In Britain this is the darkest and coldest time of the year. Prior to electric lighting and heating our ancestors gathered to keep warm, feast, hold rites and tell stories. We keep these traditions alive and honour the deities of cold, darkness and death. Central is Epona's connection with the death and rebirth of the sun and the year
18th December: Eponalia Festival honouring the horse goddess Epona focusing on her role as psychopomp. 20th - 22nd December: Winter Solstice Festival celebrating the longest night and shortest day and the stillness and darkness of winter and the rebirth of the sun.
Eponalia - 18th December
Eponalia was celebrated on 18 December in the calendar of Roman Feast days. There is an inscription from Cis-alpine Gaul which counts back to this date from ‘New Year Calends’, seeming to suggest a sequence through the Midwinter period. One of the earliest observances developed by Brython was a placing of Eponalia in this context. Here is one such observance recorded as personal practice.
The Sun sits low in the sky and dips even lower as his year draws to an end. The pale light of day soon passes to night. The tide ebbs. Each flower, each tree, each head of grass and grain, has shrunk to back to kernel: to hard seed, to nut, to reserved essence, biding the time until the light grows again and roots find a way through nurturing soil.
For now, Epona traverses the paths of the dead, riding through the dark, through earth and sea, each life that has passed moving with her, finding the way that she opens for them, losing the memories she closes behind them. The Sun will return and a new year begin, but now is the time of repose.
Epona, we are with you in the time of waiting, we pause with you now in the dark of the year. We mark the time until the longest night when you stir the deepest well of the darkness like a river rising from the caverns of gloom. A candle is placed on the altar unlit, marking this time of darkness. It is a dark candle and when lit it will be scented and burn low and slowly. Another candle is placed there beside it, a large red candle for the rebirth of the Sun. This will be lit at the Solstice and burn through the longest night. Some holly and some ivy are also there.
Darkness falls on the ivy leaf
Yulelight glistens on the holly bough
As red fire stirs in the kindling.
We count three days to the longest night
Three more till the glimmer of a longer day
Then seven to the eve of New Year Calends
These days we count from the Feast of Epona First festival of the Year’s turning.
The candle for Epona is lit. The candle for the Sun awaits the Solstice.
Midwinter, unlike all of the other seasonal festivals was and still is, less of a singular time or event and more of a season of celebration. Within traditional polytheistic practices, a whole cluster of festivities are marked at this point and even with the much more secular Christmas festivities, the festive period stretches over the eponymous twelve days.
We can be certain that our prehistoric ancestors marked this time of year sufficiently for them to build some of their monuments so as to capture the midwinter solstice as part of their very function. We don’t know exactly what meaning this held, or if it held anything other than a secular turning of the tide of the year. Evidence from Neolithic settlements in Wiltshire associated with Stonehenge suggest that there was feasting in this midwinter period – particularly on young pigs. Beyond that textual and archaeological evidence is absent.
It isn’t really until much later, in the Iron-Age and Romano-British periods that we start to see evidence emerging of midwinter festivities, all clustering around the Christian-focused Christmas. The Roman festivities of Sol Invictus, had given birth to the placement Christmas and any other Pre-Christian practices or beliefs were evidently held on to or merged with this festival.
Midwinter Solstice The 21st of December or thereabouts, is the stand out date at this time of year within the modern calendar of paganisms and yet is the one date for which we know so little.All we can say was that our Neolithic ancestors built Stonehenge and various burial chambers to catch the sunlight at dawn or dusk on this day. We can surmise that it was somehow related to the dead, but in what way remains a mystery. Feasting took place at this time amongst our Neolithic ancestors, based on archaeological remains at Durrington Walls.
Generally we can look at this time of year as a pivot; a point where the swing of the seasons has reached an apex and begin to turn back towards the lighter half of the year. The days will soon begin to get perceptibly longer – funnily enough this become noticeable at about the 25th – and if this is something we want to mark, there is no reason not to do so in a way that is fitting.
Mother’s Night or Mōdraniht, was a festival marked on the 24th of December by Anglo-Saxon pagans as mentioned by Bede in the 8th Century. There are suggestion that this time of year was also marked by honouring female spirits – the Disir – who themselves may well be linked to spirits of the dead and the ancestors. Whilst this all derives from distinctly Germanic paganisms, it is worth bearing in mind that not only was there a lot of cultural overlap between the two group of people but that we also had the ‘Mothers’ here in Britain. We still have the faery folk known euphemistically in Wales as the ‘Mother’s Blessings’. In Britain we also have the triple formed, hooded Genii Cucullati which look suspiciously like the Matres and may be a British manifestation of these female Goddesses/spirits.
