Ancient Light will be closed over New Year’s Weekend. (Friday/Saturday/Sunday) We’ll return to regular hours on 1/2/17! The newsletters for Saturday and Sunday may be late if I have no wifi.
Minus Tide at 6:59 PM of 0.5 feet.
42F with no wind. The sky was dip-dyed, shading from the beautiful clear cerulean in the northwest, to nearly white in the south-east below the sun. There’s high cirrus and a contrail tattering away, but otherwise it’s just very still.
I was so tired yesterday that I don’t remember much. We had a number of people in shopping, and they managed even with the shelf units right in the way. As the day went on Tempus managed to shift a few things, but it was pretty tight all day. I hope those are going to vanish today.
We headed home earlier than usual and I crashed for awhile, then got up and did some chores before crawling back in. As soon as I did, though, my brain started making lists and it took an hour or more for that to stop!
Today Tempus is going to try to rearrange storage enough to get the stuff out of the aisle. At least it’s dry enough to stuff can be hauled out to the sidewalk! I have to pack and to figure out where my class box got put. I kept it out to sort it and it’s vanished! Chaos in the shop. We really need to get things organized.
A Ken Gagne Photo from this morning!
Today’s Plant is Nodding Onion, Allium cernuum. This is sometimes called Lady’s Leek. It’s an edible plant in the Allium family, but not particularly choice. (Yeah, personal experience…) It’s called “Nodding” because the inflorescences, the “flower”, tend to droop, unlike a lot of the alliums that end up with a ball on a stick. Most of the plants in this family are edible, but be careful! There are a few that are either disgusting or at least mildly poisonous and there are bulbs that *are* poisonous that are easy to mistake. Onions have been very important as a food/nutrition source for a long while and have even been worshiped at times. These are grown as ornamentals, mostly, but are found wild here on the coast. – Masculine, Mars, Fire, Isis – Cut and dry the flowers and add to a grapevine or rosemary wreath for a house protection spell. These are great for house blessings. Grown in pots indoors or in the garden they protect against evil and particularly against poisonous snakes. When you harvest in the fall, make a decorative braid of onions and hang over bedroom doors to prevent infections. Nodding onions are great for this purpose because, not being particularly great as food, you won’t mind replanting them in the spring as they start to sprout! Purify swords and athames after particularly heavy magicks, by rubbing the blade with a cut bulb, then wash with clear water and oil with rosemary-infused almond oil. Place the dried flowers in a vase at the head of the bed, or pack into a pillow sachet to help clarify prophetic dreams. More here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allium_cernuum and on Alliums here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allium
Today’s feast is the day of Thomas a Becket. He was Archbishop of Canterbury when he was assassinated in the cathedral. It was a deed that shocked even the violent medieval world. There is some of the history here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Becket Senista heather, Erica genistopha, is the plant associated with this Saint.
The shop opens at 11am! Winter Hours are 11am-5pm Thursday through Monday, although we’re there a lot later most nights. Need something off hours? Give us a call at 541-563-7154 or Facebook or email at firstname.lastname@example.org If we’re supposed to be closed, but it looks like we’re there, try the door. If it’s open, the shop’s open! In case of bad weather, check here at the blog for updates, on our Facebook as Ancient Light, or call the shop.
Love & Light,
Today’s Astro & Calendar
New Moon – The beginning of a new cycle. Keywords for the New phase are: beginning, birth, emergence, projection, clarity. It is the time in a cycle that you are stimulated to take a new action. During this phase the new cycle is being seeded by your vision, inner and outer. Engage in physical activity. Spend time alone. VISUALIZE your goals for the 29.6-day cycle ahead. The new moon is for starting new ventures, new beginnings. Also love and romance, health or job hunting. God/dess aspect: Infancy, the Cosmic Egg, Eyes-Wide-Open – Associated God/dess: Inanna who was Ereshkigal. Phase ends on 12/30 at 10:53am. Waxing Moon Magick – The waxing moon is for constructive magick, such as love, wealth, success, courage, friendship, luck or health, protection, divination. Any working that needs extra power, such as help finding a new job or healings for serious conditions, can be done now. Also, love, knowledge, legal undertakings, money and dreams. Phase ends at the Tide Change on 1/12, at 3:35 AM.
Orion is now up in the east-southeast soon after nightfall, with his three-star Belt nearly vertical. The Belt points up toward Aldebaran and, even higher, the Pleiades. In the other direction, it points down to where bright Sirius will rise around 7 or 8 p.m. (depending on your location) and twinkle furiously.
New Moon (exact at 1:53 a.m. on the 29th Eastern Standard Time). A new lunar month begins. Unlike a calendar month, which averages 30.437 days long, a lunar month (from one new Moon to the next) averages 29.531 days. This means that, on average, you’ll see the Moon in the same phase about one day earlier every calendar month.
Jupiter (magnitude –1.9, in Virgo) rises around 1 a.m. and shines brightly high the south-southeast by early dawn. Spot Spica 5° below it. In a telescope, Jupiter is 35 arcseconds in diameter: relatively small as Jupiter goes.
Goddess Month of Hestia runs from 12/26 – 1/22
Celtic Tree Month of Beth/Birch, Dec 24 – Jan 20, Beith – (BEH), birch
Runic half-month of Eihwaz/Eoh 12/28-1/11 Represents the dead, and the yew tree, sacred to Winter shamanism. Nigel Pennick, The Pagan Book of Days, Destiny Books,
©2016 M. Bartlett, Some parts separately copyright
Celtic Tree Month of Beth/Birch, Dec 24 – Jan 20, Beith – (BEH), birch – The silver birch (Betula pendula Roth) is the most common tree birch in much of Europe. It grows up to 30 m (100 feet) high, but is more often found in spreading clumps on sandy soils. It is one of the first trees to colonize an area after a mature forest is cut; this is probably a large part of its symbolic connection with new beginnings. It is cultivated in North America, often under the name of weeping birch. The three trees in my front yard form root sprouts that would take over the bed where they are planted if I didn’t cut them back. The common birch (B. pubescens Ehrh.) is almost as widespread as the silver birch, but grows primarily on acid or peaty soils. It can reach 20 m (65 feet) in height. Birches are members of the Birch family (Betulaceae). Curtis Clark
Tides for Alsea Bay
Day High Tide Height Sunrise Moon Time % Moon
~ /Low Time Feet Sunset Visible
Th 29 High 12:54 AM 6.8 7:52 AM Rise 7:54 AM 0
~ 29 Low 6:12 AM 3.2 4:45 PM Set 5:37 PM
~ 29 High 11:57 AM 8.4
~ 29 Low 6:59 PM -0.5
Affirmation/Thought for the Day – When you love yourself, others will do the same.
~ Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. – John Watson
~ The door to happiness opens outward. – Soren Kierkegaard
~ A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort. – Herm Albright
~ We must accept the finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope. – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness blow the rest away. ~Dinah Craik
Candlemas is one of my favorite holidays of the year with its promise of a new beginning. Poised at the start of early spring, when buds and bare green stems are poking through the soil in some more temperate parts of the country, like the Pacific Northwest where I live, it renews my belief that I can make my life better, shed the old skins of past beliefs and bad habits and launch into a new bloom.
The promises of the return of the light and the renewal of life made at the winter solstice are now becoming manifest. It’s the dawn of the year. It’s time to creep out of the hibernation of winter, cautiously like the Ground Hog who supposedly emerges on this day to check his shadow. It’s the time of germination. It’s the traditional time for new beginnings in pagan covens, when new members are initiated and take a new name, while solitary practitioners might dedicate themselves to a deity and make a pledge to a course of action or study during the year. This initiation may come to you whether you choose it or not. Vicki Noble wrote in Shakti Woman about the powerful initiatory dream that activated her kundalini energy which came to her on Candlemas.
I’ve had a harder time than usual discerning which holidays to include in this packet, mostly because the two strands of Candlemas (I think of them as white and red, new moon and full, innocence and spring fever, candle wax and hot flame, Agnes and Agatha) are interwoven into so many holidays of early spring including:
The white thread of Candlemas
- Imbolc, the Celtic festival whose rituals have probably been inherited by
- St Bridget
- Purification of our Lady
- Sementiva, an ancient Roman sowing festival
- Ground Hog’s Day
- St Blaise, on whose early February holiday seeds are blessed
- St Agnes
The red thread: full moon festivals of early spring
- St Agatha, whose celebration features the same torches that probably once burned for Juno Februata
- Lupercalia, the ancient purification/spring fever ritual of the Romans that became
- Valentines Day
- Mardi Gras
The Quarter Days
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the quarter days are “the four days fixed by custom as marking off the quarters of the year, on which tenancy of houses usually begins and ends, and the payment of rent and other quarterly charges falls due.” Both Maire MacNeill and the OED make a distinction between the English and Scottish (Celtic) quarter days (sometimes the English call the Scottish quarter days cross-quarter-days, and vice versa):
|Imbolc/Candlemas (Feb 1)||Lady Day (Mar 25)|
|Beltane/Whitsun (May 1)||Midsummer/St John (June 24)|
|Lughnasa/Lammas (Aug 1)||
Michaelmas (Sep 29)
|Halloween/Samhain (Nov 1)|
|Martinmas (Nov 11)||Christmas (Dec 24)|
The English quarter days are closely aligned with the equinoxes and solstices (although they have been shifted slightly to fall on the nearest Church holidays). The equinoxes and the solstices are astronomically determined, based on when the sun moves into a particular zodiac sign, which is why they slip around (over a 3 day period) from year to year. By choosing the closest church holiday, the quarter days became fixed on the same date each year, more convenient for planning.
The Celtic or Scottish quarter days are related to agricultural phenomenon rather than the movements of the sun. Feb 1st (Candlemas/Imbolc) is the time when branches bud and bulbs poke through the soil (at least here in the Pacific Northwest where our seasons correspond quite nicely with the old Celtic seasons). May 1 (May Day or Beltane) is the time when the May tree flowers and the flowers begin their dance of attraction. August 1 (Lammas or Lughnasad) is the time of the first harvest, when the grain is cut. And November 1 (Halloween or Samhain) is the last harvest, the end of the agricultural year and the start of the dark time of hibernation.
In America, we tend to think of the equinoxes and solstices as the start of each season but the old British names for the holidays (for instance Midsummer on June 24) suggest an older understanding in which they mark the midpoint of each season. The Celtic quarter days are then the starting dates for each season. This was certainly the way the Celts looked at it. They thought of Samhain (Nov 1) as the start of winter, which was also the start of their year, and Beltane (May 1) as the start of summer, when the flocks were driven out to their summer pastures.
The quarter days have always been seen as significant moments in time. They liminal times, like gateways between the seasons, sometimes viewed as auspicious and sometimes as dangerous.
In Celtic lands, these quarter days were celebrated with great assemblies, like the Teltown Fair (on August 1). On these occasions, people gathered for religious ceremonies, judicial proceedings, marriages and fairs, games and races. Great bonfires are associated with most of the Celtic quarter days; often fires were rekindled. Protection rites were also performed: Bridget’s crosses were made for Imbolc, special bannocks crumbled in the corners of barns on Lughnasa.
It was unlucky on quarter days to give away anything (just as taking anything out of the house on New Year’s Day brings bad luck) so too, giving away fire (in the form of kindling or ember) or milk or rennet might mean the household would go without in the coming season. This ill luck applied to the Monday after the Quarter Day as well.
To prevent your cows from being bewitched, draw water from the well before sunrise, pour it into a pail over a silver coin and give the “silvered” water to your animals to drink. I like this idea of silvered water for protection–perhaps you could use this on your house plants, your domestic animals and yourself.
The first Monday of the Quarter,
Take care that luck leave not thy dwelling.
Quarter days were also good days for divination. On the island of Lewis, girls noted the name of the first man they met on a quarter day, since he would have the same last name as their future spouse. The quarter days were considered lucky for getting married, setting out on a journey or starting a new project.
According to MacNeill, special bannocks were made on each of the Quarter Days: a large one for the family and smaller ones for each individual. People ate them outdoors and threw a piece over each shoulder, saying: “Here to thee, wolf, spare my sheep; there to thee, fox, spare my lambs; here to thee, eagle, spare my goats; there to thee, raven, spare my kids; her to thee, martin, spare my fowls; there to thee, harrier, spare my chickens.”
The Monday after a quarter day is another time for a special divination called a frith. The frithir fasts during the day and at sunrise, barefoot and bareheaded, walks around the household fire three times saying prayers to the Virgin Mary and St Bridget. Then with closed eyes, the frithir goes to the threshold, places a hand on either side and asks a specific question about the coming season. She then opens her eyes and notes what she sees, interpreting them in light of her question.
An ancient Celtic festival considered the first day of spring. Unfortunately little is known about the rituals associated with this holiday, except that ewes were milked. Various scholars have derived the word Imbolc from Ol-melc (ewe’s milk) because the ewes are lactating at this time, Im-bolg (around the belly) in honor of the swelling belly of the earth goddess, and folcaim (I wash) because of the rites of purification which took place at this time. All of these meanings capture themes of the festival.
A medieval quatrain fills in a few more sketchy details:
Tasting every food in order
This is what behoves at Imbolc
Washing of hand and feet and head
It is thus I say
Much of the lore associated with Imbolc was probably absorbed into the customs surrounding St. Bridget’s holiday on February 1.
The dandelion lights its spark
Lest Brigid find the wayside dark.
And Brother Wind comes rollicking
For joy that she has brought the spring.
Young lambs and little furry folk
Seek shelter underneath her cloak. – M. Letts
February 1st is the feast day of St Brigid, who began her life as a pagan goddess and ended up a Christian saint. The great high goddess, Bride or Brigid, was a fire and fertility goddess, perhaps embodied in the stars in the constellation we view as Orion. In her temple at Kildare, her priestesses tended an eternal flame. She presided over all transformations: birth and brewing, metal-smithing and poetry, the passage from winter to spring.
In Celtic lore, she is the daughter of the Dagda, the Good God, who marries her to Bres of the Fomors. Her name may be derived from Gaelic breo aigit or fiery arrow or (the Matthews prefer ) a Sanskrit derivation Brahti or high one. As Bride, the Queen of Heaven, she seems to have been a sun goddess. In one tale, St Brigid carries a burning coal in her apron. In another tale, flames engulf her body without burning her.
The legends about the goddess Brigid gradually became associated with the (somewhat spurious) Saint Brigid who founded the first convent in Ireland (where else?) at Kildare. Her emblem is a cow and many legends tell of how Brigid kept guests at her abbey supplied (often miraculously) with milk and butter. Her flower is the dandelion, whose yellow flower is the color of butter and whose stem when broken releases a milky sap. St Brigid supposedly helped at the birth of Jesus, thus she is the patron saint of midwives and pregnant women. She is also the patron of poets, scholars, healers, dairymaids and blacksmiths, recalling many of the arts under the protection of the goddess Bride.
On the eve of her feast day in Ireland, people put out a loaf of bread on the windowsill for the Saint and an ear of corn for her white cow, offerings for the grain goddess like the loaf buried in the first furrow. Wheat stalks are woven into X-shaped crosses to be hung from rafters as charms to protect homes from fire and lightning.
In Ireland, the birds known as oyster-catchers (in Gaelic they are called Gille righde, the servants of Bride) appear on St Brigid’s day and are said to bring spring with them. Another famous emergence is described in this ancient poem:
This is the day of Bride,
The Queen will come from the Mound.
This is the day of Bride,
The serpent will come from the hole.
The snake links Brigid with the Roman Tellus Mater, the chthonic earth mother honored in the rituals of Sementiva, and often shown suckling a snake. The snake has always been a symbol of resurrection and new life, both for the way it emerges from the underworld and the way it sheds its skin.
During the 19th century, Alexander Carmichael collected and compiled folk customs from the West Highlands, including many revolving around Bridget. On her holiday, women get together to make Brigid’s crosses at night. They also dress the corn doll or last sheaf (from Lammas or autumn equinox) in a bridal gown and put her in a basket which is called the Bride’s bed. A wand, candle or other phallic object is laid across her and the Bride is invited to come for her bed is ready. If the blankets are rumpled in the morning, this is seen as a good omen. Obviously the goddess whose mating brings life to the land is not the abbess of a convent but the great fertility goddess.
In the west Scottish highlands, midwives blessed newborn babes with fire and water in Brigid’s name. The midwife would pass the baby back and forth across the fire three times (perhaps recalling Demeter’s dipping of Triptolemus in the fire), carry the baby around the fire there times and then perform the “midwife’s baptism” with water, saying
A small wave for your form
A small wave for you voice
A small wave for your speech
A small wave for your means
A small wave for your generosity
A small wave for your appetite
A small wave for your wealth
A small wave for your life
A small wave for your health
Nine wave of grace upon you
Waves of the Giver of Health.
In most cultures, the woman of the house is responsible for keeping the hearth fire burning. In the west Highlands, the housewife spoke a charm invoking Brigid as she carried out this task. The embers were spread in a circle, then divided into three equal heaps.and one central heap. Three turves of peat were placed between the three heaps and the center and the whole covered with ash. The charm wrapped the protection of Brigid around the house and its occupants. Brigid is also the goddess of many healing wells. Thus her symbols are both water and fire.
Pamela Berger has written a book, The Goddess Obscured, about the rituals celebrated at the time of the first sowing when the earth is awakened and the seed placed in the belly of the earth. This is a significant moment in a community which depends on the earth for sustenance. The fields were purified and offerings were made to the goddess.
This medieval Anglo-Saxon plowing charm, preserved in a manuscript in the British Museum and recorded by Berger, was said by the farmer while cutting the first furrow:
Whole be thou Earth
Mother of men.
In the lap of God,
Be thou as-growing.
Be filled with fodder
For fare-need ofmen.
The farmer then took a loaf of bread, kneaded it with milk and holy water, and laid it under the first furrow, saying:
Acre full fed,
Bring forth fodder for men!
And the God who wrought the ground,
Grant us the gifts of growing,
That the corn, all the corn,
May come unto our need.
Berger suggests that the Candlemas rituals for appeasing the earth at plowing may be derived from a Roman festival, Sementiva (from the word for seed which also gives us semen). Ovid is the first to mention it and includes it in his calendar of festivals under late January, but it was apparently not fixed to a particular date but took place whenever the fields were ready for sowing. To appease the earth goddess, who has been been “wounded” by the plow, the farmer made offerings to Tellus Mater and Ceres which included flat cakes, seed and a pregnant sow. Tellus Mater, the Roman earth mother, was often depicted in early art with a snake nursing at her breast.
Later Joannes Lydus says Sementiva was celebrated on two days, the day of sowing and seven days later when the seeds began to sprout. On the first day, sacrifices were made to Demeter (who corresponded with Tellus Mater), the earth that received the grain, and the seventh day, sacrifices were made to Kore (who corresponded to Ceres), the creative force of the seed.
A first century BC poet Tibullus describes the festival in more detail. Participants abstained from sex the night before, bathed and put on new clothing. Ceres and Bacchus were invoked and asked to provide abundance and protect the grain from danger. A lamb was sacrificed and the cattle and fields were purified. Perhaps the cattle were driven between smoky bonfires as the Celts did at Beltane or torches were carried around the fields.
Virgil describes a typical procession around the field in this passage:
…But chiefly pay
Fit worship to the gods. Make sacrifice
Each year to sovereign Ceres, when the grass
Is green and glad, the winter making end
And gentle Spring is in the air, when lambs
Are fattening, when the wine grows smooth and mild,
And sweet is slumber in cool hillside shade.
Let all the country youth of manly prime
On Ceres call, bearing her tribute due
Of honey mixed with milk and sweet, new wine.
Three times around the freshly bladed corn
The blessed victim guide, while all the choir
In gladsome company an anthem sing,
Bidding the goddess to their lowly doors.
And let no reaper touch the ripened corn
With sickle keen until his brows bind
With twine of oak-leaf, while he trips along
In artless dance with songs in Ceres’ praise.
The festival of Brigid is one of emergence. In America, instead of goddesses emerging from the underworld or serpents slithering out of holes, we watch for the ground hog to pop out of his burrow.
Many animals are emerging from hibernation as the hours of sunlight increase. The bear is a true hibernator; it sleeps through the winter with a slower heart rate and a lower body temperature, without eating or urinating or defecating. Many other mammals that seem to hibernate, like raccoons, skunks, woodchucks, chipmunks, hamsters and hedgehogs, actually go into dormancy, rather than true hibernation, and wake up occasionally to move around and eat.
In England, the animal that comes out of hibernation on this day is the badger. Since there are no badgers in America, this role was assigned to the groundhog (or woodchuck). If the groundhog comes out of his hole and sees his shadow on February 2nd, he goes back in and winter continues. If he doesn’t see his shadow, then winter will soon be over.
The English have many rhymes which prognosticate about future weather based on the weather on Candlemas Day:
If Candlemas Day bring snow and rain
Winter is gone and won’t come again
If Candlemas Day be clear and bright
Winter will have another flight.
These are all similar to the American custom of predicting the weather on Groundhog’s Day, in that you don’t want the groundhog to see his shadow. In Germany, they say that the shepherd would rather see the wolf enter his stable than the sun on Candlemas Day.
The ancient Armenians used the wind to predict the weather for the coming year by watching the smoke drifting up from the bonfires lit in honor of Mihr. The Scots also observed the wind on Candlemas as recorded in this rhyme:
If this night’s wind blow south
It betokeneth warmth and growth;
If west, much milk and fish in the sea;
If north, much cold and snow there will be;
If east, the trees will bear much fruit;
If north-east, flee it, man, woman and brute.
Purification of Mary Our Lady of Candelaria
The Catholic Church, as it was wont to do, found an opportunity to superimpose a Christian holiday on an existing pagan festival.
Jewish women went through a purification ceremony 40 days after the birth of a male child (80 days after the birth of a female child) and brought a lamb to the temple to be sacrificed. According to Mosaic law, Mary and Joseph would also have brought their first-born son to the temple forty days after his birth to offer him to God, like all first-born sons, along with a pair of turtledoves.
The Presentation was originally celebrated in Jerusalem on November 21st but once Christ’s birth was fixed on December 25th (near the winter solstice), the Presentation and Purification rituals would fall forty days later, in early February when torches were carried around the fields.
First celebrated on February 14th, in 350 at Jerusalem, when it would have coincided with the Roman festival of Lupercalia, it was later moved up to February 2nd. Pope Sergius declared it should be celebrated with processions and candles, to commemorate Simeon’s description of the child Jesus as a light to lighten the Gentiles. Candles blessed on this day were used as a protection from evil.
This is the ostensible reason given for the Catholic custom of bringing candles to church to be blessed by the priest on February 2nd, thus the name Candle-Mass. The candles are then taken home where they serve as talismans and protections from all sorts of disasters, much like Brigid’s crosses. In Hungary, according to Dorothy Spicer, February 2nd is called Blessing of the Candle of the Happy Woman. In Poland, it is called Mother of God who Saves Us From Thunder.
Actually this festival has long been associated with fire. Spicer writes that in ancient Armenia, this was the date of Cvarntarach, a pagan spring festival in honor of Mihr, the God of fire. Originally, fires were built in his honor in open places and a lantern was lit which burned in the temple throughout the year. When Armenia became Christian, the fires were built in church courtyards instead. People danced about the flames, jumped over them and carried home embers to kindle their own fires from the sacred flames.
The motif of fire also shows up in candle processions honoring St Agatha and the legends of St Brigid. The fire represents the spark of new life, like the seeds blessed in northern Europe on St Blaise’s Day and carried home to “kindle” the existing seed.
I vividly remember St Blaise’s Day from a Catholic childhood for on this day we went into the dim church and knelt at the Communion rail while the priest came up to each of us and held a pair of crossed white candles against our throat, to ward off disease. (The crossed candles create the same shape as the Brigid’s cross, obviously an ancient protection symbol.)
An early Bishop of Armenia (where people worshipped Mihr, the god of fire, with bonfires and carried home embers to kindle their own hearth fires), Blaise became the patron of throat diseases because he saved a child from choking.
Like St Nicholas, St Blaise appears to be one of those saints who accumulated the legends and lores of earlier deities and folk customs around his name, perhaps because his name, sounds like wheat (ble) in French or crops (biade) in Italian.
In medieval times, he was the patron saint of plowmen. On his holiday, women brought a pail of seeds to the church to be blessed. Half of the seed was left as an offering to the church, the other half taken home and mixed with the regular seed before plowing.
St Blaise was also the patron saint of shepherds and the woolen industry because he was allegedly martyred on the stone table used for combing out wool and flayed with the prickly metal combs that remove tiny stones from the wool. As with other saints who suffered peculiar forms of martyrdom, the connection with sheep probably came first. Both St Bridget and St Agnes are also associated with sheep and this is the time of the year when lambs are being born.
Carol Field says that the feast day of San Biagio is especially celebrated in Italian towns where wool was worked. One of the most elaborate ceremonies takes place in Taranta Peligna, a small community in Abruzzo, where the townspeople work communally to make hundreds of special breads called panicelle in the shape of a four-fingered hand. The fingers are said to represent the collaboration of dyers, spinners, weavers and finishers The breads are baked on February 1st, but distributed on Feb 3rd, the official holiday, at the church at the same time the priest is blessing the throats of the faithful.
In Lombardy, people eat a slice of panettone on St Blaise’s day to protect against sore throats during the year. In Serra San Bruno in Calabria, the cookie for San Biagio is called an abbacolo and is baked in the form of a question mark or bishop’s scepter. The young men of the town offer them to their sweethearts. If the girl breaks the piece in two and gives part back to the boy, keeping the other for herself, it means she will marry him. Sicilians serve tiny white breads shaped like grasshoppers and called panuzzi or cavadduzzi or miliddi, thus honoring the saint who rid Sicily of an infestation of grasshoppers.
The LaPlante sisters in their light-hearted guide to Catholic saints, recommend the following ritual, adapted from the Catholic throat-blessing ceremony, to be used whenever you are in need of healing. Bake (or purchase) two long skinny loaves of bread (or use two candles). Light another candle, preferably beeswax. Cross the two loaves (or candles) at your throat and say this prayer:
Pray for me
[Command that this obstruction Go up or go down]
Deliver me from illnesses of the throat
And every other evil.
Then eat the bread and drink a cup of tea (sweetened with honey) while the candle burns.
Blaise is invoked against wolves since he supposedly forced a wolf to return a pig he had snatched from a poor widow. But the Greek Orthodox honor St Blaise, under the name of St Vlasios, on February 11th. If you have to work on this day, you should first sew a cloth bag behind your back and get someone to ask you what you are sewing. The proper reply is: “I am sewing stone and whetstone. I am sewing up the wolf’s jaw.” I find intriguing the mention of the whetstone (which I associate with Brigid and her patronage of metalcraft) and the wolf, the animal of Lupercalia.
The Slavonic god of farm animals is called Vlas or Volos and is definitely lurking behind the guise of St Blaise. In Slavic areas, it is traditional to eat goat or mutton (from animals slaughtered in front of the church) and wheat cooked in butter and honey. In Aetolia, women are not supposed to carry firewood and it was said that Vlasios Cattlestrangler would drown any beasts of burden carrying loads on this day.
St Agatha is a third century Sicilian martyr. Like St Agnes, she was a lovely, noble and wealthy young girl, who was martyred for her refusal to marry. She had attracted the attention of a powerful man, Quintanus, the king (or consul) of Sicily, who subjected her to terrible tortures when she spurned him. Perhaps the worse, certainly the most gruesome: her breasts were torn off. She was also put into a brothel, raped, racked, beaten, torn with iron hooks, burnt with torches and imprisoned without food or water She finally expired after being rolled over live coals and broken potsherds.
This picture of St Agatha from Lives of the Saints shows her surrounded by symbolic objects–a bell, a brazier of smoking coals and a pair of iron tongs (perhaps those used to rip off her breasts)–with Mount Etna (looking very much like a breast) smoking in the background. Early Christian icons showed Agatha carrying her breasts on a plate. Later they were mistaken for bells and she became the patron saint of bell founders. She is also the patroness of nurses, the protector of valleys and is invoked for protection from breast diseases and fire. In Italy, special pastries or nougats, shaped like breasts and called St. Agatha’s breasts, are eaten on her feast day.
Her feast day is February 5th but the festivities in Catania, the center of her worship begin on February 1st. It is celebrated with poetry contests, fireworks, music, confetti and processions. Wooden structures called candelore which are shaped like bell-towers are carried through the streets. When they stop, muskets are fired and the men who carry the candelore perform the annacata, a dance in which each one waves his candle about trying to make it burn out first. St Agatha’s veil, which was taken from her tomb and is preserved at Catania, is said to help prevent eruptions of Mount Etna
Agatha’s name comes from a Greek word, agathos, meaning good, which was the epithet of many Greek divinities, including the agathos daimon (the good spirit of the household) and Agatha Tyche (good fortune).
Perhaps Agatha’s predecessor was a fertility goddess whose prominently-breasted figure was carried about the fields during sowing time. Berger in The Goddess Obscured describes the importance of such customs at this time of the year when the fields are plowed in preparation for sowing. Some scholars have noted parallels between the festival of the Ship of Isis celebrated in Egypt around March 5th and the worship of St Agatha in Catania. The Isis festival, described by Apuleius, included a torch-lit procession with worshippers carrying an image of the goddess. One of the priests carried a golden vessel shaped like a breast from which milk poured to the ground.
St Agnes was a 13-year-old Roman girl who was martyred during the reign of Diocletian in the fourth century BCE. Like many saints of this time period (Lucy is another good example), the story of her life is spurious, perhaps based on nothing more than her name. One legend says that she refused the suit of a Roman noble. Her father, a prefect, condemned her to be exposed in a public place but her long hair grew miraculously longer and covered her entirely. Another legend says she was the daughter of a virgin and a man who had renounced sexual love (this seems to imply she was a miraculous child like St David, Merlin or Christ). She was killed for refusing to marry a Roman officer, saying she already had a spouse who could not be seen with mortal eyes. She is thus the patroness of young girls and chastity. Accused of being a Christian by her rejected suitor, she was placed in a brothel where she inspired such awe in the male patrons that none dared approach her except for one foolish fellow who was struck blind for his impudence. Eventually she was condemned to death for refusing to renounce her faith. “She went to the place of execution more cheerfully than others go to a wedding,” wrote Ambrose, himself a saint.
Agnes is usually pictured with a lamb and lilies. Her name comes from the Greek word agnos (chaste) but it was early on confused with the Latin agnus (which means lamb). In Rome, two lambs are brought into the church of Sant Agnese on her feast day, where they are presented at the altar and blessed. The wool shorn from these sheep is used to weave the pope’s pallium for the year. Keats in his poem, “The Eve of St Agnes,” refers to the holy loom used by the secret sisterhood to weave St Agnes’ wool. Other saints with feast days around this time are also associated with sheep and lambs (St Brigid and St Blaise) and this is the start of the lambing season in England. Perhaps St Agnes carries the qualities of a goddess who protected lambs. Walker says she is a Roman-Jewish version of the Holy Ewe Lamb (Agna), virgin incarnation of the Ewe-Goddess Rachel, but I’m not sure I believe this any more than I believe the brothel story.
Even though the spurious St Agnes chose death rather than marry a pagan Roman officer, the eve of her holyday has been for centuries a time when young women seek visions of their future mates. Most of the methods suggested are quite challenging.
According to the Encyclopedia of Superstitions, you should take a row of pins and pull out everyone while saying a pater noster. Stick one in your sleeve and you will dream of your future mate. I’m not sure if this works if you don’t know the Our Father in Latin. Perhaps it doesn’t matter as the words simply represent your effort to make the process sacred, in which case you can write your own charm along the lines of the following:
Fair St Agnes, play thy part
And send to me my own sweetheart
Not in his best or worst array
But in the clothes he wears each day
That tomorrow I may him ken
From among all other men.
To dream of your future mate, you must fast during the day and keep silent. No one, not even a child, should kiss you. At bedtime you must don your best and cleanest night dress.
Another method requires the making, in silence, of a dumb cake of salt and water, supplied in equal proportions by friends who help you make it in silence. You then divide it equally and each takes her piece, walks backwards to bed, eats the cake and jumps in bed.
