It’s that time of year again when we say goodbye to the summer and enter into the dark half of the year; Samhain roughly translates as “end of summer”. It is also the end of the year, or it used to be and the time when we officially end British summertime by turning the clocks back one hour and so truly sending us into darker months.
The Dark Goddess takes over the responsibility of looking after us, along with the Holly King; the Holly King and the Oak King having had their fight for supremacy and the Holly King having won the crown for now.
We will celebrate Hollantide (Hallowtide) in many ways on many days – we’re not satisfied with just one celebration, oh no, no! If there’s an excuse to celebrate more than once, the English will take it! Lets face it, our culture is rooted in rowdy drinking, feasting, celebrating and fighting – so, any opportunity to indulge and we’re there (though hopefully NOT the fighting…!)
Trick or Treat as we know it today didn’t really happen here until the eighties, after films such as Halloween had hit the cinemas; it’s a relatively new phenomenon really and certainly not liked by all who either see it as demanding goods with menace or else see it as an American bastardisation of our traditional hollowed out turnips and “souling”, that should have been left over there.
Prior to this, we had All Hallows Eve which the church imposed in the 7th century to try and oust the older, pagan customs of Samhain. Now, on All Hallows Eve it was the custom for children especially, to go from house to house begging for Soul Mass cakes, (souling) which were a type of oatcake and in return they would pray for the souls of those who had died during the year. The children would wear masks and carry hollowed out turnips with candles in them to scare off the ghosts of the earth-bound spirits that were believed to be abroad on this night, allowing the soulers to go about their business unmolested. In some villages, the fear of earth-bound spirits and malevolent earth spirits, hobgoblins and Wee Folk was so real, that people went in-doors at sunset, closed the doors and shutters and stayed there until morning, not daring to venture out unless in absolute emergencies.
The English were only too pleased to go along with this because if they were still adherents to the old ways, it allowed them to carry on their observances of honouring the dead without raising suspicion. The cunning folk of England were (and still are) wily buggers; the church thought it was replacing older customs and bringing the people into the new religion but all along the people were finding ways of carrying on under the very noses of the church. Because of the times of the witch-hunts and the times of the puritans, it became common-place among the cunning to observe dual faith; they would adopt the church festivals that had been imposed on their own but instead of praying to the new god, they quietly mouthed the names they gave to their own deities. They had no problem attending church services because most churches were built on ancient power sites anyway and it was the energy they were interested in, not the building. The churches even had a North door (known as the Devil’s Door) built into them to allow the “Heathens” to enter, thinking that once they were in, they would convert; the old folk just smiled as they’d got yet another one over the church because they had always entered their sacred sites from the North and the church had very nicely accommodated their cultural heritage again. Whilst attending services and being seen to honour the new festivals, they kept suspicion of witchcraft away from themselves and so it worked quite well.
There has always been a tradition of honouring the Ancestors in Britain. It is believed to have started with the Hyperboreans that are supposed to have inhabited these isles before the Druids and then was carried on by the Druids themselves. The ancestors have a unique view from the world of spirit and so have much significant knowledge to share with us. They are also the repository of ancient, tribal and lineage knowledge that is passed down to us through the ages, for fear of it being forgotten and lost. We have carried on this tradition right into modern times through various avenues and guises.
So, Samhain was our old New Years Eve, the time when the dark returned and the night of the year when the veil between the worlds is thinnest and so allowing the souls of the dead to return. But it was not originally on October the 31st, it was originally on November 11th; it only changed dates with the introduction of the modern calendar. But we at WytchenWood will set an extra place at the dinner table on Thursday 31st October and welcome the ancestors and those recently passed-over to come and join us. We will play the traditional games of conkers and apple-bobbing, followed by love divinations with the apple peels and the candle in the mirror. Young girls used to go out into the garden or fields just before midnight to see the wraith of their future husband; they would pick a cabbage on the stroke of midnight, at which point the wraith would appear. Or they might pick nine sage leaves on the first nine strokes of the witching hour for the same outcome. If the girl was not destined to marry, she would see a coffin instead. Another custom around these parts was death divination. People would pick ivy leaves and write the names of family and friends on them, one name per leaf and then put them in water overnight. The next morning, the leaves would be examined for coffin-like marks on the leaves and the person whose name was on that leaf was said to be destined to die before the year was out. Then at the end of the evening, we will leave food outside for the spirits that come passing by, as we wouldn’t want to risk causing any offence to them.
All Hallows Eve started to decline however as the Catholic church declined and so we needed another outlet for our “Heathen” practices. Thankfully a chap called Guido Fawkes supplied just the occasion; he tried to blow up parliament in 1605 on November the 5th and gave us an excuse to have huge bonfires, burning effigies and fireworks in commemoration. This worked even better because we could return to the yearly tradition of having fires lit, dancing around them and passing livestock and the ill through the smoke to rid them all baneful energies and bring in health, luck and even fertility. The feasting began again and so did the drinking and again, all without raising suspicion of what we were really up to. We still love our Bonfire Night on the 5th November and we climb the holy hills, eat drink and be merry around a blazing fire where we work our magic and make ready for the coming year. We also welcome the ancestors to come and join in the festivities and be merry along with us. So all of us at WytchenWood Towers will be off to another fun gathering around a huge fire on the 5th November.
But then comes the real night of Samhaim; November 11th, the date before the calendars were changed. In modern society it is still recalled as the night of the dead in it’s modern epithet of Armistice Day or Remembrance Day when we commemorate the armistice signed by the Allies and Germany at the end of World War One and honour all of those that fell. This is when we at Wytchenwood shall really celebrate Samhain and our Ancestors according to our family tradition. This is when we shall truly work magic and celebrate the ending of one year and the beginning of the new year. The rites on this night will be the solemn rites appropriate for the time of year and all that it signifies. We shall welcome and converse with the Ancestors of the tribe, the land and the locality. We shall divine for knowledge that will see us through the coming year and we will honour and thank the Ancestors for their guidance and care. This is the night of true magic, witchcraft and the Sabbat!