Have we forgotten why we are trying to remember?
Most calendrical events seem to have roots in ancient traditions based upon natural cycles which are then overlayed with newer religious/political occasions – there is no exception for November. Remembering the dead is its major theme – from Halloween/All Saints Day and Burning efigies of Catholic terrorist Guy Fawkes through to Remembrance Day. After watching several English footballers painfully struggle to explain why they believe it is essential that they can wear poppies this weekend I thought I’d rummage around for the roots of these various commemorations that lead us to ponder deceased humans this particular month.
Dawn of the Day of the Dead.
Setting out on the first day of the month we have ‘All Saints Day’ which dates back to the 4thC. Originally held on 13th May the church de-paganised an earlier Roman festival of this date, that of Lemuria, where troublesome ghouls were exorcised from homes. Lemuria was suppressed and ASD moved to the 1st Nov where this focus of attention onto the lives of beatified saints, also known as Hallowmas or All Hallows, would share the date with another pagan feast – Samhain. Pronounced Sew-in and meaning ‘summers end’ it was the most important of the quarterly Gaelic feasts and marked the end of the summer light and the onset of the dark. It shared its pagan roots with the defunct Lemurian spirit feast.
Memorial commemoration of the dead in society can be traced back before the pagan predecessors were hidden under priests cassocks and the solar calendar punctuated with church representatives. Prior to the irregular amount of days in our current 12 months, our ancestors kept track of where they were in the agricultural year by observing the Moon’s 28 day cycle. This split the year neatly up into 13 ‘moonths’ accounting for 364 days, leaving one day over to complete our annual passage around the sun. On this day, that was so sacred it had no name, our ancestors believed the veil between this and the underworld to be so thin spirits could move between worlds. It is not known exactly which day of the year this was alloted to and there is conflicting evidence for different theories and probably differed between cultures but is surely the inspiration for the early pagan traditions. Some believe ‘that day’ to be one of the 3 ‘days of darkness’ between Winter Solstice and Christmas (22nd-25th Dec) whilst others claim midsummers day. Personally, I go with the feeling of natures cycle and the way the seasons make us feel. I think it’s fair to say that we all (at least in the northern hemisphere) start to become a little more pensive as the leaves start to fall – nature is ‘dying’ around us. This was also thought to be the time of the Celtic New Year, the time for reflecting on what had passed. A natural time to consider the toil and harvest as well as for venerating ancestors and the wisdom they imparted to assist our existence.
Tricks or Treats?
The night before ‘All Saints Day’ is the far more popular Halloween. What is seen as an American affair is of course simply All Hallows Even(ing). Just as the folk music of Britain travelled across the pond and mixed with Black roots music to produce Rock and Roll so has the Dia de Muertos and the ancient British customs now produced this B-movie hybrid. Pranks, lots of sugar, blood and gore, typical brash yank stuff. Like much US popular culture the upgrade has been repatriated back in the UK. Yet another commercialised frenzy for which no-one really knows why they are doing it or stops to consider. Not wanting to sound too much like a grumpy old man I’m sure that each time the party has been bastardised there’s always been someone remembering what it used to be about and not really enjoying the current format?
Our natural time and purpose for remembrance has not only been overlaid with religious doctrine but also forgotten in the haze of the new gods of consumption.
Then, on these once fair and magic isles steeped in folk-lore and cultural heritage, we are quickly presented with another calender event. We are given the opportunity to consider what happens to anyone that is caught challenging those in power. He may have been an un-witting stooge but there is something else about the story of Guy Fawkes that never sat right with me. Are we celebrating an assassination attempt of a corrupt king by a folk hero or the swift justice meted out by a strong leader on a political terrorist? It appears the latter, although oddly I think many see Guido as a folk hero fighting oppression of the state and the idea has been popularised by the film V for Vendetta and has become the face of the global ‘Occupy’ protest. Given that people had been putting bonfires together at this time of year, probably since agricultural/astronomical understanding was established, I find it opportunist that in 1606 King James I introduced the ‘Observance of 5th November Act’ claiming that the fires were the people celebrating his survival. There are other ‘conspiracy theories’ surrounding the hapless Guido and his We are Change crew of the 17thC, such as the alleged tunnel of which no trace has never been found. So an annual nature feast, elaborated by pagans and hijacked by Catholics was now claimed by a protestant king and imposed on the contemporary psyche by means of sermons and rhymes (the most famous of which is ‘Remember Remember’) warning that treason will never be forgotten.
Lest We Forget.
‘All Souls Day’ is now irrelevant outside of the antiquated church and Halloween and Bonfire Night are simply quaint and fun events for the family with little thought paid to the heritage. The serious issue of sermon and symbolism has moved to our final memory moment in November.
It was another English king that capitalised on this time of reflection. George V declared that the armistice signed between Germany and the Allied forces of WWI on 11/11/1918 should be an annual day of commemoration for those (on ‘our’ side) that died in combat in that awful waste of life. The cenotaph became a permanent feature and two decades later the armistice gave way to round two of carnage in Europe and then the rest of the world. Whilst I would not question the sacrifice made by good honest men to stem the tide of fascism I am disturbed by how the following and current wars (some 250 of them in under 70 years) are lumped in without question of their validity. There is nothing glorious or honourable to me about a young man sent by his government to invade a foreign nation under false pretences to secure oil. The horrific munitions used by ‘our boys’ that mean 90% of war victims are now civilian compared to 50% in WW2 and 10% in WW1. Heros do not do what was done to Baha Mousa and many others.
It is a really powerful thing that happens when so many people actually stop doing what they normally do, fall silent and just think of dead soldiers for two minutes. This is a mass meditation.
Imagine if the world stopped in silence and remembered ALL the ancestors – it would be full circle to the original and ancient feast. If we remembered all those lives before us and how we got where we are, not just those trained to kill, burned for treason, or did well in church. Maybe then the power of remembrance could really bring change instead of perpetuation.
In the complex enormity of the cosmos the dogma of time and date is rather abstract. But the appearance of the once in a century repunit sequence may be particularly poignant for us with so many giving such energy to one thought at one moment. At 11am 11/11/11 there will be a lot of people meditating on death in war.
I almost feel corny for suggesting an alternative to hate and war such is the social indoctrination but…
Billions of people stopping for two minutes, contemplating love and peace for humanity and environment.