23.10.14

Samhain - Beyond This Reality

The days pass by and the Wheel of the Year turns, as it always does. Samhain is just around the corner. Maybe you, as I, have been preparing for it. Some are already making seasonal meals, others have been busy making decorations, while others have been reflecting on their lives and the lives of their ancestors. If you haven't started preparing yet, or if you need some additional inspiration, perhaps this post will be of some help.

Samhain (pronounced /sauin/) is one of the eight Pagan Sabbats, or annual celebrations. It is also the one that, among other things, marks the beginning of the New Year for Pagans. This is a time of grieving and celebration, however paradoxical that may sound. Namely, for Pagans, Samhain begins on Samhain Eve (the night of October 31) and the celebration continues until November 1. You may know this days as All Saints' Day during which it is quite normal to honor and remember our ancestors. Although this holiday is a Christian one, it shares many mysteries and aspects with the Pagan festival of Samhain. They even share a date (although this varied in history). Anyway, Samhain has another, not so dark side for Pagans which is focused on celebrating the New Year, new beginnings, on antics, feasts and other forms of amusement. But the story of how these traditions came to be has its roots in the distant past.

Most Neopagan traditions acknowledge a calendar which is called the Wheel of the Year. This wheel represents the cycle of birth, death and rebirth as well as the eternal interchange of seasons, deity aspects and the regeneration of nature. It is believed that the ancient Celts had the most influence on the formation of this calendar. It is important to not here that the Celts divided the year into two seasons - summer and winter. For them, summer began on Beltane (May 1) and winter began on Samhain (November 1). It was obvious to them, as it was to all cultures at the time, that the Sun gives life. Therefore, as the Sun grows and the days become longer, new life comes to existence. The Sun grows and regains its strength during winter. It is because of this that Samhain is taken as the date for the "birth" of the year. For then one, it would continue to grow, come to its peak at Beltane and then slowly start to decline and, figuratively speaking, die. 

The ancient Celts also believed that each of these two seasons lasted 180 days. The remaining 5 days of the year (April 30, Beltane, Samhain. November 1 and November 2) did not belong to either this or that side of the calendar; they were somewhere "between" the two realities (this visible one that we live in and the other invisible reality). Because of this, we say that the "veil between the worlds" is as thin as it can be on these days, or rather these two Sabbats. According to this, Samhain does not belong to this reality and does not have to conform to its standards and rules. And so this festival came to be the ideal time for antics, mischief and disorder of any kind (this is also where the popular tradition of trick-or-treating comes from; children go from house to house on Halloween and ask for treats; if they don't get them then they perform tricks). Spiritual, as well as mundane barriers were also broken on this day. This is why Pagans believe that the thin veil between worlds enables entities (and also spirits) from the other, invisible reality to pass into this reality. Divination, communication with one's ancestors and other entities make a lot more sense if we take into consideration the almost non-existent border between the two worlds.

Awareness of spirits inevitably reminds us of our ancestors. The other reality, which some refer to as the afterlife, also undeniably brings to mind what awaits us after this life. Therefore, although Samhain has its happy side, it also has a certain mystical, darker side which Pagans equally accept. 

From the Pagan perspective, death isn't necessarily bad, although it is upsetting for everyone. For us, death is just another step in the birth-death-rebirth cycle. This is also reflected in Pagan mythology. Namely, on Mabon (the Sabbat which is celebrated on September 22/23 i.e. the autumn equinox), the God dies and the Goddess grieves for him in her aspect of the Crone. For Samhain, the dark night and time of chaos, the God goes through a process of regeneration and the Goddess takes the form of the Dark Goddess which embodies chaos and the dark aspects of the female polarity. But right after this, she undergoes another metamorphosis in which she again takes the form of the Maiden which gives birth to the God at Yule (the Sabbat which is celebrated on December 21/22/23 i.e. the winter solstice). With this, the cycle of regeneration is complete.

Nature, as a key element of the Pagan faith, finds its place at the center of this Sabbat also. Death also exists in nature, but within it resides new life. Let me elaborate; Samhain announces the oncoming winter for which many preparations used to be needed. Cattle were taken into stables for shelter, the crops were gathered and everything was stored for the cold months ahead. People had to survive the harsh winter and feeding a large number of cattle was an unnecessary complication. This is why it was normal (and still is in some rural areas) to slaughter a certain number of livestock just before Samhain; usually it was the weakest animals that were slaughtered because they would most likely die during the winter anyway. This was necessary in order for people to have meat, fat and fur and, ultimately, survive. It is unnecessary to mention that Pagans show gratitude for this in their rituals.

Samhain is also known as the third harvest. The first harvest, Lughnasadh (August 1) is marked by the gathering of grains. The second harvest, Mabon, is the time for gathering fruit, vegetables, berries and nuts. As the third harvest, Samhain is the deadline for gathering any leftover fruits of the earth. So the crops have been gathered, meat and other food and drink have been stored and are now ready for consumption. This can lead only to one thing - feasts! If is completely logical that people will want to celebrate their effort and labor during the previous months and allow themselves a period of rest.

I hope that the paradox of life and death and the parallel celebration and grieving are somewhat clearer after my explanations. But it is necessary to summarize the focal points of this fest day in order for this whole story to be complete. So, what is the focus of this Sabbat? Surely, on death, but also on the soon-to-come rebirth, gratitude, donation/sharing, ancestors, the other reality and through it on our Shadow (everything that we keep in the deepest parts of our consciousness, or rather all the things which we are not aware of, or that we refuse to be aware of - our fears, wishes, desires, flaws and sometimes even virtues etc.). 

Each Pagan will celebrate Samhain in a different way and put more emphasis on a different aspect. It all depends on what you find necessary at that given time. If you feel that you don't have to look into death, the unconscious mind, communicate with your ancestors in any way or explore the darker side of this Sabbat in general, then feel free to just enjoy the feasts, share what you have with your loved ones and enjoy the New Year's atmosphere. Some Pagans try to be aware of and recognize both aspects of this festival. Perhaps this approach will suit you better. In any case, find a system that makes sense to you, that you like and that is preferably also useful.

If you don't have any ideas on how to honor this Sabbat outside of the ritual circle, here are a few ideas. Surely some of the following traditions are familiar to you, at least from American movies. These include wearing masks and making Jack-o'-lanterns from pumpkins. Both customs have ancient roots which you can try to revive on this day. Namely, people used to wear masks resembling all sorts of beings, but not in order to scare anyone,  but instead to fit into the spirit world. They believed that by doing so, they were less likely to become a victim of a malevolent spirit and also less likely to run into the spirit of a deceased person with which they have unresolved issues, unpaid debts and other disputes. Since the Samhain celebration begins on Samhain night, some sort of lighting is necessary. Lanterns used to be made of seasonal plants such as pumpkins or gourds which were perforated to let the light out. Human imagination went a step further and cut these holes to resemble faces (some believe that these lanterns then began to symbolize the spirits of the deceased which lead us through the night). As Samhain was originally a night of chaos and mischief, you can always allow yourself a bit of fun and joke at the expense of yourself or others. Feasts are always welcome and even more so if they serve the function of getting a family together. In this case, family should also include our ancestors, regardless of when they have left this earth. Some people take their deceased loved ones so much into account that they even leave a spare place for them at the dinner table. This practice is called the Dumb Supper (because speaking used to be forbidden while it lasted). Oftentimes, the deceased were also given a plate and full meals and candles were left on doorsteps/windowsills to show spirits that they are welcome into the home. If you are the creative type, try to make your very own gourd/pumpkin lantern (oranges are a satisfactory substitute), or another type of decoration, such as a garland for your home. Use your imagination and the fruits of the earth you see around you in this time of year. Apples, nuts, gourds, pumpkins, pomegranates...you can use all of these for both aesthetic and practical purposes. Surround yourself with brown, orange and red tones and you can even use this time to rid yourself of any prejudices toward the color black. If you want to combine "business with pleasure", then try fixing up a nice nutritious, seasonal meal for your loved ones. Many Pagans use this day for divination and contacting their ancestors. Some explore themselves in depth and, through introspection, try to get to know themselves, their past and their needs better as well as face their fears (especially fears and misconceptions regarding death). Divination can also be of great assistance in this process.

Ultimately, the New Year is a symbol of new beginnings. Get rid of your fears, prejudices and complexes, get to know yourself and your loved ones better, renew relationships, overcome old arguments and celebrate the abundance in your life no matter what form it may be in. Just be aware that this abundance does exist and that rebirth and new life come after death. Make the most of this opportunity and get ready for it.

Blessed be and a happy Samhain to you all!
Yours,
Witch's Cat

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