Seventh High Day: Samhain/Winternights

Image by my other half.

Image by my other half.

The Pagan festival of Samhain corresponds with the Christianised, and nowadays fully secularised, festival of Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, and shares many similarities. As Halloween celebrates the eve before All Souls Day, it is a time for remembering the dead and reflecting on our ancestors and on our own mortality. While some of this is lost in modern Halloween, the ancestor veneration aspects can be seen in the related Mexican festival of Dia de los Muertos.

Samhain is a Celtic name, meaning “Summer’s end” and as such, is a seasonal festival, the final harvest feast of the year. Higginbotham writes that “this is the time of year when agricultural societies decided how many animals to slaughter based on available grass and feed, the number of breeding livestock needed for the following year, and the amount of meat required to survive the winter. Serious mistakes in these calculations could mean death and starvation. For the ancient Pagans, then, Samhain was a time of death in a very real way”.

Hutton suggests that similar end-of-season feasts were celebrated “in both ancient Ireland and ancient Scandinavia, and represented by folk practices in the uplands of Wales and Scotland”. Bede refers to the month of November as “Winter-fylleth”, which may be one source of the Norse/Germanic name for the festival, Winternights.

Winternights is similar to Samahin in its focus on ancestor veneration and preparation for winter, but was not the start of the new year, as Samhain may have been for the Celts. For the Norse, the year started around the Winter Solstice, at Yule. The name itself is no doubt appropriate for the cold climes of Northern Europe, when, by November, winter was well and truly on its way, but in the South East of the UK, we are in the full flow of autumn, and still experiencing mild and sunny days. For a place-based practice, perhaps the name “Autumnights” might be more fitting.

In Sunna’s Journey: Norse liturgy through the wheel of the year, Nicholas Egelhoff writes that, “darkness sets upon the world as winter grows closer; we come together at this time to remember those that came before us, those whose blood and love flows within us, who helped to shape the world that we now shape”.

While this festival can be celebrated with all the fun and games of Halloween, Higginbotham reminds us that “it is also a time when we come to terms with death and are openly encouraged to process our fear of it”.

References:

ADF. Our Own Druidry: An Introduction to Ár nDraíocht Féin and the Druid Path. Tucson: ADF Publishing, 2009.

Egelhoff, Nicholas. Sunna’s Journey: Norse liturgy through the wheel of the year. Columbus, Garanus Publishing, 2012.

Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Higginbotham, Joyce and River. Paganism: an introduction to earth-centered religions. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 2008.

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Neanderthal genes are everywhere

I’m always fascinated by human evolution and the genetic legacy of our ancestors. Now we know that modern humans may carry Neanderthal genes, which I find astonishing and a deeply moving reminder of our connection to other, now-extinct, humans.

Why Evolution Is True

by Matthew Cobb

As regular readers will know, some of the most astonishing discoveries in the whole of science that have occurred over the last few years have been with regard to our understanding of recent human evolution.

In the last five years we have not only sequenced the genome of an extinct form of human, generally known as Neanderthal man, we have also used genomics to prove the existence of another human population, called the Denisovans after the name of the cave in Siberia where one tooth and a little girl’s finger bone – our only physical traces of this type of human – were found.

Studies of these genomes, using the kind of analysis we talked about yesterday, have revealed the amazing fact that our human ancestors mated with both Neanderthals and Denisovans. We know this because we can find traces of the genomes of both these extinct types in modern humans.

For example…

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Finding common ground

In a brilliant two-parter over at Patheos, one of my favourite pagan bloggers, John Beckett, was interviewed by atheist blogger Matthew Facciani, and John interviewed Matthew in turn.

Both John and Matthew eloquently describe paganism and atheism respectively and how their beliefs (or lack of beliefs) inspire them to live good and meaningful lives, and both work for social justice in the world.

