It has become a cliché of modern Pagan discourse to say that at certain seasons “the Veil” between the world of mortals and the reality of the spirits “grows thin”. As we approach the November Cross-Quarter Day (whether it is Hallowe’en, Samhain, Beltaine in the southern hemisphere, or whatever) It is recited commonly. Occasionally one hears the question “What do you mean by that? What is the Veil” etc.
It’s a metaphor, that’s what. It is a poet’s description of what it is like to see dimly, and with less detail than one would hope, as if through thin cloth or mist. I suspect that modern people are less used to seeing veiled faces, and to gazing out from behind veils, than people were in earlier fashion ages. A single veil can reveal this, conceal that. Layers of veils can be entirely opaque. For those who never saw a digital image ‘res up’ out of nothing, the thinning of layers of veils expressed the idea of increasing clarity and revelation of what had been concealed.
|We live in an era of jaded
There is no Celtic original for the metaphor of the Veil. I suspect it arose with spiritualism, in Victorian times. The metaphor used in Celtic lore is the Mist. Heroes and magicians must pass through mist – through a space in which the air itself precludes sight – before the mist thins and reveals the hidden world. One of the Druidic wonder of the tales is the creation of a ‘hedge of mist’ around that which they would conceal. The notion of the ‘Veil’ certainly doesn’t insult this Celtic original; it simply expresses it in the technology of a later age. There is a solid Celtic explanation for why days such as Samhain are times when the boundary-of-perception between mortal and spiritual realities grows more passable and transparent.
Among ancient European peoples, and strongly among the Celts, magical power or potential could be found in things, times and places that were ‘neither-nor’, that were between one state, category or locale and another, that were ambiguously located in time or space. Modern anthropology has referred to this as the ‘liminal’ quality, or as ‘limnality’. In this way we see that Celtic sacred spaces were often built in the borders between tribal territories, indicated the sacred (and politically neutral) Between nature of spiritual work. We find, in one of the few examples of Celtic magical ritual that is preserved, the placing of offerings to spirits in a doorway to partake of that access to the Otherworld. The strand of the Sea, the tops of high hills, these are places of boundary between Land, Sea and Sky, and so places where magic is easier to make effective – places where the ‘veil’ between mortals and spirits is thin.
In keeping with Celtic patterns of sacred number, the primary division of the calendrical year is into two – the light half and the dark half, summer and winter. These two great halves are ‘hinged’ upon the two great feast days of Bealtainne and Samhain. Both of those days are thus spaces Between major categories. Samhain is neither summer nor winter. These great moments of between-ness recur in Celtic story as times when spirits and mortals cross between worlds, when visions are seen, and great deeds are done. They naturally become times when modern Celtic Pagans and magicians seek to gather and express magical power. In such seasons the magician (and, from the Other side, the spirits) can more readily part the Mist, can see the turnings in the Forest, can pass through the thinned Veil.
The spiritual world is no more uniform than the material world, I think. It is true to say that a skilled magician can always find a thin place in the Border if they know how to look. Yet in such seasons as this the effect is more general, - all-encompassing, perhaps, by the time one gets to sunset or sunrise on Samhain night. Let the Spirits walk, or dance, into a welcome as they come to us through the Veil.