This year the season of Hallowtide feels even more potent than usual. We seek new meaning in the old myths that tell of this being a dangerous time when the spirits of chaos, the forces of disintegration, threaten. Of this being a time to honor the souls of the dead. Of this being a time to seek the wisdom of the spirit world, so that within the darkness we can find light.
As the wheel of the year turns, we pass through another cycle of the changing seasons. At autumn equinox there was a balance between darkness and light, but now we are aware of the increasing darkness, as the sun sets earlier and the days grow shorter. The Celts of Ireland and Scotland called this time halfway between autumn equinox and winter solstice Samhain (pr. ‘sah-wen’). The archetypal threads that weave through the story of Samhain can bring patterns of meaning to guide us now, as they did to ancient peoples facing darkness and uncertainty back then. Colorful stories with themes of liminality and transformation guided folk practices of old. They inform new ceremonies created to meet today’s challenges, as our needs then and now are really not so different.
On Samhain the rising sun enters the passage of a 3500BC cairn on Loughcrew, ‘The Hills of the Hag.” It strikes a tall limestone pillar called The Whispering Stone, announcing the beginning of winter. It will shine in again on Imbolc, illuminating the stone and signifying the end of winter, the beginning of spring. The Hag’s time, the Cailleach’s time, is said to begin on the eve of Samhain, October 31st, when she ushers in the dark half of the year. It ends on Imbolc, February 1st, when maiden Brigid once again brings the beginning of the bright half of the year to all of nature.
Samhain is the first of the Celtic cross-quarters, so it marks the beginning of the new year. Samhain means “summer’s end.” These Celtic, perhaps pre-Celtic, observances became Christian feast days. The Celtic new day began at sundown, so Halloween is the eve of All Hallows (All Saints) on November 1. This is followed by the Feast of All Souls, on November 2. In Mexico these are collectively called The Day of the Dead, and the old Aztec belief that loved ones return in the form of butterflies lives on in the return of the monarchs.
This time of transition between the old year and the new was seen as being in neither, as existing outside of ordinary time. Being separate from the usual order, things could come apart; chaos could threaten. We are living through that now. Sharon Blackie says, “The crumbling of empire; the excruciating death-throes of a centuries-old cultural mythology. . . . That’s where it feels we are now: at a turning point in the disease of modern Western civilization. . . We have to become the tradition-bearers for a changing world.”1
At Samhain the world of the living and the Otherworld were even closer than usual. At this time, when the veil was thin, the hallows or spirits could easily pass through to this world. It was a time to honor the ancestors, to tend the spirits of the dead, to be especially vigilant at crossroads. In this time of pandemic it certainly feels true that the threshold between life and death is more easily crossed. The connection of Samhain with death is especially poignant now. It is a time to honor the 230,000 people we’ve lost to Covid in the US, over a million in the world. When so many have died alone, we need to try to make sure they are well grieved, so their souls can join the beloved ancestors and find some measure of peace.
Samhain was a time to seek insight and divine the wisdom of the Otherworld. In the Otherworld lived the supernatural Tribe of the Goddess, the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the spirits who lived underground in the megalithic mounds and stone circles. After a fruitful summer, these earth spirits would expect some gratitude for their gift of harvest, like pouring some drops of milk on the ground. The Celtic peoples were careful not to offend these “shining ones,” because they knew they were dependent on these animating energies for the fertility of the land. So a sacred tree or a stone circle would never be damaged. They understood that the ecosystem was fragile, and they must not upset the delicate balance, the interdependence of living things and the spirits behind them.2 Oh, that we knew now what they knew then, that we can’t just take from nature without giving back care and respect. That the health of people is tied to the health of the animals. That the trees need to flourish so we can breathe. That we might come to regret our disrespect. We know now that we’ve crossed the threshold between nature giving us life to us giving nature death.
The old Dinnshenichas, the stories of place, warn of consequences when people take too much or the spirits of place are not honored. We need to listen to what the land needs right where we live, so we can receive the wisdom of the beings that live with us, like the pair of great horned owls who called back and forth to each other last night. Sit in the darkness and just listen, they said. Or like the rough green snake that surprised us today, emerging from amidst the pine straw blown down by the winds of yet another passing hurricane. Lime green on top, gold below. We had never seen one here before. It’s All Hallows Eve, she said, when magic can turn straw into gold. I reply that it will take a lot more than magic to change the trajectory of climate change.
