31 October 2010

Summer's end

Enough of this dreary fixation upon politics. Halloween is here!

Halloween's true and original name is Samhain, somewhat surpri- singly pronounced "SOW-win" (first syllable rhymes with "cow"), with some variation in different times and places. The word is Gaelic for "summer's end". The ancient Celts recognized just two seasons, summer and winter, and Samhain was actually the first of November -- but they also counted each night as being part of the following day, so the night of October 31st was the true beginning of Samhain.

Chalice Centre (where I found the charming image above) has an overview of how Samhain was observed in pagan times. Hearth fires were extinguished and re-lit from a sacred source, and people danced around great bonfires into which goods sacrificed to the gods were cast. The reverence for fire undoubtedly dates back to the Aryan conquests of more than five millennia ago, and is found in many cultures sharing the same origin. Fire was similarly held divine in Zoroastrian Persia, for example, and many modern-day Iranians continue to observe the fire-festivals in defiance of the mullahs' dour edicts of condemnation.

In the British Isles, similarly, Samhain rituals survived the coming of Christianity. As it did with so many other traditional European sacred days, the new alien faith out of the Middle East sought to Christianize Samhain and co-opt it, rather than to eradicate it entirely. In the seventh century Pope Boniface IV declared the first day of November to be "All Saints' Day", and the preceding night became "All Hallows' Eve", from which the name "Halloween" is derived. Yet the bonfire dances continued -- in some parts of Britain, as late as the early twentieth century.

Samhain was observed under different names in various Celtic lands. The practice of "apple magic", mentioned at the end of the Chalice Centre post linked above, survived in the Cornish festival of Calan Gwaf or Allantide (found via Mendip) and in more diluted form in the game of apple-bobbing. Halloween costumes and trick-or-treating, which play such a central role in our modern concept of Halloween, are foreshadowed in the festival of Hop-tu-Naa on the Isle of Man, a small island between Britain and Ireland.

Modern Christian fundamentalists remain profoundly suspicious of Halloween, and with good reason. Unlike Christmas, Halloween was never successfully infused with Christian significance; to this day it remains, in its symbolism and imagery, the most boldly pagan observance in the Celtic- and English-speaking world.


Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

Thanks for this wonderful post. Great background for this holiday, which has always been a favorite of mine.

I was visiting Sicily years ago at this time, and saw the children put their shoes outside their rooms and then on Nov. 1, found sweets in them. The holiday is called "Ogni Santi," all saints. The people in the village we were visiting went to the cemetary and paid tribute with flowers and food to the dead. A parade ensued, where I discovered that I was related to the mayor of the little Sicilian town I was in.

31 October, 2010 15:50  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Decent informative posting Infodel ... some of which I didnt know.

31 October, 2010 23:20  
Blogger Cyc said...

Very nice post. While I am familiar with much of the history of Samhain, you have revealed much that I was not familiar with. I thank you for that.

I also have a request...if I may. My latest post on my blog describes the situation well enough. I ask, if you think what I am doing is worth while, could you possibly get the word out. If not, please do not think I would begrudge you in the slightest. I simply have no other options left then this. Thank you

01 November, 2010 05:04  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

The post to which Cyc refers is here.

01 November, 2010 08:29  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Exactly as you say.

03 August, 2011 08:23  

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