A time to die

October 26, 2006|By Patricia Montley

October is the cruelest month. Iraqi insurgents are on pace to set a new record for killing Americans - and each other. The recent Sunni attacks on Shiites came as both groups were preparing to celebrate Eid, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and contemplation.

In many parts of the world, this has traditionally been the time of the year to honor the dying and the dead. As the Earth tilts farther away from the sun, the light in our hemisphere is steadily waning. The leaves, once shimmering green, then gold in sunlight, now fall to the cooling earth, becoming brittle as the bones of elders. Grass and gardens hunker down for the winter, turning their energy downward and inward - nature's version of fasting and contemplation.

For many ancient peoples, the end of the agricultural and pastoral year also marked the closing of the calendar year, a time to give thanks for the earth's gifts - and often, as well, to acknowledge the human lives that had come to an end and to give thanks for their gifts.

As far back as the third millennium B.C., the Babylonians remembered their dead at the harvest-time Sacred Mound Festival.

Ancient Egyptians honored their dead at the November festival of Isis and Osiris.

The ancient Finns celebrated their New Year and honored their dead at the Nov. 1 feast of Kekri.

Some early medieval Celts celebrated Samhain on Nov. 1. The last of the crops were harvested, and the flocks and herds returned from summer pastures to home pens. In Ireland, it marked the official start of winter. Some scholars say it was also a feast of the dead, whose spirits returned to their hearths to visit their families on Samhain eve.

The Christian church, from early on, remembered its martyrs. By the middle of the ninth century, the Feast of All Hallows or All Saints was observed by Christians around the world on Nov. 1. Three centuries later, the Feast of All Souls - those souls believed to be in Purgatory - was officially established as Nov. 2.

On these two days, people in Latin American countries celebrate El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, a fusion of Catholic and Mexican Indian traditions. Buddhists and Taoists celebrate Ullambana, the festival of All Souls. Originally a harvest feast, it is popularly known as "Festival of the Hungry Ghosts," a time for burning incense and making offerings in honor of the beloved dead.

Hindus welcome winter by observing Diwali, the Festival of Lights. In Bengal, Diwali celebrates the five-millennia-old goddess Kali, creator-preserver-destroyer of the universe. She is the womb-and-tomb primal mother found in so many ancient religions. Her breathing is the pulse of the universe, for she is at once the menstrual "Sea of Blood" who gives birth to the world and the fierce, emaciated, bloodthirsty hag who dances ecstatically on cremation grounds, gathering up souls to be seeds for new life.

A frightening image, and yet one we would do well to embrace if we would understand the essential paradox: Living and dying are part of the same continuum. In this season of decay, we grieve for the waning light and wilting life and prepare for the cold and introspection of winter.

Like Kali, we gather from among the dead seeds for new life. From the marigolds in our gardens, we harvest the kernels to plant in the spring. From the lessons of our beloved dead in our memories, we harvest the seeds to plant courage and kindness in our own lives and those of our children.

Life goes on, each little span of it cycling out of the span that came before. We know this. What we perhaps need reminding of is that it is the same life - one life - of which each of our little spans is a part.

But even as life spirals onward, one great twist of cosmic DNA, it also spirals outward, embracing all people, Sunnis and Shiites, Americans and Iraqis, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, theists and atheists.

It is the dying time of the year, a time to mourn our losses and harvest our seeds, a time to remember: The life we share is the same.

Patricia Montley is the author of "In Nature's Honor: Myths and Rituals Celebrating the Earth." Her e-mail is pat_montley@msn.com.

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