Mike Nichols, ''The Sabbats of Witchcraft''

This file contains 9 seasonal articles  by Mike Nichols.  They may be freely  
distributed provided that the following conditions are met:  (1) No fee is
charged for their use and distribution  and no commercial use is made of them;
(2)  These  files  are  not  changed or edited in any way without the author's
permission;  (3)  This  notice  is  not removed.  An article may be distributed
as a separate file,  provided that this notice is repeated at the beginning of
each such file.   
These articles are periodically updated by the author; this version is current
as of 9/28/88.  Contact Mike  Nichols at the Magick Lantern BBS [(816)531-7265,
7pm. - 11am., 300 baud ONLY]  for  more recent updates, or to leave your own
comments on them.    
The Eight Sabbats of Witchcraft
        by Mike Nichols
  copyright by MicroMuse Press

<1> Halloween
<2> Yule
<3> Candlemas
<4> Lady Day
<5> May Day
<6> Midsummer
<7> Lammas
<8> Harvest Home
<9> Death of Llew: A Seasonal Interp


            ALL HALLOW'S EVE 
             by Mike Nichols 
 *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *  

    Sly does it.  Tiptoe catspaw.  Slide and creep.
    But why?  What for?  How?  Who?     When!  Where did it all begin? 
    'You don't know, do you?' asks Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud climbing out
under the pile of leaves under the  Halloween Tree.  'You don't REALLY know!'  
--Ray Bradbury                          from 'The Halloween Tree' 
 *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *  

    Samhain.  All Hallows.  All Hallow's Eve.  Hallow E'en.  Halloween.  The
most magical night of the year.  Exactly opposite Beltane on the wheel of the
year, Halloween is Beltane's dark twin.  A night of glowing jack-o-lanterns,
bobbing for apples, tricks or treats, and dressing in costume.  A night of
ghost stories and seances, tarot card readings and scrying with mirrors.  A
night of power, when the veil that separates our world from the Otherworld is
at its thinnest.  A 'spirit night', as they say in Wales.

     All Hallow's Eve is the eve of All Hallow's Day (November 1st).  And for
once, even popular tradition remembers that the Eve is more important than the
Day itself, the traditional celebration focusing on October 31st, beginning at
sundown.  And this seems only fitting for the great Celtic New Year's festival. 
Not that the holiday was Celtic only.  In fact, it is startling how many
ancient and unconnected cultures (the Egyptians and pre-Spanish Mexicans, for
example) celebrated this as a festival of the dead.  But the majority of our
modern traditions can be traced to the British Isles.

     The Celts called it Samhain, which means 'summer's end', according to
their ancient two-fold division of the year, when summer ran from Beltane to
Samhain and winter ran from Samhain to Beltane.  (Some modern Covens echo this
structure by letting the High Priest 'rule' the Coven beginning on Samhain,
with rulership returned to the High Priestess at Beltane.)  According to the
later four-fold division of the year, Samhain is seen as 'autumn's end' and the
beginning of winter.  Samhain is pronounced (depending on where you're from) as
'sow-in' (in Ireland), or 'sow-een' (in Wales), or 'sav-en' (in Scotland), or
(inevitably) 'sam-hane' (in the U.S., where we don't speak Gaelic).

     Not only is Samhain the end of autumn; it is also, more importantly, the
end of the old year and the beginning of the new.  Celtic New Year's Eve, when
the new year begins with the onset of the dark phase of the year, just as the
new day begins at sundown.  There are many representations of Celtic gods with
two faces, and it surely must have been one of them who held sway over Samhain. 
Like his Greek counterpart Janus, he would straddle the threshold, one face
turned toward the past in commemoration of those who died during the last year,
and one face gazing hopefully toward the future, mystic eyes attempting to
pierce the veil and divine what the coming year holds.  These two themes,
celebrating the dead and divining the future, are inexorably intertwined in
Samhain, as they are likely to be in any New Year's celebration.

     As a feast of the dead, it was believed the dead could, if they wished,
return to the land of the living for this one night, to celebrate with their
family, tribe, or clan.  And so the great burial mounds of Ireland (sidh
mounds) were opened up, with lighted torches lining the walls, so the dead
could find their way.  Extra places were set at the table and food set out for
any who had died that year.  And there are many stories that tell of Irish
heroes making raids on the Underworld while the gates of faery stood open,
though all must return to their appointed places by cock-crow.

     As a feast of divination, this was the night par excellence for peering
into the future.  The reason  for this has to do with the Celtic view of time. 
In a culture that uses a linear concept of time, like our modern one, New
Year's Eve is simply a milestone on a very long road that stretches in a
straight line from birth to death.  Thus, the New Year's festival is a part of
time.  The ancient Celtic view of time, however, is cyclical.  And in this
framework, New Year's Eve represents a point outside of time, when the natural
order of the universe dissolves back into primordial chaos, preparatory to re-
establishing itself in a new order.  Thus, Samhain is a night that exists
outside of time and hence it may be used to view any other point in time.  At
no other holiday is a tarot card reading, crystal reading, or tea-leaf reading
so likely to succeed.

     The Christian religion, with its emphasis on the 'historical' Christ and
his act of redemption 2000 years ago, is forced into a linear view of time,
where 'seeing the future' is an illogical proposition.  In fact, from the
Christian perspective, any attempt to do so is seen as inherently evil.  This
did not keep the medieval Church from co-opting Samhain's other motif,
commemoration of the dead.  To the Church, however, it could never be a feast
for all the dead, but only the blessed dead, all those hallowed (made holy) by
obedience to God - thus, All Hallow's, or Hallowmas, later All Saints and All

     There are so many types of divination that are traditional to Hallowstide,
it is possible to mention only a few.  Girls were told to place hazel nuts
along the front of the firegrate, each one to symbolize one of her suitors. 
She could then divine her future husband by chanting, 'If you love me, pop and
fly; if you hate me, burn and die.'  Several methods used the apple, that most
popular of Halloween fruits.  You should slice an apple through the equator (to
reveal the five-pointed star within) and then eat it by candlelight before a
mirror.  Your future spouse will then appear over your shoulder.  Or, peel an
apple, making sure the peeling comes off in one long strand, reciting, 'I pare
this apple round and round again; / My sweetheart's name to flourish on the
plain: / I fling the unbroken paring o'er my head, / My sweetheart's letter on
the ground to read.'  Or, you might set a snail to crawl through the ashes of
your hearth.  The considerate little creature will then spell out the initial
letter as it moves.

     Perhaps the most famous icon of the holiday is the jack-o-lantern. 
Various authorities attribute it to either Scottish or Irish origin.  However,
it seems clear that it was used as a lantern by people who traveled the road
this night, the scary face to frighten away spirits or faeries who might
otherwise lead one astray.  Set on porches and in windows, they cast the same
spell of protection over the household.  (The American pumpkin seems to have
forever superseded the European gourd as the jack-o-lantern of choice.) 
Bobbing for apples may well represent the remnants of a Pagan 'baptism' rite
called a 'seining', according to some writers.  The water-filled tub is a
latter-day Cauldron of Regeneration, into which the novice's head is immersed. 
The fact that the participant in this folk game was usually blindfolded with
hands tied behind the back also puts one in mind of a traditional Craft
initiation ceremony.

     The custom of dressing in costume and 'trick-or-treating' is of Celtic
origin with survivals particularly strong in Scotland.  However, there are some
important differences from the modern version.  In the first place, the custom
was not relegated to children, but was actively indulged in by adults as well. 
Also, the 'treat' which was required was often one of spirits (the liquid
variety).  This has recently been revived by college students who go
'trick-or-drinking'.  And in ancient times, the roving bands would sing
seasonal carols from house to house, making the tradition very similar to
Yuletide wassailing.  In fact, the custom known as 'caroling', now connected
exclusively with mid-winter, was once practiced at all the major holidays. 
Finally, in Scotland at least, the tradition of dressing in costume consisted
almost exclusively of cross-dressing (i.e., men dressing as women, and women as
men).  It seems as though ancient societies provided an opportunity for people
to 'try on' the role of the opposite gender for one night of the year. 
(Although in Scotland, this is admittedly less dramatic - but more confusing -
since men were in the habit of wearing skirt-like kilts anyway.  Oh well...)

     To Witches, Halloween is one of the four High Holidays, or Greater
Sabbats, or cross-quarter days.  Because it is the most important holiday of
the year, it is sometimes called 'THE Great Sabbat.'  It is an ironic fact that
the newer, self-created Covens tend to use the older name of the holiday,
Samhain, which they have discovered through modern research.  While the older
hereditary and traditional Covens often use the newer name, Halloween, which
has been handed down through oral tradition within their Coven.  (This is often
holds true for the names of the other holidays, as well.  One may often get an
indication of a Coven's antiquity by noting what names it uses for the

     With such an important holiday, Witches often hold two distinct
celebrations.  First, a large Halloween party for non-Craft friends, often held
on the previous weekend.  And second, a Coven ritual held on Halloween night
itself, late enough so as not to be interrupted by trick-or-treaters.  If the
rituals are performed properly, there is often the feeling of invisible friends
taking part in the rites.  Another date which may be utilized in planning
celebrations is the actual cross-quarter day, or Old Halloween, or Halloween
O.S. (Old Style).  This occurs when the sun has reached 15 degrees Scorpio, an
astrological 'power point' symbolized by the Eagle.  This year (1988), the date
is November 6th at 10:55 pm CST, with the celebration beginning at sunset. 
Interestingly, this date (Old Halloween) was also appropriated by the Church as
the holiday of Martinmas.

