Archives For Samhain

This editorial was originally slated to be published two weeks ago, on the last day of our fund drive and a few days after Jason announced his retirement. However, life happened. As a result, we had to move with the news and not with our own agenda. I consider this a “take two” or perhaps even a “take three.” I have lost count. So before time escapes anymore and the world is lost beneath a flurry of silver solstice cheer, I now squeeze this article into the rotation. Please sit back and relax as I welcome you to join us as The Wild Hunt begins its new journey…

I remember as a child standing in the expansive LAX airport, tears rolling down my face, as we readied to board a jumbo jet and to wave goodbye to my grandparents. The pain of leaving was always oppressive. The bonds, which had been forged over a week’s vacation in sunny California, were now stretching, buckling and tearing under the weight of those goodbyes. Before stepping out into the jetway, my grandmother would always kneel down and hug me one last time. I would muddle out a little “goodbye” between sobs and, she would always say back, “This is not goodbye, Heather. This is just a ‘see you later.'”

[Photo Credit: Andress Kools, Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Andress Kools, Flickr]

Of course, the time eventually came when the ‘see you later’ didn’t happen. My grandmother died around Samhain 1999 before I could have one last hug. As painful as that was, the spirit of her yearly wisdom remained with me. Even before she died, I began to better understand the power in those words. When I embraced Paganism, their meaning deepened and eventually evolved into a profound truth. There is never truly a “goodbye.” There is always a ‘see you later.’

This concept is particular powerful at this time of year, as the veil thins and we honor our dead. As one road ends, another is always waiting. The memories and imprints of past journeys, good or bad, remain with us as we embark on new roads. The past becomes the archives of our lives – ready to guide, ready to remind, ready to influence. Although it may be hard to let go and frightening to continue, the journey does continue.

After landing back in New York City and returning to my daily routine, I carried with me the memories of our California vacation. I remember picking lemons off the tree while listening to my grandparents’ tales of working in Hollywood during its golden era. I remember my grandfather’s woodshed and my grandmother’s bright pink lipstick. Memories of those summer days made my childhood richer and stronger. They undeniably shaped my future. Furthermore, the bonds between us never broke no matter how far we traveled; even beyond the veil.

So here I am, at Samhain, facing another transition. The Wild Hunt has said goodbye to its founder and turned its attention to a new era. For me, this change is quite profound. Samhain not only marks my transition to full-time editor but also my start as a weekly Wild Hunt writer. My first article, an interview with actor Mark Ryan, was posted Oct.27 2012. Now, almost exactly two years later, I find myself taking on the role of steering this crazy ship or, better yet, leading this proverbial “wild hunt.” As it has always been for me, Samhain brings ends and beginnings.

When I started writing for The Wild Hunt, Jason said, “Write a post introducing yourself.” I never did. So I suppose this will serve partly as my introduction. Who will be managing The Wild Hunt going forward? Being a Gemini that is an extremely complicated question. What day is it?

Perhaps you would prefer to know what led me to Paganism? Last year, I was asked to write that story as a guest blog post and can still be read online. It has something to do with Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, high school angst, social anarchy and Manhattan.

What I can say now, in clarity, is that it all started with that book – The Heart of Darkness. There in that place, where all the social constructs are gone, there is nothing but raw, unbridled, animalistic humanity – body and blood, love and lust, hate and rapture, and spirit. It is the elemental point of beginnings. It is only from that point that we can see the world for what it is – a stack of cards. It is only from that point we can see ourselves, explore our past and find our motivation. It is honesty at a critical level. Deep within the Heart of Darkness, we are pure. Coming out from that space is the journey of a lifetime – and it just may blow your mind.

But that saga has already been written.

So let me begin at Samhain 2012. When Jason first asked me to contribute, I was very surprised. “Who Me? Why? Are you certain that you dialed the correct phone number?”

[Photo Credit: Roger Smith, Flickr]

Deer in Headlights [Photo Credit: Roger Smith, Flickr]

I had just ended a freelance job writing for an L.A. public relations firm. Sculpting articles for the wireless technology industry had become less than inspiring. I desperately wanted to produce something meaningful; something with more substance than could ever be extracted from stories on “converting old routers to access points” or “the right settings for optimal wireless streaming.”

Do I really need to elaborate on how Jason’s invitation presented a very welcome change?

Now exactly two years have passed and the best part of the entire experience has been in the learning. Before writing for The Wild Hunt, I was only moderately aware of the myriad colors, details and diversity present within the collective communities for whom we write. I did not personally know anyone practicing Asatru, or a Polytheism or Hellenic Reconstructionalism. Now I work with one of each. You can’t get that writing publicity materials for wireless corporations – at least not yet.

Last spring, when Jason asked me to take over as editor, I was equally surprised – honored but surprised. Stepping into the editor’s role brings with it new obstacles that will, no doubt, be difficult and, at times, grueling. However I’m willing to stand in that space and take up the reins, because I know that the work will ultimately be rewarding for me personally, for our writers and for our readers.

While the entire staff was sad to see Jason leave, we recognize and embrace the need for change – both his and ours. We are collectively thankful to him for providing us with the opportunity to be a part of this wild journey.

On Samhain, we finally closed that door and, in doing so, I was reminded of my grandmother’s words: “See you later.” Although one era is over, the cycle of influence never ends. Jason has left an enduring legacy and a strong foundation here. That influence remains no matter where he travels next or where we go. In that way, our “goodbye” is only a ‘see you later.’

This year’s fall funding drive was a huge success. With your generosity and help, we reached our goal in just two weeks and, then, far exceeded it. Thank you. All of those donations and words of support have empowered us to maintain and hopefully expand our work. Our columnists will be returning at their regular times to explore and discuss the issues of the day. Our two weekly staff writers will be covering the news as it happens. Next month, we will be welcoming our eighth and final weekend columnist, who will be focusing on the issues and subjects important to the youngest members of our communities – the college and high school students.

As editor, I will strive to uphold the ethical standards, sensitivity and substance, which has been the hallmark of The Wild Hunt. Our mission will not change. We will aim to provide a broad spectrum of news and poignant commentary as we have always done since The Wild Hunt‘s inception as one man’s blog and through its evolution into a respected independent news organization.

[Public Domain Photo]

[Public Domain Photo]

As we usher in this new era, I welcome everyone to join us on the journey. Every day as we publish, we will be leaving new footprints along the path.Those marks will eventually become the memories of tomorrow – ones that will linger in a liminal presence waiting to inform, remind and advise our future writers and editors. And, as such, the cycle will continue on.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for supporting us. And most importantly…see you later.

