Things I Dread About Samhain

Image credit: rannṗáirtí anaiṫnid | A traditional Irish turnip Jack-o’-lantern from the early 20th century. Photographed at the Museum of Country Life, Ireland via WikiMedia Commons

Because I have a Celtic studies website, every October my email is peppered with messages from two large groups: fundamentalist Christians of various persuasions, and Neo Pagans of various paths. Both sects are writing to inform, deny, assert or correct me regarding Halloween and the Celtic feast known as Samhain in Modern Irish (Samain in Medieval Irish).

The amount of email (and comments) increases every year. And the articles posted all over the Web get a little more annoying in their diligent perpetration of myths. Several years ago I even wrote my own FAQ What Is Samain or Samhain to try to stem the tide, to no avail.

Both groups are still generally propagating ahistorical myths. Thing like:

Samhain is the name of the Celtic God of the Dead.

No, really, it’s not. There wasn’t a “Celtic God of the Dead.” There isn’t really even an Irish god of the dead. The various Celtic groups speaking various Celtic languages over several thousand years and many more miles had a lot of different deities, possibly hundreds, but unlike say, Greek or Roman deities, they don’t have neatly organized portfolios, pantheons or specific bureaucratic duties and job descriptions. Celtic deities tend to be multivalent, with a single deity having several associations, even associations that might seem to contradict each other, or change over time and geographic distances. Unlike the Romans, the ancient Celts don’t seem to have placed a high cultural value on consistency or linear organization.

However, while Samhain or (Sam Hain as some would have it) isn’t the name of a Celtic god of the dead, it is a feast, and a month. Samhain (Modern Irish Samhain, Old Irish Samain, Scottish Gaelic Samhuinn, Manx Sauin, and Gaulish Samonios), is the name for the ninth month in Modern Irish, and the name of a specific feast mentioned frequently in Medieval Irish texts. Celticist 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.1)T. G. E. Powell. The Celts. Thames and Hudson: New York, New York, 1985. p. 144.

Powell’s description is very much in line with the various references in medieval Irish texts to Samain and the feis Samain, the feast of Samain. Harvest requires a communal effort to gather the crops and herds, and it’s inevitably followed by feasting, as people consume the food that won’t last until Spring when fresh food again becomes readily available. Consequently Samain is also frequently associated in medieval Irish texts with oenaich, that is, festivals and great assemblies of people, assemblies that take place after most of the harvest is done, but before Winter arrives.

Samhain is the Celtic New Year

This one is pernicious. On the face of it, it’s not exactly wrong, there’s clearly a divide at the season of Samain/Samhain between two points of time and season. I wish that, instead of writing “Samain marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next,” Powell had written that Samain marked the end of one agrarian cycle, and the beginning of the next cyle, or one season and the beginning of the next season. Samain does mark the end of Summer and the start of Winter. It’s worth noting that the Welsh name for November first is “Caland Gaeaf,” or the first day of Winter (caland is a borrowed word with Latin antecedents and cognate with English calendar, but gaef is good Welsh).

But labeling that divide as a celebration of a New Year is troubling, first, because it equates European/North American celebrations on the 31st of December and the 1st of January with the seasonal and agrarian cycles of multiple cultures from thousands of years ago and a very large geographic area. Secondly, it’s troubling because the best evidence we have, including ancient calendars like the Coligny Calendar, are more about cycles, about things repeating, than about a linear progression and totting up the years. It’s a little silly to tie our cultural assumptions about “New Year’s Day” to those of the various ancient Celtic-speaking groups.

The ancient Celts, like the other peoples of most of Europe, were agrarian. They raised crops and animals. They fed themselves and their animals (cattle, pigs, horses, and, eventually, sheep) on crops like oats and barley and then butchered some of the animals in late fall. They carefully saved some of the seeds from their crops (particularly oats and barley) to plant the following spring, much as they saved enough adult animals to breed swine and cows and horses in the spring.

In an agrarian economy, even now, you’re thinking about making it through winter when you butcher and harvest crops in the fall, eating now what you can’t preserve, and saving enough seed and young breeding stock for spring in hope of making it through to the next year for butchering and harvest. The New Year as such isn’t that important; the season is important. The cycle. The things you must do at the proper time and in the proper order in order to survive, because, as G.R.R. Martin puts it “Winter is coming.” Winter and dearth are predictable; spring and summer aren’t.

Samhain is the Celtic Feast of the Dead

Well, no, not exactly. It’s more accurate to say that Samhain marks a liminal time between the end of Summer and the start of Winter. As a liminal time, half-way between two seasons, Samhain is special in that it’s neither one thing or the other. In terms of Medieval Irish texts and myths, Samhain is a time when denizens of various Otherworlds, including the supernatural, the fey, and the dead, are free to cross over to this world, just as mortals can cross over to the Otherworlds. It’s also not really accurate to equate the various Celtic Otherworlds with Hell, or even with the land of the dead. Again, it’s not that easy. Lines blur with Celtic myths.

Samhain is the ancestor of Halloween

It’s perhaps better to categorize Samhain as one inspiration for Halloween. The medieval Catholic church celebrated a number of feast days or holy days commemorating the death of saints who had no particular feast specifically dedicated to them. The dates varied with various “local” Catholic churches in the Middle ages, but the church eventually settled on November 1.

In 609 Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 as All Saints’ Day, or as Middle English has it, Alholowmesse. The Venerable Bede (d. 735) states that the celebration of All Saints Day occurs November 1 in England. 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 souls of all the departed (particularly those in Purgatory), by praying for them. There are references to both days earlier, but these seem to be the dates of official approval and administrative standardization as feast days with their current places in the calendar.

Certainly the associations of harvest and the dying of the year underlie the church’s decision to have an official day of the dead for commemorative purposes, and it’s not unlikely that the church made a conscious decision to assign the feast officially to a day that already had local associations with commemorating the dead, which Samain assuredly has.

I am posting this now, because this morning’s email contained this year’s first Samain related link to a Chick tract; it’s going to be a long couple of weeks. Instead of reading Chick tracts, read this; Echtrae Nerai; The Adventures of Nera. It’s a medieval Irish tale set on Samain, it’s odd, and spooky and features a talking corpse and a visit to the Otherworld because “the fairy-mounds of Erinn are always opened about Halloween.”

An earlier version of this post was published in 2017 on Medium.com

References   [ + ]

1. T. G. E. Powell. The Celts. Thames and Hudson: New York, New York, 1985. p. 144.
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