When they arrived in the British Isles, the Saxon invaders brought with them the tradition of calling the month of June Aerra Litha. They marked Midsummer with huge bonfires that celebrated the power of the sun over darkness. For people in Scandinavian countries and in the farther reaches of the Northern hemisphere, Midsummer was very important. The nearly endless hours of light in June are a happy contrast to the constant darkness found six months later in the middle of winter.
The period following the solstice was called Aefterra Litha, according to the Venerable Bede’s eighth century writings about the “heathen” Anglo-Saxons.
Author Sandra Kynes says in A Year of Ritual: Sabbats and Esbats for Solitaries and Covens, “The ancient people of Europe left their legacy in stone all over the continent, the Mediterranean area, and the British Isles in the form of standing stone circles, alignments, and dolmens… It has been known for a long time that these places mark the rising and setting of the sun at the winter and summer solstices. They also mark lunar cycles, eclipses, and other astrological events.”
The Norse society valued art and craftsmanship, and left behind some exquisite work, much of which can still be seen today. From the ship burial of Sutton Hoo to the Harrowgate hoard, Viking artwork depicts men, animals, gods, and pieces of the natural world tied together with interlacing knots and spirals. This stylized blend of elements has made Viking artwork instantly recognizable the world over.
For some three hundred years, beginning in the late eighth century, the Scandinavian explorers known as the Vikings wreaked havoc upon much of Western Europe. Starting with the sack of the monastery of Lindisfarne in 793, the Vikings invaded, plundered and destroyed villages and harbors around the British Isles, Ireland, France and even as far east as parts of Russia. They were well known for their fierce bravery in battle, their tactical skills, and their unflagging devotion to the warrior gods that called each man towards Valhalla, the hall of Odin the All-Father.
A man who died with honor on the battlefield was given the privilege of spending eternity with Odin in Valhalla, a realm where the dead engage in combat with one another, in preparation for Ragnarok, the great battle the signifies the end of the world. Worthy warriors were selected for and escorted to Valhalla by the Valkyries, Odin’s shieldmaidens, and welcomed to the hall with feasting and song. Battles took place all day, eating and drinking went on all night, and each evening, every warrior’s wounds were healed so they could fight anew the next morning. Depictions of Valhalla, the gods, and the coming of Ragnarok are popular themes in the artwork and mythology of the Vikings.
The most commonly seen Viking artwork still in existence is work carved in wood and stone, or etched in metal, particularly in silver or bronze. These stylized designs also appeared on textiles, although there are few well-preserved examples left. Perhaps the best-known textile containing Viking art is the Överhogdal wall hanging discovered in Sweden. Dating to around the tenth century, this tapestry depicts both pre-Christian imagery of the entire battle of Ragnarok, along with images of the incoming Christian religion and its churches (Brink et al, 2008).
Vikings even celebrated their artwork on human skin in the form of tattoos, although it is unknown just how widespread the practice was. We can make certain assumptions about Viking body art from writings of the time period by reliable observers. Ahmad ibn Fadlan was an Arab diplomat who was sent by the Caliph of Baghdad as an emissary to the Bulgars. Somehow, on his way to the lands of the Bulgars, ibn Fadlan fell in with a band of Norsemen in the tenth century as they explored what is now Russia.
He wrote, “Each man, from the tip of his toes to his neck, is covered in dark-green lines, pictures, and such like (Montgomery 2000).” At present, however, no tattooed skin has been found on bodies in Viking burial sites, but we know that ibn Fadlan’s reports are reasonably accurate, because he takes great pains to differentiate between things he sees, and things he is told. He deliberately uses phrasing like, “And this I saw with my own eyes,” versus, “This is what I was told by the men.” In addition, ibn Fadlan makes it clear that his writing is not meant to glorify or praise the Vikings he is traveling with; he finds them somewhat repulsive, particularly when it comes to matters of personal hygiene. As an outsider, he gives us an honest and almost clinical interpretation of what he sees and hears.
Scholars have also been able to determine through written words the details of some lost works of art. The Norse prose and poetic eddas and sagas contain passages describing the paintings on walls and shields that have since been lost to time.
In the remaining fragments of the Skaldic poem Ragnarsdrapa, 9th century Skald Bragi Boddason, alternately referred to as Bragi inn Gamli, describes in several stanzas the type of artwork contained on shields, which illustrated great battles, heroes, and journeys:
On the fair shield of Svolnir
One may perceive the onslaught;
Ragnar gave me the Ship-Moon [the Ship-Moon refers to a shield]
With many tales marked upon it (Pulsiano et al, 1993).
The Skaldic tales, or shield-poems, were typically performed live at a large gathering, and were generally used to extol the virtues a chieftain or ruler, celebrate his victories in battle, and pay homage to the strength and power of his ancestral line. However, they also reveal details of a variety of ornamentation, describing everything from the previously mentioned shield decorations to pictures of wall hangings in a great hall (Heslop).
