Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Samhain: Pagan celebration honoring the dead
I was raised a Roman Catholic; I believe this holiday was incorporated into the RC Church as "All Souls Day" that used to be celebrated on November 1st. I was taught in Catholic school as a child - and literally spent half a day in church (not voluntary) - praying to God to release souls from Purgatory. I haven't been a RC for a number of years, so I do not know if this holy day is celebrated any longer. From The San Francisco Chronicle (sfgate.com) By Susan Fornoff, Chronicle Staff Writer Tuesday, October 28, 2008 Word on the street's been pretty kind to witches in recent years, what with kids embracing the sorcery of the Harry Potter novels and Broadway glorifying blond Glinda and green Elphaba in the fluffy "Wicked," loosely based on the smart and rather dark novel by Gregory Maguire. Add to that the unblinking Bay Area acceptance of all that is different or outrageous, and this just may be the year to party with the pagans. The fast-growing community's biggest holiday - or sabbat, as holidays are also called - Samhain, arrives this weekend, mixing themes of harvest, renewal and communing with the dead. The latter isn't all that wacky, and in fact sounds like a form of prayer, with the addition of a celebratory "spiral dance." "I wouldn't know anyone who conducts a seance," said witch Deborah Oak Cooper, a member of the Reclaiming collective. "At the Spiral Dance (expected to draw more than 1,000 celebrants to Kezar Pavilion on Saturday), there's a trance journey, where you go to the Isle of Apples and visit your beloved dead. It's a meditation period: You go and look around and see who wants to visit." "You might create an altar and make an offering," said Starhawk, a political activist and the Bay Area's best known contemporary witch. "Then you can sit down and talk: 'Hey, Mom, sorry I was such a hard teenager for you to deal with. Now I understand how that must have been for you, and I wish you were here so we could sit and talk about it.' " Starhawk often represents paganism in mainstream media and events, but she admits that there are no definitive statistics on participation, partly because paganism covers many, many traditions. Imagine a religion with hundreds or even thousands of churches with congregations of no more than 13 (the number of full moons in a year, considered the maximum size for a coven). Modern paganism defies not only quantification but even definition. Try this one, from the Pagan Educational Network: "a broad, eclectic contemporary religious movement that encompasses shamanistic, ecstatic, polytheistic and magical religions. Most of the religions termed Pagan are characterized by nature-centered spirituality, honoring of pre-Christian deities, dynamic personal belief systems, lack of institutionalization, a quest to develop the self, and acceptance and encouragement of diversity." So there are Neopagans and Wiccans and Rosicrucians, Faeries, Druids, Gardnerians, Asatru, worshipers of the God, worshipers of the Goddess, worshipers of nature. "There's no clearinghouse," Cooper said. "It's the most disorganized religion, and that's part of the appeal." But negative stereotypes and stigma aren't. One pagan man who lives in Florida didn't want his name published because he said his neighbors surely would raise eyebrows; on the other hand, Bay Area witches said they don't need to hide their brooms in any closets. Several witches, in fact, stepped up eagerly to lay claim to the "pagan Martha Stewart" apron. (That apron would surely be black. Said Starhawk: "Witches often do wear black because night is a time of power and mystery, and also because black is slenderizing and doesn't show dirt.") "Martha and I both find crafty uses for herbs, flowers, home decoration and recipes," said Rabbit, proprietor of the Sacred Well metaphysical shop in Oakland and high priestess of the Come As You Are Coven. She added, rather craftily, "Our definitions of 'craft' might be different." Indeed. Starhawk was eagerly awaiting Dinner of the Dead, a feast that features food the participants' ancestors would like, creating a potentially global menu. Cooper was making sugar skulls - symbolic of ancestral wisdom - and votive candles to memorialize her beloved dead on her altar; there'll be a martini set out for Dad on Saturday. Astrologer Fern Feto Spring (wisestars.net) will pour a glass of wine and fix a plate of food for her grandfather. "I put flowers, usually marigolds and anything else that catches my fancy and seems like something my dead might appreciate," she said. And Rowan Fairgrove was practicing Samhain songs for her pagan singing group, maybe even a "calling on" song or two for taking blessings to houses that are visited on the holiday. Paganism sounds so much like other religions, and Samhain like so many other rituals, because, celebrants say, it is based on Celtic traditions and moon rituals. The celebration of the harvest sounds like Thanksgiving, the introspection brought by summer's end (technically, for pagans, when the sun reaches 15 degrees of Scorpio, or Nov. 7 this year) so much like New Year's Eve. And Saturday's festivities sound like the Day of the Dead celebrated elsewhere in Cooper's neighborhood, the Mission. "A lot depends on the mythos of the tradition people follow," said Marilee Bigelow, renowned tarot reader at Ancient Ways in Oakland. "I always have an altar in honor of Persephone, and so I always have pomegranates out." Last weekend, there were several spiral dances and dinners with the dead in the Bay Area, and also the Witches Ball in Santa Rosa. Rabbit's CAYA celebration Friday night will start with a potluck "dumb supper," based on an ancient tradition of dining silently with one's ancestors and beloved dead. Then priestesses and priests will "aspect" various gods and goddesses - high theater, said Rabbit. "Typically, the priestess or priest enters into a light trance and offers prophesy, wisdom and advice in the voice of the deity being aspected," she said. "Costumes, props and other theatrical components complete the overall effect. "After aspecting, our ritual will then move forward to the crowning of our winter king and queen. The premise is that when we appoint these individuals to represent the health, prosperity and safety of the community during the winter season, it is then the community's obligation to keep them safe, prosperous and healthy until they are relieved of their duties in May by the May king and queen. ... Finally, we complete the ritual with a spiral dance - an ecstatic, celebratory dance that serves to represent the turn of the Earth toward the next seasonal phase." The big events on Saturday include a spiral dance at Kezar Pavilion, where there will be altars set up for air, fire, water and earth, as well as for guests to honor their dead. One might call it Bay Area paganism's annual coming-out party - except that here witches feel little need to hide. "Mostly what I have experienced," Spring said, "is people making jokes of 'Wriggle your nose and make that traffic go away.' " Pagan celebrations Here are three local Samhain celebrations that welcome public participation this weekend. All are alcohol free and family friendly. Friday Come as You Are to Samhain: Potluck Dumb Supper (Dinner With the Dead) and ritual honoring deities of the Otherworld. 7 p.m. supper. 8 p.m. ritual. Bring a clearly labeled dish to share or your own brown-bag meal. $10-$20 sliding scale. Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists Main Hall, 1924 Cedar St (at Bonita), Berkeley. Saturday NROOGD Public Samhain: Crafts, divinations, honoring the dead. 7:30 p.m. doors open. Ritual at 8. Suggested donation: $10-$20. No one turned away for lack of funds. San Mateo Unitarian Universalist Church, 300 E. Santa Inez, San Mateo. Reclaiming's 29th Annual Spiral Dance Ritual: Reclaiming's largest ritual. 6 p.m. doors open. Ritual at 7:30 p.m. Admission: $20-$100, sliding scale; 60 and older and 15 and younger, $10 and up. No one turned away for lack of funds. Kezar Pavilion, 755 Stanyan St., San Francisco. Take a closer look There's no clearinghouse for all of the nation's covens, sects, affiliations and practitioners of paganism, and Google can take one on quite the meandering exploration. Search "spiral dance ritual" on YouTube, and try these resources to learn more. AncientWays.com: Ancient Ways Book Store keeps a bulletin board and binder, and, in February, presents the annual PantheaCon, which brings together many practitioners of paganism in San Jose. 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. 4075 Telegraph Ave., Oakland (at 41st Street). Cayacoven.org: The Come as You Are coven of many cultures is an example of the many choices available for Bay Area pagans. This group of 250 is celebrating Samhain on Friday night, with a potluck Dumb Supper and ritual in Berkeley. Cog.org: Covenant of the Goddess, a national umbrella for Wiccan congregations and practitioners, calls Berkeley home. Communityseed.org: Community Seed is an active pagan center in Santa Cruz that is holding its Samhain celebration Saturday at the city's Masonic Lodge. It has events year-round. NROOGD.org: The New Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn, now in Berkeley, originated in 1976. Reclaiming.org: Rooted in magic and Goddess worship, this San Francisco group seems to be one of the largest and most organized. SacredWell.com: This is one of the newer metaphysical shopping spots, and the fledgling Web site has a blog about magic and other pagan issues. 536 Grand Ave., Oakland. Starhawk.org: The author and political activist is the best-known witch in the Bay Area, and her frequently updated site contains information and events related to all of her passions. Thespiralpath.org: The Fellowship of the Spiral Path brings Northern California neopagan groups together. Witchvox.com: Perhaps the closest thing to a national directory for pagans, this site contains easily accessible listings by locale of groups and events, as well as lots of essays and information. - S.F.