Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Samhain Is the Name of the Season



Let's face it: modern Yule has undergone a thorough Christmasization.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, just a fact. Still, when we scrape away the encrusted barnacles from the ship of Yule—when we look, for instance, at the extended Winter Solstice celebrations of the Kalasha of what is now northwestern Pakistan, the last Indo-European-speaking people to have practiced their traditional religion continuously since ancient times—what emerges is revealed as something both strange and familiar beyond telling.

The same may be said for Samhain, now thoroughly reshaped by its proximity to Halloween, and by the Christian festivals of All Saints' and All Souls' Days.

When, however, we look at Samhain as it used to be—Samhain as recorded in the old lore—a new-old landscape emerges before us, a land both familiar and strange.

That is what makes the following little poem so remarkable. On the face of it—until you get to the last stanza, anyway—there's little that seems to be about Samhain at all. (Oh, but look deeper, my friend!)

Even more remarkable is the fact that this enumeration of the essentials of Samhain-ness is not, in fact, ancient, but a modern poem: an excerpt from a longer poem, “Fionn's Migrations,” in Martin Shaw and Tony Hoagland's 2020 Cinderbiter: Celtic Poems.

Listen, now.


Samhain Is the Name of the Season


The land combed red and bronze-gold;

air sharp with frost

the crunch of leaf-meal

under your foot.


Time of autumn beef and red ale,

the silver canopy of the rain,


a thick cloak with a bronze clasp,

a fire that holds embers all night.


Time for the bard to tune his harp,

for spitted ox, a keg,

blue fingers as kindling is gathered,

a friendly hound, a bed.


Samhain is the name of the season,

the great un-tethering of boundaries

between living and dead,

the chariot-swift faery,

and the boundless denizens of night.


These stanzas preface the poem's climax: Fionn's heroic triumph over Aillen mac Midna, a monstrous otherworldly warrior who, for nine Samhains running, has wrought (à la Grendel) fiery havoc in the hallowed halls of Tara. Here, Shaw and Hoagland courteously distill the essence of Samhain for readers who may not be familiar with the feast and its ancient meanings, to lay down a context for what comes next.

Samhain is a homecoming. For the ancestors, it marked the boundary between the outdoor time and the indoor time, between the wider world and home.

A good poem does what it tells. This one moves in from the world of nature to the hearth, referencing as it does so the autumn slaughter, the coming of cold, and the harvest's last feast.

To hear modern pagans talk, one might think that Samhain is all ancestors, all the time. For those living lives entirely divorced from the non-human world, that may be as close as we can get.

That's why it's good to turn back to the Old Lore from time to time. Set aside—for now, at least—the pumpkins, the candy, the fake front-yard headstones.

Samhain is the name of the season: deep, deeper, deepest.





Martin Shaw and Tony Hoagland (2020) Cinderbiter: Celtic Poems. Graywolf Press.


"Time for the bard to tune his harp."

If you're looking for an old-time Samhain story to read to the coven this year after the rites and the feasting, consider Fionn's Migrations. It is to Samhain what Dickens' Christmas Carol is to Christmas.




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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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