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 Witch's Toast

À votre santé. Salud. Sláinte. Na zdrowie. Zum Wohl.

In many languages, one drinks to health. On the face of it, one might think that English, the sacred language of the witches, lacks such a toast.

But one would be wrong.

1000 years ago, in the wooden mead-halls of the ancestors, one would have heard it. Wes hæl: “be hale!” and the proper response would have been, naturally, Drink hæl: “Drink hale!” (In the really important things, language doesn't change much.) Hale is from the same ancient Germanic root that also gave us health, heal, whole, hallow, holy, and (!) halibut.

Wes hæl might seem to have disappeared from use, but actually—like so many pagan things—it's been right there, hiding in plain sight, all along. One hears it around Yule: Wassail!

Wassailing has come to refer to the practice of caroling: one goes from house to house singing, proposing toasts, and (host willing) getting drunk. Wassail is a kind of punch made from beer, wine, or liquor (or all of the above, mixed: ugh) that one serves—usually spiced and hot—to wassailers.

During the magical season of the Yuletide, one wishes one's kith (= friends, literally “the known”; it's the same root as uncouth, originally the “not-known”) and kin good health in the coming year, and downs something intoxicating to seal the deal. Here in Paganistan we still do it; tonight, in fact, is the Mother Berhta Guerilla Wassailers' Guild's annual rehearsal supper. Be very afraid.

But there's no reason—gods forbid—to restrict so noble a toast to only one season. In the Tribe of Witches, we use it year-round.

And so in this season when together we descend into the Dark, hoping to come out the other side, I say to you: Wassail.

 And you, being in the know, reply: Drink hale.

You can find the lyrics to my Plowman's Wassail—sung to the tune of The Gloucester Wassail—here:

Suppose there really had been people of our sort in, say, mid-19th century rural England. What might their wassail songs have been like?


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Tagged in: health toasts Wassail yule
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.


  • Mark Digatono
    Mark Digatono Sunday, 30 November 2014

    In modern Iceland they say "Heilsa" meaning "to your health" is there a connection to wassail and the Old Norse or Icelandic toast? or is that to geeky? I am a word geek after all.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Monday, 01 December 2014

    I'll gladly dance that dance, Mark; what's more interesting than words? Every one's a story.

    Icelandic heilsa comes from the same Common Germanic root as English hail, and the word share the same meaning. In English we used to use it as a greeting, just as the Icelanders do: "Hail Mark." Wishing someone health upon first seeing them: that's a pretty fine greeting.

  • Marc Clements
    Marc Clements Wednesday, 03 December 2014

    Stand !
    Stand! To your cups a steady!
    T'is the only thing left to prize...
    One cup for the dead already,
    Hurrah ! For the next who dies !

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