Blog - Page 10 of 10 - Lora O'Brien - Irish Author & Guide

An Irish Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice Fire

The Longest Night.

A woman sits by her fire, wrapped in a blanket to keep out the chill, watching the flames in the quiet of a room.

Her house is silent around her, family sleeping as she waits. Lights burn through the darkest hours.

When the deep blackness begins to lessen, she makes her way outside, searching the horizon.

A shaft of light appears, a bright lance across the land – winter is broken… Summer will return.

She smiles, then returns inside, sticks on the kettle and hops in the shower, before driving herself to work.

What? Did you think we were looking at a scene from long ago? Perhaps, but come the 21st of December, this ancient ritual will be repeated in houses all over Ireland. Meán Geimhridh, Midwinter, brings a vigil through the darkness, waiting for the new-born sun.

Irish people have been marking the return of the sun for at least 5,000 years. We have built vast and complex monuments around it, and not just Newgrange. You don’t even have to be a politician or lucky in the Winter Solstice lottery to see these wonders of a by-gone age.

Knockroe Passage tomb in Co. Kilkenny, which has been called ‘the Newgrange of the Southeast’, is a fine example, which contains extensive megalithic art, and not one, but two, chambers with astrological alignments; showing light through the chambers at both sunrise and sunset on the Winter Solstice. Or take a look at Drombeg Circle in Co. Cork, a beautiful ring of standing stones which frames a flat topped rock, aligning to the horizon where the sun sets on the Longest Night.

Many traditions, now associated with Christmas and the holiday season, have their origins in the pre-Christian past. We are lucky now to have such a beautiful blend of customs, fitted exactly to the Irish psyche and community spirit.

In bringing the evergreen tree inside, we remind ourselves of life within the seeming death of winter, of sustenance and growth that continues through the darkest times. Plants such as holly and ivy compliment this theme, and not forgetting mistletoe, which was especially sacred to our Druidic ancestors as a fertility symbol. Be careful who you kiss under the mistletoe at this year’s parties!

Decorating the tree with candles, and reflective items such as mirrors and silver coins, in the past stood for an amplification of the natural energies of the living greenery; bringing more light and life to the darkness, throwing it around the room. Today we use dodgy flickering fairy lights, glitter and tinsel, but the principle is the same. And safer, for the inevitable puppy or toddler tree attacks.

Green is the colour of life, and health, but so too is red – the bright blood of life that flows through our veins, keeping our hearts beating and our senses alive. Before a certain drinks company decided it’d look great on the jolly fat guy with the beard, the colour red was valued as a decoration and a reminder of life throughout our homes for the Winter Solstice season.

Wren Day, or Lá an Dreoilín in Irish, was continued until recent times on Stephen’s Day, with troupes of kids (known as wrenboys) going round the village or town with a fake bird on a decorated stick, singing or dancing and asking ‘a penny for the wren’. A little further back, we see a more grizzly form of this, in the hunting and capture of a live bird, which was then used to decorate the pole and held pride of place as a centrepiece for the dance that followed.

In a time of sickness and death for the weak, this may be an echo of an older sacrifice to the Gods of Winter; take one life and spare the others through the darkness until the coming of Spring. Or with the ‘winter-wren’ being a symbol of the old year, maybe the people simply wanted to make sure that it was well and truly done with.

The singing and dancing part of that tradition is pleasant, at least, and brings us to another Winter Solstice favourite, the feasting and the parties. This is one that most of us keep up, to one degree or another, and having a good party to look forward to can get us through the darkest, coldest mornings.

Winter is the time we naturally draw in on ourselves, it can be the loneliest, harshest time of year. It’s not just the cold that brings us down, it’s the lack of light, and company. In days gone by there was a serious food scarcity through the dark winter days too – but a bright feast, filled with family and friends, was the perfect reminder that the time of dark death still held strong seeds of light and life.

So, enjoy your parties!

Samhain with the Morrigan

Honeysuckle and Blackthorn Twist

I observe Samhain from dark moon to dark moon.

When I first went ‘public’ with this over 3 years ago, it seemed a novel idea to many folks, and maybe a little bit… extreme or some shit?

