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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.

Tam Lin: Love, Sacrifice, and Halloween

Image of a carved turnip from Ireland
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 #37 “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.

Soul Cake and Souling

Soul, soul, a soul cake!
I pray thee, good missus, a soul cake!
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Him what made us all!
Soul cake, soul cake, please good missus, a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry, anything good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, one for Paul, and three for Him who made us all.

Small round soul cakes with raisins and a cross marked on the top of each small cake.
Soul cakes Image credit: Malikhpur

All Souls’ Day is one of the feast days of the Roman Catholic Church. All Souls’ is observed on November 2. Special prayers are offered for the deceased souls in Purgatory, believed to be waiting for eventual release. All Souls’ follows All Saints’ Day on November 1, the day on which the saints in heaven are commemorated under the assumption that the souls languishing in purgatory should also be remembered and prayed for. All Souls’ was established by Abbot Odilo of Cluny (d. 1049) and  was widely celebrated by the 13th century. All Souls’ is also known as Soulmas Day or Saumas.

Prior to the Protestant Reformation, it was common in England and the British Isles for people to give food and alms to the poor on All Souls’ Day with the assumption that the food was recompense for praying for the dead. In the 17th century John Aubrey1)John Aubrey. Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme. 1686–87. Ed. James Britten. London: The Folklore Society, 1880. 23. describes piles of small cakes set out on All Souls’ in Shropshire houses; visitors to the house would take a soul cake with the understanding that they would pray for the souls of the departed family members. The idea is that the prayers assist the departed souls in purgatory to move on to Heaven. Aubrey offers two lines of a lyric he describes as “an old Rhythm or saying”:

A Soule-cake, a Soule-cake,
Have mercy on all Christen soules for a Soule-cake.

Aubrey’s reference is to a traditional lyric performed by “mummers,” people going house to house and singing on November 2, the Feast of All Souls, the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed, or in Latin commemoratio omnium fidelium Defunctorum, in hopes that the mistress of the house would reward them with a soul cake. The soul cake, as suggested by Aubrey’s reference, is a small round cake that was typically made with oats as well as flour, and seasoned with spices and dried fruits. The mummers or singers would be rewarded for praying with the soul cakes. The cakes and the custom of distributing them to visitors date back to the Middle Ages in England. The practice of going house to house and singing is called “souling” and is frequently cited as an analogue if not an ancestor of modern day Halloween trick or treat. Souling seems to have been a fairly localized custom until the 19th century, primarily associated with Shropshire, north Staffordshire, Cheshire, and Lancashire.

There are genuine medieval recipes for soul cakes but they’re generally not very tasty. Like many medieval desserts, historic soul cake recipes tend to be over indulgent with respect to spices for modern tastes. Later recipes, especially those from the 18th century, are much more like a modern slightly spicy scone with dried fruit.

Here is a modernized version of a recipe from the English recipe compilation referred to as Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book. The original recipe from 1604 is as follows:

Take flower & sugar & nutmeg & cloves & mace & sweet butter & sack & a little ale barme, beat your spice, & put in your butter & your sack, cold, then work it well all together, & make it in little cakes, & so bake them, if you will you may put in some saffron into them and fruit.

There’s a modern version of the recipe here that was featured on The Food Network.

These days the song is better known than the custom of souling. Here’s Sting on the David Letterman Show, singing the Soul Cake song, with the traditional melody, and some lovely but not quite so ancient additional lyrics. The song is from Sting’s If On a Winter’s Night album of seasonal music for Winter.

References   [ + ]

1. John Aubrey. Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme. 1686–87. Ed. James Britten. London: The Folklore Society, 1880. 23.

Halloween, Samhain, and such

It’s the time of year when I start seeing incredibly daft posts about the antecedents of Halloween, particularly Samain (Samhain, for you moderns). This year, I’ve created an FAQ about Samain, and what it means.

For those of you already in the know, here’s a link to a translation by Kuno Meyer of the very odd Echtra Nera, mostly based on Eg. 1782. Echtra Nera is a tale tied closely to Samain, and features a sojourn in a síd, as well as the observation that “the fairy-mounds of Erinn are always opened about Halloween.”

In the beginning of the tale, a dead man directs Nera to take him to a house for a drink; he rejects houses that properly stow washing water and slop-pails at night, for one that violates purity sanctions, and has a washing-tub, and a bathing-tub and a slop pail, available.

He then drinks a draught of either of them and scatters the last sip from his lips at the faces of the people that were in the house, so that they all died. Henceforth it is not good [to have] either a tub for washing or bathing, or a fire without sparing, or a slop-pail in a house after sleeping.

We have in this medieval Irish text the same association of purity and the otherworld that Pistol alludes to in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor when he says:

Elves, list your names; silence, you airy toys.
Cricket, to Windsor chimneys shalt thou leap:
Where fires thou find’st unraked and hearths unswept,
There pinch the maids as blue as bilberry:
Our radiant queen hates sluts and sluttery (V.v).

We see this same association in the sometimes-attributed-to Ben Jonson “Robin Goodfellow,” in which Robin the fairy or Puck says:

When house or harth doth sluttish lie,
I pinch the maids there blacke and blew.

Herrick too uses the same motif of poor housekeeping earning otherworldly punishment in “The Fairies”:

IF ye will with Mab find grace,
Set each platter in his place;
Rake the fire up, and get
Water in, ere sun be set.
Wash your pails and cleanse your dairies;
Sluts are loathsome to the fairies;
Sweep your house, who doth not so,
Mab will pinch her by the toe.