THE FESTIVAL OF THE ANCESTORS
THE THIRD HARVEST
By Yasmine Galenorn
(from Dancing With the Sun*)
Pumpkins, crisp leaves tinged with rust and bronze, a lace-work of frost kissing red-cheeked apples, ghostly mist rises in the shadowed night…it is October 31st, the eve of Samhain, Festival of the Dead and we prepare to mourn and remember our ancestors.
Samhain (pronounced Sow-en) is the primary Celtic festival, celebrated on November 1st. It focuses on our links to our spiritual and physical ancestors. The honoring of ancestors is a concept celebrated world-round under a number of different names.
During Samhain, the veils between the world of spirit and the world of mortals are at their thinnest. This is the time of year when the dead roam the earth.
Samhain is considered the third harvest, or meat harvest (Lughnasadh being the first–or grain harvest, and Mabon being the second–or fruits harvest).
We decorate the Samhain altar with pumpkins and skulls, spiders and a sickle, and a black hand-carved slate knife goes on the altar, as well. Our altar cloth is printed with autumn leaves and we cover that with a sheer black lace.
We add pictures of the dead we wish to remember, a decanter of port wine, and a new black candle in a brass holder. We also drape silk garlands of autumn leaves around the altar.
Our ephemeral decorations, changing every year, include Jack O’Lanterns, miniature pumpkins, apples, crisp autumn leaves, etc..
On the evening of October 31, we hold our ritual. We traditionally prefer the Dumbfeast, but in the past I have also led Underworld rituals and had good results.
Each year, we watch The Halloween Tree and Something Wicked This Way Comes, Sleepy Hollow and other magical ghostly movies.
The Colors of Samhain
Thanks to Halloween (a remnant of Samhain) orange and black–pumpkins and the color of twilight, are two of the primary color associations for this time of the year, but think also to the rusts, bronzes, reds and yellows of autumn leaves; to the brown of the barren Earth and the grey-green of dying moss.
Incenses, Herbs & Woods
Gum mastic, copal and myrrh incenses produce an Other-worldly sensation when burnt in your ritual space. Heather and clove also add to the general ambiance.
Your herbs for this Sabbat should include wormwood and mugwort (wash your scrying mirror or crystal ball with an infusion made of these herbs). When mixed with chamomile, valerian can produce a drowsy, trance-like state. Rosemary is used for remembrance, so it is perfect for Samhain.
The crackle of bonfire flames–think carefully about what wood you choose for your Samhain fire, be it in the fireplace, the wood stove, the bonfire or simply a stick of incense. Hazel is commonly associated with Samhain, as are hemlock and apple wood. Inscribe runes associated with divination on the pieces of wood before you place them in the fire and then watch the flames for symbols and omens.
Contacting The Dead
Most Pagans and Witches that I know consider contacting the dead a risky proposal, at best. We do so only when absolutely necessary. Samhain is one of the few exceptions to this rule, but even at this time, we do not hold séances or call up spirits who don’t want to be disturbed.
Contacting the dead can be disruptive to your psyche. Death is a transition, signaling movement from one realm to another and it’s not a good idea to encourage spirits to hang around our realm too long.
While some spirits involve themselves in our world as guides and mentors, others remain connected in more negative ways–through an unawareness of their condition (some don’t really understand that they’re dead), through fear or an unwillingness to release physical existence.
Spirits need to be free to move on and we can best help them by leaving them alone or, if we are experienced, by guiding them out of the limbo between life and death.
During Samhain, we invite those whom we wish to remember to be part of our celebrations if they choose to join us, but we never coerce.
The three days surrounding Samhain are the most potent times of the year for divination and scrying. The veil between worlds is thinnest then and we can easily see into the realms of spirit and faerie.
Do NOT use an Ouija board. I’ve seen too many people open the door to entities they couldn’t get rid of without professional psychic help. But there are many other forms of divination and you should include at least one of these during your celebration of the holiday.
Tarot Cards, Celtic Ogham Runes, the Norse Runes, crystal balls, magic mirrors–these are all good ways to contact the other side without leaving yourself fair game. To use the crystal ball or magic mirror, light two candles, one on each side and turn off any electric lights. If you like, burn incense to heighten the mood.
You might want music in the background–choose music without lyrics if you do, so that no suggestions enter your mind. Drumming tapes are a good choice, or flute music.
Set in a comfortable chair and take three deep breaths. Say:
You who have lived before,
And those yet still to come
Visions in my mirror now form,
Let my will be done.
Look into the mirror, at a point an inch or so above your eyes. Let your mind drift as you watch the glass. Note any images or impressions you might see. Sometimes these impressions may be more mental than physical. Allow about fifteen-twenty minutes per session and when you are done, clean your mirror and store in a safe space.
Making A Magic Mirror
Magic mirrors are traditionally black and there is good reason for this. It allows us to focus less on our own reflections and more on the images that form against the black background.
To make your own magic mirror, you need a sturdy piece of cardboard; a piece of glass (rectangular, oval or round) that is at least nine inches in diameter; black paint; gold and silver fabric paints; glue; a sturdy length of black ribbon at least 1½” wide.
Place the glass on the cardboard and trace around the edges. Cut the template out with a pair of heavy scissors, then paint both sides with black paint and let dry. Paint a second coat and let dry again. Now, glue the mirror onto the cardboard, spreading the glue ¼” in from all the edges.
Let the mirror dry overnight.
Fold the ribbon around the edges of the mirror so that it overlaps the glass by ¼” and glue down. Let dry.
Now use the gold and silver fabric paints to draw runes and designs on the ribbon. Make a simple stand for your mirror and consecrate it and you’re done.
When you need to clean your magic mirror, use a very light wash of mugwort and vinegar water and dry immediately.
Another popular association with Samhain is the magic cauldron. As well as symbolizing the womb of the Goddess, the cauldron is the Celtic symbol for rebirth and since the season of Samhain concerns the transition from life into death (and from there, into life again), the cauldron and Samhain just seem to go together.
If you don’t work with the Faerie, a huge black cast iron cauldron is wonderful to have for your rituals and spellwork. If you work with the Faerie on a regular basis (like I do) you’ll want your cauldron to be of brass, silver or copper.
You can fill the cauldron with salt or sand and create a gigantic incense burner or with New Moon Water to use it for scrying. You can pile it full of apples for holiday decoration. The cauldron also makes a wonderful vessel for mulled wine!
Food For The Dead
On Samhain, it is customary to fix a plate for those you are remembering, using their favorite foods. Spare no expense here–if Uncle Joe loved chocolate creams, don’t buy him a candy bar, buy him chocolate creams. Of course, your bank account has something to say about this, but if you can afford to splurge, have respect and do so!
The food is usually left out overnight so that the dead might eat of the essence then given back to the Earth for Nature to take care of.
My sister Claudia died in 1986. Every year her plate on the altar contains German pickles and onions, two of her favorite foods. I fill another plate with kitty kibbles for the cats I have known, loved and lost. Still another plate holds a Baby Ruth bar and a Pepsi, for my husband’s father who left us in 1993.
Totem Animal Work
In my book Trancing the witch’s Wheel you’ll find a wonderful totem animal meditation. For me, the season of Samhain is one of the best in which to work with your animal totems because all of the spiritual realms are so close to our own and shape-shifting energy seems to go hand-in-hand with the transformations taking place this time of year.
Before Samhain, I like to carve my totem onto a pumpkin. I consider it a ‘working’ meditation.
Since my primary totem animal is the black panther (sometimes she grows spots and becomes a leopard, but usually she’s black as midnight), I choose music that I feel embodies the panther spirit.
I assemble pictures of panthers and leopards around the table on which I’m going to work. If I can find a good documentary about the jungle, I make use of my VCR and play that while I’m working, with the sound muted.
One year, my black cat Meerclar volunteered for modeling duty. She sat next to the pumpkin the entire time I was carving.
When I’m ready I cast a circle, invoke the spirit of the panther, and begin carving the pumpkin into a panther-faced Jack O’Lantern. Not just any panther, but one that matches my connection with the totem spirit.
I do not speak during this carving, unless I’m speaking directly to my totem-spirit, and I focus on the task until I’m done. It’s amazing how connected this makes me feel to my panther totem. I also notice that my cats tend to congregate around me when I’m carving the pumpkin. If my totem was a wolf spirit and I shared my life with dogs, I’m sure the same thing would happen.
One of the simplest and most enjoyable ways to celebrate the season is to gather together a number of friends, each bringing drums, tambourines, bells and rainsticks, light a giant bonfire (check your local fire stations for burn bans) and spend an evening drumming and dancing around the fire.
Before you begin, go around the circle, each person invoking the spirits of your ancestors you wish to remember. Then let the spirits move your hands. Continue long past midnight and let the thunder of the drums open the veil between the worlds.
*Copyright Yasmine Galenorn 1999, and 2020
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