Irish Folk Lore and Halloween by Lagensiensis 1870
ALL-HALLOWS' EVE, WITH ITS VARIOUS DIVINATIONS AND FESTIVE CUSTOMS.
See also Over 100 of the Freakiest, Creepiest and Scariest Books on DVDrom
For a list of all of my digital books and disks click here
Throughout these islands a great similarity appears to have prevailed, regarding the sports and incantations practised among our peasantry, on the Eve of All-Hallows. Many of those customs are fast disappearing. But, in former times, we can scarcely doubt, they had a connection with certain Pagan festivals. At present they are partially continued, as affording occasion for social and convivial amusements, especially amongst our young people.
Oidhche Shamhna is rendered by "All-Saints' Eve," in O'Brien's Irish Dictionary; and in O'Reilly's, Samhain is translated "All-Hallows' Tide," "All-Saints' Tide." We are told by General Vallancey that the Mi-Saman of the ancient Irish fell on the month of November. It was said to have been named Mi Du, or Dubh, the month of mourning, because it was a season appointed by the, Druids for a solemn intercession of the living, and for the souls of dead persons who departed life within the previous year. Samhain is said, by Dr. O'Donovan, to have been compounded from the Irish words Sam, meaning "summer," and fuin, "end."
We are next informed, that the Druids taught the Pythagorean doctrine, regarding a transmigration of souls. These were called to judgment at this season by Baal Samhan. According to their merits or demerits in past life, souls were assigned to enter bodies of the human or brute species. There were they to be proportionately happy or miserable during their next term of abode on this sublunary globe. But the punishment of wicked persons might be alleviated by the employment of charms and magic arts, or through means of sacrifices made by their friends to Baal. Hence the Eve of All-Hallows was called the Night or Eve of Samhan. The day following was a great festival, when sacrifices of black sheep are said to have been offered for departed spirits; while the Druids exhibited every possible description of charms or natural magic. This great festival of the Druids is said to have continued until the beginning of December.
About a century before the Christian era lived Eochaidh Aireamh, Monarch of Ireland. In the Sluaghid Dathi Co Sliabh n-Ealpa, or Expedition of Dathi to the Alpine Mountains—a story in the Book of Leinster— this prince was told by a Druid, named Finnchaemh, that the ancient palace of Cruachain, in Roscommon, had been built by the first-named Monarch. After it was erected on the lands of the Feara Cul of Teffia, and on the following feast of Samhain, or November Eve, their king, Mormael, invited the Monarch of Ireland to assist at this great solemnity. Complying with his request, Eochaidh Aireamh was treacherously murdered in the night, and was found dead next morning, by his own people. The murderers escaped detection, and contrived, moreover, to charge their crime on the Tuatha De Danaans' secret agency.
The celebrated King Dathy went from Tara to Ballyshannon, close upon this great Gentile solemnity of November, as we are told by Professor O'Curry. On this Eve of the great Samhain festival, he desired his Druids might ascertain for him, by their incantations, whatever incident should occur from that time until another such eve came round, regarding his own and the destiny of his country. In compliance with such instructions, his Druids left the camp in secret with the king, and all arrived in due time at Rath Archaill plain, where Druids' altars and idols stood. Dathi's queen, Ruadh, had a palace in this neighbourhood, and at a place still known under such name, in the Parish of Screene, and County of Sligo. Here the king slept for the night, while Doghra, the Druid, repaired to Dumha na n-Druadh, or the Druid's Mound, not far distant. After the exercise of his art, and at the sun's rising on the following morning, the Druid repaired to the king's bedchamber. Doghra then announced his having consulted the clouds of the men of Erinn. He found that the king must soon return to Tara, when he would invite all the provincial kings and chiefs to a great feast. Then should Dathi decide with them to undertake an expedition into Albain, Britain, and France, following in the conquering footsteps of Niall of the Nine Hostages.
It has been recorded that the ancient militia of Ireland went into winter quarters o oidhchie Shamhna go Beilteine; i. e., from All-Hallows' Eve until May-day. Mi-gam is said to mean the month of November; and it is thought marriages were then more common in Ireland, than during any other month. At the great periodical feast of Samhain, we find it stated, that poets and professors of all arts assembled. They brought tablets with them, likewise; and it is probable, these had been employed for the purpose of recording, in verse or prose, various ceremonies or incidents which passed under their observation.
How far the modern festivities or incantations of All-Hallows' Eve have been derived from ancient Gentile rites or ceremonies would prove a question difficult to determine. But this time of year formed a sort of era, remarkable for its peculiar observances among our ancestors.
Alluding to All-Hallows' Eve, or Vigil of Saman, General Vallancey makes mention of prevailing usages in vogue amongst the Irish peasantry during the last century. One of their practices was to assemble with sticks and clubs, going about from one house to another, collecting money, bread-cake, butter, cheese, eggs, &c, for a feast. They demanded such viands in the name of St. Columbkille, desiring their patrons to lay aside the fatted calf, and to bring forth the black sheep. Verses were repeated in honour of this solemnity. The good women were employed in kneading, in baking the griddlecake, and in making candles. The latter were sent from house to house in the neighbourhood. They were lighted up on the next day, which was dedicated to Saman. Before these candles the recipients prayed, or were supposed to pray, for the donor.
Every cottage or farm-house abounded in the best viands its owners could afford. Apples and nuts were devoured in abundance. The nut-shells were burned on a clean part of the hearth, and many strange predictions were announced from the appearance of the ashes. Cabbages were torn up from the root by boys and girls blindfolded, about the hour of twelve o'clock at midnight. Their heads and stalks were supposed to indicate some physical or mental peculiarities, such as tidiness, slovenliness, &c., of a future husband or wife. Hemp seed was sown by the maidens, and they believed that an apparition would be seen, if they looked behind at a man, intended to be their future spouse. They hung a chemise before the fire at the close of these ceremonies. They sat up as watches during the night, but concealed in the corner of a room, or more usually looking through the key-hole of a closed door. They supposed that an apparition of the man intended for a future husband would come down through the chimney, and be seen turning the garment. They used to throw a ball of yarn out through a window, and then wind it on to a reel kept inside of the house. They supposed, by repeating a Pater Noster backwards, and looking out of the window, that they would see his sith or apparition. Boys, and sometimes girls, would dive head and shoulders into a tub filled with water, endeavouring to bring up with their mouth an apple or money cast therein. Apples and lighted candles were stuck on cross sticks, suspended by cords from the roof or couples, and the former swung round in rapid motion by an unwinding of the line. During this motion the peasant endeavoured to catch an apple with his mouth, avoiding the flame, if possible. These and many other playful or superstitious ceremonies, which are said to have been relics of Druidic rites, were observed at this time. Vallancey thought they could never be eradicated whilst the name of Saman should be permitted to remain; but this name and their ceremonies are already fast falling into oblivion.
Sometimes girls take a riddle and collect a quantity of thrashed grain, which they winnow, believing they shall see a future spouse before their work is ended. It was also customary to place three plates before a person blindfolded, who was led towards them. One of tho plates contained water, another earth, and the third meal. If the person put his hand in the water, it indicated that he should live longer than a year; if in the earth, it was thought he must die before the close of a year; if in the meal, it betokened the attainment of wealth. Collcannon is prepared at this time, by washing and boiling potatoes, cabbages, carrots, turnips, and parsnips, sprinkled with salt and pepper. A lump of melted butter is placed on the top of this dish, and the mess is eaten without any other condiment. Young females go out at midnight, and cast a ball of yarn into the bottom of a lime-kiln, whilst holding on by a thread. If the girl wind on, and if nothing hold the yarn, it is a sign the winder will die unmarried. If she feel it pulled from her, she asks, "Who pulls my yarn?" when it is supposed her future husband will give his name or appear to her. Sometimes a demon will appear instead; and this latter event indicates that her death is not far distant. These customs are almost entirely extinct; and they were considered too closely allied with diablerie and magic, to be used by any except; the most reckless and unchristian practitioners.
It is customary on All-Hallows' Eve for young women and their friends to place on a well-heated and smooth stone of the hearth, or on the level bars of a grate, two or more hazel nuts. These are called after the names of supposed lovers; and they are watched with great anxiety, while burning before the fire. A popular belief in various contingencies, which may result from the process, has been thus versified, in a collection of poems published by Charles Graydon, in Dublin, about the beginning of the present century. The lines are extracted from a piece which is headed, "On Nuts' Burning, All-Hallows' Eve;" and they run as follows;—
"These glowing nuts are emblems true
Of what in human life we view:
The ill-matched couple fret and fume,
And thus in strife themselves consume;
Or from each other wildly start,
And with a noise for ever part.
But see the happy, happy pair,
Of genuine love and truth sincere;
With mutual fondness while they burn,
Still to each other kindly turn;
And as the vital sparks decay,
Together gently sink away:
Till life's fierce ordeal being past,
Their mingled ashes rest at last."
Bonfires were formerly kindled at this time, as well as at Midsummer. When the embers had partially burned out, those who assembled were accustomed to cast them about in various directions, or sometimes at each other, with no slight danger to those who were not skilful in parrying or escaping from the burning brands. Among men and boys this was regarded as an amusement only, however dangerous it might prove to individuals; but it is thought to have been connected with former Druidic or Gentile incantations. The high streets or market squares of towns and villages, or fairy-greens and cross-roads in the country places, were usually selected for kindling this Samhan pile. It is supposed the Druids delivered or distributed the brands of this November fire to the people, who were expected to light their household fires with them on the day following.
Melting lead in a grease-pot, and then pouring it through the wards of a door-key, into a basin or tub of water, was a source of great amusement. From the fantastic shapes it assumed afterwards, when sufficiently cooled, various prognostics were drawn respecting the fortunes of that person who held the key during the previous process. Castles, shops, farm-houses, and offices,
ships, and various implements of trade, were imagined, in the residuum of the lead. These grotesque objects were supposed to bear a certain relationship with the young diviners, in their subsequent journey through life. On Hallow Eve, in the Highlands of Scotland, a bunch of broom was fastened round a pole, and this combustible material was set on fire after dusk. The bearer, attended by a great crowd, ran through or round the village. Afterwards, flinging his burden down, a great quantity of fagots and inflammatory matter was heaped on the burning embers, until a large bonfire was kindled, which illuminated the surrounding place. This practice is a supposed relic of Druidism; for the old Gallic Councils forbid Christians to carry torches about, whilst the accensores facularum were condemned to capital punishment—this being esteemed as a sort of demoniacal sacrifice. Similar customs seem to have prevailed in Ireland; and it is probable enough that, in times far remote, additional incantations were used.
It is considered that, on All-Hallows' Eve, hobgoblins, evil spirits, and fairies, hold high revel, and that they are travelling abroad in great numbers. The dark and sullen Phooka is then particularly mischievous, and many mortals are abducted to fairy land. Those persons taken away to the raths are often seen at this time by their living friends, and usually accompanying a fairy cavalcade. If you meet the fairies, it is said, on All-Hallows' Eve, and throw the dust taken from under your feet at them, they will be obliged to surrender any captive human being belonging to their company. Although this evening was kept as a merry one in farmsteads, yet those who assembled together wished to go and return in company with others; for in numbers a tolerable guarantee, they thought, was obtained from malign influences and practices of the evil spirits.