Ancient Halloween Stories of Love and Lost

The evil powers that came out at Samhain lived the rest of the time in the cave of Cruachan in Connaught. This cave was called the “hell-gate of Ireland,” and was unlocked on November Eve to let out spirits and copper-colored birds which killed the farm animals. They also stole babies, leaving in their place changelings, goblins who were already old while still in the cradle, possessing superhuman cunning and skill in music. One way of getting rid of these demon children was to ill-treat them so badly that their people would come for them bringing the right children back. Another alternative was to boil egg-shells in the sight of the changeling, who would declare his demon nature by saying that in his centuries of life he had never seen such a thing before.

Brides were also stolen.

“You shall go with me, newly married bride,

And gaze upon a merrier multitude;

White-armed Nuala and Aengus of the birds,

And Feacra of the hurtling foam, and him

Who is the ruler of the western host,

Finvarra, and the Land of Heart’s Desire,

Where beauty has no ebb, decay no flood,

But joy is wisdom, time an endless song.”

“Land of Heart’s Desire” – W. B. Yeats (1865 – 1939)

Ailill and his queen Medb lived in the first century BC. As they were celebrating their Samhain feast in the palace, they offered a reward to the man who should tie a bundle of twigs about the feet of a criminal who had been hanged by the gates. It was dangerous to go near dead bodies on November Eve, but a bold young man named Nera dared to do it and tied the twigs successfully. As he turned to go he saw

“the whole of the palace as if on fire before

him, and the heads of the people of it lying on

the ground, and then he thought he saw an

army going into the hill of Cruachan, and he

followed after the army.”

“Cuchulain of Muirthemne”, Augusta, Lady Gregory (1852 – 1932)

Nera was married to a fairy woman, who betrayed her kindred by sending Nera to warn King Ailill of the intended attack upon his palace the next November Eve. Nera went to see Ailill bringing summer fruits with him to prove that he had been in the fairy sid. His purpose was to warn the king so that he could defend his people. However, the next November Eve, when the gates were opened Ailill entered and discovered the crown, took it away and plundered the treasury. Nera never returned again to the homes of men.

Nera was not the only one who married a fairy woman. In her previous life, queen Medb, the wife of Ailill himself, was Princess Etain of the race of the Tuatha and wife of Midir. She only remembered little of the land from which she came, and was never quite happy in her new existence.

“But sometimes–sometimes–tell me; have you heard,

By dusk or moonset have you ever heard

Sweet voices, delicate music? Never seen

The passage of the lordly beautiful ones

Men call the Shee?”

“Immortal Hour”, – William Sharp (1855 – 1905)

swan-10410__340Another story of about the same time was that of Angus, the son of a Tuatha god. He dreamed of a beautiful maiden. He wasted away with love for her, and searched the country for a girl who should look like her. At last, he saw in a meadow among a hundred and fifty maidens, each with a chain of silver about her neck, one who looked like the beauty of his dream. She wore a golden chain around her neck. She was Princess Caer, the daughter of King Ethal Anbual. King Ethal’s palace was stormed by Ailill, and he was forced to give up his daughter. On Samhain, Caer changed from a maiden to a swan, and back again the next year.

When the time came Angus went to the loch, and he saw hundreds of white birds there. Angus stood at the edge of the loch and he called to the girl, “Come and speak with me, O Caer!”

“Who is calling me?” Caer replied.

 “Angus calls you,” he said, “and if you do come, I swear by my word I will not hinder you from going into the loch again.”

She came to him. Angus changed to a swan and they flew away to King Dagda’s palace, where every one who heard their sweet singing was charmed into a sleep of three days and three nights.

In Derbyshire, England, torches of straw were carried about the stacks on All Souls’ Eve, not to drive away evil spirits, as in Scotland, but to light souls through Purgatory. Sometimes, one may briefly see the image of their lost loved ones.

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“‘Why do you wait at your door, woman,

Alone in the night?’

‘I am waiting for one who will come, stranger,

To show him a light.

He will see me afar on the road,

And be glad at the sight.’

“‘Have you no fear in your heart, woman,

To stand there alone?

There is comfort for you and kindly content

Beside the hearthstone.’

But she answered, ‘No rest can I have

Till I welcome my own.’

“‘Is it far he must travel to-night,

This man of your heart?’

‘Strange lands that I know not, and pitiless seas

Have kept us apart,

And he travels this night to his home

Without guide, without chart.’

“‘And has he companions to cheer him?’

‘Aye, many,’ she said.

‘The candles are lighted, the hearthstones are swept,

The fires glow red.

We shall welcome them out of the night–

Our home-coming dead.'”

“Hallowe’en”, Winifred M. Letts (1882–1972)

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“A voice of weeping heard, and loud lament“: The Death and Re-branding of Ancient Celebrations

THE great power which the Druids exercised over their people interfered with the Roman rule of Britain. Converts were being made at Rome when emperor Augustus forbade Romans to become initiated, Tiberius banished the priestly clan and their adherents from Gaul, and Claudius utterly stamped out the belief there and put to death a Roman knight for wearing the serpent’s-egg badge to win a lawsuit – a serpent’s-egg badge was an item of identification for an ancient Gaelic order of priests and sorcerers. Forbidden to practice their rites in Britain, the Druids fled to the isle of Mona, near the coast of Wales. The Romans pursued and slaughtered them in 61 AD. Not stopping there, the Romans proceeded to cut down the oak groves. During the next three centuries the cult was stifled to death to be substituted by the Christian religion.

“The lonely mountains o’er

And the resounding shore

A voice of weeping heard, and loud lament.

From haunted spring and dale,

Edged with poplar pale,

The parting genius is with sighing sent.

With flower-inwoven tresses torn

The nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.”

“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”, John Milton (1608 – 1674)

The miraculous power that the druids seemed to possess was rebranded as “black magic.”

cemetery-577226_1920.jpgIt was a long, hard effort to make people see that their gods had all the time been wrong, and harder still to root out the centuries old rite and symbol. Therefore, the old religions were never completely eradicated – they were rebranded and given new names. Midsummer was dedicated to the birth of Saint John and Lugnasad, the feast of the marriage of the ancient god Lugus, became Lammas. Although the fires belonging to these times of year were retained, their old significance was  reconsecrated or forgotten completely. The rowan, or mountain ash, whose berries had been the food of the Tuatha, now exorcised those very beings. The fires which had been built to propitiate the god and consume his sacrifices to induce him to protect them were now lighted to protect the people from the same god, declared to be an evil mischief maker. In time, the autumn festival of the Druids became the vigil of All Hallows or All Saints’ Day.

All Saints’ was first suggested in the fourth century in memory of all the saints, since there were too many of them for each to have a special day on the church calendar. A day in May was chosen by Pope Boniface IV in 610 for consecrating the Pantheon, the old Roman temple of all the gods, to the Virgin and all the saints and martyrs. Pope Gregory III dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s to the same, and that day was made compulsory in 835 by Pope Gregory IV, as All Saints’. The day was changed from May to November so that the crowds that thronged to Rome for the services might be fed from the harvest bounty.

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In the tenth century, St. Odilo, Bishop of Cluny, instituted a day of prayer and special masses for the souls of the dead. He had been told that a hermit dwelling near a cave

“heard the voices and howlings of devils, which

complained strongly because that the souls of

them that were dead were taken away from

their hands by alms and by prayers.”

“Golden Legend”, Jacobus da Varagine, (1230 – 1299)

This day became All Souls’. It is appropriate that the Celtic festival when the spirits of the dead and the supernatural powers held a carnival of triumph over the god of light, should be followed by All Saints’ and All Souls’. The church holy-days were celebrated by bonfires to light souls through Purgatory to Paradise, as they had lighted the sun to his death on Samhain. On both occasions there were Prayers – the pagan prayed to the lord of death for a pleasant dwelling-place for the souls of departed friends, and the Christian prayed for their speedy deliverance from torture. They both celebrated death – death of the sun, of mortals, of harvest, of crops, of sacred memories.

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“Had but your sight a spirit’s power, Ye would be looking, eye to eye, at a terrific company” : The Beautiful Elements of Halloween

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.

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“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.

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“Vertumnus and Pomona, an Allegory of Autumn”, Jan Pauwel Gillemans the Younger (1651 – 1704)

“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?”

“Metamorphoses”, Ovid

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,”

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“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.

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Fragment of a pillar; Set I in front of the god Osiris; 19th dynasty, ca. 1290 BC

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

men,

And the brightness of their smile was gone from upland, glade, and

glen.”

William Cullen Bryant (1794 – 1878)