Of all protection talismans, jewelry is by far the most popular. There are many reasons for this: you can carry it anywhere; it’s aesthetically beautiful; and it’s often discreet. From necklaces to bracelets to broaches, protective jewelry has been around for thousands of years, although it has changed forms throughout the centuries.
In this blog post, I want to dive into protection jewelry. What makes a piece of jewelry protective? How can you make one? And where did the folklore come from?
When I googled “protection jewelry,” most posts spoke about crystals and symbols. But I think we need to go back even further, to the metals.
Most jewelry is made out of at least one type of metal. In most cases, it’s an alloy (a combination of two or more metals). In ancient times, most protective jewelry was made from the seven metals of antiquity.
The metals of antiquity are gold, silver, copper, tin, lead, iron, and mercury. These were the first metals that ancient humans learned to work with. And the older the resource, the more folklore it has.
Of these metals, some were not as common in jewelry. Mercury, obviously, is a liquid and was often included in alloys. Iron has not been used in jewelry until recently due to its weight and high melting point. (“Cold iron” was used for talismans to protect against ghosts and other spirits, but these talismans were usually not jewelry.)
Speaking of alloys, many of these metals were (and still are) combined to create jewelry. Gold and silver were often mixed with copper and tin due to scarcity. Pure gold and silver were incredibly valuable, just like today.
In terms of protective metals, gold was considered to be the most valuable. Because it never tarnishes or corrodes, it was considered divine. From ancient Greece to India, gold was associated with deities and higher wisdom. Wearing golden jewelry brought you protection from the Gods, but only higher classes and priests owned them.
Silver is also a highly protective metal, but for different reasons. Its reflective surface was thought to ward off evil spirits. In the Gospel of Matthew, Judas turned Jesus over for 30 silver coins. Silver’s reflection was said to be a reminder of his betrayal to God. In the same vein, evil spirits would see their guilt in the reflection and flee.
Copper was a much more affordable metal for protection jewelry, especially in alloys. As late as the 18th century, copper has been used for protective amulets. These amulets would ward off disease, alleviate arthritic pain, guard the home, and much, much more.
According to the International Gem Society, today’s most popular jewelry metals are silver, gold, and platinum (the latter being more valuable than gold). Stainless steel is a common choice, and as an iron alloy, it is also protective.
Although the jewelry’s metal matters, it is not the be-all, end-all. Overall, the metal matters less than the shape it takes.
The vast majority of protective jewelry includes some sort of protection symbol. If you found this blog post, you’ve likely come across at least one protective symbol. Pentagrams, crosses, the evil eye, runes, and bindrunes (a combination of two or more runes) have all been used in protective jewelry.
Fascinatingly, some of these symbols have been integrated into mainstream jewelry. The cornicello is a great example. This chile-pepper-looking shape is a popular symbol in Italian folklore. Meaning “little horn,” the cornicello guards against the evil eye, or “il malocchio.” Many modern jewelers have used the cornicello, especially since minimalist jewelry has come back in style.
When I searched Etsy for protective jewelry, the most popular and common results were crystals. Although crystals have risen in popularity over the past few decades, they have always been around. Most have hundreds of years’ worth of folklore backing them.
Here are a few crystals that are especially common and/or interesting:
There are many, many more protective crystals that I can list, but that would be an entire book’s worth of information. Try researching the folklore of your favorite crystal; you might be surprised.
Not all protective jewels were crystals. Some were regular stones that were carved or enchanted for protection.
The best example, in my opinion, is the hag stone. Usually found in rivers, a hag stone has at least one hole that pokes through the stone. In British folklore, hag stones were powerful protective talismans. They were hung over doors and windows, tied to ships, and worn as a necklace to ward off evil spirits.
Arrowheads are another example. Although obsidian arrowheads are incredibly popular nowadays, they were made in specific countries that had a high amount of obsidian, such as Mexico. Others were created from different types of stone. Because they were put on arrows and spears, arrowheads have defensive and offensive magical qualities.
You’ll find that a lot of protective jewelry is made from natural stone and sometimes wood. These are not “normal” stones and wood because they have been enchanted by a magician.
Witch Bags and Bottles
In the past few years, I’ve seen a lot of protective jewelry made from tiny glass jars. These glass jars are usually filled with magical herbs and oils and sealed with a cork. They are the modern version of an ancient talisman known as a witch bag.
Witch bags were magical bags filled with magical ingredients and designed for a specific purpose. Cunningfolk, pellars, and shamans have all created and sold magical bags for one reason or another. The ingredients depended on the use and person. Some common ingredients included herbs, graveyard dirt, hair or nails, stones, and drawings of symbols, words, and prayers.
The bag was made by the magician and hung on a string. Oftentimes, people carried witch bags in their pocket or wore them around the neck. Although some people view herb jar necklaces as “New Age-y,” I believe that they harken back to the witch bags that magicians sold in the Americas and the British Isles.
This leads me to the inevitable question: What makes a piece of jewelry magical?
Imbuing Jewelry with Power
Historically speaking, magical jewelry was usually made by a magician. Many were consecrated by priests or shamans, meaning that they were devoted to a deity, saint, or spirit. By devoting the jewelry to a higher power, the magician guaranteed protection from that power.
Another method is enchanting, or filling the item with power. When it comes to magicians such as witches, cunningfolk, and brujerías, folklore says that just touching these objects makes them magical. The magician chose that specific stone or herb, meaning that it must have had something magical that other materials did not.
If these magicians had an enchantment method, it was usually not written down. These were secrets of the trade, after all. Nowadays, you’ll find many different methods of enchanting, such as bathing in incense, charging in a magic circle, or locked away for days, weeks, or months.
I want to note that enchanting is different from cleansing. Cleansing is removing (usually negative) energies; enchanting is filling the object with energy. Some magicians will use both methods, but you need an enchantment, not just cleansing.
I’d be happy to write a separate blog post on enchanting, consecrating, and cleansing. I’ve seen these terms and methods being mixed up plenty of times, which can get confusing for beginners.
Anything I Missed?
Did I miss anything about protective jewelry? Do you have a favorite protection symbol or crystal? What has worked (or not worked) for you? Please leave your insights in the comments below! I'd love to learn what others think.
When I talk to other spirit workers about local spirits, many bring up animism, the idea that everything–from rocks to streams–has a specific spirit. But even cultures that didn’t have animism still believed in local spirits. In Rome, they were called genius loci, protective spirits of specific places.
I’ve seen a lot of people recommend working with local spirits, but few mention how to do so. Let’s break this down into steps.
Research Local Folklore
The first step is to research the folklore of your local area. This includes stories of hauntings, religious spots, holidays, and urban legends.
For many people–especially Americans–this is easier said than done. Some areas, like Salem, Massachusetts, are rich in history and folklore. You won’t struggle to research folklore there. But other areas are not known for their local legends. What do you do then?
Here are some places to start:
If you want to learn more about magic and folklore, check out this blog post: Choosing Which Folklore to Study for Your Craft.
Locate Power Spots
When it comes to spirit work, doing is often better than studying. But where can you go to find local spirits? Find what author Gemma Gary calls “power spots.”
Power spots are areas that spirits like to frequent. I mentioned some of those locations while discussing haunted locations earlier. Every town, no matter how small, has a power spot or two. Experienced spirit workers can find them on their own; see the Starting Spirit Work post to learn how one senses spirits.
