Saturday, 29 October 2016


Because the pagan/natural cycles are woven into my Lovers' Wheel series, I'm taking a look in 2016
at the four great Celtic fire festivals, the most important points of the neo-pagan year. I've covered ImbolcBeltane and Lammas previously, so now we've got to the end of the autumn with the most famous pagan festival of the lot.

SAMHAIN (meaning "summer's end" and pronounced "SOW-in") is celebrated from sunset on the 31st October through to sunset on the 1st November - in more modern parlance, it's Hallowe'en. It's the festival that welcomes the dark days of Winter. It is a time to retreat to the fireside, hide away from the dark, and give thought to the dead who have gone before us. And maybe to welcome those ancestors back into our homes for a little while....

Caspar David Friedrich: The Cemetery Entrance, 1825

It is however, at root an agricultural festival (as are all the others). Samhain marks the end of the harvest, just as Lammas marks its beginning. There's little left to gather in now except the last apples (see below), so TBH that's it folks. If you haven't already grown and stored enough crops to tide you through the winter AND for next year's planting, then you are facing not just winter's punishing cold but also slow, inevitable starvation. In older days, this was the time of year to bring the animals down out of the far/high pastures and slaughter the majority of them for salting and smoking, because you just haven't got enough hay to keep them all alive. So Samhain ushers in November: Blotmonath in Old English: the "month of blood" or "slaughter month".

Several Irish legends suggest human slaughter at Samhain in the legendary past - sacrifices to dark powers, and the fated death of kings.

Daniel MacleseL Snap-Apple Night (1833)

Apples feature hugely in Hallowe'e'n folklore, because they are available in abundance at this time of year, and because in Celtic mythology they are associated with the Otherworld (and they are also associated in Christian and Classical mythology with immortality, temptation and women). Apples, among other objects, were used in the many rites of magical divination practiced on Samhain (mostly by young women, as ever):

"Peel an apple in one long strip, then throw this over your shoulder: when you look at the fallen peel it will spell out the initials of your future husband."

Just as on May Eve, its counterpart, Samhain is a night when the walls between the worlds grow thin and things can move between this world and the next. May Eve, however, is primarily associated with Fairy visitation, whereas Samhain is strongly associated with the human Dead. For ancestor-worshippers, communing with the dead might be disturbing, but it made sense. Your relatives still took an interest in you even when they were in the grave, so you'd set a place for them at the table, light them home with candles, and generally be ready to chat.

John Everett Millais: "Speak! Speak!" : The Apparition
 For Christianity, all this necromancy was a bit more problematic. Who were you were communing with, if all the dead were safely penned up in Hell, Heaven or Purgatory? They gamely tried, in 835AD, to nullify all the uncanniness by renaming Samhain day (1st November) All Saints - or All Hallows - Day ... hence the word Hallowe'en ("All Hallows Evening"). The emphasis officially switched to praying for the souls of the departed. No spooky stuff allowed.

Yeah, that worked...

It fell about the Martinmas
The nights were long and dark
Three sons came home to Ushers Well
Their hats were made of bark
That neither grew in forest green
Nor on any wooded rise,
But from the north side of the tree
That grows in Paradise.
Then up and crowed the blood red cock
And up and crowed the grey.
The oldest to the youngest said
"It's time we were away;
For the crow does crow and the day doth show
And the channerin worm doth chide
And we must go from Ushers Well
To the gates of Paradise."

(The Wife of Usher's Well, Child Ballad 79)

Arthur Rackham: Ghosts at Cock-crow

The well-known modern link between Hallowe'en and Witches is actually less genuinely traditional than is the link with the Dead (May Eve was the real witchy festival in most of Europe). But there's strong evidence of some sort of Winter Goddess in Celtic areas - the Cailleach Bheur or Hag - so this point on the wheel of the year would be when the world enters the Hag's domain.

William Blake: Triple Hecate (1795)

Remember that the feminine avatars of the other festivals are the girl-child in white (Imbolc), the sexually alluring young woman (Beltane) and the sacrificial mother (Lughnasadh)? So it makes sense that this festival is symbolised by the figure of an aged woman full of dangerous - even forbidden - knowledge. 
Edward Frederick Brewtnall: Visit to the witch (1882)

The Lesson before the Sabbath (1880); Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel
For Neopagans, Samhain is when the Great Goddess puts on her Hag aspect, personifying wisdom, endurance and death. The God, her son/consort, has vanished from the earth and will not be reborn until Midwinter; they will not be reunited as lovers until Spring. Some pagans count it as the last day of the year.

Halloween has become a commercialised festival in the USA now, with the happy addition of pumpkins and spice, and the retailers are doing their best to spread the custom to the rest of the world via the viral medium of small children wanting sweets.  But just remember when you go out trick-or-treating, you are taking part in a spiritual ritual older than the USA, older than England ... and that you might be stirring up things you cannot handle...

Bat-Woman by Albert-Joseph Penot, circa 1890 .

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