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In my last blog on the beliefs of traditional British Old Craft, I mentioned the ‘Ancestors’, who play such an important part in our ways. So with Hallowe’en (or Samhain) almost upon us, I thought it might be a good idea to elaborate on the subject, because it is not such an alien concept as it might first appear. The following is adapted from the Arcanum teaching course and Traditional Witchcraft for Urban Living and therefore repeats some of the points previously mentioned.
The honoring of the dead and venerating their memory is a common root of all religion, with many cultures believing that the dead live on in another dimension, continuing to affect the lives of subsequent generations. This concept of spirit-ancestors is an extremely ancient one, especially when it involves dealing with deceased members of a particular people or clan, and is still widely observed in Japanese Shinto, Chinese Confucianism and among the Australian aboriginal and Amerindian peoples. In the West, we know from the prehistoric remains of the numerous earthworks that the early people of the British Isles and the Celts honored their ancestors; and the earliest written observations are those of the Roman Paternalia (February) and the Lemuria (May), which later spread throughout the Empire.
Interaction with these spirit-ancestors as an invisible and powerful presence is also a constant feature of traditional British Old Craft, with the Ancestors remaining important members of the tradition or people they have left behind. In general they are seen as Elders, treated and referred to in much the same way as the most senior of living Elders of a coven or magical group, with additional mystical and/or magical powers. Sometimes they are identified as the Holy Guardian Angels, the Mighty Dead, the Watchers, or the Old Ones, who gave magical knowledge to mankind, rather than family or tribal dead. Or, even more ambiguously, ‘those who have gone before’ – their magical essence distilled into the universal subconscious at different levels.
Reverence for Craft Ancestors is part of the ethic of respect for those who have preceded us in life, and their continued presence on the periphery of our consciousness means that they are always with us. And because traditional witchcraft is essentially a practical thing, the Ancestors are called upon to help find solutions to magical problems through divination, path-working and spell-casting. Although witchcraft is not a religion, the belief in the ancestral spirits goes hand in hand with our deep reverence for Nature.
Once contact has been established, the Ancestors can be relied upon to have the interests of the ‘tradition’ – and therefore the witch’s interests – as their primary concern. This belief reflects the profound importance of kinship in the ordering of pagan society. The Ancestors protect the living, but insist on the maintenance of various customs, and any serious breach of etiquette could result in the removal of their favour.
Hallowe’en, All Hallows, or Samhain is the beginning of the dark, winter half of the year and the traditional time for honoring our Ancestors. This is a somber occasion in the witch’s year and certainly not a time for celebration. To use a familiar phrase, ‘it is when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest’, and a candle placed at the window can call the Ancestors to come home. Some traditional witches hold a ‘Dumb Supper’ to mark the occasion, setting an empty place at the table for any wandering ancestral spirit who cares to partake of the offerings.
… And heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead
Returning lightly dance…
From pre-Christian times, this darkening time of the year has been associated with ancestral spirits, unquiet ghosts and death. Ritual fires were kindled on hilltops for the purification of the people and the land, but unlike the Bel-fires that were lit at dawn, the Hallow-fires were lit at dusk. The festival should be observed as a means of demonstrating pagan unity to outsiders, while at the same time ritually remembering the Ancestors and reinforcing the heritage of traditional witchcraft. These observations and subsequent teaching of traditional ancestor worship within the practice of witchcraft could play an important role in ensuring the continuity of the ‘tradition’.
It is also important to realise that if (as many British Old Craft witches still do), we continue to observe the Old Calendar instead of the current Gregorian version that stripped 11 days away from the old year, Hallowe'en falls on 11th November - the official Remembrance Day introduced after WWI.
This is the time of the 'Dark Lord' aspect of Nature's cycle and not a time for frivolity - that is why you will never find an Old Craft witch 'trick or treating'.
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