At the Mirk and Midnight Hour


Celebrated October 31st - November 1st

The Sun Reaches 15° Scorpio: the Equinox/Solstice Midpoint on November 7th

picWe're fast approaching another turning of the wheel of the year: dark Scorpio's own solar festival, Samhain, is upon us. Marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter here in the north, at Samhain (pronounced SAH-win or SOW-in) we dive into the darkest months of the year.

One of four Celtic solar festivals, or "cross-quarter" days, along with Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnassadh, as the year gives way to the dark of winter here, conversely, those south of the equator are celebrating the beginning of their growing season: old Sol is reaching higher and higher in the sky, the days are lengthening, Central to Celtic thought was the notion of beginnings in darkness, each day began at sundown, each season and year on an "eve."the hawthorn, fairy thorn, is in bloom.

The term Samhain is the Modern Irish equivalent of the Scottish Gaelic Samhuinn, shortened from Mì na Samhna, all denoting the month of November. The night of October 31st (Halloween) is Oíche Shamhna or November Eve. Central to Celtic thought was the notion of beginnings in darkness, with cycles building towards the light: each day began at sundown, each season and year on an "eve." This notion reflects the natural pattern of day dawning from the seed of dark night: every day the sun climbs from nadir to zenith, then begins its descent back into renewing night.

So too the year has a similar rhythm, marked by these seasonal turning points in the year. John O'Donohue, Irish Catholic scholar and writer, noted that we too carry this motif for we are all "children of darkness," he wrote, "formed in the dark sea of our mother's womb — our own birth is life moving from dark to light."

Winter Sunset on Navarro Beach, Mendocino Coast, California (Photo by Annie Kalantarian)

A Time Between

So, as Samhain marked the end of a year, Oíche Shamhna was the "night between years" — when the world slipped outside of time, and the fairy host and other spirits, benign and menacing, roamed Middle Earth. At this final harvest festival, any remaining corn, fruits and berries were harvested, tucked safely away for the winter. For after Samhain, not only were spoiling frosts a reality, it was thought that anything left on the vine would become bewitched and unsafe to eat.

The Pooka, a grotesque black "night mare" with glowing red eyes, a creature from old Irish lore, is associated with this particular warning. Out and about on Oíche Shamhna, she would urinate on anything left on the vine or in the fields. Joining the Pooka and the fairies was the wailing bean sidhe (banshee), and all were said to be visible to human eyes on this night. Entrances to the underworld domain of the fey were thrown open and humans were free to come and go, so long as the fair folks' (rather obscure) rules or taboos were not broken. Opportunities to mess up of course were stacked against any mortal's favor, so the wise settled in for a peaceful night by a cozy fire, doors and windows locked tight.

At Samhain, it was also thought the souls of the dead returned to their homes, and places were set for them at the dinner table and special treats laid out for them. Mumming and guising were part of the celebrations, with people going door-to-door in costume, sometimes reciting verses in exchange for food. The modern Halloween custom of trick-or-treating is an obvious remnant of this much older practice. In Mexico and other Latin American countries, November 1st is designated as Dìa de los Muertos, or "Day of the Dead" a colorful holiday set aside to honor departed loved ones.

In a talk Joseph Campbell gave on the symbolism and deeper meaning of Halloween, he discussed the psychological function of remembering deceased loved ones at this time of year.

In fact, the day after Hallowe'en is All Saints' Day followed by All Souls' Day. In Europe on these days people go to the graves of their beloved ones who have passed away. For centuries, they brought not only prayers and recollections but also little gifts. There is a secret psychological aspect to this. So often when a dear person dies, we have a sense of guilt and regret for the lovely things we have not done, and for the little negative acts that we wish we had not rendered.

This can be associated with the idea of the dead as tricking those and hurting those who have hurt them. There is a fear of the dead that is an old, old feeling. It is based on this regret, actually, with respect to the attitude we have had toward them. In Germany and Vienna and the Catholic Europe generally, people go to the graves. But in the Celtic world — the world with which Hallowe'en is associated — it is the dead who come to visit the homes. Hallowe'en is the night of the re-entry of the dead into their domiciles, visiting again the people with whom they had dwelled. The idea of giving a gift, a treat, or suffering a trick — a shocking, surprising, nasty little trick — is associated with the guilt feeling.

Because spirits wandered loose on Samhain, much of the associated folk lore has to do with protection. Crosses were fashioned from rowan or hawthorn wood, mullein, rosemary, sage and other herbs were harvested and tied into small bundles and hung with the crosses over doorways and windows. Other plants associated with Samhain are those familiar harvest fruits and nuts: pumpkin and other kinds of winter squash, gourds, apple, pear, picquince, Persephone's pomegranate (of course), along with walnuts, pecans, and hazelnuts. Wild mushrooms and late-ripening berries, especially rowan and hawthorn berries are also associated with Samhain, as well as rose hips which hang, ripe for the picking, at this time of year on wild and heirloom roses.

Oaks and their leaves and acorns are also associated with Samhain, as well as turnips which happen to be the precursors to the now common pumpkin jack o'lanterns. The larger, fodder varieties were hollowed out, lit with candles, and either carried or placed in windows to ward off evil spirits. Mullein's downy leaves and stems in earlier days provided wicks for oil lamps used specifically for spells and other magical rites. In Scott Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, he notes that, Mullein, a love-attracting herb, when placed under your pillow, is said to keep nightmares (so perhaps the Pooka too) at bay. Apparently it is used in India for similar protective purposes where it is considered a potent safeguard against evil spirits.

Sachets can be made with any of the Samhain-related herbs. Fill a small bag with dried sage, rosemary or mullein to tuck in your purse or hang in your house or car for protection. You can add crystals to the sachet associated with Scorpio and this time of year to amplify the sympathetic magic: Topaz, Malachite, Apache Tear, Boji Stone, Emerald, Garnet, Herkimer Diamond, Obsidian, Rhodochrosite, and Ruby are some examples.

Tinctures can also be made with rose hips, rowan or hawthorn berries. Over at The Druid's Garden, there are easy to follow directions and helpful photos showing how to make a healing tincture from "haws" or hawthorn berries. Making a hawthorn tincture at Samhain is especially appealing as it is the sacred tree of Beltane, Samhain's solar year/cross-quarter complement, we celebrated half a year ago now.

John Michael Greer, in his book, The Druidry Handbook, notes that the deity most commonly invoked for Samhain in the modern British Druid Revival is Ceridwen, goddess of wisdom and keeper of the sacred cauldron. In Old Irish mythic lore, the Morrigu or Morrigan, raven-goddess of war, is also associated with this time of year. In The Fairy Tradition in Britain, Lewis Spence noted that Morrigu implies "Great Queen," possibly because she was the consort of the Irish war-god. She appears to the Irish hero Cuchullin as a great beauty "clad in garments of all colors" offering her friendship and support. But in the stories, Cuchullin insults her, and she becomes a formidable enemy. To plague Cuchullin, Morrigan takes the form of an eel, a she-wolf and a red heifer, and it may be that these disguises are in some sense symbolic of her nature. The eel is assurredly an elfin creature, as evidenced, Spence asserts, in the ballad of Tam Lin and other folk stories.

Just at the mirk and midnight hour, the fairy folk will ride....

Tam Lin is an old favorite folk tale of mine. And after becoming an astrologer, seeing the Scorpio motifs in the tale, I understand why. A popular tale for many centuries from the borderlands of Scotland, the story is set on Halloween, when a young woman encounters the fey and handsome Tam Lin while walking through a forbidden forest. They fall in love and she becomes pregnant with his child. Unfortunately a fairy is unavailable for marriage. But she soon learns that Tam Lin is actually a mortal man whom the faeries captured, and so she vows to rescue him.

"But the night is Halloween, lady,
The morn is Hallowday,
Then win me, win me, if ye will,
For well I think ye may."

"Just at the mirk and midnight hour
The fairy folk will ride,
And they that would their true-love win,
At Miles Cross they must bide."

So she must find the faeries at midnight on Samhain and pull Tam Lin down from his horse as the fey troop passes by. If she can accomplish this, she must then hold on to him as he is transformed by the Fairy Queen into a variety of frightful beasts, ending in a pillar of fire.

Here is a lovely ballad version of Tam Lin by Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer:

In the garden, the transition from summer to winter is well underway. The last of the early girl and cherry tomatoes hang on vines that have seen better days. One lone basil plant remains in the ground, drinking in the waning sun. The cosmos are still blooming and the roses are in their final bloom. The big, orange-red "Cinderella" pumpkins, all except one, have been roasted, pureed, and frozen, five pints waiting to be turned into holiday sweet breads and pies. Last year's garlic is dried and hanging, a quarter of it already consumed, while this year's crop, planted a few weeks ago, has newly emerged to grow slowly all winter through next spring. Tough, hardy mustard greens, winter lettuce, kale, chard, and parsely grow lush in beds that last held potatoes, bell peppers, chilies and eggplants. Under frost blankets, they'll keep supplying us with fresh greens all winter.

Our Beautiful Oonagh and the Autumn Garden

Gardening, more than anything else, links me with these never-ending cycles of Mother Earth. In honor of the Pooka, I'll harvest the rest of the slicer tomatoes, the small chilies and that last basil plant before she can get to them. I'll make a batch of green tomato/tart apple chutney and apple butter soon, enough to last the year. Adding them to the pickles, relish, tomatillos, jams and roasted chilies already put up. Such a deep, secure feeling comes from a pantry filled with mason jars of homegrown food. The act of preserving and canning connects me with my grandmothers, generations of women stretching back further than I can imagine, whose blood mingles with my own. Wherever they were, they were doing the same thing at this time of year, at summer's end, harvest's end, putting food aside for the long winter.

Honoring these sacred turnings in the solar year enriches us in ways that nothing else can. We are part of an eternal spiral, this endless dance of natural time. If you light a bonfire, hearth fire, or a simple candle in a hollowed-out pumpkin in honor of this turning of the wheel, you are reviving a practice that stretches back through millennia. Observing these ancient holy days helps us heal a split, one that has gone on far too long, between Mother Earth and her human children.



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"Blue Moon" Apple Butter

Making Apple Butter at Samhain is one of my favorite ways to honor the season. Here's my own recipe which I adapted from the basic directions from my Fanny Farmer Cookbook. I use apple cider in the initial cooking instead of water and I substitute part of the sugar in the recipe with condensed apple juice.

Wash apples and quarter without peeling or coring. Placed quartered apples in a large, heavy-bottom dutch oven with the apple cider. Cover and cook over medium heat until the apples are completely soft.

Put cooked apples through sieve or food mill. Return the applesauce to the pot and add the remaining ingredients. Cook covered over low heat until the sugar dissolves. Uncover and cook on low, stirring frequently to avoid scorching, until thick and smooth (about an hour). Pour into hot, sterilized jars, and seal. If canning, process using the water bath method for 10 minutes. Yield is approximately 4 pints.

Apple & Green Tomato Chutney

Place all ingredients in a heavy bottom saucepan and simmer on low heat, stirring frequently, until thickened — about two hours. Recipe has sufficient acid for water bath canning method. Can also make this recipe with rhubarb, substituting some or all of the apples or green tomatoes.

Water bath canning method is sufficient for this chutney, recipe yields 3½ pints.

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"At the Mirk and Midnight Hour" is also a phrase used in Robert Burns' 1793 ballad, Lord Gregory, a retelling of a traditional Scots ballad, The Lass of Lochroyan, Annie of Lochroyan who dies while trying to rescue Lord Gregory, her lover and father of her child, who was captured by the fairies and held in a tower in the sea.

Cunningham, Scott. Encylopedia of Magical Herbs. Minnesota: Llewellyn, 2005.

The chutney recipe shared above was adapted from The Joy of Cooking.

Spence, Lewis. The Fairy Tradition in Britain. London: Rider and Co., 1948.

Information on the etymology of the Gaelic terms for Samhain is from this well-researched Wikipedia article.