Symbols and the Seasons
Written on Samhain Night 2018, this article presents some background on what we do in Tara Celebrations and why we work the way we work. As it is Samhain we will be using this as a reference point throughout. The mythology at this time of year includes the Cailleach which we know as an other worldly being that can be both malign and beneficent. She is typically shown as old and ugly, but that is just a modern mask. Her name in old Irish simply means the veiled one. So let us, with respect, lift the veil on our Cailleach and use her to explore the symbols of the seasons at Samhain.
Symbols and the Seasons
Our culture and lore is full of ritualised activities that are performed at specific times of the year such as climbing a hill at Lughnasadh or forming a methal to help a neighbour to weed their garden. At Samhain (Halloween) we leave food out for the ancestors, at Imbolc we weave a St. Brigit's cross and at Bealtaine we pass through the fires of protection.
There seems to be something primal and important about such activities. Something that connects us to the countless generations before us that did what we are doing again, and again and again.
Perhaps doing this somehow helps us feel part of the chronicle of life. Writing our own story, affirming our presence, expressing the deep echoes of eternity yet reverberating in our hearts and souls. It allows us to form a special connection to our ancient past and feel the connection with the web of life.
There is something venerable within each of us that when we do something ritualistically and with intent it has the power to transcend limitations and communicate with the soul itself, with the essence of Gaia, with the creator/créatrice . Something that goes beyond belief. Aspects of this otherworldliness have found homes in every culture and belief systems world-wide.
Symbols and Ceremony
Doing ceremony or ritual reconnects us to our soul and in a prayerful, gentle, meditative way gives us a different perspective on life. It turns us into actors where we can ritualistically perform a desired outcome, no matter how difficult the reality is. It primes the subconscious to use all the resources at it's disposal to help bring about the desired outcome.
Ceremony is a way of outwardly expressing a goal or achievement in symbolic form and linking in with a greater beneficent intelligence. It is a type of active prayer communicating between the world of the mundane to the world of the divine.
The language of ceremony is the same all over the world and despite language differences in various countries it needs no translation. It is the language of symbolism.
Symbolism is central to ceremony. Symbolism is core to our nightly dreams. Symbolism is central to the Tarot. Symbolism is also essential in road signs, hazard signs, map reading and emojies. Thankfully it’s the same symbolism used throughout , so becoming familiar with one enables the mystic or the map reader to easily tackle any system they choose.
Symbolism used in ceremony becomes hugely significant as it crosses language and cultural barriers and allows participants to converse meaningfully with the subconscious, the divine, the soul, Gaia, Great Spirit etc.
Consider that when you sleep, all the imagery you perceive in the dream is symbolic. Symbolism has many meanings on many levels, so a short dream can and does have multiple meanings, depending on the type of lens used to view it.
The same symbolism can be used to decoded health concerns along with relationship concerns, all using the same symbols in the same dream. This is perhaps why the soul can communicate to our consciousness using as few words and symbols as possible. Each symbol is layered with meaning, so instead of reading a hefty tome to communicate life issues the Dream consciousness can relay messages in concentrated form allowing the dreamer to unpack their meaning on a conscious level.
An example might be how a dreamer may see a mother handing out rotten apples at the doorway from the kitchen to a narrow hall.
This short dream at the very least would strongly suggest that the dreamer is fermenting apples into harmful by-products in the intestines and that stomach problems would manifest. The kitchen represents the stomach and the narrow hall represents the narrowing condition of the small intestines due to the fermenting or rotten apples passing along her digestive tract. The same dream and the same symbolism can also inform us that the dreamer's mother spoiled her rotten as a child and left her in a delicate state to face the world.
It can also be inferred that the dreamer's reaction to the mothers behaviour are presently causing her to see life narrowly and her life is spoilt by the narrow expectations of life.
The dream is telling us that the dreamer is facing each day (Kitchen) with the expectation of setback, restrictiveness and a spoiled or ruinous outcome, picked up from the mother.
It can also be supposed, using a religious/cultural filter, that the mother is acting in a way like Eve in the biblical story of the fall of humanity and “handing” her daughter a flawed philosophy on life which suggests the daughter is taking on the mother's religious based guilt and restricted approach to life (narrow hall).
