Updated: Feb 23, 2022
Samhain, the forerunner of Halloween, was once widely celebrated from Brittany, in France, to Scotland, and perhaps beyond. It marks the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. In fact, to this day, in the Irish calendar, winter begins on the 1st November, and all the seasons start at the cross-quarter days, as opposed to the rest of Europe where the seasons usually begin at the equinox or solstice, or at the start of a solstice or equinox month, say March the 1st or June the 1st. In fact, it has been suggested, by James Frazer among others, that Samhain once marked the new year.
The principal fire-festivals of the Celts, which have survived, though in a restricted area and with diminished pomp, to modern times and even to our own day, were seemingly timed without any reference to the position of the sun in the heaven. They were two in number, and fell at an interval of six months, one being celebrated on the eve of May Day and the other on Allhallow Even or Hallowe’en, as it is now commonly called, that is, on the thirty-first of October, the day preceding All Saints’ or Allhallows’ Day. These dates coincide with none of the four great hinges on which the solar year revolves, to wit, the solstices and the equinoxes.
In the Isle of Man, one of the fortresses in which the Celtic language and lore longest held out against the siege of the Saxon invaders, the first of November, Old Style, has been regarded as New Year’s day down to recent times. Thus Manx mummers used to go round on Hallowe’en (Old Style), singing, in the Manx language, a sort of Hogmanay song which began “To-night is New Year’s Night, Hogunnaa!” In ancient Ireland, a new fire used to be kindled every year on Hallowe’en or the Eve of Samhain, and from this sacred flame all the fires in Ireland were rekindled. Such a custom points strongly to Samhain or All Saints’ Day (the first of November) as New Year’s Day; since the annual kindling of a new fire takes place most naturally at the beginning of the year, in order that the blessed influence of the fresh fire may last throughout the whole period of twelve months. Another confirmation of the view that the Celts dated their year from the first of November is furnished by the manifold modes of divination which were commonly resorted to by Celtic peoples on Hallowe’en for the purpose of ascertaining their destiny, especially their fortune in the coming year; for when could these devices for prying into the future be more reasonably put in practice than at the beginning of the year? (1)
The spirits of the dead, and all the many creatures from the Otherworld, are said to have passed through the thinner than usual veil between theirs and this world at Samhain. The fairies too are believed to be able to pass easily into this world from the other, fairies which must in origin be linked to ancient pre-Christian gods. And then of course there are the witches. James Frazer describes them:
But it is not only the souls of the departed who are supposed to be hovering unseen on the day “when autumn to winter resigns the pale year.” Witches then speed on their errands of mischief, some sweeping through the air on besoms, others galloping along the roads on tabby-cats, which for that evening are turned into coal-black steeds. The fairies, too, are all let loose, and hobgoblins of every sort roam freely about. (2)
Frazer contrasts this with the "romantic beauty" of the "bonfires which used to blaze at frequent intervals on the heights", in Scotland.
“On the last day of autumn children gathered ferns, tar-barrels, the long thin stalks called gàinisg, and everything suitable for a bonfire. These were placed in a heap on some eminence near the house, and in the evening set fire to. The fires were called Samhnagan. There was one for each house, and it was an object of ambition who should have the biggest. Whole districts were brilliant with bonfires, and their glare across a Highland loch, and from many eminences, formed an exceedingly picturesque scene.” (3)
Similar scenes can still be seen today, through most likely now the kids are in black tracksuits pushing shopping trollies piled up high with pallets, junk, and perhaps an old armchair. The bonfire is a now communal event, no longer one per house.
Frazer's views are often disputed today, though not much credit is given to the fact that in his day many pre-Christian traditions and beliefs were still doing well. Not many of these survived the Second World War the and technological era, and so we are at a disadvantage when trying to understand old customs today, as we rely on old written sources mainly, many of which are from Church libraries.
