Those who have died have never, never left The dead are not under the earth They are in the rustling trees They are in the groaning woods They are in the crying grass They are in the moaning rocks The dead are not under the earth “Breaths” by Sweet Honey in the Rock (1988)
This is the most magical time of the year, the season of the witch. Samhain may be behind us, yet the long cold months of winter still loom ahead.
It begins for many at Samhain, observed secularly in modern times as Halloween. For others, they begin to notice the shift earlier, perhaps sometime around or after the autumn equinox. For still others, it may not become apparent until later, particularly in the warmer climates where the chill of fall does not arrive until the depths of winter (if at all).
Yet when that chill, that sharp crispness in the air does arrive, combined with the lengthening velvet darkness of night, it has certainly arrived.
The Dark Time.
It is the witch’s new year, out of the recognition that life gestates first in darkness, and that dawn emerges from the preceding night.
This is a time conducive to solitary observation and practice, although we do rely on the comfort of our families and community as well to help see us through the harrowing winter. We can also move our ritual and magical practices indoors, and spend more time in quiet contemplation. Silence is good, for it is in the silence that we can hear the whispers of our departed kin and the wild spirits of the land.
In truth, the witch cannot escape death. To fear death is to harbor fear and suspicion for all spirits, even the best-intentioned. To do this work, we cannot be afraid of the dark. We need to have the courage to peer into the shadows and confront mortality, and in time gain acceptance of death as a part of the natural cycle. We live in a world of spirits, and a great many of these spirits are unseen and belong to the realm of the dead.
The ability to act as a seer, one who is able to see and interact with spirits, is one that is well documented. Some have a natural inborn inclination it seems, and for them, death as a threshold to the next stage of being is perhaps most apparent. There are those who for as long as they could remember were seers, able to hear and perceive spirits, normally without even trying.
For most us, this is a skill we may have gained later in life, if at all. I believe that all of us have a capacity to contact and have awareness of spirits to a certain degree. Some are more naturally gifted in this regard, yet as with all things, with practice some level of aptitude can be attained.
In attempting to become better spirit communicator, our inability to see past the barrier of death is perhaps one of the greatest limitations we need to overcome.
I believe this is the true gift of Samhain, and of this season as a whole, and why this time is so important, particularly for those of us who are called to the path of the witch. It is a sanctioned time for honoring the dead, and for contemplating the meaning of death on all levels, both literal and metaphorical. The symbolism of death and decay help align us to these mysteries and attune us to this time.
The honoring of ancestors is ideally something that we do as part of our regular practice, yet for many of us this is a foreign concept. It does not exist for many of us in mainstream culture, outside of the (very) occasional trip to a cemetery to honor a deceased loved one. Yet in many cultures, the veneration of the dead is as commonplace as prayers offered up to deities, or even more so. After all, who is more likely to have your back than your own ancestral kin? If you missed the chance of Samhain to honor the ancestors, fear not. The season extends for far longer than the night of October 31st. In practice, the entire stretch of time between now and perhaps Solstice (or even Imbolc, February 1st), is high time to contact the dead and pay respects.
So consider spending some time, perhaps alone, in sacred space. This could be done as simply as having a table, a glass of wine (or other beverage) and a candle. Having at least fifteen minutes of uninterrupted time is ideal, but this could be done in as little as five.
Get very quiet and still and focus on your breathing. Just listen and observe. Stare into the candle’s flame.
Once you have gotten very still, begin to soften your vision. You can still peer into the candle, yet try not to focus on any point. Just listen and observe. For those visually-inclined, you may picture mists surrounding you and filling the room. You could imagine hearing the rustling of a soft breeze, perhaps scattering fall leaves.
Feel in your heart the desire to meet with your ancestors. Feel that connection within you, within your own blood stretching back through the generations.
Silently, call one forth. Sense them approach from the back of the room and draw nearer. The ancestor could be one that you recognize, or it may not be. Do not question the outer form too much. An ancestor could emerge who is not of blood, but instead of spirit (perhaps a witchy antecedent) or even an ancestral spirit of the land. Trust your experience.
Acknowledge the ancestor, and greet them warmly. Offer them hospitality with the drink, and share a sip with them.
Listen to what they have to say. Spend time listening before you ask. When your time comes to ask, speak from your heart. If you are not sure what to say, you can ask them how they think you’re doing, and if they have any advice for the next step on your path.
Thank them for their presence when they turn to leave, or it is your time to go. Set the intent to speak with them again, in your own time.
Another way of contacting the ancestral dead can be through mirror scrying. A scrying mirror can be easily made through spray-painting the back of an old glass picture frame. In looking into the scrying mirror, you can similarly call forth the dead while peering into your own reflection. Each time you are looking into a mirror, at your own image, you are seeing the product of the ancestors- you. They can speak through you, in a most powerful way.
The ancestors can show us that death is but a step in the great cycle of life, a transition between different states of being. The journey that occurs after death is of course one of great speculation, a debate that has spanned across the ages. For my perspective on this, I will elaborate further in my next post on the mysteries of the cauldron as a key symbol and motif in Celtic lore, and how it can be interpreted by the witch in general as a tool and a meditative key. At the highest level, the cauldron represents regeneration, and holds the primordial brew into which all spirits enter through death before their eventual rebirth. I will present a lot of opinions and my own best guesses, but my intent is never to indoctrinate. My hope is to open doors and provoke further thought and investigation.
With that said, I urge you to take time to consider in your own way what death means for you, to the extent you are comfortable with at this time. For myself, I have found that the collection of animal bones and remains has been a way to create a physical connection with death. In caring for these remnants, I have developed a sense of stewardship and respect for them. The witch does not need to be ridden by spirits to have a relationship with the dead. Sometimes it is just as simple as giving an offering, or spending time in dialog as one would with a friend. Sometimes it is no more than a knowing touch.
Reach out, touch. Allow yourself to be touched by the ancestors. Be moved by the gifts of the Dark Time.
Blessings from the darkness, witches!