In the “old days,” when our ancestors—Celts, mostly (the “Anglish” influence in our Anglo-Celtic heritage came later) spread out across Western Europe—were still caring for their herds on the hillsides, there were two halves to every year: Winter and Summer. Winter began around the time modern Wiccans identify as Samhain. The weather in most places was seriously cold by the end of October, even in those years when Autumn had been gentle.
The cattle, goats, and sheep, by Samhain, were herded down from Summer’s high pastures, and those not fattened enough to survive on Winter’s lesser rations were slaughtered. Fewer mouths to feed meant the healthier beasts were more likely to survive, and the meat of the butchered animals kept families alive during the months when hunting was less feasible.
Today, the animals we eat are butchered with no ceremony at all; but for Neo-Pagans, slaughter is sacred. When, in Teutonic Magic, Kveldulf Gundarsson talks about the central act of a blot (the word rhymes with “boat,” literally translates as “blessing” and is what the Asatru call their ritual gatherings) as being “the sacrifice of one or more animals.” He explains that the sacrifice was “performed less for its own sake than as a hallowing of the slaughter, which was a practical necessity.” He suggests, too, that each animal was individually blessed before it was killed.
Although whole beasts are still roasted at some gatherings, most of us—of any Neo-Pagan faith—don’t have the opportunity to bless and slaughter our own meat anymore. Gundarsson suggests a Teutonic alternative that can serve us all quite well: “Make animals out of bread (charging them strongly with life energy) and ritually slaughter and eat them, sprinkling mead or ale from the blessing bowl.” He takes this idea from the medieval German custom of exchanging animalshaped loaves of bread, and refers to the modern Swedish tradition of a pig-shaped cake substituting for the Yule boar.
Honoring the death of slaughtered animals, whose life force nurtures our own survival through the Winter, is one way to honor the God’s death in the service of our lives. It’s also appropriate to honor the exchange of energy that occurs when one Neo-Pagan religion borrows customs and symbols from another—as when Wiccans might share animal crackers at Samhain, and toast not only the relationship of life to death, not only the concept of rebirth, and not only our kin in the Otherworld, but also our kin in other Neo-Pagan religions.
Growing seasons in the North were shorter than those in the British Isles, where the final harvests of grain and other crops were finished by Samhain, lest anything left in the fields freeze as the last warm days of October hardened into November’s frost. Winter rains could make fields impassable with mud; once the snow started falling, families could be farm-bound for weeks on end. It was imperative to make the harvest safe by the end of Summer.
Indeed, many Wiccans understand “Samhain” (almost universally pronounced saw-win) to come from two Gaelic words, sam and fuin, which mean “end of Summer.” [One source for this etymology is Jean Markale’s The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween: Celebrating the Dark Half of the Year (Inner Traditions International, 2001). Markale’s a specialist in Celtic studies at the Sorbonne, and I believe his scholarship is reliable.] Janet and Stewart Farrar, in A Witches Bible Compleat (Magickal Childe, 1984) tell us that, in Irish Gaelic, “Samhain” is the name of the month of November, and “Samhuin” is Scottish Gaelic for All Hallows, celebrated on the first of November.
In The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (Castle Books, 1996), Barbara G. Walker says that Samhain was “named for the Aryan Lord of Death, Samana, ‘the Leveller,’ or the Grim Reaper, leader of ancestral ghosts.” But “the Grim Reaper” has never been part of Wicca’s pantheon. Wicca’s God is more traditionally envisioned as the leader of the Wild Hunt, and His aspect in this role is, well, wild.
However, the wilderness represents Nature, which Wicca holds sacred. (One of Wicca’s cultural progenitors was the Romantic movement, which transformed our understanding of Nature from an uncivilized, treacherous badlands to a pastoral haven and retreat from the oppression of the industrial revolution.) Nature doesn’t frighten us, and (at least theologically) neither does death. Our God, whether leading the Wild Hunt in celebration of death or guiding us between lives through the Summerland, is not grim.
“Horned One, Lover, Son, leaper in the corn—deep in the Mother, die and be reborn!” That’s a line to a very popular chant, which we start to sing at Lammas and keep singing through Yule, so that it links Summer and Winter. Our God is not a jealous god, He’s gentle, and guides us through the Underworld, through rest and gestation toward rebirth. Our God has an animal aspect, and a vegetable aspect—our God is all that dies and is reborn, and He mirrors and appreciates those same aspects in each of us.
He is our role model, our mentor, our guide, our brother, and in many (not all) Traditions, He is a father figure as well; but He is not a judge or an executioner. No matter that some insist that “Sam Hain” is a devilish Lord of the Dead, the Sabbat’s name and significance to modern Wiccans is consistent with our world view. This Sabbat marks the end of Summer and the beginning of Winter, and so we begin our look at the Winter Sabbats with Samhain.
It’s inappropriate to look at Samhain all by itself. It’s the third and final harvest Sabbat on Wicca’s liturgical calendar; it should be seen in relation to the other two harvest festivals, and in relation to the Sabbat which follows it (Yule) as well. Indeed, no Wiccan Sabbat stands alone. The reason we call our calendar the Wheel of the Year is that we understand time to have, like a wheel, no beginning and no ending, and to be to be cyclical, seasonal.
Of course Samhain does have a relationship to death. Everything has a relationship to death, and everything has a relationship to life, too. Everything, in fact, has a relationship to—is in a relationship with—everything else. In many places, and certainly in the British Isles, Wicca’s homeland, at the end of Summer—Samhain—it is hard to tell the difference between life and death.
