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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Walburgisnacht by Any Other Name....

   Like the Irish the pagan Germans originally seem to have acknowledged only two seasons: summer and winter. In Teutonic Mythology Grimm discusses at length the way that these two halves, personified as "Herr Summer" and "Herr Winter" battle against each other with each one winning dominance over half the year (Grimm, 1888). Grimm emphasizes May Day as the beginning of summer, "Again, as summer begins with May, we have that month acting as its representative, and just as full of life and personality." (Grimm, 1888). And also discusses its importance as a holiday, "Everything goes to prove, that the approach of summer was to our forefathers a holy tide, welcomed by sacrifices, feast and dance, and largely governing and brightening the people's life." (Grimm, 1888). 
  In modern parlance the German pagan holiday is usually called Walburgisnacht or Walpurgisnacht. This name is certainly related to a saint and her saint's day* and possibly to an older pagan Goddess. The holiday is usually dated beginning on April 30th and going into May 1st, and this date is the one most widely used. In Teutonic Mythology however we see that the celebration was based on the blooming of certain flowers or the return of certain birds. This may show that originally the celebration's timing was based on environmental signs that would have varied by region, explaining why Grimm mentions May 1st but also gives no specific date and talks about some of the associated traditions being seen as early as March in southern areas. As Grimm says, "But the coming in of Summer did not happen on any fixed day of the year, it was determined by accidental signs, the opening of flowers, the arrival of birds. This was called finding Summer: 'ich hân den Sumer vunden,'" (Grimm, 1888). 
    I have never been comfortable using the name Walpurgisnacht because of the strong Christian connotations. (For the record I have the same reservations about the use of names like "hlafmas" and "candlemas" in a pagan context). Grimm tells us that "Now the arrival of Summer, of May...was kept as a holiday from of old. In the Middle Ages this was called die zît empfâhen, welcoming the season; den Sumer empfâhen [literally the summer receiving]" (Grimm, 1888). An alternative might be to call it Sommer Empfangen, or Summer Receiving, although the more eloquent English might be Summer Welcoming. As I quoted above Grimm also refers to "finding Summer"; I like this name and find it very pagan in tone so I am choosing to call this holiday Sommer Entdeckung (Summer Finding), although I'm aware that some Asatru groups use this name for the spring equinox holiday. 
    The focus of May Day is on welcoming back summer and celebrating the return of warm weather and its life affirming qualities. At this time some believe that the Wild Hunt leaves until the next winter, leaving behind a single hound called the Windhund who brings good weather, fertility and luck (Hodge, n.d.) This hound may be associated with several different goddesses including Frau Gode, Berchta, and Frikke and is offered a slice of bread with butter and honey on May Day to ensure its blessing on the home (Hodge, n.d). The night of April 30th is particularly associated with witches, who were said to gather to celebrate and in a modern context is considered a time of magic and enchantment. These witches were seen as honoring or belonging  to Holda (Grimm, 1888). Any or all of these goddesses might be honored by modern Germanic Heathens at this time. 
    There are many traditions associated with this holiday, too many for me to discuss here. We can however break the traditions down into roughly two types: those that banish winter and welcome summer, and those designed to bless or protect in the new season. Some of the first type are mentioned by Grimm and include wagon processions welcoming summer, the ritual drowning of winter personified as "death", a mock fight between two people dressed as Winter and Summer where summer prevails, and the singing of songs (Grimm, 1888). These songs may be short chants, such as "'Sommer' rein, Winter' naus!'" - summer come in, winter go out! - or may be longer (Grimm, 1888). The second type of tradition includes offerings to the spirit hound left by the Wild Hunt, burning old worn out tools, blessing bonfires which may be jumped over, the creation of May bushes - that is a small bush or decorated branch covered in yellow ribbons, flowers, and eggshells - and the gathering of flowers brought in to bless the house (Grimm, 1888; Hodge, n.d.) 
    There is a possibility that like Yule, Walburgisnacht was originally a 12 day holiday. This would be in keeping with  the amount of material that Grimm includes in his section on Summer, traditions which would be hard if not impossible to celebrate in a single day. Grimm also specifically mentions, in his section on witches: "The Witches' Excursion takes place on the first night in May... They ride up Blocksberg on the first of May, and in 12 days must dance the snow away; then Spring begins." (Grimm, 1888). This may indicate a belief that the welcoming of summer was a process of banishing winter, and only after rituals being done over the right amount of time - 12 days - would winter actually retreat and summer begin. In the German-American practice of Urglaawe the holiday includes the 12 nights of Wonnetdanz where certain frost giants fight against the thawing of the land and are repelled each night (Schreiwer, 2013). Looking at the wider scope of German practices from March to May, beginning with the holiday of Ostara and ending with Walburgisnacht (Sommer Entdeckung) we might also conclude that finding and welcoming summer is a process which begins with symbolic fertility and renewal and ends with the triumph of summer over winter.

