I was asked to give brief comment on my view of Paganism and Samhain as part of the upcoming Sunday Service at the local Unitarian Universalist Society where I recently became the facilitator of the congregation’s Pagan fellowship. I struggled a bit with what I wanted to say and how to say it simply and succinctly, but then it came to me during the Friday drive home from work. A song from the early 70s by Rare Earth came on the radio: “I just want to celebrate another day of living. I just want to celebrate another day of life.” And I thought, That’s it. That is what both modern and ancient pagan festivals and rituals were meant to be—a cause to celebrate life here and now as it naturally is—the life cycle, the organism of Life.
I’m not sure whether I identify myself as a Pagan or if want to have any self-identifying labels at this point. I hold on to the concept of monism but I sometimes relate to spirituality as if a polytheist or an animist, and I don’t always know where archetype ends and deity begins. But as I go on, none of it matters. It’s all mindstuff and ultimately irrelevant in relation to what really is, which is just life in the present moment, with “religious” “faith” being the knowing that the next moment will be okay because it, too, is as things are.
So, for Samhain, people will be self-identifying with this or that myth, grandmother story, or other regurgitation about what Paganism or Craft is. That’s nice. The morning after spending time with a close friend, hopefully making music and dancing around a small camp fire and sharing meaningful meditation and conversation—like I did last year on Samhain with another group of acquaintances—I intend to tell a congregation of Unitarian Universalists that I think of the observances and rituals of (post) modern Paganism not so much as a carryover of ancient pre-Christian religion but as a carry-forward of folk culture and spirituality. By folk culture, I mean life at the grassroots. What is natural, life affirming, spontaneous and also has a connection to the environment and natural life. It’s not based on a past paradigm; it’s based on how people really are, spiritually speaking, when free of thought police. And this grassroots spirituality also respects and validates the human need for metaphorical and magical thinking and transpersonal experiences.
Forms and rituals practiced by modern Pagans began to develop in the 19th century. They drew from folk culture—things passed on through clan or family, myth (including myths about what Paganism and witchcraft was, which some postmodern Pagans and historians have been in the process of deconstructing), and reinterpretation of medieval ceremonial magic, which was the domain of clerics and male intellectuals and was based in Hermetic Christian and Hebrew mysticism. We also know that modern Paganism (i.e., Wicca) also took inspiration from American Native Spirituality and the Naturalist Movement. All this—neopaganism” (initially used as a disparaging rather than self-referencing term) was, in part, a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and the repression of Victorian Era.
It is convention in (post) modern Pagan ritual to cast a circle and call the quarters. Frankly, I am not sure whether many of the Pagans or Wiccans I know are aware of why they are quarter calling or who/what they are addressing when they do so. I am not going to digress on that here or in my comment to the Unitarian Universalist congregation though. Rather, I am going to tell the congregation that Pagan circle casting and quarter calling is not that different and is, in part, inspired by, what Hindus, Buddhists, and Native Americans (and Hermetic ceremonial magicians) do in religious ritual. They carve out sacred space, ritually purify that space, and then they reflect on their relationship to space and its contents, including Time: the directions, the seasons, phases of the sun and moon, the body and its senses and other constituents, and the lifespan. Space and person is ritually purified and honored through fumigation, aspersing, and initiatory sounds, words, and gestures. And in this, the elements—earth, water, fire, air, space—and their philosophical correspondences are acknowledged to, in turn, acknowledge what the physical self is and what the world is. The ritual is meant to honor and celebrate this and offer it –and ourselves as it—back to the source of being, which we are called to identify with as True Nature.
Samhain has its origins as an Irish/Celtic festival that lasted for a few days at the cusp of October and November. Because of how modern Paganism developed, focus is primarily placed on traditions within Celtic, Welsh, and Teutonic traditions rather than others. We think of them as Pagan holy days, but they were probably more like cultural traditions.
Samhain marked the last harvest and the preparation for the winter, including the slaughtering of livestock for meat. At these cusps of time (not only during Samhain but also during festivals such as the late spring festival of Beltaine), the world was “unclean” possibly because of the preponderance of either birthing, which was dicey endeavor in days of yore, (during the Spring festivals) or death (during the late autumn festivals). It was thought that the doors between the worlds were thin and that both good and not so good spirits could come through. It was a time not only to bond as a community but with the generations, and so these festivals presented a different perspective of time and place than what is the norm in industrial modernity.
We are told that the community would extinguish their home hearths and fires on sacred hills and then relight the communal fire from which all the hearths would be relit as a gesture of purification and renewal. The community especially would gather around bonfires (that is, “bone fires” in which the bones of slaughtered animals were thrown) and jump them and pass livestock through them for good luck.
We imagine that there was much feasting, frolicking, sensualism, and music-making at these times—a carnival atmosphere in which the daily cares of the world are put on hold. How is this different from a Saturday night out for some people or a Christmas party or 4th of July barbeque? People will have different answers, I suppose, but what will separate how I celebrate Samhain this evening—or any meaningful holiday Pagan or otherwise—from mundane interactions is merely mindfulness.