To the great consternation of the Church, over the past 17 years veneration of a Mexican folk saint that personifies death has become the fastest-growing new religious movement in the West. At this point there are no systematic surveys of the precise number of Santa Muerte devotees, but based on 10 years of research in Mexico and the US, we estimate there are some 10 to 12 million followers, with a large majority in Mexico and a significant presence in the United States and Central America. However, the skeletal folk saint, whose name translates into English as both Saint Death and Holy Death, now has followers across the globe, including in the UK, where there are sufficient devotees to support a Facebook group specifically for British followers . . . .
To understand the devotion to death, we must also examine the historical record. Across the Americas, and in particular in Mexico, death deities were prevalent during the pre-Hispanic era prior to colonisation. Many indigenous peoples, such as the Maya and the Aztecs, turned to death gods and goddesses for healing ailments, and also to guarantee safe passage into the underworld.
Yes, devotion to Santa Muerte is huge, and I have heard of some American Anglo Pagans who also participate in her cult, particularly in the Southwest.
El Niño Fidencio (Kid Fidencio), a folk saint of northern Mexico who is frequently channeled by healers.
There are more “folk saints.” One of my graduate-school professors, of partially Mexican ancestry, was fascinated by the cult of El Niño Fidencio, one of several folk saints who emerged from the chaotic years of revolution and civil war in early 20th-century Mexico.
Burying large reptiles under the floor. It must be a “Pagan survival,” right? Doubtlessly an apotropaic custom, like scorch marks on wooden beams as charm against fire, or leaving old shoes and such inside the walls during construction.
In rural 19th-century Estonia, as depicted in the film November, people did not merely put out food offerings for the Dead on All Souls Day — they fed them. And talked to them. And if the Dead wished to enjoy a sauna, a fire had already been lit. And then things get weird.
November is a beautifully photographed black-and-while film (with a little infrared too?). Sometimes it is such a series of images that I felt as though I was watching someone’s curated Instagram feed or Tumblr blog, until the snowman started talking or the Devil twisted someone’s neck and took his soul.
Maybe instead of “Baltic Gothic,” we should call it “Estonian Hoodoo.”
Things you will find in November: shapeshifting; wolves; dirty doings at the crossroads; servants who steal from German aristocrats justifying their thefts in the name of Estonian nationalism; people stealing from each other; sleepwalking; the Plague personified as a beautiful woman, a goat, or a pig; lots of folk magic (with some spectacular failures); dreams; visions; love; and death.
The society depicted is nominally Christian but the other elements justify the label Pagan-ish. In fact, it made me think of a novel that I had read, The Man Who Spoke Snakish, which is set in medieval Estonia at the time of Christian crusades against the Baltic Pagans.
Color me surprised. November is based on a novel by Andrus Kivirähk, who wrote The Man Who Spoke Snakish as well. This novel was Rehepapp ehk November (Old Barny aka November), and I am not sure if it has been published yet in an English translation.
In five days it will be the 733rd anniversary of the most famous missing children case in Western Europe. What happened to the children of Hamelin, a town (current population about 57,000) in what is today the German state of Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen)?
Years ago I read a science-fiction story of explorers coming to another planet and finding a human community who built their houses in a vaguely medieval German style. Yes, they were the descendants of the children led away by the ratcatcher, through some kind of interdimensional portal. If you know the author and title, post them in the comments.
An interesting article from Scientific American, in which the author breaks several folktales, like the origin of the contellation Ursa Major—the “Cosmic Hunt”—into memes and then treats them in a sort of genetic way, to see if they match up with ancient human migrations, to the extent that we understand those.
Carl Jung, the founding father of analytic psychology, believed that myths appear in similar forms in different cultures because they emerge from an area of the mind called the collective unconscious. “Myths are first and foremost psychic phenomena that reveal the nature of the soul,” Jung argued. But the dissemination of Cosmic Hunt stories around the world cannot be explained by a universal psychic structure. If that were the case, Cosmic Hunt stories would pop up everywhere. Instead they are nearly absent in Indonesia and New Guinea and very rare in Australia but present on both sides of the Bering Strait, which geologic and archaeological evidence indicates was above water between 28,000 and 13,000 B.C. The most credible working hypothesis is that Eurasian ancestors of the first Americans brought the family of myths with them.
Some of the links that I saved that never turned into blog posts . . .
• The Internet loves quizes, so “What Kind of Witch Would You Be?” (answer: hearth witch). I always suspect that the answer is based on just one question, while the others are there just for fluff and decoration.
This is, indeed, one of the roots of many problems in modern polytheism – people being unwilling to wait and let things naturally evolve. My biggest concern here isn’t the specific examples of mis-assignment (though they do exist, and are indicative of a serious lack of understanding in some cases). It is the fact that these folks are sitting around trying to artificially assign gods to places and things as if it’s just a game, or at best an intellectual exercise.
The claim that the rhyme is related to pestilence is even younger; the folklorists who diligently recorded the rhyme itself in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries never mention the plague interpretation, although they surely would have had they known it. The first evidence I’ve seen that people were connecting the rhyme with death and disaster is from 1949, when the newspaper The Observer ran a parody of the rhyme beginning “ring-a-ring-o’-geranium, a pocketful of uranium” and referring to the bombing of Hiroshima.
Why mention this? It is just another example of the perils of looking for “ancient survivals” in folklore.
Then there is the Furry Dance itself. According to Ronald Hutton, the first mention of any Mayish activities in Helston is in 1600, but the dance is the last surviving Cornish Processional Dance (of which there were once many). It became popular, and formalised, in the nineteenth century, a legacy that remains, giving it the feel of something out of Trumpton.
There are four dances throughout the day, each processing right round the town and in and out of select shops and houses. They’re driven along by the Helston Town Band playing that tune.
If it’s a contender for the most irritating tune ever written then that’s only because some of us are old enough to remember Terry Wogan’s ghastly 1978 chart-topping rendition of the song (which is a later addition). In fact the tune is full of pomp and brilliantly infectious. It echoes round the streets and does the job of spurring the dancers on.
¶ Apuleius Platonicus tries to put to rest the idea that Hitler and his inner circle were some kind of Nazi Neo-Pagans with a post titled “Hitler Hated Heathens.”
I disagree though with his flip over to the position that Hitler was therefore pro-Christian. In fact, he regarded both Catholic and Lutheran clergy and those would revive ancient Germania as useful idiots — fine if they helped the cause; otherwise, they got a nice holiday at a camp in the countryside. Since the majority of Germans were Christians, it helped to have compliant clergy give the Nazi message a Christian garnish— pray for the troops, etc.
The shock value of Satanic transgression, ironically—and ideally—will lead to greater discussion about the place of religion in the public sphere. Will it lead to acceptance for marginalized groups? I’m not sure. But it illustrates quite clearly that the laws are for all.
Gwen Thompson (Craft name of Phyllis Healy), 1928–1986, founded the New England Coven of Traditional Witches in the late 1960s. It went on to have various offshoots.
Central to her position as founder of the NECTW tradition was a “grandmother story.” She claimed to have been taught “the Old Religion” (in Margaret Murray’s sense) by her grandmother, Adriana Porter (1857–1946), an underground Craft teaching that supposedly originated in the West of England, in Somerset. Porter was born in Nova Scotia, married William Healy, a bookkeeper and insurance broker, in 1888, and moved with him first to Rhode Island and then to Melrose, Mass. They had one son, Walter, Gwen’s mother’s first husband.
According to Gwen Thompson, her grandmother’s family “were carriers of a secret tradition of Folk Witchcraft,” although her mother had broken with it upon marrying her second husband. Nevertheless, by then Adriana had initiated her and given her the Craft name of Gwen. When Adriana died, Gwen found some of her papers, which she considered to be a Book of Shadows, and which she copied. But she always “refused to tell her initiates anything about the identity of her living relatives, saying, ‘They don’t want to talk to you!'”
Mathiesen faced one daunting obstacle — he was not allowed to look at Gwen’s Book, except for a part, the Rede (Old English for “counsel”) that had been published in the Pagan magazine Green Egg in 1975. Most of the Rede is traditional folk wisdom, such “With the fool no season spend / or be counted as his friend.” Other couplets contain wisdom more appropriate to seamen in the days of sail rather than farmers, which could connect them with a port such as Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.
The collection as published starts and finished with other couplets that sound a great deal like Gerald Gardner or Doreen Valiente. As Mathiesen writes, they “use the false archaism Wiccan and strongly echo Gardner’s form of Wicca.”
Mathisen researched Adriana Porter’s family history extensively, and he notes that when she came to the Boston are in the 1880s, she had the leisure and income to have investigated Spiritualism, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, and other esoteric currents in that city. Since this book’s publication, he has found hints that she might have known Paul Foster Case, in the 1920s. Case was a ceremonial magician and founder of the mystery school Builders of the Adytum, which still exists.
But the so-called Old Religion? The authors conclude that between 19 and 21 of the 26 couplets in the Rede might well have been written down by Adriana Porter, or else some other 19th-century person. The rest, those that give it a Wiccan flavor, were added almost certainly by Gwen Thompson.
It is another example of what I call “the Gardnerian magnet.” Because books by Gardner and his associates became available from 1957 on, many people not part of that initiatory lineage “borrowed” from it heavily.
Adriana had opportunities to become well acquainted with various occult and esoteric teachings. But there is nothing to prove that she carried forward a deep ancestral tradition of Witchcraft as an alternative religion.
My own larger conclusion is that I still have seen no credible evidence for anyone practicing a self-consciously polytheistic Pagan religion called Wicca or Witchcraft prior to 1951 in the English-speaking world.* What we find, instead, are cases such as these:
A Craft leader drops bits of information about their own or an ancestor’s involvement in an esoteric school, ceremonial magical group, etc. and passes that off as an ancestral tradition. Such may well have been the case with Gwen Thompson.
A person’s ancestor knew herbalism, root-working, card-reading or other divination, spell-casting, water-witching, conjuring, astrology, etc. — even in a Christian context — and their descendent describes this involvement as an ancestral tradition of Witchcraft in order to legitimize their own position in the new religion of Pagan Witchcraft.
Research projects such as The Rede of the Wiccae are needed, therefore, to settle some of these historical questions — inasmuch as they can be settled — and free scholarship on contemporary Paganism to view it through other lenses.