Anyway, it is to the tradition of the bonfire, and specifically to the bonfire on a hill that I'd like to turn. In fact, it is to the bonfire on a certain hill in Co. Meath: The Hill of Ward, orTlachtga in Irish (formerly Tlachtgha). The 'Ward' name was once the landowner's, who was evicted from his land by Cromwell's forces in 1649. Thlachtga (not the easiest name to say, or spell) was either a druidess, and the daughter of a druid, or a goddess, and the daughter of a god, who was called Mug Ruith (or Mogh Roith), who had flying machine named roth rámach. Tlachtga was raped and gave birth to three sons on the hill, and she was buried there too, after dying of grief.
Tlachta was an ancient Earth Goddess of Ireland, who is demoted to a sorceress by the christian monks who recorded the ancient tales.
She learns all the magical arts from her father Mug Ruith the arch druid of Ireland.
In a late Mediaeval tale she is raped by the three sons of the biblical Simon Magus and dies of grief giving birth to triplets on Tlachta hill (named after her and now called Ward Hill). This story echoes the more ancient tale of a goddess who dies giving birth at a sacred site which is then named after her. Macha died in a similar manner giving birth to twins.
Tlachta was an important site in ancient times even more important than Temair (Tara) it is now largely forgotten by historians. It was the site where the fires of Samhain (November 1st) were lit to usher in the winter time. The hill of Tlachtga is described as the meeting place of all the druids of Ireland.
Tlachta creates a pillar stone called 'Cnamhcaill' meaning 'bone damage' out of a fragment of 'Roth Ramach' her father's wheel. It is said to kill all who touch it, blind those that gaze upon it and deafen those that hear it. Making some commentators say that this is a thunderbolt or thunderstone which can be used as a missile against her enemies. (O'Rahilly) (7)
It is surprising to read that this hill was more important than the Hill of Tara, and was the meeting place of all the druids of Ireland. Macha is the goddess associated with the twin mounds that are the city of Armagh and Navan Fort, otherwise known as Emain Macha.
This is an extract from an old text:
Tlachtga Hills, splendid and high,
Foreboding doom to a great, unswerving king
Before the step which Tlachtga... took,
The daughter of King Roth's clever votary.
Mog Roith, the son of Fergus Fal,
The kingly and noble son of Ross.
Cacht, the daughter of the quarrelsome Catmend
Was his colourful arid noble mother.
Roth, son of Rigoll was his fosterer.
This is why the name 'Mog Roith' was given him.
Two sons of Mog: Buan and Fer-Corb,
Were successful over armies in deeds of liberation.
She [Cacht] was the [foster] mother of the handsome sons
Of Der-Droighen, dark, strong and active,
And the real mother of Cairpre [Lifechair].
It is certain that he deceived the Hui-Bairdne.
The daughter of Mog hosted with thousands,
Tlachtga, the chosen - not that she was without feelings
To accompany her great and noble father,
To noble Simon of sevenfold splendour.
Three sons had Simon pleasing to look upon: Sorrowful her struggle with their devilry.
... [text missing]... powerful.
Theirs was a powerful family, vehement and resilient.
The sons grew passionate Towards Tlachtga at the same time,
They flowed into her body - it is no lie [making] descendants of beauty and lineage.
For Trian it was no honour
Tlachtga Created the red and swiftly mobile wheel,
Together with the great and noble Mog,
And with Simon of sevenfold splendour.
She brought with her wise sayings;
She left the moving wheel,
The finished stone of Forcarthu she left,
And the pillar in Cnamchaill.
Whoever sees it will become blind,
Whoever hears it will become deaf,
And anyone who tries to take a piece of the
Rough spoked wheel will die...
After the woman came from the East,
She gave birth to three sons after hard labour.
She died, the light and lively one.
This urgent, unconcealable news was to be heard.
The names of the sons were of great import...
Muach and Cuma and Doirb the noble.
The crowd... [text missing)...
because it is appropriate that they shall hear it:
That as long as over the stately Banba [Ireland]
The names of the three sons are remembered
As the truthful story tells...
No catastrophe will befall its inhabitants.
The hill where this woman from the East is buried,
To surpass all other women, This is the name it was given:
The Hill of Tlachtga. (6)
It seems that the goddess who gave her name to the hill is a sun goddess, hence the wheel, and an earth goddess. This article suggests that Tlachtga may even be a goddess of lightening.
The name Mog Roith apparently means "devote of the wheel," and it is assumed that the wheel in question--as well as the wheel that Tlachtga makes--is the sun. This could then mean that the Samhain fires held on her hill were a way of recapturing the sun's light in the new year--a way of ensuring light against the growing darkness of winter. The "pillar" is thought to represent lightning--and this would then explain the name "earth spear", for lightning was a spear thrown at the earth. She is then also not only goddess of the sun, but of lightning and storms.
The theme of a goddess who dies in childbirth, giving her name to the land, is also seen in the story of Macha in the Ulster Cycle. In dying and entering the earth, her power then resides in the land. (9)
Tonight, October 31st, hundreds of people will have gathered at the Hill of Ward, perhaps wearing robes and masks, no doubt carrying torches. Erin Mullaly writes:
It is a contemporary celebration repeated annually, of a piece with countless other seasonal celebrations across the world that have roots both modern and ancient. (4)
The Hill of Ward is in the same general areas as Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth and the Hill of Tara, known as the Boyne Valley.
Erin Mullaly tells us that:
The site today consists of four concentric earthworks that enclose an area roughly 500 feet in diameter, with some of the banks either partially or completely destroyed. Though some archaeological survey work was done at the Hill of Ward in the 1930s, the site was virtually untouched until summer 2014, when a team led by Stephen Davis of University College Dublin began excavations.
Using lidar and geophysical tools, Davis and his team have determined that the Hill of Ward was built in three distinct phases over many centuries. The first phase was constructed during the Bronze Age (1200–800 B.C.), while the last dates to the late Iron Age, around the time of Ireland’s conversion to Christianity (A.D. 400–520). “The middle phase, or physical center, of the monument, which itself was built in multiple stages,” explains Davis, “is proving the most mysterious.” Much of the excavation work done to date at the Hill of Ward has focused on this middle phase, which is providing tantalizing clues into the ritual roles it may have played throughout the centuries. (5)
This hill is today in fact not so high or splendid, as the ancient text suggests, but it is still mentioned in many online accounts of the history of Halloween. And that is how I came upon it recently. It is supposed by some to be only an Iron age hill-fort, but it does seem to go back to at least the Bronze Age. Archeologists have found evidence of ritual activity there. I wondered why I'd never been there as it's not that far from where I live. I looked it up, and placed it on Google Earth. I was astounded to see a line on my Google Earth already ran right through the place, and another ran close by.
My Google Earth is full of lines and pins that I have kept, so as to try to connect places. This one line that ran straight through the site emanated from Skellig Michael. It was drawn to mark the azimuth of the rising sun on the summer solstice at Skellig. I had drawn it going up all the way to Scotland on the offchance that some place of interest would pop up along it, but actually the only other sites marked along it on my Google Earth were Sliabh Breagh and Whithorn Priory.
This is to give a general idea of the area around the Hill of Ward, and of the lines I have traced around there too.
Sliabh Breagh / Slieve Breg / Slieve Beagh / the mountain of Breá, is the site of some "unsual" earthworks, according to a 1956 article by Liam de Paor and Marcus P. Ó h-Eochaidhe.
Such a large and varied collection of earthworks on Slieve Breagh makes the site a significant one, and while the individual types here can be paralleled at other places around the country, the density and variety make this site unique. (...) The prominence of Bregia (Breg, Brega) as an ancient territory, apart from the fact that Tara lay within it, is attested by the numerous references in early literature. It is reasonable to assume that this remakable group of earthworks - including habitation as well as miscellaneous types of burial mounds - had considerable religious and social significance, and may have served as an important early sanctuary for the territory in which is is situated and whose name it retains. (8)
The other place I had already noted on the summer solstice sunrise line fron Skellig Michael was Whithorn, or Taigh Mhàrtainn, in Scotland. It's the site of the first ever Christian church built in Scotland. It was estalished by Saint Ninian in the 5th century, and referred to as the Candida Casa, the Glittering White House.
