You may have made your New Year’s resolutions and started to pack away your Christmas tree; but the holidays aren’t quite over yet! There’s still Epiphany on January 6th, and more intriguingly Epiphany Eve, tonight on January 5th: a night of celebration and offering to an ancient goddess of magick in disguise.
Epiphany, seemingly a very Christian holiday, is generally celebrated as the anniversary of the night the Three Wise Men, a.k.a. the Magi, reached the end of their long journey following the Christmas star and arrived to meet the baby Jesus; infamous presents in hand. In and of itself, the holiday has more ancient precedents. For the story of the Magi did not originally belong to Christianity, but is a re-telling of a far older Persian myth regarding the birth of the god Mithras. Epiphany is therefore essentially a pagan holiday. But the Italians have made it even more magickal, adding on their own little witchy twist: Befana.
Befana is to January 5th what Santa Claus is to Christmas Eve: a well-wishing elemental spirit who delivers goodies and blessings to children and households who put out small offerings to her. But where Santa Claus likes his milk and cookies; Befana has more grown up tastes. She prefers a midnight snack of a little cup of wine and perhaps some appetizers: though I’m sure cookies would do in a pinch. She’s considered quite a wild figure and is meant to have a rather wicked sense of humor, so I’m sure she’d be happy to go with the flow. In return, Befana traditionally gifts her celebrants with candy, figs, dates, honey, and sometimes small gifts; often hiding them away in your socks rather like the Dutch Father Christmas. She also might give your house a quick sweep in her role as a sort of archetypal grandmother to all.
Depicted as a pop culture witch-crone (yes, that sometimes derogatory image of the eldest and wisest age of the witch) Befana is the modern version of the Roman goddess Strina or Strenae. An ancient goddess of the indigenous Sabine tribes of the early Roman Republican landscape, her name would eventually become synonymous with a Roman variant of the word “gift.” Her cult was associated with endurance and strength. As such, she was typically called on during the winter months in the hopes that she would gift her supplicants with the endurance and strength to last through the harsh winter and into the more bountiful seasons. She was presumably depicted as an elderly goddess, and later became associated with the cult of Ceres (the Roman version of Demeter), as she tiredly wandered the winter landscape in search for her daughter Proserpina.
An early temple was dedicated to her on the main ceremonial and religious procession-way through Rome, the Via Sacra; though there is little other archaeological or historical evidence of the forms of ritual her worship may have taken. From historical sources, it can be gleaned that around the Roman New Year, on the first day (the calends) of the first month, gifts (presumably entitled bastrina were exchanged. Initially these gifts apparently consisted of sacred branches from the mysterious grove of Strenae outside of Rome; intended as symbols of good will and growth to hold on to until the spring should come. This same grove would later associate her with more famous grove of Diana and her mentor Hekate, the goddess of witchcraft. Eventually, the gifts grew more and more sophisticated and luxurious, though often centered around sweets like honey. Even the Roman Emperor was known to participate in the custom of giving strenae. And through the expansion of the Roman Empire the custom of gift giving around the New Years spread far and wide.
Following the subsumation of paganism by Christianity, her quietly popular cult was transformed and hidden away within the bowels of local monotheism; refusing to be forgotten but not wanting to rock the boat too severely. Christian celebrations round the New Year, in particular, the Epiphany, grew to include her within their mythology. Local stories were crafted to tie her in to the mainstream story of the Magi. Sometimes she is a housekeeper whom the Magi stayed with just before their famous visit, and who accompanies them to the Christ child. Sometimes she is a bereft mother comforted by meeting and gifting the baby Jesus separate from the Magi (note the parallel of that version to Strenae’s earlier ties to the cult of Ceres and her lost daughter). The archetype of Strenae, i.e. of an older wise-woman somehow connected to the New Year is woven into the tapestry the Catholic church created for Epiphany, reinforced by a multitude of possible stories of saints, wise-men, lost children, and gifts.
The faint whiff of paganism connected to her also led to her popularized image as a creature of magick and her modern depiction as a crone style witch. She is seen as a friendly Italian witch or stregha, one who particularly delights in giving gifts to children. And she is celebrated, even by the staunchest Catholics, in festivals throughout Italy. People dress as the witch and celebrate the New Year, inadvertently participating in an ancient fête which has commemorated thousands of New Years, and hopefully will commemorate thousands more.