At “summers end” the livestock would have been brought back from the summer pastures and the last of the harvest would have been gathered in. It was a time for tribal assemblies with great hallowmas bonfires. To the Celts this condition of liminal timelessness was especially dangerous and numinous. The fires would burn to provide protection from the powers of darkness and purification by the powers of light.
We need to withstand the heat of these fiercely hot times of change when cities burn so we can be transformed, individually and collectively, into the consciously compassionate people our hearts desire to become. Samhain is a threshold, the door between worlds, at which we stand. We pause, gathering the courage to step across into the dark unknown, unsure of how to create the world of equality between peoples and between humans and the rest of nature that we know we need to imagine into being. We can call on our wise ancestors and spirits of place for a clear new vision of what to carry forward and what of the old we need to leave behind.
The butterfly is a perfect guide for imaging the death/rebirth process of change, of transformation. The old caterpillar form must die as it enters into a liminal time of dissolution. Imaginal cells then guide a re-assimilation, a rebirth of the new form, the emerging butterfly. The transformation of butterflies is the quintessential embodiment of the truth that birth, death, and rebirth are a continuous cycle of being. When we let life function naturally, that is.
Psyche is the Greek word meaning soul, breath, spirit. It is also the name of a butterfly. The Aztecs made this connection, too. Their descendants continue the tradition of seeing the monarchs arriving home as the souls of the beloved dead returning to visit. After their long annual journey south the monarchs arrive back to their winter sanctuary forest in Mexico during the Day of the Dead. The people entice their loved ones back with altars, ofrendas, heaped with offerings of food and sweets and beauty.
We are losing the monarchs, because the milkweeds they depend upon are being removed from fields and roadsides. Without milkweed they cannot live. It’s time to grieve for the monarchs, too.
For many years our community celebrated Samhain with ritual and song and circle dances to live music. This year, with Covid, we will not gather, but we can recall past ceremonies in order to re-imagine their life-giving vitality. Celebrating Samhain helps us locate our souls in ceremonial time and our bodies in the autumn landscape. In creating contemporary ceremony, we give new meaning to the mythic, ancestral observance that is Samhain. Samhain is a ceremony of remembrance of our connection to loving ancestors and to our roots in the land. It can help us remember that we belong to community, to Spirit, to Earth.
This Samhain, let’s imagine that we are gathering to celebrate the journey of the soul through the cycle of transformation — birth, death, rebirth. We are here to honor the recent losses in our community and the souls who have passed from Covid. We welcome the opportunity to honor the native animals — the monarch butterflies and crows/ravens — that are associated with spirits of the dead and symbolize the soul of this season. We are here to be with our beloveds in this dangerous in-between time, the transition between the death of the old culture of dominance and the birth of a new equality. For our brothers and sisters and for our animal kin.
As we arrive at the ceremonial grounds we are smudged with cedar (Juniper), which is a traditional Celtic rite of purification to give protection from evil spirits. We are given small packets of seeds of three species of milkweeds to take home to plant in yards or gardens as hope-in-action that monarchs will cross the threshold from near extinction back to flourishing.
The Chain of Being
We gather around long tables to write our hopes and prayers for people, for nature, on paper strips and decorate them. When each one is attached to the next they form the Chain of Being. We carry the chain in a procession — blessing the grounds, blessing the ground of being, circling sunwise around the fire circle. When we arrive at the Altar of Gratitude we encircle it with the chain. On the altar is a mandala of offerings made of colorful fruits and seeds and flower petals. We light the red candle for the blood of Life and the white candle for the pallor of death. The candles are joined by an infinity sign of black seeds to symbolize the continuous transformation of the soul between life, death and rebirth. We give gratitude for the Last Harvest and to the wise and loving ancestors, knowing that offerings of food and beauty are what attract them to join us.
The Fire Ceremony
We open the ceremony by lighting torches — north, south, east and west — and asking the benevolent powers of the Directions to assist us. Our Samhain tradition is to begin the fire ceremony by burning the Beltane ribbons. The community’s prayers that were written on the ribbons in spring have remained up on the Maypole through the summer. They have now been cut down, still beautifully woven, looking for all the world like the shed skin of a very large snake encircling the fire pit. Snake being another symbol of transformation and rebirth. Participants lift the snake skin and drape it over the antler-like horns of the firewood.
Together we watch as the space inside the cone of wood gradually begins to glow. Watching it slowly grow brighter is almost like watching the gradual lightening of the sky before dawn. The first small tongues of fire begin to lick up the outside of the wood, becoming big flames crackling the woven ribbons, consuming them, turning them to ashes before our eyes. We are transfixed, time standing still, as the smoke rises, carrying the fervent prayers of our community up to Spirit in smoke carried by Crow/Raven, thus linking what we planted in the light half of the year with what we harvest as we approach the dark of winter. Finally, the yellow flames reach the top of the cone and leap out into the night, sending the community’s blessings up in 12ft flames. It is breathtaking to watch them rise.
As the fire burns we sing over and over again: It’s the blood of the Ancients that flows through our veins; and the forms pass, but the Circle of Life remains.
We honor our crows and ravens in nature and in myth as birds who accompany death. When, earlier in the day, we had set our crow friend here upon the stacked fire wood, a crow landed on the top of a nearby tree and watched us. Crow and Raven will accompany us as messengers between the worlds throughout the ceremony.
Passing around a box of loblolly pinecones, we pick a prickly burden or burdens to throw into the fire, releasing anything that keeps us from growing into our true selves and our unique work in the world. Releasing, sacrificing our burdensome ego defenses, there is the possibility of being renewed, of experiencing something new from the Mystery. As each person releases what holds them back we all chant In the Fire, In the Fire. Then, honoring Kali, the dark goddess of transformation, we dance In the fire, in the fire, gonna burn my burden in the fire (repeat) . . . give it up to Kali, give it up to Kali, give it up to Kali, give it up (repeat) . . . Purify me in your holy flame (repeat).3 Then we pass a bowl of holy well water for blessing and protecting each other in our new, less defended, more open state.
Samhain is the time of the Mother in her dark form. To honor the Cailleach, the Hag, the Dark One, the Old Woman of Winter who steals the light away from Brigid and won’t release it till Imbolc, we dance around the fire: All Hallows Eve, when the veil is thin, between the worlds (repeat) . . . Cauldron of Cerridwen, womb of the Hag . . . Cauldron of Cerridwen, womb of the Hag!
Tonight being the full Blue Moon, we dance to honor her: Under the full moon light, we dance. Spirits dance, we dance. Joining hands, we dance. Joining souls, rejoice.
Death Come A-Knockin’
It is dark. The fire burns bright. The musicians have really heated up. We dance the lively African American spiritual: Death come a-knockin’ on my Mama’s door, sayin’ come on Mama, ain’t you ready to go? Well, my Mama bent down, buckled up her shoes, and she move on down by the Jordan stream. And then she shouts, Halleluia, done done my duty, got on my travelin’ shoes. . . . Oh that we can each sing, when the time comes, “Halleluja, done done my duty, got on my travelin’ shoes!”
After several rounds, still dancing, Death begins to approach each dancer and taps us on the shoulder with a bony finger. Tapped by death, one by one we follow her to the Threshold, while the rest of the circle continues to dance and sing. It’s dark. Most people are unaware that Death is so close to them, until the tap comes. We have been warned about this, but experiencing it is a whole other thing!
At the Threshold we are helped to prepare to make our descent through the thinned veil between the worlds into the dark womb/void of the Crone, the “Divine Hag.” A kindly woman offers us a pomegranate seed to symbolize our willingness to descend into the underworld, like Persephone, into the initiatory crucible where transformation takes place. Another woman blesses us, sprinkling us with water from the holy well of St.Brigit. The path down is lit with candles. We are following the beat of a drum. Coyotes howl in the distance.
We descend, like sap descends into the roots of trees and bears enter caves to hibernate. We arrive in a completely dark space. Some see it as the cave of the Cailleach. We are led to a circle of chairs. In the silence and stillness of the underworld, a guide invites us to sit for a time in the quiet of the holy darkness. After a while the shaman drum begins to beat. The guide invites us, if we wish, to drop down into our hearts to ask for wisdom and guidance from the ancient ancestors of blood, of lineage, of land, and the loving Spirits who are here with us now. I don’t know what others ask for down there, but I ask for there to be a great healing.
