Sunday, December 5, 2021

Wiccans in the US Army mourn the dead in Afghanistan this year as they celebrate Samhain, the original Halloween.

For most Americans, Halloween is a fun holiday, with homes adorned with symbols of the supernatural — witches, goblins, and spirits — and children in costumes going door to door collecting candy.

Halloween has its roots in Samhain, a harvest festival celebrated by the ancient Celts. These indigenous people of the British Isles believed that the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was the thinnest at this time of year. They left treats for the spirits, which they believed would return to their former homes.

Today Samhain is one of the eight major festivals of Wicca, a religion inspired in part by the practices of pre-Christian Britain. The followers of Wicca are known as witches, regardless of their gender identity. Samhain, which is celebrated on October 31st, marks the Wiccan New Year. It is a dark celebration to remember and mourn those who have died, and to celebrate death as part of the natural cycle of life.

As an expert on modern paganism, I know Samhain will be especially painful this year for Wiccans who are members or veterans of the US military as they remember the fallen and experience the aftermath of the 20-year war in Afghanistan.

Wiccan rituals

Wicca is one of the most popular forms of modern paganism, a collection of religions whose practices are inspired by pre-Christian religions. In all of these religions, including Hellenic paganism, Druidism, and paganism, both the Earth and the spirits believed to inhabit animate and inanimate objects are considered sacred.

Rituals called sabbaths are central to Wicca. In each of these rituals, a connection is established between seasonal changes in nature and what happens in people’s lives.

During Samhain, participants are asked to reflect on death in nature and the reduction in daylight hours that occurs at this time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. These images are then used in a ritual in which those present usually form a circle around the altar, which contains symbols of the season, such as colorful leaves, pomegranates, and corn stalks. The gods and goddesses of the four directions – north, south, east and west – are called to join the circle.

There is usually a reading, often quite poetic, that describes the season and the changes that occur in nature and in the lives of those in the circle. I attended the rituals of Samhain, the participants of which name the names of the dead whom they want to honor and remember. Sometimes people bring a photograph or other item related to the deceased person.

Samhain is also a time for Wiccans to travel inward, as if they were entering the “womb” of Mother Earth, to reflect on their life and especially those areas that need correction or change. They focus on experiences such as healing physical or emotional wounds, writing a book, or starting a new career – they hope they’ll come back to life in the spring.

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Samhain rituals associate seasonal changes in nature with changes in people’s lives.
author / iStock Collection via Getty Images

Wicca in the army

Since the late 1970s, Wicca has been included in the directory of military chaplains. After a long legal battle, the pentagram – the five-pointed star associated with Wicca – became the generally accepted symbol of war tombstones in 2007.

The first official Pagan circle – a gathering of Wiccans and other Pagans – took place at a military base in Fort Hood, Texas, in 1997. Despite backlash from some Christian churches, the military has reaffirmed its longstanding policy of supporting religious freedom for its members.

Others followed. For example, in North Carolina, the Fort Bragg Open Circles – Wiccan gatherings open to anyone who wants to participate – celebrated their 20th anniversary on October 2, 2021.

There are no official statistics on how many Wiccans serve in the army. However, Circle Sanctuary, a non-profit church and nature reserve in Wisconsin, has an incomplete list of 46 pagan circles it has sponsored and supported at military installations in the United States and abroad, including Afghanistan.

To be recognized in a military place, the pagan circle must be approved by a recognized religious organization. Circle Sanctuary has been approved by most pagan circles in military installations.

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Fort Bragg and beyond

This year at Fort Bragg, Samhain rituals will focus on the healing of Afghan military personnel and their families.

The Reverend Christina Ahrens, a pagan volunteer chaplain, uses the seven stages of grief – denial, guilt, bargaining, depression, ascension, reconstruction, and acceptance – as the centerpiece of an open circle.

Arens told me earlier this month that she hopes the Wiccans who have served in Afghanistan, their friends and family members, will use this time to turn inward to reflect on their feelings about the end of the war and the deaths or injuries they or their loved ones.

Fort Bragg dispatched tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan. Military personnel and their families at the base report feeling anger and frustration following the US withdrawal. Ahrens hopes that the circle will begin the process of acceptance or inner peace.

The Samhain rituals will take place on the night of October 31 at military bases and college campuses, in people’s homes and at other gatherings across the country. As many Americans mourn the personal loss and the ongoing constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe everyone can benefit from spending time this Halloween, not only handing out candy, but also reflecting on the seeds of change they want to plant in the spring.

This article is republished from – The Conversation – Read the – original article.

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