What is remembered, lives.
Beannachtai na Oiche Shamhna! Blessings of Samhain. Per the Old Ways, Winter has begun!
Gaelic, and pan-Celtic, polytheism is rooted in the cycles of Nature. What does that mean? Well, it is a deceptively simple concept. Look around outside: what do you observe? What is going on in Nature in this season, this locale, this moment? It affects us because we are part of it, and the rhythms, feelings, and flow of our lives reflect this. The patterns of Nature, in all worlds, both micro and macro, are mirrored in our lives. As above, so below. As within, so without. It is about having a reverent presence in life. That is an underlying essence of Gaelic spirituality.
“The world is full of thresholds where Beauty awaits the reverent presence.” ~ John O’Donohue
It is at these thresholds where the numinous beckons, where imagination is opened, the imbas/awen swirls, and the magic of the mysterious and mystical elements of life sings. When we deny or reject this, life would be tranquil, but oh so dull.
In the Gaelic worldview, the mystical is revealed through Nature. There is a ritualistic and symbolic element to practices that are practical, but also encode a double meaning of spiritual significance. Consider the concept of “first fruits” offered at the turn of each season. The first drops of fresh milk, the first sheaf of grain, the first drops of whiskey or brewed beer, a pinch of tobacco offered before lighting your pipe.
As Samhain ends the previous agricultural cycle of the land, it brings us into a new yearly cycle that begins with the first fruits of Samhain; the blood and meat from animals culled to provide the Winter food supply. Their life energy is transferred to us. This cyclical shedding of blood from animals was a sacred substance marking liminal, threshold spaces and blessings with apotropaic functions. There is something in this that strikes deep into the heart of Gaelic belief.
I am only going to dive briefly into this for now, but what I sense here are echoes in practice of mythic concepts of disintegration and reintegration, the archetypal Being from whom the world was created. The sacrificed being recreates cosmic order. It is ritual participation in the continual sacred reenactment of creation. Destruction precedes creation, night precedes day, incubation/gestation precedes life. In Gaelic, and older, mythology, these may be found in the form of goddesses such as Mata, Tlachtga, and Boann, who are overtaken, disfigured or dismembered, die in childbirth or other toil, and in the process create sacred landscape or release sacred waters, becoming one with them (integrated) as sources of sacred wisdom. I see a connection with ancient figures such as An Cailleach who are cyclical destroyers but also creators. This is also reminiscent of shamanic initiation, through which the initiate experiences a ritualized, symbolic dismemberment and reintegration into a new whole back into the community as a healer and guide. And this concept is further echoed in ritualized communal practices involving the Sacred Center and the Liminal Edge: at Samhain (and Bealtaine), all hearth fires were extinguished, then a sacred bonfire was ritually kindled in a symbolic sacred center, flame from which was carried back to relight the hearth fires of surrounding homes.
This aspect of Samhain helps us reflect upon a fact shared by all living beings: we all experience pain and loss of some kind. Pain is natural and normal, it can be a teacher, but we do not have to suffer. We suffer when we carry pain, old patterns, and outmoded habits past their time, whence they become toxic and destructive. We suffer when we cling to pain, because then it festers and damages our ability to grow. The rhythms of this season show us we can harvest what is useful, leave behind what is not, measure up and take stock, cull and transform these energies.
We can shift our relationship to life’s experiences into something that nurtures and empowers, ploughing it into the soil of our souls to clear the ground of being for integration and wholeness. Part of this is discerning what not to actively harvest, allowing some things to lie fallow. Some things are easier to let go of than others, and not everything is released all at once, never to return – sometimes we come back to the same issues, but on deeper levels as we are ready.
There is always some stubble left in the field, and there is a portion which is left for the Good Folk. Harvesting beyond a certain time brings ill-luck, as An Cailleach, or some say the Puca, bring withering effects across the land at Samhain. A vital element in this process is a period of incubation in the “fruitful darkness”. Courage, faith, and vulnerability are necessary to enter the cave, the labyrinth, the dark procession. When we reemerge, we are changed, but a little more whole.
It is also important to be mindful of not pushing oneself too hard in this context. Perfection is an unrealistic and cruel whip. All things to their own season; cycles of growth and change have their own rhythms, and we must honor this sacred process with authenticity, clarity, and kindness. Honor the time of Samhain, allowing your engagement with life to shift in accord with Nature, moving inward into a season of rest. I have oft seen Winter referred to as representing death, as Nature appears devoid of life during this time. It is something of a misunderstanding to simply say that “death precedes life.” Rather, it is this idea of “incubation”, of potentiality resting in darkness, that precedes “life”. Then follows a cycle of growth, activity, outward expansion of energy, leading again to dissolution and reintegration. Again, and again, in an ongoing chain of transformation.
Our Ancestors toiled so that we, their descendants, would survive and hopefully thrive to be healthy, wealthy, and wise. Let us not forget to show the Ancestors some joy! The lore is likewise replete with how the Good Folk love a good party. Generosity and hospitality are sacred and virtues in the Gaelic worldview. We have a spiritual imperative to share good things in life. Joy radiates, and the Ancestors and Themselves can likewise receive blessings from us in this way.
The ever-changing seasons can help us learn to participate fully in the joys and sorrows of the world. Instead of turning our backs on it, we stand in our Sacred Center, our wellspring of equilibrium and divinity, and engage with our pains, losses, deaths, and triumphs as natural and essential aspects of life.
This is echoed in myriad beliefs and customs, potently in evidence at Samhain. The agricultural harvest was complete, and the crops were in. There was no more outward signs of growth and the potency of the land is withdrawn into a suspended cycle of dormancy. Even Nature needs a nap! It must out with the old to prepare for the new. Nature does not cling to anything past its due time.
Samhain itself was a time of “no-time”, or a time “outside of time”. Some sources place Samhain at the first dark moon after the harvests were in. Others at the first frosts, when An Cailleach, the “Old Woman of Winter”, had fully awoken from her Summer slumber. Where she breathes across the landscape, frosts take hold. When she shakes out her plaid, the first snows fall. And yet others time Samhain according the alignments of the Pleiades, Antares, or the sun. An important point is brought to light when considering these: there was highly localized variance in accord with different landscapes and climate.
As a liminal, threshold time, Samhain was also spiritually dangerous. During this time, when the veil between worlds is dissolved, spirits roam freely through the worlds. And while there are many friendly spirits, some should indeed be feared. They are not all simply curious or wish us goodwill and friendship. Who knows why spirits do what they do? There are myriad protective charms, incantations, and practices to help keep our wits about us and harm at bay during Samhain. Guising and punkies are two of these.
Guising, the donning of costumes and disguises, served to trick tricksy spirits into thinking you were one of their ilk, thus protecting you from being spirited away. It also partook of the mischievous side of Samhain, when social order was upended, and normality unhinged.
Carved turnips with a candle set inside, called “punkies”, were set about to frighten away unfriendly spirits. In North America, this took the form of the pumpkin jack-o-lantern. I carve both. These fright lights helped safely guide the Ancestors back to the home of their living family, which was thoroughly cleaned, and hospitality awaited them. Food was plated, tobacco set out, tongs placed by the fire, and doors left unbarred to welcome the Spirits after the family retired for the night. In some sources, it is the Good Folk who come to enjoy the feast. In others, it is the Ancestors. All warrant due respect, though they may not all deserve our love and devotion.
Even the elements and the stars themselves are our Ancestors. As nothing ever really “dies”, we are our Ancestors, and we live and breath them all around us. We take form from that which already is, the duile (elements) of stone (bones), earth (flesh), plants (hair), sea (blood), wind (breath), moon (mind), sun (face), cloud (brain), heaven (head). When our time is done, we again become our elemental, ancestral forms.
As with each Holytide, Samhain has its associated sacred foods and feasts. In ancient custom, mutton and boar were the offerings for the sacral feast, along with pigs and fruits of the fields given as tribute to lords. In modern times, we make foods such as colcannon, barmbrack, and fuarag. Circuits of hospitality, replete with guesting, feasting, and storytelling, characterized social life for our Ancestors during this season, and we continue these customs of hearth and home in ways that are relevant for us in our own times.
In my personal practice, Samhain begins at dark moon. It is not a single night, but a period of time, usually lasting a fortnight, where I do a series of different private observances at home. I draw a single ogham on each night of the dark moon and record my interpretations in a journal (this year was alder, rowan, and bramble). At the light of the new moon, I do deep intention setting, and then put these to “seed” to incubate for a spell. It follows the rhythms of Nature where I live, blossoming and growing as the cycle of life flows.
Our landscapes of meaning are ever-changing and diverse for each of us.
What is remembered, lives. May your Samhain be blessed.