To welcome in the daybreak with a frolic in the park.
They told us that this was the point the god conceived a son
But the thing which just confused me was that dad and child were one."
The identification of witchcraft with four 'Greater' sabbats was made by Murray in "The Witch Cult in Western Europe" and the later "The God of the Witches". This identification came from one single deposition by an accused witch at Forfar in 1661.8 Murray synthesised ideas drawn form various cultures without attempting to separate the various strands or investigate the authenticity of their history. It was she who introduced the idea that this was all part and parcel of one religion which had its origins in the Stone Age, and idea later taken up by others (notably Doreen Valiente, op cit) and common among pagans to this day. Although the Farrars were careful in their treatment of this theory to skirt both wholehearted espousal or outright denunciation,9 in "What Witches Do" Stewart Farrar was not so squeamish in adopting Murray's ideas wholesale, including the idea of a universal set of pre-Christian Celtic sabbats. However, extant evidence is not supportive of this idea.
Stripping away the various mythological bases given to Beltane, the claims for it are that its elements - may poles, fires, Hobby Horses etc - have survived Christianity and, in England, the pre-Christian Anglo Saxon religion. This was one of the two great festivals celebrated by the Celts and was a time of sexual games. In fact, the celebration of Beltane in this way is not attested outside of Ireland and those parts of Western Scotland heavily influenced by Ireland. Pennick and Jones attempt to link Beltane to the Gauls through the similarity of 'bel' to the Gaulish god Belenus10 and it is the only date mentioned in the 9th century Welsh texts. The connection with Belenus is unproven11 and simply made on the basis of the word 'bel' meaning 'bright' or 'lucky'. In the case of Belenus, this indicates his identity as a sun god, whereas 'beltane' means bright fire or lucky fire, a reference to the two fires made through which cattle were driven to ward off illness after the winter. The earliest reference is in a late 9th century Irish text, Sanas Chormaic, and there is evidence that the original name of this festival in Ireland may have been Cetshamaine. Hutton points out there is no evidence in Irish literature of any worship of Belenus and only two slightly dubious dedications to him in Britain.12 Apart from the reference by Cormac, there is a gap of any reference until the 17th century, and that may be reproducing Cormac and a later medieval legend. The Welsh references make no mention at all of anything associated with Beltane today.
That said, Hutton notes that, by the early 19th century, there are records in Ireland of cows still being driven through two fires, and of May Day rituals associated with fire in 18th century Scotland, in the Highlands and Islands, and in the Isle of Man during the 19th century. Within England, the small amount of such evidence is confined to Cumbria and Devon & Cornwall. There are also a couple of references in the 19th century to similar ceremonies in parts of Anglicised Wales. One complication here is that a long history of spring fire festivals are heavily attested on the continent in those areas which were not Celtic, but Teutonic. As to the legend that all fires were extinguished at Beltane and lit from a single sacred fire at Tara, Hutton points out this came from the 7th century "Life of St Patrick" to make the point that Patrick had a confrontation with the pagan priests over the episode by lighting his Easter fire, and that there is no way that Easter and Beltane can fall upon the same day (even using the old Celtic Christian method).13
The May Pole, which has a history stretching back at least as far as the 13th century, was celebrated most in those areas of England which had been Anglo Saxon, though there is 14th century evidence for one in Central Wales and for one in London.14 This may be an association of the maypole with the Irmingsul (a sacred tree or pole) of the Teutonic and Nordic religions, but there is no evidence for this. Mazes appear to be a late Medieval creation to test the athletic skill of runners.
All of this seems to indicate that a celebration of May was common to both the Germanic and Celtic pre-Christian peoples, and that the 'traditions' pagans associate with Beltane draw partly upon a common base of ritual drawn from both religions (though confined, in the Celtic one, to parts of these Isles), rather than being purely and universally Celtic in nature. Furthermore, the universality of some features may be more common outside of the Celtic tradition, and some may not draw upon pre-Christian Celtic ritual at all.
"T'was on the day of Lugh's big feast we made a man of bread,
And they took a great big sword and then they poked him in the head.
They told us that the god had died to give us all our corn.
But if god was killed at Lughnasadh who died midsummer morn?"
In modern pagan rites this is a mixture of an association with an ancient festival to the Celtic god Lugh, though the common celebration is based upon the killing of the god in the guise of John Barleycorn. The references to the dying god, made popular by Frazer's "The Golden Bough" are made explicit. In fact, "The Golden Bough", together with the relevant works of Murray and Graves has long since been regarded as academically unreliable, so we must look elsewhere for the history of this festival.
Pennick and Jones acknowledge a late introduction of this festival into Ireland and its agrarian, rather than pastoral, character. They relate the tale of its institution by Lugh to celebrate his foster mother Tailtiu15. Hutton disposes of this with the comment that the legend was disproved in the 1950s and "it looks as if [Tailtiu] was herself an early medieval poetic invention.16 Nora Chadwick asserts a universality to this festival, on the 17continent as well as in Ireland, though this is not supported by Green or Hutton. Indeed, Hutton states that there is no evidence of dedications to Lugh from Gaul and that the character of the festival relies entirely upon the work of Maire MacNeill, published in 1962, which draws upon late Irish folklore.18 Although there seems to be some evidence for the presence of the festival in the Isle of Man and possibly in parts of Wales, that is not so in Scotland.
On the other hand, there is some evidence of the Christian Anglo Saxon harvest festival of Loaf Mass, which is likely to have been built on a pre-existing pagan ritual of the same time, as the festival is one of the harvest. There is a character in Teutonic literature (who appears as a king in Beowulf) whose name means 'sheaf' and who had a son whose name meant 'barley'. July was commonly the hardest month of the year for a pre-industrial farming economy, and many of the poor, who could not afford to buy bread and had run through their own stocks, died during July. So the bringing in of the harvest was the first time in months that most people would have a good meal and drink. The Anglo Saxon name for the month of harvest was 'Holy Month', which may be a reference to the significance of the harvest to people's well being, and a chance to give thanks to the gods for their food. Hutton records innumerable examples of harvest rituals from all over the British Isles dating from the 16th century.
"T'was at Samhain the god went down to join the dead in Hel,
And my brain went down along with him 'cos far I could tell
The last time that we'd killed him was back three months or so
And I don't know any mortal being that'd take so long to go."
Although often called the Celtic New Year, more properly this was the start of the winter season for the Celts, Beltane being the start of the summer season. It is paralleled by the Nordic festival of Winter Nights, both being a time when the stock would be brought in from their summer pastures for the winter. The weakest would be culled, both to prevent them using up expensive animal foodstock over the winter and to provide the family with meat. In the pre-Christian Anglo Saxon calendar, this was 'Bloodmonth': which, as in Scandinavia, may have been a time of meat feasts dedicated to the gods and elves, and so a time when, like the Celts, the Otherworld drew close.
Unlike the other festivals, there is a little evidence that this one may have been recognised among the continental Celts and is therefore a truly universal Celtic festival. However, no such record exists for Wales. Green records that it is at Samhain when the legendary triple killing of the Irish kings took place. It was also a time when the Sidhe opened their hills and lakes to ride out, as recounted in many songs and tales, notably Tamlain. Although Hutton recounts that Irish sources speak of civil meetings, nothing is recounted of religious rites.19
In the 8th century, the Roman Church moved the festival of All Saints from the second Sunday after Pentecost (which would have fallen in May or June) to 1st November. All Souls was dated as 2nd November from the 10th century and this appears to have begun an association of this time of the year with the dead. This idea was picked up by Frazer, who then asserted that Samhain had been the Celtic festival for the dead, though there is no evidence for this.20
Any association of fires with Samhain seems to be from the 16th century, and confined to Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man, rather than there being anything from Ireland. These appear to have been for the purposes of protection and purification, like the Beltane fires and those at midsummer (see 'Solstices' below).
"T'was in the February that they told me the goddess
Who'd had a babe at Yuletide was a virgin nonetheless.
Now I was a bloody Christian 'til it all stuck in my craw
And this virgin mother business - well, I've heard it all before."
This festival appears to be confined to Ireland, where it was overlaid by the celebration of St Bridget. Its origin, once again, seems to be pastoral, as its name, according to the 'Tochmarc Emire' of the Ulster Cycle, means 'ewe's milk' and it would occur at about the time of first lambing. However, although this is the meaning assigned to it by Cormac in the 9th century, Hutton remarks that modern Celticists have claimed this is linguistically impossible.21
This festival was linked at some time with Brigit, who was both one goddess and one three (all of whom bore the same name). She was goddess of healing, smithwork and poetry, as well as of fertility, as might be expected from such a festival. Berresford Ellis and Green speculate on whether she can be linked with Brigantia, to whom dedications appear in Gaul, Scotland, England and Anglesey.22 Most of the rest of any customs associated with this festival are late (18th century) and Christian.
"T'was at the Vernal equinox we all joined hand in hand
And we formed a great big circle and we chanted and we sang.
As there's nothing going on just now and no one has a clue
Of what it is we celebrate, but that's what pagans do."
I cannot find any references which indicate the celebration of either the vernal or the autumnal equinox among the pre-Christian Celts. Even Murray did not include them and the Farrars have to search out Mediterranean mythology to find anything for the spring which is not connected with the Christian Easter. Modern pagans seem similarly hard pressed to find a rite for these points in the Eightfold Wheel and usually settle for natural themes.
Ironically, the Christian festival takes its name from the pre-Christian Anglo Saxon calendar, which has the spring month of Eostre. Although Bede mentions this as pertaining to the Anglo Saxon goddess Eostre (Ostara on the continent) there is no other evidence to support this assertion.
"T'was on the summer solstice that the poor old oak king died.
And we all stood there and watched it while a number of us cried.
He gave up life for some reason I never really knew;
But they told me it was worthy and it looked convincing, too.
T'was at the Yule that I began to wonder what they're on
When another bleedin' king got killed while the goddess had a son.
And I couldn't work out how it was that all the buggers said
That they believed in harming none while a third one lay there dead."
This is the point at which pagan imagery comes into its own. Not content with having a dying god at Lughnasadh and possibly Samhain, here we meet the Oak King/Holly King construct. Although it might make more sense intuitively for two rulers over the two halves of the year to do battle at the equinoxes, or at Beltane and Samhain - which would be in keeping with the two halves of the pre-Christian Celtic calendar - we actually meet them at the solstices. Why?
The Farrars draw heavily on the unreliable "The White Goddess" (TWG) for support of their Oak/Holly King mythology. TWG was substantially written in three weeks in January 1944 and further developed during 1945. Graves stated in his foreword that the book was not for anyone of a "rigidly scientific mind" but rather appealed to the poetry in the soul of his reader. Unfortunately, many pagans seem to have relied upon it since as a book of literal truth. Graves himself refers back to "The Golden Bough", and the name of that book is a direct reference to the first story in it, about a ritually slain king or priest, of Diana. Through a series of suppositions, Frazer links this king with a ritual marriage to Diana and to the oak.23 Graves links Frazer's Midsummer fire festivals with the oak, and the killing of Diana's priest at that time. This, therefore, is the tentative linkage through which the Oak King is made the pre-eminent example of the ritually slain king.
This is what Graves says of the Holly: "The Holly appears in the originally Irish 'Romance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight'. The Green Knight is an immortal giant whose club is the holly bush. He and Sir Gawain, who appears in the Irish version as Cuchulain, a typical Hercules, make a compact to behead one another at alternate New Years - meaning midsummer and midwinter - but, in effect, the Holly Knight spares the Oak Knight." Graves then goes on to link this with "the [Welsh] goddess Creiddylad for whom, in Welsh myth, the Oak Knight and the Holly Knight fought every first of May." He also attempts to establish that the holly was not introduced into Britain until the 16th century and therefore the original must have been the scarlet-oak, making the Oak Knight and the Holly Knight twins.24
It has to be said this is all Graves imagination. The Irish original to which he refers, Briccriu's Feast, bears only a slight resemblance to "Sir Gawain" and that could easily by accounted for by the common bardic theme of a challenge to a hero. In it, the battle takes place on two successive days; in "Sir Gawain" it takes place - on both occasions - at the new Year, and it is only Graves who translates this as meaning the two solstices. He wishes to make the connection between Cuchulain and Hercules because he links the oak with Hercules, as tenuously as ever.25 It is probably for this reason he calls the Green Knight's 'bunch of holly' a 'club' - a weapon associated with Hercules. In fact, the Green Knight already carries a formidable weapon in the shape of the great battle axe used in the contest. In the Mabinogian, although Creiddylad is mentioned in 'Kilhwch and Olwen' it is Graves who injects the identification with oak and holly, which are not mentioned. In any case, as he notes, the fight takes places at the 1st May, not the solstice, and not the two solstices. Oh, and the holly is native to Britain.
Having disposed of the main theme of many modern pagan celebrations, what remains? Well, ironically, there is a fairly good body of evidence for the religious observance of midwinter and especially midsummer among the Germanic and Norse religions (those whom Murray denigrated as the 'solsticial invaders'). We know that, according to Bede, Yule was the major festival celebrated by the pre-Christian Anglo Saxons, who called it 'Modraniht' or 'Mother's Night' - possibly a reference to the continental worship of "The Mothers", or a hark to the equivalent Norse religious observance of disablot to either ancestral or supernatural female guardians. On the hand, the common name in use was 'midwinter' and the Anglo Saxon calendar had two months, one at the end and one at the beginning of the year, which were called 'before Geola' and 'after Geola'. The equivalent months around midsummer were 'before Litha' and 'after Litha'. No other months in the calendar are named in the same way, and this must indicate the importance of midwinter and midsummer. However, there is no evidence to support Bede's assertion and, by the time he was writing, Christmas Eve had become a celebration of the Virgin Mary. Despite this, there weight of continental evidence would seem to indicate this was an important festival among the Nordic, Germanic and - by extension - Anglo Saxon people. Not that any of this clears up the problem of what the word 'Yule' actually meant, which remains in dispute.
In Ireland, the Ulster Cycle does not mention a midwinter festival, and neither that work nor the mythological tales reflect a solar deity or cult, though that is contradicted by both St Patrick, writing in the 5th century, and Cormac.26 The usual association with Druids via the mistletoe is deceptive as what Pliny actually said was: "The Druids - for so they [the Celts] call their magi - hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree on which it grows provided it is an oak." In another passage he states: "Mistletoe is, however, very rarely found, and when found it is gathered with great ceremony and especially on the sixth day of the moon..."27 As can be seen from these, the only thing which connotes any time of the year is the season of the mistletoe. However, there is no mention of white berries and so no particular indication of any season.
Midsummer, by contrast, has a great deal more evidence as a religious rite and a fire festival, not only among the continental Germanic and Scandinavian peoples but also among the Gauls. Hutton retails a 4th century and a 12th century French source for fires at this time, the earlier one including rolling a burning wheel. British sources begin in the 13th century, and Grimm quotes many continental references among the northerly Germanic peoples28 with dancing round and jumping over bonfires. In Ireland the records are from the 18th century and the earliest are found in areas of English influence, but the practice is common throughout Ireland in the later records, and more popular than at Beltane, with jumping over fires again being prominent.29
Both the wheel and the swastika - another version of it - were common symbols throughout Europe and Britain, and were associated with a sun deity. Numerous examples are found on dedications and grave goods. In Britain the swastika was particularly associated with the Anglo Saxon god Thunor. It is generally assumed that both indicate the solar cycle, and the rolling of a burning wheel at midsummer would occur at the turn of the solar year.
