Happy New Year! Samhuinn Night: Pageantry, Heroism, and Tradition

Beautifully dressed representative of summer walking down the Mile toward her inevitable doom...

Last night, I had the privilege of watching the pageantry of the Samhuinn festival on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.  It is quite handy living right on the street.  I was able to slip out onto the road and await the line of vividly painted and dressed people, some wielding giant puppets, and then follow the procession down to the stage outside of St Giles Cathedral to watch the reenactment of the Summer King’s fall at the blade of the Winter King.  The parade may not be that old, relatively speaking, but the traditional view of Samhuinn goes back a very, very long time.

Today is the first day of a new year… Well, it would be if you were Irish or Scottish and living oh, say, several centuries ago.  The Celtic year concluded at the end of October on Samhuinn (pronounced “SA-winn”) and the new year began in November.  As far as the stories go, it was the most important day of the year.

Traditionally, Samhuinn (the Scottish spelling; Irish spellings include the old Samain or the more modern Samhain) is the day when the barrier between this world and the Otherworld is at its thinnest.  It is on Samhuinn night that mythic creatures can pass through to this side of the world, or, according to some more creepy stories, when the dead come back to walk the world.  Thus, we have Hallowe’en and all of our skeletons and ghosts and ghouls.

Incidentally, Samhuinn Night is also an excellent night for a hero to have an adventure.  Things just tend to happen more often on Samhuinn.  Countless stories in Irish mythology introduce their hero and then insert the phrase “And it was Samhuinn…”  Samhuinn is simply a good time for things to happen and magic to become more visible and accessible to the heroes and heroines of the stories:

 “For on Samain nothing could ever be hidden in the fairy-mounds.” (The Boyhood Deeds of Finn, Cross and Slover 366)

For instance, it was on Samhuinn that the “love god” figure of Irish legend, Oengus Mac Og was able to finally discover where the magical girl he’d been dreaming about could be found (she transformed into a swan on a lake, for your information).  On Samhuinn, she changed from maiden to swan or back again, alternating years as one or the other.  Luckily, since Oengus was a god, he was able to transform himself accordingly to stay with the girl he loved.  I know, digustingly romantic.

The winter wolves glide through the streets with glowing red eyes...

Countless battles and adventures mention, almost incidentally, that they occur on or around Samhuinn.  But the references are probably a lot more deliberate than they seem.  In The Boyhood Deeds of Finn, for example, the story sees fit to mention not once but thrice that “The time was Samain”, just to make sure the reader knows.  Samhuinn was a time of gathering for the kings of the land, a time of festival and feasting, and a time of battle and adventure (before winter struck and going on long outdoor treks became much less appealing).  Irish myths rarely mark time clearly, but two of the most notable ways that they do is to describe the timelessness of the Otherworld and to establish the time as Beltaine or Samhuinn.

I’ve talked before about the Celtic fondness for the time-between-times and place-betwee-places concepts.  Eventide, crossroads, and the changing of summer to winter all hold significance in storytelling for the Irish.  Not only do they provide a place for the Otherworld to connect in some strange way with the mundane world, but they are used to move a story forward and give it life.

The Winter Court celebrates its victory over summer... I cannot say I celebrated with them.

This tradition has come a long way up to modern times.  Stories of the Fair Folk, the Wee Folk, the mysteries of Samhuinn’s Eve, and Otherworldly adventures still seem to press upon our minds.

Yesterday, my Gaedhlig professor, a sweet Scottish woman with the most cheerful accent you can imagine, told a story of two men in the Highlands who came across a “wee faerie man” which, as she said, “is not at all uncommon, if you happen to be in the Highlands, as you yourself probably know.”  After she tells her lovely story of the wee faerie man who awards the first man a sack of gold but kills the next for ruining his song, she adds, “It is probably best to avoid wee faerie men, then, isn’t it?”  This is probably true.  The Otherworld is certainly dangerous, but we can’t help looking for it anyway, can we?

As the feasting draws to an end, the fires are roaring and the crowd quiets as they prepare to listen to the storyteller, perhaps a mere bard, or maybe a filidh, if they are lucky. He would choose one of the many popular stories, familiar tales of heroes such as Cu Chulainn, Lug, Nuada Silverhand, and Queen Medb.  They always know that things are about to get interesting when the poet adds the words, “And it was Samhuinn…”

*For more pictures of the pageant, check out my travel blog: Searching For Dragons in Scotland!*

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About Melissa

generally in love with things Celtic, mythological, fantastic, sharp and pointy, cute and fuzzy, intellectual, snarky, cheerful, or some combination thereof. Such things as sarcastic bunnies wielding claymores might come to mind...

Posted on November 1, 2011, in Faerie, Fantasy, History, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Melissa Rogers, Myth, Scotland, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I wonder what the fairies think of our switching back and forth to Savings Time (which ends for us Yanks on Saturday). There has to be some kind of liminality to be got out of that!

  2. Thank you for sharing such beautiful pictures and descriptions of Samhain. I was researching the history of Halloween yesterday and it’s fascinating to see that so many old traditions are still alive. 🙂

  3. thanks for bearing witness to our procession last night

    summer king

  4. Oh, I wish I was in Edinburgh too! I lived for 3 months in St Andrews while studying at their uni, and spent a lot of time in the Athens of the North. Didn’t get to see any cool parades, though.

    This is a good post for getting me into that crisp, cool autumn-accented storytelling mood. I’ve read quite a few of the Irish myths, but never seem to remember as much as I want. There’s nothing else for it, I’ll just have to reread them all and pay more attention! ‘-)

    To be honest, I’m still unsure what to make of Samhain and Beltane, what with their pagan natures and all. The myths I have no problem with, naturally, schooled as I am in Lewis, Tolkien, and George MacDonald. I’m just unsure of how these two holidays should be treated by Christians in the modern day, considering they still have such strong pagan connections in most peoples’ minds. What are your thoughts on this? (anyone can answer!)

    • I agree that we should definitely be conscious of the pagan origins, but I’ve always thought of the pagan ideas as servants to the Christian ones, if that makes sense. Their power waned when Christianity arrived and they are now ours to utilize and enjoy for their history and cultural interest. Thus, Lewis can incorporate the naiads and dryads into his books as the creatures of Aslan. Walking trees and talking beasts are about as “pagan” as they come, but not in his stories and not to us.

      The trick is when we have something like a Samhuinn festival. Are people actually celebrating Samhuinn, the pagan ritual? Not that I saw, at least not in Edinburgh. It was a pageant, colorful and sensational and interesting, but about as “authentic” as a bunch of people dressing up as druids and dancing around an oak tree and probably not nearly as serious in the minds of those participating.

      Those are just my thoughts. One final consideration that my professor and I were talking about just earlier today that I may write about in a later post is that just because something in the literature is not Christian does not mean it is wholly “pagan”, as it were. Many of the things that show up in Celtic writing are not so much reflections of actual religious beliefs as they are simply manifestations of how the Celts viewed the world. They saw winter’s approach as a battle between two opposing sides. Is that a religious belief or just a way of interpreting the changing of the seasons? We might be guilty of attributing the wrong kind of significance to it if we call it a pagan ritual.

      • I think that’s the right approach. I even discussed it a bit with my dad over dinner, and he reminded me of the way that so many ancient practices, even religious ones, get absorbed into a culture and lose their religious natures. In this case of Christian traditions, this is a tragedy, but it also happens to pagan things, and divests them of their idolatry. Paul reminds us that in Christ we are completely free (I think of him saying not to worry about eating food sacrificed to idols). Our sinful nature always wants to turn God into someone appeased by laws and rules, but He cares about our hearts. If a Christian wanted to participate in a Samhuinn festival as a vibrant cultural celebration, and in their hearts glorifying God, then that’s just fine and good.

        At the same time, I remember Paul’s exhortation that we are not to do anything that could cause someone else to stumble spiritually. If another brother or sister in Christ, or indeed if an unbeliever, were to be utterly convinced that Samhuinn (or Halloween, or any similar festival or thing) were still essentially a pagan religious celebration, then — even if I disagreed and found it fine for myself — it would not be right for me to participate with their knowledge. My spiritual freedom must not be allowed to hinder my fellowship with other Christians or my ministry to unbelievers.

  5. glad you enjoyed yourself

    the winter king

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