Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Samhain: the time which is no time

by Olivia Knight

I’m an atheist, not a pagan, but as Pratchett points out there are advantages to belief: “When you hit your thumb with an eight-pound hammer it’s nice to be able to blaspheme. It takes a very special and strong-minded atheist to jump up and down with their hand clasped under their other armpit and shout, ‘Oh, random-fluctuations-in-the-space-time-continuum!’ or ‘Aaargh, primitive-and-outmoded-concept on a crutch!’” So I’m an atheist with a creativity altar, a well-used deck of tarot cards, a shelf of occult books, and a wealth of Wiccan info – mostly thanks to writing The Ten Visions. What I can’t believe, I can write.

Paganisim or Wicca (I won’t go into the denominational differences) are all about the rhythms of nature – which sounds as floaty as a wannabe-witch dress, until you realise how much counting it involves. (Sex also involves counting, and not just the good old one-two – at least, not if you’re trying to trick nature by taking the prize and not paying your due.) Planning my heroine’s life around moon phases, the name of the moon, the sun sign, the sunrise and sunset times, her own cycle, the Esbats, and of course the Oxford terms, not to mention the Qabbalic chapters, quickly became as complex as organising the Prime Minister’s diary:

“No, I’m afraid Ms Kirkson won’t be able to have sex on the 17th – yes, it’s in Netzach with a waxing Snow moon, but new moon energy is still dominant, she has her period, and the Scorpio energy is too negative… how about the 1st, under Saggitarius? It’s a full moon, so I’ll have to squeeze you in with any ghostly visitors…”

Sarah quickly learns how events are governed.

She felt sick, stubbed out the cigarette on the chilled, pocked stone next to her feet, and immediately lit another. When had she seen Jo?
She’d met him when she was walking back from dinner with her supervisor. She’d felt an odd urge for a cigarette, and asked him for one. She’d wanted one because her supervisor’s rudeness had upset her. Well, his rudeness and his attractiveness, to be honest, but the attractiveness didn’t count because she’d been ovulating. It had been dark – no, not quite dark; she remembered the clouds whipping past the full moon, a ghostly galleon indeed.
She’d seen him the night of the All Soul’s party; he’d persuaded her to run away from the party and convinced her that she’d been talking to the devil, just because she’d been horny enough to find an old man sexy. They had dashed home in the bright moonlight. He said she’d been fed a lust potion. She’d counted afterwards, and realised she’d just been ovulating; the lust potion was nonsense.
She’d been ovulating. She ovulated with the full moon. She hadn’t wanted sex last night; something in her body had felt calm, quiet, and safe; something in her had said wait. Wait until you’re fertile. When was full moon?

Welcome to the Wheel of the Year. Paganism means patience. The year is carved into the twelve sun signs of the Zodiac and the thirteen moons. Each month’s moon has its own name and energies and the full moon is the Sabbat. (One month gets two full moons – so the second is the Blue Moon, as in “once in a…”) The eight Esbats are the major festivals: two solstices, two equinoxes, and four other special occasions: Ostara (Easter), Beltane (May Day), Lammas (31 July, still celebrated with corn sheaves in many churches) and of course Samhain – Halloween, Feast of the Dead, All Souls, call it what you will.

Most of the Esbats are what we politely call “fertility rites”, from the Imbolc planting of seeds (phner phner) through the Ostara eggs & bunnies (nudge nudge) to Beltane’s giant phallus round which the merry maidens dance, all the way to the Lammas fairs and tumbling in haystacks. Not so Samhain.

The only pagan festival to hold tight to its occult origins, it’s not a time for sex or magic – it’s the beginning of the time which is not a time. The Ten Visions has ritual sex scenes and Samhain scenes, but not the two in combination: that would be dark magic and the good Wiccan Sarah (an’ it harm none, do what ye will) doesn’t do that. (Her professor, on the other hand…)

Samhain is the day that Jo accuses Sarah of being a witch, after the eerie Halloween party in the graveyard of St Mary's. As sensible as her author, she doesn’t believe him.

