‘He was their god,
The Withered Cromm with many mists,
The people whom he shook over every host,
The everlasting kingdom they shall not have.
To him without glory
They would kill their piteous, wretched offspring
With much wailing and peril,
To pour blood around Cromm Cruaich.
They did evil,
They beat their palms, they pounded their bodies,
Wailing to the demon who enslaved them,
They shed falling showers of tears’.
Such, according to a poem recorded in the Books of Leinster, Ballymote and Lecan, and in the Rennes manuscript, was the practice of human sacrifice in pre-Christian Ireland, where one third of the healthy children were slaughtered to wrest from the powers of nature the grain and grass upon which the tribes and their cattle subsisted. The same authority tells that these sacrifices were made at ‘Hallow’een’ – Samhain.
According to the Dindsenchas and the Annals of the Four Masters, Samhain was associated with the god Cromm Cruach – the Crooked old Man of the Hill/Mound. King Tigernmas (Tighearnmhas) was said to have made offerings to Cromm Cruach each Samhain, sacrificing a first-born child by smashing their head against a stone idol of the god (Annals of the Four Masters: Part 6 at Corpus of Electronic Texts). The Four Masters say that Tigernmas, with “three fourths of the men of Ireland about him” died while worshipping Cromm Cruach at Magh Slécht on Samhain. Irish kings Diarmait mac Cerbaill and Muirchertach mac Ercae both die a threefold death on Samhain, which may be linked to human sacrifice (Koch, J. T. The Celts: History, Life, and Culture. 2012. p.690).
The medieval Christian texts would have us believe that the pagan/god idol, Cromm Cruach, was destroyed by St. Patrick:
‘Since the rule,
Of Herimon (the first king of the Milesians), the noble man of grace,
There was worshipping of stones
Until the coming of good Patrick of Macha.
A sledge-hammer to the Cromm
He applied from crown to sole,
He destroyed without lack of valour,
The feeble idol which was there’.
However, it is very probable that Cromm Cruach survived in the folk consciousness long after, and that thousands of years later today’s Hallow’een lanterns preserve the terrifying memory of the ‘Crooked Old Man of the Hill’.
A traditional Irish turnip Hallow’een lantern from the early 20th century
But why do these events occur at Hallow’een? What does linguistics tell us about the origin of Hallow’een/Samhain and the Celtic ‘Festival of the Dead’? The traditional interpretation, first put forward in the Medieval glossaries, and still held by many, is that it means “summer’s end”, being a combination of samh “summer” and fuin “ending, concealment”. This is obviously a later folk etymology, since we know that the earliest form of the word (Samon-) had a different meaning.
In fact the original Celtic meaning of ‘Samhain’ comes from the Proto-Celtic *samoni- ‘assembly, ([Noun] GOlD: MIr. samain ‘(assembly on the) 1st of November’; GAUL: samon- (Coligny), from the PIE: *smHon- ‘reunion, assembly’ (also in Skt. samiina- ‘together’, Go. samana ‘together’).
The Gaulish form, occurring in the Coligny Calender, is abbreviated, and can be reconstructed as *samonios, or as *samonos (or *samonis, if it is the Gen. Sg). The original meaning of *samoni- therefore would be ‘assembly of the living and the dead’ (Delamarre 267; cf. also Olr. bech-samain ‘bee-swarm’. REF: LEIA S-22f., EIEC 646, Delamarre 267; Matasovic R. An Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic).
The month name SAMON[IOS] on the Coligny calendar is related to Samhain. A festival was held during the ‘three nights of Samonios’ (Gaulish trinux[tion] samo[nii]). The Gaulish calendar seems to have split the year into two halves: the first beginning with the month SAMON[IOS] and the second beginning with the month GIAMONIOS.
Which of these two dates then should we think of as the “Celtic New Year”? Although both in fact mark the beginning of a cycle, Samhain begins it in darkness, and there is no doubt about the pre-eminence of darkness in Celtic tradition. (http://www.imbas.org/articles/samhain.html).
In De Bello Gallico Julius Caesar notes that the Celts began their daily cycle with sunset:
‘Spatia omnis temporis non numero dierum, sed noctium finiunt; dies natales et mensum et annorum initia sic obseruant, ut noctem dies subsequatur’.
(“They define all amounts of time not by the number of days, but by the number of nights; they celebrate birthdays and the beginnings of months and years in such a way that the day is made to follow the night”).
This is confirmed by later Celtic practice. Darkness comes before light, because life appears in the darkness of the womb, all things have their beginning in the fertile chaos that is hidden from the rational mind. Thus, the year begins with its dark half, holding the bright half in gestation as the seeds lie in apparent death underground, although the forces of growth are already at work. Thus, the moment of death – the passing into the concealing darkness – is itself the first step in the renewal of life.
Thus, the time of Samhain marks the beginning of darkness, and thus the beginning of life, a time for ‘the gathering’ of all beings – whether from light or darkness, from life or from death.
Oweynagat (‘cave of the cats’) near Rathcroghan in County Roscommon (Ireland), one of the many ‘gateways to the Otherword’ through which, according to folk belief, the worlds are linked during Samhain.