its silver ribbons of light bob and peek.
Gat-toothed Alysoun held seye by the hearth,
as her kinfolk gathered to hear her speak.
“Three nights before we’ve collected wicker,
the hollowman made and bonfires prepared.
Hilltops stand ready to light come morrow,
but this night spirits roam and fill the air.”
“The veil transcends thin the otherworld now,
best for divination and augery.
Cast your hazelnuts into the last fires;
Érie colleen, see who your husbands be.”
Each girl smirched their nuts with a suitor’s name,
then threw them into the hot fire ablaze.
Then watched to see which one would keep untouched,
as flames foretold the coming of their days.
Old Alysoun Múinim rocked in her stead,
her eyes flickered as she spun ancient tales.
The moonlight crept through the cloudbreak slowly,
and lit the room from a window then pales.
Her voice crackled and the flames leaped their bounds,
each time one of the nut casings would burst.
She seethed under her breath and the hearth hissed,
as she spake of omens and a new curse.
“A cruimther come into our sacred lands,
to convert and steal our identity.
His cross draped around his willowy neck,
with a dying man hung in effigy.”
“He mocks our gods and proclaims us witches,
and brings worship never known us before.
Saying we are doing some devil’s work,
then surplants our ways with strange foreign lore.”
“We were nearly driven out by Romans,
come ye round me now listen what I say.
In times to come we may not survive,
nearly forgot the Druì and their way.”
“The oak knowers long ago were all slain,
and their sacred groves lay silent in ash.
Our reminent are few in number now,
I see the Nos Calan Gaeaf growing rash.”
“As we mark the pastoral seasons well,
know that time brings in its bowels a change.
Hard days ahead and bonfires of old cease,
these lands are becoming sickened and strange.”
“Hede my warning for this may be our last,
come morn this priest commands his saints and mass.
Then Samhain will be remembered no more,
our ways gone as the clouds that quickly pass.”
Last Alysoun licked her licorice tooth,
put out her fire and scraped the resting char.
She stared fixed with grey bewildered eyes all,
then spake us never forget who we are.
“This night we honor our ancestors gone,
as we have done for a thousand Samhain.
Winter days darken and Laghnasa done,
and the priest renamed it Hallowe’en.
Image: Tlachtga (Hill of Ward), Athboy | Boyne Valley Meath, Ireland.
Note: Our modern celebration of Halloween is a descendent of the ancient Celtic festival called “Samhain;” meaning Summer’s End. Samhain was the first day of winter, and the end of one pastoral year. It was the time when the night became longer than the day, the last apples were picked, and the year began again with its dark winter half. Also called Samhiunn or Hallowe’en, this festival is sometimes called Trinoux Samonia or “Three Nights of the End of Summer.”
Originally a Druidic festival, it was celebrated on the eve of November 1 (October 31 – technically, either date is appropriate as the Celts measured the day from sunset to sunset.) It is balanced by Beltane (or Bealtaine, Beltaine) which signals the start of summer, 6 months later. The ancient Celts probably held them exactly mid-way between an equinox (when day and night were equal) and the following solstice (when the nighttime was shortest or longest).
In ancient times all of the fires of Ireland were extinguished and relighted from the one great fire kindled by the King’s chief Druid, on the hill of Tlachtga. Members of each family would light torches to carry back and rekindle their own hearth-fires, which were then kept burning the rest of the year. The assemblies of the five Irish provinces at Tara Hill, the seat of the Irish king, took place at Samhain. These gatherings were celebrated with horse races, fairs, markets, assembly rites, political discussions, and ritual mourning for the passage of summer.
Samhain is a time when the veil between this world and the Otherworld (or the Sídh,) was very thin, and divine beings, the spirits of the dead, and mortals can move freely between one world and the next. In some Celtic traditions, most notably the Scottish Highlands, young men would run the boundaries of their farms after sunset with blazing torches to protect the family from the Faeries and malevolent forces that were free to walk the land at night, causing mischief. Samhain was seen as a time when the future could most easily be predicted, and was a favored time among Druids for ritual fortune-telling.
As in other major Celtic Festivals, Samhain was a gateway, a celebration of the transition from one season and another. In Celtic mythology, at the heart of every gateway is a paradox. The threshold is literally between two worlds but is, in itself, in neither and in both at the same time. Thus Samhain belonged to both Summer and Winter…and to neither. It was the gateway to the winter, and a magical time of passage between the seasons.
As in many pastoral societies, winter was regarded with a mixture of anticipation and dread. Samhain was the last gasp of summer… a time of uninhibited feasting, dancing and celebration. It was a time of release; a time to let go of all unwanted baggage, fears and attitudes, just as the trees let go of their leaves. So the lives of men parallel the sacred cycles of nature.