There are witches among us.
Halloween approaches, signaling the time of year when dentists crack their knuckles with glee and Amazon overflows with sexy versions of otherwise reasonable costumes. But Samhain (pronounced sow-ain) is the original Halloween, a modern(ish) version of an ancient Gaelic end-of-harvest festival. Co-opted by the Catholic Church as “All Hallows’ Day” or “All Saints’ Day,” Samhain lands midway between the fall equinox and the winter solstice, celebrated on the evening of Oct. 31 and into Nov. 1.
Much of modern Halloween is about demons, monsters and cult serial killers, none of which have anything to do with the modern religion known as Wicca. But some of the obvious symbology is quite apt — those cobwebs, gravestones and skeletons on porches all suggest a celebration of the dead. In Mexico, Día De Los Muertos, on Nov. 1, is even more on-the-nose, and any kids running around with pointy hats and brooms are a cartoonish reminder that Halloween originated as a holiday held sacred by people who sometimes refer to themselves, unapologetically, as witches.
“Wicca is kind of a mix of western magic and neopaganism,” said Robert Anderson, who runs Edge of the Circle Books in the University District, the premier pagan supplies shop and bookstore in Seattle. Step in the door and you’ll see racks of ornate tarot decks, hoodoo candles — designed for everything from causing couples to break up to making your boss do your bidding — plus books on topics from alchemical magic to Zoroastrianism and everything in between. There are zero copies of Twilight.
“Wicca is a modern religion in a lot of ways,” Anderson said. “And it came about in the mid-20th century with a whole bunch of ideas whose time had come. Ideas about nature being sacred. Ideas about wanting to empower women. And they drew on a lot of ancient things, but they put them together in a whole new way. And they left out a lot of things from the ancient world that we would never be OK with.”
In a way, Wicca is a natural fit for Seattle. The nature-based practices that comprise traditional Wicca are based on Gaelic and Celtic pagan traditions, attached to a climate that’s substantively similar to that of the British Isles, so the calendar matches. (In fact, some Wiccans, in places like Australia in the Southern Hemisphere, celebrate Samhain in April and May.) For those who worship in traditions that honor the Celtic “eight-spoked wheel” of the seasons, traditional harvest rituals include the lighting of bonfires, divination and honoring those who have passed.
Some local Samhain celebrations are open to the public. Stephanie Raymond is the pastor of the Our Lady of the Earth and Sky (OLOTEAS) church, a nondenominational pagan center of worship that holds a Samhain ceremony every year.
“It’s absolutely open to anyone who wants to attend,” says Raymond. “We don’t try to tell people that there’s a particular way to believe or to do things. We welcome anyone who wants to see one of our rituals, we just ask that they be respectful in the space.” The OLOTEAS ritual, which Raymond says changes year-to-year, involves “casting a circle” — defining the sacred space — chanting, a fire and group dancing, in which participants hold hands and move in and out of a labyrinthine spiral pattern.
Samhain also signals the end of the harvest, and brings with it certain seasonal practices.
“After Samhain, we don’t take anything out of our garden,” says Raymond. “The harvest has to be done by then. Anything that’s left in the garden is for the spirits. It’s interesting, because if you leave things out in the fields, they compost and it improves soil fertility. A lot of these traditions have hooks that have to do with ecology.”
Wiccan priestess and author Bridget Engels heads her own all-women coven called the “Circle of Luna,” and she often performs private ceremonies that draw from traditions outside of those informing traditional Wicca.
“For example, we’re doing [a ritual] on Nov. 1 for the Aztec goddess Coyolxauhqui, who was brutally sacrificed by her brother, and her cut-up body was thrown up into the air and becomes the phases of the moon,” Engels explained. “Our ritual is very somber and quiet and trance-like, and we’ll be in very black outfits with long veils, going deep into trance.”
Samhain is also the time of year when, as Anderson, Raymond and Engels all put it, “the veil between this world and the next is thinnest.”
Leaves, crops and plants are turning brown, and this time of dying is the best chance to talk to the dead. Since the veil is so thin, many use Samhain as an opportunity to practice divination.
“Some people might do a tarot-card reading or crystal gazing, trying to get a sense of things coming up, a sense of where things might be going,” said Raymond. “Any messages that might be available from the ancestors.”
The OLOTEAS event will include a version of a common Wicca ritual called a “dumb supper” or “dumb feast,” which is essentially a dinner for the dead, often held among a coven or in the home. In its purest form, participants prepare food for the dead — food their loved ones enjoyed on this side of the veil — and everyone eats together, more or less in silence, leaving space and quiet for the dead to pipe up if they so choose, or to answer any questions attendants might be brave enough to ask. Sometimes this dinner is served backward, with cutlery pointing the wrong way and with courses being served in reverse order.
The practice of leaving food out for the dead sometimes takes the form of leaving food outside for the spirits … or, in more secular life, keeping candy in a plastic pumpkin by the front door. And if the spirits are anything like the kids in my neighborhood, they take all the mini peanut-butter cups first.
Edge of the Circle Books, 1307 NE 45th Ave, Seattle; 206-726-1999; 12-8 p.m. daily; edgeofthecirclebooks.com