Dread Lord of Shadows, God of Death, Giver of Life, open wide I pray thee, the Gate through which we all must pass. Let our dear ones who have gone before return to us this night to share their love and wisdom. And when our time comes, as it must, O thou Comforter, Counselor, Giver of Peace and Rest; we will enter your realms gladly and unafraid. For we know that when rested and refreshed among our dear ones, we will be reborn by your grace and the grace of Me who art Queen of the Dead and the Great Mother of us all. Let it be in the same place and the same time as our beloved ones, and may we meet, and know, and remember, and love them again. Descend O Lover and Loved into this thy servant and priest.
Dread Lord of Shadows . . . . I remember the first time I embraced the Horned God in that guise. It was about ten years ago and a friend of mine had asked me to provide “the comic relief” at the end of her Samhain ritual. I was both flattered and offended; flattered to be offered a role and offended to be thought of as merely comic relief. When I expressed my feelings to her she told me I could play the God of Death instead. I agreed and prepared to embrace the Horned One in (for me then) an uncustomary way.
Horned gods are often thought of us as “life affirming” and while that’s certainly true, most have a dark side as well. Dionysus was sometimes seen as an underworld deity and was both a god of life and a god of death. Cernunnos was a god of hunting, an activity that both preserves and ends lives. While Pan was never really associated with death, he certainly had a dark, animalistic, and primal side to his personality. (He also probably shares a common origin point with his dad Hermes, a shepherd of souls.) While preparing for that particular Samhain ritual I focused on all these different aspects of the Horned God, and prepared to embrace the Dread Lord of Shadows.
I don’t remember very much about that particular ritual all these years later. I found myself lost in the God. I’m not sure if He was even truly drawn down during the ritual but I remember feeling a presence. When it was all over I filed the experience away, not sure if it would be something that I’d be called to do again . . . . Five years later I again answered His call.
At the time I was still living in Michigan where my wife and I were sometimes splitting the High Priestess/Priest duties with another couple in a local circle. That particular Samhain our working was going to consist of opening a portal to the Summerlands, and I was going to be the one to open the portal . . . . . . OK. I saw it as a challenge and threw myself into preparations. I began seeking out the Summerlands in meditation and dreams and of course read anything that I thought might be relevant.
One of the things many of us hear over and over again this time of year is that “the veil between the worlds is thin.” Some of the things we say in the Craft sometimes feel more like poetry than truth, but the thinning of the veil is not one of them. Even before I was a Pagan there was something about this time of year that simply felt different, and even now when I’m not engaged in ritual I still feel like those I’ve lost are closer to me in the Autumn. I want to put my feelings into some sort of romantic truth here, but that’s failing me. Instead I’ll write that at Samhain-season it feels like my grandparents are at the front door, and with just a little extra effort I can sometimes get that door open.
There are some things from that first real ritual with him that I remember specifically. The first is the color grey, my head swam in it. After a few moments things settled and I could see a wall of storm clouds above me. Behind those clouds I could feel something, the Summerlands, and I remember realizing that it was my job to unlock that door. It was in that moment that I felt the Dread Lord of Shadows around me. I could see his face in the clouds, but more importantly one of his hands settled squarely on my right shoulder pushing power into me while helping me to stand up. His other arm reached out into the darkness and where it rested I could see the tiniest shiver of light . . . . that was the door, the way in.
I poured all of my energy out into that breach in the wall and saw it grow. As light began to shine down from the grey I could feel the souls from beyond in this space and time. They were different of course (being dead will do that) but still so achingly familiar. When I felt the portal closing I doubled my efforts, throwing all of my pain and grief at it, imploring those gone through tears and sobs.
I’ve opened that portal three times now and through it all the Dread Lord of Shadows has stood with me, one foot in this world and one foot in the next. My experiences at the veil and with the Shadowed Lord have all been essentially the same over the past five years. I’ve also gained an understanding of this “dark aspect” of the Horned God over the past five years. To come so close to the other side has eased my own fear of death and brought a bit more balance into my life.
I first came upon the term Dread Lord of Shadows in the The Witches Bible by Janet and Stewart Farrar. The phrase predates them and has been in use by Witches for at least sixty years now, but I’ll always remember where I first encountered it. I tend to associate this version of the God with Cernunnos based in large part because of the image above you. Over the years that’s how He has appeared to me in the spaces between the worlds.
The Dread Lord of Shadows is not happy Pan frolicking through the woods or Dionysus lost in his cups, but he’s not simply the cold hand of death either. He is comfort and peace and a promise of what lies beyond and before us all. Feeling Him so close isn’t comforting in the way that the embrace of the Lady is, but his hand is steady and his grip secure. He’s been with me four of the last five Samhains I’ve celebrated and has helped those who have celebrated with me feel their loved ones near once more. I can’t think of any act more giving and generous than that.