Samhain is the end and the beginning of the Celtic New Year, a powerful and exciting time if you value the deep transitional alchemy of this part of the cycle. Samhain is an affirmation of rebirth in the midst of death and darkness,the end and death of the old year, bringing opportunity for renewal and new beginnings.
In the past Samhain (pronounced Sow-ein),was acknowledged, like Beltain, as a particularly potent time when the veil between the seen world of matter and the unseen world of spirit becomes thin. Traditionally it has always been seen as a time to explore the inner mysteries, a time for divination, omens, portents, for communication with the ancestors and the spirit realms. It is a time of reflection, resting, drifting, dreaming and connecting to the wisdom within ourselves.
Darkness was important to the Celts. To them it was as important as the light. Darkness and death had power which they did not fear. Here at Samhain, as the Earth is plunged into its darkest time of the year, they blessed the seeds whose germination in the dark would once again bring life, when the Sun returned. Ceremonies were held at the burial mounds, tumuli and long barrows. Womb and tomb were closely linked in the Celtic mind, and this explains why so many tombs of this period and earlier, had tunnel entrances leading to a dark inner chamber. Not only were they places where the important dead were buried, but they are also important centres of Earth energy which were, and can still be, used to enhance inner journeying. They communicated with their ancestors, believing deceased family members could visit their loved ones at this time of the year. Places were laid at the table during the feast so that the dead could be with their families and friends. Both the word ghost and the word guest have their roots in the German 'geist', originally a spirit of the dead invited to the Samhain feast.
Samhain became the Christian All Souls Night, All Hallows Eve (Halloween) of 31st October and All Souls Day of 1st November. Fear and superstitions replaced the potent power inherent in this celebration. It was thought that others could also slip through the gap in space-time: the faerie, the sidhe, hobgoblins, elves and other mischief makers. This is the root of Halloween's 'mischief night'. Only those in disguise could venture out. The emissaries of the devil were also feared along with evil ghosts and many 'horrors of hell' which were let loose on this night which all good Christian folk were led to fear.
Samhain is one of the four great Fire Festivals of our Celtic past. Bonfires called 'samhnagan' were lit on the hilltops - the tumuli and burial mounds of the communities past. All the other fires in the community were put out and were then rekindled from the samhnagan. The Church brought the people away from the burial mounds, but Samhain customs continued to thrive. Each village or household lit their own bonfires. (Note the proximity to our bonfire night). In Wales, omens were read from white stones which were thrown into the ashes of the fire and then interpreted the next morning by the marks found there. Halloween apple games grew out of the Celtic belief in the apple as a holy fruit, sacred and magical, a means to immortality, death and rebirth. In Celtic myth, the apples of the goddess, (sometimes called Hels apples, after the Underworld goddess Hellenes) signified a sacred marriage and a journey to the land of death and rebirth. Later, Hels apples became the poisoned apples of Christian folklore which the 'wicked witch' used to kill her victims. Cutting the apple transversely reveals the hidden five pointed star in the core, the magic pentacle, sign of the dark mysteries of the goddess and protection. Apples continue to be used at Samhain for games and divination.
Here the Grain Mother becomes the Crone, the wise woman, the death aspect of her trinity, until she is reborn as her virgin aspect with the rebirth of the Sun at the Winter Solstice. The Sun king is sacrificed back into the land having swelled the seeds which now lie in the dark of the Earth until the Sun's return. He too becomes a death god and shaman, able to travel the inner realms. These myths reflect the understanding of the year's cycle. Death and darkness were seen as a period of rest and regeneration before rebirth.
