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All Hallows Pagan Rites
By Scott Nicholson

Not everyone will be eating candy, putting on rubber masks, or playing pranks on Halloween. Some people will be performing a ceremony in keeping with a number of ancient traditions that fall under Earth-based religions.

Collectively known as “Neopagans,” the group is comprised of people with many different belief systems, according to Circe, one of the founders of a local pagan group. Circe, like many pagans, has adopted a name based on her naturalistic beliefs. She said the naming practice “comes from ancient times when you had to hide your identity or be killed.”

While the stakes aren’t quite so dramatic today, Circe and other pagans sometimes find themselves shunned or ridiculed by more recognized or common religions. “A lot (of local pagans) are very hidden, but for some it’s an overreaction,” Circe said. “They try to make it more mysterious. But some have been persecuted.”

Circe said paganism is one of the fastest-growing religions in the world and includes a broad spectrum of systems. She said most of them are based on pre-Christian, earth-based religions of Old Europe, such as Druidism from the Celtic tradition, Nordic and Germanic practices of worship. She likens it to Native American tribes which all developed their own mythologies and spiritual beliefs and icons.

Circe said the major difference between paganism and the three major religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is that “the sacred is considered imminent, not transcendent.” Circe said major religions see material objects as possibly leading to sin, while pagans view the material world as interconnected. In keeping with their beliefs, the group is planning a Halloween ceremony that they believe will preserve the life cycle while also acknowledging the dead.

“Our job is to perpetuate the agricultural cycles and development of the soul,” Circe said. “That’s why so many pagans are environmentally conscious, because everything is connected. All harvest festivals are also about the growth of the soul, because there is a spiritual meaning to the cycles.”

The western observation of Halloween comes from Samhain (pronounced “SAH-wane”). Samhain marks the third and most important harvest festival, with the first, Lammas, falling on Aug. 1 as the harvest of fruits and herbs. The grain harvest of Nabon falls on the equinox on Sept. 21. “The third is the putting up of meat, slaughtering animals, and it’s the darkest part of the year, so there’s an association with death,” Circe said. “It’s also associated with ancestors. All pagans rely on ancestors to guide and protect them. We’re connected to an unbroken past line and ancestors make you who you are. That’s very literal, too, of course.”

Samhain is believed to be the time when the veil between the worlds of the living and dead are thinnest. Circe said since ancestors are the closest to the physical world at that point, “it’s a big night for divination” to get advice from them. Circe said many of the older traditions were adopted or subsumed by Christianity as church leaders sought ways to attract peasants during the Middle Ages. All Saints Day and the Mexican Day of the Dead also occur around the same time as Halloween. “Somehow we remember this tradition and it’s been associated with ghosts and tricks and treats and candy and jack-o-lanterns,” Circe said. “That all comes from old traditions.”

During the Samhain ceremony, the group creates a “sacred space” by calling in the four elements of fire, weather, earth, and air, each from one of the four compass directions. An altar represents the “lap of the goddess,” which Circe describes as a little stage where the practitioners enact what they believe will take place on a universal scale. The ceremony consists of chants which also opens each person up to a personal spiritual journey and communication with their ancestors. “The chant coordinates breathing,” Circe said. “Everything has a functional as well as mythic purpose.”

Circe said the ancestral encounter may invoke grief or joy. “You may get messages, and other people may get an intuition,” she said. “We consider that (intuition) true communication.”

The group will then perform a rite of eating a pomegranate seed, symbol for death to remind the members to stay connected with their ancestors. They then anoint their foreheads with oil and pour wine on a cauldron of dirt, which represents the Earth. Pagans then accept a tarot card which helps determine the outcome of the year ahead, said Circe, who performs Tarot card readings at a local book store.

Circe said her beliefs have been generally accepted, though she recognizes there are doubters. “Some think it’s a bunch of hogwash,” she said. “Some are afraid. People that are really sophisticated in their religious thinking can have interfaith dialogue. It seems to be the more fundamental types who react, mostly from fear. More damaging is people who don’t think it’s a real religion, so we don’t get the validation that it’s a true spiritual path.”

Circe said Hollywood and popular myths are to blame for connecting paganism to the supernatural, particularly the notion that spells will conjure demons. Many ancient cultures besides those of Europe had Halloween-style ceremonies and beliefs. Babylonians believed the day marked a time when the dead came back to life. Egyptians laid out food for the dead and lit lamps in honor of the dead. Romans threw beans at spirits to placate them. Those cultures seemed to share a common idea that Halloween, no matter its name, was a day when the physical and the spiritual world overlapped.

Copyright 2004 by Scott Nicholson. Originally appeared in the Watauga Democrat.

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