Samhain, or as we know it, Halloween, marks the beginning of the Celtic New Year. We have no records of exactly how this holiest of feasts was celebrated, but traditions passed on over thousands of years give us a good starting point. What follows is my dramatic imagining of what could have taken place at a Celtic Samhain ritual. Journey with me back in time, won’t you?
The last of the day’s dying light casts long shadows at your feet as you depart from your small cottage. Leaving the door slightly ajar, you look back one last time at the simple plate of bread and cheese on a table by the front window, sustenance for wandering ancestral spirits, and to the single burning taper meant to both welcome the good and ward off the malevolent. All is in place. You can make your journey in peace.
As you walk through the countryside to the forest, you pass the herders and shepherds, coaxing sheep down from their highland pastures to their winter pens and leading the weaker cattle to be slaughtered, their sacrifice a store against the cold, starving days of winter that linger just on the horizon. In the thick blanket of leaves on the side of the road, squirrels and children scrounge for the last of the nuts and withered berries, for this is the night of last harvest. Anything remaining on the vine after nightfall is taboo, left for the spirits, a gift for the puca, with its long, shining mane and luminescent yellow eyes, or the beguiling Sidhe who ride out from the hollow hills in search of humans to enchant. Your stomach tightens against the current of unease in the air. This is the time of magic, the time when the dead walk among the living, for the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest tonight.
It is dark by the time you reach the stone circle and the air is thick with the scent of wood smoke and sounds of merriment. Friends call greetings and beckon you to feast with them on the roasting meat of a sacrificed boar, freshly baked barley bread and dishes made from apples and gourds. You gladly accept a cup of cider and sit on the cold earth to sup.
Watching the crowd you see tribesmen of all ranks joined together to mark the end of one year and the beginning of the next. To the east, a group of giggling young girls take turns peeling apples and casting their seeds like lots to divine the identity of their future mates. In the center of the circle, a couple leans toward the bonfire, each grasping the handle of pan, seeing their future predicted in the dancing of the hazelnuts on its surface. All around you, a stream of dancers twirl, some from an overabundance of drink, while others keep the more sacred tradition of dancing to keep the evil spirits at bay.
You are about to join them when a hush falls over the crowd as an elderly woman enters the circle, her long gray hair trailing loose over the folds of a black cloak. You recognize her as the high priestess of the Druids and bow to show your respect as she passes by, shuffling footfalls echoed by the thumping of her walking staff.
When you rise, you see someone has placed a large cauldron over the fire. The woman takes her place behind it and lifts her arms in invocation. The air stills and the crowd holds its breath. When she looks up, her eyes hold an otherworldly fire and you realize the Goddess stands before you. Before you can draw breath, you hear her reedy voice resonate in your head, although her thin lips scarcely move.
“This night you pay homage to Me, keeper of wisdom, harbinger of death, She to whom all return in the end. In my cauldron you shall be reborn or taste the bitter dregs of death, dependant on your actions in this life. Come forth and drink in remembrance of those who have passed through the veil before you.”
Your Chieftain steps forward, carrying a bowl in which the blood of the slain boar was the collected. He and the Crone walk the circle moonwise and pour out the blood at the base of each stone in thanksgiving for the fertility of the past year and as a gift meant to ensure its continuance in the year to come.
Returning to the center, she dips the cup into the cauldron and presents it to the Chieftain. He drinks, passes it on to his family, who give it to the next and so it makes its way around the circle. When it comes to you, you hesitate, seeing for a moment in its gleaming surface the blood of the fallen boar, even as its acrid smell identifies the contents as mere red wine. You swallow, wincing as the sour liquid winds its way to your belly, and seat yourself on the ground.This is the time for saying farewell to those whom the tribe has lost since the last Samhain festival. You close your eyes and slowly their faces take shape, the father lost to winter’s chill, the sister who died in childbirth, neighbors and friends who were their own bloody sacrifice in battle. And then you think of her, the Goddess Cerridwen. You must make you peace with her, for life is fickle and you know not if you will live to see this festival again. After several moments of silent prayer, another face rises in the darkness, a man crowned with antlers. It is his voice you hear this time, the dying God.
“Mourn me not, for I shall always return. Born on the longest night as the child of light, I wait only for the return of the sun. Blessings be upon you and those you hold dear.”
As you watch, his antlers fall off and he is swept into the Goddess’ ancient embrace.
When you open your eyes, you see the priestess is now gone. The ritual is over. All that remains of the former revelry are a few people casting objects into the fire – bunches of reeds or scraps of cloth representing their prayers – and those still rapt in private contemplation.
Taking a torch lit from the bonfire, you join your friends for the journey home, for no one should wander alone this night. There is solace in numbers from both the wolves howling in the hills and the wandering spirits.
