The Enigmatic Pentagram

In the beginning, the pentagram (pentagon) was a holy symbol for The Divine.  How did it come to represent evil?  And why is it now the most popular image of modern Wiccans and witchcraft?

pentagon

The pentagram is a five-pointed star within a circle.  Originally, the single peak was on top and pointed towards God.  It was first recorded around 3500 BC.  The Ancient Mesopotamians used it represent their power extending into the four corners of the world.

The Hebrews chose the pentagram to signify Truth, and Pythagoras’ followers considered it to be the emblem of Perfection.  Celtic Druids also associated it with the Godhead, because five was their sacred number.

The Early Christians connected the pentagram with the Five Wounds of Christ, but eventually decided to use the symbol of the Cross as their banner instead.  Yet the religious connection to the “Endless Knot” of the star endured, and it soon became a personal talisman to ward off demons.  In Medieval times it was used as an amulet over windows and doors to stop evil from entering the home.

According to Arthurian legend, Sir Gawain adopted the pentagram for the coat-of-arms on his shield, claiming the five points represented Generosity, Courtesy, Chastity, Chivalry, and Piety.

It was also used by the Knights Templar, who believed the pentagram contained certain mystical powers.  Later, when they were persecuted by King Louis IX’s Inquisition, this symbol became associated with heresy.

Before long, the five-pointed star was linked with the Horned God, Pan.  It was renamed the “Witch’s Foot” and entered in the mythology of witches and  pagans.  No longer did the pentagram represent the Divine.  For many years it was the public symbol of Satan and his devils.

In private, however, the power of the pentagram lived on. Western Occultists and Freemasons believed that mankind was a smaller part of a greater universe and they decided that this symbol – the “Star of the Microcosm” – was the best representation of human insignificance.

During the Nineteenth Century certain Metaphysical Societies – particularly those based on the ancient Holy Kabbalah – established the pentagram as part of the Tarot Card system of divination.  They renamed the Suit of Coins as the Suit of Pentacles.

Twentieth Century Satanists adopted inverted pentagrams (and inverted crucifixes) as symbols of evil – an unfortunate association that has stuck in public consciousness.

Meanwhile, the upright pentagram has been reclaimed by Wiccans and Witches.  They see it as a representation of the five elements – Earth, Fire, Wind, Air, and Spirit.   It remains the most recognized symbol of their beliefs, and has once again become associated with the Divine!

Sources:

Cyber Witchcraft. “Witchcraft Symbols,” at http://www.cyberwitchcraft.com/witchcraft-symbols.html

Pagan’s Path. “History of the Pentagram”: at http://www.paganspath.com/magik/pentacle1.htm

Wikipedia. “Pentagram,” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pentagram

What’s Your Poison? Opium!

poppy

Did you know:

  • Papaver somnifera – the Opium Poppy – has been cultivated in Eurasia for over 6,000 years.
  • There is some evidence that poppies were important in pre-historic religious rites.
  • The word opium comes from the Greek word opos, meaning juice.  It was associated with the love goddess Aphrodite, and the god of sleep, Hypnos.
  • The flowers can be red, white, orange, yellow, and deep pink.
  • Not all poppies contain the narcotic opium, but they are all poisonous.  For this reason they were traditionally mixed with hemlock for a quick and painless death.
  • For many years opium was used as a murder weapon by unscrupulous members of the medical profession.
  • Poisoning occurs from eating unripe poppy seed capsules, or from overdose after it has been processed into opium, codeine, heroine, and morphine.
  • Poppies were grown for a wide range of medicinal benefits: sedatives, pain reduction, and mood elevation.  The Greeks and Romans used them to treat diarrhea, dysentery, asthma, stomach complaints, and poor eyesight.
  • Overdose triggers erratic behavior, loss of appetite, stupor, coma, and may result in death from respiratory failure.
  • Poppies are also toxic for dogs and cats.
  • John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields inspired the adoption of the poppy as the national Remembrance Day symbol to honor British war veterans.

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John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”

Sources:

Poison Diaries. “Opium Poppy: A poisonous plant,” at http://thepoisondiaries.tumblr.com/post/18186895021/opium-poppy-a-poisonous-plant

Poison Plant Patch. “Poppy,” at http://www.novascotia.ca/museum/poison/?section=species&id=102

Right Diagnosis From Healthgrades. “Common Poppy Poisoning,” at http://www.rightdiagnosis.com/c/common_poppy_poisoning/intro.htm

Wikipedia. “Opium” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium

 

Tituba the Witch

TitubaandtheChildren-Fredericks[1]

Tituba was the first person examined in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, and was possibly the only true witch.  She learned the Craft from her mistress in Barbados and likely practiced some form of Voodoo.

Although Tituba was a woman of color there is some debate whether she was African West Indian, Native American, or of mixed heritage.  In the court documents she is listed as an “Indian Woman, Servant.”  She may have been an Arawak Indian from South America who was captured as a child, enslaved in Barbados, and sold to Samuel Parris as a teenager between the ages of 12-17 years old.  Parris brought her to Boston in 1680, along with another slave called John Indian whom she later married.  They had one child called Violet.  During the next few years Parris became a minister,started his own family, and moved his household to Salem in 1689.

What sparked the Salem witch hunts?  Many theories have been offered over the years, but the trigger appears to have been a group of Puritan girls who were bored and yearned for “sport.”  During a particularly harsh winter, when they were often confined to their small houses for long stretches of time, their curiosity was peaked by Tituba’s supernatural tales.  At that time in New England there was also a widespread interest in fortune-telling, which was forbidden.  Two of the girls read fortunes from an egg white in a glass of water, and when they started acting out and having fits  Elizabeth “Betty” Parris and Abigail Williams blamed Tituba as the cause.

The Reverend Parris beat Tituba until she confessed to making a witch cake with Mary Sibley.  And before long, her superstitious ramblings had convinced the people of Salem that Satan was among them. Tituba talked of riding on broomsticks and claimed she saw one of the villagers –  Sarah Osborne – with a winged female demon.  Her accusations led to an outbreak of mass hysteria that ended in the execution of 20 people.

Strangely enough, Tituba was one of the survivors.  Because she had already admitted to being a witch she never went to trail.  Instead, she was placed in jail.  No one knows where she went after her release but it seems likely she was sold to another owner.

Or perhaps the only true witch escaped because she knew a good protection spell!  What do you think?

Sources:

Barillari, Alyssa. “Tituba,” at http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/people/tituba.html

“Tituba,” at http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/ASA_TIT.HTM

Wikipedia. “Tituba,” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tituba_(Salem_witch_trials)

What’s Your Poison? Henbane!

Did you know:

Henbane

  • Hyoscyamus niger is also called Henbane, Black Henbane, Stinking Nightshade, and Devil’s Eye.
  • The name Hen likely derives from the Old English word for death, as this plant was known as hen bell (meaning death bell) as early as 1265.
  • Its veined yellow flowers grow wild in chalky soil, by roadsides, on waste ground, and near old buildings.  It likes sandy ground too, and flourishes by the sea.
  • Although part of the Mandrake and Belladonna family, Henbane is also associated with the potato, tomato, and tobacco plants.
  • All parts of the Henbane plant are poisonous – especially the leaves.  Neither boiling or drying destroys its toxicity.
  • Henbane is often associated with witch-brews and magic potions because it causes hallucinations and the sensation of flight.  Merely sniffing its offensive smell can make people giddy.  Other symptoms include restlessness, flushed skin, and manic behavior.
  • The Oracle of Delphi supposedly inhaled smoke from smoldering Henbane to induce mystical experiences.
  • In ancient times this herb was used as a pain medication, toothache cure, and sleep aid.  During the Nineteenth Century it was prescribed for epilepsy and other convulsive ailments.
  • Before the widespread use of hops, Henbane was used to flavor beer.
  • Perhaps because of its association with witchcraft, in German folklore Henbane was believed to attract rain, blight cattle, and destroy crops.
  • And Shakespeare may have used this plant as the “cursed hebenon in a vial” that killed Hamlet’s father.

Sources

Botanical.com.  “Henbane,” at https://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/h/henban23.html

Rowan.  “Henbane – the insane seed that breedeth madness,” at http://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/henbane.htm

Wikipedia.  “Hyoscyamus niger” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyoscyamus_niger

Kit’s Crit: Tell My Horse (Zora Neale Hurston)

Hurston

Do you believe in Zombies?  Having studied Voodoo in Jamaica and Haiti, Zora Neale Hurston’s book Tell My Horse (1938) claims that the undead really do exist and she has seen proof with her own eyes!

As a member of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston was interested in recovering authentic black feminine power.  But she did not look for it in the guise of the New Woman, she wanted to reconnect with the wily, wild conjure woman from the African Ur-cultures, the pagan witches of antiquity.

Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica is divided into three parts.  The first two are a little disorganized as she describes the history and politics of Jamaica and Haiti.  Legend has it that while Hurston was doing “under cover” research in Jamaica, the natives found out she was going to publish their secrets and she had to flee the island in fear of her life.

The third section about Voodoo is both disturbing and compelling.  Hurston respectfully introduces this practice as “a religion of creation and life,” but then describes at length the “people who have been called back from the dead,” in particular “this case of Felicia Felix-Mentor . . . So I know there are Zombies in Haiti.”  But these are not the flesh-eating TV characters that appear in The Walking Dead.  Haitian Zombies are generally called back for one of three reasons: to work as free manual labor toiling in the fields; as the revenge of an enemy who wants to deny them eternal rest and peace; or as a sacrifice to another spirit.  It is the Haitian version of giving-a-soul-to-the-devil.

ZombieThe dead person’s spirit is stolen by the Bocor  who turns the body into a mindless slave.  Bocors are the “bad witches” of Voodo, as opposed to the “good witch” leaders called the Houngan. 

Tell My Horse is a strange and fascinating attempt to explain the West Indian Obeah practices.  It is weird – and at times disgusting – and definitely an acquired taste.  Scholars will find it useful, but I do not think its antiquated style holds much appeal for the general reader.

Fortunately, it is a very different book from Hurston’s other stellar work!

Doctor John Bayou: Voodoo Man

Voodoo 6

The “Last of the Voodoos” in New Orleans was the infamous tattooed Jean Montanet, commonly known as Doctor John, Voudoo John, and Bayou John.  Born a free member of the noble Bambaras Tribe from Senegal, John was kidnapped by Spanish slavers and shipped to Cuba.  After earning his freedom from a friendly master he worked as a ship’s cook, finally settling in Louisiana.

Doctor John seemed to possess mysterious Obi powers.   He began telling fortunes – and must have been skilled at reading people because he soon had enough money saved to buy a house.  Then he set up as a conjure man, and at the height of his fame was estimated to be worth $50,000.

John kept a harem of at least fifteen “wives” that he claimed to have married according to African tradition.  Most of these women were bought as slaves and they bore him many children.  At one time he teamed up with Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau to sell potions, charms, and spells.

Although Doctor John often looked after the poor in his neighborhood – and gave away food to the needy – he was tricked several times by unscrupulous business men who stole away his fortune.  He ended up broke, living with one of his daughters.

But how powerful was this Voodoo conjure man?  He seemed to have a charismatic personality and a sound understanding of herbal lore.  There are many first-hand accounts that his medicines actually worked.

However, he also liked to take advantage of the gullible white women who came to him out of curiosity.  One lady paid him $50 for a potion he later confessed was merely a few common herbs boiled in water.  His rationale was, “If folks want to give me fifty dollars, I take the fifty dollars every time!”

Sources:

“Haunted New Orleans” at http://www.nola.com/haunted/voodoo/?content/history.html

Hearn, Lafcadio.  “The Last of the Voudoos” at http://www.sacred-texts.com/afr/hearn/lastvdu.htm

New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum

Marie Laveau: Voodoo Queen

Marie Laveau (1794-1881) was  a Louisiana Creole free person of color who developed a reputation as The Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.

Marie_Laveau[1] Laveau was born in the French Quarter, the illegitimate child of a wealthy plantation owner.  She worked as a liquor importer, hairdresser, occultist, herbal healer, and also ran a brothel.   Much of her power was said to have come from her carefully-cultivated network of spies who gave her the information she used to impress her patrons.  One rumor claims that Laveau originated from a long line of voodoo priestesses in West Africa.  Cynics, however, suggest she learned her skills from fellow practitioner, Doctor John Bayou.

At the age of 18 Laveau married Jacques Paris.  He died in mysterious circumstances leaving her with two young children.  Later, she took a younger man as a common-law husband and bore him fifteen children.  Only one – a daughter also called Marie – reached adulthood.  Marie continued her mother’s legacy when she retired from the public in old age.

Laveau supposedly had a snake called Zombi, named after an African God.  She staged elaborate ceremonies where the dancers became possessed by voodoo spirits called loas; danced naked around bonfires; sold charms or gris-gris; saved several men from the gallows; told fortunes; and stayed eternally youthful.  She passed peacefully in her sleep, but her ghost has often been seen in the graveyard where she is buried.

Laveau’s tomb is in St. Louis Cemetery, Number One.  According to legend, if you draw an X on the tomb, turn around three times, knock on the tomb and shout your wish – it will be granted.  Once this is done you must return to the tomb, circle the X you made, and leave an offering of thanks.

If anyone has tried this – please let me know if it worked!

Sources:

CSI, “Secrets of the Voodoo Tomb” at http://www.csicop.org/sb/show/secrets_of_the_voodoo_tomb/

The Mystica, “Laveau, Marie” at http://www.themystica.com/mystica/articles/l/laveau_marie.html

Voodoo On the Bayou, “Marie Laveau” at http://www.voodooonthebayou.net/marie_laveau.html

Wikipedia, “Marie Laveau” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Laveau

Photo:

Angela Bassett playing the role of Marie Laveau in American Horror Story