Reverencing the Dead at Samhain
From The Witches’ Well
So much as been said about the haunted time of Samhain, yet little has been said about how to interact with spirits, souls and ghosts, and how to reverence the dead at this pivotal time in the Celtic year. When the Sidhe open and the ‘dead’ are free to walk back and forth between the worlds, how might we respond? This article explores a Celtic understanding of death and the Otherworld and offers several traditional reasons for why the ‘living’ might be visited by ‘ghosts’ at this hallowed time of the year.
"There’s no need to holler; the dead are here!"
(137) Daniel Westforth Whittier, The Emerald Swamp (1984)
As human beings, we have all wondered what might be in store for us after we die. Every known culture has addressed this question, as it is one of the defining questions for our existence. We die; what does this mean for us? Do we go on to ‘heaven’ or ‘hell’ – as Christianity teaches – or do we get reincarnated, as some eastern religions teach? Do we go to a place of ‘shades’ where we continue to exist, but only as a shadow of our former selves, as ancient Greek religion taught, or is there nothing after this life, as the ancient Israelites seem to have believed and as modern atheism and materialism assert?
While there are almost as many options as there are people asking the question, we must not be discouraged by this plurality of belief where death and the ‘afterlife’ are concerned. From a spiritual point of view, it is not as important to know what happens after death as to continue asking the question and to continue entertaining extraordinary possibilities, for in this we strive toward being human. Asking the question of death and the afterlife is a way of living life to the fullest, seeking wisdom and wholeness.
The ancient Celts believed in an afterlife, and their conception of it is rather different from the options many of us in the West have grown up with. For the Celts living in ancient Britain, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, "this world" was paralleled by Another Country – an "Otherworld" that was, for all intents and purposes, ‘like’ this world. Death, for the Celts, was a doorway leading from this life into this next realm, where a person continued what they had been doing in this life.
There are two things that stand out as being quite unusual about the Celtic view. First, the Otherworld is not a place of punishment and reward. There is no ‘supreme being’ waiting to condemn you to an eternally boring heaven or a place of perpetual suffering. Death is simply a transition, and what you ‘get’ in the next life is what you have prepared yourself for while living this life. That is, if you have sought wisdom and wholeness while incarnate (in the flesh) then you will simply continue this quest on the Other side. If you have frittered this life away in mundane pursuits, you will end up waking up on the other side without much of a clue as to what’s going on. What you get is what you prepare yourself for.
Second, the Otherworld is quite close to this world. It is "right down the lane", or "right beyond the gate," as people used to say. There is a story of a druid and his student that I like to tell that illustrates this ‘nearness’ of the Otherworld. As the story goes, they were in the druid’s cave one night, each engaged in his respective studies, when the student looked up and asked his druid, "Horned One, where do we go when we die?" The druid, distracted from his work for a second, looked up and with a casual wave of his hand said, "Ah – over there," – alluding to another part of the cave. He then went back to his work. The student, however, was stunned by this revelation.
As this intimates, the Celts lived in close proximity with the dead. All places were potentially ‘haunted’, therefore, and this was seen to be natural. Because the dead were not in a place of punishment or reward, it was common for houses to be ‘haunted’ by past residents, some of whom stayed permanently ‘around’ while others came and went at different times and seasons. Certain places in the Celtic landscape were also haunted, such as burial mounds, stone circles, rings of standing stones and other megalithic monuments. These places functioned as doorways between the worlds; places where the dead could walk back and forth.
As the Celts were fascinated with borders – gates, streams and rivers, crossroads, and doorways were all considered ‘haunted’ by virtue of being places of transition. A fence, for instance, dividing the farm fields from the woods or pasture beyond was thought to be a place where communication with spirits was more likely to take place than in the middle of the field. Ghosts and spirits were known to travel along such boundaries. Because of the nearness of the Otherworld and existence of these doorways in the landscape, communication between the living and the dead was much more commonplace in the Celtic world than it is in a Christian cosmos. Celtic people even tended to welcome visits from the ‘dead’, as they didn’t think of spirits and souls necessarily being hostile or lost, or as needing to be ‘sent into the Light’ (this is just a pop version of the Christian view: "Light" simply taking the place of "Heaven")
While the Otherworld and this world were always in close proximity, at certain times of the year the pathways between ‘here’ and ‘there’ opened up to allow even more spiritual communication across the sidhe (a Celtic word used to refer to these gateways between the worlds in general) than usual. Celtic time was divided into definite periods, each having ritual and mythological parameters. At the transitions between these periods, communication with spirits and souls on the Otherside could better take place.
