Between the setting of the sun and the black of night, dusk is a potent, magical time . . . for in its eerie half–light (according to folklore found around the globe) one can cross the borders dividing our mundane world from supernatural realms. Like many children, I longed to discover a doorway into Faerieland or a wardrobe leading to Narnia. I recall a summer night's solitary vigil in an old graveyard: a small girl huddled in the shadows, escaping the chaos of a troubled home, trying to conjure a portal to a magic realm by sheer force of will. Like many children hungry for a deeper connection with the spirit–filled unknown, what I failed to find that moonlit night I discovered in the pages of fantasy books, and later through studies and travels in enchanted landscapes of legend and myth.
When my child–self sat among the graves, I was in the right place at the wrong time. Autumn, not summer, is the season in most folk tales when doors between worlds open. In Celtic lore, October 31st is Samhain (All Hallow's Eve, or Hallowe'en): the night when Arawn, lord of the Dead, rides the hills with his ghostly white hounds, and the Faery Court rides forth in stately procession across the land. In ancient times, hearth fires were smothered while bonfires blazed upon the hills, surrounded by circular trenches to protect all mortals from the faery host and the wandering spirits of the dead. In later centuries, Hallowe'en turned into a night of revels for witches and gouls, eventually tamed into the modern holiday of costumes, tricks and treats.
Although the prospect of traffic between the living and the dead has often been feared, some cultures celebrated those special times when doors to the Underworld stood open. In Egypt, Osiris (god of the Netherworld, death, and resurrection) was drowned in the Nile by his brother Seth on the 17th of Athyr (November); each year on this night dead spirits were permitted to return to their homes, guided by the lamps of living relatives and honored by feasts. In Mexico, a similar tradition was born from a mix of indigenous folk beliefs and medieval Spanish Catholism, resulting in los Dias de Muertos (the Days of the Dead) – a holiday still widely observed across Mexico today. Celebrations vary from region to region but generally take place over several days (or weeks). In some areas, October 27th is the day to put out food and water for the unmourned dead – the spirits of those with no survivors and no homes to return to. On the 28th, food is offered to those who died by accidental or violent means; these gifts are also placed outside the home, to guard against malign spirits. Within the house, an ofrenda or offering is painstakingly assembled on a lavishly decorated altar. Food, drink, clothes, tequila, cigarettes, chocolates and children's toys are set out for departed loved ones, surrounded by candles, flowers, palm leaves, tissue paper banners, and the smoke of copal incense. Golden paths of marigold petals are strewn from the altar to the street (sometimes all the way to the cemetary) to help the confused souls of the dead find their way back home. The souls of unbaptized children ("infants in limbo") return on October 30th; on the 31st all other children return and are fed with the sweets and drinks that were known to be favorites of theirs in life. Adult souls return on November 1st, and theirs is a more elaborate feast, including gifts of new clothes and blankets or baskets to carry offerings away.
According to Fredy Mendez, a young Totonac man from Veracruz, "Between 31 October and 2 November, past generations were careful always to leave the front door open, so that the souls of the deceased could enter. My grandmother was constantly worried, and forever checking that the door had not been shut. Younger people are less concerned, but there is one rule we must obey: while the festival lasts, we treat all living beings with kindness. This includes dogs, cats, even flies or mosquitoes. If you should see a fly on the rim of a cup, don't frighten it away — it is a dead relative who has returned. The dead come to eat tamales and to drink hot chocolate. What they take is vapour, or steam, from the food. They don't digest it physically: they extract the goodness from what we provide. This is an ancient belief. Each year we receive our relatives with joy. We sit near the altar to keep them company, just as we would if they were alive. At midday on 2 November the dead depart. Those who have been well received go laden with bananas, tamales, mole and good things. Those who have been poorly received go empty handed and grieving to the grave. Some people here have even seen them, and heard their lamentations."
This past October I travelled the short distance from my winter home in southern Arizona to the vivid country south of the Border, along with a friend researching a novel set during los Dias de Muertos. In one vast stretch of urban cemetery, perched precariously on dry desert hills, a raucous festival atmosphere reigned among booths selling foods and flowers choking the streets outside the cemetery gates. Inside, people of all ages cleaned, repaired and repainted family graves, decorating them with flowers and candles, while musicians strolled among the bright crowds playing lively mariachi tunes. In most regions, the traditional celebration involves an all–night grave–side vigil. (Some believe it is dangerous to enter cemeteries at other times of year.) The vigil is often a party where lavish picnics are spread across the graves — feasts of tamales, mole, sugar candies shaped as skeletons and skulls, and pan de muerte (bread of dead), all lovingly shared with deceased friends, relatives, and ancestral spirits. In other areas of Mexico the festival is a carnival–like parade, complete with revelers masked in skulls and other horrific costumed figures, dancing through the music–filled streets, making mockery of death.
We left the urban cemetery to journey into the countryside, following narrow mountain roads until we reached a tiny village cemetery with a hushed and solemn atmosphere. Candles flickered on freshly painted graves strewn with red gladioli, white carnations, tall plumes of magenta cockscomb, and golden blankets of marigold petals. On November 1st, a long candle–lit procession passes from village to church, and families here keep watch throughout the night, visiting with departed loved ones. Sitting among pin–points of candlelight reflecting the stars overhead, it felt indeed like a borderland between the worlds of the living and the dead . . . and here I was, I realized then, years and miles from my childhood, still keeping vigil among the graves, still searching for mythic worlds.
In Greek mythology, Persephone regularly crosses the border between the living and the dead, dwelling half the year with her mother (the goddess Demeter) in the upper world — and half the year with her husband (Hades) in the realm of the dead below. In the story of Orpheus, he follows his dead wife deep into Hades' realm, where he bargains for her life in return for a demonstration of his musical skills. Hades agrees to release the lovely Eurydice back to Orpheus, provided he leads his wife from the Underworld without looking back. During the journey, he cannot hear his wife's footsteps and so he breaks the taboo. Eurydice vanishes and the path to Hades's realm is closed. A similar tale is told of Izanagi in Japanese lore, who attempts to reclaim his beloved Izanami from the Land of Shadows. He may take her back if he promises not to try to see Izanami's face — but he breaks the taboo, and is horrified to discover a rotting corpse. When we look at earlier Sumarian myth, we find the goddess Inana is more successful in bringing her lover, Dumuzi, back from the Underworld; in Babylonian myth, this role falls to Ishtar, rescuing her lover Tammuz: "If thou opens not the gate," she says to the seven gatekeepers of the world below, "I will smash the door, I will shatter the bolt, I will smash the doorpost, I will move the doors, I will raise up the dead, eating the living, so that the dead will outnumber the living." During the three days of Ishtar's descent, all sexual activity stops on earth. The third day of the drama is the Day of Joy, the time of ascent, resurrection and procreation, when the year begins anew.
This cycle of death and resurrection, of course, is echoed in many mythic traditions, from the Solstice ceremonies of druidic Celts to the Easter pageants of Christian sects. In the Border region of southern Arizona, where Mexican American, Native American and Euroamerican cultures all come together, we find a fascinating mixture of Christian and indigenous myths in the gorgeous Easter ceremonies of the Yaqui (Yoeme) Indian tribe. Various secretive rituals practiced in the months between Christmas and Easter, most intensively during the weeks of Lent, culminate in a public drama enacting an unusual version of Christ's Passion, blending ancient Yaqui mystical beliefs with 17th–century Spanish Catholicism. The "three Marys" (figures of the Blessed Virgin) are guarded in an open–sided church by hymn–singing women, matachins (a dance society of men and boys), pascolas dancers (a kind of holy clown), and the deer dancer — an enchanted figure from the old Yaqui "religion of the woods." Opposing them are the forces of Judas: faceless fariseos, dressed in black, and chapayekas wearing elaborate masks, strings of rattles and painted wooden swords. These dark figures march and dance around the church for many days and nights . . . and eventually, on the last day before Easter, they attack. The church bells ring, the deer dancer leaps, the faithful pelt the dark forces with flowers. The watching crowds throw flowers and confetti, shouting "Gloria! Gloria! Gloria!" The dark ones fall back, regroup, march . . . and then attack once more. Again they're driven back. On the third attack they are overcome by the forces of good: by songs, prayers, armloads of flowers. They strip off weapons, black scarves and masks (subsequently burned on a huge bonfire), and relatives drag the exhausted men back into the safety of the church — a ritual resurrection, dedicating new lives to the forces of good.
The deer and pascola dancers have been incorporated into this ritual, yet come from the tribe's pre–Christian past. They are, in one sense, shamanic figures, able to cross over the borders between the human world of the Baptised Ones (the modern Yaqui) to the flower world of the ancestors (a magical people called the Surem). Throughout the nights of the Easter ceremonies the deer and pascola songs are sung, and an eerie music played on raspers, rattles, gourds, flutes, and drums. Most years I attend the ceremony in one of several Yaqui pueblos nearby, staying through the night as the crowds drift off, keeping vigil until the dawn. This year an unusually chilly night was warmed by fragrant fires of mesquite, while a young deer dancer pawed at the ground in ritual, highly stylized motions, poised on the thinnest of borders between human and animal consciousness. In the hours before dawn I saw a sight I'd never witnessed in previous years: coyote dances, an art newly revived in pueblos north of the Border (brought back from older villages on the River Yaqui in Mexico). Stylized movements and high pitched howls conjured visions of the tricksy creature who gives the coyote dance its name, sending cold chills running down my spine as magic was evoked by moonlight.
In many myths, Coyote (and other Tricksters such as Raven, Hermes and Uncle Tompa) has a special, uncanny ability to cross boundaries and open doors. "They are lords of in–between," says scholar Lewis Hyde. "[Trickster] is the spirit of the doorway leading out, and the crossroads at the edge of town. He is the spirit of the road at dusk, the one that runs from one town to another and belongs to neither. Travellers used to mark such roads with cairns, each adding a stone to the pile in passing. The name Hermes once meant 'he of the stone heap,' which tells us that the cairn is more than a trail marker — it is an altar to the forces that govern these spaces of heightened uncertainty . . . . The road that Trickster travels is a spirit road as well as a road in fact. He is the adept who can move between heaven and earth, and between the living and the dead."
Trickster is one of the few who passes unhindered through the borderlands; the rest of us must confront the guardians who protect or bar the doors leading from the world we know to the hidden realms beyond. Janus is the Roman two–faced god of doorways, thresholds and beginnings, an ancient figure sacred to pre–Latin inhabitants of Italy. Cardea is the goddess of door–hinges, mistress to Janus and protector of children from vampire–witches disguised as night birds. According to Robert Graves's White Goddess, Cardea was once propitiated at weddings with torches of hawthorne. She had the power "to open what is shut; and shut what is open." A wide variety of other guardians (gods, faeries, supernatural spirits) watch over sacred groves, glens, rivers, pools and wells. Some faeries guard whole forests and mountains, while others guard individual trees, hills, stones . . . and hidden faery treasure. In folk tales, guardians can be appeased, tricked, outwitted, even slain — but usually at a price which is somewhat higher than one wants to pay. Sometimes it's the land itself preventing access into realms beyond. In "Thomas the Rhymer," a river of human blood stands between Faerie and the mortal world, and Thomas must pay the price of seven years servitude to make that crossing. One princess must climb seven iron mountains to reach the land where her love is imprisoned; another must trick the winds into carrying her where her feet cannot. In "Sleeping Beauty," a magical hedge of thorns divides the castle from the world, and cannot be penetrated till time, blood and prophesy all stand aligned.
Many fantasy tales grow from the desire to find the hidden "door in the hedge" (to borrow a phrase from Robin McKinley's excellent story of that title). Unlike Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, set entirely in his invented landscape, these tales bring us from the world we know through magic portals into worlds of wonder — a device used most famously in C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, but also in Andre Norton's "Witchworld" books, Pamela Dean's "Secret Country" trilogy, Stephen R. Donaldson's "Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever," Greg Bear's Songs of Earth and Power, Richard Bowes's unusual novel The Feral Cell, Neil Gaiman's enchanting novel Stardust (as well as the graphic novel of the same name, with artist Charles Vess), and the excellent, under–rated books of Joyce Ballou Gregorian's "Tredana" trilogy: The Broken Citadel, Castledown and The Great Wheel.
