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Samhain: Season of Death and Renewal

by Alexei Kondratiev
Copyright © 1997 Alexei Kondratiev All Rights Reserved May be reposted as long as the above attribution and copyright notice are retained [Originally published in An Tríbhís Mhór: The IMBAS Journal of Celtic Reconstructionism, volume 2, issue 1/2, Samhain 1997/Iombolg 1998.] As the nights lengthen and the leaves take on their autumn colours, many of our cities prepare for a seasonal festival dominated by dark and frightening imagery. Ghosts, skeletons, hags, nocturnal creatures such as cats and bats, and grinning monster faces peer out at us from shop windows. Much of it is just commercialism, yet there is no denying that the atmosphere of the holiday still has a profound effect on the modern psyche -- as we can see from the spontaneous outrageousness of Hallowe'en parades, the creative expressions of death-related themes, and the general surge in mischief-making. All these customs, however, are a diffuse reflection of the beliefs and practices of the Celtic populations of Europe, for whom this feast was a crucial turning-point in the flow of time. The earliest record we have of the festival of Samhain in the Celtic world comes from the Coligny Calendar, a native Celtic lunar calendar inscribed on bronze tablets and discovered in eastern France a hundred years ago. The calendar -- dated, through epigraphic evidence, to the 1st century CE -- is written in the Latin alphabet and was found in conjunction with a Roman-style statue (identified by some writers as Apollo, by others as Mars), but the language used is Gaulish and the dating system itself bears little resemblance to Roman models, implying that it represents the survival of an indigenous tradition maintained by native clergy. A detailed discussion of the calendar lies outside the scope of this article, but for our purposes it will be enough to point out that its year consists of twelve regularly recurring months that fall naturally into two groups, one headed by the month that is labeled SAMON (for Samonios) and the other by the month GIAMON (for Giamonios), and that the names of these two months are clearly related to the terms samos "summer" and giamos "winter" (cf. Gaelic samh(radh) "summer", geamh(radh) "winter"; Welsh haf "summer", gaeaf "winter"). The date of SAMON- xvii is identified as TRINVX SAMO SINDIV, which can be readily interpreted as an abbreviation of Trinouxtion Samonii sindiu ("The three-night-period of Samonios [is] today"). This is one of the very few dates in the calendar that is given a specific name, testifying to its importance as a festival; and since Samoni- is obviously the origin of the modern name Samhain, it is reasonable to equate the Trinouxtion Samonii with the feast that is still one of the most important dates in the Celtic ritual year. We should note, however, that since the Coligny Calendar gives no indication of how its months relate to those of the Roman calendar, we have no conclusive evidence that would allow us to fit it into the framework of our own year, and scholars are still very much

however? Here. that Samhain's "summery" name was originally intended to designate the beginning of an Otherworld summer! Whether this is plausible or not. The night on which it begins (Oíche Shamhna in Irish. and both could be construed as a kind of "New Year".meaning "end of" (the suffix. many scholars now accept the authority of the living tradition and place the Samonios month in October/November. it was on Bealtaine that the main ritual cycle was begun. The rituals surrounding Samhain and Bealtaine are closely related to each other and make it clear that the two festivals are linked. since we know that the earliest form of the word (Samoni-) had a different structure. concealment". but the beliefs and practices associated with it are consistent with what we find in the Gaelic countries.divided on the issue.we run into controversy. In ancient Ireland the High King inaugurated the year on Samhain for his household (and. but its importance to the living tradition should make us wary of dismissing it too lightly. occurs in at least three of the other Coligny months). the sacred centre held by the druids in complementary opposition to Tara. The Brythonic languages call the feast by a name meaning "first of Winter". and it has even been suggested. . is that Samon. Cornish Kalann Gwav). symbolically. although their meanings are uncontroversial. What should be kept in mind is that in the ritual context of the Celtic Year. by the way. Samhain is strongly identified with the "end" or "concealment" of Summer. and so would naturally lead one to think that a month with that name would head the summer half of the year. What is explicit and active in one is implicit and dormant in the other.refers to summer. The most confusing element. The Coligny Calendar's division of the year into two halves associated with summer and winter is still very strongly reflected in Celtic folk practice. however. the Light Half of the year.first put forward in the Mediaeval glossaries and still held to by native speakers -. but in nearby Uisneach. What does the name of the festival mean. of course. This is obviously a folk etymology. Oie Houney in Manx) is the primary focus of the celebration. Although philologists have been unable to find a plausible Indo-European explanation for a suffix -oni. Samhuinn (Scots Gaelic). Bealtaine began another. being a combination of samh "summer" and fuin "ending. is definitely the beginning of winter. but also that they deal with opposite energies within the unfolding of the year. This is often expressed as the notion that what disappears in our world at once becomes present in the Otherworld. and vice versa. where the yearly cycle consists of a dark half beginning on Samhain (November 1st). on this basis. for all the people of Ireland) with the famous ritual of Tara. In living Celtic tradition. and Sauin (Manx). Oidhche Shamhna in Scots Gaelic. and many of the earlier interpretations of the Coligny Calendar take this for granted. the festival of Samhain. it remains certain that while Samhain began one kind of yearly cycle. borrowing the Latin term calenda which designates the first day of a month (Welsh Calan Gaeaf. In both cases sacred fires were extinguished and re-lit. and will help us discover a pan-Celtic theology of Samhain. this is not conclusive in itself: there are quite a few other derivational suffixes attested in Old Celtic that resist an easy Indo-European etymology. again. despite its name. The traditional interpretation -. Though such evidence doesn't necessarily exclude the possibility that Continental Druids used a completely different that it means "summer's end". Breton Kala-Goañv. mirrored by a light half beginning on Bealtaine (May 1st). In the modern Gaelic languages the festival is called Samhain (Irish).

but they are still bound to the living by ties of kinship. and for herdowners like the Celts this was expressed with particular vividness by the release of cattle into upland pastures on Bealtaine and their return to the safety of the byres on Samhain. All Souls. The moment of death -.the passing into the concealing darkness -. in Celtic terms. Samhain begins it in darkness. for example."they define all amounts of time not by the number of days. It was hoped that. The first date was All Hallows. Bealtaine was a time of opening and expansion. sed noctium finiunt. although the forces of growth are already at work in Otherworldly invisibility. however. they celebrate birthdays and the beginnings of months and years in such a way that the day is made to follow the night"). included the rituals of the Dyedy ("Ancestors") in the Slavic countries and the Vetrarkvöld festival in Scandinavia) linked the successful resumption of the agricultural cycle (after a period of apparent winter "death") to the propitiation of the human community's dead. the community of the living would be better able to profit from the energies of increase that lead out of death back to life. by strengthening these ties precisely when the natural cycle seemed to be passing through its own moment of death. by the ninth and tenth centuries the unifying influence of the Church had led to concentrating the rituals on November 1st and November 2nd. these festivals (which. all things have their beginning in the fertile chaos that is hidden from the rational mind. making it certain that the creative forces deep within the Land were being directed to serve the needs of the human community. Thus the year begins with its dark half. was added on (first as a Benedictine practice. because life appears in the darkness of the womb. and there is no doubt about the pre-eminence of darkness in Celtic tradition. 988) as an extension of this concept. beginning ca. older patterns of ancestor veneration were preserved. a "humanising" factor within the Fomorian realm. then. holding the bright half in gestation as the seeds lie in apparent death underground. This association of death with fertility provided the theological background for a great number of end-of-harvest festivals celebrated by many cultures across Eurasia. In De Bello Gallico Julius Caesar notes that the Celts began their daily cycle with sunset (spatia omnis temporis non numero dierum. They were. Which of these two dates. . and this is confirmed by later Celtic itself the first step in the renewal of life. Like Samhain. should we think of primarily as the "Celtic New Year"? Although both deal with the beginning of a cycle. The second date. Darkness comes before light. but by the number of nights. The dead have passed away from the social concerns of this world to the primordial chaos of the Otherworld where all fertility has its roots. Samhain a time of gathering-in and shutting. when the most spiritually powerful of the Christian community's dead (the Saints) were invoked to strengthen the living community.though this happened at sunset on Samhain and at dawn on Bealtaine. dies natales et mensum et annorum initia sic obseruant. Under the mantle of the specifically Christian observances. in a way quite consistent with pre-Christian thought. Dead kin were the Tribe's allies in the Otherworld. ut noctem dies subsequatur -. enlarging it to include the dead of families and local communities. Whatever the specific elements had been that determined the proper date of the end-ofharvest honouring of the dead in various places.

