FAQ: What is the Summerland? Do you think it is a real place?

Short answer:

“Summerland” is the term used by many Wiccans for the afterlife.

Long answer:

The term "Summerland" is well known to Wiccans, and the idea of an idyllic, pleasantly warm, garden-like or meadow-like area is commonly accepted among many Wiccans. Nevertheless, the term seems to have originated in Spiritualism. It is also found in the writings of Theosophy.

The Wiccan concept of Summerland is similar to the Celtic concept of the "Isles of the Blest," "Tir Nan Og," "Avalon," or "Mag Mell"/"Magh Meall." The Summerland is also similar to the ancient Pagan concept of the Roman "Elysium," where the virtuous or honorable dead were believed to reside in the afterlife. ["Elysium": aka in Latin "Pedion Elysium" (aka Elysian Fields), in Greek "Elysion," or "Pedion Elysionn."] There was also the concept of the Greek "Nesos Leuke" and the Roman "Nesus Leuce" (White Island), which was also known in Greek as "Nesoi Makaron" and in Latin as "Nesi Macaron" (Islands of the Blessed), which likewise bears some similarity to the concept of Summerland.

Wiccan views of Summerland

Among Wiccans, the Summerland is generally a place where the soul/spirit journeys in order to grow young again and prepare for rebirth in a new body. To have love, you must be born and live your life, returning with the people you love, so that you may meet, love, live, and know them again. But to be born, you must die and make ready for a new body.

I've also heard that one is "made ready for a new body" by growing younger and younger in the Summerland until at last that soul/spirit has become healed and is ready to become an infant again. This process is not necessarily even-paced or happening at the same chronological rate for each soul/spirit. For example, someone who dies at age 23 will not necessarily be reborn in 23 years.

The Summerland is also viewed as a place of rest, and rejuvenation. I should stress there is no hard-core dogma of what is the nature of Summerland. Many Wiccans have different views on the subject.

Animals in Summerland

An interesting theological point among many Pagans is that animals likewise have souls/spirits. I have known several Wiccans who believe they will later see their animal companions in the afterlife. Again, I say there are different views on this subject, which is too vast to discuss fully here.

Edgar Cayce’s “life readings” supported the theory of animal souls, at one point mentioning a dog who had previously been incarnated as a lion. My friend, Alaina of Delta Phyre, had an elderly animal companion who passed away. I was present at the memorial service for this cat, held in Tapestry’s Temple room. Alaina mentioned that she thought her cat might reincarnate as a human in the next lifetime.

Gardner, the Grand Old Man of Wicca, explained in his Witchcraft Today (1954) that Wiccans often chose to reincarnate together with groups of specific people. [At a later point, I will track down that quote and add it to this FAQ.]

Other Wiccan Views

A soul may use time in the Summerland as an opportunity to review the recent incarnation and any lessons learned during that incarnation. Some say the soul will consider what still needs to be learned. In this way, a soul gains an understanding of the impact of actions one's physical human life had on the world.

Some folks tie the Summerland into the concept of "soul groups" in which humans choose to reincarnate together in order to learn together. The concept of soul groups has been discussed by many mystics, including Edgar Cayce. The “life readings” of Edgar Cayce addressing the subjects of reincarnation and soul groups can be found in Edgar Cayce on Reincarnation, a publication of the Association for Research and Enlightenment (A.R.E.).

The emphasis on needing to learn something from every incarnation strikes me as implying "life" and physical existence are simply a form of continuing education courses which one is required to either pass or repeat. (Mind you, this is my personal perception.)

Another Wiccan Perception

Reincarnation from Summerland is optional. Not all Wiccans believe that it is necessary for an individual to reincarnate after reaching Summerland.

I have heard casual references about the "Hall of the Ancestors." This seems to relate to a belief that one's family and ancestors will reside happily in a large feast hall. (I'm guessing this is an influence from Saxon or Norse mythology. The idea may have been picked up from Asatru Pagans and Wiccans hanging around together at large Pagan festival.) The descriptions of the Hall of the Ancestors sound very like descriptions of old Saxon mead halls in ancient England. Friends and family feast and enjoy each other's company. It's my perception of the Hall of the Ancestors is somewhere in the Summerlands.

Still Another Perception

From my correspondence with other Gardnerian Wiccans, I know some of them definitely believe the following:

Though some enlightened souls may choose to incarnate on earth to impart teachings and wisdom, a soul's ultimate goal is to reunite with something called "The One," "The Source" or "The Dryghten." The Goddess and God could be ultimately viewed as a manifestation of "The One" or "The Source."
Dryghten is an Old English term and may have entered Wicca with High Priestess Patricia Crowther. She used Dryghten in reference to the universal Pantheistic deity in Wicca. Gerald Gardner had made a reference to the "Prime Mover"--a term borrowed from Aristotle. Gardner stated that Wiccans ("witches") did not actively worship the "Prime Mover"--as it was considered "unknowable." (The unknowable is a little hard to relate to.)

