31 October 2012

Summer's end

Halloween's true and original name is Samhain, somewhat surprisingly pronounced "SOW-win" (first syllable rhymes with "cow"), with some variation in different times and places.  The word is Irish 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 in the sidebar of the Chalice Centre post linked above, survived in the Cornish festival of Calan Gwaf or Allantide, 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.


Anonymous Blurber said...

Reverence for fire no doubt goes back to prehistory, since human ancestors may have used it a million years ago.

Probably whole religions worshiping fire, lasting perhaps thousands of years, came and went.

31 October, 2012 09:01  
Blogger Jack Jodell said...

Those are good Halloween insights, definitely worth a reprint. BTW, you won't want to miss my post ovwe at THE SATURDAY AFTERNOON POST for tomorrow, which will be entitled "12 Good Reasons To NOT Vote Republican This Year!'

01 November, 2012 07:42  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Blurber: Likely so. I do think it's interesting that so many of these traditions in widely-separated places can be traced to a common origin.

JJ's post is up here -- note especially #3, which a lot of "fiscal conservatives" seem to have difficulty getting through their heads.

02 November, 2012 06:02  

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