The Wild Hunt is a very widespread motif in Indo-European folklore and mythology, appearing in Indian, Greek, Czech, Polish, Slovenian, Swedish, Dutch, Danish, German, Italian, Spanish, English, and Welsh legends. The deity who leads it varies from one culture to another, and it has different names in different places, but enough shared characteristics to be fairly certain that it is the same folklore motif. It even has its own classification number, ATU E501.
Most people, when “the Triple Goddess” is mentioned, probably think of the Maiden, Mother, Crone archetype. However, this archetype can be very limiting, and there are many other triple goddesses who are worth exploring: goddesses of the land and sovereignty, goddesses with many skills and roles, goddesses who are women in their own right, not merely roles in relation to a man.
Paganism is an umbrella term for a group of religions that venerate the Earth and Nature, and the ancient Pagan deities. These religions include Wicca, Druidry, Heathenry, Religio Romana, Animism, Shamanism, Eclectic Pagans and various other traditions. All of these traditions share an urge to celebrate life and to honour our connection with all other beings on the planet. Pagans often emphasise the cyclical nature of reality, and so enjoy the cycle of the seasons and the dance of Sun and Moon.
Green is the colour everyone immediately associates with Paganism. It is the colour of nature, of trees, and all growing things. It is associated with the Green Man, a symbol of our connection to Nature, and a manifestation of the life-force. Many Pagans also like the colour purple for its spiritual connotations (it is associated with the crown chakra). Interestingly, purple and green were also the colours of the suffragette movement.
Photo by OceanBlue-AU [BY-NC-ND 2.0]
The metals are traditionally associated with the heavenly bodies: gold for the Sun, silver for the Moon and the stars, mercury for Mercury, copper for Venus, iron for Mars, tin for Jupiter and lead for Saturn.
The white, red and and black colours of the Triple Goddess owe a lot to Robert Graves’ seminal work The White Goddess. He derived it from the tendency of the Irish myths to declare those “otherworldly” colours in combination, such as the red-eared white cow that was Brigid’s only food as an infant, the red, white and black oystercatcher that is called “Brigid’s bird” or the red-eared white dogs that occur in so many stories as Otherworld animals.
The four elements are very important in Paganism, and different mythological systems associate them with different colours. Earth is associated with stability, fertility, strength and nurturing, and can be represented by green, brown, or white. Air symbolises intellect, the breath of life, and the spirit, and can be depicted as yellow, white, or black. Fire represents energy, intuition, passion and vitality, and can be orange or red. Water represents love, emotion, fluidity, and healing, and can be blue or green.
The rainbow is an important symbol for Pagans. To Heathens, it the symbol of Bifrost, the rainbow bridge between the world of deities (Asgard) and the world of humans (Midgard). For many Pagans, the colours of the rainbow correspond to the colours of the chakras (borrowed from Hinduism). It is also the symbol of LGBT sexuality.
Photo by Nicholas_T [BY-NC-ND 2.0]
Diana Paxson and her branch of Asatru (a Heathen tradition) associate colours with deities: Oðinn is black and blue; Thor red; Freya and Freyr green and gold, or sometimes brown.
White is the colour of light, and is associated with the Maiden aspect of the Triple Goddess. It is also the colour most often chosen for Druid robes, because of its association with the Sun.
Black is the colour of darkness, but for Pagans, darkness symbolises a time of rest, dreams, and the hidden powers of Nature. It is also a symbol of the fertile earth, in whose dark depths seeds can germinate. It is also the colour of death and the underworld, but death is seen as part of the cycle of life, death and rebirth, and so is not to be feared. For some Pagans, black is the colour of the Crone aspect of the Triple Goddess, and so represents the wisdom of old age. It is also the colour of women, of the cycles of the human body, and of those people considered “non-white.” Black speaks to our love of mystery, night, and the realms of the unconscious and “starlight” consciousness. It’s the color of soil, dirt, compost. It represents wholeness.
Important Pagan Dates
There are different Pagan festivals depending on which Pagan path you follow, but many Pagans celebrate the festivals of the Wiccan and Druid Wheel of the Year.
Samhain or Hallowe’en falls on 31st October, and is a festival of the ancestors and the otherworld. Its colours are autumnal: the orange skin of pumpkins, the rich reds and golds of autumn leaves, and the brown colour of the bare fields. Heathens celebrate the festival of Winternights around this time; historically this was a big sacrificial feast at which gods, elves and/or ancestors were welcomed. Nowadays Heathens make offerings of mead to the deities and wights (powers).
Yule or Winter Solstice is on 21st or 22nd December, when we celebrate the return of the light as the days begin to lengthen again. The colours of Yule are red and green for the holly and its berries, dark green for the evergreens that are brought into the house, the green and white of the mistletoe, gold for the returning Sun. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia at this time, which is where the customs of the Lord of Misrule and giving presents come from, as the masters had to serve their slaves and give them gifts.
Imbolc, celebrated on 2nd February, is when the ewes begin to lactate, and it is associated with the Celtic Goddess Brighid, lady of smithcraft, healing and poetry. The colours of Imbolc are white and red; white for the ewes’ milk and the swan, which is the bird of Brighid, and red for the new growth on the trees, and for the fire of Brighid.
Photo by Juggling Mom [BY-NC-ND 2.0]
Spring Equinox usually falls on 21st or 22nd March, and is often represented as being darkness and light in dynamic balance, because the days and nights are equal – but the light is in the ascendancy. The goddess of this festival is only known from a reference by the Venerable Bede, but it has been suggested that she may have been a goddess of Spring and of the Moon, since hares are sacred to the Moon and are associated with this festival.
The Festival of Beltane falls on 30th April and 1st May, and celebrates life, love and fertility. Its main colour is green – the fresh green of the leaves on the trees. This is the time of year for Maypoles (traditionally decorated with multicoloured ribbons) and for leaping over the Bel-fire with your beloved.
Photo by yksin [BY-NC-ND 2.0]
Summer Solstice usually falls on 21st or 22nd June, and its colours are yellow (for the Sun and for the St John’s Wort flower, which is the flower of Midsummer) and red (for the heat of the Sun).
Lughnasadh or Lammas is the Harvest Festival, and is celebrated on 31st July and 1st August. Its colours are the colours of the harvest: the gold of ripening wheat and the harsh light of the Sun, and sometimes red for the poppies that grow among the corn.
