Samhain comes, and here in Maritime Canada its approach is unmistakable. The air descends from crisp to cold. The skies become a deep and pensive cerulean, days are short and sunsets yield a burnished golden light cast over a land of crimson and butter-hued foliage. The stags have grown great racks of antlers and the does gather in the deep wood, anticipating the time of the rut–the first harbinger of the annual death of the Green Man and the first whisper of coming Imbolg–the freshening time. And if one is attentive, if one cocks the head and lends the ear, one can almost hear the crackling of enchantment in the air, secretive like many hushed whispers, always just beyond the corner of the eye, though now and then the attentive might glance upon a furtive movement–the spirits at play now more than any other time of year.
At such a time, I find my mind turns to the deeper meaning of things. To witches’ secrets and shamans’ mysteries. As the year falls asleep in autumn, thoughts seem evermore tugged to the otherworldly. For it is at this time that the veil between this world and the Other grows thin, very thin in some places, and one who is attentive might catch not only glimpses of another side of reality, but perceptions of the deeper meaning of things. If anything, Samhain is a gift — a moment to wake us up. We humans have a terrible penchant for falling into mundane habits: habits of life–wake up, make breakfast, go to work, come home, go to the gym, et cetera. Samhain brings us a heavy dose of mystery, of a reality deeper than we ken. Like a child who hears the scraping of branches beyond the bedroom window upon a windy night, Samhain brings us a touch of fear. It shocks us with well placed fissons–a shock which, if we allow it, can serve to wake us up so that we can look more deeply and see truer.
Since the most ancient times, this has been a time of eldritch power. Far ago and long away, in those most ancient lands of Europe and beyond, Samhain came with the thirteenth full moon of the year. Like the full moon, it lasted three days. Unable to square exactly with the solar calendar, Samhain was a time between time, a little season outside of clarified solar time, and as mystery walks on nights of silvery full-moonlight, upon Samhain the path to mystery was open. And so it was our ancestors recognized this time as a moment for caution–for most persons are ill prepared to cope with the depths of mystery. It was a time for apprehension as beyond Samhain lay the long cold-dark of winter. It was an eerie time for now the spirits of the elders could join the living from beyond the grave. But not in any horrific form. That is the grist of church fear-mongering during early efforts to convert mass sections of the populace to the new monolithic religions. The spirits of the dead rejoined the living as ancestor spirits, beneficent beings recognized among the ancient folk and their shamans and druids and wise folk. And they are recognized today among contemporary primitive cultures, as well as among followers of kami-no-michi and other polylithic paths as supportive beings who, like grandparents, work from afar to ensure the well being of their beloved families and clansfolk. And so, Samhain is in truth many things at once–a time to celebrate the final harvest and worry over winter, a time to remember life ends but the end is nothing final, a time to welcome the spirits and ensure the hospitality was fine, a time to earn blessings for a bright coming year.
It is a sad thing that in this era Samhain has turned into Halloween, a commercialized event that means a glut of costume parties, empty trick-or-treating for kids, goofy pranks and hateful horror movies. When I grew up in the dark bayous of deepest Cajun Louisiana, a place Western consumer culture had barely yet touched, Halloween possessed more of its old truth. We went trick-or-treating, sure, but that was only a small part of it. The Acadians were inclined to set out charms to ward away some spirits and welcome others. Acadian sorceresses and vodun priestesses would more than ever work their secret arts in misty bayou shadows. Girls would cast auguries to discern their future husbands and folk left charms in the graveyard to appease the dead by reason of the Catholic tradition of All Saints Day. And more than ever, I hiked the wild lands and roamed the bayous on my raft, ever searching for another hint of enchantment: the remnants of witches’ circles, vodun dolls left in the crooks of trees. Like magic, there were always traces of magical folk and otherworldly things at this time, but always just beyond the corner of the eye. We Cajun folk knew we lived in a magical world.
This time between time, this moment of Samhain: its roots have nothing to do with garish horror, nothing to do with demon possessions and silly zombie movies, nor yet anything to do with gaudy costume parties for adults and trick-or-treating so already plump kids can amass gobs of junk food they surely do not need. Samhain is the most enchanted time. If one opens the eyes and truly perceives, it is the time when the touch of magic and spirit is most clear. It is a thrilling time when the beings of the Otherworld might play a prank or visit the supper table, when they peek in on their folk and see to it we are well. The true Samhain is a bright thing in the moment of darkest twilight, like a lone sunset ray in a clouded sky. It is nothing to fear, save by the ignorant who would fear the dark because they do not know the wonder it contains nor have the courage to step beyond their known bounds and seek out that hidden place where the sunbeam falls.