Honoring the Dead: The Samhain Altar

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Rulon, Newell Family

Rulon Family

Lois Jewett

The people in these pictures are five generations of my maternal family line (my mother is generation six and I’m generation seven). I was taught from diapers that remembering where we came from and honoring the spirits of our ancestors was very important. For that reason, ancestor remembrances are the most sacred part of the Samhain period of the year for my family and me.

As I wrote in my previous post, The Myths and Truth of Samhain: I remember being seven and I’d have to listen to stories about relatives I never met while putting on a ballerina tutu to go trick-or-treating with my friends. At the time, I had trouble understanding why dusty photos of long-dead relatives appeared on my grandmother’s dresser amid candles every autumn and winter. Now I recognize it for what it was – an altar. We came from Irish people who held onto the old ways and (and later mixed them with Christian ways, mostly for show). It all got passed to me too, a little seven-year-old girl putting on a tutu on Halloween and wondering why my grandmother was drilling separation of cultures into my head.

Changing my altar to focus on deceased friends and family is one of my main points of focus at Samhain. It’s fairly simple to dress up an existing altar for the different periods of the pagan year. Also, it should be noted that Samhain goes throughout the month of November (the festival itself is just sundown to sundown from October 31 to November 1). In other words, keep your Samhain altar up until you’re ready to switch to Yule decorations. I usually assemble around October 27 and then I wait until after Thanksgiving to dismantle.

Just for personal aesthetics that represent the season, I get a couple of little pumpkins and pomegranates from the grocery store or farmer’s market. I gather fallen leaves from my yard to scatter around my altar table. Buying the fake stuff doesn’t sit well with me. I need to use things that will decay on their own, not create more landfill, but watch out for bugs when you bring natural decorations indoors.

If you can get it without trespassing, put an offering bowl of graveyard dirt in the spot on your altar where you represent the earth. The magick is even more powerful if the graveyard dirt comes from the graves of your ancestors. Always ask permission and wait for a sign before you take the dirt. Some spirits don’t like people touching their graves. They’ll give you a sign if the answer is no. Always leave an offering of fruit or flowers in exchange for the dirt too. Graveyard dirt will be used in a ritual on the feast of Samhain.

I also change my candles to orange, dark red, black, etc., for the season if I have those colors on hand. I prefer tapers because they look elegant to me and they’re usually too tall for my cat to act on his fire curiosity. Otherwise I just keep my regular gold and silver candles for the moon and sun. Sometimes I only use gold candles at Samhain in my effort to symbolically provide warmth and light during the cold, dark half of the year. I also use one white candle per spirit I’m honoring. If you don’t have a specific number, just use whatever number you please, or create an exalted focal point with a larger pillar candle to represent all of your spirits.

If you respond to scents like I do, use warm spices as opposed to florals and fruits. Remember we’re entering the cold, dark half of the year. Our ancestors didn’t have access to mail order flowers from tropical places. When in doubt, think of baking, spices, hearthfires, smoked meats, etc., when choosing your incense and resin (unless a specific ritual calls for a specific mixture).

Also, you may also put photographs of your loved ones on the altar along with personal items they owned if you have any. This is an important part of my Samhain altar. Since I lost my grandmother in July, it’s the most recent death, and my tradition dictates that she gets the position of honor this year. I keep candles lit each night for Samhain season to honor my loved ones who are no longer living in the physical.

Don’t forget your deities if you have them too. Leave offerings of autumn flowers like chrysanthemums and marigolds, and autumn foods like breads and gourds, thanking them for working with you during the past year and asking for help in succeeding in the year to come.

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Fire Divination Method

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Bonfire Using fire for divination during Samhain goes along with the tradition of lighting bonfires. At sundown on October 31, bonfires were lit on the hilltops and burned all night while people celebrated, feasted, did various rituals to honor the dead from the previous year, and so forth. Among many other divination traditions, using the bonfire to see visions was quite useful during the night of the Samhain festival. It’s believed in Celtic and Gaelic tradition that the veil between the living world and spirit world is thinnest at Samhain, which is why divination became so popular at this period of the year.

