The ancient Celtic concept of thresholds in time and place


”This is a time that is not a time
In a place that is not a place
On a day that is not a day,
Between the worlds, and beyond….”

Why is the Celtic festivals of Beltane (April 30th) and Samhain or Hallowe’en (Oct 31st) traditionally associated with spirits entering our world, and with potential for divining the future?

What were the medieval royalty of Europe up to when they went out at dawn on the first day of May, to roll around naked in the morning dew in a most undignified manner?

In the early days of Christianity, why were babies that had died unbaptised always buried at the boundary lines of parishes?

The Hebrews used thresholds and doorposts to place protective offerings of sacrificial animals’ blood during Passover. What is the connection between these three practices, and why should it concern us now?

Samhain or  Hallowe’en, the 31st of October, is one of the two most significant days in the ancient Celtic calendar – the other being the first of May, or Beltane,. To understand why, we must look at the characteristics shared by both.

Ancient calendars marked annual occasions, not only for practical reasons like agriculture, but for ritual purposes; such observations also articulated humankind’s relationship to the natural world, and indeed to the universe.

The Celtic year had not four but two parts – the dark and light halves. ‘Winter’ ran from November to April, and ‘Summer’ May to October. The dates that marked transition from one to the other were Beltane and Samhain. However, one period didn’t suddenly stop as the other began; rather, the energy of the time of ‘light’ rose to a peak during July and August and then diminished, with the ‘dark’ energy doing likewise in January and February.

So Samhain and Beltane were considered those two key moments when neither one influence nor the other was felt. In the Celtic view of time, such brief, precise episodes had enormous potency. Before looking more closely at this phenomenon, let’s see what happened when this kind of thing filtered through into the Christian era.

What we encounter then is largely characterised by fearfulness. We see people nervously guarding against inroads from the supernatural world, taking care to protect themselves and their property. They kept watch to prevent ‘fairies’ stealing the first milk of the day, or the water from the well, or even – at Hallowe’en in particular – their children, who might be whisked away into the underworld.

In fact, one’s luck for the whole year was in the balance at these two times, so caution and hopefulness were exercised in all matters. It was held that marriages made in May would only last a single summer, and Beltane was the proper occasion for divorce in the older Irish books of law. But it was also a good time for divination – access to the future – as well as for actually influencing future developments – such matters as whom to marry, or how prosperous the coming season might be. Dancing round the maypole, bedecked with flowers and greenery, was in hopes of promoting fertility and abundance, and the custom has lived on even to the present day in Britain.

The power of Celtic cosmology 

Going back again to that more ancient past, Celtic mythology is our main source in understanding the essence of the occasion. Celtic lore was, of course, an oral rather than written tradition, so storytelling and mythology was its main vehicle.

Beltane, for instance, figured prominently in Irish legend; many significant mythological events are tied to it. Almost all the waves of invaders in the oldest stories set foot on the land on that day; continuing this tradition, ship processions have formed a part of folk rituals around the coast of Britain. The ‘invasion’ stories are the metaphor for the development of the ancient civilisations of Ireland.

The Celts interpreted reality as two ‘worlds’, both equally ‘real’ – material reality, and the realm of the supernatural. What was so significant about Beltane and Samhain is that they embodied a temporary suspension of the normal inter-relation of these realms, coincident with the suspension of seasonal energies. There was a brief removal of the usual barriers between the two worlds, and extra-ordinary access was possible. In the language of myth, entities from the underworld could more freely make their way into the affairs of mortals. Mortals could go the other way too – and, if they played their cards right – return. Carlos Castaneda* refers to it as the ‘crack between the worlds’. To put it in a more suitable metaphor today, we could describe this special access in terms of exceptional forms of consciousness becoming available at these precise moments of time.

The Celtic concept of thresholds in time

But whatever was happening at Samhain and Beltane, it was also perceived by the Celts elsewhere in their schema of time and effect; the ongoing repetition of seasons is but one of the cycles which humankind has observed from time immemorial. Indeed, awareness of cycles is inextricable from the development of consciousness and spirituality, as well as from more pragmatic pursuits – from hunting and growing things to industrial development and growth economics. Winter and summer, recession and boom, day and night, lunar months, solar years, planetary orbits; the workings of nature and the universe consist of repeating cycles.

In the daily cycle, for instance, at dawn and dusk, the Celts perceived that same momentary quality of the ‘time that is not a time’. Here too, albeit on a smaller scale, were irregular occurrences and unusual potential. Spirits could ‘get through’; consciousness was altered. Morning dew embodied a unique energy with potent healing properties – hence the benefits of rolling in it, all the more enhanced at Beltane. At twilight, the imagination is highly receptive and easily stimulated. And at both these times, the songbirds go along with this energy, abandon life-supporting activities and sing their finest choruses.

Thresholds in space and place

These are examples of the ‘betwixt and between’ in cycles of time. But time is not the only dimension where Celtic cosmology recognises it; a striking parallel is evident in their view of place. Boundaries were more potent than the areas between them – boundaries between fields, between townlands, even between the four kingdoms of old Ireland. Along these edges, you were neither in one place nor the other; the borders are free of predominating nature.

So here again, spirits could squeeze in through that ‘crack between the worlds’. Such places were held in awe, and sometimes regarded as sacred. With the advent of Christianity, however, respect for ‘spirit’ activity evolved into a more superstitious fear. But the phenomena lived on, merely clothed in different metaphor. Hence the pegging of important dates in the church calendar to the pagan year; hence too all the talk of ‘the fairies’ or ‘the little people’ – and the threat of children being snatched away. Likewise the burial of ‘unchristian’ infants in the no-man’s-land on the parish boundary.

The same held for sense of place on a smaller scale. In people’s homes, the doorway marked the transition between without and within, between the inner and outer worlds. The threshold was potent place; a wealth of custom centred on it and many kinds of tokens are hung there, to this day, the world over. In fields, gateways have been the same. Throughout the landscape, the pattern continues to include natural boundaries such as rivers and shorelines.

The ubiquitous phenomenon of the betwixt and between

It seems that what all such ‘states-between-states’ have in common is that they afford opportunity for extraordinary perception of circumstances beyond their span – and for influencing the pattern of those circumstances. This holds, even down to the smallest examples – like those curious, ephemeral moments between waking and sleeping, or the transitional flashes that can occur spontaneously in meditative pursuits.

In these between-states, abnormal faculties come into play. Beliefs are suspended. Conditioning is inoperative. Certainties can be questioned, and the rational mind is out of action. We are in no time and no place. This is when there may come a small insight, or a large vision; a perception of past or future; a glimpse of eternity; nirvana or satori.

Such neutral points occur all over the place in our lives – between periods of years, between relationships, between illness and health, between weeks or days. There is always potency at these points, but they may not be the times that we pay attention to, because ”nothing is happening”. But we should pay attention, for these points are like the chinks in the armour that we build up for ourselves, our fixed sense of reality and expectations of life. In a flash, we might realise something important about ourselves; or we might suddenly know just what will be perfect to cook for dinner. Who knows, we might even realise our purpose in being on this planet. Indeed, there may be something in all this betwixt-and-between potential that could help the powers that be run our economies better – or make sure that life continues on Earth.

The importance of mystery

It’s hard to come closer than all the above to explaining why these things are so. Science is a long way from even acknowledging this exquisite phenomenon, the time-that-is-not-a-time and the place-that-is-not-a-place – let alone measuring its elegant parameters and variables. Anyway, it ought to retain mystery. In the meantime, we ‘ignorant’ folks will still be drawn instinctively to ritual on days such as May the first. Children will still want to walk barefoot in the early morning dew. Adults will still be held spellbound by the sun as it touches the horizon. Farmers will find field gates a good place to ponder on the meaning of life, while citydwellers do the same at their doorways. Writers will still get great ideas on aeroplanes. Draculas in movies will still be vulnerable at the day’s beginning and end. And the birds will still sing their hearts out at dawn and dusk.

Gerry Maguire Thompson 2012