Europe’s midwinter ‘wild man’ traditions

The Christmas period in Europe is marked by some fairly bizarre and decidedly un-Christian traditions, although given that this has been a festive period long before christianity hit the scene these are perhaps unsurprising. Although sometimes savage and alien, they give an insight into the world of spiritual empiricism which formed ancient indigenous cultural and religious philosophies and practices. The fact that many of these traditions enjoy a plasticity and interchangeability of date and can run anywhere from Hallowe’en (31st October) through to Epiphany (6th January) demonstrates perhaps that they are first and foremost midwinter festivals, with roots seated deeply in the ancient pagan world and its beliefs about ancestors, cyclicity and divine manifestation.

The traditions generally involve people dressing up in wild, frightening or outlandish costumes and performing processions and plays in honour of the festive season and of mythologies connected with it. Here are a few examples:

Swarte Piet and Sinterklaas:

Saturn and his Satyr? Swarte Piet and Sint Niklas...

Saturn and his Satyr? Swarte Piet and Sint Niklas…

The ‘Christian Santa’ is based upon St Nicholas of Myra – an early Christian saint from what is now modern Turkey. His festival is attached to the 6th December on the Gregorian calendar, yet by the Julian calendar it lies on the winter solstice. That he became a popular saint all over Europe is indicative of the ability of his traditions to supplant pagan ones, and in the Low Countries he became known as ‘Sintiklaas’, from which we get the name ‘Santa Claus’, and he had an elfen helper – Swarte Piet or Black Peter, who became a character accompanying St Nicholas in the religious festival processions typifying the festival in the Netherlands. The character is immediately identifiable as he has his face blackened. Those following my blog or knowledgeable in ancient Greek history and mythology will recall that the male satyroi celebrants of the midwinter Dionysia in Greece during the 1st millennium BC would blacken their faces with wine lees at the procession of the god’s epiphany, and this appears to be a continuation of such a practice. Like the Dionysian satyrs the purpose is entertainment and the bestowal of gifts. Piet and his boss generally arrive in their processions from a far off land, by boat – another link to Saturn and Poseidon, as well as to Dionysus.

Political extremists have recently made attempts to have Piet banned, claiming that he is an ethnic parody and denigrating the importance of the ancient tradition. The medieval conception of the man with a blackened face as a ‘blackamoor’ or ‘saracen’ always associates him with luck, and no negative ethnic connotations – a phenomenon recognised from across Europe where similar traditions occur. Perhaps the older origins of the face-blackening (the Dionysia of the ancient Greco-Roman world) have been overlooked, but in the very least the character is a positive celebration rather than having any negative connotations. The same might be said of our next winter character-performance:

Krampus:

December 5th (St Nick’s eve) and the first two weeks in December are associated with St Nicholas in Bavaria and Austria, and as in the Netherlands  the saint is accompanied in his processions by an outlandish sidekick, who is either his ‘helper’ or antithesis: Krampus.

A 'Krampus' character - devilish indeed! Half man, half beast - like the Greek satyrs

A ‘Krampus’ character – devilish indeed! Half man, half beast – like the Greek satyrs

Krampus or Perchtemn?

Krampus or Perchten?

Tradition holds that Krampus comes to punish the wicked (naughty children, in particular) and St Nicholas brings gifts for the good. It is a spectacle where children and the public in general get fun from a ‘scare’ from Krampus who brandishes chains, whips and bells and lears through his demonic and entirely terrifying mask. His northern German equivalent is Knecht Ruprecht – who plays a similar role but is of a much less terrifying persona, more human than beast, yet still with hints of ‘Robin Goodfellow’ in both name and deed. Krampus seems almost identical to the related:

Perchten:

Perchtenlauf processions are held just after Christmas in the period up to and including Epiphany (6th January or ‘Twelfth Night’). They occur in Southern Germany, Austria and Slovenia (where Mother Perchta is known as Pehta Baba). Like the Krampus traditions of early December, they involve the dressing up as masked characters, generally divided by their appearance and behaviour into the Schönperchten (“beautiful Perchten”) who wear mild-faced masks topped with floral or decorative crowns, and the (arguably much more popular)Schiachperchten (“ugly Perchten”) who correspond in appearance and behaviour to Krampus and delight in causing a good ‘scare’.

The mask of a Percht - typically worn at epiphany festivities.

The mask of a Percht – typically worn at epiphany festivities.

Badalisk and Bosinada:

Hailing from the Val Camonica region of the Italian Alps is an ‘Epiphany’ tradition corresponding to those of the Perchten further north and east. It involves a person dressing up as a wild creature called the ‘Badalisc’ or ‘Badlisk’ (i.e. – Basilisk) who is ceremonially ‘captured’ out in the countryside by a band of masked characters who parade it in the village of Andrista where it is ‘made’ to recount a rhyme containing humorous gossip and predictions for the coming year etc in return for its ‘release’ back into the wild. The event is marked by popular celebration and feasting and is an annual crowd-pleaser. It may be a remnant part of a wider regional (e.g. – Milanese) tradition of public performance or publication of satirical or excoriating rhyming poetry known as Bosinada, which offered a kind of pre-Epiphany ‘purgation’ of community woes – what might be called a ‘roast’ by contemporary American comics. Upon examination, it becomes apparent that such midwinter satire traditions appear in the ancient cultures all over Europe, and ultimately relate to the Rural Dionysia of ancient Greek culture!

The 'Badalisc' of Andrista, Val Cammonica, north of Milan.

The ‘Badalisc’ of Andrista, Val Camonica, north of Milan.

The ‘Basilisk’ of Greek legend was, by its name, the ‘King of Snakes’ and represented the figurative primal serpent often encountered in ancient European mythology. The Camonica valley was a Celtic region up until it Latinised in the 1stC CE with Rome’s northward expansion.

