A cold wind blows as the darkness sets in. The rain hammers down from the skies as the time of light and life draws to a close. The darker half of the year is set to begin. This is a time to be fearful, as the unforgiving gaoth, báisteacht, and fuacht bring with them the prospect of death and decay. On this night, the borders between the world of the dead, the Otherworld (Tír nAill), and the world of a living will be at their thinnest, and we need to be aware. Samhain is our way of honouring the dead and appeasing the Aos Sí in the hope that they will help us through the darkest parts of the year…
Imagining living in Ireland during wintertime 2000 years ago is a difficult task. A world without the modern-day benefits we take for granted… never mind Netflix, phones or computers but electricity, non-natural lights, heating, books… The Celts’ houses were made of wattle (woven wood) and daub (straw and mud) and had no windows, so it really was a dark place to be when winter came. Crowding with your family into such a house with the hopes that you have enough food stockpiled to survive the winter cannot have been a pleasant experience.
In the hopes of a good winter and as a means of marking the turning of the year, the Celtic people in Ireland held the festival of Samhain. It was a festival associated with people gathering and feasting and with bonfires and sacrifices. Samhain took place about halfway between the autumn equinox and winter solstice on November 1st – however, due to the structure of the Celtic day – the celebrations began on October 31st.
(Please note: there is a glossary at the bottom of the article for the Irish/Gaelige words written in bold.)
Samhain and “Oíche Shamhna”
Today, Samhain is the Irish word for November, and Oíche Shamhna (the night of Samhain) is used for Halloween. There is some discussion about the meaning of the word, with some scholars believing that it means “Summer’s end”, while others believe it is concerned with „a gathering of people“. The Celts passed down information by word-of-mouth, and outside writers such as Romans or those later in history (such as monks in the 9th/10th century) wrote about these traditions. Therefore, stating precisely what happened during Ancient Samhain festivals is challenging and historians have debated different aspects.
For the Celts, Samhain was a significant festival that involved druids lighting large bonfires and people may have gathered to feast for several days. It seems to have had story-telling, divination aspects and sacrifices to the gods – animals and crops. Those celebrating were said to dress up using animal heads and skins, as this was linked with preventing the Aos Sí and other spirits from damaging them. The festival concentrated on honouring the dead as it was believed that the souls of the dead could visit people during this time of year.
Even the coming of Christianity did not prevent the celebrations of Samhain in Ireland. The moving of the days to commemorate saints, martyrs, and other souls (“All Hallows’ Day” and “All Souls Day”) to the start of November ensured that the Christian festivals mixed with the Celtic traditions.
The Development of Halloween
The name ‘Halloween’ comes from “All Hallows’ Eve”. This was the evening before the Christian holy days of All Hallows’ Day on November 1st and All Souls’ Day on November 2nd. The three days together are known as Allhallowtide. All Hallows Day (or “All Saints Day”) became a feast day to honour the saints of the Catholic Church, while All Souls’ Day was a remembrance for all those who died. In particular, it came to have a meaning with praying for those in purgatory. Across Europe, it became a day to honour saints and other souls by ringing church bells, people going from door-to-door praying for family members, and churches displaying relics of martyred saints.
The original Christian day for honouring the dead was in mid-May to coincide with the Roman festival of Lemuria. During the festival of Lemuria celebrants performed certain rituals and made offerings to the gods to remove malevolent ghosts of the dead from family homes. However, the Christian festival was moved to coincide with early November by Pope Gregory III in the 8th century. Why this celebration of dead saints and martyrs was moved to coincide with Samhain is debated by historians. Viewing winter as a time of decay was not unique to the Celts as Germanic people also honoured their dead at this time of year.
Modern Halloween largely comes from the United States of America. By this, I mean the more commercial Halloween of spooky films/horror movies, special costumes for the occasion, massive amounts of sweets given out to “trick-or-treaters”,, etc. and its general move away from religious meaning. Once again, this has Irish connections as some of the earlier emigrants to the USA, such as the Puritans, did not celebrate All Hallows’ Eve and were opposed to such celebrations. However, the mass movement of Irish and Scottish emigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries brought Samhain traditions with them that mixed with American culture and customs to make Halloween what it is today. Although not as big in Germany, Halloween is a huge celebration in many parts of the world.