The leaves are off the trees, animals have migrated south or gone into hibernation, the ground is covered with ice or snow, and the fields are empty or prickly with rotted harvest stubble. When you can see it, the sun is low on the horizon, and not very warming. Daylight is short. However, it’s not that one day it was high Summer and light outside until 10 p.m., and the next, it was dark by 4 p.m.
The Wheel turns slowly in most places, and, if we are paying attention, we notice the days gradually shortening, from Litha (when it is light until late in the evening), through Lammas (when day is done about dinnertime), through Mabon (when it’s dark a little earlier), until Samhain (when shadows fall even sooner). Yule’s the shortest day of the year, and we celebrate that, too, not in hopes the darkness will be propitiated, but because we know that the Wheel will keep turning, that the days will gradually lengthen again.
It’s this gradual change through the seasons that inspires Wicca to call its calendar a Wheel, and to speak of our Sabbat rituals in terms of turning the Wheel. Perhaps our ancestors did believe that unless they performed the proper rituals, the seasons would stop cycling, but we know better. Call it science or call it “perfect trust,” we know that the Wheel will turn even if we can’t build a fire on a particular day. That certainty is what we celebrate.
This is not to say that our Sabbat celebrations contribute nothing to the worlds; quite the contrary. It’s our celebrations of the Sabbats that give them meaning. Their glories would be unobserved and insignificant without our attention; it is only we humans (as far as we know) who can name things, and call them sacred. In our lives, in our memories of the past and our dreams of the future, in the fullness of our immersion in the present, we manifest the Gods. In many Craft creation myths, we express the idea that the Goddess gave birth to individuality from Her wholeness—we are Her consciousness, individually experienced: She is aware through us. The Asatru tell of Odin offering himself to himself. Our Sabbat celebrations are the Goddess’s offering to Herself, through our awareness of both wholeness and individuality, of both mortality and eternal life. As we’ve already seen, it’s relatively easy to understand, in practical terms, why Samhain marks the final harvest. But this Sabbat is the Witches’ New Year and a family reunion, too. Why?
The dark half of the year is for introspection. Hibernation is a form of turning inward, returning to the womb, as the God has done in his death in hunt and harvest. We do our inner work in the Winter—not exclusively, of course, or therapists would be on vacation six months of the year. Spiritually, Winter gives us time to look within, undistracted (well, less distracted) by tending the fields and hunting, painting the house and taking the kids to Disneyland.
Winter is when we are shown, if we dare to open our eyes to the truth, that death is just one step in the Spiral Dance. Death is not a final stage, it’s just one stage in the cycle of life. From death, life is reborn—as Spring follows Winter. So, when Winter begins, Witches see the beginning of the whole Year. (In a similar way, we see the lunar cycle beginning with the New or “dark” Moon, rather than with any of the Moon’s other phases.)
And how is Samhain a family reunion? Aren’t most reunions scheduled for the summer months, when kids are out of school and workers take vacations? Yes, probably so, but families aren’t limited to their living members, and the reunion at Samhain includes those who’ve “gone before,” as the Charge of the Goddess puts it.
We say that, at Samhain, the “veil between the worlds” is thin. Most of us believe, though maybe not quite literally, that the Otherworld (also called the Spirit World, or the Astral Planes, and by other names) is just beyond the world in which we live. The cultures from which Wicca draws are full of stories about people wandering in and out of Fairy Land accidentally, because the separation is more perceptual than actual; and during Samhain and Beltane (May Day), it’s harder to perceive the boundaries. As a physical veil can obstruct our mundane vision, so the veil between the worlds can hide the Otherworld from our mundane consciousness. But at Samhain, the veil is thin, the distinction between life and death, this world and the other, is not as clear. And it’s easy for us to remember our ancestors so clearly that they can be with us again, at least for a little while.
And because it is so easy to get back together with them—and because we don’t fear them—we invite them to our final harvest feast. It’s not just to our table we welcome our “ghosts,” though. Most of us don’t grow and harvest our own food anymore, though many of us still have gardens that supplement our groceries, and many of us grow magical herbs and seasonal crops...such as pumpkins for Samhain. For the vast majority of Wiccans, though, the harvest is of inner crops. So we offer to share with our ancestors everything we’ve accomplished through the past year.
We share our hopes and dreams, our mistakes and what we’ve learned from them. We share our love, our sorrows, our discoveries about ourselves and the world(s). We acknowledge the ways our ancestors still influence and enhance our lives.
This informative article, and much more, can be found in:
by Ashleen O’Gaea
Unique among books about the Wiccan Sabbats, Celebrating the Seasons of Life: Samhain to Ostara takes a different approach to explaining the holidays by taking an in-depth look at half of the Wheel of the Year. Rather than dissecting each holiday, Ashleen's goal is to take a broader look at them, explaining how and why we celebrate each, along with how the celebration of one leads to the next. The first of two new titles from Ashleen offers a vision of the holidays we celebrate from October to March. This book covers each holiday by first giving us its history and original customs, then explaining its place in modern life. Stories are shared for each Sabbat to reconnect us with our lore and bring new meaning to current practice. Ashleen includes ideas for rituals that are ideal for practicing solitaries, covens, or Wiccan families, with special sections on what children of various ages are ready to learn about these holidays.