Scattering Violets

An exploration of funerary traditions and innovations, care of the dead, and pagan perspectives on death

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A Little Folklore of Light & Shadows

We often find ourselves yearning for light and warmth during these last winter months in the northern hemisphere. We grow tired of being bundled up, of shivering, of staying indoors. Yet, if we look carefully, we begin to notice that, little by little, the light is growing. Situated in the fading of winter, the holidays celebrated on February 2nd -- Groundhog Day, Imbolc, Candlemas -- feature an interplay of shadows and light as we approach revitalization in many forms.


In Christian, specifically Catholic, tradition, Candlemas honors the presentation of the infant Christ in the temple and the purification of the Virgin Mary. Candles are made and blessed, and then they are brought home and lighted in windows throughout the night. There’s a quiet peace in the gentle flickering of the small, warm light that they deliver in otherwise darkness -- a signal of hope. In France, crepes are made and eaten, emulating the warm circle of the sun.


Imbolc has its own traditions that are often blended with Candlemas. Brighid’s crosses are constructed to protect homes against lightning strikes and fires on the eve, and candlelit feasts are enjoyed. If one sees footprints in the hearth fire’s ashes in the morning, it means that Brighid made a visit in the night and blessed the home. If hedgehogs emerge from their holes, then spring will come soon. This is similar to the Pennsylvania German Groundhog Day tradition of watching a groundhog emerge from its hole. If it sees its shadow and retreats back into its den, then the winter will be longer; if it remains outside, then winter will end soon.


I received Appalachian Folklore: Omens, Signs, and Superstitions as a gift from my parents this past Christmas, and I’ve enjoyed flipping through it. Some things I’d heard before, but others were a surprise to me. Some -- like wiping your face with a baby’s wet diaper for a beautiful complexion, or leaving your baby home alone to be “supervised” by a Bible -- are not recommended for obvious reasons. But there are other ideas that are compelling and reveal significant, sometimes moving, beliefs embedded in Appalachian culture, which reflects the complex interactions of many different peoples, including West African, British, Cherokee, German, and Irish.


In the spirit of the holiday, here are some Appalachian folk traditions and lore regarding shadows and light:


  • “If a person’s shadow that is thrown on the wall in front of a fire does not have a head, that person will die within the next year” (Richmond 66)
  • “Flames that burn blue in a hearth are a sign of severe weather” (81)
  • “If the flame of a candle flickers and then turns blue, there is a spirit in the room” (96)
  • “Seeing the shadow of a buzzard without seeing the buzzard itself is a sign that you will soon have company” (74)
  • “Never look at your own shadow in the moonlight, lest ill luck will follow you home” (139)
  • “If a girl walks backwards downstairs while holding a candle, and then turns quickly on reaching the bottom of the stairs, she will come face to face with her future lover” (122-123)
  • “Sparks that glow at the back of a fire are a sign that an important message or letter is on the way” (81)
  • “Throwing bay leaves into the fire will insure good luck for the household -- if they crackle when they burn. Otherwise, bad luck will follow” (108)
  • "The shadow of a person is linked to their soul, and any injury suffered by a shadow could have serious consequences for its owner. That is why a person who has sold his soul to the Devil does not cast a shadow" (154)

Candlelight -- and what it reveals or signifies -- is a popular symbol in folktales and myth as well. Think of the myth of Cupid and Psyche and folktales like “Beauty and the Beast,” and “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” in which the heroine holds a lighted candle above her mysterious husband while he sleeps at night. When she gazes upon his beautiful face in the candle’s soft glow, she realizes that his true nature has been disguised. It is perhaps a universal belief that light reveals truth, although that truth can bring consequences and responsibilities that we must also accept.

In the Brothers Grimm tale “Godfather Death,” the lives of the living are manifest as candles in Death’s cave. When a candle’s flame goes out, it means a person has died. It’s a wonderful, mysterious story that views life as something warm, illuminating, and beautiful, yet delicate -- just like the flame of a candle. Something to consider for those of us who will celebrate this week.


Photo by Carolyn V on Unsplash

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, and spirit worker and traveler. Her work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans and Hagstone Publishing's Stone, Root, and Bone ezine. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  


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