Saturday, February 2, 2013

Imbolc, Buddy Holly and Human Sacrifice

Please leave a comment on yesterday's post for a chance to win a copy of Summer Spirit by G. Jay (romantic suspense).

For some basic background information on the 1st and 2nd of February, variously celebrated as Groundhog Day, Brighid Day, Candlemas and Imbolc, please see this post.

One day in August last year, I fell down the rabbit hole and stumbled upon several conspiracy theory blogs. I linked to several of them, including VISUP, which features an intriguing post about death symbolism in the Christian Bale movie The Prestige. (Don't read it unless you've seen The Prestige, because it spoils the major plot twist.) About two weeks ago, I stumbled back onto VISUP a 4-part series of posts called "How the Music Died."

Ostensibly, "How the Music Died" is about the February 3, 1959 plane crash that killed rock 'n' roll performers Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson and references to the tragic event in the song "American Pie" by Don McLean. What's interesting about the series is how the author, who  goes by the pen name Recluse, links the January 31 date to the traditional celebration of Imbolc. (You'll notice me referring to Recluse without pronouns, since I do not know this person's gender.)

In the first article, Recluse links Holly's name with the ancient folklore of the Holly King (or Holly Knight) and the Oak King (or Oak Knight). These figures have an annual battle on the first of May (Beltane) or at Midsummer, in which the Holly King beheads the Oak King and takes over the Oak King's kingdom. The Holly King's literary descendant is the Green Knight of Arthurian literature; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (composed in Middle English by a poet or poets whose names are lost) has been translated by literary luminaries including J.R.R. Tolkien and W.S. Merwin. (You can download a copy as inexpensively as 99 cents for Kindle. In fact, here is a free version.

Recluse associates the Green Knight with death and rebirth, an association similar to the folkloric character known as The Fool, celebrated at the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia (December 17-24). In the second article, Recluse explains that the Oak King and the Holly King do battle not only once, but twice a year, endlessly beheading one another and each time returning from the dead. The second battle takes place at Midwinter, or the Winter Solstice. The Green, or Holly, Knight is also associated with the folkloric figure of the Green Man.

The Saturnalia custom was for social class distinctions to be temporarily suspended, so that slaves and their masters reveled together freely. The festivities also included the choosing of a mock king, perhaps representing the god Saturn, who was empowered to give commands (typically ridiculous, silly ones) to festival guests. This custom survived as the "Lord of Misrule" tradition in medieval and Renaissance Europe, associated with the Feast of Fools, which was especially popular in France. 
Saturnus by  Polidoro Caldara da Caravaggio, 16th century. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons
According to Wikipedia, James Frazer in The Golden Bough associated the Lord of Misrule with an annual ritual sacrifice performed in ancient Rome - in other words, after serving his ceremonial function, the man chosen as the Fool or Lord of Misrule was sacrificed. However, Clement A. Miles disputes this in Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significant. Miles writes, "Dr. Frazer's theory, dependent for its evidence upon the narrative of the martyrdom of a fourteenth-century saint, Dasius by name, has been keenly criticized by Dr. Ward Fowler. He holds that there is nothing whatever to show that the 'Saturn' who in the fourth century, according to the story, was sacrificed by soldiers on the Danube, had anything to do with the customs of ancient Rome."

Miles does note that one holly-related tradition was to take the holly decorations down at Candlemas/Imbolc. According to The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets by Barbara G. Walker, holly has traditionally been considered feminine; the masculine equivalent is ivy. Walker considers the word "holly" itself etymologically related to a Germanic word, Hohle, which meant the grove or cave sacred to the Goddess (a vaginal symbol as well as a geographic location), and to the name of the Germanic goddess Holle, or Hel, who governed the Underworld in Norse mythology. (You may remember Hel as one of the children of Loki.)

Whether the sacrifice is associated with the masculine Saturn or the feminine Hel, Recluse's implication is that Buddy Holly's tragic accident is a kind of human sacrifice in honor of Imbolc. Recluse notes that the goddess generally associated with Imbolc is "Bright" (likely a misspelling of "Brighit"), also known variously as Briid, Bride (pronounced "Breed"), Brigid, etc. The goddess, Recluse notes, is one third of the Triple Muse, the Celtic holy trinity. A connection is made between the trio of Holly, Valens and Richardson and the goddesses' feast night.

Although their deaths are recorded as having occurred in the early hours of February 3, the February 2 date of Imbolc had just passed. Who carried out the sacrifice and how exactly it was achieved in the form of an aircraft accident are not explained. Parts 3 and 4 depart from "American Pie" and focus on the Blue Oyster Cult (BOC), music with which I personally am wholly unfamiliar. (I mean, I've heard "Don't Fear the Reaper" on the radio before, but that's about it.)

Mention of the goddess is made again in Part 4, which equates "Susie," a mysterious woman mentioned in BOC songs, with the "sacred prostitutes" of antiquity, temple priestesses whose sexual favors were a form of action-prayer intended to link the worshiper to the goddess (as, perhaps, Mary Magdalene). Another song character is "Charles the grinning boy," which Recluse associates (rather freely) with a sacrificial victim.

The reasoning is rather interesting: Recluse claims the phrase "grin like a Cheshire cat" predates Lewis Carroll and referred at one time, gruesomely, to those who'd had their throats cut. This mode of execution is associated with the Celts, Recluse says, and can be seen in ancient sacrificial victims whose preserved bodies have been found in peat bogs. (This may remind you of the "Old Man" in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, if you've read Ransom Riggs' charming YA novel.)

Brigid's Cross, woven from rushes. Author: Culnacreann via Wikimedia Commons

Even if Imbolc was associated with human sacrifice in the distant past (and I think you can conclude the link between the two is rather tenuous), I don't want it to be something you think of as eerie or frightening. Let's remember the true meaning of Imbolc (in the Northern Hemisphere, especially if you live in a temperate climate): gratitude to some Higher Power (whichever one you like) that winter is loosening its grip on the world, that spring is coming, new life is on its way, and the forces of nature are already turning the days longer and the world warmer and greener.

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