Caer Australis

Feast Decoration

The Celtic Fire Feasts - Main Essay

Samhain - the feast at summer's sunset

"He gathered wild garlic, primrose and fern from the Otherworld"

SAMHAIN, or Calan Gaeaf, is held on November Eve and is the festival that heralds in Geimhreadh, the winter and the cold half of the Celtic year.

May in the dorset countryside, wild garlic and ferns on trail: Such is the Otherworld at Samhain source

Samhain is recorded in Sanas Cormaic, Cormac's Glossary as the festival at the start of winter, stating .i. in mí gaim iar samuin, which is to say 'that is, in the winter month following samhain', and samuin itself is explained as 'summer sunset'. mí Gam is identified as the month of November, now called mí na Samhna or Samhain in Ireland, in gam quasi gamos isin greic, nouimber, which is 'Gam, as though in Greek gamos, November' (Early Irish Glossaries database: 'gam'; Greek being the language of trade, Stokes, G. 1892). mí Gam as the month commencing the winter, ie Old Irish gaimred, I geimhreadh, Old Welsh gaem and Cym gaeaf, is likewise the same as Gaulish mids Giamon, and so shown to commence the second half of the traditional Celtic year in being the seventh month on the Celtic calendar of Gaul, inscribed about a millenium prior to Cormac's Glossary. The first month, mids Samon, 'summer', likewise equates to Irish Cèitemain, derived according to Cormac's Glossary from cét-sam-sín, the first weather-motion of sam or summer, and as .i. cétlúd síne samraid, which is to say 'that is, the companionship of summer of antiquity', and so the month of Maytime (with variant spellings cetsoman, cetsamun, cetsamain, cetshamuin, Early Irish Glossaries database: 'cetsoman'), and six months prior to Samhain.

Quatrains on Beltaine, &c.
3. Samhain:
"Meat, ale, nut mast, tripe,
They are the dues of Samna:
A merry bonfire on the hill,
Buttermilk, and fresh-buttered bread"
- 16th century - based on Kuno Meyer's translation in Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry (p.169).

Samhain marking the second, cold, winter half of the Celtic year is also recorded in the 16th century Fennian tale Tóraigheacht an Ghiolla Dheacair' ('Joyce, P.W. 1907), 'The pursuit of the Giolla Dacker and his horse', where a Beltaine beginning and a Samhain middle is explicitly stated: "One day in the beginning of summer, Finn mac Cumhail feasted the chief people of Erin and when the feast was over, the Fena reminded him that it was time to begin the chase through the plains and the glens and the wilderness of Erin. For this was the manner in which the Fena used to spend their time. They divided the year into two parts. During the first half, namely, from Bealtaine to Samhain, they hunted each day with their dogs; and during the second half, namely from Samhain to Bealtaine, they lived in the mansions and hostels of Erin such that there was not a lord or innkeeper in the whole country that had not nine of the Fena quartered on him during the winter half of the year'.

detail of trinox samoni SAM AtII musée gallo-romain de Lyon

An event marked on the seventeenth day of the Gaulish month mids Samon is the trinox samoni. The annotations across the five Samon months inscribed on the calendar differ, but they can be considered as variants of 'Trinvx Samoni sindiv' / 'three-night of Samon today', with an example shown at right. Like the Samon month itself, this event is widely and popularly reported to refer to the Irish festival of summer-end, both based on the proposition that 'Samon' and 'Samhain' are one and the same (see for example Alexei Kondratiev's 1997 article in the IMBAS Journal). Since Samhain is at the commencement of mí Gam, the Irish month equivalent to the Gaulish mids Giamon, this demonstrates that the trinox samoni in mids Samon occurs a full half year earlier. 'Samon' and 'Samhain' do look similar, and do contain the stem *samo-, 'summer', but Samhain refers to summer's end, six months after mids Samon the Maytime month. Therefore the closest match to the Gaulish trinox samoni in the Celtic feasts as we know them today is the feast of Belatine, marking the commencement of summer at mids Samon / mís cétamuin / Maytime.

As the very middle of the Celtic year and as the beginning of the time of cold and Winter, the fire-feast has as its focus the end of summer. P.W. Joyce (1903) in his A Social History of Ancient Ireland tells us, "Samain, Samuin, or Samhuin [sowin], the first of November, was the first day of Gemred or Winter. The name is compounded of the two words, sam, which was an old word for Samrad or Summer, and fuin, an ancient word for end: that is to say, the end of Summer: for, the old authority [Cormac's Glossary] adds, 'the whole year was [originally] divided into two parts - Summer from Ist May to Ist November, and Winter from Ist November to Ist May.' The term gemred for winter is a derivative from the older and simpler word geim, meaning the same thing". Emer explains to Cú Chulaind that Samhain is the time when 'summer goes to rest', invoking the word sámhach, meaning 'quiet' or 'still'.

Whitely Stokes (1868) provided an alternate but less likely derivation of the name Samhain from the word for an assembly, from samhuil, for at this time would be held assemblies for the gathering of taxes and settling claims at the end of the productive time of the year, and from time to time the independent Feis of Tara:

"The Feis of Tara every third year,
For the fulfilment of laws and rules,
Was convened at that time mightily
By the noble kings of Erin.

Three days before Samhain, according to custom,
Three days thereafter, good the practice,
Did that high-spirited company
Pass in constant feasting, a week."

- Quoted from an attribution to Eochaidh Eolach; the full poem is given in Winter in the Grove. Note that the Feis of Tara was not fixed to November, being recorded also around Beltaine for the kings Dathi and Loigaire.

Samhain carries hope for the future and the safety of all over the cold and harsh times ahead, and is founded on the hard work and toil of the preceding summer. It is marked by ritual with the hearth fires cleaned and rekindled, and society protected by laws to ensure the good management of animal stock - cattle are brought in from pasturing for over-wintering in pens; managing their numbers and ensuring a winter food supply meant a pre-winter slaughter.

Marking the start of Geimhreadh, the cold winter, Samhain is strongly associated with the dead and the Celtic otherworld of the Sidhe and Annwn as described in the myths (for a review, see: Digital Medievalist: Samain). Great fires were lit and the embers were used to kindle the winter hearth fires (Frazer, J. 1890, 1922) to ensure warmth indoors over the coming season of cold. The feast of Samhain is also strongly associated with prophecy, a welcome assurance of survival into the following summer and a firm foundation for the plans of kings over the following year, made famous by King Dathi in the Irish tale Sluaghid Dathi (O'Curry, E. 1855,1856)

southern cross and nearby south polar constellations the stars of the southern cross The Southern Hemisphere

Australia and the Southern Lands experience the seasons off-set half a year to the Celtic homelands. Celebrating the Fire feasts with the progress of the southern seasons presents a dilemma, for at Beltaine on May eve, the southern seasons are turning to the winter; at Samhain on November eve, the southern seasons are at the time of rebirth at the start of summer.
Southern hemisphere

In 1967, Myles Dillon and Nora Chadwick in their The Celtic Realms describe the Celtic year being divided into two halves 'by the feasts of Beltine or Cetsamain (May 1) and Samain (November 1)... The second feast, Samain, was the greatest feast of the year, probably a harvest festival. The word means 'end of summer', but this is not certain'. Dr Stokes, in publishing Cormac's Glossary, takes samain from the root som, same (English same, whence English assemble - thus samhuil), and makes *samani- mean 'assembly', referring to the gathering at Tara on 1st November.

wild garlic at cotterill clough: source

Dillon and Chadwick further describe an example of Samhain in Irish literature, with 'One of the most fascinating of the stories of the Underworld is another Connact tale, Echtra Nerai ('The Adventure of Nera'). Here the Underworld is entered through a 'cave' (uaim) in the rock near the court of Ailill and Medb at Cruachain in Connacht. As the court are celebrating the feast of Samain, Nera goes outside and cuts down a corpse from the gallows who complains of thirst, and after giving him a drink Nera replaces him on the gallows. On returning to the court he finds that the síd-hosts have come and burnt it, and left a heap of heads of his people cut off - in fact a typical piece of Celtic raiding.

