The Mighty Dead: Shrines and Cakes and Silence

When we lose the ones who shared the Way with us, we have lost more than what is stolen in a mortal death.  We have lost their unique strand of the spiritual current and legacy they carried and shared with us.  And though we may hold our own for future generations to carry the torch of our traditions, the Presence weaves a widdershins thread that is stronger through ancient hands grown tired with the weight of fire.

We carry on.  Our old friend, Time lessens the wound but the wound of our loss is always present.  The grief of their physical loss is the depth of love in equal measure to the pain of loss.  This is the dark edge of the sword of love and the burning pain for the joy of loving.  This is also a Wisdom teaching that can only be felt to be known.  It takes courage to love, fully conscious of the inevitable painful cost of the loss of love and to love despite it!  The Arte therefore requires bravery and is not for the faint of heart.  It is no coincidence that the Latin word for heart is cor, which is the root of the word courage.

A simple part of Craft philosophy and in fact many religions of the world is that Love never dies.   If we love someone or have been loved by them, then that love bears their spirit, giving them life in the Otherworld.  The agape is both the vehicle of communion and the feast.  Love and Death are intimates so it is no wonder that the veneration of the Dead plays an integral part of Traditional Craft practice and philosophy and not for Sauin alone.

 The Mighty Dead

Our Craft Ancestors join the Host of the Mighty Dead upon passing from this world.  There, they guard the Arte in death as they did in life and they can also be summoned by the living for knowledge and aid.  This is an unique added benefit to having Traditional Craft Lineage as opposed to ‘making it up as you go’ as many witches do.  Knowing the secret names of the Ancestors and calling them from the Otherworld to Watch and Ward in special rites is an unique experience.  The simple links to the secret heritage, lore and ancestry are irreplaceable treasures and carry a potency and magic which has a tangible life-force and will of its own.  This is not to disregard my brothers and sisters of the Arte who came to Witchcraft on their own but just to say something of the essence of magical legacy.  I am sure that even if a self-made Witch called upon the Mighty Dead with a heart of courage, their summons would be met in the Otherworld with welcome and loving arms.

Of course, summoning the Host of the Mighty Dead is not to be done lightly and clearly it is far more appropriate to convene ones personal Ancestors than the Retinue of Ages.

Ancestor Shrines

My Ancestor Shrine is a living embodiment of my love of those who have passed on.  It changes over time and as I grow old, it becomes more laden.  I’ve seen Shrines that include animals, inspiring people, familiars and thought-forms put to rest.  I’ve also seen shrines that are entirely symbolic and hold nothing but a skull, rose and candle upon a rough stone.  Sometimes it is only a photo and candle upon a hearth.   The appearance of the shrine is never as important as that there IS a shrine.

 The act of creating the Ancestor Shrine in your home or outdoors should be viewed as a sacred act or ritual that creates a pathway between your Ancestors in the Otherworld and yourself.   You are creating a microcosm of the chthonic realm in terrestrial form.  Each shrine is clearly as unique as the Witch who creates it and his or her Ancestors.  There are no colour coded candles, designer altar cloths, sigils or special crystals of power for this and no instruction manual.  You must rely entirely on your intuition and your heart’s relationship with the Ancestor.  If your instinct tells you to find a skull and place a crystal in its socket to give vision to the dead on your shrine, then do it.  Use photos, use hair, use rowan berries, cremated ashes of your loved ones, use graveyard dirt, use symbols carved or painted, use whatever it is that links your mind to your Ancestors, their Shades.  There is no cookie cutter symbol for everyone and they are your Ancestors with their unique personalities for you to consider as well.  If your granny loved her knitting, why not give her some knitting needles and wool?  The Ancestors live as Shades and still have all the personality they did when corporeal.  Keeping in tune with the love we shared with our Ancestors will help to metamorphosis your Shrine into a living micro-world.

Some Witches prefer to feed the Dead or to make personal offerings to their Ancestors on lunar, daily or weekly cycles.  Many Ancestor Shrines house bowls for offerings of favourite foods, flowers, incense, water, milk, alcohol or grain.  One exceptional Witch that I know has made an offering bowl as central to the Shrine.  Her bowl is fired black clay for skrying and it balances upon three femurs, bound by hand-spun red wool.  Most Shrines will house a candle flame somewhere.  Some witches like to burn their offerings to the Dead while others simply leave their offerings in bowls that are later buried, composted or returned to the earth in some manner.  All in all, it is up to you and your imagination as well as your relationship to the Dead.

Communion with the Ancestors

How each Witch communicates with their Ancestors is also a personal affair.  Whether you meditate, talk or sing to them is up to you.  For some, silence is best and they wait to hear the Ancestors speak first.  For others, a more direct approach with visceral tools such as candles, pins in bottles, ouijii boards and the like. Many witches however are relatively happy with the peaceful remembrance of their dead and don’t need dramatics from the Otherworld.

Some Witches are fond of entheogens and alcohol and smoke and drink rather copious amounts to commune with the Dead or the Otherworld Denizens.  I don’t advise that route as it may unite the quick and the Dead sooner than anticipated and not by willed, patient controlled means.  However, as each shrine is individual; each Witch must form their own personal experiences and connection to the Ancestors by their own methods.  Entheogens and alcohol do have a long history in Traditional Witchcraft.  The informed use of entheogens and alcohols as ‘spiritual aids’ is especially helpful for those people who can’t quite find the space by their own efforts or for those individuals who require an intense spiritual catapulting leap of consciousness, usually for a specific purpose.  Most witches however, are naturals at travelling between the worlds and communicate safely with the Shades without such things.  We already live on the edge or… straddle the hedge as some might say so such things are not for everyday use or are entertainments for the clay-born.

 Shibber Valloo:  Dumb Supper

On Mann, a custom for communing with the Ancestors was the consuming of Soddag Valloo (Dumb Cakes).  The general custom took place during Hop Tu Naa (November 11th but now celebrated on October 31st) however the rite itself was performed at any point the Witch desired.  The cakes were made during the day with a base mixture of flour, eggs complete with ground shell, salt and ashes and could be considered a form of bannock.  Other ingredients were often added by the Witch to give further potency to the cake, mindful that the cakes were actually consumed.  The Witch would go to a private place of the Ancestor she sought communion with.  This could of course be at a graveyard but keep in mind that smart Witches did not want to get caught.  Most witches performed this rite in the privacy of their own property.

The place would be hallowed by the elements and after that, the Witch set out plates, silverware, glasses and napkins for both the living and the Dead.  The Shade was summoned to attend the meal by calling its name into the North.  At that point the Witch tolled a bell in a patterned sequence into the silent night.  The knells acted as an auditory guide for the dead as well as protecting both the Witch and the Shade from unwanted travellers along the ghost roads.  Once the Ancestor had arrived, the dinner candle was lit and it was time to begin the Shibber Vallo, or Dumb Supper.

The Witch did not speak at any time during the Shibber Vallo and made every effort to perform the meal in a widdershins way.  If she commonly used her right hand, then she would use her left.  If she wore clothing, she would remove it and redress with the clothing on backward.  The understanding here is that the Otherworld is a mirror of our own and the reflection is often reversed, therefore the joining of the Worlds creates a respected temporal distortion that the Witch embraces physically.  Wine and water was poured for both the Shade and the Witch and the cakes were lain upon the plates and consumed entirely in mute silence.  When the supper concluded, the Witch arose with the candle and walked backward with the Ancestor to their bed or a place where they may lay comfortably for the night.  Visions and dreams were the least to be expected of this night.

However you celebrate the coming season with turnips, or pumpkins, tricks or treats, we hope you have an intimate time with your Beloved Ones in both worlds.

Hop-tu-naa-I met an old woman
Tra-la-laa -She was baking bonnags
Hop-tu-Naa-I asked for a bit
Tra-la-laa -She gave me a bit, as big as my big toe.
Hop-tu-Naa-She dipped it in milk
Tra-la-laa -She wrapped it in silk
Hop-tu-Naa, Tra-la-laa
Jinny the Witch flew over the house
To catch a stick to lather the mouse
Hop-tu-Naa, Tra-la-laa
If you don’t give us something we’ll run away
With the light of the moon.

5 Responses to “The Mighty Dead: Shrines and Cakes and Silence”

  1. The host of the dead were once known as the ‘Sluagh Sidhe’, or ‘Sluagh Shee’ weren’t they? They performed the shades of a funeral or wedding or christening(!) for those with the other sight to see…
    Manx fishermen used to act out a fishing trip on land around the time of Laa Houney as part of their ‘Shibber Burt Batey’…. A male equivalent of the ‘Shibber Valloo’?

    • You are certainly on to something there Adam. Yes, the Host as Sluagh Sidhe was a name for the immortal host of the Good People though they were not the same as the Host of the Mighty Dead. The Sidhe were of course Fey and the Witch is commonly regarded as mortal with supernatural powers. But we speak very little of the Mooinjer Veggey to this day and most Manx know them only as wee spirits with wings for postcards and TT Racing travel mugs. However, if you have the sight, perhaps your view of the Good Folk has changed you. Anyhow, yes, there is a connection.

