‘To be the keepers of the creative fires, and to have intimate knowing about the Life/Death/Life cycles of all nature – that is an initiated woman.’
-Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run with the Wolves
The fall deepens and the sky darkens earlier and earlier. The temperature drops. But the leaves blanket the ground in warm colors, bright oranges and yellows, that direct our eyes to the earth and our minds inward. I am writing this at the New Moon in Scorpio, which instructs us to take stock of our ‘harvest’ of physical and emotional resources; to let die and fall away the old conditions, habits, patterns of thinking that are no longer serving our most fundamental, instinctual needs; and to remember those who have passed beyond the mortal realm, and find ways of communing with them, in the knowledge that someday our mortal selves too will re-join the earth.
This year, I felt a strong desire to meet others in ceremony and in contemplation of the theme of transformation, cyclical change, and in particular the balance and the tension between remembrance and letting go that nature models for us so well at this time.
In the past week I attended a Samhain Women’s Ceremony, hosted by the lovely Elise of Scarlett-Moon and Amanda of Goddess Liberation, and I went to the All Souls’ Requiem service at the chapel of my beloved Merton College in Oxford. Yes, this is spiritual eclecticism at its finest, but what made an enormous impact on me were the commonalities between these two experiences:
- the central importance of devotional songs/chants,
- the use of movement through communal procession/dance
- invocation of ancestors by name
- the collective intention to find spiritual comfort during times of darkness, to surrender fears, resentments, and grievances to a force greater than ourselves that can guide us in living soulfully – in short, God(dess).
Below are some notes on my experiences of the Women’s Ceremony, as it relates more closely to my current work on women in Greek myth. But fundamentally, I found that these events both carried a powerful alignment with and a moving interpretation of the lessons Nature makes available to us now.
The Samhain Women’s Ceremony
This took place on the night of Samhain, October 31st, which, as Elise and Amanda explained, in the Celtic tradition signifies the end of the harvest, the beginning of the New Year, and an opportunity to commune with the ancestors.
Around 12 of us gathered outside a cabin in a community garden. We had tea and seriously delicious chocolate cookies, and talked among ourselves for awhile before we were invited inside for the ceremony.
The cabin was cozy, with a wood stove, and lit by candlelight. We removed our shoes and sat on cushions in a circle around an altar, where we placed photographs of departed loved ones.
My photograph was not of a person, but my mother’s loom. At the end of next week, at the Being Human Festival in London I will be performing a prose piece I wrote on my mother’s memories of this loom, beginning when she was 28 and ending almost 10 years ago, when my family lost our house in a wildfire. This loom, its loss, and the implications of this for my relationship with my mother (as she taught me weaving on the loom when I was young) have been on my mind lately.
So, when we lit candles and said the names of those whose photographs stood at the altar, I invoked all the women weavers who ever learned and taught the craft, who have ever woven life lessons, pains, loves, and secrets into the weft.
We then turned away from the circle and Amanda led us in ‘calling out’ the ancestors, by making any sound. We sounded the call several times, and in each instance our voices found harmony, as if we had rehearsed it. My entire body was shivering with goosebumps. It was perceptible, the shared intention we brought to the space, which expressed itself not in unison, but in a harmonious diversity of tones, voices, experiences, feelings.
Next, we sang two chants, the second of which we performed while processing in a circle around the altar. Both emphasize the life cycle, and the inevitable return to the earth, the source of our origin as individual manifestations of the feminine:
‘Girlseed, Bloodflower, Fruitmother, Spinmother, Midwoman, Earthcrone, Stonecrone, Bone’ (text by Carolyn Hillyer)
‘We all come from the goddess / And to her we shall return / Like a drop of rain / Flowing to the ocean’ (text by Moving Breath)
I found that the melodies of these chants had a somber strength in them – there was neither sentimentality, nor coldness. Rather, a matter-of-fact statement: these are the stages of womanhood; death is waiting for us all. I experienced neither comfort nor fear, but an entrancing realism, and an awe of the impartiality of Mother Nature. Her lack of discrimination. Her lack of attachment. Her consistency. The comfort came from joining with the other women in the circle in this recognition.
And then we danced.
We danced intuitively, with Elise and Amanda guiding us to contemplate a connection with the earth, to dance for those who cannot dance anymore. We danced and celebrated our embodied existence and dedicated this to the departed.
And lastly, we sat back onto our cushions. Elise led us in meditation on our breath, on the physical contact between our bodies and the ground, on the smell of wood, dirt from the garden, the smell of the ‘composting leaves’, a fate which our bodies will someday share.
At the end of the meditation we were asked to contemplate our limited mortality: what would we do if we had 6 months? 1 month? 2 weeks left?
These questions confronted me with an uncomfortable exposure of the things I value fundamentally, some of which I tend to fear and judge and deny myself for reasons of ego and security. But as Nature reminds us at this time of year, these trappings of self and stability are not reliably consistent. They can fall away, and yield new, exciting changes. They can restore life. Once we get over that old fear of the unknown, of loss. Once we get out of our own way.
We shared the results of our meditation in a final talking circle. I felt an incredible sense of safety and acceptance, of affirmation – for there is power in things spoken. It was inspiring to hear the wisdom others had received in that moment. I felt very honored.
My research has recently taken me to readings of myth and ritual. Lillian E. Doherty in Chapter Four of her book, Gender and the Interpretation of Classical Myth (2001) mentions contemporary ‘Goddess’ rituals (like the Samhain Women’s Ceremony) drawing from pre-Christian, matrilineal cultic origins as belonging to the ‘feminist spirituality movement’. This movement is defined in part by celebration of the ‘Goddess’ as the primordial manifestation of female ‘essentialism’ – or the qualities that make up womanhood in all its guises, qualities that all who identify as women have access to.
This idea of female ‘essentialism’ is problematic for some feminist thinkers who see it as diminishing, or complicit in repressive patriarchal discourse. But for me, this ceremony helped relieve some of my own concerns about ‘essentialism’. The experience helped me feel deeply connected to women I had never met before on the level of an enduring, instinctive ‘it is known’ among those who identify as women.
The ceremony made me appreciate the wisdom, the stories, the codes of speech that women have passed down, learned from each other, initiated each other into through an immeasurable range of experiences that encompass the ‘feminine’, a range that is joyfully expanding as time passes. It made me think of the importance of inter-generational connection, of connection to nature.
So, what did I learn?
- Dance for those who cannot dance anymore.
- Sing out and listen for the harmonies that resonate joy in strength and comfort in woundedness.
- Touch the earth, which one day will enfold us and call us to create new life. Thank it for sustaining us in this life.
And the difficult knowledge I took from that meditation? I brought it with me to the All Souls’ Requiem service at Merton and poured it out, as the truly fabulous choir and orchestra gave voice to my feelings and helped me find comfort and compassion, especially when it came to transcending my own anxieties and sending love to those in the congregation who had lost close family and friends, whose names the Chaplain read out.
Both experiences left me astounded by the way we mortals can create such beauty, as unadorned as a chant to the Goddess or as elaborate and emotionally incisive as Mozart’s Requiem, in order to know God and Nature through cycles of Life-Death-Rebirth.