Reflections of Samhain

Nov 18th, 2015 | By | Category: Articles, Nature Mystics

RebeccaBy Rebecca Beattie

Not everything in Nature Mysticism is about walking. Sometimes health concerns or other factors may intervene, and being the sufferer of an acute illness or a disability does not preclude one from following the path of a Nature Mystic. Mary Webb was a lifelong sufferer of Grave’s Disease, and spent a lot of time bed ridden or battling with her illness. Without hope of a cure, her doctors prescribed time in nature. D.H. Lawrence suffered from tuberculosis, and similarly spent long periods outdoors, travelling the world in search of a more healing climate. In fact, the enforced stillness that came with a debilitating illness probably contributed to the microscopic intensity with which they both observed and recorded the minutiae of nature.
October brings with it my favourite stopping point on the wheel of the year, Samhain, but not the commercialised version of Halloween with plastic pumpkins and nylon witches’ hats, but the thoughtful, reflective version. Ronald Hutton has written extensively on the origins of this festival (both in his book Stations of the Sun, and in a recent Guardian article) as the Blood Harvest, the time when (traditionally) animals would be slaughtered and their meat would be salted down to preserve it through the winter, both to provide much needed food, but also so that poorer owners did not have to feed and shelter the animals through the winter. It was also a time when people would be inevitably faced with their own mortality, as not everyone in the community would make it through the next winter alive. While (some would say) we have grown used to an unhealthy distance from thoughts of our own mortality, the presence of death is always all around us. Coming face to face with the death crone is a necessary and transformative experience, and one that will change your life forever.

Mourning the Loss of the Fallen God, or Pagan Grieving
There is a quote that springs to mind at this time of year, although I have been unable to attribute it (answers on a postcard please if you know it!) ‘In Autumn the trees are about to show us how beautiful it is to let the dead things go’. My own relationship with Samhain relates to its connection with our concept of grief and mourning in paganism. Ten years or so ago, I my mother died very suddenly because of a very aggressive form of cancer, a loss that was catastrophic. I hate it when we talk of death in terms of ‘loss’ as it suggests you have just been rather forgetful, so my choice of language is usually fairly direct on this subject. However, when she died, I spent most of the first year in a state of amnesia, forgetting most of what was going on around me, and frequently disabled by great heaving bouts of weeping (even on the tube in rush hour which is never the done thing in London!) I experienced what I can only describe as a hallowing out of the self. When my mother died, so did my own identity; I could no longer remember what I liked to wear or eat, or even what I liked doing. I forgot everything except her.

Turning to my own pagan path for answers gave me scant relief. At that time there were very few pagan works on grief and loss, aside from The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, written by Starhawk and others. This meant that trying to make sense of what was happening to me was very hard. The public side of pagan life frequently focuses on the happier parts of life, but when you have mid-wifed your own mother’s passing and come so closely face to face with death that you can feel its breath on your cheek, no amount of herb sachets or crystals will put you back together. I tried to write, but the words ceased to flow, I tried to paint, but all I could do was smear large amounts of black paint across the canvas.
In my first year of grieving, I was studying tarot with Tomas D’Aradia at the amazing Treadwell’s bookshop in London. It became a weekly joke that every time one of my classmates tried to read for me, up popped the Death card, toothily grinning and waving from astride his horse. The Death card followed me closely for several years after, and over time, I learned the lesson of the thirteenth major arcana until I could give an in depth analysis of its every angle. But when the wheel of the year turned round to Samhain, I finally found some comfort. The charge of the god that we shared in the circle at this time of year finally spoke of death’s gentle embrace that would await me at my own end. It spoke to me of the anticipation of my own death, not just in the physical plane at the end of my own life, but also of the spiritual death I had undergone when my mum died, and in doing so, it pointed the way to allowing myself to live again.

The trees in autumn shed their leaves and turn their energy inwards, in order to survive the harsh winter that lies ahead, but they do so in anticipation that the wheel of the year will keep turning, and spring will eventually follow the darkest night. Samhain gave me my focal point, a stopping place in which I can pause and reconnect with my mother, and also let her go in faith that one day we will be reunited. I could make and burn an incense to her, out in the open air, willing the smoke to deliver my message of love to her, wherever she is now. And I finally started to write again. A counsellor advised me to write letters to her, but they felt so full of anguish, so one sided, that I began to wonder what she might write back to me if she could. This became my second novel, Somewhere She Is There.

Urban Nature Mysticism and the Ancestors
For me, Samhain is an opportunity to pause, and connect to my mother and my other family members who have passed on, and also to focus on a wider sense of ancestral connections. Because while familial ancestors can form one facet of practice at this time of year, I would also encourage you to consider ancestors in their wider sense. Perhaps you have been cut off from your biological family for various reasons, or exiled from your own land. In this sense (as Armistead Maupin might put it) there are your biological ancestors, and your logical ancestors.

For instance, Mary Webb, D.H. Lawrence and the other Nature Mystics form one type of ancestor for me (and put in an appearance on my altar at this time). Then there are my spiritual ancestors, the ones from my tradition and my line in Wicca. While the pressures of modern life can also take us away from our land and our familial ancestors, searching and connecting to the geographic ancestors of where you live can also be an integral part of taking root in the place you are in now, even if it is not your own home culture or your own belief system. While I would not encourage wholesale cultural appropriation, and one should always be respectful and considerate of those whose culture you are exploring, researching the local customs and traditions and making an appropriate offering to the spiritus mundi can be an integral part of learning to feel at home wherever you are in the world.