But it’s always made sense to me, for a few reasons:

  • 31st October as modern Samhain/Halloween doesn’t correlate with the original calendar date for the festival, because of calendars being moved about by a number of days.
  • ‘The original calendar date for the festival’ doesn’t even really make sense either… did our ancestors use calendars and view time the way we do?
  • References to ‘celebrating’ Samhain in Irish lore are most often along the lines of a 3 day festival or event, not one single night.
  • The lunar cycle has always felt energetically important at this time of year for me, where it doesn’t play a HUGE role ordinarily – that’s pure personal gnosis though.

 

So, this is how it works.

I check for the astronomical data on new moons on Irish time in October and November.

The night before a listed new moon is the dark moon – there’s usually a 3 day period of ‘New Moon’ that’s actually the very last sliver of the old moon, then the dark moon, then the very first sliver of the new moon.

The dates are simple and clear this year (2017), the New Moon is Thursday 19th October at 8.36pm Irish Time, so tomorrow is the Dark Moon – Wednesday 18th. In November, the New Moon is on Saturday 18th at 7.51am, so the Dark Moon on Friday 17th, and that clearly encompasses the calendar date of 31st October in the middle.

Sometimes the dates are a little less clear, so I always just pick the dark moon to dark moon that has the 31st October somewhere in there between them.

 

What To Do?

Mostly, my practice involves showing up consistently. It’s one of my ‘3 Cs’ of spiritual work:

  • Connection – authentic, energetic, emotional, intellectual, culturally respectful, contextualised in the established lore, communicative, conscious connection.
  • Contract – practice built on relationships and agreed terms, give and take, and the basic boundaries of regular rightful relationship, just as we would have in this world… but carefully laid out in contract, and regularly reviewed too!
  • Consistency – just showing up every day, every week, and doing the work; it sounds simple, but we humans are the ones who are very prone to be distracted by shiny things, funnily enough, and often give a strong start that peters out in very little time. Don’t do that.

 

Exactly what work I’ll be doing when I show up every day through my Samhain cycle varies from year to year.

Currently, I know it definitely involves morning tending and prayer at the Mórrígan altar (click for more info that) before my household wakes, continuing with my ‘Get in the Sea once in each 7 day period’ for at least the full run of this (I’m hoping for the sake of my poor, frostbitten fingers that I will be able to shelve that one at east ‘til the warmer weather once Samhain is done), and I’ll need to get out with bare feet on the earth under the sky and see the moon, every single night.

I’ve a few other ideas as to what I might have to do… but I’m hoping they’re not necessary. Still holding out hope for an easy life over here someday, as I’m pretty sure this shouldn’t be approached like the Ordeal Olympics with folk vying for who has the most hard-core contractual load being placed on them.

Essentially, I’m lazy as fuck, and if I wasn’t being God-bothered to do this stuff, I’d be tucked up in my Batman jammies and cozy toes slippers, HAPPY OUT.

Anyway, I’ll keep ye posted how the Samhain cycle progresses, but be prepared for me being even more than usually grumpy with the Mórrígan, and now Manannán Mac Lir (click for more info on him) for good measure, as I get even more God-bothered into doing shit I don’t want to be doing, and don’t even really understand why I have to do be doing it.

How’s your Halloween season shaping up?!


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An Interview with Lora O’Brien

Lora Black Bob

Samhain Interview with Lora O’Brien

First Contact

Hi Lora,

I hope you’re keeping well.

My name is Lisa [xxxxx] and I’m a freelance journalist for the Irish [xxxxx]. I am currently working on a Halloween special for the newspaper and I would like to include a feature on modern Irish women who practice witchcraft.

I was wondering if you might be interested in speaking to me about this? The questions will just be about how you got interested in witchcraft, explaining what it’s about, how you became interested in it, what role it plays in your everyday life, its benefits for you, etc. and hopefully debunking any old-fashioned ideas readers might have about it!

If you’re interested let me know, I would love to speak with you.

Lisa – 13th October 2016

 

Hi Lisa,

Sure I’m interested but as a fellow freelancer I should inform you I may not be what you’re looking for.

I go by the native term Draoí rather than witch, and my magic/spiritual practice are as close to indigenous pre Christian ways as I can figure. I’m about the archaeology of ancient sites and authentic translations of old Irish manuscripts rather than black cats and broomsticks. The reality of native Irish “witchcraft” doesn’t lend itself well to photo ops 😉

Of course being unaware of the query you’ve had accepted, this might still be aligned. In which case, I’d be happy to chat to you. I’m presenting at Octocon in Dublin on saturday, or can do a phone call at a mutually convenient time. Mornings are best for me.

