Site hosted by Build your free website today!

Samhain Rituals

"This is the night when the veil is thin that divides the worlds. It is the New Year in the time of the year's death, when the harvest is gathered and the fields lie fallow. For tonight the King of the Waning Year has sailed over the sunless sea that is the womb of the Mother, and steps ashore on the Shining Isle, the luminous world egg, becoming the seed of his own rebirth. The gates of life and death are opened; the Sun Child is conceived; the dead walk, and to the living is revealed the Mystery: that every ending is but a new beginning. We meet in time out of time, everywhere and nowhere, here and there, to greet the Lord of Death who is Lord of Life, and the Triple Goddess who is the circle of rebirth." (Samhaim Invocation, Simos [Starhawk] 1989, 193) Although the Wheel of the Year has eight holidays, (the four astronomical holidays, the equinoxes and solstices and the four cross-quarter days, Samhaim/Halloween, Candlemas, Beltane and Lughnasad), the cross-quarter days are considered by many of the "high-holy" days with Samhaim the most solemn. It is on this day that death, on various levels, is honored and celebrated. It is the time of the New Year, a festival of endings and beginnings, when rituals focus on letting go of the old and looking ahead to the new. It is on this night that Pagans pay respects to their departed loved ones, ancestors and guides in the Spirit World. (Fox, 8) These rituals provide the most public expressions of Pagan beliefs and provide on a yearly basis the opportunity for the living to remember and mourn their dead. Pagan mythology proclaims that the veil between the world of the living and that of the dead is thinnest on the night of Samhaim. On this night it is easiest for the dead to cross-over and visit surviving family and friends. This is why before leaving for the group ritual celebrants are advised to leave food and drink as an offering to their own beloved dead who may visit in their absence. (Fox, 8, Simos 1989, 193) Leaving such an offering begins the psychological process of reconnecting with one's own beloved dead, while the rituals themselves might focus on remembering the dead, particularly immediate family and friends (Fox, 8; Simos 1989, 248; rs_nusslebr, lecuyer) and memorials for those who died during the Inquisition (Carol, 13) and other historical massacres; awareness of one's own death and hopes for rebirth (Simos 1989, 195-6); reflections on the past year and plans for the new year (Fox 8; Weinstein, 18; onca, 10/15/93); banishing of old fears and other negative traits (JMICALE; lecuyer) and divination (Fox, 8; Simos 1989, 195, onca, 10/15/93; milmoe, 10/25/93). Honoring the dead, both personal and communal, is an important part of many Samhaim, rituals. By looking at a large public ritual described by Simos [Starhawk] in her book Truth or Dare we can see how most of the elements listed above are woven together. After ritually establishing sacred space, the group begins by memorializing their ancestors, those without names who are remembered by the ways they died, "those who died of hunger, who died in slave ships, who were burned...the dead of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, ...El Savador, ...South Africa, ...AIDS victims, war victims, suicides, burned Witches" As each group is named the participants "keen, tear cloth, rub ashes on our faces and chant the response to the call 'What is remembered lives.'" The voices of the three hundred people crying together binds the group together before the naming of personal losses: "'my grandfather'... 'my aunt'... 'my mother'...the tragic deaths, the suicides, the car crashes and the peaceful deaths." The names and stories weave these people together so that they become one community "so that [these ancestors] become our common ancestors, different races and religions and viewpoints not erased but linked. For in the public naming of our dead, we assert their value which has not been destroyed by death. And in valuing them we value each other, the true histories of our lives, where we come from, who we are." Having grieved together the group dances into being their vision for the new year: "A year of beauty, Let it begin now. A year of plenty, Let it begin now. ..." Energy spent on grief now raises into a wild frenzy of clapping, stomping, ecstasy—until the power peaks and the participants return to the earth. Finally the ritual is brought to a close by the naming of those babies born during the year. "The wheel of the year has turned....and now the lament for the dead gives way again to the song of life." (Simos 1987, 307-9) Participation in a ritual such as this provides at least a temporary release from Aries' fear of death. Not only is death acknowledged but public, emotional, kinesthetic grieving is encouraged. For at least the time of the ritual death is not an "ordinary event ...mentioned with feigned indifference," (Aries, 614) instead, within the safety of sacred space, death is acknowledged, celebrated and lamented. Both the tame, peaceful death and the violent, evil death are honored; both the personal and ancestral death are acknowledged; mass death is recognized and it victims lamented. In a technological world separated, untamed nature is welcomed and released both in the wild grieving and the ecstatic dance of the new year. Finally a sense of immortality is proposed in the form of those new births, the children who continue on the community.

Although not all Pagans participate in this type of large, public ritual, their private rituals may contain many of the same elements including reflections on the past year and plans of the new year By inviting death into their ritual space, Pagans provide themselves an opportunity to overcome their fear and shame at death. Through ritual and meditation they might look into the face of their own deaths, both those small daily deaths precipitated by changing circumstances, and the final termination of their current existence.


In reviewing Aries' four psychological themes (self-awareness, defense against untamed nature, belief in an afterlife and belief in the existence of evil) we seem to find that the contemporary Pagan community's beliefs and practices around death focus on a belief in the cyclic nature of existence that includes not only birth, life and death but also some type of continued or renewed existence, rebirth. Although self-awareness and a belief in an afterlife characterize Pagan beliefs we find little evidence of a belief in the existence of evil or a need for defense against untamed nature. As with many of their fellow Americans, Pagans seem to have a strong sense of self. This is especially evident in the remembrances of the named and unnamed dead in Samhaim rituals where not only family and friends are memorialized but also "ancestors" of various types are included. An overwhelming belief in some type of continued existence is expressed not only in the "orthodox" explication of the beliefs published in various sourcesbut in the attempts of the various Internet correspondent to articulate their personal, eclectic beliefs. These beliefs show not only that there is a basic set of shared ideas but also highlight the attempts of the various individuals to formulate a consistent personal belief in the absence of any type of common accepted creed. Those whoexpress a belief in some sort of afterlife seem to be divided between those who favor a continued existence ofthe coherent self and those who believe that the self is somehow absorbed into a larger cosmic force. Concerns about the complete dissolution of the self are not evidenced by either the published sources or our Internet correspondents. Whether this is an example of a true disinterest in continued existence or merely the result of the demographics younger people seem less concerned about their continued existence because they often have not completely assimilated the concept of their own death unknown. However we see little evidence of a belief in the complete dissolution of the self in the various rituals surrounding death and dying. Although several variations were expressed, many seemed to accept some type of continued existence and possible re-birth either in whole or as part of a greater whole. We see, then, in the contemporary Pagan community a unique response to Aries' concerns about death in the post-modern world. By ritualizing death and dying Pagans seem to be moving beyond the indifference to death documented by Aries; through the use of alternative religious expressions they appear to be mastering their personal and communal fears about death and dying and perhaps are beginning to overcome the alienationfrom death felt by many in this post-modern age.

next page
return to index