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Beltane - Samhain* Wicca/Pagan Southern and Northern hemispheres (begins sundown on previous day).

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 Beltane - Samhain* Wicca/Pagan Southern and Northern hemispheres (begins sundown on previous day). 

Beltane celebrations had largely died out by the mid-20th century, although some of its customs continued and in some places it has been revived as a cultural event.  Since the late 20th century, Celtic neopagans and Wiccans have observed Beltane, or something based on it, as a religious holiday.  Neopagans in the Southern Hemisphere often celebrate Beltane ... (around 1 November). 

Contents [show]

Historic Beltane customs [edit]

Beltane was one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals: Samhain (~1 November), Imbolc (~1 February), Beltane (~1 May) and Lughnasadh (~1 August).  Beltane marked the beginning of the pastoral summer season, when livestock were driven out to the summer pastures [5] [6] Rituals were held at that time to protect them from harm, both natural and supernatural, and this mainly involved the “symbolic use of fire” [5] There were also rituals to protect crops, dairy products and people, and to encourage growth.  The aos sí (often referred to as spirits or fairies) were thought to be especially active at Beltane (as at Samhain) [5] and the goal of many Beltane rituals was to appease them.  Most scholars see the aos sí as remnants of the pagan gods and nature spirits [7] Beltaine was a “spring time festival of optimism” during which “fertility ritual again was important, perhaps connecting with the waxing power of the sun” [2]

Before the modern era [edit]

Beltane (the beginning of summer) and Samhain (the beginning of winter) are thought to have been the most important of the four Gaelic festivals.  Sir James George Frazer wrote in The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion that the times of Beltane and Samhain are of little importance to European crop-growers, but of great importance to herdsmen.  Thus, he suggests that halving the year at 1 May and 1 November dates from a time when the Celts were mainly a pastoral people, dependent on their herds [8]

The earliest mention of Beltane is in Old Irish literature from Gaelic Ireland.  According to the early medieval texts Sanas Cormaic and Tochmarc Emire, Beltane was held on 1 May and marked the beginning of summer.  The texts say that, to protect cattle from disease, the druids would make two fires “with great incantations” and drive the cattle between them [9] [10]

According to 17th century historian Geoffrey Keating, there was a great gathering at the hill of Uisneach each Beltane in medieval Ireland, where a sacrifice was made to a god named Beil.  Keating wrote that two bonfires would be lit in every district of Ireland, and cattle would be driven between them to protect them from disease [11] There is no reference to such a gathering in the annals, but the medieval Dindsenchas includes a tale of a hero lighting a holy fire on Uisneach that blazed for seven years.  Ronald Hutton writes that this may “preserve a tradition of Beltane ceremonies there”, but adds “Keating or his source may simply have conflated this legend with the information in Sanas Chormaic to produce a piece of pseudo-history.” [5] Nevertheless, excavations at Uisneach in the 20th century found evidence of large fires and charred bones, showing it to have been ritually significant [5] [12] [13]

Modern era [edit]

From the late 18th century to the mid 20th century, many accounts of Beltane customs were recorded by folklorists and other writers. 

Bonfires [edit]

A Beltane bonfire at Butser Ancient Farm 

Bonfires continued to be a key part of the festival in the modern era.  All hearth fires and candles would be doused before the bonfire was lit, generally on a mountain or hill [2] [14] Ronald Hutton writes that “To increase the potency of the holy flames, in Britain at least they were often kindled by the most primitive of all means, of friction between wood.” [5] In the 19th century, for example, John Ramsay described Scottish Highlanders kindling a need-fire or force-fire at Beltane.  Such a fire was deemed sacred [5] In the 19th century, the ritual of driving cattle between two fires—as described in Sanas Cormaic almost 1000 years before—was still practised across most of Ireland and in parts of Scotland [5] Sometimes the cattle would be driven “around” a bonfire or be made to leap over flames or embers.  The people themselves would do likewise [5] In the Isle of Man, people ensured that the smoke blew over them and their cattle [6] When the bonfire had died down, people would daub themselves with its ashes and sprinkle it over their crops and livestock [5] Burning torches from the bonfire would be taken home, where they would be carried around the house or boundary of the farmstead [15] and would be used to re-light the hearth [5] From these rituals, it is clear that the fire was seen as having protective powers [5] Similar rituals were part of May Day, Midsummer or Easter customs in other parts of the British Isles and mainland Europe [16] According to Frazer, the fire rituals are a kind of imitative or sympathetic magic.  According to one theory, they were meant to mimic the Sun and to “ensure a needful supply of sunshine for men, animals, and plants”.  According to another, they were meant to symbolically “burn up and destroy all harmful influences” [17]

A Beltane bonfire at WEHEC 2015 

Food was also cooked at the bonfire and there were rituals involving it.  Alexander Carmichael wrote that there was a feast featuring lamb, and that formerly this lamb was sacrificed [18] In 1769, Thomas Pennant wrote that, in Perthshire, a caudle made from eggs, butter, oatmeal and milk was cooked on the bonfire.  Some of the mixture was poured on the ground as a libation.  Everyone present would then take an oatmeal cake, called the bannoch Bealltainn or “Beltane bannock”.  A bit of it was offered to the spirits to protect their livestock (one bit to protect the horses, one bit to protect the sheep, and so forth) and a bit was offered to each of the animals that might harm their livestock (one to the fox, one to the eagle, and so forth).  Afterwards, they would drink the caudle [5]

According to 18th century writers, in parts of Scotland there was another ritual involving the oatmeal cake.  The cake would be cut and one of the slices marked with charcoal.  The slices would then be put in a bonnet and everyone would take one out while blindfolded.  According to one writer, whomever got the marked piece would have to leap through the fire three times.  According to another, those present would pretend to throw him into the fire and, for some time afterwards, they would speak of him as if he were dead.  This “may embody a memory of actual human sacrifice”, or it may have always been symbolic [5] A similar ritual (i.e.  of pretending to burn someone in the fire) was practised at spring and summer bonfire festivals in other parts of Europe [19]

Flowers and May Bushes [edit]

A flowering hawthorn 

Yellow flowers such as primrose, rowan, hawthorn, gorse, hazel and marsh marigold were placed at doorways and windows in 19th century Ireland, Scotland and Mann.  Sometimes loose flowers were strewn at the doors and windows and sometimes they were made into bouquets, garlands or crosses and fastened to them.  They would also be fastened to cows and equipment for milking and butter making.  It is likely that such flowers were used because they evoked fire [5] Similar May Day customs are found across Europe.  

