Fearghal Duffy: Halloween in the Celtic Tradition



SamhainIn my last blog post I related the story of how the Gaels triumphantly arrived in Ireland and how their poet-seer Amairgen wooed the goddess with his magical poetry. This story marks the ascendency of the Gaels over their predecessors, the Tuatha Dé Danann. The Tuatha Dé Danann were the old gods of Ireland.

When the Gaels arrived and successfully wooed the land over to their side, it was agreed that Ireland should be divided equally between the Gaels and the Tuatha Dé Danann. It was Amairgen who divided up the country. The Tuatha Dé Danann received the lower half of Ireland, the territory under the earth, whilst the Gaels received the upper half, that which was above ground. And so it was how the old gods came to inhabit the hollow lands and hilly lands of Ireland. Access to this realm was through what became known as the síd-mounds, what are today commonly referred to as fairy forts.

Oweyngat, the ‘cave of the cats’ at Rathcroghan, Co Roscommon, is popularly seen as an entrance into the Otherworld. At Halloween, creatures emerge from this cave to cause chaos all over the country.

Even though this arrangement seemed unfavourable for the old gods they continued to hold serious sway. They controlled the fertility of the land. If the human society did not properly respect the pact with the old gods, they would withdraw their support for humanity and the crops would fail, cows would stop producing milk, the rivers would run dry, bringing about famine and the eventual ruin of human society. Sometimes the two realms got on grand. Other times they didn’t. But more often than not, they respected each other’s domain. A bond was established between the human realm and the realm of the gods through the symbolic marriage of the human king to the sovereignty goddess/the land. This ‘kingship marriage’ took the form of a ‘royal feast’. The Irish name for the ceremony was ban-fheis, literally ‘wife-feast’. The success of the people, and the flourishing of nature, depended upon the right king being on the throne. When he was we get descriptions such as we find in the Old Irish saga, ‘The Intoxication of the Ulstermen’ when Conchubur became king of the whole province of Ulster after the feis of Samain at Emain Macha (Navan Fort, Co Armagh). The story tells us that:

“Anyone who would have arrived at the end of the following year would have found Conchubur’s province a well-spring of justice and abundance, without a single dwelling waste, empty or desolate, from Rind Semni and Latharnai to Cnocc Uachtair Forcha to Dub and Drobaís, and without a single son usurping the place of his father and grandfather – everyone served his proper lord.”

Emain Macha ‘Navan Fort’ Armagh.

This reveals that both the land and the old gods were accepting of Conchubur as king and this recognition is indicated and expressed through the abundance in nature and the natural environment and through peace, prosperity and harmony in the human society.


The feis that was held at Samain ‘halloween’ is understood to have been a religious festival during which, a part of the agricultural produce of the autumn harvest is offered to the powers that control nature. The veil between the world of humans and the world of gods evaporated during Samain ‘Halloween’. Traditionally, Samain was considered a time of change marking the first day of winter and also the first day of the new year, but crucially it was a liminal period when contact between mortal and the otherworldly figures was possible. According to Rees and Rees (1961:89-90) “a supernatural power breaks through in a most ominous way on November Eve and May Eve…the joints between the two great seasons of the year….Hallowe’en, the Calends of winter, was a solemn and weird festival. The síd-mounds were open on this … night, and their inhabitants were abroad in a more real sense than any other night. … At Hallowe’en the elimination of boundaries between the dead and the living … between the present and the future all symbolise the return of chaos.”

Quite a number of the extant Irish myths have Samain as their temporal setting and quite often they involve meetings or trials between the humans and the inhabitants of the síd-mounds. Magical events and supernatural beings were more likely to be encountered on Samain; the dead, ‘fairies’, and witches were all roaming through the human realm at Samain.

The story referred to above, ‘The Intoxication of the Ulstermen’ describes the wild escapades of the Ulster heroes as they wandered through Ireland in a bewildered and drunken state. In the end the Ulstermen nearly die when they are trapped in a flaming ‘a white-hot house’ which hints at the sacrificial character of this Samain tale. The confusion of the Ulstermen was as a consequence of their heavy drinking session at their annual feis of Samain. During this festival, King Conchubur provided “one hundred vats of every kind of drink.”

In another Ulster-cycle tale ‘The Wasting-Sickness of Cú Chulainn’ there is a description of the three-day festival of Samain:

“The Ulstermen used to hold a fair every year: three days before Samain and three days after it, and the day of Samain itself. That is the time that the Ulstermen used to be there in Mag Muirthemni holding the fair of Samain every year, and nothing at all was done by them during that time save games and gatherings and pleasures and delight and eating and feasting, so that from that is named na trenae samna, ‘the triduum of Samain’ throughout Ireland.”

Historically, the Celtic year is generally understood as having been divided into two basic halves, sam or samh-radh (summer) and gam or geimh-readh (winter), beginning at Bealtaine/May, or Céideamhain, (first summer), as it was originally known, and Samhain/November respectively. Cognate words which express this division are also found in Gaulish names such as Samillus and Giamillus and the Gaulish Coligny calendar is clearly based on two different divisions of six months to commence on the months Samon(i-) and Giamon(i-) respectively.  Of course, these words, samain and gamain, represent the origins of Irish.  There were also divisions in the Indo-European pastoral year that was also maintained by the Celts, so they could try to influence the cultivation of crops between the other two festivals, Imbolg, which has been Christianized to St Brigit’s Day on February 1st, and Lúnasa, at the start of August.

The Coligny calender, poss. 2nd century AD, a lunar calender, discovered in France, which divides the year into two halves.

However, there is no doubt that there is basically the same two halves to the year in Ireland and in ancient Gaul, such changes to effect or assist the transition between the solar year and the lunar year. Therefore Bealtaine/Céideamhain and Samain of the Irish corresponds to Samoni- and Giamoni- of the Celtic Gauls. It represents an older two-season or two half-year system, in which Samain marks the edge between the light half/summer (from which it was named) and the dark half/winter.


The basic meaning of Samoni- is ‘the summer’ in essence and is clear that the Irish speakers use this term to express the beginning and end of a period. Some glosses show this view clearly.  For example, in the myth ‘The Wooing of Emer’ there is a gloss which says: ‘from Samuin, i.e., the end of summer. For two divisions were formerly on the year, viz., summer from Beltaine (the first of May), and winter from Samuin to Beltaine”. The glossator then attempts an etymological interpretation of the word: ‘Or sainfuin, viz., suain (sounds), for it is then that gentle voices sound, viz., sámson ‘gentle sound’.’ Although the etymology is in itself wrong, they provide important evidence for the view in the ancient world of their attempts to try and understand the festivals and seasons of the year.


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