Samhain and the Celtic Calendar

My spiritual and life journey has been shaped by many influences. These include the ancient wisdom which evolved in Ireland over the past 6000 years, the mystical Christian tradition as outlined by Meister Eckhart in 14th Century , the Buddhist traditions, and of course my own lived experiences.

The wisdom found within these traditions have supported and enabled me to embrace and understand many aspects of my own reality and the reality of the world. These different paths have offered me deep and wise insights and given me a key to a life-enhancing understanding of the role of darkness, suffering, and death within the tapestry of life. In western society, we presently live within a cultural framework that is terrified of death - a society which sees any type of death as failure and darkness as something to be avoided. This irrational fear of death and darkness has created a light filled, relentless human world at a huge cost to the health and well-being of all, including the other beings with which we share this planet.
In a world of endless light there is, it seems, no desire for the darkness that might bring balance, diversity, and more creativity into the world. It is a world of endless doing, with no place for being - a world of endless growth with no place for integration, and a world with no time or place for rest and regeneration. This is a world of constant movement and striving, with little sense of belonging, or communion. It is a restless world where there is little sense of home.

In December 2014 I attended a workshop given by Stephen Jenkinson that addresses the crisis created by what Stephen names as our ‘death-phobic’ culture.  A central question posed by his work is where does our death phobia come from?
People, when they are aware of the reality of living systems, know that death is central to the health of this system and its presence feeds everything with the system. Jenkinson reflects that death, which visits us many times in our lives, is the crucible for making a human being. He suggests that it is not universal to see death as a ‘rip-off’ and believes this is a learned response. Kahlil Gibran answering a question on death says ‘You would know the secret of death. But how can you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life? ... for life and death are one, even as the river and sea are one’.

Jenkinson speaks of how the death phobia in our society is compounded by the fact that many people are grief-illiterate and do not have the skills to navigate grief. This accelerates our fear and encourages us to avoid the encounter with death, loss, and grief. Deep ecologist Joanna Macy speaks of the importance of fearlessly experiencing our deep feelings of loss and grief, both personal and universal. She says that ‘we can open to our own pain and the pain of the world in confidence that it can neither shatter nor isolate us, for we are not objects that can break. We are in this grief together. It is when the heart is broken that compassion can begin to flow through it’.

As we open our hearts and feel our feelings, we sense our connectedness with the greater love and intelligence of the universe which is freely available to each of us. Perhaps one of the most important pieces of work any of us will undertake is the befriending of our feelings. Doing this work requires that we sink down from our heads into our hearts. The poet Rilke says ‘the work of the eyes is done now we must do the heart work’. We must risk being present to our deepest feelings, especially our feelings of pain, sadness, loss and the unattended, accumulated grief. Meister Eckhart, 14th century Christian mystic, asks ‘What is this darkness? What is its name? Call it an aptitude for sensitivity. Call it a rich sensitivity which makes you whole; Call it your potential for vulnerability’.

The introduction of electric light allowed us, as a society, to move past the limitations of darkness, night, and winter .While these advances have many positive benefits, they also created problems. Once the possibility to enjoy endless light became valued by society, it became more difficult to embrace its opposite. This created a world where only light and the gifts experienced in light were seen as valuable, while those gifts found in the darkness became less valued. The nuances of life created by the inclusion of light and darkness in our lives are increasingly absent and their gifts lost to us.

The Wisdom of Celtic Calendar

The Celtic mind-set has embraced and always been fascinated with the paradoxical nature of reality. This in turn created their world view and the cosmologies and influenced their reality. This perspective was not unique to the earlier peoples of this island, rather it reflected an understanding of life, whose essences was and is shared by primal people all over the Planet. People who viewed and experienced life from this perspective understood that it was a dance between apparently opposites and conflicting energies. Their worldview understood the necessity for the presence of the complementary polarities e.g. darkness and light, night and day, summer and winter, being and doing, masculine and feminine energies within the dance of life. Embracing these paradoxes allowed the mingling of opposite energies and resulted in the continuous evolution of life into greater complexity. The Celtic calendar with its eight seasons, each initiated by the corresponding festival, emerged from this understanding of life.