     Of all the Witchcraft holidays, Halloween is the only one that still
boasts anything near to popular celebration.  Even though it is typically
relegated to children (and the young-at-heart) and observed as an evening
affair only, many of its traditions are firmly rooted in Paganism. 
Interestingly, some schools have recently attempted to abolish Halloween
parties on the grounds that it violates the separation of state and religion. 
Speaking as a Pagan, I would be saddened by the success of this move, but as a
supporter of the concept of religion-free public education, I fear I must
concede the point.  Nonetheless, it seems only right that there SHOULD be one
night of the year when our minds are turned toward thoughts of the
supernatural.  A night when both Pagans and non-Pagans may ponder the mysteries
of the Otherworld and its inhabitants.  And if you are one of them, may all
your jack-o'lanterns burn bright on this All Hallow's Eve.


             by Mike Nichols 
    Our Christian friends are often quite surprised at how enthusiastically we
Pagans celebrate the 'Christmas' season.  Even though we prefer to use the
word 'Yule', and our celebrations may peak a few days BEFORE the 25th, we
nonetheless follow many of the traditional customs of the season:  decorated
trees, carolling, presents, Yule logs, and mistletoe.  We might even go so far
as putting up a 'Nativity set', though for us the three central characters are
likely to be interpreted as Mother Nature, Father Time, and the Baby Sun-God. 
None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who knows the true history of
the holiday, of course. 

    In fact, if truth be known, the holiday of Christmas has always been more
Pagan than Christian, with it's associations of Nordic divination, Celtic
fertility rites, and Roman Mithraism.  That is why both Martin Luther and John
Calvin abhorred it, why the Puritans refused to acknowledge it, much less
celebrate it (to them, no day of the year could be more holy than the
Sabbath), and why it was even made ILLEGAL in Boston!  The holiday was already
too closely associated with the birth of older Pagan gods and heroes.  And
many of them (like Oedipus, Theseus, Hercules, Perseus, Jason, Dionysus,
Apollo, Mithra, Horus and even Arthur) possessed a narrative of birth, death,
and resurrection that was uncomfortably close to that of Jesus.  And to make
matters worse, many of them pre-dated the Christian Savior. 

    Ultimately, of course, the holiday is rooted deeply in the cycle of the
year.  It is the Winter Solstice that is being celebrated, seed-time of the
year, the longest night and shortest day.  It is the birthday of the new Sun
King, the Son of God -- by whatever name you choose to call him.  On this
darkest of nights, the Goddess becomes the Great Mother and once again gives
birth.  And it makes perfect poetic sense that on the longest night of the
winter, 'the dark night of our souls', there springs the new spark of hope,
the Sacred Fire, the Light of the World, the Coel Coeth. 

    That is why Pagans have as much right to claim this holiday as Christians. 
Perhaps even more so, as the Christians were rather late in laying claim to
it, and tried more than once to reject it.  There had been a tradition in the
West that Mary bore the child Jesus on the twenty-fifth day, but no one could
seem to decide on the month.  Finally, in 320 C.E., the Catholic Fathers in
Rome decided to make it December, in an effort to co-opt the Mithraic
celebration of the Romans and the Yule celebrations of the Celts and Saxons. 

    There was never much pretense that the date they finally chose was
historically accurate.  Shepherds just don't 'tend their flocks by night' in
the high pastures in the dead of winter!  But if one wishes to use the New
Testament as historical evidence, this reference may point to sometime in the
spring as the time of Jesus's birth.  This is because the lambing season
occurs in the spring and that is the only time when shepherds are likely to
'watch their flocks by night' -- to make sure the lambing goes well.  Knowing
this, the Eastern half of the Church continued to reject December 25,
preferring a 'movable date' fixed by their astrologers according to the moon. 

    Thus, despite its shaky start (for over three centuries, no one knew when
Jesus was supposed to have been born!), December 25 finally began to catch on. 
By 529, it was a civic holiday, and all work or public business (except that
of cooks, bakers, or any that contributed to the delight of the holiday) was
prohibited by the Emperor Justinian.  In 563, the Council of Braga forbade
fasting on Christmas Day, and four years later the Council of Tours proclaimed
the twelve days from December 25 to Epiphany as a sacred, festive season. 
This last point is perhaps the hardest to impress upon the modern reader, who
is lucky to get a single day off work.  Christmas, in the Middle Ages, was not
a SINGLE day, but rather a period of TWELVE days, from December 25 to January
6.  The Twelve Days of Christmas, in fact.  It is certainly lamentable that
the modern world has abandoned this approach, along with the popular Twelfth
Night celebrations. 

    Of course, the Christian version of the holiday spread to many countries
no faster than Christianity itself, which means that 'Christmas' wasn't
celebrated in Ireland until the late fifth century; in England, Switzerland,
and Austria until the seventh; in Germany until the eighth; and in the Slavic
lands until the ninth and tenth.  Not that these countries lacked their own
mid-winter celebrations of Yuletide.  Long before the world had heard of
Jesus, Pagans had been observing the season by bringing in the Yule log,
wishing on it, and lighting it from the remains of last year's log.  Riddles
were posed and answered, magic and rituals were practiced, wild boars were
sacrificed and consumed along with large quantities of liquor, corn dollies
were carried from house to house while carolling, fertility rites were
practiced (girls standing under a sprig of mistletoe were subject to a bit
more than a kiss), and divinations were cast for the coming Spring.  Many of
these Pagan customs, in an appropriately watered-down form, have entered the
mainstream of Christian celebration, though most celebrants do not realize (or
do not mention it, if they do) their origins. 

    For modern Witches, Yule (from the Anglo-Saxon 'Yula', meaning 'wheel' of
the year) is usually celebrated on the actual Winter Solstice, which may vary
by a few days, though it usually occurs on or around December 21st.  It is a
Lesser Sabbat or Lower Holiday in the modern Pagan calendar, one of the four
quarter-days of the year, but a very important one.  This year (1988) it
occurs on December 21st at 9:28 am CST.  Pagan customs are still
enthusiastically followed.  Once, the Yule log had been the center of the
celebration.  It was lighted on the eve of the solstice (it should light on
the first try) and must be kept burning for twelve hours, for good luck.  It
should be made of ash.  Later, the Yule log was replaced by the Yule tree but,
instead of burning it, burning candles were placed on it.  In Christianity,
Protestants might claim that Martin Luther invented the custom, and Catholics
might grant St. Boniface the honor, but the custom can demonstrably be traced
back through the Roman Saturnalia all the way to ancient Egypt.  Needless to
say, such a tree should be cut down rather than purchased, and should be
disposed of by burning, the proper way to dispatch any sacred object. 

    Along with the evergreen, the holly and the ivy and the mistletoe were
important plants of the season,  all symbolizing fertility and everlasting
life.   Mistletoe was especially venerated by the Celtic Druids, who cut it
with a golden sickle on the sixth night of the moon, and believed it to be an
aphrodisiac.  (Magically -- not medicinally!  It's highly toxic!)  But
aphrodisiacs must have been the smallest part of the Yuletide menu in ancient
times, as contemporary reports indicate that the tables fairly creaked under
the strain of every type of good food.  And drink!  The most popular of which
was the 'wassail cup' deriving its name from the Anglo-Saxon term 'waes hael'
(be whole or hale). 

    Medieval Christmas folklore seems endless:  that animals will all kneel
down as the Holy Night arrives, that bees hum the '100th psalm' on Christmas
Eve, that a windy Christmas will bring good luck, that a person born on
Christmas Day can see the Little People, that a cricket on the hearth brings
good luck, that if one opens all the doors of the house at midnight all the
evil spirits will depart, that you will have one lucky month for each
Christmas pudding you sample, that the tree must be taken down by Twelfth
Night or bad luck is sure to follow, that 'if Christmas on a Sunday be, a
windy winter we shall see', that 'hours of sun on Christmas Day, so many
frosts in the month of May', that one can use the Twelve Days of Christmas to
predict the weather for each of the twelve months of the coming year, and so

    Remembering that most Christmas customs are ultimately based upon older
Pagan customs, it only remains for modern Pagans to reclaim their lost
traditions.  In doing so, we can share many common customs with our Christian
friends, albeit with a slightly different interpretation.  And thus we all
share in the beauty of this most magical of seasons, when the Mother Goddess
once again gives birth to the baby Sun-God and sets the wheel in motion again. 
To conclude with a long-overdue paraphrase, 'Goddess bless us, every one!' 


 C A N D L E M A S:  The Light Returns 
            by Mike Nichols 

    It seems quite impossible that the holiday of Candlemas should be
considered the beginning of Spring.  Here in the Heartland, February 2nd may
see a blanket of snow mantling the Mother.  Or, if the snows have gone, you may
be sure the days are filled with drizzle, slush, and steel-grey skies -- the
dreariest weather of the year.  In short, the perfect time for a Pagan Festival
of Lights.  And as for Spring, although this may seem a tenuous beginning, all
the little buds, flowers and leaves will have arrived on schedule before Spring
runs its course to Beltane. 

    'Candlemas' is the Christianized name for the holiday, of course.  The
older Pagan names were Imbolc and Oimelc.  'Imbolc' means, literally, 'in the
belly' (of the Mother).  For in the womb of Mother Earth, hidden from our
mundane sight but sensed by a keener vision, there are stirrings.  The seed
that was planted in her womb at the solstice is quickening and the new year
grows.  'Oimelc' means 'milk of ewes', for it is also lambing season. 

    The holiday is also called 'Brigit's Day', in honor of the great Irish
Goddess Brigit.  At her shrine, the ancient Irish capitol of Kildare, a group
of 19 priestesses (no men allowed) kept a perpetual flame burning in her honor. 
She was considered a goddess of fire, patroness of smithcraft, poetry and
healing (especially the healing touch of midwifery).  This tripartite symbolism
was occasionally expressed by saying that Brigit had two sisters, also named
Brigit.  (Incidentally, another form of the name Brigit is Bride, and it is
thus She bestows her special patronage on any woman about to be married or
handfasted, the woman being called 'bride' in her honor.) 

    The Roman Catholic Church could not very easily call the Great Goddess of
Ireland a demon, so they canonized her instead.  Henceforth, she would be
'Saint' Brigit, patron SAINT of smithcraft, poetry, and healing.  They
'explained' this by telling the Irish peasants that Brigit was 'really' an
early Christian missionary sent to the Emerald Isle, and that the miracles she
performed there 'misled' the common people into believing that she was a
goddess.  For some reason, the Irish swallowed this.  (There is no limit to
what the Irish imagination can convince itself of.  For example, they also came
to believe that Brigit was the 'foster-mother' of Jesus, giving no thought to
the implausibility of Jesus having spent his boyhood in Ireland!) 

    Brigit's holiday was chiefly marked by the kindling of sacred fires, since
she symbolized the fire of birth and healing, the fire of the forge, and the
fire of poetic inspiration.  Bonfires were lighted on the beacon tors, and
chandlers celebrated their special holiday.  The Roman Church was quick to
confiscate this symbolism as well, using 'Candlemas' as the day to bless all
the church candles that would be used for the coming liturgical year. 
(Catholics will be reminded that the following day, St. Blaise's Day, is
remembered for using the newly-blessed candles to bless the throats of
parishioners, keeping them from colds, flu, sore throats, etc.) 

    The Catholic Church, never one to refrain from piling holiday upon holiday,
also called it the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  (It
is surprising how many of the old Pagan holidays were converted to Maryan
Feasts.)  The symbol of the Purification may seem a little obscure to modern
readers, but it has to do with the old custom of 'churching women'.  It was
believed that women were impure for six weeks after giving birth.  And since
Mary gave birth at the winter solstice, she wouldn't be purified until February
2nd.  In Pagan symbolism, this might be re-translated as when the Great Mother
once again becomes the Young Maiden Goddess. 

    Today, this holiday is chiefly connected to weather lore.  Even our
American folk-calendar keeps the tradition of 'Groundhog's Day', a day to
predict the coming weather, telling us that if the Groundhog sees his shadow,
there will be 'six more weeks' of bad weather (i.e., until the next old
holiday, Lady Day).  This custom is ancient.  An old British rhyme tells us
that 'If Candlemas Day be bright and clear, there'll be two winters in the
year.'  Actually, all of the cross-quarter days can be used as 'inverse'
weather predictors, whereas the quarter-days are used as 'direct' weather

    Like the other High Holidays or Great Sabbats of the Witches' year,
Candlemas is sometimes celebrated on it's alternate date, astrologically
determined by the sun's reaching 15-degrees Aquarius, or Candlemas Old Style
(in 1988, February 3rd, at 9:03 am CST).  Another holiday that gets mixed up in
this is Valentine's Day.  Ozark folklorist Vance Randolf makes this quite clear
by noting that the old-timers used to celebrate Groundhog's Day on February
14th.  This same displacement is evident in Eastern Orthodox Christianity as
well.  Their habit of celebrating the birth of Jesus on January 6th, with a
similar post-dated shift in the six-week period that follows it, puts the Feast
of the Purification of Mary on February 14th.  It is amazing to think that the
same confusion and lateral displacement of one of the old folk holidays can be
seen from the Russian steppes to the Ozark hills, but such seems to be the

    Incidentally, there is speculation among linguistic scholars that the vary
name of 'Valentine' has Pagan origins.  It seems that it was customary for
French peasants of the Middle Ages to pronounce a 'g' as a 'v'.  Consequently,
the original term may have been the French 'galantine', which yields the
English word 'gallant'.  The word originally refers to a dashing young man
known for his 'affaires d'amour', a true galaunt.  The usual associations of
V(G)alantine's Day make much more sense in this light than their vague
connection to a legendary 'St. Valentine' can produce.  Indeed, the Church has
always found it rather difficult to explain this nebulous saint's connection to
the secular pleasures of flirtation and courtly love. 

    For modern Witches, Candlemas O.S. may then be seen as the Pagan version of
Valentine's Day, with a de-emphasis of 'hearts and flowers' and an appropriate
re-emphasis of Pagan carnal frivolity.  This also re-aligns the holiday with
the ancient Roman Lupercalia, a fertility festival held at this time, in which
the priests of Pan ran through the streets of Rome whacking young women with
goatskin thongs to make them fertile.  The women seemed to enjoy the attention
and often stripped in order to afford better targets. 

    One of the nicest folk-customs still practiced in many countries, and
especially by Witches in the British Isles and parts of the U.S., is to place a
lighted candle in each and every window of the house, beginning at sundown on
Candlemas Eve (February 1st), allowing them to continue burning until sunrise. 
Make sure that such candles are well seated against tipping and guarded from
nearby curtains, etc.  What a cheery sight it is on this cold, bleak and dreary
night to see house after house with candle-lit windows!  And, of course, if you
are your Coven's chandler, or if you just happen to like making candles,
Candlemas Day is THE day for doing it.  Some Covens hold candle-making parties
and try to make and bless all the candles they'll be using for the whole year
on this day. 
    Other customs of the holiday include weaving 'Brigit's crosses' from straw
or wheat to hang around the house for protection, performing rites of spiritual
cleansing and purification, making 'Brigit's beds' to ensure fertility of mind
and spirit (and body, if desired), and making Crowns of Light (i.e. of candles)
for the High Priestess to wear for the Candlemas Circle, similar to those worn
on St. Lucy's Day in Scandinavian countries.  All in all, this Pagan Festival
of Lights, sacred to the young Maiden Goddess, is one of the most beautiful and
poetic of the year. 


 L A D Y    D A Y:  The Vernal Equinox 
            by Mike Nichols 
    Now comes the Vernal Equinox, and the season of Spring reaches it's apex,
halfway through its journey from Candlemas to Beltane.  Once again, night and
day stand in perfect balance, with the powers of light on the ascendancy.  The
god of light now wins a victory over his twin, the god of darkness.  In the
Mabinogion myth reconstruction which I have proposed, this is the day on which
the restored Llew takes his vengeance on Goronwy by piercing him with the
sunlight spear.  For Llew was restored/reborn at the Winter Solstice and is now
well/old enough to vanquish his rival/twin and mate with his lover/mother.  And
the great Mother Goddess, who has returned to her Virgin aspect at Candlemas,
welcomes the young sun god's embraces and conceives a child.  The child will be
born nine months from now, at the next Winter Solstice.  And so the cycle
closes at last.

    We think that the customs surrounding the celebration of the spring equinox
were imported from Mediterranean lands, although there can be no doubt that the
first inhabitants of the British Isles observed it, as evidence from megalithic
sites shows.  But it was certainly more popular to the south, where people
celebrated the holiday as New Year's Day, and claimed it as the first day of
the first sign of the Zodiac, Aries.  However you look at it, it is certainly a
time of new beginnings, as a simple glance at Nature will prove.

    In the Roman Catholic Church, there are two holidays which get mixed up
with the Vernal Equinox.  The first, occurring on the fixed calendar day of
March 25th in the old liturgical calendar, is called the Feast of the
Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (or B.V.M., as she was typically
abbreviated in Catholic Missals).  'Annunciation' means an announcement.  This
is the day that the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was 'in the family
way'.  Naturally, this had to be announced since Mary, being still a virgin,
would have no other means of knowing it.  (Quit scoffing, O ye of little
faith!)  Why did the Church pick the Vernal Equinox for the commemoration of
this event?  Because it was necessary to have Mary conceive the child Jesus a
full nine months before his birth at the Winter Solstice (i.e., Christmas,
celebrated on the fixed calendar date of December 25).  Mary's pregnancy would
take the natural nine months to complete, even if the conception was a bit

    As mentioned before, the older Pagan equivalent of this scene focuses on
the joyous process of natural conception, when the young virgin Goddess (in
this case, 'virgin' in the original sense of meaning 'unmarried') mates with
the young solar God, who has just displaced his rival.  This is probably not
their first mating, however.  In the mythical sense, the couple may have been
lovers since Candlemas, when the young God reached puberty.  But the young
Goddess was recently a mother (at the Winter Solstice) and is probably still
nursing her new child.  Therefore, conception is naturally delayed for six
weeks or so and, despite earlier matings with the God, She does not conceive
until (surprise!) the Vernal Equinox.  This may also be their Hand-fasting, a
sacred marriage between God and Goddess called a Hierogamy, the ultimate Great
Rite.  Probably the nicest study of this theme occurs in M. Esther Harding's
book, 'Woman's Mysteries'.  Probably the nicest description of it occurs in M.
Z. Bradley's 'Mists of Avalon', in the scene where Morgan and Arthur assume the
sacred roles.  (Bradley follows the British custom of transferring the episode
to Beltane, when the climate is more suited to its outdoor celebration.)

    The other Christian holiday which gets mixed up in this is Easter.  Easter,
too, celebrates the victory of a god of light (Jesus) over darkness (death), so
it makes sense to place it at this season.  Ironically, the name 'Easter' was
taken from the name of a Teutonic lunar Goddess, Eostre (from whence we also
get the name of the female hormone, estrogen).  Her chief symbols were the
bunny (both for fertility and because her worshipers saw a hare in the full
moon) and the egg (symbolic of the cosmic egg of creation), images which
Christians have been hard pressed to explain.  Her holiday, the Eostara, was
held on the Vernal Equinox Full Moon.  Of course, the Church doesn't celebrate
full moons, even if they do calculate by them, so they planted their Easter on
the following Sunday.  Thus, Easter is always the first Sunday, after the first
Full Moon, after the Vernal Equinox.  If you've ever wondered why Easter moved
all around the calendar, now you know.  (By the way, the Catholic Church was so
adamant about NOT incorporating lunar Goddess symbolism that they added a
further calculation: if Easter Sunday were to fall on the Full Moon itself,
then Easter was postponed to the following Sunday instead.)

    Incidentally, this raises another point:  recently, some Pagan traditions
began referring to the Vernal Equinox as Eostara.  Historically, this is
incorrect.  Eostara is a lunar holiday, honoring a lunar Goddess, at the Vernal
Full Moon.  Hence, the name 'Eostara' is best reserved to the nearest Esbat,
rather than the Sabbat itself.  How this happened is difficult to say. 
However, it is notable that some of the same groups misappropriated the term
'Lady Day' for Beltane, which left no good folk name for the Equinox.  Thus,
Eostara was misappropriated for it, completing a chain-reaction of
displacement.  Needless to say, the old and accepted folk name for the Vernal
Equinox is 'Lady Day'.  Christians sometimes insist that the title is in honor
of Mary and her Annunciation, but Pagans will smile knowingly.

    Another mythological motif which must surely arrest our attention at this
time of year is that of the descent of the God or Goddess into the Underworld. 
Perhaps we see this most clearly in the Christian tradition.  Beginning with
his death on the cross on Good Friday, it is said that Jesus 'descended into
hell' for the three days that his body lay entombed.  But on the third day
(that is, Easter Sunday), his body and soul rejoined, he arose from the dead
and ascended into heaven.   By a strange 'coincidence',  most ancient Pagan
religions speak of the Goddess descending into the Underworld, also for a
period of three days.

    Why three days?  If we remember that we are here dealing with the lunar
aspect of the Goddess, the reason should be obvious.  As the text of one Book
of Shadows gives it, '...as the moon waxes and wanes, and walks three nights in
darkness, so the Goddess once spent three nights in the Kingdom of Death.'  In
our modern world, alienated as it is from nature, we tend to mark the time of
the New Moon (when no moon is visible) as a single date on a calendar.  We tend
to forget that the moon is also hidden from our view on the day before and the
day after our calendar date.  But this did not go unnoticed by our ancestors,
who always speak of the Goddess's sojourn into the land of Death as lasting for
three days.  Is it any wonder then, that we celebrate the next Full Moon (the
Eostara) as the return of the Goddess from chthonic regions?

    Naturally, this is the season to celebrate the victory of life over death,
as any nature-lover will affirm.  And the Christian religion was not misguided
by celebrating Christ's victory over death at this same season.  Nor is Christ
the only solar hero to journey into the underworld.  King Arthur, for example,
does the same thing when he sets sail in his magical ship, Prydwen, to bring
back precious gifts (i.e. the gifts of life) from the Land of the Dead, as we
are told in the 'Mabinogi'.  Welsh triads allude to Gwydion and Amaethon doing
much the same thing.  In fact, this theme is so universal that mythologists
refer to it by a common phrase, 'the harrowing of hell'.

    However, one might conjecture that the descent into hell, or the land of
the dead, was originally accomplished, not by a solar male deity, but by a
lunar female deity.  It is Nature Herself who, in Spring, returns from the
Underworld with her gift of abundant life.  Solar heroes may have laid claim to
this theme much later.  The very fact that we are dealing with a three-day
period of absence should tell us we are dealing with a lunar, not solar, theme. 
(Although one must make exception for those occasional MALE lunar deities, such
as the Assyrian god, Sin.)  At any rate, one of the nicest modern renditions of
the harrowing of hell appears in many Books of Shadows as 'The Descent of the
Goddess'.  Lady Day may be especially appropriate for the celebration of this
theme, whether by storytelling, reading, or dramatic re-enactment.

     For modern Witches, Lady Day is one of the Lesser Sabbats or Low Holidays
of the year, one of the four quarter-days.  And what date will Witches choose
to celebrate?  They may choose the traditional folk 'fixed' date of March 25th,
starting on its Eve.  Or they may choose the actual equinox point, when the Sun
crosses the Equator and enters the astrological sign of Aries.  This year
(1988), that will occur at 3:39 am CST on March 20th.

    A Celebration of   M A Y   D A Y  
            by Mike Nichols  
  *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *  
'Perhaps its just as well that you  
won't be here...to be offended by the  
sight of our May Day celebrations.'  
       --Lord Summerisle to Sgt. Howie  
         from 'The Wicker Man'  
  *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *  
    There are four great festivals of the Pagan Celtic year and the modern
Witch's calendar, as well.  The two greatest of these are Halloween (the
beginning of winter) and May Day (the beginning of summer).  Being opposite
each other on the wheel of the year, they separate the year into halves. 
Halloween (also called Samhain) is the Celtic New Year and is generally
considered the more important of the two, though May Day runs a close second. 
Indeed, in some areas -- notably Wales -- it is considered the great holiday. 
     May Day ushers in the fifth month of the modern calendar year, the month
of May.  This month is named in honor of the goddess Maia, originally a Greek
mountain nymph, later identified as the most beautiful of the Seven Sisters,
the Pleiades.  By Zeus, she is also the mother of Hermes, god of magic.  Maia's
parents were Atlas and Pleione, a sea nymph.  

     The old Celtic name for May Day is Beltane (in its most popular Anglicized
form), which is derived from the Irish Gaelic 'Bealtaine' or the Scottish
Gaelic 'Bealtuinn', meaning 'Bel-fire', the fire of the Celtic god of light
(Bel, Beli or Belinus).  He, in turn, may be traced to the Middle Eastern god
     Other names for May Day include:  Cetsamhain ('opposite Samhain'),
Walpurgisnacht (in Germany), and Roodmas (the medieval Church's name).  This
last came from Church Fathers who were hoping to shift the common people's
allegiance from the Maypole (Pagan lingham - symbol of life) to the Holy Rood
(the Cross - Roman instrument of death). 
     Incidentally, there is no historical justification for calling May 1st
'Lady Day'.  For hundreds of years, that title has been proper to the Vernal
Equinox (approx. March 21st), another holiday sacred to the Great Goddess.  The
nontraditional use of 'Lady Day' for May 1st is quite recent (within the last
15 years), and seems to be confined to America, where it has gained widespread
acceptance among certain segments of the Craft population.  This rather
startling departure from tradition would seem to indicate an unfamiliarity with
European calendar customs, as well as a lax attitude toward scholarship among
too many Pagans.  A simple glance at a dictionary ('Webster's 3rd' or O.E.D.),
encyclopedia ('Benet's'), or standard mythology reference (Jobe's 'Dictionary
of Mythology, Folklore & Symbols') would confirm the correct date for Lady Day
as the Vernal Equinox. 
     By Celtic reckoning, the actual Beltane celebration begins on sundown of
the preceding day, April 30, because the Celts always figured their days from
sundown to sundown.  And sundown was the proper time for Druids to kindle the
great Bel-fires on the tops of the nearest beacon hill (such as Tara Hill, Co.
Meath, in Ireland).  These 'need-fires' had healing properties, and sky-clad
Witches would jump through the flames to ensure protection. 
   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    * 
     Sgt. Howie (shocked):  'But they are naked!' 
     Lord Summerisle:  'Naturally.  It's much too dangerous 
to jump through the fire with your clothes on!' 
   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    * 
     Frequently, cattle would be driven between two such bon-fires (oak wood
was the favorite fuel for them) and, on the morrow, they would be taken to
their summer pastures. 
     Other May Day customs include:  walking the circuit of one's property
('beating the bounds'), repairing fences and boundary markers, processions of
chimney-sweeps and milk maids, archery tournaments, morris dances, sword
dances, feasting, music, drinking, and maidens bathing their faces in the dew
of May morning to retain their youthful beauty. 
     In the words of Witchcraft writers Janet and Stewart Farrar, the Beltane
celebration was principly a time of '...unashamed human sexuality and
fertility.'  Such associations include the obvious phallic symbolism of the
Maypole and riding the hobby horse.  Even a seemingly innocent children's
nursery rhyme, 'Ride a cock horse to Banburry Cross...' retains such memories. 
And the next line '...to see a fine Lady on a white horse' is a reference to
the annual ride of 'Lady Godiva' though Coventry.  Every year for nearly three
centuries, a sky-clad village maiden (elected Queen of the May) enacted this
Pagan rite, until the Puritans put an end to the custom.  

