Samhain Rituals and Ceremonies
Looking for a ceremony or ritual to celebrate the Pagan sabbat of Samhain? Here’s where you’ll find a number of rituals, all of which can be adapted either for solitaries or a group. Samhain Ancestor Meditation: It’s Samhain, and that means for many Pagans and Wiccans it’s time to commune with the ancestors. Use this simple meditation technique to call upon those who walked before us — you may be surprised at some of the people you meet! Celebrate the Cycle of Life and Death Samhain is known as the witch’s new year. It is a time to think about the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth. With this ritual, you can celebrate all three aspects either with a group or as a solitary.
A Time of Darkness
Samhain is known as the night when the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest. It’s a time to sit back and honor the spirit world, and call upon those ancestors who came before us. After all, if not for them, we wouldn’t be here. We owe them something, some gratitude for their ability to survive, their strength, their spirit. Many Wiccans and Pagans choose Samhain as a time to honor their ancestors. If this is something you’d like to do, you can celebrate with a ritual or by hosting a seance or dumb supper in their honor.
In addition to these more formal rituals, you may also want to take some time alone for a quiet meditation. This is a point in the Wheel of the Year when the spirit world is a bit closer than normal, and if you’ve never tried to contact your ancestors before, now is a good time to do it.
How to Honor the Ancestors at Samhain
For many modern Pagans and Wiccans, there has been a resurgence of interest in our family histories. We want to know where we came from and whose blood runs through our veins. Although ancestor worship has traditionally been found more in Africa and Asia, many Pagans with European heritage are beginning to feel the call of their ancestry. This rite can be performed either by itself, or on the third night of Samhain, following the End of Harvest celebration and the Honoring of the Animals.
- First, decorate your altar table — you may have already gotten it set up during the End of Harvest rite or for the Ritual for Animals. Decorate your altar with family photos and heirlooms. If you have a family tree chart, place that on there as well. Add postcards, flags, and other symbols of the country your ancestors came from. If you’re lucky enough to live near where your family members are buried, make a grave rubbing and add that as well. In this case, a cluttered altar is perfectly acceptable — after all, each of us is a blend of many different people and cultures.
- Have a meal standing by to eat with the ritual. Include lots of dark bread, apples, fall vegetables, and a jug of cider or wine. Set your dinner table, with a place for each family member, and one extra plate for the ancestors. You may want to bake some Soul Cakes.
If your family has household guardians, include statues or masks of them on your altar. Finally, if a relative has died this year, place a candle for them on the altar. Light candles for other relatives, and as you do so, say the person’s name aloud. It’s a good idea to use tealights for this, particularly if you have a lot of relatives to honor.
- Once all the candles have been lit, the entire family should circle the altar. The oldest adult present leads the ritual. Say:
This is the night when the gateway between
our world and the spirit world is thinnest.
Tonight is a night to call out those who came before us.
Tonight we honor our ancestors.
Spirits of our ancestors, we call to you,
and we welcome you to join us for this night.
We know you watch over us always,
protecting us and guiding us,
and tonight we thank you.
We invite you to join us and share our meal.
- The oldest family member then serves everyone else a helping of whatever dishes have been prepared, except for the wine or cider. A serving of each food goes on the ancestors’ plate before the other family members recieve it. During the meal, share stories of ancestors who are no longer among the living — this is the time to remember Grandpa’s war stories he told you as a child, tell about when Aunt Millie used salt instead of sugar in the cake, or reminisce about summers spent at the family homestead in the mountains.
- When everyone has finished eating, clear away all the dishes, except for the ancestors’ plate. Pour the cider or wine in a cup, and pass it around the circle (it should end at the ancestor’s place). As each person recieves the cup, they recite their genealogy, like so:
I am Susan, daughter of Joyce, the daughter of Malcolm, son of Jonathan…
and so forth. Feel free to add in place names if you like, but be sure to include at least one generation that is deceased. For younger family members, you may wish to have them only recite back to their grandparents, just because otherwise they can get confused.