Yet again, folklore can tell us where to go. Although every culture and location is different, these areas frequently appear in multiple folklores: bridges, crossroads, wells, caves, cemeteries, rivers, isolated/dirt roads, abandoned buildings, churches, and other sacred or spiritual places. For more ideas, see Real-Life Locations That Connect to the Underworld.
This should go without saying, but remember to put your safety first. Don’t enter anywhere dangerous, like a cave, unless you have experience. If the area is off-limits (as many abandoned sites are), don’t trespass. Same with entering churches and cemeteries at night.
Now that you’ve entered a power spot (safely), what do you do?
Offerings tell spirits that you acknowledge and appreciate them. Many spirit workers give offerings to stay on good terms with spirits.
There are two ways to give offerings to local spirits. One method is to place the offering outside, either near your home or at a power spot. If you do this, make sure that your offering is environmentally friendly: no plastics or food that might harm wildlife. Water, herbs, breadcrumbs, and certain fruits may work.
The second method is to give offerings at the hearth. The hearth–which is not necessarily a fireplace, but the center of the home–is where people give offerings to local spirits and Gods. You might have heard of a “standing offering,” a semi-permanent offering that spirits can enjoy as they pass by. This is a similar concept.
If you don’t want to leave offerings outside, do so at the hearth or at your altar. Offer them to local spirits. Incense, food, candles, and herbs are all on the table.
Anything I Missed?
Is there anything that I missed in this post? Anything you want expanded in a future post? Let me know in the comments below.
Most articles about death in ancient Egypt surround mummies. But I’m more interested in their funerary rites. How were the ancient Egyptians buried? Did all of them get mummies and sarcophagi? Let’s go back 5,000 years.
The Ancient Egyptian Soul and the Afterlife
Before we talk about the funerals, I want to clarify some beliefs about the Egyptian afterlife. Most sources talk about the process of the soul entering the afterlife and getting judged (as detailed in The Book of the Dead). But what happens after that?
According to scholar Margaret Bunson, author of the Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, the Egyptian afterlife was not in the clouds or underground. The realm of the dead, known as the Field of Reeds, was a mirror image of life on earth. If the proper funerary rites were carried out, souls could eat, drink, and even party.
In ancient Egyptian theology, the soul consisted of nine parts: the khat, ka, ba, shuyet, akh, ab, sahu, sechem, and ren. For the purposes of this article, the most important ones are the ka and akh.
The ka was the vital force that joined the deceased during the burial. It is not the body itself; that’s the khat. The ka was basically a person’s second form that was present during the funeral. When the Egyptians presented offerings, they gave them to the ka.
The akh is the closest concept to our modern-day ghost. It was an immortal, spiritual self that operated within the realm of the living and the dead. In other words, the akh could affect day-to-day life. The Egyptians worked to keep the akh happy so that the deceased wouldn’t haunt them.
Hauntings were taken very seriously. They could cause illness, bring bad luck, or damage a person’s property. According to the World History Encyclopedia, ancient morticians would advertise their services as making a family haunt-free. On the other hand, the akh was also petitioned in curses. Family members could write to the akh and ask them to haunt another person.
During funerals, ancient Egyptians were trying to do two things: (1) help the soul be happy in the afterlife, and (2) prevent the soul from terrorizing them.
One last thing. There are three deities who will frequently pop up throughout this post, so let’s get familiar with Them:
You might be wondering about Anubis. It’s true that He governed funerals and embalming, but He was mostly worshiped by embalmers. Common folk usually called upon Anubis for protection spells (according to Murry Hope in her book, The Ancient Wisdom of Egypt).
Mummies: Were They Really That Common?
First off, not everyone was mummified. The process was expensive and time-consuming, so most of the time, it was reserved for the wealthy. During the Egyptian Empire (3150 - 332 BCE), mummification became affordable and therefore more common. Even if the poor couldn’t afford mummies, they still had a funeral.
Second, the mummification process changed throughout the centuries. It also changed based on the deceased’s wealth and the area they were buried in. Because of this, I’m not going to spend much time talking about mummies.
I’ll give you a brief overview of the mummification process, based on what I read from scholar Salima Ikram. Embalmers would first remove the brain and internal organs. They then covered the body in natron, a type of salt. According to the Smithsonian, natron would remove all moisture from the body, which would prevent the decomposition process. Once the body was dried, embalmers wrapped the corpse in linen (usually hundreds of yards long). They glued the linen together with gum. The entire process took 70 days.
What happened to the people who weren’t mummified? They were still embalmed, but not fully mummified. Instead of being wrapped in linen, the dead wore their old clothes. They were then placed in a coffin and buried, much like today’s dead. Many were also placed in a sarcophagus, a stone container that held the coffin.
The Coffin and Sarcophagus
Many families would also pay for a sarcophagus. The sarcophagus didn’t just protect the body; it also had spiritual uses. Many were inscribed with hieroglyph spells. One was written vertically down the back of the sarcophagus. It gave the soul strength to eat and move around. Sometimes, instructions were carved inside of the sarcophagus. These are called the Coffin Texts and are a fun read for any death worker. In short, they’re a series of instructions that tells the soul what to do and where to go for a happy afterlife.
Once the family had their coffin and sarcophagus, and the body was embalmed, the funeral could begin.
Most funerals started from the embalmer’s tent. The procession followed the coffin, which was carried on a cart pulled by oxen. Relatives walked along either side of the coffin. Usually, there were at least two priestesses there, one for Isis and one for Nephthys. Relatives carried offerings and the deceased’s belongings. If applicable, one person carried the canopic jar. This jar held the corpse’s organs and was buried with the body.
Herodotus described Egyptian funerals as being dramatic, as people plastered their faces with mud and beat their breasts while mourning. It was believed that the Gods and the person’s soul (ka) could hear everyone’s mourning. Also, larger processions were an indication of the deceased’s high status.
In fact, some Egyptians were even hired to join funerals and mourn. These groups were called the Kites of Nephthys (as Nephthys was often depicted with kites), and they were almost always women. During the procession, they would sing “The Lamentation of Isis and Nephthys,” about the two Goddesses weeping over Osiris. Definitely a dream job.
Some processions included extra priests, dancers, and musicians. Basically, the wealthier the deceased, the more dramatic their funeral was.
So where did the procession go? Like us, the Egyptians had cemeteries. Most were buried in a dry spot west of the Nile, since the corpse would dry out more quickly. In many cases, the coffin and mourners would have to board a boat and sail there.
Once they reached the open grave, priests performed a ritual called the Opening of the Mouth. Remember when I said that the dead could eat and drink? The Opening of the Mouth ensured that the deceased could move their arms, legs, and mouth to fully enjoy the afterlife. (This ritual first appeared during the Old Kingdom, 2613 - 2181 BC).
Pretty much every funeral includes some offering to the deceased. Nowadays, offerings are usually flowers placed on the grave. In ancient Egypt, offerings were buried with the body.
Most offerings were items that the deceased owned. Family members would bury their favorite belongings, believing that these items would join them in the afterlife. Food and drink were also common offerings, mainly bread and beer.
I want to thank these sources for providing me with most of the information in this post.
Before researching Ostara, I made a poll for my patrons: Are you more interested in the history of the holiday, or modern worship techniques? My patrons voted for the holiday’s history. In the Wheel of the Year, Ostara is one of the biggest holidays. I thought that I would find a lot of interesting history.
But when I started researching, I was shocked at how many people made incorrect claims. Claims that Ēostre was a major Goddess, that She is equivalent to Astarte and Ishtar, that the holiday had been going on for centuries–all of which are wrong. I am gobsmacked by how much misinformation is out there.
Before I explain why these concepts are wrong, I want to provide some advice. If you want accurate historical information on Pagan holidays, don’t trust the top Google results. Look for museums, universities, and historians who will provide nuance. Even Wikipedia has more accurate information than many of the top blogs listed. And, as I will show later in this article, even university websites can be wrong!
How Significant Was the Goddess Ēostre?
Pre-Christian Germans did not write much down, so even the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda were written later by Christians.
When reading these works, you must keep bias in mind. Although monks were well-educated, they did not know everything about history. Many scholars believe that some of these monks made stuff up, such as the “blood eagle” execution method (seen in Midsommar), which has no evidence in archaeology.
But back to Bede. In all of his writings, Bede only mentioned Ēostre once: in The Reckoning of Time (725), which analyzes medieval and ancient cosmic calendars. In the work, Bede claimed that the holiday came from a spring festival celebrating Ēostre. He also said that the date of Christian Easter was calculated by the Roman monk Dionysus Exiguus, who timed it with the full moon.
This is the only evidence we have of Ēostre. She was only mentioned in passing, and although archaeologists have found evidence of ancient spring celebrations, most did not point towards a specific Goddess. This has lead many scholars to doubt that Ēostre existed.
But if that’s true, where did the names Easter and Ostara come from? In a 2008 paper, linguist R. Sermon provided one possible explanation:
“More recently it has been suggested that Bede was only speculating about the origins of the festival name, although attempts by various German linguists to find alternative origins have so far proven unconvincing. Nevertheless, there may be a more direct route by which Ostern could have entered the German language. Much of Germany was converted to Christianity by Anglo-Saxon clerics such as St Boniface (C.AD 673–754), who could have introduced the Old English name Eastron during the course of their missionary work. This would explain the first appearance of Ostarun in the Abrogans, a late eighth-century Old High German glossary, and does not require any complex linguistic arguments or the existence of a Germanic goddess Ostara.”
To be explicitly clear: I’m not trying to invalidate people who work with the Goddess Ēostre. Personally, I don’t think that deities have to be ancient in order to be valid. That’s why I’m capitalizing Her pronouns. I’m bringing this up because so many blogs claim that Ēostre 100% existed, and that She was historically and spiritually significant. If She existed, She was likely a minor deity.
Ēostre, Astarte, and Ishtar
This time, it was Scottish protestant minister Alexander Hislop. In his book The Two Babylons (1853), Hislop claimed that the name Ēostre was a twist of Astarte, whom he incorrectly equated with Ishtar:
“What means the term Easter itself? It is not a Christian name. It bears its Chaldean origin on its very forehead. Easter is nothing else than Astarte, one of the titles of Beltis, the queen of heaven, whose name, as pronounced by the people of Ninevah, was evidently identical with that now in common use in this country. This name as found by Layard on the Assyrian monuments, is Ishtar.”
All of this is wrong, by the way. Linguists quickly debunked this theory back in the 19th century. If you’re wondering where the word Easter actually comes from, there’s a succinct article in Time that examines the most popular theories.
Despite this, people are still writing about Astarte and Ēostre as if They’re related. And even if the theory were true, Hislop did not say that Astarte and Ēostre were spiritually similar. He claimed that the names were similar, not the Goddesses.
Can we stop repeating these “facts” without researching them first?
One quick tangent before we continue: While writing this post, my husband asked if naming holidays after deities has historical basis. Although it was not common, it has happened. The Roman festival Saturnalia is an obvious example. But it’s much more common for holidays to be named after Catholic saints, such as Brigid’s Day, which I discussed in my Imbolc post.
Did Ancient Spring Celebrations Exist?
All of these misconceptions aside, the core of Ostara is not Ēostre. It’s the spring equinox and the changing of seasons. Did the ancients really celebrate the spring equinox?
Yes, many ancient civilizations celebrated the spring equinox. Shintoism and Hinduism both have holidays around this time: Vernal Equinox Day and Holi, respectively. Nowruz, the Persian New Year, lands on this day. And despite the spread of Islam, Nowruz is still a national holiday in the Republic of Iran.
Remember that changing seasons were especially important for rural communities. By the time spring began, many new livestock had been born, and new seeds had been planted. There was plenty to celebrate.
I also want to note that Ostara, specifically, is part of the Wheel of the Year. This calendar was inspired by ancient Scottish and Irish calendars, with some other traditions thrown in. Gerald Gardner, who founded Wicca and helped establish the Wheel of the Year, believed that Wicca was the ancient religion of the British Isles. Although his theory was incorrect, it inspired a lot of people to revive ancient festivals and holidays.
In the British Isles, not much is known about ancient spring festivals beyond Easter. But some theorize that Stonehenge likely played a role. Druids have been celebrating the spring equinox since the 18th century, which might have inspired some Ostara practices.
Despite being one of the most popular modern Pagan holidays, Ostara has the haziest history. Little is known about it, and what is known is widely debated.
Where Did Ostara's Symbols Come From?
You can’t research Ostara without running into popular Easter symbols such as eggs and bunnies. Many have questioned where these symbols came from. I’ve seen a few people theorize that they were Ēostre’s symbols.
Although historians don’t have a 100% definitive answer, it is widely believed that these symbols were pre-Christian. But they might not have been linked to any specific deity. More likely, they were symbolic representations of spring, namely the land’s fertility.
Fertility is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the Wheel of the Year. When talking about fertility celebrations, we’re not focusing on human fertility. It’s the fertility of the land. I’m sure you’ve heard that the soil becomes fertile during spring. Livestock also become fertile and give birth to baby animals.
Despite what some people say (mostly on anti-Wiccan rants), fertility celebrations are not inherently sexual. In some cases they can be, such as in a fertility spell. But remember that we’re talking about seasonal holidays. The Earth’s ability to grow crops was especially important in ancient times.
How Do We Celebrate Ostara?
If you’re like me, all of this information probably made you more confused about Ostara than before. With such limited historical information, some might wonder whether we should celebrate the holiday at all.
Personally, I think the lack of information frees us to celebrate Ostara however we’d like. Although the ancient traditions disappeared, the core of the holiday is still present. We’re honoring the fertile land, warming weather, equal days and nights, and fruitful days to come.
I haven’t performed a traditional Wiccan ritual in years. It’s hard to even call myself a Wiccan at this point. But I still follow the Wheel of the Year because it forces me to slow down. These holidays remind me to pause, spend time in nature, and be grateful for the Earth that I often ignore.
The spring equinox is a holiday of hope and gratitude. Do whatever reminds you of your blessings and provides hope for the future. If painting eggs gets you in the spring mood, paint. If you want to go on your first spring hike or picnic, do that. If there’s still snow on the ground and you want to stay inside, draw or journal. Just take some time to slow down and thank the Earth.
Everybody takes breaks. We need them to slow down, reflect, and adjust to change. But in religious communities, many people encourage a consistent practice. Do something religious every day, every week, or every morning and night–then you’ll be doing it “right.”
As ideal as this seems, this doesn’t fit into everyday life. Work projects, midterms, health scares, and family emergencies pull us out of worship. Sometimes, a combination of little projects adds up, and the stress makes worship impossible.
Throughout my career, I’ve had many people ask me about reconnecting with a deity after a long break. They usually seem anxious. What if the deity is mad at them? Did they do something wrong? Will the deity understand?
Let’s talk about reconnecting with deities. It might seem daunting, but if you break it down into steps, it becomes much more manageable. Since I've taken a break from working with Hades, I'll do it with you!