In his classic novel The King of Elfland's Daughter, the great Irish fantasist Lord Dunsany created a landscape poised on the shifting border between mortal and magical realms. Anything that lies between is traditionally a place of potent enchantment: a bridge between two banks of a river; the silver light betwixt night and day; the moment between dreaming and waking; the motion of shape–shifting transformation; and all those interstitial realms where cultures, myths, landscapes, languages, art forms, and genres meet. The King of Elfland's Daughter had a strong influence on a series of books I co–created with Ellen Kushner, Midori Snyder, Charles de Lint and a number of other authors many years ago: coming–of–age tales for teenagers in which the border between the Elflands and the mortal world is an urban one. The setting of Borderland grew, at least consciously, from the street life of Eighties–era New York, and the colorfully squalid "squatting" scene of London in the previous decade (where I'd been a college student short on cash and common sense) — yet a few years ago, Claire F. Fox presented a fascinating paper at the annual symposium on Art and Culture at New York's Whitney Museum (subsequently expanded and published in Social Text #41) exploring the Borderland books in relation to Mexican–American border arts, drawing fascinating parallels at both political and archetypal levels. Since that time, I've paid more attention to the theme of "border crossing," finding it central to my interests and work; it is also a theme one finds widely present in the modern fantasy field. (For those interested in such connections, a "Day of the Dead" story by Ellen Steiber brings Mexican "border arts" directly into the latest Borderland anthology: The Essential Bordertown.)
Magical "border crossing" works can also be found on the mainstream fiction shelves. Rick Collignon's The Journal of Antonio Montoya, Pat Mora's House of Houses, Alfredo Vea Jr.'s La Maravilla, and Susan Power's The Grass Dancer are all extraordinary books where the membrane between the worlds of the living and the dead is thin and torn. In Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water, Trickster crosses easily from mythic to modern worlds; while in Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich these worlds are sewn together into the patterns of Indian beadwork. For stories addressing the particular magic of the Border region of the American southwest, I recommend Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel (and the movie based on it), Spirits of the Ordinary by Kathleen Alcala, and Leslie M. Silko's wide–ranging refutation of borders, The Almanac of the Dead. Border Beat, a charmingly quirky quarterly journal of Mexican–American border arts (Jim Carvalho, publisher), is available by subscription from Dog Eat Dog Publishing, 5347 East Fort Lowell Road, Tucson, AZ 85712. Nonfiction recommendations: The Days of the Dead, a gorgeous book of photographs by John Greenleigh; In the Eye of the Sun: Mexican Fiestas, mystical photographs by Geoff Winningham; The Skeleton at the Feast: the Day of the Dead in Mexico by Elizabeth Carmichael and Chloe Sayer; Yaqui Deer Songs by Larry Evers and Felipe S. Molina; The Autobiography of a Yaqui Poet by Refugio Savala; Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art by Lewis Hyde; Hermes the Thief by Norman O. Brown; Gods and Heroes of the Celts by Marie–Louise Sjoestedt; The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets by Barbara G. Walker; and An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols by J. C. Cooper.
We cross the border every time we step from the mundane world to the lands of myth, from mainstream culture to the pages of a folklore text or a fantasy book. Standing at the crossroads, we must remember to give food to Hecate, wine to Janus, flowers, songs, smoke and dreams to all the guardians along the way. Tricksters, shamans, artists, storytellers: they all cast paths of marigold petals and open the doors hidden in the hedge. As a fantasist, I cannot resist an unknown road or an open gate. I'm still that child in a graveyard at dusk, willing magic into existence.
About the Author: Terri Windling is a writer, artist, and editor, and the founder of the Endicott Studio and the Journal of Mythic Arts. For more information, please visit her website for more information.
Copyright © 1998 by Terri Windling; updated 2007. This article appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine, 1998, and may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission.