By J Day
When you think of Halloween, what do you see? Spiderwebs, pumpkins, skeletons, sweets, children. As a Pagan, it means something quite different to me. Pagan was originally a pejorative term for non-Roman polytheists. Nowadays it more often describes those with a spiritual belief in nature.. While there isn’t a definite Pagan faith, there is a shared notion of the natural world dictating our realities.
This was more relevant to people living in agricultural communities than the modern world, so why is paganism seeing a resurgence? The return to nature in our busy, technologically enhanced society is a respite for some, a source of grounding and a way to understand one’s place in the world.
Before the rise of Christianity and the Roman empire, Pagans lived throughout Europe. They worshipped many deities, often incarnations of natural places and events like fertility and the harvest. They followed what is often called ‘The wheel of the year’, a calendar that tracked the seasons as well as the movements of the sun and moon. Marked on this calendar are Sabbats, the equinoxes (when day and night are equal) and solstices (the longest or shortest days in the year).
Samhain (often pronounced sow-een) falls between the fall equinox and winter solstice, marking the start of the new year, from the 31st October overnight to the 1st November. Some believe that throughout the wheel of the year there follows a symbolic creation story.
The Goddess (the moon) and the God (the sun) go through a life and death cycle. At this point the God dies as the colder months move in and the Goddess conserves her strength ready to give birth to him again at the winter solstice. Throughout the year he grows in strength and fertility, eventually impregnating the Goddess between the spring equinox and summer solstice as the vitality comes back to the earth.
This is simply a story to attach meaning to the seasons and not one every modern pagan ascribes to. Personally, in an age where the gender binary becomes less and less relevant, I prefer to view the masculine/feminine dichotomy presented in many pagan beliefs as a necessary positive/negative balance as seen in nature, down to our atomic level. Although, in it’s symbolism, it reminds us that the world, time and nature marches on, and makes us reflect on the effect on our own lives.
Samhain was time to account for the harvest and livestock, sacrificing parts of the herd to survive the winter. It included feasting and celebration of the successes of the year, with some early documented texts recording three days and nights where the community had to present themselves to local chieftains.
But it was also the time of year when the veil between life and death was at its thinnest. Some believed spirits would roam the earth causing mischief such as the Tuatha De Danann, the divine race of faerie folk from Irish legend or the Pooka, a spirit that would tarnish any unharvested crops, as well as the spirits of those passed. It was believed that if you dressed as a monster or animal, it would dissuade the spirits from kidnapping you.
There were a great many traditions and beliefs related to the celebration of Samhain throughout the ages and even after the introduction of Christianity these persevered with the burning of fires by family households to start the year, called Samhnagan in Scotland. Even within our modern interpretation of Halloween, there are lingerings of the traditions created by our ancestors: going door to door singing songs for the dead to be rewarded by cake.
Why does any of this matter to someone who buys their vegetables from Aldi and has never reaped a harvest in their life? Clearly, the comings and goings of an ancient agricultural calendar has no real bearing on my life. I believe there is energy in this world, naturally formed and inexplicable, all around us. What makes the trees grow and the wind blow, that makes us, every living creature, every mountain and molehill, connected.
Through what force, I cannot explain nor do I worship it, but I can feel it there. I choose to believe that through the wheel turning, the seasons changing and the natural world moving, I can see my own life more clearly and intuitively.
I do not, as some do, celebrate with ritual and a more formalised belief system (such as Wiccan sects) but with a more casual observance. I use this time of year to reflect on my journey, who I was and set goals for who I hope to be. I look at my ‘harvest’, my accomplishments and my failures. I take reverence and comfort at the colour fading from the leaves because I know they have to die to live again, just as we all must live through hard times to come back afresh and full of life.
Image credit: rescueram3