Last year, this was my most popular Samhain/ Halloween post, so I’ve reposted it here, in case anyone missed it.
Halloween is almost here, houses and shop windows are already decorated, children are planning their trick-or-treat costumes, and the pumpkins in the shops are selling out as people turn their skills to lantern carving. It’s a fun time of year, but few are aware of the festival’s origins, and the true meaning has been all but lost to commercialism and Christian interpretation.
Halloween is the Christian overlay of a celebration far more ancient, a pagan Celtic festival called Samhain. It is a time when the dead and the undead, and all manner of creepy ghouls and mischievous souls are thought to walk the earth, bringing havoc and fear to the living.
As far as we can tell, the ancient Irish people never had a God of the Dead. The Otherworld was said to be the domain of Manannán, God of the Sea, but the myths and legends do not tell of him being a God of the Dead. However, there is someone, a mere mortal, who has come to be associated with this role.
Donn was a leader of the Milesians, who invaded Ireland and defeated the Tuatha de Denann roughly four thousand years ago, or thereabouts. The Milesians were a race of mortal men, not supernatural beings like the Danann. There are conflicting versions of Donn’s story… well, this is Irish mythology we’re talking about, nothing is quite what it seems, and part of its allure is that the truth of it can never be pinned down.
When the Milesians arrived off the coast of Ireland in their mighty fleet of ships, a great storm blew up, scattering the ships up and down the breadth of the island. Many of the ships perished, along with all those on board. Some say it was the Denann Druids who raised the storm, in an attempt to protect their land. In any case, Donn was lost at sea, along with twenty four of his companions.
It is said that Donn met his death at Bull Rock, which lies just off the western coast of Dursey Island, Cork. It’s an impressive, craggy lump of rock jutting out out of the foaming ocean, which now has a light-house on it. Here is an amazing picture of Bull Rock. However, his body was supposedly buried at the nearby Skellig Islands.
As the first of the Milesians to die in this invasion of Ireland, and being of high status, Donn’s position soon became elevated to Lord of the Dead. It was said that the Lord made his home at the place of his death, and called it Teach Duinn. It was said that he also had a home in the land of the living, at Knockfierna in Co Limerick. People believed that on stormy nights, he rode across the sky on a white horse, and they would say, “Donn is gallopping in the clouds, tonight.”
In later years, it was believed that after their deaths, the dead continued to walk in the land of the living as ‘shades’ until they heard the sound of Donn’s horn at Samhain, calling them to Teach Duinn, from where they travelled west over the sea to the Otherworld. The Christians, however, claimed that these were the souls of the damned, lingering at Bull Rock before passing on into Hell.
It’s interesting that the places so closely associated with Donn lie so near to Valentia Island. Valentia was said to be the home of the powerful blind sorcerer, Mogh Ruith, father of Tlachta who gave birth to triplets before dying on the Hill of Ward, a place named after her and associated with the great fires of the Samhain festival. Mogh Ruith was also thought to be a sun-deity. As such, he would have been seen as the opposite to Donn’s darkness.
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