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For the long night approaches

I’ve been thinking about death.

A couple of weeks ago, a beloved relative of mine found his death. And you know, I’m sad and I’ve had tears. But also, there is something of the beautiful death about his story and I want to talk about that.

Rhett Ashley and a fishing pole. Photo courtesy of my father, Jerry Brown.

Rhett and a fishing pole. Photo courtesy of my father, Jerry Brown.

Rhett Ashley was my uncle on my mother’s side, from North Carolina Appalachian mountain folk. He was creative, philosophical, devilish, and surprising. He had a wicked streak and used to entertain me with crazy yarns and stories about his youth and the mountain culture he came from. You knew a certain cheerful, slightly evil grin he would get on him and it would slowly dawn on you that the tale he had been spinning out for the last 20 minutes was a complete fabrication, while he chuckled gleefuly at your outrage. There was a lot of art in his world: he painted, carved wood and stone, and last I heard, had been working on a novel. About freaky Pagans, as it turns out. I’m hoping I might still get to see that book some day.

One of the things Rhett loved best was fishing in rivers. I’m told he had fished in over a hundred American rivers. In his eulogy, my father wrote of many long summer evenings the two of them spent in the river together: “During the season we were out in the river at least a couple of times a week during those years, sometimes late afternoons, but most often in the evenings when we would fish until dark. The McKenzie mostly runs due West, so in many places the sun sets right down the river, turning the water and riffles to molten bronze.”

I’m spinning this out partly to memorialize him, but also because it sets the stage for his beautiful death. One evening in early July, Rhett came back in from the river and, in the words of my aunt, “sat down in the grass by the prettiest river there is, on the most beautiful summer day you could ask for, and died.” They found him in the morning looking just like he had fallen asleep there. Like that, peaceful, graceful, by his beloved river. I like to imagine him coming out of the river that evening and sitting himself on the bank there. Perhaps the river was turning to molten gold again and he didn’t want to miss it. I can’t help picturing his spirit slipping out into the radiant stream pouring down westward toward the setting sun. It is hard to imagine a death-moment more perfect for who Rhett was. That is what makes his death beautiful: not just that it was gentle, but that it was so perfectly his own.

The dignity of a beautiful death. A kindness we do not all get. The following week, my thoughts were also full of Sandra Bland, a young Black activist who died under horrific and suspicious circumstances in police custody, after being brutalized by police during an arbitrary arrest. I can’t help thinking that Sandra’s beautiful death was taken away from her. Had she not been killed in this way, what might her beautiful death have been, when it came in its own time?

Sandra Bland. Images courtesy of Shaun King.

I have long felt death as a kind of distant spirit that waits for me – something like a long-lost friend with whom an inevitable reunion is coming. Its features, its shape, reflective of our lives and contexts, but rarely visible to us in advance. The beautiful death is the right one, the one that is perfectly our own. It need not be gentle to be a beautiful death: members of warrior societies, driven by the logic of the heroic ethos, have often cherished the ideal of dying violently in honorable combat, beloved and bloodied weapon in hand.

We recognize a sense that there is a death which rightfully belongs to us, but which can be taken away from us, in the concept of “wrongful death”. I wonder, who can restore to Sandra Bland what was torn from her in her wrongful death? What does it do to the fabric of the world when someone’s beautiful death is taken and made a horror? Is there any prayer, any spiritual fulfillment, any restoration possible for this?

Beautiful or terrible, violent or gentle, death is ordained. This is something that we all know, but often prefer not to contemplate. I find that thinking of my death as a companion helps me to keep it in mind. I want to remember that my death is coming. I think that making friends with death helps us to live more fully.

A few weeks ago while we were at a Coru warband encampment, my friend Rynn Fox quipped, “Death is coming. Kick ass. Be free.” It was said in a moment of fun, but struck my truth nerve, and has stayed with me as something approaching my own philosophy about what makes a good life. A short while before his death, I’m told Rhett had been exhorting my father to get out into the rivers again and fish more. He said, perhaps prophetically, “Fish, fish! For the long night approaches.” His way of saying a similar thing.

