Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween Thoughts

In my last post I referred to Halloween as the “great gay holiday.” You may be wondering what I mean by that.

Well, on one level, I agree with William Stewart when he writes in Cassell’s Queer Companion that “Halloween has always been a time of year when the gay community experienced greater freedoms. Even in the 1940s and 1950s, when police harassment of gay bars was at its height, Halloween was the one fairy-tale evening when the drag queens could come out with impunity.”


Today, many gay websites talk about Halloween as being a time when gay people can live out certain fantasies – not only perhaps by dressing in drag, but in the butch and sexy outfits of policemen, firemen, and sailors. It would be a mistake, however, to think of such fantasies as concerned solely with dressing-up and/or satisfying certain sexual fetishes. No, there’s something deeper at work, and we can begin to understand what it is when we take a look at some of the other popular Halloween costumes.

For there is, of course, the magical finery of faeries and daemons, and the more scary visage of other creatures that similarly straddle more than one world – ghosts, vampires, werewolves, etc. Now the deeper meaning of Halloween is becoming clearer: It’s about transformation.

As you may know, Halloween developed from a pagan holy day, the ancient Celtic feast of
Samhain (pronounced sow-in), which was the eve of the new year. It was a time when the veil between this world and the next was at its thinnest, and people and spirits could “cross over,” could pass back and forth between the two worlds. Huge bonfires were lit on hilltops – some say to frighten away evil spirits; others, to warm the souls of the departed. Perhaps both.

(Incidentally, the word “Halloween” has its origins in the Catholic Church. It comes from a contracted corruption of All Hallows Eve. November 1, “All Hollows Day” or “All Saints Day,” is a Catholic day of observance in honor of saints. But, in the 5th century BC, in Celtic Ireland, summer officially ended on October 31 – a holiday that, as noted above, was called Samhain, which means “end of summer,” the Celtic New Year.)

I think gay people who are conscious of having undertaken the often difficult (even scary!) journey of coming out of the closet, are very much open to the idea of new beginnings, of “thin places” (i.e., fragile opportunities), of crossing thresholds and expanding boundaries, of walking in more than one world.


Gay people, like witches of old, are very adept at transformation. And as Michael Ventura points out: “Witch-power is transformative power [within an awareness of] humanity as not entirely of this world, the world of daily life . . . It is to imagine us, rather, as a living gate between this world and worlds beyond. As though humanity were the very membrane through which what we now call ‘information’ passes between the worlds – information, in this case, being force, energy, a kind of wind, through which come messages, healings, destructions, visions, transformations.”

Remember what Sherman Alexie said about the indigenous peoples of the Americas viewing gay people as “magical”? Yes, folks, we’re in the realm of the mystics now; of witches, dervishes, bodhisattvas, shamans – all those people across time and cultures who, in Ventura’s words, can “consciously place themselves at the gateway or passageway [between the worlds]; take responsibility for being there; and . . . make transformation in this realm possible.”

And I don’t believe that we’re talking only about this reality and a world or worlds beyond it, but the different “worlds” within our reality - the secular world, the church world, the straight world, the gay world. I believe gay people have a special gift and role to play in transforming them all, in one way or another, for the better.

Anyway, following is more from Michael Ventura’s commentary “A Touch of the Witch,” originally published in the October 18, 1995, issue of City Pages (Minneapolis).

Many of the religious practices of indigenous peoples (including the indigenous peoples of Europe) were rituals by which this world passed sustenance to the next, and called for sustenance in return. They were and are religions of constant give-and-take between the worlds. With a few, such as the Aztecs, this was done violently, but that was rare, for the most part, this exchange of sustenance was attempted simply, peacefully, reverently, though always with awe and alertness, for it can be a trembling moment, standing at the gateway between worlds. The means to do this is the “craft” of “witchcraft” – a world given a bad spin by those gradually dominant religions concerned more with dominance than religion (which killed millions of indigenous witches in homage to their own rather selfish gods).

The witch’s bad image is not helped much by the old tales. As anyone who’s read the Grimm collection (the most popular of these tales) knows, both their strength and weakness are their stark metaphors. The dark side of motherhood becomes the evil stepmother. The blind spots of love become the irrational, dangerous demands that lovers make of each other. Inner growth becomes the journey through the dark forest. And, to set them apart from others, those with witch-power become hairy, troll-like, have teeth like tusks or nails like claws – metaphors, verbal special-effects, for humans in a state of profound transformation, of this world and not of this world both. (I suspect one reason for this is to avoid making witch-power seductive; to let folks know that transformation is serious business.)

The witch, as Robert Bly has pointed out, is crucial to the tale: The journey must go to the witch, the transformer, for instruction on transformation. He or she will then be given a task that seems crazy or impossible, and through that task will break through to another state of being. Again, the witch is portrayed as dangerous because transformation from one level of consciousness to another is not to be taken lightly, and can call for what seems crazy or even impossible. The weakness of the tales is that the starkness of their metaphors may be taken literally. As with the metaphors of the Bible, this leaves them open to misreading and attacks. (For this reason, Buddha and the Taoists kept metaphors to a minimum.)

Above: The Little Mermaid confers with the Sea Witch
before her transformation into human form.

To conclude this Halloween post, I share Susan Lane’s comment in response to my recent Solidarity Sunday homily, “Liberated to Be Together.”

[It’s] interesting to [hear in your homily of] the connection in time between the persecution of gay men and the burning of witches. The witches were for the most part midwives and traditional healers.