The seasons of Samhain, Winter Solstice, Imbolc, Spring Equinox, Bealtaine, Summer Solstice, Lughnasadh and Autumn Equinox flow into and out from each other in a river of different energies and experiences. The four agricultural festivals Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine and Lughnasadh are considered to be feminine while the Winter and Summer Solstices, and Spring and Autumn Equinoxes are considered to be masculine. The solar year is further divided into two halves, the dark (Giamos) time of winter and the bright (Samos) time of summer. In this system, time is related to the bigger cosmological dimensions of life and creates a larger context in which we humans can locate our personal lives. It links us humans to the earthly and cosmic drama played out each day and night.

The Challenge of Samhain

The Celtic Year begins its journey, as do all life journeys, in the darkness. Samhain is the first and most important festival of the Celtic year; it is the gateway into the dark half of the year when the earth is fallow and death is present everywhere in the natural world.

This feminine energy present in 3 different forms (the Maiden, the Mother, and the Cailleach) at different times in the year emphasises the primary role of feminine energy within the cycle of life, death and rebirth. This is complemented by the presence of the masculine energy also present within the dynamics of the calendar.
At the festival of Samhain, we are initiated into the mysteries of the dark goddess – the Cailleach aspect of the feminine energies .The journey into the season of Samhain requires a dying of what has been and a willingness to embrace the resultant void created by its absence. We are offered an opportunity to return to her transformative cauldron and to allow ourselves to sink into the being-ness of that place of our potential rebirth and re-emergence.

The cauldron is a central metaphor for the void in Celtic mythology .This is the place where we bring those raw or unpalatable aspects of the self, the difficult events of our lives, to be slowly transformed during the winter season by the healing energies of the Divine Feminine in her Cailleach form. In this place deep healing and transformation can take place allowing the emergence of a new possibility at springtime. This aspect of the Goddess can often seem ugly or harsh to us because it challenges us to relinquish much of what we are attached to that but which no longer serves our deepest self. Even as this tough mother love challenges us, it is also holds us in a wise, loving and compassionate embrace. This is the opportunity and challenge offered to us by the season and the energy of Samhain. In order to travel successfully and safely into and out of this dark season, we must learn and embrace the qualities that will support us in that journey.

Embracing all the seasons of life
Comparing how life is experienced within the present society to the pattern held within the calendar of the Celtic year, it is obvious that the sense of balance and an understanding of the spiral of birth, life, death, and regeneration are missing in our world today.

There are many qualities that can help support us through this season. They include our capacity to trust the darkness and stillness of wintertime; to embrace waiting and being rather than doing ; to develop and value the feminine consciousness within ourselves; to observe and surrender to what is in each moment ; to trust that it is safe to sink deep down into the well of our own being-ness and confidently await our rebirth at Imbolc supported by the maiden form of feminine energy ; to challenge our fear of death through an exploration of the season of Samhain and the myth of regeneration which is central in Celtic tradition .

It may be that the Celtic calendar, a gift from this ancient tradition, will help us homeless and rootless western people to remember the truth of who we are and the relationships that underpin our reality. With this understanding we learn to live our lives in ways that honour both the Giamos and the Samos seasons of our lives.

We learn that there is no Bealtaine without Samhain, no summertime without wintertime, no blinding light without piercing darkness. We learn to inhabit all these different energies and to co-operate with rather than fight against whatever is present in our lives at any given moment. By following the path of the year and understanding the energies associated with each season, we gain a greater understanding of the complex and subtle energies present within ourselves and our world. This results in greater harmony, balance, creativity, productivity and peace in our lives.

Dolores Whelan has facilitated workshops and retreats in Celtic Spirituality and personal empowerment for over 25years .She leads pilgrimages to the sacred places in Ireland and Iona Scotland.  She has written extensively on education, creativity and Celtic Spirituality .Her most recent book is ‘Ever Ancient Ever New: Celtic spirituality in 21st century’. She created a CD, ‘A Journey through the Celtic Year’, which explores the wisdom of the Celtic tradition though the Celtic Year calendar and co created a perpetual Celtic calendar with US artist, the late Cynthai Matyi.

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