I can already feel it. I drive home from work at exactly the time when the sun is in the process of setting during winter. A month ago, it was sinking beneath the horizon before I turned on Highway 30 for the seven mile drive to High Ridge; today it’s still up for about ten minutes after I’m home. It’s a little warm today, though I’m aware it’s just a teasing January thaw. There’s still a lot of cold weather to go in February and March, but it will be well-lighted cold weather, and I can feel spring’s approach.
I have been reading much about the Celtic festival year, particularly Samhain. The impression I have been getting is of a poorly understood, even a purposely misrepresented tradition. First let me say that I am in touch with quite a few neopagans who mostly seem to spend much time working to understand the lore and traditions of ancient beliefs. They are a valuable source of information and interpretation for me. But there is also, quite frankly, a lot hooey out there.
For instance, there are yearly ‘Druidic’ rites conducted in and around Stonehenge, when it is clear to anyone who spends more than ten minutes studying the subject that Stonehenge is not in any way a Celtic monument–and hence not a Druidic site. The Druids certainly had nothing to do with the building of Stonehenge, and most likely never conducted any kind of ceremonies there.
But I am also bothered by the proliferation of traditions that see Samhain as a dark, foreboding time full of ghosts and malevolent spirits, Druids skulking in dark robes. It’s true that the Celts began their year at Samhain, a dark time which would grow darker before building to spring. They also saw the day as beginning at dusk, much as the ancient Hebrews did. It’s also true that Samhain was regarded as a liminal time when boundaries between this world and the next grew fuzzy. But there is much in Celtic lore that sees the beauty, hope, and even the romance in the encroaching darkness.
In The Wooing of Emer, one of the great tales about the hero CuChulainn, our hero asks his beloved how he can achieve the ‘beautiful plain’–a coded reference to her breasts. ‘No one comes to this plain,’ said she, ‘who does not meet Benn Suain, the son of Roscmelc, from summer’s end to the beginning of spring, from the beginning of spring to May-day, from May-day to the beginning of winter.’ Summer’s end is of course another name for Samhain, and she is describing a love that can persevere through winter to spring and back again.
Perhaps the greatest love story in Celtic lore is The Song of Aengus. Aengus is one of the Tuatha de Danaan, a race of gods, or godlike heroes, usually portrayed as a god of love and youth. Aengus falls hard for a maiden he sees in a dream, but whenever he reaches out to touch her she disappears. He wastes away with unfulfilled love while his divine mother and father seek the dream girl. She is finally found imprisoned among 150 girls whose sad fate it is to turn into swans at Samhain and back into human form the next year. Aengus is told that if he can select his beloved from among the swans, he will win her. He visits the lake after the transformation and successfully picks out Caer, his one true love. He also becomes a swan and together they fly off, singing such beautiful music that people who hear it are lulled to sleep for three days.
This tale was the basis for William Butler Yeats’ great love poem The Song of Wandering Aengus. One of the most poignantly lovely poems in the English language, it does not speak of the swans, but it does have its hero endlessly seeking his love ‘through hollow lands and hilly lands.’ If he finds her they will spend eternity plucking ‘the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.’ So I choose to see the romance, the optimism of Samhain. Yes, there is the mystical and the other-worldly, maidens turned to swans and all that. But within that there is romance.
The Celtic year is not divided by the solstices and equinoxes, as in the Classical World. There isn’t the great lamentation about the death of the sun and the fervid ceremonies pleading with the gods to return their favor to us. It is more about observation of the natural world–when things ripen, when the warmth returns, when the ewes are calving. Things go on, and we go on as well. Samhain may be a dark time, but the harvest is in and we have food and leisure for a while: life goes on, and love endures. I can already feel it. Spring is coming.