Huitzilopochli: the Birth of a War God

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Aztec Warriors (Eagle Warrior at the left and Jaguar Warrior at the right) brandishing a macuahuitl (a wooden club with sharp obsidian blades). (Florentine Codex)

In the Aztec pantheon, Huitzilopochtli occupied a place similar to that of Mars in the Roman. In ancient Roman religon, Mars was the god of war and a guardian of agriculture – a rather strange combination, but characteristic of early Rome. Second in importance only to Jupiter, Mars was the most prominent of the military gods in the religion of the Roman army. Although origin of Huitzilopochtli is obscure, the myth relating to it is distinctly original in character.

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Statue of Coatlicue displayed in National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City. By Luidger – Luidger, CC BY-SA 3.0

Under the shadow of the mountain of Coatepec, near the Toltec city of Tollan, there dwelt a pious widow called Coatlicue (“skirt of snakes”). She had four hundred sons and a daughter called Coyolxauhqui (“”Painted with Bells”). Every day, she went to a small hill with the intention of offering up prayers to the gods in a penitent spirit of piety. One day, while she was occupied in her devotions, a small ball of brilliantly coloured feathers fell upon her from above. Pleased by the bright variety of its hues, Coatlicue placed it in her breast, intending to offer it up to the sun-god. Some time afterwards she discovered that she was pregnant with another child. Hearing this, her sons rained abuse upon her, incited by their sister Coyolxauhqui.

Coatlicue went about in fear and anxiety, but the spirit of her unborn infant came and spoke to her and gave her words of encouragement, soothing her troubled heart. Her sons, however, were resolved to wipe out what they considered an insult to their race by the death of their mother. They put on their war-gears, and arranged their hair after the manner of warriors going to battle. But one of their number, Quauitlicac, relented, and confessed his brothers’ plan to the still unborn Huitzilopochtli. Huitzilopochtli replied to him: “O brother, hearken attentively to what I have to say to you. I know what is about to happen.” With the intention of slaying their mother, the four hundred sons went in search of her. At their head marched their sister, Coyolxauhqui. They were armed to the teeth and carried bundles of darts with which they intended to kill Coatlicue.

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Huitzilopochtli, from the recto of the folio 5 of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (16th century).

Quauitlicac climbed the mountain to tell Huitzilopochtli that his brothers were approaching to kill their mother.

“Mark well where they are,” replied the infant god. “To what place have they advanced?”

“To Tzompantitlan,” responded Quauitlicac.

Later on Huitzilopochtli asked: “Where may they be now?”

“At Coaxalco”, was the reply.

Once more Huitzilopochtli asked to what point his enemies had advanced.

“They are now at Petlac,” Quauitlicac replied.

After a little while Quauitlicac informed Huitzilopochtli that the Centzonuitznaua were at hand under the leadership of Coyolxauhqui. At the moment of the enemy’s arrival, Huitzilopochtli was born, flourishing a shield and a blue spear. He was painted, his head was surmounted by a panache, and his left leg was covered with feathers. He shattered Coyolxauhqui with a flash of serpentine lightning, and then chase Centzonuitznaua, whom he pursued four times round the mountain. Many perished in the waters of the adjoining lake, to which they had rushed in their despair. All were slain save a few who escaped to a place called Uitzlampa, where they surrendered to Huitzilopochtli and gave up their arms.

The name Huitzilopochtli means “Humming-bird to the left” as he wore the feathers of the humming-bird, or colibri, on his left leg. From this it has been inferred that he was a humming-bird totem. However, the explanation of Huitzilopochtli’s origin is a little deeper than this. Among the American tribes, especially those of the northern continent, the serpent is regarded with the deepest veneration as the symbol of wisdom and magic. From these sources come success in war. The serpent also typifies the lightning, the symbol of the divine spear and warlike might. Fragments of serpents are regarded as powerful war-physic among many tribes. Atatarho, a mythical wizard-king of the Iroquois, for example, was clothed with living serpents as with a robe, and his myth throws light on one of the names of Huitzilopochtli’s mother, Coatlantona (“Robe of Serpents”). Huitzilopochtli’s image was surrounded by serpents, and rested on serpent-shaped supporters. His sceptre was a single snake, and his great drum was of serpent-skin.

In many mythologies the serpent is closely associated with the bird. Thus the name of the god Quetzalcoatl is translatable as “Feathered Serpent”. Huitzilopochtli is undoubtedly one of these. We may regard him as a god the primary conception of whom arose from the idea of the serpent, the symbol of warlike wisdom and might, the symbol of the warrior’s dart or spear, and the humming-bird, the harbinger of summer, type of the season when the snake or lightning god has power over the crops.

Huitzilopochtli was usually represented as wearing a waving panache or plume of hummingbirds’ feathers on his head. His face and limbs were striped with bars of blue, and in his right hand he carried four spears. His left hand bore his shield, on the surface of which were displayed five tufts of down. The shield was made with reeds, covered with eagle’s down. The spear he brandished was also tipped with tufts of down instead of flint. These weapons were placed in the hands of those who as captives engaged in the sacrificial fight because Hultzilopochtli symbolised the warrior’s death on the gladiatorial stone of combat.

