Looking back on Samhain

by | May 7, 2015 | Seasons Newsletter | 10 comments

Circle of candles IMG_4052 - Version 2Where do you keep memories of your ancestors?
What about your memories of other loved ones who have died?

Are they packed away in a box, or do you take them out from time to time, to leaf through, to taste like dark chocolate (bitter or sweet) or to cradle quietly in your arms?

Perhaps you keep the lid tightly closed. Maybe you even want to close the lid on this newsletter. It can be a lonely business dipping into grief on your own.

You are right. Grief needs to be felt in the company of others. Even though collective rituals of mourning may bring comfort on anniversaries of major events such as the Cave Creek collapse, Anzac Day, or the Christchurch earthquake, most grief is experienced alone.

Private death so often gets pushed away out of sight because of other people’s ideas about ‘getting over it’ and ‘you’ve had enough time.’


The meaning of Samhain

What if one day and night were set aside each year, at a time of seasonal resonance, for you to pause and light candles to remember your loved ones—and if you knew that others throughout the land were doing the same?

Well there is. April 30 is the date in the southern hemisphere, and October 31 in the north. Scratch the surface of Halloween and you will uncover Samhain, the most important festival of the Celtic year. It was held on the brink of winter, in honour of the dead.

As the year bowed its head towards darkness, so the Celts would drive their cattle inside for winter shelter, slaughtering the sick or weak beasts, lighting bonfires to ward off fearful spirits, feasting and welcoming in the ancestors as the tribe prepared to hunker down for the winter.

At Samhain, it was said that spirits of those who had passed would stalk the earth, and that the veil between the worlds was thin. The presence of the dead was fully acknowledged, and felt.

Is it a sign of our unwillingness to face death that we have reduced Samhain to the fancy dress party of Halloween, and in the southern hemisphere have consigned it to spring time, safely removed from all associations with the falling leaves, withering plants and the dying of the light?


The veil between the worlds

It’s so evocative, that old Celtic concept of the veil between the worlds growing thin in the empty space between autumn and winter. But what worlds were they thinking of?

Think of the world of spirit and the material world, the world of life and the world of death, as well as the conscious and unconscious: all realms that are so often kept apart. Until nature causes a juddering.

Perhaps you have sensed the thinness of the veil at times of transition, when nature changes rhythm. I’m thinking of the eerie greenish light that can flood the earth at the end of day, just before sunset. And then of course, the plunge into darkness that is even more striking now that the end of daylight saving compounds the effect of the dying light.

Some of you might experience the shift by catching colds, or feeling an unexplained restlessness within. Darkness invites reflection, and a special kind of awareness. An end-of-day walk is very different when shadows and chill gather as you hurry home. To the Celts, ghosts, faeries and hobgoblins lurked in the shadows: in other words, the presence of other realms, the unconscious, fears and dreads.


Making friends with the shadows

Suppression so often leads to ambush. Out of the shadows leap the very things you have been trying to keep at bay, and you are spooked.

Far better to do what the ancient Britons did. Pour a glass of wine, place some ‘soul cakes’ on a plate, and leave them out for the visitors. Or, visit the graves of your loved ones. Create an altar to the season, sit quietly with trusted companions, light candles and remember the past souls. Welcome them in. Welcome in the ancestors. Chew on their wisdom. Drink their love. Let them lead you forward into fearlessness.

For wisdom is the property of the dead,
A something incompatible with life . . .

—W B Yeats

Even though April 30, the date of our Samhain, has passed, we are still in the zone of shadows. It’s not too late to part the veils; in fact it’s never too late. For according to Maori, the past is always before us. Looking it in the face takes strength, and builds strength.

Nga tipuna ki mua, Ko tatou kei muri 
The ancestors are in front, we are behind.


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  1. Kate

    Hi Juliet, I love Samhain, its a magical time as the veil thins. I find this a moving time, and a time where I feel my grief. And I have a lot of that this year. Thank you for your comforting words.

    • Juliet Batten

      Kate, I’m so glad you found comfort in my words, and that you can feel your grief with such compassion. Thank you.

  2. Mary-Alice Leabeater

    Thanks so much for this profound newsletter. I greived for my husband who was very spiritual in his own right. He consciously and unconsciously, helped me a lot both by intuiting and knowing his ways of showing me his love. I am grateful for his gentle and generous spirit. He appears to me in dreams as do my parents who left me an orphan as people started to say when our large family lost both of them! Their photos always remind me of their wisdom and grace and of course their love (including) my beautiful late husband. So when my eye catches their faces in the photographs I have around the place as I leave my home for the day..I find myself smiling and thanking them in my mind for being in my life. Once again thank you for your informative and wise newsletter. Cheers, Mary-Alice

    • Juliet Batten

      Mary-Alice, I feel so moved by your comment and to know that you are accompanied by such loving and wise spirits. It is such a boon to be able to remember them with smiles and gratitude. Thank you so much.

  3. Wendy

    Your writing is very intelligent and moving.
    Kind wishes

    • Juliet Batten

      Wendy, how kind. Thank you.

  4. Dana Leigh Lyons

    I always savour your posts, Juliet, and this one may just be my favourite so far.

    In Chinese medicine, grief is considered a place of natural pause. And, indeed, we are meant to pause and to really experience it–to really feel. The sacred space of this pause is often lost in today’s world. And that is a great loss. One worth grieving.

    David Whyte has a poem that came to mind while reading your blog: “Well of Grief.” In it, he talks about those “who will not slip beneath the still surface on the well of grief…turning downward through its black water
 to the place we cannot breathe.” He says they “will never know the source from which we drink…the secret water, cold and clear, nor find in the darkness glimmering
…the small round coins
 thrown by those who wished for something else.”

    I love your exploration of the natural–and communal–expression of grief…and also your exploration of the veil between what we see and (think) we understand and what we do not. There is so, so much more. Always.

    Thank you for your lovely post!

    • Juliet Batten

      Dana, what a beautiful concept! Chinese medicine is so full of wisdom, and it is indeed a sacred space, the place of grief. I will look up the David Whyte poem. It sounds so rich. Thank you so much for all you have added to this post through your generous comment.

  5. Lily Lau

    What a beautiful post, Juliet! I loved it, and indeed I’m going to read it again :D

    • Juliet Batten

      Thank you Lily. Being re-read is always a great compliment!


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