Samhain 2015: Hailing the Mighty Dead

“Learning to live with one’s own mortality is the most universal of educations in reality.”

–Harold Bloom

According to noted grief expert David Kessler (I highly recommend his book, co-authored with Louise Hay, entitled You Can Heal Your Heart: Finding Peace After a Breakup, Divorce, or Death), a person can be said to be healthily coping with the loss of a loved one when heartwarming memories of the deceased outweigh the pain of the loved one’s absence in the physical world. But the loving connection with the deceased is never severed, Kessler asserts, and the spiritual relationship between the deceased and the person grieving her or his loss on the physical plane takes on a new level of intensity.

That “intensity” is pretty much what the Samhain season represents for me and devotional practices to what we in my former Gardnerian coven used to call “the Mighty Dead” or “the Hidden Company” take center stage in my home and at the public Pagan rituals I attend at this time of year. Those who have gone before us, those who have made us the walkers of the crooked path that we are today, are rightly honored, remembered, given thanks and praise, and in many cultural traditions, literally fed. They may be ancestors of blood and bone or ancestors of spirit, mentors to whom you’re not physically related.  I am glad that at this Samhain season, the loving counsel of those who have gone before me and helped make me the Witch and Priestess that I am today is as near to me as the rustling wind ushering fallen maple leaves, or the moon-kissed shadows that slink across the walls of my home in this season of encroaching darkness.

Spirits evoked by the Danse Macabre at the Bristol Renaissance Faire. Photo I took this past August.

Spirits evoked by the Danse Macabre at the Bristol Renaissance Faire. Photo I took this past August.

In Loving Memory of Donna Cole Schultz, a.k.a. Lady Morda

First and foremost, I equate the season of Samhain with the living legacy of my greatest spiritual mentor and influence, Donna Cole Schultz. Daughter of the late Sally and Arthur Weiss, beloved wife and ritual partner of Robert Schultz, Donna was a formidable Witch and exemplary teacher who did her Gardnerian lineage proud. My best friend Richie and I met her and the other fine folk whom I would eventually be honored to know as my coven-mates on October 31, 1999; we were invited as special guests to the normally very private/closed rituals hosted by The Temple of the Sacred Stones, Chicago’s longest-running Gardnerian coven (in 1999, it was nearing its 30-year anniversary; by contrast, I was 26 at the time). Richie and I were given an address to a posh Lincoln Park brownstone flat and told to show up between 6:30 and 6:45 that evening with our contribution to the potluck supper. The ritual would begin promptly at 7; I would learn that very evening that Donna looked with severe disdain upon the phenomenon accepted in other groups as “Pagan Standard Time.” Latecomers simply were not let into the building.

Donna in her and Robert's amazing home temple space. Photo courtesy of Robert Schultz.

Donna in her and Robert’s amazing home temple space, 2001. Photo courtesy of Robert Schultz.

What reverberated throughout my soul on that Halloween night was the beauty of ceremony and the profound, ingrained sense of pious devotion and genuine love Donna, her husband Robert, and the other Temple of the Sacred Stones members exuded towards their Goddess and God of the coven, the Elemental Watchtowers, and the spirits saluted as “the Mighty Dead” and “the Hidden Company.” The air in the Temple space was highly charged, potent. I really felt a profound feeling of homecoming, and Donna was thrilled to have Richie and me as guests and seemed quite pleased with our level of ritual proficiency and clerical potential.

Afterwards while socializing at the potluck supper, Donna was very happy to hear of my Serbian heritage and Eastern Orthodox Christian upbringing. She told me that if she were to ever convert to Christianity, “Eastern Orthodoxy would be the way to go.” She pointed out that the ceremonialism in the faith of my upbringing had a lot of parallels in the structure and hierarchy–yes, hierarchy, so take that, Dianic Wiccans!–of Gardnerian ritual, which I’d certainly seen for myself that evening, and even the beautiful solemnity of the invocations and responses made me think of the call-and-response antiphonal chanting that fueled so much of my youthful catechism. Donna described herself as a “Jew-Witch” cosmopolitan woman who traveled broadly and learned a great deal of indigenous witchcraft traditions wherever she and Robert spent a great deal of time, whether sojourning in East Africa or Hong Kong or Brazil. (Her and Robert’s astoundingly spacious, beautifully decorated, and cat-haunted condo was chock-full of magical artifacts from their travels.) When Donna regaled us all at length with personal anecdotes of magical adventures in the vibrant London occult scene of the 1960s, I felt as though I had been a part of it all also. She was a gifted storyteller; a true Taurus, she was also generous to a fault and very disciplined, creative, and fiscally savvy. She ran the Temple as a very tight ship.

What I most appreciated about her, however, was how much she chose to invest in me even before I became a formal initiate. She recognized talents I didn’t even know I had at the time–especially in certain forms of divination (scrying) and aspecting. That to me is the hallmark of a great teacher: inspiring students to see qualities in themselves they didn’t know they had and to give them the motivation and the resources to cultivate those talents. Other skills of mine were being put to official coven use in no time: my original poetry to serve as deity invocations, my event planning and technological skills (Donna described herself as a neo-Luddite also and was very averse to the Internet) to organize the few events of the year where we did interact with the wider Chicago Pagan community. From cleaning off the candle wax that accrued on the altar and various ritual items to organizing carpooling, I performed my Coven Maiden duties with gusto! Donna and Robert were a childless-by-choice couple but I always felt that they looked upon me as a daughter of sorts. They certainly loved me as if I were, and I loved them very much in turn.

When I made the announcement at our Spring Equinox ritual of 2003 that I was moving to Hawaii within 10 days to be with my fiancé at the time, a submariner in the U.S. Navy who’d just received orders to Pearl Harbor, Donna was devastated. Even though there were other coven members who outranked me, she let it be known to the entire coven that she had hoped I would be her successor as High Priestess! In late 2002 she was diagnosed with colon cancer and she chose to fight it with alternative treatment modalities, eschewing chemo and radiation. She actually seemed to be doing quite well by March of 2003 and I was confident she and the coven would thrive in my absence and she had plenty of years left in her to run the Temple of the Sacred Stones. Clearly, though, she knew something I didn’t, as she threw her hands up in despair when I said my goodbyes that night, and, in her typical no-nonsense Taurus fashion, she said I was making a mistake, both with my choice of marriage partner and with declining her offer to take on the mantle of coven leadership. My heart was very, very heavy when I left that gorgeous Lincoln Park brownstone.

The last time I saw Donna alive was the Samhain of that year, 2003. She and other Temple of the Sacred Stones members had gone as a group to the Witches’ Ball being held at the Irish-American Heritage Center on the city’s northwest side. Donna’s hair was completely white and she was certainly thinner than when I last saw her in the spring but she seemed to radiate health and joy; she confidently announced that she was beating the cancer, she could feel it and X-rays and blood tests proved that its presence in her body was not as formidable as it used to be. She was sticking to her regimen of a macrobiotic mostly vegetarian diet, tons of vitamins and supplements consumed on a daily basis, prayer and meditation, and gentle physical exercise like bike riding along the lakefront.

I was a newlywed for less than three weeks when I came to visit Chicago that Samhain (my then-husband was sent out to sea for his first deployment; we wound up delaying our honeymoon until the spring of 2004), so Donna, Robert, my other coven mates and I did a lot of celebrating at that Witches’ Ball. I really felt that everything was in divine right order (ma’at) then–life was lovely.

It was on March 31, 2004, less than a week after Mike and I returned from our honeymoon, that I received a phone call with the devastating news that Donna had died earlier that day (there’s a five-hour time difference between Hawaii and Chicago); her colon cancer resurged violently in February and metastasized to her liver and kidneys. She refused all medical treatment. Everyone from The Temple of the Sacred Stones surrounded her with prayer to ease her transition.

I remember that profound sense of disconnect I felt then: staring blankly out the kitchen door into my sunny, tropical backyard ablaze with flowers and processing the shocking news of this death. I remember how the receiver of the phone slid out of my hands and onto the floor, with my cat Thor coming over to bat at it playfully while my coven-mate and dear friend Dana yelled from the other end of the line: “Hello? Anna, are you there?”

To this day, I cannot say if my decision to uproot myself from my beloved city/native soil and risk everything–including Donna’s offer to lead her longstanding coven–for love in the middle of the Pacific Ocean was a mistake or not. I have agonized over the decision, yes, especially when a mere three days after moving back to Chicago for good in 2006 and asking Robert if I could be raised to the Third Degree so that I could hive off and form my own coven, I was met with the reply on the phone: “I’m so sorry, Anna, but I actually disbanded the coven yesterday. I burned the Book of Shadows. Without Donna, there’s just no point.”

And my life for the next year, until my initiation in a Co-Masonic Lodge, was feeling like I’d become a ronin–a samurai without a master. Eventually, I jettisoned all trappings of Wicca altogether and moved into devotional polytheism, attaining my Fellowship of Isis Ordination as a Priestess in 2012 and dedicating my life to serving the Goddesses Nephthys, Bast, and Hekate Khthonia for as long as I inhabit this current body. But every year when Samhain rolls around, I dedicate rituals to the dead and have Donna first and foremost in my tabulation of the Mighty Dead.

The Beauty of the Dumb Supper Tradition

This past Friday evening, immediately after work, I sojourned to the gorgeously Gothic campus of University of Chicago and met up with the Hyde Park Pagans group on campus. I was invited by two new friends–friends I’d made when they attended the Fellowship of Isis Chicago annual Goddess Convention in September–to a Celtic Pagan Samhain celebration that was going to be led by guest ritual facilitators Angie Buchanan and Drake Spaeth of Earth Traditions. I’d had the pleasure of meeting Angie at Chicago Pagan Pride a couple of years ago and have been very impressed by her dedication to providing Death Midwife Certification, which is something I’m keenly interested in attaining.

It was an intimate gathering in the building on campus dedicated to interfaith communal celebrations. There were two main tables in the ritual space: one set up as an altar for the deceased (I brought along a picture of my brother as well as a smoky quartz crystal skull I’d bought that afternoon during my lunch break) and the other a dining table for the Dumb Supper. Black cloth draped both tables, along with decorations of leaves and bones, Halloween pumpkins, and skull lights strung around the windows.

