Posts Tagged ‘North Pole’
Magickal Traditions Hidden In the Mundane
It’s really rather pleasantly shocking how many customs with pagan or magickal roots are tucked amongst the seemingly Christian holiday season cheer. Indeed the entire premise of the Christmas holiday is deeply indebted to the ancient polytheistic festivals which could never quite be stamped out. And with mainstream Christmas upon us, I thought we might take a quick look at the continuing magickal trends you might not have noticed going on today and indeed throughout the holiday season and into the New Year ahead.
This Christmas, the story of the birth of the Christian semi-god Jesus Christ will be reenacted in churches and schools all over the world as part of the Nativity play. But did you know that this classic tale is actually a re-working of an even older myth concerning the Eastern deity Mithras, who also had a birthday on December 25th? The Apostle Paul, who’s version of the birth of Christ is the most heavily relied upon for the traditional Christmas story, hailed from Ephesus- a center of worship for Mithras in the later Roman Empire. His writing was highly influenced by his surroundings and thus incorporated several of the elements of the Mithras cult and birth story into his telling; including both the idea of the virgin birth and visit of the three wise men to his birth site (in a cave vs. a stable). Indeed it is likely that the early church fathers cast Jesus’s birthday in the winter to take advantage of the pre- pagan winter festivities in the first place.
The Eastern Star associated with the Nativity story, and its derivative decorative value over the holidays is likewise an element of older cults which was refashioned to suit monotheistic needs. Intriguingly, some of its greatest usage is attached to ancient mother goddess cults, including that of the goddess Asherah: the oft forgotten wife of the god Yahweh ~ the original version of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim God celebrated on Christmas. Many other nature symbols, like snowflakes and poinsettias, which are also associated with the holidays were likewise used in older pagan cults. None more so than mistletoe. Added into the Christmas mythos through its Germanic and Norse usage during winter festivals, it is linked inevitably to the Norse gods through its appearance in the myth of Baldr, the dying god of Viking myth. Following a prophecy detailing Baldr’s impending death, his mother extracts promises from all of the plants and creatures of the world but forgets about the lowly mistletoe tucked up in the oak trees. And so when the mistletoe is unwittingly tricked into stinging Baldr at the behest of the trickster god Loki, the sting is fatal and Baldr is committed to the Afterlife until the end of the world (Ragnarok) when he will emerge to lead the new world order. The theme of the dying god appears over and over again throughout world mythology, indeed the story of Jesus Christ itself represents a ‘dying god’ myth. The re-use of mistletoe as part of the Christmas festival is therefore most fitting indeed.
Also stemming from northern European pagan traditions are the Yule log and Christmas ornaments. The giant Yule log was traditionally chosen to be burned on the Winter Solstice, the darkest and longest night of the year. The cheerful fire of the long burning log was intended to ward off the evil spirits that lurked in the dark. Families would gather together on this dark night both in fear of the darkness and in celebration of the upcoming new year ahead. The winter holidays were highly important in the pre-scientific world. In a time where you cannot fathom the astrological and natural reasoning behind the turning of the seasons, when all the plants die and the weather gets bad ~ you want to do everything you can to encourage a better season to come round.
Christmas ornaments, however, are perhaps the most gory of modern holiday traditions. Rumor has it that Germanic warriors would hang the heads and saddle gear of conquered foes on trees near their residence as trophies of their battle. These dark prizes eventually transitioned into more metaphorical baubles which in turn were placed on the first famous Christmas trees popularized by the Germanic Prince Albert at the court of Queen Victoria in nineteenth century England. Decorated vegetation was not however limited to Northern European traditions, decorated boughs of a variety of plants were common features of ancient Roman and Greek festivals, and were intended to both encourage the future bounty of the crops and protect the house from evil spirits.
Other household holiday decorations possess further overlooked magickal significance. Have you ever noticed how many anthropomorphic figures there are around Christmastime? Gingerbread men, snowmen, figurines of angels, the nativity characters and Santa and his crew: there are hundreds of thousands of little simulacra of people associated with the holidays. And while such representations of humanity may seem commonplace in today’s society, for thousands of years and indeed still in some cultures such things were and are forboden. From the ancient so-called Venus figurines of prehistoric Europe to the statues of the classical world, the recreation of the human form was considered sacred and powerful. Perhaps the most well known remnant of this concept are the voodoo dolls of Santeria and other Afro-Caribbean traditions. Their Christmas cousins may be just as powerful. From the helpful elf who watches over children’s good behavior to the angels atop the tree: these personifications of the human soul and spirit are no less powerful if one chooses to believe in them.
And finally, let us consider the concept of the infamous Santa Claus himself. The story of Santa is ripe with magickal elements. Ultimately, he is a semi-deity who lives in a magickal dimension on the northern fringes of the human world accompanied by a bevy of miraculous toy-making beings and flying creatures. And though the tradition of Santa is not very old in and of itself, the idea of powerful house spirits who bear gifts and good fortune goes back to the very beginning of time in almost every culture. In some cultures, particularly in Eastern Europe and Japan, these house spirits are still widely venerated in the modern world.
Ultimately, though Christmas is a monotheistic holiday. Its modern celebration is chock full of symbolism and traditions which hearken back to earlier times and brighter pagan customs. One needs only look closer to find them and celebrate their wonder.