Originally published October 2008.
Samhain: Escorts to the Afterlife
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:
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 safe 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’Briens, 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.
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 Other worlds 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.