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Samhain and the Celts

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Any examination of Halloween’s history and its long line of misunderstandings must start by examining the Celts, an ancient people who themselves are often the subject of mistaken identity. The Celts were referred to as Keltoi by Greek and Roman writers (and probably by themselves), and it’s likely that the name derives from the Indo-European word for ‘hidden’ (kel), making the Celts literally ‘the hidden people’. They once spread across most of Europe and throughout the British Isles, and they even occupied Rome for several months around 400 BC. Many of Vallancey’s contemporaries painted a picture of the Celts and their Druid priests that made his notions seem serene by comparison, as in this spectacular example from 1793:


This degenerated priesthood seem to have delighted in human blood: and their victims, though sometimes beasts, were oftener men. And not only criminals and captives, but their very disciples, were inhumanly sacrificed on their altars; whilst some transfixed by arrows, others crucified in their temples, some instantly stabbed to the heart, and others impaled in honor of the gods, bespoke, amidst variety of death, the most horrid proficiency in the science of murder.


However, contrary to the romantic notions of both ancient historians – including Julius Caesar – and later writers, the Celts were far from being warmongering primitives whose Druids were bloodthirsty slayers. Modern archaeological evidence as well as written historical remnants suggests that the Celts were skilled in mining and working with metals, farming, road-making, legal systems and medicine. Their religion involved hundreds of deities and barred written records of their rituals and stories, but some histories and various inscriptions made in Greek, Latin and, later, Irish, have survived and make up most of what we know about their celebrations and festivals. The Celts did engage in human sacrifice, but often chose the victims from within their own tribes by drawing lots in the form of bits of cake – whoever received the piece with the blackened bottom was offered to the gods to ensure the fertility of the herds, a fruitful harvest or victory in battle. The number three figures prominently in Celtic beliefs – many of their gods and goddesses were depicted with three heads or aspects – which is possibly one of the reasons why so many later Halloween fortune-telling games required a task to be performed three times. They believed in an afterlife, with souls journeying to an Other-world sometimes called Tir na tSamhraidh, or ‘Land of Summer’ (note the similarity to ‘Samhain’). They believed that the doors between this world and that Otherworld opened one night a year – Samhain, of course. On that night, the dead might return to the living, and creatures called sidh, or fairies, could cross over to bedevil humans.


Samhain features frequently in Celtic lore. In practical terms, it was the end of summer and so the beginning of winter. Crops were gathered and livestock were brought in from the fields. Pigs and cattle were slaughtered, with only a small number kept for breeding stock. A Celtic day began when the sun went down, and so Samhain started with the onset of darkness on 31 October, with a feast celebrating the recent harvest and temporary abundance of food. Some archaeological evidence suggests that Samhain may have been the only time when the Celts had ready access to an abundance of alcohol, and the surviving accounts of the festival – in which drunkenness always seems to occur – support this as well.


Samhain was also an important day for administration, akin to the U.S. Tax Day in modern times. A yearly gathering was held at Tara, the ancient seat of kings, where three days’ worth of feasting and sporting alternated with debt repayment and trials (those who were found guilty of particularly severe crimes were executed then as well). Before the eve of Samhain, all home hearth fires were extinguished, and the Druids used ‘needfire’, or fire created by friction, to construct a bonfire on the nearby hill of Tlachtga; embers from this fire were distributed to each household, and a tax was exacted for this service.


But Samhain wasn’t just a time of debts, livestock and feasting. It was also – with Beltane, or 1 May – one of the two most important days in Celtic heroic tales, which almost invariably contain some frightening element. In one early story, the Fomorians, a race of demonic giants who have conquered Ireland after a great battle, demand a yearly tax of two-thirds of the subdued survivors’ corn, milk and children, to be paid each year on Samhain. The Tuathade Danann, a race of godlike, benevolent ancestors chronicled in Celtic mythology, battle against the Fomorians for years, but it takes the Morrigan, a mother god, and the hero Angus Og to finally drive the monsters from Ireland – on Samhain, of course.


