Samhain: Season of Death and Renewal

by Alexei Kondratiev

Copyright © 1997 Alexei Kondratiev
All Rights Reserved
May be reposted as long as the above attribution and copyright notice are retained
[Originally published in An Tríbhís Mhór: The IMBAS Journal of Celtic Reconstructionism, volume 2, issue 1/2, Samhain 1997/Iombolg 1998.]

As the nights lengthen and the leaves take on their autumn colours, many of our cities prepare for a seasonal festival dominated by dark and frightening imagery.  Ghosts, skeletons, hags, nocturnal creatures such as cats and bats, and grinning monster faces peer out at us from shop windows.  Much of it is just commercialism, yet there is no denying that the atmosphere of the holiday still has a profound effect on the modern psyche -- as we can see from the spontaneous outrageousness of Hallowe'en parades, the creative expressions of death-related themes, and the general surge in mischief-making.  All these customs, however, are a diffuse reflection of the beliefs and practices of the  Celtic populations of Europe, for whom this feast was a crucial turning-point in the flow of time.

The earliest record we have of the festival of Samhain in the Celtic world comes from the Coligny Calendar, a native Celtic lunar calendar inscribed on bronze tablets and discovered in eastern France a hundred years ago.  The calendar -- dated, through epigraphic evidence, to the 1st century CE -- is written in the Latin alphabet and was found in conjunction with a Roman-style statue (identified by some writers as Apollo, by others as Mars), but the language used is Gaulish and the dating system itself bears little resemblance to Roman models, implying that it represents the survival of an indigenous tradition maintained by native clergy.  A detailed discussion of the calendar lies outside the scope of this article, but for our purposes it will be enough to point out that its year consists of twelve regularly recurring months that fall naturally into two groups, one headed by the month that is labeled SAMON (for Samonios) and the other by the month GIAMON (for Giamonios), and that the names of these two months are clearly related to the terms samos "summer" and giamos "winter" (cf.  Gaelic samh(radh) "summer", geamh(radh) "winter"; Welsh haf "summer", gaeaf "winter").  The date of SAMON- xvii is identified as TRINVX SAMO SINDIV, which can be readily interpreted as an abbreviation of Trinouxtion Samonii sindiu ("The three-night-period of Samonios [is] today").  This is one of the very few dates in the calendar that is given a specific name, testifying to its importance as a festival; and since Samoni- is obviously the origin of the modern name Samhain, it is reasonable to equate the Trinouxtion Samonii with the feast that is still one of the most important dates in the Celtic ritual year.

We should note, however, that since the Coligny Calendar gives no indication of how its months relate to those of the Roman calendar, we have no conclusive evidence that would allow us to fit it into the framework of our own year, and scholars are still very much divided on the issue.  The most confusing element, of course, is that Samon- refers to summer, and so would naturally lead one to think that a month with that name would head the summer half of the year; and many of the earlier interpretations of the Coligny Calendar take this for granted.  In living Celtic tradition, however, the festival of Samhain, despite its name, is definitely the beginning of winter.  Though such evidence doesn't necessarily exclude the possibility that Continental Druids used a completely different terminology, many scholars now accept the authority of the living tradition and place the Samonios month in October/November.

What does the name of the festival mean, however? Here, again,we run into controversy.  The traditional interpretation -- first put forward in the Mediaeval glossaries and still held to by native speakers -- is that it means "summer's end", being a combination of samh "summer" and fuin "ending, concealment".  This is obviously  a folk etymology, since we know that the earliest form of the word (Samoni-) had a different structure, but its importance to the living tradition should make us wary of dismissing it too lightly.  Although philologists have been unable to find a plausible Indo-European explanation for a suffix -oni- meaning "end of" (the suffix, by the way, occurs in at least three of the other Coligny months), this is not conclusive in itself: there are quite a few other derivational suffixes attested in Old Celtic that resist an easy Indo-European etymology, although their meanings are uncontroversial.  What should be kept in mind is that in the ritual context of the Celtic Year, Samhain is strongly identified with the "end" or "concealment" of Summer, the Light Half of the year.  In the modern Gaelic languages the festival is called Samhain (Irish), Samhuinn (Scots Gaelic), and Sauin (Manx).  The night on which it begins (Oíche Shamhna in Irish, Oidhche Shamhna in Scots Gaelic, Oie Houney in Manx) is the primary focus of the celebration.  The Brythonic languages call the feast by a name meaning "first of Winter", borrowing the Latin term calenda which designates the first day of a month (Welsh Calan Gaeaf, Breton Kala-Goañv, Cornish Kalann Gwav), but the beliefs and practices associated with it are consistent with what we find in the Gaelic countries, and will help us discover a pan-Celtic theology of Samhain.

The Coligny Calendar's division of the year into two halves associated with summer and winter is still very strongly reflected in Celtic folk practice, where the yearly cycle consists of a dark half beginning on Samhain (November 1st), mirrored by a light half beginning on Bealtaine (May 1st).  The rituals surrounding Samhain and Bealtaine are closely related to each other and make it clear that the two festivals are linked, but also that they deal with opposite energies within the unfolding of the year.  What is explicit and active in one is implicit and dormant in the other, and vice versa.  This is often expressed as the notion that what disappears in our world at once becomes present in the Otherworld, and it has even been suggested, on this basis, that Samhain's "summery" name was originally intended to designate the beginning of an Otherworld summer!  Whether this is plausible or not, it remains certain that while Samhain began one kind of yearly cycle, Bealtaine began another, and both could be construed as a kind of "New Year".  In ancient Ireland the High King inaugurated the year on Samhain for his household (and, symbolically, for all the people of Ireland) with the famous ritual of Tara, but in nearby Uisneach, the sacred centre held by the druids in complementary opposition to Tara, it was on Bealtaine that the main ritual cycle was begun.  In both cases sacred fires were extinguished and re-lit, though this happened at sunset on Samhain and at dawn on Bealtaine.  Bealtaine was a time of opening and expansion, Samhain a time of gathering-in and shutting, and for herd-owners like the Celts this was expressed with particular vividness by the release of cattle into upland pastures on Bealtaine and their return to the safety of the byres on Samhain.

Which of these two dates, then, should we think of primarily as the "Celtic New Year"? Although both deal with the beginning of a cycle, Samhain begins it in darkness, and there is no doubt about the pre-eminence of darkness in Celtic tradition.  In De Bello Gallico Julius Caesar notes that the Celts began their daily cycle with sunset (spatia omnis temporis non numero dierum, sed noctium finiunt; dies natales et mensum et annorum initia sic obseruant, ut noctem dies subsequatur -- "they define all  amounts of time not by the number of days, but by the number of nights; they celebrate birthdays and the beginnings of months and years in such a way that the day is made to follow the night"), and this is confirmed by later Celtic practice.  Darkness comes before light, because life appears in the darkness of the womb, all things have their beginning in the fertile chaos that is hidden from the rational mind.  Thus the year begins with its dark half, holding the bright half in gestation as the seeds lie in apparent death underground, although the forces of growth are already at work in Otherworldly invisibility.  The moment of death -- the passing into the concealing darkness -- is itself the first step in the renewal of life.

This association of death with fertility provided the theological background for a great number of end-of-harvest festivals celebrated by many cultures across Eurasia.  Like Samhain, these festivals (which, for example, included the rituals of the Dyedy ("Ancestors") in the Slavic countries and the Vetrarkvöld festival in Scandinavia) linked the successful resumption of the agricultural cycle (after a period of apparent winter "death") to the propitiation of the human community's dead.  The dead have passed away from the social concerns of this world to the primordial chaos of the Otherworld where all fertility has its roots, but they are still bound to the living by ties of kinship.  It was hoped that, by strengthening these ties precisely when the natural cycle seemed to be passing through its own moment of death, the community of the living would be better able to profit from the energies of increase that lead out of death back to life.  Dead kin were the Tribe's allies in the Otherworld, making it certain that the creative forces deep within the Land were being directed to serve the needs of the human community.  They were, in Celtic terms, a "humanising" factor within the Fomorian realm.

Whatever the specific elements had been that determined the proper date of the end-of-harvest honouring of the dead in various places, by the ninth and tenth centuries the unifying influence of the Church had led to concentrating the rituals on November 1st and November 2nd.  The first date was All Hallows, when the most spiritually powerful of the Christian community's dead (the Saints) were invoked to strengthen the living community, in a way quite consistent with pre-Christian thought.  The second date, All Souls, was added on (first as a Benedictine practice, beginning ca.  988) as an extension of this concept, enlarging it to include the dead of families and local communities.  Under the mantle of the specifically Christian observances, however, older patterns of ancestor veneration were preserved.

Most traditional Celtic communities maintain a year-round link of some sort with their departed, making them a part of all significant occurrences in the family, such as births, weddings and funerals.  In areas of the Irish Gaeltacht it is still not unusual for a  household to have a seomra thiar ("western room"), a section of the house (often just a nook or alcove) dedicated to the dead of the family.  Objects that bring individual dead relatives to mind (old photographs, pipes, jewelry, etc) are placed on a shelf or mantlepiece, and as one contemplates them one faces the setting sun and the vastness of the Atlantic, the direction the dead follow in their journey to the Otherworld.  The rituals of Samhain, however, involved a more intense bonding with the dead, using the institution which, in Celtic tradition, was used to cement social links in a sacred and durable manner: the communal feast.  Sharing food in a solemn context ("in the sight of gods and mortals") placed common and mutual responsibilities on all participants.  Inviting the dead to such a feast encouraged the living to remember and honour their ancestors, while the dead in return were encouraged to have an interest in the welfare of their living kin.

On Samhain, the moment of the year's death, this world and the Otherworld become equivalent to each other, classificatory boundaries are removed from all categories, no barriers exist between the dead and the living, so both can authentically come together  in one place to share a ritual feast.  Individual Celtic communities have preserved a wealth of different customs related to the way this feast was actually celebrated: one can still discern some distorted elements of them in modern urban practices, such as Hallowe'en parties and trick-or-treating.  Most of the customs, however, fall into two broad patterns.  According to the first, a certain amount of food was set aside for the exclusive consumption of the dead.  The dead were believed to be present as invisible entities; doors and windows were left unlocked to facilitate their coming into the house.  In some cases, a specific type of food (usually cakes of some kind) was made solely for the dead; in others, a portion of the same food that the living would eat was set aside for them.  The most classic example of this pattern (which is also found in Ireland and Scotland) is the boued an Anaon ("food of the hosts of the dead") custom in Brittany.  The Anaon (the word appears to be the same as Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld; it is certainly a pre-Christian term) are the massed hosts of ancestral spirits, usually portrayed as hungry for sustenance from the world of the living.  A large amount of food was set aside for their sole use, and had to remain untouched by any living hand for the full duration of the ritual period.  Eating the food of the dead (even if one was desperately hungry) was considered to be a dreadful sacrilege: it condemned one to becoming a hungry ghost after death, barred from sharing the Samhain feast along with the rest of the Anaon.  It was, in effect, a particularly horrible form of excommunication.

The other pattern of Samhain custom, on the contrary, encourages the recycling of the offered food into the community, thus strengthening social bonds.  The most classic example of this second pattern is the Welsh cennad y meirw ("embassy of the dead") custom, although similar customs are found elsewhere in the Celtic and ex-Celtic world.  Here, while the wealthier members of the community put together lavish Samhain feasts for their households, the poor take on the collective identity of the community's dead, and go from door to door to receive offerings in the name of the ancestors.  At each house they are given a portion of the food that has been set aside for the dead.  Originally the cenhadon would have been masked to abolish their mundane social roles and allow them to represent the dead more convincingly.  To refuse food to the cenhadon for any reason at all was an act of impiety and would invite retaliation in the form of destruction of property -- retaliation that would go unpunished because of the holy nature of the ritual period.  We can here see one of the origins of the "trick" aspect of our modern Hallowe'en customs, although nowadays it has largely lost its moral dimension.

A communal feast, of course, involves more than just food.  The dead would not only have to be fed, they would have to be entertained.  Games and pastimes associated with Samhain feasting vary a great deal from community to community, but they have certain themes in common.  While the younger people engage in the ritualised games, the elders will be gossiping, reviewing all the notable events of the past year for the benefit of the dead, who will then be encouraged to continue to take an interest in the affairs of the living.  The games themselves, in many cases, seem to have specific links with the mythology of death and the afterlife.  Many of them involve apples -- in part, of course, because they are one of the last crops to be brought in and are thus easily available, but also as a reflection of the role apples play in beliefs about death: in Irish tradition the Otherworld place where the dead gather at a feast is called Eamhain Abhlach ("paradise of apples"), and its Welsh equivalent is Afallon.  Some of the Scottish games in this context make use of parallel ordeals by water and fire, the two main elements out of which the world is made.  The water ordeal is the familiar bobbing for apples, while the fire ordeal involves trying to take a bite out of an apple attached to a hanging stick which also bears a lit candle.  This seems to be a reference to myths about the ordeals faced by the dead on their journey to the Otherworld -- a body of beliefs we unfortunately know only through fragments, although the basic concept of the journey and the ordeals is well established.  Sharing the experiences of the dead was yet another way of affirming the solidarity between the dead and the living, and of aligning the powers of renewal in the Otherworld with this world's needs.

While the dead were brought closer to the living by the formal sharing of food, other offerings had to be made to the Land-spirits to reward them for their cooperation during the Harvest period, and to replenish their creative energy as they prepared to enter into a new cycle.  With Samhain, the period of "truce" that had begun on Lúnasa was officially ended, and the fruits of the soil (especially wild crops) could no longer be harvested with impunity.  Well within living memory, children in Celtic communities were warned not to eat the late berries that might still be ripening on roadside bushes, because "the fairies" or "the devil" had made them dangerous to consume.  Having enabled the human community to survive by making the crops grow and by standing aside to let the Harvest take place, the powers of the Fomorian realm were now entitled to a gift of life-renewing blood; and Samhain was the season when the cattle that would not be kept through the winter were slaughtered.  In historical times the date of the slaughter has specifically been Martinmas (November 11), certainly in part because the name of the saint suggested the Gaelic word mart ("cattle marked for slaughter").  As late as the 1830's, when Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin discussed some of these customs in his famous diary, the occasion was understood as a ritual "shedding of blood", and other sources show that during the same period blood sacrifices could even still be held indoors, to protect a house from malignant "fairy" influences by sprinkling an offering of blood at each corner.

Renewing social links with the dead and feeding the Land-spirits were both ritual means of ensuring a safe future.  While Samhain (and the phenomenon of death which it celebrated) was obviously the end of a cycle, it was more importantly the start of a new one.  Because all true novelty springs from the chaotic freedom and vitality of the Otherworld, a new cycle could be inaugurated only by dissolving all of the structures of the old one -- just as the moment of death dissolves our identity in this world, allowing the fresh energies of the Otherworld to impel us towards new life.  This meant that, as happens in the feasts of renewal of many different cultures, certain types of social disorder were actively encouraged during the period of the festival, because they promoted the renewing influence of the Otherworld at the point in the yearly cycle where it would be most beneficial.  Customs originating entirely in the world of cultural values -- such as those relating to social rank or gender-appropriate behaviour -- were the most likely to be violated.  Disrespect could be shown to elders or to members of the upper classes.  Cross-dressing was one of the most widespread and popular ways of expressing the dissolution of social categories, and in parts of Wales groups of young men in female garb were referred to as gwrachod ("hags" or "witches") as they wandered through the countryside on Calan Gaeaf, indulging in all kinds of mischief.

But the disorder, of course, was only the prelude to the return of order in a strengthened form.  The structures that had been dissolved had to be re-created in order to channel the new energy from the Otherworld in the desired directions.  While local communities would have had their own diverse methods of accomplishing this ritually (often through the extinguishing and re-kindling of household fires), more elaborate ceremonies were conducted by religious specialists at the sacred centres of a territory, in the name of the entire population.  In pre-Christian Ireland the ritual of Tara, focusing on the High King in his role as linchpin of the social order, was the means for re-creating the world on Samhain.  The Middle Irish text entitled Suidigud Tellaig Temra (The Settling of the Household of Tara) describes the essentials of the ritual and relates some of the mythology that explains its symbolism (albeit with a somewhat Christianised background), while Geoffrey Keating, the seventeenth-century encyclopaedist of traditional Irish lore, provides us with additional explanations of some of the elements.  Since the Land itself, as a ritual entity, was conceived of as a square, so was Tara, for the purposes of this ceremony, seen as a four-sided space.  Each of the directions was associated with one of the three functional classes of society (and with the divinity who was seen as the ruler of that function), the South being devoted specifically to the power of the Land and to the goddess who gave energy to the exercise of the social functions.  The High King occupied the centre of the ritual area, while around him, strictly ordered by social rank, were representatives of the four provinces.  Thus, when the New Year actually dawned, the magical heart of Ireland would contain a model of the entire social order of the country in miniature, engaged in the solemn feasting whereby all social links were strengthened, and all parts of the country would then benefit from the influence of this ritual.  The actual inception of the new cycle was signaled by the lighting of a fire, not at Tara but at Tlachtga, which symbolically represented the southern province of Munster within the High King's central realm.  This was the place where Tlachtga, the daughter of the mythological Druid Mug Ruith, died after being raped by the "sons of Simon Magus" (who wanted to gain the knowledge and talents she had inherited from her father) and after giving birth to three sons from three different fathers.  This myth is obviously garbled in its modern version, yet one can still discern in it the figure of the Land-goddess and her three "functional" consorts.  The association of the festival with the pre-eminently "female" southern quarter may explain why in some Welsh and Scottish communities it is specified by custom that Samhain ritual (preparation of the ceremonial food, etc.) must be overseen by nine women (in contrast to the nine men who preside over Bealtaine).

What of the role of the gods in this crucial turning-point of the ritual year? Since virtually all our knowledge of detailed ritual practices among the Celts comes from Christianised communities, references to divinities who were actually worshipped are, as one would expect, rare and indirect.  However, some of the stories preserved in both folklore and mediaeval literature seem relevant to the theology of this feast.  Images such as that of the hero Diarmait killed by a boar after his romance with Fionn Mac Cumhail's wife Gráinne; or that of wild Myrddin emerging from the forest with a herd of stags to kill his wife's lover by piercing him with a pair of antlers; or that of Gwyn ap Nudd ("White son of Mistmaker") fighting with Gwythyr ap Greidawl ("Wrathful son of Hot") every Calan Mai (Bealtaine) "until the day of Judgment" for the hand of their common love, Creiddylad; and the notion of the Fianna living off the wilderness from Bealtaine to Samhain and indoors from Samhain to Bealtaine all suggest a myth of certain divinities changing their status in relation to the Land-goddess in response to the change of seasons along the Samhain-Bealtaine axis.  The common denominator of these motifs seems to be the figure of the antlered god now conventionally referred to as "Cernunnos", whose mythology has definite links to the stories of the Fianna and whose attributes symbolise seasonal change as well as the interface between nature and culture.  Antlers are a seasonal phenomenon: they drop off in winter and begin to reappear as velvet at winter's end, returning to full glory in the spring.  In Scots Gaelic terminology, the month immediately preceding Samhain is called an Damhar (damh-ghar, "stag-rut"), because it is when stags clash with each other during the mating season, shortly before losing their antlers, as the antlered god must undoubtedly lose his (which is why some "Cernunnos" statues -- like the one from St. Germain -- apparently had holes for removable antlers).  Our sense of the seasonal importance of this event in Celtic ritual symbolism is reinforced by the custom in southwestern Brittany of baking appropriately shaped cakes called kornigoù ("little horns") to celebrate the coming of winter.  From the many versions of the myth one can deduce that the antlered god is separated from his goddess-consort (who takes another lover) during the light half of the year, when he must live as a renunciate in the wilderness and wear his horns; but that with the coming of the dark season his rival is eliminated and he can return to his consort's embrace in the Otherworld -- abandoning, by the same token, the "horns" of his cuckoldry.  It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the bonnag Samhna -- the Samhain cake prepared specifically for the ritual-- made by the women who preside over the Samhain feast in parts of Gaelic Scotland is named after a cuckold in the community.  And we find echoes of the same motif (as we often do) at the other end of the Indo-European world, in the ritual calendar of India, where on Divali (Dipâvali), the Feast of Lights, which is usually celebrated very close to Samhain, Lakshmi, the goddess of abundance and well-being, leaves her usual consort Vishnu (who falls asleep at this time) to return temporarily to her first husband, Kubera, the fat god of material riches.

The Land-goddess, too, changes her appearance at this time: the fertile part of her retreats to the Otherworld where she can join with her consort in beginning the creative work of the new yearly cycle (in their summer, which is our winter, as it were), but in our world only her "Fomorian" aspect remains, making the land barren and hostile to human comfort.  In the Scottish Highlands this is the season of the Cailleach Bheura, the monstrous hag who wanders in the hills bringing bad weather, while in Wales we hear of the Hwch Ddu Gwta ("tailless black sow") who lurks menacingly in the darkness.  Yet these are all aspects of the same being, the multiform Provider on whom we all depend, who must, like all things, replenish herself through alternating periods of action and repose, and who touches -- as we all must -- darkness and death to find the source of true renewal.

Céitinn, Seathrún (Geoffrey Keating), (ed. by Padraig de Brún) Foras Feasa ar Éirinn. Dublin, 1982.
Danaher, Kevin, The Year in Ireland. Cork, 1972.
MacNeill, Eoin, On the Notation and Chronology of the Calendar of Coligny, Ériu 10 (1926).
McNeill, F. Marian, The Silver Branch. Glasgow, 1953-66.
Owen, Trefor M., Welsh Folk Customs. Cardiff, 1959.
Rees, Alwyn & Brinley, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales. New York.  1961.
Sébillot, P. Y., Le Folklore de la Bretagne. Paris, 1968.
Suidigud Tellaig Temra (R.I.  Best, ed.  and trans.), Ériu 4 (1910).

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