Ghost stories, birth stories and ancestral tales to illuminate the dark.
"Gather round this winter eve, kindreds and community. It is time to remember who we are, to find our resources and recall the power of the hearth fire.
The story you are about to receive is a story present in all of our peoples, a story spread with many names and places, a story with a form recognizable in the hard things life brings. Life may be difficult even now. The ice may be crushing the garden, or the rivers may be in flood, or the fever could be again wandering the land. Yet in this story we learn an ancestral truth, we receive a magical instruction that tells us the challenge of life is no time for despair. Instead, hardship invites us to press our hands to the earth, pull on the woolen cloak, the sturdy boots, and place bread in our pocket to feed whatever comes our way. Are you listening? Then you might hear these words: when the trials descend, above all, you must not lose hope. This pain has a purpose, and we have a path. Even in the darkness of the underworld, the realm of the Dark Goddess, when we have received the medicine of her story, the way is always clear.
Now, let us clap three times to call in our helping and compassionate spirits, that we might see what needs seeing, read what needs reading, know what needs knowing, and recall our part in this whole and holy myth. The tale of the Dark Goddess, of self-initiation and empowerment is before us.
It is a story of struggle and survival. And like all stories of creation, we must begin in the necessary dark."
So begins the introduction to the Year of the Dark Goddess, a rite of passage process guide meant to start at the Winter Solstice, in the dark.
The year births, in the tradition of all beginnings, with a story.
What I have found in my ancestral and land based research is that story is the medicine of winter. From the traditions of my Northern and Eastern European ancestors to the ceremonies of some of the ancestors of the continent where I live, storytelling is part of the ritual of the deepest nights.
Storytelling in these ancestral traditions is also sacred, and there are some stories that can only be told in winter or when snow is on the ground.
As a lover of story this has always spoken to me, and in this last--very short week--of Advent I'm sharing some storytelling lore and inspiration for your Christmas Eve, your winter nights.
As we begin, I invite you to make a ceremony of your own relationship to story.
What stories have been calling to you now?
What stories do you know from your own lineage?
What story do you long to tell?
Storytelling belongs to everyone. It is not just for the special, the gifted or skilled. It is something that lives within us, blood and bone.
May it call you forth this winter season. May it sing you home.
Leaving Food: Mother Perchta Spins Her Tales
"Always, she remains a spinner, a protector of children and households who fares forth on the winter festival and whose journey brings fruitfulness to the land...Berthe or Perchta...traverses the lands during Winter Nights...Early medieval legends exalted an exceptional spinster called Swanfoot Berthe." --Max Dashú, Witches and Pagans 259-262
The connections between spinning and storytelling are present in the historical record since ancient times, echoes we can still feel today. Swanfoot Berthe as a spinner of stories is thought to be one of the many inspirations behind the origins of Mother Goose, a name familiar to most in modern times. And we still might say "spinning a yarn," as a euphemism for telling tales.
Bertha/Perchta's time overlaps ours in other ways too, as that of a traveling being who offers gifts during the depths of winter. The offerings left for Santa Claus might echo the food left on Perchtennacht, Perchta's Feast, the Eve of Epiphany, in the hopes of a prosperous new year.
The folklore of my ancestors is not linear. It is peripheral, tugging at the edges of sight, and cumulative--how many offerings would be left out in the season of Christmas? What is the power of the female spinner to craft tales? And, of course, what traditions can I maintain from these pieces of folklore?
I am not a spinner, yet, but I am a weaver, and I see this relationship between textile craft and story to be very salient in my lineages. So to honor Bertha/Perchta/Mother Goose I plan to leave an offering, and place a story near my loom--perhaps one of hers.
I love these paintings of spinners telling tales. I found several while researching this post. My favorite is below--the expressions on the children's faces a priceless reminder about the power of story.
Mōdraniht: Mother's Night and Storytelling Birth
"... began the year on the 8th calends of January [25 December], when we celebrate the birth of the Lord. That very night, which we hold so sacred, they used to call by the heathen word Modranecht, that is, "mother's night", because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night."--From "De temporum ratione" by Bede, 725 CE
We are all born from the womb of a mother, and in this season the power of mothers--in my ancestral cultures they were known as the Dísir or Matres--evidences itself in what little written lore we have. It is possible there was an association with the birth or rebirth of the sun, or the continuation of an ancestral reverence present in every day, but the season of Yule/Solstice/Christmas centers around the mother and the act of giving birth.
