It’s the Friday before Beltane so here is my annual long article about Beltane with additions and modifications because this year is actually different from last, though its patterns are similar. What follows is a summary of some of the stuff I have written in answer to questions about pagans and their festivals. It includes a brief history of how the current NeoPagan ways of celebrating the old festivals came about. A sort of Wiccan history 101.
There are four major festivals in the Celtic, Wiccan and neo-pagan year. Just about all pagans in every country above the equator celebrate these around the same dates, and did so for centuries before Christ. Some pagans also recently began to celebrate the four minor festivals too, the two equinoxes and the two solstices. How that happened is interesting and shows how one person can make a difference.
The four major festivals are all fire festivals and they all occur around the calendar mid points between solstices and equinoxes. So these major festivals are called the cross quarter festivals, because on a picture of the Wheel of the Year as a circle they would form a cross at 45° to the cross of the equinoxes and solstices. Let’s get the possibly boring but essential astronomy data out of the way first, and then go on to the interesting human stuff.
Pagans call these major cross quarter festivals Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine and Lughnasadh. You can tell from the impossible spellings that these words are derived from the Irish Gaelic.
Samhain, pronounced Sow-Wain, is the Irish word for November, what the mundane call Hallowe’en, occurs when the sun is 15°into Scorpio, the fixed water sign whose symbol in Tarot is the Eagle.
Imbolc, February 2nd, occurs when the sun is 15° into Aquarius, the fixed air sign whose symbol in Tarot is the Man.
Bealtaine, is the Irish for May, comes around May 1st and occurs when the sun is 15° in Taurus, the fixed earth sign whose symbol in Tarot is the Bull. Most English books spell it Beltane.
Lughnasadh around August 1st, occurs when the sun is 15° into Leo, the fixed fire sign whose symbol in Tarot is the Lion.
So all the cross quarters occur when the sun is 15° into a fixed sign. These fixed signs from astrology are in a way regarded as the skeleton of the astrological universe. They are the stable structure on which the universe is based. All are on the Wheel of Life and World cards of orthodox Tarots.
The quarter signs are Yule, Ostara, Midsummer and Harvest Home.
Yule occurs around 20-23 of December, when the sun is at 0° in Capricorn. It’s midwinter, the birthday of dozens of gods of the Mediterranean area. Most non pagans call it Christmas.
Ostara occurs around 19-22nd of March when the sun is is 0°Aries. It’s the spring equinox and the fertility festival of the goddess Ostara is known by most as Eastertide and her fertility symbols of rabbits and eggs appear in candy stores.
Midsummer occurs around 19-23rd of June, the summer solstice, when the sun is at 0°Cancer. Some people call it Litha, a name invented by Aidan Kelly quite recently.
Harvest home, some people call it Mabon, occurs around 21-24th September, the autumn equinox when the sun is at 0°Libra. So all the quarters of the year occur when the sun is at 0°, on the cusp of a sign.
It’s pretty obvious that all the times mentioned are plugged into the minds of people who knew from their day to day experience about the way the sun seemed to cycle through a period of growth and decline, every year. And it was very important to them to know where the sun was in that cycle.
The major four festivals were called Sabbats by the Celts and Wiccans. The Church, always anxious to denigrate all religions but its own, renamed them Witch’s Sabbaths and made up and preached total nonsense about their being dedicated to Devil worship, to ensure fear, compliance and persecution. Some pulpits still do.
First of all, the word Sabbat has nothing to do with the Sabbath, which occurs every week. Many European languages use variants on sabato as the name of Saturday, the original Sabbath in the religion that spawned Christianity and Islam. It comes, as the great magician and Sufi leader Idries Shah says, from the Arabic, like many magical terms and means ‘an energy filled occasion’ which these festivals are.
And secondly, Satan the Devil, is a Christian invention, apparently designed with the dual purpose of a cop-out for Christians to blame something else for their misdeeds, and also as a hammer to crush non Christian belief systems and abilities by calling them Devil related. And this has been done for centuries by the Church, all over the world.
Recently the Catholic bishops have designated Reiki healing as a devil oriented activity. Judging from the way the same people have protected pedophiles it seems that pedophilia is God’s work.
