What is Martinmas?
Change is inevitable. A time of change to the Scottish, is a chance for speculation and divination, worry, hope and sacrifice. This mind set is echoed in the changing of the seasons throughout the year but is especially felt at the great “hinges”, Summer and winter. The change from one season to another is marked by a number of special days. Martinmas is a poor cousin of other the other high and holy days. A mostly forgotten day in the year before the start of Yule and after Samhuinn’s end. However, I think Martinmas holds some of the true character of Samhuinn not so well-remembered. Martinmas should be significant to folk practitioners for the associations and traditions accompanying it.
Martinmas is a saint’s day. A day important enough to hold the ending suffix -mas (Hallowmas, Christmas, Candlemas etc). Of old Martinmas was a bloodletting day. Today Martinmas focuses on the celebration of the western Saint Martin of Tours and falls on the 11th of November. Interestingly the 11th of November is also armistice day (a date celebrating another pacifist solider saint). Remembrance Sunday follows this, a day dedicated to celebrating peace, by remembering war and the fallen dead on the 11th hour of the 11th month on the 11th day. Incidentally, I was told recently it’s also the birthday of Paracelsus. That famous occultist, botanist, astrologer and magician in 1493. The celebrations of Martinmas share some characteristics, (not surprisingly), with Halloween, All-Souls and All-Saints day which brought with it a focus on dead things with its associated slaughter of animals. A poem sums this up nicely, the association with things otherworldly:
It fell about the Martinmass,
When Nights are lang and mirk
The Carlins wife three sons came hame,
and their hats were of the birch’ (From the wife of Ushers well, popular ballad)
If your hat is “of the birch” it means you have died. (I forget where i read this titbit but will update if i find the reference again). Bonfire night held on the 5th of November also has associations with Martinmas. Fires and lantern parades are still common on Martinmas, an echo of these older celebrations, across Germany.
The 11th of November is the old date for Samhuinn before the calendars were changed. Martinmas is primarily a winter festival where the feasting on freshly slaughtered animals took place with its associated revelry (read debauchery). This day perhaps holds some of the original activities of an older less reimagined Samhuinn. Perhaps its evocative of a more Anglo-Saxon or Norse festival. Evidence for this might be gained in the Anglo-Saxon name for November, Blōtmonath,“the month of blood sacrifices”.
Some folks have also associated this night with Nicneven. It’s clear this night has a different providence to one associated this deified ancestor. I am yet to trace the origin of this association. I can find no trace of it in folk-lore though I can see folk might associate her with the start of the winter revels.
The dayes are shortest now, the tedious night
blinds all the earth, whilst I for you delight
light out of darknes bringe, and offer more
than all the pleasant Months haue done before
The stall fedd Ox, that on his back doth beare
spoyles of the fruitfull Seasons of the yeare
I sacrificze, and that from entrayls take
shall restore day, and keepe the world awake!
The name “Martinmas” has been preserved to modern times in the phrase a “Martinmas summer”. The suspension of winter proper for a few days credited to the saint at this liminal time of year. It was known as a time for feasting time and the ‘martinmas foy’. A supper held in honour of the departing ploughman. It’s preserved in the Martinmas fairs where folks left the employment of their old lairds and moved onto the winter work and its status as a ‘legal’ quarter day. This change in season and work pattern would mark the start of Mumming and carolling for those that couldn’t find employment and the start of the “court revel season”.
Who is Saint Martin?
He was a hermit, a bishop and a soldier. He was born to a pagan family. He responded to the call of the gospel at the age of ten. At 15, he started in the Roman cavalry Corp. He helped clothe a beggar (who turned out to be Jesus) and apparently became the first conscientious objector. He was fond of getting Druids to renounce their pagan faith. The Hagiographer Sulpicius Severus, knew Martin personally and wrote about his life. Many miracles and the casting out of demons, one from a bull, were attributed to Martin during his lifetime. According to one account, Martin, while trying to persuade Druids to follow Jesus Christ and renounce their pagan beliefs, was dared to stand in the path of a sacred tree that was being felled. Martin agreed and was missed by the falling pine, although standing right in its path. This was widely seen as miraculous and a symbol that the message he proclaimed about Jesus Christ was true. Many were converted to the Christian faith (apparently).
Saint Martin is the patron of the poor, soldiers, conscientious objectors, tailors, and wine makers. He has also been associated with horses. Many locations across Europe have also been placed under his patronage. His feast is on November 11. He commonly appears on horseback and is shown cutting his cloak in half with a sword. There are many holy wells dedicated to him in Ireland and Scotland.
Shakespeare, no less, provides us the evidence of the Martinmas feast. Sir John Falstaff, is referred to as ‘the martlemas’ in Act 2 scene 2 of Henry Iv, part 2. The ‘Martlemas’ is one of the cattle, an ox or a bull, sacrificed at the winter threshold of 11th of November. St martin lends his name to the animal and to the feast upon its flesh. Killing animals was typical of this feast. Presents given of sausages and black puddings were known as ‘pig cheer’ at this time and folks would kill an ox or cow, more so in England than Ireland and Scotland. It is where we get the phrase in Scotland “His martinmas will come to him as it comes to every hog“. This slaughter would bring about its associated hospitality and drunkness (St Martin being the patron saint of winemakers). An example of a bull running can be found in the records. Richard Butcher describes it in some length in his The survey of Antiquitie of the Towne of Stamford, written in 1646. Richard describes how the town was locked down and the butchers of the town give the wildest bull they could find. The bull is released at the ringing of a bell and the people of the village chase after it with wooden clubs (no iron allowed) until everyone in the village is running after the bull trying to kill it. Burton describes the scene “spattering dirt in each other’s faces one would think them to be so many furies started out of hell”. It was with this carnevalesque blood sport that led to the sharing of resources in the form of the bull and the feasting begun. It’s odd to me that this is all carried out under the mantel of a Saint who guards the winter threshold.
Blood, sacrifice and slaughter
The Eve of the Saint day of Martin of Tours was widely celebrated in Scotland and Ireland as well as the day following. An interesting parallel to Celtic quarter day celebration structure. As we have seen it involved practices such as killing and sacrificing a bull. In Ireland and Scotland, a domestic fowl, or other farmyard animal (sometimes a goose) were sacrificed for a prophylactic and protective saining with its blood. Mostly folks describe it as a way to keep ‘evil spirits’ read the restless dead or the sidhe away from homes. The liminal spaces of barns and houses such as the doorways and the lintels and at times the foreheads of families and children were daubed with Saint Martin’s Eve blood. Traditionally the blood was drawn and allowed to pool on the floor or doorstep. On different occasions blood was applied to the four corners of the house or farm, daubed on the back of the door in the shape of a cross. In some times a prayer might be said:
‘I am killing this in honour of St. Martin, and that he might keep trouble away from the house for the year’.
If you didn’t have any animal to kill for this purpose blood would be drawn from a finger to fulfil the obligation to St. Martin. Folklore state that if blood is not drawn on this eve it will be your own. Blood shed on this night also has therapeutic properties. It was often kept on a blood soaked piece of cloth of flax-tow that was left to dry. This blood soaked cloth was then used throughout the year to help with the healing of pain. The blood soaked item was held to the troubled area and a charm or prayer said to affect the healing (Fhloinn, 2007).
Similar practices can be found in Devonshire known as “blooding the mill” where a cock would be killed to cover the mill stones in its blood as a protective act and help those who worked the mill to avoid injury. This co-location of different, but similar, practices perhaps points to a more ancient providence as both areas have Celtic heritage.
Older myths at Martinmas
As we start to explore this feast day it starts to have a lot of older ideas associated init it. The bull reminiscent of the one killed a Lùnastal, blood spillage, protective rites, etc. It would seem that Saint Martin might hide an older secret. However, it would be a mistake to jump to any conclusions about the older providence of Martinmas. Other tales do suggest links to the land of the sidhe, a role in liminality and initiation. There are reports that explore one such tale of “sidhe like creatures” emerging from a place called the “Wolfpittes” in Bury St Edmunds, Cornwall.
“at harvest time, when the harvesters were busy in the fields gathering the crops, two children a boy and a girl, emerged from these ditches. Their entire bodies were green and they were wearing clothes of unusual colour and unknown material. As they wandered bemused over the countryside, they were seized by the reapers and led to the village”. [They refuse all food until they are given freshly shelled beans which they eat until they learn to eat bread and speak English]. “Once they had the use of our language, they were asked who they were and where they came from. They said to have replied “we are people from St Martin’s land; he is accorded special reverence in the country of our birth” (Scarfe, 1986).
It suggests direct links to the land of the sidhe and the twilight world as they go on to describe how they were separated from our world of the sun “by a great river”. Saint Martin’s patronage over this land of the viridi populo (Green folk) seems to want to tell us something. Does Saint Martin represent a Christian cover up of someone who holds ruler ship of the Sidhe?
Initiation into the horseman’s word
Other significant details around this date come from Scottish Island culture and ceremonies of The Horseman’s Word. The Horseman’s Word ceremonies initiated youthful ploughmen into the world of men. The Word has been found in Orkney as well as the North East of Scotland (Marwick, 1975). Initiations were usually at Martinmas, 11th November. The initiate should appear at a barn, between 11pm and 1am on this dark night. They also had to take with them a candle, a loaf of bread and a bottle of whisky. At the door he was blindfolded and led before the secret court. This court would consist of an older ploughman, a master of ceremonies at an altar made by inverting a bushel measure over a sack of corn. The youth was then subjected to questioning and made to repeat a certain form of words. At the climax he got to shake the devils hand – (apparently a stick covered with a hairy skin). He was then given the word – “both in one” – meaning complete harmony between man and beast. This word helped the youth over-power horses giving him the power to make them stand still so no one else could move them or come to him from any distance (Macpherson, 1929). The word was also said to have a sexual power and represented power over women.
Martinmas is a day of feasting, bloodletting, protection, initiation, ritual slaughter and revelry presided over by a pacifist Saint who was said to help pagans find the true faith in God. It’s not hard to see an older more indigenous undercurrent to the activities on this date, especially one so linked to the end of winter and the other holidays of Samhuinn, Hallowmas etc. It’s also easy to make the leap of the initiation of those in The Horseman’s Word to a day associated with a Saint associated with the Cavalry and horses. Something he holds in common with St George and St Micheal. We also know that this is the date of Samhuinn before the calendars were changed. Placing such a saint at this point of the year would make sense to move reverence away from other folk activities associated to this day to something more pious. I think personally, that to understand this winter to summer transition we need to look across the range of the activities at this time of year to get a broader perspective throughout the high days and holidays. That being said Martinmas holds a lot of deep meaning for me, that the other days do not.
Fhloinn, B.M. (2007) Martinmas Tradition in South-West County Clare: A Case Study.
George, D. (1991) Records of Early English Drama: Lancashire. Toronto. University of Toronto Press.
Macpherson , J.M. (1929) Primitive beliefs in the North-East of Scotland. London: Longmans, Green and Co.
Marwick, E (1975) The folklore of Orkney and Shetland. London. Batsford
Scarfe, N, (1986) Suffolk in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge. Suffolk. Boydell Press.
Here in coastal North Carolina, where many folks descend Scots-Irish people, this was traditionally hog-killing time, where the community came together to help slaughter each others’ hogs and salt/smoke the meat, make sausages and lard and headcheese, and feast. Mostly functional, of course, because the cooler, dryer weather helped this be a more pleasant activity as well as helping to preserve the meat. But I still think it’s interesting that it was the time for communal feasts.