the Welsh Otherworld. a section of the house (often just a nook or alcove) dedicated to the dead of the family. fall into two broad patterns. classificatory boundaries are removed from all categories. in Celtic tradition. Inviting the dead to such a feast encouraged the living to remember and honour their ancestors. and as one contemplates them one faces the setting sun and the vastness of the Atlantic. the poor take on the collective identity of the community's dead. involved a more intense bonding with the dead. in others. According to the first. It was. A large amount of food was set aside for their sole use. using the institution which. pipes. Individual Celtic communities have preserved a wealth of different customs related to the way this feast was actually celebrated: one can still discern some distorted elements of them in modern urban practices. the moment of the year's death. and had to remain untouched by any living hand for the full duration of the ritual period. although similar customs are found elsewhere in the Celtic and ex-Celtic world. The rituals of Samhain. In some cases. on the contrary. a portion of the same food that the living would eat was set aside for them.Most traditional Celtic communities maintain a year-round link of some sort with their departed. The most classic example of this second pattern is the Welsh cennad y meirw ("embassy of the dead") custom. no barriers exist between the dead and the living. The most classic example of this pattern (which is also found in Ireland and Scotland) is the boued an Anaon ("food of the hosts of the dead") custom in Brittany. Eating the food of the dead (even if one was desperately hungry) was considered to be a dreadful sacrilege: it condemned one to becoming a hungry ghost after death. The other pattern of Samhain custom. it is certainly a pre-Christian term) are the massed hosts of ancestral spirits. The Anaon (the word appears to be the same as Annwn. a particularly horrible form of excommunication. In areas of the Irish Gaeltacht it is still not unusual for a household to have a seomra thiar ("western room"). encourages the recycling of the offered food into the community. while the dead in return were encouraged to have an interest in the welfare of their living kin. Sharing food in a solemn context ("in the sight of gods and mortals") placed common and mutual responsibilities on all participants. doors and windows were left unlocked to facilitate their coming into the house. Objects that bring individual dead relatives to mind (old photographs. such as Hallowe'en parties and trick-or-treating. The dead were believed to be present as invisible entities. such as births. weddings and funerals. and go from door to door to receive offerings in the name of the ancestors. etc) are placed on a shelf or mantlepiece. Most of the customs. At each house they are given a portion of the food that has been set aside for the dead. On Samhain. this world and the Otherworld become equivalent to each other. was used to cement social links in a sacred and durable manner: the communal feast. a certain amount of food was set aside for the exclusive consumption of the dead. while the wealthier members of the community put together lavish Samhain feasts for their households. making them a part of all significant occurrences in the family. usually portrayed as hungry for sustenance from the world of the living. thus strengthening social bonds. Originally the cenhadon would have been masked to abolish their mundane social roles and allow them to . Here. so both can authentically come together in one place to share a ritual feast. jewelry. in effect. however. a specific type of food (usually cakes of some kind) was made solely for the dead. however. the direction the dead follow in their journey to the Otherworld. barred from sharing the Samhain feast along with the rest of the Anaon.

in many cases.represent the dead more convincingly. the elders will be gossiping. seem to have specific links with the mythology of death and the afterlife. of course. but they have certain themes in common. to protect a house from malignant "fairy" influences by sprinkling an offering of blood at each corner. Well within living memory. who will then be encouraged to continue to take an interest in the affairs of the living. While the younger people engage in the ritualised games. Sharing the experiences of the dead was yet another way of affirming the solidarity between the dead and the living. Games and pastimes associated with Samhain feasting vary a great deal from community to community. With Samhain. when Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin discussed some of these customs in his famous diary. This seems to be a reference to myths about the ordeals faced by the dead on their journey to the Otherworld -. other offerings had to be made to the Land-spirits to reward them for their cooperation during the Harvest period. . While the dead were brought closer to the living by the formal sharing of food. of course. The water ordeal is the familiar bobbing for apples. because "the fairies" or "the devil" had made them dangerous to consume. and Samhain was the season when the cattle that would not be kept through the winter were slaughtered. while the fire ordeal involves trying to take a bite out of an apple attached to a hanging stick which also bears a lit candle. and to replenish their creative energy as they prepared to enter into a new cycle. they would have to be entertained. certainly in part because the name of the saint suggested the Gaelic word mart ("cattle marked for slaughter"). and other sources show that during the same period blood sacrifices could even still be held indoors. To refuse food to the cenhadon for any reason at all was an act of impiety and would invite retaliation in the form of destruction of property -retaliation that would go unpunished because of the holy nature of the ritual period. reviewing all the notable events of the past year for the benefit of the dead. Many of them involve apples -. although nowadays it has largely lost its moral dimension. although the basic concept of the journey and the ordeals is well established. the powers of the Fomorian realm were now entitled to a gift of life-renewing blood. and its Welsh equivalent is Afallon. the occasion was understood as a ritual "shedding of blood". the period of "truce" that had begun on Lúnasa was officially ended. children in Celtic communities were warned not to eat the late berries that might still be ripening on roadside bushes. The dead would not only have to be fed.a body of beliefs we unfortunately know only through fragments. As late as the 1830's. Having enabled the human community to survive by making the crops grow and by standing aside to let the Harvest take place. and of aligning the powers of renewal in the Otherworld with this world's needs. Some of the Scottish games in this context make use of parallel ordeals by water and fire. We can here see one of the origins of the "trick" aspect of our modern Hallowe'en customs. the two main elements out of which the world is part. involves more than just food. In historical times the date of the slaughter has specifically been Martinmas (November 11). The games themselves. but also as a reflection of the role apples play in beliefs about death: in Irish tradition the Otherworld place where the dead gather at a feast is called Eamhain Abhlach ("paradise of apples"). A communal feast. and the fruits of the soil (especially wild crops) could no longer be harvested with impunity. because they are one of the last crops to be brought in and are thus easily available.

