One of the most noted festivals that held great importance in the ancient Celtic world was that of Samhain. It marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the winter or ”the darker half” of the year. As the Celtic day began and ended at sunset, the feast was celebrated from 31 October to 1 November, halfway betwen the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.
Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Similar festivals were held at the same time of year in other Celtic lands; for example the Brythonic Calan Gaeaf (in Wales), Kalan Gwav (in Cornwall), and Kalan Goañv (in Brittany), both Celtic branches as old as each other.
Although, it was a feast during which the living welcomed back the spirits of their dead ancestors, Samhain was not celebrated in a gloomy mood. Livestock was slaughtered, the bones used for divination. Great fires were lit and food was prepared for the ancestors who would momentarily return back to their homes and families.
However, Samhain marked a period of liminality where the barriers of space and time were broken. The veil between this world and the Otherworld was torn and, along with the dead, fairies and all manners of magical creatures roamed upon the earth.
Below you will read an excerpt from one of the four branches of the Mabinogion translated by Lady Charlotte Guest that narrates such an otherwordly encounter between Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, and Arawn, king of the dead in Annwn, the Celtic Otherwold.
Pwyll Prince of Dyved was lord of the seven Cantrevs of Dyved; and once upon a time he was at Narberth his chief palace, and he was minded to go and hunt, and the part of his dominions in which it pleased him to hunt was Glyn Cuch. So he set forth from Narbeth that night, and went as far as Llwyn Diarwyd. And that night he tarried there, and early on the morrow he rose and came to Glyn Cuch, when he let loose the dogs in the wood, and sounded the horn, and began the chase. And as he followed the dogs, he lost his companions; and whilst he listened to the hounds, he heard the cry of other hounds, a cry different from his own, and coming in the opposite direction.
And he beheld a glade in the wood forming a level plain, and as his dogs came to theedge of the glade, hesaw a stag before the other dogs. And lo, as it reached the middle of the glade, the dogs that followed the stag overtook it and brought it down. Then looked he at the colour of the dogs, staying not to look at the stag, and of all the hounds that he had seen in the world, he had never seen any that were like unto these. For their hair was of a brilliant shining white, and their ears were red; and as the whiteness of their bodies
shone, so did the redness of their ears glisten. And he came towards the dogs, and drove away those that had brought down the stag, and set his own dogs upon it.
And as he was setting on his dogs he saw a horseman coming towards him upon a large light−grey steed, with a hunting horn round his neck, and clad in garments of grey woollen in the fashion of a hunting garb. And the horseman drew near and spoke unto him thus. “Chieftain,” said he, “I know who thou art, and I greet thee not.”
“Peradventure,” said Pwyll, “thou art of such dignity that thou shouldest not do so.”
“Verily,” answered he, “it is not my dignity that prevents me.” “What is it then, O Chieftain?” asked he.
“By Heaven, it is by reason of thine own ignorance and want of courtesy.”
“What discourtesy, Chieftain, hast thou seen in me?”
“Greater discourtesy saw I never in man,” said he, “than to drive away the dogs that
were killing the stag and to set upon it thine own. This was discourteous, and though I may not be revenged upon thee, yet I declare to Heaven that I will do thee more dishonour than the value of an hundred stags.”
“O Chieftain,” he replied, “if I have done ill I will redeem thy friendship.”
“How wilt thou redeem it?”
“According as thy dignity may be, but I know not who thou art?”
“A crowned king am I in the land whence I come.”
“Lord,” said he, “may the day prosper with thee, and from what land comest thou?”
“From Annwvyn,” answered he; “Arawn, a King of Annwvyn, am I.”
“Lord,” said he, “how may I gain thyfriendship?”
“After this manner mayest thou,” he said. “There is a man whose dominions are opposite to mine, who is ever warring against me, and he is Havgan, a King of Annwvyn, and by ridding me of thisoppression, which thou canst easily do, shalt thou gain my friendship.”
“Gladly will I do this,” said he.
“Show me how I may.”
“I will show thee. Behold thus it is thou mayest. I will make firm friendship with thee; and this will I do. I will send thee to Annwvyn in my stead, and I will give thee the fairest lady thou didst ever behold to be thy companion, and I will put my form and semblance upon thee, so that not a page of the chamber, nor an officer, nor any other man that has always followed me shall know that it is not I. And this shall be for the space of a year from to−morrow, and then we will meet in this place.”
“Yes,” said he; “but when I shall have been there for the space of a year, by what means shall I discover him of whom thouspeakest?”
“One year from this night,” he answered, “is the time fixed between him and me that we should meet at the Ford; be thou there in my likeness, and with one stroke that thou givest him, he shall no longer live. And if he ask thee to give him another, give it not, how much soever he may entreat thee, for when I did so, he fought with me next day as well as ever before.”
“Verily,” said Pwyll, “what shall I do concerning my kingdom?”
Said Arawn, “I will cause that no one in all thy dominions, neither man nor woman, shall
know that I am not thou, and I will go there in thy stead.”
“Gladly then,” said Pwyll, “will I set forward.”
