Samhain (sah-win or sow-een) is the fourth and final fire festival (or cross-quarter holiday) in the Celtic Wheel of the Year. The veil between the worlds grows thin, as the portal opens into the Celtic New Year, and we begin our decent into the dreamtime. It is a time of releasing the old, planting seeds for the coming year, deep visioning, receiving transmissions of wisdom, and communing with ancestors, faeries, and the spirit world. We are reminded of the importance of the season of bone that follows the harvest and precludes the spring – a time of silence, of resting, of the death of all that is completed, and the incubation of that which is to come.
This is also a time for remembering all our ancestors and loved ones who have passed into the world beyond. Many traditions honor their ancestors at this time. For the Celts, the celebration is Samhian, in the Hispanic traditions it is known as Dia de los Muertos or “Day of the Dead”. The Christian Church incorporated these festivals into a festival known as “All Souls Day”.
In the homes of our Celtic ancestors, storytelling abounded during the long, dark, winter nights; many of these tales were ghost stories about the Otherworld. At Samhain, the gates to the Otherworld stood wide open, allowing the spirits of the ancestors and the Sidhe to walk among the living. Only those in disguise would venture out on this night to confuse the Sidhe, the Faerie kind and the feared, though revered ancestors; a custom which has been passed down to us as Mischief Night, Halloween and ‘trick or treat’.
Respect for the ancestors is still practiced at Samhain in the Celtic world, when the doors between the worlds are open. This is an excellent time to re-connect with our ancestors.
You may consider having a Samhain celebration for your ancestors. Have a meal with their favorite food and beverages. Be sure to set a place at the table for the ancestors. (Don’t dispose of the food at the end of the meal, but offer it to the nature spirits and animals.) Sing, dance and drum for them. And don’t forget to tell stories about your ancestors and highlight their conquests and achievements. Or simply take some time to get to know your ancestors through a shamanic journey, meditation or other form of trance travel and celebrate with them in the Otherworld.
Here are some suggested journeys from a playshop I recently facilitated at the local Druid Grove’s Samhain celebration. Remember, you should travel with the blessings and the protection and guidance of your spirit guide or totem animal.
Just a note, ancestors may include those of our bloodlines, those of the land where we live, and those of our spiritual kin in a broader sense. Remember, our soul has had many paths and bloodlines along its path.
1st journey – Visit the ancestral grove where ancestors meet in the Otherworld. Ask to be met by one of your ancestors who you knew in this lifetime. This ancestor will be your guide for these journeys. Your clan will be celebrating Samhain – help rekindle bon fires that have been let go dark in preparation for this celebration. Join in fun – sing, dance and enjoy the food and ale. Have your ancestor guide take you around and introduce you to other ancestors in the grove. Talk to anyone you wish… ask about information on family history or bloodlines. Hear the stories the elders have to tell. Their stories were meant for both pleasure and instruction. They tell us of the Otherworld, this world, our culture and about ourselves. Enjoy the celebration.
2nd journey – Return to the grove and ask your ancestor guide to take you to the ancestor or group of ancestors who you need to meet most at this time. Ask what words of wisdom they have to offer you. If you need advice in some area or some problem in your life, ask and they will be happy to share their insight and experience. Remember, they are repositories for ancient wisdom and they can be consulted about matters to do with you as an individual, with the land, with families and issues of Spirit. Be sure to thank your ancestor for their words of wisdom. If it feels appropriate, offer a healing to this ancestor before returning to your current reality.
Honoring the ancestors is also very important, and can be done in a number of ways. Simply thinking of your own family can be important. You can also make a small ancestral shrine, including a photo of your own ancestors, or use a picture of a site which has strong ancestral associations. The shrine can contain other objects which strike you as particularly symbolic: a flat stone on which you can write messages to the ancestors, a basket of stones or shells taken from many different places. An offering dish of honey, sweet-cake or beer can be placed there also (but make sure you replenish it regularly!)
At your ancestral shrine, make offerings, have conversations, tell jokes (the ancestors like news, gossip and humor) and ask advice. The important thing is to establish a feeling of friendship and rapport across the divide of time and place, not only at Samhain, but throughout the year.