The period from the end of October into early November has long been a special time in our part of the northern hemisphere.
In the Roman Catholic church, 1st November is All Saints’ day. For the pre-Christian inhabitants of the British Isles it was known as Samhain, the time when the veil between the seen and unseen worlds grows thin. It marks the mid-point between the September equinox, when the sun starts to shine overhead in the southern hemisphere, and the December solstice, when it shines overhead at its southernmost point, the Tropic of Capricorn.
In the temperate zones, between the tropics and the arctic and antarctic circles, the planet seems to express itself in fours. Dawn, dusk, day and night. Spring, summer, autumn, winter. 1st November (or thereabouts) marks the start of the quarter of the year when the Sun is lowest in the sky, when everything grows misty. We leave behind the time of sharp outward expression and turn inwards.
It is the day when the northern hemisphere steps into the darkest quarter of the year. We enter the Underworld, the mysterious place where all is no longer obvious.
Picture yourself outside on a warm sunny day. Look around you. The strong sunlight gives sharp edges to everything. Even the shadows are strongly defined. All is fixed, all is on show. We wear bright summer colours. Summer is a time of display, of expression, of externalising. A person knows where they are in this high-definition time.
With 1st November, we enter into the other side of that world. All now becomes fluid. In the dim light and mist of autumn days and the longer nights, what was blocked out by the strength of the sunlight can now impinge on our consciousness. Instead of the definitive world of summer, this is a time where uncertainty comes to the fore. What is that shape in the mist? And the very uncertainty allows other realms to make themselves known.
In that context, it makes sense that in many cultures around the world, this is a time to welcome back the dead; to adorn the graves of deceased family members, to set a place for them at the meal table, for example. The most well-known such festival is probably the Dia de los Muertes, the Day of the Dead in Mexico.
Not only is this a time to make connection with family members who have transitioned into the Underworld. Other beings can also engage with us. The Boyhood Deeds of Finn Mac Cumhaill*, an Irish legend, tells of the dealings he had with the fairies at the time of Samhain. In other words, as the Sun steps back the land can come to life. We move into a magical time where stories can be told, songs can be sung, dreams can be pondered. It is an interior time, a time to stay indoors with the bright fire in front of us and the cold, dark, outside world around us. The old certainties melt away, allowing a review inside ourselves, with the promise of renewal in the cycle that is yet to make itself known but will surely come after the winter.
There is another aspect to this time. It is the last of the harvest festivals. Traditionally in northern Europe, the animals were brought back from the fields, and those that would not be fed through the winter were killed, their meat prepared and preserved. Fruits which are best harvested after a frost, such as rosehips and sloes, are gathered. Sweet chestnuts also ripen now. So it is a time to decide what stays outside and what comes in, to be kept through the winter. For the Irish Celts, it was a time of gathering and feasting, maybe to eat all of the meat which could not be preserved. It was also a time of renewal of agreements, of lawmaking: another expression of leaving behind what is not to be carried forward into the next cycle.
And things rot. The trees shed their leaves, making a soggy mess on the ground. Mushrooms appear in the damp grass. Nature also is taking in stores and jettisoning what is not needed for the cold time ahead.
For us humans, it is a time to be vigilant. The cyclical phase of endings, of falling away is powerful. If we are not careful we can become subject to it too. It is up to us to select what it is that we want to go forward with, through the winter and into the new year. The watchword is CLEAN. Clean the house, the backs of the shelves and behind the cupboards. Food packets that are well past their sell-by date, cobwebs that the spiders have long left behind: now is the time for them to go. A time to remind ourselves what is important, where our centre of gravity is, what we want to be with.
With that settlement, we can stay warm and dry and well-fed in the dark days ahead.
Given all this, I can understand the proliferation of scary stories and loud noises at Hallowe’en, but it seems not the best use of this special, liminal time.
* Extract from The Boyhood Deeds of Finn Mac Cumhaill:
Now, when Finn was there between them, on Samain night, be saw the two fairy-mounds opened around him, even the two strongholds, their ramparts having vanished before them. And be saw a great fire in either of the two strongholds; and he heard a voice from one of them, which said: “Is your sweet-root good?”
“Good, indeed!” said a voice in the other fairy-mound.
“Question: shall anything be taken from us to you?”
“If that be given to us, something will be given to you in return.” While Finn was there he saw a man coming out of the fairy-mound. A kneading-trough was in his hand with a pig upon it, and a cooked calf, and a bunch of wild garlic upon it. The time was Samain.