(Essay) Samhain/Deep Autumn Ceremony by Glenys Livingstone Ph.D.

shed-skins-and-threadAt the base of the inspirations for this seasonal rite as I have scripted it, is Robin Morgan’s poem “The Network of the Imaginary Mother”,[1] and some portions of the script are directly her words. This whole poem had moved me for years, and I had dramatized parts of it in ceremony before, but the particular passage that was now finding a place in the celebration of Samhain is this one:

Drawn from the first by what I would become,

I did not know how simple this secret could be.

The carapace is split,

the shed skin lies upon the ground.

I must devour the exoskeleton of my old shapes,

wasting no part, free only then

to radiate whatever I conceive,

to exclaim the strongest natural fiber known

into such art, such architecture

as can house a world made sacred by my building.[2]

There was also a poem I had written in 1980, called “Mother-Warriors” – partly inspired by Robin Morgan’s poem and also by Monique Wittig’s Les Guerilleres – in which I was able to begin conceiving/conceptualizing the great Creative Power within me and within other women (though it would be yet many moons before I would begin to sense it in myself). With the poem, I was also for the first time, seeing my brave creative acts – of say, continuing my study at extreme cost to my family – as maternal, as a way of caring for the world. I was struggling towards understanding that the transformative process that I was assenting to, that seemed so “wrong” in my patriarchal cultural context, was actually what “Mother-Warriors” had always done. I was one of the Mothers – in the Largest sense – though it seemed I was aberrant.

Of relevance also, to the imagery of my forming of the Samhain ceremony, is a dream I had at this same time in my life: it was that all the stars fell from the sky. I interpreted this devastation as a loss of all constellations by which I might normally be able to guide my “ship”. A guiding image that I did have, amongst others, was one by Mucha; an image of the pole star as a woman, appearing to my interpretation, to be spinning and telling new stories, with her hands.

spinning new stories
spinning new stories

She was my image of myself as a myth-maker, creating new realities, by which my children and I might live. Some eighteen years later, when I was well into re-storying Goddess and developing Her Seasonal celebrations, I had a dream wherein I was quietly and subtly killing the “mythology of the fathers” with my hands. And we may all take forces that are within us into our “hands”: that is, into our consciousness, and re-spin them. We are “spin-sters”[3] – constantly conceiving and spinning the future: it may be ever new, this is where it may begin.

This sense of personal power had also been affirmed by work with Jean Houston, and of particular note for this Seasonal Moment, was her frequent declaration and experiential affirmation, that “you are the point of the present that chooses what to pass to the future”.[4] Samhain is an excellent Seasonal Moment for becoming conscious of one’s participation in the evolutionary process, for fashioning myth/story that will be of service to our time. Many call for such renewal, but continue to attempt mere reform. Our times call for the casting away of the old in a radical way: Samhain ceremonial processes may facilitate such possibility.

The Devouring of Gingerbread Snakes

In the composing of Samhain ceremony I have been aware of GaiaEarth’s story of transformation/evolution, as told by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry particularly.[5] Gaia has made amazing transitions since the beginning in the Primordial Flaring Forth, with the aid of catastrophic events, and with a minimum of materials – “wasting no part”. Remembering Her story, and meditating upon it, may give humans some clue about the present, and how to proceed; and so it may also be with the remembering of our own personal stories.

The children’s game of “In and Out the Windows” came to mind as a way of each person recalling and sharing some of their “old shapes”, that is, some of the “selves” they have been. Each person goes in and out the arches of arms formed by the circle of participants, as the group chants: and when the arms come down, the person may hold up a photo or speak of one of their past ‘selves’. After all have completed their ‘journeys’, the celebrant then ceremoniously lauds their achievements and each one is awarded a gingerbread snake – totem of “life renewed”, with the affirmation that they are yet “much More”.[6]

IMG_0107The snakes are consumed in three parts: the devouring of personal “old shapes”; the devouring of cultural “old shapes” that have formed and shaped our world; and one for the ancestors (which we also do become, and already are). Our bodyminds are constantly transforming food. Devouring of the sacred animal, the sacrifice, is an ancient way of becoming the sacrifice (thus the Christian communion – so that one may become the Christ). This is an ancient way of taking on the knowledge, the wisdom, of the numinous totem. When we eat the representations of renewal, it may no longer be I who live but the archetype of renewal that lives in me. It is a shamanic process, in co-operation with organic processes that happen all the time. We are constantly in a state of trans-forming. The three parts to the devouring process constitute a complete consumption of the old, creating a free space for visualizing and conceiving the new.

