I saw an article this week, which I won’t link to, that described the Norse god Thor yet again as a warrior god. Thor does engage in warfare with the giants in the sagas, but I want to go beneath the patriarchal overlay and discuss what this god is really about and how he gets the hammer that he wields in legends of warfare.
Thor is a woodpecker deity. That’s how he got his red hair. His hammer came from drilling into trees. The sound of this drilling is his “thunder,” another of his attributes.
It makes sense that the woodpecker god would be associated with the spear, as Mars undoubtedly is, on account of his sharp beak. But spears are not exclusively instruments of war—more commonly, they have been used for hunting large animals. The affinity between Mars and battle speaks more of the high regard the Romans had for this deity combined with their positive view of warfare. Ever-increasing territorial expansion was the source of Roman opulence as well as, ultimately, the seeds of the Empire’s destruction. In the same vein, the Greeks, who saw war as an instrument of economic collapse, assigned warfare as the purview of a Thracian deity, Ares, whom they wished to malign. That Mars was not exclusively seen as a warrior deity even at the height of the Roman Empire is illustrated by the British and Continental Celtic gods who were syncretized with Mars, often more closely associated with grain or healing than with war.
I will add that the first planters did not use a plow but a sharpened stick like a spear. A tiny hole was dug with the stick and the seed was placed in the hole. This mimicked the motion of the Green Woodpecker, who often hunts for ants on the ground by digging his beak in the soil.
People tend to take their gods into battle with them. That’s why we have so many “warrior deities.” We need to look critically at the warrior god/goddess phenomenon and not accept it unthinkingly.
The woodpecker archaeological record in Europe is sparse. Woodpecker bones were found with other bird and animal bones at a Mesolithic site in Serbia and I found reference to an atlatl (a primitive spear throwing device) that had a decorative White-backed Woodpecker from an unspecified European site. Where the archaeological woodpecker record is rich is again in North America. Woodpecker skulls and bills were apparently traded. Woodpeckers are found on pottery and shell engravings. Of course, archaeologists in North America have contemporary Amerindians with tribal memories to help them interpret findings and ask the right questions. Some woodpecker designs are stylistic and might be missed without this insight. Another factor is that archaeology in North America typically goes back about a thousand years while Mesolithic Europe was ten thousand years ago. Finally, it should be considered that since pecking wood is the sine qua non of the woodpecker, effigies of the bird might have been carved in wood rather than more durable bone or stone.
North American folklore says that woodpeckers predict the severity of the coming winter and that woodpeckers disappear in anticipation of extreme cold. A pervasive belief found in Europe is that the pecking is a sign of rain on the horizon, perhaps because the loud pecking of some species can resemble a distant thunder roll. In this regard, it is interesting that the woodpecker is the bird of the redheaded Norse god Thor, who wields the hammer and lightning bolt. More obscurely, the woodpecker is said to lead an observer to treasure. I have found that birds who bring rain are very often considered treasure birds.
The treasure the woodpecker is most thrillingly believed to lead to is the springwort. The springwort is a reddish root believed to draw down lightning. It can open any closed or locked door. To find the springwort magicians would seal the entrance to a woodpecker nest. The woodpecker would then fly off to find a springwort, but would be induced to drop the plant when he returned and found that the seal had been removed. The springwort sounds like a very valuable herb, but nobody really knows what a springwort is. Jacob Grimm identified it as the Caper Spurge or Euphorbia Lathyris.
North American aboriginal lore is rich in story and folklore about the woodpecker. This wisdom is usually absent in Native animal-spirit books targeted to a mass audience, a testament to the lack of interest most English speaking people have in this bird. In a Lenape (mid-Atlantic) tale Rabbit is invited to dine with the twelve Woodpecker Girls and is impressed with the gourmet meal of grubs they offer him. He is envious and determined to outdo them. Rabbit is very talented – he molded the clan animals from the animals who died during the Great Flood – but unfortunately his pride in this instance is greater than his own greatness. He invites the Woodpecker Girls to dine with him and attempts to re-create the grub delicacies with disastrous results. The Woodpecker Girls laugh at him. This is why Woodpecker laughs at everything, even Creator.
In a myth attributed to the Hasinai-Caddo (Texas), people become woodpeckers after abusing a mescaline producing plant (like peyote). Elders warn that only those initiated in medicine ways should touch the plant, but most people ignore the warnings and spend their days caught up in visions. They forget about their children and one day notice that the children are missing. Creator hears the distraught cries of the parents and changes them into woodpeckers so they can hunt for their children. This is why woodpeckers tap at trees and poke into holes: they are looking for their children.
No other bird has so much work to do all the year round, and none performs his task with more energy and sense.…He is artisan to the backbone,—a plain, hardworking, useful citizen, spending his life hammering holes in anything that appears to need a hole in it.
I wanted to post a nice flower picture for my Spring Equinox entry this year, but alas not even a snowdrop is blooming. The subtle signs of spring are welcome but not eye-catching. I doubt anyone wants to see a picture of snow fleas, who aren’t really discernible anyway except by their movement. Similarly, the increasing flow of water can only be expressed over time. There are brown bare patches of earth in the fields, but mud is not the best part of the thaw, and anyway these patches will be covered once again in the snowstorm this weekend.
The most startling shift for me at the equinox is an audible one: the winter birds begin making their presence felt. They have not been completely silent during the dark months, to be sure, but now their calls are louder, more frequent, and much more varied. Blue Jays, ravens, chickadees, doves, and woodpeckers are most prominent. The migrating birds have not yet appeared, but soon the cacophony of Canada Geese will be overhead and then the huge chorus will begin, going on all day and all night, with insects and frogs adding to the fracas. I can’t wait. Whoever said the country is quiet? Only in the winter, and I am beginning to hear the sounds of spring.
While there are many longstanding Pagan holidays observed in the beginning of February, the Christian holiday of Candlemas grew out of a specific Roman Pagan observance. February was an important festival month on the Roman calendar and thus began with a purification ceremony known as Juno Februa, Juno the Purifier. The most prominent of the Roman matriarchal deities, Juno is essentially the goddess of essence itself. She is thought of as a moon goddess, since her worship originally revolved around the lunar cycle, but this only partially explains her. She is the state of Being, illustrated by the waxing white moon appearing out of the black void. The Romans saw not only plants, animals, and inanimate objects such as rocks or mountains as having spirit, but core truths or principles as well. Thus the month of vital ceremonies required not simply purification practices, but the calling up of the essence of purification herself. Some say Juno Februa occurred at the second full moon following the winter solstice before Rome adopted a solar calendar, but by the start of the common era the date of the festival was fixed at forty days past the (also static) December 25th date of the winter soltice festivities.Under Christian rule, Juno Februa became a celebration of the purification of the Virgin Mary following the birth of Jesus. The mass was celebrated with a procession involving a great many candles like the earlier Roman holiday. Mary took on not only the ritual date and its association with purification, but Juno’s white lily. The lily became a symbol of Mary’s renewed purity. The goddess Juno, though like Mary also a mother, needed no such purification because the idea of pollution in childbirth was foreign to her cult. She came to bestow purification, not to partake of it, and would give birth a full month later to her own son, the god Mars. The birth of Mars was also a virgin birth: Juno conceived him through the fragrance of the white lily, the white lily being a form of Juno herself. In other words, Juno impregnated herself and her white lily symbolizes self generation.Some attribute the instigation of Candlemas to Pope Gelasius I in the fifth century, but it appears that he was railing against the climactic February festival of Lupercalia, which eventually became St. Valentine’s day. Gelasius may have been successful at driving Lupercalia underground, where it began its own long transformation, but people continued to openly celebrate the Juno rite. In 684 Pope Sergius I officially instituted the mass of the Purification of the Virgin Mary at February 2nd on the church calendar. From the start many theologians protested the event, arguing that Mary would have needed no purification since she was impregnated not through sexual intercourse but by the Holy Spirit. Within the logic of Christianity they were right, but as time wore on the church had conflicts at Candlemas not only with remnants of the Roman pagan cult but with propitiation to weather deities and and fire goddesses elsewhere. The tension between theological purists and synergistic forces was eventually satisfied by fixing the time of the presentation of Jesus at the temple, which is referenced in scripture, at forty days following his birth, or February 2nd. The focus on Mary on this day remained popular with the masses, however, so the celebration of the purification of the Virgin, while declining in emphasis, never totally went away.Today among witches and many other Pagans February 2nd is a time for vows and initiations. There are many reasons for this having to do with Celtic and Germanic beliefs, but the Roman observation of Juno Februa also fits nicely with this understanding of the holy day. During this time of commitment intentions need to be unassailable, informed by the essence of purity Herself.SourcesDurdin-Robertson, Lawrence. The Year of the Goddess: A Perpetual Calender of Festivals. Wellborough, UK: Aquarian Press, 1990.Hazlitt, William Carew and John Brand. Faiths and folklore of the British Isles. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905. http://books.google.com/books/about/Faiths_and_folklore_of_the_British_Isles.html?id=JDXYAAAAMAAJMonaghan, Patricia. The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1990.Perowne, Stewart. Roman Mythology. London: Paul Hamlin, 1969.Walsh, William Shepard. Curiosities of Popular Customs and of Rites, Ceremonies, Observances. 1898. Detroit: Gale Research Company. 1966 Reprint. http://books.google.com/books?id=VKwYAAAAIAAJ&dq=Candlemas+Pope+Innocent+XII&source=gbs_navlinks_sWalker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.
How much do you know about the winged companions of the Goddess? If you’ve been following this blog for awhile you’ll recognize many of these. Match the bird in the left column with the European or Middle Eastern goddess (or god) she is frequently associated with.