Clear orbs of light from the natural beeswax tapers flicker in the dark of the room, the flames dancing and forcing the shadows to write along the walls and the corner that the table is set against. It is as if this shrine, this holy space to my ancestors and dead, was a sentinel in that darkness, guarding and bolstering against it even if it is, in reality, simply in one spare bedroom of my apartment overlooking a busy road in Rhode Island.
I always offer sacrifice and prayers at night, at least on holidays that are in observance to the Infernal Gods and the Dead.
My space is adorned with memories and offerings: images of the dead, flowers (violets, to be precise, if and when I can find them) in order to remember the warmth of the year in the dark of a New England winter, cups of wine, and of coffee, and oil are placed alongside plates of food and bread which are laid out for my honored dead.
The curls of incense fill the room, scents of loose herbal arrangements drifting throughout the space. And I am there, sitting alone in that room with just the candle light and my memories to accompany me, the mothers of my family, who have passed away from this world yet exist within the fabric of reality and in the layering of Wyrd in the Well.
It is Modraniht, one of the holiest nights of the Anglo-Saxon Heathen calendar, a night when I worship my Matrons and my Matronae in the vein of those peoples that lived along the borders of Rome, and of Gaul, and of Germania. It’s a time when I sit with my dead grandmothers, and great grandmothers, and my great aunts, and all the other women of my line. Betty, Dorothy, Cornelia, Constance, Mary, and so many others.
Even those women who I am not related to by blood, but by bond. I think of them, all. Honor them all. They all influenced me, molded and shaped me. Made me, well, me.
And we’re entering that time again, once more. We always do, we always return to this point. Even with as insane as this year has been, and as fortuitous as the eve of this solstice and in the presence of a rare celestial event, it is fitting to observe at this time.
This time of year often sees so much in the way of commentary on death, and the Dead. It is almost ubiquitous in Pagan writing. And it’s natural, since They form so much of our religious life, across the breadth of our religious practices and communities. It is a time for remembrance, and a time for worship, and for some of us, it is a time for propitiation.
“Oh?”, you may ask. “Is not the Yule-tide a sort of festival of lights?”
Well, yes. But also, no. As there is no one right practice, there is no one right interpretation of Yule. Of Geola. It has always come across to me as a series of holy days that are decidedly….less optimistic than a light-bringing holy day.
After all, it is the time of the Wild Hunt, when Old One-Eye leads His hounds across the skies, where His undead host of malevolent revenants follow. As much as it is a season to looking towards spring and feasting with family and friends, it is also as much a season of keeping *those sorts* away. And honoring our dead prevents them from growing restless.
There is a stillness, a pause, and a respite from the motion of the world. There is a palpable sense where something could very well be encroaching on the other side of the door. It is a decidedly liminal period. Moreso, I think, than many other times of the year.
The shrine before me is the best that I can do. My life has recently been one of bouncing from home to home, job to job, and region to region, for so many years that I have not had the luxury of setting roots down yet. A travesty afforded by modernity and being in the inevitable social and economic position of being an older Millennial, I suppose.
I have no mound on which to sit, to properly talk and listen to my dead. The tomb, that second half of our religious practice which enshrouds all the lives and continuing life of our dead, is far away from me. In truth, as an American descendant of so many different peoples, there is no single place where I could go and find my family tomb. I could not lay down violets, pour wine or favored drinks, or leave food, even if my present geographic location was not an issue. My dead are scattered all over the Northeast of the United States, or are back in Italy.
It is a loss that such roots have been forcibly severed, and as I grow older I feel that loss with growing regularity. I feel it every year, it is just more pronounced now.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition, though, Mothers’ Night amidst the winds of the Hunt. On one hand, it’s a night in which I seek to attract the attention, and wisdom, and love of my ancestral matronly dead. At the same time, on the other hand, I am hiding from the ravenous dead, the malign dead that would scoop one from the byways of the world if you notice them and they notice you.
I do my best to avoid the ire of Old One-Eye.
It’s not exactly the jolly, joyous image that many people have. It hardly is befitting a Pagan themed Hallmark holiday movie, for sure.
Our Pagan religions collectively worship our ancestral dead, it’s a fact regardless of the individual faith tradition. Many of us do not have recent ancestors who shared our religious proclivities, or even who would approve of what it is we do. The matrons of my family are staunch Italian and English Catholics, strict Scots Presbyterians, Pennsylvania Dutch Friends, and kind-hearted Methodists. I do not think many would approve of such methods in my life.
But in death? In death it is said that many things change, and perceptions widen. I firmly believe that unless our ancestral dead were absolutely abhorrent in life they largely move beyond such prejudices. Many of them appear simply to be happy that they’re being remembered and engaged with. Mortal perception is so wholly limited. And among the death workers I am privileged to know, and who have never lead me astray in their guidance, this is a common feeling.
As much as we are of Them, of our Dead, They are of us. They are not gone, and they never have been. Modern Westerners, particularly in those Protestantized nations that are driven by single-use consumerism lose family, grieve for some small time, and then move on. It’s the notion that death is an end of one’s influence in the world or their participation in the family that I rail against. It may be callous of me to say, because no one person’s grief is quantifiable to another’s, but in looking at the experience of Western death (sociologically, anthropologically, colloquially and anecdotally, etc.), it’s hard not to see it as a reflection of throw-away culture.
And that’s not how it’s been historically reasoned, and it’s not how it is in our theologies. The tomb is simply an extension of the house. The maxim “What is remembered, lives”, is very apt here. As the second half of the lifecycle of the house, the dead were included in the daily lives of the living, fed, honored, approached for guidance, all manners of engagement. They simply aren’t with us in the tangible, limited, world of the here and now.
It’s keeping all this in mind, in the effort to divest myself from the modern and spiritually polluting ideas of capitalistic excess, that I go out of my way to re-engage in do ut des with my dead. I give so that They might give, so that the sacred relationship which had been torn asunder through conversion, through the drift of history and memory, and through the increasingly distracting fixation on material concerns, may be reaffirmed and recognized as holy.
And I’m going to keep on in my practice, until my great gran’ beans me over the head because I’m not doing it the Catholic way.