Promoting False Irish Mythology for Samhain

It’s a little sad, and somewhat indicative of the lingering impacts of colonisation, when you see one of your national newspapers get so much wrong with respect to ancient Irish belief systems (mythology). You can certainly respect a newspaper’s desire to produce relevant articles for an upcoming event of national relevance (Samhain) but it would really have been nice if they’d done even some basic research on the subject beyond Wikipedia (the equivalent to getting your mythology information from a telephone book).

The ‘Dullahan’ and the ‘cóiste bodhar’ referred to in the Irish Times article (here) are both references from W.B. Yeats’ “Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry”, a book which has been discredited by every credible university or Celtic Studies course out there (but remains beloved by fantasy aficionados).

To his credit, W.B. Yeats was an excellent poet but when it comes to mythology, he tends to be completely unreliable. A product of the Protestant Aristocracy (not a religious term but the official term for the privileged and powerful Anglo forces who dominated Ireland’s social and economic existence from the late 17th and 20th century), Yeats disliked the Irish language, referred to rural Irish people as “The Peasantry” and plundered elements of their ancient belief systems to support his own ‘spiritual’ work as a Theosophist.  This is something we continue to see in much of the ‘Celtic Paganism’ and ‘Celtic Spiritualism’ products out there today.

It’s important to respect the achievements of people like Stoker, Thomas Johnston Westropp, Yeats and others. At the same time, it’s also important to recognise and acknowledge when they got things wrong. Promoting their mistakes, diminishes the cultural belief systems of our ancestors. Sadly, it also continues to pull us further and further away from our true cultural heritage.

SAMHAIN: A Ninety-Second Quiz

A few years ago, a New Zealand friend asked if we were going to host another Sam Hayne party in November. The question actually threw me a bit at first (I thought he was referring to some traditional Irish musician I hadn’t heard of) until I realised he was actually talking about Samhain, the ancient festival that’s bizarrely ended up as a precursor to Halloween.

Over the last few centuries (and the last few decades, in particular), Samhain has gradually been disassembled, replaced by the more commerically-based ‘Halloween’ or reinvented by people with their own agendas (‘Celtic’ fantasy writers, Celtic ‘Recreationists’, commercial ‘druids’ etc. etc.). The sad truth however is that unless you live in a place where the turning of seasons has a real and genuine impact on your life, Samahain probably has all the cultural authenticity of a modern-day Christmas and there’s now very little resemblance (okay, none) to the original  festival from which it was derived.

As part of some work on the original Samhain tradition I was doing a few years back, I created a (very) simplified quiz to explain how ‘Samhain’ was transformed to to the contemporary celebration of ‘Halloween’ over time.

This is still very much at an early stage of development and forms but a tiny part of the whole story but if you want to test your understanding of Samhain and Halloween, please feel free to give it a go.

Just click on the image below.

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

irish-mythology-samhain

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?

 

Bored? In need of scintillating cultural stimulation?

The consider our monthly newsletter (below). More in-depth articles on Irish culture (contemporary or historical), mythology/ folklore, occasionally news on new books, writing or other things that amuse us.