* Dancing with Death Ritual *
by Andy, Widdershins
Close your eyes, and calm your thoughts. Let your mind go out into the world. A wind blows cold across the land. Leaves, torn from the trees, swirl about like battling dervishes. A chill night is falling on the Earth, and we must be ready. Samhain is come again, and the whole world dies. Ourselves included. Of our own free will, we must take now the path to the Underworld, so that, of our own free will, we might be reborn again.
Let your spirit seek across the land for that path. At Samhain, we see the signs of the last harvest. Once fertile fields, now empty of all but the decaying remnants of the crops. A tattered scarecrow looks down, image of dying Dionysus. He knows the secrets of death and rebirth.
Seek farther for the path. Look in the cities, for death is there too. At Samhain, people even celebrate it. People dress themselves as spirits, in hopes of blending with the real spirits that walk on this night. The graven faces glowing from pumpkins tell the tale. Death can be a blessing or a curse.
Back now again into the country. Here you see the truth. All around you plants die. The summer sun has gone, and the plants die for lack of warmth. Follow the dying sun, for near its home lies the path. Send your spirit into the west, where the waves hurl themselves against comfortless rock. The waves have carved a passage, and down it you must go.
Each of you now take a coin for Charon, the ferryman. For Cerberus, take a cake as Psyche did. Like all hounds, he is fond of treats. Come now, the path is before us."
- Potential visualization for Hermes to recite
It is Samhain, the coolest holiday of the pagan year, and that means we need a good ritual. The ritual that follows developed out of three main ideas: Persephone as Queen of the Underworld, the dumb supper and the Danse Macabre. I've studied Persephone for years, and She is the only Goddess I have ever manifested as a fully conscious entity within me, so I know a fair amount about Her. One thing that has always bothered me about her portrayals is that they almost always focus on her Kore aspect. As Kore, She is the happy maiden to whom bad things happen. Sometimes She likes it, sometimes She gets over it, but the story always ends there. She is like a child actor who everyone remembers as a spunky 7-year old and ignores what she's done since. I wanted to experience Persephone in her full glory. Persephone is the Queen of the Underworld. She is the radiant spirit of life in the land of death. She rules there as much as Hades does. She is the one who gave Eurydice back to Orpheus. She is the beauty who inspired Pirithoüs' mad quest to "save" and wed Her (aided by Theseus). So beautiful was She that Aphrodite had Psyche steal Her beauty chest to learn its secrets. Persephone is a radiant queen, long recovered from the initial unpleasantness of her wedding. Persephone is lonely, however. She is only living being in the Underworld, and that can get old after a while. She always welcomes guests from above and treats them well. Even Pirithoüs, one of her suitors, was "condemned" to remain with Her in the Underworld forever by Her "jealous husband" Hades. That's really a harsh punishment for someone who loves Her anyway.
The second idea I included is the dumb supper. Traditionally, on Samhain, people would eat supper in silence out of respect for the dead. Often, empty places were left at the table for the dead, complete with empty plates and bowls. Eating in silence on Samhain makes it easier for the dead to be heard again. As part of a ritual, this is easy: Have the normal post-ritual feast during the ritual. The use of black foods such as black-cherry Jell-O, grape juice, Black Forest cake and so on can enhance the effect. Soft lighting is good, although you should save the candles for later.
The third idea is the Danse Macabre, the dance with death (or the dead, in the case of this ritual). When envisioning this ritual, I wanted to have more interactions with the dead than just thinking about them at dinner, but didn't know how. Then, just before last Halloween, I went to the "Classical Halloween" performance in Seattle's new Benaroya hall. Much beautiful, but haunting, music was heard. That fused in my mind with the "haunted ballroom" from the haunted mansion in Disneyland, and the Danse Macabre was born.
The idea is to invoke a particular dead spirit into a candle flame, and then dance with it. Black votive candles work wonderfully well for this. Start with a dark room, the darker the better. Have each person call their chosen dead and light their candle. Start the music, and with the spirits of the dead providing all the light, dance. The effect of all the people dancing around with the candles is a beauty to behold and even more fun to do.
The music is important here. I suggest classical because it gives an elegant, haunting feel. "The Danse Macabre," by Camille Saint-Saens, is the work that inspired the Danse. "Mache Funebre des Marionettes" by Gounod is good. The easy way to get the music is to go into one of those big record stores before Halloween. They have all sorts of collections of Halloween music, ready to use. You may have to hunt some for classical ones. Ask the person at the classical desk way in the back. I use Fright Classics by the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra. Try to avoid known movie soundtracks. While the main theme from The Exorcist or "Night on Bald Mountain" would be perfect, everyone in the ritual would be thinking of Linda Blair or Mickey Mouse. A little choice on track selection for your compilation tape will avoid this problem.
Now on to the ritual itself. How elaborate you want to be depends on your time, resources, the number of people who will be in the ritual and your personal tastes. I'm going to write for ideal conditions; much of the ritual can be altered or dropped. Ideally, you will have a house to work in. In this case, you can use one room for the visualization, one for the feast and one for the dance. The visualization room can be left as usual for a ritual. The feast room should have room for people to sit and eat. Ideally, the dance room will be cleared of furniture, with all lights out, draped in black, with mirrors scattered about. In this room, the open space and the dark are the important parts.
