Archives For Day of the Dead

“Our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them.”-  G. Eliot

I’ve always felt that the dead have a complicated life in Latin America. Although the Day of the Dead enters modernity through Mexico, the conversations and intimacy with death are profoundly embedded in and throughout Latino/Hispanic culture.

Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz once commented ““The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it, it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.” And it is much the same throughout the Latin world. Haitian Vodou celebrates Baron Samedi and the Guédé, the family of Loá that embody fertility and death. Brazil venerates Los Finados, honoring the dead and drawing on Christians as well as Indigenous traditions: the celebrations run from Bolivia to Cuba.

Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, San Juan.

Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, San Juan. [Photo Credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno]

Bones of the Ancestors

As an undergraduate, I remember reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude in a class on the modern fantastic. It is a seminal literary work on magical realism, a post-modern literary genre intertwining the natural and supernatural in mundane situations deeply linked to contemporary Latin American fiction.

I remember discussing the book in college and wondering why my Anglo classmates were reacting to Rebeca as a bizarre character. They were aghast. I thought it was her habit of eating earth. But, no, they cleared it up: she was carrying around the bones of her dead parents in canvas bag. And that was just too much. My reaction was “So? We did that too.”

Stares.

And I mean stares, the blank, horrified kind.

Lots of them. Hinting at grave digging is a conversation stopper. But, it was also true, at least as a family story.

My aunt – her name was Gladys but we called her YaYa, the term for “mother” in Palo, an African Traditional Religion – was much older than my father by almost twenty years. Because she lived to be 101, her memory spanned to a time before penicillin, running water, and even electricity. Every year in the first week of November, my aunt would instruct me that “the dead are respected but they are not feared. They will take advantage of you if they know you fear them.”

She would certainly know. When she was a child, one of her occasional tasks in November was to remove the bones of ancestors from mausoleums, then clean and place them in ossuaries. It was a practice that would die around World War I. But before that, burial of the dead was apparently a tricky challenge in tropical Cuba where the heat was a problem and space was a premium.

The practice at many cemeteries was simple: graves were rented, not owned. For about ten dollars (about 5% of annual household income), you would have a burial plot – usually above the ground in a mausoleum-  for five years. After that time, your family could pay another $10 (or dig up and transfer the bones to chest that would be kept in the house. If you had no money to pay or “abandoned” the deceased, the bones would be disinterred and placed in a boneyard. One such boneyard is of the Colon Cemetery in Havana. There is a famous photo in the Burn’s Archive of Spanish American War soldiers holding human skulls and bones while standing on top of a 30 foot deep pile of human skeletons.

Therefore, for me as a college student, Rebeca’s bag of parental bones sounded like a practical solution to a financial problem. Rebeca’s story was neither horrific, nor alien. The conversation around death in many Latin American households is nonchalant. Death is not a topic of morbidity; only violent or untimely deaths are considered vulgar topics. Death is a reminder to live life fully not only as an act of the moment but as a collective act of preparing for death.  But more importantly, perhaps it was that act that connected Rebeca to her forebearers in and intimate and immanent way.

Death in Tradition

Latin America is a fusion of traditions, and it just basically seems like the deceased can have a very difficult time not only navigating their own funerals, but also the complexities of the Afterlife. Native American, African and Christian faiths merged to create a culture where death is multifaceted: the rituals and the understanding of the nature of death are deeply rooted to ancient traditions that span millennia and are separated by oceans. Despite the number of professed Roman Catholics, Latin Americans are often raised in a space that sees and understands death in way that is neither fully Christian nor fully Pagan.

In the Yoruba tradition, Death is a purposeful celebration of the Balance. It is neither useless nor wasteful. In one pataki, death- called Ikú – was in Heaven and the world became overcrowded. The answer to the overcrowding was a cull of humans. So, Olofí – the spirit of God on Earth-  ordered Oyá – the Orisha of the winds and change – to fly to Heaven and return Ikú to the world . She refused. Death for the act of slaughter has no purpose. When Olofi made Ikú part of the Balance, she gladly obeyed.

