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The “Pagan Days”

This article is an excerpt from the multi-volume Secret History of the Witches, a forthcoming sourcebook on European women's spiritual traditions: the goddesses, sanctuaries, and priestesses, and later, the folk religion that persisted under state Christianity. These books attempt to reweave the torn fabric of lost culture, and to recover the spiritual riches of a cosmovision which Europe once held in common with the rest of the world.

The Secret History also probes the political underpinnings of religion in Europe: how women were barred from the priesthood, how Goddess reverence was attacked as heresy and devil-worship, and how witch persecutions became a means of repressing women's speech, power, and self-determination. Read the Table of Contents for an overview of the scope of this work.

Excerpted from The Witches' Goddess, unpublished MS; © 2007 Max Dashu.

As christianization proceeded, the magically charged transitional days of the winter holiday were renamed. In the Balkans, they came to be called the "unbaptized days." (So was the transition from waning to new moon.) The Slovenes of Styria called the winter festival "wolf nights." Bulgarians named them "heathen days," "dirty days," or "dog days," for a time when demons attacked the world tree of the earth pillar. [Pocs, 17, 22. The negative tone, she notes on 24, "is perhaps the result of a secondary development."]

These strange names for the "Christmas" season acknowledge a senior cultural reality: The Winter Nights are consecrated to the Old Goddess. Hers is the time of darkness, when the storm demons nearly swallow the sun, spirits of the dead traverse the heavens, and the ritual hearth fires reassert the sun's power. [Pocs, 22-3] Thus in some parts of central Europe these are the "Ember Nights," conveying memories of people gazing into the glowing coals during the long dark of this festival.

Dalmatians called the storm demons poganica (the pagans) or the "unbaptized." They are also called the irudica, rudica, or "the accursed troop of Herodias," from whose name they derive. [Pocs, 17. The "c" in these names is pronounced "ts."] The ancestral dead traveling the dark nights were the moroi in Rumania, or the nav / navi among the Slovenes, Macedonians and Bulgarians. Islanders north of Scotland agreed that the trows (trolls, only more like faeries) had free rein during the Yules. [Briggs, 415]

Over much of Europe the Ember Nights were the time when people expected to catch sight of dead friends and relatives as the goddess's retinue passed by. Thuringian peasants turned out to watch for frau Holle's throng on the Thursday of Shrovetide. The recently dead could be seen among the hosts, along with fantastic beings who rode on two-legged horses or on wheels, who hauled their own legs over their shoulders or ran along headless. Eckhart, an old man with a white staff, walked ahead, warning people away from the spirit procession. In southern Germany, Berhta was preceded by her "muffled servitor" Rupper, Ruprecht, Hersche, Harsche or Hescheklas. [Grimm, 934-5]

There was a danger that people could be drawn away from the world of the living by these enchanted processions. A German legend in the Frankenwald mountains told of a boy who heard a haunting song as the Wild Riders passed by. Seduced by its beauty, he was overcome by a longing to be with Frau Hulda. Three days later, he died, and his parents realized he preferred Frau Hulda's realm to Heaven. People in this region kept an eye on their children, lest "they wander in the forests with Frau Holle til the Last Judgment." [Rey-Flaud, 178]

The Old Goddess received the dead into her company, especially unbaptized infants and those who died untimely deaths.

The Unbaptized
The Old Goddess received the dead into her company, especially unbaptized infants and those who died untimely deaths. Both groups made the journey from one world to another without receiving Christian rites of passage. Since unchristened babies were presumed to be outside the Christian god's protection, people continued to picture them with the pagan goddess, always a giver and protector of children.

In France, fountain goddesses who had been syncretized with the Virgin Mary were said to miraculously revive children so that they could be baptized. This belief in "respite baptism" arose in response to the Christian doctrine that all who had not undergone the christening rite would be damned. (The doctrine of limbo did not emerge until the Catholic Reformation, under strong popular pressure.) These compassionate folk beliefs bridged the pagan past and the Christian present. Several animist "respite sanctuaries" appeared on sites previously consecrated to a Gaulish mother goddess in Burgundy. [Rouselle, 300]

In Savoy, too, legal records of 1664 and 1669 show that the ancient Celtic fountain goddess known as Notre Dame de la Vie was believed to revive stillborn infants long enough for them to be baptized. In this way the animist folk divinity performed an end run around the Church doctrine that unbaptized infants would be damned. The people refused to accept this cruel idea, and theologians later modified the doctrine by consigning the babies (and good heathens) to limbo. [Thevenot, 198]

In the German Orla-gau, Perchta keeps little ones who died before baptism. She is ferried across the river with them, recalling Greek and Scandinavian myths of crossing the underworld river of death. Another version says that Perchta, queen of the heimchen [appears to be a diminutive of heim, "home," an affectionate term for the dead babies] lived in the fertile Saale valley. She fructified the land by plowing it underground, while her heimchen watered the fields. "At last the people fell out with her, and she determined to quit the country."

Late on Perchta's eve, the ferryman at Altar was confronted by a tall, stately lady surrounded by crying children. Demanding to be ferried to the other side of the river, she got into the barge. The heimchen loaded in a plough and tools, lamenting that they had to leave that lovely land. Perchta made the ferryman cross again to get the rest of the children. The whole time she was mending the plough. She gave the leftover chips as her fare. The ferryman only took three; by morning they had turned to gold. [Grimm, 932, 276]

The Danish huldra received infants who died unchristened, and was seen traveling with multitudes of them on Twelfth Night. [Grimm, 1418] Slovenians called the goddess leading the souls of the dead Quaternica, Pehtra Baba, or Zlata Baba ("golden crone"). [Pocs, 67]

The goddess who leads the company of the dead seems to have ancient Indo-European roots.

The goddess who leads the company of the dead seems to have ancient Indo-European roots. In the high mountains of central Asia, the Tadjik also had a storm goddess who governed the dead, especially souls of children, and who ruled women's preparation of milk products and work with hemp fibers. [Pocs, 26] In much the same way, the European folk goddesses received the dead, led them in traveling across the skies during storms, and also oversaw all work associated with spinning.

The Unbaptized appeared as will-o-the-wisps, as the French feu follets [Rey-Flaud, 179] and the English spunkies. People said that the spunkies came to church on Midsummer Eve to meet the newly dead, and they guided the year's ghosts to funeral services on Halloween. But the Scottish tarans flitted through the woods lamenting their fate. [Briggs, 389] The Whisht-Hounds of Dartmoor were said to pursue unbaptized babies but, in some versions, the hounds were the babies. [Rey-Flaud]

Spirits of the Wild
Balkan names for the "pagan" or "unbaptized" storm demons are echoed in the Greek kallikantzaroi, the term both for Winter Nights spirits and for infants who died unbaptized. Sicilians called these beings paganeddu, "little pagans," and the German name heiden (or heiden-wolf) meant the same thing.

Rumanians believed that the dead returned as snakes. [Beza, 41] The Greeks also called unbaptized babies drakoi, "snakes," in the belief that they might turn into snakes and vanish. [Thomson, 119] A Greek story tells of a peasant woman of Diklo who confounded the Winter Nights spirits (kallikantzaroi) by dancing naked before them until the sun rose. [Rey-Flaud, 30]

In the Macedonian plain of Saraghiol, processions of the callicanzari could be seen from a stone named Kiatra Schuligan: "... below the rock there opens up an abyss, black and deep, whence can be heard all through the night now bursts of merriment, now laughter drowned in sobs, terrible roars and sometimes the sound of pipes and the beating of drums — yes, yes, the beating of innumerable drums." [Beza, 66-7]

This Macedonian lore of the kallikantzaroi connects high rock formations with the dead, especially infants who died without baptism. Similar associations were made by the Scots, who used to have a custom of burying unbaptized babies among inaccessible rocks. The child's spirit entered into the rocks and became the echo (called "child of the rock" in Gaelic). [Carmichael, 190]

the wild hunt

The Wild Hunt, 1852 engraving after Maurice Sand

The all-too-common deaths of infants and children were often mythically interpreted as a carrying-off by the Wild Hunter or Wütende Heer ("Furious Host") or Hellequin. The Perchten crones' behavior, leaping and capering in the winter nights, was described as a "hunt" for souls, especially those of children. A French Alps saying that witches carried off children in the Wild Hunt refers to the life-and-death power of the old deities. Their divine nature is reflected in German proverbs predicting that when the Wild Hunt passed, it would be a good year, or that all would be green. [Rey-Flaud, 187; 177-8; 204]

Riding the Storms
In Germany a wild hunter called Hackelberg rode in storms and during the Twelve Nights. First the baying of hounds was heard, then the night-owl Tutosel flew in the vanguard. (One story makes her a nun who joined the Wild Hunt.) Or Gudrun, the Nibelung heroine, led the Wild Hunt. The host passed by with barking dogs and cries of "huhu!" Travelers who sighted them prostrated themselves in silence, like worshippers. In some tales Hackelberg came into conflict with a minister, and for his defiance he was forced to hunt until Judgement Day. [Grimm, 922]

Sometimes the wild hunter was equated with the god Wodan. Later he became equated with the devil, whom German folktales cast as Greencoat or the hunter-in-green. Herne the Hunter, or Harry-ca-nab, was said to hunt boar with the devil near Bromsgrove in Worcester. In Germany, too, the wild hunter often chased boar. Those foolish enough to repeat his cry were visited with fright when a horse's haunch or hoof came crashing through the window, or down the chimney. Sometimes it was the thigh of a man, or of the woodwife. [Grimm, 1606; 1591, 930]

