Fifth High Holy Day Explanation – Samhain

29 10 2013

Also known as Halloween or All Hallows Eve, Samhain is the festival on which the ancient Celts celebrated the end of the harvest season and the beginning of Winter.

At this time the earth appears to die, laying dormant through the dark cold times ahead. The leaves are changing colour and falling from the trees. The harvest has been collected from the fields and they lie empty. The livestock have been brought down from the pastures, the weakest animals have been culled for food and people return to their homes for feasting. Summer is over and winter begins. The days are getting much shorter and colder, the frosts have begun and animals are busy making final preparations for winter. Traditionally it was believed to be bad luck to harvest anything after this date and therefore any remaining harvest is left as an offering to deities or nature spirits. It was a time to give offerings to the gods in thanksgiving for the good harvest the people had.

Historian Ronald Hutton says “A feast with ritual practices…was…well known in both ancient Ireland and ancient Scandinavia, and represented by folk practices in the uplands of Wales and Scotland. There was, however, no common rite as there had been at Beltane.” He further states that “there seems to be no doubt that the opening of November was the time a major pagan festival was celebrated” but that there is no evidence that it was connected with the dead or that it was the new year. Rather, the association with the dead came through Christianity and the development of All Souls Day. However, it was a time to guard against and propitiate supernatural forces.

Samhain is the most widely mentioned festival in Irish mythology and the Gaulish Colignay calendar also mentions it as the end of the pastoral year. It is mentioned as the first festival in the Irish tale of Tochmarc Emire as “Samhain, when summer goes to rest.” It is the time when the Morrighan and An Dagda mate in a river for victory at the second battle of Magh Tuiredh, and it is a time to honour Donn, the father of the Irish race and chief of the sons of Mil. He is the Celtic lord of the dead, the dark one who was drowned in the battle to invade Ireland. He now dwells on a small island named Tech Duinn, the waiting place of the dead before they journey to the Otherworld. In contrast, Historian Peter Berresford-Ellis says that the god Bile is also a god of the dead who transports souls to the Otherworld. Another story related to this time of harvest is the story of why offerings are given to the Tuathe De Danaan. After the Milesians (ancient Irish) conquered Ireland from the Tuatha De Danaan, the land was divided up with the Milesians on the land and the Tuathe De Danaan under the ground. But the Tuathe continued to destroy the crops and stop cows producing milk so an agreement was reached with An Dagda so that the Irish offered a portion of their harvest to the Tuathe De Danaan in exchange for their friendship and blessing on the land. The Cailleach Bheur, the old hag of winter can also be honoured at this time.

Bede said october was named “Vuinter-fylleth” as it signified the beginning of winter, while November was named “blod-monath”because this was when the annual slaughter of livestock occurred to reduce the number of animals kept through the lean months. Hutton says that pagan Scandinavia held its own major festival at the opening of winter, called winter nights, on the saturday between 11th and 17th of October, but that there is no evidence this ever came to Britain.

For the ancient Celts who split the year into two halves, Samhain marks the transition from the summer half of the year to the winter half, from life to death. They believed that any time or place of transition was sacred. Just like Beltane, at this time the veil between this world and the Otherworld was at its thinnest and therefore the spirit world and human world could interact. As a night of liminality, transition, uncertainty, chaos and danger, it was believed that many otherworldly beings would be roaming on this night.

While there were fires lit in some areas on Samhain eve e.g. Scotland and Wales, this was not the case in Ireland, where Parshell Crosses were placed in the entrance to the house instead. Other practices at this time have included communal meals, candles being lit and prayers said for the dead, drinking and games, putting pieces of bread on windowsills for one’s ancestors, taking precautions against witches, divination by casting nuts into the bonfire to learn about death and marriage, carrying lights around in turnips and dressing up as monsters while causing mischief. It is also a time to sain and ward one’s property by walking the boundaries with fire and making rowan charms.

Gaelic reconstructionists avoid going out on this evening as the spirits as most active, or if they do, its in disguise. They light bonfires and carry flames around their property to protect and sain it. They carve turnip lanterns, hold big feasts, do divinations, give offerings to the gods and ancestors, leave food out for the dead and light candles for them. Its also a time to play games, sing songs and make a parshell cross.

ADF suggests that this is another spirit night, the feast of the dead, when the harvest is in and its time to give thanks. The cycle of death and rebirth can be celebrated as the ancestors feast with the living. Neo-pagans often celebrate this time with a dumb supper to honour the dead. For Norse reconstructionists, its a good time to honour Odin as the Norse god of the dead as well as the ancestors, especially the Disir.

