were notably used. Hazel nuts were known as a source and symbol of wisdom, and were eaten before divination. The apple symbolized life and immorality, was the talisman that admitted one to the Otherworld, and gave one the power to tell the future.
In the Border ballad Thomas the Rhymer, the 13th century poet and seer, meets the Queen of the Faeries at his favorite Eildon Tree, and after entering her mystic hill, they journey through rivers to the Land of the Faerie, where they find a garden. The queen gives him an apple from one of the trees for his wages saying, “It will gi’e thee the tongue than ne’er can Ice,” and thenceforth Thomas can only speak the truth. After having been instructed by the faerie queen in prophecy or “second sight,” Thomas is then able to enter Avalon as an initiate where he dwells for seven years.
There are two main apple rites that survive, one involves ordeal by water and the other ordeal by fire. The act of going through water to obtain apples could be the remnants of the Druidic rite symbolizing the passing through water to Emain Abhlach or Apple-Isle. Apple-Isle is where Manannan Mac Lir prepared the Otherworld feast for the eternal enjoyment of those who have passed on.
The Ordeal by Water survives in Scotland in such Samhain traditions as “Dookin’ for Aipples.” A large wooden tub is filled with water and set in the middle of the floor into which apples are placed. The master of ceremonies has a porridge stick or some other equivalent of the Druidic wand, and with this he keeps the apples in motion. Each participant get three tries, and if unsuccessful, must wait until the others have had their turn. If a participant captures an apple, it is either eaten or kept for use in another of the divination rites.
The modern form of the Ordeal by Fire is known as “The Aipple and the Can’le.” A small rod of wood is taken and suspended horizontally from the ceiling by a cord. After it is fairly balanced, a lit candle is set on one end and an apple at the other. The rod is then set whirling around. Each of the company takes turns leaping up trying to bite the apple without singing his or her hair. Touching either the rod or apple with the hands is not permitted.
The divinations practiced at Samhain were chiefly used to discover who would marry, who one’s partner was going to be, and who was going to die over the course of the next year. Eating the Apple at the Glass is an example of such a divination. At the hour of midnight the person goes into a room with a mirror. The room is lit with but one candle. The apple is cut into nine pieces. The person stands with his or her back to the mirror, eats the eight pieces, and throws the ninth piece over the left shoulder. Turning towards the mirror, he or she will see the future partner.
Paring the Apple is another Samhain divination rite performed at the stroke of twelve. The person pares the apple carefully so that the skin comes off in one unbroken ribbon. As the clock strikes twelve the person swings the paring around his or her head three times with out breaking it, and tossing it over the left shoulder. The shape that the paring assumes is the initial of the querant’s future spouse. If the paring breaks matrimony will not happen in the coming year. If any of the readers wants to try either of these divination methods we would be curious to know how they work.
Winter Solstice / Yule
Winter Solstice Notes
The Druid Chronicles (Evolved) 1976
By Isaac Bonewits and Robert Larson
The Winter Solstice is a Minor High Day, usually occurring around December 21st or so of the civil calendar. Also known as Yule and Midwinter, this is a day sacred to Sun Gods, Thunder Gods, and Fire Gods. Large fires were built up outdoors and a Yule Log lit indoors, in order to rekindle the dying Sun and help it to return brightly to the Northern skies. Burnt logs and ashes from Midwinter fires were kept as a talisman against lightning and house fires. It was also a custom in many parts of Paleopagan Europe to decorate live evergreen trees in honor of the Gods (cutting down a tree to bring indoors is a blasphemous desecration of the original concept.) This is considered, along with Midsummer, the best day of the year to cut mistletoe.
Among some Paleopagans, a date on or near this (such as December 25th) was celebrated as the Birthday of the Sun God, frequently from the womb of a virgin or unmarried girl (who was sometimes also the Mother Goddess.)
Yule Essay: What is Yule?
A Druid Missal-Any, December 1982
Volume 6 Number 4-5
By Emmon Bodfish
Yule, a minor Celtic High Day, the Midwinter Solstice’s sun shines into the mouths of cairn graves and the openings of hill tombs. The day was of obvious importance to these megalith builders, and associated with the dead and with regeneration. This is the bottom of the year, and the coldest months are still to follow. Bonfires are lit on hills to call back the Sun, and kept burning all night to celebrate its return. This Celtic tradition may be a cognate of the Norse Yule Log tradition, which is still carried on in the Nordic countries. This use of fire to recall the Sun's fire, (the name for the Sun in Gàidhlig is thought to be derived from the phrase “of the nature of fire," greine, and is of the feminine gender) is an instance of one of the most ancient religious ideas, that of reciprocity.
