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Cultural Background | Surviving | Finding Meaning in the Cosmos

Finding Meaning in the Cosmos

The Druids recognized only two seasons: winter and summer. By paying close attention to the movement of the moon, sun and stars in the sky, they were able to mark the beginning of one season and the end of the other. The Druids created myths around these events and had elaborate celebrations.

Samhain: The rising of the Pleiades constellation in the sky occurred at the end of summer. The Druids believed that this movement of the Pleiades marked the triumph of night over day. It was the beginning of the time of year that was ruled by the moon.

The Druids celebrated this change in season with the Samhain (or Samhuinn) festival on October 31st and November 1st. Samhain means "time of the little sun" or "end of the warm season."

According to the ancient Celtic philosophy, a year passed between darkness and light. They believed that earth was in darkness in the beginning and night comes before day just as winter comes before summer. November 1st marked the beginning of winter and the first day of the year. It was like our New Year's Day.

This day was a solemn occasion for the Druids because it was a time when darkness overwhelmed the world. At this time of year, the days became short and the earth became cold and barren.

The Druids explained the Samhain celebration through the telling of a myth about a god named Lugh who represented the sun.

According to the myth, Lugh was the god of light. At summer's end, he was killed by Tanist, the lord of misrule. Tanist was the god of the moon.

Samhain is the time when Lugh passes from the world of life to the world of death and Tanist becomes ruler of the Druids' world.

The long nights of moonlight were explained by the belief that Tanist, the moon, was a cruel and cold ruler. Although he shone brightly in the sky, he did not provide warmth to the land.

The Feast of the Dead took place on Samhain Eve. The Feast of the Dead united the past, present and future. It was believed that the spirits of the dead as well as the spirits of those yet unborn walked the earth among the living. This was considered a divine time because it was one of two times of the year when the "veil" between Earth and the Otherworld was at its thinnest.

The ancient Druids also believed that a person's spirit lived in the head. They believed that if they displayed the head of an enemy killed at battle during Samhain, then the enemy could not cause them any harm on the days when the dead walked the earth with the living.

In fact, the traditions of carving pumpkins at Halloween in the United States and carving turnips in Europe stem from this ancient Druid activity.

Samhain was also a time when the Druids renewed their commitments to their community. Hilltops were lit with fires at Samhain. All home fires were extinguished and then lighted again from community bonfires. The Druids and cattle left the hills and glens to live in their winter quarters. This was a time to reunite with family and friends and strengthen bonds with those you cared about. Druids spent time during Samhain discussing religious philosophy and telling stories by the fires at home.

Feast of Lugh: On August 1st, the Druids celebrated a feast in honor of the sun that had enabled their crops to grow.

This festival was called the Feast of Lugh, for their sun god Lugh. The Feast of Lugh marked the end of growing time and the beginning of the harvest. Warriors returned to begin harvesting crops of corn, wheat, fruits and vegetables at this time. Many feasts and sports competitions were held in honor of Lugh.

Lugh was their sun god who gave them light and warmth. During the Feast of Lugh it was common for the Druids to set a wheel on fire at the top of a hill and then roll it down to the bottom. This tradition symbolized the decline of the sun god and the descent of the sun.

The Feast of Lugh was also a time to sacrifice bad habits and remove unwanted things from one's own life.

Many marriages and divorces took place during this festival. A couple could have a trial marriage that lasted only one year until the next Feast of Lugh. At the following festival, the husband and wife would stand back to back in front of their community. If they wished to end the marriage, they walked away in opposite directions. Records tell us that these trial marriages continued well into the 16th century.

According to one Celtic myth about the festival, the sun god Lugh is married to the land, known as Nass. Lugh's death is necessary for rebirth to take place in the land. The sun god sacrifices himself to the land when he is at his hottest but when his light is fading. At this time, days are getting shorter and shadows are getting longer.

In a different version of this myth, Lugh requested this annual celebration in honor of his foster mother, Tailltiu. In this myth, Tailltiu is the Goddess of the Land who had died while preparing the fields for planting.

If her memory was not honored, the Druids believed that Lugh would destroy the crops before they could be harvested. With no crops to harvest for food, the community would starve during the coming winter months.

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Learn more about stars and constellations and how astronomy influenced mythology.

Read about Druid Mythology from Bullfinch's Mythology.

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