The twins Romulus and Remus were borne by Ilia, daughter of king Numitor, and the war-god Mars. They were condemned by King Amulius, the ruler of Alba, to be cast into the river. The king’s servants took the children and carried them from Alba as far as the Tiber on the Palatine Hill. However, when they tried to descend the hill to the river to carry out the command, they found that the river had risen and they were unable to reach its bed. They therefore thrust the tub which the children slept into the shallow water at the shore.
The tub floated for a while before the water promptly receded. The tub then knocked against a stone and the screaming infants were thrown into the river mud. They were heard by a she-wolf. She came and gave her teats to the boys to nurse them and, as they were drinking, she licked them clean with her tongue. A woodpecker flew above them to guard the children and bring them food. These were Mars’ doing as the wolf and the woodpecker are animals consecrated to him
These odd happenings were seen by one of the royal herdsmen who was driving his pigs back to the pasture. Startled, he summoned his friends. They all made a loud noise to scare the wolf away, but the wolf was not afraid. Calmly ignoring the herdsmen, she disappeared into the wilderness of the forest. Meanwhile the men picked up the boys and carried them to the chief swineherd of the king, Faustulus, as they believed that the gods did not wish the children to die. But Faustulus’ wife had just given birth to a dead child and was full of sorrow. Faustulus gave her the twins to nurse and the couple raised the children. They named them them Romulus and Remus.
Evidently, the twin never forgotten the wolf. After Rome had been founded, king Romulus built himself a house not far from the place where his tub had stood. The gully in which the she-wolf had disappeared was renamed as the Lupercal (the Wolf’s Gully). The image of the she-wolf with the twins was subsequently erected at this spot and the she-wolf herself, the Lupa, was worshipped by the Romans as a divinity.
This saga later on underwent manifold transmutations, mutilations, additions, and interpretations. It is best known in the form transmitted by Livy, where we learn something about the fate of the twins:
King Proca bequeaths the royal dignity to his firstborn son, Numitor. But his younger brother, Amulius, pushes him from the throne, and becomes king himself. So that no scion from Numitor’s family may arise, as the avenger, he kills the male descendants of his brother. Rhea Silvia, the daughter, he elects as a vestal, and thus deprives her of the hope of progeny, through perpetual virginity as enjoined upon her under the semblance of a most honorable distinction. But the vestal maiden was overcome by violence, and having brought forth twins, she named Mars as the father of her illegitimate offspring, be it from conviction, or because a god appeared more creditable to her as the perpetrator of the crime. The narrative of the exposure in the Tiber goes on to relate that the floating tub, in which the boys had been exposed, was left on dry land by the receding waters, and that a thirsty wolf, attracted from the neighboring mountains by the children’s cries, offered them her teats. The boys are said to have been found by the chief royal herder, supposedly named Faustulus, who took them to the homestead of his wife, Larentia, where they were raised. Some believe that Larentia was called Lupa (“she-wolf”) by the herders because she offered her body, and that this was the origin of the wonderful saga.
Grown to manhood, the youths Romulus and Remus protect the herds against the attacks of wild animals and robbers. One day Remus is taken prisoner by the robbers, who accuse him of having stolen Numitor’s flocks. But Numitor, to whom he is surrendered for punishment, was touched by his tender age, and when he learned of the twin brothers, he suspected that they might be his exposed grandsons. While he was anxiously pondering the resemblance with the features of his daughter, and the boy’s age as corresponding to the time of the exposure, Faustulus arrived with Romulus, and a conspiracy was hatched when the descent of the boys had been learned from the herders. The youths armed themselves for vengeance, while Numitor took up weapons to defend his claim to the throne he had usurped. After Amulius had been assassinated, Numitor was reinstituted as the ruler, and the youths resolved to found a city in the region where they had been exposed and brought up. A furious dispute arose upon the question of which brother was to be the ruler of the newly erected city, for neither twin was favored by the right of primogeniture, and the outcome of the bird oracle was equally doubtful. The saga relates that Remus jumped over the new wall, to deride his twin, and Romulus became so much enraged that he slew his brother. Romulus then usurped the sole mastery, and the city was named Rome after him.
The widely distributed group of sagas that have been woven around the mythical Knight of the Swan (the old French Chevalier au cigne) can be traced back to very ancient Celtic traditions. The following is the story of Lohengrin, the Knight of the Swan, as transmitted by the medieval German epic and briefly retold by the Grimm brothers under the title “Lohengrin in Brabant.”
