Archive for the ‘Religion and Magic’ Category

Rodent extortion and other ways to celebrate February 2

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016

Happy Cross Quarter Day! Today we celebrate the fact that we are halfway between Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Okay,  in the age of electric lighting the Cross Quarter is not a big deal for most of us, but every day closer to summer is a victory in my book. Plus, back when people lived their lives by the cycle of the sun, it was really something worth celebrating. And what better way to celebrate than with large furry rodents?Kate Dolan explores the history of Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day itself seems to be an American tradition, but for centuries before Punxsutawney Phil made his debut, some Europeans celebrated this highlight in the calendar by watching bears, hedgehogs and badgers.  The legends say that if these animals see their shadows (i.e., it’s a sunny day) then we will have six more weeks of winter weather. If they don’t, then spring is supposed to start.  Germans brought these traditions with them to the United States, and of course Americans turned the idea into an opportunity for commercialism and extortion. During Prohibition, Punxsutawney Phil supposedly threatened everyone with 60 more weeks of winter if he couldn’t get a drink.

Another popular old festival from this time of year comes from the Romans, who celebrated the birth of their god Mars by parading through the streets with torches. Out of these pagan traditions, we ended up with Candlemas Day, which is supposed to commemorate the day of Jesus’s presentation in the temple in Jerusalem. People would bring in candles to be blessed for the year. They also made weather predictions such as the one in this popular English poem

“If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.

If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.”

Like many other church holidays, Candlemas was probably devised to justify continuing a popular pagan celebration. The appeal  of candles and torches is obvious at a time of year when we’re longing for more sunlight. The appeal of the animal weather forecasting doesn’t make quite as much sense, but then part of the tradition of Groundhog Day used to involve eating the groundhog after  it came out of hibernation, so a rodent feast could have spurred that part of the tradition.

Candlemas is known as el Día de la Candelaria in Spanish speaking countries, where celebrations can last as long as a week. Coming 40 days after Christmas, Candlemas marks the official end of the Christmas season. It also coincides with St. Brigid’s Day in Ireland, based on the pagan goddess Brigid whose feast was known is Imbolc.

So this holiday may have more names than other on the calendar. Pick one and celebrate, with or without rodents. Just don’t threaten me with any extra days of winter.

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For some interesting stories about about Candlemas Day and all its permutations, check out http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2013/02/05/candlemas-and-dia-de-la-candelaria-shine-in-new-light/ http://amamariesimard.tripod.com/id16.html.

Why Do We Care that it’s Friday the 13th?

Friday, February 13th, 2015

Many superstitions date back to the medieval days when people believed that you could tell if your neighbor was a witch based her buoyancy in the local pond. But the “bad luck on Friday the 13th” thing doesn’t show up in lore until fairly recently. Why?
My guess is that someone was bored. I can just picture an older obnoxious brother who noticed two “unlucky” features coinciding on the calendar and deciding to terrorize his younger siblings with stories of all the horrid things that could happen on that rare day.

Kate Dolan writes about the first bad Friday

A bad Friday

Both the number 13 and the day Friday developed reputations as being unlucky, but there is not much reference to this reputation until about 200 years ago. Starting in the 1800s, reports circulate about people who were afraid to begin a new task on a Friday, sometimes going to great lengths to begin on Thursday night so that any work on Friday would be merely a continuation of work and not a new beginning. (more…)

This is the one that should be haunted

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

Black Aggie the originalMaryland’s most famous haunted statue is no longer in Maryland. An empty pedestal stands in Druid Ridge Cemetery where, for years, “Black Aggie” lured thrill seekers and ghost hunters out to visit at night. It was said that if you sat in her lap, she would wrap her cold arms around you and crush you to death. Or if you stared into her eyes, she would strike you blind. No grass would grow in her shadow. But that was probably because so many people were walking up to the statue to sit on her lap or place coins in her hand for luck. Visits to the statue became part of fraternity hazing rituals, and one night the statue’s arm disappeared. It was later found in the trunk of a car, along with a masonry saw. The owner of the car claimed that the statue cut her own arm off and had given it to him. That may be about the time the family who owned the plot that was home to the infamous statue said “enough.” They had the statue removed and donated to the Smithsonian, who promptly lost it.

But they wouldn’t have wanted it anyway. “Black Aggie” was an illegal, poorly made copy of a statue by the sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens. The original statue stands today in Rock Creek Cemetery and attracts very little attention. I used to jog through that cemetery when I was in college at Catholic U (and I also brought a guy there as a first date–but in the daytime). I seem to recall the statue, but honestly, there were so many unsettling statues that’s it’s hard to say for certain whether I particularly noticed this one. (What always struck me most about that cemetery was the virtual town layout of mausoleums, like a Fischer Price Village for dead people.) Anyway, it’s odd that the original attains notice today only because of the attention paid to the copy.

The original statue marks the grave of Marian Adams, a young woman who poisoned herself in 1885. Her husband, grandson of John Quincy Adams, commissioned the statue and was later buried under it himself. He refused to speak of her death or the monument, and would never give it a name.  Because of the Adams family connections and his silence about the whole thing, the statue became quite popular to visit. But no one ever claimed it was haunted. And after a while, people stopped paying attention.

In the early 1900s, a local artist snuck into the site and made a quick casting of the statue, not even bothering to clean up his mess. The statue was sold to a Civil War general, Felix Agnus, who set it up in Druid Ridge for his family plot. He discovered that it was a forgery when the original artist’s wife called him a “barbarian” for making such a crummy copy of her husband’s work. Agnus sued the artist who’d sold him the statue, but he didn’t have it removed.

And after a number of years, the stories began. Even though the statue was removed in 1967, people still come to the cemetery to see the platform where Black Aggie used to sit.

But now she sits by a Federal Court building in Washington, DC. She was donated to the Smithsonian, but was never put on display. Now, instead, they have an authorized copy of the St. Gaudens original, which is really the one that should be haunted anyway.  Black Aggie is supposed to be the restless spirit of a disturbed young woman, not a Civil War general who lived to a ripe old age.

Spirits aren’t logical, that’s for sure.

Witches where you don’t expect them

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

I’ve found witchcraft in some pretty unexpected places, so in honor of All Hallow’s Eve, I thought I’d share a few.

They’re in the Bible, for starters. Although the Lord tells Moses in Deuteronomy that His People aren’t allowed to practice sorcery or divination, He never says that those practices are fake, only that they’re not permissible. In fact, the Bible contains several matter-of-fact accounts of supernatural happenings. In 1 Samuel 28, King Saul pays a visit to the Witch of Endor, a medium who calls up the spirit of the prophet Samuel from the dead. The witch had been in hiding because Saul had ordered that mediums and spiritists should be put to death. But in a moment of weakness, the king asked his advisors to see if any were left in the land.Kate Dolan found this witch story in the Bible

He goes to the witch in disguise, but as soon as the spirit of Samuel appears, the witch realizes she has been tricked, and begs for her life. Meanwhile, Dead Samuel is not at all pleased about being disturbed and brought back up into the world of the living. Saul explains that he is frightened, that enemies are attacking and God no longer answers his prayers so he called up to Samuel to ask him what to do. Death has not made Samuel particularly sympathetic—he tersely reminds Saul that God has turned against him and given his kingdom away, just as he said he would. And by the way, he adds, you and your sons will be down here with me tomorrow.

So finding the Witch of Endor was not nearly as profitable as finding a genie in a bottle, at least not for Saul. (more…)

Is Twelfth Really Eleventh?

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

I think tonight is Twelfth Night. I know that Twelfth Night used to be considered the highlight of the Christmas season, but the fact that a history nut like me is not even sure when it falls is an indication that this holiday doesn’t mean much in our society these days.

Twelfth Night is part of the twelve days of Christmas that stretch from Christmas day to Epiphany, the day Christians celebrate the arrival of the Magi or wise men who came to pay homage to the baby Jesus. Epiphany is set for January 6, which is just as arbitrary as deciding that Jesus was born on December 25 on a calendar that hadn’t been invented yet. Scholars can’t even decisively determine what year Jesus was born, let alone what month or day. And the wise travelers following the star probably arrived a little more than twelve days after his birth. Historians believe Jesus was a toddler by the time they made it, since Herod ordered the killing of all boys under age two. (more…)

Possessed by an evil spirit? It might not be your fault

Monday, October 31st, 2011

“[W]here the Devill findes greatest ignorance and barbaritie, there assayles he grosseliest, as I gave you the reason wherefore there was moe Witches of women kinde nor men.” Daemonologie, Volume the Third, Chapter III

That’s what King James had to say about witchcraft in a three volume treatise he wrote a few years before he issued instructions for the translation of the Bible that bears his name. Last week I discussed the first volume of his Daemonologie, which covered sorcery, in my post “King James and the Zombies”.  On Friday, I talked about the second volume, which deals with witches, in a guest blog “Witchcraft is Where You Find It.”  Today, in honor of All Hallow’s Eve, we’ll see what James had to say about ghosts in Volume Three.illustration from King James's Daemonologie

He divides spirits into four categories—those that haunt a place, those that follow a person, those that possess a person and “fayries.” Regarding the first type, he explains that devil sends ghosts to haunt solitary places because man is at his weakest there and because God will not permit him to “dishonour the societies and companies of Christians, as in publicke times and places to walke visiblie amongst them.” But what about hauntings that occur in a house full of supposedly Christian people? James says that’s a sign of either “grosse ignorance” (he doesn’t specify whose) or “grosse and slanderous sinnes among the inhabitantes” of the house. In other words, if your house is haunted, it’s your fault and your neighbor should be wondering whether you are sinful or just stupid.

James wrote Daemonologie specifically to refute the notion that there is no such thing as magic and witchcraft. Practitioners of the “devill’s arts” are all around, he argues, and they need to be recognized and punished. (Some rulers focus on conquering territory, others on stabilizing the economy. Clearly James had different priorities.)

