My favorite Sabbat is upon us soon. Samhain.
Images of cute witches on broomsticks and the popular “The Witch is in” decorations hanging about come to mind. The popular saying “Ghoulies and ghosties, long leggety beasties and things that go bump in the night” comes to mind as well. Jack-o-lanterns- seances, and if course the Christian All Saints day. Not to mention candy and costumes are all some thin gs I hold sacred at this time of year. But Samhain is more, so much more than these awesome things.
This blessed High Day has roots in Pre-Christian Celebrations and is named in the famous Coligney Calendar from Ireland. Most any article you read about Samhain will tell you it was the beginning of Winter and they brought the livestock in from the Summer grazing fields and into Winter quarters. They slaughtered the last of the meat for the season. They had a big celebration, bonfires, did divination, asked blessings, and believed evil spirits had to be warded off to assure everybody survived the dark, cold Winter.
They were agricultural people, dependent on the land and animals to survive. Today, we just go to the grocery and do not think of all that goes into feeding us. They were very aware, and gave offerings to gods and goddesses of the land as thanks and asked for safe passage for Wintertime as the earth fell fallow. For us, we buy a bag of apples anytime- or meat- or milk- or whatever we need. It was not so for them. So assuring they had all they needed had high religious importance. This is how they were earth based in those days and the celebrations and rites that took place in Western Europe prior to Christianization were different than the ones we do now.
Animal sacrifice and sometimes, human sacrifice was a part of those celebrations. Today’s Pagans do not like to be reminded of this. There is stigma and it is looked down upon these days. There was practical reason for this, however. Sacrifice was given to the gods in prayer and as offerings to plead for survival. Itb was for protection from death, starvation, and illness wintertime brought. If you were going to give something to assure life- exchange of life for life made sense. You give the best to the gods- and human life was right at the top of the list as the best thing there was.
Since Christianization, we have forgotten how many people asked for the opportunity to have the great honor of being given to the gods to assure the people’s survival. It was not seen as devil worship or barbaric as it is today. It was a privilege and people willingly gave themselves.
Today, Pagans who sacrifice lives give their lives in service as living sacrifices to the gods.
Animal sacrifice had practical reason for being utilized as well. Without refrigeration, meat spoiled more easily. You wanted fresh meat for the harvest celebrations. The meat was profaned and the blood given to the gods, and also used to bless the people. Modern medical science has demonstrated that blood is actually the stuff life is made of. It carries oxygen and the necessary nutrients to the brain and all organs of the body. The old ones somehow realized this. The sacrificed animals created a meal the gods partook of with the folk.
Since modernization, we do not raise and butcher our own meat. For folks who have never killed in order to eat, we often see these practices as inhumane and backwards.
Few Pagans condone live sacrifice at Sabbat. Some Heathen groups do in trying to keep modern practice as close to the old practices as possible. The debate rages as to whether it is useful even or necessary in modern times. We realize blood does not turn the wheel of the Year as was once thought. We realize the sun will rise and set, food will grow, life will go on, and the gods do not need to be appeased or evil spirits driven off so that we may survive Wintertime.
While the exchange of life for life may no longer happen, honoring the dead, which was very important is still a huge part of Samhain observances.
The old ones believed the veil between the land of the dead and the land of the living was super thin at that time. So they took precautions to assure nobody was carried off by the dead when they went back. Wearing costumes to “trick” the dead into thinking people were spirits was one way they protected themselves. People still dress in costumes at this time of year. Turnips carved into faces to ward off malevolent spirits were another way they protected themselves. This survives today as carving pumpkins.
Christianization brought changing Samhain into All Saints Day. The dead were still remembered and the Christian god became the harvest god who was thanked and asked to bless to hold the devil and his army at bay. The god changed, but the observances were still held sacred.
As Pagans reconstructing these observances, we don’t slaughter our own meat- we buy it. We don’t bring livestock in from the fields. We don’t ask protection from spirits. We typically invite the easier communication.
Times have changed, our culture has changed, but people have not. We still need that connection to the earth, and we need Sabbats to help us transition for the changes Wintertime brings. Like our ancestors from centuries ago, we need to celebrate and enjoy the bounty this final harvest brings, and we need to laugh at ourselves as well as memorializing our dead.
