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Article ID: 14802
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Author: BellaDonna Saberhagen
Posted: October 23rd. 2011
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It’s October, the leaves are changing, the weather is cooling down, and winter is approaching. Halloween stores are cropping up; costumes and decor are filling your local big box stores; it’s the time of year I feel most “witchy”. Samhain really is one of the two most magickal times of the year (the other being Beltane) .
For the ancient Celts, there were only two seasons, winter and summer (and contrary to modern Paganism, only four holidays: Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasadh) . Winter began on Samhain and summer on Beltane. Therefore, these two holidays were threshold holidays, both summer and winter and yet really part of neither. This was a very important belief: thresholds, “between times”¯ (dawn and twilight, times that were neither day nor night) , and riverbanks and marshes (land yet water) were considered gateways to the Otherworld. The between times of the year are when the veil between this world and the Otherworld is thinnest.
Communication (or interaction with) gods, faeries and the dead are easiest on these two dates.
Samhain was also the Celtic New Year. Like the ancient Hebrews, a day in Celtic times was counted as sunset to sunset (as opposed to sunrise to sunrise, or midnight to midnight) ; thus the year began as winter began. It was a time to consider what animals could be fed through the winter, what animals would be needed come warmer weather and how many would be killed for food throughout the cold months (I am not sure how many would have been killed at Samhain, for while more animals eat more food, meat spoils fairly easily, so the association as “the meat harvest” may be a more modern one) . Samhain is not only the threshold of summer to winter; it is also the threshold of one year to the next.
The dead are particularly honored on Samhain, their spirits were considered to wander and visit loved ones on this night. Malevolent spirits also trolled the night, thus ghastly lanterns were carved from turnips to frighten them away (this is where our modern Jack-O-Lanterns come from, pumpkins are larger and more easily carved, but they’re a “New World Crop”¯ and were unavailable to the ancient Celts) . Other traditions for honoring your ancestors include lighting candles to guide your loved ones home, laying a plate of food out for them, and the visiting and maintenance of gravesites.
Samhain was also a prime time for divination. Nuts were placed in fires to see how they cracked in the flames, clear pools or dark vessels were used for scrying, and there was also the possibility of asking wandering spirits for answers from the Otherworld. Divination was used not only to determine how the winter and year might go, but for finding husbands or if children were in your immediate future. These were the concerns of the everyday people; the druids may well have asked for deeper revelations, but what they may have asked and their preferred methods have not survived the way folk divination methods have.
Some key tales of Irish mythology take place on Samhain. At Samhain, on the eve of the Battle of Moytura, the Dagda met the Morrigan bathing in the river: “with one of her feet at Allod Echae south of the water and the other at Lisconny north of the water”. ¯ This not only gives Her a giant appearance, but it also indicates Her Otherworldly nature. She is a powerful being of the Otherworld and thus Her feet stand in two different threshold realms. This may also indicate the magick of Samhain itself.
The Dagda and the Morrigan mated while both spanned the river, a foot on each side. Life is celebrated even on the eve of battle; even on the night the dead walk amongst the living. Then the Morrigan told the Dagda where the Fomoire would land (perhaps an instance of divination) and what She would do to help as well as what the Dagda should do to ensure Her plan could go into effect.
In some sources, the Morrigan is seen as a goddess of sovereignty, so by mating with the Dagda, She may have been endowing Him with the ability to lead His people to victory against the Fomoire. She is also seen as a goddess of death, Her name could mean either Great Queen or Phantom Queen, She was a goddess of war and battle, as well as a goddess of magick and prophecy. She was a very apt candidate for the Dagda to come upon on Samhain.
The Dagda is also interesting to consider for a Samhain tale. He is often portrayed as comically proportioned, with a large belly, short tunic and genitals large enough to leave their own mark in the ground as he walks. He is also good and noble, He rules the Tuatha de Dannan for a time period after the Fomoire are defeated but steps down when He loses Eriu to the Sons of Mil Espain (choosing His son to the Morrigan, the Bodb Dearg to rule in his place) . He has two magickal items; one is a cauldron of plenty, a good item to be associated with during the lean winter months. The other item is a magickal club, one end can strike enemies dead, the other can bring the dead back to life. This makes the Dagda as much a threshold deity as the Morrigan.
In another tale, Samhain plays a key role for Cu Chulain. One Samhain, after playing a game of fitchell (a game similar to chess) , the women in his company spied a flock of birds landing on the lake. These birds were the most beautiful they had ever seen and they began to bug their husbands for a pair each. To make them happy, Cu Chulain got into his chariot and killed enough birds for each wife, save his own, to have a pair. Since there were no more birds remaining of original flock, Cu Chulain promised his wife that the most beautiful birds to come by next would be hers. Not long after, a pair of birds linked by a chain flew over the lake. Cu Chulain’s wife (in this tale called Eithne Ingubai, but known as Emer in most other tales) told him to let those birds go, for she could sense the Otherworldliness of them; but he would not let his own wife be the only wife without a set of birds and so went on to try to kill them. He cast two stones, but missed (something that had never happened to him before) and when he threw a javelin, it only pierced the wing of one bird. Angered, Cu Chulain walked away to be alone and sat down with his back to a stone and fell asleep.
As he slept, two women appeared, one in a green cloak and one in a crimson cloak. The one in green began to beat him with a horsewhip and then the other followed suit. They beat him until he was close to death and then left him. He remained invalid until the following Samhain. He was healed and told his comrades about the vision he had had the previous year. He was advised to return to the stone, and this is where he met Fand, the estranged wife of Mannanan mac Lir (she had been the one he had wounded and who had in turn, wounded him) . He went to the Otherworld and earned her love while he fought in her father’s war. He eventually returned to his wife, but Fand was the one woman she felt was a threat (like many heroes, the virility of Cu Chulain was legendary, so it was not expected that he be monogamous) to their happy home, and she watched her husband pine until Fand and Mannanan were reunited.
This tale also demonstrates the thinness of the veil on Samhain. The birds Cu Chulain sought for his wife were Otherworld beings (goddesses or fairies depending on your view) and they were able to physically manifest in this world on a threshold day. They also took the form of waterfowl. It would make sense that these animals were sacred as they were able to exist in the three realms of Land, Sea and Sky; and as such, waterfowl are threshold beings in and of themselves. Because of them, Cu Chulain received an Otherworld sickness that could only be cured on Samhain, and only then could he enter the Otherworld to help Fand. Cu Chulain’s experiences with the Morrigan are even more famous, but are not within the scope of this Samhain piece.
Samhain is a very sacred time of year and should not get confused with commercial Halloween. Dressing up in a sexy polyester costume and getting drunk at a party is not “celebrating Samhain” (Ok, part of it can be but that shouldn’t be all you do to honor this time of year) . If you’ve been lucky enough not to lose anyone close to you, honor ancestors you’ve never met, ask your grandparents about their parents and grandparents to see what they might have been like. You could even honor pets that have passed. On my shrine to the dead, I have pictures of my two dogs, both died within the last 5 years.
You don’t have to keep everything solemn. Divination games are appropriate, as are funny stories about those who have passed. It honors their memories and celebrates their lives.
The Irish Celtic Magical Tradition by Steve Blamires
Early Irish Myths and Sagas trans by Jeffrey Gantz
Location: Sunbury, Pennsylvania
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