This concept goes back to the beginnings of religion in the Old Stone Age, as well may the fire lighting ceremonies. As C. Rachel explains, these rites were
“the culmination of the Stone Age religion of reciprocity, in which, by ritual attunement to the rhythm of seasonal change, man shared with Divinity the responsibility for its maintenance, so that the ceremonies first introduced to guide the birth and death of the hunter’s quarry, were replaced in natural succession by those considered necessary to assist the new year to be born, the very sun to return, (and) the harvest to be cut down."
“was also understood conversely, so that early written documents record (Le Titre d’Horus d’or, by A. Mort, translator, Rev. Arch. xxiv) that the rising of the Young Year God from his winter sleep in the subterranean chambers held hope for the resurrection/reincarnation of man. Such a belief would seem to have been naturally transmitted from the ideas concerning the case as mother of rebirth, now reinforced by the lesson of the seeds, through Neolithic ceremonies in which the sense of mutual causality was so compelling. It is demonstrated in the monuments of the dead.”
Yule Essay: Where Is Your Sun?
A Druid Missal-Any. Yule 1983
By Emmon Bodfish
Yule, Solstice, Greinstad, Sunstop; the Sun, which has been setting each day at a new, more southerly point on the horizon stops its progression. We have reached the “bottom of the year,” as the Gaels call it. Midwinter’s night was considered a productive night to vigil, and a Yule fire was built, in some traditions around a single log big enough to burn all night. Its flames would welcome the returning Sun at dawn. The sunrise was hailed with shouting, drums, and thanks for the returning of the light.
This is one of the four Solar Holidays of the Druid year. This year it will culminate at 9:30 p.m. December 21st, Pacific Standard Time, and an hour later for each time zone east of the Pacific one; i.e. 5:30 a.m. Universal and Greenwich Time. At this moment the Northern Hemisphere of the Earth will be tipped at its maximum angle away from the sun. Since this is one of the few years in which this event occurs at a convenient hour when most of us are awake, we might try synchronizing our watches all across the country and let out at this moment the shout “Seall” (Pronounced sha-oul) to call back the descending Sun. After all who wants to end up freezing in the dark?
Or go out on Midwinter eve and note the point on the horizon where the sun sets; this is its most Southerly extreme. Do the same for the following dawn, Solstice morning, and from the angle between these two points you can calculate your latitude. (Write in for the formula.) By sightings like this, on these Special Days, the Ancients calculated latitude, the curvature of the Earth, and kept the calendar aligned with the Heavens.
Yule Essay: Holly and
Mistletoe and Sickles
A Druid Missal-Any, Yule 1984
By Emmon Bodfish
Yule, Winter Solstice is one of the four minor Druid High Days. It is associated with the Holly and the Mistletoe. All mistletoe symbolism and use we see around during this time of the year is a carry-over from pagan, most likely Druidic, customs of ancient Europe.
Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, gives us the best description we have of a Paleo-Pagan Druid ceremony, that of the cutting of the mistletoe. According to Stuart Piggot, the time for this ceremony was determined by observing the growth of the mistletoe on an oak tree. “The time of the rite was the sixth day of a new moon, and preparations were made for a feast and a sacrifice of two white bulls. A Druid in a white robe climbed the tree and cut with a golden sickle the branch of a mistletoe, which was caught as it fell on a white cloak. The bulls were then sacrificed and all present ate of them.”
The gold sickle is inexplicable, as real gold will not hold an edge tough enough to cut through the woody stem of the mistletoe. Gilded, or simply polished, bronze, is more likely. Elsewhere Pliny writes of the ritual necessity of gathering the mistletoe left-handed, after first fasting, and of the Celts plucking Selago without using an iron knife, barefoot and with the right hand through the left sleeve of a white tunic, but these are private rites, not public ceremonies. We realize that two white bulls are difficult to come by in most parts of the country now, and hard to keep until Yule. (My lease says “No pets.”) But a feast among friends and some holly sprigs and mistletoe hung about is definitely in order. The feast at Live Oak Grove will be on the evening of the twenty-first, after Yule service. Watch this space for pictures.
Yule Essay: Bards, Ogma and Ogham
A Druid Missal-Any, Yule 1985
By Emmon Bodfish
Yule begins Winter, Geimredh, season of the Bard. The File and Bards, like the troubadours who followed them, practiced their art “from Samain until summer” as in the old poem of Forgoll, the Bard, who tells King Mongan a story each night from his wise repertory. And, as Keatings explains, commenting on the Old Irish, the winter practices of the File, lodging from house to house in exchange for their songs and stories, had become such a great burden for Ireland, that a king had the idea of banishing them:
“It is by Aodh son of Ainmire that a great assembly of Drom Ceat was convened where there was a gathering of the nobles and ecclesiastics of Ireland. Aodh had three reasons to convene this assembly, the first of them being to banish the File and bards because they constituted a heavy burden and were hard to govern.”
At this time, Keatings adds, almost a third of the well-born men in Ireland belonged in some way to the Bardic class
“And from Samhain to Beltaine, they lodged at the homes of the nobles of Ireland.”
The project failed because Conchobar, to show his Druid orthodoxy and generosity, gathers up the File and Bards and maintains them for seven years, and also sends Cuchulainn to meet them. (It is not, in the light of this, accidental that we have more verse remaining about Conchobar than about any other Pre-Christian Irish king.)
The tradition continued after the Christianization. A folklorist whom the Rees quote recalled that
“Just until recently, the Irish story tellers, heritors of the Bards, also did not exercise their art during the summer. In order to feel at ease, it had to be winter and night had to have fallen.”
The Patron god of Bards and story tellers is Ogmios, Champion of Strength and Eloquence. Lucian, writing in the second century, equates him with Roman Hercules, but notes these differences. First, Ogmios is portrayed as an old man, white haired, but still powerful. The Gauls, he learned through his native acquaintance, associate eloquence with the old champion, and not with Hermes, whom they see as too young and callow. On one of the temples or art works then extant, Ogmios, he says, is pictured leading a joyful band of men, attached to him by thin chains which link their ears to the tip of his tongue, a striking visual portrait of persuasive ability. The Irish god Ogma or Oghma, is clearly the same divine persona, though Prof. MacCana feels that the name may be a borrowing instead of a genuine cognate. But the figure appears, often qualified by the title “Grainainech” of-the-Sun-like-Countenance, and the Honey-Mouthed, both in Ireland and Wales as on the Continent. He is also known as “trenfher,” champion, or literally the “heavy man.” In insular traditions he is not only the patron of eloquent speech, but the inventor of writing, in the old Irish system of Ogham letters. This is a system of varying lengths place above and below a central line. It is of uncertain origin, but clearly designed for carving on stone, or at the end of square pillars.
[Graphic of Ogham pillar]
It continued in use into the Early Middle Ages. MacCana believes it probably evolved out of an earlier set of magical symbols, perhaps some of the same ones that gave rise to the Norse Runes.
[Graphic of Branch runes]
As Ogam came into use after the Celts were exposed to the Latin alphabet, MacCana contends it may have evolved thus: “seeing the utility of the Sound=Letter system of Latin script, the Gauls may have let the magic symbol whose name contained the sound stand for that sound in all words.” Other scholars, such as Prof. Rhys, and Charles Squire, believe Ogam was the indigenous script of Ireland. They stress that it more closely resembles a binary or trinary code, akin to the bars and lines of the I Ching, than the picture writing of sound diagrams from which Mediterranean and hence all Western systems of letters evolved. Most Ogam inscriptions are found in Ireland and Scotland, where the Romans never came. (Druidism is full of these riddles.)
Being in this way the God of Writing, it may not be an accident that Oghma is one of the very few Celtic gods for whom we have written records of his worship, i.e. prayers. Two “defixiones,” inscribed tablets, were found in France on which Ogmios is beseeched to avenge the author and wreck a curse on certain individuals. In Irish sources, he is also the Champion in this sense of judge and avenger, and to him binding oaths are made. He is invoked as “the god who binds” the binding power of words and oaths, the spell-binding power of eloquence, so graphically portrayed by the thin golden chains by which he leads his listeners, in the scene described by Lucian. This ability to persuade, convince, and enchant with words was highly regarded in Celtic society, and a part of the training of Bard, Filidh, and Druid alike. LeRoux speculates that the “magic of Ogam” that Cuchulainn used in the Tain Bo Cuailnge to stop, single handed, the advance of the Connaught army, was not supernatural magic, but persuasion, or eloquent diplomacy and playing for time.
Thus Oghma is the one to invoke in negotiations, when eloquent speech and persuasive ability are needed.
