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Dancing with the Ancestors at Samhain

I park my car, pick up my jack o'lantern and start the steep climb up the asphalt road in the darkness. As instructed, I bring no source of light other than a chemical glow stick within the carved pumpkin. I've been warned that the fire danger is too extreme for any candles or lanterns with an open flame.

I look around to see who else is coming and realize that I am alone: no other cars, no other footsteps, and no other lit pumpkins bobbing along the road.

Maybe I'm on the wrong road, but I thought I listened carefully to the instructions. So I continue my climb, pausing occasionally to set down the pumpkin and catch my breath.

Finally I reach a wide spot in the road that seems to be a gathering space. I see a few figures in dark cloaks and pointed hats standing silently. Finally someone gestures for me to enter what looks like a cave. I can tell from the echo of my footsteps that it's a long tunnel.

I know I've reached the end when a fresh breeze washes past my face and a robed challenger steps out of the underbrush, barring my way with a thick staff. "Why are you here?" the challenger asks. I give the only reply I can think of, "To dance with the ancestors."

The challenger drops the barrier and I walk a path across a glade to enter a second tunnel. From the other end I hear voices singing what sounds like an ancient dirge in many-part harmony. The only words I can make out are, "Let earth receive thy soul."

I never see who is singing. I step out of the second tunnel and am met by someone who sprinkles me with salt water and points to the next stop. There I am surrounded with fragrant sage smoke, and the censer points the next step on the trail.

The trail follows a high ridge. On one side I can see a large blank space that I know is the Pacific Ocean below. On the other, the ridge rises higher. Finally I take a right turn and begin the hard work of climbing to the very top of the ridge.

When I reach the top, I see robed and hooded figures seated in a silent circle on the ground. In front of each figure is a jack o'lantern, like mine lit only with a glow stick. I find a place and sit, waiting. Occasionally I look up at the stars and at the silhouettes of the treetops against the sky.

What is remembered lives.

Finally all have arrived. The priestess casts the circle and the four directions are invoked. Then we take hands and begin to move around the circle slowly, step by step. In the center, the priestess reads the list of the names of the Beloved Dead. As each name is read, we chant, "What is remembered lives." The list goes on and on, with names of famous people I recognize and others listed simply as "Grandma," or "Aunt Betty." Periodically a hooded figure stationed outside the circle taps me lightly on the shoulder as a sign that I can pronounce a name of one of my own beloved dead. I offer the name of my dead child, my dear grandmother, and a close friend who lost her life to breast cancer.

When we finish the names, the priestess invites me into the center of the circle. The spiral dance is about to begin, and she knows that my aged crone knees are no longer up to the dance. But it's important to her and to the community that all are included.

She helps me get comfortable sitting on the ground. I hunker down and listen as the chanting begins:

On the same wheel we spin
Into life and out again.
One is many, many one
Brewing in Her cauldron.

I look toward the west and see Orion's belt point to a spot directly over my head. I look up and there I see the Pleiades. And then I notice that I cannot recognize any of the dancers as they circle and pass in front of me. In fact, I can no longer tell where the dancers leave off and the ancestors begin. All I know for sure is that they are here and they are dancing with us.

Finally the dance ends in a tight knot with everyone raising arms to the sky and toning a large "Ohm." Then we blow kisses to the ancestors, release the directions, devoke the circle, and share apple juice and gingersnaps. That's how I've spent every Samhain for the last five years. Now I am no longer a newcomer, so I help make the magic happen for the first-timers. I've sung in the tunnel, but for the last two years I've had the privilege of standing in the center, reading the names of the Beloved Dead.

This is the simplest ritual I've ever done and, it seems to me, the most holy. There are no distractions, nothing to get in the way of the thinning of the veil and the encounter with the ancestors. And every year I realize again that some time in the future I will be dancing on the outside of the circle, listening to hear my own name read and my sisters responding, "What is remembered lives."

This ritual, more than anything else in my life, has helped me conquer my fear of death. It's brought me peace and acceptance around the loss of my loved ones. And it's absolutely confirmed the rightness of the path I follow, dancing with the Goddess wherever She invites me.

Graphics Credits

  • mystic courtesy of Monika Leszczyn'ska
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