Archives For Ancestors

A Blessed Samhain

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 31, 2013 — 4 Comments

Tonight and tomorrow is when most modern Pagans celebrate Samhain. Samhain is the start of winter and of the new year in the old Celtic calendar. This is a time when the ancestors are honored, divinations for the new year are performed, and festivals are held in honor of the gods. It is a time of final harvest before the long winter ahead. It is perhaps the best-known and most widely celebrated of the modern Pagan holidays.

An ancestor altar.

An ancestor altar.

“[Samhain] marks the beginning of an entire new cycle. With the return of Darkness, the Year itself returns to the Otherworld womb from which it will grow to blossom again. All true growth takes place in darkness: the source of vitality is in the unconscious, before consciousness discovers the limiting forms of rationality.” – Alexei Kondratiev, The Apple Branch

This time of year also sees the celebration of Velu Laiks (“the time of spirits”) by Baltic PagansWinter Nights by Asatru in mid-October, Foundation Night in Ekklesía AntínoouFete Gede by Vodou practitioners, Día de los Muertos for followers of Santeria and several indigenous religions in Mexico and Latin America, Diwali for Hindus (November 3rd this year), and astrological “true” Samhain on November 7th for some Witches and Druids. In addition, Pagans in the Southern Hemisphere are currently celebrating Beltane.

It is a time when some communities acknowledge the Mighty Dead.

“The Mighty Dead are said to be those practitioners of our religion who are on the Other Side now, but who still take great interest in the activities of Witches on this side of the Veil. They have pledged to watch, to help and to teach. It is those Mighty Dead who stand behind us, or with us, in circle so frequently.”

Zan's memorial with Gary Suto (left, with flaming mandala) and parents Kay and Bruce Skidmore (to right of Gary).

Zan Fraser’s memorial.

Many who have been dear to our communities have crossed the veil this past year, joining the ranks of the Mighty Dead, including Layne Redmond, Nevill DruryMestre Didi, Zan Fraser, Allan Lowe, Peggy Hall, Lee Thompson Young, Barbara MertzRituparno Ghosh, Laura Janesdaughter, Victor Elon Anderson, Kyril Oakwind, Dennis Presser, Deena Celeste Buttta, George Lee, and Patricia Monaghan.

“I love that story about Susan Anthony that Zsuzsanna Budapest tells in her book. Some journalist asked Susan Anthony, because she didn’t believe in orthodox religion, I suppose, “Where do you think you’re to go when you die?” She said, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to stay around and help the women’s movement.” So even if I don’t live long enough to see these things, I’ll be around to make a nuisance of myself.” –Doreen Valiente, the Mother of Modern Witchcraft.

Below you’ll find an assortment of quotes from the media, and fellow Pagans, during this holiday season.

Joseph Mugnaini’s cover illustration for The Halloween Tree, by Ray Bradbury (1972)

Joseph Mugnaini’s cover illustration for The Halloween Tree, by Ray Bradbury (1972)

  • “It’s appropriate to do a saining of the home with juniper — a New Year tradition in the highlands of Scotland — and to set up altars or shrines for the ancestors. On the night of Oíche Shamhna, many of us hold a feast with our friends and family where we invite the honored dead to come and feast with us. A place of honor is laid at the table or on the altar, where the first food of the feast and cups full of drink are placed for the dead. This portion of the food is never eaten by the living, but is instead offered outside when the feast is done. Candles are often lit for the dead, and their names are spoken. Tales about their lives are shared and toasts might be made in their names. Divination is another common feature of this festival, and readings are often done to get a feel for the luck of the coming year.”The CR FAQ
  • “We’ve been doing the Ancestor Vigil here for about 20 years and every year it is a little different but the intention is always the same. It is not a Samhain ritual, it is not a celebration of Hallowe’en, it does not glom onto the trendy love of Dia de los Muertes. It is a ritual commemoration of the Recent Dead, the Beloved Long Dead and the Mighty Dead. We set up a central altar, a candle-lighting station and a place to get more info on Mother Grove Goddess Temple and to leave your food donations for the food pantry. People are invited to place mementos on the altar and there is a place in the ritual where we speak the names of the dead that are closest to us.”Byron Ballard
  • “We see the Hallowmas Woman in the stark November landscape, with its muted tones of olive, ochre, sienna brown. We find her in a cold statue in a graveyard, garlanded with dead roses, thorns, and blood-red rosehips. We see her in fogbound mornings when there is no distinction between sea, stones, and sky, and the Otherworld is just a step away. She lives within the brief days and long nights that draw us toward withdrawal and cocooning. The Hallowmas woman rests. She withdraws into herself. It is not a time of connection. She prefers her own company, turning down invitations to gather with others. The midwinter holidays will be here soon enough.”Joanna Powell Colbert
  • “In Afro-Caribbean Religions like Voodoo, Vodou, and Lukumi or Santeria the true spirits of Halloween are the ancestors. Festivities run from October 30th to November 2nd. There are delectable dumb supper feasts, elaborate ancestors altars and offerings galore. It’s a time for reconnecting, remembering and honoring all those who have gone before. It is their blood that runs through our veins, they are the primary reason we are here.”Lilith Dorsey
  • “When I think of Samhain I think of the thinning of the veil between the worlds. In my grand model of the Universe – the constantly revised mental map I use to orient myself and make sense of my experiences – the veil is less a thing and more a condition.  It’s possible to travel from this world to the Otherworld at any time.  Drumming, dancing, and ritual can facilitate a meditative journey, as can skilled guides.  But at certain times and places these journeys are easier than at others. Traditionally, in-between times and places are most auspicious:  twilight, seashores, doorways – neither day nor night, neither land nor sea, neither within nor without.  Samhain, which literally means “Summer’s end,” is neither Summer nor Winter.  This is an ideal time to journey to the Otherworld to visit with our ancestors, to gather knowledge and wisdom, and to perform divinations.”John Beckett

May you all have a blessed Samhain, blessings to you, and your beloved dead on this season. Let this new cycle be one of great blessings for all of you.