Today, a thousand years after the last Viking ship set sail, we still see new interpretations of Viking artwork themes recreated in films, particularly of the fantasy and historical genres. Viking imagery appears in doorways and portals, ship design, and jewelry in a number of movies and television shows, and it is perhaps nowhere more visible than in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy of films, based on the books by the same name by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Tolkien himself was a highly-regarded scholar of Norse mythology, and well versed indeed in the eddas and sagas of the Vikings by the time he wrote his classic Lord of the Rings between 1937 and 1949. The tale itself is deeply rooted in Norse legend, particularly in the Saga of the Volsungs, which tells of the adventures of Sigurd the dragon-slayer, an exiled king on a quest to find a magical ring that will unite the tribes of his land. When Jackson made Lord of the Rings into not just one but three films, the Norse influences of the books carried over heavily into the story’s appearance on screen.
On the side of a fjord in Urnes, Norway, there is a small church. Built around the middle of the 12th century, not much is left of the original building, constructed of wooden staves. It’s a remarkable combination of traditional Viking artwork meeting up with the new Christian architecture of the time, and the Urnes church is one of only a few such structures left in the world. Its very name, stavkyrkje, means “church of staves.”
The church’s placement and location is significant. It is placed on the east side of the fjord, and is three miles from the closest village, Hafslo. The Urnes church sits on a promontory overlooking the Sognefjord, and can be approached by a simple footpath. For someone walking along through the green fields of Norway, en route from the village of Hafslo, there would have been ample time to ponder thoughts of a spiritual nature, with the church on its hill sitting in the distance, ultimately becoming a goal to reach at the conclusion of the climb up the promontory, an end to the spiritual journey.
The church, in its present form, dates from the mid-1100s, when a chieftain owned a farm in Urnes and its surrounding area. The exterior of the building is modest, and is reminiscent of the simply wooden style of a longhouse. However, as one arrives in front of the building, the imagery and artwork of the doorways and portals become apparent. The portals themselves, and the interior, are heavily decorated in the Viking style. The main portal, an early piece of architecture that was incorporated into later reconstruction, is decorated with elaborate intertwining animals, plants, leaves, and stalks, all surrounding an equally elaborate keyhole-shaped centerpiece.
Today, the interior of the Urnes church contains artwork from the 17th century, which was created as part of a renovation project. However, it still includes early pieces that were restored from the early medieval period, reflecting the blend of pagan Viking imagery with Christian icons and themes.
Jackson utilizes the image of doorways regularly in the three films. From the early sequences of the first movie, when young hobbit Frodo Baggins opens the round door of his home to permit the wizard Gandalf entry, to the scene in which doors are breached by Orcs and Uruk-Hai at the great battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers, doors are significant. In Norse mythology, doorways are very important too – there are five hundred and forty of them leading into the Hall of Valhalla, where warriors hope to find themselves after falling in battle. The doors to Valhalla show the power and scope of Odin’s rule; each is wide enough that eight hundred warriors can walk through them, fully armed, side by side.
Much like the Urnes portal, the doorway to the Mines of Moria sits in a far-away place… on a mountainside in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. As portrayed by Jackson in Fellowship of the Ring, the first film in the trilogy, the entrance way to the abandoned mines – known as the Door of Durin – is sealed with a series of magical runes. It too is decorated with scroll work, although not nearly as elaborate as that of the Urnes stavkyrkje. Jackson’s door is less complex, but still carries over the themes of spiraling branches, trees, and leaves on both the right and left side. The top arch, rather than echoing the natural elements found on the vertical aspects, instead is inscribed with Elvish runes. The runework is part of Tolkien’s original manuscript, in the Elvish language he created, and based upon early Scandinavian runic alphabets such as the Elder Futhark, said to be a gift from Odin himself.
In The Two Towers, the second film of the trilogy, Viking-inspired artwork can be seen much more clearly in the decorations of the Golden Hall, the stronghold of Theoden, king of Rohan. Complex scrollwork details the walls and pillars throughout the Hall, which is structured exactly the way a Viking longhouse would have been a thousand years ago. Behind Theoden’s throne, intricate knotwork and spirals adorn the wall.
Most significantly, the massive set of double doors that welcome guests to the Golden Hall calls the artwork of Urnes to mind. Giant pillars on the Hall’s threshold are covered with interlacing branches, leaves, plant elements and even animals that are reminiscent of the artwork on the stavkyrkje’s portal. The doors themselves include sophisticated curves and spirals, painted boldly in gold upon black, carrying the centuries-old artwork of Viking craftsmen into the fantasy world of Middle Earth.
Later in the series, we see yet another prominently displayed and significant set of doors. Near the end of Return of the King, the last film in the series, Aragorn, the exiled son of the House of Gondor, is crowned as king before the giant doors of the city of Minas Tirith. Like the Golden Hall of Rohan, the doors of Minas Tirith are covered in elaborate carved spirals and knotwork, but they reflect to us that Gondor is a more modern kingdom than the lands of Rohan. While Rohan’s capital is a simple village, a giant hall built of wooden beams surrounded by peasant huts, Minas Tirith is full of massive stone buildings, twisting stairways, and complex masonry, towering high above the fields of Pelennor as a tribute to the power of the realm’s ruling kings. The technology of Minas Tirith is far more advanced than that of Rohan; the city has a warning beacon system, sophisticated weaponry and even aqueducts. The city is the hub of all trade and commerce for the entire kingdom of Gondor.
