• Tag Archives day of the dead
  • Samhain: 2010

    Samhain                                                    Waning Harvest Moon

    In the ancient Celtic faith Samhain (October 31) and Beltane (May 1) were the only holidays.  W. Y. Evans-Wentz gave a folklorist’s account of that faith in his first book, . Evans-Wentz wrote this amazing work, little known in spite of his later and famous first translation of the Tibetan  Book of the Dead, after wandering several months through the Celtic countryside, staying in the villages and modest homes and listening to these stories as they were told around fires of peat, voices passing on a tradition and whiling away the dreary winter months in a time before electricity.

    Think of such a time as the cold begins to bear down on us and the leaves have fallen, the vegetables brought in from the garden now lying in their dark storage.  Imagine if those vegetables and what grain might be stored as well, imagine if they were your food, your only food, for the next five to seven months.  Though the Celtic winters were not as severe as the ones here in Minnesota, they were just as fallow, the earth no longer yielding fruits, all hope of new produce gone until late spring.

    It’s easy for me to imagine this because I harvested the last of our vegetables yesterday.  I would be in a panic r if we had to survive on the few carrots, beets, potatoes, onions and garlic we have stored dry.  Yes, we have honey, canned tomatoes and some pickles, but even for the two of us, we would have to be almost magicians to live off this amount of food.  At best we would enter spring mere shadows of our October well-fed selves.  As supplements to our diet, our stored food is wonderful, a blessing; as sustenance alone, it would be meager.  At best.

    Among the Celts this was, too, a time when the veil between the worlds thinned and passage eased from the Other World to this one and from this one to the Other World.  Like the Mexican Day of the Dead, celebrated on the same date, it was a time when ancestors might visit.  To keep them happy their favorite foods and music and dress would be available.  The Celts also believed that, in addition to the dead, the inhabitants of faery could come and walk among human kind.  They might steal children or lure unwary persons back across the veil, back to the world of faery where time passes so differently than it does here.

    We have the faint memory of this holiday today.  The costumed remind us of the strange and often scary entities of the Other World that flit, often unseen, among the living on this night.   The jack o’lanterns have descended from the Samhain carved turnip (a rutabaga to us in the U.S.) which, when lit with a candle, glows yellow, much like a skull.  The carved turnip and the parshall were put on or near the lintel (sound familiar?) to keep those roamers from the Other World at bay.

    On a personal and spiritual level this can be a time to consider the past growing season, Beltane as the Celts called it.  What came to maturation in the last six months?  Have you taken time to harvest and store up the fruits of those efforts?  It can also be  a time to consider the fallow and bleak time ahead, Samhain.  While Beltane might be the Baroque or Rococo time of year, heavily decorated with lots of shadows and light, winter is the minimalist season, a time when the canvas might even be bare.  Then we might confront our world as a Mark Rothko painting, an inward time, of seeing the other as it resides in our Self, or going down to the well of the collective soul and replenishing ourselves for the year ahead.

    A paradox rears itself here.  A paradox most neatly stated in the observation by certain Western thinkers that September 29th, Michaelmas, the celebration of the archangel Michael, is the springtime of the soul.  Thus, as the growing season wanes and finally extinguishes, we follow Persephone under ground, down into the cathedrals of our own souls.  There we can recharge oursSelves in the deep waters.