Monday Muse: On Samhain

Hello, readers, and welcome to this week’s Monday Muse! As promised, I’m using this last M.M. of October to delve into the origins of Halloween and, hopefully, convert at least half of you to my “Get Supernatural Some Better Researchers” position. So, let’s get started!

Halloween is a pretty old holiday. (Auspicious start for a blog, yeah?) Its origins lie in the Celtic peoples of (parts of) Great Britain and Ireland, aka the Gaels, in their holiday Samhain (which is currently experiencing an up-swing among neo-Pagans and Wiccans today). Now, before we move on, let me indulge in a bit of “no one can pronounce my name correctly and it’s led to a bit of a tic” pedantism; the name is pronounced Sow-win, with Sow rhyming with ‘ow’ and not ‘row row row your boat’. So, basically, the way most Americans really want to pronounce JK Rowling’s name. So…get away from Sam-hane and get used to Sow-win.

All right…moving on. For a moment, I’m going to address my Wiccan friends: your beliefs do have a place, of course, but as it’s a reconstructionist religion based in the 20th century, I would feel remiss as a historian if I included it here. Now, the notions of inviting the dead to dine and the “dark half” of the year are definitely historical, so they will be included here. Notions of the God dying and whatnot? No.

Samhain is one of the two holidays–the other being Beltane–for which scholars can find a preponderance of contemporary evidence. It’s mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature (we’re talking thousands of years ago) and I can’t tell you how many Irish myths involve someone getting drunk on Samhain and making a boast he/she has to follow through on. Cuchulain (aka the Hound of Ulster) seems to feature in those drunken bets quite a bit. (Note: he’s my favorite, so I felt like I had to mention him.) In doing my research for this article (aka Google and Wikipedia, because I realized today I don’t have any books specifically about Ancient Irish religion), I found out that the Mound of the Hostages (a Neolithic passage tomb) is aligned with the Samhain sunrise. So, basically, there’s a lot of evidence that it was a really important holiday.

Now, what specifically did it celebrate? The beginning of winter and the dark half of the year. It’s celebrated from sunset on October 31st to sunset on the following day. Of course, it must be noted that most Celtic holidays (and not just the Irish ones) tended to begin the night before (check out Walpurgis–German Beltane–for example, as well as the notion of Christmas Eve) because the Celtic day actually began at sunset. So Samhain began at the beginning of the day the way Celts reckoned things.

But wait, C! Nov 1st isn’t the beginning of winter. It’s not even the winter solstice (Yule, to those German types)! Yes, dear reader, you are correct. There is scholarly evidence to suggest that this comes from the fact that the ancient Irish (and British) were herders, not farmers, so their calendar revolved around the herds rather than the fields. Historically, Samhain marked the day the herds came in from the summer fields and livestock were slaughtered for the coming winter. Yule, as I mentioned, is Germanic; the ancient tribes of what eventually became Germany were agriculture-based, hence their winter celebration being more in line with the seasons. You know how the Christmas tree comes from Germany? There you go. Yule. Anyway, going back to Samhain; it is the fact that the Celts believed that sunset marked the beginning of the new day that leads many scholars to believe that Samhain is also the New Year. After all, getting drunk and making promises seems to be a New Year’s tradition; it’s just that modern people don’t intend to keep the promises they make.

So…Samhain is the beginning of winter. That’s it? Where’d the pumpkins come from? The costumes? The candy? Well, calm down. I’m getting there. Yes, the cattle are brought down and it’s the beginning of winter, but remember that drunkenness I just mentioned? Well, there’s also fire. And faeries. And food. Lots of food.

You see, as the beginning of the dark half of the year, Samhain is also basically an Ancient Irish Wake. And, if Irish drinking songs have taught you anything, it’s that the Irish love a good wake. Basically, Samhain is the mirror to Beltane, which marks the beginning of summer (the light half) and the living time; Samhain, then, becomes a festival for the dead. Like Beltane, fires were built that were believed to have special properties of protection and cleansing. Also like Beltane, Samhain is a liminal time, when the boundaries between the realms were at their thinnest. Through this thin boundary could come the Aos Si (sorry for no dash up there; my laptop won’t let me), from whom the Irish felt the need to protect themselves, and the spirits of the dead, with whom the Irish intended to dine. It is the Aos Si (the faeries) that needed propitiating, not the dead (and certainly NOT DEMONS), and offerings were left out for them in order that they might, well, leave everyone alone. The Aos Si weren’t nice; they could be really damn scary if they wanted to be.

So…was that the origin of trick or treating? Sort of. You see, there was also a tradition of mumming, wherein people would dress up in costumes and go from door to door reciting verse for food. These costumes were also a way of imitating the Aos Si, as well as disguising one’s self from them. The costumes, the propitiation of the Aos Si, and the mumming seem to have amalgamated themselves into the modern Halloween tradition of trick or treating. Pumpkins? Not really a part of Samhain. Nor were the turnips that were popular in Ireland, which the pumpkin replaced in America because it was so much more abundant here. They came later, after Christianity wormed its way through the world. (Worm…because it’s Halloween! Ha!)

OK…there’s a lot more to mention, but I seem to have hit what I’m trying to impose as my word limit here. Anyway…divination seems to have been a thing on Samhain, linked to the fire (so…everyone turned into Melisandre, basically), and there are some hints that sacrifice may have been involved (though the evidence for this is mythological and/or Christian in nature, so perhaps best taken with a grain of salt). Cuchulain would like me to mention that the famous Cattle Raid of Cooley was only successful because no one expected a cattle raid in winter, and it was cowardly to resort to such artifice to achieve victory. He’s understandably bitter. It was only his fault the invasion was successful at all…

Anyway. There are a lot of individual rituals that I could get into, but I don’t think I should write a full-on essay again. I’m already late as it is. The thing to remember is that the Ancient Irish were a tribal community, meaning that each tribe tended to have their own individual traditions. What I’ve described is the overarching tradition.

Now. One more thing: THERE IS NO DEMON NAMED SAMHAIN (prounounced Sam-hane). If I see one more person using Supernatural as a source on anything like this, I think I might Hulk out. People of the world: Supernatural is a TV show and should NEVER be cited. Ever. On top of that, whomever their researcher is…Oh, who am I kidding, they don’t have one. Their idea of research is typing “I need a god who’s fast” and going, “Oh! Mercury! Perfect!” before using him as a glorified servant to other gods. Just…enjoy the show, but do not go around claiming people had to hide from Samhain the demon. Please.

Anyway…that’s it. Sorry it’s late, but I got caught up. I’ll be back Friday to discuss and pair Dracula. 

C

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