Posted by: Brian | October 4, 2013

It was a Dark and Stormy Night…

“In the black season of deep winter a storm of waves is roused along the expanse of the world. Sad are the birds if every meadow plain, except the ravens that feed on crimson blood, at the clamour of harsh winter; rough, black, dark, smoky. Dogs are vicious cracking bones; the iron pot is put on the fire after the dark black day.”
~Anon. 11th century Irish~

Among the Celts, Samhain is the feast inaugurating the New Year, the beginning of winter, and a celebration of our ancestors. The veil is drawn aside and the gates of the Otherworld swing open. Modified by Celtic Christian practice, this day has become the Feast of All Saints, followed by the Feast of All Souls, for Catholics around the world.

Here in Canada, for pagans and non-pagans alike, this is a night, and even a whole season, of supernatural intervention, ghost stories, wonder tales and urban legends.

Some people rail against the traditional depiction of the witch at this season, but it is an image perfectly in tune with the season of growing darkness and cold. She is no mortal priestess of the Wicca, but a supernatural hag that embodies chaos, winter, cold and death; a creature of air and darkness that seeks to devour children, as surely as winter seeks to devour the youthful energy of summer. She is as in tune with this time of year as bunnies and eggs are with the new fertility of spring. By letting this ‘witch’ be monstrous, we let ourselves be scared by her stories. We can thus become aware of some of the anxiety our ancestors felt in facing the coming darkness; a stress that still dwells in each of us at some basic level. We can experience both a stronger affinity with the changing seasons and a cathartic release of that stress by participating in traditional stories of this Samhain/Halloween season.

Most of us, pagan or not, love to be scared by the witch and other monsters that go bump in the night. Even folks not usually interested in horror as a genre will often turn to it at this time of year. Popular culture has picked up what mythology dropped when mainstream religion lost its ability to convincingly describe darkness. Movies, novels, even video games, provide a deliciously exhilarating, vicarious, foray into darkness, returning us to ‘regular life’ either exorcised of our anxieties, or at least giving us forms to express them.

Popular culture is all well and good, but how else can we participate in the thrill-fest of late autumn spookiness?
First and foremost, I believe we should be concerned with celebrating Samhain well. After that, or as part of that, narrative is an important part of Celtic culture and pagan Celtic religion. This being the case there is no reason why we can’t both respect our ancestors and tell a Halloween-y ghost story or two.
In Ireland, Samhain is and has been a traditional time for exactly these kinds of tale – both as times for their telling and times they were supposed to take place. It was at Samhain that Finn defeats the fire-breathing giant, Aillenn, who each year, burned Tara to the ground. Finn’s adventure under Ciocha Anann (pr. ‘clee-cha an-onn’, with a ‘ch’ like loch), a sídhe mound, also took place at Samhain, as did the Adventures of Nera. Likewise, Mongfhionn – the villain of King Niall’s story – dies on Samhain, caught in one of her own traps.

One of my favorite ‘witch’ stories in old Irish lore is ‘The Death of King Muirchertach’ (pr. Moor-cher- tach, with a ‘ch’ like loch):
One day near Samhain, King Muirchertach was sitting alone on his hunting-mound when a woman in a green cloak approached him. She was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen, and he was overcome with desire for her.

He said he would give anything to have her, and being a king he had a lot to give.
She said she would go with him, on three conditions: that he never utter her name, that the mother of his children never be in her sight, and that the priests never be in the same house as she was. The king accepted these strange terms, and then so as to avoid uttering her names, he asked her what they were. The woman chanted many names: Sigh, Sough, Storm, Rough-wind, Winter-night, Crying, Wailing, Groan… her names were as loathsome as she seemed beautiful.
But the king did not take the hint and he brought his lover-to-be home, evicting his wife and the priests; and then, because it was Samhain, called for a great feast and celebration. For seven days they feasted and the woman sat at Muirchertach’s right hand, turning water into wine and ferns into pork. She entertained and terrified those gathered in the hall with phantasms of fighting armies, one army was blue the other was headless.

On the eve of the Wednesday after Samhain, unbeknownst to the king, the witch had summoned a terrible blizzard. The weather outside turned cold and foul, and the king commented to his paramour on this fact, “There’s a rough wind out there this winter night.”

The enchantress looked at him narrowly, “I am Winter-Night, and Rough-Wind.”, but she did nothing more.

Then he mentioned the storm again.

“I am Storm, O man, why did you say my names? I shall be your doom.”

‘Sigh’ cast a spell of sleep upon him, and in this enchanted slumber Muirchertach dreamt of burning and of drowning, the very deaths he inflicted on his grandfather years ago in seizing the kingship for himself.

‘Storm’ then rose up and set the house on fire.

When the king awoke he found the house in flames and ‘Groan’ had also surrounded it with a phantasmal army. Thinking they were his enemies from a rival clan, Muirchertach could not escape. Every door was blocked.

Unable to leave, he caught fire and, to avoid the flames, he climbed into a vat of wine. Drowning and burning, he was crushed as the flaming house toppled down upon him. And so, Muirchertach met his doom.

This is a simplified telling, but it is a beautiful story of terror and Otherworldly revenge visited upon a bad king. It is a story that makes the ‘witch’ both a power of winter and destruction and at the same time, the wielder of a sort of vigilante justice.
A short version of this story can be found in A&B Rees’s “Celtic Heritage” while a longer version can be found in Cross & Slover’s “Ancient Irish Tales”.

This, and other stories, could be included in your Samhain, your Halloween, or as a way of passing the time on dark and stormy nights.

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Responses

  1. Halloween means the Eve of All Saints Day. All Saints originated in Rome in the 8th/9th century, not in “Celtic Christianity” . The earliest accounts of an “Och Samhain” feast are in 11th/12th century myths written by Christian monks. Ireland became Christian during the 5th and 6th centuries.

    It is quite likely that the idea of a “Och Samhain” feast was borrowed by the monks from Christianity to spice up their stories. A description of the feast from one of the original myths is here http://www.luminarium.org/mythology/ireland/cuchulainnsick.htm
    Someone I know who has a PhD in early Irish literature said that in fact most Irish myths were deliberately created to provide their royalty with an heroic pedigree. They borrow quite heavily from Greek and Roman mythology

    • If the feast of the dead actually originated in Rome, it would have kept the Roman date of May 15, the change in the early ‘dark ages’ was to accommodate the conversion process in that part of the world. Here Celtic Christianity is not meant to denote a special separate praxis, just the Church of Rome in Celtic lands.


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