Sunday last was The Feast of Herne, a day when some of us bow our heads, and give a little nod to the famous folkloric Hunter, He who is the most iconic leader of The Wild Hunt in British myth, who has by some been deified into full God status, Herne being a name some chose for The Old One himself.
I usually mark the occasion with offerings to the spirit of Herne and a bloody good dinner in the evening in his honour. This year I travelled to an Oak Tree I had discovered earlier this year, it feels (and looks) as though it could be the oldest Oak tree in the woods, a great and mighty natural Stang shaped tree which grows upon a cross roads, honeysuckle twists about surrounding hazel trees imprinting the branches with natural serpentine spirals, standing here you can feel the energy of the land and the spirits, like entering a whirlpool of power, here the air changes, here eyes watch and spirits listen, it is upon an old iron age hill fort after all and given the association of Herne with the Windsor Oak, this seemed a fitting place to kneel and offer my gifts to the antler-crowned hunter. I left fruit, cheese, a whole bottle of local ale and raw and bloody venison, butchered and gifted to me by a dear friend which was also dinner for us in the evening albeit stewed slowly in the oven for hours.
As I walked away, without turning back of course, I got to thinking, at first about Herne, the character from folklore, then about the leader of the Wild hunt, then about the personification of death, the scythe wielding, saturnine entity feared by so many and who is perhaps considered the greatest mystery, He who is, in truth, only ever a hair’s breath away from all of us, Whether we care to admit it or acknowledge it or not, He is following us, hunting us, watching the sands pass through his hour glass, waiting for the time when he swoop our souls back to the place from which they came. At least this is the image many of us have of Death…the terrifying huntsman, threatening to strike us down in our prime…
Almost a year ago, my favourite Aunt died. She had cancer and had been given months to live back in the spring, and for a long time was very well and sprightly until a few weeks before her death when she booked herself into the Hospice. It was heart breaking to see how afraid she was and how upset she would get at the thought of not spending Christmas with us, like all the matriarchs in my family she was tough, a true fighter so to see her cry and resist the inevitable was strange and upsetting for us all. However, in her last hours, we gathered around her bed side, she was given a great deal of pain relief, she couldn’t feel a thing and in many respects had already gone, although she responded to our words and touch every so often. Occasionally however she would become distressed, usually when the nurses moved her to keep her comfortable and she would cry out (albeit not loudly) “Hurry Up! Hurry Up!” my mum thought she wanted more pain relief, I however (being the favourite nephew of course) felt strongly in my gut what she was trying to hurry…or should I say “who” she was asking to hurry?
As I walked through the woods, peaceful and completely alone, except for the bird song, the sounds of busy squirrels and the copper leaves falling from the Beech and Oak trees overhead, it occurred to me that in those final moments, hours, perhaps even days or weeks, my beloved Aunt didn’t fear Death, in fact she positively yearned for Him, needed for Him to take her and begged for Death to come and for it just to be over with. I wonder if when she finally met Death, he appeared as the dark robed, chain rattling, predator of souls or whether in fact he appeared as a long lost friend, perhaps an angelic and radiant youth, beautiful and bright faced, comforting and maybe even familiar. Either way, I will never forget that day and I will never forget how in her final moments not only did my Aunt accept death…she embraced Him and looked so much at ease because of it. Maybe, in her final moment, Death revealed Himself as he truly is.
As living creatures it’s natural for us to fear and fight against death, to survive and to want to stay alive, after all we wouldn’t survive long without our basic instinct to live….its what keeps us from stepping under buses and walking down dark alleyways! As Witches we have an intimate relationship with the source of this desire, this basic drive for survival, the very thing which makes us, literally, warm inside which comes from Him, the same Him who gifted the light and fire of life (and magic) to all of us. Yet the more we begin to understand this power, the source of our passions, our desires and ability to create the more intimately we face the prospect of death. Many people go through their day thinking very little of their death, but that’s probably because they pay very little heed to their life also! I had never seen anyone die before and truth be told I think it had a greater effect on my life than I realised…how strange that it often takes watching someone transition through death to make the living pay more attention to life!
Truth…that ‘which shines betwixt the horns’…the more I work with and the closer I become to understanding one of the Master’s ‘faces’, I inevitably find I am actually gazing right into the eyes of His other…light begotten from darkness, it is only us and our analytical human brains which polarise and divide. I have come to the conclusion that we can never fully claim the powers of magic and creation as our own until we understand and accept the powers of death. By fearing death and by refusing to acknowledge Him we are in fact cutting ourselves off from one of the greatest sources of power…and that’s life! We shouldn’t all be out taking silly risks and putting our lives in jeopardy just to feel more alive but think about it…how many times have you held back out of fear of the unknown, perhaps even fear of Death itself? Perhaps Witches…the great ones anyway…are the original thrill seekers….maybe we all need an injection of a little ‘white knuckle magic’ in our practise?
I for one shall be making more effort to get to know Him a little better from now on…whilst I have life in me to enjoy the ride!