Tag Archives: Samhain

Tara: What Might Have Been

There are memories, but they are few and far between. Scattered, broken, some fleeting pictures, some emotions which long ago imbedded themselves within an ancient segment of soul. It is June 14, 2015. Tomorrow we will go to Newgrange, then onto Tara. I’m exstatic about seeing the neolithic stones, but they have left no memorable imprint on me. Tara, on the other hand, with its alluring misted images dancing almost out of reach of conscious recognition, calls me, beckons me from far away with reasons only landscapes know. The following is a story I have woven from threadbare memories, the images and emotions are genuine, but I’ve made up the dialogue and filled in the gaps with guesswork. It is a mere reconstructed approximation of what might have been, 1800 years ago.

***

“Stay where you are!” The booming bellow from the top of the wall startles me for a moment, and I shift into a watchful wariness almost instantly, despite the fact that I’ve known that entrance into Tara would be difficult at best. I freeze.

The unforgiving winds of Samhain howl over the hill, as if it were an insignificant obstacle in the surrounding landscape. The gusts of chill drive a drizzling mist before them, a watery haze too dense to be fog, more of a suspended mass of swirling spray than a genuine rain. Far away, a low moan moves slowly through trees rooted tightly together at the edge of the forest, with its brooding mysteries obscured in darkness.

Before me, the stone wall looms, cast hard and unforgiving in the cold, inertly rising from the loam three persons high, at least five paces thick. Behind it, a ditch runs the perimeter of the hill fort, and though it is hard to make them out, several men besides the one now speaking stand sentry near and at the large imposing gates.

It bothers me that I am more easily scared than my sister. I should have considered I might need to defend myself with more than words. If it comes to that, my roan staff seems hardly appropriate, and besides, my ability to fight is less than rudimentary.

“State your intent. Why come you to Tara?” The voice comes again, hollering to be heard above the din of this dreary day.

“I serve as Bandraoi to Fionn and the people of Dun Alúine. Ailbhe rigbanfhénnid of the fourth nine, is my sister. I come at her suggestion, and the request of the high king who has summoned here the protectors of his people.”

As I speak, I stare bewildered at my challenger, whose features have suddenly coalesced out of the fog. On the ground, he would stand two hands taller than myself. I cannot see his long, golden braided hair beneath the furs pulled up to shield him from the winds. The presence of the fur cloak is the only sign he does not find me cause for concern, and he shouldn’t, of course. I recognize him instantly as one of my sister’s nine, in fact we’d just been in conversation four hours earlier. But they had all gone in before me, and I, with less standing of my own, found myself outside with the other druids and freemen, waiting my turn to pass through. I know I cannot be welcomed as a friend, even though it is oddly painful to be addressed like a stranger by a member of my adopted household. But, the high king demands formality, and to him I am as much a stranger as any other. I shiver, telling myself that this is definitely because of the cold, rather than the thought of the high king. Once again, I fail at self-deception miserably.

Despite himself, the young fénnid lets a glimmer of recognition spark in his otherwise harsh unyielding eyes. I smile up at him, then, but he has turned to shout something inaudible to an unseen space behind him. Shortly after that, I am allowed inside.

I climb the rugged dips and crannies of the hill, a flurry of activity all about me. There are people standing in groups talking excitedly, mothers comforting crying children, the hurried steps of those rushing by to seek shelter in one of the four halls surrounding the main hall of the high king. Horses stamp hooves and whinny, men and women prepare provisions for tomorrow’s feast. Commotion reigns. The expectant energy of the place palpably buzzes just below what is evident with my five senses. Overwhelmed and in awe, I stop for a while to just take it all in, the sights and the sounds, the smells—and try to imagine approaching this scene tired, hungry, and cold, a girl of merely nine years. How had my sister ever made it passed the wall? But whatever the fire in her that allowed her to journey all that way, I know it is undoubtedly that same internal flame that drives her to excellence so that she now leads a fian of her own.

My sister and I have always adored each other, and the day she slipped away in the dark to leave behind an unwanted destiny and boldly go forth to seek another was one of the most devastating days of my life. I was too young to understand, and to my mind she had simply decided she could live without me. Later I would come to understand that I had very little to do with her decision. When I decided that I, too, did not wish to return to my clan of birth, it was simply a matter of logistics to locate my sister, and apply to be the bandraoi for her community instead. For that brief time we spent together as children, she’d become more family to me than anyone else ever had.

And yet, standing on the hill of Tara, it steels on me again: that gnawing fear that I will only ever exist in the shadow of my sister, that I might never be known by my own deeds, but be tolerated in places such as this out of a duty to hospitality by proxy.

I push these uncharitable thoughts away. I know that when I am lying out in the forest near a stream, breathing in the sky, such petty thoughts don’t matter. They vanish like the smoke they are and leave only truth. I cannot let myself take such things seriously now.

Much later, when I sit in the king’s great hall with the other druids, I still can’t believe I am here. What is more, to my astonishment I find myself temporarily sitting next to Íonnach Mór, the Great Ionian himself, and the high king’s Ollamh.

“Is this your first time in the hall of Tara?” he asks, after we exchange the usual introductions. A look of warmth flickers across his face. His question unnerves me. Do I look that apparently new to kingly feasting halls? Do I seem lost? Have I acted unfavorably? I gather myself to appear far more certain and sure than I feel.

“Yes, my first,” I struggle to find a voice now suddenly shy in front of this man whom I had held in such high esteem from a distance, looking me in the eye. “I’ve been out of training for only a year,” I add, for justification, in case I’m in need of one.

“There is always a first time,” he replies without judgment, to my relief. “Who from among those you have taken up with has sponsored your being here, or have you come representing yourself?”

Still worried about betraying my ignorance by saying something wrong, I gesture toward Fionn, who, with about two thirds of the fianna, has taken up a position along one of the walls, armed and ready to defend the gathering if needed. The rest are out around the grounds.

The Ollamh’s eyes widen in surprise, then he recovers: “Very good!” He exclaims approvingly, “That is no small accomplishment, and in only a year’s time. You have certainly earned your place.”

“Thank you.” I manage, unable to find more words. There are too many emotions crowding out thoughts, and I am too unprepared for this to quiet them into stillness.

“I am glad to have met you, Mairin of Almu,” the Ollamh replies, “I hope my filid will make you most welcome. Then he stands. I am shocked at how tall he is. He rivals some of the tallest men of the fianna in height, towering above me by a head and shoulders, and then some. In fact, at least to me, he is quite imposing, all around. His long flowing black curls simply add to his striking appearance. For a moment, his piercing hazel eyes hold mine in a solemn, yet vibrant gaze.

“It is a great honor, Ollamh,” I answer sincerely, also standing.

As I take my seat again, Íonnach Mór confidently makes his way toward the center of the room. The hall is quieting down, soon we will be brought to order.

Inside, I am beaming,. Feeling more accepted and right in this place, I finally begin to relax and wonder what will happen next.

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Sky Hunter: A Ghost Story

Here is the song to play with the story, which will make it even spookier.
Samhain Eve by Damh the Bard

Outside, the wind rustled the many colored fallen leaves, golds and browns, fraying at the edges, as if even after death and drying, disintegration could continue with its own haunting sentience. Outside, the large maple tree scraped its branches together slowly, ominously, while the clouds that had begun their traversing across the sky after several hours of clear and quiet blue, moved like migrating birds in strange pattern formations, onward, away. Outside, the world breathed, silently, expectantly, hushed.

Inside, the girl’s room felt safe and familiar. She was twelve years old, in that strange liminal place her parents called the ‘tweens, the age of not believing. The girl’s window was shut against the October cold, as well as the piles of snow that came in early the night before. The desk did not face the window. Instead, the window opened out along the wall to the girl’s left as she sat at her laptop checking email. The door to the girl’s room stood slightly open behind her, and she could hear her parents’ murmurs, the low somber tones of their voices that characterized their talk during this season, in contrast to their more buoyant, joyful and louder registers which lasted from Winter Solstice through Fall Equinox. “This is not a time to draw attention to ourselves,” her mother would often tell the girl, along with the girl’s younger brother, in years past when ghosts and goblins and witches with pointy hats and long root like fingers, boney and gnarled as if pulled ruthlessly from the earth, had seemed imminent and real. But her mother never told her why. Now, the girl thought adamantly, she was too old for such foolish things. At least this is what she told herself, safe and sheltered in her room, the light casting a 4 o-clock shadow across her carpeted floor, and the comforting noises of her parents’ conversation and the ding, ding of her brother’s video game floating in to her from down the hall. But blood runs cold, even for such a girl, now presumably freed from the night terrors of a child.

“Hello, little girl,” read the subject line of the newest email she was looking at, from an unknown address. How odd, the girl thought, for an email from an unknown person to have come in just now, with a subject that sounded like a greeting specifically for her. Was it spam, she wondered. The subject made no claims of false dire needs for help or an advertising scam. She opened the email. “You have caught my attention,” it said. That was all. The girl blinked uneasily. She looked again at the “from” line. From: 4231I936. No name. Was it her imagination, or had this email come in exactly when she had been thinking about her mother’s warnings about drawing attention to yourself? The coincidence did not go unnoticed. She glanced quickly out the window. Nothing strange could be seen, only the clouds had moved closer, darting across the roof of the house as if chased by the wind.

