Samhain: The Celtic New Year (Part 2)

Image is public domain via wikimedia commons

Some of you may remember that last year I did a post on the Celtic feast of Samhain that was a sort of experiential fiction. It was a nice experiment, but I’m not sure it conveyed information the way I would have liked, so this year I’m going to talk about the holiday in a more straightforward fashion.

Samhain (October 31 or November 1, depending on your source), was the beginning of the Celtic new year. It was also the Celtic feast of the dead. (You may see similarities between the modern Day of the Dead and even Catholic All Souls and All Saints celebrations.) It was the day when the veil between the worlds was thinnest (Beltane, May 1, is the second) and it was believed we could touch the spirit world and it could touch us. Ancestors were revered and remembered. To this day, people in the Celtic world still follow the same ritual they did 1,000 years ago: doors are left unlocked, meals are prepared for those who have passed and a light is left burning to guide the spirits to a place of warmth and welcome at the hearth fire.

But ancestors were not the only spirits abroad on Samhain. The Sidhe (also called the faerie) rode out from their hill forts, searching for mortals to beguile and lead back to their kingdom. The Pooka (or Puca) roamed the forest. This strange creature could shape-shift, but most often appeared as a black stallion with fiery golden eyes, or a hybrid animal that was part goat, horse and bull. The shake of its mane struck fear into the hearts of the Celts. All fruits or crops still on the vine on Samhain were property of the Pooka, and to disobey this unspoken agreement was to risk a great curse.

Due to the nearness of the spirits, divination was a common practice. There were many types, but apples, apple seeds, and hazelnuts were commonly used on this day, especially when asking about the all-important topics of love and health. Another common practice was for each member of the household to cast a white stone into the hearth fire. If it was moved in the ashes when the family arose the following morning, whoever cast it would not live to see the next Samhain (kind of morbid, no?).

Samhain marked the beginning of the darkest part of the year, the beginning of winter. Just as the earth went dormant, so too, did the tribe, hunkering down in the ice and cold and praying they would survive the lean days to come. Agriculturally, it was the end of the growing season. The full moon nearest to the feast was (and still is) called the “blood moon” because this is the time of year when shepherds/ranchers would slaughter part of the herd to be able to feed the animals through the sparse nights of winter. This was the last time most families would eat well until the summer harvest.

The god Cernunnos as depicted on the Gundestrup Cauldron. Image is public domain via wikimedia commons.

The symbol of Samhain is undoubtedly the bonfire. Not only did it dispel the evil spirits, it united the tribe. In some areas, every single fire in the whole tribe/village was rekindled from the bonfire (although the same has been said about the bonfire at Imbolc as well.) If nothing else, the bonfire served as a rallying point for the party, during which men and women ate seasonal foods and danced to keep the dark spirits at bay. Sacrifices and wishes were often thrown into the fire in the hopes of swaying the gods. Some go so far as to say animals or humans were part of this, but as you can imagine, this a subject of great controversy.

In its religious aspect, Samhain memorialized the death of the God (commonly called Cernunnos or Herne the Hunter). He is often symbolized in the King Stag, the deer whose horns would either fall off with the coming of winter or be wrenched from his head when the young stag takes over (i.e. the old year giving way to the new, just as the generations do). It was also the day of the Crone aspect of the Goddess (commonly called Cerridwen or Hecate). She is the symbol of death, she to whom all return in the end, but she is also the bringer of rebirth through her cauldron of life (do you see where the traditional image of the witch came from?). She is not to be feared, as much as venerated for her wisdom. On this day, all made their peace with the inevitability of meeting her at their death.

Here’s a Samhain meditation I think captures the Celtic nature of the feast quite well, even though it’s geared toward modern neo-pagans: “Harken Now, the Darkness Comes,” by Lark. (I’m waiting to get her permission to post in full. Until then, I’m linking to it.)

The Apple Branch by Alexei Kondratiev
The Golden Bough by James Frazer

What about you: have you ever heard of Samhain? Seen it written about in fiction set in Celtic or Arthurian times? Have you ever celebrated it? If so, how?

Lughnasa: Gathering of the Tribe

We’re taking a break from the A to Z blogging challenge today in honor of the Celtic festival of Lughnasa (August 1). It’s the last of the four major Celtic feasts that I’ve yet to cover (see Samhain, Imbolc, and Beltane for the others). Lughnasa also figures into my first book, so I’ve chosen to give you the facts, rather than try to present a fictionalized account, for fear of accidentally revealing my plot.

Lughnasa (later called Lammas) celebrates the birth of the god Lugh (or Llew), who was popular throughout the Celtic world, but especially so in Ireland, Wales, Britain and among the Votadini tribe of what is now Scotland (you’ll meet them in a future blog post). Lugh’s mythology is complicated and recounting it is beyond my expertise, so I’ll leave that to others. A bull was usually sacrificed in his honor on Lughnasa, and some connect this with the bull-dream ritual the Irish used to elect their kings. (Some also say humans were sacrificed on this day, but that’s up for debate.) It is also the beginning autumn and the beginning of the harvest.

Lughnasa was an important feast for Celtic tribes, a time when they came together to celebrate their identity as a people. (Whether or not this was done among people of the same tribe or among different tribes varies depending on the time, place and source you’re consulting.) Phillip Coppens says that among all of the Celtic peoples, Lughnasa was only celebrated in Britain, Ireland, France and Northern Spain. Other sources aren’t so specific. What everyone agrees on is that these assemblies were very important for securing loyalty and for general socializing, especially in a time when travel was difficult, slow, expensive, and likely dangerous. Sources note that the Lughnasa feast could last anywhere from two to four weeks.

The Sting song “Fields of Gold” is appropriate for Lughnasa

Most historians believe that Lughnasa festivals took place on hilltops. They all involved massive sporting contests (much like the modern Olympics) in honor of the annual games Lugh himself is said to have instituted to commemorate his foster mother, Tailtu. Common sports of the time included horse racing, hurling and weight throwing. It was also common for two opposing tribes or villages to build forts of grasses and roots and battle one another. Whether or not these battles involved real injury or were mock is a matter of speculation. (Judging from the general behavior of the war-like Celts, I doubt if the participants came away unscathed.) Some say these fights were in commemoration and/or imitation of faerie battles. Drinking, dancing, fighting and other unruly behavior also characterized the feast.

Lughnasa was also a popular day for handfastings, trial marriages that – according to some – lasted a year and a day, and could be dissolved the following year with no repercussions. Marriage or no, this feast was second only to Beltane in its sexual promiscuity.

The first stalk of wheat, symbolic of the first harvest, was cut with great solemnity and baked into cakes for the whole assembly, who also partook of the first fruits of the local harvest, both wild and domesticated. In some versions of the mythology behind the feast, the cutting of the first stalk also represented the wounding of the god, who will die at Samhain (this is especially popular among neopagans, but how much emphasis it was given in the past is uncertain.) A woman was chosen from the tribe to represent the harvest goddess or an effigy was created, with offerings laid at her feet.

Unlike Beltane and Samhain, which are fire festivals, Lughnasa is a water festival. Just as cattle were purified by driving them between bonfires on Beltane, so horses were ridden through water (forcing them to swim) to bless them. Other customs included dressing sacred wells with flowers and the burial of flowers to signify the end of summer. Billberries, blueberries and blackberries were included in the ritual feasting.

Lughnasa lives on in the neopagan world today, its chaotic nature captured in the film Wicker Man and the play Dancing at Lughnasa (both historically inaccurate).



The Apple Branch by Alexei Kondratiev
The Land of the Gods by Philip Coppens
The Golden Bough by James Frazer

I is for Insight: Celtic Divination

I thought this was hilarious! Image linked to original source.

They didn’t have tarot cards (which came along in the 1400s), runes (those came later from the Anglo Saxons) or crystal balls (although those may have been in use as early as the year 500), but the Celts, and specifically the Druids, were big into divination – the art of seeing the future. Here are a few of the most common methods they used:

The Sight
Also called Second Sight, this is basic psychic ability. It was usually a trait of women and was thought to be passed in the female bloodline from mother to daughter. It was also developed among the prophetic class  (Ovates) of Druids. The visions seen and prophecy uttered by those with the sight, though often cryptic and filled with symbolism, were taken very seriously.

Forms of premonition, some of which we still joke about today, were also thought to tell the future in the body. Hence, if you mouth was itching, you’d soon be kissed, or if your ears were hot, someone was talking about your character.

Sometimes a dream is just a dream, but sometimes it is much more. As a means of divination, they could come unsolicited, be expected, or even induced. Occasionally, their meaning was interpreted by Druid, but not as often as you’d think. If the dream was intentionally sought, the dreamer prepared by meditation, some kind of ritual purification (fasting was common) and animal sacrifice. In the case of the famous Bull Dream, the dreamer also slept in the hide of a sacred animal – a practice common to many shamanistic religions, including the Native Americans. (The Bull Dream was how the ancient kings of Tara in Ireland were selected.) In addition, some locations were thought to induce prophecy due to the presence of the supernatural, especially areas near water or sacred groves, so the location in which the dreamer slept could play an important role. Lastly, induced dreams were usually precipitated by the use of mind-altering herbs (something I don’t recommend to anyone, just for the record), many of which are now considered poisonous.

Shoulder Blade Reading
We’ve all heard the tales of Druids reading entrails, but one distinctly Celtic form of divination is the reading of the marks in the shoulder blade of an animal, usually an ox, bear, fox or sheep. It was especially common in the Highlands of Scotland. This was an actual profession that consisted of boiling the bone, preparing it and reading the marks, which could indicate those people to be met in the future, while holes and indentations could mean death or prosperity depending on their size and location.

Omens were sought for nearly every activity, but were especially important when setting out on a journey. The first animal you saw, its posture and actions, as well as the gender, clothing and actions of the first person you meet on your way all foretold the success or failure of your quest. Birds were a special subset of animals known to foretell the future. Certain birds were sacred to the Celts and their flight patterns, calls and other behavior were used to divine the future. For the Irish, the raven and the wren were especially strong portents of the future. Depending on the type of cry the bird gave and where it was positioned when it called, it could mean anything from the imminent arrival of visitors to death and doom for the household. (If you want details, read pages 144-146 of John Matthews’s Secrets of the Druids. He gives an astonishing number of meanings.)

Casting Lots
Similar to the modern casting of ruins, the Celts would toss a group of sticks (some say made from the nine sacred woods), bones or stones and read the resulting pattern to see if a sick person would get well, to identify a future mate, or tell the positive or negative fortune of a person.

Water gazing

Water scrying

Everyday Divination
As mentioned in previous posts, there were also various other forms of common divination, usually to help find love, employed by the everyday Celts. These include the dancing of hazelnuts held over the fire at Samhain, the pattern in the ashes of the fire on Imbolc or dreaming of one’s soul mate on Beltane. Scrying, or gazing into pools of water, flames of fire, or finding patterns in the clouds was also common among both Druids and everyday people.

What methods of Celtic divination have you heard of? Which most interest you? Would you want to know the future if you could?


The main source for this post is John Matthews’s Secrets of the Druids, but I’ve also used a few books discovered in Google Books, including Survivals in Belief Among the Celts by George Henderson.

Beltane: Celtic Fertility Festival

“It’s May, it’s May, the lusty month of May! That lovely month when everyone goes blissfully astray.” Yes, I’m channeling Guinevere in the legendary musical, Camelot. Who better to introduce the festival of Beltane (May 1) than the controversial queen? After all, Lerner and Loewe were right. Beltane is all about sex and fertility. And the Celts, unlike the Victorians, weren’t shy about it.

When we looked at Samhain and Imbolc, two of the other high holy days on the Celtic calendar (Lughnasa is yet to come), I took you through them in an experiential way through a short piece of fiction. The reason I’ve chosen not to do so with Beltane is that there is a long section of Book 1 that takes place on Beltane and I’m afraid anything I do here would too closely mirror what’s in the book. So I’m going to cover the festival on a more theoretical basis.

