Spirit of Halloween

So it’s Halloween.  It’s also Sunday.  I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the spirituality of this particular day.  Now it’s often treated as a trick, a consumerist holiday with too much candy and befitting spooky decorations.  Like all holidays Halloween has evolved from its origins to how we celebrate it today.  Other than Wiccans and Neo-pagans, however, not too many take it seriously.  At Nashotah House, and therefore likely at some parishes scattered around the world, All Saints Day—which is tomorrow—was a day of obligation.  What we call Halloween was the day before this major festival of praising the faithful.  There is some evidence that All Saints was moved to November 1 to counter the lively celebration of Samhain, or the Celtic fire festival marking the onset of winter.

The Celts included an intellectual class known as Druids.  Druids seem to have been the “theologians” (oh, that word!) of the Celts and they mandated that their teachings not be written down.  A great deal of information was passed on by intensive memorization and only became known to us outsiders because after Christianization it began to be written down.  Their idea of the afterlife seems to have been that it was being born into the other world.  In the otherworld life was different and apparently in some respects better.  When our time there drew to a close, our death led to our birth into this world.  The cycle continued on and on.  Samhain was the time when crossing between worlds could occur.  Death wasn’t a cause for sorrow since the otherworld awaited.  Birth into this world was more problematic.

Fear of death seems natural enough to us.  Even though it’s inevitable and this world’s graveyards are full, somehow we seem to think we can avoid it ourselves.  Our evolved survival instinct runs out of control since we’ve eliminated many of the causes of death that have plagued our species (and many other species) for millennia.  Eons.  As we’ve done so we’ve distanced ourselves from death—dying in hospitals, our corpses prepared in funeral homes, buried and eventually forgotten.  To me, the Celtic idea, from a world where death was likely much more close to hand, seems a more healthy outlook.  Instead of fear, why not consider it a day of wonder and celebration?  To many, I know, that is a spooky thought indeed.  It’s more than a day of masks and candy, however.  And we might learn from it if we stop and ponder.


When Darkness Reigns

I recently read an article about the Druids. The fact is, historically speaking, we know little of them. They are mysterious and silent and irrevocably linked in the imagination with the solstices. Cultures throughout the northern climes of the northern hemisphere have always treated the winter solstice with an extreme reverence. It is the day of the year when it seems like light just can’t come in any shorter supply. In the depths of that desperation, offerings are made to ensure that tomorrow, if only by the merest moments, the day will be longer. And so we begin the lengthy climb through frigid days to the point six months from now when light will reign supreme. We don’t know, historically, if the Druids gave the great significance to equinoxes and cross-quarter days that the Celts eventually incorporated into their religion, but we do know that much of the monumental architecture of the United Kingdom and Ireland is oriented toward the sun’s feeblest rays at the winter solstice. Stonehenge, New Grange, Maes Howe, and the list could go on and on. We are waiting for light.

Lawrence Hall of Science; photo credit: Tim Ereneta (Wikipedia Commons)

Lawrence Hall of Science; photo credit: Tim Ereneta (Wikipedia Commons)

The solstice seems to creep up on me these days. I work in a cubicle with no outdoor light visible. I leave for work in the dark and arrive home in the dark. I’m inclined to offer up prayers to Odin while I while away the hours before an unresponsive computer monitor. Business has already shut down in all but the greediest minds by this time of year. It is time to hibernate and await a brighter tomorrow. Even in the darkness there can be light. This weekend I attended a Hanukkah celebration, and looking at the menorah I was struck once again how fervently we seek light this time of year. Of course, Hanukkah is connected with the rededication of the temple after the desecration of the Seleucids, but is it coincidence that the candles are lit near the solstice? Perhaps I’m getting too old to believe in coincidences.

In the ancient apocalyptic mind, light and darkness were bitter enemies. Of course, today we recognize that people generally use eyesight as a primary way of interacting with the world—of keeping us from danger. With our diminished senses of hearing and smell, we feel vulnerable when we can’t see our potential predators. Light is the key to our successful preservation. Today technology has taken the place of ritual. We have artificial lights to help lengthen our working hours. We eschew the limitations of being associated with the earth’s rhythms. We are the masters of our own domain, and we can keep the forty-hour work-week going on all but the most insistent of holidays. Perhaps the wisdom of the Druids needs to be rediscovered. Perhaps only then will natural light really return.


