Monday, October 31, 2005

Pridie Kalendas November

Modern Date : October 31st

Pridie Kalendas November
Day Before the Kalends of November

This is one of the dies comitiales when committees of citizens could vote on political or criminal matters.

This day continues the Isia, the Festival of Isis. Isis was the Egyptian mother goddess and was widely worshipped in the Roman empire. Although a foreign deity, Isis was honored with a temple at Rome. Professional singers, musicians, and dancers, mostly female, would perform at the temple during this festival. The performance involved actors playing the parts of Isis and Nephthys in the mystery plays celebrating the death and resurrection of Osiris. These were perhaps the oldest mystery plays on earth, predating even those of Mesopotamia.

October was the eighth month of the old Roman calendar and was sacred to the goddess Astraea, daughter of Zeus and Themis. The name October comes from Octo, meaning eight (March used to be the first month).

Samhain, Halloween
Among Celtic peoples, October 31st is Oidhche Shamhna, Samhain Eve, November Eve, the First of the Three Days of Samhain, Oidhche Alamaise, or All-Hallow Eve. Samhain, "summer's end" or "one together" is a great fire festival held in honor of the goddess Samhain and in remembrance of the dead. It was also the final harvest of the year when old and surplus livestock was slaughtered and preserved. Some of this meat was eaten at the feast along with the New Year's beer or wine.

People dressed in robes and masks to ward off evil spirits before leaving their homes. Irish "guisers" would go from farm to farm, guided by turnip Jack-o-lanterns, collecting tribute for Muck Olla, perhaps and an old god. Candles would be placed in windows to help guide lost spirits home.

On Samhain Eve, all the fairy hills open wide for the Fe-fiada (spell of invisibility) was removed. Bonfires were lit and church bells rang throughout the night. In Scotland and parts of Wales, families would build huge bonfires and each person would throw in a marked white stone. If any stone could not be found the next day, the thrower was doomed to die within the following year. Peeling an apple in a single strip and tossing it to the floor over your shoulder was said to reveal the initials of your future spouse. The tradition of bobbing for apples was originally divinatory. A young woman who capture one had to take it home and place it under her pillow in the hope that she would dream of her future husband. A Scottish tradition is that those born on All Hallows Eve would have the gift of second sight.

Marking the beginning of winter, this is also the Celtic New Year's Eve. The veil between worlds is very thin. Families left their doors unlocked and set out food and drink for ghostly family members who would visit that night. A Dumb Supper, a meal eaten in total silence, might be held to which the spirits of the dead were invited. In Breton, the dead roamed the Earth and the living should entertain them with music and prepare a feast of curds, hot pancakes, and cider set on the family table covered with a fresh white table-cloth. Libations of milk may be poured over the ancestral tombs just as in Ireland and Scotland, libations of milk are poured for the fairies. Soul Cakes may be given, treats to nourish wandering spirits which were handed out to English and Scottish children. This is the origin of our modern trick-or-treat custom.

Trick-or-treating derives from an ancient British custom of going from house to house begging for soul-cakes. Some say the soul-cakes were given to the priest to buy Masses for the souls of relatives in Purgatory. Others believe they were offerings to the dead. Candles flickering in the windows (or pumpkins) were meant to serve as beacons for the dead, just as on the similar holiday in Japan, lanterns are hung by the garden gates.

This is the last day of the Celtic year, on which it is said that the Sun actually enters the gates of Hell, creating an opening wide enough to allow malicious spirits to fly out and create mayhem on the Earth for the next 48 hours. The spirits of the dead are believed to return to their family homes on the night of 10/31, and the annual children's custom of dressing as ghosts and ghouls and going door to door for treats echoes the ancient practice of placing food and drink offerings near the door to placate wild and hungry spirits that are apt to roam and rumble on this night. The great Celtic rite of Samhain, on the following day, begins the New Year with the feast of the death goddess Cerridwen, whose power waxes now as the Holly King, symbol of the waning sun, grows decrepit with the approach of winter.

The Thin Veil
The Norse festival of the Thin Veil, so named for the belief that on this night, the opaque barrier separating the worlds of the living and the dead became transparent, allowing the two realms to see and interact with each other. This time also marks the annual death of Baldur and his beloved Nanna, the goddess of flowers, both of whom will be born again in the spring.

In the Egyptian calendar, festivals of the sun god Ra, the cat goddess Bast and the lion goddess Sekhmet are all celebrated on this day. The last of these, in her dire aspect as goddess of magic, the Lady of Fire and punitive destroyer of evil, is protector of women against rape and all sexual violence, as embodied in Egyptian myth by Set, Neter of chaos and destruction, who perpetrates the murder of king Osiris on this day. This feast is the ancient basis of links among Hallowe'en, medicine women and their feline familiars.

This last day of October is also a Goddess festival honoring the art of weaving. "Originally [Hallowe'en] was a celebration honoring our creator goddess. That is why the spider is one of the symbols of Halloween. The Hopis called their creator, Spider Woman."

Among the ancient Sumerian people, one of the world's first festivals of light descending into darkness is held now as Inanna, Goddess of Life, enters the underworld to spend the next six months with Ereshkigal, Lord of Death and Rebirth -- but on condition that she spend the other six in the green places with her summer lover Dumuzi.

The Month of Blood
There are some obvious reasons why this place on the Wheel of the Year is associated with death. The sun is approaching its nadir, the leaves are falling from trees, the death and decay in the natural world remind us of our own mortality. Martinmas, November 11th, was the traditional time for slaughtering the cattle, sheep and pigs which could not be maintained during the winter. The Welsh called November the month of Slaughter while the Saxons called it the Month of Blood.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus summons the shades of the dead by sacrificing animals. Their blood drains into a pit and the restless shades come eagerly crowing up from the underworld. Odysseus holds them at bay with his sword until the particular spirit he wants comes forward, laps up the blood and then prophesies what will happen in the future. This scene combines the themes of fear, slaughter, death, the Underworld, ghosts and divination which are common to Halloween.

The Days of the Dead
In Mexico, All Souls Day is called Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) and is a time of commemorating the dead by decorating their tombs (with marigolds, a flower sacred to the Aztecs) and inviting them to a feast in their honor. Families go to the cemetery for a picnic and eat skeleton cookies and sugar skull cakes.

On the second day of the Hindu festival of Diwali, it is customary for men to bathe before sunrise. This custom re-enacts the ritual cleansing of Lord Krishna, who had smeared his head with the blood of the filthy demon king, Narkasur, who stole the magnificent earrings of Adti, the Mother Goddess, and imprisoned sixteen thousand daughters of the gods and saints in his disgusting den.

In South India, people wake up before sunrise and prepare a substance that looks like blood by missing Kumkum in oil. After breaking a bitter fruit that represents the head of the demon King, they smear their foreheads like Krishna did, then take an oil bath using sandalwood paste.

In Maharashtra, people also bathe before sunrise with oil, flour and turmeric. Supposedly to encourage children to enjoy the bath, fireworks and crackers are set off during the bath and afterwards they are served steamed vermicelli with milk and sugar or puffed rice with curd.

Another story about this day tells how Lord Vishnu, wishing to humble King Bali of the nether world, pretended to be a small boy and asked King Bali for all the land he could cover in three steps. As soon as the wish was granted, Vishnu became his divine self and covered heaven with one step and earth with the next and pushed Bali back into the underworld with his third step. But as a thank you for Bali's generosity, Vishnu gave him the lamp of knowledge and allowed him to return to earth once a year to light millions of lamps to dispel darkness and ignorance and spread the radiance of love and wisdom.