The other night, as we sat in Druid circle, my old and dear friend Ronald Hutton said to me ” do you realise this is our twenty fifth Samhain in Dobunni Grove together? ” And he was right. For it was at Autumn Equinox in 1994 that three disparate and slightly dishevelled individuals turned up for their very first Druid Grove: Ronald Hutton, Adrian Rooke and JJ Middleway. We had never met until that day. And now, having become such good friends over those years, it is difficult to imagine not knowing one another. Such are the gifts and delights of Druidry. Who’d a thought it? Reflecting on it now, it feels like an embodiment of Awen – a Druidic Triad made manifest – three rays of mischievous joy /|\ .
Having celebrated so many cycles of the eightfold wheel of the year together, it has slipped into the bloodstream and feels so much a part of me that it sustains and nourishes in a way that as my companions know works, but can’t quite put our fingers on. Cosmology Community Conundrum – its all in the mix.
And here’s another conundrum. In the Pagan world, Samhain has long been celebrated: Yet, over the last quarter of a century I have witnessed it growing in popularity and relevance, from being a far out fringe activity, towards becoming a fully accepted and integrated aspect of modern culture. Maybe that last statement is something of an exaggeration, however thats where I see it headed.
Yet within that evolution I have a sense that a couple of conventional ‘givens’ within our pagan heritage, may have come through as misunderstood or distorted or simply ‘lost in translation’. Or maybe not. lets see.
I’d like to explore and question some commonly held notions around both Samhain and the Solstices.
First Samhain: It is generally recognised and understood that Samhain marks the end of the cycle of the year – the time of honoring death and the departed. The time in nature where leaves fall, nights close in and the spirits seem closest. All of this is open to interpretation, but seems to reflect the natural turning of the seasons and the ending of the cycle of life. I’m fine with that.
What also seems to have become commonly accepted in more recent years, within pagan circles is that Samhain marks the beginning of a new cycle and is for example, often referred to as ‘The Celtic New Year’ . Yet this doesn’t sit well with either my experience or my understanding.
When I tune into this time of year (I am writing this on the 11th of November), it does not feel or reflect a new year. Rather, it reflects a period of extended death and dormancy; a time ‘of no time’ where things wilt and fade, regress and shade into hibernation and dormancy. A time of letting go.
There is something vital here about recuperation and rest. Whereas launching straight into a New year allows no time for settling into or honouring that space. It feels neither right or natural.
So I would suggest that the western tendency to assume that if something finishes then something else must immediately begin suggests perhaps a lack of patience, intuition and wisdom. To celebrate New Year at Samhain is premature.
I find that allowing the period between Samhain and Winter Solstice as ‘between time’ is a more fulfilling, rewarding and naturally “in tune” way of honouring this period.
Then when Winter Solstice arrives, with its rebirth of the sun, here we are, recuperated, rejuvenated and ready for the readily apparent “New Year”.
Now lets consider another possible discrepancy I find around the Solstices.
It has become common tradition to have a contest between the Holly and the Oak at these times, with the perverse situation arising whereby the Oak tree is King at midwinter while the Holly tree wins out as being supreme at Summer Solstice. Not only does this simply not feel right, it completely misses the point.
Yes, there is a paradox to be noted and marked and honoured at each Solstice: At midsummer, the Oak – fully ascendant and at its potent fullest – will ineviatbly gradually fade as the summer unfolds into autumn. So the sun at its very height at the Solstice must now inevitably slowly sink and decline. The crowning – of both the Oak and the Sun at Summer solstice, must wisely acknowledge their own demise. This ensures a healthy relationship to Sovereignty.
Similarly it is necessary to allow the Holly tree its magnificence and glory at Midwinter and to fullly celebrate its abundant fruitfulness and glossy life-filled leaves, rather than to prematurely cut short its reign at its very height.
To kill each of them off early through ritual battle is to emasculate the oak and eviscerate the Holly in their grandeur.
Midsummer is the obvious and natural time to both celebrate and fully honour the oak: Midwinter the time to fully celebrate and honour the holly. To have a symbolic ‘battle’ at their peak time, during which the oak is overwhelmed and killed at midsummer and the holly similarly so at midwinter, is surely reckless. Is it any wonder the seasons and the cycles of nature are messed up if we both ‘cut them short’ and dishonour them in this way?
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