Some years ago, by one of those strange coincidences, I had just finished typesetting Tony Roe’s article on psychopomps for the Samhain 2006 edition of WD and headed off to Sainsbury’s. Driving towards town I became stuck behind a column of slow-moving vehicles in the inside lane of the dual carriageway. Since the outside lane was empty it didn’t seem likely that there had been an accident so I cautiously pulled out and overtook the column. As I came over the brow of the hill I realised I’d been following a funeral cortege, which should have been obvious from the start. Reaching the front of the procession I saw that it was being headed by a horse-drawn hearse: two black horses with black plumes on their heads drawing a black, glass-sided hearse with three entirely black-clad undertakers, complete with shiny toppers, on the box of the hearse.
I have lived in Redditch for over 20 years but this was the only time I had seen this horse-drawn hearse, and very impressive it was too. Indeed, seeing any funeral procession in the town is fairly rare – I suspect many of the townsfolk put their dead out for the binmen rather than squander their booze and bingo money on life’s non-essentials.
Now one of the things which drives me completely bonkers is the annual outpouring on mailing lists and discussion forums (and for that matter in magazines) of the standard pre-Samhain platitude about “the veil between the worlds being thinnest at this time of year”, and variations upon this sentiment, and seeing the hearse that October reminded me that this Season of Platitudes would soon be upon us once again.
I’ve referred to it as a platitude and no doubt that will offend some but I do so because to refer to one particular moment in the year as somehow uniquely dangerous in terms of interaction with the other worlds suggests to me a profound and ultimately thoughtless ignorance of the wider folklore of the British Isles (including Ireland) on the part of the platituder.
It irritates me all the more because almost inevitably the individual who at any other time of year throws his or her (but almost certainly her) hands up in horror at the mere mention of necromancy, which they will tell you is evil and dangerous and has absolutely no place in paganism or wicca, is precisely the same individual who at Hallowe’en or Samhain will blithely set an extra place at the dinner table and “summon the ancestors” or do little rituals in an attempt to contact her deceased grandmother to find out where Granny left that book of spells and rituals that she must have had hidden somewhere. No joined up thinking there then.
As Ronald Hutton has pointed out (Stations of the Sun, p362) the original association of Samhain with supernatual goings on seems to derive from early Medieval Ireland and that this was later carried to Scotland by Irish migrants. Additonally he suggests that the idea of supernatural happenings and fairy gatherings at Samhain may simply echo the gatherings and festivities going on in the real world at that time of year. He also points out that the earliest Welsh literature ascribes this period of supernatural danger to Beltane and to a lesser extent to New Year but is silent about the period around Samhain. We cannot, therefore, even say that this idea of Samhain as a supremely dangerous period is pan-Celtic so to subscribe to the popular belief is to accept one very particular view to the exclusion of all others.
So much for the Celtic world – what about the Germanic one? Germanic tradition and folklore has its own very specific season of supernatural danger – the intercalary period necessary each year to align the lunar and solar calendars, which since the arrival of Christianity at least has fallen between Christmas and New Year. In many respects these few days, between the ending of one lunar month and the 5 or 6 days which must elapse before the beginning of the next if the two astronomical years are not to get out of sync, represent more truly a “time between times” than Samhain. It is during these days and nights that the Wild Hunt, the spirits of the dead led by Odin, Herne, Gwyn ap Nudd or, indeed, Edric and Goda, was most commonly thought to ride, arriving howling on the storm with its yelping hounds to snatch up the souls of the dead and those unwary living foolish enough to be out and abroad when they shouldn’t be. Yet I would hazard a guess that very few of the pagans who make such a fuss about their ancestors and the weirdness of Samhain, and make offerings to the fairies then, ever bother to take magical and protective precautions during the dark and ominous intercalary days – or leave out a stirrup cup for the Wild Hunt.