A quiet day, on the Ffarm as October draws to a close.
I’d like to wish Pagans & Druids everywhere, a Happy New Year: for today is the Feast of Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-in’) which according to Celtic lore, represented the death of the summer sun god, Lugh who leaves this realm of existence & returns to Summerland to be cleansed & reborn in the cauldron of the Goddess. Thus the veil between the worlds of the living & the dead is said to be thinner as the deceased God is with the Goddess, who is still part of the world of the living – a reminder that the two realms are not as separate as they seem! Celebrating nature’s cycle of death & renewal, Samhain marked the end of the harvest & the beginning of the New Year. In fact the first month of the year was called Somonios, meaning ‘seed fall’.
The Triple Goddess – Maiden, Mother & Crone – was worshipped by the ancient Britons & at this time of year she was in her third aspect (the Crone) who was the keeper of wisdom & mysteries. In the Scottish Highlands she was revered as the Queen of Winter, reborn on All Hallow’s Eve, returning to bring winter to the land & protect livestock throughout the coldest months. Legend has it she then turned to stone on Beltane Eve.
Any foods left on the trees, bushes or in the fields hereafter was considered to have been ruined by the Pwca, a mischievous little spirit or faery – & deemed inedible. It was the time of the Fire Festival, with bonfires lit to warm friendly spirits as well as to ward off evil ones. The fires also represented the sun, bringer of heat & warmth; & each family attending the festival would take an ember away with them to start a new cooking fire in the home hearth, keeping households happy & protecting the occupants from malevolent spirits for another year. In fact the word bonfire is said to come from ‘bone-fire’, as the bones of cattle slaughtered at this time would be burned. Indeed, it was (& still is) considered a time to eliminate weaknesses; in ancient times weak animals that were unlikely to survive the winter were slaughtered at this time of the year, the meat salted & stored for the lean, dark months ahead.
But this was, most specifically, the Feast of the Dead, or Ancestor Night; which stands between the worlds of the living & the dead & is outside of ordinary time. The veil between us & the spirit world is traditionally at its thinnest tonight & it is a time to remember the departed, both recent & those from our distant past. After all, it is death that gives life its purpose; & decay that fertilizes new growth. Our Celtic ancestors protected themselves, appeasing the spirits by offering them treats. The costumes we wear today for Hallowe’en are derived from the Celtic tradition of disguising themselves at Samhain so the spirits would think they belonged to their own company; that way the living could then commune with the spirit world, a practise known as ‘souling’.
Pumpkin lantern face-carving – so popular today – is also derived from a Celtic tradition: that of placing ancestors’ skulls outside the doors of houses to ward off evil spirits. It is also similarly connected to the belief that actually lighting lanterns serves the same purpose (although some use the technique to welcome home the spirits of the departed; & leave an empty chair & a plate of food for their spirit guests, with a minute’s silence at midnight out of respect. And if a candle flame flickers on All Hallow’s Eve, it is said to have been touched by the spirit of a departed ancestor). But in the darkness of winter, the pumpkin lantern (which would originally have been a turnip – the squash is a recent modification, being far easier to carve!) symbolises the light which continues within slumbering seeds, roots & bulbs, dormant beneath the earth yet still full of life.
Samhain became intertwined with two Roman festivals: that of Feralia, when the Romans commemorated the passing of the dead; & of the honouring of Pomona, goddess of fruit & trees. The custom of apple bobbing is derived from links with Pomona, & with a Druidic rite associated with water. Apples had a strong connection with fertility & Samhain was as much about this as it was about the death of the old year; it is only in recent times that the more macabre side of the festival has gained prominence. At one time it was said the first person to bite an apple when bobbing would be the first to marry in the coming year. Peeling an apple on Samhain, & throwing the peel in one piece over your shoulder, was said to reveal the initials of your future lover. And eating an apple, alone by candlelight on Samhain whilst combing your hair is supposed to reveal the reflection of your future spouse behind you in the glass. Blindfolded maidens would pull the first cabbage they could find in the winter fields, on Samhain: if a generous clod of earth adhered to the root their sweetheart would be wealthy; & if they later ate the cabbage it would reveal his character – bitter or sweet!
But this is the day that past memories meet the hopes of the future. It is the time to plant the seeds of new ventures, allowing them to germinate over the winter months; as well as the time to end old, unfruitful projects & generally ‘take stock’ of life. Allow yourself this special time to come to terms with the past year; & leave all its mistakes & regrets behind in order to move on, looking forward to what the future holds.
After all, the darker time of the year should not be one for brooding over past regrets; rather, the more wise parts of the self should be brought into the open & carefully, neutrally examined. Use the magic of this time to say goodbye to a bad habit or addiction, an unhelpful relationship or anything else negative in your life – Samhain is the night to leave it all behind. Shed any perceived weaknesses by writing them down (thus admitting to them) & then burning the paper, symbolising your release. Stand in front of the mirror, look into your own eyes & make a wish or pledge for the coming year. And cut an apple in two, eating a bite from each half as acceptance that in life we must inevitably face both light & dark, life & death: each complements the other & without the negatives in life, we’d only take the positives for granted; then they would lose their sweetness.
The Catholic Church attempted to undermine & destroy the power of this Pagan festival by replacing it on 1st November with All Saints’ Day, followed by All Souls’ Day on 2nd November. Thus, Samhain itself became known as All Hallow’s Eve, abbreviated to Hallowe’en as we now colloquially label it. Incidentally in early Christian tradition All Saints’ day was when souls walked the earth, having been released from purgatory on All Hallow’s Eve for 48 hours (nice annual holiday for them I suppose).
As a farmer, tradition deems that I am supposed to spit on any of my animals which are suffering from ill health at Samhain, to ward off evil spirits; so I’m happy to report that Assie’s leg has healed well & she’s started putting weight on it, again. I’m not sure she’d take too kindly to me spitting at her….but as I sliced my thumb on a bar of soap earlier (I suspect you’ve gathered by now that by my nature, yes indeedy – that sort of thing could & does happen to me; & as I went ‘bump’ in the night as I slipped onto my backside on that evil patch in the yard whilst doing the late check this evening (must’ve been that ruddy Pwca again), perhaps I should get my goats to spit at me instead! Hmmmm, I think I’ll give that ‘tradition’ a miss……