As we move further into the Samhain season there is often a strong emphasis on remembering and connecting to our ancestors and dead loved ones. A secondary theme that we find is the idea of a so-called ‘thinning of the veil’ as a way to describe the increased activity by spirits and easier perception of the Otherworld. This increased Otherworldly presence is felt by those connecting to the dead, who find human ghosts and the like more active and easily communicated with, and many Samhain traditions centre on this. My own focus is on spirits of the Otherworld, though, so while I appreciate the influx of discussion about ancestral work and practices I thought it might be nice here to take a look at the fairy side of things.
There is quite a lot of fairylore around Samhain so for my purposes here I’m going to focus on Irish material, but I would like to note that there is also plenty of Scottish material to be found.
One of the hallmarks of both Samhain and its energetic opposite point Bealtaine is a notable increase in activity by the Good People. This activity takes various forms from mischief to maliciousness. The Slua Sidhe [fairy host] is sometimes said to be more active now and more prone to taking mortals they find alone. The Púca is out and about on Oiche Shamna [Samhain eve] and all berries left in the wild after that night aren’t safe for humans to eat as he has fouled them, either by spitting or urinating on them*. There are also beliefs in some places that it is one the fire festivals – the quarter days – that the fairies move their homes and are therefore most likely to be encountered, and we do find many stories of people seeing them on or around this time of year.
Mythology around Samhain
Not only do we find more stories of encounters in the human world at this time of year, we also found some interesting mythology around the Otherworld at this time. This is worth noting since the Otherworld is of course home to the Daoine sidhe, the fairy folk, and the myths we have that mention this date can give us insight into the nature of the holiday and the energy around it as it relates to the Good People.
In the Cath Maige Tuired it is around Samhain that the Morrigan and the Dagda are said to meet every year at Glen Etin, and it was at Samhain the the Tuatha De Danann fought a great battle against the Fomorians. It was also at Samhain in the Lebor Gabala Erenn that the Fomorians used to demand a tribute of corn and children from the Nemedians. In the Metrical Dindshenchas the figure of Crom Cruach is tied to Samhain through an account of the death of an Irish high king and most of his army on Samhain eve while worshipping Crom.
Joyce’s Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland mentions a story about a site associated with the Morrigan, the sidhe of Cruachan. Joyce relates how on Samhain the sidhe would open up and a variety of Otherworldly monsters would emerge including ‘goblins’, a two headed bird, and red birds. This account may line up or reference an older story from the Cath Maige Mucrama, which doesn’t mention Samhain, in which it’s said that a variety of dangerous Otherworldly creatures emerged from the Sidhe of Cruachan all of which caused some form of devastation wherever they went; these included spectral pigs, red birds, and a three headed monster.
One of the more famous myths that mentions Samhain may be the Echtra Nera, a story about a man named Nera who takes up a challenge by King Aillil to tie a cord around the ankle of a man who was recently hanged. When he leaves the safety of the indoors and goes out into the dark of Samhain he ends up getting into a series of adventures which include talking to corpses, joining a fairy host, taking a fairy wife, and returning to his own people to warn them of an attack coming the following Samhain. He proves the truth of his tale by showing them out of season fruits, taken from the sidhe, because the Otherworld does not align to the human world’s seasons.
Because of this increased activity there are also many folk traditions around avoiding likely active spots or protecting against chance encounters. For example it was generally advised not to walk on the west side of a building or near water after dark, nor to travel alone at night as these were seen as putting a person at higher risk of negative encounters. People were also advised to carry iron, such as a nail, in their pocket when they were travelling as this served as ward against fairies and their interference. If you feel you are being misled or falling under fairy enchantment that needs to be broken, turning an article of clothes inside out is the usual remedy.
For those who do wish to engage more actively with these beings or who are aware of their presence and want to acknowledge them, there are several options. What you choose and how you choose to do it is up to you.
As the story of Nera shows it is possible to meet them at this time and earn their favour, although that will almost certainly involve tests of courage and fortitude. Given that this is a time noted especially for activity by the more malicious fey folk it should be kept in mind that there is no guarantee of safety in random encounters. If you are going to be bold then you must be utterly bold and accept what comes of it.
It’s also traditional to leave out offerings as a means to appease anything that may be wandering by. Milk or cream are traditional for this as is bread; there is no particular ceremony for offering it and I would suggest that a more casual approach is a good idea. Just be sure to give the best you can, as the fairies hate an offering made with stinginess.
Samhain is an important holiday and an important time for many people, pagan and non-pagan. The traditions around this time of year run deep into the past and are finding new life today. Often the focus we find in these revived traditions rests on connecting to the human dead, but it’s important to remember that the Otherworld being more active in our world is about more than just that. This is also a time when the beings of the Otherworld are more present in the human world not as the twee fairies of modern popculture but as the powerful and tricky beings of older folklore and myth. This isn’t a bad thing, anymore than the colder weather of winter or the bare harvested fields are bad things, but it does require a certain canniness to navigate.
So, leave out a bit of cream and carry a bit of iron on you, and see what adventures you can get up to this Samhain.
*In other places this belief is attached to Michaelmas, on September 29th.