On another level the dream is also remembering a negative past life in which the dreamers mother poisoned her and at the very least could be seen to be poisoning her mind and creating a narrow view of life in the present.
On the other hand the dream is indicating that the dreamer has the potential to transform the misquallified areas of her life and to celebrate rather than fear each day. In so doing she gives those around her subconscious permission to be free from guilt and negative thinking.
In this way symbols from the subconscious/dreaming mind can be full of complex layers of double and secret meanings. How better then to speak to the subconscious mind than through the same language of symbolism, so long as the symbols we use are purposed to elicit a positive response.
Imagining for a moment that symbolism is a good way to communicate our intentions to the Divine, what do we choose to communicate?
A being from another planet might monitor our electrical transmissions and see that our imagery being broadcast is a rich mix of telly tubbies, war and peace. They might raise an eye brow and consider Earth, an interesting place to study, but not to visit. And in many ways, what we broadcast internally, via our thoughts, becomes our reality. Our biography becomes our biology. (Donna Jackson Nakazawa, Childhood Disrupted)
Therefore, what we do in ceremony is putting symbolic actions on ideas we wish to convey inwardly and outwardly, often striving for an ideal and putting “out there” a thought we wish to embody, or emulate.
For inspiration on symbols to use we can use we can look to mother nature and choose actions that reflect what is going on in the great outdoors. We may see that given a period of time the weather can be grouped into seasons, that the sun and the celestial bodies rise and set in a predictable pattern. Alongside this is our seasonal awareness, that the coldness of winter gives way to the growth of spring, the flowering of summer, the harvest of Autumn and back to the coldness of Winter.
Putting this into symbolic form we can describe the cycle of the seasons as a circle. This can be divided into two opposing extremes, the Winter and Summer Solstice where the days are shortest and longest.
Half way between the solstices the days are of equal length and we experience these as the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes.
So our circle is divided into four quarters, a cross within a circle, and this starts to look like the logo we designed for Tara Celebrations where the tips of the cross are seen to look like flag poles marking the central date of the season. The seasons being; Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine and Lughnasadh.
When we dig further we find that summer's heat is swelling winter's seeds and winter's coldness is giving reason for the seed in the first place. Hence the yin and yang part of the logo which also represents the earth/ sky, hill/vale, sun/moon at the Hill of Tara.
The two smaller circles also represent the conjoined ringforts on the Hill.
The Celts and the people before them saw that summer had it's beginnings in spring and spring in winter and so on. The four seasons had four start dates. This further divided the year into four more divisions giving a total of eight sections. The Tara Celebrations logo reflects this by having the coloured sections tapering to a point but masked by the other colour. The choice of colours are red for the expansive warmth of summery south, purple for the contemplative cold of wintery north, yellow to represent the inspirational energy of the easterly sunrise and blue to represent the watery ocean of the west.
The green and white represent the rolling green hill of Tara and the white representing the unity of all colours combined in one.
So by displaying a relatively simple image we can present a lot of information which is intuitively understood without needing any explanation.
Our third main source of inspiration for choosing symbols and actions is our rich mythology. All myths, legends and lore is said to contain an element of truth. This is often the case, but more than this, our mythology is full of archetypal characters, actions and ultimately archetypal energy. There are many legends associated with the Cailleach and these come from different epochs in time so often contain in one being, many aspects that at first seem contradictory. For instance, how can the Cailleach both be cruel and frightening as well as warm and joyous? How can Fionn be both wise and easily tricked? The answer is that in the epoch in which the tale was created is a combination of the influences and taboos which seem alien to us nowadays. It also depicts a spectrum of archetypal emotions and states of being to which we have all experienced at some stage.
The Cailleach, which in old Irish means the veiled one, is the wise woman of Irish mythology but usually depicted as a lecherous old hag that could work magic through her cauldron. She is most likely a personification of winter and the third stage of life, old age. With age comes wisdom. However, the Christian slant was to remove this supernatural Cailleach as a source of wisdom as her ways were often opposite to that of Rome.
In one particular legend Niall of the Nine Hostages was out hunting with his brothers. They come face to face with the ugly Cailleach and she challenges them for a kiss in return for the water of the well she guards. Brian, Niall's brother, gives her a half-hearted peck on the cheek, but Niall gives her a passionate kiss. The Cailleach transforms into a beautiful maiden who is the embodiment of the sovereignty of Ireland. She promises that Niall and his descendants down to the next 26 generations will be high kings of Ireland.
