Tag Archives: death

Day 7: Holidays

Slowly but surely we’re chugging along with the 30 days of Paganism meme, and this is one of my favorite topics to talk about!!

I love personal calendars, especially when you start seeing how they evolve according to one’s environment and home culture. Mine is no exception, as it’s a blend of Pagan and Catholic traditions from the ancestral lands carried into the US. Due to my currently solitary nature, continuous research, and the fact that changes in life are prone to happening, my calendar is tentative rather than being hard and fast (despite having specific dates listed), and is not entirely religious in nature.

Winter

wordpress winter

  • Feast of the Dead (October 31-November 2)
    • A mixture of US Halloween festivities and the more solemn ancestor worship of European All Soul’s Day, where ghosts and spirits are awoken and the ancestors return. The growing season has officially ended.
    • Honors: Ancestors
  • Harvest Celebrations (Late November)
    • These are usually several family-oriented days (including US Thanksgiving) that center around gratitude for the last of the harvest. Usually by this point all the native plant species have gone dormant for the winter, and the migratory birds have past. Deer hunting season traditionally occurs this time as well.
    • Honors: Nagy Boldogasszony
  • Krampus Night/St. Nick’s Day (December 5-6)
    • A fun little Christmas holiday where the kids leave out their clean shoes in anticipation of some goodies from St. Nick. A holdover from family traditions.
  • Green Sunday (1st week of December)
  • Copper Sunday (2nd week of December)
  • Silver Sunday (3rd week of December)
  • Gold Sunday (4th week of December)
    • These Sundays are a holdover from Advent, as mini-celebrations in anticipation of Karascunt and the Rough Nights. Due to the names I also use the days to reference a corresponding Magyar deity (Copper – Hadúr, Silver – Szélkirály, Gold – Napkirály)
  • Karascunt (December 21/22)
    • Winter Solstice festival full of fire, drink, and merryment to celebrate Csodaszarvas carrying the Sun over the river to begin the year anew and overcome the darkness. First day of the Rough Nights. Spinning stops by this night.
    • Honors: Csodaszarvas
  • Bertchten Day (January 5-6)
    • This day ends the Rough Nights and the new year begins. The sun finally overcame the darkness and the light continues to grow in strength. Spinning chores resume. Also known as Twelfth Night (evening of Jan. 5)
    • Honors: Fra Berta/Lutzl (though she is also associated with all 12 of the Rough Nights)
  • Day of the Bear (February 2)
    • Midwinter celebration in anticipation of the season’s end. The Bear awakes and bring with it the first hints of life and hope in a time where patience and food stores are wearing thin. “Spring cleaning” and purification processes occurs at this time. Winter expulsion begins.
    • Honors: Szélkirály
  • Zöldágjárás (usually mid-late March)
    • First hints of life appears in the trees and shrubs, and the initial bits of greenery is brought inside to continue the purification process. Boughs of greenery are formed into arches and wreathes for women and children to dance under, and boys splash water on girls (purity and fertility rite, most likely). Birds are migrating back at this time.
  • Fruit-grafting day (March 25)
    • Fruiting tree branches that are starting to bud are grafted and hopefully successful. Several traditions regarding death and fertility surround this day as it is also the Catholic holiday of Mary’s conception of Jesus.
    • Honors: Nagy Boldogasszony
  • Walpurgis Night (April 30)
    • Winter expulsion ends, compelling the ghosts and ancestors back to sleep. Most migratory birds have returned and begun their breeding season.

Summer

wordpress summer

  • May Day (May 1)
    • Summer begins. The fields and markets are readied for the growing season.
  • May Crowning (May, usually mid-to-late May)
    • Fields are cleared and sown, and seedlings transplanted, as the risk of frost is gone by this time. First harvest occurs around this time (depending on what plants are growing). Leaves have returned to the trees. Flowers are offered to the Queen of May by young girls.
    • Honors: Nagy Boldogasszony
  • Szentiván-éj (June 24)
    • A summer solstice celebration of fire, successful crop growth, and remembering the ancestors. Peak growth and first major harvests are occurring around this time. Apples are served to the fire and to the graves.
    • Honors: Csodaszarvas
  • Goldenrod Days (late September-early October)
    • A completely made-up period surrounding the autumn equinox to mark Summer drawing to a close. The Goldenrod flowers are in their full, yellow bloom, as if they absorbed part of the sun and took away some of its vigor. Apples are harvested at this time, and the birds are undergoing their fall migration.
    • Honors: Volos/Zomok

*Deities and their associations here will be discussed further in later posts of this meme. Some associations are traditional, some are not. Those with / between two names refer to the same being.

**The inconsistency of the names is due to some English counterparts being too vague to be a useful label, so the source culture’s holiday words are used instead to refer to their specific traditions that I observe (i.e. “Karascunt” in place of “Winter Solstice”). Exception being Zöldágjárás since there is no English counterpart in existence.

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Honoring the Doe in the Hunt

Hunor and Magor hunting the White Stag, one of the more familiar Hungarian stories that has been told in a variety of ways over time. Art (c) Gyula László

So I’ve been thinking about hunting, particularly deer hunting, after experiencing the excitement around opener this previous November. I grew up near Chicago, so while hunting does occur there, it’s smaller and gets obscured by lots of other events in the same area. Where I’m at now in Wisconsin is more rural, so lots of things are different for me (and yet, a lot isn’t so different).

Opener refers to the opening of the deer hunting season that has become probably the biggest event next to football games. People go to bed early and wake up at an ungodly hour to bundle up and drive to hunting grounds all over the state, but especially the north. Once they get there they usually sit on their asses in the freezing cold hoping to get aim at a beautiful buck (but a doe is not safe from hunters either). Thanksgiving is especially enjoyed, as the hunters can come home to a glorious feast and pass out, even if they didn’t get anything that day.

Now let me clarify that this only refers to a season using firearms. Full deer hunting encompasses multiple seasons throughout fall and winter, with the differences being weapons (firearm vs archery), deer classification (antler presence and form, age, sex), and in my region’s case, managing Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). On top of that, different states can have different regulations, and even individual counties can pass further regulations depending on the human population sizes (obviously not gonna be hunting in a large city like Chicago, but surrounding areas are fine, and more urbanized areas prefer archery to firearms).

Pretty complicated, right? Don’t worry, there’s more! Deer hunting (in Wisconsin at least) is a major political issue at the state-level. If a candidate for office even thinks about making the slightest restriction to accessing deer then they’ve already lost. It’s that big of a deal to people, causing a constant avalanche of hate directed towards people who try to manage deer herds, primarily the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Which is hilarious because the white-tail deer are not supposed to be here; there are more deer in Wisconsin than ever. While it’s wonderful that the deer bounced back from an endangered status last century, the sad fact is that they are constantly starving now. This drives them to strip bare native trees and saplings, ultimately destroying the understory of the threatened northern forests. These forests are where we get our maple syrup and logging from, but short of getting rid of most of the deer (along with buckthorns, earthworms, and all the other invasive species, both native and exotic), they’re pretty much dead forests in many places. They just don’t know they’re dead yet.

You may be wondering by now why I am explaining all of this to you. As you might remember from other posts, I honor a manifestation of a deer deity called Csodaszarvas (“Miraculous deer”, the term “szarvas” refers to both sexes, though I refer only to the female use due to the primary art/literature depictions). This carries through a fondness that I have for real-life deer of my region, the White-tailed deer, and the constant balancing act of life vs. death. Cultures all over the world have numerous, seemingly contradictory rules for treatment of deity-associated animals. You don’t hunt the animal, you do hunt it but only in a certain way, you can eat the flesh if it died on its own, or you don’t touch it under any circumstances.

What is my rule? I’m not sure. I have some basic ideas (no killing of albino or leucistic individuals, respect all animals in life and death by not torturing them, no trophies), but not a complete structure. There is no traditional rule available to me because I’m essentially reconstructing a new tradition out of remnants of my heritage, so I have to decide on my own. My meals are mostly vegetarian for monetary purposes (eggs are cheaper and quicker to eat) but I have eaten venison and concluded that it’s delicious. Given how deer (and other cervids) have been important sources of food for people throughout time, particularly in the winter, I’ve suspected that the recognition of deer and deer-like deities across cultures are because of their great importance as game. Food is central to any culture, so by proxy the deer are central as well.

