Over time, through ages of practice and use, of corporate profit and of migrations into new lands, Samhain has evolved into something barely recognizable from its pagan origins. Even among some pagans today, it has taken a distinctly modern, psychopop turn, into a form of applied magic and unrestrained dualism unwarranted even 1000 years ago in rural villages.
For almost all of us, this is now known as Halloween. The word is of entirely Christian origin. It references the night that immediately precedes a day of honoring their dead. The night was first known as All Hallows Even (even = evening, the evening before honoring all the hallowed dead), was collapsed into “Hallowe’en” and then more recently into Halloween (no apostrophe). For Christians, November 1 (the day immediately after Halloween) is known as All Saints Day, which is their day of honoring those who died in their faith. It had originally been celebrated on May 13, but in the year 835 it was officially moved for all of Christendom to November 1. November 2 was added as All Souls Day, a remembrance of the more ordinary dead. Eventually, even much of Christendom collapsed everything into All Saints Day, and there it stands—all the dead, all on November 1.
But the origins of Samhain [pron. sow’-when] lie in the mists of memory, deep into the pre-Christian agricultural and pastoral cultures who, at this time of year, prepared for the embrace of winter’s darkness and cold.
It was the last of the harvest festivals. The frost came, and that first frost initiated the Samhain feasts. Only later was it regularized to October 31. The earth here in the northern hemisphere turns bright and chilly. Deciduous leaves cascade to the earth to nourish the soil, leaving the trees naked to the cold. Trees stop producing and enter a period of needed rest. Winter becomes a time for roots. Twigs become brittle and break. The north winds pick up and bring the ice down from the far horizon until we are wrapped in it. The first frosts arrive and utterly change the earth.
Due to the local variance in occurrence of first frost, Samhain could be celebrated according to local experience with the earth. For example, first frost has already come to Maine this year, but it will come later to New York City. Our celebrations conceivably could be on very different dates—were we dependant on the agricultural cycle.
The communal rituals at Samhain were a time of tribal gatherings for at least several events.
First, this was the time of year when the frost killed the grasses, so foraging for animals had passed. Animals that were to be used for winter eating were slaughtered and preserved to feed the community. The arrival of freezing allowed for much easier winter storage. The rest of the herds were corralled to help them make it through the bitterness of winter and to remain alive for the new spring. Thus, the origins of Samhain lie partially in pastoral communities and of their herding, shepherding, milking, wool gathering….an abundance that came from reliance on both crops and animals.
But, a note to consider: with the arrival of Samhain, that abundance has now ended. Harvest is over. No more animals than were absolutely necessary would be set aside for winter eating. Praying for more would have been an incredulous lunacy regarding the cycles of nature itself. There are even warning stories taught to children to expect nothing more than you actually have and actually need at this time and to let go of further such desires. It is a time of release, because summer’s work is over. Anything more would be arrogant and could lead to spiritual if not also physical catastrophe, a relationship to our planet often forgotten in a culture that thinks that by thinking the right thoughts, or stopping at the nearest grocery, you can have even more. Even the right prayers would be fruitless (pun intended), because nature does not care in the way we would like to manipulate it to do, by putting us at the center of its attention. Plants, animals, mycelium, human beings—indeed, all of nature is now entering the dark. If you didn’t do your work before now, it’s better to hunker down to the good will of the community and build threads of compassion.
Our embrace of the dark now requires releasing all the dreams and hopes we had built in the growing season. It is now time to tell stories, prepare for winter fires, secure the home for quiet, and wait. Like the plants, we go down to our roots. Our prayers are in the dark, to the dark, and within the darkness that singes our skin with blessed bitterness. And therefore, this becomes the season for reflecting on necessity and on the values of simpleness and humility.
Second, Samhain is the second of the two liminal times of the year when the veil between the worlds is thinnest, when one season gives birth to another and the spirits can cross over into our communities, crossing easily from one reality into another. Because of this insight, Samhain has also been a night of practicing shapeshifting, of cross-dressing, of costuming and becoming “other.” It might be said that we have an opportunity to practice the impermanence of character and try on a different personalities. On this night, the thrill and thrall of otherness captivates our imaginations and stimulates new inspirations. We can join the faeries. We can gambol with skeletons and ghosts, and rather than being afraid of them, we can form relationship, at least for this one brief moment, and can finally bid them go in peace. Samhain is in this way a colorful and vibrant practice that animates our traditions.
And one step further: if we can accept this night as also becoming “other,” then we stand at the brink of knowing Samhain can be a powerful initiation rite.
The first liminal time is at Beltaine, around May 1, and it is a celebration of life and coming abundance. The second is Samhain. It became a time of honoring the dead and of inviting them to come back home for a feast. A teaching here is that our abundance is to be shared with the ancestors. At the Samhain feast, a reserved seat might be set at the table and left open for the dead to be welcomed in to the join the community. A candle may have been placed in a window to show the dead the way home. Those who were out and about at night hollowed out turnips or other root vegetables and put in a candle to create a lantern to guide their steps, a practice that evolved by the 18th Century into the Jack o’ Lantern.
The feast was a time for storytelling, for eating and drinking (sometimes for a whole week), for tribal business such as curing meats and settling unresolved disputes, for revising the laws, for building a ritual fire as a final cleansing before the winter, and for making sure winter supplies were in storage, among other events necessary at summer’s end.
So, third, winter was also a time to prepare to survive. Inviting the dead back, giving them food and celebrating them, was also a time to propitiate the dead, so that in honoring them, they might not wreck havoc among the living.
