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Samhain 2015

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My Samhain offerings at the local cemetery

I tend to view all the Pagan Sabbats as a “season,” with the official date of the Sabbat acting as the epicentre of the season with ripples into the days before and after. That’s one reason why I decided to hold my solo Samhain ritual on the Full Moon prior to Samhain, and why I didn’t actually hold any sort of ritual on October 31st itself.

WP_20151031_14_14_24_ProHowever, I did make some Samhain Soul Cakes yesterday, using my favourite recipe with added matcha (Japanese green tea powder). Matcha is interesting to work with – when used as an ingredient combined with other things, it only really looks green in the presence of moisture, so the dough didn’t look green until I added milk, upon which it turned a very vivid shade of green. Unfortunately, when the moisture evaporated on baking the cookies, they reverted back to mostly brown with only a slight greenish tint. I can see that if I bake with matcha again and want to retain that green colour, I’m going to have to use a lot more. But this in itself is tricky because matcha is a bit like saffron – it’s expensive and can have a strong flavour, so you don’t want to use too much, ideally. It went really well with the cinnamon and nutmeg I also added to the mixture (hint: don’t be afraid to use quite a lot of cinnamon!)

I used a wonderful set of “Day of the Dead” skull cookie cutters. These were a gift from my sister-in-law, and it was great to have such a perfect opportunity to use them.

My husband and I took the cookies to my parent’s house, where we were taking part what’s close to a “religious observance” for my Kiwi husband and Welsh mum – the Rugby World Cup final! (To my husband’s delight, the All Blacks were victorious). But keeping with the Halloween theme, my Dad had bought the biggest pumpkin I’d ever seen, carved it and hollowed it out, and used the innards to make delicious pumpkin soup and toasted pumpkin seeds. So even though I didn’t hold a particular ritual on Samhain Eve, it was still meaningful for me to spend it with my family and enjoying some very Halloweeny food!

Traditionally Samhain continues into November 1st, and so today my husband and I went walking in the local cemetery, where I placed my offerings originally given at my altar on the previous Full Moon for the deities of death, departed friends and ancestors. It was an absolutely perfect day to do so – overnight a mist had descended over the town, and the cemetery looked beautiful and very otherworldly.

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I found a moss-covered tree stump that acted as a perfect natural altar, and placed my offerings of a miniature pumpkin, garlic, soul cake and dog treats there, as well as sprinkling some incense. I also offered a fallen branch of rowan. My offering was not only to my own ancestors and loved ones, but to all those whose spirits rest in the cemetery. I hope they liked my gift.

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On our way back, I noticed something I had never noticed before, even though I have been in this cemetery many times –  a grave with a pentagram on it!

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The pentagram is a sacred symbol in Christianity as well, so it’s not particularly shocking to see one on a 19th century gravestone, but nevertheless it seems to be quite uncommon. I wonder why Sarah’s relatives had chosen this symbol for her grave as opposed to a more traditional funerary symbol? Were there Freemasons in her family? Or did they simply like the design? In any case, I am really surprised I’d never spotted this before and I was so glad to see this reminder of the connection between Christianity and Paganism in our cemetery. Perhaps the spirits within the mist, still dwelling in this world while the veil to the Otherworld is so thin, had given me the extra clarity to see it today!

I wish everyone a very Blessed Samhain!

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“A Darker Shade of Burlesque” with Vintage TeasE

The hypnotic Coco Deville. I hope she doesn't mind me stealing this image, from her Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ms.coco.deville?fref=ts

The hypnotic Coco Deville. I hope she doesn’t mind me stealing this image, from her Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ms.coco.deville?fref=ts

Last night I went to a local Halloween-themed burlesque show, “A Darker Shade of Burlesque,” by Vintage TeasE. It was the first proper burlesque I’d attended, and it was a fantastic evening. The performers were all women with a wide range of body types, styles and talents, and the majority of the audience were women too. It’s interesting and encouraging to see performances that, although historically intended to titillate men, now seem to appeal very much to women through their glamour, costumes and sense of empowerment of seeing other women with bodies very much like their own looking confident and sexy as they bare all.

