Samhain excerpt from chapter 5, 'Cycle and Sabbats' by Lora O'Brien
'Irish Witchcraft from an Irish Witch' - ISBN-13: 978-1564147592
Publisher: New Page/Career Press; 1st edition (2005)
Samhain (October 31st)
In modern times its new face of Halloween has grown to a massive event in many countries; even in the UK, where Guy Falkes Night has been pre-dominant, we still see similar themes. Death (murder and sacrifice), fire and light in the darkness (bonfires and fireworks displays), and behind-the-scenes activity all remain large parts of the celebration.
The feast has been Christianized as All Soul's Eve (October31), which was known as All Hallow's Eve, and All Saint's Day (November 1). Even in such form, the death theme is prevalent remembering those who have gone before.
Part of remembering and honouring the past is the theme of remembering our dead. Thoughts turn to death in earnest at this festival, it looms upon us, and this naturally brings about memories of ancestors and those who have ready passed through. Many homes in Ireland still lay the 'dumb supper'. This is the placement of one full meal on Samhain night (that is, the 31st), at the family's table. This usually consisted of a dinner in the evening, with an empty chair available, for any passing spirits who might drop in. The windows and doors are left unlocked all night (by those who deem it safe to do so, locked doors are an unfortunate factor of this rather less trusting world in which we live).
These customs are given as a sign of welcome for the ghosts that are about at this time of year. The extra meal is left outside when the family has finished their meal. None of the living may consume the food meant for the dead; it was said that they would be barred from partaking of it after their own death if they were greedy enough to touch it while living.
The theme of honouring the dead, and aiding them in any way possible, is very prominent at this festival. Perhaps because of the significant reminder that as we are coming into the time of death, it may be us who pass on before too long. Many would not have survived a hard Winter, and at Samhain it is usually too early to tell if the weather will turn nasty or the food will run out. There may have been an element of hedging our bets, so to speak, by being polite and utterly respectful to the dead spirits, and the spirits of death, at this time.
Samhain involved the culling of stock, animals that would go towards the store of Winter food and that were surplus to requirements through the Winter (those that were old, past their prime, or the surplus males). It was a necessary and sacrificial slaughter, as keeping them alive would be a drain on the feed stores for the other animals.
Though an essential agricultural activity, it would have made sense to use the deaths as a sacrifice to the spirits of the land, in thanks for the harvest and to ensure goodwill for the New Year's cycle. The meat was cured and stored as part of the interior or domestic work to come, to provide essential staples to the Winter food for humans. So it was a time of sacrifice and death, but also of cleansing, cutting out the old stock and preparing those remaining for the coming Winter.
All around Ireland, the bonfires that symbolized this cleansing and purification are still in evidence and are a huge part of nearly every community year In any modern Irish community there will be a Halloween bonfire of some description, though the locals will usually not understand where the importance that is traditionally placed upon this yearly ritual actually stems from. Not consciously, at least!
In the past, all the household fires would be extinguished on Samhain Eve. This in itself is unusual. The morning's fire would usually have been lit with the embers of the night before, keeping a continuous cycle. But a cold hearth was kept all day on Samhain Eve. At Tlachgta, about 12 miles from Tara, the sacred bonfire was re-lit with new vigour to see the people through the coming Winter and reaffirm the strength and survival of the community. With the kindling of new flame, spreading across the land from Tara, thoughts could turn to the New Year.
The massive bonfires, with the associated feasting and community huddle, also (I suppose) served the purpose of somewhat dispelling the uneasiness that the coming darkness would bring to many a mind, a reminder that strong flame could and would be kindled, even in the depths of the dark about to descend.
It is often difficult to understand to our modern minds how this festival is given as the "Celtic New Year”. We are imprinted with the thought of new year and new beginnings happening in early Spring. In reality, when examining the cycle of the year, it doesn't make any sense to celebrate the New Year on January 1st. Nothing new is really happening; it's still the dead of winter. And yet the joy, new resolutions, new beginnings that are such an important part of the modern celebration are a reflection of the predilection we still feel for marking the turning cycles and making a considered "fresh start” on an annual basis.
However, with some thought, it becomes clear that all vital growth starts in pure darkness and still silence. The Irish marked their days from dusk to dusk - giving due importance to the period of rest and regeneration, the blackness of the night.
The human womb protects the child in its secret safety, and all the true formation has taken place by the time we start to see the outward signs of its presence. It is long before the fist or the leg pushes out like some alien creature about to break the skin that the development of the essential aspects of the baby are well and truly done. By just 10 weeks old, before most women even realize they are pregnant, the baby's facial features, limbs, hands, feet, fingers, and toes all become apparent. Its nervous system is responsive, and many of the internal organs begin to function. All this happens in the dark stillness of the womb.
At Samhain, this darkness starts to form around us and we remember that the cycle concerns not just birth, life, and death - but the gestation, the pre-birth, conception, inception stage that is essential for healthy and true growth. It is the New Year in the sense that we are preparing to go underground, to premeditate the coming year, spend the cold dark months in thought, preparation and planning. This is important both to recover from the period of intense action just lived through, and to build new strength and new connections for the time of action to come.
Traditionally in Ireland all social arrangements were planned in the Winter, from Samhain onwards. There were gatherings and feasts aplenty, perhaps to metaphorically stick up two fingers to the coming Winter and enjoy what they had while they had it. The past was remembered and the future planned for.
It was the time when all agricultural work had to be finished, or abandoned as the herds came down from the mountains; men and women were reunited as a tribe to live out the Winter period together. The return of all those who had been away from the home may have been another connection to the return of those who were dead and gone… for the Otherworld, at this time of change, was not so far away that the dead could not return home as the living did.