Yule Essay: Mistletoe
A Druid Missal-Any, Yule 1986
By Emmon Bodfish
Yule, Winter Solstice is one of the four minor Druid High Days. It is associated with the Holly and the Mistletoe, prosperity and purification. The hanging of Mistletoe over doorways harks back to its protective function, as the All-Heal. Spirits that bring disease will not pass under it. All Mistletoe use and customs are carry overs from Pagan, most notably Druidic traditions.
Though kissing under the Mistletoe can’t be traced back further than the 17th century, it is probably much older. It reflects the herb’s Paleo-Druidic attributes of protection, fertility, and prosperity.
Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, gives us the best description of a Paleopagan Druid Ceremony, that of cutting the Mistletoe. According to Stuart Piggot, the ceremonial mistletoe must be cut from an oak tree. The time of the ritual was set by the Moon as in Pliny’s description.
“The time of the rite was the sixth day of the new moon, after preparations had been made for a feast and a sacrifice of two white bulls. A Druid in a white robe climbed the tree and cut with a golden sickle the branch of mistletoe, which was caught as it fell on a white cloak. The bulls were then sacrificed and all present ate of them.”
The golden sickle is a puzzle, as pure gold will not hold an edge sharp and tough enough to cut through the woody stem of the mistletoe. Gilded, or simply polished bronze, are more likely materials. Though Pliny was allowed to witness the ritual, he probably could not approach the Druid or examine the sickle.
Nor would he have been able to talk to a Gaulish Druid without an interpreter. Their ceremony was recorded in Roman Gaul. Gold may have been a description of color, or a quoting of hearsay. Elsewhere in his book Pliny writes of the ritual necessity of gathering the mistletoe left handed, after fasting, and of the Celts plucking Selago without using an iron knife, barefoot and with the right hand through the left sleeve of a white tunic, but these were private rites, not public ceremonies. There is no mention in them of the presence of a Druid.
Yule Essay: Motherhood
A Druid Missal-Any, Yule 1987
By Emmon Bodfish
Yule, Winter Solstice, was a minor High Day in the old Druid calendar, The festival’s association with a Mother and newborn Son is very old through-out the Eurasian cultural area. It predates Indo-European occupation of Europe, and probably included the Proto-Indo Europeans in their steppes homeland. A Goddess and a Young Year God were worshiped in Balkan Europe before 3500 B.C. and in Summeria and the Caucus even earlier, In Rome, (much later) it was the Festival of the Three Mothers, probably cognates of the extremely popular Triple mothers cult of the Celts. Mass produced, molded pipe clay votive figures of the three are found throughout Britain and Gaul.*
As deVries’s, Grenier’s, Green’s, Szabo’s and Ross’s work has shown, the mother-goddess cult, so popular in Gaul and Britain during the Pre-conquest period and extending into Romano-Celtic times, has its origin in Proto-Indo-European culture, and shares features with similar cults in some of the other Indo-European peoples. The parallel has been drawn many times with Tacitus’ description of the Teutonic Earth-goddess Nerthus who rode in procession through cities. This imagery recalls and is corroborated by Strettweg’s processional wagon with its female figure and also, later Romano Celtic Mother figures portrayed in chariots. Another parallel is suggested in Irish literary tradition in descriptions of Connaught’s Queen Medb being driven in her chariot around her camp before battle. Medb is a problematic figure, somewhere between a goddess and a heroic archetype. But it must be remembered that the “Tain Bo Chuailgne” was not written down in pagan times.
*Proving that mass-produced little religious goodies are not a modern tackiness.
Yule Essay: Alignments and New Years
A Druid Missal-Any, Yule 1988
By Emmon Bodfish
Yule, a Minor High Day in the Druid calendar, marks the Winter Solstice. This was a more important day it appears from the archeological evidence in the preceding Megalith Culture. Not only is the rising point of the sun marked in the stones of Stonehenge, but many of the Megalithic tombs are so constructed that only on Midwinter’s Day does the sun shine into the interior, usually through a round window cut in the portal stone, or along the funnel-shaped corridor of stone pillars leading up to it. The link between death, the Sun, Midwinter and an afterlife or a re-birth is a very old one, predating the Druids and even the arrival of the Indo-Europeans in Europe. In the cultures of Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, about whom we have more information than has survived about either the Megalith culture or the Druids, the celebration of the Solstice is linked with the birth of the new, young Year-God, Corn-God or Vegetation-God. (Yes, the Christians co-opted this motif. According to the tax roles the historical Jesus was probably born around May.)