All the acts were very entertaining. It was headlined by a very beautifully gothic Bonnie Fleur, who had not one but two acts – as a seductive Morticia Addams in one of the earlier acts, and an intense, vampiric Red Queen at the close, who swooped around in Isis wings designed to look like a huge red cloak, and ended by pouring “blood” from a chalice over herself. There was also Jeanie Wishes, who performed a sexy pole dance in the persona of a spider queen; a bride who hacked off her own chastity belt with an angle grinder (sparks flying and all); and a bizarre “werewolfess” who at the end sported a wolf mask and very little else.

But for me, there was one act that really stood out above all others, and that was a voodoo-inspired dance by the award-winning Coco Deville. She made her entrance to The Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs,” dressed in an incredible outfit of a feather headdress, feather skirt and trailing cloak made from different fake fur prints stitched together. She was carrying a skull, which she placed reverentially upon a table with a red and black cloth and a lit candelabra, and knelt before it as if praying to the spirits of death. She then began her dance, with slow, hypnotic movements reminding me of those used in tribal bellydance. As she stripped off each layer of clothing, from her cloak down to her skirt, she toyed with a riding crop, bringing an element of bondage into her dance. Right at the end, she took one of the candles and poured the wax all over her now mostly nude body.

What was incredible about this intense act was the effect upon the audience. Throughout the show, we were all encouraged to clap and cheer during the dances as each layer of clothing came off. But for Coco Deville, the audience was spellbound into a respectful hush. Most of the cries that came from the audience were the kind of ululations you might hear women make at events of particular ritual or religious significance in the Middle East and Asia. Everyone else simply gazed, mesmerised by Coco’s preternatural grace and captivating presence.

That’s when I realised that what we were watching somehow transcended mere performance and entered the realm of ritual. This young lady, part-voodoo priestess, part-dominatrix, part-goddess, with her supreme confidence and talent, had the entire audience under her spell. Erotic it certainly was, but in a manner that re-enforced the connection between sexuality and the divine.

As a Pagan observer, I would certainly call the effect of this performance magic. It was a reminder that magic does not need to be performed by self-identified witches within a coven, or practitioners of ritual occult – a simple dance in a cabaret show, through the combination of music, movement, costume and the energy of the dancer herself – can invoke just the same level of power.

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Reflections on “Oriental Ghost Stories,” Lafcadio Hearn (compiled and edited by David Stuart Davies)

orientalghostWhy did I choose to read this book?

I really like the Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural books, which are reprints of classic horror and gothic stories published cheaply by Wordsworth Editions. I have several of them – their collection of vampire short stories and their Edith Nesbit collection, to name a few – and I was delighted to see that they’d also released some of the works of Lafcadio Hearn. All erudite Japanese people, and a large percentage of people who’ve studied Japan, know the importance of Hearn – he emigrated to Japan in 1890 and was responsible for much of the West’s understanding of Japanese culture through his writings on Japanese customs and folklore. I’ve long been familiar with Hearn but have never owned a collection of his writings, and being a lover of all things Japanese, folky and ghostly, I knew I had to get this book. And with Samhain coming it, now felt like a perfect time to reflect on it!

In a nutshell, what it is it about?

This book compiles stories from Hearn’s books – Kwaidan, In Ghostly Japan and Some Chinese Ghosts – into one volume, with a very nice introduction by David Stuart Davies. The stories are essentially folktales – old, spooky “urban legends” that Hearn came across during his time in Japan, as well as a few other writings about China and Europe. All the stories feature elements of the supernatural, from ghosts to demons to inexplicable magic.

What did I particularly like about it?

To begin with, I LOVE the idea of presenting Japanese ghost stories first and foremost as simply that – horror stories. All too often, East Asian writings (and writing from other non-European cultures) get pigeonholed into “East Asia” or “Oriental” as a genre in itself, as if their literature cannot be appreciated alongside or compared with similar literature from the West. This adds to the myth that Japan and other countries are “inscrutable.” Publishing Japanese ghost stories alongside those by European writers as part of the Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural series, in a cheap, almost pulpy, paperback format, is an excellent way of introducing Japanese stories to the masses who may not have any initial interest in Japan, which helps to shatter that “inscrutable” image.

