Tlachtga and the ancient roots of Halloween/Samhain (originally published in druidry.org, November 2011)
Most people have some awareness of the origins of the fire festival of Samhain, the time that is known in common parlance as Halloween. Samhain is the word for November in Gaeilge (Irish) and is thought to be derived from sam-fuin, meaning end of summer.
The modern celebrations of Halloween are derived from the traditions of the British Isles and no doubt similar traditions around a festival of the dead existed throughout Europe. More than anything, the modern celebrations are influenced by the importing of North American practices, which are themselves the distortion and adaptation of customs exported to the New World, primarily by the Irish and Scottish emigrants.
In terms of modern paganism the main themes of this fire festival are as follows:
Death and rebirth – at this point in time (end of October) the natural world appears to be dying, the Mabon, or Child of Light, passes beyond maturity into death and the otherworldly Cernunnos archetype retakes his place as consort to the goddess. This is otherwise symbolized by the time of the Crone, Hag or Cailleach who will re-emerge in spring transformed into the youthful form of the goddess. This was also a time of collecting the last of the harvest (Samhain being the last of 3 harvest festivals) and the time at which animals were culled prior to the onset of winter.
Festival of the dead – the acknowledgement of the ancestors and the dead in general was central to Samhain celebrations and offerings of food were commonplace throughout the British Isles. A person’s failure to pay appropriate respects to the dead (such as eating offerings of food) was thought to result in themselves being ostracized from such festivities when they too became deceased. Other customs and precautions such as throwing out all dirty water and proper attention to the hearth were observed - the consequences of failing to do so are described in the Irish myth Eachtra Nera where a hanged man’s spirit spits water over the members of the household he has entered causing their death.
Funeral games and divination – This was also a common time of divination and prophetic vision Eachtra Nera again being a prime example, Nera sees a vision of the possible events of the Samhain a year hence, an attack on the king’s dún by the sidhé. This was common time to play divinatory games or perform divination charms, particularly related to marriage or love. Indeed the Báirín Breac (fruit loaf) containing a mock wedding ring is a survival of such customs and is still commonly eaten in Ireland today. Trickery, cross dressing – particularly of young boys to confuse potential thieves among the sidhé was common. Suspension of normal order and time, removal of doors, moving of signs was indicative of the removal of barriers between the material realm and the otherworldly realm. Such activities as ‘trick or treating’ are descendants of the buachaillí tui - a group of disguised revelers who represented the spirits of the dead accompanying the goddess of the land in the form of a mock horse character an Láir Bhán, or the white mare. Apple bobbing is again a descendant of earlier apple games, apples being a clear link to the otherworld in Celtic mythology.
Sacrifice – the slaughtering of animals at this time was highly practical but it is also a time when offerings were made to the gods to ensure the return of the vital forces in nature and to protect the people and their means of survival through the dark and harsh winter months. Sacrifice of pigs was common into the medieval era and it is likely that in earlier times humans were also sacrificed – archaeological remains supports this theory. Sacrificial rites remain in Ireland even now in the form of ‘Bleeding for St. Martin’, albeit a christianized form of sacrifice of a hen or cockerel at the beginning of November.
Sacred fire – It is a common custom to light Samhain/Halloween fires even now for Celtic peoples of all religions, however in the UK the date has been displaced to 5th November in commeration of the attempted blowing up of the English Houses of Parliament by Guy Fawkes in 1606. This tradition is directly descended from the ancient Samhain fires of Tlachtga (Hill of Ward) in Co, Meath, Ireland. The druids lit a sacred fire, probably at the new moon (end of Oct/start Nov). Tlachtga was on the horizon from Tara, some 12 miles away, perhaps the Tara fire was lit once the Tlachtga was seen or the fire was brought from Tlachtga to Tara, possibly by boat.
Tlachtga was the sacred place of druids, Tara (Teamhair) was the seat of the Ard Rí or High King, who feasted surrounded by the Rí Tuaithe (provincial kings) and flatha (nobility), symbolically demonstrating the unity and stability of the people at this time of growing darkness, chaos and threatening forces within nature. However, it was Tlachtga where the first fire was lit at this time and then after the lighting of the Tara fire the fires would be lit all over the country. The sunrise and moon rise at Samhain form an alignment from Tlachtga, to the quartz standing stone in Cairn L of Loughcrew (Slieve na Caileach/Sleive Bearra) and Lambay Island (off the coast of Dublin). Interestingly, the Mound of the Hostages (at Tara) is also illuminated by the sunrise at Samhain. This alignment continues west across the country also intersecting ‘Lugh’s Seat’ at the end of the volcanic ‘Pillars of Samhain’ and the cairn of Mór-Ríoghan above the Keash caves.
