People can talk to you all they want about the old meanings – the spiritual significance – of Halloween/Samhain/the Celtic Day of the Dead. Intellectual understanding is a lot different from emotional significance. For those who understand and in some sense respond to it, the last night of October is a powerful point of the year. It’s certain and recognizable.
Almost everyone who holds a drop of European ancestry can be sure that three thousand years ago someone who shares their personal DNA was rocking Halloween night in the old way, and who knows how long before that… How many generations gathered by a blaze on a hill or in a grove, chanting and dancing and gazing into the mysterious night, wondering what could lurk in its declivities and what may be coming in the darkening cycle whose onset that eve represented? One of those sacred nights can be heavy if you value it. It can be a great opportunity for inner growth. Halloween is a page turning for people of any heritage.
We all commemorate, those who need to, in our own ways. No one can tell you what you need. As my Native friends say about time, sometimes oppressive time, spent in a sweat lodge, “The only medicine you need is your medicine.”
For me, some Halloweens are for Apollo, the Greek god of measure and self-control. On those you need the peace needed for inner growth. Walk in the woods. Meditate by the fire. Write or paint or compose. Do whatever brings you together.
Some Halloweens are for Apollo’s opposite, Bacchus (Roman name)/Dionysus (Greek name), the personification of intoxication and abandonment. If that’s one of your nights for it, you need revelry and even frenzy. The Witches Ball in Buffalo should answer you nicely for that. Shapeshifting, gender-bending… Who you gonna call?
I think I got my medicine this Halloween. I’ve had enough incidental Bacchus this whole season leading up to it. When you run a ghost walks company that includes Haunted Pub Crawls, you’re on a month-long Halloween immersion. You almost become this vicarious figure that helps other people get in the zone while you lose touch with it yourself. When you are the author of books and articles about subjects everyone stereotypes as Halloween-y – the paranormal – your whole year is more or less spent with it. I had all the frenzy I needed on October weekends. Plus, I was at The Witches Ball 2017 (see mention above). That’s enough jangle till the next Halloween for a basic introvert like me.
My medicine this year was Apollonian. It started on the afternoon of the thirty-first.
I got a forty-minute run in at Hunter’s Creek Park in the Town of Wales. I took a little course I nickname, “The Druid” – partly because it features a natural circle in the trees by a usually-dry creek and partly since on some of the trails to it you have the conspicuous sense of someone watching you – someone who can merge in and out of a tree as quickly as you can blink – if you happen to be running as the dusk nears. You can only catch it – or them – in quick and shadowy impressions, always at the eye-corners.
The most direct route to this little hollow is getting harder to find as they’ve developed new trails and closed off some of the old. It took me some time and misdirection to get to it. I do remember really enjoying the ambience of the dimming wood.
The day was wet and grey, but the air was clear for most of my run. Some sections of my course were piny. They still bore their own shade of green, which usually looks to me bluish at a certain point when the light is thin.
In other parts of my course the trees had lost almost all of their leaves and reached to the sky as if with bony, withered fingers. I remember once below me in the rolling terrain seeing a sturdy picaro – maybe a maple – stand forth still clinging to a girdle of foliage at his waist. Its hoop of buttery flame made a surreal impression against the iron-grey columns.
My medicine on the night was also Apollonian, as in rest and reflection. I got behind a laptop in peaceful circumstances in an Inn, the Roycroft, that’s not only proverbially haunted but that has seen many an active All Hallows, at least in the report of several generations.
As the laptop unfolded I gathered myself and remembered what a night it was. I started to think about one of the amazing Halloweens in my own past, one on which Apollo and Bacchus did shifts. It was in Saratoga Springs during my post-college rambling years. I was just hanging on in that town financially, but a lot of us didn’t care much about that at that age. My apartment was a few blocks from the urban core around Broadway. I spent an autumn there to work on my first novel, still deservedly unpublished. I was meeting a few friends in town for a Halloween night pub-party crawl of sorts, at least if I hoofed it in by a certain hour.
Before the evening started I wanted to be sure I’d had my full measure of Apollo. I wrote, I drew, I thought, and I played music. I also probably got lightly stoned, which could have been a little Bacchus. I wasn’t planning on leaving until the Muse ran dry, Halloween be damned. She did, though, by about 9:30. It was clearly Bacchus’ turn. The night had its own buzz, anyway.
As I readied to go out, the radio was tuned to some college/NPR station, probably based at SUNY Albany. What was on was a Halloween musical program that I had picked up in medias res. I sat back again.
