All Things Being Equinox

The weather around here has been appropriately gloomy for the autumnal equinox.  Although Hurricane Florence gave us a day of rain, the heavy clouds have been part of a pattern that has held largely since May.  Given the gray skies, we opted to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds last night.  My wife isn’t a horror fan, but she does like Hitch.  We’ve watched The Birds together many times, but this is the first time since I wrote Holy Horror.  I was somewhat surprised to recall how much Scripture plays into the script.  This is mostly due to a drunken doomsday sayer in the diner.  After the attack on the school kids of Bodega Bay, he declares that it’s the end of the world and begins citing the Bible.  He’s there for comic relief, but the way the movie ends he could be right.

When I was writing Holy Horror I had a few moments of panic myself.  Had I found all the horror films with the Bible in them?  Could anyone do so (without an academic job and perhaps a grant to take time off to watch movies)?  I eventually realized that I was merely providing a sample in that analysis.  Several weeks after I submitted the manuscript I watched The Blair Witch Project.  There was the Bible.  The same thing happened last night under a glowering late September sky.  The Birds has the Bible.  Two weeks ago I saw The Nun; well, that one’s almost cheating.  But you get the picture—the Good Book appears rather frequently in horror.  That’s what inspired me to write the book in the first place.

Now that nights are longer, and cooler, the grass has somewhat poignantly relinquished its aggressive summer growth.  Most of the ailanthus trees have been cut down (I must be part lumberjack).  My outside hours are limited not only by work but by the fading light.  In the words of the sage, “winter’s tuning up.”  We moved to a house we saw in the spring as days were lengthening.  Now we’ve come to the dividing line that will slowly leech the light from our evening skies.  I suspect that as I go back and watch some of my old favorites again I’ll discover something I already knew.  The Bible and horror belong together because both are means of coping with the darkness.  Call it puerile if you will, but there is something profound about this connection.  It just has to be dark for you to see it.

Growing Shadows

As summer wends its way slowly toward autumn my reading becomes more gothic.  It feels as natural as the progression of the seasons, I suppose.  While waiting for the turn I’d been holding onto Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind.  Not having read any Zafón before, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  My copy had been blurbed by Stephen King, and I figured that was pretty high praise.  I found the book through one of my web searches for the most gothic novels and this one takes a while, but I can see why it makes some of those lists.  I wasn’t sure at first if it was intended to be comic or serious, but that combination is an imitation of life itself.  We laugh, we cry, we shudder.

The story slowly builds, and I’ll address this further on Goodreads.  What I want to consider here is the nature of place.  Human beings—and I would argue animals as well—have a sense of place.  Space becomes sacred through events both dramatic and quotidian.  That’s why we make pilgrimages to places where our heroes lived.  Just to be there.  To think about it.  To feel it.  The Shadow of the Wind is a story of Barcelona during a time of war.  There’s no escaping the moody sense of old Europe in this tale.  In that sense religion is quite often casually mentioned.  It’s part of place in a way many Americans overlook.  The church bells I can hear everyday beg to differ, no matter how empty the pews may be.  Zafón wants to share his gothic Barcelona with a story that leads to real shivers.

It would be a stretch to call this a horror novel, but it is in the sense that V. C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic is.  It reminded me at several points of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (my copy of which was destroyed in a flooded garage).  Many lives, I suspect, have quiet gothic elements to them.  I know that mine does.  While there may be a little supernatural at work in The Shadow of the Wind, most of the action is believable.  This is the way people behave.  The way they treat, and mistreat one another.  While the days are still hot around here, the angle of the sun in the sky doesn’t lie.  We’re fast approaching the equinox from which we’ll slide into the long nights of winter.  And reading, the more gothic the better, will help us make it through no matter where we are.

August Mornings

It’s August and I’m already starting to feel haunted.  While science may declare it nonsense, there’s a feeling in the air—particularly in the early morning—that tells us the seasons are changing.  While it may be different for everyone, for me it begins in the tip of my nose.  I can smell the change coming.  That doesn’t mean that we won’t have more hot days—a long string of them yet awaits—but the shift has begun.  Autumn is perhaps the season closest to the soul.  While I like all seasons for what they represent, fall has always put me in mind of melancholy rapture.  It’s a difficult concept to explain,  a kind of blissful evisceration.  A hitching of the breath in my lungs.  A sudden rush of joy followed by sadness.  The ease of summer living is ending.

