Celebrating Samhain

Happy Samhain everyone. Also known as Halloween or All Hallows Eve, this is the festival on which the ancient Celts celebrated the end of the harvest season and the beginning of Winter. It also marks the Celtic new year. For the ancient Irish, days always began at sunset and Samhain (pronounced Sow-en) celebrations would therefore start on the eve of 31st October.

Alfablot at boulder without flash

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At this time the earth appears to die, laying dormant through the dark cold times ahead. The leaves are changing colour and falling from the trees. The harvest has been collected from the fields and they lie empty. The livestock have been brought down from the pastures, the weak ones have been culled for food and people return to their homes for feasting. Summer is over (Samhain means “Summers end”) and winter begins. The days are getting much shorter and colder, the frosts have begun and animals are busy making final preparations for winter. Traditionally it was believed to be bad luck to harvest anything after this date and therefore any remaining harvest is left as an offering to deities or nature spirits.

For the ancient Celts who split the year into two halves, Samhain marks the transition from the summer half of the year to the winter half, from life to death. They believed that any time or place of transition was sacred. At this time, the veil between this world and the Otherworld was at its thinnest and therefore the spirit world and the human world could interact. Many of the modern practices of Halloween have roots in this belief – whether putting lights in carved pumpkins (originally turnips) to scare off evil spirits or giving out treats to those dressed as devils and ghosts to bribe them not to cause trouble to the family. It was also a time for divination and for honouring the dead, who were thought to return to their homes on this night. Traditionally, it is also a time for protective rites like lighting bonfires, walking the boundaries of your property with fire or making charms of Rowan.

With the revival of Paganism, the practice of ancestor veneration, a practice of the ancient Celts once dead in the western world, has begun to grow in popularity again. As Naturalistic Pantheists, this practice should also be a part of our lives. Samhain is a time of remembrance. It is a time to honour those who have died, whether friends, family or ancestors. It is a time to remember them and to be thankful for the role they have played in influencing our lives. They are not gone, they live on within us through our memories and genes, and within the earth as their atoms are reincarnated into a thousand different creations. Samhain reminds us that one day, we too must die. It is a time take stock of our lives and to meditate on the cycle of life and death, confronting a topic we too often do our best to avoid.

It is traditional to celebrate this festival by eating a large feast of late harvest foods e.g. pumpkins, apples, nuts, root vegetables and barmbrack bread. It is also the traditional time for remembering our ancestors and those we have loved and lost e.g. by visiting their graves and putting fresh flowers there. Personally, I build an altar and put photos and mementos of those I have lost recently on it. This year I have managed to get a few more mementos to add to the altar. I also put up my family tree. On Samhain eve I perform a ritual of remembrance, lighting a candle for each person I am remembering and holding a minutes silence in respect. I am also having a party with friends, decorating the house and eating traditional foods like mashed potato, gingerbread and cabbage.

Celebrating Samhain

Happy Samhain everyone. Also known as Halloween or All Hallows Eve, this is the festival on which the ancient Celts celebrated the end of the harvest season and the beginning of Winter. It also marks the Celtic new year. For the ancient Irish, days always began at sunset and Samhain (pronouned Sow-een) celebrations would therefore start on the eve of 31st October.

At this time the earth has appeared to die, laying dormant through the dark cold times ahead. The leaves have fallen from the trees and the harvests have been collected from the fields. Summer is over (Samhain means “Summers end”) and winter begins. The days are getting much shorter and colder and animals are busy making final preparations for winter. Traditionally it was believed to be bad luck to harvest anything after this date and therefore any remaining harvest is left as an offering to deities.

Jack-o-lantern

Jack-o-lantern (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the ancient Celts who split the year into two halves, Samhain marks the transition from the summer half of the year to the winter half, from life to death. They believed that any time or place of transition was sacred. At this time, the veil between this world and the Otherworld was at its thinnest and therefore the spirit world and the human world could interact. Many of the modern practices of Halloween have roots in this belief – whether putting lights in carved pumpkins (originally turnips) to scare off evil spirits or giving out treats to those dressed as devils and ghosts to bribe them not to cause trouble to the family. It was also a time for divination and for honouring the dead.

With the revival of Paganism, the practice of venerating ancestors, a practice of the ancient Celts once dead in the western world, has begun to grow in popularity again. As Naturalistic Pantheists, this practice should also be a part of our lives. Samhain is a time of remembrance. It is a time to honour those who have died, whether friends, family or ancestors. It is a time to remember them and to be thankful for the role they have played in influencing our lives. They are not gone, they live on within us through our memories and genes, and within the earth as their atoms are reincarnated into a thousand different creations. Samhain reminds us that one day, we too must die. It is a time take stock of our lives and to meditate on the cycle of life and death, confronting a topic we too often do our best to avoid. 

