A Season for Saints and the Supernatural

The last evening of October, Halloween, is linked with the spirits and the dead. In Christian calendars the next day is the Feast of All Saints, followed by the Feast of All Souls. As the days shorten these echoes of the dead seem appropriate. The passage from life to death and beyond holds a deep fascination for peoples across the world. Halloween traditions have changed over time, undergoing constant reinvention, often in places far from the short days of high latitudes. For instance, the Mexican Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) vibrantly combines Christian and native beliefs creating a powerful symbolism of decay and rebirth, of skulls and roses. Halloween is now truly international. But, how old is it and what connection does it have with Ireland?

Calavera Oaxaqueña

Calavera Oaxaqueña from Library of Congress, Public Domain (https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/99615830/)

The early medieval Irish calendar, the first about which we can have any certainty, turned on the feast days of saints but also incorporated the rhythms of the agricultural year. Four times in particular stand out, each one synchronised with the beginning of a month: Imbolc (February), Beltene (May), Lugnasad (August) and Samain (November). A great deal has been written about them and their possible relationship with pre-Christian beliefs. However, by this stage we have solid evidence they had been incorporated into the Christian year. This did not stop the early Irish, themselves, speculating about their origins. For example, the early medieval text known as Sanas Cormaic (Cormac’s Glossary) creatively suggested that Lugnasad had been named for the funeral games of Lug, a leader of the supernatural Tuatha Dé Danann, famous as the killer of Balor of the Evil Eye.

Samain was especially prominent. The early Irish believed that the storytelling season ran from Samain (November) to Beltene (May). Many of their stories turned on Samain, identifying it as transformational, a phase when this world and its supernatural counterpart bled into each other turning time, person and place on its head. Magical lovers were wooed, humans became swans and mortals entered immortal realms. It was a chaotic time where the order of society was threatened by forces beyond its boundaries, by monsters and demons, by dangerous women and powerful sorcerers.

So how did all of this become a celebration of saints? Some of our most important evidence comes in the form of texts known as martyrologies. At its most basic, a martyrology is a list of saints arranged in calendar sequence. As the name suggests, martyrologies first arose to commemorate martyrs but soon became a key part of the Church’s liturgical year. Every day has its saint. The saint’s feast day celebrated the day of his or her death and rebirth into Heaven. The Irish adopted the martyrology, incorporating their own saints and liturgical practices into it in the process. UCD Archives is home to some of the most important manuscript witnesses to this development. The earliest surviving text is the Martyrology of Tallaght, written around AD 830 but surviving in a single twelfth-century copy. Unfortunately, this copy has a missing page, meaning the sequence ends on 31 October before beginning again on December 17.

However, another text, Félire Óengusso (Martyrology of Óengus), written soon after it and using the Martyrology of Tallaght as a source, demonstrates the merging of samain with a celebration of saints. Óengus tells us of the great crowd of saints on samain, November 1. For him it is a day defined by its multitude of saints. However, this is not the only ‘All Saints’ Day’. Both the Martyrology of Tallaght and Félire Óengusso identify April 20 as the Feast of all the Saints of Europe. If anything, it is given more weight than samain. However, by the time of the composition of the Martyrology of Gorman, written before around 1170 and drawing on both Tallaght and Óengus, the April 20 ‘All Saints’ had disappeared. Instead, the emphasis is on samain and it is firmly positioned within the liturgical cycle. October 31 is given special prominence as the Eve of All Saints Day. November 1 is identified as ‘sruithló na samna’ (venerable day of samain) and the day of ‘uile nóeim ind nime’ (all the saints of Heaven).

Here, in the Martyrology of Gorman, we have the culmination of spectacularly successful syncretism. Samain, with its roots in a pre-Christian past, has been given a definite date in the Christian calendar. A time determined by its very indeterminacy is fixed. The associations of samain, death and rebirth, are retooled. What better rebirths for a Christian to celebrate than the entry of the saints into Heaven? So, while samain became about saints it never ceased to be about the supernatural.


  • This guest blog post was kindly contributed by Dr Elva Johnston Vice-Principal for Graduate Studies, UCD College of Arts & Humanities and Associate Professor in UCD School of History

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