RITES AND RITUALS, CUSTOMS AND OBSERVANCESAdded: 08 June 2017
The actual day of a birthday is believed to have a bearing on the characteristics and prospects of a person, because of the astrological sign and numerology associated with it. The phrase “Many Happy Returns,” refers to the return of the Sun into the planetary house it occupied on the original day of birth.
Certain ages are marked with some sort of rite of passage, although some of these “special” birthdays tend to be a moveable feast and can vary in different places. For example, in the West the twenty-first birthday used to signify the “age of majority” or adulthood; this has since been changed to eighteen. In many Asian countries, the fourteenth birthday is the day on which the child symbolically becomes an adult. This logically ties in with puberty.
In the West, people optimistically suppose that “life begins at forty,” whereas in Japan the fortieth birthday is called shoro, meaning “the beginning of old age,” since this was the age that Confucius ceased his traveling. However, the Japanese forty-year-old need not be filled with gloom for long; he can look forward to his sixty-first birthday, called kanreki, marking the completion of a sixtyyear cycle. Therefore the lucky 61-year-old Japanese birthday boy or girl wears a red kimono and matching hat and is “new born” on this day.
To understand the true meaning of the festival we now call Christmas we need to delve back into the mists of antiquity.
Once, December 25 was the day on which people celebrated the birthday of the Phrygian Sun God, Attis. He was venerated far and wide, and was said to have been born in the country that is now Turkey. However, Attis was superceded by another God, with an uncannily familiar life story. This new God was born on the same day as Attis, in impoverished circumstances, to a virgin mother. He died, and was subsequently resurrected. The tenets of his faith included the notion of a brotherhood of man and the promise of eternal life in return for adherence to a pure moral code. This faith proved very popular among Roman soldiers, who spread the word even further into Europe during the course of their campaigns.
So, this new God must have been Christ? Wrong. It was Mithras.
In Mithraism, December 25 was called Dies Natali Invicti Solis, “The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.” It seems as though the need to inject a little brightness and cheer into the darkest time of the year, when the wheel of time carries us through the winter solstice, is symbolically more important than any of the divine beings that have successively blown out their birthday cake candles at this time. The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun is really the aptest description for what has come to be known as Christmas. Despite meaning “Christ’s Mass,” this holiday is celebrated all over the world whether people are Christian or not. December 25 is for most the zenith of the festivities, although the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar has resulted in a 14-day anomaly, and for some January 6 is the “true” Christmas.
Prior to Christianity the Anglo-Saxons called this generic midwinter festival geol, the precursor to Yule, a name still used by those who might wish to distance themselves, or the festival, from any Christian connotations. Some of the customs of geol still prevail, most notably the Yule Log. Although its appearance these days is more likely to be a log-shaped cake covered in plastic holly and lopsided robins, the original was more imposing. It was a gargantuan chunk of a tree, which had to be found rather than chopped down. This tree was then dragged to the largest fireplace in the area where it burned for the duration of the festivities, a symbol of light and heat in the darkness and a welcome reminder of the Sun. The Yule candle signified the same thing. Like the log, the bumper size of the candle was important because it needed to burn for a long time. Christian churches adopted this tradition, too, using giant candles that towered over the congregation as a symbol of spiritual illumination. Today, the largesse of this mammoth torch has shrunk down into the Advent candle, marked into 24 neat segments that burn politely from December 1 onward.
As well as emulating earlier Anglo-Saxon traditions, Christmas revelries owe a great debt to the Roman festival of the Saturnalia. This was the time that Saturn, the God of Time, was loosened from his shackles, gifts were exchanged, and the world turned upside down as servants and masters swapped places, a quaint custom adopted as the Lords of Misrule. Saturn effectively reappears again in the starring role of Father Christmas, benevolent dispenser of gifts to all and sundry but to children in particular. He pops up again at New Year as Old Father Time, looking old, care-worn and surprisingly skinny despite the excess of mince pies and sherry, dressed in sackcloth and carrying a sickle.