So when people argue that ghosts do not exist because most people never see them, James answers that God only allows some people to know of their existence. So there. But he also says that just because ghosts and witches exist doesn’t mean that every supernatural tale should be taken as truth. For instance, he discounts the existence of “men-woolfes”, saying that it is just an overabundance of melancholy that makes men think they’re animals so they act that way. And he makes no mention at all of vampires. But though he doesn’t use the word, he spends a number of pages explaining the presence of zombies as the devil reanimating dead bodies, even the dead bodies of very “good” people. So if your body rises from the grave to terrorize people, it’s not necessarily your fault.

The same thing can be said for those who are haunted or even possessed. James explains that God allows the devil to torment people in this way either because they have sinned and need to be punished or because they’re really good and need to have their strength tested. So if your daughter is possessed, you can tell your neighbors that this is a status symbol of your extraordinary faith. Try to top that, if you dare!

While you may not know whether a possessed person is saintly or riddled with sin, you can be sure if you do see a spirit, it’s evil, even if it is disguised as an angel. James says all Christians should know “that since the comming of Christ in the flesh, and establishing of his Church by the Apostles, all miracles, visions, prophecies, & appearances of Angels or good spirites are ceased.” Though I’ve heard some theologians despair over the cultish fascination with angels, I’ve never heard one flat out say that they don’t ever appear to humans anymore. For his proof, James offers the parable of Lazarus and the rich man who begs Jesus to send a ghost to his brothers to warn them to change their ways. Jesus refuses, saying “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” It’s an interesting argument, but I’m not sure I buy it.

Besides, who wants to argue about “good spirites” on Halloween? We want the scary stuff.

So how about stories of the devil’s spawn—is that scary? James devotes several paragraphs to a scientific explanation of why sex with a spirit (or a dead body reanimated) could not result in pregnancy.  So like “men-woolfes,” James says he also doesn’t believe in midwives’ tales of monstrous births and he doesn’t believe in “phairies” with their woodland courts and frolics.

I’m not quite clear on all his arguments, but somehow, I think he blames women for most of the evils of witchcraft. Remember, he said that there are more women witches than men because they are weaker and more subject to temptation from the devil than men. And he also said that witches (predominantly women) are motivated by greed to follow the devil whereas sorcerers (mostly men) are motivated by intellectual curiosity. I’m guessing James was bullied by his nurse—he seems to be afraid of women and belittles them to make himself feel better.

I must say, though, that while he seems almost ready to excuse the male sorcerers for the temptation to follow their art, he absolutely does not. They are “all alike guiltie” and must be put to death, regardless or age, sex or rank. While fire is “commonly used,” he leaves it up to the custom of the individual country as to what sort of death is needed.

He counsels that it is important not to condemn the innocent, but it would still be a little worrisome to me, especially since he believes that because witches have rejected the water of their baptism, God reveals witches with the sign that “water shal refuse to receive them in her bosom.” In other words, they float.

So I won’t be inviting James to my next pool party.

Happy Halloween!

King James and the Zombies

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Did you know that before James I of England began work on the Bible that bears his name, he wrote a book about witchcraft? That’s not something we ever learned about in Sunday School, although interestingly enough, it was religious fervor that inspired King James to write his three volume Daemonologie.

In fact, he opens the book by explaining that it was “[t]he fearefull aboundinge at this time in this countrie, of these detestable slaves of the Devill,” that prompted him to write to demonstrate that the “assaultes of Sathan are most certainly practized.”King James writes about witches and zombies

He covers different topics in each volume. The first discusses magic and “Necromancie.” Volume Two covers sorcery and witchcraft and Volume Three is devoted to ghosts and spirits. In honor of Halloween, I’ll explore each volume of Daemonologie in a different post between now and October 31. (more…)

Do you believe in magic?

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

Does supernatural = evil? In stories these days, characters with supernatural powers tend to use their powers for good as often as not, so they can be heroes. Hermione Granger is a witch, but never casts evil spells. Edward Cullen is a blood-drinking vampire but would never feed on the innocent. They’re “good.”

Unless you happen to follow a religion that teaches that it’s evil to practice magic. The Lord told Moses point blank that His people were not permitted to use sorcery or divination (Deuteronomy 18:14). So then it sounds like there can be no “good” magic. Even if the result serves a noble purpose, the means used to achieve it would be unacceptable.William Sydney Mount's "The Witch of Endor"

Note that God never says magic isn’t real. In fact, the Bible contains several stories of supernatural happenings. In 1 Samuel 28, King Saul pays a visit to the Witch of Endor, a medium who calls up the spirit of the prophet Samuel from the dead. In the New Testament, Paul “heals” a slave with psychic abilities who made her owners rich by telling fortunes (Acts 16:16-18). The pharaoh of Egypt had magicians who could turns sticks into snakes and make frogs come up out of the ground (Exodus 7 &8). Believe what you choose, but the Bible never says magic isn’t real. (more…)