I've recently picked up Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces once again (my last attempt at reading his great work of comparative mythology being stunted by some now-forgotten task), and I must say it is a wonderful read. Campbell was a man who followed his own path - leaving his doctoral program to follow his own intellectual interests and eventually teaching for 38 years at the collegiate level and then writing and lecturing to the public audience. The Hero with a Thousand Faces asserts that all human mythology follows essentially the same arc and is derived of the essential features of human existence - birth, growth and death (to boil it down indelicately). Halloween, Samhain, All Saint's Day, the Festival of the Dead, DÃa de los Muertos, Ayamarca, etc., etc. are all daughters of the same grim mother and testify to Campbell's thesis. Here we find resonance between the annual cycle of death, harvest and the coming of cooler, darker days with our own autumns, our own darker periods. Cultures separated by great gulfs of both time and geography all mark the coming of November and the end of the late summer harvest with a Festival of the Dead.
The end of October and the days of mid-autumn are my very favorite. The bacchanalia of Halloween parties and trick-or-treating are all well and good of course, but it is the cold weather, fiery leaves and the fruits of the harvest that I love most. Great mounds of apples at the store, huge pumpkins on the porch, early twilight and great mugs of rich coffee in the crisp and dewey mornings. The tinge of gloom that portends the coming of some great, dark winter baits the experience and makes me savor Samhain all the more.
Jack-o'-lanterns the will-o'-the-wisp and the Golden Sieve.
Against the backdrop of nature's grim, yearly deathrattle is the history of the will-o'-the-wisp and the jack-o'-lanterns. Strange lights observed over peet bogs of Ireland and the swamps and marshes of northern climes most susceptible to the cooling tilt of the Earth's axis gave rise to fabulous tales of lost souls and ghosts carrying lanterns lit by the embers of hell. Jack, who had tricked the devil into buying him a drink and failing to yield his soul, dies and is refused entrance to Hell (Heaven clearly being out of the question) but gains a burning ember from Hell's fire and places it into a carved turnip to light his way, wandering the Earth forever in twilight. I would very much like to see these lights hanging over the marshland and feel the cool rush of blue hour.
Carving pumpkins is a favorite childhood memory of mine. I can still remember dragging piles of old newspaper onto the lawn and using flimsy kitchen knives and serving spoons to ply our trade on the orange fruits. We all got into the fun, and it is no coincidence that I now place carving pumpkins first and foremost amongst my favorite Halloween activities - a fond reliving of powerful childhood memories. I am lucky enough to now live within spitting distance of one of the great pumpkin growing regions of the world. The stores here are packed with no fewer than five different varieties of pumpkins - and I tried my knives on just about all of them. That sickly-sweet smell of pumpkin innards and the slip and slime of the seeds over my hand say fall like nothing else. Not only is this a fond memory of times past, but it is a yearly rite and a shared experience amongst myriad peoples. I even managed to make a pumpkin pie from scratch using the rich orange flesh of a "fairytale pumpkin." Stay tuned in the coming weeks for photographs and a recipe.
Light a candle, celebrate and revere the dead, let the violet sky descend and let us do great honor to the summer past and the winter to come. To the memory of summer and of all other bright lights who have passed.
I caught this giant snail climbing over the bright orange globe of a sugar pumpking one morning when I came downstairs to brew coffee: