I haven't sung for a while now. Sometimes when you're sad or grieving, your body and soul just don't want to sing....
My family name, comas diaz, means death and or dying in Spanish. As far as I can remember, I have experienced a special relationship with death. You see, death communicates in a strange way with me. That is, it lets me know when a loved one dies. For example, death speaks to me through premonitions, dreams, and physical reactions. My first memorable encounter with the death of a loved one was during a lucid dream. Dressed as a surgeon, I tried to save the life of a young man in an operating room. “I hope no one died in Puerto Rico,” I told my husband Fred when I woke up. “This dream was strange, ” I said. “Dream? That was no dream, you had a terrible nightmare all night long,” Fred replied. The absence of messages from family that day relieved my anxiety. When night approached, my cousin Alberto called. “Our young cousin Chalito was in surgery last night after a car accident, “ he announced. “Unfortunately, the doctors could not save him,” Alberto concluded.
In Canada we call November 11th “Remembrance Day” and it’s a pretty big deal for us culturally. It’s not just a bank holiday, like Veteran’s Day in the US. Though it is that, we also take time as a culture, in our schools prior to it and at our daily grind otherwise, to observe a moment of silence for the dead of our many World Wars, to which we now must add the Gulf War and the War in Afghanistan. As children in school, we make construction paper poppies and listen to the stories of soldiers. As adults, often we stand in the rain as our veterans stand solemnly in their uniforms and their medals, and we try to give their experience meaning and find hope in a time of darkness.
I think as Pagans, it is especially important that we engage in this practice of remembrance. Whatever your view on war (some traditions strongly respecting the warrior path, such as the Asatru; some being adamantly opposed to war, such as Reclaiming Witches,) our empathy for the experience of it is a valuable service we can contribute to our culture and the world. The many reasons connect to the uniquely Pagan experience of our spirituality. Now granted, these are all generalizations; and as such, not everyone will fit these moulds. But we seem to have these commonalities that make remembrance, especially of powerful and terrible events such as war, much more immediate and intense.
Respect for Our Roots
Many of us are called to Pagan paths because we feel a strong ancestral connection. Even the modern religion of Wicca draws its roots from the ancient Pagan practices of Europe. All but the most dedicated Reconstructionists agree we can’t exactly practice the same religion that our ancestors did; cultural and historical context, technology and needs are completely different. But something about those “Ancient Ways” draws us anyway....
There's just something about a November sky.
For many, November can be a month of hard coping, with the clocks changing, the nights drawing in, the colder air and wetter weather. Yet we often miss the beauty of this month, lost in our own solipsism. Looking around us, we see that there is so much more than our own worlds, than our own lives. As Bjork said, "nature is ancient and surprises us all"…
Just getting over a bout of chicken pox, it would be so easy at this time to fall into introspection, into dulled apathy or even despair. Having an illness of any kind can turn our thoughts inwards and, it has to be said, not always in a good way. Looking outside helps. Literally....
Every so often, I offer a workshop or discussion on Ancestor veneration. I hadn't done one in several years, but felt the urge to do it this year. Last night was the chosen evening and we drew in together at Mother Grove's little chapel to talk about the Dead and our Dead.
It was informal--more of a conversation than a class. I started out with some general information about honoring our Beloved Dead through altars or memorial displays. We went on to discuss the layers of the Dead that we may choose to honor--family and friends who have died, all those folks we find on Ancestrydotcom and those intentionally selected heroes and inspirations who have no blood or cultural tie to us but who have inspired us through their story.
We talked about some artifacts that may be employed in our commemorative process--including memorial candles like the one above....
There is no place in a regular wheel of the year where it makes sense to talk about going back, returning, backtracking or heading the wrong way. The cycle of the year does of course bring us round the same seasons, reliably, but there is always a sense of moving forward. Turning, not returning. Time as we experience it only flows one way. However, there are many ways in which we can go back.
We can make geographical returns to places that were important to us, and practical returns to ways of being that we have parted from for a while. Paganism as a whole can be seen as an attempt to go back to something that was lost, and like all lost things, raises issue around how much can be reclaimed. Is anything gone forever? Is it possible to return? As the saying goes, we cannot step into the same river twice. Whatever we go back to is not the same as before. It will have changed over time, too, we will have changed....
Death is not a winter activity, it does not come just with the falling of the leaves, but weaves its slow, funereal dance through every day of our lives. Each living breath for us times with a last breath for some other creature. We cut the corn for Lammas, (or at least, these days, someone cuts it and most of us never see it). The death of the corn represents the life of the tribe. And so we’ll dig out the one folk song every Pagan seems familiar with, and honour good old John Barleycorn reincarnating as beer. In celebrating the beer we can slide over the death of corn, and with it our own mortality. Reincarnation for us is really something to guess at, and when we are planted in the ground we do not put up fresh, green stalks of our own.
