Continuing with the season of reflection and looking back to older posts these past weeks, and in honor of the pagan sabbat of Samhain (Halloween), something from my England archives (2010):
All Hallows Eve. It feels as if the entire day has been lifted from a spooky, storybook tale with ghostly trees draped in mist and fog. Along our quiet, rural lane, there are no children ringing doorbells for trick or treat, though I suspect that they are out in force in the village. Just as precaution, however, the gate is shut and the front light is off, so that from outside it seems no one is at home. The hermit has no wish for children calling at his door.
The moon is nearly full, suspended like a luminous pearl set amid folds of dark grey silk, and all the night is bathed in silvery light. Standing on the stone terrace in the chilly darkness and gazing up, I watch thin veils of clouds drawn quickly across the sky.
Since ancient times in Britain, 31 October has been celebrated as a gathering of the harvest and a feast for the dead. Known as Samhain (“SAW-win”, “SAW-vane” or “SOW-ain”) in neopagan circles, the Gaelic word means “summer’s end”. All Hallows Eve (hallow means “to sanctify”) bore many names: Hallowtide; Hallowmass; Hallows; All Souls Night; Day of the Dead. It marked the start of the Celtic New Year, and the beginning of the lean, cold months ahead, as the last of the crops were gathered and celebrated with festivals and fairs. Where possible, livestock were brought in from the fields and kept in sheds until spring; some were slaughtered, their meat preserved to offer sustenance through the long, dark winter. Beginning at sundown, it was a time of thanks and for honoring the dead, offering prayers and food left on altars and doorsteps, and generally one of only two nights of the year when the hearth fires were extinguished (Beltane being the other).
￼The ancient Celts, in particular, viewed Samhain as an auspicious time, a cross quarter day situated halfway between the Autumnal Equinox and Winter Solstice. The spiritual veil between worlds was considered to be at its thinnest (along with Beltane six months opposite on the calendar wheel), when beings from the otherworld could emerge and be seen. With the spirit world so near at hand, the night offered an open window for magic and communion, and the dead were often invited to feast with their earthly kin left behind—a place set at the table and cakes set outside the door.
Whether I call it All Hallows Eve, Samhain, or Day Of The Dead, it seems an appropriate time to acknowledge my own ancestors and give thanks for the blessings in my life. It has long been my custom to recognize this night of portent with some kind of quiet ceremony, either with others or in solitude. Tonight, I will roam alone under the streaming pale clouds and offer my gratitude to the Universe, scattering intentions like seeds upon the rich, dark earth.
The air is not overly cold but I wrap the soft charcoal ribbon of cashmere just a bit more snugly around my neck, having decided to forego wearing my wool cap. Stepping out from the cottage, walking across the front garden toward the deer fence and brightly shimmering fields beyond, I step through the tall gate and, for a moment, have the impression of crossing some threshold into a mysterious other realm beyond my familiar one. I cannot describe exactly what gives this feeling, but I note the slight tingling sensation in my body and a sense of being drawn just slightly more open, as if pulled by gossamer strands or perhaps tiny invisible hands.
The night world is flooded in silvery light, bright enough that my eyes hardly need to adjust. I certainly don’t need a “torch” or flashlight. Even in the moonlight, I detect the hues of russet, copper and gold of the surrounding hillsides, faded and mute beneath the racing clouds. The footpath through the wet grass easily visible, along the edge of the recently planted field I walk, its broad expanse already sprouting up with slim green shoots of winter wheat.
I don’t have a set route in my head, content instead to let my feet simply carry me where they may into the glimmering dark. A rustic, elk hide rattle protrudes from my back pocket, and I’ve a small candle and some blood red corn kernels tucked in my coat, the humble makings of an offering. Passing the great oak who stands sentinel at the edge of the fields, still crowned with gilded leaves but ever more naked as the days grow colder, his form aglow and majestic in the moonlight, I bow to him and veer right to follow the hedgerow down into the hollow.
As I descend the slope of the hill, the hedge ends at a copse of dark trees, a tangled spur that emerges from a larger wood on my left, while to my right, the field is a silver and green blanket draped across the gentle hill. Continuing along the footpath, I am traversing the cusp of two different realms: shadowy, whispering woods, and the bright, open, moonlit field. Darkness meets light. An edgewalker, I am.
Something unseen launches from the trees, startling me with the sudden noise of its flight. A wood pigeon, perhaps, or some other winged one disturbed by my passing. In the wooded darkness on my left, I hear the crashing of a moderate-sized animal moving rapidly through the thickets, darting away.
The tangled shadows teem with energy and sounds, while the field rests open and silent, and the autumnal perfume of woodsmoke from a distant chimney wafts through the cool air.