The Duke of Brabant and Limburg died, without leaving other heirs than a young daughter, Elsa. On his deathbed, he recommended her to one of his retainers, Friedrich von Telramund. Friedrich, the intrepid warrior, became emboldened to demand the young duchess’ hand in marriage as well as her lands under the false claim that she had promised to marry him. Of course, Elsa refused to do so. Not taking no for an answer, Friedrich then used his connections to complain to Emperor Henry the Fowler (876 – 936). The Emperor decreed that Elsa must defend herself against Friedrich through some proxy hero, in a so-called divine judgment, in which God would accord the victory to the innocent and defeat to the guilty. As no knight was willing to act for her, the young duchess prayed ardently to God to save her.
As Elsa prayed, the sound of the bell was heard far away in distant Montsalvatsch, in the Council of the Grail, showing that there was someone in urgent need of help. The Grail therefore decided to send Lohengrin, the son of Parsifal, as a rescuer. Just as Lohengrin was about to place his foot in the stirrup, a swan came floating down the water drawing a skiff behind him. As soon as Lohengrin set eyes on the swan, he exclaimed, “Take the steed back to the manger; I shall follow this bird wherever he may lead me.” Lohengrin did not take any food with him in the skiff. After they had been afloat five days, the swan dipped his bill in the water, caught a fish, ate one half of it, and gave the other half to Lohengrin to eat.
Meanwhile, Elsa had summoned her chieftains and retainers to a meeting in Antwerp. Precisely on the day of the assembly, a swan was sighted swimming upstream drawing a skiff behind him, in which Lohengrin lay asleep on his shield. The swan came to land at the shore and Lohengrin was joyfully welcomed. Right after he landed, the swan swam away again. Lohengrin heard of the wrong which had been done to the duchess and consented to become her champion.
Elsa then summoned all her subjects and relatives. A place was prepared in Mainz for Lohengrin and Friedrich to fight in the emperor’s presence. The hero of the Grail defeated Friedrich, who confessed having lied to the duchess and was executed. Elsa and Lohengrin became lovers and, within time, marry. However, Lohergin secretly insisted upon Elsa avoiding all questions about his ancestry, or he had come from, otherwise he would have to leave her instantaneously and she would never see him again.
For a time, the couple lived in peace and happiness. Lohengrin was a wise and mighty ruler of his land. He also served his emperor well in his expeditions. However, one day when he was throwing the javelin, Lohengrin knocked the Duke of Cleve from his horse, so that the latter broke an arm. The Duchess of Cleve spoke out amongst the women angrily, “Lohengrin may be brave enough, but what a pity that he is not noble as no one knows whence he has come floating to this land.” These words pierced Elsa’s heart. At night, Elsa wept. Her husband asked her, “What is the matter, Elsa?” She answered, “The Duchess of Cleve has caused me sore pain.” Lohengrin could guess what happened, but he was silent and did not ask any more questions. On the second night, the same thing happened again. On the third night, Elsa could no longer control herself, and she asked, “Lord, do not chide me! I wish to know, for our children’s sake, where you were born, for my heart tells me that you are of high rank.” When the sun rose, Lohengrin made a public declaration about where he had come from, that Parsifal was his father and God had sent him from the Grail. He then asked for his children, kissed them and told them to take good care of his horn and sword which he would leave behind. To his wife, he left a little ring which his mother had given him. Then his friend the swan came. Lohengrin crossed the water, back to the service of the Grail. Elsa sank down in a faint.She wept and mourned the rest of her life for her beloved husband who never came back to her. Remembering Lohengrin’s service to the empire, the empress resolved to keep his son (also named Lohengrin) for his father’s sake, and to bring him up as her own child.
The fate of the younger Lohengrin was similar to his father. The infant Lohengrin floated in a vessel upon the sea and was carried ashore by a swan. After his father left, the empress adopted him as her son. He grew up to become a hero. Having married a noble maiden of the land, he forbade her to ask about his origin. When the command was broken, the younger Lohengrin also revealed his miraculous descent and divine mission, after which the swan carried him back in his skiff to the Grail.