Wren Hunts:

The tradition of capturing a wren at midwinter and parading it tied to a pole is peculiar to Atlantic Europe and has been recorded in Spain, France (at Carcassone – former stronghold of Catharism) and (in particular) in Ireland, Wales and the Isle of Man. The reason for this distribution is unclear, although it seemingly corresponds to historic sea-routes by which ancient cultural traits have been proven by archaeologists to have spread in this region.

'Wren Boys' procession at Dingle, Co. Kerry, Ireland.

‘Wren Boys’ procession at Dingle, Co. Kerry, Ireland.

The Irish ‘Wrenboys’ who lead the procession of the bird wear outlandish straw suits and masks, primitively evocative of the shaggy Perchten of Austria, although not quite so fearsome. In the Isle of Man, such costumes were not recorded, although outlandish garb of some sort was known – boys would wear black coats in the early 20th century.

Black, bestial satyrs were the retinue of Dionysus in the DIonysia festival of ancient Greece. Image from an Attic vase 6th/5thC BCE.

Black, bestial satyrs were the retinue of Dionysus in the Dionysia festival of ancient Greece. Image from an Attic vase 6th/5thC BCE.

 

 

 

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?

Gods and Robbers: Sawney Bean

‘Gods and Robbers’ – an introduction:

I shall begin this ‘Atlantic Religion miniseries’ by just recapping on some of the mythologising phenomena that have influenced formerly pagan stories and woven them into the christianised narrative framework in Europe.

A number of different polemic and propaganda techniques appear to have been employed in the medieval Christian church’s efforts to incorporate and subsume the many and deeply-rooted European pagan narrative traditions which, even by the 12thC, were apparently deemed sufficient threat to undermine the establishment of the Christian religion and its vast power structures in Europe. The violence and outright warfare of Charlemagne’s 8thC conquest and forced conversion of pagan Saxon tribes, and of the Albigensian and Northern crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries was on the more extreme end of this spectrum, however. The church and its propaganda operatives generally relied more on polemical traditions, largely developed by the early ‘church fathers’ and used by northern missionaries such as Germanus of Auxerre, Ninian, Palladius, Augustine of Britain, and Patrick during the 5thC sub-Roman/early medieval period.

The main methods used for ‘handling’ pagan traditions can be summarised as follows:

1. Demonisation and ‘Monsterisation’: Perhaps the earliest and most basic technique, based on the theories set out by the earliest Christian authors and ‘church fathers’ that all pagan gods were in fact Satan’s evil demons who had been deceiving humanity for centuries. This would have been most prone to causing conflict among the target populations of missionaries as it equated their gods with ‘evil’. A more gradual process of ‘monsterising’ was also employed, which generally de-emphasised the ‘demonic’, and promoted the pagan characters as ‘monstrous’ (and technically then within the extremes of the natural order).

2. Euhemerisation or ‘humanisation’: Slightly more sympathetic and less likely to meet with violent opposition, this techniques was based upon the tendency of pagan nations and cities to deify their ancestors and pseudo-ancestors. It therefore became a ‘softer’ early Christian polemical doctrine to teach pagans that their gods were in fact originally human ancestors who they had formerly simply worshipped  in ‘error’. By this, they ‘humanised’ rather than ‘dehumanised’ pagans and their traditions, and were able to maintain the more deep-seated affections of ancestor-veneration in a Christian context. The gods therefore simply became part of the historical tradition: For this reason, the official genealogies of fervently-Christian 10th and 11thC Anglo-Saxon kings (written down for them by Christian scribes) were therefore able to firmly claim their proto-ancestor as Wodan without any bother! Likewise, the medieval Welsh Hareliean Genealogies did the same with the pagan gods of the ancient Britons. European peoples would give up their gods before they rescinded their ties to their ancestors, so deep was this spiritual link to the past.

3. Demotion and Diminution: The significance of pagan characters from narrative traditions could be demoted while still maintaining their presence in local Christianised traditions. Gods could become more humanised in their legendary forms and abilities, they could be given human parents. Goddesses became ‘fairies’ and ‘mermaids’, or just old ladies living deep in the woods.

4. Sanctification: The pagan characters of myth were often worthy and moral, generous and helpful and it was often more fruitful to portray them under the guise of a Christian ‘saint’, thus maintaining the important moral aspects of pagan tradition which were impossible to attack with demonization or demotion. It also allowed the pagan cultic sites to be employed under the ‘Theodosian’ system of usage-conversion.

5. Marginalisation: This was the siting of pagan mythical characters and traditions outside of the centre of the communities they formerly occupied. It might involve a relocation in both time and/or space, and was often coupled to the processes of humanisation, diminution and demonization.

These techniques inevitably became a part of popular tradition-making, devolved from ecclesiastical influence. The latter process (marginalisation) appears in part to be responsible for the creation of a number of popular ‘Outlaw’ legends throughout the British and Irish islands whose origins seem to be lost deep in the mists of the medieval period, and whose persistence perhaps owes itself to their deeper and more ancient mythical provenance:

‘SAWNEY BEAN’:

The popular notoriety and stories of the legendary Scottish cannibal-bandit ‘Sawney Bean’ still generates horror, revulsion and tourist dollars in his native homeland. The story goes that ‘Sawney’ (which is a Scots colloquialism of the name ‘Alexander’) ran away from his honest parents, joining forces with an equally evil-minded woman to live a life of crime and hideous cannibalism. They supposedly lived in a cave at Bennane on the Ayr/Galloway coast, on the Firth of Clyde, and had many children who they inculcated into their nefarious ways, sending the clan out to raid, steal and abduct and murder locals, whom they took back to their cave and cannibalised. They were evil in every way: an epitome of horror – robbery, murder, incest and rape were, as it were, their ‘bread and butter’. However, the legend goes that they were captured and taken to Edinburgh where they were tried at the behest of the King of Scotland before being mutilated and burned to death as punishment for their crimes.

'Sawney Bean' and his clan sit down to supper

‘Sawney Bean’ and his clan sit down to supper

Although the story is dressed up in an air of official historicity, an examination of evidence pertaining to it uncovers many levels of polemical intrigue with elements spanning from the medieval era down to the 18th century, and smacks strongly of the legendary, being difficult to locate to any one period in time. Sawney Bean and his tribe have been described as active in either the 15th, 16th or 17th centuries during the reign of the Stuart kings – it varies somewhat, depending on the telling. His name is sometimes given as ‘Donald Bane’ or ‘Donald Bean’ (‘Fair Donald’) – coincidentally the name of a Gallovidian monarch of the 11th century, linked to MacBeth and Mael Columb. Modern understanding of the tradition has been largely informed by popular interest during the 18thC in the broadsheet press and its often sensationalised reportage of macarbre and bloody crimes and judicial executions. Publications such as London’s popular Newgate Calendar and its derivatives became responsible for an explosion of this subgenre, causing publishers to look past the here and now and take in an interest in historical (and romanticisied) tales of gruesome murderers with which to further scandalise and amuse their readership. Consequently, there was a popular explosion of interest in the Scots legend of the Sawney Bean and his exploits, complete with popular ballads and performances based on the tradition. On account of this, the legend tended to become fixed to a time and to a geographical location in the public consciousness, even though its true provenance was somewhere indeterminate, ‘over the horizon of history’ – perhaps in the otherworld. The 1780 edition of Part 1 of the Calendar covered the years until 1740 and regaled its readers with details of famous murderers on a case-by-case basis. The inclusion of the legendary Sawney alongside more avowedly historic and contemporary characters must perhaps be viewed in the light of the prejudices projected against the Highland Scots and Irish following the Wars of Religion and Jacobite Rebellions. It derived from a number of earlier chapbooks, but as I cannot find prints of these to transcribe, I’ve included the Calendar version here (for a more detailed account of the printed origins see here):

“… SAWNEY BEAN

An incredible Monster who, with his Wife, lived by Murder and
Cannibalism in a Cave. Executed at Leith with his whole Family in
the Reign of James I

THE following account, though as well attested as any historical
fact can be, is almost incredible; for the monstrous and
unparalleled barbarities that it relates; there being nothing that
we ever heard of, with the same degree of certainty, that may be
compared with it, or that shews how far a brutal temper, untamed by
education, may carry a man in such glaring and horrible colours.

Sawney Bean was born in the county of East Lothian, about eight or
nine miles eastward of the city of Edinburgh, some time in the reign
of Queen Elizabeth, whilst King James I governed only in Scotland.
His parents worked at hedging and ditching for their livelihood, and
brought up their son to the same occupation. He got his daily bread
in his youth by these means, but being very much prone to idleness,
and not caring for being confined to any honest employment, he left
his father and mother, and ran away into the desert part of the
country, taking with him a woman as viciously inclined as himself.
These two took up their habitation in a cave, by the seaside on the
shore of the county of Galloway, where they lived upwards of twenty-
five years without going into any city, town, or village.

In this time they had a great number of children and grandchildren,
whom they brought up after their own manner, without any notions of
humanity or civil society. They never kept any company, but among
themselves, and supported themselves wholly by robbing; being,
moreover, so very cruel, that they never robbed anyone whom they did
not murder.   By this bloody method, and their living so retiredly
from the world, they continued such a long time undiscovered, there
being nobody able to guess how the people were lost that went by the
place where they lived. As soon as they had robbed and murdered any
man, woman or child, they used to carry off the carcass to the den,
where, cutting it into quarters, they would pickle the mangled
limbs, and afterwards eat it; this being their only sustenance. And,
notwithstanding, they were at last so numerous, they commonly had
superfluity of this their abominable food; so that in the night time
they frequently threw legs and arms of the unhappy wretches they had
murdered into the sea, at a great distance from their bloody
habitation. The limbs were often cast up by the tide in several
parts of the country, to the astonishment and terror of all the
beholders, and others who heard of it.  Persons who had gone about
their lawful occasions fell so often into their hands that it caused
a general outcry in the country round about, no man knowing what was
become of his friend or relation, if they were once seen by these
merciless cannibals.   All the people in the adjacent parts were at
last alarmed at such a common loss of their neighbours and
acquaintance; for there was no travelling in safety near the den of
these wretches. This occasioned the sending frequent spies into
these parts, many of whom never returned again, and those who did,
after the strictest search and inquiry, could not find how these
melancholy matters happened. Several honest travellers were taken up
on suspicion, and wrongfully hanged upon bare circumstances; several
innocent innkeepers were executed for no other reason than that
persons who had been thus lost were known to have lain at their
houses, which occasioned a suspicion of their being murdered by them
and their bodies privately buried in obscure places to prevent a
discovery. Thus an illplaced justice was executed with the greatest
severity imaginable, in order to prevent these frequent atrocious
deeds; so that not a few innkeepers, who lived on the Western Road
of Scotland, left off their business, for fear of being made
examples, and followed other employments. This on the other hand
occasioned many great inconveniences to travellers, who were now in
great distress for accommodation for themselves and their horses
when they were disposed to refresh themselves and their horses, or
put up for lodging at night. In a word, the whole country was almost
depopulated.   Still the King’s subjects were missing as much as
before; so that it was the admiration of the whole kingdom how such
villainies could be carried on and the perpetrators not discovered.
A great many had been executed, and not one of them all made any
confession at the gallows, but stood to it at the last that they
were perfectly innocent of the crimes for which they suffered. When
the magistrates found all was in vain, they left off these rigorous
proceedings, and trusted wholly to Providence for the bringing to
light the authors of these unparalleled barbarities, when it should
seem proper to the Divine wisdom.

Sawney’s family was at last grown very large, and every branch of
it, as soon as able, assisted in perpetrating their wicked deeds,
which they still followed with impunity.

Sometimes they would attack four, five or six foot
men together, but never more than two if they were on horseback.
They were, moreover, so careful that not one whom they set upon
should escape, that an ambuscade was placed on every side to secure
them, let them fly which way they would, provided it should ever so
happen that one or more got away from the first assailants. How was
it possible they should be detected, when not one that saw them ever
saw anybody else afterwards? The place where they inhabited was
quite solitary and lonesome; and when the tide came up, the water
went for near two hundred yards into their subterraneous habitation,
which reached almost a mile underground; so that when people, who
had been sent armed to search all the places about had passed by the
mouth of their cave, they had never taken any notice of it, not
supposing that anything human would reside in such a place of
perpetual horror and darkness.   The number of the people these
savages destroyed was never exactly known, but it was generally
computed that in the twenty-five years they continued their
butcheries they had washed their hands in the blood of a thousand,
at least, men, women and children. The manner how they were at last
discovered was as follows.   A man and his wife behind him on the
same horse coming one evening home from a fair, and falling into the
ambuscade of these merciless wretches, they fell upon them in a most
furious manner. The man, to save himself as well as he could, fought
very bravely against them with sword and pistol, riding some of them
down, by main force of his horse. In the conflict the poor woman
fell from behind him, and was instantly murdered before her
husband’s face; for the female cannibals cut her throat and fell to
sucking her blood with as great a gust as if it had been wine. This
done, they ripped up her belly and pulled out all her entrails. Such
a dreadful spectacle made the man make the more obstinate
resistance, as expecting the same fate if he fell into their hands.
It pleased Providence, while he was engaged, that twenty or thirty
from the same fair came together in a body; upon which Sawney Bean
and his bloodthirsty clan withdrew, and made the best of their way
through a thick wood to their den.   This man, who was the first
that had ever fallen in their way and came off alive, told the whole
company what had happened, and showed them the horrid spectacle of
his wife, whom the murderers had dragged to some distance, but had
not time to carry her entirely off. They were all struck with
stupefaction and amazement at what he related, took him with them to
Glasgow, and told the affair to the provost of that city, who
immediately sent to the King concerning it.   In about three or four
days after, his Majesty himself in person, with a body of about four
hundred men, set out for the place where this dismal tragedy was
acted, in order to search all the rocks and thickets, that, if possible, they
might apprehend this hellish crew, which had been so long pernicious
to all the western parts of the kingdom.   The man who had been
attacked was the guide, and care was taken to have a large number of
bloodhounds with them, that no human means might be wanting towards
their putting an entire end to these cruelties.   No sign of any
habitation was to be found for a long time, and even when they came
to the wretches’ cave they took no notice of it, but were going to
pursue their search along the seashore, the tide being then out. But
some of the bloodhounds luckily entered this Cimmerian den, and
instantly set up a most hideous barking, howling and yelping; so
that the King, with his attendants, came back, and looked into it.
They could not yet tell how to conceive that anything human could be
concealed in a place where they saw nothing but darkness. Never the
less, as the bloodhounds increased their noise, went farther in, and
refused to come back again, they began to imagine there was some
reason more than ordinary. Torches were now immediately sent for,
and a great many men ventured in through the most intricate turnings
and windings, till at last they arrived at that private recess from
all the world, which was the habitation of these monsters.   Now the
whole body, or as many of them as could, went in, and were all so
shocked at what they beheld that they were almost ready to sink into
the earth. Legs, arms, thighs, hands and feet of men, women and
children were hung up in rows, like dried beef. A great many limbs
lay in pickle, and a great mass of money, both gold and silver, with
watches, rings, swords, pistols, and a large quantity of clothes,
both linen and woollen, and an infinite number of other things,
which they had taken from those whom they had murdered, were thrown
together in heaps, or hung up against the sides of the den.
Sawney’s family at this time, besides him, consisted of his wife,
eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons, and fourteen
granddaughters, who were all begotten in incest.   These were all
seized and pinioned by his Majesty’s order in the first place; then
they took what human flesh they found and buried it in the sands;
afterwards loading themselves with the spoils which they found, they
returned to Edinburgh with their prisoners, all the country, as they
passed along, flocking to see this cursed tribe. When they were come
to their journey’s end, the wretches were all committed to the
Tolbooth, from whence they were the next day conducted under a
strong guard to Leith, where they were all executed without any
process, it being thought needless to try creatures who were even
professed enemies to mankind. The men had their privy-members cut
off and thrown into the fire; their hands and legs were severed from
their bodies; by which amputations they bled to death in some hours.
The wife, daughters and grandchildren, having been made spectators
of this just punishment inflicted on the men, were afterwards burnt
to death in three several fires. They all in general died without
the least signs of repentance; but continued, to the very last gasp
of life cursing and venting the most dreadful imprecations upon all
around, and upon all those who were instrumental in bringing them to
such well merited punishments …”

As it happens, there are no formal records extant of such a trial, which would surely have left its impression given that the monarch, James VI/I, seemingly took great interest in the judicial processes and personally attended a number of public trials. It would appear that the dating given in the Calendar was one of convenience, perhaps designed to suit the political atmosphere and prejudices of the late 18thC. Galloway itself was – during the early 18thC – a hub of the somewhat politicised Irish Sea running trade, and French privateer frigates were given safe haven in the Western Isles during the 7 Years War during the 1750’s and 60’s, so there was good reason why such a negative character might have been depicted hiding out in caves on the Galloway coast.

The cave of Sawney and his clan is most commonly located to Bennane Head, Ayrshire, formerly being in the lands of the distinctly Gaelic Kennedy clan who had ruled over the Carrick district since at least the time of Robert the Bruce. It is certainly capable of housing a group of bandits, but does not fit the description in the Newgate Calendar tale, which forms the basis for modern recollections of the tale in Scotland. It is not in a place which would have been sufficiently remote in ancient times. The cave has sufficient early 16thC provenance and importance to appear on a 1450 writ asserting the rights of Johne Kennedy to the lands at:

“…Bennane and Dalwegene with the Manor Place and Cave of the same togidder with the office of Seargandrye of the said Earledome Carrick and that upon the said Henrye Kennedy his resignation which lands and office he had held hereditarily from James II, dated at Aire febr 13 1450 …” (See: History of the counties of Ayr and Wigton, Volume 2 p.95, by James Paterson; Pub. James Stillie, Edinburgh 1864)

They cave is on a small bay, and could have served use as a warehouse, boathouse or even a defensive shelter, hence its inclusion in the above writ. James Paterson described the remains of a masonry bulwark wall at the head of the cave that was ancient in the 1860’s as well as remains of buildings. The Kennedy clan were eventually caught up in the religious chaos and in-fighting following the Protestant reformation, and the murderous intrigues and regional instabilities between Kennedy and his neighbours only hastened the willingness of the Stuart monarchy to finally begin to break independent Clan economic, military and religious power in the region – power which they had originally fostered.  It is perhaps no surprise that Sawney’s scandalous legend would have been located within these lands for this reason, but the history of banditry, piracy and ‘out groups’ in the West Lowlands has an even older provenance beyond the history of the Pictish and Dalriada kingdoms.

So… what of Sawney Bean in all of this? Evidently, to have inhabited the Bennane (Benand) cave he would have had to have done so with the blessing of the local Kennedy lairds, to whom the cave was evidently important. This makes the legend of a real outlaw unlikely, unless he was one of the Kennedy’s himself. Some regional clans certainly practiced piracy and smuggling down to the 18thC (some might argue they were no more pirates and smugglers than the King’s navy and trade fleets). Cannibalism? It seems like too lurid a detail to be true and almost certainly originates in Scottish polemical propaganda of the intrigue-riddled Shakespearean/Renaissance Age, rather than English efforts at Scots-bashing in the 18th century. ‘Makar’ poet, William Dunbar (Dumbar), might surely have made reference to the legend of Sawney Bean had it been current and associated with the Kennedys as a whole, when flyting his insults at the bard Walter Kennedy, younger brother of the 2nd Lord, John Kennedy of Dunure, in ca. 1503. This famous performance – known as The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie was apparently performed in the court of James IV in Edinburgh at the start of the 16thC and makes no reference to cannibalistic crooks, but yet for this is perhaps one of the most delightful pieces of insult-poetry committed to writing during the Renaissance! It was preserved in the Bannatyne Manuscript. Dunbar’s approbations of Kennedy (a clergyman, as befits his ‘second son’ status) are colourful to say the least, twice referring to the priest as ‘cuntbitten’ among a barrage of similar lurid insults.  None the less, Dunbar’s derision at no point makes any reference to his clan’s supposedly cannibalistic tenants, suggesting that if they were historic and associated with Bennane, then they likely came later in the 16thC after Kennedy’s death in 1507. However, this seems highly unlikely to be the case, given the lack of corroborative evidence for what would have been a well-recorded and sensationalised case in its day. Dunbar’s taunts at Kennedy were largely based on his appearance and ‘uncouth’ Gaelic mannerisms, including not a few imputations of paganism. Given the general lack of evidence to back up their existence, the clan of ‘Sawney Bean’ must therefore be considered legendary or mythological. This in turn leaves us with the possibility that more mysterious seeds may have populated the tale…

Was pagan mythology behind the ‘Sawney Bean’ myth?

The association of seaside caves with the mythology of the old Atlantic Religion seems to be a definite subtext in the folklore of the region. Nearly all such caves of any significance in the British and Irish Isles (not to mention Brittany and beyond) have enjoyed a connection to either saints or devils: Such a dichotomy of attribution is in itself highly suggestive of Christian polemic attempting to convert pagan legends into a form congruent with the ‘new order’. Galloway has, further south, a cave near Whithorn that was said to have been used by St Ninian and is still celebrated in association with the saint who is said to have bought christianity to this region at a very early time from Rome.

St Ninian's Cave: No mermaids here - please move along!

St Ninian’s Cave: No mermaids here – please move along!

Sea caves or caves near rivers are more often than not associated with pagan myths. The creation of caves is often related to underground rivers or springs, to which many (especially in limestone areas) owe their existence. They also represented a baser more ancient form of living – a place of resort in times of peril, and the habitation of those outside of the bounds of law and society. This made them the focus of many christianising legends designed to demote pagan ideas.

Sawney or Samhain?

The name ‘Sawney’ is usually believed to be a version of ‘Sandy’ and therefore a colloquialisation of the name ‘Alexander’. However, the name derives ultimately from the west coast of lowland Scotland, which was a predominantly Gaelic-speaking region until the 17th/18thC. This means that it is worth taking a gaelic linguistic approach to the name ‘Sawney Bean’, which contains obvious Gaelic elements (‘Bean’=’Bane’=white/fair). The first part of the name ‘Sawney’ is closest to the Gaelic festival name ‘Samhain’ (pron. ‘Saw-en’). Samhain was the festival of the dead when the souls of the departed (the Sluagh Sidhe) were near at hand, waiting to be carried off to the otherworld. The cave associated with Sawney Bean is located at a place containing aspects of his name – the Bennane‘ – also a gaelic name. ‘Ben’ is, of course, the gaelic word translating as ‘female’ (mna is ‘woman’) and is also applied to the names of mountains. You might recall from my previous posts that there is an association with mysterious aquatic female spirits with headlands and foreshores, not to mention caves all across the Atlantic world from Spain to the Slavic lands. The frightening popular figure of the ‘Halloween Witch’ is perhaps the greatest demonic archetype associated with Hallowe’en/Samhain – this originally referred to a single magical female character, not ‘witches’ in general (which were probably an innovation of the 16th/17thC witch panics). In the Isle of Man, she was called ‘Jinny the Witch’ (‘Yinny’ = Aine) and she was probably also the sorceress of Manx legend known as ‘Tehi-Tegi’ who stole the souls of men and took them into the sea, before transforming into a mystical bird – the wren. Samhain was the period when fertility had been ‘stolen’ away from the world, and the Sawney Bean was also famous for abducting souls and death. Both him and the ‘Samhain Witch’ therefore take on an equally monstrous aspect whose terrifying legends draw them closer together in the legendary consciousness… so much so that Sawney’s wife takes such a role in his legend. Of further linguistic interest, Sawney was sometimes referred to as

Written legends or traditions about ‘Sawney Bean’ are somewhat hard to come by. Most traditions available to study in literature (late 18th and 19thC) seem to have arisen from the Newgate Calendar versions of the tale, which influenced the growth of the tale in popular culture down to modern times. 19thC English author, the wealthy and well-connected politician/lawyer/novelist Robert Plumer-Ward included Sawney Bean in a romantic short story called ‘St Lawrence’ which was printed in many of the literary magazines in the early-mid part of the century. The tale is set in the fictional ‘Castle Campbell’ in Kintyre, in which the laird is forced to tell his visitors of the tale of Sawney Bean after his guests enquire why his servants are nervous of a coming storm. The laird intimates that it was a tradition of the clan is that Sawney’s soul periodically returned to cause severe storms, and that he was a supernatural personage. It is unclear if Ward was simply using literary license or quoting a tradition he had discovered through research – he was a well-connected individual who almost certainly was entertained in Scottish castles with similar stories. Here is a passage which sums up Ward’s use of Sawney in his tale:

“…’Scotland would not be Scotland,’ returned Mr Campbell, ‘if some such appendage had not been added to the tale. In truth, the whole neighbourhood believed that the storm which had closed the sea entrance had been the express work of Providence, for it never happened before. Sawney believed it too and the farmer who took him, being a Campbell who had emigrated to the north of Ireland from this place, he swore as he was led to execution that he would visit it every twenty years, and bring destruction upon all of the name’… “

The implication is that ‘Sawney’ was a spirit who haunted certain members of the widespread clan of Campbell – one of the oldest Gaelic clans, who famously claim ancestry with the tragic Fenian hero Diarmuid O’Duibne, whose legend claims he hid out in a cave with his lover (and wife of Fionn), Grainne, before dying fighting a fierce wild boar. In the Isle of Man one of the names for a mythological fairy-pig was ‘Arkan Sonney’ (Uirceann Sonney) – another hint at the older aspect of ‘Sawney’.

Summary: Sawney Bean was the name of a legendary Gaelic Scottish cannibal-outlaw supposed to have lived with his wife and family hidden in a cave on the Galloway coast. His existence has no historical veracity but his demonization myths were applied politically, both by the Scots (against the Gaelic Scots) and later by the English, to whom he provided a Scottish ‘bogeyman’ figure for the troubled Jacobite era. The name ‘Sawney’ means ‘Alexander’, and was a popular form of the name during the 18thC. However, in the gaelic tongues, ‘Sawn’ could quite reasonably be the word ‘Samhain’ – a name for the festival of the dead, associated with a latterly monstrous magical female character in the Irish sea region. This character is known variously as ‘The Witch’, ‘Cailleach’, ‘Tehi-Tegi’, ‘Jinny’, ‘Ouna/Ona/Una’, ‘Aine’ and ‘Shoney’. It is quite reasonable, therefore, to wonder if ‘Sawney Bean’ has something to do with a demonised, demoted, euhemerised and marginalised aspect of the legend of the Celtic Great Goddess…

Frau Holle

In the mythology of the people of Hesse in Germany, perhaps the most well-known character is that of ‘Frau Holle’. Exposed to the world at large in the writings of  Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early 19th century, she has remained an important and intriguing cornerstone of German folk mythology, and is generally considered to represent a demoted form of the great European goddess of old. That she appears to share such similarities to ‘An Cailleach’ of Gaelic folklore is all the more interesting given the supposed divide between the ideas of ‘Celtic’ and ‘Germanic’ mythology.

‘Frau Holle’ was in fact only one of her many names – the version common in Hesse and Thuringia, from where many of her traditions are recorded. Throughout the northern German and Scandinavian regions she went by a number of other epithets, including ‘Holda’ and ‘Frau Gode’. In the southern regions of Germany she was often known as ‘Perchta’, ‘Berchta’ or ‘Bertha’. As befits the protean Great Goddess of old Europe, the names exhibit a degree of plasticity, having been preserved in oral traditions beyond the era when ‘she’ was officially accepted as a deity. However, in the face of modernisation and the rejection of old customs during the 19thC, we owe her existence in thought and memory today largely to Willhelm Grimm and his tale ‘Frau Holle – Gold Mary and Pitch Mary’, first recounted to him by a Hessian woman called Dortchen Wild on 29th September 1811. The following is the revised 1857 version of this tale:

A widow had two daughters, the one was beautiful and industrious, the other ugly and lazy. She greatly favored the ugly, lazy girl, because she was her own daughter. And the other one had to do all the work, and be the Cinderella of the house.

Every day the poor girl had to sit by a well, next to the highway, and spin so much that her fingers bled. Now it happened that one day the reel was completely bloody, so she dipped it in the well, to wash it off, but it dropped out of her hand and fell in. She cried, ran to her stepmother, and told her of the mishap. She scolded her so sharply, and was so merciless that she said, “Since you have let the reel fall in, you must fetch it out again.”

Then the girl went back to the well, and did not know what to do. Terrified, she jumped into the well to get the reel. She lost her senses. And when she awoke and came to herself again, she was in a beautiful meadow where the sun was shining, and there were many thousands of flowers. She walked across this meadow and came to an oven full of bread. The bread called out, “Oh, take me out. Take me out, or I’ll burn. I’ve been thoroughly baked for a long time.” So she stepped up to it, and with a baker’s peel took everything out, one loaf after the other.

After that she walked further and came to a tree laden with apples. “Shake me. Shake me. We apples are all ripe.” cried the tree. So she shook the tree until the apples fell as though it were raining apples. When none were left in the tree, she gathered them into a pile, and then continued on her way.

