Atheopaganism

An Earth-honoring religious path rooted in science

October

In the arc of the Pagan wheel of the year, October is the time leading up to Samhain or Hallows (the midpoint between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice). It is, of course, the time when we all go a little crazy with spooky décor and witchy aesthetic, leading up to Halloween night, although the actual midpoint is around Nov. 7.

October is a time when we contemplate mortality and memory, remembering those who have died and our ancestors leading back into the mists of time. The skulls and bones and spider webs remind us that we are here only for a limited time, and will also one day be only memories in the minds of those who survive us.

This is important, because on Planet Earth, death is the means to life. Every organism is created through a genetic split or combination, and then grows and survives by taking into itself component parts which were once something else alive. It is the very miracle of Life on Earth, this death, and though we fear our own endings we understand that in the end, the ride is worth the price of the ticket.

We Pagans understand that death is a natural process and prefer to look squarely at it, rather than avoiding it as so many in mainstream culture do. As the year ages and the leaves begin to fall, many of us find it an appropriate time to do the work to make our deaths as easy for our loved ones as possible: to complete wills, health directives, wishes for disposal of our bodies and so forth. Having all of this information in a readily accessible place is a great gift we can give to our loved ones, so they don’t have to scramble around looking for it while mourning. If this is something that appeals to you, there is a workbook you can download at https://atheopaganism.wordpress.com/2018/10/07/a-gift-from-the-dying/

For many Pagans, honoring of ancestors is a big part of their spiritual practice, not only at this time of the year, but throughout it. Others may struggle with embracing ancestors whose deeds weren’t very worthy, but there is always more ancestry to point to: that very first finned fish that “walked” up on land to escape a predator or seek food, or that first homo erectus that figured out how to manage fire. Our heritage is filled with remarkable accomplishments; there is always something to celebrate, for each of us.

May the eerie month of October bless you with reflection and memory!

The Sacred Rite of Composting

Before we slide into the joyous, let-us-eat-now-for-tomorrow-we-freeze holidays of December, let us take one final, sincere look at the time of Hallows and the meaning of this season.

This post relates to a previous piece, Death, the Creator. Go ahead, read that first.

In my Wheel of the Year, the period between Hallows, the Sabbath of Death, and Yule, the annual “birth” of the Sun, is the time of composting and recomposition: metaphorically, it is when I recognize that after death, my body will be disassembled through the process of decomposition, and its component molecules will return to cycling through the vast and wonderful apparatus of Life.

It is the part of the cycle of Life we don’t get to experience directly, because we are dead. But it deserves no less attention in our observances; indeed, it is arguably the most miraculous and fascinating part of the entire process.

Decomposition is accomplished by small critters. While we may lose some of our component parts to scavengers (birds, insects, etc.), most of what returns us to the source bank of raw materials for creating new life forms is done by microorganisms: bacteria, fungi, and a few archaea (in fact, even within the digestive tracts of the scavengers, that is really what is doing the work).

Think about it: all the Good Stuff you are made of. The carbon and calcium, the sulfur and water and iron. That’s Good Stuff! Life loves that stuff: loves to play with it and form it and make it into things that breathe, that rise in thanks to the light and the warmth of the mighty Sun that drives it all.

Your death is a day of celebration for the burst of life that will come after. It is your gift to the future, the most generous gift to the Earth That Will Come that you can possibly make.

Try to embrace this. Try to understand it. Live, finding the joy, eating with both hands, offering to others with both hands, making happiness not just for yourself but for all that surrounds you, including that which is not human.

And then let go. Laugh, knowing the honor, the nobility of your generous gifts.


Shown: decomposing human body at a research cadaver farm.

Hallows 2021

Welcome to the Witchiest Sabbath, everyone! It’s been another hell of a year, and it’s hard to get my mind around the fact that it is already Hallows season again. 2020 seemed to take forever, but 2021 has just flown by.

As I write, torrential rain pours blessedly on the parched land of California. We’re in a drought and desperately need this, but it’s a Class 5 atmospheric river storm (only 10 have ever been recorded here) and there is widespread local flooding. Famine or feast, it seems. My partner Nemea and I are in pretty dire financial straits right now, but today, in a cozy little place with food in my belly and the sound of rain on the roof, I feel blessed and wealthy.

And at least our wildfire season is over for the year.