No “Monster Mash” or “Purple People Eater” here. This program played Celtic folk songs with supernatural themes, some directly set on Halloween/Samhain night – the night for the witches and fairies. They played witch tunes like Steeleye Span’s “Alison Gross” and fairy-tunes like Fairport Convention’s “Tam Lin.” They played the occasional Jethro Tull – an overlooked Celtic-themed band, overlooked because all anybody remembers about them is stadium-rock and “Locomotive Breath.” They might have played Traffic’s autumnal “John Barleycorn” if they got its Frazerian – ‘The King is dead, long live the King’ – significance. They played a few American songs, but all of them were likewise rooted in the old ways. All of them had mythic authenticity. I don’t remember hearing anything by Pentangle, but I don’t see how they could have missed at least one of those supernatural ballads. Plus, Jacqui McShee’s voice can be haunting enough by its very sound.
It all would have sounded pretty rocky to someone who listens much to traditional music, but I had been too bored by the folk explosion to bother much with most of it. These were then-young musicians sincerely reviving the old ways, and they couldn’t have caught the rock-nurtured ear any other way. This was my initiation. These tones, these themes, and this semi-softening of the rock was all new to me. The music’s edge was not in volume; it was in theme. It was the most haunting half-hour. I’ll never forget it, or that short time in that apartment. I wish I had heard the whole program through and made notes about the playlist. I delayed my walk into town until the program was through.
With that kind of start, no wonder the night led to a memory for me. The rest of it was totally different – late-night revels, hopping in and out of other people’s cars, big dim pubs, gnashing rock, Skidmore girls in their theatrical makeup, frenetic dancing, country crossroads… Every young woman I danced with seemed as beautiful and exotic as an Elfin queen. Every masker of any sort seemed a figure from the ancestral past. I felt like I had walked into a Harlequinade and joined the procession. It’s all a blur, but I remember being fascinated, even spellbound. Oh for a time machine now – or a simple video then.
After a few seconds’ reminiscence of the joyful memories, I turned back to the laptop and a recommendation letter for my Ecuadorian friend the artist Patricio Gustavo Calderon. I know it was Halloween, and I might have rather gone to a party or just spaced… But he’s applying for something, and it had to be done, and directly. And I’m pushing other people to move expediently, so who am I to take a night off?
I tried to help whoever read the note understand Patricio as a person, and to catch what separates him as an artist from many others of his generation. It was coming over me as I tried to put it into words. It was the sense of images in his work that seem to lie beneath the surface of the ones you spot. You always sense that you are supposed to see something you are not catching, and that even if you did, your conscious mind would not understand it. Your ancestral mind, your collective unconscious, though, would drink it in gratefully, as if it was an ancient symbol that would have meant something bold and spiritual to the ancestors, as if, wrought like a geoglyph on the ancient landscape, it would have been a postcard to the Gods.
I realized in writing that note that through his work, Patricio is trying to get close to the source of all human artistic achievement – to the spiritual Elders. He’s spent serious time conferring with indigenous living elders in the Amazon and the Andes. He’s studied the paintings – 40,000 years old – of extinct animals in the French and Spanish caves done by possibly no longer extant – Cro-Magnon – humans. He appreciates the old shamans – the world’s first artist-priests – and the hunger for them today in so many souls who do not know they need them. As I tried to summarize Patricio’s exquisite sense of purpose for which he seems willing to sacrifice almost anything, I realized that his artistic mission has been the one I had from my earliest years of adulthood. We’ve gone about it in different ways, but it was all about keeping faith with the Elders.
I know that our traditions in the arts and spirituality go all the way back to the most ancient figure of human spiritual conscience – surely the Shaman/Shamaness of the Ice Age cultures. This is the root of the line out of which our most authentic artists and spiritual teachers emerge. I have always believed in trying to keep faith with this Source belonging to no single culture. It is all humanity’s spiritual elders, and some artists have to try to answer so we can enrich the lives of those around us.
I see attempts in the pop media to present the insights of the Elders, but to me most of it looks hollow. Keeping that faith is a lifestyle, not a trend. It’s a quest, not a gesture. The purpose either walks with you every day after you realize it – or it does not.
If you really feel it, you have a sense of mission. You try to preserve what you can of what you rediscover. You try to impart it because it is beautiful, and because if you don’t, it could be lost. You need to keep passing it on. It will be ever-changing and never was pure to begin with, but that is part of its beauty.
That cross-cultural lineage of mystery and spirituality hasn’t been preserved very well in the West, even for those who live in it of non-Western ancestry. We seldom take spiritual timeouts in the West. We’re all in a rush. We’re either trying to make money ourselves or figure out ways to get the dispensers of privilege to give it to us. We don’t seem to sense the need to address any other deprivation. That’s why, I think, the artists – some artists – need to rise up. Some of us need to keep truth with the Elders.
For now, here’s a little truth-keeping gift from me. Track the link below. This is Pentangle doing an outré Medieval ballad called “The Hunting Song.” Maybe it will put you into a mood you will learn from. Even if it’s not your thing, stay with it at least halfway until Jacqui McShee starts her banshee-wailing. Then tell me which side of the veil the that woman’s tone is from. I bet you won’t pick this one. I also hope you had a growing Halloween.