Archive for the ‘Samhain’ Category

Now that I am in Dublin attending another conference (this one on Lebor na hUidre), I better get some of my notes from the last conference up here! It has been weeks now since I was in Sligo for Archeology of Darkness, but I have had guests in the meantime so do pardon my tardiness. Now, without further adieu….some of my notes (they will be posted in parts):

The gods of darkness come bearing gifts
Robert Hensey

This lecture will outline areas that have perhaps been under-theorised in archaeology. These include the use of dark places for the purposes of ritual retreat; archaeological landscapes by night; emotional reactions to dark places; the relationship between the darkness of winter and mental health; and darkness as a crucial feature of the construction and use of a wide variety of archaeological monuments.

Robert introduced the idea that perhaps ancient peoples viewed themselves as “seed” going into the earth, when they journeyed into the great mounds and tombs, and even caves. He also brought up Oiche na Sprideanna (Night of Spirits) and touched on this time of year (samhain) being a time when the Tuatha de Dannand collected their tithe..as the living Irish chieftains later did, as well.

He reminded us not to slide into bias, as not all cultures view the dark as scary or evil. He also pointed out an area of research (which I informed him of) still to uncover: how seasonality (SAD) may have contributed to the use of dark spaces and ancient peoples’ perception of the dark.

The dark side of the sky: architecture and the dead in Bronze Age Ireland and Scotland
Richard Bradley

For many years it was tempting to consider megalithic tombs and stone settings as a single phenomenon, elements which were shared between communities on either side of the Irish Sea. That is no longer tenable. Recent research has shed new light on the chronology of these monuments and has identified distinctive changes in their architecture during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age periods. It has also shown how some of these traditions might have been renewed during the Late Bronze Age. One feature that transcends different styles of buildings is their orientation towards the south west; another is their association with human remains. In the past both features have suggested a link between cremation burial and observations of the moon, but it is possible to account for a wider range of evidence if this is treated as evidence for a new emphasis on the night, the use of fire, and the dark side of the sky. There is an important contrast with older structures, some of which emphasised the direction of the sunrise. Examples of the new developments include Irish wedge tombs, and Scottish recumbent stone circles and Clava Cairns. The same preoccupations even extend to Stonehenge.

This talk was incredibly informative and entertaining! He urged us to think of cosmology when we consider the direction the monuments are facing. There was a major change in ancestral shrine (tomb) building, with chamber and court predominant until 3500 bce, with the majority facing the rising sun (predominantly E, but also all along the spectrum of NE, E, SE). There are passage tombs with solar and equinox alignments, toward both the source and the “loss” of light. Wedge tombs are later, at the end of the neolithic / beginning of metal age and they face the declining light – or the dark side of the sky (SW and W).

Professor Bradley listed several examples, including: clava cairns, raigmore, and croft moraig. Raigmore cairn was built on top of an existing house, and mimics its design,with a HUGE and notable exception. The original house (of the living) favored the rising sun. The cairn (house of the dead) favors the decreasing sun. This represents an exciting direct alignment change! This site has a recumbent stone circle, with the recumbent (altar stone) in the SW.

Late bronze and middle iron saw lots of cremated bone, lots of burning – but no bodies. There is a supposed connection between the reduced light (tombs facing the dark of the sky) – the dead – lighting of fires. There is no sign of feasting at these sites (which puts me in mind of the Drombeg circle in cork).

At croft moraig the first phase of use was recognition of a glacial mound and a glacial erratic (large rock laying on top of a natural mound, away from other rocks). There is some alignment when sun phenomena are viewed from this rock and an adjacent mountain. The second phase of use at this site was a stone circle, followed by a house, and finally an oval enclosure now turned to a sunset alignment at midwinter.

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…a cold whisper of breath stillness

From the recess of the cave, with the story of Nera swimming behind darkened eyes, I hear a faint sound. I move to light a candle, which I place in a nook by my friend. I sit next to her, settling on a rock, as I move my hair away from my ears and listen.

The cold of the rock seeps through my rain pants, past the cotton of my trousers, and into my bones. My breath is steady. My eyes…open.


The faint sound, a woman’s whisper, returns – rippling on silent waves.

Moments pass like eternity, and the universe comes into being within a breath. I wait, listen, and ask. As it was said, so long ago regarding Mongfind’s Feast, “wherefore women and the rabble make petitions to her on samain-eve.” And I did.

When we finally exit, slow and tender, we scratch crawl back into the world of mud. The liquid body of the mother.

Now comes the fun part: removing our muddy boots, smeared pants, and baptismal robes to ease into a human machine. The car is not spared, but we glide into the starry night warm – electric piston thrust crackling with technology fire.

We are in desperate need of a toilet, and warm food. Chances are not great for the food, so we settle on cold meats packed away earlier for just such occasions, and search for a petrol station with public toilets. Down the lonely roads we head – merrily chatting about our day: the long drive, unfound mounds, and twilight expeditions. Through the midlands and small villages, past pubs and occasional pedestrians – into the dark of the bogs.

There is a detour underway, so we leave the main road behind and follow little orange road signs, deeper and deeper into a darkening world – finally succumbing to US election coverage on the radio.


Something doesn’t feel right.


Oh, you have to be kidding me!


(My heart sank in that moment, as I glanced from side to side and saw no lights.)

I slowed and gently pulled the car over. (This is when my friend looked at me, realization dawning.) I reach for my backpack, riffle around – past muddy gloves and soft apples – until I find my earth encrusted torch. Outside, I pass its tiny warm yellow light over a deflated tyre.

No words cross the threshold of my mouth until I reach Himself on the mobile. You see, I don’t know how to change a tyre.

In the middle of Offaly, after midnight with nobody around – on astrological Samhain, we sit. We listen to US election reports. We wait for Himself to find someone willing to rescue us. We feel slightly silly.

Approaching 1am I notice a light. Only a small blue point at first, it dances along a steady plane moving closer. I watch it, thinking it may be a person with a small torch or key light. The light hovers, then moves toward the car. At the boot. At the back passenger window. I reach for the controls to crack the window, expecting help, and turn on the car lights – in case help is a drunken weirdo.


I grab the torch and shine it past my friend.


Not a soul, or a sound, or a light.

I turn on the car, in what feels a seamless movement, to ensure the doors are locked! The hum of the engine comforting – low fuel or not! The wait wasn’t long though. Eugene pulled up with his big tow truck 20 minutes later, changed the tyre and led us into town – where money from the ATM and a full petrol tank were the order of business.

Reluctant to drive fast on the tiny spare tyre, we inched our way home. Again, a drive that aught to have taken a couple of hours drew out to epic proportions.

Bleary eyed and senseless we pull up to the house at 4am.

Take note all you who would venture out of a night, willingly, during the season of the Dead…..

Make sure you have a good map, headlamps, clean/dry clothes, plenty of petrol and food, but most of all – make sure you can change a tyre!

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Samhain….a brilliant time to begin a story, or a blog about the story of Place (more on that shortly). In Ireland, the winter season (Samhain to Bealtaine) was and is the time for seanchas; the time when the seanchaí share their wisdom over a pint or near a turf fire. In fact, it was and is taboo to tell stories in summer. Why? Well, why would you want to be indoors when the day lingers like a kiss and the sun delays her journey, making way for exploits? But, let’s get back to beginnings.

I celebrate secular Hallowe’en like those around me; with carved pumpkin, candy, and costume. It’s a festival ripe with otherness, and i love decorating for the children. Samhain, on the other hand, is the time of my Ancestors, of petition and of looking. I honour this Gate between the astronomical date (which fluctuates) and the New Moon. This year, the cross-quarter day fell on the 6th of November, and I now look toward the New Moon on the 13th.

As happens during times of was and is, there is often a dangerous journey, where you encounter amazing figures, and confront moments of choice. Now, if it please those listening, I want to tell you a story of Place; the story of one of the Three Great Caves of Ireland: Oweynagat – mouth of the Other-world, at Rathcroghan.

My friend Crow was here from Texas, and she and I thought it wonderful to journey on the cross-quarter day, from Cork – through the midlands, to Roscommon. In truth, our aim was to find Sheebeg in Leitrim, view the world through Fionn’s eyes (or at least his big bronze statue), and then head back toward Cork, stopping at the Cave of the Cats on our way. But in those times of was and is, plans rarely happen as we imagine.

The distance from my cottage to Carrick-on-Shannon is roughly 170 odd miles. Accounting for Irish backroads, and the small villages one must drive through when using those roads, the journey should be no more than a reasonable 3-4 hours. Well, after 5 hours of non-stop driving, we reached Carrick in need of food. We dined overlooking the mighty Shannon as Light quickly departed the sky, and with it, our hope of visiting Sheebeg before dusk.

After our meal, we set-off: reasonable directions in hand. We turned this way and then that, back-up and that way and then this. Remarking, “Ok, we have had to turn around twice now. That’s our quota for this adventure.” Up to Keshcarrigan and back, back to Keshcarrigan and out. After 2 hours and still no Sheebeg, we turn our faces, in the now PITCH DARK, and head toward Oweynagat.

Handily enough we arrive at the cave, see a hedgehog waddle across the lane, park our car and don our outer-gear: boots, wet pants and jacket – we have also remembered our torch (which is another story…that time we mounted Tara at Samhain, in the deep darkness of a storming night without a torch). Past the stile the ground is a foot deep in mud and cattle track. Fitting, somehow, for Maeve’s kingdom and her lust for cattle. We move through the pasture, raising our legs high. The mud sticks and holds us. A sucking sound released as our feet escape.

I shine the torch into the low opening and dive; head first I slide into the outer chamber. I feel the first touch of cold earth against me. Wet. My fingers reach to steady myself and are covered in liquid mineral. Every surface a dripping ooze on hard bone. The torch is now smeared, christened, and I need to use my hands for the next descent – so its slender gritty coldness goes in my mouth, between my teeth – hoping there was no cow poop in that mud.

Into the next chamber I slither. Inching further down and then turning, so my friend can see the way. Naturally, we have only one torch. After the third section we reach the round bottom. We situate ourselves on flat rocks, settle and breathe. Then I switch off the light.

drip. Drip.
drip. DRIP.

In the deep dark of an Irish cave at Samhain, the story of Nera runs through my mind: carrier of the dead and discoverer of plots.

One Samhain night, while feasting with the other warriors, Nera accepted a challenge to go out into the dark and place a withe around the ankle of a dead man. Two had been hung that day at Cruachan, and either would do for the dare. It was a dreadful night, full of horror and whispers. Nera went out, in the shivering dark, to place the withe; once, twice, thrice – but it sprang off each time.

Then the dead man spoke.

He told Nera how to make the withe stay, and Nera certainly took the advice. Then the dead man asked his favor in turn….he wanted to be placed on Nera’s back so he could get a drink of water.

A dead man on his back? What else could he do, he had taken the advice.

The corpse hung on Nera’s neck as he was taken through the night to the first house, “Oh, I can not enter! The fire has been smoored!” (1)

At the second house, “Oh, I can not enter! They have thrown out their feet water before bedtime!”

Finally, at the third house, “Ah, here is my drink!”

And the corpse drank of the feet water, which was by the unkempt hearth, and with his last sip…..the dead man spewed the water from his mouth and into the faces of those sleeping in the house – and they all followed him to….