A photo of the farm. Photo by William Scott.

The farm. Photo by William Scott.

I grab two pieces of firewood at a time from Alaric’s grandmother’s pile and throw them into the back of the trailer. Wood lands on wood with a solid clack, like the woodblock in an orchestra.

“Who cut this, anyway?”

Alaric drops a log onto the trailer. He is a few years older than me, old enough that we were never close until we were both adults. “Me and dad. We cut her three cords of wood for heat last winter – this is the leftovers from that. We’ll cut her another three this year.”

“Oh,” I say, setting my last load into the back. “So we’re not really stealing it from her.”

I lumber into the trailer and sit on a bale of straw. Then Alaric starts up the tractor and we’re heading across the grass and down a gravel road, traveling down into a valley, coming to rest at a circle of just-mown grass with a depression in the center.

“Fire pit,” says Alaric with a self-congratulatory grin. “For later. I just made it yesterday.”

It’s Lammas, or the Saturday closest to it, anyway. We’re at Alaric’s family farm, somewhere in Jefferson County, Missouri, where his grandmother and several other relatives live in houses scattered across the property. Alaric lives a few minutes away, on the outskirts of Imperial, but for the past few years he’s farmed wheat and vegetables out here on the weekends and after work at his day job as a tech and data guy for a law firm. Most of his farm equipment is a hand-me-down from his deceased grandfather; he’s constantly taking it apart, rebuilding it, scavenging parts from other machines. His latest acquisition is a new combine. The one he had been using was made in 1955. The new one’s from ‘65. Practically just off the assembly line.

I grew up in the city, and that’s still where I’m naturally drawn to live; when I moved back to St. Louis, a little over a year and a half ago, the idea of living in the suburbs, much less the country, never occurred to me. Alaric, who grew up out here, likes to mock me for my city-boy ways: “You feel okay out here, buddy? I know everything’s not all paved over, the way you like it.”

Still. Riding in the trailer, looking out at the tree line rising up all around us, at the creek, at the weeping willow off in the distance… It’s hard to think anything else.

This place is paradise.

*     *     *

This is the first sabbat we’ve held at the farm, mainly because Alaric’s grandmother is severely Lutheran and would have certain reservations about her property being used as the site for witchcraft. She is at church all day today, though, which is apparently not an uncommon occurrence. Alaric told her he and his wife, Amanda, would have some people over for a party at the barn. Further details were omitted.

After we unload the wood, Alaric drives the tractor across a muddy stream to an ancient barn. Our family has gathered outside, drinking beer and bantering from their camp chairs. Inside the barn, a handful of them set out the feast. There are no lights in there, and shadows overtake the interior even though it’s only six in the evening.

We spend the next few hours discussing the dangers of smoking in the barn and the extent of the property line. There is a brief episode wherein bearded men spirit away the Baby Julian so Amanda, his mother, can have a rest. And then we pile into the trailer, seated on the bales of straw, and ride off to one of Alaric’s wheat fields for the ritual, singing John Denver’s “Country Roads” as we go.

Most of our rites, it must be said, are citified. We mention the harvest, yes, but usually in a metaphorical sense: we talk about the kinds of seeds we have planted in our lives, the kinds of bounties we can expect to reap. We mention the struggles our forebears endured, but we do not live off the land, as they did. We must find other ways to connect with the meaning of the festival.

This one, however, was different: we were performing it in an actual wheat field. Alaric and Amanda had actually harvested wheat here – the communion bread was made from that crop. For the first time in my memory, our harvest sabbat was literally about the harvest.

I don’t have any illusions about Wicca being an ancient religion; I know the specific things we do were not done by any mythical set of ancestors in the Times Before. But in that bread, made from wheat reaped by my brother and his wife, I could taste just a touch of the life my people must have once lived.

Perhaps it’s coincidence: my father had been telling a story all weekend of a man he’d met at work. He saw the man had a Celtic cross tattooed on his shoulder, and dad congratulated him on our mutual Irish ancestry. Then the man admitted, while rolling up a pants leg to reveal another tattoo of the Red Lion of Scotland, that he wasn’t pure Irish – he was Scots-Irish. Again, just like us. So they started comparing notes: where their families came from, where they settled. The similarities were uncanny: they both had relatives buried in the same tiny graveyard next to the Huzzah Baptist Church, a church that serviced a town that hadn’t been there in decades. “I think we must be cousins,” my father had told the man.

The bread made me think of those Scotts, the line of our tribe that had made its way here, to the heartland of America, who had resulted in me: their lives, and their struggles, and their hopes and dreams and failures. And thinking about that, as it always does, made me think about my other family: my coven, the family of choice that I never chose.

When we finish our bread and wine, Alaric and Amanda send us out to the fields to take some wheat, like the gleaning once allotted to the poor. I take Alaric’s knife and cut nine blades.

I don’t take the hay ride back. I walk with my father back to the barn, mostly in silence. We cross through the woods, over shallow streams and bridges, over grass and gravel. I am thinking about the harvest to come.

*     *     *

Every time I’m near a bonfire now, I find myself singing the runes into it. I don’t have any justification for this, other than it seeming like a thing worth doing. It’s simple: start with fehu, work your way to othala, sending each rune into the flames and then out into the world with the smoke.

I throw each of my wheat blades into the fire as I sang. Sometimes I miss – overshoot the fire, or toss with too little force, so that the blade ends up near the edges instead of the heart. But when the flames catch one, the blade erupts in bright orange light, then blackens, crumbles into the ash. These were my sacrifices, my gifts to the gods. Something for the future.

