By Tarquin O’Flaherty
Halloween and the Ancient Celtic ‘Samhain’.
Mussorgsky’s ‘Night on the Bald Mountain’ is the composer’s attempt to recreate the terror, mystery and magic associated with the European night of October the 31st, a date we all know as Halloween. There are spirits and ghosts, goblins and witches abroad at this time, both in this music and out there in the bleak and howling night. It is the night when the old harvest year ends and a new one begins. Between these two there is a split, a crack, a moment in the order of things when the unthinkable might occur and that gap allow demons, pookahs and banshees to come and do dreadful harm to us all. These are real malignant spirits and all necessary precautions must be taken. We must disguise ourselves to hide from these bad spirits in the hope that we won’t be recognised as we go abroad. We must create horrible masks for ourselves to frighten ghosts and goblins who might approach us, intending us harm. We must build vast fires to drive away the dark, a darkness which harbours treacherous fiends who await the slightest opportunity to create havoc by sowing famine, disease and death amongst us. Eternal vigilance…lest all be lost…
Long before ‘Druids’, Christianity, and the Romans, Western Europe was Celtic, a civilisation with its own distinct culture and language. As part of this culture, four principal festivals were observed:
Samhain (phonetically; Sough-Win) at the end of October, marked the end of harvest, the beginning of winter, and a time to bring animals down from summer pastures to more protected, closer to home paddocks and yards.
Imbolc (sixty years ago I was taught to pronounce this as Im Bullug) marked the First of February, the beginning of Spring lambing time.
Beltane (phon. Bee-yowl- tinneh) meaning yellow or bright fire was celebrated on the first of May, when all of Shakespeare’s ‘darling buds’ burst into life and was roughly halfway between the Spring equinox and the Summer solstice.
Lughna sadh (pronounced nowadays as Lu-Nasa) the first of August festival denoting the beginning of the harvest season.
Beltane and Samhain, Imbolc and Lunasa are dates which scholars tell us have more in common with a herding and animal owning culture rather than the settled farming system we are familiar with today. This suggests a respectable antiquity for these festivals. A great deal of Celtic mythology deals with the getting and keeping of herds of cattle and the rivalry, rustling and skullduggery that went on between various factions to have the best animals, and particularly the best bull. Mythological queens and kings went to war over prize animals, and dirty deeds were done.
So, long before Christianity, practically the whole of western Europe was Celtic and the festivals I have outlined were of supreme importance. Then came the Romans, heavily influenced by the Greeks, but lacking their imagination. Four hundred years before Christ, Gaulish Celts sacked Rome and wiped out the Roman army. From this humiliation, the Romans learnt much. They learnt about two-man chariots, the one to drive, the other free to engage the enemy. They discovered that their swords were not short enough, their shields inadequate against slings and arrows. Modern historians have it that the success of the Roman fighting machine in later years was largely due to their adopting the weapons and techniques of those Celts who had trounced them in 397BC. The full length curved shield and short stabbing sword, which, when used in a group, shield to shield, provided a wall, an impenetrable barrier, against which it was difficult to do battle. The two-man chariot, a devastating weapon en masse, was easily capable of cutting an army of foot soldiers to ribbons. The Romans had adopted the hugely successful phalanx from the Greeks but the Celts, with their speed and manoueverability, very quickly rendered the phalanx obsolete.
The Romans, as we know, came back, noticeably better prepared this time, and took over most of Western Europe. When they departed, in the 5th century AD, they left behind a well established church, governed from Rome.
As the power of this new church grew, anything that threatened its ascendancy was stamped out. If old custom or habit persisted, as a great deal did, then the church attempted to absorb this persistence into the new ‘christian’ way of thinking. As an example of this, when Christianity was first trying to establish itself, the goddess Isis was worshipped throughout the Empire. Isis was always represented with a baby in her arms and represented motherhood, security, warmth and the power of sex and sensuality. The church ‘absorbed’ the goddess Isis, changed her name to Mary, but, being aware of the power of Nature and the family as a potential threat, eventually dispensed with the ‘sex and sensuality’ side of her nature in favour of ludicrous virgin births, miraculous babies and a male dominated monotheism. Women were driven to the sidelines, their absolute importance in the scheme of things reviled and their proper function in society mocked by the deadly weapons of guilt and shame. Sex, in absolute corruption of what had gone before, was now no longer something to be celebrated. The sexual act was now, officially, a sin.
All of the Easters and Christmas’s we now know were idiot, meaningless overlays by the church to gain power over the ancient rituals, festivals and ceremonies of pre-christian Europe.
Christmas, Yule, call it what you like, didn’t involve just one day. Samhain, the end of November, marked the beginning of Winter, a period which ran right through to Imbolc, to lambing time on the first of February.
The church absorbed and truncated this Winter period, rendering it meaningless, but then had the gall to declare the old Germanic Yule, Jesus’ birthday!
Easter, the first of May, was something the church couldn’t alter, or indeed control. Eggs, fertility, impregnation, the glorious sensual rush saturated everybody. New beginnings burst forth everywhere and there was nothing the church could do to stop it. So they went along with it, absorbing the Lenten fasts, the processions, the ritual and ceremony that helped recreate the world, and over the years, gradually calling these ceremonies their own.
Along the way the church destroyed the rites and rituals of Samhain (the Winter period) and turned it into the infantile Halloween. They took Imbolc (end of Winter lambing time) and, apart from the Agnus Dei (lamb of God) reference, almost completely obliterated its significance.
Lunasa (the beginning of the harvest season at the first of August) with its own rites and rituals means nothing now and tractors roll into paddocks without a suggestion of deference to the gods.
It is my contention that, without any reference to Europe whatsoever, we should reinstate, at their proper place in our Southern Hemisphere seasons, one or two of these old feast days, particularly Beltane (or Easter) in its proper first day of Spring slot. We should celebrate the new year, this new beginning, accord it its proper deference and respect and give thanks to the gods for this new beginning.
To Hell with old England and their upside down calendar. This is Australia. Let us create, and begin to believe in, our own customs and ceremonies, our own Samhain and Beltane. Lets have fireworks and laughter, bonfires and dancing at the close of the year without reference to any other country’s wants or habits. And yes, let’s have sensuality and even a little gentle abandon at our own Springtime festivities. We need to stop deferring and begin instead to stand up for ourselves. Australia is a great place to live in, but I reckon it could do with a bit, a touch, a scintilla, a bootful of extra excitement.
I think my master plan would provide a bit of this excitement, and, along the way, do us all the world of good.