It is traditional to celebrate this festival by eating a large feast of late harvest foods e.g. pumpkins, apples, root vegetables and barmbrack bread. It is also the traditional time for remembering our ancestors and those we have loved and lost e.g. by visiting their graves and putting fresh flowers there. Personally, I build an altar and put photos and mementos of those I have lost recently on it. This year I have spent much of the past month researching my family history in order to create a family tree and know more about the ancestors I wish to honour. On Samhain eve I perform a ritual of remembrance, lighting a candle for each person I am remembering and holding a minutes silence in respect. This year that will include both my grandmother and her dog. I am also having a party with friends, decorating the house and eating traditional foods.

Hope you have a wonderful Samhain and a happy Celtic New Year to you,

Living in the moment

I know I said I wouldn’t be posting again for a month but I came across this just now and thought i’d share it as my last post before moving…

Firstly there is a video from a Sam Harris lecture on “Death and the Present Moment” which is very interesting and thought provoking.

Meditation

Meditation (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn)

 

Sort of related to this is a new 7 part video series being offered by Dr Rick Hanson soon on The Compassionate Brain – See this link from the Secular Buddhist Association for more information. It looks like it will be a very interesting and useful course so its worth having a look.

 

You want a Physicist to speak at your funeral…

English: Hamdown Woodland Burial Ground. Hambl...

English: Hamdown Woodland Burial Ground. Hambledon Hill in the background (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly.”
~ Aaron Freeman

Honouring our Ancestors

Ancestor Walk 2008

Ancestor Walk 2008 (Photo credit: The City Project)

Two and a half years ago my world was rocked to its core when a friend was tragically killed in a car accident aged only 23. He was a very close friend. Coming to terms with his loss was very difficult and within six months I had lost my Christian faith. As I started to look into alternative spiritualities and practices I across Naturalistic Pantheism, Paganism and Druidry in particular. These philosophies and religions emphasise the importance of honouring our ancestors, those we have loved and lost, and this really appealed to me. Last Samhain, I made an altar and on it I placed pictures of my friend and lit a candle to remember him. It was a good experience and I believe it helped me to accept things a lot more.

Over at Woden’s Wandering Witch today, she writes about the importance of honouring our ancestors too and it’s inspired me to do a post on it. Although I have talked about this before, I feel I had some new things to say.

If we look at most of the ancient religions of the world, and particularly those that honour the earth, they all have a common practice of Ancestor Veneration. Yes, a lot of it is rooted in a belief that their ancestors somehow live on through an immortal soul, but not in every case. In my opinion, venerating ancestors is a way in which humanity has, for many years, remembered those that it has loved and lost and enabled people to come to terms with the reality of death. Honouring our ancestors, whether they be family members, friends or important people who have influenced our lives, is a practice that I think can be of great benefit to us as Naturalistic Pantheists.

How? Firstly, doing something to honour our ancestors help us keep the memory of them alive. While we don’t necessarily forget about the people we have lost, as time progresses and we move on with our lives, we often do not think of them for great periods of time and we lose a connection to them that we once had. By regularly honouring them, we ensure they are remembered…and if we teach the next generation to do the same, then we ensure that we are remembered after our own deaths.

Secondly, it teaches us important life lessons – respect and gratefulness. Honouring our ancestors is a way of acknowledging their influence and impact on our lives and showing gratitude for that fact (yep that includes those you didn’t like too), even though they are no longer around to receive that gratitude. It teaches us respect – for the dead, for the elderly and for other people. We have to take time to focus on others rather than ourselves and to give them a place of honour, and that is a great life lesson to learn.

Thirdly, it grounds us. It reminds us of where we came from and the forces and influences upon our lives. It gives us identity and a sense of connection to the past. It places us within a story and gives our lives meaning and direction.

English: This picture was taken at a Malaysian...

English: This picture was taken at a Malaysian Chinese home. This altar is dedicated to the three Pure Land sages, Avalokitesvara, and Sathya Sai Baba. On the left of the altar is a glass filled with rice. Joss sticks are stuck into it after the ancestors are invited to partake in the offering of food specially prepared for them on the Hungry Ghost festival prayers. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So now we have seen some of the benefits, lets consider who exactly we should be honouring? The simple answer is – anyone we want to. Generally I would suggest that honouring family members and friends who have died is a good place to start. You could add in family members further back in your past that you didn’t ever know. You could add in important people who lived in your area or influenced your culture but who you feel a connection to. Finally, you could add anyone who has influenced and inspired you in life.

Yes, I hear you say, I agree with all that, but get specific, what exactly do I need to do? I have two suggestions here – firstly, do some research and create a family tree as best you can so you can see who your ancestors were and perhaps learn a few interesting family stories about them. Secondly, make an altar, just as millions of people have done throughout the hundreds of thousands of years of human history. Put some pictures of lost relatives on it, and maybe a copy of your family tree. Decorate the altar with a few candles, objects that remind you of people and anything else you want to. You could either have this altar up once a year – on Samhain, perhaps on significant dates, or all the time. Create a ceremony to carry out at the altar. It could be something simple like lighting a candle for a minute or something more elaborate including drinking from a remembrance cup and spending time meditating on memories you have of them or holding a minutes silence. Do whatever you feel helps you.