In Northumberland, the girl is told to boil an egg, extract the yolk, fill the hole with salt, eat the egg shell and all, then recite the above lines of entreaty to St. Agnes. This will insure a significant dream which cannot be revealed to anyone.
Aristotle’s Last Legacy (written in 1711) provides another, even more unpleasant, method for provoking an oracular dream of your lover. All you need to do is sprinkle a sprig of rosemary and a sprig of thyme with urine three times, then put each sprig into one of your shoes and put your shoes by your bed and say:
St Agnes, that’s to Lovers kind
Come ease the Troubles of my Mind.
If these seem too difficult or unpleasant, you can always try the simple charm of peeling an apple in one long strip and throwing it over your left shoulder to see what initial it will make or simply paying careful attention to your dreams.
For a special treat, find a copy of John Keats’ poem The Eve of St. Agnes and read it aloud.
Mardi Gras and the end of Carnival
Lent is the name for the six weeks before Easter, a time of fasting and penitence in the Catholic church. This is also a time of initiation, when those wanting to join the church undergo an intense course of study and preparation for their baptism at Easter. In this, it resembles other purification and initiation rites of February.
Before Lent begins, however, there is an intense burst of revelry and indulgence known as Carnival. The name Carnival is usually derived from carne vale, “good-bye to meat,” since devout Catholics abstain from eating any during the six weeks of Lent. But Carol Field in her book on celebratory Italian food mentions the carrus navalis, the great wheeled ship featured in a Greek Dionysian ritual celebrated on the cusp of winter and spring. The ship was drawn through the streets with Dionysus lounging on it, grapes in hand, probably throwing loot and encouraging women to bare their breasts as in contemporary Mardi Gras celebrations.
Carnival peaks on Mardi Gras, the Tuesday immediately before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday, named for the glorious fatty foods which are the typical fare for this day. People indulge in meat but also rich foods, usually deep-fried pastries, often filled with cream and sweets, like jam-filled doughnuts, fritters, blinis and pancakes.
Orloff’s description of Carnival customs still observed in Telfs in the Tyrolean Alps gives us a glimpse of some of the ancient aspects of this festival. At dawn, a baker, an innkeeper, a chimney sweep, and a peasant carry a golden sun on a pole through the village, begging the sun to shine down on the carnival. Later the Wilden appear, men and boys in grotesque masks and costumes of moss, representing winter. They roam the streets, drunk and riotous, attacking anyone who crosses them. There is a simulated bear hunt, then another procession headed by a lantern bearer whose role is to search for carnival in the darkness of winter. He makes room for the Schleicher, the spirits of spring. Each wears a fantastic hat, a mask showing the face of a young person and a giant bell. Each carries in his right hand a stick stacked with pretzels (symbols of the sun) and in his left a linen handkerchief. The Schleicher do a magic circle dance, with slow, deliberate steps, their bells awaken the slumbering earth. This is followed by a mock tribunal (making fun of local politics and gossip) and the squirting of the crowd with water from the mouth of the carnival baby.
Field describes a variety of Carnival celebrations in Italy. One of the wildest occurs in Ivrea which imports a trainload of blood oranges from Sicily for wild battles in the Piazza which leave the combatants bruised and dripping with the blood-red juice, probably a substitute for earlier times when the violence was more serious. These battles, common to many Mardi Gras celebrations (in England Shrove Tuesday is a time for football matches) may represent the battle between winter and spring.
In previous centuries, during Italian Mardi Gras celebrations people threw confetti (sugared almonds), candles, beans, caramels and coriander seeds rolled in plaster or flour and left to dry. Some of these make sense—the beans, for instance, recall the Roman feast of Parentalia when black beans were thrown to propitiate the ancestors—while the candles evoke the candles of Candlemas. Nowadays shaving cream is sprayed everywhere leaving everyone and everything covered in white foam.
Masked balls are part of Carnival celebrations in many places, particularly in Venice, Austria and Germany. According to Pam Mandel who spent a winter in Austria, the present day events are somewhat like debutante balls but in earlier times, the anonymity of masks and costumes allowed people to engage in licentious behavior that would normally be censured.
Goethe attending a carnival celebration in Rome in 1787 wrote a beautiful passage about the effects of the candlelight processions of Shrove Tuesday which Carol Field quotes:
The darkness has descended into the narrow, high-walled street before lights are seen moving in the windows and on the stands; in next to no time the fire has circulated far and wide, and the whole street is lit up by burning candles.
The balconies are decorated with transparent paper lanterns, everyone holds his candle, all the windows, all the stands are illuminated, and it is a pleasure to look into the interiors of the carriages, which often have small crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, while in others the ladies sit with coloured candles in their hands as if inviting one to admire their beauty.
Sia ammazzato chi non porta moccolo. ‘Death to anyone who is not carrying a candle.’ This is what you say to others, while at the same time you try to blow out their candles….
The candles once again link this holiday with Candlemas (and if Easter actually coincided with spring equinox, the festival from which it’s derived) then Shrove Tuesday would be six weeks earlier around the same time as Candlemas). I also like the sinister game of blowing out the candle, again suggesting the darker, combative side of this festival.
The Lupercalia was one of the most important Roman festivals, a rowdy fertility festival celebrated on February 15th (a full moon festival back when the months started on the new moon). It was loosely connected to the legend of the wolf that suckled the twin babies, Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, in her cave the Lupercal on Palatine Hill.
