Samhain and Remembrance

Poppies in the sunset on Lake Geneva

Poppies in the sunset on Lake Geneva (Wikipedia)

The Pagan festivals are less about a single day when we reflect on or celebrate a particular aspect of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, and more about the the high watermark of the ebb and flow of a tide of energy.

The build up to Samhain has been intense this year, with the Patheos Pagan Ancestor Remembrance Project, and I really enjoyed dialoguing with Aliza Worthington from the Jewish channel, and hope that other similar collaborations between Patheos writers can happen in the future.

Aliza’s final post on the theme of ancestors and remembering her grandpa was about dreams. I have also dreamed of my grandparents. I dreamt of them in the mountains of the Summerlands (the Wiccan afterlife). They seemed happy. Aliza reflected on how dreams of one’s beloved dead seem like extra time with them. It certainly felt that way when I dreamt about my cat Harry, who died in 2011. In the dream, he rubbed his head on my hand, just like he did in life, and it was a really special dream.

This year I had the privilege of attending a friend’s Samhain ritual, and one very powerful aspect of it was going alone to the ancestor altar to commune with our beloved dead. Mine came rushing to meet me and I found it very moving. Afterwards there was a shared meal and we all put food on a plate for the ancestors, who had their own place at the table.

I didn’t make my own ancestor altar in the end, or visit the graves of any of my beloved dead, but I did focus on them and think about them.

I am glad to see that the Wiccan community is currently fundraising for a gravestone for one of our beloved dead and founders, Eleanor Bone. This is particularly appropriate since it was Eleanor who raised funds to ensure that Gerald Gardner had a gravestone (he is buried in Tunis).

Eleanor “Ray” Bone is a prominent figure in the history of Wicca. She was an initiate of Gerald B. Gardner and for many decades Eleanor was the High Priestess of a coven in London. She is often known as the Matriarch of European Wicca, because most Gardnerian initiates in Europe trace their roots to Ray Bone’s coven.

Remembering and honouring the dead is really important in a number of religious traditions. These are the people that made us who we are, shaping our lives and the world around us. If it wasn’t for the pioneers of Wicca, there would be no Wiccan tradition.

But the season of remembrance is not at an end. The tide of Samhain ebbs until it rises again as the tide of rebirth at Yule. And on the way to the turning of the tide, there is Remembrance Day on 11 November. I don’t know how many Pagans actually do ritual for 11 November, but I am sure many of us will be wearing poppies – red, white, or mauve, or all three.  The red poppy focuses on remembering veterans, though some fear that it is being used to glorify war. The white poppy focuses on promoting peace. The mauve poppy is in remembrance of animals killed in war. I was glad to find, a few years ago, a memorial to animals killed in war on Park Lane in London.

A few years ago I had the privilege of leading a service for Remembrance Sunday in a Unitarian church, and I focused on the sorrow of war, and the need to work for peace, but also the paradox that war can give rise to heroism too.

I wonder why we as Pagans don’t create rituals for remembrance of the victims of war? Is it because Samhain is such an intense experience that we don’t feel the need? Is it because some remembrance services seem to glorify war? Or is it because we don’t have the confidence (or the opportunity) to create public rituals for the whole community?


Beloved dead

As I explained in my previous post, ancestors don’t have to be family members who have died – they can be people you feel connected with through place, community, and religion.

Harold James Aburrow – family ancestor

My grandpa originally came from Petersfield in Hampshire. The family story was that we are descended from, or related to, the cricketing Aburrows of Hambledon, but family history research has not found any direct connection. Nevertheless, Aburrow is an unusual name, and is very concentrated in and around Hampshire when you look at the maps for the 1881 and 1991 census, so we may well be related. My great-grandfather was a grocer in Hambledon, and had a van which travelled around the area; the family joke was that he was a barrow-boy, but his grocer’s van was a little grander than that. My grandpa had a painting in the stairwell of his house which was done by great-uncle Allan and was a copy of a painting of lions thought to be by Edwin Landseer (the guy who made the lion sculptures in Trafalgar Square). Many years later, I saw a copy of the Landseer painting in a pub in Lancaster. The pub was called the Golden Lion, but was known locally as the Whittle (as that was its original name).

