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Association of Polytheist Traditions

Samhain Myths

Copyright © by Robin Herne 2004

neolithic burial mound

A number of myths and legends are associated with the festival of Samhain in early Celtic lore which may serve to give some idea of how pre-Christian tribes saw this sacred day. This article aims to reflect briefly on just a few of the Irish tales set at Samhain.

In Irish lore the Tuatha de Danann arrived on Beltane (like the people of Cesair and Partholon before them), and fought their first great battle against the Fir Bolg soon after. The major, defining battle though was the Second Conflict on the Plain of Pillars. Waged against the loathsome Fomori, this war is described as occurring on Samhain. One of the reasons being that Samhain was the time chosen by the Fomori for demanding their onerous taxes of the subjugated Tuatha. In an image reminiscent of the Poll Tax riots, the people of Danu rise up and overthrow the tyrants. When Lugh slays the terrible Balor, the tide of battle is finally turned in favour of the incoming deities.

From this we might surmise that Samhain was a popular time for the making of offerings, both to deities and perhaps to more temporal powers. Yet the destruction of the gruesome children of Domnu suggests a theme of liberation, of throwing off unfair or oppressive forces. Whilst November may well be the start of winter, with all its imagery of greyness and gloom, this tale gives us an image of dynamism and freedom.

A somewhat similar tale can be found in the story of the destruction of Tara. A bard of the Sidhe called Aillen mac Midgna stalks out of the hill of Finnachaid and casts a sleep-spell over the inhabitants of Tara using his timpan (vaguely like a zither.) Each Samhain night for 23 years his fiery breath burns the hall to the ground, and it must be rebuilt over the winter. This continues until the time when the young hero Fionn Mac Cumhail, arriving for the Feast of Tara, sticks a spear through him. As with the previous tale, a dangerous and oppressive force is overthrown - a curious image that many might find at odds with the usual perception of a coming winter, especially in former times bereft of central heating and thermal underwear! It might be conjectured that, despite the physical harshness of winter, that season was not perceived in a negative manner at all, but seen as a time of release.

At a practical level Samhain was the time when the Fianna, the warrior bands such the one lead by Fionn, stopped fighting and quartered with the families they had spent all summer protecting. The battles of Samhain myths might just reflect the desire of hardened fighters to have one last good punch-up before sheathing their swords for the winter holidays. It may also reflect the notion of winter as a time of peace, when theoretically the Fianna would not be needed. By contrast many of the Beltane myths, when the warriors hostelling ceased, are tales of conquest and glory-seeking.

In other stories of Fionn the mounds of the sidhe, which archaeologists have long since shown to be burial chambers from the Bronze Age and earlier, are revealed to human eyes. Normally the magical nature of these hillocks is concealed by the presence of a veil, the fe-fiada. On the winter feast all becomes shown for its true nature. The leader of the warrior bands of Laigin gets to see not just inside the mounds, but also witnesses their inhabitants riding forth. One might ask if the native tribes of 2000-odd years ago were aware that the mounds contained corpses. If they were, then the beings riding forth were probably seen as ghosts of some sort. If they were unaware of the original purpose of the mounds, then they might well have conceived of this as a festival of land-spirits, rather than of the returning dead (though, of course, those two concepts are not mutually exclusive). Successive waves of colonisers to these shores have re-used older burial chambers to inter their own dead, so it seems quite likely that Celtic tribes would have been fully aware that there were decaying bones inside the sidhe-mounds.

The story of Nera has a decidedly spectral touch to it. On Samhain, King Ailill offered rewards to anyone brave enough to put a wicker band around the foot of a hanging corpse. Only Nera was courageous/daft enough to volunteer. Approaching the corpse, it animated and asked for water. Bizarrely, Nera allowed it to climb on to his back and carried it to a house, around which flames sprang up. They tried another house, which was then surrounded by water. The third attempt proved safer, and the corpse drank three cups worth, spitting the last out on the householders, killing them. Going back to court, Nera found the palace on fire and the inhabitants decapitated. Nera rushed to the Cave of Cruachan, located in County Roscommon, in search of the severed heads. He met a ban-sidhe, who revealed that it was just a vision of what might be (sort of like the Ghost of Samhain Yet to Come). To prevent this happening he was advised to demolish the hill. To do this he calls on Fergus mac Roigh, but escapes with the Sidhe woman. Samahin night, then, could be a time of visions and warnings, a time to meet the dead - but be aware that the dead are not always pleasant!

The Cave of Cruachan also has its own story of a monster called Aillen. This one had three-heads, and caused no end of mayhem until despatched at Samhain by Amairgin. The burial ground of Dathi, considered the last pagan king of Ireland, lies not far away, and it is possible that the monstrous nature of Cruachan may have built up in the minds of Christian storytellers because of that. The fortress at Cruachan was the seat of power of such luminaries as Queen Medb, and something of a focal point for the province of Connacht (modern Connaught.)

