Tag Archives: Celtic Myth

Magic Pigs

I originally wrote this for the blog of the Grove of the Corieltauvi. If you would like to read more on what we have done you can view it here.

Meeting took place on Thursday 12/04/18. 3rd Waning Crescent

Attendees: Danceswithweasels (welcome back!), Greenfingers, Locksley, Teller and Vyvyan (Darth Vyv). Big thank you to Teller and Vyvyan, for allowing us to use their place for hosting and for supplying bacon cobs after my talk. Especially when Teller is veggie. For those not familiar with East Midlands speak, “Cobs” are the local term for rounded bread rolls. Some other places call these “baps”, “rolls”, “buns”, or as my family in Sheffield call them “Bread-Cakes”. To any of the readers outside of the UK….. you wouldn’t BELIEVE how many arguments this causes…..

Anyway, Locksley, shut up and get on with the post!

Title Photo Credit goes to Greenfingers for allowing me to use his photograph.

Introduction

In all honesty? I thought it would be a laugh. At the AGM, I was handing Green Fingers our actual Magic Pig (a little bag for which we use for the collection of subs for us to purchase anything The Grove needs). I realised then that I actually hadn’t taken a meeting in a long time and wanted to do a talk on something and Magic Pig seemed to be as good as any. That and it seems to be a creature associated with many gods and heroes within Celtic mythology. Why was this?

Our Porcine Friends

Starting at the beginning, I read out the description of Sow from the Druid Animal Oracle. To make it fair, I read out both upright and reversed meanings. So we see the Pig as being associated with abundance and plenty, nourishment and sustenance, renewal and creativity.

The Reverse of this gives us a warning against relying on our vanity and “Pig Ignorance” to take other people for their worth, not just, their looks. Danceswithweasels quite rightly corrected me this was Sow and not Pig. True, but I wanted to keep it as the positive aspect of the animal, for the time being. Especially when we have a lovely picture showing said sow pretty much smiling as her litter run around and eat Beech nuts.

My original deck just had a small box and a booklet with the brief descriptions. I now have a second identical deck with a larger box and a book that goes into more detail…. Even telling of the sow, Henwen being linked to Ceridwen. More on this later.

Pigs are evolved from the Boar, which still exist today, they are intelligent, omnivorous and can have litters of up to a dozen piglets. Like us, they can adapt to any environment, and affect the local environment. If there are too many wild pigs foraging, then the nutrition count in the local area drops. This has a detrimental effect on the plant lives and eco systems of said area. If the nutrient levels return, then pigs will increase in population. No wonder we started eating them!

Grave Offerings

Whilst Boar bones are a rarity at burial sites, it appears pig bones and even joints of roasted pork were buried with the chiefs and warrior elite.

Professor Ann Ross writes:

… as suggested by the evidence from graves, where the placing of joints of pork beside the elaborately equipped chieftains indicates that this was intended to be the food for the feast beyond the grave, is bourne out to a striking degree in the Irish Tales. Here pork is the proper food to be served at the feast and in the ritual of hospitality in the courts of kings, and in the dwellings of the gods.”

It would seem that if pork was the best meat for the ruling and warrior castes of Celtic society, then it was good enough for the gods and for giving to be eaten in the Otherworld when the person is reborn in that world. Bit chewy for a newborn…. a gift for the family on the Otherside perhaps?

From The Otherworld

According to Irish myth, Pigs were brought with the Tuatha Dé Danaan, both The Dagda and Brigid kept pigs and boars. Considering the Boar was around in Both Great Britain and Ireland at the time, it would be interesting to see when breeds of pigs were introduced. Even if the Tuatha Dé Danaan didn’t bring pigs with them, somebody did…..

In Welsh myth, It was Gwydion who told Math, Son of Mathonwy of these strange little creatures called “pigs” or “hobeu”. They were the property of Pryderi, son of Pwyll, who was given this gift of pigs by Arawn, the lord of Annwfn (a realm of the Otherworld). So in both Irish and Welsh myths, we see pigs as being the property of supernatural beings, therefore linked with the supernatural in themselves.

Indeed, pigs in Celtic mythology seem to have magical abilities of their own:

Henwen– (Ancient White One) a sow under the protection of the Powerful Swineherd (Pryderi?) goes into the sea. She then comes to land and is not only pregnant, but brings both wheat and a bee to Gwent. She then goes to Llonion in Pembroke where she brings grains of wheat and Barley.

Pursued by King Arthur, she is never obtained by the King or his men, but she gives birth to a wolf cub and an eagle and a kitten. Each of these is given to a Prince, bad luck befalls each person who raises them. There are two Triads describing this tale, one tells of Henwen, being protected by the Powerful Swineherd (and in typical classical Celtic fashion, is not very clear on this title as being one person or three!) and that King Arthur is unable to obtain even one of the pigs through force or guile. The other describes Arthur as being after Henwen in order to kill her for carrying the ‘Womb-Burden’. But nowhere does the tale link with Ceridwen, at all. Vyvyan pointed out that it was Robert Graves, who had linked Ceridwen with Henwen. Personally, I think her name has more of a connection to the moon than the pig. Especially when her name can translate as either “Crooked (bent) Woman”, “Crooked Fair/white” or even “Poem Blessed”.

Pig of Duis– In the ‘Sons of Tuirenn’, the Sons attack Cian, father of Lugh (who tries to escape in the shape of a pig) but they murder him. As a fine for this, Lugh, chief of the Tuatha Dé Danaan charges them with the task of finding the skin of the Pig of Duis described as:

The skin of the pig is that owned by Duis, King of Greece. In whatever stream that pig walked, the water turned into wine, and the wounded and the sick became well when they drank it.”

The skin is also said to be as thick as two oxen hides, perhaps this is also a reference to death and burial rites once associated with the graves of warriors and chiefs?

