Celtic Myth & Legend

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A few miles south of Navan, Co. Meath lies the Hill of Tara, the ancient capital of Ireland.

Unlike our modern conception of a capital city, however, Tara appears to have been a symbolic or ritual capital, rather than a large center of commerce, administration, and public life. Evidence of extensive dwelling space or large-scale defensive earthworks have not been found, suggesting its use was primarily ritualistic: it was where one went to be crowned, set down laws, or settle disputes.

The Lia Fail, the phallic stone that is said to scream for the rightful High King

The Lia Fail, the phallic stone that is said to scream for the rightful High King.

The archaeological remains suggest that the settlement was never more than a small cluster of hill-top raths, various wooden buildings and animal enclosures alongside some sacred monuments. The population would have swelled for feasting or other ceremonial occasions, but otherwise the hill may have sustained a much smaller number of inhabitants, possibly druidic caretakers and masters of ceremony.

Seat of the High King

Its Irish name is Teamhair na Rí, the Hill of the King, but it’s important to note that the high kingship was not hereditary — although many high kings would have liked to make it so — and different families from all over the country held the high kingship over time. This was probably only possible because Tara was a neutral or communal space.

When you stand on the top of the hill on a clear day, you can easily see why the site was of such significance to the early Irish. From the hill top one can see the other major hills in the midlands and east of the country, many of which boasted settlements or culturally significant tombs: the Hills of Slane, Skrne, and Tailte, the Hills of the Witch/Slieve na Callaigh near Oldcastle, The Hill of Uisneach in Co. Westmeath, and Slieve Gullion and the Mourne Mountains in Co. Down. A bronze-age chieftain standing on top of his rath would have felt he could see the entire country from that point. It’s no wonder they came to think of themselves as the High King. The passage tombs of Newgrange and Loughcrew (if not others) were specially topped with white quartz to be seen glittering at a distance. On feast nights, the bonfires from these and other hilltops would probably have been easily visible, giving a feeling of solidarity and community to those watching from the best vantage point, the high ground: Temair, the Hill of the King.

Tara was the seat of the High King at least from the Iron Age through to the Norman Invasion (1st through 12th centuries) and a place of importance long before that. Ancient legends name Tara/Temair as the seat of the the king from the arrival of the Tuatha de Danaan, and its symbolic importance endured long after the High Kings were but memory, with the patriot Daniel O’Connell choosing Tara as the site of an enormous political rally (drawing three-quarters of a million people, by contemporary accounts) in 1843. The recent outcry over the encroachment of a new motorway across the hill’s boundary showed that even in the modern world, Tara retains an emotional importance for the country.

Maps are essential when planning an Irish vacation.

Old Map of Tara.
(Photo credit: wikipedia commons)

Monuments/Ruins

There are visible remains of almost 30 man-made monuments around the hill, and traces of as many more can be detected under the vegetation using modern non-invasive survey techniques. All of the buildings on the Hill of Tara — except of course the modern church — seem to have been wooden and have now rotted away. Archaeologists have found post holes and evidence to suggest huge structures, possibly for banqueting and hosting important meetings. The remaining evidence of inhabitation are large earthen ditches and banks, known as raths, which were built up around the dwellings.

Ráith na Ríogh/The Rath (Fort) of the Kings is the largest and most-visible of these enclosures, an iron-age hill fort containing two smaller raths. This is thought to have been the most-important rath within the settlement, the house of the king, and this enclosure takes up the summit of the hill. This rath is relatively speaking a latecomer to the hill top, enclosing several much older and more more significant monuments, including the mound of the hostages and the lia fail. I find it curious that in the later days of high kingship, no king attempted to fortify Tara, even the Normans — who built motte and baileys on every high point they could — respected the sanctity of the hill.