As the “men” of science, who spent long hours dissecting bodies in the early renaissance schools of science and medicine, became interested in reproduction, they became “male midwives” and increasingly, especially after a male attended birth in the French court in the 17th century, men took over birth in urban areas and among the rich. Of course, they didn’t know what they were doing and the maternal death rate skyrocketed. They secretly studied with the rural midwives, [with one man] even going so far in one case as to disguise himself as a woman, and then would bring the witchcraft charge against their teacher to eliminate the competition.

It’s true that the best midwives, the ones sought out by most women of the time, were old – probably because they were healthy – but not likely very attractive. The long finger nails on the Halloween witches has a basis in fact: early midwives grew one pinky nail very long and at a birth it was sharpened to a point – in order to break the amniotic sac if necessary.

The history of childbirth gets worse from [the time that men took over], by the way, in terms of mortality. To this day, in the country with the highest number of practicing obstetricians and highest percentage of births being attended by men in hosptials (the US) we have the highest infant mortality rate of any industrialized country – 42nd in the world.

Meanwhile, in Europe, research is confirming that for better outcomes and lower cost, home births and birth centers attended by midwives should increase. In the US, ACOG is trying to defund birth centers.

I write all this because I believe that women’s fear of birth and birth pain (fear which produces adrenaline and actually increases birth pain and slows the labor) and the abuse of GLBT persons is more damaging to our culture than the individual injustices reveal. These biased views and practices weaken the partnerships of men and women in families and affect connections in every segment of society, damage that is passed on through the generations.
Midwives and gay men are still the biggest threat to values of aggressive patriarchy, dominance, and control (the root of greed).

In the birth community we have a saying: Peaceful birth for peaceful earth. If you had ever seen a child born without crying (a fallacy that they need to cry to breathe) and placed on it’s mothers breast, allowed to crawl ON ITS OWN to breast and latch and suckle with no help at all, and if you knew what had been accomplished in the previous nine months to allow that to happen, you would understand that phrase relating peaceful birth to peaceful earth.

If you knew that 50% of operative births, believed by mothers to save the lives or health of their babies or themselves, are entirely unnecessary, then you would also know the deep pain felt by some of us “witches” who see that the power to birth is denied to US women – a power that belongs to all women regardless of whether or how they give birth.

In both these communities – those of birthing women and those of GLBT persons, the power and beauty of their sexuality is denied in our culture. For me, these denials are of a piece and are at the core of violence and abuse.

So blessings to midwives and mothers, and to the GLBT community. I do believe that they hold a key to our cultural salvation. Lofty, I know, but loving God’s creation is so deep in the faith of these communities, so basic to their survival. It’s our pleasure to serve them.

Opening image: The Shrine to the Thin Places at Doonamoe in County Mayo, Ireland. This shrine was designed and built by Travis Price, AIA, with his students at Catholic University.
Image 2: Photographer unknown.
Image 3: Artist unknown.
Image 4:
“Spirit Rising Samhain” by Crystal Wolfe.
Image 5: Artist unknown.
Image 6: Artist unknown.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
In the Garden of Spirituality: Toby Johnson
The Gifts of Homosexuality
Gay People and the Spiritual Life
Boorganna (Part II)
In the Garden of Spirituality: Rod Cameron
In the Garden of Spirituality: Paul Collins
In the Footsteps of Spring – Part 4: Coming Out
The Challenge to Be Ourselves
Keeping the Spark Alive: A Conversation with Chuck Lofy
Toby Johnson on the Mysticism of Andrew Harvey
A Blood-Soaked Thread

Recommended Off-site Links:
Halloween Greetings from the Vatican - Colleen Kochivar-Baker (Enlightened Catholicism, October 30, 2009).
Christianist Loons and Halloween
- Michael B. Hamer (Michael-in-Norfolk, October 30, 2009)
Animal Energies
- The Leveret (December 23, 2007).


Liam said...

Modern scholars have done a fair bit of work deconstructing (and demolishing) the understandings of Samhain that are really modern confections by folklorists and occultists of the 19thn and early 20th century.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Liam,

Perhaps you could reference some of these "modern scholars" and their work. From my research, what I say about Samhain in this post seems to reflect a standard understanding.



William D. Lindsey said...

Michael, thank you for a rich and very informative (and well-researched) posting. I intend to return to it and read it several times very carefully.

I'm drawn to the theme of gay folks as transformative. That fits my experience. I've noticed that many gay folks see a value in what is overlooked and discarded, and seem to have a particular knack for rescuing such items (and people), and showing off their overlooked beauty.

It's no accident, I think, that gay people have a history of recognizing and then retrieving the beauty of "lost" neighborhoods that others have fled. I've seen that process at work in a number of cities, and am convinced it has a lot to do with that transformative talent of the gay community.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Great observation, William. Thanks for sharing it - and your positive feedback. It's always appreciated.



Liam said...

Ronald Hutton's "The Stations of The Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain" (Oxford, 1996) devotes an entire chapter to the issue, but builds on monographs and other research that precedes it, and in the course of my reading since I've come across yet more, but I don't have it on hand to cite. The bottom line is that the theories of early folklorists and occultists have come to dominate a lot of reference materials, but those theories were not supported by strong (and sometimes no) scholarship. At best they represented much more limited truths than was formerly supposed.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Liam,

Thanks for the reference, though I remain curious as to what "theories of early folklorists and occultists" concerning Samhain are representive of "limited truths."



Jeff said...

Hmm . . . later generations corrupting an ancient peoples' experience and interpretation of the divine so as to fit their own cultic and ideological agenda. Sounds like Roman Catholicism to me!

Funny how when groups like the Jesus Seminar offer much needed "deconstruction" of Christianity, all hell breaks loose. Yet when it's a pagan religion under scrutiny it's deconstruction full stream ahead.