Monday, March 24, 2008

Samhain: I call it Sam-Hain, you may call it Sow-end

Another random rant. My spirituality has a lot to do with the Wiccan-pagan-occultism nexus of beliefs, and I am interested and concerned with the actual history of them instead of the fantastic history attributed to them. Case in point is Samhain, which is the Halloween festival and the traditional start of the new Wiccan year. People have called out those who pronounce it Sam-Hain instead of Sow-end as being just kind of groupies who don't know much, which indicates in a way some of what's wrong with attitudes inside of certain Wiccan circles.

The fact is that Gerald Brosseau Gardener, who wrote the rituals and started Wicca, liked to look up obscure Anglo-Saxon words and incorporate them into his new religion to give it a sense of ancientness, and Samhain is one of those words. Since most people don't speak Anglo-Saxon or Old English Samhain looks like it's pronounced Sam-Hane, and the derivation of Sow-End from it makes much less intuitive sense than the translation of Gaelic pronunciation into Irish spelling conventions, which is relatively mystifying. But how can people be pronouncing it wrong if in fact it was made up in the late '40s? That's the thing I don't understand, how people can make such a big deal about things that are demonstratively made up fairly recently as if you're dishonoring an age old tradition that goes back into the mists of time..........

And with regards to the word Wicca itself, Gardener intended it to be pronounced "Witcha", and claimed to have derived it from a spelling of Witch Craft as Wicca-craeft.

Read "The Triumph of the Moon" by Ronald Hutton, published by Oxford University Press, a real academic study of the origins of Wicca and modern paganism that's also sensitive to the people involved as well, if you want to see an in depth analysis of all of this.


Aremis Asling said...

Samhain is 'an age old tradition that goes back into the mists of time.' Wiccans weren't practicing it before the 1940's (and more realistically the 50's), but it has been celebrated in the Celtic world for millenia and is still today in some places, though thoroughly altered. The modern practice may be new, but the word (Gaelic, not Anglo-saxon), is very old and is likely rooted in proto-Gaelic if not Gaulish. I'll agree that people do make a big stink over a little thing, but your facts are way off.

Niall said...

It's an Irish word for the Month of October?! Where do you get your research from?! It's also pronounced "sow'ain", as in a female cow "sow" and "ain" or "a-in".

Aremis Asling said...

No one said it was the Irish name for the month of October. Are you reading the same article/comments I am? It is, however, the Irish Gaelic name for November, which is quickly and easily proven by looking at any website, textbook, or dictionary on Gaelic. It takes mere minutes to find a wealth of information on the topic, proving pretty quickly its connection to celtic history, pagan and otherwise. It is also evident that the way it is practiced in modern Wicca is quite different from the practice in the ancient Celtic world.

I agree that it should be sow'ain, but I also agree that people should be a touch more forgiving of those who get it wrong as many, like myself, got their early learning from books and the internet, which may not necessarily offer a pronunciation guide. It is okay to correct them, but I think many take a witchier-than-thou approach to the whole thing which is equally unjustified.

John Madziarczyk said...

Ok, you're right about Samhain being the month of November in Irish, but I question whether or not people in Ireland have been celebrating it as a semi-pagan holiday, which is what I think you're getting at, for millennia.

Besides lighting jack o'lanterns and doing stuff to placate the fairies there doesn't seem to be any difference between Irish and English Halloween traditions, except stuff like foods eaten.

I'd really, really, question the antiquity of these things, especially the notion that they're descended from Celtic fire festivals because there are big bonfires. You're talking about nearly two thousand years in the past in the case of both Ireland and England, both of which were converted to Christianity in the early centuries AD.

I'm very uncertain about the day of the dead being a survival from before Christianity---it seems to me that the day of the dead was created by Christianity and not the other way around. All Saints Day is about celebrating Saints that have died and passed on and so is a natural day celebrating the dead. There are traditions honoring the dead on these nights from Mexico through down to Brazil and up to Scandinavia.

Again, look at "Triumph of the Moon". Hutton documents in very deep detail the manufacture of the idea that popular folk customs are unaltered survivals from antiquity. And he should know, since he wrote an entire academic study of English folk festivals.

But read it yourself, don't just take my word for it.

Aremis Asling said...

I have read it. I enjoyed it so much I bought my own copy and re-read it regularly. I think it's the sort of honest historical commentary modern paganism needs more of.

I was not getting at the fact that the celebration was a pseudo-pagan holdover. There may be threads of it in there or it may be entirely a modern cultural invention. I strongly suspect the modern practice is at best .1% genuine Celtic if that. My only purpose in using the language that I did was to connect it more solidly with the original article's format. It allows a reader to better grasp which part of the post I'm referencing.

Regardless, the term itself has been in use in reference to a holiday at that time of year for millenia, regardless of the pagan character of the practice itself. The point is that it is a living word that has been in continuous use for ages and the pronunciation should be respected to the best of the knowledge of the practitioner.

I'm not suggesting every pagan needs to know flawless pronunciation of all of the borrowed words used in the faith, but when informed by someone who is aware of the proper pronunciation I think it would be best to take that into account.

Aremis Asling said...

You are welcome to disagree with my standpoint. It's a fundamental debate in linguistics whether a language is fully dynamic or is static enough to have a defined 'proper' way of speaking it.

Beyond that it could be argued that the word is used in largely English-speaking countries and so should be pronounced as an English speaker would pronounce it.

It is my contention that it is a new enough borrowed word that it is fundamentally a Gaelic word and not an English one. I also feel that Gaelge is static enough to possess a proper pronunciation (though admittedly Gaelge has very strong and varied dialects) especially for a word that has demonstrated little change from Old Gaelic.

Part of the joy of an experiential faith such as Wicca over revealed faiths, such as christianity, is that neither of us have any obligation to adopt eachother's stances. That's why I agreed fundamentally with the idea that purists are making a mountain out of a mole hill. I posted more to flesh out the etymology of the word and to express an alternate opinion than to say out and out that you are wrong.