Ancient Fires: Samhain night in Glastonbury

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November 1st 2008
Published: November 9th 2008
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It’s Samhain morning. Tonight is the most important night in the Pagan calendar, when the veils between the worlds are extra-ordinarily thin. The Celts celebrated ‘All Hallowtide’, known as Halloween in the modern world, as the ‘Feast of the Dead’, when the dead revisited the mortal world. The festival marks the end of summer and the start of the winter months, and the Celtic New Year traditionally begins on 1st November. It’s a time to let go of the old and invite in new energies, as well as an opportunity to connect with our ancestors.

This time last year, I was in Beijing, at the Temple of Heaven, coming close to joining my ancestors by cycling through the Chinese traffic. Today, I am on a train from Totnes to Bristol - somewhat less exotic and glamorous, yet exciting nonetheless, as I am on my way to Glastonbury. Glastonbury is a place that’s very special to me. I spent six years there, on and off, as part of my Priestess training with Kathy Jones. It’s a deeply transformative place, a big bubbling cauldron that challenged and shook all of my concepts and pre-conceptions. With a smile, I think back of the first time I set foot into Glastonbury, exactly eight years ago, full of expectation, trepidation and a healthy dose of cynicism. I wasn’t at all sure what I was going to do there and believed that all of the town’s inhabitants were tree-hugging hippies. Yes, I wanted to be a Priestess, but fluffiness, peace and love? No thanks! I could do without all that. Back then, my teacher Kathy said ‘This training will transform you in ways you cannot even imagine.’ At that time, I did not know what she meant. Fast forward eight years. I can see it now - how my entire life has changed in the direction of being in service to the Divine Mother. The initiations and challenges on the path were often brutal and demanding, necessitating great adjustments, yet culminating in the unleashing of creativity, authenticity, potential, and ultimately, to opening more and more to unconditional love. If you had told me this all those years ago, I would have declared you mad and sent you back to the Rainbow Festival. How times change.

Has it really been only eight years?

As I reminisce, I look out of the train window onto the moving autumn landscape. There’s something magical about the English countryside, especially at this time of year, when the colours are stark and bright. The morning sun magnifies the oranges, yellows and reds that contrast with the still-lush green of the fields and hedges. We pass farms, country houses, a castle, some deer, sheep, cows and birds. I love the old trees here, their barren branches resembling big cartilaginous arms stretching towards the sky, as if in a reverential dance. I am struck by the gentleness and warmth of the landscape. There’s very little drama here. A bit boring perhaps, but also comfortingly familiar. It’s Friday, and the train is full, and there’s inadequate space for the travellers and their manifold luggage. Welcome to the joys of travelling by British Rail. After all of this travelling, I still have not managed to travel light, and have swapped my backpack for a more civilised suitcase with wheels - still weighing around twenty kg though. Why are there no porters in this country anymore? And why are there steep footbridges leading from one platform to the other at some stations? How do the infirm and elderly manage? In many ways, we are ‘advanced’ in the West, yet I feel that we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater in some cases.

Tara and Malika pick me up from Bristol station and together, we make our way to Avalon by car. I eat my lunch on the backseat whilst the other two chat about obscure tantric practices. It is slightly surreal. I have not been to Glastonbury for two years and look forward to reconnecting with my Priestess roots, my sisters, the Goddess Temple, the Tor, Chalice Well, Chalice Hill, Bride’s Mound, Cafe Galatea, all of my favourite haunts and walks. Like some of my Priestess kin, I’ve moved away from Glastonbury to follow my own path, but something will always connect my heart to this mythical place, the Isle of Avalon, where it all began.

After I’ve checked into my new abode, Shekinashram, I take a walk through the landscape of Avalon. The sun is setting, basking everything in a pink-golden light, and there is a reverential atmosphere in the near-deserted Chalice Well Gardens () , as the community prepares for this evening’s festivities. Head gardener Ark is beautifying one of the springs with hundreds of tea lights. A group of witches and druids gather underneath the big oak trees for a meeting. I smile as I realise how much I have missed Glastonbury. The Wellhead is decorated with blue candles. I make an offering and reminisce for a moment. So much happened here, in the Gardens, and in particular at this Wellhead. My Priestess initiation took place here, I broke up with a boyfriend at the same spot, participated in ceremonies and retreats, and even descended naked into the Wellhead tunnel one freezing April night. I had blissful as well as challenging times here. I silently re-affirm my vow. From the meadow, I look towards the Tor, Glastonbury’s mythical conical hill; and glimpse Dion Fortune’s former abode, which is a B&B now. I leave the Gardens and pass the house where I spent my first Glastonbury night and remember the dream I had then. So many memories flood back, and it’s blissful, so sweet and rich.

After dinner at Cafe Galatea with Tara, we make our way to the Goddess Temple () for the Samhain ceremony. The Temple is packed with pilgrims and Priestesses, and it’s wonderful to see many familiar faces. Keridwen, the black Crone Goddess representative of this time of year, strikes her staff onto the floor three times and welcomes us into ritual. After we call the Goddesses and directions into the Temple, Kathy takes us on a journey to the Isle of the Dead, where we meet our deceased ancestors and friends. We are invited to speak of their memory in the ceremonial circle. I remember my Uncle Franz, a Catholic priest, who died 23 years ago. He was the first person who inadvertently guided me onto the path of Goddess spirituality by introducing me to ritual and allowing me (after much pestering!) to become Germany’s first altar girl, a near-revolutionary act in the patriarchal 1970’s Catholic Church. I also remember my psychic grandmother Henriette, and Tara's niece Melissa, who has just died in a car accident aged 19, eighteen years after her father died in Iraq.

There is much grief and many tears flow as the celebrants remember dead mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, children, friends and pets. It is a moving and supportive ceremony, yet, as I listen, a niggling thought creeps into my mind. Why do we, as spiritual beings, still have the 'need' to be sad about death? Why do we use words such as ‘s/he was cruelly taken from us’? If we truly believe in life after death, or reincarnation, in divine planning, sacred contracts and journeys - why do we grieve when our loved ones take the next step on their eternal evolutionary journey? I think of the cultures that celebrate death as a rite of passage and send their dead off with great ceremony and celebration. Of course, it is the perceived ‘loss’, the severance of contact with our loved ones, that makes us sad, coupled with regret if somebody dies young and doesn't get to live out their potential. But do we really know that? If we believe in sacred contracts, then surely that person's time was up and they had done all they needed to do on this planet in this incarnation. My teacher Tony introduced me to a different concept when he said that he does not feel sadness about death or separation any longer. When I responded with ‘But when a person dies, they’re not with us anymore!’, he asked, ‘Aren’t they?!’, with a look of amusement in his eyes. It goes back to the philosophy of being fully in the moment, of loving and giving of ourselves fully, but being ready to let go without regret when the moment has come. Easier said than done, I know, yet I believe much of our habitual responses to death have to do with cultural conditioning and belief systems. Sometimes, when I get really overwhelmed with difficult issues and events, I imagine life to be one big cosmic drama, with scripts and pre-determined events, co-created by us and the Gods - it's just that we've forgotten the script and the Gods haven't and hence have a good laugh (with a good dose of compassion) at our struggles and grief!

The Goddess Temple ceremony continues with poetry, songs by the lovely Sally and Sophie Pullinger, and the distribution of apples. After the circle has been opened, Tara and I make a swift exit to catch the Samhain ritual at Chalice Well. We arrive to the hypnotic sounds of drumming, ritual chanting and the sight of two huge Samhain fires beneath the old Oak trees. Excited, I pull Tara towards the flames. A large crowd has gathered at either side of the fires, and people file to walk ceremonially along the path in their midst, to place a stone from their homeland on a cairn at the end of the path. I have not brought a stone but place my hands on the cairn and bring energy from Sicily, Germany and all the places I have visited. ‘We are the old people, we are the new people, we are the same people, stronger than before’, one of the chants goes. It feels powerful and ancient, being on this sacred land, connected to the Earth by the massive oak trees. Our ancestors have celebrated and journeyed to the Otherworld on the fire festivals since the beginning of time and I am so happy that we are part of keeping this tradition alive.

Back at Shekinashram, Tara and I light a fire in my cold yurt and smoke fills the small space. After a quick reality check, Tara decides to go home to Bristol: the prospect of dying of smoke poisoning on a cold Samhain night is clearly not appealing. I am inclined to agree. Ilyana suggests I sleep in the Temple, yet, as tempting as a night with Lord Krishna is, I stoically return to the yurt (after all, so I tell myself, this is nothing compared to the sub-zero temperatures of Mongolia!), to find that the smoke has cleared, the fire in the stove burns brightly, and it's all cosy. After another small fire ceremony to let go of the final remnants of the old year, I curl up under the stars and drift into the Avalonian dreamlands.


9th November 2008

Inspiring. Funny I just wrote about the same: conception or perception of (non)duality between life and death. Om Shiva Namah P.S. I love the part where your friend says, "Aren't they?" Nice picture, and it made me smile.
11th November 2008

blimey - you get about! x

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