Monday, October 27, 2014

WITCH GODDESSES OF THE WEST: QUEENS OF THE HALLOWMAS RADES


“The fables of Witchcraft have taken so fast hold and deep rooted in the heart of man, that if any adversity, grief, sickness, loss of children, corn, cattle or liberty happen unto them, by and by they exclaim upon Witches!”

The Discoverie of Witchcraft, Reginald Scott, 1584

By Halloween, the Sun God has long since been sacrificed and put to rest with the last sheaf of grain. Time is turning in upon itself and the dark night of the year begins. The Moon is the ruler of this abysmal darkness and in her wan glow all manner of beings walk, most especially on Halloween night: the dead, imbued with unsanctified life, walk abroad in the company of demons, vampires, ghouls and other sinister spirits.

Witches, too, it was long believed, were out in force upon this Night of Nights to welcome the Witch’s New Year in perfect fashion. When the last golden glow of the setting Autumn sun faded, witches would take to the air riding upon broomsticks, spades, or butter churns, on the backs of airborne goats or huge black cats, some even upon the backs of flying pigs, all en route to the celebration of the Great Sabbat of Samhain. This supernatural traffic was known as the “Hallowmas Rades,” and all good folk who did not want to fall prey to the depredations of evil spirits or the unhallowed dead – or to experience the unimaginable fate of being swept up into the rade itself, transformed into some conveyance of a witch’s transport! – were safe inside their locked and darkened homes. 
The peoples of the classical world, and those scattered across the wide, wild country of early Europe, knew the witch to be a fearsome figure, whether in the guise of the village midwife, a secretive low-order cleric, or the cunning old woman, known and avoided by all. In any form, the witch was the personification of the ancient Crone of Death, the Dark Goddess of the Night of the Year. This powerful being commanded and drew her power from the moon, and met with her faithful devotees in lonely, forlorn places to practice rituals of enormous antiquity in honor of the Old Ones, the chthonic titans who ruled unchallenged long ago. Unnamed and faceless, grim shadows on the edges of imagination and reason, who were these ancient beings who commanded the Sisterhood of Witches from time immemorial, and for whom many had happily committed all manner of dark deeds, even unto death? 
Those midnight hags of folklore and legend were all personifications of the same dark side of the Feminine Divine. Mistresses of magic, weavers of dreams, spinners of fate, harbingers of doom, these Dark Goddesses were the hags of night to whom witches, then and now, swore honor and servitude. A mighty pantheon, they are the Dark Crone manifestation of the great Triple Goddess, she who rules Death and the dark paths of the Abyss, whose face is the dark all-knowing moon and whose womb is the yawning maw of the grave.

***
 
HECATE, QUEEN OF DARKNESS: SHE WHO DEVOURS THE LIGHT


 
 
 

“Agency of Ineffable Name and Vast Strength! Ancient, Dark One!  Thou cold, barren, mournful and pernicious! Thou Whose word is as stone and Whose life is abiding! Thou Ancient and Alone Impenetrable One! Bringer of ruin and despair: Be present here and lend Thy aid!”
Hecate – sometimes called Hekate or Heket – was born of the fecund and primordial Dark Mother of the Abyss, the Cthonic night goddess Nyx. A Titan Goddess of the Greek pantheon who, as a helpmeet to Zeus aided in his defeat of the Gigante, Hecate was absorbed into the Olympic myths and legends where she was allowed to keep traces of her Titanic status. Yet her true nature – one of unassailable power in a female form – was so threatening to the patriarchal mindset of the ancient Greeks that they were constantly at a loss over how to classify her in a pantheon dominated by male gods. Bewildered, the Greeks ultimately found it necessary to diffuse Hecate’s primal, darkly-feminine power by subordinating her to the profundity of the Olympian Hades, and marginalizing her in legends populated with lesser gods, demi-gods, and daimonic spirits. Eventually, Hecate was relegated to a servile being tasked with illuminated the paths of the Underworld where, with the light of her triple torches, she became a guide of the newly-dead.