Like the church at Urnes, the doors of Minas Tirith, a city some three thousand years old, see their ancient artwork combined with the symmetric and geometrically aligned arches that blended with and then eventually replaced the art of the pre-Christian era.
Although Tolkien denied repeatedly during his lifetime that Lord of the Rings was an allegory for the technology of battle developed between the two world wars, the evolution of the realms of Middle Earth can often be paralleled with the developing societies of Europe. Interestingly, there can be comparisons drawn to the wars that brought about the destruction of Middle Earth in Tolkien’s books, and the saga of Ragnarok, the end of the world, in the poetic eddas left to us by the Vikings.
Other elements of Viking artwork are prominent throughout Lord of the Rings, and it is prominently displayed in the Elvish kingdom of Rivendell. In the final scene of Return of the King, Frodo Baggins, mortally wounded in the first film by the blade of a Ringwraith, joins his elderly uncle Bilbo on “the last ship leaving Middle Earth,” which will take them on to Valinor, the Blessed Realm. The Elvish vessel is styled much like a Viking longship, complete with runework and scrolls on the stern, and an animal-head post at the bow.
We can compare the artwork on the Elvish ship at Rivendell harbor to the remains of Viking boats that have been unearthed at places like Oseberg and Oslo. A typical Viking ship, used for exploration, would have been anywhere from fifty to ninety feet long, with a large, square sail and a carved wooden totemic animal at the front. These zoomorphic carvings represented family and kinship ties to the Vikings, and were often intertwined with typical Scandinavian stylized motifs, such as scrollwork and knots. When placed on a ship, they would have been not only a representation of kinship, but also a fear tactic – imagine being the enemy who suddenly saw the snarling face of a wolf appearing on the prow of a massive ship on a misty morning. For Tolkien’s Elves, and subsequently Jackson’s, however, a ship’s prow is a thing of grace and beauty, rather than of terror, with an elegant swan’s head taking the place of more frightening figures.
In addition to decorating their buildings and ships with artwork, the Vikings also wore intricate and beautiful jewelry. Burial hoards have been found in Denmark, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Germany containing exquisitely detailed brooches, necklaces, armbands and other adornments. In 2007, a farmstead on the Danish island of Zealand revealed the remnants of a Viking settlement, which included numerous pieces of metal jewelry. Most notable was a copper pendant with human-animal heads depicted upon it. According to archaeologists, one of the figures features a “drooping moustache, but above its eyebrows two ears or horns emerge, giving the humanlike mask an animal character (Davis, 2013).”
A metal detecting enthusiast discovered an equally impressive hoard in North Lancashire, England, in 2011. The collection, now in the custody of the British Museum, contained nearly two hundred coins, brooches and bracelets, engraved with serpents, dogs, birds and plants (Daily Mail, 2011).
In Jackson’s films, the characters’ jewelry and body adornment is subtle rather than ostentatious. Each of the nine members of the Fellowship of the Ring wears a simple brooch, a green leaf with a spiraling silver stem. In appearance, it’s not terribly fancy, but the sweeping curve of the lines is clearly influenced by Viking elements. While the hobbits of the Shire are plain folk, with little to no ornamentation on their garments or person, the Elves of Rivendell and the citizens of Rohan seem to enjoy the elegance of simple curved lines of design with a Norse flair. The citizens of Minas Tirith wear armor and headwear decorated with curves, spirals, and tree motifs.
Lady Arwen, the last daughter of the Elven lord Elrond, wears a pendant known as the Evenstar. Made of the brightest silver, it features a floral motif, accentuated by knotwork and curves. Interestingly, the Evenstar is not part of Tolkien’s original source material. However, a pendant much like it appears in a short story by Marion Zimmer Bradley, called The Jewel of Arwen, which takes place in the lands of Middle Earth and describes a white jewel, one of the Seven Stars that shine over the lands of men and Elves, on a floral background (Bradley, 1961).
One prominent design seen in Viking artwork is that of the tree – the roots, the leaves, all of the branches. Because the story of Yggdrasil, the World Tree at the center of Asgard, features so prominently in Norse cosmology, representations of the great ash often appear in Viking art. The poetic edda Havamal describes it as the tree from which Odin hung for nine days, as a sacrifice to himself, before being granted the wisdom that would allow him to rule over all nine of the realms represented by the World Tree.
A key theme in portrayals of Yggdrasil is that it is represented not only by what is above the ground, but by what is below. Three great roots hold the tree up, each symbolizing a different realm. The first represents Asgard, the land of the gods themselves. The second is associated with Jötunheimr, the land of the giants, and the third is Niflheimr, the ice-covered domain of the goddess Hel.
Near the end of Return of the King, as Aragorn is finally crowned King of Gondor on the steps of Minas Tirith, his loyal army is shown bearing shields which display a tree, roots and all. This is a symbol of the legendary White Tree of Gondor, which also appears on Aragorn’s crown and armor. The White Tree features prominently in Middle Earth history, although this is not portrayed in the films. With Aragorn’s return, the once dead tree begins to flower again.