Orisha teach that death is simply another form of life. The dead-  called Egungun –  are revered because they are our ancestors. We cannot be here without the work of the dead, and they are still there to guide the living. But they have all the virtues and vices of their former life. If an ancestor was a drunk in life, for example, they’ll still like to drink. If they were generous with their time and opinions in life, they might choose to spend a lot of time with you, especially offering their continuous advice. It can be good or bad; but again it is intimate and immanent.

Ancestors can always teach, and we can always learn from their whispers, wisdom, and mistakes. To do that, we would set up bóvedas – altars that had glasses of water and candles carefully placed to denote balance. Sprigs of basil would be placed on the altar for cleansing to ensure that our answers were from our ancestors and that not from elsewhere.  It is a ritual borrowed from Spiritism, and versions of it are found throughout the Latin World. Regardless of a professed faith – likely Catholicism- the practiced faith of many Latin Americans blends many traditions, reminding us to keep the dead close. And that is a practice, like Octavio Paz noted, that is far more alien in other parts of the world but deeply present in the Day of the Dead.

But then, a few weeks ago, I found myself surprised. When googling “Latin American Death Traditions,” I discovered  “Santa Muerte” consistently appearing at the top of my searches. It is not that I had never heard of this entity; she came up while researching a different story several months ago. However, given the breadth and complexity of traditions throughout Latin America, it seemed odd that she would rise to such importance when researching death rituals. Because, bluntly most of us had never heard of her 20 years ago. And there’s so much more to death in Latin America than this one “saint.”

Santa Muerte is Spanish for “Holy Death.” More correctly, she is called Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte (or Our Lady of the Holy Death). She is a non-canonizedm folk saint who is venerated in parts of Mexico and United States. She is depicted as a skeletal figure often carrying a globe and scythe, and is robed frequently, but not exclusively, in white, similar to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church in one of Her Apparitions.

Santa Muerte has several eponyms including La Flaquita (the Thin One), La Huesuda (The Bone Lady) and La Dama Poderosa (the Powerful Lady). She is venerated by many individuals who experience societal marginalization and alienation; and she even has a shrine on Alfarería Street in the barrio of Tepito, an underserved neighborhood of Mexico City. But her association with delinquency is significant. Santa Muerte is often referred to as the “narco-saint” having been associated with violent and high-profile criminality. She’s even had cameos in the television shows Breaking Bad and Dexter.

But Santa Muerte is not connected with antiquity like Day of the Dead celebrations. In fact, she is completely unrelated to the Day of the Dead. The holiday is a syncretism between Mesoamerican traditional faiths and the Catholic All Saints Day. There is even some documentary evidence linking to the celebrations of the Aztec nation.

Mictecacihuatl, Queen of the Underworld

Public Domain

Mictecacihuatl [Public Domain]

The Codex Borgia is a divinatory manuscript in the Vatican Library believed to have been written and designed prior to the Spanish Invasion of Mexico. The manuscript is a series of very large accordion-folded sheets of stucco-covered deer skin, which ultimately creates almost eighty pages of illustrated text (Noguez, 2009). The codex contains astronomical and meteorological information detailing the seasonal variations that we would expect in the climate of modern-day central Mexico suggesting the manuscript was created in Oaxaca or Puebla.

The manuscript has a mysterious origin. It was essentially an unknown document until it surfaced in the 18th Century in Italy within the archives of Cardinal Stefano Borgia. Cardinal Borgia, by all accounts, was not only a minister and theologian, but he was also an antiquarian, publishing the first papyrus in the West documenting the maintenance and building of irrigation canals in Egypt. More importantly to our story though is his desires for acquisitions. His collecting of Pagan, Christian and Islamic papyri places him as one of the central figures of the preservation and archiving of such documents ultimately coalescing into the field of papyrology.