Huitzilopochtli was more than just a war-god. As the serpent-god of lightning he had a connection with summer, the season of lightning, and therefore had dominion to some extent over the crops and fruits of the earth. The Algonquian people of North America believed that the rattlesnake could raise ruinous storms or grant favourable breezes. They see it also as the symbol of life, because the serpent has a phallic significance due of its similarity to the symbol of fertility. With some American tribes also, notably the Pueblo people of Arizona, the serpent has a solar significance, and with its tail in its mouth symbolises the annual round of the sun.

The Nahua believed that Huitzilopochtli could grant them fair weather for their crops, and they placed an image of Tlaloc, the rain-god, near him, so that, if necessary, the war-god could compel the rainmaker to exert his powers or to abstain from the creation of floods. We must, in considering the nature of this deity, bear well in mind the connection in the Nahua consciousness between the pantheon, war, and the food-supply. If war was not waged annually the gods must go without flesh food and perish, and if the gods succumbed the crops would fail, and famine would destroy the race. So it was small wonder that Huitzilopochtli was one of the chief gods of Mexico.

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How to Destroy an Empire: The Rise of Tezcatlipoca and the Destruction of Tollan

The religion of the ancient Mexicans was a polytheism or worship of a pantheon of deities, the general aspect of which presented similarities to the systems of Greece and Egypt. As a matter of fact, the Nahua displayed a theological advancement quite on a level with that expressed by the Egyptians and Assyrians which were rather more nuanced and complicated.

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Red Tezcatlipoca described in the Codex Borgia.

Tezcatlipoca (“Fiery Mirror”) is a sort of equivalent of Jupiter of the Nahua pantheon. He carried a mirror in which he was supposed to see reflected the actions and deeds of mankind. Originally the personification of the air, the source both of the breath of life and of the tempest, Tezcatlipoca had all the attributes of a god who presided over these phenomena. He was the tribal god of the Tezcucans who had led them into the Land of Promise, and had been instrumental in the defeat of both the gods and men of the previous people they dispossessed. Tezcatlipoca advanced so speedily in popularity that within a comparatively short space of time he came to be regarded as a god of fate and fortune, and as inseparably connected with the national destinies.  The place he took as the head of the Nahua pantheon brought him many attributes which were quite foreign to his original character. As what happened with many other deities in pantheons all over the world, fear and a desire to exalt their tutelar deity will lead the devotees of a powerful god to credit him with any or every quality. Therefore, there is nothing remarkable in the heaping of every possible attribute, human or divine, upon Tezcatlipoca. He was known as Moneneque (“The Claimer of Prayer”), and in some of the representations of him an ear of gold was shown suspended from his hair, toward which small tongues of gold strained upward in appeal of prayer. In times of national danger, plague, or famine universal prayer was made to Tezcatlipoca. The heads of the community repaired to his teocalli (temple) accompanied by the people en masse, and all prayed earnestly together for his speedy intervention. The surviving prayers to Tezcatlipoca prove that the ancient Mexicans fully believed that he possessed the power of life and death.

As Tezcatlipoca was regarded as a life-giver, he had also the power of destroying existence. In fact on occasion he appears as a death-dealer, and as such was styled Nezahualpilli (“The Hungry Chief”) and Yaotzin (“The Enemy”). Perhaps one of the names by which he was best known was Telpochtli (“The Youthful Warrior”), from  his reserve of’ strength, his vital force and  his boisterous vigour. Tezcatlipoca was usually depicted as holding in his right hand a dart placed in an atlatl (“spear-thrower”), and his mirror-shield with four spare darts in his left. This shield is the symbol of his power as judge of mankind and upholder of human justice.

Tezcatlipoca is closely associated with the legends which recount the overthrow of Tollan, the capital of the Toltecs. His chief adversary on the Toltec side is the god-king Quetzalcoatl. In the days of Quetzalcoatl, there was abundance of everything as well as peace and plenty for all men.

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Quetzalcoatl, as depicted in the Codex Magliabechiano (16th century)

But this blissful state was too good to last. Jealous of the calm enjoyment of Quetzalcoatl and the Toltecs, three “necromancers” plotted their downfall. They were Huitzilopochtli, Tezcatlipoca and Tlacahuepan. Tezcatlipoca  took the lead as they laid  enchantments upon the city of Tollan. Disguised as an old man with white hair, Tezcatlipoca  presented himself at the palace of Quetzalcoatl, where he said to the pages: “Pray present me to your master, I desire to speak with him.”

Although the pages advised him that Quetzalcoatl was ill and could see no one, Tezcatlipoca insisted to wait outside. Eventually, he was admitted into the chamber of Quetzalcoatl. Upon entering the chamber, Tezcatlipoca feigned sympathy with the suffering god-king. “How are you, my son?” he asked. “I have brought you a drug which you should drink, and which will put an end to the course of your malady.”

Quetzalcoatl drank the potion, and at once felt much better. Tezcatlipoca gave him another and then another cup of the potion, but it was nothing but pulque, the wine of the country. Quetzalcoatl soon became intoxicated, and became putty in Tezcatlipoca’s hands.

Quetzalcoatl_and_Tezcatlipoca

Tezcatlipoca then took the form of a man of the name of Toueyo, and went to the palace of Uemac, chief of the Toltecs in temporal matters. Uemac had a daughter so beautiful that she was desired for marriage by many of the Toltecs. The princess, in seeing the form of Toueyo passing her father’s palace, fell deeply in love with him – so in love that her feelings for her rendered her ill. Upon realizing the reason for this illness, Uemac gave orders for the arrest of Toueyo, and he was haled before the temporal chief of Tollan. Although angry at the handsome youth, Uemac said, “if I slay you my daughter will perish. Go to her and say that she may wed you and be happy.”