This post was originally published at the Colour Lovers blog on 14 November 2007. It was part of a series on colour symbolism in different religious traditions:
See also: The Colorful Diwali Festival of Light
Acknowledgements and Sources
- M Macha Nightmare – information about green and purple
- Inanna – comments on the colour
- Dana Kramer Rolls – information about Asatru deity colours
- Brenda Daverin – information about the connection of the Triple Goddess colours with Irish myths.
- Chas Clifton – connection of the Triple Goddess colours with Robert Graves
- The Four Classical Elements, Patti Wigington
- Winternights, Stormerne and Arlea Hunt-Anschütz
For as long as I can remember, the Moon has seemed like a source of mystery and magic. I have always had a bit of a thing about the Moon, and everything associated with the lunar side of life: poetry, intuition, silver, water, dreams, and stars. I always assumed that cats were lunar until I discovered that dogs are lunar and cats are solar. But I still prefer cats. The Moon represents the twilight half of consciousness (memories, dreams, intuition, rhythm). And of course, witches have always been associated with the Moon, and with a whole cohort of animals and birds who are also associated with the Moon, especially hares, bats, and owls.
The Moon in poetry
The silvery light of the Moon transforms the landscape into a mysterious deep twilight blue. The moonpath (the reflection of the Moon on the sea) may lead to mysterious other realms. It certainly did for Lucius Apuleius when the great goddess Isis appeared to him as the full Moon over the sea, and transformed him back into a human being, releasing him from the enchantment that had turned him into an ass.
“Behold Lucius I am come, thy weeping and prayers has moved me to succor thee. I am she that is the natural mother of all things, mistress and governess of all the elements, the initial progeny of worlds, chief of powers divine, Queen of heaven, the principal of the Gods celestial, the light of the goddesses: at my will the planets of the air, the wholesome winds of the Seas, and the silences of hell be disposed; my name, my divinity is adored throughout all the world in divers manners, in variable customs and in many names, for the Phrygians call me Pessinuntica, the mother of the Gods: the Athenians call me Cecropian Artemis: the Cyprians, Paphian Aphrodite: the Candians, Dictyanna: the Sicilians , Stygian Proserpine: and the Eleusians call me Mother of the Corn. Some call me Juno, others Bellona of the Battles, and still others Hecate. Principally the Ethiopians which dwell in the Orient, and the Egyptians which are excellent in all kind of ancient doctrine, and by their proper ceremonies accustomed to worship me, do call me Queen Isis.”
This theme was picked up by Dion Fortune in her wonderful book, The Sea Priestess:
I am that soundless, boundless, bitter sea.
All tides are mine, and answer unto me.
Tides of the airs, tides of the inner earth;
The secret, silent tides of death and birth.
Tides of men’s souls, and dreams, and destiny –
Isis Veiled, and Rhea, Binah, Ge.
The hour of the high full moon draws near;
I hear the invoking words, hear and appear —
Isis Unveiled, and Rhea, Binah, Ge.
I come unto the priest that calleth me.
There is a wonderful poem by Sylvia Plath, The Moon and the Yew Tree, which describes the contrast between the Moon, who is “bald and wild” and “terribly upset”, and Mary, who is “sweet”:
The yew tree points up, it has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
Actually I rather suspect that Sylvia Plath’s poetry is a contributory factor in my being being a Pagan and a Wiccan. She also wrote a wonderful poem about the Horned God, called Faun, which also evokes the Moon:
Haunched like a faun, he hooed
From grove of moon-glint and fen-frost
Until all owls in the twigged forest
Flapped black to look and brood
On the call this man made.
In times past, the moonlight was needed because of a lack of streetlights, and the Lunar Society (Erasmus Darwin, Watt, Bolton, Wedgwood, Priestley, etc) met on full moon nights in order to be able to travel at night. The Carmina Gadelica praises the Moon as ‘the glorious lamp of the poor’, and there are four prayers to the Moon in the collection.
There are many Moon deities, both male and female. In Wicca, we tend to regard the Moon as female and the Sun as male; in Heathenry, the Sun is female and the Moon is male. Many other cultures have a male Moon deity too – Chandra in India, Shin in Mesopotamia, Tsukuyomi in Japan.There are also many Moon goddesses: the Greek goddesses Phoebe, Artemis, Selene, and Hecate; and the Chinese goddess Chang’e. Some of these deities are associated with witches.
In ancient times, people would kiss their hand to the New Moon. (It’s mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, Job 31: 26-28.) The Moon was believed to govern growth and fertility, so that planting should always be done at the New Moon, so that the plant would grow with the waxing Moon. Many plants are associated with the Moon, especially white flowers that give off a scent at night, and ones that are traditionally used in witchcraft.
For me, the Moon is the source and origin of witchcraft: the lunar energy, the mysterious qualities of the Moon, and the association with the night, wildness, freedom, spirituality, and sexuality:
O, my love
Come silently in the middle of the night
As gliding moonlight…
– Nazrul Islam
Poets and mystics of all religions have praised the beauty of the Moon – especially the Sufis, who also have a mystical relationship with the night.
The phases of the Moon are also important. The Moon rules the tides of the sea; but she is also believed to rule the tides of the mind. Magic for increase should always be done on the waxing Moon; magic for decrease, on the waning Moon.
The Moon rules the twilight side of life, the wild, the uncanny, the preternatural. Civilisation tries to ignore the Moon, because she is the liberator of the oppressed and shines her light into the nooks and crannies, revealing the deeds that are done by night. But the Moon always returns with her messages from the subconscious, from the endless sea of dreams.
It is well known from the lore that the gods actually have a brewery, not a bakery.
There is no shortage of alcohol in mythology:
Norse mythology tells of Aegir, the ale brewer of the gods, who held a big party for honored guests every winter. The party was held inside a great hall whose floor was littered with glittering gold, providing enough light that no fires were necessary for illumination. The special beer for the event was brewed in a giant cauldron given to him by Thor and served in magical cups that refilled as soon as they were empty. He even had a couple of loyal servants who distributed food and otherwise cared for the guests’ needs. The shindig was the highlight of the social season and all the gods attended. However, like so many off-campus college parties, alcohol and animosity could sometimes spoil a perfectly good evening.
There was also the time when Oðinn stole the mead brewed from the blood of Kvasir from under the mountain where it had been hidden by Suttung.
Alcohol was clearly important and sacred to our ancestors. It’s a shame that we merely abuse it, instead of using it in a sacred manner (like other drugs that ought to be used as a sacrament).
The brewing of alcohol seems rather magical – taking some ingredients that are not intoxicating, mixing them together, leaving them to ferment, and thereby producing a drink that can transform your perceptions – if used carefully and sparingly.
It’s quite exciting to put fruit, sugar, water, and yeast in a demijohn and watch it blooping and bubbling away as it ferments. There’s nothing quite like the taste of home-made wine, especially if you gathered the ingredients yourself from the hedgerows. It’s like alchemy!
And interestingly, both alcohol and alchemy are derived from Arabic words…
Alcohol in ritual
Many people maintain that alcohol is sacred because it has yeast in it and has been fermented, which makes it alive somehow.
If you have some form of alcoholic sacrament at the end of your ritual (cakes and wine if you’re Wiccan, or a sharing of mead if you’re a Heathen), there may be some people who are recovering alcoholics who cannot partake. Maybe you could share some other fermented drink, like drinkable yoghurt? (Personally I don’t think this is cultural appropriation unless you steal the ritual that goes with it. YMMV.) Other solutions to this that have been suggested are having a non-alcoholic alternative (but some people prefer the symbolism of everyone drinking from the same cup / horn / chalice).
Alcohol as metaphor
(everything up to this point has been blessedly free of any metaphorical subtext – but if you’re fed up with metaphors, you can skip this section)
Alcohol is sacred and powerful, and there are many different types and flavours of alcohol available. Some people prefer mead; others prefer wine, or cider, or beer, or lager. Some people say “I don’t like beer”, but do not realise the huge variety of beers that are available. Some people call alcoholic drinks by different names – cider in the UK, hard cider in the US; ale, beer, lager, porter, stout… If you ask me what my favourite drink is, I’d have to say, all of the above, depending on the day and my mood.
Religion is also sacred and powerful, and there are many different types and flavours of religion available. Some people prefer Heathenry; others prefer Wicca, or Druidry, or eclectic Paganism, or Asatru. Some people say “I don’t like religion” but don’t realise the huge variety of religious experiences that are available. And some people call religious experiences by different names – polytheism, hard polytheism, relational polytheism, devotional polytheism, pantheism, mysticism, and so on. Some people, when presented with a list of theological perspectives, will say, “all of the above, depending on the context, the day, and my mood”.
Always read the ingredients list
As this excellent post by Bekah Evie Bel, Polytheism Isn’t Yours, points out, you could just ask people what they mean by the label they are using, instead of assuming that they mean the same by it as you do, and then being disappointed when it turns out that they don’t.
So if someone shares their surface with you and they say, “I am a polytheist” try not to make any assumptions. Ask for clarification if you are interested by this surface, move on if you aren’t interested. Clarification (usually expanded labels) will tell you how much deeper you want to go. But if you don’t ask for clarification, if you don’t seek to go even a bit below the surface then it’s not that persons fault if you make a stupid assumption.
Just like you read the list of ingredients on food and drink to make sure there’s nothing that you’re allergic to.
Thing is, it’s in the nature of language that people will use words to mean something slightly different, or even wildly different – so labels should be used as a way to start a conversation, not as a substitute for a conversation.
This post was inspired by a comment by Bekah Evie Bel on my previous post which mentioned (hard) cider. The metaphorical aspect of it is entirely my fault.
Over at Common Tansy, Pat Mosley has been tearing it up with his posts about the Devil in witchcraft, A Case for Inviting Satan (Back) to Wicca and Prying Open the Devil’s Broom Closet. And Ian Corrigan has also written on the topic of the Devil and the darker side of Paganism. Jason Mankey has written about the origins of the Horned God of Wicca.
The Devil and witchcraft
Some folkloric Craft practitioners have always honoured both Lucifer and Jesus, regarding them as brothers (from the reference in the Book of Job about Samael being among the Sons of God). Cain is also an important figure in their mysteries, and is viewed as the son of Samael and Lilith. And Tubal-Cain is viewed as the earthly vessel of Azazel. They place a lot of importance on the smith-gods such as Prometheus, Tubal-Cain, Hephaestos, Wayland, and Vulcan.
I can understand why some Wiccans completely denied that they even believed in the Devil, as I vividly remember the fear instilled in us by the Satanic Panic of the late 1980s. It is much easier to say “we don’t believe in your mythology at all” than it is to say something more complicated, such as “we don’t accept your dualistic cosmology, but we do believe there is a place for acknowledging the darker aspects of the psyche, and deities associated with them, and rather than demonising them, it would be better to integrate those forces into consciousness and work with their energies”. Some Wiccan and Pagan writers actually did attempt to convey this more complicated message.
Various concepts and images of these entities are lurking about in the basement of the Western psyche – but we are not powerless to change them. Some people will prefer to ignore them altogether; others feel the need to change these images by working with them. That is their prerogative.
However, there is no need to throw Satanists under the bus when stating that Wiccans don’t worship the Devil. There are at least three different flavours of Satanism, the philosophical and anarchist variety allegedly espoused by Mikhail Bakunin, the inversion-of-Christianity variety, and the people who are actually worshipping the Egyptian god Set. Therefore, claiming that Satanism is “just an inversion of Christianity” is an inadequate explanation of what it actually is.
I have not met that many Satanists, and many of the ones I have met have taken considerable pleasure in being self-consciously “dark” and very left-hand-path. Some of the ones I have met were very right-wing. There are nasty people in every group, but that doesn’t mean that all of them are like that. I also know a couple of Setians and some left-wing Satanists.
It is worth pointing out that an acknowledgement of the possible existence of Lucifer, or Samael, or any other such entity, does not mean that we are suddenly Satanists. Some Wiccans have been acknowledging Lilith for years – so why is Samael so taboo?
I think that Wicca and Satanism are two separate and distinct traditions, but we are not being fair and reasonable if we demonise Satanism in the same way that some Christians have done to us.
Who cleft the Devil’s foot?
From a hard(ish) polytheist point of view, I would argue that Lucifer, Satan, Samael, Asmodeus, Beelzebub, and various other entities are different beings. They may have got lumped together as one by the monotheists, but then I think we would all agree that monotheists have a tin ear when it comes to mythology. One of the Pagan deities whose image fed into the Christian concept of the Devil was Pan, and it is thought that that is how the Devil acquired his cloven hooves (unless it was from the image of Azazel as the scapegoat).
Some people have argued that neither Jesus nor Satan have a place in contemporary Paganisms, because we don’t accept the dualistic and antagonistic world-view of Christianity. However, I don’t have to accept that monotheism’s assessment of the stature or nature of a being is true in order to accept that the being (or at least, its archetype) exists. I don’t accept the philosophy of Buddhism, but I am happy to honour Kwan-Yin. I think Jesus probably exists, but I certainly don’t accept monotheism’s view of who he is. So why not his brother Lucifer? We don’t accept Christianity’s assessment that all our deities are the devil in disguise – so why should we accept their view of Lucifer?
Northern Light 27 points out that the various deities that were some form of adversary (and a necessary source of creative conflict) in the pre-Christian pagan religions all got lumped together to form the Christian version of the devil as the main adversary of Yahweh. What’s more, the Jewish concept of Samael / Satan was quite different, and existed alongside other figures such as Lilith as necessary aspects of the cosmic order.
I think the Christian view was probably influenced either by the two gods of Zoroastrianism (Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu), or by the good and evil entities of Manichaeism. Manichaeism was essentially a Gnostic view of the world that held that matter was created by an evil demiurge, and that the source of all good was the creator, to whom light and spirit seek to return by escaping from matter. Zoroastrians, on the other hand, say that the world was created by Ahura Mazda, the good god. However, both systems have an ultimate force of good pitted against an ultimate force of evil. Contrast this with Judaism, where Samael was essentially under the control of Yahweh – in this view, Samael existed to punish transgressors. If you look at the history of Jewish mythologization of Satan, Samael, Azazel, Asmodeus, and other characters, it is pretty clear that they are much more nuanced than the Christian versions. I really wish people would not conflate Judaism and Christianity, or back-project Christian attitudes onto Judaism, which is a completely different religion that Christianity is a massive distortion of. (And as far as I know, it is a heresy in Christianity to regard the Devil as being of equal power with God.)
As I do not accept monotheism’s view that there is only one god and one adversary, I have room in my concept of deities for some that like to promote conflict for whatever reason they think it necessary (even if they don’t happen to be among the deities with whom I have a personal relationship, because I do not like conflict). If I acknowledge the existence of Lilith and Loki and Set and Yahweh and Asherah, then I am prepared to accept that Lucifer, Samael, and Asmodeus also exist. And Baphomet too.
My polytheism consists of acknowledging the existence of many deities, and honouring and/or worshipping those that have called to me. So far, only one of these entities has come knocking at my door, but if one of the others shows up, I think I would make my own assessment of their character. After all, Christianity was very rude about all our other deities – why should I take their word for it about any entity?
As to whether the Wiccan Horned God contains a bit of the Devil in his DNA… I think he probably does. If the Devil is equated in the Christian world-view with prancing about naked by moonlight, joyous love-making, and wild shenanigans – then the God of the Witches does represent these things.
What is interesting is that Pan, who may have informed some of the Christian idea of the Devil (because he represents wildness and wilderness and unbridled sexuality) is one of the few beings involved that was not an adversary figure in ancient mythology. (Though the Devil’s horns and hooves may have come from Azazel the scapegoat rather than from Pan.)
In Charles Godfrey Leland’s Aradia: the gospel of the witches, Aradia is presented as the consort of Lucifer, and it appears that Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente replaced Lucifer with Cernunnos when they were forming Wicca – in part because they believed Margaret Murray’s theory that the being worshipped by witches was an ancient pagan Horned God (but also because they were well aware of the media furore that would result if they admitted to devil-worship). However, it appears from some research by Sabina Magliocco that the legend of Aradia actually pre-dates the association of witchcraft with devil-worship.
Horned deities in India were possibly associated with shamanism and animism, both of which have been viewed as transgressive by established religions.
It is also worth noting that the word demon (daimon in Greek) originally meant a spirit of place, or the genius of a gifted person, and had no negative connotation in ancient paganism.
My personal theology celebrates the marriage of spirit and matter, and not their separation. I celebrate wildness, and chaos, and the celebration of physical pleasure. I do not think that blind obedience is a virtue. So I think a deity that represents anarchy, and rebellion against absolute authority, is worth looking into.
Adversaries in ancient paganisms
Some ancient paganisms had the concept of a struggle between two groups of deities (in Greek mythology, the clash of the Olympian gods with their rivals, the Titans; and in Norse mythology, the clash of the Aesir and Vanir with the giants) but these were not so much conceived of as a struggle of good and evil, as a struggle between natural forces such as fire and ice, some of which were more inimical to humans than others. But things were complicated in the Greek myths because Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to humanity (an impious act, but one for which we can be grateful). And in the Norse myths, the gods were born from the primal giant, Ymir, and then slew him to make the heavens and the Earth.
Some ancient religions of the Near East had powerful beings who were slain by the creator god (for example in Sumerian mythology, Tiamat the serpent goddess was slain by Marduk, who formed the Earth from her body – probably the original of many dragon-slayer stories). We can trace some of the motifs that went into the making of the archetype of the Devil back to some of these figures.
I’ve got to admit that the name ‘Satan’ makes me really uncomfortable. I am much more comfortable with ‘Old Nick’, ‘Lucifer’, or even ‘the Devil’. But then I am curious to delve into the depths and find out why it makes me uncomfortable.
However, given the enormous weight of negativity attached to the archetype of the Devil, anyone invoking these entities needs to be really careful to invoke the aspects of the complex that they want (the freedom, anarchy, hedonism, and sex-positive aspects) and avoid the negative associations with it (selfishness, greed, destructive impulses, etc). I find it very interesting that most people work with lesser-known names and beings such as Samael and Lucifer (arguably the bright side of this archetype) and avoid the more negative aspects. So much negativity has been loaded onto the archetype that it may be really difficult to recover the bright aspects of it. If you do invoke or evoke such a being, are you a powerful enough magician to handle it?