Cormac’s Glossary describes pigs (especially red ones) as included amongst the animals whose flesh (along with cats and dogs) could be used for a method of divination called the Himbas Forosnai. This practice involves the chewing of the meat of one of the animals, puts an incantation on it and offers it to the gods and leaves it on the threshold of the door. Calling spirits, the poet is supposed to gain knowledge to what they seek. If that doesn’t work he says incantations over his palms, calls his spirits to help him and puts the palms over his to fall into a trance in order to gain the visions he seeks. The idea was to gain glimpses of the future through dreams.

Regenerating Pigs

Other magical pigs include the ability to be regenerated whole the day after being slaughtered and eaten. The Dagda supposedly had pigs and fruits that when roasted never diminished.

Usually there were conditions:

Cormac and the Fairy Branch: Pig, When King Cormac MacArt foolishly traded his family for a magical stick, he goes in search of his family and finds himself in the Otherworld. Invited into a hall, before him stands a man with an axe, a log and a pig. The man cuts the pig into four pieces with the axe and places the log under a cauldron of water. The man explains he helped a farmer regain his cows and that the farmer had given the pig, the log and the axe as a reward. The man tells King Cormac, that if he cuts the pig with the axe, and speaks a truth over the log, then, it will cook the pig and he shall have both again the next day.

Pigs of Essach– were slaughtered every night and cooked, but as long as their bones were whole and not gnawed upon, they would be alive again the next day.

We’re Going On A Boar Hunt…

Boars were seen as more aggressive and warlike. Indeed their physicality is different from pigs they have tusks, spiky hair and are sleeker in their build. Pigs have more fat whereas boars are leaner.

Boars in Celtic myth were described as fearsome creatures with tall black/dusky/even purple bristles on their backs, some had up to nine tusks in their jaws. Often a trail of destruction followed them, killing 50 warriors and 50 hounds in their wake. All the more terrifying as if to paint why the creature had to be stopped. The boar hunt was seen as one of ultimate skill, in some cases it was the initiation rite for the new chief…. if the stories are anything to go by, boars fought back!

Certainly, the Hero’s Portion was the prime cut of pork served at the feast to be given to the best warrior. The chief would take the next best, cementing that pork was the food of the chief and warrior classes before anyone else could have some. It is fitting then that boar imagery featured regularly on Celtic coins, weapons, altars, armour and even cauldrons.

The Boar hunt can be epitomised in the story of Culhwch and Olwen: Culhwch is charged by the terrible giant Ysbaddaden Pencaw (with no intention of these being possible so Culhwch cannot marry his daughter, Olwen) with many tasks. One of these was to hunt the dread boar, Twrch Trwyth, in order to obtain the razor and shears behind the creatures ears. Twrch Trwyth was a badass! Culhwch had to leave Wales for Ireland with King Arthur and a lot of his men in order to find him. Twrch Trwyth was kept for a time by Brigid along with two oxen, even in this form he was still fierce and ill-tempered (and responsible for some kind of weird demonic noises). Culhwch, Arthur and the men chased him around Ireland, back to Britain and Wales and after a huge fight resulting in the death of Twrch Trwyth’s piglets and plenty of Arthur’s forces the boar runs off into the sea. Turns out that Twrch Trwyth was actually a Chief who was turned into a boar for his wickedness, the same with his sons, yet was regarded chief of the otherworld boars. This entertained Teller no end as he quipped “I’ll still be a king even when I’m a boar, fuck you!” or something to that effect.

Bizarrely enough Culhwch’s name may have been an indication as to what his destiny held…. Culhwch’s name translates as “Pig-Run”!

In the Welsh tales, Gwydion after telling Math he will return with the pigs, goes to Pryderi with a band of travelling bards. Approaching Pryderi, Gwydion asks him for the pigs only for to be refused the request as they cannot be given until they are double their number. Gwydion then convinces Pryderi to exchange the pigs for twelve magnificent black and white horses, twelve magnificent white-breasted hounds and twelve magnificent golden shields as an exchange. The problem being that Gwydion had conjured up this illusion, which will last only a day. Pryderi pursues but was by Gwydion in single combat…. only Gwydion had used his magic once again to deceive so he could deliver the coup-de-gras. In this tale, the boar hunt is twisted into an act of cunning and deceit rather than skill. Certainly, this is an act of dishonour, resulting in the death of part of the three-fold Powerful Swineherd.

Also, the hero Diarmaid was fatally linked to the Boar he kills…. only to kill himself in the process as their lives were bound. The boar was in fact Diarmaid’s illegitimate half-brother who was magically changed into a boar by Roc, the boy’s father. Roc had been having an affair with Diarmaid’s mother and was shocked to see the boy flee a pair of hounds by going through Diarmaid’s father’s legs. In a moment of harboured jealousy, Diarmaid’s father began to crush the boy. Roc, using a magic wand turned the boy into a young boar-piglet and uttered a curse that the boy would grow into a fearsome vengeful boar and that Diarmaid would hunt him…. only to be killed by one of the bristles on the boars back. Bit harsh, especially when Roc could have used the wand to have healed his son instead of transmogrifying him.

So, forget turning people into toads, kids! Turning people into boars is where it’s at and this leads very well into the next part….

Shape-Shifting

Changing into other creatures is something that happened a lot in the old myths, the tale of Ceridwen and Gwion Bach, for e.g. has plenty of shape-shifting in it. In the tale: ‘The Sons of Tuirenn’, Cian shape-shifted into a pig, in order to escape his attack.

As we have seen, pigs and boars were a favourite creature to turn people into as punishment. Which implies an execution of sorts: their fate was to be killed in the hunt.

Twrch Trwyth was originally a king, but he and his sons were turned into boars for some unmentioned misdeeds. Despite being kept by Brigid, Herself, he still became the chief of the otherworld boars.

