If we go by the older Roman calender used in Irish medieval times, October 31st becomes today, November 11th. There’s been arguments about how many people would have known the date, but I am now inclined to agree that most did in Christian Ireland. The Christian Church has a strict liturgical calendar. In the 7th century, when the first written reference to Druids in Ireland are mentioned (as having the same worth as any other ordinary citizen, showing that the title merely meant sorcerer), Ireland celebrated Easter on a different day than Rome. This complicated things greatly because all Christians were meant to worship the same things at the same time. It also meant that the entire year was different than the rest of Western Christianity’s.
Steel Bars, Sacred Waters discusses how this caused chaos for the Anglo-Saxons. The Angles who ruled over Northumbria were, from an early time, raised in Dalriada, the Gaelic speaking kingdom of the Scots. More specifically, they were educated at the monastery at Iona, which was founded by an Irish prince and 12 followers. As the early British Angles practiced Gaelic Christianity and the southern Saxons were converted by Christians following the Roman calender, Britain was split into two different calendars. When a Saxon woman married an Angle man in the North, their household would be split in half, with some people fasting for Lent while the others celebrated the resurrection of the Christ. While this was fixed in Britain by everyone following the Roman calender, Ireland continued its own “Celtic Christianity.” Which means that the date of Samhain is thrown off by that as well.
The common belief is that Samhain means “summer’s end.” The year is divided into a Dark Half, which begins now, and a Light Half, starting at Beltain, May 12th. Samhain was around the first frost when most fruits and grains would be ruined, hence the rush of September’s Harvest Moon in bringing in all the grain. As a young teenager I read that the Devil had the blackberries after Samhain. I couldn’t understand this, but when 18 in Galway walking to a friend’s parents’ home in November I tried a blackberry still ripe along the road. It was sour from the frost. That probably taught me more about Celtic Paganism – and how many people understood the Devil – than any dozen books. Replace the Devil with Fomorians and you understand half the Irish Mythological Cycle. At least in Ireland, Britain, and Iberia, this is an agricultural, pastoral religion. (The Gauls had a much more urban culture, even before the Roman invasion.)
Scholar Brendan MacGonagle believes that early linguists misunderstood the word Samhain, and its true meaning is “Assembly.”
“The traditional interpretation, first put forward in Medieval glossaries, and still held by many, is that it means “summer’’ being a combination of Samh “summer” and Fuin = “ending, concealment”. This is obviously a later folk etymology, since we know that the earliest form of the word (Samon-) had a different meaning. In fact the original Celtic meaning of “Samhain‟ comes from the Proto-Celtic *samoni- = assembly ([Noun], Goid: MIr. samain “assembly on the 1st of November‟; Gaul: samon – (Coligny), from the PIE: *smHon- “reunion, assembly‟ (also in Skt. samiina- “together‟, Go. samana “together‟).
This works, too, as Samhain is when there was a weeklong feast at Tara. Divination was performed to determine what the next year would bring. Questions focused on war, famine and plagues, issues that affected entire kingdoms. Assembly makes sense when we consider the return of the young men who have been in the summer fields watching over cattle, and perhaps raiding the cattle of other kingdoms. As the Celts spread East from Gaul, one way for an ambitious young man to form his own tribe was to gain cattle (ie wealth) with some friends by raiding other people. The more wealth a leader had – and shared in feasts and gifts – the more followers he attracted. In Iberia and Ireland we know that young men were sent to summer pastures with the cattle, and their return would correspond with Samhain. The people were assembled together.
If you seek mythological events to celebrate, there are two from Ireland that stand out. Aengus is with his love, Caer Ibormeith, the swan maiden, and before Second Battle of Moytura the Dagda mated with the Morrigan. Most people focus on the Morrigan, for she is giving the Tuatha De Danann her power as a battle Goddess, guaranteeing their victory over the Fomorians. There is much more to this Goddess than most Pagans think. The only prayer found to a Pagan deity in Ireland was to the Morrigan for more cattle. As protector of the land, she holds its wealth as much as she gets involved with its battles. Part of protecting the land is to make sure that the right person rules it. This is a major theme in the myths we do have, including those of other horse Goddesses like Aine and Rhiannon. For Celtic polytheists in prison worshipping with Wiccans, the mating of the Morrigan and the Dagda is usually an easy ritual compromise.
The “veils are thin between the worlds” has to do with the liminal nature of being between years. Beltain also is liminal time, another new year, into the Light. The Anglo-Saxons seem to have continued this belief in two years within one solar year, although they had a lunar month, solar year calendar. It quite possibly is a general Germanic calendar. Looking at the rune that means “year” (whether Anglo-Saxon or Norse), it shows two halves. Unlike other Anglo-Saxon names for months, October does not end in month. October is “Winter Nights”, also one of the three celebrations which we know the Norse celebrated along with Yule and February’s Disirblot. The emphasis on Nights reminds us that the northern lands, which include the islands of Britain and Ireland, have long nights during winter.
Any liminal time is considered to be not one thing, not the other. Times of magic and danger were dawn (before sunrise) and dust (after sunset) when the world is filled with grey shadows and more active wild animals. Neither day nor night, medieval folk spells and times for divination usually state dawn. As a girl of feminist parents (women can have careers and attend University, don’t have to get married, should not endure domestic violence or rape, have all the rights and opportunities men have – crazy stuff, huh?), I often wondered why so many divination techniques focused on the occupation of a girl’s future husband. Until very recently, a woman’s lot in life was completely dependent on her husband’s income. Her status would be determined by his class. The amount of back breaking labour she had to do to keep the household running was in his financial hands.
Dusk seems to often be more about communicating with spirits. The Welsh had 3 nights when speaking to the dead was easier called tier nos ysbrydio: October 31, May 1, and June 24th, St. John the Baptist Day. This was another form of divination. For religious people, divination normally means a way to communicate with the divine, be they ancestors or deities.
Modern folk magic watched the clock, and midnight – neither today nor tomorrow – became the new liminal time, the “Witching Hour.” Hoodoo takes that farther, with the minute hand moving down as a time for decreasing or banishing something, and the minute hand rising being a time for magical increase.
There’s nothing bad about the Dark Half of the year. For the Celtic people, life begins in the Dark, in the Underworld. It may be the beautiful kingdom of Annwn, the Plain of Apples, Avalon, or the Isle of the Young, but it is always filled with feasts and games, astonishing music, and all our loved ones who have passed on before us. The day starts at sundown, in the incubation of sleep. In the Dark half of the year, people literally turned within. Visits were extremely rare. Although in dark, smoky close quarters, people knew how to give privacy to those with them. As the lack of sunlight meant less vitamin D, the fat lost over winter released stored vitamin D. Some symptoms of depression, often triggered by lack of light, may have evolved to help us with the long stretches of “down time” by sleeping more which conserved calories.
Families stayed home, often with the remaining cattle and sheep sleeping with the human family. The smoky Walpurga and Beltain fires that the cattle were driven between had many herbs with insecticide powers. The fires jumped had the same. (In 16th century Scotland most people only bathed once a year, in May. Due to having no trade cities, modern ideas like soap and art skipped over the struggling farmland.) I used to be confused by old English herb books. What was the difference between a strewing herb and a potherb (which I pronounced poth-erb)? A potherb goes in your broth for its amazing vitamin and mineral content (parsley being the best example), while a strewing herb was strewn across the floor for the lovely smell it produced when crushed by feet. Traditionally strewing herbs also repel disease-carrying insects.
I’m really pleased that Steel Bars, Sacred Waters has a ritual for the ancient Gaulish ritual of Trinoxtion Samoni (“tree-NOKH-tee-on sa-MOE-nee”) written by Viducus Brigantici filius. The focus is on Dis Pater. As he poetically writes, “Dis Pater was the god who ruled the land of the dead. We all came from Dis Pater’s land, because before we are born, our spirits lived in the Otherworld. And we will return to him one day. And after that … we will return here again.”
Dis Pater could be Cernunnos or Sucellus. There’s no reason to assume the various Gaulish tribes had the same pantheons. The ritual chooses Cernunnos, along with the Gaulish Goddess Erecura associated with Persephone, plus the Greek-Kemetic Isis and Serapis. I personally feel a much stronger connection to the Gaulish deities than the Gaelic, so I feel personally blessed to have had Viducus write this ritual, as well as the Epona Day one, the Sucellus and Nantosuelta harvest rite, and a monthly devotion to Rosmerta. It was very important to me that Steel Bars, Sacred Waters focus on the cultural exchange that was happening all over Europe. Whether it’s the Atlantic Coast Celtic culture meeting with the Phoenicians, the Indo-European people around the Czech Republic who began the Celtic and Germanic religious traditions around 4,000 years ago, the influence of Greece on the Southern Gauls (and vice versa), Norwegian Vikings who became medieval Irish Kings, the Celto-Germanic Belgae territory, or the diversity of religion in the Roman Empire and the response of the Celtic people – we cannot pretend that there were any static, xenophobic people in Europe who didn’t share ideas and trade material goods.
Reading a little about the history of Roman religion, at first I was more intrigued with its earliest times. Viducus told me that the wide variety of religions both native and absorbed from other peoples fascinated him more. After studying the Nova Roma website and a few Roman Reconstructionist books, I was genuinely impressed. The Mystery Religion of Isis celebrated the festival of Isia at the same time as Trinoxtion Samoni. I wonder how many Gauls joined this cult and how it might have influenced the Celtic Samhain. The Roman Christian church could easily have created All Souls Day based on Isia. Our knowledge of Samhain is Christian, and the ancestor reverence part of Samhain could easily be from that important holiday. All Souls Day could have merged with Samhain into what we see in Paganism today: dumb suppers and contacting the Beloved Dead.
Strangely, it IS Remembrance Day. A day to remember the horrors of World War I, the most convoluted, insane war people can remember. It’s a call for sanity. Do you know why the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ottoman Empire, Russia, France, Germany, England and the United States were fighting? Most soldiers involved didn’t know either. Nerve gas, trenches and fields of blood where poppies bloomed – that’s why we wear the red poppy. To never forget the war that was meant to be the last war, a war that created the Lost Generation, where politicians were distrusted, the Spanish War proved anarchy and socialism work, and the peace movement was rapidly growing. But due to the terms of the punitive Treaty of Versailles that destroyed the German economy, the stage was set for Hitler, with his promise to make Germany great again. Still, the German pacifist art movement made of WWI veterans depicted their internal horrors by creating a new genre of film: horror and psychological thriller. Alfred Hitchcock himself studied with these shell-shocked veterans whose films focused on sanity: does the man in power or the individual know what is real? Today we’d call it gaslighting, from a movie of that very same genre.
The Isia focused on the death and resurrection of Serapis (Osiris). Along with a huge procession of initiates and musicians, there were private rites of ritualized grief and joy. Like the longest running Mystery Religion, the Kidnapping of Persephone by Hades of the Realm of Underworld Dead and the grief of Persephone’s mother Demeter who stopped all the plants from growing, which lasted for 3,000 years, I’m certain that Gauls participated in the Isia. Statues of Erecura stood in Gaulish cemeteries along the territories following the Danube River east, as She held baskets and plates of sweet fruit like apples, reminding everyone of the Otherworldly Afterlife and the rebirth in our world that comes every spring. Also associated with Persephone is the Celtic Goddess found in Iberia, Ataegina, whose very name means “rebirth”. As the Celts often choose for themselves what deity from the Roman Empire their own deities were most like, and Ataegina’s name is Celtic, these were almost definitely Celtic seasonal Underworld and Renewal Goddesses before the Romans became involved.
I suppose that all people had myths and deities focusing on the death in winter (or perhaps the dry season in other climates) and rebirth in spring (or the returning rains). Maybe they focused more on the migration of elk or moose, or the returning fish and birds each year. We acknowledge the powers larger than us, upon Whom we depend. Many Pagans say that we have moved from that sacred, embodied knowledge of deep need and trust because we no longer are responsible for our own food. Even if we do not farm, we usually rely on imported foods, barely aware of our bioregion’s food cycles. We can buy delicious blackberries after Samhain. The Fomorian threat is far from our minds.
What I have noticed is that people who live with a chronic illness often feel this dependence on the deities and their cycles in a very visceral and emotional way. As plagues were so common, perhaps chronic illnesses bring us closer to the older ways of experiencing life. I believe this is especially true for people with the “can’t help you” diagnoses like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, MCS, seizure disorders, many auto-immune diseases, etc. A decade of Lyme disease and, worse, babesiosis taught me how much I need my deities. We may not fret over not getting the hay in on time, praying that the rains will wait, but we do often pray to make it through the day in a world hostile towards people with disabilities. Will insurance cover this? How will the dishes get done? What can stop this pain? Being sick is a full time job.
In prison there’s nothing to note the cycles of time. The lights go out at the same time, the diabetes-inducing, low calorie “meals” arrive (or don’t, depending on the guard’s mood) at the same time, and the mask worn to keep privacy stays in place. Like the Treaty of Versailles proved, punitive justice only destroys people, leaving them vulnerable for great evil. After WW2 Germany was nurtured by the victors and became a strong economic nation within decades. Germany is one of the most eco-friendly nations in the world. They’re certainly not a perfect place, but when compared to Hitler, we can see how on a global scale punitive justice does not work.