The Evolution of Death and Samhain

by Michael Colebrook

(A paper  presented at the Annual Members meeting of GreenSpirit held in October 2002,  just a few days away from the festival of Samhain)

In the Irish tradition, Samhain contains the celebration of the Sacred Marriage between the Daghda, the God/King of the People of Dannan and the Morrigan, an aspect of the triple Goddess.

The sacred marriage between king and goddess is a fairly widespread element in the cultures of the ancient world. Probably the best known story involving the sacred marriage is that of Odysseus and Penelope. Odysseus claims the kingship of Ithaca by virtue of his marriage to the earthmother/goddess Penelope and their marriage was celebrated in a bed whose kingpost was carved from a living olive tree still rooted in the earth. The sacred marriage is more than simply a union between king and goddess. It also usually includes an element of relationship with the land or with a particular place.

In the Irish story, the Dagda and the Morrigan are not permitted the comfort of a bed, they have to stand astride a river with their feet on each bank.The Morrigan is clearly in the classic triple-goddess tradition. She is also a bird Goddess, common in the neolithic cultures of Old Europe and the Middle-East, linking her back to Lilith and Inanna and forward to Mother Goose and Halloween witches. In her various aspects the Morrigan is goddess of birth and death and fertility.The Daghda carries a massive club the business end of which kills while the other end heals. He also owns a cauldron of plenty.

Looking at the attributes of The Daghda and The Morrigan they are clearly linked to birth, death, and fertility and they are both fairly wild and unpredictable characters. . One of their daughters conceived at Samhain is Bridget who is associated with the re-birth festival of Imbolc.

The sacred marriage celebrated at Samhain re-enacts the union between the divine, the human and the land, between male and female, between life and death, it celebrates the turning of the year. For the Celts the eight seasonal festivals represent transitions and ‘between’ times when boundaries become transparent and borders can be crossed. Hence the sacred marriage celebrated with feet on either side of a river. At Samhain the crossable border is that between life and death. The idea has been carried over into the Christian tradition of Halloween when all sorts of spirits are abroad, followed by All Saints day when, in many Catholic countries, it is customary to visit the graves of close relatives.

So, it seems appropriate, as we are thinking about Samhain that we should include a consideration of the dialectic of life and death.

We generally think about autumn as a time of death and dying, a sad time, followed by winter and then the joyous time of spring when we celebrate rebirth. But this is actually the wrong way round, birth has come before death. Actually autumn is supremely a time of birth. Many of the seeds that will produce next year’s plants have already germinated. They pass the winter as relatively small rosettes of leaves ready to grow in the spring. On the trees most of the cells that will be next years leaves have already been produced. They are sitting curled up inside tight buds ready to burst out next spring. Many animals pass the winter as fertilised females ready to give birth as soon as spring arrives. The autumn is as much a period of birth and preparation as it is a period of death and dying. It has to be so because birth and death are inseparable, they are both parts of a continuous process, the process we call life.

In John Muir’s account of his thousand mile walk from Indianapolis to Florida in 1867 he tells of spending a few days and nights at a place called Bonaventure which was the graveyard for the town of Savannah in the state of Georgia. I quote:

‘I gazed awe-struck as one newly arrived from another world. Bonaventure is called a graveyard, a town of the dead, but the few graves are powerless in such a depth of life. The rippling of living waters, the song of birds, the joyous confidence of flowers, the calm, undisturbable grandeur of the oaks, mark this place of graves as one of the Lord’s most favoured abodes of life and light.’

He goes on:

‘On no subject are our ideas more warped and pitiable than on death. Instead of the sympathy, the friendly union, of life and death so apparent in Nature, we are taught that death is an accident, a deplorable punishment for the oldest sin, the arch-enemy of life, etc. Town children, especially, are steeped in this death orthodoxy, for the natural beauties of death are seldom seen or taught in towns. But let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory… All is divine harmony.’

In the same vein Goethe wrote: ’The spectacle of Nature is always new, for she is always renewing the spectators. Life is her most exquisite invention; and death is her expert contrivance to get plenty of life.’

Both Muir and Goethe are emphasising that death is an essential feature of the continuity of life; as does Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible. ’First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.’

Eugene Odum, who is one of the leading contemporary figures in scientific ecology has summed up whole the subject in just four words: ‘Matter circulates. Energy dissipates’. The estimate for the turnover time for the available global stock of carbon is about 100 years. There is the quick turn around of a few hours of eating, burning for energy and breathing out. There is the annual turn around. This has been measured and it amounts to about 200 thousand million tonnes of carbon exchanged between the biosphere and the atmosphere every year. There is the long, slow turn around in wood and coral reef and sea-shell of hundreds or even thousands of years.The earth has been carrying a stock of animals and plants for about 500 million years. We don’t know much about the sizes of these stocks but we do know that the diversity of species, has been more or less the same, although with lots of ups and downs, until about 100 million years or so. For the sake of argument, let us assume that the average total stock has had been more or less constant. This means that over this period every atom of carbon in my body and in all of your bodies has been part of another living organism an average of about 5 million times and it could be a lot more. Not all of the events have to end in a death, but a lot of them do.Each one of us exists on the back of millions of deaths.

The average life span of a species is about 5 million years. There have been many that have survived for less than this but there have also been some that have lasted a lot longer. The best known are a Brachiopod called Lingula and Limulus, the Horseshoe Crab. The diversity of species is high at the moment. There are probably somewhere between ten and thirty million species of living organisms. And over 500 million years there has probably been about a hundred complete turnovers of the species of living things.Just think for a moment about the awesome picture this conjures up. The countless livings and dyings of individuals and species. The whole involving a continuous cycling of about 2 thousand million tonnes of carbon every year. And this has been going on for hundreds of millions of years. None of this would be possible without plenty of death and dying. Goethe’s insight was spot on – ‘The spectacle of Nature is always new, for she is always renewing the spectators. Life is her most exquisite invention; and death is her expert contrivance to get plenty of life.’ What Goethe did not know was the grand, indeed enormous and magnificent scale on which nature did these things. Life and death are inseparable. They are part of the same process. We call it the life cycle, but you could just as easily call it the death cycle. If there is too much death then obviously the life cycle will collapse but there are also situations when too much life creates a problem. An obvious example is the Desert Locust whose populations occasionally go wild with devastating effects on large areas of vegetation. There is also the bacterium called Yersinia pestis which during the plague known as the Black Death the life of this little creature along with the lives of lots of fleas and lots of rats, was responsible for the death of about a third of the human population of Europe.

Two key chemical elements in the life process are carbon and nitrogen. Both exhibit clear cycles, but there is something odd about both of them. I have already talked about the carbon cycle in which the main exchanges take place between living things and the atmosphere. But by far the largest stock of carbon is underground in the form of rock, limestone and coal. In contrast to this in the nitrogen cycle the main exchanges take place between living things and the soil. But by far the largest global stock of nitrogen is in the atmosphere. Gaia seldom does things in what seems the most obvious and sensible way. We tend think about these cycles as involved in nurturing life and so they are. But they also necessarily involve death. Wendell Berry focuses on this aspect in what is in effect a beautiful meditation on the nitrogen cycle:

I began to be followed by a voice saying:

‘Go look under the leaves,’ it said, ‘for what is living there is

long dead in your tongue.’

And it said, ‘Put your hands into the earth. Live close

to the ground. Learn the darkness.

Gather round you all the things that you love, name

their names, prepare to lose them. It will be

as if you all you know were turned around in your body.’

 

And I went and put my hands

into the ground, and they took root

and grew into a season’s harvest.

I looked behind the veil of the leaves, and heard voices

that I knew had been dead

in my tongue years before my birth. I learned the dark.

Then the voice following me said:

‘You have not yet come close enough.

Come nearer the ground. Learn

from the woodcock in the woods

whose feathering is a ritual of the fallen leaves,

and from the nesting quail

whose speckling makes her hard to see in the long grass.

Study the coat of the mole. For the farmer shall wear

the greenery and the furrows of his fields, and bear

the long standing of the woods.’

 

And I asked: ‘You mean a death then?’

‘Yes,’ the voice said. ‘Die

into what the earth requires of you.’

Then I let go of all holds, and sank

like a hopeless swimmer into the earth, and at last

came fully into the ease

and the joy of that place,

all my lost ones returning.

 

By far the commonest form of dying ‘into what the earth requires of you’ is to be eaten. As Brian Swimme came to realise in the Brazilian rain forest, ‘the whole of existence is concerned with eating and being eaten.’

Part of the endless fascination of the study of biology lies in finding out about the seemingly endless ways that organisms have discovered of eating each other, on one hand, and found ways of avoiding being eaten on the other.

One of my favourite stories is about a rain forest tree that when it is being eaten by a particular caterpillar it uses some of the saliva of the caterpillar to produce a pheromone, a chemical with a particular smell, which, with a bit of luck, attracts a particular wasp which then lays its eggs inside the caterpillar which, as it is being eaten from the inside, soon stops eating the tree.

Just think for a moment about the complexity of the co-evolutionary processes that resulted in this system, which is just one of thousands of other equally improbable stories that make up a tropical rain forest, which is just one of hundreds of different ecosystems that make up Gaia, the earth system as a whole. According to the French biologist François Jacob there are two necessary conditions for biological evolution. Firstly, there is sex which establishes a system of communication at the genetic level and, ‘the other necessary condition for the very possibility of evolution is death. Not death from without, as the result of some accident; but death imposed from within, as a necessity prescribed from the egg onward by the genetic programme itself. For evolution is the result of a struggle between what was and what is to be.’ So we have the evolution of natural death as an essential feature of the evolution of life. Natural death highlights the fact that living is a continuous process of self making. The posh word for this is autopoesis which is simply Greek for self making. It is important to realise just what is involved here. Living organisms do not only use food to build their own bodies, they also make the tools needed to convert food into their bodies. More, they hold the blue-prints needed to make the tools needed to convert food into body. And the body is the place where the tools work and the blue-prints are stored. There is more, the blue-prints contain the instructions for making the tools needed to make copies of the blue-prints. There is more. The processes are continuous – self-making involves self-unmaking and self-remaking. Bits of us are dying all the time and being remade. Our skin replaces its cells at the rate of 100,000 cells every minute. On the evolutionary time-scale the process of remaking involves the emergence of a programmed element of ageing leading to natural death.

There is a profound dilemma here. We humans pride ourselves on being at the top of the evolutionary ladder and then treat either as evil or tragic the death that is an essential feature of the evolutionary process that got us where we are. The Brazilian ecofeminist theologian Ivone Gebara, as reported by Rosemary Radford Ruether, claims that original sin was not an act of disobedience that resulted in a fall into mortality, but rather the primal sin lies in the effort to escape from mortality, finitude and vulnerability. Evil lies not in death but in attempts to deny mortality by accumulating possessions and seeking for power over the natural world and over other people. In the medieval play Everyman is called by Death to go on the last journey:

Everyman replies:

O death thou comest when I had ye least in mind,

In thy power it lyeth me to save,

Yet of my goods will I give ye if thou will be kind

Ye a thousand pound shalt thou have,

And defer this matter till another day.

At the values of 1530 a thousand pounds was a vast sum. But Death is not moved:

Everyman, it may not be, by no way.

I set not by gold, silver nor riches,

Nor by pope, emperour, kynge, duke nor princes

For and I would receive gifts great,

All the world I might get.

But my custom is clean contrary

I give thee no respite, come hence and do not tarry.

Everyman goes on to seek help from kindred and friends, from his worldly goods, then from Beauty, Strength, Discretion and Knowledge. To no avail. Everything that Everyman had banked on to keep him safe deserts him. But, this being a morality play, Everyman’s Good Deeds do offer to be his guide. I suspect that one of the things that humans see as distinguishing us from most other animals is our relative longevity, three score years and ten plus plus – it seems to be getting more all the time – Death obviously appeared to Everyman well before he was expected.

Although humans do live longer than most other animals. It is also a fact that, on the whole, plants live longer than animals. Nearly all species of trees and a lot of woody shrubs can live for well over 100 years, and there are many perennial plants, including grasses that can go on making themselves more or less indefinitely. Very few plants live for less than a year. In contrast there are lots of insects and small invertebrates that have several generations a year and very few animals live for more than a few decades. In this country alone there are more than 400 Yew trees that are over 1000 years old and the oldest, at Fortingall on Tayside, is believed to be over 5000 years old. When you look at one of these aged Yew trees you get a very clear message. Old and tired they may be but they haven’t given up on the struggle to stay alive. This is the paradox of death. Although death is inevitable and an essential feature of life, all living things do their best to stay alive. From the humblest bacterium to ourselves, all living organisms react to unfavourable conditions up to the limit of their capabilities. Everything tries to avoid death as far as possible, but a lot of organisms have to die for other organisms to stay alive. This is the paradox of life. Which brings us back to the celebration of Samhain when in particular we may ponder on these profound paradoxical aspects of life and death in the context of the endless cycling of the seasons.

I don’t think I can do better than to finish with the words of Rosemary Radford Ruether: ‘In order to create a spirituality of recycling in which the human life cycle becomes complementary to the life cycles of the plants and animals, air, water, and soil around us, I believe we have to come to terms with our mortality. We must overcome the false world view that has rationalised our flight from mortality. We will not overcome our tendencies to turn the waste, death and decay side of our life-cycle into poisons until we accept ourselves as mortal and learn to reintegrate ourselves as beings that die and decay into the natural processes of the renewal of life. Although humans are, in one way, the apex, at least up to now, of the evolutionary process, we, as much as plants and other animals, are finite centres of life, who exist for a season. We too die; all the cells in our bodies disintegrate back into the stuff of the universe, to rise again in new forms, as part of a worm or a bird, a flower or a human child. The material substances of our bodies live on in plants and animals, just as our own living bodies are composed of substances that were once part of rocks, plants, and animals, stretching back through time to prehistoric ferns and reptiles, before that to ancient organisms that once floated the first seas of the earth, and before that to the stardust of exploding stars. The spirituality of recycling, by which we become interdependent with the positive life processes of all other beings around us, demands a fundamental conversion of consciousness. We have to take into our consciousness and practice recognition of our mortality and transience, relinquishing the illusion of permanence of immortal selves that can be exempt from this process. While this may be a sad word for those who see the individual self as ultimate, it can become a joyful word once we have learned to see ourselves as an integral part of the great matrix of being which is ever renewing life in new creative forms out of the very processes we call ‘death’.

‘One generation of beings dies and is dispersed back into the matrix, so that another generation of beings can grow from its womb. This is the true and only resurrection of the dead. It is the real process of what has been called ‘reincarnation’. As we surrender our ego-clinging to ‘personal immortality’, we find our selves upheld in the immortality of the wondrous whole, ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’.

This festival of Samhain is the time of year when it is the tradition to ponder on these mysteries.