The pagan roots of St Martin’s day – 11th November

A German statue of St Martin donating his cloak to the poor man.

A German statue of St Martin donating his cloak to the poor man.

In my previous post I discussed the significance of Armistice Day falling on the 11th of November, which is also St Martin’s day: St Martin of Tours (d.397 CE) was a ‘military’ saint of the early Christian church who evangelised northern Gaul, and who is celebrated as one of the more important ‘local’ saints in northern Europe, along with characters such as St Patrick. St Martin’s day falls on the ‘old’ (Julian calendar) All Saints’ Day (‘Hallowe’en’) and is therefore linked to the celebrations of the Celtish quarter-day festival knownamong the Gaels as Samhain, and which is observed in reverence to the souls of the dead.

Processions and ritual begging:

St Martin’s day (and St Martin’s Eve) customs perhaps unsurprisingly share similarities with those of Hallowe’en: In Germany, for instance, the Gripschen or Heischebrauch customs of children going from door to door begging gifts of food, sweets etc in return for songs (Martinsleid) is associated with St Martin’s day (Martinstag). In Germany – as elsewhere in Europe – this custom was also associated with the medieval ‘souling‘ traditions observed variously on All Hallows day (1st November) or All Hallows Eve (31st October) as well as All Souls’ day (2nd November). In ‘souling’ people would go door to door offering prayers for the dead in return for the gift of ‘soul cakes’. This seems to have evolved into the modern Hallowe’en ‘trick or treat’ custom, but was a feature of other festivals of the ‘winter quarter’, such as the Christmastide ‘wassailing’ and ‘guising’ tradition parties of ancient European tradition. Ritual begging was therefore an ancient and important cultural custom, and the idea of receiving divine favour in return for bestowing hospitality on the poor and needy was a key element to religious observances of the Christian and pre-Christian eras (for example, the Roman and Greek festivals of Saturnalia and Kronia).

The most popular legend of St Martin is that of him dividing his soldier’s cloak to share it with a freezing beggar (who was then revealed to him in a vision to have been Christ personified), hence the association of Martin’s festival with begging traditions. In modern Germany and other north European countries, children take part in lantern processions on St Martin’s eve and these are usually led by a man dressed as the saint – often depicted as a Roman soldier with a large cape on horseback. These processions culminate in the St Martin’s bonfires, at which people eat traditional foods and drinks (such as gluwein). Similar festivities in modern Britain occur on 5th November (divested of any Catholic trappings, and often with pyromaniac Protestant iconoclasms). In Ireland bonfire celebrations were formerly held at Samhain. It is evident that they are all based on an older seasonal tradition which has diversified with time and changes to the political and religious landscape.

The spirits of the dead were, before and after the advent of christianity, associated with a hunger for the warmth and fecundity of our world. The act of appeasing the needy and hungry can be thought of in technical terms as assuaging this ‘pull’ from the otherworld which might threaten our imminent ‘crossing over’ to join the dead.

Martin the warrior:

The legend of Martin of Tours given us by Sulpicius Severus (4th/5thC CE) says that he was originally a Danubian noble serving in a Roman cavalry outfit who, through a process of divine revelation, transitions from a physical form of warfare to the spiritual one of the Christian narrative. This in itself is illustrative of the ‘spiritual rebirth’ through which followers of his religion defined themselves – then and now. This confusion of death and life was typical of the ancient pagan European worldview about warfare and death, a view which was personified by Martin’s namesake – the Roman god Mars who (unlike his Greek counterpart Ares) represented chthonic wealth as well as war. That Martinmas comes at time when it is traditional in Europe to make a celebration of agricultural fertility and full winter stores is therefore intriguing.

In the skies, the season is marked by the prominence of the great winter ‘warrior’ (or ‘hunter’) constellation of Orion – imagined as a man holding high a sword and shield. Another interpretation might be a herdsman – cattle were generally moved from pasture into their winter stalls by Martinmas, and the ‘campaigning season’ for warfare was over. The warrior-hunter-herdsman constellation being displayed in the heavens might possibly have been viewed as an indicator that such activities on earth should cease. In Germany another old tradition used to be of herdsmen giving a ritual bundle of branches (the Martinsgerte – ‘Martin’s Switch’) to the farmer at Martinmas, which would be used the next Whitsuntide (Beltain) to drive the cattle to their summer pastures. This may represent the fact that herding was seasonal hired work, and in many places St Martin’s Day was a traditional holiday for herdsmen, who also identified with St George. Whatever the case, wands or switches crop up in many European winter folk-traditions and performances from before the modern age.

Association with horses:

Martin was said to have been of Illyrian birth – from the ‘Danubian’ provinces of the late Roman empire. Eastern Europe and Germania provided many of the elite cavalry units of the Roman army, and from the late 3rd century military men from these regions came to dominate the upper echelons of the Roman military hierarchy, even providing Emperors. This rise of the ‘Equites’ would in turn syncretise with the military traditions of the western Celtic tribes and eventually give rise to the European ‘knights’ of the middle ages. Martin bestrode both such worlds and his iconography demonstrates this. In the Gallo-Roman world he came to evangelise, as well as the Celticised Danubian provinces of the late Empire the cult of Epona – supposedly a Celtic horse-goddess – was prevalent, especially among military elites. This appears to have had a special Danubian flavour added to it in Eastern Europe, where her cult was linked to that of the ancient Greco-Roman Dioskoroi – the twin brothers who were expert horsemen, and whose legend suggested one was human and the other divine. It is possible that Martin’s father was aware of or even participated in such a cult, as he was said not to have been Christian. Mystery cults – particularly that of Mithras – were prevalent among the late Imperial military.

Martin’s figurative rejection of his military calling as one of the Equites (as told by Sulpicius Severus) can be interpreted as a rejection of the figurative cultural importance of the horse among his chosen flock, whose coins before the Roman conquest almost universally depicted the image of the horse along with a multitude of spiritually significant symbols. Severus tells a number of stories of Martin destroying the sacred groves and temples of Gaulish pagans, so the narrative of his hagiography needed to account for this. Tours was a ‘Belgic’ part of Gaul, strongly influenced by the military-spiritual late Iron Age cultural movement which appears to have stimulated the Celtic expansion of the ‘La Téne’ era of the second half of the 1st millennium BCE.

Association with birds:

Apart from the ritualised begging and celebrations of altruism, there is another old custom associated with St Martin’s day, involving birds. This is represented in Germany by the eating of a goose (the Martinsgans) at a special meal in honour of the saint, although duck is the more favoured bird in modern times. The reason given for this custom is based on the hagiography left by Martin’s contemporary, Sulpicius Severus, who declared the saint’s modesty as one of his virtues, illustrating it by the tale that Martin hid in a goose-shed when the crowds at Tours wished to elevate him to the rank of Bishop. The geese proclaimed his presence and he was forced to accept the honour.

Irrespective of the hagiographic legends, it was traditional at this time of the ancient subsistence agriculture cycle of Europe  to slaughter geese and pigs (both of which could be salted down to be preserved for the winter). In German ethno-linguistic regions the Schlachtfest (‘Slaughter Festival’) usually coincided with Martinmas. The tradition of animal slaughter at this period might explain the former custom in parts of Ireland of the Martinmas cockerel, which used to be slaughtered on St Martin’s Eve by bleeding. Sometimes a goose was used. The custom survived well into the 20thC – blood from the bird was dripped at the boundaries, corners and portals of the homestead or farmstead in order to procure luck (or protection from the saint) for the coming year. The bird was then eaten at a special meal (meat was only ever an occasional luxury in former times). This bird-slaughtering tradition evolved into the American settlers’ ‘Thanksgiving’ festival, celebrated on the third Thursday of November. All-Hallows or Martinmas were also traditional festivals at which tithes were traditionally paid to churches, and when servants were hired or released from service, sometimes a time when rents were paid. The ‘functional’ aspects of such festivals were sometimes displaced to Michaelmas – and although not practised on Martinmas, the tradition of a goose-feast at Michaelmas (29th September) was observed in Britain. when rents and tithes were often expected. Perhaps variations in the harvest-period between regions have informed this plasticity.