Work through the Emotions
This idea is a common misconception about Pagan deities, and it usually stems from insecurity. If we don’t tackle these emotions, they will prevent us from worshiping.
First off, rarely do deities end up hating their followers. Will They be upset? Maybe; I can’t speak for Them. But most of the time, deities understand why you took time off. Remember that They are omniscient. Deities aren’t like family members you forgot to call: They can see your life and many things beyond it.
To relieve guilt and anxiety, I recommend writing a letter to your deity. Explain why you took time off and how you feel about it. Are you worried about what They’ll think? Do you feel disappointed with yourself? What’s preventing you from worshiping again? Be honest with your deities. They’ll appreciate it.
If writing gives you anxiety, try this trick my therapist taught me. Set a timer for two minutes, and write. When the timer goes off, take a break. Watch a funny video, hug a stuffed animal, cry, meditate–do whatever you need to process the emotions. When you feel ready, set the timer for another two minutes.
Brainstorming Worship Ideas
Now that we feel better, we need to figure out how we’ll worship. Many people jump into worshiping the exact same way they did before. But don’t be too hasty!
After a long break, your life and daily schedule are likely different from before. So your old worship routine might not work. In addition, a new worship technique could inspire motivation if you feel burnt out.
Let’s break out our prayer journals or a piece of paper. Create two lists: (1) your former worship routine and (2) new worship ideas.
Writing down your old routine might remind you of what you enjoyed and what you tolerated. Brainstorming new ideas will refresh you.
When I wrote about my Hades worship, here’s what I jotted down:
From these two lists, we can choose which ideas we want to pursue. If you want some more ideas, check out these Pagan prayer journaling prompts.
Notice how low-effort some of these ideas are. We can play music or build digital altars while performing other tasks. That’s great! Worship does not need to be high-effort to be valid, especially when we’re just getting back into it.
Make It Easy
Since it’s been a long time, many worshipers want to perform large, complex rituals. But I recommend going easy. Make your new routine as simple as possible.
Consistent worship is like developing a habit. People are more likely to stick to a habit if it’s easier. If the worship takes too much time or energy, we might not want to do it.
Choose one or two worship techniques from the lists you made earlier. While choosing, consider which ones would be the most fun. We want worship to be enjoyable and something that you look forward to.
Also, don’t think about daily/weekly worship yet. Focus on this one ritual. View this as the “reset” ritual, one that brings you back into the groove. Remember, the less pressure you put on yourself, the more fun your worship will be.
Where Do We Go from Here?
At this point, we’ve done our ritual. We have successfully reconnected with our deity or deities. Now what?
Now is the time to look forward. How often do you want to worship? How often can you feasibly worship? What will you enjoy doing? What works with your schedule?
If you desire a consistent Pagan practice, read this post. But remember not to overload yourself. Keep your routine as simple as possible and add steps over time.
How did it go? What’s your worship routine? Let me know in the comments below!
Other Helpful Posts:
Throughout my six years of blogging, I’ve received a lot of questions about Paganism and Pagan deities. Many of these questions stem from misconceptions about the Gods and Their worship.
To be clear: I don’t blame people for having misconceptions. Pagan religions are not widely discussed or well-known. Most people don’t really know what they’re getting into, only that they’re interested. To make it easier on everyone, I want to clear up some of the most common misconceptions I see throughout the community.
DISCLAIMER: The headlines are the misconceptions. The body text explains why these are incorrect. I want to make this explicitly clear for anyone who is skimming this article.
1. You Must Receive a Sign to Start Working with Deities
This is, by far, the most common misconception throughout the Pagan community. It’s such a common idea that I wrote a whole post about signs, and it’s my most popular page by far.
A lot of people read about worshipers receiving “signs”: the deity’s name keeps popping up, they receive a moving dream, a song keeps playing on the radio, etc. Many people view signs as a deity “choosing” them in a glamorous, esoteric way. Personally, I think it’s more accurate to say that signs are the universe’s way of getting you to consider something.
You do not need a sign to work with a Pagan deity. Although people love writing about signs, not many experience them (or realize that they’re experiencing them). Most Pagans I know reached out to a deity because they were interested in a relationship with Them. You don’t need a tangible reason.
On top of that, many people don’t realize when they’re receiving signs. I initially reached out to Hades because I felt drawn to Him. At the time, I didn’t notice that He kept popping up in my literature, on my social media, in my classes…there were signs, but I wasn’t noticing them.
Signs don’t make you a better or worse worshiper. People who receive signs (or believe that they do) are not more valuable than those who don't. Your Pagan path depends on what you do, not what you see/hear/notice before it even starts.
2. You Have to Be Similar to a Deity
Many people think that they have to work with deities who share some similarity with them. For example, if you’re an artsy person, you might assume that you should work with Brigid, Apollo, or Thoth. But for many people, that’s not how Paganism works.
You do not need to work with a “similar” deity. In fact, I find that many people feel drawn to unexpected deities. I often receive messages such as, “Why do I feel pulled to Hades? I’m not interested in death work and have no major deaths in my life.”
In reality, deities are so much more than They appear to be. Hades is the Lord of the Death, but He also governs finances, seasonal changes, justice, shadow work, and the earth. But most people wouldn’t know this unless they researched Hades and His worship.
So if you feel drawn to a deity and don’t know why, start researching. You might uncover something that will change your perspective.
3. There Are Good and Bad Beginner Deities
This myth deserves an entire post just so I can rant about how much I hate this trend. I’ve seen too many bloggers and authors claim that certain deities are good/bad for beginners. Many people have messaged me, worried about Hades being a “bad beginner deity.”
Who decides which deity is good for beginners? What are the parameters? Is there one person in the entire Pagan community who has worked with every deity in every pantheon, in-depth, to develop a list?
All of these “beginner” lists are subjective. Everybody has a different relationship with the Gods. I, personally, would say that Hades is a fantastic beginner deity because He was to me. Does that mean that He’ll be great for you? Nobody knows. We’re not omniscient. That’s why there is no such thing as a “beginner deity.”
Do not let other authors dictate who you work with. If you feel drawn to a deity, reach out. Only you can determine your Pagan path.
4. Pagan Deities Act like They Do in Myths
You can thank Christian culture and vapid history lessons for this assumption. Many people assume that Pagan myths are (and were) treated like the Bible. If you work with Zeus, you’re working with a deity who bangs every woman in existence, right?
Wrong. Historically, many believed that the myths were not real. Myths were treated as entertainment, stories that explain a natural phenomenon or moral standpoint relevant to the times. The deities who were worshiped in, say, ancient Greece, were not the same deities you see depicted myths.
In ancient worship, Zeus was viewed as a God of justice, morality, order–the deity who makes sure that everything is running smoothly. Similarly, Hera wasn’t viewed as just a jealous Goddess. She protected women, mothers, children, childbirth, and the home.
If you’re interested in Paganism, research how the deities were actually worshiped. Dive into honorifics, rituals, holidays, and cults. Do not rely on the mythos; those will not give you accurate information.
5. You Must Have a Matron/Patron or Be a Devotee
Many Wiccan authors promote the idea of a matron and patron. These are the “main” God and Goddess in a person’s Pagan worship. Similarly, many modern-day worshipers are devotees, meaning that they devote most of their time to a specific deity (or two, or three).
Can you have a matron/patron? Sure. Can you be a devotee? If you want to. But you do not need to. In fact, I recommend that you hold off these labels during early worship.
Matrons, patrons, and devotions are big commitments. People take on these labels because they feel a special closeness to a God/Goddess. But how do you know which deity you feel close to? You won’t until you work with Them for a while.
Don’t feel too eager to devote or adopt labels. Slow down, have fun with it, and learn about yourself and your Gods.
6. You Can Only Work with One Pantheon
A pantheon is a group of Gods in a specific religion/culture, such as the Greek pantheon, Egyptian, etc. You do not have to choose one pantheon. In fact, most Pagans I know work with deities from multiple pantheons.
Whenever I receive questions about pantheons, it’s usually from people who work with one pantheon/deity (let’s say Osiris) and want to branch out to another (let’s say Lugh). They want to know if it’s disrespectful to their current deity to reach out to another.
Usually, there isn’t a problem. But if you want to make sure, contact your current deity. Use divination, prayer, offerings–see what They say. If you don’t feel anything wrong, then you’re probably in the clear.
7. Certain Deities Hate Each Other
I hear these misconceptions so often. “I’ve heard that Horus and Set hate each other. Can I not work with both of Them?” “I’ve heard that Hades hates almost every other deity. Is He a jealous God?”
This is another case where people rely too much on mythology for information about the Gods. Historically, Gods were worshiped together. Although many people worked with one or two deities more often, most worshiped the entire pantheon as a whole. If deities were spiteful or jealous, then this wouldn’t have been possible.
Don’t assume how the Gods will act before They do. Contact Them, listen to Them, and worship in good faith.
8. You Must Have Some Niche Psychic Ability to Communicate with the Gods
I’ve seen many social media users claim to “hear” their deities, dream of Them, see Them, etc. And many others have seen these posts, too. These posts make many Pagans think, “That’s never happened to me–am I doing something wrong?
Some people have used the terms clairsentience, clairaudience, and–as much as I hate this term–”godphone.” It implies that people need some niche psychic ability to communicate with the Gods.
You don’t need any special ability to talk to the Gods. Hell, you don’t even need to be a witch or interested in magic. The only requirements are respect for the Gods and interest in the path.
Ignore people who claim to “hear” or “see” their deities all the time. While these abilities are possible, they rarely happen on a daily basis. And most people who say things like “I heard [God/Goddess] say ___” are just rephrasing their own beliefs.
Most people communicate with the Gods through prayer, divination, meditation, and listening to nature. During your path, you will learn how to hear and see your Gods, in your own way.
9. There Is a “Proper” Way to Pray
Many Pagans use historical prayers or poems in their worship. This has lead some people to believe that they need to speak to the Gods in a “proper” way, or you need professionally-written, rhyming prayers.
There is no “right way” to speak to the Gods. Many people just speak normally. Some people even have nicknames for their deities or inside jokes. If you struggle with Pagan prayer, here’s a post for just this topic.
10. If You Don’t Worship Consistently, the Gods Will Hate You
I’ve heard so many people worry about their Gods “hating” them for skipping a holiday, taking a break, or having a difficult time. And it always makes me so sad.
First off, breaks in spiritual practice are normal. Sometimes, life gets in the way. Health scares, financial troubles, school, familial obligations–-all can interrupt your worship for a period of time. Anyone who says that their worship is constant is lying.
Given that these breaks are normal, I highly doubt a deity would hate you for taking one. Would They be upset with you for skipping a ritual you said you’d fulfill? Maybe. I can’t speak for Them. Personally, I’ve received nothing more than a stern talking to for this. They might be annoyed, but hate? That’s a strong word.
It’s easy to forget that the Gods are omniscient. They understand what you went through, probably better than you do. When worshipers have a difficult time, the Gods are here to help, not scold.
Try not to let your personal views get in the way. In my experience, whenever I thought “so-and-so will hate me,” it’s because I’m being hard on myself. It rarely has to do with the deity in question.
When in doubt, honesty is the best course of action. Were you struggling? Were you doubting (which is also normal)? Do you feel guilty? Are you having a hard time returning to worship? Talking to the Gods will not only relieve your emotions, but it could also grant you some clarity.
The Gods are generally kinder and more understanding than some people give Them credit for. Never assume what the Gods will think without consulting Them yourself.
There are many other topics that I didn’t cover here, such as initiation, cultural appropriation, and historical accuracy. If you would like a sequel to this post, leave a comment below.
I often get asked what “intermediate” witches and magicians should study. If you want to improve your Craft but don’t know where to start, I recommend researching folklore. It is the basis of most of the world’s magical practices.
Which folklore should you study and why? That’s what I want to explore in this post. Keep in mind that these are just ideas, and ultimately, you should pursue whatever captures your attention.
What Is Folklore?
Although a lot of people equate folklore with superstitions, it’s much more complicated. According to Wikipedia, folklore is “the body of culture shared by a particular group of people; it encompasses the traditions common to that culture, subculture, or group.” The American Folklore Society expands upon this definition, saying that folklore covers “art, stories, knowledge, and practices of the people.” Folklorists study a wide range of topics, including holidays, oral stories, funerals, dances, and urban legends.
When it comes to witchcraft, practitioners study folklore for its magic, superstitions, and beliefs about spirits. This is what separates a brujería from a pellar. Brujerías pull from Latin American and Afro-Caribbean folklore, while pellars study British magic.
If you have a culture-specific path, you already know which folklore(s) to focus on. But if you have no idea, here are some options.
Why Is Folklore Important in Magic?
Before we continue, I want to argue why folklore is important to the Craft. Frankly, I would say that it’s essential. Folklore is the basis of magic in many cultures, and without it, most modern magical paths–including Wicca and eclectic witchcraft–would not exist.
For many cultures, magic is a way of preserving tradition. Many study folklore to honor their ancestors or connect to their heritage. But that’s not the only reason to choose a folklore (or a few) to study.
Although folklores have many similarities, they also have several differences. In my post Magical Uses for Cemetery Water and Snow, I mentioned that cultures have different beliefs about ghosts and water. In Thailand, Japan, and the Balkans, ghosts can inhabit water. But in Scotland and the American South, ghosts are said to avoid water–so much that people painted their porches blue so that ghosts wouldn’t enter.
(Caves are another common theme in folklore with different associations and magical significance. To read more, click here.)
In addition, cultures use different methods to achieve the same results. Honoring Russian ancestors will look very different from honoring Chinese ancestors. Both are effective and valid but require unique practices.
If you try to follow every culture’s folklore, you’ll end up getting confused and go nowhere. The history of magic, healing remedies, folk charms, and oral superstitions will reveal much about magic that you might not have known.
Which Folklore Is “Right”?
You might be wondering which folklore is the “right one.” That’s like asking which theory about the afterlife is correct; no one truly knows, and the argument gets people nowhere. Personally, I think the better question is, “Which folklore is ideal for my Craft, specifically?”
Some witches are very talented with tarot; others prefer runes. In the same vein, some people get great results from one folklore’s practices and fewer results with another. How do you know which one works best? Practice and personal experience.
If you’re American, you might think that this country has no folklore (except for Native American lore, which is available only to them). But that’s not true. Where cultures go, folklore follows. I truly believe that spirits of that culture will follow as well. American folklore has blended aspects of several immigrant cultures.
Certain spirits and deities will not work with people outside of that culture. I mentioned Native American practices earlier as a good example; so is Hoodoo. These are called “closed cultures,” and they limit initiation to people within those cultures. But many cultures are open or tied to where you live.
With that out of the way, let’s dive into some ideas about which folklore(s) to study.
Your Culture / Ethnicity
To be clear: your magical path and religion do not have to intersect. I know plenty of magicians who pull from Christian ceremonial magic but don’t pray to Jesus outside of the required magical prayers. Why do they do this? Because they find that it brings results.
