Well, it’s the Fifth of November; Samhain (that’s pronounced sow-en) is very much upon us and winter, that bane of my life, is on the way. I’m already lighting the stove in the evening now, and of course fire is important in these Celtic lands. It’s the season of the Fire Festival, that ancient Pagan ritual. (Cheerfully adopted by the Christians, of course.)
Samhain was the Celtic version; it has equivalents all over the world. The Celtic year was divided in two ways, one solar and the other lunar. The Celts weren’t daft (well, not as daft as some I can think of) and they knew damn fine that lunar calendars are not consistent; a twelve-month lunar year and the solar one are different in length, since a lunar month is 29.5 days. This adds up to only 354 days in a 12-month year, which means that relying on it is hopeless as far as the seasons are concerned. And for an agrarian people like the Celts, the seasons were really important.
So they divided the year into four solar quarters marked by the two equinoxes and solstices. That’s easy enough, but a three-month division is a bit hard to deal with if you’re just planning to meet up with the family in a fortnight. So they also used a lunar measure, which was easy to operate, since the phases of the moon are a lot easier to judge than the slow changes in the sun’s declination.
Being party animals, the Celts put a lunar festival in between each of the solar ones: Imbolc, in February, Easter or Beltaine, in April, Lughnasachd or Lammas in August and of course, Samhain in November. Each of these has very different significance in the agricultural calendar, and by far the more important are Beltaine and Samhain, which separate the light and dark halves of the year.
Samhain is the dying of the year. That is why it, and its successor Christian festival, Halloween, the night before All Saints Day, November 1, is so preoccupied with death, ghosts and ghouls. But for a Celt, death was not quite as it is for us, because they believed in a very immediate afterlife. Like many other ancient cultures, they saw no separation between the spirit world and the world of the living. The spirits inhabited exactly the same space, but metaphysically.
This is very old; the Sumerians firmly believed that their gods literally lived amongst them (along with many other supernatural entities.) Even the Abrahamic god Jahweh, who is in part derived from the tradition first recorded in Sumer, liked to walk with humans. That was what he was doing in the Garden of Eden; he liked to relax there and shoot the breeze with Adam…until all that went wrong.
Anyway the point is that a distant spirit-world comes partly from Egypt, and partly from Ancient Greece, where the gods all lived on top of Mount Olympus.
The Celts on the other hand, believed that the spirit-world, which they called the Otherworld, was all around them, separated by a spiritual ‘membrane’. This membrane was at its thinnest and weakest at Samhain, when the sun-god Lugh was most feeble, on his own death bed. At this time the dead could leave the Otherworld and become visible to the living, and even interact with them.
For the Celts, transition was very important; this applied to the mundane as well as the spiritual and is why there is the Scottish belief that a witch may not cross a bridge over running water. Beltaine and Samhain were the great transitions of the year, so they were very important dates.
The dead had to be treated with very great respect. They could be vindictive, and even dangerous. Gifts were left for them. It was common in Scotland and Ireland for an extra place to be set at the head of the table and food served there, though the family were careful never to look, for to see the dead was gravely unlucky. Food was also placed outside, to appease the dead and prevent them taking the family’s cattle.
The ghosts that were freed at Samhain would continue to roam the World until Beltaine came, and the Goddess Eostre or Easter—a direct descendant of the Babylonian Ishtar and the earlier Inanna, the original Queen of Heaven—would appear in all her radiance and glory as a beautiful young woman full of life and fecundity, and drive the shades of dark winter away again. (Inanna, by the way, is a kick-ass goddess. Really.)
Last week I was talking about this to my friend Crissy, who is Filipina, and Catholic. Of course the Pagan traditions of Samhain were adopted into Christianity, and thrive in it; but Filipinos are also very much in touch with an older and very powerful Animistic tradition, in which, again, spirits and ghosts are everywhere. Some of their ghosts and monsters, called ‘aswang’ bear an uncanny resemblance to the ones my grandmother told me about in Scotland, and which I am quite sure she really believed existed. Other cultures, too, celebrate the dead at this season; for example it is Diwali, the Hindu New Year and the time of renewal.
So what’s all this got to do with the 5th of November? After all, Hallowe’en is 31 October, All Saints’ Day is 1 November and All Souls’ Day the day after; so why are the bonfires still burning? Well, in the United Kingdom and a few other countries like New Zealand, its former colonies, exists perhaps the most peculiar version of the Samhain fire-festival, Guy Fawkes Night.
Guido Fawkes was a Catholic rebel who tried to blow up the king and Houses of Parliament with gunpowder, but was caught, hanged, drawn, quartered and burned, and the day, the 5th of November, became a national holiday, when bonfires are lit, fireworks set off and effigies of the unfortunate Fawkes ritually burned all over the country. Quite a few of the nations’ citizens—sorry, subjects—set light to themselves in the course of this, partly because of alcohol.
In recent years Master Fawkes has become a cult icon, symbolising frustration with the capitalist, patriarchal hegemony, and a hero for those who would overthrow it by direct action. An anarchist Che Guevara, if you like. (Even though Fawkes himself was not an anarchist…it is the zeitgeist of the times.)
Curiously perhaps, a Catholic tradition carried forward from the mists of Pagan history, became one of the great festivals of a Protestant nation, and the lasting testimonial to a rebel against the Crown. But although everybody knows who Guy Fawkes was, which King was he trying to hoist?
Anyway, be safe out there tonight and do try not to toast any hedgehogs, or for that matter yourselves.
(It was the first king of the disUnited Kingdom, James VI & I, by the way. I wonder if old Guido will be chortling in the Otherworld next Samhain, if the nation whose king he tried to kill finally asserts its freedom.)
You might also like: