Reflections on Samhain and life as a gay witch
The leaves rattle in the trees as an ever-more- chilling wind makes its presence known. An explosion of sullen reds, crisp spark yellows, ember oranges and dry browns mark this time of year, while paper ghosts and inflatable goblins take up residence in yards and windows.
At least, that’s what many people think of when they hear the words “autumn” and “Halloween.”
Here in Texas the trees might not be — or get — as colorful as they do in Vermont or Maine. But we still celebrate this season and Halloween by decorating and carving pumpkins, finding a corn maze to navigate or testing our courage at a nearby haunted house.
And with Halloween just days away, children are screaming about what cartoon character they want to dress up as for trick-or-treating, while parents allow the children to drag them from one aisle at the store to another, looking at costumes. Teens who feel they are too old to trick-or-treat are planning parties where they might use a Ouija Board to attempt a conversation with the dead.
Also at this time of year, you may notice more people wearing pendants with pentacles and pentagrams, the stars upright and often simple in design. You may walk right on by, giving them only a fleeting glance without really thinking about what those icons might mean to them.
But what if the jewelry is a symbol of who that person really is, a statement of their beliefs?
What if by wearing a pentagram or pentacle, they were coming out, and wearing that symbol was as freeing to them as being at a gay Pride event is for the newly out gay person? What if proudly wearing that pentacle pendant is their way of coming out of the “broom closet,” so to speak, as witches, practitioners of Wicca.
Let’s clear something up before we go any further: real witches — true Wiccans — do not use magick (spelled with a k to differentiate between reality and fantastical magic found in books) for evil.
We do not worship the devil; and although we have a horned god, he is not Satan, he is the god of the hunt, said to have antlers like a stag.
We don’t curse people, kill babies or drink blood. Heck, most of us are soccer moms and dads, college students or grandparents taking their grandkids to get ice cream.
Yes, we are normal, everyday people. And yes, men are called witches, too; the word warlock means “truth-twister,” and nobody wants to be that, now do they?
The only way we differ from others is in our spiritual beliefs. And we practice actual tolerance and acceptance of all people and beliefs — with the exception of religious practices that are actually harmful to ourselves or others.
We practice magick, cast spells, make tonics and grow herbs. We do not use magick for evil. We believe in karma, and we follow the Law of Three: “Remember that what you cast returns the magic times three. Lest it harm none, so mote it be.”
What that means is that whatever you put out there in life, you get back times three. If you put out negativity, you will get three times the negativity coming back at you.
Many people come out as witches, as practitioners of Wicca and believers in the goddess in October. And so in keeping with that tradition, so am I.
It’s a tad bit ironic that I’m coming out as a witch this month, since the LGBT community celebrates National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11, and since October is also National Gay History Month. Still, many outside the pagan community don’t realize the allure of coming out as a Wiccan in October.
In Celtic culture, Halloween — or Samhain, as we witches and pagans call it — was New Year’s Day, marking the end of a year past and the beginning of the year yet to come.
To the Celts, Samhain was the day when the veil between life and death was at its thinnest. This wasn’t a bad thing, though.
In fact, it was a day to remember those who had died earlier in the year and before, and to be close to them once again.
In some traditions of Wicca (think faiths or denominations when you read traditions) and lore, the dead family members would reveal the location of buried treasure or a secret bit of knowledge that would help the living.
Often, Samhain is a celebration of continued life, and since many witches believe in reincarnation, we know that our dearly beloved who are dead will be reincarnated in the future.
Samhain is also the third and final harvest celebration of the eight Wiccan holidays. It’s the largest major feast of the Turning of The Wheel. Contrary to popular belief, on this night witches don’t take anything from their gardens. They might decorate their altars with small pumpkins, hay, Indian corn or other tokens related to the season. Children might put candy on their own altars as a gift of to the god and goddess.
The cauldron is another item of great importance often used in some Wiccan traditions. The ceremony of Samhain may involve inviting the Crone (a wise grandmother-type figure; think a sharp-tongued, wise matriarch) to grant wisdom to the witch or witches who invoked her.
Grandparents or a high priestess or priest may retell the legend of the goddess Cerridwen or tell a mourning story for the dying god, which is similar to how a Good Friday service in the Christian religion focuses the death of Christ.
