The Celtic year was divided into halves by the holidays Samhain and Beltaine (May 1). These dates were once part of a pagan lunisolar calendar. Even in the earliest surviving accounts, both dates have already transferred to the Christian, or Julian, calendar.
In the Ulster Cycle of medieval legends, Samhain is a harvest festival and the date of various significant events, including Cuchulain's vision of the afterworld.
The word Samhain is derived from Old Irish Samain. The earliest known usage is in Martyrology of Óengus, a ninth century text. Samain is from Proto-Celtic *samani, meaning "assembly." In pagan times, the Feast of Tara (feis Temrach) met around the time of Samhain.
The medieval tale "The Sick-Bed of Cuchulain" claims that Samain means "summer's end" (sam-fuin). This derivation is not accepted by modern scholars. The month of May is Cétamain in Old Irish, cognate with Middle Welsh Kintevin. Both words are derived from *kentu-samonyo, proto-Celtic for beginning of summer. End of summer should be a parallel construction. In Middle Irish, summer reduced to sam. The bards may have projected the Middle Irish usage of their own time on to an earlier period.
The Celtic calendar
November 1 was "the beginning of winter," according to Regula Coenobialis of St Columban, written in AD 540‐615. So the date was already linked to Celtic winter before All Saints Day was established in 731.
Cormac's Glossary gives Imbol (February 1) as the first day of spring, Beltaine (May 1) the first day of summer, Lugnasad (August 1) the first day of fall, and Samhain (November 1) the first day of winter. This glossary was started by the king-bishop of Munster around AD 900. Some entries were added centuries later.
A Celtic lunisolar calendar has been reconstructed from fragments of a second AD calendar found in the French town of Coligny. The first month is Samonios. Samo- is Gaulish for summer. The Celts celebrated a three-day festival that began on the 17th of Samonios, according to this calendar. This festival may correspond to Beltaine, the principle holiday of the Irish pagan Celts.
Date of festival
Samhain follows Beltaine by exactly six months. This suggests that it was observed in Giamonios, the seventh month of the Coligny calendar. The name of this month is transparently derived from giamos, the Gaulish word for winter. Gam is old Irish for November, according to Cormac's Glossary.
Garrett Olmsted of Cornell University argues that Samhain was once observed on the winter solstice (December 21) and gradually shifted to November 1 after centuries of calendar drift. It is sometimes suggested, especially by neo-pagans, that the Celts intended to select a date halfway between the equinox and the solstice. By this logic, November 7 is the "real" date of Samhain.
The Irish converted to the Julian calendar around AD 450. But the Britons, ancestors of the Welsh, did so several centuries earlier. So the Julian dates for Celtic winter and summer may reflect earlier British practice. The Welsh observe Calan Gaeaf on November 1. This name refers to the first day of winter.
Early Welsh literature ascribes no importance to November 1, at least not compared to Calan Haf (May 1). This suggests that Samhain gained prominence in Ireland sometime after Irish culture and language split off from that of the Britons. The linguistic split became noticeable in the sixth century.
The legend of Saint Patrick building an Easter bonfire on the Hill of Slain to upstage the fire festival of Beltaine is well known. That there is no equivalent legend concerning Samhain suggests that it was a day of less religious importance.
The earliest surviving discussion of Samhain is in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. These tales are set in the days when Connor ruled Ulster as king in the first century BC. They were composed in the tenth or eleventh centuries.
"The Sick-Bed of Cuchulain" portrays Samhain as a harvest festival:
|“||EVERY year the men of Ulster were accustomed to hold festival together; and the time when they held it was for three days before Samhain, the Summer-End, and for three days after that day, and upon Samhain itself. And the time that is spoken of is that when the men of Ulster were in the Plain of Murthemne, and there they used to keep that festival every year; nor was there an thing in the world that they would do at that time except sports, and marketings, and splendours, and pomps, and feasting and eating; and it is from that custom of theirs that the Festival of the Samhain has descended, that is now held throughout the whole of Ireland.||”|
While others partied, Ulster hero Cuchulain was delirious and received an extended vision of Mag Mell, the Plain of Delight, a Celtic version the Elysian fields.
The holiday is also discussed in the "Wooing of Emer," another tale in the Ulster Cycle. As Emer tells Cuchulain: "two divisions were formerly on the year,...summer from Beltaine (the first of May), and winter from Samuin to Beltaine." So Cuchulain lives in a Julian calendar world in which the Celtic calendar "formerly on the year" needs to be explained.
The harvest festival view of the holiday contrasts with that found in the twelfth century legend Cormac's Adventure. In this tale, Samhain is the date that a parliamentary body was convened by the high king to ordain laws and duties:
|“||Now rules and laws and duties were ordained at that meeting [held by King Cormac on the green of Tara], and the men of Erin's councils were determined. Three preeminent assemblies used to be held at that time, namely, the Feast of Tara on Allhallowtide - for that was the Easter of the heathen, and all the men of Erin were at that meeting, helping the king of Erin to hold it - and the Fair of Tailtiu at Lammas [August 1], and the Great Meeting of Uisnech on Mayday. Seven years lasted the preparation for the Feast of Tara, and still at the end of seven years then used to be a convention of all the men of Erin at the Feast of Tara, and there they would determine jubilee, namely, the Rule of Seven Years from one Feast of Tara to another.||”|
- Mark, Colin, The Gaelic–English Dictionary (2003).
- MacBain, Alexander, An Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, Gairm Publications, Glasgow, 1982 (reprint of 1911 edition). "samhuinn, Hallow-tide, Ir. [samhain], E.Ir. [samuin], [samain], [samfhuin]: usually regarded as for [*sam-fuin], "summer-end", from [sam], summer, and [fuin], end, sunset."
- Morgan, Bernard, "The semantic shift of Samain from Summer to Winter".
“Lonán, Colmán, Cronán with their bright sunny following the hosts of Hilarius sure multitudinous ennoble stormy All‐Saints’ day [Samain].” (Martyrology of Óengus, ninth century)
- Stokes, Whitley (1907). “Irish etyma.” Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung. 40:245.
Matasović, Ranko, Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic, Brill, 2009. "GOID MIr. samain (assembly on the) 1st of November [i f]"
- "The Irish Ordeals, Cormac's Adventure in the Land of Promise, and the Decision as to Cormac's Sword.," Trans. Whitley Stokes.
- "The Sick-Bed of Cuchulain." The translation is from Heroic Romances of Ireland. Vol I. A. H. Leahy, ed. London: David Nutt, 1905. pp. 57-85.
- “Rule 7: … up to the beginning of winter, that is, the first of November.” Regula Coenobialis of St Columban.
- Lambert, Pierre-Yves, La langue gauloise, Editions Errance, 2nd edition, Paris, 2003, p. 266. "Samo-, `été'
- Olmsted, Garrett (2009). The Coligny Calendar: the Implications for Gaulish and Irish Festival Dates.
- Lambert, p. 179. "L'étymologie est transparent puisque le nom du mois et fait sur celui de l'hiver giamo-."
- "The Wooing Of Emer," Translated by Kuno Meyer.
- MacKillop, James, "Diarmait mac Cerbaill," A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford, 2004