In addition, there are now environmental concerns for many deer-heavy locations like the ones described earlier. Usually there are multiple predators, but now only humans remain. On one hand I find the idea of being in such a position of power, like a steward or a ruler, both offensive and full of hubris on part of us humans. We should no more be a steward than a beaver or a butterfly. But on the other hand, there’s really no choice if we want to maintain what we have left. We just can’t seem to agree on how to best do it (coupled with the fact that some people simply don’t WANT to do it). Stepping in as a predator for certain species seems to be the only choice left, otherwise they continue to starve to death en masse, taking many other species down with them.

It is also not universally clear on how the rules came about. There are some stories that depict the god themselves saying “don’t eat this!”, but the rest of them it’s a custom without a source. I suspect that hints (perhaps not so subtle ones) were given along the way when people ate a particular animal, resulting in bad luck for those who ate them. Given how often deer is eaten as a central part of a diet (particularly for winter diets when food is more scarce), and that I’ve experienced no bad luck or negative feelings since eating venison myself, I feel that eating deer flesh is not taboo for Csodaszarvas. The taboo, if one exists, would likely be for the treatment of the animal. Figuring out the particulars (aside from my basic respect for death in all animals) is something that will have to happen in the future, when I take up hunting for myself. I trust Csodaszarvas to guide me through her wishes when that happens.

Funny how this post was started at the very first of November, but didn’t finish until now, on Candlemas eve. Perhaps there’s some deeper meaning to it, but I’m sure the reality is that I just get lazier in winter.

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Day 4: Birth, Death, and Rebirth

Hm, since I haven’t read other people’s entries to this meme in a while, I’m not entirely sure what the underlying question is: beliefs (such as where we go when we die) or associations (such as the deities of birth and death, or funeral rites). I’m going to treat this as all of the above unless someone corrects me ahead of time.

Birth

“Nagy Boldog Asszony” Silk Painting by Somogyi Réka

I’m going to assume that we all know where babies come from (i.e. it ain’t the stork delivery service). So there really isn’t much in the personal-belief department regarding birth and pregnancy. Sperm meets egg, cells divide, and if all goes well those bundles of cells eventually form a being that’s ready to be pushed out (or surgically removed) into a world that’s drier and colder than Mommy’s uterus. Not much room for spiritual imagination. Now the concept of an embryo’s soul or personhood, that’s another thing entirely. I believe (no basis in anything cultural, historical, or scientific, just a personal belief) that the embryo starts developing into a person soon after the heart starts beating. Or, to put it another way, the formation of a soul puts the seed of life into the embryo’s body and makes the heart start beating. I say “formation” because I don’t really believe in reincarnation. I also say “start” because I don’t believe the “soul” is done developing (or becomes complete) until long after birth, if at all.

As you can see, I tend to connect soul development to physical development. This is primarily due to my view on the soul being intertwined with the physical body, so much so that they’re practically one and the same (this is based on the world-accepting nature of general heathenry and the pre-Christian/early Christian descriptions of the dead). I am not housed in my body, I AM my body.

As far as rituals go, if I ever do give birth there will probably be several. In the pre-Christian past there seems to be naming ceremonies which celebrate both the birth of the child and it’s acceptance into the community through giving the child an identity. This purpose has continued to this day in Catholicism under the guise of baptism. Because my family is Catholic, I probably will give my hypothetical child a baptism so as to reference that familial inclusion (plus, it’ll cover some bases in case anything happens to me and my family has to raise the child in my place, or if I have to put the kid into private school).

I’ll also probably do my own ritual introduction of my child to the world. I don’t have my books near me at this time, but I recall some Slavic cultures having a sort of “baptism” where you show the child to Earth and Sky, ask for protection and guidance from particular deities, and have a party afterwards. That’s basically how a Catholic baptism goes in my family, you do the ritual in Church a month or so after the baby is born, then you head over to Gramma’s house for a big dinner with all the extended relatives rolling into town. Gifts, primarily money-based ones like bonds, were given to the mother to cushion the child’s nest egg. We can see a similar theme in folklore, where a poor father goes out looking for a godparent to help with child-rearing finances. Stuff happens, and the father ends up with a wealthy godparent for the kid. By having the child be formally accepted into the family, the child gains access to familial support.