According to Tolkien’s original works, the White Tree is not just a symbol of a family, or even of a kingdom. In the text of The Return of the King, he describes the lineage of the tree as part of a speech by the Elven leader Elrond, detailing the tree’s association with the kings of Gondor; as the tree slowly dies off, so does the line of the royal family.
Later in the book, although not depicted in the film, when King Aragorn finds a lone sapling that is a descendent of the first Tree of Gondor. The wizard Gandalf points out to him that the once-withered tree is now in bloom again, a symbol of the light of the stars and the moon, and of the triumph of good over evil in the land of Men. He tells Aragorn, “[T]his is an ancient hallow, and ere the kings failed or the Tree withered in the court, a fruit must have been set here. For it is said that, though the fruit of the Tree comes seldom to ripeness, yet the life within may then lie sleeping through many long years, and none can foretell the time in which it will awake (Tolkien, ROTK, 1954).”
Tolkien’s original vision was a retelling of several Norse myths blended into a magical world of Orcs, Hobbits, Elves and Dwarves, and strongly colored by his knowledge of early Scandinavian culture. He managed to incorporate heavy symbolism found within Norse artwork and literature into the tales, from magical doors and graceful ships to elegant jewelry and the spiritual iconography of the World Tree. While the three films that comprise The Lord of the Rings, and their original source material, are certainly fantasy, it’s clear that many aspects of the films’ appearance draw significant influence from what we know today of the artwork left for us by early Viking craftsmen.
At Litha, or Midsummer, the sun is entering the astrological house of Cancer, which is a water sign. In many traditions, this time of year is associated not just with fire, but with water as well — rivers, streams, springs, and so on.
In the British Isles, sacred springs and holy wells were considered more potent than usual at the summer solstice. In Bairnwell, Cambridge, a Midsummer festival has been held next to a sacred spring each year since at least the early thirteenth century.
In many rural areas, local gods were often honored at holy wells and streams. Historians say it became a popular custom to toss a bit of silver — coins, pins, etc — into a sacred body of water as an offering to the god or goddess of that area. Near Pickering, Yorkshire, residents performed sacred ceremonies at a local well to ensure fertility of both the people and the harvest for the coming season.
Holy wells also appear prominently in Welsh and Irish legend. The healing powers of water are common in Irish myth, and in many cases the wells are sources not only of healing but also of wisdom and fortunes granted.
Pagan religions do not have a monopoly on sacred streams and wells. In Christian legends, many or Ireland and Britain’s holy springs are the domain of a particular saint associated with the area. It is believed that it is the power of the saint that makes the water flow, and thus the water is imbued with magical properties. Many of these sites became the destination of Christian pilgrims, seeking the healing powers of the water.
As Christianity spread throughout Europe, many of these sacred springs and wells were boarded up or covered, as their presence was a constant reminder to the church of Pagan history. By the time of the Reformation, most of the sites had been forgotten. Around the late seventeenth century, however, it became stylish to visit springs and wells for therapeutic purposes, and a brand new industry cropped up around wells, springs, and streams. By the time of the Regency period, spas like the ones at Bath were a popular destination for members of the gentry, and springs and wells which had been lost to disuse were opened up again and presented for their healing value.
Many holy wells and sacred springs exist today on private properties throughout the British Isles and parts of the European mainland. Because of the relative obscurity of most wells and springs today, it is hard to tell how many are still in existence.
Although the Sheela-na-Gig is technically the name applied to the carvings of women with exaggerated vulvas that have been found in Ireland and England, there’s a theory that the carvings are representative of a lost pre-Christian goddess. Typically, the sheela-na-gig adorns buildings in areas of Ireland that were part of the Anglo-Norman conquests in the 12th century. She is shown as a homely woman with a giant yoni, which is spread wide to accept the seed of the male.
Folkloric evidence indicates a long-standing theory that the figures were part of a fertility rite, similar to “birthing stones,” which were used to bring on conception, but scholars have been questioning that lately.
Although traditionally the sheela has been regarded as a representation of a fertility goddess, John Harding, spokesman for the national Sheela na Gig Project, says, “the symbols are more likely to have originally been a warning against the sin of lust, before gradually mutating into a protective force against demons. In modern times, the sheela na gig has become a pagan symbol.” The figure is found all over the United Kingdom, as well as in France and Spain, and as far away as the Czech Republic.
From a sheer numbers standpoint, it is Ireland that the claims the most sheela na gig carvings, and the England-Wales border is the home of the best known carving, the sheela of Kilpeck Church. Experts say that during the Victorian era, many of the carvings were destroyed or altered, thanks to the repressive social mores of the time.
Eamonn P. Kelly suggests that etymologically, the sheelas may be connected to the second-century Saint Cecelia, who fiercely guarded her virginity and told her Roman Pagan husband that she was betrothed to an angel, and was therefore sexually unavailable. I’m not sure that line would hold water today, but at the time, it must have worked.
