the ancient festival of Samhain [part 3]
After the advent of Christianity 'parshell' crosses were made and fixed to house, byre and stable doors. Bonfires were lit as the 'Samhain pile' and ashes and burning brands were thrown out. There were also parties of 'guisers' going about collecting apples, nuts or money; the hobby-horse, or a horse's head, figured in the ceremonies. The evil powers were the Formorians (ancient aboriginal inhabitants of Ireland – said to be giants! – later demonised by their conquerors) and in earlier times human sacrifice was said to be practised; this was not only to propitiate the powers but also to bring fertility.
Traces of human sacrifice are also seen in the Welsh "Black Sow" ceremony in which everyone ran downhill as fast as possible shouting "the Black Sow take the hindermost", the last person being the victim. The Black Sow in folklore was the spirit of evil, cold and death, but also, as Rolf Schilling kindly points out, in more ancient times an aspect of the triple goddess, the Crone. As the Crone stands for wisdom, but also the end of life, she was seen as an aspect of life, its end, really. Death as doorway to the otherworlds...
Many scholars believe that talk of human sacrifice is deliberate Christian propaganda, designed to wean people away from their ancient, time-honoured beliefs, or superstitions, as they would have called them. Nevertheless, as Neron Tzadkiel remarks, "Ritual human sacrifice is likely to have been employed by early stone age people, including Irish 'pagans', Fomorian, Tuatha, or Celt. It may even have been willingly undergone by the 'victims' in a heightened stage of religious ecstasy, or frenzy."
The wholesale killing of animals, however, is well-attested and was not only for winter food, but because there was not enough feed for them in the fields in winter. The slaughter took on a ritual and sacrificial aspect among the Celts
and Teutons and bore the marks of an earlier pastoral festival with the emphasis on semi-divine animals. Feasting followed and the dead were also feasted. In Germany and Gaul, boisterous processions took place and men dressed in animal masks and skins, thus gaining contact with the sacred animals and with the deities.
At Samhain, a sheaf of corn, a branch of evergreen or mistletoe
symbolically carried on the dying powers of vegetation. Carrying or
decorating with evergreens demonstrates that life has not died; the mistletoe likewise was believed to carry the soul of the tree.
Pliny gives an account of a Druid festival of the cutting of the mistletoe from an oak tree: it was cut with a golden sickle and caught in a white cloak, as it must never touch the ground. Two white bulls were sacrificed and a feast held.
Samhain was also a time of truce, when no fighting, violence or divorce was allowed. Accounts were closed, debts collected, contracts made and servants hired. As a time when the borders between the worlds were thin, divination, especially for prospects of marriage, was widely undertaken. It was also believed that Samhain was especially fertile, so a good time to try for a child.
Halloween has an extensive history, reaching back into the mists of time. The rituals we so light-heartedly employ today have their origins in the most serious protective rites, designed to keep the world of the supernatural at bay.
This concludes the article.
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