The Season of the Witch – what on earth does that mean? Traditionally, Samhain (pronounced SOW-in or SOW-aine and which non-Pagans call Halloween) is the celebration of the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. The word comes to us from Old Irish word for the month beginning on November 1. The feast celebrates the end of the harvest – a huge effort for agricultural communities as they rushed to gather the grain and fruit (August and September) and then slaughter the meat needed for the harsh winter months (October). Once that was over, they could rest and throw a party.
Samhain is often called the Feast of the Dead which comes to modern witches from Celtic lore (as opposed to history or culture, please note). What we do know is that Samhain marks the changeover from the ‘light’ half or the year to the ‘dark’ half – which makes a great deal of sense when you look at the waxing and waning of the sun (particularly in northern latitudes) – it is about this time of year that we all notice that the days are significantly shorter.
The celebration began with the extinguishing of all fires in the land (except those needed for survival, such as for nursing mothers and the very old) and then the ritual lighting of a bonfire atop the Hill of Tara, which signaled to the rest of the land (also gathered atop hilltops) to light their own fires. Each family then solemnly lit its hearth from the common flame, thus bonding the families of the village together. The dead were welcomed, and celebrated at this feast, often with the custom of setting an extra place at the table for them.
One of the most tenacious erroneous beliefs in non-Pagans is that Samhain is named after a Celtic Lord of the Dead. From this error has come a persistent belief that Witches (and Pagans) are worshipping said Lord, and thus is proof of our worship of Satan. From this point of view Death is evil and therefore worshipping a Lord of the Dead is worshipping evil. Let me first state that although there is Celtic character named Samhain, he is an incredibly minor person (he’s known only because Balor stole his magical cow) in the mythology. His reincarnation as the Lord of the Dead is the result of poor scholarship in the 18th century. Modern witches see Samhain as a celebration, not the worship of a so-called Lord of the Dead.
Nowadays many of us prepare a meal made up of favorite foods of our beloved dead, set a place for them at the table, and entertain them with songs, poetry and dances. We may open a door or window to the west and specifically invite them to attend. If it is too cold for that (as it often can be) we may light a candle in a western window to guide them home.
As I look to other religions, I see echoes of our celebration. The Catholics have celebrated November 2nd as All Souls’ Day for hundreds of years (and All Saints Day on November 1st since 844AD) and in fact some believe that Halloween was originally called Hallow’s Eve, for the eve of All Hallow’s (hallowed) Day. It was a night of vigil and prayer for the dead. In Chinese Buddhism there are three festivals for the dead: Qing Ming (Celebration of Tomb Sweeping; when they cleaning the graves and make food offerings), Zhong Yuan Jie (Festival of Hungry Ghosts; elaborate meals are served with empty seats for each of the deceased in the family, and Shao Yi Jie (Burning Clothes Festival; paper clothes are burned so that their ancestors have enough to keep warm in the coming winter months).
In my tradition we celebrate by giving up that which we no longer need or want. One year a celebrant gave up the comfy chair he’d grown too used to in order to become more physically active. Other offerings have included cigarettes, chains of self pity, and the voice of the self-hater. We then learn the Mystery of Rebirth:
ALL: Everything passes, changes.
CRONE: Seed becomes fruit.
ALL: Fruit becomes seed.
CRONE: In birth, we die.
ALL: On death, we feed.
CRONE: For my womb is the cauldron of rebirth.
ALL: In us, the circle is ever turning.
From this point onward we no longer gather at the Full Moon to work magic, but instead are studying the ways of the Dark God/dess through a cycle of six dark moons (more on this in another post). In the dark silence comes the whispering of new beginnings, the gentle gathering of the seed’s strength. We turn our attention inward in celebration of this quieter time of the year.
Witches work in balance, honoring both the light and the dark, for we understand that these forces have anything to do with Good or Evil, but are natural forces and energies. Without darkness, plants wither and fail just as they do without light. Samhain marks the time when we begin to look within, into the darkness so that we may understand and absorb that knowledge and in doing so, grow closer to the Divine.
May the Beloved Dead bless you now and in the coming year!
“The myth of Samhain: “Celtic god of the dead” found at http://www.religioustolerance.org/hallo_sa.htm, accessed 10-25-08
“History of All Hallows’ Eve“ found at: http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/overviews/months/10_2.cfm, accessed 10-25-08
“Ancestors’ Sacrifice Festival“ found at: http://www.chinavoc.com/festivals/Sacrifice.htm, accessed 10-25-08