Pagan festivals

Pagan festivals (and traditional, Indigenous, Earth-based festivals around the world) are mostly about the cycles of the year. If you were a pastoralist, you had times when the sheep went up to the high pasture and times when they came down again. If you were a grower of crops, your cycle of festivals revolved around when you planted the crops and harvested them. There were times of plenty and times of hunger. Festivals marked the end of one phase and the beginning of another.

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Halloween and Samhain

The season of Halloween is fast approaching, and with it, the opening of several different silly seasons. It’s the season for racists to dress as caricatures of other ethnic groups. It’s the season for journalists to find the gothiest witches they can, and write dramatic articles about them. And it’s the season for spooky films on TV, and (gods help us all) pumpkin spice latte.

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An inclusive wheel of the year

Some versions of the Wheel of the Year (the eight festivals of Wicca and Druidry) can feel excluding, particularly those that focus on the God and the Goddess interacting through the cycle of the seasons. This mythological construct excludes both polytheists and LGBTQIA people. Some versions of the story are uncomfortable for feminists, as they don’t exactly promote consent culture. It is worth noting that the “cycle of the God and the Goddess” doesn’t appear in any early Gardnerian Books of Shadows (e.g. November Eve, 1949, February Eve, 1949, May Eve, 1949, August Eve, 1949). The solstices and equinoxes were added to the Wiccan year-wheel in the 1950s.

For all sorts of reasons, then, I prefer to go back to the original mythology and symbolism associated with the festivals.

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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?


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Ancestor Work: It’s Not Always About “Honoring”

Image by Tairy Greene via Shutterstock

Image by Tairy Greene via Shutterstock

Happy Samhain and Happy Halloween to those who celebrate them! Here on the Patheos Pagan channel, we’re just wrapping up a month-long series on ancestor remembrance. Our Pagan writers produced dozens of thoughtful articles on connecting with ancestors. Additionally, some of our writers teamed up with writers from the Progressive Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Spirituality channels to do ancestor remembrance practices in tandem. I hope in the future we can do more projects like this to form meaningful cross-channel relationships. (The Patheos Public Square focused on remembering the dead this month too — check it out!)

In listening to all these conversations about ancestor work, I wanted to address an objection that often comes up around this topic.

“I don’t like my ancestors. Some of them, in fact, were execreble human beings — rapists and abusers, slaveholders and architects of genocide. I don’t want to honor them, or remember them, or acknowledge their existence at all.”

This is a fair and valid objection. Some of us need to set boundaries between ourselves and our ancestors in the same way that we might need to set boundaries between ourselves and abusive family members. Not all of us will be reconciled with estranged families in our lifetimes, and sometimes keeping distance is the best possible strategy for managing the trauma of the past and the ongoing danger of the present.

Many Pagans who prefer not to honor ancestors of blood focus on ancestors of spirit — mentors or historical figures with whom they have affinity — or beloved dead, friends or adoptive family who have crossed over. Some also honor ancestors of place, those who lived on the land where they now live (and these ancestors may be animal, not human). Our ancestor remembrance project includes several examples of these kinds of ancestors; I’ve particularly enjoyed Nornoriel Lokason’s memorializing of Harvey Milk and Helen Keller and Lupa Greenwolf’s letter to her non-human ancestors.

Other Pagans approach their ancestors of blood by accepting their flaws and focusing on their strengths. This can feel like a more authentic way to honor a dead family member with whom the relationship was conflicted and difficult. Although the article deals with a spiritual ancestor rather than one of blood, Cat Chapin-Bishop’s remembrance of Ann Putnam is a good example of how one might work with a problematic ancestor around themes of redemption.

These kinds of ancestor work still focus on honoring the dead, however; and for anyone who is just beginning ancestor work, honoring is the best and easiest place to start. But ancestor work is not always about remembering the positive. Sometimes, it can be about demanding justice, making reparations, or healing wounds.

My line of witchcraft considers itself “traditional” — a slippery and much-contested word, but here meaning something like “witchcraft that deals primarily in relationships with the land and its inhabitants in various states of embodiment.” As I was taught witchcraft, deepening relationship with the ancestral line is a key element of our work — and if no relationship exists, we must restore it to come fully into our power. So what do we do if the ancestral line is blood-soaked, broken, twisted with hatred, wounded?

The short answer is that we engage the ancestral line where we have direct access to it — beginning with its endpoint, our own embodied selves. Whatever we have inherited from our ancestors that burdens or wounds us, we work to make it right: to atone for our ancestors’ wrongdoing with just action, or to heal grief that our grandmothers and grandfathers carried to their graves. It’s slow work, often painful; and it is not work I would recommend to everyone. There are a thousand ways to deepen spiritually and serve community, and not everyone’s path will lead them to dig into the past this way.

For those who are called to work with their ancestors, especially those who are trying to resolve an inherited spiritual burden, I can recommend an excellent mundane tool. If you have access to family stories, either through family members or through genealogical research, it can be enormously helpful to make a genogram, a tool often used in family systems therapy. A genogram is a kind of family tree that also records major life events (such as illnesses, career changes, etc.) and important aspects of family relationships (strained or very close connections, for example). The results can reveal a pattern that persists over generations, or behaviors in later generations that represent clear reactions to events that occurred before they were born. A genogram can help uncover issues that need to be addressed, and it may even identify specific ancestors who need help in healing, who need to be confronted for crimes, or who may be of aid in either process.

The process of healing one’s ancestral line will be different based on the situation, and it is probably best undertaken for the first time under the guidance of someone experienced in ancestor work. Readers may also find Laura Patsouris’ short book Weaving Memory to be helpful. From personal experience, I can say that to successfully resolve an issue in one’s ancestral line can be an enormous relief that reverberates throughout one’s life. Ancestor work allowed me to shift complexes that years of other spiritual practices and healing modalities had failed to touch.

Ancestor practice that goes beyond honoring can be heavy work. Happily, not every Samhain celebration needs to be about confronting family traumas. My ancestor practice tonight will be to dress up my little one in an adorable monster costume and take him to hand out candy to local trick-or-treaters, as my parents and grandparents did. Whether the Samhain season calls you to deep healing or simple celebration, I wish you all the blessings of the dark time of the year.