Samhain: All Hallows Eve
Samhain, the Celtic festival that marks the beginning of winter, is still celebrated in many countries. Samhain, meaning 'Summer's End,' is the time when the Sun's power wanes, and the forces of winter and darkness - and therefore of the gods of the Underworld - grow in strength. It is a celebration of the Dead, when the veils between the worlds open and the spirits of the dead can come into our world. During this time, all fires are extinguished, and the new fires can only be rekindled from the 'sacred' fire of the Druids. Herne the Hunter and his White Hounds sweep through the skies as they hunt the souls of the Dead and of the Dark. Samhain stands opposite Beltane, the festival of the beginning of summer, on the Wheel of the Year.
In English-speaking countries, we celebrate Samhain as All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween. Halloween is a time when sprites, trolls and nature spirits, as well as the spirits of the dead, can commune with human beings. These spirits demand some form of nourishment to propitiate them, for all spirits, both good and evil, crave life. Hence, our custom of 'trick or treat'. In Latin countries, the memory of this festival is celebrated throughout the Roman Catholic Church as the Feast of All Saints or All-Hallowmas, celebrated on November 1st, and the Feast of All Soul's Day celebrated on November 2nd. These are celebrations commemorating the dead, and many cultures believe that the dead need to be nourished on these days, both literally and spiritually. And so prayers are offered for the souls of the dead, while families leave out extra food to feed the wandering spirits in the night.
On Samhain, we are reminded that we too, as children of the Earth Mother, must face Death, and acknowledge that Death is the other face of Life. In facing the death of another year, as well as the possibility of our own deaths, we acknowledge that the rhythm of life is slowing down. Now, the darkness is most evident, and the life force turns within, retreating into the Underworld until the nadir is reached on Winter Solstice, when the Light of the World is reborn once again. The gift that Samhain brings is the knowledge that in accepting Death, the possibility of change and new life is just around the corner.
And so it begins.
The cold, silvery light of the full Moon reflected off the bone-white bodies of his hunting dogs as they raced the wind through the clouds. With a smile cold enough to match the moonlight, he slowly raised his arm above his head, and sent out his call to the winds, and they silently began to gather 'round him. Blood-red eyes shone with a hypnotic intensity as his hounds raised their heads to him, eagerly awaiting his command. The moonlight reflecting off the top of the cloud banks was blinding, and all he could see of his pack were gleaming red coals of fire, flaming out of that field of white. He waited as the winds gathered their fury, now moaning and shrieking in the airy heights. The column of air funneled high into the atmosphere above his arm, straining to be let loose upon the world below. With a cold, triumphant cry, he finally flung out his arm, and with an explosion of sound and movement, the Hunt was on!
The old woman huddled more deeply into her cloak as the winds tugged at it with angry fingers. The coldness stung her eyes and then froze the tears as they formed. The winds shook the trees above her until the last remaining leaves flew free to brush against her on their wild ride to the forest floor.
"It will take more than a strong wind to scare me on this black night," the woman thought with a grin. Wiping her eyes and pulling the hood of her cloak closer around her head, she looked up. Through now-bare branches, she watched as the Moon sailed in and out of swiftly moving clouds then looked back down at the forest path that shifted in shadows with the comings and goings of the light. Slowly, she continued on her way through the darkening forest.
Before she emerged into the hidden meadow, the woman stood within the shadow of the trees to stare out at the dark Mound rising into the sky on the far end of the field. With cries and groans, shrieks and howls, the winds swept through the treetops in a wild, dark dance. In the sudden wide expanse of sky, she could see how the clouds formed dark masses whose tops became snow-white fields as the light of the hidden Moon shone down upon the moving clouds.
"Ah! Sweet Lady of the Night!" The woman felt her heart swell as the Moon suddenly shone out into the clear cold night, turning everything to enchantment.
She released her breath as the dark veiling was drawn once again over the Lady's bright face, but that momentary vision had given the old woman new sight. Looking at the whitened fields above her, she saw ruby eyes and blood-red ears as Herne's hunting hounds rampaged through the night sky. Herne's cold laughter sounded in her ears and she thought, "So it begins!"
Another woman walked through the forest on her way to the Mound. As the Moon revealed Herself to the old woman, Her light found its way to the forest floor as this woman stepped onto an old wooden bridge crossing a stream. An ancient being watched her stop to look up at the sky, and saw that the woman was of middle years, with a strong face bleached white by the moonlight. As the woman watched the cloudy veils hide away the light, the Ancient One scampered under the bridge. "There," he thought, "I am hidden away from the human woman's sight. It wouldn't do for her to see me on this night of nights." And with a chuckle, he hunched down into the shadows beneath the bridge, and faded into the boulders that held up its wooden beams.
The woman threw back the hood of her cloak as she looked up into the face of her Mistress. "Ah! The Goddess plays with us tonight!" And the woman smiled in pure delight as the winds tossed leaves back and forth over the stream, sending them in twirling dances high into the sky, left to gently spin down as they were forgotten and left behind. As the clouds raced by, creating shadows only to spear them again with light, the woman caught sight of a gnarled figure scampering away under the bridge, and her breath caught in surprise. To see an Ancient One, on this night of all nights! Her Mistress was indeed with her tonight!
Keeping her eyes on the tumbled boulders, the woman stepped off the bridge and climbed down to the rocky streambed. Leaning down into the darkness beneath the bridge, she looked directly at a large grey boulder and said, "Good evening, old troll. Will you come with me to the Faerie Mound?" With a grumble and a groan, the Old One threw off the illusion and tumbled out from his rocky nest. "What else can I do, on this night of nights, with the moon-sight on you?" And pulling up her hood to hide her smile, the woman reached down a hand to help the troll up.
A third woman hurried through the night. She lifted her cloak as she leapt over a fallen tree-trunk that lay in her path. She ran through the shadows and she ran through the silvery light, afraid that she was late. It seemed like she was always late, and always hurrying, like those clouds sweeping through the sky overhead.
"But, there are so many things to see; so many interesting places to explore," she thought with a sigh, as she slowed down to watch the flowing moonlight dance in and out among the tree trunks. The young woman stopped, entranced, as a dark shadow flew through a moonbeam. And then the Moon threw off Her veils, and flooded the forest with light. There, off to her left, sat a white owl, staring at her out of the lowest branches of an oak tree. When the light suddenly vanished, the young woman stepped off the path and found her way to the tree.
It was an ancient tree, a grandmother tree, and the wind barely moved its upper branches. The young woman went and put her face up to the rough bark, and breathing softly, sent out tendrils of awareness into its core. In silence, the woman felt how the tree absorbed the wind's violence, taking it in and transforming it into vibration as it carried its message down into the Earth. The woman heard it as it moved through the tree - Herne the Hunter was riding with his Hounds. The Wild Hunt was abroad in the night!
As soon as the young woman came out of her silence, the winds shrieked around her head and then flew off in the direction of the Mound. Looking up into the shadows, the woman found the owl staring down at her. And as she stepped away from the tree, it silently took wing to settle heavily onto her shoulder. The woman looked into wild, fierce yellow eyes for a moment before it lifted away and flew before her into the night. Hurrying back to the path, she swiftly followed the ghostly shadow as it flew to the hidden meadow at the center of the forest.
And so, the three women finally came to stand at the very edges of the forest, one at the North, one at the South, and one at the East. On the Western end of the meadow rose up the Mound, darkly brooding beneath the moving skies. The women silently watched as the winds gathered in a whirlwind above the dark Mound, where Mighty Herne sat on his own dark steed, as the old Crone saw clearly enough. Then Herne's arm pointed to the North, and the winds were suddenly baying with the voices of many hounds, while with a wild tossing of leaves, the released winds blew away the last of the clouds.
Then the Lady of the Night, the White Pearl of Heaven, looked down upon Her Child, the living Earth, Whom She nourished and sustained with Her light, and governed with Her rhythms. One rhythm had been struck that night, a rhythm of power and terror - the rhythm of Death.
The three women came forward and stood before the Mound. With hands uplifted, they prayed in the silence of their hearts. Their prayers were offered to their Mothers, for the strength and courage to meet their task: to look upon the face of Death and live.
While the women prayed in the bright moonlit breath of the Mother, the Mound before them drank in the light. And started to move! The earth on the hillside rippled and shuddered, and exploded in little volcanoes of dirt. Then, as if two giant hands slowly ripped apart a woven veil, the Mound split open. A dim light outlined the breach for a moment, but was suddenly blocked by a dark figure stepping up to the opening.
For a moment, the women felt the warm, fragrant winds of Springtime and smelled the intoxicating scents of lilacs and roses as they looked on the face of the Bright One standing before the Mound. They saw plants and vines grow and decay, leaving the fruits of the fields lying at her feet. But when one last cloud swept over the face of the Moon, the cold breath of winter blew away the last memories of summer, and the women huddled deeper into their cloaks.
When they looked back to the Mound, they saw that the Woman was now veiled in black. Silently, the four women waited, while the Moon poured down Her light and blessings upon them.
