Friday, 31 October 2014


The eve of 1st November, when the Celtic Winter begins, is the dark counterpart of May Eve which greets the Summer. More than that, 1st November for the Celts was the beginning of the year itself, and the feast of Samhain was their New Year’s Eve, the mysterious moment which belonged to neither past nor present, to neither this world nor the Other. Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-in’, the ‘ow’ rhyming with ‘cow’) is Irish Gaelic for the month of November; Samhuin (pronounced ‘sat:-en’, with the ‘n’ like the ‘ni’ in ‘onion’) is Scottish Gaelic for All Hallows, 1st November.

Crops had all to be gathered in by 31st October, and ‘anything still unharvested was abandoned- because of the Pooka, a nocturnal, shape-Changing hobgoblln who delighted in tormenting humans, was believed to Spend Samhain night destroying or contaminating whatever remained unreaped. The Pooka’s favourite disguise seems to have been the shape of an ugly black horse.

Thus to economic uncertainty was added a sense of psychic eeriness, for at the turn of the year- the old dying, the new still unborn- the Veil was very thin. The doors of the sidh-mounds were open, and on this night neither human nor fairy needed any magical password to come and go. On this night, too, the spirits of dead friends sought the warmth of the Samhain fire and communion with their living kin. This was Féile na Marbh (pronounced ‘fayluh nuh mow’), the Feast of the Dead, and also Féile Moingfhinne (pronounced ‘fayluh mong-innuh’), the Feast of the White-Haired One, the Snow Goddess. It was “a partial return to primordial chaos . . . the dissolution of established order as a prelude to its recreation in a new period of time”, as Proinsias mac Cana says in Celtic Mythology.

So Samhain was on the one hand a time of propitiation, divination and communion with the dead, and on the other, an uninhibited feast of eating, drinking and the defiant affirmation of life and fertility in the very face of the closing dark.

Ireland’s bonfire-and-firework night is still Hallowe’en, and some of the unconscious survivals are remarkable. When we lived at Ferns in County Wexford, many of the children who ambushed us at Hallowe’en hoping for apples, nuts or “money for the King, money for the Queen” included one who was masked as ‘the Man in Black’. He would challenge us with “I am the Man in Black- do you know me?”- to which we had to reply “I know who you are, but you are the Man in Black.” We wonder if he realized that one of the significantly recurrent pieces of evidence in the witchcraft trials of the persecution period is that ‘the Man in Black’ was the coven’s High Priest, whose anonymity must be stubbornly protected.

Samhain, like the other pagan festivals, was so deeply rooted In popular tradition that Christianity had to try to take it over. The aspect of communion with the dead, and with other spirits, was Christianized as All Hallows, moved from its original date of 13th May to 1st November, and extended to the whole Church by Pope Gregory IV in 834. But its pagan overtones remained uncomfortably alive, and in England the Reformation abolished All Hallows. It was not formally restored by the Church of England until 1928, “on the assumption that the old pagan associations of Hallowe’en were at last really dead and forgotten; a supposition that was certainly premature” (Doreen Valiente, An ABC of Witchcraft).

One thing Samhain has always been, and still is: a lusty and wholehearted feast, a Mischief Night, the start of the reign of the Lord of Misrule, which traditionally lasts from now till Candlemas- yet with serious undertones. It is not that we surrender to disorder but, as Winter begins we look primordial chaos in the face so that we may discern in it the seeds of a new order. By challenging it, and even laughing with it, we proclaim our faith that the Goddess and the God cannot, by their very nature, allow it to sweep us away. 


By North Utsire

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