This piece originally appeared in the Hallowe’en supplement of the Irish Independent, 31 October 2016.
No reliable historical information about the nature of Samhain survives, and so the recent resurgence of festivities in Ireland which mark this pre-Christian feast probably bear little relationship to any ancient historical reality. As a general rule, modern reconstructions tell us more about contemporary concerns and interests than they tell us about the past. However, medieval literary representations of Samhain are interesting in their own right.
A huge body of literature survives from medieval Ireland. This literature was composed by Christian authors who had received their education through the Church. Much of the saga literature is set in the pagan past, even though it was written at a time when Ireland had already been a Christian society for many centuries. The Christian worldview of the authors of this literature shaped their presentation of pagan culture and society. Christian authors were interested in Ireland’s past, and were trying to show where Ireland fitted into the grand scheme of salvation history. However, they themselves had no direct knowledge of Irish paganism.
Therefore, we need to think of the literature of medieval Ireland as something more like our modern-day ‘historical fiction’. Many centuries after Christianisation, authors were imagining pagan culture. Their expectations of what pagan societies must have been like were influenced by diverse sources, ranging from Classical literature, such as Virgil’s Aeneid, to Scandinavian paganism, which Irish authors came into contact with through Viking raiding and settlement in Ireland.
Medieval Irish authors imagined Samhain as a time of assemblies, where the noblemen of a kingdom got together to feast. The action of many medieval Irish sagas is set at Samhain. For example, at the beginning of the comic tale Mesca Ulad (‘The Intoxication of the Ulstermen’), we are told that King Conchobar of Ulster held a feast at Samhain at which he provided ‘one hundred vats of every kind of drink’.
Similarly, in the opening of the complex otherworldly tale Echtra Nerai (‘The Adventure of Nera’), King Ailill and Queen Medb of Connacht are depicted as holding a feast at Samhain. Echtra Nerai also portrays Samhain as a time of supernatural occurrences: the author of that tale states that ‘great was the darkness of that night and its horror, and demons would appear on that night always’. Thus we can see the idea of feasting and celebration at the end of summer being combined with concepts of fear and terror, perhaps as a result of the onset of winter and the growing darkness of the evenings.
In Serglige Con Culainn (‘The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn’) we are told that Samhain was a time of ‘meetings and games and amusements and entertainments and eating and feasting’. Although the details and context are very different from that of early medieval Ireland, the need to make light in the face of darkness (whether real or imagined) remains a constant in our own society. In the immortal words of American punk band, Samhain, ‘this is the night to feast and dine / this is the night to laugh at death’.