The enthusiasm for Christmas celebrations waned from the period of the Reformation, due in no small part to the puritanical Church authorities frowning on their excesses as being “papist.” Christmas was actually banned in England in 1647, and though there were areas of defiance, the celebrations dwindled. Hard to imagine now, but by the early nineteenth century there was a very real possibility that the festivities might be forgotten entirely. However, they were revived by Charles Dickens, whose story A Christmas Carol is still considered by many to be the very epitome of the Christmas message; a concentration on goodwill to all men, a time for families, and generosity of spirit. Despite a general (although sometimes uneasy) tolerance toward the liberal sprinkling of pagan practices that encrust what’s loosely accepted as the birthday of Jesus, many churches have managed to overlay the heathen symbolism of the festival with Christian values, no mean feat considering they hijacked the heathen celebrations in the first place. The practice of bringing greenery into the house is a good example. The holly tree not only provides a home to nature spirits, but its prickly leaves are also phallic symbols of fertility. However, holly also symbolizes the crown of thorns worn by Christ at his crucifixion; the red berries, his blood. A cup made of ivy is said to prevent drunkenness, hence its association with Bacchus, an influential deity during the gluttony and largesse of the Saturnalia, but these links seem largely to be overlooked by the Church. Mistletoe, however, with its overt sexual symbolism (the berries look like semen and of course it’s traditional to kiss underneath hanging sprigs of the plant) has pagan roots so powerful that it still manages to resist Christianization, and so is still banned in many churches. The Christmas tree itself originated in mainland Europe, a way of venerating the spirit of the World Tree by bringing it into the home and decorating it. Although German enclaves in the UK already had their decorated trees, when Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, brought one into the Royal household then the custom really took off. Purist Christians excuse the tree by turning it into a symbol of the Cross, or “tree,” that Christ died upon.
Sharing food is an important focus of the Christmas celebrations. What’s on offer for dinner alters according to the dictates of fashion and availability, but meat tends to figure prominently on the menu. The early mince pie contained meat, unlike today’s mixture of vine fruits and spices, and they were shaped like the manger that Christ was laid in, sometimes with a pastry baby on the top. The traditional cannonballshaped Christmas pudding, however, is a relatively recent tradition, adapted in the seventeenth century from a thick plum porridge. The pudding, traditionally, should be made from thirteen ingredients, one for each of the apostles and one for Jesus. The practice of putting charms and trinkets into the Christmas pudding might be dying out, but the charms that people tried not to break their teeth on used to have a specific symbolism of their own. These traditional bibelots included a boot, a bell, the thimble, a ring, a wishbone, button and horseshoe, as well as the silver sixpence. The boot signified travel, the thimble a happy but single life, and the ring, marriage.
Although people may never again aspire to the immensely elaborate funeral preparations of the Ancient Egyptians, whose obsession with the idea of the Afterlife informed much of their culture, the disposal of the body of a dead person is, nevertheless, an important rite of passage. Arguably, any funeral preparations and rituals are carried out as much to comfort the living than as a guaranteed assurance of any great certainty about anything that might follow.
Ultimately, the body is the symbol of the person that remains behind after the spark of life has left it. As such, the ritual of its disposal is an important part of human life, a sign of respect for the body, effectively the grail that contains our spirit. These rituals tell us a lot about the philosophies of the people that take part in them.
Thinking about what must follow the physical death of the body has preoccupied us since the dawn of time, a longing for something “else” that caused Paleolithic people to daub their corpses in red ocher in the fervent hopes that the color alone, the same as the life-giving blood, would somehow restore life or bring back the soul. Famously, the Egyptians buried their dead with everything they might need in the next life; who can say that they were deluded? People who subscribe to the idea of former lives often seem to have enjoyed an episode as an Ancient Egyptian.
Opinions about what happens after death differ widely. Cultural and religious ideals don’t give any answers either, since the tenets of any single faith can exist on different levels according to the sensibilities of the individual. A fundamentalist Christian, for example, might believe in a Heaven that belongs to a virtuous soul and is “up there,” and a Hell belonging to the lower regions that an “evil” one will be dispatched to. However, such a simplistic idea leads to profound metaphysical problems as to the nature of good and evil in a faith system in which a fundamentally benevolent deity is believed to have created everything in the first place. It’s also interesting to note that reincarnation of some sort was the generally accepted belief in most countries of the world prior to the coming of Christianity, whose idea of a punishment/reward system could be used as a political tool. But what of the rites that accompany death? The way that bodies are disposed of often has an underlying practical nature that has as much to do with topography and climate as any deeper meaning. Burial, possibly one of the most popular forms, dates back 200,000 years and remains of burial mounds appear all over the world. Cremation, or disposal by flames, is the preferred method in India and Japan. Some burial methods prefer to preserve the corpse for as long as possible, using elaborate and highly secure coffins, whereas others, such as those of orthodox Jews and Muslims, prefer that the process of decomposition happens as quickly as possible, the body being wrapped in a simple shroud. In common with the Ancient Egyptians, some bodies are buried alongside possessions that the owner enjoyed in real life, and as archeological finds these objects have given us a great deal of insight into the lifestyles and interests of our ancestors. However, what future archeologists might make of such eccentric burials as that of Mad Jack Fuller, buried in a 25-foot-high pyramid in the grounds of the village church in Brightling, Sussex, is anybody’s guess. Jack is allegedly clothed in full evening dress, seated at a table with a roast chicken and a bottle of claret, the floor around him covered in shards of broken glass to stop evil spirits stealing his dinner.
The positioning of Jack’s corpse might be unconventional, but most Christian burials see the corpse flat on its back, arms crossed over the chest, oriented east-west to emulate the layout of a church. Muslims are buried with the face turned towards Mecca, and in some ancient cultures warriors were buried upright, presumably to show their readiness to do battle, even in death. Suicides were sometimes buried upside down, as a continuance of punishment; perhaps losing the mortal soul was not considered pain enough. A further punishment for society’s deceased miscreants was to be buried in unconsecrated ground, itself symbolic of being outside conventional society that somehow made the soul vulnerable, since the body was laid to rest outside the safe confines of Churchapproved earth. The corpses of souls that might be prone to restive activity in the Afterlife were buried at crossroads, to confuse them.
Arguably one of the most exotic and dramatic ways of disposing of a body is in the ritual of the sky burial. Believed to have been practiced initially by the Zoroastrians and once common in Tibet, here the corpse is left to the elements, often on high places such as specially constructed buildings called Towers of Silence. Sometimes, the corpse is carefully dismembered and thrown to the vultures, considered birds of rebirth. The body here is thought to be simply an empty vessel, nothing to do with the soul that has departed. The custom of the sky burial is itself dying, though, because of the vast expense of the ritual.
One of the universal rituals that follow a funeral, no matter what faith or culture, is for the living to enjoy some sort of feast afterwards. This is not only a celebration of life, but harks back to the ancient practice of sin-eating. This is where the transgressions of the departed person are “eaten” by the guests at the funeral, thereby allowing the soul to rise, unencumbered, to Heaven. In fact, as recently as the nineteenth century there were still “professional” sin-eaters in the UK, likely to be an impoverished and starving person, who would eat the bread and ale passed to him over the corpse, and accept a coin. These actions symbolically transferred the sins of the dead person to the sin-eater. The idea of death in general, rather than of human death in particular, is celebrated in different ways around the world. The old Celtic festival of Samhuin, which falls at the end of October when the new Moon is closest to Earth and therefore the veil between the worlds is perceived to be at its thinnest, is these days more popularly celebrated as Halloween, and tallies with Walpurgisnacht in Northern Europe. The Mexican Day of the Dead, held at the same time of the year, is one of the more colorful expressions of death, with gaudy skeletons cavorting in the streets, death-head candies, music, and dancing, and a great deal of revelry.
Although Easter is one of the most significant festivals in the Christian calendar, more often than not the religious side is overlooked in favor of a more secular celebration. Moreover, some of the symbols of Easter are distinctly at odds with one another. How does a chocolate bunny, for example, have anything to do with the resurrection of Christ? The fact is that the Easter celebrations are an interesting amalgamation of the old pagan celebration of spring and fertility, the Passover, and the death and subsequent resurrection of Christ.
Most countries in the world that follow Christian traditions use a word for Easter that is based on the same word as for the Passover, Pesach, from the Paschal Lamb that was sacrificed at this time; only in Britain, Germany, and in some of the Slavic territories is this not the case. It’s possible the Last Supper that Christ shared with his disciples was in fact a Passover meal. The Paschal Lamb, with its halo and banner, is also symbolic of Jesus Christ, who like the lamb was sacrificed to the greater good. Lambs, of course, are first seen gamboling around the fields in the spring, so no symbolic anomalies there.
The timing of Easter varies from year to year. Easter Sunday, the main focus of the event that celebrates the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ, falls on the first Sunday after the full Moon following the vernal equinox on March 21. And so Easter can either be “late” or “early,” and the date can vary anytime between March 22 and April 25. Eostre, or Ostara, was a pagan Goddess of spring and fertility, celebrated around the time of the spring equinox. Because rebirth is a recurrent motif in many pagan religions, the death and resurrection of Christ slotted nicely into an already-existing theme. Eostre is the root of the word estrogen, the female hormone, and the egg, as a powerful symbol of potential new life, is celebrated at Easter in the chocolate eggs given to children. The Easter celebrations take place over three days, the first of which is Good Friday. Preceding Easter is Lent, a forty-day period of abstinence and fasting. After such abstinence, chocolate eggs are a welcome reward.
