The very end of October is marked as the end and beginning of the Pagan wheel of the year. The Wild Hunt is said to rip through the world at Samhain, claiming those souls who have passed from their physical bodies that year, gathering them up and taking them safely to the Otherworld. Often at this time of year the wild hunt is clear for us to see; autumn storms may tear through city streets, bringing majestic trees to their knees, traffic to a standstill, damaged buildings and causing long lasting change to small urban pockets of woodland. It can appear to be devastating but of course out of change, new things can emerge.
By Samhain, autumn is well and truly here. Even if storms pass us by, the weather has turned. Leaves swirl, branches fall, we want to sleep more. Quite naturally we want to turn our attention within. Nature is preparing for the cold to come. Many animals are laying on back fat, hiding nuts and seeking out nests. We can help them by leaving quiet piles of leaves and sticks tucked behind pavement garden shrubs. For this reason, I nestle rosemary, sage and rue prunings discretely behind my geveltuin herbs each year and I leave tidying any messy balcony cupboards until spring. Plants also react to the shorter, cooler days. Some do this by dying back or withdrawing their energy reserves to tap roots or trunks. Others seem to flourish more than ever now, perhaps taking advantage of the increased light in wooded areas. For me, this always seems a time when I can move around more unnoticed than usual, due to the wind, light and temperature. I like that. This is the ultimate witching time of year!
Samhain is a time of death and life – two sides of the same thing. It is one of two hinges in the year when the veil between the worlds of the living and otherworld is most thin. It is the twilight between summer and winter. The time when the dead may visit us with most ease, if they so wish, to help and guide us. The other point when the veil is thin being Beltane (May Day).
Many historic Pagan customs aim to help the recent dead to pass over to the other side. Perhaps set a space at the Samhain dinner table for a departed ancestor to be nourished. Or make glowing lanterns and trails of buried tasty apples, to guide their souls to your home or to the Isle of Apples. The apples help sustain them on their journey and may help us to let them go. Samhain is the time to honour our ancestors and visit our beloved dead. Death and the dead are not to be feared, but should be respected. Friends and family who have died are still our friends and may be welcomed and thanked. This is a lovely time to visit resting places of our ancestors or of other people and animals. We can thoughtfully tend their graves, plant organic spring bulbs as an expression of our love and thanks to them. We may leave graveside bread plates, covered with gathered flowers and herbs. Samhain is also a lovely opportunity to look at photos or mementoes of our ancestors and consider the good qualities which they have enriched us with.
Isle of Apples
I find that this is the loveliest of associations with apples, it reminds me of the most wonderful parts of my years in Somerset and fills me with beautiful images of warm summer orchards, gentle hills, mysterious burrows, sweet scented herbs, peace, love and light. The Isle of Apples is the orchard of the Goddess where many Pagans believe they will go when their body dies. Here, apples bear fruit and flower at the same time. The dead wander peacefully through the orchards. Their souls become younger in this exquisitely beautiful place, until they are ready to be reborn again as plant, human or other creature. This is the Summerland, Avalon, Tir n’a Nog, the place of happiness and youth between lives. Each life teaches us new lessons so we are always growing wiser.
Try to harvest what you will likely need through winter, before Samhain. There used to be considerable ill feeling towards the plants that were left unharvested in the fields at Samhain. This is quite logical as many staple crops such as wheat will either sprout on the mother plant or rot, if left standing at this time. So try to harvest what you can beforehand but always consider how you will store it and use it before you set out with your foraging bags.
At Samhain each year, I still find enough apples, rosehips, quinces and wild berries around to satisfy my needs. I don’t harvest many as the local wildlife needs them more than I do. So, I pluck only a few to enrich my diet and keep the local soil within me. Turkish hazelnuts and gingko nuts are often plentiful on city streets at this time and Hawthorn berries are often perfect. Hawthorn is one of the trees associated with the veil between the worlds. It is certainly a plant spirit to spend time with at Samhain, if you so wish. Herb Robert, Feverfew, Dandelion, Black Horehound and Comfrey are also generally to be found at this time. Samhain is my last chance to make comfrey salve, herbal honeys and elixirs. Plantain seed spikes are easy to forage and store. I use them for simple enrichment of winter soups and porridge.
Bread of the Dead
Sweet bread called Pan de Muerto is made by some cultures at this time of year. Often shaped like people, bones or simply a big bun. It is eaten in the run up to Day of the Dead along with the favourite foods of dead relatives. I make mine in the shape of a person and enrich my usual bread dough with a handful of grated apple, soaked raisins, de-seeded rosehips and whatever other sweet treats come to mind at the time.
Whatever you do this Samhain, I wish you wonderful endings and beginnings.