Just Druid Again

It would be difficult to suggest an ancient class of people with greater New Age credibility than the druids. Although I spent three years among the Celts, I claim to have no special knowledge of the druids, and when I saw Peter Berresford Ellis’ book on the subject, I decided to learn more. Not really a straightforward history—not enough of the druidic culture survived in any material form for the writing of such a history—Ellis instead summarizes a complex gallimaufry of evidence and speculations into a reasonable facsimile of who the druids might have been. Ellis suggests that the druids were more a caste of society, rather like the Brahmin caste among Vedic culture. Should that seem far-fetched, it would be difficult to read A Brief History of the Druids without noticing the obvious connections between the cultures. The Celts, of which the druids are a subset, have their origins in eastern Europe rather than the usual supposition of a homeland over the sea in Ireland, Scotland, or Wales. Connected to India via a common ancestral language, Indians and Celts both derive from the same Indo-European linguistic family tree.

Ellis’ book is so full of information that it is unwieldy at times, especially for those of us who find the formidable Gaelic names intimidating. Nevertheless, it is an excellent source for learning about the religion of the druids, insofar as it may be reconstructed. One of the most striking aspects of Celtic culture that emerges from the book is how it differed from the Roman culture that would come to dominate the western world. An obvious example is that Celtic society offered a much more enlightened place for female rights and leadership than would emerge along the Tiber. Another important difference was the Celtic antipathy to abuses of private property ownership. Gaelic bishops earned the ire of Rome by declaring that egalitarianism is the will of God. In the words of a fifth century Celtic bishop:

“Do you think yourself Christian if you oppress the poor?… if you enrich yourself by making others poor? If you wring your food from others’ tears? A Christian is [one] who… never allows a poor man to be oppressed when he is by… whose doors are open to all, whose table every poor man knows, whose food is offered to all.” Words a Perry or Bachmann might do well to read.

So noble were the druids in the eyes of eighteenth-century antiquarians that many suggested Abraham was the original druid and that the great figures of the Bible were part of the druidic heritage. The world, alas, has gone after Rome instead. Rather than druids we have CEOs and politicians worth a mint before they ever “swear” an oath of office. If the current Celtic revival brings back some powerful druids, perhaps the world might just become a more tolerable place.


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]


Sacred Geography

Pilgrimage. The concept that certain places are special is deep-rooted in the human psyche. So deeply rooted that we consider it a religious behavior. Even as scientists recognize the need of many animals to return to their birthplaces or areas that they sense beyond the range of human perception, as human beings they feel it too. Even scientists have the urge to revisit that special spot. Otherwise the travel industry would be in great trouble. Pilgrimage is considered a religious behavior, and the sacredness of place has been noticeably in the news this week. MSNBC reported on the find of a skeletal pilgrim to Stonehenge from 1550 BCE. Yesterday the New Jersey Star-Ledger ran a story about a temple/mosque dispute in Ayodhya, India. Both of these stories center on the sacred geography of the region.

Stonehenge has been a magnet not only for Druids and New Agers, but for anyone with a sense of connection to European prehistory. In the winter of 1990, under a chilly British sky and gusty winds across Salisbury Plain, my wife and I made our pilgrimage to Stonehenge. The low angle of the sun in the sky in a dusky British December only enhanced the experience of standing near a monument that has become an icon of the mysterious and the transcendent for modern domesticated citizens of a straightforward, technological world. The news story states that the skeleton unearthed was of a Mediterranean teenager, far from home, in the shadow of what was already a famous landmark. Even over two decades on, I can still feel the inarticulate sense of longing I felt at Stonehenge, so near the winter solstice, and I understand why that young boy went there to die.

Meanwhile in Ayodhya, the site of a mosque has been declared two-thirds under the ownership of Hindu plaintiffs who claim the site as the birthplace of Lord Ram, a Hindu god. Naturally objecting is the Muslim population that currently has a mosque on the site. Sacred sites raise emotions and tempers readily. Humans want access to their holy places – this is the power of sacred geography. It is certainly palpable in the Bible, and was obviously present the last time I was in Jerusalem. Whether it is hardwired in our biology or simply born of whimsy, sacred geography will never go away. Either we can learn to share it or fight to the bitter resolution, but no matter how much blood might be shed the site will only grow more and more significant because of that very blood.