Matthew said:

I learned a lot about Paganism from John and I was particularly encouraged by how much common ground we have in fighting for social justice. Despite our differences in religiosity, Pagans and atheists have plenty of opportunities to work together! The world has no shortage of problems, so it would be silly to lose potential friends and allies over religion when you still share many commonalities.

John also comes to the same conclusion stating:

you’ll notice numerous areas where I share Matthew’s interests and concerns: separation of church and state, LGBT rights, and reproductive rights. We agree that ethics and morality are best explained by a naturalist approach – we can figure out right from wrong without having a supreme being dictate it to us. And while we’re both blogging to advocate for our religious beliefs (or lack thereof), neither of us want to force others to adopt our ways.We need not agree on the nature of the Gods to work together to build a better world here and now.

As the usual arguments rage across the ‘net about who is or is not a real pagan, or a real atheist or whatever, and heated personal insults are slung, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that people, regardless of religion, have more in common than you think. There is more to unite us than divide us. As an agnostic, naturalist pagan who doesn’t believe in the gods literally and is influenced by theological non-realism I’m often on the outside, a heretic to pagans and atheists alike. But on a non-dogmatic path such as paganism, this does not need to be the case.

As Matthew writes:

Instead of worrying if his fellow Pagans “believe enough” in a certain God, they simply want them to live a good life and be kind to each other. I think that is a concept that people of all faiths should be able to agree on!

John’s interview of Matthew can be found HERE.

Matthew’s interview of John can be found HERE.

Let's build bridges. Image by me

Let’s build bridges. Image by me

Ways of seeing the Earth

Earth from space. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Earth from space. Image from Wikimedia Commons

In a fabulous post over at Patheos Pagan, Melissa Hill (an ADF Druid) writes about the “fractal nature of the Earth Mother“, and how we can see and honour her both through the myth and symbolism of ancient and modern paganism, and as the “pale blue dot” (to use Carl Sagan’s phrase) revealed by scientific understanding.

For many people, “science” and “religion”, both understood narrowly, are in perpetual conflict. However, as Hill points out, both can reveal different ways of seeing the Earth and relating to her. In my opinion, the fact that a myth is not literally true does not take away its value and meaning as a story we tell ourselves about what it is to be human, to be alive.

When understood this way, there is no conflict between knowing the Earth is a planet rotating around the Sun, and finding meaning in myths of the same Earth and Sun as goddesses.

Hill writes:

As modern pagans we have the challenge of integrating modern scientific knowledge with ancient wisdom and understanding of the world.  Often times I see that people are incredibly polarized between one or the other, insisting that only scientific research can hold the keys to wisdom or that the knowledge of the ages, written down long ago is far more important in understanding.

I think we need both science and religion.

Go over to Patheos Pagan and read the whole thing!

Viking beer

As a Norse-flavoured pagan and a keen lover of real ale, this seems like the perfect combination. Time for another trip to Norway I think!

During the Viking Age, mead was a beverage that celebrated the gods with honey as ingredient – usually reserved for the upper class – while beer celebrated people and was drunk everyday and in traditional social contexts.

Now, Natural History Museum in Oslo has recreated genuine Viking beer based on the Norsemen’s use of herbs and plants.

For the full story, and more cool info about Norse culture past and present, pop over to Thor News!

Image from instructables.com

Image from instructables.com

50th post

Apparently I’ve reached the utterly arbitrary but still impressive milestone of 50 posts here on Endless Erring since I “re-booted” the blog a while back. I’ve enjoyed having this as a space to document my ADF Dedicant Path work and also talk about other aspects of paganism here and there. I may expand the scope of the blog in future, to include a greater focus on nature and interesting science as well, but that depends on how much time I have to devote to it.

Anyway, to celebrate, here are a couple of videos of nature being cool.

The first is a beautiful reminder that amazing creatures come in all sizes, and there are wonders and monsters right beneath our feet.

And for the second, I present to you a snoring dormouse (he’s waking up out of torpor and is being handled by a licensed conservationist as part of a population study so he’s fine).

Here’s to the next 50!