The fire spreads out of the pit, a tiny orange finger in the living grass. As one of the only people wearing good shoes, I stamp it out before it can get out of control. My friend Megan scolds me afterwards. “Be careful!” she says, pointing a finger from me to the fire. “I saw what you were doing over there.”

I smile and stand next to her. We watch the fire for a moment before she asks the question.

“So when are you leaving?”

“Tomorrow morning,” I say. “We’re picking up the U-Haul tomorrow and heading out as soon as we can load up the furniture and the books.”

She nods. “I’ll miss you,” she says.

“Columbia’s only two hours away,” says Web, one of my parents’ generation, on the other side of the fire. “You act like you’re moving to another continent.”

He had a point, of course. The problem wasn’t really the distance. It was what the distance implied about the future.

In the morning I would be leaving St. Louis again, so soon after returning. I was starting a PhD program at the University of Missouri, something I thought I had put behind me until I read the acceptance email while laid over in a Dallas airport en route to Pantheacon this year. The program was scheduled to take five years to complete. After that – assuming the academic job market still exists, which sometimes seems like a big “if” – I would be searching for work any place that would take me. A place that, undoubtedly, would not be St. Louis.

Since I became an adult, since I really understood what it meant to be a second-generation Pagan, I have begun to realize just how wonderful the circumstances of my life are. I knew that I wanted to inherit the coven from my parents, to shelter it, to give it to my own children someday. That’s such a rare gift, to have something like that, to pass it down. I know now that I probably won’t be able to do that, at least not as directly as I had hoped.

But then again, I can look across the fire and see Alaric and Amanda there, cradling little baby Julian.

Families are never about one person; they are about all of us, together. And if it so happens that I can’t be with them as much as I’d like, well, my family doesn’t live in Huzzah anymore, either. This is something every family experiences.

I kiss my family good night, pack up my bags and my trash, and set off towards home. I still have things to throw in boxes and furniture to get ready for the move. I won’t fall asleep until three hours before I need to wake.

It is Lammas, my last night in St. Louis, the night of the first harvest. I pass by the Weeping Willow tree and Alaric’s grandmother’s house. I turn from the gravel road onto the pavement, and make my way out of paradise.

Meeting the Pagans

Stacey Lawless —  February 14, 2013 — 8 Comments

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend whom I hadn’t seen in four years. She moved up north for a while and we fell out of touch, so when she moved back we had some catching up to do. The last time we’d seen each other, I was calling myself Heathen and thought that I might become a Freyrswoman. Needless to say, I had to explain that my spiritual journey had covered some ground since then. The strange thing was, as we talked, I realized that it felt like far longer than four years since I last lifted a horn in blót – even though I never lost contact with my local Heathens, and attended a blót as a guest only a few months ago. I also told my friend about getting ready for PantheaCon, and the contrast between how I felt about PCON and how I felt about my own Pagan past gave me some food for thought.

The road to PantheaCon opened for me in December, just a few weeks after my rayamiento. My Tata (Palo godfather) announced that he was going to be on a panel about minority religions and the media (“Setting the Record Straight: Pagans and the Press”), and checking the schedule, I saw that Jason Pitzl-Waters was also on that panel. I wound up getting into an online conversation with Jason about PCON that left me thinking I just had to try to go. Crowds aren’t my favorite, but I was thrilled about the Giant Pagan Event, plus I had the sense that here was a door that I had to try to get through. When my boyfriend agreed that yes, we should go, I was stunned (he’s so much more of a hermit than I am). We bought the various necessary tickets and made the plans and I’ve been thoroughly excited since . . .

But the funny thing is, I can’t quite figure out why I’m excited. I mean, it’s great to be stepping out, finally, into the wider world of Pagandom, meeting people, experiencing different traditions, and delighting in the gathering of the tribes. I find it very ironic, though, that I’m entering this world not as a Pagan, but as a Palera. For whatever reasons of destiny or personal quirks, I never found an expression of Paganism that resonated well with me, or provided a good vessel for my hopes, fears, personal growth or spiritual yearnings. I confess I got rather frustrated with the search, too, and there were more than a few times when I was tempted to write the whole thing off. And apparently the process left a few scars, because I realized the other day that although my identity is still oriented towards Paganism, in a general way, I think of you guys as “you guys” and not “us.”

This is an uncomfortable thing to write, not least because I’m writing it here on The Wild Hunt. The flip side, though, is that I am writing about it on The Wild Hunt, at the same time I’m talking about heading out to PantheaCon. Clearly, those scars don’t run all that deep. And I suppose this could mean that I’m going to PCON to find out why I’m going to PCON – that this is the part of my journey where I get to discover what Pagan things are like outside of my little corner of the Southeast.

There are definitely worse quests to undertake. And I do have some concrete goals and desires for PantheaCon which will keep me busy. There’s the glorious opportunity for networking, for example. I think Pagans and the African Traditional Religions are, or at least should be, natural allies in the contentious religious environment of the U.S., and I hope I can accomplish a little work to that end, even if it’s just swapping a few email addresses. Given that I’m going to meet the redoubtable Wild Hunt-ers in person, I anticipate this will be pretty fun and effective.

I want to see how the other ATR practitioners on the schedule present our religions. And, speaking of events on the schedule, I’m hoping to learn more about how different Pagan groups are doing Ancestor veneration and spirit-work. (Healing the dead, and healing with the aid of the dead, are old interests of mine that I now have the tools to pursue in earnest – and I may be on the verge of becoming something of an evangelist for Ancestor veneration. But that is definitely a topic for another post.) The Circle of Bones ritual, in particular, looks intriguing.

I’m completely stoked about the fact that I’m finally going to be able to meet friends in person who I’ve only ever known online. Also, this is the big opportunity to introduce my boyfriend to my Tata and some of the other folks in my Palo community, which is a small triumph considering we can’t afford to travel to the West Coast very often. And, of course, there’s that  one panel I simply must attend . . .

Roads opening, doors to walk through, quests to undertake. That does sound kind of Pagan, doesn’t it? I’ll be making notes on the journey, and will no doubt write about the adventures when I return. If you’re going to be at PantheaCon too, look for me – my hair’s not blue anymore but is still spiky, and you can’t miss the spiral tattoo on my neck. Come on over and tell me your story. I’m here for the gathering of tribes, after all, and I do want to meet you.

 

A Blessed Samhain

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 31, 2012 — 10 Comments

Tonight and tomorrow is when most modern Pagans celebrate Samhain. Samhain is the start of winter and of the new year in the old Celtic calendar. This is a time when the ancestors are honored, divinations for the new year are performed, and festivals are held in honor of the gods. It is a time of final harvest before the long winter ahead. It is perhaps the best-known and most widely celebrated of the modern Pagan holidays.

An ancestor altar.

An ancestor altar.

This time of year also sees the celebration of Velu Laiks (“the time of spirits”) by Baltic Pagans,Winter Nights by Asatru in mid-October, Foundation Night in Ekklesía AntínoouFete Gede by Vodou practitioners, Día de los Muertos for followers of Santeria and several indigenous religions in Mexico and Latin America, Diwali for Hindus (November 13th this year), and astrological “true” Samhain on November 6th for some Witches and Druids. In addition, Pagans in the Southern Hemisphere are currently celebrating Beltane.

It is a time when some communities acknowledge the Mighty Dead.

“The Mighty Dead are said to be those practitioners of our religion who are on the Other Side now, but who still take great interest in the activities of Witches on this side of the Veil. They have pledged to watch, to help and to teach. It is those Mighty Dead who stand behind us, or with us, in circle so frequently.”

Many who have been dear to our communities have crossed the veil this past year, joining the ranks of the Mighty Dead, including Russell Means, David Godwin, Gabrielle Roth, Richard Ravish, Owain PhyfeMike Gleason, Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, Anne Ross,   Margaret Mahy, David Grega, Katrina “Foxglove” Kessler, Grey CatFrisner Augustin, Richard Carpenter, Lord AthanorDe-Anna Alba, Nicol WilliamsonDanelle Dragonetti, and Roger Tier (Myrddin).

“I love that story about Susan Anthony that Zsuzsanna Budapest tells in her book. Some journalist asked Susan Anthony, because she didn’t believe in orthodox religion, I suppose, “Where do you think you’re to go when you die?” She said, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to stay around and help the women’s movement.” So even if I don’t live long enough to see these things, I’ll be around to make a nuisance of myself.” –Doreen Valiente, the Mother of Modern Witchcraft.

Below you’ll find an assortment of quotes from the media, and fellow Pagans, on the holiday.

“Now is a time to lay down your tools, the symbols of your productivity, and light a fire to honor not only what has been done throughout the past year, but also all that has preceded you — in this life, and in all the lives lived before. Now is a time to make space, in your heart and in your mind, for the stillness and silence of death.”Teo Bishop, “Samhain: May The Silence Open Your Heart,” The Huffington Post

“This is a time of year to remember those who have died, and also a time of year to celebrate those newly born, those who will inherit a degraded environment. Let the newly born call us to our aliveness and responsibility. May emerging truths compel us to choose actions of beauty and compassion. May these acts grow and multiply beyond our wildest dreams as we regroup in the aftermath of the storm, and reclaim our world. Blessed be.”Grove Harris, “Samhain 2012: Acts Of Beauty And Compassion,” The Huffington Post

“The Spiral Dance is inspired by the altar-building traditions of the Día de los Muertos. But primarily, the ritual is a solidly Pagan, Goddess religion-centered remembrance of the Beloved Dead, the Mighty Dead, and the Ancestors – loved ones who have died in the past year, those who have died recently or in the distant past who inspire our spirits, and our personal ancestors of blood, bone and breath. [...] The Spiral Dance differs from either ancient Pagan or Catholic traditions of remembering the dead because  it is also a celebration of rebirth – both inner and outer.”Elinor Predota, “Samhain: Blessed Be All Souls,” Patheos

“Halloween is thought to date back more than 2,000 years to a time when Celtic people celebrated New Year’s Day, or Samhain, on the equivalent of November 1. Legend has it that the day before, or Samhain eve (now known as Halloween), fairy and demon spirits would appear in the ether as they traveled to the afterlife. Celts dressed in costumes to stave off the evil spirits and tap into the souls of their ancestry.”  - Emily Spivak, “The Witches of Halloween Past,” Smithsonian Magazine

“To Witches, Halloween is one of the four High Holidays, or Greater Sabbats, or cross-quarter days. Because it is the most important holiday of the year, it is sometimes called “The Great Sabbat”. It is an ironic fact that the newer, self-created covens tend to use the older name of the holiday, Samhain, which they have discovered through modern research. While the older hereditary and traditional covens often use the newer name, Halloween, which has been handed down through oral tradition within their coven. (This often holds true for the names of the other holidays, as well. One may often get an indication of a coven’s antiquity by noting what names it uses for the holidays.)”Mike Nichols, The Witches’ Sabbats

May you all have a blessed Samhain, blessings to you, and your beloved dead on this season. Let this new cycle be one of great blessings for all of you.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

A Blessed Samhain

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 31, 2011 — 17 Comments

Tonight and tomorrow is when most modern Pagans celebrate Samhain. Samhain is the start of winter and of the new year in the old Celtic calendar. This is a time when the ancestors are honored, divinations for the new year are performed, and festivals are held in honor of the gods. It is a time of final harvest before the long winter ahead. It is perhaps the best-known and most widely celebrated of the modern Pagan holidays.


An ancestor altar.