Finally she came to a small house. An old woman was peering out from inside. She had very large teeth, which frightened the girl, and she wanted to run away. But the old woman called out to her, “Don’t be afraid, dear child. Stay here with me, and if you do my housework in an orderly fashion, it will go well with you. Only you must take care to make my bed well and shake it diligently until the feathers fly, then it will snow in the world. I am Frau Holle.”

Because the old woman spoke so kindly to her, the girl took heart, agreed, and started in her service. The girl took care of everything to Frau Holle’s satisfaction and always shook her featherbed vigorously until the feathers flew about like snowflakes. Therefore she had a good life with her: no angry words, and boiled or roast meat every day.

Now after she had been with Frau Holle for a time, she became sad. At first she did not know what was the matter with her, but at last she determined that it was homesickness. Even though she was many thousands of times better off here than at home, still she had a yearning to return. Finally she said to the old woman, “I have such a longing for home, and even though I am very well off here, I cannot stay longer. I must go up again to my own people.”

Frau Holle said, “I am pleased that you long for your home again, and because you have served me so faithfully, I will take you back myself.” With that she took her by the hand and led her to a large gate.

The gate was opened, and while the girl was standing under it, an immense rain of gold fell, and all the gold stuck to her, so that she was completely covered with it. “This is yours because you have been so industrious,” said Frau Holle, and at the same time she gave her back the reel which had fallen into the well.

With that the gate was closed and the girl found herself above on earth, not far from her mother’s house. And as she entered the yard the rooster, sitting on the well, cried:

Cock-a-doodle-doo,
Our golden girl is here anew.

Then she went inside to her mother, and as she arrived all covered with gold, she was well received, both by her mother and her sister. The girl told all that had happened to her, and when the mother heard how she had come to the great wealth, she wanted to achieve the same fortune for the other, the ugly and lazy daughter. She made her go and sit by the well and spin. And to make her reel bloody, the lazy girl pricked her fingers and shoved her hand into a thorn bush. Then she threw the reel into the well, and jumped in herself.

Like the other girl, she too came to the beautiful meadow and walked along the same path. When she came to the oven, the bread cried again, “Oh, take me out. Take me out, or else I’ll burn. I’ve been thoroughly baked for a long time.”

But the lazy girl answered, “As if I would want to get all dirty,” and walked away.

Soon she came to the apple tree. It cried out, “Oh, shake me. Shake me. We apples are all ripe.”

But she answered, “Oh yes, one could fall on my head,” and with that she walked on.

When she came to Frau Holle’s house, she was not afraid, because she had already heard about her large teeth, and she immediately began to work for her. On the first day she forced herself, was industrious, and obeyed Frau Holle, when she said something to her, because she was thinking about all the gold that she would give her. But on the second day she already began to be lazy, on the third day even more so, and then she didn’t even want to get up in the morning. She did not make the bed for Frau Holle, the way she was supposed to, and she did not shake it until the feathers flew. Frau Holle soon became tired of this and dismissed her of her duties. This was just what the lazy girl wanted, for she thought that she would now get the rain of gold.

Frau Holle led her too to the gate. She stood beneath it, but instead of gold, a large kettle full of pitch spilled over her. “That is the reward for your services,” said Frau Holle, and closed the gate.

Then the lazy girl went home, entirely covered with pitch. As soon as the rooster on the well saw her, he cried out:

Cock-a-doodle-doo,
Our dirty girl is here anew.

And the pitch stuck fast to her, and did not come off as long as she lived.

The tale exhibits certain key traits that equate Frau Holle with the old European goddess: Firstly, Frau Holle’s world is reached through water into which a bloody spinning reel is dropped. She lives in a beautiful meadow or garden, where her work appears to be baking bread and growing apples. These are, as it happens, the ‘bounty’ depicted on Roman era statues of the goddess known as ‘Nehalennia’ from Zeeland in the Low Countries. She has the power to reward respect and hard work with worldly wealth, and to punish idleness in equal measure. Other traditions about her were subsequently collected and written down, inspired by the recently-recovered Icelandic Edda literature which opened peoples’ eyes to the Old Gods of the Scandinavians and Germans. People were eager to trace a link between folktales and childrens’ rhymes with these, and Frau Holle/Holda became a representative case of a recovered goddess, taken to task by the other Grimm, Jacob, in his seminal work Deutsche Mytholgie (1835).

Grimm found Holda/Perchta strongly associated with the female art of spinning, firmly connected with the traditions of Yuletide and 12th night, the rider of a wagon who was engaged to do work for farmers. She was ascribed a golden bucket from which rivers of water fell as she climbed hills. Holda/Perchta was also associated with the care of unbaptized souls (i.e. – children who died before baptism), and was portrayed as a leader of the ‘Wild Hunt’ usually associated with Woden himself. This led Grimm to make the equation of Holle/Perchta with Frigg and Freyja. She certainly fitted the type of the kind of chthonic fertility goddess we see depicted on Roman era shrines to the Matres/Matronae and Nehalennia, however Grimm had little to say about an identity between Nehalennia and Holda, who I suggest are the same. The name ‘Halen’ is derived by removing the celtic definite article Ne- and the terminal -ia. ‘Hollen’ was another of Holda’s names – associating her with the ‘Tree of the Dead’, the Elder (Sambucus Nigra).

Early references:

The earliest reference to Holda by name appears to come from the pen of a 13thC Cistercian monk, known only to us as Rudolph, who noted the following custom:

“In nocte nativitatis Christi ponunt regina celi quam dominam Holdam vulgus appelat, ut eas ipsa adiuvet.”

“On the night of Christ’s nativity, they set the table in honour of the queen of heaven, commonly known as Holda”

This fits with Grimm’s observations about an association with Yuletide. The Cistercians of the 13thC were hell-bent on correcting any slippages back into heathenism, and were perhaps the greatest promoters of the cult of the Virgin Mary, who was their patron saint. The term ‘queen of heaven’ was applied to her in particular. Contemporary Cistercian authors such as Jocelyn of Furness appear to have gone out of their way to re-forge many old pagan narratives into Christian ones, as can be seen in his Life of St Kentigern. They were up against the popular courtly tales of Arthur & Co, which were almost explicit in their dealing with the goddess, as well as opposing religious sects such as the Cathars of the Pays d’Oc and Italy. In spite of adding an overlay of ‘Mariology’ to medieval Europe’s mythology, they failed to expel the memory and stories of ‘Holda’. Of particular interest to this reference by Rudolph is that the Anglo-Saxon author Bede (‘De Temporum Ratione’ – 8thC) recorded that the heathens celebrated an observance called Mōdraniht on Christmas eve: This means ‘Mothers Night’.

 

The ‘wand’ or ‘club’ of the Cailleach

The ‘club’ of the Cailleach was an interesting metaphorical tool that seems to have informed many Atlantic pagan seasonal traditions… In summer (from Beltain to Lúnasa – the season of the constellations Virgo and Taurus) it represented either a ‘sprouting branch’ (traditionally held by the character depicted in Virgo), the drover’s ‘cow-switch’ or the shepherd’s ‘crook’. The ancient Irish word for a cowherd – búachaill – is very similar to that in other Celtic and Indo-European languages (eg – Greek = βουκόλος = boukolos). It is also used adjectivally (as buachalan) to mean ‘cow-switch’ or in modern times, as a class-word for any useful tool. It also became a class-word for stalky plant species: Buachalan Bui is the Ragwort (Senecio Jacobea) and Buachalan Ban (Manx: Bollan Bane) was used for Mugwort (Artemisia Vulgaris): Both make excellent cattle-switches as it happens, and it is desirable to pull up the former from pastures as it harms cattle. The Manx Bollan Bane is the traditional herb associated with the Julian Calendar midsummer celebration of Tynwald Day in the Isle of Man: Old English herbals refer to it as ‘Motherwort’ and it was used as a protective charm against miscarriage (nature’s womb is ripening at midsummer when the Artemisia flowers). Stalky plants (cuiseόg – ‘fairy dogs’?) of this type are notable as they leave their ‘bones’ or ‘ghosts’ standing dry in the winter landscape, whereas more tender vegetation tends to compost. The Artemisia, the Senecio and other plants of the Gaelic cuiseόg class (including the umbilliferae including Hemlock, Cow Parsley etc) were given superstitious associations with fairies and ‘witches’ in folklore.

'Vervain and Dill hinder witches of their will' (English tradition quoted by early folklorist John Aubrey, 1721)

‘Vervain and Dill hinder witches of their will’ (English tradition quoted by early folklorist John Aubrey, 1721) – the stalky plants whose shapes survive in the winter landscape (in spite of a ‘beating’ by the ‘goddess’) often had a superstitious reputation in folklore.

In harvest the ‘club’ might represent the reaping sickle or threshing flail. In fact, harvest is the start of autumn and plants are usually spent of their generative power when they have fruited. They give life and seem to die back – so it is perhaps no surprise that the Cailleach theology gave her a ‘club’ by which she might beat vegetation back and give new life simultaneously.

Children in the Isle of Man used to be told not to pick and eat blackberries after 1st October as the 'Devil' was supposed to have touched them with his 'club'.

Children in the Isle of Man (and elsewhere) used to be told not to pick and eat blackberries after 10th October (Old Michaelmas by the Julian calendar) as the ‘Devil’ was supposed to have touched them with his ‘club’ and turned them sour.

In summer the Cailleach’s functioned as a ‘cattle-switch’, but its use is now turned to a more destructive cause. There is a subtle juxtasposition of violence and new life inherent in this, which shows through in a number of ancient Atlantic traditions with pagan associations:

Shillelaghs - cut from the hardwood of Blackthorn or Oak, they make formidable weapons ... or Hurling sticks!

Shillelaghs – cut from the hardwood of Blackthorn or Oak, they make formidable weapons … or Hurling sticks!

In the wren-hunts (Isle of Man, Ireland etc), a stave was the weapon of choice used to hunt and kill this hapless tiny avian – apparently a representation of the Goddess. Once dead, its body was typically hoisted up on a pole, festooned in ribbons and greenery (sometimes even crucified) and paraded about… A simple club-stick with a crook or hook on the end was the original weapon of the related ancient traditional combative mid-winter stick-and-ball games played in the Gaelic lands: Shinty (Scots Gaelic: Camanachd, iomain),  Cammag (the Manx version) and Hurling (Irish: Iománaíocht/Iomáint, played with a stick called a camán). These rough games were often held in conjunction with the wren-hunts in times gone by, and there is another interesting link to the Cailleach (who was depicted as one-eyed, crooked and ancient): The Gaelic word Cam’ means ‘crooked’, ‘twisted’ or ‘deformed’ as well as being formerly applied as a description of a person as ‘one-eyed’

A modern depiction of the Cailleach Bheur ('Hag of Winter') of Scottish Highland legend

A modern depiction of the Cailleach Bheur (‘Hag of Winter’) of Scottish Highland legend. She carried a hammer or staff to beat the vegetation back into the ground in the cold months.

At some of the Lúnasa/Lughnasadh fairs and hilltop gatherings in Ireland, sticks used to be the weapon of choice in traditional faction fights, and it is of note that a long shillelagh might easily double up as a cáman for Hurling or one of its related cousins. The mythological Irish warrior Cúchulainn is described as playing at hurling in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, and is even said in some versions to have killed the hound of ‘Chulainn the Smith’ (possibly a deliberate corruption of Caillean/Cailleach!) with a hurling-ball (sliotar) providing an etymology for his name! The theme of combat and the Morrigan underpins the whole of the Tain, many of the battles of which occur at river fords – bringing to mind the image of Orion standing next to the Milky Way, near Taurus, the ‘Dog Star’ and Canis Minor, not far from the wren-like twinkling stars of the Pleiades or ‘Seven Sisters’… Winter-constellations-decline-1024x722

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.