Thursday, November 10, 2011

What is Samhain?

“Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die, --
fair fame of one who has earned.” --Havamal, stanza 75

In the beginning of all things there is darkness, for all things began in the great dark. Samhain thus marks the end of the light half of the year, and the end of the year of the wheel. It begins the dark half of the year and the beginning of the year. The history of Samhain like all of our high-days mostly lost to time with only a few fragments remaining. I leave the noble task of finding those bits of history to more scholarly men then I. I am more concerned with what Samhain is today. What it means to the Neo-druid and the Neo-pagan community at large.

It is said then that at this time of year the veil between the worlds grows very, very, very thin. The thinnest it will be all year. No one alive is really sure why this is so, only that it is, and I for one am apt to agree with what I have seen. Perhaps the ancients thought it so because with the veil thin, the stuff of the land of the dead leaks through into our world causing the falling of the leaves, the death of the flowers, and the disappearance of the animals. With the number of deaths I see occurring at this time of year I am apt to think there may be a grain of truth to that idea. As the veil thins we are visited by the spirits, most notably the spirits of the dead and our ancestors. Thus it is at this high-day we honor our mighty dead. There are many ways to do this; some like to have a dumb supper, others leave a candle burning in a windowsill, and yet others build an ancestral alter and have a party in which they are all invited. The historians tell us that Samhain was the end of the harvest. What you had reaped is what you had to get you through the winter. Most of us are no longer farmers, but Samhain is a good time to look back over your year and see what is it you have reaped and why. What have you gained and what have you lost?

Irish myth tells the tale of the Dagda meeting the Morrigan on Samhain eve and the lust for life that is the Dagda met the lust for death that is the Morrigan and the two did couple. This is a reminder that Samhain is not just about death, but it is also a celebration of life. It is a celebration of the successful harvest! A celebration of the life being remembered, and a celebration of the life being lived right now by the pagan! It is a reminder that life and death are partners, a couple forever handfasted.

Samhain is a time to explore our feelings about death and dying. It crawls up into our face grabs our coat collar shakes us hard and demands we look it in the eye. When we remember and honor those who have passed before us, we acknowledge the simple fact they have died, which inevitably leads to the realization that we too will die. One day we will be the honored dead. Leaving behind our children and the “…fair fame of one who has earned.” Powerful stuff for a people growing up in a culture that denies the reality of death with tooth and claw. That shuns old age. Samhain is powerful healing. Samhain is sweet smiles caressed by bitter tears.