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.


  1. While I agree that samon- refers to a gathering together, how do you handle Samonios' opposite month Giamonios? Is the meaning still "winter"? Or is there a different etymology?

  2. I'm relatively confident that giamon- refers to winter, as one would expect. I suspect that samon- was susceptible to folk-etymologising even in Gaulish times: perhaps it was indeed perceived as meaning "[end] of summer", just as Goidelic speakers etymologise "samhain" as "samh-fhuinn". If this is the case, it could well suggest that Samonis as a festival (rather than a month) predates the naming of the monthson the Coligny calendar.

    (And I will get back to writing this blog, I promise. I have something of a backlog to get through!)