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October 31, 2010

Samhain: The true meaning of Halloween.

November 1st: Samhain.

My Cousin Sandy and I have started (recovered?) a tradition of acknowledging and feeding our ancestors on Halloween or rather Samhain  (November 1st.) This tradition, similar to the Mexican Day of the Dead, was and is widely practiced in Ireland and other Celtic cultures.  Sandy is in the process of completing a Doctorate in Visual Art from Curtin University of Technology in West Australia. Her focus is on ancestry, place and belonging and since most of us are not indigenous to the lands we live in those are often very different things.

In the summer of 2008 Sandy traveled to England, Wales and Norway to visit the places where our ancestors have lived. Later I joined Sandy for a tour of Ireland to learn about our ancestors there.  As we touched the ancient stones at Carrowmore, a megalithic cemetery in Co. Sligo, we felt very connected to the people who had built this place and marveled that they also felt the same impulse to honor and connect with their own recent and ancient dead.

Later the same year Sandy visited us in Colorado and carved a petroglyph in our front yard representing the living and the dead, the boats that carried our ancestors to this land, the life-giving sun and the crows that seemed to greet us everywhere in our travels and watched intently as Sandy chipped away on her stone carving.

Sandy and I both felt that rituals of our Protestant upbringing lacked passion and authenticity. On the other hand simply co-opting ceremonies from other cultures feels equally inauthentic.  If you don’t have real training in these traditions (which is hard to come) you could simply be misappropriating something that is sacred to another culture.

Regardless of where we travel or the connections that we make with other cultures, the energetic charge of our family of origin remains with us for life. Thus it is a powerful source of growth if we can come to terms with it. But how can that be done in  a way that feels “real”? Would reenacting some kind of neo-druid ceremony do the trick? Even some indigenous people that I know well struggle with whether they are the real thing or not when compared to their predecessors.

T o answer some of these questions Sandy and I set off for New Mexico to visit some pueblo elders. We asked one elder, Grandpa Sal, “How should we talk with our ancestors to learn what they know?”. “Just like we’re talking” he said, “just talk to ’em.” He told us that his people go to a high place around this time each year and call their ancestors. They prepare a table for them in their home and offer them a nice meal. They talk with them and visit and then they take the food back to the same high place and bid the ancestors farewell until next year.

This last part is important because connecting with ancestral wisdom is not the same as living with ghosts. We have our own place and they have theirs. The ancestors have much to teach us and we owe them a lot. From the ancestors we learned how to organize our society, how to grow food and how to build houses. The very body that we inhabit is a direct gift from them. In an essay called The Ancestral Bequest, Caitlin Matthews writes,”The ancestral bequest of each person is different: no one is exempted. It can profoundly influence our emotional and vocational development, leading us to use the ancestral gifts of our family lines in wonderful ways. It can also, like the dead hand of a will, reach out of the realms of death to squeeze pleasure out of the living, a mysterious restraint on the living that is never fully understood.”

Feeding the dead can fulfill the longings of physical, emotional and spritiual hunger that we and they experience.  The living can also liberate the dead from the burdens of fear, resentment, anger and frustration that our forebearers may have taken to the grave. By resolving these things, which we may be unconciously carrying on their behalf, the ancestors can be released. For that reason I have added to our ancestor feast “the flame of forgiving” where we write down the things that we have been carrying around and symbolically let them go by placing them in the fire.

On Samhain, the midpoint between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, the veil between the seen and unseen worlds is said to be the thinnest. This year take the time to acknowledge the ghosts of your personal and ancestral past, feed them, thank them and send them on their way.

To read Cousin Sandy’s personal account of our ancestor feast go here  –http://21stcenturypilgrimsprogress.blogspot.com/search?q=sal

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