Tonight is Oidhche Shamhna, pronounced something like OY-cha-HOW-na (ch as in loch, or as in ich in German). I have at least one regular reader who is pagan, and I thought it might be of interest to write a bit about Samhain, the start of the ancient Celtic pagan year. Oidhche means “eve” so Oidhche Shamhna means “Samhain eve,” the night before the festival of Samhain.
The Celtic year was divided into four parts: 1st November to 1st February was Samhain; 1st February to 1st May was Imbolc, 1st May to 1st August was Beltane, and 1st August to 1st November was Lunasadh. The Irish mythical hero Cù Chulainn was told that if he wanted to wed Emer, he would have to go without sleep “from Samhain, when the summer goes to its rest, until Imbolc, when the ewes are milked at spring’s beginning; from Imbolc until Beltine at the summer’s beginning and from Beltine to Bron Trogain [another name for Lunasadh], earth’s sorrowing in autumn.” (Quoted in Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy, p. 176.)
Samhain, the 1st of November, was the most important festival of the Celtic year. Hutton says that “Tribal assemblies were held then, rulers and warriors conferred and laws were made. It was also the time at which humans were most susceptible to divine and supernatural interference.” (p. 177) In her book Celtic Myths, Miranda Jane Green writes: “Samhain … is a dangerous time, a kind of limbo where the barriers between the real and supernatural worlds are temporarily dissolved, and where humans and spirits can penetrate each other’s space, thus upsetting the normal balance.” (p. 74)
I’ve always been very interested in how the early Christian church took pagan beliefs and sometimes only slightly modified or displaced them. Near where Michael’s mother’s family comes from in Ireland there is a holy well, which is just below a rock where the chieftains gathered long before Christianity. The well pre-dates Christianity, but became a Christian healing well rather than a pagan healing well. The function is the same, in my view. Similarly, some of the pagan festivals were transmogrified into Christian festivals. Imbolc, for example, became St. Brigid’s Day, when a rush cross was made, blessed and hung in the kitchen. (See this post by Diary of a Country Wife on the Irish tradition she grew up with.) Samhain became All Souls’ Day. This has been celebrated mostly (but not only) by the Catholic church, as a day to remember and pray for the souls of the dead. In Mexico they go all out on Dia de las Muertos, and celebrate the thinning of the veil between the living and the dead. I’ve heard that families go for picnics on the graves of their departed loved ones.
As I wrote in yesterday’s post, I’ve been interested to watch American Hallowe’en celebrations take hold in the time I’ve been in Scotland. Traditionally, Scottish children went “guising” (short for disguising). My friends who were raised in Gaelic-speaking areas have told me how magical Oidhche Shamhna was: children were free to roam, completely disguised, and often truly unrecognisable by the adults of the village. In Scotland, traditional “guisers” must perform a song or recite a poem before they are given sweets. In the last year or two, people have begun to use the phrase “trick-or-treat” here, but children here are still expected to perform – tell a joke or sing a song – before they get their treat.
I really like the idea that tomorrow is the start of a new year. It’s a recognition of a deep change – the start of another cycle in nature. However you celebrate it, I hope you enjoy your Oidhche Shamhna!