Civilisation and its discontents
It is fairly easy to see how gods of the wildwood (symbols of the wilderness and therefore opposed to civilisation, with which Christianity strongly identifies itself) may have fed into the Christian archetype of the Devil. Recently, I read Lolly Willowes, or the Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner, and in that book (written in 1926), the god of the witches is unequivocally represented (with considerable glee) as Satan. He is quite kindly, and the freedom of the countryside where he holds sway is contrasted with the stifling atmosphere of middle-class respectability from which the heroine escapes.
Many myths and legends (from ancient times until very recently) are about the struggle to establish civilisation and order, set against the urge to return to a state of nature and chaos. It has not been universally agreed that the imposition of law and order and civilisation is necessarily all good.
If someone was to draw a mindmap or a family tree describing all these entities and their mythological relationship with each other, it would get quite complicated. The massive number of references to the Devil in popular culture add an extra layer of complexity.
So – when you say that you don’t worship the Devil, you might need to be a bit more specific. Do you mean Old Nick, Satan, Asmodeus, Azazel, Beelzebub, Baphomet, Samael, Lucifer, Mephistopheles, Angra Mainyu, Iblis, Loki, Set, Apep, Prometheus, or some other adversarial figure? The Devil really is in the details.
The Sun is hot and fiery and bright, so people associate it with maleness, the active/penetrative principle, yang, warriors, and intellect. The Moon is cool and reflective and represents intuition and dreams, so people associate it with the feminine, dreamy, receptive, and watery side of things.
We then go on to ascribe these qualities to actual men and women, or regard them as the “ideal” masculine and feminine qualities.
Of course we know that real Moon goddesses are not dreamy, pretty, airy-fairy, and harmless at all. But that doesn’t stop people from depicting them that way. And that real Sun gods have a sensitive and emotional side. Don’t we?
We tend to associate Summer Solstice with the Sun being at the height of its power, and it is at this time of year that a lot of archetypal material about the Sun god gets wheeled out for presentation at Pagan rituals.
But it doesn’t have to be that way!Many cultures have a Moon god and a Sun goddess. It’s also possible that these cultures had some different ideas about qualities being associated with one gender or another. It’s worth looking at Sun goddesses and Moon gods, because we can learn a lot about the mythology of the Sun and the Moon, and begin to deconstruct gender stereotypes at the same time as finding out some great stories.
In Hinduism, there is Chandra. The Mesopotamians worshipped the Moon god Sin. The Germanic tribes worshipped Mani. The Japanese worshipped Tsukuyomi. These cultures often featured female Sun goddesses.
According to Wikipedia,
the original Proto-Indo-European lunar deity appears to have been a male god. In subsequent traditions, the number of male moon deities (or words for “moon” with a male gender) seem to vastly outnumber female ones, which appear to be an exclusively eastern Mediterranean invention. Several goddesses, like Hecate or Artemis, did not originally have lunar aspects, and only acquired them late in antiquity, due to syncretism with Selene/Luna, the de facto Greco-Latin lunar deity. In traditions with male gods, there is little evidence of such syncretism, though the Greco-Roman Hermes has been equated with male Egyptian lunar gods like Thoth. In Greece proper, remnants of male moon gods are also seen with Menelaus.
Practitioners of Dievturība, the revived traditional religion of Latvia, celebrate the Sun goddess, Saulė. Saulė is a goddess with a fairly detailed story and attributes. She is the goddess of life, fertility, warmth, and health, and is patroness of the unfortunate, especially orphans. The Lithuanian and Latvian words for “the world” (pasaulis and pasaule) mean as “[a place] under the Sun”. The summer solstice is the feast of Saulė, and the winter solstice is celebrated as her return.
Amaterasu is the Japanese sun goddess, who is seen as the goddess of the sun and of the universe. The name Amaterasu derived from Amateru meaning “shining in heaven.” Her full name, Amaterasu-ōmikami, means “the great august kami (god) who shines in the heaven”. She hid in a cave after her brother Susa-no-o went on a rampage.
Ancient Heathens worshipped Sol and Mani. Sol was the goddess of the Sun, and her brother Mani was the goddess of the Moon. The horse’s of Sol’s chariot are called Árvakr (“Early Riser”) and Alsviðr (“Swift”). They are pursued across the sky by a wolf called Sköll, and the Moon is pursued by her brother Hati.
Dan McCoy writes:
According to one of the poems in the Poetic Edda, a figure named Svalinn rides in the sun’s chariot and holds a shield between her and the earth below. If he didn’t do this, both the land and the sea would be consumed in flames. Elsewhere, the father of Sol and Mani is named as “Mundilfari,” about whom we know nothing. His name might mean “The One Who Moves According to Particular Times.”
In runic lore, the gentle warmth of Sol is contrasted with the heat of the rune Sowelu, but it seems as if this might be a misattribution.
Deities in ritual
When I am writing rituals, I try not to always go for the “obvious”. I like to challenge people’s assumptions, and introduce deities that look a bit different. One year, I wrote a ritual to Saulė. Another summer solstice, I wrote a ritual all about the arrival of Parsifal at the Grail Castle.
It’s also a good idea to work with a deity you have some sort of connection with, or to try to establish a connection with the deity you are working with before the ritual. There’s nothing worse than a ritual falling flat because you didn’t make a connection with the deity. What does the deity’s story mean for you personally? How does it link in with the festival you are celebrating?
If the deity is not very well-known, I find out as much as I can about them, and email all the ritual participants their story beforehand, and/or build in a meditation about that deity.
At this time of the year, the days are at their longest, so the Sun is said to be at the height of its power. However, after Midsummer, the days will get shorter, so the Sun is said (symbolically) to descend into the underworld. The Sun is a metaphor for consciousness; as we descend into the depths of winter, the self is said to go inward and become more introspective.
Whilst the summer solstice is the moment at which the days get shorter, and the Sun starts rising further south again, there is still plenty of summer left after the solstice. Some people regard 21 June as Midsummer, others regard it as the start of summer.
Summer is always associated with warmth and plenty and long lazy sunny days – until you get to the harvest, when it’s all hands to fields to bring in the crop before a summer rainstorm comes and trashes it.
The word solstice literally means “Sun stands still” as the Sun seems to rise at the same point on the horizon for a few days. So the solstice is a moment to pause, and take stock, as well as to enjoy the longest day.
Over recent years, Adrian Bott has become widely known for his annual deconstruction of the myth that Eostre or Ostara was a widely worshipped goddess in Northern Europe, and that she was associated with rabbits, hares, and eggs. In the course of his research, he has discovered a number of other interesting things, some of which are explained in his article for The Guardian, The modern myth of the Easter bunny.
So I asked him if he would like to do an interview on the subject of Eostre and Easter.
1. What got you interested in this topic, and returning to it every year?
My interest in festivals, pagan and otherwise, goes all the way back to my earliest involvement with these matters. Like so many others, I absorbed the myths uncritically and welcomed the ammunition they seemed to give against an overarching, oppressive Christianity. Being able to claim ‘we were here first’ is empowering for pagans, especially young ones. Back in those days, there weren’t nearly so many of us as there are now.
As for my interest in debunking the myths surrounding the festivals, well, that comes a lot later in life. I ran an occult bookshop in Manchester for ten years, which put me in a wonderful and enviable position: access to all the literature I could ever want! The more reading I did, the more holes appeared in the popular ‘Eostre’ narrative. I got into the habit of checking sources rather than simply accepting material at face value. It became rapidly apparent that a great many supposed ‘facts’ were nothing of the sort, and were only being repeated because they told people things they wanted to hear.
I wrote a rough-and-ready article for White Dragon magazine back in the early 2000s that started the ball rolling, and since then it’s become a sort of annual tradition to drag it out and get the weary work of debunking going again, because every year you see the same codswallop circulated. In my view, people deserve better.
2. Why do you think it is so important to be historically accurate in the presentation of myth and symbol?
Well, that really depends on the context. I’m not saying that anyone has to be historically accurate (which is hardly achievable, let’s be honest!) in their spirituality. People have an unassailable right to interpret the divine, however they may see that, in their own way. The last thing I want is to be seen as some sort of pompous pagan bureaucrat telling people the figures on their altar don’t properly reflect the latest archaeological or academic discoveries.
But I do think that pagans, of all people, have an ethical obligation to respect the historicity of the stories they tell, especially when they are telling them to one another. I think we have to do more than pay lip service to such things as lore, tradition, and ‘old ways’. That means recognising the boundaries of our knowledge. It’s no shame to say ‘We do not know what the absolute truth of this matter is’. Stories can emerge from the shadows. Where there’s doubt, there’s room to breathe.
As I see it, to say ‘We do not know for sure whether Eostre existed as a figure of worship’ is far more liberating, far more honest and far more empowering than to say ‘There WAS an Eostre, there HAS TO have been, she DID SO exist, and she had a sacred bunny too.’ The problem with the latter approach is that it standardises the myth. It reduces all that cryptic, compelling potential to a mere lump of monolithic propaganda.
The discipline of the historian, as I see it, is something to be treated with reverence, especially by people who purport to be custodians of the past. It’s bitterly ironic that so many pagans depend on the ancestral past for their sense of identity and yet blithely ignore the findings of academic historians in favour of flavoursome lies that they think empower them.
3. Do you think that a certain amount of the spurious notion that “the Christians stole our festivals” (CSOF) has fed into the modern Eostre myth? Do you think this idea is dangerous? Why?
Yes on both counts. I’d go so far as to say that the whole purpose of the modern Eostre myth is to undermine the Christian Easter, for entirely understandable reasons. I don’t think they are good reasons, but they are understandable.
There are many reasons why the idea is dangerous. Firstly, it peddles a facile and diminutising version of pre-Christian history. According to the CSOF line, there was one group of people called The Christians, and another group called The Pagans, and The Pagans had celebrations on the equinoxes and solstices, and these celebrations were usually about Fertility and about Goddesses, and along came The Christians and they forced all The Pagans to convert, and to make this easier they took all The Pagans’ festivals and Christianised them. All this is meant to have happened in some ill-defined but vaguely European space, during some unspecified time period when things were very muddy and bloody.
The second reason the CSOF line of argument is dangerous is that it’s flat out wrong. It treats Gregory’s letter as some sort of absolute rule obeyed by all The Christians at all times and in all places, rather than as the passing notion it actually was. In the particular case of Easter, it’s painfully easy to explain why Christians didn’t ‘steal’ it. The antecedent of Easter is Passover, Christ being seen as the ‘Lamb of God’ and the perfect Passover sacrifice, and the date of Easter was decided by the early Church in reference to that tradition (though there was a good deal of argument as to when the date actually was – google the Synod of Whitby, for example). For this reason, almost all countries call Easter some variant of ‘Pasch’. It’s only in a relatively small part of the world that people called it Easter, and the only reason why so many people call it Easter now is because of the dominance of the English language.
The third reason is that claiming Christian festivals as somehow ‘pagan’ is exactly what certain fundamentalist Christians want to do. In fact, a good deal of the impetus to deem Easter and Christmas essentially ‘pagan’ comes from that quarter.
4. Do you think it is acceptable to present Eostre and her bunnies and eggs as a modern myth, if we don’t claim that it is ancient? Can we still have our chocolate eggs?
Absolutely! Again, the whole intent here is not to demolish anyone’s personal take on the season, or whatever Goddesses they may choose to honour. The provision of meticulously gathered historical research is meant to be a positive thing, not a negative one. I don’t really see myself as a debunker, when it comes down to it. I’d rather be the kind of person who opens the door to the rich possibilities of doubt and uncertainty. Let people see their own faces in the flames and forms in the shadows; let them make their own links with the mythic past and fill in the blanks with their own inspired imagination. We don’t need some standardised bubblegum Eostre, complete with bunny, presented as if it were a fact.
Debunkers in general need to be careful, I think. The late Terry Pratchett, who was a very wise man indeed, wrote a book called Lords and Ladies. In it, the young witch Magrat Garlick encounters a painting of the famous Queen Ynci of Lancre, a Boudica-like warrior woman. She later finds Queen Ynci’s armour and wears it to defend a castle against attacking elves. In doing so, she feels as if the spirit of Ynci is with her, helping her, making her brave. Through Ynci, she is able to do things she normally wouldn’t dare to do.
Later, Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax are talking together, and we learn what Magrat didn’t know: Queen Ynci never existed. She was invented by a former King of Lancre to add a bit of romantic history. He even had the armour made, hammered together from an old tin bath and some saucepans. Granny Weatherwax asks Nanny Ogg ‘But didn’t you think you ought to tell her that?’ and Nanny answers ‘No.’ Enough said, I think.
5. Is there another myth associated with the Spring Equinox that people could create rituals with?
Nowadays, there are an abundance of myths about the Spring Equinox – take your pick! However, we do run into a bit of a problem in that the celebration of the Spring Equinox per se doesn’t have much of a European pagan precedent. You see, Eostre’s festival (if it existed) wouldn’t have been at the Spring Equinox at all. Eosturmonat, as Bede attests, was the FOURTH lunar month of the Anglo-Saxon year, corresponding roughly to April. This is how come the Christian festival of Pasch coincided with it. Pasch is dated from the Spring Equinox, but does not happen at the Spring Equinox; it falls in April more often than not.
The practice of celebrating the Spring Equinox in this context at all owes much more to the Golden Dawn than it does to ancient pagan tradition. Certainly, calling the Equinox ‘Ostara’ is an entirely modern practice. But so long as we’re aware of that, we can celebrate how we like. Easter traditions, whether or not they may be pagan in origin, are not ‘Spring Equinox’ traditions. If the German Ostarmonat and the Old English Eosturmonath do indicate a spring festival, then it is to those months we must look for the folkloric antecedents of Easter, and not to the Equinox in March.
Disclaimers aside, the one Germanic Easter tradition I do find fascinating is the Osterfuchs or Easter Fox. To quote:
Until the mid-20th Century, according to older literature, it was mainly the Easter Fox who was responsible for the eggs in the Easter tradition. Gradually this was then displaced by the Easter Bunny. A note of 1904 from the Schaumburg area states quite specifically that the eggs were laid not from the Easter Bunny, but the Easter fox. Traditionally, on Holy Saturday the children would prepare a cozy nest of hay and moss for the Easter Fox. They also made sure that the Easter Fox was not disturbed during his visit – for example by shutting up pets for the night. Furthermore, the Easter Fox was described in a Westphalian document of 1910. Interestingly, the tradition seemed at the time to have been in a transition period to the Easter Bunny. Thus we read in Scripture that “… it would look as though the Fox might return before the hare. ” Where the Easter fox comes into the story, we can only surmise today. It was considered early on that it is based on the Pentecostal fox. This is an old custom in which people at Pentecost went with a pet fox from house to house to collect donations. Other descriptions suggest the Easter fox harks back to the tradition of Christmas Gebildbrot pastries.
I have no evidence whatsoever that the Easter Fox represents a survival from pre-Christian times. But wouldn’t it be a wonderful myth to work with?
The only reason anyone thinks Eostre had a rabbit (or hare) companion is because of Jacob Grimm, who in Deustsche Mythologie states ‘Probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara’ without any direct evidence at all. The notion has become incredibly popular, though, because everyone’s heard of the Easter Bunny, and claiming things everyone’s heard of in the name of Paganism is a tiresomely common activity nowadays.
Bluntly, there’s no more evidence that Eostre/Ostara had a hare companion than a fox companion, and the fox tradition seems to be older, so I think we should give her a fox. My daughter says she’ll be building two moss nests this year, one for the Easter Bunny and one for the Easter Fox. (She assures me she’ll label them so they don’t get confused.)
6. Can you tell us a bit about how you celebrate Spring Equinox (if you do)?
I like to say I’m celebrating the Spring Equinox in exactly the same way as my Pagan ancestors did, namely by ignoring it completely…
7. Can you tell us a bit about your Pagan/magical path?
I rarely ever talk about my own beliefs and practices. This is a consequence of my days running the occult bookshop up in Manchester. If you’re going to deal with all paths impartially, you can’t be seen to be on any given side. The moment you are thought to be part of a given group, people naturally and automatically assume biases and prejudices, whether you have them or not. So I always kept my own beliefs out of the picture.
I don’t really like ‘paths’, as a rule. A path, by definition, is something someone else has walked before you. Unless you’re hacking your own idiosyncratic way through the scrub, it’s not really your path at all, is it? On balance, I think I’d rather have a magical machete than a magical path.
8. Anything else you want to add?
The most pernicious thing about the popular Eostre myth – the whole spring goddess with the egg laying bunny bit – is not its falsity but its homogenity. Its purpose is to recast a globally celebrated Christian festival with secular elements in modern Pagan terms. But if we do that, our paganism is nothing but that same global Christianity with the numbers filed off. To reclaim ‘Santa Claus’ or ‘The Easter Bunny’ is to adopt mass-market icons.
I think we have to reaffirm the importance of the local, the personal, the particular. Don’t just accept the stories you’re told uncritically and circulate them. Embrace the uncertainty and tell your own stories. I have no interest in the rosy-cheeked smiling flowers-and-ribbons choccy-box Eostre with basket of decorated eggs and fluffy rabbit that you see all over the place on the pagan Internet.
But a wild-eyed Eostre, a survivor, young and rangy and half-starved from winter, clawing her way up a barren mountainside with her fox at her heels towards a blood-red Spring dawn, grinning in triumph, alive, unbroken, unbreakable? I’ll drink to her any day.
Articles about the Eostre myth by Adrian Bott
- Cavalorn: Eostre: the making of a myth (part 1)
- Cavalorn: Eostre: the making of a myth (part 2)
- Cavalorn: Hunting the spurious Eostre Hare
- Cavalorn: Eostre, Ostara, and the Easter Fox
- Rational blogs: No, it’s not all about Ishtar. Some mythbusting Easter facts from your friendly pagan sceptic.
Books by Adrian Bott
Adrian has written numerous children’s books.
Many thanks to Adrian for this interview, and for all his research on this topic.
From a Pagan perspective, the Easter story is one of many stories of dying and resurrecting deities. In these stories, the hero dies, descends to the underworld, and returns to the mortal world bringing some blessing or new knowledge.
Persephone is taken to the Underworld by force (though in earlier versions, it seems to have been voluntary), but returns every six months; Gilgamesh goes to the Faraway to try to find a herb of immportality to revive his friend (possibly lover) Enkidu; Orpheus goes to rescue Eurydice; Inanna descends to the underworld, though her reasons for doing so are unclear. Jesus goes there to rescue the souls of those trapped in Gehenna (this is referenced in the only letter of the Apostle Peter). In Christus Victor theology, which is prevalent among the Eastern Orthodox churches, Jesus “tramples down death by death” and because he is God, cannot be contained by death, and so transcends it. He then returns transformed into a being who can manifest as he chooses — by the Sea of Galilee, or on the road to Emmaus.
The mythical journey undergone by all these heroes and heroines is a descent into death and the underworld, returning transformed into something greater, and bringing back a gift for humanity. The hymn Now the green blade rises references this mythological and transformational aspect of the Easter story.
Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.
The spiritual journey involves the same transformation — the death of the ego, the descent into the dark night of the soul, and the resurrection as the True Self. In Orthodox Christian theology, this transformation is called theosis, literally deification, making us divine. It’s not too hard to see an analogy with the Buddhist concept of enlightenment. As James Martineau, the 19th century Unitarian theologian, said, “The Incarnation is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally, and God everlastingly. Humanity is the susceptible organ of the Divine, and he bends into it to dwell there.”
In Orthodox churches, Easter is celebrated as a unified event, and is regarded as being in the present, the eternal Now. So on Easter Sunday, people greet each other with “Christos Anesti” (Christ is risen) – because he is risen in their hearts and in the church which is his mystical body.
In the Eleusinian Mysteries, people witnessed the unfolding drama of the story of Persephone’s descent into the Underworld, and underwent a profound transformation or initiation as a result.
You can enjoy Easter on a mythical and mystical level. There’s no need to take it literally to enjoy the unfolding drama of the Mystery. We can witness the many stories of death and resurrection, and experience transformation ourselves, like participants in a mystery tradition.
In a ground-breaking book called Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson pointed out the underlying metaphors used in many figures of speech. For example, the underlying metaphor “Argument is War” has us talking about winning an argument, wiping the floor with our opponents, and so on. Imagine how different arguments might be if the underlying metaphor was “Argument is Dance”. Another example they give is “A Relationship is a Ship”, where we talk about marriages foundering, being on the rocks, and breaking up.
Similarly, in The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Myth as Metaphor and as Religion, Joseph Campbell explored some of the bodily metaphors underlying religious symbolism and mythology.
Metaphors are a very powerful thing. They can dictate how we we see the world, and therefore how we behave. They can constrain our expectations of what will happen, and how it will happen. The metaphorical connotations of an idea shape and limit what can be said about it.
In a comment on an earlier post, C Brachyrhynchos wrote:
Many of those metaphors involve a fair bit of projection of human cultural ideas onto things that are distinctly non-human and incomprehensible, or even human diversity. Take for example the idea of masculine and feminine as broadly applicable metaphors. That metaphor breaks as applied to many human beings who don’t experience gender that way, much less fungi that have five different sexes, androgynous algae, self-propagating plants, or, weirder still, organisms whose gender involves mutualistic relationships involving multiple other species.
And that’s not even touching the equally complex realms of the non-biological, formal, or philosophical. To say that being is Being is one thing. To say that it’s *a person* with likes and dislikes, prophetic speech, children (mortal or immortal), and a relationship is another thing altogether.
None of this is beyond the pale for religion. If it’s reasonable to consider deus a metaphor then it’s reasonable to doubt (which is the essence of atheism, not denial) the relationship between signifier and signified in that metaphor. Negative theology, the stripping away of those metaphors until you’re left with questions and uncertainty is an ancient practice.
I have written before (and so has Christine) about the limitations and negative effects of the gender binary in much of Pagan mythology. I have also argued for a more nuanced view of gender. I see that in my previous attempts to write about this, I didn’t actually move that far from the binary model, but I think I have moved further away from it now.
I also agree that the practice of stripping away metaphors until you are left with questions and uncertainty is ancient, and is a very good thing. It is known as apophatic theology or the via negativa, and it is a very important part of my spirituality. I think we need more apophatic theology in Paganism. However, according to Matthew Fox, there are four ways to engage with spirituality, of which the via negativa is only one. The others are via positiva, via creativa and via transformativa.
However, saying something is “only a metaphor” is a bit disingenuous, because we live by metaphors and they shape our thoughts.
There is hope, though, because the power of metaphors is such that if you create a new metaphor to live by, you can create a new reality. For instance, many Pagans have adopted the eightfold wheel of the year (eight seasonal festivals), and this metaphor, which expresses sacred time, has shaped our relationship with the cosmos and with Nature. So if we want to change the binary model of gender, we could create a more powerful metaphor to replace the gender binary. We can use the examples of “fungi that have five different sexes, androgynous algae, self-propagating plants, or, weirder still, organisms whose gender involves mutualistic relationships involving multiple other species” as a metaphor for the diversity we wish to celebrate in human sexuality.
Stories are very powerful. Many years ago, I saw a made-for-TV film which had the resounding slogan “Folklore can kill” (which inspired the title of this post). In the film, weird things start happening to a folklorist who is investigating urban legends – the legends are happening right in front of him, but he is in denial, insisting that folklore can’t come true… but it does.
If you attend a Pagan camp, or a UU or Unitarian church service, there will very likely be stories. What will be the bit you remember? The talks and workshops you attended, the sermon you heard, or the stories? I can guarantee that the thing you will remember will be the stories. Stories speak directly to both hemispheres of the brain, and that’s probably why they are remembered. Jack Cohen has suggested that Homo sapiens should be renamed Pan narrans, the storytelling ape. People like stories.
So if you take all the metaphors away, then you’ll have to take away all the stories. That doesn’t just mean an absence of fairy tales and folk tales and mythology; it also means an absence of inspiring stories about science, or stories from history or literature. And even in this story-free vacuum, people would instinctively create more stories.
So, given that you can’t have a metaphor-free vacuum; and given that stories and metaphors are so powerful that they can actually kill (and make no mistake, the gender binary claims a victim every time a transgender person is murdered or commits suicide) — given this, we had better make sure to choose liberating and inclusive metaphors to express our religion. And if a metaphor (such as the gender binary) is broken, then we need to fix it.
Further reading on metaphor
- Metaphors We Live By – George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, 1981 (reissued 2008)
- Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind – George Lakoff, 1991
- The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor As Myth and As Religion, Joseph Campbell, 1986 (reissued 2002)
Further reading on sexuality and gender