Samhain- a Pagan Honoring of the Ancestors, and Death
Ancient faith was influenced by the natural world. Originating in ancient Europe as a Celtic Fire festival, the Pagan holiday of Samhain marks the end of the harvest season, heralds the beginning of winter-the dark half of the year, and honors death. Samhain, (pronounced SAH-win, or SOW-in) is also the Gaelic name for the month of November, the literal translation being‘summer’s end’.
Being largely a pastoral people, the Celts observed the season of Samhain as the time when the earth was dying. The crops had already been harvested and stored; the fields lay barren, and now cattle and sheep had to be moved from remote areas to closer pastures and secured for the winter months. Those who kept livestock would assess the stored bounty of the two prior harvests, of field and orchard in order to determine how many animals could be adequately fed through the winter. Those not able to be cared for were butchered, which would help to feed the family during the dark days ahead. It is partially due to this practice that Samhain is sometimes referred to as the ‘blood harvest.’
Cultures across the world embrace holidays with themes of death; Los Dias de los Muertos, of Mexico; the Buddhist Festival of the Dead in Japan, which is called Obon, or just Bon, the Hindu festival of Gaijatra, and the Christian celebration of All Souls are but a few. Like them, Samhain’s celebrations also embrace a theme of death.
Unlike the vibrant and enthusiastic rites of spring and summer, this is a time specifically carved out of the Wheel of the Year, to acknowledge death and loss, to experience grief, and for venerating the Ancestors and honoring departed spirits. Many Pagans will dedicate a home altar to this ritual, with photographs, food offerings and other tokens of remembrance.
For Pagans, death is not a thing to be feared but is part of the Wheel of Life. Death is the ultimate Rite of Passage, the final act that we complete as human beings. Old age is valued for its wisdom, and dying is accepted as natural; as a form of transformation. Death is the great equalizer that puts everything else into perspective.
The Celts believed that at the time of Samhain, more so than any other time of the year, the spirits of the dead were able to mingle with the living. The echoes of this ancient tradition can be seen in popular Halloween celebrations today. Contemporary Pagans still accept that as the life force of our hemisphere wanes, the veils between this world and the other worlds are at their thinnest and our memories, connections and abilities to communicate with our Beloved Dead are heightened. Death also symbolizes other endings, therefore Samhain is not only a time for reflecting on mortality, but also on the passing of relationships, jobs, and other significant life transitions.
Samhain is generally celebrated by Pagans personally from sunset on October 31 until sunset on November 1, a date which is approximately halfway between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice. It is most often celebrated in community, as a festival or as a community event on the weekend closest to that date. Many Pagans consider Samhain to be their New Year, as it used to mark the old Celtic New Year. It is perhaps the most important and significant of annual celebrations.
This year, the Earth Traditions Pagan community will gather to honor our Beloved Dead with a “Dumb Supper;” a meal served and consumed in total silence. Each bite will be taken in the name of our loved ones. We will place an empty chair at the head of our tables, and bring offerings of food for those Ancestors who might wish to join us. We will sing and dance; call the litany of names of our deceased, and share our stories with one another drawing comfort from the telling.
We will draw strength and healing from our deeply-held spiritual belief that life continues beyond death, that birth and death and re-birth all occur within the same threshold, and that we as humans are not an anomaly residing outside of the Great Mystery but rather that we follow the natural cycles of life-the rising and setting of the sun, the phases of the moon, the turning of the seasons, and our very breath.
Good Samhain to you and yours. May the blood of your ancestors flow through your veins, like a river over the landscape of memory. May you hear your Beloved Dead as they whisper their wisdom in your ear and leave you with the gift of hope.
We will call their names at Samhain. What is remembered lives.
Angie Buchanan is a Pagan Minister with Earth Traditions, a Pagan church in the Northern suburbs of Chicago, and an emeritus of the Board of Trustees for the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions.
Featured image courtesy of Deviant Art