Towards the end of October, the doorway to the dark half of the Celtic year swings open. The dying sun is swallowed up by the lengthening nights; the green fields of summer have become brown and sere. In groves of oak and beech, leaves drop to earth, and animals prepare for winter sleep. It is Samhain, (pronounced “sow-an”) the season of frost and firelight.
Samhain (Scots Gaelic: Samhuinn) literally means “summer's end.” In Scotland and Ireland, Halloween is known as Oíche Shamna, while in Wales it is Nos Calan Gaeaf, the eve of the winter's calend, or beginning. The early Celts honored this time as the start of the Celtic New Year, for it was understood that in dark silence comes whisperings of new beginnings, the stirring of the seed below the ground. Whereas Beltane welcomes in the summer with joyous celebrations at dawn, the most magically potent time of this festival is the night of October 31st, known today of course, as Halloween.
In the country year, Samhain marked the first day of “the great move indoors,” when the herders led cattle and sheep down from their summer hillside pastures to the shelter of stable and byre. The hay that would feed them during the winter had to be stored in sturdy thatched ricks, tied down securely against storms. Those destined for the table were slaughtered, after being ritually devoted to the gods in pagan times. All the harvest was gathered in – barley, oats, wheat, turnips, and apples – for come November, the faeries would blast every growing plant with their breath, blighting any nuts and berries remaining on the hedgerows. Peat and wood for winter fires were stacked high by the hearth. It was a joyous time of family reunion, when all members of the household worked together baking, salting meat, and making preserves for the winter feasts to come. The endless horizons of summer gave way to a warm, dim and often smoky room; the symphony of summer sounds was replaced by a counterpoint of voices, young and old, human and animal.
The Samhain Fires
In early Ireland, people gathered at the ritual centers of the tribes, for Samhain was the principal calendar feast of the year. The greatest assembly was the 'Feast of Tara,' focusing on the royal seat of the High King as the heart of the sacred land, the point of conception for the new year. In every household throughout the country, hearth-fires were extinguished. All waited for the Druids to light the new fire of the year -- not at Tara, but at Tlachtga, a hill twelve miles to the north-west. It marked the burial-place of Tlachtga, daughter of the great druid Mogh Ruith, who may once have been a goddess in her own right in a former age.
At all the turning points of the Celtic year, the gods drew near to Earth at Samhain, so many sacrifices and gifts were offered up in thanksgiving for the harvest. Personal prayers in the form of objects symbolizing the wishes of supplicants or ailments to be healed were cast into the fire, and at the end of the ceremonies, brands were lit from the great fire of Tara to rekindle all the home fires of the tribe, as at Beltane. As they received the flame that marked this time of beginnings, people surely felt a sense of the kindling of new dreams, projects and hopes for the year to come.
Even today, bonfires light up the skies in many parts of the British Isles and Ireland at this season, although in many areas of Britain their significance has been co-opted by Guy Fawkes Day, which falls on November 5th, and commemorates an unsuccessful attempt to blow up the English Houses of Parliament in the 17th century. In one Devonshire village, the extraordinary sight of both men and women running through the streets with blazing tar barrels on their backs can still be seen! Whatever the reason, there will probably always be a human need to make fires against the winter’s dark.
The Wild Hunt
As the gates of Winter open wide, the great cavalcade of spirits known as the Wild Hunt sweeps through the skies. They ride to gather the lost and wandering souls of the dead and lead them home. At their helm rides an illustrious huntsman, who in Wales is Gwynn ap Nudd, the King of the Faeries; in England, Herne the Hunter; and in many places, King Arthur himself:
Arthour knyght he rade on nycht
With gylten spur and candil lyght.
In the northern dusk, people trembled to hear the unearthly cries of wild geese overhead. They believed it must be the yelping of the Huntsman’s spirit hounds, who in common with all Otherworld animals, have white bodies and red ears. In Scotland, the ghostly hunters have hawks on their wrists and ride westward on the wind towards Tír na h-òige, the Land of Youth, and Tír fo thuinn, the Land-Under-Wave.
On Samhain Eve, Manannán mac Lir lifted his cloak of concealment from the Shining Ones, and anyone out near faery forts at dusk might hear their sounds of revelry or catch a glimpse of dancing feet. Most late wayfarers took steps to protect themselves from a closer encounter by carrying a black-handled knife or sticking a needle in coat collar or sleeve, as the faeries shrink in fear from iron – which some say is because they were the pre-Iron Age dwellers in these isles. However, more adventurous souls knew that at this time you could enter a sidhe mound by walking nine times around it, at which point a door would appear in the hill.
The Faery Ride
Forget the hearth,
Forget the roof,
Set the wheel aside:
Leave your weaving,
Warp and woof,
Steal out to us this Samhain-Tide.
Steal out to us, our tossing hair
Sets sun and moon and stars aflare.
The racing winds are hounds beside
The cloud-maned horses that we ride.
Come ride with us, have heart to dare
The plunging steed; the steeps of air;
The swirling, high, tumultuous flight,
The aery hooves – this Samhain Night!