FESTIVALS OF DARKNESS

At this time of year, as the days get darker and the nights get longer, it’s easy to be cat and candlemore aware of the mysterious side of life. Fear of the unknown is an important part of Halloween, Samhain and even Guy Fawkes Night. The ancient purpose of these rituals has always been to keep us safe from the dangers of the coming darkness.     

The word Halloween comes from the Christian festival of All Hallows Eve. However, this seasonal ritual began centuries before Christianity. Originally called Samhain (pronounced Sow’en), it marked the turning point between the end of summer and the start of winter.

Even with a good harvest stored away, people feared the deadly powers of winter on the way. So this was a time to make offerings of thanks to the sun god Baal – both for the bounty of the past summer, and for continued protection through the winter.

cauldron candlesPeople said this turning point of the year caused the veil between the worlds to become thin, bringing a time of danger, excitement and wonder. Charms and spells would be especially powerful at Samhain. Evil spirits could also come through, seeking humans to possess or destroy. Druid priests performed special rituals at this time to appease the spirits of the dead.

For additional protection, on the eve of Samhain the private home fires were put out. This made the houses look empty, so that malignant forces would pass them by. Instead, the people built a huge communal fire outside. They then feasted and danced around it, wearing fearsome masks and animal disguises of skins, horns and antlers to drive away the horrors of the dark.

The custom of trick or treat also has prehistoric roots. It began with people putting fall witchy lanefood in front of their houses to placate the demons then roaming the land looking for sustenance –preferably in human form. People later began to act out that drama themselves. They masqueraded as demons, going from house to house demanding offerings, with threats of retribution if unsatisfied – a bit like an early protection racket. The masked children who knock on doors at Halloween are performing the same ritual, still fresh from the wild side of the human psyche.

Much like our modern electoral system, in ancient times the tribe chose a leader to reign for just one year. During this year, their temporary king had every luxury available. Then they sacrificed him and chose a replacement.  

samhain-ritualThe sacrifice of the old year’s king was a central purpose of the Samhain fire. It was called the bone fire because when it was over, the shaman read the dead king’s bones in the ashes for good or bad omens. With one letter dropped, it’s now our merry bonfire. The annual burning of a man’s effigy on Guy Fawkes Night is a direct echo of this arcane ritual.     

Our early winter festivals are like a gnarled old tree. While their roots still go down to these ancient terrors, the festivals these days are more about fun than fear. It feels good to thrill to the mysteries of life when we feel perfectly safe. Or are we? Maybe the veils between the worlds really are thinner at this time of year. Wishing everyone a joyfully spooky Halloween, Samhain, and bonfire night!

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THE LAST WITCH

cat and candleThe last British person ever imprisoned for witchcraft wasn’t even a witch. She was Helen Duncan, a spiritualist medium. Her mission was to pass on messages from departed loved ones to their families. This was a great comfort to people, especially during the Second World War, when her psychic stage presentations were hugely popular.

At one of these events in 1941, Helen received a message from a sailor. He said he’d died on the HMS Barham when a German U boat sunk it. He just wanted his family to know that he was alive and well in the spirit world.

However, the sinking of the Barham was meant to be top secret. The government wanted to hide that information from the enemy, and not create despondency at home. They were also secretly planning the D Day landings in Normandy. If one word about that got out, it could have been disastrous. Fearing what other secrets Helen Duncan might let out, they arrested her for spying.

When that charge didn’t stick, they dusted off the Witchcraft Act of 1735. This made it illegal to claim magical powers, or to accuse anyone of being a witch. At the time, it was an enlightened step forward from the old days of witch hunting.

Under this law, they sentenced Helen Duncan to nine months in Holloway Prison. Helen Duncan 1This outraged many, including some top legal people. Chief among her allies was Winston Churchill, who called her imprisonment ‘obsolete tomfoolery’.

Churchill was no stranger to the mystical side of life. He was a lifetime member of churchill ecapingthe Grand Order of Druids. As a British soldier in the Boer War he was captured, but subsequently escaped. While on the run, he said ‘some form of mental planchette’ guided him to the only house that would help him.

In the Second World War, he conferred with the Glastonbury mystic Wellesley Tudor Pole to come up with the idea of the Silent Minute. For the rest of the war, for one minute at 9.00 pm every night, the country went silent and focused on peace. One German general called this Britain’s secret weapon.

In prison, Helen’s cell door was never locked. She gave free readings for a constant stream of inmates and warders alike. Sources close to her said Churchill himself visited her, with a promise to make amends for this injustice.

As Home Secretary in 1951, Churchill’s only major legislation was to abolish the 1735 Witchcraft Act. It became the softer Fraudulent Mediums Act, which ruled that making money from magic was illegal except as entertainment.

greenmanThis opened the door to significant developments that have shaped the world we now live in. In 1954, the Spiritualist Church was recognised as a religion. In the same year, Gerald Gardner published his best-selling book ‘Witchcraft Today’, refuting the stereotype of witches as evil old hags on broomsticks. He said Wicca was primarily a peaceful way of honouring nature through seasonal rituals. Many people liked the sound of this, and Gardnerian witchcraft spread rapidly.

In 2000, Paganism was recognised as an official religion. Paganism honours the spirituality of nature, and is a broad umbrella that includes many sub-groups such as Wicca, Shamanism and Druidry. A 2011 census revealed that Paganism is now the fastest growing religion in Britain. Many other therapies, philosophies and practices that we now take for granted could also never have emerged under the old witchcraft law.

Controversy still hangs around Helen Duncan, like the old-fashioned ectoplasm she was said to produce. Whether that was real or not, her message about the sinking of the Barham was factual enough to rattle the establishment. Perhaps her most powerful magic was the higher purpose of the drama she went through. Without that, we might have been living in a very different world today.

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