About a thousand years ago the clergy began to reinterpret the Wild Hunt as a host of sinners undergoing divine punishment.[1] The Spanish called the nocturnal procession of suffering souls "the ancient host" or simply la hueste, both of which connote an army of spirits. Another name, la buena gente, answers to the Celtic title of the faeries, "the good people." [Menendez-Pelayo I, 288]

The wild hunter Hellequin/Harlequin often led processions with a cart full of unbaptized babies. Around 1500 such a Hellekin's cart was mentioned in the Vaud country. The English called these wild processions Hurlewayn, "Herle's cart." People dressed up in animal skins — or shrouds, representing the dead — and marched along pounding drums or pans and ringing bells. Harlequin costumes descend from the ritual dress of these spirit-processions. Sometimes the unbaptized babies themselves were called arlequin.

procession of dead children in a cartCart of the Goddess
The medieval Roman de Fauvel shows a festival procession with children pushed along in carts and wheelbarrows. In one panel "a little witch dressed in green," apparently an old woman, walks alongside. The revelers turn wheels mounted on the cart, and create noise by inserting sticks into the spokes. These are wheels of Fortune, of Life, like the solar wheels that the people rolled downhill on Midsummer Eve. [Rey-Flaud]

Often the Old Goddess herself rode in the cart, recalling the ancient wagons of the earth goddess Nerthus or Cybele. [Grimm, 934; 268-9] Harz peasants used to remark on stormy nights, "It's Frau Hulli going in her cart with the devil." [Rey-Flaud, 156] In Obersteiermark, the celestial cart was made infernal: Damned women drove a boat-shaped sledge across the skies. But it bore a narrow flame shaped like a ploughshare, symbolizing a blessing of the fields. [Rey-Flaud, 206]

The goddess of the cart was often called Frau Gaue, Gaude, Gode, or Guode. The name Fru Gode or Fru Gosen means Lady Goose. [Baring-Goulds, 17] It goes back to Mother Goose / Mere Oie / Berthe Pedauque: the spinner-storyteller Old Goddess. She had fructifying powers: A north German proverb declares that when Frau Gaur passed by with her dogs, the harvest would be good. [Rey-Flaud, 204] Folk songs remember Fru Gauden as a giver of auspicious gifts to children. [Grimm, 927]

Lady Gaude's chariot tended to break down at crossroads. She offered wood chips or dog turds to those who helped her fix it. Less than enthused, the helper only took a few, or came away with some of it accidently stuck to his shoes. By daybreak it had turned to pure gold. Perchta, too, solicited help in repairing her cart axle, and rewarded the man with some wood chips. Disdaining the gift, he only took a few, only to discover later on that they had turned to gold. In other versions, Frau Gaue, Gode, or Wode gave gold to the helpers who repaired the magical cart. [Grimm, 275, 927]

Another folktale says that frau Gauden was once a lady whose passion for hunting was so great that she declared she cared not for heaven, as long as she could hunt forever. Her twenty-four daughters felt the same way. God punished the irreverent women by binding them to the Wild Hunt until the Last Judgment. The daughters turned into bitches running around their mother's chariot, some of them yoked like Freyja's cats or Kybele's lions. [Grimm, 925-6] They were seen during the Twölven winter nights, especially at crossroads.

The motif of the Old Goddess accompanied by dogs and appearing at crossroads is quite old. In Greece Hecate and her dogs led the procession of the dead "who died before their time." People in Thessaly, the famous witch country of antiquity, continued to make crossroads offerings to Hecate into the Middle Ages. [Pocs, 23, 80] Dogs accompanying a goddess go back a long way in France and the Low Countries, too. Gaulish statues and altars often depicted a beneficient goddess, such as Nehalennia of Walcheren, with a dog and baskets of fruit. [Davidson, HRE, 75; Thevenot]

Gaude's dogs, like Hecate's, were fateful messengers of the dead. German lore of the 1800s warned that one of her dogs would haunt families who left their doors open during the Winter Nights. Whining and whimpering, it would bring sickness and ill luck for a year. At Semmerin they used to tell how a black dog appeared at the hearth of a family that forgot to observe the closed-door taboo, and its whining became unbearable. A wisewoman advised them to brew beer in an eggshell, an old charm for getting rid of faery changelings. Frau Gauden's dog exclaimed then, "I'm as old as Böhmen gold, but never saw beer brewed in an eggshell." It disappeared and was never seen again. [Grimm, 925-7]

Those who strayed onto the paths of the faery carts or stepped into their "circle" underwent dramatic initiatory experiences. The Rumanian iele took a bone from the intruder's leg — again, to replace a broken wheel spoke — and returned it at the same place a year later. Tyroleans recounted how the Perchtas dismembered those who got in the way of their Twelfth Night Wild Hunt. But this experience was a shamanic initiation; such people awoke to find themselves miraculously reassembled and transformed. [Pocs, 41-2] Such stories of shamanic initiation also occurred in the witch tradition in Hungary and elsewhere.

