Hob & Broom: Household Lore & Traditions

An exploration of the old spirits, symbols, customs, and crafts of the home.

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Ancestors at the Hearth: Hallowe’en Edition

I love the word Hallowe’en. It conjures all the warmth and mystery that I associate with the middle of the harvest season, and having celebrated it secularly throughout my life doesn’t diminish my now more spiritual experience of the holiday; instead, it accentuates it. Maybe it’s just me, but I find so much satisfaction in deepening my experience of the familiar, seeing beneath the surface of what is already around me. Making Hallowe’en sacred to me as a pagan is a rewarding experience.

While Hallowe’en, or All Hallows Eve, is a later, Christian term denoting a holiday that stems from the more ancient Samhain, it can still be relevant to pagans. After all, to “hallow” means to sanctify or venerate – to recognize something as sacred or worthy of veneration — which is what many of us do during this time. We pay homage to the dead: family members, beloved dead, cultural and/or spiritual ancestors, and sometimes even the dead with whom we have little to no emotional connection but who have walked the same earth.

Remembering and Honoring

Ancestors are integral to a home- and hearth-based spirituality. In places and times where homes were more often inherited, the spirits of the home included ancestors who drew near the hearth fire during cold and dark times – at night and during the winter months – to visit and reaffirm bonds with the living. The fire warmed them, and offerings left on the hearth sustained them and let them know that the living remembered and cared for them. Leander Petzoldt states that the hearth “is dedicated to the ancestors whose good will must be attracted through sacrifices, and they exert a tutelary function over the household” (qtd. in Lecouteux 117). Keep in mind that the term “hearth” is not limited to an open fireplace; it indicates any place where heat is generated, food is prepared, and family gathers. And although our homes are now only rarely passed down along family lines, our ancestors still seek us out. They are still drawn to the warmth and light embodied in our hearths, and they still very much need us to remember and care for them.

One form of offering to ancestors at the hearth is called “white alms”: bread, milk, butter, cream, white wine, water, and a lighted lamp (69). Claude Lecouteux cites this as a Christmas Eve tradition in Valais, Switzerland, another time when the veil is thin and spirits wander, but it could certainly be used during Hallowe’en as well. While we don’t always think of them as offerings in and of themselves, candles were also often lighted in the windows, not unlike the Jack o’ Lanterns we carve today.

Lighting the Way Home

The Jack o’ Lantern originates from Irish folklore about Stingy Jack, who was so bad that at death wasn’t allowed into heaven but (through cunning) kept himself out of hell. Because his restless spirit has nowhere else to go, he wanders the earth with nothing but a hot coal, which he has placed in a hollowed-out turnip: the first Jack o’ Lantern. Immigrants from the U.K. brought the tradition of carving and lighting root vegetables (large potatoes, beets, and turnips) to America, where they found native pumpkins and adapted the tradition accordingly. Jack o’ Lanterns are often interpreted as wards against Stingy Jack and similar evil spirits, but I’ve always felt they have a different purpose. Like candles, I see Jack o’ Lanterns as torches lighting the way for the restless and weary as they search for a place to call home.

Seeing Beyond

Lecouteux writes that “The hearth allows for communication with the chthonic realm” (70). The view of the dead is much broader than the view of the living, and they can provide us with information – truths and possibilities – that are otherwise beyond our sight. Ancestors are particularly keen on helping their living family members (however we define "family"), as they tend to be invested in the flourishing of their family tree, especially if the living have continued to foster relationships with them through offerings.

Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle writes that, for the Romans who venerated ancestors at the hearth, “the word foculus for ‘hearth’ meant also ‘family’ and ‘grave.’ From generation to generation it was as a cosmic center the contact between the living and the dead. The same hearth that united the family to its past created bonds in the present and into the future” (1). The hearth is a timeless place, where catching glimpses of and making connections with the past, present, and future are possible: a powerful site for Hallowe’en (or Samhain) divination rituals. (You can find more information on hearth divination in an earlier post, “The Whispering Hearth.”)

The days are growing shorter, the nights longer, and even here in the Deep South the weather is beginning to cool. I’ve put up our Hallowe’en decorations: garlands of autumn-hued flowers, pumpkins both real and artificial, witches and ghosts and black cats and skulls, all symbols of mystery, death, and magic. That’s what Hallowe’en is for me: touching the darkness, the unknown, death in its many forms, to receive power and, yes, even comfort.

 

Works Cited

Boyle, Marjorie O’Rourke. Divine Domesticity: Augustine of Thagaste to Teresa of Avila. https://books.google.com/books?id=-AjBdP7zjZoC&pg=PA1&lpg=PA1&dq=ancestor+veneration+at+the+hearth&source=bl&ots=vSDib7i04z&sig=MzRZl3CCVTn_QKfYJ6iKy3NM4bE&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiDofHr__jWAhXK1CYKHX4HCpIQ6AEIWTAJ#v=onepage&q=ancestor%20veneration%20at%20the%20hearth&f=false. Accessed 18 Oct. 2017.

Lecouteux, Claude. The Tradition of Household Spirits. Inner Traditions, 2015.

 

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, spirit worker and traveler, guided by both philosophical Taoism and Germanic and Slavic folk traditions. Her written work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information in ways that are accessible and relevant. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  

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