sophiacatherine: Tree (tree)
Samhain, or Oí­che Shamhna in modern Irish, was probably one of the four major festivals that marked the beginning of the seasons - or Quarter Days* - in pre-Christian Ireland (Mac Cana 1968, Monaghan 2004).  The importance of this festival can be seen in the way many mythical events take place at this time (Mac Cana 1968). In more recent folklore it was a pastoral festival, when pigs were killed and cows were brought down to winter pastures (Monaghan 2004) and when It was a time of chaos, when the barries between this world and the Otherworld were less pronounced, and spirits roamed free (Mac Cana 1968) - the Irish roots of 'trick or treating', including pranks and the making and wearing of masks (Danaher 1972), can be seen as relating to the same chaotic atmosphere. It was a time of feasting, possibly related to the end of the harvest and the slaughter of animals, and of divination (Danaher 1972).

Three groups of Kindred seem to be celebrated in the surviving and recent lore around Samhain. Firstly, the festival is clearly related to the dead and the ancestors (Mac Cana 1968). Danaher (1972) describes how, in Limerick, a candle was left in the window for deceased relatives, or lanterns were lit on graves. The suggestion is that the dead may want to return on Samhain Eve, and thus a light is left to light their way home. (This tradition of a candle in the window may have shifted to Christmas - today some Irish people still leave a candle in the window on Christmas Eve, for Mary and Joseph). The tradition of leaving offerings of some kind for the ancestors, sometimes called a 'dumb supper', reflects a belief that it is not only malevolent spirits who are abroad on Samhain Eve (Monaghan 2004). However, this appears to have been a fear-filled feast, as well as a celebratory one.

Secondly, the Aes Sí, or fairies, who roamed and could steal humans at this time, for which reason people would keep away from fairy mounds on Samhain (Monaghan 2004, Danaher 1972). Danaher writes "It was called púca night and oiche na sprideanna (spirit night) because of the old people's belief that both the fairies and the ghosts of the dead were active then" (Danaher 1972 p.200). The púca was a fairy who was believed to spit on blackberries and other fruit, in parts of Ireland, and so fruit was not picked or eaten after Samhain (Danaher 1972).  Crosses, such as the rowan cross or the Parshall cross, were hung in the house to keep away malevolent spirits, along with the use of oats and salt as protective materials, and the protective power of the Samhain fire (Danaher 1972). Food offerings were left out for the Aes Sí, although Danaher (1972) notes that not everyone knew who the offerings were left for. These offerings may have been propitiatory.

There is a third group of Kindred that Irish-hearth ADF members might celebrate at this time: the gods and goddesses commemorated in Irish mythology. As Mac Cana writes, "the Celts have treated the festival of Samhain - the duration of its celebration and more especially the eve of the feast day - as a time apart which was charged with a peculiar preternatural energy, and within it they have concentrated many of their great mythic events" (1968 p.127). A number of key mythic events in Irish myth take place on Samhain, including the Battle of Mag Tuired, before which the Dagda mates with the Morrigan. These two deities, therefore, may be celebrated at Samhain. Equally, there are myths of the Cailleach, particularly in her Scottish form, that involve her rulership of this time of year. Mac Cana (1968) describes how Samhain is a time of chaos, with the order of the world dissolving before it is re-made. I relate this closely to the Cailleach. She is associated with the last sheaf of the harvest (Danaher 1972, Monaghan 2004). In Scotland, winter storms were associated with her (Monaghan 2004), and her traditional rulership of the dark half of the year may derive from a very early tradition of the birth of the winter sun's daughter as an old woman, who then grows ever younger until spring (Monaghan 2004).

I celebrate Samhain by honouring the ancestors, the Aes Sí, and the Morrigan and Cailleach Bheara. I make and hang crosses of rowan wood and create other protective charms, and I leave offerings for the ancestors. I also do divination using tarot, Ogham and more traditional methods.

*It is a little confusing that modern neopagans refer to these days as cross-quarter festivals, and call the solstices and equinoxes the quarter festivals. I prefer to use the traditional terms that were applied in Ireland, but I acknowledge the different usage of the term in ADF.


Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs. Cork: Mercier Press, 1972
Monaghan, Patricia. Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Checkmark Books, 2004.
Mac Cana, Proinsias. Celtic Mythology. London: Chancellor Press, 1968.

sophiacatherine: A sign to Tir na nOg (25 km away if you swim) (Tir na nOg sign)
So it's getting towards that time when I need to start organizing and writing up what I've done over the last year (which is mostly scribbled in various journals at the moment), so that I can submit it as my ADF Dedicant Path documentation. So expect a few more of these essays to start appearing here, as I organize my work into real essays, with references and everything. (Currently this one is much too long - planning to edit later!)

Autumn Equinox

Modern neopagans have celebrated the Autumn Equinox since Gerald Gardner created the eightfold Wiccan Wheel of the Year, with the help of Ross Nichols (Hutton). Wiccans and some Pagans today call this festival 'Mabon', which is a name that Wiccan priest Aiden Kelly gave to the festival in honour of a Brythonic god (Ravenheart and Ravenheart 227). It is also called 'Harvest Home' by many Wiccans, while to OBOD druids, it is Alban Elfed, which means 'The Light of the Water' (OBOD). It is the second harvest festival of three that Wiccans celebrate (Nichols). Wiccan traditions relating to the festival include making corn dollies in honour of John Barleycorn and celebrating the harvest (Nicols). Revival druidry also celebrates the harvest at this time, but it is additionally focused on the balance of light and dark at the Equinox (OBOD). In contrast, in the Wiccan solar cycle of the Horned God, covens celebrate the decline of the God and the descent of the Goddess into the Underworld at this time, which draws on the myths of Persephone and Inanna (Grimassi).

Although the Gaelic people in Ireland and Scotland only celebrated the four Quarter Days, and not the equinoxes, there is still relevant folklore that I can use to help in my celebration of this High Day, in a way that is meaningful within my Gaelic hearth culture. In particular, in Scotland and Ireland, Là Fhèill Mìcheil (St Michael's Day) was celebrated at about this time of year, as has been documented by Carmichael, Campbell and Danaher. Carmichael relates St Michael to the sea, which may suggest he is a modern incarnation of an older Gaelic sea-god, and says he also has connections with horses for Gaelic culture (Carmichael). St Michael's Day is also to some extent connected with the harvest - in Scotland, a cake called 'struan Micheil' was baked on St Michael's Day, which was made of all the cereals grown in the field that year (Carmichael Kindle loc. 2800). Other folklorists also find evidence of a focus on autumn in early (if post-Christian) Gaelic culture - Campbell says that in the Scottish Highlands, autumn was called Fogharadh, and he argues that it is related to the words for 'hospitality' and 'abundance' (Campbell Kindle loc. 2511) . Campbell represents St Michael's Day as a celebration of the first-fruits of the harvest. He also writes of a potential link with the Cailleach, as harvest goddess, describing a dance dedicated to her called called 'Cailleach an Dudain' (Campbell Kindle loc. 2952). Campbell describes a number of other customs of this feast day, including a great horse race that took place in Barra at Michaelmas, where each woman in attendance brings a large bannock-cake to the race day (Campbell Kindle loc. 3145-3148), which may again suggest a harvest theme. Over the past few years, I have taken this theme of harvest and abundance for my own celebrations of the Autumn High Day, focusing on the fulfillment of the harvest.

Seren of Tairis argues that these St Michael's Day customs are likely to have shifted from Lúnasa, in a post-Christian environment, as a response to the new ecclesiastical holidays (Seren). While I can see the argument for this, it does seem that some communities marked the harvest at this time. While I do not think that the Autumn Equinox was ever widely celebrated in pre-Christian Gaelic cultures, I think that there are customs that can be drawn on by Gaelic hearth members of ADF, in order to mark this High Day in a meaningful way. For me, as a dedicant of Cailleach Bhearra and Manannan, the customs relating to the Cailleach as harvest goddess and to the sea spirits are very interesting, and I have drawn on these by honouring Bhearra and Manannan in my Autumn High Day rite, as well as Macha (although my celebration of her at this time is based on UPG). On a future Autumn High Day, I would like to go down to the sea and make an offering of an effigy to the sea spirits, as was done with a Christian theme in Scotland on St Michael's Day in the past. While it's not clear whether this is any kind of pagan 'survival', it is an old Gaelic custom that I would like to fit into my celebrations of this High Day in some way.

Works Cited

Campbell, J. G. Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. AlbaCraft Publishing, 2012 [1902]. Kindle Edition.
Carmichael, A. Carmina Gadelica Volume I: Hymns and Incantations. Amazon Media, 2011 [1928]. Kindle Edition.
Danaher, K. The Year in Ireland. Dublin, Mercier, 1972.
Grimassi, R. Encyclopedia of Wicca and Witchcraft. St Paul, MI, Llewellyn, 2000.
Hutton, R. The Triumph of the Moon. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Nicols, M. The Witches' Sabbats. Portland, OR, Acorn Guild Press, 2011. Kindle Edition.
OBOD, "Autumn Equinox - Alban Elfed". Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, 2013 <>.
Seren, "Là Fhèill Mìcheil"., 2010 <>.
Zell-Ravenheart, O. and Zell-Ravenheart, M.G. Creating Circles & Ceremonies: Rituals for All Seasons and Reasons. Franklin Lakes, NJ, Career Press, 2006.
sophiacatherine: (Default)
It's that time again - another High Day. I don't know how they come around so fast. Anyway, I'm leading a ritual with my OBOD grove and I need to do my ADF rite and write the Lá Lúnasa/Lughnasadh essay, so I've been doing a bit of reading. Decided to draft my Lá Lúnasa essay here, before I improve it a bit for the ADF DP documents. 

There's some interesting research about Lughnasadh. One of the best books on the subject of Irish festivals, from a reconstructionist perspective, is 'The Year in Ireland' (1972), which talks about the folk traditions of hill gatherings, harvest fairs, games of agility, strength and skill, and some wonderfully fun references to dunking cattle and sheep in water. Ronald Hutton (1991, p.??)* argues that Lughnasadh is the only Irish festival where a pre-Christian survival is fairly likely, thanks to Máire MacNeill's comprehensive study 'The Festival of Lughnasa', (Hutton 1991, MacNeill 1962). MacNeill argues that pre-Christian customs may have included meals of harvest fare, bull sacrifices, renditions of the story of Lugh's triumph over Balor, and bonfires and visits to holy wells (MacNeill, 1962, p.426). Cunliffe (1997, p.185) also asserts that a celebration of Lugh was central to Lughnasadh, but Hutton (1991, p.??) focuses more closely on the harvest and first-fruits aspects of the festival.

Of course, while interesting, not all of this relates to the way that modern neo-Pagans celebrate Lughnasadh, which is part of what ADF wants us to write about. Drawing from the scholarship, it's possible to see the inspiration that modern Pagans, polytheists and reconstructionists have taken from earlier reports of Lughnasadh celebrations: common modern themes are harvest, celebrations of Lugh's triumph over Balor (and/or the myth of his foster mother Tailtiu), and sometimes games of skill. At this point, Wiccans are celebrating Lammas, sometimes including the stage in the god-cycle where the god begins to decline, while revivalist druids tend to be focusing on the harvest cycle and the cutting down of the corn, which probably has echoes in British folklore. [NB: Referencing of these points will happen when I can find the books that I read that said these things...!] However, the diversity of the neo-Pagan movement, with its many paths (e.g. Adler, 1979), means that there is a wide variety of ways in which each of these festivals is celebrated by neo-Pagans today (where it is at all). I personally like to focus on harvest and on the stories of Lugh (both the myth of Tailtiu and the story of his defeat of Balor). I'll be organizing the Lughnasadh ritual for my OBOD grove, which will focus on the metaphorical harvest of crafts, stories and triumphs that members of the grove will bring to the event. In my personal celebration of Lá Lúnasa, along with my own COoR rite, I will honour Lugh with an offering of my skills.

Adler, Margot (1979), Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers and Other Pagans in America. New York City: Viking Press.
Danaher, Kevin (1972), The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs. Dublin and Cork: Mercia Press.
Hutton, Ronald (1991), The Pagan Religions of the British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. Oxford: Blackwell.
MacNeill, Máire (1962), The Festival of Lughnasa. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

*I have lent this book to a friend, so I won't be able to verify this or give a page number until I write the final essay. I'm fairly sure that's what he says, though!


sophiacatherine: (Default)
Naomi J./Leithin Cluan/Sophia Catherine

July 2014

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