The Altar of Grief
When it’s time to return we follow the beat of the drum back up and emerge from the darkness into the candlelight. As we return, the musicians start playing softly, and we sing to each other, Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul. Return to who you are, return to what you are, return to where you are, born and reborn again. Passing through the Threshold, we are each given a candle to light on the Altar of Grief for any loved one, person or animal, that we want to honor who has passed. It would take a million candles for them all!
Gathering around the altar, we each select a river stone from a basket that is passed and raise it, calling to an ancestor or spirit guide to be with us, to help us celebrate and grieve our beloveds. As we each approach the altar we place our stone in the basket. The stones will be returned to the river, our prayers carried by the waters of the river of life. We light our candles and pray, naming our loved ones, if we wish, as we all continue to sing to them return again, return again . . . . Needless to say, this year many candles are lit and many prayers are said for those who have died of Covid or those who have died at the hands of police.
We then circle up and dance around the fire a community favorite: Ancestors, Sky People, all here today. Hear my heart’s song, hear my respect, hear my love. Hear my grateful tears fall. I am truly blessed. You are truly blessed. We are truly blessed. We dance round after round, circling our partners, circling the fire. When the last chords of the dance fade to silence, the songs of the crickets and other night creatures carry the tones and vibrations on into the night. We feel them as partners in the dance, too.
Closing the Circle
We call everyone to gather around the Altar of Gratitude. Bags of nuts, seeds, and dried fruits are passed for everyone to add more to the mandala. We thank the loving spirits and ancestors for their presence and invite them to enjoy the beauty of the offerings. The offerings are gathered up in a bundle to be distributed to feed the fellow creatures and spirits of the land, with gratitude to the Earth for the last harvest.
Together we pick up the Chain of Being and bring it to the fire, asking what is needed to close the chain, making it into a Circle of Being? We add the last link, which is Love, and burn the linked circle, sending our prayers up in flame, Raven again taking them up to Spirit. Again we sing: It’s the blood of the Ancients that runs through our veins, and the forms pass, but the Circle of Life remains.
We close the Directions, extinguishing the torches, and release the ancestors and loving spirits saying, “Go if you must, stay if you will.” And dance a favorite closing dance: May the circle be open, yet unbroken. May the love of the Goddess be ever in your heart. Merry meet, and merry part, and merry meet again. We invite everyone to stay to share food, socialize, drum, and dance around the fire.
This year we have to imagine holding hands and dancing with shared breath like this. It is certainly a time when chaos threatens. We hope that any disintegration will be of that which has not been of service to love. Any threshold crossing will be to leave the old culture of greed, domination and destruction to step into a new world in which all people are valued as equal and encouraged to share our equally valuable differences. I ask the wise and loving ancestors, God, Great Spirit, the Spirit of Love, to grant wisdom to guide our leaders. None of these blessed beings cares about who is Celtic, who is Mexican, who is Greek or African. What matters is that we all feel a sense of rootedness in our places and a sense of belonging in our shared humanity. Hopefully, before long, we will be able to meet again for sacred seasonal celebrations.
Text and photos © 2020 Betty Lou Chaika
Although I have assumed leadership in calling the SpiritandNature cross-quarter ceremonies for the community, I want to acknowledge and thank the many talented friends who have helped co-create them, and the dance leaders, musicians and dancers who have made them so profoundly enjoyable.
Monarch of the Milkweed (C) Lea Bradovich
Loughcrew, Cairn L from http://www.carrowkeel.com/sites/loughcrew/cairnl1.html
- Blackie, Sharon (Becoming Who We Are) https://sharonblackie.net/becoming-who-we-are/
2. Ó Duinn, Sean. Lia O’Hegarty says, “These personal reflections are based on a set of handwritten notes, in Irish, which Sean Ó Duinn gave to scholar Mary Condren in 2017”
3 .In the Fire (C) Cynthia R. Crossen, www.cynthiasongs.com
All the other dances are from the repertoire of the Dances of Universal Peace https://www.dancesofuniversalpeace.org/