Under a Mourning Moon: Del Hughes dines with the Dead
It’s Tuesday, 8th November, 2022 and there’s an unusually auspicious moon overhead. Firstly, it’s full and, according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, is commonly called the ‘Beaver Moon’ – though that’s mainly in the USA where, at this time of year, those buck-toothed rodents begin to get busy dam-building (and where that moniker doesn’t induce the juvenile sniggers you’d probably hear in the UK. Tee-hee!)
However, over this side of the pond, the Celtic term of ‘Mourning Moon’ is much more fitting for the cabbalistic ceremony I’ve got planned.
Tonight is also the last total lunar eclipse until 2025 though, unfortunately, this cosmic event won’t be visible in the UK. But, as it happens, neither is the moon, which is currently shrouded by thick banks of rolling rain clouds. Sigh.
On the advice of my online Wiccan mentor, Lady Nightshade (aka Audrey), I’m attempting to try a little ‘moon-bathing’ in advance of the ritual. Apparently, ‘absorbing the rays of the final full moon before the winter solstice’ will help ‘energise’ me.
But all this darting in and out, dodging the downpours, is leaving me feeling less vitalised than when I began – though I’m guessing that catching the occasional, erratic moonbeam is better than nothing.
After consulting her about my plans, Audrey also mentioned that ‘tonight marks the true astrological observance of Samhain’, and that I should, ‘ward well during this blood moon eclipse.’ Uh oh! Sounds a tad ominous.
The Pagan Path
This is only the second time I’ve consulted Audrey, and I have some doubts regarding the accuracy of her instructions. I asked for advice some months ago, when preparing for my first ever rite, (Wiccan Wanderers), and she omitted to pass on a key piece of information – that my crawling should have been deasil (clockwise) rather than widdershins (anti). Humpf!
To be fair though, it probably didn’t make that much difference since the whole thing became a bit of a fiasco – there were thousands of toadlets, a raft of rats and weather so wild, burning my manifestations in the ‘sacred space’ was impossible; eventually I gave up, and had a mini-bonfire in the back of my Renault Kangoo.
Since that night, I’ve detoured from the pagan path, instead devoting myself to less esoteric endeavours, such as pottery-making, painting and training two giant puppies to stop demolishing the kitchen table with teeth that, thought tiny, are huge in terms of destruction.
But tonight’s the night when I will, once more, dip my toe into the Wiccan ways as I prepare to honour my ancestors. . . and pets!
The table (and teeth marks) are covered in natural calico and I’m almost ready to host my very first ‘dumb supper.’
But with Audrey’s words of warning (and ‘warding’) in mind, I initially needed to do a little bit of ‘smudging’.
Yeah, I didn’t know what that meant either. But, as it turns out, it simply entails wandering around the house, wafting smouldering sage into every corner of every room, while chanting positive affirmations. Okay. That sounds eminently doable, even for a total novice like me.
But first I needed to get hold of a ‘smudging stick’, plus some other pagan paraphernalia and luckily for me, I knew exactly where to go – the ‘Gypsy Wishes Magical Market’ at Swansea’s Brangwyn Hall. Epic!
There were numerous stalls advertised, selling everything the modern witch, Wiccan, pagan, Viking or gypsy could possible desire. Plus it offered the ‘full psychic, holistic craft experience.’ Wowzers! I made a list, picked up Jen and off we went.
Charms and spells
Our expectations were, maybe, a little too high, imagining a sort of Hogwarts-Great-Hall-type experience. We’d anticipated the chamber alight with flickering candles, heavy scents of mystical herbs and spices on the air and stall owners, robed in black, with conical hats set at jaunty angles as they sold arcane charms and spells.
We were VERY excited! Eek!
So, of course, it wasn’t like that at all. The only candles we saw ran off batteries, the hall smelled rather fusty, with occasional whiffs of sandalwood, vanilla and ‘Dragons Blood’ (Yep really! I asked.)
But most disappointingly, not even one vendor wore either liturgical apparel or a pointy hat. Bummer!
However, there was a vast array of stuff for sale, and some stalls looked quite enticing, so we swallowed our disappointment and started shopping.
Top of my list was the ‘smudger’, and almost every stall had them. Clearly this, allegedly, purifying bundle was a best seller in the world of the occult.
Jen was off like a rocket, accumulating items at a rate of knots; jewellery, a Christmas wreath, two display cases and some delicious fudge – After Eight and White Chocolate. Yummy!
She also bought me a cute little light-up ghost, which was an ideal table decoration for the planned silent supper.
I just browsed, sniffed and discovered that unburned sage smells bloody awful! So, instead of a pure sheaf of the herb, I got a combo, and could only hope that the lavender would be powerful enough to stifle the other.
Then we moved onto crystals, of which there were many, many, MANY types available. But I knew exactly what I was looking for.
So, you can keep your Topaz, Amethyst, Lapis Lazuli, Carnelian, Hematite, Black Obsidian, Selenite, Pyrite, Black Tourmaline, Citrine or the numerous colours of Quartz because all I want is a simple Moonstone (it was Mum’s favourite and I thought it would be a nice addition to the ‘altar’).
Turns out, everyone else must have wanted one too, because after trawling the whole hall, there was only one stall which had one for sale – and it wasn’t the perfect milky colour I’d wanted. But for £3, I got it anyway. And it did look quite lovely in the natural light.
Finally, I needed the cliché that is the cauldron. And though Audrey had said ‘large, metal and suitable for the stove top’, I couldn’t afford anything like that.
Instead I stumbled upon a dinky, ceramic version, with a lid and china spoon, and at £6.50, it was a bargain. (When I unwrapped it at home, I discovered it was a novelty soup bowl. . . but, what the hell? It’d do the job).
Now I had all the necessary bits and bobs, it was time to prepare the house, ‘altar’ and table. I would have liked some help but none was forthcoming, with Tim, as was usual, refusing to have anything to do with my ‘weird shit.’ Eye roll!
However, fate was on my side in the form of my friend, Dawn. She needed someone to look after her two daughters for a couple of hours and was happy for them to help me prep for my pagan ritual – once I’d assured her it didn’t involve child sacrifice. Epic! Right, let’s get cracking little witches.
And we did. Obviously, being the responsible adult that I am, I was somehow talked into relinquishing this role when faced with the sort of unanswerable logic that only an eight and ten-year-old can sell.
Thus – and please stop reading now, Dawn – Olivia carried the lit candle, Leia was the smudger and I was ‘allowed’ to carry a saucer, which they thought would be ‘useful for catching sparks’. I couldn’t help but feel they were just humouring me.
We began in the lounge where Tim, (somewhat grudgingly), and the pups, (unconcernedly), were banished of all negative energies through excessive clouds of smoke, hugely enthusiastic wafting and a cheery banishing chant. Then we tackled everywhere else.
And I have to say, those kids were fantastic. As well as infusing the whole house with joyous positivity, they also provided, unasked for, feedback on my décor (occasionally blunt, mainly valid), along with suggestions for the installation and locations of further smoke alarms because ‘just one isn’t really enough.’
Yep, where fire was concerned, they were very well versed in preventative measures, but they also had a keen eye for potential colour palettes for the bedrooms. Thanks girls, much appreciated.
(Oh, and I can confirm that burnt sage smells a lot more pleasant than its dried form. And that’s fortunate because I couldn’t detect even a trace of lavender.)
Then it was time for the main event – dressing the table. We started with flowers. Mum died just over a year ago on 2nd November and Tim had bought me a beautiful bouquet to cheer me up. It seemed fitting to use these at the head of my ‘altar’.
Then came candles, tea-lights, my handmade clay pumpkin, a real pumpkin, ghost and skull ornaments, the moonstone, place settings and Christmas crockery.
Frankly, the reindeer struck a slightly bum note but it’s the only matching set I have. And Leia and Olivia thought they looked ‘AMAZING’ so who was I to argue.
I put out posh glasses, a bottle of Prosecco to liven up proceedings and then it was time to add the ‘guests.’
Since all four invitees were dead, Audrey advised using photographs – Well, duh! – so pride of place was an old wedding pic of Mum and Dad which I had on my iPad, Tommy Zoom (Dog 1) was next and then beautiful Barney (Dog 2) completed the set.
Leia and Olivia lit all the candles, we turned off the big light and. . . Wow! It looked gorgeous. I was ready, set and good to go. . . and so were the girls. Dawn turned up in the nick of time because, though the kids had been a wonderful help, the supper itself was just for five.
