Three loud raps on the gate sent her scurrying. Peeping through the spy-hole her eyes widened in alarm at the tall hooded figure of the Druid, staff in hand, waiting to be let in. Elissa called her son to help pull back the heavy wooden spar. The Druid’s arrival from his sacred grove in the woods always preceded a festival or funeral.
“Where is your husband, Waylan, the Gate-keeper?” he demanded of the cowering woman.
“Sir, he is dead this past week, killed in the last raid by the Atrebates. His body awaits burial.”
“Then we must honour him,” said the Druid, pushing past her and making for the house of the village chief. “We will summon his spirit at Sah-wen this night. Make a place for him at your meal table.”
She was alarmed at the thought of the ghost of her departed husband and other spirits returning to walk amongst them as she set about making breakfast for her 9-year-old daughter, Dulla, and son, Tristan, aged 12.
“Mum! Do we get to wear our animal costumes tonight?” Dulla danced and tugged on her sleeve.
“Yes, dear, but first we must help build the bonfire and single out an animal for sacrifice. Perhaps the old ewe will do. She is dry, and we must not show the Druid that she is lame.”
They had each prepared an animal skin costume with a cured head; Tristan would wear a ram’s head with curling horns, Dulla a sheep’s head and she would wear her husband’s stag’s head with antlers, as she was now head of the house. He had died defending the village’s rear gate, next to where their round house was positioned, as it was their family’s duty to keep the gate and watch out for invaders from the east. They always came from the east, walking silently out of the woods, axes by their sides, often with the rising sun at their backs.
The village of 30 dwellings was surrounded by a ditch and earth bank, with two wooden gates at east and west. The men had been building a series of wooden platforms on top of the bank, on either side of the gates to give better defensive positions. Tristan took his sentry duties very seriously, and would roll out of bed at dawn to patrol his new lookout position. Attacks by their hostile neighbours were becoming more frequent.
That evening the villagers gathered in the central area where the Druid waited to address them:
“Tonight we celebrate the festival of Sah-wen to mark the end of our year, and make ready for the long winter. The harvest is stored and animals fattened. Now we ask to be favoured by our gods and pay homage to those who have died this year, and summon them to walk amongst us, before they pass to the spirit world.”
Dulla led their elderly ewe and Tristan carried a basket of vegetables to the Druid’s assistants, who received them and placed all the offerings in a wooden box on a raised platform, around the feet of a bound captive, who chanted in his own dialect, expecting death. Tree branches and faggots of twigs prepared by the children, were arranged around the sacrificial cluster of objects. The moon had risen over the woods as the grey Druid raised his arms and a hush fell on the group.
“Almighty Brea, protector of the people, accept our offerings to you at Sah-wen, and favour the new year. Watch over us through the long winter nights. We offer these sacrifices to you so you may bless the crops in the fields and the fruit on the vine.” He started a low chant that was taken up by the villagers, who held hands and swayed as the sacred bonfire was lit. Animals cried out in terror and fowl flapped their wings in a desperate attempt to escape the flames. Their sacrifice would ensure the safety and prosperity of the village for another year.
As the sacred bonfire burned low, the head of each household took a burning branch from the Druid’s hand, and returned to their home to re-light the family hearth. Each family group followed the torch-bearer in tight-knit groups, looking out for the spirits of the dead who might be roaming the compound. Their animal costumes disguised them from the ghosts, who would roam mournfully before melting away into the night air once the hearth fires were re-kindled.
Elissa led her children through the dark doorway of their house and lit the hearth fire from the torch. The wood crackled and spat embers out as light and warmth were restored to their home. Their meals had been laid out before the ceremony, and now they turned their attentions to the dining table. A cold breeze made her shiver and she gasped as she saw the plate of food that had been set out at the head of the table was now empty.
“Look Mum!” Dulla cried, “Daddy’s been to visit us again!”