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I live in a place unchallenged by winter. We move between cycles of wet and dry with occasional mild cool weather that flickers through in just a few days. Those of us raised in the tropics understand the trial of winter, but rarely the daily onslaught of cloudy and relentlessly cold days that become shorter through the nearly the end of the calendar year. The sun in my neck of the woods remains strong and the days shorten mostly because of the inherited insanity of the time change that happens this weekend.
Honoring the wheel of the year in the tropics is often an exercise of theory over practice. While Samhain co-occurs with Halloween and the festivities of the Days of the Dead in many Latin cultures, the other holidays stand alone as either astronomical marks or reflections of concepts such as gratitude. Our concerns of oncoming weather equates the freedom and carefreeness of summer with the hurricane season. Fall is hot, and winter is a benign season with open windows and late-night barbecue parties outside.
The wheel of the year is a reminder not only of the passing of time, but the obligations and preparations of the yearly cycle of harvest and preparation. The wheel hinges on winter. It provides both comfort and advice on how to be mindful of it, prepare for it, and persevere through it. While Samhain is the start of the year, Yule holds the promise of rebirth and a reminder that the hardship of winter will fall to spring.
The wheel is also a reminder that our view of time changed as some of our ancestors changed their faiths. After Christianity gained dominance in across the West, those European ancestors converted not just faiths but their experience of time. They moved to linearity and we, in the West, inherit and continue to live in Christianized time, a basic requirement for the Messianic return; now also the time of commerce. Here in the West, time is linear and discrete. The flow of time is constant and unfaltering: always forward and always moving toward the end times. As the American poet Delmore Schwartz sums it up: “Time is the school in which we learn,/Time is the fire in which we burn.”In psychology is the understanding of the impact of culture on the perception of time. Chronemics is the area that studies the role of time in our communication as well as how we identify and experience time. As we might imagine, there exist foreseeable patterns regarding the experience of time across cultures.
In the United States and Canada (as well as most of the Anglosphere and Northern Europe) time is monochronic. It is viewed as the most precious of resources. We commoditize it. We even embed this view in our language: we spend time, we buy time, we keep time, we save time. In order to do things right, we should do them one thing at a time because getting things wrong means time may have been squandered. When we don’t do anything all, we waste time. As a result, time dominates us through scheduling, and we then use time to dominate others by having them wait and paying them hourly. On the phone or in an office, waiting is an act of submission, and controlling time and pay is an act of authority. Power and control are manifested in our interactions, our schedule, and our regimented lives. We even schedule relaxation.
The origins of monochronicity is natural development from our societal view of time as linear. The Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius observed time to be infinite on both side of the present, but in his “Meditations,” he left open the possibility that time had recurring “successions.” Judaism also marks linear time, but in a moving from rather than a going to fashion. The marking of time in Judaism is about God’s dominance in the world and the constitution of his people in the exodus from Egypt. It counts its time in days and in terms of dark and light all moving forward, “and there was evening and there was morning.”(Genesis 1:5); all laying the foundation for linear time.
In other parts of the world, including Africa, parts of the Levant, Southern Asia and Latin cultures, time has a fluidity. These cultures have a polychronic time system. In polychronic cultures, the act of experiencing is more important than how much time is used. Goals are nice but concentrating on the process is viewed a much more rewarding. You can pay attention to multiple agendas and even multiple friends at the same time, so long as you honor the moment you are sharing. Time is not spent with friends, time is passed with friends. Time is not bought, time is held. Time can never be wasted.
In many ways, the wheel urges us to adopt the polychronic attitude; our Pagan and Heathen ancestors may have experienced time in this manner. Time is a cycle, repeated yearly. We should remind ourselves about preparation but live in the moment. The wheel commands u to experience the seasonality of the world and it immanent presence in the patterns of nature.
This Samhain, I spent the holiday in Iceland, and the wheel was very present. The days have become short and the preparation for winter must rush to completion or else death will be certain. It is not a matter of running out of time, it is rather an intimate connection on the cycles of nature that are as encouraging as they are relentless. As the third harvest of Samhain comes, the seasons become treacherous and there is a danger in the moment, all the elements — wind, water, fire and earth -– manifest their danger from chilling wind to fire that can both warm as well as take a home.
But the wheel also exposes the privileges we have gained through the immense sacrifice of our predecessors. Traveling through Iceland brings into terrible relief the challenges faced by Norse ancestors. The land would be fruitful for part of the year and a crucible through another. The days become fleeting and the cloud cover buttresses the control of the darkness. Nature becomes a persistent challenge.Yet, as our ancestors discerned, that darkness can be held off through the strength of community and hospitality. The dangers that the savage side of nature might bring are mitigated by the power of collective work, collective duty and collective action.
The wheel of time we mark tells us that the moment in which we live is gifted to us by the tribulations of our ancestors. The seasons it marks represented not just difficulties to be overcome by our ancestors but also how they used their knowledge and work to free us from many of the hardships they experienced as they marked the same wheel. The gentleness of tropical seasonality does not convey those difficulties, and the architecture of our modern society that limits the privation of winter, speaks loudly how our ancestors carved a safe future for each of us. Samhain reminds us their presence, and the wheel reminds us of our debt.
This visit to Iceland made the wheel very present. It reminded me that experiencing the cycle of the year is as important as understanding it. While the wheel can be adapted to the tropical life, it presents few of the challenges of its real origins as an agrarian calendar centered in the mid-latitudes on lands benefiting from the power of the Gulf Stream. Yet it loses something in that adoption. I think it even loses something when we focus only on the intellectual side of its application as a marker of sabbats. When we do so, we focus only on the monochronic elements it evokes and we lose how it speaks to us of ancestors, the privileges they bestowed and our life in a spiral dance.
I would not call this trip a pilgrimage as much as a reminder that our Pagan life links us to the land in an intimate way, and with it the way we understand the passage of time. Traveling to places where the wheel meant survival has certainly reminded me of it roots us to the world, and explains to us how we must understand our commitment to ourselves, the land and our progeny. Like our predecessors, we should also strive to be good ancestors.
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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.