The long and short of this is that we have a good reason to use this date culturally as a time to honour the female ancestral dead and the household spirits, and so include them in our more physical household celebrations and gatherings.
December the 25th is so wrapped up with the Christian Feast of the birth of Christ that is difficult to escape. From a pagan point of view it seems to draw a lot on the Roman Saturnalia celebrations, and to a lesser extent in Britain from traditions from northern Europe. It is to many people a largely secular event with all of the traditional foods, trees, gift giving and drinking. Albeit focusing more on spending time with friends and family in a world where we more often than not no longer live in close proximity to our families. The journey home for Christmas has become as much a part of Christmas as anything else.
New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day
The end of the secular calendar year and transition into a new year might not seems like a source of midwinter traditions, but surprisingly there are many Welsh Folk Customs bound up with it. They run along two themes; new projects started on New Year’s Day will be bound to succeed and a multitude of omens portending doom and death. Not particularly cheery.
New Year is also another key time when the Wild Hunt is said to be abroad, in fact New Year lies squarely in the middle of its most ‘active’ time as it were. It is also a time when the Mari Llwyd is carried about from house to house.
There is a recurring notion that Samahin or All Hallow’s Eve represents some ‘Celtic New Year’. It is worth pointing out now that there is nothing at all to suggest this. It was an idea brought up on the somewhat shaky basis that ‘Celtic’ festivals were begun the night before the day itself. If we look at the whole year as a night and day (winter and summer) then in some sense Samhain represents the end of summer and so a kind of ‘night before’ of the year. We don’t really have any evidence to suggest that our ancestors had a notion of a ‘New Year’. However, the secular New Year’s Eve is so ingrained in our culture it is as good a time as any to mark the change from one year to another.
Midwinter offers a wealth of opportunities to gather with friends and family and celebrate; celebrate the Hose Goddess, the Good Mothers who dwell in our homes, the New Year or the Wild Hunt. Regardless of the precise whys, its entirely possible that our ancestors sought the darkest and most idle port of the year to throw the biggest celebrations perhaps merely for the reason of having something to look forward to doing before the Spring comes around again. Our lives may not be so idle – far from it – but we already have strongly ingrained sense of spending this time of year with the people important to us. So whatever you choose to mark – may it be peaceful, may it be joyous and may the New Year bring you prosperity, happiness and a more satisfying year than 2016.
On the First Day of Christmas, the Dead brought back to me.. by Lee
The Twelve Days of Christmas; thronged with birds, rings and courtesans as gifts. It’s what we remember, it is what we recall when we see those five words. We don’t think about the dead. We don’t think about wilderness imitations. We don’t think about the hot blood of a sacrificed dog and we certainly don’t think about the spirits of the dead riding the minds and bodies of the living to come back amongst us and bring wealth and fertility to the landscape we call home. We don’t think of these things, but we should. At the core of the stories of the Wild Hunt and the Furious Hosts sits a bone of truth. A slither of white matter which holds onto the reality of these myths.
The Koryos was a ubiquitous institution, in one form or another, across the Proto-Indo-European and (PIE) Indo-European (IE) cultures. Young men were sent out from their settlements to live wild in the spaces beyond the walls. There they lived in groups – the Koryos – where they learnt to fight and hunt, and were immersed in the mythic and religious culture of their people. They raided other settlements, rustled cattle and acted in some ways as a mobile fighting force for their people. Their exploits survived into the myths we still tell from India to Ireland. What we can say about them is that they were initiated into these war bands in winter, particularly Midwinter. From archaeological evidence found in Russia, and from mythic sources, we can also surmise fairly safely that the sacrifice of hounds and other canines formed part of those initiation rituals. In fact, the men of the Koryos were strongly associated with wolves and hounds; if not in a totemic manner then as part of shape-shifting warfare practices.
What concerns us here is the original practice of the ritual return of the Koryos to the settlements and places of the living; masked, draped in skins or with painted bodies. They would not only embody the dead but literally and in actuality, to those people, become the dead.
The Koryos itself is an extinct institution, and yet it has survived in the various Hunt and Host traditions, in the mumming and the guising that goes on at this time of year all over Europe. Monsters and spirits come to ‘terrorise’ the living, who need to be propitiated with food and drink. In all these cases, it usually ‘luck’ or general ‘blessings’ that are bestowed upon those households who hand over some beer or sweets, this recompense is a watered down version of what was originally considered to be bestowed on the people who welcomed back the dead. The dead have always been seen as being the bearers of fertility and prosperity; this is something which stretches way beyond the Indo-European and reaches right back to cultures still vibrant in Africa and amongst those peoples who retain traditions they took with them when their oldest ancestors left for the east. This may well be a trait that formed the basis of some of humanity’s earliest religious beliefs.
At the head of these parades is its leader; in Britain it could be a God; Gwyn ap Nudd or Arawn, or perhaps a legendary king such as Arthur. In the Mari Llwyd traditions in Wales we might also be seeing some other form of this tradition in which it is the horse who has survived as the leader. What we are looking at here is a time when the land has reached its nadir; it is at its darkest, it’s deadest. It may yet get colder, but in that cold we will start to see the first shoots of life awakening. The days are beginning to lengthen; almost imperceptibly, by seconds and soon minutes each day. It is the end of one year and soon to be the beginning of the next. The hosts will ride out and gather the souls of the lost dead and take them onwards, in doing so they offer twelve days of madness, fear and anxiety. It is a period of chaos during which the world in unmade, all that we know is turned on its head as the Dead are abroad and the living hidden inside. The world is cleansed and prepared for the spring and made ready for the swing into a new string of seasons and period of growth. We can look at this as our Lupercalia – the Roman festival of similar purpose than stems from the same wolf-man war bands.
So are we to mark this? And if so, how?
If nothing else, this is a time to remember our dead. It seems out of place, accustomed as we are to doing so at the end of October. But this is the time more than any other when we set aside time to feast and make merry with our most beloved living – it isn’t much of a stretch to also include those who have died. And as we feast with the loved and living, we can set some aside for the loved and gone. We can offer up hymns to the Koryonnos; the God of the hunt; Gwyn, Arawn or the name we know him by. This is a time outside of the usual, an unmade time. It is a time to work magic, a time to capture the essence of those things beyond the edge of the civil and engage with the wild. It is a time to work with fertility and prosperity; to prepare the ground. If we have gathered to ourselves the seeds of summer’s harvest, now it a time to ready the soil.
On the First Day of Christmas, the Dead brought back to me; blessings and prosperity. On the second Day of Christmas, I offered them love and gratitude.
Gwyn's Hunt by Lorna
Within Neo-Paganism Gwyn ap Nudd is generally understood to be a leader of ‘the Wild Hunt’. Before Jacob Grimm developed ‘the Wild Hunt’ as a concept applied to various otherworldly hunts across Europe in his Deutsch Mythologie (1835), they were known by individual names often referring to their leaders such as ‘Woden’s Hunt’, ‘Household of Harlequin’, and ‘Herla’s Assembly’. This essay will focus on the Brythonic tradition of ‘Gwyn’s Hunt’.
The earliest literary reference to Gwyn as a hunter comes from Culhwch and Olwen (1090) where it is stated, ‘Twrch Trwyth will not be hunted until Gwyn son of Nudd is found.’ This suggests Gwyn was the leader of the hunt for Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’, prior to Arthur. According to the text, which was penned by Christian scribes, Twrch Trwyth was a king changed into a swine by God ‘for his sins’. This overlay conceals a pagan tradition wherein the ‘boar’ was a human shapeshifter. Gwyn’s hunt was for a man: a shapeshifting human soul.
The following lines, ‘God has put the fury of the devils of Annwn in him, lest the world be destroyed. He will not be spared from there’ form another Christian overlay obscuring Gwyn’s role as a protector and ruler of Annwn containing furious spirits including the fay and the dead within his realm and person. The comb, razor, and shears Twrch Trwyth mysteriously carries between his ears may have been grave goods, suggesting he is a restless soul Gwyn hunts down into the ocean (symbolic of Annwn ‘the Deep’) on a cyclical basis to lay to rest.
In later folklore Gwyn is depicted hunting for souls with the Cwn Annwn, ‘Hounds of the Otherworld’, who are also known as Cwn Wybyr, ‘Hounds of the Sky’, and Cwn Cyrff, ‘Corpse Dogs’. These include Dormach, ‘Death’s Door’, Gwyn’s fair red-nosed hunting dog. To hear or see the Cwn Annwn is a portent of death. This belief may be rooted in earlier traditions where wolves and dogs along with carrion birds (Gwyn is also associated with ravens who ‘croak over blood’) devoured the corpses of the dead before Gwyn gathered their souls.
A fascinating legend surrounds the minstrel Ned Pugh or Iolo ap Huw who disappeared into the cave of Tag y Clegyr playing ‘Ffarwel Ned Pugh’, ‘Ned Pugh’s Farewell’: ‘To leave my dear girl, my country, and friends, and roam o’er the ocean, where toil never ends; to mount the high yards, when the whistle shall sound, Amidst the wild winds as they bluster around!’ Exchanging ‘his fiddle for a bugle’ the minstrel became Gwyn’s huntsman-in-chief and can be found ‘cheering Cwn Annwn over Cader Idris’ every Nos Galan Gaeaf.
Cadair Idris and Eagle Crag (drawn by G. Pickering and engraved by Edward Finden, 19th C)
There are numerous instances where Gwyn (by this name or as a spectral or demon huntsman or fairy king), sometimes with his hunt and sometimes alone, also carries off the souls of the living. On Nos Galan Gaeaf, Gwyn wins back his beloved, Creiddylad, from Gwythyr and takes her to Annwn. Creiddylad’s descent with Gwyn to the underworld explains the coming of winter. Later tales of abduction may have some basis in this old seasonal myth.
Here, on the borders of Lancashire and Yorkshire, there is a story featuring Sybil, the Lady of Bearnshaw Tower, who spends an unseemly amount of time on the hills and moors chasing wild swans whose hound-like calls remind her of ‘wild hunters and the spectral horseman’. She is swept from the dizzy heights of Eagle Crag overlooking Cliviger Gorge by a ‘demon’: ‘Immediately she felt as though she were sweeping through the trackless air... she thought the whole world lay at her feet, and the kingdoms of the earth moved on like a mighty pageant. Then did the vision change. Objects began to waver and grow dim, as if passing through a mist; and she found herself again upon that lonely crag, and her conductor at her side.’ Gwyn ap Nudd, ‘White son of Mist’, goes ‘between sky and air’ and moves ar wybir ‘through the clouds’. I believe Gwyn is ‘the spectral horseman’ and Sybil’s demonic ‘conductor’.
Sybil’s ability to shapeshift may have been learnt from Gwyn: a god of transformation. In deer-form she is hunted down by a human huntsman called William Towneley and forced to marry him. Her failed attempt to escape in cat-form leads to her death and burial at Eagle’s Crag where she was captured; her ghost and William’s can be seen there every Nos Galan Gaeaf.
The Cliviger area is also haunted by Gabriel Ratchets, corpse hounds who may be an Anglicised variant of the Cwn Annwn. In his poem, ‘Gabriel Ratchets’, which is based on Sybil’s story, Philip Hamerton opens: ‘Wild huntsmen? ‘Twas a flight of swans / But how invisibly they flew.’
Gwyn and his hunt are associated with soul flight and ecstasis. Ecstatic experiences with otherworldly beings were frowned upon by the Christian church and twisted into stories of abduction by a demon huntsman or fairy king who was confronted by knights and heroes who won those ‘poor souls’ back (whether they wanted to return or not...). When I accepted Gwyn’s challenge to ride with him to the Otherworld and offered my soul into his care he showed me parts of Lancashire where people lived in lake villages and walked on wooden trackways then glaciers creeping across the landscape with blizzard winds.
This has led me to believe Gwyn was worshiped as a god of hunting and the transitions of the souls of the dead and living between worlds by this land’s earliest inhabitants after the Ice Age. Yuri Leitch identifies Gwyn with the constellation of Orion and Dormach with Canis Major (Sirius, the dog star is Dormach’s red nose). Gwyn is our ancient British Hunter in the Skies who rises from Annwn on Nos Galan Gaeaf and presides over the dark months of winter. Nos Galan Gaeaf is an ysbrydnos ‘spirit night’ when Gwyn’s Hunt rides and the borders between thisworld and Annwn, life and death, and the laws that govern time and space break down. It is a time of migrating swans and geese and transitions of souls. It is a time of deep magic.
I’ll end with a passage from Sian Hayton’s ‘The Story of Kigva’ because it evokes for me so beautifully the experience of flying with Gwyn:
‘She felt a hand on her arm... steady, comforting her in her despair. The strongest one of all was there, as he had been in the forest and he promised, silently, that he would stay with her for the rest of her vigil. With tears she thanked him and felt herself gathered up in his arms. Together, from then on, they wandered the universe. He showed her things which only he knew. With him she touched the cold, hard moon and walked on the black rind of the sky. She found the stars felt like the taste of blaeberries and the north wind was truly a great river whose source was the mountains of the sun. He gave her jewelled collars and crowns and broke open an oak-tree so that she could feast on the honey. There was no one equal to him.’