Archives For Ancestors

Paganisms and Witchcraft traditions in Australia are no less subject to the times as they are anywhere else in the world. While we draw vast inspiration from the past of Europe, Christian and pre-Christian, we are subject to the influences of contemporary pop-culture, public discourse, prevailing political paradigms and social trends as they are manifest in post-colonial Australia. This influence can go one of two ways in terms of our practices. First, as a minority spiritual school(s) of thought, as a sub-culture, or indeed, a counter-culture, standing outside the square and looking in on society writ large, modern Pagans and contemporary Witches can be deeply progressive, revolutionary, subversive and flat out contrarian. Or, our practices change according to the influences of the over-culture.

Candles_at_a_graveyeard_on_a_Christmas_Eve

[Photo Credit: Pöllö / Wikimedia Commons]


Our collective strength is in our ability to inhabit the Janus Head and look both ways, drawing inspiration from that past and being completely free to adapt it according to our present needs and into the future. We are not beholden to a dogma, our focus in on praxis, on the demonstrable, the experience of the individual such that the modern Pagan, or Witch, is free to completely re-examine our relationships with spirit, and indeed, notions of belief entirely. A literal reading of our collective myths is not required as it is in Christianity, nowhere is it written that we must subjugate our Will.

This is particularly true of Witchcraft. Here, the key lessons pertain to power; who has it, what doesn’t, how the web of Wyrd subtlety connects us all and moves us, how to see what has power over us, and how to diminish that influence, and exert our own, according to our Will. This key ability or fundamental lesson is not boxed in and cut off from any sphere of human activity or thought, we can, and do apply it broadly and examine power structures and influences in the broader culture as well.

It is precisely these freedoms and considerations that mean, in Australia, most Pagans and Witches celebrate Samhain at the end of April. Anyone with eyes can see that Samhain is linked to a particular power structure in Nature – a particular shift that allows a moment we often describe as the thinning veil between the Worlds. And anyone with eyes in Oz knows that shift in power doesn’t happen at the end of November, it happens on or around April 30.

That is a kind of power that one does not need to be a Witch to see. Everyone in the Southern Hemisphere is well acquainted with it, as is everyone in the Northern Hemisphere.

In Australia and New Zealand though, something else happens in late April: ANZAC Day. Increasingly, it pops up in reference to Samhain, or All Hallow’s Eve. And in terms of mainstream Australian culture and dominant political paradigms, it has become extremely powerful and, at the same time, increasingly contentious. The question I find myself asking is simply this: How well have Australian Pagans and Witches considered the influence and power of ANZAC Day to either the growth or detriment of the aims of our ancestral based practices at Samhain and All Hallow’s Eve?

Online advertisement for ANZAC Day 2016 including specials for restaurant Bivianos in Dural in regional NSW.

ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day falls on April 25, the anniversary of the Gallipoli Landing in 1915. Historically, it marks the operation of the Allied Forces in WWI designed to capture the Gallipoli Penisula and open the Black Sea to the Allied navies. In terms of engagement, ANZAC Day completely overshadows November’s Remembrance Day, which is the day to commemorate the end of the First World War as well as a day to honor all who have died in war.

In terms of the place, one might be forgiven for thinking Australians had a hand at winning the battle fought on the Gallipoli beaches. But, we didn’t. We lost; the Allies never took the Cove and Çanakkale Savaşı (The Battle of Çanakkale) remains one of the most celebrated WWI victories for the Ottoman Empire.

Since 1990, the annual pilgrimage to the Turkish shore has only increased, and the land suffers yearly from Australians’ collective rubbish, which is particularly lovely given the area is a National Park. The bones of the fallen are exposed due to foot traffic, and various efforts have been made to develop and redevelop the area to accommodate the yearly tourist visits. This big business is threatening smaller local enterprise.

At home, it has become acceptable to crack a tinny (open a can of beer) directly after an ANZAC Dawn Service, which is early even for most Australians. This has somehow become a patriotic duty according to both beer companies and former military leaders who advertise the very tinny that one should patriotically crack. And while Australia’s alcohol problem is conveniently forgotten for ANZAC Day, we also blatantly change the rules regarding gambling, so we can all partake of the (illegal every other day)  “Australian Diggers’ Game” of Two-up. While my tone may suggest that we have a serious gambling problem as a culture, fear not. In 2004, during a debate regarding the legalisation of Two-up, the then New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, told the House:

One of the charities most involved in problem gambling, the Wesley Community Legal Service, a body dealing with problem gamblers, has confirmed it has never encountered a problem gambler addicted to two-up. That is an interesting bit of trivia for everyone to take home with them. If anything, a slight extension of two-up to other days of significance would fit in with the Australian commemorative tradition when we remember our war dead not with strident nationalism but with a beer, a laugh and a few of these harmless games.

Perhaps that is the story of how Australia came to be known as “the lucky country.”

To many an Aussie, my complaints may just be examples of a lack of honour, duty, and the increasingly sacred tenet of Australian society; mateship. This is symptomatic of the fact I’m not a “digger,” not a patriot, and most definitely un-Australian. Peter Cochrane gathered a litany of such criticisms in his article for The Conversation’s article ‘The past is not sacred: the ‘history wars’ over Anzac.‘ Included in this piece is a quote from The Australian, originally published April 26, 2013. It reads:

The best advice we can offer is that they ignore the tortured arguments of the intellectuals and listen to the people, the true custodians of this occasion. They must recognise that the current intellectual zeitgeist is at odds with the spirit of Anzac. It recognises neither the significance of a war that had to be fought nor the importance of patriotism. Honour, duty and mateship are foreign to their thinking. They may be experts on many things, but on the subject of Anzac, they have little useful to say.

Arguably, ANZAC Day has become a leviathan of government and privately funded advertising, and the furtherance of an erroneous myth of Australianness that supports and underlies an increased sense of Australia as a military nation. It expresses a nationalism that feeds troubling social trends and promotes Anglo-centric white Australian patriotism.

ANZAC Day is supposed to be a remembrance, not just of the Gallipoli Campaign, but of all wars in which the Australian military have engaged, from the Boer War to Afghanistan. But we must not be confused, ANZAC Day is not for everyone.

The above video shows Murrawarri man Fred Hooper – a man who usually marches in official parades with his non-Indigenous Navy colleagues. Hooper’s grandfather served in WWI, and his great uncle was Harold West, who inspired ‘The Coloured Digger,’ a famous poem by WWII soldier Bert Beros. The poem was written while Beros and West were still on active duty, and it tells of the bravery of Private West, who attacked a Japanese machine-gun pit “single handed.” The final two stanzas read:

He’d heard us talk Democracy –
They preach it to his face –
Yet knows that in our Federal House
There’s no one of his race.
He feels we push his kinsmen out,
Where cities do not reach,
And Parliament has yet to hear
The abo’s maiden speech.

