On Hallowe’en Night, One Thousand Years Ago…

“(It was) beheld at Maistiu one battalion of (demons) which was destroying Leinster….. For there was a sword of fire out of the gullet of each of them, and every one of them was as high as the clouds of heaven.”

⁃ A vision witnessed on Samhain, The Annals of Tigernach*

Welcome friendly readers to the surprise Hallowe’en post! Tonight we’ll be discussing a lesser known text concerning the Hallowe’en and Samhain season.

It was a Dark and Stormy Samhain Night in Ireland, Almost One Thousand Years Ago…

The Annals of Tigernach is an Irish chronicle written in a combination of Old and Middle Irish and Latin. It survives in a number of MS of various dates, and in various conditions of completeness. In the translation by Whitley Stokes we find a strange entry for the year 1084 A.D.: On the night of Samhain of that year a certain Gilla Lugán ventured into the ‘fairy mound’ of Meath, the megalithic tomb of Newgrange, to seek oracles from its supernatural ruler: Óengus Óc, the son of the Dagda the ‘Good God’. (1) Professor John Carey finds it remarkable that little less than a thousand years ago people were recorded taking part in rituals involving the old gods, and wonders if this text describes a holdover in Pre-Christian Druidic rites. (2) The remainder of this essay will be dedicated to examining the merits of this thought.

An imaginative interpretation of Óengus Óc, Internet Archive Book Images

Óengus Óc has been called originally a god of youth, love, summer and inspiration. (3) While clues from various texts casually point in that direction, youth and love being most frequent, he is also connected to the season of Samhain. In The Dream of Óengus, dated by Shaw to possibly the 8th century, he wins the hand of his love Caer Ibormeith on Samhain. (4) After correctly choosing his sweetheart from out of a series of doppelgängers, the two lovers transform into swans and return to his otherworldly palace of Newgrange. The tale describes them reverting back and forth from bird to human form every Samhain. In The Wooing of Etain, substantially of the 9th century, but with an 11th century redactor, Óengus wrests control of the síd of Newgrange from Elcmar on Samhain. (5)

Granted, many events in Irish legendary lore take place during Samhain, and many of the benevolent supernatural beings are presented as dwelling in síd mounds; but it should be noted that Óengus is no exception, and in fact, due to his high visibility in medieval literature and his universally regarded possession of the illustrious Newgrange monument, Óengus is preeminent in the list of síd inhabitants. Such an early, consistent and well known characterization adds to the impression that the Gilla Lugán tale is a development in lore concerning Pre-Christian Samhain ritual in which supernatural beings were invoked in subterranean passage tombs.

Sketch of the Newgrange passage chamber, William Frederick Wakeman

Archeological evidence may also shed some light on this practice. In a blogpost entitled Underground Shrines of the Inspired Ones, Lorna Smithers reports on scholarship in respect to ancient Gaulish subterranean chambers of worship. (6) She continues with a passage from Miranda Green’s book The Gods of the Celts addressing a similar archeological find in Deal in Kent. This British example is composed of a shaft leading down into a small oval cavity with room enough for only four or five adults, where a carved figure featuring “a very Celtic face” was unearthed. Smithers surmises that this could be a shrine dedicated to the British equivalent of the ‘infernal gods’ of Gaul, the ‘andedion’.

The Gaulish word ‘andedion’ is found in the famous Chamalières inscription, and is usually rendered ‘underworld gods’ or more luridly ‘infernal gods’. (7) Will Parker relates the academic consensus that the Gaulish ‘andedion’ has a cognate in Irish ‘andée’, found in MS including the Lebor Gabála. If, as this evidence suggests, the ‘underworld gods’ were once worshipped in Ireland, then the Gilla Lugán episode in The Annals might be related to these ‘ritual shafts’ found throughout Celtic regions dating from the Bronze Age and onwards.

“Samhain, when summer goes to rest…”

The Wooing of Emer

In Ronald Hutton’s colossal work, The Stations of The Sun, we are treated to a vast amount of information gathered during his tenure studying the history of the festivals and holy days of Britain and Ireland. In the case of Hallowe’en and what is commonly considered it’s pagan Irish equal, Samhain, Hutton has some sobering words. In evaluating theories that the 1st of November was an important pagan holiday, he remarks:

(It) cannot be proved by the tales themselves… The medieval records furnish no evidence that 1 November was a major pan-Celtic festival, and none of religious ceremonies, even where it was observed.

He repeats this in a Guardian article dated 2014. (8) He is ultimately right to be skeptical, even if he is a bit gloomy and sometimes dismissive of the texts. The question that we have sought answers to has been: is there evidence that certain texts describe pagan Samhain practices? The Gilla Lugán tale offers us the reasonable opportunity to affirm that such is the case.

#DonalSkehan

Now that that’s done with, what better way to celebrate the season than with a traditional Hallowe’en treat? Barmbrack, which I just learned is auto-corrected on here to ‘barn rack’, is a delicious sweetened bread, speckled throughout with black currants; I assure you black currants taste better than awful raisins. In earlier times it was used as a form of augury. This can be accomplished by hiding various trinkets in the dough before baking. When a recipient finds an item in their slice, it carries significance as an omen for their future. Will you be attending a wedding, or perhaps join the clergy? Maybe you’re about to go broke?! Haha wonderful possibilities all! It’s 100 % nonstop fun for everyone … It’s Barn rack! Join youtuber Donal Skehan (he insists you #DonalSkehan) as he shares his recipe (just use black currants) for this festive confection:

Endnotes:

*From selected entries of The Annals: http://jbhall.clahs.ie/annals_of_county_louth.htm

(1) Carey, A Single Ray of the Sun, p. 21. Gilla Lugán in this case is seeking aid in terminating a brutal plague that is ravaging Ireland, but the ritual can otherwise be inferred from the wording as being a long held tradition made every year during the Halloween season. Carey juxtaposes this text with another from Standish O’Grady’s Silva Gadelica, describing how ‘women and common folk’ customarily prayed to ‘the fairy Mongfhind’ (Moingfinne bansidaide) on the night of Hallowe’en.

(2) ibid. Carey adds to this query with a note that that druids existed in Ireland into the 8th century.

(3) Ó hÓgáin, Myth, Legend & Romance: an encyclopedia of the Irish folk tradition, p. 38

(4) Carey, The Mythological Cycle of Medieval Irish Literature, p. 20

Translation of The Dream of Óengus: http://maryjones.us/ctexts/oengus.html

(5) ibid, p. 29

A translation of the text, The Wooing of Etain: http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/etain.html

(6) Lorna Smithers, Underground Shrines of the Inspired Ones: https://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/2019/06/07/underground-shrines-of-the-inspired-ones/

(7) Will Parker, Andedion: http://mabinogi.net/sections/Appendix/The_Underworld_Gods.pdf

As you see I’ve opted for the more fanciful choice of ‘infernal gods’, because it’s Hallowe’en.

(8) Hutton, The Stations of the Sun, p. 362: https://archive.org/details/stationsofsunhis0000hutt

The Guardian article: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/28/halloween-more-than-trick-or-treat-origins

(9) Wow, congratulations! You found the secret Hallowe’en stash! Enjoy this amazing a cappella rendition of ‘Grim Grinning Ghosts’, and of course have a Happy Hallowe’en!!!

…#DonalSkehan!!!

7 thoughts on “On Hallowe’en Night, One Thousand Years Ago…

  1. Fascinating! I had heard of Dagda, but not so much about Óengus Óc. The story of him and his lover changing forms on Samhain certainly fits with the transitory nature of the day, especially the shift from one year into the next.

    So Hutton’s claim about little evidence for Samhain on November 1 is based entirely on texts? I was under the impression there are several bits of archaeological evidence for the rituals of Samhain. Now the date of November 1, I can see that as more uncertain given the calendar differences. Studies of the Coligny Calendar have people debating Samhain’s position and significance all over the place. Ah, so much uncertainty!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Óengus Óc appears somewhat regularly, sometimes rendered Aengus, or Mac ind Óic or Mac Óc. The story of Óengus Óc and his lover does remind one of Macsen Wledig, but if so, the Welsh story doesn’t mention anything about the Halloween season as far as I can remember, and is set in a pseudo historical backdrop rather than a mythological one like the Irish.

      Trying to tread carefully so as not to put words in Hutton’s mouth, but he doesn’t see any evidence of a Pan-Celtic holiday for November 1st. In the Guardian article he might have softened his views slightly to say various localized holidays took place during the season, but without a unified religious perspective to them. He also repeats that no religious rituals have survived. I, as an amateur, would object in that a couple medieval Irish texts mention that “the people” prayed to Mongfhinn on Halloween. That could be described as a religious ritual. Mongfhinn is very interesting, I’d like to write on her someday.

      Hutton argues that the Irish descriptions of Samhain as a time of otherworldly spirits is relatively late and they aren’t relatable to traditions in Britain. He says that it was between March and May when ancient Europeans tended to commemorate the dead. And although it’s been argued that the Catholic Church instituted All Saints/Hallows at the beginning of November to usurp the pagan (Celtic) festival, the move to put All Saints on 1 Nov. was in the Holy Roman Empire, i.e. Germany and France, not Britain and Ireland.

      In all I’m not sure; an association between the Halloween season and spirits, and customs related to that, looks evident in Irish… But Hutton plays an invaluable part in the discussion when he says that we need to reevaluate theories about Halloween that has been taken as Gospel.

      Yes you are absolutely right that there is so much uncertainty. I wish I had a time machine.

      Thanks for the great comment Ceridwen!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing this! Perhaps Hutton is right to express doubts as to the date of the Samhain feast, as some times the exact date of events isn’t known, thus we establish a conventional one for our ease. Perhaps the Coligny calendar and the etymology of Samhain and the month Samonios can provide us with some clues.

    However, I cannot say I agree with his view that Samhain wasn’t a Pan-Celtic festival. Again, from a linguistic perspective, the Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Scottish and Manx equivalents of the Gaelic Samhain (Calan Gaeaf, Kalan Gwav, Kalan Goañv and Sauin) attest to its widespread existence throughout the Celtic tribes and nations. Also, the various episodes in the literary texts where it features or is alluded to is further proof of that.

    If you haven’t already read it, I suggest Dudley Wright’s Druidism: the Ancient Faith of Britain. It’s a spectacular, massive work on the Druids and their ancient tenets. It explores a wealth of subjects like their origins, their initiation ceremonies, their dressing code, their connection to magic, their relationship to monotheism, their affinity with other religions, the bards and vates etc. What’s more, there’s an entire chapter dedicated to druidical festivals and customs with extensive analysis on Samhain and Beltaine. The book might be of interest to you.

    I know it’s a treasure for me because it presents both historical accounts and myths about the druids. A big part of my research for my historical cross-gemre novel is based on it, and I’ll return to it many times in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for the comment Lilaia! I think Hutton’s skeptical views add a lot to the debate, even if that means keeping people like me who enjoy making grand speculations in check.
    He argues that the Catholic Church didn’t supplant a pan-Celtic holiday roughly analogous to Halloween because the original push to move All Saints to November 1st came from the Holy Roman Empire, ie Germany and France. If it had been an effort to stomp out Celtic paganism, one would expect the movement to have grown out of some political climate involving Ireland or Britain. Another one of his better arguments is that traditions about Samhain and its British equivalents are very late, long after Christianization. Therefore it’s more likely these traditions stem from a shared Catholic heritage than a Celtic one.

    Carey on the other hand argues that a couple genuine pre-Christian traditions might be found in early Irish texts, like tract that common folk prayed to Mongfhinn on the night of Samhain. She’s an odd character, unfortunately she only appears as a mortal pagan queen in Irish textual lore, but ‘The Adventures of the Sons of Eochaid Mugmedon’ does heavily resemble the Welsh tradition of the birth of Pryderi and the Breton legend of Tryphine and King Arthur, so that may hint at what role Mongfhinn had in a mythological context. She’s also said to be the enchantress foster mother of the great hero Finn son of Umaill in one tract.

    Thanks so much for visiting and sharing your knowledge of the subject! I hope to hear more from you!

    Like

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