This is essentially like scrying with a mirror or with water. You may do it with a bonfire, a fireplace, or even a single candle. The only thing that matters is you have some source of flame in a dark space, so it’s suggested that you do it during the night.

You’ll want to be still and quiet sitting before your fire. Distractions need to be removed. Some people need total silence. Some need soft melodic music. The point is to create a dark environment where your only source of concentration is on the fire. I was always taught in my family traditions that environment is important with doing rituals, spells, or divination. If you’re uncomfortable or distracted, it’ll mess with the strength and direction of your intentional energy.

Gaze at the fire, letting your vision go soft, but don’t stare hard at it. You want to let yourself go loose and fuzzy as you watch the fire. Focus on opening your senses. For me, it helps to visualize myself as a blooming flower. Feel the fire’s warmth, smell the smoke, listen to the popping and spitting logs, taste the wood in the air, etc. Open yourself to the fire while gazing at it through unfocused eyes. This process can take time. Don’t let yourself get frustrated because then you’ll have to start over again since frustration is a distraction. Some people divine for minutes. Others for hours.

If there are visions for you, then you might see them in the smoke, in the flames, or in your mind’s eye. Be careful of succumbing to imagination, however. A true vision will unfold like a mystery and you probably won’t understand it at first. Imagination will stutter, start and stop, or shift depending on your inner thought processes.

Immediately after instinct tells you to come out of the divination, you must write down everything you witnessed, felt, etc. Some of you will put this in your Book of Shadows if you’re Wiccan (I’m not). Others will put it in a different journal. Regardless, always date your divination sessions and record the environmental details, like where you were, the temperature, the moon phase, etc. This will be important for establishing patterns as you do more in the future.

What did you see? Well, that’s up to your own interpretation system. You’ll get better at it with time. Use these sessions to improve your life and the lives of those around you whenever possible in the year to come.

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Candle Wax Divination Method

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Candles It’s believed in Celtic and Gaelic tradition that the veil between the living world and spirit world is thinnest at Samhain, which is why divination became so popular at this period of the year. I’ve heard of this particular method used in my family line in the past.


  • Candles
  • Bowl
  • Cold water
  • Method

    Fill a bowl with water. The bowl should be deep and wide enough to allow candle wax drippings to take shape. Putting the bowl in the freezer for a few minutes will help but don’t let the water solidify into ice.

    Take the bowl of water and your candles to your altar or a place in your home where you can work comfortably in peace. Hearth witches or kitchen witches might consider working in the kitchen. Garden witches might consider working in the garden. That sort of thing. In my family tradition, environment mattered to the success of the divination. Working at night is best too.

    Candles work best when made of natural materials but should at the very least produce a decent amount of drippiness. I generally use white candles since white is an easy substitute if you don’t have desired colors. You may coordinate the color to the subject of your divination question if you choose–green for money, red for love, etc.–but it’s not totally necessary. Our ancestors doing this particular divination method didn’t have easy access to colored candles like we do. They used beeswax, tallow, etc.

    Light the candle and let it warm up pretty good. I have better luck with pillars than tapers but it’s just a matter of personal preference. While you wait for the flame to do its work, concentrate on your question. When the wax gets melted enough, ask your question aloud and then pour the drippings from the candle into the bowl. The cold water will make it harden fast.

    Study the shape of the melted wax in the water. This is where you’ll need interpretation skills. I’ve been doing it for a long time and I never had a key for deciphering shapes in the wax but there are some suggestions online if you’re new at it.

  • Butterfly – freedom, rebirth, soul symbol
  • Cat – mystery
  • Crescent – spirituality
  • Diamond – gift, partnership
  • Egg – birth, starting something new
  • Frog – money
  • Hand – your desires will come to fruition soon
  • Heart – love
  • Hourglass – have patience
  • Leaves – success
  • Lighthouse – guidance
  • Lightening – a sudden occurrence
  • Mask – secrets
  • Star – wishes fulfilled
  • Tree – unity
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