One day he’ll leave the Army,
Then join the League he shall,
And he hopes we’ll give a better deal
To the aboriginal

In 2015, Hooper decided to make the trip to Canberra to lead the ‘undeclared Frontier Wars’ march. As the Australian Federal Police Officer pointed out, “this day is not for you“, Mr Hooper.

In case you thought the AFP officer was just being nasty, or worse racist, he wasn’t really. They are, after all, the undeclared Frontier Wars. Wouldn’t it be disingenuous of us as a nation to recognise an Aboriginal military force as being raised and active at a time when we didn’t actually consider them a people; during a time when we didn’t consider them civilised enough to have so complex an institution as a military or even a guerilla force? Such things would fly in the face of terra nullius.

As Alan Stephens wrote for ABC s ‘The Drum’ in 2014:

According to the Australian War Memorial Act (1980), the AWM’s purpose is to recognise “active service in war or warlike operations by members of the Defence Force”. The act then defines “Defence Force” as “any naval or military force raised in Australia before the establishment of the Commonwealth”.

That definition allows the AWM to commemorate the wars of choice fought by white “Australians” in the Sudan, South Africa, and China before Federation, but excludes the war of necessity fought by Indigenous “Australians” for Australia itself between 1788 and the 1920s.

In other words, pre-Federation white volunteers who chose to fight overseas for the British crown and its commercial and colonial interests have been legally defined as “Australians”, while pre-Federation Indigenous warriors who fought invaders for their homeland, their families, and their way of life, have been officially defined out of our war commemoration history.

Samhain and All Hallow’s Eve have always been a way through which the neo-Pagan and Witch engages directly with the Ancestors. We actively feed them, their memory and propagate their wisdom, keeping that which enriches our lives. Not the positive and the happy memories alone, but also the negative, the difficult things as well. We recognise within these lessons and wisdom, which, by keeping, we strive against repeating mistakes of the past, in order to live more whole, healthier, and happier lives.

As ANZAC Day exerts its not so subtle influence on our lives and increasingly becomes associated with our Sabbat, what powers and structures are we feeding alongside our Beloved Dead? Are we so certain that “lest we forget” as a catch-phrase represents a concept wholly aligned with our goals at All Hallow’s? Here are some quotes:

Calypso Apothecary writes, “Today is Anzac Day. Gathering at dawn, today is a day to show respect and honour the men and women that served and died at war, fighting for our freedom. For me, this day also marks the beginning of Samhain. The decent into the dark part of the year and with the whole of Australia honoring those that have died, today they begin to walk among us.”

Coralturner writes, “In Australia Samhain occurs around the same time as Anzac Day. I find this significant as Anzac Day is the time of year that those from Australia and New Zealand remember those who died prematurely in war. Anzac Day is Ritualized across the country with services, parades, people getting together for meals to remember their deceased friends and relatives. Anzac biscuits are eaten and the game of Two-ups is played.”

Frances Billinghurst‘s, author of Dancing the Sacred Wheel: A Journey through the Southern Sabbats, wrote,On the eve of 30 April those of us south of the equator pause in silent contemplation and remembrance of our ancestors. Following on the heels of Anzac Day (the day when those fallen in combat from Australia and New Zealand are remembered as well as the increasing number of victims of war), the timing for the Southern Samhain could not really be any better.”

The following was published on Spheres of Light: “It is a time to honour those who have gone before us and it is a poignant co-incidence that Australia and New Zealand’s day of Remembrance for their fallen in war, ANZAC Day on April 25, should be so close to the southern Samhain.”

Venerating the war dead is not new or unusual. Indeed, there are many military uniforms present on my own shrine to my Beloved Dead, and each serves to remind me to be thankful that for two generations, and counting, my family has not known war.  It is never a bad activity to remember the one thing that all wars have in common is a body count. The fact that, as a nation, Australia has troops currently deployed in conflict zones should be more readily discussed. History is written by the victors and we should examine how that fact has resulted in the otherwise contradictory nature of, on one hand, unabashed celebration of a mammoth defeat in a battle in a war we ultimately won, while on the other, denying completely the existence of a war fought on our own soil.

Another quote comes to us from writer Lee Pike, who lives in Perth. Ruminating on Samhain and ANZAC Day together, Pike writes:

I have been thinking a lot, too, about the role that my ancestors have on how I have been shaped and who I am today. How much are we products of our blood or of our soil? Do the dead remain on this plane or another? What can ancestor work offer a magical path? What would the Anzacs truly think about these ‘festivities’? I am sure the answers would be as diverse as they were. War is complex and so is the notion of sacrifice. When remembering the dead, the last thing we should do is boil it down to simple, digestible, and marketable slogans… and brands.

Lest we forget.

I.

If determined enough, the dead can assert themselves to appear nearly as present as the living.

And if one who is noticing and interacting with them does not know they are dead, and/or they are too young to comprehend what dead even is, the distinction between dead and living becomes rather confusing if not at times completely irrelevant.

This was my experience, anyway.

What I believe to be my earliest memory, for example, seems quite average on its surface.

I am a toddler, just old enough to walk and talk. My grandparents are sitting up in their bed, facing the television that was perched on their dresser, and I am sitting at the end of their bed, playing with a pile of coins, babbling enthusiastically to my grandpa about my stacks of pennies. On the television is a rerun of ‘Matlock’, and my grandpa is engrossed in the show, not paying much attention to me. But my grandmother keeps reaching her hands out toward me, trying to get me to sit on her lap. And I keep looking over at her and smiling at her, but I am too distracted by stacking pennies and the sound of my own voice to go to her.

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Me at 2 1/2 in the yard where I sometimes saw my grandmother.

It’s a notably clear memory, right down to every little detail. And it wouldn’t strike me as unusual at all if not for the fact that my grandmother died of cancer when I was only a year old, well before I was old enough to climb onto the bed and babble in sentences and recognize Andy Griffith’s face on television.

And yet nobody had told me directly that she had died, and everyone else in the house still talked about her as though she was still there. So it didn’t seem all that out-of-place to me as a toddler that I would see her around and occasionally interact with her. My clearest and most sustained memory of her is of that day in the bed, but I can also clearly recall seeing her hovered over the counter in the kitchen, sitting in one of many antique chairs in the living room, hunched over the dryer in the laundry room, sweeping on the back patio, or in the backyard near the doghouse.