People may also make totems and raise totem energy by making and wearing ceremonial masks to depict personal or group magick and powers. There could be drum circles to praise the god and goddess and thank them for another year, to celebrate life and summon good energies to help with the coming year.
Those who have a gift of divination might try scrying or reflective meditation to see all that they were supposed to learn within the past year and find how to take that knowledge forward with
them into the next year.
Those looking for love might also try using a small mirror to catch the face of somebody they might have a relationship with, or bob for apples with another person with the hope that two people catch the same apple in their mouths. If this
happens, the people might try to pursue a relationship with each other, and even bury the apple, in the tradition of the Celts.
To the Celts, apples were sacred and they highly valued apple magick. They believed that when a witch caught an apple in his or her mouth, part of their soul trickled into the apple. The witch could then eat the apple to attain prosperity, or bury it whole on their property in hopes that it would bring continued bounty over the next few months of winter.
So as you can see, we witches aren’t so bad. Sure, we do things a little differently, but we’re not chopping up people or drinking blood.
We chop up plants for rituals, spells and tonics, and drink water and soda when we’re thirsty — just like everybody else.
We’re as normal as you are.
Oh, and we also don’t consider being LGTBQ as sinful. To us, everybody just is who they are. Gay people, in most Wiccan traditions, are seen as having both masculine and feminine traits — being balanced and in touch with the god and goddess.
If you’re interested in learning more about Wicca, you can always check out books from the library or buy them. If you see a book with the “Llewellyn” name and the icon of a crescent moon at the bottom of itss spine, it’s almost a guarantee to be a good and informative book on what real magick and witchcraft are like.
You can also find lots of information online, and you can do an online search for a CUUPs group near you.
To all who read this, be you a fellow witch, a Christian or somebody in between religions and trying to find your way: I wish you a bountiful fall. And in closing: “Merry meet, merry part, and merry meet again,” which means that when we encounter each other, may you be doing good, may you be doing good when we part ways, and when we run into each other again later on in life, may you be doing well still!
• Wicca: noun: (sometimes initial capital letter) witchcraft, especially benevolent, nature-oriented practices derived from pre-Christian religions.
Word Origin & History: An Old English masc. noun meaning “male witch, wizard, soothsayer, sorcerer, magician.” Use of the word in modern contexts traces to English folklorist Gerald Gardner (1884-1964), who is said to have joined circa 1939 an occult group in New Forest, Hampshire, England, for which he claimed an unbroken tradition to medieval times. Gardner seems to have first used it in print in 1954, in his book “Witchcraft Today” (e.g.: “Witches were the Wica or wise people, with herbal knowledge and a working occult teaching usually used for good ….”). In published and unpublished material, he apparently only ever used the word as a mass noun referring to adherents of the practice and not as the name of the practice itself. Some of his followers continue to use it in this sense.
In the late 1960s the term came into use as the title of a modern pagan movement associated with witchcraft. The first printed reference in this usage seems to be 1969, in “The Truth About Witchcraft” by freelance author Hans Holzer.
Alex Sanders was a highly visible representative of neo-pagan Witchcraft in the late 1960s and early 1970s. During this time he appears to have popularized use of the term in this sense. Later books c.1989 teaching modernized witchcraft using the same term account for its rise and popularity, especially in U.S.
• pagan: noun: 1. one of a people or community observing a polytheistic religion, as the ancient Romans and Greeks. 2. a person who is not a Christian, Jew or Muslim. 3. an irreligious or hedonistic person.
Adjective: 4. pertaining to the worship or worshipers of any religion that is neither Christian, Jewish nor Muslim. 5. of, pertaining to or characteristic of pagans. 6. irreligious or hedonistic.
Word Origin & History: late 14c., from L.L. paganus “pagan,” in classical Latin. “villager, rustic, civilian,” from pagus “rural district,” originally “district limited by markers,” thus related to pangere “to fix, fasten,” from PIE base *pag- “to fix.” Religious sense is often said to derive from conservative rural adherence to the old gods after the Christianization of Roman towns and cities; but the word in this sense predates that period in church history, and it is more likely derived from the use of paganus in Roman military jargon for “civilian, incompetent soldier,” which Christians (Tertullian, c.202; Augustine) picked up with the military imagery of the early church (e.g. milites “soldier of Christ,” etc.). Applied to modern pantheists and nature worshippers from 1908.