These messages ring in my heart. Death is coming. Do what you love. Fight for what matters. Be free. Make your life count. For the long night approaches. For me, these are not messages of fear. They are a reminder of the heroic ethos. For me, the presence of death makes me want to love this world fiercely and live to the fullest. For me, death brings a message of courage and beauty.

At war camp with my mate. Photo by Joe Perri.

Into the Tomb

Maybe it’s the season: the light has shifted to that amber that signals Summer dying. It’s the books I’ve been reading, which are Celtic archaeology and largely drawn from funerary remains. And it’s the rites of death and Samhain rituals I’ve been working on.  I’ve been feeling as if Death has crept up behind me and taken me by the shoulder.

A few weeks ago, the Coru priesthood was contacted by a family on the East Coast, the relatives of a young man who was a dedicant of the Morrigan and who was on his deathbed. He had asked for a priest of the Morrigan to give his funeral rites. I agreed to travel out there to serve.

The experience of doing funerary service is, I think, the most consequential and weighty of any priestly work I’ve been called upon to do. It gripped me immediately, from the moment the request came to me.

Death is an intensely personal thing; or can be, anyway. I was struck once again by something that I’ve thought about many times before when I’ve been involved with deaths; the immense beauty and power that accompanies a person taking up the choice of how to face their own death. While still breathing, to sit with his family and make plans for his own wake and funeral rites, as he did. Choosing what to carry with him in his casket into the grave. Choosing his priest, his funeral clothing, the tone and character of his death rituals. Such courage, this. To hold fiercely to life until her wedding anniversary came, as the matriarch of my Craft tradition did, and then to choose the day and hour of her leaving, so she could go to meet the love of her life in the Otherworld. Such power. I hope to die so gracefully and with such courage when my time comes.

It sometimes seems to me that the manner of our dying, and the rituals we create for it, may be the ultimate creative act – the final work of art that places the seal on the great work that our life has been. We cannot, of course, complete the work of art alone, and this is where death moves from the personal to the collective. We rely on all the living to bring that final work of art, the funerary rite, to fruition. It becomes a collaboration between the living and the dead. A continued subtle intimacy across the veil between worlds.

It also struck me how very permeable that veil is. As in all Pagan ritual, we understand offerings to convey a flow of power, life force, or energy between the physical world and the Otherworld; this was no different. In the funeral, we create a ritual container and we fill it with emotion: love, grief, joy, remembrance, honor. We raise it up to the dead loved one and to their Gods, and we pour it out. Our offering. I was acutely aware of this in the funeral – as I sensed the presence of the Otherworld so near, his spirit receiving, deeply glad and deeply fed and eased by the offering.

Since coming back I’ve found myself thinking daily about funerary customs. I’ve had dreams of  burial processions, voices chanting songs of honor. Ritual preparations and invocations. Cairns raised in the deep woods. I dreamed of a great passage-tomb in the Irish Neolithic style, watching as if from above as it is built: the stones of the passage set up, the passage laid out long and cruciform, the basins and carved stones placed. The great mound raised over the passage, its carpet of green creeping over it. The bones and ashes of the dead carried in, gifts to the earth. Generation upon generation, till the floors of the tomb itself are composed of unknown layers of ash and bone, sinking slowly down into the land. I dreamed of walking into this tomb again, and the strange lights that shone deep within at the end of the dark.

