Sunday, I celebrated Samhain with the grove. Before the ceremony, some of us hiked out to visit a huge Black Oak (Quercus veluntina) that lives in the park. We had been looking for a new name for our grove, since much has changed since we were initially named Llyn Hydd. We settled on “Black Oak Grove” because of this beautiful tree, but there’s an ADF group called “Red Oak Grove” in the area and we didn’t want to confuse anyone, so instead we’re officially Coille dhe Darach Dubh (and if that’s spelled wrong it’s entirely my fault.) This means, of course, Black Oak Grove. We did a re-naming as part of our Samhain ceremony. The new name hasn’t quite settled in yet, and I suspect it will get shortened.
I did my Calan Gaeaf ritual for the Sisterhood on Saturday night. It was deep and intense and involved firelight and solitary contemplation. I did the Samhain ritual with the grove, which was also deep and intense, but in a communal way, out in the sunlight. Tomorrow night, I’ll do the AODA Samhuinn solitary ritual. Last year when I decided to dedicate my path to a particular tradition, it would mean that this long-standing habit of doing multiple rituals for each holiday would end. Hah. I think I just like it this way, though. I love doing ritual, alone or in a group, and working in just one paradigm is less than satisfying.
The following is part of a longer written assignment that I did for the Sisterhood. One of the reasons I haven’t been posting much here is that I’m doing this Sisterhood of Avalon thing that involves lots of writing, so the time that I would have spent writing for the blog is going into these documents. It’s worth it, but then my poor blog feels neglected. So, I’m posting this brief history as my Samhain post, though it was written for a different audience.
The day that we of the Sisterhood of Avalon honor as Calan Gaeaf has its roots in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. According to Alexei Kondratiev, the Coligny Calendar is the earliest reference to this festival. The Coligny Calendar is a Celtic lunar calendar and dates from the 1st century CE. This calendar divides the year into two halves, Samonios, the summer and Giamonios, the winter. The time between Samonios and Giamonios is called “Trinouxtion Samonii” (three nights of Samonios) and is one of only a few dates in the calendar that is actually named and noted, indicating its importance to the Celts. The word “Samhain” is usually translated as “end of summer,” though Kondratiev considers this a folk etymology since the word Samonios is not related to this interpretation. The Celtic languages all name this time as the end of summer and the beginning of winter. The Irish call it Samhain; the Scots, Samhuinn, and the Manx, Sauin. These Gaelic terms all refer to the end of summer, and in modern Gaelic countries, to the entire month of November as well as the festival itself. The Brythonic languages all name it as the beginning of winter – the Welsh call it Calan Gaef, the Bretons, Kala-Goanv, and the Cornish, Kalann Gwav. Though the Gaelic-speaking and Brythonic-speaking people name it differently, all celebrate in similar ways. Kondratiev sees this as evidence of a pan-Celtic Samhain tradition.
Samhain is a time that lies outside of time, being neither part of the old year nor the new. It was the day when all debts had to be paid and all that was needed for winter was accounted for. Animals were brought down from the pastures and those that were not needed to continue the flocks were slaughtered in preparation for the coming dark. This was a day outside of time, neither of the old year nor the new, neither of the light nor of the dark. This reflects the essential Druid tradition that “every end is a beginning and every beginning an end, in a circle of completion and renewal.” (Greer 181).
This liminal state made it an ideal time for contacting the Otherworld and the ancestors. It also made it a time for disguises and trickery. Masks were worn so that the spirits that wandered free at Samhain would not know the mortals from their own kind. In the ballad of Tam Lin, it is at Samhain that Janet has to hold her lover as he transforms into many shapes to break free from the Faerie Queen that has enslaved him. This is a time when transformations can take place. In modern times, this element of the season has survived in the tradition of Halloween trick-or-treating. Brendan Cathbad Myers suggests that the both the honoring and the mocking of the dead and the Otherworldly powers that happens at this time were ways to psychologically prepare people for the inevitable hardships of winter. This theme of transformation and transfiguration is a reminder that no matter how diminished, dark and cold the year becomes, the light will eventually return – indeed, the darkness is necessary for the light to exist.
