Two Days till Samhain!
I was talking to a friend yesterday, pondering the topic for my next blog post here, and she asked me how I, as a Heathen, prepared for Samhain. I’d been discussing some of my preparations during the conversation and she was fascinated. Most Heathens will probably tell you that we don’t celebrate Samhain and I suppose for the mainstream that would be true. We do, however, have a holy tide called Winternights held at roughly the same time and this festival also centers quite strongly around honoring the dead. Six and one half dozen of the other, I suppose, as the saying goes. Personally, I hold a huge ancestor ritual and feast, the latter of which begins on October 29 and ends on November 3 and I don’t much care what name I ascribe to it. I will admit, I do tend to “go all out” at this time of year and I do so for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it’s good to give the honored dead a feast once in awhile. While I do something to honor my ancestors pretty much every single day, and I maintain three active ancestor shrines in my house (one to my adopted mom, one to all my ancestors, and one to the military dead for whom I speak), it’s still nice to honor them once a year on their own feast day in a very special way. So I do that. Secondly, Winternights falls right around this time (there’s no fixed date) so, perhaps in honor of my Celtic ancestors, I tend to celebrate that on Samhain. I’d be doing the same ritual anyway regardless. Finally, Winternights begins our Yule season and this is the holiest and most sacred time of the year. While Yule itself runs from Dec 20 through the New Year, the Yule season begins with Winternights. Plus, of course, there’s a palpable shift energetically, and certainly the dead are very, very, very present at this time.
I love this time of year too. As soon as the hot oppressiveness of summer beings to yield its grip, I start feeling better. I have more energy and I’m never happier than when the air is chill, and sweaters have to be hauled out of summer storage, and the leaves start changing into a riotous panoply of color. That color is their death-song, their last beautiful hurrah before they are devoured by winter. I love it all. The first frost on the window panes in the morning makes me laugh out loud. I also feel closer to Odin, the God to Whom I’m dedicated, at this time of year and it is, traditionally, one of the primary times when His wild Hunt is said to ride. So all told, I greet my obligations to my ancestors at this time with a delighted exuberance.
Now, my dead like a good party; and I have a deep appreciation for dia de los muertos customs. Both of these things mean I tend to go a little overboard on the decorating (but no one living or dead in my House is complaining). I’m getting ahead of myself though. Let me start at the beginning.
My preparations begin around October 20 – whatever the nearest Saturday happens to be. I thoroughly clean my house both physically and energetically. I also clean and redo all the shrines in my home and on my property (no small feat with over forty shrines and altars).(1) That usually takes at least two or three days. Afterwards, I cleanse myself, usually with four days of cleansing. Because I honor the Elemental Powers as our eldest ancestors, I tend to meditate on and cleanse with one of the classical elements, one each day in turn during those four days: air, fire, water, and earth. This isn’t a Heathen “thing” per se, but my own way as a spiritworker and vitki of connecting with the Powers. I don’t want to neglect our elemental ancestors at this time.
Next, I do a shopping trip for food, cakes, alcohol, tobacco, and anything else my dead might like or want. Before I sent up the offrenda (shrine altar), I take one day and visit local cemeteries. I have five cemeteries equi-distant from my home. I maintain a good working relationship with the spirits of all of them, both the spirit of the individual cemetery itself and whatever dead happen to like to “hang out” there. Since in our dominant culture, the only place people ever go to give anything to the dead tends to be the grave site, it makes sense that it’s a good focus for engaging with them. So I go to each of those cemeteries in turn. I spend time there talking to the dead. I make sure they don’t need anything. I lay out food, drink, and tobacco offerings. I clean up any messes or overturned flowers, etc. that I might see. Then I come home and make a major offering to the house spirits, land spirits, the spirit of my town, and the spirit of the local mountain.
That usually takes at least one full day. It’s exhausting work. In fact, I’m always surprised by how absolutely weary I feel after a few hours of visiting cemeteries and talking to the dead. It doesn’t seem, intellectually, like it would be any big deal but it is. I’m usually completely wiped out. In fact, I like to have an assistant with me when I do this so he or she can drive and keep me organized and tend to the minutiae that I’m likely to forget as I grow more and more weary.
The next day, or sometimes the day after, (I like to do this on the 27th or 28th) I set up the offrenda. This is a massive altar, really massive. I utilize a number of tables of differing heights that, when covered with pretty table-cloths, provide for a multi-tiered altar. Then I also lay cloth on the floor. Around and on all of this I put ancestor photos, ancestral items, images of skeletons (common to day of the dead iconography),glasses of good, clean water, lots of flowers and anything else the dead might indicate they want, or that I might get an intuitive push to offer. Once the framework is set up (something that can take hours), I pin up hanging decorations—usually more dancing skeletons, arrange the candles and start laying out the food and drink offerings, the ones that aren’t immediately perishable. For the House ritual itself, the cloth on the floor will be full of food and pastries, all offerings for the dead. At that point, I usually make a small offering and a few prayers to the dead and call it a day.
