Halloween and the Wisdom of Death in Gaelic Tradition

The aspirations of modernity to enable humanity to transcend physical limitations, such as death, are not only self-deluding but dangerous. Our current environmental crisis demonstrates that the long effort by civilization to dominate and exploit nature without deference to the cyclic character of the organic world – attempting to impose a linear process of extraction, consumption, and disposal of non-organic products – is eco-suicide. Modernity is a death cult pretending to be a life-giver, whereas indigenous knowledge traditions are life-givers often appearing to be death cults.

This critique of modernity is not new – discerning minds have been voicing it for generations. One of my own main influences in understanding the flaws and blind-spots of technocratic modernity is Lewis Mumford (1895-1990), one of the protégés of the Scottish polymath Patrick Geddes (1854-1932). Mumford’s masterpiece The Myth of the Machine (two volumes, 1967-1970) traces not only the technological developments that accompanied civilization but also its psychoses and its self-legitimizing myths that lead inevitably to violence, exploitation and self-destruction. In the section about the rise of monotheism in the cults of Mediterranean kings, for example, he notes:

The notion of ‘eternal life,’ with neither conception, growth, fruition, nor decay – an existence as fixed, as sterilized, as loveless, as purposeless, as unchanging as that of a royal mummy – is only death in another form. … From the standpoint of human life, indeed, all of organic existence, this assertion of absolute power was a confession of psychological immaturity – a radical failure to understand the natural processes birth and growth, of maturation and death.

Mumford, The Myth Of the Machine, vol 1: Technics and Human Development (1967), p. 203

After following these developments to the present day, and reflecting the capacity for mass murder and environmental disaster already obvious decades ago, he issues a dire warning against the self-destructive capacity of the machinery and ideas driving modernity and urges the public to re-embrace the organic (not the technocratic machine) as their guiding principle:

In taking an organic model one must renounce the paranoid claims and foolish hopes of the Power Complex, and accept finiteness, limitation, incompleteness, uncertainty, and eventual death as necessary attributes of life – and more than this, as the condition for achieving wholeness, autonomy, and creativity. … If we are to prevent megatechnics from further controlling and deforming every aspect of human culture, we shall be able to do so only with the aid of a radically different model derived directly, not from machines, but from living organisms and organic complexes (ecosystems).

Mumford, The Myth of the Machine, part 2: The Pentagon of Power (1970), pp. 394, 395

What Mumford is describing is what is characterized by and embodied in indigenous knowledge systems, which have a very different relationship to the world and the nature of being in the world.

The sun penetrating directly to the back of the internal chamber of Newgrange on the winter solstice.

In indigenous Gaelic cosmology, it is the ritualized and cyclic connection with the dead that constantly provides the energy and non-material stuff of life. We acknowledge the dead at ceremonial times because they are still members of our community, and because they are a link in the chain of tradition that provides us with meaning and stability. From the human point of view, we are the living and they are the dead, but from their point of view, they are the eternally living and we are the fleeting shadows. We are reflections of one another and need to continually renew that reciprocal bond of kinship – embodying their names, their stories, their honor of tradition itself – to maintain the space-time-mind equilibrium without which life has no essence or meaning.

In the traditional Gaelic calendar – like that of many other peoples – the new time period begins with the dark: the new day starts at sunset, the new month starts with the new (dark) moon, the new year starts with the onset of the dark half of the year: Samhain, corresponding to modern Halloween. The darkest part of winter is called na mìosan marbha “the dead months” in Gaelic. The cycle of life, then, begins with the descent into darkness and the appearance of death.

The vital connection between life and death is further revealed in the rituals of Oidhche Shamhna “Halloween.” Along with their co-inhabitants of the Otherworld, the sìthichean (“fairies” is a crude translation), the dead come to visit the living. A wide variety of divination rituals were practiced to determine the future of people, with death always being a possibility. When a person died, their body was kept in the house for three days so that family and community members could have direct and personal contact with it, to come to terms with the loss of that person and their own mortality.

If life on this planet is to survive, we have to change our relationship to stuff – that is, materiality – and to time. We have to be content with less. We have to live slowly and thoughtfully through an active connection to the imagination and the spirit. We should honor and look for the insights and joys in which our predecessors took solace. We have to embrace the cyclic nature of the organic world, of which death is a necessary stage.

We should not acquiesce to the myth that our problems are just a matter of materiality that technology will solve for us in some more enlightened future being engineered in laboratories by corporations. A livable future will belong to those who respect the wisdom of the indigenous past. Corporate modernity and political leaders will not relinquish their monopolies freely or easily – we will have to free ourselves from that stranglehold by liberating ourselves from the myths and ransoms meant to keep us trapped in the cycle of dependence, rather than free to embrace the ancestral wisdom of death.

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