Today is Hallowe’en, one of my favourite festivals. The Celts called it Samhain meaning ‘summer’s end’, and it spanned a few days and nights from the end of October into early November – roughly halfway between the fixed solar festivals of the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice.
You can feel the difference now in the UK; the days are noticeably shorter, the weather more chill, the leaves are falling and it’s very clear that winter’s on the doorstep. To our ancestors, Samhain marked a significant point in the turning wheel of the year. When life depends on good husbandry and the harvest, the onset of winter heralds a major change. The cattle and sheep are brought closer, down from the summer pastures and grazing and into the safety of the enclosures. Many would be slaughtered before fodder became scarce, and preserved for the lean months ahead. The full moon in October is known as the Hunter’s Moon, but also Blood Moon, for this was the month of large scale slaughter of livestock.
As with many borders – the threshold of a cottage, the shore of a lake, the point where two tracks meet – this time between summer and winter was seen as magical. Liminal, transitional places were powerful; ordinary rules could be bent and the shift between dream and reality, darkness and light, was more blurred. As we enter the darkness of winter there are obvious associations with the Underworld, and this mythology was echoed in other countries too. At Samhain, the veil between our world and the Place of the Dead was stretched very thin. Spirits of those who’d passed on could be glimpsed and some may slip between the worlds to haunt the living.
Many cultures celebrate a Festival of the Ancestors to honour their dead. Samhain was such a time, with the focus on darkness, death and the spirit world. Offerings were left out for the spirits in a liminal place – on the hearth or doorstep. Ghost and guest have the same etymology, and often an extra place would be laid at the table. Wicked or mischievous spirits were scared away – the custom of carving out turnips and mangel-wurzels into faces and lighting a candle within, is an old one.
The crow, the crone, the elder tree and fire – all have their place in Samhain celebrations of old. Traditionally every fire in the community was extinguished, and each household would take new fire from the communal bonfire – bone fire – lit in a gathering place. There’d be loud bangs and shrieks to scare away the dark spirits, and it’s clear how so many of these customs have been subsumed over the centuries, superimposed by more recent events such as Guy Fawkes Night. Human effigies – perhaps the scarecrows from the fields – would be thrown onto the fire amidst dancing and laughter, but all tinged with fear of the dark, of the unknown, of death. Today we have plastic masks, supermarket tat and little children trailing round with mum hovering in the background as they collect their sweeties.
When I researched old folk customs and pagan lore for the Stonewylde series, I was aware that many practices were localised and as such, would vary considerably. I also realised how easy it is to discover a strange old custom and put a modern, glib interpretation on it. Some things are done just because they always have been – the original purpose perhaps irrelevant and insignificant. So rather than try to recreate historical fact accurately, which is almost impossible with folk lore, I took the bones of my research and fleshed it out with something unique for Stonewylde.
At Stonewylde, all fires are extinguished at Samhain until the great bonfire is lit as evening falls in the Village. In the Stone Circle, the usual arena for all celebrations, there’s a really horrible ritual performed by someone dressed in a corvid mask like the Plague Doctors of old. On a lighter note, the Great Barn is decorated with papier mache crows and skulls, carved turnips and boughs of elder, and the children perform a dance to symbolise the end of summer and the onset of winter. On the Village Green is a labyrinth defined with white pebbles and in the centre sits a dome of wicker. Everyone in the community must walk the labyrinth, reflecting on the past year, and when they reach the centre they drink spiked elderberry wine. There’s feasting, dancing, apple-bobbing and games, but no Trick or Treating or plastic witches.
Samhain marks the end of the old year in the pagan calendar and is a time for reflection on the past and looking ahead towards the future. It was at Samhain nine years ago that I first walked a labyrinth. Stepping around the path of the ancient pattern, my scepticism faded as the magic of the moment took hold. I reached the centre and knew, in that second, that my destiny was about to veer onto a different course altogether. Samhain – Hallowe’en – is a time of endings and new beginnings. As winter draws in and we gather in the cave, huddling closer to the fire, the gestation period begins.
I wish all Gollancz readers a Happy Hallowe’en – and a spiritual Samhain.