The folk I gather with always make a big deal out of Samhain. Always costumes. Always a potluck. And always a gathering inviting our beloved dead in. Every year, whoever gathers goes to an ancestor altar we build together, leaves a gift or lights a candle for our individual ancestors, and we have a very nice service.
Every year, the ritual is different somehow, as we take turns writing ritual. The year it was my turn, we created a path of flower petals we walked and invited our dead to walk, and each went up lighting a candle for our dead. Afterwards- we feasted.
Rather than write out a detailed ritual, I will write about how to create an ancestor altar.
Each tradition has beliefs about what colors are best, what is appropriate to give to the dead, and when and how you should do so. Unless you have strict guidelines you feel you should follow, put whatever matters most to you on your ancestor altar.
The basics are going to be
1) A space set aside for nothing but the altar, which can be a small shelf or a whole piece of furniture if you prefer. It can be enclosed in a box you put away for safekeeping or left out indefinitely. I have a chest of drawers I use. One drawer holds supplies, another has things I do not want to be disturbed so I can close the drawer. On top are things I keep out at all times.
2) Items that represent the dead. This can be pictures of them or even just something like papermache skulls. These things can be hung on the wall or set on or around your altar. Images of them you created seem to work best. I am not sure why. Perhaps creating a portrait of them with your own hands and energy creates a better connection. I have just found communication to be stronger if I create my images of the dead.
3) Things that were meaningful to them or belonged to them can be included as well. Pieces of clothing they wore can be reuses and made into things like altar cloths. Dirt from their graves, cremated remains, or even strange looking things like cuttings of their hair or their dentures can be used if you like. The more personal the item, the better it is. When my mother passed on, some of her jewelry was given to me by family. All of it went on the altar. Cards from funeral services are on my altar. Whatever you can put on there that holds meaning for you works for this.
4) Gifts. Whatever they liked is most appropriate. It seems universal to give the dead tobacco. This can be burned, or just left on the altar. A bottle of their favorite wine or soda works. Foods they loved. Perfumes. A sweater they might have liked. A book they would have read. Some traditions include setting a place for the dead at the dinner table certain times of the year or leaving offerings at their graves. Feeding your dead is not the same as feeding the living, but giving them something to show you remember them is always welcomed by them. You can even show their favorite movie in the altar room facing their picture. So much can be done to welcome them, and focus your own time on them outside formal ritual, thus keeping the connections strong.
And it can be as simple as that. I always keep candles on my altar and my dead love candy! I have some jewelry that belonged to my mother, cremains from a couple relatives, tobacco for relat9ves who smoked, and whatever may strike me as something they would like. Your ancestor altar can become the focus point for all communications with them and the more you build it and work near it, the stronger communication with them will be.
My ancestor altar has been set up for about six years now. I have lived three different places during that time and had two different pieces of furniture for it. I cannot express how important this has been for me and how much closer I have grown to living family members I visit with since I have my ancestor altar. I know an ancestor altar is not for everybody, but if you decide it’s for you, my above suggestions can help to get you started.
Below I wil add some articles online that have further info. Some of the articles discuss ancestor veneration around the world, and included are pictures of examples of ancestor altars. Since I have written this article, I know I probably ought to include photos of my own altar. It is a private, personal thing I do not want to post online, though. Please accept these other examples if you would like to draw inspiration and have a Blessed Samhain.
2) A google search reveals multiple images and examples- https://www.google.com/search?q=ancestor+altar&es_sm=93&biw=1366&bih=635&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=Ua8ZVMatDcX4yQTTm4LYCw&ved=0CAYQ_AUoAQ
3) What discussion of ancestors would be complete without an article about the Day of the Dead? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Day_of_the_Dead
4) A tidbit from a Catholic article- that mentions Samhain! Their All Saints Celebration is worth learning about. http://www.catholic.org/saints/allsaints/
5) There were sites the dead were said to emerge from at Samhain in Ireland- this lists a few. Because we are in 2014 CE, we will never know all the sites the old ones held auspicious, but we know a little bit. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rathcroghan#Oweynagat