The Irish Gaelic name Sile is a derivative of the Roman Caecelia. Kelly goes on to point out that later Sile became associated with guardianship of the land, and the Sile na Gadra was a personification of Ireland itself. Kelly theorizes that “linguistic and folklore evidence suggests that sheela-na-gigs may have become associated with the protection and control of land and lordly status.” It’s entirely possible that the sheelas were not simply carvings of wanton and fertile women, or even of sin and lust, but guardians and protectors of the Irish people and the land upon which they lived.
A reader says, “I just found out that I’m descended from one of the witches from the Salem witch trials and I feel like this makes me have witchcraft in my blood. I went to a Pagan event not too long ago, and when I told everyone about this they acted like it was no big deal. I feel like I deserve a little more respect since my ancestors were Salem witches.”
I know it’s very exciting to discover that your ancestry contains people who were interesting, or even famous.
And sometimes, when we make a discovery like that, we want to share it with others, and we want them to be as excited about it as we are. So if you’re descended from one of the men and women who were convicted of witchcraft in Salem back in 1692, that definitely makes for fascinating family conversations around the dinner table.
However – and this is a big however – it doesn’t really make you a special snowflake in the Pagan community at all, for a couple of reasons. First of all, the people executed in Salem were most likely not witches at all. Other than accusations which were later recanted and apologized for, there is no evidence that the accused were anything other than victims of hysteria and fear.
In fact, most of of the individuals hanged in Salem (as well as elderly Giles Corey, who was pressed to death) were devout Christians.
(The one exception to this may be the slave Tituba, who is believed to have been from the West Indies, and may have had some knowledge of folk magic, although that is unclear and has never been proven by scholars. However, Tituba vanished, released from jail shortly after the Salem hangings began, and her whereabouts afterwards are unknown despite the best efforts of academics to learn her post-Salem fate.)
A second reason that it was probably treated as “no big deal” by the people you met is because there are hundreds, if not thousands of people alive today who are descended from the victims of the Salem witch hunts over three hundred years ago. Again, this does not make you unusual. While it may be a really big deal to you, to everyone else, it’s just a mildly interesting fact at best.
Finally – and feel free to take this with a grain of salt – your email indicates that you expect people to show you respect automatically based upon your ancestry and what it means to you personally. In the Pagan community – as in others – respect is earned.
It can’t be demanded, because you’ll never get it. It’s earned by your words and deeds, not because you happen to have a certain family tree.
Step back, take a breath, honor your ancestors and do a little more studying and research. With a little bit of experience and learning, you may eventually become someone who earns respect based on your own merits, without invoking the names of the accused men and women of Salem.
Just for funsies, here are some cool articles I’ve written on the topic of Salem, which should keep you busy for a while.
For many people in the modern world, finding a Pagan belief system is a positive and life-affirming experience. It’s not uncommon for us to find a joy and lightness in our traditions, something that brings light into once was a dark existence. This is indeed a good thing, and what draws many new people into the Pagan community. Unfortunately, the downside of it is that there can sometimes be an unwillingness to accept that not all Pagan cultures in the past were full of light and love and rainbows.
Our ancestors, hundreds of years ago, lived a completely different existence than we do today, and their relationships with their gods were different than ours is today. This means that their guidelines as to what was acceptable spiritual behavior is not the same as those we see as reasonable in the 21st century. As much as we may wish to deny it, or claim that it’s anti-Pagan propaganda, the inescapable truth was that for our ancestors, religious worship sometimes included things that modern Pagans find distasteful.
Sacrifice – both animal and human – was not an uncommon practice in the ancient world, and was generally performed in the context of making an offering to the gods. Animal sacrifice is still practiced today by a few religious groups, but for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll be focusing on ritualized human sacrifice in the ancient world. Obviously, this is a complex and vast topic,
and there’s no way we can cover every single aspect of it, so for now, we’ll be looking at the basics of human sacrificial practices among groups such as the Celts, the Greeks and Romans, and Mesoamerican tribes.
Human Sacrifice in the Celtic World
Although the Celts didn’t leave us much in the way of documentation, we can glean a bit about their practices from writings created by foreign observers. In particular, the works of Pliny the Elder, along with Julius Caesar’s Commentaries, give us some insight into sacrifice in the Celtic world.
Pliny and Caesar make a very big deal about human sacrifice among the Druids. However, keep in mind that both of these men were Romans, writing about the practices of a people who had been more than a little difficult to conquer. In history, not only does the victor get to retain the spoils of war, he also earns the privilege of writing about it afterwards.
That said, while it’s unlikely that the Celts – and specifically, the Druid priest class – was engaging in the massive wholesale slaughter of human beings that Pliny and Caesar suggest, they did utilize human sacrifice on occasion. Caesar describes Celtic funeral customs in his Commentaries, in which the body of the deceased is cremated, and the clan then adds to the fire “everything they reckon to have been precious to the departed, even living creatures…” He suggests that slaves and other dependents might have been tossed in there as well, to join the deceased clansman in the afterlife.