October 31st dawned with a sky that for several minutes appeared blood red. More clouds came to cover the girl’s view, clear to the horizon, and around noon it began to rain. The girl had been wary about turning on her computer and looking through her email, but it was Saturday, and she wanted to talk to her friends. There were very few emails from friends, and too many from 4231I936. With increasing fear and trepidation she read the messages. “I have sent the wind to find you.” “You don’t know who I am, but I know who you are. I know you. I will be waiting for you.” “I am not as far from you now as you might think. I wish for company… I will come for you.”

The girl’s blue eyes paled. Someone was stalking her. A secret admirer? A man? Could he see her from the window? She closed the blinds tight. Was he that close? How did he know her? Feeling slightly sweaty with fear, the girl ran to join her parents. They were in the kitchen, chopping vegetables and marinating meat for the feast of Samhain come evening.

Samhain for the girl had always been a mysterious, slightly terrifying holiday. It marked their family’s observance of the New Year, but that would be officially celebrated tomorrow, after it was clear that the pursuers in the wild hunt had passed by the family household without snatching a hapless soul. Tonight the vale between the worlds grew ever thinner, so that the chill of the storm felt like it must have originated straight out of the otherworld, the land of the ancestors and the sidhe.

The girl shivered despite the warm coziness of central heating and the security of home. They would set a plate of the feast her parents were preparing out on the lawn for their ancestors, light several candles and wish well the departed whom they could name, and then go trick-or-treating with their friends. The girl wondered whether she was getting too old for trick-or-treating, but was glad that the nebulous status of her age made it still possible for her to bravely step into the night, safely flirting with the possibilities of begrudging fairy folk and vengeful hags without ridicule.

As she approached the kitchen, the girl overheard her parents talking about the status of the sky. “A fierce storm is brewing for tonight,” her father was saying, “Dy you think we’ll see more than we bargained for this year?”

“Hush,” her mother shushed him, spying their agitated daughter standing in the doorway. Turning to her she said, “What’s wrong?”

Alarm danced along the girl’s down-turned mouth, and in her narrowed eyes. She sat heavily on a stool near the gas stove. She didn’t know how to explain the stalker, the emails, or the dread threatening to explode from inside her. “Has anyone ever been caught by the hunt across the sky?” was all she could ask. If she said more, she thought, she might upset her parents too much.

Her mother smiled. “Oh no, darling, it’s just a metaphor for the seasons, the death of summer.” Children have such endearing fears she thought, wistfully.

It was just after eleven when the girl slogged through the front door, done with her breathless night of trick-or-treating. She had left with a cloth sack to keep her candy dry: the rain came down fiercely, and now it was beginning to snow. Without knowing why, once the girl had gone into her room to change out of her wet clothes she had an irresistible urge to check her email to see whether another message was waiting for her. At the sound of the tone indicating new messages, a large clump of snow fell heavily off the maple tree, smacking the window with a loud thump. The girl jumped, and almost screamed. She could have sworn it sounded like a knock at the window.

“”We’re going out to watch for the sky riders!” her brother hollered down the hall at her. This was another of their Samhain traditions. She remembered Samhains past when she was small enough to be carried in her father’s arms, and how she had squinted up at the sky secure in his sturdy embrace, hoping, and yet not hoping, that the hunter and his hounds would appear. It was fifteen minutes to midnight. She glanced at the email from the strange address that was sitting in her inbox, as if drawn to reading it through some magnetic pull. There was now a picture attached to the email of a cloaked figure wearing a set of antlers, carrying a club and a spear, and under that, the words, “Don’t you want to live an extraordinary life, little girl?”

“No!” and, “not anymore,” thought the girl, startled. A moment later, terror tore through her. What if this being, whoever he was, could read her mind, had read her mind? She shut her eyes. Extraordinary was definitely over rated. The girl wanted from now on to spend every day eating cereal for breakfast, hugging her parents good-bye as she left for school, doing her homework, and promptly going to sleep afterward. No more day dreaming about the world out there, running through fields, making a huge difference, and whatever else might draw any attention to her inadvertently. She wanted to be left alone, forgotten.

The girl ran out of her room without looking back. Joining her brother and parents on the back porch out of reach of the snow drifts and the howling wind, she proceeded to cram herself between her mother and father who had been standing with their arms around each other. They were startled by her sudden need for affection, but held her close anyway.

“Look!” her brother shouted excitedly., “The sky hunter! I see him, I see him!”

“What’s that…” the children’s mother began, but trailed off into stunned silence.

And then, unbelieving, the girl raised her eyes, too, from where they had been squarely fixed on the various types of rock in the pavement. Far off, perhaps a mile off, a dark shadow loomed on the horizon. Slowly, deliberately, it came striding over the sky, through the clouds, as if for this strange being air had a solidity it would not lend any other. From the direction of the dark figure came a mournful, eerie howl, only partly masked by the gale of the storm picking up around them. The far off sound seemed to originate from everywhere and nowhere, ebbing and flowing, a tide of baleful voices that were decidedly not human. It seemed to the girl that the wind suddenly found an awareness of its own breathing, wailing it’s sorrow through the frenzied clouds for the first time.

