October is upon us and autumn can finally be felt in the air. Samhain quickly approaches to bring another year to end. Many pagans, witches, and Wiccans recognize this Sabbat as the end and beginning of the year. But I would like to offer a different point of view, Spiritual Retrograde.
We can all agree the Wheel of the Year is a circle and we live within the cycle of that circle “with no beginning and never ending” as the enchanting Circle Within a Circle song reminds us. If this is true, how are we celebrating this old Sabbat as an ending or beginning? How is this “New Years”? Did our ancestors celebrate Samhain with this intent?
Sir James George Frazer, the Scottish anthropologist often considered one of the founding fathers of modern anthropology, popularized Sir John Rhys’ theory that Samhain was the “Celtic New Year,” but did acknowledge that the evidence for such is inconclusive. Ronald Hutton, the English historian, says the evidence is flimsy. The evidence consists of Rhys’ inference from contemporary (modern) folklore containing customs with what he felt were “associated with new beginnings.” He also found that the people of the Isle of Mann sometimes called October 31, “New Year’s Night.” Other evidence includes calendars that place Samhain at the beginning like that of the Gaulish Coligny calendar. However, these calendars are lunisolar and contain a great deal of Roman influence. They are attempts to synchronize the solar year with lunar months. I have found little evidence in my research to suggest that the ancient Celts followed this type of calendar prior to Roman influence.
We do know the Celts began each day at dusk rather than sunrise, thus the dark preceded the light. Some debate remains about this suggesting the commencement of each day began at midnight or when the moon was high. We also know the Celts celebrated four festivals; Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasadh -- none these being solar in nature despite being labeled “fire festivals.” It is suggested the Celts celebrated the solstices and equinoxes but little evidence supports this. Because the Celts were mainly a pastoral people and not agriculturally focused, it is my belief they did not celebrate the solar holidays as a people. Rather, farmers recognized these holy days that held little significance to the nobles that held festivals.
I conjecture the ancient Celts celebrated Samhain as a festival to honor the dead; to cleanse, bless, and sacrifice livestock for the survival of the people through winter; to gather the tribes for trade and politics before winter, and to honor the turning of the spiritual cycle inwards, Spiritual Retrograde.
People would return home for the long dark winter after ensuring they had everything they needed to survive the cold months. During this time they had little to no contact with the community or teachers until Imbolc or perhaps even Beltane. Their spirituality would thus spiral inward, or in retrograde to the forward motion of perceived physical time. It is this retrograde motion that magically causes the veil between this world and the world of the Otherworld to thin so as to allow for easier communion with deities, fairies, and those who have passed on from this world ensuring that people still grow and learn despite their separation from community.
Modern times provide many of us the luxury of not becoming separated from our community but we still need and desire the easy communication with our deceased loved ones. We have also incorporated the solar holidays into our neo-pagan practices. Me being a neo-pagan, neo-Celtic Wiccan and the engineer of my own spiritual traditions and beliefs, I set the parameters of my belief.
For me, Samhain marks the point of the year our spirits spiral in retrograde to the universal cycle of the Wheel of the Year causing the veil to become thin. The thinnest point of the veil is on Samhain night or the night of the dark moon closest to this day, this year falling on November 3. Our spirits remain in retrograde and the veil thin until Winter Solstice, or Yule, when the Sun is reborn. During this time of the year, the God rules from the Otherworld with the Goddess by his side, both in their dark aspects. Because the God and Goddess have designed our spirits to spiral in retrograde creating a thinned veil, we can more easily communicate with them and feel their love through the darkness of the Otherworld and the darkness of winter. This is why as pagans we embrace the darkness and do not fear it; for we know love exists even without light. The spiritual retrograde is also why, in my belief, many pagans feel it appropriate during this time of year to cast their circles in widdershins.
This is how I have come to understand the turning of the Wheel and the integration of what I know of the ancient Celts and the modern practices of Wicca. I assert that although the label of the “Witch’s New Year” makes the holiday appear more festive and less scary in the eyes of non-pagans, Samhain is not New Year’s. The Wheel is a circle, no beginning, never ending.
Kevin Red Patrick
Kevin Red Patrick is a seeker at Temple of the Sacred Gift – ATC. Raised in Memphis, TN, and educated at the University of Mississippi. His pagan path began at the age of thirteen after understanding that his views of life, spirituality, and sexuality did not align with his Christian upbringing. He has followed an eclectic Wiccan path with strong Celtic influences for twenty-two years. Divine direction led him to TSG-ATC in December of 2012, where he is now receiving formal training with aspirations of becoming clergy. He now lives in Southaven, MS with his partner of thirteen years and two dogs.