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A SAMHAIN SACRIFICE: Martinmas, St. Martin and Blood Offering
Blood was spattered everywhere. Bright red droplets smeared the whitewashed wall, dripped from the feathered head and formed small puddles in the muddy street. A struggling bird jerked, convulsed and twisted in dying spasms that grew steadily weaker. The bright steel of the
bloodstained knife in the old woman's hand reflected the pale light of an amber harvest sun slanting over the neatly thatched byres and stables; slowly it passed into the sea and dropped into the other-world behind Inishmurray Island. A black tassel-fringed shawl encircled the wrinkled parchment of an ancient wind-weathered face as Kate watched the death struggles of the rooster. Sharp steady eyes looked out dispassionately from bony sockets.
A small short-trousered boy, milk can in hand, swung around the gable of the house. Turning, he recoiled and gaped open-mouthed, traumatised, his eyes widening in fright as they took in the bloody scene before him. He stared at the struggling, blood-flecked bird that hung, upside down, feet bound with string to a rusty iron spike driven in the flaking, white-washed wall. He was afraid. His mind tried to cope with this unexpected barbaric scene. Kate was a gentle neighbour, well known to everyone around. Had he discovered a dark side that lay hidden, a secret to all who knew her? He had heard the old people talking of hares that turned into witches. Was this Kate’s alter ego — a witch engaged in some satanic ritual?
A ghost-wind ruffled the iridescent feathers of the now defeated wings; the bird’s hoarse cries grew weaker and the blood dripped, slowly now, funnelling into an old jam jar underneath
‘Wh-what are you doing?’ he ventured.
The old woman started out of her reverie and turning, looked at me. Her bony frame shivered in cold November breezes that had sprung up in fitful zephyrs that skirmished around the house and byres. Her face softened; a hint of amusement lit her stern features:
‘Aah, bleeding for St. Martin , agradh,’ she said.
‘Bleeding for St. Martin ’, she repeated gently, her voice redolent of wisdom and ancient knowledge.
Was it the wind that whispered around the bushes and through the chinks of the old stone ditches on that November day, or was it the ghosts of our Celtic ancestors breathing their approval of the blood sacrifice, a sacrifice as old as God’s instruction to Abraham, ‘Take your son, your only child, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him as a burnt offering, on a mountain I will point out to you.’
Blood Sacrifice: The Tradition
I will never forget my bloody introduction on that November day to the old custom of bleeding for St. Martin , a custom that has now all but disappeared. Originally associated with the celebration of Samhain, the practice survived in most parts of Western Europe , including Ireland and Scotland , to the beginning of this century. Until recently it was an essential part of the old way of life and survival. Formerly one of the great feast days of the Church, it was as important as Christmas, and decreed so by Pope Martin 1 in the seventh century. It was usual at that time to kill some animal, from a bullock to a cock, depending on the wealth of the individual or the size of his family.
Kate, without being conscious of it, was carrying on a custom of human and animal sacrifice passed on to her through countless generations; customs whose origins recede into the dim distant past, a patrimony of the birth and development of civilisation itself. Re-incarnated Earth Mother she had stood there a thousand years before, and five thousand before that.
The practice in many places was to kill a fowl on ‘Ould Halloweve’ night, prior to St. Martin ’s feastday on the 11th of November. (The date for ‘Ould Halloweve’, or old Halloween, came about as a result of the removal of ten days from the calendar when the Gregorian calendar replaced the Julian in 1582.) However, the bleeding could be done before the feast but not after and it was strictly observed that bleeding must be done between Nov. 1st and the eve of the feast, or on the Vigil, as it was said, ‘Glacfaidh Mairtin roimhe ach ni glacfaidh se ina dhiadh’. (Martin will accept before his feast but not after it).
The bleeding was done by cutting the neck, or more usually by slitting the head of the bird along the comb and then hanging it to allow the blood to fall on the ground or to be gathered in a jar. Sometimes the blood was sprinkled on the four corners of the house by carrying the bird there before it was hung up. When the blood was not sprinkled in this manner it was daubed in the shape of a cross on the front and back doors while saying, ‘I shed this blood in honour of God and St. Martin to bring us safe from all illnesses and disease during the year.’ The rite is strangely reminiscent of the Old Testament instruction of God to the Israelites to take a lambs blood and ‘apply it to the two doorposts and lintel of every house’ so that he would know the houses of the Israelites and pass on while he ‘struck down the Egyptians’. The event is still celebrated by the Jews each year at the festival of Passover.
The flesh of the animal or bird was eaten by the family soon after the killing had taken place. In some areas it was believed that the person who ate the meat would be free from disease during the year. In Ballina, Co. Mayo a special market was held in former times called ‘ St. Martin ’s Market where various fowl, mainly geese, were sold for the feast.
In addition to the bleeding it was a tradition too that no wheel be turned on that day. This prohibition was firmly held in Ireland and Scotland in the belief that the saint was killed by a wheel. Dominick Harte of Inishmurray island, off the coast of Sligo, related in 1940 that no work was allowed on the island on Martinmas. Neither was it allowed to turn a wheel of any kind because, Dominick explained, ‘Caitheadh Mairtin isteach I sruth miulinn agus maraiodh e ag an roth agus da bhri sin ni ceart roth d-aon tsaghar a casadh an la sin,’ (Martin was thrown into a mill stream and he was killed by the wheel and because of that it was not right to turn any kind of wheel on that day.)
The prohibition had a strange effect on the operation of the Pollexfen Mills at Ballisodare. It is said that when the flour mills first started, the workmen, wishing to honour the prohibition, declined to work the mill on 11th Nov. The owners, Pollexfens, who were Protestants and didn’t adhere to this tradition insisted that the mills should work as usual. That night the mill burned to the ground. The owners had learned their lesson: from that time forward November 11 was observed as a holiday.
The custom of not turning wheels has now fallen into disuse but it is not so long ago when this tradition was strictly observed to the extent that no wheel, whether mill wheel, cart wheel, spinning wheel or any other was allowed to turn on that day,.
The origins of the practice of shedding blood for St. Martin on ‘Ould Halloweve’ is disputed but the weight of evidence seems to indicate that it is pre-Christian and was originally associated with the celebration of Samhain, the Celtic New Year. It was common practice for the early church to substitute a saint’s festival for an earlier pagan one.
In the custom of Bleeding for St. Martin do we see the last vestiges of an ancient rite of sacrifice that can be traced back through the centuries to Biblical times? A custom that has survived and flourished in many parts of Ireland and further afield, despite the ‘civilising’ influence of Christianity, to this very day.
The saint in question is the great 4th century saint, St. Martin of Tours, a convert to Christianity and the son of an officer in the Roman army. A pioneer of Western monasticism, he came to Ireland with the advent of Christianity and, it is said, conferred the monks tonsure on St. Patrick. This was the event that inspired Patrick to Christianise this old Celtic festival as from that time onwards he initiated the custom of presenting a pig for sacrifice to every monk and nun on the eve of Martin’s feast. The saint, whose grave was discovered at Tours by Colmcille, is said to have been Patrick’s maternal uncle.
In today's high powered existence the custom of bleeding for St. Martin seems quaint, even bizarre. However, exploring these old rituals traces a path for us from an unbelieving age back through the centuries to an understanding of forebears whose survival was not allied to machines, but reverence for nature and its eternal mysteries. Why should we be shocked at a blood sacrifice? Was it not God's Son, after all, who shed his blood to redeem the world?
All Saints, All Souls, St. Martin ’s Day, once fervently observed feasts, pass with little notice now. The miracles of today’s disbelieving society are all scientific. Not saints, but super-heroes and industrial giants, answer prayers.
Have the old gods lost their power — or could it be that they have turned away from a world too self-assured for faith?
Adapted from ‘Echoes of a Savage Land’ © Joe Mc Gowan
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