The Bible, the Qu’ran, the Upanishads, and the Mahabharata all advocate fasting, and indeed, most faiths embrace the ritual as part of a spiritual discipline. This is possibly due, in no small part, to the fact that not eating can induce hallucinations and a feeling of lightheadedness akin to religious ecstasy. Fasting, too, is a shamanic practice, undertaken to help initiates communicate with the spirit realms. Some people claim that fasting is as good for the body as it is for the spirit and advocate an annual “detox” that may have perceived spiritual benefits. It may be that our ancestors also felt that giving the body a rest from heavy foods was beneficial.
The strictures regarding what does and does not constitute a fast are, to pardon the pun, something of a moveable feast. For example, some Roman Catholics might say that fasting involves refusing everything except water; others will see it as abstinence from meat, or they might eat just one solid meal per day. Eating fish rather than meat on Fridays is a fast. There’s a very rigorous form of fasting peculiar to the Catholic Church, called a Black Fast. This entails eating just one small meal a day and abstaining from all animal products, including dairy. However, this severe form of fasting could also be used by less scrupulous people as a spell to curse enemies. One Mabel Brigge was even executed in 1538 for “performing” a Black Fast against Henry VIII and the Duke of Norfolk, which signals the power of such a seemingly simple action that can have devastating consequences; refusing to eat.
Halloween is the abbreviated term for All Hallows Eve, the day before All Saints Day. This was the Church’s attempt to associate their own saints with the time of the pagan spirits. Today it is personified by the image of the witch, abroad at night on her broomstick with her black cat perched alongside. Witches can also make boats from undamaged eggshell halves, apparently, and so are sometimes seen abroad on the seas using this unusual method of transport.
Every country around the world celebrates its dead in some way. Halloween is one of these celebrations. Effectively it’s a Christian hijacking of the older Samhuin festival, one of the festivals that form the eight-spoked Wheel of the Year in the pre-Christian Celtic world, the cross-quarter day that marked the feast of the dead. A night of the living dead is celebrated in all parts of the world at about the same time, a symbol of the end of the harvest, the “closing down” of the year, and a time of death. It was the traditional time when the animals were brought in for the winter, and so it seemed appropriate to welcome the dead back, too. Bonfires were lit at this time in order to guide the dead back to the world of the living, and bells were rung.
This is the time of year when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is at its thinnest, the ancestors are honored and their spirits are believed to be able to communicate with the living more easily now than at any other time. Divination, in the form of necromancy, séances, etc. is likely to be more effective now than at any other time too. There are certain rituals that guarantee entry into the other world. One of these is to find a tumulus or similar place that has fairy associations, and run nine times around it.
A kiss can be a symbol of erotic love, or a symbol of union. The Romans defined three different types of kiss: the osculum, or the kiss on the cheek; the basium, or kiss on the lips; and the suavium, the deep involved kiss, or colloquially the “snog,” of lovers. To kiss someone means to mingle not only saliva but also breath, which itself is akin to the spirit of life. It’s no coincidence that immediately after the marriage vows are taken, the celebrant tells the bride and groom that they can kiss. The mingling of their breath symbolizes the fact that the couple breathe the same air, a sign of the union of their marriage in a physical and spiritual sense.
Kissing the ground is a sign of affection toward, and union with, a territory. In Christian services, the Kiss of Peace is a sign of recognition that might take the form of a kiss or a handshake. Kissing the feet is a sign of respect and obeisance.
Kisses can be used as a symbol of greeting, or alternatively used to say goodbye. Kissing a religious icon shows loyalty and respect; kisses are also used for good luck, for example, the gambler who might kiss the dice before throwing them.
In the Bible, the kiss that Judas gives Christ is a sign of betrayal, immortalized as the Judas Kiss. The kiss of death means the final blow, an action that can destroy something or bring it to the end. In the Harry Potter books, this is the name given to the terrible spell cast by the Dementors, who kill their victims by sucking their souls out of their mouths. The kiss of the Mafia, sinisterly, means death, and the kiss of the Devil means eternal damnation.
Marriage, in the greater scheme of things and particularly in alchemy, can represent the union of two opposing principles, primarily those of male and female. For Christians, the marriage of a man and a woman also symbolizes the union of the believer with the Church.
This idea, that a marriage can signify the union of a human being with his or her God, is extant in many different cultures. The Catholic nun is called a “Bride of Christ.” In the ancient cultures of Greece, India, and the Orient, temples were dedicated to the practice of sacred prostitution, part of an antique fertility ritual wherein sexual intercourse, a “sacred marriage,” was practiced for a religious purpose. In Hebrew, the word for “harlot” originally meant the same as “shrine prostitute,” effectively, a holy woman. Times have changed.
These days, a wedding between a man and a woman is packed with symbolism, some of which is sacred, some more saucily secular. The veil worn by the bride, lifted by the groom, not only symbolizes the removal of her virginity but her introduction to a new state of being. The shared cutting of the cake, the knife held by both bride and groom, is another phallic allusion. The wedding ring is a symbol of eternity. In neo-pagan wedding ceremonies, such as the handfasting, the symbolism of tying the hands together speaks for itself.
A name carries with it great magical power, since the word itself contains the essence of the person it belongs to. Therefore, the naming ceremony is an important rite of passage everywhere in the world, whether it is viewed as religious or secular; effectively, a name is an identifying symbol that someone will carry about with them, generally, for the rest of their lives.
There’s a general superstition that a child without a name is somehow vulnerable, susceptible to being kidnapped by the fairy folk or similarly mischievous spirits. This is because the name is also a part of the soul, and therefore to have no name is somehow to have no soul either.
The Hindu naming ceremony is one of the most important rite of passage ceremonies. It’s usual for the numerology of the child’s name to be carefully calculated to harmonize with its date of birth.
Naming ceremonies that happen later in life-as in the Catholic confirmation ceremony-mark a deeper allegiance to the faith by the addition of a name that has meaning to the faith. The confirmation ceremony is just that; the candidate confirms the promises that were made by his parents or guardians at the time of the first naming ceremony (usually called a Christening within the Christian Church). People who join other faiths or cults later in life might undergo a renaming ceremony, as a way of wiping out the old personality in favor of the new one.
It’s not just humans who have names. The naming of a boat is considered to be very important, too, since the vessel will be responsible for the safety of its occupants. In particular, the renaming of a boat can be fraught with danger, as to change its name risks incurring the immediate displeasure of the Gods of the elements.
The original Valentine was an amalgamation of two or three different men, all named Valentine, and all martyred to the Christian cause; one of them was either martyred or buried in Rome on February 14. However, a certain amount of “spin” was necessary to make St. Valentine fit convincingly as a replacement for the existing pre-Christian Lupercalian excesses. A story was put about that Valentine defied the Emperor Claudius’ decree that fighting men should not have sexual relations in case their strength was sapped. The Emperor was not in favor of the new religion and to be a Christian at this time was hazardous to the health, but Valentine continued to proselytize despite the sentence of death that hung over the heads of anyone caught doing so. Later, he presided over illicit Christian weddings. According to another legend, prior to his execution, he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter and left her a note with the words “from your Valentine” written on it.
Part of the Lupercalian festivities included the young men drawing lots for available young women; these couples then spent time together during the festival, with sex the main agenda. The Church invented a lottery, too, although it was a slightly tamer version. People pulled the names of various Christian saints out of the hat, and then attempted to emulate these worthies for the rest of the year. Understandably, this custom failed to excite people’s imaginations as much as its saucier forerunner and drawing lots to put couples together started again in the fifteenth century, a sort of medieval version of speed dating, except faster, although its intentions were supposedly more innocent than those of the Lupercalia. Despite this, it proved very difficult to suppress the memory of the Lupercalia, and today the Church rarely celebrates St. Valentine. However, as a secular celebration of love and romance Valentine’s Day is a great success. The heart, as the major symbol of love, is seen everywhere at this time.
WHEEL OF THE YEAR
Reference is frequently made to the Wheel of the Year, particularly among Druid, Wiccan, and other neo-pagan groups. Effectively, the Wheel of the Year is the name given to the continual cycle of festivals that take place during the course of the year. The symbolism of the wheel reflects perfectly the cyclical movement of the seasons and the orbits of the stars and planets. The seasons of human life are reflected in the same way, its key events corresponding to the changing seasons.
The names of some of these eight festivals vary according to the tradition, although all mark key moments in the year. Also, the festivals have been adapted to encompass, for example, Christian beliefs, but generally the spirit and substance of them remains relatively unchanged. It’s interesting to see how the same conceptual marking of time takes different forms wherever people happen to be around the world marking the planting and harvesting of the crops, the solstices, and the equinoxes.
Here, then, is a Wheel of the Year drawing some parallels between the ancient festivals and the newer Christianized interpretations of them.