Third and Fourth Days of Samhain: Spirals and Soundings


Many years ago now, I participated in an online discussion group that included members of multiple faiths. It wasn’t always a comfortable space, nor did it need to be. We were there for engagement, but not necessarily ease. I recall a sharp criticism of Pagan perspectives on cycles and circles: that a circle is ultimately a cage, a trap, with no escape, and that only a faith that provided an out could offer anything like freedom.

It’s a distinctive view of salvation, or liberation, particularly as a faith rather than a practice. The discussion at the time was also particularly focused on one version of the Goddess as a kind of stand-in for all Pagan belief — a limited perspective the critic brought with him. That is, the (or a) Goddess as immanent, a part of the world, suffering along with mortals, influenced by human actions and wounded by human deeds stemming from ignorance. How, asked the critic, could such a figure ever meet our human hunger for transcendence?

It’s an interesting idea to unpack and explore, rather than simply reacting to. Most traditions have a round of observances, festivals, holidays, and don’t seem to feel bound or constrained by them. I haven’t found Druid practices any different. It’s the combination of the familiar and the new that keeps ritual observances fresh. For that reason, though the circle is a powerful symbol, and a kind of default shape for in-person Druid and other Pagan ritual, the underlying sense I perceive, and another widespread Pagan image, is the spiral. The circle is its two-dimensional version. Energetic movement or potential for movement curls in the spiral, a coil or spring or serpent power. It’s the source of rebirth, regeneration, that ritual glimpses and evokes and embodies. “True voyage is return” indeed, as long as we realize that “everything She touches changes”.

Newgrange entrance. Photo courtesy Spud Murphy/Wikipedia

As a meditation object, a “Samhain mandala”, the spiral is potent. Drawing it, tracing or painting it on the body, can work as well for Beltane, for the energies spiraling into summer that are manifesting in whorls and curls of plant tendrils, of the burgeoning natural world, of seashells and spiral galaxies, of the long spiral of death and rebirth. Enter the underworld at Samhain and re-emerge at Beltane every year, practicing the pattern we live, of dying and being reborn. The festivals mirror and echo off each other across the calendar, across the hemispheres. What have I been born from? asks my Beltane self. What am I building right now as I near Samhain that will emerge in the early summer?

Samhain for me is a well. Maybe a well that opens onto the Otherworld, if I choose to dive in. Or sometimes a sea, endless, restless, caressing or lashing our mortal shores. I attempt to sound it, to measure its depth or outlines, to communicate by way of the thin line of attention or ritual or meditation, a line disappearing into the depths toward that which needs to speak with me. I don’t need to worry about missing it: what I do not heed consciously will work its way to the surface regardless.

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If there’s one thing I know about the ancestors, it’s that they will be heard. Death has not so enfeebled them that they can only speak one time each year, or only with my attention and respect. Rather, my attention and respect are gifts I can offer, so that ancestral patterns, goals, wisdom can emerge within my circle of intention: I can meet in a circle with my ancestors, as with a spiritual council, and know what is afoot, and whether it aligns with what I am doing now. Not all their long-term projects deserve my assent or participation.

And I also bring assets to the council: present understandings, a body and set of experiences derived from being alive now, with links to the future and my own capacities as ancestor-in-training. For this reason, a mirror is one of my Samhain sacred tools: the face of my ancestors is also mine. I reflect a part of what they accomplished, what survives in this world, what may rest in the earth as a potential for them to manifest, should they return to bodies within this particular ancestral line.

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