The May Bush was popular in parts of Ireland until the late 19th century.  This was a small tree or branch—typically hawthorn, rowan or sycamore—decorated with bright flowers, ribbons, painted shells, and so forth.  There were household May Bushes (which would be placed outside each house) and communal May Bushes (which would be set in a public spot or paraded around the neighbourhood).  In Dublin and Belfast, May Bushes were brought into town from the countryside and decorated by the whole neighbourhood [14] Each neighbourhood vied for the most handsome tree and, sometimes, residents of one would try to steal the May Bush of another.  This led to the May Bush being outlawed in Victorian times [14] In some places, it was customary to dance around the May Bush, and at the end of the festivities it may be burnt in the bonfire [20] Some, however, were left in place for a month.  Thorn trees were seen as special trees and were associated with the aos sí.  The custom of decorating a May Bush or May Tree was found in many parts of Europe.  Frazer believes that such customs are a relic of tree worship and writes: “The intention of these customs is to bring home to the village, and to each house, the blessings which the tree-spirit has in its power to bestow.” [21] Emyr Estyn Evans suggests that the May Bush custom may have come to Ireland from England, because it seemed to be found in areas with strong English influence and because the Irish saw it as unlucky to damage certain thorn trees [22] However, “lucky” and “unlucky” trees varied by region, and it has been suggested that Beltane was the only time when cutting thorn trees was allowed [23] The practice of bedecking a May Bush with flowers, ribbons, garlands and bright shells is found among the Gaelic diaspora, most notably in Newfoundland, and in some Easter traditions on the East Coast of the United States [14]

Other customs [edit]

Holy wells were often visited at Beltane, and at the other Gaelic festivals of Imbolc and Lughnasadh.  Visitors to holy wells would pray for health while walking sunwise (moving from east to west) around the well.  They would then leave offerings; typically coins or clooties (see clootie well) [14] The first water drawn from a well on Beltane was seen as being especially potent, as was Beltane morning dew.  At dawn on Beltane, maidens would roll in the dew or wash their faces with it.  It would also be collected in a jar, left in the sunlight, and then filtered.  The dew was thought to increase sexual attractiveness, maintain youthfulness, and help with skin ailments [6] [14] [20]

People also took steps specifically to ward-off or appease the aos sí.  Food was left or milk poured at the doorstep or places associated with the aos sí, such as ‘fairy trees’, as an offering [24] [25] In Ireland, cattle would be brought to ‘fairy forts’, where a small amount of their blood would be collected.  The owners would then pour it into the earth with prayers for the herd’s safety.  Sometimes the blood would be left to dry and then be burnt [24] It was thought that dairy products were especially at risk from harmful spirits [14] [26] [27] To protect farm produce and encourage fertility, farmers would lead a procession around the boundaries of their farm.  They would “carry with them seeds of grain, implements of husbandry, the first well water, and the herb vervain (or rowan as a substitute).  The procession generally stopped at the four cardinal points of the compass, beginning in the east, and rituals were performed in each of the four directions” [28]

The festival persisted widely up until the 1950s, and in some places the celebration of Beltane continues today [13] [26] [27]

Revival [edit]

As a festival, Beltane had largely died out by the mid-20th century, although some of its customs continued and in some places it has been revived as a cultural event.  In Ireland, Beltane fires were common until the mid 20th century, [14] but the custom seems to have lasted to the present day only in County Limerick (especially in Limerick itself) and in Arklow, County Wicklow [29] However, the custom has been revived in some parts of the country.  Some cultural groups have sought to revive the custom at Uisneach and perhaps at the Hill of Tara [30] The lighting of a community Beltane fire from which each hearth fire is then relit is observed today in some parts of the Gaelic diaspora, though in most of these cases it is a cultural revival rather than an unbroken survival of the ancient tradition [14] [31] [32] In some areas of Newfoundland, the custom of decorating the May Bush is also still extant [33] The town of Peebles in the Scottish Borders holds a traditional week-long Beltane Fair every year in June, when a local girl is crowned Beltane Queen on the steps of the parish church.  Like other Borders festivals, it incorporates a Common Riding [34]

Beltane Fire Festival dancers, 2012 

Since 1988, a Beltane Fire Festival has been held every year during the night of 30 April on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland.  While inspired by traditional Beltane, this festival is a modern arts and cultural event which incorporates myth and drama from a variety of world cultures and diverse literary sources [35]

Neo-Paganism [edit]

Beltane and Beltane-based festivals are held by some Neopagans.  As there are many kinds of Neopaganism, their Beltane celebrations can be very different despite the shared name.  Some try to emulate the historic festival as much as possible [36] Other Neopagans base their celebrations on many sources, the Gaelic festival being only one of them [37] [38]

Neopagans usually celebrate Beltane on 30 April – 1 May in the Northern Hemisphere and 31 October – 1 November in the Southern Hemisphere, beginning and ending at sunset [39] [40] [41] [42] [43] Some Neopagans celebrate it at the astronomical midpoint between the spring equinox and summer solstice (or the full moon nearest this point).  In the Northern Hemisphere, this midpoint is when the ecliptic longitude of the Sun reaches 45 degrees [44] In 2014, this is on 5 May [45]

Celtic Reconstructionist [edit]

Celtic Reconstructionists strive to reconstruct the pre-Christian religions of the Celts.  Their religious practices are based on research and historical accounts, [36] [46] but may be modified slightly to suit modern life.  They avoid modern syncretism and eclecticism (i.e.  combining practises from unrelated cultures) [47]

Celtic Reconstructionists usually celebrate Lá Bealtaine when the local hawthorn trees are in bloom.  Many observe the traditional bonfire rites, to whatever extent this is feasible where they live.  This may involve passing themselves and their pets or livestock between two bonfires, and bringing home a candle lit from the bonfire.  If they are unable to make a bonfire or attend a bonfire ceremony, torches or candles may be used instead.  They may decorate their homes with a May Bush, branches from blooming thorn trees, or equal-armed rowan crosses.  Holy wells may be visited and offerings made to the spirits or deities of the wells.  Traditional festival foods may also be prepared [48] [49]

Wicca [edit]

Wiccans use the name Beltane or Beltain for their May Day celebrations.  It is one of the yearly Sabbats of the Wheel of the Year, following Ostara and preceding Midsummer.  Unlike Celtic Reconstructionism, Wicca is syncretic and melds practises from many different cultures.  In general, the Wiccan Beltane is more akin to the Germanic/English May Day festival, both in its significance (focusing on fertility) and its rituals (such as maypole dancing).  Some Wiccans enact a ritual union of the May Lord and May Lady [39]

Name [edit]

In Irish, the festival is usually called Lá Bealtaine (“day of Beltane”) while the month of May is Mí Bhealtaine (“month of Beltane”).  In Scottish Gaelic, the month is called (An) Cèitean or a’ Mhàigh, and the festival is Latha Bealltainn.  Sometimes the older Scottish Gaelic spelling Bealltuinn is used.  The word Céitean comes from Céad Shamhain, an old alternative name for the festival [citation needed]

In modern Scottish Gaelic, Latha Buidhe Bealltainn or Là Buidhe Bealltainn (“the yellow day of Beltane”) is used to describe the first day of May.  This term Lá Buidhe Bealtaine is also used in Irish and is translated as “Bright May Day”.  In Ireland it is referred to in a common folk tale as Luan Lae Bealtaine; the first day of the week (Monday/Luan) is added to emphasise the first day of summer [50]

Etymology [edit]

Since the early 20th century it has been commonly accepted that Old Irish Beltaine is derived from a Common Celtic *belo-te(p)niâ, meaning “bright fire”.  The element *belo- might be cognate with the English word bale (as in bale-fire) meaning “white” or “shining”; compare Old English bael, and Lithuanian/Latvian baltas/balts, found in the name of the Baltic; in Slavic languages byelo or beloye also means “white”, as in Беларусь (White Russia or Belarus) or Бе́лое мо́ре (White Sea).  A more recent etymology by Xavier Delamarre would derive it from a Common Celtic *Beltinijā, cognate with the name of the Lithuanian goddess of death Giltinė, the root of both being Proto-Indo-European *gʷelH- (“suffering, death”) [51]

In Ó Duinnín’s Irish dictionary (1904), Beltane is referred to as Céadamh(ain) which it explains is short for Céad-shamh(ain) meaning “first (of) summer”.  The dictionary also states that Dia Céadamhan is May Day and Mí Céadamhan is the month of May. 

Toponymy [edit]

Beltany stone circle in Ireland 

There are a number of place names in Ireland containing the word Bealtaine, indicating places where Bealtaine festivities were once held.  It is often anglicised as Beltany.  There are three Beltanys in County Donegal, including the Beltany stone circle, and two in County Tyrone.  In County Armagh there is a place called Tamnaghvelton/Tamhnach Bhealtaine (“the Beltane field”).  Lisbalting/Lios Bealtaine (“the Beltane ringfort”) is in County Tipperary, while Glasheennabaultina/Glaisín na Bealtaine (“the Beltane stream”) is the name of a stream joining the River Galey in County Limerick [citation needed]

Samhain (pronounced /ˈsɑːwɪn/ sah-win or /ˈsaʊ.  ɪn/ sow-in, Irish pronunciation: [sˠaunʲ]) is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year.  Traditionally, it is celebrated from 31 October to 1 November [or 31st April May 1st in the Southern hemisphere], as the Celtic day began and ended at sunset. 

This is about halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.  It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, along with Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh.  Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man.  Similar festivals are held at the same time of year in other Celtic lands; for example the Brythonic Calan Gaeaf (in Wales), Kalan Gwav (in Cornwall), and Kalan Goañv (in Brittany). 

Samhain is believed to have Celtic pagan origins and there is evidence it has been an important date since ancient times.  The Mound of the Hostages, a Neolithic passage tomb at the Hill of Tara, is aligned with the Samhain sunrise [1] It is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish litera-ture and many important events in Irish mythology happen or begin on Samhain.  It was the time when cattle were brought back down from the summer pastures and when livestock were slaughtered for the winter.  As at Beltane, special bonfires were lit. These were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers and there were rituals involving them [2] Like Beltane, Samhain was seen as a liminal time, when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld could more easily be crossed.  This meant the Aos Sí, the ‘spirits’ or ‘fairies’, could more easily come into our world.  Most scholars see the Aos Sí as remnants of the pagan gods and nature spirits.  At Samhain, it was believed that the Aos Sí needed to be propitiated to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter.  Offerings of food and drink were left outside for them.  The souls of the dead were also thought to revisit their homes seeking hospitality. 

Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place set at the table for them.  Mumming and guising were part of the festival, and involved people going door-to-door in costume (or in disguise), often reciting verses in exchange for food.  The costumes may have been a way of imitating, and disguising oneself from, the Aos Sí.  Divination rituals and games were also a big part of the festival and often involved nuts and apples.  In the late 19th century, Sir John Rhys and Sir James Frazer suggested that it was the “Celtic New Year”, and this view has been repeated by some other scholars [3]

In the 9th century AD, Western Christianity shifted the date of All Saints’ Day to 1 November, while 2 November later became All Souls’ Day.  Over time, Samhain and All Saints’/All Souls’ merged to create the modern Halloween [4] Historians have used the name ‘Samhain’ to refer to Gaelic ‘Halloween’ customs up until the 19th century [5]

Since the later 20th century, Celtic neopagans and Wiccans have observed Samhain, or something based on it, as a religious holiday [6] Neopagans in the Southern Hemisphere often celebrate Samhain at the other end of the year (about 1 May). 

In Modern Irish the name is Samhain [ˈsˠaunʲ], in Scottish Gaelic Samhainn/Samhuinn [ˈsaũ.  iɲ], and in Manx Gaelic Sauin.  These are also the names of November in each language, shortened from Mí na Samhna (Irish), Mì na Samhna (Scottish Gaelic) and Mee Houney (Manx).  The night of 31 October (Halloween) is Oíche Shamhna (Irish), Oidhche Shamhna (Scottish Gaelic) and Oie Houney (Manx), all meaning “Samhain night”.  1 November, or the whole festival, may be called Lá Samhna (Irish), Là Samhna (Scottish Gaelic) and Laa Houney (Manx), all meaning “Samhain day”. 

These names all come from the Old Irish samain, samuin or samfuin [ˈsaṽɨnʲ] all referring to 1 November (latha na samna: ‘samhain day’), and the festival and royal assembly held on that date in medieval Ireland (oenaig na samna: ‘samhain assembly’).  Its meaning is glossed as ‘summer’s end’, and the frequent spelling with f suggests analysis by popular etymology as sam (‘summer’) and fuin (‘end’).  The Old Irish sam is from Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *semo-; cognates include Welsh haf, Breton hañv, English summer and Old Norse sumar, all meaning ‘summer’, and the Sanskrit sáma (‘season’) [7] [8]

In 1907, Whitley Stokes suggested an etymology from Proto-Celtic *samani (‘assembly’), cognate to Sanskrit sámana, and Gothic samana [9] J.  Vendryes concludes that samain is unrelated to *semo- (‘summer’), remarking that the Celtic ‘end of summer’ was in July, not November, as evidenced by Welsh gorffennaf (‘July’) [10] We would therefore be dealing with an Insular Celtic word for ‘assembly’, *samani or *samoni, and a word for ‘summer’, saminos (from *samo-: ‘summer’) alongside samrad, *samo-roto-. 

The Gaulish month name SAMON [IOS] “ (pertaining to) Summer” on the Coligny calendar is likely related to the word Samhain [11] A festival of some kind may have been held during the ‘three nights of Samonios’ (Gaulish trinux [tion] samo [nii]). 

The Gaulish calendar seems to have split the year into two-halves: the first beginning with the month SAMON [IOS] and the second beginning with the month GIAMONIOS, which is related to the word for winter, PIE *g’hei-men- (Latin hiems, Latvian ziema, Lithuanian žiema, Slavic zima, Greek kheimon, Hittite gimmanza), cf.  Old Irish gem-adaig (‘winter’s night’).  Samonios may represent the beginning of the summer season and Giamonios (the seventh month) the beginning of the winter season.  The lunations marking the middle of each half-year may also have been marked by festivals. 

History [edit]

Samain or Samuin was the name of the feis or festival marking the beginning of winter in Gaelic Ireland.  It is attested in some of the earliest Old Irish literature, from the 10th century onward.  It was one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals: Samhain (~1 November), Imbolc (~1 February), Beltane (~1 May) and Lughnasadh (~1 August).  Samhain and Beltane, at the witherward side of the year from each other, are thought to have been the most important. 

Sir James George Frazer wrote in The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion that 1 May and 1 November are of little importance to European crop-growers, but of great importance to herdsmen.  It is at the beginning of summer that cattle are driven to the upland summer pastures and the beginning of winter that they are led back. 

Thus, Frazer suggests that halving the year at 1 May and 1 November dates from a time when the Celts were mainly a pastoral people, dependent on their herds [12] In medieval Ireland the festival marked the end of the season for trade and warfare and was an ideal date for tribal gatherings.  These gatherings are a popular setting for early Irish tales [13]

In Irish mythology [edit]

Irish mythology was originally a spoken tradition, but much of it was eventually written down in the Middle Ages by Christian monks, who Christianized it to some extent.  Nevertheless, these tales may shed some light on what Samhain meant and how it was marked in ancient Ireland. 

Irish mythology tells us that Samhain was one of the four seasonal festivals of the year.  The 10th-century tale Tochmarc Emire (‘The Wooing of Emer’) lists Samhain as the first of these four “quarter days” [13] In the tale Serglige Con Culainn (‘Cúchulainn’s Sickbed’), it is said that the festival of the Ulaid at Samhain lasted a week: Samhain itself, and the three days before and after.  They would gather on the Plain of Muirthemni where there would be meetings, games, and feasting [13] The tales suggest that alcohol was part of the feast, and it is noteworthy that every tale that features drunkenness is said to take place at Samhain [14]

According to Irish mythology, Samhain (like Beltane) was a time when the ‘doorways’ to the Otherworld opened, allowing supernatural beings and the souls of the dead to come into our world; but while Beltane was a summer festival for the living, Samhain “was essentially a festival for the dead” [or the beginning of winter] [15]

The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn says that the sídhe (fairy mounds or portals to the Otherworld) “were always open at Samhain” [16] In that tale, Aillen emerges from the Otherworld each Samhain and burns Tara after lulling everyone to sleep.  One Samhain, the young Fionn Mac Cumhaill is able to stay awake and slays Aillen, and is made leader of the fianna. 

