Samhain is fast approaching and, at this time of year, I am often asked for stories about the past celebrations from this time of year. So, I thought I would share a bit about the festival, from what I have managed to discover.
Firstly, it is commonly thought, by people outside of the Pagan way of life, that Samhain refers to a god who rules over the Dead. As wonderful as this sounds, it is simply not true. Samhain is the festival of the ancestors. It is also the Celtic New Year. As you can imagine, it is a big celebration for some.
While the modern Halloween we all know and some of us love, is an American invention, its roots lie within Samhain. Trick or Treating is a variation of the collecting of the dead. This was done just once a year, when the veil between worlds was thin and easier for the ancestors' souls to pass through.
The veil between worlds is a very sketchy subject. It is unclear how many worlds were thought to exist in times past, but it is agreed that there was here and then there was The Otherworld - the realm of the Gods, who first opened the veil when the Celts first claimed Ireland.
The Fairy People, known as the Tuatha Dé Danann opened the rift and stepped into The Otherworld to avoid the inevitable bloodshed that had been foretold by a seer. They agreed that they would stick to their world if the Celts respected the land and stayed on their side of the veil. Mostly this was stuck to, but there are many stories of fairies and Goddesses in their many forms travelling back to conceive children or quell their curiosity.
During the month of October, the veil is thought to thin and it is easy for people to get lost in The Otherworld or fairies and deities to venture here.
The veil is thought to be at it's thinnest on Samhain.
Anyway, I am rambling again ... Lets get back to the celebrations of the ancestors. The year's dead from each village would be collected and burned to allow their souls to cross over, but I will concentrate on the celebrations held in Tara (think Cilla), the ancient capital of Ireland. For here there was more than just the burning of the dead. There was celebration of the new Druids.
In Tara - in the grounds of the castle most probably - a turf mound would be built. Remember that Turf would have been peat, which was also used to ensure homes were heated through the colder months as it smoulders and burns. The mound would be hollow for a test needed to be passed. This test was not for all Druids, but for those who had been marked for greatness. Those who would be tasked with most power in the Kingdom, those who would ensure that the Brehon Law was upheld. This celebration could last for days and not all druids made it out.
Samhain morning, the Ovate awaiting the ceremony would be taken away to wash - she would probably have been travelling for months and as part of the test which was about to end, they had been unable to stay under one roof for more than one night. They had been travelling the country, telling stories, looking or trainees and healing the sick. Discovering the country that they would help to run after the final challenge had been completed.
As the day progressed the Ovate would be painted with the most intricate designs, in colours that would have been personal to them and their teacher and then dusk falls.
The Ovate would have been paraded around the courtyard and it would have been good luck to touch him. He would then have been led into the turf mound and closed in. More turf and more bodies would have been placed over the entrance to ensure that escape was not possible.
Inside the mound was a drink. This was a herbal tea concocted to allow the Ovate to leave their body and consult with the Tuatha Dé Danann. Most stories, but not all, refer to The Morrigan. Once the herbs had been consumed there was no going back, the mound was lit and the Ovate was expected to survive the trials without food or water. The time of the trial would vary form ceremony to ceremony and could easily last days rather than hours. As you can imagine, there would have been many occasions where the Ovates never graduated to the rank of Druid. 19 years of training lead to this, they had learned so much and there was always the chance it would be lost at Samhain.
The Ovate would have one or more visions, they almost always felt that they had left their body and travelled to The Otherworld. They had been hungry and tempted to eat, but managed to control themselves as eating enchanted food was one of the biggest dangers of that place.
There are stories of premonitions of the future - including many things that we consider normal today. There are stories of warnings from the Goddesses and their consorts. There are so many stories that it would be impossible to learn them all.
When the mound had cooled, the Druids would enter and retrieve their new member, hydrate them and then expect them to join the celebrations. If they emerged alive they were accepted and received the new robes of the Druid. If they had not made it through the trials, they would become the foundation piece of next year's mound.
There would then be a feast, it would be the biggest feast of the year where they would celebrate either the life of a soul who had not been strong enough to pass the test, or the addition of a new Druid to advise the monarch.
I have another feast to tell you about, but that can wait a while...
Pictures sourced from Pixabay