Samhain | Ancient Irish Celebration of New Year
I‘ve never really liked Halloween. I never understood why people got excited about dressing up, or visiting the homes of strangers and demanding ‘Trick or Treat’. I never enjoyed the gaudy decorations, or the references to vampires, witches, werewolves, etc. It just felt like a superficial, commercial event designed to make money. Yes, Halloween is big business, just like Valentines Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day… and the pressure to conform or be a killjoy is immense.
Strangely, although not a Christian, I love Christmas, so at least Scrooge is not a label anyone can level at me.
I was surprised when I came to Ireland at how big Halloween is over here. Then I learned about Samhain, and it all fell into place for me. And before you ask, no, I’m not a pagan either.
For our ancient ancestors, the day began not with the arrival of dawn, but with the fall of dusk. Therefore, Samhain began on the evening of 31st October, and continued until dusk on November 1st. Similarly, their New Year began with the arrival of the dark season, Winter. Some say this equates with a belief that life is born into the light from the darkness of the womb.
The ancient Irish divided their year into four seasons punctuated by the festivals of Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasa and Samhain, according to the equinoxes and solstices. Samhain lies between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.
At this time of year, the ancient people would have been very busy preparing for winter. They would have been storing their grain crops, bringing in their cattle and other livestock to winter pastures and slaughtering some of them for their meat, stacking up firewood or turf to keep the home hearths going, shoring up their homes against the ravages of winter sure to come. Celebrating Samhain was a way of giving thanks for what they had been given, and to welcome the new year.
The lighting of huge bonfires was central to the celebrations. Not only did fire represent the nurturing heat and light of the sun, but it possessed cleansing and purification powers, and brought the blessings of the Gods. Evidence of these huge fires have been found at Tlachta on the Hill of Ward, an ancient site known to be associated with the festival of Samhain, and also at Uisneach, where fires were lit to celebrate Beltaine.
As with Beltaine, all hearth fires would be extinguished in anticipation of this most significant event. As the huge communal bonfires were lit, torches of the sacred fire would be carried to homes in the community, and the hearth fires rekindled from them, thus representing the power of the sun keeping the dark winter at bay in peoples homes, and bringing the Gods blessings to the inhabitants. It must have been a quite magical and transformative experience.
It was believed that at Samhain, the veil between the mortal world and the Otherworld was very thin, and that the spirits of the ancestors could cross over and walk amongst the living again. There seemed to have been no fear in this; the ancestors were welcomed by laying a place for them at the dinner table, or leaving out food for them.
It would seem that the traditions of Samhain in Ireland were very resistant to Christian influence. In the C9th, the Catholic church felt the need to move their celebration of All Saints Day from May 13th to November 1st, followed by All Souls Day on November 2nd, perhaps as a way of gaining control over this popular pagan festivity. Eventually, all three celebrations merged into Halloween as we know it today, and thus Samhain became Christianised.
Although the early Irish did not have a God of the Dead as such, Donn of the Milesians became known as Lord of the Dead, and was associated with this role. It was said that after their passing, the dead walked the earth until they heard Donn’s call on his horn at Samhain. They would then collect at his palace at Teach Duinne, from there moving on to their eternal home in the Otherworld beyond the ninth wave. The church, however, claimed these were the souls of the damned waiting to join the God of the Dead in Hell.
It is not surprising then, that this time of year came to be feared by the ordinary people. Rather than being the friendly souls of deceased ancestors, these Otherworldly visitors began to be seen as creatures of evil out to cause havoc and destruction. They had to be bought with offerings of food and gifts, and kept at bay with superstition and ritual. So it was that people began to disguise themselves by dressing in scary costumes in the hope of frightening off any creepy ghouls or evil monsters intent on mischief. They went door to door collecting food, and so the tradition of Trick or Treat was born.
Lantern carving was another way of keeping away misfortune. Turnips were hollowed out and carved with fearsome faces, after which a lighted candle would be dropped inside. The lanterns would then be placed in the home’s windows. An Irish folk tale claims that after tricking the devil into not taking his soul, a man called Stingy Jack was refused entry into both Heaven and Hell upon his death. The devil tossed him a burning ember to use for a light, which Jack placed in a hollowed out turnip, and so he was doomed to wander the earth for all eternity. This is how the Jack o’ Lantern came into being.
There are many tales in Irish mythology which are recorded as taking place at Samhain; the Tuatha de Denann fought the Second Battle of Moytura at Samhain, whereas they fought the First Battle at Beltaine; Lugh Lamhfhada joined the court of Nuada at Samhain; Fionn mac Cumhall fought fiery Aillen of the Sidhe at Tara at Samhain; the Cattle Raid of Cooley was said to have taken place at Samhain; the idol Crom Cruach was said to have been worshipped at Samhain, and there is a very interesting story about how King Tigernmas and three quarters of his men were killed during their devotions to Crom Cruach at Samhain (coming soon, watch this space!). I’m sure there must be others, too, which I can’t think of off the top of my head.
Incidentally, Halloween must be the only time of year when we actually encourage our children to take sweets from strangers, something far more potentially sinister in my view, than the visit of the spirits of our ancient forebears.
Enjoy Friday’s festivities everyone… Happy Halloween and a Super and Safe Samhain to you all!
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