Our dog also had been dead for quite some time, having been my mother’s childhood pet. The backyard had seemingly been abandoned once the dog had passed on. By the time I was a toddler, the backyard was so overgrown with ivy it was barely navigable, and the doghouse still sat in the corner, rotting and collapsing, with a metal bowl still poking out from the ivy. But just as I did not grasp that my grandmother was no longer on this plane, I similarly did not completely grasp that we did not actually have a living dog. I never saw the dog quite as I saw my grandmother, but I sensed that she was there all the same.

It wasn’t until I was around four years old that it started to occur to me that my grandmother was not a current member of our household and that my sightings of her were not shared by my mother or my grandfather. I had overheard a phone conversation in which my grandfather mentioned “the summer before Betty died.” I still didn’t understand what death was, but I could sense what it meant on one level, and it meant that the person was said to no longer be here.

And yet she was. She was all over the house.

grandmakitchen

My grandmother in the kitchen, exactly as I remember her.

II.

One afternoon not long after that, my mother and I were in our front yard, sitting on the sole boulder that graced the edge of the yard. My mother was watching the road in front of us, waiting for a friend, while I scrambled up and down and around the rock. There were etchings – crude letters carved into the side of the rock, which I had always noticed for their texture but which suddenly held a greater interest to me as I was just learning to read.

“What does it say?” I asked my mother.

“It says ‘Here Lies Elroy’, she said.

“Who’s Elroy?”

“Elroy was my brother’s gerbil.,” she explained. “When he died, Jay buried him under this rock. That was when we were kids, long before you were born. This rock is Elroy’s gravestone.”

“So Elroy is dead like Grandma?”

“Yes, and like your uncle Jay.”

All I knew about my uncle Jay up to that point was that my bedroom was once his room. In a sense, it was still his room. It was often referred to as “Jay’s room” by my mother and my grandpa, and I had always felt that, while it was my designated space within the house, on another level it was not my room at all. I had somehow always felt more like a guest in that room than its primary inhabitant. But unlike Grandma, who was talked about regularly and often as though she was still present, Jay was rarely mentioned, and I had always sensed not to ask questions about him. My room was his room, and that had been the extent of my understanding.

But now, at least I knew he was dead. And on one hand, that knowledge only deepened the mystery, but on the other hand for the first time I felt as if I had some concrete understanding about who was still here and who was not. They were all dead – Jay, Grandma, Elroy and my mother’s old dog who still seemed to live in the backyard. At at that moment the fact that they were all dead was suddenly real where before it had only been abstract.

III.

As I reached grade school age, the sightings of Grandma became much fewer and farther between. And while I couldn’t deny to myself that I was still seeing her occasionally, the part of me that knew that I wasn’t supposed to be seeing her would very actively kick into gear, resulting in a tug-o-war in my head between experience and reason every time I thought I spotted her.

‘Ghosts aren’t real’

‘But I saw her!’

Part of me didn’t want to be seeing her at all. Part of me just wanted to believe I was imagining things. And part of me also wanted to tell the world, or at least to talk to someone about it. But part of me also knew that it was very real, and that I was best off keeping my mouth shut.

And so I did keep my mouth shut about Grandma. I also knew to keep quiet about what was in the garden.

My mother had built a garden in the side yard the year before. She would sit me out in a tiny lawn chair with books-on-tape as she worked for what seemed to be hours on end, weekend after weekend, tilling and planting neat little rows of flowers and vegetables.

Within a few months, we had a glorious garden, and it quickly became a favorite spot of mine. I would spend hours out in the garden, examining flowers and bugs and stealthily rescuing/relocating the snails from the saucers of beer that my mother would leave out to drown them.

Garden slug. Photo by I, Colae.

Garden slug. [Photo Credit: I. Colae]

But eventually, I sensed something else there too. Unlike Grandma, I couldn’t see anything concrete, but after a while I felt a constant presence every time I was in the garden. I could sense her; I could hear her,

Maybe this is God, I thought to myself more than once. But God is a man, I would then reply to myself. I knew little about religion or God, other than that my mother had referred to our family as “lapsed Catholics” when I asked her once. But I had taken enough in from the wider culture to know that ‘God’ was also the ‘Father,’ and while I couldn’t see whatever was in the garden, I felt very strongly that it was female. So she couldn’t be God.

But what was she?

I didn’t know, but she was definitely there. And I liked her, and I could tell she liked me back.

Around that same time, I had started to read the book Anne of Green Gables. In the book, Anne refers to God several times as ‘Providence,’ which stood out to me as unusual as I had thought that Providence was a female name. At some point, I was reading the book in the garden, and when I felt the presence of the yet-unnamed entity in my garden, a potential connection stirred in me.

I asked whoever was there if I could call her Providence. And I sensed immediately that the answer was yes.

IV.

When I was ten, my grandfather died.

My mother and I had moved out of the house three years earlier. She had remarried, and they were able to buy a house of their own, a small Cape Cod-style bungalow about ten miles away from what then became known as “Grandpa’s house.”

Grandpa had continued to live in ‘his’ house for the next few years until a heart attack rendered him unable to live alone, and he ended up moving in with us for what ended up to be the last few months of his life.

grandpaxmas

My grandfather, six months or so before he died.

I grudgingly surrendered my bedroom, not really grasping that his life was coming to an end. He recognized my frustration at losing my space and invited me to share the bed with him if I wished. I took him up on it a few times a week.

And it was on one of those nights, when I crawled into bed with him in the middle of the night, that he died peacefully in his sleep with me sleeping right next to him. When I woke in the morning, I turned to shake him awake, and he was cold. I knew instantly that he was dead.

After the wake and the funeral were over, what remained to be reckoned with was nearly as emotional and painful as my grandfather’s death in itself. We needed to do something with Grandpa’s house.

I had assumed when he died that we would be eventually moving back into that house. After all, not only was it bigger and nicer, and in a much better neighborhood, it was our home. My grandparents were the original owners, and both my mother and I were raised in that house. While I didn’t recognize it so distinctly at the time, I considered that house the closest thing I had to an ancestral home, and the land around it was the only piece of land with which I had ever had a real relationship. I wanted to live where I was born and raised, where Grandma and most likely now Grandpa still remained. I wanted to replant the garden where I first met Providence. I wanted to clean up the backyard and fix up the doghouse so that it was a more proper place for the dog that I sensed was still there.

My mother, on the other hand, had absolutely no desire to live in the house again. And while in retrospect I can completely understand why she felt that way, as a ten year old this decision sparked nothing but anguish, anger, and resentment on my part. I sullenly tagged along as she slowly emptied the house. At times, I flat-out refused to help, as I watched her empty it of the antique furniture with which I had grown up. She eventually put the house up for sale.

By the time prospective buyers were beginning to look at the house, it had all become so painful for me that I started to emotionally detach from the process, not able to bear the thought of losing it. During that period, I often took refuge in what was once the garden, by then overgrown with grass and weeds, crying my eyes out to Providence and anyone else who would listen. At one point, it occurred to me that in losing the house I would be losing my relationship with Providence as well, which only brought more tears.

It wasn’t until a few months after the house had been sold, as I finally started to recover from the numbness and grief associated with the entire episode, that I started to notice an occasional and familiar presence as I went about my day-to-day, unmistakably the same presence that I first met in the side garden as a child.

V.

My mother quit smoking the year I started. Ironically enough, her quitting and my starting were both directly related to the same event. She became pregnant with my sister and quit for the obvious health-related reasons. And then a few months later I started it up as a coping mechanism, wanting no part of a life with a younger sibling. I was fourteen years old and an only child, and was dreading the changes that were sure to come.

When my mother was a smoker, she occasionally kept a pack or two stashed in random places, a fact I remembered one day when I was home alone. Inspired by the idea of found treasure in the form of nicotine, I rifled up and down the sides of my mother’s dresser drawers, hoping to find that prized, half-empty pack of stale smokes.

But instead I found an old envelope in the crack of her sock drawer that had a piece of newspaper poking out of it. I generally wasn’t one to pry in such a way, but my instinct told me to look inside, and so I carefully and gingerly opened the envelope and pulled the piece of newspaper out.

It was a clipping from the local paper dated April 1982, summarizing the death of my uncle Jay. He had been killed in a car crash, having driven into a telephone pole only a few miles away from where we lived. The article stated that alcohol was a probable factor in the crash.

I thought of the uncle I never knew, whose room I grew up in, whose death was never mentioned once throughout my entire childhood. I felt a sudden and strange relief, as a mystery that had grated on me for years had finally been answered without my having to actually ask.

jayID

My uncle’s college ID card. He died a year before he was set to graduate.

I also immediately understood why it was never mentioned, especially given my mother’s penchant for avoiding uncomfortable subjects. And as I took in and processed this new discovery, I also forgave my mother for her silence.

VI.

I had been living on my own in the city for a year or so at that point, and had decided to drive out to Jersey to visit my parents for the day. On the drive out, my mind drifted to thoughts of my grandfather’s house, which I realized hadn’t seen since it was sold nearly a decade earlier. Out of curiosity, I decided to take a detour through my old neighborhood before heading to my parents’ house.

I parked on the street and stepped out of the car, and the moment I stepped onto the property I felt a distinct chill. Instantly, this place and I recognized and remembered each other despite many years of absence. The yard and the house had both been altered with much of the original flora removed, but Elroy’s rock remained as did the tree I planted as a small child. I walked toward the side yard, toward the garden where I first met Providence. The garden was gone.

“Hey, what you doing?” I heard a voice yell behind me. I turned around and found myself face to face with my former next-door neighbor, whose expression went quickly from anger to a smile as he recognized me. I knew him quite well; he and his wife had lived next door to our family since my mother was a small child. My mother grew up playing with their daughter, and I grew up playing with their granddaughter.

“Oh my God you’re all grown up. Look at you. I knew you’d come back one day.”

Without exactly knowing why, I burst into tears.

He reached over to hug me. “You know,” he said, as I tried to calm down. “Maureen talks to your grandpa and grandma constantly. She sees them all the time.”

I immediately stopped crying and jerked back in shock. Maureen was his wife.

“She does?”

He nodded. “Oh yes. Her and Betty have long conversations. I don’t know the details, but she says they’re both quite loud and active.”

I spoke before realizing I was speaking, before realizing that I had never said what I was about to say aloud before.

“I used to see Grandma all the time. She even tried to play with me once. I remember it quite clearly.”

He nodded again and pointed to the house. “Since your mother sold it, its changed hands three times in eight years. I swear, your grandparents are so loud over there that nobody wants to stay for long. The last folks remodeled the entire kitchen and patio before they left… I watched them just pour thousands into it but then just pick up suddenly and leave anyway.”

I thought of Grandma in the kitchen, and suddenly it all became a little too much.

I explained to him that I was on my way to see my mother and that I had just taken a quick detour and should be going.

“Come back anytime,” he said as I quickly walked towards my car. “I’m sure Maureen would love to see you.”

*  *  *

“I went by Grandpa’s house today,” I casually mentioned over dinner.

My mother looked up immediately. “Oh yeah?” she asked. “Does it still look the same?”

“Not really,” I answered, uninterested in talking about the aesthetic changes. “But I saw Bill. And he told me that Maureen talks to Grandma and Grandpa all the time.”

My mother laughed a bit and then was silent for a moment. “Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. Its funny, I always felt like Mom had never quite left that house.”

I stared at her for a moment, not quite believing what I just heard. Until that moment, my mother had never acknowledged anything of the sort to me, had never given any indication that she ever sensed the presence of anything at that house. Suddenly, between Bill’s words earlier and my mother’s words just then, my experiences were validated after nearly a lifetime’s worth of questioning in silence.

“She never left, Mom, trust me. She definitely never left.”

Still stuck on the idea that my mother held any kind of religious belief or superstition, I decided to go all or nothing and ask one of those questions I had never before dared to utter.

“Why are we lapsed Catholics as opposed to regular Catholics?” I asked.

It was almost as though she was expecting the question. “Well, your Grandpa’s mother, your great-grandmother, she drowned in the ocean when your Grandpa was a teenager. And even though she drowned, the Church insisted it was a suicide, and they refused to grant her a Catholic burial.” She paused.

“And then they turned around and said they would bury her for a price. Which the family somehow paid, but once she was buried the family didn’t want to have much to do with the church after that. And so neither do we.”

I had never really thought much about my grandfather’s life growing up, other than the knowledge that he had lived through the Depression. But something hit me hard the moment that my mother told me that my great-grandmother had drowned in the ocean. Our family had spent nearly every summer at the beach as I was growing up, a yearly trip which I always dreaded due to a lifelong and unwavering discomfort of being in the ocean. I could never fully enjoy the water no matter how hard I tried and I could never quite understand why, and I couldn’t help but to reflect on that discomfort in light of what I had just learned.

“What was her name?” I asked. “My great-grandmother, I mean.”

“Her name was Providence,” my mother answered.

VII.

A friend and I had spent the day endlessly talking and catching up, and trying to plan out the pilgrimage that we would be taking in just a few months. Both of us were under a lot of stress, both coming off of traumatic experiences, trying to piece together what had happened with our lives and what was being triggered by our upcoming journey. After hours and hours of back and forth, he eventually passed out on the couch. I passed out in my bed not long after, and slept better than I had in weeks.

And when I woke up, I felt a strange familiar presence, which I noted but didn’t put much thought into until he woke up a few hours later.

“I felt so safe,” he told me. “Safer than I had in ages. And I actually slept. And when I woke up early this morning, I heard this lovely voice telling me that I could go back to sleep, that it was safe. And I did. And I feel so well-rested. And whoever that was, it was such a wonderful feeling. Do you know who or what that was?”

I thought back to the presence I sensed when I woke up and I smiled. “Yes,” I said. “I’m pretty sure that was Providence.”

“Who’s Providence?” he asked.

“I’m not exactly sure,” I admitted. “I once thought she was a land spirit, or more specifically a garden spirit, nowadays I think she might be an ancestor spirit but again I’m just not sure. What I know is that she’s been around me since I was very small and she’s always nurtured and protected me. She’s just… around. I don’t think about her for a long while and then she’s just there and reminds me she exists. I’ve never seen her, but I feel her and I hear her and that’s been a constant for most of my life. She never wants anything. She’s just around, and she’s warm and she’s wonderful.”

“Yes, she’s quite wonderful,” he said with a smile.

VIII.

I woke suddenly, not knowing why. It was the middle of the night, but I couldn’t remember anything that I was dreaming which could have stirred me awake. I sat up and looked out the window, and immediately felt the urge to be outside.

Quietly so not to wake my partner, I slipped on my shoes and my coat and went downstairs. I stepped out the front door of my building, and felt myself being pulled toward the river. A minute later, I was lying on by back on the dirt by the riverbank, suddenly overtaken by a stream of visions and messages that seemed to be pouring out directly from the full moon above me.

Full moon over Portland. Public Domain.

Full moon over Portland. [Public Domain]

Under the Scorpio moon, just a week before Beltane, the dead filed through and thoroughly between my ears. I closed my eyes and saw generations’ worth of flashes through my mind, scenes that I can only assume were connected to my ancestors. And then, my grandparents. And then, my uncle Jay. And then the scenes changed sharply, and I was back at the house in which I was raised complete with all the familial spirits and old furniture, and as I saw myself as a child in the garden. I felt the presence of Providence nearby.

I opened my eyes for a to stare at the moon, and then closed them again. This time I saw what I only can assume to be the future, with flashes and aerial scenes of myself and a dear friend backpacking over mountains as the dead stirred beneath our feet. Every step we took echoed both above and below, an echo I physically felt in my feet throughout the course of the vision.

It then morphed into darkness, and we were in a cave-like setting. And then, he is gone, and it is only I. And there she is. Not a ghost, not an ancestor, but a god.

I knew what she was about to tell me. I also knew why he had suddenly disappeared, as he had not only received this exact message from Her before, but had related it to me only a few weeks prior. There was also a small part of me that knew that if I opened my eyes at that moment, that it would all disappear, that I technically did have a split-second option to escape this moment.

But I also knew that, while I may be able to escape the first-person utterance, I didn’t get to escape its consequences. And I realized in the moment that the message, though delivered before, was incomplete in its overall meaning until now. For the words were not just about the future, but also about the past.

So I kept my eyes closed and stayed, anticipating her words.

“Do not look there, unless you’d leave.”

*  *  *

I returned home and back into my bed. When I fell asleep again, I deeply and vividly dreamed about the house for the first time in years.

We were all sitting at the dining room table, all having what looked like Thanksgiving dinner. And when I say all of us, I mean all of us: Grandpa, Grandma, my mother, my uncle Jay, and myself as an adult. In my sleep, straddled between worlds, we were talking and laughing and drinking wine and breaking bread without any concept of the barriers between life and death. We were just together, enjoying life, as the family that never quite was.

Even the dog was there, in the corner, patiently waiting for scraps.

 

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth. 

Column: The Fire Is Here

Heathen Chinese —  November 29, 2015 — 49 Comments

Five people protesting the police killing of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old black man, are shot and injured by a group of white men in Minneapolis. A candidate for the United States Presidency says that a database for all Muslims is “certainly something we should start thinking about.” When asked the difference between such an idea and Nazi Germany’s registration of Jews and other minorities, his only reply was, “You tell me, you tell me. Why don’t you tell me.” The same candidate’s white supporters physically attack a black heckler at a rally; the candidate states in an interview, “Maybe he should have been roughed up.” In Greece, the neo-fascist political party Golden Dawn, which has no relation to the occult organization, became the third leading party in the country by winning 7% of the vote in the elections this September, approximately 500,000 votes.

[Public Domain / Wikipedia]

[Public Domain / Wikipedia]

What do Pagans and Polytheists see when they read the news; when they look at history? Do they see deviations from an inevitable progressive march from animism and polytheism to monotheism to atheism, from savagery to barbarism to civilization? Or do they see the snake of the ouroboros choking on its own tail time and time again? Do they see what Walter Benjamin described in 1940 — what the Angel of History sees? “Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet.” Or as Rhyd Wildermuth wrote recently, “History doesn’t really ‘repeat itself,’ but it’s full of repeating forms.”

Benjamin, looking at the current events of his own time, wrote that those who viewed the rise of fascism as a regression from some sort of historically-ordained “progress” only hindered the struggle against it. He wrote, “The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are ‘still’ possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.”

When the new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explains the demographics of his newly-appointed Cabinet by saying “Because it’s 2015,” he displays the same kind of historical blindness that Benjamin critiques. Have the Laws of History decreed that sexism, racism and fascism are not possible in 2015, that they are mere fossils from the past? Should we greet fascism’s continuity and its re-emergence with astonishment? Or with preparedness?

In a fragment from The Arcades Project, Benjamin suggested an alternate conception of history. “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotives of world history. But the situation may be quite different. Perhaps revolutions are not the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake.” Can you hear the reverberating echo of the final prophecy of The Morrígan at the Second Battle of Mag Tuired (section 167)? Do you hear the last gasps of the Race of Iron described by Hesiod in Works and Days, as Aidos (Shame) and Nemesis (Retribution) “forsake mankind” (lines 170-201)?

An anti-progressive conception of history requires radically different ideas about death and ancestry as well. Pagans and Polytheists tend to think about these ideas frequently anyway…and what’s more, to live them, to embody them, to experience them directly. These ideas are powerful and dangerous, as can be seen by the popularity of Evola among fascists. From an anti-racist and anti-fascist position, however, we can claim James Baldwin as an Ancestor and Prophet who spoke about these same ideas with refreshing clarity.

[Public Domain / Wikipedia]

James Baldwin. [Photo Credit: Allan Warren / Wikipedia]

Tragedy

In his 1963 book The Fire Next Time, Baldwin wrote that the veneer of politics is used by white Americans to conceal the inescapable fact of death:

Behind what we think of as the Russian menace lies what we do not wish to face, and what white Americans do not face when they regard a Negro: reality—the fact that life is tragic. Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time.

The word “tragic,” of course, traces its etymology back to worship of Dionysos in ancient Greece, to the views of fate and limited human agency put forth by ancient playwrights such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. The philosopher Albert Camus defined the “tragic” condition as being characterized not just by death and absurdity, but by self-awareness of one’s situation: “The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.”

The awareness and acceptance of the inevitability of death can be seen in many different cultures, in many different traditions and texts. For example, in Homer’s Iliad:

As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity.
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber
burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.
So one generation of men will grow while another
dies. (6.146-150, trans. Lattimore)

Or in Óðinn’s words in the Hávamál:

Cattle die,
kindred die,
we ourselves also die;
but I know one thing
that never dies,
judgement on each one dead (section 77, trans. Thorpe)

These themes of successive generations and enduring judgement shall return later in this essay. But first, we must look at the conclusions Baldwin draws from this basic fact. Far from despair, Baldwin exhorts his readers toward an ethic of celebration and passion and responsibility. His words read like the invocation of the Descendants that they are:

It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: it is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.

Baldwin sees white Americans’ collective willful refusal to acknowledge and “earn” their deaths as the underlying fear that dominates race relations in America: “But white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them. And this is also why the presence of the Negro in this country can bring about its destruction.” In other words, he speaks of the need to acknowledge the mortality of an entire country or civilization, not just of the individuals within its power structure.

The concept of “race,” after all, is ultimately tied to a question of power, an attempt to guarantee a certain societal and cosmological order. The link between the fear of death and the desire for control can be seen in ancient texts as ancient as the Epic of Gilgamesh, where the powerful king of Uruk searches for the plant of immortality, only to have it stolen by a serpent as he slept. Power, Baldwin reminds us, is in fact inherently unstable, even though many people think that it is a guarantor of stability:

It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant—birth, struggle, and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so—and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change. I speak of change not on the surface but in the depths—change in the sense of renewal.

But renewal becomes impossible if one supposes things to be constant that are not—safety, for example, or money, or power. One clings then to chimeras, by which one can only be betrayed, and the entire hope—the entire possibility—of freedom disappears.

Walter Benjamin might say that the possibility of freedom has in fact been betrayed time and time again throughout the history of class-stratified societies, and that “progress” is yet another “chimera.” And in the 7th century BCE, Semonides of Argos wrote of the folly of clinging to false hopes, which are always projected into the uncertain future:

There is no mortal who does not believe that next year
he will arrive as a friend to Wealth and material goods.
But one man is first overtaken by hated old age
before he reaches his goal. Other men are destroyed
by wretched disease. Others, overcome by War,
Hades sends down under the black earth. (trans. Mastronarde)

Or as Medea said in Seneca’s version of her story, “Whoso has naught to hope, let him despair of naught.” (163)

[Public Domain / Wikipedia]

Frederick Douglass. [Public Domain / Wikipedia]

Ancestors

Death, however, is constant. And so too are the dead, and the ancestors. In a 1971 conversation with the anthropologist Margaret Mead, Baldwin described the experience of drawing upon the strength and legacy of one’s ancestors, a feeling that is difficult to define but which can be recognized by anyone who has experienced it:

Baldwin: One’s ancestors have given one something, just the same. It is something difficult to get at. You know it when you are in trouble, in real trouble […] It is not exactly that you hear a voice. It’s just that you pull yourself together to confront whatever it is according to some principle which does not exactly exist in your memory but which has been given to you.
Mead: In the name of your ancestors.

Baldwin made clear that when he speaks of ancestors, he is speaking not only of those ancestors who are biologically related, “Let us say I can claim Frederick Douglass as one of my ancestors. I am very proud of him because I think he was a great man and in some way handed something down: his indignation was handed down; his clarity was handed down.” The key concept, then, is that he “handed something down,” something that future generations can draw upon.

Mead responded, “We have a term for this in anthropology: mythical ancestors. […] They are spiritual and mental ancestors, they’re not biological ancestors, but they are terribly important.” The concept is familiar to many Pagans and Polytheists, many of whom have their own terms for these types of ancestors as well: ancestors of spirit, ancestors of tradition, the Mighty Dead. And in ancient Greece, the war dead as well as certain cult heroes were honored by entire cities, not just by their immediate families. Tyrtaeus of Sparta wrote of the honors due to both warriors who died in battle and to their descendants:

This man they lament, young and old alike,
the whole city is affected with a painful longing
and his tomb and children are conspicuous for fame among men,
and his children’s children and race thereafter.
Never are his noble fame and his name forgotten,
but he is immortal, though lying under the earth. (trans. West)

This notion of fame—or infamy, or any other type of experience—being passed down a line of descent is important. This can particularly be seen when Baldwin discusses his relationship with Christianity.  He was a Christian preacher in his youth, but left the church after three and a half years. He framed his relationship to Christianity as one of personally “being there” or not in certain historical situations:

Baldwin: I wasn’t there among the early Christians in the Middle East.
Mead: That’s right.
Baldwin: But I was on those cattle boats which brought me here, brought me here in the name of Jesus Christ. […]
Mead: They did not bring you here in the name of Jesus Christ! That is a perversion.
Baldwin: One of the boats was called “The Good Ship Jesus.”

What did Baldwin mean when he said “he was there?” He didn’t mean reincarnation of an isolated individual soul. He seems to have meant a certain type of ancestral experience, a certain collapsing of time, an expanded definition of the self, and most importantly, the undeniable and ongoing impact of history on the present. “By the time I was five,” he said, he had been “handed down” his ancestors’ suffering not just by genetic descent but by his first-hand experience of that history continuing to play itself out:

Baldwin: I had to accept that I was on a slave boat once.
Mead: No.
Baldwin: But I was.
Mead: Wait, you were not. Look, you don’t believe in reincarnation?
Baldwin: But my whole life was defined by my history […] by the time I was five by the history written on my brow.

In his 1940 Dusk of Dawn, W.E.B. Du Bois similarly called skin color a “badge” of “a common history,” “a common disaster” and “one long memory.” (p. 33) Du Bois wrote that this badge symbolized an experience shared over time and space:

The physical bond is least and the badge of color relatively unimportant save as a badge; the real essence of this kinship is its social heritage of slavery; the discrimination and insult; and this heritage binds together not simply the children of Africa, but extends through yellow Asia and into the South Seas.

