Thursday, 18 November 2010

Centugiamos 11: The Meaning of Samonis

Having first looked at the two main conceptions of this time of the year and finding evidence for them lacking, it behooves us ask what, then, is there evidence for? Aside from marking the new year, what was the “meaning” of this festival?

First, a little linguistic examination. In spite of popular misconceptions and folk-etymology, the ultimate etymology of both Samonis and Samhain has nothing at all to do with “summer”. Rather, it appears to be cognate to Sanskrit sámanaṃ “gathering, feast” and Gothic samana “together”. Another early meaning of the OI form samain was also “gathering”: all of which points to an original meaning of “reunion, gathering”. Xavier Delamarre, in his etymological dictionary of Gaulish, sees this as referring to a reunion between the living and the dead. However, given the discussion in the last post, this seems unlikely. Instead, we could simply be looking at a big community get-together: a tribal reunion rather than a metaphysical one.

In the premodern British Isles, this season marked the end of the agricultural and pastoral years. The harvest had been safely gathered in and the livestock had returned from their summer pastures. Across the British Isles, November was also the month in which livestock which could not be fed over the coming winter were slaughtered, their meat being salted or smoked. In Welsh, the word for November is Tachwedd, meaning “slaughter”, and Bede tells us that the Old English name for this month was Blōtmōnaþ “blood-month”. At Samonis, then, we might envision a communal feast, giving the people their last taste of fresh meat until the spring.

While evidence for communion with the dead sensu stricto is wanting for this festival, there is certainly a body of evidence which indicates that this time of year had an uncanny or numinous atmosphere. Both folk tradition and early literature associate this time of the year with ghosts, witches and other unfriendly spirits, and we have records of apotropaic rituals in northern Wales and Scotland to defend against these malevolent spirits. For example, bonfires (coelcerthi) on the 31st of October were common in north and central Wales until relatively recently, as well as on the Isle of Man and in the Highlands of Scotland. Similarly, rituals are recorded from the Highlands of Scotland wherein a lit torch was carried around the fields, in order to protect them from malevolent entities.

In summary then, the linguistic and folkloric evidence from the ''Celtic'' regions suggests a communal feast, marking the end of the pastoral and agricultural years, at the same time as the annual slaughter of livestock. There is also evidence suggesting apotropaic rituals to defend the community and its means of subsistence from malevolent spirits, those rituals involving fire.

In the next post, we shall look at how some of these themes might be used in a modern Samonis ritual.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Centugiamos 10: Samonis and Samhain

There are two things which “everybody knows” about Samhain: that it was a festival of the dead and that it was the “Celtic New Year”. Ronald Hutton, however, having investigated both of these claims finds little evidence to substantiate either in the earliest documentation. Not only that, he only finds evidence for the celebration of Samhain in Ireland: evidence in the early Brythonic literature a Calan Gaeaf festival is wanting, the most prominent calendar dates being the (Julian) New Year in January and Calan Mai at the beginning of May.

It is not, therefore, an unfair question to ask why on earth I am beginning this Brittonic year in late autumn with a festival attested only in Ireland. In my opinion, Hutton overlooks an extremely important piece of evidence: that of the calendar of Coligny. The seventeenth day of first month of the year is marked with the following notation: trinox samo sindiv, which is normally restored as trinoxtion Samoni sindiu “the three-night festival of Samonis today”. This notation is particularly precious: it is one of only three or so records of a genuine pre-Christian Celtic festival.

While there are always naysayers, the academic consensus is quite firm in that the Gaulish samon- and the Irish samain are cognate. Let us examine the details: the Irish festival lasted three days and three nights, the calendar indicates that Samonis was similarly a three-night festival. The Gaulish festival takes place in the first month of the year, which lends support to the otherwise circumstantial evidence that Samhain was a new year festival. The names of the months in the Coligny calendar following Samon suggest that the year began in the late autumn or early winter, which is the attested season in which Samhain occurs. Taking the Gaulish and Irish evidence together, I do not think it unreasonable to assume that the Celtic year began in the autumn.

That the three nights of Samonis do not occur at the very beginning of the month is no obstacle to it being a new year celebration. In the pre-Julian Roman calendar, the first festival of the new year, that of Anna Perenna, does not occur until the Ides (the fifteenth day) of the first month. Like the atenoux of marked in each month of the Coligny Calendar, the Ides originally marked the full moon. Notably, perhaps, trinox samo sindiv occurs three days after the atenoux of the first month: perhaps it marks not the beginning of the festival but its end. Therefore, in this calendar, we will place the beginning of Samonis at the first full moon of the year: the 15th day of Centugiamos.

Happy then, that there is substantial enough evidence for Samonis being the “Celtic New Year”, let us turn our attention to the second thing which “everybody knows”, that Samhain was a festival dedicated to the dead. Here, I believe, Hutton is on more solid ground. In the earliest Irish texts, Samain has no connection with the dead: nor, in fact, does the 31st October elsewhere in Northern Europe. As it happens, Early Christianity had no common festival dedicated to the dead. A need for such a festival only arose with the crystallisation of the doctrine of purgatory towards the end of the dark ages, and even then there was no common date for the commemoration: the Irish and British churches, in common with those of France and Northern Spain, celebrated All Souls in the spring (which, interestingly, corresponds well with the pagan Roman commemoration of the dead, the Lemuria). The current 2nd November date for All Souls actually originated in 10th century Burgundy. So the early Celtic evidence doesn’t indicate a feast connected with the ancestors for this time of the year at all: the only evidence for ancestral rituals being carried out around this time is firmly Christian in nature, and post-dates the adoption of the 2nd November All Souls date considerably.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Centugiamos 1 - An invitation

It is just after nightfall here in Moriconion.

I am writing in the kitchen. The smell of haricot and flageolet beans cooking slowly in olive oil, white wine and tarragon escapes from the oven, filling the room with an earthy, musty, autumnal aroma. My forearms are still lightly dusted with spelt flour, from kneading dough that will become a herbed and salted bread. These things, along with some local cider mulled with cinnamon, ginger, honey and pepper, I will offer to my ancestors at the passing of the year.

Tonight is the second new moon following the autumnal equinox, which according to the Moriconion Liturgical Calendar makes this the first night of Centugiamos, the first month of the new year. In this blog, I intend on documenting my exploration of the ritual year as it happens, month by month and festival by festival; and I invite you to explore it with me.


We can be fairly certain that the pre-Roman Britons, like virtually every group of people throughout history, celebrated a cycle of seasonal festivals. What we can’t be sure about, however, is what and when these were. We have no direct evidence: the Britons themselves did not leave any written records, and the accounts of their contemporaries (the Greeks and Romans) do not record any information about the annual round of festivals. What then is there to celebrate?

It was widely assumed in the 19th century that the mediaeval and early modern seasonal festivals of Britain were thinly Christianised continuations of authentic Pagan practices. Similarly, based on a few oblique references in early Irish literature, it was also assumed that “the Celts” had a common set of four festivals which opened the four seasons: Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. Just as these long-held assumptions were being critically re-examined by the Academy, Neopaganism embraced them both wholeheartedly: an adoption from which ultimately derives the common Neopagan “Wheel of the Year”.

In his magisterial The Stations of the Sun, Ronald Hutton presents evidence which firmly rejects both assumptions. By tracing the annual festivals of the British Isles as far as records permit, he demonstrates not the preservation of barely changed pagan rituals from the mists of time, but that annual festivals were dynamic, constantly changing and evolving, with some falling into desuetude and others arising in their place and with the varying forms of Christianity within the Isles being a constant source of inspiration. He also rejects the idea of a “common Celtic” set of four festivals, seeing the Irish quartet as being rooted firmly in the particular transhumant and pastoral economy of early mediaeval Ireland.

For the modern Neopagan, this all adds up to the rather uncomfortable sensation of the rug being pulled firmly from under one’s feet. If the assumptions upon which the Neopagan ritual year is based are shown to be false, what then should we celebrate?

Creating a ritual year

In spite of emphasising how little of the pre-Christian festival year can be recovered, Hutton emphasises that there are some festivals which have clear pre-Christian antecedents, that there is even evidence for some “common Celtic” practice. He also demonstrates that while the outer forms of celebration are in a near-constant state of change, the impulses from which they arise remain constant: “a yearning for light, greenery, warmth, and joy in midwinter, a propensity to celebrate the spring with symbols of rebirth, an impulse to make merry in the sunlight and open air during the summer, and a tendency for thoughts to turn towards death and the uncanny at the onset of winter.”

It is on these two foundations that my ritual year will be built: what little we can recover of pre-Christian practices and the constants of the British year. To this we can add evidence from comparative sources: if we have evidence for a festival celebrating the ancestors across the Indo-European world, then we can probably safely assume that the pre-Christian Britons had a similar festival, whether direct evidence of this survives or not. As such, I have not been averse to incorporating “Brythonicised” versions of festivals attested in other Indo-European cultures: for example, as Vedism recognises four major feasts which mark the beginnings of the four seasons, so will this ritual year.

As a result of the first of our assumptions above, Neopagans regularly assert that Christians have “borrowed” or even “stolen” originally pagan festivals. The truth of this, as we have seen, is somewhat different. However, I do not feel that this is an impediment to making use of Christian festivities in our ritual year: they form part of our heritage as well, and to reject them is to reject centuries worth of creativity and innovation. Rather than attempting to unpick these Christian rituals in an attempt to discern a “purer pagan origin”, which is in all likelihood not actually there), I intend on examining them to see what aspects might work well in a Brythonic context. To a degree then, this ritual year will be a construction more than a reconstruction, consciously taking elements from related or descendant traditions and (hopefully) pulling them together into a coherent whole.

First steps

Throughout the year, with each new month I will not only lay out the festivals I intend on celebrating and how I plan on celebrating them, but I also intend to discuss them, the sources and reasoning behind their selection and elaboration. Furthermore, I want to discuss the relevance of this seasonal cycle. Until relatively recently, the festivals of the British ritual year have been overwhelmingly focused on the rhythms of the agricultural and pastoral years, celebrated a community. Today, however, the daily lives of most people are more than a little removed from both: for example, I do not live among a community of like-minded pagans with whom I could celebrate, nor is my daily life governed by the considerations of the agricultural year. At first glance, celebrating a cycle of agricultural community festivals would be anachronistic at best and utterly irrelevant at worst. One of my main concerns then will be to navigate this necessary tension between being an urban solitary practitioner of communal rural festivals. My celebrations will be based on the home rather than the community; the hearth rather than fire of communal sacrifice.

Along the way I hope to explain some of my personal theology and practice: an outline for basic domestic rituals, a discussion of why sacrifice is important to me, some retellings (or reimaginings) of stories about the gods. I hope that you’ll find all this interesting, and that you’ll join me on my journey.