The next day, usually the 29th if I’ve managed to schedule everything appropriately, I begin the ritual process. I always try to take off work from Oct. 29 – Nov. 2. It’s not always possible but I try. If none of those days fall on a weekend, I’ll hold the House ritual, our big group ritual, at the weekend closest to those dates. I understand not everyone can afford to take a week off work at Samhain! So, on the 29th, the first thing I’ll do is try to take care of any outstanding mundane work that I might have that in any way relates to family or ancestors. If I owe someone a call, I make it. If I owe a letter, I write it. If I have any sort of outstanding debts to friends, I take care of them. I want to go into this ritual time and space clean.
That takes however long it takes. Then I make basic offerings to my dead. I spend some time in divination making sure that there is no work that needs to be done. Does any ancestor require an elevation?(2) Is there anything to which I need to give attention wyrd wise with my dead? Did I leave anything undone? Is there a living relative in crisis or need that I can and should assist? If I’ve done my job, this process is usually more of a formality than anything else. If I’ve been smart, I’ve been checking in with the Gods and dead via divination all week so there shouldn’t be that many loose ends! At this point, before I begin any ritual, I make an offering to those Gods who guard doorways and crossroads and the flow of things. In the Roman tradition, this would be Janus, Cardea (along with Forculus and Limentinus) and maybe Mercury; in the Orisha traditions, Ellegua. In a Norse House, at least this Norse House, it’s Loki, Heimdall, and Modgud. Drinks and tobacco are set out for these Powers.
At that point, I light altar candles and bring offerings to my altar to Hela. Hela is our Goddess of the dead and of the underworld. She tends the majority of our dead.(3) Our ancestors feast in Her hall and I have found Her to be a tremendously compassionate Goddess –detached, impersonal compassion, but compassion nonetheless, perhaps of the cleanest type. She is also a generous One. It’s been my experience that any offerings given to Her are in turn shared out at Her table to nourish those in Her care. So I begin my Samhain celebrations proper by a small private ritual to Hela. In this ritual, I thank Her for tending our dead so wisely and well and I bring offerings of food and drink for Her table. I may spend some time in prayer or meditation before Her altar but when I am finished, this completes the ritual work that I do for this day.
If I have my way, I like to do the House ritual on the 30th. If we have to bump it to a different date, I’ll do my own extensive ancestor ritual on that date and just leave the offrenda set up until we can do the group rite. While my true preference or that ritual would be the 31st, I live in a neighborhood with a lot of children and I don’t want my rituals interrupted by trick-or-treaters. Besides, kids should have their fun too and enjoy this day in a way that echoes some of the customs of our Celtic ancestors and more to the point, many of my dead get a kick out of it. So I usually do the big ritual on the 30th, and then stay home (sometimes with friends—I’ve been known to have parties that include the dead on Halloween proper) and handle trick-or-treating children. The important thing is that I always maintain an ongoing awareness of and connection with my dead at this time. There’s constant engagement happening.
November 1 is an important day for me personally: my biological father was born on Nov. 1 so on that day, I do two things: I hold a feast and ritual to honor the military dead and I lay out special birthday offerings to my dad, who was also career military. (He served in two wars: WWII and Korea and then worked at Aberdeen proving ground in ordinance until he retired).
On November 2, I make small offerings –usually nothing more elaborate than fresh water and tobacco-- and spend some time in conversation and prayer with my dead and then, at the end of the day, I put out the candles on the altar (I usually leave them burning from the 29th Hela ritual through Nov. 2—since I’m home, I can keep an eye on them). Either late November 2 or early November 3, I clean up. I will both physically clean and energetically clean, aspersing the space with Florida water and blessed herbs. Then I take a cleansing bath when it’s all done and my home is back to normal sans offrenda.
After all of this, I have a bit of a breather –not much, but a bit---before I start thinking about ritual preparations for Yule. This year’s Winternights will be particularly special. My biological mother died on September 3 of this year. I was taught to give recently dead a month to acclimate (some traditions give far more, even up to a full year) before doing any rituals or giving any offerings. This ritual cycle will mark almost two months since her death and it is high time to install her image on my ancestor altar and begin including her in offerings. There’s a little bit of a ritual process involved so, if divination looks favorable (I need to do that today---one of the few things that I’ve left to the last minute), she will be installed and included for tomorrow’s ritual.
So, happy Samhain, dear Readers, or happy Winternights. May you honor your dead and celebrate this holy tide safely (especially for those of you in the path –like me—of Hurricane Sandy). May our dead rejoice and may we, as we journey into Yule, receive their blessings.
1. I know this sounds like a lot but keep in mind as a shaman and spiritworker, I’m a specialist. This is my ‘Job’ so to speak. Most people that I know maintain an ancestor altar and a devotional altar to whatever Deities they honor. That’s it. I have certain requirements beyond that as a shaman.
3. For more information on Hela, see http://www.northernpaganism.org/shrines/hela/welcome.html. There is also a beautiful devotional to Her available here: http://www.asphodelpress.com/book.html?title=wholly-a-devotional-for-hela.
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