Some people feel that they cannot disconnect their heritage from religion. Personally, when I research Irish folklore for my ancestor work, I dive into Irish Catholicism as well. Catholicism is so deeply ingrained in my family’s history that I cannot separate them. (I also recommend that you honor your ancestors’ religious preferences as well.) Others prefer to work with ancient Irish Pagan deities instead, and that’s also a good path. It all boils down to how you approach your culture and religion.
Where You Live
Traditional witchcraft and folk magic both rely on one thing: your local area. Practitioners speak to local land spirits, use native plants, and research the history and superstitions of that area.
But you don’t have to be a trad witch to research your local folklore. Depending on where you live, this could yield some fascinating results. It can also help you feel more connected to the land and your area’s history.
You can learn a lot from local museums and landmarks in your area. Researching local plants also tells you a lot. (Don’t go out foraging without proper guidance, though.) Libraries and bookstores often offer books about native herbs, trees, birds, and more.
Pulling from More than One Folklore
Most practitioners I know pull from more than one folklore. How does one juggle two or three folk practices? It depends on the magician and how they practice.
Whenever I work with a Pagan deity, I work within their cultural context. For instance, I wouldn’t give an Egyptian deity Greek offerings. The same goes for ancestors. In order to honor these deities and spirits properly, I have to research their history.
Much of my death witchcraft is guided by these Pagan deities, so I use ancient Pagan sources for necromancy. But I’ll use British sources for ancestor work. When it comes to more general spellwork–such as money spells, home protection, etc.--I have freedom to choose. I try different methods and figure out which is the most effective.
If I had to explain my magical practice, it would look like this:
But that’s just me. You might have a different method. Let me know how folklore impacts your Craft in the comments below.
I’ve always been fascinated with magical word symbols such as the sator square. How did these words become magical? Why are they arranged in a specific shape?
Most of these symbols are magical word squares (as opposed to magic squares that feature numbers–-see Agrippa’s planetary squares). However, some are arranged in different shapes, such as an upside-down triangle or an oval. The word squares are usually associated with British pellars and cunningfolk, as British folk author Gemma Gary recorded many of them.
But while I was researching them, I found that most of these symbols stem from two authors: a second-century Roman physician and an Egyptian Jewish mage from the 14th century. So how did these symbols end up in Britain? That’s what I want to explore in this post.
The Origin of Magical Word Symbols
Many of these magical squares and palindromes were discovered during excavations. The sator square, by far the most well-known of these symbols, was first found in Pompeii. Even some palindromes made with Greek letters were found as far north as Denmark.
However, many can be traced back to the two authors I mentioned earlier. The first is Serenus Sammonicus (birth unknown, died 212 AD), the personal physician to Roman Emperor Caracello Quintus.
Sammonicus practiced many magical remedies that he learned from his mentors and borrowed from earlier occult authors such as Pliny the Elder. His most famous work, Res Reconditae, is a series of five books featuring natural remedies. Most notably, Sammonicus recorded the ABRACADABRA palindrome and ABLANA / ANALBA. I’ll cover both of these later.
The second author is an Egyptian mage named Abraham, or Abramelin (sometimes spelled Abra-Melin). A teacher of Jewish magic, he was said to live from 1362 to 1458, although historians debate whether he actually existed.
Abramelin’s life was documented in the book, The Book of Abramelin. This 17th-century manuscript features 12 parts and hundreds of spells. But it is most well-known for its magical word squares.
Abramelin created these magic squares out of Hebrew words. However, the earliest found version of the book was in German, as he was said to live in Germany. Although the author quotes many Bible verses, he took them from a Roman Catholic version of the Bible, written in Latin Vulgate. To put it simply, these magic squares are made from Hebrew words that have been Latinized.
So how did these end up in Britain? In the 19th century, occultist Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers translated the work into English. Mathers was highly influential. As one of the founders of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, he pioneered modern ceremonial magic.
Mathers’ translation, which he titled The Sacred Book of Abramelin the Mage, skyrocketed in popularity during the late 19th and early 20th century. I believe that is how these magic circles ended up in British folk magic.
Given how complicated the history is (Roman > Egyptian > Europe and beyond), I’m going to divide these symbols into two categories: Greek/Latin and Latinized Hebrew.
Greek / Latin Magical Palindromes
Latin word symbols were usually arranged within a square, while ancient Greek ones came in different shapes.
The Sator Square
Translators believe that Arepo is a name, possibly of Egyptian origin. (Arepo appears nowhere else in Latin literature.) So the palindrome translates to “The farmer Arepo has [as] works wheels.” In other words, Arepo plows with wheels, possibly with difficulty due to the connotations.
What does this meaning have to do with magic? Well…nothing, as far as I can tell. The point is less about the literal meaning and more about how the letters are arranged. The sator square is unique in this aspect; most other magical word symbols have relevant meanings. The Romans also had many other similar palindromes, so I don’t know why the sator square became the most popular.
The sator square has been put on walls, doors, churches, houses, and barns. Although it came from the Mediterranean, it has been seen as far north as France. Folk magicians often wrote it on paper and folded it to put in witch bags. The type of paper and color ink depended on the spell.
Speaking of magic, the sator square is a protective symbol. In folk magic, the sator square has also put out fires, cooled fevers, protected livestock, and removed fatigue from travelers.
The Pater Noster Square A-O
The square has paster noster in a cross shape with the A’s and O’s in the corners. The oldest evidence of the paster noster square comes from the second century; it is one of the earliest examples of Christianity in Britain.
Like the sator square, the pater noster square is a protective symbol. It’s sometimes used for healing as well. Think of it as a shortened version of the Lord’s Prayer, which asks God to keep food on the table, forgive debts, and guard against evil.
ABLANA / ANALBA
So what does the palindrome mean? The most direct translation is, “Iahweh is the bearer of the sacred name, the lion of Re secure in his shrine.” Iahweh is an Egyptian name and possibly refers to a deity. Some believe that this name is a version of God's name.
During the 5th century, Christianity was the official religion of Rome, but Pagan beliefs still thrived despite being outlawed. The IAEW-palindrome is a fascinating example of how these religions mixed in the Roman Empire.
Funnily enough, Polish researcher Joachim Śliwa noted that the scribe made a mistake. The author wrote “P” instead of “V.” Throughout history, most examples of this palindrome include the P, meaning that this spelling mistake turned into a widely-used magic symbol.
The IAEW-palindrome has been found in divinatory kits. The symbol likely connects magicians to the Gods and spirits. Sometimes, it is drawn with an Ouroboros around it.
Latinized Hebrew Magic Squares That Ended up in Britain
Most of these magical word squares were recorded in Gemma Gary’s book The Black Toad: West Country Witchcraft and Magic. I don’t know where Gary got these because she often doesn’t cite her sources. But when I researched the words, all of them came from The Sacred Book of Abramelin the Mage. Gary refers to these as British pellar spells, but they were likely used in Jewish magic as well.
The Book of Abramelin lists dozens, if not hundreds, of these magic squares. So I am not going to list all of them. I’m going to focus on a few from Gemma Gary’s books, since these have risen in popularity since the 2010s.
Unlike the previous palindromes, many of these don’t have official names. Abramelin did not name his spells, so I will reference them by their uses. All photos are from Gary's book.
Square for Love
But what does it mean? According to Abramelin, raiah is a female companion. It’s also a popular Jewish name meaning “queen of power.” Haiah comes from Arabic and means “modest,” although it could also be referencing Nith-Haiah, the angel of wisdom and magic.
Igogi is harder to translate. It might reference the Greek word agoge, which refers to the speed of music. If anyone knows Hebrew and can think of a connection, let me know.
I don’t know the translation for this square; this will be a common trend in this section. The Book of Abramelin does not translate all the words, and some of them have multiple meanings. I’m not going to act like I’m a Hebrew expert and try to translate these, but I will list their magical uses.
For Divination in General
According to The Book of Abramelin, milon comes from the Greek milos, meaning “fruit tree.” It might also come from the Hebrew MLVN, roughly translated to “the diversity of things.” Irago stems from the Greek eira, meaning “inquiry” or “question.” Lamal is “probably from Chaldaic,” and that’s all Abramelin says about it. Ogari possibly stems from the Hebrew OGR, “to swallow” or “swiftly flying thing.” Nolim is from the Hebrew word meaning “hidden or covered things.” I’m not a linguist, so I don’t want to try to translate the whole sentence.
Magicians put this symbol on divination tools or in their hat prior to divination.
For Divination, Mirrors and Crystals
According to The Book of Abramelin, gilionin is a version of the Chaldaic word GLIVNM, meaning “mirrors.”
This symbol is placed beneath or in front of the divination tool. People have used it on crystal balls, seeing glasses, magical mirrors, and more.
These magical words either have unknown meanings or are used in an unusual method. All are fairly popular in folk magic and deserve a discussion.
Magicians often write it on paper, fold it, and include it in healing bags. It is also carved into amulets that one can wear. Coral stones, metal, and birch paper are common materials to write it on.
Despite researching these words for days, I cannot find a translation of the word nalgah. If you have an idea, please let me know. But from what I can find, the word relates to spirit power, specifically the power of the serpent.
This symbol is similar to the sator square, and both symbols are written on either side of a charm for protection. It seems to draw upon the power of spirits as well.
The tetragrammaton is the five-letter Hebrew word for God’s name. As a magic symbol, it is actually three words–-or, rather, the same word written in three different languages. The first line is Phoenician, the second is Paleo-Hebrew, and the third is Hebrew.
I’m not going to include a picture because this symbol is unique to Kabbalah, a closed Jewish practice that requires lengthy study and initiation. Although the tetragrammaton is easy to find, you won’t know how to use it unless you understand Kabbalah. I can find information on how NOT to use it, but that’s about it.
Interestingly, ceremonial and folk practitioners got around this by writing the word tetragrammaton. As many know, the word tetragrammaton means “five-lettered word,” so they’re literally writing “five-lettered word” on top of other Hebrew words, assuming that everyone will know what they’re referring to. Here’s an example from Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall:
What Do I Do with this Information?
This post is a general overview of some magical word squares and palindromes. Note that each one needs to be used in a specific way. Don’t assume that one method will work for another one.
I find it intriguing that most authors will list these magical words, but not mention where they came from. In my opinion, that’s a massive oversight. There’s a lot of discourse over the use of Hebrew words in ceremonial and folk magic. Although we will never remove Hebrew from these practices, we should at least give credit where credit is due.
Many have also pointed out that these symbols were probably used before Res Reconditae and The Book of Abramelin. And I’m not disputing that. I believe there is much more associated with these symbols than we currently know. Some words, like abracadabra, may remain undefined forever. Historical evidence for folk magic, especially ancient Pagan magic, is very difficult to find.
Until we discover more, we’ll run with what we know. Those who read Hebrew might have corrections and additions to this post, in which case, please comment! We can always learn more.
Thanks so much for staying with me on this unusually long post. Hope you enjoy!
This is the first post in the 2022 Sabbat Series.
When I research Pagan holidays, I tend to avoid Pagan-focused sites. I prefer to pull from scholarly historical sources (such as museums, newsletters, the BBC, etc.) to learn unbiased history. But the more I looked into Imbolc, the less Pagan it became. Most of Imbolc’s history is rooted in Christianity, albeit with obvious Pagan roots.
So today, I want to relay Imbolc’s real history–not as some modern Pagans like to tell it, but how it actually was.
What Is Imbolc?
Imbolc, pronounced “oi-melc,” marks the halfway point between winter and spring. It lands on February 1st and 2nd, although Brigid's Eve (January 31st) was also important in ancient rituals.
Imbolc comes from the ancient Irish word im bolc (im bolg in modern Irish), which means “in the belly.” It refers to milk being in the belly of a sheep. This is the time when farm animals start to reproduce and lactate. The holiday was celebrated in Medieval Ireland and Scotland, although some scholars believe that it was pre-Christian.
According to the ancient Celtic calendar, Imbolc was the first “Fire Festival.” Fire Festivals were the four cornerstones of the year; they represented weather and harvest changes. The other three Fire Festivals also made it into the modern Wheel of the Year: Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain.
Although there are many traditions and beliefs associated with Imbolc, three symbols come up over and over again:
The History of Imbolc
The earliest mention of Imbolc is from poetry that was written between the 7th and 8th centuries. The most famous example was Táin Bó Cúailnge, "The Driving-off of Cows of Cooley.” Often called “The Irish Iliad,” this epic poem tells a group of tales that take place in 1st century Ireland.
Poetry from this period associates Imbolc with ewe’s milk, which in turn represents purity. Some also connect it to St. Brigid (whom I will discuss later).
Remember when I said that Imbolc might be pre-Christian? There is some evidence for that. To start, Christianity did not arrive in Ireland until the 5th century. (Some evidence indicates that Christianity might have been there earlier, but we don’t know for certain.) And conversion was not immediate. Contrary to popular belief, the British Isles flip-flopped between Paganism and Christianity for centuries. It is unclear when Britain became fully Christian, as rural communities often held on to their Pagan roots during the early Middle Ages.
And although Táin Bó Cúailnge was written down in the 7th century, it was an oral tradition long before that. Since most people were illiterate, most religious traditions were oral, which makes them very difficult to track from a historical perspective.
Some evidence suggests that Imbolc was celebrated in Neolithic Ireland, albeit under a different name. Some Neolithic tombs, including the Mound of the Hostages and Cairn L, were aligned with the sunrise on Imbolc and Samhain. To clarify, though, this is not enough evidence to ensure that Imbolc was 100% Neolithic, as some websites claim.
But the biggest aspect of Imbolc–the part that is simultaneously the most “Christian” and the most “Pagan”--is Brigid. Both the Irish Goddess Brigid and St. Brigid, patron saint of Ireland.
Brigid vs. St. Brigid
Despite Brigid being such a well-known Goddess, not much is known about how She was worshiped. (I won’t dive too deep into Her worship because this is an Imbolc post, not a Brigid one.) One of the earliest written records of her was Cormac’s Glossary, a 9th-century Irish glossary written by Christian scribes. It spoke about Her mythology, but not Her worship or rituals.
Most of what modern Pagans now associate with Brigid actually relates to St. Brigid.
St. Brigid, according to medieval Irish records, was an abbess who founded Ireland’s first nunnery, Kildare. Along with her charity work, she was said to have performed various miracles, mostly related to healing. Although the earliest records of St. Brigid came from the 7th century, she was said to have lived from 451 to 525.
Historians debate over whether St. Brigid was a real person. Most believe that she was a Christian version of the Celtic Goddess. The two share many similarities; for instance, St. Brigid is the patron saint of blacksmiths, farmers, livestock, children, travelers, watermen, and poets. See the similarities?
The process of converting a Pagan deity, tradition, or church into a Christian one is called syncretism. Not only was it a common method of conversion–it was the most effective. When I took a university course on the conversion from Paganism to Christianty, I learned that conversion accelerated when missionaries started tweaking Pagan traditions.
Churches would be built on sacred Pagan spots; holidays such as harvest festivals became Christian celebrations; Pagan deities became Christian saints. These conversion techniques were incredibly effective because people didn’t have to change their daily lives. Knowing this, it’s not a stretch to assume that St. Brigid is a canonized version of Brigid.
Let’s start with Brigid’s cross, which has become a reclaimed Pagan symbol. Despite the name, the cross is associated with St. Brigid of Kildore. Historically, people would make these crosses and hang them above windows and doorways to prevent harm. Early versions also had three arms instead of four.
According to the Irish Central Newsletter, the biggest celebration of Imbolc was Brigid’s bed. Brigid was said to walk the earth on Imbolc Eve, and women would prepare for her arrival.
Women and girls made dolls of Brigid called Brideog (meaning “little Brigid”). Nowadays, most Brideogs are corn dolls, but people also made them from oats and rushes. The women would make a bed for the doll to lie in and stay up all night with her. In the morning, men would ask permission to enter the home and treat the doll with respect, as if she were a guest.
Other rituals were popular on Imbolc Eve. Before bedtime, women would lay a cloth or piece of clothing outside for Brigid to bless (called a “Bratog Bride”). These clothes were said to gain healing and protection powers. To ensure that Brigid passed by, the head of the household would smother the fire and rake the ashes smooth. In the morning, they’d check the ashes for any disturbance to see if Brigid walked by.
Like the Goddess, St. Brigid was said to bring the light back into springtime after a long period of darkness. Offerings to her included coins and snacks.
Modern Imbolc Celebrations
In terms of magic, spells having to do with cleansing, divination, fertility, and love will all be effective.
So Is Imbolc Christian or Pagan?
In short, it’s both. Imbolc is a perfect example of syncretism. The holiday’s traditions have become so blended that it’s hard to discern what belonged to which religion.
In the occult community, many people say that the more you study folklore, the less you know. The same goes for religious history. Even acclaimed historians struggle with the gaps in historical evidence. Modern Pagans can never perfectly reconstruct a holiday. We can only celebrate with what we know and what we want to do.
If you want to honor the Goddess Brigid, do it. If you want to connect to St. Brigid, do it. If you aren’t drawn to either figure but celebrate Imbolc still, do that. Approach this holiday however it may fit your spiritual path.
These articles greatly helped me in researching this post.
Thank you to my patrons, who encouraged me to make this Sabbat series.
“What’s the difference between necromancy and death witchcraft?” I receive that question often, which is why it’s in the “About Death Witchcraft” section of this website. But I want to expand upon it here.
To start, the term death witchcraft is relatively new. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were only a decade old. I first encountered it on Tumblr and Reddit forums around 2016, and very few people used the term. I actually changed my Tumblr URL to death-witch-envy so that others could find me.
Death witchcraft is a magical practice in which people communicate with and honor the dead. Death witches also work with the energy of death itself. We come to terms with our own mortality and work through spiritual “deaths” in our lives, such as a job loss, divorce, or moving to a new area.
If this sounds vague, it’s because every death witch path is different. Some people work with deceased children; others, only adults. Some work with dead plants and animals. There are religious death witches, secular ones, and ones who work as morticians or death doulas.
In most cases, death witches work to heal the dead. We help the dead through their trauma and pass on. We also honor the dead to keep their memories alive. While other magical paths focus on power, we aim for peace and charity.
It’s important that you understand how complex death witchcraft is, because necromancy is not nearly as varied.
The word necromancy comes from the Greek words nekrós ("dead body") and manteía ("divination by means of"). In short, it means “divination of the dead.”
Necromancers, both modern and ancient, communicate with the dead through divination. Why? Because the dead have wisdom. In almost every folklore and spirituality, the dead know facts about the past, future, and present that necromancers can learn from. The dead can also help with certain spells.
But what about “raising the dead”? What about raising corpses from their graves Lovecraft style? To understand where this idea came from, we need to examine the complex history of necromancy.
An Abridged History of Necromancy
Because necromancy is one of the world’s most ancient magical practices, its history is long and complicated. Necromancy has roots in ancient Babylon, Greece, Rome, and Egypt. It also went by many names; in ancient Greek literature, it was called nekyia.
Contrary to popular belief, the ancients viewed necromancy as taboo even back then. Most cultures believed that disturbing the dead came with spiritual risks. Necromancy was a last resort of sorts–think of Odysseus descending into the Underworld to learn how to sail home after 10 years.
That said, it was still a popular form of divination in some areas, especially Persia. Necromancy was usually conducted by priests or magicians. People contacted the dead to receive protection or prophecies. For example, if one believed that they were being haunted, they might have consulted a necromancer to ask what they should do.
Although the corpse was used in some cases, most forms of necromancy did not use the human body. Some magicians performed rites over the grave. Others used human bones for magical tools. But for the most part, the practice was similar to today: inducing trance states, chanting, discerning visions, calling upon deities, etc.
Necromancy was more taboo in Jewish and Christian religions. Because of this, it rapidly declined in popularity by the Early Middle Ages.
Medieval priests deemed necromancy as maleficium, or evil magic. They believed that, although necromancers could contact the dead, they needed the help of demons to do so. The Church claimed that demons took on the appearance of souls. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia,
“The Church does not deny that, with a special permission of God, the souls of the departed may appear to the living, and even manifest things unknown to the latter. But, understood as the art or science of evoking the dead, necromancy is held by theologians to be due to the agency of evil spirits.”
Despite necromancy being forbidden, classical magicians still performed it. The Middle Ages and early Renaissance periods feature incredibly complex necromantic rituals. This is where you find spells filled with garbled Latin, guttural trance states, seals, sigils, lengthy prayers–all the steps that many now associate with ceremonial magic.
Many ceremonial necromancers put the soul back into the corpse and let it speak. If you’re wondering where the idea of necromancy zombies came from, this is likely the origin. Necromancers would perform rituals in cemeteries and catacombs. Believing that the dead spoke softly, they would press their ears to the corpse’s lips.
But if you were to pick up a book on necromancy from the Late Middle Ages, these rituals would be few and far between. During this time, necromancy was associated with demonaltry and demonic magic. I’ve had a few people ask me why many necromancy books feature demons; this is why.
Obviously, I am generalizing here. Necromancy took on many different forms in different cultures and religions. For example, African necromancy looked nothing like European Christian necromancy. But I’m focusing on European necromancy to explain where the stereotypical “raising the dead” idea came from.
As a side note, “raising the dead” does not always mean “turn a corpse into a zombie.” The word raise, according to the Cambridge dictionary, also means “to cause to exist” or “to communicate with someone.” So this phrase still applies to divination.
But back to the history. Oddly enough, necromancy bounced back into popularity during the Victorian Era, mainly due to the Ouija board. Seances became the most popular method of necromancy during the 20th century. By the time of the New Age Movement, the word necromancy became associated with horror, fantasy, and D&D. Nowadays, most magicians don’t call themselves necromancers due to these connotations.
So What Are the Differences?
To summarize, divination of the dead, in any form, is necromancy. But death witchcraft encompasses much more: healing the dead, working with death energy, shadow work, and more.
You could say that necromancy is an aspect of death witchcraft.
If you’re reading this post to decide what to call yourself, know that you don’t have to choose between these terms. You can use both as I do. You could also use a different term, such as death worker, spirit worker, medium, or just witch. The label is not as important as the practice.