Hedge Riding: The Art of the Hedge Witch

Bringing the Hedge back into Hedge Witchcraft, working with liminal spaces and the Otherworld

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Samhain: Ancient and Modern

Calan Gaeaf (Welsh) or Samhain (Irish) begins at sunset of 31st October and runs to to sunset 1st November according to most Western Pagan traditions. If working by the moon, it is the first full moon when the sun is in Scorpio. If working by the natural landscape, it is when the first frosts bite. Samhain was termed the Celtic New Year, as it marked the ending of one cycle and the beginning of another. The Celts reckoned their days from sunset to sunset, and so the start of the year would begin in the dark time at the beginning of winter. Samhain marked the first day of Winter.

Calan Gaeaf, however, is a time that is not a time, and therefore some Pagans honour this tide and season from 31st October right through to the Winter Solstice. It is a time after many things have died, and there is a stillness to the air, an Otherworldly feel in the silence. It's a dark time here in the UK, with long nights on our northerly latitude, and usually a very wet time as well. It's not hard to see how these months could be seen outside of time, outside of the cycles of life, death and rebirth.

Calan Gaeaf, Samhain, Hallowe'en, All Soul's Night - for many pagans this is the ending of one year and the beginning of another.  It is often seen as the third and final harvest - with the last of the apples harvested, the cattle were prepared for winter and the grain stored properly.  It is also a time when it is said that the veil between the worlds is thin, and the realms of the living and the dead are laid bare to each other. We are approaching the darkest time of the year, and the killing frosts and snows await just around the corner.  It is a time of letting go, of releasing into the dark half of the year, and getting rid of the dross in our lives so that we do not have to carry them with us through the long winter nights.  We consciously make the effort to live better, meaningful lives and let go of all that holds us back - our fears and worries, our anger and hatred.  We nurture the beneficial and the good that we have in our lives, ensuring that they are well kept for our plans to come at the winter solstice. So the cycle continues.

 Samhain is a time to honour the ancestors, and in both Druidry and Buddhism we find a tradition that honours the ancestors of blood, place and tradition.  Within the monastery of Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, they have developed the Five Earth Touchings, otherwise known as Touching the Earth, wherein the ancestors are honoured in the first three prostrations. These can be a wonderful way to incorporate this Buddhist teaching into our Samhain tradition, or indeed in our everyday rituals in Western Paganism should we be so inclined. 

Working with the ancestors can offer us a deep connection to our bloodlines, our religion or spirituality and the place that we live.  It is important that all three sets of ancestors in the Druid tradition are remembered and honoured: ancestors of blood, ancestors of place and ancestors of tradition. Mystic and former Head of The Druid Network, Emma Restall Orr writes:

The dead fall from awareness only when they are forgotten, so the practising animist acknowledges the ancestors with gratitude and open-heartedness, each and every day – whenever a task is to be done, whenever an old tool is lifted, a skill used, an old pathway walked. When a challenge or an obstacle arises blocking the way, when pain kicks in and weakness overwhelms, it is to the ancestors that the animist turns, and it is in the ancestors that courage is found, generation to generation, hand in hand, words of wisdom heard and experience shared. When crises are overcome, when love is found and joy fills a moment with delight, the ancestors are an integral part of the celebration.”

– Emma Restall Orr, from her essay “Time and the Grave”, from the book This Ancient Heart.

At Samhain it was said that the ancient Celts brought their cattle in for the winter from the high grounds, and passed them through two bonfires until their hair was singed.  This may also have been performed at Beltane, at the opposite side of the Wheel of the Year. Bringing cattle close to the flames may not be entirely accurate, for it would be very difficult to get any animal that close to a fire without a major stampede in any other direction, with their instinctive aversion to fire. However, they may very well have been driven between two smoking bonfires, so that the smoke would cause any fleas or other little critters that came with the cattle to fall off, thereby ensuring that the cattle are both ritually and physically cleansed in preparation for their winter/summer quartering.

