While many Twin Cities residents don costumes, carve pumpkins and celebrate Halloween this weekend, local witches Teri Parsley Starnes and Thraicie Hawkner will mark the new year.
October 31 is Samhain (pronounced “SOW-en”), the “high holiday” of the Wiccan year and a time for those who belong to pagan, or earth-based religions, to celebrate endings and beginnings and to remember the dead.
Samhain is tied to the seasonal cycles of life and death. Rooted in pagan traditions more than 2000 years old, Halloween grew out of this Celtic Druid celebration that marked the end of summer. Samhain literally means “summer’s end.” It combined the Celts’ harvest and new year festivals, held in late October and early November by people in what is now Ireland, Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe. The last crops were harvested and the livestock was brought in from the pastures to be sheltered or slaughtered.
Samhain Events Around the Twin Cities
If you’re looking for a place to honor your ancestors with a community of pagans, here’s a list of some public events. Some of the rituals will be held indoors, so space may be limited. Go to the web sites that are listed so you know what you need to participate in the ritual. Also, contact the event organizers to let them know you are attending.
A Sorgitzak Samhain Ritual with Author Veronica Cummer
7 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 31
Eye of Horus Metaphysical, 2717 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
The Solemn Celebration of Samhain
This ritual may not be suitable for young children. You must RSVP by clicking here.
Presented by CUUPS Twin Cities
7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 31
First Unitarian Society, 900 Mount Curve Ave., Minneapolis
5 to 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 31
Temple of the River, 431 2nd St. N.E., Minneapolis
3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 1
Powderhorn Phillips Cultural Wellness Center, 1527 E. Lake St., Minneapolis
Presented by the Tree and the Well
Modern-day Wicca and other earth-based religions are rooted in the agricultural year, Starnes says, and Samhain marks the end of that year. “This is the time when everything dies. So it is an ending and a beginning. There is a sense of completion. It’s a time of reflection.
“This is the time when animals were slaughtered, when people decided what they could support through the winter,” and to reflect on what they needed to get them through the winter, Starnes says. It was also a time when people would honor their ancestors and ask for guidance.
Starnes, who has been a Wiccan since 1985, will observe Samhain Sunday at a public ritual at the Powderhorn Phillips Cultural Wellness Center, 1527 E. Lake St. Her group, the Tree and the Well, will honor their ancestors by creating a community altar that includes photographs and “objects of remembrance.”
Hawkner, co-owner of the Eye of Horus Metaphysical, 2717 Lyndale Ave. S., a store that specializes in books, tools and supplies for Earth-based religions, says “the focus of most people’s rituals this time of year is honoring ancestors, communing with those on the other side, honoring the cycle of life and death and rebirth.”
Traditionally pagans feel that now is when “the veil between the living and dead is thin,” she says. “It’s the easiest time to commune with the ancestors.”
The Eye of Horus will host a Sorgitzak Samhain ritual Saturday with author Veronica Cummer. Hawkner describes the Sorgitzak ritual as “a European shamanic tradition basically, pulling way back to the old world roots.”
Remembrance is a key part of Samhain, Hawkner says, and there are many traditions associated with honoring the dead: “One very sweet tradition is a ‘dumb supper,’ a silent supper.” A group of people gather for a feast and set an extra seat at the table. Everyone brings the favorite dish of a loved one who has died, Hawkner says, and each person puts a little bit of that food on the empty plate in honor of their guest. The group eats the meal in silence and reflection, then everyone tells stories of the people they are paying tribute to.
Hawkner describes another ritual from centuries past that may sound familiar: “Kids would dress up as someone who died and go around the village and knock on doors, offering food to those who answered the door,” in a little twist on modern-day trick or treating.
Jack o’lanterns are another contemporary tradition that may have its roots in paying respect to ancestors. During the new year revels, ancients would go into burial chambers and get the skulls of the dead and put them around the fire. “It was a great celebratory time, and of course, the ancestors would join you,” Hawkner says. “You’d go get them to join. Here, we don’t have the skulls, so we take a pumpkin and we carve it as a skull. We put a beacon in it and a flame, and there’s your ancestor. The little beacons are there to call them home.”
Hawkner has been a Wiccan for “20-some-odd years,” she says. In those years, she’s seen more people opening up to earth-based wisdom and spirituality. In fact, the number of people in this country who identify as Wiccans or neo-pagans has grown substantially in the last eight years.
The American Religious Identification Survey found that the number of Wiccans in the United States more than doubled from 2001 to 2008, from 134,000 to 342,000. The same held true for neo-pagans. That group went from 140,000 in 2001 to 340,000 in 2008. Experts say the growth reflects not only increasing numbers of neo-pagans, but also a rise in the social acceptability of paganism.
“Pagan is this kind of umbrella category that covers Wiccans, Druids, basically non-monotheistic traditions,” she says. At her six-year-old store, “we try to expand that umbrella. We try to cover as many different paths as we can, but there are so many around. We try to allow access, to get them what they need.”