How Cardinal Borgia got his hands on this document is unknown. But his preservation of the document was a drastic contrast to that of his predecessors, the zealots who sought to abolish all traces of Pagan knowledge originating in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Beginning in the 15th Century, their nearly 400 years of sustained colonization and religious assimilation resulted in the destruction of many cultural cues and elements. But scholars have traced the veneration of Ancestors into pre-Columbian cultures (Miller, 2005).

The Codex itself helps the connections. It contains the elements of the Tonalpohualli, the 260-day calendar – and one of the two major calendars- used in Mesoamerica. This calendar breaks down into 20 thirteen-day periods. It is neither lunar nor solar and theories abound as to whether it aligns to a natural cycle or some abstraction within the Aztec mathematical system.  But, the 10th period begins the cycle of the Dog (apparently more towards August than November), and that cycle is marked under the Lord of Mictlan, Mictlantecuhtli, the most prominent of the gods and goddesses of the Underworld and one of the Thirteen Lords of the Night illustrated in the Codex Borgia.

What is relevant to Santa Muerte is that Mictlantecuhtli had a wife, Mictecacihuatl. She is the queen of the Underworld (Mictlan) and the Lady of the Dead. Her job is to guard the bones of the dead and preside over the Mesoamerican festivals of the dead that likely evolved into the modern tradition of the Days of the Dead. Mictecacihuatl is depicted in the Codex Borgia and prominent as far back 200 ce. Her connection to the modern Day of the Dead festivities remains speculative. But one thing is clear; despite the cursory association with death, she has nothing to do with Santa Muerte.

The Rise of Santa Muerte

Santa Muerte’s rise in popularity has taken her from a marginal cult in the 1960s to conspicuous veneration in the 2000s. Yet, at the same time, she still exists in relative obscurity to many Latinos. She remains a divisive and controversial figure. The Catholic Church condemns her as idolatrous and nothing less than blasphemy. Her adoration is considered perverse and satanic.

In 2013, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, pleaded with Mexicans to halt her adoration, describing it as a “celebration of devastation and of hell.”  In 2009, former Mexican President Felipe Calderon even launched military assaults on 40 or her shrines. But both of these were footnote events in Latin American news, which suggests that Santa Muerte’s fame may have one real catalyst: the media.

To explore that question, I spoke with Dr. Antonio Zavaleta, professor of Anthropology and Sociology at University of Texas- Brownsville. His area of research includes poverty, culture and economic activity along the US-Mexican border. This work has brought him to explore and publish works on ritual and folk-belief. He famously recorded the opening of magical work, which he disappointingly refers to as “Mexican Witchcraft,” and discusses ritual belief associated with statuary and intentional work.

While I understand his approach as an academic, the video is troubling to my personal sensibilities because I feel his objective of understanding the ritual work could have been accomplished without violating a piece of magical work. But the video does demonstrate the strength of devotion, ritual and will used to invoke Santa Muerte.

Dr. Zavaleta was generous with his time to describe how he had independently drawn similar conclusions about the rise of Santa Muerte. We talked about the complexity of the belief structure, and Santa Muerte’s rise in power and presence. His thoughts on the matter were the same: “faux-Catholicism fueled by the American media.” She may have some unlikely syncretism with Indigenous Mesoamerican and Catholic beliefs, but there is no “historical connection between Santa Muerte and the Day of the Dead,” he added. “The Day of the Dead is one thing. Santa Muerte is another thing” (Zavaleta, 2015).

 Public Domain Image

Santissima Muerte [Public Domain]

Dr. Zavaleta also links part of the obsession with Santa Muerte to the training of law enforcement in the American Southwest. Since the 2000s, many police officers have been instructed to look for the imagery of Santa Muerte as clues in connection with drug trafficking. The frenzy of the last decade in both United States and Mexico over the drug war has driven the media obsession with Santa Muerte, and that coverage has given her a vigor that was unknown in the early days of her cult. Even Time magazine has given her a full spread offering her the opportunity to reach new audiences.

But those audiences have one powerful thing in common: they are typically considered outcasts. She is said to be the protector of LGBTQ persons. She is venerated by the young, often women, and the working class. She is the protector of those people who must turn to work that is often deemed deviant, including sex work, begging and counterfeiting.  And while her association with criminal elements seems probable, Santa Muerte is not defined by criminality (Peña, et al. 2009). Instead, she seems better defined by her unfailing support of the beleaguered.

Entering Pagan Space

I wrote that last sentence very carefully. Because in writing that paragraph, Santa Muerte seemed to change from an academic subject to an entity with purpose. I approached learning more about Santa Muerte as social phenomenon. But in doing so, I walked into a Pagan space. Our own traditions range from the reconstructed to the ancient. We, and I would say uniquely, understand that new and magical spaces can open at any time. That we hold keys to summoning new spirits as well as learning about old ones. The ancient and the new cannot only mingle, but they also add to our understanding of spirit. They can be venerated because the cosmos is not a static construction but a continuing revelation.

Santa Muerte is a patron of the disenfranchised to rise against the powers of order and oppression. She is an emotional backlash against the experience of marginalization. Her veneration remains strong among the groups who have been obsessively subjugated by a powerful patriarchy bent on conversion, control and humiliation. And these groups have little power, but she has entered as their ally.

Santa Muerte may be new, but she is no less immanent or relevant than any other Spirit, Intelligence, God or Faculty. The desperation of her followers, their rage of exclusion, and their rebellion to oppression have opened a potent emotional well where you can hear her murmurs with little strain. Pagans know that well. It has brought forth magic before. And I cannot help but wonder if it has borne a new goddess.

Citations

Peña, A. Alejandra, S. et al. (2009). El culto a la Santa Muerte: un estudio descriptive [The cult of Santa Muerte: A descriptive study. Revista Psicologica. http://www.udlondres.com/revista_psicologia/articulos/stamuerte.htm

Miller, Carlos (2005). “History: Indigenous people wouldn’t let ‘Day of the Dead’ die”The Arizona Republic. Retrieved 2007-11-28.

Noguez, X. (2009). Códice Borgia. Arqueología Mexicana Edición Especial: Códices prehispánicas y coloniales tempranos.

Zavaleta, A. Personal communication.  September 23, 2015.

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.

It’s an almost universal truism that coverage of Witches, witchcraft, the occult, and anything else vaguely magical in nature skyrockets during October. It’s a no-brainer content filler in a media landscape that is constantly hungry for more content, no matter how re-hashed, derivative, or lacking in an actual story-hook. This year has almost been too easy, what with (at least) three new television shows that focus on witchcraft in some form or another. If one were to look at a theme, it would be that witchcraft, and the occult more broadly, has become widely normalized within (pop) culture. To underline this, a recent CNN article runs through the many witch-themed tourist travel spots around the world (including Salem).

131021133539-salem-tourist-trade-witches-story-top

 

“Today, Salem’s witchlore has resulted in a booming tourist trade. Over 100,000 visitors pour into town during the month-long Haunted Happenings festival, which takes place every October. ‘About 85% of visitors we asked say they’re interested in the witch trials, and 80% say they’re interested in modern witches,’ explains Kate Fox, the executive director of Destination Salem. The town also boasts a strong Wiccan community, with many setting up spell shops and psychic stalls where visitors can get their palms read. While witch costumes are encouraged, green face paint is not smiled upon.”

Like it or not, Halloween has established itself as the dark mirror of Christmas in the Western holiday calendar. Anything vaguely related to death, magic, or the otherworld gets pulled into its wake, sometimes in spite of objections from the cultures being pulled in. Vodou/Voodoo is quickly becoming associated with the witchcraft-drenched autumnal season, urged on by popular shows like American Horror Story: Coven, while the pre-Columbian Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos grows in popularity every year.

Decorated skulls for Sale at Chichen Itza.

Decorated skulls for Sale at Chichen Itza.

“The tradition, initially a summer holiday, began hundreds of years ago in Mexico’s Aztec cultures, explains Louis Alvarez, one of Orale’s owners. European settlers moved the pagan ritual to coincide with the Catholic holidays of All Souls’ and All Saints’ days and helped to spread the idea to other countries.  Alvarez, 46, who was born in Ecuador and came to New Jersey at age 13, did not experience the holiday in his native land, but has seen its popularity spread during many years working in Latin restaurants. ‘It just keeps elevating every year,’ he says.”

For those of us who lay claim to the title of “Witch,” this holiday has always been a double-edged gift. On one hand it has allowed Pagan faiths increased access to popular media, on the other, much of that media has been sensationalist in nature, and often warps our message in the service of ratings. However, the bright lining in all of this attention is that the figure of the witch is changing dramatically before our very eyes. It is now deeply embedded in our culture that witchcraft is no longer solely malefic, and for every evil magic-using character, there are a growing number of sympathetic, and at times heroic, individuals who cast spells, and lay claim to the title of Witch. Some even believe this development could bring empowerment to women, changing the way we see their power.

“While not all movies and shows about witches are necessarily good, the concept of a woman being a witch and deriving her power from within presents us with the novel idea that a female-specific concept doesn’t have to be a double-edged sword.”

On a secular level, Halloween is a multi-billion dollar business, which means that the attention, and all that comes with it, will most likely not be ending any time soon. For those dismayed at what Halloween has done to sacred holidays and customs, associating them with free candy, terrible costumes, and bacchanals of excess, there’s little to be done to reverse this commercial juggernaut. However, within the fake cob-webs, horror movies, and capitalist striving, there is an opportunity to slowly change culture by merely existing within it in an uncompromising manner. By weathering the trends, by staying true to our beliefs and traditions, we become still points of reference in a maelstrom of commerce, ultimately bending the season to something more fitting our tastes. We’ve seen this slowly happen over the last 30 years, and it’s a process we can continue as this new occult obsession accelerates.

Don’t forget, make a donation to our Fall Funding Drive so The Wild Hunt can run for another year!

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.

Halloween just happened, and if you’re Pagan know what that means: a flood of “meet the Witches/Pagans” articles from a variety of media outlets. I would normally unleash the hounds, but they had a long night, so I’ll do my best to personally catch you up on the busiest media season for our family of faiths.

That’s all I have for now, if there was a favorite Samhain/Halloween/Day of the Dead article you think I missed, please share it in the comments section. Tomorrow we unpack some non-Halloween related news!

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!

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.

As many Pagans start to both anticipate and dread (due to the “silly season” mainstream press coverage) the coming of the SamhainDía de los Muertos season, mainstream Americans are planning to make the holiday of Halloween bigger than ever.

“Americans are ready to spend far more on Halloween this year than last, an estimated $5.8 billion, and they aren’t leaving their pets out of the fun. A survey by National Retail Federation (NRF) showed the single largest expense will be on costumes for children, adults and pets. “This year, people are expected to embrace Halloween with even more enthusiasm,” Matt Shay, the chief executive of the NRF said in a statement, noting that the pagan holiday has given Americans a welcome mental break from the stress of the economic doldrums … The total represents a 17.7 percent increase from last year and will be roughly on par with 2008 levels, according to the poll of 9,291 people.”

This grand confluence of spooky escapism, retail therapy, and old traditions is most keenly felt in Salem, Massachusetts, where real Witches mingle and party with a horde of tourists who invade and create something akin to a second Mardi Gras.

“…what began as a local tourist draw is gradually morphing into a nationally (and internationally) recognized seasonal festival. For better or worse, this change from cheesy wax-works and trial re-enactments into a massive cultural (and money-making) multi-week event is partially due to the emergence of Witches and modern Pagans injecting a sense of the sacred (and the psychic) into the proceedings. It may never be officially called a Samhain festival, but for all intents and purposes this is America’s tribute to Summer’s End.”

Some are saying this is a sign that the economy is improving, or at least stabilizing, since Halloween isn’t as important as Christmas, or other calendar events during the year.

“If we were in a really horrible time, I’d expect there’d be a contraction there,” said Mike Slotkin, an associate professor of economics at Florida Tech in Melbourne. “Certainly, Halloween is important in our national identity, but I don’t think it would withstand very poor economic conditions.”

But I think this undervalues the importance of Halloween, especially in bad times. I think it’s the only modern holiday where everyone can be someone else, engage in role-reversals, forget their troubles for a moment, safely express their fears, and embrace a childish glee that’s approved for both kids and adults. I don’t know if Halloween is completely recession-proof, but I think it’s far more resilient than anyone could possible imagine (it should be noted that cut-backs in 2009 were on candy, not on costumes or parties). For better or for worse, this holiday has moved into second place in the United States (and many other Western nations), and Pagans who hold this time as holy could certainly benefit from this good will, even if it does make for some horrid journalism for a few weeks.

A Few Quick Notes

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  November 2, 2007 — 2 Comments

First off, some of you may have noticed that I was interviewed for an Associated Press article concerning the decision by Marshall University to allow excused absences for Pagan holidays (which I blogged about previously).

“By specifically including pagans, Marshall is taking an important step toward recognizing the validity of their beliefs, said Jason Pitzl-Waters, an authority on paganism who edits the Wild Hunt Web site, a blog about religion, politics and culture. ‘That’s part of the struggle for modern pagans,’ said Pitzl-Waters, a pagan. ‘Even though modern paganism has been in the public since the 1950s, a lot of people still see it as a rebellious teenage activity, not necessarily something you do as a religious observance’ … ‘What binds [modern Pagans] together isn’t our theology, necessarily,’ Pitzl-Waters said. ‘What binds us together is a sense of communal practice and togetherness.'”

I’d like to thank AP reporter Tom Breen for making me seem (somewhat) coherent, and for including me as a source alongside such luminaries as Ronald Hutton and Helen Berger.

In other media-related news, it seems that the ever-popular culture site Arts & Letters Daily has linked to professor Mary Lefkowitz’s pro-polytheism L.A. Times editorial “Bring back the Greek gods” (which I briefly mentioned last week).

“Prominent secular and atheist commentators have argued lately that religion “poisons” human life and causes endless violence and suffering. But the poison isn’t religion; it’s monotheism. The polytheistic Greeks didn’t advocate killing those who worshiped different gods, and they did not pretend that their religion provided the right answers. Their religion made the ancient Greeks aware of their ignorance and weakness, letting them recognize multiple points of view.”

With this nod from The Chronicle of Higher Education (the organization that runs/hosts the A&L Daily site), can we hope that more polytheism-boosting articles and editorials from prominent academics will soon appear?

Finally, I would like to wish everyone a very happy Day of the Dead (which is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd). Quite a few stories are popping up on the newswires concerning the holiday. The L.A. Times reports on how the syncretic holiday in Mexico is now incorporating Halloween into the mix, Minnesota Public Radio talks about the how the holiday is celebrated, and the OC Register highlights Day of the Dead celebrations in San Juan.

“The library kicked the festivities off with Mariachi performances at noon, with the entertainment continuing throughout the day. Performances by Aztec Dancers helped illustrate the events roots, Garza said. “It added a nice spiritual touch because it’s from the ancient Aztec’s that the day started,” she said.”

Be sure to also check out Chas Clifton’s post (with photos) on Day of the Dead altars set up at Colorado State University (where he teaches).