The journey into the underworld is one of the most prominent images of Samhain. As we descend into the dark time, I find myself deep in one of the most frightening symbols of the underworld that exists on our side of the veil: the criminal justice system. I am serving jury duty.
I don’t mean this sarcastically. The justice system is place that many of us fear to tread, and no one wants to be dragged into it unwittingly. Yet the wheels of justice turn, fellow human beings are tried for their crimes, punishments are given, the vindicated celebrate, and some of society’s most challenging elements wander the hallways every day, all while we blissfully go about our lives.
Much like death, juries are part of a functioning society. Even so, we commonly fear being called. We dread that letter that arrives in our mailbox, boldly proclaiming in gigantic letters that “JURY DUTY IS YOUR CIVIC RESPONSIBILITY.” That letter disturbs the status quo and forces us to acknowledge that unseen forces over which we have little control are constantly at work.
So, like everyone else, I arrived at the gates of the courthouse underworld slightly confused and more than a little nervous, wishing I wasn’t there. I arrived at the metal detectors that separate the world of the living from that of the justice system at about 7:30. To make it past our courthouse’s guardians (Sheriff’s officers), I had to strip down, removing my phone from my pocket, laptop from its case, and the belt from my waist. Once adequately stripped down and checked, the County’s Cerberus allowed me into his shadowy world.
And then I started waiting. A nice judge came down to give us all a pep talk and remind us, in kind words, to stay here until released lest we be prosecuted for defying a court order. Our other psychopomps included a twenty-something gentleman with an untied tie dangling around his neck who told us all the rules as well as an orientation video complete with former jurors who were thrilled at their prior service and wanted to share their happiness with us.
And then there was more waiting. In some Pagan communities the October moon is known as the sorting moon. Samhain is, of course, associated with themes of death partly because our ancestors had to sort their livestock and select which animals could be supported over the long winter to come. The rest were killed to sustain the tribe. Samhain, at least to those who came before us, was a time of uncertainty. With scarce supplies over the fallow winter, it was more than likely that some people were going to die.
This is not new to Juggler readers, but it’s rare that we in the modern world get the chance to experience that kind of uncertainty. Every time the kind people who run the jury assembly room turn off “The Price is Right,” and turn on their speakers, a collective pall comes over those of us assembled here. The energy changes dramatically.
I can’t speak for my fellow potential jurors, but I certainly feel that knot in my stomach tighten painfully every time a random selection takes place. It has happened three times as I have been writing this, and each time I see the pool diminish it seems like my chances of making it back to my normal life unselected diminish as well. I feel a little bit like one of those unsuspecting animals, awaiting either the barn or the axe.
Obviously, the uncertainty of jury service does not approach the scale of the uncertainty and fear felt by our ancestors as winter approached. Still, it’s the one of the few things that comes to all of us. Whatever happens today, serving on Samhain has brought this important sabbat to me in a different light. Even if only on a small scale, it brought me in touch with what it is like to be unsure, to be powerless, and to be awaiting selection.
It makes me rather happy to be practicing Paganism in the modern world. I can appreciate the fear and uncertainty here in society’s underworld and learn a lesson from it, but at least I know that – whatever the outcome- I’ll be home tonight for trick-or-treating.