Anciently named Samhain by the Celts, adopted as All Saints Eve and Day by the Christians, also called All Souls, I have called it by the more general pagan name of the Hallows, for the term fits it well and shows its holy intention.
It is the end of our annual pilgrimage and the ending of life’s exploration. At it comes the grand climax and combination of our themes in the land where the living and the dead meet. It is a brave and noble ceremony. We have moved in our ritual passage through the stages of our lives. Now we move to contemplate our repose in our deaths, and to consider those many who have died before us. It follows from the assessments of the Autumn Equinox, that, at the Hallows, we consider the paths we have trodden, and the lessons we have learnt from the round of the year, and ponder deeply our state at the end of our lives. Yet this is not to be a gloomy session of self criticism despite its sombre theme. It is a festival offering courage, and with courage goes encouragement to go bravely where our terrors and fears reside; to go deep into the places of the mind and face out these archetypal fears. This is the time to talk with the dead as well as with death in ourselves; to bring out these hidden things and ask them to join in festival dance.
The Hallows is one of the great pagan feasts and ushers Winter in. After this date the leaves will rapidly fall from the trees. The frosts will come and the November gales will hunt wildly across the land.
The ritual should take place late on the evening of the 31st. October. The area of the rite, which is called the Dead Ground, should be separated from the place of waiting, referred to as the Land of Ashes, by a small stream or ditch, or symbol of one, such as a trough of water. Sombre clothes should be worn at the beginning of the festival. Later, more festive disguises and maskings can be adopted.
At the place designated as The Land of Ashes the attenders are all seated. A dirge-like chant or ululation is led by the Summoner, who has called them together. The Lord and Lady go apart to prepare the Dead Ground.
When all is ready the Lady approaches the West bank of the stream. She carries the knife and is attended by the Lord who carries a basket of red apples. These signify the Greater Wisdom. When the Summoner sees the approach of the couple, he calls upon the company to cease their griefs and be still.
After a suitable pause the Lady speaks:
“If any dare approach and travel in this dead land, let them step forward, pay their fee for ferry and brave the knife point at their hearts.”
The Summoner, who now acts as the Ferryman, goes to the stream and holds out a bowl. The Lady then repeats Her charge. The first man to accept the challenge steps forward to the edge of the stream or water basin, where he is accosted by the Summoner/Ferryman who demands:
“Give me your fee for ferry.”
The man should then place a coin in the bowl and then turn to face the Lady across the water. Her knife points directly at his heart. She speaks:
“Step forward. Walk in My Dead Land. Walk now. Give your hand into my hand for you are blind for a while, and no longer see the earth of your living.”
As he steps forward, crossing the water, the knife point is withdrawn from him. From his basket the Lord hands the Lady an apple which She pushes into the man’s mouth, saying:
“Take, eat of the final wisdom.”
He then moves to the centre of the Dead Land where the skull or symbol of it has been placed, with a black candle burning in front of it. He seats himself facing the memento mori and is quiet and still in meditation.
All follow one by one, going as far as possible, man, woman, man. Each pays the Ferryman and each receives an Apple. As the last person crosses, the Ferryman pays his own fee, and, before crossing the stream himself, casts the money far away from him as a symbol of its worthlessness in the Land of the Dead.
When all have arrived and are seated in meditation the Lord speaks:
“You have come from the Place of Ashes, from the land of waiting to this My Land of Darkness. This is the land where terrors now will hunt your soul like hounds. This is the place of your ending where the still blood freezes in the unhearing ear. You who have stood a judgement now join the judged in due oblivion. You who would speak with the dead must become the dead and dwell in this darkness. Let the dread chill of your dying be with you now…”
Now follows a minute’s silence when the attenders bow their heads to the Lord of The Dead.
The Lady then rises and, going to the skull, kneels before it. She takes up the knife, touches the skull between the eye sockets with the knife point, and then touches Her own forehead between the eyes with the knife point. Then She slowly processes round the circle widdershins, with the skull and knife. As She has done before, She touches it with the knife point and then touches the foreheads of each attender. As they are touched they rise and join the procession, which moves slowly round nine times when the group is all risen. The group then set up a dolorous chant:
“We are the dead, we are the dead.”
At the close of the procession the Lady returns to the centre of the circle. She turns and, with the knife raised, faces the Lord and speaks:
“That these my people may know, and in knowledge be saved their sorrows and their pain, open the roads and let the dead come in to greet the dead.”
The Lord is given the ritual knife by the Lady and He solemnly opens the roads of His land, by going to the four compass points in this order: North, South, East, West, and scoring the earth inwards across the circum-ference of the circle three times, announcing each set of cuts with the words:
“To the North I open the roads. To the South I open the roads. To the East I open the roads. To the West I open the roads.”
He returns the knife to the Lady, handing it to Her hilt first. He picks up the libation bowl. The Lady steps outside the circle and faces North. She scores a trench in the ground with nine scratches and then eight, each set of marks going in opposite directions.
The Lord comes forward to the trench and pours a plentiful libation of red wine into the trench, (this could also be the blood of a ritually slaughtered fowl). The Lady crumbles and scatters ginger cake around the trench. They both return to the circle and all turn, seat themselves and face outwards. The one candle is extinguished and the group sits silent and in darkness.
This last of the silent meditations should go on for about three minutes. Then the Summoner speaks:
“Now we pause upon the brink and rim of this strange land. In ourselves are many fears, many ghosts, ghouls, goblins; many fantasies; many lurking horrors. We must know our inmost darknesses, searching each desperate corner with our faith, examining all cruelties and fears, for the Land of Darkness is in us all.”
