At this time of year in many places around the world, human beings celebrate the continuity of life in the midst of death and honor those who have died. For example, in Mexico, Spain, and elsewhere, many are observing the days of the dead (Dia de los Muertos), remembering departed friends and family by creating small altars (ofrendas), offering prayers in support of their continuing spiritual journey, and inviting their spirits to visit with colorful parades and decorated gravesites.
Today is also Samhain (Saw-win) in the Celtic wheel of life – the midway point between the autumnal equinox and the winter’s solstice, that marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the “darker portion” of the year. Samhain is balanced by Beltane in May, the midpoint between the spring equinox and summer solstice, that celebrates the planting of new seeds and ushers in the lighter half of the year. Both of these transitional times are regarded as numinous (holy) and as essential to the eternal turning of the wheel of life. The Maiden was honored at Beltane and the wise woman (Crone), at Samhain.
The contemporary Halloween image of the witch or old woman as wicked is a distortion of a more ancient view among the Celts and other early peoples who saw Her as creator and destroyer, protector and instiller of fear, and as an essential part of the never-ending cycles of birth-life-death-rebirth. In West Africa, for example, Asase-Yaa is the Mother of Life and Death, and many still worship Old Woman Earth as womb and tomb. She is the source of all life, the place to which her children return at death, and the womb from which they are later reborn.
As the midwife of life and death, the ancient and powerful Thracian goddess Hecate also played a variety of vital roles in birth, death, and in between. She swept the threshold to protect the newborn and accompanied each person to the underworld at the time of death. She typically appeared on back roads, especially where three paths meet, holding a lantern or torch to guide wanderers, as well as the key to the underworld and a knife for cutting away the superfluous. Hecate also sat alongside kings as they rendered judgment and assisted mortals and lesser deities who were unjustly caught in the crossfire of inter-deity conflict. In her varied roles, Hecate exemplifies purposeful fierceness coexisting with protection, guidance, and wisdom.
The honoring of the old woman at Samhain seems most appropriate in that authentic power, protection of the vulnerable, wise discernment, clear focus, courage, and necessary fierceness (tempered by compassion and wisdom) are all qualities that tend to ripen with age and help make the elder a reliable guide in times of transition and loss.
Earlier blogs have addressed the late-life capacity for focusing on what matters most and letting go of the rest (Letting Go and Savoring) and the deepening ability to remain peaceful in the face of turmoil (Peace Amidst Conflict). Others have explored the Grace of Authenticity (Coming Home to Ourselves), of Self-Transcending Generosity (Aging into the Web of Life), and The Grace of Necessary Fierceness. These and other late-life gifts lend us the strength, willingness, and wisdom to navigate the darker times in our own life and to assist others in finding a way through theirs, when appropriate.
Note: Although the honoring the dead occurs each year in virtually every culture, some of these celebrations occur earlier in the year in mid-summer or early fall, for example in Nepal, Japan, and Cambodia. To learn more check out these articles: