Winding down to the end. Year’s candle flickering, on the verge of going out. Nights imbued with autumn. Summer martins, on their black wings, heading south. Scents and flavours redolent of endings and sleep. Ashes of past years stir into the cooler breezes, heralding winter. Bright air fading, wan with weary grasping after vanished summer. No more hot kisses on the neck below the ear. Not now. Instead the breeze whispers rest and seclusion.
Perhaps Bradbury said it best:
October Country . . . that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and mid-nights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain. . . .Ray Bradbury, The October Country. (New York: Ballantine, 1955).
The fairy queen, Titania, calls the season “childing autumn” and it is. Harvest time, yes, but we can harvest many kinds of things. Childing not just pumpkins and gourds, vegetables, fruit, and wheat, but also feelings and memories. Different sensation. Different sky. Suddenly realising a much earlier dark. Fumbling to light a lamp. Candles lit with a growing understanding. Small holes in the dark glowing the tiny pinprick of good deeds in a naughty world.
Silhouetted trees seem to threat just before they fade into the menacing dark outside the window.
Makes us wonder though. What do they do in thickening light, those folks down under the graveyard dirt?
“Mom? What do they do in the graveyard, Mom, under the ground? Just lay there?”Ray Bradbury. The October Country.
“Lie there? Is that all they do? It doesn’t sound like much fun.”
“For goodness’ sake, it’s not made out to be fun.”
“Why don’t they jump up and run around once in a while if they get tired lying there? God’s pretty silly–“
“Well, you’d think He’d treat people better than to tell them to lie still for keeps. That’s impossible. Nobody can do it! I tried once. Dog tries. I tell him, ‘dead Dog!’ He plays dead awhile, then gets sick and tired and wags his tail or opens one eye and looks at me, bored. Boy, I bet sometimes those graveyard people do the same, huh, Dog?”
“Be still with that kind of talk!” said Mother.
Martin looked off into space.
“Bet that’s exactly what they do,” he said.
Of course, the dead rise in Shakespeare too. At least Puck tells us that they do, and at least at this time of year, Puck may seem like a more reliable narrator:
Now the wasted brands do glow,A Midsummer Night’s Dream 5.1.392-404.
Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud,
Puts the wretch that lies in woe
In remembrance of a shroud.
Now it is the time of night
That the graves, all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite
In the church-way paths to glide.
And we fairies, that do run
By the triple Hecate’s team
From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream,
Now are frolic.
The idea of a ‘triple Hecate’ initially seems to suggest that the fairies might be evil, After all, Hecate appears as the goddess of witchcraft in Macbeth, and many assume (whether correctly or not is the subject of other posts) that the witches in that play are a manifestation of evil forces. Although this conclusion seems tempting, it may be too much of an oversimplification of a complicated figure.
Like many deities whose sources lie in antiquity, Hecate is not merely a goddess of a single aspect of being and her domain and influence may have changed over the course of history. Frequently depicted as a goddess with three aspects, she is sometimes a triple woman, and other times she is a goddess with three heads–two of which may be animal (which might be variously a dog, serpent, horse, cow, or boar).
Hecate is often depicted as Ovid describes her, as standing watch at a crossroads with her faces watching in different directions. “Intrinsically ambivalent and polymorphous, she straddles conventional boundaries and eludes definition” Simon Hornblower tells us.*
October heralds this kind of watching. Hecate minded, Hecate faced, looking backwards and forwards, picking one’s way between was and will be:
The part of life
devoted to contemplation
was at odds with the part
committed to action.
Fall was approaching.
But I remember
it was always approaching
once school ended.
Life, my sister said,
is like a torch passed now
from the body to the mind.
Sadly, she went on, the mind is not
there to receive it.
The sun was setting.
Ah, the torch, she said.
It has gone out, I believe.
Our best hope is that it’s flickering,
fort/da, fort/da, like little Ernst
throwing his toy over the side of his crib
and then pulling it back. It’s too bad,
she said, there are no children here.
We could learn from them, as Freud did.
We would sometimes sit
on benches outside the dining room.
The smell of leaves burning.
Old people and fire, she said.
Not a good thing. They burn their houses down.
How heavy my mind is,
filled with the past.
Is there enough room
for the world to penetrate?
It must go somewhere,
it cannot simply sit on the surface—
Stars gleaming over the water.
The leaves piled, waiting to be lit.
Insight, my sister said.
Now it is here.
But hard to see in the darkness.
You must find your footingGlück, Louise. “‘Autumn.’” The New Yorker, December 11, 2017.
before you put your weight on it.
In the cases of liminal deities, standing at crossroads, borders, thresholds, and other places of transition and/or change, it may be most useful to consider the divine presence as more than a mere signifier or herald of change. Instead, the god or goddess serves as a physical or palpable representative or manifestation of transition, of crossing from one state to another. In Hecate’s case, the ‘between’ quality associated with her converges with her cthonic (underworld) aspect. Yet, she is not generally seen as a psychopomp. Unlike Anubis, the Valkyries, the ferryman Charon, and numerous figures from other faiths and traditions, Hecate does not usually escort the dead to their final destinations. She sees the road in all directions, past, present, and future, but more as an observer than as a guide.
In the traditions of Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity), the task of comforting and escorting the dead usually falls to an angel–to the angel of death. In Islam and Judaism, this is often Azrael, an archangel who is usually depicted with an especially kind and merciful aspect.
In this sense, comfort appears at death’s heels. While the reaper may remain grim, riding the Biblical pale horse of the Book of Revelations, he or she is followed by an angel of mercy, of tenderness, of acceptance and inclusion. Followed by a calm and quiet equity, the leveling of earth and ashes.
In Cymbeline, Belarius likens the distinction to an angel:
Though mean and mighty,Cymbeline 4.2.313-6
Rotting together, have one dust, yet reverence,
That angel of the world, doth make distinction
Of place ’tween high and low.
Here dichotomy converges. Hecate’s multiple gaze, not tripled, but bifurcated comes back together in the final dust. Human vision, with its tendency to see polarities, is also couched in the limitations of division.
Yet, Azrael is not an ‘angel of the world’, but a celestial one. Regarding neither honour nor degree, the archangel of death does not distinguish between the human qualities of mortals in the throes of their demise. He goes to all. He meets with them and carries them through their personal October, regardless of the falling leaves.
Still, goodbyes remain difficult. Those of us who remain behind while a loved one goes on into that undiscovered country may be tempted to rail against the end of things, to curse at death. In Shakespeare’s poem, Venus and Adonis, Venus does so when she finds her love Adonis has been killed by a wild boar:
So she at these sad signs draws up her breath
And, sighing it again, exclaims on Death.
“Hard-favored tyrant, ugly, meager, lean,Venus and Adonis 929-36
Hateful divorce of love!”—thus chides she Death—
“Grim-grinning ghost, earth’s worm, what dost thou mean
To stifle beauty and to steal his breath,
Who, when he lived, his breath and beauty set
Gloss on the rose, smell to the violet?
Venus vows ever after that love shall be mingled with fear and sadness. In a sense, death ruins love for all of us.
In spite of Venus’ sorrow and her ranting, however, all mortals know that the gloss on the rose and the smell of the violet cannot last. The peeping calls or burbling rasps of frogs come only in certain seasons, and in between these bright moments stretch sleeps and silences. Earth’s worm may be likened to the Biblical serpent, or even to the presence of Coyote amongst the first people, or any other creation myth where death enters the human world. Even framed in these narratives, however, the introduction of death into the human realm took place long ago, in a time and set of circumstances now far beyond our present mortal powers to retrieve or remedy.
Not that we don’t try. Regeneration. Rejuvenation. Vaccination. We seek to dispel disease, to stave off death, and to defeat the aging process.
Still, even as the world grows hotter, October returns to us. Leaves change. An ending lies just around the corner of the year once again. Demeter and Persephone, mother and daughter, come together then separate again in a never ending cycle.
We feel summer bees quieting, readying for sleep. Owls become more vocal. Birds behave differently as does the world. Trees change their gowns for the coming winter ball. Gardens change, and so do we.
We think of stews and heartier fares. We think of past times too, and people. We hope for better futures, while we look backwards a bit, like Hecate at the crossroads. The witches will be coming. This is October, after all. But for this moment, we wonder what lies ahead while we consider what we’ve left behind us.
The weather may yet hold splendid for a while:
October’s Bright Blue Weather
O suns and skies and clouds of June,
And flowers of June together,
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October’s bright blue weather;
When loud the bumblebee makes haste,
Belated, thriftless vagrant,
And goldenrod is dying fast,
And lanes with grapes are fragrant;
When gentians roll their fingers tight
To save them for the morning,
And chestnuts fall from satin burrs
Without a sound of warning;
When on the ground red apples lie
In piles like jewels shining,
And redder still on old stone walls
Are leaves of woodbine twining;
When all the lovely wayside things
Their white-winged seeds are sowing,
And in the fields still green and fair,
Late aftermaths are growing;
When springs run low, and on the brooks,
In idle golden freighting,
Bright leaves sink noiseless in the hush
Of woods, for winter waiting;
When comrades seek sweet country haunts,
By twos and twos together,
And count like misers, hour by hour,
October’s bright blue weather.
O sun and skies and flowers of June,“October’s Bright Blue Weather” by Helen Hunt Jackson
Count all your boasts together,
Love loveth best of all the year
October’s bright blue weather.
Yet, although it may be bright for one week or even several, we sense something else coming. A hint of frost nips at the edges of the still warm days. Sleeping winter already stirs somewhere in her distant palace, shifting her long legs in her bed of cold winds and icy nights.
Not yet late enough for the apple harvest. Only early fruits and some of the grain. But the frost grows ever stronger as daylight receeds, reclaiming its seasonal domain, its sovereignty:
After Apple Picking
My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree“After Apple Picking” by Robert Frost
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.
Difficult to know what comes after witches, after weather. More weather, yes, but it is hard to see winter’s magnitudes. How it might touch us. Wound us. Perhaps heal us. From where we stand, we can only see the change. Deepening. Russetting. Nature turning her now disinterested face away. We feel suddenly abandoned. Smaller. Forgotten by the cooling world.
We hope that after harvest, and after coming sleep, there will still come another, better spring. But we have become feeling blind to knowing. Consumed by emotion, memory, reaction, we cannot see. We cannot know.
We only know the knock will come. Sounding on the door. Maybe sooner, maybe later, psychopomp standing at the threshold. Our own October coming home to us. Our own goodbye. And will that be a tickertape parade? Doubtful, but we cannot know.
And naturally, our lives are filled with smaller Octobers as well. House moves. Retirements. Greater and lesser dissolutions. Road leading us on to different ways.
Hecate sees past, present, and future, and Azrael sees all endings. But we cannot. We wait blindly, on our frail human raft, tossed in the midst of shifting weather. We endure the seasons and await our last October too.
For ghosts, for those already dead but still tied to people, places, things, this cool curling of the dark around our toes is not quite the same. October part of us. Anticipated. Arriving. Our angel of death comes more quietly. Ancient dictatorship reaching out. Simply, silently, finally. Just to take us away.
*Hornblower, Simon, and Antony Spawforth. The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 671.
**The roster of Archangels varies in number and identity according to various faiths and traditions. Although Azrael is one of four archangels in one tradition, the four archangels are also sometimes listed as Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel. These archangels tend to embody and project various traits which may overlap. As God’s defender, the one who cast Satan out of heaven, Michael is often seen to represent strength and courage. Gabriel is a messenger who often projects knowledge or wisdom. Raphael, the healer, often presents an aspect of compassion and regeneration. Uriel often projects understanding–knowing the distinction between good and evil. Azrael’s psychopomp function tends to carry with it an overriding mercy, and a sense of the ultimate equality of all souls under heaven’s gaze. While this sketch oversimplifies an enormously complex subject, it also gives a general impression of how various emotional or mental qualities are thought to be encompassed and personified by celestial beings.