Like many other indigenous societies, Celtic society was structured and organized; everyone knew who they were because of the place they held within that structure. Our own society has structures that are just as firm, but we barely notice them because they are so much a part of the lens through which we see reality.
The notion of time as a turning wheel played a role in the Celts’ societal structure. Our own concept of time, though very different from the Celts’, is also an essential aspect of our society. We expect certain behaviors to be appropriate at certain ages of a person’s life, and we measure individuals’ place in society by the number of years they have lived. Summer brings with it a set of expectations for picnics and holidays and families traveling on vacations; autumn is the time when children go back to school and college semesters begin; winter focuses on the holidays with all their traditions, commercialization, and busyness.
Structure is not a bad thing, and societies need organization in order to function. The Celts, however, recognized that these structures are only a surface-layer reality. At a far deeper level, the familiar patterns no longer exist. The season of Samhain, from late October into early November, was a time that cracked open the predictable order of time’s cycle, letting people slip into a no-time space.
Here, time was abolished and traditional roles cast aside. Chaos reigned, and all sorts of antisocial pranks were considered acceptable. Boundaries between farms were no longer recognized, and so cattle were moved into different fields, and gates were pulled off their hinges and thrown into ditches. Well-fed children went begging at neighbors’ doors. Men dressed as women, and women dressed as men.
For the Celts, this space of no-time belonged neither to the old year that had completed itself with the harvest, nor did it belong yet to the new year that began with winter. It was truly a crack between the two halves of the year, a time when all normal organization became inextricably entangled with the Otherworld’s, making life unpredictable, frightening, and yet also filled with the potential for new discoveries, startling glimpses into the mystery of life.
Few of us, including the ancient Celts, would want to live in a world without any rules or boundaries. We need these lines to give order to society, to time, to our very lives. But at this Samhain season, perhaps we can remember that there is another reality that lies deeper than the measurements of clocks, calendars, and years, one that’s wider and far less predictable than the grid of our calendars or the digital numerals on our cell phone clocks.
As we catch a glimpse of this reality, we step free—if only for a moment—from our careful definitions and boundary lines. In this no-time moment, we are free to scream and play like children on Halloween night, stripped naked of our usual roles, dancing in the darkness to the glimmer of candlelight in pumpkins.
The normal world will return, with all its numbers and lines. But perhaps we will carry in our hearts something limitless and unfettered, a space of moonlight and magic where almost anything might be possible.