Samhain and other Ancient Festivals in Modern Society (Irish Mythology)

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Ah, yes! It’s almost the end of October, that time of the year when historians, Irish people with a genuine interest in their culture, “born again Celts”, revivalists and revisionists, recently returned German tourists and so on, clog the internet with articles on the famous pre-Christian festival.

There are plenty of excellent articles already out there on Samhain and there’s probably not much more I’d add with respect to Irish mythology. As a general rule of thumb however, I’ve always felt you shouldn’t write about Samhain unless you genuinely celebrate it, either through a party, a single shot of the hard stuff, or a simple acknowledgement of what it meant for our ancestors and consider what – in reality – it means for us today.

That’s one of the problems with ancient festivals, I suppose. To be meaningful or authentic, Samhain really has to be relevant, otherwise we end up going through the motions (like many Irish people attending mass in the past – not because they believed the particular doctrine but because that was what had always been done and everyone else did it).

Generally speaking, the point where a working ritual becomes a commemorative tradition is also the point where it starts to become meaningless. Here in New Zealand, for example, celebrating Samhain has always felt a bit weird. Samhain was a festival that marked the commencement of the winter. Its associated rituals therefore, were developed around the necessary preparations for that. The reality of my geographical location in Wellington conversely, means we’re actually heading into summer (and should probably – or more appropriately – be celebrating Bealtaine). In addition, because the ritualistic parts of the festival were very much based around agricultural practicalities (the crop season, the feeding of livestock etc.) the fact that I live in a modern city means those rituals are no longer particularly appropriate to the way I live.

In modern society, if we want to be honest and follow an authentic cultural process, we really need to find a more practical and more appropriate means of marking that celebration or, alternatively changing it entirely. That’s not the case with everyone of course. For anyone in the northern hemisphere associated with the agricultural sector, Samhain is still as relevant today as it ever was.

For those of use overseas, or living away from the land, we may have to rethink how we proceed in the future with such celebrations. If not, we’ll essentially be celebrating a festival day due to an incorrect identity alignment or for purely commercial reasons.

But, hey, that would never happen, would it?

Saint Patrick’s Day anyone?

 

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An Ancient Irish Ritual for Reading the Future

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Most people familiar with my books will be aware that I usually try to introduce at least one pre-historic cultural Irish/Celtic concept into a story (and more if it fits with the narrative). For a while now, I’ve been intending to slip in a ritual known as imbas forosnai, something referred to briefly in Book Two of the Fionn series (Fionn: Traitor of Dún Baoiscne). I had hoped to describe this in more detail in Book Three but this isn’t going to happen until Book Four now.

I should probably explain that imbas forosnai was one of a number of ancient rituals used for prophetic purposes or to seek advice from the Otherworld. In some respects, it would have been similar to ritualistic processes used by other ancient cultures (in terms of the objective, at least) such as the Greek oracle at Delphi, the Nechung oracle in Tibet and so on.

In the Fenian Cycle, Fionn mac Cumhaill has a very strong association with this ritual (in the earliest stories he’s actually portrayed more as a seer than a warrior or leader of men). It’s also more than likely that imbas forsnai formed the basis of his prophetic ability, as expressed through the sucking or biting of his ‘magic’ thumb. I covered this in some depth in Beara Dark Legends (At least I think I did – it’s been a while since I’ve looked at it).

There’s certainly enough evidence to indicate imbas forosnai was a relatively well-known rite in pre-historic Ireland. Over the course of many centuries however, that ritual was completely eroded from memory due to colonisation and competing cultural belief systems. Several references remain in the ancient Irish literature and of course Sanas Cormaic (a ninth century Irish glossary/dictionary that attempts to explain many ancient words or expressions) describes the ritual in some detail. When you read it however, it’s pretty obvious the author isn’t actually familiar with the subject he’s writing about. Even by the 9th century, the ritual he’s describing has already faded into antiquity.

“It discovers whatever thing the poet wishes and which he desires to enlighten. This is how it is done. The poet chews a morsel of the red meat of a pig, or a dog, or a cat and puts it then on a flagstone behind the door. He chants an incantation over it and offers it to the idol gods and calls them to him and does not abandon them on the morrow.

He chants over his two palms and calls again idol gods to him lest his sleep be disturbed. He puts his two hands on his two cheeks and sleeps. And he is watched lest he turn over or lest he be disturbed by anybody. Then is revealed to him that for which he was seeking.”

If you go online, you’ll find numerous references to imbas forosnai but you’d be better off ignoring anything unless there’s a major body of contemporary academic study to support it. Like the author of Sanas Cormaic, some people attribute all kinds of mystical interpretations to something they don’t fully understand. They tend to forget how difficult it is for a contemporary person to fully comprehend those ancient references. Not only do we lack the historical context to understand them but often the cultural context as well. Different cultures and different societies do not think in the same manner and even when you translate a language you can often miss much of the true meaning. Applying our own modern cultural and values systems to a different culture, invariably leads to misinterpretation.