This time of year also sees the celebration of Velu Laiks (“the time of spirits”) by Baltic Pagans,Winter Nights by Asatru in mid-October, Foundation Night in Ekklesía AntínoouFete Gede by Vodou practitioners, Día de los Muertos for followers of Santeria and several indigenous religions in Mexico and Latin America, Diwali for Hindus (October 26th this year), and astrological “true” Samhain on November 7th for some Witches and Druids. In addition, Pagans in the Southern Hemisphere are currently celebrating Beltane.

It is a time when some communities acknowledge the Mighty Dead.

“The Mighty Dead are said to be those practitioners of our religion who are on the Other Side now, but who still take great interest in the activities of Witches on this side of the Veil. They have pledged to watch, to help and to teach. It is those Mighty Dead who stand behind us, or with us, in circle so frequently.”

Many who have been dear to our communities have crossed the veil this past year, joining the ranks of the Mighty Dead, including Jehanah WedgwoodPeter ‘Sleazy’ ChristophersonShakmah WinddrumJanine Pommy VegaKenneth Grant, Bone Blossom, Merlin StoneLord SenthorBronwen ForbesSilva JosephBrian Fairbrother, Arthur Evans, and Lord Merlin.

“I love that story about Susan Anthony that Zsuzsanna Budapest tells in her book. Some journalist asked Susan Anthony, because she didn’t believe in orthodox religion, I suppose, “Where do you think you’re to go when you die?” She said, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to stay around and help the women’s movement.” So even if I don’t live long enough to see these things, I’ll be around to make a nuisance of myself.”Doreen Valiente, the Mother of Modern Witchcraft.

You can also find a list of departed pioneers, founders, and elders at the Green Egg Zine.

Below you’ll find an assortment of quotes from the media, and fellow Pagans, on the holiday.

“Folklore holds that liminal times and spaces (crossroads, thresholds, midnight, Samhain) bring us to a closer relationship with the Otherworlds, lands of enchantment and imagination. The Veil between our everyday world and the Otherworlds begins to thin. The inhabitants of the Otherworlds reach out to us and make themselves felt.. The nature of those inhabitants varies across stories and traditions – they may be the Good Folk, the puca and the bean-sidhe, the kelpie of the well and the hinkypunk of the marsh, and other kinds of creatures as well. Many of the secular traditions of Halloween are inspired by the tales of these creatures, playing on the possible relationships between humans and spirits.” - Literata and Morwen, The Slacktiverse

LGBT writers, such as poet Judy Grahn, have written of Halloween as a “great gay holiday.” Grahn wrote in her history of gay culture, Another Mother Tongue, that Halloween came to be observed by gay people as their special night because LGBT people had served as priests, witches, shamans, healers and intermediaries between living and spiritual worlds in many societies throughout history. [...] Jesse Monteagudo, a gay South Florida writer, wrote in Halloween: the Great Gay Holiday, that he believes LGBT people adopted Halloween as their special night because it had “a lot to do with our role as outsiders in society; our propensity for cross-dressing and gender-bending; our love for the unusual and the fantastic; our ability to find humor in the absurdities and misfortunes of life; our fascination with festive costumes and the world of make-believe; and our special capacity to have fun.”David Webb, Dallas Voice

In his book The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween, Jean Markale describes Samhain (pronounced “sow-en”) as an important festival that served to unite the tribe. To commemorate the New Year, fires all over the Celtic world were extinguished the night of Samhain, then relit from ceremonial blazes kindled by Druids, the religious leaders of the pre-Christian Celts. Animals were slaughtered and sacrificed to Celtic deities. “In marking the onset of winter, Samhain was closely associated with darkness and the supernatural,” adds Nicholas Rogers, a York University history professor, in Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. “The festival was closely related with prophecy and story-telling.” It was a time out of time, “charged with a peculiar preternatural energy.”Chris McGowan, The Huffington Post

Miguel de la Torre, Professor of Social Ethics at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, relayed a story told to him by a Protestant pastor. This man was in Mexico doing missionary work and had, for many years, refused to participate in annual Day of the Dead celebrations. He complained about the money that the people spent on candles and lamented their engagement with what he saw as “evil.” However, the year his father died, he reluctantly went to the cemetery. As the night went on, the pastor “lit candles, told stories of his father, and saw that as a healing moment and began to develop relationships with the people.”Mary Valle, Religion Dispatches

“Halloween or the Festival of Samhain for Wiccans is by far Salem’s biggest holiday of the year. There are all kinds of parties, celebrations like the “Temple of Nine Wells Samhain Magick Circle,” eerie séances, magic shows, concerts, readings and other “haunted happenings” to experience throughout October leading up to the big night. Ask around and you might get invited to some of the spookier, more exclusive events. Salem gets crowded during late October, but the spirit of the city is most alive during the sliver between our world and the next. This otherworldly revolving door is said to be the thinnest on All Hallows Eve.”Bob Ecker, Napa Valley Register

“The Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, honors departed souls of loved ones who are welcomed back for a few intimate hours. At burial sites or intricately built altars, photos of loved ones are centered on skeleton figurines, bright decorations, candles, candy and other offerings such as the favorite foods of the departed. Pre-Columbian in origin, many of the themes and rituals now are mixtures of indigenous practices and Roman Catholicism.”Russell Contreras, The Associated Press

May you all have a blessed Samhain, blessings to you, and your beloved dead on this season. Let this new cycle be one of great blessings for all of you. Also, in recognition of the holiday, I’ve created a special edition of my podcast chock-full of Halloween and Samhain-themed music! Enjoy!

Top Story: The harassment of Pagans by intolerant neighbors isn’t anything new, but it’s rare to hear on-the-record confirmation of that hostility from prominent citizens. The Sunday Mercury reports on the plight of Albion and Raven, owners of the The Whispering Witch in Alcester, a small market town in England. Opened 15 months ago, Albion and Raven claim to have gotten threatening letters, and even had a bundle of wood stacked in front of the shop’s door one morning, seemingly to imply that they should be burned. After talking to the couple, The Sunday Mercury interviews a local Baptist Reverend, and a member of the church who’s a former mayor of Alcester, and they seem to corroborate the hostility, though stop short of endorsing harassment.

Reverend Alistair Aird, from Alcester Baptist Church, condemned those behind the attacks but added: “My impression is that people in the town don’t feel that this is the kind of thing they want in Alcester. [...] Councillor Chris Gough, a former Mayor of Alcester and deacon at Alcester Baptist Church, added: “I’m aware that they are being frowned upon. Instinctively, it is not the sort of thing we want to see in the town. As a church-goer, I think we probably feel strongly about anyone who puts themselves forward as a witch in any form.”

This is exactly the kind of attitude that encourages an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. The faint condemnations of “if it is happening then it is the wrong thing to do” from Rev. Aird all but telegraphs that he won’t put any pressure on his flock to practice tolerance, allowing these activities to flourish. As for Albion and Raven, they say that  “Paganism is a recognised religion and we are here to stay.” Hopefully the press attention will spur some movement on this case, and bring out some local allies who might not have known that this was happening.

Pagans and the Pledge: Should local governments in the United States start with the Pledge of Allegiance? That’s the issue in Columbia, Missouri where the city council has voted to start each meeting with the loyalty oath. Looking for a number of perspectives, reporter Rudi Keller asks Centralia Alderwoman Jessica Orsini, who’s a Hellenic reconstructionist, for her take.

“I modify it a little,” said Centralia Alderwoman Jessica Orsini. “I say, ‘Under the gods’ because I am a Hellenic Reconstructionist, a polytheist. That means I follow the old Greek religion.”

Keller notes that saying personally modified versions of the pledge hasn’t always been tolerated, she quotes associate law professor Douglas Abrams who explains that “as far as loyalty oaths are concerned, there are many examples of American history where we become scared and demand overt statements of loyalty from minority groups.” What happens if religious minorities who alter the loyalty oath to their liking aren’t tolerated by locals? Or what about groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses who are barred from pledging to any power other than their God?  The Supreme Court ruled in 1943 that “compulsory unification of opinion” violates the First Amendment, but what’s legal and what’s tolerated can be two very different things.

National Ancestor Shrine Opens in Paganistan: Cara Schultz at PNC-Minnesota reports that Sacred Paths Center, a Pagan community center in St. Paul, Minnesota, has erected a national public ancestor shrine and sacred spirit altar.

“People talked a lot about having a shrine like this,” said Teisha Magee, executive director of the Sacred Paths Center. “An altar where anyone could come and light a candle, burn incense, put up a name plaque, or otherwise honor those who have passed the veil. Three of our members—Volkhvy, Ciaran Benson, and CJ Stone—came together with one mind and created exactly that.” [...] “The shrine is open to everyone,” said Ms. Magee. “We aren’t checking your Pagan credentials at the door. Candles and incense are available on the altar. Some folks like to leave flowers, food, or other offerings. For a small donation, Sacred Paths Center will inscribe an oaken plaque to go on the shrine. It’s like a small headstone, you get to choose the text and you can include a special message. There’s a plaque request form on the Sacred Paths Center’s website.”

You can learn more about the memorial altar/shrine, here. I find it interesting that two of the major contributors to this project are individuals who bridge modern Paganism and Japanese Shinto. Is Shinto and “Neo-Shinto” growing in popularity among Pagans? If so, will it result in more shrine-oriented projects like this one? In any case, congratulations to Sacred Paths Center on this achievement.

In the Wake of James Arthur Ray: While the ongoing legal maneuvers continue in the James Arthur Ray sweat lodge deaths case, Native Americans continue to try and make their perspectives on the misuse and appropriation of their sacred ceremonies known. One telling exchange happened between Ray and Diné (Navajo) medicine man Leland Grass during the last days of the initial trial.

Aware that many Native Americans, individually and through organizations, were incensed over his transformation and commercial use of their traditions and practices, particularly the tradition of the sweat lodge, Ray approached Grass humbly during a break and offered his hand. Grass shook it, nodded and the two spoke quietly for a time. “He told me he learned his lesson,” Grass said later. “I said ‘no, you have a lot more to learn.’”

Meanwhile, a juror has broken silence and talked with the press about the trial that convicted Ray of three counts of negligent homicide. It seems the jury didn’t buy the pesticides defense, though he also noted that prosecution didn’t do a good job of proving the more serious charge of manslaughter. Once the sentence for Ray’s conviction is finally handed down, you can bet there will be more appeals and legal wrangling to come.

How is Paganism Good for America? That’s the question posed by Star Foster at the Patheos Pagan Portal. I gave my own short response, which you can read at the portal’s Pantheon blog.

“No theology is perfect, but I believe polytheism, the belief in a multiplicity of the divine, is uniquely suited towards preparing the United States for its future. In his book “The Deities Are Many: A Polytheistic Theology,” York University Professor Emeritus of Humanities Jordan Paper concludes that “polytheism at best is a very positive human experience and is never less than benign. We do not find the angst, let alone the doubts, that many experience with regard to their relationship with the divine in the monotheistic traditions.” As America slowly moves into a post-Christian era, a nation where both immigrant and home-grown religious minorities are growing, and an ever-larger percentage (currently 15%) of our fellow citizens claim to specific religion at all, only a theology that can embrace the full tapestry of human belief will be able to change and thrive with these often tumultuous times. Modern Pagans are pioneers into this future, and have already encountered and accepted a multiplicity of belief systems, finding ways to not only coexist, but to create vibrant communities that encourage participation and engagement.”

You can read the whole thing, here. You can also check out Star Foster’s response to the question. If you want to weigh in on this issue, leave a comment here, or email Star Foster to submit a longer response.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

A Blessed Samhain

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 31, 2010 — 5 Comments

Tonight and tomorrow is when most modern Pagans celebrate Samhain. Samhain is the start of winter and of the new year in the old Celtic calendar. This is a time when the ancestors are honored, divinations for the new year are performed, and festivals are held in honor of the gods. It is a time of final harvest before the long winter ahead. It is perhaps the best-known and most widely celebrated of the modern Pagan holidays.


An ancestor altar.

This time of year also sees the celebration of Velu Laiks (“the time of spirits”) by Baltic Pagans, Winter Nights by Asatru in mid-October, Foundation Night in Ekklesía Antínoou on October 30th, Fete Gede by Vodou practitioners, Día de los Muertos for followers of Santeria and several indigenous religions in Mexico and Latin America, Diwali for Hindus (November 5th this year), and astrological “true” Samhain on November 8th for some Witches and Druids. In addition, Pagans in the Southern Hemisphere are currently celebrating Beltane.

It is a time when some communities acknowledge the Mighty Dead.

“The Mighty Dead are said to be those practitioners of our religion who are on the Other Side now, but who still take great interest in the activities of Witches on this side of the Veil. They have pledged to watch, to help and to teach. It is those Mighty Dead who stand behind us, or with us, in circle so frequently.”

Many who have been dear to our communities have crossed the veil this past year, joining the ranks of the Mighty Dead, including Len Rosenberg (Black Lotus), Lady Sintana, Isaac Bonewits, Alexei Kondratiev, Lady Svetlana, and Barbara Stacy.

“I love that story about Susan Anthony that Zsuzsanna Budapest tells in her book. Some journalist asked Susan Anthony, because she didn’t believe in orthodox religion, I suppose, “Where do you think you’re to go when you die?” She said, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to stay around and help the women’s movement.” So even if I don’t live long enough to see these things, I’ll be around to make a nuisance of myself.”Doreen Valiente, the Mother of Modern Witchcraft.

You can also find a list of departed pioneers, founders, and elders at the Green Egg Zine.

Below you’ll find an assortment of quotes from the media and fellow Pagans on the holiday.

“Death isn’t merely about human mortality. Samhain means “summer’s end” and the death of the fruitful season is also contemplated. We’ve each had dreams that died, feelings of love that died, prejudices that have died, and habits that have died. Let’s not forget that the passing of a pet or death of a beloved car is also cause to mourn. One of the four great fire festivals, Samhain is also about purification. The festival lies at the turning point of the Celtic year and you do not carry dead things into the new year. You prune your life, you pay respect to things past, and you move forward into the incubatory introspection of winter clean and new.”Star Foster, Patheos.com

“While local celebrants of Samhain may draw inspiration from a variety of spiritual traditions — including Celtic, neo-pagan, shamanic, witchcraft, Wicca, Druid and Native American — their observances share common themes: honoring the dead, crossing from summer to winter, beginning the Wheel of the Year anew, acknowledging death as a part of the cycle of life, expressing thankfulness for the Earth’s harvest and lifting the “veil” between our world and the spirit world.” - Cathie Laurent Schau, Kalamazoo Gazette

“For the witches of Weymouth it is one of their most important religious festivals, a time when they believe the barriers between the physical and spiritual worlds are at their thinnest. They invite the spirits of north, south, east and west into the circle, and cut apples to share with the spirits of people who have died. The leader of the coven, Diane Narraway, bids farewell to the goddess of light, and kneels before the head of a horned ram, holding her hands out as if to a flame. “I kneel before… the horned god, Lord of Witchdom, as we welcome him back to reign over the dark months,” she says.”Robert Pigott, BBC

“Here in Sonoma County both our main altar and our ancestor altar will be decorated with marigolds, and the central candles will be atop a wonderful Mexican ceramic skull, for we are blessed with the near coincidence of Samhain and Day of the Dead.  These two celebrations are particularly harmonious for both honor those who have passed on. Both connect with that part of existence we usually most avoid.  And Day of the Dead is celebratory towards those who have passed, helping us connect with our ancestors, something far less prevalent in NeoPaganism than in indigenous traditions.” - Gus diZerega, Beliefnet

May you all have a blessed Samhain, blessings to you, and your beloved dead on this season. Let this new cycle be one of great blessings for all of you. Also, in recognition of the holiday,I’ve created a special edition of my podcast chock-full of Halloween and Samhain-themed music! Enjoy!

Nine years ago a group of Muslim extremists hijacked four planes and rammed them into the World Trade Center towers in New York, into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and crashed one into a field in rural Pennsylvania after passengers and crew struggled to retake the aircraft. 2,977 innocents (of all faiths and backgrounds) died, and the United States, and some would say the world, hasn’t been the same since. The current upheaval over the “ground zero mosque” and burning Korans in our country stems from the unhealed wounds of that day. Today various protests, counter-protests, urgings, pleadings, rites, political functions, and events all centered on the 9/11 attacks will transpire.

September 11th was one of the things that started me on the path towards Pagan blogging and journalism. Years before The Wild Hunt I had a small proto-blog called MythWorks where I tried to find Pagan reactions to the madness that had just occurred. The 9/11 attacks awoke a need within me to find the stories we were ignoring or overlooking, to stop sitting on the sidelines of my faith community and become an active participant. I don’t think I could have realized that we would still be grieving, talking about, fighting over, and sadly exploiting, this day nearly a decade later. Some have tried to contextualize the tragedy by comparing it to larger events in wars past, perhaps in hope that it will bring perspective, but I don’t know if such a tactic can ever really work. I don’t think we should deny the ongoing importance of this event in our collective psyche, but I do think it shouldn’t be the only thing we as Pagans commemorate and remember this day.

We are a people of festival, of ancestor veneration, of connection. It is only proper that we understand the need for some to turn this into a sacred day. To a day when the dead are honored. Instead of resisting this impulse we should weave it into a tapestry of remembrance and hope. This year in India the Ganesh Chaturthi, the festival of Ganesha, begins on this day. How appropriate that millions are sending offerings to the remover of obstacles as we speak.


The Lalbaugcha Raja Ganesha image worshipped during Ganesh Festival in Mumbai, India.

Let us remove the obstacles that keep us from seeing that the sacred day of 9/11 is also a day of wonder and celebration. That the ancient Greek month of Boedromion started at sundown on Thursday 9th September, and that on this day Athene is traditionally honored. Let her wisdom and justice prevail on 9/11. Today is also the new year in the Coptic/Alexandrian calendar,  so may this day be a new beginning for all of us.

This day is also the anniversary of the very first Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893. A body that in its modern incarnation includes modern Pagan faiths in its leadership and gatherings. So this is a day for seeking understanding and dialog, for breaking bread, even with those we do not agree with. Finally, on this day in 1906 Mahatma Gandhi coined the term “Satyagraha” to characterize the Non-Violence movement in South Africa. So if we must struggle, if we feel that protest and counter-protest are the order of the day, let us do so in the spirit of Gandhi, and avoid adding hate to hate.

As Pagans, as polytheists, as those who hold and recognize many truths at once, let us wrap the tragedies of 9/11 into the tapestry of history. Let us recognize this day as a part of something far larger, let Pagans show the world how to find progress from the stalemate we now find ourselves in. Let us honor the dead and the sacredness of this day to create a new festival of veneration and hope.

How We Deal With Death

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  September 6, 2010 — 10 Comments

Maybe it’s the end of Summer, the recent high-profile passings in our community, or maybe my own recent week-long sojourn to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, but I’ve noticed a decent number of news articles focusing on death, how we deal with it, and what we believe comes after it (if anything). The New York Times recently did a piece on reincarnation, and how that belief in multiple lives has been growing in popularity lately.

“According to data released last year by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a quarter of Americans now believe in reincarnation. (Women are more likely to believe than men; Democrats more likely than Republicans.) Julia Roberts recently told Elle magazine that though she was raised Christian, she had become “very Hindu.” Ms. Roberts believes that in her past life she was a “peasant revolutionary,” and said that when her daughter sits in a certain way she knows “there’s someone there I didn’t get the benefit of knowing … It’s an honor for me to continue to shepherd that.” At Cannes in May, a Thai film about reincarnation, “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” won the highest prize. In it, an old man on his deathbed sees the dead as vividly as the living, and his past life as an ox is as clear as his present one.”

The article talks about regression therapy, and interviews reincarnation superstar Dr. Brian Weiss, author of “Many Lives, Many Masters”, along with religion professor Stephen Prothero, who thinks this trend is tied to our relative affluence (“Reincarnation means never having to say you’re dead.”). Others, like Clare Stein at The Kenyon Review, reacting to the NYT piece, wonder if reincarnation is our misunderstanding of another phenomenon.

In Joyce’s Ulysses, Molly Bloom mispronounces metempsychosis as “met him pike hoses.” In some cases, this is what the eagerness to believe in reincarnation strikes me as: a mispronunciation of the Collective Unconscious, or something like it. The wealth of history inhabiting the places we like to claim as exclusively ours– mistaken for immortality.

I’m somewhat agnostic on the question of if we have lived past lives, or if those memories are part of a collective unconscious, but I do believe that Reclaiming and other modern Pagan traditions are on the right path when they say: “What is remembered, lives”. A look at ancestor reverence and worship in many cultures will show a common thread of keeping those who have passed among us, of involving the dead in our lives.

With fanfare befitting a parade, the shrouded remains of 17 bodies were removed from the family crypt, some sprayed with expensive perfume, others splashed with sparkling wine. Five brass bands took turns belting out cheerful melodies, and each emerging corpse was lifted onto the shoulders of its own set of revelers. The celebrators then joyously trotted about, dancing with the bones of the dead. “It is good to thank the ancestors in person because we owe them everything,” said Rakotonarivo Henri, 52, an out-of-breath farmer who had just set down his dead grandfather and was moving toward the remains of his aunt. “We do not come from mud; we come from these bodies.”

Ancestor veneration, as our movement has matured, has become a larger topic of discussion. We are also more concerned about our rites of burial, how we are buried, and seeing that our dead are properly honored. I feel that as we continue, you’ll see more emphasis placed on our “mighty dead”, and that our rituals and traditions will start to mirror existing indigenous beliefs regarding the ancestors. But even in a secular context, I think the idea of memory, or being remembered, is growing.

“Music lovers can now be immortalised when they die by having their ashes baked into vinyl records to leave behind for loved ones. A UK company called And Vinyly is offering people the chance to press their ashes in a vinyl recording of their own voice, their favourite tunes or their last will and testament. Minimalist audiophiles might want to go for the simple option of having no tunes or voiceover, and simply pressing the ashes into the vinyl to result in pops and crackles.”

For the record, if I’m cremated, I’d like to be made into a copy of the The Cure’s “Disintegration”.


A statue of the Mayo brothers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
A prime example of ancestor veneration in all but name.

Why the increased interest in reincarnation, in ancestor veneration, in being remembered? I think it has partially to do with an impulse that has always been with us. One that, to certain extents, has been discouraged by our post-Enlightenment culture, or only approved in special contexts (saints, national heroes). For so long we have been afraid to acknowledge that we long to make the dead a part of our lives. To not simply “move on”, but to continue to weave them into the tapestry of our existence. That it isn’t morbid, but loving. As we approach Samhain, Day of the Dead, and other Winter holidays of remembrance and ancestor veneration, let us focus on how we integrate those who are no longer with us, but are still very much with us.