Now the marriage of Toueyo to the daughter of Uemac aroused much discontent among the Toltecs. To distract his people from this , Uemac distracted the attention of the Toltecs by announcing a war upon the neighbouring state of Coatepec.

This distraction was proven to be uneffective as, when the Toltecs arrived at the country of the men of Coatepec they placed Toueyo in ambush with his body-servants – hoping that he would be slain by their adversaries. But Toueyo and his men killed a large number of the enemy. His triumph was celebrated by Uemac. The knightly plumes were placed upon his head, and his body was painted with red and yellow – an honour reserved for those who distinguished themselves in battle.

Tezcatlipoca’s, as Toueyo, next step was to announce a great feast in Tollan, to which all the people for miles around were invited. Great crowds assembled, dancing and singing in the city to the sound of the drum. Tezcatlipoca sang to them and forced them to accompany the rhythm of his song with their feet. Faster and faster the people danced, until the pace became so furious that they were driven to madness, lost their footing, and tumbled down a deep ravine, where they were changed into rocks. Others in attempting to cross a stone bridge were changed into stones. Thus, Tezcatlipoca destroyed both the Coatepecs and the Toltecs. However, he did not stop there. On another occasion, Tezcatlipoca put on a different disguise as a valiant warrior named Tequiua, and invited all the inhabitants of Tollan and its surrounding areas to come to the flower-garden called Xochitla. When they assembled there, he attacked them with a hoe, and killed a great number of them. In panic, the survivors crushed their comrades to death.

Later, Tezcatlipoca and Tlacahuepan went to the market-place of Tollan, the former displaying upon the palm of his hand a small dancing baby. This infant was  Huitzilopochdi, the Nahua god of war. At this sight, the Toltecs crowded to get a better view, and their eagerness resulted in many being crushed to death. Even in mythology, anger makes one vulnerable. Tlacahuepan took advantage of this and advised the raging people to kill both Tezcatlipoca and Huitzilopochtli. When this had been done the bodies of the slain gods gave forth such an awful discharge that thousands the Toltecs died of the pestilence. Tlacahuepan then advised them to cast out the bodies, but they discovered that the bodies were so heavy and could not be moved.

It was soon apparent to the Toltecs that their fortunes were on the wane and that the end of their empire was at hand. Quetzalcoatl, chagrined at the turn things had taken, resolved to quit Tollan. In anger, he burned all the houses which he had built, and buried his treasure of gold and precious stones in the deep valleys between the mountains. He changed the cacao-trees into mosquitoes, and he ordered all the song birds to quit the valley of Anahuac. On the road from Tollan, he discovered a great tree at a point called Quauhtitlan. There he rested, and requested his pages to hand him a mirror. Seeing himself in the polished surface, he said in defeat, “I am old,” and from that circumstance the spot was named Huehuequauhtitlan (“Old Quauhtitlan”). Proceeding on his way accompanied by musicians who played the flute, he walked until fatigue arrested his steps, and he seated himself upon a stone, on which he left the imprint of his hands. This place is called Temacpalco (“The Impress of the Hands”).

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Ancient Halloween Stories of Love and Lost

The evil powers that came out at Samhain lived the rest of the time in the cave of Cruachan in Connaught. This cave was called the “hell-gate of Ireland,” and was unlocked on November Eve to let out spirits and copper-colored birds which killed the farm animals. They also stole babies, leaving in their place changelings, goblins who were already old while still in the cradle, possessing superhuman cunning and skill in music. One way of getting rid of these demon children was to ill-treat them so badly that their people would come for them bringing the right children back. Another alternative was to boil egg-shells in the sight of the changeling, who would declare his demon nature by saying that in his centuries of life he had never seen such a thing before.

Brides were also stolen.

“You shall go with me, newly married bride,

And gaze upon a merrier multitude;

White-armed Nuala and Aengus of the birds,

And Feacra of the hurtling foam, and him

Who is the ruler of the western host,

Finvarra, and the Land of Heart’s Desire,

Where beauty has no ebb, decay no flood,

But joy is wisdom, time an endless song.”

“Land of Heart’s Desire” – W. B. Yeats (1865 – 1939)

Ailill and his queen Medb lived in the first century BC. As they were celebrating their Samhain feast in the palace, they offered a reward to the man who should tie a bundle of twigs about the feet of a criminal who had been hanged by the gates. It was dangerous to go near dead bodies on November Eve, but a bold young man named Nera dared to do it and tied the twigs successfully. As he turned to go he saw

“the whole of the palace as if on fire before

him, and the heads of the people of it lying on

the ground, and then he thought he saw an

army going into the hill of Cruachan, and he

followed after the army.”

“Cuchulain of Muirthemne”, Augusta, Lady Gregory (1852 – 1932)

Nera was married to a fairy woman, who betrayed her kindred by sending Nera to warn King Ailill of the intended attack upon his palace the next November Eve. Nera went to see Ailill bringing summer fruits with him to prove that he had been in the fairy sid. His purpose was to warn the king so that he could defend his people. However, the next November Eve, when the gates were opened Ailill entered and discovered the crown, took it away and plundered the treasury. Nera never returned again to the homes of men.

Nera was not the only one who married a fairy woman. In her previous life, queen Medb, the wife of Ailill himself, was Princess Etain of the race of the Tuatha and wife of Midir. She only remembered little of the land from which she came, and was never quite happy in her new existence.

“But sometimes–sometimes–tell me; have you heard,

By dusk or moonset have you ever heard

Sweet voices, delicate music? Never seen

The passage of the lordly beautiful ones

Men call the Shee?”

“Immortal Hour”, – William Sharp (1855 – 1905)

swan-10410__340Another story of about the same time was that of Angus, the son of a Tuatha god. He dreamed of a beautiful maiden. He wasted away with love for her, and searched the country for a girl who should look like her. At last, he saw in a meadow among a hundred and fifty maidens, each with a chain of silver about her neck, one who looked like the beauty of his dream. She wore a golden chain around her neck. She was Princess Caer, the daughter of King Ethal Anbual. King Ethal’s palace was stormed by Ailill, and he was forced to give up his daughter. On Samhain, Caer changed from a maiden to a swan, and back again the next year.

When the time came Angus went to the loch, and he saw hundreds of white birds there. Angus stood at the edge of the loch and he called to the girl, “Come and speak with me, O Caer!”

“Who is calling me?” Caer replied.

 “Angus calls you,” he said, “and if you do come, I swear by my word I will not hinder you from going into the loch again.”

She came to him. Angus changed to a swan and they flew away to King Dagda’s palace, where every one who heard their sweet singing was charmed into a sleep of three days and three nights.

In Derbyshire, England, torches of straw were carried about the stacks on All Souls’ Eve, not to drive away evil spirits, as in Scotland, but to light souls through Purgatory. Sometimes, one may briefly see the image of their lost loved ones.

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“‘Why do you wait at your door, woman,

Alone in the night?’

‘I am waiting for one who will come, stranger,

To show him a light.

He will see me afar on the road,

And be glad at the sight.’

“‘Have you no fear in your heart, woman,

To stand there alone?

There is comfort for you and kindly content

Beside the hearthstone.’

But she answered, ‘No rest can I have

Till I welcome my own.’

“‘Is it far he must travel to-night,

This man of your heart?’

‘Strange lands that I know not, and pitiless seas

Have kept us apart,

And he travels this night to his home

Without guide, without chart.’

“‘And has he companions to cheer him?’

‘Aye, many,’ she said.

‘The candles are lighted, the hearthstones are swept,

The fires glow red.

We shall welcome them out of the night–

Our home-coming dead.'”

“Hallowe’en”, Winifred M. Letts (1882–1972)

The Ancient Beginnings of Witches: The Tragedy of those who Stood between the Mundane and Spiritual Worlds

The Norse god Balder, the good and beautiful god, the son of the great god Odin, and himself the wisest, mildest and best beloved of all the immortals. Balder dreamed something which seemed to forebode his death. He told the other gods about this and, because he was so beloved, the gods held a council and resolved to secure him from any danger. So the goddess Frigg took an oath from fire and water, iron and all metals, stones and earth, trees, sicknesses and poisons, and from all four-footed beasts, birds and creepy things that they would not hurt Balder.

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The Death of Balder,  from the 18th century Icelandic manuscript “NKS 1867 4to”

It was Loki who was responsible for the death of the sun-god. He gave a twig of mistletoe to Balder’s blind twin brother, Hoder – mistletoe being the only thing in the world which had not sworn not to harm Balder. Hoder cast it at Balder and unwittingly slew him. Vali, a younger brother of Balder, avenged him by killing Hoder. Hoder represents darkness and Balder light. The light falls a victim to blind darkness, who reigns until a younger brother, the sun of the next day, rises to slay him in turn.

Balder’s death was already prophesied. The Norse Sibyl sees and describes it, “I behold, fate looming for Balder, Woden’s son, the bloody victim. There stands the Mistletoe slender and delicate, blooming high above the ground. Out of this shoot, so slender to look on, there shall grow a harmful fateful shaft. Hod shall shoot it, but Frigga in Fen-hall shall weep over the woe of Wal-hall.”

The shortness of summer and the length of winter so impressed the people that when they made a story about it, they told of a maiden (the Spring) being put to sleep and guarded, along with a hoard of treasure, by a ring of fire. Only one knight could break through the flames, awaken her and seize the treasure. This knight is the returning sun, and the treasure is the wealth of summer vegetation. So there is the story of Brynhild, pricked by the “sleep-thorn” of her father, Wotan, and sleeping until Sigurd wakens her. They marry, but soon Sigurd has to give her up to Gunnar, the relentless winter. Gunnar cannot rest until he has killed Sigurd and reigns undisturbed. Grimm’s story of Rapunzel, the princess who was shut up by a winter witch, and of Briar-Rose, pricked by a witch’s spindle, and sleeping inside a hedge which blooms with spring at the knight’s approach, also describes the struggle between summer and winter.

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“Mímir and Baldr Consulting the Norns” (1821-1822) by H. E. Freund

The figure of the seer also survives. The flat disk of earth was believed to be supported by a great ash-tree, Yggdrasil, guarded by three fates, Was, Will, and Shall Be. The name of Was means the past, of Will, the power of which men have over present circumstances, and Shall Be, the future over which man has no control. Vurdh, the name of the latter, gives us the word “weird,” which means fate or fateful. Hundreds of years later, the three Weird Sister in Macbeth are also seers.

The belief in witches and sorcery seem to also have been widespread in the Ancient Near East and Nile Valley. It played a conspicuous role in the cultures of ancient Egypt and in Babylonia. The latter tradition included an Akkadian anti-witchcraft ritual, the Maqlû (“burning”) which includes the following:

Pure oven, great daughter of Anu, inside whom the fire of the grave is flaring, inside whom the valiant fire-god has taken up residence, [whose] flames have reached the sky […], burn, set alight, incinerate my witch! May my warlock’s and witch’s life swiftly, quickly come to an end! (Maqlû, Tablet II, 219–224)

A section from the Code of Hammurabi (about 2000 BC.) says:

If a man has put a spell upon another man and it is not justified, he upon whom the spell is laid shall go to the holy river; into the holy river shall he plunge. If the holy river overcome him and he is drowned, the man who put the spell upon him shall take possession of his house. If the holy river declares him innocent and he remains unharmed the man who laid the spell shall be put to death. He that plunged into the river shall take possession of the house of him who laid the spell upon him.

Ornithomancy and Margaritomancy were practiced in ancient Greek. Ornithomancy is the practice of divination by observing the flight of songbirds. It appeared on Archaic vases, as well as in Hesiod and Homer. One notable example from the latter occurs in the Odyssey, when an eagle appears three times, flying to the right, with a dead dove in its talons, an augury interpreted as the coming of Odysseus, and the death of his wife’s suitors. Aeschylus has Prometheus claim to have introduced ornithomancy to mankind, by indicating among the birds “those by nature favourable, and those sinister”. Margaritomancy is a form of divination which uses a pearl covered with a vase which was utilized during trials. The vase was placed near a fire while names of subjects were read aloud. When the name of the guilty person was pronounced supposedly the pearl would bound up and pierce the bottom of the vase. Philtre, a potion that causes one to fall in love with another person, were popular in the Middle Ages, but lost favor to charms and spells in the 17th and 18th centuries.

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Study for the three witches in Macbeth, Henry Fuseli (1741 – 1825)

Some of the healers and diviners historically accused of witchcraft have considered themselves mediators between the mundane and spiritual worlds. Such people described their contacts with fairies, spirits often involving out-of-body experiences and travelling through the realms of an otherworld. Beliefs of this nature are implied in the folklore of much of Europe, and were described by accused witches in central and southern Europe. Repeated themes include participation in processions of the dead or large feasts, and participation in battles against evil spirits to win fertility and prosperity for the community.

In Norse Mythology, Freya and Odin especially had had power over the souls of the dead. When Christianity rebranded the old gods into spirits of evil, they were accused especially of possessing unlawful learning, as having knowledge of the hidden matters of death. This unlawful wisdom is the first accusation that has always been brought against witches.

The Church and European society were not always so zealous in hunting witches or blaming them for misfortunes. In the 8th century, Saint Boniface declared that belief in the existence of witches was un-Christian. The emperor Charlemagne (c.742 – 814) decreed that the burning of supposed witches was a pagan custom that would be punished by the death penalty. King Coloman of Hungary (c. 1070 – 1116) declared that witch-hunts should cease because witches do not exist.

It was not until 1198 that Pope Innocent III dispatched a monk named Rainier to visit France with the power to excommunicate heretics, and orders to local temporal authorities to confiscate the lands of heretics or to “as became Christians to deal with them more severely.” Then an incident occured in 1208. Pierre de Castelnau, the Pope’s legate, and a companion were travelling to to root out heretics. They were staying in a house in Avignonet, in the south of France when, in the middle of the night, a knight of Raymond of Tolouse, killed de Castelnau. After this murder, the Pope was determined to stamp out heretics at all costs. The Albigensian Crusade followed which led to the slaughter of approximately 20,000 men, women and children, Cathar and Catholic alike. In 1244, two hundred of them were burned on a gigantic bonfire at Montsegur. Those that survived were no longer accused of heresy. They were accused of a new crime –  conspiring with the devil or, as it came to be known, witchcraft.

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“Hexenverbrennung”, Fedor Encke (1851 – 1926) 

The fifteenth century saw a dramatic rise in awareness and terror of witchcraft, culminating in the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum (“Hammer of The Witches”), a witch-hunting manual written in 1486 by two German monks, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. The book defines a witch as evil and typically female. It outlines how to identify a witch, how to put a witch on trial and how to punish a witch. The book became the handbook for secular courts throughout Renaissance Europe, but was not used by the Inquisition which even cautioned against relying on the work. The book was later officially condemned by the Catholic Church in 1490. Throughout this time, it was increasingly believed that Christianity was engaged in an apocalyptic battle against the Devil and his secret army of witches, who had entered into a diabolical pact. In total, tens or hundreds of thousands of people were executed, and others were imprisoned, tortured, banished, and had their lands and possessions confiscated.

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“Interrogation of the sorceress”, Т. Mattson (1853)

Women were especially vulnerable in this period because it has nearly always been women who were accused. Women for the most part were the priests in the old days. It was a woman to whom Apollo at Delphi breathed his oracles. Women have always been the ones who plucked herbs and concocted drinks of healing and refreshment. Therefore, it was very easy to imagine that they experimented with poisons and herbs of magic power under the guidance of the now evil gods. If they were so directed, they must go on occasions to consult with their masters. This led to the idea of a witches’ Sabbath, when women were enabled by evil means to fly away, and worship in secret the gods from whom the rest of the world had turned.

By the fifteenth century Satan, taking the place of the gods, assumed control of the evil creatures. Now that witches were the followers of the Devil, they wrote their names in his book and were carried away by him for the revels by night. A new witch was pricked with a needle to initiate her into his company. Dancing, a device of the pagans, and hence considered wholly wicked, was indulged in to unseemly lengths. In 1883 Sweden, it was believed that dances were held around the sanctuaries of the ancient gods, and that whoever stopped to watch were caught by the dancers and whirled away. At the witches’ Sabbath the Devil himself sometimes appeared as a goat, and the witches were attended by cats, owls, bats, and cuckoos – creatures which had once been sacred to Freya.

These vilifications and persecutions of witches continued to the eighteenth century. The beliefs about witches also became more incredible. It was believed that they were able to take the form of beasts. If a wolf or other animal is caught in a trap or shot, and disappears, the people would search for a wounded witch. Later, an old woman who lives alone in the woods is found suffering from a similar wound. She is then declared to be a witch.

“There was once an old castle in the middle

of a vast thick wood; in it lived an old woman

quite alone, and she was a witch. By day she

made herself into a cat or a screech-owl, but

regularly at night she bacame a human being

again.”

“Jorinda and Joringel”, Jacob Grimm (1785 – 1863)

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“A voice of weeping heard, and loud lament“: The Death and Re-branding of Ancient Celebrations

THE great power which the Druids exercised over their people interfered with the Roman rule of Britain. Converts were being made at Rome when emperor Augustus forbade Romans to become initiated, Tiberius banished the priestly clan and their adherents from Gaul, and Claudius utterly stamped out the belief there and put to death a Roman knight for wearing the serpent’s-egg badge to win a lawsuit – a serpent’s-egg badge was an item of identification for an ancient Gaelic order of priests and sorcerers. Forbidden to practice their rites in Britain, the Druids fled to the isle of Mona, near the coast of Wales. The Romans pursued and slaughtered them in 61 AD. Not stopping there, the Romans proceeded to cut down the oak groves. During the next three centuries the cult was stifled to death to be substituted by the Christian religion.

“The lonely mountains o’er

And the resounding shore

A voice of weeping heard, and loud lament.

From haunted spring and dale,

Edged with poplar pale,

The parting genius is with sighing sent.

With flower-inwoven tresses torn

The nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.”

“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”, John Milton (1608 – 1674)

The miraculous power that the druids seemed to possess was rebranded as “black magic.”

cemetery-577226_1920.jpgIt was a long, hard effort to make people see that their gods had all the time been wrong, and harder still to root out the centuries old rite and symbol. Therefore, the old religions were never completely eradicated – they were rebranded and given new names. Midsummer was dedicated to the birth of Saint John and Lugnasad, the feast of the marriage of the ancient god Lugus, became Lammas. Although the fires belonging to these times of year were retained, their old significance was  reconsecrated or forgotten completely. The rowan, or mountain ash, whose berries had been the food of the Tuatha, now exorcised those very beings. The fires which had been built to propitiate the god and consume his sacrifices to induce him to protect them were now lighted to protect the people from the same god, declared to be an evil mischief maker. In time, the autumn festival of the Druids became the vigil of All Hallows or All Saints’ Day.

All Saints’ was first suggested in the fourth century in memory of all the saints, since there were too many of them for each to have a special day on the church calendar. A day in May was chosen by Pope Boniface IV in 610 for consecrating the Pantheon, the old Roman temple of all the gods, to the Virgin and all the saints and martyrs. Pope Gregory III dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s to the same, and that day was made compulsory in 835 by Pope Gregory IV, as All Saints’. The day was changed from May to November so that the crowds that thronged to Rome for the services might be fed from the harvest bounty.

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In the tenth century, St. Odilo, Bishop of Cluny, instituted a day of prayer and special masses for the souls of the dead. He had been told that a hermit dwelling near a cave

“heard the voices and howlings of devils, which

complained strongly because that the souls of

them that were dead were taken away from

their hands by alms and by prayers.”

“Golden Legend”, Jacobus da Varagine, (1230 – 1299)

This day became All Souls’. It is appropriate that the Celtic festival when the spirits of the dead and the supernatural powers held a carnival of triumph over the god of light, should be followed by All Saints’ and All Souls’. The church holy-days were celebrated by bonfires to light souls through Purgatory to Paradise, as they had lighted the sun to his death on Samhain. On both occasions there were Prayers – the pagan prayed to the lord of death for a pleasant dwelling-place for the souls of departed friends, and the Christian prayed for their speedy deliverance from torture. They both celebrated death – death of the sun, of mortals, of harvest, of crops, of sacred memories.

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“Had but your sight a spirit’s power, Ye would be looking, eye to eye, at a terrific company” : The Beautiful Elements of Halloween

The sun was the centre of many ancient religions as it marks work-time and rest, divided the year into winter idleness, seed-time, growth, and harvest. When the sun is away, it leaves the land in cold and gloom until it returns bringing the long fair days and resurrection of spring.

The Roman Goddess of fruits, Pomona (pomorum patrona, “she who cares for fruits”) lends us this harvest element of Halloween. She is represented as a maiden with fruit in her arms and a pruning-knife in her hand.

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“I am the ancient apple-queen. 

As once I was so am I now– 

For evermore a hope unseen

Betwixt the blossom and the bough.

“Ah, where’s the river’s hidden gold!

And where’s the windy grave of Troy?

Yet come I as I came of old,

From out the heart of summer’s joy.”

“Pomona”, William Morris (1834 – 1896)

The best known story of Pamona came from Ovid, who says that, although she was wooed by many, she preferred to remain unmarried. Among her suitors was Vertumnus (“the changer”), the god of the turning year, who was in charge of the exchange of trade, the turning of river channel, and of the change in nature from flower to ripe fruit. True to his character, he took many forms to gain Pomona’s love. Now he was a ploughman (spring), now a fisherman (summer), now a reaper (autumn).

At last he took the form of an old woman (winter), and went to gossip with Pomona. After finding her averse to marriage, the old woman pleaded for Vertumnus’ success.

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“Vertumnus and Pomona, an Allegory of Autumn”, Jan Pauwel Gillemans the Younger (1651 – 1704)

“Is not he the first to have the fruits which

are thy delight? And does he not hold thy

gifts in his joyous right hand?”

“Metamorphoses”, Ovid

Then the old woman told her the story of Anaxarete who was so cold to her lover Iphis that he hanged himself and she, at the window watching his funeral train pass by, was changed to a marble statue. Advising Pomona to avoid such a fate, Vertumnus donned his proper form, that of a handsome young man. Pomona, moved by the story and his beauty, yielded and became his wife.

Pomona had been assigned one of the fifteen priests whose duty it was to kindle the fire for special sacrifices. She had a grove near Ostia where a harvest festival was held about the first of November. Then the deities of fire and water were propitiated that their disfavor might not ruin the crops. On Pomona’s day, thanks was rendered them for their aid to the harvest. An offering of first-fruits was made in August and,  in November, the winter store of nuts and apples was opened.

Yuletide, an indigenous midwinter festival, lasts around two months, falling along the end of the modern calendar year between what is now mid-November and early January, celebrates the sun’s turning north. The end of summer was a time of grief for the decline of the sun, as well as a harvest festival of thanksgiving to the sun for having ripened the grain and fruit.

Samhain is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year. Traditionally, it is celebrated from 31 October to 1 November, as the day began and ended at sunset. It was one of the four seasonal festivals of the year, and the 10th-century tale Tochmarc Emire (“The Wooing of Emer”) lists Samhain as the first of these four “quarter days”. The tales say it was marked by great gatherings where they held meetings, feasted, drank and held contests.

In the same state as those who are dead, are those who have never lived, dwelling right in the world, but mostly invisible to most mortals.

“There is a world in which we dwell,

And yet a world invisible.

And do not think that naught can be

Save only what with eyes ye see:

I tell ye that, this very hour,

Had but your sight a spirit’s power,

Ye would be looking, eye to eye,

At a terrific company.”

“Halowe’en“, Arthur Cleveland Coxe (1818 – 1896)

Samhain was also a time when the doorways to the Otherworld opened, allowing supernatural beings and the souls of the dead to come into our world. The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn says that the sidhe (fairy mounds or portals to the Otherworld) “were always open at Samhain”. Each year the fire-breather Aillen emerges from the Otherworld and burns down the palace of Tara after lulling everyone to sleep with his music. One Samhain, the young Fionn mac Cumhaill is able to stay awake and slays Aillen with a magical spear, for which he is made leader of the fianna. Acallam na Senorach (“Colloquy of the Elders”) tells us how three female werewolves emerge from the cave of Cruachan (an Otherworld portal) each Samhain and kill livestock.

An account written by Julius Caesar speaks mainly of the Celts of Gaul, dividing them into two ruling classes; the knights, who wages war, and the Druids who had charge of worship and sacrifices, and were in addition physicians, historians, teachers, scientists, and judges.The name “Druid” is derived from the Celtic word “druidh,” meaning “sage,” connected with the Greek word for oak, “drus,”

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“The rapid oak-tree–

Before him heaven and earth quake:

Stout door-keeper against the foe.

In every land his name is mine.”

“Battle of the Trees“, Taliesin (534 – 599 AD)

The animal sacred to the Druids was the cat. “A slender black cat reclining on a chain of old silver” guarded treasure in the old days. For a long time cats were dreaded by the people because they thought human beings had been changed to that form by evil means.

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Fragment of a pillar; Set I in front of the god Osiris; 19th dynasty, ca. 1290 BC

When the year was over, and the sun’s life of a year was done, it was at this time that the sun fell a victim for six months to the powers of winter darkness. In Egyptian mythology one of the sun-gods, Osiris, was slain at a banquet by his brother Set. On the anniversary of the murder, the first day of winter, no Egyptian would begin any new business for fear of bad luck, since the spirit of evil was then in power.

From the idea that the sun suffered from his enemies on this day grew the association of Samhain with death.

“The melancholy days are come, the saddest of the year,

Of wailing winds, and naked woods, and meadows brown and sere.

Heaped in the hollows of the grove, the wither’d leaves  lie dead;

They rustle to the eddying gust, and to the rabbit’s tread.

The robin and the wren are flown, and from the shrub the jay

And from the wood-top calls the crow, through all the gloomy day.

 

“The wind-flower and the violet, they perished long ago,

And the wild rose and the orchis died amid the summer glow:

But on the hill the golden-rod, and the aster in the wood,

And the yellow sun-flower by the brook in autumn beauty stood,

Till fell the frost from the cold clear heaven, as falls the plague on

men,

And the brightness of their smile was gone from upland, glade, and

glen.”