  Its clear that this holiday was an extremely important one based on the amount of folklore associated with it. For modern Heathens there is an abundance of material to work with in creating rituals and building a set of traditions to follow. We should celebrate the return of summer with joy just as our ancestors did.
   In my next blog I will share my family's experiences celebrating this year.

References:

Grimm, J., (1888). Teutonic Mythology
Schreiwer, R., (2013) The 12 Nights of Wonnetdanz. Retrieved from  http://urglaawe.blogspot.com/2013/04/twelve-nights-of-wonnetdanz.html
Hodge, W., (n.d.) Waelburga and the Rites of May. Retrieved from http://www.friggasweb.org/walburga.html

* editing to clarify: May 1st isn't Saint Walburga's saint's day but rather the day she was canonized in the Catholic church (http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=209) which is where it is theorized the name Walburgasnacht for that date comes from. According to Hodge's 'Waelburga and the Rites of May' it is also a day associated with healing miracles of saint Walburga. Several sources theorize that Walburga may be the name of an older pagan Goddess, particularly one named Walburga Frouwa, but it is difficult to prove.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Shifting Focus


 I've talked before about the fact that I follow a spiritual path that incorporates both Irish and Norse practices, but I tend to blog mostly about the Irish. Part of the reason for that is a struggle with talking about the personal aspects of my Heathenry; the other part is that my real connection is with Germanic Heathenry not Norse, but I defaulted to Norse early on because of the difficulty finding accessible modern Germanic Heathen material. I never felt quite at home in Asatru but hesitated to try to shift to the Germanic because I knew on some level that I'd end up having to do my own reconstruction of it, similar to what I do with the Irish.
   In the last year I've been drawn more and more to exploring that end of things though, and particularly to the goddess Frau Holle/Holda, but I always managed to talk myself out of it. Now, though I've finally decided to take the plunge and I committed myself to a year focused on Germanic Heathenry, officially starting on May 1st. What this means for my spirituality is that I will still honor the Irish Gods and celebrations, but that my main focus will be on the Germanic end of things. I want to really push myself to fully connect with this and experience it, even if the process means piecing things together as I go.
  I don't want to change the style or tone of my blog and I will still include Irish and Druidic material, but I want to use the blog to share my discoveries and experiences with Germanic Heathenry as I go along. This means that where before the content was something like 90% Irish and 10% Heathen that will likely reverse for at least the next year. I'm hoping those of you who follow my blog will enjoy going along with me as I learn about the Germanic Gods, spirits, holidays, cosmology, and magic. I'll share my experiences reconstructing the path as I'm doing it, and we'll see where it takes me.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Bealtaine - Blessing the Summer In

    To the pagan Irish, Bealtaine (pronounced roughly Ball-tinn-eh) , often called Beltane by modern pagans, was one of the most sacred holidays. Also called Bealltainn in Scotland and Bealtaine or Bealtine in Ireland, this holiday is generally celebrated on May first and might also be called May Day, although some people believe in celebrating it based on environmental signs, such as the blooming of the Hawthorn. It is uncertain what the name Beltane means; some people theorize that it translates to “fires of Bel” while others favor the more likely meaning “bright fires”. 
    Beltane stood opposite Samhain on the calendar and in many ways represented opposite themes; where Samhain was a time of harvest and of the Dead, Beltane was a time of blessing and planting (McNeill, 1959) . It was on Beltane that the herds were sent out to their summer pastures, and in the old stories it was on Beltane that many important events occurred such as the Tuatha de Danann first arriving in Ireland. It is said that in ancient Ireland all fires were put out on the eve of Beltane and then the Druids would light a sacred fire at Tara which would be passed from hilltop to hilltop and home to home until all the fires were re-lit. (Wilde, 1991) Beltane is the beginning of summer and was the time that contracts were renewed, herds moved, and crops planted. For modern pagans, especially Celtic pagans, a great deal of depth can be added to the celebration of this holiday by understanding the folk traditions surrounding it. 
    The fairies were thought to be especially active and powerful on Beltane, and in some sources for the first three days of May. It was said in Ireland that it was on Beltane eve that the faeries moved from one hill to another and were most likely to steal children or cause mischief (Danaher, 1972) . Caution was needed to guard against faeries stealing the household’s luck, dairy products, or herbs, and the best protection against this was strewing primroses across the threshold (Wilde, 1991) . This belief also meant that strangers were looked on with great suspicion, lest they actually be fairies in disguise, and there were strong prohibitions against giving away or lending milk or fire on Beltane. Offerings of food might be made to appease the faeries, or else a bit of iron or Rowan would be carried as protection. (Danaher, 1972) 
    In Scotland on Beltane all of the hearth fires were extinguished and the people, along with their livestock, would gather before dawn on hilltops where bonfires had been built. The bonfires were built in two large piles so that a narrow path ran between them, and at dawn the fires would be lit (McNeill, 1959) . These Beltane bonfires were intended to bless those who passed between them, both people and animals, and were made from sacred woods, in some places oak and in others traditionally 9 different woods (McNeill, 1959) . As soon as the fire was lit the people would proceed sunwise around the hilltop three times before driving the animals three times between the bonfires to bless them; later the men would light torches made of heather or sedge and carry them around the animals to protect them from evil and ensure fertility of the herds (McNeill, 1959) . After the bonfires subsided the people would rub the ashes on their faces to bless themselves, before proceeding with living embers back to their homes to rekindle their hearth fires; such fire was said to be blessed for a full year and was not allowed to go out until the following Beltane (McNeill, 1959) . In the Shetland Islands the Beltane fires were kept burning for 3 days and people would leap through them for blessing and good health. (McNeill, 1959) 
    In Ireland up to fairly recent times, bonfires were a large public affair that occurred the night before or on the night of Beltane, although the practices are dying out today. These fires were traditionally true bonfires, or “bone-fires”, made with a mix of wood and the bones of cows and horses as well as the horns of cows (Evans, 1957) . The fires would be built in open public spaces and the people would gather, whether or not they had celebrated earlier, and drink and sing around the fire (Danaher, 1972) . It seems that originally the bonfire traditions were common in every town and village but over time slowly died out in many areas. According to the oldest stories and myths during the pagan period all the home fires would be put out and relit from a great central fire kindled by the Druids on Beltane morning. In modern practice the bonfires would be jumped over to increase a person’s fertility and show their bravery (Evans, 1957) . In earlier times, just as in Scotland, the fire would have been built in two halves and the livestock driven through, as well as the ash from the Beltane fire used to bless the fields. (Danaher, 1972) 
   In Scotland up until a hundred years ago, folk celebrations included the making of a small fire and cooking of a special food, a mix of eggs, butter, milk, and oatmeal, with every participant contributing something to the celebration and the very first of the prepared food being poured out onto the earth as an offering (McNeill, 1959) . Special cakes are prepared, and then each person would turn their back to the fire and break off pieces of the cake, while naming first a protective deity or spirit that watched over the herds and then a harmful animal that might threaten the herds, and the piece would be tossed over their shoulder into the fire. (McNeill, 1959) 
    In a different part of Scotland, boys would gather on Beltane and make a small fire and then draw lots after which one of them would have to jump three times over the fire as a symbolic sacrifice to the pagan god Bel (McNeill, 1959) . Special oat or barley cakes, called Beltane bannocks, were baked and eaten for luck and health, with a small portion given first as an offering that the person may receive abundance. (McNeill, 1959) 
   Both fire and water were used for blessing and as the bonfires were created to bless the herds and people, so too was water collected for blessing. Holy wells might be visited, with due ceremony, and the person might wash in the well or take a small amount of water home with them. In Ireland, the first water drawn from a well, called “the top of the well” or “the luck of the well’, was believed to be especially powerful for either good or bad intent (Danaher, 1972) . Another practice in both Ireland and Scotland was the collection of the dew on Beltane morning, as it was believed that this water had special healing and blessing properties. 
    In Scotland, special hollows in rocks were found, or alternately a rope made of cow hair was used to gather the dew (McNeill, 1959) . A girl might go out and gather dew-covered ivy on Beltane for luck, but it could not be touched with a steel knife or the luck would leave it (McNeill, 1959) . In Ireland the dew was collected by hand or by soaking a linen cloth on dew soaked grass and then ringing out the cloth. (Danaher, 1972) 
    The Rowan was central in many Scottish celebrations as it was believed that Rowan was the best protector against the fairies, with Rowan branches collected on the eve of Beltane and hung up around the home, or tied with red thread and hung over the door (McNeill, 1959) . In one part of Scotland a hoop was made of Rowan and then all the sheep were driven through it, while in another a Rowan twig and red thread were tied to the cows tails (McNeill, 1959) . In Ireland, the Rowan is believed to be the best of all protections against bad luck and enchantment so on May Day morning a branch of Rowan might be woven into the ceiling to protect the house and all within it for the next year (Danaher, 1972) . One ceremony noted from Laois Ireland called for the head of the family to light a candle and bless the door, hearth, and the four corners of the home, as well as each family member from oldest to youngest, and then the area around the home where a rowan branch should be placed. (Danaher, 1972) 
     In Ireland, it has been the custom for the children to gather flowers on May eve, possibly a hold over of the people once going out before dawn on May morning; these flowers were then hung up or strewn around the home for luck (Danaher, 1972) . On May Day itself, flowers were tied to the bridles of horses and the horns of cows for the same purpose (Danaher, 1972) . Flowers were also gathered and used to decorate wells, in order to bless and protect them (Evans, 1957) . In Munster, a selection of wood boughs were gathered, generally of Holly, Hazel, Elder, Rowan, and Ash, while in Munster it was Sycamore (Danaher, 1972) . In contrast however the boughs from fairy trees like Blackthorn were seen as extremely unlucky in one area but might be lucky in another, however the general belief was not to disturb the fairy trees. 
    Any herbs gathered on Beltane were believed to be especially potent. Yarrow, an herb already believed to be good for nearly anything, was seen as being ideal if gathered on Beltane (Wilde, 1991) . No herb, however, could be gathered with an iron knife because the iron would ruin any magical properties held by the plant. Plants gathered on May Day were ideally gathered at dawn with the dew still on them, as the dew itself also imparted a blessing (Wilde, 1991) . All charms and magics were most powerful on Beltane so it was also believed to be a time when witches were most active. (Danaher, 1972; Wilde 1991) 
    Another Irish custom was the preparation of a female effigy, called the “May Baby” that was bedecked with flowers and paraded around the town or village; some theorize that this is an older pagan element related to honoring a goddess (Danaher, 1972) . As the May Baby is carried around music is played and a married couple, chosen beforehand, dances in a comically sexual manner around the effigy to entertain it; this procession is believed to grant fertility to the land and the people who observe it and belief in it efficacy was so strong that married women without children were known to travel great distances to receive this blessing (Danaher, 1972) . A related practice was the May Boys, a troupe of boys or young men that traveled around singing songs like:

Summer! Summer! The milk of the heifers,
And ourselves brought the summer with us,
The yellow summer, the white daisy,
And ourselves brought the summer with us!


    A widespread Irish custom was the placement of a “May bush”, a branch or bough of a tree (sometimes a Hawthorn or Holly) that was placed by the front door for luck and decorated with yellow flowers, brightly colored ribbons, and egg shells (Danaher, 1972) . On the night of May Day candles might be lit on or around the bush and people would gather and dance around it; in Ireland in previous centuries large parties were held which included feasting and music (Danaher, 1972) . The bush itself might be left standing all month, or until the decorations began falling apart, or in some areas was burned in the nighttime bonfire. (Danaher, 1972) 
    One of the Scottish divination practices of Beltane is very similar to one seen at Samhain, where stones are chosen and marked to represent the people present and then placed in a ring around the sacred fire as it is going out – the condition of each stone the next day tells the person’s fate (McNeill, 1959) . Another practice was to go out before dawn, in silence, and gather yarrow wherever it could be found; it was gathered with the eyes shut and after being picked the person would open their eyes and what they saw would be portentous. (McNeill, 1959) 
    In Ireland divination on Beltane focused largely on the weather for the coming growing season. The direction that the wind was blowing on Beltane day would indicate whether the summer would be a good one or a bad one, and in some areas snow still visible on Beltane was seen as a very bad omen (Danaher, 1972) . Another Irish practice was to sweep the threshold clean and then lightly scatter ashes over it; in the morning a footprint coming into the home meant a marriage, while one leaving meant a death in the family in the coming year. (Wilde, 1991) 
    There is little historical evidence of any specific deity associated with Beltane, although in Scotland Bel has come to be connected to the holiday and some of its practices. It is a holiday with strong themes of blessing and fertility, so a modern practitioner could choose to honor any deity or deities that made sense with that energy. This will likely come down to personal preference and probably vary widely by group or person. 
    For modern practitioners all of this provides a wealth of possible practices to incorporate. Offerings can be made to the fairies to avoid their mischief and encourage friendly relations with the Good Neighbors; this could be done on Beltane eve or Beltane itself. If you choose not to make offerings then perhaps carrying a bit of iron or Rowan would be wise to keep the fairies from stealing your luck. In the morning dew could be gathered as well as any useful herbs that can be found. 
   A May Bush could be set up and decorated, or a live tree or bush could be planted and decorated for the same purpose. The decorations themselves could be the traditional flowers, colorful ribbons, and eggshells, or could be anything else the person imagines that fit the general theme of the holiday. If possible on Beltane night a bonfire is made and danced around or jumped; if it’s possible to make two bonfires, they could be passed between for blessing. 
   Two years ago at a public ritual I helped coordinate we were indoors so we used two candles to mimic two bonfires and processed between those while a blessing prayer was recited. In general the atmosphere of Beltane is one of celebration and merriment, so a party with music, dancing, and as much fun as possible would be entirely in line with this holiday’s history.


References:

Danaher (1972) . The Year in Ireland. Mercier Press

Evans, E., (1957) . Irish Folk Ways. Routledge and Kegan Paul

McNeill, F., (1959) . The Silver Bough, volume 2. William McLelland and Co., Glasgow

Wilde, (1991) . Irish Cures, Mystic Charms and Superstitions