In this manifestation, Hecate the Mighty Crone of the Moon, became little more than a help-meet of Persephone, a lesser-goddess abducted by Hades to rule as queen of his underworld kingdom. In fact, Persephone in her role of Hadean queen, was assigned some of the aspects and powers originally associated with Hecate’s own dark divinity. It is Hecate, bearing the single light in the impenetrable darkness of the underworld, who leads Persephone to reunion each spring with her mother Demeter; and it is she who comes to claim Persephone at the cusp of winter, the dark night of the year. In this serviceable position of gatekeeper, Hecate was often depicted as a creature of the moon, adorned with a crown of stars and bearing a torch that burns eternally. Thus “tamed,” Hecate entered the later Eleusinian rites of birth, death, and rebirth.

In succeeding ages, witches who honored and served Hecate quickly recognized this particular portion of her mythology for what it was: the deliberate effort of the Greeks to suppress her Chthonic, primal power, a power they could never hope to tap or understand. In fact, it wasn’t until the early Middle Ages, that Hecate’s true origins and native power were finally separated from the ancient myth. Oddly enough, it was the scholars and clerics of the early Christian Church who, preoccupied with enumerating and accounting for every angel and spirit of good, as well as every demon and spirit of evil, unmasked the historical Hecate for who she truly is: the imposing Crone Goddess, Queen of Witches and High Priestess of the Hallowmas Sabbat. Perhaps not unexpectedly, this realization frightened the scribes and clerics of the “new” religion and made them easy prey to their own fears and prejudices. The result was that Hecate was again marginalized, and she became the Ugly Hag, the very worst manifestation of the evil of witchcraft preached so vehemently by the early Church. Like Lilith before her, Hecate was aligned with Satan, that great enemy of humankind who is ever laboring to entice Christians from the Godly path; a female devil working her evil upon the world through the sly and crafty wiles of women, with whom she was most obviously aligned. Such connections were yet more subtle denouements on the part of a patriarchal priesthood attempting to lessen her profound and singularly feminine power by portraying her in servitude to God’s true enemy (and another patriarchal power), Satan.

But although she was suppressed and reimagined by generations stretching back into the mists of a primordial past, Hecate was never forgotten by the sisterhood of womankind; nor was she ever completely obscured from those who sought her out. To these kind she was the Goddess of Death and Darkness, She Who Devours the Light; Mother of Witches; Mistress of Magic; Foul Mother of Corpses. As Guardian of the Crossroads she was Hecate Trevia, Hecate of the Three Ways; as Queen of Necromancy she was Nocticula, and every secret way was known to her; as Queen of the Dead she was known as Prytania; as Goddess of the Moon, she was the Crone who followed on past the Mother, completing the Circle so that it might begin anew; as night-raider from the depths of the Underworld, she was called Agriope, the Savage-Faced. A cosmic being, a Chthonian Titan, she was part of the most ancient embodiment of the All-Powerful Triade Goddess, and her very name meant “eater of light.” Guardian and Mistress of burial grounds, crossroads, and other in-between places, she was associated with commanding the passages between the material and unseen worlds; she allows spirits to travel to and from the astral world, and is there among other spirits to welcome the newly-dead to their home on the other side. Her aspect as a fertility goddess, touched upon in the ancient Eleusinian rites, is highly sexualized, and lust and licentiousness are said to be the marks of Hecate’s influence. Similarly, she sometimes haunts the dreams of men in the form of a powerful succubus, another aspect connecting her to ancient Lilith; sometimes she uses dreams to communicate symbols, messages, and prophecies to the world of humankind.

Wild animals, especially those with nocturnal habits, are sacred to Hecate. In classical times, it was not uncommon to see Hecate depicted as having three animal heads – that of a dog, a horse, and a bear. However, her primary familiar is the black dog. Her approach at the borders of our world is heralded by the wild howling and baying of her hell hounds, packs of huge black dogs that accompany her and draw her chariot – which is constructed of human bones – into the world of the unsuspecting living. Hecate was also accompanied by enormous black cats that prowled about, snatching in silence the victims trampled under the feet of the howling hounds; not surprisingly, black cats, perhaps descended from Hecate’s own pack, are today the most recognizable of all the witch’s familiars. Sometimes Hecate appeared in the three-headed form by which many adherents of the ancient rites worshipped her; sometimes she was seen as an almost-unbearably beautiful woman, naked, with long, flowing black hair and eyes that burned with a seduction, baleful light. At other times, she delighted in appearing as the withered hag, with a face that could strike terror to the heart or bring instant death to the foolish and unwary.

When Hecate raided the world of the living she brought in her wake legions of her armies of the dead – pale, skeletal wraiths in tattered shrouds and showing the various stages of decomposition and death. In some traditions Hecate’s legions were comprised of the unholy and evil dead, and those spirits who in warfare or in the full bloom of an evil life. Her captains and commanders rode upon skeletal black horses, and her armies followed close behind, a writhing, gibbering mass that smelled of a thousand open graves.

Witches seek Hecate at crossroads and in ancient groves or empty fields, desolate and open to the night sky. When in her aspect as Queen of Witches, Hecate sometimes crosses over less furiously, choosing instead to walk the roads and byways on All Hallow’s Ever as a mature woman, clad in yards of black, carrying a torch or cresset lamp to light her way, with her faithful black dog padding along beside her. For those witches who seek her, she will be found waiting under the spreading branches of a black poplar tree, or under the tendrils of the willow; the cypress and the yew – both of which are said to root in the mouths of the dead – are the trees most sacred to the Crone Goddess.

In her aspect as Goddess of death and the cycle of rebirth, it is said by witches that Hecate is the Goddess to call upon when you seek to honor the end of a cycle in your life, or to mourn another’s passing, or when you wish to lose something of yourself.
 
 

MORRIGHAN, QUEEN OF PHANTOMS


 

"You who sow discord, where are you? You who infuse hate and propagate enmities, I direct, conjure, and constrain you! By the Dark One, come!"
 

Morrighan, sometimes also “The Morrighan,” is the triad Irish Goddess of War, Destruction and Strife, whose name means “Queen of Phantoms.” A death and fertility goddess, Morrighan is also associated with the Otherworld and the Sea, which in Gaelic folklore is a symbol of the realm of the dead and the eternal womb of the Mother Goddess. Morrighan appears as a trio of goddess, personifying each of her aspects: Neman is the aspect of fertility; Mabd is the aspect of the mother; and Macha, the Crone of Death.
 
Neman was the prophetess of calamity. Neman typically appears first as Gaelic maiden washing clothes beside a river or ford. A closer look, however, reveals the water as a thick, undulating mist, and the maiden as a pale, forlorn woman; her arms, busy washing, are red to the elbows with blood, and the clothes are the bloodied garments of soldiers destined to die in battle. Obviously, a sighting of this goddess before a battle was frightening and disheartening in the extreme. Witches called upon Neman for strength through the trials of life and for the birth of sons strong enough to survive the tumults and battles of the world.
 
Mabd was known as the Mother of Lamentations, and is often associated with the “bean sidhe,” the “banshee” of Gaelic folklore. Like her sisters, Mabd was drawn by the energy of discord and battle, but she also thrived on grief, which she celebrated in a terrible ecstasy. Mabd could be seen moving as a black mist over battlefields, pausing here and there to harvest the spirits of the dying. As she performed her tragic duty, Mabd cried and wailed for the carnage committed against the Gaelic dead. But the cry of Mabd was not just the hopeless cry of mourning; it was a sharp keening, a lilting ululation of inconsolable despair that sliced at the hearts of the living unfortunate enough to overhear. Mabd’s cry, it was said, was the wailing and moaning of all the grief ever spilled by the mothers of the Gaels whose sons met the doom of death in treachery or battle. Mothers and wide women identified with this aspect of the Morrighan for comfort and consolation when their sons were fighting for strangers far from home.
 
The third aspect of the Morrighan was rightfully the most feared: she is Macha, the Crone of Death, the reaping woman, haunter of burying grounds and battlefields. In times of war, Macha would appear upon the battlefield, wild, black hair flying in a matted tangle of blood and flesh; her face was hard as stone, darkly beautiful but ghastly, with full, blood-stained lips, and set with jet-black eyes, carrion eyes, like those of the crows whose feathers adorned her majestic cloak. Macha could be seen (by those brave enough to look) moving across the fields, hunched and swaying, as if entranced by every mutilated body and bloated face. Sometimes she would climb to the tops of the death mounds, where the fallen were piled for cremation. Those dead of the side whom she had favored in the conflict were said to appear as if only sleeping; these were carefully removed, to be interred with all honors in the great burial mounds of their kinsmen. But those whom Macha had set her powers against lay strewn in scrambled heaps across the fields, as the crows, Macha’s servants, went about the work of their mistress. The heads of enemy leaders – especially if these were of noble blood – were chopped off and impaled upon stakes in a rings around the death mounds – a battlefield offering to the Gaelic Crone of Death. These fences were known as the Masts of Macha, and were left standing long after the mounds of ruined dead had been reduced to ashes, and the elements had withered the flesh away.
 
