The Wheel of the Year turns, plunging us deeper into the dark half of the year. It’s Halloween. Samhain. The ground is fertile for growing fears. Between the worlds of the living and the dead, the border blurs. Connecting with the spirit world is easier than at other times of the year. Anyone traveling those worlds needs a guide to cross the threshold. Animal totems are always helpful.
Last night, I lead a Samhain ritual at Meg’s Inspirations, a local gift shop and spiritual boutique here in Manchester, CT. I’ve been leading seasonal rituals at Meg’s for many years. One year, we created an ancestor altar. Another year, we explored various means of divination.
Last year, I created a ritual around animals as spirit guides. My original plan was to draw an animal oracle card and explore connections between the animal’s message and what we knew, or wanted to know, about an ancestor. But three days earlier, 11 people were massacred at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA. So I invited those at the ritual to create a blessing for the dead based on the animal that had chosen them. Here are a few of those blessings:
May the bear guide them through the darkest nights.
May the dog protect all they hold sacred.
May the eagle bring them courage to see through adversity.
If you’d like to know more about that ritual, please see Episode 11 of the podcast.
Messages from the animal world are meaningful at any time of the year. I think they’re particularly powerful at Samhain. So I returned to them for this year’s ritual. It was about a map of thresholds, fears, a community fire, animal spirit guides, and the energy of the Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Before I tell you about the ritual itself, I want to tell you what inspired it.
A few months ago, I repositioned the desk in my office. I didn’t like working at the computer with my back to the door. Now, when I type I can look across the room and see matching oval-framed photographs of my mother and my grandmother.
Next to them, in a smaller, heart-shaped frame is a photocopy of a black-and-white Polaroid my little sister took of me napping with my newborn daughter. I’m wearing a homemade, cotton sundress, my hair chopped short by a girlfriend and plastered to my face by the oppressive humidity of a Tidewater summer. My daughter is in a diaper. We had just come home from the Naval Hospital. My then-husband was on a ship headed to Vietnam.At 19, I had crossed the threshold from Maiden to Mother.
I had spent the last three days in the same hospital, in the same room, in the same bed where my mother died four years earlier. She died at 2:05 in the afternoon, precisely the time I left the hospital with my daughter. There have been other times in my life when I’ve had that unworldly feeling, as though I’d stepped into a parallel universe, but never more so than that moment.
The photo of my mother shows the calm and quiet beauty of a 30-year-old in a classic, long-sleeved, soft blue wool sheath, a string of pearls at her neck The following year, she would have several major surgeries in a few weeks, including an emergency hysterectomy. She would be hospitalized for six months, and plunged into menopause. Her thick, wavy, chestnut hair would turn gray and brittle. Her skin would be bleached of color, no more roses in her cheeks, no more sparkles in her eyes. She would age thirty years in six months. She would die eleven years later. The photo remembers a young and vibrant Mother unknowingly about to cross the threshold to that of Crone.
The photo of my grandmother was taken when she was seventeen. I once asked her how the photo had come to be. She told me that a traveling photographer had come to town that day and set up a temporary studio. She and two friends wanted to have their pictures taken. Keep in mind, this would be around 1912. Having a photograph of yourself was a big deal.
She told me how she’d pulled her thick, dark hair back in a modified Gibson and tied it with a grosgrain ribbon. She put on her best, high-necked white blouse and pinned a rhinestone star at her throat. She added a dark, boiled wool jacket, classic style, and took every penny she had from her savings sock.
She got married a few years later and, over the course of time, gave birth to nine children. She would live to 100, bury her husband and seven of her children, including my mother, and be remembered as a wise, kind, and beautiful Crone, memorialized in the photo as a Maiden.
We don’t always know when we’re about to cross a threshold.
At Samhain, we know we’re in the season of the Crone. Signs of death and dying are all around us. Leaves change color and fall to the ground. Bare branches shake in the wind like brittle bones. Frost bites the tips of tender plants. Soon, a killing frost will turn them to black mush. Burning wood perfumes the cold nights and chilly mornings. Geese fly in formation and honk farewell as they head to warmer climates. The Crone is gathering her power. And she will rule until Spring when she is overtaken by the Maiden.
With so many signs of death and darkness, it’s easy for fears to take root. While I like affirmations, I believe in confronting the worst possible outcome of our fears. For the ritual, I thought it would helpful to envision our fears on a map, light a torch from a community flame, and enlist the help of special guides.
My friend Monica assisted me as mapmaker. I gave her a black Sharpie and a scroll of “ancient parchment,” the kind you can make with an ordinary sheet of paper. You crumple it, bathe it in coffee, and age it a little more by sponge painting with used, wet tea bags.
I expressed my fear of a decline in my husband’s health. Others expressed fears of a lingering death, or dying alone, of being abandoned, of having an accident, of being homeless. The list went on.
The Sun is in Scorpio now so I wasn’t surprised by the intensity and the darkness of the fears. I offered the remedy in the question, “And then what?” The idea is to express the fear as though it does happen. Confront it. And explore what might happen next, and next, and next, until we can see that, however difficult or devastating the obstacle, we will find a way to go on.
Confronting a fear is powerful. So is knowing we aren’t the only ones who have fears. Centuries ago in Scotland, villagers would celebrated Samhain by extinguishing all the fires in their home. Then they gathered at a community bonfire with a torch, or candle, or wood, or peat or dried manure — something they could use to carry the community flame to rekindle the home fires. Just as the village was bound by the darkness of the season, they were united by the light in their hearths.
At this point in the ritual, I gave each person a small, black candle that the owner, Meg, had provided. Before the ritual started, I lit a community fire, a tea light set in glass inside a piece of hollowed wood. Monica had placed the Map of Fears safely inside a nearby pumpkin made of wire, in a way that we could all see the words. One by one, each person came to the community flame and lit his or her candle.
Now, because the venue is in a historic building that already had one horrific fire in its past, neither Meg nor I wanted to chance another. So Monica stood next to the fire, holding a black container filled with water. The effect was like a scrying pool. Each person had a second or two to light candle from the community flame and then douse the flame in the water. By the time they got home, the wick would be dry and they could light the candle again, perhaps to use while probing, “And then what?”
A little aside… In 1996, I was given the honor of carrying the Olympic Torch. The torch itself wasn’t passed. The flame was. Picture a relay race with each runner carrying a torch. As with the other torch bearers, I was given the opportunity to purchase the torch I carried. The money would help support the U.S. athletes. In purchasing the torch, I had to sign an agreement that I would never light the torch again. In fact, an official emptied each torch of any fluid remaining in the chamber before we could take possession. I never entertained the thought of lighting the torch again. The soot on the silver spires came from an eternal flame that originated in Athens, Greece, where the Olympics began centuries ago. I look at that torch now and know that, for a few moments, I helped pass a flame that weeks later, the late Mohamed Ali would use to light the cauldron in Atlanta, Georgia to begin the Summer Games. Being part of a community, even in a tiny way, can be powerful.
So, now we had named our fears. We had lit our candles with the community flame. We were ready for the journey ahead.
When we seek to enter an unfamiliar world, it’s helpful to have a guide. As I sat at my desk, looking at the pictures of my mother and grandmother, I wondered what kind of totem animal would help me cross the Samhain threshold to connect with them. How might they help me to help my husband?
I invited each person to pull a card from “The Illustrated Bestiary” by Maia Toll, published by story.com . The animal guides who chose us offered their expertise.
From the Katydid came the ability to see from a different perspective. From the Skink came the encouragement to take a risk. The Honeybee reminded us that dark times will pass. I say “us” because I believe that every animal spirit that came to our ritual offered its gift to all of us.
Before coming to the venue to set up the ritual, I pulled a card for myself. It was the Katydid. I returned the card to the deck. Another woman pulled the same card during the ritual. She is grieving the loss of her partner. He died about a year ago. She has had to find a way to go on. She has had to look at her life from a new perspective. I think the Katydid, with its five eyes, affirmed each small, courageous step she takes.
The sharing part of the ritual is always powerful. This time was no exception. A woman who was apprehensive about the new business she had recently launched drew the Skink with its advice that she take a risk. A minister from a nonprofit who works hard to accomplish a lot with few resources drew the House Mouse and its message that a lot can be accomplished by working together. A woman who had just begun divorce proceedings drew the Spring Peeper with its advice that if life feels impossible, do as author Maia Toll suggests and, “grow a new set of legs to carry you into your next becoming.”
When it came time to close the ritual, we stood in a circle and held hands. One by one, going counter-clockwise, the direction that releases energy, we called out the name of a loved one who had died. As we did, we released our right hand.
It just so happened that last night, one of the women brought her two dogs, both small, well-behaved and on leashes. They gathered with us in the closing circle. I was reminded that Sirius, the Dog Star, is said to guide the souls of the dead to the Milky Way. We had invited quite a few departed souls into our ritual. It felt good to imagine them being guided back to the Other Side by the sweet dogs that had joined us.
I had some time constraints last night and wasn’t able to explore one more ritual element I had planned. It echoed back to the idea of thresholds and Maidens, Mothers, and Crones. I associate certain animals with certain seasons. The associations are is more anecdotal than scientific, based more on pop culture than anthropology. Still, the associations are there.
For example, I see the image of a Raven and I think autumn and winter, the dark half of the year, the time of the Crone.
For the Monarch Butterfly, I think summer, the time of the Mother.
The Spring Peeper, well, spring and the time of the Maiden.
For the Tortoise, summer and the Mother.
The Honey Bee is all about spring and summer, the Maiden and the Mother.
The River Otter, often associated with the element of play, reminds me of the Maiden.
Because the Elephant is known for its long memory and for reverence paid to the matriarch of the herd, I associate it with the Crone.
But how do you process the Maiden energy of the Spring Peeper if you are living in Crone years? How do you work with the Elephant Crone if you are a 17-year-old Maiden? What about the Mother urged to frolic like a Maiden River Otter? That’s where the threshold comes in.
It’s easy to recognize the threshold between sea and shore, meadow and forest, mountain and foothill, desert and oasis. Border guards create an added threshold at what is often a natural boundary between countries. The door to your home is a threshold, dividing one world from another.
Some thresholds aren’t visible or well defined. Some are fluid and short-lived. When I make jewelry and play in the sparkle of all things Swarovski, I’m the Maiden. She initiates.
When I cook and blend ingredients with nurturing intent, I’m the Mother. She maintains.
When I uproot the annuals and prune the roses, cut the lilies, iris, hosta, and sage — because the garden must be put to rest if it’s to bloom again in the spring — when I attend to the rest, residue and remainder, I am the Crone. She concludes.
In any one day, I can cross multiple thresholds and embody all three phases of the Goddess. You can, too. A spirit animal can be your perfect companion.
Here’s a simple ritual to work with this energy. I think of ritual as a visible act performed with invisible intent. The invisible intent here is to engage with the energies of the Triple Goddess. The visible act is to draw three cards: one animal to spark your Maiden energy, one to fortify your protective role as Mother, and one affirm your responsibilities as Crone.
I plan to explore this idea further in the months ahead. Chronologically, are you Maiden, Mother, or Crone? In what aspect of your life do you mirror her? In what way do you feel the energy of another face of the Goddess? Please let me know. I’m working on a Croning ritual. I’d appreciate your thoughts. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
In the meantime, if you’ve been inspired to create a Samhain ritual and you realize Halloween is over, rest assured, it’s not too late. Astrologically, Samhain, the festival that inspired our Halloween, occurs when the Sun reaches the 15th degree of the fixed sign of Scorpio. And this year, 2019, that won’t occur until November 7 (East Coast time). So, grab a candle! And when it comes to working with the energies of the Maiden, Mother, and Crone, there is no wrong time.