Never mind the pumpkins and the witches’ hats: here’s a timely tale borrowed from our Irish neighbours. It wasn’t written down until about 900 years ago but may be much older. Unless a miracle happens, this sort of thing is the nearest we’re ever likely to get to the kind of story Tilla’s people might have been telling around the hearth late at night. So, here’s a snippet from:
The Adventure of Nera
Our story begins one evening as Queen Medb, her consort King Ailill and their household are settling down to wait for dinner in their stronghold at Raith Cruachan. Ailill decides to pass the time by setting the men a challenge.
Ailill and Medb have hung two prisoners during the day, and the victims are still outside on the gallows. Ailill announces that the first man who can fasten a supple twig around the foot of one of the hanged prisoners will be granted whatever he asks for.
Simple enough? On any other night, perhaps. But this is Samain. It’s the night when demons always appear. It’s the night when the dead are no longer bound by magic to remain inside their burial-mounds – and as if that isn’t bad enough, it’s very, very dark out there. One by one, the men venture out… and come straight back. It’s beginning to look as if Ailill’s generosity won’t be tested – but then Nera stands up and insists that he’s the man for the job.
Backpedalling slightly from his offer of unlimited choice, Ailill declares that if Nera can put the twig around a hanged man’s foot, he’ll win a gold-hilted sword.
Nera, heavily armed, goes out in the dark and twists a twig around the foot of one of the hanged prisoners. Success! But then it falls off. Twice he tries again, but the same thing happens. Luckily before he fails a fourth time, the hanged man speaks up and not only tells him how to do it, but congratulates him when he’s got it right.
Nera, no doubt thinking of the gold-hilted sword, is very pleased with himself – but then he realises the prisoner hasn’t finished. In return for the favour, the man demands to be carried to the nearest house so they can share a drink. The man clambers onto Nera’s neck and they set off.
Unfortunately when they get to the first house there’s no drink to be had. The building is protected by a ring of flames. This, explains the hanged man, is because the people who live here always rake the hearth-fire. He needs to move on.
There’s no drink at the next house either, because it’s protected by a ring of water. This, says the hanged man, is a house where they’re always careful to throw out the leftover washing and bathing water and all the slops before bedtime.
But it’s third time lucky – at least for some. The next house is undefended. The hanged man walks in to find used washing-water and bathing-water, and takes a drink from each of them. Then he drinks from the tub of slops in the middle of the house. He spits the contents of his mouth into the faces of the people who live there, and they all die.
“Hence,” goes the story, “it is not good for there to be water left over from washing and bathing, or a hearth-fire which has not been raked, or a tub with slops in it, in a house after bedtime.”
After this Nera returns the prisoner to his torture and goes back to the stronghold only to see it burned down and all the inhabitants slaughtered – or are they? That’s another story. Meanwhile – tonight is the night, friends. Rake your fires and put out your slops, or face the consequences.
You have been warned.
If you’d care to read the rest of the Adventure of Nera (which gets more heroic and dramatic but no less weird) it’s part of the Ulster Cycle of tales. The above is paraphrased from the translation in my aged edition of “The Celtic Heroic Age” edited by John Koch and John Carey.