Tag Archives: samhain

Samhain Altar

Between the weather and the diseases and the young man going back to university, we didn’t do much for Samhain.

Tom Carved a swede lantern – aka a neep! This is the more traditional British answer to the seasonal lantern and pre-dates our having access to pumpkins. Swedes are quite tough though and take some work – wood carving tools are a better bet than kitchen knives.

Black cat and neep lantern.

Nature at Samhain

Some twenty years ago I spent a lot of time thinking about the relationship between modern Druid festivals and the wheel of the year as it turns where I live. The solstices and equinoxes make total sense because of their relationship with the length of the day and night and all the impact that has on the rest of nature.

Imbolc is traditionally associated with sheep lactating and with snowdrops. Lammas (which is at the same time as Lugnasadh) is associated with the first of the grain harvests. While lambs don’t reliably appear in the fields this early, we have some obvious markers for these two festivals. Gathering May blossom is traditionally associated with Beltain, and it’s also the time of year when bluebells come out, and when it’s warm enough to be barefoot outside (or to have sex outside, but barefoot is probably more inclusive!). 

I spent a long time considering Samhain. The pumpkin harvest may seem obvious, but pumpkins are from the Americas and not part of UK tradition. If you’re growing them, it may well make sense to take them as a key seasonal marker. Twenty years ago is struck me that the leaves are usually down from the trees by Samhain.

Climate change is impacting on the wheel of the year. How we relate festivals to seasons may need serious consideration in light of this. Do we stay with the ancestral dates? Or do we adapt based on what those dates mean to us? I suspect the answers will be individual. For many people around the world, those ‘Celtic’ dates have never related much to a lived experience of the local seasons anyway.

It is Halloween. Most of the trees in my area still have all their leaves. Many are barely beginning to turn yellow, and there’s a lot of greenery present. There is no sense of the dying year, not yet. It’s still warm enough to be outside without a coat during the day. Grazing animals are still out in the fields. If your focus for Halloween is the idea of bringing animals in and choosing which ones will live, then we aren’t at that point in the year yet, either.

For the dead but not forgotten

Here’s a recent video of mine.

The words are part of a Samhain song I wrote years ago, which is mostly about a dumb supper. As I wanted to film in a graveyard, it made sense to me to just focus on this one bit of the song. To be a voice for the departed. The graveyard is in Woodchester, and the square area that has no graves is the site of the Woodchester mosaic – which spends most of its time covered up for its own protection. I’ve never seen it. I live in hope. I finished with a yew tree (on the offchance anyone is watching this who hasn’t seen one before).

I’m very new to working with a camera, but really interested in it. All I have is a tablet and none of the fancy kit that proper film makers use to get smooth shots. I am never going to get smooth shots, but that means my filming becomes about what happens with my body in a space, how I dance the space and dance with the camera. I’m going to dig into that as there’s no point trying to go the other way.

I sang all the lines in quick succession, separate to filming and mashed them together in garage band.

This is the sort of thing I’ve been able to do, and felt inspired to do because of my Patreon folk. So, a big thanks to everyone who has been supporting me. Obviously, if you’d like to pile in to that, I would appreciate it, but this blog is free, and I welcome anyone who wants to be here.


Songs for Samhain

Coming from a folk background, a big part of how I express my relationship with the seasons, is through music. Here are some songs I think are particularly relevant for Samhain.

Lyke Wake Dirge – yes it’s Christian, but All Souls Night and all Hallows Eve are also Christian, it’s a wonderful spooky tune and there’s a story here about poetic justice in the afterlife. My take on it is that as you g through Purgatory (and most souls would after death) what you get, is what you’ve given. Never given anyone shoes? Don’t expect to have shoes when you walk through all the prickly plants.

I’ll Haunt You – Show of Hands. A modern song in a folk style. You don’t have to be dead to be creepy.

Tam Lyn – a traditional Scottish ballad, and a faerie classic, because Samhain has distinct faerie connotations. Fairport Convention, as this is my favourite tune. There’s a lot of versions of the words, whether the young lady is Janet of Margaret varies! This one skips over what exactly happens in the woods, some versions are less than consenting. At full length it can be huge, this is an abridged version.