The Wicker Man
Perhaps the best-known summary of Celtic sacrifice is the concept of the wicker man, another practice we know about based on Caesar’s writings. He describes “figures of vast size, the limbs of which formed of osiers they fill with living men, which being set on fire, the men perish enveloped in the flames.” Caesar goes on to explain that the men burned inside one of these structures were often criminals – thieves or robbers, specifically – but in the absence of a criminal sacrifice, the Druids “have recourse to the oblation of even the innocent.”
Author J.A. McCulloch points out in Religion of the Ancient Celts (1911), “Human victims were also offered by way of thanksgiving after victory, and vows were often made before a battle, promising these as well as part of the spoil. For this reason the Celts would never ransom their captives, but offered them in sacrifice, animals captured being immolated along with them.”
There also existed, among the Celts, the concept of what scholars called foundation sacrifice. This was, essentially, the sacrifice of an individual before the construction of a new building. In some cases, the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled around the foundation of the structure, and in others, they were actually buried beneath it. There are a number of locations, including Christian churches, in what was once the Celtic world that still have legends and rumors of foundation sacrifices.
In generally all of these cases, scholars believe that human sacrifice was intended to strengthen the connection between man and the Celtic gods, to bridge the gap between the mortal world and the divine realm. Human remains have been found which support the ideas of Pliny and Caesar, and indicate that these bodies were interred in a ritual context. However, we will likely never know the extent of human sacrifice, and academia seems to be divided on whether or not Roman writers exaggerated the number of deaths taking place as propaganda.
This is an article that originally appeared on my About site, but with the migration to the super-cool new ThoughtCo vertical, some under-performing articles got done away with. However, I was traveling recently and saw a ribbon tree, and it made me want to share this once again.
The history behind the use of ribbon trees is a long and complex one. It’s a practice found in a number of different cultures, so I thought it would be interesting to do a little digging and see how they compare in various places around the world. Although it’s difficult to tell, at least initially, where this practice may have originated, it looks like it’s safe to say that it’s something that happens pretty much globally.
Sometimes called wishing trees, other times called rag bushes, these plants are often decorated by strips of cloth by visitors who want to see their wishes fulfilled. In some areas, these trees are located near sacred springs or holy wells, although that doesn’t appear to always be the case.
At the Hill of Tara, which was the home of the High Kings of Ireland, there is a pair of trees growing side by side. It’s not uncommon to see these trees tied with brightly colored pieces of cloth around the Beltane season. The trees – which are hawthorns – are decorated by visitors in early May, and the strips of cloth are known as clotties.
Interestingly, in recent years people have been tying seemingly random bits of detritus – plastic and metal, in particular – to the trees at Tara and the area around the holy well of Kildare. This is a deviation from traditional practice, in which the cloths from a sickbed were tied and hung along with appropriate prayers. As the sickcloths decomposed and biodegraded in the elements, the illness itself was carried away.
There are some belief systems that refer to Ireland’s clottie trees as “Fairy Trees,” but again, this is not part of traditional Irish legend, and appears to be more of a new age type thing.
Chinese Wishing Trees
In Hong Kong, the Lam Tsuen Wishing Trees are a popular destination for tourists, as well as the locals. These large banyan trees are part of a shrine where visitors can burn joss sticks and ask for their prayers to be answered. In the past, there was a practice of writing one’s wish on a piece of paper, tying it to an orange, and tossing it up in the tree. For years, papers hung in the trees, but apparently this became dangerous, because in 2005 a branch fell and caused injuries to several guests.
After that, authorities set up a series of racks on which people can tie their wish papers, in the hopes of allowing the trees a few years of recovery time.
The Hindu Kalpavriksha
In the Hindu religion, the Kalpavriksha is a divine tree that fulfills wishes. This tree of life, or world tree, appears in the Vedic scriptures, and is said to have originated during the churning of the primal waters of the ocean, and was found by Indra, the king of the gods. Indra took the tree home with him and planted it there so he could have it with him at all times. In some Indian villages, individual trees – often fig, coconut or the baobab – are considered Kalpavriksha trees, and are often decorated by residents as a way of asking the gods to grant wishes.
“Being winter the tree had no leaves, but in their place, numberless threads, by which the various offerings, such as cigars, bread, meat, pieces of cloth, etc., had been suspended. Poor Indians, not having anything better, pull only a thread from their ponchos, and fasten it to the tree. Richer Indians are accustomed to pour spirits and mato into a certain hole, and likewise to smoke upwards, thinking thus to afford all possible gratification to Walleechu.”
If you’re lucky enough to see a wishing tree or a rag bush somewhere and want to add to it, make sure that anything you hang on it is in fact biodegradable. Blogger and travel writer Rich Rennicks, over at A Trip To Ireland, points out that many people put in a lot of hours trying to save the rag trees at Tara from the damage done by so many years of inappropriate offerings.
