Greeting earthwights, and welcome to our weekly earthweal challenge. This week the links will stay open through Halloween and Samhain, with the next weekly challenge commencing Monday, Nov. 2. Link multiple times, if you like—let’s make this a party!
In traditional cultures the annual round moves from birth to death, first light to last, the virile new year king aging into the toddering king of the old; and with the winter solstice the next year is born from the last, and the next cycle begins.
In Celtic tradition, the cross quarter festival of All Hallows (situated between the autumn equinox and winter solstice) celebrated the end of harvest and the tiding death of the old year. Halloween was the door into that dark; on that night, the veil is thin and the dead come up out of their graves and barrows to visit the living. People dressed up as monsters and animals to scare off fairies and other revenants intent on stealing them into their sidhe. Other measures were taken as well to protect the living from the dead: carved turnips called jack-o-lanterns were hung from sticks with strings and offerings to the fairies were left in fields outside of town. Households tended Samhain bonfires next to their farms and held “dumb suppers,” in which dead ancestors were invited to join the meal. The light half of the year thus ended, the dark half began. Six months later, the blooming season of brightness would be celebrated on May in the festival of Beltane.
As it devolved into Christian practice, Samhain became All Saints Day (Nov. 1), with a separate festival of the dead with All Souls Day (Nov. 2).Halloween traditions however remained sticky, like a corpse riding on one’s back through a spooky night.
It’s good to see some semblance of the old festival today in our Halloween traditions. I’ll carve a pumpkin and hand out candy Saturday night to the few kids who might brave going house to house in a pandemic.
Yet the true celebration and meaning is always deeper in. The darkness of winter (experienced this time of year north of the equator) is deep and cold, sometimes bitter (we don’t get very close to that here in Florida); days are weak and the tide of darkness is strong.
A darkness to fear, perhaps, as we fear the darkness of death. It’s also presidential election season this year in the USA, and our mindscape crawls with the vertigo of falling into a dark pit of squandered history.
But all is not lost that is not first fully harrowed. All Hallows is coming. And as that old strolling bone Keith Richards put it, “Nothing interesting happens where the light is too bright.” My dread clings to the lantern, peering fearfully into a shapeless dark. Somewhere in the dark harrow awaits what is most hallowed. So the dark is fructive. And to go in the dark, as Wendell Berry tells is in his short poem “To Know the Dark” is to embrace it:
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.
Dark feet and dark wings: It’s good that the Celts gave the year a dark half, because it’s a pretty full cauldron of lost and forgotten, dead and extinct things, still teeming and shimmering in the paleolithic caves of cultural memory and personal dream.
The candle I like to light at this time of year celebrates a tale from the liminal border between light and darkness. St. Oran’s feast day is Oct. 28, so I’ll be lighting a black candle in a couple of days in celebration of his walk in the dark. Some of you already know it, but his legend goes like this:
Oran may have already been on the Isle of the Druids when Columba and his 12 companions arrived in 563 A.D. to found the Abbey of Iona. (There is also record of an Odrhan who had been sacrificed by druids on the island some 12 years before.)
At first, the abbey construction fares badly. Each day’s work is leveled overnight by some disturbed spirit. Columba sets up a watch to observe what happens at night, but each person set to the task is found dead the next day amid the fallen timbers.
Columba decides to do the vigil himself and sits alone at the site in the howling cold dark. In the middle of the night, a great and terrible being in the shape of a half-woman, half-fish comes to Columba from the surrounding waters. Columba asks the apparition what is repelling his efforts to build at Iona and the fish-woman says she does not know, but that it would continue to happen until one of his men offered themselves to be buried alive in a grave seven times as deep as a man’s length.
Lots are cast and Oran is chosen (other accounts say he volunteered) and stepped down in a hole in the footers and was buried. No wind rises up that night to spoil the work and the construction proceeds without incident.
After three days and nights (it would now be Oct. 31) Columba becomes curious to know how his follower has fared, and orders him dug up. The monks excavate the spot where Oran had been sacrificed, finally uncovering his face. Oran’s eyes pop open, and staring right at Columba he declares, “There is no wonder in death, and hell is not as it is reported. In fact, the way you think it is is not the way it is at all!”
Horrified, the saint had Oran buried again at all haste, crying “Uir! Uir! air beul Odhrain” or “Earth, earth on Oran’s mouth!” (The saying “chaidh uir air suil Odhrain” or “Earth went over Oran’s eye” is still widely heard in the Highlands and Hebrides.
Despite the frightful encounter, Columba named the monastery graveyard Reilig Odhrain and honored Oran’s sacrifice by saying that no man may access the angels of Iona but through Oran. The bones of many Scottish, Irish and Norwegian kings were sent to Oran’s graveyard; Duncan and Macbeth are interred in the St. Oran chapel at the center of the graveyard.
Spooky, eh? This tale has haunted me for decades now, and I keep coming back to soak in its briny prehistoric moonshine.
(Separately, Neil Gaiman has his own telling of the tale, which you can hear in this YouTube video.)
A blog called The Northern Antiquarian is a lavish inventory of “stone circles, chambered tombs, prehistoric rock art, cursus monuments (and) holy wells” across Northern Europe. In one post, it describes the ruin of an ancient hill-fort on the western shore of Iona where, according to local tradition, “St. Columba saw a rain-cloud which he predicted would bring a plague of ulcers to the people of Ireland. To prevent such a plague, Columba thence dispatched a monk called Silnan to Ireland, armed with some bread which he’d blessed. This bread was then dipped in consecrated water and given to those afflicted with the plague, who were hereafter cured.”
We could use some of that bread here and now, but what I found interesting in the post is that around 1900, the writer William Sharp saw the ghost of Oran nearby that site, and would never go near that place at night again.
Now these shore-side hillforts are being linked to crannogs, artificial islands just offshore which were used for making pottery and further back were used for ritual worship dating back to before Stonehenge. (Hillforts would be a later use of the site.) Iona is itself a small island just offshore the larger Island of Mull, so its sacred use is old, old, old. (One former name for the island is Ioua, a moon-goddess worshipped by the Picts.) At the time of St. Columba’s arrival in the sixth century AD, it had been used by druids for centuries, but it had seen ritual use for millennia. Up until the eighteenth century is was ringed with 360 standing stones, but they have since been pushed into the sea. (When my father visited Iona in 1977, he vigiled on night on Columba’s grave and had a vision of a tribe of standing-stone people coming close and closer; they were horribly ugly, and yet his heart filled with love for them.)
Crannog at Loch Bhorgastail, which shows the stone causeway leading to the site.
These crannogs are a sort of above-ground the New Grange passage grave, with a narrow path over water to the womb-shaped ritual center. And New Grange is a crafted version of Paleolithic cave-systems like Lascaux and Chauvet, where one squeeze through a black passageway into a cavern which torchlight revealed painted magnitude. Writing poems for me is a similar ritual use, descending into the mind’s dark — sometimes a well, sometimes a sea, sometimes a cave-system and other times a woman’s voice—to enter an old still enduring mystery still shining in darkness.
Darkness and light. Another version of the Oran legend shows up in the story “The Annir-Choile” by William Sharp (the writer who had an encounter with Oran’s ghost above), anthologized in The Washer of the Ford, and Other Legendary Moralities and Barbaric Tales (1896). In this tale the monk Cathal is dispatched from Iona by St. Columba to visit St. Molios in his sea-cave on the island of Arran. The Pictish heathen there had just been converted, but Cathal has an encounter with the chief’s daughter which shakes his new Christian faith to the core. He falls in love with her and renounces his faith; the next day the two are discovered sleeping together, are bound and brought to Molios.
In punishment Molios banishes the woman and has Cathal thrown alive into the hollow of a great oak, there to die. Molios bids two men to stand guard on the tree for three days. On the first night they hear Cathal singing praises to the moon-goddess Ioua. The next day one of the men see a fairy woman named Ardanna coming close, and the guard slips from his newfound religion to fashion a flute from an ash branch and commences to play the old airs. The second day a voice is heard once from the tree, then not at all the third day. The two men, having fulfilled their duty, walk away.
In the full moonlight of the following night, Cathal wakens in its flood and finds himself in the green world. There he embraces a fairy queen who had ever shone in the eyes of the king’s daughter. She tells him the green people are the spirits of the trees. They embrace and are one.
St. Molios vigils at the Doom Tree every year on the day of Cathal’s sacrifice, speaking to his old friend and saying how sad he was that the Evil One had claimed him. Twenty years later, when St. Molios is very old, on his annual vigil he hears a laughter in the tree. “Where are you, Cathal,” Molios speaks into the tree. A voice behind him says, “I am here,” and when Molios turns around he sees Cathal as the young man he was, standing naked in the moonlight.
Strange was the voice: faint and far the tone of it: yet it was that of a living man.
“Is it a spirit you are, Cathal?”
“I am no spirit. I am Cathal the monk that was, Cathal the man now.”
“How came you out of hell, you that are dead, and the dust of whose crumbling bones is in the hollow of this oak?”
“There is no hell, Culdee.”
“No hell!” Molios the Saint stared at the wood-man in blank amaze.
“No hell!” he said again; “and is there no heaven?”
“A hell there is, and a heaven there is: but not what Colum taught, and you taught.”
(Oran’s words from the grave to St. Columba echo vastly here)
“Doth Christ live?”
“I know not.”
“I know not.”
“And God the Father?”
“I know not.”
“It is a lie that you have upon your lips. Sure, Cathal, you shall be dead indeed soon, to the glory of God. For I shall have thy dust scattered to the four winds, and thy bones consumed in flame, and a stake be driven through the place where thou wast.”
Once more Cathal laughed.
“Go back to the sea-cave, Molios. Thou hast much to learn. Brood there upon the ways of thy God before thou judgest if He knoweth no more than thou dost. And see, I will show you a wonder. Only, first, tell me this one thing. What of Ardanna whom I loved?”
“She was accursed. She would not believe. When Ecta took the child from her, that was born in sin, to have the water put upon it with the sign of the Cross, she went north beyond the Hill of the Pinnacles. There she saw the young king of the Picts of Argyll, and he loved her, and she went to his dûn. He took her to his rath in the north, and she was his queen. He, and she, and the two sons she bore to him are all under the hill-moss now: and their souls are in hell.”
Cathal laughed, low and mocking.
“It is a good hell that, I am thinking, Molios. But come … I will show you a wonder.”
With that he stooped, and took the moonshine dew out of a white flower, and put it upon the eyes of the old man.
Then Molios saw.
And what he saw was a strangeness and a terror to him. For everywhere were green lives, fair and comely, gentle-eyed, lovely, of a soft shining. From tree to tree they flitted, or passed to and fro from the tree-boles, as wild bees from their hives.
Beside Cathal stood a woman. Beautiful she was, with eyes like stars in the gloaming. All of green flame she seemed, though the old monk saw her breast rise and fall, and the light lift of her earth-brown hair by a wind-breath eddying there, and the hand of her clasped in that of Cathal. Beyond her were fair and beautiful beings, lovely shapes like unto men and women, but soulless, though loving life and hating death, which, of a truth, is all that the vain human clan does.
“Who is this woman, Cathal?” asked the saint, trembling.
“It is Deòin, whom I love, and who has given me life.”
“And these … that are neither green phantoms out of trees, nor yet men as we are?”
“These are the offspring of our love.”
Molios drew back in horror.
But Cathal threw up his arms, and with glad eyes cried:
“O green flame of life, pulse of the world.O Love! O Youth! O Dream of Dreams.”
“O bitter grief,” Molios cried, “O bitter grief, that I did not slay thee utterly on that day of the days! Flame to thy flesh, and a stake through thy belly—that is the doom thou shouldst have had! My ban upon thee, Cathal, that was a monk, and now art a wild man of the woods: upon thee, and thy Annir-Coille, and all thy brood, I put the ban of fear and dread and sorrow, a curse by day and a curse by night!”
But with that a great dizziness swam into the brain of the saint, and he fell forward, and lay his length upon the moss, and there was no sight to his eyes, or hearing to his ears, or knowledge upon him at all until the rising of the sun.
Now here’s the good part of the tale: Molios is so moved that he discovers there is heart to faith, far greater than the holiness which had previously only angered his mind. He returns to his sea-cave cell, haunted by the encounter. On night he wakens hearing plashings in the sea. Looking out he watches seals diving and singing in the silver moonlight. He bids the seals to come close and repents of his former rage against them, telling the seals henceforth he will only tell “the white story of Christ.” Molios broods on the mystery of Cathal as he fades toward death, listening to the seals calling to each other in moonlight, “We too are sons and daughters of God.”
* * *
Amen and ahem. So many ways to enter and play and deepen inside that tale: the Doom Tree with its portal to the green world, the animate otherworld where trees are elves in moonlight, the Oranite voice from down under and the monk in the sea cave repenting of his ways to the seals. So much is waiting for us in the moony night…
This Halloween we will be treated to a “blue” moon, the second full moon of the month; according to the Farmer’s Almanac, Halloween blue moons re-occur in 19-year cycles. Our last was in 2001, just a short while after the 9/11 attacks; the next will be in 2039, 2058, 2077 and 2096. As this will be a five-times-a-century event, let’s celebrate this waxing old light by going merrily into the dark and dancing in the hallowed moonlight.
All sorts of inroads and adventures you can take on this challenge:
- Tell your own story of a descent into darkness and return.
- Write of moonshine and dark brightness.
- Encounter a ghost and haunt us with its image and voice. Who are these visitants from what Hamlet called “the bourne from which no traveller returns”?
- Are the elven still to be found in moony places?
- Re-live a classical remake ofthe myths, like Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” Colerige’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or Spenser’s Faerie Queen.
- What is your favorite folktale, and why? Where has it led you?
- Would anyone like to turn present politics into an All-Hallows fright feast? (Such a telling does might help drive a stake into our worst fears.)
The moon is waxing toward full—let’s weave silver enchantments and dance in its dark tide!
Again, this week’s challenge will stay open through Sunday night; feel free to link multiple times.