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.
by Caitlín Matthews, from Song of Samhain, Celtic Devotional: Daily Prayers and Blessings
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 overturn the haute couture masks, plastic pumpkins, pointy hats, and chocolate bars.
That superficiality is being relentlessly exposed in all its corruption and failure, and nothing will ever be the same, no matter how much Wall Street and Washington might wish for it to be.
We would do well to learn from the wisdom of other cultures, who take this threshold time to honor and celebrate their Ancestors.
For once again, we are entering the dark half of the year. What if you, at least momentarily, stepped away from the artifice of our culture, and listened to the whispers of your forebears? For there are treasures in this liminal time, bittersweet as they may sometimes be.
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 (in most time zones).
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 friends 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: As I have written in past years, it would be naive and wrong to say that baleful use of the natural magic and energies of the Earth never occurs. For instance, we know for a fact that many of the despicable and dangerous people who are seeking to overthrow our democracy in America are knowingly employing malefic magical practices, including the wicked powers that were adopted by Hitler's Nazis, and must be taken seriously in their intentions. They do not identify as, nor would they be recognized 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.
We especially reject the notion of “original sin” and the subsequent eternal punishment of all humanity, or that the “fall” was caused by the inherent wickedness of Woman.
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 contacts.
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, enjoy.
But for me, especially in light of another year of horrific violence and death that registers for a moment, and then is swept away as if it never happened, 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.
Whether you are dancing the Spiral Dance together in person, or observing your rites with only the Ancestors, we’ll all be bidding welcome to our beloved departed ones by freshening their resting places if nearby, decorating 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.
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 Divine Feminine in Her form as the Underworld Goddess and the Old One, including the Morrighan, Demeter, Hel, and Orchil.
This year, as we battle the metastasis of neo-Nazi, misogynist, racist, authoritarian cruelty overspreading our imperiled planet, I implore each one of you reading this to call upon your Wisest Ones, They who guard wisdom, justice, and democracy. They might include the Goddesses Columbia, Justitia, and Athena.
And 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 recently 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 2023
This year, a number of true Witches, Pagans, and other non-traditional magical people crossed the veil.
I especially give thanks for the life of one of my dearest teachers and most beloved leaders in my community, the legendary Rachel Pollack, who died April 7. Rachel was one of the world’s foremost Tarot scholars, deck creators and practitioners as well as a renowned expert on Jewish mysticism. She was also a passionate transgender activist and creator of the first trans comic hero; an award-winning novelist; and a talented, brilliant artist.
In addition, a big thank you again this year to Rebecca Crystal of the Church of All Worlds (C.A.W.), who tracks the luminaries who have departed our land of the living. We take a moment to acknowledge them and wish them blessed journeys:
Jake Stratton-Kent, noted researcher, scholar, occultist and writer (his books, Goetic Liturgy, Encyclopaedia Goetica, and Conjure Codex: A Compendium of Invocation, Evocation, and Conjuration I-V), Eulogy for a Necromancer (4/27/1956-1/17/2023)
Christopher James Beld, member of the Circle Sanctuary Community and volunteered at Circle Sanctuary Nature Preserve. (11/6/88-1/30/2023)
Dr. Charles A. Champion – Champion’s Pharmacy and Herb Store is iconic in the Memphis area, as well as across the varied landscape of rootworkers, healers, and other practitioners in the south. (8/20/1930 – 1/21/2023)
Guy Teague (Silverlocke) Cosmology Dean and Professor of Tarot and Lore at Grey School of Wizardry (1/31/1953-5/16/2023)
Joey Gelinas, wise friend, spiritual adventurer, High Priestess, actor, wife, mother, and grandmother. (6/28/1947-5/30/2023)
Melinda Ann Taylor-Kelly (7/5/1971-10/6/2023) Wife of Aidan Kelley.
Olivia Pettijohn Long time member of Denton TX CUUPS, Livvy was devoted to Brighid and to the Morrigan. She loved poetry and was a good reader. She could recite “The Genealogy of Brighid” and often did. (1982-10/7/2023).
We might also wish to add our prayers on behalf of the victims of war and conflict across the world, especially those affected by the war in Ukraine, the Israel-Hamas war, Syria, Myanmar, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan, and those caught in the ongoing violence in Haiti, Mexico, and the Sahel.
Let us pray that this bloodshed is soon peacefully resolved and does not spread.
Gone and Lost Forever
In addition, we grieve for the waves of extinction now catapulting our biosphere into ruin.
According to a report last year by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (which is published every two years), there is a mass extinction event underway across our planet. Wildlife populations have plunged nearly 70 percent in just 50 years.
Their latest Living Planet Report warns that today’s agricultural practices (monoculture) and other destructive human activities are rapidly destroying natural habitats and displacing wildlife, leading to devastating losses for biodiversity and animal populations.
The report investigated more than 5,000 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish, spanning 32,000 different animal populations.
To be precise, the report found that animal populations have plummeted by 69 percent since 1970.
In Africa, two thirds of animal populations have been lost. In Europe, there has been an animal population decline of 18 percent. In Asia, the damage is 55 percent, and in North America, animal populations have fallen by 20 percent.
The greatest losses are occurring in Latin America and throughout the Caribbean; animal populations have plummeted by 94% in these areas. Millions of species of plants and animals are now on the verge of extinction.
What is remembered lives, but extinction is forever.
And as most of you know, my 93-year old father, Col. Otis W. Livingston, crossed over on May 10 after a heroic life of service to his country. I will be forever grateful to all of you who kept him, and me, in your rites and prayers.
Last, among the many, many others, these notables also crossed the veil this year, and we may wish to mark their going:
- Daniel Ellsberg
- Dianne Feinstein
- Tina Turner
- Harry Belafonte
- David Crosby
- Michael Gambon
- Tony Bennett
- Paul Reubens
- Jimmy Buffett
- Robbie Robertson
- Sinéad O’Connor
- Lisa Marley Presley
- Richard Roundtree
- Raquel Welch
- Matthew Perry
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.
And bear in mind that Yule is now on our horizon. The first candle of our annual Advent Sun Wheel ceremony will be lit Sunday Nov. 26 (details coming soon).