Lost in the noises and scents of the misty darkness, I suddenly draw up short, halted by the sight of the trees just ahead where the edge of the field juts around another spur of the wood. In the silvery night, the bare trees are revealed as elegant spirits, rising up with naked arms like dancers, reaching for the pearl of moon. So humanlike in this expression are they, that I stop in my tracks, and for a shining moment I do not see them as trees at all; instead I perceive their true essence and inner nature. Gazing upwards, following the thousand fingers that extend heavenwards, I note that the sky is clear and the great silver jewel is encircled in a luminous moonbow.
Somewhere in the distance of the dark wood, the small, hooting voice of an owl calls out.
Yes, definitely the right place.
I pull the handmade instrument from my back pocket and begin to shake it in a wide circle about my body, hearing the small stones inside wake to life, singing with their familiar voices as I rattle loudly toward the dancing trees and brightly glowing moon.
For an instant, the familiar censor whispers in my brain, what if someone is out walking and hears you or sees you?
Who cares, I shrug, shaking the rattle more loudly. I’m just a crazy man on the edge of a field and wood on a night of ancient magic, dancing at the threshold of light and shadow.
In my low voice, still hoarse from my recent chest infection, I call out to silver shadows. I acknowledge Earth, trees, the field, the grasses and soil, furry moles underfoot and microbes whirling everywhere, the unseen earthly creatures, the spirits of field and wood and earth and air. I hail my own ancestors and departed family, Gaia and the moon as embodiments of the Divine Feminine, and the Sacred Masculine.
It’s a decidedly eclectic roll call, embracing both the mystic and material, the living and dead. Humbly, I acknowledge my small place in the much larger relationship that enfolds, speaking aloud to the interconnectedness of everything.
Still waving my trusty rattle with its rhythmic chorus of pebbly voices, I offer a song to the radiant, haloed moon.
Here in the fold between field and wood, the air is still, as if the night itself is listening. Crouching down, I pull the slim candle from my pocket, light its wick using a purple plastic lighter, and push the flickering taper into soft, yielding soil. A phallic, masculine flame rising up from the receptive earth.
Speaking aloud, I offer my gratitude to the night, giving thanks for uncountable blessings in my life. One by one, I speak to my dead family and unknown ancestors, acknowledging and thanking them for the gifts passed down to me.
Removing the corn kernels from my coat pocket, I toss the ruby gems one by one into the tall grass, each a garnet prayer. These blood red seeds, carried from New Mexico, are a symbolic offering of thanks as I speak to the night. The purpose is decidedly not planting New World corn alongside an English wood, but to symbolically cast my intentions within the Unified Field. I suspect that the grains will most likely end up in a pheasant’s gullet, and I’m happy to share what I can with the “more-than-human” world around me. Let others be nourished by what I’ve scattered.
May we all be fed.
When my unrehearsed chant of gratitude and prayer feels complete, I crouch down to retrieve the flickering candle, a dodgy knee groaning in the process. Blowing out the flame, I shake the drops of wax to the earth and place the small taper again into my coat. Rattle finds its way to my back pocket.
In the shadowy fields of Sussex, another Samhain rolls into mist and memory. The naked trees continue to dance and sing to the heavens as I move on, ascending along the edge of the field towards the crest of the hill. Looking out across the shimmering night, cream has poured into the hollows and low places, making dark islands of trees and hilltops as the fog swirls around.
What a gift to be alive and savoring this moment of beauty beneath a magic moon, giving thanks for uncountable blessings and mysterious grace.
Silently, I begin walking back towards the cottage, treading on a dark serpent of path through the wet grass. I’ve not worn my Wellingtons or waterproof boots and before long my shoes and socks are soaked through. Cold. In the distance, just where I expect it to be, the cheery yellow glow of our cottage lights emerge in the darkness, a warm and homey beacon.
Stepping back through the high deer gate left ajar, again I sense that I’ve crossed over some invisible, psychic boundary, now returning to the familiar realms instead of magical ones. Outside the front door of the little brick house with its steeply gabled roof, though I’m eager to remove wet boots and warm my chilled feet, I gaze up for a final look at the silver coin in the sky, noting that clouds completely veil its face, just as when I first set out.
How is it that only in the hollow of the dancing trees, on the cusp between darkness and light, that She appeared in a clear sky, surrounded by moonbow? On this magic night, it was as if the veil between worlds drew back and I stepped through to a place of hushed power and trembling beauty. I smile, privy to some numinous secret, and then open the door to the welcoming light and warmth of the cottage.
A fine night indeed for crossing between realms, honoring the ancestors, giving thanks, and singing to a pagan moon.