Summer is the growth season when we look out and see the promise of provisions that will see us through long months of cold and chill.  The times we huddle down only to be blinded by the arctic beauty of the sun on a snow-covered day.  The indoors time.  Summer is when we can dash outside without a coat, giving no thought to whether we will be warm enough.  The scent of autumn is a slight chill.  It reminds me that while the crops have been growing, the monsters have too.  There’s a reason horror films are released in the fall.  I’m not the only one who knows they are coming.

Late summer is a liminal time.  While the calendar may tell us summer lasts until the autumnal equinox, traditional cultures marked time in a different way.  Equinoxes and solstices were closer to the middle of a season than its start.  Most years we begin to feel summer in May, or even April.  Winter cuts through November, and the thaw may begin as early as February.  When I step outside just after sunrise and breathe deeply, I can feel the monsters coming.  In a way I can’t explain, their lurking fills me with a frisson of anticipation.  Already the days are noticeably shorter.  Daylight itself seems to be fleeing before the ethereal chill that is still available in our rapidly warming world.  The seasons are all about feelings.  Emotions suffuse the changes of weather and human habits that accommodate to it.  There are shivers and then there are shivers that the creatures of autumn bring.  They’ve already begun to gather.

Spirit of Nature

WindInWillowsThe Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic, was a book I first read during my doctoral studies. In the UK professors are likely to be able to cite A. A. Milne and the fictional bits of C. S. Lewis as well as the current academic stars. Of course I’m over-generalizing. In my experience, however, I met many wonderfully rounded professors and I tried, during my too-brief stint in academia, to emulate them. My wife recently read The Wind in the Willows to our college-aged daughter and me. As I’ve mentioned before, we’ve had an accord for all our married life that I will wash dishes if she will read to me, and we have read well over a hundred books this way, from children’s titles to scholarly tomes. From my perspective, listening to a book read adds a layer of meaning to the text. The cadences, the intonations, and the editorial remarks all lend texture to the experience. I had quite forgotten, as it has been years since I’ve read the book myself, about the mysterious theophany in chapter 7, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.”

In a passage that is almost overwritten for today’s youth, Rat and Mole, in search of Otter’s lost son, encounter Him out on the river. The language is reverent, and languid. The two animals come upon a horned deity who is not named, and fall in worship. The fact that he has pan-pipes makes Pan an obvious candidate, but the description also reminds me on this autumnal equinox of Cernunnos, the horned god. The spirit of nature. I feel myself trapped in a world of cubicles and drywall and money. Who wouldn’t fall at the feet of even a pagan deity offering release from such shackles? We have allowed ourselves to be trapped here. We have bought into the system that enslaves us. “There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing than simply messing about in boats.” Rat is my preacher; I am his acolyte.

Nature reminds us that we are evolved creatures and that civilization comes at a great cost. I never feel so alive as when I’m walking in the woods. I don’t pretend that I could survive alone, but having a position that requires growing heavier at a desk day-by-day feels out of sync with what I grew these feet to do and these eyes to see. Manhattan is a wonder, to be sure, but it too comes at great cost. Nashotah House was not a problem-free place, by any stretch, but it was in the woods. The trails on and near campus could restore a soul in the way chapel could never nearly approximate. So it seems appropriate to slip The Wind in the Willows onto my bookshelf next to my Bible, and to slip outdoors for one last untrammeled moment of summer before autumn begins.

All Things Being Equal

Today the light and darkness are equal. The equinox is the great equalizer of the year, the day that reminds us summer’s ebullience is always, and ever will only be, temporary. From this day forth, for six months, night will dominate day. Religions the world over have offered responses to the increasing darkness. Autumnal festivals are among the most poignant as we can see the light diminishing, but we know nothing we can do will prevent it. Time alone cures this growing tenebrous atmosphere, until, as the solstice arrives, we dance, and sing, and drink, and burn candles to encourage the light to return. Return it does, on our universe’s ever rotating axis, bringing us around once again to when days lengthen and we turn our thoughts toward shallower things.