It is traditional to celebrate this festival by eating a large feast of late harvest foods e.g. pumpkins, apples, nuts, root vegetables and barmbrack bread. It’s also the traditional time for remembering our ancestors and those we have loved and lost e.g. by visiting their graves and putting fresh flowers there. Personally, I build an altar and put photos and mementos of those I have lost recently on it. This year I have managed to get a few more mementos to add to the altar. I also put up my family tree. On Samhain eve I perform a ritual of remembrance, lighting a candle for each person I am remembering and holding a minutes silence in respect. I am also having a party with friends, decorating the house and eating traditional foods like Butternut squash soup, Colcannon (mashed potato with kale or cabbage), baked apples and gingerbread. I will do a house saining ritual, carve a pumpkin, and leave out a meal for the ancestors and porridge for the nature spirits. The nearest Celtic area to me is Cornwall and this time is celebrated there as Allantide, where it is customary to give an Allan apple to each family member as a symbol of good luck and children would often put it under their pillows. I will probably do that too if I can find some.

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

ADF. Our Own Druidry: An Introduction to Ár nDraíocht Féin and the Druid Path. Tucson: ADF Publishing, 2009.

 Ellis, Peter Berresford. A Brief History of the Druids. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2002.

Davidson, H. R. Ellis. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. London: Penguin Books, 1964.

http://www.tairis.co.uk/

http://www.gaolnaofa.com/festivals/

http://gaelicfolkway.webs.com/feiseannaomh.htm





Dedicant Path Week 22 – Fourth High Holy Day Explanation – Harvest Home

20 09 2013
English: Autumn fruits - hedgerow crab-apples

Autumn fruits (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Autumnal Equinox, also called Harvest Home, Mabon or Alban Elfed is a time of transition and change, a time of honouring the changing seasons and a time of reflection and thanksgiving. It is also a time of balance. The Autumn Equinox is the midpoint between the summer and winter solstices, when the day and night is of equal length and light and dark are balanced. It marks the beginning of the dark half of the year for the northern hemisphere, when nights are longer than days.

By the time of the Autumnal Equinox, the earth around us is showing the signs of the journey into winter – with later dawns and earlier sunsets, the weather is cooler and the leaves on the trees are turning wonderful colours. The animals are busy preparing for winter – squirrels collecting nuts and acorns while birds prepare to migrate to warmer climates. Most of the grain harvest has been gathered in and its now time to harvest the fruits – apples, blackberries, grapes, squashes and nuts, to preserve them for winter.

Historian Ronald Hutton writes that the end of the harvest was often celebrated in the medieval times with a harvest feast or supper and ceremonies involving the last sheaf of corn. It often involved a lot of drinking. According to Bede, September was called haleg-monath (holy month) and Hutton says “it can be surmised that this was derived from religious ceremonies following the harvest.”

I am not aware of any evidence or mythology to suggest that this day was celebrated by the Druids in ancient Gaelic cultures. However, there are a few ancient Irish temples which line up with the sun at the spring and autumn equinox which suggests they might have considered the day sacred. It is also very close to the time of Michaelmas which may have absorbed previous festivities in ancient Irish culture at this time, for example – picking carrots on the eve before, an emphasis on giving to charity and the beginning of the apple harvest and hunting season.

In modern times, Druids honour the Green Man of the forest by offering cider libations to trees. It is also good to celebrate this time by visiting an orchard to pick apples, making jams and cider or eating a meal of autumnal fruits and vegetables. ADF suggests that this is the time of the harvest, of reaping and gathering in. For Norse reconstructionists, it is the time to honour Thor and Sif as gods of the weather and harvest. Meanwhile Neo-pagans celebrate it as a day of balance, when the night and day are equal and nature is declining.

For me, this is a time to give thanks for the abundance of nature. It is a time to party and celebrate with all the wonderful food that is around. It’s one of my favourite times of the year because its so beautiful at this time as the leaves are turning. I love to decorate my altar with fruits, vegetables, nuts and leaves, as well as making leaf garlands to hang around the house. I will be celebrating by making cider, drinking lots, honouring An Dagda (as he is the god of the earth and abundance in ancient Irish culture, as well as the one who turns the seasons) and making an Ogham set.

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

ADF. Our Own Druidry: An Introduction to Ár nDraíocht Féin and the Druid Path. Tucson: ADF Publishing, 2009.