The Christmas story is ultimately the story of a birth, and one I find incredibly moving. Birth stories are sacred stories, stories of origin and fate, stories of lineage and connection. I often tell the stories of my children births on their birthdays, as my mother tells my birth story on my birthday, but the knowledge of Mōdraniht has invited me to explore the other birth stories in my ancestry--those of my motherline.
The mother is the first ancestor we unconsciously know.
Motherline story work can expand our concept of mother for ourselves and future generations, freeing us from the confines of cultural stories around mothers and mothering, embodying again the power of the mother in our survival, in her sacredness.
The motherline is also our unifier. Ancestor work is rooted in simultaneity: linear time becomes cyclic, duality becomes both/and, the diverse and specific ancestry of the individual l is both apart from and a part of the collective. While we all have different mothers, every human ever born on this earth was cradled in the womb of a mother.
The womb is our common ancestor. We must remember.
Where in this time of birth stories can you find a tale of birth in your motherline?
Where can you honor the mothers of your lineages--physical, spiritual--in this season?
What birth story is longing to tell itself through you? This can be real or mythic, fiction or true...
How can you honor the Mother on this Mother's Night?
The Ghosts of Christmas: Past, Present and Future
I think I first encountered the tradition of Christmas Eve ghost stories with the Turn of the Screw. Published in 1898, the novella begins with its "gruesome" story being told around the fire at Christmas. Later forays into the Victorian era unearthed a solid connection between spirits and stories for Christmas Eve.
One of the most readily available examples of this in our culture is Charles Dickins' A Christmas Carol, where Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the spirit of his former business partner, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come.
After spending much of the past decade studying pre-Christian ancestral folkways, I see this as yet another example of the ancestors, present, in the timely feasts of a sacred season. For although the ghost story tradition came to a recorded height in the Victorian Era, its tendrils stretch well into the past. What I have found in my research is every season was a spirit season, and the beneficent ancestors--be they Gods, fairies, nature spirits or human family--were invited to partake, propitiated with offerings, and, most of all, remembered.
For what is a ghost but a memory made visible? A fiber of tangible reality come once again into form?
Ghost stories seem to be another way of honoring the dead, the lineages and lives that came before, in a time of spiritual and social vulnerability.
In this...spirit :)...I will be offer a recording of my own very real ghost story for a Christmas gift tale on Patreon. This is something that happened to me during a time of great change in my life, and made a huge impression on my work. It is one of the reasons I am here, today, writing this letter, following the threads of ancestral story as both my mission and my work.
If you feel called to tell a ghost story--or a fairy story, or a myth--in this season, I have a few suggestions from my work with myth in the Dark Goddess year:
If you are called to tell your own story, consider:
Asking the story about its medicine and be prepared to listen in symbol and in dream.
Making offerings of food or textiles for the "Spinner" of the tale.
Write or tell the story from several different perspectives to get a taste of where it wishes to go.
Tell the story first to a companion animal or plant kin without censoring, editing or starting over. Where does the story lead you?
If you are choosing someone else's story, or a myth, consider:
Finding as many versions as you can to feel into the story's fullness.
Read them, or listen to them. See where they align, where they differ. Notice any consistent symbols, plants, animals, colors, shapes, implements.
When you tell the story for the first time, consider making a small ritual by lighting a candle or saying a word of blessing. Then let the story move through you--don't try to "catch" it or "remember," instead let the story take you where it wishes to go.
If you are interested in finding a story to tell but are unsure where to begin, consider:
Looking to the collected oral histories of your lineage. Wikipedia has a whole page of categorical fairy tales listed by country and region. You can begin on “Fairy Tales by Continent” and travel to ancestral lands.
If you have living elder relatives, ask them what their favorite myths/stories/folktales/fairytales are.
Do not feel rushed or pressured to choose a myth. Rather, expand your mythic consciousness through writing, art, symbol and research. When the time is right, the story will come.
If oral tales feel too complex for this particular Winter, reading ancestral stories aloud--to children, partners, critters or self, can be a beautiful way to honor the depth of nights. I love traditional fairy tales, and have a whole collection of the Time Life The Enchanted World books from the 1980's with gorgeous illustrated stories to share.
And now, to close this Advent series, a blessing for a winter night:
May you feel the call and joy of these ancestral practices, weaving roots through the soil beneath you.
May you feel the love and connection of your mothers, weaving forward and back, through space and time and story.
And may the miracle you are, in every cell, be enlivened in this weaving.
By this and every effort may the balance be regained.
With love--Lara Irene
If you are interested in more ancestral practice, storytelling and sharing, join us at the Wild Soul School!
And if you enjoyed this series, and wish to support the work of Olden Practice, please consider becoming a patron. Patrons receive additional content, a vast library of resources, community connection and more. Become a patron here.