This third, hag aspect of the Morrighan was the most terrifying and fearsome of the goddess triad. The fact that Macha could, at will, replicate herself, producing sinister daughters (called “Morrighna”) that frequently took the forms of crows and ravens – sometimes even appearing as huge, black hounds – was as discomfiting to those whom she favored as it was to those she marked as enemies.
 
In all her manifestations, Morrighan is a goddess for fierce and independent woman. Witches the world over call upon her to put down enemies, to exact vengeance, and to conquer one’s own fears; she is a force of waning and new moon magic, of binding and banishing, of strafing and cursing. Her symbols are the moon’s waning crescent; the crow and the raven; the gemstones obsidian, onyx, and jet; the yew tree; and poisonous herbs such as deadly nightshade, henbane, and belladonna. Symbols of war such as spears, swords, daggers, bows and arrows, lances, and flails greatly please her, and are appropriate offerings to make when invoking her power.


HEL, QUEEN OF THE DAMNED:  “SECRET, BLACK AND MIDNIGHT HAG”



"Twist and tangle, never to rise up again! Your eyes are dimmed, your limbs are bound! Thus I lay you down to rest, still and silent in the ground!”

In the Teutonic and Norse myths, Hel (also called Hell or Hella) is the youngest child of the god Loki and the giantess Angurboda. She is the Queen of Hell and also rules the realm of the dead.

Hel is usually described as a horrible hag with a grim countenance, but some tales give her a beautiful, alluring face. But her body is said to be only half humanlike – her face and torso – with the thighs, genitals and legs of a rotting, moldering corpse. Hel was confined to the underworld by the other gods who greatly feared the offspring of Loki and she made her home there, founding Helheim, “The House of Hel” in the cold, dark reaches of the Niflheim, the lowest level of the universe. From her throne in her palace of Sleetcold, Hel abides over the “dishonored” Norse dead – those who have died of disease or old age, and those not killed in battle. While the honored dead who sacrificed all on the battlefield are sent to Valhalla to live among the gods, these others, the common dead, come under the ghastly eye of this Queen of the Damned.

There is no pathway in her kingdom that is not known to Hel or her minions; sheer, impassable walls surround her realm, as much to keep the dead in as to keep the living out. The Niflheim is entered through a dark, foul-smelling cave and Hel’s palace can only be reached by passing over the Echoing Bridge, a treacherous, knife-edge that leads over a yawning abyss and into the land of death. Souls are assaulted by Hel’s spirit guardians on their passage of the bridge, and must fight to gain entry to her kingdom. Those who fail are consumed by Hel’s great hound, Garm, who lays in wait at the bottom of the abyss; the hound also destroys any living trespassers foolish enough to venture into the underworld. Souls that escape with only mauling by Garm fare no better than those the hound devours: they are said to be placed as a feast on Hel’s Plate (called “Hunger”) from which she will slowly consume them. The wicked dead are thrown into Hel’s cauldron where they are boiled as a meal for a monster called Nidhoggr (the “Corpse Tearer”) that prowls the farthest reaches of Hel’s kingdom, and punishes the wicked by eternally gnawing on their shredded flesh and bones. The Corpse Tearer is said to manifest as a great, black carrion bird; when he flaps his wings in his lair, the winds of the world are tormented into gales and storms. Hel is served in her kingdom by spirit-beings who are so slow that they seem not to be moving at all; Hel sates her plate of Hunger with the knife of Famine. When she retires, Hel sleeps upon a bed called “Sickness,” behind shroud-like curtains made from Misery and Misfortune.

Witches historically called upon Hel for retribution and vengeance, as well as for help in situation of grief and sickness, especially if the sickness involves a child. All carrion birds, but most especially the eagle, the raven, and vulture, are kin to this horrible night hag; deep valleys, caves, desolate lands, remote lakes and ponds of still or stagnant water are her places of evocation. Bridges are also aligned with Hel, and in the northern lands there was never a bridge constructed that did not rise over a sacrificial offering to Hel – typically an infant, which was bled out and buried under the very first stone.

 

 

BABA YAGA, GRANDMOTHER GODDESS

 
 

"There was an old woman toss'd up in a basket
Nineteen times high as the moon;
Where she was going, I couldn't but ask it,
For in her hand she carried a broom."
 
 
 
The word “Baba” means “grandmother” in Russian and is a term of affection and respect in the Slavic countries of Eastern Europe. Baba Yaga, literally “Grandmother Crone,” is the archetypical representation of the hag or dark crone aspect of the Triple Goddess and the moon.
Far from being a sweet old grandmother, Baba Yaga is widely feared among the peoples of Eastern Europe for her fierce, hag-like countenance, bleary eyes and ragged, toothless grin. Baba Yaga lives in a hut perched high atop a huge chicken leg in the darkest part of a deep forest. The fence around her hut is made of human bones, and its posts are topped with human skulls in which crows have made their homes, peering steadily from the empty, black orbits of the skulls’ eyes. When Baba Yaga goes hunting, she is said to travel through the air in a mortar, using the pestle as an oar and trailing a besom, or broom behind her to sweep away her tracks. Solitary and alone, but ever hungry, few would dare approach the formidable trees of Baba Yaga’s dark forest realm.
Baba Yaga has many supernatural servants at her command, including four ghostly knights: a white knight who is the bringer of dawn, a red knight who is the noon day sun, a grey knight who is the evening gloaming, and a black knight who is the midnight darkness. These colors are said to symbolize the process of transformation – life, death, and rebirth – that Baba Yaga brings to her victims: black for the destruction of the body, grey for the sojourn of the soul, white for its purification, and red for the rebirth when, like a Phoenix, the soul re-enters the cycle of life. Grandmother Crone is seen simply as one agent aiding the process along, part of the inevitable end and transformation of life in the material world. Because of this duty, Baba Yaga is said to always choose her victims carefully, and she never takes any without purpose.
Grandmother Crone also has in her service many dwarves and gnomes, earth elementals whom she controls and whose movements she directs in the world of humankind. These servants are her minions and can do evil or good according to Baba Yaga’s whim. Baba Yaga flies around the world in her airborne mortar once daily, accompanied by her elementals riding upon flying horses. On this ride, she points out those marked as her unwitting victims, ordering her earthy servants to render them her helpless prey.
Baba Yaga is typically summoned by mature witches seeking to overcome the challenges of advancing years such as depression, loneliness, and a desolation of purpose or spirit; Grandmother Crone is very sympathetic to such cases. Her haggard, crone aspect and frightening demeanor force us to look at ourselves as if in a magic mirror, and urges us to seek solace for what is gone and to work out new beginnings. Baba Yaga is honored both at Lammastide (August 1st) a time of letting go of the past, and at Samhain, our Halloween, a time of turning inward and allowing those parts of ourselves that no longer serve us to peacefully die away. Baba Yaga is also associated with the home, especially the kitchen, and she is a favorite patron of kitchen witches and grune-hexe (“hedge” or “garden” witches. Domestic tasks, even the most mundane, are aligned with her, as are the herbal arts and “cook’s” garden. Baba Yaga’s symbols are household items such as brooms and besoms, the mortar and pestle, and the cauldron; her dark-side symbols are anything found in the earth, crystals and stones (the “holy-stone,” a stone found in which a natural hole has formed), skulls, and night-side plants or flowers gathered during a dark moon.
CAILLEACH, BLUE WOMAN OF THE CELTS
"We are planted beneath the land, forever to wheel - as the Earth
and Sun are wound upon a golden reel;
as the ripening grasses stand, and pale, and fall."

