Lent has Pagan Roots
This Witch Practices Lent
I was watching an Instagram Live hosted by a Witch last week. Don’t know her personally or even abut in her circle, but I’m always curious how other Witches and Pagans are dealing with life in modern times. Especially modern pandemic times. Anyhow, she mentioned something about silly Christians giving up something for Lent and how it’s so ridiculous (silly and ridiculous was language she used). But, I’m here to tell you that what that Witch didn’t know was that Lent has been practiced by Witches and Pagans for a very long time before Christians even coined the term.
For those of you who are long-time Country Dweller Podcast listeners, you know I am an active student of the history of Paganism and Witchcraft. I’ll prattle on and on if you let me. Fortunately for podcast listeners, MareLin always reigned me in. But because I have studied for many years about Paganism, Witchcraft, and comparative religions, I repeatedly learned or found evidence that Lent is actually something Pagans have practiced for eons. Like many other Sabbats throughout the Wheel of the Year which have found their way into the Christian calendar, Lent is as well.
In its Old English form, Lent means “spring” and derived from the formal “Lencten.” So how do we get from a word that means spring to a 40-day fast? There’s a few theories that hold up in many different texts.
Of note is the story about the Akkadian god, the great hunter Dumuzi (commonly referred to as Tammuz, the Hebrews’ name for him). He was killed while hunting a wild boar (this was his second death and his previous story also follows along the mythos lines of Jesus…but that’s another blog post). Followers mourned for him through weeping ceremonies and fasting from meat (boars are bad after all, they killed our god!) for 40 days.
In the old testament of the Bible, we have evidence this “Lent” ritual was even found among the Israelites during the days of Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 8:13-14 it is written:
“He said also unto me, Turn thee yet again, and thou shalt see greater abominations that they do. Then he brought me to the door of the gate of the Lord’s house which was toward the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz.”
Fasting, pushing the boundaries of flesh, weeping for what has been lost, are common themes throughout the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian faiths, and beyond. Noah et al were stuck in the Ark for 40 days and nights. Musa (Moses) spent 40 days on Mount Sinai where he received the 10 commandments. Prophet Yunus (Jonah) was in a whale’s mouth for 40 days. Jesus was tempted in the desert for 40 days. Muhammad was praying and fasting in the cave for 40 days. Some Russians, Bulgarians, and Serbs believe that ghosts of the dead linger at the site of their death for 40 days. Many Christian Filipinos mark the end of the initial mourning period on the 40th day after death, and have a mass said. They believe that the soul remains on the earthly plane for 40 days before entering the afterlife, recalling how Christ ascended to heaven 40 days after his resurrection. Let’s not forget, as well, the Corajisima, a traditional practice during Lent in Italy, specifically, Calabria and other areas of the south. She is the widow, of Carnevale, the embodiment of the revelries. After Fat Tuesday, when Carnevale dies, poor Corajisima remains alone. Usually depicted as an ugly, skinny old woman with a decidedly witch-like appearance, she represents abstinence in the Lenten period. There is a count-down wherein the feathered broom she rides gets plucked after each weekly mass until Easter arrives.
In Germany, there is also Fasnet, which I have experienced. It is the night before fasting, symbolically “carried to the grave” just before Ash Wednesday. Hundreds of figures clad in white sheets and black top hats form a funeral procession. A straw effigy of Fasnet is tossed into a stream, and at the stroke of midnight, Witches dance around a blazing fire and throw their brooms into it. When all the brooms have been burned and turned to ashes, winter is said to have been “swept away” for another year. However, you have to get through the Fasching first. And that takes 40 days.
Lent is 40 days. However there is also about 40 days between Imbolc (especially Astrologic Imbolc as opposed to observed) and the Full Moon after the Vernal equinox. However, I won’t bore you with more academic records that suggest the fast indicated by the Apostles of Christ may have been misinterpreted from 40 hours to 40 days. It wasn’t until the Council of Nicea in 325 CE that the modern Christian celebration of Lent even began, and it didn’t quite look then as it does now. Human history can be quite the mishmash, yes?
My personal rearing included a very strict Christian environment. I went to parochial schools. I was required to practice Lent. And it was always very cleansing. I didn’t shy from it during those times and I often have practiced it as a long-time Witch. But, I would have to say that it looks very different from giving up meat or sweets or swearing or all the other things I did as a child and teenager living in my parents’ home.
Lent is now a time where I hold space for what’s important. It’s a time to refocus yearly goals, to realign, to adjust. It’s more of a doubling down. This season of Lent for me has been focusing on the basics of my personal spirituality. I see it more like after Christ was baptized by John, he skedaddled himself off to the desert to fast, meditate, and pray. And that has been the focus of this Lent for me. After my Crone Crowning and emersion into public Witch life, I am focusing on the voice of Source and its messages for me. Lots and lots of meditation, doubling down on my craft, and praying to the universe to help me use my talents, my knowledge as a Crone, to be my truest self and live my best life. Because when I am doing just that, I am blessing all I come in contact with and you can’t argue that is a bad thing.
Now if you want to give up chocolate or alcohol during this time, more power to you. But my Witch’s Lent, is more about sloughing off winter from self, home, and hearth, and making sure I’m square and centered before the big explosion of growth for Spring.
Regardless of how you observe Lent, I’m wishing these weeks to more light and warmer temperatures go fast and find us ready for all that Spring has to offer.