On this day, a band of priests called Luperci gathered at the Lupercal, sacrificed goats and a puppy and made offerings of a sacred grain mixture, mola salsa. Two youths were smeared on the forehead with the sacrificial blood, which was wiped off with swatches of milk-soaked wool. After a feast, they stripped off their clothes, wrapped themselves in the still-warm, still-wet skins of the sacrificed goats and ran around the circumference of the hill, striking everyone they met with goatskin thongs, called februa. Being struck by these whips was considered lucky for women who wanted to become fertile.
The whipping may have served several functions. It may have stirred up the blood. Or it may have been considered an expiation, a way of driving out sins and demons (as the Japanese expelled them at Setsubun by throwing beans (see Feb 5)). A similar custom is found at Carnival time in France and Germany: inflated pork bladders, said to contain the souls of the dead, are attached to sticks and used to beat members of the opposite sex.
When the Pope first tried to ban the Lupercalia in the 5th century, there was so much outrage that the papal residence was completely surrounded by the angry mob. He backed off and the festival was not officially banned again until the next century.
There is no connection between either of the two St Valentines (a Roman priest martyred in the third century and a martyred bishop) although many legends have been invented to explain it. One story says that Claudius II during a time of unpopular military campaigns cancelled all marriages and engagements, hoping thereby to channel the energy of the young men into the martial arts. Supposedly Valentine, a priest in Rome during this time, secretly married couples, thus incurring the wrath of the emperor and martyrdom.
The custom of sending valentines may derive from the custom of drawing lots (names of partners) at the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia or with the worship of Juno Februata in whose honor on the eve of her feastday (Feb 15), according to my Lives of the Saints, boys drew names of girls. St Francis de Sales trying to abolish this heathen practice in the mid-sixteenth century suggested drawing the names of the saints (with boys drawing the names of female saints, and vice versa). This does not seem to have caught on. According to Hutton, the custom of sending valentines began in England in the 15th century, and was more popular at first among the middle classes, who sent signed valentines (not anonymous ones). In Japan it is now the custom for women to give chocolates to men on this day, particularly their superiors at work.
In the Middle Ages, people believed that birds chose their mates on this day. This was the time of year when the courtship flights of birds, particularly of members of the crow family, were visible. I find it amusing that the Backyard Bird Count sponsored by Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and Audubon is scheduled on Presidents Day weekend, usually close to Valentine’s Day.
There was a folk superstition, mentioned by Shakespeare that the first person you meet on Valentine’s Day will be your true love. Ophelia plays with this idea when she says to Hamlet:
Good morrow, ’tis St Valentine’s Day
All in the morn betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your valentine.
Jews celebrate the rowdy full moon festival of Purim with bawdy jokes, indulgence, gambling and dressing up in costume, all customs that link it with other springtime festivals of excess like Mardi Gras. Although Purim ostensibly celebrates the overthrow of the wicked tyrant Haman who was murdering the Jews, scholars believe the festival actually has roots in an ancient Persian spring holiday which featured a mock battle (like those often linked with Carnival and Easter).
People bring noise-makers to the evening service, to drown out the name of the tyrant Haman during the re-telling of the story of Esther. Some write his name on bits of paper which they tear up and toss into the air; others have his name written on the soles of their shoes which they stamp on the floor. The Talmud recommends drinking until it is impossible to tell the difference between “Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordecai.”
After the service, everyone eats, hamantaschen, three-cornered cookies filled with poppy seeds or jam, which are said to represent Haman’s three-cornered hat. But they also resemble the triangular filled pastries in the shape of a woman’s sex used to celebrate the Roman birth goddesses and that would certainly go along with the bawdy flavor of the holiday. Not everyone eats hamantaschen at Purim. German Jews eat gingerbread men. Egyptians eat ozne Haman, deep-fried sweets shaped like Haman’s ears.
This festival is also called The Festival of Lotteries, because of the lots cast by Haman to choose the day to destroy the Jews. But playing games of chance is a feature of other festivals of reversal like Saturnalia and Twelfth Night and other festivals of reversal. At Purim, sometimes a Purim-rabbi is elected to give a mock sermon.
In traditional Jewish towns, teams of Purimshpielers tour the streets, juggling and singing, dancing and acting, wearing costumes and presenting plays on Jewish history. In Tel Aviv, there is a parade and carnival including a beauty contest to choose Queen Esther from among the women.
The traditional Purim dinner includes kreplach and peas, particularly chickpeas, a huge challah, and, ever since the turkey was brought to Europe from North America around 1524, turkey. Some say the turkey is served in remembrance of Ahasuerus, who was a foolish king, but it may have more to do with the scope of his kingdom, for he ruled from Ethiopia to India, and the turkey was known in Hebrew as “the Indian cock.”
- Emerging (from hibernation)
- Propitiating the earth mother with milk, water and bread, sometimes a lamb
- Asking for protection
- Plowing the fields
- Blessing of seeds
- Lighting new fires
- Blessings candles
- Processing with torches
- Eating dairy foods and grains
- Wearing new clothes, especially white clothes
- Weather divinations (smoke or sun)
- Making Brigid’s crosses
Mardi Gras, Purim & Valentine themes:
- Eating rich foods, especially foods fried in fat and dripping with butter and sugar
- Dressing up in costume, wearing a mask
- Acting wild, taking liberties, doing things that you normally wouldn’t do
- Drinking excessively
- Mock battles and other competitive games
- Mating rituals
- Heating the body, getting the sap flowing (through whipping, running, sex)
- Making candles
- Lighting candles
- Blessing seeds
- Planting seeds
- Taking a new name
- Making valentines
- Creating a collage vision of the new year
- Making a pledge for the year for self, neighborhood and the world
- Dedicating yourself to a path, a spiritual practice, a deity