Audrey had said that, food wise, I should serve homemade bread and seasonal soups or vegetables but I’m not a talented cook and I’m definitely no baker. Instead, I bought Co-op’s ‘irresistible sourdough’, which is lush, and knocked up a Bœuf Bourguignon in the slow cooker.
(Side note: I’ve discovered that, even with my limited culinary skills, a slow cooker makes anything taste good. Plus, in such straightened times, they’re the most energy efficient way of cooking, costing just 5p per hour to run. So I’d recommend one to anybody who’s counting the pennies, or just not gifted in the kitchen department. It’s genuinely changed my life and I’ve become quite, boringly, evangelical about it!)
Right, no more talking. Let the silent supper begin.
It’s strange to say that the ‘dumb’ aspect of the ritual had, sort of, passed me by. Despite Audrey’s sage advice to ‘fully embrace the silence and focus on staying in the moment’ – Eh? – I hadn’t really considered how that would actually feel.
But, once I’d piled each plate with a hearty ladleful of posh stew – yes, your incorporeal guests ‘eat’ too – and filled each flute with a hefty glug of Prosecco, the atmosphere shifted and, instead of the bit of fun I’d imagined, I began to feel the solemnity of it all.
The kitchen seemed to shrink around me, and all that existed for (most of) the meal were the memories I had of my four guests.
Very occasionally, my mind would stray to the everyday – especially when I heard Tim bollocking the pups for eating the rug. Sigh.
But, just as Audrey had advised, I forced myself to stay in the moment and kept on, silently, celebrating (and mentally talking to) my dear departeds.
And it might sound fanciful but, at times, it really felt as if they were sitting there with me.
A soundless goodbye
Twenty minutes later, my plate was empty and the next step was to burn the short messages I’d prepared for each of my ‘guests’ – mini-cauldron, your time has come.
If you don’t mind, I won’t share what I wrote with you because it was heartfelt and hugely personal. But as each paper flamed and turned to ash, and I blew out that guest’s corresponding candle, I will admit to feeling strangely tearful.
Now, all that remained was to wish each visitant a last, soundless goodbye before leaving the table and leaving the room. Done.
There’s no question that it was an uncanny, unsettling experience, but it’s one I’m seriously considering making an annual event.
Of course, I think of my late parents and pets frequently, but this ceremony provided a reflective focal point for my mourning, and suddenly the weight of grief seemed a little lighter. I felt surprisingly refreshed and it was, truly, a cathartic experience.
Back in the ‘real’ world, and with the big light switched on again, there was a table to clear and washing up to do.
Apparently, the uneaten food and drink should be buried outside, to ‘return it from whence it came.’ Bugger that, Audrey!! There was no way I was going to squander a tasty casserole that would feed Tim and I for another two days. And pouring Prosecco over the lawn would have just been criminal.
So, I put the stew back in the slow cooker, tidied away and prepared to polish off five glasses of Prosecco – acid indigestion be damned!
And, I know for a fact that all my loved ones – Mum in particular – would definitely applaud such a truly selfless display of thrift. So waste not, want not, here’s to you all! Cheers!
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Love the article but in Cymru it is not the Irish festival of Samhain.
It is Nos Calan Gaeaf. It is, like Samhain, an Ysbrydnos, but much like we must reclaim our culture from the neighbours to the east, we must not, then, hand it to our neighbours to the West.
It’s broadly the same thing since the Defed of Western Cymru and the Cangenau of South Western Ireland (and later Llyn) share a lot of the same history, but …. Y’know. Our names should hold precedence in our nation
Also, eating the uneaten food meant for the dead is considered a bit of an insult to them. (It’s kinda giving then taking back. Suggesting they are not worth the sacrifice). No condemnation here. It’s just lore.
Thanks for the very knowledgeable feedback and really interesting information 👍 And, if you’re interested in being the adviser to a total esoteric novice, I’d happily sack Audrey!
Pagan rites, shopping expeditions, child labour( sorry-care), cookery hints and nostalgia all mixed with humour. It can only be Del Hughes. Great read.
Great read yet again, sounds like you and your covern had a fun time to begin with. But, nice to read that you personally got some comfort from the evening. I think that is the important thing to take away from it. I love your style of writing.
Another great read Del and certainly many mixed emotions for you !
Following you on this journey of experiences is wonderful and the way you write is so honest and raw!
I’m really looking forward to your next piece of work.
I have to say , I like yourself would’ve drank the Prosecco and ate the food !