Cunnigham, Scott. Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, Minnestota: Llewellyn Publications, 2003





Dedicant Path Week 14 – Third High Holy Day Explanation – Lughnasadh

31 07 2013
Four loaves.

Four loaves. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lughnasadh/ Lammas is one of the four ancient Celtic Fire Festivals mentioned in the Irish tale of Tochmarc Emire and is held on 1st August each year. It celebrated the beginning of Autumn, a time that ushers in the end of hunger and a bountiful abundance of crops. It is the first of three harvest festivals – that of the grains and potatoes (since they have come over from America). On this day we celebrate the first fruits of the season.

For the ancient Irish, Lughnasadh was named after the god Lugh, the Fair One, and is the only festival to be named after a deity. However, he is not a god of the harvest, but rather “a patron of all human skills with a special interest in kings and heroes.” It was said to have been started by him as a funeral feast and sporting competition in commemoration of his foster mother, the goddess Tailtiu, who died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. Historian Peter Berresford-Ellis says it was “an agrarian feast in honour of the harvesting of crops.” The festival evolved into a great tribal assembly where legal agreements were made, political problems were discussed and huge Olympic-style sporting contests were held. It was a time of peace and was also one of two festivals where hand-fastings have been traditionally held.

Anglo Saxons also held their feast of Lammas at this time. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle refers to it as “first fruits” and historian Ronald Hutton says that it was customary at this time to reap the first of the ripe cereals and bake it into bread. This is why the festival was known as Lammas or Loaf-mass. Hutton states that “it would seem very likely, therefore, that a pre-Christian festival had existed among the Anglo-Saxons on that date” and “the same feast was…celebrated in different ways and under different names all over Celtic, Saxon, or Norse Britain.” He goes on to say that in the middle ages this was an important time for holding fairs, paying rents, electing local officials and opening up common lands. For Anglo-Saxon and Norse pagans, it is a time to honour Freyr as a god of peace and plenty.

Following historical practices, Celtic reconstructionists celebrate this day with games and races, visiting fairs, giving offerings to the gods and spirits and generally being thankful for the harvest. The first fruits of the harvest are taken home and pilgrimages are made to sacred sites, hilltops and water sources where bonnachs, flowers and garden produce are left. Cheese is made, bilberries are picked and the first potatoes are pulled up. It is a time to feast on potatoes, bread and berries.

ADF calls this the Feast of the Warrior and suggests that it is a time for warrior games, martial prowess and equestrian activities. It is also the time when the Thing was held in Iceland.

Lughnasadh or Lammas is a time to be grateful for the food on our table and to remember that the hot days of summer are coming to an end as we approach the cold part of the year. It is the time to briefly rest before the hard work of reaping what has been sown begins. It’s traditional to celebrate this time by making corn dollies, baking bread, holding sports competitions, selling your crafts at summer fairs and having bonfires on hilltops. Offerings are given to Lugh or Freyr in the hopes of a good harvest. I will be celebrating this festival by doing an ADF ritual honouring Lugh, making some bread, drinking elderflower cordial, spending time in nature and going to Dartmoor to pick bilberries.

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

ADF. Our Own Druidry: An Introduction to Ár nDraíocht Féin and the Druid Path. Tucson: ADF Publishing, 2009.

Albertsson, Alaric. Travels through Middle Earth: The Path of a Saxon Pagan. USA: Llewellyn Publications, 2009.

Ellis, Peter Berresford. A Brief History of the Druids. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2002.

http://www.tairis.co.uk

http://www.gaolnaofa.com/festivals/

http://gaelicfolkway.webs.com/feiseannaomh.htm





Dedicant Path Week 11 – Second High Day Explanation – Litha

20 06 2013
Sunrise over Stonehenge on the summer solstice...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Summer Solstice, Midsummers Eve, Litha, Alban Heruin – there are many names for this day and it has been celebrated by almost every culture on earth. Although not one of the four great fire festivals, the day was probably celebrated by the Druids and its quite possible that places like Stonehenge were used by them at this time. On the Isle of Man, there is a tradition of “paying rent” to the patron of the island, and Celtic god of the sea, Manannan Mac Lyr on this day, by offering him bundles of reeds, meadow grasses and yellow flowers, along with prayers for aid and protection in fishing. The other deity related to this time is the goddess Aine, the Irish goddess of summer, love, fertility and sovereignty. She is sometimes seen as the wife or daughter of Manannan Mac Lir, and is the queen of fairies because this is traditionally the night when they come out and join in celebrations. Aine is honoured on Midsummers eve with a feast, procession and bonfires. Midsummers eve (later renamed St John’s Eve) was also considered a special time for collecting herbs and they were seen as the most potent and magical at this time. June was also the traditional time of sheep shearing.

Historian Ronald Hutton says that at this time “Midsummer bonfires, with much the same rituals, are recorded all over England, Wales, Ireland, Lowland Scotland and the Northern Isles.” The first record of lighting protective fires on midsummer’s eve is from the 12th century, however in the 4th century pagans celebrated by rolling flaming wheels downhill to a river, a practice that can be traced right up to the 19th century in Dartmoor, Devon. It was a time for divination and the Anglo Saxon Lacunga says its the best time to collect certain plants for healing. In 13th and 14th centuries there are records of people carrying fire around their fields on midsummers eve, people staying up all night around bonfires in the street and youths gathering at wells for songs and games. Hutton says “the dossier seems to be complete enough to speak confidently of a pre-Christian seasonal rituasl of major importance.

The day is important because it is the middle of summer in the Northern Hemisphere and the sun is at its most powerful. It is called the Solstice after the latin “sol” meaning sun and “sistere” meaning to stand still. It is the longest day of the year with 15 hours of sunshine. At this time crops have been planted and are growing strongly, meanwhile the earth is alive with blooming flowers, green trees and insects busy collecting pollen and making honey. It’s a time to rest, to have fun and to celebrate before the hard work of the harvest begins. From the solstice onwards, the days begin to shorten again as we move back towards the winter.

The ADF manual explains that the Welsh saw this as another spirit night when the landspirits are very active, while for the Norse this was a time for celebrating community and the sun goddess, Sunna. Neopagans also celebrate this as a time of magic and honouring the sun. For Wiccans, this is when “the powers of nature reach this highest point. The Earth is awash in the fertility of the Goddess and God.”

The day is often celebrated by having a beach bbq and bonfire with friends, watching the sunrise and eating summery foods like salads. It is usually spent outside and is a good time to go camping and hiking or to have a water fight. It is a time to dance, drink, party, to be thankful for the sun and to enjoy its light and warmth.

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

ADF. Our Own Druidry: An Introduction to Ár nDraíocht Féin and the Druid Path. Tucson: ADF Publishing, 2009.

Cunnigham, Scott. Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, Minnestota: Llewellyn Publications, 2003





Dedicant Path Week 8 – High Day Recap – Beltane

1 05 2013
Beltane Panoram

Beltane (Photo credit: pyramis)

I did my Beltane rite at 5pm on Wednesday 1st May as an ending to the celebrations. I used the structure and wording from the Solitary Druid Fellowship’s ritual but with a few modifications e.g. incorporating a prayer to the Earth Mother I had previously written. I really liked the wording of the ritual, with its emphasis on affirming our relationship with the cosmos as the purpose of ritual. I wasn’t sure which deities to honour from the Irish pantheon for this rite, so I chose not to honour any specific deities but rather honoured them all generically. The gatekeeper was Manannan Mac Lir because I am finding myself developing quite a connection with him and am thinking he may end up being my Patron deity. I live on the coast and the ocean and fishing very much dominate our lives here so I feel it is right that he is honoured. I did the ritual alone in my house as I am to nervous to do things outside in public and I don’t have a garden. I enjoyed giving the offerings, however I mucked up with the offering to the fire as I poured the oil on the flame and it went out. For offerings I used oil for the fire and the gods, apple for the gatekeeper, seeds for the nature spirits, silver coin for the well, oats for the earth mother, incense for the tree and cider for the ancestors.  I will need to bring the offerings closer to me next time as they were on a desk which wasn’t close enough and trying to get them disrupted the flow somewhat. Also, doing it in the daytime had an effect on the atmosphere of the ritual as the candle didn’t really shine much (and I forgot to light two other candles). The ritual went well however I didn’t really feel any connection which disappointed me. I also got a strange omen reading. I decided to take three tarot cards (using Wildwood Tarot) – one for each kindred, asking “What blessings do the kindred offer me?” I received an upside down “The Seer” from the Shining Ones, the “Three of Arrows” meaning Jealousy from the Nature Spirits and “Ten of Stones” meaning Home from the Ancestors. Reading up what they meant, I’m not really sure what to make of the message as it doesn’t seem very positive. Putting together the messages, I think it might be telling me that there’s some negative emotions towards certain people that I need to deal with. However I’m not sure and am very confused.

