In my Serbian culture, we honor a curious saint on her feast day today, a protectress of women whose name literally translates to “Saint Friday” (Sveta Petka). Sir James Frazier’s well-known quip about Saint Brigid of Ireland–“She’s an ancient goddess in a threadbare Christian cloak”–seems applicable to the ancient and mysterious Saint Petka, also known as Saint Petka Paraskeva. Her name is a clue to her far-older-than-Christianity origins; it’s clear that her cult places us in the goodly company of Weaving Goddesses known throughout Old Europe: Goddesses of Fate and Destiny.
Historian and religious scholar Max Dashu informs us that “the Old Goddess of the Pagans” was known by many avatars across Europe and that “Friday was observed as her holy day, beginning with its eve on Thursday night.” She’s the oldest recorded leader of the Wild Hunt in folk belief, being especially active in “the dark of the year,” and Her symbol of the distaff signifies Her role as “the fateful Spinner,” known by various names and “beloved by the common people” well into the Middle Ages and beyond:
The fateful Spinner was worshipped as Holle or Perchta by the Germans, as Mari by the Basques, and as Laima by the Lithuanians and Latvians. She appears as Befana in Italy and as myriad faery goddesses in France, Spain, and the Gaeltacht. In Serbia she is Srecha; in Russia she is Mokosh or Kostroma or the apocryphal saint Paraska.
I call her the Old Goddess because she was commonly pictured as an aged woman, and her veneration was ancient. While the goddesses of the various ethnic cultures have their unique qualities, they share certain traits, some international deep root of commonality. Old Goddess is like the weathered Earth, ancestor of all, an immanent presence in forests, grottos and fountains.
Not surprisingly, Saint Petka’s healing energies are ascribed to holy wells and springs throughout Serbia, including a very famous spring that flows under a well-known chapel dedicated to the saint in the middle of downtown Beograd (Belgrade in English), Serbia’s capital. Many legends exist about the origins of the spring, ranging from a faery’s/divine female being’s show of gratitude for medieval chivalry (a traveling knight beheld an injured woman lying in a meadow, and as a show of thanks for his kindness she told him to tap the ground with his lance, whereupon the healing waters ushered forth from the earth) to the deeds of a mysterious trio of “sisters” (the Fates? Triple Goddess? The Matronae?) who erected a chapel to show their devotion to Christ, throwing in the healing spring as an added bonus to pilgrims, to other tales that bear the stamp of remote antiquity on them. I’ve visited the chapel every time I’ve visited family in and around Belgrade, and I’ve tasted the spring’s waters. There is definitely a loving sense of Presence in the entire environment.
As a weaver, Saint Petka in Serbian lore has dominion over the women’s-only fiber arts of wool carding and thread spinning and weaving. On her feast day, however, one must not engage in those activities lest she punish the household. It’s customary to offer the ritual food of boiled shelled wheat grains with honey known as žito before her icon at the family altar–the same ritual food offered to the ancestral dead, which has me thinking Petka is a guardian of the female ancestral line along the same lines of what we know of the disír in pre-Christian Teutonic cultures.
Saint Petka’s major role, as you might expect, is that of protecting mothers in childbirth, ensuring a safe and complication-free delivery. To this day, in rural Serbian households, a whole slew of taboos are observed for home births. Many customs involve the strategic placement of hatchets and shears–the latter sometimes opened, sometimes closed–within the delivery room as well as offering newly carded wool to Saint Petka. To help ensure that the newborn baby is given “a good destiny,” a table of foods connoting wealth and happiness (walnuts and oranges are staples; these are also ritually eaten on Christmas Eve on January 6 to ensure happiness in the year to come) is laid out with a portion meant to be consumed by Saint Petka herself and her retinue of “the Roženitce” (pronounced roh-ZHEN-eet-seh), the “Good Ladies” who are thought to visit households when a newborn arrives. These customs commingle ancient ideas of propitiating goddesses, faeries, and/or the ancestral dead–they’re really all conflated at this point–and asking for the benevolent, unmistakably female Givers of long life and happiness to tend to the newest member of the family.
Tellingly, this Feast Day of Saint Friday falls near the start of the ancient Serbian reckoning of the season of Winter (November 8), and the major All Souls’ Day (Zadušnice) on the Saturday that precedes it (November 4 this year). I’m more convinced than ever that Sveta Petka/Saint Friday is, to use Max Dashu’s words, a Christian incarnation of a very Old Goddess, a beloved “source of life power and wisdom.”