With Halloween a week away, and Alex Mar's quasi-memoir Witches of America hitting the stores, now is a good time to check in with some real witches.
Halloween is also known as Samhain (sow-in) and dates back 2,000 years to the ancient Celts. The season celebrates the end of the harvest and start of the coldest half of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. It is a time to honor death and decay, but it is also a time of rebirth.
This year for Samhain I will be producing a public ritual with well-known witch Starhawk in Los Angeles. The event got me thinking: I wondered how other Pagans and witches on the West Coast will be celebrating? So, I asked some magical friends to share their Samhain plans. Their answers might surprise you:
On Samhain I usually participate in a private ritual with the small coven I am in. Samhain is such a personal time of the year for me as it is my mother's birthday and she died almost 6 years ago. This year she would have been 66 years old and I celebrate her by recreating some of the rituals she did on the weekend of Samhain. I bless and honor the ancestor altar where her ashes sit, I engage in ritual, and I give candy away to the children in the neighborhood.
Honoring my ancestors is a very important part of my practice. While I do this on an ongoing basis, Samhain is one of the times during the year where communication is easier with the spirit world. I look forward to this time of year, and even though it is often a bit challenging and sad, it is a chance to reconnect with my mom.
First and always, Samhain is about the ancestors. Each year I clean and redress my Ancestor altar. I look at their faces and see myself. I hold pocket watches or rings or treasured artifacts that belonged to them. I sing songs they knew. I call out their names and tell their stories. I talk with them, ask questions and sit quietly listening for answers. This sitting with them, this remembering them, is part of what makes me a witch and gives meaning to the work I do in the world.
Then there's the rituals! Ancestor dinners, where we dress in our ritual finest and eat sumptuous foods hailing form the places and cultures of our ancestors. Private Samhain gatherings. Public rituals with more than a hundred local witches dancing, singing, and recalling our beloved dead and the dead of our Craft. And finally, I join with more than a thousand Pagans, witches, and world-changers for the massive, 36th annual Spiral Dance in San Francisco.
Samhain is perhaps the strangest of the sacred days I observe, and the one least easy to describe. I always find it amusing when my friends ask me my plans for Samhain, expecting either some deep private ritual or public observance. Much of my practice already involves work with the dead -- I worship several gods who stand on the threshold of life and death, so Samhain is merely another "gate" through which we interact. I also interact increasingly often with the "revolutionary dead" -- spirits of anarchists, labor activists, rebels, heretics, and anti-capitalist theorists, and there's a strong connection between them and the gate of Samhain.
It's said "Beltane is for the dead as Samhain is for the living," and it's fascinating that major revolutionary moments have been tied to both European sacred-days. Both days also have histories of 'misrule' and public raucousness, particularly because they're both days the dead and living carouse together. So, in the drunken trick-or-treating of the cities during Halloween is that same anti-authoritarian current (unfortunately channeled through commercialism) as seen at Beltane. But what precisely will I do this Samhain? Last year I went to a debauched wedding during which I helped lead a suicide to Hecate; this year I may just hang with dead Wobblies and Karl Marx.
Rev. Dr. Karen Tate (Venice, CA)
Author, Host of Voices of the Sacred Feminine Radio
At Samhain I check in with myself and see how I feel -- if I 'm feeling celebratory or want to participate within the community I'll attend a public Samhain ritual. But if I'm seeking guidance or feeling like going within, I'll steer toward a more private ritual, alone or with my closest friends.
I also think Samhain is an opportunity for social justice activism. I remember not just my loved ones who have passed, but also women and men who have dedicated their lives to making the world a better place or have suffered and even died due to patriarchal oppression and exploitation. People who were victims of the Inquisition or suffragettes. People who have died or suffered to help others have a better quality of life. It is important we remember these foremothers and wayshowers and not take for granted their efforts, dedication to humanity, or their accomplishments.
Ravyn Stanfield (Portland, OR)
Educator, Writer, Acupuncturist
For me, Samhain is a time of reckoning and reflection with the ancestors, whether family, teachers, or the inspirational beings who walked before us. It is a time to ask them to return to remind us that we are surrounded by hands and arms we cannot see. This year, at our public gathering in Portland, we will also meditate on our animal ancestors, tracing the evolution from the sea and the trees to our upright contemporary forms.
At this time of year, I love to release the rational, mechanistic mindset I need for much of my life. The ancestors remind me that I can be an everyday kind of hero. The possibilities are endless for us to change what is at stake in these times. My ancestors whisper that I must not die of a broken heart. Maybe I will never know what impact my actions may have. When I embrace the love of my ancestors, hope comes to life, it is a dare to discharge my despair about the world and keep going.
Ember (Seattle, WA)
Priestess, Writer, Storyteller
This year, for Samhain, I decided to face an old fear. I mean, what kind of witch is afraid of the dark? I was deep in the redwoods on a four-day Pagan retreat. At night it was so dark you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. I decided that the best way to use the magic of Samhain would be to sleep outside, by myself, in the center of a hollowed redwood stump. I prayed to the ancestors to give me courage and to the spirit of Raven, which is prolific in those woods. I didn't sleep much the first night, but I stayed, and something changed in me and I began to feel strong... in the dark.
Back in Seattle, this October 31 my seven-year-old son and I will celebrate by making a potion (his word!) of elderberry and rosehips to face the coming cold season. We'll ask for the blessings of the ancestors and the dark as we do it. My circle is having a ritual, but instead I will follow him into the night as he joins the hordes of costumed sugar seekers, and I will hear the owls and the wind in the trees of our urban neighborhood and I will not be afraid.
If you are in Southern California and want to celebrate Samhain early with Laurie Lovekraft and Starhawk, join them for a Spiral Dance & Community Workshop at the Fais Do Do Ballroom, Saturday, October 24.