The latest non-religious cop out, as my insightful wife pointed out to me, is the ‘discovery’ of the gene for obesity. It did seem strange to us that in our long lives we had never noticed huge numbers of obese people until the fast food and high fructose corn syrup era. No doubt there are other such 'discoveries' awaiting the appropriate medical entrepreneurs.(Cf 'Do you see the SIZE of those People,' posted 02/08/2010)
Fundamentalists anxious to refute the accusation about the invention of Satan will point out that the name Satan appears in the Bible, and it is therefore true. Case closed.
I suggest that those people actually read the Bible, which is here and there quite interesting, instead of picking up errors from dogmatists.
In the story of Job we find Satan talking to God pretty much as one of the divine in-group. He is not the embodiment of evil, he is the chief inspector of products, testing for flaws. And God gives him permission to test the product Job very severely, but not as in some modern factories, to destruction.
The second big story about Satan is in the New Testament where Jesus is said to be totally alone in the wilderness and yet the story is told as if by a separate eye witness. Doesn’t ring true as journalistic fact. Does ring true as mythological fact, like the final temptations of the Lord Buddha.
At that moment I think that Jesus was probably wondering what to do about the inconvenient advent of John the Baptist, who was assembling and baptizing soldiers at the Jordan, and was obviously incompetent to lead a revolt against the Roman occupation. I go into that concept in my book Who was Jesus Really?
I had better intersperse here that the Sabbats are to do with the apparent motion of the Sun. There are also regular rituals to do with the phases of the Moon. These are called Esbats and of course cannot be held on the same calendar date every year because of the variations that occur when the thirteen month lunar calendar mixes with the solar calendar.
Every cub reporter, anxious to get his scrawl published by the editor will almost always add the word Satan in any account of Wiccans. Since Wiccans do not believe in a Satan it is clear to anyone not dogma ridden that they cannot worship Satan. Sorry for the little tangent, but my last few posts have been about truth, and that isn’t what most people hear about Wiccans and other pagans from the media, or the pulpit, I must add.
And some Congressional Republicans, whose party is well known for its original way of dealing with truth, have tried the political trick of inserting a line denying witchcraft the status of a religion into long bills having nothing whatever to do with religion. I know of three instances.
Our most prominent religious scholar, ex-President Bush, who didn't know that Sunnis were different from Shiites, and thought that Pakistani Moslems were all Arabs, said he doesn’t think that witchcraft is a religion, and wished that the Pentagon would stop recognizing it as such.
Now let’s get to the real and current world of Beltane. As Bel-tan it means the Fire of Bel, the Sun god, in Welsh. In Celtic countries like Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, Beltane is the beginning of summer. For pagans, who relate to the Earth cycles, it is the time when the soil is beginning to warm up and energy, particularly sexual energy, arises in humans and beasties.
“In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” And it isn’t only the young men. Maybe it’s time for the discovery of a love gene. Remember that EVERYONE reading this has pagan ancestors, and those ancestors relied on the fertility of their soil and their animal flocks and herds to survive the winter months. Fertility meant survival in a harsh world, not just pleasurable entertainment.
There are places in the USA where the original concept of May as the happy sex time is followed through. Here for example is a typical announcement about such matters from the Web, This one was from 2008. Search around for this year’s.
“Each year pagans, polyamorists, swingers, tantra practitioners, members of the leather community and other people with a passionate attitude towards life gathered together in Northern Maryland to celebrate Beltane with a variety of rituals, workshops and experiences. We embraced life and each other in an open environment full of excitement and joy. We invite you to become part of that community.
Here, you will find a supportive environment for exploring the sexually sacred and celebrating the ecstatic. You will find others of a like mind with whom to experience different ways of loving, different roads to achieving bliss. You'll be able to join an intentional community exploring the many facets of love and sex and the many ways they can be sacred.
In 2008, we'll have nationally and regionally known presenters offering workshops, lectures and hands-on demonstrations covering topics such as Tantra, Polyamory, personal intimacy, sexual orientation & gender issues, the changing definition of the family and communication skills. And of course, we will have workshops where the focus will be fun. We’ll also have drumming and dancing around the bonfire each night, a meet and greet dance on Thursday and play parties each night.
Our pansexual, clothing optional retreat attracts adults 18 and over from all backgrounds, orientations and walks of life. The only thing we ask is that you have an open mind and be nonjudgmental.
Beltane is held on a private 200-acre campground on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Northern Maryland. Only minutes from I-95, it is about 90 minutes from Philadelphia and 45 minutes from Baltimore.” (end of announcement)
I remember well how the only thing that made reporters swarm round any place where Gardnerian rituals might be held in England was the fact that those rituals were performed ‘sky clad’ code talk for nude. Rather like the interest in a certain Super Bowl incident that was replayed hundreds of times because of the super important and amazing discovery that mature women have breasts. The phrase ‘clothing optional’ in the announcement may have a similar effect on juvenile media types. Anyway, back to original myth.
At Beltane the young Sun God marries the maiden Earth Goddess as Mother Earth wakes up to the Sun’s rays, and their human pagan worshipers play out the cosmic drama as actors in a play. May 1st is the time for the dance of young men and women round the Maypole. The pole represents the god and ribbons the goddess. As the young men and women dance around the pole they interweave the ribbons over and under and end up with a pole wreathed in a braided ribbon.
In the days before Christianity added guilt to sex the pairs of young people would then go a-Maying into the woods and fields. Their actions were sympathetic magic to help the Earth and Sun combine energies to produce vegetable and animal offspring. The Puritans in England were horrified at the idea of people having sex and banned the Maypole dancing. They weren’t as successful at banning the a-Maying.
What happened in May all over the world above the equator was what happened in ancient pagan Rome. There was a festival called Floralia from April 27th to May 3rd devoted to sexual activities and general fun and games. The Goddesses concerned were Flora, worshiped with offerings of flowers, and Maia, Goddess of Increase. That’s where the name of the month comes from.
That Maia is now in the sky. She is one of the Seven Sisters of the constellation Pleiades. This constellation first becomes visible over the horizon just before sunrise in May and disappears below the horizon around sunset in November. This period, May to November, is the time of the Summer Stars, another name for the Pleiades.
When the greatest bard of all, Taliesin,the chief bard of Britain and of King Arthur, the teacher of Merlin, was asked where he came from he said, “A’m gwlad gynnevin Yw bro ser hevin” which means “My original country is the Region of the Summer Stars”
Everybody then just knew that his amazing abilities labeled him as an extra-terrestrial, and weren’t surprised at his answer. You may have seen the pattern of the Summer Stars on the logo of the car in front of you on the express way. Subaru means Pleiades in Japanese.
The fertility based fun and games around May 1st included ritual plays involving ancient characters many of whose names you will recognize such as Robin Hood…the Green Man of the Forest, Maid Marion his consort representing the feminine creative energy, Little John, a force of nature and so on. There are people today with names like RobinSON and JohnSON whose name originated when a May King and Queen and their court went a-Maying long time ago.
Some dances, still performed are called Morris Dances. The name comes from ‘Moorish Dances.’ The Sufis expressed themselves in dance when they worshiped.
The mythology of the May ceremonies was to do with the story of how the Sun god is born at Yule, every Yule, and in his earthly year is in prime, young, virile manhood in May and marries his goddess mother, who is now a maiden again. He is born again, anew at Yule after the death of the Sun god around Samhain. And the cycle goes on forever.
The Lady follows the moon cycles of waxing, full and waning….maiden, mother, crone.
The sexual energy is often represented as fire, as is the solar energy. On the eve of Beltane the Celts would put out all the fires of the households, that had been nurtured carefully throughout the winter.
The Celtic day is from sunset to sunset not from dawn to dawn. That’s why Samhain means November. The evening of the 31st of October is the start of the Celtic month of November, the beginning of their year.
As part of the celebrations the Celts would build great bonfires called 'need fires,' made from the nine sacred woods. They would drive their cattle and sheep between two such fires to ensure fertility. The sacred bonfires would then provide the fire to begin making the extinguished household fires anew in the morning. After Christianity interfered with the need fires as a Druid ritual a lay person would perform the task.
The word ‘need’ is still echoed in the name of the rune NOD or NYD which is represented by two straight sticks, one crossing the other. From the skilled rubbing of these sticks together the stored sunlight within them burst out into fire, hence ‘need fire.’
A human ritual practiced in several Celtic countries is to make a custard of eggs and milk that everyone shares, and also a large, flat, baked cake made from oats or rye. The cake is cut into as many pieces as there are people, one piece is blackened with charcoal from the fire. All the pieces are then put into a sack, or people are blindfolded. In either case everyone picks out a piece of the sacred meal. The one with the black piece then represents the whole group and jumps over the bonfire as a substitute for a more ancient burnt sacrifice.
The person doing this usually does it naked, because jumping over a fire with clothes on could be very dangerous. The nudity of course is all that a modern day reporter would notice, or his/her readers read about. The story behind the custom would disappear in the ‘shocking’ discovery that people without clothes on are naked.
In parts of Ireland, Wales and Scotland Beltane fire festivals are still held. A Beltane Fire Festival has been held every year since 1988 during the night of 30 April on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland, and attended by up to 15,000 people. If you happen to plan a trip to the UK for the end of April this year you could take it in. See Beltane Fire Society Website www.beltane.org
In old Wales the Beltane fires were of particular importance in my own magickal lineage simply because of the geography. The highest peak in North Wales is called Snowdon. In the mountains around Snowdon there is a set of peaks that exactly follows the shape of the Big Dipper. And there are villages and towns too that fit exactly into the sky pattern of the North Star and the Dipper stars.
In that range is a huge chair like cut-out on a mountain called Cadair Idris… the throne of Idris. This Idris was a gigantic mythological character who was a great astrologer. He could sit on his throne 3,000 feet above the villages below and forecast everything to the end of the world, doomsday, by looking at the stars.
It was the custom for those feeling the calling to be bards to undergo the trial of sitting on Cadair Idris throughout the night. There were three possibilities in the morning. They would be dead, insane, or gifted with prophetic insights. The winds and the dense mists that suddenly arise without warning among those mountains can be very frightening. The combination of thick mists, darkness, screaming winds and sheer drops all around made the whole trial dangerous. I have climbed in the area by day and know how quickly the weather changes from calm to lethal.
But a successful poet on a clear Beltane night would be sitting on the throne of Idris on the mountain, and seeing all the Beltane fires on the mountains and in the villages below, in the exact pattern of the stars above him/her. Above was the future in the stars. Below was the past and present on the earth. And he/she, for some hours was suspended as it were between present and future and able, if successful as a bard, to channel a connection between them.
An astronaut doing a space walk is in the same sort of situation. The recent discovery on the mountain track of a gold torc belonging doubtless to a bardic candidate of the distant past lends a historical relic to the story.
Now that is not all that was going on during the Welsh Beltane night. The very names of the villages pinpointed by their bonfires would give joy to anyone interested in King Arthur and the Grail story. Arth is Welsh for bear. Arthur is 'bear cub'. The prospective bard would see the fires from the village of Arthog, which means the Cave of the Bear. On the other side of Cadair Idris he would see the fires from Peniarth, which means the Head of the Bear. In the sky he would see the constellation Bootes in the position of Peniarth on the ground. And Bootes is called the Ward of the Bear. And right where the Pole star was in the sky was the ancient church of St. Illtyd at Llanelltyd on Earth. Illtyd was a knight of Arthur before he took holy orders.
There is a great deal more to this part of the topic, but the story of Arthur is intimately connected with the Welsh Beltane. The Pole Star before our Polaris was Thuban in the constellation of the Dragon, Draconis. The mythology pictured in the sky was the story of how, as the power of the goddess Arianrhod (Silver Wheel) passed from the Corona Borealis constellation across to the Pleiades, where Taliesin would meet with her, so the power of the king passed from the Dragon of Draconis to the Bear, Ursa Major and Minor.
The two powers were combined in Arthur as the Pendragon. He was therefore the Bear Cub and the Head Dragon, whose red dragon flag is still the flag of Wales.
Forgive me going into this material if Arthur doesn’t interest you, but it is dear to my heart because my own female magickal mentor, a red-headed, green eyed magician of exquisite beauty, successfully spent the night on Cadair Idris to unite her feminine magick with the bardic power on the day before I met her. And that was many decades ago for me, in Wales.
You possibly could also recognize the May tree, sometimes called hawthorn, the only tree named after a month. Hoary hair is white hair. The hoary thorn is a thorn tree with white flowers. This is a very interesting connection to Beltane. The May tree used to bloom regularly around the first of May. Now it doesn’t because of the calendar “reform” of 1582 initiated by Pope Gregory. But its bright white mass of blossoms could not be missed amidst the growing greenery of the fields.
One of the May Day customs was the walking of the boundaries. May trees were planted as markers to boundaries of villages and farms. There could be no mistaking where the boundary was when everyone walked the local boundaries in May.
And there were other characteristics of the tree which was considered a magical tree. Samhain and Beltane are both days when the veil between the worlds grows thin. Sensitive people can notice visitors from other realms, and some still set table places for visits from those who died during the year. People who sat under the hawthorn on the first of May could likely see the Queen of Faerie as she rode by on her white horse.
The old magickal trio of oak, ash and thorn come to mind. Thomas the Rhymer did see her and was taken by her to the Faerie Realm. He wrote a famous book about his experience. His poem is a classic. And those who have done the requisite work rather than being Monday morning quarterbacks about it, know that his poem isn’t fiction. Check Thomas the Rhymer on the Web if Faerie interests you.
This story got mixed up with the Lady Godiva story and every year for three hundred years, a beautiful woman dressed only in her long hair would ride through town on a white horse. Since the Puritans considered themselves part of that peculiar Adam and Eve group of humans who were ashamed to be naked, they banned the practice when they were in power.
They also banned Christmas celebrations because they knew it was actually a purely pagan festival. They can have an A for their data but an F for their tolerance. Their only sacred day was Sunday, every week.
Wreaths of May were placed outside houses by young men who fancied the young woman who lived there. They were never brought into the house, and the reason is interesting enough to permit a slight historical diversion from an ex-chemistry major.
May tree flowers have a very sweet odor, overpowering and strangely unpleasant in large masses, like some tropical orchids. And the odor comes from the flower making exactly the same chemical that is the first breakdown product of decaying protein.
It smells like a dead body in other words, and everyone in those days knew what dead bodies smelled like.
In 1665 some rats from abroad brought the bubonic plague to London. Hundreds and hundreds of people died in the streets. There were too many to bury in the standard fashion and huge pits were dug for scores of bodies at a time. When the wind blew south the people on the south coast of England could smell the sweet sickly smell of the London dead from fifty or sixty miles away.
In 1666 the Great Fire of London burned down most of the city and wiped out the plague. An historical example of what bad luck, what good luck.
I hope to post an article very soon about another example of the same phenomenon associated with May, but this time in the twentieth century on May 10, 1941, also in London. Watch this space as the man says.
And on a personal note…I used to own one of those wind up gramophones in the 30’s on which we played thick 78’s in ye olde days. I discovered that the long thorns from the hawthorn tree on the local common played the records better than the steel needles, and didn’t wear out the records so fast. Just a cost effective hint in case the old times return after the neo-cons get their Armageddon.
Now to show that the fire rituals are not confined to ancient European pagans and their export to the States. Among the Aztecs there was a day when all the fires everywhere in the realm were extinguished overnight. On the next morning fires were lit in the temples and relays of runners took the new temple fires to every part of the nation. As in Europe where everybody began the cycle again with new and sacred fire from the Beltane bonfires.
In this country today the equivalent would be the total shut down of everything electrical, all night. Quite a picture. At least we would be able to see the stars. And judging from experience Com.Ed. in my area would not be as efficient in bringing back the power as the old priests were in rubbing two sticks together and making a sacred fire.
Now I did mention that most Wiccans and NeoPagans nowadays add in the four quarter days to the cross quarter days and celebrate Eight Solar Sabbats a year. How that came about deserves a few words. It’s part of the recent history of the Wiccan revival movement which began after the Witchcraft Act of 1736 was repealed in Britain in 1951.
Until that happened it was against the law to say that you were a witch or that anyone else was a witch, or to tell fortunes or find missing articles by psychic means. And the law was based on the King James Bible like so many things that led to suffering and death.
The witch in the Bible is the Witch of Endor. She was a necromancer, and when king Saul had a problem beyond his capacity he had the Witch call the prophet Samuel back from the dead to answer his question. People who did that sort of thing were therefore definitely witches. Salem, in this country is an example of the tolerance extended to suspected witches, at the time when the rye harvest was full of ergot, source of LSD.
