- Woman walking inside a corridor, Budapeste-Hungary, courtesy of Nuno Ricardo Blochberger, Portugal.
- Teeth, courtesy of Clara Natoli, Rome, Italy
In This Issue
Mid Fall: Sitting in the Shadows
Everything has a shadow. Night is the shadow of day. Winter is the shadow of summer. Clouds cast shadows from a sunny sky. Sickness is the shadow of health. Old age, the shadow of youth. Death, the shadow of life. The shadow is not the opposite of the light. A world without shadows would appear very flat and lifeless, indeed. It is because of the shadows that we can see the wholeness, the three-dimensionality, the intricate complexity of the world around us. If it were not for the shadows, we could not appreciate the light. It is the contrast that illuminates.
By the halfway point of Fall we are surrounded by an ambient prescience of impending death. Death and decline. Death and disappearance. The sun seems to be dying as we approach the Winter Solstice six weeks away. Our world is steeped in deep shadows, the light decreases daily, dimming toward the shortest, darkest day of the year. And the year, itself, is reaching the end; drawing to a close. Another cycle completing its course. The birds and animals have departed, gone south or underground for the duration. The trees, the vineyards and fields are stripped bare, exposed to the first frost. Their lost leaves create a compost cover like a cozy comforter for the land. Dead and decomposing, they feed and warm life contained inside the earth, incubating.
We, too, pull ourselves close, cover up and snuggle down. We naturally spend more time inside now. We tend to be more introspective. In the season full of shadows we are inclined to explore the darkness inside of us -- the shadows of our psyche, the shade of our fear, the specter of our soul. And what we discover there, if we are willing to recognize it, is the inevitability of our own demise. Everything does die, after all. Doesn't it?
How could we contemplate life without death? What could it ever mean? Death is a part of life. The life cycle includes death, as light includes the shadows, as the day includes the night. The shadow of death offers us the insight to comprehend the vast yet vulnerable continuum of life.
Understanding this, we are able to begin to imagine our own place in the eternal procession of the ages. We are reminded of all those who have preceded us and all those who will follow, the endless successions of generations. Like the fruit of a tree, the generations bud, bloom, ripen, then fall, each in their own turn. The death of each nurtures and informs the life of the next, linking the living and dead together in one unbroken chain.
The Autumn Cross-Quarter Day, when all of nature seems to be dying, has long been observed as a feast of the dead in Northern cultures. The occasion at once mourns and rejoices the death of the bounty of the land, laments the demise of the animals and plants while at the same time acknowledging that their death brings us life. It is a time of being thankful for their death. In hunting cultures, the corpses of the slain animals were commonly wined and dined in style, in great ceremony as befits a hero -- a banquet after the fact. A roast, as it were. Meat was placed in the mouth of the dead beast so that its spirit would gossip about how hospitable these people were. This, hopefully, would encourage other animals to approach them to be killed, too.
The celebration of death's feeding of life expanded to include the care and feeding of the dead by the living. By acknowledging those who walked before us, we can set our own life into context. The practice of paying homage to past generations -- the veneration of the ancestors -- keeps that connection intact through the ages. We put our own paths into perspective by recognizing the trailblazers who made it possible -- those from whom we have inherited our world, those to whom we owe our lives, those whose blood and pain and guilt and triumph travel through our own brains and bodies. To those who are our roots we give thanks and make toasts.
The Asian concept of the family is extremely precious. The family group is primary in society. Each small grouping of relations is joined together with other such groups into larger and larger assemblies. The common thread that links them all is their one mutual ancestor, as well as the understanding that all of humankind is an extended family. In the season of gathering chill, Mid Summer until Mid Fall, cultures throughout Asia celebrate some form of festival of death. In India, it is Pitra Visarjana Amavasya;in Laos, Ho Khao Padap Dinh; in Japan, Obon; in Cambodia, Prachum Ben. In Vietnam it is Trung Nguyen, Wandering Soul's Day; in China, Chung Yüan, the Hungry Ghost Festival; in the People's Republic, Chieh Tsu, the Receiving Ancestors Festival.
The dead are called into supper in Cambodia on the Festival of the Dead: "Oh, you who are our ancestors, who are departed, deign to come and eat!" In Persia, food and drink were placed in the hall of the dead. The Dahomey of West Africa prepare a harvest ritual called Setting the Table and invite the spirits of the ancestors. In Sicily as well, the table is set for those returning from the grave on I Morti, The Dead.
Families in Mexico and parts of Italy hold picnics with the past generations in the cemetery -- right on the graves, a sort of breakfast-in-bed for the dead. Feasting the dead is even evident in our language. The word "ghost" and "guest" both derive from the same Germanic root, geist, and were pronounced the same until only recently.
At festivals of the dead everywhere, special treats were featured for the enjoyment of those on both sides of the borderline of whatever it is that divides life and death, this world and the next. Pan de muertos, bread of the dead, round sweet bread decorated on top with baked dough bones and purple sugar is baked once a year in Mexico on the Day of the Dead. In Germany, people consume seelen brot, soul bread, to save a soul from purgatory. Italians eat sweets created of egg white, chopped almonds, and sugar shaped like tibia and skeletons, ossi da morto, bones of the dead. Sicilians bake elaborate ritual breads for the dead. Armuzzi, souls of the dead, are shaped like two hands in repose, crossed over a breast, the fingers spread wide like wings.
At the halfway point of Fall, when the nights were lengthening, when the winds from the north were subsiding and the Nile was sinking, the ancient Egyptians held the Isia. This six-day pageant commemorated the death of the Corn God, the deity of crops and harvest in the personification of Osiris, son of Isis, the Earth Mother for whom the Isia is named. Participants masqueraded as goddesses and gods and reenacted the saga describing the death, disappearance and rebirth of Osiris. Osiris dies in fall and is dismembered, as the grain is scythed and threshed. He is then resurrected as the corn in the spring. He is ultimately consumed as bread, coming to live again in the human lives that His loaves sustain. The story of the death of Osiris came to represent all the generations of the deceased, and the Isia was celebrated in honor of all departed souls.
On this night, the ancestors were invited back to their homes to join in an annual reunion of remembrance. Houses and paths were illuminated to lighten the dark way from the grave and back again and guide the ghosts safely to family and friends waiting in welcome. Altars were erected and tables laid with offerings of fine foods and flowers and wine. The ghost-guests of honor were then fêted with fabulous feasts of fealty.
The traditions and ceremonial elements of this early Egyptian day of all souls, the Isia, traveled north and west through Greece and Rome to merge with those of the death cults of tribal Europe. When the Europeans themselves pursued and amassed vast empires abroad, the festival of death went, too. The essential ceremonial symbols -- the ghost, the mask, the fire, the food -- have survived the centuries undiminished. They are the still vital centerpiece of our own fall festival of death, Halloween.
Halloween descends from Samhain, the most significant holiday of the Celtic calendar that revolves around eight major seasonal festivals corresponding to the solstices, equinoxes and cross-quarter days. Being a pastoral people, the Celts counted their seasons according to the needs of their cattle and sheep, rather than the agricultural seasons that farmers might mark. The year was divided into Summer, when the herds are led our to graze, and Winter, when they were brought back home again. Samhain, the day when the cows came home, was considered the first day of winter and also the first day of the New Year.
Samhain exposes a crease in time, a fissure
between summer and winter, between the old year and the new. During this
period, the dead have easy access to the living and are likely to pay
a visit. As the herds returned home to the warmth and security of the
hearth in Winter, so too, must the ghosts of the dead want to be cheered
by familiar surroundings and loved ones. Certainly one owes the same hospitality
to the ancestors as one gives to the animals!
In Celtic tribal gatherings, burial cairns were opened to release dead souls and air out the interiors of their tombs. The old ones were offered sacrificed animals, entertained and fed in exchange for gifts of sweets from the underworld. But in addition to the benign and beloved ghosts wandering about on Samhain, there were also innumerable fairies and goblins, strange specters and evil spirits released into the dark by Lord Samhain, Lord of Death.
For hundreds of years Christian missionaries tried without success to suppress Samhain and convert the Celts. In the eleventh century, Odilo, abbot at Cluny, claimed this heathen death feast for the Church. Hallow Tide, Holy Time, is a three day feast -- All Hallow's Eve, All Hallow's and All Saint's Day -- during which prayers are offered for Christian saints and souls. But only Christian saints and souls. In the new religious environment all other souls, those whose burials were not consecrated in Christ, were said to return to Earth on the eve of All Hallows to haunt the living. According to this demonization of Celtic paganism, it is not the beloved dead but menacing demons and flying witches with their trusty black cat sidekicks, persistent practitioners of the pagan religion, who were out and about and up to no good.
Samhain was, above all, a fire festival. Indomitable, it blazed and burned undampened by the transparent overlay of Christianity. As in the Isia, fires were lit in aid of the dying sun. Torches and lanterns made from turnips guided the friendly ghosts where they wanted to go. And great bon fires were set to ward off any uninvited spooks and unsavory spirits.
This tradition has been conscientiously upheld
on a grand scale in, of all places, Detroit, Michigan. Every year on Devil's
Night, the night before Halloween, numbers of citizens faithfully set
fire to abandoned buildings, trash piles, and junk heaps in an orgy of
seasonal arson. The fires are most frequently set in dangerous, vacant
houses that pose a hazard to the community -- buildings which, despite
mass complaint, the city has neglected to demolish. "When we got
here it was really going. The whole sky was orange. I can't believe someone
didn't call to report it," complained a fire chief on condition of
anonymity to the Detroit Free Press in 1989.
Other means of divination were also employed at Samhain, for it was felt that one might gain a glimpse of the future through the crack between the worlds with the helpful intercession of the ancestors and other sympathetic spirits. After a bobbed-for apple was caught in one's teeth, it was peeled in one long unbroken paring, then tossed without looking over the left shoulder. It would fall to the ground in the shape of the initial of one's true love. Apples and nuts were placed side by side in the fire representing two lovers. If they melted together and fused, it was a good sign for a happy marriage. If they popped and sparked and flew apart, it didn't auger very well for wedded bliss.
During Samhain, people outfitted themselves in masks and costumes as a sort of protection ritual, believing that one could successfully hide behind such a disguise and thereby escape bedevilment. In addition, as in the original masquerade of the Isia, their special apparel was intended to imitate and propitiate the deities. Perhaps even fool them through flattery.
The potato famine of 1846 sent a million Irish immigrants to the United States. They brought with them their ancient Celtic customs, among them the feast of Samhain, which, as good Catholics, they now called Hallowe'en. This shadow festival of soul survival struck a responsive chord in the American people who instantly adopted it. To this day, Halloween is celebrated in some fashion by practically every person in North America. And the symbols -- the ghosts, masks, fires and food -- are the same as they were thousands of years ago in Egypt. It's quite extraordinary, really, the enduring strength of these symbols.
The ghosts are still here and so are the goblins and gremlins, the skeletons along with the witches and their cats, and the fairies, fierce beasts, and masked super heroes. (Hero, incidentally, was a synonym for "ghost" in ancient Greece -- one who was dedicated to Hera, the Goddess Queen of Souls). The fires are now contained in pumpkins, bigger than turnips, but inviting as ever. And the food is all the same, too. The apples and nuts, once sacred to Pomona, the Roman Goddess of Fall Bounty, are still bobbed for and dunked for, roasted and candied. And sweet treats are extorted by threats of tricks and mischief, as once they were begged from guests from the grave.
The Spaniards, French and Portuguese who landed in the Western Hemisphere brought with them a Latin version of All Soul's Day. Their customs merged with those of the Indians, who, too, observed a fall Feast of the Dead. The Laguna Pueblo people visited the cemeteries to upkeep the grave sites and to serve ritual feasts to the departed ones. It was also the practice of the Aztecs to attend to the graves of ancestors at Mid Fall. These were weeded and swept, markers scrubbed and painted. Most important of all, fresh flowers, sacred chrysanthemums, were presented in profusion to the dead -- white for children and yellow for adults. It was also appropriate to offer chrysanthemums as the flower of the dead among the Creoles of New Orleans and throughout the Orient.
The amalgamation of these two traditions is Dia de los Muertos. On the Day of the Dead, modern Mexicans, like their Aztec ancestors before them, gather to clean and decorate the cemeteries. They clean the atmosphere by lighting candles and copal on the gravestones. A picnic feast is then shared among the living and dead, recognizing no difference between them. Those who are dead were once living, and those who are now alive will one day die. On the Haitian mid fall festival of death, the Guédé Mystères, the dead rise up from their graves, mount their spirit "horses," and enjoy life as an incarnated soul.
There is demonstrated on Dia de los Muertos a most primal and personal identification with death, a palpable intimacy. People paint their faces as skeletons and go about their daily business. Special toys, dolls, and tableaus are sold depicting skeleton bus drivers, skeleton baseball players, skeleton nuns, skeleton ballerinas, skeleton cops and banditos, skeleton dentists and patients, skeleton brides and grooms, skeleton dogs and cats. Everybody has a skeleton.
This fact of life is sweetened with skeleton cookies and candies shaped like skulls, coffins, and gravestones. Calaveras, meaning "skulls" and "corpse" is the name of greeting cards with teasing poems and cartoons, like funny valentines, which are sent to friends, public figures, and even policemen and priests. These make fun of character flaws, foibles, and faulty political positions -- all of which are ultimately, pitifully inconsequential, you see, because everyone is, after all, a calavera and dead already. This line of reasoning does tend to lend a certain perspective to things! Makes a person think.
Unfortunately, we Americans rarely -- if ever
-- think about death if we can possibly help it. We like to watch it on
a big screen well enough, but in real life, we just don't do death. Perhaps
we should. Perspective is precious. The greatest gift of the shadow of
death is the challenge to really live life --with full consciousness.