At this time of year when the door to the Otherworld is flung open, I felt it would be appropriate to examine Gaelic customs regarding the dead, along with the more ancient Celtic customs from which they stemmed. The reverence of the dead (those who had passed over into the Otherworld) is evidenced among the Celtic peoples through elaborate burials and the worship of departed ancestors and heroes. The family hearth was considered to be a place where ancestral spirits gathered, and among some tribes, such as the Aeduii, the dead were buried around the hearth. According to MacCulloch (1991, p. 165), “Heads of the slain [enemies killed in battle] were offered to the ‘strong shades’ – those ghosts of tribal heroes whose praises were sung by bards. When such heads were placed on houses, they may have been devoted to the family ghosts. The honour in which mythic or real heroes were held may point to an actual cult, the hero being worshipped when dead, while he still continued to his guardianship of the tribe. We also know that the tomb of King Cottius was a sacred place, that Irish kings were often inaugurated on ancestral burial cairns, and that Irish gods were associated with barrows of the dead.”
The Celts throughout prehistory and into the early historical period cremated or buried their dead with great ceremony and the construction of noble graves. Of the Gauls, Pomponius Mela had this to say in the first century AD: “They burn or bury with their dead the things they were accustomed to in life” (Piggot, 1968, p. 88). A chieftain’s grave was laden with items, such as weapons, brooches, and even chariots – all that he would need on the long journey through the Otherworld. There is some evidence that slaves and retainers were sacrificed and buried with their chieftain, to assist him in the Otherworld, up until the time of Caesar.
The dead were also fed in conjunction with Samhain (pronounced SOW-win), the ancient fire festival which devolved into All Hallows’ Eve and later Halloween. The feast was an important part of the funeral ritual. “In Ireland, after a death, food is placed out for the spirits, or, at a burial, nuts are placed in the coffin. In some parts of France, milk is poured out on the grave, and both in Brittany and in Scotland the dead are supposed to partake of the funeral feast….In Celtic districts a cairn or a cross is placed over the spot where a violent or accidental death has occurred, the purpose being to appease the ghost, and a stone is often added to the cairn by all passers-by” (MacCulloch, 1991, p. 167).
Trick or treat, anyone?
MacCulloch, J.A. (1991). The religion of the ancient Celts. London: Constable.
Piggot, S. (1968). The druids. New York: Frederick A. Praeger.