For the attendees of other faiths who were completely new to Paganism, Angie began the proceedings by giving an overview of pre-Christian Celtic observances of the seasons and the importance of Samhain, Gaelic for “Summer’s End.” This third and final harvest was most important for pastoral societies that had to assess their heads of livestock and determine which ones couldn’t be worth feeding over the harsh winter months because grain stores were scarce. November was the month of butchering, but the Samhain Gateway also served as a portal between the worlds, where the spirits of the dead and the Fae (the two groups were often conflated) freely intermingled with the living. In this liminal time between the end of the old year and the beginning of the new, the voices of the dead ring out more clearly, and the spirits of our beloved and blessed dead come to warm their hands at our hearths and live on in our tales of them.

She then segued into the custom of the Dumb Supper, a tradition I have always found to be beautiful and poignant. Just think of the power of silence, period, which is such a rare commodity in our noise-aholic culture. Add in mindful eating on behalf of the dead–with a chair, place setting, and food set aside for the dead joining at the table–and you have one very powerful devotional ritual executed with no words at all.

Angie had given us all lovely skull face masks beforehand, and when each of us had finished our meals, we were instructed to don our masks as a signal that the Dumb Supper could end and we could proceed to the next portion of the evening.

It was a ritual set with a properly cast circle and wards. Once sacred space was officially set up, Drake led us all on a very intense, even harrowing, journey to the Land of the Dead where we would forfeit our bodies and join in a Danse Macabre. We literally danced blindfolded when actual music began to play, and the sensory experience of floating in darkness but coming across other solid bodies–embodied spirits–was unforgettable. Unseen hands caressed me, stroking my arms of my velvet top, gliding down my back. Sensual and sad at the same time. The music was eerily beautiful and I felt one of my Patron Goddesses, Bast, literally rise in me at the opportunity to move in sacred dance. My movements were an offering to Her and to the dead–to Donna, to my brother Mark.

When the dance portion had concluded, we were led back to our bodies via an astral journey and then we concretely took up residence once again in our bags of bones and skin. We removed our blindfolds and this time another tune was played so we could dance for the living, dance for ourselves and with each other, and celebrate our ongoing connection with our Mighty Dead. It was exuberant and I truly felt the interrelatedness of the living and the dead. My soul drank deeply of that wisdom.

Time to Go to Hel

When I got home, I was all the more grateful to have my fiancé Daniel there awaiting me. I thought of a song by The The called “Love Is Stronger Than Death.” Daniel greeted me with a new variety of mead he’d purchased on the way home from work and he suggested that we have a Hel-blòt right away. I nodded, applauding Daniel for his astuteness and this spontaneous display of piety to a Goddess he normally doesn’t work with often. Yes. Loki’s Daughter absolutely was due Her recognition at this time of Samhain.

Detail of the Hel shrine in our living room.

Detail of the Hel shrine in our living room. It faces north. The statue was hand-crafted by the amazingly talented Jeff Cullen of thevodoustore.com.

The mead horn was filled to the brim and we honored Hel, our beloved and blessed dead, and then congratulated our own might and main on having accomplished certain things, accomplishments that would surely make our ancestors proud. Again, recognizing our Mighty Dead–and the Goddesses and Gods of Death who preside over Them–and our fundamental interrelatedness is absolute food for the soul. I felt so anchored in love to these Powers–it’s what makes this time of year so special.

My Iseum of the Rekhet Akhu Has Officially Been Chartered with the FOI!

And what better day than Halloween to receive recognition from the Fellowship of Isis that the Iseum I’ve founded–the Iseum of the Rekhet Akhu–has been officially chartered! The purpose of this Iseum is precisely to highlight the interrelatedness and interdependence of the living and the dead, given that I am largely inclined to worship Death Goddesses and Gods and ancestor and spirit work (including mediumship) form a major component of my personal practices. An akh (plural: akhu) in ancient Egyptian religious belief was a transfigured soul, one that had favorably passed Judgement to acquire almost God-like powers. Its hieroglyph is that of a crested ibis (the sacred bird of Thoth) with a crescent moon atop its head. But there was also an esoteric component to the official exoteric teachings that call those who are worthy to accelerate into their akh light-bodies while they are still alive and housed in their current human bodies.

The word rekhet is defined as “the woman who knows magical arts” (the suffix “et” denotes a feminine ending to Egyptian nouns), mediumship in particular. Thus the Iseum of the Rekhet Akhu is dedicated to my female ancestral line of wise women, cunning women, women like my mother’s mother, who could tell peoples’ fortunes by reading the coffee grounds in their Turkish coffee cups and do divination with regular playing cards.

This official FOI certification is the catalyst for launching my Iseum’s website: dear friends and faithful readers, stay tuned for further news!

And in the meantime, may your time spent in sacred communion with your Mighty Dead, your Beloved and Blessed Dead, nourish your soul and that of your departed loved ones. May the light ignited from this holy intermingling of the living and the dead light your path through the darkness, may it encourage you and lift your spirits when all other lights have gone out.

So mote it be.

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