Outside the Rath of the Kings lies several other raths, or bank and ditch enclosures. Several are thought to have enclosed the dwelling places, and others to have been tombs. (Unlike Newgrange or Knowth, there has been comparatively little modern excavation at Tara.) Between the walls of the modern churchyard and the mound of the hostages there lies a seemingly chaotic series of mounds and ditches, known as the Rath of the Synods. These are the remains of another mound within a circular rath, which was crudely excavated by British Israelites at the turn of the last century hunting for the Ark of the Covenant. The same group of amateur archaeologists blew up the passage tomb at Dowth during their quest, and probably did more to destroy Ireland’s ancient heritage than any other group since the Vikings.

The church is now a visitor center for the Hill of Tara.

St. Patrick’s Church on the Hill of Tara
(Photo credit: Neil Forrester/wikipedia commons)

Christianity on the Hill of Tara

The importance of Tara is illustrated by the siting of an early Christian church among the more-ancient monuments atop the hill. The early Christians were adept marketers, and knew that they needed to adopt many of the practices and customs of pre-Christian spiritual practices in order to win converts. The usual tactic was to build a church or hold services on sites important to the ancient Celts. The current church is naturally named St. Patrick’s Church, but it has been deconsecrated and currently serves as a visitor center, although a couple of services are still held there annually in continuation of a ritual tradition that spans at least 5000 years.
Tara is the site where St. Patrick is said to have converted the High King Laoire, paving the way for the conversion of the country. In brief, Patrick is said to have lit a pascal fire on the hill of Slane (or possible at Brú na Bóinne), thus incurring the wrath of the High King, who reserved the honor of lighting the first Beltaine fire (the Celtic feast co-opted as Easter). Laoire’s druids are said to have warned him that that fire must be extinguished or it would burn forever, but rather than punish Patrick, the King is said to have been converted by him instead. This tale is generally considered to have been cooked up by Patrick’s hagiographers, rather than being literal fact, but that hasn’t stopped it becoming an important part of the Tara myth.

 

Note
[It would take an immense post to cover all the significant monuments and history of the Hill of Tara. As internet attention spans are short, I’m splitting this topic into a series of posts. Join me tomorrow when I’ll cover the oldest and possibly most-significant monument on the hill, the Mound of the Hostages.]

 

Cairn T, on Carnbane East, near Oldcastle, Co. Meath. The entrance is locked in this picture, but guides are present for much of the summer months.

About 6000 years ago, construction began on a large complex of passage graves atop three hills near Oldcastle, Co. Meath. Known as Loughcrew or more picturesquely as Sliabh na Callighe/The Hills of the Witch, these are relatively small cairns (in relation to the famous passage grave sites at Brú na Bóinne), but what they lack in size they make up for in number (30), several of which feature carvings and contain triple (or cruciform) chambers. One of the largest, known as Cairn T, is illuminated by the sunrise on the spring and autumn equinoxes. The passage is very short, the back of the chamber a mere couple of meters from the entrance, but this tiny chamber is heavily carved, and the slab illuminated by the sun contains many enigmatic images and symbols.

As well as the usual circles surrounded by rays (often thought to represent stars or the sun), and groups of semi-circular lines and various shapes (which some have suggested may be calendars or some form of scale) there are what appear to be child-like depictions of flowers and leaves, perhaps trees. Alright, that’s my own theory; but, given that the equinoxes represent the pivotal points in the natural cycle (spring for planting and autumn for harvesting) it makes sense to me. However, there are probably as many opinions as there are observers, so I’ll reserve judgement until I have a chance to watch the carvings emerge from the darkness with the sunrise on some future equinox.

The rear of the chamber at Cairn T, in the Loughcrew complex in Co. Meath. Somebody seems to have used chalk to better outline the carvings, and the green may be some mold or lichen growing due to the damp conditions in the cairn.

Today, Loughcrew is off the major tourist trail and definitely one of the lesser-known passage grave complexes, but it’s thought that at one time it was extremely important. The hills on which the main cairns are located are called Carnbane East and West; in Irish, that translates as white-cairn. There are walls of white quartz running around some of the fields on these hills, stones that are believed to have been taken from the cairns when the English passed laws requiring the enclosure of agricultural land. As we’ve seen at Newgrange, some passage graves were covered with white quartz, which would have glittered in the sun and drawn the eye for miles around — in the same way that Renaissance Christians built cathedrals to inspire awe at first glance. Perhaps these tombs enjoyed a similar level of importance in prehistoric society? Cairn T is also known as the Tomb of the Ollamh Fodhla, the learned judge who codified Ireland’s ancient Brehon laws, and was presumably an important man who could conceivably have had his ashes interred at a significant site.

The blessing of Loughcrew’s relative anonymity is that anyone can show up at sunrise on the equinoxes and watch the illumination take place. It apparently lasts for almost an hour, and as the rear of the chamber is clearly visible from just outside the entrance, there is no need for a lottery to get inside. In the summer months, an official guide is resident on Carnbane East to admit visitors to Cairn T and tell them the history of the site. I hope whoever manages to be there for the equinoxes enjoys the show, and the rest of us can use the equinox illumination as a reminder that it’s time to get on with our planting or harvesting.

Newgrange, Knowth, Dowth, Bru na Boinne

Peter Jackson could have filmed the Hobbiton scenes around Dowth. It’s that beautiful.

Dowth is one of the three tombs in the Brú na Bóinne world heritage site, situated on a slope rising from the river Boyne near Slane, Co. Meath. In contrast to the other sites at Brú na Bóinne, Dowth is not restored and beautified, but this is a plus as some feel Newgrange and Knowth are a little too well-manicured (and it seems fitting, given that Dowth is derived from Dubhbadh, meaning darkness). Also, access to the Dowth site is free and not controlled via the visitor center. After a morning spent being shepherded around the other two sites, everyone will revel in the freedom to explore Dowth and the ruined churchyard beside it on their terms.

Dowth was once a large mound like Newgrange (possibly of of a taller, conical shape, if old illustrations are to be credited) but amateur archaeologists (although treasure seekers would probably be a better description) damaged the mound severely in the 19th century, and at another point it was used as an easy source of stone for building projects. Miraculously, despite these desecrations, two passages remain intact, although both are tight, cramped and safely locked to keep the public out. (Although you can see some of the carvings inside one of them in this documentary.)

Visiting Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth

Newgrange as seen from the top of the Dowth mound.

The mound is just off the road; a simple road sign points the way through an old iron gate. Like much of Ireland, parking is on the grass verge along the edge of the road. As you walk along the path towards the mound, the side of the mound that has been dug away is clearly visible. The rim of the mound remains in a horseshoe shape, and the views of the Boyne valley and Newgrange from the top are excellent. Children love to scramble up the mound — but beware of the thick clumps of waist-high weeds growing in the center; these are stinging nettles!

As you walk around the site in a counter clockwise direction, you come upon two low stone-lined entrances, of a size better suited to sheep than humans. (In fact, you’ll probably share the site with sheep, as Dowth, although owned and managed as a heritage site by the state, allows the local farmers’ sheep to graze around the mound — a not uncommon arrangement given the vast number of ancient ruins in Ireland.) These are the entrances to the smaller of the two burial chambers. It’s rather unusual to find two separate entrances to a single chamber; perhaps this reflects a change in burial ritual during the building of all three monuments or perhaps one afforded entrance for people, and the other allowed the passage of the sun for some ritual reason?  Unlike Newgrange and Knowth, which were built to allow people to walk more-or-less standing up, this passage is tiny, designed for crawling only. The chamber is a short distance from the entrance, and you should have enough light to see inside fairly well. Be sure to take a few pictures holding your digital camera , the flash will show detail you miss otherwise. This is one of those times you’ll be grateful you have a flashlight in your pocket.

Like Newgrange, the South chamber is aligned with the winter solstice. However, a recently planted row of trees on the neighboring property are gradually impeding the sun, and will likely eventually block it altogether. At the back of the south chamber is a convex stone which is reputed to reflect the sunlight back against some carvings on the other side of the chamber. As the chamber is locked year-round, I have sadly been unable verify this phenomenon. It should be noted that the roof of this chamber had caved in — a legacy of the quarrying, maybe — and was rebuilt with concrete at some point in the past, so it’s not known how much later interventions has altered the precise layout of the chamber.

The curious aspect about this chamber is that the setting sun illuminates it not just on the winter solstice, but from sometime in November through February. This suggests the sun alignment had some other purpose than simply celebrating the return of the sun at the solstice.

When you’re done looking into these entrances, look over your shoulder and you’ll see a concrete “bunker” at the edge of the field, covered by a thick wire cage. This is the entrance to the second and third passages — one of which is believed to be a souterrain, an underground storage space or place of refuge, rather than a burial chamber. The construction of this souterrain is dated some 2000 years after the construction of the mound and the other chambers.  Only archaeologists get to enter, but most dads and teenage sons like to check out the cage and think about how they could get in “if they really wanted to.”

Continuing to walk around the mound clockwise and you’ll see several large kerbstones peaking out of the lush growth at the base. It appears that Dowth originally had both a ring of kerbstones and was covered in white quartz rocks like Newgrange — now mostly removed for local building projects. On the south side, you come upon a beautiful tree growing out of the slope of the mound. In summer, this looks like something out of the Lord of the Rings, and you half expect to come across a Hobbit hole just past the tree. Instead, you come across one of the most intriguing pieces of neolithic art in Europe, The Stone of the Seven Suns.

Click through to see The Stone of Seven the Suns up close…

Although most of Dowth’s kerbstones are overgrown or buried, Kerbstone #51, known as The Stone of the Seven Suns, has had the vegetation stripped away to reveal what appears to be celestial notations depicting the sun, the moon, and stars. Whether this is some sort of solar calendar, a record of eclipses and celestial movement, or some kind of teaching tool, we simply do not know. One of the seven “sun wheels” appears to show a lunar eclipse in some detail. Significantly, this kerbstone is carved on both sides, suggesting the key to its purpose could have lain more in the act of its creation than in a means of recording or transmitting information. Then again, perhaps the kerbstones where simply an abstract means to beautify the site and please the gods or spirits of the ancestors, or maybe the images on the back were simply a design that went wrong — the chisel slipped and the stone was turned to save the effort of quarrying another? An indentation in the mound has been cut behind the kerbstone to allow people to see these mysterious carvings in full. (There is speculation that this indentation may conceal the entrance to another chamber.) Encourage your children to try to guess at the meaning of the various symbols; their guesses will be as good as anyone else’s.

Across the field at this point, you will see the ruins of Dowth Church, destroyed during the 1641 uprising. A short walk across the fields brings you to the present day Netterville House and the ruins of the church.

The history of Dowth is a fascinating blend of the historically important and the farcically eccentric. The tomb sits on what was once part of the estate of the Nettervilles, an old Anglo-Norman family. When the Insurrection of 1641 began, the then lord, Viscount Nicholas Netterville, allegedly first offered his services to the Crown, but when he (as a Catholic) was not greeted with open arms, he threw his lot in with the rebels. He lost his estates for his trouble, and saw the Dowth church and castle reduced to ruins, but ironically had his possessions restored a decade later when Oliver Cromwell came to power and recent enemies of the crown were recast as heroes.

One century later, the sixth Viscount, John Netterville, built a gazebo on top of the Dowth mound from which he “attended” mass in the nearby church by telescope! In the 19th century, misguided amateur archeologists used dynamite to blow a hole in the mound searching for a fabled inner chamber they thought might contain the lost Ark of the Covenant. It’s not recorded whether these would-be Indiana Joneses found anything they could recognize after their destructive excavation. The heavily damaged site was then used as a quarry for stone for many years, until the mound was overgrown and forgotten.

Oddly, while Newgrange and Knowth have been extensively excavated and restored, little appears to have been done to Dowth other than rebuilding the roof of the south chamber and securing the entrances to the chambers and souterrain. But the contrast between the decay and damage of the ages on one side, and the glorious (if controversial) restorations on the other gives an indication of the magnitude of both the achievements of the restorers and the artistic skill, engineering know-how and organization of the original builders.

As you wander around the overgrown acreage of Dowth, you can draw on the insight gained at the Brú na Bóinne visitor center, inside Newgrange, and around Knowth, to fill in the blanks, to allow the mind’s eye to show you Dowth as it might once have appeared, and ponder what life at this bend of the river Boyne might have been like 5000 years ago.

Co. Meath tourism, Visiting Ireland, Ireland with children

Knowth (L) and Newgrange (R) seen from the Friary on top of the Hill of Slane. Could an overgrown mound behind the church be the grave of the man who legend says cleared the site for these famous tombs? (Click through for a better resolution view.)

You can wander around the church and friary/college on top of the Hill of Slane all morning without noticing the mound known as “the motte” because it’s in a wooded area behind the church. I know I (who grew up in Co. Meath) didn’t even know it was there until I read about it somewhere or other. There now seems to be a very interesting project to investigate this mound under way. Archaeologists have been scanning the motte and its surroundings (an earth resistance survey) to discover what it’s made of (a cairn of rocks brought from elsewhere, a built structure, or a mound of local clay?) and detect any subsoil evidence of the remains of buildings on top. The resultant 3D mapping gives a great view of the physical features of the hill and suggests future locations to explore.

Going by the annals, it seems likely that there was an ancient grave of some importance on the hill: reputed to be the Fir Bolg king Sláine, from whom the hill gets its name. (Yes, that’s the same Sláine on whose legends the classic 2000AD comic was inspired. I daresay a generation of British and Irish megalithomaniacs had their imaginations kick-started by that story.)  The type of grave this may have been (cairn, passage tomb, dolmen, etc.) we don’t know. Likewise, whether  that grave site was later exploited to build a Norman motte and bailey-type fortified position or whether the church was originally built on the tomb site is unknown. It seems the use of the motte as a fortified position dates from around 1170AD, but the mound now known as the motte could be much older.  Sláine was reputed to have cleared the site for Newgrange, which would place him circa 3200BC.  However, the preliminary earth resistance survey results from this project are intriguing, suggesting that the mound is man-made and revealing a second earthwork (possibly a ring barrow dating from 2500BC–although all dates seem approximate at this stage in the project) partially overbuilt by a rath surrounding the motte. Given the history of adaptive re-use of sites with strategic or symbolic significance by successive cultures in Ireland, there certainly seems to be a strong case for further investigation.

Fieldwork has been ongoing since 2010, so this is a project to bookmark and watch for future discoveries.

Links:

2010 Research « The Hill of Slane Archaeological Project.

If you visit Ireland in search of fairies and ancient stone tombs, you would do well to read Signe Pike’s Faery Tale first.

Broadly speaking, there are two camps into which depictions of fairies can be divided: the cute and the capricious.  Hollywood has done the first to death; after all, fluff and feathers seems to be what sells on the aisles of Toys-R-Us. The other view is what I think of as “real” fairies, the sídhe of Celtic myth and legend: unpredictable, inscrutable, and dangerous. The first is often the one that seduces us as kids, and most people never realize there’s another altogether more plausible type. In her unusual memoir, Faery Tale: One Woman’s Search for Enchantment in a Modern World, Signe Pike uses the spelling faery to indicate the darker creatures of myth and legend, rather than the fluff of popular culture.

A fairy ring is any free-standing circle of trees. In Ireland, most farmers will not cut them down even when they take up valuable space in a field. Signe Pike tells a tale of one ring frequented by a faery disguised as a big black dog. The ring was eventually bulldozed, but decades later a large black dog can regularly be seen where the ring once stood. (Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

Having grown up in rural Ireland, I’ve always been more in tune with the darker faery stories (perhaps because my childhood home is literally equidistant between a fairy ring and an old churchyard) and really only caught up with the world of Disney fairies after becoming a dad. So, Pike’s focus on authentic faery lore interested me, and her skeptical but still eager to believe perspective struck a chord. She was quite concerned that she might encounter bad “spirits” in some of the hot spots of faery lore, and this serves to both make the reader warm to her voice and hints at possible drama later in the book.