Samhain marks the point where we really enter the dark part of the year. In the UK, our clocks have been put back an hour, the nights are drawing in, and the dawn comes a little later each day. There is stillness and an inward focus that starts to take root that will see us through winter. Rather than feel frustration at how this interferes with the usually fast pace of life, at this time it is good to let go of our expectations, and just breathe in the stillness. Stillness brings insight, insight brings understanding, understanding brings wisdom, and a renewed sense of purpose. This is really the crux of being a Nature Mystic, urban or otherwise. Living the watchful existence in nature, sometimes we need a little patience for the insight to come. There is rarely any rush, but we convince ourselves that we have to get there quickly (wherever there is). Particularly in the city, where you risk being run over by a herd of pedestrians if you stop and pause for just a moment. But I would encourage you to do this. Open your eyes and look with wonder at the beauty of the autumn leaves on the trees that line our streets. Pause and listen for the chattering of the birds, just audible over the noise of the traffic. Stop and look at the clouds passing overhead, and don’t worry if you are met with the odd tutting of the people around you. The chances are they have disconnected themselves from nature, and have forgotten the beauty of what is around us, even in the most urban parts of the city.

The Urban Nature Mystic’s Library
One of the best places to commune with our ancestral Nature Mystics is in a library or a bookshop. In my weeks and months and years of grief, it was the Nature Mystics who consoled me. Mary Webb suffered a similar paroxysm of grief when she lost her father in her thirties. D.H. Lawrence had a similar response when he lost his mother, and produced some of the most gut-wrenching (but soul-relieving) grief poetry on the planet. One of my favourite poems (which I explored in more depth in Nature Mystics) is ‘The Ship of Death’, which explores the inevitable death and rebirth of the self that comes with grieving. The death card becomes the six of swords, a journey across water, which in my own life marked my initiation into Wicca. And the discovery of consoling words from the other Nature Mystics who have gone before us also brings a sense of kinship on an otherwise solitary path. At this time of year, my little flat can feel quite crowded with the presence of all those ancestral spirits, both familial and spiritual.

Finding Nature in Quiet Places, and the Lexis of Birds
In the city, spaces where one can enjoy some peace and quiet are often few and far between. Parks are an obvious choice, but in the really busy central areas, these can get quite overcrowded on a sunny day, particularly at lunch times. One of the often overlooked quiet spots to explore at this (or indeed at any) time of year is in our cemeteries and church yards. I haven’t found a church or graveyard yet that wasn’t quiet and peaceful, except for the sound of a black bird singing, or the clack of a magpie or two. In fact, it is often a really good spot for connecting with the birds. As with any aspect of nature, there is a language of birds and what they symbolise. When living the connected life in harmony with nature, the divine will communicate with you in a variety of different ways, and there is a hidden language in what birds appear to you at different times. For instance, crows and other corvids are a symbol of magic, while owls can symbolise wisdom, or learning. Doves are traditionally associated with peace, while pigeons can represent homecoming. The lexis of nature is not all that hard to read, just as symbols of dreams are a lot more straightforward than some might have you believe. You can seek out books that will decode the symbols for you, or you can trust your unconscious mind to reveal what those meanings are for you, through meditation, or straightforward questioning. I always prefer to allow my own unconscious mind to do the work, as what one thing means to one person may be very different from what it means to me. And following the path of the Urban Nature Mystic is all about developing your own relationship with the divine power of nature that is all around you.

Soon after my own mother had passed, I used to feel regret that I couldn’t visit my own ancestral graves as often as I would have liked, as they are so far away from where I am. Now, however, there are two ways in which I like to pay my respects, if I cannot do so in person. One is to buy flowers for my mother, but gift them to a friend or family member, or even to place them on my altar with my photograph of my mum. The other way is to pay my respects by visiting another buried ground near me, and gifting the flowers to one of the graves that clearly doesn’t receive many visitors now. As my own mother pointed out before she died, a grave is really a focal point for those left behind and mourning the loss of a loved one, and while their mortal remains might lie there, I don’t for one minute think that is where I would find mum. If I know my mum, she is more likely to be off having adventures, off where all the fun stuff is happening, or checking in on myself or my siblings when we are doing interesting things, or feeling inspired, or feeling down or confused. She won’t be rattling around in a graveyard on top of a windy Dartmoor hill.

Exploring the graves in your local cemetery can also give you insight into the community you are living in, and will give you an indication of that community’s attitudes and end of life rituals. Some may differ greatly from your own. For instance, my own community always marks graves with local granite, and visits to the grave are often a rather sedate affair. The community I live in now favours black shining marble grave markers and photographs of the departed person, which give you a sense of who the person was. There are also a diverse mixture of cultures there – some graves are Jewish, some Muslim, some Chinese, and some Polish. In my husband’s home community in Egypt, at this time of year families visit the cemetery and take a meal to eat with their dead, while Romany cultures sometimes visit and take the loved one’s favourite drink with them. In Mexico there is the Day of the Dead, and the tradition of the ‘dumb supper’, when the family gathers to eat, and lays an extra place for the spirit of their departed loved one. All of these ceremonies are ways of reconnecting with those who have gone before us, and bringing their presence back into our lives.

 

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