Some tales may suggest that offerings or sacrifices were made at Samhain.  In the Lebor Gabála Érenn (or ‘Book of Invasions’), each Samhain the people of Nemed had to give two-thirds of their children, their corn and their milk to the monstrous Fomorians.  The Fomorians seem to represent the harmful or destructive powers of nature; personifications of chaos, darkness, death, blight and drought [17] [18] This tribute paid by Nemed’s people may represent a “sacrifice offered at the beginning of winter, when the powers of darkness and blight are in the ascendant” [19]

According to the later Dindsenchas and the Annals of the Four Masters—which were written by Christian monks—Samhain in ancient Ireland was associated with a god or idol called Crom Cruach.  The texts claim that a first-born child would be sacrificed at the stone idol of Crom Cruach in Magh Slécht.  They say that King Tigernmas, and three-fourths of his people, died while worshiping Crom Cruach there one Samhain [20]

The legendary kings Diarmait mac Cerbaill and Muirchertach mac Ercae each die a threefold death on Samhain, which involves wounding, burning and drowning, and of which they are forewarned.  In the tale Togail Bruidne Dá Derga (‘The Destruction of Dá Derga’s Hostel’), king Conaire Mór also meets his death on Samhain after breaking his geasa (prohibitions or taboos).  He is warned of his impending doom by three undead horsemen who are messengers of Donn, god of the dead [21] Some academics suggest that these tales recall human sacrifice, [22] and argue that several ancient Irish bog bodies appear to have been kings who were ritually killed, [23] some of them around the time of Samhain [24]

In the Echtra Neraí (‘The Adventure of Nera’), [25] King Ailill of Connacht sets his retinue a test of bravery on Samhain night.  He offers a prize to whomever can make it to a gallows and tie a band around a hanged man’s ankle.  Each challenger is thwarted by demons and runs back to the king’s hall in fear.  However, Nera succeeds, and the dead man then asks for a drink.  Nera carries him on his back and they stop at three houses.  They enter the third, where the dead man drinks and spits it on the householders, killing them.  Returning, Nera sees a fairy host burning the king’s hall and slaughtering those inside.  He follows the host through a portal into the Otherworld.  Nera learns that what he saw was only a vision of what will happen the next Samhain unless something is done.  He is able to return to the hall and warns the king. 

The tale Aided Chrimthainn maic Fidaig (‘The Killing of Crimthann mac Fidaig’) tells how Mongfind kills her brother, king Crimthann of Munster, so that one of her sons might become king.  Mongfind offers Crimthann a poisoned drink at a feast, but he asks her to drink from it firSt. Having no other choice but to drink the poison, she dies on Samhain eve, after which the festival came to be known as Mongfind’s or Mongfhionn’s Feast, “wherefore women and the rabble make petitions to her on samain-eve.  “ [26]

Many other events in Irish mythology happen or begin on Samhain.  The invasion of Ulster that makes up the main action of the Táin Bó Cúailnge (‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’) begins on Samhain.  As cattle-raiding typically was a summer activity, the invasion during this off-season surprised the Ulstermen [27] The Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh also begins on Samhain [28] The Morrígan and The Dagda meet and have sex before the battle against the Fomorians; in this way the Morrígan acts as a sovereignty figure and gives the victory to the Dagda’s people, the Tuatha Dé Danann.  In Aislinge Óengusa (‘The Dream of Óengus’) it is when he and his bride-to-be switch from bird to human form, and in Tochmarc Étaíne (‘The Wooing of Étaín’) it is the day on which Óengus claims the kingship of Brú na Bóinne [22]

Oweynagat (‘cave of the cats’), one of the many ‘gateways to the Otherword’ whence beings and spirits were said to have emerged on Samhain. 

Several sites in Ireland are especially linked to Samhain.  Each Samhain a host of otherworldly beings was said to emerge from Oweynagat (“cave of the cats”), at Rathcroghan in County Roscommon [29] The Hill of Ward (or Tlachta) in County Meath is thought to have been the site of a great Samhain gathering and bonfire; [14] the Iron Age ringfort is said to have been where the goddess or druid Tlachta gave birth to triplets and where she later died. 

In The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (1996), Ronald Hutton writes: “No doubt there were [pagan] religious obser-vances as well, but none of the tales ever portrays any”.  The only historic reference to religious rites is in the work of the “thoroughly unreliable” Geoffrey Keating (died 1644), who says that the druids of Ireland would gather on Tlachta on Samhain night to kindle a sacred fire.  However, his source is unknown.  Hutton says it may be that no religious rites are mentioned because, centuries after Christianization, the writers were left with no record of what they had been which they could have consulted [13]

Hutton suggests that Samhain may not have been particularly associated with the supernatural.  He says that the gatherings of royalty and warriors on Samhain may simply have been an ideal setting for such tales, in the same way that many Arthurian tales are set at courtly gatherings at Christmas or Pentecost [30]

Historic customs [edit]

Samhain was one of the four main festivals of the Gaelic calendar, marking the end of the harvest and beginning of winter [14] Traditionally, Samhain was a time to take stock of the herds and food supplies.  Cattle were brought down to the winter pastures after six months in the higher summer pastures [14] It was also the time to choose which animals would need to be slaughtered for the winter.  This custom is still observed by many who farm and raise livestock [2] [31] because it is when meat will keep since the freeze has come and also since summer grass is gone and free foraging is no longer possible.  It is thought that some of the rituals associated with the slaughter have been transferred to other winter holidays.  On St. Martin’s Day (11 November) in Ireland, an animal – usually a rooster, goose or sheep – would be slaughtered and some of its blood sprinkled on the threshold of the house.  It was offered to Saint Martin, who may have taken the place of a god or gods, [32] and it was then eaten as part of a feaSt. This custom was common in parts of Ireland until the 19th century, [33] and was found in some other parts of Europe.  At New Year in the Hebrides, a man dressed in a cowhide would circle the township sunwise.  A bit of the hide would be burnt and everyone would breathe in the smoke [32] These customs were meant to keep away bad luck, and similar customs were found in other Celtic regions [32]

Bonfires were a big part of the festival in many areas (pictured is a Beltane bonfire in Scotland) 

As at Beltane, bonfires were lit on hilltops at Samhain and there were rituals involving them [14] However, by the modern era, they only seem to have been common in parts of the Scottish Highlands, on the Isle of Man, in north and mid Wales, and in parts of Ulster [34] F.  Marian McNeill says that a force-fire (or need-fire) was the traditional way of lighting them, but notes that this method gradually died out [31] Likewise, only certain kinds of wood were traditionally used, but later records show that many kinds of flammable material were burnt [35] It is suggested that the fires were a kind of imitative or sympathetic magic – they mimicked the Sun, helping the “powers of growth” and holding back the decay and darkness of winter [31] [32] [36]

They may also have served to symbolically “burn up and destroy all harmful influences” [36] Accounts from the 18th and 19th centuries suggest that the fires (as well as their smoke and ashes) were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers [37] In Moray, boys asked for bonfire fuel from each house in the village. 

When the fire was lit, “one after another of the youths laid himself down on the ground as near to the fire as possible so as not to be burned, and in such a position as to let the smoke roll over him.  The others ran through the smoke and jumped over him”.  When the bonfire burnt down, they scattered the ashes, vying with each other who should scatter them most [37] Sometimes, two bonfires would be built side by side, and the people – sometimes with their livestock – would walk between them as a cleansing ritual.  The bones of slaughtered cattle were said to have been cast upon bonfires.  In the pre-Christian Gaelic world, cattle were the main form of wealth and were the center of agricultural and pastoral life. 

People also took flames from the bonfire back to their homes.  In parts of Scotland, torches of burning fir or turf were carried sunwise around homes and fields to protect them [34] In some places, people doused their hearth fires on Samhain night.  Each family then solemnly re-lit its hearth from the communal bonfire, thus bonding the families of the village together [2] [31] In the 17th century, Geoffrey Keating wrote that the druids of ancient Ireland would gather on Tlachta on Samhain night to kindle a sacred fire.  From this, every bonfire in the land was lit, and from thence every home in the land relit their hearth, which had been doused that night.  However, his source is unknown, and Ronald Hutton supposes that Keating had mistaken a Beltane custom for a Samhain one [13] Dousing the old fire and bringing in the new may have been a way of banishing evil, which was done at New Year festivals in many countries [32]

Snap-Apple Night (1833), painted by Daniel Maclise, shows people playing divination games on 31 October in Ireland 

The bonfires were also used in divination rituals.  In 18th century Ochtertyre, a ring of stones—one for each person—was laid round the fire, perhaps on a layer of ashes.  Everyone then ran round it with a torch, “exulting”.  In the morning, the stones were examined and if any was mislaid it was said that the person it represented would not live out the year.  A similar custom was observed in north Wales [37] and in Brittany [38] James Frazer says that this may come from “an older custom of actually burning them” (i.e. human sacrifice) or may have always been symbolic [39] Divination has likely been a part of the festival since ancient times, [14] and it has survived in some rural areas [40] At household festivities throughout the Gaelic regions and Wales, there were many rituals intended to divine the future of those gathered, especially with regard to death and marriage [14] [41] Apples and hazelnuts were often used in these divination rituals or games.  In Celtic mythology, apples were strongly associated with the Otherworld and immortality, while hazelnuts were associated with divine wisdom [42] One of the most common games was apple bobbing.  Another involved hanging a small wooden rod from the ceiling at head height, with a lit candle on one end and an apple hanging from the other.  The rod was spun round and everyone took turns to try to catch the apple with their teeth [43] Apples were peeled in one long strip, the peel tossed over the shoulder, and its shape was said to form the first letter of the future spouse’s name [44] Two hazelnuts were roasted near a fire; one named for the person roasting them and the other for the person they desired.  If the nuts jumped away from the heat, it was a bad sign, but if the nuts roasted quietly it foretold a good match [45] [46] Items were hidden in food—usually a cake, barmbrack, cranachan, champ or sowans—and portions of it served out at random.  A person’s future was foretold by the item they happened to find; for example a ring meant marriage and a coin meant wealth [47] A salty oatmeal bannock was baked; the person ate it in three bites and then went to bed in silence without anything to drink.  This was said to result in a dream in which their future spouse offers them a drink to quench their thirst [48] Egg whites were dropped in water, and the shapes foretold the number of future children.  Children would also chase crows and divine some of these things from the number of birds or the direction they flew [2] [31] [35]

As noted earlier, Samhain was seen as a liminal time, when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld could more easily be crossed [49] This meant the aos sí, the ‘spirits’ or ‘fairies’, could more easily come into our world.  Many scholars see the aos sí as remnants of the pagan gods and nature spirits [50] [51] At Samhain, it was believed that the aos sí needed to be propitiated to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter.  As such, offerings of food and drink would be left outside for the aos sí [52] [53] Portions of the crops might also be left in the ground for them [54] One custom—described a “blatant example” of a “pagan rite surviving into the Christian epoch”—was observed in the Outer Hebrides until the early 19th century.  On 31 October, the locals would go down to the shore.  One man would wade into the water up to his waist, where he would pour out a cup of ale and ask ‘Seonaidh’ (‘Shoney’), whom he called “god of the sea”, to bestow blessings on them [34] People also took special care not to offend the aos sí and sought to ward-off any who were out to cause mischief.  They stayed near to home or, if forced to walk in the darkness, turned their clothing inside-out or carried iron or salt to keep them at bay [14] The dead were also honored at Samhain.  The beginning of winter may have been seen as the most fitting time to do so, as it was a time of ‘dying’ in nature [55] The souls of the dead were thought to revisit their homes seeking hospitality.  Places were set at the dinner table and by the fire to welcome them [2] [56] The belief that the souls of the dead return home on one night of the year and must be appeased seems to have ancient origins and is found in many cultures throughout the world [57] James Frazer suggests “It was perhaps a natural thought that the approach of winter should drive the poor, shivering, hungry ghosts from the bare fields and the leafless woodlands to the shelter of the cottage” [58] However, the souls of thankful kin could return to bestow blessings just as easily as that of a wronged person could return to wreak revenge [59]

