Views on local magic and the spirit of place – via The Wild Hunt

Thimsternisse provides information about magic and folklore in the Netherlands and surrounding countries. I believe in universal principles, but I also believe that they can be, and are, expressed differently in different cultures and areas. This Wild Hunt article illustrates that idea neatly.

The land has its own magic. The whispers of the rolling hills of Northern California speak in a different tongue than that of the long flat lands of lower Alabama. The spirit of place can greatly contribute to the culture, presence and practice of magic in any one regional area. Northern California [Photo Credit: Nigelpepper…

via Culture and Community: Spirit of Place in Regional Magic — The Wild Hunt

Ostara and the historical accuracy of deities

Lately I was reminded of this meme from a few years ago:

ishtar-easter-meme

It was apparently sent out by a community of skeptics – mostly to use as a means to discredit the christian celebration of Easter. Pagans fell over themselves to tell how wrong the meme is. And indeed, it’s baffling that skeptics (of all people) didn’t first check their history books before they decided to bash christianity.

However, what was mostly pointed out was the fact that Easter doesn’t come from Ishtar. And the egg and hare certainly aren’t Istar’s symbols for all I know. I mean, they are the symbols of the goddes Ostara a.k.a. Eostre! Right? I find it suprising how many pagans and heathens still stick to this idea – the idea that Ostara is an ancient Germanic goddess (or Eostre an ancient Anglo-Saxon goddess) who is associated with dawn and spring and whose symbols are the egg and hare. Ostara having her celebration around the same time as christian Easter explains where the name Easter comes from, or so they say.

Except that the evidence for the existence of an ancient goddess called Eostre or Ostara is very scant, almost non-existent. The only concrete information we have is based on one mention by Bede in his 8th-century De Tempore Ratione. He writes:

“Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.  Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.” [translation: see under sources below]

That’s it, that’s all the historical information we have on Eostre. It’s not even a direct source. It appears that all the other elements of Eostre were added in the 19th century by Jacob Grimm, who was puzzled by the existence of the goddess, and by other folkloric traditions concerning eggs and hares. He decided that they might have been connected. Grimm also thought that Eostre might have been the same as several Germanic goddesses with names that sounded a bit alike. Thus, the names Eostre and Ostara have become mingled in such a way that it seems that they are all the same deity (for more on that, read Grimm and Shaw – see sources below).

Somehow this has stuck with later folks, and especially with pagans and heathens. I think it has to do with us having so little information about some ancient deities that we latch onto anything that might fill in the gaps. Even the people who *know* that all we have on Eostre is her name, are more than happy to incorporate her in their Ostara/spring equinox celebrations, while dying eggs and telling stories about hares and witches. Why, I’m even guilty of it myself!

This is one of the hot topic discussions within pagan religions. Do we try our best to recontruct the ancient religions, or do we interpret and fill in the grey areas as we go along? To be honest, I think that question has been answered already.

We cannot go back in time. A lot of lore has been lost through the ages and will likely never be  regained. Much of what we do is (post-)modern, whether we like it or not. Even the science that many reconstructionsts base their work on, is again based on theories. Of course, some things are well known and based on facts. Even then I have to wonder: cultures and religions change over time – it seems a part of nature. So why wouldn’t our deities change along?

Ostara and Eostre (if they ever existed as such) were lost to us for a long time, and then rediscovered in one shape or another. The goddess is again worshipped, in a way that befits the 21st century. In our current time, in which human culture has been almost consciously seperated from nature, pagans worship nature deities (among others) in their many shapes and forms. Ostara as goddess of spring, dawn and fertility is one of them.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have to learn accurately from history. Of course we have to – and it’s one of the aims of this website. But that means we know what our gods were like 1000+ years ago, it’s historical and perhaps inspirational knowledge. It is only an indication of what experiences with deities in 2016 will be like. Ostara/Eostre is stronger then ever – she is celebrated all over the world and connected with popular fertility symbols. I don’t see anything wrong with that, as long as we learn and remember where she comes from.

Sources

Grimm, Jacob. Deutsche Mythologie. (1st edition) Göttingen: Dieterich. 1835.

Shaw, Philip A.  Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of Matrons (Studies in Early Medieval History). Bristol Classical Press. 2011.

Wallis, Faith (tr.) The reckoning of time. Liverpool University Press .1988.

Holda’s visit

Finally, winter has shown its pale face here in the Netherlands. Last week, temperatures dropped below zero (seems almost a miracle these days). The earth , plants and trees were covered in a glittering blue layer of frost, which became all the more enchanting when the rising sun shone its pink-golden light over the world.

Finally, Holda has shown her pale face.

Holda, die gütige Beschützerin, by F.W. Heine, 1882.

Holda, die gütige Beschützerin, by F.W. Heine, 1882.

Holda is a German folkloric figure slash goddess, who came to the Netherlands in the in the character of Frau Holle. At least, that’s how I came to know her as a little girl, when I was reading (and re-reading) the fairy tales written down by the Brothers Grimm. Frau Holle was one of my favorites. I loved the idea of a parallel world where apples could talk to you and where it would snow on earth if you’d clean up your pillows. And there was the enigmatic figure of Frau Holle, who lived comfortable in her little house in the underworld, and who would reward you if you were a good girl, but punish you if you were lazy and insufferable.

It was only when I grew up that I realized the many layers of this fairy tale, and the possible pagan and magical meanings of it. It was then too, that I learned more about Holda, Perchta and other enigmatic female folkloric characters. Many of them are thought to have pagan origins (possibly being ancient goddesses dimished into folklore).  Many are thought to be connected to death and fertility. Many are connected to the winter season, or to chaotic periods such as Carnaval. Many are seen as witch figures who ride with other witches to the sabbath, or ride along during the Wild Hunt. And many of them are also moral figures, who will reward you when you act well, and punish you when you act wrongly.

As central- and south German figures, Holda and her sisters are really just outside the scope of this website (see here for what this website is about), but I have such strong feelings towards Holda that I still want to honor her in this blog post. Holda is always there of course, in the otherworld that is just beyond our everyday senses. But sometimes she makes herself known. She is strong in the winter season, when the earth turns white and dark, and people light the fire in their homes when spirits of the dead wander outside. Meanwhile, under the earth and in the womb, she is creating new life that will bloom when the frost melts away.

It is especially during winter that Holda is venerated. Germanic traditions are familiar with the Nights of the Mothers, which is a time that is sacred to mother goddesses such as Holda. But also remember the Wild Hunt, which  takes place during the dark time of the year. As a goddess with many facets, there are multiple ways to honor Holda. Some ideas that I personally like:

  • Cleaning! Make a sacred act out of your everyday chores. Holda loves tidiness. (But note that during Yule/Midwinter, it is thought by some to be taboo to do any cleaning, or any work at all.)
  • Honoring your ancestors. Holda travels with the spirits, and among those spirits are the dead. She is a goddess who takes care of the dead, and your ancestors are among them. When you are on good terms with her, you can be (more) sure that your ancestors are having a good time – and might even communicate with you, if you are into that sort of thing.
  • Traveling between worlds. Holda doesn’t only travel with the dead; she travels with witches and fairies, too. She can take you on many an eventful and insightful journey.
  • Connecting with the earth. Go outside for a walk, feel the earth beneath your feet, really get to know your environment. Holda is an earth goddess, so going outside is getting to know her.

I’m sure you can come up with more. As for now, it seems winter has come and gone. The temperature has risen to an insane 15 degrees Celsius. Still a few months to go until spring, so my hopes for a layer of snow are still there…hopefully I’ll see Holda’s pale face again. And if not, I’ll remember that she is everywhere – in my work and dreams, in my beloved ancestors, and in the very earth itself.

New this month – November and December 2015

Off to the dark nights of Midwinter! I’ll leave you with some new additions to the site – a lot more will surely follow next year. Happy Yule!

Added a dozen or so new images to the gallery of witches and witchcraft

There’s a new item added to the Well of Knowledge: the Calendar. The first article therein is about the (mainly) Dutch beliefs and customs around Midwinter/Christmas.

New information about aardmannen / earth men on the Elves and Fairies page

‘Bruegel’s Witches’ exhibition in Utrecht

It’s the witching season, and Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht has dedicated a temporary exhibition to just this theme. Catharijneconvent focuses on the preservation of Dutch christian art and history, so witchcraft may seem a strange subject. But it’s really not, if you realize that a lot of information about witchcraft in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (and thereafter) has been handed down to us by christian sources, for better or worse.

The exhibition, which is based on a 2011 research by guest curator Renilde Vervoort, focuses on two works by Pieter Bruegel that depict the christan apocryphal story of Saint James the Greater visiting the sorcerer Hermogenes. In her research, Vervoort argues that Bruegel’s depictions of witches in these works are the source of our typical witch with cauldron and black cat who flies through a chimney on a broom.

 

At first, when I hadn’t seen the exhibition and  hadn’t read Vervoort’s book yet, I was a bit sceptical about this idea. After all, there are lots of witches depicted with brooms, cauldrons, etc. before Bruegel’s time. However, Vervoort’s argument is about the specific combination of the aforementioned attributes, and the influence Bruegel had on later depictions of witchcraft, mainly in the Netherlands. In that context, her conclusion stands a lot stronger.

Now on to the the exhibition itself, which is a joy to visit. The Catharijneconvent is a lovely museum which is seated in an old monastry in the center of Utrecht. It is well known for its exhibitions that mostly focus on christian history, but are also very open to a non-christian audience. The exhibition of Bruegel’s Witches is a good example of that. For someone like me, who is interested in art history, folklore, and the history of witchcraft, this is like a child walking into a candy store.

 

The first room tells about the context in which witchcraft in 16th century Holland existed. We come across heretic sects and see paintings of the extremely cold weather that large parts of Europe experienced. Both are generally considered to be big influences on the second large outbreak of the witch craze in the late 16th century. Early drawings and engravings of witches by Hans Baldung Grien and others are on view (see above for a few examples). They are considered to have had a great infuence on how we see witches today. Vervoort however thinks the chance that Bruegel was directly influenced by them is fairly small. Doesn’t matter, I was so glad to finally see these fantastic works in real life! A large part of the room is taken by a modernversion of scales on which suspects of witchcraft were weighed. One can actually sit on these scales and listen to the questions that inquisitors would fire in your direction. In the back of this same room, we are confronted with the two prints of Bruegel around which the whole exhibtion is built.

 

The next room kind of dissects the image of the which that is depicted on Bruegel’s first print, where the witches fly through the chimney. And after that, we get to see the impact that Bruegel’s work supposedly had on later artists, in a hallway filled with image after image about the now well known witch’s sabbath and witch’s kitchen.  It’s  a delight to see all these works together, by popular 17th century artists such as Cornelis Saftleven, Frans Francken II and David Teniers II. The repetition of the images really drives home the point that by now the concept of the witch on her broom flying through the chimney on her way to the sabbath was a well known subject. There seems to have been a small market for this kind of images. The exhibition refers to them as akin to our modern horror movies, something to take a creepy delight in.

 

There was a more serious tone in these artworks too, as the discussion about the realness and dangers of witchcraft was still very lively in this period, and people were still sentenced to death over accusations of witchcraft. However, the Netherlands were a relatively calm corner of Europe when it comes to the witch craze. Of the tens of thousands of people that have lost their life to this black episode in European history, only ca. 200 were in what is now the area of the Netherlands. Also, some of the most enlightened thinkers on witchcraft came from this same area, such as Johannes Wier and Balthasar Bekker. Is it a coincidence that by far most of the witch images we know from the 16th and 17th centuries are from the Netherlands?

I’ll leave that question for now – let’s go back to the exhibition. There’s two more rooms, and I find both to be a bit disappointing after what we’ve seen so far. One room is about women as witches. The subject is very interesting, but it just doesn’t really fit the narrative of the rest of the exhibition, and when it comes to subject matter the artworks and objects gathered in this room are (in my humble opinion) all over the place. The last room is about the depiction of witches in our modern times. It’s an empty room with projections on the walls of witches in popular media, such as movies and animations. I knew modern witches would be depicted in this exhibition, but I expected a bit more of it – maybe some actual artworks, some objects or movie props, and maybe a nod to modern witchcraft?

 

That said, I really enjoyed this exhibition! It was a feast to see all these witch images together. I definitely learned a thing or two from the exhibition, and from Renilde Vervoort’s study Vrouwen op den besem en derghelijck ghespoock (Women on brooms and similar hauntings), which I’m reading right now. I bought it in te museum shop, together with Johan Otten’s Duivelskwartier, which I wrote about last month.

It’s good to see that witchcraft, magic and folklore are getting more popular as research subjects. It teaches us a lot about the nature of people and about the ways of certain parts of the world. And to this pagan, it is also a source of inspiration.

New book on witchcraft: Johan Ottens ‘Duivelskwartier’

A new book has appeared about witchcraft in my area! It’s written by Johan Otten, a journalist who studied the subject of witchcraft in Noord-Brabant (the Netherlands) for over three years with the following book as result. Duivelskwartier. 1595: heksen, heren en de dood in het vuur (Devil’s quarter. 1595: witches, lords and death in the fire) looks very promising and will likely be in my posession very soon.

Otten, Johan - Duivelskwartier

Here’s a translation of the summary, from publisher Vantilt’s website:

‘During the 16th century in Europe, a relentless persecution started of people, mainly women, who were seen as followers of the devil. Tens of thousands of these ‘sorceresses’ lost their lives during bursts of violence that reached their height around 1600. The witch hunt followed an unpredictable pattern of local and regional outbursts. About one of these explosions, a extensive and detailed file has been kept that is exemplary for the persecutions in that period. In the year 1595 a high functionary of the government from Brussels traveled to ‘s-Hertogenbosch to research the trial and execution of tens of women in the areas of Peelland and the Meijerij. The court reports and notes and  he gathered give a fascinating insight in the witch hunt, and give a voice to survivors and family members.

Based on authentic documents, Duivelskwartier tells the true story about a witch hunt in Peelland.  It’s about neighbours’ quarrels, magic and suspicions, about hallucinated witches’ sabbaths, about manupilation by those in power. And it’s especially about the horrific fate of everyday village people.’

Additional information: Price €24,50,  ISBN 9789460042447, paperback, illustrated in color, 15 x 23 cm, 452 pages. Purchase here: http://www.vantilt.nl/boeken/duivelskwartier/

New this month: July/Augustus 2015

Haven’t done much here this summer…busy with lots of other stuff. But as you can see I did expand the website with a new category. Autumn is the season of hard work, and this website will be no exception. I have lots of information that I want to share!

New category: Folktales. Only one tale is up for now, but many will follow…

Added a new page for deities. As for now you can read about Arcanua, Hercules Magusanus and Nehalennia.

New plants added in the Flora section: NightshadeOak, and  St. John’s Wort.