by Kelly R. Smith
We tend to think of Halloween as a holiday of its own accord. But that is simply not true. Just as Christmas traditions and celebrations have connections to the winter solstice and Easter has merged with pagan spring celebrations and has connections to the Jewish Passover, Halloween is based on the Irish myths of Samhain. It is called Oíche Shamhna in Irish Gaelic.
What is Samhain?
As the the Celts understood it, the year was divided into two parts. The “lighter” part was in the summer and the darker part was in the winter. Samhain, or Halloween as it is now called, was the separation between these parts. They believed that the veil betwixt our world and the otherworld was at its thinnest just then. Oíche Shamhna (October 31) is Halloween and Lá na Marbh (November 1) is the Day of the Dead, or All Saints Day when those who have passed away are remembered.
Irish Myths of Samhain
- Fionn MacCool. According to one of the several tales told in the “Tales of the Elders,” each year at Samhain for twenty-three years the fire-breathing creature Aillen would lull the men of Tara to slumber and then burn the court to the ground during the night. The young hero Fionn MacCumhail avoided sleep. He stuck the sharp end of his spear into his forehead (ouch!) and killed Aillen with that spear. Because of this act, he was made the head of the Fianna.
- Queen Maeve. As written in In the ancient Irish epic poem “Tain Bo Cualigne,” the legendary Queen Maeve of Connacht waits until Samhain to begin the Cattle Raid of Cooley. In the course of her raid, which drives the plot of the epic, she tries to catch a prize bull of Ulster in order to equal the possessions of her husband Aillel. The hero Cu Chulainn single-handedly protects Ulster until the Ulster men’s birth pangs finish and they can do battle.
- Lugh. Arguably best known as Cu Chulainn’s father, the god of light arrives the court at Tara to join the Tuatha de Dannan at Samhain. According to Whitney Stokes’ 1891 volume “The Second Battle of Moytura,” as soon as Lugh enters the court, the Tuatha de Danann are oppressed by the Fomorians. After the high king gives him command over the Tuatha de Danna, Lugh begins preparations to overthrow them. After days of battle, Lugh and the Tuatha de Danna are victorious.
- Nera. The hero that calls Cruachan home undergoes a bravery test ordered by King Ailill. For the king’s own gold-hilted sword, a man must leave Ailill’s hall and go to the gallows where a man had been hung and then tie a twig around the dead man’s ankle. Others had attempted this and given up when spirits harried them. But on Samhain night, Nera finishes the task and the man comes alive and asks for a cup of water. When Nera fetches him the water, he sees the royal buildings burned to the ground and a woman from the fairy mounds informs him it is a vision that will happen if the people of the court are not warned. In one version of the myth cited in Patricia Monaghan’s “Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore,” he is captured by the fairies and held in a fairy mound until next Samhain.
- Emer. John T. Koch notes in “The Celts: History, Life, and Culture,” in the myth “The Wooing of Emer” Samhain is discussed a couple of times. The tale describes the courtship of the beautiful Emer, who is transformed into a variety of creatures before reuniting with her husband. Samhain is the first of the four “quarter days” mentioned by the titled heroine. Also in this story, Oengus claims the kingship of Bru na Boinne, what is today Newgrange, on Samhain.
So, these Irish myths of Samhain played a large part in the formation of we know today as Halloween. The celebration and traditions may have changed quite a bit, but it just goes to show the malleability of history and tradition. It’s a small world after all. Please participate in the poll located on the right-hand sidebar of this page.
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About the Author:
Kelly R. Smith is an Air Force veteran and was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation, financial, and energy-trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at I Can Fix Up My Home Blog where he muses on many different topics.