      I’m unfamiliar of the Shibber Burt Batey folk ritual prior to heading out to sea? Sounds very intriguing and again, you could be on to something. I would enjoy hearing more of this. Please do share.

      • The ‘Shibber Burt Batey’ (the term used for it in the translation of John Clague’s ‘Manx Reminiscences’) was performed by some southern fishermen at the end of the fishing season when the captain was also hiring for the next year, so it was some time around Martinmas/Shenn Sauin (the 11th day of the 11th month… etc). It was a mummery of a fishing trip, but held on land. They would shoot the nets onto a field and perform other onboard activities… a reflection of the Other World. I get the impression it was designed to ensure plenty of souls in the nets in the coming year, luck etc.

        As to a difference between whom you call ‘The Fey’ and the host of the dead – I wouldn’t be so sure that there was an original distinction, although I understand such a distinction is a popular in various forms of contemporary paganism. Here is my argument (and please accept my apologies for recapping common doctrine):

        Stripping back all the medieval monkish and bardic literary froth, the Atlantic Peoples (I’ll avoid the ethnically loaded term ‘Celts’) appear to have believed in a mother goddess who was also the creatrix-ancestor-progenitor: the Cailleach/Caillagh/Calliagh, being one of many names by which she was known. By late medieval times it was a common folk belief that the Fairies were her children, and she was referred to as the ‘Fairy Queen’. Her other names are variants of ‘Moire/Muire/Moiraghyn(pl)’, Brigdhe/Bride/Berrey/Bheara, Ana/Aine/Fand/Awin (she is responsible for the waters, after all!)/Seainne/Sinand/Seantainne (Santan), ‘Aoibheal’, ‘Badbh’, Groamagh/Gwrach/Gro’ach, Banbha, Tehi Tegi, Lhiannan (Lonan), etc as I am sure you know. She has continually changing seaonal identities and is reborn each year, and her ancient essence connects the people with their past and the genesis of their culture and being from the very land of their ancestors. She is an expression of the connection of people with their history and their land.
        English visitors to the Isle of Man in the 17th century and 18th century wrote that the Manx believed their forebears in the Isle of Man were Fairies. The Manx traditional curse was a damnation of the hearth, sweeping away the ancestral spirits and children to come from the seat of the Manx household where these spirits dwelled. Manx people planted Tramman (Elder) trees by their houses (traditionally at the gable end closest to the hearth) so that these spirits could live in the branches and be nearby. Manx people used to throw Tramman leaves (and white pebbles) into the graves of their deceased family and friends. You can even see Tramman leaves on some old gravestones…
        There was no distinction between the souls of the dead and the fairies – I guess it just depended how closely related and on what terms you were on with them! In a local context, the (temporal and physical) legendary bridge between the fairy world of the ancestors and the current mortal world was maintained in the Phynodderree/Glashen/Dooiney Oie tales, where the fairy world manifests as half-mortal and lends its skill and strength to aid human endeavours.

        In most surviving Atlantic pagan legends, Manannan represents the spirit-father who rules the Isles in the West where the dead travel to and who occasionally forays back to help the living. He is not really one of the Tuatha de Danaan, but a much more important character. How he ended up living on South Barrule is anyone’s guess, but it is suggested (By Prof George Macquarrie, who occasionally lectures here) that he was given residence to fulfil the evangelical need of Christianity to put a man at the top… As it happens there are comparitively few pagan landscape features in the Island named after him (maybe 2 or 3), but very many named after the Goddess, and by this we need not be too surprsied. In Manannan’s distant (yet close) realm, the day is our night and night is our day. The Moon is their sun, no less. This is why fairies are out at night…

        The same reflected dichotomy of the worlds of the living and the dead (land and sea) is reflected in the rituals of the dumb supper and boat supper mentioned above.

      • We are singing in the same choir.

  2. “Jinny the Witch flew over the house
    To catch a stick to lather the mouse…”

    I was thinking of these lines of the song last night (I always do during this quarter of the year) as I watched the full Moon and Venus arching high over the constellation of Orion 😉 How cold it gets as the Old Lady travels to the West!

    “I am Buí, the Seantaine Berri;
    I used to wear a smock that was ever-renewed;
    today it has fallen from me, by reason of my mean estate,
    that I could not have even a cast-off smock to wear…”

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