The Mystery of Samhain and the Wisdom of Death

Holidays The Mystery of Samhain FEATURE

The Mystery of Samhain and the Wisdom of Death

Samhain is the ancient Celtic festival welcoming the dark half of the year, which was always celebrated at the end of October. It was a commemoration of the dying year and the beginning of a spiritual new year. Its name has evolved over the centuries, and so has its meaning, but October 31 remains a night of deep darkness when we revel in the mystery, with a more tangible connection with spirits on the other side. Even before I “knew” or learned that Samhain was the Celtic New Year, I always had this feeling right around November 1 that the planet was rebirthing itself. Something seems new, fresh, and available on the morning after Samhain, or Halloween. And it is. In this blog, I’ll share some of the meaning and mystery of Samhain so you can experience this sacred time in a way that honors your own cycles of life, death, and rebirth.

This is my favorite time of year. The days shorten, the shadows grow, and the veil between our world and the spirit realm is at its thinnest. There’s an extra electrical charge in the air, and the magical possibilities seem to be all around us. October has an energy of clearing, cleaning, and preparation. Nature is about to take back within herself what has stopped living. If you didn’t bury it, she’s about to send her spirit soldiers to come retrieve it. On October 31, we say goodbye one last time to what the year has both brought to and taken from us. It’s a grand reconciliation of what you have and what you lost. Now is the time to say, “I accept the cycles of life and death and somewhere within those cycles, I myself am reborn.” 

The turning of the Wheel toward Samhain is a turn toward darkness. The nights are growing longer, and time is catching up with us. Our trees no longer bear living fruit – all we see now are dried figs, dried grapes, things once living now dying, to remind us of the stages of alchemy. There’s a quiet about death, a permanence, that terrifies us and yet, it’s so completely unavoidable and in that sense, beautiful and significant. As my shaman says, “We have to figure out how to die well. But if we never speak of dying, that is not possible.” And so at Samhain we speak of it. We can play with death because it comes to us now in a state of suspended illusion. We can peek through and spread a hand across the veil of consciousness and then withdraw that hand on November 1, no harm done. Or can we? That is always the question. Does some little part of us die every Samhain, and, is that okay? 

Yes, we are going to talk about death, because there is no other way to lean fully into the work of living. That is the medicine of Samhain and Halloween. In almost every country outside of the United States, death is talked about, danced with, and even celebrated. Here in the West we push cemeteries to the distant corners of our cities and towns, and place headstones flat parallel with the Earth so that when we drive by the places of the dead they look like nice parks. In most other countries, cemeteries and mausoleums are front and center in towns and cities with upright headstones that tell you OH YES THERE ARE DEAD PEOPLE HERE and guess what YOU ARE DYING TOO and no you can’t PRETEND IT’S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN TO YOU.

The ancient Celts didn’t resist this death dance, this portal to the other side, because they understood how to harvest wisdom in the process of facing their own mortality. They understood that when you bury something with intention, it can feed future crops and nourish them from within. And yet, the word itself – Samhain – means nothing more than summer’s end. The end of growth. This Sabbat reminds us that death is just a natural stage of life. We can’t have life without death any more than we can have light without dark, truth without lies, or good without evil. They are all two sides of the same coin, forever entangled and inseparable.

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