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.
As 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.