Alternative Wheel: Other seasonal cycle stories

When this column started, it was all about exploring different ways of thinking about the wheel of the year, reflecting on aspects of the natural world to provide Pagans alternatives to the usual solar stories. It's still very much an alternative wheel, but there's a developing emphasis on what we can celebrate as the seasons turn. Faced with environmental crisis, and an uncertain future, celebration is a powerful soul restoring antidote that will help us all keep going, stay hopeful and dream up better ways of being.

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Dying in the sunshine

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.

Giving the dead to the fire is a rapid process, and I would imagine doing that outside with a big bonfire is both visually very challenging, and likely to smell…. tricky. I can’t personally imagine participating in a rite of that nature, and I would not want it for me. By all means, plant me, or weight me and drop me in the water, but don’t burn me, that feels very alien. Mind you, I know that for others, fire feels like a welcome embrace and a tidy ending while the squelchy decay of other options is an unwelcome prospect.

With the sun high in the sky, the winds blowing and air very much on my mind, this seems more like the time of year to think about air burials. In some places and times that has meant nothing more than taking the dead to a high place and leaving them for wind and scavengers to deal with. It calls for very little human intervention, just a placing of the dead, leaving them and letting nature take its course. I believe some Native American cultures raised wooden platforms for the dead. With this method you can most readily come back to reclaim the bones for other use, although timing that might be an interesting issue.

Evidence from barrows in the UK suggests they were used to store bones and that those bones would have been available to the community the dead belonged to. I am drawn to this, partly because I have a gothic streak a mile wide, partly because I like those more physical connections, the idea that the dead are still with us. I have thought about flutes made from ancestral bones, and I like the idea of being remade as a musical instrument. Current laws will not give you much scope on that score, but if the rules change, please do note for posterity that I would very much like to carry on the whole bardic thing as a dead person, and like John Barleycorn, rise up again in a tangible form that has some use to someone.

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Nimue Brown is the author of Druidry and Meditation, Druidry and the Ancestors. Pagan Dreaming, When a Pagan Prays and Spirituality without Structure. She also writes the graphic novel series Hopeless Maine, and other speculative fiction. OBOD trained, but a tad feral, she is particularly interested in Bardic Druidry and green living.


  • Aleah Sato
    Aleah Sato Thursday, 01 August 2013

    I appreciate this essay, especially living in the Southwest deserts, knowing that this intensely hot, arid time of year brings decay, death and hiberation to all life. I also collect animal skulls during my treks across canyons, mesas and open land. Having them in my sacred space reminds me of the magic of the life and death cycle as well as the ancient divination involved in communication with those dead and dying.

  • Nancy Vedder-Shults
    Nancy Vedder-Shults Saturday, 03 August 2013

    Nimue -- What I like best about this post is how your brought the "unsightliness" of death "to life" in your prose. No pun intended. Life and death are with us always as you say in your first paragraph.

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