‘Tis the Season – Honouring Our Queer Dead

Continuing my project of putting up the articles from the paper issues of the Bent Pentacle, here is a Samhain themed article from issue 2

By Jenny Peacock 30 October 2009. 

For many religious and spiritual traditions this time of year belongs to the dead. Traditionally, that means the dead of one’s blood-lines. LGBTQIQ pagans may want to remember and interact with the dead of their blood-lines, or, they may not. Queer folk have often (not always) experienced difficulties with blood family because of their gender/ sexual identities, and as a result may have found and created new friendship-based families instead. Many of us want to adapt traditional blood ancestor honouring to include our chosen ancestors.

I have an altar specifically for the dead in my house. It has photographs on it of both blood-line dead, friends and “chosen” ancestors, some of whom are queer, some not. Edward Carpenter, the 19th Century campaigner for homosexual freedom-to-love, sits next to my grandmother; and a treasured picture of Emma Goldman’s grave (the inveterate anarchist feminist), taken on a wonderful trip to Chicago, sits beside a small heart-shaped frame containing my alcoholic abusive father. In that photograph my Dad is teaching me, aged 9, to row on the river Avon. Yes, our relationships with the dead can be as ambivalent and as difficult as our relationships with the living. It took me a long time to place that picture of my father; and only then because I felt he was contained enough by other strong and benign dead influences in my life.

In contemporary Britain, death is more or less invisible. Most of us do not see a dead body until someone very close to us dies, and perhaps not even then. We may be given a small amount of time off work if a family member or a partner dies, but for the death of a beloved friend this is much less common. We do not mark our mourning with special clothes and we are supposed to return to “normal” in a few weeks, although, as those of us who have lost loved people know, the first year at least is intensely filled with resonance. Almost all of us are afraid of dying but, across our acres of media, that is a rarely discussed. Perhaps in part because of this sanitisation of death, “murder mystery” novels and TV shows have become wildly popular. Halloween, which had a much higher profile in North America than it did in London when I was a child in the 1970s, has gradually acquired greater prominence over the ensuing decades too. Halloween has become a time when, with a sigh of relief, British culture permits the return of the repressed, of death itself, into the hearts of the living.

This popular seasonal appetite is evident in the rather straight-laced part of London where I work. One side of a bus stop has been turned into a spooky display (perhaps as an advertising gimmick, but it’s not immediately obvious which chocolate bar or electronic games company may be involved). A small 3D skeleton figure dressed in a hooded black cape and carrying a scythe is sandwiched between panes of glass, surrounded by fluorescent green spiders’ webs. It looks pretty cool at night – a modern wayside shrine. Meanwhile the butchers round the corner has seen fit to dress a mannequin on the street outside in a striped apron and put a rubber grinning skull mask under the matching hat.

Halloween has its roots in a combination of Sahmain and in the Catholic day of All Saints. Sahmain is considered to have been the Celtic festival of the harvest, of the dead, and of the New Year. The custom in parts of Ireland and Scotland was to set places for the dead at a feast, which by medieval times had settled on 31 October evening, and to tell tales of the ancestors. It was also the traditional time for the slaughter of cattle and for the lighting of bonfires for ritual purification. The Celts, scholars surmise, believed in an immortal soul (although that may be a Christianised way of putting it) and in Otherworlds where the Sidh or faerie folk lived and where the dead went (these may have been different or the same).

The Day of the Dead in Mexico, Ecuador and Guatemala happens on the 1st and 2nd of November. This festival has it roots in indigenous pre-hispanic cultures such as the Aztec and Mayan, but has been synchretized with the Catholic All Saints Day (1 Nov) and All Soul’s Day (2nd Nov). People visit cemeteries, take offerings for their dead and decorate their graves. They dress up, hold processions and cook special meals for the dead too. Catholics traditionally believe that the soul leaves the body after death and is judged by God after which it goes either to dwell in heaven, in hell, or in purgatory. Both hell and purgatory are places of torture, but those in purgatory will eventually, after penance, reach heaven, The Aztecs believed that there were nine underworlds and thirteen over-worlds and that a number of things could happen to the soul after death. The souls of warriors who had died in battle and women who had died in childbirth received the honour of having their souls become hummingbirds, to follow the sun forever on its journey through the sky.

Kali puja is celebrated in Bengal, India, during Diwali, the Hindu New Year and festival of lights (which is calculated by a lunar calendar and fell on 17 October this year). During Kali puja candles are lit in memory of the souls of departed ancestors and Kali is offered animal blood (ordinarily taboo for vegetarian Hindus). Kali is often worshipped in cremation grounds. She wears a necklace of skulls and she both is time and destroys time. Hinduism has many currents, but all believe in the reincarnation of the soul.