• pentagram: noun: a five-pointed, star-shaped figure made by extending the sides of a regular pentagon until they meet, used as an occult symbol by the Pythagoreans and later philosophers, by magicians, etc. Also called pentacle, pentangle, pentalpha.
Word Origin & History: pentagram: “five-pointed star,” 1833, from Gk. pentagrammon, properly neut. of adj. pentagrammos “having five lines,” from pente “five” + gramma “what is written.”
• pentacle: noun: 1. The same figure as a pentagram, except in magical usage, where is has been extended to other symbols of power, including a six-point star. 2. a similar figure, as a hexagram.
Word Origin & History: 1594, from M.L. pentaculum, a hybrid coined from Gk. pente “five” + L. -culum, dim. suffix. But the exact origin is obscure. It. had pentacolo “anything with five points,” and Fr. pentacle (16c.) was the name of something used in necromancy, perhaps a five-branched candlestick. Fr. pentacol “amulet worn around the neck” (14c.), however, is from pend- “to hang” + a “to” + col “neck.”
— SOURCE: Dictionary.com
THE WHEEL OF THE YEAR
The Wheel of the Year is a neopagan term for the annual cycle of the Earth’s seasons. It consists of eight festivals, spaced at approximately even intervals throughout the year. These festivals are referred to as Sabbats.
While the term Sabbat originated from Abrahamic faiths such as Judaism and Christianity and is of Hebrew origin, the festivals themselves have historical origins in Celtic and Germanic pre-Christian feasts, and the Wheel of the Year, as has developed in modern Paganism and Wicca, is really a combination of the two cultures’ solstice and equinox celebrations.
When melded together, the two European Festival Cycles merge to form eight festivals in modern renderings. Together, these festivals are understood by some neopagans to be the Bronze Age religious festivals of Europe. As with all cultures’ use of festivals and traditions, these festivals have been utilized by European cultures in both the pre- and post-Christian eras as traditional times for the community to celebrate the planting and harvest seasons.
The Wheel of the Year has been important to many people both ancient and modern, from various religious as well as cultural and secular viewpoints.
In many forms of Paganism, natural processes are seen as following a continuous cycle. The passing of time is also seen as cyclical, and is represented by a circle or wheel. The progression of birth, life, decline and death, as experienced in human lives, is echoed in the progression of the seasons.
This cycle is seen as an echo of life, death and rebirth of the God and the fertility of the Goddess. While most of these names derive from historical Celtic and Germanic festivals, the non-traditional names Litha and Mabon, which have become popular in North American Wicca, were introduced by Aidan Kelly in the 1970s. The word “sabbat” itself comes from the witches’ sabbath or sabbat attested to in Early Modern witch trials.
Samhain is considered by most Wiccans to be the most important of the four “greater Sabbats.” It is generally observed on Oct. 31 in the Northern Hemisphere, starting at sundown. Samhain is considered by some as a time to celebrate the lives of those who have passed on, and it often involves paying respect to ancestors, family members, elders of the faith, friends, pets and other loved ones who have died. In some rituals the spirits of the departed are invited to attend the festivities. It is seen as a festival of darkness, which is balanced at the opposite point of the wheel by the spring festival of Beltane, which is celebrated as a festival of light and fertility.
The Wiccan Samhain doesn’t attempt to reconstruct a historical Celtic festival. In actuality it was also widely believed that on Oct. 31, the veil between this world and the afterlife is at its thinnest point of the whole year.
• Midwinter, or Yule:
In most traditions, Yule is celebrated as the rebirth of the Great God, who is viewed as the newborn solstice sun. The method of gathering for this sabbat varies by group or individual practitioner. Some have private ceremonies at home while others hold coven celebrations.
Christmas, celebrated on Dec. 25, continues a pre-Christian festival, and was adopted by the church to commemorate the birth of Jesus, although the information that is given from sacred texts points to spring, and astrological information points to late April/early May as the time of Christ’s birth.
Imbolc (or Candlemas) is one of four “fire festivals” of the Wheel of the Year. Among Dianic Wiccans, Imbolc is the traditional time for initiations. Imbolc is strongly associated with the goddess Brighid.
