Saturday, November 3, 2007

Soul, soul, an apple or two...

As a boy growing up in Northumberland this season and time of the year held several significant and symbolic rituals, very different from the custom of the ‘trick or treat’ here in the United States. Perhaps the most basic was the veneration of the humble apple, whose crop surfaced toward the late fall, my favorite was the ‘Cox Orange Pippin’ a small but incredibly sweet and wild taste. On this dark night by a crackling coal-fire we played a simple game of ‘apple-dooky’ which involved attempting to take an apple out of a bowl of water only using our teeth. This of course is purely Celtic in origin; the water representing the passage-way to the otherworld, and the apple being the ‘isle of apples’ of whom Manannan Mac Lyr was the resident chief deity. The Gaelic heaven is perhaps better known in Arthurian legend as ‘Avalon.’ My mother would also bake huge 1lb apples stuffed with brown sugar, nuts and raisins, cinnamon and brandy. And there was also the candied apples covered in hard caramel which we licked until our tongues were sore. It is said that the apple was the customary payment to ensure the safety of a soul in ‘spiritual transition’ to the otherworld. Thus in ages past groups of children would go around the village, knocking on each neighbor’s door and sing a soul-plaint in return for an apple;

“Soul, soul, an apple or two
If you haven’t an apple a pear will do,
One for the Crow-Queen, two for the lost-soul,
And three for the Ferry-man
Who carries us all…”

The Great-Queen ‘Morrigan’ in the shape of a Crow is the one who consumes our strips our decaying body of its flesh, and the Ferry-man guides our spirit across the vast dark ocean of death. Then at school we would weave small crosses out of white milk-straws, originally these were constructed from the left-over sheaves of wheat after the harvest and called ‘parshells’ in the Irish tradition. Very similar to the St. Brigit’s cross created at Beltaine. Hung up over the lintel of the front door they were said to protect the home from the unwanted attentions of mischievous spirits.

Pumpkins were unknown in Britain, we used turnips which were hollowed out and used as lanterns with a candle inside, and left by the window to illuminate the cold bitter darkness outside. The leftover orange-flesh was boiled, mashed and served with some ham for the evening meal.

Discarding the incorrect assumption that Samhain was a old and dangerous God of the harvest we are left only with its ancient conception as the ‘new-year.’ A potent transitionary period from the light half of the year into the darkness of winter;

"Dhe, beanaich dhomh an la ur,

Nach do thuradh dhomh roimhe riamh:

Is ann gu beannachadh do ghnuis,

Thug thu'n uine seo dhomh, a Dhia..."

("God, bless me to this new day, never vouchsaved to me before: it is to bless thine own presence, thou hast given me this time, O God..." - Carmina Gadelica).

Like the wild Adder we shed our skin for the last time before being enveloped in the Crow’s wing of hibernation. This season invites renewal through introspection, reflection and repose, quiet solitude in a shrouded mist of dreams. The Black winds of the North invite us to harbor a small ember of hope through to Beltaine in the Spring. It is through the medium of darkness, the ‘dark night of the soul’ that we can realize our hidden potential; the brilliant sub-conscious light that lies beyond the boundaries of our physical existence, one warmed not by the sun but by a deeper sense of joy, life, love, creativity and wisdom. Like the oldest creation myths our seed is nursed under a primordial blanket in preparation for the fullest sense of blossoming.

Another key festival we celebrated at this time of year was ‘Guy-Fawkes Day’ on November the fifth. In the post-Elizabethan age this was the commemoration of the arrest and execution in 1605 of a group of individuals who attempted to destroy the British crown and Parliament:

Please to remember the Fifth of November,
Gunpowder Treason and Plot.
We know no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
Holla boys! holla boys! huzza-a-a!
A stick and a stake, for King George’s sake,
A stick and a stump, for Guy Fawkes’s rump!
Holla boys! holla boys! huzza-a-a!

This ritual involved building a pyramid shaped structure out of collected pieces of old wood scraps, and on the night setting fire to it. But, before this a figure of a man would be constructed out of an old suit and stuffed with newspaper, with a face and hat. A week before the ‘burning’ we would take the old ‘Guy’ out with us on a small cart and ask for ‘pennies in his name’ and all of this was concluded on the fifth, when we threw his mortal frame into the burning fire. We set off fireworks, roast potatoes in the fire and sing and dance around the flames in a festival which seems strangely like the Hindi ‘Festival of lights.’

This is a highly charged event that has absolutely shocked many foreign observers, but its origins are clearly in the Celtic-Pagan past; both Caesar and Strabo recall the Celtic tribal tradition of creating a ‘wicker-man’ out of old branches, straw and wood, and then setting fire to it in a specific ritual as an offering to the Gods. The only deity I can identify within this context is ‘Cromm Cruach’ (or ‘Crooked-Head’) in the Irish tradition; a god of the harvest whose feast day is on July 28th. He is personified as the ‘sheaf of wheat’ the agricultural spirit of the land, and after the harvest of Lughnasadh he must be symbolically burned like stubble to return to the earth, as a source of nourishment and enrichment. As a patron of the harvest he is sometimes accompanied by a writhing snake and a sharp scythe like the mysterious ‘Grim Reaper.’

“It is I who nourish the shoot, the root,
Who feeds all that grows from the earth,
I suffer no decay,
I am the heavy ear of corn and the ripe branch,
I am the trembling of the earth,
Deeply lodged in the clay…”

At this time of year we are thoughtful of both life and death, our ancestors and ancient relations, in recollection of their sacrifices and the work they committed themselves too in order for our lives to blossom now in the present. We also join in the delight of our children swirling, dancing and singing around our lives, with a deep desire that they will grow and mature and soon become themselves the wardens of this beautiful earth... let the advice to the youth be an illuminating one; respect, honor, creativity, passion, and absolute faith. This is a perfect time to address our limitations, investigate shortcomings, explore self-imposed restrictions and dive deeper into our pool of existence to retrieve those skills we need to be even more than we could be before.

As we settle tonight in this season for sleep let us spend a moment of reflection in silence; with each breath allow the sacred Earth spirit infuse our souls with calm waves of harmony, dispelling the knots of anger, frustration or turbulence... and allow us to navigate the dream-world with gilded delight, to awake refreshed and ready for a new day and a new year of challenges. This is a beautiful time to make ourselves holy and sacred with a traditional Scottish ‘sain’ or rite of purification with smoldering sage or the more traditional juniper:

I purify my being with the three whispers;


The birth of Originality
The Life of Inspiration,
The Sleep of Imagination…

Great Path

Creator Within and Without, All-Encompassing

Heart, Soul and Mind

At one

In the Shrine of my life

Preserved from the eye of Dawn till Twilight;
And through the darkest night of forgetting.