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The ember months, September, October (by association), November, December, each with an increasing sense of solemnity, invite us to read. Today begins Banned Book Week. I’ll be posting about banned books since, although my books deemed fit to print are so mundane as to offend no one, I stand in solidarity with any writer who has ever been told that her or his book is too violent, sexy, or depraved to be read. What thoughts are too dangerous to think? Religions will tell you, and so will pseudo-religions. Thoughts, however, are not so easily stopped. As an editor, I am a gatekeeper of sorts. Still, I know as an author that those I turn aside will persist. They will find their publishers. Their words will not be banned.

As an erstwhile writer I know that some of myself resides in each work clacked out on this keyboard. Those lucky enough to court editors with their efforts find the larger readerships. Some authors don’t even write their own books any more. Anyone can be imitated. The truly original, however, will always end up on someone’s banned book list. Our minds resist being challenged. We don’t want assumptions to be wrong. It’s too much work to have to think through all of this. It is easier to ban books than to have to try to comprehend them. As the darkness increases over the coming months, I will stockpile candles and light bulbs and huddle down next to a stack of books, secure in knowing that most of them have offended somebody along the way. And reading those books will only cause the light to grow.

From Darkness

All things being equal, most religions side with light. Let there be light. Enlightenment. Dewali, the festival of lights. The light of heaven is as much the appeal just as the darkness of hell is its antipode. Today, as the autumnal equinox turns us toward the darker half of the year, many religions mark the occasion with some kind of notice of the fading of the light. In the Celtic calendar, so indicative of the old religions of Europe, the recognition of the triumph of the dark comes at Samhain, or Halloween. It is the realization that darkness always follows light, and even the relative carelessness of summer has its limits. We are, half the year, no matter our location on the globe, in darkness.

Despite the habits of some college-age folk, people are not, by nature, nocturnal. Biology has evolved our sense of daylight, color-rich sight as a main means of our survival. Our religions have taken our fear of the dark and valorized our experience of light. Even as the winter solstice rolls around, festivals of many religions add more and more lights to ward off the encroaching night. The equinox is a moment of stability. It is a tenuous moment, occurring only twice a year, when darkness and light hold an uneasy truce. We are poised to move into shorter days, cooler weather, and the apparent loss of life. There is a melancholy to it, beautiful and compelling, if somewhat sad.

As I reflect on the fading of the light, I realize that the southern hemisphere, whence light seems to be rising, is facing the vernal equinox. Their summer is about to begin. Days will lengthen and light will be abundant. Our religious calendars tend to be keyed to the experience of those in the northern hemisphere. Those in the south, following the dictates of Rome, celebrate Christmas in summer and Easter in the fall. After my rainy visit to Indiana, where, on a rainy Thursday evening I saw a rainbow in the east, I awoke to a rainy Friday and saw a rainbow to the west. Fractured light. The light of a fading day broken into its myriad shades and hues. Light is that way. It is always daylight somewhere in the world, but religions focus on the light where we find ourselves at the moment.

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Origin of Halloween

Perhaps the most misunderstood of holidays, Halloween has grown into a major commercial holiday. Outsold only by Christmas in the United States, Halloween now supports its own seasonal stores that cash in on the massive public interest. A few years ago a wrote a book explaining the holidays for teens/tweens. The book was never published, and I’ve been putting excerpts on this blog on appropriate occasions. For the full story of Halloween, please check out the Full Essays page (link above).

Accusations of a demonic origin may fit in with the popular creatures of the holiday, but they are far from the truth of the matter. A cross-quarter day, Halloween comes in the opposite side of the year from May Day (remember Walpurgis Night) when spirits make their way back into the mortal world. It represents the passing of fall into winter and the shades of death that accompany it. How much more religious can you get?

From ancient times people have been aware of how weak our control over our lives really is. We depend on the sun and the weather to cooperate for our crops. We fear the darkness when our eyes can’t compete with those of our predators. As the year descends into longer and longer nights, we secretly fear that eventually night will not end. The dark time of the year belonged to the spirits.

Just as all ancient people celebrated the vernal equinox (if you missed it, check out the Passover-Easter Complex for more), they marked the autumnal equinox with festivals. Although Halloween is six weeks after the equinox, it seems to have inherited some of the ancient associations of that season. One of the ancient feasts of the equinox was for Pomona, the Roman goddess associated with fruits and seeds. There is more of Thanksgiving than Halloween in this festival, however.

Halloween, as we have come to know it, is usually traced to the same people who gave us St. Patrick’s Day – the Celts. The Irish calendar was divided into four quarters, marked between the solstices and equinoxes by the cross-quarter days. The fall cross-quarter day was Samhain (in case you don’t speak Gaelic, this is pronounced “sow-win”). Samhain can be understood as “summer’s end” and it was the traditional marking of the onset of winter; it actually comes just a month before meteorological winter.

The Celts, as well as other ancient peoples, believed that spirits of the dead were active as the trees lost their leaves, the grass began to dry and, and the world itself seemed to be dying. Huge bonfires were lit to ward off evil spirits, and perhaps bloody sacrifices were made to ensure the safety of the living.

No matter what modern Halloween critics may say, the Celts did not worship Satan and the origins of the holiday are not satanic. Pagan, maybe, but who isn’t somebody else’s pagan? The idea was to fend off evil, not worship it. The shamans, or “medicine men” of the Celts were a class of priests called Druids. Samhain would have been one of the festivals overseen by the Druids. These guys were priests of a religion that focused on nature, not the Devil. They did play a little rough though. They seem to have practiced human sacrifice once in a while, but Samhain was more often about killing off livestock before the winter. Either you can keep your animals alive and they will eat the little food you have, or you can butcher them and add to the little food you have. After all, not much grows in winter.

[See Full Essays for the rest]

Just Druid

Suggestively between the autumnal equinox and fall’s cross-quarter day, yesterday British authorities announced that Druidism is now an official religion. Such an announcement, naturally, does not endorse or censure the belief system but only affects its legal status. That status relates to taxes, the handmaid of the One True God, Money. Tax-exempt, Druids are now free to worship nature free of charge.

In the recent resurgence of interest in paganism, the Druids have attracted a considerable New Age following. There is, however, no doubt that Druidism is an ancient religion predating the Christian conquest of Europe. The origins of the Druids are lost in obscurity, but they are one of any number of ancient nature cults that have become fashionable in a post-Christian society. What does it matter if a society recognizes a belief structure as a religion or not? (Apart for tax liabilities, of course!) One of the issues at stake is the perennial question of who determines what is a religion and what is not. In a society where religion is defined purely by belief, the doors are cast wide, if not blown completely off their hinges, when a group declares itself a religion. Who is the final arbiter? Today the world resoundingly answers “Mammon.” When you pass that collection plate, or basket, or gourd, does the government take its cut or not?

Religions will always struggle to convince the many that they each possess the one, true faith. Some will do it through magic, others through nature, and others through divine revelation. All will be subject to the scrutiny of government fleshpots greedy for a share whenever money changes hands. Druids have lurked in the shadows for thousands of years. By publicly receiving the blessing of tax-exempt status, they are free once more to disappear into the mists and attract the envy of more imperially minded religions.

A Druid attempting tax evasion?

Sol Invictus

Perhaps for abject fear of paganism, western civilization has avoided holidays associated with the summer solstice. Being the lightest day of the year in a frequently dark northern hemisphere, it was naturally a time to celebrate the victory of light over darkness. While the winter solstice insinuated itself into the complex of Christmas holidays and Easter became intricately intertwined with the vernal equinox, the summer and autumn holidays were rejected.

This neglect of the powers of light coincides to some extent with the orthodox Christian rejection of Gnosticism. The Gnostics, able dualists like their Zoroastrian predecessors, celebrated the victory of light over darkness. Remnants of their theological outlook survived in the canonical Gospel of John and the always questionable Revelation. Ancient societies throughout the world recognized the summer solstice because, regardless of its name, the sun was acknowledged as a powerful deity. On this day the sun is at its height of strength, banishing darkness for longer than any other day of the year. It is a day not to waste.

Christianity has preserved some minor holidays for the summer season, but with the advent of a leisure-based society where summer is a time to take it easy, if not cease work altogether, the solstice lost its grip. Perhaps because light is so abundant already in the longer days as winter wends its way into spring and summer and lingers pleasantly until the vernal equinox, summer itself is simply holiday enough. Those adhering to the ancient religions nevertheless gather at sites like Stonehenge and Maeshowe, or even Egypt’s famous pyramids to consider the unending influence that our special star holds for its most imaginative planet.

The stones of summer