Like New Years' celebration all over the world, Samhain festivities fall into two sequential phases: one that signifies the return to Chaos, and involves the disposal of old goods, potlatches, parties, suspension of taboos, return of the dead, and the mixing of the two Worlds, in Past and Future; and a second whose theme is the rebirth of Order and Cosmos, of creating anew, of preparations, and of the rites of Samhain Morning. (As we are not an official, organized Grove, here in Orinda, but a gathering of Solitary Third Order Druids, First Orders, and friends, the election that would ordinarily be held for officers in an R.D.N.A. (Reformed Druids of North America) Grove will not need to be held. (Isn't it a relief!?)
The beliefs involving the return of the dead on Samhain Night are based on the Pan-European traditions of Samhain as the time when the Other World is closest to this one, and when, therefore, doors, passages, may open between the two. In Celtic myths these gateways were usually located at the Sidhi Mounds, the megalithic tombs of the Celts' Pre-Indo-European predecessors. But ways were also said to exist through sacred lakes and springs, and through caves in the crags. These doorways admitted passage in both directions. On special days, mortal heroes or heroines crossed to the Other World on quests, adventures or to obtain prophetic knowledge. Throughout Eurasia, the dead, who exist beyond time, are believed to know the future as well as everything that has happened in the past. Dead ancestors could help a favored descendent with this knowledge, or send health and prosperity, but first the petitioner must be in perfect estate, having broken no Geas, nor taboo, nor have incurred the censor of any Deity or Sidhi. In addition, the seeker must be in the good graces of the ancestor whose help is needed.
Health or disease came from the ancestors in the Celtic Cosmos; to live well one had to be on good terms with the dead and with one's past. The past becomes present again on Samhain, between the years. All oblations and funeral rites due the ancestors must have been offered, and all debts of this World paid, if the traveler is to step lightly between the Worlds. If all was not in perfect order, the quester might become trapped or the ancestors could send disease and misfortune when the passage opened. Or the wronged dead could pass into this World, and walk in the time between the years, seeking revenge.
The concept of going to the Other World for help from disease or to secure prophetic knowledge is found in several different European Samhain traditions, as well as among the Celts, is probably cognate with, descended from the Other World journeys of the Paleolithic Eurasian shamans. Similar, but more complex and complete traditions and epics have been preserved among the Siberian shamanic religions. There, going to the Other World(s) and returning to one's mortal body are usually the privilege of the clergy, i.e. initiate shamans. But in Europe, on Samhain, the Other World is very close, in Celtic verse, just a mist apart. On this night, there is no treacherous journey through intermediate kingdoms or being states. Tonight a mortal, albeit a hero or a heroine, could make the leap.
R.D.N.A members hold all night vigils, beginning with a bonfire at dusk when the first of the two Samhain services is held. All opened bottles of spirits must be finished by dawn, and there will be, then, no more fermented spirits in the Grove chalice until Beltaine. Plates of food and offerings should be set out, just beyond the firelight, for the souls of friends who have died in the past year. They may be invited to join the festivities.
At dawn, the second Samhain service is held. All remaining liquor is sacrificed in the fire, and the Third Order Druids exchange their red ribbons and ornaments for the white of the Season of Sleep. There is pure water in the Chalice. The new year has begun.
In preparation, all debts should be paid, or arrangements for them brought into harmony. All rites due to the dead, and the past, should have been performed, and all obligations to the living brought current. Then enter the Time-Between-the-Worlds "without burden, without geas, without malice."
Originally posted as a Druid Missal-Any, Samhain 1986. Emmon Bodfish is founder of Druid Missal-Any Magazine, selections of which have been reproduced in Green Book of Meditations, Ed. Mike Scharding, Drynemetum Press, 2003.
Emmon Bodfish is founder of Druid Missal-Any Magazine, selections of which have been reproduced in Green Book of Meditations, Ed. Mike Scharding, Drynemetum Press, 2003.