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The Holy Days Through Irish Eyes
Article ID: 10809
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For Irish Pagans, a big chunk of our tradition relies heavily on those Irish Legends recorded in such books as Annals of Ulster, Book of Leinster, and the Annals of Four Masters. It is upon these legends I base my observations and weave my personal practice around. My main illustration for the Irish honored holy days comes from the legend of the Courting of Emer from the Táin Bó Cuailgne. It is in this story that Emer is quoted as saying, “No man will travel this country, who hasn’t gone sleepless from Samain, when summer goes to its rest, until Imbolc, when the ewes are milked at spring’s beginning; from Imbolc to Beltine at summer’s beginning and from Beltine to Brón Trogain, earth’s sorrowing autumn. (1) ” It is these celebrations that I have done much searching about and wish to discuss.
I open these observations speaking of Samhain. Samhain (gaeilge for October) is honored as a festival of the New Year which starts on the eve of November 1st. It is also the festival of the dead. That seems to be an odd reason to celebrate. If death is the ending of life why celebrate it as a new year? It is for this very reason that I will address the significance of Samhain as part of my closing. I believe the festival will be easier to understand if put in the context of completing the circle of life.
From the time of Samhain we move on to La Fheile Bride (Brigid's Day/Imbolc/Oilmelc) which is traditionally honored beginning the eve of February 1st. La Fheile Bride is a celebration of the coming of spring. This is the return of the light from the darkness of winter. In spring we prepare and/or create the fields which will produce our crops throughout this year. Because of this time of preparation it can be said that spring is the season of creation. What about Brigid in Irish mythos relates to creation? It is Brigid's relationship to her child. During the Cath Maige Tuired Brigid's son, Ruadan, is sent into battle and is killed. Upon hearing of his death she makes the trek to find his body on the battlefield. When she finally comes across it the power of her love for her son is so strong that her lamenting (keening/wailing) over his body can be heard through all Ireland. This myth puts her in the role of the loving mother and her child as the symbol of creation. Perhaps this return of light can also be seen as the emergence of the child from the dark womb.
As we move on, the next festival honored is that of Bealtainne. Bealtainne (gaeilge for May) is traditionally honored beginning on the eve of May 1st. This festival is also referred to as Beltane or May Day and is in recognition of summer. During summer the fields begin to produce crops, the trees become a lustrous green and we see the wildlife frolicking in sexual euphoria. Life begins to flourish. For these reasons, this season is generally associated with the time of fertility.
It is this flourishing of life that connects summer with Danu (the mother the Gods) and Bile (the father of man). It has been the popular misconception that Danu and Bile were consorts. There is no such myth for this couple. They are never directly associated in any Irish story. My contention is that their connection lies in the story of the Invasion of Ireland by the Sons of Mil (Milesians) to which it is believed that all Irish ancestry traces back (2) . Bile, in this myth, is the father of Mil, the grandfather of his sons, directly making him the father of mortals (man) . It is this conquest of the people of Bile over the clan of Danu that leads to the flourishing of Ireland. Unfortunately, with this triumph brought mortality reminding us that with life there must be death. Every beginning has an end. Summer is a time of fertility and light, keeping in mind the balance of the dark times.
Soon summer gives way to autumn. This is the time of Lug and the festival of Lúnasa (Lughnassadh) which is celebrated beginning on the eve of August 1st. In the Cath Maige Tuired Lug is known as Lug Lamfhada or Lug of the Long Arm. In this story Lug is the god of all arts who eventually becomes the new ruler of the Tuatha De Danaan after Nuada, the De Danann ruler, steps down. To end the battle Lug faces off with Balor, a Fomorian enemy who is subsequently his grandfather. Balor had one eye that required 4 men to lift open the lid. Anyone within gazing distance of his eye would become helpless leading to their death. The myth states that upon the opening of his eye Lug throws a rock (or spear) directly into it causing not only Balor’s death, but the death of the Formorian king, Indech mac De Domnann, thus ending the 2nd Battle of Moytura. It is this victory over impending death that makes Lug significant to autumn. As the leaves around us turn shades of red we are reminded of the blood Lug spilled to save the lives of his people. At this time we destroy the fields in harvest to get us through the coming darkness as our fields will no longer be fertile. This is the time we face our past and prepare to move on into death then into the Otherworld.
As I stated in the opening, I have left my observations of Samhain to the end to show how the year comes full circle. Samhain is the festival of winter honored beginning on the eve of November 1st. Samhain is the time of darkness and of death. According to the Cath Maige Tuired, the Dagda (all-father/creator) consorts with the Morrigan (death) over the river Unshin on this night in order to ensure the fall of the Formorians and the return of prosperity to the De Danaan. On this night, the Morrigan vows to stain her hands with the blood of Indech mac De Domnann. This joining of the Gods is a statement of the time. In winter, we enter the darkness and infertile times represented by the Morrigan. This is the time that we face the death of the vegetation around us and the disappearance of life in general. However, it is also the time that we prepare for the re-emergence of light and the coming of spring represented by the consorting of the Dagda with the Morrigan. It is a time to prepare for the new life, the return of the flourishing of the Tuatha De Danann.
Samhain is not only the dark times of death, but is also the dark times of life. The New Year is the celebration of our return to the womb and our preparation for re-birth. Samhain is the beginning and end of the circle, or perhaps, in a more Irish sense, the passing point in the spiral of life.
1 Kinsella, Thomas, The Tain (Translated) , Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, UK copyright 1969 pg. 27 2 Annals of Inisfallen
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