Samhain Shona Daoibh

Oíche Shamhna Shona Daoibh
Oíche Shamhna Shona Daoibh (Íomha: AcidFox Deviant Art)

The sun has set, the bonfires are being lit, and the Feis Shamhna is upon us: the nocturnal festival of Samhain marking the commencement of the new year in the Celtic calendars of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. This ancient celebration was partly assimilated by the Christian religions in the Medieval period as All Saints’ Day or All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween) and has been revived in recent times as the Celtic New Year. Samhain itself is one of the four great quarter-festivals of the Gaelic year alongside Iombolg, 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 latter beginning with Bealtaine or May-Eve/May-Day).

In purely practical terms Samhain marked the moment when agricultural communities began to batten down the hatches and prepare 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 close 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 and travel or visitors became rare. Consequently this was also the last opportunity for a major market-festival until the spring-time celebration of Iombolg (or Lá Bhríde), a final chance to exchange or purchase goods, including harvest surpluses for those lucky enough to have produced them. This led to the staging of great communal festivals across Ireland and the Gaelic nations, where not just trade was done but political loyalties were renewed and legal disputes settled or placed into arbitration. Of these the greatest was the Feis Teamhrach at Teamhair na Rí (Tara of the Kings).

However in more mythological terms Samhain represented that brief period in the calendar when the porous barriers between the worlds of gods and men all but disappeared. The long night when the supernatural was most likely to be encountered and invariably with dramatic consequences. Invasions, battles, raids, adventures and disappearances were all the hallmarks of the Feis Shamhna. Below are three articles on the indigenous literary traditions of the peoples of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, focusing primarily on the Irish corpus, that may help illuminate some of the background to the Celtic new year festival.

Tuatha Dé Danann

Na Fomhóraigh

An Sí

 

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5 comments

  1. Mar sin leibh, a chàirdean 🙂 This is where we remake the world, take care!

    Do you know any ‘genuine’ references to the name ‘Imbolg’ as I’ve really only seen it in new-age type sources. It looks like it means “in the belly” or “in the bag”. Was the dark half of the year seen as a sort of gestation? (Certainly best seen as the beginning of the coming year, rather than the sort of dead end it is on our calendar). These quarters follow the climate which lags, rather than the equinox/solstice cycle. Also it seems to me that the key moment in each festival matches its point in the annual cycle. Samhain ~ Sunset; Féile Brighde ~ Midnight; Bealtain ~ Dawn; Lughnasadh ~ Noon.

    1. Good question. I know that Medieval sources are relatively scant for Imbolc/Imbolg and what we know or guess is largely derived from folkloric traditions recorded in the early modern period, as well as some debatable customs and tales relating to St. Bríd. However taken together I think they do provide a convincing case for a Gaelic (and perhaps Celtic) original. Jenny Butler of University College Cork touches upon this in an interview with Transceltic. Another interesting – if slightly more neo-druidic – summary is given by Francine Nicholson at the Celtic Well. Finally there is this examination of Bríde and the Lá Fhéile Bríde from the School of Celtic Studies by Séamas Ó Catháin (in a PDF file).

      It’s interesting, though entirely rational, that the Gaelic-Celtic calendar was largely seasonal in nature. Note the almost total absence of references to the solstices/equinoxes in Celtic literature and customs. St John’s Day has more of the Germanic about it than the Celtic.

      As for the name I wonder about the modern spelling. Imbolc > Imbolg > Iombolg? The latter would seem correct to me though rarely encountered except in some Early Modern Irish texts.

  2. These articles are how I discovered your blog. Studying the people (and their origin) that first populated Ireland has been a big hobby of mine since being a young teenager. Many of your insights, links, and postings here from others have helped me on this endeavor. Dispelling myth and filtering through what people want history to show versus what it truly is, is the largest obstacle, that is why I also love your stern neutrality. Thank you.

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