Pray to the Moon when She is round,
Luck with you will then abound,
What you seek for shall be found
On the sea or solid ground.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Setting Aside (but not sacking) Samhain

As I grow older, I see the overlap of Samhain & my day of birth as functioning to draw my attention to the frailty & impermanence of the fleshworld; of my own flesh & bones, as well as those of others. So much is made of ancestor veneration & the "beloved dead," but I find that the mental act of ticking off another year on a day reserved for honouring endings puts a different spin on "Happy Birthday." There are several other factors which stymie my Samhain spirit & I have been giving all of it careful consideration this year (while successfully avoiding the emotional pitfalls of last year). I feel I am reaching some conclusions & possibly some new directions.

All Hallow's Lanterns 2012
All Hallow's Lanterns 2012.
Folks make much ado about Samhain & I confess that although I have always been enchanted by its mystique, there has always been something about it that eludes me. Last year, I grappled with Samhain more than ever before. During a planning meeting for our community Samhain celebrations, I had commented to another committee member that I had difficulty with the dumb supper & other more "ghostly" rites because I lean toward the concept of rapid spiritual recycling. To my surprise & relief, she said she also leans that way. (She is Hindu & a member of a rare sect of Hinduism of which I know nothing, nor did she elaborate.) In general, I just don't think the spiritual remnants of the deceased hang around all that long. I'm am open to the possibility that there are those individuals who will linger about for one reason or another, but I think the bulk of us just jump right back into the pool for another go-'round. Reincarnation, wheels turning, webs weaving, 'round & 'round we go, where we end up, we never know…

This is one of those inconsistencies in Wicca that has always bothered me. On the one hand, Wiccans generally subscribe to the concept of reincarnation, yet they also assert that the "beloved dead" can join the table at a Samhain rite. If, after death, we "return to the cauldron" how can this be? How do the dead make it to dinner?

Besides, I'm not convinced that my ancestors & departed loved ones would really appreciate or understand being honored in that fashion -- in ways that are not their own -- in contexts strange & woo-ey.

A few weeks ago I purchased a children's book about the Day of the Dead. Of all of us, I think I love the book best, but the Changeling likes it very much too & he walks about, shoving it into laps & faces insistently repeating, "Dedd! Dedd! Dedd!" What I like most about the book is that it captures the celebration of family & departed loved ones in a way that makes all the trappings & activities make sense. Being written for children, it tells about the rituals & rites without attempting to put on airs or create a mystery. It's Boo-Woo free. This children's book gave me a clearer, deeper understanding of the Day of the Dead than any other source I have previously encountered & I believe it was precisely because it was written for children. Honesty; no spin, no frills.

Pages from "Day of the Dead," by Tony Johnston & Jeanette Winter.
Pages from "Day of the Dead," by Tony Johnston & Jeanette Winter.

In addition to helping me understand the holiday & it's traditions, the book revealed something unintentional. One of my major stumbling blocks to ancestor veneration & honoring the dead is the lack of physical access to their remains. I cannot go to my humans' bones. In the book, the families process -- with all their parcels & flowerpetals & candles -- to the churchyard where their loved ones are buried. As a modern citizen of the U.S., my ancestors & deceased loved ones' burial sites are scattered all over the land. There is no close knit, ancestral burial ground to which we can process, no neighborhood churchyard at which we can celebrate, no village graveyard in which to visit & remember.

A Samhain Season Moonrise.
A Samhain Season Moonrise.
If we cannot cherish, honor & reminisce among their bones, if their spirits are already far flung, riding the Wheel elsewhere… then how? Where? What do we do to connect to & commemorate then? I have no answer to this. None. I am a creature tied to the corporeal & also to place -- I recognize this about myself & I believe my children are very much the same. How do we work with these limitations? I have considered looking more carefully at the Shinto traditions, but, as in so many of the older traditions, the ancestors are tied to the land. With ancestors untied from the land, how can we make Samhain make sense?

Then, there's the harvest side of Samhain. I have not the time nor inclination to discuss this at length (mostly, because life has become very complicated). Instead, I will make a short note: Agriculture is very limited in Alaska & so completely over by the end of October that it is a moot point. Additionally, I have many misgivings about celebrating agriculture (I will not expatiate here, except to point to modern agriculture as the root of most of our current ecological problems). Some say Samhain is the first frost. My bioregional self really likes that, but the first frost sometimes arrives in September & that's just awkward. Samhain in it's guise as the final harvest festival is equally problematic -- not quite satisfying or even making sense. I question our motives. Are we just celebrating this day because everyone else is doing it?

My conclusion for now is to ask the ancestors for input (or not) & give Samhain a break. 

An oversized Amanita Muscaria... Our fruits sure don't fall far from the tree.
An oversized Amanita Muscaria...
Our fruits sure don't fall far from the tree.
There are no losses here, however. Our children love All Hallow's Eve/Halloween & as a child of that day, I do too. We can continue to embrace All Hallow's & all the delights of the Halloween traditions while exploring the customs of the Day of the Dead & working out this quandary of remembrance. Of course, little things like the annual Samhain tarot spread will remain &as of this year, we are beginning a new tradition of ceremonially seeing in the month of November. 