The characteristic features of the Lohengrin saga–the disappearance of the divine hero in the same mysterious fashion in which he has arrived; the transference of mythical motifs from the life of the older hero to a younger one bearing the same name are likewise embodied in the Anglo-Lombard saga of Sceaf, who reappears in the Prelude to the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, the oldest Teutonic epic. Here, he is called Scyld the Scefung (“son of Sceaf”). The older legend says that he received his name because as a very young boy he was cast ashore, as a stranger, asleep in a boat on a sheaf of grain (Anglo-Saxon: sceaf) . The waves of the sea carried him to the coast of the country he was destined to defend. The inhabitants welcomed his arrival as a miracle, raised him, and later on made him their king, considering him a divine emissary. His story also repeated itself in his son, also called Scyld. His body was exposed, as he had ordered before his death, surrounded by kingly splendor, upon a ship without a crew, which is sent out into the sea. Thus he vanished in the same mysterious manner in which his father arrived ashore, this trait being accounted for, in analogy with the Lohengrin saga, by the mythical identity of father and son.
In a country such as Mexico, where the success or failure of the crops depends entirely upon the rainfall, Tlaloc, the Rain God, was a deity of high importance. He made his home in the mountains which surround the valley of Mexico, as these were the source of the local rainfall, and his popularity is vouched for by the fact that sculptured representations of him occur more often than those of any other of the Mexican deities.
Tlaloc is interesting. He is similar to such deities as the Hurakan of the Kiche of Guatemala, the Pillan of the aborigines of Chile, and Con, the thunder-god of the Collao of Peru. The small difference between Tlaloc and these other gods is that his thunderous powers are not so apparent as his rain-making abilities.
Tlaloc is generally represented in a semi-recumbent attitude. His upper body were raised upon the elbows, and his knees were half drawn up, probably to represent the mountainous character of the country where the rain came from. He was married to Chalchihuitlicue (Emerald Lady), who bore him a numerous children, the Tlalocs (Clouds). Many of the figures which represented him were carved from jade, to typify the colour of water, and in some of these he was shown holding a a serpent of gold to typify the lightning, for water-gods are often closely identified with the thunder, which hangs over the hills and accompanies heavy rains.
Tlaloc manifested himself in three forms, as the lightning-flash, the thunderbolt, and the thunder. Although his image faced the east, where he was supposed to have originated, he was worshipped as inhabiting the four cardinal points and every mountain-top. The colours of the four points of the compass, yellow, green, red, and blue, where the rain-bearing winds come from, entered into the composition of his costume, which was further crossed with streaks of silver, typifying the mountain torrents. A vase containing every description of grain was usually placed in front of his idol, an offering of the growth that, hopefully, he could make more fertile.
Tlaloc lived in a watered paradise called Tlalocan (The Country of Tlaloc), a place of abundance where those who had been drowned or struck by lightning or had died from dropsical diseases enjoyed eternal bliss. The common people who did not die such deaths went to the dark abode of Mictlan, the all-devouring and gloomy Lord of Death.
In manuscripts, Tlaloc is usually portrayed as having a dark complexion, a large round eye, a row of tusks. Over his lips was an angular blue stripe curved downward and rolled up at the ends. The later character is supposed to have been evolved originally from the coils of two snakes, their mouths with long fangs in the upper jaw meeting in the middle of the upper lip. The snake, besides being symbolised by lightning in many American mythologies, is also symbolical of water, which is well typified in its sinuous movements.
The Nahua believed that the constant production of food and rain induced senility in those deities who were providing them. In trying to stave this off, the people offer the gods a period of rest and recuperation. Once in eight years a festival called the Atamalqualiztli (Fast of Porridge-balls and Water) was held, during which every one in the Nahua community returned for the time being to living primitively. Dressed in costumes representing all forms of animal and bird life, and mimicking the sounds made by the various creatures they typified, the people danced round the teocalli of Tlaloc to entertain him after his labours in producing the fertilising rains of the past eight years. A lake was filled with water-snakes and frogs, into which the people plunged, catching the reptiles in their mouths and devouring them alive. The only grain food which could be eaten during this season of rest was thin water-porridge of maize.
Should one of the more prosperous peasants or yeomen felt that a rainfall was necessary for the growth of his crops, or should he fear a drought, he sought out one of the professional makers of dough or paste idols to mould one of Tlaloc. He would then make offerings of maize-porridge and pulque to this image. Throughout the night the farmer and his neighbours danced, shrieking and howling round the figure for the purpose of rousing Tlaloc from his slumbers. Next day was spent in rest after the exertions of the previous night.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”).
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)
Another 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.
“‘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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.