In the one photo that I have of my grandpa, he is in the garden, holding a tray of seed potatoes. I think he liked gardening. I remember going with my grandparents to collect leaf-mould from the common woodland. I used to sit in the kitchen with him and play Hangman (the word game). We used to run round the house singing “Yeah, yeah, yeah” in imitation of the Beatles. He used to share his Trebor Mints with me (you can’t get that kind any more, sadly). One of his sayings was “waste not, want not”. And I have a very dim and distant memory of sitting on his lap and being told a story. My grandparents had a coal fireplace and I used to like to watch the blue and green flames of the sea coal. They had a tabby-cat called Smokey.  I remember high tea at my grandparents’ house, with Marmite, and watercress, and malt loaf, and Battenberg cake. Possibly not all in the same meal.

Why so few memories of my grandpa? Because my parents grew up in the Exclusive Brethren, and left that group in 1976. This meant that my grandparents were forbidden to have any contact with us after we had left. I only found out by accident in 1996 that my grandpa had died. I wonder what he would have thought of this blogpost. A few years after that, I had a dream of my grandpa and grandma among mountains, in the Summerlands. They seemed happy. I have also thought of them many times since at Samhain.

Ursula Fanthorpe – ancestor of spirit

There is a wonderful eulogy to Ursula Fanthorpe from her life-long partner, Rosie Bailey. I feel connected to Ursula Fanthorpe for several reasons – being a poet, being LGBT, and having lived in and loved some of the same places – I have lived in Bristol, Oxford, and Lancaster, and she spent time in all three. We both also gave up teaching. She wrote a wonderful poem about Stanton Drew, where I have spent many happy times. She also wrote a great poem about Pomona and Vertumnus, which is one of my favourite stories from Roman mythology. Her poetry was that rarest of things, popular with the public and critically acclaimed. And some of it is very funny, like Reindeer Report and her other Christmas poems.

Thomas Bodley – ancestor of place

Oxford would be a very different place if Thomas Bodley had not founded the Bodleian Library. I have always loved libraries – they are like ocean liners bearing the freight of knowledge across the dark sea of time. Bodley was a Protestant and a childhood friend of Nicholas Hilliard, the miniaturist. He loved languages and learnt Greek and Hebrew. He revived Duke Humfrey’s Library (which had been stripped and abandoned during the Reformation) and encouraged friends to donate books to the library by inscribing their names in a handsome vellum book; he also formed an agreement with the Stationers’ Company to send him a copy of every book they printed; this was the origin of the idea of a copyright library. If you visit Oxford, be sure to include a visit to Duke Humfrey’s library, part of the Bodleian.

Madge Worthington – Wiccan ancestor

I was lucky enough to meet Madge Worthington at her 90th birthday party. It was a lovely occasion and she was clearly enjoying herself. The photo in the linked-to page was taken at that party. As well as being a great witch who loved the Goddess of the Craft, Madge loved animals, was active in the Green Party, and loved to dance. She also had a great fondness for Battenberg cake, so I always think of her when I eat it. I have always liked it too. There are many strands of the Whitecroft tradition all around the world. The one I belong to is quite interested in folklore and folk tales, and I think Madge was too.

Ancestor Remembrance Project

This post is part of an Ancestor Remembrance Project, and I am partnering with Aliza Worthington from the Jewish tradition, and both of us are remembering our grandfathers.


Why remember ancestors?

It is good to know where we came from, and to honour those who struggled to give us the freedoms that we have today – freedom to love, live, laugh, and learn.

“To acknowledge our ancestors means we are aware that we did not make ourselves, that the line stretches all the way back, perhaps to God; or to Gods. We remember them because it is an easy thing to forget: that we are not the first to suffer, rebel, fight, love and die. The grace with which we embrace life, in spite of the pain, the sorrow, is always a measure of what has gone before. ”
― Alice Walker

I don’t think we owe it to the ancestors to behave in a certain way, or to live in a particular place ― but we do owe it to them to remember their struggles and their achievements. Without the feminists, queers, Dissenters, Pagans, and many others who struggled for freedom and rights, we would not have those rights and freedoms today.

Ancestors of blood, spirit, and place

What is an ancestor? First, and most obviously, it is someone from whom you are genetically descended. If you go back far enough, of course, your ancestors multiply exponentially and you could be descended from anyone. You can even have your genome mapped now, so you can see where your ancestors came from generations back. Some Druids refer to family ancestors as “ancestors of blood”. Focussing exclusively on “ancestors of blood” can be problematic if your ancestors were in the habit of colonising and subjugating other peoples (which is true for just about everyone who is of European descent).