Though his life was “defined” by it since he was five years old, Baldwin still spoke of having to “accept” that history. And what happens when people are unable or unwilling accept their histories? In the words of Walter Benjamin, “not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”

At the same time, however, Benjamin wrotes that “fine and spiritual” qualities are present in the class struggle “as confidence, as courage, as humor, as cunning, as steadfastness,” and that “they will, ever and anon, call every victory which has ever been won by the rulers into question.” Similarly, in The Fire Next Time, Baldwin described the black children who walked through hostile crowds to newly-integrated schools as “improbable aristocrats” possessed of true nobility of spirit. He wrote:

The Negro boys and girls who are facing mobs today come out of a long line of improbable aristocrats—the only genuine aristocrats this country has produced. I say “this country” because their frame of reference was totally American. They were hewing out of the mountain of white supremacy the stone of their individuality.

Walter Benjamin. [Fair Use / Wikipedia]

Walter Benjamin. [Fair Use / Wikipedia]

Responsibility

Baldwin’s ideas about “accepting” his history are closely related to his ideas about responsibility. We have seen Baldwin’s call to be “responsible to life.” Now we see the idea of taking responsibility—which is often conflated with guilt, but is in fact a different concept—for history, and for the failures of the present moment. In his conversation with Mead, Baldwin not only identified himself with the slave on the boat, but with the Africans who sold other Africans to Europeans as well:

Baldwin: I’m not guiltless, either. I sold my brothers or my sisters—
Mead: When did you?
Baldwin: Oh, a thousand years ago, it doesn’t make any difference.

Ironically but tellingly, Baldwin begins The Fire Next Time with an epigraph from Rudyard Kipling, which was originally intended to be a “measured” encouragement of U.S. imperialism in the Philippines. But subsequently it was used by Baldwin to call for a true reckoning, a true judgement:

Take up the White Man’s burden
Ye dare not stoop to less
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloak your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your Gods and you.

Taken as a justification for colonization, the “White Man’s burden” is a disgusting lie. Taken as a commentary on collective responsibility, however, it bears further thought. In his conversation with Mead, Baldwin asked, “How does a civilization distinguish from an individual? It’s a loaded question.”

Enlightenment thought has led to the glorification of the rational individual. In Benjamin and Baldwin, however, we find traces of older views of the relationship between the individual and society. Michael Löwy, for example, called Benjamin “a prophet; not like someone who tries to see the future, like a Greek oracle, but in the Old Testament sense: that is, one who calls the people’s attention to future dangers.” Baldwin willingly adopted the same term for himself:

Mead: You’re being an Old Testament person.
Baldwin: Prophet.
Mead: You’re taking an Old Testament position, that the sins of the fathers are visited on their children.
Baldwin: They are.

This position, though, is far from unique to the Old Testament. For example, the Athenian lawmaker Solon wrote in his hymn “To the Muses” that Zeus’s punishment for greed and injustice could be intergenerational as well:

Such is the vengeance of Zeus. […]
One man pays the price at once, another later on. For those who escape
In themselves, and gods’ approaching doom does not reach them,
It comes in any case thereafter. Innocents pay the price,
Either their children or their later descendants. (trans. West)

Similarly, Herodotus relates that when Gyges usurped the kingdom of Lydia, the Delphic Oracle of Apollon predicted “that the Heraclids would have their revenge on Gyges in the fifth generation: a prophecy to which neither the Lydians nor their kings paid any attention, until it was actually fulfilled,” in the reign of Croesus (1.13, trans. De Selincourt). And a Chinese prayer to Guan Di warns that those who “entice others to do evil, and do not even a bit of good” themselves will bring down consequences for their entire family: “Retribution will fall upon them, their sons, and their grandsons.”

Baldwin’s position, however, is more nuanced. He speaks of the way in which a crime committed once can be committed over and over again, by the act of forgetting, by the act of refusing to accept:

Mead: A crime that was committed a long time ago.
Baldwin: The crime that is committed until it is accepted that it was committed. If you don’t accept, if I don’t accept whatever it is I have done— […] I ‘m doomed to do it forever. If I don’t accept what I have done.

He points out the paradox of an entire system that denies personal responsibility: who is responsible for creating such a system—a system not just political or economic, but a “system of reality?” It can only be “all of us:”

We agreed this morning that guilt and responsibility were not the same thing. But we have to agree, too, that we both have produced, all of us have produced, a system of reality which we cannot in an any way whatever control; what we call history is perhaps a way of avoiding responsibility for what has happened, is happening, in time. [emphasis added]

And thus, he returns to the importance of a personal ethic, of personal honor:

What I am trying to get at is if any particular discipline—whether it be Christianity, Buddhism or LSD, God forbid—does not become a matter of your personal honor, your private convictions, then it’s simply a cloak which you can wear or throw off. If it is not interiorized, as we would say these days, then it really is meaningless.

Joshua Tree National Park, June 2015. [Public Domain / NPS]

Joshua Tree National Park, June 2015. [Public Domain / NPS]

Vengeance and Salvation

If the “system of reality” we have constructed lies beyond the responsibility of any one person or organization, if history itself is “a way of avoiding responsibility,” what can cut through this Gordian Knot? In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin warns of “historical vengeance, a cosmic vengeance.” A divine vengeance, an ancestral vengeance:

The intransigence and ignorance of the white world might make that vengeance inevitable—a vengeance that does not really depend on, and cannot really be executed by, any person or organization, and that cannot be prevented by any police force or army: historical vengeance, a cosmic vengeance, based on the law that we recognize when we say, “Whatever goes up must come down.”

Baldwin had already written these words by the time he sat down with Margaret Mead. He had written, too, of the mistake of “clinging to chimeras.” And so, Baldwin sought to slay the “chimera” of American self-importance, shocking Mead greatly:

Baldwin: From my point of view, America does not matter so very much.
Mead: What does?
Baldwin: Mexico matters.
Mead: You think—
Baldwin: Vietnam matters.
Mead: You think that Mexico and Vietnam can save the world? I mean for the future?
Baldwin: I know that we will not.
Mead: Well, if we don’t save it—
Baldwin: We won’t.
Mead: Jimmy, if we don’t save it we will destroy it.
Baldwin: We won’t. My point precisely.
Mead: And Mexico and Vietnam will have nothing to do with it.
Baldwin: My point precisely.
Mead: All right. You are saying, then, the world is going to be destroyed; there is no use doing anything about it?
Baldwin: No. I don’t intend to be passive. But America will not save us.

Like Semonides of Argos, Baldwin accepts the reality of the present without delusion about the future: “The future doesn’t exist for me. […] I am not romantic. I am not at home here and never will be.”

Let us, too, take a clear look at the time we find ourselves in. The Fire Next Time is couched as a warning of an impending apocalypse, which could perhaps be averted if the “intransigence and ignorance of the white world” are abandoned. But this has not happened. And just as the crime is committed anew until it is accepted, so is the destruction of the world an ongoing process, not a “future” one.

Let us avoid the pitfall of the Christians who are eternally trying to predict the date of the Rapture, forced to forever re-calculate as the proclaimed date arrives and passes. Time is not linear progress, but cyclical, compressed and eternal. The fire is not coming “next time,” it is already here, and it has been here.

And as we began this article with reference to the police shooting of Jamar Clark, so we end it with a final quote from James Baldwin:

I don’t care how well the cops are educated. I know what their role is in my life, and I will not accept it.

What more needs to be said?

Selected Bibliography

  • Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. New York: The Dial Press, 1963.
  • Baldwin, James and Margaret Mead. A Rap On Race. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1971.
  • Benjamin, Walter. “On the Concept of History.” 1940.

[We have changed the monthly “Walking the World” column to “Around the World.” Today we return to the UK with Christina Oakley Harrington, the founding director of Treadwell’s Bookshop in London. Do you like this column and others that feature perspectives from outside the U.S.A.?  If you do, please consider donating to our ongoing Fall Funding Drive. All of the money donated goes back to building The Wild Hunt and expanding our reach so we can feature more international stories and columnists. Please donate today!]

Hallowe’en approaches. Here in London we are in autumn at last. Golden brown leaves are underfoot on the sidewalks of our tree-lined streets here in Bloomsbury, my neighbourhood. Yesterday I walked down to the open market on East Street to buy ten yards of orange fabric to decorate the front window of my occult bookshop. We’re scouting for pumpkins to carve to put around on the display tables amidst the books.

[Courtesy of Treadwell's Bookshop London]

[Courtesy of Treadwell’s Bookshop London]

Halloween is a time for remembering ancestors and, this week, I am honouring the ancestors of the wonderful tradition of the magical store, where ancient tomes, kindly conversations, and recommendations come together. Pagans and mystics of the western traditions historically don’t have churches or congregations. We’ve found one another in these book-lined spaces. It’s from the occult bookseller that we’ve received our guidance for reading; we’ve got our introductions to the local coven or the address of the local magical lodge.

In my own city of London, the ancestor booksellers are many and indeed illustrious. John Watkins, a friend of occultist Helen Blavatsky, set up his bookshop on Charing Cross Road in the early 1890s. His occultist customers used his shop as a meeting place and pressed him into publishing some of their work. Among them were members of the Golden Dawn, including WB Yeats and MacGregor Mathers and, of course, Aleister Crowley. Eventually Watkins’ son Geoffrey took over for his father. Carl Jung was a friend. Aldous Huxley was also known to be a bookshop regular. The famous poet Kathleen Raine wrote this of the son who inherited the bookseller mantle:

He welcomed his customers as his guests, assuming that we were seekers for wisdom, and meeting each of us at the level of our learning (or our ignorance) as he was well able to do. He seemed always to have time to listen.

The Atlantis Bookshop

The Atlantis Bookshop [Courtesy Photo]

London’s Atlantis Bookshop was founded in 1922 by Michael Houghton, a Jewish immigrant with a passion for the mysteries and poetry, and who reputedly held ceremonies in the basement room of his shop on Museum Street. Caroline Wise, who owned the shop through the 1990s, related to me that, during the second world war, Houghton took in refugee Jewish children who had been smuggled out of Nazi Europe. Houghton’s customers included Gerald Gardner, for whom he kindly published his book on Wicca – which apparently took a while to sell.

Atlantis and Watkins are both still flourishing in London. We at Treadwells, having opened in 2003, are the new kids on the block. We are honoured to have such predecessors as those booksellers. This is my town, these are my ancestors of place. I owe them honour for their help in cultivating the traditions of my spiritual vocation and my bookselling profession.

The young Christina visited the occult bookshops of London for the first time in early 1990, when still fresh off the overnight train from Northern Scotland. The noticeboards listed groups, meetings, conferences. These scrappy bits of paper and cards were a key to the places I would find real witches, real magicians. The booksellers at these shops looked knowledgeable and kindly, but I was always too daunted to strike up a conversation. In those days I was embarrassed to be the new kid. So I hid behind the books as I’d done since childhood, silently bringing my purchases to the check out and equally silently scribbling down the phone numbers and addresses of the contacts on the community board  I’ve learned that my story is a common one for that era.

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Magickal Childe [Public Domain]

This summer I traveled to New York City and looked along the streets for the site of the old Magickal Childe, where so many gathered in the seventies and eighties, to find one another, find adventure and misadventure, and to connect for magic, for withcraft, and for personal explorations. Here, gay men met up and gave birth to a men’s initiatory tradition of witchcraft known as the Minoan Brotherhood. Here teenagers came through the doors to nervously browse and buy their first black-covered paperbacks – Michael Bertiaux’s Voudon Gnostic Workbook or Doreen Valiente’s ABC of Wicca. And although the bookshop’s doors closed years ago, its precedent continues to inspire those of us who run esoteric bookshops today.

When I travel around America or around the UK, I can’t help but pop into every small city’s esoteric shop. Whether it’s Nottingham or Norwich or Albany, I have to go in. Usually I end up having a chat with the owner, who is commonly the friendly person behind the cash register. We talk about “how business is” and about the effect of the internet on bookstores. But, most of all, we talk about our spiritual calling – to have an open door for the community of Pagans, magicians and seekers in the place where we live. It’s a hard life. We commiserate with one another, but all our conversations come back to the fact that we feel we have to do it.

In our conversations, we reminisce about the good old days, remembering those who did it before us. And, though we don’t always say it to one another, I get the feeling that we all look to the ancestors of the occult bookshop tradition for strength when we don’t know how we’re going to make the rent this month. They give us patience when obstreperous occultists lecture us on what we’ve known for years. They hover as benign presences over our book launches and watch over us from the upper corners of the dusty book cases.

[C

[Courtesy of Treadwell’s]

And so, as I unlock the door of my own shop this morning, this prayer is in my mind:

Bless us, ancestors of the occult bookshops, and we in turn bless you and thank you for all you did in your lifetimes. We try to do you proud, and stand in your shoes as best we can. May the bookshop continue to be the circle between the worlds, a meeting place of joy and peace and communion.

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!