Cross-dressing was one of the most widespread and popular ways of expressing the dissolution of social categories. This meant that. the magical heart of Ireland would contain a model of the entire social order of the country in miniature. was the means for re-creating the world on Samhain. seen as a four-sided space. when the New Year actually dawned. Because all true novelty springs from the chaotic freedom and vitality of the Otherworld. This was the place where Tlachtga. so was Tara. Thus.Renewing social links with the dead and feeding the Land-spirits were both ritual means of ensuring a safe future. as happens in the feasts of renewal of many different cultures. and in parts of Wales groups of young men in female garb were referred to as gwrachod ("hags" or "witches") as they wandered through the countryside on Calan Gaeaf. The structures that had been dissolved had to be re-created in order to channel the new energy from the Otherworld in the desired directions. were representatives of the four provinces. it was more importantly the start of a new one. But the disorder. was only the prelude to the return of order in a strengthened form. allowing the fresh energies of the Otherworld to impel us towards new life.just as the moment of death dissolves our identity in this world. a new cycle could be inaugurated only by dissolving all of the structures of the old one -. the South being devoted specifically to the power of the Land and to the goddess who gave energy to the exercise of the social functions. indulging in all kinds of mischief. while Geoffrey Keating. was conceived of as a square. which symbolically represented the southern province of Munster within the High King's central realm. Each of the directions was associated with one of the three functional classes of society (and with the divinity who was seen as the ruler of that function). The High King occupied the centre of the ritual area. While Samhain (and the phenomenon of death which it celebrated) was obviously the end of a cycle. engaged in the solemn feasting whereby all social links were strengthened. the daughter of the mythological Druid Mug Ruith. of course.were the most likely to be violated. died after being raped by the "sons of Simon Magus" (who wanted to gain the knowledge and talents she had inherited from her father) and after giving birth to three sons from three . Since the Land itself. in the name of the entire population. certain types of social disorder were actively encouraged during the period of the festival. provides us with additional explanations of some of the elements. Disrespect could be shown to elders or to members of the upper classes. because they promoted the renewing influence of the Otherworld at the point in the yearly cycle where it would be most beneficial. Customs originating entirely in the world of cultural values -. while around him. not at Tara but at Tlachtga. the seventeenth-century encyclopaedist of traditional Irish lore. more elaborate ceremonies were conducted by religious specialists at the sacred centres of a territory. focusing on the High King in his role as linchpin of the social order. for the purposes of this ceremony. as a ritual entity.such as those relating to social rank or gender-appropriate behaviour -. In pre-Christian Ireland the ritual of Tara. strictly ordered by social rank. and all parts of the country would then benefit from the influence of this ritual. The actual inception of the new cycle was signaled by the lighting of a fire. The Middle Irish text entitled Suidigud Tellaig Temra (The Settling of the Household of Tara) describes the essentials of the ritual and relates some of the mythology that explains its symbolism (albeit with a somewhat Christianised background). While local communities would have had their own diverse methods of accomplishing this ritually (often through the extinguishing and re-kindling of household fires).

And we find echoes of the same motif (as we often do) at the other end of the Indo-European world. where on Divali (Dipâvali). From the many versions of the myth one can deduce that the antlered god is separated from his goddess-consort (who takes another lover) during the light half of the year. . the "horns" of his cuckoldry. In Scots Gaelic terminology.apparently had holes for removable antlers). However. What of the role of the gods in this crucial turning-point of the ritual year? Since virtually all our knowledge of detailed ritual practices among the Celts comes from Christianised communities. the Feast of Lights.) must be overseen by nine women (in contrast to the nine men who preside over Bealtaine). when he must live as a renunciate in the wilderness and wear his horns. Antlers are a seasonal phenomenon: they drop off in winter and begin to reappear as velvet at winter's end.different fathers. Germain -. whose mythology has definite links to the stories of the Fianna and whose attributes symbolise seasonal change as well as the interface between nature and culture. in the ritual calendar of India. and the notion of the Fianna living off the wilderness from Bealtaine to Samhain and indoors from Samhain to Bealtaine all suggest a myth of certain divinities changing their status in relation to the Land-goddess in response to the change of seasons along the Samhain-Bealtaine axis. The association of the festival with the pre-eminently "female" southern quarter may explain why in some Welsh and Scottish communities it is specified by custom that Samhain ritual (preparation of the ceremonial food. or that of wild Myrddin emerging from the forest with a herd of stags to kill his wife's lover by piercing him with a pair of antlers. Images such as that of the hero Diarmait killed by a boar after his romance with Fionn Mac Cumhail's wife Gráinne. etc. the month immediately preceding Samhain is called an Damhar (damh-ghar. which is usually celebrated very close to Samhain. but that with the coming of the dark season his rival is eliminated and he can return to his consort's embrace in the Otherworld -. the fat god of material riches.abandoning. the goddess of abundance and well-being. some of the stories preserved in both folklore and mediaeval literature seem relevant to the theology of this feast. Our sense of the seasonal importance of this event in Celtic ritual symbolism is reinforced by the custom in southwestern Brittany of baking appropriately shaped cakes called kornigoù ("little horns") to celebrate the coming of winter.made by the women who preside over the Samhain feast in parts of Gaelic Scotland is named after a cuckold in the community. references to divinities who were actually worshipped are. rare and indirect. yet one can still discern in it the figure of the Land-goddess and her three "functional" consorts. or that of Gwyn ap Nudd ("White son of Mistmaker") fighting with Gwythyr ap Greidawl ("Wrathful son of Hot") every Calan Mai (Bealtaine) "until the day of Judgment" for the hand of their common love. This myth is obviously garbled in its modern version. as one would expect. leaves her usual consort Vishnu (who falls asleep at this time) to return temporarily to her first husband. because it is when stags clash with each other during the mating season. shortly before losing their antlers. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the bonnag Samhna -the Samhain cake prepared specifically for the ritual-. by the same token. returning to full glory in the spring. Lakshmi. Kubera. "stag-rut").like the one from St. as the antlered god must undoubtedly lose his (which is why some "Cernunnos" statues -. Creiddylad. The common denominator of these motifs seems to be the figure of the antlered god now conventionally referred to as "Cernunnos".

who must. the monstrous hag who wanders in the hills bringing bad weather.darkness and death to find the source of true renewal. Le Folklore de la Bretagne. 1959.. Welsh Folk Customs. 1961. In the Scottish Highlands this is the season of the Cailleach Bheura. On the Notation and Chronology of the Calendar of Coligny. P. Paris.The Land-goddess. Kevin. McNeill. 1972. but in our world only her "Fomorian" aspect remains. which is our winter. MacNeill. . Dublin. while in Wales we hear of the Hwch Ddu Gwta ("tailless black sow") who lurks menacingly in the darkness. Y. 1953-66. ed. F. Cardiff. Trefor M. Sébillot. Yet these are all aspects of the same being. Ériu 4 (1910). Owen. SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY Cé we all must -. Cork. Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales. replenish herself through alternating periods of action and repose. The Silver Branch. New York. Ériu 10 (1926). 1982. Eoin. Glasgow. The Year in Ireland. by Padraig de Brún) Foras Feasa ar Éirinn.I. the multiform Provider on whom we all depend. Best.). Alwyn & Brinley. and trans. 1968. making the land barren and hostile to human comfort. (ed. Rees. and who touches -. too. Danaher. changes her appearance at this time: the fertile part of her retreats to the Otherworld where she can join with her consort in beginning the creative work of the new yearly cycle (in their summer.. Suidigud Tellaig Temra (R. Seathrún (Geoffrey Keating). as it were). like all things. Marian.