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Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Shadow of Samhain: Dark Reign of the Fomorians

October is finally upon us, and I, for one couldn't be happier. But you'd expect that of me, wouldn't you--being the curator of The Vault of Horror, and all. In recognition of the month that brings us Halloween, the horror highlight of the calendar, I'm bringing you a special series that will explore the very heart of the holiday by taking a look at its distant history. You won't find anything here about Ben Cooper costumes or the Great Pumpkin, as awesome as those things may be. Rather, The Shadow of Samhain will be all about the pre-modern folklore, superstitions and traditions that have helped shape All Hallows Eve into what it is today.

Look for a series of special guest posts over the course of the next four weeks--but for now, I'll be starting things off myself with a look at an ancient legend that has long fascinated me...

From the oceans off Northern Africa they came--a twisted and evil race of sea-faring demons whose origins are lost to the mists of time. In Celtic lore, they were believed to have been the first settlers of the Emerald Isle of Ireland, and they ruled it once with cruel fists of iron. They were the Fomoire, or Fomorians; and their story is tied in directly with the Celtic festival of Samhain, precursor to Halloween. In fact, it can be argued that the linking of Halloween with all things frightening may actually find its origin in this terrible and horrifying race of monsters.

A breed of malformed and misshapen atrocities whose existence was believed to have far predated that of man himself, the Fomorians were a bizarre mix of human, animal and otherwise unnatural elements. They were varied in appearance. Some might possess the head of a horse and the body of a man, for example; others might appear to be giant fish with legs to walk on land with; some boasted a multitude limbs or eyes, while others might have only one of each; and still others might actually appear beautiful to the human eye, although their souls were just as black as those of their uglier brethren.

They were a warlike species--an inspiration, in some respects, for the race of orcs found in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien--and legend had it that any people attempting to settle in Ireland were forced to contend with them and their bloodthirsty ways. The first to try were a group called the Partholons, who met their ghastly end when the Fomorians unleashed a deadly plague upon them. Next were the Nemeds, a tribe which found itself immediately enslaved by the monstrous masters of Ireland.

The connection of the Fomorians to Samhain begins here, as it was believed that each year on this day, October 31, the Fomorians demanded their annual tribute from the Nemedian people living amongst them. This tribute would typically include not only cattle but also small children, sacrificed to keep the Fomorian demons at bay. Thus, the practice of animal and human sacrifice many believe was once part of Celtic Samhain ritual was in part a commemoration of the days when the Fomorians came around to collect their yearly payment and satisfy their bottomless bloodlust.

The age of the Fomorians in Ireland was an evil time looked back on with dread. It lasted many generations, but at last approached its end with the arrival on the island of another race of beings, not quite as ancient as the Fomorians, but still older than humanity. They were the Tuatha Dé Dannan, a beautiful clan of god-like beings who wielded powerful magic, and whose coming was reportedly heralded by a mysterious fog that blanketed Ireland for days. Much as the Fomorians seem to have played a part in Tolkien's imaginings, so too did the Tuatha, resembling nothing so much as the majestic Elvish race described in the author's writings.

The Tuatha managed to co-exist with the Fomorians for a time, dividing the land amongst them, and even intermarrying with the ghastly creatures on occasion in order to further diplomatic relations between the two groups. Nevertheless, all this was a ploy, as the Tuatha awaited the opportunity to rid the land of the tyranny of their demonic neighbors.

This opportunity came in the form of one Lugh of the Long Hand, grandson of the hideous cyclops Fomorian chieftain, Balor of the Strong Blows. The result of a union between a comely Fomorian and a Tuatha, Lugh was beautiful in appearance, and discarded upon birth by Balor, who believed the child a threat (a common trope in ancient folklore). Taken in by the Tuatha, Lugh grew to become their savior.

The routing of the Fomorians from Ireland came on the day when Balor's detachment of tribute gatherers appeared at the castle of the Tuatha, demanding their unspeakable payments of cattle and children. Lugh butchered the Fomorians where they stood, leaving only a handful to skulk back to Balor's tower stronghold, located on a small island off the northwest coast, to tell the tale. Enraged, Balor mustered his Fomorian armies to make war against the mighty legions of the Tuatha, led by his own grandson.

That would be the final Samhain on which the Fomorians would ever lay claim to any Irish land. On the plain at Mag Tured, in the Connacht region of Ireland, the Fomorians and the Tuatha De Dannan waged a fierce, epic battle. The demons took an early advantage, slaying many of the proud Tuatha, until Lugh slaughtered his grandfather in one-on-one combat. Leaderless, the Fomorians fled, and were completely wiped out by the Tuatha, save for a mere four of them, forced to take refuge in Balor's tower.

Ireland had at last been freed from the yoke of these unspeakable creatures, and on the very feast day of Samhain on which they had wreaked their worst yearly terrors upon the land. The remaining four would stay far off the coast in Balor's stronghold--bizarre, ancient curiosities to be avoided by any sailing those waters; a lurking remnant of the fearsome hordes that had once ruled Ireland without mercy. The Tuatha would come to rule from then on, and after they eventually vanished into obscurity and legend, man would at last come to live on the land once fought for by gods and demons.

Among the Celts, and particularly the Gaels who would come to dominate Ireland in the Iron Age, the harvest festival of Samhain was associated always with the Fomorians. Whatever its origin in reality, whether inspired by some tyrannical human tribe, or fabricated completely out of thin air, the legend of the Fomorians loomed large over Gaelic culture. The horrifying tribute collected each year; the bloody battle of Mag Tured--Samhain was an annual reminder of these things. Perhaps then, despite the many positive aspects of the festival, this was why there was also such an element of deep-seated terror attached to it. A "race memory", if you will, of events that existed only in the realm of folklore. Or did they?

Photo Credits
The Fomors by John Duncan, 1912
The Fomorii by Andrew L. Paciorek
Daghda by A. Fantalov, 1998
Lugh by Mickie Mueller
Combat of Balor and Lugh Lamfada by Miranda Gray, 1995
Fomorian by Rowena Morrill


Emily Louise Church said...

Wow, that was one of the most interesting blogs I've read in AGES.

B-Sol said...

Thank you, Emily! Glad you enjoyed it. I've been fascinated by the legend of the Fomorians since I first read about them in Time-Life's Enchanted World book series as a kid.
This is just the beginning! Look for more Shadow of Samhain posts over the course of the month...

carol said...

i've always been interested in the fomorians myself. balor and the wire he rigged to open and close his eye just stays with me.

B-Sol said...

Yes! Attached to an ivory ring. Such a bizarre element of the story.

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