Pagan Rituals for October

Pumpkins are a New World plant; historic European pagans did not use pumpkins in their October rituals.
... Hemera Technologies/ Images

October, in the middle of the fall season, lends itself to pagan and nature-inspired celebrations of the harvest, the border between dark and light, the remembrance of the dead and the start of a new cycle. Oktoberfest honors the abundance of food and drink with beer, wine and food festivals. Alban Elfed is a Druid observance of the autumn equinox. Halloween, both secular and pagan, is a contemporary ritual, firmly anchored in the distant past.

1 Ancient Celts

Samhain, an old Gaelic word meaning "summer's end," is the pagan precursor to Halloween. As early Christians attempted to replace old Celtic pagan rituals and deities with their own beliefs, Samhain became All Hallow's Eve -- Halloween -- the night before Christian All Saints Day. The ancient Celts observed Samhain at the end of October as a mysterious time when the veil between the worlds of the dead and living was thinnest. They practiced divination and scrying, possible antecedents of modern customs like bobbing for apples, to ask the dead for guidance and to foretell the future. People disguised themselves with costumes to avoid harm from wandering spirits, lit fires against the dark of winter nights and jumped over them for luck. Many of the old rituals, like leaving sweets on the doorstep to appease mischievous ghosts, have become modern secular customs.

2 Druid Samhain

Samhain is an important Druid festival that honors the dead and welcomes a new year. Druids invoke the Cailleach, or Crone, aspect of the goddess in their rituals to respect the passing of lives into the spirit realm and the acceptance of significant life changes. Cailleach embodies the wisdom of age, a valued quality in Druidry. She takes the last leaves from the tree, the last blossoms from the natural world, and all the outgrown habits and burdens given to her to prepare the way for a new beginning. Some Druid celebrations take place around a bonfire in a sacred location -- a grove of trees or an ancient circle of stones. Prayers for the recently deceased and the year's newborns are woven into music, storytelling and poetry. Participants release all that was left behind or lost during the year, offer food and drink to the gods and share a communal feast.

3 Wiccan Rituals

Modern Wiccans share many beliefs with Druids and regard Samhain as an important milestone in the year. Wiccans create an altar in the center of a cast circle with pictures of ancestors or newly-departed loved ones. They include pentacles, five-pointed stars inside circles that signify the harvest goddess Kore, divine energy and the unity of all things. Candles representing light in the dark time of year burn on the altar and in the four compass directions. A feast of ritual foods -- these may be favorite foods of the participants -- is symbolically offered to the ancestors and then shared among all the celebrants. The feast is opened and closed with spoken blessings -- everyone gets a chance to light a candle for their ancestors and say a personal blessing.

4 Contemporary Neo-Pagans

Neo-Pagan groups base some celebrations on ecological concerns. The Pagan Life community at the University of Nebraska for instance staged a late-October ritual to give thanks for the harvest -- a scant one due to a severe drought -- and ask for abundance during the coming year in 2012. Participants stood in a circle on the campus plaza and lit ritual candles invoking the elements. They called on the many pagan names of the Horned God and the Great Mother -- Pan, Osiris, Hades, Artemis, Demeter, Isis, Cerridwen -- for assistance. Celebrants asked for sufficient rain, fertile soil, gentle sun and softer winds to encourage a better harvest. The ritual ended with the release of the spirits of earth, wind, water and fire and of the god and goddess, and a petition for blessings from ancestors.

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .