Entering Winter, the Season of Darkness by Barbara Ardinger

Halloween used to be spelled “-e’en,” with the apostrophe replacing the V in “eve.” The N was probably added so the word ends in a consonant and we don’t have “hallow-wheee.” But people get lazy, and since the late 20th century, both the V and “eve” have disappeared. This holy day is the true beginning of winter. In pre-Christian Europe, it was celebrated by the wild Celts, who called October 31 Samhain (pronounced approximately SOW-un). Today it’s a major sabbat, or holy day, celebrated by most modern pagans. Although religious fundamentalists keep trying to convince us that Halloween is an evil pagan festival (emphasis on the evilness of pagans) and pressuring retailers not to sell little collectable witches, the name of this day is in fact Christian: it’s Hallowed (or Holy) Evening, or the Eve of Holy Days. In the olden days and still today in, for example, the Jewish calendar, a holy day begins when the moon rises on the evening before. October 31 precedes All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2). Like Christmas Eve, it’s a holy (but seldom silent) night.

All Saints Day, the Catholic Encyclopedia informs us, was instituted in the fourth century when dioceses began to divide up and exchange the relics of martyr-saints. At first, only martyrs and St. John the Baptist were recognized, but in 609 Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon in Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all martyr-saints. The theological basis for All Souls Day is the doctrine that “souls that have not been perfectly cleansed from venial sin are debarred from the Beatific Vision.” With prayers, the living can help the dead pass through purgatory. To commemorate “the faithful departed,” the Catholic Encyclopedia further tells us, the priest recites the Office of the Dead and celebrates a Requiem Mass. The vigil for All Saints, or Hallows Eve, was also first celebrated in the fourth century. The Mexican version of this holiday is Día de los Muertos, which is also celebrated on November 1 and 2. That’s when we see the wonderful costumed skeleton figures and the sugar skulls. Like similar festivals in cultures around the globe, this is a celebration of family and ancestors.

Cailleach-300dpi.2 copyAs modern pagans celebrate Samhain, which some of us call Hallows, we do so very eclectically. We honor the dark goddesses, most of whom are crones. The Scandinavian Hel. Yes, her name was appropriated to name that land of fire and endless torture the preachers love to threaten their parishioners with. The name Hel actually means “one who hides or covers up.” The Germanic Frau Holle (a winter goddess), the Scottish Carlin (“old woman”), and the Aztec Tonantzin (“Our Revered Mother,” who miraculously turned into Our Lady of Guadalupe). The Greek Hecate, goddess of the dark moon and where three roads meet (and in Macbeth queen of the witches). The ancient Celtic triple goddess called the Cailleach (pronounced approximately “coyluck”) who, like the year, grows old and annually renews herself.

Sometimes, imitating and honoring Día de los Muertos, we build Samhain altars and on them set photos of family and friends who have passed into the unknown world. Through the years, I have put commercial Halloween candles, a sugar skull from a ritual I attended two decades ago, and glow-in-the-dark plastic skeletons on my altars. I also gather mementoes of my honored dead. A photo of my grandparents when they were thirty years younger than I am now. Old photos of my parents and my brother (all deceased). Photos and souvenirs of friends like Rebecca, Rose, and Arlene, whose deaths left gigantic, ever-present holes in my universe. Paper skulls upon which I’ve written the names of my AIDS buddies. My first cat’s collar and the ashes of two other beloved cats. All of these things, and more, I set on my altar as I create sacred art to honor the dark goddesses and my shining beloved dead. I’ve also led public Samhain rituals in which I handed out paper skulls upon which attendees could write the names of their beloved dead to place on the communal altar. If the dead do indeed come back as ghosts in the season between Samhain and Christmas (just ask Ebenezer Scrooge about those visitors), they’re no doubt glad to be remembered and honored. You can build your own altar this year with photos and mementos mori of your beloved dead.

As winter begins, therefore we’re remembering and celebrating not only our blessed dead but also the darkness itself. Although mainstream metaphysicians talk and talk and talk about The Light, as if light is all we need in our lives, we pagans believe we need The Dark, too. Eggs, seeds, and fetuses develop in the dark. If we didn’t have nighttime, we’d never know daytime. And we need shadows, too, for without them, we’d be walking into walls all the time. I once wrote a pair of essays on enlightenment and endarkenment. Here’s an abridged version of the latter:

Some people say we should never, ever leave the light. We should endeavor to be “light workers” who fill every shadow with light and eliminate all darkness. We should surround ourselves with white light at all times and, like Lady Bountiful, bestow our white light on darker people. This is an exceedingly naïve attitude, and it’s racist, too, as if light skin is better than dark skin. (Except, of course, when we’re reclining on the tanning bed.) If the light’s on all the time, how on earth do we get any sleep? If all there is, is light and there aren’t any shadows, how do we keep from going blind and bumping into things? How do we distinguish one thing from another?

Nearly every standard reference work I’ve looked at says that darkness signifies gloom and “primigenial chaos.” Pagans understand that as much as we crave enlightenment—learning, knowledge, holiness—that much do we also require endarkenment. The New Age just doesn’t seem to have caught on to it yet. But we can help others see that without the darkness we cannot even recognize the light. We need literal shadows—along with psychological and metaphysical ones—to tell us what’s there. When we seek endarkenment, we set out to explore dark places, some of which are in our minds. It’s useful to know that we have those dark places. It’s useful to be aware of our shadows and know that we’re not always kind and good and pure. When we own our shadows, then we can be more tolerant of other people’s shadows. When we’re endarkened, we are capable of change. We can keep hoping that the patriarchy will begin to see its shadows.

Twenty-odd years ago, I led a group of students through what we call the wheel of the year, which is marked by eight sabbats or holy days. At Imbolc (February 1), we held a divination party. At Beltane (May 1), we painted our faces and carried wreaths of flowers through the streets to the ocean. At Lammas (August 1), we harvested our gardens and cooked a feast. At Samhain, we met at Alice’s house. Her back yard was a miniature jungle of oaks and olive trees with a clearing near the center. It was a windy night, and the fire season in Southern California that year was ferocious. As we were laying herbs and flowers, skulls and bones, and a cauldron for scrying on our altar, the wind came up again. That’s when I decided it would be both prudent and meaningful to have a fireless altar. No candles. No incense. We cast our circle, invoked the dark goddesses…and a dog (sacred to Hecate) began howling nearby. It was a most satisfactory ritual.

We can think of a dark altar as a kind of dark mirror. Dark mirrors, which are used for scrying, are backed not by silver but by black paint or paper. They’re nonreflective. Here’s another way to celebrate Halloween. As you quietly sit in the growing darkness of winter, look with the eyes of your imagination to see what the dark mirror shows you. Use the night vision of your soul and look for the crone (or sage) you’re growing up to be. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all?” Regard the fair crone, the fair sage. Not fair as in “pretty,” although you may see the fairness in a face lined with the lessons of a lifetime. Fair as in “without bias, distinct, pleasant and courteous in speech.” What do you want to know about your life in the coming season? In the coming year? Who knows more about you than you yourself? Who can speak more truly for you? Sit in the darkness with the crone or sage you will become and ask yourself question about the future. Listen to your answers.

And remember—a spark of light will appear at the winter solstice and the light of the year will be reborn at Imbolc, which is the true beginning of spring. In the olden days, people feared winter as a season of darkness and cold and possible starvation, whereas these days, we have electric lights and central heating and microwaves. But it’s still useful to face the dark, cold season, acknowledge our shadows, and celebrate the darkness in which the reborn light germinates. Bright blessings to all on Hallows Eve!

Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic.  Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations.  When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.

Categories: Goddess, Goddess Spirituality, Pagan Holidays

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25 replies

  1. What wise and profound words. Thanks! It is hard to think of entering darkness when our temperatures are in high 80s here in Lesbos, that is until the sun sets at 5 pm (we already ended daylight savings time). Blessed be!


  2. Thanks…. Its always been difficult to think of darkness as good ..but life begins in the dark like the seed underground…this really made me think, that it too is a Blessing…..Beautiful


  3. Very nice!

    Thanks for these details, some which I was not familiar with, so I appreciate your making them accessible to me.

    I have a question or two… You mentioned taking some students through a year long ritual celebration, wheel of the year. Do you still mark those holy days? What is the difference between performing them alone and in a coven? Is it just personal or is there some symbolism that goes with numbers of persons participating?

    I ask because we have to wrestle with distinctions between rituals solitarily performed and rituals performed in a collective. Women have been shut out of some collective ritual performances (or positions..) and yet, there is scarce little record of women constructing other rituals or creating alternatives.