If I were a mother, then I would be able to include Dec. 26th in as a day of honor, since that’s a day linked to the deity Boldog Asszony and her associated motherhood trait. That day seems to have been reserved for families, particularly mothers with their children, so obviously at this point it’s not a part of my calendar. Otherwise, birth of life in general is reserved for the spring and early summer, like during the Easter season and May Day.

Death

From The Faraway, Nearby (1938) by Georgia O’Keefe

Death is a little less straightforward, and I’m not entirely sure what to think. I tend to keep to my non-romantic preferences in that once someone’s dead, that’s pretty much it. However, I also participate in ancestor worship, which entertains the idea of some stage of existence after death. I’m not certain either way, and I could care less. If I do end up simply six feet under, that’s fine. If I go to a land of the dead and rejoin my family, that’s fine too.

Aesthetically, however, I do find the stories and figures surrounding death to be fascinating. Death itself is a natural state of being rather than a wiht, but I do think there are wihts that are involved with the dead and dying. There are several, big and small, that are known: Ördög, Woden, Veles, Berchta (specifically dead children that were marginalized), and numerous others that I don’t know the names of at this time. The main roles seem to be land-based, where they head the land of the Dead, and/or psychopomp-based, where they collect the dead into a group and lead them somewhere (either on a journey or to the lands of the dead). The variations on these themes are common and numerous around Europe, and pretty much around the world. For years I was deeply interested in the psychopompic beings specifically, as I wanted to spiritually work in that “field” myself. Course, that was back in the confused days when I thought I could be a shaman. Nowadays my “psychopompic work” is limited to giving my respects to dead animals that I may find out in the field (no dead humans yet, though you never know what the future holds).

I keep the “land of the Dead” imagery alive in my personal cosmology because I don’t see that as being world-rejecting, like Christianity’s heaven/hell is. The lands of the Dead seem to be physical places on (or in) the same Earth that we live on when alive, just a different location. I prefer the imagery of a hollow mountain the most, probably because it’s ubiquitous in the folktales I read the most (and my ancestral homeland is riddled with mountains). My second favorite resting place is a wetland. I live by wetlands and they held so much symbolism for my pre-Christian ancestors that I feel compelled to keep wetlands in my personal cosmology. I just find them so mysterious and lovely at the same time, especially the ancient sphagnum (quaking) bogs with their visible history. Realistically though, the land of the recent dead would be the cemeteries. We don’t really have mountains in Chicago, given that it started out as a wetland prairie, and it’s probably a health hazard to dump bodies in a bog, so the imagery will have to be relegated to stories only.

I do not have much in the way of funeral rites that are related to paganism. If a family member dies they go through a Catholic funeral and get buried in the Church’s cemetery. When I die I’d like to be cremated or left to rot naturally and have my remains be put in a marsh. Nothing too fancy, though I certainly wouldn’t complain if a giant statue of me in a cool pose was built in the city square.

Rebirth

Simply put, I don’t believe in it. But if it does happen, then cool; I’d like to come back as a land wiht in that marsh my body gets dumped in. Or I’ll hang out in my giant statue and be a city wiht, conferring good luck on the residents while messing with the annoying tourists.

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Ch-Ch-Chaaaangeees!

Kudos if you know the song reference 🙂

It has been so seasonally perfect lately, I can’t remember the last time I had a visually stunning Fall/Autumn like this. The colors of the trees are blazing amongst the remaining green that is mostly attributed to pines. The temperature has dropped to a high of mid-40 (Fahrenheit) and I’ve already busted out the winter gear in preparation (long johns, boots, wool socks, coats, etc.). A weekend visit back home in Chicago has given me a sharp contrast, as it’s much drabber and more green still there.