I hardly have words for how important this feels to me. About the beauty of these rites and ways, and about how absolutely crucial a religious freedom it is to have the funeral that one requires. I’ve known a few who have died who were able to be given the funeral customs that were right for them. But I’ve known many more whose families had to make painful compromises, because the funeral customs that were true to their being and needful in their traditions are not allowed. This is a tragedy to me. It’s one that affects me personally – the funeral rite that I would choose for myself (excarnation or sky-burial) isn’t legal anywhere in the Western world. It is entirely too visceral for our culture, too unpackaged, too intimate with the reality of death.  Natural burial without embalming is barely tolerated as it is, let alone anything as raw as excarnation. What shall we do?

We must not fear intimacy with death. It is the way for us to honor our dead, to love them still, and to give them their due. And yes, this intimacy will remind us of our own mortality. We will see the image of our own deaths that await us, reflected in the deaths of our kin. We will have to embrace this overwhelming truth, that is both the finality and imprisonment of life, and its liberation. We must know as we anoint and honor our dead that we are preparing the way also for ourselves to join them one day. In my dreams this season, I walk down corridors of stone to meet the dead. I see them surrounded with lights and fires, bathed in the warmth of the devotion of the living. I hear their voices, whispering, speaking, wailing, singing. I see them lifted on a great wind, carried on the beating of mighty wings, the breath of a thousand spirits. I see them elevated from departed to the status of Ancestors, dwelling in that Otherworld place that is beyond time but always as near as our heartbeat.

I will not fear that place. I am alive now, and I will live. I will live without fear, giving myself fully to life and to love of living. I will pour out my love as an offering to all those whose being forms the very earth from which I live. I will live. And when the living is done, I will be dead, I will let go of my body and go into death. I will receive the offerings of the living. I will be an Ancestor and love will still move through me.

“To your barbarous rites and sinister ceremonies,lone_druid
O Druids, you have returned since weapons now lie still.
To you alone it is given to know the gods
and spirits of the sky, or perhaps not to know at all.
You dwell in the distant, dark, and hidden groves.
You say that shades of the dead do not seek
the silent land of Erebus or the pallid kingdom of Dis,
but that the same spirit controls the limbs in another realm.
Death, if what you say is true, is but a mid point of a long life.”

Lucan [39-65 A.D.], Pharsalia

Seasons of Death and Life

As Samhain-tide is here, I have been thinking about the two great festivals of the Celtic year, and how different our modern Neopagan interpretation of them is from their origins. This subject came up for me at Beltaine this year, and has been simmering in the back of my mind ever since.

You see, the modern Neopagan conventions around these two festivals are so: Beltaine is understood as the season of life, expressed and celebrated through sexual and fertility imagery. Samhain is understood as the season of death, expressed through ancestor worship, death imagery and offerings to the dead. This is at least true of nearly all modern witchcraft revival traditions. Would any of my readers be startled to learn that for the ancient Pagan Celts, this scheme is nearly backwards?

As in so many other respects, the tendency of modern revivals of Paganism is to suffer from oversimplification of theology and spiritual philosophy. Samhain and Beltaine are a prime example of this effect.

We call Beltaine the “season of life” because the plants are flowering, fruits are swelling, small animals mating, and the sun is growing stronger. So much is true on the surface of things. For the ancient Celts, however, Beltaine (and summer generally) was a season of great risk, and for this reason, was a season for sacrifices – both animal and human. The primary evidence for human sacrifice (apart from the distorted reports of it recorded by contemporary non-Celtic writers) comes from preserved bog burials such as the Lindow man of Wales, and similar remains found on the Continent and Ireland. Remnants of the last meals of these sacrificed people show that in many cases, they were in fact killed in late Spring. Folk culture in these areas preserves many, many references to death and sacrifice in connection to Beltaine; such as Morris dances, scape-goating, effigy sacrifice, etc.

