SAMHAIN, SUPERSTITION AND SUPPERS FOR THE DEAD

samhain

As Samhain draws to a close for another year, it is a time to reflect on the origins of this pagan celebration and what it meant to those who, over centuries maintained the traditions and rites synonymous with this feast in Ireland.

Samhain (pronounced Sow-en) would begin at sunset on 31st October and end at sunset on 1st November, signalling the beginning of a new year.  It is one of four major celebrations during the Celtic year and signifies the end of summer.

This was a time when cattle were brought in and slaughtered for the winter months, the bitter cold and poor pasture leaving farmers no choice.

The ceremonies for Samhain were intertwined – the light and dark, protections against bad spirits and misfortune and a welcome for the dead to return.

As with Beltane, at the heart of Samhain is the customary communal bonfire. The fire was a protection ritual, to purge bad fortune and influence and to defend from harm during the long hard winter.

All house fires would be quenched, the central fire the only one alight. Each family would take a burning ember from the bonfire, carried in a hollowed out turnip and use it to reignite their own hearth, instilling the same protection and cleansing into their own homes and lives.

The bones of slaughtered cattle would be cast onto the fire as an offering for a good winter and objects symbolising wishes or ailments would be thrown on the flames, individuals hoping to be cured or receive their hearts desires.

Samhain is the time of year when the curtain between our world and the next becomes so fragile that the both the fairies and the dead can take a simple step between realms.

Many of the dead were welcomed back into the family fold with open arms, a place set for returning souls to sit at the table. This was known as a Dumb Supper and all living guests were to dine in silence, listening and watching for a word or sign from their dearly departed.

The fear for celebrants was that of course malevolent spirits could also cross over as could the Devil himself. These evil entities were thought to wreak havoc on the villages by making cattle sick and bringing disease to households so ‘guising’ would be carried out as a symbolic gesture to hide from those not wanted.

A typical costume was the Láir Bhán (White Mare) which would consist of a man covered in a white cloth, carrying a horse’s skull in his hands. He would lead a group of youths from farm to farm blowing on cow horns and asking for food.  Woe betide any farmer who refused for he would be cursed with bad luck for the coming year.

As well as the dead, homeowners had to contend with the fairies travelling abroad to create mischief on this most ethereal of nights. Gifts in the form of food or milk would be left on doorsteps to guarantee a fairy blessing.  Anyone foolish enough to not do so would be subject to pranks by the cheeky wee folk at best and victim to a fairy curse at worst.

It was these beliefs and traditions that led us to trick or treating and costumes in today’s Halloween, so a fistful of sweets for protection from mischief and misfortune is a small price to pay don’t you think?

HALLOWEEN SPECIAL: IRELAND AND THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE NIGHT

Dullahan

Every film and TV nightmare has a real beginning and Ireland is the place to find them. Here are the most well-known horror movie monsters brought to life!

WEREWOLF

Werewolves were often used as the weapons of the Ancient Celtic Warriors, sent out in battle to tear apart the enemy, their blood-curdling howls sending the cowards running. It is unusual therefore to find that The Vatican have documented a case from 1182, telling of a peaceful Christian Werewolf!

A priest was travelling to the South of Ireland who was sat by his campfire when a great hulking shape emerged from the still of the night, matted fur, dripping from its jowls, sharp pointed teeth glistening in the light of the fire.

The clan of this wolf man had been cursed by an Abbot some years earlier and every seven years two of his family would turn into werewolves and be banished into the forest.  The werewolf’s wife was dying and the priest delivered the last rites.  As his wife died she reverted back to her human form.  Despite his best efforts the priest was unable to ever again find the werewolf or his clan.

VAMPIRE

We have already heard about the female vampire, the Dearg Due, however long before that was the Chieftain Vampire, Abhartach from Derry. A cruel and sadistic warrior, he was finally slain by a rival clan and buried standing up as was the tradition.  The next night however, he was back inflicting more torment on the village than ever before.

Once again he was killed and buried, only to rise once more, draining the blood of his servants before terrorising the locals again.  Finally the rival Chief consulted a druid and took down Abhartach with a sword made of Yew, burying him for the last time head first, never to rise again, or so we are lead to believe.

WITCH

Petticoat Loose was a hideous beast of a woman from Tipperary. She was large, angular and over six feet tall with a strength to match her stature.

Her name came from her raucous behaviour while drinking and dancing and only one man would wed her.  She was named as a witch as the milk from her herd was said to turn blue when put in tea.  She was also accused of murdering her husband and died during a drinking game and so was buried without priest or ceremony.

Years later she would be seen at the roadside terrorising travellers by jumping on their carts.  One refused and she climbed on, stating she was weighted on every limb by magic.  The cart sagged and the horse dropped dead. A priest banished her to the mountain lake to empty it with a thimble, yet she still escapes now in the form of a half-human, half-horse.

EVIL LEPRECHAUN

Leprechauns don’t always wish you ‘Top of the Morning’ and willingly give up their gold. Some of them can be downright nasty, like the Red Man.

Dressed head to foot in red with a nasty yellow complexion, this magical being delights in evil mockery and torment, imparting evil waking nightmares on unwilling victims, making them believe they are carrying corpses and being forced to dine on old hags.

The only way to try and protect yourself is to cry out that you will not be mocked, however the Red Man’s magic is strong and this may not be enough.

HEADLESS HORSEMAN

The Dullahan is one of the Sidhe, or fairy beings. It is a headless horseman, with a steed of pure black, carrying its head beneath one arm.  When out on business, the Dullahan adorns his horse and wagon with funeral apparel and brandishes a whip made from a human spine. The wheels are made from the bones of men and he lights his way with candle filled skulls, the light illuminating the dark, beady eyes and rictus grin on his dismembered head.

Stay well away from this horrific sight, for if he stops in front of you, the gaping mouth says your name and you are dead.

ZOMBIE

In Roscommon in the eighth century, deviant burials took place outside of the cemetery walls. The bodies of several locals were unearthed with their limbs broken and folded in over their torsos, appearing to clutch a large rock embedded in their stomachs.

A pebble was wedged firmly in each jaw and they were buried in the opposite direction to the consecrated burials.  The reason?  These individuals were believed to be zombies, rising up to walk the earth, spreading fear and disease.

The pebble was to prevent the spirit returning, the mouth being the portal for an evil spirit to return.  The bones were smashed and body weighted with rock to ensure their feet never touched solid ground again.

HELLHOUND

Shucks, or Devil Dogs have long been written about in Irish history. They are black as the night, large, with glowing red eyes, some with cloven hooves instead of paws.

Primarily they are raised to protect treasure such as the one that breathes fire at Castle Biggs in Tipperary, others simply to forewarn of death.

BANSHEE

Banshees have forever been known as portents of death, however there have been sightings of these wailing spirits seeking death for revenge and torment.

This evil being has the appearance of a wretched old hag, dress shredded, matted grey hair, pointed rotting teeth and long, yellow fingernails. If she sets her mind to have you as her prey, she will stalk you, forcing you to listen to her soul wrenching scream of despair until you go insane and your own soul is lost in the depths of her evil cry.

Of course of you are lucky, you will have a quick death by looking into her blood red eyes, filled with enough loathing and agony to kill you instantly.  For those who have been strong enough not to succumb to either? She will rip you to death with her bare hands.

So if you find yourself in Ireland, curled up by the fire watching the latest horror, remember – it could be happening for real just outside your window.

banshee