    I’m interested in how this is observed or valued in other traditions.

    thanks amina


    • I don’t teach the class anymore. It only lasted a couple of years before everyone got too busy for classes and regular full moon rituals. Although I’ve been a solitary again for several years, I still go to rituals. In fact, I’m going to one tomorrow night. We’ve been asked to bring photos and mementos of family and friends to set on the altar. I don’t think there’s any symbolism that goes with being solitary or in a circle or coven (Deanne–can you add to this conversation?), but the energy is always different. One person can seldom stir up as much energy, of course, as a group that knows what it’s doing. In pagan circles, women usually lead the rituals, unlike in the standard-branch churches, where women are ignored, pushed aside into separate rooms, and turned into servants who do all the work for the men who run the churches. That’s one reason why I’m happy as a pagan. Women get to be in charge, and men understand that we are brothers and sisters, not bosses and workers. There’s a whole library of books about priestesses.


  4. What a wonderful essay for the growing dark! Thank-you, Barbara! Bright Blessings for Samhain!


  5. Lovely, Barbara! I have come to realize – the older I get the more I appreciate the darkness and shadows. Perhaps it is just finally understanding them!


  6. Very moving, enlightening and endarkening. All of Life and Death is sacred, and I always look forward to celebrating the lives of family and friends who’ve passed on. There’s such a pressure to make it a commercial celebration, but I agree it’s a holy time. thank you for sharing your wisdom, Barbara


  7. Thank you so much for a very enlightening and thought provoking read.


  8. Happy eve of All Hallow’s Eve, Barbara, blessed Samhain, and happy new year! Blessed Bees!


  9. “As if light is all we need in our lives…” Great insight, and reminds me too of those one-sided polarities, like “whiter than snow” or “darker than midnight” or “more golden than dawn.” Does it really add something to say “more golden” than dawn?


  10. This was a wonderful read! Thank you so much. I love the idea of sitting with your crone self and asking her questions. That seems like such a profound exercise and experience, so simple yet I would imagine it could leave quite an impact if you let it. I’m in my mid 20s with a hubby, 1 year old, and am currently on a journey to transform my life. I have much to learn from my crone self, as well as the crone goddesses. I think I’ll meditate with them Samhain night :)

    Do you still in SoCal? I live in South OC.


    • Let’s see if this works, if I don’t go to the FAR site to reply.

      I live in Long Beach. Where in South OC do you live?


      Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. http://www.barbaraardinger.com. Do you want to write a book but not embarrass yourself in print? Let me be your editor! Nifty quotation: “A poem [or literary work] is never finished, only abandoned.” –Paul Valery


  11. Barbara: Thank you for this reminder about the true magic in this season and the value of exploring and experiencing the shadow side, including the ultimate mystery of death. Here in Tucson we have a wonderful collective celebration of the Day of the Dead which (so far) is entirely grassroots. It’s a parade through downtown which culminates in a large, late night music and light party. The people that march in this parade are individuals and families commemorating their beloved dead, artists displaying amazing puppets and floats pertaining to the holiday, and members of local, usually left-wing causes carrying signs and slogans (the shadow side of Tucson). Organizers trundle a giant cauldron through the streets and people put their messages to the dead in it as it passes by. It’s a true happening, unencumbered by commercialism or the deadening hand of conventional politics.


    • I just attended a Day of the Dead parade like the one you describe in Missoula, Montana. It was a great celebration of the city itself, completely disconnected from commercialism. They’ve been doing it for 21 years, including fire jugglers and African drums and dancers. Even though it rained, everyone stuck around to enjoy the party.


  12. Thank you so much dear Sis!! We must honor the dark, as well as the light, for it stands for our regeneration!!! Blessed Samhain to you!!


  13. What a wonderful post, Barbara! Thank you. I, for one, have always enjoyed the night, which is not the same as enjoying The Dark. There are nights I have stood under a Milky Way so bright that I could literally read a book by starlight alone. And there are nights I could barely see a few inches in front of me. (Yes, there are far more than 50 shades of dark!) I relish them all, all the sounds and sights and creatures of this sphere. Bringing the sacredness into that space is so perfect. With the Goddess’ blessings, I may find a group here that I can join for celebrations of the year.


  14. i am more and more intrigued with the *Dark* and the Crone Goddesses the older i get! thank you for a beautiful and insightful piece on Samhain!!


  15. thank you! excellent article!


  16. Thanks, Barbara, for this wonderful article about Samhain. From now on, instead of asking my future self how she would deal with a situation that confounds me, I will do a little ritual with my crone self and ask her instead (of course, she’s the same person, but Crone defines wisdom for me).

    Here’s a chant I wrote for this time of year:

    Rest, rest in you, Mother,
    Homeward we wend.
    Earth at the beginning,
    Earth at the end.

    Not just bright blessings,



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