This beauty combined with my love for winter has helped much in adapting to living in a new place, and I’m starting to like it here. I’m very much looking forward to what festivities NE Wisconsin will produce for the holidays, starting with Halloween. Living out of my parent’s house has also helped in exploring my own traditions more, and what I want to keep and/or develop.

Some Neopagans call this time of year the “Dark half”. which coincides with the common Asatru depiction of this being the “Winter” half. I’m lucky enough to live in a location where the seasonal changes match quite closely to the old European calendars, so I’m easily able to incorporate my heritage’s traditions into my daily life.

Let’s start with Halloween, for example.

Like some, I treat Halloween as a secular, cultural festival day, and I’m lucky to have grown up and live in places that embraced Halloween as such. Free candy, scary movies, neighborhood bonfires with cider and beer, and the costumes; what’s not to love? As far as pagan attributes go, the partying and costumes alone are pretty pagan. How many stories are there of becoming intoxicated and dressing up as something else to BE something else from ye olde days, wrecking havoc and mischief along the way? Even in our secular, “enlightened” era many of us feel the need to play and exchange roles like children, and Halloween provides a culturally acceptable time to do so. A release from the usual day-to-day social rigidity.

If certain pagan stories were true, we’d be having a zombie apocalypse every year.

There’s also the pagan attribute of all the goulies, ghosties and overall scary things coming out on Halloween, especially at night, that remains in popular stories and movies. Some Neopagan descriptions relate that Halloween/Samhain is a time where the “veil” between worlds is at its thinnest, so that demonic beings can move into “our” world. While I don’t believe in the concept of “worlds” the same way, I can agree with the sentiment. Halloween is the start of the darkness of the year for me, therefore it is also the start of certain wiht activity, such as that of the dead. They become more active, and closer to home than in the summer.

Halloween, or the end of it, also starts off a season of ritual ancestor veneration. After the parties and trick-or-treating comes the solemn side of things. I come from a Catholic family, so I kept the Days of the Dead (November 1 and 2) in my calendar observations (no, it is not just a Mexican holiday, though their ways of celebrating this time is uniquely colorful and inspiring). Instead of the “official Catholic” way of doing it, I instead keep both days for ancestor veneration. Saying hello, giving thanks to them, giving offerings of food and coffee (ideally also liquor and tobacco, but I currently don’t know what brands my great-grandparents and beyond preferred so that may not happen). Preferably this would be done by visiting their graves, but for this and next year I won’t be close enough to do so. However, photos and items on a shrine work in a pinch.

Days of the Dead in Hungary. Candles and flowers are the two most commonly used items in the cemeteries.

I’m especially looking forward to Halloween and Days of the Dead this year because of finally being able to celebrate them in peace and as fully as possible.

Now I’m sure some of you may be thinking “well, wait a minute, I thought heathens did the ancestor worship bit during Yule and Samhain was a Wiccan/Celtic thing instead”. You would be correct. Like I mentioned earlier, Days of the Dead would be like Halloween in that it’s the START of a season of such religious activities rather than the only days I do it (US Thanksgiving in November is another, in the context of being a harvest feast). Late October/Early November is when I first sense the dead and certain other wihts becoming more active, but the height of their activity would occur during Yule, particularly just after Christmas/Winter Solstice. That time of year, called the 12 Rough Nights in contemporary Central European folklore, and the days just before that, are when a lot of things happen with ancestors and wihts (like the Wild Hunt). After that, the activity slowly dies down (no pun intended) until the last of Winter is driven out (one of the Perchtenlauf themes, possibly Busojaras and related demonic parades that occur prior to Lent). Then the dead settle back into the earth as the season shifts to the Summer half and different wihts awaken or come back.

I love this time of year so much.

