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LostBeardedWhite

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Samhain is considered by Wiccans to be one of the four Greater Sabbats. Samhain is considered by some as a time to celebrate the lives of those who have passed on, and it often involves paying respect to ancestors, family members, elders of the faith, friends, pets, and other loved ones who have died. In some rituals the spirits of the departed are invited to attend the festivities. It is seen as a festival of darkness, which is balanced at the opposite point of the wheel by the festival of Beltane, which is celebrated as a festival of light and fertility.

Many Pagans believe that at Samhain the veil between this world and the afterlife is at its thinnest point of the whole year, making it easier to communicate with those who have left this world.

Wheel of the Year

Samhain is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year. Traditionally, Samhain is celebrated from sunset on 31 October to sunset on 1 November, which is about halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, along with Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Similar festivals are held at the same time of year in other Celtic lands; for example the Brythonic Calan Gaeaf (in Wales), Kalan Gwav (in Cornwall), and Kalan Goañv (in Brittany).

Samhain is believed to have pagan origins and there is evidence it has been an important date since ancient times. The Mound of the Hostages, a Neolithic passage tomb at the Hill of Tara, is aligned with the Samhain sunrise. It is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature and many important events in Irish mythology happen or begin on Samhain. It was the time when cattle were brought back down from the summer pastures and when livestock were slaughtered for the winter. As at Beltane, special bonfires were lit. These were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers and there were rituals involving them. Like Beltane, Samhain was seen as a liminal time, when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld could more easily be crossed. This meant the Aos Sí, the ‘spirits’ or ‘fairies’, could more easily come into our world. Most scholars see the Aos Sí as remnants of the pagan gods and nature spirits. At Samhain, it was believed that the Aos Sí needed to be propitiated to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter. Offerings of food and drink were left outside for them. The souls of the dead were also thought to revisit their homes seeking hospitality. Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place set at the table for them. Mumming and guising were part of the festival, and involved people going door-to-door in costume (or in disguise), often reciting verses in exchange for food. The costumes may have been a way of imitating, and disguising oneself from, the Aos Sí. Divination rituals and games were also a big part of the festival and often involved nuts and apples. In the late 19th century, Sir John Rhys and Sir James Frazer suggested that it was the “Celtic New Year”, and this view has been repeated by some other scholars.

In the 9th century AD, Western Christianity shifted the date of All Saints’ Day to 1 November, while 2 November later became All Souls’ Day. Over time, Samhain and All Saints’/All Souls’ merged to create the modern Halloween. Historians have used the name ‘Samhain’ to refer to Gaelic ‘Halloween’ customs up until the 19th century.

Etymology

In Modern Irish the name is Samhain, in Scottish Gaelic Samhainn/Samhuinn, and in Manx Gaelic Sauin. These are also the names of November in each language, shortened from Mí na Samhna (Irish), Mì na Samhna (Scottish Gaelic) and Mee Houney (Manx). The night of 31 October (Halloween) is Oíche Shamhna (Irish), Oidhche Shamhna (Scottish Gaelic) and Oie Houney (Manx), all meaning “Samhain night”. 1 November, or the whole festival, may be called Lá Samhna (Irish), Là Samhna (Scottish Gaelic) and Laa Houney (Manx), all meaning “Samhain day”.

These names all come from the Old Irish samain, samuin or samfuin all referring to 1 November (latha na samna: ‘samhain day’), and the festival and royal assembly held on that date in medieval Ireland (oenaig na samna: ‘samhain assembly’). Its meaning is glossed as ‘summer’s end’, and the frequent spelling with f suggests analysis by popular etymology as sam (‘summer’) and fuin (‘end’). The Old Irish sam is from Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *semo-; cognates include Welsh haf, Breton hañv, English summer and Old Norse sumar, all meaning ‘summer’, and the Sanskrit sáma (‘season’).

In 1907, Whitley Stokes suggested an etymology from Proto-Celtic *samani (‘assembly’), cognate to Sanskrit sámana, and Gothic samana. J. Vendryes concludes that samain is unrelated to *semo- (‘summer’), remarking that the Celtic ‘end of summer’ was in July, not November, as evidenced by Welsh gorffennaf (‘July’). We would therefore be dealing with an Insular Celtic word for ‘assembly’, *samani or *samoni, and a word for ‘summer’, saminos (from *samo-: ‘summer’) alongside samrad, *samo-roto-.

Neopaganism

Samhain and Samhain-based festivals are held by some Neopagans. As there are many kinds of Neopaganism, their Samhain celebrations can be very different despite the shared name. Some try to emulate the historic festival as much as possible. Other Neopagans base their celebrations on sundry unrelated sources, Gaelic culture being only one of the sources. Folklorist Jenny Butler describes how Irish pagans pick some elements of historic Samhain celebrations and meld them with references to the Celtic past, making a new festival of Samhain that is inimitably part of neo-pagan culture.

Wicca

Wiccans celebrate a variation of Samhain as one of the yearly Sabbats of the Wheel of the Year. It is deemed by most Wiccans to be the most important of the four “greater Sabbats”. Samhain is seen by some Wiccans as a time to celebrate the lives of those who have died, and it often involves paying respect to ancestors, family members, elders of the faith, friends, pets and other loved ones who have died. In some rituals the spirits of the dead are invited to attend the festivities. It is seen as a festival of darkness, which is balanced at the opposite point of the wheel by the spring festival of Beltane, which Wiccans celebrate as a festival of light and fertility.

Wiccans believe that at Samhain the veil between this world and the afterlife is at its thinnest point of the whole year, making it easier to communicate with those who have left this world.

The Lost Bearded White Brother

Russia

Witchcraft Trials

Although these two methods of torture were used in the west and the east, Russia implemented a system of fines payable for the crime of witchcraft during the seventeenth century. Thus, even though torture methods in Muscovy were on a similar level of harshness as Western European methods used, a more civil method was present. In the introduction of a collection of trial records pieced together by Russian scholar Nikolai Novombergsk, he argues that Muscovite authorities used the same degree of cruelty and harshness as Western European Catholic and Protestant countries in persecuting witches. By the mid-sixteenth century the manifestations of paganism, including witchcraft, and the black arts – astrology, fortune telling, and divination – became a serious concern to the Muscovite church and state.

Tsar Ivan IV (reigned 1547-1584) took this matter to the ecclesiastical court and was immediately advised that individuals practicing these forms of witchcraft should be excommunicated and given the death penalty. Ivan IV, as a true believer in witchcraft, was deeply convinced that sorcery accounted for the death of his wife, Anastasiia in 1560, which completely devastated and depressed him, leaving him heartbroken. Stemming from this belief, Ivan IV became majorly concerned with the threat of witchcraft harming his family, and feared he was in danger. So, during the Oprechnina (1565-1572), Ivan IV succeeded in accusing and charging a good number of boyars with witchcraft whom he did not wish to remain as nobles. Rulers after Ivan IV, specifically during the Time of Troubles (1598-1613), increased the fear of witchcraft among themselves and entire royal families, which then led to further preoccupation with the fear of prominent Muscovite witchcraft circles.

After the Time of Troubles, seventeenth-century Muscovite rulers held frequent investigations of witchcraft within their households, laying the ground, along with previous tsarist reforms, for widespread witchcraft trials throughout the Muscovite state. Between 1622 and 1700 ninety-one people were brought to trial in Muscovite courts for witchcraft. Although Russia did partake in the witch craze that swept across Western Europe, the Muscovite state did not persecute nearly as many people for witchcraft, let alone execute a number of individuals anywhere close to the number executed in the west during the witch hysteria.

The Lost Bearded White Brother

Russia

Witchcraft Trials

Witchcraft trials occurred frequently in seventeenth-century Russia, although the “great witch-hunt” is believed to be a predominately Western European phenomenon. However, as the witchcraft-trial craze swept across West European countries during this time, Orthodox Christian Eastern Europe indeed partook in this so-called “witch hysteria.” This involved the persecution of both males and females who were believed to be practicing paganism, herbology, the black art, or a form of sorcery within and/or outside their community. Very early on witchcraft legally fell under the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical body, the church, in Kievan Rus’ and Muscovite Russia. Sources of ecclesiastical witchcraft jurisdiction date back as early as the second half of the eleventh century, one being Vladimir the Great’s first edition of his State Statute or Ustav, another being multiple references in the Primary Chronicle beginning in 1024.