Rich says, “Traditionally, people tied strips of linen or cloth to a rag tree as a symbol of their prayer (long before synthetic substances were invented). Over time, these offerings have been replaced by inappropriate modern items (mass cards, glass jars containing candles, coins embedded into the bark, rosaries, dummies/soothers, etc.) and some complete rubbish added by careless people who either didn’t think about their actions or added the first thing they had to hand (nylon string, plastic ribbons, rings, beads, love locks, loom bands, or — strangest of all — socks and underwear–why?). Things that don’t naturally and quickly biodegrade or rot away harm the trees by killing limbs, preventing buds forming and leaves opening, or breaking branches. Over time, others add more bad stuff under the mistaken impression that the items already on the tree are acceptable, and the trees start to weaken and die.”
He suggest small strips of non-synthetic cloth – draped over branches, and not tied – as an acceptable offering that will eventually biodegrade without causing long term damage. Also, colored paper ribbon like crepe, or origami papers are a great option as well.
Ideally, you’ll want to leave the tree intact and healthy for future generations, so if you have a chance to leave anything, consider something non-tangible, like a simple prayer or song describing your wish, cast upon the wind and into the skies.
Image by Jennifer Pickens, licensed through Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
In some forms of traditional witchcraft, there are six basic tenets – and that’s not TENANTS, with an AN, but TENETS. These are simple principles, or guidelines, meant to help practitioners lead positive and spiritually fulfilling lives. Do you have to follow them? Of course not!
Although they vary somewhat from one tradition to the next – just like everything else in modern Paganism – they are nearly always similar in spirit and intent. This particular list was created by the late author Sybil Leek as an outline of the basic guidelines of her spirituality. While not universal to all belief systems, these six principles can be a valuable tool for self-discovery – and that goes for people of just about any religious background.
Balance is found in all things. We find it in nature all the time. If balance can exist in the natural world, surely we can find it within ourselves. Our physical selves, our emotional state, and our spiritual plane… by finding the right balance of these three parts of our lives, we can live as better human beings. When our balance is thrown off, that’s when we begin to suffer. Too much of anything sends us off-kilter — for example, someone who takes on too much emotional baggage will begin to feel physically unwell. Someone whose spiritual needs aren’t being met can feel emotionally fragile. Without balance, it’s nearly impossible to be a well-rounded person.
Harmony is something we must give ourselves. It’s not something others can attain for us, nor is it something that we can gain without effort. Don’t rely on other people to provide for you! Harmony is a gift to our soul, from our soul. How do we interact with others? Do we allow the shortcomings of the people in our life to negatively affect us? Are we forever blaming other people, and making excuses instead of finding reasons? If we are, then we are lacking harmony and must re-evaluate our lives, and our perception of what things are. To truly find harmony, we have to stop looking around us and begin looking inside us. To this effect, harmony really has to work hand in hand with the concept of balance.
A key part of many NeoWiccan paths today is the concept of perfect love and perfect trust. To someone who is spiritually whole, trust is a many-layered principle. It not only means trust in those around us, but also in our gods and in ourselves. Trust isn’t blind, but it sure does involve faith. For example, we may know that the gods walk with us and guide us; we trust them to do so because of past experience, not because someone has told us to believe this. Trust is being willing to close your eyes and fall, knowing the person waiting to catch you will actually do so.
When we stand before the gods, we know that we are imperfect, and they know this too — and yet they still manage to tolerate us and guide us. We’re pretty much flawed as a species, and yet we often try to be the best we can. This paradox, then, is an example of humility. It’s the knowledge that while we may be mere lowly mortals, we are also deserving of love and happiness and opportunity — and the chance to make the world a better place, not only for ourselves but for others. As part of this process, we must love ourselves, because if we don’t, who will?
Tolerance may be one of the least acted-upon principles of many modern belief systems. While many people espouse the virtue of tolerance, many refuse to actually be tolerant. They make blanket statements about people whose religion doesn’t coincide with their own. To tolerate someone else’s belief doesn’t mean to put up with it begrudgingly; instead it means to accept their right to choose differently from us. We’re all human beings, and all connected to the Divine; this factor makes us part of the cosmic whole. When in we look at the concept of “do no harm” — and this includes with our words as well as our actions — we refrain from doing harm not because a rule tells us so, but because it’s the right thing to do. After all, what goes around comes around.
Finally, there is the tenet of knowledge. Without knowledge, there’s no growth, no chance to evolve. While we can read books and take classes until the cows come home, true learning also comes from life experience. To advance on a spiritual plane, we must accept the fact that we just don’t know everything there is to know. If we don’t want to stagnate, we have to continue to learn and grow. Once we refuse to learn anything new, it’s pretty tough to develop as a spiritual being.
A final note: It’s important to remember that, much like other guidelines found in modern Pagan religions, this list doesn’t apply to every path. Not all witches adhere to these tenets. If you are an eclectic practitioner, you may want to look at this list and see how it can be applied to your own belief system.
Animism is one of the earliest known spiritual structures. From an anthropological standpoint, it is a belief system based upon the concept of all things having a spirit or soul. Humans and animals have souls, as do plants and trees and rocks, thus eliminating any separation between the mundane world and the metaphysical one. Nineteenth-century anthropologist E.B. Tylor defined animism as a belief that all natural objects – in addition to, but not only humans – have souls. This includes living beings — dogs, horses, birds, etc. – as well tangible items like rocks, mountains, the sea, trees and flowers. It also includes natural phenomena such as earthquakes, wind and lightning.