The Aos Sí, Leprechauns, Fairies & Irish Mythology
As an oral culture, stories in Ireland were told and passed down by word-of-mouth. Through such stories, the Celts created their own understanding of the world around the. These stories were also a source of entertainment. The more destructive elements of nature were often personified in Irish stories as the Fomóraigh (“the Fomorians “) who took the role of giants or seas raiders in Irish mythology. The Aos Sí were the “Other Folk” – the fairies – and they were not to be insulted or angered. They have a very important place in Irish mythology, and belief in them did not disappear with the coming of Christianity. In fact, a certain level of respect is still extended towards them even in modern Ireland
The Aos Sí lived in “sidhe” or mounds but were also associated with hawthorn trees, lochs, forests, and fairy hills. These places were respected by ordinary people to prevent angering the “Good People” („na daoine maithe“). Generally, the Aos Sí coexisted with others; however, angering or infringing on their territory could lead to them invading people’s homes and land, removing objects, taking animals, and even kidnapping children. Ordinary people feared that their child could be removed from them and replaced with a changeling – a fairy child – if they were not careful. This was why festivals such as Samhain involved people seeking to appease such spirits.
Where the most famous of Irish fairies – the Leprechaun – fits into the Aos Sí mythology is debatable. The medieval story Echtra Fergus mac Léti (Adventure of Fergus son of Léti) dates to the 13th century and references Fergus being abducted by three “lúchorpáin” – sprites or fairies who were able to grant Fergus three wishes once he overpowered them. Within Irish folklore, the leprechaun developed as a solitary creature who enjoys practical jokes. However, the Aos Sí of Celtic traditions were folk to be much warier of, as angering them could cause serious harm to harvests, homes, and family members.
Stories, myths, and legends passed down through the centuries and ages, and having clear lines stating that this was when people stopped believing in the Aos Sí and fairies is not possible. Even today, some people demonstrate respect towards the Other Folk. Eddie Lenihan is one such person. A storyteller in the old “Seanchaí” tradition, Mr. Lenihan has made it his life work to document the oral tradition of Ireland, and he has written many books on folklore, stories, poetry and more. One of these books is “Meeting the Other Crowd: The Fairy Stories of Hidden Ireland”, and I can recommend it as a good read that will make you think. I found him through his interview with Blindboy Boatclub (from the “Blindboy Podcast”), and that is certainly worth a listen if you have a spare hour or more.
The Celtic Calendar
The Celtic calendar is different to the German calendar in determining when seasons start and end. Ireland generally uses the Celtic calendar, which can be confusing for people not from Ireland – well, that has been my experience anyway! The Celtic/Irish calendar breaks the seasons into Winter/” Geimhreadh” – November, December, January – Spring/” Earrach” – February, March, April – Summer/Samhradh – May, June, July – Autumn/Fómhair – August, September, October. From this calendar, we can see that Samhain/Oíche Shamhna is the start of the winter season according to Celtic traditions.
The adoption of the Celtic calendar can be seen in the names of Irish months as “Samhain” (November) is not the only Celtic festival that has been used as the name of a month – August in Gaelic is “Lúnasa” which was the Celtic harvest festival while Bealtaine is the Irish for May which was the start of the lighter half of the year. Bealtaine (“Beltane” Anglicised) was similar to Samhain as it involved bonfires and rituals to protect people from the Aos Sí; however, it was a festival with more optimism for the coming warmer summer days.
The other great Celtic festival that has a place in the Irish calendar is Imbolc on February 1st – however, today, it is known as “St. Brigid’s Day” (La Fhéile Bride“). The relationship between Saint Brigid and the Celtic goddess Brigid shows the fluidity between the Pagan Celts and Early Christian Ireland. Due to the oral traditions of Celtic Ireland, stating Brigid’s exact status is challenging; however, it would appear that she was the goddess of poetry and wisdom, and possibly with healing, animals and smithing as well. It is clear from this level of responsibility that Brigid was one of the most important deities for the Celts.
Saint Brigid may have been a real person from around the 5th or 6th century from Kildare who became a saint due to miracles of healing and others. She is one of Ireland’s patron saints, along with Saint Patrick. There is debate over whether St. Brigid was a real person who was syncretized (combined) with the Celtic Goddess or whether the Early Christians simply Christianised the existing Celtic Goddess. However, to this day, Irish primary school children sing about how “Saint Brigid brings the Spring” and make Saint Brigid Crosses on February 1st.
Halloween Traditions Linked to Ireland
Several Halloween traditions have links to Ireland and the Celts. As well as dressing up in costume and associating this time of year with the dead and other spirits, the use of pumpkin “jack-o-lanterns” also has an Irish link. There are reports of carved turnips and other vegetables from Ireland in the 19th century, and stories range from whether these were to scare off the Other Folk, to ward off a doomed spirit by the name of Jack (a young blacksmith who was refused entry to heaven) or to honour the souls of the dead. When the Irish emigrated to the USA in huge numbers, they brought this tradition with them. Pumpkins were native to the US and were easier to carve than turnips, allowing the Irish in the USA to adapt the turnip-carving tradition to pumpkins.
Eating barmbrack or “báirín breac” is another Halloween tradition linked to Ireland. Báirín breac is a soft, spicy bread containing dried fruit, and during Halloween, it has several extra ingredients. The additional ingredients provide a fortune-telling aspect to them, which once again may link back to Samhain. The items in question are:
- A ring – the finder of the ring will be married within a year,
- A piece of cloth – indicates poverty,
- A matchstick – an unhappy marriage,
- A coin – indicates wealth,
- A pea – you won’t be getting married soon,
- A thimble – spinsterhood – no marriage at all.
Eating báirín breac is now a popular Halloween tradition in Ireland. The divination/fortune-telling aspect may have Celtic roots as it was believed that the veil between our world and the “Otherworld” was at its thinnest around Samhain. This blurring of the worlds allowed people to make predictions and practice divination.
Dressing up in costume and “trick-or-treating” also have Irish links. During Celtic Samhain, the feasters were believed to use animal skins and other materials to trick the spirits; however, the link does not end there. Stories and records exist from the 16th century of people in Ireland (and the other Celtic lands – Scotland, Wales, and the Isle of Man) visiting neighbours, singing, and reciting verses in exchange for food at the time of Samhain. If the visitors were rewarded with food – the neighbour would receive luck and good fortune but not doing it would bring bad luck to them.
At the Cologne Celtics, we believe that we have an important role in promoting the Irish language, as can be seen by our “Pop-Up Gaeltachts”. Throughout this article, there were a few words “as Gaeilge” – in Irish – and here we have a glossary of the terms used with a guide on pronunciation. Irish pronunciation varies by dialect and accents; however, this is the way I learned to pronounce them.
|Samhain||November – but also the name of the Celtic festival.||“Sow – in”|
|Báisteacht||Rain||“Bawsh – tucked”|
|Fuacht||Cold||“Foo – ucht”|
|Tír nAill||Otherworld||“Teer – nile”|
|Oíche Shamhna||Halloween||“Ee-ha how-na”|
|Aos Sí||The Other Folk – fairies||“Ace – she”|
|Fomóraigh||Creatures from Irish mythology – Fomorians||“Fum -oar- rig”|
|Lúnasa||August – Celtic harvest festival||“Loo-na-sa”|
|Bealtaine||May – Celtic summer festival||“Be-owl-ten-a”|
|La Fhéile Bride||St. Brigid’s Day||“Law – ale-a breed-a”|
|báirín breac||Barmbrack||“Baw-reen brack”|
Top picture: Trees Avenue Road The Dark Hedges: Darkmoon_Art / 2149 images