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REVERENCING THE DEAD AT SAMHAIN
© Copyright 2002, All Rights Reserved.
So much has been said about the haunted time of Samhain, yet little has been said about how to interact with spirits, souls and ghosts, and how to reverence the dead at this pivotal time in the Celtic year. When the Sídhe open and the ‘dead’ are free to walk back and forth between the worlds, how might we respond? This article explores a Celtic understanding of death and the Otherworld and offers several traditional reasons for why the ‘living’ might be visited by ‘ghosts’ at this hallowed time of the year. I then provide practical suggestions for the keeping of Samhain today, including graveyard visitations, the Dumb Supper and the Séance.
“There’s no need to holler; the dead are here!” (137)- Daniel Westforth Whittier, The Emerald Swamp (1984)
As human beings, we have all wondered what might be in store for us after we die. Every known culture has addressed this question, as it is one of the defining questions for our existence. We die; what does this mean for us? Do we go on to ‘heaven’ or ‘hell’ – as Christianity teaches – or do we get reincarnated, as some eastern religions teach? Do we go to a place of ‘shades’ where we continue to exist, but only as a shadow of our former selves, as ancient Greek religion taught, or is there nothing after this life, as the ancient Israelites seem to have believed and as modern atheism and materialism assert?
While there are almost as many options as there are people asking the question, we must not be discouraged by this plurality of belief where death and the ‘afterlife’ are concerned. From a spiritual point of view, it is not as important to know what happens after death as to continue asking the question and to continue entertaining extraordinary possibilities, for in this we strive toward being human. Asking the question of death and the afterlife is a way of living life to the fullest, seeking wisdom and wholeness.
The ancient Celts believed in an afterlife, and their conception of it is rather different from the options many of us in the West have grown up with. For the Celts living in ancient Britain, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, “this world” was paralleled by Another Country – an “Otherworld” that was, for all intents and purposes, ‘like’ this world. Death, for the Celts, was a doorway leading from this life into this next realm, where a person continued what they had been doing in this life.
There are two things that stand out as being quite unusual about the Celtic view. First, the Otherworld is not a place of punishment and reward. There is no ‘supreme being’ waiting to condemn you to an eternally boring heaven or a place of perpetual suffering. Death is simply a transition, and what you ‘get’ in the next life is what you have prepared yourself for while living this life. That is, if you have sought wisdom and wholeness while incarnate (“in the flesh”) then you will simply continue this quest on the Otherside. If you have frittered this life away in mundane pursuits, you will end up waking up on the otherside without much of a clue as to what’s going on. What you get is what you prepare yourself for.
Second, the Otherworld is quite close to this world. It is “right down the lane,” or “right beyond the gate,” as people used to say. There is a story of a druid and his student that I like to tell that illustrates this ‘nearness’ of the Otherworld. As the story goes, they were in the druid’s cave one night, each engaged in his respective studies, when the student looked up and asked his druid, “Horned One, where do we go when we die?” The druid, distracted from his work for a second, looked up and, with a casual wave of his hand, said, “Ah_ over there,” – alluding to another part of the cave. He then went back to his work. The student, however, was stunned by this revelation.
As this intimates, the Celts lived in close proximity with the dead. All places were potentially ‘haunted,’ therefore, and this was seen to be natural. Because the dead were not in a place of punishment or reward, it was common for houses to be ‘haunted’ by past residents, some of whom stayed permanently ‘around’ while others came and went at different times and seasons. Certain places in the Celtic landscape were also haunted, such as burial mounds, stone circles, rings of standing stones and other megalithic monuments. These places functioned as doorways between the worlds; places where the dead could walk back and forth.
As the Celts were fascinated with borders, gates, streams and rivers, crossroads, and doorways were all considered ‘haunted’ by virtue of being places of transition. A fence, for instance, dividing the farm fields from the woods or pasture beyond was thought to be a place where communication with spirits was more likely to take place than in the middle of the field. Ghosts and spirits were known to travel along such boundaries.
Because of the nearness of the Otherworld and the existence of these doorways in the landscape, communication between the living and the dead was much more commonplace in the Celtic world than it is in a Christian cosmos. Celtic people even tended to welcome visits from the ‘dead,’ as they didn’t think of spirits and souls as necessarily being hostile or lost, or as needing to be ‘sent into the Light’ (this is just a pop version of the Christian view; the “Light” simply taking the place of “Heaven”).
While the Otherworld and this world were always in close proximity, at certain times of the year the pathways between ‘here’ and ‘there’ opened up to allow even more spiritual communication across the sídhe (a Celtic word used to refer to these gateways between the worlds in general) than usual. Celtic time was divided into definite periods, each having ritual and mythological parameters. At the transitions between these periods, communication with spirits and souls on the Otherside could better take place.
The Celts divided time up differently than we do today. Their day began at dusk rather than at dawn, as they believed that light emerges from darkness; that darkness precedes and grounds the light. The Celtic year was divided into seasons, the passage between which was always marked by a traditional festival. The four major festivals – Imbolc (2 February), Beltaine (1 May), Lughnassadh (2 August) and Samhain (31 October) – are the most liminal times, and as such the most potent for communication with spirits and souls of the dead. Each is marked by the enactment of rituals that allow people to move safely from one season into another, crossing between these luminous earthen times in safety.
Samhain (pronounced “Sow-en”) is perhaps the most liminal of these festivals, as it not only marks the transition from one season to another (Autumn—Winter) but also the transition from one year to the next. Because of its importance, the Celts imagined that time became ‘strange’ as Samhain approached. At dusk on the 31st of October (the last day of the old year), they believed, a new ‘day’ didn’t begin as it does at every other sunset. Rather, a period of ‘time between the worlds’ set in, lasting through the night until dawn on the 1st of November. During this time, the dead and other denizens of the Otherworld were free to come back and visit those of us still living in the incarnate realm. The first ‘day’ of the New Year was also unusual, therefore, as it began at dawn and ended at dusk, when the world returned to ‘regular time.’
Because of the significance of this ‘transition’ – the end of one year and the beginning of another – the veils and walls between ‘this’ world and the Otherworld were thought to dissolve. Ordinary time evaporated at sunset on 31 October, and thus the boundaries that normally defined the world and allowed people safe movement from place to place were displaced until sunrise the next day. Beginning at dusk on the 31st of October, spirits, the Sluagh-Sídhe (Faeryfolk) and souls of the discarnate (a term that describes beings on the Otherside) all came forth from the sídhe to roam freely for the night.
“Haunted in the Eaves of October,
Spirits and Gnomes come out to play,
to deck our homes with remembrance,
witching up the powers of the Fay!”
We have all heard stories of ghosts and other visitants at Samhain. Our own popular lore (expressed in movies, TV shows and literature) is full of intimations that – at this time of the year – we are as unalone as we can possibly be, surrounded by a great congress of spirits and souls, deities and ancient beings. This is very much in concert with an ancient Celtic understanding of Samhain, except that they didn’t think of all discarnates as malevolent or “up to no good.” As the veil between worlds dissolved at sunset each year on the 31st of October, Celtic people made certain preparations for the night’s rituals, revels and feasting. They made themselves ready to receive the dead in a variety of ways, and were filled as much with anticipation and fascination as with ‘dread.’
Celtic people in times past actually anticipated visits from ancestors, relatives, lost loves and friends, and even from the souls of household animals (such as hunting dogs) during Samhain Night. They were deeply connected with their past, and as such they believed that, so long as they were living life with integrity and good purpose, relatives & ancestors who had passed over the sídhe would be interested in visiting their place of dwelling at Samhain. If you had somehow dishonored the clan or your own particular family in some way, however, you might find yourself quite alone on Samhain night! Not to be visited at this haunted time by at least one ancestor, spirit-guide or relative might mean that you had lost your way or that you were acting in a way that made you less than interesting to those who had passed through this world before you!
The Celts were romantics, and as such they valued the deep emotional connections they had experienced with others in this life. When a friend or a lover died, this connection remained, linking the dead lover or friend with their living partner. The bond between Celtic friends and lovers enabled the living partner to continue experiencing the presence of the discarnate one in deeply poetic ways. Imaginative ‘conversations’ would take place between them throughout the year, and then the dead would come back to visit the living at Samhain.
Celtic people would also imagine being visited by spiritual mentors at Samhain. Pagan Celts often invited legendary Druids & Gwrach to their end-of-year celebrations. If they had actually been mentored in this life by a Druid or Gwrach who had then passed beyond the veil into the Otherworld, they would surely be expecting a visit from that person sometime during the night. Celtic followers of Christ likewise treated any anamchara (i.e., soul friend; spiritual director) they may have known who was living on the otherside with the same respect, expecting to be visited by them before the New Year began.
While most spirits and souls who came to visit people in this world during Samhain came simply for fellowship and with good intentions, there was some cause for intrepidation, especially if you had wronged someone who then died before you could make amends. The Celts were very keen on inter-personal and communal justice. How one treated family and other members of the tuath (i.e., “tribe”) was crucial for maintaining a kind of ‘psychic balance’ in the world.
When someone cheated, hurt or in some other way demeaned or insulted another person, this undid the psychic balance until restitution could be enacted. If the person you wronged died before you got a chance to make amends, Samhain might be your last chance to mend the breach. According to Celtic codes of restitution, you might make an offering to the family or friend of the one you had wronged as Samhain drew near. If that wasn’t possible, you could choose to leave an offering of food or perhaps a valued possession out on your doorstep at dusk on the 31st of October in the hopes that the ghost of the person you had wronged would see it and forgive you. One could also take such an offering up to one of the bonfires lit on the heaths during Samhain Night. Throwing it on the blazing fire was seen to symbolize delivering it to its intended recipient on the otherside.
If a wrong was done to someone in your own household, everyone would expect the ghost of that person to show up during the passage of Samhain and haunt the guilty party until their gestures and offerings of restitution were accepted. Then the discarnate person would be invited to sit down at the Dumb Supper (see below) and partake of a ritual meal with the living. One of the main purposes in observing Samhain is this reestablishment of communal and interpersonal balance; undoing wrongs and forgiving faults and actions that have unsettled the ‘cosmic equation.’ Once all of these acts of restitution have been made, people were then free to go forward in revelry, communing with the dead, dancing throughout the night in hallowed circles around outdoor bonfires and before their own hearths at home.
How might we keep Samhain today, given the nature of the Celtic understanding of death and the Otherworld?
First, we need to get ourselves into the mood to be haunted. This may take anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days, and so its always good to begin ‘setting the stage’ for Samhain at least by the beginning of Ioho; the short, three-day ‘month’ at the end of the Celtic year. IOHO – which means “Yew” – begins at dusk on the 28th of October and continues until dusk on the 31st. The Yew is a mysterious evergreen often found growing in graveyards and believed to be a gateway into the Otherworld. A single Yew may live for centuries, though not in the usual way. When its branches touch the soil they grab hold, sprouting new roots and becoming new trees. Thus the Yew renews itself and is born again from its own death.
There is an unbroken continuity in the growth of any old Yew, the present tree being a distant descendant of the original. Because of this unique way of propagating itself, Yews also have a tendency to migrate, inch by inch and foot by foot, from where the original tree was planted. As such, the Yew is a symbol of regeneration & the transmigration of the soul.
Ancient Europeans often buried their dead near consecrated Yew trees. In some Northern European cultures, there was no more hallowed place for interment than a grove of old and gnarly Yews. Many of these ancient groves became Christian graveyards in later centuries. Thus to walk in some of the older cemeteries in Europe is to be in a place where people have been buried for upwards of 2,500 years.
It is a custom among Celtic Pagans today to visit graveyards sometime before dusk on 31 October, in order to reverence the dead and get into the mood to be haunted. Always remember, when visiting a graveyard, that you are on sacred ground, and that respect must always be paid to the dead, or else retribution may come. By visiting graves, mausoleums and tombs we show reverence for the dead. Consider visiting the grave of someone you know who has died. If you have lost loved ones, friends or relatives in the previous year, consider journeying to a cemetery before Samhain to visit their graves.
If you find a Yew tree growing anywhere near a familiar grave, touch it; encounter it with respect. Yews are energized by a deep‑running psychic power. Contact with a Yew Tree may connect your incarnate soul with the essences of loved ones who have recently crossedEover. A link with the dead who are known to you may be established by this contact, helping a departed person find their way home for Samhain. If you have permission, cut a small sprig of Yew from a tree growing near the grave of a loved one or an ancestor and then plant it by your house. This will act as a beacon to guide the souls of the beloved dead to your home. If the Yew cutting takes root, imagine seeing spirits moving in, around and through its branches at Samhain each year as it grows.
From the 29th to the 31st of October the doors between the worlds are opening, and as such graveyards are believed to come to life with various presences. Places of interment are transitional in nature, and thus are always a bit ‘haunted.’ Then, in the Season of Samhain, they become quick with the dead. Go there with reverence and respect for the liminal nature of the place, open to whatever you may experience or remember as you walk around, reading inscriptions and listening for voices from Another Country.
Try not to ‘spook’ yourself, and – at the same time, if you can – remain ‘open’ to whatever might happen. If you imagine that a spirit or a ghost is present, ‘greet’ it by making three equal-armed crosses before you in the air. This is an ancient symbol of the Goddess – signifying Maiden, Mother and Crone; the three ‘phases’ of the Goddess – and as such is a way of blessing any discarnate entity you may encounter. To walk around a graveyard is to move in the ley-lines of mystical rapport with spirits and souls. Accept whatever happens, and use whatever arts of taghairm (divination) you know to interpret it.
As dusk approaches on 31 October, consider how you might want to spend the night. If there is “trick or treating” in your area, you might reverence the dead by participating in this tradition, either going out dressed-up as one of the ‘dead’ yourself or else by consciously receiving trick-or-treaters at your door as representatives of the spirits and souls out walking abroad. There was a custom among the ancient Celts of gathering up offerings for the ritual bonfires. These offerings might be food (such as small ritual cakes) or even magical objects (amulets or talismans) that the living desired to send across the sídhe to dead lovers, friends and kin. The practice of “trick or treat” today is a vague remembrance of the offerings once made to the spirits and souls of the dead in ancient Celtic times.
If you want to redeem the custom of handing out candy and trinkets to trick-or-treaters, think – with each handful that you offer – of what their costumes suggest; they intimate the presence of souls and spirits who are visiting the incarnate realm during this most haunted night of the year! Say to yourself, with each offering of candy or trinkets, “may the dead be appeased; may restitution be made.” If you go out trick-or-treating yourself, ask whatever spirits or ‘guardians’ there may be who watch over the house and the property to look on the candy and trinkets you are offered as restitution for anything that needs to be made right or atoned for in the house.
Many people today suffer injustices, while others are wronged by people who would never think to make restitution for their acts. By engaging in the rituals of Trick-or-Treat with conscious intent, you may help to make amends for a great many wrongs. If you know of someone who has died before you could make things right with them, because of something you or they did before their death, use the handing out of treats as a way of letting go of the imbalance. If there is no wrong to make amends for, think of ancestors or spirit-guides who have died, and name them (silently to yourself) as you hand out candy and trinkets to the costumed visitors who come to your door. This will connect you with the Otherside and increase the possibility that you will, indeed, be visited before the return to regular time at dawn on 1 November! Pagan Celts also make a habit of going trick-or-treating to each other’s houses. If you do this, you might say to your visitors, “This offering I give for x,” either “who wronged me” or “whom I wronged in life.” In this way you can re-establish psychic balance in your world.
