Donn, Lord of the Dead
Halloween is the Christian overlay of a celebration far more ancient, a pagan Celtic festival called Samhain. Halloween is thought to be when the dead and the undead walk the earth, bringing havoc and fear to the living. This is how the good Christian people were encouraged to think of the ancient Gods, ancestors, and fairy-folk, or Sidhe, who were originally honoured at Samhain. As far as we can tell, the ancient Irish people never had a God of the Dead, so who was Donn?
Halloween is fast approaching, and here in Ireland the houses are already decorated, children are planning their trick-or-treat costumes, and the pumpkins in the shops are selling out as people turn their skills to lantern carving. It’s a fun time of year, but few are aware of the festival’s origins, and the true meaning has been all but lost to commercialism and Christian interpretation.
Halloween is the Christian overlay of a celebration far more ancient, a pagan Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced sau-ween). Samhain marks the end of the year’s harvest, and the beginning of winter, and begins at sunset on October 31st and lasts until the sunset of the following day. Cattle were brought down from mountain pastures, and the weakest of them killed for their meat to last through the winter. As at Beltaine, bonfires were lit, and the spirits of the ancestors, and the Gods were remembered and honoured.
Unable to suppress these customs, during the C9th, the Roman Catholic church decided to move All Saints Day from May 13th to Nov 1st, followed by the celebration of All Souls Day on Nov 2nd. In time, these three occasions eventually merged to become Halloween as we know it today.
Halloween is thought to be when the dead and the undead, and all manner of creepy ghouls and mischievous souls walk the earth, bringing havoc and fear to the living. This is how the good Christian people were encouraged to think of the ancient Gods, ancestors, and fairy-folk, or Sidhe, who were originally honoured at Samhain.
As far as we can tell, the ancient Irish people (amended from ‘Celts’. Please see comments below) never had a God of the Dead. The Otherworld was said to be the domain of Manannán, God of the Sea, but the myths and legends do not tell of him being a God of the Dead. However, there is someone, a mere mortal, who has come to be associated with this role.
Donn was a leader of the Milesians, who invaded Ireland and defeated the Tuatha de Danann roughly four thousand years ago, or thereabouts. The Milesians were a race of mortal man, not supernatural beings like the Danann. There are conflicting versions of Donn’s story… well, this is Irish mythology we’re talking about, nothing is quite what it seems, and part of its allure is that the truth of it can never be pinned down.
When the Milesians arrived off the coast of Ireland in their mighty fleet of ships, a great storm blew up, scattering the ships up and down the breadth of the island. Many of the ships perished, along with all those on board. Some say it was the Danann Druids who raised the storm, in an attempt to protect their land. In any case, Donn was lost at sea, along with twenty four of his companions.
It is said that Donn met his death at Bull Rock, which lies just off the western coast of Dursey Island, Cork. It’s an impressive, craggy lump of rock jutting out out of the foaming ocean, which now has a light-house on it. Here is an amazing picture of Bull Rock. However, his body was supposedly buried at the nearby Skellig Islands.
As the first of the Milesians to die in this invasion of Ireland, and being of high status, Donn’s position soon became elevated to Lord of the Dead. It was said that the Lord made his home at the place of his death, and called it Teach Duinn. It was said that he also had a home in the land of the living, at Knockfierna in Co Limerick. People believed that on stormy nights, he rode across the sky on a white horse, and they would say, “Donn is gallopping in the clouds, tonight.”
In later years, it was believed that after their deaths, the dead continued to walk in the land of the living as ‘shades’ until they heard the sound of Donn’s horn at Samhain, calling them to Teach Duinn, from where they travelled west over the sea to the Otherworld. The Christians, however, claimed that these were the souls of the damned, lingering at Bull Rock before passing on into Hell.
It’s interesting that the places so closely associated with Donn lie so near to Valentia Island. Valentia was said to be the home of the powerful blind sorcerer, Mogh Ruith, who was also thought to be a sun-deity. As such, he would have been seen as the opposite to Donn’s darkness.
Grateful thanks to Carri Angel Photography for the kind use of their stunning image (header)