In case you’re not familiar with the caprice of non-Disneyfied faeries, there’s a chilling short story (one of my favorites) by Sylvia Townsend Warner (“Stay, Corydon, Thou Swain” in her collection The Music at Long Verney) about a man in a small English village who goes cycling with an attractive young woman from his draper’s shop. Mr. Mulready is obsessed with a piece of church music about nymphs. He wanders around thinking about them, wishing to meet one, and abruptly realizes a young women who works for him embodies his ideal of a nymph. They come upon a wood and stop to rest. Up to this point, the reader suspects this to be a tale of an older man seducing a young woman, although Mr. Mulready does not act particularly lecherous. The woman, whom he thinks of as his nymph, hardly speaks, except to declare that she is perfectly happy in the woods. As Mr. Mulready starts to leave, the nymph stops at a blackthorn tree (an auspicious tree in Celtic lore) and simply vanishes, the implication being that she was a fairy living for a time in the human world and has now made the decision to return to her realm. The man is left devastated because he knows she will be regarded as a missing person, and as he, her employer, was seen by the inhabitants of the small town walking into the woods with her, from then on he’ll be regarded as a killer and his life as he knew it is over. It’s a devastatingly sudden twist and powerful ending. (Sylvia Townsend Warner published one standalone collection of her faery stories, Kingdoms of Elfin. It’s sadly out-of-print, but brilliant. Her faeries are not your average faeries.)

The nymph in Warner’s story is not evil, she’s simply being true to her nature without thought for what that might mean for anyone in the human realm. The real faeries of the British Isles do things for their own reasons. There is often a price to be paid by mortals who get involved (no matter whether deliberately or accidentally) with Faery, and this is the world of magic, mystery and sticky ends that Pike is both fascinated with and frightened by.

After a close encounter with a mysterious creature and learning about Los Aluxes (Mexico’s equivalent to faeries) on a trip to Cancun, Pike’s childhood interest in fairies is fully reawakened. A couple of years later, she finally takes a long-planned trip to the British Isles to check out some of the famous sites of faery lore. Along the way she sprinkles in stories of her friends, fellow seekers, and the people she meets along the way. Faery Tale is a winning, curious story of discovery and mystery; one can really feel Pike’s excitement as she describes sitting in a dark garden in Glastonbury inviting fairies to make themselves known, and her fear as she gets lost in a forest on the Isle of Man and comes across a derelict house with an aura of evil about it.

As somebody who’s spent years exploring old ruins and overgrown tombs, I was very interested in what Pike writes about the etiquette of exploring faery sites. She asks leave from the spirits of a place before entering and believes that everything that lies within a fairy ring or grotto belongs to the faeries, and should be left there. I’ve always refrained from souvenir collecting out of a belief that ruins belongs to us all and should be left as found for the enjoyment of the next visitor, but I’ll be careful in future to make the point to my kids that even the odd rocks and beautifully colored leaves belong to the spirits of a place (as I think of them — Pike would call them faeries, and there’s probably no real difference) and should be left alone. I think that’s a good practice whether one believes in faeries or just wants to respect the dead. Happily (or luckily) we’ve long been in the habit of leaving gifts for the fairies, as we’ve been building fairy houses in the woods or wherever seems to need one for years (mainly thanks to Tracy Kane’s wonderful picture booksFairy House, etc.).

I read the first 200 pages of Faery Tale in one sitting and came away amazed this book wasn’t topping bestseller lists and being devoured by every Eat, Pray, Love devotee. The freedom she expresses while following her dreams and discovering places she’d only read about before is infectious, and you really want her to succeed, to encounter faeries and get some answers. However, the next day I came back to finish the book and discovered why it hasn’t crossed-over to the mass market. Pike’s travel writing is for the most part wonderful: she tells the stories of her encounter in Mexico, her pilgrimage through England, over to the Isle of Man with charm and immediacy. There are many serendipitous encounters and happy accidents along the way and one can easily believe she was being led from one discovery to the next by an invisible hand. When she tries to sum up her travels and reach some kind of conclusion, she falters. It’s clear that although she has had several encounters with unexplained phenomena or creatures, which I’m happy to call faeries, she’s still searching for understanding, for answers.

