Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Setting a Place for the Dead

It’s pronounced Sow-en and it’s an old Celtic festival celebrating the transition of the land from harvested to resting. It’s also one of two nights in the year when the veil that separates this world from the last and next are thin, allowing us to more easily contact those who have come before and those who have passed on. The U.S. holiday of Halloween has its roots in Samhain, brought over by the Irish immigrants who found the New World pumpkins much easier to carve into lanterns than the turnips they had used in their homeland.

Before the Christians introduced themselves to the Celtic lands, the people had no human personifications of deity. Danu was not a woman who represented the river Danu or the element of water. Danu was the river that flowed through the land and she was mighty. The Celtic people believed the land spirits and elementals walked among them, visible at liminal times and in liminal spaces; the point between yesterday and today, between today and tomorrow, between light and dark. They saw a space between inside and out, as in doorways and windows (which is where the idea of carrying a bride over the threshold is rooted). After Christianity bonded itself to their pagan, or pastoral, ways, land deities were personified as human to match up with Saints.

According to Eliade's Encyclopedia of Religion: "The Eve and day of Samhain were characterized as a time when the barriers between the human and supernatural worlds were broken. Not a festival honoring any particular Celtic deity, Samhain acknowledged the entire spectrum of non-human forces that roamed the earth during that period." It’s a night for divination and conversing with the spirit world, human, tree, stone, wind and other.

This is the time I long for… at the moment the harvest is in, the beds are put to sleep and there is a moment for some rest. There is time for some rest and quiet conversation with old ghosts. My house stands near the meeting of two rivers and I call on the energy of those forces of nature. I call on the power of the mountains ablaze in autumn color. I call on the energy of the steady stone, asleep beneath me. I call on these energies so that I may awaken myself to the beings that I share this space with. I call on the light of that magick and I call it into me, where it will join with my will and my flame and it will guide me through the dark months.

Mothers of my mother and fathers of my father, steady the flame within me. There is still a long way to go.

The Dumb Supper
On the night when the veil is thinnest, the dead walk the earth again, if only in spirit form. I visualize the different overlapping energetic planes as separated by veils, instead of walls. At Samhain, the veil lifts and the skin separating us is no more. We all share the same space for the duration of this holiday. Celtic people would put a candle inside a carved turnip in the window, to light the way home for their dead. The religious introduction of the devil condemned these spirits into demons. After that, scary faces were carved in them to frighten the evil away from the home; what had been a lantern and invitation to come inside became both a ward and warning.

When I carve my pumpkin, I intend it to be a beacon. I will place it on the altar when I sit down with friends, each of us and one of our ancestors or beloved dead sitting down to honor them at a formal Dumb Supper. While the specific Dumb Supper is Celtic in origin, you can find variations on this ritual in Korean, Mexican, Appalachian and Egyptian cultures veneration of ancestors.

In the formal dinner, a place is set at the head of the table, a shroud set over the chair. This place setting is the Spirit Chair and acknowledges all the spirits your heart and home are open to. You may wish to set other chairs for specific ancestors and loved ones, too. One way I personalize the Spirit Chair is by writing all of the names of my ancestors and loved ones in silver sharpie on a dark plate that I bought at a local dollar store. Place a candle on the center of the plate, and any others intended for those who have gone before. Prayers and letters to the spirits can be placed under the plate. At the beginning of the meal, light the candle and speak the name of the spirit you are inviting out loud. These will be the last words spoken. A Dumb Supper is a silent supper, silent being the original meaning of the word dumb (as in deaf, dumb and blind). In a shared space I use instrumental music to help keep it focused and sacred.

The table itself is set with the service backwards from how you would normally set it. If your glass sits on the right side of your plate, you set it on the left. Same for your linens and silverware. Dinner is also served backwards, starting with dessert, main course, side dishes and ending with the appetizer. You can adapt this depending on what format of meal your family prefers; it’s all about the intention of mirroring the effect. Where possible, I have found it beneficial to make recipes that are meaningful or have history for you and the spirits you invite. When the food is served, course by course, the Spirit Chair is served first, and then the spirits, taking a note from the ancient Greeks and offering a good portion to them.

Enjoy the meal. Pay attention to memories that flood your body or images that come to you. Be open to accepting everything and try not to rationalize or process the experience as it happens. Maybe you will hear a voice. Maybe you will feel the strongest impression that you just had a conversation with someone deceased. Maybe you will be met in your dreams as you drift into Otherworld in slumber. Maybe nothing will happen for you. But the spirit you invite to the table will be honored, fed, and warmed.

When the meal is over, say a final farewell. If possible, leave the food on the table until the candle sputters out (I recommend tea lights) and let the food get cold. Then dispose of it with sacred intention. If you live in the country, you could leave the plate outside for the night (candle extinguished of course). If you have the blessing of composting, you can recycle the offerings.

In Your Home
This year, start your holiday with intention as you carve your pumpkin. Will it be an invitation for you to open your house for the night? Or will it be an offering in itself of honor, but nothing more? Which choice is right for you this year?

Invite your close friends over for a sit down meal with an ancestor or a shared loved one who has passed. Find ways to make it meaningful for yourselves. Of course, not everyone can set aside the time or resources for a formal dinner, especially not on Halloween when the children are trick-or-treating. Instead, try setting another place at the table while you eat your usual dinner. Light a candle on the plate and simply offer a bit of what you have to the spirit plate first. What impressions flow through you during your meal?

Listen to the wind and the skittering of the leaves.
Smell winter blowing in, like the shifting of the ocean current into the bay.
This is the water time. Change is coming. Change comes.
Pay attention to your dreams during the night.
What wisdom do the ancestors offer you?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.