Spooky Samhain Tales
Did you know this year is the first full moon on Samhain in more than 20 years? Not only that, it’s a blue moon—the last blue moon on Halloween was in 1955 and the next won’t be until 2039! In fact, there’s only six full moons on October 31st this century. All I’m saying is, if we were ancient Druids, it would a particularly spooky and significant celebration this year.
The ancient Irish never steered themselves away from the frightening in their mythology, and this impulse was only heightened around Samhain (Irish Halloween)—the time they believed the veil between the living and the dead, our world and the faerie world, was at its thinnest. While we briefly covered a few myths in our review of the history of Irish Halloween, there are plenty more where that came from. More than I think anyone would be comfortable with—especially at a foggy Irish crossroads on Halloween night with a full blue moon above them.
Perhaps one of the best known of all Irish cryptozoological creatures is a Banshee (or “Bean Sídhe.”) Ironically, the banshee isn’t particularly dangerous for the average person—she only haunts those of noble Irish heritage. She never hurts anyone, though some believe she’s foretelling a death within the house she haunts her keening wail (or “caoine”) as she tears her hair, just as ancient mourners were wont to do. She often considered to be the counterpoint of the Leanan Sídhe—a faerie woman so beautiful she's inspired poets, artists and musicians to fall in love and create great art, only to leave them to die without their muse.
Similarly, but perhaps more alarmingly, are tales of a creature called a Fetch (sometime “Taisé” or “Fáith”)—it’s said these apparitions predict accidents and deaths by taking the form of the person about to be hurt as a warning. Not surprisingly, the word “fáith” can also mean seer. Imagine seeing yourself in front of you, clutching at your chest or wet as if you fell in a river? Terrifying!
Speaking of water, there’s plenty the Irish believe hide there as well. Just like there’s an underground faerie realm, there’s believed to be a concurrent “Land Beneath the Waves” (“Tír fo Thuinn.”) The best known escapees of this land are Merrows and Selkies—and no, the name doesn’t deceive—both myths are akin to our tales of mermaids. Merrows are human women from the waist up with fish tails and have a piece of clothing that allows them to breathe underwater, while Selkies are part-seal and only appear as beautiful women when they shed their skin. One can capture either as a bride if you steal their magic hat or seal skin, but Merrow or Selkie, they’ll always be longing and trying to return to the sea.
But for all these tales that can’t necessarily hurt you, the Irish always have plenty of myths and monsters that can. Another sea monster is the Kelpie, a “water horse” (literally) that lures people to climb on its back so it can drown and eat them (for others they can appear as beautiful man or woman.) The Gray Man (or “Fear Liath”) personifies fog and confuses travelers so they stumble over cliffs to their deaths. Then there’s the Questing Beast, a bizarre, barking combination of animals (head of snake, torso of a leopard, back legs of a lion, but the hooves of a deer) that wreaks havoc and appears in Arthurian legends. And we can’t forget the Dark Man (“Fear Doirich”) and the Demon Bride…but those names are pretty self-explanatory and terror-inducing without the details.
Of course, this list of mythological beasts goes on and on—keep checking the blog for more stories! Just because October’s over doesn’t mean we don’t love a good tall tale. Or twenty.
And don’t worry, the Irish have lots of protection beliefs as well—ones that have crept into our modern tales of ghosts, vampires, and monsters. Iron has always been believed to protect against the fey, as well as passing over running water or running into a graveyard. It’s also the origin of jack-o’-lanterns—originally turnips hollowed, carved with a terrifying face, hung from a stick, and filled with a glowing coal to scare away anything that had slipped away from the Otherworld. Once Christianity arrived in Ireland, holy water became the go to form of protection for people traveling on a dark Samhain night—carried by dipping pieces of straw in consecrated waters and holding it in front of them.
Though there is still a definite faction in Irish culture that has a healthy respect for these mythological tales, the average person dismisses them as fantasy. So why create such scary creatures in the first place? It’s one of the most baffling things about humanity…why do we (well, some of us) love to be scared? The answer is surprisingly simple: it’s a safe and controlled way of confronting all those unknowns out there in the world. We can feel the rush of fear without the danger—our brain knows we’re safe. I mean…as long as the Gray Man doesn’t appear as we walk home at night. Then, all bets are off.
This is Volume II of a series. Read our first installment about the Tuatha Dé Danann here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday (and the occasional Saturday) for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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