Crackling leaves are burning
Transformed from life to death
The crow calls out relentlessly
To those unseen and life withers
In the blasting of its issue.
The Crone’s outstretched hand
Pulls me tightly to her breast
The air chills at her touch
Long icy fingers tapping out
The heart beat of life’s pulse within.
The solemn silence of darkness
The pause of silent breath
Power and strength drawn
From the sinewy strands of time.
Quartered path of gravel and stone
Flesh and blood
Moonlight and stars
The wellspring of Earth
The light of the cosmos above.
I tremble within Her embrace
Form giving way to the formless
Mind swirling within the waters of insight.
Sight pierces the veil as the
Road is cautiously chosen
Knowledge of the unknown
Becomes the heat of my desire.
The quickening spark waits in
The blessings of fertile darkness
And pulls me towards rebirth
Into a place of Light.
The air is full and heavy this time of the year as the veils thin and the spirits walk among us… some offering guidance and assistance and others being mischievous and stirring up an already potent mix of energetic trouble. There is a distinct and growing crispness to the air as the weather offers a preview of what to expect in the coming winter months, and leaves crackle underfoot reminding us that summer’s moisture has given way and the dryness of death is near. As a Witch, the changing of each of the seasons echoes through my body and in response my perceptions and attitudes about what each change will bring sharpens and narrows to an intentional and purposeful focus. In particular, Samhain hangs heavy in my thoughts and the opportunity to reach a little deeper into my own state of mortality and transformation looms large.
Each year at this time, I make a silent commitment to being more fully present and alive in my daily activities. This is, in large, my antidote to feeling the pall of death and an active reminder that this state of manifest, physical life will follow the natural order of things and return to the finer state of a non corporeal vessel. Food takes on a deeper level of enjoyment. Family is drawn closer and self-care takes priority over spreading myself too thin. Long walks surrounded by the beauty of Fall exercise my physical body and stimulate and open my senses in a broader way.
I spend time in deeper reflection during my meditations and just as the days become fuller in energy and imbued with the visual palette of Autumn, the hues and intensity of my time spent as the Hermit turning within takes on more complexity. Each inhalation becomes an exercise to draw up those parts of myself that reside in the shadows that occasionally come to the surface of light, but for the most part are as fleeting and ephemeral in quality as the spirits who walk among us. Each exhalation is a chance to release those that are not productive or embrace and enliven those that will serve as the primal compost of what I choose to quicken in the Spring.
This retrospection is guided by the call of the Crone and the draping of her mantle upon me that I am so keenly aware of at this time of the year. The Goddess Cerridwen calls to me in whispers of wind and rustling leaves and the temptation of wanting knowledge of a more transformative nature seems at times overwhelming. So, I sit and wait patiently as the Crone reveals what she will to me. In this state of waiting, the time passes in a non-linear way and at some moments seems limitless in what is held. My breath becomes slower and deeper and the mundane world seems to fade into the background as time appears to stand still. There is no fear as the Goddess points a bony finger beckoning me to follow her as we begin the descent into the caverns of an underworld that is of my own making. There is only a deep feeling of peace and at oneness with all of life and a sensation of being more alive in this space of death.
The path moves downward at sharp angles and footing is unsure as firmly pressed dirt gives way to gravel. The sensation is one of traversing a misshapen spiral or labyrinth, energy and flow of movement all dancing in a discordant and circular nature. I feel myself being pulled along, caught in the current of this winding steady flow. I am alone in the growing darkness.
I take a deep breath in and then pull up all the courage I can, exhaling with an even deeper breath that releases any fears I may have. I take a few steps forward and the ground beneath has an unexpected softness to it. It moves in rhythm with my step, giving way with each footfall, but nonetheless gently supporting my weight. All my senses come to full alert and I move forward, nudged along by pure instinct. I realize there is no way of knowing what direction I am moving and this place has a feeling of being non-linear in nature. I stand for a time in this quiet space of darkness, allowing its energy to enfold me and its peace to fill every fiber of my being. Curiosity soon takes hold and the desire to explore even deeper wells up.
I hear a rhythmic pulse of sound that nudges me forward. It sounds like the gentle inhale and exhale of breath; it is the sound of air as it fills lungs and gives life and then is released back into the atmosphere. The sound increases, and I find myself breathing in unison with it. I open my mouth and call out to Cerridwen. I can feel Her presence all around me and HER breath is hot and foul. She smells of Death and Her challenge is that of facing the death of my weaknesses and the decay and stagnation of a life that is not infused with the passion of pure existence. She whispers my name and asks what I will offer in sacrifice in order to have one drop of her Cauldron’s liquid.
I breathe deeply and think on what compelled me to enter this place. I have no words and the challenge is more than I had bargained for. The realization that knowledge is hard won. True wisdom comes not from merely the desire for it, but from the relinquishment of what we cling to most fiercely thus allowing the space to be filled with the gifts of the Goddess. I breathe deeply and reaffirm my Life and the greater wisdom gained from the courage of stepping into the shadows.
I call out again to Cerridwen. My voice is now stronger and more assured in the knowledge that I have changed the inner landscape of my underworld. I breathe deeply and open my eyes, the energy of the Crone still wrapped about me. The call of the Crone echoes throughout me and I am reminded that this final harvest of Samhain is a call to the wisdom of the darkness. I will carry with me the knowledge that it is only in the embrace of the shadow that true gnosis can be found and in its final reaping is brought to the brilliance of Light that shines in all who heed the Call.
May the blessings of Samhain and the Wisdom of the Crone be the fruits of your last harvest.
--Stephanie Arwen Lynch-Poe
“When you lose touch with your inner stillness, you lose touch with yourself. When you lose touch with yourself, you lose yourself in the world.”
— Eckhart Tolle
I read this quote a few years ago. It stuck with me. I wanted to use Tarot to explore how to regain that state of being in touch with my inner stillness. I see it as a breach of faith with myself when I lose this quiet place in my spirit.
What is bliss, Sarah Ban Breathnach asks in her extraordinary book Simple Abundance. For me, today, it is knowing my loved ones are warm and safe; seeing my youngest child's delight in last night's snowfall; my teenagers' glee in an unexpected snow day; and curling up on the couch to read with a cup of tea at hand and a fire crackling and popping in the fireplace. Outside there are no people: just leaves, squirrels, orioles, sparrows and the occasional stray cat hurrying to whatever under-porch shelter they can find. All is quiet here today, and the cozy rooms my children and I share bespeak a long-ago time.
With Samhain past, Yule beckons with juniper and citrus scented hands. My family celebrates both Yule and Christmas, and thanks to the incredibly high ceilings in our new apartment, my husband has decreed that we are going to have a huge tree, which despite its size will still be covered with ornaments, candy canes and gingerbread cookies. (Every year Josh tells me I can’t possibly fit any more on the tree, but somehow I manage. This year the trick will be managing to fill a tree nearly three times the size I'm used to. I think I'm up for the challenge.)
To me this is a time when families should gather and enjoy good food and good cheer. We light the sun fire with an invocation by Caitlin Matthews: I kindle this fire in the name of the Ancestors, and of the Holy Ones Who guard the world; May its flame warm us all and may its light remind us of the ever-returning sun.
The smoldering charcoal is brought indoors and the Sun Candle lit with its heat: I dedicate this fire to the eternal light of midwinter. May its warmth remind me of the Summer, and may its brightness be a guiding star to all kindly spirits who bless this season and this place with their presence.
It is here that I add my own quiet observation to the holy day, and light a candle dedicated to Hestia from the Sun Candle. As a mother and homemaker She is ever with me. Her candle remains lit even during our ritual work, so despite the fact that the Sun Candle is briefly extinguished, the sun fire never truly goes out.
Josh will brew a pot of Wassail, I and the littlest one will begin a batch of Elisa Kleven's sunbread, taken from her book of the same name. Check it out, even if you don't have little ones: her illustrations are whimsically divine, and the story is just about the best narrative of Yule I have ever read; we will gather in the circle to observe this, the longest night, and its inevitable conclusion, the sun's returning. The following poems, The Crone and The God of the Waning Year, can both be found in Jane Raeburn's The Pagan's Muse (Citadel Press, 2003), and are the pieces we use to invoke the Crone and welcome the God as we begin our candle lighting ritual each Yule.
She is an old woman working in a museum, dusting the artifacts, adjusting corners. She preserves the past. She saves history. She takes pride in her work.
She is a widow, and lives as widows do. There are times when she isalone.
She dresses in black, and pulls her garments close about her against the winter wind.
She takes in stray animals. She talks to them. She feeds birds.
She is the silent supper, eaten alone.
She passes unnoticed on the street.
