Samhain, the Veil and the Five Whys

One of the main tools of Japanese manufacturing is called “Five Whys.” If you have a problem, ask “why?” five times. By the time you get to the fifth level you should be past all the symptoms to the root cause, which you can then fix.

I didn’t need an engineering degree to tell me that’s a good idea. My mother would tell you I was asking “why?” from a very early age. Some of that was challenging rules I didn’t like, but most of it was a genuine desire to know and to understand.

Asking “why?” in a religious setting is dangerous, as many religious concepts and doctrines don’t hold up well to rational examination. I kept asking why a supposed loving God would send people to hell, why because of the place and time of their birth some people were almost guaranteed to be saved while others were almost guaranteed to be damned. I never got good answers, either from the leaders of the Baptist church I grew up in, or from my own reading of scripture. And so I became a universalist at an early age.

But if it’s fair to ask why in one religious setting, it’s fair to ask it in another. And lately I’ve been wondering why the Veil between the worlds is thinnest at the season of Samhain. So I’ve been asking “why?”

1) The last harvest. By late October, the crops are in and the fields are bare – what was green in the summer and gold in the fall has turned to brown. As the plant life dies or goes dormant, so our thoughts begin turning toward death and those who have died.

2) Winter is coming. For our earliest ancestors, that meant food would be scarce and disease more prevalent. They knew people had died in previous winters – they remembered them, and they also wondered who might die this winter.

3) The Sun is dying. The shorter days were a reminder that the number of our days also grows shorter with each passing year.

4) A mystery. Why does the Sun die and then return? For our ancestors whose universe was literally Earth-centered, there was no way to know the astronomical science we take for granted. And so this was a mystery – something that can’t be understood rationally.

Four reasons why, perhaps, the Veil is thinner at Samhain.

Or maybe, the Veil isn’t really thinner at this time of year. Many traditions consider it to be nearly as thin at Beltane, which is 180 degrees opposite Samhain on the Wheel of the Year. Maybe we expect it to be thinner, and so we notice things we ordinarily ignore. Maybe we listen for our ancestors at this season, while at the rest of the year we don’t.

Regardless, this is the time of year when this world and the Otherworld draw close. And if we quiet our minds and open our hearts, we can experience the presence of our beloved dead… and we can learn that crossing the Veil for the final time is nothing to fear.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Pagan view of Veil between the worlds, I highly recommend The Veil’s Edge by Willow Polson. CUUPS did a nine-week study of it late 2006 / early 2007 – it was quite enlightening.

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