Samhain Lore & Poetry

From The Celtic Book of Days

by Caitlin Matthews

May wonder ever illumine your souls as the candle
does a room on a long, winter night,

May joy blow through your heart with the
intensity of the north wind in a blizzard,

May peace cover your lives like a blanket of
fresh fallen snow.

The Festival of Samhain begins the Winter half of the year. It was believed that the Cailleach – the aspect of the Goddess who appeared as an old crone – hit the ground with her hammer, making it iron hard until Imbolc…

The month of October-November is called Samonios, or Seed-Fall, referring to the falling nuts and seed-cases of Autumn…

Samhain is traditionally the quarter when the elders and ancestors are honoured and remembered. In many parts of the Celtic world, the ancestors and the faeries are one and the same. Scrupulous observance of faery pathways, dancing and gathering places is still upheld in Celtic lands by those who wish to stay in good relations with the unseen inhabitants of the Otherworld who live about us. It is considered the height of bad manners to build houses on such pathways or to remove faery trees, such as hawthorns…

This Irish poem laconically evokes the stark beginning of Winter:

My tidings for you: the stag bells,
Winter snows, Summer is gone.

Wind high and cold, low the sun,
Short his course, sea running high.

Deep-red the bracken, its shape all gone,
The wild goose has raised his wonted cry.

Cold has caught the wings of birds.
Season of ice – these are my tidings.

The (Welsh) Red Book of Hergest speaks of Winter:

The calends of Winter,
The time of pleasant gossiping.
The gale and the storm keep equal pace;
It is the work of the wise to keep a secret.

The death-watch was a Celtic method of divination still upheld in the West of England until the last century: to watch in the church porch at midnight, usually during Midsummer, New Year’s Eve or Hallow’een, to see the apparitions of those who would die in the parish in the next year…

The poems of the tenth-century (Welsh) poet, Llywarch Hen, lament the death of his twenty-four sons and his lonely old age:

White are the hilltops, wet the streams,
Midnight towers.
Every wise-one draws honour.
I deserve sleep in old age.

Loud are the birds, wet the gravel,
Leaves fall, the shelterless unsouled.
I do not deny that I am ill tonight.

Loud are the birds, wet the shore,
Bright the sky, wide the wave.
Heart withered from longing.

The FRITH, or Augury, was practiced in the Western Highlands of Scotland. The Seer, fasting, bare-foot and with closed eyes, took an augury of the coming season by standing upon the threshold on the first day of the quarter, with one hand upon either doorjamb. When she opened her eyes, she took her augury from what kinds of animals met her gaze: their colour, movement and kind foretold the Frith…

From the Irish Colloquy of the Two Sages, this ritual statement exemplifies the identity of the true Celtic poet:

I am the child of Poetry,
Poetry, the child of Reflection,
Reflection, the child of Mediation,
Mediation, the child of Lore,
Lore, the child of Research,
Research, the child of Great Knowledge,
Great knowledge, the child of Intelligence,
Intelligence, the child of Understanding,
Understanding, the child of Wisdom,
Wisdom, the child of the three gods of Danu.

The three gods of Danu are possibly Brian, Iuchar and Uar – the sons of the Goddess of Muses, Bridhid. Brighid is frequently associated with the Danaan ancestral Goddess Danu, or Anu – the ancestress of the Tuatha de Danaan…

The Northern Lights, or the Aurora Borealis, were called the Fir-chlisne, or “Men of the Tricks” by the Scottish Gaels; they were called the “Merry Dancers” as well. Their dance is rarely seen in Southern Britain…

During the period of Samhain with its long nights, communal entertainment enriched the cold and dark with fresh enchantment. Noson Lawen, or “a merry evening” is the Welsh equivalent of the Gaelic ceilidh, where neighbours assemble at day’s end to tell stories and sing songs until the wee hours of the morning…

Ganeida, Myrddin’s sister, is the priestess-sibyl who continues his prophetic work. She creates his Otherworldly retreat from which he watches the world. She was conflated, in later medieval tradition, with Nimue – a Lady of the Lake – who is said to have purposely enclosed Merlin, having gained his magical secrets. But Ganeida/Nimue is an echo of the ancient Celtic Goddess of the Doorway, who guards the gates of time and occurrence. She appears as the Goddess Ariadne in Merlin’s prophetic vision…

The Luideag, or “Washer at the Ford”, was an apparition that most warriors wished never to meet, as she was encountered on the eve of battle, washing out the bloody shirts of those to be slain the next day. Although she was feared, her action was a kindly one for, as an aspect of the Cailleach, she washed out the blood of one life into the river, making the garment of flesh pure once again, ready to assume a new life…

Cadair Idris is a mountain and natural boundary between Gwynedd and Powys. It is said that whoever spends a night alone on the summit will come down mad, blind or a great poet. The summits of many such eminences may well have been used in initiatory Bardic and Druidic rites as places of power…