Beannachtai

Lora

 

The Interview

 

  1. What does a Draoí mean and what does it entail in your everyday life?

The modern definition of the term is a little muddied, but technically the word Draoí means: druid, wizard, magician, augur, diviner. In practice, for me, it means that I follow the native spirituality and magic of Ireland as closely as I can in my everyday. This means that my worldview and actions are informed and shaped by the indigenous wisdom of our ancestral heritage, as far as that is possible.

  1. I know you’re not a witch but do any of the associated practices like casting spells, reading tarot cards and magic play a role in being a Draoí? If yes, how so or what are your own practices?

Yes, those practices come from the same roots as my own work, and there are similarities.

For divination or information seeking purposes I don’t use Tarot cards (though I did learn to read them, and even did so professionally a long time ago!), but rather a personal method of Journeying to the Otherworld (similar to the shamanic techniques in other native and tribal cultures) for guidance and clarification, combined on occasion with tools from our culture such as Ogham staves, or a simple 3 Stone method as described in our historical manuscripts.

Irish Magic is a very broad topic (and one which I’m currently writing a book on for a US publisher), but yes. The practice of magic and specific spells are described from our most ancient historical texts right through to Irish Christian folklore. While it is distinct from my spiritual beliefs, it does run hand in hand.

  1. How did you first realise you were a Draoí or how did you get interested in this spiritual practice? What benefits do you feel from it?

I’ve always been fascinated by the myth and magic of our stories, from childhood on, as well as having an affinity and reverence for the natural world. These things form the foundation of my path as a Draoí. Consciously though, I began to identify as ‘Pagan’ from the age of 16 when I read a book and realised there was a name for what I believed and felt, and other people who felt the same! I studied all I could about modern Paganism by myself, until I could contact others at the age of 18 (nobody reputable will seriously teach or even talk to a child or teenager), and found a group I could work with to learn more. Though there wasn’t anybody publicly teaching or sharing authentic spiritual connection to specifically Irish practice back then – and wasn’t didn’t really change until I published my first book in 2004! – I studied everything I could about earth based spirituality and magic world-wide, and built my own system and techniques that fit with what I was feeling and experiencing on the ground here.

I really got involved with our sacred sites and places of power in my twenties, and went on to guide at and manage one of our most important archaeological complexes, Rathcroghan in County Roscommon, for 8 years. Following this path has – literally – changed my life. I went from a very disturbed, anxious and troubled teenager who felt increasingly isolated and desperate, to a useful dedicated person who writes, teaches, guides, counsels, supports, speaks publicly all over the world, and has a genuine purpose in bringing those who wish to connect to Ireland the opportunities to do so in an authentic way. Plus we have a bit of craic while we’re at it. The benefits, to me and to those I help every day, are immeasurable.

  1. Witches sometimes are part of a coven. Is there a social aspect to being a Draoí or how often do you get to meet other people with shared beliefs?

When I had children, then moved to Roscommon, a lot of my community interaction moved online out of necessity. Now that I work a lot with people who aren’t physically in Ireland, or who can’t travel regularly to me or to the sites that I visit, that online contact remains a huge factor for me. Personally, I work alone rather than as part of a group – but I can’t stress enough how vital the role of community is in the practice of native Irish spirituality. Ireland is a small island, and I’ve been active in the Pagan community here now for over 20 years, so I know a lot of folk who form the basis of that community, and we talk, meet and share on a regular basis. And with the huge growth in interest in the last 10 years particularly, there are teaching and social events all over the country.

I live in Waterford now, and I’ve just started a social monthly meet-up locally, the Waterford Pub Moot, but there are events like that every month in counties all across Ireland. There are annual events and gatherings such as Féile Draíochta in Dublin (which myself and Barbara Lee organised and ran for 13 years), and Eigse Spiriod Ceilteach in Wicklow. And for those who can’t make it to events or sites in Ireland in person, I run a monthly community ‘club’ on Patreon which facilitates authentic sharing and connection to Ireland.

  1. Do you ever get approached for any unusual requests like ‘can you use magic to get my ex-boyfriend back’, etc?

I’ve been public about my practice for a very long time now, and as a writer I’ve been on the internet since way back in the day, so yeah, I’ve received some really oddball requests. People who are hurting, or even just selfish, think that magic can solve all their problems, land them their dreams with no effort, or take their pain away. Of course, it doesn’t work that way. Like every other area of this existence, you have to do the work yourself to get the result.

  1. Irish people seem to be more interested in spirituality and wellbeing in recent years so I was wondering how people react when you describe your beliefs? Do you think as Irish people move away from the traditional Church they’re more open to other forms of spirituality?

I’ve been ‘out’ about who I am and what I do since I became consciously aware of it – back when I was 16. It gave me so much hope, support, and joy every day that I wouldn’t have been able to hide it even if I’d wanted to, and I never did want to anyway. I’ve never felt the need to introduce myself on first meeting as a Pagan or a Draoí, no more than regularly minded folk do that about their Christianity, but it’s not hard for people to discern for themselves before long. Or they just Google me and it all pops up.

The reaction has been mixed through the years, but for the most part it’s positive. People are curious and interested, even if they don’t understand it, and the most common response is to share their own (or their family’s) experience and stories of the ‘supernatural’ – the fairy fort or the banshee or the odd little folk habits and observations that Granny had. That’s the foundation for what I am doing, and it’s very relatable to the vast majority of Irish people, our spiritual and even magical heritage is only just under the surface.

The catholic church has had a stranglehold on Irish spirituality for a very long time, and though our ancestors found many ways to weave and blend their native faith into the new one, the church has always been jealous of our attention. As that hold releases, slowly but surely, I do believe that our people will begin to feel the call of the land more strongly, and build healthier communities where spiritual expression and practice is an open, fluid thing that serves the very real needs of the people, not the desires of any one organisation.

  1. Finally, does Halloween have a particular significance for you? If yes, do you have any plans to mark it?

Samhain is the original Irish festival which has become our modern Halloween, a time of huge importance to our ancestors which remains probably the biggest time of change and growth and celebration to modern practitioners.

Personally, I observe and celebrate Samhain from the dark moon to the dark moon, and not just on the calendar date we have now. So I will begin in the Cave at Rathcroghan (traditionally given as the entrance to the Irish Otherworld, and home of the Goddess Morrigan) on the dark moon before the 31st, and continue with personal ritual and celebration on a regular basis until the dark moon in November.

 

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Irish Bealtaine Traditions

Irish Bealtaine Broom Bush

May Bush, May Flowers, May Pole and May Bough are all traditions still to be found scattered through the Irish countryside come Bealtaine, 30th April (May Eve) and 1st May (May Day).

You might call it Beltine, Beltane, Beltaine, or any other variation of the word, but in Ireland it’s Bealtaine, as that is still the Irish language word for the month of May. So that’s good enough for me.

The turning of the year from Winter Darkness to Summer’s Light was and still is marked with flowers, fire, and fucking. (Maybe I should have said fertility? It’s also an ‘f’ word, so the alliteration would stand, but fucking just felt more honest.)

Luck and protection, health and happiness are the themes, and everything done as an individual or as a community focused on these important drives.

Originally we had two seasons, Summer and Winter, Sam and Gam in sean ghaeilge(old Irish). These were the times when everything changed – people, herds and flocks moved from winter to summer dwellings and pastures. Work focus changed. Women got pregnant at this time to ensure that come the third trimester they could be safely tucked up with indoor jobs beside the fire, preparing for a Spring birth with fresh foods available for essential sustenance. So, fucking in the fields was not just for fertility fun folks, this is a serious scheduling issue right here.

This year, I will not go out and get pregnant. In previous years, it seemed like an extreme adherance and a step too far – but this year, it’s moved to being physically impossible for me.

I will wash my face in the morning’s dew. Hey, I am turning 39 next Tuesday – I’ll take what I can get with regards to ancient traditions to impart a fresh faced glow. The sun’s rays piercing water, shimmering on a liquid surface this morning gives the blessing of beauty to those in the know. Or so they say.

There will be flowers strewn on my doorsteps, front and back, and on May Day a small group of us from the Waterford Pub Moot will meet and visit an ancient site for a picnic. I will probably do my usual clean up of said site, if there’s anything round it that shouldn’t be round it.

My Nana told me a story years ago about a cousin of hers in County Clare, who would go out on May morning with rotten eggs, and mix them into the soil of her neighbours’ fields. Bealtaine is a time for magic and mischief, and if you don’t look out you’ll be on the receiving end of all that.

So my protective fires will be lit, my boundaries and thresholds re-walked and reinforced, and I’ll do a general magical tidy up round the house and neighbourhood. Checking the fences, as it were. I pity the May Fool who tries to cross here uninvited *summer smiles*.

All will be well for the turning of the year, and as it should be. I wish you that and more, mo chairde.

Bealtaine shona dhaiobh, chun solas is beatha a fháil.

Beir Bua!

 

The Ninth Wave

The Celtic Sea

I sat on the shore, watching the dance and sparkle of sun on water, and seeing nothing. Nothing dances inside a heavy heart, nothing sparkles through a weary, worn spirit. I was nothing, then.

The great sea heaved its rhythm through my head regardless. The pattern of waves inserted into my mind, inciting me to notice, to follow, to count the waves. Each one lapped in, and out, with steady ebb and flow. I followed. In the cycle, one to eight were even, and then the ninth came. The ninth wave came each time; larger and longer, bolder and bigger, fine and free the ninth wave fell.

I watched each time. I felt it coming now, a familiar build through the order, and then the crash and boom, the expression of power and promise. The sun danced and sparkled on the water, a broad golden glitter, a pathway pulsing with each wave, and never clearer than on the ninth. Promise. The Land of Promise lay across the broad ocean, Tír Tairngire. It called to me, to come away, to follow the path across the sea and find my peace in promise.

And the ninth wave brought a distant shadow on the horizon, but when it fell to shore, the shadow passed. Each cycle brought the shadow closer – a smudge with the coming of the next ninth wave, and a shape with the show of the next. A silhouette, a figure, a woman. She stepped then across the golden glitter with the lightest of feet, calm and balanced as she rose and fell, moving to shore and nearer with each ninth.

Her face and form awoke me, my heart and spirit responding to the perfection of sheer Sídhe beauty. My eyes had never rested on such wonder before the vision of her approach.  She strode the sea as a creature born to it, finding with each footstep a perfect wavelet crest on which to float. When she reached the sand, she stopped, the water bearing her weight without a touch of land beneath her. She beckoned me from my daze. When I stood in front of her, her radiance near blinded my eyes and I wanted more, I wanted the sight of her to be the last thing I ever did see.

Her name was Cliona, she said, as I stayed dumbstruck in her presence. Descendant of Lir, and daughter of Manannan, Keeper of Oceans. Her voice soothed my soul as the sound of gently lapping water, as the sound of a breeze sighing through seagrass. She came with the waves to answer my call, she said; to offer succour, to bring me to promise. I wanted that. I wanted to sit with her, to see her face, to hear her voice, to feel all that I felt in that moment for ever more. I wanted that with my heart, with my spirit, with all that danced and sparkled in her presence.

She lifted her hand and pointed along the shore. A currach lay there, up the way a bit and broken a bit, as it hadn’t been treated yet for the season. I went and she watched as I pulled it over, and satisfied myself that it would float at least, across the golden pathway to get me to Tír Tairngire. I lifted and dragged the little boat  down to the water’s edge, to where she stood with waves licking her toes and heels, and I pushed it out into the sea, wading til it was born afloat, then climbing inside.

I watched her face as she kept pace with the craft, as the waves brought us away from land. I focused on her form as each ninth wave lifted us higher, pushed us farther along the path that disappeared rapidly as the clouds came down. I listened to her laughter as each ninth wave crashed each time onto the bow of the boat. My heart danced and my spirit sparkled as Cliona’s ninth wave crushed my craft, bringing me to the promise and into her world…

 

That’s not the last time one of us was brought to their world in such a way… but sure, they are all stories for another day.

 

 


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Samhain in Ireland

Darkness

No, it’s not ok to pronounce it Sam-Hane…

“How can I be substantial if I do not cast a shadow? I must have a dark side also if I am to be whole” ― C.G. Jung

In Irish (Gaeilge), it’s pronounced Sow-wen, with sow as in female pig. It’s a word that has a huge cultural and historical foundation as well as a place in modern spoken Irish language as the calendar word for the month of November.

