Commentary on death and rebirth traditions and rituals within the context of modern-day Neopaganism
Hecate leading Persephone and Hermes from
the underworld: vase painting, University of Haifa.
Even though they may look forward to an afterlife in heaven, many people traditionally view death with fear and distaste. Death is sometimes seen as a tool of the devil, or as a force sent by God to punish sinners. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and others natural disasters are sometimes called “Acts of God”, as if God had nothing better to do than sit up in heaven conjuring up disasters to punish unbelievers.
Part of this fear of death comes from the belief that we have only one life to live, and death is really the end. Mixed in with this fear is a large amount of uncertainty. When someone dies, how can they really tell where they will go? In this article, I will attempt to explore the alternate perception of death held by many modern Wiccans and Neopagans.
Gods of the Gateway
The Earth-Based, Goddess-Centered Pagan traditions, including Wicca, have a very different attitude toward death in general. Most of the Pagans I have spoken to over the years believe in reincarnation in some form, so that death is seen as a change, a “shedding of the skin”, rather than the end. For this reason the snake that sheds its skin is viewed as a symbol of rebirth rather than as a symbol of evil. Pagans see life and death as two sides of one coin; one leads into the other, unendingly.
Deities of birth and sexual passion are often associated with death as well, because death is the gateway into another life. Nothing is permanent, and at the end of suffering there comes peace, rest, and the opportunity to start over again. Many Wiccan traditions believe that the souls of the dead rest for a while in an Otherworld called the “Summerland” where they are healed of the traumas of their last life before being born again.
Pagans also tend to see the natural world as a system that was set up in the beginning (or evolved, depending on your view) to function a particular way. We are part of that system, but not the rulers of it, nor does it single us out for special attention. The Earth is a dynamic unit, every function is important to all living creatures.
When Earthquakes happen, the movement of the tectonic plates helps to maintain a temperature that can sustain life on the planet. Sometimes cities are destroyed in the process, sometimes the quakes will happen in a completely uninhabited region like Antarctica. It’s not personal. Those who are killed are comforted in the arms of the Goddess and given another chance next time. Diseases occur because the process of evolution created many types of diverse life, and some of those types of life are harmful to others. Again, it’s not personal.
Creation, movement, and the ongoing process of change leads to both death and new opportunities for life. When forest fires occurs, new plants and trees have the opportunity to grow. In Hindu mythology, Shiva the Destroyer dances on the burning ground before coming together in Sacred Union with the Goddess to create anew.
Ancient mythology and religion is filled with literally thousands of deities that combine both creation and destruction within their aspects. In Wiccan theology, the Goddess is triple in form, appearing as either the Maiden, the Mother, or the Crone. The young maiden who symbolizes new life and potential, the Mother who gives birth to all, and the Crone who cuts the thread of life and scythes down old growth are all aspects of the same being.
Likewise, the God can appear as the Green Man, symbolizing new growth, the Lord of the Animals, wild and sexual, and the Dark God or Sage, the Lord of Winter who carries the dead through the gateway. In some mythologies, he takes on the even more fearsome aspects of Lord of the Wild Hunt, the one who hunts down and carries off souls who may not be willing to move on to their new lives voluntarily.
The ancient Irish even portrayed a figure, the Sheila-Na-Gig, which combined death and sexuality together in one being. The Sheila-Na-Gig commonly appeared as a withered crone spreading her legs and displaying her sexual parts, a shocking figure to modern sensibilities. The Sheila-Na-Gig was considered a powerful protective symbol, and was carved on doors to ward off evil. This symbol was so important to the Irish that they were reluctant to give it up with the advent of Christianity, and Sheila-Na-Gigs have even been found on the doors and walls of old Irish churches!
Hecate, the three-faced Goddess of the crossroads, is said in one ancient Greek invocation to be “strong to shatter every stubborn thing”. Deities who are strongly associated with death are also deities of change and transformation, another manifestation of rebirth. Death is the greatest transformation, but there are also transformations that occur within life that are equally terrifying.
Wiccans and other Pagans do not avoid these energies, but invoke them and work with them carefully and respectfully. The “Stubborn things” that the Goddess shatters are often personal illusions. It is when you avoid dealing with these illusions that you begin to have problems: self-denial, addictions, interpersonal problems, and lack of motivation. Change is essential to the process of continued growth.
