Monday, 31 October 2016

Three Tales of Samhain

For Samhain, otherwise known as Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, three tales. Don't expect any witches here. The witches and trick and treat, and all that custom is far removed from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, which is what these tales celebrate.

The first goes to the Celtic Irish Samhain, a gathering of the tribes to feast before Winter sets in, and draws upon texts we do have, legends of that time. The second looks at the land of the dead, very much within the traditions of the ancient pagan world, of the Roman Empire, and of the Greeks, of the place of shades. This one was influenced by Ursula Le Guin. The third and final one takes the idea of a crossing over and a voyage to explore ideas of death. and has allusions from Tolkien and Lord Dunsany.

Three Tales of Samhain
The Gathering of the Clans

Remember, remember, the Samhain fire
Where Irish chieftains meet for the feast
The tribal gathering, a time to inspire
Drink of mead, and eat fatted beast

The ship came into the harbour, and so we came to Erinn. We came to the house of Ruad, King of the Isles, on Samhain night. This was the gathering of the clans, and there too, tribute was paid, from the Isles of the Foreigners to the men of Ulster.

The dark night was lit with warmth, for the hillside was ablaze with the fires burning. Beacons across the hillside they summoned the clan, for it was Samhain, when the summer goes to its rest

We gathered the cattle, and the druids came to the stone altars, and there was the culling done, for there was not enough hay to keep our herd through the winter. This was the blood month, the time of the cold, of gathering the animals from summer pastures before the cold and confined season of winter. And the meat will be salted, and placed with the grain, against the hardship of winter, when the earth is dead, until the gods return it to life once more.

And the sacrifices are made, and the blood moon is high in the sky above. The cold stars look down, and those herds that remain we drive through the smoke and fire, that they might be blessed by the gods.

There is much merriment around the fire, as we eat and drink our fill before the winter cold, the coming of the Grey King, when the mists and damp settle on the land, the stones are icy, the ground damp with rain, and the air so cold and sharp like a knife.

But for today, for three days before the great day of Samhain itself, and for three days after hence, we feast, and tell tales, and the bards sing the tales of old, of the wooing of Emer, of the youths of Emain, of the six sons of Fergus, of the poets of Cormac, and the three jesters who made sharp remarks to the High King, and of Conchobor and Emer’s wedding gift.

And the sacred fire burns, and all light their own fires from this great blaze of wood, upon the hill of Tlachtga on the night of Samhain.

And the chanter stood tall against the fire, and began to invoke the lay of nightfall.

Before the ending of our day,
We see the sunset touch and pray
And wonder much about just how
Our time will come, next day or now

Come, final rest for weary eyes
The weight of time brings heavy sighs
And Darkness comes, our unclay foe
The time is coming, that we know

The time of sorrows will be done
The night approaches, no more sun
Embrace the Darkness, do not flee
Come, blessed death eternally.

The Dry Lands

A steady twilight brooded over the land, a twilight only broken now and then when a comet glared across the darkling sky. The dragons flew and sung in the sky, but they have left, departed beyond the wall of stone.

The valley where once water came, rivers flowing freely, has dried up. There are no more fish, and the mud is cracked and dry; this is a parched land. Not a breath of wind was stirring across this land. No grass grew here, just the bare ground, dusty, dark, and ages old.

Now all is desolation, and the stone walls, crumbling, tell of a mighty castle looking over the lake.

Once there was feasting in the castle, and the sounds of dances and merrymaking, but now it lies deserted, a crumbling roofless ruin against the dark sky. Rigel shines balefully through an empty window frame.

Above shine the stars, and the constellation of Thanatos, that which has never been seen by a living soul; the stars there, they say, form the rune of ending, that which is drawn on coffin lids. The circling of the stars, growing slower and slower, has given place to creeping points of light.

And on the horizon there lies a great wall, still standing, solid granite, but broken in places, yet held together as if by one great spell, the greatest of spells, the binding of the land of shadows. But one day the wall will fall, according to the Chaldean oracles, and the death itself will be no more.

Cross the divide, where there is a wall
By night, dream, yet in daytime recall
So little of the other side, distant land
Of night, where we can come to stand
Upon a hill, where the dry river flows
Where it is always night, no sun glows
But only starlight glittering in the dark
So bare, so cold, and such beauty stark
There is a land of dust, of dim shadows
Where no grass, no tree, no flower grows.

