Ask a pagan about Samhain and at some point they will tell you that during this time of year, “the veil between this world and the next becomes thin.” This is why, they’ll tell you, the holiday often focuses on communication with ancestors and lost loved ones who have gone “Beyond the veil.”
Okay, so what the hell is this veil, anyway? Why does it get thin and what does that mean for a real person living in the real world?
The Veil, in pagan parlance, is the border between the world as we know it, the “real” world, and the world of spirit. And when we talk about the Veil “becoming thin” what we’re really saying is that it becomes much easier for beings to transition between these worlds, to be part of both worlds and be interacted with by beings from both worlds.
Easier, of course, is the key — the fact is that beings pass back and forth across the Veil all the time. Many of us have had that sensation that a relative or close friend who has passed away is present with us during a critical moment. There are mediums who regularly experience contact with beings who have “crossed over.” The point isn’t that this ONLY happens during Samhain, but rather that this space where one can experience beings from the “other side” is easier to access and more evident. These places and spaces that seem to straddle the two worlds, are more properly described as liminal spaces.
In fact, liminal space is a big part of how witches operate as a general matter. In many traditions, the drawing of a circle is the establishment of sacred space, space that is “between the worlds.” This is exactly the kind of transitional occupying of a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold” that defines the word “liminal.”
Liminal spaces are by definition at the edges of things. They represent the places where you move from one place to another. They are boundaries. I’ve talked before about how the practice of the Craft inevitably will make you uncomfortable. You will be asked to stretch and grow, and that means stepping into the borderlands of your existence.
What makes liminal space so simultaneously wonderful and disturbing is the sheer abundance of possibility. You are neither here nor there, you are someplace completely different, that is each of the things, all of the things and none of them all at the same time. Whatever identities, choices or ideas that you thought you had clearly and concisely drawn around yourself, lose their shape and form and start to bleed together. Do you largely think of yourself as being a certain age, a certain gender, a certain type of person with a certain role to play in the world? Once you enter liminal space, you can abandon all of those things at will, and explore different ways of being.
The human psyche holds contradictions and paradoxes. We like having choices, and chafe when we believe those choices are being limited. And yet, give us too many choices and we freeze up. Researcher Sheena Iyengar proved that with her famous “jam jar” study. Professor Iyengar created an experiment in a grocery store using a display of different varieties of jam to test what happens to shoppers when they are offered lots of choices as opposed to only a few. What she found was that while only offering one option of jam for purchase was not optimal for sales as compared to offering choices, there was a tipping point past which more choices were not better. In fact, if one offered too many choices to a shopper, they were very likely to throw up their hands and not buy anything at all. In other words, humans may become paralyzed when presented with too many choices and reject choosing anything at all.
That is why, despite our love of freedom and choice, liminal spaces are still very uncomfortable for us, even overwhelming. If we aren’t who we think we are, if we truly have the option to become anything we choose, then what becomes of our sense of identity? If we actually do have the power to make anything happen, what do we choose to do first? Faced with infinite choices and infinite possibilities, our decidedly finite brains balk, and begin creating dividing lines and segments and categories to place boundaries on this firehose of potential and funnel it into a more manageable stream of consciousness.
And yet, that instinct to create manageable boundaries around an infinite Universe to accommodate our finite brains can go too far in the other direction. We can become trapped in our own self-conceptions. We can make so many choices that our life becomes a prison of obligation as more and more of our time and our energy and our thought processes are occupied with maintaining the roles we have selected for ourselves or at the very least tacitly agreed to play. Many a mid-life crisis is born from the realization that everything that comprises your life — from your job, to your marriage, to your kids, to your pets and friends and the clubs you belong to and the causes you support — has created an overwhelming number of physical, mental and emotional tasks and burdens that weigh heavily upon you. Many of us will pile on more and more until we either throw it all off like a horse that has tired of its rider, or break under the strain.
We need the promise of possibility in our lives. We need liminality to remind us that not everything is solid lines and walls. We can pull at the edges of our reality and stretch it, bend it, give it a new shape. We can assume new identities, even if they are nothing more than masks we don for a day.
And it’s good when we enter such a space, where the looming prospect of infinity can make everything seem too much, to have something to cling to, some sense of oneself. This is where ancestors are particularly useful. The messages that pagans seek and receive from those beyond the veil, from ancestors and loved ones at Samhain, are important not only to provide wisdom as we transition into the darkest part of the annual cycle. They are a thread that connects us to past and future, securing us to something tangible, so that as we wander the ever changing twists and turns of the borderlands, we do not lose our way back to ourselves.
Samhain and the thinning of the Veil can mess with your head a little. When the borders between this world and the next become less established, and we begin to feel the limitations we place on and around ourselves give way, we have the opportunity to learn about who we think we are, who we wish we were, and what we could become. And so we must use the resources available around us — the ability to slip on masks and try on identities, and the ability to connect to those who have gone before — to get the most out of this time.
This Samhain, how will you explore the boundaries of who you may be as the Veil thins? What masks will you try on? Which of your ancestors will provide a precious thread to remind you of where you came from? Remember that while exploring these boundaries is easiest at Samhain-time, the liminal space represented by the Veil is always available to you.
Blessed Samhain, y’all.