The Last Sacred Space
Just as we do rituals to celebrate life, Pagans also hold rituals to honor the dead and the aspects of the divine that deal with death. On October 31st, we celebrate Samhain (pronounced Sow-in or Saw-wain), the Celtic New Year. At this time, we gather to honor our ancestors and other Beloved Dead. Many Pagan traditions prepare a special feast for the dead and invite them to come back and eat with us, a practice very similar to the Day of The Dead as it is still celebrated in Mexico.
We recite the names of the dead and talk about their lives, their deaths, and the way we felt about them. Many Pagans act as if the dead were literally present and talk to them directly, perhaps also taking the opportunity to tell them things that we did not have the opportunity to say while they were alive.
At this time, we also recognize that the old year and the summer have died, and the older, darker aspects of the God and Goddess now reign. We welcome these essential, sometimes frightening beings and acknowledge their ascent into power for the duration of the winter months. We dance with the deities and the dead, feast with them, and wait to receive any visions or insights that they may bring with them.
With their radically different view of death, it is not surprising that Pagans often deal with literal death in their own unique way. In the Pagan community, as in many other communities in recent years, there have been deaths from cancer, AIDS, and other incurable illnesses. Rather than trying to avoid being around sickness and death, Pagans often gather in hospitals and hospices to surround the dying person with love and support, even to the extent of sometimes irritating the medical staff who wants only “Immediate family members”.
Efforts are often made to remove a hopelessly terminal person from the hospital to a home environment where they will be allowed to have all the visitors they want and perform their own death and transition rituals without interference from outsiders. If this is not possible, efforts are made to carry out the dying Pagan’s wishes even in a medical setting. I personally know of several people who literally died in Sacred Space created surreptitiously in the sterile hospital environment by their supporters, who made every effort to stay with them up to the very end.
The dying person is touched, sung to, talked to, and allowed to discuss their fears and feelings about their passing. This is radically different from the way in which most modern Americans die, and is probably a lot closer to the way our ancestors dealt with death. Even in the last century, people commonly died at home surrounded by their extended families.
At some point in the last hundred years, attitudes shifted. Death became a taboo subject, a distasteful thing to be avoided and left in the hands of medical personal, much to the detriment of those who were actually going though the death process. Though people today usually do not have large extended families to offer support, the Pagan community has tried to recapture that sense of compassionate involvement by creating an extended family of our own.
This voluntary involvement in the death process can even extend to pets, and I have known of many Pagans, myself included, who had to make the painful decision to euthanize a suffering, gravely ill pet. Instead of leaving the room and letting the vet take care of the “distasteful” process, Pagans will commonly insist on being present during euthanasia to comfort the pet and ease its passing, often holding it in our laps during the actual death.
We may do a silent ritual to assist the dying pet, creating Sacred Space and invoking deities associated with particular animals (Hecate, the “Mistress of Hounds” for a dog, or Bast, the Egyptian Cat Goddess, for a cat.) Seeing the suffering actually end brings closure to the human, and the presence and support of a loved human calms and soothes the animal, giving it a “Good death” rather than a cold, impersonal one.
Ashes and Wailing
When death, human or animal, actually does occur, I have noticed some observable differences in the way Pagans deal with their feelings. In the novel Catmagic, Jonathan Barry and Whitley Strieber erroneously claimed that “When a Witch chooses death, the whole covenstead celebrates”. Though we accept death as a sacred part of the life process and even welcome it when it is appropriate, I have never seen anyone rejoicing at the death of a loved one.
While we may be relieved that suffering has ended and are not worried about punishment in the afterlife, the deceased person is definitely missed and mourned for a time. Most of the Pagans I have known have generally been more comfortable and open about expressing their feelings than most of the general population, even the “negative” feelings like grief or rage that may surface after as intense an event as a death.
When one very well-loved Pagan Bard died in the 1980’s, his funeral was attended by both his family and the extended Pagan community. From what I have heard, the Pagans sat on one side of the church and the family on the other in a somewhat uncomfortable truce. It was the Pagan contingent that did most of the crying, wailing, and heartfelt grieving, to the visible discomfort of the more composed and stoic family.
There are reasons for these actions. I believe that this intense, cathartic expression allows us to purge our feelings more quickly than someone who “holds them in”, and then move on more calmly to a place of release and acceptance.
This funeral was also an example of an unfortunate legal oversight on the part of the deceased Bard, who had often said during his life that he wanted a Pagan funeral, and to be buried on Sacred Pagan land. When he was killed unexpectedly in a car accident, his family seized the body and insisted on dressing him in a suit rather than his Bardic robes, and performing a Christian funeral.
He had left no Will to state his wishes in this matter, and there was nothing his Pagan friends could do. Many Pagans took heed of this incident, and are much more careful now to leave legal documents with instructions on funeral arrangements.
At the present time, there are no Pagan cemeteries or Memorial Parks. Though we hope that this will eventually change, at the current time the presence of such a facility would probably invoke feelings of discomfort or possibly even protest from our Non-Pagan neighbors, who do not really understand our beliefs and practices. Because Pagan groups do not generally tithe or collect dues, we also lack the monetary assets to back such an undertaking.
As a result of this lack of formal, established Memorial sites, most Pagans currently opt for cremation rather than burial. Some Pagan groups chose to keep the ashes close by in a shrine or on a memorial altar, others choose to scatter the ashes in some designated setting depending on the wishes of the deceased. The act of scattering the ashes often helps the survivors to feel the finality of release. As the ashes fly off on the wind, you can imagine the soul of the deceased flying into the next world.
After someone has died, we often perform a ritual called a “Soul Release” to bid them farewell and help them go through the gateway into the Otherworld. This is particularly important when someone has died an unexpected or violent death – we believe that in such circumstances the soul may be confused and need some extra assistance.
After we sense that the spirit has departed, we try to compose ourselves to go on with life, but the deceased person is still very much a part of our community in spirit. It seems the dead sometimes become “Guardian spirits” of the particular group or tradition they belonged to in life, and some of us believe that they may come back to us in dreams to give advice or warnings. At the very least, they are never truly forgotten, and are welcome back to feast with us every Samhain.
Sometimes we notice that a particular soul will stop coming back in dreams and does not seem to be present at the feast at Samhain. We hope that their absence in an indication that they have been born again, and see this as a cause for rejoicing.
Adler, Margo: Drawing Down The Moon; Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today. (Revised and expanded edition) Beacon Press, Boston 1979-1986.
Barry, Jonathan with Strieber, Whitley: Catmagic. Wilson & Neiff, Inc. 1986
Clifton, Chas S. Editor : Witchcraft Today, Book Two: Rites of Passage. Article; Pagan Rites of Dying by Oz. Llewellyn Publications, 1993.
Farrar, Janet & Stewart: The Witches’ Goddess and The Witches’ God. Phoenix Publishing, Inc. 1987 and 1988.
Hopman, Ellen Evret & Lawrence Bond: People of the Earth: The New Pagans Speak Out. Destiny Books, 1996.
Starhawk: The Spiral Dance: The Rebirth Of The Ancient Religion of The Great Goddess. Harper & Row, 1979.
Starhawk and the Reclaiming Collective: The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, Published by Harper San Francisco, 1997.
“The modern Pagan Community is a very diverse place, containing many different traditions and points of view.
“In the article I attempt to present an overview of a very complex subject, but it would be neither appropriate nor accurate for me to claim to be ‘speaking for everyone’, and in fact I welcome the sharing of divergent impressions and opinions.
“I am not trying to imply that our views are better than those of the more traditional religions, only that they are different and that they work for us.”
Copyright © 2000 by Melissa L. Pinol. All rights reserved.
Melisssa Pinol has been an initiate in the Feri Tradition of Wicca since 1986. Other works have appeared in Eye Magazine, Weird Tales, Scorpion Dreams, Naturally Magazine, Glyph, The Firefly, Dialog Magazine, The Beltane Papers, Whole Life Times, Fagan, Vermont Ink, Altered Perceptions and Brigit’s Temple, plus two anthologies, She of 10,000 Names and Insects Are People Two.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The preceding post originally appeared in the online multicultural journal New Tribal Dawn, which published essays, fiction and poetry from 1999 to 2007. Although the journal is no longer active, we are preserving its fine literary archive here for posterity.)
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