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
We have come to another turning of the Great Round, and the Celtic year’s end is now upon us. Today, we stand in the gateway between the old, which is utterly and forever gone and the new, which has not fully arrived.
It is now that our beloved dead are remembered. Here the veil thins and Mystery comes upon us, ready or not.
There is so little in our Western secular culture that even remotely prepares us for the irrevocable powers of Life, Death, and cthonic transformation, as they come barging past haute couture masks, plastic pumpkins, pointy hats, and chocolate bars.
That superficiality has been exposed in ways that test our comprehension this year, for this is a Samhain like no other in my memory.
This year, it all got very, very real.
What is 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 that falls on Nov. 7 this year (depending on your time zone).
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.
A most merry Beltane to all our dear ones in the Southern Hemisphere!
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 a Christian 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.
Note: It would be naive and wrong to say that baleful use of the natural magicks and energies of the Earth never occurs. For instance, I have come to believe that the despicable and dangerous men who currently claim leadership in America, are, knowingly or perhaps not, employing malefic magickal practices, and must be taken seriously in their intentions. They almost certainly do not identify as Witches.
More tellingly, most Witches and Pagans do not believe in the myth of fundamental wrongness being at the heart of the world, or human nature.
For millennia, Western civilization 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 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, as well as the Earth Herself.
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 boundary 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 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 final 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 amusing 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.
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 disappointment that this year your revelries are cancelled.
But for me, especially in this terrible year of unmitigated loss, 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. I am only sorry that many of those gatherings will be confined to electronic ones, and not dancing the Spiral Dance and raising our Power hand in hand.
But what is unchanged is that 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.
And as some consolation for our inability to gather together in Her light, this year we are blessed with a Full Moon, the second one of the month, making it a “Blue Moon.” May this gift add beauty and potency to our rites, however we are able to observe them.
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.
We Honor the Crone
On this sabbat, in addition to giving our honor to the Gods of the Wild Hunt and Gatherers of Souls, like Gwyn ap Nudd, we offer our devotion to the Great Goddess in Her form as the Underworld Goddess and the Old One, including the Morrighan, Demeter, Hel, and Orchil.
On this day especially, since the last day of the month is always sacred to Her, let us call upon mighty Hecate, who advocates for the downtrodden and marginalized, on behalf of mothers and children, and is our own Goddess of the Witches.
The Burning Times
In addition, on this day, we remember all those men, women, and children who have been burned, hanged, imprisoned, beaten, drowned, tortured, starved, and murdered as Witches.
The Witch hunts during The Inquisition and European wars of religion peaked between about 1580 and 1630, but there were over three centuries of terror, with an estimated total of 40,000–100,000 people executed. Mostly women.
But let’s be clear.
Witchcraft continues to be misunderstood and persecuted across the globe today. In some countries, including so-called “modern” ones, suspected Witches are still routinely put to public and torturous death. Alas, those persecutions are on the rise again, for when fear and ignorance tip into the extreme, scapegoats become targets.
But we will continue to strive for justice and understanding for all in danger. And we vow — Never again the burnings! And hangings. And drownings. And torture.
Dates of Execution from America’s REAL Witchhunt –
(and, frankly, screw those who have tried to trivialize this term for their self-pity and ego!)
I invite you to remember them aloud in your rites on this holy day.
- Bridget Bishop (June 10, 1692)
- Rebecca Nurse (July 19, 1692)
- Sarah Good (July 19, 1692)
- Elizabeth Howe (July 19, 1692)
- Susannah Martin (July 19, 1692)
- Sarah Wildes (July 19, 1692)
- George Burroughs (August 19, 1692)
- George Jacobs Sr. (August 19, 1692)
- Martha Carrier (August 19, 1692)
- John Proctor (August 19, 1692)
- John Willard (August 19, 1692)
- Martha Corey (September 22, 1692; wife of Giles Corey)
- Mary Eastey (September 22, 1692)
- Mary Parker (September 22, 1692)
- Alice Parker (September 22, 1692)
- Ann Pudeator (September 22, 1692)
- Wilmot Redd (September 22, 1692)
- Margaret Scott (September 22, 1692)
- Samuel Wardwell Sr. (September 22, 1692)
- Giles Corey (September 19, 1692) – Pressed to death, the only such execution on record in America. Last words, “More weight!”
Died in prison
- Ann Foster — convicted and died in custody in December 1692
- Mercy, infant daughter of Sarah Good
- Sarah Osborne— died in prison (May 10, 1692) before she could be tried
- Roger Toothaker – died before trial (June 16, 1692) probably due to torture or maltreatment
- Lydia Dustin – found not guilty but died in custody
Convicted but escaped:
- Mary Bradbury
A Few of the Beloved Dead of 2020
There is no way to list the names of all those who died this year, particularly those whose time was cut short, thrown out of life by a pandemic that did not have to be like this.
Every one of the covid victims was precious and someone’s loved one. Most are dying alone, in isolation from family and bereft even of any human touch or voice not blocked by protective equipment.
As of this moment, the global death toll is one million, one hundred ninety one thousand, seven hundred seventy four (it has jumped over 800 since I began my first draft of this article earlier today).
By sunset tonight, the U.S. will be mourning over 230,000 dead: the rate of the 9/11 attacks every three days, and climbing.
Renowned elder Oberon Zell, in collaboration with George Knowles, Angie Buchanan, Selena Fox and my own beloved teacher and friend, Macha Nightmare, has faithfully compiled a list of known magickal community members who crossed the veil this year:
Phyllis Serene Rawley: The Oracle of Vilcabamba, Ecuador: April 24, 2020.
Medusa Zakrzewski: Co-founder of A Fool’s Journey – A Retreat & Restorative and beloved Reclaiming and Feri priestess. May, 2020.
Frederick (Robert) Lamond: Gardnerian Witch, last living initiate of Gerald Gardner, member of Grey Council, Church of All Worlds (CAW), and Fellowship of Isis; attended the 1993, 1999, and 2004 Parliaments of World Religions; author of The Divine Struggle, Religion without Beliefs and Fifty Years of Wicca.) May 24, 2020
David Wolff Filipello: Shasta Nostra SubRosa, New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn. May 28, 2020
Zanoni Silverknife/Jilaine Callison: founding Priestess of the Georgian Tradition June 4, 2020.
Gregory Walter Harder: New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn Witch and longtime documentarian of Covenant of the Goddess, Pagandom in general, and the interfaith movement. June 17, 2020.
Copper Anna (Molly Resnik): Mother, Healer, Priestess, and Reclaiming Tradition Witch. June 28, 2020.
Dan Norman: member of Church of All Worlds since the 1970s and member of the the Eclectium community. July 5, 2020.
Cairril “Adair” Lee Mills: Solitary Celtic Witch and lapsed Discordian. Vocalist, blogger, performing artist and at-large troublemaker. Founder of Our Freedom: A Coalition for Pagan Civil Rights. Co-founder of Pagan Educational Network (PEN) dictionary project. July 8, 2020.
Willowoak Istarwood: CAW Priestess, Prison Ministry, Peaceful Order of Earth Mother [POEM], midwife, helped incorporate CAW in CA in 1977. July 8, 2020.
Marilyn, Wife of CAW’s former HPs Avilynn Pwyll: July 11, 2020
Lady Pleiades (Willa Haynes): High Priestess of the Silver Oak coven. August 7, 2020, due to COVID-19.
Liz Fisher: Author of UU religious curriculum “Rise Up and Call Her Name,” Co-authored “A Guide to Women’s Human Rights,” contributor to CUUPS Blog “Nature’s Sacred Journey”). September 25, 2020.
Robert Carey: began practice in the Craft while working at the famed Magickal Childe shop in NYC and became a NY Welsh Tradition initiate, a Ceremonialist, a teacher, shop owner in Seattle, and a friend and mentor to many in the American Northwest.
In addition, these are my own contributions, because they were people I just especially liked and/or were of note. They will be missed:
- Ruth Bader Ginsberg
- John Lewis
- Little Richard
- John Prine – covid
- Lorena Borjas
- Chadwick Boseman
- George Floyd
- Rayshard Brooks
- Daniel Prude
- Breonna Taylor
- Olivia de Havilland
- Terrence McNally- covid
- Mary Higgins Clark
- Sean Connery – Oct. 31, 2020
Who might you add to this list of the Beloved Dead?
Light a candle to guide your cherished ones that they may join you this night. Speak their names, and tell them of your life since you last met. Offer them refreshment. And give thanks to your Ancestors, who saw you in their dreams.
Weaver, weaver weave their thread
Whole and strong into your web;
Healer, healer, heal their pain,
In love may they return again.
We merry meet.
And merry part.
And merry meet again.
What is remembered lives.