Column: Mise en scène

Eric O. Scott —  November 7, 2014 — 3 Comments
Deryk and Carrie Alldrit, the founders of the coven that would eventually become my coven.

Deryk and Carrie Alldrit, the founders of the coven that would eventually become my coven – my great grandparents, in a sense.

It begins with a woman holding a candle. She is walking around the room, a guide for the priestess, who is casting the circle for Samhain. But don’t look at the priestess just yet; hear her, yes, hear the words that begin every circle in our tradition, but watch the woman with the candle. The first bit of magick walks with her – for she is not only a woman with a candle, but an Evening Star, a psychopomp, the leader on a path down into the underworld. In the double-sight of ritual, she is both physical and mythical, both our friend and an unfamiliar star. Long before we make an open invocation to a god or a spirit, the magick has already begun.

A few months ago, I had a discussion about one of my essays with my doctoral committee chair. In the essay, I talked briefly about writing rituals – the choices we make in what to include, what to leave out, and what to invent anew. My advisor was surprised and delighted by this passage, because she had never heard of such a thing: the idea of writing a ritual struck her as a novel concept. She had never thought that a religious practice could also be a creative act.

I’ve thought a lot about that conversation, because it had never struck me that religion could be anything else. Ritual writing has always been at the heart of Paganism for me, so much so that I had always assumed that was just how Paganism worked everywhere. You might keep certain touchstones from year to year – the kings of Oak and Holly, the burning of John Barleycorn, the Maypole, and so on – but the actual form of the ritual changes every time, and even those touchstones find new shades of meaning as the ritual surrounding them changes. Now I know that there are actually many Pagans who dislike the idea of “new rituals,” and prefer that the word ritual be taken more literally: a ceremony repeated year-in and year-out, a constant in the turbulence of the rest of our lives. I understand that sentiment, and even sympathize with it, but I still reject it – at least for my own purposes. For me, much of the point is to be found in adding something new that still fits into the tradition. The hard, joyful work for me is in writing a ritual for, say, Samhain, that is not the same as any Samhain ceremony my coven has ever done before, but still feels right for the occasion.

In this case, the ritual started with one image: take a dark room – a basement, somewhere literally under the earth – and turn it into the underworld. Light it with a single candle; make that candle the center of the universe. Whenever something important happens, the candle moves to that actor; when the candle moves, the circle moves with it. That idea – the candle, and the darkness surrounding it – was the first thought I had when I began thinking about a Samhain ritual a year and a half ago. Even at that remove, everything in the ritual revolved around that single point of light.

I wanted to do this in deliberate contrast to the last sabbat my friends and I had performed at last year’s Beltane. That ritual was very much about light and color. We held it outside during the day, wore bright, ostentatious costumes, and danced a Maypole covered in a spectrum of pastel ribbons. We never brought up the way we used these visual tools to reinforce the message of our ritual deliberately – there was no point at which Sarah, my friend and priestess, announced that we were wearing bright colors to subconsciously reinforce the themes of creativity and hope found in the words of the ritual. She didn’t have to; the light did that work in silence, the way the cinematography shapes a film. Our Samhain would try to do the same with darkness.

I have written elsewhere about the project Sarah, I, and the other second-generation Pagans in my family set before ourselves: a grand cycle of sabbats, one a year for eight full spins of the Wheel. I suppose I have never worked on one thing for such a long time; eight years is long enough ago that, between here and there, I’ve finished two degrees, moved to three different cities, written two books, and gotten married. To say that I’ve changed in that time is such an obvious statement as to be absurd; every cell in my body has been shed and replaced since I first drew a pentagram into salt and water at Lughnasadh. This Samhain was the final ritual in our cycle; everything else had been leading up to it.

I wanted our ritual to be thoughtful, and, if possible, kind. Samhain is, necessarily, about death. While we could have made our ceremony a hard and unflinching one – the kind where you’re reminded that death comes to everyone, that there’s no escaping it and no ameliorating it – that felt cruel to me. We have had a lot of death in our family in the past few years, and I didn’t want to hurt the grieving any more than necessary. So instead, we focused on the memory of the dead. We always walk in their footsteps, I said at one point in the ritual, but only at Samhain do the dead stand next to us in the circle. As the ritual began, I tried to visualize those members of our family who had passed on into the next world standing among us: Deryk and Carrie, Ailene, Stephen, Image, Deborah, Kelson, Tom, others whom I knew I would inevitably fail to recall. They felt closer in the darkness, in the flickering candlelight.

I don’t know what other people do at Samhain. At ours, we call the names of the dead, just before the Great Rite. It’s one of the touchstones I mentioned earlier, like the Maypole or the Holly King; it’s the moment when we give voice to our memories. I like to think of it as the holiest moment in our Wicca: the time when we remember those who have walked before us, the time when others will someday remember us. In the darkness, we call to the past. Go if you must, but stay if you will, we tell the ones who have gone before. Hail and farewell, until the next time we call their names at Samhain.

Blessed Samhain

Heather Greene —  October 31, 2014 — 4 Comments

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

Ancestor Altar

Ancestor Altar

During this season, other celebrations and festivals are also being held such as Velu Laiks (“the time of spirits”) by Baltic Pagans, Álfablót or the Scandanavian Sacrifice to the ElvesWinter Nights by Asatru, 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 23 this year) and the astrological Samhain on November 6th for some Witches and Druids. Finally, in the Southern Hemisphere, many Pagans are currently celebrating Beltane.

