Happy All Hallow’s Eve!Posted: October 31, 2012
The Celts called it Samhain, which means ‘summer’s end’, according to their ancient two-fold division of the year, when summer ran from Beltane to Samhain and winter ran from Samhain to Beltane. (Some modern Covens echo this structure by letting the High Priest ‘rule’ the Coven beginning on Samhain, with rulership returned to the High Priestess at Beltane.) According to the later four-fold division of the year, Samhain is seen as ‘autumn’s end’ and the beginning of winter. Samhain is pronounced (depending on where you’re from) as ‘sow-in’ (in Ireland), or ‘sow-een’ (in Wales), or ‘sav-en’ (in Scotland), or (inevitably) ‘sam-hane’ (in the U.S., where we don’t speak Gaelic).
Not only is Samhain the end of autumn; it is also, more importantly, the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. Celtic New Year’s Eve, when the new year begins with the onset of the dark phase of the year, just as the new day begins at sundown. There are many representations of Celtic gods with two faces, and it surely must have been one of them who held sway over Samhain. Like his Greek counterpart Janus, he would straddle the theshold, one face turned toward the past in commemoration of those who died during the last year, and one face gazing hopefully toward the future, mystic eyes attempting to pierce the veil and divine what the coming year holds. These two themes, celebrating the dead and divining the future, are inexorably intertwined in Samhain, as they are likely to be in any New Year’s celebration.
As a feast of the dead, it was believed the dead could, if they wished, return to the land of the living for this one night, to celebrate with their family, tribe, or clan. And so the great burial mounds of Ireland (sidh mounds) were opened up, with lighted torches lining the walls, so the dead could find their way. Extra places were set at the table and food set out for any who had died that year. And there are many stories that tell of Irish heroes making raids on the Underworld while the gates of faery stood open, though all must return to their appointed places by cock-crow.
As a feast of divination, this was the night par excellance for peering into the future. The reason for this has to do with the Celtic view of time. In a culture that uses a linear concept of time, like our modern one, New Year’s Eve is simply a milestone on a very long road that stretches in a straight line from birth to death. Thus, the New Year’s festival is a part of time. The ancient Celtic view of time, however, is cyclical. And in this framework, New Year’s Eve represents a point outside of time, when the the natural order of the universe disolves back into primordial chaos, preparatory to re-establishing itself in a new order. Thus, Samhain is a night that exists outside of time and hence it may be used to view any other point in time. At no other holiday is a tarot card reading, crystal reading, or tea-leaf reading so likely to succeed.
Samhaim–which is technically tomorrow–is a celebration of the end of summer. Like many holidays, it was co-opted by Romans trying to bring Roman influence, culture, and religion to regions in Northern Europe.
At sunset on October 31, clans or local villages begin the formal ceremonies of Samhain by lighting a giant bonfire. The people would gather around the fire to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. It was a method of giving the Gods and Goddesses their share of the previous years herd or crops. In addition these sacred fires were a big part of the cleansing of the old year and a method to prepare for the coming new year. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, and danced around the bonfire. Many of these dances told stories or played out the cycles of life and death or commemorated the cycle of Wheel of Life. These costumes were adorned for three primary reasons. The first was to honor the dead who were allowed to rise from the Otherworld. The Celts believed that souls were set free from the land of the dead during the eve of Samhain. Those that had been trapped in the bodies of animals were released by the Lord of the Dead and sent to their new incarnations. The wearing of these costumes signified the release of these souls into the physical world. Not all of these souls were honored and respected. Some were also feared as they would return to the physical world and destroy crops, hide livestock or ‘haunt’ the living who may have done them wrong. The second reason for these traditional costumes was to hide from these malevolent spirits to escape their trickery. The final representation was a method to honor the Celtic Gods and Goddesses of the harvest, fields and flocks. Giving thanks and homage to those deities who assisted the village or clan through the trials and tribulations of the previous year. And to ask for their favor during the coming year and the harsh winter months that were approaching. In addition to celebrations and dance, it was believed that this thin veil between the physical world and the Otherworld provided extra energy for communications between the living and the dead. With these communications, Druid Priests, and Celtic Shamans would attempted to tell the fortunes of individual people through a variety of methods. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.
Today, we celebrate the holiday as Halloween quite commercially since it’s also been co-opted by many businesses in their attempt to ring up their cash registers. Well, everybody takes it more seriously as Halloween except Henri the Extensional Cat.
I still remember this from being a kid and I love the image of Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin. I love playing the song on the piano still. No matter what time of year I gig, this song awakens the kid in a lot of people. It’s fun to stick it in the middle of a set an watch people perk up!
It’s also the end of the season for watching a bunch of great movies and switching to nasty movies, horrid shopping conditions, and generally harassment as once again I take up arms in the war against christmas where the Roman’s morphed from Mithras’ birthday and story into yet another way to wipe out ancient cultures and myths. However, tonight, I can still watch old horror movies and watch the fun.