You don’t get to just take someone else’s heritage and language and change the pronunciation because it’s ‘how you’ve always said it’. Don’t do that.

Out of all the Pagan festivals, this one is most specificially rooted in Irish traditions, and is perhaps the most bastardised by modern culture around ‘Halloween’… so forgive my grumpiness? As Pagans, we can do better. So let’s start by saying it right.

(Unless you’re Scottish; they got their own pronunciation stuff going on.)

Samhain time, for me, runs Dark Moon to Dark Moon. As most of you will know by now, the Goddess I work for is kinda dark. Known for it like. We see lots of quotes and comments around at this time of year about facing the darkness, and coming through it to the light, and I get that. I do. Some of that is due to the turning of summer to winter of course, but there’s also a whole pile of crap about living in the light only, and that’s not right.

Why is darkness a bad thing?

I live in the darkness. This is where the real magic happens, the formative creation.

Can the light catch that first push from inside the seed? The first unseen growth always happens in the darkness – the plan is formed, the form is set, the energy is gathered.

Samhain, in Irish lore, is the shifting time from summer into winter, from light to dark. Historically, it’s the time of year that outside active summer work and chores change to inside passive winter work, planning and preparing.

Sam and Gam are the 2 words in old Irish which denote summer and winter – the original seasonal shift going back to days when the hunter gatherer people of Ireland changed from summer to winter camps as part of their annual tribal cycles. Before industry, before agriculture, before settlement… our ancestors were between their seasonal worlds at this time of the year.

That time of change can be dangerous. While we move, before things settle into their new patterns, we can lose our way. Change is especially difficult for the vulnerable in a tribe – old comforts and security lost, new spaces bring new dangers, seen and unseen. The old, the young, the sick and the weak, all at risk as we shift and move towards settling down again.

And when we are moving from light towards darkness? Respect is due and care should be taken, for human form is somewhat fragile in body and mind. Between times, between places, is the boundary. The liminal space that holds stronger magic.

Magic is change, and change is inherent in between.

So Samhain, from the oldest times in Ireland, is a dangerous, magical time. When we moved to agriculture, tough decisions had to be made with supplies set to dwindle during the winter, on what animals would live and what would die. Perhaps even for the people, in lean years the best rations had to be set aside for the strongest to survive, so facing the dark year could mean facing your death.

Thoughts still turn to death in earnest at this festival, with our subconscious and even ancestral memories influencing our conscious minds. This naturally brings about memories of those who have ready passed through to the Otherworld from this one.

Many homes in Ireland still lay the ‘dumb supper’ – the placement of one full meal on Samhain night (that is, the 31st), at the family’s table. This usually consisted of a dinner in the evening, with an empty chair available, for any passing spirits who might drop in. The windows and doors are left unlocked all night (by those who deem it safe to do so, now).

These customs are given as a sign of welcome for the ancestors that are about at this time of year. The extra meal is left outside when the family has finished their meal. None of the living may consume the food meant for the dead; it was said that they would be barred from partaking of it after their own death if they were greedy enough to touch it while living.

The theme of honouring the dead, and aiding them in any way possible, is very prominent  – maybe because of the significant reminder that as we are coming into the time of death, it may be us who pass on before too long. There may have been an element of hedging our bets, so to speak, by being polite and utterly respectful to the dead spirits, and the spirits of death, at this time.

For your own practice this year, why not take the time between the dark moon just before Samhain, to the dark moon after (you can find your local phases of the moon here) and set up an altar to your ancestors – either physical bloodlines or spiritual/community? Those elders and ancients who have made an impact on your life, who you would like to honour at this time when they are close enough to more easily commune with.

Will your ancestor altar be indoors or outdoors? What will you put on your altar – pictures, memorabilia, items that remind your senses of that person? How will you observe a practice at the altar each day – what will you say or do before it?

If you are making offerings, think about things that involve a little work or sacrifice on your part, not just cheap wine from the shops that has no relevance to them or meaning for you.

An offering can be a physical item that you place by the altar in observance and respect, or it can be an act you perform – volunteering at a charity relevant to them for example – or work you do that they would appreciate, that honours their spirit.

 

Why not post about your altar or offering ideas and descriptions in the comments, and share your seasonal observances with the community for Samhain time? We’d love to hear from you!

Read about my Samhain with the Mórrígan


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