Power of sea be yours,
Power of land be yours,
Power of heaven.

The great Celtic scholar Dr. Anne Ross once said, 'Everyone with European roots can consider themselves of Celtic origin.' People who are not directly descended from Irish, Welsh, or Scottish families tend to think they have no Celtic roots, but in reality so many different European tribes contributed to the creation of Celticism, and over thousands of years such a mixing of populations has occurred, that virtually anyone alive today with European ancestry can be said to have Celtic origins.

Samhain Goddess, 'The Crone' by Angela Jayne Barnett

The old people had runes which they sang to the spirits dwelling in the sea and in the mountain, in the wind and in the whirlwind, in the lightning and in the thunder, in the sea and in the moon and in the stars of heaven. I naught but a toddling child at the time, remember well the ways of the old people ~ Carmina Gadelica

The early Celts divided their year into halves, called in Old Celtic gam, winter, and sam, summer. These words also have deeper resonances of meaning as dark/light, female/male, rest/work. Samhain at the end of October and beginning of  November marked the start of winter, and evidence suggests it may also have been the Celtic New Year, for the Celts reckoned the birth of the year from the darkening months, and likewise, their days began at dusk. 


I have tidings for you;
The stag bells,
Winter snows,
Summer has gone.

Samhain was the beginning of the Celtic year, it closed a cycle and opened a new one. At this moment of the year, the veil between the visible and the invisible worlds grew most thin, allowing both realms to communicate. The boundaries between the living and the dead, the ancestors, the gods, the heroes faded away, as did the borders between past, present and future. The non-physical realm was at the same time celestial and terrestrial, referred to as the Otherworld and the Underworld.

The Otherworld is related to Eternity and best explained by Caitlin Matthews in her book, 'The Celtic Tradition':

"Perhaps more than any other people, the Celts have always cherished the country of their true home -the Otherworld. It is the source of their wisdom, the place of their gods, the dimension in which poets and wanderers are most at home. Whoever has visited the Otherworld becomes more than mortal... The realms of the Otherworld are of the ever-living, where everything is possible, where great deeds are accomplished...".

Hence, the Otherworld is the dwelling place of the Heroes, the Blessed ones whose qualities made them superior. It is AVALON, the "Apple-isle", a paradise across the sea, where the gods and heroes feed on apples of immortality.

 Pomona, 1885 by William Morris & Edward Burne-Jones

 Together with his and Burne-Jones’s tapestry of Pomona, he captures the Goddess of Fruit & Harvest in a poem: 

I am the ancient apple-queen,
As once I was so am I now.
For evermore a hope unseen,
Betwixt the blossom and the bough.

Indeed Morris proves her to be “betwixt the blossom and the bough”, as acanthus leaves and flowers swirl about her. She appears supported by a tumult of nature, as the foliage seems to teem with the movement of her life around her. The leaves possess that lively movement of nature that Morris injects into all his designs, so our eyes have no choice but to follow the leaves as they dip and dive; we are caught, and here Morris shows us the power of just one of the figures that he seeks to personify. A source, Morris uses such figures to truly weave enchantment into his depictions of nature.

Samhain is the celebration of the Life which never dies. It's the time to harvest the fruits and to keep the seeds to initiate a new cycle. The celebration of the never dying spirit is expressed in many ways at Samhain: Apples and nuts are associated with Samhain and Halloween, as symbols of Eternity and hidden Wisdom. The Apple is the fruit of the Otherworld growing in Avalon. When cut crosswise, the apple displays 5 seeds embedded within a five-branch star, symbol of the Welsh Sow Goddess Cerridwen (the Morrigu) and of the spiritual quintessence ("fifth essence"). The apple then came to be known as the "fruit of the Gods". Apples and nuts are also found on the "silver branch" carried by the poets, or fili, since poets draw their inspiration from the ever fertile Otherworld. Another reminder of Eternity at the door of the dark season was the mistletoe. The sacred mistletoe grows upon the oak, drawing its life-force from the essence of the King of the trees. "At Samhain, a sheaf of corn, a branch of evergreen or mistletoe symbolically carried on the dying powers of vegetation. Carrying or decorating with evergreens demonstrates that life has not died.

The invisible realm is the "Underworld"quite distinct from the Otherworld. This element of the Celtic cosmology rooted in older native beliefs was not conceived of as a hell or place of punishment. It was the well of the primal forces of Life, before and after creation; the place where that which was not yet encountered that which was not anymore. It is the realm of the ancestors, exemplified by the ever turning wheel, "the mill in which the gods of the underworld reside, in which the dead are remade, and initiates reborn.

The different worlds -visible and invisible- are not separate; there are bridges. Many gifts pass between mortals and the Otherworld folk: the power of healing, the power to sing, to make music or create poetry. The faery mounds, or sidhes, are the homes of the Otherworld beings, still known in every Celtic country as the Little people: the brownies, the elves, the fairies, the corrigans, the goblins, the gnomes, etc.
 Midsummer Eve by Edward Robert Hughes, 1908

Samhain inaugurated the Celtic year, but also the beginning of the season of cold, dearth and darkness. At Samhain, beasts were rounded up and brought into stockades for wintering over, excess livestock was slaughtered since they could not be kept alive during the hard months of cold and dearth of grain (the herds would be driven out at Beltain). The slaughter took on a ritual and sacrificial aspect.

As the cold was intensifying, bonfires were lit. Their purpose was double: encourage the Sun as the Life-giver (sympathetic magic), and draw upon the elemental quality of fire, as an agent of purification. As at Beltain bonfires, people jumped over them and cattle were driven through them; it was a way of getting rid of evil influences, but also of ridding the cattle of parasites.

As the boundaries between the realms faded away, it was the perfect time for divination and the reading of omens, such as placing two nuts in the fire for lovers -burning steadily denoted constancy, popping was inconstancy. It was a time for storytelling, poetry, singing and playing tricks, evoking the ancestors and the glorious deeds of the heroes.To the Celts, magic was not about "weird" or "occult" practices. It was only the invisible made visible; the tree seen in the seed. Needless to say, the Druids were the experts of this art and science, the ones who had a perfect knowledge and control of the complex forces of Nature.

Two Pre-Raphaelite paintings below are left to right: The Magic Circle by J.W. Waterhouse, 1886, housed at Tate Gallery and Morgan leFay by Frederick Sandys, 1864, housed at Birmingham Art Gallery.

Because of its Death-Life double aspect, Samhain was under the influence of Goddesses as The Cailleach, Cerridwen (the Morrighan) and Dana. These are key elements in the understanding of the symbolism of Samhain, but also of Halloween, since these deities are the very ancestors of our modern ugly witch! As Caitlin Matthews explains: "One of the oldest deities, perhaps a truly native goddess of Britain and Ireland who was incorporated into the Celtic tradition is the Cailleach or the Old One... About her are found fragmentary stories concerning the control of the weather and the formation of mountain ranges. She is the Mountain Mother of native tradition who has submerged in Celtic story, occasionally appearing as a helper or a hinderer of the hero. Like the British Cerridwen, she guards a cauldron into which the heroes are thrust to be healed and hardened. She sometimes appears in the aspect of the Dark Woman of Knowledge, disguised as an ugly young woman who nevertheless possesses great wisdom. The fragmentary myths which remain embedded in Celtic folklore speak of her pursuit of the Hero, who is often her own son. By harrying the hero, she forces him to grow and develop wisdom.The Morrighan draws directly on the Cailleach's character... As territorial ancestress of the land, she proclaims the peace, but she does not cease prophesying, going on to foretell a world in which the natural order is overtaken by unnatural disaster. Her prophetic voice echoes long down to our own times, for the Cailleach is both the giver and the taker of life and she outlives the ending of the world by renewing it within herself.

These deities related at the same time to Death and Life (renewal) show how rich the Celtic view of Life and the World was, as the Celts knew to welcome and integrate the "night-forces", along with the "day-forces". Today's witches (that we display at Halloween) have become the image of exclusively 'evil' and negative aspects. We have forgotten that they also are the messengers of wisdom!

The Celtic Tradition by Caitlin Matthews, Element Books Ltd; illustrated edition edition (December 1996).
Kindling The Celtic Spirit: Ancient Traditions to Illumine Your Life Through the Seasons by Mara Freeman,  Harper One; 1st edition (December 26, 2000).

Please feel free to leave comments,


Hermes said…
Such a great post Kimberly, really enjoyed and the great pictures
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Hermes, thanks for stopping by. I'm so glad you enjoyed it!
Jeanne_Treat said…
Great post, Kimberly!
Kimberly Eve said…
Thanks Jeanne. Happy Samhain :)
Nick Holland said…
This is an absolutely brilliant post - I always learn so much from your musings!
Kevin Marsh said…
Great post Kimberly, lovely photographs. Very interesting. :-)