Remembering the ancestors at Samhain

The Paper of Names ritual is a wonderful and evocative way for people to remember their loved ones who have passed on to the Summerland and are no longer with us, particularly at the very special time of year that is Samhain. It is also a way to remember the ancestors, those of our ancient blood and kin who once trod this land through countless generations past, and who live on in us via the very strands of our DNA.

The ceremony below is for a coven but there is a version for the solitary practitioner which I will post later. I know covens vary in their ritual practices depending upon their tradition, and some like to keep those rituals secret. However, I am more than happy to share the ceremony below and by so doing, hope that others of the Craft may benefit from the respectful connection to the Old Ones.


The ground, upon which the ceremony is to take place, will be prepared on the Eve of Samhain by the Master of Ceremony and an Assistant, who will have cleansed themselves beforehand. Purifying the sacred space is vitally important. An outside space does not usually accumulate negative or chaotic energy, unless one is in close proximity to an electricity pylon, and such unsettled places are best avoided in any case.

After clearing away any litter in the vicinity of the sacred space, and there will always be some given the lack of respect for nature by the bulk of the general public, the outside space can be cleansed with the ritual broom; the besom. The bristles of the besom do not physically contact the ground as the besom is sweeping away negative energy, not physical detritus. Do not sprinkle salt or salt water in an open space as it is harmful to the flora and poisons the soil. Incense designed for outdoor use may also be burnt to further purify the space, try not to let the ash fall directly onto the ground though.

A large circle will be drawn with an Athame or Ceremonial Sword and in the process of so doing; the sword or Athame will be grounded, strength drawn from the earth and a prayer of opening will be said. The sword or Athame will then be withdrawn, cleansed on a sacred cloth and readied for drawing the circle. Inside the circle, a pentagram will be drawn in one continuous movement with the sword or Athame.

The four points of the circle can be marked with flaming torches or candles of the traditional colours. Green for North, Yellow for East, Red for South and Blue for the West. The Samhain bonfire will be built in the centre of the pentagram. In this ritual to celebrate the lives of the ancestors and of our departed loved ones, the very fire itself is the altar.

Those lucky enough to own private land may well have the outline of a circle permanently marked out in some way, be it in stone or timber, but it is of course still just a shell, and must be made sacred once again by drawing the circle within it. It is akin to a depleted battery and must be re-energized with fresh charge and power.

On the evening of the ceremony, a door will be ritually cut to the circle with an Athame and all will enter. The Guardians of the Watchtowers will be invoked with the Athame and the spirits of the ancestors invited in peace, respect and love into the present realm, to share an evening of kinship with their living descendants.


All present should be suitably and respectfully dressed in order to remember and honour the ancestors. Ritual robes are preferable but failing that, dark modest clothing will suffice. Most covens have their own style of ritual clothing and solitary practitioners of the Craft may also have a preferred robe and cord. Definitely no shorts, tee-shirts or trainers, it is a deeply meaningful ritual, not a jamboree or beach party.

The Ritual

Just before the stroke of midnight, those present gather around the bonfire in a semi-circle facing the fire as a drum is slowly beaten, the vibrations of which help to dispel any lingering negative energy. It falls silent on the stroke of midnight. All those gathered for the ritual will have on them a list of names handwritten on paper, of loved ones they wish to recall and remember.

The Master of the Ceremony will then read out a prayer for the ancestors. At the end of the prayer, all present will say 'we remember and honour them'. At this point, the Master of Ceremony may also speak about the ancient ones and the Summerland.

Prayer for the Ancestors

On this night, the gateway between the living world and the spirit realm is thinnest.

Tonight I call to those who came before. Tonight I honour my ancestors.

 Spirits of my fathers and mothers, I call to you and welcome you. 

Join me for this night.

 You watch over me always, protecting and guiding me.

 Tonight I thank you.

 Your blood runs in my veins, your spirit is in my heart, your memories are in my soul.

With the gift of remembrance, I honour and recall each of you.

