Armistice Day – The Day of the Dead

The poppy has represented rebirth since ancient times.

The poppy has represented rebirth since ancient times.

Armistice Day is observed on the date of the momentous ‘Armistice of Compiègne’ – the agreement by which the Allies and Germany formally concluded hostilities of the ‘The Great War’ on the 11th hour of the 11th day of November 1918. It marked a culmination of the collapse of German military might on the western and eastern fronts and a revolutionary overthrow of its domestic political order, enforcing the necessity to surrender. Rather than being a celebration of victory, where the day (and hour) is universally observed, it is in commemoration for the massed ranks of the dead, butchered in unbelievably savage conditions in Europe’s once green and beautiful fields, and among her once majestic, now shattered ancient towns and cities. The date itself is curious. The 11th of November has deep shared meaning to north Europeans for a number of reasons:

St Martin’s Day:

The 11th day of the 11th month of the Gregorian calendar is marked by a popular religious festival in the calendar of Saints of the Roman Catholic church – the Feast of St Martin of Tours, commemorating one of northern Europe’s early Christian proselytes and famous ‘military saint’. The name ‘Martin’ is, of course a reference to Mars – ancient Romes’s chthonic war-god. Christian activists often adopted a name upon receiving their new faith, or upon being inducted into a religious community, and ‘Martin’ is the name given by the late Roman-era Christian writer Sulpicus Severus for this former Roman soldier-turned-ascetic who was nominated as the first Christian bishop of Tours and credited with spread of christianity in pagan northern Gaul, Germany and Britain. His most famous legend tells of him cutting his cloak to give half to a freezing beggar who is supposedly then revealed to him as Christ personified. He is often depicted riding a horse.

The popularity of Martin’s festival (also known in English-speaking regions as Martinmas) is largely because it represented a time of first frosts, when harvests had been gathered and store-rooms were full. In other words, it was the start of winter. Popular festivities and feasting with special foods (e.g. – the traditional Martinmas goose) were/are particularly observed in catholic north Europe, and meld with some strange and distinctly pagan customs – also involving birds: In particular, an Irish custom of beheading a cockerel and dripping its blood at the corners and portals of the homestead to ensure pluck and protection for the coming year. Rather than being a devoutly religious festival, it was also a time of secular celebration with cultural an calendrical associations with another festival, perhaps more widely known to us in modern times:

Hallowe’en, All Saints Day, Samhain: 

Hallowe’en or All Saint’s Day is observed on the 31st October/1st November. It appears to be based upon the old Atlantic ‘cross-quarter-day’ festival known in Irish as Samhain, at which the dead are traditionally remembered at the advent of Winter. Fires are lit and processions of young people go out in the night on exciting and wild adventures invoking the fear of death as part of its celebration. In this way, it mirrors the tamer festivities of the next most popular ‘religious’ festival, which is (of course) St Martin’s day on the 11th of November. Why should this be so?

The period between St Martin’s day and Samhain – some 12 days – corresponds to the calendrical shift between the old Julian calendar and the Gregorian calendar first instituted under the Papal curia in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII. The Julian calendar (still to this day employed by the Orthodox Christian church in Eastern Europe) was in common use in many parts of northern Europe until the late 18thC when all nations under Protestant influence finally acceded to it. As many traditional festivals were seasonal celebrations, this inevitably led to a deal of inertia in accepting the new calendar: after all, it was the calendar that had changed (to accommodate the church’s need to slow the ‘creep’ of its moveble feasts, based on old Jewish lunar calendrical reckonings – particularly Easter), and not nature. This led to the phenomenon of admixture of features between old and new festivals and thus, the 11th November became Old All-Hallows Day, or Old Samhain, if you will (Shenn Oie’l Sauin or ‘Hop Tu Naa’ to the Manx, who still observe ‘old’ festival days – particularly Old Christmas Day, when some have another feast all over again!).

The means that Armistice Day – St Martin’s Day – is in fact the Old Day of the Dead. Somewhat appropriate, don’t you think?

It is almost certain that circumstances and fate were behind the choice of this day to mark the Armistice for the war which marked the end of ‘Old Europe’ and the true advent of modernity. Curious though that the era of the Gregorian reforms marking the abandonment of the old (pagan era) calendar of Julius Caesar, and marked the start of the cultural, philosophical, technological and social transformations which ‘put the train in motion’ for its cataclysmic 20thC derailment and wreckage. World War 1 was only possible because of the centuries of warfare and accumulation of unstable power under the religiously polarised Christian elites of Europe and their equivocating financiers who played one off against another as they struggled to milk the coffers of Europe’s global Empires of the 16th-20th centuries. A whole generation lost its youth to that final slaughter, and Samhain seems an opportune time to remember them.

Britain’s ‘Bonfire Night’:

Stuck between Samhain and Martinmas is Britain’s curiously chauvinistic celebration known as ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ or just ‘Bonfire Night’ on the 5th of November. This too is a celebration of death – albeit the death of a personification of Roman Catholicism – in the figure of a man called Guy (‘Guido’) Fawkes whose effigy is burnt on great bonfires on this evening, accompanied by fireworks displays and merriment. Fawkes was a recusant Yorkshire Catholic ‘terrorist’ who was supposedly apprehended as he was about to bomb the Houses of Parliament and King James I on 5th November 1605. It appears that the traditional ‘All-Hallows’ bonfires were transferred to this date for political reasons under the Protestant ascendancy and furor of the 17th century. There is an increasing re-conflation of the two festivals, such that children begin parading the effigies of poor ‘Guy’ on All-Hallows eve – not unusually demonstrating the more typical trappings of ‘Hallowe’en’… Far from being a figure of hatred towards Catholics, though, ‘Guy’ has also evolved into something of an anti-establishment hero, whose image (as ‘sacrificial hero’) not only adorns British bonfires, but the masks of a million political activists the world over, inspired by the popular graphic novel ‘V for Vendetta’ by modern visionaries Alan Moore and David Lloyd.

V_for_vendettax

The period between the 31st of October and the 11th of November seems therefore to be returning to its traditional empirical spiritual (‘ex pagis’ or ‘pagan’) meanings, and moving away from its superficially Christian adornments. It has been a process of death and pain, but then from this new things are born…

Why not celebrate Samhain again this year on the 11th of November in the company of the Host of the Dead, on Old All-Hallows Eve?

The meaning of Samhain

Samhain is the quarter-day festival that starts the Celtic year, marking the start of Winter and the end of harvests. It commences at nightfall on October 31st (new style Gregorian calendar) or the 11th November (old-style Julian Calendar) and goes by a number of different English names including Hollantide, All-Hallows Eve, Hallowe’en and All Saint’s Eve. In Scots and Manx Gaelic the name is the same, although written differently: Samhuinn and Sauin, respectively. The pronunciation is ‘Sow-in’ (rhymes with ‘cow-in’). There are a number of other more archaic names, which I will go on to discuss in due course.

It is a festival that symbolizes death – the transitional phase of the seasons when Atlantic Europe’s foliage dies back, and animal life dwindles. The evenings darken rapidly and the first frosts begin to touch the land. Crows and flocks of migratory wading birds throng the skies in great clouds cawing, whistling and chattering. The constellation of Orion begins to dominate the night skies… The spirit which enlivened nature in the summer months has gone from visible reality to the state of an intangible but certain potential for the coming year. In an ancient religious system that viewed life as a continuous oscillation between the tangible living state and a spiritual state awaiting rebirth in the next cycle, Samhain was therefore also the Festival of the Dead. 

It was Julius Caesar who first noted (in Commentarii de Bello Gallico) that the Gauls held that days started with nightfall, and celebrated the commencement of their important days with the falling of night. The same is true of the other Atlantic peoples, and in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man in particular this continued down to modern times. The festival of Samhain was therefore called Oidhche Samhna – ‘Night of Samhain’ – in Irish, and Oie Hauiney or Houney in Manx. Both would be pronounced pronounced something close to ‘Ee ouna’ allowing for the usual lenitions and aspirations of spoken Gaelic.

The Manx had another name yet for the festival – ‘Hop tu naa‘ (pronounced ‘hop the nay’ or as the more modern ‘hop tyoo nay’) – which is of uncertain meaning and sounds curiously close to the Scots name for New Year: Hogmanay. In fact, Samhain was the Celtic New Year – just as days started with a nightfall, so the years started with the dark part also. It is uncertain when the Scots started to use ‘Hogmanay’ as the term for the 31st of December New Year, or for that matter if the term was ever used for Samhain. It seems that folk traditions of the Atlantic European world show quite a degree of transferability across the period between Samhain and the January New Year – customs including guising, playing pranks, gifting and house-visiting were just as likely at Christmas and New Year as they were around the 1st of November. Whether this represents a natural tendency to transfer celebrations that brighten the dull winter months or a concerted religious effort to dissipate or transform wholly pagan festivities remains unclear, but a combination of factors is likely.

There has always been a strong association of the festival with a ‘witch’ or ‘witches’ that has continued right down to the Halloween celebrations of modern times. The Celtic peoples never really had much time for the idea of ‘witches’ in the 16th/17thC judicial and religious sense of a person who worships the Christian Satan and does magic to harm their neighbours. The ‘witch’ referred to in Celtic areas is generally best interpreted as a Christian opinion of the old Goddess herself, rather than a human individual at the margins of society. She seems to be represented by the folklore character referred to as the Cailleach – a monstrous ancient female supposed to have created the landscape and unloosed the rivers, and supposed in some traditions to be responsible for winter. 

To the Celtic peoples of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man ‘The Witch‘ was a figurative legendary character representing Christian opinion of the ancient Goddess, rather than a clear and present social threat posed by ‘a witch’. For this reason, there were hardly any executions of suspected ‘witches’ in Celtic cultural zones.

'Jinny the Witch jumped over the house to fetch a stick to lather the mouse'  (Old Anglo-Manx Samhain song)

‘Jinny the Witch jumped over the house to fetch a stick to hit the mouse’ (line from an old Anglo-Manx Samhain guising-song) – the constellation of Orion presides over the winter skies between Samhain and Imbolc (1st February).

Irish legends and medieval manuscripts contain a number of references to Samhain, and one in particular to a ‘witch’ associated with the festival. The ‘witch’ was Mongfionn/Mongfind – ‘White Hair’ or ‘Fair Hair’ – supposed at least (euhemerisation agains!) to have been sister of Crimthann mac Fidaig, a king of Munster, and mother of Ailill, Brión and Fiachra, the traditional ancestors of the medieval Connachta, by a High King called Eochaid Mugmedon. The Connachta were the opponents of the Ulaid (Ulstermen) in the Tain. She is supposed by to have been a sorceress responsible for poisoning her brother in order to allow her children to succeed the kingship, but who died after tasting her own poison while trying to convince her brother’s children it was safe. It is the old ‘evil fostermother’ tale from folklore, also related in the story of the ‘Children of Lir’. This murder and her death happened at Samhain and the Book of Ballymote (folio 144, b.1) claims that Mongfind was thereafter worshipped at Samhain by the peasantry who called it the ‘Festival of Mongfind’ – Feil Moing! There is a hill called Ard na Ríoghraidhe (Height of the Kingfolk?) or ‘Cnoc Samhna’ (Hill of Samhain) in Co. Limerick that is associated with her. The details of the kingship-oriented stories involving Mongfind are probably an obfuscation of the facts, and the ‘White Haired One’ is likely to have been the aged Cailleach who represented winter and rebirth in the coming year. Perhaps the Milky Way was her hair? The path to renewal…

Cnoc Tlachtga (now also called ‘The Hill of Ward’) near Athboy, Co. Meath was also a place legendarily or historically associated with Irish Samhain festivities, including the lighting of a bonfire. This Hill was supposedly eponymously named from a magical female of the same name, the daughter of a magician-druid called Mug Roith/Mog Ruith who was suppose to have given birth to triplets on the hill before dying. Another site associated with paganism, death and Samhain was, of course, Magh Slécht (Mag Senaig) in Co. Cavan, supposed to have been the site where ‘Tigernmas’, an ahistorical pagan High King of Ireland died along with many of his followers while worshipping an idol called Crom Cruaich at Samhain. This idol was supposed to have later been broken by Patrick. There are many other traditions besides, including the tale of the Ulster Cycle called Serglige Con Culainn (The Wasting Sickness of Cúchulainn) were the Ulster hero is attacked and seduced by the Queen of the Otherworld – Fand, wife of Manannan – during the course of Samhain celebrations of the Ulaid.

Irish legend also place the start of the Second Battle of Maigh Turead at Samhain, and it commences after a sexual coupling of the Dagda with the Morrigan. Likewise, the cattle raid of the Tain Bo Culainge commences at Samhain, and the tales of this also feature the Morrigan, who I have earlier identified with the Cailleach. The medieval tale The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn claimed that the Fairy Hills (Sid) were open at Samhain. You can tell from ancient Irish literature that Samhain had a particular association with death and the otherworld, and with potent magical female characters!

The themes of conflict and death at Samhain follow on from the Harvest, and then the very visible Atlantic autumn die-back of nature – replete with withering, decay, storms and darkness. These processes are set in motion from the festival of Lunasa (Lughnasadh) onwards. The die-back to pagans was simply a part of the renewal-cycle and therefore did not have the confused connotations of ‘evil’ or ‘uncleanliness’ that was imported with the somewhat ectopic Judaic religions during the 1st millennium.