An Irish Halloween
Twas the banshee’s lonely wailing
Well I knew the voice of death,
On the night wind slowly sailing,
O’er the bleak and gloomy heath.
A lot of people don’t realize it, but Banshees are not the bringers of death, but rather the speakers for the soon to be dead. They sing of the deeds done by the soon to be departed, but to mortal ears, only the keening wail is heard. She is solitary faire woman, mourning and forewarning those only of the best families in Ireland, those with most ancient Celtic lineages, whose names begin with ‘Mac/Mc’ or ‘O’. According to tradition, the banshee can only cry for five major Irish families: the O’Neills, the O’Briens, the O’Connors, the O’Gradys and the Kavanaghs.
By ‘O’ or ‘Mac’, you’ll always know
True Irishmen they say,
But if they lack an ‘O’ or ‘Mac’
No Irishmen are they!
Intermarriage has since extended this select list. Each Banshee has her own mortal family and out of love she follows the old race across the ocean to distant lands. Her wails or keen can be heard in America and England, wherever the true Irish have settled.
When someone is about to die, the Banshee appears at the family’s home during the night and weeps and wails. Sometimes, the Banshee cries for several nights in a row. Her sharp, cries and wails are also called ‘keen’. The wail of a banshee pierces the night, its notes rising and falling like the waves of the sea, it always announces a mortal’s death.
It is said that when a member of the beloved race is dying, she paces the dark hills about his house. She sharply contrasts against the night’s blackness, her white figure emerges with silver-grey hair streaming to the ground and a grey-white cloak of a cobweb texture clinging to her tall thin body. Her face is pale, her eyes red with centuries of crying. Unseen, banshees attend the funerals of the beloved dead. Although, sometimes she can be heard wailing, her voice blending in with the mournful cries of others.
In 1437, King James I of Scotland was approached by an Irish seeress or banshee who foretold his murder at the instigation of the Earl of Atholl. This is an example of the banshee in human form. There are records of several human banshees or prophetesses attending the great houses of Ireland and the courts of local Irish kings. In some parts of Leinster, she is referred to as the bean chaointe (keening woman) whose wail can be so piercing that it shatters glass. In Kerry, the keen is experienced as a “low, pleasant singing”; in Tyrone as “the sound of two boards being struck together”; and on Rathlin Island as “a thin, screeching sound somewhere between the wail of a woman and the moan of an owl”.
It is possible to offend a Bean Sidhe (banshee). Never cut down a Faerie tree, or move an ancient boundary marker. Or disturb her while she laments the dead. If you’ve managed to get yourself into one of the bean sidhes bad books, go to the place where she most often appears after dark and leave a peace offering of bread. If it is gone the next day, you know that all is forgiven. If not, you must have really got her angry. It is said that if you meet one and she gives you her name, do not tell anyone else her name as she’ll never forgive such an intrusion of her privacy.
In County Clare local legend in the Dysert area told how Aoibheall (a well known banshee) and twenty-five other banshees washed blood-stained clothes in Rath Lake on the eve of the famous battle in 1318 at which Richard De Clare was killed, and that they still do so in times of crisis. Richard the Clare, the Norman leader of the 12th century, had met the “horrible beldame”, washing armor and rich robes “until the red gore churned in her hands”, and had been warned by her of the destruction of his host.
A word of warning, an Adh Sidhe should never be confused with a bean sidhe. Similar in appearance to the Banshee, the Adh Sidhe are spirits that are only seen by people who have an unclear conscience. They appear as either beautiful women who lure the evil to their destruction, or as sleek, terrifying black horses with red glowing eyes. You have been warned……….
But as it fell out on last Halloween
When the seely court was riding by
The queen lighted down on a rowan bank
Not far frae the tree where I wont to lie
She took me up in her milk white hand
And she’s stroked me three times on her knee
She changed me again to my ain proper shape
And I nae more maun toddle about the tree
Samhain. All Hallows. All Hallow’s Eve. Hallow E’en. Halloween. So many terms, all Hallow’s Eve is the eve of All Hallow’s Day (November 1). And for once, even popular tradition remembers that the eve is more important than the day itself, the traditional celebration focusing on October 31, beginning at sundown. Halloween is a Celtic holiday, ancient, before the written word. The Celts called it Samhain, which means “summer’s end”, according to their ancient twofold division of the year, when summer ran from Beltane to Samhain and winter ran from Samhain to Beltane.
Samhain is pronounced (depending on where you’re from) as “sow-in” (in Ireland), or “sow-een” (in Wales), or “sav-en” (in Scotland), or (inevitably) “sam-hane” (in the U.S., where not many speak Gaelic). Samhain was seen as the end of the year by the Celts, a new years eve. The new year itself began at sundown of halloween night with the onset of the dark phase of the year. The night itself is a celebration of the dead.
As a feast of the dead, this was the one night when the dead could, if they wished, return to the land of the living, to celebrate with their family, tribe, or clan. And so the great burial mounds of Ireland (sidhe mounds) were opened up, with lighted torches lining the walls, so the dead could find their way. Extra places were set at the table and food set out for any who had died that year. And there are many stories that tell of Irish heroes making raids on the Underworld while the gates of fairy stood open, though all must return to their appointed places by cockcrow.
It is also classed as a Celtic feast of divination. The reason for this has to do with the Celtic view of time. In a culture that uses a linear concept of time, like our modern one, New Year’s Eve is simply a milestone on a very long road that stretches in a straight line from birth to death. Thus, the New Year’s festival is a part of time. The ancient Celtic view of time, however, is cyclical. And in this framework, New Year’s Eve represents a point outside of time, when the natural order of the universe dissolves back into primordial chaos, preparatory to reestablishing itself in a new order. Thus, Samhain is a night that exists outside of time and, hence, it may be used to view any other point in time. At no other holiday is a tarot card reading, crystal reading, or tealeaf reading so likely to succeed. A game that’s still played, Puicini, involves a blindfolded person who is seated in front of a table on which several saucers are placed. The saucers are shuffled and the seated person then chooses one by touch. The contents of the saucer determine the person’s life for the following year. A saucer containing earth means someone known to the player will die during the next year, a saucer containing water foretells travel, a coin means new wealth, a bean means poverty, etc.
Some of the methods used are; girls were told to place hazelnuts along the front of the firegrate, each one to symbolize one of her suitors. She could then divine her future husband by chanting, “If you love me, pop and fly; if you hate me, burn and die.” Several methods used the apple. You should slice an apple through the middle (to reveal the five-pointed star within) and then eat it by candlelight before a mirror. Your future spouse will then appear over your shoulder. Or, peel an apple, making sure the peeling comes off in one long strand, reciting, “I pare this apple round and round again; / My sweetheart’s name to flourish on the plain: / I fling the unbroken paring o’er my head, / My sweetheart’s letter on the ground to read.” Or, you might set a snail to crawl through the ashes of your hearth. The considerate little creature will then spell out the initial letter as it moves.
The jack-o’-lantern is a well known symbol of Samhain. It’s of Celtic origin, when those who had to travel on All Hallows Eve carried lanterns with scary faces painted on them. These were meant to help scare away fairies and dark spirits. These were also placed outside households, to help keep them safe from demonic forces that roamed that night. Nowadays, the pumpkin seems to have taken its place.
The custom of dressing in costume and “trick-or-treating” is of Celtic origin. However, there are some important differences from the modern version. In the first place, the custom was not relegated to children, but was actively indulged in by adults as well. Also, the “treat” that was required was often one of spirits (the liquid variety). This has recently been revived by college students who go ‘trick-or-drinking’. And in ancient times, the roving bands would sing seasonal carols from house-to-house, making the tradition very similar to Christmas. In fact, the custom known as caroling, now connected exclusively with Christmas, was once practiced at all the major holidays. Also, the costume often consisted of nothing more than dressing up like the opposite sex. It seems as though ancient societies provided an opportunity for people to “try on” the role of the opposite gender for one night of the year. Celtic cross-dressing if you like.
On Halloween night in present-day Ireland, adults and children dress up as creatures from the underworld (ghosts, ghouls, zombies, witches, goblins), light bonfires and have firework displays. Children walk around to all the houses in their neighborhood looking for candy and nuts. Salt is still sometimes sprinkled in the children’s hair, to ward off evil spirits.
Houses are covered in decorations. The traditional Samhain cake is served, called bairin breac (type of fruit bread). Every member of the family gets a slice. Contained within the cake are three objects, a piece of rag, a coin and a ring. If you get the rag then your financial future is doubtful. If you get the coin then you can look forward to a prosperous year. Getting the ring is a sure sign of impending romance or continued happiness.
Naturally, the most important thing to remember is that Halloween has been around a lot longer than Christianity. It was the church that finally abolished (tried to anyway) the old pagan day of the dead and changed it to All Saints Day.