The spirits of the land had no further compunction to cooperate with the tribe until Imbolg, at the earliest. The idea still survives that the blackberries here aren't safe to be eaten after Halloween. We were told as kids that the Púca spits on them and makes them poisonous after that. Samhain was always a time for inward turning, for the Otherworld to come to more prominence than it had been in the bright heat and light of the summer's sun. Many tales include weird issuing from the Otherworld, as well as easier access to the other realms, as the changeover causes the worlds to interlay.
Samhain, or Halloween, is the main time between times, when the veil of the worlds is at its thinnest and we can most easily see or feel across the bridges.
In practical terms and non-flowery language, this means that it is especially a time for divination, magical activity, and communing with spirits, both those of our ancestors, and those passing who may or may not who wish us well-and, sometimes, those who need our help. We have lived the year and experienced the turning to its fullest, now is the time to reflect on the accumulated wisdom and prepare for the long months ahead.
For theists, the Goddess may meet the God in his Otherworld dwelling, for this is the time of death, the time to clear the path for what may lie ahead. Irish legend tells of the Dagda meeting the Morrigan as she straddled the river Unius at Samhain, nine loosened tresses over her shoulder, and joining with her there.
For us to celebrate this festival in a modern context, there are some essential elements our celebration should contain:
Respect for the Dead
During any actual ritual that is performed there should be a quiet time taken, a space for reflection on those who have passed, both in our own lives and any who linger near the physical place of working. A gentle and respectful reminder that the doors are open this night, that they may be free to move on, can be helpful.
This is also an appropriate time for any who are capable enough to engage in "spiritualist" activity or specific contact with the dead.
This doesn't have to involve bleeding oneself for the land, though l will point out that our own blood is very powerful, with menstrual blood holding special significance as a sacrificial source. It is, after all, a natural shedding and expulsion of life-nurturing materials, usually accompanied by pain or at least physical discomfort.
I always give something of myself in honour of the harvest and the land during this ritual. It can be a lock of hair, nail clippings, or body fluids. It can be as simple as a spit on the ground or the fire. Anything that is 'of you' will do. If I wish to make a specific connection to the land, I bury it. Most often it goes on the fire, as this is an element of the next part of the process.
All household fires should have been extinguished from that morning; the hearth (if you have one) must lie cold and bare until it is re-lit from the Samhain fires. This is to remind us of death's harsh coldness, before the rebirth of the new fires. If it is not practical to light your own outdoor bonfire, or there’s no hearth fire in your home, at the very least a small cauldron fire should be used during your working.
The cauldron is appropriate, as it is seen as the vessel of transformation. Raw foodstuff goes in, and sustaining meals come out. It is the womb of the Goddess, as anything can go in and be transformed. In the fires, we should ritually burn all from the old year that we wish to leave behind. This could be by writing those things on paper and burning it, or by burning objects that symbolize the things we wish to leave behind as we move into the new year.
This is our cleansing, and the sacrificial offering we make of ourselves fuels this fire and is our part in the give-and-take. It is often difficult to bring on the changes that we know are necessary. But this is the time to put away the things that are of no further use to us. Clear the way for new projects, new hopes, new plans.
Planning and Preparation
Plans are made for carrying this through: how best to make use of your coming Winter 'down time' and how to ensure that you have sufficient down time for necessary interior (both indoors and in yourself) activities. When the weather changes again and Spring has sprung, you can then step out again, sure that you are prepared and ready.
There should be feasting, which has always seemed to me a particularly effective way of thumbing our noses at the coming harshness of Winter. Get the fresh meats, available milk, and newly harvested fruit and vegetables while they are all still so succulent and desirable.
For us, although most of us are lucky enough to still get those things all through the year, seasonal and local foods should be used as much as possible, in keeping with the cycle. It should also be observed, as much as possible, that outdoors work finishes at this point.
Pre-Samhain, make sure all your outside tasks are locked down for the Winter, whether it be putting away your gardening tools or getting the last fruits collected in. Púca spit probably doesn't taste most pleasant; it's best to avoid it if possible. And once you are safely indoors, a cheery fire, a good feast, and seeing your family and friends for perhaps the first time in months will always be cause for celebration, so our ancestors wouldn't have forgotten the mead, ale, and wine.
It is a time of trickery, of fun and games, of cross-dressing in many of the myths. Normally strict lines are blurred and everything gets a little out of focus. Usual laws, codes of behaviour, and restrictions were always more relaxed around Samhain time. In our rituals, elements of this may be brought in with games and party tricks.
Typical Halloween fun is always good. A lot of the games we still play have divinatory aspects, and many of us engage in acts of focused divination at this time. The end of a ritual is the perfect time for such a thing. You are relaxed, your hunger and thirst are satiated, the ‘work’ is done, and you are free to just let yourself drift into that gap between the worlds where divination lives. As anybody who has begun to try and learn to divine the future, or see visions, will know all too well, forcing the issue will inevitably result in frustration and failure.
Staring into the flames is an excellent choice of method: this is called fire scrying. Liquid scrying or hydromancy - looking into a liquid-filled vessel with a dark interior (a chalice of red wine, a bowl of ink and a cauldron of water are all good choices ) - is also a good option. Losing yourself a little in the dark depths can bring on excellent visionary experiences.
More structured methods such tarot card readings can also be as effective, but I am all for letting it flow loosely and seeing what comes up. If you wish to use your usual tarot, runes, or I Ching, perhaps approaching them in different ways would be a good idea. The random pulling of cards, or throwing of runes, and meditating on the pictures or symbols (just focus on them and seeing what pops into your mind, or floats through it), with no particular forced or usual ‘structure’ on your divination, is tremendously powerful when the mists of Samhain descend.