A Mari Lwyd, the Welsh equivalent of the Láir Bhán 

Mumming and guising was a part of Samhain from at least the 16th century and was recorded in parts of Ireland, Scotland, Mann and Wales [60] It involved people going from house to house in costume (or in disguise), usually reciting songs or verses in exchange for food [60] It is suggested that it evolved from a tradition whereby people impersonated the aos sí, or the souls of the dead, and received offerings on their behalf [60] Impersonating these spirits or souls was also believed to protect oneself from them [61] S.  V.  Peddle suggests the guisers “personify the old spirits of the winter, who demanded reward in exchange for good fortune” [62] McNeill suggests that the ancient festival included people in masks or costumes representing these spirits and that the modern custom came from this [63] In Ireland, costumes were sometimes worn by those who went about before nightfall collecting for a Samhain feast [60]

In parts of southern Ireland during the 19th century, the guisers included a hobby horse known as the Láir Bhán (white mare).  A man covered in a white sheet and carrying a decorated horse skull (representing the Láir Bhán) would lead a group of youths, blowing on cow horns, from farm to farm.  At each they recited verses, some of which “savoured strongly of paganism”, and the farmer was expected to donate food.  If the farmer donated food he could expect good fortune from the ‘Muck Olla’; not doing so would bring misfortune [64] This is akin to the Mari Lwyd (grey mare) procession in Wales, which takes place at Midwinter.  In Wales the white horse is often seen as an omen of death [65] In some places, young people cross-dressed [60] In Scotland, young men went house-to-house with masked, veiled, painted or blackened faces, [35] [66] often threatening to do mischief if they were not welcomed [60] This was common in the 16th century in the Scottish countryside and persisted into the 20th [67] It is suggested that the blackened faces comes from using the bonfire’s ashes for protection [63] Elsewhere in Europe, costumes, mumming and hobby horses were part of other yearly festivals.  However, in the Celtic-speaking regions they were “particularly appropriate to a night upon which supernatural beings were said to be abroad and could be imitated or warded off by human wanderers” [60]

An Irish Seán Na Gealaí turnip lantern from the early 20th century at the Museum of Country Life 

Hutton writes: “When imitating malignant spirits it was a very short step from guising to playing pranks”.  Playing pranks at Samhain is recorded in the Scottish Highlands as far back as 1736 and was also common in Ireland, which led to Samhain being nicknamed “Mischief Night” in some parts [60] Wearing costumes at Halloween spread to England in the 20th century, as did the custom of playing pranks, though there had been mumming at other festivals [60] At the time of mass transatlantic Irish and Scottish immigration, which popularised Halloween in North America, Halloween in Ireland and Scotland had a strong tradition of guising and pranks [68] Trick-or-treating may have come from the custom of going door-to-door collecting food for Samhain feasts, fuel for Samhain bonfires and/or offerings for the aos sí.  Alternatively, it may have come from the All Saints/All Souls custom of collecting soul cakes. 

The “traditional illumination for guisers or pranksters abroad on the night in some places was provided by turnips or mangel wurzels, hollowed out to act as lanterns and often carved with grotesque faces” [60] They were also set on windowsills.  By those who made them, the lanterns were variously said to represent the spirits or supernatural beings, [69] or were used to ward off evil spirits [66] [70] [71] These were common in parts of Ireland and the Scotland into the 20th century [60] They were also found in Somerset (see Punkie Night).  In the 20th century they spread to other parts of England and became generally known as jack-o’-lanterns [60]

Celtic Revival [edit]

During the late 19th and early 20th century Celtic Revival, there was an upswell of interest in Samhain and the other Celtic festivals.  Sir John Rhys put forth that it had been the “Celtic New Year”.  He inferred it from contemporary folklore in Ireland and Wales, which he felt was “full of Hallowe’en customs associated with new beginnings”.  He visited Mann and found that the Manx sometimes called 31 October “New Year’s Night” or Hog-unnaa.  The Tochmarc Emire, written in the Middle Ages, reckoned the year around the four festivals at the beginning of the seasons, and put Samhain at the beginning of those.  However, Hutton says that the evidence for it being the Celtic or Gaelic New Year’s Day is flimsy [72] Rhys’s theory was popularised by Sir James George Frazer, though at times he did acknowledge that the evidence is inconclusive.  Frazer also put forth that Samhain had been the pagan Celtic festival of the dead and that it had been Christianized as All Saints and All Souls [72] Since then, Samhain has been popularly seen as the Celtic New Year and an ancient festival of the dead.  The calendar of the Celtic League, for example, begins and ends at Samhain [73]

Related festivals [edit]

Further information: Halloween 

In the Brythonic branch of the Celtic languages, Samhain is known as the ‘calends of winter’.  The Brythonic lands of Wales, Cornwall and Brittany held festivals on 31 October similar to the Gaelic one.  In Wales it is Calan Gaeaf, in Cornwall it is Allantide or Kalan Gwav and in Brittany it is Kalan Goañv [22]

The Manx celebrate Hop-tu-Naa on 31 October, which is a celebration of the original New Year’s Eve.  The term is Manx Gaelic in origin, possibly from Shogh ta’n Oie, meaning “this is the night”.  Traditionally, children carve turnips rather than pumpkins and carry them around the neighborhood singing traditional songs relating to hop-tu-naa. 