- Go back as many generations as you can, or (in the case of people who have done a lot of genealogy research) as many as you can remember. You may be able to trace your family back to William the Conqueror, but that doesn’t mean you have it memorized. After each person recites their ancestry, they drink from the cider cup and pass it to the next person.
- A quick note here — many people are adopted. If you are one them, you are fortunate enough to be able to choose whether you wish to honor your adoptive family, your biological family, or a combination of the two. If you don’t know the names of your birth parents or their ancestry, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “Daughter of a family unknown.” It’s entirely up to you. The spirits of your ancestors know who you are, even if you don’t know them yet.
- After the cup has made its way around the table, place it in front of the ancestors’ plate. This time, a younger person in the family takes over, saying:
This is the cup of remembrance.
We remember all of you.
You are dead but never forgotten,
and you live on within us.
Take some time to meditate on the value of family, how fortunate we are to be able to know the connections of kin and clan, and the value of heritage. If your family has a tradition of music or folktales, share those as a way to wrap up the ritual. Otherwise, allow the candles to burn out on their own. Leave the plate and cup on the altar overnight.
- If you didn’t do a separate ritual for animals, you can add photos and candles for deceased pets to your family altar.
- If you like, you may wish to follow this ritual with a Seance.
What You Need:
- Items to represent your family members
- A meal to eat
- A cup of cider or wine to drink
A Feast with the Dead – Speaking to the Dead
Although traditionally a seance is a good way to communicate with those who have crossed into the spirit world, it’s also perfectly fine to talk to them at other times. You may find yourself walking into a room and suddenly reminded of someone you’ve lost, or catching a whiff of a familiar scent. For me personally, every February I find myself picking over birthday cards and thinking to myself how funny my grandfather would find this one or that one. I make a point of telling him about them, even though he died in 2002. You don’t need a fancy or formal ritual to speak to the dead. They hear you.
How Do We Know They’re Listening?
In some spiritual paths, one may be viewed as crazy — or at the very least, a little bit daffy — if they speak to the dead. But think of the people you know who have lost a spouse, particularly one they were married to for a long time. Many of them will tell you they talk to their deceased loved one. We can ask them for assistance, for companionship, or just for them to hear our words. Chances are good that if you ask, your life will change significantly.
What Can We Say to Them?
Ask anyone who’s lost a loved one, and there’s a good chance they have something they didn’t get to say. Whether it’s “I love you”, “I forgive you,” or just plain old, “I really miss you,” there’s nearly always something we wanted to say but never got around to. When you talk to the dead, share with them the things in your life that are important. Maybe you need to let Grandma know that you’re finally going to have that baby girl she’d been hoping for. Or perhaps you need to tell Cousin Joe you’re sorry you broke his iPod. Whatever it is, if it’s on your mind say it. Only then will you be able to move on.
An Altar to the Ancestors
In many cultures, ancestor worship is an ancient practice. Although traditionally found more in African and Asian societies, more and more Pagans of European heritage are beginning to embrace this idea. After all, we all want to know where we came from. You can build an altar to honor your ancestors, featuring photos, heirlooms, and even a family tree sheet. Leave it up all year long, or set it out at Samhain. This is a good time to perform a ritual for Honoring the Ancestors.
Why on Samhain?
Why hold a Dumb Supper on Samhain? Well, it’s traditionally known as the night when the veil between our world and the spirit world is at its most fragile. It’s the night when we know for sure the dead will hear us speak, and maybe even speak back. It’s a time of death and resurrection, of new beginnings and fond farewells.
Menus and Table Settings
Your menu choices are up to you, but because it’s Samhain, you may wish to make the traditional Soul Cakes, as well as serving dishes with apples, late fall vegetables, and game if available. Set the table with a black cloth, black plates and cutlery, black napkins. Use candles as your only source of light — black if you can get them. Realistically, not everyone has black dishware sitting around. In many traditions, it’s perfectly acceptable to use a combination of black and white, although black should be the predominant color.
