Yesterday was is the Pagan festival of Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-wain’) , this is one of the eight major Neopagan festivals and is considered to be New Years’ Eve by many Pagans. Due to the festivals’ significance to the pre-Christian peoples of north-western Europe it was Christianised as All Hallows Eve, later abbreviated to Hallow’een/Halloween. Many of the popular Halloween traditions observed today have their origins in ancient Pagan practices.
The significance of Samhain must be understood in terms of the Wheel of the Year. In the Neopagan cosmology the Horned God is a Solar deity who undergoes a birth-death-rebirth journey every year. The Triple Goddess represents Mother Earth (as well as the Moon), transforming through Her Maid, Mother and Crone aspects with the progress of the seasons . Together the Triple Goddess and the Horned God in their joint journey provide the mythological basis for the changing of the seasons. At Midwinter the Horned God is born, and the Goddess is renewed as the Maid, by the spring the Horned God has matured to be the Young Hunter pursuing the Maiden Goddess, at Midsummer the Goddess and God are lovers, the Goddess is pregnant with the bounty of summer and the God is in his prime. In the autumn the God transfers his strength and virility to the ripening harvests, whilst the Goddess transforms into Her Crone aspect. At Samhain the Horned God’s strength is spent and He dies, passing on to travel the underworld until He is reborn again at Yule.
As such Samhain represents the death of the Horned God, the end of the Year, the end of the Summer bounty and Harvest and ritual preparation for the descent into the cold dark of Winter. The death of the Horned God gives the day its association with the dead, it is the day at which the veil that divides this world from the other-worlds is at its thinnest. Traditionally it was believed that spirits of the dead and otherworldly entities would walk abroad. Many Halloween traditions were originally directed at tricking or appeasing these entities, wearing disguises and collecting communal offerings have gradually transformed into trick or treating. It is possible that these practices are part of the folk memory stemming from the distant past when Pagan priests and priestesses would have been dressed as deities and represented them on Earth, receiving offerings and sacrifices in thanks for the years’ bounty and in promise for the return of the Sun the following year. Since the veil between worlds is so frail this is the ideal time for practising divination, which was often done communally and evolved into practices like apple bobbing.
To me the significance of Samhain rests in its main spiritual aspect – the descent into the Underworld. The Horned God has a great many aspects, included in these is the Lord of the Underworld. The Pagan Underworld is not the same as Christian Hell, it is the abode of the Dead and the realm of the ancestors. However, it is neither limbo nor a realm of suffering, it is more a repository of spiritual history and wisdom, the place where deep and ancient knowledge can be obtained. In His role as the Lord of the Underworld the Horned God plays the role of psychopomp (guiding the spirits of the dead to their spiritual resting place), the master/teacher of arcane wisdom and the holder of knowledge that is by its nature a mystery to living. The Triple Goddess in Her aspect as the Crone represents much the same thing. Both deities can be appealed to for assistance and wisdom throughout the year however their winter aspects lend a harder edge to their personas. Winter and death represent literally and symbolically the subject of destruction and endings, this can be frightening and has ‘dark’ associations though there is no element of evil involved. I find myself drawn to the unknown and unknowable and have a love for autumn and Samhain in particular.
There are ritual formulas for observing Samhain, usually involving the lighting of a bonfire as at Beltane, communing with the ancestors and divining the coming year. This year we took a relaxed approach to our celebration, we carved a pumpkin and bought sweets for the local trick-or-treaters, when they had finished their rounds we set up our altar and circle with each of the four elements and representations of the Horned God and Goddess, sealed the room and cast our circle in the same manner we always do. We gave our thanks to our ancestors known and unknown for all that they have done and given and poured an offering of mead in their honour. With the formalities over we could have done a vision quest or journey, engaged in shamanic drumming or divination but instead we chose to start working our staffs. Reikiheidi had gathered a number of fallen branches over the past months with the intention of working them into ritual/magickal tools such as staffs and wands. We felt that Samhain would be a nice time to cut them to size, whittle away unwanted pieces and sand them down. This is the first time we had worked wood with ritual intention and we both found the exercise to be very calming and engaging, like any activity that requires full attention it has meditative qualities, and the satisfaction of seeing the item take form. I had not intended to do anything specific but whilst whittling away at my staff I found myself carving the top of my staff into the head of an eagle (one of my power animals). We ended the evening and the ritual with a meal.