Just one more thing, I always include a few fossils on my altar. Why? As I said in a previous post on the great story of cosmic evolution, we are the subject of millions of years of evolution going right back to a single common ancestor. All those in our blood line, right back to that first life form that appeared on the earth almost 4 billion years ago, are our ancestors and remembering and honouring them helps to keep that fact alive for us.

Thoughts on Death and Afterlife

(September 2013 – This will be part of the Animist Blog Carnival on Death for October 2013. For more posts on this subject check out http://lifthrasirsuccess.wordpress.com/animist-blog-carnival/)

Over the past few years I have lost two people that I was very close too. The first, my Nan, died of Cancer at the end of January this year. It was too late before we found out she had it and there was nothing that could be done to help her. Two years ago another friend of mine, quite young, was killed in a car crash. Their deaths are still raw in pain for me…but when has life ever been fair?

Anyway, this situation has got me thinking about how I see death as a Naturalistic Pantheist. A few years ago I was a Christian and would have taken comfort from the fact that I would see her again one day in heaven. Now, without those beliefs, where will I find comfort? Can Pantheism give any help?

I believe it can. Pantheism says that “We see death as the return to nature of our elements, and the end of our existence as individuals. The forms of “afterlife” available to humans are natural ones, in the natural world. Our actions, our ideas and memories of us live on, according to what we do in our lives. Our genes live on in our families, and our elements are endlessly recycled in nature.

Pantheism does not promise an afterlife in some heaven, nor in hell. Pantheism promises only natural forms of afterlife – we will live on in the memories of those who knew us and in our genes passed down through our children. But Pantheism also goes further…it says that at death we begin a process of transformation, of changing or recycling. Our atoms become part of nature again. When we are buried, our atoms become part of the soil, that becomes part of plants, that becomes part of the animals and so on in an endless cycle. If we are cremated, some of our atoms join with the atmosphere and become part of that. The point is that none of our atoms or energy is destroyed, we are not “gone” because we become part of the world again, the world we came from. Our atoms have been in existence since the very beginning and will be until the very end of the universe. We do not die, we are transformed. Our consciousness may end, but the very essence of who we are, the elements that make us up will never be destroyed but will continue to exist for all time. When we die, we do not just rot in the ground, but become new things, new creations. We may become a flower or tree, become part of insects or animals, become rain or the wind. We become part of the natural world once again. How beautiful a thought. I think the following help to sum this up well…

And a couple of poems by various people…

Friend, please don’t mourn for me
I’m still here, though you don’t see.
I’m right by your side each night and day
And within your heart I long to stay.

My body is gone but I’m always near.
I’m everything you feel, see or hear.
My spirit is free, but I’ll never depart
As long as you keep me alive in your heart.

I’ll never wander out of your sight-
I’m the brightest star on a summer night.
I’ll never be beyond your reach-
I’m the warm moist sand when you’re at the beach.

I’m the colourful leaves when Autumn’s around
And the pure white snow that blankets the ground.
I’m the beautiful flowers of which you’re so fond,
The clear cool water in a quiet pond.

I’m the first bright blossom you’ll see in the spring,
The first warm raindrop that April will bring.
I’m the first ray of light when the sun starts to shine,
And you’ll see that the face in the moon is mine.

I’m the smile you see on a baby’s face.
Just look for me, friend, I’m every place!

And….

A long time have I lived with you 
And now we must be going
Separately to be together.
Perhaps I shall be the wind
To blur your smooth waters
So that you do not see your face too much.
Perhaps I shall be the star
To guide your uncertain wings
So that you have direction in the night.
Perhaps I shall be the fire
To separate your thoughts
So that you do not give up.
Perhaps I shall be the rain
To open up the earth
So that your seed may fall.
Perhaps I shall be the snow
To let your blossoms sleep
So that you may bloom in spring.
Perhaps I shall be the stream
To play a song on the rock
So that you are not alone.
Perhaps I shall be a new mountain
So that you always have a home.

Ancestors

At the festival of Samhain, we remember those who we have lost and honour them. This year when I remember my ancestors, I shall include a picture of my grandmother. I shall light a candle for her and remember the good times together. Honouring our ancestors and remembering our lost loved ones each year on Samhain is an important part of my Naturalistic Pantheist Practice and helps me to remember and never forget those who have had such an important influence on my life. She will become an Ancestor.

Natural Burial

What does Naturalistic Pantheism have to say about funerals? In my opinion, natural burials are an important aspect of death and funerals for Pantheists. Being buried in a natural place, in a natural way, not filled with chemicals first, so that there are few barriers to our transformation back into nature is key. Thinking about my own funeral, I want to buried (rather than cremated) in a woodland, with a tree on top of me so my atoms become part of that tree. I want a funeral with songs that emphasise the beauty of the world and the circle of life. And I want a party!