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The heART of Ritual


Samhain and the Seed

I recently finished Andrew Micheal Hurley’s excellent folklore novel, Starve Acre. Without spoilers, the protagonist discovers the bones of a dead hare and digs them up. After he brings them home to examine them he begins to notice that they seem to be re-attaching themselves and re-growing muscles, sinews and fur. I won't say too much more about the actual novel but I thought it was interesting when compared to other folklore accounts of the dead coming back to life, or at least re-entering the mortal world, particularly at this time of the year.

I have already written about the saying 'thinning of the veil' and how some people think it's a bad phrase, and an inaccurate description of how we move from the human world to the Otherworld, and vice-versa.

I don't mind it myself, and although we cannot be sure about many things regarding the original cross-quarter observations and rituals thousands of years ago, if you have trust in the longevity of oral tradition, the concept of thinness or liminality is not unfair.

For the characters in the novel something placed in the earth somehow receives the ability to return to life and this, too, is very much an idea associated with Samhain, of course, but also of all of life in general. What sometimes separates fairy folklore and that of superstition from the cycle of nature and regeneration is the belief that the same thing returns from the Otherworld as opposed to something new. And, many times, there is a dark reason for this. Sometimes it is to avenge a wrong-doing. Other times it is a curse that must be fulfilled. And, at other times, especially with fairy changelings and kidnappings, there are reasons that we do not understand and cannot explain.

In this Irish ghost story a man discovers a horse on his land. He abuses the horse and works it to exhaustion and boasts about how much he can make the horse do. Returning to the field after his dinner the man notices that the horse has gone. When he goes home he finds all of his family dead and an old man standing in the room. The old man is actually the horse who had been buried in the field and had returned to life in the form of an animal. The ‘horse man’ killed the mans family in revenge for having been beaten and worked so hard and then kills his abuser.

There are some fascinating themes and subtexts to this tale, not least the idea that the horse-man came from the earth or the underworld and could shape-change. In Irish lore, of course, many view beneath the earth as the realm of the good folk, both literally and symbolically.

At Samhain we often think of the earth as barren and empty. Life and nature struggle to eek out an existence with food being scarce and many animals hidden away in burrows and caves. But this is the essence of the secret of this time of the year: death and starvation may represent the surface, but beneath the earth new life is already starting to grow. When later peoples came to Ireland and seem to have associated this dark time with the Otherworld and ancestors they also acknowledged the ending of one cycle and the beginning of another. Because we are so used to the Gregorian calendar we often forget this, but it is worth remembering, particularly as nights get shorter and we have the opportunity to allow deeper thoughts and plans to find root. (C.) David Halpin.


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