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Exploring Myth, Divination and the Western Mysteries.

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Thursday 31 October 2013

Of Night and Day: Samhain Eve

Grandmother Wisdom, open the door,
Grandfather Counsel, come you in.
Let there be welcome to the ancient lore,
Let there be welcome to the Winter of the Year.
In cold and darkness you are travelling,
Under crystal skies you will arrive.
May the blessed time of Samhain
Clarify the soul of all beings,
Bringing joy and wisdom to revelation.
From the depths to the heights,
From the heights to the depths,
In the cave of every soul.
- Threshold Invocation for the Festival of Samhain
(to be said at the front door of the house on the eve of Samhain, 
 in the evening) from Celtic Devotional by CM.

Samhain (Gaelic for Summer's End and pronounced SOW'hen) begins at fall of dark on 31st October, tonight. Why the eve? Because a period of 24 hours began for the Celtic peoples at dusk, not dawn. This is confirmed by Julius Caesar in his The Gallic Wars (Caesar, DBG 6.18): 'All the Gauls assert that they are descended from the god Dis, and say that this tradition has been handed down by the Druids. For that reason they compute the divisions of every season, not by the number of days, but of nights; they keep birthdays and the beginnings of months and years in such an order that the day follows the night.'
          This manner of seeing night as the first half, and day as the following half of a 24 hour period was retained within the Catholic Church wherein the eve of a feast day is still celebrated at fall of dark.  We see similar celebration of the Jewish Sabbath, which has many laws to help one determine when the Sabbath actually begins, so that the devout do not violate the commandment to rest and not work. All Celtic festivals have the same occurrence: they initiate only at fall of dark, not at dawn.
          But who was Dis Pater? His name literally means 'Rich Father.’ He was an independent Roman god of the underworld who later was taken under the general umbrella of Hades or Pluto. Due to interpretatio romana, by which the Romans associated any other people's god with one of their own, we can only know that this Gaulish divinity was ‘like Pluto,’ but we don’t have a Gaul name, only this Roman title because Caesar made an association between the divinity he knew and a Gaulish one.
          Why would a god of the underworld be ‘a rich father?’ The ground beneath our feet is full of ores, minerals, gems and so, by association, any underworldly divinity, the Romans understood, would be bounteously wealthy. We might make our own native association between Dis Pater and the being in the Grail legends known as the Rich Fisherman, or the Grail King, who presides over an otherworldly feast at which the sacred objects or Hallows are processed.  Taking the theme of the perpetual ancestral feast further back, we arrive at Bran the Blessed, the titanic hero of the second branch of the Mabinogi, Branwen ferch Llyr, who oversees a feast that goes on for many years.  His wounding in the thigh leads to him becoming a deeper divinity who moves into the underworld, keeping the Entertainment of the Noble Head.  This same back projection happens to Arthur, who also removes to the otherworld in a condition of woundedness but not death. In many senses, he takes over from Bran as the one who is host at the ancestral feast.
          Several Celtic scholars have attempted to identify Dis Pater within Celtic pantheons: the Irish god of the dead, Donn mac Miled whose residence Tech Donn (House of Donn) is at the extreme westerly end of the Beare peninsula in South West Ireland where the dead live with him.  Caesar himself associated Cernunnos with Dis Pater: he certainly appears to preside over the dead upon the Gundestrup cauldron, itself an emblem of extravagant feasting, where the perpetual feast of the dead is upkept.
          How do we maintain honour and respect for this feast? A clue is given to us by Tertullian in his De Anima, from the writings of Nicander of Colophon of the 2nd century BCE. He tells us that, ‘it is often alleged because of night-time dreams that the dead truly appear, for the Nasamones receive special oracles by staying the tombs of their parents… The Celts also for the same reason spend the night near the tombs of their famous men.’  This communion with the ancestors is a real vigil whereby we sit overnight at the tombs in order to frame questions for divination or else to commune with the spirits of our forebears.           Going first to the sources of strength and honour is what gives us strength. In all spiritual work, it is the very first thing we do: to fill up our own cracks with the loving power of those who have not only survived as names and presences of honour, but who have undergone the sufferings of life and transmuted them into wisdom.
          So I wonder, this year, is it possible for us to celebrate the living ancestors and not to have a gore-fest over dead remains of ancestors? The horror genre does not belong to this festival and only arose due to the Reformation when we stopped praying for the dead in Europe.  Ancestors are like us. They loved, hoped, sat round the hearth, mourned their dear ones. Excluded ancestors can be scary because their pain overlaps our own lives: however, when we invite them to our hearth shrine, we begin to feel less abandoned ourselves.  
            It is the unmoving, lingering pain of ancestors who are stuck out of time that causes the horror and so why not do something about it? In his book, Images of the Soul, Dutch shaman, Daan van Kampenhout suggests this prayer whenever we encounter the pain of forebears: ‘Your pain is from the past. All that caused it has stopped now. Behind these tears is the pure strength of your soul. The soul is healthy and free, the suffering was only there when you lived, and now you live in spirit, so the pain has ended.’ Unless we actually address the excluded ancestors, then dawn will never arrive for them or for us.
          Let's try a different way and see what changes this Hallowe'en so that we can say this prayer with heartfelt joy:

           I am the hallow-tide of all souls passing,
              I am the bright releaser of all pain,
           I am the quickener of the fallen seed-case,
          I am the glance of snow, the strike of rain.
             I am the hollow of the winter twilight,
           I am the hearth-fire and the welcome bread,
            I am the curtained awning of the pillow,
              I am unending wisdom's golden thread.

                             - Song of Samhain from Celtic Devotional by CM.