Using this as an inspiration we could have the Cailleach somehow threaten or challenge us for a reward. We could then create a scenario where we accept a challenge, like jumping over a candle, and getting our heart's desire on achieving this task.
The Cailleach is an archetypal character and when invoked can be a powerful symbol for creating change, tidying up loose ends, releasing the past, acceptance and healing.
Her Cauldron is another archetypal image which can represent various ideas. In it's essence it is a cooking pot, so symbolises transformation, food, nurturing, family, feasting, the womb, the stomach, an inexhaustible supply of plenty etc. It was also associated with healing the wounded, inauguration rituals for kingship and with feminine/Yang ideas. So using this alone, even without the Cailleach, is an invitation to healing. Whether we are aware of this or not, the race or cultural memory would recognise the cauldron as a source of nourishment and sustenance which our ancestors would resonate with.
The Bon Fire, from the words bone fire, a ritual fire in which the Celts burned animal bones, is now a fire lit to mark the occasion of the start of the seasons. In Celtic mythology there are the four fire festivals, Samhain being the principal one. Depending on local tradition the fire can be made from seven different wood or not, it can be lit by men or not. But it is used for healing and blessing new beginnings such as marriages. The fire in any event is a source of energy and transforms all it touches. In this regard we can cast into the fire anything we wish to be rid of, so we can start the new year with a clean slate.
In casting for the role of Cailleach in our ceremonies we can pick either male or female actors as the archetypal energies go beyond our experience of simplistic dualism. This is a marked departure from more traditional Wiccan, Buddhist and Christian beliefs. Our understanding is that we each embody yin and yang aspects, traditionally projected as male and female. However, this is a projection! As in the dream state, every character in the dream, male, female, animate and inanimate are all parts of the dreamer. So while we may have an actor playing the role of Cailleach, each of us in the group are the Cailleach! Another way we often show this is by eliminating the Cailleach altogether in the play and get each person in turn to put their “stuff” into the flaming cauldron directly
Our fourth main inspiration is the landscape archaeology. Sites can become holy by repeated rituals throughout time and some landscapes are holy long before any human decided to do ceremony at all. The Hill of Tara is one such place where we see culture after culture basing it's spiritual headquarters on the hill from the Tuath de Dannann through to modern day where the Hill of Tara is head quarters to both the Columbans and Opus Dei.
Archaeologically the sun is shining into the Neolithic mound of the Hostages at Samhain and this time is marked in tradition as the Feis of Tara, or the celebration of Tara. There are many legends about the inauguration of the high king at Tara, but it may be interesting to note that Feis is the Irish for intercourse.
The king would have to marry the land goddess and mate with her to produce bounty in the harvest. During the Neolithic the Lia Fail, a phallic stone, is likely to have cast it's shadow into the womb like Mound of the Hostages at sunrise. The iron age custom of kingship was all about the goddess accepting or rejecting the king so it takes little to imagine what we mean when we hear that the stone, which was already ancient to the Celts, would cry out if the goddess accepted the king. Traditions included the lighting of fires, feasting, celebrations and chariot racing. It was most likely the biggest pre-Christian celebration in Ireland and it marked both the transition into winter, but crucially it saw it as the dark start to the new year. Just as the child grows silently and imperceptibly in the mother’s womb for some time before it becomes obvious that new life is stirring.
Christmas Eve, St. John’s Eve, New Years Eve, Halloween (hallowed evening) are all cultural memories celebrating the dark start more than the day itself.
Using this as an inspiration for Samhain we could simply hold a ceremony at the sacred Mound of the Hostages and or perform a ritual or dance to symbolise union of yin and yang polarities such as holding hands in a circle and chanting: Air I am, Fire I am, Water, Earth and Spirit I am.
Putting the inspirations together for a Samhain Ceremony
For a typical Samhain celebration we are spoilt for choice with locations, archaeology, mythology and the natural world.
