A pale yellow sun has sunk below the grey horizon here in Baile Átha Cliath and the Feis Shamhna is upon us, the sunset-to-sunrise festival of Samhain which marks the start of the winter in the ancient Celtic calendars of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man (and probably the rest of the Celtic world too). The event gives us the Christianized All Saints’ Day or All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween) and is popularised as the Celtic New Year in contemporary culture. Whether that was also the original meaning is much debated though 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 worlds that made up the Celtic cosmos, that of gods and men, were lowered. Though the preternatural could intrude into the natural at any time it was at Samhain that it was most often encountered 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 period when communities battened down the hatches and prepared to wait out the increasingly dark and dismal days ahead. Cattle and other valuable livestock were brought down from their hillside pastures and placed in pens or fields closer to home. Winter grazing foods, such as mast, were gathered along with berries and fruits. Fences and ditches were repaired, roads and trackways cleared, roofs and walls refurbished. Warfare came to a halt for several months (theoretically at least) and people tended to stay close to their homesteads and fortresses foregoing travel.
Not only did Samhain symbolise the start of the winter it was also the setting of the last major market-festivals until Imblog in February, a final opportunity to exchange or purchase goods, including harvest surpluses for those lucky enough to have produced them. This facilitated great communal festivities across Ireland and the Gaelic nations between kings and their people where loyalties were renewed and legal disputes settled or placed into arbitration. From these and many other traditions we get the Feis Shamhna and a legacy that remains one of the Gaelic peoples’ greatest contributions to popular Western culture.
Below are a series of articles on the indigenous literatures of the peoples of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, focusing primarily on the Irish tradition.