Then there are the stories themselves. Hearn is a wonderful storyteller, who manages to keep a balance of making these stories appealing to the Western reader and retaining their eerie and mystical atmosphere without completely losing their sense of “Japaneseness.” Naturally, I liked some stories better than others; some of the highlights for me included:

  • “The Story of Mimi-Nashi Hoiichi” – The opening story of the book, which has as its protagonist one of Japan’s most fascinating stock characters; a blind lute-player.
  • “Yuki-Onna” – The legends of the mysterious and potentially deadly “snow woman” are well-known to lovers of Japanese folklore, and this version is full of elegance and mystery.
  • Jiu-roku-zakura” – A short but moving tale of a man devoted to his cherry tree. It reminded me a little of Oscar Wilde’s beautiful “The Nightingale and the Rose.”
  • The Dream of Akinosuke” – Something of a mystery story. The real meaning is revealed at the end, but clever readers might be able to guess what’s going on before then…
  • “A Story of Divination” – A neat and somewhat spooky tale exploring the idea of predestination.

Was there anything I didn’t like about it?

Oriental Ghost Stories has a very eclectic feeling, with strange little essays and extracts included among the stories which add variety. Some people might be put off by this “jumbled” feeling, but I rather liked it. The rather archaic language (especially the old ways of romanising Japanese words) might be a bit jarring to some, but again, I thought this added to the book’s charm.

How has it helped my spiritual development?

I actually learned an awful lot of things I didn’t know about Japanese religion from these stories (I suppose that’s not so surprising – folktales can sometimes offer the greatest insight into spiritual beliefs). Due to the nature of the stories, most of the religious elements described are Buddhist (as Buddhism is associated with funeral rites in Japan), which I liked because I am less familiar with Buddhism (especially on the popular level) than Shinto in Japan. I also learned a few things about Shinto that I didn’t know – for example, I had no idea that incense is considered “unclean” in Shinto and isn’t generally burned at Shinto shrines until reading this book! This made me re-consider my current practise of occasionally offering incense to Inari Okami.

Additionally, I was fascinated to read about the concept of “nazorareru.” Hearn claims that this word “…cannot be be adequately rendered by any English word” but describes it as “…to substitute, in imagination, one object or action for another so as to bring about some magical or miraculous result,” for example, laying a pebble before the image of Buddha instead of building a Buddhist temple in order to evoke the same feeling of piety. I immediately realised that what Hearn is describing is the very same “sympathetic magic” that forms the basis of the theories in The Golden Bough! I realised that the concept of sympathetic magic exists in Japan (as it does in all human cultures), but I had no idea that the Japanese had their own term for it. I was really excited to discover this.

Would I recommend this book to others?

Yes – whether you want to read it to learn more about Japanese folklore, or simply want a good scare, I’m sure you would enjoy this book.

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Samhain 2014

SoulCakes

My first ever Soul Cakes

Samhain Blessings everyone! I managed to fill much of my day with Halloween/Samhain activities for my first ever Samhain as a Pagan.

Things kicked off with making Soul Cakes in the morning. I used a simplified version of this recipe, which appealed to me because of the cinnamon and nutmeg involved! I’m really not much of a baker at all, but getting into Paganism has slowly gotten me more interested in cooking, and these Soul Cakes turned out pretty well!

I went to work in the afternoon, and took some Soul Cakes with me to give to colleagues. Only one person made a comment on the “satanic” pentagrams I scored on the cakes, but of course I told him that the pentagram is a universal symbol of magic that can be found in practically every culture, even Japan.

My husband picked me up after work and we went to the Curzon Mondrian cinema to see a special preview of the New Zealand vampire comedy What We Do In The Shadows. It’s a hilarious mockumentary that any vampire fan will love and it was perfect for Halloween.

We got back home pretty late, and it was time for me to perform a Samhain ritual.

