Samhain: a Modern Witch’s Guide
Not a fan of halloween? Olivia Wheldon shows you the deeper tradition behind the holiday
Golden crackle of leaves under boots, distant smoke rising up through the air, the growing darkness says Samhain’s afoot. The forests are dreaming. The Earth is alive. The sun goddess parts company for the big sleep. Head-first, into the wild unknown, we witches dive deep.
On the Celtic wheel of the year, there are many sabbats, or holy days. October 31st marks Samhain (‘sah-wain’) in the Northern hemisphere. This hallowed time marks the beginning of a Celtic new year, when the misty veil between worlds is thinnest and spirits roam freely Earthside. It is a reminder that, as the harvest draws to a close and colder days creep in, there is an infinite cycle and deep magic at work around us. As the night always turns to morning, so too will the light return in Spring. Death breathes new life. This is the natural order of things. Cyclical. Ever-changing. Do not fear the darkness, for within it we are renewed. It is nature’s wombspace. A sky full of stars. Samhain offers up this meditative state so that we may grow.
Those treading a Pagan path will turn inwards, retreat into the shadows, reflect on the days gone before and the long nights ahead. Samhain carves out time, like pumpkins, to contemplate the balance of light and dark, life and death, and to communicate with those crossed over. This is the European day of the dead, a sacred chapter to honour ancestors. The ancient Celts believed that the between-places, liminal spaces and borderlines (eg dusk, dawn, riverbanks and coasts) were cross-over points or portals to the Otherworld, where the dead dwell. Falling between midsummer and midwinter, Samhain serves as the perfect doorway to the Great Beyond, therefore it’s such a popular time for rituals, sex spells, manifestation, divination (tarot, tealeaves and pendulum work etc.).
Having consulted with some Bristol witches from my own coven, the general consensus is that Samhain is a golden opportunity for really doing the work, getting in touch with the shadow self (all the suppressed, shunned and shamed aspects of ourselves that we hide away in the dark).
The days literally get darker. Plants die and return to the muddy soil only to reawaken again in Spring. It is earthy. Is is raw. It is impossible not to feel the call to journey inwards, connect to your surroundings. Mirror them. Live the dark, breathe the dark, be the dark.
My witchy friends and I usually celebrate Samhain in any of the following ways, as does mySiberian-shaman-Reiki-Master-teacher. (Quite a mouthful!)
An abundance of local produce is available after the harvest, so nourish your body with wholesome food and seasonal drinks. Cook intentionally. Be present. Imbue your dishes with positive thoughts, affirmations and chant mantras as you add ingredients. Weave in wishes to the food, nourishing body and soul. Examples of seasonal foods include pumpkin soup, roasted squash, nut roasts, vegetable tray bakes, pumpkin risotto, warm chestnuts, garlic mushroom toast, cider, pear juice, mulled wine, spiced apple juice. Get creative! It’s really lovely to invite your friends and family (if you feel called) to join a big feast. Otherwise, carve out this holy time for you, to honour your temple, channel those hearth witch vibes and serve up some goodness for the soul. Solitary witches have it down!
Many like to invite in the spirits of deceased loved ones who may have crossed over and are now walking the Earth this Samhain. To do this, light some candles (preferably white or autumnal coloured ones) in the windows of your home, make up a spare bed or sofa and leave a hearty meal on the table. The idea is that your loved ones will see the light, respond to the warmth and feel welcome. It’s easy to get lost when wandering Earthside and candles light the way home. Another nice touch is to leave an extra chair at the table whilst feasting to encourage any loved ones to join in on the festivities. This is known in Celtic lore as the ancestor’s seat and tradition states that to make eye contact with it could bring misfortune, but I believe that superstition is bad luck itself and tend to ignore prescriptive teaching. Your intuition knows best. Trust it.
Burning candles has many purposes. The first is detailed above, but you can practice fire meditation simply by staring at the flickering flames and losing yourself in its glow.
The white-bearded Druids marked the holy days on the wheel of the year with fire ceremonies. These were monumental occasions, where giant bonfires were lit and worship of the elements took place. Along with candlelight, igniting fires in the garden or safely in the home is a lovely way to ring in Samhain. If you do not have access to a safe fireplace, perhaps experiment with seasonal incense, such as nutmeg, or fiery frankincense, which is incredibly cleansing and protective. I will definitely be writing down all that I’m ready to let go of from the pagan year before and burning it in the fire.
A Wiccan tradition is to have a designated shrine area within your sacred space. This could be a bookshelf, side table or area in the garden where you light candles, perform readings, interpret the tarot, meditate with crystals and just gather yourself after a long day. Autumn is an abundant time for collecting items for your alter. Think feathers, leaves, dried herbs and flowers from the woods, skulls from already-dead animals on the forest floor. Never harm any living thing though; this flies in the face of the overarching Wiccan law, which states ‘do as ye will, but harm none.’ Assemble these artefacts intentionally upon your alter.
Lovely additions to your Samhain are photographs of loved ones no longer with us and a candle lit in their memory. This honours and calls them in. I’ll be assembling photographs of my grandparents and pets on the kitchen table as invitation to spend the evening with us.
Due to the veil thinning, spirits come through easier. If you’re seeking connection or guidance from Spirit World, perhaps delve into some divination, go see a psychic, practice meditation, tune into your crystals, perform spells. The magick is potent at this time. Harness it. That said, it’s vitally important to stay away from anything that does not resonate or induces fear. Fear can be dangerous as negative energies feed off it and attract more of the same. It’s a blood-in-the-water situation, so really tune in and only do what feels right to you.
The best crystals to work with at this time include black tourmaline for its deeply protective qualities, smoky quartz for the same purpose and its grounding energy. Clear quartz is useful for clarity, healing and insight and people also reach for red jasper, red garnet, ruby and hematite.
As with all things of a spiritual nature, it is so easy to take others’ words as law, but it’s important to know that we all have access to the Source. We are all cut from the same cloth. We all have divine intuition that must be tuned into and followed. This Samhain, be open, be guided. See what comes up and go where you are led.