Samhain, My Kind of Holiday

witch wall

I’ve never celebrated back to school or football season. For me, September is Hallow-eve and Samhain (sow-win) is an entire magically witchy season (the other 3 seasons & wheel turnings are all related). By the first week in October, my blood is ½ pumpkin spice, ½ Bloody Mary mix with bobbing olive eye balls. My chuckles turn to cackles and every outfit is black and shiny. In addition to non-static electric sparks flying from my fingertips, (that old black) magic fills the apple and damp leaf scented air. I marvel at the intricacies of spider webs and search frantically for eye of newt (and the ripe, rotted brains of politicians).

I sweep into rooms, occasionally fly off my (vibrating broom) handle, and keep the same hours as my pet bat. When people visit, they ask “what’s in your cauldron?” Instead, I wish they’d asked me about the origins of the fire/harvest festival of Samhain, which traces back to Celts and Druids in central EU and westerly isles.

When I was 6ish, I donned my first scary witch costume, but was sad the world still saw witches as ugly hags. Was it due to religious propaganda, a turning away from an agricultural based society, or a carrying forward of cultural superstitions? Much older now, I embrace my inner hag, warts and all. The hag protects the earth during winter when the land must rest so it can regenerate. I wondered, then and now, if Samhain still retains value in a world of science, reason, and artificial light—a world where the dead are often quickly forgotten and few understand how to till the land, or the difference between ‘bri’ and ‘bua, between the Otherworld and Hades?

Halloween is still the festival most associated with wickedness and weirdness. What occurs at the cyclical point known as Samhain is connected to previous and future events. This event closes out the year. When viewed circularly, there are visible links to astronomy, astrology, agriculture, art, magic, community, and chaos. At Samhain, the sun god Lugh dies and the hag of winter (Cailleach-veiled one) holds court until the next turn of the wheel at winter solstice, when she joins the Holly and Ivy kings.

Samhain has been largely replaced by its more popular commercial moniker Halloween. Christianity tried to change and disguise its purpose.  The Feast of All Saints (All Hallows) was introduced on October 31, followed by All Souls Day on November 1-2. At contemporary US and international Halloween celebrations, adults channel their inner children; teens morph into tricksters and vandals, and children beg candy and coins from strangers. In Mexico, it’s called Dia de los Muertos (day of the dead). In China, Teng Chieh is a time to remember the dead. In Hong Kong they celebrate Yue Lon (festival of the hungry dead-did you see that movie?).

Long ago, this was a time for ending and stripping bare; for beginning anew, planning, and divining.  Divination methods included casting nuts or throwing bones or Ogham letters (etched on bits of oak) into the fire and interpreting the way objects burned and popped. This was when cattle were culled and slaughtered. The dead were apportioned a share of food and drink, and were toasted (figuratively). In some traditions, dumb suppers were held—no words were spoken. Communications with the living and the dead was via the ether. This isn’t so hard to imagine in a world of cellphones and online communiqués.

The poor went begging at the homes of the wealthy disguised as dead ancestors and were given money, bread, cake, dried meat, nuts, or apples. To deny these ‘apparitions’ food would assure tricks would be played, and sometimes serious acts of vandalism occurred. Worse, the very land might seek revenge and the next year’s harvest would be meager.

An interesting change between the Samhain celebrated 1,000 years ago and a 21st century Halloween is our contemporary approach to death. A millennium ago, death and darkness was ever present. A good death was important, and ancestors were remembered by multiple generations of family. Today, we’re allowed up to three days off work to bury our dead. There’s no official year of mourning or requirement to wear black. Death is sanitized through embalming and the application of cleverly applied cosmetic masques. The dead animals we eat are attractively packaged and disguised; and we make fun of spooky cemeteries and things that go bump in the night. Few stop to remember the dead or provide a nominal tribute.

We don’t ‘go dark’ or hibernate between harvest and spring. We value light in the form of white—teeth, hats, walls, bleached and starched shirts, the milk of kindness… We illuminate our homes, streets, and businesses. Druids understood darkness must also be embraced.  They respected the first thing a person experiences—the darkness of the womb. The dark is also the first part of the alchemical process—the chaotic negredo state that occurs before the prima materia can form.  In life, there is dissolution of order—a breakdown before a breakthrough or rebirth can occur. The four elements of fire, air, water and earth arising from the prima material spin and change—dark to light, grey lead to gold.

Perhaps this is your year to celebrate a holiday that begins at twilight on October 31 and concludes at twilight on November 1. Lift barriers and mix dark with light, living with dead, within with without. Unlock and open doors and windows; extinguish and relight fires. At the end of the Samhain celebrations of old, families would light a torch from one of the bonfires, bring it home, and kindle a new hearth fire. This fire would burn throughout the winter. What’s not to like—indulge in heavy drinking, glutinous food consumption, and the wild hunt. Don’t forget to place a few offerings outside your door on October 31st to appease roaming trickster spirits, flame eyed pukahs and headless women.

I live in the woods but don’t till the land or harvest much more than a few dozen herbs and veggie plants. I don’t build or light a bonfire, although some years I have gathered round a blazing bonfire with friends. I pull out family mementoes, and assemble framed photos and keepsakes round a centerpiece that includes a stuffed owl and raven, dried bunches of lavender and sage, mini humorous tombstones and copper and black iron cauldrons holding votive candles.

I have, upon occasion, set an extra place or two at the table; baked loaves of whole grain, pumpkin, and zucchini breads; arranged a cheese and charcuterie board; and polished off a bottle of mead and a pitcher of killer Bloody Mary’s, labeled “AB negative.” A tall white ‘remembrance’ candle glows at a window and burns for the next 24 hours (properly tended). Only once did a candle I’d lit explode for no apparent reason, sending hot red wax and flames everywhere. This happened in September, exactly seven days before my father’s untimely death.

As a lover of murder mysteries, October has always seemed the best month to kill someone and put them in a corn field dressed as a scarecrow…but the nearest farm is over 20 miles away. I do embrace the ‘bri,’ the inherent, unchangeable nature of the place I call home, and recall the bri of favorite places I’ve visited. I’m still learning about the ‘bua’ here, where the Cherokee once hunted and camped. The bua is determined by what occurred in a particular place. This land was taken from the Cherokee, bought for pennies from local famers, and ‘civilized.’ Sometimes, I hear the land howling.

There are a few old growth trees here and a lake, which connects to other lakes until the waters reach the Gulf of Mexico. I spy on deer, rabbits, and an occasional fox from my window. My hounds try to evict these poor critters from the back yard. On Samhain, if I look sideways just right as lake mists swallow trees and the distant Smokies, I catch a wondrous glimpse of Saol Eile (the Otherworld), where summer is just beginning. Consider resuscitating the ancient twilight tradition of Samhain this year—look to the land and remember the dead. Consider, if you will, “entering a 5th dimension—of imagination—as vast as space and timeless as infinity…” (Rod Serling’s specter says bua!)

 

Bibliography References
Graves, Robert, The White Goddess, 1952 and The Greek Myths, 1955.

Céitinn, Seathrún (Geoffrey Keating), (ed. by Padraig de Brún) Foras Feasa ar Éirinn. Dublin, 1982.
Danaher, Kevin, The Year in Ireland. Cork, 1972.

Johnson, Buffie. Lady of the Beasts: The Goddess& Her Sacred Animals. Inner Traditions Int’l, 1994.
MacNeill, Eoin, On the Notation and Chronology of the Calendar of Coligny, 1926.
McNeill, F. Marian, The Silver Branch (volumes),1953-66.

Bonwick, James. Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions,1976.
Owen, Trefor M., Welsh Folk Customs. Cardiff, 1959.

Ann, Martha and Imel, Dorothy Myers. Goddesses in World Mythology,1993.

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