October 31st is for Samhain – Mythic Mondays

Jack-o'-lanterns - Photo from William Warby

Jack-o’-lanterns, a present-day incarnation of ancient tradition – Photo by William Warby

So, seeing as Halloween falls on a Mythic Monday this year, I thought I’d step aside for a week and cover a little bit of the mythic significance of the Celtic New Year.

The end of the harvest, the start of winter – Samhain was one of the two nights when ancestors could return to Earth (the other being what is now May Day)

To thank the ancestors for their guardianship of the fields, some of the fruits of the harvest were set aside for them. Apples, beer or cream were common, with cakes or biscuits for those who had no harvest but their labour. Lords would feast their households, providing for the whole community out of respect for the powers of nature that had provided the harvest.

It became traditional for people who could not provide their own feasts to disguise themselves and accept the spirits portion on their behalf. This also applied to the newly betrothed or married, who had no harvest yet in their new home.This tradition was taken to America by Irish emigrants, and became Trick or Treat.

The name Hallowe’en is from the Catholicized All Hallows Eve – the following day is a day to pray for all those who have gone to purgatory. Some churches still have a potluck supper around this time, to share food with those who have less. Some schools share food with the elderly, and many folk use the onset of winter as a reminder that hard times can affect anyone.

Of course, not all spirits who return are benevolent, and the Jack O the Lantern was an invocation set to watch for malevolent ghosts and scare them away.

So, now ghosties and ghoulies and long-leggedy beasties haunt the night when the walls to the Underworld grow thin. So, take care tonight, and perhaps leave the ancestors a little something?

Story – The Shapeshifter Duel

Some witches excel at shapeshifting, and the duel between them is called certamen. There was once a witch who wished to kill a Laird, but the Laird rarely left his castle.

But one day the Laird went to help one of his tenants with the lambing. On a snowy hilltop, the Laird and the Witch met.

“I have you now!” Said the witch.
“I will duel you for the lambs, for the people and for my life” said the laird.

She became a duck and Claimed the pond
And He took the shape of a hound and fetched her

She became a trout and Claimed the stream
And He took the shape of an otter and caught her

She became a star and Claimed the sky
And He took the shape of a thundercloud and muffled her

She became a rose and Claimed the earth
And He took the form of a bumblebee and stung her

Finally, the witch became her own form
And the Laird resumed his own shape.

“By what power have you Beaten me?” asked the witch

“By the power of three things – My land, and my people, and my God.
And by these things, I banish you.”

And the witch was gone, and not seen again

Editors note: We’ve mentioned Certamen previously, with respect to Gwydion Gwyn

In games and stories

Different folk celebrate different festivals, so think about the folk in your story. What feasts do they celebrate?. Is New Year in the depth of winter, or in Spring?. Most communities, however urban, recognise the farming year, and have some kind of festival for planting, growing, harvesting and winter. Common also are national recognitions – the king’s birthday, Guy Fawkes Night, Bastille Day.

Fantasy festivals might be dedicated to any of the gods we’ve covered, and any published god might have such a day. When crafting a world, or a nation, don’t forget saints and national heros – the Day of the First Emperor, or St Patrick’s Day. Borrow from real-world festivals to offer details. Perhaps Pelor’s followers dance a maypole in Spring. Perhaps Offler has a Crocodile Day, when everyone brings food to appease the holy crocodiles. Perhaps Raiden sponsors a midwinter storm festival – lock your doors and fast until sunrise.

Consider:

When is this – summer, winter, all week, an hour at dusk, a minute at 11 AM?

Who has this festival – the whole community, just followers of Hera, just hobbits?

If it’s the whole community, how do devotees of the god feel about this?

What does the festival looks like – Diwali lights, Eid Fireworks, Jack O Lanterns?

What are the smells and sounds – Incense reminiscent of many ceremonies from Catholicism to Shinto, or Chinese New Year firecracker smoke?

What do people eat – feast or fast? Unleavened bread, Diwali sweets, nothing between sunrise and sunset?

What do rituals do people do – Confess their sins, wash, dance, sing, kneel, wave flags?

What taboos are enacted or redacted – women are free to have sex, curfew after dark, slaves served by masters?

How does the festival end? Sunrise, when the bell tolls, when everyone drunkenly passes out?

If you want more detailed festivals for your game, join us at Jigsaw Fantasy and vote for our pieces on religions, races, or cultures.

