Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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The Holiday that Dared Not Speak Its Name, or, Samhain: The Correct Pronunciation

Sam Hane. Sam Ane. Rhymes with coven. Rhymes with towin'. Rhymes with plowin'.

The first New Pagans of America mostly started off by reading books. In the absence of an oral tradition, we made do. With pronunciation of weird words, for instance.

Sam Hane. Good old rule of thumb for American English: pronounce it like it's spelled. What, you've never heard of Sam Hane, Druidic god of the dead?* (Not to mention his consort, Belle Tane, goddess of life. Sounds like quite the couple.)

Sam Ane. Well, it's Irish, so it can't quite be pronounced as spelled. Sam Ane, yeah.

Rhymes with coven. Well, kinda. Think Boston: the pahk yah cah in Hahvahd Yahd kind of cah-ven. This is the modern Irish pronunciation. (Not to mention the Modern Boston Irish pronunciation.) So if you happen to run into Cuchulain on the street, he may not understand you if you wish him good Sah-vin.

Rhymes with towin'. (I told you not to park your car in Harvard Yard.) The book says, “Pronounced sow-in.” (Have you ever noticed that they never tell you which syllable to stress? Sheesh.) Unfortunately, they don't specify female pig or spreading seed. Go with the sew, bro.

Rhymes with plowin'. The she-porker version, and may the Old Black Sow Take the Hindmost. This is the one to use with Cuchulain. What, you didn't grow up speaking Old Irish? And you call yourself a pagan?

So, the American Pagan community is characterized by linguistic diversity. No big surprise there.

Now the Million Pentacle Question: OK, Posch, which is the correct pronunciation?

Answer: It's a truism of modern linguistics that correctness in speech is contextually determined. How do people in your community pronounce Samhain? That's the correct pronunciation.

Me, I generally go with the Old Irish version. Hey, I'm a linguist (of sorts). Of course, I've got an ulterior motive.

Traditional Jewish culture recognized an institution known as the shabbos goy, the “Sabbath gentile.”

This is the kindly non-Jewish neighbor who does the things for you that you yourself are not supposed to do on the Sabbath, like turning lights off and on.

Here in Paganistan, we've got a similar institution. This is the friendly non-pagan who comes to your house to hand out treats so you can go off to the big ritual without getting your windows soaped.

What, you've never heard of a Samhain cowan?

*In Irish, Samhain is a grammatically feminine noun. So much for the “Druidic god of the dead” theory.

Photo: What, you've never seen a turnip lantern before? Spooky, no?


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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Anne Forrester
    Anne Forrester Tuesday, 14 October 2014

    This whole Samhain pronunciation issue, as well as the "Which God of the Dead is this? I've never heard of him..." issue are 2 reasons I'm personally going back to calling our holiday "Halloween" or even-better: "Hallows-eve".

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Tuesday, 14 October 2014

    I've been playing around with Summer's-End and Winter's Eve myself. I don't see any reason to canonize one name. We're the people of the Many. The more names, the richer.

  • MizPixieChris
    MizPixieChris Wednesday, 15 October 2014

    This was the first post I found at this community - and it pushed me to sign up and join, so thank you! In my area people seem to use the 'plowin' pronunciation. (Ontario)

    I say Samhain 'sowin' too- but when I'm reading my internal voice says "Sam Hane" :D Funny how the brain works. I revert to the first way I heard it when I am reading.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Monday, 20 October 2014

    Internal polyvocality. You make me jealous, MPC!

    I suppose one could draw up a dialectal map of the pagan community according to how the word is pronounced. "I live in a Sowin' area, but I'm a Sam Hane kind of guy myself." "Caution: Now entering Sah-vin Country."

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