Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Crown of Lights: or, How the Witches' Goddess Got Her Candles

The variously-named February cross-quarter festival draws near, and in covensteads all over Witchdom they're polishing up the candle-crowns.

Often called a Lucia Crown, from its association with the Swedish pre-Yule feast of St. Lucy, the candle-crown would seem to have its origins in the late Medieval period. At least one Byzantine emperor is said to have worn one during audiences. One guesses that the crown's haloing effect was not lost on envoys.

We next find the crown of lights in early modern (16th-17th century) Germany, where it is worn by the Christkindl. Protestant Reformers eager to dethrone the gift-giving St. Nicholas from his December 6 feast and the hearts of children, replaced him with a Christ Child figure who brought gifts on Christmas Eve. (The custom of Yule gifts goes back no further than this.) In folklore, the Christkindl became a fairy-like character, generally personified in real life by a young girl. Early illustrations often show her dressed in white, wearing a crown of candles, distributing gifts to children.

This would appear to have been the origin of the Swedish Santa Lucia festival on December 13 (interestingly, the Old Calendar date of the winter solstice). The custom of the Lucy Bride as a young woman in white with a crown of lights would seem to have entered Sweden some time during the end of the 18th century. (Pagan internet rumor to the contrary, there can be no possible historical connection to the goddess Freyja.) The custom spread slowly; until the late 1800s the tradition was associated exclusively with the upper classes--i.e. those most open to German influence--in western Sweden. It became common throughout the country in the early 20th century, due largely to media influence.


It is via the Swedish custom that the candle-crown enters the modern Craft. Margaret Murray's 1931 God of the Witches includes a plate (shown above) of a "Modern Lucia-Queen in Sweden." Interestingly, the plate is not discussed in the text at all; when I first read the book, early on in my career, I remember well being struck by the beauty of the image and puzzled by its lack of referent. Two associations were clearly present in Murray's mind, though.

The first is provided by the photo's caption, "With 'A Round of Waxen Tapers on her Head." The phrase comes from Shakespeare's 1602 Merry Wives of Windsor (act 4, scene 4) 

Nan Page my daughter, and my little son,
And three or four more of their growth, we'll dress
Like urchins
[fairies], ouphs [elves] and fairies, green and white,
With rounds of waxen tapers on their heads,

And rattles in their hands.


Shakespeare's association of the crown of candles with the elves is deeply interesting. Murray frequently associates elves/fairies with witches, and in particular she identifies the Queen of Elfhame, frequently spoken of in Scottish witch trials, with the Goddess of the Witches. Although Murray does not address the topic of the witches' Goddess very often in her works--in fact, her term "Dianic cult" is named for Dianus, not Diana, the god, not the goddess, of the witches--she clearly identifies her with the Roman moon goddess Diana, and here we see her second connection with the candle-crown: that of Diana Lucifera, Diana the Light-Bearer: the witches' goddess in Her capacity of Illuminatrix.


The candle-crown has no presence among coven regalia in the standard recensions of the Book of Shadows. To the best of my knowledge, its next appearance in Craft literature is in Paul Huson's classic illustration of the witches' Goddess in his trailblazing (if controversial) Mastering Witchcraft: A Practical Guide for Witches, Warlocks, and Covens (1970). Here the Lady, identified in Theban script as "Andred," wears three candles and a crescent, offering a neat visual pairing with "Cernunnos" shown with a single taper between his horns.


In the cauldron of ferment that was the Craft during the 70s, the crown of lights quickly gained emblematic status. In Marvin Kaye and Parke Godwin's 1978 novel Masters of Solitude (and its 1982 sequel, Wintermind), the candle-crown is the emblem of office of the High Priestess/Goddess of the Craft communities of North America. It makes a memorable appearance in Fred ("Feraferia") Adams' Yule icon in his 1979 Nine Royal Passions of the Year. Janet and Stewart Farrar associate the candle-crown with Imbolc and the Mother in Eight Sabbats for Witches (1981), and give directions for improvising one from aluminum foil, colored tape, and birthday candles.

It is easy to understand why the crown of candles would have been drawn into the orbit of Candlemas, the Craft's primary Feast of Lights. In this capacity, it features as the central (and titular) image of Phil Rickman's 2001 A Crown of Lights, a lyrical and evocative, if ultimately sad, contemporary story of a Wiccan couple's attempt to found a pagan sanctuary in a disused church on the Welsh border.

Interestingly, the crown of candles is associated in at least one Irish folktale with both Candlemas and St. Brigid, the "foster mother of Christ." The story goes that when the Virgin Mary brought her son to the Temple, the crowds were so thick that she could not approach the sanctuary. She appealed to St. Brigid to obviate the problem. Resourceful Brigid donned a crown of candles, the novelty of which drew the crowds to her and permitted the Virgin to enter the Temple with her baby unobstructed.

In the days of our coven household, on the morning of Bridey Day, our youngest woman came singing, clothed in white and crowned with light, to wake us all for a festive sunrise brunch in the temple.

It was an unforgettable experience: a real-life vision of the Light-bearing Lady, She who rouses Her people from their winter sleep.



The Care and Feeding of Candle-Crowns:

A Few Pointers for Safe and Sacred Use


Here in Minneapolis, City of Swedes (Mary Tyler Moore: "I've never seen so many blondes, or met so many guys named Sven"), we're plentifully supplied with Scandinavian gift stores, so it's easy to get hold of Lucia crowns. But for those not quite so fortunate, on-line shopping should obviate the need to resort to block-and-tackle improvisation of the sort that the Farrars recommend (above).


It's customary to enwreath the crown with green, leafy foliage. Box is the traditional green, but a perfectly good replacement is myrtle, which has the advantage of being fragrant and generally available from florists. Wrapping the greenery in thin ribbon—I generally use yellow or gold—will help anchor the greens to the crown base, add a visually pleasing note, and keep sprays of greenery from sticking out too wildly.

It's a good idea to wear a veil underneath the crown. Besides being visually effective and reflecting the light beautifully, the veil and the greenery help protect the wearer's hair, and scalp, from wax drippings.

And let it be said: electric crowns with screw-in light-bulbs are toys, not ritual items, and are unworthy of use in a sacred setting.





























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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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