In the Gregorian calendar, today is Good Friday for millions of practicing Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians: the most solemn day of the liturgical year as it commemorates Jesus’ torture and death by crucifixion (a common method of capital punishment meted out in ancient Rome) on the hill of Golgotha. For many modern Pagans and Witches, celebrating the holidays of Christian family members or loved ones is a common occurrence, especially in the interests of maintaining interfaith harmony and treating any religious devotee’s holy day with the respect accorded to it.
Easter for Witches: Celebrated or Not?
Several of my friends, current and former coven members, and acquaintances I’ve made in the broader Pagan community in the past 23 years express a wide variety of attitudes and behaviors on whether or not to celebrate Easter. Many Witches (Wiccan, Trad Craft, or other/non-specified), including my adored friend and current ritual partner A.H., are militantly anti-Christian and want no trace of Christian symbols, liturgical references, mythological constructs, etc., influencing (some might say “tainting”) the practices of their Craft. Other Witches, especially those involved in interfaith ambassadorship through formal group associations or civic involvement, swing the proverbial pendulum to the opposite extreme and are content to join their Christian family members, neighbors, or fellow civic religious leaders in celebrations of Easter, whether that means participating in a religious service or an interfaith communal meal or partaking in more secular activities such as supervising children’s Easter egg hunts and the like.
Easter and European Traditional Witchcraft
In the annals of Traditional Witchcraft as practiced in various European countries, celebrating Easter was par for the course. In Sweden, for example, there’s a folkloric belief that witches fly off to the island of Blåkulla to meet the Devil on Maundy Thursday. The sense of spookiness has been diluted into the contemporary custom of children dressing as “Easter witches” known as påskkärringar, who go go-to-door asking for Easter candies in the same manner of American children trick-or-treating on Halloween. And in Traditional Witchcraft as it developed in the mid-to-late 20th century under the tutelage of Robert Cochrane, Easter is actually seen is a high tide of magical power (Pearson 164).
“Dying to Oneself” and the Historical Jesus as Magician?
What many esoteric (especially initiatory) traditions modeled after the Mystery Religions of the Classical Mediterranean world share with the Christian paradigm that defines Easter is the vital concept of deliberately casting off/symbolically “killing” an old self and being reborn in a selfhood reflective of an elevated state of consciousness. For many Traditional Witches, from Cochrane’s Clan of Tubal Cain onwards, the historical Jesus is to be admired for his teachings and role as bearer of Divine Gnosis (Pearson 164). This is an old idea in the Western world and harkens back to Gnosticism, itself a syncretic religious movement.
Other Gnostics believed that Christ was an embodiment of the Supreme Being who had been incarnated to bring ‘knowledge’ to the Earth and humanity.Ristić, Radomir. Witchcraft and Sorcery of the Balkans, p.47.
Some Witches go further, declaring that the ability to attain and exude Christ consciousness could only have been possible if Jesus himself was a magician. There are fourth-century CE Roman artistic interpretations of Jesus performing miracles with the use of a wand! We can reframe Jesus’ descent into “Hell” in a wider mythic lens that puts him in noteworthy company, as many Gods and demigods of the ancient world were told of descending into an Underworld as an act of love (e.g., Orpheus for Eurydice, Demeter to search for Persephone, Inanna to retrieve Tammuz, Dionysos to restore Semele, etc.).
The death that accompanies these narratives of descent and the subsequent “Resurrection into a perfected state is a goal and an example which Crafters aim to follow” (Pearson 165).
Serbian Easter and the Curious Folk Magic of “Lazarus Saturday”
Easter is celebrated by the majority of Eastern Orthodox Christians a week or two after Western Christendom’s Easter; this discrepancy in the holiday’s date is based on the adherence to the “old style” Julian calendar as opposed to the Gregorian one. Thus while today is Good Friday in the West, for Orthodox Christians it’s just a Lenten Friday and fasting is observed. Sunday the 17th is Palm Sunday and that kicks off Holy Week for an Easter whose date in 2022 is set for April 24.
However, I’m far less interested in Easter Sunday than I am in the holiday that’s celebrated tomorrow: Lazareva Subota, or “Lazarus Saturday.” There’s a tremendous amount of Serbian Traditional Witchcraft and folk magic practices that are associated with this day that falls 8 days before Orthodox Easter.
Serbian Folkloric Imagination: Tsar Lazar, Cuckoos, and a Women’s-Only Rite of Spring
While the name of the holiday of Lazareva Subota was meant, in the medieval mind of the Serbian Orthodox Church, to allude to the biblical miracle of Christ’s raising (necromantic working?) of Lazarus from the dead, ordinary people interpreted it as referring to the medieval Serbian prince, Tsar (Czar) Lazar (1329-1389), famous for his courageous defense of Christendom against the encroaching Ottoman Empire and his refusal to accept vassaldom to Sultan Murad I, resulting in the bloody Battle of Kosovo in June 1389. Tsar Lazar looms large in the Serbian mythic imagination, a sort of King Arthur figure who continues to inspire epic songs and tales of his bravery.
He’s inspired quite a lot of magic tied to Spring rituals that have since tenuously been assigned to Easter in the unfolding of the liturgical year, it turns out.
Lazarus Saturday is first and foremost a day associated with divination, especially ornithomancy, or divination by observing birds. The bird in question is the cuckoo, colloquially referred to as the kukavica in Serbian, the bird that mourns (verb kuka). As a result of the Battle of Kosovo, so the folk beliefs go, the daughters of Czar Lazar shapeshifted into cuckoo birds to avoid capture and rape by the invading Ottomans, and the lamentations of these princesses are thought to be heard in the cries of the cuckoo bird (Bandić 318).
At dawn on Lazarus Saturday, the cries of the cuckoo carry an ominous tone: how and where you see and hear the bird can affect the nature of the news you receive. It’s considered bad luck to hear the cuckoo while one’s stomach is empty, so literally breaking the Lenten fast upon awakening with a quick bite to eat (meat- and dairy-free, of course, due to the Lenten taboos) is recommended. Should the cuckoo fly into one’s house, that is a dire phenomenon indeed and serves as an unequivocal death omen (Bandić 318).
To purify oneself against any bad news received and as an overall health tonic, it’s recommended that people light fires on their property to banish evil while they go searching for apotropaic herbs and flowers (chamomile, St. John’s Wort, hemp, Lilies of the Valley). The herbs and flowers are then soaked in spring water and this water should be drunk as the morning advances but definitely before the sun reaches high noon (the zenith of power); this plant medicine tonic is a practice adopted even in cities, not just in rural areas (Bandić 318). If you can wear green and adorn yourself with greenery such as the flexible bands of willow and pussy willow branches, even better. (Blessed pussy willow stalks are given to churchgoers at Lazarus Saturday Mass in Serbian churches!) An alternate name for Lazareva Subota as a holiday, in fact, is Vrbica, (pronounced Ver-BEE-tsuh), “Day of the Willow Tree” (Bandić 318).
At remote parishes, it’s common to see Serbian parents tie little bells around their children’s necks (as if they were lambs, I would imagine?) while the kiddos stand outside the church door, pussy willow branches in hand, singing songs about Tsar Lazar’s courageous stand against the Turks (Bandić 319).
People naturally associate Easter with children and the games and egg hunts devised for them. But in rural Serbia, Lazarus Saturday is organized by and for women, culminating in a special Rite of Spring ritual procession that has a very carnival-like feel to it.
Ritual Procession of the Lazarice, a Gender-Bending, Women’s-Only Magical Theater Troupe
Pre-teen girls to young, unmarried women to married women of various ages comprise the procession of the Lazarice (pronounced LAH-zah-ree-tseh); they all dress up in curious costumes and perform specific songs and dances at each house in their village, pronouncing blessings tailored to the families who dwell therein (Bandić 320). The preparations, from sewing the costumes to rehearsing the songs and dances, span several weeks (Bandić 320). Every home is eager to have the Lazarice stay and sing for a while and it’s hoped that the Lazarice part with some aspect of their wardrobe, especially the white veil worn by the flower-bedecked lead Lazarica, to the family members in the house because the garments and herbs worn by the Lazarice are thought to be imbued with supernatural powers. It’s considered great luck to the household to obtain anything the singing, cross-dressing women wear (Bandić 321).
Cross-dressing, did you say? Yes! Well, for several of the performers, at any rate: the roles of the sword-wielding Tsar Lazar, his foe the Sultan Murad the First, and Serbian and Turkish cavalry officers with their respective hats and pants mean that several of the performers pretend to be men and swagger around in their sword-swinging singing (Bandić 321). The woman playing Tsar Lazar is accompanied by Lazarica: think of the two of them, if you will, as Lord and Lady. As befitting a divine couple of Spring, they’re naturally at the head of the procession. As much as Tsar Lazar gets top billing in this curious theatrical procession, the Lazarica, who looks like an Otherworldly Goddess or Fairy figure in her all-white ensemble, complete with opaque veil and floral crown, is the real star of the show. Her veil is the most coveted article of the day.
The women begin their procession at dawn and the entire experience is thought to serve as an initiation rite for young unmarried women (Bandić 318). If women of marrying age, for whatever reason, choose not to participate in the procession of the Lazarice, it’s thought to bring severe misfortune, not the least of which is the curse of never finding a spouse and getting married (Bandić 318).
The songs the troupe of Lazarice performers sing have to do with banishing evil and dangers to the villagers’ well-being, including the common seasonal hazard of snake bite from venomous pit vipers! Here’s one such song (Bandić 320): I’ll note it in the original Serbian first because it rhymes; then I’ll provide the English translation, which, sadly, loses the rhyme scheme:
Beži zmija, plazara,
Eto Svetog Lazara!
I on noci tavinu,
Get away, snake with protruding tongue,
Here comes Saint Lazar!
And he’s carrying his staff,
He’s going to konk you on the head with it!
With every house they approach, the Lazarice, once they have finished their song and blessing specific to that family, is welcomed inside and treated to refreshments, where the Easter staple of a red-dyed hardboiled egg is the first food to be consumed for its magical power (Bandić 321).
To my Jewish (and Jew-Witch) friends who read my blog, I wish you and your families a blessed Passover / Sameach Pesach! To my friends and Trad Craft Witches who are observing Good Friday today and this evening, may your somber reflections at the foot of the Cross bring wisdom. To my fellow Serbian family and friends awaiting Lazarus Saturday/Vrbica, may there always be wheat for your bread and may your vats of wine pour freely!
Živeli! / To Life!
Bandić, Dušan. Narodna Religija Srba U 100 Pojmova. Beograd: Nolit, 2004.
Pearson, Nigel. Walking the Tides: Seasonal Magical Rhythms and Lore. London: Troy Books, 2017.
Ristić, Radomir. Witchcraft and Sorcery in the Balkans. Berkeley, CA: Three Hands Press, 2015.