All Saints Day and All Souls Day by Barbara Ardinger

In the Roman Catholic calendar, today is All Saints Day, tomorrow, All Souls Day. The following slightly edited paragraphs are from my book Pagan Every Day (RedWheel/Weiser, 2006), which is obviously not just about Pagan topics. (I couldn’t find goddesses for every day of the year, so I widened my view.)

November 1: All Saints Day

All Saints Day

During the persecutions of Diocletian (245–313), the number of martyrs became so great that separate days could not be assigned to honor them. They were given common memorial days. 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 to the Blessed Virgin and all martyr-saints. The vigil for All Saints’ is Hallows Eve, which was also first celebrated in the fourth century. By the 13th century, All Saints’ Day was solemnly celebrated to honor “all saints known and unknown” and to remedy any deficiencies by the faithful in remembering the saints on their proper days. In other words, it became a sacerdotal catch-up day. If a saint was neglected on his assigned day, he could be honored today.

Why do Pagans need to know about All Saints’ Day? We have records of our own martyrs, some of whom were actually witches, many of whom were women, most of whom were found to be disobedient to the Church. Today is the one day of the year, I think, when we should think about the mythical nine million burned witches and say, “Never again.” (Even one person burned at the stake is too many.) More important, we can acknowledge people today who have come out as witches and lost jobs or custody of their children or suffered mockery (or worse). We can send them healing energy from our circles and covens.

Pagans can celebrate All Saints’ Day not by elevating anyone to sainthood but by remembering that every single one of us is a holy being. We’re neither martyrs nor sinners, just ordinary people getting along in the world. Reader, if that’s not cause for celebration, what is?

November 2: All Souls Day

All Souls Day

To commemorate the faithful departed, the Catholic Encyclopedia tells us, the priest recites the Office of the Dead and celebrates a Requiem Mass. 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.

Pagans seem to think that the word “soul” is the private property of the standard-brand religions. For a thousand years, however, “soul,” which comes from the Teutonic sáwl and the Gothic saiwala, has meant “the spiritual part of man” (women were believed not to have souls), “the principle of life in man or animals.” “Soul” is not a Latin word. Linguists tell us that in English the most basic words are the Anglo-Saxon words; “soul” is thus an idea basic to our knowledge of ourselves.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes in Women Who Run with the Wolves (published in 1996) about the “unquestioned status quo, the ‘behave yourself; don’t make waves; don’t think too hard’” value system of our modern society. The point of “running with wolves” is that women should reclaim their wild souls, their true selves, which have been polluted or stolen or subjugated.

Isn’t this true for all people? We’re reading all the time that our children’s souls are being hijacked by video games or leached away by schools that don’t teach them anything. We’re seeing TV shows about women who subject themselves to “extreme makeovers” so they match some impossible (soulless?) image. We’re hearing about men who sell their souls to corporations so they can build gazillion dollar houses.

On All Souls Day, let us talk about our souls, about soul itself. Let us examine our Neopagan values with renewed respect. Reader, I’ve heard it said that we’re the wave of the future. What do you think?

Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (, 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: holiday, Paganism

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16 replies

  1. Thank you so much for this post. The witchcraft trials and executions is such an important part of our collective history for Pagans and those who aren’t Pagan alike to remember, especially as people around the globe are still being killed due to fears of witchcraft. Your thoughts about our souls are beautiful!


  2. I wonder how many Catholics have a clue about these memorials. My own understanding has changed over the decades, as “saints” became more human and universal. This is the difficulty I have with the public liturgy – it seems cemented not in living history but in static Middle Ages. I love All Souls Day as it brings a gathering of all my relations, friends, etc. Does anyone still believe in “purgatory”? Seems it was an idea to help sell indulgences to fill the hierarchy’s coffers. So much of what you write here resonates with my own understanding, Barbara A. And “Women Who Run With the Wolves” is one of my favourite books.


  3. Thanks so much for this article! I especially enjoyed

    “Pagans can celebrate All Saints’ Day not by elevating anyone to sainthood but by remembering that every single one of us is a holy being. We’re neither martyrs nor sinners, just ordinary people getting along in the world. Reader, if that’s not cause for celebration, what is?”…………so true!

    Remembering the Burning Times is important for everyone, not just neopagans, just as much as remembering the Holocaust, or the genocide of Rwanda, is important for all human beings. The witch trials were about fear and hatred of women. In some villages in Germany not even a female infant was left alive.


  4. Beautiful post, Barbara. Thank you for this stirring call to reclaim our souls.


  5. As a Catholic woman I too am grateful beyond words for this and other posts on this blog. MANY in the Church do consider (but don’t say enough about) the sad and shameful “important collective history” of the witchcraft trials and executions of women. I stay Catholic to keep SAYING things like this, and because I am deeply rooted in this family because of my own Irish (especially women) ancestors who died to hold fast to the faith. Politics and power are behind every kind of deception and brutality – no doubt about that – both within the church and beyond. Today’s Catholics are learning to run with the wolves and Dr. Estes’ stories have helped us. I work with interfaith groups of adults and youth who tell stories from many traditions. Appreciate this blog on so many levels. Thank you.


  6. Thank you, Barbara. This is a sobering call to reclaim our own souls and reread, Clarissa Pinkola Estés “Women Who Run with the Wolves.”