Scrying is also something practised at this time of year, using fire and its flames or the dying embers. The way a fire burns can tell us many things, whether it is on one side of the fireplace or the other. A flame that shoots straight up for a few seconds, high above the others indicates that important news is on the way. We can also scry in the smoke of the fire, looking for symbols that have meaning to us personally, or that are found in our tradition. Water is often used for scrying as well, and at this time of year I use a small Mirror Pool (a birdbath!) to catch the light of the full moon and help me to understand better what my work for this season will be.

Now is the time for letting go, for focusing our energy on what is important and also getting rid of dross. It means being an active participant rather than a passive observer in our lives. It is the time to collect and nurture the seeds of our intention, and to get things in order.

Samhain is the perfect time to meditate on and truly live the concept of Right Effort. With diligence and discipline we are able to scrutinise our words, thoughts and deeds to ensure that they are beneficial to ourselves and our environment.  We must be disciplined, and focus intently on our practice during this very special time in the dark half of the year, for we do not want to carry forward that which will hold us back, held within bad habits, intentions or cycles.  We really make an effort to walk our talk, to ensure that our actions are honourable. The ancestors are all around us, and we want to do right by them, and do to right for future ancestors to come.

As mentioned earlier, the Celtic year was divided into two halves, the light half and the dark half. The light half began at the beginning of May, which marked the start of summer. The dark half began at Samhain (Irish) or Calan Gaeaf (Welsh) which marked the start of winter. The word Samhain is thought to be derived from "summer's end", being a linguistic inversion of sam-fuin[1] .  Samhain is a time that lies between times, and is a time that is not a time. It is the end of summer, and marks the time just before we enter the dark half of the year, often referred to as the Celtic New Year. It is a liminal time, and begins at dusk on 31st October on the calendrical year. (All Celtic holidays begin at dusk, the day before the calendrical date.) Some Druids follow a more agricultural or seasonal calendar, and celebrate Samhain when the first frosts appear. 

Samhain is known popularly today as Hallowe'en. This stems from the Christian Hallowmass. What is interesting to note is that the Feast of All Saints, which follows the day after Hallowmass used to take place in May. It was moved in 834 to the 1st November, presumably to compete with the more Pagan traditions in an attempt to move the common folk away from such beliefs and practices.[2]  

Samhain is a time to remember the dead, and to welcome them. The dead are never far from us, and the Celtic worldview comprised a sort of ancestor veneration found the world over in pagan traditions. Deceased relatives could come and visit the home, and so door were often left unlocked so that they could enter. Some use the tradition of a "Dumb Supper", where food and places are laid out alongside the family's fare for the dead, and the meal is eaten in silence. These plates were then taken outside as offerings to the spirits and the Fair Folk. Hollowing out turnips or sugar beets, and later pumpkins (which were/are much easier to carve) and placing a candle inside could provide a lantern by which the dead could find their way. Candles may have been left in windows as well, to help guide the way. Apples as well have a place at this festival, for one of the traditions was for a maiden to peel an apple and throw the peel over her shoulder: the letter that it formed was the initial of the name of the man she would marry. The custom of bobbing for apples is also thought to derive from Samhain traditions, with the lucky (and wet!) winners receiving fortune for the rest of the year. Brushing your hair and eating an apple while looking in a mirror at Samhain was said to reveal in the reflection the face of your true love. Modern-day trick or treating is said to come from the ancient buachaillí tui, disguised people who characterised the dead and lead a white mare (hobby horse) called Láir Bhán. This horse was symbolic of the goddess of the land.

At Samhain, when we arrive at summer's end, is a liminal time. The veils between this world and the Otherworld are thin, and so we see the custom of dressing up or guising to protect the living from the "unhappy dead". It could also be seen as an acknowledgement of the dead returning, and as a sort of celebration of the fact.