After the trick-or-treating, set a table for a late evening meal, including a place or two for people you have known who are now dead. This is the “ The Dumb Supper.” Mortals at this meal eat a real feast while they play at conversing with ghosts. If you do not know of anyone who has died recently, set a place for one of the old Celtic heroes or saints, or perhaps a personal spirit-guide. Leaving their plate empty of food, place something either symbolizing them or else something that belonged to the dead person, on the plate or the chair. As you sit down to eat, invite the dead to your table.
As the Dumb Supper progresses, most people will get a ‘chill’ or the feeling that they have been touched; they may even imagine hearing the voice of someone from the otherside! Almost anything can happen, if we have prepared ourselves to be haunted. Most of us may never ‘see’ anything that counts as psychic in our entire lives, yet other senses may be telling us that the dead are nearby. Imagining that you have experienced the presence of an invited discarnate guest; that you have received the ‘dead’ at your table – is one way of opening your ‘psychic’ senses to extra-ordinary possibilities.
If you want to communicate with someone who has died in a more formal way, consider engaging in a séance at some point after the Dumb Supper. Though often portrayed in the media as the artifice of charlatans who rig devices that will deceive their paying clients into thinking they are being put in touch with a deceased loved one, the séance has a long history of legitimate spiritual use. Those who engage in séances must vow to one another to be honest, however, which means that you promise not to ‘pull any tricks.’ Honesty in psychic endeavors is of paramount importance, as it is so easy to be deceived – and to deceive others – under the right circumstances.
Séances cannot be engaged in on the spur of the moment. You must prepare a room where the séance will be held and arrange everything carefully. Set up a table just large enough for all of the participants to be seated around comfortably without their knees or elbows touching. Then carefully choose the chairs that you will sit in, considering that you may have to sit still for a long time. Set up a few candles, then, around the séance room, making sure that their light doesn’t illumine every dark corner. Ideally, their light should cast as many shadows as possible! Then select music that has an enchanting lilt and ambiance to it. Arrange for this to be played at a low volume in an adjoining room.
When you gather for the séance, light the candles and be seated. Meditate and chant together. Ask your deities, spirit-guides, anamchara or perhaps the anima loci (“spirit of the place”) to aid you in your task. Then join hands around the table and concentrate on the name or something else connected with the soul with whom you are trying to communicate. Continue to breathe meditatively and en-spirit yourselves, perhaps saying the name of the spirit or soul out loud as you do so, inviting them into your presence. There is usually a period of waiting, at this point, during which the consciousness of all the participants becomes focused. This interval concludes only when the first evidences of a visitation begin to transpire. Candles may flicker wildly though no air has moved in the room, or the participants may feel chilly, or even detect a peculiar scent on the air. However it manifests, welcome the visitant.
At this point a person who has become proficient at communicating across the sídhe should ask, “Who is in the room?” They might also ask a spirit-guide or perhaps a discarnate anamchara (soul friend) to enable them to communicate with the spectral guest.
As ‘communication’ with the discarnate guest begins, more may happen than the simple dramatic ‘acting out’ out of a persona by the empath (i.e., the person doing the communicating). The empath may suddenly go into a trance-like state, at which point any pretense at ‘acting’ becomes moot. Under the best circumstances, the person doing the ‘communicating’ may actually take on the identity of the spectral guest and then invite the dead person to talk ‘through’ them.
This is the technique usually referred to in spiritualism as the work of a “medium.” It also has some vague resemblance to certain long-honored shamanic experiences. The Celts of long ago as well as many Celtic people today know all about this practice, as it is a common part of their folklore. The empath will wait until they are moved – as if by the soul-force of the presence – at which point they should imagine letting go of conscious control over their speech, ‘allowing’ the guest to ‘speak’ through them.
Once the empath is in the proper mood; being inclined to speak as if for the guest – others should pose any questions that have prompted the séance. These inquiries should be asked respectfully, and while this is going on, another person – designated as a ‘Watcher’ – should keep an eye on what’s going on around the room. During genuine psychic communications, all kinds of epiphenomena may be witnessed. Shadows may move across walls, windows may seem to reflect faces in their panes, and doors may swing open or close of their own accord. I have been at séances where the participants suddenly sensed the movement of a small animal – such as a cat or dog – around their legs beneath the table. The Watcher is responsible for noting anything out of the ordinary and reporting it aloud in a manner that will not disrupt the questioning of the guest.
A séance usually ends when the empath grows tired or – as sometimes happens – falls asleep. You must then “discharge the spirit” by bidding it farewell. This may be done by simply saying “goodbye,” or by going to a door to the house, opening it and then closing it again, giving the discarnate ‘time to leave.’ You may also make the triple cross in the air before you, blessing the spirit in its departing.
After this, allow yourselves to come out of the enchanted poetic mood of the séance by slowly breaking the circle, getting up and walking around. Turning on a regular electric light will facilitate your return to ordinary waking consciousness. You might then indulge in a snack, as psychic experiments are often hungry work. Cheese and crackers served with a glass of good beer or wine will usually revive your energies. Avoid meat, however, as it dulls the senses, especially after psychic-work.
If you can, try to evaluate the séance before going home for the night. You must always strive to interpret psychic experiences consciously and deliberately, being somewhat critical of what has happened. Allow that everyone has experienced what they have experienced, and try not to limit what is possible. At the same time, you must be willing to discount phenomena that end up having a natural origin. If you smelled ‘roses’ during the séance, for instance, it could be that the house where the session has taken place has roses growing outside or that a cake of rose scented soap in a tray in the upstairs shower is the source. Our senses become acute when we’re in a meditative state; psychic work sharpens them even more!
If natural explanations for strange occurrences or spectral phenomena can be found, accept them for what they are. However, you must also avoid rationalizing, which is the tendency to discount or write something off – by giving it a common-sense explanation – simply because you can’t or don’t yet want to believe that it happened. Rationalizing is often the initial response of normal, secular people when they first experience something “out of the ordinary.” Though this response is to be expected, we must get over it if we are going to learn what really happens when we are engaged in psychic exercises.
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Another ritual that will help some people reverence the dead at Samhain is the hanging of wind-chimes near the entrance to their house sometime before dusk on 31 October. When you hear the wind blowing in the chimes, imagine that spirits and souls of the long-departed are ‘calling to you.’ If you feel right about it, invite them in. (This can be done early in the evening, before the Dumb Supper and the séance, or later on). If you leave them up all night you may hear spirits coming and going as you sleep. For some Celtic practitioners, this inspires vivid dreams of lost loves, friends and ancestors. Make sure, however, that you take the chimes down in the morning, as to leave them up past noon on the 1st of November is thought to prop a ‘door’ to the Otherworld open near the entrance to your house; the results of this – at least according to a Celtic logic of sacred time – can be less than pleasant.
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One result of these experiments with communicating across the sídhe may well be that you gain a sense that you are somehow less alone in life’s spirals than you may have thought. This is a characteristically Celtic feeling; one that is shared by Celts in many times and places. As Samhain is a traditional time for meeting anamchara; those who help guide us through this incarnate life – you might also discover that you have friends and soul-guides on the Otherside. It is also a traditional time for exploring our belief in the possibility of an afterlife by gathering potential ‘evidence’ for the existence of ghosts and other spirits. Whether or not the Otherworld actually exists, however, to imagine ourselves as in contact with it at the tides of Samhain can (1) help us come to terms with our mortality, (2) allow us to reconnect with loved ones and (3) be reconciled with anyone who may have died before we could mend a broken or faltering relationship. Nema. So mote it be.
© Copyright 2002 Montague Whitsel, All Rights Reserved.