Gwydion, as punishment for both murdering Pyderi and for the rape of the maiden Goewin, was cursed into the form of a stag; along with his brother and accomplice, Gilfaethwy, a hind and they procreated. After that they were turned into a sow and a boar, repeating the cycle of bestial reproduction, taking turns on being male and female.

Madness

Speaking of shapeshifters, the wizard, Merlin, went mad for a time, the only creature he would talk to and with was a small piglet, to this pig, he shared his prophecy:

Listen, little pig,

Don’t sleep yet!

Rumours reach me

Of perjured chieftains,

And tight fisted farmers.

Soon, over the sea,

Shall come men in armour,

Two-faced men,

On armoured horses,

With destroying spears.

When that happens,

War will come,

Fields will be ploughed

But never reaped….

Listen, little pig,

Oh pig of Truth!

The Sybil has told me

A wondrous tale.

I predict a summer full of fury,

Treachery between brothers.

A pledge of peace will be required

From Gwynedd,

Seven hundred ships from Gynt

Blown in by the North wind.

In Aber Dyn they will confer.

Supposedly, this madness was brought on by grief, making Merlin live for a time in the woodlands where he would speak only to the animals he came across.

Why madness? The female pig can attack piglets in times of great stress, sometimes even eating them. According to Wikipedia, 50% of piglet deaths are caused by the mothering sow either attacking them or unintentionally crushing them. During these times of stress, perhaps people saw them as being mad…. another trait comparable to Humans.

In Conclusion

Both the Pig and the boar were seen in great esteem by our Celtic ancestors. They were respected for their fierce natures and strength. They were prized for their meat and fertility of litters. Neither was seen as a filthy, stupid animal The fact wild pigs and boars can have a negative effect on the land if they become too populous probably gave rise to descriptions of the destruction they supposedly brought with them. Hereby making an occasional cull of the species not only a necessity, but one to be seen as a test of strength, skill and courage.

As for the associations of the Otherworld, especially when the Boar was already native to Britain and Ireland, perhaps there is some truth in pigs being brought over, even if the memory had faded as to who this new breed came with. I think Anne Ross puts it best with her comment:

The favourite food of pigs is the acorn, and their passion for the fruit of this most venerated tree, the oak, must have increased their supernatural associations in the popular mind.”

Especially when we consider the oak as not only being revered, but was thought to represent the god Bilé, whose name means ‘Tree’, the consort of Danu. It was Bilé who brought the souls of the dead to Her.

Sources:

Books:

DAVIES, SIONED, The Mabinogion, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008.

ELLIS, PETER BERRESFORD, The Mammoth Book of Celtic Myths and Legends, Constable & Robinson Ltd, London, 2002 ed.

GOMM, PHILLIP & STEPHANIE, The Drud Animal Oracle Deck, Illustrated by Bill Worthington, Connections Book Publishing Ltd, London 2005 ed.

HAMILTON, CLAIRE, Tales of the Celtic Bards: Myth and Music, O Books, Ropley, 2003.

MATTHEWS, JOHN, The Little Book of Athurian Wisdom, Element Books Ltd, Dorset, 1997 ed.

MATTHEWS, JOHN & CAITLIN, Celtic Myth and Legend: A definitive source book of magic, vision and lore- compiled, edited and translated by the Matthews, BCA, 2004 ed

ROSS, ANNE, Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition, Cardinal, London, 1974 ed.

Internet Links:

https://www.behindthename.com/name/ceridwen

https://www.ciwf.org.uk/farm-animals/pigs/

https://www.timelessmyths.com/arthurian/merlin.html

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ceridwen

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pig

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Samhain and Halloween are related… right?

The following post comes from my attempt at an unpublished book which I never completed. I thought I could use my chapters as blog posts instead. This was originally drafted in 2013, and my writing voice was different from what it is now. I’ve edited where I could, but I didn’t fancy re-writing approx 3000 words.

The wheel turns once more bringing with it the darkness stretched shadows and weakened light. Harvest has ended, the fallen leaves turning to mulch now begin to whiten with the first frosts of the oncoming winter. Depends on the year, the October of 2017 is quite a warm one. There are skeletal trees, but there are many that are golden, orange and red.

Both Halloween and Samhain bring to mind skeletal trees standing aloft the icy mists, dusky evenings and streetlights battling against the otherworldly fog…. although today has blue skies, sunlight and children wandering around in costume on this Saturday afternoon. Saying that, as my train goes through the Peak District and there’s the fog!

For many Modern Pagans, Samhain was, and still is, the festival marking the official end of the summer season and the beginning of winter. To the mainstream consciousness, ‘Hallowe’en’ is something celebrated by children at best and a load of “Mumbo-Jumbo” or “Devil Worship” at worst. Samhain and Halloween, two totally different festivals celebrated at the same time and yet one is the evolution, if not the descendant, of the other.

Samhain by the water?

Samhain, pronounced “sow-en” (as in ‘sow’, rhyming with ‘now’), comes from the Old Irish Sam (summer) and fuin (end) and there appears to be a difference between the Samhain of back then and what Samhain means today.
Dr Ann Ross hypothesises that Samhain was a celebratory festival that took place by a local lake by the tribe or even tribes that came together for this occasion.
Great feasts supposedly took place by the local water source (such as a lake, a well, a river or the sea) giving us a possibility that it may have been seen as honouring the local goddesses. It is known the Celtic people saw the local water source as the embodiment of the goddess, the water was considered her realm. This may have been the time for giving offerings to the local deities. Celtic practice did include giving up the spoils of war such as shields, spears, swords, loot, to the river, probably in thanks for the victory they achieved in battle. This practice also included decapitated heads of the losers of battle being offered to the waters. This would have made sense to a people who saw the soul residing in the head, and considering it was one of Bilé’s duties to usher the souls of the dead back to the Mother Goddess figure, Danu, then summer’s end would have been the perfect time to do so.

According to the old stories, such as ‘The Wasting Sickness of Cuchulainn’, Samhain is described as follows:

Every year the men of Ulster were accustomed to hold festival together;
And the time when they held it was for three days before Samhain, and for
Three days after that day, and upon Samhain itself.

It was a festival of trade, feasting, drinking, boasting and games of skill and combat. These activities are found in accounts and stories of Beltane and Lughnasadh; Samhain follows suit in that regards. Where it doesn’t is its name.
Unlike Beltane and Lughnasadh, Samhain wasn’t named after any specific deity such as Bel or Lugh. In that respect, it is similar to Imbolc in that the name of the festival is descriptive (“Summer End” and Imbolc’s “Ewe’s Milk”), however there is no association with any specific deity. Instead, the stories tell us of deities, monsters, shape-shifters and ‘fairy women’ who come from the mists to terrorise or enchant the local populace:

In ‘The Wasting Sickness of Cuchulainn’ during the Samhain festival, Cuchulainn fails to catch one of the birds that come from the sky and everyone finds beautiful. To prove himself to his wife, Emer, he pursues two other beautiful birds that are held together by a red-gold chain as they fly over a lake. Failing in trying to catch them, Cuchulainn dreams of two women who curse him with a sickness for trying to attack them. Only for one of them to fall in love with him, problem being he already has a wife and the ‘fairy woman’ is married to Manannan Mac Lir, one of the Tuatha De Danaan!

The Dream of Angus’, tells of Angus Og, son of the Dagda, falling in love with a girl he dreams about. On his quest to find her, he discovers she is the daughter of another of the Tuatha De Danaan, Ethal Anbuail. He also finds that she turns into a swan for one year, then a girl the next. So, when he learns she will change into a swan that year at Samhain, he goes to the lake Loch Bél Dracon where he sees lots of swans (150 of them!) with silver and gold chains. He calls out the girl’s name, Caer, and when she comes forward in swan form, Angus turns into a swan also, before singing the song of sleeping as they fly away; beginning their elopement.

The ‘Agallamh na Senórach’ (Colloquy of the Ancients) contains a tale of the hero, Caoilte. Who, with his friends, goes to the Sidhe in order to heal an ailment. They won’t help him unless he kills three ravens that come from the Northern sea that come every Samhain and take three young boys with them.

The Scottish name for Samhain is ‘Samhuinn’, and is used as the setting for the story of ‘The Kelpie’. In this tale, a young shield-bearer called Donall, recounts the act of the Kelpie (sea dwelling creature that can change into either a horse or a handsome young man, either way its enchantment is powerful) taking all the cheiftain’s sons. Donall is sent to look for the one man who may help them, Dall, a blind man who has great wisdom. Dall tells Donall that at the midnight feast of Samhuinn, he shall go to the waters of the sea and pit his magic against the Kelpie to get the sons back. Meanwhile, the Kelpie has seduced Donall’s best friend, Dianaimh, but the spell is broken when she gazes upon the Kelpie’s true slimy, water-horse form. She says she will only go with the Kelpie if she releases the cheiftain’s sons (one of which was her brother). The Kelpie agrees but secretly makes a plan of his own. At the Samhuinn feast, the Kelpie comes and takes Dianaimh’s beautiful cousin into the sea with him. At the same time as this, Dall the Blind has gone to the sea by the castle and works his spell. The Kelpie frees the chieftain’s sons and keeps the vain, selfish girl as a slave in his under-sea kingdom, allowing the mortals to think that Dall’s “magic” was powerful indeed. Now, that’s ‘Trick or treat’ for you!

From the stories and tales, we can see the idea of Samhain being close to the Otherworld and the supernatural. If the stories actually contain a truth in the act of having the feast by a lake or the sea, then this is probably because water was seen as not only the realm of the goddess, but of the Otherworld. Usually, in Celtic myth, if water or an earth mound wasn’t the gateway to the Otherworld, then fog was. What is fog if not a form of water vapour? And in autumn and winter, the chill in the air does indeed bring fog and mist…

Apart from being an ideal time for telling stories of heroes, creatures and gods, Samhain must have also been the last great festival before the hardship of winter was to come. The harvest was already gathered and livestock that was surplus would have been killed for the good of the people. This might seem harsh, but back then when there was only a fire to keep away the cold, sustenance as well as shelter were vital for survival. Animals were not killed for the sport of it as much could be gained from its death: Meat to be cooked and salted, bones for tool handles, jewellery, drinking horns, the creatures fat used for candles and cooking with, fur and feathers for cloaks, bedding and clothes against the snow and ice, its skin used for leather for belts, clothes, shoes, shield decorations and armour. To our modern point of view this might seem brutal, but to our ancestors, it was a necessity as in winter, the cold could kill human and animal alike. And if you didn’t have enough grain to feed the excess cattle, better to use the spare animals than leave them to die of hunger and cold.

Bonfires at Blodmonath?

Coincidentally, the Anglo-Saxons shared in a celebration around the same time as Samhain, this was called ‘Blodmonath’ (Literally ‘Blood Month’) and consisted of ceremonially sacrificing the cattle for the purpose of provision and sustenance as given above. This took place in November and involved a ritualised version of animal slaughter and meat salting, with the head being given to the gods. As well the burial of these animal heads at the homestead, the Anglo-Saxons also lit bonfires; something that Modern Pagans have always ascribed to Samhain and the Celts.

Fire was (and is) seen as a deterrent for spirits of all kinds, whether they are the sprites and brownies of the woods and the home or the spirits of the dead.
There is a number of folk customs around Samhain to suggest that fire was important at this time of year. Obviously when at the end of summer and the beginning of winter, fire was a very useful thing to have. Though it is interesting to note that none of the Celtic stories above mention anything about fire playing a prime ritualistic or ceremonial feature.
Folk customs around Great Britain and Ireland are varied at the time of Samhain, not all revolve around fire, but the some do:

In Ireland, a cross made of sticks and straw called a ‘parshell’ was hung outside the entrance of people’s homes. This was meant to keep out the fairies and goblins from wreaking havoc in the homestead.

In Scotland, Sir James Frazer in his ‘The Golden Bough’ writes of a Highland custom with fires called ‘Samhnagan’, involving the burning of ferns and long grass stalks with tar.
Another tradition involves the collection of peat to make a fire for burning the burning of witches…. crikey!

He also writes of the Welsh Calan Gaef (Calends of winter) custom which happens at the same time as Samhain; this is called ‘Coel Coeth’ and involves the burning of a bonfire until it became ash. At this point each family member of the homestead places a white stone with their name attached, before going to bed. Apparently if any went missing, it meant that the individual whose stone disappeared would die before the next Halloween.

The above practices are mainly Halloween customs of the remaining Celtic lands from the past few hundred years. Though not strictly Samhain rites, there is still the element of the supernatural about them.

“Celtic New Year”

It is in Modern Paganism we find the god has now officially died. The Goddess retreats, carrying the new god within her womb until his birth/rebirth at midwinter. In this version, Samhain is seen as the ‘Celtic New Year’ and a time of ancestor worship as Pagans use this time to say farewells to family members who have died in that year or simply get together to honour their ancestors and gods.
The ancestor part of Samhain actually comes from All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Unlike the traditional Samhain connections with the Otherworld, the focus of these Christian festivals is on the dead. The Catholic emphasis was of ensuring the souls of the dead could move on from purgatory to Heaven, often enacted with the burning of fires or straw to help guide the souls of their departed loved ones.
At some point, every culture has a form of recognising the ancestors. For Samhain, is it a kind of “Chicken and Egg” scenario? who venerated their ancestors first? the Pagan Celts? the Christian Britons? Or did the Christians begin honouring their dead because the old associations with the Otherworld and Unearthly beings became seen as something “evil”, or at least ‘Non-Christian?’

And what of the ‘Celtic New Year?’ According to Ronald Hutton in his ‘Stations of the Sun’:

…the philologist Sir John Rhys, who suggested that it (Samhain) had
been the ‘Celtic’ New Year. He had not documented this from early
records, but inferred it from contemporary folklore in Wales and
Ireland, which he felt to be full of Hallowe’en customs associated
with new beginnings.

Hutton also reveals that Frazer expanded on this idea as the ‘Celtic feast of the dead’.
Indeed, in the classical Samhain, there is no mention of the festival having anything to do with the New Year, Celtic or otherwise.
One argument for this could lie in the fact that the Celts counted their days at night and their months on the New Moon (as in the dark phase of the Moon, not the first crescent it is considered now). If this model has been interpreted correctly then it would make sense for the ‘New Year’ to be placed in the beginning of the dark half of the year. Truth is, we don’t really know.

The modern Samhain accepts the classic idea of the ‘veil being thin’ between our world and, in this case, the world of the dead. For Modern Pagans it is a night of honouring the ancestors, even saying goodbye to those family members and even pets who had died in the year. There are many ways of doing this, some give out litanies of those who they want to acknowledge, others give offerings of food and drink. Some even honour the Cailleach (Hooded One, or Hag), the Celtic Dark Mother who is seen as the personification of Death and winter. She has been compared with the Crone aspect of the Goddess in the Western Magical Traditions, along with Cerridwen and Hecate.
Because of the associations of ‘between the veil’, Samhain is now recognised as a time for performing divination magic. Of course this varies a lot, whether its using Tarot cards, runes, pendulums, tea-leaves, even simply watching the dancing of the flames of a bonfire. There is often a ritual or prayer to deity, an offering of incense before the divinatory rite is held. The stereotype here is that witches call upon demons or the spirits of the dead to do their bidding. The reality is actually of reverence, not enforced servitude; spirits and deities are invited to come forward and give any advice should they wish to do so. Once the rite is over they are politely dismissed, or invited to stay and enjoy the energy of friendship and joy, leaving in their own time before the night is done.

So, aren’t Samhain and Halloween just the same thing?

The answer is both ‘no’ and ‘yes’. Samhain, in its classical version, as we have explored, was seen as a time when Otherworldy beings would become more active and prevalent, as if the transition from late summer to early winter created a sort of ‘doorway’ for spirits, fey people and even the deities to come and interact with the mortal realm. It wasn’t until the advent of Christianity the focus changed from one of a time of mystery to a time of honouring the dead.
Even then there are two festivals: All Hallows Eve, a festival for honouring the saints of the Roman Catholic pantheon, which in time became abridged to the shortened name ‘Halloween’. The second is All Soul’s Day, where fires used to be lit and prayers sung to guide the souls of everyone who wasn’t a saint out of Purgatory and into Heaven.
The bonfires (which may or may not have come from Pagan practice) were then employed to drive away the spirits and devils that were believed to be active at this time. In this regard, Samhain and Halloween are similar as the focus is on the supernatural and protecting people from it.
I still remember when I used to go to church and was horrified to learn they didn’t “Do Halloween”, but they did burn a bonfire for All Hallow’s Eve with the intention of driving away malignant spirits and demons.
Being a Catholic tradition, Halloween would have been taken in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries with the immigrants from Scotland and Ireland to America where it intermingled with another celebration: Dias De Los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead. This is another Catholic practice, although mixed with Native American culture of the Aztecs. They believed the journey to their Underworld was a dangerous one, their gods only letting them pass with bribes. When the Spanish Catholics came, they condensed the two month festival into All Hallows and All Souls. This became Dias De Los Muertos and is celebrated for the spirits of children with candy skulls, toys and gifts. The Adult version honours the deceased with alcohol and tobacco. Both have the motif of skulls and skeletons, possibly stemming from the ‘Danse Macabre’ artwork popular in Europe around the Sixteenth to Eighteenth centuries.
It is quite easy to see how in the America’s, the Latino ‘Day of the Dead’ and the Celtic Halloween became entwined. Both were Christian festivals heavily influenced from native traditions and became festivals in their own right. Within the Twentieth Century, Halloween had become something else: it became a night for costumes and playful horror. By the time it returned to our part of the world, here in Great Britain and Ireland, Halloween became a night for dressing up ourselves as well as our homes. Folk traditions of children dressing up on All Hallows Eve with costumes and masks painted, speaking in silly voices so neighbours had to guess their identity have given way to costumes of ghosts, vampires, witches and now space aliens and pirates!
Even today, Halloween has kept some of the old influences; apple bobbing, for instance, now a game for children was originally a mild form of love divination. Originally, apples were filled with a slip of paper onto which a message would be written such as “Your love will be true” or “He will be handsome yet penniless”. Young ladies would still have to ‘bob’ their heads into the water to retrieve the apple without the use of their hands, however. In fact, a lot of the Halloween superstitions are concerned with young ladies finding out the identities of their future spouses whether gained by peeling an apple skin whole to reveal their true love’s initial, divining what kind of man they will marry by pulling out a cabbage stalk, or even combing one’s hair in front of a mirror at midnight by candle light was said to reveal the face of their future love in the mirror as though standing behind them!

In conclusion…

From (classical) Samhain we gained a time of the supernatural, which then went then became folk traditions of protection and divination. The old stories seem to paint a picture of Samhain being a feast or event taking place by the waters, whereas fire (Christian or not) was also a social hub for people to gather. The Christian element of respecting the dead has now gone full circle, Halloween is about keeping back the monsters. The Modern Samhain draws from a Catholic background with a Celtic flavour, but at the same time has links to traditions that aren’t necessarily Christian. This is why, of all the eight festivals in the Wheel of the Year, I would suggest that if Halloween isn’t the descendant of Samhain, then it is certainly its evolution. Whether Modern Pagans like it or not, Samhain today, with its focus on ancestor worship is not the Samhain of the past; with its physical games, tournaments and slaughter of cattle.

Bibliography

http://m.dictionary.com/etymology/samhain?linkid=8uxrdf&srcpage=definition&site=dictwap

Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, CARDINAL Edition, Sphere Books, London, 1974.

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

Ancient Irish Tales edited by T.P. Cross and C.H. Slover, 1936 used in the book: Celtic Myths, Celtic Legends, R.J. Stewart, BCA, London, 1994.

Peter Berresford Ellis, The Mammoth Book of Celtic Myths And Legends, Constable & Robinson Ltd, London, reprinted 2002.

Gale R. Owen, Rites and Religions of the Anglo-Saxons, Barnes & Noble, Inc., New York, Reprinted 1996.

Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Oxford University Press, Oxford, Re-issued 2001.

Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Wordsworth Editions Ltd, Hertfordshire, 1993 edition.

David Clarke, Strange South Yorkshire: Myth and Magic in the Valley of the Don, Sigma Leisure, Wilmslow, Chesire, 1994.

Jennifer Cole, Ceremonies of the Seasons, Exploring and Celebrating Nature’s Eternal Cycles, Duncan Baird Publishers Ltd, London, 2007.

Anon. The Complete Book of Fortune: The Secrets of the Past, Present & Future Revealed, Blaketon Hall Ltd, Exeter, 1988.

Chasing the Mabon

Big thanks to Teller who asked me ‘So, when are you putting up the blog?’ And a huge thanks to Cthulhudruid who managed to find my original post after it had been accidentally deleted!

Maponus image from Gettyimages

Ah, yes. Autumn! The season of falling leaves, bounties of fruit and vegetation, bird migration and garden spiders coming out to capture unsuspecting prey (shudder). This season also sees the Equinox as the dramatic increase of the dark overtakes the long summer nights. The balance is struck and the wheel turns once again….

Within the usual modern Pagan circles, the Autumnal Equinox has been given a name…. Mabon. Whom or what does this name come from? What the hell is a Mabon anyway?

The short story is that in the 1970’s Aiden Kelly, Wiccan High Priest, came up with the name for the simple fact that he didn’t like that the Autumnal Equinox celebrations didn’t have a grander name. In his own words, please read this.

The long story…..

Mabon is a now shadowy figure, one who once had a cult all of his own stretching from Wales to Lancashire, Northumberland, Cumbria and Scotland. Mabon means ‘Son’ in Welsh and the most familiar version of this is the character of Mabon ap Modron (Son of Mother), from the tale ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen‘.

In the story, the hero Culhwch falls in love with the beautiful Olwen. Which is great, because she loves him too and it turns out that marrying her will lift the curse that was put on him by his jealous step-mother. Problem solved. However, her Dad is Yspaddaden Bencawr, chief giant and realm owning badass. He is so against the idea of the marriage, he sets Culhwch 40 impossible tasks which must be completed. No victory from the young upstart, then no nuptials. Amongst these tasks was one where Culhwch must obtain the comb and shears from behind the ears of the dreaded supernatural boar, Twrch Trwryth. But this could not be done unless he somehow obtained the mardiest dog in the world, Drudwyn. And even then Drudwyn had to be controlled by Mabon ap Modron, a huntsman who must ride the steed Gwyn Dunmane…. and the snag was: “Mabon ap Modron who had been stolen from his home when he was three nights old, and his whereabouts not known…..

Luckily for Culhwch, his uncle Arthur (yes, THAT Arthur) had given him some of his knights as companions who helped accomplish most of the impossible tasks like some adrenaline charged-Redbull fuelled group from Dungeons & Dragons…. but they could not find Mabon ap Modron.

Anywhere.

Like, nowhere.

It was only after Arthur discovering hint about asking the Oldest Animals in the World the heroes stood a chance. So Culhwch’s band sought out the Blackbird of Cilgwri, the Stag of Rhendynfre, the Owl of Cam Cwlwyd, the Eagle of Gwernabwy and the Salmon of Llyn Lliw, to find Mabon’s location: the fortress of Caerloyw. Even then they have to break him out by force. Skipping to the end; Mabon and another hunter, some wild dude called Cynedyr Wyllt manage to corner Twrch Trwryth and grab the comb (Mabon) and shears (Cynedyr) before the Chief of Otherworldly Boars escapes and runs into the sea, prophesying he and Arthur shall fight at the end of the world…… well, a big rumble between them in the far future anyway.

In one version of the ‘Dream of Rhonabwy‘, Mabon is one of the advisors of Arthur, although this could be a confusion with another, Mabon ap Mellt (Son of Lightening) is described as a huntsman also….. This version hints at either this Mabon was as quick as lightening or was descended from some cthonic sky-god.

Interestingly, the character of Mabon was taken up by Roman occupiers in Britannia. Or perhaps, was taken up by Romanised Celts in the form of Maponus ‘Divine Youth’. Coins and inscriptions show Maponus with his dog (Drudwyn?). It appears that Maponus was equated with Apollo, the god of healing and poetry….. and linked with the bow and arrow, tools of the hunt?

What of Modron? Does the mother give any indication as to who Mabon is? She is of the ‘Washer at the ford’ variety of supernatural women, and is daughter to Afallach, one of the lords of Annwn (Welsh Otherworld), specifically, the ruler of Avalon. If true, then she was a magical being and therefore a woman of Sovereignty (The right to choose and the right to rule) and supposedly bore two sons to Urien Rheged, king of Rheged (supposedly a kingdom in Northern England and Southern Scotland). One of these sons, Owein, plays chess with Arthur in the ‘Dream of Rhonabwy‘…. see how these things always go in cycles?

Bizarrely enough, one of the stanzas of the Graves reads: “The grave in the upland of Nanllau; his story no one knows. Mabon the son of Modron the sincere.” So which is it? Is this the grave of Mabon who was in the quest for Olwen’s hand in marriage? Or was he always a mystery and none knew his details? If so, then why was he so popular? Could it be that Mabon ap Modron was in fact the figure of a mystery tradition? Like a Brythonic version Mythras?

The fact that there are remnants and inscriptions to Mabon/Maponus means there was some kind of reverence to him. What this originally was is sadly lost to time, but things have a very strange way of returning. In Modern Druidry, especially in OBOD, where the role of Mabon is given to the youngest member in the ceremony. When Aiden Kelly chose that name, did he do it because it fitted his aesthetic or was there a whisper from a long forgotten heroic huntsman? Also, how the hell did a babe taken away from his mother’s breast of only three nights old learn to become a hunter in the prison of a fort!? Perhaps….. and this is my interpretation…. perhaps Mabon in the story is meant as a metaphor for the adventurous spirit. He is the youthful part of us that dares to do the impossible once he has broken free of the dark prison of our minds. The Mabon hones it’s skills and when is broken free by bravery and need it can go forward and seize the fierce dog of anger to accomplish great things. For when the sun goes down at the Autumnal Equinox does the night get stronger. And as the nights draw in, it is the perfect time to develop our own skills and look inward until we need to release the adventurous spirit within.

Sources:

The Isles of the Many Gods, David Rankine & Sorita D’Este. Avalonia, London, 2007.

The Mabinogion, a new translation by Sioned Davies, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007.

The Keys to Avalon, the True Location of Arthur’s Kingdom Revealed, Steve Blake & Scott Lloyd, Element Books Limited, Dorset, 2000.

The Masculine Principle: Part 4- The Quest

350px-QuestingKnight

Questing Knight, artist unknown, but I get a Games Workshop vibe….

The Quest

Cormac was probably expecting he and his men to travel all the way to the West, the direction of death and the Blessed Isles, that’s where he’d find Tir na n’Og.  There he’d find The Stranger and his family.  He was more than likely all fuelled up on adrenaline and anger as he prepared for the long journey from his fort.  He must have been quite surprised, once the fog had cleared, to find he was in a strange land.  Stranger still must have been the sights before him as he steadily rode on in wonder at the horsemen putting feathers on a roof only for them to blow away, at the young man who kept refuelling the fire as it burned its insatiable appetite for wood.  He must surely have realised he was no longer in his own realm as he approached the pool surrounded by nine hazel trees, this pool was only ever heard of in legend!

It is not without irony that Cormac, after drinking from the pool gained understanding, as was revealed later, the pool he drank from was the waters of the heart.

Cormac’s quest had actually led him to himself.  As most quests do.

Quests are great plot devices to move a story forward.  They are an entertaining way for us to follow the protagonist as they go and look for something or someone.  An adventure to be had as the audience is taken on a journey of the search for some MacGuffin or the rescue of a person (not always a lady, this could be a family member or someone who can help the main character in some way- provide a cure for instance).  For some quest’s that’s all there is to it.  The monster is dead, hero gets made leader, marries, the end.  For others, the protagonist often discovers something about their self or from their tribulations manages to become more in themselves in some way.

The Welsh Peredur leaves his mother in order to become a knight for Arthur, only for him to go on a series of adventures where he sets out to right the wrongs that are occurring in the land.  In so doing this he discovers, through his own innocence, that he is better in strength and bravery than any of those knights he sought to become.  He also learns that some of his acts had been engineered in order for him to fulfil a prophecy of avenging his uncle’s death.

