by Danu Forest
The Celtic festival of Samhain, otherwise known as Halloween (October 31st) can be one of the most beautiful times of the year, as the leaves turn and the first frosts dust the garden in silver. In the Somerset levels where I live the sound of geese can be heard migrating overhead, their eerie cries echoing across the night, and dawn sees the land wrapped in mist, the distant hills lost to mystery.
Summer is ended and winter is nearly here. Samhain (pronounced sow-win) means ‘summers end’ in Gaelic, and there is a wistful feeling in the air, of things ending, life retreating, the beauty of nature having one final blaze in the falling leaves before becoming more subtle and secretive… the time when the year dies and is reborn, slumbering in the womb of the earth until spring.
This time of year is excellent for stargazing, the crisp night air bringing the skies into a brilliant diamond strewn splendour. And when Orion rises above the horizon, we know that winter is here even if the days aren’t too cold yet, for Orion in our Celtic lore stands for the ancient hunter gods- Gwyn ap Nudd, Woden and Herne who rule this season, riding across the winter skies with the Wild Hunt, the Cŵn Annwn to harry and guide the dead to the underworld.
Traditionally the wild hunt are a faery host, a troupe of beings from the Celtic Otherworld together with ancestral spirits, animal and elemental beings who gather in the newly dead and chase any unkind or evil spirits from the land. This is a mercy to the wandering dead, who are guided to their rest, but a terror to any set on mischief or ill will to the mortal world. In this way it can be seen as a tidal shift in the energetic flow of the land, clearing the way for the year ahead. A chance for every soul to find rest and renewal, to find a fresh start when spring returns.
As Samhain approaches it is natural to think of the year that has passed, and of those who are no longer with us…the veil between the worlds is thin now and it is possible to feel the presence of those who have crossed over. For those in mourning this can be a difficult time and we must remember those who have recently passed and their loved ones both have a journey to go on, and a gentle parting of the ways however painful is part of the healing process. But not all those who have passed are so tender to think of…our ancestors, those whose lives were long ago can be a great source of support and wisdom. In the Celtic lands these ancient ancestors have always been honoured as forging the links between this world and what lies beyond. So now we honour those newly dead, and those long passed, in our own ways or with those practices that our ancestors have used for generations.
Either on the 31st, or on a night when it feels right to you, set out a plate of food and a candle for the dead. Our modern practice of pumpkins come from the tradition of tumpshie lanterns, carved out of turnips- not to scare away demons, but to light the way for those passed and a sign of respect and remembrance. You may like to set up a small ancestral altar or shrine, with photos and precious things belonging to your ancestors, somewhere you can light a candle or place some flowers to show your care and respect. You may also like to write a list of all the things in your life you want to be rid of, or see transformed, and burn it in a fire or in a fireproof bowl, and scatter the ashes to the wind…
This is a dark time, when mourning for those passed or for the year gone seems to paint the air as the evenings draw in and the nights lengthen… but remember, each of us began in our mother’s womb, knowing darkness as a place of rest, warmth and unseen growth. It is a time to look within, to honour the mystery of life’s endless cycles. The seeds of new life germinate in darkness, so honour this fleeting time as the gift it is, for soon it too shall pass.
Find out more:
Danu Forest is the author of The Magical Year. has been a practising druid witch and Celtic shaman for over twenty years, has been teaching Celtic shamanism and witchcraft for over a decade, and runs a shamanic consultation and healing practice. She is the author of Nature Spirits: wyrd lore and wild fey magic (Wooden Books), The Druid Shaman (Moon Books) and Celtic Tree Magic (Llewellyn), creates and teaches email correspondence courses, writes a “Danu’s Cauldron” blog for witchesandpagans.com, and has been published in magazines such as Kindred Spirit, Soul and Spirit, and Pagan Dawn. She is also an Ard BanDrui in the Irish Druid Clan of Dana, an ordained priestess, a druid grade member of OBOD (Order of Bards, Ovates (healers/seers) and Druids) and a member of the Society for Shamanic Practitioners.