Brooklyn, NY - October 31, 2016
That’s pronounced SAH-win. It’s a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the dark half of the year. “Guising” is popular, involving people going door-to-door in costume, often reciting verses in exchange for food. In other words, it’s Halloween.
The inevitable question, then, arises: What will I be this year for Samhain? I was a witch last year. Should I change it up?
I could be a cat. A cat is a witch’s familiar. In Ireland, there is a “cave of the cats” from which otherworldly beings are said to emerge. If I’m a cat, I’ll be sure to be a magical cat from the underworld.
The otherworldly beings that emerge are called the Aos Si, who, in some tellings, are the old spirits of winter, demanding reward in exchange for good fortune. The costume tradition may have evolved from a practice of impersonating the Aos Si, going door-to-door to receive offerings or play pranks on their behalf. Pranksters abroad often carried lanterns made of hollowed-out turnips with carved-out grotesque faces.
The lanterns either represented or warded off the Aos Si, which are probably better described as spirits that walk in an invisible world coexistent with our own. They are also called Faeries, “the good neighbors,” “the fair folk,” or even just “the folk,” or “people of the mounds,” because that’s where they come from, places like that cat cave. Might I presume to be a fairy?
The faery mounds are also called the sidhe, and those faeries the Aes Sidhe. Fascinatingly, the similar ancient Sanskrit word Siddha refers to an enlightened person who has attained a higher spiritual state of being, divested of worldly things, like bodies. Dare I be a spirit? A ghost?
Another similar word, Sattva, is found in the Buddhist term Bhodisattva, which means “enlightened one.” To be Sattvik in Hinduism is to have the state suitable to the higher world. The Gaelic Sidhe, like the Siddhas, may be sattvik, may represent those perfect spirits that watch over us, their relatives, still on this mortal plane.
Maybe I’ll dress up as my dear departed dad. In Mexico, the Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos) is observed this time of year. This holiday remembers friends and family members who have died, and celebrants bless their ancestors and seek to support their spiritual journey. My dad passed away in 2007, and is the person who taught me to be unafraid of my convictions.
Samhain is, essentially, a festival of death – the seasonal transition where plants die and animal life decreases. Maybe I’ll be a zombie, or a vampire, the Undead, walking under the new moon in Scorpio, allowing the physical living state to surrender to a spiritual state awaiting rebirth. It’s a “liminal” time where the veil between worlds is thinnest. Dare I make the crossing? Might I gently touch both? What legacies await? Are there monsters?
Divination has been a part of the festival since ancient times, and there are many rituals intended to divine futures. I could be a magician, then, a fortune-teller. I’ll roast nuts or toss apple peels over my shoulder, and then maybe I’ll know. Or better yet, maybe I’ll unknow. Maybe I’ll peek under the veil, meet the Aos Si, locate the magic that is both hidden and near, that is both extraordinarily beautiful and frighteningly ugly. Maybe I’ll brave the boundary between the present moment and deep old truths, face the crystal ball and see a goddess. Or a ghoul.
Okay, I just scared myself.
Or maybe I’ll just bake an apple. Whether I’m a Bad Hombre or a Nasty Woman, I’ll make a meat-stew and a pumpkin pie. I’ll stroll about with my jack-o-lantern, bless the quest of the departed, resist pranks, reward juvenile seekers with candy and pet a cat. I’ll honor Cailleach, that divine hag of winter, by putting on a tall hat, just like last year, and tightening my apron strings. But what about you? Are you braver than me? What will you be for Samhain?