At this time of year, I pay a lot of attention to one part of my Focus*.
As altar-y spaces go, it is unquestionably the “witchiest” part of mine: bones, skulls, fossils of extinct species, a mummified bat, images of prehistoric cave paintings, megalithic spiral carvings and departed loved ones, a dried pomegranate. It is where I keep the black jar of rose water with which I have anointed several dead people, and the tiny jar of cedar oil, veteran of so many Hallows rituals, whose scent reminds me of the inside of a coffin.
It is The Underworld.
My Focus is built in a bookcase, with one shelf removed to make a double-height space. This area is The World, filled with all the symbols and reminders of what delights and moves me about life on Earth.
But on the shelf below The World is The Underworld, the place of grief, and memory, and ancestry.
This space is important to me because life is not all joy. It is loss and fear and the inevitable fact of mortality as well. Memory of what has forever gone away. And this, too, must be remembered and honored and reckoned with. And so I curate and care for this grim part of my Focus, and urge you, too, to create one on such themes, at least at this time of year: the time of Hallows.
Making an Underworld Focus is simple in concept but may be emotionally challenging. Gathering the images of your Honored Dead can be an experience of great sadness…or it can be one of fond remembrance. It depends on you.
Do you, like so many Pagans, have skulls or bones or Halloween decorations that set the proper mood? Gather those. Put down a black cloth as a base upon which to create your Focus. Arrange the objects and the pictures of your Honored Dead. Include a candle so you can “activate” your Focus when it is complete, and so it will be illuminated at night when you light it. You may want a small dish or incense burner so you can burn some incense there: perhaps the evocative, mood-altering resin incenses such as dragon’s blood or frankincense.
I keep some ritual tools in my Underworld, as well: a clamp and surgical scissors that were found in my mother’s apartment when she died (she was an RN), and a sprig of yew I gather in a cemetery each Halloween, dry for a year on the Focus, and then use to light the Hallows fire the following year.
You may wish to place an empty plate and/or drinking vessel on your Focus: symbol of the “empty place setting” that is often set for those who have died at Hallows feasts. You can make offerings on this plate: pomegranates are popular, or perhaps a red rose (fresh or dried).
When I light the candle on my Underworld Focus each night, I say the words, “The Honored Dead” (just as I say “The Sacred Earth” when I light the candle on The World Focus). This reminds me that I am of a lineage of organisms far beyond my mere nearby genetic neighbors and extending back billions of years. My Honored Dead are not only relatives and departed friends: they are ammonites and trilobites and bacteria.
Here, at this time of year when Pagans of all stripes contemplate mortality and ancestry, an Underworld Focus is a way to begin a practice of coming to grips with the fact that we will die, that all that arise from the Earth are subsumed within its Sacred fabric again, to be reconstituted as new life.
*An Atheopagan term for an altar, used as an alternative so as not to imply worship or sacrifice.
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