After a short pause he continues with a despairing cry:
“Where is our help? Are we to dwell here for ever? In this last darkness can we again look for light to lead us through this dread land of ourselves? Are we to be forever gripped in the Dark God’s hands?”
After another pause the Lord softly answers:
“To this place came the Lady, harrowed this hell and with bright fingers reached into My darkness. Because of this there will be green fields beyond this place, death is to be but a winter in My land, and the uplands will yet be bright with Springtime and the risen sun.”
The candle is again lit. The Lady speaks:
“Our terrors are but ourselves and come from our making and long history, but from my starry bounty the dance of life goes on beyond your deaths. Let us then welcome in those who have gone before. But first, find out your fears and, holding faith, shirk not their scrutiny. Asked for, I shall give you bravery and joy. Again, let us offer welcome to those who have gone before. They will be kindly for your comfort. Let us welcome them.”
The group rise and commence to go round the circle widdershins. They hold out their right hands in welcome and shout very loudly:
“Come in. Come in. Come in all ghosts and phantoms. Come in. Dance with us.”
The dance should go faster and faster, all being encouraged to shout as loudly as they can. After some time the group once more sits down facing outwards and is still and silent. Often a small breeze will spring up and rustle the trees, or some other manifestation of the unity of the group with the ceremony and its surroundings will occur.
If a bonfire is possible, now is the time to light it to provide warmth and cheer. As its flames spring up the group ceases from its silence and, rising, commences a sunwise dance at least eight times round the fire. After this, wine is served by the Lord and cakes by the Lady. The red apples which were presented at the crossing of the stream can now be finally eaten, for they are the meat of wisdom. Further candles can be lit, particularly if a fire is not possible. Further dances can now follow and be of a more informal nature. Wherever the bonfire is situated, and it could be at the centre of the circle, a ring is formed around it. More calls of “Come in” can be shouted. If fireworks are available now is the time to use them. Also, if there are disguisings and masks now is the time to use them. From a scene of sombre gloom, the area is transformed to one of festivity.
Traditional games, tricks and jokes are in order until the fire begins to die down. If a roast or barbecue is handy, all, including the spirits, can be invited to the feast.
When the feast is over and the fire wanes, the company are called to order for the ‘Closing of the Roads’.
The Lady steps forward carrying a bowl of pure water. She goes to each attender and gives a drink of water, saying:
“Drink again of life and the promise of new life. Return from this land in knowledge and in love.”
She then processes the circle and gives a fond embrace to every person, finishing with the Lord. She then hands Him the knife. The Lord speaks:
“I will close the roads.”
He goes to the four compass points as before, and scoring three times across the opening marks of each compass point declares the roads closed. He then speaks:
“Having been long in darkness and dread, having passed and paid the ferryman and dwelt in the plain of ashes in the outer darkness, having been in the dead ground; now I show you a new land and a new light. You have eaten the apple of the Greater Wisdom and can now be of our green fields and apple island. For you there is no harsh wind, no cutting hail, no further tempest of the soul and no more weeping in the outer lands. Take now of this salt and purify yourselves.”
Salt is then handed round from a bowl. Each takes a pinch and puts it to his or her lips. What is not taken is thrown over the left shoulder to fall within the circle and so neutralise any sad influence that might remain. The Lord then goes to the centre of the circle and sticks the knife in the ground.
The feast can continue, if wished, as a general merrymaking until the early hours of the morning. When the attenders disperse, the ashes of the fire are scattered to the four directions. Should the ceremony take place indoors, a pinch of ash should be scattered in the four corners of the room. At parting each attender should exchange a kiss of love and peace.
Because, of all the festivals, The Hallows is the most structured and has the most ‘set’ speeches and prayers, it requires less in the way of a sermon. Nevertheless, a summary of our main themes and a few observations about its significance as a marker in our annual cycle may help to reinforce and enrich its message.
At the Hallows we meet the Crone, the Goddess in Her death aspect. The festival recognises our own dark side, the fears and terrors we must know, in order to be made whole in ourselves. It honours our ancestors and all others who have joined the ‘Mighty Dead’. We dance with outstretched hands to welcome these powers, for, properly understood, they are not against us, but of us and can be our help. At the Hallows we hope to learn how to walk from the top to the bottom of our minds and be undismayed at what we find there. This is an heroic enterprise. Each must harrow his own hell. Each must pay due honour to the Crone, for She will claim us at the last; and we should love and respect Her, for only through love and respect can we reach trust and be unafraid in understanding.
Each year, each Hallows is the culmination of a journey. Next year we will tread the same path. The knowledge we now carry will deepen our appreciation of the theme. It will be the same but not the same. Each festival will show new depths; each cycle be enriched by all those that have gone before. At the Hallows we can see the whole pattern developing again, each facet of the year taking colour from the preceding ones and shining richer than the last. At the Hallows we see the picture made. We move with the ceremony to an eternal standpoint. There we are, in that dead land, delivered out of our sense of linear time. In that eternal ground there is no time in our accepted sense and the sequence of causality our small lives run by comes apart. We can repose in that eternal ground, where paradoxically, in death all things have their being.
Yet the cycle goes on. Once more, as in our ceremony, we will be commissioned to serve in the land of time. In what way we do not know, with what heredity we cannot guess, in what guise we can only conjecture. But the light of the Promise will come again for us, and another nativity will keep that Promise beyond the lands of death even unto the Isle of Apples, where ultimately there will be no death, but a greater birth into the bountiful Presence of the Goddess Herself.
Next section: Appendix: On the Dance and Other Matters
© The Estate of Ronald M. White
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