January 4, 2016 at 7:32 am

Cosmic Lessons: The Day of the Dead


Samhain (pronounced /ˈsɑːwɪn/ SAH-win or /ˈsaʊ.ɪn/ SOW-in, Irish pronunciation: [sˠaunʲ]) is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year.
  A Read Part 1 here: Cosmic Lessons: The Great Meteor Procession of 1913

The end of October and early November have always been dense with symbolical significance in quite a surprising number of traditions inherited from former times. We in the modern western world have seen a revival in the observance and celebration of Halloween, originating from a Celtic festival of the dead and a remembrance of ancestors who came before. As it is now constituted in its Christianized aspect, it is one third of the so-called Hallowmass Tridium, consisting of All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, lasting from the evening of October 31 through Nov. 2. Contemporary perspective deprives Halloween of any meaning beyond that of an excuse for kids to gorge themselves on candy, and now adults too, to have an excuse to dress up in costumes and party. I remember a piece that I read in Parade magazine in 2010 that exemplified this reductionist view quite efficaciously. The article was entitled “Lessons from the Great Pumpkin.” This, of course, was a reference to the make-believe character imagined by Linus in the Peanuts comic strip. This is what the author, Eric Konigsberg, had to say about Halloween.

“The true genius of the Great Pumpkin may be the way it sends up other holiday parables by having a character seek deeper meaning in the sole holiday that has no real lesson to teach. Is there any other day we celebrate that is as empty of moral or historical significance? Halloween exists today simply so that kids can dress up, run around after dark, eat too much candy, and scare the pants off one another.”

That’s all there is to it in the mind of this author. However, with all due respect, he is completely clueless as to the real history of this ancient tradition, but apparently is under the impression that he knows enough to have an opinion that he expresses in a national publication. However, as you shall see, if you persevere in reading this article, and several more to come, there is much, much more to the matter than this writer has imagined.

So, by way of contrast, I would like to introduce you to the work of Robert Grant Haliburton (1831 -1901) a 19th Century Canadian author, anthropologist and antiquarian, founder of the Nova Scotian Institute of Natural Science and an active member of learned societies on both the North American and European continents. He wrote and published numerous papers and articles on science, history and politics. In the anthropological world he is probably best known for the discovery of an unknown tribe of Pygmies living in the Atlas region of northwestern Africa. For a period of time he was most popularly known for a lengthy paper he authored in 1868 entitled the Festival of the Dead. This work has, for the most part, been overlooked and forgotten by modern scholarship, but the discoveries described therein have assumed a renewed relevance for our time.

Robert Grant Haliburton (1831 -1901) a 19th Century Canadian author, anthropologist and antiquarian, founder of the Nova Scotian Institute of Natural Science
Robert Grant Haliburton (1831 -1901) a 19th Century Canadian author, anthropologist and antiquarian, founder of the Nova Scotian Institute of Natural Science

In the year 1859 Haliburton was visiting England and decided to prepare a paper to present before the Society of Antiquaries of London. He chose as a subject for his paper the customs connected with All Souls Day. After spending some time researching and gathering information Haliburton realized that, as he put it

“the coincidences in the observance of this festival by different nations were much more striking than I had supposed.”

As a result of this realization he spent a great deal of his spare time over the next 9 years engaged in the investigation of the origin of various festivals and customs from around the world associated with the dates around late October to November 2, and this research culminated in his 1868 paper.

It was when he came to the conclusion of his preparations for the 1859 paper that Haliburton realized something that apparently made a very powerful impression upon him. He describes this realization in the Introduction to his Festival of the Dead.

“. . .a new and most startling fact was discovered when I came to read over the paper I had prepared . . .it was singular that the festival of the dead amongst the ancient Peruvians was celebrated on the same day as by the Spaniards, viz. on All Souls Day, November 2nd. I had also considered this merely as a curious coincidence; but it was generally observed in November south as well as north of the equator, a fact so remarkable that it was evident that whatever could be the cause, it must be something hitherto unknown. . .”

Whatever that hitherto unknown something was that inspired this “curious coincidence” in regards to the universality of the Festival of the Dead, further researches revealed to Haliburton that the festival

“. . . is now, or was formerly, observed at or near the beginning of November by the Peruvians, the Hindoos, the Pacific Islanders, the people of the Tonga Islands, the Australians, the ancient Peruvians, the ancient Egyptians, and the northern nations of Europe, and continued for three days among the Japanese, the Hindoos, the Australians, the ancient Romans, and the ancient Egyptians.”

Haliburton made an important conceptual leap when he further observed that

“It was evident that the uniformity could not have been caused or preserved by any calendar now known to us, and that the festival must originally have been regulated by some visible sign or mark that nature had supplied to our ancestors and the Peruvians.”

This could be the only rational conclusion, unless the uniformity of traditions was, in fact, only a coincidence. But if not coincidence the question then begging to be answered is what could have been the visible sign or mark supplied by Nature to both the Peruvians and the Europeans? Haliburton questions

“how was this uniformity in the time of observance preserved, not only in far distant quarters of the globe, but also through that vast lapse of time since…the Indo-European first inherited this primeval festival from a common source?”

By invoking the idea of a “common source” Haliburton is straying into controversial territory, not only during his time in the 1860s, but today still, for a common source implies “diffusionism,” a model of prehistory avoided by most modern scholarship because it is far too suggestive of a “lost civilization.”
Haliburton referred to an unnamed old writer who asks

“why do we suppose that the spirits of the dead are more abroad on Halloween than at any other time of the year?”

The answer to that question is laden with implications. Clues are to be found in the various customs associated with this date and its celebrations. A pertinent similarity in the various traditions involved the lighting of torches and bonfires. Haliburton mentions

Halloween’s Celtic origins mark the beginning of the Celtic New Year. Photo: Ian Rutherford

“The Halloween torches of the Irish, the Halloween bonfires of the Scotch, the Coel Coeth fires of the Welsh, and the Tindle fires of Cornwall, lighted at Halloween, are clearly memorials of a custom found almost everywhere at the celebration of the festival of the dead.”

“why do we suppose that the spirits of the dead are more abroad on Halloween than at any other time of the year?”
– Robert Grant Haliburton

Further striking parallels were discovered.

“We find also that towards the end of October, the Hindoo like ourselves, have three days which are connected with the festival of the dead . . . In November took place the primeval festival of the dead, clad in a veil of Egyptian mythology. The Isia, the solemn mourning for the God Osiris . . . lasted for three days, and began at sunset like the Lemuria of the Romans, and the festival of the dead among the Persians and other nations.”

He learned that in Persia there was a festival of agriculture and death and that in the ancient Persian calendar the month of this festival, November, was consecrated to the presiding angel of agriculture and death. He learned that in Peru the month corresponding to November was “the month of carrying corpses.” And in both cases, Haliburton remarks, the festival “commenced in the evening with a Halloween, which was regarded as peculiarly sacred.” He learned that in Ceylon a festival was held honoring the harvest home and a commemoration of the dead and that it took place at the beginning of November. So, simply put, what Haliburton came to realize was that all over the world, in both hemispheres, cultures from ancient times down to the 19th century observed a comparable celebration of the dead and of the ancestors, with many details of these celebrations startlingly similar across time and geography.

ScorpioFrom the period beginning on October 23 to November 22 the Sun is transiting through the sign of Scorpio. This sign has traditionally been associated with death. Obviously, in the northern temperate latitudes it is this sign in which the harvest occurs and the death, or dormancy of the plant kingdom comes to pass, both matters of life and death to an agriculturally based society. Scorpio is the zodiacal sign assigned to the 13th key of the major trumps of the Tarot Deck: Death. The imagery on this card relates directly to the symbolic meanings at the core of the ancient Festival of Dead.

As one might suspect, to elucidate that symbolic meaning we must turn to the realm of astronomy. And this is what R. G. Haliburton did. He poses the question and then points in the direction of an answer:

“How then could this result have been produced? It was apparent that the festival must have been regulated by some visible sign, or mark, that nature had supplied—such as the rising of some constellation.”

“Some constellation?” It was in his study of the ancient calendars that the answer was revealed to him:

“But on examining the calendars of ancient races, we find in Persia, India, Egypt and Peru, that the month in which our first of November festival would fall, bears in its very name a singular impress of its former connection, either with the Pleiades or the festival of the dead.”

There it was, the secret of the widespread Festival of the Dead was residing “in its very name.” Haliburton further notes that

“In the ancient Egyptian calendar the same resemblance can be traced between the name of the Pleiades, which among the Hebrews and Chaldeans is Athor-aye, with that of the Egyptian month of November, which is Athor. The Arab name for the Pleiades, Atauria, also suggests a resemblance.”

So the connection, the common element linking diverse cultures around the world through observance of this festival, was concealed in the language itself, the link between the name for the Pleiades and the month of November. Linguistically, Athor, of course, suggests the Egyptian goddess Hathor and an early connection, and Atuaria relates to Taurus, the Celestial Bull, whose shoulder in classical traditions of astrology, is occupied by none other than the Pleiades. Confronted with this information, Haliburton asked the obvious next question, the question to which we shall return next month.

“The question naturally suggests itself, whence arose this veneration for a constellation that among us, at least, is no longer reverenced.” The answer to that question confronts us with, perhaps, one of the most profound realizations accessible to the human race in the second decade of the 21st century. And the clue is hiding in plain sight in perhaps the oldest celebration known to history, preserved to this day in the conviviality of Halloween, a tradition ultimately descended from the ancient Feast of the Dead and the Ancestors, whose origins trace back to the deepest Osirian rites of Ancient Egypt − and beyond − the death and resurrection of the soul and the death and resurrection of the world.

– Randall Carlson

Click here for Part 2.

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