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Saint Patrick’s Day: Celebrating the Myth, Not the Man

Saint Patrick’s Day is a festive day celebrating Irish heritage and culture and Irish-Diaspora around the world. It’s a day when everyone wants to be Irish and wears Irish green. Yet the holiday itself is named for an English Bishop who hated the Irish and did everything he could to destroy and undermine the same Irish culture and heritage most of us today celebrate in his name.

I am 1/8th Irish. As I became more and more interested in my Irish blood, Saint Patrick became of historical interest to me personally. Who-and what-are we celebrating? I’d heard the myths of course about Saint Patrick and serpents, but know from my science background that snakes were never indigenous to Ireland-they are absent from the fossil record and Common Era accounts (see ancient and medieval Irish texts on the subject at sacred-texts.com). So who-or what-were these serpents?

The aforementioned discussion on serpents in Irish culture and history makes that answer plain: it’s a reference to ancient Irish culture, to Irish clans, Irish religion, and Irish heritage. To drive the serpent out of Ireland actually, in its proper historical and cultural context, therefore means “to obliterate Irish culture, religion, and customs from Ireland.” This is hardly a new idea in world history; the Americans did the same thing to the Cherokee, Lakota, Iroquois, and countless other native peoples.

So then why would Saint Patrick, a man so tightly associated with Ireland, wish to, at least mythologically, destroy everything Irish? The answer comes from an examination of the historical person. Brigette de Silva’s paper, “Saint Patrick, the Irish Druids, and the Conversion of Pagan Ireland to Christianity” (strangehorizons.com), provides a fascinating glimpse into the man that lived-as best as we can redact from period sources.

Born and raised to his teenage years in England among the land-owning upper class and grandson to a priest, Patrick was not a religious man at all-until captured by Irish raiders and made a slave. His conversion to Christianity came out of his resentment towards his new life and his master. When he finally escaped from his master, he begged some traders to take him back to England. The traders refused him at first, but then agreed. However, it is unlikely they went to England. De Silva tells us the historical consensus is that he was taken to Gaul where he was either re-enslaved or made part of the group while they raided in Gaul. Regardless which way it happened, it is clear that Patrick was 26 by the time he returned to England to his family. At that time, he decided to return to Ireland to convert them to Christianity. Not long after his return, Patrick was appointed bishop of Ireland and began his work to convert the Irish to Christianity.

Myths on both sides depict Patrick as both more successful than he was and far more brutal. One story speaks of his returning to his former master to force him to convert. However, the story says, the local king recognized Patrick for the threat he presented and, per Irish custom, burned himself alive rather than be force-converted. Other stories credit Patrick with converting large numbers of Irish. Yet de Silva’s research shows none of these claims as historical. Bishop Patrick died in obscurity until others, at the end of the Christianization of Ireland, revised his history and created his mythos.

What we can say for certain is that Bishop Patrick was motivated far more by vengeance and disdain for the Irish in his missionary work in Ireland than we typically associate with Roman Catholic clergy. He is canonized as the Saint of Ireland, yet was a wealthy Englishman. And of course, that most of what we associate with Patrick is myth created decades and centuries later. Like his contemporary, King Arthur, Patrick remains more myth than man in our imaginations. Bishop Patrick was truly no saint and was, ultimately, one of the first missionaries driven by racist impulses.

From Resurrection Sunday to Easter: How Ancient German and Christian Celebrations Merged at Easter

Originally posted March 27th, 2012

 

From Resurrection Sunday to Easter: How Ancient German and Christian Celebrations Merged at Easter

Easter Sunday-for Christians around the world Easter is arguably the most important holiday in the Christian calendar. The message of Jesus’ act of self sacrifice by allowing himself to be crucified by the Romans as a zealous rebel to Roman authority, his preaching against the legalistic status quos of the time, and the literal or metaphorical resurrection of Jesus just days after his execution is all central to Christian belief. And yet American Christians refer to the commemorating festival associated with all of this by the name of the German goddess of spring and the dawn, Easter, also known as Ostara in High German.

Christians decorate eggs, hold sunrise services, wear new and typically pastel-colored clothing, decorate with spring flowers, and embrace Easter’s egg-laying messenger hare, all of which are part of how Germans have honored Easter/Ostara in the centuries and millennia before the Common Era. American Christians even use the German goddess’ name to refer to their holiday rather than referring to it by its proper nomer, Resurrection Sunday.

So how did this happen?

Diverse sources indicate that changes in the Church began in the 5th century Common Era (the same era as King Arthur in Britain and Bishop Patrick in England/Ireland) when Germanic tribes such as the Vandals, Visigoths, and others, in search of Roman prosperity, moved south and east into Roman lands, often seizing these territories from Roman control. The same Germanic warrior culture that produced the epic poem “Beowulf” infused these lands-just as previously the Germans and Celts had sought to adopt Roman culture and values in the centuries before. As Rome collapsed under these pressures, and the social pressures created by the oppressive policies of the elite over the vast majority of residents in the empire (seehttp://ancienthistory.about.com/cs/romefallarticles/a/fallofrome_2.htm for more on the 5th century Roman Empire), the Church found itself needing to change with the times. In “Christianizing the Germans, Militarizing the Church” athttp://atheism.about.com/b/2006/11/04/christianizing-the-germans-militarizing-the-church-book-notes-fighting-for-christendom.htm, Austin Cline explains how Christian leaders were forced to convey Christianity using native German values. Jesus became “The Lord of Victories,” and a “generous mead-giver.” Heaven was described as being similar to Valhalla, and so on. These are not terms that probably any of us have heard in modern churches, but those familiar with early English and German literature are certain to recognize the flavor of these declarations. Using these descriptions, Jesus ceases to be a part of his native Jewish culture and becomes a fellow German, someone members of each German tribe on either side of the Rhine could relate to.

But the process of Christianizing hardly came overnight. The German travel guide athttp://www.germany.co.za/christianisation.html details how slow and gradual this process was. Chlodwig (Clovis) of the Franks was the first German king baptized in 498 CE; his Catholic wife, princess Chrodechildis of Burgundy is believed to be largely behind his “conversion.” Later, in the 8th century CE, Karl der Grosse (Charlemagne) used Christianity as part of his visions of a united German empire. He first conquered Bavaria and Lombardy, and then attacked the Saxons of the north. In 800, Pope Leo III crowned him emperor, creating what became known was the Holy Roman Empire. Christianity was now the official religion of Karl’s empire.

In the three centuries between Chlodwig and Karl der Grosse, the Church adapted itself to native German culture, evolving and integrating German ideas and customs-just as the Church in Celtic societies needed to integrate Celtic culture. It is easy to see, in the light of this history, how the Church came to refer to its Resurrection Sunday by the name of the German goddess of spring. At first the German church, more likely than not, dovetailed Resurrection Sunday observances to the existing festivals for Ostara/Eastre celebrating spring, simply tacking on Christian elements to those services and rituals. This probably meant celebrating the festival when the Germans celebrated it-on or close to the vernal equinox. Later, as the Christian elements became more accepted, the celebration was moved to its “proper” date as required by the Council of Nicaea (325 CE): the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox (seehttp://catholicism.about.com/od/holydaysandholidays/f/Calculate_Date.htm), until finally the old references to Eastre/Ostara as a German goddess faded from memory. The two very distinct holidays and theologies became inseparable. Today, most Christians are fully unaware that most of observances for “Easter” they practice come from a far older German religious tradition. Easter/Ostara is evoked merely as the name of the holiday-without recognition for the goddess whose name is evoked each time.

Only recently have we come to recognize how these very different religious traditions merged. Christianity assimilated the Old Religion and, in true irony, therefore preserved it. Academic honesty requires us to recognize this history of religious joining and honor every choice-Christian or Old Religion-each individual makes for her/his own life. Likewise, it is my hope that Christians will honor the role that Jewish culture played in the early Christian church and strive to understand the beauty of Jewish society-independent of religious bias. Only by respectful learning of diverse cultures and traditions may we attain true harmony, respecting all and hating none for being different.

Honoring Ostara, Easter: Simple Ways to Honor the Goddess of Spring and the Dawn

Originally published March 20th, 2012, this is a practical guide to the spring equinox celebration of Ostara.

 

Honoring Ostara, Easter: Simple Ways to Honor the Goddess of Spring and the Dawn

 

Wicca is a predominately reconstructionist religion. That is, one of its aims is to redact the Old Religion practiced in pre-Christian Europe. One key way we do this is by recognizing the European cultural and religious traditions that were preserved-even if altered-through Roman Catholicism. A simple example of Old Religion traditions preserved by the Church and our culture at large include wearing costumes at Halloween, decorating with evergreens in December, and sunrise services for Resurrection Sunday (a better and more accurate name for “Easter,” the Christian version). These are all customs most people in the western world recognize; far fewer recognize their roots in pre-Christian European cultures.

No other holiday, besides Yuletide, has been preserved in regards to the old ways and the old stories as the holiday called Easter by Christians. The name Easter is a simple Anglicization of the Anglo-Saxon name “Ëostre,” the high German form being “Ostara.” As witchvox tells us (seehttp://www.witchvox.com/va/dt_va.html?a=usma&c=holidays&id=1991), both forms of this name reference the idea of “East” in Germanic languages (modern German, Osten-note the connection with the Ostara form of the name), the direction of the dawn. Ostara is both goddess of the vernal equinox and goddess of the dawn.

But beyond simply telling the story about Ostara and her magical egg bearing hare and the gifts of flowers she bestowed on the faithful, beyond all the ideas so commercialized and so taken over by Christianity, how can we, who wish to honor the Old Religion, do so as we welcome spring this year? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Greet the morning in which the equinox arrives by getting up at sunrise and watch the sun at dawn for some quiet time with nature.
  2. Meditate and pray for balance and harmony-for yourself, those around you, and the world. This is a good day to pray for divine help in preserving endangered species and reversing global warming. The optimal time for this: the five minutes leading up to and after the exact moment of planetary equinox when the planet is in “the moment between moments and hour between hours” as I pray every year as part of this prayer. Pray outside touching a tree or plant if you can.
  3. Bring in some colored flowers to your home and place in a spot where everyone will see them regularly.
  4. Wear pastel clothing on the day of the astronomical spring equinox
  5. Make and eat at least one colored boiled egg. Skip the commercial egg kits; a few drops of kitchen food coloring in boiling water with vinegar and extracted with a spoon is all you need!
  6. Spend at least thirty minutes outdoors communing with nature.
  7. Leave food offerings of thanksgiving for Ostara; the animals near you will be thankful!
  8. Plant a tree, herb, or shrub
  9. Drink a cup of lavender or lemon balm tea. Both herbs are associated with the holiday. Be sure you brew from culinary (aka English) lavender. If your preferred herb, spice, or tea retailer does not sell it, ask for it!
  10. Integrate marjoram, lemon balm, culinary lavender, thyme, and/or sunflower seeds into a special holiday meal.

For more information on Ostara/Easter please consult: http://www.pagannews.com/cgi-bin/sabbats1.pl?Ostara , http://www.witchvox.com/va/dt_va.html?a=usma&c=holidays&id=1991, and http://earthwitchery.com/ostara.html.

Purim Celebrations for Gentiles

Originally posted February 28th, 2012

 

Hamantaschen are delicious cookies traditionally eaten at Purim.

The Jewish Holiday of Purim is a festive, often raucous holiday filled with gaiety, great food, and parties. Yet for the gentile, this holiday is often a bit of a conundrum, even though many gentiles know the essential story behind Purim from the Biblical book of Esther.

Purim is a spring holiday, typically celebrated in March, celebrating Jewish survival in the face of genocide. The word Purim means “lots” and is a reference to the lots drawn by Persian courtier Haman to decide the date of Jewish annihilation. The story itself is told in full in the Biblical book of Esther, the name of a very brave Jewish young woman who, according to the story, was chosen as the new queen of King Ahasuerus (assumed to be Xerxes I of Persia) after his previous queen refused to come to a banquet thrown by Xerxes for several nobles. Queen Vashti’s refusal was probably understandable; the summons came while Xerxes was drunk. Regardless the historical details, if any, Esther’s ascent puts her in a rare position, able to influence the king in a time of crisis. After Haman tricks Xerxes into genocidal slaughter of all the Jews in his realm, Esther skillfully uses Xerxes interest in her to amend the new law-allowing Jews to defend themselves. It is her courage and intelligence (and the ultimate victory by the Jews made in self defense) that is celebrated at Purim-one woman who stopped genocide.

Orthodox Jews celebrate Purim with readings of the entire book of Esther in temple. During the readings, it is customary to shout or make noise whenever the name of Haman is read. Children dress up in costumes (making some describe it as a sort of Jewish Halloween). Adults drink-the much debated standard is “until they can no longer distinguish between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordecai,'” (http://www.myjewishlearning.com/holidays/Jewish_Holidays/Purim/At_Home/Meal/Drinking_on_Purim.shtml).

These are the parts of Purim that are more or less the real domain of Judaism. Yet it is the other half of Purim that I believe gentiles can robustly embrace and which I keep every spring as a gentile:

  • Charitable giving: giving to those who have less than you do. This part of Purim reminds us that no matter how hard life is or how much we may lack, there is ALWAYS someone who has even greater life challenges-economically and otherwise. Purim reminds us to “count our blessings.”
  • Giving food gifts: certain Jewish foods like hamentaschen cookies are traditional, but any food gift will work. This is related in part with charitable giving; there is always someone we know struggling to have enough to eat.
  • Feasting/enjoying a special Purim meal: this is a merry holiday–of course we celebrate with food.

Purim is more than simply a celebration honoring the courage of a Jewish heroine. The holiday has evolved into a time for charity, food, and humble thankfulness for the blessings each of us receive and too often take for granted. No matter your religious or cultural heritage, each of us can celebrate this very Jewish holiday and its spirit of helping others.

For more about Purim, please see http://www.meirpanim.org/page_e.php?name=Purim andhttp://purim.123holiday.net/purim_customes.html and http://www.myjewishlearning.com/holidays/Jewish_Holidays/Purim/At_Home/Foods.shtml.

 

 

A nice recipe for hamantaschen is at http://www.chabad.org/holidays/purim/article_cdo/aid/1366/jewish/Traditional-Hamantashen.htm

Medieval Beltane Music

All Wiccan holidays are based on the seasons.  That means that witches in the northern hemisphere celebrate the opposite season holidays as those in the southern hemisphere.

 

As European and American Wiccans prepare to celebrate Samhain, the last and final holiday in the Wiccan calender (the new year beginning on November 1st), let’s turn our thoughts to spring — and our southern neighbors — with this look at Beltane and Beltane music.

 

Medieval Beltane Music

It’s almost Beltane, also known as May Day, a day known for its flowers, picnics, and of course, the May Pole Dance.

Like many festivals, music is an essential part of worship, even though many, perhaps, do not process Beltane celebrations as a form of religious worship. Yet through the ages and into today, songs celebrating spring, the Beltane festival, and/or the coming of summer all bring us closer to nature and Beltane’s celebration of new life. Here are a few of my favorite period songs for celebrating this ancient festival:

“Sumer Is Icumen in”: a medieval four part round originally written in the 13th century in Middle English (see Middle English and modern lyrics athttp://www.pteratunes.org.uk/Music/Music/Lyrics/summerisicumenin.html), “Sumer Is Icumen In” is one of the oldest known songs celebrating the coming of summer (beginning May 1st in Celtic and Germanic cultures). Beautiful in both Middle and Modern English, this classic was one of the first medieval songs I ever learned to sing and remains a perennial favorite among re-enactors and neo-pagans alike. Don’t want to sing it or play it on the recorder? Two of the best recordings of it is by St. George’s Canzona from their album “Medieval Songs and Dances,” and, for a pop arrangement of this classic, check out the version by Jaiya from her album “Beltane: Songs for the Spring Time,” both available on itunes.

“Now is the Month of Maying”: written by Elizabethan Englishman Thomas Morley in the late 16th century, it remains one of the best known songs about Beltane. The King’s Singers have a lovely rendition of it on their album “Madrigal History Tour” that is true to its original madrigal/troubadour origins. For a very modern take on this classic, consider “The Month of Maying” by Jaiya, also from “Beltane: Songs for the Spring Time.”

“Tempus Adest Floridum” (the time is near for flowering): originally written in the 13thcentury, “Tempus Adest Floridum’s” tune became popularized in the 19th century when the Christmas Carol “Good King Wenceslas ” provided new lyrics to the then 600 year old tune. Find four verses in the original Latin at http://www.cyberhymnal.org/non/la/tempusade.htm and full translation at http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/f/l/flowcaro.htm. Enjoy a classical recording of the song on Jeremy Summerly’s album, “Let Voices Resound: Songs from Piae Cantiones,” available on Amazon.com.

 

For more information on Beltane and medieval/Renaissance music, please consult:http://www.pteratunes.org.uk/Music/Music/Composers.html,http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/festivals/may/beltane.html,http://paganwiccan.about.com/od/beltanemayday/p/Beltane_History.htm,http://londongirl.hubpages.com/hub/Bringing-in-the-May—the-history-and-culture-of-the-traditional-English-May-Day.

Home-Spun Coasters: The Perfect Homemade Gift

Originally posted January 25, 2012

 

I’m a medievalist. I love history. I love learning how to make things the way they were made before everything was pre-made for you and sold in stores. Before the industrial revolution, most people spun their own thread and yarn which they then knitted, crocheted, or, if the yarn is fine and smooth enough, strung into a hand loom and wove into cloth. Up until the 19th century, these methods were the dominate ways most people produced the textiles used in everyday life. Spinning wheels emerged in the Renaissance, but they were expensive and not portable. So the drop spindle, our method for yarn and thread production since humans started creating textiles, remained the tool of choice.

Spinning with a drop spindle takes some practice. I’m just a beginner, so I won’t explain how to spin. Instead, I discovered the perfect gift that blends these timeless techniques and applies them into a useful gift anyone can appreciate-all the more so because so much of the process is done by hand.

 

Materials You Will Need:

Approx 4-6 oz of wool roving spun into 1 skein of hand-spun yarn (any quality; avoid merino wool as this is a coarser project)

Food coloring & Vinegar (optional)

Medium size crochet needle

drop spindle

Step 1: spin the skein of thread.

Step 2: wind off the skein and secure with thread or yarn in figure 8 pattern

Step 3: In a medium sauce pan, boil 1-2 quarts of water. If a dyed yarn is desired, add food coloring. Use from 18-25 total drops of food coloring for a vibrant color. Think Easter egg dying and you have about the right amount. Add 2 to 3 tbsp of vinegar to the boiling water to set the dye.

Step 4: remove from heat. Add skein. With a fork or chopstick, beat skein vigorously in the pot for about 2 minutes. Drain. Refill pan with ice and tap water and beat vigorously. If you have added color to the yarn, rinse until dye no longer runs off.

Step 5: beat skein against wall; dry overnight on doorknob.

Step 6: Crochet using single and double crochet into a round coaster 4-5 inches in diameter.

Olive Garden’s Principato Wines Among the Best of the House Wines

May 11th, 2012

 

The Olive Garden is one of the best known chain restaurants for Italian food. Certainly the television advertisements make the food look spectacular. Indeed, I have always found the food at Olive Garden quite good.

One of the best items on the Olive Garden menu is not a food item at all-but their house wines, Principato. Offered as bianco (white), rosato (blush), and rosso (red), Principato wines are perhaps the best reason to dine at Olive Garden. Principato are offered at the reasonable prices of $5.75 for a 6 oz glass, $8.25 for a 9 oz quartino (served in a sake carafe), and $28.00 for an entire bottle .

By the ounce, a $28 bottle costs $1.10407 per ounce. By the 6 oz glass, you pay $0.958333 per ounce. But the best value is the quartino which costs just $0.91666 per ounce.

But saving money is not the best reason for you to order Principato when you dine at the Olive Garden. These are genuinely very high quality wines-which the servers allow you to sample before you commit to ordering. That service is above and beyond anything I have seen at any other restaurant. Principato wines are also milder than a lot of their counterparts, making them palatable to people who generally do not drink wine. The red lacks the overwhelming tannins I find with most cabernet sauvignon and merlot wines; it’s lighter and a little sweeter without going all the way to a semi-sweet. The white is also milder than your typical sauvignon blanc or chardonnay which I find can be a little overbearing at times, making the bianco very palatable. But it is the rosato, the blush that is the best of all of these. Light, fruity, and a little sweeter than your typical white wine, it is a wine for both those who are connoisseurs and those who typically do not like to drink wine. It is the perfect complement to pasta and seafood in particular, bringing out the delicate sauces and cheese better than any other wine I’ve consumed with either pasta or seafood.

Principato is not only a good value-it’s a truly great wine, worth dining at the Olive Garden for.