I can feel them, the army of the dead. They are behind me and growing in numbers. At Samhain our attention is drawn to them; we remember the dead. There’s a personal twist in this for me, since my birthday falls the day after Halloween. Moreover this year I get to level up to 50. Growing up in 1980s Thatcher’s Britain I imagined that I’d probably be picking through the radioactive waste of a post Protect and Survive England long before the time I reached adulthood. But here I am, half a century old.
As we age we know more and more dead people. Grandparents, parents, colleagues, heroes and friends… This Samhain when I make a toast to the Ancestors there will be many names to remember, and every year that list gets longer.
When we consider our ancestors, whether biological or cultural, we come up against all kinds of interesting issues. One is that our ancestors were not all wise and wonderful. History (and even pre-history) are replete with examples of people being cruel, ignorant and short-sighted. Medieval people killed hedgehogs because they suckled milk from cows. In Christendom people were permitted to eat fish on fast days since fish was known to have no nutritional value. In prehistoric Britain times burning the woodlands on the high hills was a strategy to attract the deer making them easier to hunt (then changes in the weather left the high hills with treeless acid soil; each moorland in Britain is an example of ancient environmental damage).
While we can acknowledge what appear to us to be the failings of our ancestors it’s also the case that, however good, bad or indifferent their care, we owe our existence to them. In magic, especially magic of the Left Hand Path or Thelemic varieties, there can sometimes be a tendency to see the magician as the autonomous, antinomian, lone wolf; a brave hero who steps away from the crowd to bravely explore… blah blah. This kind of Atlas Shrugged attitude can work for a while, and indeed there are times when we should undoubtedly celebrate our (apparent) individuality. But when we are young, or old, or caring for children, or unwell – that’s when we need what philosopher Hanna Arendt calls the ‘ethic of care’. For while the romantic notion of the heroic individual has power and value, the fact is that collaboration, care and mutual interdependence are actually the rule in the universe and the monad of isolated individualism is something of an illusion. If nothing else, ‘you’ are mostly the flora and fauna of ‘your’ body. ‘You’, each time you breathe, exchange around 5-8 litres of air each minute across a surface inside ‘you’ as big as half a tennis court. Even ‘your’ conscious, deliberate decision making happens first in the unconscious brain and is only later, retroactively, made into a story of choice in the mind.
So while the army of the dead grows in my backstory every year, and I know that one day I shall join that company, I also know that it is because of the work of those ancestors that I have come into this moment of being alive. What should I do then in this moment, in this liminal festival season between life and death (which is actually where we stand all the time anyhow, whether there are carved pumpkins in evidence or not)? One thing I can do is to seek to heal the hurts and wrongs of the past, and transform these into something good.
When we access the deep levels of ourselves (whether through ritual, trance, psychedelics, art or other means) we are touching not only ‘our stuff’ but also the collective wounds of our ancestors, the collective Chiron of our tribe, our culture, our nation, our species. Engaging with these hurts – the ones from the collective psyche and those we acquire in our individual lifetimes – and transforming this pain into something that benefits ourselves and others, that is certainly The Great Work.
This is really important stuff; though magic can indeed be about wild imaginal adventures and parapsychologist phenomena, it is mostly in the inter-personal realm where its results unfold. I’ve done loads of ‘transformation’ rituals over the years and never grown a new pair of arms (despite my devotions to Ganesha). I have however been able to make important changes in relationships within myself and with others. This has led to real world effects in many areas of my life and the lives of others.
Samhain brings us up close and personal to our relationship with death in all its forms. Our awareness of our own death is of central importance when it comes to understanding human behaviour. Some psychologist studying our death fears have proposed a terror managment theory . These ideas developed out of a series of experimental observations; when faced with reminders of their own death people often respond by taking refuge in belief systems and behaviours that act to reduce the terror of dying. When we are reminded that we’re going to die (even via subtle unconscious cues) we reach out for things that in some sense appear to guarantee our immorality; national identity, religious or ideological beliefs etc. Moreover when we seek to mitigate our terror of death through joining in with things that are ‘bigger’ than us (the party, the flag, the religion that ‘never dies’) we are also more likely to engage in ‘othering’ behaviours. We become less well disposed, less kind towards those who don’t take refuge from death with the same party/flag/religion that we’ve chosen.