Another Connacht hero, Cascorach, encounters bizarre Samhain spirits at Cruachan. An old servant called Bairnech bewails the fact that a woman of the Sidhe leaves the cave each November eve and whisks away nine of the best animals in every herd. The Fomori demanded tribute of a third of the Tuatha's grain, milk and first born children, whilst Fionn pledges a third of his trophies to his aide Fiachra at Samhain - suggestive that three (and in this case thrice three) may have been a relevant unit for the making of offerings, willing or otherwise. One of the kennings for the ogham letter Tinne is a third part, perhaps a link between that few and sacrifice. Cascorach despatches the ban-sidhe without resistance, once again with a spear. No sooner is this problem dealt with than the old man complains of three female werewolves who also appear out of the cave and decimate the local sheep population. Cascorach tricks the lycanthropes into resuming their human guise in order to listen to his harp music, whereupon his friend Caoilte skewers them with a spear.

Many readers may have had experiences of bocain or house-wights who, if ignored, tend to take what they perceive as their due, often in a rather disconcerting and disruptive fashion. As a general rule of thumb, it is usually better to make them some sort of acceptable offering than to stick spears in them. King Aillil might have born this in mind when choosing a pasture for his horses. The Sidhe, whose land it was, felt affronted by his action (perhaps he didn't ask them nicely first) and so, at Samhain, blasted the grass which the horses fed on. To add insult to injury, the king then rapes one of the Sidhe women who has cursed the field. She responds by cutting his ear off, whereupon he kills her. The Sidhe, eager for vengeance, create a magical yew tree. The desire to possess this tree is such that a great battle is fought between vying factions from local tribes. Amongst those slaughtered are Aillil and most of his family. Let this be a lesson - play nicely with the land spirits, or else!

On a stranger level the burly deity Dagda is described as having sex with the Morrighan, by mounting her when she has one ankle on either bank of the River Unius (one for a Celtic Karma Sutra?) This has lead some commentators to suggest that fertility rites took place at Samhain (whether in or out of a river, no-one seems willing to say). This may be the case, though the ribald nature of so many myths convey the sense that those old tribes didn't need much of an excuse for a bit of fertility at any time of the year.

On a more romantic note, Samhain is the time when Aonghus Mac Og finally meets his dream-lover Caer in the flesh. Though it might be more apposite to say in the feather, given that she has been transformed into a swan by the time he finds her. Close to dying from a wasting illness himself, Aonghus opts to transform himself into a swan that he might be with his lady love. Each Samhain she turns from swan to maiden or back again, and he changes himself in accordance. A cynic might note that the fact that a man willingly changes himself to please a woman proves that this is a myth! Nonetheless, it gives a powerful image of self-sacrifice - Aonghus prepared to give up everything for love. This echoes, in a more pleasant fashion, the Tuatha having to pay their price to the demanding Fomori overlords. To everything there is a cost, and at Samhain (leastways if you follow a Celtic tradition) it must be paid - or refuted through bloodshed.

Another tale which links Aonghus to events at Samhain is that of the maiden Enghi, who had fallen in love with the handsome god, though she had never seen him (rather as he fell for Caer, whom he knew only from a dream.) Enghi tries to find the object of her desire at a Samhain gathering, only to be kidnapped by the Sidhe. The tales so often imply that the Sidhe really do not like to leave empty-handed on Samhain.

Many (though by no means all) sources argue that Samhain derives its name from the same root as the Gaulish month of Samonios, as described on the Coligny Calendar. Those theorists who dissent from this stance claim that Samonios signifies not the end of summer, but its beginning, and is not in November, but May - therefore the three-day feast marked on the Coligny tablets refers to Beltane. This, it is argued, is the true New Year's Day. It is certainly not explicitly stated anywhere in early myths that Samhain is the start of the year, and the story of the Tuatha arriving in Ireland on Beltane would be an appropriate image for an inaugural feast. However, the subsequent month on the Coligny calendar is called Dumannios, probably deriving from a root word meaning black or dark - suitable for December, less so for June. So, whilst not absolutely definite, it seems quite likely that the three-day Gaulish feast of Samonios was going on at the same time as the Gaelic feast of Samhain. If it opened the year in Gaul, it may well have done so in other Celtic regions too. However, the intricacies of this argument are best left to an article all their own!

For further reading:

Gregory, Lady A, Gods and Fighting Men, Colin Smythe Limited, Buckinghamshire, 1999 reprint

Kondratiev, A, The Apple Branch, Collins Press, Cork, 1998

MacKillop, J, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998

Rogers, N, Halloween, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002