Alfred has gone with the Wild Hunt

I waited as long as I could, but Sunday it was time for my Butzemann, Alfred, to leave for the Wild Hunt.

My husband still wasn’t happy about the idea, but I told him again that Alfred wants to leave, and if we don’t burn him by Tuesday, he’ll just leave anyway and leave his empty body behind. And besides, since I stuffed him with a stem from a frost-killed tomato plant from last year, I guess that means his soul was the soul of a tomato plant. Tomato plants usually only get to live for one year, so he got to live an extra year as a Butzemann.

Thankfully, it had finally gotten cold outside, or at least cold by Texas standards. In early October we had still been getting highs in the 90’s, so it really didn’t feel like Wild Hunt season. But just in time, we got a cold front that gave us nighttime lows in the 40’s. You know how cold air has a smell? I’m not sure what that smell is, scientifically, but it definitely has a smell, and just like how I associate the smell of rain with Thor, the smell of cold air means the Wild Hunt is in town.

Sunday morning I still had some garlic and onions left to plant, so Alfred helped me with that. That means I got to plant almost all of my winter garden before Alfred left. It’s a little tricky to adapt these traditions to my local climate, but I think it will work out having the Butzemann created right before it’s time to plant warm-weather plants (like tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, etc.), and burned right after planting my cold-weather plants (kale, collards, carrots, radishes, garlic, onions, etc.). That way he can participate in both growing seasons.

Alfred and I also sat down together and went over the seeds that I plan on planting next year, which will be looked after by his son. I’ll stuff his son with the stems of the tomatoes that Alfred watched over this year.

I decided I should make him a special dinner before he went, and since he’s a Texas Butzemann, I made a big pot of chili. That’s the thing that Texans always want to eat when it finally gets cold. I made it the long way with stew meat, dried beans, and chili powder made from grinding whole dried peppers (instead of the shortcut way with ground meat, canned beans, and pre-made chili powder – which is fine in certain situations, but not for special occasions). I cooked it for about 3 hours. Yes, I know some people say real Texans don’t put beans in chili, but I’m born and raised in Texas and I always do. I don’t like the idea of eating a big bowl of meat without any vegetables in there, and beans are one of the Three Sisters, and I got some very good quality beans that I knew would get nice and tender. Oh, and speaking of the Three Sisters, I also put some pumpkin puree in there to thicken it, and that was pumpkin that I grew in my garden. The sweetness from the pumpkin smooths out the spiciness without people noticing it has pumpkin in it.

I also made cornbread in a cast iron skillet to go with it. That’s the best way to make cornbread! So all three sisters were represented (along with peppers and tomatoes which are sort of honorary fourth and fifth sisters, or maybe cousins, or something like that).

I set three places at the table, one for me, one for my husband, and one for Alfred. He got his share of chili and cornbread and some Shiner Bock beer, a local brand. But then when dinner was over, it was time for him to go.

My husband made a fire in our patio fire pit. He put some juniper in there which smells really good when it burns, keeps the mosquitoes away, and burns really hot. He built up the fire so that it would be really big and hot to… you know… make it quick.

I also came up with an idea for one last thing Alfred could do for us that I hope isn’t taboo or something. Since my husband and I both have dead loved ones we remember at this time of year (both human and feline), and since Alfred was leaving to join up with the Dead, maybe he could deliver some notes to them for us. We wrote some notes for our dead loved ones and tucked them into his jeans.

Then it really was time for him to go. The fire was roaring. He was sitting on the bench on the porch and seemed ready. I got two sticks from the brush pile and used them to lift him up under his arms to stick him in the bonfire. Thankfully, he was engulfed in flames almost instantly. In fact, later I noticed I had singed my eyelashes putting him in! The flames gave off some interesting colors like blue and green before going back to orange. My husband and I sat on the bench watching the fire until it burned down to embers. I noticed there were tears in my husband’s eyes. There may have been some in mine too. Maybe some of the smoke got in our eyes.

Then we went inside and watched The Book of Life before going to sleep. I’d been wanting to watch that movie for a while, and this seemed like a very appropriate time.

I kept the ashes from the fire and will sprinkle them on the garden this weekend.

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I don’t want to burn my Butzemann.

Back in February I made my first Butzemann, Alfred.

And then about a week before the Autumn Equinox I remembered: I’m going to have to burn him soon! And I was supposed to have been giving him offerings this whole time!

I did give him offerings of coffee regularly at first, and took him out to show him the plants, especially when I was planting my spring garden, but then summer got pretty crazy with me teaching summer classes, and then we went on vacation, and at some point in all that I started neglecting him.

While having coffee with my husband, I brought it up. “I feel bad that I’ve been neglecting Alfred lately, especially since he’s going to die soon.”

My husband goes, “WHAT? What do you mean he’s going to die?”

I told him, “Remember? We have to burn him some time between the Equinox and Halloween.”

He insisted I never told him I was going to burn him, but I’m pretty sure I did. Then he suggested that we keep him for one more year, since he hasn’t been getting his coffee, but I told him about how if we keep him past Halloween, his soul will leave to join the Wild Hunt anyway, and an evil spirit will inhabit his body.

Ugh, when I first made him, I knew I’d get attached and burning him would be hard, but it’s turning out to be harder than I thought. The Autumn Equinox is already a sad time for me anyway. Four years ago on the equinox is when one of our cats died AND I found out my dad had terminal cancer. So ever since then in late September I’m reminded of that.

And when I honor the Dead on Halloween, I have started to notice how my altar to the Dead has started to grow, and realize it will only continue to grow for the rest of my life as I add more and more loved ones (human or otherwise) to it.

So I know my little Butzemann is just a doll, but suddenly he symbolizes the inevitability of Death. And my husband saying maybe we can keep him a bit longer reminds me of people saying maybe our cat would be OK and will live a bit longer or maybe my Dad would be OK and pull through his illness. But nope, that didn’t happen.

I did tell my husband that I will make another Butzemann next year, who will be Alfred’s son. That made us feel a little better, but still, it’s not the same.

And I did decide that I’m going to wait as long as possible to burn him. I’m definitely in no hurry to do it. I’ll probably end up doing it on October 28 or 29. My excuse is he has to stick around long enough to watch me plant all my fall/winter crops. In Texas, this is the beginning of the winter growing season. I already took him with me to watch me plant the kale, Swiss chard, collard greens, and lettuce. He still needs to help plant the carrots, beets, turnips, garlic, and onions.

But then once all that’s done, I guess it’s time for him to go.

Celebrating Allelieweziel this year

This year Halloween/Samhain/Allelieweziel is going to be a private thing with my husband and I. No parties. No festivals. Much of that is for practical reasons; right now we are having to avoid spending any money that’s not absolutely necessary, but I think it might be good to have a quiet Day of the Dead this year.

Since Oct. 31 is a Monday, I think I’ll cook a special meal on Sunday and honor the Dead then. Monday we will be giving out candy to the Trick-or-Treaters and probably watching Young Frankenstein honor Gene Wilder who joined the Ancestors this year.

This year I think I will try to do a little more of an Urglaawe-influenced observance. That means honoring Wudan (Odin), Frau Holle, and maybe even Ewicher Yeeger as they start the Wild Hunt.

Of course, Odin is already one of my main deities, but the other two are less familiar. I’m interested in learning more about them. Several months ago my husband found an old sickle that looked like it had been lying around for a very long time. He put resin over the cracked old wooden handle and polished up the metal blade to remove the rust. An old sickle is an odd thing to find, so I took it to be a sign, and added it to my altar as something for Holle.

I’ve been doing some research on Allelieweziel, and read that it can be celebrated as a 12 day holiday that doesn’t end until November 11. Well that’s nice. That means if I don’t have time to do everything I’d like to do next Sunday, I’ll have some more time.

Ever since my dad died, I’ve been thinking about Death a lot more than I ever did before. Sometimes it really troubles me. It feels like my life is wooshing by faster and faster. Even though I’m in my 30’s, and people don’t usually call you “middle-aged” until you are in your 40’s or 50’s, I’m already over half as old as my dad was when he died. I already started getting some strands of gray hair a couple of years ago. (And I didn’t pluck them! They’re still there. I earned those gray hairs, dammit! Even if they do remind me that I’m not a kid anymore.) It’s good to remember that we are mortal, but I think sometimes I let it depress me too much, especially when I think about my loved ones eventually dying. I have yet to find the right balance between the awareness of my own mortality being a motivator to live life to its fullest without letting it get me too depressed.

In Urglaawe, the Wild Hunt is Holle gathering up the souls of the Dead, and then on Walpurgisnacht she grinds them in her mill so they can go on to the next life. I like that better than the idea of Vallhalla, which I always thought seemed too Christian-influenced. The thing is, once you’re ground in the mill, what is left of you? Is it anything recognizable as being you anymore? The person you were still becomes just a memory.

Keep the Dead in Halloween

I grew up in a non-religious household. We celebrated Halloween with trick-or-treating, but when I asked my mom what Halloween is all about, she said something like, “I don’t know, the harvest, I guess.” That didn’t make sense to me. What do scary things have to do with the harvest? Why do all the Disney cartoons say that ghosts wander around on Halloween night?

When I became pagan, Halloween was enhanced with spiritual meaning, just like Yule/Christmas and Easter were. I always felt like there was something more going on here, and finally I knew what it was.

I’ve been seeing some other blog posts about pagans having trouble reconciling the fun, festive atmosphere of modern secular American Halloween with the somber, serious business of honoring the dead for Samhain. Most pagans seem to want to keep those two things separate. Trick-or-treating just doesn’t go with honoring the ancestors, they say.

I just kept thinking over and over, “They obviously don’t live in an area with a large Hispanic population, do they?” I guess I’m lucky to live in South Texas surrounded by Hispanics celebrating Dia de los Muertos, so I can see how a culture successfully combines death and celebration. I think we pagans need to take a cue from them.

Yes, I have read some articles about how it’s cultural appropriation to combine Dia de los Muertos with Halloween, but the Hispanics around here don’t seem to mind. The Hispanic neighborhoods around here seem to do a better job celebrating Halloween than the white neighborhoods, judging from the elaborate decorations they put up. My husband and I decorate our house, but we’re kind of an exception. I really worry about Halloween being in decline because there are still a lot of people who think it’s evil and satanic. Many people have bought the idea that trick-or-treating is dangerous and would rather take their kids to the mall than let them roam their own neighborhood. The Hispanic people give me hope that at least they’re keeping the holiday alive while white people are abandoning it.

The local grocery store has Dia de los Muertos dishes, aprons, tablecloths, candles, and even reusable shopping bags. They have new Halloween/Dia de los Muertos shopping bag designs every year. This year they have skeleton cats and dogs, so I just bought a cat one. The few trick-or-treaters we do get in our neighborhood often use these bags for their candy. Last year I got a really cool skull plate that I use for offerings on my altar this time of year, and I got several of the candles for the altar as well.

It just doesn’t seem like cultural appropriation to incorporate Dia de los Muertos stuff into my Samhain/Halloween celebrations when it’s being sold at the grocery store where everyone in town shops. I don’t view Hispanics as being immigrants or foreigners here. If anything, it’s the other way around. They’re the natives and I’m the immigrant.

Maybe it’s not so much appropriation as syncretism. It’s not like I’m merging together completely unrelated things. The Catholic Church already did the syncretism for me when they incorporated Celtic Samhain and the Mesoamerican festivals of the dead into All Saint’s Day.

Dia de los Muertos is a festival in honor of the dead, but it’s also fun. That’s the whole point. One of the traditions is telling humorous anecdotes about the deceased loved one you’re honoring. The altars are covered in brightly colored marigolds, and all the skulls and skeletons look happy. They represent the souls of the dead who have come to join the party. Festive foods like sweets and alcohol are left as offerings for them. The living and the dead are both supposed to be having fun.