    As a Witch, I also love having a new focus for these important All Hallows days.


  7. I am confused by this post.
    Wasn’t Diocletian a pagan?
    What is the difference between a pagan and a Neopagan?


    • Diocletian was a Roman emperor who was born and died in Dalmatia (which today is Serbia and Croatia). His was the last really big persecution of Christians.

      The olden-days pagans were the people who did not worship the standard-brand god, whether he’s called Jehovah, Yahveh, Yah, Muhammad, Jesus, or addressed by any of the 99 names of god. As we generally think of it, the pagans lived before the fall of the western Roman empire in 476 CE. (The eastern empire, called Byzantine, lasted about another thousand years, basically until the Fourth Crusade (ca. 1200), when the Christian army from western Europe conquered Muslim-led Constantinople and raped and murdered everyone in the city.)

      Neo–or New–Pagans are people living today who honor and worship the elder gods and goddesses of nearly all the old pantheons. Sort of a mish-mash of Egyptian, Assyrian, Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman, Germanic, and Norse pantheons. (And I bet I’ve forgotten some.) Neopaganism is an earth-based religion; we like to say we worship the ground under our feet Some neopagans are called Reconstructionists because they try to worship the same way our foremothers and forefathers did. They use the old literature and archaeological evidence to reconstruct the old rituals and customs. There are also Wiccans, who are pagans who follow the “old religion” more or less invented by Gerald B. Gardner before World War II. There are also Heathens, who scorn the word “pagan” and follow the old Germanic and Norse pantheons and customs. I suspect that most neopagans are ecclectics, meaning we grab any old ritual or custom we can get our hands on and worship just about every goddess or god that isn’t Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. Actually, we make it up as we go along.

      Note, however, that we do not refer to Hindu, Muslim, Native American, African animist, and Buddhist people as pagans.

      Thus endeth the lesson. Probably more than you really wanted to know, eh?


      • Excellent response! May I quote this description of NeoPaganism in my teachings? I am a Wiccan High Priestess so I teach new coven students and am active in my community so also teach a “What is Wicca?” class to the public for our Wicca 101 Series.

        I would certainly credit you.


      • I like your definitions. They are very clear.

        One more question- what would Diocletian have called himself way back when? I am assuming “pagan” is word invented by monotheists and not something polytheistic worshipers came up with for themselves. My etymology dictionary says ‘pagan’ comes from the Late Latin paganus, meaning ‘villager’, ‘rustic’, ‘civilian’.


  8. Faelind, but of course! I would be honored to be quoted. But please check with Deanne Quarrie (also on this site) to make sure I haven’t said anything too stupid. I’m pretty sure I’ve got all my facts right, but there are lots of different interpretations and nuances of words like “pagan” and “neopagan.”


  9. I am on other lists with her on facebook, I will check! I think you have it right, though.


  10. Diocletian no doubt called himself a Roman. Even though he was born in Dalmatia, he was upwardly mobile, and what one rose to was Roman citizenship. He became emperor. As far as I know, no one used the word “pagan” to characterize himself or herself back then. Pagans were rubes and hicks, little better than barbarians. That word, BTW, come from the Greeks’ belief that the people who lived around the Black Sea didn’t speak real languages. They barked like dogs, “bar bar bar.” I’m pretty no one was dumb enough to call himself a pagan, not even ironically.

    Remember, the Jews were the first monotheists. Until Constantine (and maybe later), the Christans were rude upstarts. They had to have someone to look down on. Pagans.

    “Pagan” didn’t gain an even slightly respectable connotation until the last quarter of the 20th century. (Well, maybe we are still not respectable. It depends on who you’re talking to.

    Oh, yes–the “civilian” part: the early Christians thought of themselves as an army of God. So the hicks and rubes were also civilians. Pagans just couldn’t win!


    • oops “barbarian” comes from “bar-bar.” “pagan” originally meant country dweller.

      This discussion suggests to me that that we need to define our terms. All Neo-Pagans do share some things, but there is a big difference between a patriarchal pagan who does not criticize the myths of warrior Gods and a Goddess feminist. All Christians do share some things too, but there are a wide variety of differences included in that umbrella term.Sometimes the umbrella term is useful, for example most Neo-Pagans believe the body and nature are sacred. In other cases it is not, as only some Neo-Pagans, for example, Starhawk and Re-claiming Wiccans, criticize patriarchy and war.

      But we digress.


      • Carol, that’s for sure. I’ve known some Very Patriarchal Pagans, including one semi-famous high priest who always made sure his high priestess was a lot younger and less educated than he was. And of course I’ve encountered men who worship the rapists like Ares and Zeus and a bunch of the other old boys. (There used to be a pagan sort of old boys club, too, but I don’t know how many of those old boys are still alive.)

        You’re right. Like Marija Gimbutas, Starhawk, Z. Budapest and numerous other women, you and I and a lot of other women are Goddess feminists and have very little interests in the old gods. Some of us call ourselves Dianics, others don’t use that label.

        There’s a ton of diversity among pagans today. And that’s an understatement.


    • Thank you Barbara and Carol. I have really enjoyed this discussion and learning about the diversity among Neo-Pagans.


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