Thinking About – Samhain
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year…”
The voice sings during the Christmas TV advert I will doubtless see this coming week, but I know for many of my friends this is actually their favourite time. It’s not mine, but I totally get why it is for so many of my Pagan friends.
I love pretty much everything about it apart from the sudden chill that appears in the air. It was there yesterday, as we closed the circle at the Anderida Gorsedd Samhain open ritual beneath the Long Man of Wilmington. The Autumn Equinox is the last time he sees the sun until the Spring Equinox next year. From Samhain the Sun barely touches him. His little piece of hill descends into the shadows, as does the hill upon which we all stand for our circles. And in that shadow I could feel the chill of the Cailleach’s breath. Walk outside into the sunshine, and there was a slight warmth still there, but it’s going, and that, for me, is why I don’t like Samhain so much.
As the circle was cast we were joined by soaring corvids overhead. At Samhain I cast the circle as the rim of the Cauldron of Annwn, upon which we all stand. I invite the mists of the Otherworld to fill the Cauldron before us, and through that mist we speak the names of our loved ones, our friends, family, and our ancestors of tradition, who have passed before. Stepping into the mists and speaking their names aloud, so that they may hear us, and know that they are remembered. We then share a symbolic feast with them, and people sing, offer poetry, and tell tales of the season, before the spirits are thanked, and the circle is closed. It’s a safe space, a place to shed tears if they come, a place to feel the loss but also the connection. I was told once that when our heart fills up, our eyes spill over. Never so true as in the Samhain circle. We have been doing that same ritual for 17 years. It just doesn’t feel right to change anything. It does what it’s meant to do. Us Brits are not often very open when it comes to our emotions, but it’s important to really feel. Samhain gives us all that opportunity.
I’ve been reading some blogs and posts on Facebook recently that historical evidence suggests that Samhain was never a ‘feast of the dead’. I care not one jot. If it wasn’t it should have been. It makes total sense. What we do have is bucketloads folklore that tells us that the Faerie ride out at this time of year – that the Veil is thin. Within the Otherworld, within Annwn, lies the Cauldron of Rebirth. Tales suggest that those placed within the Cauldron are reborn, but without the power of speech. That also makes sense. The spirit of those departed should never speak to the living of what they have seen. So when they are reborn they have no power of speech, just as a newborn baby has no power of speech. Maybe those first cries are the child screaming “OH MY GODS!!! YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHERE I’VE JUST BEEN!!! IT WAS AMAZING!! DAMN!! WHY DOESN’T ANYONE UNDERSTAND ME!!!” All we hear are the cries of a newborn baby… But folklore suggests that the spirit of those who have gone before return to the Cauldron, for rebirth. So casting the circle, and calling upon the mists at Samhain, when the Gates are open, utterly works for me.
When new academic research comes to light it often suggests what we think a festival is, is not entirely what it was. I’ve also often observed that it doesn’t suggest what it actually was, just that our modern way of celebrating it might not be 100% accurate when it comes to antiquity. But I say that things change anyway. My life is different from my Iron Age Druid ancestors, and I think, even if there was an unbroken line of Samhain rituals right the way back, we would have seen those change over the centuries. I’m 100% certain that Christmas, Easter, Ramadan, any of the celebrations of any other religion in our modern society, are not celebrated in exactly the same way they were 100s of years ago. But they work for those who follow those paths today, and that’s what’s important to me.
If Samhain wasn’t the ancient Pagan Festival of the Dead, I’d suggest that it is now, and has been for some 50 years at least. I’ve spent a lot of my growth as a Pagan and a Druid looking over my shoulder to the past. Of course, it’s important to know where you’ve come from – the old stories and poems of the Mabinogi and Taliesin still fill me up, and there are great lessons in there. But I’m less bothered by academic research now when it comes to how we celebrate things like the Wheel of the Year. It’s still interesting, but I’m very happy in my own modern Pagan skin.