The adventure continues with Nera pursuing the procession of síde to the Underworld. 'Then in a vision his wife warns him that at the next Samain the síde will again destroy the court unless he goes and warns the king. He takes wild garlic and primrose and fern to prove that he comes from the Underworld [note: Maytime imagery of the incipient summer in the Otherworld], and he goes to the court of Ailill and Medb and warns them. They destroy the síde, but Nera was left 'inside and has not come out until now, nor will he come till Doom'. From the time that he joined the procession of the síde and entered the Underworld he had become one of the dead.'

It is often claimed also that Halloween was the result of Samhain being taken up by Christianity, in a process akin to the usurping of Beltaine by St Patrick in favour of Easter. Charles Squire in his Celtic Myth & Legend Poetry & Romance (1905) describes Samhain thus: 'Sacrifices were made at "Hallowe'en", which took the place, in the Christian calendar, of the heathen Samhain - "Summer's End"- when the sun's power waned, and the strengths of the gods of darkness, winter, and the Underworld grew great'. Squire describes it as occurring on the autumn equinox. However, the Christian festivals honouring the dead were adopted from Roman customs.

A major shift in Rome following Constantine was transferance of the prime deity from Jupiter Optimus Maximus, the ancient protector of Rome to Deum Optimum Maximum, the Christian God. The ancient festival of Lemuria held in Rome was on May 13th to propitiate lemures, being the spirits of the violently dead, and mentioned in the Epistles of Horace (65BC-8BC), a prominent poet of the reign of Augustus. To feed the spirits, black beans were hurriedly thrown whilst not looking, the offerer returning quickly indoors for safety.

By the 4th century, May 13th become adopted within the Church as a day to remember martyrs and saints. In AD609, May 13th was dedicated to All Martyrs by Pope Boniface IV at a ceremony performed during the restoration and rededication of the Pantheon in Rome which took place between AD608-15. In the following year, AD610, on this date the temple was dedicated to Mother of God and all Holy Martyrs.

Between AD731-741 was the papacy of Gregory III. In this period, a new chapel was built at the Basilica of St Peter and it was dedicated on November 1st to All Saints (as distinct to the Pantheon's May 13th dedication to Martyrs). He fixed the date of the feast of All Saints to November 1st, the anniversary of the dedication - and this is the genuine reason Halloween falls on the eve of November 1st.

In AD831, Pope Gregory IV (827-84) extended the feast of All Saints on November 1st across the entire Church. Extended across the Christian world, the fortuitous co-incidence of All Saints with the Celtic feast did allow for its suppression.

In AD2003, Pope John Paul II affirmed the meaning of All Saints Day as follows - "We celebrate today the solemnity of All Saints. This invites us to turn our gaze to the immense multitude who have already reached the blessed land, and points us on the path that will lead us to that destination".

In Ireland, Samhain was separate for over four hundred years of Christianity. Beltaine was immediately usurped by the Paschal feast (in AD433), but All Martyrs was celebrated in May until AD831 at the introduction of All Saints. During those four centuries, the relative importance of Christian and traditional festivals would have allowed for the embrace of the eve of All Saints.

wild garlic in May - Samhain Otherworldly imagery: source

The otherworldly attributes of Samhain during the period of rapidly shortening daylight hours are exemplified by traditions of removing the coverstones of the entrances of the megalithic monumental structures (Joyce, P.W. 1903). The most famous Sidhe mound is that of 'New Grange' at the Bruig na Bóinde complex on the Boyne. At the winter solstice in December, a shaft of light is able to enter into the central chamber of this ancient and pre-Celtic structure. The legacy of the very ancient past continued in the legends and myths of the Sidhe-folk and how they interacted with and sometimes came to be a part of the Celtic deities.

Under Christian influence, Samhain was demonised such that, as Joyce tells us, "people usually kept within doors, naturally enough afraid to go forth; for "demons would always appear on that night." From the cave of Cruachan or Croghan in Connaught, issued probably the most terrific of all those spectre hosts; for immediately that darkness had closed in on Samain Eve, a crowd of horrible goblins rushed out, and among them a flock of copper-red birds, led by one monstrous three-headed vulture: and their poisonous breath withered up everything it touched: so that this cave came to be called the "Hell-gate of Ireland". That same hell-gate cave is there still, but the demons are gone - scared away, no doubt, by the voices of the Christian bells". By the Middle Ages, the Celtic land of the dead had been transformed from a place of happiness and perpetual summer, as described in the Mabinogi of Pwyll or the songs Mider sang to Étaíin, where Annwn or the Otherworld of the Síde is described in terms of perpetual Maytime or samrad (Jones and Jones, 1949; Gantz, 1976, 1981) into a Christianised Hellish underworld: In the tenth century Culhwch ac Olwen, it is said of Gwyn ap Nudd (Nuada) that it was he 'in whom God set the spirit of the demons of Annwn, lest this world be destroyed'. Compare with the simplicity of the night in a more traditional context:

The Book of Ballymote (7) tells us of the arrangements for the feast, where King Cormac advises his grandson, Cairbré, "A prince on Saman's Day should light his lamps, and welcome his guests with clapping of hands, procure comfortable seats, the cupbearers should be respectable and active in the distribution of meat and drink. Let there be moderation of music, short stories, a welcoming countenance, a welcome for the learned, pleasant conversations, and the like; these are the duties of the prince, and the arrangement of the banqueting-house."


Unreferenced sources linked in main text; see also CELT and other primary document sites, linked from 'Resources and Links' tab.

Dillon, M and Chadwick, N. (1967) 'The Celtic Realms', Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London.

Frazer, Sir J. (1890 and 1922) The Golden Bough , 1994 reprint, Chancellor Press/Octopus, London. 'The Halloween Fires'

Gantz, J. (1981) 'Early Irish Myths and Sagas' Penguin, London. 'The Wooing of Étaíne'; Gantz, J. (1976) 'The Mabinogion' Penguin. London. 'Pwyll Lord of Dyfed'

Hyde, D. 1899 (1967 reprint) 'Literary History of Ireland from Earliest Times to the Present Day', Ernest Benn ltd, London. p. 247: The Bardic Schools "The Instruction of a Prince".

Jones, G. & Jones, T. (1949) 'The Mabinogion' Everyman, London. 'Pwyll Lord of Dyfed'

Joyce, P.W. (1903) 'A Social History of Ancient Ireland' Longmans, Green and Co., London. pp.264-266.

Joyce, P.W. (1907) 'Old Celtic Romances' Wordsworth Editions Ltd in association with FLS Books, The Folklore Society (2000) p. 173.

Stokes, G. (1892) The Knowledge of Greek in Ireland between AD500 - 900. (JSTOR copy, as linked)

Stokes, W. (1868) Cormac's Glossary - see CELT, MacBain's from 'Resources and Links'

Squire, C (1905) 'Celtic Myth and Legend Poetry and Romance' re-published as 'Celtic Myth and Legend' in 1975 by Newcastle Publishing.

© Caer Australis 2011: From Coogee in Sydney's eastern beaches NSW Australia

The Celtic Fire Feasts

Fire Feast Introduction AD433: Patrick's fire Beltaine Lughnasa Samhain Imbolc Southern hemisphere
Meath was the name of the territory which is beside Uisneach, but Tuathal was he that made it into a territory distinct from the provinces. Accordingly he built Tlachtgha in the portion of Munster which goes with Meath; and it was there the Fire of Tlachtgha was instituted, at which it was their custom to assemble and bring together the druids of Ireland on the eve of Samhain to offer sacrifice to all the gods. It was at that fire they used to burn their victims; and it was of obligation under penalty of fine to quench the fires of Ireland on that night, and the men of Ireland were forbidden to kindle fires except from that fire; and for each fire that was kindled from it in Ireland the king of Munster received a tax. Keating's History of Ireland, 1723
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