The Pagan festival of Samhain (‘summers end’)onthe 31st October, Celtic New Year, is a time of growing darkness. The days become short and evenings fade quickly into night. The last leaves fall, to rustle underfoot and dance in the first strong winds that herald the winter. To our ancestors, endings merged into beginnings, and the first moments of life were marked by silence, stillness and nourishing darkness. All fires were extinguished except for a bon- or bone-fire, each family taking a torch from this central source to relight their homes. Thus Samhain is a time renewal when life retreats; within the earth, within doors, and within the psyche, to find completion and contemplation. The blank page upon which the coming year will be written.
This powerful turning point in the year is when old becomes young again. It is a time of ancestral connection, where those that have walked the mortal roads before us gather at the edges of perception, whispering in our ear to be remembered, testifying that the bonds of human relations stretch far from this world into the next. It is a time when all things lost, may be found again, all things hidden become uncovered and all things clinging to life beyond their time finally surrender to the great cycles of creation, trusting that in death there is life anew.
Samhain is also the time when the Wild Hunt rides out, scouring the land, hunting lost souls across the dark night sky…lead by the Saxon god Woden, Herne the Hunter, or in Somerset by Gwyn ap Nudd,god of the Celtic underworld Annwn, and King of the Faeries. Residing within Glastonbury Tor, a gateway to the underworld, where the veils between the realms are thinnest, especially at this time, Gwyn is both guide and guardian. Only those ready and worthy pass through to meet the Weaver goddess, the Cailleach, who will transform once more into the maiden goddess Creiddylad when spring returns, to grow pregnant with the harvest in the coming year.
Gwyn’s white Faery hounds, the Cwn Annwn, with their distinctive red eyes and ears can be heard howling and growling on stormy November nights, as they pursue their prey. While fierce and terrible, the Wild Hunt are a mercy to those that have lost their way between the worlds, or who are stuck in patterns that have outgrown them; aiding both the living and dead to move on, to move forward, when all else has failed. Their primal energy touches the soul like a lightening storm, ripping away illusions and stagnation. The dead, met by the ancestors, ride with Gwyn and the Wild Hunt, taking one last look at the mortal world, before travelling with him to Annwn, where they rest to become renewed by the goddess once again.
Carved pumpkin or Jack lanterns, placed in the window, acknowledge this great migration of souls. Their fearsome faces represented the elemental and faery beings that assist this process. These special lanterns were once carved from turnips or were simply sacred lamps, each lit in remembrance of the dead, and of the torches from the Samhain bonfire. The pumpkin may be an alternative to placing the candle in a cauldron, to remind us of our return to the cauldron, or womb, of the goddess, deep in Annwn, where we all will become renewed when our time comes. With a fresh candle, lit with thoughts of all that have passed from the world before us, these lanterns form a connection to our ancestors that survives to this day; a tradition of respect that stretches millennia.
First published Samhain 09 in the Glastonbury Oracle.