Returning to the Cave Moon
For years, November has been the month of sadness for me. I used to chalk it up to the loss of leaves, loss of light, blustery wind, and descending cold. It felt like a twilight or liminal time where the crunchiness of frost had not yet given way to deep snow, where darkness lengthened but was not the deep dark of January. Tears have always been near the surface or depression wraps itself around me. Then came a diagnosis: Seasonal Affective Disorder. It always has been a bleak month, at least in northern climes, for any kind of celebration, with gray abounding in the visible world.
We should not pathologize this response to November, however. My soul and the soul of the world is asking for the honouring of grief this month. In the past, different cultures did honour death and grief this month. But in a growth-oriented society, we have walled ourselves off from decay and dying. In this hyperactive society, we expect to keep moving at the same pace, the same hours, with the same energy and optimism. Industrial societies have aided and even created this falsity by offering us electric light, warm vehicles, and cozy homes. But this ignores natural rhythms and energies which flow through us as well.
This is the time of year when bears retreat into their caves as many hibernating animals do. The sap withdraws from leaves and returns into plant roots, where this energy is stored over the winter. The shortening of daylight hours as well as lowered temperature triggers this process. We can no longer hear the sound of water running as the surface begins to freeze and ice thickens. After their harvesting is done, the time begins for resting, sleeping, and prenatality for many animals. The winter west winds can be intense, tearing at what has fallen, lifting it and carrying it away. We can now see the basic structure of our rooted world as the finer tissues of leaves and loose soil is blown away.
For the Ancient Greeks, the myth of Persephone and Demeter gave us the archetypes of a lost daughter to the underworld, for which a mourning mother goes in search. Finding her daughter abducted by Hades, Demeter as the Great Mother, falls into a time of suffering, grief, darkness and depression, so much so, that the growth and blossoming of the Earth was arrested, frozen. With Earth’s fertility hanging in the balance, Zeus is compelled to negotiate some compromise between Hades and Demeter. Using Hermes as the go-between, Hades agrees to let Persephone return to her mother, but for one-third of her time she must return to be with Hades in the underworld. This corresponds to the waking and sleeping rhythms of ourselves and the Earth. We must give our due to the lady of death, acknowledging losses, fading hopes and failed endeavours for the year. We must take four months to slow down and ponder the basic structure of our lives. The underworld is one home of the soul, where it finds the darkness and depth it needs. This fallow, resting time can lead to eventual rejuvenation, or more dramatically, the dismemberment in a dark night of the soul can lead to transformation.
These times are times of initiation where we face death and hopefully come back alive. In many initiation ceremonies, young adults are taken into the cave, the literal womb of the Earth. Or they may be covered with Earth, from which they are rebirthed as new spirit beings, adults ready to take on responsibilities for their community. It is to understand the nature of Feminine and Masculine energies in their sacred form. Woman, as the human form of the creative principle, is the Goddess of birth and rebirth, but necessarily also the Goddess of death. There is a time of cleansing and letting go, including childhood things.
In the Celtic tradition, Samhain meaning “summer’s end”, bringing in the Celtic New Year. With winter beginning after the barns and larders have been filled from harvest-time, a new yearly cycle begins. This is part of the sunwise circuit or turas, a year-long sacred pilgrimage that, honoured ritually, can take us deeper into wisdom. Samhain started with a 6-day festival where hostilities were set aside during an assembly of peace. Laws were reviewed and renewed to reorder the affairs of the community. Poets and musicians entered the homes of nobility for a time of rest and enjoyment. It was also the time when the fairy gates of the otherworld were opened, and the ancestors were nearer than any other time. The two realms of the visible and invisible realm are closest at this time, so it has been a time for making peace with the living and dead ancestors by speaking truth lovingly, forgiving, and letting go of issues. Ritual bonfires enabled the burning of worries and problems from the past year and things that no longer served their purpose, a cleansing time. The resulting ashes offered protective powers.
These pagan traditions influenced the Christian tradition, despite the attempt to eradicate them. To appeal to the pagan soul, Samhain became Halloween or rather the feast of All Hallow’s Eve or All Saint’s Eve. November 1 then became All Saint’s Day and November 2 All Soul’s Day, a syncretic blend of pagan and Christian. In the church year, this time became dedicated to remembering the dead, including the saints and all those departed. Places were set at the dinner table for the departed as this was the one time of year they could visit from the otherworld. Lighting candles in windows and saying prayers for the dead, enabled spirits to find their way home for a visit, and those spirits caught between the worlds to find their way into the otherworld with the others. The costumes
impersonated dead souls or mischievous fairies who roamed their way through our world and were particularly active. Goodies were offered as hospitality to avoid their vengeance or trickery. Bonfires and lamps, such as carved and lit turnips and pumpkins, were used to ward off the devil.
This ritual is still observed by those who celebrate the Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos, such as those of Mexican heritage. It is thought to have originated with the Aztecs as a deep tradition that honours the dead and the goddess Mictecachuatl, now known as the Lady of the Dead. It is a holiday in which families and friends gather to remember those who have died and support them on their spiritual journey. Household altars are filled with the favorite foods and beverages of the departed. The day often begins with parades of skulled effigies and other masks, then breaks off to take candles, food, toys and other gifts to gravesites where prayers and stories are offered. Strongly scented Mexican marigolds or music is thought to attract the dead to the offerings. In some places, November 1 is to honour children who have died and November 2 is for deceased adults. Some hold vigil through the night.
Ritualizing grief is vital for life. The time has come for us to revivify rituals that put us back into sync with the rhythms of the living world and with the spirit world on the other side of the veil, from where we emerged. This is necessary for the health of our own souls as well as for those we have loved who have left this plane of existence. Lighting candles, visiting graves, and laying out plates of food for our ancestors can keep the connection alive, feeding those on the other side through the remembrance.
It is important to dedicate four months to slowing down when the living world rests. As we move inside physically, we can move inside psychically, to ponder the daily round for its meaning. Rather than try to escape the dark and cold, we can use it to feed the soul just as we make big steaming pots of wholesome soups to warm and nourish our bodies and families. Worn out dreams and expectations, projects that have not come to fruition, as well as emotions and habitual actions that no longer serve us, need to have a ritual space for acknowledgement and letting go. Lighting a fire for ritually burning these elements can assist in this process.
One small ritual for honouring grief this month:
Take a smallish loaf of bread, especially meaningful if it is one you have baked yourself. Tear the loaf in half. Take one half and tear out a bit of the inside to create a cave-like space. Place dried berries in the “cave” to honor all that needs to rest as well as what things in our life need to die. Take the other half and tear it into bite-size pieces to feed your ancestors.
For one evening, place a lit candle in one of your front windows to remember those who have died. Then take the “cave” and the bits of ancestor food to the back of your homeplace and set it where you cannot see it. Leave this gift for the Spirit World that they may partake in whatever form they appear. Offer greetings and prayers to them as you lay it on the Earth.