in the Wheel of the Year
MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Magazine for Goddess Women Near & Far
Samhain, the start of the Celtic New Year, celebrates the third and final harvest. At this time in the Celtic world, animals were brought back from their summer pastures to be slaughtered for meat over the winter. With the earth entering into its winter phase, people celebrated their dead ancestors, who now lived in the Otherworld, for, at Samhain, the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest. It was believed that by honouring them, the ancestors would ensure the return of fertility to the land at winters end. People would put food out for their dead ancestors a custom replayed today when householders give treats to ghoulish little visitors.
As a symbol of the earth, the goddess takes on her crone aspect. The Serpent Goddess reigns at Samhain as the deadly Queen of the Underworld. Imagery of death, such as serpents and skulls, abound, and are given their due respect. Underlying this imagery is the recognition of renewal, like the snake who enters a deathlike phase only to emerge anew from its old skin. Several Celtic myths tell about a hero summoning his courage to kiss the hag of winter, often three times, after which she turns into the beautiful maid of summer. This suggests that one must face death in order to find the source of renewal.
Images of the Hindu goddess, Chinnamasta, show symbolically how death renews life. When Chinnamasta, the Goddess of Great Wisdom, decapitated herself, three streams of blood flowed from her neck. Two streams flowed into the mouths of her devotees, and one into her own mouth. Images show Chinnamasta, wearing a cobra around her neck, standing on a divine copulating couple, with the Goddess on top. This image speaks to the two faces of the goddess, sex and death, and shows how sexual energy leads to death, as procreation requires parents to make way for their offspring. The sacrificial death nourishes the renewed life.
Like Chinnamasta, the Greek goddess Medusa was decapitated. One of the two streams of blood that flowed from her neck was deadly, the other gave life. Myths about Medusa describe her as a lovely woman who suffered the sin of vanity for her beautiful hair. Athena punished her by turning her hair into snakes, making her so terrifying that a mere glance at her led to death. After Medusa was killed by Perseus, Athena affixed the Gorgons head to her own breastplate to frighten the armies of her enemies.
Originally, Medusa was the Libyan Serpent Goddess of Wisdom. The myth of her decapitation was developed later to explain her face on the chest of Athena, who was actually another form of the Serpent Goddess. Like Medusa, Athena epitomized wisdom.
Early depictions of Medusa, and her two sisters, show the three Gorgons with large tusked faces and snakes for hair. Robert Graves, who believed that Greek myths represented religious-political history, postulated that the Gorgons represented the masks worn by priestesses of the lunar goddess to frighten the curious from Her mysteries. Perseus, the hero who killed Medusa, represented the invading Hellenes, who took over the temples of the triple goddess and stripped her priestesses of their masks. However, the invaders were unable to totally eliminate the protective power of the Gorgons. Their images appeared throughout ancient Greece, over ovens, on walls, and other places, to warn off the curious.
The Greek goddess, Hecate, is a popular goddess to invoke at Samhain. She combined fertility with death; by day, she ensured abundant crops; by night, she was the goddess of magic, ghosts, and tombs. Originally, Hecate was a powerful and benevolent lunar goddess, honored above all others by Zeus. She became associated with the underworld, ghosts and tombs, as well as magic.
Hecate is a goddess of cyclical phases, including death and rebirth. Robert Graves described her as the Snake Goddess of Tartarus, the underworld. He believed that the twelfth labor of Heracles, the capture of the snake-tailed, three-headed dog, Cerberus, was derived from an icon showing Hecate, as goddess of the dead, welcoming Heracles to Tartarus. She took the form of a three-headed monster, with, perhaps, each head corresponding to a season.
As a goddess of the underworld, Hecates role was to search for the souls of the dead in the wasteland between the worlds. In the myth of Demeter and her abducted daughter Persephone, Hecate helped Demeter search for her daughter, and later acted as Persephones guide between the worlds.
The Goddess, in her deadly serpentine form, is seen in many myths, such as the Egyptian myth in which Isis creates a serpent to bite her ailing father, Ra, to force him to give her his secret name that would allow her to restore the wasteland to abundant life. A similar myth of the Zimbabwe people tells about the first man, Mwuetsi, who was bitten by a snake that was the lover of his wife, Morongo. As Mwuetsi grew sicker, the land became barren and people began to die. Finally, his children strangled him and appointed a new king, revitalizing the land. This story may have reflected the ritual murder of the king in medieval Zimbabwe, who was killed every four years and replaced with a new king. The last Egyptian pharaoh, Cleopatra VII, also faced death by snakebite, possibly reflecting a similar practice of sacrificing the Pharaoh at the end of her/his reign by the bite of a viper. An ancient Egyptian belief was that death by snake bite would secure immortality.
Supernatural beings, such as vampires, come into their fully glory at Samhain. One of the earliest sources for the vampire legends was the Mesopotamian goddess of death, Lamashtu. She was depicted on protective amulets as a terrifying creature with the head of a lion and talons of a bird, suckling a piglet and a dog, and holding a snake in each hand. From Lamashtu came other goddess who took the form of succubi, or seductive women who drained mens life blood as they slept. The succubi included Lamia and Lilith, again forms of the Serpent Goddess. In one of the stories about Lamia, she appeared as a rich Phoenician woman. She was about to marry a young man when a philosopher exposed her true nature as a snake. Accordingly, she disappeared, together with her house and all her riches, leaving her young fiancé bereft. Lilith, said in some medieval mystical texts to be the first wife of Adam, was also described as a snake. She could take the form of a beautiful, seductive woman, who would kill her lovers, give birth to demons, and murder children. She came to epitomize the evil of sexuality and mens fear of womens seductive powers.
The Serpent Goddess symbolizes the bridge between the worlds, death, and renewal. Samhain is a time to remember and celebrate those who died during the year, and for reflection on the mysteries of death.