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Book Review: The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors and The Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind by Claude Lecouteux

I’ve been thinking of adding book reviews to this blog for a while, as there’s a lot of reading involved in this search. The following review is pretty much just my opinion, as I do not have any degrees or similar pieces of paper to suggest that I’m an expert reviewer.

~~~~~~~

The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind by Claude Lecouteux (ISBN 1-59477-318-1)

The title of the book is a bit misleading. This is not a book that focuses on the “pagan” mind, but instead is almost exclusively focused on Germanic literature, traditions and folklore from the Viking era to the Middle Ages. Geographically, that means modern-day Scandinavia, Iceland, UK, and Northern-Middle Germany. Scattered throughout the book are bits and pieces of other locations and cultures, such as Ireland, Hungary, Bavaria, and France as comparisons to Germanic traditions. Something different from the usually Greek (and to a lesser extent, Roman), and Egyptian focuses on pagan concepts of death and the dead.

There are 12 chapters organized into 4 parts. Part I sets you up with an introduction to the Germanic view of death by first looking at the (mostly Christian) concepts that still exist today, and going back in time to where the syncretism originated. Part II goes into detail on the dead themselves, and going over the different folkloric forms the dead have taken. While doing this, he analyzes what is modern and/or Christian, vs. what was typical to the heathens. That’s why Part II is divided into the “True Revenants” and “False Revenants” chapters for comparison.

Part III takes what was discussed in Part II and analyzes the placement of the dead in the world. The concept of an afterlife (or the lack thereof), hauntings, souls, and the spirits/gods that are associated with all that are discussed here. Near the end of Part III the author starts segwaying back to modern-day via noting the changes the dead take on over time. He goes through the decline of ancestor worship and changes in the importance that the dead take in the lives of the living via the change in attitudes shown in the lore.

For a book with 229 pages of content, it is packed with sources. Unfortunately, some of them only get a vague sentence of reference, and the quoted sections are only a paragraph or two at the most of whichever saga or legend he translated to show a point. This is not a book to get if you’re looking for the stories and traditions themselves, nor is it going to sit well with you if you expect every argument the author makes to be with solid support. Additionally, most of the sources in the bibliography are not in English, so it will be difficult for some to access them for further information.

That’s not to say he does a bad job of backing himself up however. It’s one of those books that has different chapters supporting each other and intertwining. The author also assumes you’ve read the preceding chapters, because he builds upon each one with the next. It’s a book best read in order rather than flipping around.

Now the quality of the book really depends on your reading level, scholarly background, and your interest for obtaining this book to begin with. I’m used to (and prefer) reading dry, dense, academic books, and I already had a basic understanding of the lore beforehand, so this was not a difficult book to read. For those that are only used to the metaphysical section of the bookstore, or for those that hated history class in high school, are going to have problems. I’m also able to see where he is coming from when he presents his interpretations without direct citation and he’s often spot-on (though obviously don’t take my word on it).

My gripes with the book are minor and come from being a heathen that uses historical sources for her information and inspiration. He speaks from the modern, Christian-influenced worldview, so he sometimes slips into that during interpretating and labeling. That mostly shows up in the afterlife and soul sections, and it’s subtle, so for most other readers this is not going to be noticeable. He’s not necessarily WRONG, I feel that he is just not clear enough in his definitions of the afterlife, other realms, souls and spirits. He uses those terms in reference to heathen concepts, when they are words heavily associated with Christian ideas, so some readers may be mislead.

For example, he regularly translates the “landvaetter” (or land wights in english) as tutelary spirits or genius loci, which suggests a non-corporeal, supernatural, otherworldly form. From a modern perspective, that’s not a problem, but from an ancient, heathen perspective, that doesn’t fit. A landvaetter could be the tree, the bird in the tree, or even a human buried on that land. A corporeal being that can be touched, seen, and heard, in other words. The “other worlds” are not some far off place in the sky or space, or located in another dimension, they are here on Earth. For the Miyazaki fans out there, “Princess Mononoke” illustrates that perfectly. The guardian of the forest is not a ghostly spirit, it’s a solid being that can live and die, that resides in a physical forest on the Earth.

Otherwise, I enjoyed reading this. The style of writing is conversational (and you can’t even tell that it was translated from French), so it’s accessible to those that aren’t academia-oriented, and it also keeps the text from feeling dry. There is also no religious agenda or orientations to the text, it’s purely focused on intellectual understanding. From a historical perspective, this book offers a good introduction to the culture of death and provides a means in understanding why the heathens behaved and believed the way they did. There is a lack of accessible books that allow the reader to get into the old worldview, and “The Return of the Dead” is helpful for that (despite my earlier complaints).

For those that are looking at this book from a Neopagan perspective (rather than a historical/cultural interest), this can be both rich in material to work with, and disappointing. The gods don’t really care about you unless you’re a king or hero, there’s no peaceful or magnificent heaven-like realm to go to, Nature is not considered a peaceful, pretty place, and there’s little reincarnation occurring. That is what the book reveals about the heathen minds of old. For those that aren’t bothered, the stories and interpretations can lend a unique perspective on the “dark half of the year” (as that’s when the dead are most active, especially around Yule) and the idea of ancestor worship.

Reconstructionists, especially seasoned ones, aren’t going to get anything new out of this though. Those that are testing the water in the recon pool, however, may find this book a good place to start. The ancestors and the dead were a big part of the European’s (and much of the world’s) old worldviews, and had remained so for quite some time after Christianization. Up to the 18th and 19th centuries even in some places.

4 zombies out of 5.

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The Horses of Death

Translated from Hungarian (from the poem of Andrew Ady: http://www.hungarianhistory.com/lib/timeless/chapter28.htm) by Godfrey Turton.

Down the white moonlit road,
While shepherds are driving
The fleecy clouds in the sky,
On soundless hooves, nearer and nearer,
The horses of Death trot by.

Noiseless, fatal steeds,
And on each a shadow,
Sad silent shadow cavalier!
O’er the white road, at their coming,
The moon herself hides in fear.

Whence do they come? Who knows?
As they halt in their stirrups
The whole world lies abed.
But one saddle always is empty,
One horse always led.

And he before whom they halt
Mounts, ashen-pale, with them,
And on down the long white way
One moonlit nights they gallop,
Death and his hunt, for prey.

A little something I ran into during a JSTOR browsing session and wanted to share. I’m reminded immensely of the Wild Hunt with this poem, although it’s less rambunctious than the old stories are.

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References

Ady, Andrew & Turton, Godfrey (1937). The Horses of Death. The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 16(46), pp. 40-41

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Killing Winter to Bring Back Summer

Alright, back on to Spring traditions!
Remember that post I made about Pre-Lent Costumes? I mentioned how the costumes, in some areas at least, were meant to scare off the spirits of Winter. There’s also quite a bit of fertility symbolism that went along with all the festivities. There is a sort of continuation of those themes in a ritual that is rather common across Europe: The Expulsion of Death and Winter.

Basically, an effigy of some sort, usually made out of straw, fir, or some other available material, is taken through or out of a village in a procession, and then destroyed. Afterward, a figure (human, tree, or otherwise) clad in some sort of greenery is welcomed in the village and celebrations ensue. This sometimes occurs on or around Mid-Lent, usually the 4th Sunday in Lent (Which is actually the week of this post’s date for 2011). This does not seem to be an uncommon practice, as many folklorists and anthropologists have noted parallels across Europe; even going as far as India with the drowning of a Kali effigy in March.

Winteraustreiben in Germany with Winter as the large blue puppet, and Summer following behind as the golden puppet (c) Katrin von Meer

However, I’m going to focus mainly on some of the German and Slavic names and customs here. In German, the festival is called Todaustragen, or Todaustreiben (from the words for “death” and “to carry out” or “to drive out”), with a few areas using the name Winteraustreiben and Sommereinholen (“Summer” and “catch up”). Similar rituals done in other countries have their own names, but I’ll mainly use the term “winter expulsion” for easy conversation.

In some German-speaking parts, winter expulsion involves creating a straw monster or being which is then driven out by being beaten and/or burned. With regard to the burning of the effigy, Mircea Elidae saw a “fertilizing power of Death-a power attached to all the symbols of vegetation and to the ashes of the wood burnt during all the various festivals of the regeneration of nature and the beginning of the New Year” (Flaherty 1992). He was referring to a practice seen in Austria during his time, where the effigy had a funeral pyre and people gathered around to grab bits of it. Also found in Austria are the Perchten, or followers of Perchta, who carry bells apparently as another tool to drive out Winter and Death. There are several interpretations of the effigy and none are totally agreed upon: Vegetation being, Death, Winter, or even the Bubonic Plague (which would still be Death, but Christian in origin instead of the commonly assumed heathen origins). The gender of the effigy seems to be male in German parts of Central Europe, which makes sense since Death is also considered to be male (der Tod).

In contrast, Slavic cultures such as those in Poland, Slovakia, and Czech Republic have a female effigy burned or drowned. She goes by the name Marzanna, Morena, and variations thereof. She is considered to be a remnant of a goddess of Death from pre-Christian times as well as a witch, so the female form makes sense if this is true. Other than that though, the steps for her expulsion is similar to German cultures. She’s taken out in a procession and then destroyed.

The Procession of Marzanna in Poland just before drowning

I can’t help but think of the witch scene in Monty Python: The Holy Grail whenever seeing Marzanna processions 🙂

In Hungary there does not seem to be as much fanfare for winter expulsion as in other places. The busos mentioned in the Costumes post linked earlier is suggested to be Hungary’s version of winter expulsion. There is a practice that links to the second half of the expulsion though, which is the welcoming of Summer to replace Winter. It is called Zöldágjárás, where they bring in green boughs through the village. To me it almost looks like Palm Sunday, so I wonder if this is really a remnant from pagan times or if it’s a variation on a Christian holiday.

School children going under the green boughs

Another, older image of Zöldágjárás

Judging from the images though, it seems that Hungary is already warm enough this time of year to start celebrating the arrival of Spring and Summer. Perhaps winter expulsion is simply not necessary at the same time and is better suited to the time of the busojaras earlier in the year.

Back to German-speaking cultures, once Winter/Death is driven out, a man dressed in vegetation and green colors walks into the village with much celebration. This is the personification of Summer, of new growth and good times to come. There is also records of a play that occurs to depict the fight between Winter and Summer (with Summer ultimately winning), called der Kampf swischen Sommer und Winter, which usually occurs during the winter expulsion.

There is a mention of March being the time of the new year in both Roman and Slavic lands until recently, which coincides with winter expulsion. In that context, it seems that driving away Winter is also driving away the old year, which makes sense. Summer in general seems to have a sense of “new-ness” with the arrival of fresh vegetation.

Looking out my window, I feel an urge to have a bit of winter expulsion myself. Only now are some of the trees starting to wake up and show their flowers, with small shoots in the grass here and there. Much of the world is still gray and wet; some chunks of old snow still scattered about even. We don’t really have a spring here in Chicago, it’s more like a month where the weather can’t seem to make up its mind. The idea of a war between Summer and Winter fits perfectly here, as we can get snowfall one day, and temperatures warm enough for shorts the next. Even gardening books say we have a risk of frost until early to mid-May.

Course, once Summer actually gets here in all its humid, blazing glory, people will start wishing for Winter again. It’s how it goes every year.

