Halloween takes its roots in ancient festivals and feasts honouring the dead, like Samhain. Which makes it a perfect time for cake…not just any cake, but a cake in remembrance of the Haliorunna. Never heard of them? They were 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.)
References in Old English, Germanic and Norse texts describe the 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 women’s 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, why not tip your witches hat to the forgotten oracular priestesses of the “underworld mysteries”? Try your hand with a traditional offering to the ancestors – cake. These small round cakes of rustic grains, apples, nuts and honey are inspired by the cakes long offered to the dead. I used a mix of spelt and rye flour, dark clover honey, hazelnuts, sliced crab apples, currants and poppyseeds.
They also contain a good sprinkling of “witches berries” – otherwise known as the barberry. And a generous dose of chocolate of course! Barberries (the tiny crimson berries pictured above) grow wild in foresty places and are considered an invasive pest, despite being eaten for thousands of years. (The Ancient Egyptians loved Barberry Syrup!) Plus they’re super good for you. I harvested these from the neighbourhood where the Japanese variety is much favoured for ornamental purposes.
This is dense rather primitive cake, hearkening to the simple unleavened loaves of the past. These were rather like fruitcakes and often doused with spirits. I included a dash of rose brandy in mine – always good with chocolate.
So during the season the veil between the worlds thins and the dead draw near, light a candle, bake a cake and take a moment to listen for the wisdom of the ancestors. And don’t forget to call, as the Haliorunna once did, upon the daughters of Gaia, the earth goddess, the female fates and furies, who were the avengers of wrongs.
- 2 & 1/2 cups of flour (spelt, oat, rye or wholewheat)
- 2 eggs
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp baking powder
- pinch of salt
- 1/2 cup of honey (little extra for drizzling)
- 1/2 cup roasted hazelnuts (roughly chopped)
- 1/2 cup chopped crabapple (or grated apple)
- 1/4 cup golden currants
- 1/4 cup of barberries or cranberries (lightly chopped)
- 1/4 cup of melted butter (or oil)
- 3 tablespoons dark cocoa
- 2 tablespoons of poppyseeds
- a couple of teaspoons of your favourite spice (cinnamon, allspice, ginger etc. it’s up to you)
- 1/2 cup grated dark chocolate (or chocolate chips)
- 4 tablespoons of brandy (or your favourite spirits)
- Combine flour and honey in a large bowl, mix well.
- Adds eggs and combine.
- Blend the rest of the ingredients into the batter and mix (you may need to use your hands) making sure it is well-blended.
- Shape your dough into a “mound-like” form. If too wet add more flour until it holds its shape, if too dry add another splash of brandy!
- Transfer your cake-mound onto a greased baking pan (or you can use a bundt pan)
- Bake in a preheated oven at 325F for approximately 45 – 50 minutes. It could take shorter or longer depending on your ingredients, so test with a toothpick.
- Let cool.
- Serve with a drizzle of melted chocolate or dust w/icing sugar – or both!