- a collection of essays on Neodruidic Studies
- a journal of Post-Reconstructionist Neopaganism

Friday, November 15, 2013

The YEAR as a TORC

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"T H E  W A S T E L A N D"...

If you simply give up trying to make Samhain represent a "beginning" * and let the agrarian year end there, the grey twilight of November stands before us as the desolate Wasteland, the Wandering Place located between the cycles of life where eventually we will find our way from the exit of one year to the entrance of the next. We journey from November's dimming into the blackness of December and eventually, at the very pit of the year, we arrive at Yuletide, the great feasting-hall of our year's underworld, eventually then to emerge on its far side, blessed with the spark of hope for the Sun's triumphant return.

You see, for all of our good intentions as serious Celtophiles, I still believe it's just too difficult for most of us to recalibrate our internal calendars to make the Samhain-as-Celtic-New-Years truism actually "work" emotionally. In seeking to reconcile the overwhelmingly "authentic" feel which Yule and New-Years creates at the year's end with the similarly familiar "fit" of Samhain as the feast of the death of the agrarian year, some time ago I began to articulate a pattern of myth and image which I believe we don't need to 'enforce' upon ourselves artificially. Rather, we can easily begin to discover that its componentry is already built-into us: 

as Westerners, we've actually been celebrating it all along...


* Contrary to just about everything you’ve read, there actually is a significant dearth of evidence to support the notion that the Celtic feast of Samhain (traditionally Nov. 1), is the “beginning of the Celtic year”. Yes, it's long been the assertion of Celtic Studies publications both academic and popular, yet the actual antiquity of the concept cannot be adequately verified.

In 1992 I had written an article, Samhain - The beginning or the End? for the very first edition of our grove’s newsletter suggesting this idea. The article was later published in ADF’s journal The Druids Progress (vol.11, pp12).

More recently the British historian Ronald Hutton examined this “factoid” in his exhaustive study of the ritual calendar of the British isles, "Stations of the Sun" (Oxford, 1996). Hutton uses both the folk record and extensive researches into calendar references in the medieval literature to show that there is really no evidence that Samhain was considered the "Celtic New Year" any earlier than the late 1800's.


R E L A T E D  P O S T S 
at the Book of Sassafras:


SAMHAIN the Beginning or the End ?

by Earrach of Pittsburgh © 1992, 2001

It ain't necessarily so…
It ain't necessarily so…
the things dat you're liable
- to read in de Bible…
It ain't necessarily so !

-------------------------------------- from "Porgy and Bess"

One would think they had a time machine... all those academic "authorities" who glibly parrot the assertion that the Celts began their days at sunset and began their year on the Samhain* cross-quarter. There may be a subtle but important distinction to recognize here that is being lost as a result of the likes of the "Celtic New-Year" factoid; perhaps it just ain't necessarily so.

On what authority are these persistent assertions made? Let's return to one of the most ancient and familiar sources for a look at those "facts". . .

In The Conquest of Gaul (also known as the "Gallic Wars"), book VI, ch. xviii, Julius Caesar states :

"...they (the Gauls-) measure time not by days but by nights;
and in celebrating birthdays, the first of the month and the new year's day,
they go on the principle that the day begins at night…"

Note that Caesar says the beginnings are "at night", not necessarily "from sunset-on." It is this very statement which I believe is at the root of all of the notions of the Celtic day beginning at sunset as well as those claiming that the Celtic year began with Samhain. Yet, working within the latitude allowed by Caesar's phrasing, it would be no less reasonable to assume that the system was the same as our modern method of starting the day at midnight -- which also "begins at night" !

If for a moment we consider this subtle grammatical observation to be a valid one (and surely it may not be; my scholarship is that of the amateur,) we then must not discount the effect of many centuries of classical training on the western world and its attending folk-cultures. Essentially, it would not be outlandish to suggest that the folk references to Samhain being the "Celtic New-Year" found scattered across the post-classical era could more easily be traced to generations of schooling of the Christian clergy and laity in the "Classics," of which, The Gallic Wars has long been one of the primary texts, both for Roman History and the study of Latin. The latter of those uses, as a translator's primer, surely carried Caesars easily confused details of old Celtic life "back" to the now Christianized people of Western Europe still proud of their ancient heritage and their surviving folkways.

If there has been some motivating reason for these persistent, yet not fully qualified, assumptions being made on the modality of the Celtic day and year, it is to be found in the one factor that, to this very day, continues to distort and undermine the validity of Western Culture's view of its own history: Biblical Literalism. This Fundamentalist notion implies that all of the statements made in the Bible must be "literally" true, including its scale of history, limiting the whole of human anthropological descent as having derived from the Sons and Daughters of Noah -- the sole survivors of the Great Flood. Yes; both the ancient Church Fathers in the Dark Ages believed, and your "Fundamentalist" Christian next-door neighbors today still believe, that all the races of Humankind (Anglo & Asian, Aztec & African. . . ) can trace their lineages back to Noah and his wife! This has been responsible for much of the very bad middle period Celtic scholarship exemplified by James Parsons' The Remains of Japhet (1767) (nonetheless, Parsons actually stands as the originator of modern Indo-European Studies...), the Helio-Arkite British-Israelite theories of Morien O. Morgan, and the forgeries of Iolo Morganwg and others involved in the Druid-Revival of the late 18th century.

So; what do the sons and daughters of Noah have to do with Western Christianity's sense of the particulars of the Celtic day or year? It's as simple as the following flawed (but to them, highly probable) syllogism:
(a.) "Caesar tells us that the Gauls (ie. Celts),
our ancestors- 'started their days at night', etc."

(b.) "Hmm, let's see now… the ancient Celts were descendants of
the proto-hebraic lineage of Noah..." or of the "Lost Tribes of Israel"

(c.) "Oh yes; of course then! Just as the Hebrew peoples always have:
They started their holy days and secular days at sunset ! "

(a. + b. = c.)

"Therefore, the Celtic day began at sunset and ended at the next…
likewise, the Celtic year began at Samhain with the onset of the winter
weather, i.e. the year's nightfall."


This pattern of logic was probably repeated for generation after generation - for more than a dozen centuries - and the contemporary Celtic cultures were continually re-educated in these and other "principals" of their most ancient folkways, constantly informed by the one "ancient and authoritative source": Caesar's Gallic Wars.

"Inbred" Folklore?

Surely we must realize that this is the very pattern of quasi-historical data "regrafting" itself into the surviving folk tradition. It is most identifiable when it utilizes material derived from extracultural sources: as in the case of finding 18th century western conceptions of Hinduism and Buddhist thought in Iolo Morganwg's Barddas being passed off as authentic mystical poetry from Dark Ages Wales. This process of folkways being created or simply modified by folk awareness of classical sources (and possibly the erroneous interpretation thereof) might be best referred to by the instructive euphemism "inbreeding," thereby reminding us of the distortional tendencies of most self referential systems .

And what of the authority of Caesar's account itself? Caesar's ethnographic information has been shown to be borrowed largely from the 23rd volume of the long since lost Histories of Posidonius (a Syrian Greek from Apamea), written over half a century before Caesar's encounters with the Celts. It is interesting to note that Caesar prefaces his statement about the night-time fixing of the Gallic day by indicating that it was a consequence of their claim to be descended from Dis Pater (the father-god of the roman underworld, abductor of the Spring-Goddess, son of Saturn the lord of Time) and that such was "the tradition preserved by the Druids."

Even though the main thrust of this article so far has been somewhat technical in nature; quibbling over the structure of Caesar's sentences and challenging the rigorousness of much of what passes as Celtic "Scholarship"; I must confess that my own motives are inspired to a large degree by the aesthetic "feel" of the Celtic day and year in the form in which they are presented to us; a "feel" which has, to me always felt wrong and incompatible with both the "natural logic" of the day and year - and out of step with the general tone of the Celtic world-view itself.

It is my contention that the Celtic year ended at Samhain (often translated as "Summer's-End"), not beginning at the end of the old year but rather, afterwards; deep in the darkness of the year's underworld, after a period of wandering and repose, bathed in the Great Cauldron of Rebirth as the golden ring of the Sun slips, for but awhile, out of sight below those silver waters. That C-ring torc-circle, that lunula (crescent,) holding its fourth and secret (unseen) phase, that womb/tomb passage door, that horseshoe-cove of trilithons, that entrance to the Caerdroia labyrinth; the seemingly incomplete cycle leaves a sacred doorway, a gap, a threshold; out through which passes the Old and in through which passes the New…