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The heART of Ritual

musings

The Death Goddesses of Samhain and Winter.



Summer feels very far away now, and the surrender to the coming winter seems to hold more doubt and uncertainty for many than usual. Looking back on photos of warm evenings and blue sky, there is an impulse to wish for these times to extend themselves and allow us to experience the call of birds skimming over long, summer grasses, or the lazy drone of a bee returning as dusk slowly descends. Is it always like this, the desire to drag against the natural cycle, or is there more trepidation in the world today because of current events, I wonder?


As we move ever towards Samhain, this time represents a moment of both death and rebirth and the start of a new cycle in many ancient traditions. This contradiction can sometimes cause confusion. It can seem strange to people living today that our ancestors saw life this way; death and birth being so intertwined. All across the world, though, in our deepest wisdom traditions, this duality is one of the most important aspects in the understanding of life itself. Without an end there cannot be a new cycle of rebirth.


This is also why some people fear the winter goddess in all of her forms. She shows us that we can never escape our own fate. She comes to bring us face to face with the consequences of the life we have lived. For those who cling to this mortal existence, the winter goddess is an ominous figure stalking the edges of their life, but someone who cannot be evaded. From the Cailleach to Baba Yaga, from Ragana to Giltine, these goddesses clear the way for the new, and by doing so, remind us of our own eventual end.


Giltine is a Baltic death goddess who wraps herself in a white cloak and whose appearance is marked by the sound of a whip cracking three times. Giltine sometimes travels with her two sisters and once she has called your name there is no escape. Her symbol is the owl, itself often considered a messenger from the Otherworld, and although fearsome, Giltine’s work is necessary in order for the world to bring forth new life from the bones of the old.

In some interpretations of Irish legends, the sound of an owl calling three times is a sign of impending death and it is often a precursor to the arrival of the Cailleach herself, so there is an interesting link to Giltine in that aspect.

Another point to note is that the owl in Celtic tradition is almost always female. Marija Gimbutas argues in The Living Goddesses that the owl goddess is portrayed inside Newgrange (P69. Ch. The Tomb and the Womb). One of Giltine’s sisters is Laima, a goddess of pregnancy and birth, so we can see the link to seasonal cycles in Giltine’s dominance in the world before Laima arrives in the springtime.


Another European goddess associated with winter, death (and also the dark moon) is Ragana. However, Ragana is also a goddess of regeneration so once more we find that same awareness of the need to cull before new life can be created. Ragana’s name comes from the verb regeti, which means “to divine” or “to prophesize”. Related to Ragana is the fairy goddess, Lauma, who again can also appear with her sister deities. In this case there is some interesting Gnostic crossover, I feel. You see, just like Sophia in many Gnostic creation tales, Lauma descended into the human world in order to try and alleviate suffering but by doing so she now has to share our fate. There are interesting parallels to Aradia and Diana here too! However, there are other aspects of Lauma which are not so sympathetic, especially if you are a man. Lauma and her sisters can use their sexual appeal to entice, exhaust, destroy and even tickle men to death. Marija Gimbutas writes in her book, The Living Goddess, that “Lauma’s physical appearance vividly reflects her Palaeolithic origins. She has bird feet and a bird body combined with a woman’s breasts. Her sexual superiority and manifestations in threes and in groups clearly stem from the pre-Indo-European social order.”


This death aspect of the triple goddess is found in just about every ancient European tradition including the Norns, Moirai, the Parcae, the Erinves, and, of course, the Morrígna in Celtic mythology.


The Slavic goddess of winter and death, Morana or Marzanna, as she is sometimes better known, is more often associated with rituals celebrating her leaving as opposed to her arrival these days. You might notice similarities reminding us of the interplay between the Cailleach and Brighid here in Ireland. Just like Imbolc, the Slavic people celebrated the coming of springtime and the arrival of the goddess of new life and birth, Kostroma. Morana is also said to be part of a sisterhood as well as being associated with the spirit known as the ‘night hag’, who would appear at the stage between dreams and wakefulness, sitting on the chest of the person encountering her. Some say the root of her name is ‘mora’ which is related to the root of the English term ‘nightmare.’


The Norse goddess, Skadi, is considered a giantess or ‘devourer’ and as such is linked to both winter and death and was said to reside where the snow and ice never melted and where darkness lingered. Of course, even outside of Europe we can find death goddesses associated with winter. In Mexico, the Day of the Dead traditions following Samhain go back to the ancient Aztec rituals dedicated to the Goddess Mitctecacihuatl, the lady of the dead. In ancient Egypt, Nephthys was the goddess who symbolised death as opposed to her sister, Isis, who symbolised birth. In Japan, the goddess Izanami was also a ruler of both death and creation. All of these goddesses have their own myths, rituals and folklore, as well as origin tales.

Some have alternative versions of their names depending on location but the common motifs and attributes demonstrate how ancient people saw death as being not only the end of life, but the instigator of new beginnings.

Perhaps this explains why Samhain was understood as both a necessary aspect of the yearly cycle as well as a time to celebrate and reflect upon.


Death and regeneration were inseparable and the goddess, although taking us from the earthly world, also accompanied us to the next.


What became of us in the Otherworld was dependent on how we had conducted our lives in this one so perhaps this is why she was anticipated with such trepidation.



Image by Dawndra

(C.) David Halpin


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