And one of mine – no snazzy video , but you can listen to it on bandcamp.

If you’ve got favourites, do please add them – titles or links as you prefer – to the comments.


Songs for Samhain

The folk tradition offers a wealth of material that works very well in a Pagan setting. Yes, there is more out there than good old John Barleycorn! Folk songs speak of the dead – the heroic dead, the war dead, epic accidents and tragedies, mundane passings away, execution, and rather frequently, death by over consumption of alcohol. Death is a common theme in folk songs, it being the one bit of drama every single life can be relied upon to produce.

If you’re on the bardic path, then seasonal song is something you may be thinking about. However, the most famous folk song mentioning all hallows eve isn’t about the dead at all, but about faerie. Tam Lin is the story of a mortal man captured by faeries, (which allows him to spend his time seducing young ladies at no cost to himself). When he gets young Janet pregnant and tells her the faerie horde mean to sacrifice him to Satan at Halloween, she undertakes an epic rescue mission and wins his freedom. Our mediaeval ancestors invested a lot of time in figuring out how the faerie realms and the Christian representations of evil related to each other – a topic bound to give anyone headaches, and much less of an issue for the modern Pagan.

I don’t really celebrate all of the 8 standard festivals at the moment. I’ve always struggled to work up any kind of enthusiasm for the fleeting balance of the equinoxes. Imbolc and Lugnasadh don’t especially resonate with me either. Solstices, Samhain and Belatain I tend to quietly honour whether I’m part of a celebratory group or not. Having songs to sing as part of that, has always been important to me. And so I ended up writing this one, quite some years ago, and singing it at my folk club and at rituals. It’s one of the few songs I’ve written and not discarded. It’s recorded in my ‘home studio’ (ie the bedroom). Drumming is also me – it’s a small Turkish drum borrowed from my son, and the whole thing was laid down in one go. Partly because I have no mixing desk skills, partly because, being a folk person, I like that raw, one take approach to music.

You can listen for free as often as you like (assuming you like) there’s a small charge for downloading.


All Hallows Day

Halloween comes to us from the Christian calendar, and is an abbreviated name for All Hallows Eve. It also used to be called ‘all souls night’ while the all Hallows bit refers to November the first being All Saints Day. As a consequence it always amuses me to find misinformed, anxious Christians talking about the dangers of Halloween, that well known festival of all things evil and occult. Sorry folks, it was your festival all along. Yes, Samhain falls at the same time, but once you start poking the Catholic calendars of old, it’s pretty hard to find a date that isn’t potential cause for celebration. Every saint has their day and people can celebrate the day of the saint they were named after, if they are so inclined.

Once upon a time, the Christian church understood that death was a powerful force and that people need to set aside time and contemplate it, and make peace with it. The Mexican day of the dead festivities are a fine case in point. I don’t know if the rise of visible Paganism has gone alongside the Christian fear associated with this, their festival. The rise in commercial exploitation hasn’t helped.

For the fearful, it’s a slippery slope. You start by letting kids wear pointy hats and carve pumpkins and before you know it, they’ll be worshipping Satan and dabbling in dangerous occult practices. Satan, it is often forgotten, is a figure from Christian mythology. He may parallel certain goat footed Pagan Gods but that’s a whole other story.

When did the Church start trying to be so clean and safe? All Saints day, today, would have honoured the saints. The majority of people ‘blessed’ with the title got it by dying in strange, grotesque, horrible ways. The kind of deaths that modern torture porn films could really get their teeth into. Its odd, really, that this material has never been mined for entertainment. The mentality that would draw a big crowd to watch someone being hung, drawn and quartered is alive and well and sitting in a cinema near you, waiting for the strange catharsis of gore. Mediaeval Christianity was full of the dark and grotesque. Tombs depicting decomposing corpses, horrible faces in the church roof – all the material of fear and reality, right there. The depictions of Hell used to be pretty wild, too, all naked flesh and horrible torment. But again, we have the cinema for that, we don’t go to church expecting to see people having their breasts torn off.

Religions evolve. All Hallows Day has all but vanished, and Hallow ‘een as take over, and been kicked out of the Christian calendar to become a strange, secular rite involving costumes and chocolate. Next time someone tells you that Paganism is somehow invalidated by its youth, or by not being the same as ancient Paganism, hold this thought. The Christianity that decries Halloween today would not make the slightest sense to the people who celebrated as a Christian festival it not so many generations ago.

Death (it being Samhain)

“Denial of death is the route of all evil.” New Scientist, 20th October 2012. Possibly they meant ‘root’. It’s a good time of year for thinking about death, and the place of death in our lives. I read this observation a week ago and have been mulling it, on and off, ever since. The article in question argued in part that death-avoidance underpins much of our cultural achievement – agriculture, medicine, clothing, architecture, it all comes down to trying not to die. But as we extend life ever beyond our scope to make much use of it, is this a fair observation?

Thinking we are immortal can certainly encourage us as individuals to behave in bloody stupid ways that may well result in our becoming dead sooner rather than later. Interestingly though, the same article suggested that a higher awareness of death changes how we behave. Death consciousness leads to more interest in spiritual and personal growth, relationships and a life well led. Death consciousness takes us away from selfish and greedy behaviour. Arguably then, the hiding and avoiding of death so normal in western civilization, feeds collective greed and materialism.

With my quiet revolution hat on (it’s got very small bells on it) this excites me. I’ve been looking for a long time for the point at which to apply myself. Being one, small, finite and not going to live forever sort of person I’ve been aware that my scope for causing international change has never been good. Especially given my unwillingness to either enter politics or start killing people. But I can talk about death. I can spread death consciousness, and I can do it in good ways.

This may in fact, be what I am here for. That may sound arrogant, but bear with me. You see, pretty much as soon as I was able to talk, I started asking awkward questions about death. Maybe I was born death conscious. I carry a keen sense of the fleeting nature of all things, my own self included. Add in my weakness for all things gothic and my fondness for storytelling, and Tom’s dark and moody art and you may see where I’m headed.

Tell stories about death. More importantly, tell stories about death that put life into a meaningful sort of perspective, moving people from the material greed towards the good stuff. I have my calling. I feel like I have a clear sense of direction for the first time in more than a decade. Dead things, and extra teeth. Stories with malice of forethought. Revolution.

Anyone who has not wandered over to the gothic side of my life, www.hopelessmaine.com is out there waiting for you. Take a moment for the dead people today. They have a lot to teach you about the bit that comes before being dead, and how not to waste it.

Samhain with Robin Herne

by guest blogger Robin Herne

Samhain, amongst many other things, is tied to the myths of Óengus mac Og, the inspirer of love and passion amongst the Tuatha De Danann of Irish mythology. Whilst Óengus’s tales are devoted to the pursuit of young ladies, my own tastes run more to gentlemen and I’d like to reflect on that topic a little.

Whilst a number of the languages spoken amongst ancient polytheist cultures had euphemisms for same-sex sexual activities, few if any of them appear to have required words to distinguish sexual identities based upon the gender of the individual a person preferred sex with. Whilst the urge for same-sex frolics is probably as old as for opposite-sex ones, the notion that people could be categorised according to such urges is, it would appear, a relatively recent conceptualisation. This is hardly a new revelation, but one worth restating ~ particularly given that the tendency to label people by the gender of their bed-partners (rather than some other random factor such as their skin colour, relative height, or social class) is born out of a wish to divide people into acceptable and stigmatised groups.

If our ancestors did not view sexual identity in the manner designated appropriate by largely Christian and Jewish Victorian psychologists, ought a modern polytheist do so? It’s a matter that has bugged me for a while. Like the delectable Jack Harkness, I’d like to belong to a culture where sexual identity is irrelevant and that ~ so long as it was consenting ~ anything would go and nobody would bother with labels. I’d like to, but clearly I don’t.

What I do live in, as we all do, is a culture in which countless people have been harassed, imprisoned, sacked, assaulted, tortured, imprisoned, murdered and executed for centuries because their consenting sexual activities do not fit with the norms of the ruling elite. Not only those of us who fancy our own sex, but those young women consigned to mental asylums with “nymphomania” for the dread crime of getting pregnant out of wedlock, those who’ve wanted more than one spouse, and more miscreants besides.

Focussing back on gay and bisexual men (I shan’t speak on behalf of lesbians or bisexual women, though I dare say many of the same issues apply), our value as members of this society has been damaged by hostility towards our presumed sexual choices and urges. Even with attitudes increasingly becoming more positive, this is still balanced against centuries worth of scar tissue. Inevitably such persistent scorn wears down even the most resilient sense of self-worth.

Healing is an important feature of any spiritual practice, and a solid argument can be made for a rather alchemical approach, seeking to transform the leaden restrictions imposed upon us into a source of gold. Embracing sexual identity into ritual can become a source of spiritual fulfilment and growth. For those who have struggled with self-identity, there is a death and rebirth in refuting the fear and disgust of centuries past and revelling in ones sexuality as a source of joy, pleasure, and pride; a gift rather than a curse. All of which seems peculiarly well-suited to Samhain. The traditions of guising seem appropriate too, for those exploring alternative identities ~ especially ones that some sections of the wider community may deem frightening or monstrous. As an ardent lupophile it recalls to my mind not only the iconic cinematic figure of Lawrence Talbot struggling to come to terms with the “beast within” and its animalistic, hairy hungers, but also the rather homoerotic tales of such lupine mannerbund as the decidedly pagan ulđethnar, diberga and the fianna. So as wolves howling our passions into the night we might not only honour our dead this winter, but honour our sexualities too.

Samhain and the dead

There were a couple of witches on the towpath last night, off to a Halloween party. It’s the time of year to play with macabre images, pretend to be a zombie, make a game out of death. In some ways I see how this works – it’s a way of making some alarming stuff a bit more manageable, and of course plenty of people like their creepy thrills. We have a culture in which real death is kept out of sight, while pretend death is ever more present. From violent movies to shoot em up computer games, fictional horror can be a feature of daily life. It’s an odd juxtaposition to say the least. For me there is no supernatural. Everything, by definition, is within nature. I have thoughts about our degree of understanding of ‘nature’ and that for a long time anything we can’t explain has been ‘supernatural’. These days we tend to go for whichever buzz term around the wilder ends of physics is in vogue. These days, if we can’t explain it, we make noises about quantum. In folklore this is the time of year when the veil between the worlds is thin, the dead walk, the wild hunt rides, the faerie courts move from their summer to their winter halls. Tam Lin’s climax is set around Halloween. It is a good time to think about people we’ve lost, and our ancestors as well. Most of our ancestors are not known to us, but we wouldn’t be here without them, after all. My ancestors have been in my thoughts a lot this last year, both immediate and distant ones. How much of who we are owes something to where we came from? I don’t think background can ever be used to excuse or justify, but it so often helps in the making sense. Understanding is a good thing, you can’t have too much of it. I’m hoping to get an actual ritual in some time soon. Time to stand in the darkness and honour the darkening days, the shift towards winter, the bright colours of the leaves and the bare branches to come. Time to think of those I’ve lost. There have been no funerals in this last year for me, but death is a constant presence. Death constantly in the news, acknowledged on the radio. This is also a good time to think about what dies within us as part of our own cycles of growing and stripping back. Inner deaths can be a gift as much as a loss and either way they create the room for new starts and fresh opportunities. Without the dying, there could be no new things. I’ve watched a whole facet of my personality dying over this last year. An aspect created defensively, so survive external pressures and make sense of impossible things. Now that those pressures have receded and there is nothing incomprehensible to rationalise, I don’t need to be that person any more. The letting go is a slow process, one day to the next. Eventually I may even be able to forget some of it, which would be a huge blessing. That part of me should never have been, and it is good to let it die. It’s like pulling a giant leech off my psyche. There are things that should be allowed to die. Things that need to die. Recognising them, and allowing them to pass is a very important process. Hanging on to that which should be declared dead, only increases the pain. Trying to force life into any dead thing seldom works and as all the traditional stories tell us, things that come back from the dead often aren’t very good for us. Not everything can be healed, not everything should be continued. Time to pause and contemplate what now needs releasing.