I sat in the dark of the cave, imagining the feel of a cold corpse on my back, and icy breath in my ear, when SUDDENLY…

Carmina Gadelica, Volume 1, by Alexander Carmicheal, [1900], at sacred-texts.com
PEAT is the fuel of the Highlands and Islands. Where wood is not obtainable the fire is kept in during the night. The process by which this is accomplished is called in Gaelic smaladh; in Scottish, smooring; and in English, smothering, or more correctly, subduing. The ceremony of smooring the fire is artistic and symbolic, and is performed with loving care. The embers are evenly spread on the hearth–which is generally in the middle of the floor–and formed into a circle. This circle is then divided into three equal sections, a small boss being left in the middle. A peat is laid between each section, each peat touching the boss, which forms a common centre. The first peat is laid down in name of the God of Life, the second in name of the God of Peace, the third in name of the God of Grace. The circle is then covered over with ashes sufficient to subdue but not to extinguish p. 235 the fire, in name of the Three of Light. The heap slightly raised in the centre is called ‘Tula nan Tri,’ the Hearth of the Three. When the smooring operation is complete the woman closes her eyes, stretches her hand, and softly intones one of the many formulae current for these occasions.

Another way of keeping embers for morning use is to place them in a pit at night. The pit consists of a hole in the clay floor, generally under the dresser. The pit may be from half a foot to a foot in depth and diameter, with a flag fixed in the floor over the top. In the centre of this flag there is a hole by which the embers are put in and taken out. Another flag covers the hole to extinguish the fire at night, and to guard against accidents during the day. This extinguishing fire-pit is called ‘slochd guail,’ coke or coal-pit. This coke or charcoal is serviceable in kindling the fire.

THE sacred Three
To save,
To shield,
To surround
The hearth,
The house,
The household,
This eve,
This night,
Oh! this eve,
This night,
And every night,
Each single night.

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Awake, awake, you ancient watchers
Awake awake and let me in
Come down come down, from your waiting houses
Come down come down and let me in
~Sharon Knight

Here, at the end of all things,

let me start at the beginning and introduce myself.  I am a native Texan, living in Ireland.  My sense of Place is intricately and intimately tied with the land  which is now known as south and central Texas.  I was born on the coastal plain, a land that stretches wide, with clear vistas from horizon to horizon: fertile and verdant.  Where big winds blow and the sky is a yawning expanse. Adopted at birth into a farming family, my youth was spent in isolation with nature.  My nearest human neighbors were over a mile away, and I was the only child of an only child.  I spent my days alone and barefoot, roaming creek bed, plowed field,   empty barn, and lonely byway. My grandparents passed to me their wisdom: planting and harvesting by the moon and signs, cures, folk knowledge, and  ancestral  stories.  Descendants of Welsh and ScotsIrish emigrants, they adhered to a system older than the society that swallowed them.  I was fortunate to have been cocooned in their land of enchantment – 250 acres, and then some, to roam and explore – unfettered – nurtured by the accumulated lore of generation upon generation….of  human and other-than-human persons. Love to you – always ❤

My blood seeks movement,

and I traversed the greet North American lands as a young adult, living and breathing in many regions.  My heart pulled me toward mountain, desert, forest.  I tasted and loved them all.  As these things go, eventually the blood pulled wide – to Far lands across an ocean …..and some of them I have kissed.  My bed is now in Eire, but how long She has me….only Fate knows. Deep in The Avondhu of east Cork, which escaped glaciation, my eyes seek and my ears are open.  Surrounded by new voices, new ways….. I follow my mesolithic ancestresses blood.

I  have always been pagan…… my grandmother infused my praxis as a witch….and my blood drives me back  – into a misty past, where we were all once truly Human.

To Mabon and Gene;
Katie and Thomas;
Chilton and Love-Ann

…Victor, Cora, Gwydion:

None are forgotten
nothing fades forever
all that has past comes around again

For here, what is Remembered Lives
What Is Remembered Lives

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Anne Stahl

The landscape and mystery of the bogs feature prominently in Irish myth and folklore.  The archaeological record speaks of votive offerings and buried bodies,  laid to rest deep beneath their murky, otherworldly waters.  As I drove to the conference on Friday I passed through bogs in Offaly and Roscommon.  Desolate, windy places; they practically howl a primal language.

Quagmire, swampland, morass:
the slime kingdoms,
domains of the cold-blooded,
of mud pads and dirtied eggs.
But bog
meaning soft,
the fall of windless rain,
pupil of amber. (Heaney, 1975)

Irish poet Seamus Heaney writes a lot about bogs.  He has referred to the bog as a sort of Jungian, as well as geological, memory-bank, a “dark casket where we have found many of the clues to our past and to our cultural identity” (Broadbridge, 1977: 40). He sees the bog as a symbol of the Irish psyche, as contrasted to the American psyche which, in its pioneering spirit, looks  “outwards and upwards, to fulfilment through movement, advance, exploration and openness” (Corcoran, 1986: 62). The Irish bog is the “answering myth” to the frontier myth of the American consciousness (Heaney, 1980b: 55).

Landscape artist T.P. Flanagan also loved the bogs.  Flanagan romantically described the bog as “the fundamental Irish landscape” which had “primeval connection” with a pagan past. His perceptions were of “the moistness, the softness of the bog, its fecundity, its femininity…” (Parker 1993, 87). Heaney dedicated his first bog poem to his friend and fellow
bog-lover, Flanagan:

For T.P. Flanagan
We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening –
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Encroaching horizon,
Is wooed into the cyclops’ eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun.
They’ve taken the skeleton
Of the Great Irish Elk
Out of the peat, set it up
An astounding crate full of air.
Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.
The ground itself is kind, black butter
Melting and opening underfoot,
Missing its last definition
By millions of years.
They’ll never dig coal here,
Only the waterlogged trunks
Of great firs, soft as pulp.
Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,

T.P. Flanagan

Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage,
The wet centre is bottomless.
(Heaney, 1969: 55-56)

More than once I imagined myself  – one of the thousands of offerings placed in the bog, with its perfect liminality: neither fully water, nor fully earth – but a transition point, a threshold.  The funny thing is….. I was.  As I drove back home Sunday, on a bleak stretch with rain lashing and wind howling: thump, thump, thump.

A flat tire.

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I have returned to my BnB, had a light supper and am now snuggled under an electric blanket sipping wine. One of the best things about BnB’s in Ireland are the electric blankets on the bed! Anyway, the conference was wonderful – if exhausting (for me). There is only so much information my brain can take in before it wants a nap. I hope to write up my notes in the next few days and will pass along what I gleaned, but I want to share a bit… on the day.

The highlight of the day was undoubtedly hearing Brian Keenan recount his personal experience of being held captive in total darkness for 9 months. His act of vulnerability, as he shared what can only be described as a descent into madness – being utterly “unhooked” psychologically from all that keeps us on this side of the divide – spoke of the power of darkness as nothing else could. He talked of the various psychological constructs employed to retain attachment, and the long wave of depression that eventually erodes the connection to those constructs. His telling of the visitors who came and “spoke” with him, how his soul left his body during dream excursions, the fight to bring consciousness into those wanderings, and the ever present “power, who was man and beast, but neither man nor beast” – were stories full of ritual meaning.

There were of course wonderful talks on chamber cairns, court tombs, alignments, re-alignments, anchorites, hermits, darkness within the Irish MS, caves, the easter islands, and the dead. The ever present Dead, and their time……. which we are approaching.

A theme for me was the importance of place; how it both shapes cosmology and is shaped by it. As we rapidly approach the Gate of Samhain (I honour the new moon in scorpio – which falls on 13 Nov this year – not the modern date of Hallowe’en), I think of the sacred landscape created to reflect the cosmology of the ancient people here in Ireland: their veneration, and perhaps dread, of the dead – who continued to live among them and were active in daily life.

I am ready to return home to Cork tomorrow, and begin my Samhain preparations in earnest. And also to sift through my recollections, collect my notes, and share my insights from my observer journey….Into The Earth.


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I am in Sligo, and tomorrow I will feast on academic delights at Into the Earth: The Archaeology Of Darkness.  Don’t worry…I will share.

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