In England there was a Spiritualist Church in which a major part of the work entailed a medium channeling answers to members from their dead relatives, and others. Sometimes too, the medium would produce an ectoplasm 3D figure of the person being contacted. So this was actually smack in the middle of the definition of witchcraft and therefore definitely illegal.
But several members of the Church were also members of the House of Lords, England’s upper house of the Government. One of them was the very psychic Lord Goddard, Air Chief Marshall of the Royal Air Force, of Battle of Britain fame, and not someone to mess with.
Eventually the House of Commons took the common sense route that there aren’t any witches nowadays, except in fairy stories and Disney movies, so let’s repeal the obsolete Act. And they did.
Now actually there were witches in England but they were very quiet about it, and most of them were solo and not easily noticed, and nothing like the witches of Disney and the fairy stories. Enter Gerald Gardner. He was a retired civil servant who had been a customs and excise officer in Malaya and had been into various tropical activities. He was interested in the occult.
It was Gardner who published his History of Witchcraft in 1954 after several other fiction books about magical practices. He claimed to have found a coven of real witches in the New Forest, a very magical place in England. He was initiated into what he said he realized was the pre-Christian, Old Religion of the Wise…Wicca.
He began to publicize the religion and initiate people, and was helped by the fact that Margaret Murray, the famous anthropologist wrote a foreword to his book, which he had published as a PhD. He didn’t have a PhD but as an ex civil servant he knew what was needed to work the system. His book would never have been published without alphabet soup after his name.
When I was a boy my mother allowed Hungarian gypsies and their caravans to camp on our land so they weren’t continually moved on by the police as vagrants. A traveling home was an impossible idea for British law to grasp. When they left us they always said they were going to meet some of the Wise in the New Forest. That was in the early 1930’s. Sybil Leek knew the same group as the Horsa coven.
So as far as I’m concerned there were witches around before Gardner. But he started the explosion that is still going on.
To the great surprise of the Members of Parliament witches began to come out of the woodwork. Gardner began teaching and initiating covens right and left. I was involved in this matter myself to a trifling extent. I had written to Gardner about his previous book High Magic’s Aid, since I recognized much of it as coming from The Key of Solomon, an ancient magickal text that every ritual magician knew about.
We corresponded for a while, and one day he sent me a postcard saying that he wanted help in starting a coven in the South of London, and that his niece lived close to me and needed some help in elementary magic, since she was to be the High Priestess, would I help?
Being young and arrogant in my memberships of several occult groups at the time I agreed. I taught the lady her basic circle casting procedures and how to call in the energy of the four quarters, and use the various instruments, athame, cauldron, wand and boline. She invited me to go to the place where the coven sometimes met. This was at an estate in Bricket Wood, in Hertfordshire just north of London.
I was rather surprised to find it surrounded by a high wall with a strong solid gate, to which she had a key. It was in fact, as I found later, the oldest nudist colony in Britain, founded in 1929 as Spielplatz…German for playground.
Gerald Gardner, who suffered from asthma, believed fervently in the power of sunbathing for health. His Gardnerian Wiccans would do their rituals in the nude, sky clad, as he called it. So his nude followers met in the nudist colony which was a great cover for them, excuse the phrase.
He also called the meeting place inside the colony a temple. This enabled him to get tax breaks on it as a religious meeting place. He may not have been very clever but he was certainly very shrewd about tax matters.
To sensation seeking reporters of course, as I mentioned before, the only thing that mattered was that on the other side of that wall there were naked people. They would come from the tabloids with floodlights, hoping to catch night ritual pictures for their subscribers. Apparently tabloid readers either in Britain or the U.S.A. haven’t yet realized that everyone is naked under their clothes and that there are only two kinds of bodies to see.
Having gone into all that, we can deal with the matter of the Eight Sabbats. Gardner knew some impressive people in the magical world. He met Ross Nichols at Spielplatz and became his friend. Ross later became the founder of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. He just about single handedly renewed Druidic traditions.
Gardner also knew Aleister Crowley a first rate magician, poet and mountain climber, and was a member of Crowley’s Magickal Order, the OTO.
Gardner opened the first British Museum of Witchcraft on the Isle of Man, which I also visited. The Island is the centre of all the magickal forces of Logres, the spirit of Britain. On returning from a visit to the Isle of Man Gardner discovered that his Bricket Wood coven wanted to celebrate the other four quarters as well, because they liked doing the rituals. He was High Priest of the coven and didn’t object because the Eight Sabbats system tied in with the Druid system of his friend Ross Nichols.
Through Gardner the idea of a non-demonic witchcraft became better known as he appeared on radio and TV. He initiated several people who became very important in the movement, among them were Raymond Buckland and Doreen Valiente. Anything written by these two about witchcraft is worth a read.
It is also worth noting that the thousands of people who fled from the dogmas of their oppressive religion to the freedom of the NeoPagan religions, brought their habits with them. Many NeoPagan groups are as exclusive and dogmatic about their new stuff as they were with their older stuff. The politics in some covens can be cut with a blunt athame.
It was the spread of Gardnerian Wicca across America from the East Coast Wiccans of Raymond Buckland that made the Eight Sabbats popular. None of the old pagan religions celebrated all eight. But now almost everybody does, because of Gardner.
The rituals and ceremonies of the Gardnerians were enshrined in what is called The Book of Shadows. Every coven has its own now, but then the Gardnerians used the one written by Gerald. The High Priestess that I was teaching received a handwritten copy of it from Gerald but couldn’t read it. His writing was certainly the worst I have ever seen. I likened it to an arthritic spider that fell into an inkwell, got out, had a slight stroke, and then wandered across the paper spreading ink at random.
Fortunately for the lady I was a teacher at the time and had taught many children how to write. I could read his stuff and also read the names of gods and goddesses that she wouldn’t have known even if she could read his writing. So, as my hobby at the time was calligraphy I wrote the whole thing out for her in an Old English Script such as the monks used. That’s when I realized that much of the material came from other magical books and grimoires. Very little was original as far as I could see.
Gardener admitted that the rituals he received were fragmentary and that he had to flesh them out. And it doesn’t matter. When Dr.Aidan Kelly was doing his genuine PhD on the founding of religions, he and his friends made up rituals for their New Order of the Golden Dawn. To their astonishment the rituals worked.
Whenever and however you touch the archetypes of the god or goddess it works. Every religion had to start somewhere. Just because one is new doesn’t mean it isn’t valid as any other. If it contacts the energy, it works.
Nowadays there are many different kinds of Wiccans. There is even a branch of feminist Dianic Wiccans who reject the Lord and worship only the Lady. Raymond Buckland left the Gardnerians eventually and began his own branch, Seax Wica, allegedly a Saxon based Wicca. I think it’s the only branch with one c as in Wica.
A good book to get a grasp of the current situation is the The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wicca and Witchcraft by Zimmerman and Gleason. And there is also Wicca and Witchcraft for Dummies by Smith. Both are very informative for beginners. They cover the organized Wicca stuff as well as how to do it solo, which many Eclectic Wiccans do. Both will help a beginner.
Anything by Buckland, Valiente, or Farrar will be worth reading, but they are from initiatic lineages where a hands on initiation has to take place. Eclectics don’t see the need for someone else to initiate them. They self initiate. The Idiot’s book is by Eclectics.
The two first major books that spread the gospel so to speak, and eventually persuaded even the IRS that Wicca was a religion were Drawing down the Moon by Margot Adler, and The Spiral Dance by Starhawk. One wrote on the East Coast and the other on the West. Both are classics and better written than much of the current torrent of fluff books for teen agers wanting love spells…quite against the Witches’ Rede, “An it harm none, do what thou wilt.”
Putting a spell on someone, against their will or without their knowledge is a Wiccan No-no, whatever the novels or movies say. It can be done, but the karmic consequences are inescapable.
And finally, since this article could easily grow into a book, the coven’s Book of Shadows refers to the fact, known to all magicians and nowadays many other people, that this mundane world is just a shadow of the real world in the inner realms. This one is merely a manifestation of the inner one, due to the creative power of thought, divine and human. Plato’s parable of the Cave is all about that. And the energy of fire cast the shadows of the parable. Time to stop.