This stirs up more stuff from the bottom of the Halloween cauldron. If recalling our own death makes us more reactionary, nationalistic or fanatical, what can we do?
I think part of the answer lies in gaining a deeper understanding of the issue, something that our leaders learnt in ancient Europe through their initiation at the (probably psychedelic) Temple of Demeter at Eleusis; namely that we need not fear our death because in an important sense it doesn’t exist.
Now this isn’t as it may at first appear a way of dealing with the problem by flat out denial of the obvious. Instead it is about realizing that ‘I’, that individual self, while so convincing and indeed useful, isn’t really a single ‘thing’. Instead ‘self’ – a process of awareness arising and passing away – is at any moment present in the universe in a multiplicity of forms. Sure individual people have histories, narratives, birthdays and deathdays but the ‘self’ that identifies as an individual in the world, that sense of self only exists in awareness. We need not fear the absence of ‘self’ in our death anymore than we fear the absence of ‘self’ before our birth or the obliteration of ‘self’ when we sleep. Leaving aside the more subtle issues of exactly when life finishes in our bodies, when we are dead the ‘self’ continues to arise in all selves in the universe. There is therefore no death in the usual sense, not because we cannot die but because the sense of self we have is enlarged. This understanding is frequently gained by those who have had near-death (or near-death-like) experiences induced by psychedelic medicines or other practices. Rather than becoming more fearful of death, having brushed up against it, people emerging from those states instead find that they don’t cling so tenaciously to this ‘self’ that (especially in Euro-American culture) we value so highly. They no longer fear the reaper because they are no longer foxed by the (convincing and sometimes helpful) illusion of the separate self.
As I complete my 50th orbit round our star, and as skulls and cobwebs are placed in windows to invite in the trick-or-treaters, my thoughts turn to death. I remember that while grief and grieving are natural and human what’s behind me isn’t an army of the dead. Rather the dead are my sangha, my community and whatever their story they have things to teach me. Sometimes they teach me not to be like them, not to make the same mistakes, sometimes they whisper wise and simple ancestral knowledge in my ear. Mostly – like children delighting in dressing as vampires, ghouls and zombies – they remind me not to take my ‘self’ too seriously. I am reminded to enjoy my awareness but not to cling to it. I am reminded to welcome the memories of the dead; to honour them and to work to heal the hurts they they could not mend while they lived. Moreover I realize that there isn’t such a great divide between the living and dead, for in remembering the dead they live in and through us.
Which reminds of the beautiful requiem poetry of Marge Piercy from her novel Woman on the Edge of Time:
Only in us do the dead live. Water flows downhill through us. The sun
cools in our bones. We are joined with all living in one singing web of
energy. In us live the dead who made us. In us live the children unborn.
Breathing each other’s air, drinking each other’s water, eating each
other’s flesh, we grow like a tree from the earth.
May you have a blessed Halloween.
Coming up next…
Walking Backwards Or, The Magical Art of Psychedelic Psychogeography – colour copies of this collaboration between me and Greg Humphries are now collectors items, but the monochrome edition is now available.
Nikki and I have just released details of our next retreat at St Nectan’s Glen.
We’re writers and we’re on drugs (mostly tea…) Psychedelic Press are celebrating 10 years of their imprint by going on tour. Me, Nikki Wyrd, Danny Nemu, Ben Sessa, Robert Dickins, Charlotte Walsh, Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes, Torsten Passie and Reanne Crane are doing a series of events in England, Ireland and Scotland. Grab your ticket for this now!
Meanwhile Nikki and I will be at The Cube in Bristol later this year as part of their psychedelic season, more details soon. The next in this series of events is on November 1st.
My new book The Fool & The Mirror: Essays on Magic, Art & Identity will soon be available for pre-order!
Nikki and I will also be at Occulture in Berlin which is shaping up to be an amazing conference.
Have a fabulous Samhain!
Thank you. Lovely post. With reference to just one profundity among many, my dear old granny was roundly (and mostly quite rightly) detested by many. Today she would probably be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. But what my family don’t notice is that, along with her less desirable characteristics, she passed on numerous praiseworthy ones and, more pertinently, in condemning her, they lose the opportunity of burning out those tendencies which, unacknowledged, fester inside them.