The dark days of November lead us deeper into the mysteries of Samhain, with All Saints Day on November 1st, and All Souls Day on November 2nd, two Christian festivals which overlaid the earlier pagan festivals of the dead. In the modern world, we tend to regard death as something of an aberration, but our Celtic ancestors viewed life as a never-ending spiral of birth, death and rebirth. They believed that after death, the soul journeyed to the Summerlands beyond the western sea, where the grass was always green, and fruit and flowers grew together. Feasting, hunting, music, love, and joyous sporting contests went on forever; and if any were wounded or killed one day, they sprang back to life the next. In the Iron Age, men and women of noble rank were buried with everything they were likely to need in the afterlife: drinking horns, cauldrons, jewelry, weapons and even chariots. Because of their beliefs, they were fearless in the face of death, which they considered to be ‘...but the center of a long life.’ In fact it was not uncommon for someone who lent you a sum of money to agree on repayment in your next lifetime!
The Silent Company
On Nov. 2nd, the eve of All Souls’ Day in Ireland, families lit a candle in the window to guide the souls of the Dead back to their old homes. As the veil between the worlds thinned, a sluagh, or host, of spirits walked the land, and encountered the same hospitality the Celts have always shown the living, Doors and windows were left unfastened, and any passage through the house that they once used was kept open. The table was laid with the best white cloth, and special food was left out for them to enjoy.
In Wales, they were known as the 'silent company', and the food was called bwyd cennad y meinv, ('the food for the embassy of the dead.') In Brittany, it was boued gouel an Anaon ('the food for the feast of the dead') and usually consisted of warm pancakes, curd cheese and mugs of cider. When the family retired for the night, they sometimes heard the scraping of stools and clatter of plates and forks, as the spirits enjoyed their meal. Nor did they forget the homeless spirits, sadly roaming about the countryside with nowhere to go. Food and drink were set out on doorstep and windowsill so that they too might have a share.
Until quite recently in the Irish Gaeltacht, families kept a seomra thiar, or ‘room to the West’ – sometimes just an alcove or nook -- where they placed objects that reminded them of departed ones. At sunset, the family solemnly turned towards the setting sun and spent time in loving remembrance of them. A candle was lit for each soul, then the whole family sat down to a communal feast in their honour.
Making a Shrine for the Dead
1. Choose part of a western wall for the shrine. This could be an alcove, shelf, window-sill, or small table. Cover it with a black or purple cloth.
2. Now arrange upon it mementos of relatives and friends who have passed over to the Summerlands this year, or in the recent past – photographs, small personal possessions or pieces of jewelry, and perhaps some branches, leaves or flowers.
3. You may also feel moved to remember individuals or groups of people throughout the world whose deaths this year have touched you deeply. Photos from newspapers, symbolic objects, poems, and so on, can also be added to the shrine.
4. Stand a candle by each one, and place a large candle in the center, symbolic of the One Light that unites us all.
5. At dusk, light the candles beginning with the central one, and sit or stand facing the shrine, contemplating each one in turn. Allow any emotions that may arise simply to be present, and express them naturally, as the Celts freely gave vent to their feelings at death.
6. If you are doing this in a group, you may wish to share stories, songs, poems, or words of inspiration, plus have each member of the circle give a short tribute to one or more of those remembered here.
7. On All Souls’ Eve, those who may be trapped in the limbo between heaven and Earth, known as Purgatory in Christian tradition, can be released. You may want to offer the following prayer, adapted from Scottish sources, to anyone who has recently died, or whose death was particularly difficult:
You are going home to your home of winter,
To your home of autumn, of spring, and of summer;
You are going home to the Land of the Living.
To the restful haven of the waveless sea.
Peace of the Seven Lights be upon you, beloved,
Peace of the Seven Joys be upon you, beloved,
Peace of the Seven Loves be upon you, beloved,
On the breast of the Mother of Blessings,
In the arms of the Father of Life.
8. Prepare a special feast for yourself, family or group for after the ritual at the shrine. Eat and drink with gusto! This is the time to wholeheartedly celebrate the great round of life and death. Finally, make sure you set aside a special dish for the departed ones before you go to bed.