In the Northern Hemisphere, neopagans celebrate Samhain as the last harvest, the point at which the day has shortened and winter is setting in. Some modern pagans consider it the “witch’s new year,” though in other traditions, Samhain marked only the end of the year. The beginning of the year, the “new year,” came with the promise of light’s return at Yule, several weeks later. The span between the two stellar points was considered untime — a sacred experience outside our usual observation of time and space. Thus, an understanding of cyclic “Dead Time,” or “Dark Time,” entered our consciousness.
Seen as an auspiciously magickal time due to its precise occurrence between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice, Samhain was associated with the point between life and death. It was an occasion for bonfires, the alchemical recipients of fetishes representing requests for healing, needs to be addressed. There was dancing and expressions of gratitude for the harvest, food set aside for the ancestors and protective spirits. From this “thinning of the veil” sprang rituals honoring the dead, as well as acknowledging the need for light.
Despite celebration, it isn’t difficult to imagine that our ancestors despaired at the sun’s retreat. Even after a bountiful harvest, winters were hard. Without the comforts that keep us warm, fed, and well, back then people and livestock didn’t survive the elements. The psychological ramifications of fearing what must have been perceived as the planet forsaken are not to be underestimated. More than a mere lull between seasons, Samhain represented a snuffing of inner light. For this reason, the necessity of impeccably understanding the experience of consciousness between spirit and form was called for. How else would one mentally sustain a long, dark winter that bore no assurance of survival?
In our modern lives we don’t generally explore our capability of handling diminishing inner reserves unless or until we are pushed by circumstance to do so. We do, however, understand the shadowy presence of seasonal affective conditions that plague so many in the winter months. I’ve often wondered if we still honored Samhain as the natural time of purging of fear and uncertainty, if we would handle challenging times during the rest of the year better. If we wildly danced around fires facing our deepest insecurities, fears and hungers, knowing that nature would assure us exactly the courage, inspiration and hopes that feed us most, would we still find ourselves in shadow? Would we have as many fetishes to throw on the bonfire? Would we carry as much stress from one harvest to the next? Could we put our demons down?
I know it’s still several weeks away, but the last harvest is upon us, which means a chance to explore our own darkness and reserves is coming, too. Take some time now to think about the accomplishments of this year. What needs to be let go and thrown on a magickally purifying fire? What seeds should be carried forward to plant next year? What inner wisdom sustains us to know the difference?
I invite you to learn more about Samhain, nature’s holy days, and the role they play in cleansing and supporting a healthy human psyche in Barbara Ardinger’s “Pagan Every Day: Finding the Extraordinary in Our Ordinary Lives,” and Donna Henes’ “Celestially Auspicious Occasions: Seasons, Cycles, & Celebrations.”