Ruth Barrett is one of the mothers of Dianic Witchcraft which was born out of the Second Wave Feminist movement. I interviewed her about how to create a ritual for yourself to celebrate Samhain, as part of a much larger conversation about how the women’s spirituality movement grew out of Second Wave feminism.
AfterEllen: If a woman is not in a specific tradition like the Temple of Diana, how can a woman create her own ritual? How would you start off a woman who wants to create her own ritual to celebrate Samhain?
RB: I’m a huge proponent of women creating their own rituals, and that’s why I wrote the book Women’s Rites, Women’s Mysteries. So regarding Hallows or Hallowmas or Samhain, to use the Irish word, meaning summer’s end, know what it is you’re celebrating. Find out what the holiday is about. We’re not talking about giving out candy or making your house look haunted, but learning about the holiday. A ritual has to come from a need, whether a personal need or a seasonal one, a way to get yourself placed in the Wheel of the Year so you can be fully present with what the Earth is doing.
It is a holiday that’s about going into the winter cycle and all of the holidays, the solstices, equinoxes and cross-quarter days (like Halloween) are based in an agricultural cycle. Between fall equinox and winter solstice. We are leaving the fullness of autumn, the abundance of food, and everything that comes out of the earth, reflecting all the way back to spring when we first set certain projects into motion. Now we can taste the final outcome of making those spring projects happen. It’s saying, ‘now I’m finished with making.’ Because the Dianic tradition, one of my contributions to the tradition was to more deeply overlay the female life cycle on the seasonal cycle of the year.
If you think about the holiday of fall equinox which is the fullness of the fall harvest, you can think of that as “the mother,” mother as in Mother Earth. The mother is ending her creativity, she is beginning to draw inward. We can watch the plants, depending on where you live obviously, we watch this cycle manifest differently. The plants that were standing upright are now beginning to shrivel. They are pulling back. I need that time, just like nature, to draw back. I’m a human being, I’m an animal on the planet, I want to be able to be in sync with nature’s cycles.
With your ritual, you want to prepare yourself for going into the dream time, the time between Hallows and winter solstice. We are going into the darkest time of the year. We go into that place of darkness. At Hallows we honor the crone, we value the Woman of Wisdom, who by virtue of her lifetime has become, hopefully, not only older but wiser.
She passes on her knowledge and story to the younger generations. So traditionally this is a time of venerating the ancestors and honoring the beloved dead. And this includes even the animals, pets or creatures, who’ve been important to you. It’s a time to remember. In the Dianic tradition, we honor the women who were lost in the Burning Times. And because Halloween marks, at least in Northern Europe, the beginning of winter, it’s a time to think about endings. What would I like to leave in the year that is closing behind? What does not need to be brought into a new cycle? This requires introspection and self-facing. Looking at oneself in the mirror and getting a chance to do deep introspective work. Could I have done better in this cycle? What do I want to do differently in this cycle? So there is also ritual focused on release. Letting those things be composted. And compost of course literally makes nutrients for something new to happen. Composting takes time and you don’t see anything growing for a while. So it’s really about going into the dark and preparing for that.
What I’ll be doing, and this is something I would suggest to readers, I create an altar, which is a special place where you put sacred objects or symbols that are important to you. I would create an altar that has photos or items that belonged to my female ancestors, pictures of pets, etcetera. If it were a group ritual with a Dianic circle, you would not put images from male ancestors, but for your personal altar you could honor your male relatives or ancestors, there is no reason not to do so.
I will speak their names. It’s a time to speak from your heart. I also have things on my altar that remind me of the women who were burned to death as witches: midwives, herbalists, healers, heretics who were burned at the hands of the Catholic Church and at the hands of ignorance. There were a lot of people killed, including, during the Inquisition, Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and even Christians who disagreed with their doctrine as well.
Research specific women who were killed during the Burning Times. Go back as far as you can, or focus on more recent cases, because murders are still happening, I hate to say it. This is happening in many parts of the world. We always think of Salem, Massachusetts. But in New York City in 2014, a woman and her daughter were killed by the woman’s boyfriend and he said he killed them because they were witches. So the Burning Times are still with us, unfortunately.
AE: So this sounds really powerful. You start by doing research, and every time you do research into women’s history you are nurturing your soul because women are so erased. The research itself is a spiritual practice to honor yourself and to honor where you came from. You make an altar —
RB: You could also set a place at your table for the Dead. Many of us have cultural traditions around food. For example, if you have an aunt or grandmother who loved pasta, you could make them a plate at your table. It’s a very old tradition to do this by the way.
AE: Oooh I’ll be putting some Scotch on my altar for my grandmother.
RB: There you go.
AE: The other thing Dianic witches always incorporate as you were saying is the Wheel of the Year, so maybe women could put on their altar things which are autumnal —
RB: Absolutely, you could decorate your altar with very vibrant leaves as well as a few which are disintegrating and falling apart. Because this is about returning to the compost. The Dianics have a gathering, the daughters of Diana Gathering in southern California. We have big bowls of earth and women take the leaves that have already started to degrade and they think about what it is they need to compost. They put their intention of release and compost and they bury it in the earth to fully decompose. That’s just one example of how you can do that. Because this is a slow change. Anything that is put into the Earth is a slow change. Whereas there’s elemental magic that involves lighting candles — a fire is very quick. It’s the highest vibration of magic. There’s elemental magic for all the holidays and for Hallows, earth and water are very powerful.
That space between Hallows and winter solstice is a pause. It’s not oh the year ends and the new one is right here. That’s why I refer to it as the dream time, that six-week period which culminates in the longest night at Winter Solstice. That notion of not creating or destroying, just being, so you are quiet enough to listen to the wisdom of your ancestors.
There’s an old woman inside you who knows better than your young self. She also exists even if she’s not embodied yet, if you have that notion of time being a spiral rather than linear.
AE: One of the things I’m super pumped about as I get more into the Wheel of the Year and explore my own spirituality is that you can use items that you used earlier in the year in ritual, for instance, candles that didn’t burn down all the way, I keep a cinnamon broom from Trader Joe’s each autumn, hold onto it and burn it later —
RB: Perfect! That’s an old custom.
AE: So I think it’s cool to keep in mind that you can hold onto something you make during your ritual to bring out at the end of the dream time or at the next Spring Equinox as things are starting to sprout.
RB: Exactly. The reason I keep saying oh it’s a folk customs is because so much of this is with us already, retained from our folk customs. In the holiday of Halloween all of this is hiding in plain sight, but no one knows why we’re doing it. This is the season of the crone — Who do you see riding on the broom? It’s the old woman. We still see her everywhere this time of year. Too often she’s depicted in a hideous way, but more often now, this is changing. I’ve been charting this for years in commercialization and over time there are more depictions of witches that appear benign. Why are children dressing in costume and going door to door? Before you had batman costumes or whatever, the traditional costumes were skeletons and stuff. They go to the door and ask for donations or offerings. The person opening the door “feeds the dead.” You want the blessings of the dead in the next year. It’s about the endings. We’re seeing the old witch and the young children. Endings and beginnings, hiding in plain sight.
And I want to add, that Dianics, as feminist witches, we use the holiday to cast spells to counter patriarchy and they always culminating in chanting, “May patriarchy fall for the good of all! May patriarchy fall for the good of all! May patriarchy fall for the good of all!”
That’s what we’ve been saying for over 40 years. We use our magic to counter the dominant paradigm. It’s part of being a feminist witch to cast your psychic vote in addition to doing the activist thing in real time on the streets.