l

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Samhain


Samhain

 In ancient Ireland the new day began at sundown not at midnight as it does today.
Oíche Shamhna (Irish for Halloween) traditionally falls on November 1st which according to ancient calendar begins at sundown on the 31st of October and not at sundown on the first of November which one might expect.
Oíche Shamhna falls on one of the four "cross quarter days" which are the days marking half way point between the solstices and equinoxes. Upon these days are when the most important festivals of the ancient Irish occur. Known as Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine and Lughnasadh, each festival marks the start of a season, winter, spring, summer and autumn. Knowledge of the seasons was important for survival in northern climes as late planting could be disastrous in a short growing season. Thus equinoxes were of lesser importance. (Samhain, Bealtaine and Lughnasadh are still the names in Irish of November, May and August, respectively.)
The Julian calendar was reformed by Pope Gregory in 1582* (hence the Gregorian calendar which we use today) and ten days were annulled so that October 5, 1582 became October 15. However, the old cross-quarter days kept their old dates, so Samhain/Hallows, which was celebrated on the night of October 31, is still celebrated on that date, despite the fact that the actual revised date would be on November 11.
The actual astronomical cross-quarter or half-quarter day falls on November 7th (Nov 6 in time zones far west of Ireland). Some consider the night of November 10 to 11 to be the beginning of Hallows proper, the night when the hallows, or spirits of the dead, returned to this world. This period when the veil is open between this world and the next continues until November 16. This date is referred to as Gate Closing and which coincides with what is also known as Hecate Night and also when the Leonid meteor shower begins.
Samahain also coincides with the month of Pleiades, a star cluster also known as the Seven Sisters which shines from dusk until dawn. The night at which the Pleiades cluster is at its highest point in the sky at midnight occurs on or near the cross quarter day. The Pleiades cluster now occurs in the modern claendar on November 21st. However, the two events took place on or near the same date in the 11th century and 12th centuries. Back then the Julian calendar was in use and the cross-quarter day and the midnight culmination of the Pleiades fell, amazingly enough, on or near October 31. The Julian calendar was about one week out of step with the seasons. Had the Gregorian calendar been in use back then, the date of the cross-quarter day celebration would have been November 7.
The Pleiades cluster is interesting in that it allows us to speculate that it was this astronomical event which caused festivities to occur for the ancients and is likely source of the Samhain festival.
According to Irish mythology, Samhain (like Bealtaine in May) was a time when the 'door' to the Otherworld opened enough for fairies and the dead to communicate with the living. Bealtaine was a summer festival for the living in contrast to Samhain which "was essentially a festival for the dead". The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn says that the sídhe (fairy mounds or portals to the fairy world) "were always open at Samhain".
Apart from each being potentially a night of scary happenings, all the great Gaelic festivals like Bealtaine, Lughnasadh and Imbolc, Samhain involved great feasting and marked the beginning of the seasons, not the middle.
*Note: the Gregorian calendar did not come into effect in Ireland until 1st January 1752 because it was under the control of protestant England who were very reluctant to use a Catholic calendar!
Approximate pronunciation guide
Bealtaine – be-all-tin-ah
Oiche – ee-ha
Samhain – sow-aon
Lughnasadh - loo-neh-sah
Imbolc - im- bolc