Like so many Pagan folks at this time of year, I have been a busy bee. Contemplating death. Doing death prep by updating my Death documents packet. Settling into Eerie Month with seasonal movies like The Others, The Gift, and Practical Magic. Figuring out how we’re going to decorate the outside of our place; reworking the seasonal elements of my Focus to reflect this time of year. Getting ready for next weekend, when my ritual circle, Dark Sun, will celebrate 30 years together with our 31st Hallows ritual—and our first non-virtual Hallows since COVID came along.

In short, between searching for work and working on my next Atheopaganism book and all the things I do currently in Atheopaganism, I’ve been doing All The Things to make this Hallows as deep, meaningful and enjoyable as possible.

The sheer scale of the pandemic—deaths from which are now approaching 5 million worldwide—makes the annual Feast of the Dead even more impactful than ever, and as I start thinking about our upcoming ritual it’s overwhelming even to think about trying to address it somehow. Yet we must–we are in the midst of a great tragedy, and cannot shrink from confronting it.

I have traditions at Hallows. On Halloween day, I always take a walk in my local Victorian cemetery, enjoying the fall colors and the worn headstones, the ambiance of sorrow and antiquity. I gather a sprig of yew from a tree there, to dry on my Underworld Focus for a year before being used to light the Hallows ritual fire for Dark Sun. Then it’s home to dress up and prepare for little costumed extortionists to arrive at my door.


The storm has blown over now. It’s crisp and bright this morning with autumn colors and the sounds of birds, who must be delighted at the worms rising from the ground after all that water.

I was writing about Hallows traditions. Dark Sun has a ritual we do every year, a walk to the Land of the Dead, where we speak to those we have lost and leave things we no longer want to keep with us before we return to the our ritual circle, light a fire and share wine, pomegranates and chocolate, singing and celebrating being alive. Then we go inside and eat a feast.

It’s a pretty simple ritual, but a profound one and the fact that we have been doing it for so long reinforces its sacred nature.

The activities I’ve listed in this post add up to a pretty extensive list, and you shouldn’t feel that you’re “not doing enough” if you don’t put as much effort into the Sabbath as I do. Everyone’s circumstances, available time and energy and motivation vary. But one thing that is wonderful about this season is that it gives us permission to be childlike again, with our morbid fascinations and dress-up, as well as to confront and contemplate the very real fact of our inevitable mortality.

I hope your Hallows season is rich with meaning and enjoyment. May your voyage into the Darkness be a good one.

Shown: Underworld Focus 2021

Autumn: The Drawing Down

Now that the equinox has passed, things seem to be happening more quickly, somehow. The days are markedly shorter (here in the northern hemisphere), and there is a chill in the air at night despite wan, warm days. Growing global heat means that the coastal fog cycles that cool us off in the mornings have persisted long past when they used to–to see that fog at the end of September used to be unthinkable. I light the candles on my Focus each evening at dark and it seems so early now; touching the flame to the wick of the candle in the World section of the Focus with the words the Sacred Earth and to the candle in the Underworld section with the words the Honored Dead each evening, I repeat my commitment to the sacred each day, remind myself that this journey is, if I choose it to be, a holy one.

It is a quiet time. Birds are packing in the last calories before taking flight south, and nights are now black instead of summer’s midnight blue, with the recent show-offs being bright Jupiter and Saturn, low on the southern horizon. Decimated by drought and heat, the September salmon run nonetheless makes its way up the creeks and rivers to do what it has always done: find a spot, spawn and die.

There is, overall, a sense of drawing down, packing it in, taking care of those last errands before the dormancy of winter. There will, of course, be a burst of witchy energy among the humans in October as we celebrate the mortality that so frightens us. We will decorate our home and prepare for trick-or-treaters this year, as our new neighborhood appears to have many children in it.

Ritually, I seem to find myself revisiting Old Favorites: incenses I haven’t used in years, tools and Focus decorations I may not have paid much attention to recently. Feeling a bit sad that I can’t brew a Yule metheglin this year, as I had intended earlier in the year–my brewing equipment was loaned to a friend and burned in the 2020 wildfires, and we can’t afford to spend $300 on such a luxury right now. Next year.

But I gaze around my wizard’s workshop of a bedroom and feel contentment and deep joy at my life, though it has its hardships.

I must find work soon. Must.

