September 21st – The Feast of Our Beneficent Lady

Today, four small tents will be erected in Votive park, all arranged in the points of the compass around a small patch of darkened earth, over which the grass is never allowed to grow. The tents are little white things, simply adorned with a picture of one ingredient on their side; an ear of wheat for the western tent, an apple for the east, a fish to the south and the marrow of a bone for north. When midday has just passed a fire will be lit in the centre of this space, over the darkened earth, charring it once again.

The people who construct these tents, and who will today hold their festival in and around them, are the Symbolic Chefs of our Beneficent Lady, the worshippers of Ultimar Esplain, who was burned to death on this very spot for alleged crimes of witchcraft in 1585. According to these ‘Chefs,’ however, whilst Esplain did perform magic, this had only beneficent effects, and was gained by ‘leveraging the Deep Symbolism of the world’ rather than any witchery. Many witches and witchologists have also denied Esplain’s witchiness since, but for differing reasons. They call the Symbolic Chefs a ‘pseudo-religious movement,’ and a ‘transparent rebranding of an imagined and misunderstood idea of witchcraft.’

Deep Symbolism was a (frankly rather wooly) concept which was pioneered by Esplain, and written about in her book, Movynge Awaye frohm the Potte, which proposed various ways for Buentoillitant witches to become less reviled, to let their ‘arte aphear lesse feyrefulle’ to those who observed it. The primary methodology which Esplain suggested was, as the book’s name suggests, to ditch the cauldron, which had become one of the main things that people associated with witchery. She attempted to reconceptualise the role of witches as ‘Symbolic Chefs’ who merely fed those seeking their services certain symbolic ingredients, in the correct patterns and order, substituting the disgusting potions boiled up in cauldrons for the tasteful platters of food with similar symbolic power.

The book was generally met with ridicule within witch communities, as it not only completely missed the point of potions, but also seemed to believe that witchcraft was something entirely separate from the ancient arcane practise. Her ideas of what a typical witch did and looked like seemed to be based off a children’s book, rather than any experiences or observed reality. Whilst it may have had the good intention of attempting to save witches from further harm by angry mobs, it came from a place of privilege and presumption, rather than of solidarity and understanding. It was considered by most witches to be fairly offensive.

The other thing that has to be addressed here is that publishing a book on witchcraft at that point in time, no matter how well argued its points were that witchcraft was not actually as scary as it looked (and that its practitioners could make it a lot more welcoming), was an act of monumental stupidity. The Buentoillitants who were going around murdering witches were unlikely to actually read the text, just assume that it was written by a witch, and whilst Esplain is certainly not to blame for her death, nor did she deserve it, most other folk would have seen it coming from miles off.

Despite the fact that her book was roundly dismissed by almost everyone already involved in witchcraft, it did manage to attract a number of folks who found Esplain’s ‘rebranding’ far more compelling. Unlike traditional witch orders, these folk included men as well as women, and in the aftermath of her death, Esplain became something of a martyr for these dabblers in the occult. Thus the Symbolic Chefs were born. On this, the anniversary of Esplain’s death, these chefs will attempt to summon her image in the fire central to their encampment, by each performing a simple spell.

The central tenet of Deep Symbolism is that every major magical force in the world, from the winds to the power that keeps ghosts in the world and the ways in which our bodies radiate heat, has some basic gastronomical symbolic equivalent, and that by eating these in the correct order (as previously stated, Esplain was very clear that these should not be mixed together in a pot), a magical language could be created and spoken. In each tent a head of the Chefs sits and will stare straight into the eyes of whoever enters the tent to eat the substance printed on its side. The foods, which are symbolic of each cardinal direction, will dictate the direction of the summoning of Esplain’s spirit, which is called for by the other in individual in the tent, the Chef leader, by chewing liquorish root slowly. The staring apparently cements the symbolic connections, and amplifies the signal.

When all the Symbolic Chefs of our Beneficent Lady, of whom there are about sixty, have eaten each of the four ingredients, they will all sit in a circle around the fire, holding hands. They say that the four winds mould the flame, shaping it into the figure of a woman, specifically one Ultimar Esplain who will impart upon them words of wisdom from beyond the grave. Perhaps staring into a fire for long enough makes a person see things within it, or maybe, just maybe, the martyred not-witch knew what she was talking about. It seems unlikely.

Other festivals happening today:

  • The Preparation of Leaflathe Festival
  • The Festival of Bringing up the Oars
  • Golden Day