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G is for Gwydion Gwyn – Mythic Mondays

Gwydion Conquers Pydreri by Edward Wallcousins

Gwydion Conquers Pydreri by Edward Wallcousins

One of the oldest forms of his name is Guidgen which means ‘Born of Trees’, and his historic origins may well have been as a forest deity. The Celts saw their gods as personifications of aspects of nature. After the Christianisation of Ireland and Wales, these spirits of land and water became mischievous fairies.

Like many of the Children of Danu – the main family of Celtic Deities – Gwydion is a magician. His exploits feature in many stories in the Mabinogion, which is also where we meet some of his more famous peers – Gawaine, Taliesin and Arthur.

 

Story of the God – The Son of Arianrhod

Arianrhod was to become the wife of a great chieftain. As was the custom at that time, she was tested for her virginity, and it turned out that she failed.

“But I lay never with a man, save for a dream I had, that the light itself became a human shape and stayed the night with me” she said.

This was taken as that the Lord of Light, Lleu himself, had slept with her, and that made her no fit wife for the chieftain.

Ashamed, Arianrhod ran to the door, but on her way out something small dropped from her. Gwydion took the token, wrapped it up and placed in a chest at the foot of his bed. Some time later, he heard screams from within the chest, and opened it to discover a baby boy.

Seven years later, Gwydion accompanied the boy to Caer Arianrhod, and presented him to his mother.

“Arianrhod, here is your son”

“If that is my misbegotten child, then I lay a geas on him that only I may name him”

So Gwydion took the child and disguised himself and the boy as cobblers. His skill was such that all the people of the castle came to have their shoes made, and at last Arianrhod came to the courtyard where the two were working. Whilst the elder cobbler wielded the sharp knife on the leather, the bored child threw a stone at a nearby wren. He struck it so accurately that Arianrhod remarked “it is with a skillful hand that the fair-haired one has hit it” and so the boy was named Lleu Llaw Gyffes, which is Fair-haired one with the Skillful Hand.

Furious at having been so tricked, Arianrhod placed another geas on the boy, that only she should arm him.

Gwydion went and borrowed a pack of hounds, and by enchantment caused them to seem as Irish raiders, tall and cruel. He set them on the gates of Caer Arianrhod.

“Woe unto us, that we are beset! Who will drive back the raiders?”

Lleu, disguised this time as one of the serving folk, came to the gate and volunteered to defend the castle “save that I have no arms nor armor”

In desperation, Arianrhod clothed the servant in a fine suit of mail, and gave him a spear and shield. And he went out and single-handedly drove off the pack of hounds. He returned to the castle in his own form, wearing the armor and wielding the weapons his mother had given him.

Seeing that she had been tricked once again.she laid a third geas on him: that he should never have a human wife.

To counteract Arianrhod’s third curse, Gwydion and his brother Math took flowers from each of the forest trees and conjured a maiden from them – Blodeuwedd, meaning Maid of Flowers.

Of course, with no soul, she could not be faithful, and caused nothing but grief. But that is hardly the fault of Gwydion Gwyn, whose part in this tale is done.

 

In Your Games and Stories

Gwydion can appear as his own self, as a guide and teacher of magicians. His magic tends towards the transformative – turning hounds into people, and the illusory – disguising himself. He also, elsewhere in myth, is a master of certamen – the wizard’s shapeshifting duel, chronicled in both “The Sword in the Stone”, by T H White (filmed by Disney) and in the song The Twa Magicians (recorded many times in different ways, for instance Damh the Bard’s recording of “The Two Magicians” which differs greatly from Steeleye Span’s “Two Magicians”)

The Celts didn’t really do temples in the Classical sense, but any place sacred to the Fair Folk could be a portal to their world – either the Underworld, or Fairyland (the Celts didn’t distinguish) Pools and fountains are good for this, as are caves and hollow hills. Even a simple crossroads at midnight on the full moon could become a road to faraway places.

As a god of magic and craft, Gwydion’s name might be invoked by talismongers and smiths alike. His influence might be sought in Ogham, or chanted over a quenching pool, or sung whilst weaving a baldric. As a forest deity, he might especially be patron of carpenters and fletchers – guiding the selection of the proper wood, and used as a meditative focus to carve smoothly.

For a fantasy setting that lets you more easily weave in the gods, try Jigsaw Fantasy

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