“Clear shall be thy path, and nothing shall detain thee, until thou come into my dominions, and I myself will be thy guide!”
So he conducted him until he came in sight of the palace and its dwellings. “Behold,” said he, “the Court and the kingdom in thy power. Enter the Court, there is no one there who will know thee, and when thou seest what service is done there, thou wilt know the customs of the Court.”
So he went forward to the Court, and when he came there, he beheld sleeping−rooms, and halls, and chambers, and the most beautiful buildings ever seen. And he went into the hall to disarray, and there came youths and pages and disarrayed him, and all as they entered saluted him. And two knights came and drew his hunting−dress from about him, and clothed him in a vesture of silk and gold. And the hall was prepared, and behold he saw the household and the host enter in, and the host was the most comely and the best
equipped that he had ever seen. And with them came in likewise the Queen, who was the fairest woman that he had ever yet beheld. And she had on a yellow robe of shining satin; and they washed and went to the table, and sat, the Queen upon one side of him, and one who seemed to be an Earl on the other side.
And he began to speak with the Queen, and he thought, from her speech, that she was the seemliest and most noble lady of converse and of cheer that ever was. And they partook of meat, and drink, with songs and with feasting; and of all the Courts upon the earth, behold this was the best supplied with food and drink, and vessels of gold and royal jewels.
And the year he spent in hunting, and minstrelsy, and feasting, and diversions, and discourse with his companions until the night that was fixed for the conflict. And when that night came, it was remembered even by those who lived in the furthest part of his dominions, and he went to the meeting, and the nobles of the kingdom with him. And when he came to the Ford, a knight arose and spake thus. “Lords,” said he, “listen well. It is between two kings that this meeting is, and between them only. Each claimeth of the other his land and territory, and do all of you stand aside and leave the fight to be between them.”
Thereupon the two kings approached each other in the middle of the Ford, and encountered, and at the first thrust, the man who was in the stead of Arawn struck Havgan on the centre of the boss of his shield, so that it was cloven in twain, and his armour was broken, and Havgan himself was borne to the ground an arm’s and a
spear’s length over the crupper of his horse, and he received a deadly blow. “O Chieftain,” said Havgan, “what right hast thou to cause my death? I was not injuring thee in anything, and I know not wherefore thou wouldest slay me. But, for the love of Heaven, since thou hast begun to slay me, complete thy work.”
“Ah, Chieftain,” he replied, “I may yet repent doing that unto thee, slay thee who may, I will not do so.”
“My trusty Lords,” said Havgan, “bear me hence. My death has come. I shall be no more able to uphold you.”
“My Nobles,” also said he who was in the semblance of Arawn, “take counsel and know who ought to be my subjects.”
“Lord,” said the Nobles, “all should be, for there is no king over the whole of Annwvyn but thee.”
“Yes,” he replied, “it is right that he who comes humbly should be received graciously, but he that doth not come with obedience, shall be compelled by the force of swords.” And thereupon he received the homage of the men, and he began to conquer the country; and the next day by noon the two kingdoms were in his power. And thereupon he went to keep his tryst, and came to Glyn Cuch.
And when he came there, the King of Annwvyn was there to meet him, and each of them was rejoiced to see the other. “Verily,” said Arawn, “may Heaven reward thee for thy friendship towards me. I have heard of it. When thou comest thyself to thy dominions,” said he, “thou wilt see that which I have done for thee.”
“Whatever thou hast done for me, may Heaven repay it thee.”
Then Arawn gave to Pwyll Prince of Dyved his proper form and semblance, and he himself took his own; and Arawn set forth towards the Court of Annwvyn; and he was rejoiced when he beheld his hosts, and his household, whom he had not seen so long; but they had not known of his absence, and wondered no more at his coming than usual. And that day was spent in joy and merriment; and he sat and conversed with his wife
and his nobles. And when it was time for them rather to sleep than to carouse, they went to rest.
Pwyll Prince of Dyved came likewise to his country and dominions, and began to inquire of the nobles of the land, how his rule had been during the past year, compared with what it had been before. “Lord,” said they, “thy wisdom was never so great, and thou wast never so kind or so free in bestowing thy gifts, and thy justice was never more worthily seen than in this year.”
“By Heaven,” said he, “for all the good you have enjoyed, you should thank him who hath been with you; for behold, thus hath this matter been.” And thereupon Pwyll related the whole unto them.
“Verily, Lord,” said they, “render thanks unto Heaven that thou hast such a fellowship, and withhold not from us the rule which we have enjoyed for this year past.”
“I take Heaven to witness that I will not withhold it,” answered Pwyll.
And thenceforth they made strong the friendship that was between them, and each sent unto the other horses, and greyhounds, and hawks, and all such jewels as they thought would be pleasing to each other. And by reason of his having dwelt that year in Annwvyn, and having ruled there so prosperously, and united the two kingdoms in one day by his valour and prowess, he lost the name of Pwyll Prince of Dyved, and was called
Pwyll Chief of Annwvyn from that time forward.