My personal blog as a 'grown-up' Goth and Romantic living in the Highlands of Scotland. I write about the places I go, the things I see and my thoughts on life as a Goth and the subculture, and things in the broader realm of the Gothic and darkly Romantic. Sometimes I write about music I like and sometimes I review things. This blog often includes architectural photography, graveyards and other images from the darker side of life.

Goth is not just about imitating each other, it is a creative movement and subculture that grew out of post-punk and is based on seeing beauty in the dark places of the world, the expression of that in Goth rock. It looks back to the various ways throughout history in which people have confronted and explored the macabre, the dark and the taboo, and as such I'm going to post about more than the just the standards of the subculture (Siouxsie, Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus, et al) and look at things by people who might not consider themselves anything to do with the subculture, but have eyes for the dark places. The Gothic should not be limited by what is already within it; inspiration comes from all places, the key is to look with open eyes, listen carefully and think with an open mind..

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Samhain/Samhuinn: Our Home Altar

A statue of Badb, made by Nemesis Now. It has large black out-stretched wings, and is wearing a long flowing black robe. It is entirely black. The statue is placed on a stand draped with an altar-cloth that is black with white pentacles. It is against a white wall with green paneling at the bottom and white dado rail. The statue is candle-lit. The image is taken looking from the left across the statue, with the paneling and dado-rail giving an indication of the angle of the wall relative to the camera, as it runs diagonally from the bottom left third of the image to the upper right. The image is square. The points of the crown worn by a resin skull are visible on the far side of the statue.
Statue of Badb
Samhuinn is a complex holiday - an old one, but one that has changed many times over the centuries, and the Neo-Pagan version is in many ways as different from the historical version as the contemporary commercial version of Hallowe'en. For a historically informed account of the British calendar of festivals, I suggest looking at Prof. Ronald Hutton's book 'The Stations of the Sun' which is very educational and well-researched. While I draw from historical traditions, I don't emulate them entirely, and I don't strictly follow the rituals for Samhain of Wicca or any other Neo-Pagan groups that use the Gardner-Nichols eight-fold year; in this respect I'm somewhat eclectic.

There are two specific and distinct aspects of Samhuinn for me; one is the aspect of ancestor worship, paying respects to the honoured dead, and contemplating both familial and ideological ancestors, and the other is seeing Samhuinn as the start of the Dead Time until the Winter Solstice, where light and lengthening days return. I don't think there's any historical precedent for the concept of the Dead Time, but I've seen similar ideas in other Neo-Pagan writing, although it doesn't seem that ubiquitous. 

The top two skulls of a stack of three resin skulls, large at the base, medium in the middle, and smaller at the top. They are much smaller than human skulls. To the left of the image is a silver-plated candle-stick covered in wax drips of various colours holding a black candle with a silver damask design on it. In the background is a leaf-green paneled wall with white dado rail. It is a close-up image. The image is dark and candle-lit.
Skulls on the altar

For most people reading this, some concept of ancestral practice will already be familiar, so I won't explain that in too much depth, especially as that isn't something represented on this altar. Effectively, the ancestral practice is about reaffirming the link between those in the present and those who came before both in terms of being mindful and thinking about them, and in terms of reinforcing a spiritual connection at a time when the boundaries between this world and the Otherworld are particularly thin, which will have different connotations depending on personal beliefs as to the nature of the afterlife/afterlives, whether they believe in reincarnation or not, etc. I personally do believe in reincarnation, but other Neo-Pagans and Reconstructionalists have different concepts of an after-life with different ideas about how fixed after-life states can be.

