Samhain: The Fearsome Things 1.1

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While the early Celtic Christians invented Old Jack, the British Isles had other monsters to fear tracing back to their Pagan days. Yet others reflected the evolving political history of the Isles. Early on, people carried lanterns on Samhain night and went out in groups lest they run into any of a host of wicked characters. They might run afoul of a Pucah (or Pookah) a shapeshifting faery prone to both seduction and outright kidnapping. This was far from the only lurking shadow.

The Lady Gwyn (or Wen) was a woman who appeared dressed in white, sometimes headless and evil, sometimes playing the role of a benign lost soul. Similar to many spirits associated with Allhallows, she chased travellers she caught wandering in the night. A popular folk song describes this lady:

A tail-less Black Sow and a White Lady without a head
May the tail-less black sow snatch the hindmost.
A tail-less black sow on winter’s eve,
Thieves coming along knitting stockings. (Howard)

This seemingly nonsensical verse may combine forgotten goddess images with water spirit images. Different folktales about white ladies and about the White Lady appear throughout the British Isles. In one story, a man, seeing her in distress, asks her if he can help, and she asks him to hold on to her hands until she tells him to stop and her troubles would leave her. A barking dog distracted the man so he let go her hands—she disappeared, crying that she was bound for yet another seven years. In a gentler legend, a farmer saw a woman in white scattering rose petals in a sheep’s meadow. When she left, he gathered the flowers. The next day, the flowers disappeared, but he found three gold coins in their place (Hope).

In addition to these tales of enchantment, more frightening/less benign White Lady stories appear in different locales throughout Great Britain. In many of these tales, her character is a tragic figure—victim of murder or suicide—or is a guardian of treasure. In other stories, she appears as a spirit that dances in memoriam on the site of mass deaths, and in yet others she is herself a banshee and a death omen. While often the stories speak of a white lady, in Wales the stories become specific: the Lady Wyn is a specific Lady in White associated with Samhain. A white lady, on the other hand, can refer to a specific class of spirits mainly notable for appearing wearing white, usually in traditional funeral shrouds.

Scholar J. C. Beck posits that White Lady/Lady Wyn lore is an example of the entity’s gradual downgrade as Paganism waned and Christianity rose in Great Britain. The Lady Wyn may have begun as a goddess, then downgraded to a water/well spirit, and at last downgraded to a ghost story. A black sow, often associated with Lady Wyn, at one time symbolized the goddess Cerridwen in her
crone aspect. This suggests that the Lady Wyn is actually the goddess Cerridwen, appearing to the inhabitants of the land in a new way (Cuhulain). As Christianity demonized Paganism in Europe, stories about her began to represent her as more wholly evil.