The Celts divided time up differently than we do today. Their day began at dusk rather than at dawn, as they believed that light emerges from darkness; that darkness precedes and grounds the light. The Celtic year was divided into seasons, the passage between which was always marked by a traditional festival. The four major festivals – Imbolc (Feb.2), Beltaine (May 1), Lughnassadh (Aug 2) and Samhain (Oct 31) – are the most liminal times, and as such the most potent for communication with spirits and souls of the dead. Each is marked by the enactment of rituals that allow people to move safely from one season into another, crossing between these luminous earthen times in safety.
Samhain (pronouned "Sow-en") is perhaps the most liminal of these festivals, as it not only marks the transition from one season to another (Autumn – Winter) but also the transition from one year to the next. Because of its importance, the Celts imagined that time became ‘strange’ as Samhain approached. At dusk on the 31st of October (the last day of the old year), they believed a new ‘day’ didn’t begin as it does at every other sunset. Rather, a period of ‘time between the worlds’ set in, lasting through the night until dawn on the 1st of November. During this time, the dead and other denizens of the Otherworld were free to come back and visit those of us still living in the incarnate realm. The first ‘day’ of the New Year was also unusual, therefore, as it began at dawn and ended at dusk, when the world returned to ‘regular time.’
Because of the significance of this ‘transition’ – the end of one year and the beginning of another – the veils and walls between ‘this’ world and the Otherworld were thought to dissolve. Ordinary time evaporated at sunset on 31 October, and thus the boundaries that normally defined the world and allowed people safe movement from place to place were displaced until sunrise the next day. Beginning at dusk on the 31st of October, spirits, the Sluagh-Sidhe (Faery folk) and souls of the discarnate (a term that describes beings on the Otherside) all came forth from the sidhe to roam freely for the night.
"Haunted in the Eaves of October
Spirits and Gnomes come out to play
To deck our homes with remembrance,
Witching up the powers of the Fay!"
We have all heard stories of ghosts and other visitants at Samhain. Our own popular lore (expressed in movies, TV shows and literature) is full of intimations that – at this time of the year – we are as unalone as we can possibly be, surrounded by a great congress of spirits and souls, deities and ancient beings. This is very much in concert with an ancient Celtic understanding of Samhain, except that they didn’t think of all discarnates as malevolent or "up to no good." As the veil between worlds dissolved at sunset each year on the 31st of October, Celtic people made certain preparations for the night’s rituals, revels and feasting. They made themselves ready to receive the dead in a variety of ways, and were filled as much with anticipation and fascination as with ‘dread.’
Celtic people in times past actually anticipated visits from ancestors, relatives, lost loves and friends, and even from the souls of household animals (such as hunting dogs) during Samhain Night. They were deeply connected with their past, and as such they believed that so long as they were living life with integrity and good purpose, relatives & ancestors who has passed over the sidhe would be interested in visiting their place of dwelling at Samhain. If you had somehow dishonored the clan or your own particular family in some way, however, you might find yourself quite alone on Samhain night! Not to be visited at this haunted time by at least one ancestor, spirit-guide or relative might mean that you had lost your way or that you were acting in a way that made you less than interesting to those who had passed through this world before you!
The Celts were romantics and as such they valued the deep emotional connections they had experienced with others in this life. When a friend or a lover died, this connection remained, linking the dead lover or friend with their living partner. The bond between Celtic friends and lovers enabled the living partner to continue experiencing the presence of the discarnate one in deeply poetic ways. Imaginative ‘conversations’ would take place between them throughout the year and then the dead would come back to visit the living at Samhain.
Celtic people would also imagine being visited by spiritual mentors at Samhain. Pagan Celts often invited legendary Druids & Gwrach to their end-of-year celebrations. If they had actually been mentored in this life by a Druid or Gwrach who had then passed beyond the veil into the Otherworld, they would surely be expecting a visit from that person sometime during the night. Celtic followers of Christ likewise treated any anamchara (i.e., soul friend; spiritual director) they may have known who was living on the Otherside with the same respect, expecting to be visited by them before the New Year began.
While most spirits and souls who came to visit people in this world during Samhain came simply for fellowship and with good intentions, there was some cause for trepidation, especially if you had wronged someone who then died before you could make amends. The Celts were very keen on inter-personal and communal justice. How one treated family and other members of the tuath (i.e., "tribe") was crucial for maintaining a kind of ‘psychic balance’ in the world.
When someone cheated, hurt or in some other way demeaned or insulted another person, this undid the psychic balance until restitution could be enacted.
If the person you wronged died before you got a chance to make amends, Samhain might be your last chance to mend the breach. According to Celtic codes of restitution, you might make an offering to the family or friend of the one you had wronged as Samhain drew near. If that wasn’t possible, you could choose to leave an offering of food or perhaps a valued possession out on your doorstep at dusk on the 31st of October in the hopes that the ghost of the person you had wronged would see it and forgive you. One could also take such an offering up to one of the bonfires lit on the heaths during Samhain Night. Throwing it on the blazing fire was seen to symbolize delivering it to its intended recipient on the Otherside.
If wrong was done to someone in your own household, everyone would expect the ghost of that person to show up during the passage of Samhain and haunt the guilty party until their gestures and offerings of restitution were accepted. Then the discarnate person would be invited to sit down at the Dumb Supper and partake of a ritual meal with the living. One of the main purposes in observing Samhain is this reestablishment of communal and interpersonal balance; undoing wrongs and forgiving faults and actions that have unsettled the ‘cosmic equation.’ Once all of these acts of restitution have been made, people were then free to go forward in revelry, communing with the dead, dancing throughout the night in hallowed cirlces, around outdoor bonfires and before their own hearths at home.
How might we keep Samhain today, given the nature of the Celtic understanding of death and the Otherworld? First, we need to get ourselves into the mood to be haunted. This may take anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days and so it’s always good to begin ‘setting the state’ for Samhain at least by the beginning Ioho; the short, three-day ‘month’ at the end of the Celtic year. IOHO – which means "Yew" – begins at dusk on the 28th of October and continues until dusk on the 31st. The Yew is a mysterious evergreen often found growing in graveyards and believed to be a gateway into the Otherworld. A single Yew may live for centuries, though not in the usual way. When its branches touch the soil they grab hold, sprouting new roots and becoming new trees. Thus the Yew renews itself and is born again from its own death.
There is an unbroken continuity in the growth of any old Yew, the present tree being a distant descendant of the original. Because of this unique way of propagating itself, Yews also have a tendency to migrate, inch by inch and foot by foot, from where the original tree was planted. As such, the Yew is a symbol of regeneration & the transmigration of the soul.
Ancient Europeans often buried their dead near consecrated Yew trees. In some Northern European cultures, there was no more hallowed place for interment than a grove of old and gnarly Yews. Many of these ancient groves became Christian graveyards in later centuries. Thus to walk in some of the older cemeteries in Europe is to be in a place where people have been buried for upwards of 2,500 years.
It is a custom among Celtic Pagans today to visit graveyards sometime before dusk on 31 October, in order to reverence the dead and get into the mood to be haunted. Always remember, when visiting a graveyard, that you are on sacred ground and that respect must always be paid to the dead or else retribution may come. By visiting graves, mausoleums and tombs we show reverence for the dead. Consider visiting the grave of someone you know who has died. If you have lost loved ones, friends or relatives in the previous year, consider journeying to a cemetery before Samhain to visit their graves.
If you find a Yew tree growing anywhere near a familiar grave, touch it; encounter it with respect. Yews are energized by a deep-running psychic power. Contact with a Yew Tree may connect your incarnate soul with the essences of loved ones who have recently crossed over. A link with the dead who are known to you may be established by this contact, helping a departed person find their way home for Samhain.
If you have permission, cut a small sprig of Yew from a tree growing near the grave of a loved one or an ancestor and then plant it by your house. This will act as a beacon to guide the souls of the beloved dead to your home. If the Yew cutting takes root, imagine seeing spirits moving in, around and through its branches at Samhain each year as it grows.
From the 29th to the 31st of October the doors between the worlds are opening, and as such graveyards are believed to come to life with various presences. Places of interment are transitional in nature, and thus are always a bit ‘haunted.’ Then, in the Season of Samhain, they become quick with the dead. Go there with reverence and respect for the liminal nature of the place, open to whatever you may experience or remember as you walk around, reading inscriptions and listening for voices from Another Country.
Try not to ‘spook’ yourself and – at the same time, if you can -remain ‘open’ to whatever might happen. If you imagine that a spirit or a ghost is present, ‘greet’ it by making three equal-armed crosses before you in the air. This is an ancient symbol of the Goddess – signifying Maiden, Mother and Crone; the three ‘phases’ of the Goddess – and as such is a way of blessing any discarnate entity you may encounter. To walk around a graveyard is to move in the ley-lines of mystical rapport with spirits and souls. Accept whatever happens and use whatever arts of taghairm (divination) you know to interpret it….
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