Celtic Studies Resources

Tam Lin: Love, Sacrifice, and Halloween

Image credit: Carsten Tolkmit — Laenulfean

I can’t really think about Halloween, or Samain, if you prefer, without thinking of the ballad of “Tam Lin,” especially this part:

 

And ance it fell upon a day
A cauld day and a snell,
When we were frae the hunting come,
That frae my horse I fell,
The Queen o’ Fairies she caught me,
In yon green hill to dwell.

And pleasant is the fairy land,
But, an eerie tale to tell,
Ay at the end of seven years
We pay a teind to hell;
I am sae fair and fu o flesh,
I’m feard it be mysel.

But the night is Halloween, lady,
The morn is Hallowday;
Then win me, win me, an ye will,
For weel I wat ye may.

Just at the mirk and midnight hour
The fairy folk will ride,
And they that wad their true-love win,
At Miles Cross they maun bide.

— “Tam Lin” Child Ballad 39A.24

“Tam Lin” is one of the Child Ballads, a collection of several hundred early English and Scottish popular ballads collected by Francis James Child. Most of the Child ballads are from the sixteenth century. Some few are older. You can find a list of the Child ballads by number here. A few of the ballads are older than the earliest printed sources; “Tam Lin” is one of those. It’s also one of the best known of the Child Ballads; there are lots of covers by folk rock bands, as well as more traditional singers.1)Probably the best known cover of Tam Lin is this 1969 performance by British folk rock band Fairport Convention, from their lovely Liege and Leaf album. You can find the entire text of the ballad in multiple versions at Abigail Akland’s site TamLin.org. You may be familiar with the story of Tam Lin from one of the novels inspired by the ballad2)A fair number of writers have used all or parts of the ballad of Tam Lin in their books. Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin and Elizabeth Marie Pope’s YA The Perilous Gard are two of my favorites. Other writers, principally Patricia McKillip in Winter Rose and Elizabeth Bear in Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water use the ballad in interesting and compelling ways..

The basic story line of “Tam Lin” tells how Tam Lin was kidnapped or “taken” by the queen of the fairies when he falls off a horse while hunting. He is destined to be sacrificed by the fairies on Halloween, as a teind or tithe to Hell, unless his mortal (and pregnant) lover Janet rescues him.

One of the reasons I find Tam Lin’s tale compelling is that it’s very much tied to the idea of seasons, and to the medieval Celtic idea that at Samain (or the modern related holiday Halloween) the Otherworld is closer to this world, and thus allows more ready passage between the two. Halloween is a liminal time. Samain was at its heart a harvest festival, a time when animals and crops were taken and consumed.

When Janet rescues her lover, it is at midnight, a time between day and night, a time that is thus, because of its liminal nature, outside of time, much the way Samain lies outside of time, between seasons.

The rescue takes place at Miles cross, that is, at a crossroads, a place between places, a place that is liminal in that it partakes of two or more places at once. Crossroads, places where two roads, or two tracks meet, represent decision points; you must choose which road to follow. Crossroads are liminal in that if you stand in the center, you are not really “at” any of the four roads; you are in a special place that is “between”; between roads, between choices. It is at once “some place,” and “no place.” Consequently, crossroads are rich with potential in folklore. They are, for instance, a logical place for a deal with the devil.

In the ballad of Tam Lin, Tam Lin, about to be offered as a tithe to Hell by the fairies, tells his mortal lover Janet that she must meet him and pull him from his horse when he rides with the fairies:

Just at the mirk and midnight hour
The fairy folk will ride,
And they that wad their true-love win,
At Miles Cross they maun bide.

Janet can rescue Tam Lin from the fairies at at midnight because it is between night and day, and at Miles Cross because it’s a crossroad, a place that is neither fairy nor mortal turf but that is “between” territories, and hence, neutral territory. Crossroads are places where journeys are shaped, because the traveler must make a choice about which path to take.

Although Samain was principally a harvest festival, a time for feasting and giving thanks for the harvest as you consume what won’t keep, there are several references to a tax due at Samain; for instance, in the Lebor Gabala Eirenn, during the reign of Nemed, we are told that the descendants of Nemed were taxed by the Fomoire:

§44. Two thirds of the progeny, the wheat, and the milk of the people of Ireland (had to be brought) every Samain to Mag Cetne. Wrath and sadness seized on the men of Ireland for the burden of the tax. They all went to fight against the Fomoraig.3)(Lebor Gabala Eirinn. Ed. Trans. R. A. S. MacAlister. Irish Text Society 1832.

Here Samain is associated with tax-gathering, paying a tithe, an appropriate thing to do at the end of the harvest. It might in fact be considered a kind of sacrifice, since the Formoire were certainly supernatural.

In the ballad, Tam Lin says that

Ay at the end of seven years
We pay a teind to hell;
I am sae fair and fu o flesh,
I’m feard it be mysel.

The idea of the teind, an old Northern word for a tithe, is particularly intriguing in light of the timing of Samain in the late autumn. The Medieval English Thomas Of Erceldoune (closely related to Child Ballad # Thomas the Rhymer) makes a similar reference to “þe foulle fende” fetching his fee in the form of a human sacrifice.  The fairy queen who absconded with Thomas when she found him sleeping under the Eldone Tree, tells him she must return him to the mortal world lest he be sacrificed:

“To Morne of helle þe foulle fende
Amange this folke will feche his fee;
And þou arts mekill mane and hende,—
I trowe full wele he wolde chose the.
ffor alle þe gold þat euer may bee,
þou bese neuer be trayede for mee;
þere fore with me I rede thou wende” (ll. 289–94).4)Thomas of Erceldoune is a 15h century medieval romance. The best text is that of the 15th century Lincoln Cathedral MS. 91. The Thornton Ms. Nixon, Ingeborg. Ed. Thomas of Erceldoune. Publications of the Department of English University of Copenhagen. Volume 9 Part 1 Thomas of Erceldoune. Volume 9 Part 2 Introductions, Commentary and Glossary. Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen, 1980.

One of the more interesting aspects of the liminality of Halloween (and the earlier Samain) is that the ease of passage between the mortal world (or Middle Earth as Thomas of Erceldoune has it) and the fairy otherworld on Halloween, as on May Day (or Beltaine) marks the way the otherworld is dependent on this world, even if it’s only for occasional sacrificial victims. Another interesting facet is that in both the story of Tam Lin, saved by the love of his mortal sweetheart Janet, and in the case of Thomas the Rhymer, saved by the love of his immortal sweetheart the fairy Queen, love wins the day.

References   [ + ]

1. Probably the best known cover of Tam Lin is this 1969 performance by British folk rock band Fairport Convention, from their lovely Liege and Leaf album.
2. A fair number of writers have used all or parts of the ballad of Tam Lin in their books. Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin and Elizabeth Marie Pope’s YA The Perilous Gard are two of my favorites. Other writers, principally Patricia McKillip in Winter Rose and Elizabeth Bear in Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water use the ballad in interesting and compelling ways.
3. (Lebor Gabala Eirinn. Ed. Trans. R. A. S. MacAlister. Irish Text Society 1832.
4. Thomas of Erceldoune is a 15h century medieval romance. The best text is that of the 15th century Lincoln Cathedral MS. 91. The Thornton Ms. Nixon, Ingeborg. Ed. Thomas of Erceldoune. Publications of the Department of English University of Copenhagen. Volume 9 Part 1 Thomas of Erceldoune. Volume 9 Part 2 Introductions, Commentary and Glossary. Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen, 1980.