Beltane is the second most sacred of Celtic festivals, just behind Samhain (October 31). In some ways you can think of these two festivals like Christmas and Easter for some Christians. Even if you didn’t practice the rest of the year, you celebrated these two holidays. Beltane is on the opposite end of the wheel of the year from Samhain, and celebrates the light half of life, the life-giving, nurturing fertility of this time of year. (It’s actually the first day of summer on the Celtic calendar.) Like Samhain, Beltane was celebrated with great bonfires and revelry (and still is in parts of the world; check out the Beltane Fire Society to learn about modern celebrations in Edinburgh). Cattle were driven between bonfires as a way of blessing and purifying them, and many young couples daringly leapt over the flames or danced among them.

Taking it to its most basic level, you could say Beltane was an excuse to party. It was a celebration of the sexual union of the God and Goddess, and the creative energies born from their love-making. These energies were thought to bless the land, animals and people, bestowing health and fertility on all. And so the people of the Celtic tribes, unencumbered by prudish morals, took the opportunity to emulate the gods and spent Beltane night in feverish coupling. According to many sources, it didn’t matter if the partners knew one another previously or not, for on that night, all women were the Goddess incarnate and all men, the God. But it wasn’t just sex; it was a holy union blessed by the gods. Sometimes, a May Queen and May King were chosen to partake in these erotic roles in an especially sacred way or, in tamer times, to reenact the wedding of the God and Goddess in a non-sexual pageant before the whole village.

Another common Beltane theme, one that mirrors Samhain, is the hunt. At Samhain, you have Herne the Hunter, the dark god who rides the autumn sky with his red-eyed hell hounds in supernatural hunt. But on Beltane you have the image of the Great Hunt, of either a wild boar, or as beautifully depicted in The Mists of Avalon, the King Stag. Similarly, some branches of Celtic belief attach the story of the triumph of the Oak King (summer) over the Holly King (winter) to Beltane (although many neo-pagan groups associate this story with Midsummer, instead). No matter which mythology you choose, the idea is the same. Just as the light overpowers the darkness on Beltane, so does the younger generation topple the old in the hunt, giving reign to the powers of life and fertility once again.

Beltane is the other festival in which the veil between our world and the spirit world is virtually nonexistent. At Samhain, spirits of the dead roamed the lanes, but on Beltane, faeries and other nature spirits rule the day. While some invoked the tamer nature spirits, the Celts knew a dark side to the fey as well, so many used talismans against changelings (faerie babies put in place of stolen human babies) near this festival. Faeries could easily beguile people and animals on this night, taking them under control and leading them away to their mounds, where one day was equivalent to centuries in the mortal realm. To ward off such danger, the bonfires were made of nine sacred woods, and offerings of wine, milk or a pottage of oats were left outside the festival areas to divert and appease any fey who might be attracted to the revelry.

Today, Beltane lives on in Maypole dances (an ancient fertility rite in which the pole is phallic, the ribbons represent its union with the feminine, and the dance the act of intercourse), May Day and Catholic May Crowning ceremonies (which many point to as a form of veiled Goddess worship). Then again, in some parts of the world, it hasn’t changed at all. Check out this article from The Telegraph on the resurgence in popularity of the feast.

Do you celebrate Beltane? If so, how? What traditions live on in your part of the world? Have you read about Beltane festivals in books (fiction or non-fiction)? What are your favorite portrayals?

Celtic Christianity

Image by Keith Talbot of KT Art

Up until now, I’ve focused mainly on the Druid religion in my posts. That’s because the majority of my characters are pagan. But in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, Christianity was gaining a strong foothold in England, so I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Celtic Christianity, the religion to which some of my favorite characters adhere.

At the time of Arthur and Guinevere, there were three main branches of Christianity: Roman, Celtic and Byzantine (Eastern Orthodox)/Oriental. That Britain had its own unique brand of Christianity is perhaps not that surprising, given its relative isolation from the rest of Europe after the departure of the Romans in 410 AD.

I’m not an expert in Celtic Christianity, nor do I aim to be, but I did some research to learn more about the early days of this religion in Britain. It seems to have started sometime around the end of the fourth century and continued until the Synod of Whitby in 644, when the Roman Church prevailed. Here are the main differences between Celtic Christianity and the Roman sect:

  1. The Calculation of Easter – Along with the tonsure  (see #2), the date of Easter was the biggest controversy that kept the Celtic Church divided from the Roman tradition. The calculation of the date of Easter has always been very complicated, involving a lunisolar calendar (time in the solar year as well as the phases of the moon). As time went on, the calculations changed, but the updated information didn’t always reach Britain. So chances are good this controversy arose by accident, with the Britons thinking they were doing the right thing.
  2. The Tonsure – Tonsure refers to the way religious men (monks, ans sometimes priests) shaved their hair to show their religious calling. The Roman Church said the top of the head was to be shaved, with a circle of hair allowed to grow around it (think Friar Tuck). The Celtic custom was to draw a line over the head from ear to ear and shave the hair in front of it (picture a mullet with nothing in the very front). The Roman authorities claimed their style dated back to St. Peter and claimed the Celtic style was modeled on a pagan magus (likely a Druid). I fail to understand why this was such a big deal. And if the story of St. Peter is to be believed, just because he was balding meant all men who followed in his ministry had to be, too? That hardly seems fair!
  3. Baptism – At the time, most people entering the Church were adults (although infant baptism was practiced as well). The Roman and Celtic churches bickered over whether the candidate was to be sprinkled with water (as many churches do today) or immersed, and if immersed, should they be dunked three times or only one? At the time, both conferred First Communion and Confirmation at the time of Baptism. However, oil (chrism) was a scarce resource that had to imported to Britain, so it is said that sometimes Confirmation in the Celtic Church was performed without it, something the Roman authorities didn’t like. The Celtic Church also added on to the Baptism rite a unique, sacred foot washing ceremony, much like Jesus is said to have done at the Last Supper. (I would have love to have seen this. It sounds like it could have been very moving.)
  4. Consecration of Bishops – Bishops held office in Britain as early as 314 AD. In Roman tradition, three bishops were required to consecrate a new bishop, but in the Celtic Church it was less likely for three to be able to get together so they (gasp!) sometimes only had one bishop to consecrate a new one. There was also some quibbling over the proper prayers to be said at this rite.
  5. Naming/Consecrating Churches – In Roman tradition, churches were always named after dead saints, but the Celtic Church often named churches after their living benefactors, which caused quite the scandal.
  6. Differences in the Mass – I won’t bore you with the details (in fact I’m not enough of a theologian to really understand them), but suffice it to say there were regional differences in the prayers said at Mass and even the order in which things were performed. Priests even had latitude to make up their own prayers for many centuries, and chances were very good the Celtic Church incorporated a lot of the pagan traditions of the people. (Yet another reason for the Roman sect to want to suppress it.)

What does this tell me? For one, making a mountain out of a mole hill is a long and venerable tradition in the Church. And so is the desire for conformity. That is probably the thing that comes through the clearest in my Christian characters. They have their rules and they want everyone around them to abide by them. But that doesn’t mean they’ve lost their sense of Biblical values. They are also some of the kindest, most merciful people in my stories. Like every other group, you have your good ones and your bad ones – and frankly, the bad ones are most fun to write and read. I can’t wait to introduce all of you to Father Marius, who is the reason I did this research into Celtic Christianity to begin with. If I’ve done my job, you’ll love to hate him.

Do any of you know anything about Celtic Christianity (the ancient religion, not the modern revivals)? If so, I’d love to hear about it.

Imbolc: Herald of Spring

Imbolc (February 2) is the second of four high holy days in the Celtic year. Although it takes place amid cold and snow, it marks the beginning of spring, for the Celts believed all life begins in the darkness of the womb of the earth. It’s also the feast of the goddess Brigid, patroness of fire/forge, poetry/inspiration and the mysteries of hearth and home, including healing and childbirth. Step back in time with me to a cold February morn to get a glimpse of the way this feast may have been celebrated.