The humans on the ground stood motionless, too shocked to move. As the figure approached, it grew larger, but still just as darkly undifferentiated. It appeared to be clothed by shadow, wrapped in it, like a great umbral shawl. The howling grew in intensity, now made out in individual voices, snarling and baying, hungry for the living. The girl shivered and tried hiding in her mother’s down jacket, but she was not quite small enough for that.

“Run inside!” the father shouted above the unearthly calamity over their heads. But at that moment the clouds dispersed, and the moon, still almost full, shown bright and piercing through the sky, its light like arrows, sharp and defining. The girl turned, dazzled by the sudden appearance of the light, that aberrant brightness incongruously illuminating the darkness beyond her, and saw the great hunter in the sky, poised in mid air. The fact that he hunted without companions and had no horse with him, made his image more eerie, his pursuit more ominous. He carried a spear on his back and a club in hand, his long, unruly black hair streaming out from under a full set of antlers, his ancient face grave and mocking. The long beard gave him the look of one with wild authority, as he hovered gracefully around fifty feet away and twice as high above besides. Three hounds stood on either side of him, and though they were temporarily stayed, they continually pawed the clouds with impatience.

For a second, action failed the girl, and she simply trembled violently. Then the family vanished indoors. The clouds returned with a vengeance. The door slammed. No words were exchanged. All entrances and windows locked. Candles and lights turned off. The parents and the children huddled deep under their covers and fell asleep. The girl slept next to the window, the blinds drawn against the moon, and the images of that haunted scene, now seeped into her dreams.

Outside, the ground lay heavy with mist and a deafening silence. Outside the maple tree shuddered and shook in the frenzied encroaching dark. Outside, he was waiting… waiting… until the third hour, he waited. Inside, the family began slowly to stir, and then to wake. Inside the girl’s room, nothing stirred, not even the air, and only emptiness remained to greet the day. She was gone.

***

This story is almost entirely based on a dream I had many years ago, long before I ever heard Damh the Bard’s song on the same subject. In that dream, I became the little girl, even though my waking age was around twenty-four. I awoke before she disappeared. For those who dare curiosity, go and ask the hunter of the sky what fate has befallen her, for there is always more than one version of a story to be told. However, I advise that if you do get his attention, you should probably not even bother with the locks on your windows on Samhain Eve. He’ll be waiting for you …

***

Click here to read about the wild hunt as told in different ways around the world:

Ancestor Invocation _ The One-Many OM Project

Ancestors Invocation
by Jennifer Ellison
(Originally published in Druid’s Progress 11)

We hear your whispered voices speaking words of wisdom into our unconscious minds. Your whispers awaken our dreams, our hearts, our desires. You who are our ancestors who once walked upon the earth and were part of our shared life eternal, we praise you with all that is sacred in our lives.

You who planted the seed of knowledge, you who sought inner peace, you who claimed your love for the Gods and Goddesses of old, we give you honor and praise your name.

Grandmother, without you I would not be here. Grandfather, without you I would not be here. People that have come before and gone ahead, without you I would not be here.

I give you honor and praise your name. We ask you for guidance, for you have the power of knowledge. You have been born in us, part of our being. We draw upon your strength so that we may move ever forward. Your footsteps, we follow as all children will. You are our family and with all the love in my being, I give you honor and call your names.

Ancestors, I praise you with the earth in my palm. I praise you with the fire in my heart. I praise you with my breath as I give offerings to your greatness. I praise you with the blood and water of life within my body. I call forth for you with honor for all eternity.

***

Happy samhain to all!

Caught In the Tides of Samhain

Every once and a while,
a longing …

An aching
in bone,

A sighing
Disturbing disquiet,

A howling low
Like wind,

Blowing through
Catches me sharply.

Displaced, disoriented,
The known feels so unfamiliar.

Silent emptiness, tightly contained,
Sifts through,

The outer shell,
too small.

Every once in a while,
reaching out
for you,

Isn’t enough,
Not face to face,
Speaking, no voices.

Passing by, passing through,
Each other

I am the other
Where space is crowded with your absence.

Every once and a while,
home beckons
a shining light,

And I long,
I ache for home,
For the solidness of knowing you.

For that time when we’ll be
Reunited, together,

Even though, around me
The great world unfolds, dazzling wonder,
And I love all of it.

Even though in the stillness you are
Here, I am not alone,
On this journey, still not the same.

Even though…
I long, something is missing,

Laughter and music,
Drying tears, simple gestures.

When you run to catch me flying,
I might never let you go.