The Army of the Dead; on transformation at Halloween

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).


Spirit form from Wistman’s Wood. One of the last groves of moorland wildwood in England.

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.


The Great Pumpkin

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!


“No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…” 
― Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man




Hallowing The Halloween Spirit

The season of the witch is once more upon us. The shops are filled with the spooky accoutrements of Halloween; devilish tridents, ghost masks, spray-on cobwebs and of course tumescent pumpkins. Halloween (or Samhain, or Samuin or whatever reconstruction/neo-Pagan name one prefers for this event) is for me the most archetypally occult of the eight sabbats. Whatever its imagined roots, this festival, for many people across the world, represents a time for us to celebrate the weird, the uncanny, the mysterious.

Don't fear The Reaper

Don’t fear The Reaper

Halloween is a commemoration of the universal fact of death and a time to remember our ancestors, but also and crucially, a time for children, for spooky fun and for practices such as trick-or-treating. As callow youths we naturally become interested in death and, as a former goth, I was no exception. However as we get older and we experience the fact of death – the ageing and death of beloved parents, the tragic demise of our peers that have lost their battle against mental and other illnesses, our view of death may become less devil-may-care, better informed by the reality of our mortality, and perhaps more sombre.

Halloween is a counter-point to this. The significant role of children as participants in the folk customs of this time (and in Britain as the key group who (re)imported Halloween activities such as trick-or-treating from North America culture into Europe) is emblematic of this. Today many young people in the west are strangers to death and that’s probably not a bad thing. Depending on when and where we look kids in the past had, by-and-large, a much higher chance of dying in infancy, of having a least one deceased sibling, or of encountering death through infectious illness, industrial injury or a thousand thousand other means. So while death still stalks the land in many nations (not least those currently wracked by war), it is outside the commonplace experience of many of us, and outside the ken of many of our children.

Some people, perhaps those who do not yet have personal experience of death, or who suffer from a reduced imaginative capacity, may seek to engage with death vicariously. For them the adult horror industry of gory movies or novels maybe their preferred style. They may fetishise serial killers or other mentally and socially damaged people. Wishing that, in the fact of their emotionally numb life, they were an actor (or viewer) of some terrible twisted drama. While I’m sure that some folk who dig the horror genre may have other reasons to be fascinated by these things I can’t help but think that a knowledge of history and a sense of human empathy is probably all you need to conjure more than enough tragedy into one’s mind.

Meanwhile, in one of the museums in which I work we are preparing for our Halloween celebrations. We switch off the main lights; deploy a range of scary sound effects, atmospheric illumination, prepare the gallery where kids will meet the witch (a costumed member of staff with a cauldron full of trick-or-treat goodies) and Mexican style cut-out and colour skull masks for our younger visitors to make as they listen to ghost stories in the museum cafe.

Skull mask template and Halloween gifts from my Mum for my children (contains chocolate!)

Skull mask template, and Halloween gifts from my Mum for my children (contains chocolate!)

For those of us who are older; having lost loved ones that have passed into the realm of the ancestors – this child-like delight in death, the gruesome, the frightening, is a way of shaking us out of a funereal, perhaps depressed mindset in the face of this festival. The carnivalesque, wild delight of Samhain, whether that’s expressed by children donning fearsome costumes and going stalking the night in search of candy, or of adults dressing up as anything from zombie pirates to sexy witches – for me these things are as much part of this festival as altars to Guédé, prayers to our ancestors and silent time spent scrying in the cauldron on the night when the veil between seen and unseen worlds are at their thinnest.

Guédé family altar

Guédé family altar

Halloween itself, and the wider season of this time, are full of (apparent) contradictions; the young dress like skeletons, we buy our poppies to remember the war dead, we celebrate (at least in England) the attempted destruction of Parliament by gunpowder with fireworks and bonfires. We burn effigies, we bob for apples, we enjoy the darkness and yet also fear it, as the day length is sharply cut back here in the far north. Children roam the streets (ideally with a caring adult in tow if they are young ones), out and abroad (even though it is night-time!) looking for strangers (typically indicating that their house is ‘fair game’ by displaying Halloween decorations at the window) from whom they can score sweets. We celebrate death by engaging with the thrill of being alive, like Guédé (patron loa of both death and fertility) at a cultural level we create a cut-up of contrasting iconography.

This is Scorpio time; the sign of sex and death, the chaoists’ favourite astrological 8th house that rules magick and the occult. Outside it’s time to do the last harvest, the apples drop from the trees in my orchard and are brewed up on the stove. Stewed with cinnamon and cloves and honey we feast on the fruits of the year. Orion the hunter rises in the sky, winter is coming and we play with the edges of excitement and fear as the dark rises and the wheel of the year turns again.