Hell was previously a Norse Queen of the Underworld, Hellenes, and 'Hel' a uterine shrine, a sacred cave of rebirth deep within the Earth. The dark regenerative power of the goddess was honoured throughout the Celtic and ancient world. Rhea-Kronia (the female counterpart to Cronos) devoured time itself, returning to the dark elemental formless chaos before time. Kali or Kali Ma, the Dark Mother of the Hindu Triple Goddess, devoured her own children. Rhiannon, also known as the Mother of Time, also devoured her own children and rode her horse through the regions of the dark. Morgan le Fey, Morgan the Fate, Morrigan, the Queen of Phantoms, a death goddess, reappeared in the Arthurian legends as Morgan. Cerridwen who kept the Cauldron of Rebirth and Regeneration, was known as the Grandmother of Memory and the Keeper of the ancestral gateway. Cailleach, the Black Mother, made the world. Scotland was once Caledonia, the land given by Cailleach or Cale. 'Scotland' came from Scotia, a Roman goddess known as the Dark Aphrodite, and known to the Celts as Satha or Scythia. To the Scandinavians, she was known as Skadi, personified as an old woman, hag or Veiled One. Mana and Mara were ancient Roman Goddesses whose ancestral spirits were called Manes, and ruled the Underworld. Maia was the Greek grandmother of Magic, mother of Hermes, the enlightened one, who conducted the souls of the dead to the Underworld. Hecate was one of the oldest Goddesses in her crone aspect, found in ancient Greece. She ruled Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld; she ruled magic, omens and prophecy and she was also known as Persephone, ruler of the Underworld of ancient myth. Other goddesses of the Underworld include Minerva, Athene, Sophia and Medusa. The word 'crone' may have come from Rhea Cronia, Old Mother Time, but may also be linked to 'corone', the carrion crow which was sacred to the death goddesses. Black was the colour she assumed before her re-emergence as her white virgin aspect at the Winter Solstice. Samhain can be seen as a psychic return to the dark womb, a time for regeneration and rest.
Samhain is named after an Aryan lord of death, Samana or Samavurt who, along with other pre-Christian male gods, was given the title the Grim Reaper, the Leveller, the Dark Lord, Leader of Ancestral Ghosts, the Judge of the Dead. Sata, the Great Serpent, was an underground aspect of the Sun found in ancient Egypt, the root of Satan, the Angel of Darkness. Pluto, Hades, Aidoneus, Saman, Sammael, Cronus, Saturn, Hermes, Samanik, were some of the old gods associated with death and the Underworld which the Church personified as the devil. The Underworld and darkness became a place to fear and the Celtic understanding of its regenerative aspect became lost. The Church created hell out of the Celtic Otherworld, and every sadistic cruel fantasy man could invent, was assigned to it.
Use this time for rest and renewal. Slip beyond the rational and the logical and go beyond the seen world, listen to your intuition and learn to value this as part of your whole self. Use this time for learning, for collecting, sorting and memorising information, so that when the time for action comes, you will have assimilated new knowledge which can be used when needed. Fear is one of our greatest teachers. Turn and look at what you fear and where the roots of this may lie. By being open to your intuition, new insights and realisations may be revealed. use this time of rest to seek out the old patterns of thought or behaviour which are not serving you well. Once revealed you can choose to think and live in a different way. Review and assimilate what you have learned in the active phase of the year's cycle. Out of difficult situations comes power, hope, rebirth, inner strength, wisdom and maturity. Nurture new visions, dreams, ideas and direction, so that they may incubate in the dark winter months ready to be named and birthed at the Winter Solstice.
The Nigredo and Putrefaction alchemical processes bring the same teaching as Samhain. The substance in the flask is broken down to its base components, becoming black decaying matter. Nigredo is the ending of one cycle, out of which new possibilities are revealed. It involves a descent into the darkness to find our Lead, which is also our Gold, the alchemists prime substance, base matter, the very essence of life. It is an opportunity to go deep inside ourselves to explore our Lead. What weighs you down and stops you moving forward? What dampens your fire? What blocks your joy? These things will eventually manifest as illness if not transformed. Once we have identified these things we can begin to transform them into our Gold.
I let go of all the 'should haves' and failures, my worries and insecurities, and all the hurts and fears I have been hanging on to that have limited and bound me. They fall away from me like leaves from my tree. They become my compost as they rot and decay. This is the alchemical experience of Putrefaction. It is the composting of all the matter in the flask, which comes from the release, the breaking down of all the separated parts and the letting go of stored negativity.
By letting go of the old I empty myself so that I can rest uncluttered, unhindered by baggage from the past. I lie back and enjoy the peace and the darkness, as I dream new dreams and see potential in new possibilities. My alchemist flask is now full of well rotted composts, ready to receive the new seeds that will take me into the next cycle.
Glennie Kindred September 2013