The sentence for an individual found guilty of witchcraft or sorcery during this time, and in previous centuries, typically included either burning at the stake or being tested with the “ordeal of cold water” or judicium aquae frigidae. The cold-water test was primarily a Western European phenomenon, but was used as a method of truth in Russia prior to, and post, seventeenth-century witchcraft trials in Muscovy. Accused persons who drowned were considered innocent, and ecclesiastical authorities would proclaim them “brought back,” but those who floated were considered guilty of practicing witchcraft, and burned at the stake or executed in an unholy fashion. The thirteenth-century bishop of Vladimir, Serapion Vladimirskii, preached sermons throughout the Muscovite countryside, and in one particular sermon revealed that burning was the usual punishment for witchcraft, but more often the cold water test was used as a precursor to execution.

The Lost Bearded White Brother

Russia

Societal View of Witchcraft

The dominant societal concern those practicing witchcraft was not whether paganism was effective, but whether it could cause harm. Peasants in Russian and Ukrainian societies often shunned witchcraft, unless they needed help against supernatural forces. Impotence, stomach pains, barrenness, hernias, abscesses, epileptic seizures, and convulsions were all attributed to evil (or witchcraft). This is reflected in linguistics; there are numerous words for a variety of practitioners of paganism-based healers. Russian peasants referred to a witch as a chernoknizhnik (a person who plied his trade with the aid of a black book), sheptun/sheptun’ia (a “whisperer” male or female), lekar/lekarka or znakhar/znakharka (a male or female healer), or zagovornik (an incanter).

Ironically enough, there was universal reliance on folk healers – but clients often turned them in if something went wrong. According to Russian historian Valerie A. Kivelson, witchcraft accusations were normally thrown at lower-class peasants, townspeople and Cossacks. People turned to witchcraft as a means to support themselves. The ratio of male to female accusations was 75% to 25%. Males were targeted more, because witchcraft was associated with societal deviation. Because single people with no settled home could not be taxed, males typically had more power than women in their dissent.

The Lost Bearded White Brother

Russia

The Russian word for witch, ved’ma literally means “one who knows”, from Old Slavic “to know”.

Spells

Pagan practices formed a part of Russian and Eastern Slavic culture; the Russian people were deeply superstitious. The witchcraft practiced consisted mostly of earth magic and herbology; it was not so significant which herbs were used in practices, but how these herbs were gathered. Ritual centered on harvest of the crops and the location of the sun was very important. One source, pagan author Judika Illes, tells that herbs picked on Midsummer’s Eve were believed to be most powerful, especially if gathered on Bald Mountain near Kiev during the witches’ annual revels celebration. Botanicals should be gathered, “During the seventeenth minute of the fourteenth hour, under a dark moon, in the thirteenth field, wearing a red dress, pick the twelfth flower on the right.”

Spells also served for midwifery, shape-shifting, keeping lovers faithful, and bridal customs. Spells dealing with midwifery and childbirth focused on the spiritual wellbeing of the baby. Shape-shifting spells involved invocation of the wolf as a spirit animal. To keep men faithful, lovers would cut a ribbon the length of his erect penis and soak it in his seminal emissions after sex while he was sleeping, then tie seven knots in it; keeping this talisman of knot magic ensured loyalty. Part of an ancient pagan marriage tradition involved the bride taking a ritual bath at a bathhouse before the ceremony. Her sweat would be wiped from her body using raw fish, and the fish would be cooked and fed to the groom.

Demonism, or black magic, was not prevalent. Persecution for witchcraft, mostly involved the practice of simple earth magic, founded on herbology, by solitary practitioners with a Christian influence. In one case investigators found a locked box containing something bundled in a kerchief and three paper packets, wrapped and tied, containing crushed grasses. Most rituals of witchcraft were very simple-one spell of divination consists of sitting alone outside meditating, asking the earth to show one’s fate.