An altar with several tall black dinner candles in grey ceramic holders. The base altar cloth is black with white pentacles. On the left side of the altar is a statue of the Goddess Badb with black out-stretched wings and black robes. Beside the statue of Badb there is a black stone dish of white salt with a raised pentagram in the dish. At the front of the altar is a wand carved roughly from oak. On the left side of the altar is a large, life-size resin skull with a crown, being used as a candle-holder for melting white candle. In the center of the altar there is a wooden stand with a blood-red damask brocade cloth on it; on the stand is a bronze-effect resin statue of the Morrigan with great wings rising up behind her, and at the feet of the statue there are two pewter Celtic knotwork/insular interlace design candle-holders for tealights, a pair of lit tea-lights are in them casting a soft glow across the statue. At the base of the stand is a greetings card for Samhain with red and black artwork depicting crows and the Morrigan. The altar is infront of a white wall with green paneling with white dado-rail. On the wall are a plaque of the Green Man and a female equivalent 'green woman' as a wall-pocket. The image is candle-lit. At the very left edge of the image a green candle is visible
Samhuinn 2018. 
In the past I have had a more Morrígan based Samhuinn altar set up - the one from 2018 is pictured, with my victorious Morrígan/Macha statue centrally, on a pedestal clad in red (a colour associated with the Morrigan, being the colour of blood) brocade cloth. Badb is on the left, hard to make out in these darker pictures as all the candle-flames are above Her statue. In front of the cloth-covered pedestal is a Samhain card with overt iconography of the Morrígan that stays permanently the rest of the year at my multi-aspect shrine to the Morrígan on the mantle-piece. I now focus more on Badb as a psychopomp than on the victorious war-Goddess aspect of the MorríganThe crowned skull is on the right, my best approximation at the time of (Brythonic/Welsh deity rather than Goidelic/Gaelic deity) Arawn, King of the Underworld/Otherworldv (in Gaelic mythology, who is King of the Otherworld changes, and each King serves a term, in Brythonic mythology Arawn is the constant King)
A photograph of 2019's Samhuinn altar taken from an oblique angle. At the left of the altar is a stack of three resin skulls, at the right of the altar is a large resin skull, approximately life-size, which is crowned and the crown serves as a candle-holder for a large-ish white candle. In the centre of the image is a stand with a black altar-cloth with white pentacles, upon which is a black resin statue of the Goddess Badb with flowing black robes and large out-stretched wings. At the front of the stand is a purple card with a sigil on it. At the front of the altar is a small black skull-shaped candle-holder with ornament and in-set glass containing a light grey tealight. The base altar-cloth is silver, black and grey - a scarf with a woven leaf pattern. At the right side of the altar is an athame dagger with a brass leaf-shaped blade and a wooden handle.
Samhuinn altar 2019 - note the lack of a statue of the Morrigan

My altar for 2019 is blacker than the previous one, with a grey and black scarf at the base and the black and white pentacle altar cloth moved to Badb's pedestal. I wanted the altar to be sombre, funereal, a memento mori. Bloodshed isn't really the sort of death I want the altar to represent, more for it to be reflective, to be a place to contemplate our own mortality and the finite time all things have, as well as the cyclical nature of things. 

Next year I would like to incorporate my figure of an Ankou - a type of psychopomp spirit, very much like the Grim Reaper, but also like a Dullahan in some ways - a corpse (skeletal, usually, but sometimes as an undead old man) that drives a cart or wagon. Like a Dullahan, an Ankou is not a personification of death, or a death deity, but a psychopomp spirit that is subordinate to Death itself. There are various different stories about who became an Ankou and why. The Ankou figure I have is hand-made clay, quite simply designed, and is also a cone-incense burner, where the incense smoke comes out from under the hood, and he holds a 'soul' (a greenish marble). 

An altar with two silver and black damask candles at either side, a stack of three pewter-coloured resin skulls on the left of the image, a black dish of white salt with a pentagram as part of the stone dish on the left of the image, a life-size silvery resin skull with a crown on the right side of the image. The base altar cloth is silver, grey and black. There is a stand in the middle covered in a black altarcloth with white pentagrams, in front of the stand is a purple card with a sigil on it, and on the stand is a figure of Badb with black out-stretched wings and black robes. At the bottom right of the image, there is a brass-bladed athame dagger with a leaf-shaped blade and a wooden hilt. At the very front of the altar is an ornate black skull-shaped candle-holder containing a grey tealight. All the candles are lit. The altar is in front of a white wall with leaf-green paneling and a white dado rail. The image is candle-lit.
Samhuinn altar, frontal view

I would also like to put a representation of The Cailleach on my altar next year, as she is the Gaelic (especially Scottish) Goddess of the winter, who spreads her cloak of snow across the hills, and we get ice and snow from November through to February in varying amounts (it's actually between Winter Solstice and Imbolc that we get the most snow, and there's sometimes still snow on the hills in April and May!). Samhuinn marks the transition between autumn and the depths of winter. In the last decade, it's been noticeably wetter, warmer and less snowy in the Highlands, a result of climate change; putting a representation of the Cailleach on my altar will also be a reminder of what we as a species are doing to our planet. 

The purple card at the front of the altar has a sigil a friend within our Open Circle designed to reflect our group being connected, even though we couldn't actually meet up on Samhuinn for a ritual this year due to clashing schedules.  

As I am Goth, it is very easy for me to decorate my altar for this holy-day of death, as skulls and black fabric are part of my normal household decor for other parts of our home. As a Gothic person, I probably contemplate mortality and death more than the average person, and have a fascination with the macabre, which I think makes it easier for me to connect with this holiday in the abstract sense, rather than as grieving or honouring anyone specific, although some of my deceased family that I knew as well as ancestors who died before I was born and the historical people who have inspired and influenced me are honoured elsewhere. 

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