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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The Devil's Bird

The Mothers and Fathers reckoned the Horned One as god of animal life generally—what, in History of Religions lingo, is known as a “Master of Animals”—but for all that, he is rarely ascribed a sacred bird of his own. Birds, of course, are given mostly to the Sky Powers: raptors to Thunder, water-birds to Sun and Moon, etc. It's fascinating that these embodiers of the animal god's being should be given to other gods, as if they somehow constitute his yearning for them, as Earth's quartz yearns to the Moon. But to Himself the lore alots the merest avian handful: corvids, perhaps the peacock (see below), the robin (as Promethean bringer-of-fire) and, of course, the cock.

Everyone knows that the rooster—I suppose one really must say “cock” here—is the Devil's bird, (“Men call me the Devil,” he is reputed to have told Scots witch Isobel Gowdie, “but they know not what they mean”), and better it be if it's black. It's a staple of Southern (American) folklore that to invoke the Devil you sacrifice a black cock at a crossroads at midnight. Why a cock? Standard etiology would have it that the cock, being preeminently the bird that proclaims the coming of light, is the sworn enemy of the Prince of Darkness, Enemy of Light. But, as one might expect, matters are considerably more complex than that.

The domestic chicken originated in Southeast Asia and, it would seem, first came to the British Isles with the Romans (Yeates 166). Nonetheless, one finds the cock's head associated with the Horned One on the coinage of the Dobunni, the Keltic tribe that in later days morphed into the Hwicce, the “Tribe of Witches.” The rooster has a reputation as the most virile and pugnacious of birds, a fitting emblem for the father and protector of the people, the Pater Hwicciorum (Yeates 165-9). (Interestingly, though, the use of “cock” for “penis” derives, not from the name of the bird, but from the sense of “water-tap.”)

Notwithstanding, the cock's solar associations are likely a feature of the attribution as well. Old Hornie is preeminently what Indo-Europeanist Ceisiwr Serith calls “lord of the in-between,” the god of liminal times and places, invoked as “He who is seated upon the threshold.” The cock is a liminal beast, proclaiming the end of night and beginning of day. (The sabbat, of course, traditionally ends at cockcrow.) It is in this character also that Old Clootie is identified with the Morning Star, the Liht-bera.

Robert Cochrane, father of the contemporary Old Craft movement, discusses the cock in witchcraft in his much-overlooked essay, “An Hereditary Witch's Revelation of Craft Symbolism.” He is commenting on a carving found on a Breton menhir of a column upon which perches a cock; a skull is shown directly beneath the column. He remarks, “It is interesting to note that the skull be [sic] situated directly under a pillar with the cockerel on top. This again is a witch symbol and states emphatically that from the grave comes the greatest impetus to life, and conversely that all things must eventually return to the grave. The pillar and the cockerel at its simplest interpretation (and there is more than one) is phallic” (Glass 145). The god of the witches was ever "Lord of the skull and the phallus."

Immediately apparent to any Old Craft eye will be the parallel between collocated cock/pillar/skull and the candle/stang/skull of the sabbat. Here the cock as bird of light calques with the Flame Between the Horns, the ancient witch-fire of illumination.

Old Craft first emerges in Europe during the Middle Ages—roughly the 13th century—as apparently a hybrid of vaguely-remembered paganism with “diabolizing” Christian heresy. Interestingly, a parallel movement emerged in the Middle East at roughly the same time. This religion, which has many other interesting parallels with Traditional (i.e. non-Wiccan) Craft, is read by its foremost contemporary interpreter, Philip G. Kreyenbroek, as a combination of old pre-Zoroastrian Indo-Iranian practice with “diabolizing” Islamic heresy. This Kurdish “tribe of witches” is known as the Yezidis, and their religion is named for them: Yezidism.

The patronal god of the Yezidis is (in Kurdish) Tawûsê Melek, the “Peacock Angel.” It is this that gives them their long-standing reputation as devil-worshipers; the genocidal anti-Yezidi campaign of the so-called “Islamic State” is only the most recent episode in 7 centuries of bitter persecution. The peacock is a Qur'anic symbol of ash-Shaitan (whose name the Yezidis are forbidden to pronounce) because he is the Angel of Pride. Tawûsê Melek is said to have appeared to Sheikh 'Adi, the 12th century founder of Yezidism, in the form of a beautiful naked boy with the tail of a peacock, after having first appeared as two giant camels with green eyes and the heads of buffaloes.

Since peacocks are not native to Kurdistan, I had always assumed that this imagery was a direct import from Islam, and so it appears to be; but in fact, the peacock was not Tawûsê Melek's original form. According to one of the earliest Western commentators on the Yezidis, the Englishman A. H. Layard (1849), “they are believed by some to worship a cock, by others a peacock” (cited in Kreyenbroek 2);* and indeed, the Yezidis are to this day forbidden to consume the flesh of cockerels (Kreyenbroek 149), as, interestingly, were the Dobunni (Yeates 165).

At ninth and last, the cock symbolizes the Old One's promise of wisdom—illumination—to his people. “Gnosis,” observes Jacob Needleman, “is transformative knowing.” In us, humanity, material existence achieves self-awareness.

For this, we are called--and aspire to be--“the Wise.”

*According to the Mishefa Resh  ("Black Book"), a compendium of Yezidi oral lore first written down during the 1920s, "We know the form of his [Tawûsê Melek's] person and his image. It is the form of a cock [dîkilê]which we possess." The Yezidi qewl Beyta Cindî, "Song of the Commoner" (st. 11-19) hymns the rooster as the "many-colored" "Cockerel of the Throne" which "faces the Angel" and "calls to the Beloved" (Kreyenbroek 233).


Justine Glass, Witchcraft, the Sixth Sense (1965). London.

Philip G. Kreyenbroek, Yezidism—Its Background, Observances and Textual Tradition (1995). Lampeter. The single best book about the Yezidis in English.

Stephen J. Yeates, A Dreaming for the Witches: A Recreation of the Dobunni Primal Myth (2009). Oxford.




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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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