Halloween, part one: Pagan origins

“Hallowe’en is coming and the goose is getting fat…”
So goes the song that we used to sing as children when we went “round the doors” on Halloween night. It’s safe to say the old festival has had a bit of a resurrection in recent years. The traditions of trick or treat and carving pumpkins would give you the idea that Halloween is a North American custom, however if anything its origins and survival lie in Ireland and Scotland, and it was the Scots Irish who took it to America a few hundred years ago. After a childhood of blistered hands from trying to scoop out raw turnips, I have to say that those ancestors must have been delighted to come across the more easily carved pumpkin in the New World from which they could make their surrogate severed heads (more on that later) to replace the more resistant turnip.
A turnip lantern

Perhaps mysterious is why were the Scots and Scots-Irish -almost all staunch Presbyterians- so keen on celebrating this old Celtic festival? Paganism in general and all things Gaelic in particular usually have the same effect on the Scots-Irish that garlic has to vampires. The answer is probably a mixture of a couple of things. The first reason is that they simply always celebrated it, and tradition is a very hard thing to kill.
It could be argued that Samhain had particularly significance in the North of Ireland from time immemorial. Samhain, the pre-christian name for the festival was one of the old quarter-days of the year celebrated by the ancient people of Ireland. A word very close to Samhain appears on the 2nd Century AD Coligny Calendar, suggesting that Celtic cousins in Europe celebrated the festival too. There are lots of references in Early Irish Literature to great clan gatherings and festivals being held at this time of year, and the adventures of heroes and kings that take place at them seem to revolve around a lot of drinking and either the dead or evil fairies coming back from the otherworld to wreck some form of havoc. There are various hints that could well suggest human sacrifice as well, but its hard to say for certain. 
Irish pagan Gods (Lugh on the left?) from the Ulster Museum

The tales were written down by medieval Christian monks and could be biased against Paganism. The idea that our ancestors practised human sacrifice is also a slightly controversial idea to some. There are modern neo-pagans who will state that there is no evidence that ancient pagans sacrificed humans. I would argue that there is actually lots. Bog bodies for example exhibit such a degree of overkill that it points to some form of ritual, the only alternative being that for centuries psychopathic killers across northern Europe dispatched their victims using remarkably similar methods. Classical writers like Julius Caesar (again admittedly biased against the non-Roman Celts) all attest that the Druids sacrificed people to their Gods. However its not just neo-pagans who object to this idea. There are plenty of others who seem to find the idea that Irish people would kill other Irish people for religious reasons completely beyond the pale. Personally, while its not definitive, I think the evidence points to the fact that it happened, and that this time of year was particularly associated with it.

One place where Samhain and human sacrifice are explicitly linked is in the worship of the God Crom Cruach. If anyone has heard of Crom these days, the chances are it is as the God worshiped by Conan the Barbarian, either in Robert E Howard’s sword and sandal epics, or in the 1980s movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Who could forget such classic cinematic moments this?

But he was in fact a deity worshipped in ancient Ireland. He is, however, a bit of a puzzle. He doesn’t appear in the cannon of Early Irish Literature but in the tales of Saint Patrick, it’s Crom and his ministers who seem to be the main Pagan opposition to the Saint’s mission. The Dindsenchas  that tell the lore of the land and the Annals of the Four Masters both talk of a festival at that this time of year which honoured Crom at a gathering in Magh Slécht, which is in modern county Cavan. 
Worship of Crom in ancient Ireland appears to be associated with a sacred bull, standing stones - an ancient name for a ring of standing stones was a “cromlech”- and, as readers of my novel “The Spear of Crom” will know, human sacrifice. The sources say that at Samhain,  first born children were sacrificed to Crom. If true, the terror and horror instilled by what went on that night still echo in the modern Halloween. 
I think it’s interesting that the Annals of the Four Masters chose to include Crom when other annals don’t. They were compiled in a Friary on the edge of Donegal. Magh Slecht, the centre of Crom worship, and where his standing stone may still lie, is in County Cavan, suggesting that Samhain and Crom were of significance to the ancient people of Ulster. I’ve already written about how a portion of those people later on ended up founding a kingdom across the Irish sea so it should be no surprise that the other place where you find references to Crom is in the Highlands of Scotland. There is a Scottish Gaelic saying recorded in Lochaber that mentions “Domhnaich Crom Dubh” -Black Crom  Sunday.
So my thesis is that the festival of Samhain, held at this time of the year, was special for the people of Ireland and Ulster in particular. A portion of those folk migrated to what is now Scotland at the beginning of what some call “the Dark Ages” and they took with them the festival and all its associated trappings of death and fear. Time past and Samhain became Halloween, but the festival’s popularity in Scotland carried on. Some of those Scottish folk then migrated (or rather were “planted”) back in Ulster in the 1600s and they brought the tradition back with them, probably finding that the Irish were still celebrating in a similar fashion. A few years later some of those folk -now referred to as “Scots-Irish” - migrated to America and took the festival with them there, where it’s safe to say it was a huge success.
  I said I believed there were two reasons for the popularity of Halloween with the Scots Irish. The second reason is to do with witches, however that (and the explanation about the severed heads) will have to wait for another post which I’ll put up over the next day or so.  
In the meantime, if you want a chilling read for Halloween, my new novel set in Victorian Belfast, “The Undead” is available now on Kindle.

Or you can read about Fergus MacAmergin’s battles with the Druids of Crom in my novel “The Spear of Crom”, available on Kindle and in paperback


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