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).
One of the central tenets of Traditional Witchcraft, in distinction to Wicca, is an emphasis on bioregionalism: leveraging the energy currents of the climate and seasonal changes that are specific to your area at a given time of year instead of relying upon a fixed system of seasonal rites, which may not reflect the conditions of your bioregion at all (Kelden 141-142). In my current climate and my specific locale (Chicago), the seasonal shift to Spring began pretty much at the month’s outset. Thus, I’m not waiting for the arbitrary date of the Spring Equinox to honor the Goddess Who, in Serbian culture, represents the new life and renewal associated with the concepts of dawn, reemerging/blossoming vegetation, clear skies, and fertility (of people, domesticated animals, and wild animals) that we associate with the season of Spring: Vesna.
Once again, pre-Christian Celtic and pre-Christian Slavic magico-religious observances overlap at this time of year. While many Pagans in the Northern Hemisphere celebrate May 1 as Beltane, and bring the greenery o’ the Wildwood into their homes and ritual spaces, my Serbian Witch self celebrates this Friday as Biljini Petak, the “Friday of Gathering Wild Herbs and Flowers.” Celtic or Slavic, this time of year is held sacred as the start of summer, and some very ancient Powers are revered and thanked for Their blessings of returning the earth to vibrant life and verdant fecundity after the barrenness and tedium of winter.
“The Devil is not so black as he is painted.” (16th-century French proverb)
This past Monday, January 20, my parents and I celebrated the highlight of the year in terms of Serbian Orthodox religious festivals: the slava, or feast day, of our family’s patron saint, John the Baptist. It’s a day when many ritual protocols have to be observed to ensure blessings on the family in the year ahead. This feast day is the third out of a three-day series where the focus is on the literal and spiritual washing away of winter’s miasma/spiritual impurity from people and their homes. Not surprisingly, blessed water plays an integral role in each day of the festival; the customs clearly attest to pre-Christian origins.
Dahomey greeting given to a python encountered in the wild:“You are my father and my mother. Be propitious to me.”
My father is coping well, overall, with his monthly chemotherapy treatments, and I’m very grateful for having the opportunity to spend so much time with him. This past Sunday was the most important Serbian cultural one for my parents and me: The Feast Day (Slava, pronounced SLAH-vuh) of our family’s patron saint, John the Baptist. The activities surrounding ritual purification with talismanic water (blessed during a special Mass by a bishop using sprigs of dried hyssop, basil, and rue) clearly are vestiges of pre-Christian Slavic customs designed to promote renewal. I gladly welcome the opportunity to fully celebrate these time-honored customs with my family. So after Sunday’s private Mass (held for families observing their John the Baptist Slava), Dad and I headed straight for my brother’s grave a short walk away from the monastery entrance. The Chicagoland area was gifted with nearly 10 inches of snow from the previous day’s storm; the day was sunny but cold, with a daytime high temperature of 11°. As I watched my frail, cancer-stricken father wade into the snow to make offerings of ritual foods at my brother’s grave, my heart immediately felt weighted by a heavy sadness.
Dad clearing space in the snow to leave offerings of ritual food on my brother’s grave.
I thought about the importance of the day, and how the uniquely Serbian concept of the Slava is a patrilineal one, with different saints “assigned” as protectors to Serbian clans, and I wondered which Pagan Gods those saints displaced. How far back into the mists of antiquity did this observance go? I thought about the cultural importance attached to the male head of the household and the enormous magico-religious role played by that man in every Serbian family, about how he serves as bringer of luck (or the lack of it) to a Serbian family’s Sudbina, or Destiny, and how he serves as mediator between the present and the past, between the living and the dead, stretching all the way back in time to the First Ancestor (i.e., the God of the Underworld, Veles), who incarnated as a serpent. I also thought about similar beliefs held about the head of the household and the connection to serpent-ancestors in ancient Greek and Roman religions and contemporary East African and West African ones. The cultic practice dots definitely connected in my mind in strikingly similar ways, as the research I’ve done and share below bears out. Join me on this cross-cultural spiritual odyssey into the serpentine Labyrinth of the Ancestors, won’t you?
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. Continue reading →
Last night marked the end, in the Serbian calendar, of the “Unclean Days”–a period of time characterized by folk observances that reveal a commingled Pagan and Eastern Orthodox Christian sensibility. One of the major themes emphasized during this liminal 12-day period between the waning influence of the old year and the embryonic energies yet to crystallize in the new is the auspiciousness of performing divination.
Now, while my mother tells me that I had a great uncle in Serbia who performed divination by gazing into an old brazen bowl into which he read the shapes of a beeswax candle’s droplets in spring water, and my mother’s own mother told fortunes with a regular deck of playing cards as well as scrying in Turkish coffee grounds, I like to stick with the Tarot. But not just any Tarot deck–though, admittedly, like many Pagans, I have several at my disposal–my preferred one is the very first one to come across my petite priestess hands: a Marseilles Tarot deck given to me by my awesome Uncle Milan, my mother’s brother. During his 50 years of life (cut short by lymphoma) on this planet, he was an astute esotericist, Jungian psychologist, gifted viola player, and good-humored, pipe tobacco-smoking outdoors enthusiast. The Marseilles deck was his, given to me before my fifteenth birthday with a very knowing wink from his deep-set, coal-black eyes. Continue reading →
Meanwhile the sky and deep fecund earth together maintain an important mythological place as the progenitors of divinized natural elements. This persistent centrality of the celestial and chthonic divinities, incarnated in a lower mythology of animistic spirits and demons, is reflected for example in a dualistic cosmogony reconstructed from South Slavic folklore. While all Slavs eventually embraced Christianity, they did so provisionally: never did the substratum of belief in an animated nature and cyclical (agrarian) time disappear entirely, and the oral and ritual folklore among all major branches of the Slavs –the Eastern, the Western, and the Southern – has conserved strong reflexes of pre-Christian Slavic belief.–Francis Dvornak, The Slavs in European History and Civilization (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986), p. 46.
While the country’s secular calendar is of course Gregorian, Serbia’s liturgical calendar follows the old Julian model, which is roughly two weeks behind the Gregorian method of reckoning time. Hence, instead of observing Christmas on December 25, Serbs the world over commemorate Christ’s Nativity (or Božić) on January 7. What is more remarkable still, from a theological standpoint that showcases the strong Pagan flavor retained in Serbian Orthodox Christianity and in living folk memory, is that unlike in Western Christendom, the “12 Days of Christmas” are officially known in Serbian as the Nekrštani Dani–“the Unclean Days”–when all manner of evil creatures (e.g., vampiri [vampires], džavoli [devils], veštice [witches], karakondžule [demons known for leaping upon travelers’ backs at night and riding them to exhaustion or madness before daybreak]) roam the earth, gaining great strength after sundown each night, wreaking havoc and tormenting people with impunity. Merry effin’ Christmas! Continue reading →