I have spent this Samhain and the days leading up to it in Ireland, the place from whose pre-Christian traditions we take our Wheel of the Year. As I type I am riding on a coach out of Killarney to Galway (crossing the River Feale just out of County Kerry into County Limerick, to be exact).
I have a fairly good idea of what my magickal group were doing yesterday for Samhain -- a mystery play commemorating the goddess Inanna's journey to visit her dark sister Ereshkigal. stripped of her seven 'me' (hilariously called 'doodads' by Ima in her fantastic Tuesday night lecture) as she moved closer and closer to the heart of the Underworld.
Like Lammas and Autumn Equinox, the two preceding festivals on the Wheel of the Year, Samhain continues the theme of death and going downward. That is, the death of ego as well as death of body, and also the movement downward into the dark of the year, into the time of dreaming. It is generally acknowledged that this is a time of year when the 'veils between the worlds' are thinnest.
Which worlds are these? In the case of Samhain, they are the Middle World -- the world of action and mundane human existence; and the Underworld, of course -- the realm of the dead, darkness, and water and earth, elementally speaking. (Note, at Beltaine, which is opposite Samhain on the Wheel of the Year calendar, the veils are thinnest between the Middle World and the Upper World, the realm of light and air, along with its elementals and spirits, particularly what we call in Ireland the sidhe -- fair folk).
Certainly traveling through Ireland's unseasonably cold and bleak landscape -- but still green and dotted with yellow blooming gorse, fuschia, wild rose, yarrow, prehistoric stone ring forts and beehive homes, and of course, sheep -- sets an enchanting and somewhat somber atmosphere for Samhain. A fair number of trees have already lost their leaves, exposing cores wound round with ivy, and many of those deciduous trees still bearing leaves look aflame against the purple-grey clouds.
The serene but subdued scenery stands in contrast to Ireland's history; much more so than the last time I was here I have heard about the sorrows of this land, most tragic of which are of course the famine, civic unrest and oppression by the British, a sorrow that I imagine is passed on even in cellular memory from generation to generation. The sense of loss and longing is echoed through the stories of many of our tour, more than a few of whom have experienced personal tragedies and recent deaths of family members and friends.
One of the things we usually do on Samhain is to honor the dead and our ancestors. Specifically, we speak their names, in the belief that because the Wheel of the Year has brought us down into the darkness and closest to the Underworld, they can hear us, and through our spoken memory, live on.
This is only my second time to Ireland, and I don't know most of the people on this tour, brought together by my husband's music. I had planned to arrange for at least a private ritual recognition of Samhain, such an important cross-quarter point on the calendar. But one has to be sensitive about how far strangers (or friends) are willing to move outside their comfort zone.
For example, last night I was talking to a friend about Samhain and how I wished we could come together as a group to somehow acknowledge it and speak the names of our dead in this beautiful land. Not a full-blown 'ritual' by any standards, but something more formal than over a plate of fish and chips. To my surprise, this person said she didn't feel the need to do much ritual with others anymore because it had already been integrated as a part of her everyday private life. She follows an eastern path and meditates everyday. I realized that if I had been asked the same question a few years back I probably would have answered the same way.
This discussion made me consider the need for such things -- for ritual in general but for community ritual in particular. I like to think that like my friend, most of my mundane life is actually a protracted ritual, or perhaps strung together with moments of ritual and recognition of the divine throughout the day. Some might call this prayer, and that would be pretty accurate I think.
But I think that it is not always enough. Certainly for those who do not make time to create sacred space throughout the day or week or month, a gathering less formal than, say, church, could alter their view in a healing and organic way, and bring them more in tune with the natural rhythms of the year and our human life. Setting and time have everything to do with this. Recently I heard a Catholic bishop say that love and spirituality work best if they are organized, and at some level this resonates with my line of thinking.
Community ritual, even if it is as small as just two people -- gives those participants a chance to bear witness, which goes a long way toward validation of self and other. It is an opportunity for reflection as well as integration. It is a chance to bond in a uniquely human way, at the soul level.
In the case of Samhain, to share the names and stories of our deceased loved ones in community momentarily (or perhaps more than momentarily, who knows?) expands the memory of the past, strengthens our connections to it.
"Yes, I share your memory," we say.
"Yes, I share your sense of loss," we say.
"Together we help each other to see the faces of those who have left us."
And maybe above all, we say and hear, "Yes, a part of us went down with them for a time into the Underworld, an experience that has left us forever changed."
A blessed Samhain to all souls out there, above and below.