Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Considering Samhain.

The following are excerpts from a few letters I've written to my cousin, after he emailed me asking what kinds of holy days or "feast days" my religion held around this time of year. He'd heard a mention on an NPR program about "the veil between the worlds" becoming thin during these darkening autumn days and wanted to know if my spirituality incorporated this idea at all. This is some of what I wrote back in response (after explaining, as briefly as I could, the basic structure and history of the eight-festival "Wheel of the Year" celebrated by many modern Pagans).

Most Celtic-based Pagan spiritualities (including Druidry and some Witchcraft) acknowledge Samhain (Halloween) as the Celtic New Year and the most holy day on the calendar. It is a Fire Festival and is very closely connected agriculturally with the "late/last harvest," which was the harvest of the very last fruits of the season (such as apples, gourds, etc.) and the slaughter of a good percentage of livestock in order to thin the herd for the coming winter. Thus, the festival is heavily associated with
blood and death, the coming of cold and darkness and increasing scarcity as winter comes on--but it's also a time of gathering and celebration, lighting the fire and feasting in spite of the cold. Like most Druidic things, it carries in it a bit of a paradox. This tension is probably where the idea of a "thin veil between worlds" comes from. Animal sacrifice has been used in almost all religious traditions at one time or another as a way of "parting the veil" that separates the mundane and the sacred realms (even Christianity, which is based on a blood sacrifice to reconcile the profane with the sacred), so it's understandable that during a time when animals were being slaughtered out of practical necessity (to make sure they didn't have so many animals to feed over the winter that they became sickly or a burden on the family), the death and subsequent consuming of red meat became associated with communication with the Underworld. That's where you get a lot of the "Day of the Dead" stuff around this time of year, as well as the practice of honoring ancestors or loved ones who have died. Most of the secular Halloween traditions comes from this pagan association with death (also natural considering the dying off occurring in the natural world), and it actually influenced the Catholic Church to adopt November 1 and 2 as All Souls and All Saints Days to commemorate the dead within the Christian tradition.

To be honest, this time of year has never been anything particularly special to me. Everyone has their favorite holy day, I guess, and I think mine is actually Imbolc/Candlemas, probably because it was the first holy day I officially celebrated as a not-quite-Catholic-anymore. Samhain has a bit of mischief and darkness to it, which I think appeals to many Pagans, who tend to be rebellious, fun, independent folks. It's also the easiest to celebrate in public as part of the secular celebration of Halloween, which for people who have to practice their Paganism in solitary, without a community to have parties and rituals with, helps a little bit. Back in high school, one of my best friend's birthdays was just a few days before Halloween, so she always loved the holiday and really got into the whole costume parties and ghosts and hauntings and such. Then later, in college, after 9/11, it always seemed to me that it was really the fall equinox that had the strongest association with death, grief and loss for me, and this persisted until only a year or so ago when my political angst finally seemed to settle into something solid and workable. Meanwhile, my break up with R. just happened to occur on Halloween several years ago, and ever since, to be perfectly honest, the month of October in general has been hellish for me, usually accompanied by major bouts of depression and regret, so that I tended to try to just ignore autumn altogether until I could make it through to Thanksgiving and the Holiday Season (and then, only a month and a bit until Imbolc!). While I was doing my year of formal study with AODA, I performed personal rituals to mark each of the days (small ceremonies involving candles, incense, meditation, nothing spectacular or strange--well, unless you count candles, incense and meditation as strange)... Then I kind of fell out of the habit.

But then last year, by the time Samhain rolled around, it had been only a few months since my friend F. had died. I was still grieving a little, though coping, and I decided to actually use my personal Samhain ritual for some prayer work specifically focused on "talking" to and honoring the memory of F. (though my beliefs about what exactly happens to a soul after death are still a little shaky, I think maybe for a short period of time at least there could be some coherence and retention of individual awareness and even personality.... maybe). In any case, the experience was startling and I even had the pungent sensation of smelling his familiar smell for just a second (a combination of deodorant and hair gel, plus the overlapping smell of grease from work). Whether this was some "communication" or whatever, I have no idea, but afterwards I did begin to feel, for the first time, like a rift had been healed or something had slipped back into place and relaxed a muscle that had been tense so long I'd ceased to consciously notice it. I found I could accept his death more understandingly than I had before. I've never given much credence to ghost stories and such, mostly because I don't think that's really how it works, though I can believe there are energy patterns left "impressed" into physical objects or places that kind of echo through time. Around this time of year, I do always get the craving to indulge in some good ghost story-telling, and I end up rereading some E.A. Poe and watching shows like "Ghost Hunters" or "Real Hauntings" or whatever those shows on the Discovery/History Channels are called. So who knows, really?

