When darkness falls
31 October, 2013
In ancient Britain, the Celts are thought to have followed a religion named Solar. Its main festivals were related to the Sun’s progress. Beltane marked the beginning of summer and Samhain the beginning of winter.
It is also believed that human sacrifice was widely practised, with the intention of appeasing the many gods. These sacrifices were believed to be associated with Samhain, when the Sun’s power waned and the gods of darkness, winter and the underworld grew strong.
The associated festivals probably included bonfires at night. These would have attracted insects, and as a result bats. So the modern festival of Hallowe’en, much enjoyed by children, has a justifiable association with death, darkness and creatures of the night.
From early times, people sought protection from evil in nature. One example is the rowan tree, associated with several forms of protection.
Look at the underside of the rowan berry. It exhibits a very definite pentagram – a five-pointed star. This was considered a magic symbol that could be used to ward off evil, and may be the source of the rowan tree’s mythical power.
The tree itself was said to afford protection to any dwelling close to where it grew. People carried pieces of the tree for personal protection from witchcraft, and sprigs of rowan were used to protect farm animals from enchantment – especially cows and their dairy produce.
The superstition persists that it is bad luck to remove or damage a rowan tree growing in one’s garden. Well into the 20th century, there are documented instances of dire warnings issued to gardeners planning to uproot rowans.
From Scotland to Cornwall, equal-armed crosses made from rowan twigs and bound with red thread were sewn into the linings of coats or carried in pockets. In Scandinavia, a rowan tree found growing not in the ground but in the inaccessible cleft of a rock, or from a crevice in another tree’s trunk, possessed an even more powerful magic. Such trees were known as ‘flying rowan’.
The Celts believed that natural world was the home of the gods. The spirits lived within trees and other plants and water – streams, lochs and wells. Hills and trees were often sacred places.
The Celtic calendar had a different sacred tree for each month. The oak was particularly associated with the sky and solar gods – and oak carvings have been found in archaeological excavations.
There is evidence that these sacred places would have been re-used over time. For example Dryburgh Abbey is believed by some to have been built next to a yew which marked a sacred meeting point for druids. The famous Dryburgh Yew is believed to be about a thousand years old, about a century older than the abbey itself.
The Celts also used hills as religious sites and interestingly there are small mounds at two other Historic Scotland properties: Lincluden Collegiate Church and Inchmahome Priory. There is no evidence that they were used by the druids or had any ritual connection; however, each has a ring of oaks planted around its summit. This may of course be a Victorian ‘Druid Grove’ landscape feature.
Hallowe’en festivities will be happening everywhere this Friday and Saturday night, and Historic Scotland is hosting a Fright Night event at Linlithgow Palace. A seriously scary experience, it’s not recommended for children under 10 – and even the bravest grown-ups might be well advised to sew a rowan cross into their clothing.
Tickets must be purchased beforehand, see event listing for details.