The sun was the centre of many ancient religions as it marks work-time and rest, divided the year into winter idleness, seed-time, growth, and harvest. When the sun is away, it leaves the land in cold and gloom until it returns bringing the long fair days and resurrection of spring.
The Roman Goddess of fruits, Pomona (pomorum patrona, “she who cares for fruits”) lends us this harvest element of Halloween. She is represented as a maiden with fruit in her arms and a pruning-knife in her hand.
“I am the ancient apple-queen.
As once I was so am I now–
For evermore a hope unseen
Betwixt the blossom and the bough.
“Ah, where’s the river’s hidden gold!
And where’s the windy grave of Troy?
Yet come I as I came of old,
From out the heart of summer’s joy.”
“Pomona”, William Morris (1834 – 1896)
The best known story of Pamona came from Ovid, who says that, although she was wooed by many, she preferred to remain unmarried. Among her suitors was Vertumnus (“the changer”), the god of the turning year, who was in charge of the exchange of trade, the turning of river channel, and of the change in nature from flower to ripe fruit. True to his character, he took many forms to gain Pomona’s love. Now he was a ploughman (spring), now a fisherman (summer), now a reaper (autumn).
At last he took the form of an old woman (winter), and went to gossip with Pomona. After finding her averse to marriage, the old woman pleaded for Vertumnus’ success.
“Is not he the first to have the fruits which
are thy delight? And does he not hold thy
gifts in his joyous right hand?”
Then the old woman told her the story of Anaxarete who was so cold to her lover Iphis that he hanged himself and she, at the window watching his funeral train pass by, was changed to a marble statue. Advising Pomona to avoid such a fate, Vertumnus donned his proper form, that of a handsome young man. Pomona, moved by the story and his beauty, yielded and became his wife.
Pomona had been assigned one of the fifteen priests whose duty it was to kindle the fire for special sacrifices. She had a grove near Ostia where a harvest festival was held about the first of November. Then the deities of fire and water were propitiated that their disfavor might not ruin the crops. On Pomona’s day, thanks was rendered them for their aid to the harvest. An offering of first-fruits was made in August and, in November, the winter store of nuts and apples was opened.
Yuletide, an indigenous midwinter festival, lasts around two months, falling along the end of the modern calendar year between what is now mid-November and early January, celebrates the sun’s turning north. The end of summer was a time of grief for the decline of the sun, as well as a harvest festival of thanksgiving to the sun for having ripened the grain and fruit.
Samhain is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year. Traditionally, it is celebrated from 31 October to 1 November, as the day began and ended at sunset. It was one of the four seasonal festivals of the year, and the 10th-century tale Tochmarc Emire (“The Wooing of Emer”) lists Samhain as the first of these four “quarter days”. The tales say it was marked by great gatherings where they held meetings, feasted, drank and held contests.
In the same state as those who are dead, are those who have never lived, dwelling right in the world, but mostly invisible to most mortals.
“There is a world in which we dwell,
And yet a world invisible.
And do not think that naught can be
Save only what with eyes ye see:
I tell ye that, this very hour,
Had but your sight a spirit’s power,
Ye would be looking, eye to eye,
At a terrific company.”
“Halowe’en“, Arthur Cleveland Coxe (1818 – 1896)
Samhain was also a time when the doorways to the Otherworld opened, allowing supernatural beings and the souls of the dead to come into our world. The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn says that the sidhe (fairy mounds or portals to the Otherworld) “were always open at Samhain”. Each year the fire-breather Aillen emerges from the Otherworld and burns down the palace of Tara after lulling everyone to sleep with his music. One Samhain, the young Fionn mac Cumhaill is able to stay awake and slays Aillen with a magical spear, for which he is made leader of the fianna. Acallam na Senorach (“Colloquy of the Elders”) tells us how three female werewolves emerge from the cave of Cruachan (an Otherworld portal) each Samhain and kill livestock.
An account written by Julius Caesar speaks mainly of the Celts of Gaul, dividing them into two ruling classes; the knights, who wages war, and the Druids who had charge of worship and sacrifices, and were in addition physicians, historians, teachers, scientists, and judges.The name “Druid” is derived from the Celtic word “druidh,” meaning “sage,” connected with the Greek word for oak, “drus,”
“The rapid oak-tree–
Before him heaven and earth quake:
Stout door-keeper against the foe.
In every land his name is mine.”
“Battle of the Trees“, Taliesin (534 – 599 AD)
The animal sacred to the Druids was the cat. “A slender black cat reclining on a chain of old silver” guarded treasure in the old days. For a long time cats were dreaded by the people because they thought human beings had been changed to that form by evil means.
When the year was over, and the sun’s life of a year was done, it was at this time that the sun fell a victim for six months to the powers of winter darkness. In Egyptian mythology one of the sun-gods, Osiris, was slain at a banquet by his brother Set. On the anniversary of the murder, the first day of winter, no Egyptian would begin any new business for fear of bad luck, since the spirit of evil was then in power.
From the idea that the sun suffered from his enemies on this day grew the association of Samhain with death.
“The melancholy days are come, the saddest of the year,
Of wailing winds, and naked woods, and meadows brown and sere.
Heaped in the hollows of the grove, the wither’d leaves lie dead;
They rustle to the eddying gust, and to the rabbit’s tread.
The robin and the wren are flown, and from the shrub the jay
And from the wood-top calls the crow, through all the gloomy day.
“The wind-flower and the violet, they perished long ago,
And the wild rose and the orchis died amid the summer glow:
But on the hill the golden-rod, and the aster in the wood,
And the yellow sun-flower by the brook in autumn beauty stood,
Till fell the frost from the cold clear heaven, as falls the plague on
And the brightness of their smile was gone from upland, glade, and
William Cullen Bryant (1794 – 1878)