It was a relaxed and understated evening, we both enjoyed ourselves and gave our thanks for an exciting and interesting past year which was full of change and growth and are looking forward to what the new year has to bring.
Reikiheidi and I are very fortunate to live in Norwich, it is a wonderful city and positively seething with history, much of which can still be seen in the architecture and place names. I regret that I take it somewhat for granted and don’t know nearly as much of our local history as I would like. Many waves of history have left their mark on the area, but there is one time period in the history of Norwich which holds a fascination for both reikiheidi and myself.
At the time of the Roman conquests of Britain the Iceni tribe inhabited an area roughly corresponding with the modern county of Norfolk. The ancient capital of the Iceni Venta Icenorum (meaning ‘Marketplace of the Iceni’) lies close to Norwich, in the village of Caistor St Edmund. It has long been my intention to visit the place, and being free of the children this Tuesday reikiheidi and I did just that.
Our reason for the visit was primarily to make a small pilgrimage to connect with our ancestors, those people who walked the land we call our home before us, fellow pagans and a people whose culture has provided inspiration for the way we personally relate to the divine.
Neither reikiheidi or I hold much affection the culture and history of the Romans and tend to view them as being responsible for the destruction of much of Britain’s indigenous religions, traditions and mythology, although I concede this may be somewhat inaccurate and unfair. As such, to me Venta Icenorum represents a sad chapter of our history, more so because this land was once the home of a personal heroine of mine.
Boudica the queen of the Iceni is remembered for instigating and leading perhaps the most ferocious British rebellion against Roman rule. In AD 61 after her public beating and the rape of her daughters Boudica incited and led her own people and neighbouring tribes in a rebellion which led to the sacking of the Roman towns of Colchester, London and St Albans and the destruction of a Roman Legion, before her eventual defeat and massacre of tens of thousands of her followers.
In view of these events and my feelings about them I had expected the place to have a solemn, melancholy atmosphere, and was surprised to find that despite the bitter cold, the bare trees and ruined walls the place emanated a sense of vibrancy even cheerfulness. The wounds I had expected to encounter had healed and life had long ago moved on.
As soon as reikiheidi and I entered the gate to the place, we heard the crying of an animal and to our astonishment saw a weasel attacking a rabbit not 30 feet away from us. The rabbit struggled free from its attacker and ran towards us before stopping and huddling in the grass in front of us. The weasel sat watching the scene a little further away. I slowly moved towards the rabbit to see if it was injured. It lay still until I got close then bolted away into a burrow apparently unhurt. The most curious thing about this event is that I was half expecting we would see rabbits or hares, Boudica was reputed to have released a hare from her dress as a method of divination, with augury being determined by the direction of the hare’s flight. Hare’s are rare in the UK today, I have yet to see one, was this a sign from Boudica? If there is a divinatory or symbolic meaning to this event I am unsure of its interpretation.
At the south-west corner of the walls we found a hollowed tree stump nestled below a Hawthorne tree, this seemed to be the perfect place to make our offering to the ancestors. We lit an incense stick and buried a coin in the ground at the heart of the tree stump, thanked those who came before us for their gifts, sacrifices and contributions and assured them they were not forgotten.
At the far west end of the site is the Tar, a beautiful little river narrow, clear and fast running. Here we made an offering (of catkins! – the only thing to hand) to the Goddess and Horned God in thanks for nature’s bounty.
We spent the next two hours exploring the ruins and a church built within the ancient walls, before returning home grounded, calmed and at peace. I feel we succeeded in our aim of touching both the past and land, closing the distance both spiritual and emotional with our ancestors and bringing something of that beautiful place into our hearts and minds. If the very land itself has memory then it is worth listening to what it has to teach.
Blessings be )O(