Samhain is the last harvest. The blood harvest. The harvest that comes when the Queen of the Underworld appears in all Her glory to witness and lead the Dance Macabre, the dance of the dead. The harvest of slaughter.
All harvests gather death. But not all are of slaughter, that is, of the killing of animals and the preserving of meat. Not all are of the blood upon the ground, meeting the ichor of the gods, bubbling up in union.
All harvests are of death.
The grain harvest when the Dying God rests his head in the Goddess’ hand to Her sickle.
The fruit harvest when the apples hang heavy on the tree and children dance for Pomona.
And now the meat harvest. The one many of us don’t particularly want to think about, especially given how meat is “harvested” in Western culture.
In each case, life feeds on life. There is no other way for us heterotrophs to make it in the world. We feed on that which has fed on sun and water. We feed on that which has fed on the grasses and the grains. And sometimes we feed on the meat of animals who have eaten other animals.
Samhain is the Last Harvest.
The last harvest of the year is the last harvest against the cold of winter, coming to those in the British Isles, and to many others in other parts of the Northern Hemisphere. This last harvest is the last ritualized solar holiday of proud hope before the winter.
It is not the hope that the sun will come again. Those holidays are Yule and Imbolc. This is the holiday that says, “We will get through the dark times. We will.” This holiday expresses the insistent reality that the dark is already nipping at our heels, the water is already at our waists. Without setting aside September’s fruit and August’s grain, and now October’s meat, we won’t make it. We just won’t make it.
But there’s some echo under there of knowing that’s okay too. It’s okay not to make it. Somehow, as love and grief waltz together, it’s okay. After all, this is the time that acknowledges those who have been taken in the Queen of the Underworld’s harvest to herself. Those whom she frees to come near the Veil and dance with the living. The voices, the bodies of the living are the voices and the bodies of the dead. Cycles within cycles.
Our Ancestors are part of us. “We’re all ghosts. We all carry inside us the people who came before us.” Liam Callanan, The Cloud Atlas. So while our ancestors’ lives have been harvested, they, like every other single being on Earth, live on. Is it a paradox?
Some people say that one is not lost, gone, dead, until one’s name is forgotten. And so we do say the names of those who are important to us. Whose lives we have known. Those Ancestors of Blood, Adoption, and Spirit who have shaped us, made us who we are.
I say that one is never lost or gone.
Death is real, grief is real, and we may long for some moment with one who came before, or for knowledge of those whose names are lost to history. We may wish for the love of someone who never gave it. We may wish all kinds of things.
But we are all part of the Big Picture of existence, and we cannot escape it.
Hear me, I am a witch, and I do not want to escape the Wheel. I do not want to escape the Wheel of birth, growth, repose, death, decay, and birth again. I do not mean that I embrace classical reincarnation. I mean that I embrace (shudder the thought to say it so boldly?) what I understand to be the truth.
I mean all of this metaphorically, magically, and materially.
There is no escaping the Seventh Principle of Unitarian Universalism. We may choose whether or not to “affirm and promote” it, but we are caught up in “the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part.” There is no rationally denying, and no metaphorical or magical need to.
Some of us try to avoid this reality by mummification or embalming. Still, Earth will out. She will have Her due, and none of us is apart from anything else, even when we seem to sit static in our caskets.
There are those like me who would prefer to (literally) push up daisies or fertilize trees or be tilled into rose gardens. We may prefer to express our belief in our inexorable interconnection. But it kind of doesn’t matter.
It kind of doesn’t matter because we are all always in it together as part of the Big Picture. There is no escape.
And so we gather for the last harvest and the last dance of the season, the dance of the dead, to say, Yes.
To say, “Yes, I know you, you Mighty Dead. You are still here and always will be. I am as dead as I am alive, and so are you.”
After all, we are like the sea, like the swamp, like the forest, things within us constantly being killed, dying, being born, changing, changing, changing. One of the things I love about all these places is how one can smell the dance of life and death in them. The undergrowth. The rotting trees. The source and return of Ocean. The seething living and dying of the bayou.
The trillions of bacteria that live in and one us make us who we are. The half-reality of consciousness makes us feel like individuals, but we are more great colonies, great crawling colonies of microbes that all allow us to be. Our mitochondria that used to be individual tiny beings. The bacteria that keep our guts in order. The MRSA that lives on our skin, always threatening to break in.
We are like the desert, I’m sure, but having never spent any substantial time in one, I cannot say for sure. We are indeed like the eroding Appalachians, those old, old mountain-hills. We are always dying. We are always being born in new configurations, new ways.
And so Samhain tells us it’s okay to be living and dying. Because there is. No. Separation. There is loss, but it is the loss of consciousness, the loss of one version of reality, the loss of touch and awareness of presence.
As Shelley wrote, “If Winter comes, / Can Spring be far behind?”
That is what Samhain says. There needs to be winter, there needs to be spring. And we set by what is needful, and we know that there is always a deeper winter, a more joyful spring.
Because no matter what happens, we are all in it together, all part of the Big Picture.
If you would like more reflection on Samhain; our Ancestors of Blood, Adoption, and Spirit; and the legacy we leave when we, too, become Ancestors, please do go to The Way of the River and look into Through the Veil, my Samhain weekend retreat.