November: our month of preserving/preparing our foraged foods. This Hallow's Eve we started up our first batch of wild-harvested black-currant liqueur, baked a tray of chocolate malt biscotti (to be vacuum-sealed & preserved for holiday gifting) & set up a couple litres for vanilla infused vodka (makes a great drink & also works in baking as an extract). So, setting aside Samhain (for now), we shift to an ushering-in of hunkering-down. Like squirrels. Or something.

November 2012 Infusions. (left to right: organic strawberry, wild black currant, vanilla bean, wild highbush cranberry)
November 2012 Infusions.
(left to right: organic strawberry, wild black currant, vanilla bean, wild highbush cranberry)


Anonymous said...

I think of honoring our ancestors as more of a symbolic thing. We are all part of the Earth and to Her we all return. By remembering and honoring our ancestors we call upon their energies not necessarily their spirits. We walk on our ancestors both figuratively and literally. Our bodies are returned to the earth when we die and their accomplishments live on past their own lives in us. So you don't need to visit your ancestors graves because the earth itself is everyone's grave.
We do not walk alone on the Earth.

Moma Fauna said...

"...the earth itself is everyone's grave."

This is a very helpful perspective for me, being such a literal animal most of the time. Thank you very much for sharing your viewpoint -- I'm going to go chew on those thoughts for awhile.

Salem Witch Child said...

I do believe in reincarnation, however I don't believe it is an immediate occurrence. I believe we stay in spirit for a time (hundreds of years to us) until they have reviewed what went wrong and wait for the right time to reincarnate.

I also do not believe their spirit needs to be with us. The above poster said, "We call upon their energies and not necessarily their spirits." This is true, especially for those ancestors we call who have been dead for hundreds of years. Yes they may be reincarnated now, but that doesn't mean we can't honor their memory.

Moma Fauna said...

Thank you for your input Salem. :)

In reading your reply I realize that in my twenty years or so of being a member of the pagan community (much of that time identifying as Wiccan), I don't recall participating in any discourse/discussions about how people view reincarnation & the state of spirits/souls after death/before rebirth. Fascinating. You would think that would be an important topic. It seems to me that this would be a useful conversation, for all of us.

"...I don't believe it is an immediate occurrence. I believe we stay in spirit for a time (hundreds of years to us) until they have reviewed what went wrong and wait for the right time to reincarnate. " How did you come to embrace this understanding of reincarnation? From past life memories, from teachings, spirit contacts? If you wander back here & have a moment, I would love to hear about it.

Heather Awen said...

Many cultures believe that each human has many souls. Asatru has 9. Some Mongolian shamans say 3. The Dagara tribe has ideas that don't fit our cultural context at all. So many choices: reincarnation can happen to one soul within a family line, another part merges with the land, one can become a ghost, etc etc. The basis of Chinese and many southeast Asian and African culture are the ancestors. I see it as tribal. They are family and families look our for each other. The Dagara have individual, family and village rituals. If one gets messed up all of them do. I see now with the hardships of living disabled and homeless why we want family who cares for us. I never knew what family was for until now. Love is safety. In families where generations live together and love each other, those bonds do not stop. Like my Catholic Irish friends Moms lighting candles on family members death anniversaries. Or Feng Shui - created to know where to bury ancestors so they will be happiest.

Scribbledabble said...

Hi, I feel it depends what cultural context we place Samhain in. If viewed as a Celtic (hate using this word but shorter than saying pre-romano British Irish) festival it marks a time when the veil between this and the otherworld is thin. As well as a time to meet the dead, its a time to meet the gods. In legend the gods fought a great battle at Samhain against the evil fomorians and suffered great loss. Humans also fought.When the dust had settled, the gods (the tuatha de danan) decided that the time had come for a human age and they withdrew into the otherworld, into the mounds, streams, pools and sacred places (Tolkein drew upon this idea when he sent the elves back to the west at the climax of lord of the rings).But each year the otherworld comes close to ours and we meet the gods again. so it is not just about death but sacrifice for the greater good, accepting change, commemorating the gods etc. The other thing about viewing it from a Celtic perspective is that there is a meeting with the dead as the celts don't appear to have had any belief in reincarnation. If Tacitus is to be believed the celts undertook amazing acts of bravery because they did not fear death and believed they would have an afterlife in a blissful elysium - the otherworld. So reincarnation beliefs don't quite match up with Celtic legend and Samhain as originally conceived. The issue with the harvest in October is a confusion until Samhain is seen as the last of three harvests. Lammas is the grain harvest, followed by fruit, nuts and fodder in the next festival, then a harvest of flesh at Samhain. In northern Europe November wad the time to slaughter animals that could not be fed through the winter. It was better to slaughter them at their fattest and preserve the meat. So a great time to feast the gods and ancestors! The saxons called November "blotmonath" or blood month in honor of this harvest. So its hard to match things up when trying to be eclectic and I guess everyone will feel differently about this time and its meaning. I haven't made up my mind but I'm a newbie explorer. Whatever you believe have a great autumn/fall, Scribbb

Chas Clifton said...

