The Herbs + Astrology of Samhain
I am the hallow-tide of all souls passing,
I am the bright releaser of all pain,
I am the quickener of the fallen seed-case,
I am the glance of snow, the strike of rain,
I am the hollow of the winter twilight,
I am the hearth-fire and the welcome bread,
I am the curtained awning of the pillow,
I am the unending wisdom's golden thread.
Song of Samhain
from Celtic Devotional: Daily Prayers and Blessings by Caitlin Matthews
I love Samhain. I love the season of growing dark and increase of candle light. I love the thinning of the veil which helps each of us to travel between the worlds with greater ease. I love the possibilities of the future showing up in our dreams. I love the opportunity to set out a feast for the living and the dead. I love the smell of mulling spices and black candles burning. And I love the break from the busy outgoing energy of the bright half of the year to the welcome retreat of the dark.
Of course, Samhain is only one holy day within the modern Pagan calendar (blessed be the Pagan love of celebrating the ongoing revelation of the sacred through all parts of the year). Within the modern Pagan wheel of the year there are eight major sabbats and each are tied not only the the earthly cycle of harvest and the mythological cycle of the God/dess/es (if that is your cup of tea), but the astrological wheel of stars. The eight sabbats are separated into two primary groups: the quarter sabbats and the cross-quarter sabbats.
The quarter sabbats are the four equinoxes and solstices of the Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice, Autumn Equinox, and Winter Solstice.
The cross-quarter holidays (also known as the fire festivals) fall between the quarter sabbats and include the festivals of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain. While most folks are familiar with the fact the the quarter sabbats are observed when specific astrological markers occur, not everyone knows that the same happens for the cross-quarter sabbats as well. The cross-quarter sabbats are generally celebrated on fixed dates. Samhain, for example, is celebrated on October 31 each year. But, there is an astrological measurement for Samhain, too!
Samhain falls in the season of Scorpio. Scorpio is a fixed water sign which means it has a steady elemental energy that acts more like a place of energy than the passing of energy like at the quarter sabbats (which take place in the seasons of cardinal signs of beginning). The mysterious scorpion is a sign that is interested in the depths of any given matter, especially if it involves secrets, mysteries, and serious contemplation. When the Sun moves into 15 degrees of Scorpio or the mid-point of the sign, astrological Samhain occurs. 15 degrees Scorpio is the exact midpoint between 0 degrees Libra (aka the Autumn Equinox) and 0 degrees Capricorn (aka the Winter Solstice). Don’t you feel a bit more clever and magickally sophisticated understanding the astrological measurements to determine the dates of our beloved sabbats?
In 2016, astrological Samhain is on October 30 which is delightfully close to the modern celebration of Samhain on the 31st. You should make sure to read up on the astroherbology profile of Scorpio to get a more in-depth understanding of the sign, season, and sabbat.
But there is even more fun to be had!
In college I was introduced to the celebration of Lunar Samhain and my Moon-centered heart was delighted. I was already excited to learn that I could extend the celebrations of my favorite sabbat to its traditional astrological date (which can be as far into the first week or so of November), but there was also a lunar celebration!
So when is Lunar Samhain?
I have seen Lunar Samhain calculated in two ways. The first is by finding the New Moon closest to the October 31 celebration of Samhain. The second way is by finding the New Moon in the sign of Scorpio which will be closer to the Sun’s position at 15 degrees of Scorpio. Using the latter calculation, in 2016, we’ll have a real treat, in that the New Moon closest to the Sun entering 15 degrees Scorpio will happen on October 30. Next year, Lunar Samhain could be as early as October 19 (using the first method) or as late as the New Moon in Scorpio on November 18 (which is my preferred calculation).
Samhain is the traditional celebration of the New Year within Celtic culture and since the Celts considered both solar and lunar signs for their calendar, the New Moon at Samhain marked the true beginning of the New Year.
I’ve celebrated the dual holidays of Halloween and Samhain for years. Halloween is a cultural celebration with fun community celebrations and I love dressing up on the 31st as well as getting together with my extended family of Pagan kin for spiritual celebrations. Lunar Samhain is when I celebrate with my smaller community of Pagan family to mark the new year, share stories of our ancestors, and cast divinations for the year ahead. Both celebrations feature a variety of herbs chosen for their magickal and ancestral significance. I've listed some of my favorites below.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Rosemary for remembrance goes the old saying and so it is a useful herb for remembering and connecting to our ancestors. Magickally, Rosemary is a wonderful smudge for protection and clearing space for magick. Burn to bring good health for the new year and invite in vitality. Create a rosemary charm bundle to attract the Good Folk to you and mix with Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) to be able to see them. It is also a traditional incense to burn at funerary rights to honor the dying and the power of death as the great renewer of life. Rosemary, as with Mugwort discussed below, has an association with womyn’s culture. It is said that it grows in front of the house where womyn are in charge - I make sure to always have Rosemary growing in my front yard for that reason. A bath of Rosemary is an excellent way to prepare the temple of the body for a Samhain rite and help to awaken the long dormant memory to lost rituals of magick.
Blessed Thistle (Cnicus benedictus)
Blessed Thistle is an herb of Scorpio and a very protective herb one at that! The herb can be used in all sorts of charms and rituals for protection, warding, and making safe people and places. It is an herb of manifesting dreams into reality by creating firm boundaries and has an affinity for students both for its medicinal use for clearing brain fog and its magickal properties in awakening the inner spark of inspiration. Plant in gardens and keep in the home to protect against thievery, unkind spirits, and hexes. Use Blessed Thistle in rituals assisting spirits to move on from our realm into the next. It is an excellent uncrossing and hex-breaking herb. Blessed Thistle also bestows blessings as its name implies and can be used in healing work. In his Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs Scott Cunningham recommends the following ritual to call spirits:
…place some thistle in boiling water. Remove from heat and lie or sit beside it. As the steam rises call the spirits and listen carefully; they may answer your questions.
Mugwort (Artemisia spp.)
As a profoundly magickal herb, you find Mugwort showing up again and again at sabbat celebrations. As a magickal herb, Mugwort brings on visionary states whether through dream or trance. Use it in dream sachets and visionary teas. The herb has a special affinity to womyn and womyn’s rituals and communities, especially in rites of Artemis. Use in charms to bring those who have acted violently towards womyn to justice and offer healing to those harmed. Remember, too, that Mugwort is an herb freed from the confines of womyn as gender making it delightfully disruptive to the gender binary. Wash your scrying mirrors and crystal balls with a strong infusion of Mugwort and Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) for consecration and blessing. Add it to traveling charms (including trance traveling charms) and use it in your shoes to protect against weariness. Burn as an incense when your home is threatened by impending danger or simply needs to have its wards reinforced.
What herbs these might be depend on your ancestral and cultural lineage. Rue, for example, is a sacred plant for Italian witches as well as Mexican curanderas. Elder is the Goddess embodied in Northern European myth. Kava is a powerfully sacred plant in many Polynesian cultures. Take some time to learn about the ancestral plants of your lineage. Decorating your altar with ancestral plants and consuming them in brews can be a powerful way to connect with those who have gone before. Working with plants at Samhain can be especially powerful when there has been ancestral trauma due to separation or forced migration - the names and stories that we might have forgotten or never known are never forgotten by the plants.
Make sure to read the Scorpio Astroherbology Profile for even more inspiration for working with herbs and healing during the season of the scorpion. Cast some cards with the Samhain tarot spread and get settled in to the season of spooky. Wherever your revelries take you, I hope that you find yourself in midst of enchantment and wonder as the dark calls the song from your starry-hearted spirit.