Conceiving the New – Building the Web

Samhain/Deep Autumn, which is in the darkest quarter of the year, may be a moment of conception, and of affirming that power as the primary act of Creation: each participant may feel herself as creator, co-creator within the web.[7] We may collectively and personally, dream the Not-Yet[8] – imagine it, spin it, conceive it. The creativity/fertility of Samhain contrasts with that of Beltaine, its polar opposite in the light part of the cycle: Samhain’s fertility is in interaction with dark sentience in which we are immersed – the Crone/Old One; Beltaine’s fertility is in interaction with other differentiated beings – the Young One/Virgin quality. The dark part of the cycle flows from the acceptance of dis-solution at Lammas; thanksgiving for the harvest and grieving the cost at Autumn Equinox/Mabon; then at Samhain, having accepted the journey into the Underworld – into oblivion – we meet all possibility. We may celebrate the freedom to conceive what we will. It is the Old One/Crone’s moment of re-solution.

The celebrant affirms:

Having devoured these old shapes, wasting no part

we are free … free

to radiate whatever we conceive,

to exclaim the strongest natural fibre known

– our creative selves,

into such art, such architecture

as can house a world made sacred by our building.

Participants in the ceremony pass a ball of thread around the circle each asking the next: “What would you conceive, imagine, create?” As their conceptions, imaginings, creative desires – for themselves and the world – are expressed they wrap the thread around their own body. We cut the thread for each other with the blessing: “You are free – magical co-Creator.”

Samhain/Deep Autumn altar
Samhain/Deep Autumn altar

Each is offered apple slices and juice to eat and drink: “Stand tall Daughter/Son of the Mother – eat and drink the fruit of never-ending renewal and self-knowledge.” Once again it is a reclaiming of Goddess story, which is held deep within all the Seasonal gateways … each a powerful essence of Her Creativity. We may access this power by joining ourselves with Her in sacred communication – personally and collectively. It is time.

© Glenys Livingstone 2017


[1] in Lady of the Beasts, pp.63-88.

[2] Robin Morgan, The Lady of the Beasts, p.84.

[3] a term originally re-storied by Mary Daly in Gyn/Ecology, p.3.

[4] See The Search for the Beloved.

[5] Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story.

[6] “You are More, much More” is a statement from Jean Houston.

[7] This is also a reclaiming of female creativity in conception. As Rachel Adler points out, in the Judeo-Christian tradition conception was valued as the essential creative act and was seen largely as a male accomplishment: in “A Mother in Israel”, p. 241. Melissa Raphael identifies conception as a “female-referring transformatory power”, Thealogy and Embodiment, pp.8-9.

[8] This is a term used by Brian Swimme, The Earth’s Imagination, video 8 “The Surprise of Cosmogenesis”.


Adler, Rachel. “A Mother in Israel”, in Beyond Androcentrism: Essays on Women and Religion. Rita Gross (ed). Montana: Scholar’s Press, 1977, pp.237–255.

Coates, Irene. The Seed Bearers – the Role of the Few Yorkmale in Biology and Genetics. Durham: Pentland Press, 1993.

Daly, Mary. Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. Boston: Morgan, Robin. “The Network of the Imaginary Mother” in Lady of the Beasts. NY: Random House, 1976, pp.63-88.

Houston, Jean. The Search for the Beloved. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1987.

Raphael, Melissa. Thealogy and Embodiment: the Post-Patriarchal Reconstruction of Female Sexuality. Sheffield: Sheffield Press, 1996.

Swimme, Brian and Berry, Thomas. The Universe Story. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Warner, Marina. Alone of All Her Sex. NY: Alfred Knopf, 1976.

Wittig, Monique. Les Guerilleres. NY: Avon Books, 1973.

(Meet Mago Contributor) Glenys Livingstone.

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Glenys, this excellent essay puts us in touch with what is possible. And these ideas are exciting but it is a twofold process, I think. Idea (mind) meets body. Your words “though it would be yet many moons before I would begin to sense it in myself” suggest that this sensing is key to creating that shift from patriarchal daughter to embodied woman.

Glenys D. Livingstone

yes I think Sara that we have to SENSE it; then it has begun to be real knowledge – “gnowledge” is a word that has been used to refer to embodied knowledge (only because “knowledge” has commonly become divorced from embodied knowing). That is why ceremony/ritual is a good way of really coming to gnow/know … it engages the senses, the bodymind.
And yes patriarchal daughter has to fall apart so she may re-create herself from something more organic (p.75-76 PaGaian Cosmology as I tell it there)
thank you