I think that having a holiday like this is something our culture sorely needs. We don’t like to think about death until we have to. We pretend it doesn’t exist. I’ve been thinking a lot about death since my father died. How our family dealt with his illness could be a textbook example of how not to deal with the terminal illness of a family member. Nobody wants to talk about death and dying, and so we don’t do a good job planning what we’re going to do when that time comes, and that causes a lot of unnecessary suffering, both for the dying person and their family. By denying death, we actually make it even sadder than it needs to be.

Maybe more pagans need to read The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury (or see the animated movie based on it). Yes it’s a children’s book, but it’s about the true meaning of Halloween, which is about facing things that scare you, like death, in a fun way. When people think Halloween is only about trick-or-treat candy or sexy costumes at adult Halloween parties, we forget that important lesson. I think modern pagans have the potential to bring that back into Halloween.

I admit that honoring my Dad this Halloween will be difficult, like it was last Halloween (which was the first one after his death). His death is still recent enough that it still hurts, but one day I hope I’ll be able to do it happily.

Halloween is also considered by many pagans and heathens as when Wild Hunt starts riding, and that fits in well too. There are many Wild Hunt traditions, but they all seem to involve a god or other important spirit riding around with the spirits of dead humans. Just like in Hispanic belief about Dia de los Muertos, during the Wild Hunt it’s easier for dead souls to visit the living. In Urglaawe, the Wild Hunt is Frau Holle gathering up wandering dead souls, usually accompanied by Wotan, to guide them to the next life.

And yes, I know the Hunt can be scary. I think that’s because there’s no guarantee that all the dead souls wandering around are going to be friendly. Hispanic customs put the emphasis on friendly spirits that you want to welcome into your home, but if a person was a troublemaker in life, why wouldn’t they be the same in death? Some of them might be rowdy, mischievous spirits having a night on the town and getting a kick out of terrorizing the living, like living teenagers smashing pumpkins and egging houses.

I seem to remember reading that main danger of the Wild Hunt is that the dead souls might want to have you join them if you encounter them. This is a problem if you happen to like being alive right now and would like to stay that way for a while longer. There are several superstitions about how to avoid having this happen, so while you’re welcoming the beloved dead to enjoy the feast you have set out from them, it’s probably also sensible to do a little warding to keep the troublesome spirits away.

I wonder if the people who are anti-Halloween are actually feeling this slight bit of danger in the air. Oh, they may try to blame it on Satan, but what if it’s actually the Wild Hunt? For people who want to deny death so much, I can see how it can be frightening having so many ghosts wandering around.

There’s no need to separate modern American Halloween from honoring the Dead. What we need is to integrate them back together. Halloween is a time for transgressing boundaries. I can see why that would be upsetting to people who wish to maintain strict boundaries between life and death, safety and danger, joy and sorrow, tricks and treats, but that’s not how life works.

We need Halloween. We need to send our kids to school in superhero costumes and let them ring the doorbells of strangers at night and let them eat too much candy, when the rest of the year they have to be well-behaved and eat healthy food. We need to invite the souls of our dead loved ones to join our Halloween parties. We need to feel the hair on the back of our necks stand up when the Wild Hunt passes overhead. We need to visit the graves of our loved ones and remember to live life to its fullest because we never know when we’ll join them in the grave.

Pagans, we can do this. We can make Halloween mean something again.

How Samhain Went

October is over, and now we really enter the dark part of the year. All the activities for Samhain/Halloween/Day of the Dead are done, and I can reflect on how it all went. Samhain is the biggest holiday for Celtic and Celtic-inspired pagans, and since most pagans I know fall into that category, I participate (even though Yule is really the most important Heathen holiday). But more importantly, I think having a holiday to honor the Dead is a really good idea, especially this year, the year my father died.

This year’s Samhain season had its ups and downs, and unfortunately I’m left with some feelings of disappointment. Maybe it’s because this year’s Samhain was especially important to me, so I had a lot of anticipation.

I’m mentioned here before that I attend this semiannual pagan campout held for Beltane and Samhain each year. It’s a splinter group from a much larger pagan festival here in Central Texas, but I wasn’t involved in the schism. I’ve mainly been going to this one because it’s cheaper, quieter, and smaller than the big festival (which I have also been to a few times), and therefore usually more suitable to an introvert like me. This has been going on for a little over ten years now.

When this campout first started, there were a lot of activities, probably because people were trying to recreate the big festival. During the day there were crafts and workshops, and every night there was a bonfire. On some Beltanes there were unofficial handfastings, or at least re-dedication rituals for couples, but my favorite was always the Samhain ritual.

Some of the founding members would dress up as various death gods, and the rest of us would walk down a trail through the woods to the big pavilion, encountering the death gods along the way. At each step, one of them would have something to say to us. There was Odin, then Anubis, and finally when we got to the pavilion, we were welcomed to the Underworld by Hades and Persephone.

Then we’d partake in the Dumb Feast. People would bring dishes that reminded them of their Beloved Dead. An altar was set up with pictures of the deceased (including pets), and we’d say a few words about our loved ones, and then eat in silence. There was a small wooden coffin with pens and paper to write messages on. Then when people were done eating, the coffin was closed, and then carried in a procession to a funeral pyre set up in the main fire ring. Then it was burned, and we’d stand around in silence or say some more words about our loved ones. When the coffin was finally completely consumed by the flames, the rite was over, and we could relax and pull out the drums and have fun the rest of the night.

That’s how it used to be. Over the years, the ritual has shrunk. The woman who used to play Persephone moved away. She was one of my college friends, and when she graduated, she moved to Portland. When she left, the man who played Hades said he wouldn’t be doing it anymore without her, and that was the end of that aspect of the ritual. The man who played Anubis now acted as priest over the Dumb Feast along with his wife. They’d do a Wiccan ritual under the pavilion as priest and priestess calling the quarters and the Goddess and God. Not my style of ritual, but at least it was a ritual.

Then the priestess got breast cancer, and last year her picture was on the altar for the dead. I had actually set up that altar myself and put a picture of our cat on it, and later when I passed by I noticed someone had added her picture. We had a dumb feast without much ritual to go with it, but when we burned the coffin, the man who used to be Anubis had a lot to say about his departed wife.

I hoped that would show people how important Samhain is. Now for the first time one of our own was on the altar. One day each one of us will die too. Don’t we also want to be remembered in a Samhain ritual after we’ve passed?

But at the beginning of this October, what I always feared happened. A post by one of the people who organize the campout appeared on the Facebook page, saying to let her know if anyone wants to do this coffin ritual this year, but otherwise they’re not going to bother with it. The guy who usually builds the coffin said he could build one if anyone really wants it, but someone else would need to take care of all the rest.

I commented on the post in a panic saying yes please build the coffin because my dad just died and I’ll take care of all the rest of the ritual. I was freaked out and upset until he finally replied saying that would be no problem.

And now I had committed to running this year’s Samhain ritual myself, because if I didn’t do it, no one would. The campout was the weekend before Halloween weekend, so it wouldn’t conflict with any at-home Halloween activities people had. That didn’t leave me much time to prepare.

I had already decided what I would make for Dad for the Dumb Feast. When I went to visit him in January, he made me some salmon. Dad loved cooking, and would sit and watch the Food Network all day, even when he was too sick to eat anything. He sat with me while I ate my salmon, and he drank his Ensure and talked about how much he’s looking forward to beating the cancer so he could eat solid food again. He was about to go into surgery to get the damaged part of his esophagus removed. He had gotten radiation and chemotherapy to kill the cancer in his esophagus, and then was going to have that part cut out.

The next day he had the surgery, but when the doctors cut open his chest, they saw the cancer had spread to his stomach, and just closed him back up again. While he was in recovery, the doctors called the family in and showed us pictures of his stomach dotted with tumors…

But I digress. I got Dad a nice salmon fillet and wrapped it in a foil packet with butter and lemon to cook on the grill and contribute to the Dumb Feast. I also brought pens and notepads for people to write messages to the Dead on to put in the coffin. When we got to the campground, the little wooden coffin was already on a picnic table under the main pavilion. I put the pens and paper next to it, and then set up the altar on the picnic table across from it. Pagans like to use sarongs for altar cloths, and I have a dark blue one with black bats on it (very different from the usual Celtic knots you see) that I got from the gift shop when I was an intern at Bat Conservation International in Austin. I like to use for Samhain. I think bats are appropriate animal spirits for this time of year. I put on a picture of my Dad that was taken at my wedding, the last time I saw him healthy (and didn’t know he would be dead in almost exactly a year). I added two Day of the Dead skull candles from the local grocery store, and my black Odin candle with the raven on the front, since Odin is the God of Death.

Next to the picture of Dad I put a bottle of Dr. Pepper. He said that was one of the few things he could drink when he was on chemotherapy that “went down” well, without making him nauseous. I also added a paper plate to put food offerings on for the Dead.

I ended up having about ten people attend the ritual, which was only a small fraction of the people who were at the campout. I designated another picnic table as the place to put the food, buffet-style, and then we sat down at another table. I told people we’d first say a few words about our loved ones, and explain why we brought what we did, and then the Dumb Feast would begin, and we’d serve ourselves and eat in silence. I told them while we were eating, anyone could go and put offerings on the plate, which was going into the coffin when we were done, and I also had pens and paper to write notes to put in the coffin. Then when it looked like most people were done eating, we’d close up the coffin and take it to the funeral pyre.

Of course, at first nobody wanted to talk, so I had to start. I told them about my dad, and struggled to keep from breaking down and crying (less than successfully). My husband also added some things. Then some other people spoke up briefly about their dead loved ones. Then we had the Dumb Feast, some people added offerings to the plate, and added notes to the coffin. When it looked like people were done, I put the paper plate with offerings into the coffin, and we closed the coffin up and proceeded to the funeral pyre in the big fire pit. A stack of juniper had been set up nicely, and the coffin was set on top. The fire was lit, and we stood around in silence watching it burn. Before it was completely burned, people started to squirm and look at me for some signal that they could end the ritual and start the reveling, but I didn’t budge until the coffin completely collapsed in the flames. These things need to be done to completion.

Once the ritual was over, more people started to gather around for the revel fire. I overheard the man who used to play Odin say (presumably to answer a question about why he didn’t participate in the ritual) that, “I don’t really consider myself a pagan anymore.” The man who used to play Hades stayed at his campsite the entire time. People said he is having trouble walking down the steep, rocky path to where the fire pit is due to a bad knee. Though he’s already said on his Facebook that he’s “pretty much an atheist,” so he might have not been interested anyway, bad knee or not. The man who used to play Anubis didn’t come at all this year.

If I hadn’t insisted upon a ritual, there really wouldn’t have been anything “pagan” about this campout at all. Same thing happened at Beltane when my husband and I brought that Maypole. Otherwise it’s just like any other campout with people sitting around knitting and talking by day, and singing songs around the campfire at night. Nothing religious at all about it really, just a social event. Obviously that’s what most people there want.

I know a lot of teens and tweens come and go in paganism as a “phase”, but these are people in their 40’s and 50’s. Was it just a phase for them too? Or are they older and wiser than me and have figured out that this is all silly after all? Maybe it’s only a matter of time until I also mature and figure that out for myself, and one day I look back on my Heathen years and say, “What was I thinking?”

But right now I still think rituals are important. I think they’re important no matter what you believe about the afterlife or deities. Rituals are a way to express how important an event is in your life. When someone dies, you want a ritual to say, “Hey, this person is no longer here, and I think this person was important and needs to be remembered.” My dad didn’t even get a funeral. He was just cremated and that was that. He said he didn’t want a funeral, But I still felt like something was missing. Without a funeral, it felt like he died and nobody cared.

Modern paganism is a way for us to have those important rituals in our lives outside of a Christian context. But will paganism even survive when so many people just view it as a phase that they grow out of? Part of the power of a ritual is continuity from one generation to the next. We honor the ancestors, partly because one day we will be ancestors ourselves, and we hope that our descendants will honor us.

But they won’t if the idea of honoring the Dead was just a phase we went through that we decided wasn’t worth continuing.