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Good Witch vs. Bad Witch: Lord Samhain

At the risk of asking a silly question, I have heard of the Lord of Samhain. Does he or she exist or is it an urban legend?

—Blessings, Sally from Seattle

Good Witch writes:

This isn’t a silly question, but it’s a persistent one that crops up every Halloween. The short answer is there’s never been a Lord of Samhain or a Lord Samhain. However the longer version of the story isn’t so simple.

The popularity of the idea of the Lord of Samhain, which has been perpetuated by bad research and Fundamentalist Christians who want to scare you from your heathen Halloween ways straight into the arms of Jesus (Good Witch has a hard time being objective about this particular topic), really hangs on two things: the ideas that human sacrifices were performed at the ancient festival of Samhain, and that there was an Irish Lord of the Dead—Lord Samhain or the Lord of Samhain—to whom these sacrifices were made.

Samhain—one of the many roots of our modern Halloween—was an Irish pre-Christian festival. We have no contemporary accounts of what went on at a Samhain festival, but we know that at Tlachtga, an ancient ceremonial site, fire rituals were held at Samhain. The huge fire at Tlachtga was extinguished and relit, probably to signify the end of one year and the beginning of the next and the descent into the darkness of the waning sun. In the Tochmarc Emire, a tenth-century Irish text, Samhain is referred to as the day “when the summer goes to rest,” and as the first of four festivals that quartered the year.

Although there is evidence that the ancient Irish may have performed human sacrifice, there is no solid evidence that it happened specifically at Samhain. In his History of Ireland, written in the seventeenth century, Geoffrey Keating mentions Samhain tributes of corn, milk, and two-thirds of the newborns from the race of Neimheadh, but there is no mention of the newborn tributes being killed. The Dindshenchas—a collection of Irish poems—contains a mention of human sacrifice at Samhain, but scholars feel it may have been exaggerated for the benefit of St. Patrick and that the poem is of more value as a source on mythology than history. St. Patrick himself didn’t write about human sacrifice during his quest to eradicate Paganism. You’d think he might have mentioned it if he’d seen it, since it would have strengthened his case for Christianity.

As for the Irish Lord of the Dead, there’s no Irish god of death, per se, and no evidence that Samhain was devoted to a particular deity. There’s a story in the Tochmarc Etaine about the Irish “good god,” the Dagda, having sex at Samhain with three deities, but it doesn’t at all imply the festival is devoted to any of them. It’s much more apparent from the Irish sagas that Samhain was associated with the Sidhe, the mythical peoples of Ireland, conquerors and heroes, and the liminal space between the worlds.

So where did the myth of the Lord of Samhain come from? Many historians agree we can lay the blame for its origin squarely at the feet of Colonel Charles Vallencey, who around 1770 wrote several badly researched volumes on Irish history and is apparently the first person to state that Samhain or the Lord of Samhain was a god. In one of the volumes of his Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicus he claims that at Samhain the god Samhan or Saman “called the souls to judgment” and that they might be punished by being forced to spend the year in the bodies of animals. He also links Saman to Baal. Scholars have refuted Vallencey repeatedly—in part because his main thesis was that the Irish were from Armenia—but that didn’t stop others from citing him. Prominent among these was William Shepard Walsh, an equally bad historian who in his 1897 book Curiosities of Popular Customs expands on on Vallencey’s “theory” about “Saman” and shows his anti-Pagan bias by saying, “Vallancey sagely concludes that these superstitious practices, the remains of Druidism, will never be eradicated while the name of Saman is permitted to remain.” Godfrey Higgins’ 1827 work The Celtic Druids expanded on Vallencey and Walsh’s hot mess (his hypothesis was that the Irish were from India!), and has unfortunately been quoted ad nauseum since its publication. Higgins’ version of the Lord of Samhain is probably the best-known.

So idea that there was an evil god of Samhain/Halloween who demanded human sacrifice has persisted because people are lazy researchers, but even more so because it feeds the Fundamentalist Christian narrative that the Druids were bloodthirsty Satanic child-murderers, therefore Halloween is Satanic, and celebrating Halloween puts our mortal souls in peril. It’s a convenient lie for scaring the hell out of the unsaved in religious tracts* and web pages like this, and it’s plain propagandist bullshit, so please don’t let it stop you from celebrating your Samhain in style.

*If you need a good laugh and haven’t had the dubious pleasure of experiencing the sublime trainwreck that is a Chick religious tract, check out the Halloween ones someone has compiled here.

Bad Witch responds with a sigh and a shake of the head.

Not him again.

OK, first I must insist that you call him by his proper name — Sam Hane, Dread Lord of the Dead. Got that? Now, dear children, we will learn of his lore and his marvelous deeds.

Once upon a time, somewhere in South Boston, a young man put pen to paper and told all he knew of the Most Malignant Immigrant to these pilgrim-infested shores. For Sam Hane only immigrated to America after he’d overseen the so-called Potato Famine in the Auld Country. Good times, good times.

His Irish name is Suibhne Mhiathan Mor but when he got to the Port of Boston, the Italian clerk with the pencil couldn’t be bothered to figure out how to spell that crap so he wrote “Sam Hane.” Big mistake. You don’t diss the Dread Lord of the Dead.

But there was a little kid who was standing behind Suibhne and he knew exactly who that ragged immigrant was who spoke so softly and nodded so meekly. The kid’s name was Tadg O’Connor and he went on to become a legendary Boston lawyer. But before that, he followed Suibhne out of the immigration office, leaving his family behind.

Suibhne — now “Sam” — took the kid on as his apprentice and errand boy, taught him to read and write and pick pockets at funerals. Being the Dread Lord of the Dead, Sam loved funerals and Tadg did, too. Tadg started asking Sam for info about his life in Ireland and he wrote all those stories down in “The Big Book of Sam Hane,” which is, sadly, out of print. You might still find a copy through inter-library loan, if you still have a library in your town.

When Tadg reached the age of eighteen, his boss gave him a sack full of gold coins, thanked him for all his good work and told him to go be a Hell of a lawyer, which he did. Sam headed West and only came back East for the First World War and the Spanish flu epidemic. He was last seen in Syria, having a great time at his chosen work and trying not to look like a very old Irishman.

This is the Real and True story of Sam Hane, Dread Lord of the Dead. Please tell all your friends about Him. He likes that.

P.S. If you want to experience the thrill of hanging with Sam, try this pretty little conjuration. (But don't attempt it unless you are a Board Certified Level Thirty Mage Elf Witch that speaks fluent Irish and a smattering of French. Because Sam likes French. He thinks it sounds sexy.)

Walk backwards in a circle while saying the ABCs from Z to A. Spit over your left shoulder and clap your hands forty-seven times.

Pour onto the ground or floor or carpet or whatever a shot of the most expensive Irish whiskey you can find. Sit on it and say out loud thirteen times-- Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam.

Save the rest of the whiskey for Sam. He'll be thirsty after that long commute.

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Aryós Héngwis (or the more modest Héngwis for short) is a native of the Pontic-Caspian steppe, born some 5000 years ago, near the village of Dereivka. In his youth he stood out from the other snakes for his love of learning and culture, eventually coming into the service of the local reǵs before moving westward toward Europe. Most recently, Aryós Héngwis left his home to pursue a new life in America, where he has come under the employ of BBI Media as an internet watchdog (or watchsnake, if you will), ever poised to strike the unwary troll.


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