The Heart of Samhain

I was asked very recently why Druids celebrate such a dark festival as Samhain. What is it about this shadowy and occult time, where the land is overrun with ghosts and ghouls, that makes us want to associate ourselves with it. I found it a really odd question, but I think it’s a topic that, unless you are involved with Paganism, can be confusing. To the mass populous Samhain is Hallowe’en. A time when children knock on the doors of strangers asking for sweets, when demons and ghosts run riot, where we carve pumpkins into scary Jack o’ Lanterns. So in a way it’s not surprising that some wonder why we would celebrate this as a spiritual festival. So I replied that it isn’t dark. That the darkness some people perceive comes from a fear and distance from death.

The feast of Samhain comes from a time when people didn’t have world trade. They couldn’t just pop to the supermarket to buy their food. They had to grow it all themselves. Samhain as Summer’s End marks the obvious slip into the darkness and cold of the Winter. There would be the slaughtering of cattle and salting of meat to preserve it, the bringing in of crops, and some would look at the older members of their community and wonder if these frail people would live to see another Spring. The Sun’s arc is in decline, bringing shorter and shorter days, and with these thoughts of darkness and death comes our memories of those that have past on before. The Otherworld lies close at this time of year, and sometimes it feels so close you can almost touch it. So, being so distant from those tribal peoples what relevance does Samhain have today?

Today most of us are so distant from even the idea of death that we find it dark and scary. Dead bodies are taken away, hidden from view, filled with chemicals, then put straight into a box, then into the ground or cremated. Death is such a part of life that this distance is, in my opinion, unhealthy. Many of us British people take that another stage further with the idea of having to keep our chin up, or that emotional-baggage inducing stiff upper lip. So many of us either will not allow ourselves to mourn, or are not allowed to by our peers. The act of crying is such an important part of letting go that in the end this pent up emotion has to come out in some way, and sometimes this is in illness or misplaced anger. So during our Samhain ritual we say that all the time the names of our loved ones are spoken into the air, they will know they haven’t been forgotten, and sometimes that very simple act of saying their name out loud, of bringing their faces into our memories, is enough to break that barrier of held grief, and allow people to begin to let go. A powerful and truly human thing.

A part of any spiritual path deals with what happens after we die. In the end none of us will truly know what will happen until we take that journey, but while we are here these spiritual teachings can bring us comfort and peace. As a Druid I believe in reincarnation. That when I die my spirit will travel to the Blessed Isles of the West, to rest, reflect on my life, and then to return to the Cauldron to be reborn again. I don’t know this, but I feel that it’s what will happen. I wonder if our journey after death reflects our beliefs in life. We shall all find out in the end, and maybe that is the real essence of Samhain that people find frightening and dark. That death is life’s one inevitable, and every day we are making our way on a journey towards that moment. Let’s spend the majority of our lives living, but once a year it’s good to ponder our mortality.

9 responses to “The Heart of Samhain”

  1. One of the most powerful rituals I know comes from the Jewish tradition, the recitation of the mourner’s prayer (Kaddish) at every anniversary of the death of a loved one (yahrzeit).

    At the synagogue near my home (not sure if this is true everywhere), every Shabbat the names of all those who have died in the past 30 days, and of those whose yahrzeit is being observed that week, are spoken aloud immediately before the prayer is said… and every synagogue I’ve been in had a prominently located display of the names of the deceased, usually with some sort of light or marker indicating whose yahrzeit is that week.

    It is also significant that this prayer can only be made if there is a minyan (a quorum of at least ten adults) present – because they believe it is vitally important that the mourners have the support of their community around them at these times, and not grieve alone. (Similarly, the mourners are not supposed to be left alone for the first week after a death, and at the funeral they leave the graveside *first*, surrounded by their community, rather than being left to linger alone at the end, as I have seen happen at other funerals…)

  2. Lovely post!

    I talk to dead people all the time. Not the way you might be thinking! When I see something my grandmother would have loved — say, a new mechanical Christmas decoration or a really cute baby — I say “Hi Gram, I hope you’re happy wherever you are.” Something like that. I have things in my home that belonged to loved ones that are gone, and when I’m dusting them, I often say hello to the person it belonged to.

    It makes me feel like they are still part of my life — and I suppose they are, as long as they live in my memories. As you said, none of us knows what happens when we die. But thinking of, and speaking the names of, those that have gone before helps me to feel connected to something greater, and that is comforting.

  3. Hello from Jon and Janet at Friendly Dragon, having read your comments on Samhain – we both felt very moved by this, our ritual takes a very similar form, by calling or even just thinking the names of those who have passed before – the spiritual connection is very powerful. Most people who are present feel that the room fills up with the ancestors…and even loved pets…At this time of year both Jon and I feel sad and yet hopeful for our beliefs guide us through the darker times..towards the promise of the ‘return of the sun’ at Winter Solstice.
    With Brightest Blessings to both you and Ceri Lee and your family…

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