On the first page of Moby Dick, that remarkable book about the pursuit of philosophy in the shape of a white whale, Ishmael, the narrator, tells us:
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul… I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
A damp, drizzly November.
I know that feeling; particularly living in the West of Ireland. I admit it…I don’t really like Samhain (the festival of Halloween and the Irish word for November). I never have. It’s cold and wet and dark and scary and the hour goes back on the clock. I just want to go to sea and escape.
But I usually don’t; because it’s also somehow magical and probably a necessary portal for people who live at high latitudes as we do in Ireland. In the Celtic tradition, Samhain—the midpoint between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice—was the most significant of the four quarterly fire festivals and the beginning of the dark part of the year.
It is the end of the Celtic year. But it is also the beginning of the next one. In the darkness, though it seems at first to be a time when all hope is lost, the seeds of a whole new year are sleeping in the earth, gathering strength and waiting for the light to return. The function of the fires and revelry was to help to transform the darkness and move the world back towards the Winter Solstice and the rebirth of light.
Famously, this is the time when the curtain between this and the parallel, “supernatural” world opens a little and we get a dim view of what it looks like on the other side. “Fairy” forts open their doors and the spirits of our ancestors are welcomed back to the house to be brought into the warmth of the fire. People dress up to celebrate them as well as to disguise themselves from any harmful entities hidden in the darkness.
People travelling on this night are well advised to go in groups to avoid being led astray by the Sídhe or the “good people” (The word “fairy” does not really do justice to the Irish tradition of the magical descendants of the goddess Danú living in a parallel world).
If you do get led astray, the best thing to do is to turn your coat inside out so that they won’t recognise you and will be distracted by something else. And if you throw water, or anything else, out of your window or door at this time, make sure you call “seachain” or “beware” to allow invisible creatures to get out of the way. You do not want to antagonise them!…
It’s also a time when we can find out what is in store for us in the future. A wedding-ring in a barm-brack or a serving of potatoes and kale foretells marriage, a coin promises wealth and young girls look into mirrors to see their future husbands, though there is also a risk they may see the devil in the mirror (not an auspicious event!). Children go from house to house collecting “apples and nuts”, a tradition which went to America with Irish immigrants, became even more popular there, and then came back again with pumpkins and sweets and “trick or treat”.
And my mother (who was not given to such things) swore that, around this time, she saw a fairy woman (Bean Sídhe) singing and combing her long, black hair beside a stream to foretell the death of her grandfather.
It’s a time of darkness but also of promise.
I’m going to try again to escape Samhain this year but I probably won’t; which may be a good thing—we know how it turned out for Ishmael in his adventures with the great, white whale.