While these customs were unique to Russian culture, they were not exclusive to this region. Russian pagan practices were often akin to paganism in other parts of the world. The Chinese concept of chi, a form of energy that often manipulated in witchcraft, is known as bioplasma in Russian practices. The western concept of an “evil eye” or a “hex” was translated to Russia as a “spoiler”. A spoiler was rooted in envy, jealousy and malice. Spoilers could be made by gathering bone from a cemetery, a knot of the target’s hair, burned wooden splinters and several herb Paris berries (which are very poisonous). Placing these items in sachet in the victim’s pillow completes a spoiler. The Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and the ancient Egyptians recognized the evil eye from as early as 3,000 BCE; in Russian practices it is seen as a sixteenth-century concept.

The Lost Bearded White Brother

Oceania

Cook Islands

In pre-Christian times, witchcraft was a common practice in the Cook Islands. The native name for a sorcerer was tangata purepure (a man who prays). The prayers offered by the ta’unga (priests) to the gods worshiped on national or tribal marae (temples) were termed karakia; those on minor occasions to the lesser gods were named pure. All these prayers were metrical, and were handed down from generation to generation with the utmost care. There were prayers for every such phase in life; for success in battle; for a change in wind (to overwhelm an adversary at sea, or that an intended voyage be propitious); that his crops may grow; to curse a thief; or wish ill-luck and death to his foes. Few men of middle age were without a number of these prayers or charms. The succession of a sorcerer was from father to son, or from uncle to nephew. So too of sorceresses: it would be from mother to daughter, or from aunt to niece. Sorcerers and sorceresses were often slain by relatives of their supposed victims.

Papua New Guinea

A local newspaper informed that more than 50 people were killed in two Highlands provinces of Papua New Guinea in 2008 for allegedly practicing witchcraft.

The Lost Bearded White Brother

Europe

Spain

Franciscan friars from New Spain introduced Diabolism, belief in the devil, to the indigenous people after their arrival in 1524. Bartolomé de las Casas believed that human sacrifice was not diabolic, in fact far off from it, and was a natural result of religious expression. Mexican Indians gladly took in the belief of Diabolism and still managed to keep their belief in creator-destroyer deities.

The Lost Bearded White Brother

Europe

The Church and European society were not always so zealous in hunting witches or blaming them for misfortunes. Saint Boniface declared in the 8th century that belief in the existence of witches was un-Christian. The emperor Charlemagne decreed that the burning of supposed witches was a pagan custom that would be punished by the death penalty. In 820 the Bishop of Lyon and others repudiated the belief that witches could make bad weather, fly in the night, and change their shape. This denial was accepted into Canon law until it was reversed in later centuries as the witch-hunt gained force. Other rulers such as King Coloman of Hungary declared that witch-hunts should cease because witches (more specifically, strigas) do not exist.

The Church did not invent the idea of witchcraft as a potentially harmful force whose practitioners should be put to death. This idea is commonplace in pre-Christian religions. According to the scholar Max Dashu, the concept of medieval witchcraft contained many of its elements even before the emergence of Christianity. These can be found in Bacchanalias, especially in the time when they were led by priestess Paculla Annia (188BC-186BC).

However, even at a later date, not all witches were assumed to be harmful practicers of the craft. In England, the provision of this curative magic was the job of a witch doctor, also known as a cunning man, white witch, or wise man. The term “witch doctor” was in use in England before it came to be associated with Africa. Toad doctors were also credited with the ability to undo evil witchcraft. (Other folk magicians had their own purviews. Girdle-measurers specialised in diagnosing ailments caused by fairies, while magical cures for more mundane ailments, such as burns or toothache, could be had from charmers.)

  • In the north of England, the superstition lingers to an almost inconceivable extent. Lancashire abounds with witch-doctors, a set of quacks, who pretend to cure diseases inflicted by the devil … The witch-doctor alluded to is better known by the name of the cunning man, and has a large practice in the counties of Lincoln and Nottingham.

Such “cunning-folk” did not refer to themselves as witches and objected to the accusation that they were such.

Powers typically attributed to European witches include turning food poisonous or inedible, flying on broomsticks or pitchforks, casting spells, cursing people, making livestock ill and crops fail, and creating fear and local chaos.

The Lost Bearded White Brother

Europe

In Early Modern European tradition, witches were stereotypically, though not exclusively, women. European pagan belief in witchcraft was associated with the goddess Diana and dismissed as “diabolical fantasies” by medieval Christian authors. Witch-hunts first appeared in large numbers in southern France and Switzerland during the 14th and 15th centuries. The peak years of witch-hunts in southwest Germany were from 1561 to 1670.

The familiar witch of folklore and popular superstition is a combination of numerous influences. The characterization of the witch as an evil magic user developed over time.

Early converts to Christianity looked to Christian clergy to work magic more effectively than the old methods under Roman paganism, and Christianity provided a methodology involving saints and relics, similar to the gods and amulets of the Pagan world. As Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe, its concern with magic lessened.

The Protestant Christian explanation for witchcraft, such as those typified in the confessions of the Pendle witches, commonly involves a diabolical pact or at least an appeal to the intervention of the spirits of evil. The witches or wizards engaged in such practices were alleged to reject Jesus and the sacraments; observe “the witches’ sabbath” (performing infernal rites that often parodied the Mass or other sacraments of the Church); pay Divine honour to the Prince of Darkness; and, in return, receive from him preternatural powers. It was a folkloric belief that a Devil’s Mark, like the brand on cattle, was placed upon a witch’s skin by the devil to signify that this pact had been made. Witches were most often characterized as women. Witches disrupted the societal institutions, and more specifically, marriage. It was believed that a witch often joined a pact with the devil to gain powers to deal with infertility, immense fear for her children’s well-being, or revenge against a lover. They were also depicted as lustful and perverted, and it was thought that they copulated with the devil at the Sabbath.

The Lost Bearded White Brother

Asia

Kuwait

MPs in Kuwait have proposed to use death penalty for sorcery. Ethiopians have been deported for practising sorcery.

Pakistan

In Pakistani mythology, a common perception of a witch is a being with her feet pointed backwards.

Philippines

Witchcraft in the Philippines is often classified as malevolent, with practitioners of black magic called Mangkukulam in Tagalog and Mambabarang in Cebuano; there are also practitioners of benevolent, white magic, with some practising both. Mambabarang in particular are noted for their ability to command insects and other invertebrates to accomplish a task, such as delivering a curse to a target.

Magic and witchcraft in the Philippines varies considerably across the different ethnic groups, and is commonly a modern manifestation of pre-Colonial spirituality interwoven with Catholic religious elements such as the invocation of saints and the use of pseudo-Latin prayers (oración) in spells, and anting-anting (amulets).

Practitioners of traditional herbal-based medicine and divination called albularyo are not considered witches. They are perceived to be either quack doctors or a quasi-magical option when western medicine fails to identify or cure an ailment that is thus suspected to be of malevolent, supernatural origin (often the work of black magic). Feng shui, an influence from Filipino Chinese culture, is also not classified as witchcraft, and it is seen as a separate realm of belief altogether.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia continues to use the death penalty for sorcery and witchcraft. In 2006 Fawza Falih Muhammad Ali was condemned to death for practicing witchcraft. There is no legal definition of sorcery in Saudi, but in 2007 an Egyptian pharmacist working there was accused, convicted, and executed. Saudi authorities also pronounced the death penalty on a Lebanese television presenter, Ali Hussain Sibat, while he was performing the hajj (Islamic pilgrimage) in the country.

In 2009 the Saudi authorities set up the Anti-Witchcraft Unit of their Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice police.

In April 2009, a Saudi woman Amina Bint Abdulhalim Nassar was arrested and later sentenced to death for practicing witchcraft and sorcery. In December 2011, she was beheaded. A Saudi man has been beheaded on charges of sorcery and witchcraft in June 2012. A beheading for sorcery occurred in 2014.

Tocharians

An expedition sent to what is now the Xinjiang region of western China by the PBS documentary series Nova found a fully clothed female Tocharian mummy wearing a black conical hat of the type now associated with witches in Europe in the storage area of a small local museum, indicative of an Indo-European priestess.

The Lost Bearded White Brother

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