Thursday, November 1, 2012

Elves, Witches, and the Celtic New Year

After all of the Halloween festivities last night,
I read through the second volume of the Denham Tracts,
the collection of folklore compiled by Michael Denham in the mid-19th century.

According to Denham's notes, October 31st through November 5th 
were the dates of the Celtic festival called Samhain,
which celebrated the beginning of the six months of winter
or "the dark half of the year." 
Before the Pope designated November 1st All Souls Day,
the Celts' celebration coincided with the end of the harvest.
 Incidentally, Denham says the last day of harvest was  sometimes called Mell's Day, 
and the last reaper was sometimes serenaded with fiddle music.
It also ended with some drinking at the local alehouse, apparently.

Denham also says the bonfires lit during the night of  All Hallow's Eve
were used to light new hearth fires in villagers' homes at dawn.
This was thought to ensure good luck through the New Year,
November 1st for the Celts.
On New Year's it was bad luck to sweep ashes or dirt out of the house, 
or to wash one's clothing, to spill salt, or worse, 
to walk out of one's house and meet someone with "the eyebrows met."
I interpret that to be what we call a "uni-brow" in today's slang.
Irrespective of that, Denham says the idea was to keep or draw everything inward,
to ensure plenty in the coming year.

Another New Year tradition involved witches.
Denham writes that one New Year's ritual in a village north of England
was to be the first person to draw water from the community well 
in order to ensure not only a fortunate New Year,
but the power to go through key holes and fly through the air at night. 
Whoever got there first would leave a sprinkling of flowers, 
grass, weeds, or hay in the spring-fed well,
so that subsequent well visitors would know they had been too late.
Denham says that a crone, known by her neighbors to be a witch,
would set out for the well in the night, before the "witching midnight hour,"
to be the first at the well, thereby cheating the others out of their chance.
Unfortunately, stories of "witches" are often less benign,
for the belief in witches resulted in many 
innocent women being hunted, tried, and executed over the centuries.
Denham describes some of these incidents in detail.

Besides believing in witches, the Celts (and Saxons) also believed in elves and fairies.
One method for protecting children from fairy charming 
was to have them wear a necklace crafted from peony seeds.

It seems from what I've read, elves were more dangerous than fairies.
They were responsible for all manner of human and animal ills,
from humans being blinded, sickened, or crippled;
to animals, particularly cows, being foundered or otherwise sickened.
Generally elf maladies had a number of names, 
but the term elf-shot (by arrows) comes up frequently.

I can't imagine living a life filled with so much superstition 
and fear of the different or the unknown.
These ancient beliefs make me  wonder if some of our most-cherished 
and deeply held modern beliefs about the nature of things are also unfounded.
On the other hand, I wish having a good and prosperous life 
was as easy as drinking first from a well. 
And being able to go through a key hole seems to have limited usefulness.
But flying through the air in the dark of night,
I'd drink to that.
Happy Celtic New Year!

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