We look to nature and see that the days are short and cold, winter is starting and the leaves are falling from the trees and seeds are being scattered by the rising winds. The energy is condensing and shrinking in giving us a flavour of retreat and contemplation. However, under the ground certain bulbs stir into life and whilst still too cold to grow they are gathering their resources to push through the surface for early spring.
The Samhain themes coming up in mythology are centred around the ancestral spirits, the Cailleach and Fire. The spirits were seen as real and during the Samhain season it was believed that the veil between worlds was thin and their influence was regarded as more perceptible. As mentioned previously, for this reason, it was customary to leave out some food and strong drink for the spirits on this night.
On a ceremonial level we want to embody and recognise what is going on in nature, acknowledge how our ancestors regarded this time and look to our mythology and legend which is full of truth, half-truths and certainly full of symbolism. This then becomes a rich source of inspiration for us to create a custom built ritual.
Using this as a starting point we could design a Samhain ceremony to remember our ancestors using appropriate symbolism in the ceremony.
Understandably there have been villains as well as saints in our ancestry and we are here because of both influences.
We can use our discernment on how best to filter out the unwanted influences for a ceremony, reclaiming their best bits whilst disregarding the baggage they also carried. Conversely, we could also send healing back through the family tree to target ancestors whose malign influence is still a reality in modern day life.
One of the most important things we do is to ask the spirit of place for permission to do a ceremony at a particular location. It’s like calling at the house of a friend whose door is always open and knocking on the door to announce your arrival and ask is it OK to go on in. Most often we get a friendly response when asked, but it may be that you will be asked to come back another time as it just doesn’t suit her at the minute.
Setting the Stage
In essence we are creating a play and looking for characters to cast.
The set is the Hill of Tara, home of the ancestors and magical beings. The lead actors for this play may include the Cailleach and ourselves. We want to create a scene where we can release the negative influences in our lives to the Cailleach. She could come to each person in the circle and take a representation of our misquallified energy and place it in her flaming cauldron allowing it to burn away and turn to ash. The ash when cool is rich in nutrients and could be considered the distilled wisdom of the pain. This ash can then be placed on plants or soil to encourage fresh growth both literally and symbolically.
This would be a perfect healing sequence in a dream where we face our fear/ darkness/ ugliness and surrender it to be transformed. Our subconscious would understand this intuitively and automatically work to start healing us as directed. As we may be doing this for ourselves as well as others or the planet, the planetary and universal consciousness would also respond to what we are putting out there.
The Samhain ceremony running order would look something like the following and can be adapted depending on the circumstances, location and those taking part.
Master of Ceremonies (MC): Introduction to ceremony, time of year, overview of the ceremony and to any items that may be decorating the centre, any of the symbols used can be explained.
May He who is the;
Lord in Heaven of the Christians,
the Holy One of the Jews,
Allah of the Muslims,
Buddha of the Buddhists,
Tao of the Chinese,
Ahura Mazda of the Zoroastrians,
Brahma of the Hindus,
And the wisdom of the Druids;
Be with us.
Person 1 starts in one direction smudging the person next to them and then hands over the sage to the next and so on, they are the last one smudged themselves.
Person 2 hands the lantern to their neighbour and may say /pray behold and internalise the light of the creator.
MC Let us open our circle
Person 3 Let us all face East:
I re-member the energies associated with the east: Birth and beginnings, the rising of the Sun, Moon and Stars. The swiftness of wind and the breath of life, the startling beauty of the dawn chorus, the energy that sponsors inspiration, thought, creativity and logic.
Spring of the yearly cycle and dawn of every day. Element of Air. Archangel Raphael the healer is associated with this direction and from our Celtic mythology we recognise Cesair, the first woman to set foot on Irelands soil. Ogma of the Tuath Dé Danann, the champion of lugh and inventor of writing holds this inspirational energy.
In this direction we look towards Grem Cailli mountain, the hill of Tara, and Brú na Bóinne . St Colman Mac Duagh a wise, humble and holy man lived at Cill Mac Duagh in this direction.
I Place these Hazel leaves to remind us of the energy of inspirational air in our selves.
Person 4 Let us all face South
I re-member the energies associated with the south; Everything that is born in the east grows and develops with the warmth of fire and the heat of passion. Expansion and ripening, the zenith of the noon day and the summer of the yearly cycle.
Element of Fire. Arch Angel Michael the liberator with his flaming sword is associated with this direction and from our Celtic mythology we welcome Anú, earth mother & goddess of abundance. She is the maiden persona of the triple goddess and mother of the Tuath Dé Danann. It was you who watered the first oak tree Bile and brought life to earth.
In Celtic Christianity St. Brigit of Kildare holds this warm nurturing energy.
This is the direction of Carron, Cathair Chomáin and Kilnaboy.
I place this candle to remind us of the energy of friendly warmth and expansion in our selves.
Person 5 Let us all face West
I re-member the energies associated with the west whose element is Water: Everything that is born, grows and develops must mature and ripen. I remember the waters of the ocean and the salmon of knowledge.
You are the evening of every day and the Autumn of the yearly cycle.
You are that which gives us deepening. That which ripens and provides harvest. You are that energy of wisdom borne from experience that gives maturity of though.
In Celtic mythology, watery Manannán mac Lir of Tír na nÓg carries this energy. You are the doorway to the knowledge of death and the underworld. Arch Angel Gabriel of mercy is also associated with this direction.
I remember the highest aspects of ancient Cathair Dhúin Irghuis on Black Head, the Aran Islands and the mythical Hy Brasil and bring that energy here and now.
I place this holy water to connect us with wisdom and the energy of water in our selves.
Person 6 Let us all face North
I re-member the energies associated with the north. Everything that is born, matures & ripens must die and be reborn. You are the dark night of the daily cycle and the winter of every year.
You are the direction of coldness, darkness and rest. Home of the brilliant starry skies and the spectral aurora. Element of Earth, foundation and stability, meditation, sleep and death.
North is Associated with Arch Angel Uriel the just. In Celtic mythology Midir carries the energies of the underworld or subconscious. From the Fairy city of Falias we have the stone of Destiny the lia fáil.
Silent supporting earth, home of the Ancestors, place of the subconscious, introspection and deep Peace. You are the Nadir to the noon zenith.
Knock, Cong and St Ciráns Bed are in this direction. I place this stone to remind us of stability and the energy of earth in our selves.
Person 7 Let us all face the centre
I remember the energies of all that has been said as these are the energies of the centre, whose element is Ether. Everything that was born, grew, matured and died passes into spirit.
Everything that exists contains and is permeated by the ethers of the centre . You are omni-present and are the omni-centre of; me, this circle, Corcomroe and the universe. You are the meeting space of, the inner and the outer, the above and below. You are the palace where my soul resides in the heart of the creator.
I am become the source and destination of all directions. The place where I am deeply centred and at peace, part of all that is.
In Celtic mythology, Dagda, the good god of the Tuath Dé Danann holds this space, as does Maeve the goddess who confers sovereignty. And in Celtic Christianity we have An Spiorad Naoimh who animates all.
I place this incense to remind us of the ubiquity of spirit and the energy of Ether in our selves.
Person 8: lights the bonfire and keeps it under control.
MC Let us all now bless the bonfire. MC reads out a blessing of fire eg John O Donohue, and encourages everyone to place one hand on their heart and the other extended towards the fire as the blessing is read.
In the name of Fire,
And the Light:
Praise the pure presence of Fire
That burns from within
Without thought of Time.
The hunger of Fire has no need
For the reliquary of the Future;
It adores the eros of now,
Where the memory of the Earth
In flames that lick and drink the Air
Is made to release
Its long enduring forms
In a powder of ashes
Left for the wind to decipher.
As air intensifies the hunger of fire,
May the thought of death
Breathe new urgency
Into our love of life.
As fire cleanses dross
May the flame of passion
Burn away what is false.
As short as the time
From Spark to Flame,
So brief may the distance be
Between heart and being.
May we discover
Beneath our fear
Embers of anger
To kindle justice.
Cause our lives to flame,
In the name of the Fire,
And the flame
And the Light.
MC Let us gather our thoughts and remember our ancestors, we are here as a result of them, the good and the bad. Let us be inspired by the positive influences and let us ask for healing for the negative influences for the ancestors who are in a position of pain.
I invite you all to place a memento of a beloved ancestor or friend in the centre and tell us why this person inspires you.......
MC Let us all pause and reflect and internalise the positive qualities that we have listened to.......