The Scottish hero Diarmuid, a member of the war-band known as the Feans (Scottish version of the Irish war-band the Fianna) is summoned to the underwater realm of the Fomorii in order to use his healing skill on their princess.  To retrieve the healing cup she needs, Diarmuid travels to the Plain of Wonder.  It is with the help of a Brownie he gets to the Plain of Wonder, but he uses up the power of the Cup of Healing in order to heal the gatekeeper he killed.  The Brownie helps him again and takes him to the Waters of Healing on the Island of Death.  The Brownie also gives Diarmuid the advice of refusing whatever the King of the Fomorii offers as reward for healing the Princess.  Once this is done, he asks for only a boat to take him back above water.  In all of this, Diarmuid discovers that pride clouds reason, that a true heart can make friends in any realm, that his skill is to be given to the world, not traded for, and that what seemed like three nights for him was but minutes for his companions!

Cormac rode with his men only to be separated in the fog until he alone emerged in Tir na n‘Og.  His quest was one of self discovery.  Diarmuid’s quest was not for himself, but for helping his friend.  Although it was only his skill of healing that qualified him to take part.  It was for him to learn the lessons he discovered which he would not have done if his band had been with him.

Sometimes, we must undergo the quest to find ourselves and this can only be achieved alone.  Once we get past the cloud of fear and doubt, if we take the time to listen to our own hearts do we know what we really want or need.  To go onto the quest for ourselves is to have an outcome in mind, but we must not take this quest lightly.  For by the end of it we will emerge a changed person. And the outcome might not be what we expected.  To be a more complete and whole version of ourselves- that is the quest.

The other tales and their protagonists had people helping them and giving advice along the way, in another tale, Culhwch and Olwen, Culhwch would have failed miserably if not for the help of his friends.  Culhwch’s story teaches that a quest need not be one taken alone.  He acquired a band of brothers.

 

Band of Brothers

At times, we need others we can fall back on.  Others we can confide in and trust to have our backs when we need them; to keep us going when we cannot.  This is where the Band of Brothers comes in.  For Culhwch, it was a handful of Arthur’s knights and a cousin.  For Arthur it was his knights and Merlin.  For Robin Hood it was his ‘Merry Men’.  For Diarmuid it was his fellows of the Feans.  For Bendigeidfran it was his brother and step-brothers.

The Band of Brothers isn’t simply a gang to beat seven levels of crap out of anyone who looks at you wrong, but a fellowship of support and faith in each other.  It doesn’t have to be a seasoned group of warriors, ex-soldiers or gangsters.  Your own Band of Brothers can be your friends, family members, and people with a common interest that trust each other.  My very own ‘Band of Brothers’ includes women in it and others I can trust to help me when I need it, as well as who I trust to turn around and tell me when  I’m being a dick!  There’s that saying that ‘True Friends will tell you exactly what you don’t want to hear.’  Stop right now.  And think.  Who in your life do you trust implicitly?  Who do you turn to when things go wrong? Who tells you the truth even though you didn’t want to hear it? Who are you there for when they need you in return? These are the people who can be regarded as your ‘Band of Brothers’.

Cormac was separated from his soldiers to go on his quest alone, but his band wasn’t his men.  His band was his family, they were his heart.  Cormac learned they were his true source of strength and his true wealth.  Cormac wasn’t a raging warlord, he sought peace and negotiation (let’s not fool ourselves into thinking there were never any ‘aggressive negotiations’) and at the same time he was strong and wise.  It was a moment of folly that took him to learn what was most valuable to him; there are times in all of our lives where a moment of folly takes place.

Cormac was prepared to do whatever it took to get his family back.  His rational and calmer side now gone, it could be said he went on the quest for his Feminine Principle.

 

The Quest for the Feminine Principle

 If we go along with the idea in Part 3, that the Masculine Principle needs the Feminine Principle to balance and compliment it, then this is the real deep meaning of The Quest:  It isn’t about rescuing a damsel in distress, it isn’t winning the girl’s love and affection, it’s about coming into contact with something within that makes us whole.  We know what happens when the Masculine Principle becomes too much: It becomes base, shallow and aggressive.  It will assert itself any damn way it wants and if you don’t like it, it’ll tear your gods-damned head off and stick it on a spike!

I could say that by touching the Fairy Branch (Phallic device, anyone?) it had already ignited the fire of over ‘manliness’ in Cormac.  So much so, that he abandoned reason altogether and never thought to ask what the price would be.  Only when it was too late did he regret his actions, spurring him on to make things right…. in the headstrong, avenging manner.

The Quest took him onto a journey of discovering what it meant to be a good king, a good person: to not be led by his own vanity, to not burn out all of his energies for others and to look into the heart of things by paying attention to the world around him.  It was with patience in listening to the small company and what truths they shared did he finally say aloud the truth of himself: He was a vain fool and would only be happy once he had his wife and children back.  That was when he was reintroduced to his family.  That was when he was reconnected with his Feminine Principle, and we can see this in the last gift that ever so crafty Manannan Mac Lir gave to him: The Cup of Truth (Vaginal device anyone!?)

So, am I saying that for a mortal man to become the best at what he could be, it took the orchestrations of a masculine deity of a feminine energy (God of the Sea) to teach him how?

Yes.  For Cormac to become the High Chief, the King he was meant to be, he had to find the harmony of both Principles in himself.

The quest to seek either the Masculine or Feminine Principles is the quest to find the truth about ourselves, what is our strength? Where are our values? What gives us meaning?

To follow the Masculine Principle is to follow our heart; from it we know our own truths.  It is also to know your inner strength (once you have found it) for it will give confidence, fortitude, discernment and resolve.