This is a little late, but it might interest you. I posted it on Facebook on 29th October and then got diverted before posting it here…
One of the benefits life is bringing me nowadays is that I can read stuff I’ve written earlier in life and learn something new from it! That happened with some material on Samhain and the cross-quarters that I read this morning, having got up at 6am, suffering clock-change syndrome. So here’s something about Samhain. This comes from my book Power Points in Time.
If you’re short of time, the bit at the bottom is the best bit.
The Fire Festivals or Cross-Quarters
It takes time for solar energy to filter through into nature and actuality. The quarter points mark the inception of each of the seasons, but mainly in principle. As with everything, there’s a difference between setting out to do something and actually seeing it happen. In nature there is a 45ish-day time-lag between the quarter days and the cross-quarters, when the season in question is really in full swing, in visible, manifest terms.
Thus, the hottest part of summer is not necessarily at summer solstice but later, around the beginning of August at Lammas or Lughnasa, when the heat has gathered momentum. Likewise, the coldest, crispest part of winter can be in early-to-mid February, about six weeks after winter solstice at Candlemas or Imbolc.
Autumn really does its business in early November and spring really blossoms in early May – give or take the vagaries of weather and climate, which can vary annually and from place to place.
This is where the cross-quarters or fire festivals come in: as the midpoints between the quarter-points, they mark the times when nature and actuality respond concretely to the energy-changes initiated at the quarter points.
The zodiac is measured in terms of 360 degrees (°). The Sun moves more or less 1° per day. The quarter points are 90° from each other, and the cross-quarter points are 45° from the quarter-points (and also 90° from each other). The ancients, at least in Europe, where the seasonal changes of light and dark matter a lot, marked these cross-quarters as important festivals, celebrating and participating in the power of nature and her manifest expressions.
Historical quirks have shifted these festivals away from their original auspicious times (just as Yule has been shifted to Christmas, 3-4 days after winter solstice). The cross-quarters occur when the Sun reaches 15° (the middle) of one of the four so-called fixed signs – Aquarius, Taurus, Leo and Scorpio. The astrologically-true cross-quarter points thus take place around 2nd-7th May, August, November and February.
Tradition places these festivals a few days earlier – such as Beltane or Workers’ Day on 1st May, Candlemas or Imbolc on 2nd February, Lammas or Lughnasa at the beginning of August and All Souls or Hallowe’en at the very end of October (or Samhain on 1st November).
This said, the ancients were not as calendrically-fixated as we, and they often shifted the festivals around a little each year to coincide with a new or full moon, or any other energy-blip that was hovering around at the time, on that year. A remnant of this remains at Easter, which occurs on the fullmoon following spring equinox (nowadays on the Sunday following that fullmoon). Only later on, with the coming of the institutional church and calendrical dating systems, were such dates nailed down at regular, fixed dates.
Outwardly, there are visible seasonal changes at the four cross-quarters, and inwardly there is a quality of very real engagement in the life-process, a feeling of breakthrough in relation to the theme being explored underlyingly in each season.
The cross-quarters used to be known as Witches’ Sabbaths, when the inner intents (or spells) of witches would work through and become reality. A ‘witch’ is a person with natural, herbal, oracular and magical knowledge and training, often practising midwifery, healing, rites of passage and death rites, who acted as an adviser and spiritual friend to the people around them. By the 1500s across Europe they were often misunderstood, demonised and accused of heinous crimes, particularly by the church. The sabbaths are times of coming-to-pass, stages of manifestation and transition. The times for clarifying intent are the solstices, and those for adjusting or reaffirming intent are the equinoxes. At the cross-quarters, it is necessary to actualise those intents, or stages of them, and give thanks too. Things actually happen at the cross-quarters.
Conscious energy-working is a process of bringing things from the stage of visualisation into manifest reality, intertwining our attention, intelligence, will and activity with the natural flow of subtle energy. This is the true meaning of the Sanskrit word tantra, or interweaving (of self with universe), which is the essence of magical-spiritual work. In so doing, we engage with and enhance the natural energy-flows of the world and are supported by them.
We harmonise our lives with the energy-weather, with the deeper realms and with the karmic threads interlacing all events and developments. Nowadays, this isn’t witchcraft so much as a sense of ‘deep ecology’, the spiritual aspect of respect for nature, or perhaps even ‘magical politics’, a deeper aspect of working for social change and justice.