 You have passed on from this world but are never forgotten.

 You live on within me and within those who are yet to come.

Paper of Names

At the end of the prayer, each participant in turn will approach the Samhain bonfire as directed by the Master of the Ceremony. They will face those present and read out the names of the departed special to them. As the last name is read, they consign the Paper of Names to the flames and return to the semi-circle. Consigning the names to the fire is symbolic of the soul rising to the Summerlands, where it rests awhile before returning to the earthly world and another circle of life.

When the last Paper of Names has been read and all are once again facing the Master of the Ceremony, a final prayer to the dead will be read, such as 'A Prayer for Samhain'.

Prayer for Samhain

The harvest has ended, and the fields are bare, the earth has grown cold, and the land is empty.

The brooding forest is silent and waiting, the spirits of the ancestors linger over us.

They keep a watchful eye upon the living and they wait patiently, for eternity is theirs.

We give thanks to the ancestors, they who are rooted to this land.

To those who gave us life down the ages and through time.

To those who live on within ourselves and who will live on beyond our lives, as we in turn pass on and become them.

The end of the Ritual

At the end of the prayer all present will say once again, 'we remember and honour them' and bow towards the fire in silent contemplation. After a minute of silent contemplation the drum will be struck to indicate the end of the ritual. An alternative ending to the ritual is outlined below.

If all present have with them a sheathed ceremonial sword, these will be drawn (carefully) and held aloft pointing toward the fire, all present will then say, 'we remember and honour them'. After this the tips of the ceremonial swords will be pushed into the earth, both hands will be rested upon the pommels of the swords, and all present will bow toward the fire. After a minute of silent contemplation the drum will be struck to indicate the end of the ritual. This contemplation allows excess personal nervous energy to be grounded via the swords blade, and restorative energy to be drawn from the earth. At the sound of the drumbeat, the swords will be drawn from the earth, wiped with a sacred cloth reserved solely for that purpose, and carefully sheathed once again.

One very important warning should be kept in mind here in respect to the above, especially in regard to the laws of the UK. Do not use swords if the ritual is occurring in a public place, as you will be liable to arrest for possession of an offensive weapon. A ritual with swords should only be conducted on private land. In any case, the ritual should happen away from the public gaze as we are not putting on a show or a re-enactment, but rather a ritual to honour the ancestors. The laws in regard to weapons will vary from country to country, so be sure to check carefully prior to planning the ritual.

One final word of warning, this ritual utilizing ceremonial swords should not be attempted if there is any danger of lightening occurring. Such a circumstance could lead to a greater connection with nature and the ancestors than one would be comfortable exploring.

Upon completion of the ritual, all participants will be free to enjoy an evening together where food and drink will be served. This could be a barbecue, a picnic or whatever one prefers. The ancestors will be invited to stay among the people within the circle until dawn, and enjoy the company of those present and feel welcome amongst their kin.

At the rising of the sun, all except the Master of Ceremony and his Assistant will depart via a doorway cut into the circle. The pentagram and circle will then be undrawn, again using the sword or Athame and in the reverse order of drawing. The Guardians of the Watchtowers and the Ancestors will be thanked and bid farewell. A prayer of closing will also be said whilst closing the circle. An offering and libation will be left for the spirits of the land, who will once again claim this place for their own and cast about it the mantle of winter.

Definitely no litter of any kind is to be left behind, clean-up thoroughly before leaving. We honour the land; we do not as Wiccans deliberately defile it.


A ceremony such as the above is a simple way to respect and remember the ancestors and our close family who have passed on, without whom we would not be alive today. We owe a great deal to those who have gone before, and they are worthy of our deep respect and gratitude.

The ritual is also a reminder of the great circle of life and that our time on Earth is limited, that we must make of it as we will and live a good life in balance with the natural world. It reminds us that material wealth, and the pursuit of it is of no account, for at the end of life, possessions mean nothing. All that matters is family, past, present and future for that is who and what we are until the end of time.

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ęCopyright - James of Glencarr