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?

Samhain: The Celtic New Year

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.