     The Puritans, in fact, reacted with pious horror to most of the May Day
rites, even making Maypoles illegal in 1644.  They especially attempted to
suppress the 'greenwood marriages' of young men and women who spent the entire
night in the forest, staying out to greet the May sunrise, and bringing back
boughs of flowers and garlands to decorate the village the next morning.  One
angry Puritan wrote that men 'doe use commonly to runne into woodes in the
night time, amongst maidens, to set bowes, in so muche, as I have hearde of
tenne maidens whiche went to set May, and nine of them came home with childe.' 
And another Puritan complained that, of the girls who go into the woods, 'not
the least one of them comes home again a virgin.' 
     Long after the Christian form of marriage (with its insistence on sexual
monogamy) had replaced the older Pagan handfasting, the rules of strict
fidelity were always relaxed for the May Eve rites.  Names such as Robin Hood,
Maid Marian, and Little John played an important part in May Day folklore,
often used as titles for the dramatis personae of the celebrations.  And modern
surnames such as Robinson, Hodson, Johnson, and Godkin may attest to some
distant May Eve spent in the woods. 
 These wildwood antics have inspired writers such as Kipling: 
     Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight, 
     Or he would call it a sin; 
     But we have been out in the woods all night, 
     A-conjuring Summer in! 
 And Lerner and Lowe: 
     It's May!  It's May! 
     The lusty month of May!... 
     Those dreary vows that ev'ryone takes, 
     Ev'ryone breaks. 
     Ev'ryone makes divine mistakes! 
     The lusty month of May! 
     It is certainly no accident that Queen Guinevere's 'abduction' by
Meliagrance occurs on May 1st when she and the court have gone a-Maying, or
that the usually efficient Queen's Guard, on this occasion, rode unarmed.  

     Some of these customs seem virtually identical to the old Roman feast of
flowers, the Floriala, three days of unrestrained sexuality which began at
sundown April 28th and reached a crescendo on May 1st. 
     There are other, even older, associations with May 1st in Celtic
mythology.  According to the ancient Irish 'Book of Invasions', the first
settler of Ireland, Partholan, arrived on May 1st; and it was on May 1st that
the plague came which destroyed his people.  Years later, the Tuatha De Danann
were conquered by the Milesians on May Day.  In Welsh myth, the perennial
battle between Gwythur and Gwyn for the love of Creudylad took place each May
Day; and it was on May Eve that Teirnyon lost his colts and found Pryderi.  May
Eve was also the occasion of a fearful scream that was heard each year
throughout Wales, one of the three curses of the Coranians lifted by the skill
of Lludd and Llevelys. 
     By the way, due to various calendrical changes down through the centuries,
the traditional date of Beltane is not the same as its astrological date.  This
date, like all astronomically determined dates, may vary by a day or two
depending on the year.  However, it may be calculated easily enough by
determining the date on which the sun is at 15 degrees Taurus (usually around
May 5th).  British Witches often refer to this date as Old Beltane, and
folklorists call it Beltane O.S. ('Old Style').  Some Covens prefer to
celebrate on the old date and, at the very least, it gives one options.  If a
Coven is operating on 'Pagan Standard Time' and misses May 1st altogether, it
can still throw a viable Beltane bash as long as it's before May 5th.  This may
also be a consideration for Covens that need to organize activities around the
     This date has long been considered a 'power point' of the Zodiac, and is
symbolized by the Bull, one of the 'tetramorph' figures featured on the Tarot
cards, the World and the Wheel of Fortune.  (The other three symbols are the
Lion, the Eagle, and the Spirit.)  Astrologers know these four figures as the
symbols of the four 'fixed' signs of the Zodiac (Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and
Aquarius), and these naturally align with the four Great Sabbats of Witchcraft. 
Christians have adopted the same iconography to represent the four

     But for most, it is May 1st that is the great holiday of flowers,
Maypoles, and greenwood frivolity.  It is no wonder that, as recently as 1977,
Ian Anderson could pen the following lyrics for Jethro Tull: 
     For the May Day is the great day, 
     Sung along the old straight track. 
     And those who ancient lines did ley 
     Will heed this song that calls them back. 

            by Mike Nichols 
  *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    * 
   The young maid stole through the cottage door, 
   And blushed as she sought the Plant of pow'r;-- 
   'Thou silver glow-worm, O lend me thy light, 
   I must gather the mystic St. John's wort tonight, 
   The wonderful herb, whose leaf will decide 
   If the coming year shall make me a bride. 
  *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    * 
    In addition to the four great festivals of the Pagan Celtic year, there are
four lesser holidays as well:  the two solstices, and the two equinoxes.  In
folklore, these are referred to as the four 'quarter-days' of the year, and
modern Witches call them the four 'Lesser Sabbats', or the four 'Low Holidays'.
The Summer Solstice is one of them.

     Technically, a solstice is an astronomical point and, due to the
procession to the equinox, the date may vary by a few days depending on the
year.  The summer solstice occurs when the sun reaches the Tropic of Cancer,
and we experience the longest day and the shortest night of the year. 
Astrologers know this as the date on which the sun enters the sign of Cancer. 
This year (1988) it will occur at 10:57 pm CDT on June 20th.

     However, since most European peasants were not accomplished at reading an
ephemeris or did not live close enough to Salisbury Plain to trot over to
Stonehenge and sight down its main avenue, they celebrated the event on a fixed
calendar date, June 24th.  The slight forward displacement of the traditional
date is the result of multitudinous calendrical changes down through the ages. 
It is analogous to the winter solstice celebration, which is astronomically on
or about December 21st, but is celebrated on the traditional date of December
25th, Yule, later adopted by the Christians.

     Again, it must be remembered that the Celts reckoned their days from
sundown to sundown, so the June 24th festivities actually begin on the previous
sundown (our June 23rd).  This was Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Eve.  Which
brings up another point:  our modern calendars are quite misguided in
suggesting that 'summer begins' on the solstice.  According to the old folk
calendar, summer BEGINS on May Day and ends on Lammas (August 1st), with the
summer solstice, midway between the two, marking MID-summer.  This makes more
logical sense than suggesting that summer begins on the day when the sun's
power begins to wane and the days grow shorter.

     Although our Pagan ancestors probably preferred June 24th (and indeed most
European folk festivals today use this date), the sensibility of modern Witches
seems to prefer the actual solstice point, beginning the celebration on its
eve, or the sunset immediately preceding the solstice point.  Again, it gives
modern Pagans a range of dates to choose from with, hopefully, a weekend
embedded in it.

     Just as the Pagan mid-winter celebration of Yule was adopted by Christians
as Christmas (December 25th), so too the Pagan mid-summer celebration was
adopted by them as the feast of John the Baptist (June 24th).  Occurring 180
degrees apart on the wheel of the year, the mid-winter celebration commemorates
the birth of Jesus, while the mid-summer celebration commemorates the birth of
John, the prophet who was born six months before Jesus in order to announce his

     Although modern Witches often refer to the holiday by the rather generic
name of Midsummer's Eve, it is more probable that our Pagan ancestors of a few
hundred years ago actually used the Christian name for the holiday, St. John's
Eve.  This is evident from the wealth of folklore that surrounds the summer
solstice (i.e. that it is a night especially sacred to the faerie folk) but
which is inevitably ascribed to 'St. John's Eve', with no mention of the sun's
position.  It could also be argued that a Coven's claim to antiquity might be
judged by what name it gives the holidays.  (Incidentally, the name 'Litha' for
the holiday is a modern usage, possibly based on a Saxon word that means the
opposite of Yule.  Still, there is little historical justification for its use
in this context.)  But weren't our Pagan ancestors offended by the use of the
name of a Christian saint for a pre-Christian holiday?

     Well, to begin with, their theological sensibilities may not have been as
finely honed as our own.  But secondly and more importantly, St. John himself
was often seen as a rather Pagan figure.  He was, after all, called 'the Oak
King'.  His connection to the wilderness (from whence 'the voice cried out')
was often emphasized by the rustic nature of his shrines.  Many statues show
him as a horned figure (as is also the case with Moses).  Christian
iconographers mumble embarrassed explanations about 'horns of light', while
modern Pagans giggle and happily refer to such statues as 'Pan the Baptist'. 
And to clench matters, many depictions of John actually show him with the lower
torso of a satyr, cloven hooves and all!  Obviously, this kind of John the
Baptist is more properly a Jack in the Green!  Also obvious is that behind the
medieval conception of St. John lies a distant, shadowy Pagan deity, perhaps
the archetypal Wild Man of the Wood, whose face stares down at us through the
foliate masks that adorn so much church architecture.  Thus medieval Pagans may
have had fewer problems adapting than we might suppose.

     In England, it was the ancient custom on St. John's Eve to light large
bonfires after sundown, which served the double purpose of providing light to
the revelers and warding off evil spirits.  This was known as 'setting the
watch'.  People often jumped through the fires for good luck.  In addition to
these fires, the streets were lined with lanterns, and people carried cressets
(pivoted lanterns atop poles) as they wandered from one bonfire to another. 
These wandering, garland-bedecked bands were called a 'marching watch'.  Often
they were attended by morris dancers, and traditional players dressed as a
unicorn, a dragon, and six hobby-horse riders.  Just as May Day was a time to
renew the boundary on one's own property, so Midsummer's Eve was a time to ward
the boundary of the city.

     Customs surrounding St. John's Eve are many and varied.  At the very
least, most young folk plan to stay up throughout the whole of this shortest
night.  Certain courageous souls might spend the night keeping watch in the
center of a circle of standing stones.  To do so would certainly result in
either death, madness, or (hopefully) the power of inspiration to become a
great poet or bard.  (This is, by the way, identical to certain incidents in
the first branch of the 'Mabinogion'.)  This was also the night when the
serpents of the island would roll themselves into a hissing, writhing ball in
order to engender the 'glain', also called the 'serpent's egg', 'snake stone',
or 'Druid's egg'.  Anyone in possession of this hard glass bubble would wield
incredible magical powers.  Even Merlyn himself (accompanied by his black dog)
went in search of it, according to one ancient Welsh story.

     Snakes were not the only creatures active on Midsummer's Eve.  According
to British faery lore, this night was second only to Halloween for its
importance to the wee folk, who especially enjoyed a ridling on such a fine
summer's night.  In order to see them, you had only to gather fern seed at the
stroke of midnight and rub it onto your eyelids.  But be sure to carry a little
bit of rue in your pocket, or you might well be 'pixie-led'.  Or, failing the
rue, you might simply turn your jacket inside-out, which should keep you from
harm's way.  But if even this fails, you must seek out one of the 'ley lines',
the old straight tracks, and stay upon it to your destination.  This will keep
you safe from any malevolent power, as will crossing a stream of 'living'
(running) water.

     Other customs included decking the house (especially over the front door)
with birch, fennel, St. John's wort, orpin, and white lilies.  Five plants were
thought to have special magical properties on this night:  rue, roses, St.
John's wort, vervain and trefoil.  Indeed, Midsummer's Eve in Spain is called
the 'Night of the Verbena (Vervain)'.  St. John's wort was especially honored
by young maidens who picked it in the hopes of divining a future lover.

   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

          And the glow-worm came 
         With its silvery flame,
         And sparkled and shone 
         Through the night of St. John, 
    And soon has the young maid her love-knot tied.

   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

     There are also many mythical associations with the summer solstice, not
the least of which concerns the seasonal life of the God of the sun.  Inasmuch
as I believe that I have recently discovered certain associations and
correspondences not hitherto realized, I have elected to treat this subject in
some depth in another essay.  Suffice it to say here, that I disagree with the
generally accepted idea that the Sun-God meets his death at the summer
solstice.  I believe there is good reason to see the Sun-God at his zenith --
his peak of power -- on this day, and that his death at the hands of his rival
would not occur for another quarter of a year.  Material drawn from the Welsh
mythos seems to support this thesis.  In Irish mythology, Midsummer is the
occasion of the first battle between the Fir Bolgs and the Tuatha De Danaan.

     Altogether, Midsummer is a favorite holiday for many Witches in that it is
so hospitable to outdoor celebrations.  The warm summer night seems to invite
it.  And if the celebrants are not in fact skyclad, then you may be fairly
certain that the long ritual robes of winter have yielded place to short,
tunic-style apparel.  As with the longer gowns, tradition dictates that one
should wear nothing underneath -- the next best thing to skyclad, to be sure. 
(Incidentally, now you know the REAL answer to the old Scottish joke, 'What is
worn underneath the kilt?')

     The two chief icons of the holiday are the spear (symbol of the Sun-God in
his glory) and the summer cauldron (symbol of the Goddess in her bounty).  The
precise meaning of these two symbols, which I believe I have recently
discovered, will be explored in the essay on the death of Llew.  But it is
interesting to note here that modern Witches often use these same symbols in
the Midsummer rituals.  And one occasionally hears the alternative consecration
formula, 'As the spear is to the male, so the cauldron is to the female...' 
With these mythic associations, it is no wonder that Midsummer is such a joyous
and magical occasion!
    L A M M A S:  The First Harvest 
            by Mike Nichols 
  *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    * 
    Once upon a Lammas Night 
    When corn rigs are bonny, 
    Beneath the Moon's unclouded light, 
    I held awhile to Annie... 
  *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    * 
    Although in the heat of a Mid-western summer it might be difficult to
discern, the festival of Lammas (Aug 1st) marks the end of summer and the
beginning of fall.  The days now grow visibly shorter and by the time we've
reached autumn's end (Oct 31st), we will have run the gamut of temperature from
the heat of August to the cold and (sometimes) snow of November.  And in the
midst of it, a perfect Mid-western autumn.

    The history of Lammas is as convoluted as all the rest of the old folk
holidays.  It is of course a cross-quarter day, one of the four High Holidays
or Greater Sabbats of Witchcraft, occurring 1/4 of a year after Beltane.  It's
true astrological point is 15 degrees Leo, which occurs at 1:18 am CDT, Aug 6th
this year (1988), but tradition has set August 1st as the day Lammas is
typically celebrated.  The celebration proper would begin on sundown of the
previous evening, our July 31st, since the Celts reckon their days from sundown
to sundown.

    However, British Witches often refer to the astrological date of Aug 6th as
Old Lammas, and folklorists call it Lammas O.S. ('Old Style').  This date has
long been considered a 'power point' of the Zodiac, and is symbolized by the
Lion, one of the 'tetramorph' figures found on the Tarot cards, the World and
the Wheel of Fortune (the other three figures being the Bull, the Eagle, and
the Spirit).  Astrologers know these four figures as the symbols of the four
'fixed' signs of the Zodiac, and these naturally align with the four Great
Sabbats of Witchcraft.  Christians have adopted the same iconography to
represent the four gospel-writers.

    'Lammas' was the medieval Christian name for the holiday and it means
'loaf-mass', for this was the day on which loaves of bread were baked from the
first grain harvest and laid on the church altars as offerings.  It was a day
representative of 'first fruits' and early harvest.

    In Irish Gaelic, the feast was referred to as 'Lugnasadh', a feast to
commemorate the funeral games of the Irish sun-god Lugh.  However, there is
some confusion on this point.  Although at first glance, it may seem that we
are celebrating the death of the Lugh, the god of light does not really die
(mythically) until the autumnal equinox.  And indeed, if we read the Irish
myths closer, we discover that it is not Lugh's death that is being celebrated,
but the funeral games which Lugh hosted to commemorate the death of his foster-
mother, Taillte.  That is why the Lugnasadh celebrations in Ireland are often
called the 'Tailltean Games'.

  *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

    The time went by with careless heed
    Between the late and early,
    With small persuasion she agreed 
    To see me through the barley...

  *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

    One common feature of the Games were the 'Tailltean marriages', a rather
informal  marriage that lasted for only 'a year and a day' or until next
Lammas.  At that time, the couple could decide to continue the arrangement if
it pleased them, or to stand back to back and walk away from one another, thus
bringing the Tailltean marriage to a formal close.  Such trial marriages
(obviously related to the Wiccan 'Handfasting') were quite common even into the
1500's, although it was something one 'didn't bother the parish priest about'. 
Indeed, such ceremonies were usually solemnized by a poet, bard, or shanachie
(or, it may be guessed, by a priest or priestess of the Old Religion).

    Lammastide was also the traditional time of year for craft festivals.  The
medieval guilds would create elaborate displays of their wares, decorating
their shops and themselves in bright colors and ribbons, marching in parades,
and performing strange, ceremonial plays and dances for the entranced
onlookers.  The atmosphere must have been quite similar to our modern-day
Renaissance Festivals, such as the one celebrated in near-by Bonner Springs,
Kansas, each fall.

    A ceremonial highlight of such festivals was the 'Catherine wheel'. 
Although the Roman Church moved St. Catherine's feast day all around the
calender with bewildering frequency, it's most popular date was Lammas.  (They
also kept trying to expel this much-loved saint from the ranks of the blessed
because she was mythical rather than historical, and because her worship gave
rise to the heretical sect known as the Cathari.)  At any rate, a  large wagon
wheel was taken to the top of a near-by hill, covered with tar, set aflame, and
ceremoniously rolled down the hill.  Some mythologists see in this ritual the
remnants of a Pagan rite symbolizing the end of summer, the flaming disk
representing the sun-god in his decline.  And just as the sun king has now
reached the autumn of his years, his rival or dark self has just reached

    Many commentators have bewailed the fact that traditional Gardnerian and
Alexandrian Books of Shadows say very little about the holiday of Lammas,
stating only that poles should be ridden and a circle dance performed.  This
seems strange, for Lammas is a holiday of rich mythic and cultural
associations, providing endless resources for liturgical celebration.

  *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

    Corn rigs and barley rigs, 
    Corn rigs are bonny! 
    I'll not forget that happy night 
    Among the rigs with Annie!

  *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

[Verse quotations by Robert Burns, as handed down through several Books of


        H A R V E S T   H O M E 
            by Mike Nichols 
  *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    * 
    There were three men came out of the West, 
    Their fortunes for to try, 
    And these three men made a solemn vow, 
    John Barleycorn must die... 
  *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    * 
    Despite the bad publicity  generated by Thomas Tryon's novel,  Harvest
Home is the pleasantest of  holidays.  Admittedly, it does involve  the
concept of sacrifice, but one that  is symbolic only.  The sacrifice is  that
of the spirit of vegetation, John  Barleycorn.  Occurring 1/4 of the year 
after Midsummer, Harvest Home  represents mid-autumn, autumn's  height.  It is
also the Autumnal  Equinox, one of the quarter days of  the year, a Lesser
Sabbat and a Low  Holiday in modern Witchcraft.

    Technically, an equinox is an  astronomical point and, due to the  fact
that the earth wobbles on its  axis slightly (rather like a top  that's
slowing down), the date may  vary by a few days depending on the  year.  The
autumnal equinox occurs  when the sun crosses the equator on  it's apparent
journey southward, and  we experience a day and a night that  are of equal
duration.  Up until  Harvest Home, the hours of daylight  have been greater
than the hours from  dusk to dawn.  But from now on, the  reverse holds true. 
Astrologers know  this as the date on which the sun  enters the sign of Libra,
the Balance  (an appropriate symbol of a balanced  day and night).  This year
(1988) it  will occur at 2:29 pm CDT on September  22nd.

    However, since most European  peasants were not accomplished at 
calculating the exact date of the  equinox, they celebrated the event on  a
fixed calendar date, September 25th,  a holiday the medieval Church 
Christianized under the name of   'Michaelmas', the feast of the  Archangel
Michael.  (One wonders if,  at some point, the R.C. Church  contemplated
assigning the four  quarter days of the year to the four  Archangels, just as
they assigned the  four cross-quarter days to the four  gospel-writers. 
Further evidence for  this may be seen in the fact that  there was a brief
flirtation with  calling the Vernal Equinox  'Gabrielmas', ostensibly to 
commemorate the angel Gabriel's  announcement to Mary on Lady Day.)   Again,
it must be remembered that the  Celts reckoned their days from sundown  to
sundown, so the September 25th  festivities actually begin on the  previous
sundown (our September 24th).

    Although our Pagan ancestors  probably celebrated Harvest Home on 
September 25th, modern Witches and  Pagans, with their desk-top computers  for
making finer calculations, seem to  prefer the actual equinox point, 
beginning the celebration on its eve  (this year, sunset on September 21st).

    Mythically, this is the day of the  year when the god of light is defeated 
by his twin and alter-ego, the god of  darkness.  It is the time of the year 
when night conquers day.  And as I  have recently shown in my seasonal 
reconstruction of the Welsh myth of  Blodeuwedd, the Autumnal Equinox is  the
only day of the whole year when  Llew (light) is vulnerable and it is 
possible to defeat him.  Llew now  stands on the balance (Libra/autumnal 
equinox), with one foot on the  cauldron (Cancer/summer solstice) and  his
other foot on the goat  (Capricorn/winter solstice).  Thus he  is betrayed by
Blodeuwedd, the Virgin  (Virgo) and transformed into an Eagle  (Scorpio).

    Two things are now likely to occur  mythically, in rapid succession.  
Having defeated Llew, Goronwy  (darkness) now takes over Llew's  functions,
both as lover to  Blodeuwedd, the Goddess, and as King  of our own world. 
Although Goronwy,  the Horned King, now sits on Llew's  throne and begins his
rule  immediately, his formal coronation  will not be for another six weeks, 
occurring at Samhain (Halloween) or  the beginning of Winter, when he  becomes
the Winter Lord, the Dark  King, Lord of Misrule.  Goronwy's  other function
has more immediate  results, however.  He mates with the  virgin goddess, and
Blodeuwedd  conceives, and will give birth -- nine  months later (at the
Summer Solstice)  -- to Goronwy's son, who is really  another incarnation of
himself, the  Dark Child.

    Llew's sacrificial death at  Harvest Home also identifies him with  John
Barleycorn, spirit of the fields.   Thus, Llew represents not only the  sun's
power, but also the sun's life  trapped and crystallized in the corn.   Often
this corn spirit was believed to  reside most especially in the last  sheaf or
shock harvested, which was  dressed in fine clothes, or woven into  a
wicker-like man-shaped form.  This  effigy was then cut and carried from  the
field, and usually burned, amidst  much rejoicing.  So one may see  Blodeuwedd
and Goronwy in a new guise,  not as conspirators who murder their  king, but
as kindly farmers who  harvest the crop which they had  planted and so
lovingly cared for.   And yet, anyone who knows the old  ballad of John
Barleycorn knows that  we have not heard the last of him.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *     *    *    *    *    *    *    *    * 
     They let him stand till  midsummer's day,  
    Till he looked both pale and wan,  
    And little Sir John's grown a  long, long beard  
    And so become a man...    
*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *     *    *    *    *    *    *    *     *

      Incidentally, this annual mock  sacrifice of a large wicker-work  figure
(representing the vegetation  spirit) may have been the origin of  the
misconception that Druids made  human sacrifices.  This charge was  first made
by Julius Caesar (who may  not have had the most unbiased of  motives), and
has been re-stated many  times since.  However, as has often  been pointed
out, the only historians  besides Caesar who make this  accusation are those
who have read  Caesar.  And in fact, upon reading  Caesar's 'Gallic Wars'
closely, one  discovers that Caesar never claims to  have actually witnessed
such a 
sacrifice.  Nor does he claim to have  talked to anyone else who did.  In 
fact, there is not one single  eyewitness account of a human  sacrifice
performed by Druids in all  of history!

    Nor is there any archeological  evidence to support the charge.  If,  for
example, human sacrifices had been  performed at the same ritual sites  year
after year, there would be  physical traces.  Yet there is not a  scrap.  Nor
is there any native  tradition or history which lends  support.  In fact,
insular tradition  seems to point in the opposite  direction.  The Druid's
reverence for  life was so strict that they refused  to lift a sword to defend
themselves  when massacred by Roman soldiers on  the Isle of Mona.  Irish
brehon laws  forbade a Druid to touch a weapon, and  any soul rash enough to
unsheathe a  sword in the presence of a Druid would  be executed for such an

    Jesse Weston, in her brilliant  study of the Four Hallows of British 
myth, 'From Ritual to Romance', points  out that British folk tradition is, 
however, full of MOCK sacrifices.  In  the case of the wicker-man, such 
figures were referred to in very  personified terms, dressed in clothes, 
addressed by name, etc.  In such a  religious ritual drama, everybody  played

  *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *     *    *    *    *    *    *    *   
*      They've hired men with scythes so  sharp,  
    To cut him off at the knee, 
    They've rolled him and tied him by  the waist  
    Serving him most barbarously...    
*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *     *    *    *    *    *    *    *     *

      In the medieval miracle-play  tradition of the 'Rise Up, Jock'  variety
(performed by troupes of  mummers at all the village fairs), a  young
harlequin-like king always  underwent a mock sacrificial death.   But
invariably, the traditional cast  of characters included a mysterious 
'Doctor' who had learned many secrets  while 'travelling in foreign lands'.  
The Doctor reaches into his bag of  tricks, plies some magical cure, and 
presto! the young king rises up hale  and whole again, to the cheers of the 
crowd.  As Weston so sensibly points  out, if the young king were ACTUALLY 
killed, he couldn't very well rise up  again, which is the whole point of the 
ritual drama!  It is an enactment of  the death and resurrection of the 
vegetation spirit.  And what better  time to perform it than at the end of 
the harvest season?

    In the rhythm of the year, Harvest  Home marks a time of rest after hard 
work.  The crops are gathered in, and  winter is still a month and a half 
away!  Although the nights are getting  cooler, the days are still warm, and 
there is something magical in the  sunlight, for it seems silvery and 
indirect.  As we pursue our gentle  hobbies of making corn dollies (those 
tiny vegetation spirits) and wheat  weaving, our attention is suddenly 
arrested by the sound of baying from  the skies (the 'Hounds of Annwn' 
passing?), as lines of geese cut  silhouettes across a harvest moon.   And we
move closer to the hearth, the  longer evening hours giving us time to  catch
up on our reading, munching on  popcorn balls and caramel apples and  sipping
home-brewed mead or ale.  What  a wonderful time Harvest Home is!  And  how
lucky we are to live in a part of  the country where the season's changes  are
so dramatic and

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *     *    *    *    *    *    *    *    * 
    And little Sir John in the  nut-brown bowl--
    And he's brandy in the glass, 
    And little Sir John in the  nut-brown bowl  
    Proved the strongest man at last.    
*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *     *    *    *    *    *    *    *     *

   T H E   D E A T H   O F   L L E W 
       A Seasonal Interpretation 
            by Mike Nichols 
  *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    * 
    Not of father, nor of mother 
    Was my blood, was my body. 
    I was spellbound by Gwydion, 
    Prime enchanter of the Britons, 
 When he formed me from nine blossoms. 
                  --'Hanes Blodeuwedd' 
                    R. Graves, trans. 
  *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    * 
    In most Pagan cultures, the sun god is seen as split between two rival
personalities: the god of light and his twin, his 'weird', his 'other self',
the god of darkness.  They are Gawain and the Green Knight, Gwyn and Gwythyr,
Llew and Goronwy, Lugh and Balor, Balan and Balin, the Holly King and the Oak
King, etc.  Often they are depicted as fighting seasonal battles for the favor
of their goddess/lover, such as Creiddylad or Blodeuwedd, who represents

    The god of light is always born at the winter solstice, and his strength
waxes with the lengthening days, until the moment of his greatest power, the
summer solstice, the longest day.  And, like a look in a mirror, his 'shadow
self', the lord of darkness, is born at the summer solstice, and his strength
waxes with the lengthening nights until the moment of his greatest power, the
winter solstice, the longest night.

    Indirect evidence supporting this mirror-birth pattern is strongest in the
Christianized form of the Pagan myth.  Many writers, from Robert Graves to
Stewart Farrar, have repeatedly pointed out that Jesus was identified with the
Holly King, while John the Baptist was the Oak King.  That is why, 'of all the
trees that are in the wood, the Holly tree bears the crown.'  If the birth of
Jesus, the 'light of the world', is celebrated at mid-winter, Christian folk
tradition insists that John the Oak King (the 'dark of the world'?) was born
(rather than died) at mid-summer.

    It is at this point that I must diverge from the opinion of Robert Graves
and other writers who have followed him.  Graves believes that at midsummer,
the Sun King is slain by his rival, the God of Darkness; just as the God of
Darkness is, in turn, slain by the God of Light at midwinter.  And yet, in
Christian folk tradition (derived from the older Pagan strain), it is births,
not deaths, that are associated with the solstices.  For the feast of John the
Baptist, this is all the more conspicuous, as it breaks the rules regarding
all other saints.

    John is the ONLY saint in the entire Catholic hagiography whose feast day
is a commemoration of his birth, rather than his death.  A generation ago,
Catholic nuns were fond of explaining that a saint is commemorated on the
anniversary of his or her death because it was really a 'birth' into the
Kingdom of Heaven.  But John the Baptist, the sole exception, is emphatically
commemorated on the anniversary of his birth into THIS world.  Although this
makes no sense viewed from a Christian perspective, it makes perfect poetic
sense from the viewpoint of Pagan symbolism.  (John's earlier Pagan
associations are treated in my essay on Midsummer.)

    So if births are associated with the solstices, when do the symbolic
deaths occur?  When does Goronwy slay Llew and when does Llew, in his turn,
slay Goronwy?  When does darkness conquer light or light conquer darkness? 
Obviously (to me, at least), it must be at the two equinoxes.  At the autumnal
equinox, the hours of light in the day are eclipsed by the hours of darkness. 
At the vernal equinox, the process is reversed.  Also, the autumnal equinox,
called 'Harvest Home', is already associated with sacrifice, principally that
of the spirit of grain or vegetation.  In this case, the god of light would be

    In Welsh mythology in particular, there is a startling vindication of the
seasonal placement of the sun god's death, the significance of which occurred
to me in a recent dream, and which I haven't seen elsewhere.  Llew is the
Welsh god of light, and his name means 'lion'.  (The lion is often the symbol
of a sun god.)  He is betrayed by his 'virgin' wife Blodeuwedd, into standing
with one foot on the rim of a cauldron and the other on the back of a goat. 
It is only in this way that Llew can be killed, and Blodeuwedd's lover,
Goronwy, Llew's dark self, is hiding nearby with a spear at the ready.  But as
Llew is struck with it, he is not killed.  He is instead transformed into an

    Putting this in the form of a Bardic riddle, it would go something like
this:  Who can tell in what season the Lion (Llew), betrayed by the Virgin
(Blodeuwedd), poised on the Balance, is transformed into an Eagle? My readers
who are astrologers are probably already gasping in recognition.  The sequence
is astrological and in proper order:  Leo (lion), Virgo (virgin), Libra
(balance), and Scorpio (for which the eagle is a well-known alternative
symbol).  Also, the remaining icons, cauldron and goat, could arguably
symbolize Cancer and Capricorn (representing summer and winter), the signs
beginning with the two solstice points.  So Llew is balanced between cauldron
and goat, between summer and winter, on the balance (Libra) point of the
autumnal equinox, with one foot on the summer solstice and one foot on the
winter solstice.

    This, of course, is the answer to a related Bardic riddle.  Repeatedly,
the 'Mabinogion' tells us that Llew must be standing with one foot on the
cauldron and one foot on the goat's back in order to be killed.  But nowhere
does it tell us why.  Why is this particular situation the ONLY one in which
Llew can be overcome?  Because it represents the equinox point.  And the
autumnal equinox is the only time of the entire year when light (Llew) can be
overcome by darkness (Goronwy).

    It should now come as no surprise that, when it is time for Llew to kill
Goronwy in his turn, Llew insists that Goronwy stands where he once stood
while he (Llew) casts the spear.  This is no mere vindictiveness on Llew's
part.  For, although the 'Mabinogion' does not say so, it should by now be
obvious that this is the only time when Goronwy can be overcome.  Light can
overcome darkness only at the equinox -- this time the vernal equinox. 
(Curiously, even the Christian  tradition retains this association, albeit in
a distorted form, by celebrating Jesus' death near the time of the vernal

    The Welsh myth concludes with Gwydion pursuing the faithless Blodeuwedd
through the night sky, and a path of white flowers springs up in the wake of
her passing, which we today know as the Milky Way. When Gwydion catches her,
he transforms her into an owl, a fitting symbol of autumn, just as her earlier
association with flowers (she was made from them) equates her with spring. 
Thus, while Llew and Goronwy represent summer and winter, Blodeuwedd herself
represents both spring and fall, as patron goddess of flowers and owls,

    Although it is far more speculative than the preceding material, a final
consideration would pursue this mirror-like life pattern of Llew and Goronwy
to its ultimate conclusion.  Although Llew is struck with the sunlight spear
at the autumnal equinox, and so 'dies' as a human, it takes a while before
Gwydion discovers him in his eagle form.  How long?  We may speculate 13
weeks, when the sun reaches the midpoint of the sign (or form) of the eagle,
Scorpio -- on Halloween.  And if this is true, it may be that Llew, the sun
god, finally 'dies' to the upper world on Halloween, and now passes through
the gates of death, where he is immediately crowned king of the underworld,
the Lord of Misrule!  (In medieval tradition, the person proclaimed as 'Lord
of Misrule' reigned from Halloween to Old Christmas -- or, before the calender
changes, until the winter solstice.)

    Meanwhile, Goronwy (with Blodeuwedd at his side) is crowned king in the
upper world, and occupies Llew's old throne, beginning on Halloween.  Thus, by
winter solstice, Goronwy has reached his position of greatest strength in OUR
world, at the same moment that Llew, now sitting on Goronwy's old throne,
reaches his position of greatest strength in the underworld.  However, at the
moment of the winter solstice, Llew is born again, as a babe, (and as his own
son!) into our world.  And as Llew later reaches manhood and dispatches
Goronwy at the vernal equinox, Goronwy will then ascend the underworld throne
at Beltane, but will be reborn into our world at midsummer, as a babe, later
to defeat Llew all over again.  And so the cycle closes at last, resembling
nothing so much as an intricately woven, never-ending bit of Celtic knotwork.

    So Midsummer (to me, at least) is a celebration of the sun god at his
zenith, a crowned king on his throne.  He is at the height of his power and
still 1/4 of a year away from his ritual death at the hands of his rival. 
However, at the very moment of his greatest strength, his dark twin, the seed
of his destruction, is born -- just as the days begin to shorten.  The spear
and the cauldron have often been used as symbols for this holiday and it
should now be easy to see why.  Sun gods are virtually always associated with
spears (even Jesus is pierced by one), and the midsummer cauldron of Cancer is
a symbol of the Goddess in her fullness.  If we have learned anything from
this story from the fourth branch of the 'Mabinogion', it is about the power
of myth -- how it may still instruct and guide us, many centuries after it has
passed from oral to written tradition.  And in studying it, we have barely
scratched the surface.