I’ve long been fascinated by the relationship death has with the four elements. Our methods for relinquishing the dead take us to all four of them, although different cultures favour some more than others, depending mostly on available resources and behaviour of climate. What I’m thinking about here is disposal of the body, not human sacrifice, although there are parallels. We can put the dead into the water. Most usually we’ll do that when at sea, in the absence of other means of disposal, and not wanting the danger of a rotting corpse on a boat. However, I recall reading about some ancient peoples who put their dead, or some of their dead into flowing water, by choice.
Returning the dead to the womb of the earth, we plant them, seed like. Natural decay processes will follow, but there is something strange about earth burial, the digging of the hole and raising of the mound. It accelerates and disguises what happens when we leave the dead upon the ground, but it tends to invite more complex ceremony....
My mother died early this morning, following a long illness and a rapid recent decline. In her spirit, I offer these words, taken from the Portland First Unitarian Church service last weekend. It's important to remember that all life passages are holy, and all are a cause for celebration, and honoring.
When love is felt or fear is known,
When holidays and holy days and such times come,
When anniversaries arrive by calendar or consciousness,
When seasons come, as seasons do,
Old and known, but somehow new,
When lives or born or people die,
When something sacred's sensed in earth or sky,
Mark the time.
Respond with thought or prayer or smile or grief.
Let nothing living slip between the fingers of the mind.
For all of these are holy things we will not, cannot, find again.
~Max. A Coots
the south altar, dressed for the wake
Several years ago, I met a big loud Irish-American man who told a good tale and couldn't be trusted as far as you could throw him. He was one of those wounded braggarts that seemed so common in the Pagan community in those days--an obnoxious exterior that shielded a deeply flawed and troubled person, a person who wouldn't have been so bad, if he hadn't been raised so rough.
The air is cool, the mists swirl, and the veils are thin…its the time to listen to our Ancestors as we honor our departed ones.
Many seekers of different paths honor the life/death/life process and venerate their Ancestors. Traditionally we honored our Ancestors to maintain familial relationships and heritage and also to learn-divination is performed at Samhaim and during the Day of the Dead so that we might get insight on the year ahead.
But what about getting insight into our priorities from those who have passed beyond the veil?...
I've written before here about how, in our household, Samhain starts early. For us it begins at the end of September, during the week when we've repeatedly lost beloved pets and on the day when, two years ago, I pledged my service to the Wild Hunt. This year, that day was marked with an inadvertent bloodletting when the Hunt, not satisfied with the efforts I had made thus far on their behalf, aided me in slicing open the knuckle of my right index finger almost to the bone with a pair of sewing shears. (Followed, of course, with a expensive trip to the emergency room and several weeks of limited ability to do anything--including typing and crafting--with that hand. The Hunt does not play.)
It continued the following week when I made a trip to one of the city's oldest cemeteries (and bear in mind that here on the west coast, "oldest" means the 1800s, and the most ancient looking monuments, crumbling with apparent age, are not truly ancient at all but merely rain-damaged). I brought with me home-brewed mead and bone meal, to feed the dead, and locally harvested apples for Sleipnir, Odin's giant eight-legged steed. (Eight legs, by the way; have you ever thought about that? Why does He--the horse, that is--have eight legs? Spiders have eight legs. So does a casket, when borne aloft by four mourners. Sleipnir is, indisputably, a horse of death, a steed to carry one to the land of the dead--which, throughout the Norse myths, is exactly what He does.) I discovered an area devoted to the Civil War dead, which startled me because it seemed the wrong coast for that, but the monument statue of a soldier in uniform and the plots of the military dead exuded an aura of welcome for me, a kinship with the "once human" contingent of the Hunt, with Odin's fallen heroes. Here was succor and support, and so it was here that I marked the stones with my blood, freshly drawn from my finger (not the one with stitches!) using a lancet. (The dead were especially interested in and enthusiastic about the mead, by the way!)
O, yes, it is nearly Samhain. Oya is crashing north- and westward, Her winds clearing the path, driving the waters ahead of Her. And I am composing an invocation of the Morrighan and have purchased a perfect, fat pomegranate. It is so tempting to tear it open and taste the sweet wild seed-fruits, to quench my thirst as Persephone did and doom myself to a dual-life.
The lore surrounding Persephone's descent into the underworld has come down to us in some interesting ways. One is the abduction scenario--Hades rises from a great cleft in the Earth and pulls her into his black chariot. She leaves her mother Demeter behind, bereft at the disappearance of her only child. Persephone serves as Queen of the Underworld and in the course of her time below, she eats six seeds from a pomegranate. These doom her to a bi-coastal existence--six months above ground with Mummy, six below with her husband, the Dark King....