All these myths were kept alive among the common people. The cultural gap had widened since the early Middle Ages. Elite versions drifted further from the old ethnic tradition, often latinizing names or demonizing the goddesses and her spirits.

Cultural Shifts
All these myths were kept alive among the common people. The cultural gap had widened since the early Middle Ages. Elite versions drifted further from the old ethnic tradition, often latinizing names or demonizing the goddesses and her spirits. While German commoners said that the Furious Host rode with frau Holle or Percht, courtly poets referred to Venus or the valantinne ("she-devil") Herodias. Or, in German and Dutch poetry of the 1200s, the goddess appeared as frau Aventiure, lady Fortune or Chance. [Grimm, 911]

Dame Aventure originated in France, where manuscript illuminators painted her in a courtly style, often drawing on ancient Roman myths. She is shown with a wheel, like the goddess Fortuna. Or she is pictured as a threefold goddess who assigns destiny to infants floating by in the stream of Life. Or she spins with a spinning wheel, combining two symbols of fate and fortune in the newly-introduced technology out of Asia. The wheel motif also entered into the emerging mystic and divinatory tradition of the Tarot. The Tenth Arcana depicts a goddess with the Wheel of Fortune.

In the southern German-speaking lands, the goddess Saelde was described with a wheel and an abundance-bearing horn, the Saeldenhorn. People said she came to cradles to endow babies with gifts. [Grimm, 1036, 1569, 1400]

Many medieval German expressions refer to her in an undeniably religious context, as a divine power: "Travel in Saelde's keeping." "Saelde is the staff you shall lean on." "Saelde smiled on her." Or, "vrou Saelde turns her neck," and this looking away signaled misfortune. Saelde was sometimes said to be blind; she disregarded surface appearances. Her vigilance was proverbial. She was believed to advise people and bid them to do things. [Grimm, 1565-69] It was customary to await her coming in a night vigil called "waking the Saelde," when omens would be drawn. [Grimm compares this expression with the Norwegian at vekja tröll, 1036]

Many variants of Frau Saelde's name are known across Switzerland and Austria: Selten, Zälti, fraw Selga. In witch trial transcripts, she is described leading witches and spirits who roamed the skies on the Ember Nights, a time pregnant with possibilities and omens for the coming year. Tyroleans said that frau Selga could be seen riding at the head of the nightly host. [Grimm, 1567-1619]

These witch goddesses of the common people shared attributes of fatefulness, beneficence, and flight at the head of the Winter Nights hosts. Sometimes they rode in carts and people met up with them at a crossroads, where they bestowed humble gifts that possessed hidden magical potency. The folk goddesses fructified the land, endowed newborns with destiny, received the dead, especially the unbaptized dead rejected by the Church, or those who died before their time. Their holiday was often called the "pagan days," and was associated with spirits of the dark, wolves, dogs, and serpents. Although these are all demonized under Christianity, the old pagan Winter Festival is a time of divination, inward transformation, and remembrance of the dead.


  1. The Norman monk Orderic Vital wrote down an account by a priest which puts a very different spin on the folk tradition. He claimed that in January of 1091 he was walking alone on a moonlit road in a remote area when he heard a terrifying clamor behind him, and saw a huge army with a long baggage train march past. A giant with a club made him halt in his tracks, while mortuary stretchers with elves seated on them went past, then countless women sitting on chairs studded with white-hot burning nails, which the wind dropped them on and then lifted them, tearing their vulvas, while they cried out, "Misfortune!" (This misogynist twist has no analog in the folklore, and betrays the clergy's special touch.) The priest said to himself, "It's Hellekin's family." He was almost swept up by the procession, but was saved by his dead brother.


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  • Rouselle, Aline, "Body Politics in Ancient Rome," in A History of Women: From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints. Pauline Schmitt Pantel, ed. Harvard UP, London. 2000.
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  • Thomson, George, Studies in Ancient Greek Society: The Prehistoric Aegean, New York: Citadel Press, 1965
  • Winter, Irene. 1987. "Women in Public: the Disk of Enheduanna, the Beginning of the Office of EN-Priestess, & the Weight of Visual Evidence," 189-201 in Durand, J.-M., editor. La femme dans le Proche-Orient antique: Compte rendu de la XXXIIIe Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale (Paris, 7-10 Juillet, 1986). Paris: Editions Recherche sur les Civilisations

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  • All images courtesy of the author, from her private collection.
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