In the Isle of Man the custom of slaughtering a fowl was formerly celebrated on St Catherine’s day (25th November – a closer analogue of Thanksgiving) when a female hen suffered its fate, and was committed to a ‘solemn’ burial (perhaps made less solemn by the inebriated state of the celebrants) as part of the festivities of the tiny island nation’s St Catherine’s fairs. The meaning of the Manx ‘St Catherine’s Hen’ and its ritual slaughter and burial at a public fair is obscure – it could be anything from a pagan survival to a modern form of anti-clericalism or anti-Catholicism. What is similar, however, is the better-known bird-killing ritual involving the slaughter of a wren on the same island on the 26th December (St Stephen’s Day), suggesting a pre-Christian avian tradition. In avowedly Catholic Ireland this custom also occurred and in both countries (Mannin and Ireland) there were legends suggesting the wren was the personification of a powerful female fairy, leaving us to conclude that the ritual slaughter of a bird during the winter quarter had some religious significance in the ancient Atlantic world.

Returning to St Martin (and the 11th of November), it is worth commenting on some other bird-related associations. Not in the least is the use of the name ‘Martin’ for a class of bird of the family Hirundinidae, including the Swallows, House Martins, Sand Martins etc. These are migratory birds who appear in Europe during the late spring-time, and are usually departed to their over-wintering locations by the 11th of November. Anciently it was believed that, rather than migrating, they in fact slept over winter at the bottom of ponds and rivers. This belief may be based upon the observation of these species regularly skimming down over water in order to drink while ‘on the wing’.  By the same estimation, flocks of migratory plovers coming in to roost and feed on estuarine mudflats often appear to be ‘diving’ into the water. In ancient Rhodes (so the 2ndC CE Greek poet Athenaeus tell us) were beggars known as the Chelidonistai (‘Swallow Men’) who would come around in early springtime with the arrival of the swallows and sing traditional songs in order to earn alms. He mentions another class known to him (Coronistai) who carried a dead crow or raven and also solicited alms through a song. Obviously, there is a parallel with the Christianised medieval traditions of ritualised begging, so important to the Christian narrative. These were celebrated in Swabia (Upper Bavaria) at Whitsuntide (the closest Christian festival to Beltain) by the ‘Waterbird Men’, who performed songs for alms. Frazer (‘The Golden Bough’) quotes various German authors saying how these as also going into the forests to gather oak branches and other greenery, as well as sometimes diving into water, or throwing straw effigies of a large bird into water. In medieval times a wooden bird was displayed in Bavarian churches at Whitsun, evidently to depict Jesus, but possibly part of a Christianised tradition of the pagans. Like the Manx and Irish ‘Wren Boys’ these Whitsuntide parties of young men dressed in white, and wore red sashes. Just which ‘water bird’ species (if any) was intended is unclear – it may be that the placing of the bird in water was the origin of the name. Beltain is 6 months from Samhain – at the other side of winter – and St Martin also enjoyed a more ancient midsummer feast (Martinus aestivus, 4th July). The ‘Martin’s Bird’ (Martinsvögel) in Germany might also refer to an old tradition of a bird-shaped harvest sheaf (possibly even the one once cast into the water at Whitsuntide in Swabia), and is also the name sometimes given to other bird species such as the Black or Greater Spotted Woodpecker, the goose or even the Ladybird (also associated in German legend with Frau Holle).

The symbolism of migratory birds seems ideals for expressing the cycles of death and rebirth. These are best represented in European legends by species such as the Martins and Swifts, the Geese and Swans, and aquatic species such as the Plovers. St Martin was credited with bringing Christianity (which promised renewal not in this world but another one) to much of the notoriously militant, formerly barbarian Romanised cultures of north Europe. His name and military aspect seem like a fitting identity for someone who converted the Gauls from their vestiges of druidism, which taught that the soul flies from the body after death and is renewed in a far-off place before returning again in a new incarnation. Such empirical and spiritual symbolism pervades the legends and folklore of  Celtish and related European cultures, and survives the Christian era – testament to the power of the old and mysterious worldview.

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