Samhain was celebrated by the Druids in Ireland high on the hilltops with fire, from an ancient ritual on Tlachtga or the Hill or Ward in Meath.  Tlachtga was sacred to the Druids, whereas Tara was the place of the High King. Tlachta could be viewed from Tara, and a fire on Tara may have been lit in response, allowing the Druid's to light their fire first, in their role as advisors.  The Feast of Tara took place three days before and three days after Samhain. There is an alignment of the sun and moonrise from at Samhain from Tlachtga to a standing stone in Slieve na Caileach and also Lambay Island. Tara has an alignment from the Samhain sunrise to "Lugh's Seat" at the "Pillars of Samhain" and a cairn dedicated to  Mór-Ríoghan above the Keash caves in County Sligo.[3]  In Irish tradition many ancient hills and fairyforts were connected by paths which the Sidhe were said to travel. At Samhain, the Celts would be taking their cattle down from the high grounds to their winter lodgings, and so would the Fairy Folk. It was wise to avoid the fairy paths or alignments on this day/night for this very reason.

At Glastonbury in Somerset, England, the Wild Hunt is said to ride out of the hill of Glastonbury Tor, with Gwyn ap Neath, the Lord of Annwn at its head. He collects the souls of those who have died over the past year, and acts in the role of psychopomp, leading the souls to their rightful place in the Otherworld or afterlife. Fire rituals may well have been a part of ancient ceremony on the Tor, being a hill that could be seen for many miles in the surrounding flat countryside. Recently, a Samhain fire festival honouring The Wild Hunt now takes place at Glastonbury Tor every year, and is hugely popular, with modern-day Druids officiating the ceremonies.

In County Derry in Ireland, they celebrate the Spirit of Samhain, or Spiorad na Samhna. It is a hugely popular event, with over 30,000 people coming to participate and enjoy the festivities today, with a parade and fireworks, acrobats, fire-breathers, stories, song and more. This is echoed in Edinburgh, Scotland, where the Beltane Fire Society also holds a Samhuinn event every year. This began in 1995 and has grown ever since, with street performance and theatre in the heart of the city. A large, dramatic ritual ceremony is created and re-enacted each year by different groups which include dancers, drummers, actors and more.

Within the Sisterhood of Avalon, Calan Caeaf or Samhain is the time where we enter the Station of Descent. Here, we find out intention to step out of behavioural patterns that no longer serve us, that hold us back from achieving our freedom and sovereignty. It is the beginning of the dark half of the year, taking us through to the beginning of the light half at Calan Mai (or Calan Haf). At the Station of Descent, we seek to shine a light on the shadow aspects of ourselves, to come to know and understand just what lies unconscious. When we do so, we take the first steps towards making them conscious, and in doing so act with intention instead of reaction. What are the negative patterns in our lives? We seek out to know what these patterns are, through immram (journeying) to the Red Spring and connection with the goddess Rhiannon. She will take us through the journey of descent, that Otherworld Queen who rides out from the hollow hills. She can take us deep within, to help us begin to understand ourselves, and in doing so, better understand others.

[1] Butler, Dr Jenny " The Festival of Samhain & Halloween in Ireland ", Crypt Interview

[2] Baker, Des "Spiora na Samhna", Underground Short Film Festival, 2015

[3] Eastwood, Luke "Tlachtga and the Ancient Roots of Hallowe'en/Samhain", Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids



Hanh, T.N. (2015) No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering: Parallax Press

Hanh, T.N. (1993) Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism: Parallax Press

Hutton, R. (2011) Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain: Yale University Press

Restall Orr, (2016) E. This Ancient Heart 2016 Moon Books

Restall Orr, E. (2004) Living Druidry: Magical Spirituality for the Wild Soul: London: Piatkus Books Ltd

Talboys, G. (2002) Way of the Druid: Rebirth of an Ancient Religion: O Books

Telyndru, J. (2005) Avalon Within: A Sacred Journey of Myth, Mystery and Inner Wisdom

van der Hoeven, J. (2014) The Awen Alone: Walking the Path of the Solitary Druid: Moon Books

van der Hoeven, J. (2016) Zen for Druids: A Further Guide to Living with Compassion, Harmony and Integration with Nature: Moon Books

Joanna van der Hoeven is a Druid, Witch and a best-selling author. She has been working in Pagan traditions for over 20 years. She is the Director of Druid College UK, helping to re-weave the connection to the land and teaching a modern interpretation of the ancient Celtic religion.  www.joannavanderhoeven.com