We pray to those whose names are gratefully remembered. This includes people we were directly related to by blood, and also anyone we cared for who has passed on. These prayers remind us of the sacredness and impermanence of life. It reminds us of the strengths these people had, the challenges they faced, and the courage they roused up. They urge us to have these things too as we face the new day. – Lilith Dorsey, Voodoo Universe

The Crone is the guardian of the crossroads, and this is Her time. As we journey through our lives we come to many crossroads; we have so many choices, so many roads not taken. How do we choose? How do we know we’ve made the right choice? – Nicole Kapise-Perkins, Walking the Ancient Paths of Witches & Pagans

There’s something spooky and marvelous about Samhain-time, something that was expressed by the Celts and by more modern peoples afterwards … There’s an irrepressible spirit in the air this time of year. It lived with our pagan forbearers and lives within us. – Jason Mankey, Raise the Horns

Samhain is also 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. - M. Macha Nightmare

[Photo Credit: Kabir Bakie via Wikimedia Commons]

[Photo Credit: Kabir Bakie via Wikimedia Commons]

Many who have been dear to our communities have crossed the veil this past year, joining the ranks of the Mighty Dead, including Margot Adler, Morning Glory Zell-Ravenhart, Jeff Rosenbaum, Lady Loreon Vigne, Sparky T. Rabbit, Apolinario Chile Pixtun, Peter Paddon, Brian Dragon, Donald Michael Kraig, Judy Harrow, Stanley Modrzyk, Colin Wilson, Jonas Trinkūnas, Eduardo Manuel Gutierrez (Hyperion), Randy David Jeffers (Randy Sapp), Chris Keith, Olivia Robertson and many others who have not been not named here, but who have equally touched our personal lives and our communities.

And, finally, in the spirit of Alley Valkyrie’s latest article, we also take a moment to remember the forgotten dead.

On the whole … the ancient feast of Winter’s Eve has regained its ancient character, as a dual time of fun and festivity, and of confrontation of the fears and discomforts inherent in life, and embodied especially in northern latitudes by the season of cold and dark. - Ronald Hutton, The Guardian

So as we approach Samhain we honor the cycle of death, rebirth, and new life; and we honor the memory of those who have passed through the veil. We honor too the gift of life, that most precious of gifts, and we seek to drink of the cup of the wine of life to the full so that no precious drop is ever wasted. – Vivianne Crowley, Greening the Spirit 

May you all have a blessed Samhain. May peace fall upon you and your beloved dead during this season. Let this be a new cycle of quiet joy and renewed blessings for all of you.

[Pagan Community Notes is a series focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. Reinforcing the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. Our hope is that more individuals, especially those working within Pagan organizations, get into the habit of sharing their news with the world. So let’s get started!] 

2433370_1414184043.751On Oct 24, Brian Dragon (Tony Spurlock) passed away. He was a beloved member of the Feri Tradition, an active participant in many Bay Area Pagan groups, an occult scholar and talented Bard, who loved to sing and tell stories. The loss has been felt by many in the local community.

To help fund funeral expenses, his friends launched a GoFundMe campaign to pay “for the cost of an urn and cremation so that Rhiannon can find comfort amongst family and friends and closure as she mourns the passing of her partner in life and magic.” Less than 3 days later, the goal of $2000 was reached and exceeded. This show of support demonstrates the true coming together of community for the care of a family and in tribute to a treasured friend and spirit. Organizer Maya Grey expressed her heartfelt thanks on the funding site.

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The Maetreum of Cybele's building.

The Maetreum of Cybele’s building.

On Oct 21, the New York State Court of Appeals began hearing oral arguments in the Maetreum of Cybele case. As we have reported in the past, the Maetreum of Cybele has been caught in an eight year legal battle with the town of Catskill over its property tax-exempt status. In 2013, the Appellate Division of the state’s supreme court ruled in favor of the Maetreum, but the city would not relent, and appealed once again.

The day after the oral arguments were heard, the organization said,The Maetreum exists because of one miracle from the Goddess after another. We never should have been able to buy the property but did … never should have been able to stay in the legal battle to the end but did. We view the property as belonging to the Goddess.” Currently, the Maetreum reports that it still owes $1360 in legal fees and its fundraising efforts are ongoing. However, once those bills are paid and legal processes are over, the organization hopes to return to the project of getting its “community low powered FM radio station on the air.”

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Pantheon FoundationThe Pantheon Foundation will be hosting the first annual Pagan Activism Conference Online (PACO) Nov 22-23 2014. The conference will take place entirely online, allowing for global participation and attendance. According to the website, “The goal of the Conference is to equip Pagan activists from all over the country with the tools necessary to advance the goals and aims of their own activist efforts, and to build bridges between Pagan activists for mutual support.” The keynote speaker will be T. Thorn Coyle. Registration, information and a schedule of events are currently listed on the site.

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[Courtesy Photo]

[Courtesy Photo]

With frustration mounting, Silver Ravenwolf has responded to the Facebook name controversy with a new blog post. A few days earlier, she told The Wild Hunt, in part, “As the days progressed I’ve received many e-mails and posts about individuals who have been targeted — radio show hosts, tattoo artists, writers, singers, Native Americans, etc. — but, more worrisome? Many of the individuals indicated they fought and lost, that the experience was painful and upsetting, and that they were treated unkindly by FB employees.” Ravenwolf added that she will fight this because, “FB is purposefully putting the safety and security of individuals at risk — and that is unconscionable.”

In Other News:

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It took me a few hours to find the girl whose face had appeared to me so clearly that morning, but as soon as I spotted the figure sitting on the bench out of the corner of my eye, I immediately knew that I had found the right person. She had a pile of cards, a handwritten cardboard sign, and, as my eyes met hers, she broke into an impish grin. She was definitely the one.

I handed her five dollars and sat down on the blanket.

“What is your question?” she asked me.

“I need to know what story to tell,” I answered.

She drew three cards, turned them over in front of me, and started to study them. As soon as I glanced at the cards, an old friend flashed through my mind, and instantly my question was answered. I quickly glanced at the cards again, snapped a picture of them with my phone, and then gently interrupted her thought process.

“No need,” I told her. “All I needed was to see the cards. I’ve got everything I need to know now.”

She looked at me, puzzled. “If all you needed was to see the cards, why did you pay me for a reading?”

“I was supposed to seek you out,” I answered, momentarily drifting back to the vision I had on the riverbank that morning and remembering that I had neglected an important detail. “I was also supposed to compensate you twice what you asked, so here…”

I reached into my pocket, handed her another five dollars and started to get up.

“Wait,” she said. “I have to ask. What’s the story? What are you writing about?”

“Its about the dead,” I quickly answered, realizing as the words left my mouth that she deserved more of an explanation than that. I took a breath and tried again. “I’m being nagged to write about the dead. But I’ve got too many possibilities in my head and I was drowning in an indecisive fog. Those three cards made it perfectly clear who and what I need to write about.”

She smiled and nodded. I thanked her again and headed home, ever so grateful for the simplicity of that exchange.

*  *  *

It was Samhain, and we had dedicated the day to honoring the forgotten.

We had started the afternoon at Washington Square Park, on the east side of the park where an estimated 20,000 bodies were buried and forgotten beneath one of New York City’s most well-known landmarks. The park was packed that day with children and adults alike in Halloween costumes, milling about in anticipation of the parade that would pass through Greenwich Village in just a few hours.

Jim and I stuck out for our lack of costumes and, yet instantly, attracted attention as we spread flowers throughout the east side of the park and sang songs and left offerings for the dead, purposefully ignoring the confused and questioning stares from passers-by. The crowds of people dressed as ghouls and ghosts hadn’t a clue that they were atop one of the city’s largest graveyards, and observing the depths of that ignorance only fueled our energy towards the task at hand. If only they knew what lies beneath, I thought to myself as I sprinkled flowers along the perimeter of the park.

From Washington Square, we walked uptown to Madison Square Park and then Bryant Park, performing the same ritual again in both places, and then briefly over the pedestrian bridge to Ward’s Island and back before taking the 6 train up to Pelham Bay in the Bronx and hopping a bus over to City Island.

The day before, I had arranged to borrow a boat from a friend whose family lived out on the island. It was a rickety old skiff, perhaps 12 feet long with a sputtering old Evinrude motor, that had seen better days but was sufficient for the purpose of our voyage. I was given a quick lesson on the boat’s quirks and operations before dragging her on the dolly down to the dock. I looked out into the water and focused my eye towards our destination in the distance.

City Island (left) and Hart Island (right). Photo by Bjoertvedt.

City Island (left) and Hart Island (right). Photo by Bjoertvedt.

The sun was just starting to set as we strapped on our life jackets, grabbed a few flashlights and a set of oars, and headed out into Long Island Sound with a large plastic bag filled with fresh-cut flowers. It was a clear night, the water was still, and Jim piloted the boat while I helped navigate us northeast past Rat Island, the nautical map of this stretch long committed to my memory. I had been out on the Sound only a few times before in years past, but I had taken this trip many times in my mind, to the point where I felt a definitive déjà vu while we crossed the sound, despite the fact that I had never taken this exact route before.

A short time later, we stopped the boat and shut the motor off a hundred feet or so away from the shoreline near the northernmost tip of Hart Island. We carefully stood up in the boat and gazed out towards the island, immediately noticing that the land formation before us was literally shrouded in mist against an otherwise clear sky. Without a word we each grabbed an oar and slowly rowed closer in silence, drawn to the eerie, numinous energy that was emanating from the shoreline. Before us was a literal island of the dead, a 101-acre tract of land that held the distinction of being the largest publicly-owned burial ground in the world.

Over a million of New York’s indigent, forgotten, stillborn, and otherwise unclaimed dead are buried on Hart Island. The island has served as New York’s potter’s field since 1868, when the city purchased the island and designated it as “a public burial place for the poor and strangers.” Prior to the city’s acquisition of Hart Island, potter’s fields had been maintained throughout Manhattan from the time of the city’s inception. The area that is now Madison Square Park was the first large-scale potter’s field, until the city purchased the area that is now Washington Square Park in 1797 and designated that tract as a potter’s field until 1825. Bryant Park was used to bury the indigent from the 1820s until just before the Civil War; Ward’s Island was then used for burials for several years prior to the purchase of Hart Island in 1868.

In addition to a potter’s field, Hart Island had also alternately housed an insane asylum, a drug treatment center, a boys’ reformatory, a tuberculosis sanitarium, prison dormitories, and a Nike missile base. The island was dotted with ruins from these various incarnations – ruins that were left crumbling and unexplored as the island had been closed to the public for as long as anyone could remember. The burials on Hart Island were performed by prison inmates from nearby Rikers Island. The inmates and employees of the New York City Department of Corrections were the only living souls legally permitted on the island. Signs warning the public not to land ashore were scattered all around the perimeter of the shoreline, and anyone who did step foot on the island was potentially subject to arrest.

A trench at the potter's field on Hart Island, circa 1890. Photo by Jacob Riis.

A trench at the potter’s field on Hart Island, circa 1890. Photo by Jacob Riis.

Before I had met Jim, I had never even heard of a potter’s field, let alone had any thoughts of ever visiting one on Samhain night. I had occasionally wondered in the past what became of those who died and were unclaimed, or those whose families could not afford a burial. But I had never taken those thoughts to their logical conclusion until I started spending time with the segment of society that tends to end up in such places. I understood why nobody ever spoke of potter’s fields, as poverty and death are equally uncomfortable subjects as far as society is concerned. And yet, I found that once it truly sunk in – that there were untold thousands of the forgotten dead scattered throughout New York City – I couldn’t ignore or look away from the implications of that knowledge. I felt a need to honor them, and I wasn’t alone in that feeling.

Jim was unusually familiar with Hart Island, having worked as a prison laborer on the island during his last stint at Rikers some years back. A long-time petty criminal, he consistently credited his experiences at Hart Island with scaring him straight and setting him on the right path. Burying the indigent dead had moved something in him, forced him to examine his life and the hand that he was dealt. He spoke of the dead redeeming him in the same emotional manner that so many others spoke of Christ and, while I hadn’t known him prior to his prison experiences, I could regularly sense the deep changes that were continually occurring within him. He was homeless, struggling with sobriety, and stumbled regularly in that struggle, and yet there was a consistent fire within him that lifted him through his struggles, a fire that was deeply connected to the sense of purpose that he found while working with the dead on Hart Island.

“I got at least ten or eleven friends out there, that I know of, anyway,” he had said to me a few weeks prior to our trip. “Two of them died while I was locked up that last time, and for all I know I helped to bury them. It’s literally an island of forgotten souls out there for the most part. Most folks don’t even know its there.”

He told me of the memorials that the prisoners would build after they finished filling a trench. Altars of sticks and rocks, left in corners and crevasses throughout the island, built out of a sense of solidarity and empathy with those inside the simple wooden coffins that they stacked into the trenches day after day. “After a while, you feel a responsibility, an obligation to the task,” he told me. “Being locked up is a lesson in what it means to be forgotten. and most everyone who ends up on Hart Island is forgotten, whether you’re out from your cell for the day or freshly arrived in a wooden box. The forgotten in boxes, after a while, you realize that you’ve got perhaps a little too much in common with them.”

I thought of Jim’s time out on the island as we rowed close to shore and, as I looked over at him, I had a feeling that his thoughts were in similar places. We steered the boat eastward through the still water, and slowly started to circle around the island. I grabbed the bag of flowers and started to sprinkle them out of the side of the boat as we moved through the water. Jim rowed, and I sprinkled flowers, and we sang songs and prayers, rowing a full circle around the island of the forgotten dead as the sun set behind us.

As we made our way around the island, serenading the dead, the mist over the island started to glow in the  moonlight. We felt shifts in the air as the island seemed to respond to our presence. A whistling breeze picked up, and it was almost as if the dead were singing along with us. The veil was thin, time and place started to blur, and there was a sense of ever-strengthening connection as we slowly rowed through the water.

By the time we had completely circled around Hart Island, it was well after dark and both of our voices were hoarse. The island was pitch black, the moon was half-full, and we sat in the boat staring out at the island, watching as a sudden gust of wind stirred the mist that had been hovering throughout our journey around the island. We looked at each other and without a word spoken we decided it was time to depart. Jim started up the engine, which promptly sputtered and died, and we took it as a sign to maintain our silence as we gently rowed back to City Island without a word said between us.

As we landed back on City Island, the sky opened up and it started to pour, and as we looked back towards the opposite shore, the island of the dead was still eerily glowing.

*  *  *

In the time since our trip out to Hart Island, which took place in either 2002 or 2003, the island’s existence and the mystery around it has become much more well-known and widely publicized.

Among those buried at Hart Island are an untold number of stillborn children who died in city hospitals, many whom were buried at Hart Island without the knowledge or permission of the mother. Many of those mothers, along with the help of a local filmmaker and advocate, steadily fought the city and the Department of Corrections for the right to visit Hart Island. The department had always refused all requests to access the Island, from grieving relatives to filmmakers and journalists alike, but over the years their fight has gained traction, and the department gradually started to soften their position. In 2007, the department allowed ‘closure visits’ for the first time, which they granted only to family members who could legally prove that they had a relative buried on the island. The families were restricted to a gazebo next to the dock at Hart Island and had no view of the actual gravesites.

After eight women threatened to file suit against the Department of Corrections in 2010, seeking to visit the actual grave sites of their children, the department finally relented and allowed the women to visit the graves under tight security. The Department simultaneously lifted the overall requirement that visitors to the island need to legally justify their request through burial records. According to the Department of Corrections website, Hart Island is currently open to the public on a limited basis, although the visits are still restricted to the same rules that govern visits to Rikers Island, which means that no photographs, flowers, or mementos are allowed.

I lost touch with Jim a few years after our trip, and learned from an acquaintance several years later that he had died of cirrhosis in the hospice ward of Bellevue Hospital after a long battle. I was told that his body was unclaimed after his death, which means he was undoubtedly buried on Hart Island.

I put this story to words in the spirit of honoring his memory, and in the hopes that others will take it upon themselves to remember and honor the otherwise forgotten dead. What is remembered, lives.

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

Holt-v.-Hobbs-Infograph1

  • A prison beard ban case currently before the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) could have far-reaching implications for religious freedom in our prisons. An anaylsis at SCOTUSblog of Holt v. Hobbs notes that SCOTUS have already ruled that corporations have the ability to avoid complying with some government mandates that they believe infringe on their religious beliefs, but what about prisoners? Quote: “Having ruled that a corporation can rely on the devoutly Christian beliefs of its owners to avoid complying with the Affordable Care Act’s birth-control mandate, will at least five Justices be equally receptive to an inmate’s desire to comply with his Muslim religion by growing a half-inch beard? Throw in yesterday’s announcement that the Justices will review the case of a Muslim teenager who alleges that she was not hired for a job at a popular clothing chain because she wears a headscarf, and it looks like it could be another significant Term for religious freedom at the Court.” The Becket Fund frames the case as whether prison officials can arbitrarily ban a religious practice (in this case beard-growing).
  • Is religion on the wane in the West (say that ten times fast)? There’s some recent evidence that it might be. Ben Clements at British Religion in Numbers analyzes the latest British Election Study (BES), which shows a huge growth in “nones” (those who don’t identify with having any particular faith identity). Quote: “The most common response is that of not belonging to any religion, at 44.7%.” It should also be noted that “other” faiths are also on the rise among younger respondents. Meanwhile, in the United States, a growing majority thinks that religion is losing its influence over American life. This is according to a Pew Research poll. Quote: “Nearly three-quarters of the public (72%) now thinks religion is losing influence in American life, up 5 percentage points from 2010 to the highest level in Pew Research polling over the past decade.” 
  • Religion News Service covers the latest iteration of people over-reacting to Halloween, in this case a school district in New Jersey that banned, then un-banned Halloween parties. Quote: “For years, Christian evangelicals have objected to what they see as Halloween’s pagan origins. Some churches have adopted alternative harvest celebrations, while others have constructed elaborate “Hell Houses” designed to depict the torments of hell and the promise of salvation through belief in Jesus. But a day after canceling the in-school Halloween celebration, parents received a note home from Acting Superintendent James Memoli saying the cancelation has been reversed, and the event would take place as it has in the past.” Of course, Halloween is NOT a Pagan holiday, it’s a Christian holiday that was thoroughly secularized over the last 100 years. Now, Samhain (and other pre-Christian harvest/Winter festivals), that’s a different matter. Anyway, what’s truly ironic is re-labeling Halloween as a “Harvest Festival” just makes is sound MORE Pagan, not less. Stick with the jack-o-lanterns and candy.
  • Catholicism is slowly losing its grip on Brazil, but that hasn’t dimmed the popularity of an annual processional in honor of the Virgin Mary. Quote: “An arduous public display of devotion, Cirio (pronounced see-rio) has persisted and thrived as a centerpiece of Amazonian regional culture — maintaining consistent levels of participation year to year — even as Catholicism loses ground to evangelical faiths in a dramatic transformation of Brazilian society.” Why the enduring popularity? Because the festival goes deep into the cultural history of their society, quote, “in Brazil, where African and indigenous traditions melded with Christianity for centuries and where Catholicism has deep cultural roots, religious identities are not so clear-cut.” Indeed, indeed. Meanwhile, practitioners of Afro-Brazilian faiths feel under attack.
  • Affirming belief in a higher power, or going back to jail? Thanks to a lawsuit in California, that may be a choice that’s on its way to extinction. Quote: “The real victory here is that California will no longer be able to force anyone into a faith-based treatment program. It’s fine to have different rehab programs available to drug offenders – even if they’re faith-based – but religious ones must remain optional.”
  • The Miami Herald reports on how two prominent Santeria organizations (Kola Ifa and Church of the Lukumí Babalú Ayé) have joined forces to, quote, “establish a central and very visible hierarchy for a faith often associated by outsiders with mysterious rites, colorful deities and animal sacrifices.” Here’s a video report on this new agreement. I’m thinking this move could have significant ripples into the wider Santeria/Lukumi world.

That’s all I have for right now, as always, some of these stories may be expanded on in future Wild Hunt posts. Thanks for reading, have a great day!

IMG_2836There are so many different ways to celebrate during this time of year, and the plethora of Pagan celebrations go throughout the month of October and through the first week of November. While a large majority of Pagan practices happen on October 31st or November 1st, the actual astrological day for Samhain this year is November 7th, lending for more time to have more celebrations. Festivals of ancestral honor continue in many different traditions and cultures; two of the most known, of course, include Dias De Los Muertos ending November 2nd, and All Saints Day on November 1st.

After writing my ancestral piece last month, we were contacted by a priestess in the Bay Area about her coven’s practices and process of ancestral worship. I took the opportunity to correspond with Cynthia of Circle of Winged Toads, a coven that is a descendant from the Compost Coven started in the 70’s, because I was very moved by the pictures of their elaborate ancestor altar.

Different practices dictate different processes, and the length of time needed for the preparation of any rite; practices at this time of year can take a matter of days or weeks to get ready for.  This is one of the covens that take a lot of time in preparation to put up their ancestor altar every year.  I found the pictures of the altar that were sent to the Wild Hunt fantastic and quite fascinating. Cynthia answered a few questions for me about the altar and ancestral practice during this time of year.

IMG_2835What do you find to be important about this time of year?

I feel connecting with ancestral spirits and my own mortality is important at this time of year. I also want to honor those in the community who have passed. This year I noticed that where as I used to have several people each year who had died from AIDs now it is bicyclists here in San Francisco. So I hung white ghost bikes on the altar.

How long have you been building this ancestral altar?

I have been doing this for around 25 years. It started pretty simple using the buffet in my dining room. As I continued to host our covens ritual each year people would leave things behind. So when I take the altar down I save photos and drawings for the next year. Thanks goddess I have an attic.

When do you put it up and take it down, and how long does it take?

I put it up over 2-3 days in early to mid October. Then fine turn as I meditate with the spirits each evening. I leave it up until early November so I can appreciate the transformation after the covens ritual on Samhain night.

What types of things do you look for in a well-crafted altar and how do you gauge what should go on it?

It’s all about the spirit. Items that belonged to my grandmother always have pride of place. I am fortunate to live in San Francisco within walking distance of the Mission district where I can find many Dia De Los Muertos items that are beautifully made. I like a touch of whimsey too.

IMG_2837Inspiration, creativity, and ideas can be ignited by the sharing of some of the incredible practices of other Pagans.   I hope you enjoy the pictures of this incredible and detailed altar as much as I did.

As the ancestral celebrations this time of year come to a close, I wish everyone a season of love, health, wisdom and guidance. May those who have gone before inspire and inform us on our journeys.

 

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. This week? It’s (almost) all about Halloween, and Pagans, and Witches, and how we celebrate (or don’t) during this time of year. So pull up some of that leftover candy, and let’s get started…

Ashley Bryner, senior Druid at CedarLight Grove. Photo: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Ashley Bryner, senior Druid at CedarLight Grove. Photo: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

  • Let’s start with the New York Times, who decided that this Halloween was going to be about Druids. Quote: “How many folks will spend the next few days and nights worshiping the old gods? The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey put the number of American Druids at 29,000. But then, many Druids connect with the practice of paganism, and the survey counted 340,000 souls in this category. Add another 342,000 wiccans (fellow travelers), and Samhain starts to look like a pretty big party. Of course, that number would swell if you were to include the ancestors who have passed on — and Druids do, especially in this liminal season.” Author Ellen Evert Hopman, and members of Ár nDraíocht Féin are quoted in the piece.
  • CNN decided to go with Witches for Halloween, and found one who isn’t fond of the secular holiday. Quote: “Trey Capnerhurst dons a pointy hat and doles out candy to children who darken the door of her cottage in Alberta. But she’s not celebrating Halloween. In fact, she kind of hates it. Capnerhurst says she’s a real, flesh-and-blood witch, and Halloween stereotypes of witches as broom-riding hags drive her a bit batty.” Capnerhurst goes on to claim that “traditional” Witches are hereditary, and Wiccans are converts. Which is a new one on me, since “trad” Witches generally means Witches who are members of an established initiatory line. Anyway, the article also interviews sociologist Helen Berger, who shares some basic data on the number of Pagans in America. Amusingly, the American Spectator got their underwear in a bunch over this article, so there’s that.
  • Some Wiccans have no real problem with Halloween, it should be noted.
  • While I’m making the rounds of the big-name publications, I can’t not mention the Newsweek article on how Witchcraft and occult practices are becoming, like, super-hip among young people these days. Quote: “We’re currently in the middle of an occult revival, says Jesse Bransford, a New York University art professor who co-organized an occult humanities conference earlier this month. He sees a connection between increasing interest in the occult and postrecession anxiety. Magic ‘has always been a technique of the disenfranchised,’ he says. ‘It’s something you do when the tools you have available don’t seem like they’re enough.’ These people aren’t just wearing black lipstick and watching witches hex each other on-screen; they’re also experimenting with, well, sorcery.” Let’s hope this augers an uptick in the quality of Pagan music.
  • Meanwhile, Paper Magazine interviews some event promoters in Bushwick, who are drawn to Witchcraft as an aesthetic oeuvre to operate within. Quote: “I think people just want to believe in something. But with Bushwick I think there is this underground movement, or a want to bring people together, that doesn’t have any formality to it. It’s just people who have their own rituals coming together. I think the social commentary aspect of it is there, but it’s super-subconscious. And I do think there’s a dark energy that people are now willing to talk about in a playful way. At least for us it’s playful. We’re definitely the entertainment side of Wiccan culture. Bushwiccans.”
  • For this Halloween, Reuters decided to focus on psychic scammers. Quote: “The law relating to such activities is not always definitive, Little said, noting that fortune-tellers and others who offer occult services often use a ‘for entertainment purposes only’ disclaimer to prevent legal problems. Even as people who sell occult services move online, some continue to run storefronts, offering psychic readings for a small fee and trying to talk customers into paying more to resolve problems.” However, I suspect that most party-goers looking for a quick tarot readings are fairly safe. Just don’t let anybody “cleanse” your wallet. Seriously.
shutterstock 1114023

Tarot cards.

  • Well played Yorkshire post, well played.
  • If you enjoy reading about Christians freaking out about Halloween, you’ve got your pick of the litter. Right Wing Watch, as always, picks a doozy. Quote: “Why am I concerned about the way Halloween, the media and our current culture encourage the celebration and trivialization of spiritism, occultism, Satanism, hedonism, witches, zombies and walking on the dark side with demons? Because the supernatural world is real, and no one is immune to it regardless of their education or worldview. God is real. Angels are real. Satan is real. Demons are real. Real gladiators and real Christians died in the Colosseum and circus even though many Roman leaders and citizens just considered their destruction an evening of entertainment.” See also: Southern Baptists talking about the “theological complications” of Halloween, and the Christian Post runs an editorial about the dangers of Wicca. Fun stuff, if you’re into that sort of thing. You know, feasting with Satan!
  • The Christian Science Monitor debunks the Salem Witch Trials, while scholar Owen Davies notes that the suspicion of witches has lived on far past those infamous trials. Quote: “Two centuries on from Salem and many Americans were still living in an essentially similar social, cultural, economic, and religious environment. The vicissitudes of life on the edge were all too real, and so was the fear of witchcraft as an explanation for misfortune and envy. Over the last three centuries, thousands of Americans, mostly women, have been abused for being suspected witches. Hundreds of court cases arose from accusations of witchcraft. Most startling of all, it is clear now that we know of more people murdered as witches in America after 1692 than were legally executed before that date.”
  • At the Washington Post, Starhawk contributes a piece on the holiday, noting that on Halloween “the past and future live.” Quote: “For us, Halloween is the time of year when we come together to honor our ancestors, to mourn our beloved dead and celebrate their lives.  In this autumn season, when the year itself appears to by dying.  As the leaves fall, and the harvest is gathered in, we celebrate the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain or Summer’s End.  The veil between the worlds is thin, we say, and those who have gone beyond can now return and visit us again, reminding us that death does not destroy our connection to those we love.” Elsewhere at WP, playwright Jeffrey Stanley extols the freaky fun of the supernatural.
  • UC Berkeley’s blog focuses on Americans and the occult, noting its ongoing popularity throughout this country’s history. Quote: “We have no polls, of course, to track occult beliefs before the mid-20th century, but, as I pointed out in a prior post, early Americans were deeply immersed in an enchanted world of spirits, incantations, and witches. Puritan ministers in colonial New England struggled to point out the contradiction between, on one side of salvation, pleading with God to shed His grace on an ill loved one and, on the doomed side, casting a spell to drive out an evil spirit that one believes caused the illness.”
  • The Los Angeles Times profiles Panpipes Magickal Marketplace, which is deemed “authentic in the way of a great London bookstore, yet with a glint of religion about it.” Quote: “[Co-owner Vicky] Adams is not a witch herself, she says, merely a pagan who says there are thousands of others like her across L.A., and she’s just here to help, no matter your chosen deity. ‘It’s hard,’ she says at the end of a busy day. ‘I had a customer who watched me work. When I finally got to him, he said, ‘I’m a psychologist and I get $400 an hour to do what you do.””

That’s it for now! There are a lot more Halloween-themed articles that feature Pagans, Witches, or occult practitioners, out there, but I feel this is a representative sample of what’s out there. 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, 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.

Before we move too far into the future, let’s pause a moment to talk about Halloween. Not the spiritual vigil of Samhain or seasonal harvest celebrations.  Let’s discuss the wholly secular, American and Canadian holiday of Halloween, complete with candy, costumes and PVC pumpkins.

Vintage Halloween Pumpkin Men

Vintage Plastic Halloween Pumpkin Men by riptheskull

It’s fair to say that Halloween has a somewhat uneasy place in the family of North American holidays.  On the one hand, we, as Pagans, fully embrace the festivities. It is the one calendar event that openly clings to its Pagan origins. When else can you buy a pentacle in TJ Maxx?   But, on the other hand, the celebration mocks its own spiritual roots, something that we hold very dear.

We aren’t alone in our unsettled attempts to navigate through the Halloween season.  American religious and community leaders repeatedly attempt to ban the holiday.  Why?  The list is endless including concerns over the overindulgence in candy, the potential dangers of trick-or-treating, the increased popularity of over-sexualized or violently graphic costumes and, of course, its Pagan origins. But the majority of folks really just want an excuse to party. Halloween provides a unique canvas that can only be topped by the decadent bacchanalia that is Mardi Gras. (The Atlantic, 10-30-12)

Japanese McDonalds Costumes

Ronald McDonalds Girls
Photo courtesy of Japan-Talk.com

More recently, the Halloween debate has been getting larger – much larger. Over the past two decades, our secular holiday has been spreading across the globe, seizing the imaginations of youth cultures on every continent. The holiday has hitched a ride with missionaries, English language teachers and ex-pats. It’s being promoted by imported American cultural commodities like internationally-based Theme Parks, McDonald’s stores, Coca Cola products and Hollywood movies.  And, of course, the ever-increasing accessibility to the internet only fuels the proverbial fire.

In some regions, Halloween has been readily incorporated into long-established fall cultural traditions. In the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland, Halloween finds itself at its ancestral birthplace. Today, the newly-imported version has mixed with surviving local customs associated with, among others, Guy Fawkes Day.  As noted by English writer, Chris Bitcher:

“Trick or treat has now actually become a bona fide tradition in the UK ….Fireworks were our autumnal treat of choice and for a good little while we fought off any competitor to it. But then we gave that up and decided to embrace both.” (Your Canterbury)

Disneyland Honk Kong on Halloween

Disneyland Honk Kong
During Halloween

Across the globe in China, Hong Kong and Japan, people have been enthusiastically adopting the holiday. Lisa Morton, award-winning writer of Trick or Treat: The History of Halloween, and noted Halloween authority, attributes this acceptance to the presence of two Disney Theme Parks  (Tokyo and Hong Kong), Hollywood horror movies and a fascination with American pop-culture. During my own discussion with her, Lisa added, “In Japan, there is a love of festivals and affection for costuming or “cosplay,” which is associated with anime and manga.”  In mainland China, Halloween is slowly replacing Yue Laan or “ Hungry Ghost Festivals,” during which people appease and entertain ancestral ghosts.  To fuel and solidify this cultural shift, China will be getting its very own “Haunted Mansion” at Shanghai Disneyland in 2015.