William Cullen Bryant (1794 – 1878)

Reflecting on the Ancient Beauty of the Lioness

“Danger hides in beauty and beauty in danger.”

— Belva Plain (1915 –  2010)

 

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Bas-Relief of Sekhmet

Although the role of lions in ancient culture were later mostly confined to being slain with lances and spears, the lioness has been an important symbol to humans for tens of thousands of years and appear as a theme in cultures across Europe, Asia and Africa. The earliest historical records in Egypt present an established religious pantheon that included a lioness as one of the most powerful cultural figures, protecting the people as well as their rulers. The earliest tomb paintings in Ancient Egypt, at Nekhen, c. 3500 BC., include images of lions, including an image of a deity flanked by two lions in an upright posture. The war goddess Sekhmet, depicted as woman with a lioness head, was one of the ancient Egyptian’s major deities. Even before the rise of Skehmet’s popularity, there was already a belief that a sacred lioness was responsible for the annual flooding of the Nile. Although the name sometimes differ from one region to another, a lioness deity was the patron and protector of the people and the land. As the country united, a blending of those deities was assigned to Sekhmet. The image of lions and great goddesses did not stop there. The Babylonian goddess Ishtar has been represented driving a chariot drawn by seven lions. Ishtar’s Sumerian Inanna was frequently depicted standing on the backs of two lionesses and Persian goddess Anahita was sometimes portrayed standing on a lioness.

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The goddess Cybele dating from 361/363 AD

Archeologists discovered a figurine at Çatal Hüyük, dating back approximately 8,000 years, which depicts the Mother Goddess flanked by two leopards, squatting, while in the process of giving birth. The leopards were replaced by lions centuries later. Cybele was frequently depicted wearing her turreted crown, while she was seated on a throne, with either a lion lying in her lap or with one of them lying on each side of her. She has also been pictured driving a chariot which was drawn by two lions.  Her association lions lend more strength to her already formidable image – that her power was so great, that even lions became meek whenever they were in her presence. Later, lions were used in sculpture to provide a sense of majesty and awe, especially on public buildings. Ancient cities would have an abundance of lion sculptures to show strength such as lions at the entrances of cities and sacred sites from Mesopotamian cultures, the Lion Gate of ancient Mycenae in Greece and the gates in the walls of the Hittite city of Bogazkoy, Turkey. “The Lion of Menecrates” is a funerary statue of a crouching lion, found near the cenotaph of Menecrates.  Lionesses often flanked the Gorgon, a vestige of the earliest Greek protective deity that often was featured above temples of later eras.

Then, the powerful needs to be conquered.  A poem later relates how a eunuch priest of Cybele, sheltering during a snowstorm in a cave, saves himself from a lion’s attack by beating the great kettle-drum which was used in the worship of Cybele and scares it away. This poem was evidently popular enough that ancient writers such as Alcaeus c. 620 – 6th century BC) and Simonides ( c. 556 – 468 BC) paraphrase it with variations and elaborations of their own.

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Sculpted reliefs depicting Ashurbanipal, the last great Assyrian king, hunting lions, relief from the North Palace of Nineveh (Irak), c. 645-635 BC

The Dying Lioness, depicting a half-paralyzed lioness pierced with arrows, is a well-known detail from the Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal, a large set of Assyrian palace relief from about 645–635 BC, depicting dozens of lions being hunted, originally in an Assyrian royal palace in Nineveh (modern day Iraq).

Panopeus, hunter of lions and leopards, dies from the sting of a scorpion; the accident is not impossible, though this may be merely a rhetorical exercise, showing how the boldest man may be overcome by the weakest of animals:

Tis in this tomb strong Panopeus rests,
Lion-hunter, piercer of rough panthers’ breasts.
On the hills a scorpion from earth issuing
Wounded his heel with its death-giving sting.
Upon the ground lie his poor darts and spear,
Alas ! — the playthings of audacious deer.

Hercules, slayer of the Nemean lion, is frequently hymned and brave men like Leonidas have lions sculptured on their tombs. We also have the well-known lines from Aristophanes comparing Alcibiades to a lion-cub which should not have been reared in the city. A figure of Eros, driving a chariot drawn by lions (the “whip” has been noticeably absent from previous depictions of lions and deities) is noted by Marcus Argentarius:

Upon this seal Love whom none e’er withstands
I see, guiding strong lions with his hands;
One flaunts o’er them a whip, the other holds
The reins ; and grace abundant him enfolds.
I fear this bane of men; he who wild beast
Can tame won’t pity mortals in the least.

Besides these, there is an anonymous poem praising the Roman Emperor because he emptied Libya of her lions and other prowling monsters, and sent them to Rome to fight in the Circus.  In Socrates’ model of the psyche (as described by Plato), the bestial, selfish nature of humanity is described metaphorically as a lion, the “leontomorphic principle”.

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One night we were together, you and I, 
And had unsown Assyria for a lair, 
Before the walls of Babylon rose in air. 
How languid hills were heaped along the sky, 
And white bones marked the wells of alkali, 
When suddenly down the lion-path a sound . . . 
The wild man-odor . . . then a crouch, a bound, 
And the frail Thing fell quivering with a cry! 

Your yellow eyes burned beautiful with light: 
The dead man lying there quieted and white: 
I roared my triumph over the desert wide, 
Then stretched out, glad for the sands and satisfied; 
And through the long, star-stilled Assyrian night, 
I felt your body breathing by my side. 

Edwin Markham (1852 – 1940)