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October 31 Samhain | Hallowe’en

by Pat Hacker | October 27, 1999

As they are, so shall we be; as they have been, so we are.

The words pagan, witch, hag, crone and wisewoman are positive terms. Today they are used favourably by women, as they were in pre-Christian times, to denote country people, healers and the triple goddess in her crone aspect.

The Christian church has vilified and ridiculed these terms and the women they represent so that witches, crones, hags and wise-women are seen as old, evil creatures with warts; while the transformative powers of the cauldron are seen as poisonous and evil.

Pagans practiced the old religions in pre-Christian times. Only since the church has tried to take over pagan holidays, pagan gods and goddesses, pagan celebrations and pagan symbols has the word “pagan” been seen as evil.

The pagan calendar recognizes eight major periods of celebration and remembrance throughout the year. Four of these holidays are at the quarter times of the year and are solar or “sky-centred” events.

The quarterly celebrations are:

  • the winter solstice, which comes close to Christmas and Chanukah | December 20–21
  • the spring equinox, which determines the date of Easter in the Christian calendar | March 20–21
  • the summer solstice | June 20–21
  • the fall equinox | September 20–21

The other four celebrations are at the cross quarters of the year and are connected to the events of the earth.

These celebrations are:

  • Samhain which corresponds to Hallowe’en | October 31
  • Candlemas or Imbolc, which is noted in North America as “Ground Hog Day” | February 2
  • Beltane, which we know as May Day | May 1
  • Lammas, which in Canada is a civic holiday | August 1

You can see from the dates that these holidays come at five- and six-week intervals.

These eight holiday periods are often referred to as the eight turns of the wheel, marking the turning, changing, ever moving and revolving wheel of life, of time, of seasons and planets. It is no wonder that as a ritual-loving species, our ancestors marked the passage of special times, as we do today, with ritual and celebration.

As humans, we are not outside these cycles of life. As women, we understand the deep rhythms of the goddess through the cycles of our bodies: from birth to childhood, to adolescence, to menstruation, to child bearing, to menopause, to old age and finally to death.

The goddess in her crone aspect, pale wan Hecate, queen of the witches, Kall, hag, wise-woman presides over the season and it is believed that the veil between the worlds of the living and dead, both animal and human, is thinnest; the opportunity to be closer to the spirit world is greatest.

Samhain is also known as the witches’ new year because one cycle of life completes itself, goes underground, in preparation for the new beginning; signaling the beginning and the end, death and rebirth, endless transformation.

symbols and tools of Samhain (Hallowe’en)
  • The witch’s broom or besom. A tool of female magic, the besom symbolically, and in reality, sweeps clean the hearth, sweeping out evil spirits lurking in the dust. Stories of witches flying on broomsticks may have resulted from watching women sweeping vigorously, stirring up clouds of dust and perhaps waving a broom at some intrusive chicken or cow. Spirit besoms are used in Europe, Africa and North America to symbolically cleanse, purify and exorcise unwanted spirits, illness and bad luck. When making ritual, one member of the group may lead the others into the circle making sweeping motions with a besom to symbolically cleanse the space. The most magical besom is one you make yourself out of entirely natural materials using no metal. However, besoms may be purchased in many specialty shops carrying products for ritual.
  • The witch’s cauldron. The female symbol representing the womb of the great goddess, the place of transformation, regeneration and magic. Everything that goes into the cauldron becomes changed. Make sure your cauldron is metal as you may want to use it for fire.
  • The witch’s conical hat. The pointed hat always seen worn by a witch flying on a besom denoted and symbolized wisdom in pre-Christian times and was, naturally, worn by witches and wisewomen. If you picture a witch wearing a conical hat with her arms extended to either side and her feet shoulder width apart, you will see a pentacle.
  • Black cats as well as other cats and animals were believed to be the “familiars” of witches. These were animal spirits used by witches in their work. During the Women’s holocaust in Europe in the middle ages, familiars were killed with the women who owned them. If a woman was seen whispering to a cat or talking to a bird or a squirrel, she might be suspected of witchcraft. It is believed that the bubonic plague, caused in part by an expanded rat population, was the result of cats being killed during the witch hunts thus allowing the rat population to get out of control.
  • Jack o’lanterns represent the glowing, mysterious fires that may appear spontaneously at night. Jack o’lanterns and pumpkins are lanterns set out to signal and greet the trick-or-treaters with light and to show them the way to goodies. It used to be believed that the returning spirits brought treats for the living.
  • Ghosts are possibly the most real aspect of Hallowe’en since it is the holiday of remembering the dead. Spirits of the departed return at Hallowe’en to be among us.

Note: Women witches have made this time a period of remembrance and mourning for the millions of women who were tortured and, in most cases, killed as witches by the Christian church. We can further remember and mourn the millions of women who have been raped, tortured and killed in wars, and those left to endure brutality and violence in their homes and in society.

To the glory of God and in memory of Mrs. Gaunt, Daughter of Anthony Fothergill of Brownber. She was the last female martyr burnt at Tyburn for the cause of the Protestant Religion, October 4th, 1685.

— From a photo taken in a church in a small town in England

The following are the names of a few women whose stories and names have survived the Inquisition and who can be remembered in Samhain rituals:

  • Margaret Jones, midwife, hanged | 1648
  • Joan Peterson, veterinarian, hanged | 1652
  • Isobel Insch Taylor, herbalist, burned | 1618
  • Mother Lakeland, healer, burned | 1645
  • Mrs. Gaunt, burned | 1685
  • Alice Nutter, burned | 1685
  • Margaret Barclay, stoned | 1618
  • Anna Rausch, 12 years old, burned | 1628
  • Sybelle Lutz, 11 years old, burned | 1628
  • Emerzianne Pichler, tortured and burned together with her two children | 1679
  • Annabelle Stuart, 14 years old, burned | 1678
  • Frau Durnler, boiled to death in hot oil while pregnant | 1630

There are millions more whose names are lost. When making ritual, we may want to remember to speak the names of contemporary women we have known or know about who have suffered violence. They may be our mothers, our aunts or friends. They may be ourselves.

Herbs associated with this time of the year are:

  • Rosemary for remembering.
  • Thyme which is associated with departed souls.
    These are particularly pungent herbs for scattering or for cooking.
  • Blessed Rue is called the flower of repentance and can cleanse the soul.
  • Belladonna and Skullcap are thought to be witches’ herbs and should be treated with caution as they can be poisonous.
    Herbalists and healers have always played a major role in women’s history with their knowledge and understanding of the earth’s healing gifts and rhythms.

The sacred fruits of the goddess are apple and pomegranate.

  • The apple is the fruit of Avalon – the witch’s fruit – because, by cutting horizontally through the centre of the apple, we reveal its hidden five-pointed star symbolizing the magic of the goddess. An apple cut in this manner may be placed on the alter and within the ritual may be eaten by all members of the circle.
  • The pomegranate is the fruit of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, who was abducted to the underworld to be the bride of Hades, the lord of darkness. She would be allowed to return to earth if she had eaten nothing during the period of her stay in the underworld. Alas, she had eaten six grains of the pomegranate and had to remain in the underworld for half the year [winter] returning to earth the other half of the year [spring, summer, harvest], bringing with her life and abundance. The many plump, juicy grains of the pomegranate combined with its blood red juice make it a perfect symbol for female fertility.
a ritual for Samhain
(Witches’ new year, Hallowe’en)

There are many models available for creating rituals and excellent sources are listed below. The following ritual is a guide based on the work of many women including the great teacher and witch, Starhawk, in The Spiral Dance, a book of rituals, invocations, exercises and magic.

creating your own

You can create your own ritual and include the elements that are meaningful to your group. A ritual can energize you when you're tired or calm you down when you're agitated. Ritual releases and gathers-in according to the nature of the ritual and its purposes. Ritual may be done alone by a solitary practitioner or in a circle of like-minded women and men. Group rituals create trust and community and are historically how women shared and celebrated events in their lives and in the lives of their families and community; it is also how they helped each other cope with difficult times. Group ritual is a time of creativity, of regeneration and expression; it is a creation remembered from the past, created for the present and sent to the future ancestors.

  1. Gather together a group of friends who want to explore deeper levels of spirituality through the goddess. Ask each woman to bring some food for the feast of the dead which follows the ritual. The food need not be fancy but might include something that was a favourite food of someone now in the otherworld.
  2. Prepare the altar in advance with leaves and seasonal decorations and five candles; blue for [and at] the west, green for north; yellow for east and red for south. Have a black candle for the centre of the circle.
    • Anyone may place a personal object on the altar for the blessing of the goddess and the spirits.
    • Place on the altar an apple cut in half horizontally and a pomegranate split to reveal the seeds and juice.
    • This alter is in the centre of your circle.
  3. Decide who will guide the ritual and who would like to call in the quarters. When everyone is assembled and all who so desire have changed into ritual garments or Hallowe’en costumes, choose one person as convenor to lead the procession to create the circle.
    • This person may use the besom making sweeping motions as she leads the others into the circle.
  4. When the circle is formed, let all join hands and breathe deeply and silently together for some time.
  5. CALL IN THE ELEMENTS OR THE FOUR DIRECTIONS:
    • Standing, face the west marked by the blue candle on the altar and have the convenor invite the spirits of the west, of emotion and remembrance, the place of the gate to otherworld to join our circle. You may end each call with “Blessed Be.”
    • Standing, face the north marked by the green candle on the alter and invite into the circle the energy of the north, the earth, the deep sleeping reservoir of knowledge and secrets, of wisdom and soul and slumbering stone once molten, now solid, ever transforming. Be with us now. Blessed be.
    • Standing, face the east marked by the yellow candle on the altar and call in the spirits of the east, of air, of breath of life, of intellect and imagination. Be with us now. Blessed Be.
    • Standing, face the south marked by the red candle on the altar and have the convenor invite the spirits of the south, of fire, of heat and passion, of energy and creativity to join the circle. Be with us now. Blessed Be.
    • Light each candle on the altar in the order in which they were called: West, North, East and South. The convenor will light the black candle in the centre saying, "As above, so below," and the convenor will invite the Goddess in her many forms and aspects, as Maiden, Mother and Crone in the forms and traditions of Gala, Yemaya, Spider Woman, Ishtar, Mary, Inanna, Demeter, Kall, Kuan-Yin, Isis, Astarte, Hecate.
    • At this time, each woman in the circle may call in the names, if known, or other form of identity of an ancestor or special one who has passed over to the Otherworld. This is a good time to call the names of the women killed as witches, and with each name called, a tea light can be lit and set in the circle around the alter. If the ritual is done outside, the effect can be dramatic and powerful. If it's windy, protect the candles from blowing out, perhaps by placing them all in a tall bucket with sand, earth or kitty litter.
    • The convenor of the group will walk slowly around the inside of the circle with her arms extended incising an invisible band around the circle. Two other women, one carrying salt and the other carrying a bowl of consecrated water can follow the convener scattering salt and water. (If you are doing the ritual indoors, be conservative in your water and salt scattering as some sister-woman will have to clean it later.)
      The convenor may use Starhawk’s words:

      By the earth that is Her body, by the air that is Her breath, by the fire that is Her spirit and by the living waters of Her womb, the Circle is Cast.
      We are between worlds.
      Beyond time, where night and day, birth and death, joy and sorrow meet as one.
      The fire is lit, the ritual is begun.
      Blessed Be.

    • The convenor returns to the circle. She kneels before the woman on her left and, with a sacred ointment, makes the sign of the pentacle on her forehead, saying,“Thou art goddess.” With these words, she kisses the woman and takes her seat. The anointed woman then kneels before the woman on her left and repeats the anointing and the blessing. This continues until each woman has experienced both sides of the anointing and blessing ritual. An inexpensive lip balm with a delicate fragrance will do nicely for anointing. If you bless the lip balm before you first use it, that would be even better; you can then keep it in a private place with your witch’s survival kit, sacred tools and portable altar.
  6. Even though there are some specific actions that are planned as part of a ritual, the pagan ritual is relatively informal in that it is created by the women to suit a particular event or time. Rituals are seldom, if ever, repeated in exactly the same way. That is part of the ever changing and creative nature of pagan ritual.
  7. At any time during the period set aside for the ritual, the group may stop to chat and laugh and talk informally about what is happening or what they are feeling.
    • Neither alcohol nor food are consumed during the ritual unless it is a libation passed as part of the ritual itself.
    • If anyone needs to physically leave the circle at any time during the ritual, it is customary that a symbolic cut be made in the circle to exit, closed on the other side, recut to re-enter and closed again from the inside, remembering that we are between the worlds in a safe and sacred altar of our own making.
  8. This would be an appropriate time in the ritual to talk about our ancestors and about the ancestors of tomorrow, ourselves and those yet to come.
    • What legacies have our ancestors left us, both personally and as a collective past?
    • As the ancestors of tomorrow, what legacies will we leave? How and in what ways are we, today, influencing tomorrow? What things will tomorrow have to remember?
  9. A libation of apple cider, a bite of the sacred apple and six grains of the pomegranate may be passed around.
    • Some of the cider, apple and pomegranate should be poured on the ground as an offering to the spirits of earth. If the ritual is held inside, then someone may be designated to put the offering outside in a garden/park, or, if necessary, over the balcony of your apt. or at the street curb.
  10. A ritual will last as long as it is intended to, which may be briefly, many hours or all night.
  11. TO CLOSE THE RITUAL, release the elements in the reverse order of their calling:
    • All stand and face south. Spirits of the south, powers of pleasant memories, warm sun, heat, intensity, fire and passion, we thank you for bringing your energy to our circle. We release you. Stay if you will, leave if you must. Hail and farewell. Blessed Be.
    • All stand and face East. Spirits of the east, morning light and sunrise, the dawn of fresh breezes, bringer and shaper of thoughts and ideas, thank you for being in our Samhain circle. We release you. Stay if you will, leave if you must. Hail and farewell. Blessed Be.
    • All stand and face north. We release you. Spirits of the north, power of earth, strength of the giving mother. Thank you for bringing your energy to our Samhain circle. Stay if you will, leave if you must. Hail and farewell. Blessed Be.
    • All stand and face West. Great spirits of the West, the watery world of yesterday and tomorrow, the transforming womb of the goddess and cradle of the moon, we release you. Thank you for bringing to our circle the presence of your blue gate through which we all must pass. Stay if you will, leave if you must. Blessed Be.
    • The convenor blows out each candle in the order of that element's release (red, yellow, green, blue).
    • The convenor blows out the black candle at the centre of the altar saying: “As above, so below.” With arms extended to the front, she reverses the direction of the invisible circle she has incised and says:
      By the earth that is Her body, by the air that is Her breath,
                  by the fire that is Her spirit and by the living waters of Her womb,
                  the circle is open but not unbroken.
                  May the peace of the Goddess go with you.
                  Merry meet and merry part and merry meet again.
                  Blessed Be.
  12. The ritual is followed by feasting and pleasure (feast of the dead).
  13. There is no music in this ritual, nor a cauldron (although the black candle at the centre of the altar could stand in for one), nor chanting, nor raising a cone of power. These and other elements may be added.

Blessed Be!

more to consider

In every culture, we are surrounded by rituals. Hallowe’en, as it is celebrated in Canada, is a ritual which itself is a combination of rituals, pagan and Christian. Why do we wear costumes? What are we hiding from? Why do we trick-or-treat? What do those words mean? Did the Christian church tolerate some pagan influences because it made the Christian church’s message more welcome? How do society’s norms and values get established, and get changed?

resources for this story

National Film Board of Canada films directed by Donna Reed

  • Goddess Remembered
  • The Burning Times
  • Full Circle

books

  • Drawing Down the Moon, by MARGOT ADLER, Beacon Press, Boston | 1992
  • A Woman's Book Of Rituals and Celebrations, by BARBARA ARDINGER, New World Library, San Rafael, CA, Second edition | 1995
  • The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries, by ZSUZSANNA BUDAPEST, Winghbow Press, Berkeley, CA
  • Rites of Passage, The Pagan Wheel of Life, by PAULINE CAMPANELLI, Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, MN | 1994
  • Wheel of the Year, Living the Magical Life, by PAULINE CAMPANELLI, Llewellyn Publications, fifth printing | 1995
  • Ancient Ways, Reclaiming Pagan Traditions, by PAULINE CAMPANELLI, Llewellyn Publications, fourth printing | 1993
  • Wicca, A Guide For The Solitary Practitioner, by SCOTT CUNNINGHAM, Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, MN | 1993
  • The Great Cosmic Mother, by BARBARA MOR and MONICA SJOO, Harper Row | 1989
  • Arladne’s Thread A Workbook of Goddess Magic, by SHEKHINAH MOUNTAINWATER, The Crossing Press, Freedom CA | 1991
  • Women-Church, by ROSEMARY RADFORD RUETHER, Harper and Row, San Francisco, CA | 1990
  • Encyclopedia of White Magic, by PADDY SLADE, Hamlyn Press, London | 1990
  • The Spiral Dance, by STARHAWK, Harper Collins, San Francisco | 1991
  • The Women’s Spirituality Book, by DIANE STEIN, Llewellyn Publications
  • Jambalaya, by LULSAH TELSH, Harper Collins, San Francisco, CA | 1990
  • Women's Rituals, by BARBARA WALKER, Harper and Row, New York, NY | 1990
  • The Women’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects, by BARBARA WALKER, Harper and Row, San Francisco | 1990

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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