The nature of the unknowable is not the point of this FAQ. In the above paragraphs, I have largely tried to give the opinions of other Wiccans rather than just my own.

Summerland is Real

We now get to the second part of the FAQ. “Do you think it [Summerland] is a real place?”

This second part of the FAQ always puzzles me, because people who ask don’t seem to be asking me whether I believe in the theological concept of the Summerland. I am surprised everytime someone starts harping on this point. (Yes, I do believe in the Summerland; it makes as much, if not more, sense to me as any other view of the afterlife.)

The people who question me seem instead to be asking me if I can provide actual proof of this afterlife. One person I corresponded badgered me if I knew mediums who could prove it existed—and what exactly happened there. I tried to explain that “near death experiences” (NDE), “out of body experiences” (OOBE), and “communications” via channellers and mediums may provide insight, comfort, or spiritual illumination—but they do not constitute scientifically valid proof of an afterlife.

The human belief—which is found in many cultures—in the continued existence of the soul after physical death is a matter of faith. It’s part of theology. You either believe it, or you do not.

In 2010, Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent wrote a description of a 4-year-old’s NDE in Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. This text is the latest in many such books, as of this writing. These books do not all agree on what and who is on the other side. If you enjoy this kind of literature, there are plenty of accounts to read. I’ve never bothered.

Another Pagan Outlook

Some Pagans, including some Wiccans, are not nearly as concerned about getting into the "Good-Place-Pagan-Heaven"--which some outsiders asking about the reality of Summerland seem to be trying to establish.

A friend of mine shot a documentary in 1999 about Paganism. He interviewed ADF Archdruid Isaac Bonewits. One of the questions he asked Isaac was about belief in an afterlife and its significance. Isaac Bonewits replied:

My beliefs about life after death tend to shift a great deal. I used to believe firmly in reincarnation--but that was 800 years ago, when I was a Buddhist monk at the time.

I believe people spend far too much time worrying about life after death and insufficient time worrying about this life and the responsibilities we have to ourselves, our community, and our great, great, great grandchildren.

I'll find out what happens when I die; everybody does. And probably for everybody it's a surprise. But I believe that the Gods intend us to do the work now that needs to be done in our lifetimes--and let the next life, if there is one, take care of itself.

Isaac Bonewits in Mondo Pagan (2000). (As I was part of this production, I encourage people to purchase their own copies.)

Sage words, Isaac. We--Pagans, Wiccans, Druids, Asatru, Kemetics, and everybody else--need to conduct ourselves in an honorable and responsible manner in this life. That should be our primary concern. An afterlife will be secondary.

Thus, to the never ending frequently asked question, "Do you tbink it [Summerland] is a real place?"--I’m going to provide a different answer entirely.

Summerland is for Real

Yes. There is a real place called “Summerland.” In fact, there are two.

There is a real town in Santa Barbara County, California, USA, called "Summerland." I never knew this California town existed until 2/6/14 when I came across it in a web search. Summerland, CA, was created in 1885 by Henry Lafayette Williams and his wife Katie, who planned to farm and raise pigs in California. The Williams were Spiritualists. A further web search revealed this quote about some local history:

In 1887 the first train passed through the ranch on its way to Santa Barbara and in 1889 Williams and the early settlers dedicated the town, calling it "Summerland", the name of the Spiritualists' heaven. For a few years the Spiritualists continued to come, and many built homes and started businesses. Land was donated for the construction of a "temple" where they could gather socially and for séances, where mediums contacted the spirits of their relatives and friends who had "passed over". People from the surrounding area called the town "Spookville" and rumors of strange activities spread. --Mary Holzhauer, “Local History: The Many Auras of Summerland”, Jim Witmer, Real Estate Broker, copyright 2001 Summerlandsite.com.
There is also a town called "Summerland" in British Columbia, Canada. I found The Summerland from Summerland Online, by Stephanie Seaton, Oct 7, 2011. Summerland Online is an online magazine with a focus on the "unique country town" in British Columbia, Canada. She discusses the Pagan use of the name in her article.

Sources

Sarah Hartwell, Summerlands, accessed 2/6/14.

Mary Holzhauer, “Local History: The Many Auras of Summerland”, Jim Witmer, Real Estate Broker, copyright 2001 Summerlandsite.com, accessed 2/6/14. Mary Holzhauer (1928--2012) was a resident of Summerland, California.

Savage Film Group, Mondo Pagan, 2000.

Stephanie Seaton, "The Summerland" from Summerland Online, Oct 7, 2011, accessed 2/6/14.

Special thanks to Thoron Woodling who has read a great deal more of the Edgar Cayce materials than I have.

Animals and Afterlife
FAQ
"Yet Another Wicca..." home page