Night is falling earlier every day, the leaves are finally changing color and letting gravity pull them down, the Lions have lost all six of their games… Yep, autumn is definitely passing, and we approach the midpoint of the season, the big ol’ neo-Pagan holiday that everyone knows and loves, Samhain! Samhain is traditionally a time to honor the Ancestors, since we believe that the “veil between the worlds” is thinnest at this time of year, and thus they are easier to contact. I don’t think that this is a universal constant among cultures that honor their dead (Germanic tradition does their own version of this holiday at the end of April, for instance) (and then there’s the whole “how do people handle this in the Southern Hemisphere” question, but that’s a whole other topic), but having grown up in farm country, I know that this is the time of year when farmers have to make the difficult decision about which animals they can afford to keep alive through the winter, and which ones need to be put down. So death must have been very much on the minds of everyone in an ancient culture that relied heavily on animal husbandry for its survival, and even in our modern society, we non-farmers still hold this season’s association with death and the Otherworld. (And of course the plants and the leaves on the trees die in the autumn as well, but around here those happen several weeks before Samhain, and I’d argue that we note the deaths of animals more than the deaths of plants. That may just be me, of course.)
Over the fourteen years that SLG has been doing Samhain rituals, we’ve done them a number of different ways. The first few were indoors and during the day, which seems bizarre to me now, but there it is. My first Samhain was in 1996, the last indoor one we did, with Marae Price dressing up as Mannanan and visiting us in the ritual circle, looking way too much like Santa Claus for me to take it very seriously. The following Samhain, we held the rite at Botsford at night, decorating the nemeton and the pathways with luminaria (a tradition we still continue to this day) and using dry ice to fill the nemeton with mist, which would have been a much better effect if it had lasted more than ten minutes. (Experts at special effects, we are not.) Still, opening the nemeton up as a space to which our Ancestors could travel, then processing there ourselves in the dark and spending time with them was very special. We’ve done variations throughout the years, like having someone dressed as Death selecting us at random and each of us processing alone and silently, or using the Ancestor doll (aka “Uncle Fester”) as a focus point for the spirits to use, but the core idea of traveling to the Otherworld to be with our Ancestors has remained a constant. We also honor Mannanan mac Lir, the Grove’s Gatekeeper deity, as the one who take the living the the land of the dead, and vice versa.
Our other Samhain ritual tradition began in 1998, after a rather disastrous Summer Solstice rite where we attempted to celebrate the marriage of Lugh and Ana at completely the wrong time of year. Our cosmology tells us that Ana spends the summer with Aren and then returns to Lugh at Samhain, so even beyond the rather silly idea of doing a wedding ritual for our gods, why were we doing it in the summer? Partly it was because we didn’t have any better ideas as to what we could do at Summer Solstice, since it wasn’t a big holiday for the ancient Irish. (We’ve fixed that by honoring both Bel and Danu at both solstices each year.) And partly because, well, we didn’t know any better. At the follow An Bruane, we went up to Big Lake and spent time meditating with Ana to figure out what to do. The answer that came to me seemed so obvious that it shouldn’t have required a meditation session to come up with it: why not honor (not force) Lugh and Ana’s reunion at Samhain, as the Grove cosmology suggests? Well, there would certainly be an issue with not honoring Mannanan and the Ancestors on their holiday, especially when Samhain is the only rite that a lot of non-Grove members attend every year, and would we really expect them to keep coming back year after year for a Lugh and Ana rite? But the solution to that seemed just as obvious to me. If Samhain is our biggest High Day of the year, why not just do two rites? We had the whole afternoon open, with nothing happening except keeping the flame burning at the Fire Circle and getting the ritual space set up, so why not add an afternoon rite for Lugh and Ana?
And thus was born the family-friendly (not children’s, family-friendly!) afternoon rite for Lugh and Ana, followed by the evening rite for the Ancestors and Mannanan. Some people come to one, some to the other, and some to both. And it’s worked very well for us for nearly ten years now. If you’d like to help us plan our rites, our Liturgists’ Roundtables are October 21st and November 4th at Rodney and Liz’s house. The rites will be on November 8th, or the 9th if it rains on the 8th. Or snows. No, just kidding about that, but do dress warmly! For directions and such, you can always visit: http://www.shininglakes.bravehost.com/schedule.html
Rev. Rob Henderson
Senior Druid, Shining Lakes Grove, ADF