~~~~~~~

References

Flaherty, Robert Pearson. “Todaustragen”: The Ritual Expulsion of Death at Mid-Lent: History and Scholarship. Folklore, Vol. 103(1), pgs. 40-55

(In German) Brief Explanation of Pertchen’s Role in Winter Expulsion: http://www.tomig.at/245/was-hat-es-eigentlich-auf-sich-mit-den-perchten/

Esbenshade, Richard S. Cultures of the World: Hungary. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=4QYidGdtpBkC&pg=PA118&lpg=PA118&dq=winter+expulsion+in+hungary&source=bl&ots=tmIwzSwPoI&sig=VyDUoziQiJByohp6hle747uGVJY&hl=en&ei=1MOYTbCGBcmY0QGQiNH7Cw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=5&ved=0CCoQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=winter%20expulsion%20in%20hungary&f=false

Sinking of Marzanna: Pagan Traditions of Spring                                                 http://culture.polishsite.us/articles/art297fr.htm

Photos of Winteraustreiben, (c) Katrin von Meer                                   http://www.flickr.com/photos/35525979@N06/5509422479/in/photostream/

Kerenyi, G. I. (1962). The Melody Core of Ushering In Summer in Transdanubia (Hungary). Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, first page used-> http://www.jstor.org/pss/901641

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