All Saints’ Day [edit]

The Roman Catholic holy day of All Saints (or All Hallows) was introduced in the year 609, but was originally celebrated on 13 May [74] In 835, Louis the Pious switched it to 1 November in the Carolingian Empire, at the behest of Pope Gregory IV [74] However, from the testimony of Pseudo-Bede, it is known that churches in what are now England and Germany were already celebrating All Saints on 1 November at the beginning of the 8th century [74] [75] [76] Thus, Louis merely made official the custom of celebrating it on 1 November.  James Frazer suggests that 1 November was chosen because it was the date of the Celtic festival of the dead (Samhain) – the Celts had influenced their English neighbours, and English missionaries had influenced the Germans.  However, Ronald Hutton points out that, according to Óengus of Tallaght (d.  ca.  824), the 7th/8th century church in Ireland celebrated All Saints on 20 April.  He suggests that the 1 November date was a Germanic rather than a Celtic idea [74]

Over time, the night of 31 October came to be called All Hallows’ Eve (or All Hallows’ Even).  Samhain influenced All Hallows’ Eve and vice versa, and the two eventually morphed into the secular holiday known as Halloween. 

Neopaganism [edit]

See also: Wheel of the Year 

Samhain and Samhain-based festivals are held by some Neopagans.  As there are many kinds of Neopaganism, their Samhain celebrations can be very different despite the shared name.  Some try to emulate the historic festival as much as possible.  Other Neopagans base their celebrations on sundry unrelated sources, Gaelic culture being only one of the sources [6] [77] [78] Folklorist Jenny Butler [79] describes how Irish pagans pick some elements of historic Samhain celebrations and meld them with references to the Celtic past, making a new festival of Samhain that is inimitably part of neo-pagan culture. 

Neopagans usually celebrate Samhain on 31 October – 1 November in the Northern Hemisphere and 30 April – 1 May in the Southern Hemisphere, beginning and ending at sundown [80] [81] [82] [83] Some Neopagans celebrate it at the astronomical midpoint between the autumn equinox and winter solstice (or the full moon nearest this point).  In the Northern Hemisphere, this midpoint is when the ecliptic longitude of the Sun reaches 225 degrees [84] In 2015, this is on 7 November, at 17:44 GMT [85]

Celtic Reconstructionism [edit]

Like other Reconstructionist traditions, Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans emphasise historical accuracy.  They base their celebrations and rituals on traditional lore as well as research into the beliefs of the polytheistic Celts [78] [86]

Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans (or CRs) often celebrate Samhain on the date of first frost, or when the last of the harvest is in and the ground is dry enough to have a bonfire [87] Some follow the old tradition of building two bonfires, which celebrants and livestock then walk or dance between as a ritual of purification [2] [31] For CRs, it is a time when the dead are especially honoured.  Though CRs make offerings at all times of the year, Samhain is a time when more elaborate offerings are made to specific ancestors [87] This may involve making a small shrine.  Often there will be a meal, where a place for the dead is set at the table and they are invited to join.  Traditional tales may be told and traditional songs, poems and dances performed.  A western-facing door or window may be opened and a candle left burning on the windowsill to guide the dead home.  Divination for the coming year is often done, whether in all solemnity or as games for the children.  The more mystically inclined may also see this as a time for deeply communing with their deities, especially those seen as being particularly linked with this festival [2] [31] [78] [86] [87]

Wicca [edit]

Wiccans celebrate a variation of Samhain as one of the yearly Sabbats of the Wheel of the Year.  It is deemed by most Wiccans to be the most important of the four “greater Sabbats”.  Samhain is seen by some Wiccans as a time to celebrate the lives of those who have died, and it often involves paying respect to ancestors, family members, elders of the faith, friends, pets and other loved ones who have died.  In some rituals the spirits of the dead are invited to attend the festivities.  It is seen as a festival of darkness, which is balanced at the opposite point of the wheel by the spring festival of Beltane, which Wiccans celebrate as a festival of light and fertility [88]

Wiccans believe that at Samhain the veil between this world and the afterlife is at its thinnest point of the whole year, making it easier to communicate with those who have left this world [89]

Beltane (/ˈbɛl.teɪn/) [3] [4] is the anglicised name for the Gaelic May Day festival.  Most commonly it is held on 1 May [or October 31st – Nov.  1st in the Northern hemisphere], or about halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice.  Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man.  In Irish the name for the festival day is Lá Bealtaine ( [l̪ˠaː ˈbʲal̪ˠt̪ˠənʲə]), in Scottish Gaelic Là Bealltainn ( [l̪ˠa: ˈpjaul̪ˠt̪ˠɪɲ]) and in Manx Gaelic Laa Boaltinn/Boaldyn.  It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals—along with Samhain, Imbolc and Lughnasadh—and is similar to the Welsh Calan Mai. 

Beltane is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature and it is associated with important events in Irish mythology.  It marked the beginning of summer and was when cattle were driven out to the summer pastures.  Rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth.  Special bonfires were kindled, and their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers.  The people and their cattle would walk around the bonfire or between two bonfires, and sometimes leap over the flames or embers.  All household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire.  These gatherings would be accompanied by a feast, and some of the food and drink would be offered to the aos sí.  Doors, windows, byres and the cattle themselves would be decorated with yellow May flowers, perhaps because they evoked fire.  In parts of Ireland, people would make a May Bush: a thorn bush decorated with flowers, ribbons and bright shells.  Holy wells were also visited, while Beltane dew was thought to bring beauty and maintain youthfulness.  Many of these customs were part of May Day or Midsummer festivals in other parts of Great Britain and Europe.  

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