She shook her head in disbelief. ‘This is the twenty-first century. No-one believes in witches. They don’t exist. Well, some silly little pagan-wannabes do, but they get it all wrong, I’ve read the manuscripts and they haven’t and –’
‘What do the manuscripts say, then?’
‘Witches joined covens – they were invited in, by female relatives or close friends – and the devil appeared, a local devil usually, and they all drank and danced around widdershins and naked, and sometimes the devil had sex with them. Every evidence suggests he was just a man from a nearby region, in a mask.’
‘Evidence taken down in witch trials?’ asked Jo, pointedly.
‘That’s the only written evidence, yes, –’
‘And what does your knowledge of Church doctrine, and interrogation methods, and manuscript-making, tell you about these manuscripts?’
‘That they’re unreliable!’ Sarah snapped. ‘That it was confessions taken from tortured prisoners, stupid ordinary women terrified of the Church’s power!’
‘So the devil really did come and sleep with them?’
‘The devil doesn’t exist,’ began Sarah.
‘Then would it surprise you to learn that earlier tonight you sat next to him, drank with him, and considered having sex with him?’

Thus begins the time which is no time, the dark hinterlands of the year. From Samhain to Yule, the wheel doesn’t turn. The veil is thin. The world lies dead, and the dead walk. This is where we now stand poised in the Wheel of the Year and here’s a snapshot of the wheel’s energies…

At Samhain, light candles for the dead, set food out for them, leave honey and cakes for the fey, and leave windows open on both sides for the roaming souls to enter and leave freely. Better that than that they rattle the panes and rush down the chimney flus. Leave a candle burning all night. We’re under the Blood Moon, making vivid the cycle between life and death, hunter and hunted. It reached its zenith on 26 October and is now waning – the only spells to perform are for cleansing and banishment; rather learn and meditate. The sun in Scorpio is also suited to study – its smouldering, dark and ruthless energy peels back mysteries. Its sexual pleasure is intense and ruthless. Today is ruled by Mars but Samhain, on Wednesday, will be ruled by Mercury – the messenger, the trickster, the ancient Alchemical tease. For the next fifty-one days, the rhythms of life recede and the world belongs to the others – until Yule.

She lay, drained and sated, feeling the warm weight of his body upon her, staring dreamily at the uneven ceiling above her. She thought of the stars and planets spinning beyond them, unimaginable distances away but really there, held in orbit by gravity, imposing their strange forces as they swung past.
‘The ritual said for seven days…’ she murmured quietly into his ear. Her voice was soft, half-lost in thought. ‘In two days time we move from Sagittarius to Capricorn… Fire to Earth…’ she added. ‘And it’ll be Yule, and we can marry for a year and a day…’
His warm arms clasped her close to him.


Deanna said...

Interest post Olivia. I find witchcraft a fascinating subject even ignoring the sexual connotations. I see the logic of people in the past worshiping such things as the power of the mother earth and I can also appreciate why some people turn to it today.

Also I think science just can't fully explain all the odd things that happen in this world of ours.

To be honest I always thought stories of demonic possession and exorcism were rather far-fetched as well. However, I was once chatting to a priest at a social occasions and he told me that some of them are still taught how to exorcise evil spirits and that did surprise me in this day and age.

Portia Da Costa said...

Intriguing stuff, Olivia. Thanks for posting. Definitely one to print out and read again later, at leisure.

Anonymous said...

I have witches in The Silver Werewolves books, but they're pretty much one step down from gods themselves in terms of how powerful they are.

You can read about what my witches get up to here - although it has nothing to do with Hallloween making this, yes, a shameless plug

Olivia Knight said...

But werewolves fit right in with the moon-phase obsession, so you're bang on target. (Having devoured The Silver Collar all weekend, I'll support any shameless plugs for it! And throw in a cheer for getting the calendar dates right - always annoys me when days, dates and years don't match up - plus letting me know, in advance, my birthday's on a Saturday this year. Hooray!)

The pagan-stuff is probably a shade on the touristy side (if our Real Live Pagan pops by she may be able to correct any misconceptions) but I think accurate. Deanna - yes, I agree with your take. I think eventually science will explain everything (which doesn't nullify things in the slightest), but we don't yet have sufficient tools. In the meantime, our hodge-podge of ancestral observations, "old wives' tales", superstitions, etc, probably contains as much nonsense as sense but as we can't yet tell which is which, we'd do best to take the lot and take it with a pinch of salt at the same time. The "operative fiction" policy.

Is anyone else as absurdly anal about their characters' calendars as I am? I always seem to end up with a detailed Excel spreadsheet...

Madeline Moore said...

What a fascinating glimpse you've given, O, into the weird world of paganism. No weirder, I hasten to add, than the world o' religion. My sister, a church-goer, informed me on the weekend that Halloween was originally a Christian event...which was then swallowed up by paganism...and spit back out to the Christians. True? Or church propaganda?

As for dates in stories, I've a doozy. My short story 'Hurting Hugh', which is in in Mitzi Szereto's antho 'Getting Even: Revenge Stories' (avaiable NOW!)is written in diary form. Day and month, no year, but:

The protagonist says 'I spent the middle of the new millennium meeting, loving, and losing Hugh.'

The final entry is dated June 7. She relates the story of seeing Hugh and venting her hatred by hurting him in a big way, 'It was a few hours ago, just before midnight...'

So - the 'careful reader' could deduce, from these clues, that the protagonist exacted her revenge on what date?

I worked hard on the piece, so that if someone, somewhere, cared to piece it together, that reader would see that Hugh was hurt on 6/6/06.

A lot of work for something that no-one will ever notice, I'm sure. But damn I felt like a clever writer.

t'Sade said...

I used to call myself Wiccan, back in the days. Still believe in a lot of it, but I found Spiritual Without Religion worked out much better for me. One of the things I remember was one of the HP's talking about when she really into rituals and how it consumed her day. After a few months of doing everything, she backed off to do the occasional thing and actually living her life.

As for using a calendar to measure events, that's fun in a story. For one of my stories, I had to plan out 4 years of murders to pull off the story. Still have the calendar for that.

Megan Kerr said...

The church originated Halloween? Hmm. Presumably glossing over the Old Testament verses villifying all forms of witchcraft, then... Actually, there's a grain of truth in it, as the "All Saints Day" or "All Souls Day" of the church, but actually the ancient Celts got there first. The Roman way of religious colonisation was that you could keep whatever gods you wanted, so long as Zeus was allowed to boss them about as Top God (when he wasn't turning himself into a swan or a bull to molest unsuspecting women, although I think I'd be less suspicious of a god than of a randy swan). The Christian way was you can keep all the festivals you like, so long as you tack on some new meaning and stop all that rogering-in-the-fields business. So Easter became Jesus's death and resurrection, Christmas his birth, etc. But most festivals were originally based around the turning of the seasons, with hefty emphasis on fertility. So even if you're not a pagan, you can still enjoy the wheel of the year (remarkably persistent stuff, astronomy) and all those fertility rites...

Jeremy Edwards said...

Is anyone else as absurdly anal about their characters' calendars as I am?

I'm forcing myself to pay enough attention to that in my WIP to ensure that the protags don't have eleven consecutive evenings of wild sex within the span of a week.

Actually, my problem is really that I sort of want every single scene to take place on a Friday night (but without a week elapsing between them). I like Friday night.

Janine Ashbless said...

Blimey Olivia, you put a lot of work into that novel!
I admire it intensely except that the thought of waiting to have sex until you're fertile makes me go AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHGH NOOOOOO!!!!

I cannot think of anything less arousing than the prospect of getting pregnant I'm afraid.

BTW, the Imbolc/Beltane/Lammas/Samhain festivals (Feb/May/August/November) are based around the pastoral year - i.e. are originally to do with cattle and sheep farming. Samhain was the time of year in Northern Europe when the livestock were returned from the fields to the byres for winter. Calculations were made as to how many could be kept alive through the lean months on stored food, the rest were slaughtered and salted/smoked/eaten and the waste was burnt in Bone-fires.
So, practical as well as spooky.

I count myself as a Pagan Atheist. All the fun of paganism without having to believe in anything.

Megan Kerr said...

Oh god no, she's not that much of an earth-mother! It's more that feeling, right at the beginning of your cycle, when you just feel quite calm and orderly and not rampantly ragingly sexy. (Of course, this never happens to us. We feel sexy all the time, right?)

Unknown said...

You see, now I know why I'm not a pagan-numbers and plotting are so not my thing. I'm quite happy being an ex-Catholic

Very interesting post, Olivia-I learned a lot!

Vincent Copsey said...

"It's more that feeling, right at the beginning of your cycle, when you just feel quite calm and orderly and not rampantly ragingly sexy."

What's this calm of which you speak? I'm not sure I've experience that one. Actually, I'm not sure I'm ever calm.

Interesting post, Olivia.

Unknown said...

My very favorite Samhain recipie is for fairy butter. We lost the actual recipie a long time ago, but it is better made to taste anyway. If you mix butter, orange juice, and sugar until it is still firm, but soft enough to spread it is amazing. We used to make this for our Samhain circle every year. And the offerings of milk and honey were made that much sweeter with this addition. We spread some on toast points and pour the milk and honey over it in our offering bowl. And they fey shine their love upon us for it.

Just thought I would share.


Alison Tyler said...

Is anyone else as absurdly anal about their characters' calendars as I am?

Oh, my god. No. I'm not. In fact, I often have to go back through (at an editor's *suggestion*) to fix the fact that a week has two Wednesdays and no Fridays. Or the like.

Very intriguing post, though. I am wildly uneducated in the subject of paganism. Although I throw that term around loosely to describe myself. It's fun to see people's eyebrows raise.


Alison Tyler said...

P.S. Mat, I will lick your shameless plug anyday.

I meant click. I will CLICK your shameless plug!

Jeremy Edwards said...

In fact, I often have to go back through (at an editor's *suggestion*) to fix the fact that a week has two Wednesdays and no Fridays.

No Fridays! Here—please have some of mine. I always carry extras.

Anne Tourney said...

A fascinating post, and beautifully written, Olivia. I think the contemporary world, so alienated from nature and its rhythms in so many ways, doesn't give enough consideration to the importance of dark, fallow periods, like the season that's upon us now. We always want to be in motion, in action, doing and creating. We expect to control our own fertility, to be "horny" at the drop of a hat (well, some of us are, I guess, but that ain't me :)).

One writing trick I sort of adopted unconsciously over the years is waiting for the week that I ovulate to write my sex scenes. There are some times of the month that I just write this blisteringly hot erotic prose, while at other times it's so hard to think about sex that I feel like I'm scraping each word out of my brain with a bent spoon.

I appreciate reminders, like this post, that fertility in various forms has cycles that are older than all of us.

Anne Tourney said...

p.s. In response to the question in your comment, Olivia, no, I'm not as anal about my characters' calendars as you are, but I should be! I always end up going back through the novel, usually the night before I turn it in, finding all kinds of wildly hilarious discrepancies. The Excel spreadsheet would probably do me a hell of a lot of good.

Ally said...

Wow Olivia that is so awesome that you put so much research into your books, a truperfectionist. To me that is the real stuff, the real talent, the authoer who doesn't just care about the story but the facts and what she is saying to her readers. Big Kudos. I admire that very much.
Bowing to the Olivia goddess.