My hunch is that Time on the "other side" functions much differently than it does to us.

Moma Fauna said...

...& that just makes my head hurt.

Moma Fauna said...

"So many choices..." So right, so overwhelming & I tend to not even want to bother b/c I cannot "know" so what is the point of pretending? I think part of my struggle here is that I *don't* know & since I don't, how can I know how to pay homage/honour appropriately?

Or maybe it does not matter.

I think you are right about the family concept. "If one gets messed up all of them do." This is very true, I have seen it in action. Family has become very casual in this modern world. This is too bad. Too, too bad. Except perhaps for those who really deeply dislike their families, but I think it is still probably too bad for them too. We humans are freefalling without our tribes. So we have sports teams instead.

I like the ideas of honouring ancestors individually on significant days instead of enmasse on a single day, or having shrines... making it more personal. I will have to consider more. Thank you for the comment ma'am. ;)

Moma Fauna said...


Waaaay back when I wanted to be All-Things-Celtic (mostly, if I am honest, I thought that was the cool way to be) I tried very hard to read the mythologies. I remember the battle (vaguely). Actually, it is one of the few stories I can remember, but it is funny, I do not remember its association with Samhain. This gives the veil-thinning concepts a very different spin indeed. I confess, the idea of this time being "a time to meet the gods" is easier for me to embrace than a time for the dead. Do you think it works with deities outside the pantheon? Do you think when the veil is thin from a Celtic context, it would be the same for the gods of other cultures?

"...not just about death but sacrifice for the greater good, accepting change, commemorating the gods etc." I like that. Very much.

"...the celts don't appear to have had any belief in reincarnation... So reincarnation beliefs don't quite match up with Celtic legend and Samhain as originally conceived." Then how did the "Celtic Sabbat" of Samhain become what it is now to so many people who believe in reincarnation? Was this Gardner's hand? I am not doubting you, just perplexed about how we got to the dumb suppers & channelling & such. Any ideas?

"The issue with the harvest in October is a confusion until Samhain is seen as the last of three harvests." I always preferred this view & used to pay more attention to the 'culling of the herds' concept & I am not sure when I let it slide. Maybe when I realized I felt out of touch with the world of animal husbandry? Or maybe later, when I realized that *my* bovid friends (at the Utah house) get slaughtered sometime after being sold & transferred to a feedlot. I am not sure when they will die, but I think it is a staggered event, to insure that there are burgers aplenty for all. Modern agriculture & agribusiness really torque the "Wheel." *grumble*

Your comments have been exceptionally helpful (Heather's too, for that matter) -- probably because you are highlighting regional/cultural differences which, whether I will embrace or not, point to the wide array of possibilities for this "High Day" with which I have such a tumultuous affaire. Thank you friend. Your words always bring me new views.

Scribbledabble said...

Thanks for a(nother) thought provoking post moma f. Yes, Samhain was thought to be the time that the battle of Mag-tured was fought. I think some Gods even "died" (whatever that means for a god- the jedeo Christian view means that we always consider gods immortal and eternal but many old religions have them vulnerable to a kind of death). The Dagda died apparently but maybe this is symbolic as he is associated with the oak tree that has a sort if death at Samhain/autumn. Anyway, after the battle the gods retired to the otherworld and have since been associated with fairy mythology, especially around mounds and underworld places. As far as I know the Celtic dead went to the otherworld and stayed there - so no reincarnation.There are tales of cauldrons that restore the dead but it's bringing them back - more zombie-like than reborn. I think reincarnation belief has been added on quite recently as it appeals to many peoples personal theology but is mainly an eastern introduction. But what happens after death is always hotly debated within and across many religions. Having said all if the above there is no way we can say the celts didn't have some reincarnation belief but we will never really know as historic sources are few, especially on culture, society and belief. Reincarnation may have been added by Gardner as it was gaining more popularity at the turn if the 20th century. But I wouldn't view it as Gardner adding reincarnation to an essentially Celtic wicca. By the time Gardner met his New Forest witches, Celtic Britain (as the ancient celts knew it) had passed 2000 years before. Britain has picked up so many influences since, from Roman pagans, Christians, saxons, vikings, Normans, and then ideas from all parts if the world in empire days. I guess there is no such thing as a pure and unchanged belief system. Things get adopted or dropped as people adapt to life. But it is hard to find absolute surety in any belief system. Maybe this is why eclecticism is popular as it allows us to pick and choose. But It's easy to say that this is a soft option that avoids asking the difficult questions (like hard polytheism versus gods as architypes). I am trying to steer a middle path - looking for something that appeals to me personally, fits my geographical location, and then drilling through all the cultural changes to find the core beliefs that never change. I will never find a pure and unchanged system if belief in Britain I'm sure - we are a mongrel race afterall - a big melting pot of invaders and immigrants! But that's great, it makes life more interesting I think. Take care, Scribb

Bryan Perrin said...

Happy Birthday
!The big battle for the island at summers end is preceded by
the land - fall and burning of boats that is described as a need fire at summers beginning. Check out The destruction of Da Dergas Hostel, It is probably the most influential spiritual work in the odd field I find my self in.
Happy New Year

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