Friday 31 October 2014

Celebrations for dead years

If you have any involvement with the wide umbrella of modern paganism, then today, Samhain, the most popular term for the 31st of October, is supposed to be kind of a big deal. For that matter, Halloween in general is kind of a big deal in anglophone countries, while here in France, Toussaint, All Saint's Day, on the 1st of November, is a national holiday.

Halloween per se  is rightly regarded in France as an abominable import supported only by people who work in marketing. However, traditions originating from the same root beliefs exist. In Brittany, a Celtic region not far from us, the department of Finistère has historic traditions of costumed processions in honour of L'Ankou, the Breton personification of death. There are even customs of children carving faces out of beets, illuminating them with a candle and placing on them on their heads as they play in the dark at being creatures from the other world.

Image of l'Ankou in Finistère. Source: Wikipedia
In terms of the farming year, it's all about preparation. As I type, I can see one of our neighbours spreading lime to de-acidify his soil. On the other side of the stream, trees were felled today, while we've taken advantage of the fine weather to clear weeds and take down impinging tree branches in preparation for tilling our vegetable patch early next week. On the subject of the weather, the end of October provides a guide point as to when you can expect the climate in Central and Western Europe to start going really sour.

The European farming year is intrinsically linked to the notion of late October as a liminal space, where the veil between life and death thins. The end of harvest and approaching dormancy of winter make for a rich metaphor, even in regions where the origins of the traditions have been masked by Protestant Christian doctrines that celebrate Reformation Day, suitably detached from either popish or pagan trappings.

In countries with different climates, the celebrations and meaning shift. I'm originally from the Greek-influenced Near/Middle East (geographers have consistently failed to pick a regional designation for our small half-island, although now we appear to have fossil fuel, we're usually described as Middle Eastern). As is the way of island cultures, we got a bit of every passing sailor's religion, but like our neighbours Greece, Turkey, Syria and Egypt, we have a climate that bears little resemblance to that of Western Europe and its cycle of spring-to-autumn fertility.

Inheriting copious elements from both classical paganism and Byzantine Christianity, Greek Orthodoxy celebrates its All Souls Days at various points in the year, mostly in Spring, although the celebration of Saint Demetrios of Theassaloniki and the All Souls Sunday (Demetrios Sunday) which precedes it fall at the end of October. Conveniently enough, this roughly lines up with an ancient Greek festival of Demeter and Persophone (Kore), the Thesmophoria.

While, like Samhain, the Thesmophoria is a festival of fertility and farming, the nature of its celebration is almost opposite to October's Celtic festival. As you travel east around the Mediterranean, the summer months become increasingly harsh: too arid to grow crops and potentially dangerous to all but the hardiest of livestock. The Thesmophoria celebrates Persephone's return from the underworld, having spent the summer months with Hades, during which period Demeter mourns the loss of her daughter by denying the world the bounty of her fertility.

Persephone and Hades. Source: Wikipedia
The Thesmophoria were a women's rite, bound up in mysteries, fasting, sacrifice by burial, and ritual foodstuffs. The latter most notably included pomegranates, an intrinsic part of the Persphone myth and also a key ingredient of κόλλυβα (koliva), a ritual food used in Greek Orthodoxy in All Souls and memorial celebrations. In the Orthodox church it's specifically representative of the relationship between life and death, that which is planted and that which is harvested. Plus ça change...

The autumn celebration of Thesmophoria precedes and is intrinsically linked to the sowing of corn (as in grain in general, rather than as in maize), stored through the infertile summer in πίθοι (pithoi)... also used to bury the dead. It's certainly not Halloween, but it is all about death and fertility.

The notion of a relationship between death and life is intrinsic to human cultures. As creatures that are above all interested in themselves, we can't help but be entranced by the two greatest mysteries we'll ever experience. As natural pattern-seekers, we lay our mysteries upon those of the natural world and of agriculture, its domesticated manifestation. Nature dies back at times, only to rise again, renewed. A global history of reborn gods speaks to the power of that idea, and even those of us who live in cities far from nature can't resist the urge to mark the changing of the seasons, whatever form those seasons take.

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