In 609 Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 All Saints’ Day, or as Middle English has it, Alholowmesse. The night before, October 31 was thus All-Hallows Eve, or Halloween. In A.D. 1000, the church made November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. There are references to both days earlier, but these seem to be the dates of official sanction.
Most authorities seem to agree that there is some relationship, at least in terms of an inspiration, for All Souls Day, between the Celtic feast of Samain (Modern Irish Samhain, Scottish Gaelic Samhuinn, Manx Sauin, and Gaulish Samonios.) There’s a lot of rubbish about Samain on the net, including sites that assert, despite a paucity of evidence, that the Celts, especially the druids, engaged in specific ritual practices related to Samain. They probably did, but we have very little data about what those rituals were.
Instead of indulging in ritual speculation, I’m going to talk about the things we do know about Samain from medieval Irish and Continental Celtic texts.
Samain, or Samhain as modern Irish has it, is pronounced, roughly, like the modern English noun sow followed by -in; sow-in, with the emphasis on the first syllable. Old Irish Samain becomes Modern Irish, Samhain, cognate with Scottish Gaelic Samhuinn, Manx Sauin. I’m largely writing about medieval and earlier associations with Samain, so I use the Old Irish version here
Celebrated on November 1, in terms of the Gregorian calendar, the word Samain is usually derived etymologically from Old Irish sam “summer”+ fuin “end.” The suffix –fuin is somewhat unlikely, philologically and morphologically speaking, though it is a persuasive folk etymology, even one used in the medieval glosses. We know from the Coligny calendar that an earlier form of Celtic on the continent used samoni-, and did not use the compound –fuin for “end.”
In 1907 Whitley Stokes argued for an etymology for Samain derived from Proto-Celtic *samani (“assembly”), cognate with Sanskrit sámana, and Gothic samana (“Irish etyma.” Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung. Vol. 40. 245). In 1959 J. Vendryes re-visited Stoke’s suggested etymology and concluded that *semo– (“summer”) and related cognates are unrelated to samain (Lexique Étymologique de l’Irlandais Ancien). Old Irish sam “summer” is cognate with Welsh haf, Breton hanv, all derived from the Indo-European *sem2- (summer), and cognate with English summer (AHD *sem2).
The antiquity of Samain, and the cognate feasts in other Celtic languages, is attested by the late 1st century B. C. E. Coligny calendar (Cunliffe 1997, 188). The calendar includes a month called SAMON[IOS]; the month contains an entry for an what appears to be an autumn festival, trinux[tion] samo[
Almost any modern text that refers to Samain describes Samain as the Irish or Celtic New Year, separating the Summer or light half from the beginning of the Winter or dark half. The Coligny calendar does seem to divide the year into a dark and a light half, and notes the trinox Samoni, the three nights of Samain; we also have a reference in Caesar’s De Bello Gallico 6:18 that the Celts “define the space of time not by the number of days but of nights” (Koch and Carey 1995, 22).
These facts, even taken together, don’t really imply all the associations that “New Year” has to a modern English speaking reader, though they do support the division of the year into two halves. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find why that makes Samain “the Celtic New Year,” with no real conclusion, other than writers seem to be repeating assertions by early nineteenth century folklorists.
The Celticist and archaeologist T. G. E. Powell writes:
The greatest festival in Ireland was known as Samain. In terms of the modern calendar it was celebrated on the first of November, but the preceding night was perhaps the most significant period of the festival. Samain marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next. It was considered to stand independently between the two, and its position in relation to the natural seasons shows it clearly to have been the turning-point in a pastoralist rather than an agrarian cycle. It corresponds to the end of the grazing season when under primitive conditions the herds and flocks were brought together, and only those animals required for breeding were spared from slaughter (Powell 144).
Powell’s observations about the pastoral transition, and the subsequent culling of the herd, and the general atmosphere of harvest do fit with the numerous references in medieval Irish texts to Samain and the feis Samain, the feast of Samain. Harvest requires not only a communal effort to gather the crops and herds, but it’s inevitably followed by feasting, as people consume the food that won’t last until Spring, when food again becomes readily available. The Fianna, we are told, were supplied by the men of Ireland from Samain to Beltene, and the remainder of the year they lived off the land (Rees and Rees, 5).
Samain is frequently associated with oenaich, with festivals and great assemblies of people. The Assembly of Tara, perhaps the most celebrated of the oenaich because Tara has strong sacral associations with Irish kingship, took place at Samain, according to some references—there’s a fair amount of scepticism. There was also apparently an assembly at Emain Macha on Samain. 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 (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.
Other texts associate Samain not only with harvest and feasting, but with judicial process. Cath Crinna / the Battle of Crinna describes the Feast at Tara:
. . .ocus tech gach airdrig in Eirinn ar daigin feise Temrach do denom .i. caeicdiges ria samfuin . ocus caeicdiges iarum. is aire no thinoldais cacha samna ar is ann ba haipche mes ocus toirthe doib. is aire dognithe fis Temrach . uair in smacht dognitis fir Eirenn ann ni lamtha tech tairis no go comraictis i ciionn bliadna doridisi . ocus in ti no ticed thairis ba herfuacrthach o fheraib Eirenn (O’Grady Silva Gadelica 319).
. . . and every king of Ireland [was at Tara] for the purpose of holding Tara’s Feast; for a fortnight before Samain that is to say, on Samain day itself, and for a fortnight after. And the reason for which they practiced to gather themselves together at every Samain was this: because it was a that season that mast and other produce were most mature. Here also is the reason for which the Feast of Tara was done: all the body of law which then all of Ireland made, during the time between that and their next assembly at the year’s end none would dare to transgress, and he that did was outlawed from the men of Ireland.
Notice that the assembly seems to be a judicial assembly much like the Nordic parliamentary assembly, the Manx Tynwald.
In the Ugarta or taboos of the Kings of Ireland the Feast of Tara is also predominantly associated with law:
Ar in tan no tomlitus in righ sin feiss Temruch no fl’tis dala Herenn co seht mbliadna cona fuighlitis fiacho na coiccerta cusin feiss n-aile iar secht blidna (Dillon “The Taboos of the Kings of Ireland.”
For when those kings consumed the Feast of Tara they used to settle the affairs of Ireland for seven years, so that debts, suits, and adjustments used not to be submitted for judgment until the next feast seven years later (Dillon “The Taboos of the Kings of Ireland.” Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. LIV section C no.1 (May, 1941): 1-36, 25).
There are also associations with Samain and sovereignty, in the ritual marriage between the king and the sovereignty goddess, a ritual which apparently took place at Samain, and at Tara, among other places, as the feis Temra. The word feis, the verbal noun of the verb foaid “to sleep,” has strong sexual connotations. We also have some intriguing references to Samain in the Scála Chonchobuir / Tidings of Conchobar Son of Ness:
Conchobar im fessin no gaibed in samuin doib fo dagin, terchomraic in tsluaig moir. Ba hecen in tsochaide mor do airichill. fo bith cech fer do Ultaib na tairchebad aidchi samna dochum nEmna. no gatta ciall de 7 focherte a fert 7 a lecht 7 a lie arnabarach.
Airichill mor didu for Conchobar. No noisigthe leis na tri lae ria samain 7 na tri laa iar samain fri tomailt i tig Conchobair.
It was Conchobar himself [who] would give (?) to them the [feast of] Samain because of the assembly of the great host. It was required to provide for the great host, because every Ulstermen who would not come to Emain Macha on Samain eve lost his senses, and on the morrow his grave and his pillar-stone would be placed.
So Conchobar had to make great provision. The three days before Samain and the three days after Samain were distinguished by him by feasting in Conchobar’s house (From “Tiding of Conchobar Son of Ness.”Trans. ed. Whitley Stokes. Eriu IV (1910): 18-33. p.26-27. From Book of Leinster Vol. I Best ad O’Brien, 1956; p. 106a in the facsimile).
Here we see the period of three days, followed by Samain, and then another three days, spent in feasting, and the idea that the assembly was compulsory. Serglige Con Culainn opens with the people of Ulster assembled at Mag Muirthemni for the annual November 1 festival of Samain.
Oenach dognithe la Ultu cecha bliadna .i. tri la ria samfuin 7 tri laa iarma 7 lathe na samn feisne. Iss ed eret no bitis Ulaid insin i mMaig Murthemni, oc ferthain oenaig na samna cecha bliadna. Ocus ni rabe isin bith ni dognethe in n-eret sin leu acht cluchi 7 cheti 7 anius 7 aibinnius 7 longad 7 tomailt, conid de sin atat na trenae samna sechnon na hErend.
Each year the Ulstermen held a fair; the three days before Samain and three days after it and the day of Samain itself. That is the time that the Ulstermen used to be in Mag Muirthemni holding the fair , and nothing was done by them during that time but games and gatherings and pleasure and eating and feasting, so that it is from that come the thirds of Samain throughout Ireland.
In this passage notice that again the oenach Samain is a festival of seven days; I’ve also seen it described as one of three times three days. It was clearly a time associated with social activities. A second passage later in the Serglige is even more explicit:
Fechtas and tra fertha oenach la hUltu i mMaig Murthemni. Ocus ba hairi no fertha leu fo bith tabarta do chach a chomraime 7 a gascid do gres cecha samna. Ba bes leu dano di ag inna comraime ferthain ind oenaig .i. rind aurlabra cech fir no marbtais 7 do thabairt inna mbossain. Ocus dobertis aurlabrai na cethrae do ilugud na comram hi sudiu, 7 dobered cach a chomram and sin os aird, acht ba cach ar uair.
One time however a fair was held by the Ulstermen in Mag Muirthemne. And it was for this that it was held for them; on account of everyone bringing his triumph and his valor every Samain. It was their custom, moreover, for the sake of the contests holding the fair [thus]: that is bringing in their wallets the tongue of each man who they had killed. And they would bring the tongues of cattle to increase the contest then, and each would bring his triumph in that openly, but it was each one in turn.
Ocus is amlaid dognitis sin 7 a claidib fora sliastaib in tan dognitis in comram. Ar imsoitis a claidib friu in tan dognitis guchomram. Deithbir on, ar no labraitis demna friu dia n-armaib conid de batir comarchi forro a n-airm.
And it is thus that they were doing it: their swords across their thighs when they made the triumph. For their swords used to turn against them when they made a false triumph. That was proper, for demons used to speak against them from their sword so that their weapons were guarantees for them.
Notice that Samain activities included warriors boasting, sometimes fraudulently, of their success in battle, with the tongues of the slain functioning as trophies, and their own swords speaking with the tongues of demons, when the tongues of the slain could not give the false boasters the lie. Other texts indicate, sometimes explicitly, that at Samain the barrier between the world of the side and the mortal world is temporarily relaxed, and Otherworldly courtships and raids take place, for “the side of Ireland were always opened on Samain” (Nagy 1985 260, quoting The Boyhood Deeds of Finn p. 216).
The events of Echtra Nera are closely tied to Samain; the story begins on the eve of Samain, and involves Nera’s year long sojourn in the síd. Perhaps we might do better to think of Samain as not so much the “feast of the dead,” as various popular sources would have it, but as a liminal time between the death of summer and the birth of winter, when the threshold of the Otherworld is nearer to this world, a liminal time that is in a sense, outside of ordinary time. It is Samain that begins the endless night in Brugh Na Boine that Mac Oc manages. And of course, it’s always good to remember that in medieval Irish myths there are several Otherworlds, and that the Otherworld is not necessarily the same as the world of the dead
It is on Samain eve in Tochmarc Emire that Cú Chulainn rescues Derbforgaill, daughter of Ruad, who going to be given as a sacrifice to the Fomoire. In Togail Bruidne Da Derga The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel we are told that the destruction took place at Samain, and it is caused in part by the intrusion of residents of the Otherworld.
In the medieval Irish tale of Cath Maige Tuired, the Dagda meets with the Morrígan on Samain, and copulates with her, in a union that is analogous to that between the king of the land and the sovereignty goddess. The king was apparently in some particular peril during Samain; one of the functions of the ollam, the “doctor of poetic arts,” was protecting the king from occult dangers: “dlegar don ollam beith i fail in rig im snamad (leg. samain) dia snadad ar siabrud,” that is “the ollam is obliged to be near the king around Samain to protect him from enchantment” (trans. Dennis King to Old Irish List Oct. 30, 2005; in reference to the DIL s.v. ollam; cites H 3.18 p. 133; Nagy 1985, 299).
It is intriguing to speculate that there is some connection ease of passage between the mortal world and the Otherworld at Samain, the associations of Samain with sacral sovereignty and sacrifice, and the ballad Tam Lin:
24. “And pleasant is the fairy land,
But, an eerie tale to tell,
Ay at the end of seven years,
We pay a tiend to hell,
I am sae fair and fu o flesh,
I’m feard it be mysel.
25. “But the night is Halloween, lady,
The morn is Hallowday,
Then win me, win me, an ye will,
For weel I wat ye may.
26. “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.”