When we ask people from France, Spain, Southern Germany, some regions of the Czech Republic and Poland, Switzerland and Austria, what their ancient ancestry is, they might say “Celtic” with as much conviction as folks from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and islands belonging to the British Isles. While all these areas were once inhabited by tribes of the culture we call “Celtic”, the difficulties of uncovering the traces they left for us in tradition and lore on the Continent are much greater than across the Channel.
But it’s not impossible. So, in the spirit of the Samhain celebrations, let’s explore a little what is left of the Celtic festival of summer’s end, and of remembering the recently departed in the Alps from the era before Roman, and therefore Christian times.
Obviously, the tradition of remembrance of the dead has survived because of its adoption by the Christian Church. In fact, I just got off the phone with my mother in Austria, who had visited the graves of our departed family members – particularly the one of my father, who died this summer – all day long, having brought some flowers and wreaths for decoration, and having lit candles. Since almost everyone is doing this on November 1st, grave yards are especially beautiful this evening.
But what about our ancient ancestor’s believe of the thinning of the veil, of the deep connection with the Otherworld being particularly strong on days like this? Following are two records of traditions, one as old as 400 years. The age of these is not so much indicating that they are Celtic, but that pre-Christian customs were still observed in the 17th century and even later.
All Souls Day is a chamois holiday and you must not hunt chamois then. A long time ago a hunter tried anyway and encountered a white chamois. He shot at it, but then heard loud lamenting and the chamois disappeared (Depiny, 1932)
To fully understand this warning and the short story about the hunter, we must look at Alpine lore. There, the chamois is described as the animal sacred to the Blessed Ladies, a group of three, magical women. Who, over centuries and despite the overtake of Christianity, remained beautiful and strong in the tales of old. They, in all practicality a remnant of the Goddess Trinity, did not share the fate of other magical or even godly figures in lore, who all became ugly old hags, wretched gnomes and dumb giants, clear evidence of the unbreakable reverence Alpine folk had for the Goddess.
You just don’t hunt the Goddesses’ pet, and if you do so anyway, in other words turn against the old culture, and even more so against your own Great Mother, you will hear her lament the loss of her beloved familiar.
A whole group of sayings and advice concern themselves with another practice typical for the liminal days in the course of the year, like Samhain. Following are two examples telling us about the art of divination done during that time betwixt and between:
If one wants to know how the coming winter is going to be, he should cut a splint from a beech tree on All Souls Day. Is it dry, winter will be warm and dry, but is the splint wet, a very cold winter will follow (Colerus, 1604).
Or the following more general advice:
On All Souls Day, you can find out how the future – particularly in terms of your love life – will turn out to be (Strackerjan et al).
Weather and love-live…who wouldn’t want to know how they are going to fare with those in the coming year?
A festival wouldn’t be Celtic if there wasn’t any feasting involved. As one of the quarter days, Samhain is linked live-stock. At the same time, as a festival associated with death, people of old slaughtered the farm animals for which it was economically not wise to feed them through the winter. That involved mostly pigs, whose meat and fat could be cured well and therefore be kept edible until spring, and water fowl such as ducks and geese.
This tradition has also survived in the Alps, albeit not on the day that once was Samhain, but eleven days later, at St. Martin’s. This eleven day gap is probably a result of the implementation of calendars, and particularly of the changes of these calendars over the centuries. The remembering of the departed and the feast in their honor probably were one affair in Celtic times, and the date of celebration was reckoned by using the Moon’s cycle. Farming and live-stock breeding, however, is something that is related to the Sun’s path throughout the year, and so these two parts of the festival, the spiritual Moon-aspect of it, and the mundane Sun-aspect of it grew apart over time, particularly with the implementation of Sun-calendars.
Another interesting aspect in this context is that the quarter days were also tax days, and farmers would pay with slaughtered live-stock in lieu of cash, filling up the pantries of the landlords at the beginning of the dark half of the year.
In the Alps and the surrounding regions, November 11th, St. Martin’s Day, has become a day when the goose figures prominently on restaurant’s menus. “Martinigansl” (Martin’s goose) we call it in the Austria, feasting on the “original bird of magic” in Central Europe, the bird whose feathers fall down to earth as snowflakes when Frau Holle (Mother Hulda, the Goddess) shakes out her pillows.
More about such traces the Hallstatt Celts left for us in Alpine lore and tradition can be found in my book “Mountain Magic – Celtic Shamanism in the Austrian Alps”. The book is available at lulu.com (preferred) and distributers such as amazon.com