Avant-Gardenist 10:36am, 1 October 2009
For the month of October, what theme could be more fitting than Halloween? To keep the age-old magic, I suggest we conjure and concoct throughout the month, but wait until the evening of the 31st to trick-or-treat the group. Be as playful or as grave as you like. To help get you into the spirits, here's a bit of background on the holiday, which is very old indeed and, for some ancient souls, the most important celebration of the year.



The True, Lost Meaning of Halloween

By Christan Hummel
You're History!

Hallow’s Eve, Hallow E’en, Halloween, Day of the Dead, Samhain. By whatever name it has been called, this special night preceding All Hallows day (November 1st) has been considered for centuries as one of the most important thresholds of the year. A night of great magical power, when the veil that separates our world from the Otherworld is at its thinnest. As ubiquitous as Halloween celebrations now are throughout the world, few of us know that the true origin of Halloween is a ceremony of honoring our ancestors and the day of the dead. A time when the veil between the worlds is thinner, and so many can “see” the other side of life. A time in the year when the spiritual and material worlds touch for a moment, and a greater potential exists for magical creation.

Ancient rites

In ancient times, this day was a special and honored one. In the Celtic calendar it was one of the most important days of the year, representing a mid point, Samhain, or “summer’s end”.

Occuring opposite the great Spring Festival of May Day, or Beltain, this day represented the turning point, the eve of the new year which begins with the onset of the year's dark phase.

While celebrated by the Celts, the origin of this day has connections to other cultures as well, such as Egypt [with The Beautiful Feast of the Valley], and in Mexico as Dia de la Muerta, or the day of the dead.

Festival for the dead

As Christianity began to take hold in Europe, the ancient Pagan rituals were co-opted into festivals of the Church. While the Church could not support a general feast for all the dead, it created a festival for the blessed dead, all those hallowed, so All Hallow’s was transformed into All Saints and All Souls day.

Today, we have lost the significance of this most significant time, which consumerism has turned into a candy fest with kids dressing up as action heroes.

Many cultures have ceremonies to honor their dead. In so doing, they complete a cycle of birth and death, and keep in line with a harmony and order of the universe, at a time when we enter into the cycle of darkness for the upcoming year.

As you light your candles this year, keep in mind the true potency of this time, one of magical connections to the other side of life, and a time to remember those who have passed before us. A time to send our love and gratitude to them to light their way back home.




The True, Lost Meaning of Halloween

Grand Festivals in Ancient Egypt

The Witches' Sabbats: Samhain

Wikipedia: Samhain

Wikipedia: Celts

Wikipedia: Halloween

The myth of Samhain: "Celtic god of the dead"

The Origins of the Day of the Dead

The Days of the Dead

The Origins of Halloween

Fall Festivals of Death

Halloween Comes to Europe

European Alternatives to Halloween

November 2: the Day of the Dead

T'ant'a Wawas - Andean "Bread of the Dead"

Flickr groups for Dia de Los Muertos

Everyone's Uploads for Dia de Los Muertos

Obon Festival in Japan

Obon -- Living and Dying in Buddhism

Angela Barnett


Celtic: Samhain

By Mike Nichols
The Witches' Sabbats
Sly does it. Tiptoe catspaws. Slide and creep.
But why? What for? How? Who? When! Where did it all begin?
“You don’t know, do you?” asks Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud climbing out of the pile of leaves under the Halloween Tree. “You don’t really know!”
—Ray Bradbury, The Halloween Tree
Samhain. All Hallows. All Hallow’s Eve. Hallow E’en. Halloween. The most magical night of the year. Exactly opposite Beltane on the wheel of the year, Halloween is Beltane’s dark twin. A night of glowing jack-o’-lanterns, bobbing for apples, tricks or treats, and dressing in costume. A night of ghost stories and séances, tarot card readings and scrying with mirrors. A night of power, when the veil that separates our world from the Otherworld is at its thinnest. A “spirit night”, as they say in Wales.

All Hallow’s Eve is the eve of All Hallow’s Day (November 1). And for once, even popular tradition remembers that the eve is more important than the day itself, the traditional celebration focusing on October 31, beginning at sundown. And this seems only fitting for the great Celtic New Year’s festival. Not that the holiday was Celtic only. In fact, it is startling how many ancient and unconnected cultures (the Egyptians and pre-Spanish Mexicans, for example) celebrated this as a festival of the dead. But the majority of our modern traditions can be traced to the British Isles.

The Celts called it Samhain, which means “summer’s end”, according to their ancient twofold division of the year, when summer ran from Beltane to Samhain and winter ran from Samhain to Beltane. (Some modern covens echo this structure by letting the high priest “rule” the coven beginning on Samhain, with rulership returned to the high priestess at Beltane.) According to the later fourfold division of the year, Samhain is seen as “autumn’s end” and the beginning of winter. Samhain is pronounced (depending on where you’re from) as “sow-in” (in Ireland), or “sow-een” (in Wales), or “sav-en” (in Scotland), or (inevitably) “sam-hane” (in the U.S., where we don’t speak Gaelic).

Not only is Samhain the end of autumn; it is also, more importantly, the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. Celtic New Year’s Eve, when the new year begins with the onset of the dark phase of the year, just as the new day begins at sundown. There are many representations of Celtic Gods with two faces, and it surely must have been one of them who held sway over Samhain. Like his Roman counterpart Janus, he would straddle the threshold, one face turned toward the past, in commemoration of those who died during the last year, and one face gazing hopefully toward the future, mystic eyes attempting to pierce the veil and divine what the coming year holds. These two themes, celebrating the dead and divining the future, are inexorably intertwined in Samhain, as they are likely to be in any New Year’s celebration.

As a feast of the dead, this was the one night when the dead could, if they wished, return to the land of the living, to celebrate with their family, tribe, or clan. And so the great burial mounds of Ireland (sidhe mounds) were opened up, with lighted torches lining the walls, so the dead could find their way.

As a feast of divination, this was the night par excellence for peering into the future. The reason for this has to do with the Celtic view of time. In a culture that uses a linear concept of time, like our modern one, New Year’s Eve is simply a milestone on a very long road that stretches in a straight line from birth to death. Thus, the New Year’s festival is a part of time. The ancient Celtic view of time, however, is cyclical. And in this framework, New Year’s Eve represents a point outside of time, when the natural order of the universe dissolves back into primordial chaos, preparatory to reestablishing itself in a new order. Thus, Samhain is a night that exists outside of time and, hence, it may be used to view any other point in time. At no other holiday is a tarot card reading, crystal reading, or tealeaf reading so likely to succeed.

The Christian religion, with its emphasis on the “historical” Christ and his act of Redemption 2000 years ago, is forced into a linear view of time, where seeing the future is an illogical proposition. In fact, from the Christian perspective, any attempt to do so is seen as inherently evil. This did not keep the medieval church from co-opting Samhain’s other motif, commemoration of the dead. To the church, however, it could never be a feast for all the dead, but only the blessed dead, all those hallowed (made holy) by obedience to God—thus, All Hallow’s, or Hallowmas, later All Saints and All Souls.

Wikipedia: Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans tend to celebrate Samhain on the date of first frost, or when the last of the harvest is in and the ground is dry enough to have a bonfire. Like other Reconstructionist traditions, Celtic Reconstructionists place emphasis on historical accuracy, and base their celebrations and rituals on traditional lore from the living Celtic cultures, as well as research into the older beliefs of the polytheistic Celts. At bonfire rituals, some observe the old tradition of building two bonfires, which celebrants and livestock then walk or dance between as a ritual of purification.



Egypt: The Beautiful Feast of the Valley

By Ilene Springer & Jimmy Dunn
Tour Egypt | InterCity Oz, Inc.

Another annual event for the ancient Egyptians to look forward to was again centered in Thebes, one that allowed the living to commune with their loved ones in the afterworld. It was held in the tenth civil month. Though the celebration can be traced back to the Middle Kingdom, it became important during the New Kingdom.

The festivities began at Karnak temple on the east bank where the sacred image of the god Amun was placed atop a ceremonial boat and carried down to the Nile by the priests, very similarly to how it occurred in the Opet Festival. Eventually, the image of the god Amun was accompanied by the images of his wife Mut and their child, Khonsu.

At the riverside, the shrines were loaded onto barges and towed across the Nile to the west to visit the pharaoh’s mortuary temple and the temples of other gods. This journey was attended by a very joyous and colorful procession of Egypt’s citizens. Acrobats and musicians entertained the masses of people who participated, while women played sistrums—a kind of rattle instrument that made a soft jangling sound like the breeze blowing through papyrus reeds. This sound was said to soothe the gods and goddesses.

The procession ended at the necropolis that was filled with tomb chapels where the ancient people honored their dead relatives by performing various rituals for them. Every family wealthy enough to afford a chapel entered the sanctuary and made offerings of food and drink for their dead. (Archaeologists have uncovered many offering tables and bowls that you can see in any major museum collection.) The celebrants themselves ate heartily and drank a lot of wine until they entered what was believed to be an altered state (including intoxication) that made them feel closer to their departed loved ones.

Though certainly different in many ways, these private affairs parallel some present customs of modern Egypt and other cultures in which people celebrate a holiday on the grass of cemeteries in which their dead ancestors are buried.



Aztec: Los Dias de los Muertos

By Katrien Vander Straeten
Suite 101

The ancient Aztec Day or Days of the Dead was the target of systematic attempts at assimilation by the Christian conquerors of Latin America. However, unlike the Celtic festival Samhain, the Day of the Dead was more successful in resisting these efforts at incorporation.

The precise origins of “Los Dias de los Muertos” are lost in the shadows of prehistory. Possibly it goes back to the Olmecs, a civilization of south-central Mexico but dominant throughout the region from 1200 to 400 BC. The Olmecs are the progenitors of many Mesoamerican or Middle-American cultures, like the Aztec, Maya, Toltecs, and Zapotec, Mixtec, etc.

We can more clearly trace the festival to the Aztecs, who governed the region from the 14th to the 16th century. They called themselves Mexicas (hence “Mexico”). They commemorated the dead for the entire month of Miccailhuitontli (end of July - beginning of August), which was presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of the Dead, and Huitzilopochtli, the god of war. It was a joyous occasion, much like it is now.

The landing of Columbus in 1492/1498 marked the beginning of the European colonization of Latin-America. In 1519 the infamous Cortez invaded the Aztec empire, conquering it in 1521. In the wake of the Conquistadors came the Spanish, Catholic priests – though there already were Christian missions in Nueva España before the conquest, which it was their purpose to facilitate.

Obviously, when Christianity and Aztec religion met, it was not on even ground. Compare this to the situation within Europe, where Christianity grew gradually and organically alongside the old European pagan religions, mingling with them, rather than conquering them, before it became dominant. This may account for the compatibility of a festival like Samhain with Christian sensibilities.

The Aztec Days of the Dead, on the other hand, was much less appropriately respectful of the dead. The Catholic priests were shocked by its joyousness, colorfulness and its mockery of death. To rein it in, they shortened the month-long celebration to two days and moved it to coincide with their own All Saints’ and All Souls’. Then they imposed on it the spirit of the latter.

The results of these efforts vary greatly. In Puerto Rico, for instance, the Days of the Dead conform more to All Saints’. But in Mexico and Central America, the original tradition survives, especially in rural parts where the indigenous identity is strong.


Glen's Pics

The Days of the Dead

By Katrien Vander Straeten
Suite 101

The Days of the Dead, “Los Dias de los Muertos”, are usually celebrated on 1 and 2 November. It is the most popular fiesta in Mexico, where it is a national holiday and more important even than Christmas. It is celebrated throughout Central and South America, and in Mexican-American communities in the US. Often in these countries, which are predominantly Roman Catholic, the holiday is the same as All Saints’ and All Souls’.

In Mexico, however, where about 89% of the population is Roman Catholic, the festival has nonetheless retained much of its original (Aztec) festiveness. What Spanish priests, coming to Christianize the area, thought of as a lack of reverence is simply a different way of respecting the dead. And why shouldn’t you rejoice, when you believe that the souls of your beloved departed are coming home for a visit?

To welcome them back, families set up altars in their homes. To guide the souls, there are bright orange marigolds (zempasuchils or cempasuchils) everywhere. The altars are colorfully decorated with perforated paper (“papel picado”), photographs of the deceased, candles, more flowers, and paper skeletons. There are offerings or “ofrendas” of the deceased’s favorite foods and drinks, and toys for the children. Other edible offerings are sugar skulls and coffins, and the delicious “Pan de Muerto” or Bread of the Dead.

In the cemeteries, gravesites are groomed and decorated with marigold petals, colorful wreaths and streamers. Local musicians go from grave to grave and people sing “calaveras,” songs that are often self-composed and range from fun to morose. A priest may be present to pray with the families.

• The eve of 31 October the souls of departed children (“los angelitos”) arrive.
• They are hosted at home on 1 November, the “Dia de Muertos Chiquitos”. That evening, the “Night of Mourning” (“Noche de Duelo”), a candlelight procession gently leads them back to the cemetery. Sometime during this day, the souls of the adults arrive.
• The adult souls are celebrated on 2 November at their gravesites. They leave that evening after a family meal.

There may be additional days for special souls:

• Those who have no more living family.
• Victims of accidents or murder.
• The unforgiven: dead murderers and criminals are offered bread and water outside.
• 29 October is for “Los Ninos Limbos”: the children who died unbaptized.

The Days of the Dead are often called “the Mexican Halloween”, but inappropriately so. It is not meant to be macabre or scary. The playful dance of the animated skeletons (“calacas”) jokingly mimics the living. The sugar skulls give children at taste of something positive. At the end of the festival, people don fearful masks to scare away souls that are reluctant to leave… for everything has its time.



Buddhist: Obon Festival

The Obon Festival, although celebrated in summer, is a major Buddhist custom which also celebrates and honors the departed spirits of one's ancestors. It has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places and visit and clean their ancestors' graves, and when the spirits of ancestors are believed to return home to reunite with family.

The Obon observance has deep roots in Asian ancestor cults from India to Japan, where it has been celebrated for more than 500 years. The custom is based on the legend of the monk Mogallana's rescue of his mother from the hell of hungry ghosts. The story dramatizes the son's anxiety for his mother's welfare after her death and how it was resolved through Buddhist practice.

People traditionally clean their houses and offer a variety of food, including vegetables and fruits, to the spirits of their ancestors. Family altars are decorated with flowers and paper lanterns. As the lanterns are lit, people go to their family's graves to call their ancestors' spirits back home. In some regions, fires are lit at the entrances to homes to guide the ancestor's spirits.

The festival ends when paper lanterns are illuminated and then floated down rivers, symbolically signaling the ancestral spirits' return to the world of the dead. This ceremony usually culminates in a fireworks display.

The Chinese version of O-Bon, the Ghost Festival, is more religious and somber in nature rather than celebratory.


 Rex Maximilian

eudald_alabau 9 years ago
Amazing theme. Thank you very much for this enriching information. My work is full of ligths and nocturn artistic experiences . I will enjoy this work! Greetings!
PLUMe - land art 9 years ago
excelent, let's go!!!
Avant-Gardenist 9 years ago
Another lovely connection to this theme appeared on the Flickr blog yesterday - the Asuka Lighting Festival. Whatever the Asuka Lighting Festival is, it's a connection.

Asuka Lighting Festival

eudald_alabau 9 years ago
Beautiful serie of lights. I'm preparing my show for the end of October.
Avant-Gardenist 9 years ago
Get ready to show us your October theme -- one more day before Halloween!
Avant-Gardenist Posted 9 years ago. Edited by Avant-Gardenist (admin) 9 years ago

Bravo to all of you for sinking your teeth into this one. Your manifestations are outstanding. I hope everyone got the connection of the true celebration, which is not just the 5-billion-dollar-a-year (US alone) candy-coated Halloween scene, but the all-encompassing Hallowstide. It has so many connections - between modern times and ancient, man and nature, crass commercialism and deep spirituality, the bridge between living souls and the spirits of our ancestors, and ultimately, the cycle of life and death itself. By embracing death the spirit is reborn. I see it also as a dance within Nature. A tree falls, and millions of living microbes leap to it and thrive.

It is easy to look at the surface and see the superficial, but you have seen beyond to the many deeper, more significant levels. Congratulations on the insight and understanding that comes to the truly open and accepting minds of this group.

The festival continues for the next few days. Here in San Francisco, with its deep Meso-American roots, we are especially active in this celebration between life and death.




Photos by ojoblanco: "things can get a bit confusing as to spatial relations when you are surrounded by dancing muertos. in moments like this a sense of permanence simply will not take hold..."

Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)

"Don't just cry mournfully over the individuals, dreams and influences that have helped make you what you are. Dance for them; sing for them; honor them; leap into the air and kiss the sky for them."

Día de los Muertos is a traditional Meso-American holiday dedicated to the ancestors; it honors both death and the cycle of life. In Mexico, neighbors gather in local cemeteries to share food, music, and fun with their extended community, both living and departed. The celebration acknowledges that we still have a relationship with our ancestors and loved ones that have passed away.

In San Francisco, Day of the Dead has been celebrated since the early 70s with art, music, performances and a walking procession, which help us contemplate our existence and mortality -- a moment to remember deceased friends and family, and our connections beyond our immediate concerns.

Join thousands of families, community members, neighbors, artists, activists and youth at the corner of 24th & Bryant in the Mission District of San Francisco at 7:00pm on Monday, November 2nd for San Francisco's annual Día de los Muertos procession and public altar exhibit. The procession ends at the Festival of Altars in Garfield Park, at 26th & Harrison. Local artists build community altars for the public display in Garfield Park.

Annual Event: Procession and Outdoor Altar Exhibit
Time: Monday, November 2, 2009 from 7:00p to 11:00p
Location: Mission District, San Francisco, California
Suitability: All Ages, Nationalities, Spiritual Persuasions
Price: Free

Día de los Muertos SF Event Website

Día de los Muertos around San Francisco

Día de los Muertos around the Mission District

Día de los Muertos around Los Angeles

Día de los Muertos around Mexico

Día de los Muertos around Mexconnect

Día de los Muertos around the world

Día de los Muertos in the news

Día de los Muertos around Flickr

stonewill 9 years ago
I, personally, benefited all the information and links you have given here for I used to overlook and was unwilling to join the halloween practice. It was throughly pleasurable to participate in the theme which, as you noted, was not the same as the halloween eve. Many thanks..
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