Halloween is a time to get spooky and gorge on candy, but for many Wiccans and Pagans it is a sacred time of celebration. These celebrations focus on the ancient feast of Samhain (pronounced “saa-wan” and sometimes spelled “Samain”) from which many of today’s Halloween traditions originate. In the Irish tradition, the mythology around the festival is often associated with mystical and fearsome women—perhaps none more so than Mongfind, a scheming queen and sorceress.
“Samhain is one of my favorite festivals,” Reverend Selena Fox tells Broadly. Fox is a Pagan priestess who runs a Nature religion church and reserve. “It is the spiritual new year for us and for many practitioners. It is a time for reflecting on the past and envisioning the future, for remembering, honoring, and connecting with the beloved dead and our ancestors, a time that the veil between the realm of the living and the dead is thin.”
Although celebrated today, Samhain remains steeped in the lore of the Celtic peoples of Europe. The festival marked a liminal time between the seasons but also between the physical and the spiritual, a time when doors into the Otherworld were feared to have opened to supernatural figures. There were few more feared than Mongfind herself, notable for her striking hair (her name means “bright or white mane” in older forms of Irish). Commonly portrayed as the wife and mother of a king and a formidable enemy, she is a force to be reckoned with—a woman unafraid to wield her considerable power to get what she wants.
The Celtic scholar Sharon Paice MacLeod has written extensively on Irish folklore. She tells me that in the tale The Death of Crimthann, which dates from around the eleventh century, Mongfind is depicted as “an Otherworldly figure who was said to have died at Samhain.” Cold-hearted and power-hungry, Mongfind plans to kill her brother Crimthann who is next in line to become king. She wants her own son, Brian, to sit on the throne and so hatches a murderous plan to get rid of Crimthann.
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Things go horribly wrong. At a feast, Crimthann grows suspicious of his sister and not without good reason—Mongfind has laced his drink with poison. Her plan is undone when Crimthann invites her to try the deadly drink, which Mongfind reluctantly does, thereby revealing her duplicity. She dies on the eve of the feast of Samhain. The story goes that after Mongfind’s death, Samhain becomes known as “The Festival of Mongfind.” Ordinary people, particularly women, regarded her as a powerful witch and so offered up prayers to her during the festivities.
Trying to murder her brother is not the only time Mongfind is portrayed as using her influence to violent effect to determine who will be king. In another story, Mongfind is a queen married to the High King, Eochaid Mugmedón. This brings her into conflict with her Eochaid’s son from his first marriage, a young man known as Niall of the Nine Hostages. Although Niall has already been selected as the next king, Mongfind petitions her husband to name another son as next-in-line for the throne. Instead, Eochaid takes advice from a druid to test his children’s abilities by having them escape from a burning forge, a task Niall excels at—much to Mongfind’s chagrin.
In folklore, Mongfind takes various forms from a goddess to a witch-queen, even a banshee. The reason for this, Paice MacLeod explains, is that Mongfind and mythical women like her symbolize different aspects of the feminine by representing what is known as the Goddess of Sovereignty.
“In a number of Celtic cultural contexts, we encounter a belief that there existed a powerful goddess figure who often selected and tested the worthiness of the next king,” Paice MacLeod says. “Without her blessings, the king’s reign would not be successful, and the people and the land would not prosper. In some tales, the hero and would-be-ruler is made to undertake a challenge of some kind. Sometimes he is tested to see if he is a worthy candidate. In other tales, it appears that the test is to see if he recognizes in whose presence he stands.”
Sexuality also played a role. “Sometimes the goddess appears as an old woman and tells the candidate that he must sleep with her,” Paice MacLeod explains. “If he rejects her, then he is not chosen. But if he undertakes the challenge, she may then transform into a beautiful woman and identify herself to him as the sovereignty of the land. This sexual aspect of the Sovereignty Goddess was in later times misunderstood as wantonness. It would originally have been understood that the goddess chooses her own consorts.”
When I ask Celticist Dr Elizabeth Boyle about the legend of Mongfind, she points out that such stories were recorded in medieval Irish literature but are depicted as taking place many centuries beforehand. Dr Boyle cautions that this kind of literature is often stereotyped as featuring an abundance of “strong female characters,” but the reality is more complex.
“The picture is a lot more interesting if people understand how brilliant a lot of medieval Irish literature is as literature,” she explains. “The characters are really complex and psychologically subtle. Some women display profound intelligence—Emer, the wife of Cú Chulainn, and Ailbe, who marries Finn mac Cumaill, are two examples—but they are more complex than simply embodying a single virtue. Both male and female characters in medieval Irish literature can be portrayed as strong or weak, wise or foolish, faithful or disloyal, open-minded or stubborn, funny or grouchy. That's precisely what makes it good literature: the characters aren't monolithic ciphers who embody a single quality. “
The richness of the stories Dr Boyle describes is perhaps part of why Samhain and Halloween remain popular today. “Samhain draws on ancient customs, lore, and traditions, as does Halloween,” says Fox. For her and other Pagans, celebrating Samhain remains a powerful way of connecting the present to the past and to worlds and experiences beyond our own: “Samhain and Mongfind have mythic dimensions, but Samhain observances are continuing into the present day in a variety of ways. It is a sacred time now being observed by people of a variety of spiritual paths the world over.”