Later, as you rest your weary head, you reflect on the transition of this ritual, from the time of harvest into the season of silence and of sleep. Though the land will soon be swathed in ice and snow, deep within the frozen earth, life goes on unseen. And from these tiny seeds, swaddled in their loamy wombs, shall rise the buds of spring.
The Celts understood time completely differently than we do. Time was circular, rather than linear. Like the modern Jewish calendar, they reckoned days from sunset to sunset, rather than from dawn to midnight like we do. So in their world, an important feast day would begin at an hour we would today consider the night before. Are you confused yet? This is why I’ve chosen to take artistic licence in my books and count days as we do in the modern world, beginning each day at dawn. Anything else, although technically more accurate, would be too confusing for the reader (and for me!)
Another way the Celts’ sense of time differed from ours was in their calendar. The year was divided into the the dark half of the year (approximately October 31 through April 30) when night was dominant, and the light half of the year (approximately May 1 through October 30) when the sun’s light was at its strongest. They counted 13 lunar months, whereas our Gregorian calendar (adopted in 1582) counts 12 months. Each month began with the full moon and ended right before the next one, whereas if we in the modern world think of the moon at all, the new moon is associated with beginnings, the full moon with the apex of energy and the dark moon with the end of the lunar cycle. In the Celtic calendar, each full moon had its own name/theme based on the agricultural goings on at the time (plow/seed moon, harvest moon, snow moon, etc.) This system worked well until after the feast of Samhain, when there was a period of five days between the festival and the calendrical start of the new year. This was a “time outside of time,” much like our modern leap day, only it held great spiritual significance because it was a time when anything could happen because none of the normal rules applied. Some also say the Celtic zodiac also associated each lunar month with one of 13 sacred trees, but others argue this originated in fiction, but was adopted by modern neopagans as fact.
The seasons were also different for the Celts than we now think of them. Spring began in February, summer in May, autumn in August and winter in October. The Celts, being an agrarian people, divided their year into four great festivals:
1. Samhain (October 31) – The beginning of the year and the festival of death (the Celts believe in reincarnation and were very spiritually connected to their ancestors, so this wasn’t as morbid as it sounds), for both mortals and the God. This day marked the beginning of winter and is where the modern celebration of Halloween and the Catholic holy days of All Saints and All Souls come from.
Imbolc (February 2) – A celebration of the strengthening light of the sun and women’s mysteries, especially childbirth (lambs gave birth around this time of year). This day marked the beginning of spring, plowing and seeding time, and is where the modern Groundhog Day and Catholic feast of Candlemas began.
Beltane (May 1) – This is the festival of life, the exact opposite of Samhain, a sacred fertility festival (for both land and people) dedicated to the sexual union of the Goddess and God. Needless to say, many babies were born nine months later. This day marked the beginning of summer and is where modern May Day festivals and Catholic May crownings evolved from.
Lughnasa (August 1) – The first harvest was treated with great reverence, with the first fruits being dedicated to the Goddess and God. In Ireland, the feast centered on the god Lugh and was celebrated by all manner of sport and feats of strength. This day marked the beginning of autumn and is where the modern Christian feast of Lammas has its origins.
Over the next year, as each of these feasts comes around, I’m going to try to show you how they would have been celebrated by the Celts, but not just by telling you as I do here. I want you to experience each one as though you were there. Be on the lookout for the first of these posts on October 31.
It is debatable as to whether the Celts celebrated the winter and summer solstices and the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, but I personally believe they did. Sacred sites such as Stonehenge, Woodhenge, and Newgrange (not to mention other holy hills and some burial chambers) are precisely aligned with these celestial events, so I find it difficult to believe that the Druids, great astronomers that they were, paid them no heed. In their calendar, these festivals marked the middle of the seasons and correspond perfectly with our modern terms of mid-winter and mid-summer.
God’s teeth? No, that oath came about a thousand years later. By the angel!? Nope, wrong book series. (10 points if you comment and can tell me which one it’s from.) Merlin’s beard! Okay, maybe that one.
It’s tough to say by whom Guinevere and Arthur would have sworn or exactly what sort of faith they may have professed, other than it was likely influenced by both Druidism and Christianity. Of course, I make assumptions in my books to suit my fiction, but in their historical time (approximately 475-530 AD), Celtic religion encompassed a variety of influences, especially those from the Roman Empire, and beliefs varied from tribe to tribe. But here are a few generalizations we can make:
They loved nature – Did you know there were no Celtic churches? That’s because the Celts believed in worshiping in nature, rather than in man-made temples. Oak groves, stone circles and sacred springs were about as close as they got to holy structures, and those shrines usually were tended to or presided over by a Druid. (No, Merlin did not build Stonehenge; neither did the Druids. It was actually built several thousand years before the Arthurian period.) Because of their close association with nature, the Druids were believed to be able to control the weather. There was also some belief the Druids could shape shift into animal form, which was probably derived from the shamanistic practice of wearing the animal skin/horns/feathers in ritual to invoke its power, similar to Native American practice. And no, they didn’t sacrifice people on a mass scale. Possibly a few here and there, but why, when and how is up for debate.
They had a god/goddess for everything – The Celtic connection to nature and their agrarian lifestyle also influenced the way they saw their deities. They loved triple symbolism, so often their deities show up in three-fold form. For example, the Goddess is said go through a whole life cycle each year: maiden (spring), mother (summer and fall) and wise woman (winter). Likewise, the God was said to live through three phases each year: young child (late winter/spring), strong man/lover (summer/early fall), and dying old man (late fall/early winter), who would be reborn on the midwinter solstice along with the sun. (More to come on the Celtic calendar and how their holy days fit in a future post.)
The three aspects of the Celtic goddess: maiden, mother and wise woman
So, with all these options, who you gonna call? (No, not Ghostbusters.) The answer depends on what you need. If you were a Celtic blacksmith, a woman in labor or just in need of some poetic inspiration, you’d invoke the goddess Brigid. Going into battle? Mirthas might be your man. (He’s a Roman god adopted by the Celts during the Roman occupation. There’s even some speculation that he was Arthur’s preferred god.) If a goddess is more your style, call on the Morrigan to aid your fight.
Some deities were specific to a location such as a sacred spring or holy grove (the goddess Coventina was worshiped at a spring near Hadrian’s Wall), while others were tribal deities who date back into the murky past of the pre-Roman Celts. And some were more popular and wide-spread than others, such as the goddesses Airanrhod, Branwen, Blodeuwedd, Rhiannon and Cerridwen, especially beloved in what is now Wales, or the gods Cernunnos (the Horned One), Herne (the Hunter) or Lugh (Lord of Light).
They co-existed with Christians – There’s great debate in the historical community about when Christianity came to Britain (probably sometime around 300-400 AD, but it wouldn’t rise to total prominence for a few hundred more years) and even greater debate among Arthurian scholars as to whether or not Arthur was Christian. (Most stories have him being Christian, but they were written well after Christianity became the dominant religion.) In reality, Guinevere and Arthur’s beliefs could have gone either way because that time period was one of transition where the old ways (Druidism) were dying out, but not completely dead, and the new power (Christianity) was rising, but didn’t quite have a hold. I’d love to tell you how that plays out in my books, but you’ll have to wait to read them to find out.
Close your eyes and picture a Druid. What do you see? Chances are a white bearded man in a white robe springs to mind, perhaps with a golden sickle and a bough of mistletoe, someone similar to Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, right? That’s what we’ve been conditioned to think of by both “historical” accounts from Roman and Greek contemporaries and Hollywood.
A Druidess by Alexandre Cabanel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In reality, the Druids were a far more diverse group, young and old, including men (who were called Druids) and women (who were called priestesses). They made up the most powerful class of Celtic society. And unlike in some modern religions, they were free to marry, with Druids often marrying priestesses or either one marrying warrior nobles. There were some who voluntarily chose chastity, such as the virgin priestesses who guarded the sacred fire of the Goddess Brigid in Ireland before the coming of Christianity, but they were an exception, rather than the rule.
There were three groups of Druids:
Priests – Led ritual, taught the young, and persevered the religious tradition of the tribe.
Bards – Composed music and poetry that was believed to have a magical effect. A bard’s song was thought to be able to induce sleep, control mood and cause illness or death. The satire of a bard (also known as the Poet’s Curse) permanently ruined a leader’s reputation and so was often used by warring tribes against one another.
Prophets – Divined the future through the reading of patterns in animal entrails, tracks or flight patterns or by casting of lots of sacred wood (similar to reading runes). Some also received messages from the gods and goddesses.
The head Druid was called the Archdruid and he was elected by his peers.
Power and Function
The Druids held great power. In Ireland, the Druids chose the King through a shamanistic ritual call The Bull Dream. In the Irish court, no one, including the King, could speak before the court Druid had spoken. The word of a Druid was final, even if a more powerful noble disagreed. If you went against a Druid ruling, he or she could strip you of your rights, barring you from religious ceremony and all tribal matters, rendering you an outlaw without tribe or purpose.
Although exempt from taxes and military service, it was not uncommon for a Druid to accompany an army into battle. A Druid could stop a fight with a single word, even if the local noble or warrior leading the fight disagreed. There was also a custom that solider would always yield his or her weapon to a Druid if they asked for it, even in the middle of a battle.
Becoming a Druid
Almost all Druids were recruited from the nobility. It is believed that training took nearly 20 years for a priest or prophet and 7 – 12 years for a bard (and this in an age when the life span was pretty short – probably no longer than 35-40). It is said that at one time there were 13 Druid colleges (yes, that’s what they called them) or centers of learning in Britain alone. All religious learning was done orally and so the Druids became known for their astounding feats of memorization (which are even more amazing viewed through our modern, writing-dependant, ADD mindset). But that also meant much of their tradition was lost over time (I’ll go in-depth on their religious beliefs in a future post). It is known that the Druids had a secret written language known only to them called Ogham. Its letter were named for the sacred Celtic trees, but its purpose remains a mystery (theories name it everything from a method of accounting to a secret code for communicating with non-Latin speakers).
But not all who studied with them stayed for the long haul. Many children of nobility were there only to learn from the gifted mathematicians, astrologers and healers among them. It is also probable that they were great linguists, considering there were dozens of tribes at any given time in Britain alone, each with their own language (or at least dialect) and the Druids were known to communicate internationally with one another in Latin and Greek.
The Druids underwent severe persecution by the Romans in Britain, because the Romans both feared and were jealous of their judicial power, ability to incite rebellion and religious sway. They routinely attacked Druid centers, cutting down their sacred oak groves and slaughtering the Druids. The most famous attack was on the Isle of Anglesey (then called the Isle of Mona) in 6o AD, which was so brutal that the event became known as the Rape of Mona. Still, the religion perservered until the late sixth century, when Christianity finally took over.
Okay trivia and history buffs, listen up. Here are 10 things you probably didn’t know about the Celts and probably should before reading my books:
Say it with me: Celtic. It’s pronounced “kell-tic” with a hard “c” like the word “call.” Only the Boston basketball team says it “sell-tic.” You would insult a Celt by saying it wrong. And you don’t want to cross the Celts. They’re a temperamental bunch.
The Celts founded Austria. Although we normally think of the Celts as living in Britain and Ireland, before they were forced west by barbarian tribes, they founded or at least influenced some of the most advanced cultures of central Europe, including Austria and parts of modern-day France, Germany and Spain. (My mom and maternal line are from Vienna, so I’m proud to call myself an ancient Celt.)
Celtic women were very independent. They enjoyed equal (and in some times and places, higher) status to men. They were educated, fought in battle, served as Druid priestesses and even as Queens. Oh, and they wore makeup, just not as much as the Egyptians. More on Celtic women in a future blog post.
Marriage was complicated. There were as many as 10 kinds of legal marriage including polygamy, rape, and marriage by kidnapping. Divorce was not only legal, but common. But there were no illegitimate children or orphans because the tribe cared for all children. More in a future post.
They invented many things. Chain mail armor, horseshoes, organized farming and crop rotation, mechanical harvesters and rotating flour mills (technology that would be lost for hundreds of years after the Anglo-Saxons conquered them), fertilizer (the natural kind), the iron plough share, iron rimmed wheels, and according to the Greeks, soap!
Blonde hair and blue eyes were common. I always thought only Nordic and Germanic people were fair colored, but my research says otherwise. Blonde and red-gold hair were common among the Celts, as were blue eyes and pale, “milk-like” skin. The Celts also were very tall for their time, a fact that many Roman historians remarked upon.
They wore pants. Seriously. We think of tunics and kilts (that was a Pictish thing, not Celtic). Both men and women wore trousers when in battle. Men wore them at other times as well, but every day dress for a woman was usually a bell-shaped tunic secured by a belt. (Sorry guys, bodices didn’t come for another several hundred years.)
Being fat was a punishable crime. The Celts would not like modern America. As a warrior race, they were obsessed with physical prowess. Being fat (sometimes measured by belt size) was a disgrace and could be punished by a heavy fine.
They were an artistic people. The Celts were talented metalworkers. They made intricate jewelry of bronze and gold, wore brightly colored and patterned clothes, embroidered and decorated everything they could, and invented the spiraling, knot-like pattern we associate with them today.
The Celts owned slaves. We tend not to think about that, but slaves were a part of their class system (more in a future blog post), as in many other conquering societies. Slaves were the only class (at least of women) who wore their hair short, as a sign of their bondage.
Not nearly as backwards of a group as you thought, huh? And this is just a taste. More info to come in future posts.
Sources: Who Were the Celts? by Kevin Duffy Daily Life of the Pagan Celts by Joan Alcock
So which fact surprised you the most or was your favorite? Let me know in the comments and I’ll see what else I can tell you about it.