Samhain

Cairn Loch Craobh, Sliabh na Caillí, Loch Craobh, An Mhí, Éire, Meitheamh 2009 (Photo: Séamas Ó Sionnaigh)

Well the sunset in Baile Átha Cliath is less than half-an-hour away and with it comes Samhain or the great festival marking the end of summer and the start of winter in the Celtic calendars of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man (and probably the rest of the Celtic world). The event gives us the (barely) Christianized All Saints’ Day or Halloween and is popularised as the Irish or Celtic New Year in contemporary culture. Whether that was also the original meaning is much debated by academics. Certainly Samhain was one of the four great quarter-festivals of the Gaelic year, alongside Imbolg, Bealtaine and Lúghnasa (or Lúnasa), and one of the two dividing points on the calendar between the winter and summer halves of the year (the other being Bealtaine in May).

Importantly, compared to all the other seasonal celebrations, Samhain was the supernatural festival par excellence. This was the time when the barriers between the two broad worlds that made up the Celtic cosmos, that of gods and men, were lowered or thinned. Though the supernatural could intrude into the natural at any time of the year it was at Samhain that it was fully expected and around which the most Otherworldly tales clustered. In purely practical terms of course, as the commencement of the winter season, it was also the time when communities battened down the hatches and prepared to wait out the increasingly dark and cold days ahead. Cattle and other valuable livestock were brought down from their hillside pastures and placed in pens or fields near the owners homesteads. Winter grazing foods, such as mast, were gathered along with berries and winter fruits. Fences and ditches were repaired, as were roads and trackways.

Warfare came to a halt for several months (in legal theory, anyway) and people tended to stay at home with their families. Not only did Samhain symbolise the end of the summer season it likewise represented the last market festival for some time, at least until Imblog in February, and was a final opportunity to exchange or purchase goods, including harvest surpluses for those lucky enough to have produced them. This also allowed great communal festivities, between kings and their people, where loyalties were renewed and legal disputes settled or placed into arbitration.

Though some would argue that the summer festival of Bealtaine represents a more likely candidate for a “Celtic New Year” the weight of evidence continues to favour Samhain. There are mysteries aplenty to still resolve including the exact meaning of the name (the suggestion that it marked the commencement of the summer in the Otherworld seems unlikely – the domain of the gods was always summer-like regardless of whatever time of the year it was encountered). However the importance of the festival, greater than all its rivals, cannot be disputed.

So to Toghail Bruíne Da Dearga or the “Destruction of the Red God’s Hostel”, one of the most Otherworldy of all Irish tales. The English translation is Whitley Stokes’ 19th century version now published on CELT (the Corpus of Electronic Texts maintained by UCC). Unfortunately it is replete with artificial anachronisms (thou for you, and such like) and quasi-chivalrous overtones which makes it more than a little unrepresentative of the original text. However no other translation is available online and it must suffice. Next year I will try to provide an updated version of this translation (which I promised myself to do this year but at some 60 odd pages of a Word document time did not permit).

As always Jeffrey Gantz’s seminal book Early Irish Myths and Sagas is your best source for a modern, and more earthy, translation of the text.

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