It is the time of Samhain: summer’s end. Here in the Northern hemisphere the mellow light of late autumn is sharpened by a growing chill. As the darkness grows, through the increasingly bare branches we catch glimpses of breath-taking stars; Orion the Hunter heralds the changing season. We let go of warmth like trees shedding leaves. We watch the radiant reds and oranges turn brown. Drying leaves are nature’s parchment; the year has written its story upon them and now it lets them fall; their wisdom is layered into the mulch that will fuel countless cycles of life, death and rebirth. Toadstools feed on the damp forest floors; life grown out of decay. The frosts wither and Grandmother Winter breathes upon us her mist and fog. Her wildness lashes us in strong winds and stinging rain, and in floods her cold fingers find their way into our lives to remind us of her power to shake us down to our core. And yet her light is the gold of the low set sun and her clarity as vast as the blue skies of autumn. As life withdraws, we too draw inward to sit at winter’s hearth and watch the future played out in flame and silent thought.
As Pagans, this festival sees many of us honouring the Goddess as Ancient Crone of the Earth’s Release. As Mother of Shadows, her wisdom is deep as the black of a raven’s wing; as sharp as the crow’s call; as mysterious as the veil of mist that shimmers between this and the otherworld. She is the timeless serpent who sloughs to bring healing. We call to her as infinitely wise Grandmother, she who knows us better than we know ourselves. By her we are swallowed, down into the still darkness of winter, down into her Sacred Cauldron of Rebirth, where peaceful release, transformation and renewal await us. She is the Ancient Bone Mother. When life’s harsh lessons weather our spirits, her strength and endurance fill us. Rugged and timeless, her wildness inspire journeys into the remote and lonely places of our souls, for it is here that we find her, her face bright in the darkness – a torch through the moonless night; her knowing humour our sacred song of dark wisdom and mother wit.
Many also honour the God as Shadowed Lord of the Dead and Hunter of Souls. As all nature surrenders to the tides of release and the dying light, we recognise that he guides us to that dark place in the forest, that place where we let go of all we are; where the Earth Mother’s body opens to enfold us. We become yet another layer beneath the many layers, feeding the saplings that will grow upon the graves of leaf-fallen lives. Those who do not know him well can fear his shadowed face but there is deep compassion and tenderness beneath the seeming harshness. With him and through him we journey the cycle of the seasons – at Samhain he teaches us to trust in his season of release. As Lord of Death he serves the Goddess and all life in bringing us the perfect peace of surrender that leads to the ultimate renewal of life.
Samhain is the festival when we honour the Crone’s dark cloak of death. It is the time when its impenetrable blackness seems only a translucent veil; when the boundary between this world and the next is slight. We honour those who have passed over: those whom we have known and loved in this life but also those spirits, guides and ancestors who watch over us and bless our lives. We offer our hand to these loving ones that they might join us in our celebrations if they so wish. We feel ourselves most strongly a part of the greater mystery of life at this time.
There is a lovely prayer – written by Judith Anderson- that we use during our own Samhain ritual. We light an ancestor candle whilst someone speaks it. I really love it because it is written in the voice of the ancestors:
Re-member us, you who are living
Restore us, renew us
Speak for our silence
Continue our work
Bless the breath of life
Sing of the hidden patterns
Weave the web of peace.
Another image of the Goddess as Crone that, for me, strongly resonates with this time of year is the Sheela na Gig. Whatever her original meaning, for me she has become the Lady of the Sacred Gateway: Holy Womb and Tomb. She is the Ancient Ancestress who tirelessly births us all and takes us back into her Cauldron Belly. She dwells in all the liminal places and times: dawn and dusk; the edge of ocean and shore; the point between wakefulness and sleep; conscious and subconscious; between life and death; between this and the otherworld. At this time when the veil between the living and dead is so thin, she help us to stand in this in-between place; to learn something of her awesome mysteries; to feel the presence of those we love and know that they still dwell just beyond our senses. With her legs spread in humour and defiance, with her mischievous grin, she shows us the joy of paradox. She has one foot in this world and one foot in the mysterious other, teaching us that when we hold death and life within us, no longer seeing them as opposites, something in us cracks open, the waters break and flow and a new way of being and seeing can be born. She reminds me most powerfully that the Crone is the midwife of souls.
Samhain is a truly magical time. May this season of release tenderly transform each of us, preparing us for our coming renewal; tending us in our grieving and healing. May its lessons of surrender bring rest, peace and wisdom, a renewed strength and joy.