Do you believe the original meanings of many festivals have been lost?
THE wheel of the year constantly turning has brought us once more to Hallowe’en, or Samhain (pronounced sow-in), as our Celtic ancestors would have known it.
In this, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, we can have fun dooking for apples, dressing up and going to parties, the onset of winter holding few terrors.
We shall be clothed and fed in the light, warmth and security of our modern homes, but for our ancient ancestors it was a time of darkness, slaughter, sexual intensity, communion with the dead and even human sacrifice.
Modern-day Wiccan, which is a nature-based religion, echoes some of these ancient pagan practices – though obviously not the human sacrifice. In broader terms, its adherents worship a threefold moon goddess or great earth mother and her consort, a horned god, as representing the natural energies of earth in male and female generative aspects.
Incorporated into the religion is a working knowledge and belief in the ability to use magic to effect change and a strict code of ethics.
Wiccans celebrate four major seasonal festivals and four solar ones, but the most important of these is Beltane, on May 1, and Samhain, on October 31, which is regarded by Wiccans much as Hogmanay is by most Scots. It’s the old Celtic New Year and as such the time for celebrating the achievements of the past year and making plans for the year to come, as well as honouring the life force in both the living, the dead and those yet to be born – a belief in reincarnation being accepted by most Wiccans.
The festival of Samhain marked the beginning of the Celtic winter, the dark counterpart of May 1, the beginning of the Celtic summer. Unable to feed whole herds through the long winter, the ancient tribes would keep the strongest and best of their animals as breeding stock and slaughter the rest, preserving the meat to see them through the winter. Crops too all had to be harvested and stored by this time. The fruits and nuts of the harvest have always had a hidden sexual and ritual significance – the seeds hidden deep within them as in the female body redolent with the promise of fertility and fruitfulness.
Field work largely over and daylight growing shorter, Samhain would have been a time of deliberate and tribally-necessary sexual freedom. Winter would always have taken its toll on the old and weak and tribal populations had to be maintained.
In some modern Wiccan covens, the festival of Samhain celebration will include a very beautiful ritual or symbolic act of sex as an affirmation of life at this dark time with its ancient and primal echoes of death.
At this time also the fragile balance between the dying half of the year and the half about to be born causes the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead to become thin and as the tribes sat around their fires at the ritual feast they would invite their loved ones and wise ones who had passed into the realms of death to return for this night and join them, perhaps offering – through those who were psychic and able to receive it – words of wisdom and advice for the tribal leaders.
Traditionally too, at Halloween, the doors to the hollow hills or mounds of the Sidh or fairy folk stand open, so who knows what mischievous goblins or other eldrich creatures may be thronging about us unseen as we make our way to parties or as masked and sheeted wee ghosties plague innocent householders as guisers to be propitiated with sweets, nuts and money?
There can be little doubt that Samhain was originally a fire festival, as is Beltane, but Samhain would have been a time of propitiation of the ancient Gods.
In fact, survival may have depended on selecting a suitable sacrifice which may even have been the aging king or leader of a community and these ritual deaths would have undoubtedly have been by fire. In later times, the sacrifice would have been symbolic, of course, but even today this ritual is unknowingly re-enacted by the burning of an effigy – the fire festival having been moved to November 5 and more commonly associated with Guy Fawkes.
In Wicca, however, there is never sacrifice – all life being sacred – but the God of the Witches is honoured as being the dominant force in winter; the Goddess in her fruitful aspect having retired to the Underworld to await spring.
One thing Samhain has always been is a time for feasting and family and in the Wiccan craft this is very much a part of the festival. It is a time when people get together for the most important night of the pagan year, when we are most aware of our mortality but also most aware of our faith in the knowledge of life eternal; the continuity of the spirit and the fulfilment of life which is our ancient heritage.
Sandy Christie is a Wiccan priestess and elder who lives in Edinburgh