One thing that anthropologists have yet to agree on is whether or not early cultures had one, all-encompassing and universal belief system that would be considered animism, or if instead, the term applies to multiple mythologies and worldviews.
Typically, anthropologists – particularly those influenced by Tylor – agree that for a belief system to be animistic, there are two criteria. The first is, as mentioned above, that all natural things have souls or spirits. The second, and equally significant requirement is the belief that these souls are capable of moving without a physical form. In addition, many early animistic societies practiced some form of ancestor veneration.
Although we often think of animism as primitive and ancient, there are some groups that still practice it today. In Malaysia, there are tribes who still honor the rice spirits at the time of planting and of the annual harvest. Shinto, which is the predominant spirituality of Japan, has a strong foundation in animistic beliefs. Following the devastating March 2011 earthquake that struck Japan, many Japanese made offerings at Shinto and Buddhist shrines to the spirits of the land, hoping to gain a better spiritual understanding of all that had taken place.
Although it is not universal to all Pagans, many Neopagans incorporate animism into their beliefs today. It’s not uncommon to hear someone talk about the spirits or soul of a tree, or a river, or a piece of wood. In many cases, these individual spirits are seen as parts of a greater cosmic whole.
This is an article that originally appeared on my About.com site, but because of a network overhaul, it’s no longer available there. I wanted to share it with you anyway, because so many people forget the contribution that this woman made to the world of Tarot. Of particular note is that Smith was a woman of color, working in the creative arts during the turn of the twentieth century.
Tarot History: Pamela Colman Smith
The Rider Waite Tarot deck is one of the most iconic collections of images in the metaphysical world. If you see a Rider Waite card, you know exactly what it is. This is the deck that many new Tarot readers choose to learn the ropes on, and it’s often the one that is used in books on Tarot, because the symbolism is so rich and heavy. But where did the Rider Waite deck come from? Turns out it was designed and created by an artist whose name doesn’t even appear on the deck most of the time.
Pamela Colman Smith (1878 – 1951) was a London-born artist who spent her childhood in Manchester and Jamaica with her parents. Smith was biracial; her mother was Jamaican, and her father was a white American (his father, Smith’s grandfather, was the mayor of Brooklyn for a time).
As a teenager, Smith attended art school in New York City, at the Pratt Institute, and developed a stylized look that soon put her in high demand as an illustrator. Some of Smith’s most popular drawings were utilized in works by Bram Stoker and William Butler Yeats, and she wrote and illustrated books of her own as well.
After her mother passed away in 1896, Smith left Pratt without graduating, to join a traveling theater group and lead the nomadic life of a troubadour. In addition to working onstage, Smith developed a reputation as a skilled costume and set designer. Keep in mind that during the early part of the twentieth century, this was an unusual occupation for a young, single woman. She was also active in the women’s suffrage movement that took off in the years around the turn of the century.
Little is known about her romantic life, although Smith never married or had children. It’s certainly possible that she preferred women; there is a great deal of speculation about her relationships with housemate Nora Lake, as well as Smith’s close friend, actress Edith Craig, who was definitely a lesbian. Smith surrounded herself with creative, intelligent people who valued her passion for art.
Her early work with William Butler Yeats would prove to be the catalyst for some changes in Smith’s life; around 1901, he introduced her to his friends in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. At some point in her Golden Dawn experience, she met the poet and mystic Edward Waite. Around 1909, Waite commissioned Smith to do the artwork for a new Tarot deck he was interested in creating.
Waite wanted to see a Tarot deck in which every card was illustrated – which was something completely new. Up until this point, throughout the history of Tarot, decks primarily had illustrations only on the Major Arcana, and sometimes the court cards. The only known example of a fully illustrated deck, up until this point, was the Sola Busca deck, commissioned by a wealthy Milanese family in the 1490s. Waite suggested Smith use Sola Busca for her inspiration, and there are many similarities in the symbolism between the two decks. Smith was the first artist to use characters as representative images in the lower cards; rather than just showing a group of cups, coins, wands or swords, Smith worked human beings into the mix, and created a rich tapestry of occult symbolism that set the gold standard for modern Tarot decks.
The resulting collection of 78 cards was published by Rider and Sons, and sold for a whopping six shillings as the first mass market Tarot deck. Thanks to the publisher and Edward Waite, the deck became known commercially as the Rider Waite deck, although in some circles it is now referred to as the Waite Smith deck, or even Rider Waite Smith, as credit to the artist.
Interestingly, Smith did not receive royalties from the deck, and it appears that she wasn’t paid much at all for her creation of the original work. Although her artwork was popular, she never seemed to gain mass commercial success, and she died penniless in Cornwall in 1951.
Although Smith’s artwork appears simple on the surface, it’s deceptively complex. Each piece represents so many different aspects of the human experience, which is why this deck – whether you call it Rider Waite, RWS, or Waite Smith – has become such a valuable tool for intuitive readers. Many modern Tarot readers owe a great debt to Pamela Colman Smith, for providing us with a collection of 78 paintings that delve so deeply into our hearts and souls.