Before the ritual, get the rooms ready. Set the food and utensils out so people can eat in silence without having to ask "where is a cup?" and "pass the salt" and so on all the time. Buffet style is the key here. Have votive candles ready in the dining room for the next stage. Placing a large burning candle there makes it easier for everyone to light theirs after the feast. In the visualization room, set out a bowl of those chocolate gold coins ready so people can each take one for Charon. Doggy treats should be ready there if people are to pass Cerberus also. The ritual uses the Greek mythos of Persephone as its foundation. It calls Persephone and Hades. To invoke other death deities such as Hel, Kali, Hecate or Set, you will have to adapt the ritual. It isn't too difficult to modify, but I'm going to assume the original Greek theme here. The roles in the full ritual are Persephone, Hades, Hermes, Charon and Cerberus. Hades can be dropped, with Persephone speaking the essential lines from both parts. Figure out who is going to do what in advance.
Charon and Cerberus merely take offerings and let people pass. They can be as dramatic or boring as they want. Cerberus can be dropped altogether. At the place where my group often has rituals, the owners have three dogs running about. I envisioned giving one of the dogs a doggy treat to pass by Cerberus. This step should work for any pets who like lots of treats.
Start in the visualization room. Ground, cast your circle around the house, perform your usual ritual beginning. As goddess and god, call Persephone and Hades. While the initial ritual is going on, Persephone, Hermes and Hades (if He appears) should be in the underworld room invoking and preparing. After the circle is cast, Hermes comes in and begins the journey. If you are not using the Greek mythos, insert your favorite messenger of the dead here. The journey to the underworld is a guided visualization with some walking about. You can use the visualization at the start of the article, or make your own. The key here is for Hermes to set the mood. It is Samhain, and you are undergoing a dark and mysterious journey to the realm of the dead. At the end of the visualization, everyone gets up. Hermes leads people to the eating area. His path, preferably, is convoluted, possibly going out of and back into the house. Along the way, people pass Charon and give him their coins. In a different spot, they pass Cerberus, if present. Leashes or a separate closed room can keep pets in a particular area if they participate. Whoever is playing Charon and/or Cerberus should leave the main group and get ready when the visualization starts. They can rejoin the group after everyone passes their stations. When everyone reaches the eating area, Persephone (and Hades, if present) are there, waiting. Preferably, they're seated in big chairs. Hermes announces to the ritualists that they are entering the feasting hall of the underworld where Lady Persephone and Lord Hades are holding court. He presents each member of the group by name to the Lady and Lord. Persephone should welcome the group and bid them to eat. How dramatic this should be is up to the gods involved. Hades should probably just scowl a lot - yes, his wife is having another of Her infernal parties. The underworld was so much quieter back when He was single. None of this mortals traipsing around stuff.
After the presentation, Hermes joins the main group and the dumb supper begins: a feast of black food and silence. Contemplate those who have passed on. Leave food and places for them. At the end of the supper, Hades makes an announcement. If you perform the ritual without Hades, Persephone can speak, and you can edit the following accordingly. I'm going assume Hades here. The speech is borrowed from an account of Orpheus' trip to the underworld.
"We are the gods who rule the dark and silent world; to us all born of a woman must come. All lovely things at last come down to us. We are the debtors who are always paid. A little while you tarry up on Earth, then you are ours forever and forever. But I see you have come to us too soon. We will weave again for you life's pattern, taken from the loom. But first you must decide who will do the weaving."
Hades takes out a pomegranate, and Persephone takes out a flower. Each person takes either a seed or a petal. Hades then leads the seed-takers into the heart of underworld (the dance area). Hades (or Persephone) tells his group that they have chosen to accept death as part of their lives. When they return to the land of the living, they now have a task. Once each moon, until it is Samhain again, they must find something that has died and light a black candle for it. It could be a plant or animal - just anything or anybody who has died. The ritualists should call Hades when they light the candle, of course. Persephone should tell the group the same thing, if Hades is not present. For those who remain, or when Persephone returns from working with the first group, Persephone tells the group they have chosen to be a bringer of life to the world. When they return to the land of the living, they now have a task. Once each moon, until it is Samhain again, they must call Persephone and then do something that makes someone happy.
The key here is to split the group. Everyone has to make a choice and accept his or her fate. Also, Persephone and Hades should tell everyone not to reveal what happened to them. They might mention what happened to Eurydice when Orpheus didn't follow instructions. By splitting the group up, a level of mystery is introduced that adds to the magic of the ritual. Keeping each part secret from the people in the other group only enhances this effect.
Persephone now leads the petal group down into the heart of the underworld. Everyone lights their candles as they enter and calls the spirit of someone who has passed on. Persephone speaks again.
"Now the reweaving of lives will begin. Dance now the Danse Macabre, the dance of death and life, and we will weave the essence of your spirits together again."
Start the music, dance with spirits, enjoy life. Persephone, Hades or both weave the intense energies involved. Whenever the deities feel everything is done, they stop the music. Hermes leads people back to the visualization room. Everything is released, and everyone goes home.
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