Samhain in the Bronze Sword Cycles

Jack-o-lantern from 19th century Ireland. Photo: Wikipedia commons.

Samhain is the most famous of the four Celtic seasonal holidays because of its modern iteration as Halloween, or Hollow’s Eve, celebrated on October 31st. Its earliest attestation is from the 2nd century AD from what is now France, in what is called the Coligny Calendar. Variants of the tradition are attested throughout the Middle Ages in Ireland, and in later folk traditions, in England, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall – as well as in the USA, Canada, and elsewhere where people from Britain and Ireland settled.

The ancient, or at least, pre-industrial nature of Halloween and many of its traditions are well covered (see those two videos here, and here). However, a writer of Celtic heroic fantasy will certainly have something to say on October 31st!

The celebration of Samhain overlays the last harvest of the year before winter. In many cultures, this is an important celebration because winter is dark, cold, uncertain, and deadly. Samhain, originally being a pagan holiday of Celtic-speaking peoples, was the time when the sidhe (a.k.a fairies or fay) were most active. The sidhe, especially the spirits of the dead, were said to be able to enter this world on Samhain.

Samhain was also a celebration of the dead or the ancestors, and many of its celebrations resemble ancestral worship.

From Irish mythology as well as Scottish folklore, we do see some examples of the Celtic Gods active on Samhain. Lugus, God of crafts and a solar deity, defeats a giant on Samhain, representing the solar/order defeating the subterranean/chaos, a common theme in Indo-European mythology.

Another example of the Celtic Gods being involved in Samhain is that the Morrigan, a triple-goddess (that is, three parts) of war, doom, and death. On Samhain, she rides out of the Otherworld on a chariot from a very special place in Ireland, the cave of the cats. This represents the liminal time of Samhain, where this world and the Otherworld – realm of the sidhe, coalesce.

Entrance to the cave of the cats in Roscommon. It is a man-made shaft that leads to a natural cavern. Very muddy!

In the ancient Celtic world, and even in the agrarian pre-industrial era, Samhain was not simply a set of celebrations, but an understanding of the cosmos and the order of everything. Samhain represented the last harvest before winter, and therefore, the triumph of order over chaos.

In the Bronze Sword Cycles, the setting is set in ancient Scotland, on the island of Skye. The characters celebrate Samhain in the second book of the duology. Many of the traditions they celebrate are found in the folk traditions of modern-day Britain and Ireland, and English-speaking or western influenced countries. Just about any westerner would recognize some of the traditions, such as bobbing for apples and guising – which may have very well been practiced in ca. 200 BC during when the story takes place.

Vidav, the main character of the Bronze Sword Cycles and from where the narration stems, understands Samhain much different than you or I would. For him, and the rest of the characters, it represents a time of uncertainty.

In pre-industrial times, winter meant death. We could see from death records as well as archaeological evidence that people tended to die more in winter, and miscarriages and the death of infants was also more likely than in the warmer months. Samhain was a gateway, a period of transition, from the time of light to the time of darkness. However, Vidav also possesses the sight, the ability to experience the sidhe more so than anyone else. For him, the sidhe are not only real, but unavoidable and much more potent. Unlike many others in his culture, who believe in the sidhe, he experiences the sidhe more intensely, and they lurk actively in his life.

Here is an exert from the second book of the duology:

“He’s a rider of Samhain,” Antedios said. “Or like the Morrigan, only a man.”

Antedios, one of Vidav’s companions, is discussing Vidav mounted on what appears to be an undead horse. He compares Vidav to one of the riders of Samhain, or the Sluagh, the ride of the spirits of the dead in Celtic mythology.

Furthermore, he’s speaking both figuratively and literally about Vidav being a rider of Samhain. He then references the goddess the Morrigan, one of the Celtic deities associated with Samhain. When he says “only a man”, in reference to Vidav, that is a reference to both his sex and his status as a mortal, rather than the Morrigan, woman and immortal. I am obviously playing with the double meaning of the word “man” here.

On Samhain, Vidav experiences both the horrors of the sidhe, as well as a major change, more than summer turning to winter.

Happy Halloween!

#Heroicfantasy #Celtic #writers #writing #authors #amwriting #celticfantasy #historicalfiction #Samhain #Halloween

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