This year, I've been trying to keep up my spirits through October (and it's been working pretty well), and I've also worked more at decorating my altar for the season. Each day on my walks to and from work, I keep my eyes open for autumn leaves to bring inside and place around my altar; and once or twice I've gone on long walks through the local park to pick wildflowers that are still in bloom and just appreciate nature and the shifting, overlapping seasons as the weather gets colder. The other day, I had one of those great walks where all the colors just seemed so saturated and intense, as sun slit down through low, dark clouds and wind shook leaves from high up in the canopy. I love moments like those, when you almost can't believe how beautiful the world is. I very much like Druidry because it's so much about getting out there in nature and opening yourself up to the energies around you, revving up your intuition and imaginative faculties until you can almost see the spirits of air and color dancing through the landscape, and the trees seem to have unique personality and soul, and even rocks and streams take on a kind of liveliness. It's not all reading books and studying theology and listening to preaching. You just go out and try to feel the world with your heart and mind, you just try to be open to it and what it's sending your way, to feel the rhythm of it. In Druidry there's an idea that everything, every "soul", has a song, and all of these songs work to create harmonies and melodies that actually "sing" the world into being and guide its course. So you go outside and sit in the chill and the dim light and watch the leaves fall and try to listen to the song of things. And there is darkness and discord, too, it's not all light and happy and peaceful and such (though Druidry does focus strongly on peace, as well as on truth, and poetry). It's hard to describe exactly--you just kind of have to trust the process and also trust the basic exercises in meditation and visualization, even though they can seem repetitive and overly-structured and boring at first. It's like teaching your spiritual "ear" how to hear the music.

I was going to say more about the "thin veil," but once again I feel like this letter is already too long. Simply put, the Celtic worldview holds that there are basically "three worlds" (this is horribly simplified and dumbed down, mind you): the Otherworld, the Underworld and the everyday mundane world that we live in. The Otherworld is not necessarily a "heaven" up in the sky, though it is associated, like I said in my last letter, with solar and stellar energies, air and electricity. Really, the Otherworld is seen as existing in the same space as the regular world, but kind of overlapped or slightly off, like a dimensional shift or something (to put it in sci-fi terms). It is ever-present and interpenetrates our own, and people with "the Sight" can see it and the beings that live on that plane kind of moving and existing all around us. The same is true of the Underworld, except that instead of being solar/stellar energies, the Underworld focuses on earthy energies. There is a myth about a "star" being falling to earth and impregnating it/her, giving birth to creatures whose "center of gravity" is not the Otherworld, but kind of within the earth itself (the idea that the very center of the earth is another "star" or hot fiery heart, which actually it is!). This is why old burial mounds in Ireland and Wales are associated with some spirit beings, they are said to live "within" the very ground itself, but really this is just another way of saying that, like the Otherworld, the Underworld is all around us and yet "shifted" slightly out of our everyday experience.

So, with that kind of worldview in mind, the cycle of the seasons sometimes help to "shift" various worlds into closer alignment, effectively thinning the veil and allowing experiences from the Other- or Underworld to kind of spill over into our middle existence. The shift that puts our world in closer alignment with the Underworld occurs around Samhain--though really, some people think that it lasts as long as the winter solstice, so that the time between Oct. 31 and Dec. 21/22 is a period of dark "no time" when communication with the Underworld is easiest (I once read a Druid idea of a "Torc of the Year" instead of a Wheel of the Year, illustrating this idea). Our peak alignment with the Otherworld occurs on May 1, Belteinne, and is believed by some to last all the way until the summer solstice ("midsummer," which is why both May Day and Midsummer are closely associated with faeries, even in Shakespearean plays and such).

It is really kind of thrilling if you think about it. Again, you can imagine it in terms of song and music, and the respective melodies of different planes coming into harmony at certain times of the year, allowing for sympathetic vibrations and echoes, the way hitting one note on a piano will cause other notes at various higher and lower octaves to hum slightly. And the idea of much of the ritual found in modern Druidry is to "tune" yourself, to teach you the best way to get yourself open and listening to these vibrations. I always felt like Catholic ritual was rather empty and rote, but really the purpose of ritual in most religions is the same. Just as the way you think and feel will affect how you act, likewise the process happens in reverse, so that by performing certain actions repeatedly (whether it's lighting a candle, sitting in a particular position in order to pray or meditate, or walking a circle and raising your arms to greet the four directions), the pattern of action will come to shape how you think and feel and respond to the world. It's potentially manipulative stuff when you always let other people dictate what those ritual actions should be, but when you actively and consciously engage in creating your own rituals, it's almost like making spontaneous works of art with your own body. The way a painting or song can evoke particular emotions and experiences in a person, you can cultivate spiritual experiences by choosing to act out certain rituals.

Even the most secular people do this almost without thinking about it around this time of year especially. Hollowing out pumpkins (the violence of the knife, the slimy guts inside), putting lit candles inside them and displaying them in windows, dressing up and behaving like monsters, zombies, ghosts, vampires, sitting around telling ghost stories and inadvertently looking for signs of spirits in the dancing pattern of falling leaves--all of these things are socio-spiritual rituals that help us connect to and experience "death" before actually having to die. The death not only of the physical self, but also of the social conventions that bind us and keep us "safe", so that mischief and wildness are also part of the celebration, average conventional women dressing up in promiscuous outfits, teenagers gathering together around Ouija boards and playing at the occult, testing boundaries, experimenting with chaos.

Damn, now that I think about it, I do rather like this time of year. Plus, out of chaos and darkness come new possibilities, imagination and new life. Which is why this is the New Year for the ancient Celts, the time when old things are dying off and making room for new potential.

Though I'm not sure about the whole vampire thing. Don't get me wrong, I like vampires--but the YA Fiction obsession with them lately seems to speak more to the fact that teenagers are treated increasingly as energetic parasites, leeching life off of others without the power or even expectation of ever giving back anything meaningful and substantive of their own--and how these days adolescence seems to stretch into eternity, people obsessed with staying and acting young forever, maintaining a college-party lifestyle well into mid- to late-twenties (or longer!). But that's just me psychoanalyzing society with a touch of personal bitterness. Do you find any of that to be the case? I mean, it seems to me like there must be some distinction between the "classic" conception of the vampire (and its associations with sickness, death, and all the wild passions free of social conventions I was talking about before, etc.) and the new vision of the vampire as a kind of deathless sex god who only bucks convention as far as the typical Hot Topic teenage goth consumer can be expected... Vampires-as-undead versus vampires-as-soulless-consumers.... okay, maybe there's not so much a difference after all.

This letter has gotten ridiculous. So I'll end on a ridiculous note. Last night I dreamt (probably because of writing that letter to you) that I was eating an almost-raw hamburger, when you came up and grabbed it out of my hand, wrapped the whole thing (bun and all) in wide lettuce leaves, then set it on the ground and started smashing it with a baseball bat. Apparently my vegetarian self was feeling bad about speaking so casually about slaughtering livestock for food!


  1. As ever, an education. Thank you.

    The reason for creating personal ritual is especially well explained.

  2. It's funny--when writing these letters, I just bumbled along trying to get out as much as I could while still being brief. But then when I went to post it in my blog, I found myself wondering, "Wait--is any of this actually accurate?" I couldn't remember where I'd learned some of my facts, though I still felt they were true. Which I guess means Druidry really has become a religion for me, and not just a scholarly study! ;)

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  5. OK. Right. Er...

    Yes. It's like you said about having an instinct for what is going on around you, tuning in to the rhythms of the world. It's a step beyond the scholarly aspect. I feel the same way. Although I still study, I do it for pleasure. The more important aspect (as I see it) is that there comes a time when what you know alters the very way in which you look at and relate to the world.

  6. Excellent letter/post!

    With every year that passes, I feel more strongly that Halloween and Samhain are no more than second cousins - there may be a passing family resemblance, but they are so different for me now that I have had to move my Samhain observance to the 2nd of November (for which there is some scholarly justification, although I'd have to go find it again as I read that a few years ago).

    I even have separate playlists for the two dates - Halloween gets all the classic party music, everything from "Don't Fear the Reaper" and "Werewolves of London" to the "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" and "The Sorceror's Apprentice". My Samhain list is shorter, but very much aimed at creating the spiritual environment necessary for properly honoring such a holy time.

  7. Hi, Ali, I really enjoyed your sharing this. Hopefully, you will be happy I shared it in turn in today's the roundup of Samhain stories over at MetaPagan.

    Keep on doin' what you do--your blog continues to be one of my favorite places to read and think.

  8. Aw, thanks Cat. :) I'm still waiting to hear back from my cousin after my last letter, but it was really nice to be able to talk with family about my spiritual life, and I'm glad other non-family readers found it interesting, too. :)

  9. These are really a new knowledge for me specially with Pagan subjects. Thanks for sharing this to us.

  10. This is really interesting, thanks for writing it.
    Does "the torc of the year" simply mean there's a gap between Samhain and the winter solstice (like a torc not being a continuous ring)?
    btw, if you remember where you read about the torc of the year, where did you read it? that kind of thing interests me.