Samhain could have a romantic side as well, as attested to by a later story involving Angus. In ‘The Dream of Angus Og’, Angus is visited in his dreams every night for a year by a beautiful young girl with whom he falls in love. When she stops appearing to him, Angus begins to waste away until his father, the Celtic god the Dagda, goes to the sidh for help in finding the girl. After two years she is located among 150 other maidens who all bear silver chains. She is Princess Caer, daughter of King Ethal; the King, however, refuses to hand her over to Angus, and so the Dagda and his allies destroy Ethal’s palace. It is only then that Ethal reveals the strange truth about his daughter: she has been bewitched, spending one year in human form and the next as a swan, transforming each Samhain. Angus goes to visit her in her swan form, and he changes himself into a swan so they can fly away together.


Halloween’s sinister aspect is presaged in another traditional Celtic tale, that of the boy hero Finn mac Cumhaill, who journeys to the yearly Samhain gathering at Tara, presided over by the High King. The King soon puts a challenge before the rugged assemblage: each Samhain, a man of the sidh, Aillen, comes to Tara playing a harp that places all those who hear it under an enchanted sleep; Aillen then issues a wall of flame from his mouth and burns down the palace. Aillen has destroyed Tara nine times, and this year the King offers a reward to anyone who can stop him. Finn undertakes the task, and an ally gifts him with an enchanted spear. Finn uses the head of the spear to ward off the magical music and his cloak to turn aside the flame. Aillen tries to flee, but Finn casts the spear just as Aillen is stepping through the entrance to the Otherworld, and the sidh warrior is slain. Finn cuts off Aillen’s head and returns it to the King the following morning, at which point he receives his reward.


Perhaps the most famous and eeriest Samhain story is ‘The Adventure of Nera’, in which the eponymous hero is challenged by King Ailill to place a loop around the foot of a hanging corpse on Samhain. Nera succeeds, and the corpse promptly begs him for a drink, claiming to have been thirsty when he was hanged. Nera removes the dead man from the gallows, and tries to find a house where he can treat the corpse to a drink; when he does, the corpse spits the drink back at the humans who are present, and they immediately die. Nera returns the corpse to the gallows and journeys back to Ailill’s fort, only to find it engulfed in flames set by a fairy army. He follows the army back through their mound, and finds himself in the Otherworld. He takes a fairy wife there, who tells him that the fire was a hallucination but will actually happen unless he can warn Ailill. Returning to our world, Nera finds that no time has passed (a common theme in later Halloween tales is how time passes differently in the fairy realm), and he warns Ailill, who manages to destroy the malevolent sidh before they can attack again. Nera, however, spends the rest of his life in the Otherworld.


Although historians have argued over how much Samhain really contributed to the modern celebration of Halloween, it seems likely that the Celtic festival’s peculiar mix of harvest, rowdy celebration and fearful supernatural beliefs gave Halloween much of its character. Just as Celtic culture was recorded by later Christianized Irish scribes, so those same Irish integrated aspects of their ancestors’ Samhain into their own All Saints’ Day – an integration that would prove an uncomfortable mix to the very Church that initially promoted it.


All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day


By the seventh century, the Catholic Church had spread throughout most of Europe; missionaries – including St Patrick, who would become the patron saint of Ireland – had successfully converted the pagan Celts. The Church had found that conversion was far more successful when attempts were made to offer clear alternatives to existing calendar celebrations, rather than simply stamping them out. Pope Gregory I (who would later be canonized) famously wrote a letter in 601 to an abbot en route to Britain, suggesting that existing temples and even sacrificial rituals should not be destroyed but rather turned to use for Christian purposes. This doctrine, known as syncretism, even replaced lesser pagan gods with Catholic saints.


In 609, the Church put syncretism into action by converting the Pantheon in Rome to the service of the Virgin Mary and all the martyrs. The famed pagan temple was rechristened the Santa Maria Rotunda on 13 May of that year, and the forerunner of All Saints’ Day was born. The choice of 13 May was important as well, since it had formerly marked the final night of Lemuria, a Roman festival of the dead. Like Samhain, Lemuria was celebrated over three nights, and was a time when the dead returned to the world of the living; however, the ghostly visitors of Lemuria (the lemurs) were terrifying creatures who were ritually expelled from the household at midnight on 13 May. The Romans also celebrated the spirits of their ancestors during Parentalia and its closing ceremony, Feralia, which took place on 22 February (and which later became the Catholic feast of St Peter).


One holiday the Romans did not celebrate (and which has become the source of historical misinformation) was a festival in honour of Pomona, a minor goddess of fruits and orchards. A contemporary of Vallancey’s by the name of William Hutchinson may have started the error when he stated in 1776: ‘The 1st day of November seems to retain the celebration of a festival to Pomona, when it is supposed the summer stores are opened on the approach of winter.’ Hutchinson was probably taking inspiration from poetry; the mythological tale of Pomona and Vertumnus was much in vogue in the eighteenth century thanks largely to Alexander Pope’s translation of the story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which Vertumnus, after being spurned by the lovely Pomona, takes on various forms until he convinces her of his love. Like Vallancey, Hutchinson was quoted frequently over the next two centuries, and historians began to assume that Halloween really was simply a revamped celebration of Pomona. However, the truth was that Pomona had no festival, and that November was the dullest month in the Roman calendar, with no important holidays or festivals. But the notion that Halloween was somehow partly Roman seemed simply too delicious for most historians to give up. Take, for example, this reference from a book on Halloween dating from 1935: after discussing ‘The Vigil of Samhain’ (and, incidentally, referring to ‘Samhain, the lord of death’), the author states: ‘Our Hallowe’en is almost equally descended from the ancient Roman festival in honor of Pomona, the goddess of fruit and gardens, who was honored about the first of November.’ Amusingly, the next paragraph offers a compounding of errors when it is suggested that Halloween has been fused into ‘a single magic celebration… sacred both to Samhain and Pomona’.


Samhain’s existence, however, is unquestionable, and some time in the mid-eighth century, Pope Gregory iii moved the feast of the martyrs to 1 November, the date of Samhain, and indicated that it was henceforth to be a celebration of ‘all the saints’; a hundred years later, Gregory iv ordered universal observance of the day. Was the date moved to 1 November so that the harvest could be used to feed the hordes of pilgrims flocking to Rome for the saints’ celebration, as some historians have suggested? Or was it relocated in the calendar in an attempt to co-opt Samhain, which the Christianized Celts were slow to give up? A famed ninth- century Irish religious calendar, the Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee, offers intriguing clues: later English translations of the entry for 1 November give the day as ‘stormy All-Saints’ day’, but the original Irish text plainly shows ‘samain’.


The Church provided another argument in favour of the 1 November date being chosen as a deliberate Samhain replacement when, around AD 1000, it added the celebration of All Souls’ Day on 2 November. Legend has it that All Souls’ Day was inaugurated in 998 by Odilon, Bishop of Cluny, after he heard of an island where a cave mouth emitted the agonized sounds of souls in torment. The official explanation given for the new festival was that it would offer the living a chance to pray for the souls of the deceased, especially those in Purgatory; however, it seems more likely that the gloomy, ghostly new celebration was added to cement the transformation of Samhain from pagan to Christian holiday. By the fourteenth century, All Souls’ Day was observed throughout the western Church and had been added to all official books and calendars.


It’s no coincidence, then, that the first recorded celebrations of Halloween begin to appear about this time. The Festyvall of 1511 says: ‘We rede in olde tyme good people wolde on All Halowen daye bake brade and dele it for crysten soules’, suggesting that the practice of making special foods for Halloween was already long established. A Festivall from 1493 noted, ‘Good frendes suche a daye ye shall haue all halowen daye.’ By the sixteenth century, there are numerous accounts in parish records of ‘full contention of the ryngeres on alhallow nyght’, meaning that Halloween was sounded out with the raucous ringing of bells. Henry VIII tried to abolish ‘ringing of bells all the night long upon Allhallow Day at night’, as did his daughter Elizabeth, but many parishes were so reluctant to give up the practice that their bell-ringers were repeatedly fined.


In some areas, Halloween marked the beginning of the Christmas season, and thus was the time to choose a ‘Lord of Misrule’ – typically a serving man in a lord’s household – to oversee the merriment. One account from 1598 notes:


These Lords, beginning their rule at Allhallond Eve, continued the same till the morrow after the Feast of the Purification, commonly called Candlemas Day: in which space there were fine and subtle disguisings, masks, and mummeries.


Photo (partial) by © Ellen Datlow

Photo (partial) by
© Ellen Datlow


Lisa Morton is an award-winning author and one of the world’s leading authorities on Halloween. Her work includes The Halloween Encyclopedia and A Hallowe’en Anthology: Literary and Historical Writings Over the Centuries. See her Halloween blog, here.


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