Samhain

Other names: Allantide (Cornish), All-Hallow's Tide ("Alhalwyn-tyd," Germanic), All Souls' Day (Christian), Calan Gaeaf or Hollantide (Welsh), Halloween (secular American), Kala-Goanv (Breton), Sauin (Manx), Samhain (Modern Irish), Samhiunn (Scottish Gaelic), Trinouxtion Samonii (Gaulish from the Coligny Calendar).

There's a quaint old Scottish verse that goes as such:

Hey! Ho! for Hallowe'en
An' all the witches tae be seen
Some in black an' some in green
Hey! Ho! for Hallowe'en.

Samhain was the new year of the Celts. The earliest reference seems to likely be on the Coligny calendar, which began the year with a month called Samonios, a name which is echoed in the modern Irish name for November, Samhain. According to the Coligny calendar, it commenced with three days called the Trinouxtion Samonii, the Three Nights of the End of Summer.

Itís also a day of major change in the mythological cycles; according to Irish myth, Oengus mac ind-Og was born on Samhain; An Dagda mated with the Morrigan on Samhain, just before the Second Battle of Magh Turedh, which may have also been on Samhain; it is mentioned as an important feast day in both the Ulster and Fionn cycles; and in some versions of the Hanes Taliesin, the bard is found by Elphin on this day. In many folk tales and in some late Fionn tales, it was the day that the Hollow Hills would open and the sidhe would walk about. What one can then see is that this holy day is one of great changeóit is the day of rebirth, and the day when order is battled over and restored.

They did believe that the walls between this world and the otherworld grew thin at this time, but then, they also believed it grew thin at Beltane. When combined with the Catholic feast of All Hallows (modern All Saints), it was a feast to memorialize the dead. But it was also a harvest festival, the last of the year before the coming of winter; it is no mistake that the Welsh name for this vigil feast--Nos Galen-gaeof--translates as "Night of the Winter Kalends"--the beginning of winter.

In the modern calendar, the day is called Halloween, from early modern English "All Hallows Eve"--that is, the vigil of the Feast of All Saints on the Catholic calendar. Originally, this feast was celebrated on May 1, but was later moved to the Irish feast, perhaps under the influence of the many Irish monks on the continent in the early Middle Ages. However, the feast also seemed to expand under this influence, gaining the vigil feast of Halloween, the true feast of All Saints', and the final day of All Souls'--thus returning to the old Gaullish Trinouxtion Samonii. The feast, with its trappings of costumes and jack-o-lanters, was brought to America by Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century. Halloween has retained its more gothic characteristics, focusing more on the concept of the Feast of the Dead than on the New Year or the sidhe.

It is important to point out that there is no Irish "god of the dead," and especially no god named "Samhain," as some rather erroneous books/websites will tell you. There is some argument as to whether one can consider Arawn or Gwyn ap Nudd Welsh gods of the dead, or at least psychopomps, but the Irish pantheon has no official god of the dead. (Some, though, hypothesize that Donn or Mil is this god, as Caesar says that the Gauls believed they were decended from Dis, the Roman name for the god of the dead, and sometimes Donn or Mil are named the ancestors of the Irish.)

Customs:

One popular custom associated with the dead was the dumb supper.

This can be seen in conjunction not only with hospitality towards the dead, but also the harvest festival. In Pembrokeshire it was called cinio cynhaeaf (harvest dinner), or ffest y wrach (the hag's feast), which is thought to refer to harvest traditions. It is thought to also be tied to the slaughtering of animals; the name for November in Welsh is Tachwedd, meaning "slaughter." The animals were then cooked in a large feast, It was thought that spirits roamed the land; some would take the form of a ladi wen (white lady), while others would be the hwch ddu gwta (the tail-less black sow), which terrified people. Young people would prepare huge bonfires, where they would roast apples for food. Stones would be thrown in for divination--to find the stone the next morning was a sign of health for the year; to not find the stone was a sign of death. The people would spend the night dancing and running through the bonfires until the fire died out. As it would do so, the people would shout rhymes, such as the following:

Hwch Ddu Gwta a Ladi Wen heb dimm pen
Hwch Ddu Gwta a gipio'r ola
Hwch Ddu Gwta nos G'langaea
Lladron yn dwad tan weu sana

A tail-less Black Sow and a White Lady without a head
May the tail-less black sow snatch the hindmost.
A tail-less black sow on winter's eve,
Thieves coming along knitting stockings.
Similarly, when trick-or-treating, young men--gwrachod--would sing the following verses:
Nos g'langaea', twco 'fala',
Pwy sy'n dod ma's i whara?
Ladi wen ar ben y pren
Yn naddu croes ymbrelo;
Mae'n un o'r gloch, mae'n ddau o'r gloch
Mae'n bryd i'r moch gael cinio.

Winter's Eve, baiting of apples
Who is coming out to play?
A White Lady on top of a tree
Wittling an umbrella stick
It's one o'clock, it's two o'clock,
it's time fo the pigs to have dinner.

Again, the White Lady and the pig are featured.

To some extent, we are reminded of the Northern European tradition of the Wild Hunt.

It was a night for divination; nuts would be burned, and brightly-burning nuts signaled marriage; the practice is old enough to be mentioned by Dafydd ap Gwilym (fl. 1340-70) and Iolo Goch (1320-1398).

Like the Irish, the Welsh would hollow out turnips and place candles in them, but reportedly to frighten people, not spirits.

FOOD:

In America, of course, we eat candy. Lots of it. Of course, there is also the traditional apple cider, caramel apples, and donoughts.

In Montgomeryshire, girls would prepare the stwmp naw rhyw, the "mash of nine sorts", which included potatoes, carrots, turnips, pease, parsnips, leeks, pepper, salt, and new milk. A ring would be hidden in the mash, and she who found it was predicted to be married within the year. In other parts of Wales, the would make pancakes. Often, these dishes required nine girls to make them, which is reminiscent of Taliesin's poem on the Cauldron of Annwn:

In the first word from the cauldron when spoken,
From the breath of nine maidens it was gently warmed.
Is it not the cauldron of the chief of Annwvn? What is its intention?
A ridge about its edge and pearls.
It will not boil the food of a coward, that has not been sworn

Other foods included a wassail bowl; games of trying to bite suspended apples; and of course bobbing for apples.

People would go "sowling", collecting food to be given to the dead "hel bwyd cennad y meirw--collecing the food of the messenger of the dead."


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Mary Jones © 2004