Sacrificial Magic and the Twofold Division of the Irish Ritual Year

Sacrificial Magic and the Twofold Division of the Irish Ritual Year

By Billy Mag Fhloinn

The Ritual Year, Vol.10: Magic in Rituals and Rituals in Magic (2015)

Samhain Candle - photo by Alison Leigh Lilly / Flickr
Samhain Candle – photo by Alison Leigh Lilly / Flickr

Abstract: The pre-Christian Irish ritual year was, in ancient times, divided into two major seasons, and the juncture points of these divisions, called Samhain and Bealtaine, were considered to be especially potent times for enacting protective magic. The historical development of St. Martin’s Day in Ireland, and its relationship with the more ancient festival of Samhain is examined, revealing circumstances that saw much of the ritual nature of Samhain being adopted within a Christian context in the medieval period. Consideration is also given to the festival of Bealtaine, at the other end of the year, revealing commonalities in terms of ritual, magic and prophylaxis.

Introduction: The Christian festival of All Hallows falls on November 1, and perhaps more significantly, All Hallows’ Eve, or Hallowe’en, occurs on the night of October 31. This was traditionally a night of celebration, merriment and mischief in Ireland in recent centuries, and continues to be observed throughout the country as a vibrant expression of Irish calendar custom. Hallowe’en is known in the Irish language as Oíche Shamhna, or November Night, falling as it does on the commencement of November, and the beginning of winter. In this regard, it is related to the more ancient Irish festival of Samhain, a feast-day that was observed in Ireland before the advent of Christianity. This was a time for assembly, and great fairs were held at this time, down to the early Medieval period. It was also a time when cattle were brought in from summer pasture, and rent or tribute was paid to lords in the form of slaughtered animals. Martinmas, or St. Martin’s Day, falling on November 11, was also a widely-observed feast in Ireland, which involved the slaughtering of animals, and the consumption of their meat, but its roots in Ireland are unlikely to be as early as those of Samhain.

medieval mag 39The killing of animals at Martinmas was most often conducted in a ritualistic manner, with offerings of the blood made in honour of St. Martin of Tours, who was often viewed in Irish tradition as a protector of animals and people. The relationship between the two feasts will be examined, to see if there is a plausible link between the two feasts, and if the Feast of St. Martin has inherited its ritual importance from the pre-Christian feast of Samhain. Great caution must be exercised when pursuing such an argument, however, as the broad theories of ‘pagan survivals’ so espoused by Frazerian anthropology have been critically deconstructed as a valid model for analyzing folk tradition, and interpreting modern customs as vestiges of ancient religion can prove to be an academically precarious exercise.

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