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Reflections on Samhuinn

by Diane Dees Tobiason

Among the Druids, Samhuinn was a season of great importance, a mysterious "time warp" that occurred at the close of one season but before the start of another. During this period, which marked the end of summer but not yet the beginning of winter, the door to the other world opened and the dead and the living could mingle. The Druids also believed that Samhuinn brought about the opening of the gates of time, so that both the living and the dead could experience a sense of eternity.

The arrival of the dead, not surprisingly, was met with mixed emotions. Some of them were feared, and some of them were sought for counsel. All of them were fed, presumably to nourish them during their brief journey to visit the living, and to keep them happy so they would not wreak havoc on the community. Darkness was considered more powerful than the light, so people kept lights on at all times during this period.

Over time, Samhuinn became less of a season and more of a celebration, lasting from October 31 through November 2. It then morphed into Hallowe'en, the night of the "hallows." Apples and nuts, the favorite goodies provided for the dead, continued to be important. Bobbing for apples was nothing more than a safer version of the Druid girls' candle and apple game, in which each object was placed on the opposite end of a string, and in going for the apple — a divination about future romances — the girl was likely to get burned by the lit candle.

Many of these customs continue, though people think of them as symbolic, rather than necessary. Besides the collecting of food and the bobbing for apples on Halloween, there are other customs in which feasts are provided for the dead. In heavily Roman Catholic south Louisiana, where I live, there are wildly elaborate altars of food created for the Feast of St. Joseph. And on All Souls' Day, you can sometimes still see families with picnic baskets traipsing to their loved ones' gravesites. During the nineteenth century, the Creoles in New Orleans celebrated All Souls' Day buy selling peanut garlands, pralines, and sweet potato cakes called pain patate. As late as 1940, flowers placed on graves were in tins that once held jams, pickles and meats, and a gumbo vendor stood at the gate of each cemetery.

Fear of the dead is not common to all cultures, but it is indeed a phenomenon among many Americans. In my observation, this fear covers considerably more territory than just the buried or cremated corpses of those we have known and loved. As a psychotherapist, I see people make great efforts to avoid what I will call the personal Samhuinn, or gate which opens to allow our "dead" and "living" parts to mingle.

The older we get, the more expansive is our past, and when we confront it, we are likely to feel sadness, loss, guilt and shame along with the nostalgia. We know we cannot go back and erase mistakes we made, or do the things we believe we should have done. Nor can we relive our glory days. Sometimes we realize that we have changed so much, we hardly recognize the person who made the mistakes or committed the sins of omission. We may not even like that person. She is "dead," for all practical purposes.

Our Samhuinn allows us to commune with this dead self, or at least with the parts of ourselves that are dead. And it is during this communion, however painful it may be, that we can accept the mistakes, the lost opportunities, the sins and stupidities, as parts of our total self. Like the Druid dead, the personal corpses of our past are not content to remain buried, but likely to come back through the swinging gate of consciousness and mingle with our present identity.

Whatever should we give them to eat? It is tempting to over-nourish them, and become so friendly with them that we have no desire but to return with them to their grave when the gates close. Or, like the Druid girl, we may be tempted to share their food and shine a light so closely on them that when we go to take a bite, the flame burns us. Unfortunately, the popular remedy for "Don't dwell too much on the past" or "Stop nursing your regrets" is often "Don't deal with the past at all."

But this means that the dead will go hungry and may seek retribution. "I've forgiven him [or "I've forgiven myself"], but I still feel depressed," I often hear someone say. Or "I know it wasn't her fault, but I can't stop hurting." In most of these cases, the "forgiving" was really "pretending to forget," and the perpetrator of the pain often was at fault. Sometimes the perpetrator is our self, but we still make superficial attempts to forgive.

It is true that we cannot change the past. Most of us are capable of loving and respecting another person who has made mistakes, but we continue to make futile attempts to bury the parts of ourselves that we find unacceptable. During Samhuinn, we recall, the Druid people often sought the dead to consult with them. The dead can tell us a lot. From our "dead," we can be reminded about the consequences of some of our behaviors, prompted to understand the pain of others, and granted the wisdom to solve problems and cope with difficult times. We can understand that we have survived, despite our multiple imperfections.

When the gates of time close again, winter comes, and it is dark. How much more difficult it must be to negotiate the darkness if we have ignored the visitors from the other world by pretending they were not there. They are there. They are us. That is Samhuinn.

Diane Dees Tobiason is a psychotherapist and writer in south Louisiana. Her essays and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in several publications, including: The Raven Chronicles, Thema, Southern Ocean Review, The Melic Review, The Dead Mule and The Louisiana Review. Diane and her husband are the webmasters of www.princesscafe.com, a virtual rock and roll restaurant.



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