Why should this be? If the season when the natural world visibly comes into contact with death is the onset of winter, why not make that the time of sacrifices, of propitiating death with offerings? Because the timing is wrong for the magick to work, that’s why. For people dependent on natural cycles for their survival, when the threshold of winter arrives at Samhain, the time of greatest risk is already past. Whatever harvest the summer gave you has been gathered in, and you only have to hope for the length of the winter to be merciful. At the onset of summer, on the other hand, everything is at stake. What comes in the months between Beltaine and Samhain can make or break your clan. If there is too much summer rain, and the crops rot in the fields – if there isn’t enough, and the grain and calves don’t fatten – if any of a thousand things go wrong during the growing season, your people may go hungry when the winter comes. Thus the growing season is the time of greatest risk, and the greatest need for sacrifice to propitiate the Gods. The Celts believed that life had to be fed by the sacrifice of life, and so sacrifices were made. Beltaine is thus the season of life, but also the season of death.

We’re told that Samhain is religiously celebrated as the season of death because at this time cattle were slaughtered that were not being kept (and fed) through the winter. And because the vegetative life of the land is visibly dying as winter approaches. All this being quite true, Samhain is naturally a season of death. However, if you look at the mythology and religious practice of the Celts, a more nuanced picture emerges. Samhain is everywhere linked in the lore with sexual matings; and in particular the mating of the human realm and Otherworld through sexual unions. For example, the tryst of the Morrigan and the Dagda on the eve of battle occurs at Samhain; following their mating, She prophesies His victory over the Fomoire, and offers Her aid in the coming battle. Cu Chulainn, the great hero of Ulster, makes his tryst with the Faery woman Fand at Samhain; likewise Nera, the warrior of Cruachan, also meets and marries his Faery wife at Samhain. In almost every case, the warrior meets an Otherworldly female on Samhain eve, mates with her sexually, and then is sent into battle on her behalf or under her protection. There are countless examples of these Samhain couplings, often linked to battles: Aine and Ailill Olom; the elopement of Etain and Midir, etc.

Dagda and the Woman, by Jim Fitzpatrick

These myths tell something deeper about the Celtic view of Samhain than the simple label, “season of death.” They tell that the threshold of winter was also understood as a season of sexuality, both human and divine. That the “veil growing thin” which we Neopagans speak of, does not just permit the dead to speak to us, but opens wide the gates for Otherworldly unions of a sexual nature. That these divine or Otherworldly matings presage and are inextricably linked to battle. As it is among the horned and antlered animals: the stag and the bull, worshiped throughout the Celtic world in the form of Gods such as Cernunnos, mate in the fall, accompanied by ritualized “battles” as the males of the species may lock antlers or horns in displays of strength for mating rights. The sexual attentions of Sovereignty Goddesses such as the Morrigan, if they are linked to a season, nearly always occur at Samhain. For many Celts, sovereignty was conferred through ritual marriage of the human sovereign with Sovereignty Herself, the Goddess of the land. Among the Irish, inaugural rites and other acts related to kingship always took place at the great feasts that were held annually at Samhain at royal centers such as Tara, Cruachain and Emain Macha. Thus the entire concept of the sacred marriage among the Celts is inextricably linked to the Samhain season.

These are just a few examples I highlight here for contrast with the prevailing Neopagan conventions about these holidays. In truth both have very complex histories arising from their changing practice across many different tribes and shifting with the tides of history. I suppose what I want to communicate here is not so much that our modern ways of celebrating these holidays are wrong; but rather that I feel something is lost when we simplify them down to equating Beltaine with sex and Samhain with death. There is a deep wisdom embedded in the ancients’ understanding that sexuality, fertility, death, sovereignty, and sacrifice were all inextricably linked. That our human work is to understand these linkages, feed them, and find our places within them. There is a potency in celebrating sex and death together, as alternating currents of a single numinous power, perhaps, rather than as separate seasons.

As we like to sing in the Coru: Balu! Maru! Balu! Maru! (Sex! Death! Sex! Death!)

(Of course, it should go without saying that I don’t advocate a return to ancient practice as it was; I think it is entirely right that we abandoned human sacrifice and find other forms of sacrifice by which we can participate in these exchanges of life.)

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