26 April 2011

Samhain - the Journey inward and into the Underworld

Samhain altar
On the eve of 30 April those of us south of the equator pause in silent contemplation and remembrance of our ancestors.  Following on the heels of Anzac Day (the day when those fallen in combat from Australia and New Zealand are remembered as well as the increasing number of victims of war), the timing for the Southern Samhain could not really be any better.

It was the Celtic peoples from whom this name and festival originated, having divided the year into two parts.  In the "Tochmarc Emer", an Irish hero tale dating back to the 11th century, Irish hero CuChulain is recorded saying: "For two divisions were formerly on the year, namely, summer from Bealtaine the first of May, and winter from Samuin to Bealtaine", with "Samuin" having evolved into the modern day spelling of Samhain.

It is festival that heralds in Geimhreadh, the winter and the cold half of the Celtic year, or "Summer sunset".   According to Whitely Stokes (1868) it was at this time of the year that assemblies amongst the ancient Irish were held for the gathering of taxes and settling claims at the end of the productive time of the year, and from time to time the independent Feis of Tara:

Tara Hill Fort
"The Feis of Tara every third year,
For the fulfilment of laws and rules,
Was convened at that time mightily
By the noble kings of Erin.

Three days before Samhain, according to custom,
Three days thereafter, good the practice,
Did that high-spirited company
Pass in constant feasting, a week."

King Stone at Tara
Whereas the Irish High Kings claimed Tara as their power centre, the Druids around Ireland were said to gather at Tlachtgha ("Hill of the Ward"). On the eve of Samhain they would offer up sacrifices to all the Gods. It was an obligation under penalty of fine to quench the fires of Ireland on that night except that at Tlachtgha which was the a prelude to the Feast of Tara.  When the High Kings saw the newly lit fires glowing, they knew that all was well for another year as the forces of death associated with Winter had been held at bay.  No other fires were allowed to be kindled except from this one sacred fire, of which the High Kinng received a tax.

Samhain is the third and final harvest, usually associated with meat, where the excess livestock were believed to have been killed and their meat salted in order that to preserve it through the barren months.  Within the Wiccan mythos this time of the year marks the death of the God who, having given his energy to the Earth and the subsequent harvest, journeys deep into the Underworld where he rests in order to be reborn again at Mid Winter.  The Goddess also follows suit yet she emerges as the Death or Winter Hag, Bone Woman, whose icy fingers snake over the land encouraging hiberination.

While this is a time of death and darkness, it can also be likened to that of a seed or the Spring bulbs that we have planted in our gardens. On the surface things appear to have been frozen in time however under the surface there is much anticipation ... as the energies gather and wait until the rays of sunlight gain enough strenght again to encourage the return of life.  However for the time being, everything is waiting, resting ... the pregnant pause is almost deafening silence.

As the veils between the worlds thin, Samhain marks the time to honour the dead and our ancestors, without whom we would not be.  Ancestors need not be of our blood line either and can include those who have inspired us along our spiritual path.  A "dumb" supper can be held where the meal is eaten in silence or a "feast for the dead" where an extra plate is prepared for any unseen guests who may arrive.  A lit candle placed on the window sill is said to help guide the friendly spirits home while keeping out any unfriendly one.

The powers of divination (in particular scrying) are believed to be strengthened on Samhain night.  It is also considered to be a good time for banishing and sorting out any unfinished business for it is considered to mark the new year, therefore offering a perfect time to start afresh. 

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