by Andrada of Vanthe
Those of us who follow the traditions of Northern and Western Europe are aware of the ancient two-fold division of the year, named Samhain and Beltain by Celtic peoples. We often think of these festivals as contrasting sharply with each other. November Eve heralds the Dark or Black Months, as they are called in Celtic countries today, the time of death and dying, whereas May Eve and May morning we associate more with light, gaiety and new life. While these associations are supported by surviving customs, I have discovered some interesting similarities and resonances between these two turning points of the year, both from research and in my inner experience of them.
All accounts of Samhain, which means “end of summer,” speak of the veil between the worlds growing thin, allowing spirits, the faeries and the Sidhe of Ireland to come through and visit mortals. The Sidhe, named after the burial mounds under which they lived, are also identified with the Tuatha de Danaan, portrayed as heroes and gods in Irish legend. A number of scholars have concluded that the Tuatha De, the faeries of later tradition, and the ancestral spirits of the dead were one and the same in ancient Celtic religion (see Bibliography).
On Samhain Eve, the “sid,” or burial mounds, were said to open, allowing all inhabitants of the Otherworld free passage into this one. On this night, gifts of food were left out for the dead, blood sacrifices were made in holes dug into the mounds, and doors were left unbolted so the spirits could pass freely and come back to visit the mortals they had left behind. In modern times, throughout Celtic countries, mummers with faces painted black to represent the dead visit houses asking for wine and food, and sometimes playing tricks on the countryfolk. These mummers are often called “New Year’s visitors,” reminding us that Samhain did, indeed, begin the Celtic year.
Also at Samhain, the Dagda, chief god of the ancient Irish pantheon, mated with the Morrigu, the three-fold battle-goddess who embodied the Sovereignty of the land, and whose name means “Great Queen.” In other words, they performed the Great Rite at the very moment when the two worlds of mortal and non-mortal came together and touched. There are indications that this symbolic mating was accompanied in the human world by a ritual mating of the High King and the High Queen of the Celtic tribe or nation, as well as by young people out all night with the mummers. This comes as a surprise at first, if we have thought of Samhain as being about the dead, and Beltain as being about fertility. However, it is interesting to note that this Great Rite at Samhain was seen as a means of placating the dead, who could impair fertility by refusing to be born again. In this context, the rituals of Samhain can be seen as an overall offering to the dead of food; wine; sacrificial blood, the stuff of life; the fruit of the recent harvest; and the literal seed of human beings, as well as a connection to the kundalini-like life-force, the energy and power raised by the sexual act itself. From these offerings, Celtic peoples hoped to nourish and persuade the dead to be reborn, to come back and join them again in the world of mortals.
The second half of the Celtic year is ushered in by the festival of Beltain, and begins with the month named Giamon, just as the dark half of the year begins with the month named Samon (from which the word Samhain is derived). Both Samhain Eve and Beltain Eve are known today as “spirit nights” in Wales and other Celtic countries. On May Eve, also, faeries and the dead are unusually active, and the future may be read by the taking of omens, as it can at Samhain.
Rees and Rees remark, “The customs of both Eves have features characteristic of New Year celebrations in general” (page 89). But in contrast to Samhain Eve, on May Eve spells are cast and actions taken to keep the faeries and the spirits of the dead away from the living. Doors are barred on that night, and by refusing to give away food, fire or water to one’s neighbors, one can symbolically refuse the same to the dead.
Fertility rituals are, however, also common at this time. In particular, lighting bonfires and driving the cattle through the flames at Beltain was a protective measure to preserve the fertility of the herd and ensure good harvests in the coming season. Young people stayed out all night on May Eve, carousing and apparently engaging in “unlicensed” sexual activity—meaning not with a legal spouse—according to the early Christian priests in Northern and Western Europe. I hypothesize that this is the time of year when the power of life is returned to the mortal world, and that the dead, who have been fed so well last Samhain, are now being encouraged to be reborn through the bodies of the living—through the sex which provided the actual door through which the dead could return—rather than being welcomed in their incorporeal nature as spirits or ghosts. At Beltain the dead can give back to the living by giving us their spirits in the form of new human, animal and vegetable lives, which was the essence of fertility to our agricultural ancestors.
Before I began working in the Craft, my own experience of the round of the year was oriented more toward the solstices and equinoxes, partly because I was born at one of those points, and partly because, except for Samhain, I was not aware of the cross-quarter days. As I spent year after year orienting more closely toward the four festivals of Samhain, Brigit, Beltain and Lammas, my inner rhythms began to change, and the secular calendar beginning in January had less and less meaning. After awhile, Samhain and Beltain became the turning points of my own inner cycle as a natural change from within. Events in my outer life now seem to fall within a bright half and a dark half of each year, and I find myself taking a 6-month spiritual/magickal “inventory” at each of these points.
At Samhain, as the veil grows thin, I vision and feel the spirits, the deities of land and water and growth, and the shining ones above, growing closer and closer, until, for a few days, the Gate stands open before me and there is a strong sense of communication between the dead/non-mortal/Other and the living. At Beltain, I can feel the power of new life like living flame rising up in every organic being—people, trees, animals—as that power flows back into the mortal world.
The Janus-head comes to mind, the double-faced god after which the Roman month of Januarius was named, with one face looking back and the other looking forward. This motif is common in Celtic sculpture. It may represent an understanding of the God as two-fold, as bright Lug, Lord of Life, and dark Cernon, Father of Death, just as the Goddess is three-fold in Celtic tradition (1). It may also represent the Gate between the worlds. To our Celtic ancestors, neither side of the Gate was the “right” or most important, or permanent one. At any given time, a particular spirit could be dwelling on the mortal side, or the non-mortal side. Continuous interchange between the worlds, in terms of gifts and life-energy and the passage of beings, was the way in which the ancient Celts envisioned the universe. The Janus head—or rather, the Lug/Cernon head—gazes with equal apprehension and desire into both worlds at the same time.
(1) The fact that this adds up to five is interesting. Five is the number of the pentagram, the number of the human being (from the hand with its five fingers) in medieval metaphysics, and the number associated with the Druid symbol of the goose-foot which marks the sacred path tread by the Goddess at Brigit. Of course, sometimes the God had three faces in Celtic sculpture...
1) MacCulloch, J.A., The Religion of the Ancient Celts, originally published in 1911, reprint 1977, Folcroft Library Editions, hardbound
2) Rees, Alwyn and Rees, Brinley, Celtic Heritage Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales, Thames and Hudson, paperback reprint, 1989
3) Wentz, W.Y. Evans, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, co-published by Colin Smythe, UK, and Humanities Press, New Jersey, paperback reprint, 1981