This is my second article in a series about Halloween that I started this year. To recapitulate from my previous article, I basically became tired of Christian articles and videos that used inaccurate historical information and unreliable sources for discouraging other Christians from celebrating Halloween. I will reiterate what I said before: if you, as a Christian, choose not to celebrate Halloween for spiritual reasons—that you don’t find it spiritually beneficial for you, that the premise of the holiday conflicts with the personal practice of your Christian faith and beliefs, etc.---that’s fine. But if you’re going to either accept or reject Halloween as a Christian, then do so based on accurate historical facts. Don’t base your approach to Halloween on information from New Age sources that have scanty scholarship, absurd books by Victorian writers about so-called “ancient Irish” practices with no basis in archaeology and no bibliography of primary sources, or writings from the Middle Ages that are woolly at best. Granted, not all medieval sources are unreliable, but they must be read with discernment. After all, the people of medieval Europe are the same people who wrote stories about dog-headed people whom they believed to live in the Far East, and strange green people who came up out of the earth. They’re also the same people who cut the heads off of corpses when they buried them, because they were afraid that the dead person might rise from the grave and walk about, terrorising villagers (British spelling), or possibly causing the plague. For a really good exposé on what medieval people in Western Europe believed, watch this really excellent BBC video by English history professor and medievalist Robert Barlett, who quotes primary sources from the period throughout:
If the above link doesn’t work, this video, entitled “Inside the Medieval Mind,” can be found on YouTube as well.
Anyway, let’s get down to business. The purpose of this article is to actually give my readers the promised primary sources I said I would give them with my last article. Allow me to repeat the definition of a primary source. A primary source, for the use of studies in history and archaeology, is a source dating directly from the period of history being studied. It can be an inscription, a record of a business transaction, a birth or death record, a written account of an event or events from the time, or any other number of non-fiction sources from writers of that period. An archaeological find also counts as a primary source, as do any number of archaeological discoveries with accurately recorded data, not speculation or guesswork. Works of fiction are sometimes cited as primary sources, but because fiction has often been written with an idealised view of a given society or sometimes might be a work of fantasy, I personally don’t believe fictional literature can be used as a primary source.
I mentioned earlier that medieval sources must be read with discretion. Actually, this statement applies to all primary sources. For example, Plutarch’s work on the story of Antony and Cleopatra cannot be taken to be totally accurate, because Plutarch was writing with the purpose of pleasing a most powerful person, the Emperor Augustus. There are several examples of Roman histories being written from a certain slant because of political motivations. This is nothing new, of course. It even happens with histories today, such as some current histories being written about the United States. But that’s another discussion. My point here is that we must always read primary sources with a keen sense of the mindset of society at the given time, the political realities of that time, and the religious beliefs of the people from that period.
Some people say that Caesar’s writings about the Druids aren’t reliable, because he was trying to politically promote his war against the Celts, and he had a Roman penchant for putting down societies he considered inferior to Rome. While Roman society at that time certainly believed itself to be more civilised than most parts of the world (the same opinion voiced by people in Western European and American society time and again, throughout history), Caesar did not need to impress anyone or sell anyone on his war. Because of his unique political and military position in Rome, that of being a Roman consul, he could make war on whomever he pleased for whatever reason that seemed justifiable to him. For most Romans, if a certain tribe of people attacked Roman soldiers or citizens, that was reason enough to send legions to fight them. (I’m reminded of how Bush reacted to the terrorist attacks of 9-11—but, that’s another discussion!).
In reverting to the subject of Halloween, in this article I’ll list the sources I’ve found on ancient Celtic religion, since there has long been a popular notion that Halloween was based on an ancient Celtic “Day of the Dead” festival called “Samhain.” Before we continue, please note that this word is not pronounced “Sam Hane.” It is pronounced “Sow-when” (e.g. “I had an old sow once who had many piglets, but I sold her when the time came for the county fair.”). It is pronounced “Sow-when,” with the accent on the first syllable.
First of all, let us be reminded that in the Irish dictionary, the word “Samhain” means “November.” There is a tenth-century Irish story called Tochmarc Emire (“The Wooing of Emer,” from the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology) wherein the heroine of the story, Emer, refers to Samhain as the time “when the summer goes to its rest.” This may be why some people think that “Samhain” means “summer’s end.” Secondly, let us be reminded that the only ancient sources we have about Celtic religion are those from classical Greece and Rome. I should point out here that neither Greece nor Rome ever colonized Ireland, and Rome never annexed it. There is debate about whether or not Rome actually invaded Ireland, but no definitive sources have been found that state this. Some archaeological finds in Drumanagh have been interpreted as proof of a Roman military presence, but not everyone agrees with that interpretation of the artifacts.
The relationship between Ireland and the Classical world appears to have been primarily commercial. The Graeco-Egyptian geographer Claudius Ptolemy (Klaudios Ptolemaios), who was from the city of Alexandria and lived between 90 and 168 A.D., made a map of some coastal settlements and tribes of Ireland. Roman coins and jewelry have been found at Tara and Cashel, and Roman coins have been found at Newgrange (Carson, R.A.G. and O'Kelly, Claire: A catalogue of the Roman coins from Newgrange, Co. Meath and notes on the coins and related finds, pages 35-55. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, volume 77, section C). Some silver plate was also found in Ireland, cut up in pieces. Other places where Romano-British artifacts have been found include Leinster, notably a site called Drumanagh that is fifteen miles from Dublin, Lambay and Clogher. Tacitus writes about the Roman governor of Britain from 78 to 84 A.D., stating that Agricola had plans to someday invade Ireland (Tacitus: Agricola). But Agricola never did so. There is a vague reference in the writing of the Roman poet Juvenal referring to Roman armies having been to places beyond “Hibernia” (Ireland). This is found in Juvenal’s Satires 2.
Ergo, if you read some so-called historical article claiming that there are ancient writings about Irish religion from Rome or Greece, that article is nonsense! The writings from Rome and Greece refer to Celtic practices on the European continent only. Therefore, do ancient writings confirm the practice of an ancient Irish festival of the dead called Samhain? No!
Here are the primary sources on ancient Celtic religion, and I urge you to read them for yourself. You’ll have to excuse the fact that my bibliography format isn’t perfect.
(1) Caesar, Julius, 1980 (new trans.) The Battle for Gaul, Boston: David R. Godine
(2) Caesar, Julius, 1951 (revised 1982, Jane F. Gardner) The Conquest of Gaul, Great Britain: S.A. Handford
(3) Diodoros Siculus, History
(4) Strabo, Geographica
(5) Tacitus, Agricola & Annals XIV (See this link for his account of the attack on the Druids on the island of Mona: http://resourcesforhistory.com/celtic_druids.htm)
(6) The Coligny Calendar, a Gaulish calendar found in Coligny, Ain, France in 1897. Inscribed on a Bronze tablet, this artifact dates to the late first century/early second century A.D. It mentions an autumn feast called Samonios.
These are the ancient primary sources I’ve found so far. If anyone finds more, please feel free to let me know in the comment line of my blog.
Now, here are some medieval Irish literary references to Samhain:
(1) Tochmarc Emire, “The Wooing of Emer,” a text dated to the tenth century by Kuno Meyer; here’s an electronic copy of the text: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/G301021/
(2) Balor of the Evil Eye, a story from the saga text Cath Maighe Tuireadh (“The Battle of Magh Tuireadh”), which dates from the Old Irish period, ca. 600-900 A.D., and is preserved in a sixteenth-century manuscript; here’s the electronic copy: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/T300010/ and here’s another online version: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/cmt/cmteng.htm
(3) The Fenian Cycle, mythological stories of the famous band of Irish warriors known as the Fianna and led by Finn McCool (Fionn mac Cumhaill), which was written down roughly in the twelfth century or so; here’s a link for online texts: http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/index_irish.html
(4) Leabhar Gabhála Éireann, “The Book of the Taking of Ireland,” dating to the eleventh century in its earliest version which was compiled by an anonymous writer. Here is the reference to Samhain: §44. Two thirds of the progeny, the wheat, and the milk of the people of Ireland (had to be brought) every Samain to Mag Cetne. Wrath and sadness seized on the men of Ireland for the burden of the tax. They all went to fight against the Fomoraig (Lebor Gabala Eirinn Ed. Trans. R. A. S. MacAlister. Irish Text Society 1832).
(5) Cath Crinna, “The Battle of Crinna,” from “The Book of Leinster,” ca. 1160, the manuscript of which is kept in Trinity College, Dublin; there is a reference to Samhain being the time when produce and crops were most mature. Here’s an electronic version of the text: http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/cathcrinna.html
These are the references to Samhain I’ve found so far. By the way, none of these references link Samhain with All Hallow’s Eve in any way. I have not been able to find any primary sources indicating that Samhain ever became All Hallow’s Eve. There is a book by history professor Nicholas Rogers (at York University in Toronto), entitled Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. It was published by Oxford University Press in 2003. In that book, Rogers states: “There is no hard evidence that Samhain was specifically devoted to the dead or to ancestor worship.” Based on what I’ve found so far, I would have to agree with his statement.
The evidence I have found suggests that Samhain was a harvest festival, and that’s it. So, if a Christian wanted to celebrate a harvest festival, he/she could celebrate Samhain separately from Halloween. I personally celebrate Halloween as a type of harvest festival. The stories of ghosts, goblins and witches associated with Halloween are just like the medieval Irish stories mentioned above: they are mythology. As such, they’re just part of the fun.
Again, as an Orthodox Christian, my lack of belief in ghosts does not mean that I don’t believe in life after death. I just believe in the living experience of my Church, which is that people who die don’t come back to visit as floating ghosties. When the Lord allows them to visit, they do so as fully resurrected people who confirm the holy Resurrection of Christ. And again, resurrected people aren’t zombies. Was Christ a zombie when He rose from the dead? Certainly not!
My next article will deal specifically with All Hallow’s Eve, whether or not the original All Saints and All Souls Days in Western Europe were actually connected with Halloween, and the primary sources that show how our present American celebration of Halloween developed. Until then, Happy Halloween and Joyous All Saints Day of the West!
In Christ’s Love,