She is the strength of years. She is the weight of wisdom. She has forgotten more than you can remember. She remembers more than she can forget.
She is the grey of old hair, the dryness of old skin, the thinness of old bones, the timbre of old voice.
She places roses on the gravestone, and picks off the wet, fallen leaves.
She is the calmness in the midst of depression, the dignity among sorrow. She knows loss, but she does not lose herself.
She is cobwebs and hot tea. She is dried herbs and small, grey mice. She isthe clear faded blue of the winter morning sky.
She is an old cat slumbering on the hearth.
She listens to bad news quietly, not speaking. She nods her head as shetakes in the words.
She is the ironic smile.
Think of her when the winter wind chills you. Think of her in the 3AMdarkness. Think of her in the sadness and stillness. Think of her strength, and find it within you, for she is your ancestress, and her blood runs in your veins.
She has lived many times, and she lives again.
Think of her, and know you're not alone.
The God of the Waning Year
Where is the stag of seven tines?
Where is the woodsman of the pines?
Where is the hunter of the fell?
Where is the wizard of the well?
Where is the green man of the leaves?
Where is the reaper of the sheaves?
Where is the master of the maze?
Where is the sun of autumn days?
Where is the god of corn and grain?
Where is the consort who is slain?
Where is the prince of hoof and horn?
Where is the one who is reborn?
The stag has fallen to the bow.
The woodsman lays the great tree low.
The hunter goes in search of game.
The wizard listens for his name.
The green man's lying on the loam.
The reaper's gone to harvest home.
The master stands where the center lies.
The sun slips down the autumn skies.
The god has fallen in the field.
The consort lies upon his shield.
The prince is past all reach of men.
The one is in the womb again.
Our Sun Candle is extinguished as the ritual begins. When we begin the house is enveloped in darkness as we sit, quiet, meditating on the grip the gloom hold us all in on the longest night. We then relight the sun candle, recognizing that the dark of the year is ending, rejoicing in the promised return of light and warmth. Each person in the circle lights a taper from the relit Sun Candle so they too, may become a beacon for the returning sun.
This is the lesson the Earth teaches us as we turn with the Wheel: no matter how dark it gets, the light always returns. The night will always end and a new day will always begin. Life is a struggle; we grasp and slip, fight and fail, win then lose. But hope, like light, is always present, if we have the eyes with which to see it. We are at the year's closing; as the Wheel turns around us the days grow longer and longer until we are dancing beneath the late sun at Litha. It is vital for us to understand that despite our reluctance and despair, we need winter's long dark nights. They are the time for us to turn inward, to journey back to the womb even as the God does, so we may become reborn at Imbolc, renewed, refreshed, and capable of fulfilling our role in this world.
We are always happy to open our home to others of like mind, Pagan or otherwise, who understand the significance of the long dark of the solstice. Our ritual is usually preceded by a feast of as magnificent proportions as I am capable of achieving and followed by a buffet of desserts, wassail, mulled wine and spiced eggnog for our non-drinking guests.Sadly, we have no apple tree to Wassail, but we’ll wish each other good health and happiness in the months to come and close the evening with an old English 'prize pie' and exchanging gifts with friends and family.
As the longest night wears on my children craft ornaments in the shape of suns, pears, apples and birds, and commence the first activity from an outstanding book titled The 12 Days of Yule (Shanddaramon, Astor Press, 2010), which, admittedly is a children's activity book, but my teenagers persist in keeping traditions, and I am happy to see them do so, as it means that many years from now their children will be doing the same. And so Yule eve will pass as a quiet breath in the night, and slowly, so slowly, with the arrival of the sun the following morning the days will begin to lengthen again as we make our way to Imbolc.
The morning of the Solstice begins with my family breaking their fast with the sunbread made the night before, then we gather in the circle to chant a litany for the Winter Solstice and offer our thanks and farewell to the Old King, welcome and praise to the Young King. We instruct our children in a meditation on the meaning of sacrifice and appreciation and then the circle is closed.
I include these details of my family's Yule celebration not as an instruction, but to offer you a glimpse into our hearts, and I would love feedback from readers. Perhaps next year a piece of your celebration will make its way into my family's tradition, and we will be linked in a tiny way in this Wheel we live and love in. I wish everyone a beautiful holiday, be it Yule, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, or a combination of these. Enjoy the season of darkness, and the light that it brings.
For wonderful, touching reading in the few stolen moments we never seem to have enough of, I highly recommend any of Sarah Ban Breathnach’s books, but most especially Simple Abundance and Romancing the Ordinary. The first is a collection of essays, one for each day of the year, and the second is sectioned into monthly essays. Reading Sarah is like sitting down and visiting with an old friend; my favorite essays are the ones she writes for December: focusing on love, joy, family and true happiness, she always adds a little extra sparkle to my holidays. Enjoy! ~NKP
Why did you need to go away?
Now, when I am hungry, who will feed me?
When I am cold, who will warm me?
When I need shelter, whose hearth will I seek?
When I need company, whose house will be warm?
It was never your way to be gloomy and sad.
If you were here, you would be serving us tea.
~ Scots Death Lament
“All is a held breath, a stillness and a moment between. Now is the time to step into the dormant season and allow the seeds to sift themselves into the loam of new ground.” (168, d Kate dooley)
Samhain has crested the darkening horizon, the final harvest of the season before the year spins away and Yule begins the cycle anew. The holy day arrived on wings heavy with sorrow, as just days before I said a sad goodbye to my familiar, the cat who had been my companion for thirteen years. I knew when she was gone I would miss her with all my heart, but I never really realized how hollow ritual work would be without Kami curled up in the circle with me. (Usually she was curled up on the altar, having knocked the Goddess and God statues out of her way. How dare I place anything that wasn’t her on the altar?)
My husband tells me that in the very early hours of Samhain he woke up to Kami scratching at our bedroom door, demanding admittance. He ignored her, as was his wont, but when it came again five minutes later he rose and opened the door, grumbling about ‘snarky cats,’ only to remember that Kami was gone when he opened the door and saw no cat. I wish I had woken to receive her final farewell. It is enough to know that in the hours when the veil parted she came home to let us know that she was safe and well, past sickness and pain.
The Samhain season is a season of introspection. We look into our souls, assessing who we are and how we have come to be this person. What have you left unfinished? What have you put off starting? What are your commitments and how do you approach them? When working, for yourself or others, what are your motives? Are you happy with who you are? If not, how can you become so? This is the time of year when more and more we come together in groups: family, friends, collecting to celebrate the harvest, to anticipate the upcoming solstice (or Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, or a combination), or to revel in the warmth of each other’s homes, finding shelter and companionship in the face of the darkening days and cold nights. What do you find when you sit amid a crowd of those near and dear to you? What knowledge is imparted by new acquaintances? What do you learn, about others, about yourself, about your destiny and your place here in this world? More importantly, and this is a subject for contemplation during this dark half of the year, what will you do with this knowledge?
These darker days draw us in; rather than roving abroad until the light finally fades in the evening hours as we do in the summer months, we return home early, inhaling the warm coffee-scented air of our homes, glad – even though we may dislike our neighbors or the look of our needs-to-be-painted house – to be here in our haven of warmth and contentment. We drop our coats in a chair, kick off shoes for slippers and pour a cup of cheer. Staring into the inky depths of our cups we review our day. How did it go? How did I do? What could I have done differently? Better? More efficiently?
When we look inside ourselves we often beat ourselves up over our mistakes (perceived or otherwise). As you travel on your own introspective journey this season, do it kindly. Whatever you have done that you think you could have done better, acknowledge the fact that you completed the task you set for yourself. Accept that you did it, and did it well. Allow yourself to aim higher next time, encourage yourself to do so. You didn’t do it wrong, you did it. Next time, try to do better.
Darkness pulls us into its depths. It’s easy to call ourselves out on our faults during this time of year. Do not let yourself despair. Look around you. Light is everywhere, all around. Dancing on hearths, gleaming through windows, sparkling in the cold night sky. Allow yourself to be drawn toward the light. Use the light around you as a guide when you walk the paths of your soul and you will find your way to fulfillment, understanding, and acceptance.
Go home now, to the mother of winter.
Go home now, to your springtime home.
Go home now, to the mother of summer.
Go home now, to your autumn home.
Sleep, oh sleep now. Sleep, oh sleep.
Sleep against her sacred breast.
Sleep, oh sleep now. Sleep, oh sleep.
Sleep this night, let her give you rest.
~Medieval Irish Death Chants
Dooley, d Kate, The Spindle Hearth: A Sourcebook for Goddess-Centered Living. Yarrow Press, 2006. Asheville-Lewisburg, WV.