In this short piece marking the ancient feast of Samhain (1 November), older spelling Samain, I share some examples of early Irish Samain folklore and also outline the legal framing of Samain under the Brehon Laws.
Aspects of Samain in Mythology
Samain, 1 November, traditionally marked the start of Winter. It has been suggested that the word Samain is a compound of an older term for ‘Summer’, Samrad, and an ancient word for ‘end’, fuin, i.e. Summer’s end. Superstition ran high at this time of year. It was thought that the boundary between the mortal world and the ‘otherworld’ was especially thin at Samain. In old literature, Samain signals a period of tension and confusion, voyages to the otherworld, encounters between mortals and non-mortals etc.
It is said that the dwellings of the síde or shees (fairy forts) in Ireland were open on the night before Samain. The Féth Fíada (a ‘magical mist’ or ‘veil’, normally keeping them hidden) was thrown off and entities from the fairy forts roamed freely all over Ireland. This strongly incentivised people to stay indoors, lest they encounter any ‘demons’ that night.
A particularly notorious Samain location was the so-called ‘Hell Gate of Ireland’ in the cave of Cruachan or Croghan (now Rathcroghan) in modern day County Roscommon. It was said that, once darkness descended on Samain eve, a procession of goblins and copper-red birds, led by a monstrous three-headed vulture, emerged from the Hell Gate. Their poisonous breath reputedly withered up everything it touched – this was probably a nod to the coming withering of the landscape during the Winter season.
There is also a myth of sídhe visiting high-ranking individuals at Samain. One such story has a ben síde or bean sí (‘fairy woman’) appearing to a king of South Munster every Samain in the second century to bring him on an annual tour of shees, to see all the precious things within them.
Aspects of Custom and Law at Samain
The beginning of Winter season saw a change of rhythm in agricultural and husbandry practices. Grain harvests were supposed to be in the stores by Samain. Most cattle were also evacuated from their upland pastures and brought down into farming enclosures. Meat preparation was a prominent domestic activity at this time, i.e. slaughtering, butchering, preserving and cooking meat. This was key to tiding people over the Winter season, along with stocks of cheese built up over the Summer.
Samain also marked the end of the pig-hunting season and the start of a new breeding cycle running from November to January. Pigs, particularly wild boar, are strongly associated with Samain in a number of sources. The Irish boar carried supernatural connotations, listed as one of the animals that could shapeshift into human form and travel to the otherworld. Regional kings are also recorded as having exacted substantial tributes of boar from their vassals at Samain. The pig was thus the sacrificial animal of Samain.
Samain was a period of ceremony and feasting. Fires – perhaps called ‘bone fires’ (Tine Cnámh) – were traditionally lit, in earlier times at places like Tlachtgha (now the ‘Hill of Ward’) in County Meath. The fire at Tlachtgha could have been marked by a ceremonial procession of high-ranking members of society, following which fires may then have been lit at the nearby Hill of Tara (Teamhair). Though subject to some debate, Samain is associated with a supposed grand ‘Feast of Tara’ and more localised royal feasts. These feasts may also have been settings for symbolic mating or fertility ceremonies (banfeis or banais ríg), joining a local king with a local earth-goddess.
Feasting activities also kept the lower grades of society preoccupied at Samain. This was a time when lords went ‘on circuit’, calling in tribute from their ‘clients’, i.e. farmers under legal obligations to provide food and/or hospitality to more powerful cattle lords. The lords consumed some of this food tribute at feasts thrown for them by their clients under the obligation of winter-hospitality. Again, the standard food offering at these feasts seems to have been pig meat or bamb samna (‘piglet of Samhain‘). This is confirmed in an old glossary which states: ‘Fuirec…the name of the food that is carried to the lord before Christmas…that is to say, the Samain pig’ (translation). This practice also found expression in early Christian Church tradition, where Saint Patrick is described as having gifted the original Samain pig to Saint Martin.
The legal implications of Samain feasting were significant and it was clearly a time of tension. The law tract Dliged Raith 7 Somaíne la Flaith (‘right of a fief and renders of a lord’) indicates that a lord was entitled to descend on a client with a retinue of eight men for the Samain feast. And if the feast was not up to scratch, heavy fines could be levelled. The law-tract indicates: ‘If the Samain feast has failed, two séts for its failure, with doubling of restitution of whatever has failed’ (translation). A sét here was probably equivalent to one milch cow and one heifer, so no small penalty. A later gloss on the text seems to assume the thing most likely to ‘fail’ was the pig meat offering, referred to as ‘the tested young pig of the feast of St. Martin or of Samain‘ (translation).
Even if the Samain feast itself passed off without incident, the same law tract goes on to warn about the legal risks of, for instance, lighting candles in the darkness when the lord had retired to bed. Legal commentary suggests sudden candlelight might have caused the lord to assume they were about to be assassinated or that something voyeuristic was happening, i.e. causing him to be ‘overtaken at his coupling by which he would be shamed’ (translation). So not only did farmers have to worry about demons on the loose from fairy forts during Samain, they also had to navigate very sensitive hospitality protocols in their own home!
Some concluding thoughts
In this short piece, I have sought to give a flavour of some Samain-related myths, customs and law. A particular learning when writing this was the extent to which the pig was historically central to Samain activities, including in legal terms. Not something which immediately comes to mind at Halloween nowadays.
This article may be cited as J. Biggins, ‘Of Swine and Samain: Aspects of Early Irish Samain Lore and Law‘, The Brehon Lawyer (October 2021)
Sources used in this article
Bette-Jane Crigger, A Man is Better than his Birth: Identity and Action in Early Irish Law (unpublished PhD manuscript, University of Chicago, 1991)
D. A. Binchy, ‘The Fair of Taltiú and the Feast of Tara’ (1958) 18 Ériu 113
Fergus Kelly, Early Irish Farming (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1997)
Nerys Patterson, Cattle Lords and Clansmen: The Social Structure of Early Ireland (University of Notre Dame, 1994)
P. W. Joyce, A Social History of Ancient Ireland (Longmans, Green & Co, 1903)