Cailleach, the Crone of the Celts, has been known since Neolithic times, in many incarnations, and by various names: the Blue Hag, the Boar Goddess, the Owl Goddess, the Ancient One. She followed mankind as he emerged from the darkness of the primordial days, and has survived through all the long ages since. Probably originating among the peoples of Europe, Cailleach’s worship spread to the early Gaels and then on to ancient Britain and Ireland, where she was adopted by the Celts. She later became known to all the peoples surrounding the North Sea, as well as southward along the Mediterranean coast where she went by other names. All these early peoples blended many of Cailleach’s known aspects into a goddess whose nature expressed the extremes of human emotions: love, hate, fear, joy, melancholy – all were believed to be entwined in the nature of this goddess. Translated into modern Gaelic, Cailleach means “old wife,” but in its earliest Celtic translation, Cailleach’s name meant “one who is veiled,” possibly alluding to Cailleach’s dark goddess aspect as a being who could walk in the worlds of both the living and the dead.
By any name, Cailleach has always been associated with winter and the dark, sleeping season of nature. In this aspect, reflecting as it does the most brutal season of the year, Cailleach has been depicted as an old hag with boar’s tusks protruding from a blue mouth; at other times she was shown as a one-eyed, blue-faced woman of enormous size, carrying a staff made of birch wood, and leaping across mountains like a child among stones. Wherever she passes, the land is left blanketed in silence and frost; if she so desires, the Cailleach can use her wand to stir up storms.
Witches connect with this goddess as the governess of solitude and dreams, and the deeply-rooted longings of the subconscious mind are her domain. Rugged hillsides and barren moors are her special places, and deer – most especially the reindeer of the Nordic lands – are the animals most sacred to her. Cailleach is the goddess who protects wildlife from despoiling by hunters, but will reward those huntsmen respectful of nature and seeking food for their families in the difficult season of winter with sacrifices from among her own herds. In addition to deer, mountain goats, wild boars, bears, and wild, undomesticated cattle are all under her dominion; likewise, Cailleach protects and preserves wild fish through the winter by drawing them into the deep currents of rivers and streams until the worst of the season has passed.
White birch branches, intricately carved, and white stones washed in cold river water are appropriate offerings to honor Cailleach; images of deer, bears, fish, and the other animals sacred to the Cailleach are carried as talismans of the goddess by those who seek to honor her.
Cailleach is especially loved among the Scots who call her the “Grandmother of the Clans,” and the “Old Woman of the Highlands.” She is beloved as the protector and nurturer of the forefathers of the most ancient clans, who have called upon her in times of trouble and strife for generations upon generations. Throughout the British Isles, Cailleach is honored on her own special day, called the "Day of the Old Woman," celebrated annually on November 1st. A similar celebration takes place on February 1st (Old Style Candlemas, or the pagan Imbolc) during which Cailleach is welcomed as the transformed goddess of spring, bride-to-be of the summer's Sun King.
 
CERRIDWEN, KEEPER OF THE CAULDRON
"O Mother feed this silver seed, that I might see a child like thee."
Cerridwen is the winter goddess of the Welsh people. She is a goddess of the crone moon, and as such she is connected to the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. She tends the cauldron of Awen, the Welsh god of the underworld, wherein is hidden the secret knowledge of the souls who are passing from life, and those souls waiting to be born.
The Welsh believe Cerridwen to be queen of her own realm, an island kingdom known as the “Land Beneath the Waves,” and through this connection she also has powers over the sea and tides. It is said that the souls of the dead are shepherded by Cerridwen to her domain where they linger and forget the pains and failings of the life they have left behind. When the time of their rebirth arrives, Cerridwen is the goddess who guides these souls back to the threshold of the living world.
Cerridwen is also closely connected to the cycles of planting and harvest, and plays a prominent role in Welsh harvest festivals. In this aspect, she is also a powerful ally in fertility rites, and is said to especially favor the children born of mature women, or of those women believed to be past the accepted age of childbirth.
Witches call upon Cerridwen to empower earth and fertility magic, for the protection and aid of mothers and mothers-to-be, and for help in guiding mature women to a suitable partner. Cerridwen’s symbols and talismans are the hare and the white sow; laying hens and their eggs; apples, gourds, grains and nuts; and the herb vervain, also called “witch’s grass.” The Welsh traditionally celebrate the goddess in all her aspects each year on the 13th of July.
***
“For Earth has her Mysteries, and if you mock their wealth,
She will offer you a deep grave, garlanded with Death.”

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