It is quite remarkable just how much influence the past has on our modern lives. When you scratch the surface of modern society the past often comes bursting through, a fact that some people can find quite disturbing. Nowhere is this more recognisable than our modern celebration of Halloween, when children (and some adults!) dress up in scary costumes and parade around the streets demanding treats. If we delve a little deeper into the past a much different tradition raises its somewhat quirky head.
The Celtic ritual year was divided into two halves – warm and cold. These periods were further sub-divided to mark the turning points of each of the seasons which resulted in four major annual religious festivals. The largest festival was known as Samain (pronounced sawain) which was celebrated at the beginning of November. This was equivalent to the Celtic New Year and marked the end of summer and the beginning of winter. However, the night before Samain was of great significance as it stood independently between the old and new years. This corresponds to the end of the grazing season for early pastoralist communities. Animals were gathered and slaughtered if they could not be maintained through the winter months. The result was a huge feast where meat (and probably weird alcoholic drinks) was more plentiful than any other time of the year.
Celtic or Iron Age society was incredibly suspicious and every aspect of life was imbued with traditions and magical associations. These otherworldly influences were strongest at Samain when the tribes fortunes for the forthcoming year would be determined through the renewal of Spring and Summer. At this time the tribal god would unite with the goddess of nature to ensure the fertility and abundance of the people and the lands they inhabited. These gods and goddesses were deemed to occupy a kind of parallel universe to human kind – the otherworld. On the eve of Samain however the boundaries between the human and supernatural worlds were believed to break down and the powers of magic ran riot. Magical warriors and monsters emerged from ancient mounds and tombs – the gateways to the otherworld – and assaulted mortal strongholds. Gods such as the Dagda, Morrígan, Nemain and Badb Catha got up to no good.
Recent archaeological work by Rubicon Heritage Services involved the excavation of a large number of fulachta fiadh in County Carlow. These sites are traditionally believed to represent ancient cooking sites. Rubicon’s findings indicate that they flourished in County Carlow between 3500 and 3000 years ago. One theory is that they are the result of seasonal slaughter and processing of animals before the winter – a kind of prehistoric abattoir. Could these sites be archaeological evidence for the beginnings of Samain (Halloween) in ancient Ireland?
It is quite incredible that this belief has survived as a tradition into modern times and resulted in the annual celebration that we now see marketed across the western world. It has resulted in a global industry and even a series of horror movies. So when you get the kids their Halloween masks this year remember that modern culture is a complex creation that wasn’t built in a day but manufactured through millennia of human experience.