Holy May Days

The first few weeks of May are peppered with holidays, some religious, some secular. As my regular readers know, I’ve been working on a book about holidays for kids, so I showcase a few pieces on this blog, on occasion. Instead of providing several posts on May’s holidays, I’m combining the first three special days into a holiday compendium for early May.

May Day (May 1) is, in origin, a religious holiday. It is an ancient, pre-Christian Celtic holiday called Beltane, it celebrates fertility, and it is a day that workers throughout the world fight for fair treatment. Sometimes it is associated with Communism. So, where do we begin to unpack all that? To start with, May Day is a cross-quarter day (Groundhog Day and Halloween are two others). Cross-quarter days fall halfway between the solstices and equinoxes – the days that mark the change of seasons. Ancient Europeans believed that cross-quarter days allowed spirits of the dead and other supernatural beings into the human world, as can be seen in the Germanic Walpurgis Night (April 30-May 1). Although named after a saint (Walburga, d. Feb. 25, 779) Walpurgis Night has deep pre-Christian roots in northern Europe. It celebrates the coming of May, or summer, with huge bonfires lit at night. It Germany it was also called Witches’ Night (Hexennacht) because it was believed that witches gathered on Brocken mountain to await the coming of May. The Celtic May 1 is Beltane. For the Celts Beltane marked the start of summer and it was one of their two major holidays (the other comes around Halloween). Like the Germanic tribes, the Celts lit bonfires on Beltane. Druids would light two fires to purify those who would pass between them. In Ireland people would dress their windows and doors with May Boughs and would set up May Bushes. These were signs of the returning fertility of the earth. This tradition survives in parts of the United States in the form of the May Basket. May Baskets are filled with treats and are left at someone’s door. The tradition is to knock and run, but if you get caught, the gift recipient gets to kiss you! These days, however, an unexpected basket at the door is more likely to result in a call to the bomb squad, so let your sweetie know ahead of time if you plan to give a May Basket!

Today is Cinco de Mayo, and like most things Hispanic, it is misunderstood by many Angelos. Frequently Cinco de Mayo is represented as Mexico’s day of independence. What it actually commemorates, however, is a historic battle. Napoleon III’s French Army was in Mexico in 1862. These guys were in the state of Puebla where an outnumbered Mexican force under 33 year-old General Ignacio Zargoza actually beat them on May 5. In the States, Cinco de Mayo is becoming a day to showcase Mexican culture, kind of like St. Patrick’s Day is for Irish culture. The Battle of Puebla is not Mexico’s independence day – that falls on September 16 and often escapes notice in the United States.

And, of course, Sunday is Mother’s Day. People around the world celebrate their mothers at various times of the year, but many don’t realize that this holiday goes back to the ancient Near East. Cybele was an ancient goddess associated with all things motherly. Originally from the Levant, the Greeks and Romans believed her to have been from Turkey (Phrygia). She had a festival day at the vernal equinox. Although there is no direct connection with the date or form of our Mother’s Day, it is possible that this annual recognition of an exceptional mother gave people the idea for Mother’s Day. Whatever it ancient origins may have been, Mother’s Day as we know it started in the United States as a protest against the Civil War. Many women believed war to be wrong. During the Civil War Anna Jarvis organized Mothers’ Work Days (as if they didn’t already have enough to do!) to improve sanitation for both armies. Julia Ward Howe wrote the Mother’s Day Proclamation, which was a document calling for the end of the war. The idea was to unite women in protest and bring the conflict to a close. After the war ended Anna Jarvis’ daughter (who had the same name as her mother) campaigned for a memorial day for women. Because of her efforts, a Mother’s Day was celebrated in Grafton, West Virginia in 1908. After that various states began to observe Mother’s Day, and President Woodrow Wilson made it a national holiday in 1914, ironically the year the First World War began. It is celebrated on the second Sunday in May.

For whatever spirits, political ideals, or goddesses you admire, May is the appropriate time to celebrate.