In Haiti, where Vodoun, a syncretic religion involving Catholicism, transmigrated Dahomey, Fon, Yoruba and other African traditions mixed with native Arawak Amerindian (a product of slavery) is practised, All Saints Day and All Souls Days (Nov 1st and 2nd) are also days of remembrance and celebration for the dead. Voudoun believes in one God who does not communicate directly. It is the Lwa, powerful spirit intercessors who dwell in a watery realm, with whom Voudouisants have contact, and a particular set of Lwa belong to the dead – Baron Samedhi and Mama Brigitte and the Ghede. At this time of year people visit the cemeteries, wear black and purple (the colours of Baron), paint their faces white and dance in spirit possession, ridden by the Ghede. The Ghede are also associated with sexuality and fertility and often tell crude sexual jokes and dance suggestively.

Modern Western (neo) paganisms such as Reclaiming, Druidism, Wicca, Witchcraft, Celtic Reconstructionism, Asatru etc., have divergent beliefs about death, in part borrowed. re-made or reconstructed from some of the traditions described above, particularly the Celtic and the Norse, and indeed others too numerous to mention here. Some consider the soul/ body to be one and to return to the Goddess, the earth, upon dying. Others believe in reincarnation and the return of souls into new embodied forms. Still others conceptualise a “realm of the dead” with which the living may communicate.

For myself, I prefer to cultivate a deliberate conscious state of “not knowing”. What I mean by that is, whether in the context of thinking about the dead, faerie, spirits or the gods, I do not know what is true or real, nor I do not feel the need to set in stone what I believe. I find that, in a space open to possibility, coupled with designed ritual, magic and experience beyond those of material agnosticism simply happen. That does not mean I do not have a very conscious set of ethics that inform my paganism. I am committed above all to Queer Paganisms, to creating and finding space for queer people, queer deity, queer spirit, the queer dead and queer ritual, and to spiritual practices not bound by the gender binary and heterosexual frameworks. Of course, I find myself drawn to certain traditions. I try to be a serious student of both Tantra and Voudoun and am also deeply attracted to animism.

The Tantra I engage with believes that the entire universe is the embodiment of the goddess Sri Lalita, that she is the ecstatic joy present in each breath and in all things. The Voudoun I engage with believes in a nebulous distant God and in entering into serious life-long relationships with particular spirit intercessors, Lwa, including ecstatic possession by them on occasion. You might say these are entirely different and contradictory belief systems and it should not be possible to “hold” them both at once, furthermore that, having been born into neither, it is inappropriate to “appropriate” them. Well that’s a longer discussion than there is room for here in full. But I will say that religion, by its nature, is syncretic – people migrate, they intermingle, and so do their gods and beliefs. Often, that migration has been violent, and has involved terrible enslavement and mass murder. As Western pagans, it is therefore vital that we learn such histories and be mindful of them. But, I do not believe all syncretisms, all borrowings, all migrations and transformations are therefore the equivalent of theft and desecration. Spiritual cultures do not stand still, they are living, they change, and, emerging from the shadow of homophobic Abrahamic religions into other forms of those and other paths altogether, that has the potential to be a good thing for UK LGBTQIQ folks (which isn’t to suggest non-Abrahamic religions and associated cultures don’t have histories of homophobia, only that the Abrahamic religions have dominated the West for the past thousand plus years). What matters is the ethics we bring to our involvement in such changes.

Consciously choosing to inhabit multiple spiritual spaces and realities (which does not lessen my commitment to any of them) no doubt means that I am an emerging form of post post-modernist Western religious subject,

But, back to the dead… Many LGBTQIQ people will be lighting candles over the last weekend of this October in particular to remember Ian Baynham, tragically killed in a homophobic attack in Trafalgar Square. For me, an important part of honouring the Queer dead is to learn about LGBTIQ history, so we can honour our queer ancestors knowledgeably, another is to ensure that transformative space for queer people in all forms of spiritual and religious practice is created, researched, sought out, discovered, uncovered and celebrated. Because religious forms that preach that homosexuality and/or gender variance are sins, or indeed those that merely “tolerate” us, are and remain some of the deep roots of violence towards LGBTQIQ people in the world today.

So, dear readers, salutations to the queer dead! And to the dead whom we ourselves will one day become, hoping to be saluted, in our turn, by those beloved queers who shall come after us.

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