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Samhain: Escorts to the Afterlife

The Celtic History Newsletter

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With Halloween or Samhain coming I thought I would touch on something
spooky this month. In the old Disney movie “Darby O’Gill and the
Little People” there is a scary scene (at least it was scary when I
first saw it as a child) when the Banshee and and the Death Carriage
driven by a headless coachman comes to carry Darby away to the
afterlife. A clip of the scene can be seen on Youtube
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRX9svF0ACE

It is a common theme in many cultures that there is a spirit, angel or
deity that is responsible for escorting the souls of the newly
deceased to the afterlife. The official term for this type of
character is a “psychopomp” which comes from the Greek, meaning
‘guider of souls” Usually their role is not to judge the dead, but
merely to provide them with save passage to the next world.

There are several versions of this concept that have Celtic connections.

The Banshee might be considered related, but rather than an escort she
is usually just a warning of death coming to a household.
Traditionally when someone in an Irish village died a woman known as a
“keener” would sing a lament at the funeral. Legend has it that for
five families (The O’Gradys, O’Neills, O’Briends, O’Connors and the
Kavanaghs) the lament would be sung by a fairy woman. Since the fair
folk had the second sight, she might sing the lament upon the death of
a family member even if they were far from home, and the lament became
the first warning of a death in the family. It is easy to see how this
tradition evolved into the legend of a spirit who might appear even
before the death of a family member.

The Ankou is said to be a tall figure wearing a wide-brimmed hat and
long coat who collects the souls of the dead in a rickety cart. In
some stories the cart is pulled by one old thin horse and one that is
young and strong, In others it is pulled by four black horses. Some
tales say he has two skeletal companions who follow the cart and toss
the dead into it. He is said to be either the first child of Adam and
Eve, or the first dead person of the year and in charged with
collecting the others before he can go to the afterlife himself.

Epona was one of the only Celtic figures who was adopted into Roman
pantheon. She was a protector of horses, donkeys and mules as well as
a goddess of fertility. Some scholars have suggested the she and her
horses may also have been leaders of the soul in the ride to the
afterlife.

Gwyn ap Nudd appeared in Welsh mythology was king of the Tylwyth Teg
or the “fair folk.” In later traditions was identified as the ruler of
the Underworld and escorted the souls of the dead there with a pack of
supernatural hounds as part of the Wild Hunt.
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_Hunt )

Manannan mac Lir is a Celtic god of the sea and one of the Tuatha De
Danann. He is also seen as the guardian of the Blessed Isles that lie
beyond the sea and are gateways to the Otherworlds where the soul
journeys to after death. Manannan is the guardian of these gateways
between the worlds who transports the souls of the dead through the
veils between worlds.

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The Celtic Croft
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[Originally Published Oct 03, 2008]

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