I am the hallow-tide of all souls passing,
I am the bright releaser of all pain,
I am the quickener of the fallen seed-case,
I am the glance of snow, the strike of rain.
I am the hollow of the winter twilight,
I am the hearth-fire and the welcome bread,
I am the curtained awning of the pillow,
I am unending wisdom’s golden thread.
~ Song of Samhain, Celtic Devotional:
Daily Prayers and Blessings, by Caitlín Matthews
The Wheel of Time has turned, and we are now in the magical period that ancient Celts and modern Witches call Samhain. The Great Sabbat of Samhain (pronounced SAH-wen, SAH-ween, or SOW (rhymes with cow) -wen) is the third and final harvest, marking Summer’s end.
It is the celebration of the New Year in both the old Celtic calendar and also in many traditions of the Craft. In the Northern Hemisphere, this marks the midpoint between Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice (although by strict astronomical reckoning the exact midpoint falls on Nov. 7 this year).
Samhain is the opposite point of the year from the celebrations of life and fertility of May Day, or Beltane, which our friends below the equator are celebrating today. Merry Beltane to you all!
A Witch’s View of Human Nature
As most educated people know, neither Witches nor Samhain have anything whatsoever to do with “satan,” who is strictly an Abrahamic religious invention. While our stories have plenty of tricksters and even a few nasty villains, there is no entity of supernatural evil in the beliefs or practices of Witchcraft or Paganism.
More importantly, most Witches and Pagans do not believe in the myth of fundamental wrongness being at the heart of the world, or human nature.
For centuries, the so-called civilized world has been haunted and manipulated by the terror that a taint of evil lurks in even the most innocent of us.
Sadly, the fallout from this is that most people are alienated from, and deeply afraid of, the natural cycles of living, aging, and dying. And yet a morbid fascination with violence, death, and ghoulish horror are central to popular entertainment pastimes.
For our ancestors, as well as in cultures not dominated by the Abrahamic religions, when you eliminate the fear that there is a stain of evil or accursedness dwelling within every single one of us (mediated only by the Church), then you have a very different relationship to the fact of death.
Death may bring deep grief to those left behind, but it is not the grotesque horror that we have turned it into, in our modern, “enlightened” times.
On the contrary, we sense that the Veil that lies between the living and the departed, and between what is past, present, and future has become thin.
This is not a spooky, terrifying thing to us. Consensual reality shifts, and other dimensions are revealed, enabling us to welcome and commune with our beloved dead, as well as our Otherworldly guides and allies.
Halloween and All Saints Day have their origin in the ancient Celtic feast of Samhain. The All Saints ceremonies had originally been in the Springtime, but the Catholic church, in an attempt to stamp out the Pagan rites of Samhain, superimposed it to that time. We do not, in fact, really know what went on at those most ancient rites, as the wise Ronald Hutton reminds us.
In the modern Gaelic languages, the name of the feast means “summer’s end.” In the modern Brythonic languages, it means “the first day of winter.” It is the end of the end, the beginning of the beginning. The Celts honored the intertwining forces of existence: darkness and light, night and day, cold and heat, death and life.
Celtic knotwork art represents this intertwining. The old ones observed time as proceeding from darkness to light. Thus, the Celtic day began at dusk, the beginning of the dark and cold night, and ended the following dusk, the end of a day of light and warmth.
Similarly, the Celtic year began with An Geamhradh (“an gyow-ragh”), the dark Celtic winter, and ended with Am Foghar (“am fu-ghar”), the Celtic harvest. So Samhain marks the beginning of both An Geamhradh and the new Celtic year.
Throughout history and across cultures, this is a time for making peace with one another, and coming to terms with the inevitability of death.
This would have been the third and final harvest of the growing season, with Lughnasadh (Aug. 1) being the first harvest of grains and Mabon (Equinox) being the harvest of fruits and vegetables. Samhain marked the blood harvest of cattle, pigs, and other animals that had to be culled in order to survive the encroaching Winter.
Thus, stories with a theme of the death and the transformation cycle, as well as rituals honoring and welcoming the spirits of our beloved dead Ancestors are central to our rites.
Our Magical Legacy
While the revelry of Halloween can be fun, it is not Pagan. Instead, Halloween is a commercialized, secular event.
It is ironic that some conservative churches are trying to “clean up” what they fear is the Pagan influence of this night by having “Fall Harvest Festivals,” since that is actually much closer to the Pagan observances.
For those who walk the ancient path of the Wise, this night is our most holy, reflective, and deeply sacred time.
So to my friends who love to party, dress up, and carouse on this night, I appreciate your invitations, but my feelings and sensibilities at this time could hardly be further away from those activities.
Instead, like most other Witches, Druids, and Pagans, I will be in sacred space on this most spiritual of nights.
Tonight, we’ll be bidding welcome to our beloved departed ones, freshening our altars in their honor, preparing their favorite foods, perhaps hosting a dumb supper, and lighting candles to show them the way.
We review the old year’s triumphs and shortcomings, and we may burn symbols or actual items in our bonfires representing that which we wish to release for good.
We gather with our communities and dance the Spiral Dance.
The Start of the Wild Hunt
This is a night of great power, when we may seek wisdom through divination and sacred contact with the Otherworlds.
It is a time to contemplate our own ephemeral existence in this Middle World of life, and to accept with grace our place in the Spiral Dance of life and death.
Our predecessors took Samhain quite seriously. Any crops not harvested by this day were known to belong to the “Shrouded One” and left alone.
Ancestors not honored at this time could be expected to plague the living with ill luck. Thus, tonight is an important time to set a place at the table for your beloved dead, and give offerings to those who have crossed over to the Summerlands.
The most fierce Faery races, led by the Lord of the Faery, Finvara, King of the Dead, ride forth, beginning on this night, with the hosts of the dead, sweeping up all the souls of those who have died within the past year.
Commonly known as The Wild Hunt, this fabled activity continues until Yule, so beware of dark, lonely places in the night, lest you be taken by mistake.
Honoring the Witches
In addition, on this day, we remember all those who have been burned, hanged, imprisoned, beaten, drowned, tortured, and murdered as Witches.
It was my great privilege this year to make a pilgrimage to Salem, Massachusetts, site of the most infamous of the Witch persecutions in America. There, my coven sisters and I held a ceremony for the men and women who were tortured and murdered because of the town’s accusations of Witchcraft.
Of course, as we all know, that foul chapter in our history had more to do with petty envy and ignorance than any sort of actual magical workings.
But let’s be clear.
Witchcraft, both real and imagined, continues to be misunderstood and persecuted today. In the mainstream media, it continues to be treated, by turns, in insulting, horrifying, and ridiculous ways.
And in far too many countries, accused Witches are still routinely rounded up and put to torturous death.
But we will continue to strive for justice and understanding for these men, women, and children in harm’s way.
And we vow — Never again the Burnings!
The Divine Ones
At Samhaintide, we mark the transformation of the Goddess to Her Dark Mother and Crone aspects. We give thanks for the many gifts of Cerridwen, Hecate, Hel, Kali, the Norns, the Morrigan, and the Baba Yaga, to name but a few.
These are the Wise Ones who brook no nonsense, and challenge us to grow beyond our comfort zones, to face our truth, and be fully engaged in the sacredness of our lives.
One of the first known festivals commemorating the light descending into darkness was held at this time among the ancient Sumerian people. It is now that Inanna, Goddess of Life and Queen of Heaven, enters the underworld to spend the next six months with Her sister, Ereshkigal the Lady of Death and Rebirth — but on the condition that She spend the other six in the green places with Her summer lover Dumuzi.
This story, of course, echoes in the ancient Greek tradition of Demeter, and Her daughter Persephone, who must spend six months in the Underworld, thus creating Winter.
In the Egyptian calendar, festivals of the sun God Ra, the cat Goddess Bastet and the lion Goddess Sekhmet are all honored on this day. Sekhmet, in Her fierce aspect as Goddess of magic, the Lady of Fire, and punitive destroyer of evil, is the protector of women against rape and all sexual violence.
It is also the Norse festival of the Thin Veil, so named for the belief that on this night, the opaque barrier separating the worlds of the living and the dead becomes transparent, allowing the two realms to see and interact with each other. This time also marks the annual death of Baldur and His beloved Nanna, the Goddess of flowers, both of Whom will be born again in the Spring.
On this day, we especially remember our beloved dead — the many people we have loved and honored, as well as the Mighty Ones of the Craft who have departed our world this year, including:
- Bonnie Englant (Artemis Aedhlynn) of the Grey School faculty, Head of Winds Lodge.
- Kenneth (Kindoor) Wayne Weeks, of the NorCalifia Church of All Worlds (CAW).
- Valerie (Freya) Pearl Langam Walker, also known to many of us as our dear Veedub, Founder of the Dustbunny line of the Feri Tradition, and holder of the Black Wand.
- Morwen Two Feathers of the Earthspirit Community, Concord, MA and founder of the Earth Drum Council in 1990.
- Abby Willowroot, renowned artist and creator of the beautiful Willowroot Wands.
- Greg Stafford, the Founder of Chaosium Games and the founder of Shaman’s Drum magazine.
A very special thank you goes out to the wonderful Oberon Zell, who has been keeping and sharing this list every year for many decades.
If there is anyone dear that YOU would like to list in remembrance, or if there is anyone from the Pagan and Craft traditions we may have overlooked, please add their names in the comments below.
What is remembered lives.
And of course, the last day of every month, and most especially this night, is sacred to Hecate, Goddess of Witches, She who guards the crossroads.
It is Hecate, Goddess of the Night, who teaches us the ancient Mysteries. Honor Her with a supper prepared in the dark of the Moon and left at a crossroads. Step this night across the threshold into your own sacred Unknown, with Her love.
Blessed Be to You
This year has been another hard one for me, and it is with a cascade of mixed emotions I bid it goodbye.
I am so very grateful to each of you that reads these (admittedly lengthy) posts of mine, and for the kind, supportive comments you send. They have meant the world to me. And because of you, despite many harsh challenges, my own final harvest is one of great bounty.
Because of you, I am a most fortunate woman.
On this holy day and night, then, may the transformation you most need come to you gently, lovingly, and surely. May you celebrate with your beloved dead and merry meet at the crossroads of your destiny.
Rather than shun or fear them, may you embrace the quiet, needful gifts that the endarkenment offers. And with the blessings of the Dark Mother’s infinite compassion and wisdom, may you begin a very Happy New Year.
To you, and all your beloveds, I wish you a most blessed Samhain!