Ancestor fan chart

A family tree

An ancestor may also be someone from the past whom you admire or feel an affinity with. Perhaps they were an activist for a cause you support (feminism, LGBT rights) or created beautiful art or literature, or made an amazing discovery in the sciences. Some Druids refer to these ancestors as “ancestors of spirit”.

An ancestor may also be someone who lived in the place where you live now (no matter where your family came from originally). Some Druids call these “ancestors of place”. If you are a descendant of people who colonised a region, then the concept of “ancestors of place” needs to be treated with considerable sensitivity. And if you are a descendant of people who were persecuted by the inhabitants of the country where you live, then you might not feel like honouring ancestors of place – though some of them might have been defenders instead of persecutors.

The Beloved Dead

In many forms of witchcraft, including Reclaiming, Feri, and Wicca, there is the concept of honouring witches who have died, especially at Samhain. In Reclaiming and Feri, they are called the Beloved Dead. These may also include non-Craft family members who have died.

Companion animals

Companion animals who have passed on can also be remembered at Samhain. I remember the cats our family had as a child, Shandy and Spicy, and my cat who died in 2011, Harry.

Previous incarnations

If you have a clear idea of who you were in previous incarnations, you could also honour your previous lives as ancestors.

Beliefs about life after death

Most Pagans believe in reincarnation, with a period of rest in the spirit world between incarnations. In Wicca, the region where the dead go is referred to as the Summerlands.  Some of the dead are believed to stay in the spirit world to watch over other Wiccans, or their families.

Samhain and ancestors

At Samhain (31 October), many Pagan traditions believe that the veil between the worlds is thin, and that the Beloved Dead can visit this world. Rituals are held for people to connect with the Beloved Dead. This can include putting up pictures of them or creating a shrine for them; reading the names of all those who have died since the last Samhain (this is done by Reclaiming witches); meditating and communing with them; and setting a place for them at the feast.

Every Samhain, I take the opportunity to commune with my friends, fellow witches, and family who have died, and to tell others about their lives. It is a beautiful ritual, and important to remember those who have passed on. There is a saying in the Reclaiming tradition: “What is remembered, lives.”

Jewish remembrance customs

Judaism has some very well-developed remembrance customs for the bereaved, with stages of mourning, and the recitation of  the mourners’ Kaddish prayer, and the marking of the Yahrtzeit (the anniversary of the death).

The Yad Vashem remembrance project, “Unto Every Person There is a Name” also attaches considerable importance to remembering and reciting the names of those who died in the Holocaust, and filling in their biographical details. 

Patheos Pagan ancestor project

The Patheos Pagan Ancestor Remembrance Project has been set up by Christine Hoff Kraemer, who writes:

My vision for the project is this: Partners get to know each other via e-mail or phone, and the Pagan partner shares a bit about his/her ancestor practice. The two of them together create a practice for October that feels doable for the non-Pagan, which might involve journaling, building a meditation altar of family pictures, researching family stories, visiting a gravesite, or preparing a special meal where family members are honored — there are lots of options, and the Pagan partner is there to help the non-Pagan find something that will work for them.
Next, we’d like the partners to do three blog posts about their ancestor remembrance practices and the experience of working together during the month of October. If the practice chosen is ongoing, you might do one post a week; if you choose a one-night event, like a special dinner, the posts might be closer together (reflecting on preparing for the event and the event itself). The partners will link to each other’s posts, and ideally also to the Public Square landing page, which should be up in the second half of October.

I will be working with Aliza Worthington from the Jewish channel, who blogs at The Worthington Post. [update: Her blogpost, about her grandfather, explains her approach to this project.]

My ancestors

I plan to focus on some specific people for my ancestor project. My family member will be my grandpa, Harold James Aburrow. My “ancestor of spirit” is a bit harder to choose – I have an entire Pinterest board of people whom I admire. But I think I will focus on U A Fanthorpe, since I am a poet and so was she. My chosen “ancestor of place” is Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library, because libraries are really important, and I used to work there. My chosen Wiccan ancestor  is Madge Worthington, founder of the Whitecroft line.

I will remember them by creating a shrine for them in my home, researching their biographies, and visiting their graves (if known). I may not be able to visit their graves during October, but I will try to do so during the next year. I will also hold either an ancestor ritual or a dumb supper.