Many covens and circles celebrate this most sacred of pagan holidays as groups, often opening their circles to non-initiates and others who wish to participate. I find myself preferring a solitary ritual, perhaps with some socializing earlier or later in the evening. For me, much of the meaning of Samhain suggests such a practice, though traditionally it is a communal celebration.
Samhain is pronounced as sow-in (in Ireland), sow-een (in Wales), and sav-en (in Scotland). It marks the end of the harvest, the end of the year, and the death of the god. Self-reflection becomes not simply a custom, but a necessity. One cannot (or at least should not) allow the Wheel of the Year to turn without some kind of examination of what has occurred. How have I spent the last year? Did I grow or remain stagnant? Did I live according to the values I claim to embrace? These are questions which must be addressed in solitude and solemnity.
Just as Samhain ends the old year, it must begin the new, though many witches do not celebrate the New Year until Yule. Reflection should continue during this dark time, but reflection should be accompanied by a growing sense of the changes to be made and the light to be sought. I sometimes make many lists during this time — lists of what I have accomplished and what I still want to accomplish, things I have neglected and those I have tended, and other similar lists. Samhain symbolizes both the past and the future, illuminated by the cycle of the seasons, forever linked as steps on the journey we must all make.
The Goddess tells us: “And you who seek to know Me, know that your seeking and yearning will avail you not, unless you know the Mystery: for if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without.” We must look inside ourselves for self-knowledge and for the spirit that will sustain us in life’s trials. Silence is one of the keys to seeking truth, for we cannot hear the answers in the midst of this noisy world in which we walk every day, nor in the noise of holiday celebrations however joyous.
Samhain is also said to be the time when the veil between the living and te dead is thinnest, allowing us some communication with those who have departed. How befitting this is for such a time of endings and beginnings. Reflections on death can be as instructive as the self-examinations just mentioned. When we think of those who have died, it reminds us of time passing by and of things we could have or should have done. These reminders, coupled with our lists of past and future actions, encourages us to take our New Year’s resolutions far more seriously. We know our time is limited, and most of us have much to do in our alloted time. Most of us have to make a living somehow, but death reminds us that we had better spend some of that time in pursuit of our other dreams lest they be lost in the struggle merely to survive.
The Samhain rituals I follow change a little from year to year. I don’t like to have a set of mandatory words or actions that might prevent me from exploring new possiblities in meaning. However, I do include the traditional Samhain rituals of sharing a feast (even if I am alone) and some form of divination. Since it is best that you write/say your own words in performing rituals, I will only include an outline here.
Prepare your house or room
Use black and orange candles, pumpkins (carved or not) and other traditional “Halloween” items if you wish (most are actually traditional for Samhain).
Prepare a table for the Feast of the Dead. It should be covered with a black table cloth and set with black dishes (black paper plates will do just fine). Place a chair at the head of the table, drapped in black cloth, to represent the spirit. The spirit’s place is set with a plate with a white votive candle on it. Set places for each of the dead that you hope will join you., and place black votive candles on their plates. Plates for the living (in my soitary ritual, just one) are empty, of course, awaiting the feast food to be served.
My feast is usually very simple: bread, fruit, nuts, and juice or wine. If you’ve invited living guests, it is common to make the feast potluck. However, since the actual feast will take place in silence, try not to have too many things that would have to be passed or requested.
Light the candles and turn out the lights
Call the quarters (ask the Guardians of the Watchtowers to witness and protect your circle).
Cast a circle (use whatever method you’ve been taught).
Invite the deities
There are certain Goddesses that I always invite to my rituals. It seems especially important to invite them on Samhain, as I will want to thank them for their help during the past year, and of course, ask that they continue to help me in the coming year. If the departed loved ones were especially close to any deities, I invite them as well.
Feast of the Dead
Light the candles on the plates of the dead and the spirit. The feast should take place in silence so that you can think about your departed friends and relatives. Think of their passing and your hopes for their joyous return. If someone is recently departed, try to put aside your sadness and think of that soul as well and happy in the presence of the Goddess.
Speak in silence an invitation to these loved ones, asking them to join in your feast. Use your own words for this. You know these individuals and can speak to them in a way to which they are likely to respond.
Sit at your table and eat the food you have brought to it. Feel the presence of those who have joined you and rejoice in their presence. Allow them to speak to you of whatever they want to communicate. Take as long as you wish at the table, listening to those you have invited and speaking to them in silence.
When the feast is over, thank your spirit guests for coming, bid them farewell, extinguish the candles on the plates, and leave the table.
Banishings and Resolutions
Now is the time to bring out one of those lists! Before Samhain, write a list of things from the last year that you want to banish: bad habits and addictions, unkind feelings toward others, unkind feelings toward yourself …. anything you do not want to carry over to the New Year. Light a black candle and burn the list, asking the Goddess and God to help you get rid of these and all negative things in your life. If you prefer, you can put about 1/4 cup of alcohol in a cauldron, light it, and burn the paper there. Speak to the deities(you can speak aloud now) about your sincere wish to remove these things from your life. Use a banishing chant, if you wish.
Now you should speak to the deities about those things you want to bring into your life in the New Year. I do these things rather informally, but there are many poems and prose pieces in books that you might want to use. Asking the deities for future rewards must be accompanied by resolutions as to how you will accomplish your goals. They will help you if you are sincere in your efforts to help yourself.
Because the two worlds are so close at Samhain, it is the perfect time for divination. I prefer to use a cauldron of water for scrying, since the cauldron seems to fit the mood of Samhain (not to mention Halloween tradition). You may prefer Tarot cards, a pendalum, or runes….whatever method works best for you. Obviously, the goal of this divination is to see what lies ahead in the next year.
All of my rituals include some form of meditation. This is when I ask my personal Goddesses to guide me, advise me, and generally keep me on the right path. I also use this time to thank them in a more personal way than by reciting a poem of thanksgiving. At Samhain, I thank them for all their gifts in the last year and ask them to continue helping me in the New Year.
Sometimes this part of the ritual takes the form of a shamanic journey in which I am taken to a far away place (sometimes familiar, sometimes not) and where I may be given signs that will help me know what I should do (either in general or in specific situations). Take as long with your meditation as you need.
Thank the Deities
Give thanks to the deities you have invited by offering them food. I usually say something like “all things come from the Earth and to the Earth they must return.” Whatever food and drink I offer (usually bread and wine), I eat a little and save the rest to place or pour on the Earth later.
Open the circle
Thank and dismiss the Guardians
A word about invitations to the dead
For my solitary Samhain Feast of the Dead, I invite not only departed humans but special animals as well. I doubt that this is customary since the feast is usually for one’s ancestors. However, when one of my beloved pets has passed away, his or her passing leaves an empty place in my household and in my life, just as the passing of a person would. I choose to believe that the Goddess takes these creatures and cares for them as She would any human. They are far purer in heart than any human could be, and their love is perfect and unconditional. Surely their spirits deserve whatever rewards await the rest of us. So, at Samhain, I invite these loving creatues to join in my feast where I can once again feel their presense and their uncomplicated devotion to those they love. In their honor, I also invite either Bast, the Egyptian Cat Goddess, or Diana, Goddess of the hunt and mistress of dogs, both wild and tame.