Today, I give you Catherine Cavendish, with a very interesting history of Samhain, the Feast of the Dead.
Halloween, All Hallows Eve – whichever title you give it, there is no escaping its ancient origins. In Celtic tradition, the feast of Samhain was the night on which the worlds of the dead and the living came together.
The ancient Celts believed that this was the time of the year when the veil between the two worlds was at its thinnest – the one night on which the spirits of those who had gone before could cross over and impart their knowledge and wisdom to the living priests. As all had been revealed to the dead, they were able to help those in the living world to predict the future. Our ancestors did not fear death, they looked on it as a natural transition and one to be welcomed, since so much knowledge would be revealed once a soul had crossed over into the world of the dead. The celebration of Samhain involved the building of massive bonfires and much revelry. Celebrants would don animal skins and heads, they would dance, feast and worship the ancestors. They would attempt to tell each other’s fortunes and even try and peer into their own future, through scrying and other methods of sorcery.
A communal feast was prepared, with each celebrant bringing offerings of meat or vegetables for general consumption – a pre-cursor of today’s Christian Harvest Festivals perhaps?
But the origins go much further back than that. Deep onto the mists of prehistory.
In Ireland, two hills – Tlachtga and Tara – are both associated with the celebration of Samhain. Tlachtga is the main location as it was here that the Great Fire Festival was held annually on that date. Nearby, on the hill of Tara, the entrance passage to the Mound of the Hostages is aligned to the rising sun on October 31st. As this monument is believed to be 4500-5000 years old, it predates the arrival of the Celts in Ireland by some 2000-2500 years.
So why light a fire at all? The end of October marks a change in seasons. The ancients would have seen the sun’s strength waning and the massive fires could have been their way of ‘assisting’ the giver of life and sustenance on its passage through the sky, as well as providing much needed warmth.
With the sun now consigned to the underworld, those creatures that dwelt in that dark place were free to roam the earth, Ghosts, fairies, sprites, and all those who served the Lord of the Dead emerged from the shadows. In Ireland, the Celts called their Dark Lord Donn and, according to tradition, he had been a real person. When alive he captained a ship – one of many which sought to invade Ireland. He and his compatriots – known as the Milisians – made their way to Tara but were ordered to leave by the ruling Druids. They duly set sail but a fierce storm wrecked Donn’s ship and he perished, along with twenty-four others. He was buried on the Skellig Islands near Kerry and close to Valentia Island where Mog Ruith – the sun god (who ruled during the summer months) was said to be interred. Accoridng to legend, Donn was duly elevated to the status of Lord of the Dead. The two gods both became closely associated with Samhain, as Mog Ruith inhabited Donn’s Underworld during the winter months. The dead were often seen moving backwards and forwards from Donn’s ‘house’
As October 31st was recognised as the marker signifying the passing of the sun (and its god Mog Ruith) into darkness and the rising of the Lord of the Dead, Donn, the festival of Samhain also marked both events. The fires symbolised the passing of the sun god, and the other rites and magic represented a homage to Donn. His reign heralded a night where the normal order was overthrown. Samhain itself came to symbolize a time of chaos when the unwary could find themselves encountering all manner of strange creatures, magical beasts and frightening spirits. Particular places to avoid were any boundaries between two properties or tracts of land. Bad spirits loved to haunt there and create havoc. Bridges and crossroads were similarly scary places to be. Burial places were to be avoided at all costs – all manner of otherworldly entity could be found wandering there. Sensible people stayed at home, waiting for the signal that all was well and that order had been restored.
This came when the Great Fire at Tlachtga was lit. People could once again welcome their own dead into their homes without fear that they would bring something unsavoury with them. They could relight their own fires – from the massive fire itself. They could celebrate. But, there was always the possibility that a stray malevolent spirit might be still at large and, if so, would have to be placated by a small offering. Here, we have the possible origins of ‘Trick or Treat’. Households were invited to contribute or suffer the consequences of a rogue ghost who would bring bad fortune upon their home for an entire year.
The power of Samhain still resonates today, although many of its rituals have been absorbed, diluted and transformed into today’s Halloween festivities. For our ancestors though, its importance cannot be overestimated. The crossing over of the seasons came to represent the crossing over of everything – both corporeal and spiritual. Given that we know the ancients had a much closer affinity with the natural elements than we possess today, perhaps we would be wise to heed their beliefs and take great care when venturing out on a cold Samhain night…
(with thanks to John Gilroy – Tlachtga: Celtic Fire Festival)
About the Author:
Cat first started writing when someone thrust a pencil into her hand. Unfortunately as she could neither read nor write properly at the time, none of her stories actually made much sense. However as she grew up, they gradually began to take form and, at the tender age of nine or ten, she sold her dolls’ house, and various other toys to buy her first typewriter. She hasn’t stopped bashing away at the keys ever since, although her keyboard of choice now belongs to her laptop.
The need to earn a living led to a varied career in sales, advertising and career guidance but Cat is now the full-time author of a number of supernatural, ghostly, haunted house and Gothic horror novels, novellas and short stories. These include: The Haunting of Henderson Close, The Devil’s Serenade, Miss Abigail’s Room, The Second Wife, Dark Avenging Angel, The Devil Inside Her, The Demons of Cambian Street, and Cold Revenge. She lives in Southport, in the U.K. with her longsuffering husband, and a black cat, who has never forgotten that her species was once worshipped in Egypt.
When not slaving over a hot computer, Cat enjoys wandering around Neolithic stone circles and visiting old haunted houses.