November 2017
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Soul Cakes:
An Old Winter Custom and a New Recipe

Creating Ritual

Soul Cakes: An Old Winter Custom and a New Recipe
Article by the Cunning Wife

God bless the master of this house,
The misteress also,

And all the little children
That round your table grow.
Likewise young men and maidens,
Your cattle and your store;
And all that dwells within your gates,
We wish you ten times more.
-“Souling Song,” 1891

Before Halloween candy, there were soul cakes. Wholesome and laced with warming spices and fruits, they were traditionally given to soulers, who would go door to door at this time to pray for the household in return, as well as costumed mummers. In some places, soul papers – prayer requests for living and dead family members – would be given along with the cakes. Before the 8th century, the lineage of this tradition is murky as a fog-laden autumn night, but it certainly bears elements of pre-Christian beliefs about the dark part of the year and wandering spirits.

In Lancashire, England, they were called harcakes. “Har” is likely a derivative of hearg, an Old English word indicating an outdoor stone altar for honoring deities and/or ancestors; the Old Norse cognate is hörgr. This suggests that an early ancestor of these cakes may have been given on an altar as an offering. Everyone has their own soul cake recipe. An old recipe, possibly from the 19th century, is as follows: 3/4 lb. flour; 1/2 teaspoonful cinnamon; 1/2 teaspoonful mixed spice; pinch nutmeg; 6 oz. sugar; 6oz butter; 1 egg; 1 1/2 teaspoonfuls vinegar. Mix dry ingredients, rub in fat, drop in egg and vinegar and knead till soft. Roll out 1/4 inch thick, cut into rounds with a big cutter, bake in moderate oven for 15 or 20 minutes, until slightly coloured.

My own recipe is a modified version of this pumpkin apple cookie recipe. Each ingredient has its symbolism:  Pumpkins are vessels and connected in English and American lore to the human head (the seat of the soul, in many cultures) – think of the Headless Horseman, the nursery rhyme “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater,” the scarecrow in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Featherhead,” and the tradition of the Jack o’ Lantern. Apples symbolize health and longevity in European culture (Idun’s apples being a prime example); also, apples are mentioned in several souling songs, and many varieties are harvested throughout the fall. Honey is another sweet symbol of longevity. Warming spices, such as ginger, clove, nutmeg, and cinnamon, are popular ingredients during fall and winter because they are comforting and balancing against the cold, with which spirits are often associated, and from which they may suffer, given their tendency to draw near hearths when visiting

Altogether, these cakes offer warmth, comfort, and sweetness to both the living and the dead. Enjoy them yourself; share with loved ones, friends, and strangers; leave them on your altars for passing spirits to partake.

The Cunning Wife’s Soul Cakes



  1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

  2. Mix pumpkin puree, applesauce, butter, and vanilla until evenly distributed.

  3. In a separate bowl, mix dry ingredients (flour, spices, and baking soda).

  4. Add dry ingredients to pumpkin mix, then add honey and the diced apple.

  5. Scoop into dollops on a foil-lined or lightly greased cookie sheet.

  6. Bake for 12-15 min. and enjoy.

The Cunning Wife is a writer, diviner, spirit worker and traveler, and folk magic practitioner guided by both philosophical Taoism and Germanic folk traditions.. Her written work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information in ways that are accessible and relevant. She also performs various forms of divination as well as crafting magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered. Find her blog on PaganSquare.

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We begin with Ashling Kelly's simply marvelous paen to the joys of food "Bringing the Magic Home: The Simple Art of Kitchen Witchery" which I guarantee will give the most apathetic cook inspiration to heat up the stove.

Next, Belinda Ashley considers the importance of gratitude and offers several mealtime prayers in "Sacred Sister, Sacred Brother: Thoughts on Giving Thanks." In a more reflective vein, Mary Elizabeth McEntee offers her personal perspective on a particular food in "My Journey with Quince" (complete with a recipe for Quince and Figs in Rosé Wine. Yum!

Theresa Dintino and Donna Henes offer dualing perspectives on the Pagan roots of wheat, baking and bread in "The Transformative Bread Goddess" and " "Staff of Life: Goddess Herstory of Bread" while Kathy Ainsley celebrates Aphrodite's favorite foods in "Cooking with Roses."

Laura Brennan explores the reasons why we Pagans should enjoy cooking as a religious experience in "Welcoming Desire: Celebrating the Sensual Kitchen" and Diana Paxson digs deep into the mythology and legend of that greatest of all earthly cooks in "Gaia: The Goddess Earth."

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