Legend of Halloween…. a usurped Samhain?

The origins of Halloween come from the Celtic “Festival of the Dead” called Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween). This is the biggest and most significant holiday on the Celtic calendar and marks the New Year and the beginning of winter.

Celts believed that at the time of Samhain, more so than any other time of the year, ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living; because the souls of those who died during the year traveled into the otherworld during Samhain.

In much of the Gaelic world, bonfires were lit and people would often walk with their livestock between two bonfires as a cleansing ritual… bones of slaughter livestock were cast into its flames.  Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place at the table was set for them.

People also took steps to protect themselves from harmful spirits, which is thought to have led to the custom of guising.  It is said that the sidhe, fairy mounds and portals to the fairy world, were always open at Samhain.  Fairies were often thought to steal humans on this holiday and people took steps to ward-off these harmful spirits and fairies.  Fairy mounds were avoided, people stayed close to home and if forced to walk in darkness, they turned their clothing inside-out and carried iron or salt to keep the fairies at bay.  Offerings of food were left at the door for the fairies to ensure favor in the coming year.

Turnip lanterns, sometimes with faces carved into them, were common.  Their purpose is said to be threefold:  they were used to light one’s way while outside on Samhain night; to represent the spirits and otherworldly beings; and to protect one’s home from them.

Divination was also performed at Samhain.  The most common uses were to find out the identity of one’s future spouse, the location of one’s future home and how many children one might have.  Season foods, like apples and nuts, were eaten during these rituals.  Apple peels were used to divine the first letter of the future spouse’s name, nuts were roasted to predict if a couple would stay together and egg whites were used to tell how many children someone might have.  Children would also chase crows and divine some of these things from the number of birds or the direction they flew.

Christians, in an attempt to convert “natives”, effectively and majorly transformed the holiday.  In 601 AD, Pope Gregory the First issued the famous edict to his missionaries; if group of people worshiped a tree, rather than cut it down, he advised them to consecrate it to Christ and allow its continued worship.

While the method of converting holidays to facilitate conversion was effective, Celtic belief in supernatural creatures persisted.  To offset this, the church made these creatures not only dangerous, but malicious and followers of the old religion were branded as witches.

Through time, the old beliefs never died out completely.  All Hallows Eve is still a time of the wandering dead, but the supernatural beings are now all thought to be evil.

It is still common for children and adults alike to dress like these dreadful creatures; performing antics in exchange for food and drink.  To this day, witches, ghosts and skeletons remain among favorite holiday disguises.

Trick-or-Treat!

The Coming of the Tuatha dé Danann and The Myth of THE HARP OF THE DAGDA

It is said that when the fairy race of the Tuatha dé Danann, children of the goddess Danu, arrived in Ireland they came like a mist across the waters- bringing with them magical gifts.

The first generation of the Tuatha dé Danann had to fight off the giant races of the Firbolgs and the FormoriansFormorians The Formorians were a semi-divine race said to have inhabited Ireland in the ancient times. It is believed that they are the beings who preceded the gods, similar to the Greek Titans; having the body of a man and the head of a goat (according to 11th century text), or to have had one eye, one arm and one leg.

The Tuatha dé Danann’s chief of the gods, the Dagda, (father figure and protector of the tribe) was known to have a cauldron (which was said to restore life) and a harp- battle scarred and made of oak.

When his men went to battle, the Dagda would set up his magic harp and sweep his hand across the strings.  A war song would ring out making his warriors buckle his armor; brace his knees and shout, “Forth the fight!” When the men returned, weary and wounded, the Dagda would take his harp and strike a few chords- as the magic music stole out upon the air, every man forgot his weariness and his wounds and thought of the honor he won, and the comrade who had died beside him and the safety of his wife and children.

The Harp of the Dagda

So it was that after the second battle of Mag Tuiread (Moytura), the Dagda discovered that his harp, together with his harper, had been captured by the Formorians and taken with them in their flight.  Angered beyond measure, he set out with his son to reclaim it.

Stealthily they approached the Formorian camp.  Soon they could hear the sounds of the feasting hall in which Bres, the Formorian king, was dining.  Approaching the doorway, they could just make out through the smoke and candle-flame the outline of the old harp hanging on the wall.  Dagda entered boldly and summoned his harp with this chant:

 Come Daurdable, apple-sweet murmurer
Come, Coir-cethair-chuir, four-angled frame of harmony,
Come summer, come winter
Out of the mouths of harps and bags and pipes!

Immediately the old harp flew to his hand across the hall, killing nine men as it came.  A shocked hush fell on the company.  In the silence, Dagda laid his hands on the strings and unleashed the Three Noble Strains of Ireland that he had bound into his harp.  First he played the goltrai, or strain of weeping, so that all present began to mourn and lament their defeat.  Then he played the geantrai, the strain of merriment, so that the company turned to laughter and drunken foolery.  Lastly he played the suantrai, or sleep-strain, whereupon the warriors fell into a profound slumber.  After this the Dagda and his son left the camp as quietly as they had come, taking the harp and harpist with them.

The Tuatha dé Danann were the children of the great goddess Danu and are depicted as magical fairy people who were later overrun by the Milesians who allowed them to reside underground in the sidhe, or fairy mounds.  In folk belief the sidhe are often appeased with offerings and care is taken to avoid angering or insulting them.  Often they are not named directly, but spoken of as “The Good Neighbors”, “The Fair Folk”, or simply, “The Folk”.  They are generally described as stunningly beautiful, but can also be terrible and hideous.

The Rooster of Barcelos: A Symbol of Honesty, Faith, Fairness & Luck

The Rooster of BarcelasThe best known legend of Portugal is “The Rooster of Barcelos”.  This is an ancient tale spans as far back as the 13th century and tells the story of a pilgrim accused of stealing silver and sentenced to death.

According to the tale, the inhabitants of Barcelos were very upset about a terrible crime that had gone unsolved.  As alarm was growing, a pilgrim on his way to fulfill a promise had the bad fortune to pass through the city.

Being a stranger, suspicion immediately fell on him, even though he swore his innocence.  He was accused of the crime and condemned to be hung.

As he was being led to the gallows, he made a last request to be taken into the presence of the judge who condemned him.  His request was granted and he was brought to the magistrate’s residence during a dinner party.

The pilgrim swore his innocence before the unbelieving eyes of the judge and his guests.  Unexpectedly, the pilgrim pointed to the roasted rooster on the table and said, “I tell you now that as proof of my innocence, this cock will crow at the hour of my hanging.”

His proclamation was met with laughter and mocking comments.  Nonetheless, no one at the party dared to touch the rooster.

As the sentence was being carried out, the roasted rooster stood up on the table and crowed.  No one doubted the innocence of the condemned man and he was freed, just as the cord was tightening around his neck.

As legend goes, some years later, the pilgrim returned to Barcelos to sculpt the Calvary (or Crucifix) to the Lord of the Rooster (Portuguese, “Cruzeiro do Senhor do Galo“) in praise to the Virgin Mary and to Saint James. The monument is located in the Archeological Museum of Barcelos.

For centuries, this tale has stood for Honesty, Faith, Fairness and Luck.

  • Honesty because the pilgrim was innocent; he did not steal and expressed this truthfully.  This honesty was eventually rewarded by a miracle that saved his life.
  • Faith in the power of God; if it weren’t for the pilgrims pious faith, the story may have had a different ending for him
  • Fairness and refrain from believing unproven accusations and unjust snap judgments of our fellow-man.
  • Luck because it was a rooster that saved the pilgrim’s life.

Today this symbol is still regarded as Good Luck around the world.

Virgil’s THE GOLDEN BOUGH… Sibyl, Aeneas and Mistletoe??

The Golden Bough, written in the epic Aeneid, book VI, by the Roman poet Virgil (70 – 19 BC), narrates the adventures of the Trojan hero Aeneas after the Trojan War.

Aeneas finds the Golden BoughIn this tale the sibyl (prophetess) Deiphobe, over seven hundred years old, consents to escort Aeneas on a journey into the underworld to comply with his wish to see the “shade” of his deceased father.

Before entering Hades, she tells Aeneas that he must obtain the bough of gold which grows nearby in the woods around her cave; it must be given as a gift to Proserpina (the queen of the Underworld) in order to gain entrance into Hades.

In the woods, Aeneas’s mother, Venus, sends two doves to aid him in this difficult task.  With the assistance from his mother’s doves, Aeneas finds the tree holding the Golden Bough.  When Aeneas tears off the bough, a second golden one immediately springs up, which is a good omen, as the sibyl had said that if this did not happen the coming endeavor would fail.

Aeneas, the Sibyl and Charon

Aeneas, the Sibyl and Charon- by Guiseppe Maria Crispi

Soon after they start their descent into the Underworld, the sibyl shows the golden bough to the ferryman (Charon) who only then allows them to enter his boat and cross the Stygian river.  On the other side, she casts a drugged cake to the three-headed watchdog, Cerberus, who swallows it and falls asleep.

Once in the Underworld, Aeneas puts the golden bough on the arched door of Pluto’s palace (the Ruler of the Underworld) and goes through to the Elysian Fields, the abode of those who led just and useful lives.

Aeneas finally locates his father in the green and sunny Elysium and attempts three times to hug him, but has no success as his father’s shade is like thin air, or empty dreams.

In spite of this, they have a happy encounter and Anchises (father of Aeneas) tells his son a about the nearby river Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, on the other side of which are a multitude of spirits waiting to be born on Earth- many of whom would live in the future Roman Empire such as Romulus, Camillus, Fabillus and Caesars. The Ivory gate, one of the gates of “Sleep” returns the party to Earth.

The Golden Bough was written during the Golden Age of the Roman Empire under the auspices of Caesar Augustis.   Some believe the symbol of “The Golden Bough” refers to mistletoe; as popular superstition cast a mystic glamour on the plant that “blazed into supernatural golden glory”.

It has been believed throughout history that a tree hosting a mistletoe plant was a tree marked as particularly sacred by the gods; its golden color associated with the sun.  It has also been widely believed that mistletoe takes on the properties of its host tree (it actually feeds on its host) containing its essence and power.

Mistletoe has been considered sacred for centuries.  It was a Scandinavian custom that if enemies met under a mistletoe bearing oak tree, they would lay down their arms until morning.  Druids cut mistletoe following the winter solstice and distributed it among the people to hang over their doors for protection against evil in the coming year.

Today, we still hang this mysterious “Golden Bough” from our doorways, as Aeneas and the Sibyl did when entering the gates of Hades, to protect us, and provide good luck in the coming year.