Pike seems to feel compelled (perhaps by the conventions of the memoir format, or perhaps by the dictates of her editor) to offer up some conclusions, synthesize some wisdom gleaned from the journey, and that falls flat. It feels as if she doesn’t believe she’s found enough answers yet, and for me it would have been perfectly acceptable for her to acknowledge that she still has questions, still seeks to know more, but has moved away from the skepticism and suspicion she first felt. The journey as the all-important process may be a hackneyed given of self-help books, but it’s still completely true and would have been a fitting conclusion to this absorbing chronicle of Pike’s journey into faery lore. Still, that doesn’t spoil the rest of the book for me, and I can honestly recommend it to anyone interested in faeries, celtic lore or travel in the British Isles.

After reading Faery Tale, I’m investigating my own trip to the Isle of Man in order to see some of the places Signe Pike brilliantly describes. And, though I’ve spent decades exploring old Irish ruins and tombs, I think her influence will make me a little more mindful of the spirits of a place, whatever one chooses to call them.

An old Abbey near my family home In Ireland. The picture was taken last June, but I didn’t notice the purple blur at the bottom left until after I read Faery Tale and checked out some of Pike’s photographic evidence on her blog (link below). I suspect this is “just” lens flare, but could it be a something else?

Lens flare or faery?

Notes

Signe Pike’s website

Faery evidence Pike collected on her journey…

Are the roots of Halloween traditions Irish?

If you look into the traditions beyond the supernatural window dressing of Halloween, many of them focus on reinforcing the ties between community members. Ties which would have been vitally important before industrial agriculture with the winter starting and with it the possibilities of food shortages, illness, the approach of storms, etc. — not that they’re any less important now.

Photo credit: Strathclyde Fire & Rescue

Bonfires

The bonfire was the center of the Samhain celebrations in the Celtic lands during the early Christian era. Some traditions had every house in a village extinguish the fires in their own hearths (possibly to make them less inviting to roaming spirits) and relight them with burning embers from the communal bonfire (which they may have brought home in hollowed-out turnips). The message was clear: we’re all in this together.

Another tradition has it that two bonfires should be set up a short distance apart and the villagers’ cattle herded between them for good luck. I’ve also read that this tradition was also practiced during the midsummer festival/St. John’s Night, so perhaps it was something that was customary at both the midpoint and start of the Celtic year, or just a practice that people began repeating as the original reasons behind it were lost?

When I was a child, people sometimes added a guy to the Halloween bonfire, but that was inspired by Guy Fawkes Night/Bonfire Night (Remember, remember the 5th of November…) and had nothing to do with Halloween or Samhain. Kids just like to burn stuff.

Jack-o-Lanterns

Turnips were originally carved and a candle or glowing ember placed inside. Pumpkins only came along after the New World was settled.

There appear to be several stories that explain the “jack-o-lantern.” One is that it was used to carry that burning ember from the bonfire back to a family’s cottage. The other is that the boys who went guising (“disguising”) — the medieval English tradition of going from house to house begging for soul-cakes (now known as hot cross buns) in return for prayers for the souls of the dead — would carry one, either to light their way or as something that was symbolic of the dead.

Guising (also known in Ireland as “souling”) — which obviously evolved into trick or treating — was common from the middle ages on, and I believe it still goes on in parts of Scotland. Why they needed to be disguised is less clear: perhaps as a protection in case the vengeful dead were looking for you, or perhaps to allow the dead to infiltrate their ranks and enjoy a night partying as if they were alive once again? Again, the tradition would seem to be something that reinforced social connections and the shared history of the community.

It’s notable that in Ireland and Scotland, treats were given in return for performance (a song or a story) which is in keeping with traditions like the curaid (the circuit) and general respect for storytelling and musicianship.

What are the true Celtic roots of Halloween?

Halloween, or Oíche Samhna in Irish, perplexes me. Read any wikipedia or general-interest article about the holiday and you find tradition heaped on tradition: Christian rite on pagan festival, local Scottish habit projected onto other nations, early-Christian folklore labeled as Druidic belief, and modern-day pagan reinvention regarded as ancient rite. As somebody whose chief interest is in what old Celtic beliefs really were, it’s hard to cut through the layers of tradition that have grown up around Halloween and come to be repeated endlessly as “fact.”

The popular imagination (and those ubiquitous articles) generally assumes Halloween to have ancient roots from pre-Christian times, yet when you poke into the origins of the major features of the festival, they appear to have largely begun during the medieval period.

The site of the Banqueting Hall on the Hill of Tara, Co. Meath — One of the tales in the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology tells how Tara was burned every Samhain by Áillén the Burner, one of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, before he was kiled by Fionn, who then became leader of the Fianna.

Mythological Origins

In ancient Irish mythology, Samhain (pronounced Sow-an) is a feis at the beginning of winter (or, translated literally, at the end of summer — indicating that then, as now, we Irish had a tendency to see the glass as half-full).

There are tales of Irish kings and warriors having grand feasts and (as usually happens when a lot of men get together for a serious drinking session) starting big fights or being goaded into doing stupid things. No jack-o-lanterns, no bonfires* beyond that required to keep warm, and no mention of the dead roaming the land.

However, while Irish society was very tradition-oriented, we should remember that the chiefs and great warriors were a class apart in this society. There’s no reason why they should not have had their own private drinking session distinct from the general Samhain celebrations.

*Although, there is tale in the Fenian cycle which tells how Áillén the Burner, one of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the gods of the Irish Celts (or possibly pre-Celtic Irish, depending on how you interpret origin myths written down by hostile Christian monks) caused havoc by burning down the King’s dwelling on the Hill of Tara every Samhain until Fionn defeated him. Was this an early “trick” or the start of the tradition of supernatural beings running amuck on Samhain?

Odd carving found in the 8th Century Churchyard on Inis Mór, Aran Islands. Is this a trickster figure, a breaded man, or an older motif?

Folkloric Origins

It seems to be accepted that Samhain was at heart an agricultural festival marking the successful harvesting of food, and probably involving or preceding the slaughter of cattle for the winter. Warriors likely didn’t spend much time in agricultural labor, so perhaps for the majority of people Samhain was a ritual celebration of harvest and less a manly drinking session (of this, more in the next post)…

Samhain is definitely a time of change; one has only to look at the trees to see that. Celebrated as the Celtic New Year (at least nowadays by new age pagans), Samhain is indisputably a “liminal” period when one year ends and the next begins, and a time when treachery and the intervention of supernatural forces are to be expected and feared.

Several Celtic warriors and kings seem to have met their downfall on Samhain or had the circumstances leading to that downfall set in motion, so it appears a little ironic that it was viewed as a day of peace in the heroic age. Of course, this does establish the tradition of gods and supernatural beings walking the land on Samhain; but it should be said that supernatural forces were always at work in the prehistoric age (i.e. before history was regularly — if not reliably — recorded) — so, perhaps Samhain wasn’t particularly unique in that regard?

Mouth of a passage grave at Carrowkiel, Co. Sligo. Tradition held that tombs opened on All Hallow’s Eve and the dead might visit the living.

To paraphrase something I read recently, these times of change from one thing to another (old year to new, life to death, singletonhood to married) are times of danger: you’ve opened the door to change and anything might come in. So although there may not be a wealth of canonical legend about the dead walking the land, there is plenty of folk tradition.

The sidhe were said to walk the land and people would leave food and milk for them. Others feared the spirits of the dead would rise up and visit their kin — even going so far as to leave windows open and offerings of food out for them. I’ve always regarded this as symbolic, but the discovery of 8th century zombies in County Roscommon makes me wonder. (Curiously, the 8th century was when the Pope moved to replace Samhain with the churchified feast of All Saints Day (the day after All Hallows Eve), so perhaps there was some genuine fear of the undead among the people and the Church’s action took advantage of this?)

I haven’t drawn any conclusions yet, but for now I’ll have to file it away under “must read more…”

 

Notes

A post about the history of jack-o-lanterns and bonfires…

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