About two weeks ago, a compelling image appeared in my Facebook news feed. I later learned that it was an illustration by Adam Brockbank for a comic called MeZolith, pictured here on the left. The touching image was attached to an article that briefly discussed a Mesolithic era burial in Denmark of a young woman and her infant son, the child having been laid to rest on a swan’s wing. A few days before this, I had been researching the ritual pits found in the village of Saveock in Cornwall. Again on my Facebook news feed, I came across articles shared about swan maidens and swan and goose symbolism. A carved wooden swan sits on a shelf in a hutch in my kitchen, and it has been drawing my eye more than usual lately. Imagine also my shock to read, the night I began to write this article, that thousands of snow geese perished in Montana last week after a snowstorm forced them to land in a toxic lake. I rarely ignore this kind of synchronicity in my life, so I let the current guide me and began to delve more deeply into my exploration of swan lore. Although I have just begun to scratch the surface, I would like to share here some of the interesting things that I’ve come across in my research.
The World Tree is a mythological symbol found in numerous cultures throughout human history. Its origins, like those of many other concepts of its kind such as a world egg or cosmic ocean, are obscured by the mists of time. The World Tree (and sacred trees in general) is a particularly widespread feature of Indo-European religions. The World Tree, and World Pillar, function as the cosmic axis of the world, or axis mundi. The Tree also functions in many religions as an imago mundi, an image or representation of the world or cosmos.
Writing about the sacrality of vegetation in human religious thought, Peter Chemery reminds us that “the earliest sacred places were small-scale reproductions of the world in toto achieved by forming a landscape of stones, water and trees” and that “over the course of time the elements of such a landscape were reduced to the single most important element: the tree or sacred pillar.” He notes the use of trees, water and stones (including stone altars and pillars) at Australian Aboriginal sacred places as well as sites in India and East Asia.
The familiar image of a witch flying through the air on her broomstick is deeply ingrained in the Western mind. However, other tools - many now largely forgotten - were also believed to be used for transvection or spirit travel. Although most historical and literary depictions of witches flying suggest they do so ‘in spirit’ or ‘in dreams’, there was some confusion in the Middle Ages as to whether or not a witch could travel bodily through the air as well. Thus, we have some clerics and demonologists who believed in the transvection, or physical flight, of the witch (with the Devil’s help, of course). This article will briefly examine some of the more common tools and methods used to engage in witches’ flight.
Flying ointments typically refer to fat-based salves containing a mixture of psychotropic substances, applied by witches to their skin or mucous membranes and producing euphoric, soporific and trance-like effects. The ointment produced hallucinations, sensations of flying, or it basically put the user to sleep, and thereby allowed the witch to travel in the form of her Double to the Sabbat, or engage in other activities, such as shapeshifting. Ointments were also believed to be used by werewolves and others to induce metamorphosis.
Brittany is a historical province on the northwest tip of France, famed for its vibrant culture and striking megalithic monuments dating to the Neolithic period. A part of the Armorican peninsula (which at one time also encompassed a large part of what became known as Normandy), the area was settled in waves beginning in the third century by migrants from the southwest of Britain, and thus the region was named after them. Today the Breton people claim a Celtic heritage and Brittany is counted among the six Celtic nations, although the Bretons also hold a measure of Gaulish and possibly ‘Viking’ or Norse cultural ancestry as well. The Breton language is closely related to Cornish, and a bit more distantly to Welsh.
I became more deeply interested in Breton culture when I learned that many of my own ancestors came from Brittany. When I began researching Breton folklore and mythology, I was particularly fascinated by the Breton cult of the dead. Maura Coughlin, in her essay ‘Celtic cultural politics, monuments and mortality in Brittany” found in Marion Gibson’s Mysticism, Myth and Celtic Identity states “the most remarked upon of folk practices and beliefs, that seemed to most connect Breton popular culture with earlier Celtic ways, was the nineteenth century obsession with the cult of the dead”. Scholars and folklorists recorded a variety of beliefs and practices surrounding the cult of the dead, perhaps none more thoroughly than Anatole le Braz in his works, most notably La Légende de la Mort (The Legend of Death), published in 1902. I thought it fitting to begin October’s blog post line-up with a discussion of the cult of the dead, considering this season for many of us marks not only the beginning of autumn and thus the approaching of winter, but also another ‘season’ of sorts - that dark half the year when the veil between worlds is thin and the spirits of the dead wander among us.
Fate goddesses were common to various European cultures. They were known to the Greeks as Moirae, to the Romans as Parcae, and the Norse called them Nornir. They were commonly depicted as a triad of supernatural women, ranging from primordial figures present since the beginning of time to wandering ‘birth fairies’ responsible for assigning the fates of newborn children. At times, Fate was embodied in the figure of a single goddess as well. The Fates exist in myth and folklore under many different guises, and have lent their attributes to various supernatural beings over time.
Some scholars have argued that the Fates were simply borrowed into other cultures from Greco-Roman mythology. It is possible that the motif of three fate goddesses in particular is Greco-Roman in origin. However, the presence of spinning, weaving fate goddesses and ‘birth fairies’ in older cultures, such as the Hittite Gulses or the Egyptian Seven Hathors, as well as the similarities with figures from far-off cultures indicates the concept did not begin with the Greeks or Romans. More likely, these deities have a common Indo-European root. Many believe they are very ancient deities, pre-dating the Indo-European migrations.
The Latin word fata (itself coming from fari, “to speak”, implying prophecy) is the root for words such as fate and fairy. It was applied to goddesses associated with destiny (as in fatae, fatales deae or sorores fatalis) and also female supernatural beings immanent within wellsprings or other natural places, by medieval clerics. In particular, these medieval writers recognized the belief and worship of ‘birth fairies’ or fates by women who set a table with offerings for them after the birth of a child.
Folk tradition and beliefs, even place-names, give us hints that the peoples of Europe up until very recently believed they lived in a haunted world, populated by countless spirits and invisible forces. Water was believed to harbour a variety of beings, many of whom could be dangerous, such as water serpents, dracs and nixies. Forests were full of spirit creatures, like will ‘o the wisps and the leshy. Lonely moors were the haunts of white ladies, black dogs and monstrous giants. Werewolves, witches and fairies lived in the mountains and in caves and meadows. Even revenants and spirits of the dead roamed the landscape, sometimes in terrifying groups such as in the Wild Hunt.
European indigenous folk religions were animistic. As discussed in the previous article on the animistic belief in the spirit double, animism is the belief that we live in an animate, ‘ensouled’ world populated by human and other-than-human persons. Personhood is a quality which not only humans, animals and plants possess, but also inanimate objects, places, and natural forces. In the animistic worldview, the material living world is inseparable from the Otherworld, the realm of gods, spirits and the dead. The sacred is everywhere, immanent in everyone and everything.
The witches’ sabbath motif is familiar to us all - witches would smear themselves with noxious ointments and ride through the sky on brooms, staffs or the backs of animals, or in the shapes of animals themselves, and travel to a designated place where they would dance, feast and fornicate with demons and pay worship to the Devil in various forms. In addition to cannibalistic orgies and diabolism, witches’ sabbath activities also included the practice of harmful magic (maleficium), such as spreading plagues, raising storms, killing innocents or causing famines and war.
Many contemporary scholars now agree that the stereotype of the witches’ sabbath was (rather than constructed purely out of the fantasies of demonologists) based partly on a folkloric complex of beliefs surrounding the nocturnal spirit flights of individuals who later came to be accused as witches. Originally, these night journeys were related to agrarian rituals, as well as processions of both benevolent and malevolent spirits of the dead and other divine beings (such as fairies or goddesses). It has been argued that only later did they come to be associated with the practice of witchcraft and the notion of a witches’ sabbath, when this complex began to be merged with conspiratorial rumours of cannibalism, orgies and general evil-doings that were attributed to Jews, lepers and other marginalized groups of the time period.
The belief in what can be called soul(s) appears to be a universal aspect of human culture. The similarities between one culture’s concepts and the next, regardless of what separates them in terms of time and space, are truly fascinating. Most importantly, a close study reveals that soul beliefs arise from people’s direct experiences and observations - they are not simply products of blind faith or philosophical speculation. Unfortunately, most Westerners remain confused about the concept of the soul. Our beliefs are poorly defined and often contradictory, owing in large part to the influence of Judeo-Christian religion and modern science, both of which discourage us from seeking - much less trusting - any direct personal experience of the sacred.
I was raised a Catholic, and what meager instruction I received regarding the nature of the soul is this: the singular soul, created by God, is the immortal part of mankind destined to reside permanently in either heaven or hell after death, and it remains mostly passive in life. The soul is considered pure and closer to God, in direct opposition to the body and the corrupt material world. This Cartesian dualism and the materialism also embraced by modern science has served to cloud the earlier pluralistic soul beliefs of our ancestors - even if we follow a different spiritual path now, we have been influenced by these beliefs. One worldview teaches that the spiritual world of deities, angels and the dead is far removed from material existence, and the other teaches that all that exists is physical matter, that all phenomena arises from material processes. Humans in this understanding are comprised of body and soul/spirit, or body and mind.
Roughly four to five years ago, I read a book that set me on a new course both in my academic study of myth, fairy tales, witchcraft and folk traditions, and in my own spiritual development. Although I had been studying these subjects since childhood, and had read many books important to me before this time, this particular work lead to a crucial shift in my worldview. It opened my eyes to something I had previously taken for granted, to something I thought I understood but clearly did not. It has since become foundational to my studies and my practice. The book I am referring to is Claude Lecouteux’s Witches, Werewolves and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages.
In his book, Lecouteux explores the medieval concept of the soul - a concept demonstrably rooted in the pre-Christian beliefs of European peoples, which persisted for a long time after Christianization. He focuses primarily on Germano-Scandinavian material from the Middle Ages to support his work, but other scholars have published books and articles confirming the pan-European belief in the "Double" and the multitude of otherworldly beings and beliefs related to it. These include Hungarian historian Eva Pocs, whose works have explored the soul and the Double beliefs that formed part of witchcraft narratives in southeast and central Europe, as well as Carlo Ginzburg in his studies of the Italian benandanti, and most especially, in his seminal work Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath. What all of these works and others like them refer to, either directly or indirectly, is a pervasive, deep-seated concept of “multiple souls” and the role this complex has played in shaping our ancestors’ beliefs about dreams, death, the afterlife, the spirit world, witchcraft, sorcery and shamanistic visionary folk traditions.
In cultures all over the world, bones are believed to retain some degree of the vital life force of animals and people after death. Shamanistic societies used bones for divination, while Christians kept the bones of the dead as holy relics. Bones may even act as seeds to bring forth new life - as the seat of the “bony soul”, they become essential for regeneration. The roots of this belief stretch back into prehistory, and may stem from hunting and gathering peoples who sought to replenish the population of animals they relied on for their survival. Many stories have survived in European folklore describing animals, and humans, being brought back to life in what has been called ‘the miracle of the bones’. It is this recurring myth that inspired the name of this blog.