What witches do at Halloween: The Spiral Dance version

A guest post by Anne Brannen

This Samhain, or Halloween (the 30th of October actually, since the 31st is a Monday, and not a good time for a giant party) about 800 witches (that’s all that will fit into the space this year) will gather in San Francisco for the 37th Annual Spiral Dance. It will go on for hours.

I missed the first two; I didn’t find my tradition, the Reclaiming branch of the Feri tradition (witches will know how specific we all have to be about this, so we know what we can joke about around whom, and what is off limits), until 1981. But I went every year until I left San Francisco, 11 years in all.

After I left San Francisco I moved to Pittsburgh, where Halloween is A Very Big Deal. In Pittsburgh and its suburbs, the display of ghoulish extravagance begins in September sometime, culminating in the actual handing out of treats to emissaries from the dead (that’s my understanding of what we’re doing) – trick or treat. There are dead people hauling themselves out of lawns, there are Styrofoam tombstones every place they fit, there are festoons of orange and black lights all over the porches, there are fake spider webs hanging out of the trees. It’s a bad time to have to walk your dog around, really. Well, my dog. He’s incensed by plastic bags. You can imagine what he thinks of inflated monsters.

But to my mind, Pittsburgh’s obsession with Halloween sort of misses the point. It was fun, oh yes; I raised a child in those years, and he had hand-made extravagant costumes every year, to his order (Perseus! Captain Hook! Harry Potter!), and it was all lovely. Really, it was lovely.

But it wasn’t Samhain, and it certainly wasn’t the Spiral Dance.

The first Spiral Dance was a celebration, a big party on one of the two most sacred nights of the year for the witches (the other is the night before May Day, or Bealtaine), to mark the publication of Starhawk’s book, which is titled, appropriately, The Spiral Dance. We still sing some of the songs from those first scripts.

For us, the celebration of Samhain (the word simply translates as “November,” but it’s used to mark the holiday) involves, most importantly, our connection with the dead. We say that the veil between the living and the non-living is at its thinnest on the two nights of the high holidays. At Bealtaine, the night before May starts, it is the unborn who are closest. At Samhain, it is the dead who are closest.

So one of the most important things we do at the Spiral Dance is to read out the names of the beloved dead who died that year; we collect those names from the community during the weeks before the event. That solemn reading is so sobering. The names go by in waves; you can’t hear them all, you can’t pay attention to them all, there are so many of the beloved dead because there are so many of us (hundreds, always; thousands, if we were able to rent a hall big enough). But any of us who have sent in names listen carefully, waiting for our beloveds.

And there are the altars, which many people have contributed to; they include pictures of the beloved dead, the newly dead and the long dead alike, brought to witness the night.

And we sing, and we call the elements, and we call the gods and goddesses, and we call the beloved dead, and we call the mighty dead (who are the dead witches), and we sing and we sing.

And we trance, all of us, the entire group, taking the boat of the dead across the ocean to the Isle of Apples, to dance with our dead, on the night when it is easiest to do so, in a long trance.

And when we come back we sing again.

This marks for us the New Year, and we call in what we want for the new year. We call in abundance, and we call in peace, and we call in justice, and we call in joy. We sing and we sing.

And then we dance.

We often, throughout the year, at small gatherings and at large, dance spiral dances – starting in a circle, one person breaks off and leads the line inward, finally turning outward, so that we can all see each other, and then turning back in again, so that we are all of us, finally, at the end of the dance, facing inward to the center of the circle, tightly packed, singing and singing and finally raising our voices in a cone of power, raising energy for our group intention.

But the Spiral Dance, capitalized – that is the giant dance in San Francisco at Samhain, and there are hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people, coming out of the trance to the Isle of Apples, dancing for the new year, spiraling in and out and finally coalescing into a mass of people raising energy to empower the new year, the new abundance, the new justice, the new peace, the new equality, the new joy. And our dead, our beloved dead, our mighty dead, witness this and add in their intentions for the health and joy of their descendants.

Because it’s all a spiral, isn’t it? Each year the same November comes back to us, but it’s different. The wheel of the year turns and turns, but it’s different every time. We ourselves meet the same obstacles and enjoy the same triumphs over and over again, different every time. Our communities, or collectives, have the same meetings over and over, and present the same events, over and over, and they are different every time. We are all alive, if we are reading this, but we have lived, and we have died, over and over, the same, the same, the same, and different every time.

And so we say, Happy New Year! May this be a year of abundance for you. May you be blessed, may you be well, may you be happy.


 Anne Brannen, who is Pandora O’Mallory in the Reclaiming branch of the Feri tradition, has been practicing and teaching the Craft since 1981.  She is a medievalist as well, a retired professor, and a writer.  She has published in such venues as Kestrel, Literary Mamas, and Creative NonFiction.  She can be reached at anne@annebrannen.com.

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