This was more difficult than other rituals I’ve performed recently. For one thing, I was feeling pretty worn out and not hugely in the ritual mood – however, as usually happens, I found myself getting more and more energised as the ritual progressed.

The other problem was that I hadn’t really prepared for this ritual as thoroughly as I usually do. I wasn’t anticipating doing a solo Samhain ritual at all as I originally planned to do it with my moot Medway Pagans, but my brother-in-law suddenly planned a birthday meal for my sister the same day so I had to skip it. This meant that I hadn’t had time to write out a script for the ritual, which is what I usually do. Although it was quite interesting to attempt a ritual without writing it out beforehand, I think it was less successful because I left out a lot of things that afterwards I felt I should have included, and I didn’t feel it was as special as it could have been – it just felt very much like a regular Esbat.

In the spirit of Samhain, the Feast of the Dead, I called the quarters widdershins and orientated my altar West rather than East as I usually do. Offering some of the Soul Cakes and wine, I called upon the Great God and Great Goddess as their incarnations as Gods and Goddesses of Death, and also offered blessings to my ancestors and to friends and family who have passed on. Finally, as I often do, I took a Soul Cake and the wine and left it as an offering to Hecate (and other wandering spirits) by the local crossroads.

I was disappointed not to see the local foxes out (it being Halloween the streets are a bit noisier than usual), but as I said farewell to the Western quarter, a black and white cat appeared from behind the garden wall and looked me straight in the eyes, which was quite an intense moment and a very good omen for Samhain!

I hope everyone else’s Samhain was magical, spiritual and blessed!

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Some thoughts on my first Samhain

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My shrine to Inari Okami, with a seasonal offering of a munchkin pumpkin

This year will be my first time to celebrate Samhain as a Pagan. From what I can gather, Samhain seems to be a particularly significant Sabbat. In fact, it seems to me that more Pagans place a particular emphasis on Samhain, maybe even more than Beltane. So I thought I’d write down my current thoughts on this festival.

From what I can tell, out of all the eight Sabbats, Samhain is the only one that isn’t all joy and happiness – it has a dark, sombre side too. It’s very much a time for remembering the dead – both our ancestors who have long passed, and those who we have known and loved in our lives who are no longer with us. Some Pagans also recognise Samhain as the death of the Great God, until his re-birth at Yule. This gives Samhain a particularly strong feeling of solemnity and gravity that isn’t so apparent in the other seven Sabbats.

But this doesn’t mean that Samhain is only a time of mourning and sorrow. Like the other Sabbats, Samhain is a celebration – a celebration of our departed friends and family, of the changing of the seasons, and of the thinning of the veil between this world and the spirit world.

What’s more, Samhain is now more familiar to modern Brits as Halloween – a time associated with parties, costumes, eating sweets and enjoying spooky and horror-themed festivities of all kinds. And from my experience, Pagans still enjoy this more frivolous side to Halloween as well. I don’t think many Pagans have problems in celebrating both the dignified, spiritual side of Samhain together with the fun and festivities of Halloween. Certainly I don’t! Although I wasn’t able to attend my moot Medway Pagans’ Samhain festival (it coincided with my sister’s birthday meal), I do plan to hold some sort of ritual for Samhain in order to honour the spirits, my ancestors and departed friends and family. But as well as this, my husband and I have just returned from 2.8 Hours Later, an entertaining “zombie survival” experience (not bad but Zed Event’s “Shopping Mall” zombie experience was way better value for money in my opinion!), and we’re also planning on going to see the new vampire comedy What We Do In The Shadows tomorrow. So I think we’ll get the mix of Samhain spirituality with Halloween horror-fun down pretty well!

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Float to commemorate the dead at the Shoro-Nagashi (Nagasaki’s O-bon festival)

This mixture of deep spirituality and light-hearted fun surrounding Samhain reminds me very much of the similar Buddhist O-bon festival in Japan. Celebrated in summer, O-bon festivals vary from place to place in Japan, but where I lived in Japan (Nagasaki), it was a pretty big event, the climax being the “Shoro Nagashi” or “Spirit Boat Parade.” At sunset, families all over Nagasaki would carry enormous boat-shaped floats covered with lanterns through the town, all the while throwing firecrackers as a way of welcoming the spirits of the dead. The whole occasion is held very much like any other Japanese festival, with plenty of stalls selling great food, games to play, and people dressed in bright yukata robes. It’s considered a fun festival, yet at the same time it is tinged with sadness, as it’s the time for families to remember their departed members.

In fact, while the idea of mixing both grief with joy when remembering the dead is rather strange in predominately Christian cultures like Britain, it’s fairly widespread elsewhere. Just think of the Mexican Day of the Dead, with its bright, garish colours.

I think that it’s great that the modern Pagan interpretation of Samhain can be celebrated both with solemnity and frivolity at the same time. It’s yet another wise Pagan reminder that all change, even the most difficult change, can still be celebrated in its own way, and that the darker sides to life do not need to be faced with dread.

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The Diversity of Autumn Festivals in the UK

"Lewes Bonfire, Devil and Grim Reaper". Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lewes_Bonfire,_Devil_and_Grim_Reaper.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Lewes_Bonfire,_Devil_and_Grim_Reaper.jpg

The Devil and the Grim Reaper, two characters at the large Bonfire Night procession in Lewes in the UK.”Lewes Bonfire, Devil and Grim Reaper”. Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve noticed that many members of the older generation in the UK don’t really like Halloween. This seems to be because they consider Halloween a modern, American invention. They do, however, like Bonfire Night (a.k.a. Guy Fawkes Night), which occurs less than a week after Halloween on November 5th but unlike Halloween, they consider it thoroughly British. What they don’t like in particular is that Halloween appears “taking over” Bonfire Night, with Brits setting off fireworks throughout the final week of October and wearing Halloween costumes into November. And considering how much Halloween gear is available in the shops compared to Bonfire Night / Guy Fawkes related goods, it would appear that out of the two, Halloween comes way out on top in terms of popularity. I think older Brits, who remember when Halloween was very low key and Bonfire Night was the focus of autumn celebrations, feel rather sad that what they perceive as American culture is taking over British culture.

Aside from the fact that Halloween is originally of Irish Celtic origin (although I accept that America did a great deal to both popularise and commercialise it, which I see as a good thing), I do not see that Halloween is “swallowing up” Bonfire Night at all. Instead, I see the merging of Halloween and Bonfire Night as a brilliant example of syncretism – and what’s more, I think that Halloween (or Samhain) and Bonfire Night were always closely linked.

Although many Brits believe that Bonfire Night originated as a way of commemorating the death of Guy Fawkes, evidence suggests that it goes back further and has Pagan origins. Before it was politicised (in fact, the celebration of Guy Fawkes night including the burning of the Guy effigy was enforced by law), it is theorised that burning sacred fires was a part of the autumn rituals in Britain, particularly those related to the souls of the dead. The Golden Bough goes into this theory into more detail.

This theory is supported not only by the close proximity of Halloween to Bonfire Night, but by looking at other fire festivals around the world. In Japan, the Bon Festival also venerates the souls of the dead, and incorporates both fire and fireworks. Additionally, fire plays a key role in Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Light, which often occurs around the same time as Halloween and Bonfire Night in the UK.

And it is this latter festival of Diwali which has become the latest addition to Britain’s autumn celebrations. My local town of Gravesend has a large Sikh population, who also celebrate Diwali (called Bandi Chhor Divas in Sikhism). Just like Bonfire Night, Diwali is celebrated by setting off fireworks, and also you’ll see little candles lit outside the doors of Sikh homes at this time (not unlike Jack ‘O Lanterns!). It’s beautiful to see them glowing on a dark autumn evening.

So now, every autumn, I can expect to see fireworks being set off and candles lit outside all the way from the final week of October right into mid-November, as all three festivals of Halloween, Bonfire Night and Diwali are celebrated within our diverse community. I love to see this. It reminds me just how much richer our experiences become when we share them together, and what’s more, how syncretism across cultural celebrations keeps them all alive.

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