But I wasn’t going to dwell on that in this post, and so we move on, to the liquid ambar trees aflame with color, the oaks heavy with acorns. It’s a banner year for them, for some reason; I would have expected the drought to prevent accumulation of the starches they need to make the fats in the seeds, but even without much water an oak tree is a huge deployment of photosynthesizing panels cranking out food. Maybe the drought encourages them even more to make a giant crop of seeds, to serve not only their own reproduction but the survival of the many creatures that depend on them for life.

I am not a person who does well with contemplative traditions like meditation. I have ADHD and my focus just wanders all over the place when I try. But this time of year seems well suited to that going-inward practice. Perhaps I will spend some time with my accommodated adaptation, the Atheopagan Rosary, which gives me something to fiddle with and a scripted set of reflections to repeat, and keeps me thus focused on the work at hand.

I think of this time of year as representing Elderhood, the year’s equivalent of old age. Reflecting: these are the last Harvest and Hallows Sabbaths I will celebrate in my 50s. This is steadily becoming my time of year.

And that could be fine, if I didn’t feel I have so much more to do. I’ve got a second Atheopaganism book outlined and want to do an audiobook of the first one, and I still haven’t seen the aurora borealis.

That said, we’re coming up on the time of year when I contemplate mortality, and it really has been a good life, all in all. So many adventures, so much love, so much opportunity to express and to help. Whether paddling down the Grand Canyon or sipping cappuccino in Venice or building an environmental advocacy group or simply being with dear friends–awaiting the sunrise in May, perhaps, or gathering in the dark at Hallows–the moments have been, as I wrote once, “jewels strung on a lace of days, chiming in morning sunlight”.

So my thanks to you, reader, for taking this time to spend with me, to make a new moment. It matters to me that people are listening. See you again soon.

An Underworld Focus

At this time of year, I pay a lot of attention to one part of my Focus*.

As altar-y spaces go, it is unquestionably the “witchiest” part of mine: bones, skulls, fossils of extinct species, a mummified bat, images of prehistoric cave paintings, megalithic spiral carvings and departed loved ones, a dried pomegranate. It is where I keep the black jar of rose water with which I have anointed several dead people, and the tiny jar of cedar oil, veteran of so many Hallows rituals, whose scent reminds me of the inside of a coffin.

It is The Underworld.

My Focus is built in a bookcase, with one shelf removed to make a double-height space. This area is The World, filled with all the symbols and reminders of what delights and moves me about life on Earth.

But on the shelf below The World is The Underworld, the place of grief, and memory, and ancestry.

This space is important to me because life is not all joy. It is loss and fear and the inevitable fact of mortality as well. Memory of what has forever gone away. And this, too, must be remembered and honored and reckoned with. And so I curate and care for this grim part of my Focus, and urge you, too, to create one on such themes, at least at this time of year: the time of Hallows.

Making an Underworld Focus is simple in concept but may be emotionally challenging. Gathering the images of your Honored Dead can be an experience of great sadness…or it can be one of fond remembrance. It depends on you.

Do you, like so many Pagans, have skulls or bones or Halloween decorations that set the proper mood? Gather those. Put down a black cloth as a base upon which to create your Focus. Arrange the objects and the pictures of your Honored Dead. Include a candle so you can “activate” your Focus when it is complete, and so it will be illuminated at night when you light it. You may want a small dish or incense burner so you can burn some incense there: perhaps the evocative, mood-altering resin incenses such as dragon’s blood or frankincense.

I keep some ritual tools in my Underworld, as well: a clamp and surgical scissors that were found in my mother’s apartment when she died (she was an RN), and a sprig of yew I gather in a cemetery each Halloween, dry for a year on the Focus, and then use to light the Hallows fire the following year.

You may wish to place an empty plate and/or drinking vessel on your Focus: symbol of the “empty place setting” that is often set for those who have died at Hallows feasts. You can make offerings on this plate: pomegranates are popular, or perhaps a red rose (fresh or dried).

When I light the candle on my Underworld Focus each night, I say the words, “The Honored Dead” (just as I say “The Sacred Earth” when I light the candle on The World Focus). This reminds me that I am of a lineage of organisms far beyond my mere nearby genetic neighbors and extending back billions of years. My Honored Dead are not only relatives and departed friends: they are ammonites and trilobites and bacteria.

Here, at this time of year when Pagans of all stripes contemplate mortality and ancestry, an Underworld Focus is a way to begin a practice of coming to grips with the fact that we will die, that all that arise from the Earth are subsumed within its Sacred fabric again, to be reconstituted as new life.


*An Atheopagan term for an altar, used as an alternative so as not to imply worship or sacrifice.

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