In ancient times, people would gather together at the quarters and cross-quarters to celebrate life and focus their collective spirit, keeping the human family moving in tune with the times – especially since, with sparse populations, people, families and clans didn’t actually cross paths with each other very much. They’d have meetings, markets, negotiations, flirting, marriages and rites of passage too. Today, people are doing this again – not for the romantic purpose of fantasising about the ancients (though this happens) but because they sense that it is auspicious and necessary in our time. It’s a form of para-politics, voting with our feet, spiritually, and communicating with the subtle worlds to say that at least some of us do care.
Tuning into these eight points of the year, the quarters and cross-quarters, we move into greater harmony with the energy-cycle of the solar year. It puts us into gear with natural cycles. Thereby are our lives enriched. Try it. It sheds new light on the seasons and the underlying learning process within them.
To repeat, there is a distinction between the quarters and the cross-quarters. The quarters represent change-points in energy-patterning, in terms of light. The cross-quarters represent change-points in manifest energy, in terms of visible seasonal changes. The peaks of the four seasons show themselves at the cross-quarters.
At autumn (fall) equinox, relationships, togetherness and belonging become important. Summer has ended and nature is beginning to close down for winter. Increasing darkness and cold encroach on nature and people – we are affected, whether we like it or not. People, animals and plants must adapt if they are to survive the winter. We’re given notice about this at autumn equinox and it gets serious at the cross-quarter day, 45ish days later.
The need to really engage with what envelops and surrounds us arises at the autumn cross-quarter. In Britain and Ireland this is called Hallowe’en or Samhain. Strictly speaking, this cross-quarter occurs when Sun is at 15° Scorpio, around 5th-7th November. In Britain 5th November is Guy Fawkes Night, celebrating a terrorist attack and attempted coup d’etat in 1605, but the tradition of bonfires, burning a ‘guy’ or straw-man and setting off fireworks is really a leftover of a much older fire festival. At this time the dark and cold is definitely coming down: leaves fall off the trees, migrating birds have gone, frosts and icy blasts impinge on us and animals go into hibernation – except climate change is nowadays changing that. In the agricultural cycle it’s time for the annual slaughter, and all the firewood must be ready and stocks laid in for winter.
Humans, animals and plants must accept that winter is intruding: together we stand, divided we fall. In the plant world a composting process ensues, to feed the ground and cover the seeds, spores and rhizomes for winter. The relative freedom and bounty of summer is gone. It’s fact-facing time, concerning me-as-part-of-something-larger. Our urges to belong to a family, to groups, society, tradition and social mores grow stronger – it’s more about a sense of heritage than a sense of future at this time of year.
The ancients held a fire ceremony at Samhain to recognise that, while the solar light is dying, the light within must be cherished, to be reborn later. This is a time of the death of the old, and within it is the eventual promise of rebirth of the new, but that’s some time ahead at Imbolc or Candlemas. Another aspect is ‘All Souls’ and ‘Hallowe’en’ – a recognition of souls and beings beyond this life and beyond visible reality, of ancestors and things that go bump in the night. It’s a time of forced adjustment – like death, it’s something we must accept when it comes, powerless as we are to do anything much about it except to work with it. Once these impinging realities are taken on board, new hitherto concealed possibilities are revealed – the power to survive and make something good of challenging circumstances. It’s a time to get out your knitting, do some woodwork or wade through thick astrology tomes!
From Samhain to the winter solstice, a dark time, we start with winter’s hard, sometimes harsh facts and end with a celebration of our social togetherness around a warming fire. At solstice comes Yule and the assembling of the clans. Yet in early winter there can be a stark beauty too: wintry gifts, with crisp air, frosts and the first snows, and warm fires to come home to. In northern Europe there were candle-lighting traditions: the christianised Santa Lucia in Scandinavia, honoured in December, is a blond maiden dressed in white and wearing a crown lit up with candles.
Samhain or Hallowe’en
What’s ending and completing here? What can you wrap up, and what is to be carried forward to another time?
What’s under the carpet or lurking in dark corners? What’s the final secret behind all that has happened throughout the year?
What has been your part in the great cosmic chessgame of life? Acknowledge the mystery, the unfathomable wonder of it all, the unknowns and the bits you sense but don’t see or understand.
Life has its tough aspects, things come and go, but something endures too. Talk to your ancestors and appreciate what has now gone. Clear the space and, even if you’re wet, lost and cold, take it with good grace. There’s something wonderful amidst all this, so light a candle to celebrate it. And tomorrow is another day.
Power Points in Time – and how time passes
Ancient festivals, lunar phases, planetary line-ups and historic moments