The Role of the Sacrificed Youth at Samhain
Article ID: 6788
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 3,491
Times Read: 11,373
Author: Garan du
Posted: November 2nd. 2003
Times Viewed: 11,373
In October, the wheel of the year turns unrelentingly to the dark season. The brightly-colored leaves swirl like autumnal confetti, ripened apples fall like dying suns into cider presses to be transformed magickally into liquid summer, and the gay community begins to gleefully ready itself for what is generally acknowledged as the second most festive party of the year (after Pride, that is). Hallowe’en (Samhain/Samhuinn or Harvest Home to us followers of the Old Ways) has held a special place in the minds and hearts of queer folk in the U.S. since the mid 20th century. Up until recently it’s generally been one of the few times a year where public displays of transgender style cause no more than the batting of a straight eye at a queer guy/gal in drag. Mingled as it is with the romping of ghouls, mummies, vampires, and other assorted monsters conjured from the collective unconscious, images of genderf*ck or of scantily clad go-go boys dancing in the streets of the Castro or New York City represent merely one more terror to a Western society so out of touch with the Other World.
While Samhain’s attractiveness to the gay community lay in its ability to loosen modern society’s bindings, thus allowing the playful nature of our psyches to surface, it is the underlying current of terror and uncertainty of the future, the deadly serious flip side of play, that lurks at the heart of this holy-day. This time of year is Death’s due, when the fruitfulness of the land is sucked dry as the marrow from an old bone, and Demeter cries Her tears of grief at the loss of Persephone. Death is an integral part of this season, for this is the time when we acknowledge its hold over us and the world around us. When we ape the forms of shambling corpse, grinning skull, or mass murderer, we are looking Death in the eye as if to say “My time will come, but not yet.”
We know this instinctively. The most cocky and “civilized” amongst us shivers unconsciously in the dark at an unexplained skittering of dried leaves, and whistles past the graveyard as if to frighten off the spirits that may be lingering nearby. It’s the unknown of the great abyss that breathes in our ear, that whispers of coming winter and starvation, and hints of the hungry wolves creeping in the shadows. The crack of a dead branch mimics the hungry crunch of a leg bone, and we start at the sound and whisper “not yet.”
Many who practice the Old Ways mark Samhain with rituals designed to honor the dead. My own altar bears pictures of ancestors going back four generations. I fete them silently with blood red wine, rich dark bread, apples, nuts and flowers. Pomegranates and dried leaves lay scattered across the altar’s surface, while candles and incense burn to call the dead to feast. For the past five years I have included another photo on my altar that of a young man who I never met in life, yet who represents something spiritually primal to me.
Matthew Shepard died on October 12, 1998, six days after being kidnapped, robbed, brutally pistol-whipped, and left for dead tied to a fencepost along a cold, dark road. The story of the crime provoked outrage from around the world, and his dying days sparked candlelit vigils attended by thousands of heartsick strangers. There are those in the gay community who cynically (yet quietly) debate that had Matthew been other than he was, an attractive young white man, then the subsequent grief and outrage might have been more muted. I cannot argue with that conclusion. Our culture is one that holds the images of youth and beauty as marketing touchstones, and there is no doubt that racial aesthetics also play a role in that marketing by the media. However, that does not denigrate the underlying feelings roused by Matthew’s death, nor of the feelings of horror and revulsion engendered by its perpetrators, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, or by that spiritual lamprey Fred Phelps during the funeral and in the years since. Matthew’s death made it abundantly clear that we were not proof against these types of terrors, no matter how many stone walls or log cabins we erect to shield us from them.
However, as terrible as it was, I would argue that the death of Matthew Shepard played a part in the wider myth of the sacrificed youth, a story that stretches back into the dim mists of time. Like an Attis or Adonis, Matthew demonstrates to us that youth and beauty are transitory and no protection from the horror of death. And by playing itself out in the buildup to Samhain in 1998, the ritual drama that was his death tapped into the current of shadow energy flowing during that time of year. The public ceremonies of grief were not unlike those that once occurred annually at the Adonia, the rites marking the death of Adonis. And like Adonis, Matthew’s death offered hope of a better life after, as people began working together to overcome the tyranny of homophobia and hate. After all, in 1998 who would have predicted such a stunning repudiation of Bowers v. Hardwick and the affirmation of the fundamental rights of homosexuals that was issued by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2003?
Matthew stands as a symbol of green youth cut short. In truth, he is but one representative in a long line of such sacrifices in the queer community. One could as easily memorialize a Charlie Howard, thrown from a bridge to his death in Maine in 1984, or a Rebecca Wight, shot and killed in 1988 on the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania, a Brandon Teena, shot to death in Nebraska in 1993, or a Gwen Araujo, beaten to death in California in 2002. Like Matthew, like Adonis, each person is a flame on the altar of our queer body. Each person is a reminder that, while the candle may go out, the queer spirit that burns at the core of each one of us lives on. So light a candle this Samhain and drink a toast to the sacrificed youth. And when the ghastly image of a peripatetic preacher screams his hell-bound curses at you, whistle past his spiritual graveyard and whisper “not yet” on the chill breeze. Blessed Be.
Bio: Garan du is a 3rd degree High Priest in the Minoan Brotherhood. He is a co- founder and co-facilitator of The Green Faerie Grove (Columbus, OH), an eclectic Wiccan coven for queer men, and is the leader of Temenos Iaakhos (Columbus, OH), a Grove of the Minoan Brotherhood. Garan du is the co-founder and co- facilitator of the annual Between the World's Men's Gathering (www.betweentheworlds.org), and is a coordinator, and annual workshop presenter, on the subject of queer spirituality, at the annual Pagan Spirit Gathering. He resides in Columbus, OH in a gay Pagan intentional household.
Location: Columbus, Ohio
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