Now called the Hill of Ward, after a former owner of the 17th century, Tlachtga is a hill fort consisting of a series of four concentric banks with a central platform. It was disturbed in 1641 during Cromwell’s invasion but has never been properly excavated, although it has been suggested that there is a barrow burial there, probably dating from the Bronze Age. The person who is buried at Tlachtga is most likely an important figure, perhaps even a king or queen, but that will remain a mystery until a proper archaeological dig takes place.
There are three wells within a few hundred metres of the site, one near the main road from Athboy (Atha Buí) is relatively modern but is perhaps fed from the older nearby well also to the west. To the south lies a more ancient and much larger well that retains its old name Tobar Draoithe or ‘The Druids’ Well’, which most likely was the main well associated with and used for practices at Tlachtga. Modern druid ceremonies at the new moon make use of this well, whilst the more general public gathering on October 31st at Tlachtga (that has now taken place for over a decade) uses the roadside well on the road from Athboy.
It is well known that Tlachtga was one the great assemblies (aonach) of the Gaelic people, in 1168 Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair (last ard rí of Ireland), presided over a national synod of kings and prelates at the site. The rulers of the intermittent kingdom of Mide also sat here, although Tlachtga is often associated with the province of Munster and the medieval kingdom of Brega. Ceremonies centred around the lighting of the winter fires are said to originate from Lugh Lámfhota, (the Tuatha De Dannan hero of the second battle of Moytura and later high king) around 1450BC. This being the case, the tradition of Samhain fires is some 3,500 years old.
As for Tlachtga herself, there are several stories relating to this goddess, the most recent being that of the medieval metrical dindsenchas (place lore) and banshenchas (women’s lore), both of which refer to Tlachtga’s father Mog Roith as being a student of Simon Magus, and also describe Magus’ three sons raping her at Imbolc. She gave birth to triplets at Samhain at the site that bears her name and died in the process. This version of the story was most likely ecclesiastical fantasy, appearing to be based on a medieval tale of the beheading of John the Baptist, in which Mog Ruith takes on the role of executioner. In the banshenchas version Tlachtga's story is partly merged with the myth of Etain and Midir, also the unknown martyr that Tlachtga is said to have slain may be a confusion with the account of her father described above.
The earliest form of Tlachtga was a druidess type goddess that arrived with the Firbolgs, long before the Tuatha De Dannan and Milesians. The meaning of her name is ‘Earth Spear’, probably relating to lightning. She was described as daughter of the
chief druid Mog Ruith of Munster who lived in the time of high king Cormac McAirt (mid 3rd century AD), although he may well have been a god in an earlier form, his name means ‘devotee of the wheel’, which probably relates to the sun.
Tlachgta is said to have created a pillar stone called Cnamhcaill meaning 'bone damage' out of a fragment of Roth Ramach her father's wheel. It is said to kill all who touch it, blind those that gaze upon it and deafen those that hear it. This pillar is thought to represent lightning, which would tie in with the meaning of her name, as lightning was likened to a spear thrown at the ground. Tlachtga was most likely not only an ancient goddess, discredited and demoted by Christian scribes, but a goddess of death and rebirth, the sun and lightning.
Whatever the circumstances of her death, Tlachtga is said to have given birth to three boys – Doirb, Cumma and Muach. In the oldest version of the story they became rulers of Munster, Leinster and Connaught (3 of the provinces of Ireland). It was said that while their names are remembered that Ireland would be safe from domination by strangers. Of course, they were indeed forgotten and Ireland, as we all know, fell under the yoke of the Normans. Her triple birth and subsequent death resembles Macha’s double birth and death from grief, giving her power to the land in the process, leading some to see Tlachtga as a form of the triple goddess.
So, it become clear that Tlachtga is intimately linked with the symbolic death and rebirth of the land at Samhain, perhaps this is why her story was rewritten to diminish her impact and ensure that she and her sacred temple were forgotten by mainstream society. They did such an efficient job that most modern pagans are unaware of either her, the ancient temple or her links with Samhain. Despite great efforts to eliminate Samhain, amongst other pagan traditions, there is still a direct link between the ancient sacred fire of Tlachtga and the modern lighting of bonfires, between the ancient festival of the dead and our modern pageantry of ghosts, ghouls and other such fun and games.
Perhaps now it is time for Tlachtga, this almost forgotten goddess, to retake her rightful place within Celtic culture and for a renewed understanding of her significance in Paganism, the history of the land of Ireland and also the Celtic customs and traditions that survive to this day.
Luke Eastwood a member of Irish and International Druid orders; co-founder of Irishdruidnetwork.org and also author of ‘The Druid’s Primer’.