Among Reclaiming-style witches, Imbolc is considered a traditional time for rededication and pledges for the coming year.
• Vernal Equinox
The vernal equinox, often called Ostara, is celebrated in the Northern Hemisphere around March 21 and in the Southern Hemisphere around Sept. 23, depending upon the specific timing of the equinox. Among the Wiccan sabbats, it is preceded by Imbolc and followed by Beltane.
The name Ostara may be related to the word for “east.” It has been connected to the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre by Jacob Grimm in his Deutsche Mythologie.
In terms of Wiccan ditheism, this festival is characterized by the rejoining of the Mother Goddess and her lover-consort-son, who spent the winter months in death. Other variations include the young god regaining strength in his youth after being born at Yule, and the goddess returning to her maiden aspect.
Beltane is one of the four “fire festivals” or “greater sabbats.” Although the holiday may use features of the Gaelic Bealtaine, such as the bonfire, it bears more relation to the Germanic May Day festival, both in its significance (focusing on fertility) and its rituals (such as maypole dancing). Some Wiccans celebrate ‘High Beltaine’ by enacting a ritual union of the May Lord and Lady.
Midsummer is one of the four solar holidays, and is considered the turning point at which summer reaches its height and the sun shines longest. Among the Wiccan sabbats, Midsummer is preceded by Beltane, and followed by Lammas or Lughnasadh.
Some traditions call the festival “Litha”, a name occurring in Bede’s Reckoning of Time (De Temporum Ratione, 7th century), which preserves a list of the (then-obsolete) Anglo-Saxon names for the twelve months. Ærra Liða (“first” or “preceding” Liða) roughly corresponds to June in our calendar, and Æfterra Liða (“following” Liða) to July. Bede writes that “Litha means ‘gentle’ or ‘navigable’, because in both these months the calm breezes are gentle and they were wont to sail upon the smooth sea.”
Lammas or Lughnasadh is the first of the three pagan autumn harvest festivals, the other two being the autumn equinox (or Mabon) and Samhain. Wiccans mark the holiday by baking a figure of the god in bread, and then symbolically sacrificing and eating it. However, Lamas/ Lughnasadh celebrations vary, as not all pagans are Wiccans.
Wiccan celebrations are not based on Celtic culture, despite common use of a Celtic name Lughnasadh. This name seems to have been a late adoption among Wiccans, since in early versions of Wiccan literature the festival is merely referred to as “August Eve.”
The name Lammas (contraction of Loaf-mass) implies it is an agrarian-based festival and feast of thanksgiving for grain and bread, which symbolizes the first fruits of the harvest. Pagan / Eclectic Neopagan rituals may incorporate elements from either festival.
• Autumnal Equinox
The holiday of Autumn Equinox, Harvest Home, Mabon, the Feast of the Ingathering, Meán Fómhair or Alban Elfed (in Neo-Druidic traditions), is a pagan ritual of thanksgiving for the fruits of the earth and a recognition of the need to share them to secure the blessings of the goddess and the god during the winter months. The name Mabon was coined by Aidan Kelly around 1970 as a reference to Mabon ap Modron, a character from Welsh mythology. In the Northern Hemisphere, this equinox occurs anywhere from Sept. 21 to Sept. 24. In the Southern Hemisphere, the autumn equinox occurs anywhere from March 20 to March 23. Among the sabbats, it is the second of the three pagan harvest festivals, preceded by Lammas / Lughnasadh and followed by Samhain.
Dates for the festivals vary widely. There are many forms of Wicca and Paganism, all of which may have somewhat different traditions associated with the festivals. Therefore there is no definitive or universal tradition observed by all the groups. Most Pagans are somewhat flexible about dates, tending to celebrate at the nearest weekend for convenience.
As the Wheel originates in the Northern Hemisphere, in the Southern Hemisphere many Pagans advance these dates six months so as to coincide with the natural seasons as they occur in their local climates, which oppose and complement those of the Northern Hemisphere. For instance, a Wiccan from southern Australia may celebrate Beltane on Nov. 1, when a Canadian Wiccan is celebrating Samhain. The appropriate set of festivals for an Equatorial Wiccan is problematic.
— SOURCE: Wikipedia
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 28, 2011.