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Amfómhair

Amfómhair (/ˌɑːm ˈfəʊ və(r)/) was an ancient religious festival traditionally held throughout the Kiltic world midway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. On the first day of Elfmonat each year, the Kiltoi marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of the "dark half" (leath dorcha) of the year. The celebrations customarily began on the evening of 31 Deichmonat, since the ancient Kiltoi reckoned their day from sunset to sunset.

Amfómhair has been an important day for Kiltic people since the earliest times. In Kiltic literature dating from as early as the third century, it is mentioned frequently as a time when important events took place or began. It was one of the four major festivals of the year among the ancient Kiltoi. Many of its rituals and traditions survive even in modern times.

It was a time when cattle were brought in from their summer pastures, when crops were gathered and livestock slaughtered for the winter. It was a time of ritual bonfires and feasting, of mumming and guising, of divination and prophesy. It was seen by all as a liminal time, when the veil between the physical world and the spirit world was at its thinnest, allowing for easier passage between the two.

Etymology

In modern Kiltic, the name of the holiday is Amfómhair, which is also the Kitic name for Elfmonat, shortened from the earlier mhí n'afómhar ("month of Amfómhair"). The evening of 31 Deichmonat is known as Oíche n'Amfómhair ("Amfómhair Night"), while 1 Elfmonat is called Lá n'Amfómhaira ("Amfómhair Day"). All are derived from fómhar, the Kiltic word for "harvest," from Old Kiltic fogamur.

Origins

The festival of Amfómhair marked the beginning of winter among the ancient Kiltoi. It was one of the four great festivals, along with Amuainithe, Amféaraigh and Ambainte, representing the four spokes in the wheel of time. Because it coincides with the seasonal return of livestock from summer to winter pastures, social anthropologist and folklorist Sir Lochlann Forbes-Kinnaird has suggested that the customs and traditions surrounding Amfómhair arose at a time when the Kiltoi led a pastoral existence, dependent upon their herds, more than 3,000 years ago.

Customs

Several surviving sources describe the early customs of Amfómhair in detail. Invariably a general peace was declared throughout the country. There were large assemblies of local leaders and their extended families, which included feasting, drinking of ale, wine and spirits, and contests of strength and skill. Livestock were counted and apportioned, taxes were collected and debts were settled.

The Draoithe lit sacred bonfires with elaborate ritual, and cast stones and bones into them for the purpose of divination. All other fires in the surrounding countryside were extinguished, to be re-lit with sacred flame from the Amfómhair bonfire. The Draoithe conducted animal sacrifices, reading the entrails to foresee the future. In earliest times human slaves were offered to the Kiltic gods, and their bodies burned on the sacrificial fire.

Every seventh year there was a Tionól Mór ("Great Assembly") which lasted seven days - Amfómhair itself, as well as the three days before and after. The Nobles and Ollamha convened to renew the old laws, and lay down new ones. Clan, sept and personal disputes were adjudicated and genealogies were confirmed.

Bonfires

Ritual bonfires were an essential component of Amfómhair, and could be seen blazing on hilltops across the land throughout the night of Oíche n'Amfómhair and into Lá n'Amfómhaira. Their smoke and ashes were considered to have healing and protective powers. Revelers would strive to get as close to the fire as possible, to allow the smoke to envelope them. At the conclusion of the celebrations, bonfire ashes were collected and brought home, to be spread around the outside of families' cottages.

Jack Lanterns

People would also bring home sacred flame from the Amfómhair bonfire, in the form of embers or candleflame, to re-light their hearthfires. Often these embers and tapers were carried inside turnips or gourds hollowed-out and carved to act as lanterns, frequently displaying grotesque faces. These "jack lanterns" were then set upon windowsills to ward off the olc sióga (evil spirits).

Divination

Divination was an important part of the Amfómhair festival, and took place in a variety of ways. The most solemn form was conducted by the Draoithe, who divined the future by examining the entrails of animal sacrifices, as well as what remained of stones and longbones burned in the sacred fire. Among the common folk, apples and hazelnuts were commonly employed to foretell of marriage or death.

Spirits

Amfómhair was a time when the boundary between the physical and the spiritual was weakest and could be crossed with ease. Stories abound of the sióga entering the physical world and causing mischief. And to a lesser extent there are tales which describe people who were forever lost to the realm of the sióga. Others describe heroes who return from Tir na Sióga with magical powers, or debilitating infirmities.

Souls

Amfómhair was also a time when the dead returned from their cold graves to spend time with their families. A place would be set at every table, and a chair at every hearth, to welcome departed loved ones on Oíche n'Amfómhair in the hope they might bestow a blessing upon the home.

Guising as Sióga

As the sun set at the beginning of Oíche n'Amfómhair, young men of the locale would disguise themselves as protection against the sióga and go about the countryside soliciting food for the feasts and wood for the bonfires, and singing songs in exchange for the donations. It became common for anyone going abroad during Oíche n'Amfómhair to masquerade as one of the spirit folk.

Sanctist Influence

In 835, Archcoarb Gréagóir IV of Sancta Sedes ordained that there should be a Feast Day for the souls of all the departed Saints, known and unknown. Perhaps influenced by his native Kiltic traditions, he established 1 Elfmonat as the Feast Day of All Saints, which was called lá na Naomh in the Kiltic Realm, and coincided with the old pagan celebration of Amfómhair. As the ancient customs of Amfómhair had not been forgotten by the people, especially in the rural areas, it was not long before the two became merged in the public mind, and the night before the Feast Day became known as the Night of All Souls, or Night of the Dead (Oíche na Marbh).

Although the ancient pagan rituals were officially replaced by a celebration of the Sanctist Communion Feast to commemorate the Holy Men and Women of the Church, many of the old rural traditions survived in form, if not in substance. It became common, for example, for families to employ a candle lit from the hearthfire of the Feast to light their way home, which candle would be placed in a Jack Lantern as in the old times. Upon returning home, it became customary to walk with the Jack Lantern one circuit sunwise around the house before entering, in order to bring the blessings of the Saints to the home.

Modern Observance

Amfómhair, also called Oíchnamarbh ("Night of the Dead"), has been celebrated on the evening before the Feast of All Saints continuously in the Kiltic Realm since the Middle Age. It traditionally marks the beginning of a time known as Nahallaí or "Hallowtide," during which the memories of the recently deceased, as well as the long-departed are recalled and celebrated with a variety of local traditions surrounding the official lá na Naomh holiday.

To be continued...
PART OF A SERIES ON

The Ancient Kiltic Religion

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