It can be seen that the greater sabbats, which are also occasionally
known as the 'fire' festivals,30 have little to do with fire (except
Beltane, and that is overshadowed by the fires of midsummer); and
that they were not universally celebrated throughout the
pre-Christian Celtic world, and, again apart from the case of
Beltane, we cannot be sure in what way the pagan Celts did celebrate
them, as most of the evidence comes from centuries later and all
well within the Christian period. As to the lesser sabbats, there is
little evidence for the celebration of any of these by any pagan
Celts except possibly midsummer.
Despite this lack of evidence, bold assertions are made of modern pagan celebrations linking with ancient pagan rites as a seamless continuum. To take some examples from a Pagan Federation statement which is now part of the BBC website introduction to paganism:
"Like many Celtic festivals, the Imbolc
celebrations centred around the lighting of fires. Fire was perhaps
more important for this festival than others... The lighting of fires
celebrated the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months.
"Beltane is a Celtic word which means 'fires of Bel' (Bel was a Celtic deity)... Beltane rituals would often include courting... These rituals would lead to matches and marriages, either immediately or in the coming summer or autumn."
Of midsummer: "This date has had spiritual significance for thousands of years... The Celts celebrated with bonfires that would add to the sun's energy."
Of Lughnadsadh: "Celts held the festival of the Irish god Lugh at this time."
Of Samhain: "This time of the year has been celebrated in Britain for centuries... While death is still the central theme of this festival..."
Of Yule: "Yule is considered to be one of the oldest winter celebrations in the world. Yule meaning 'wheel' ... many Christmas festivities take inspiration from Yule celebrations, like exchanging gifts and decorating trees. Trees were traditionally brought into homes by pagan families so that tree spirits could keep warm for the winter."
Even worse than these statements is the trouble some writers on the cycle of the year go to to divide it into 'light' and 'dark' periods, as the writer of an article to Pagan Dawn.31 This concept has the 'light' half - usually associated with the 'reign of the Oak King' i.e. Yule to midsummer, as active, and the 'dark' half as passive. The difficulty with any such division is that it tends towards an arbitrary point of view. Crops continue to grow after midsummer: the main harvest does not take place until Lughnasadh or beyond. This division is centred on plant growth, rather than animal activity. Even if one were to draw a line through Imbolc to Lughnasadh, to divide the year that way, it would have to ignore the continuing development of many modern grain crops and the autumnal growth of fruit and berries, or the rutting season of many livestock... to say nothing, of course, of the rebirth of the solar deity so dear to the hearts of many pagans.
We are in no position to be dogmatic about any festivals, but the Eightfold Wheel, as currently celebrated by many pagans, is a modern myth constructed of - at best - fragments of contemporaneous evidence liberally mixed with later medieval folklore and wishful thinking that this connects us with the past. This is little better than the attempts of fundamentalist Christians to persuade us that every word of the Bible is true and relevant today. As with everything, it is important to see the difference between what there is evidence for, and what we choose to construct for ourselves. But let us not confuse the two.
If it seems that I have relied overmuch on one or two of my sources, this is because so many other attempts to track more down met with silence, or sparse comment, itself a reflection of the sparseness of the primary evidence. Some of the same sources turn up in both Frazer and Hutton, which is not surprising, as both rely heavily on the works of eminent folklorists. The difference, of course, is that Frazer accepts all equally whilst Hutton weighs the reliability of each. Chadwick, Berresford Ellis and Green are all Celtic specialists, the differences between them being, respectively, that one lectured at Cambridge and other universities in the subject, one is a foremost writer on the subject and the third is an archaeologist. Hutton, of course, is an historian who has recently begun to specialise in modern pagan history.
For the sake of completeness, Doreen Valiente was one of Gardner's High Priestesses, Prudence Jones was twice president of the Pagan Federation, Nigel Pennick is a writer on matters of pagan interest, Janet and Stewart Farrar were members of Alex Sanders' coven before setting up their own, and Philip Carr-Gomm is a Chief Druid of OBOD. Margaret Murray was a respected academic when she stuck to her own subject and Robert Graves was a popular writer of fiction, poetry and an analyst of Greek myth. And the poetry is quoted from my own work.