It is not, in other words, a time to ask for greater abundance from our people, from our ancestors or from the spirits of the earth. The abundance is over. What we have is what we have, and there will be nothing more until the following year. It was always this way for those who lived in harmony with their local environments. In dealing with death and survival, Samhain-tide has the added effect of helping us release all we cannot carry and perhaps no longer wish to carry in our lives. Winter is literally our time to set down the labors characterized by spring planting, summer growth and the fall harvest, to set down the hopes and dreams we worked on so diligently, and to rest within the deepest regions of our souls. [This is, of course, much easier to understand in rural areas, and much harder to understand in large urban centers.]
Fourth, Samhain has evolved into a time when unhelpful spirits might roam the earth. The mystic realms of the otherworld become visible. Skeletons are thought to lurch up out of their graves. Fearsome ghosts seep on the mists. Gruesome beings dance at our doorsteps and want to get at us. Havoc and vengeance is possible, and especially noting that the coming winter could be cruel. Or so the tales love to teach children, who then dress in costumes to mock their fears and banish them with playfulness. Two famous pieces of music depict this night: “Night on a Bald Mountain” (Mussorgsky) and “Danse Macabre” (Saint-Saëns). When the veil is thin perhaps this happens for some, that at moonrise the bald mountains become the dance floor of the dead.
On the other hand, the dead are always singing or speaking from the earth. If the veil seems particularly thin now, it’s not because nature’s veil has ever been thicker. We’re just not listening very well in seasons of abundance. But yet, this is a significant liminal time. It is the twilight of the year. The tides shift noticeably from productivity to survival.
But where did this fear of spirits come from? Not all cultures experience this as a night of terror. Some peoples believe that such an evil does not exist, that that view of evil is actually a Christian imposition on a normal harvest festival. Samhain is indeed a liminal time presaging harsh months, but the coming months are necessary and beneficent. There is nothing evil about this shift. It is natural, and this time of rest is good for us and for the earth.
In cultures where nature is not divided into good and evil (aka, “substance dualism”), people tend to form relationship with the way things are naturally. Rather than running away, scared and imploring intercessions, it is better to turn, to face and to accept what is before us. What is before us may be of our own making, or it may be a making of the society around us, or it may be seasons of weather that leads to crop failures. The question always before us is how we will make relationship with circumstances, with the forces that lead to the present moment, with the gods who are at work as part of the flow of nature.
Of course the dark triggers fears in most of us. One question at Samhain-tide, however, and the question I am writing about this year, is whether or not we stand in any kind of ethical clarity regarding our own dark impulses. Those impulses include our need to kill in order to survive, whether or not we acknowledge that we are such killers, and whether or not we admit to the fearsome task of viewing our own unexplored, inner murderer.
This is not quite an exercise in psychology. We look around and see death as integrated into nature. Compost piles are one such deity, those piles of transformation at constant work, changing one form of living matter into another. Forest fires are another; earthquakes, floods, hail storms, violent winds, lightning strikes—in so many ways death as change is potent transformation in the cycles of life. For we humans, we all must kill. We must kill in order to eat. Even if someone else does it for us, and tidily wraps it in plastic in a grocery cooler, we are nonetheless complicit in the slaughter of living beings, because we eat them. We are wrapped in death as much as we are in darkness. Now is the season to see this for what it is. The Samhain-tide questions, then, include facing the killer instincts we carry, no matter how many rituals we wrap around us to mitigate the force of our need to survive.
Embracing the darkness at Samhain-tide necessarily leads to feeling the embrace of death, our death, the death of other living beings, since this is the winter of life into which we are fully integrated.
Returning to Samhain feasts: these, then, are the dead we might also welcome to our Samhain table: those forces which we have buried into the niches and tombs of our psyche and that which we have put out of sight, as if that part of ourselves were not alive and walking the earth. Being hidden does not make it less so. Every breath of our behavior animates the dark within us. It is potent. It is living. It is transformative.
We might, then, seek this liminal time with hard intention—to let the veils grow thin and permeable between our manicured sunshine and our brutal human capacity—to wipe off the mascara of our self-deceptions and to set out a candle on our window sills for the spirits we carry to emerge from our psychic tombs and come on home. For, even if that spirit is only from yesterday, it is already an ancestor, in our blood and in our behavior.
There is, of course, a significant difference between submission and surrender. Samhain-tide bids us to surrender to the presence of death. To stand at the door of our consciousness and to face it as it crosses the threshold. To welcome it home. To make a place at the table where we are nourished. It bids us to surrender to the end of abundance as a natural and normal turning on the cycle of life.
Finally, as a suggestion, if you want to devote time to a meaningful ritual, invite your own scariest features into your awareness. Make a mask and costume of your own murderer who may be confused and stumbling through life. Weep if you must. Shed all the leaves of your carefully crafted illuminessence and stand naked like a tree before the incoming powers of winter on this night. Light a candle and open your psychic door to the tombs of the hidden. Let thoughts of growth and abundance be done for now. If you pray, speak to the spirits and bid them come in peace. Wander into the night in the full honesty of that with which you are making peace. And then, at this liminal time, in the twilight of your existence, mask and go greet your friends and neighbors. Go door to door with a lit, hollow turnip or pumpkin and ask for the food and candy that will propitiate the beast you have welcomed in by the light of your own candle.
And then, then, share your gleanings with your tribe. Tell stories at a table where a separate place has remained open. Embrace the dark together. Prepare for winter.