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Thursday, 9 October 2014

Samhain :: Ancient Festival of the Dead

"A gypsy fire is on the hearth,
Sign of the carnival of mirth;
Through the dun fields and from the glade,
Flash merry folk in masquerade,
For this is Hallowe'en!"
(Author Unknown)
Most academic scholars believe that Halloween is simply a Christianised feast influenced by the Pagan Samhain.

Samhain (pronounced sow-en) has been celebrated in Britain for centuries as it marks an important date on the Pagan calendar: the Festival of the Dead and the Celtic New Year. However, many countries, such as Australia, do not recognise Halloween, whilst for other countries, Halloween involves dressing up, trick or treating, carving jack-o-lanterns and participating in themed games such as apple bobbing.

Mischief and jovial aside, Samhain also represents the thinning of the veil; the time of year when it is believed that the Otherworld can be reached more readily.

The idea that Samhain is a juncture between our world and the Otherworld led to a popular belief that on this night, time would stand still. During Samhain the natural order of life was thrown into chaos and the earthly world of the living became hopelessly entangled with the world of the dead.

The world of the dead was itself a complicated place. Here roamed not only spirits of the departed, but also a host of gods, fairies and other creatures of an uncertain nature. An unwary traveller might expect to encounter any one of these creatures during this time, and it was advisable to stay indoors. Ghosts were everywhere. They may or may not have been harmful to the living.

Superstition states that all fires on this night must be extinguished and could only be relit from the great flames of Tlachtga. This, of course, is not to be taken literally; rather, it symbolised the brief and temporary ascendency of the powers of Darkness at this time of year.

Tlachtga, where the great fire of Samhain would be lit
There are many superstitions surrounding Samhain, some of which include:
~ If you hear footsteps behind you, don’t look back as it may be the dead following you.
~ Carry a lump of bread in your pocket, so that if you come into contact with a ghost, it will serve as an offering.
~ A child born on this night will have the gift of second sight.
~ If you come across a spider, don’t kill it as it may be a dead relative.
~ Bridges, crossroads and burial sites are areas to avoid, as the dead mingle freely with the living.
~ Don’t sit underneath a Hawthorn tree or you might be kidnapped by the Little Folk.
~ If you look into a well, you might see twelve months into the future.
~ Oatmeal and salt placed on children’s heads will protect them from evil.
~ Go to bed early in the event you encounter something from the Otherworld.
Although the spirits were thought to be benign, they needed some sort of appeasement in the form of ritual offerings. So long as the offering was forthcoming the spirits were happy and benevolent. However, bad luck would descend on the household if they weren’t appeased.
Some remnants of this tradition may have survived in the modern celebration of Halloween, in the custom of "trick or treat". Children, dressed in costume, invite the household to make a donation or face the consequences. The 'treat' may represent the ritual offering, whilst the 'trick' (nowadays a harmless prank) may have, in antiquity, represented the malevolent consequences of inadequately appeasing the ancestral spirit on this night.
Queen Maeve by J C Leyendecker
Irish mythology is littered with references to the magical significance of Samhain. It marked the end of the fighting and hunting season for the warrior troop known as the Fianna. At Samhain they retreated into winter camp, quartering themselves on the general population until the return of Summer at Beltainne (Beltane).
Fionn mac Cumhaill chose Samhain as the time to present himself before the court at Tara, while it was also during Samhain that the god Lugh made his dramatic entrance to the same court. In the legendary Irish poem Tain Bo Cualigne, Queen Maeve waits until Samhain before setting out on the great Cattle Raid of Cooley in order to capture the prized bull of Ulster.
It is interesting to note that when the early writers wished to impart a magical quality to events they were depicting, they choose the Festival of Samhain for the occasion.
How do you celebrate Halloween?
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