When you’re hosting a Dumb Supper, clearly the point is that no one can speak — and that makes a host’s job very tricky. It means you have the responsibility of anticipating each guest’s needs without them communicating verbally. Depending on the size of your table, you may want to make sure each end has its own salt, pepper, butter, etc. Also, watch your guests to see if anyone needs a drink refill, an extra fork to replace the one they just dropped, or more napkins.
The Dumb Supper
In some Pagan and Wiccan traditions, it has become popular to hold a Dumb Supper in honor of the dead. In this case, the word “dumb” refers to being silent. The origins of this tradition have been fairly well debated — some claim it goes back to ancient cultures, others believe it’s a relatively new idea. Regardless, it’s one that’s observed by many people around the world.
When holding a Dumb Supper, there are a few simple guidelines to follow. First of all, make your dining area sacred, either by casting a circle, smudging, or some other method. Turn off phones and televisions, eliminating outside distractions. Secondly, remember that this is a solemn and silent occasion, not a carnival. It’s a time of silence, as the name reminds us. You may wish to leave younger children out of this ceremony. Ask each adult guest to bring a note to the dinner. The note’s contents will be kept private, and should contain what they wish to say to their deceased friends or relatives.
Set a place at the table for each guest, and reserve the head of the table for the place of the Spirits. Although it’s nice to have a place setting for each individual you wish to honor, sometimes it’s just not feasible. Instead, use a tealight candle at the Spirit setting to represent each of the deceased. Shroud the Spirit chair in black or white cloth. No one may speak from the time they enter the dining room. As each guest enters the room, they should take a moment to stop at the Spirit chair and offer a silent prayer to the dead. Once everyone is seated, join hands and take a moment to silently bless the meal. The host or hostess, who should be seated directly across from the Spirit chair, serves the meal to guests in order of age, from the oldest to youngest. No one should eat until all guests — including Spirit — are served.
When everyone has finished eating, each guest should get out the note to the dead that they brought. Go to the head of the table where Spirit sits, and find the candle for your deceased loved one. Focus on the note, and then burn it in the candle’s flame (you may wish to have a plate or small cauldron on hand to catch burning bits of paper) and then return to their seat. When everyone has had their turn, join hands once again and offer a silent prayer to the dead. Everyone leaves the room in silence. Stop at the Spirit chair on your way out the door, and say goodbye one more time.
Samhain Ancestor Meditation – Calling Upon the Ancient Ones
When performing an ancestor meditation, people experience different things. You may find yourself meeting a specific person that you are aware of in your family history — maybe you’ve heard the stories about great-uncle Joe who went out west after the Civil War, and now you have the privilege of chatting with him, or perhaps you’ll meet the grandmother who passed away when you were a child. Some people, however, meet their ancestors as archetypes. In other words, it may not be a specific individual you meet, but rather a symbol — instead of adventurous great-uncle Joe, it may be a non-specific Civil War soldier or frontiersman. Either way, understand that meeting these individuals is a gift. Pay attention to what they say and do — it may be that they’re trying to give you a message.
Setting the Mood
Before you perform this meditation, it’s not a bad idea to spend some time with the tangible, physical aspects of your family. Bring out the old photo albums, read through wild Aunt Tillie’s diary from the Great Depression, get out your grandfather’s old pocket watch that almost sank with the Titanic. These are the material things that connect us to our family. They link us, magically and spiritually. Spend time with them, absorbing their energies and thinking of the things they’ve seen, the places they’ve been.
You can perform this ritual anywhere, but if you can do it outside at night it’s even more powerful. Decorate your altar (or if you’re outside, use a flat stone or tree stump) with the symbols of your ancestors — the photos, journals, war medals, watches, jewelry, etc. No candles are necessary for this meditation, but if you’d like to light one, do so. You may also want to burn some Samhain spirit incense.
Claiming Your Birthright
Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Think about who you are, and what you are made of, and know that everything within you is the sum of all your ancestors. From thousands of years ago, generations of people have come together over the centuries to create the person you are now. Think about your own strengths — and weaknesses — and remember that they came from somewhere. This is a time to honor the ancestors who formed you.
Recite your genealogy — aloud if you like — as far back as you can go. As you say each name, describe the person and their life. An example might go something like this:
I am the daughter of James, who fought in Vietnam
and returned to tell the tale.
James was the son of Eldon and Maggie,
who met on the battlefields of France,
as she nursed him back to health.
Eldon was the son of Alice, who sailed
aboard Titanic and survived.
Alice was the daughter of Patrick and Molly,
who farmed the soil of Ireland, who
raised horses and tatted lace to feed the children… and so forth.
Go back as far as you like, elaborating in as much detail as you choose. Once you can go back no further, end with “those whose blood runs in me, whose names I do not yet know”. If you happened to meet a certain ancestor, or their archetype, during your meditation, take a moment to thank them for stopping by. Take note of any information they may have given you — even if it doesn’t make sense just now, it may later on when you give it some more thought. Think about all the people you come from, whose genes are part of you. Some were great people — some, not so much, but the point is, they all belong to you. They all have helped shape and create you. Appreciate them for what they were, with no expectations or apologies, and know that they are watching over you.
How To Celebrate the Cycle of Life and Death
Samhain is a time like no other, in that we can watch as the earth literally dies for the season. Leaves fall from the trees, the crops have gone brown, and the land once more becomes a desolate place. However, at Samhain, when we take the time to remember the dead, we can take time to contemplate this endless cycle of life, death, and eventual rebirth.
- For this ritual, you’ll want to decorate your altar with symbols of life and death. You’ll want to have on hand a white candle and a black one, as well as black, red, and white ribbon in equal lengths (one set for each participant). Finally, you’ll need a few sprigs of rosemary.
Perform this rite outside if at all possible. If you normally cast a circle, do so now.
Samhain is here, and it is a time of transitions.
The winter approaches, and the summer dies.
This is the time of the Dark Mother,
a time of death and of dying.
This is the night of our ancestors
and of the Ancient Ones.
Place the rosemary on the altar. If you are doing this as a group ceremony, pass it around the circle before placing on the altar. Say:
Rosemary is for remembrance,
and tonight we remember those who have
lived and died before us,
those who have crossed through the veil,
those who are no longer with us.
We will remember.
- Turn to the north, and say:
The north is a place of cold,
and the earth is silent and dark.
Spirits of the earth, we welcome you,
knowing you will envelope us in death.
Turn to face the east, and say:
The east is a land of new beginnings,
the place where breath begins.
Spirits of air, we call upon you,
knowing you will be with us as we depart life.
- Face south, saying:
The south is a land of sunlight and fire,
and your flames guide us through the cycles of life.
Spirits of fire, we welcome you,
knowing you will transform us in death.
Finally, turn to face the west, and say:
The west is a place of underground rivers,
and the sea is a never-ending, rolling tide.
Spirits of water, we welcome you,
knowing you will carry us
through the ebbs and flows of our life.
- Light the black candle, saying:
The Wheel of the Year turns once more,
and we cycle into darkness.
Next, light the white candle, and say:
At the end of that darkness comes light.
And when it arrives, we will celebrate once more.
- Each person takes a set of ribbons — one white, one black, and one red. Say:
White for life, black for death,
red for rebirth.
We bind these strands together
remembering those we have lost.
Each person should then braid or knot their three ribbons together. As you do so, focus on the memories of those you have lost in your life.
- While everyone is braiding or knotting, say:
Please join me in chanting as you work your energy and love into your cords:
As the corn will come from grain,
All that dies will rise again.
As the seeds grow from the earth,
We celebrate life, death and rebirth.
When everyone has finished braiding and chanting, take a moment to meditate on the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Is there someone you know who reminds you of a person you’ve lost? Have you ever looked into a baby’s eyes and seen your late grandfather looking back?
- Finally, ask everyone to take their knotted ribbons home with them and place them on their personal altar if they have one. That way, they can be reminded of their loved ones each time they pass by.
- Rosemary is used in this rite because although it seems to go dormant over the winter, if you keep it in a pot you’ll get new growth in the spring. If there’s another plant you’d rather use, feel free.
What You Need:
- Ribbon in black, red and white
- A white candle and a black one
Excerpts taken from Patti Wigington via About.com.
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