What archaeologists found in the earliest phases of the site was not a church, but evidence of early Christian practices, sophisticated trading contacts reaching as far as Gaul and Tunisia, literacy, knowledge of the liturgy and an elite material culture, similar to that in other high status secular settlements. They also found evidence of 16 centuries of continued occupation and of Christian practice, and of a palimpsest of cultures, languages, artistic styles and technologies, as the peoples settling or invading the Machars and appropriating its famous shrine shifted and changed.
Whithorn’s beginnings are defining for the post-Roman Christian era and its evidence is so critical to the story of Scotland that archaeologists and historians will continue to debate the findings on site. Recently, much interest has focussed on the scatter of Roman finds in and around Whithorn and also on Whithorn’s relations with its sister site at Kirkmadrine in the nearby Rhins of Galloway. Early burial stones there, post-dating the Latinus stone, are now thought to indicate an early monastery, while Whithorn looks more like a secular site, possibly a royal one, with evidence of the first Christian converts’ burials and lavish funeral rites. More investigation is required and Whithorn will remain at the centre of debate about the nature of post-Roman society and culture in Britain, the nature and spread of Christianity, craft and trade, the relations between the parts of Britain and Ireland, and the relations between secular and ecclesiastical society. (10)
Whithorn was once a very important site, and was linked to Ireland. As an early Christian site it may have some undiscovered connection to an earlier time, which could explain the possible link to the places along this (albeit rather sparse) alignment with Slieve Breagh, the Hill of Ward, and Skellig Michael, which corresponds to Skellig Michael's summer solstice surnrise line.
The other line that the Hill of Ward is on, on my Google Earth, is a circle centered on the Hill of Tara. I'm not sure why I drew it in the first place because there was only one other place on it, up until now: the megalithic site of Fourknocks. The radius of the circle is 19.06 km / 11.84 miles.
Then while reading about the goddess Tlachtga, I cam across the goddess Tailtiu or Tailltiu, who is linked to a site also in Co. Meath: Teltown or Óenach Tailten. The last Fir Bolg High King of Ireland had his capital there. Tailltiu was Lugh's foster mother, and was associated with the Earth, as she died of exhausastion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. (An ancient catastrophe similar to the carnage now going on in the Amazon forest and elsewhere in the world, which happened long ago in Ireland. The woodland is gone forever, and Ireland is now one of the least forested countries in Europe.) I placed Teltown on Google Earth and found that, surprisingly, it was very near the circle I just mentioned (in blue, below). Teltown was the site of the public national assembly called when a king, queen or important warrior died, the aonach or óenach. Was it placed in relation to the Hill of Tara, Fourknocks and the Hill of Ward? It seems that Teltown, the Hill of Ward and Fourknocks are the same distance from the Hill of Tara.
Another alignment of interest is the Hill of Ward with the Hill of Uisneach, Dunaghmore Monastery, site of a Round Tower, Dunmoe Castle, Ardmulchan Church, Thustianstown Motte, and Knowth.
So it seems that Tlachtga's hill, with all it's Halloween associations, is linked many ancient sites in the Boyne Valley and beyond, including the ever enigmatic Skellig Michael.
Incidentally, Knowth is on another very nice alignment, with Monasterboice and Tara, in which they are placed according to Phi.
1. Frazer, James, The Golden Bough, 1922. Golden Bough Chapter 62. The Fire-Festivals of Europe. Section 6. The Hallowe'en Fires. (sacred-texts.com)
4. Mullaly, Erin, "Samhain Revival, Looking for the roots of Halloween in Ireland’s Boyne Valley", November/December 2016 edition of Archaeology, Samhain Revival - Archaeology Magazine
6. Quotation from Encyclopaedia of Celtic Wisdom by Caitlín and John Matthews, Story of Tlachta (shee-eire.com)
7. Tlachtga, firbolg goddess Tlachta (shee-eire.com)
8. de Paor, Liam and h-Eochaidhe, Marcus P. Ó, "Unusual Group of Earthworks at Slieve Breagh, Co. Meath", The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland Vol. 86, No. 1 (1956), pp. 97-101 (9 pages) Published by: Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland,
9. Tlachtga, Jones's Celtic Encyclopedia, Tlachtga (ancienttexts.org)
10. Whithorn timescape, The Whithorn Trust Come Close, See Far