Even as a kid I always knew there was more to Halloween than costumes and candy. Halloween was my favorite holiday, as it seems to be for my children now. As much as I loved it however, I knew there was something we were leaving out. I could smell it in the air and feel it in the tingle of my spine. Not until my mid-thirties did I discover what was missing. It was the part the early Christians edited out, the part that really scared them, more than any witch or werewolf tale could scare a child today. It was the maternal pagan version of the afterlife that terrified them, and so this version was contorted, demonized, and ultimately replaced with the secular and (literally) sugar coated capitalist orgy it is today.
Earlier tonight, after the trick-or-treating and the sorting of the candy, and the shedding of the ninja and Grim Reaper costumes, I read a bedtime story to my boys. It was called “A Journey to the Shining Isle” by Starhawk. It’s an amazingly gentle story written for children that helps explain the origins of Halloween, or Samhain (SAH-win) as it once was known. The full story can be found in Circle Round, Raising Children in Goddess Traditions, by Starhawk, Baker, and Hill.
This is my favorite passage:
You step up onto the shore of a magic land that looks different to every person who comes here.You see the most beautiful place you can imagine, and just the sort of place you like best, whether it’s a valley or mountains, or a beautiful garden or a beach or a warm house. Someone is there to greet you, an ancestor, someone who loves you very much. Who is it? Is it someone you know and miss and remember, or someone you have never met before? Or is it someone you have met in a dream?
You play for a long time, and at last, when you get hungry and thirsty and tired, an old, old woman appears. She is so old her face is covered with wrinkles, but her eyes are so bright they glow like two big moons. At her feet is a big, round iron pot – a cauldron – and she is stirring something in it with a big wooden spoon, around and around and around.
You go close to the cauldron and look inside. At first it seems dark, but then you notice thousands of tiny, glowing lights, like little stars. Around and around and around they swirl, until you get a little dizzy from watching them.
“Those are the souls of the dead,” the old woman says. “And they are also the souls of the unborn. In my cauldron, I brew them back into life. Would you like to taste my brew?”
She holds out her spoon and puts one drop of her brew on your tongue. It tastes like the best thing in the world you can imagine. Just one drop is enough to leave you perfectly satisfied. You look into her eyes again and realize she is the Goddess.
“Remember this taste,” she tells you, “whenever you are afraid or have to do something hard. It will give you strength and courage. But now it is time to go.”
Sadly you say goodbye to the Goddess, to your ancestor, to everyone you have met here on The Shining Isle. You walk slowly back to the shore. A whole year will pass before you can visit here again, but you will remember your ancestor, and maybe in your dreams you will meet again . . .
Today when I smelled the air and felt that familiar tingle, I knew it was the essence of the afterlife, wafting through the gossamer veil that separates that world from our own. I know that tomorrow that veil will be a little less porous, but that one day it will disappear entirely for me, as it eventually does for everyone. When it does, somewhere on that Shining Isle, I’ll find my own grandmothers again, sewing quilts and laughing as they sip their dandelion wine, and stirring their own cauldrons in a stone cabin nestled in the mystical mountains of my childhood.