Children’s Henwen Ritual for Samhain

This is a column from the Pagan Household from October 28th, 2013. I think I’ve linked to it before, but never actually posted it and since Samhain is essentially here…

 

Henwen is one of my favorite Celtic Goddesses. The Great White Sow wandered from Annwn, the Underworld, into this world, giving birth to wheat, barley and bees, as well as wolf cubs, ferocious cats and eagles wherever she went.  And this is how she brought life to the world.

Other stories tell that it was prophesied that whatever Henwen birthed would bring harm to Britain and so King Arthur tried to catch her. Her swineherd was Coll Ap Collfrewi, one of the great swine herders of Britain, and he hung onto her bristles wherever she went. She escaped into the sea, but returned to the land and gave birth to her strange litters there. Arthur never did catch her and it is assumed that the Great Sow still wanders Britain, bringing fertility and prosperity wherever she goes. In this version , Henwen will also read your fortune for you with rods and runes.

Pigs often symbolize our relationship with the Underworld. This is the time of the year where the veil thins between the worlds because of the harvest. This is when the final harvest is brought in and the last animals are slaughtered for winter. All of the spirits passing from our world to the Underworld open the boundaries and allow us easier access to those who have gone before. It also makes it easier for those who are making their transition from this world to the next more to slip away, which is often a blessing. It can be a time of great grief and blood, it can also be a time of joyous celebration and gratefulness for another bountiful year.

Henwen is an excellent goddess to honor for this turning of the Wheel! She is also a goddess you can easily share with your children.

If you have a group of kids, you can do a really easy children’s ritual from the story of Henwen.

Sit all the children down and have them braid wheat straw. (You can find a tutorial here). If your children are too small for this, you can do this beforehand; just make sure there is a wheat braid for every child. Take everyone somewhere outside where there is plenty of room to run around.

Have everyone stand in a Circle. If you want to call Quarters at this point and cast a Circle you can, but you might simply want to acknowledge each direction. Tell the children the story of Henwen and explain that she brought a good harvest to the world. Have them hold their wheat braids and go around the Circle having everyone ask for something for the upcoming year. Have them focus their energy for their wish onto the wheat braid. (This would also be a good time to talk about the Harvest and why it’s important to how we live and what we are celebrating. Let them know that they things they should be wishing for should not be material, but things to help their community).

Since Henwen is a goddess of prophecy, put all the children’s names in a bag (this should probably be done beforehand) and randomly choose names to assign parts to. You will need a Henwen, a Coll Ap Collfrewi, an Arthur and several knights.  (If you want to have clothing props like a pig nose and capes, that could be fun as well!)

Give the children picked to be Henwen and Coll Ap Collfrewi the bags with the wheat braids in them. The rest of the children will be chasing them. The other children are It and the goal of the game is that each child must catch Henwen and Coll, who have to stay together the whole time. (This is a giant game of tag in reverse). When Arthur or one of his knights “catches” Henwen and Coll, Henwen or Coll should give them one of the wheat braids and give them their blessing for the year. That child can now return to the starting point. When everyone has caught Henwen and Coll, Henwen and Coll can return together to the rest of the group. When everyone is together again, have Henwen and Coll announce that their wanderings are done for the year and that they are ready to enjoy the bounty of the Harvest. At this point, have everyone celebrate together with a snack, after closing whatever Circle you started with. A good snack would be wheat toast with butter and honey. Each child can take their wheat braid home with them.

If you’re having an adult ritual later, you could also have the children “visit” all together with their wheat braids to offer the luck of the wheat braids for that ritual. Have them present their wheat braids with well wishes for the blessing of the Priest and Priestess.

Blessed Samhain all! Have fun!

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A Green Ribbon and a Few Beheadings

When I was little I owned the book In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories by Alvin Schwartz. (This might explain some of my weirdness these days, I mean…seriously, who gives a little kid a book like this? *Sigh* Fine, fine, fine…the same parents that read the Lord of the Rings books and Louis Lamour to a four year old, but…still!)

One of the stories in it has stuck with me ever since.

The story of Jenny and her green ribbon is not particularly scary, it is however, extremely disturbing. Can you imagine living with someone whose head is held on with only a green ribbon? And why green for that matter?

It was fashionable after the French Revolution to wear a red ribbon around your neck to mark where the guillotine would have cut (combined with a short, choppy hairstyle that emulated those given to the victims of Madame Guillotine).

But there is also a long tradition of talking heads throughout mythology.

Odin carries Mimir’s head around with him after Mirmir is beheaded during the Aesir-Vanir War. Mimir, who was known for his knowledge and wisdom, continues to advise Odin.

Bran from the Mabinogion is another one. After the war with “Ireland”, when Bran has been mortally wounded, he asks his men to cut his head off and he continues to entertain them for eighty years. After they return to Wales, and leave the hall where they’ve been hanging out for all of that time to keep away the grief that the war caused them, they bury his head on the White Hill facing towards France. It is said that while Bran’s head is buried, England will be protected. In some myths, King Arthur dug Bran’s head up and declared that he would thereafter be the protector of England.

And that was how victory, such as it was, was [won] to the men of the Island of the Mighty. [But] the victory from that was no more than the escape of seven men, [along] with Bendigeidfran wounded in his foot with a poisoned spear. These were the seven men who escaped: Pryderi, Manawydan, Glifieu Eil Taran, Taliesin and Ynawg, Gruddieu son of Muriel and Heilyn son of Gwyn the Old.

And then Bendigeidfran ordered the severing of his head.

‘Take the head’ said he ‘and bring it to the White Hill in London, and bury it with its face towards France. And you will be on the road a long time. In Harlech you will be seven years in feasting, the birds of Rhiannon singing to you. The head will be as good company to you as it was at its best when it was ever on me. And you will be at Gwales in Penfro for eighty years. Until you open the door facing Aber Henvelen on the side facing Cornwall, you will be able to abide there, along with the head with you uncorrupted. But when you open that door, you will not be able to remain there. You will make for London and bury the head. Cross over to the other side.’

Then they cut off his head and with the head they set out to the other side: these seven men with Branwen with them as the eighth.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight also comes to mind. This story takes place in King Arthur’s court. Before feasting, King Arthur likes to be amazed with wondrous tales or sights. Before one such feast, a large bearded Green man bursts into the hall and declares that he wishes to challenge the court to a game. The rules of the game are simple: any man in the court can hit him as hard as they can and he won’t do anything to stop them. If they are able to fell him, they can have his mighty ax. The warning that comes with this though is that he will return in a year and a day to return the same blow to the man who gives it to him. No one wants to play this game, understanding that death is the only outcome. Finally Arthur agrees to play. At the last minute, Gawain interrupts Arthur and takes his place saying that it be better for a lowly knight to die in the King’s stead. Gawain is able to cut off the head of the Green Knight. Instead of dying, the Green Knight picks up his head and tells Gawain to meet him at the Green chapel in a year and a day so that the Knight can give Gawain the same blow. Of course, at the end of the tale, Gawain lives and finds that the Green Knight was transformed by Morgan Le Fay. To symbolize what had happened, the knights of Arthur’s court wear a green sash.

And of course, probably the most infamous headless story of them all, The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow.

According to some sources, the color green was traditionally tied not only to nature, but also to witchcraft. Would all of these tales and the color green possibly tie us back to the story of Jenny’s head falling off? I’m still not quite convinced, but, it is intriguing how often this idea of beheading shows up in myth and folklore.

Will I be letting my children read this book some day…? Probably. I mean, it worked out for me, didn’t it?