Samhain, the Celtic festival that marks the beginning of winter, is still celebrated in many countries. Samhain, meaning 'Summer's End' is the time when the sun's power wanes, and the forces of winter and darkness - and therefore of the gods of the Underworld - grow in strength. It is a celebration of the dead, when the veils between the worlds open and the spirits of the dead can come into our world. During this time, all fires are extinguished, and the new fires can only be rekindled from the 'sacred' fire of the Druids. Herne the Hunter and his White Hounds sweep through the skies as they hunt the souls of the Dead and of the Dark. Samhain stands opposite Beltane, the festival of the beginning of summer, on the Wheel of the Year.
In English-speaking countries, we celebrate Samhain as All Hallows' Eve, or Halloween. Halloween is a time when sprites, trolls and nature spirits, as well as the spirits of the dead, can commune with human beings. These spirits demand some form of nourishment to propitiate them, for all spirits, both good and evil, crave life. Hence, our custom of 'trick or treat'. In Latin countries, the memory of this festival is celebrated throughout the Roman Catholic Church as the Feast of All Saints or Hallowmas, celebrated on November 1st., and the Feast of All Soul's Day celebrated on November 2nd. These are celebrations commemorating the dead, and many cultures believe that the dead need to be nourished on these days, both literally and spiritually. And so prayers are offered for the souls of the dead, while families leave out extra food to feed the wandering spirits in the night.
On Samhain, we are reminded that we too, as children of the Earth Mother, must face Death, and acknowledge that Death is the other face of Life. In facing the death of another year, as well as the possibility of our own deaths, we acknowledge that the rhythm of life is slowing down. Now, the darkness is most evident, and the life force turns within, retreating into the Underworld until the nadir is reached on Winter Solstice, when the Light of the World is reborn once again. The gift that Samhain brings is the knowledge that in accepting Death, the possibility of change and new life is just around the corner.
So here is a sacred Halloween Story for you!
flickr image by Doxi
The cold, silvery light of the full Moon reflected off the bone-white bodies of his hunting dogs as they raced the wind through the clouds. With a smile cold enough to match the moonlight, he slowly raised his arm above his head, and sent out his call to the winds, and they silently began to gather 'round him. Blood-red eyes shone with a hypnotic intensity as his hounds raised their heads to him, eagerly awaiting his command. The moonlight reflecting off the top of the cloudbanks was blinding, and all he could see of his pack were gleaming red coals of fire, flaming out of that field of white. He waited as the winds gathered their fury, now moaning and shrieking in the airy heights. The column of air funneled high into the atmosphere above his arm, straining to be let loose upon the world below. With a cold, triumphant cry, he finally flung out his arm, and with an explosion of sound and movement, the Hunt was on!
The old woman huddled more deeply into her cloak as the winds tugged at it with angry fingers. The coldness stung her eyes and then froze the tears as they formed. The winds shook the trees above her until the last remaining leaves flew free to brush against her on their wild ride to the forest floor.
"It will take more than a strong wind to scare me on this black night," the woman thought with a grin. Wiping her eyes and pulling the hood of her cloak closer around her head, she looked up. Through now-bare branches, she watched as the Moon sailed in and out of swiftly moving clouds, then looked back down at the forest path that shifted in shadows with the comings and goings of the light. Slowly, she continued on her way through the darkling forest.
Before she emerged into the hidden meadow, the woman stood within the shadow of the trees to stare out at the dark Mound rising into the sky on the far end of the field. With cries and groans, shrieks and howls, the winds swept through the treetops in a wild, dark dance. In the sudden wide expanse of sky, she could see how the clouds formed dark masses whose tops became snow-white fields as the light of the hidden Moon shone down upon the moving clouds.
"Ah! Sweet Lady of the Night!" The woman felt her heart swell with love as the Moon suddenly shone out into the clear cold night, turning everything to enchantment.
She released her breath as the dark veiling was drawn once again over the Lady's bright face, but that momentary vision had given the old woman new sight. Looking at the whitened fields above her, she saw ruby eyes and blood-red ears as Herne's hunting hounds rampaged through the night sky. Herne's cold laughter sounded in her ears and she thought, "So it begins!"
Another woman walked through the forest on her way to the Mound. As the Moon revealed Herself to the old woman, Her light found its way to the forest floor as this woman stepped onto an old wooden bridge crossing a stream. An ancient being watched her stop to look up at the sky, and saw that the woman was of middle years, with a strong face bleached white by the moonlight. As the woman watched the cloudy veils hide away the light, the Ancient One scampered under the bridge. "There," he thought, "I am hidden away from the human woman's sight. It wouldn't do for her to see me on this night of nights." And with a chuckle, he hunched down into the shadows beneath the bridge, and faded into the boulders that held up its wooden beams.
The woman threw back the hood of her cloak as she looked up into the face of her Mistress. "Ah! The Goddess plays with us tonight!" And the woman smiled in pure delight as the winds tossed leaves back and forth over the stream, sending them in twirling dances high into the sky, left to gently spin down as they were forgotten and left behind. As the clouds raced by, creating shadows only to spear them again with light, the woman caught sight of a gnarled figure scampering away under the bridge, and her breath caught in surprise. To see an Ancient One, on this night of all nights! Her Mistress was indeed with her tonight!