Celebrating Halloween: Our Cultural Heritage

Why do we celebrate Pagan traditions?

Halloween is a time of celebration and superstition. Blog pic

It is thought to have originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off roaming ghosts. The Celts celebrated Halloween as Samhain, the ‘Feast of the Dead’ when the dead revisited the mortal world.  The celebration marked the end of summer and the start of the winter months.  All this changed in the eight century when Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honour all saints and martyrs.  The holiday, All Saints’ Day, incorporated some of the ancient traditions of Samhain into Christian ritual.  This mixture of Pagan and Christian tradition permeates our lives and forms the basis of our cultural beliefs.

Social media in ancient Ireland

This feast is just one of the many Pagan traditions that have become part of our cultural heritage despite the fact that our ancestors did not have the benefit of the written word.  The first written word came to Ireland with Christianity.  Stories were recorded in Books and Annals, some in Old Irish, some in Latin, between the 7th and 12th centuries.  Some of these books and annals are: The Book of Dun Cow; The Book of Leinster; Book of Invasions; The Book of Rights; The Yellow Book of Lecan; and many more.


Mythological tales such as the Ultonian Cycle and the Ossianic Cycle, passed down to us mainly through storytelling.  These heroic warrior people were in touch with the Fairyland, which was populated by supernatural beings, beautiful and terrible. Some of these stories are supported by `evidence’, archaeological sites, which give life to the myth.  The purpose of myths is to relate to the universe, to relate to the cosmos, to relate to future generations.  With each telling individuals grow in stature and become heroes or demons, good or bad, light or dark.  Psychologists Freud and Jung pursued the theme of our shadow selves, the side that we may have unconsciously inherited from our ancestors.  We `know’ our ancestors through our stories.

Who were the Pagans and what did they believe?

‘Pagans’ were people who worshipped the gods of pagus – Latin for locality, place or region.  In some areas Pagans were also referred to as ‘Heathens’. Heathens are those who worship Northern European gods, gods of the heath, gods of the land.  The Pagan religion/tradition is all around us in the landscape, sacred hill, standing stone, burial ground, and holy mountain.  Remnants of religious celebrations of our ancestors are preserved in folk song, dance, seasonal customs, civic and Christian ritual.

Their ‘Priests’, the Druids were held in high esteem.  They were considered to be priests, physicians, wizards, diviners, theologians, scientists and historians of their tribe.  All spiritual power, all human knowledge was vested in them.  The Druids did not allow their doctrines to be written down.

From modern day paganism we learn some of the beliefs of their ancestors: Divine is manifest through many deities in different places and different times.  No one deity can express the totality of the divine – Polytheism. The divine is present in nature and in each one of us – Pantheism. The divine is beyond the limitations of gender, both male and female.  Pagan ethic – if it harms no one do what you will.

St. Brigit – Pagan Goddess or Christian Saint?

The goddess is seen as the dynamic force which gives birth to the universe either by a process by which she calls the god to her or by parthogenesis – giving birth from within herself alone – a virgin birth.  Goddesses ruled battles, war, wisdom and learning, hearth, home, childbirth and motherhood.  The triple goddess is a feature of paganism.  Represented by Brigit, this triple goddess has come down to us as St. Bridget.  Her chief shrine is in Kildare where the vigil fire was tended by Inghean an Doche, daughters of fire.  The shrine was Christianised.  Nuns tended the fire up to the 13th century when the Bishop of Kildare declared it a Pagan custom and banned it.

Incorporating Pagan traditions into Christianity

Belief in the supernatural seems to have been a powerful force in ancient Ireland.  It would have facilitated acceptance of the new religion.  Up until the time of St. Patrick in 432 AD people ofIrelandlived close to the land.  God was represented on earth, by the earth herself, mother earth, by the seasons, by the universe, by the cosmos.  There were no boundaries, religion and life were inseparable.  There was respect for and fear of the guardians of the place.  These guardians were invoked, pacified, revered.  They have come down to us in the form of fairies and goblins.

Christianity acknowledged the sacredness of ‘the place’ by incorporating these shrines.  However, they were to be overseen by Christian Saints rather than Pagan guardians.  This directive to missionaries from Pope Gregory the Great has been recorded in Bede’s History (Anglo-Saxon monk 673-735).

“Do not after all pull down the temples.  Destroy the idols, purify the buildings with holy water, set relics there and let them become temples of the true God.  So the people will have no need to change their places of concourse, and whereof they were wont to sacrifice cattle to demons, thither let them come on the day of the saint to whom the church is dedicated, and slay the beasts no longer as a sacrifice but for a social meal in honour of Him whom they now worship”.

In this way the sites of Pagan ritual passed into Christianity.  Christians absorbed the ancient gods and elemental forces which they were believed to control.  Two powerful forces in paganism were controlled, healing wells and high places.  Well worshipping is universal among early people, Indians, Egyptians, Persians and Greeks all had deities of fountains and streams.  The Church adopted them into its ritual; the guardians of the wells became Saints.

Celebrating our ancient spiritual traditions

There is ample evidence of our deep connections with Paganism in Ireland today.  Croagh Patrick, originally called Cruachain Aigle, now a place of Christian pilgrimage, was once a place of Pagan worship.  Togher Padraig, an ancient causeway, extended from Rathcroghan in Co. Roscommon, (the dwelling place of Queen Medb of Connacht) to Croagh Patrick.  Along the way are many wells, which have been Christianised and are still places of Christian ritual.  The tradition of visiting ancient places of worship was severed but not entirely broken; some pagan traditions, albeit under another name, live on to the present day, e.g. St Brigid whose feast day commemorates a Pagan festival on February 1st.  The Celtic mind readily absorbed Pagan deities into the Christian framework as saints; even animalistic deities – e.g. Horned God.  In some branches of Christianity he became the Devil, in others he became St. Cornally, patron saint of horned animals.  The feast day of Mithras, the sun god, worshipped by the Romans, was December 25th.

Theologian, John O’Donoghue, in his work Anam Cara, Spiritual wisdom from the Celtic World, states that

When St. Patrick came to Ireland in the fifth century he encountered the Celtic people and a flourishing spiritual tradition that had already existed for thousands of years.  He discovered that where the Christians worshipped one god, the Celts had many and found divinity all around them, in the rivers and hills, the sea and sky and in every kind of animal.  The ancient Celtic reverence for the spirit in all things survives to this day – a vibrant legacy of mystical wisdom that is unique in the Western world.

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