MC Now let us take these twigs and project into them the negative situation we wish to break and burn. Imagine, visualise sense, see or feel any situation , feeling, belief, be it influenced by the ancestors or not, whatever the seeming controlling influences, no matter how powerless or pointless it now seems, breath this into the dead dry sticks, all illusion, all fear, all pain, all sadness, all betrayal, all helplessness, all hopelessness. All misquallified energies......each person when the energy seems right to them breaks the twigs and throws it into the blazing fire saying I let you go....the group then collectively say together.....May the wisdom of the cailleach take you and transform and heal you. .......if the group size allows this may be repeated for various issues.
When this activity seems to be at an end the MC can finish with an appropriate prayer, poem or reflection or song.
MC I now invite people to share something with the group in an open heart forum, a song, a poem, a memory of an ancestor, a story, an inspiration, a feel good activity.
MC Let us now form a healing circle. So let us stand close enough so that our hands are hovering above and beneath our neighbours so that our left palm is face up and our right hand is face down.....allow the energy to build.
MC let us now stand in the circle and say our name and accept the healing loving vibes in the centre of the circle.......each person stands in the center as their time comes (the time it takes 5 even full breaths)
MC now that we have each received, let us say the names of people and ancestors that we can offer some love and light to......
MC now that we have offered healing to ourselves, our family, friends and ancestors, let us now reach out with wide arms and open hearts to wider world issues and send them love and light from the group.......typically oceans, rainforests, planetary situations, areas of famine earthquake etc etc.
MC Person 8 will now collect some of the ashes from the fire. The ashes are your issues transformed and transmuted through the mystery of fire. It has reduced the issues to their component molecules and this now provides a rich fertiliser for plants. Let us each bring home some of this consecrated ash and place it somewhere so that its nutrients may fuel the healthy balanced growth of a plant we like.
MC shin shin ! (Thats it!)
MC Let us close our circle
Person 7 Let us thank the energy of the Centre for supporting us in our Ceremony, Gurbh Maith agat
Person 6 Let us thank the energy of the North for supporting us in our Ceremony, Gurbh Maith agat
Person 5 Let us thank the energy of the West for supporting us in our Ceremony, Gurbh Maith agat
Person 4 Let us thank the energy of the South for supporting us in our Ceremony, Gurbh Maith agat
Person 3 Let us thank the energy of the East for supporting us in our Ceremony, Gurbh Maith agat
MC our circle is closed to the apparent world, let us go in peace.
To help ground people after a ritual we always provide food so that people can eat and socialise before going home.
Having created a detailed running order and arriving to the hill top it may come as a bit of a surprise that things do not always go according to plan. That is why it wise to use the plan as a scaffold that can be built upon or rearranged on the fly. If something doesn’t go according to plan, there may be a very good reason for it. If your lucky and have patience, time can tell an awful lot. One remembers a ceremony planned for winter solstice on the hill. Just as the ceremony started so did the rain. It got so wet, it became increasingly difficult to read the paper, operate the phone for music or light a fire in the cauldron. The ceremony seemed to be fighting its way through the wet and cold . In hindsight the ceremony used one of the most powerful symbols on an ancient energy node on the hill. The key symbol used was the hot fiery phoenix rising out of a fiery cauldron. Fast forward a few months and Ireland was in the grip of one of the hottest, driest summers on record, complete with drought, forest fires and hose pipe bans. Are the two linked? Perhaps, who knows, but it does make one wonder!
What we have found works well in the past is a critical analysis after the event to see what worked, what didn’t, and what could have been done better.
So what constitutes a successful ceremony?
Generally it could be the feeling you leave with, a sense of completion or fulfilment. A sense of joy or happiness knowing that deep down and in some unquantifiable way something in the world is working better. Many have commented on feeling more aware and more a part of the cycle o the seasons and this feeds back into feeling more connected with the web of life.
Perhaps within days or weeks participants will observe progress on issues they worked on. And in a holistic way a better functioning person is a better functioning creation.
We have found that working with the seasons in this way has helped us raise the veil on what is true, and what the world would have us believe is normality and reality. It is for all of us a privilege to lift the veil of the Cailleach and realise we are raising the veil from our own faces as we see that we too are the Cailleach.