Bonfires were an important part of the old ceremonies. In Ireland, all fires were put out on Samhain and relit at the grave of an ancient priestess. Fire was the gift of the Goddess to the Tribes. Offerings would be cast into the fire, and all the hearthfires would be relit for the year from the great bonfire. This use of the bonfire is echoed in the use of the fire to burn our Descent projects – as we turn towards the darkness,
In the 1950’s, Gerald Gardner and Ross Nichols combined the ceremonial calendar of traditional British Druidry, consisting of the Solsitices and the Equinoxes, with the old Celtic cross-quarter days of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine, and Lughnasadh to create a ceremonial calendar called the Wheel of the Year. Gerald Gardner was the founder of Wicca, while Ross Nichols was an extremely influential figure in modern Druidry. Through the work of these two important individuals, the Wheel of the Year has become the most commonly used ritual calendar of modern Paganism. Through this route Samhain has come to be of key importance in these new practices.
To Wiccans, Samhain is a time for reflection, divination, communicating with the dead, and seeking the deep places of the self. As Wiccan author Dianne Sylvan puts it, “At Samhain, the past year finally slips away, and with one last breath we close our eyes . . . only to open them again at another time, another place, another life.” (Sylvan, 120). Wiccans will often create altars and rituals to honor the ancestors and the beloved dead at this time. The veil between the worlds is thin, but for them, this is not a time for fear; rather, it is a time to rejoice in the nearness of the spirit world and those who have gone before.
Samhain is a multilayered symbol. As a season of the year, it symbolizes the change from light to dark in the length of days and nights and the shift from warm to cold. As an agricultural festival, it signifies the final end of the harvest and the time when all the work of harvesting, preserving and slaughtering has been done. As a spiritual holy day, it is the moment outside of time when communication with other worlds is easiest. It is a time of flow, symbolized in multiple traditions with the element of water and the West, the place of the sunset. This is a time of deep emotion, endings and beginnings.
The Druid author Ellen Evert Hopman writes, “Samhain is, in essence, the time of preconception, the time of descent into black chaos from which new ideas and new life will ultimately spring.” (Hopman 23). This reflects the work of the Station of Descent that we do in the Sisterhood of Avalon. The same themes, from the ancient Celts to the modern Pagans, are explored but the emphasis is on inner transformation. This is in accord with the tides of the season, but as the Avalonian tradition focuses on personal transformation, the quest is for that which is hidden within. The veil is thin at this time, and the realms of the Otherworld exist within ourselves as well as between ourselves and other beings. The psyche also has its ghosts, and in the Avalonian tradition, Calan Gaeaf is the time to seek out those hidden spirits of the soul.
Blamires, Steve. Magic of the Celtic Otherworld. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 2005.
Greer, John Michael. The Druidry Handbook: Spiritual Practice Rooted in the Living Earth. York Beach, ME: Weiser Books, 2006.
Hopman, Ellen Evert. A Druid’s Herbal for the Sacred Earth Year. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1995.
Kondratiev, Alexei. The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual. New York: Kensington Publishing, 2003.
Kondratiev, Alexei. Samhain: season of death and renewal. An Tríbhís Mhór: The IMBAS Journal of Celtic Reconstructionism; 1998;2(1/2). Available at http://www.imbas.org/articles/samhain.html; accessed October 3, 2007.
Matthews, Caitlin and Matthews, John. Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom: A Celtic Shaman’s Source Book. Rockport, MA: Element Books, 1994.
Myers, Brendan Cathbad. The Mysteries of Druidry. Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books, 2006.
Sylvan, Dianne. The Circle Within. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 2005.
Telyndru, Jhenah. Avalon Within: Inner Sovereignty and Personal Transformation through the Avalonian Mysteries. BookSurge, 2004.