The rest of my celebrations have included a big party with friends last night, making a maypole for my altar, decorating with flowers and hawthorn branches (Cornish tradition), going for a walk to nature to experience the beginning of summer, spending some romantic time with my partner and making summery foods like potato salad (vegan), flapjacks and homemade lemonade.





Dedicant Path Week 7 – First High Holy Day Explanation – Beltane

28 04 2013
The bonfire lit to welcome Beltane morning. Ed...

Beltane Bonfire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Beltane, meaning “bright fire” is one of the four great fire festivals of the ancient Celtic cultures. In ancient Irish culture it was the time when both the Tuatha De Danaan and the Milesians came to Ireland and was originally celebrated when the Hawthorns began to blossom. Half way between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice, it marks the start of the light half of the year and heralds the beginning of summer. According to historian Ronald Hutton, “the ritual of Beltane was found in all Celtic areas of the British Isles, but also in pastoral regions of Germanic and Scandinavian Europe.” The historical evidence for the celebration of this festival is much better than for others. The earliest references to it are from 900AD which state “lucky fire i.e two fires Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring the cattle against the diseaseas of the year to those fires” and “they used to drive cattle between them.” Another reference says “a fire was kindled in his [Bel] name at the beginning of summer always, and cattle were driven between two fires.” Like the other three Celtic festivals, Beltane is mentioned in the Irish tale of Tochmarc Emire and the ritual of lighting bonfires at this time survived right up until the 19th century. Like Samhain, it was seen as a liminal time “when fairies and witches were especially active, and magical devices [were] required to guard against them.” To the welsh, it was one of the “spirit nights.”Hutton says that “rituals were conducted to protect…against the powers of evil, natural and supernatural, not merely in the season to come but because those malign powers were supposed to be active at this turning point of the year.”

Other celebrations in English areas at this time include “bringing in the May” and dancing around a Maypole. Bringing in the May dates back to at least the 13th century and refers to gathering flowers and foliage to bring home and celebrate the beginning of summer. Hutton says that there is no evidence for when the Maypole came to Britain but it was first recorded in a welsh poem in the mid 14th century and is also recorded in Scandinavia so probably originated from the continent. The May Pole was not a phallic or world tree symbol but was most likely simply a “focal point for celebrations” or something to hang garlands on.

Beltane marks the beginning of the pastoral season, the time when farmers traditionally moved their herds to summer pastures (driving them between two fires for blessing and protection first) and people could go outside because of the milder weather. The crops were in the ground by now and it was traditionally the beginning of calving season. There was lots of milkingto do and making dairy products like butter. It was the busiest time to visit water sources to collect water for healing and good luck. It was also a time for the renewal of rents.

Learning from historical practices, Gaelic reconstructionists celebrate this time by extinguishing a flame (ideally a bonfire) and relighting it. They eat a feast, usually including bannocks, decorate their houses with greenery and yellow flowers and collect dew or water in the morning (considered potent for healing and maintaining a youthful appearance). They also make offerings to the gods, carry out protection rites to sain their house and land while warding the boundaries, and make charms of rowan. Some groups also see this as a time to renew their bond with the land goddess (the nearest river) by giving her offerings at her river bank.

For norse reconstructionists and groups like Asatru, this festival is called Walpurgisnacht. It is a night when witches gather and magic happens. It is a time to honour Freya, the goddess of magic and love. Like the Gaelic reconstructionists, it is seen as a time of supernatural danger, and is celebrated with feasting, bonfires and protective rites.

ADF calls this day the Feast of Flowers, a time to celebrate fertility and reproduction, magic and love. It is also called the feast of the Sidhe or landspirits.

Beltane is a time for fertility, fun and flowers. By this time most of the tree buds have burst and they’re becoming green again, insects and bees are flying around and countless species of flowers are in bloom, including the beautiful bluebells. It is much warmer now and the land is fertile again. Summer has arrived. For me, its a great time to get outside and enjoy nature coming alive again. One can build a maypole to dance around, or decorate our homes with lots of flowers. It is a good time to eat seasonable foods and make lemonade. And it is a very good time to focus on the romantic side of life.

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

ADF. Our Own Druidry: An Introduction to Ár nDraíocht Féin and the Druid Path. Tucson: ADF Publishing, 2009.

http://www.gaolnaofa.com/festivals/

http://www.tairis.co.uk/

http://gaelicfolkway.webs.com/feiseannaomh.htm