Moon Worship and the Modern Witch

“Happy Assumption!” I said to my Eastern Orthodox employee as she sat down at her desk. Today is the Feast of the Assumption, after all, marking the date that the Virgin Mary ascended into Heaven from her house in Ephesus, Turkey. Which, according to legend, is where she moved after she retired, Ephesus being the Florida of the first-century Jewish world.

E.O. looked confused for a second, but then her brow cleared. “Oh, you mean the Dormition! Thanks! Happy Dormition to you, too!”

“Dormition?” It was my turn to look confused.

“We call it the Dormition instead of the Assumption.” she explained. “Catholics believe that Mary was bodily assumed, and we believe that she… well, you know, died. But she definitely went to Heaven after that.”

Yeah, not quite as romantic as the Catholic version. What I (wisely) decided not to mention is that the early Church fathers scheduled the Assumption/Dormition/Whatever on August 15 in order to replace the Nemoralia, the ancient Roman Festival of Torches held annually in honor of Diana, Great Goddess of the Moon.

Eight Sabbats and thirteen Esbats aside, the Nemoralia is my favorite holiday. I’ve got a little altar set up in my bedroom, featuring a framed print of Erté’s Queen of the Night and a couple of Virgin Mary votive candles (La Virgen de Guadalupe y La Virgen de San Juan respectively, both easy to find when you live in South Texas), and every August 15, I rededicate it as a shrine to Diana. It’s a ritual that’s become a personal touchtone, and I get unreasonably giddy about it.

Granted, me huddled over a small chest of drawers in the corner of an urban apartment doesn’t have the same visual impact as, say, hundreds of devotees wreathed in flowers, carrying torches, led by garlanded hounds and waiting with baited breath to be ferried across the smooth, dark waters of Lake Nemi under the bathing rays of the Full Moon. But I’ll light some jasmine incense and say a few prayers, and pour an offering of willow water. And for a fleeting, lovely moment, time, space and my ugly tan carpet will be rendered irrelevant.

Buon Nemoralia, Loyal Strifemongers. Happy Assumption, Merry Dormition, and to all a good night.

Nobody here but us Pagans. I mean, chickens.

One of the big chewy beefs a lot of NeoPagans have with Christianity involves assimilation: the idea that over the centuries, Christians undermined local folk and nature religions by incorporating their practices and turning their Gods into saints. “St. Bridget was originally Brigid, the Goddess of Fire and Poetry,” the NeoPagans will aver, possibly pounding on a table to accentuate their point. “Until the Church Christianized her.”

The thing is, assimilation isn’t really the Church’s MO–historically, it’s always leaned more towards smash-and-grab. So let’s take a quick gander at the Real and For True (insofar as I think it’s true) process by which Pagan deities wind up as Christian saints:

Christian: “Hey! Are you people worshipping false idols?”

Pagan: “Oh no, of course not. We’re… uh, we’re venerating… Catherine. Saint Catherine.”

Christian: “Are you sure? That statue looks a lot like Cerridwen, the Welsh Mother Goddess I’ve been reading about.”

Pagan: “No, it’s definitely St. Catherine. She’s, um, new. We checked.”

Christian: “Well, as long as she’s a saint…. carry on, then.”

Pagan: “Right. Blessed be.

Christian: “Excuse me?”

Pagan: “I said, Amen.”

Ain’t that sneaky? Those Medieval Pagans sure were a plucky bunch of unbaptized savages. Now, as to how Brigid became St. Bridget…

Priestess 1: “Uh oh. The Christians are back.”

Priestess 2: “You know, I’ll bet if we tell them we’re all nuns now, they won’t start stabbing us again.”

Priestess 1: “That’s just crazy enough to work.”

Better than a Ricola

February 3 is the feast day of St. Blaise, protector of livestock and healthy throats, and patron of those who work with wool. On this day, Catholic priests perform the Blessing of the Throats. Two white tapers, blessed the day before (February 2, i.e. Candlemas, i.e. the Feast of St. Brigit, i.e. the Pagan festival of Imbolc) are crossed into an “X” formation, then tied together with red cord and held against the throat, while a traditional invocation to Blaise is recited:

Ain’t no other man can stand up next to you,
Ain’t no other man on the planet does what you do. (What you do!)
You’re the kind of guy a girl finds in a blue moon. (hey)
You got soul (yeah), you got class (ohh).
You got style, you bad ass (Oh Yeah!)
Ain’t no other man it’s true (all right)

[guitar solo]

Blaise is one of the 14 Holy Helpers, a group of legendary saints invoked against the Black Plague during the Middle Ages, all of whom are Christianized perceptions of older Pagan Gods. Veneration of Blaise traces back to the Slavic horned deity Veles (whose name means “wool”), God of earth, water, cattle, magic, wealth and the Underworld. It’s fairly obvious to see why Blaise is the patron of livestock and woolworkers, although the healthy throats thing seems to come out of nowhere. But according to legend, a little girl was choking on a fish bone, and Blaise miraculously saved her–possibly by miraculously whacking her on the back until she miraculously yacked it up.

If you look at photos of priests blessing throats, you’ll notice that they grip the candles with one hand, in a manner suspiciously reminiscent of la mano cornuta contro il malocchio, i.e. the corna, i.e. “Hook ’em Horns,” i.e. that hand gesture people make at Metallica concerts. Historically, the corna is a symbol of protection, used to ward off bad luck and the evil eye… or, in this case, to ward off the evil throat.

So, to sum up, making the sign of the horns and invoking a wooly God of the Underworld is good for what ails ye, provided the whole thing takes place under the auspices of Jesus.

Don’t you just love Catholics? I know I do.

Happy Vappu To You

Tonight is the Eve of Beltane, an ancient Celtic fire festival marking the end of the first planting and the beginning of Summer, and in current times one of the big annual NeoPagan holidays (the others being Samhain, Lammas and Presidents’ Day). Beltane Eve is also called Walpurgis Night, a name I truly adore. I love saying “Walpurgis.” Try it: Walpurgis Walpurgis Walpurgis. Isn’t that a fun word? Or, even better, “Walpurgisnacht.” Oooh, but that’s a satisfying series of consonants. If you hit them right, you’ll totally clear your sinuses.

The name Walpurgis (“Walpurgisnacht!” “Gesundheit!”) derives from St. Walburga, who’s feast day falls on May 1. St. Walburga’s an actual historical figure, but she has a whole bunch of Pagan baggage attached to her–most notably, she’s one of five saints to whom legend assigns the Grain Miracle, which is in itself a remnant of pre-Christian agrarian ritual. Ah, to have been a fly on the thinly-veneered wall back then:

Medieval priest – “What have I told you people about venerating Pagan idols?!”

Medieval Pagans – “We’re not. We promise. We’re just celebrating the fact that St. Walburga had the power to make the grain grow as she passed by, which was a miracle and certainly not any kind of ancient fertility magic.”

Medieval priest – “Oh. Um, I see. It just looked… I mean, what with the corn dollies and orgies and all… well, you know…”

Medieval Pagans – “It was an honest mistake. We understand.”

Medieval priest – “Good, good, I’m glad we’re on the same page. So I’ll see you all on Sunday for the feast of St. Phallus the Foliate-Headed?”

Medieval Pagans – “Sho ’nuff, boss.”

Other names for Beltane include Vappu (see title of this post), May Day, and my all-time favorite… Varbolg. I am unable to speak the word Varbolg. Anytime I try, it comes out as a deep-throated shout, followed by a raucous demand for wenches and grog.

And strangly enough, I have the exact same reaction when I try to say “Pentecost.” I was the crappiest Episcopalian ever.