On the contrary, in continental Europe, Halloween has been receiving a less than welcome reception. In Oct 2012, the Polish Archbishop Andzej Dzięga, was quoted on Polskie Radio, as saying, “This kind of fun, tempting children [with] candy, poses the real possibility of great spiritual damage, even destroying spiritual life.” He warned against the “promotion of paganism” and a “culture of death.”  In 2003, CNN.com reported that France’s Catholics are trying everything to fend off a Halloween celebration they say is an “ungodly U.S. import.”

More recently, in Russia, the war over Halloween rages on. ABC Online reports that one Russian Education Ministry official called the holiday, a destructive influence “on young people’s morals and mental health.” The Moscow city schools banned Halloween celebrations claiming that they were concerned about, “rituals of Satanically-oriented religious sects and… the promotion of the cult of death.”  In the same article, an unamed Russian psychologist warned:

Halloween poses a great danger to children and their mental health, suggesting it could make young people more likely to commit suicide.”(ABC Online)

Despite this heavily Christian rhetoric, the resistance is not entirely about religion.  In our discussion, Lisa explained that, “While it is difficult to fully separate the expression of nationalism from religious tradition, many European countries, like France and Slovenia, have strong anti-American undercurrents.”  Religious fervor may, in fact, be serving nationalist interests.  Lisa said, in the end, she “believes the protests are far more about nationalism than religion.”

This is expressed in an article by Paul Wood, an Englishman living in Bucharest:

Just as the North American grey squirrel has made the red squirrel almost extinct so has the North American Hallowe’en taken over with extraordinary swiftness, extinguishing older, weaker traditions. This too is life, I suppose, but it is part of the process by which the whole world is becoming plastic. (Romania Insider)

Despite the rejection, Halloween is still growing, albeit very slowly, deep within European youth cultures.  In Italy, Halloween is called La Notte delle Streghe or “Night of the Witches.”  In Romania, home of the Carpathian Mountains, the local economy is profiting from world’s fascination with Count Dracula. What a better way to spend Halloween than in Transylvania on a “real Dracula Halloween tour” complete with a four-course dinner and prizes!

Now, let’s move into the Southern Hemisphere where Halloween faces a new obstacle. Simply put, the harvest-based holiday does not apply. In this part of the world, October 31st marks the middle of Spring, not Fall.  Over the summer, I was reminded of this fact when wishing an Australian friend, “Joyous Lughnasah.” She responded with an equally joyful, “Happy Imbolc.”

2671887 eeda9c5cIn the Southern Hemisphere, traditional festivals continue to be celebrated in accordance with appropriate seasonal shifts with no noticeable attempt to transplant Halloween to May.  However, youth cultures have been showing a small amount of interest in an October-based Halloween celebration, particularly in the English-speaking countries of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.  If for no other reason, the Northern holiday offers a chance to party and dabble in the macabre – even if it’s completely devoid of its seasonal aspects.

What about the Americas?  As noted above, the countries in the Southern Hemisphere do not recognize Halloween chiefly due to geographical complications.  However, the closer you get to the U.S., the more our secular Halloween has influenced local October traditions.  In Costa Rica, for example, locals “have taken this “foreign” holiday and used it to revive an ancient Costa Rican custom: Dia de la Mascarada Tradicional Costarricense or Masquerade Day,” reports the Costa Rican News.

Closer to home, in Mexico, the famous and mystical celebration of Dias de los Muertos is, now, often called Dias de las Brujas or “Day of the Witches.”  Halloween practices have been woven in to this largely religious holiday.  As expected, there has been backlash from Mexican nationalists and religious leaders.  However, Mexico is just too close to the U.S. to prevent the blending of two very similar October holidays. And that continues to happen in both directions.

Just as Halloween has infiltrated Mexican culture, elements of Dias de los Muertos are now showing up within U.S. Halloween celebrations.  In an interview, Lisa Morton explained:

Last year I saw my first piece of major Dias de los Muertos American retailing – the Russell Stover candy company released several themed candy bars… That’s probably a sign that Dias de los Muertos is starting to be accepted into the American mainstream. It’s certainly very popular in those areas of the U.S. with large Latino populations.  More people seem to be joining in large-scale Dias de los Muertos celebrations in America every year.

Dias de los Muertos Candy

Dias de los Muertos Candy
Photo Courtesy of Lisa Morton

There are some areas of the world in which Halloween has yet to find a home for reasons already listed. These areas include the Islamic Middle East, the heavily Christian areas of sub-Saharan Africa, Israel, India and parts of South East Asia.  I’ll go out on a limb and add Antarctica to that list – just to complete the geography lesson.

What does all this mean for Pagans? First of all, in every article for or against Halloween, a discourse emerges surrounding the origins the holiday.  In many of these reports, the author includes a reasonable account of Halloween’s Celtic origins and Samhain-based traditions. Modern Pagan language is, unwittingly, hitching a ride on Halloween’s broomstick.

With the growing public interest in Halloween, we may find ourselves more able to openly join in the global conversation and, at the same time, deal with our own reservations. Maybe we should embrace the evolving holiday, “seize the spotlight” and become the stewards of Halloween worldwide?  After all, the U.S. media loves interviewing witches in October.  Or, we could completely renounce the secular holiday and its derogatory effigies. We could join others in protest with slogans like “We’re a culture. Not a costume.”

Regardless of our personal feelings about the secular celebration, Halloween continues to gain popularity worldwide, year after year.  As a result, every October when the veil thins, a brand-new door opens for us providing a unique opportunity for a teachable moment.  Now, we can say that both the ancestors and the world are listening.

 

Trick or Treat: The History of Halloween

Note about Lisa Morton: Trick or Treat:  A History of Halloween. This book is an historical and cultural survay of Halloween’s evolution from early Celtic traditions and lore through the ages and across the globe. It is a good read for history junkies, like myself, or students of comparative culture. Within her detailed work, Lisa did reach out to consult Wiccans, world-wide, and gave a decent nod to the modern-day Pagan spiritual celebrations of Samhain or Halloween.