Two fascinating insights deepen our understanding of death and Samhain, which honors its sacred dimension. In one of his essays on nature poet Gary Snyder made a point I have never forgotten.
An ecosystem is a kind of mandala in which there are multiple relations that are all-powerful and instructive. Each figure in the mandala – a little mouse or bird (or little god or demon figure) – has an important position and a role to play. Though ecosystems can be described as hierarchical in terms of energy flow, from the standpoint of the whole all of its members are equal.
. . . We are all guests at the feast, and we are also the meal! All of biological nature can be seen as an enormous puja, a ceremony of offering and sharing.
As I was finishing a chapter in my forthcoming book, Faultlines, I encountered a compatible observation by Carl von Essen regarding what he called the “hunter’s trance.” Von Essen wrote
I thought I’d share this poem I wrote a couple of years ago. It was inspired by Pinkola Estes’ telling of the La Loba story–the woman who sings over the bones.
I ease my students into Beowulf by having them read the Anglo-Saxon poem 'The Wanderer' first. It's a great introduction to the warrior ethos that the longer narrative celebrates, but in a short form. It's a poem about grief but the first thing we'll notice is that the loss mourned isn't a partner, child or parent, but the narrator's leader.
Wyrd bið ful aræd! Fate always goes as it must!
The center of the warrior's life is a relationship the Roman historian Tacitus named comitatus when he first observed it in the continental Germanic tribes. A leader gained followers by offering them praise and treasures for courageous behaviour in battle. They rewarded him with their loyalty. It was the center of their lives; it also took a central role in the poetry of the era....
Ear (Ground) is loathsome to all men,
yet certainly the body will be set upon there,
the corpse grows cold, the soil accepts its pale bedfellow;
leaves fall, pleasures depart, men cease to be.
- Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
I will be posting a follow-up to my thoughts on establishing a hearth, as promised, but in the meantime life has intervened and supplied a subject matter that has to take precedence, since it's all I can spare any degree of deep thought for right now. That subject, of course, is (as my title indicates) the one that naturally trumps all others: death....
Early Fall is upon us, and the year’s Wheel turns from harvest into the darkening time leading to Samhain. This reminds us that one great distinction between modern NeoPaganism and most contemporary religions is our different relationship to death. For the monotheistic traditions death entered into the world as a consequence of sin. As I understand Buddhism, death is one of many forms taken by suffering, and suffering is evidence something is amiss with embodied existence. The secular modern ‘religion’ of scientism hopes someday to enable us to achieve immortality, perhaps as consciousness encased within a computer.
Today many of the deceased are painted to look as if they are still alive, ‘sleeping,’ and their bodies buried in ornate caskets with comfy cushions to protect them for as long as possible from finding physical oneness with the earth. We mourn the loss of loved ones but we mourn from within a different context than do those who see death as a misfortune.
We NeoPagans generally honor the powers of death with a Sabbat, Samhain. If two Sabbats are more symbolically important to our practice than any others, they are Beltane and Samhain. Separated by 6 months, they honor the two greatest themes of physical existence: life and death....
I got back from my city trip to Berlin late last night and I had planned on writing about some experiences from that trip, but I received my daily e-mail from a friend who informed me that his wife's cousin had taken his own life unexpectedly, and that his life was pretty hectic right now because of it. He would therefor need some time to get back to me. After that, the concept and act of suicide was set firmly in my mind and I could write about nothing else. So here is fair warning; this post is about suicide, it touches on depression, my interesting childhood and my opinion on suicide. If any of these are triggers for you, I would ask you to come back tomorrow. Also, and I will get back to this, depression lies.
I grew up in a household where the threat of suicide was prevalent. When I mentioned moving out, when I got angry, when something went wrong (especially if it was something I had caused--or for which I was blamed), I was stopped and the emotions repressed by a veiled or outright threat of suicide by my mother. I used to be angry about that, but as I got older, I understood that it was simply her only way to deal with the depression and personality disorders she was struggling with. She did try once, and it was a horrible experience for all involved. After that, though, I think she realized that no matter how miserable she was, she wasn't really going to go through with it. The threats only stopped when we agreed that she was only allowed to call me with a suicide threat if she really meant it. She never spoke of it again.
Through my experience with suicide, I have developed a very low patience threshold for people who use (the threat of) suicide as an excuse to get attention. For people in my social circle who honestly feel they might commit suicide, I am there. All I ask of them is that they ask for help if they need it. I will gladly give it. I'll get up in the middle of the night for weeks to talk them off of any ledge they might be on, but I need honesty and I will not be guilt tripped into helping them. I did that for at least ten years. I'm a very decent human being. If you need me, in any way, I will be there for you. You don't have to lie. But if you simply need attention, if you need a shoulder to cry on and someone to tell you what a miserable life you have and act shocked you have even considered the act of suicide, I am not the person to go to. I'm the person you go to for help, and to get you help.