Slowly, a vast silence sucked away the last breath of sound in the meadow, and the veil between the worlds opened further upon the night. The dark figure in front of the Mound slowly turned away from the three women and walked through that torn veil - walked into the land of the dead.
In the place where she had disappeared, there now shimmered above the Mound a Presence of terror and splendor, dark wings outstretched into the starry sky above. The Crone quickly stepped forward, and raising her arms, began to chant an ancient song, a song of power to hold the Angel of Death at the door which had opened between the worlds.
The second woman turned to the troll, who had been watching, in terror and delight, the opening of the veil. Calling to the other sprites, gnomes and trolls rollicking on the far end of the meadow, he hurried forward to stand next to the woman who had called to him beneath his bridge. Now he was compelled to do her bidding, as the others were compelled to do his. And with much tumbling and tossing, shrieking and laughter, the spirits of the Earth took a stand in front of the torn veil. And with the lightness of a laughing heart, the woman turned to confront the demons who were trying to force their way out of the rift.
The demons took on all the faces of fear, trying to get by that line of imps. But just as terror began to overwhelm the woman, a troll would tumble forward with a loud and smelly bellow, and the demon would dissolve in the mists. Or a sprite would imitate the fierce and deadly faces before them, and soon they were rocking with laughter at her antics. The demons, being unable to produce one tremble of true fear, shrunk and shriveled up and ran shrieking back to hell!
And still the old woman kept up her song, and the Angel of Death stood guard before that dark door.
The third woman, the youngest, also set about her task. Looking into the eyes of the owl once again sitting on her shoulder, her vision followed after the Wild Hunt, as it gathered in the souls of the dead. There was one she especially looked for; one who was the other half of her own soul. When it was time, it was with joy and sorrow that she finally caught sight of him, flying before the Hounds. "He was always quick, and even death has not taken that away." The tear that rolled down her cheek fell to the ground unnoticed.
And so she called to him, who led the dead on their last journey. Called, he came to where his heart still lived. Called, he led the souls a merry dance before the hunting hounds. Called by love, the other souls remembered and so flew before the winds to that dark door.
Baying and belling, the white hounds ran upon the winds, their master riding behind, driving the souls toward the broken veil. Herne's horn resounded through the cold night air as they came to rest high above the secret meadow. The bone-white bodies leapt and danced beneath the prancing feet of Herne's dark mount, while the souls descended to the earth like a lowering mist.
The owl flew off to settle on an oak branch, as the young woman turned to face that misty gathering of souls. The terror of the Dead was settling over the forest, yet she stood forth to meet them unafraid, for there before them all stood her beloved. With love and sorrow, she looked upon his face once more, but while his face and figure were known to her, his eyes were already full of stars. He, for his part, recognized the woman, and knew her for his love, and yet it seemed a far and distant love, for there was no warmth left in him.
And as they stood there, the living and the dead, something happened. A little imp, one who had clung to his mother as they tossed and tumbled before the torn veil, approached those two lost lovers, and shaping his face to their lose and love, he bridged the two worlds. In his face, he showed the fire and ice of their love, and for a moment, they knew their love for what it was in truth. And were set free!
When the young ghost finally turned toward the veil, the host of dead souls moved through the night with him. The three women saw there souls of great ugliness and of greater beauty, of twisted lives and full; saw faces full of great sorrows and of great strengths. They stood and witnessed the ghosts of young and old float silently through the waiting veil, while the dark Angel of Death held open the gate.
When the last of the dead had disappeared through the veil, a great light shone from within the rift, as if the souls themselves had turned to light. Then with a mighty shaking of wings, the towering Angel cried out, "It is finished!" and like a dark flame, sank back into the rift.
The three women, deserted now by all the imps and sprites except for the old troll, watched as the veil began to reweave itself in the gray morning light. The Moon looked down upon Her children with a final blessing before vanishing beneath the horizon. The jack-o-lanterns the imps had fashioned to frighten away the demons were scattered around the Mound. Then just before the veil was whole once more, a great light shone out from that hidden world and began to burn within the hollow faces.
And so it was with quiet laughter that the women took up the jack-o-lanterns with the new light to carry it home. The light would light their hearths, and others in the village would come to them, and the fire of the souls of the dead would live on to bring warmth and light to those they left behind. And the old troll took up his light, and departed for his hill above the stream.
And Herne the Hunter looked out across the fields of heaven, and called his hounds home as the Sun rose over the winter forest.
And So It Is!
From my ebook, Stories of the Earth: 8 Tales of the Wheel of the Year.