The wall is cast in spell bound stone
It blocks death in, from ancient bone
Until the day when we stretch forth
Our hands to break through to the north
That other wind will blow once more
The dust of ages will rise and soar
And we will fly upon the air, blown
Beyond the world, to lands unknown.

The Farthest Shore

It is a cold, damp day at the end of autumn, and the ground is thick with brown and golden leaves. I am walking down a path, the ground damp with rain, ferns glistening green, mushrooms rising, fairy footstools in decay.

The rain came last night, but today is a fine day, and the sun is out, but it is not as strong, its heat is lessening as it declines into winter. This is a time of fading, of the coming of the darker morning, the early evening, the cold damp soil, the smell of rotting leaves, as the trees say farewell for another year before their winter sleep.

But above me, a canopy of trees still gives shade, the brown leaves still waiting to fall, some acorns and chestnuts hanging on, although many are on the ground, crunching underfoot, and I walk on.

It is the last of the summer sun, a warm day in Autumn, and there is a stream by the path, and I can hear the trickle of running water as it flows gently by.

There are ducks swimming along the stream and there I see a old wooden bench on the side of the path. I sit and stay there for a while, enjoying the gentle bubbling water, watching the ducks ambling about. I need to pause, and take in the water flowing over the rocks, the red leaves on the trees, the chestnuts falling on the ground, for there is too much haste, and when we are done doing, we have to learn to be still.

But now I have been here for long enough, letting the world drift by, clouds crossing the sun, and a breeze has breeze has sprung up, fresh and autumnal on my face. I follow the path on and the trees come to an end, and there is grasslands and an azure sea beyond. I follow the path down an earth bank onto a sandy beach. And the stream flows on down towards the bright blue sea.

The sun is shining, but it is cool, yet pleasant. I see children in the distance, playing in the sand with buckets and spades. A sand castle stands solitary, a flag perched upon it, and a Welsh dragon flapping in the breeze.

I walk along the beach, away from the children, and when I look back, they are gone, echoes of my past. I listen to the waves breaking on the sand, and hear the cry of the gulls as they fly, soaring high above.

The sun is now going down and I look back and see people in the distance, children with buckets and spades, all packing up, and leaving the beach. At this distance, they are small, like stick people in a painting. Very soon as they climb the path the beach, and head inland, they are lost from view, and the beach is deserted.

The light becomes red with the setting sun, and I walk to a small harbour in the distance. I climb the steps, old granite steps, worn by the many folk who have trodden this path. At the top, I walk along to the end, where there is a small beacon, a flame burning in an iron holder.

And there is a tall ship, with masts and sails, moored in the deep water, at the end of the small harbour, and a man is waiting on the quay side, by the gang plank across to the ship. He is wearing white robes, and leaning on his staff, and he beckons to me.

It is now twilight, and the sky is turning purple and I feel colder. Suddenly, there is the sound of laughter and chatter and a procession of people is coming towards me, holding lanterns on poles. The light they bring is flickering and warm, and they smile at me, and take the gang plank to the ship, and I think I recognise them, faces from my past, folk I had thought never to see again. But this is the night of farewell, when we see again the shadows gone from sight, the ghosts of twilight.

Suddenly, there is a clear voice, the sound of singing. It is a woman’s voice and it is a sweet, lilting melody, in a strange tongue, but soft and beautiful in its harmony.

Of the ages past, of the wisdom old
I summon thee, from the sea and sky
To give us this courage to be bold
Come to us where the ancients lie

I see a lady in a fine long dress, and it is she who is singing. She rides a white horse along the jetty, and I help her dismount from the horse, and she smiles, and raises her hand in a gesture of farewell, and gets on the ship.

The man unties the ship from its mooring, moves across the gang plank, and pulls it over to the ship. And slowly, ever so slowly, the great boat glides gently out of the harbour, and out to sea.

I wave farewell, as it sails quietly on, and out of sight, a silhouette against, the bright light of the moon. And I know that someday, it will be my time to sail on the ship. And I retrace my steps back across the beach, and when I look back, it is a silhouette for a moment against the horizon, and then is gone in the darkness of the night.

The far and distant shores grow nearer, day by day
They beckon me to come and stay
Across the ocean, to the lands of everlasting night.
Of ancient times, where once the barrow wight
Was laid to rest amidst the ancient monuments of stone
To guard the paths from living to the dead, alone.

This is my eventide, arising waves do break,
And at life's end, does one forsake
All but the ship and the shipwright,
To take us safely through to light.

No comments: