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Making Magic: A Tender’s View of a Samhain Ritual

We gather in a heritage hall on my island home for our Samhain ritual.  Warm bodies squeeze close together to form a circle of pagan and non-pagan folks, grownups and children, and even a couple of dogs, with the room filled to capacity. 

It’s been a hard, heartbreaking year for our community. The Ancestors altar is covered with photographs and mementos of those that have passed. There have been many deaths, and the tragic loss of two precious youth in one September weekend that shook this island to its core. I feel this collective grief in my own heart, and in this gathering. Samhain is the time when we honor and name those we’ve lost this year, and commune with our Beloved Dead.

Yet there’s more than grief and loss in the room. At the opposite end of the cycle of life are the youth, our children, and the souls waiting to be born. These beings we honor on the Descendants altar, and through the naming of the newborns this year.

I stand beside the Ancestors altar with another priestess. Across the circle from us, two priestesses stay by the Descendants altar. The four us will be calling in the Ancestors and Descendants, and then shifting into paired partners of Deep Witness and Tender.

The Deep Witnesses don’t actively participate in the ritual. They sit — veiled, empty and silent — acting as anchors and observers of the deep dream of our magic. I’m one of the Tenders. Our priestess role is to support and protect our Deep Witness, and to stay by her side for the duration of the ritual.

As the ritual begins, I notice that I feel different than my usual, high-intensity magical engagement. I’m somber, watchful and empty present — a guardian and observer of the Deep Witness and our community as we enter the powerful, mysterious and mournful experience of Samhain.

Together we create sacred space. The circle is cast. We ground.  The Elements are called in through song.  Goddesses and other Mysteries are invoked.  Our priestess group calls in the Ancestors and Descendants.

I listen from the edge of the circle, attuned to the movements of bodies, weaving of energy, and quality of presence, more than the individual words and actions.  I step forward to do my calling in task, and then settle into my role as Tender.

I notice the seamless sharing of leadership, power and space — the many priestesses working together to co-create this magical experience for our community. The talent and expertise in this room are immense, diverse, breathtaking, yet I don’t sense inflated egos, jealousy or competition. 

We move on to the reading of the names of the dead who have passed this year — what is remembered lives. And the dead come, slipping past the veil that separates us, to drink of our grief, our love, and our honoring.

I notice how natural this is, how right for us to be with our honored dead in these ways. They move among us, touching the faces of their beloved kin with their hands of light, soothing the broken hearts of those left behind, letting us know that they are still with us, just a thought, a name, a song away.

Two priestesses begin to trace a path in the center of the circle, one drumming and together weaving a hauntingly beautiful guided trance to the Isle of Apples, the Pagan Land of the Dead.  Everyone settles into a comfortable position, and makes their way to the blessed Isle to commune with their Beloved Dead. 

The Sacred Witnesses don’t make this journey, nor do we, their Tenders. Together we anchor this magical circle, while the Sacred Witnesses hold vigil and observe all with their dream eyes. My only job is to stand guard. I don’t pry into the visioning of the ritual participants, nor of the Sacred Witnesses. Whatever is happening here is intensely soul-to-soul private.

I notice a current of power that runs between the two Sacred Witnesses: one an anchor for the lineage of Ancestors that stretches into the far distant past, and the other an anchor for the lineage of Descendants that reaches into the far distant future. I sway back and forth, back and forth, my movements an involuntary response to the magnetic pulse of whole time, where the future and the past are both present in this now moment, and the yet to be born, the dead and the living share this communal, magical space.

The two priestesses speak once more, calling the ritual participants to rise up and dance the Spiral Dance with their Beloved Dead, and with the Souls of the Unborn who also reside on the Isle of Apples. Hand to hand, the dancers form a moving spiral that turns inward toward the circle center, and then back outward again. Dancers pass each other by, shining face to shining face, with voices raised in song. 

I first notice how crowded the space is, not only with the living, but also with our unseen guests of the Beloved Dead and the Unborn. My guardian instincts kick in, and I expand my energy to create a protective barrier between the Sacred Witness and the dancers.

Yet the Sacred Witness is unfazed. She rocks and sways with the music and building energy of the dance. This energy is immense, intense, but also peaceful, harmonious, and so, so heart-wrenching.

Tears run down my cheeks. Love is what fills this room, overflowing from heart to heart. Love that joins us all in this raw, bittersweet dance of death, life and birth.   

This is how we hold our grief and losses; with this much love, power and presence. We are one community: the living, the dead and the yet to be born. The spiral dance is life itself, a turning into and out of the mortal coil of our flesh and bones form.

As the Spiral Dance and guided journey come to a close with words of parting and gratitude for the Beloved Dead and the Unborn, it’s time to honor and name the newborns for this year, and to circle back to the celebratory beginnings of life.

Then there’s one last task before the circle is opened: the Deep Witnesses speak on behalf of the Ancestors and Descendants.

The Ancestors remind us that we are each a light in these dark times, and we must shine our brightest to make this world a better place. The Descendants tell us that special souls are being born to this world, and that we must make space for them and heed their teachings. 

I notice how everyone in the room turns their rapt attention to the Deep Witnesses as they speak. When the Mysteries walk among us, our only job is to listen to the power of their voices, and the hope in their messages. The Ancestors and Descendants leave us with sacred responsibilities: to show up as our bright shining Selves, and to welcome and honor the newborns and our children as teachers and guides. This is how we can mend and remake our world for the better.

For this Samhain eve, our magic is done. We devoke, thanking and saying goodbye to all that we’ve called in. Priestesses and participants alike are called back from the Mysteries to return to the waking world. Our circle is opened, yet unbroken.

As a community, we share food and conversation afterwards, and I continue my Tender duties until my priestess companion is returned from her Deep Witness journey, and fully grounding in her human form. Then it’s time to go home, nourished, healed and transformed by our evening of magic.

The next day, I notice that I’m filled with a profound sense of wellbeing and wholeness. Magic makes me whole. Honoring death, loss and grief makes me whole. Deep communion with the Beloved Dead, the Unborn, the Ancestors and the Descendants makes me whole. Sharing these essential things with my community makes me whole. Love makes me whole.

Let this wholeness be our prayer and our practice in the year to come.

Ritual Credit: This Samhain ritual arises out of the Reclaiming Tradition of Witchcraft.

Photo Credit: Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

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  • Karen Clark
    Karen Clark says #
    Thank you birch! It was an honor to be a Tender for such a powerful, loving community ritual.
  • Robert Birch
    Robert Birch says #
    Karen, What a soul moving article. I read it, quietly cried and dreamed into the pagan gift to the world through your wyrds. ~bir
Samhain in the South: Honoring our Beloved Dead

As the Wheel of the Year turns and I begin to feel the veil thinning once again, I’m reminded of one way the beloved dead are honored throughout the South. Drive through the countryside, and you’ll likely see church signs announcing “Homecoming and Decoration.” It’s an invitation to those with relatives buried in the church cemetery to spruce up the graves, put flowers on them, and enjoy a potluck meal, sometimes referred to as “dinner on the ground.” Though meals are usually served in a fellowship hall now, that term originated from spreading out picnic blankets and dining on the cemetery grounds.

I’m sure you can see some parallels with our Samhain traditions and Dia de los Muertos. A major difference is that southern churches tend to hold decorations in May rather than October. I find that interesting, since May is also a time when the other side is more accessible. Beltane and Samhain are opposite each other on the Wheel of the Year, and both carry that liminal, otherworldly energy in different ways.

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A Thank You Letter to My Beloved Dead

Dear Beloved Dead,

 

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What is Remembered

“What is remembered lives,” the old Civil War captain said solemnly.  He clutched his gray hat in his weathered old hands. 

“What is remembered lives!” shouted his comrades – more civil war soldiers (both Union and Confederacy), Regulators, fighters from the American Revolution, escaped slaves, freed men and women, Red Coats who loved the king, and Victorian ladies with big hats and tight bodices.  Those of us among the living shifted on our feet.  We were a bit tired from walking, but warmed by hot cider and laughter and stories.  Around all of us, both the living and the dead, danced and chanted little white ghosts.  Their faces were painted white and their costumes were generously sprinkled with shimmering glitter.

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The Parentalia: Honoring the Ancestors and Beloved Dead

It is bedtime. My daughter and I are cuddled up, and it is story time. This is our nightly ritual. Some nights, when she's not so tired, we read myths. She is nearly 4, and her attention span is not that of an adults, so most nights we read about My Little Pony or Olivia like your normal family.

Tonight, though, she brings me Neil Gaiman's Blueberry Girl. There was a point where I couldn't read through it without crying, and I'm secretly thankful that I've steeled myself slightly to the beautiful prayer the author wrote for his daughter.

Within the first few pages, my daughter grabs my hand to still it, and looks a long time at the picture of beautifully aged women looking lovingly over a wandering, wondrous girl. She asks, “Are they the Ancestors?”

I'm suddenly tearing up anyway. This time my eyes are welling up with pride. She's connected it. She's starting to understand the nature of Ancestors – That They watch over us.

Until this point, I've avoided using anything but English words for the Gods (which for a Roman polytheist can include at least some of the Ancestors), but on this night I kiss the top of her head and say with pride and delight, “Yes, these are special Ancestors. We call Them the Matronae. They are the Big Mothers who look after us and make sure we have a good life.”

“Matronae,” she says, turning the R into a W. It's adorable. It's amazing to hear the word on the lips of the young, fae-like creature my entire world has come to revolve around. It means even more as I slowly write a book about the Matronae of the Missouri River.

My daughter gets it. She understands.

Maybe I'm not failing as a parent as much as I thought.

“It's Parentalia,” I remind her. “This is a time for the Ancestors.”

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I stood balanced on a jagged spit of rock with the sea below me on both sides, water churning and swirling. I guessed it would be covered at high tide. I felt remote, at the tip of the world. The grit of ash was in my hands and releasing to the wind, the sea, the rock. Small pieces of bone fled through my fingers, back to our beginnings in the ocean and death. The waves sucked and smashed in and out, like the breath of the universe or life and death itself; in, out, in, out relentless and endless. When I looked down, my jeans were whitened in places, with ash. My hands were covered in it. I put the back of one hand to my mouth and licked. Salt and ash. Grit.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Sand-Spiral-Little-Wategoes-for-Trinda-2015.jpg 

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Her name was Sheena Renee Adams

I will never forget the moment I saw Sheena for the first time. We had known each other for years. We had spent time together, but I had never actually seen Sheena. I hadn’t even seen a picture of her. I was nervous about our first meeting and wondered if I’d recognize her. I summoned a picture of the last time we were together and tried to imagine Sheena. But when she finally came walking up to me, I did not recognize her. Who was this beautiful, elegant, radiant woman? Surely not the same person I used to know.

 

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  • Annika Mongan
    Annika Mongan says #
    Thank you, Lia.
  • Lia Hunter
    Lia Hunter says #
    Bless you for staying her friend, and bless her for opening your heart. What gifts you gave each other! This was a touching piece.

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