Halloween takes its roots in ancient festivals and feasts honouring the dead. Which makes it a perfect time to remember the Haliorunna, the oracular priestesses of the “underworld mysteries” whose rites of divination and ancestor veneration were demonized and extinguished by the Church.
It was Max Dashu’s wonderful book Witches and Pagans Women in European Folk Religion 700 – 1100 that introduced me to these women who communed with the dead and ancestor spirits through what the Anglo-Saxons called leód-rūne or “song-mysteries.”( See this excerpted link for the source material for this post and so, so much more.) I had never heard of them before!
References in Old English, Germanic and Norse texts describe these haliorunna, helliruna, helrun, helrune, helrynegu, and hellraun as “witches” ”necromancers” and “sorceresses” who whispered and sung over the graves and barrows where the dead were interred “to make the dead speak or send something out.”
According to Dashu, their various names are derived from the word “rune” which can also be translated as, “mysteries of the burial mound”; a “tomb elegy, epitaph, burial song, and can be interpreted as those “having knowledge of the secrets of the dead”, “those skilled in the mysteries of hell” or “hell-whisperers”.
But this wasn’t the Christian hell of brimfire but the realm of the Norse goddess of the underworld Hel, and the German underworld (Hölle). Here dwelled the Buhr-rūnan, female ancestors, “fates, furies, fairies, spirits of the mountains and wild rugged country” who were the avengers of wrongs, especially against the mothers.
By the early middle ages the Church banned womens night vigils and burning candles on graves to look into the future at tombs and funeral pyres, as a desecration of the dead. Their communal feasts by graves, burial mounds, springs, trees, standing stones and the “laying food and wine on the tumuli of the dead” were now decreed as devil worship.
The transformation of the haliorunna into evil hag capable of killing babies, dancing with the devil, blighting crops and casting malevolent spells, was the work of the Church who sought to destroy the pagan practices of ancestor veneration, the honouring of female deities and most especially, the spirits of the land.
So on Halloween night, I’m going to tip my witches hat to the forgotten oracular priestesses of the “underworld mysteries”. I’ll light a candle, offer food in their honour, and take a moment to listen for the wisdom of the dead. And I won’t forget to call, as they once did, upon the daughters of Gaia, the earth goddess, the female fates and furies, who were the avengers of wrongs.