Samhaim and the Gunpowder Plot
By James Kiefer
(Edited from a series of Usenet posts and private correspondence between Douglas Burbury and James Kiefer.)
The ancient Celtic festival of Samhain shares certain similarities with the modern-day
celebrations which take place on the night which many people around the world know as
Guy Fawkes' Night (or Bonfire Night). Is there in fact a link between the two? The Roman
Catholic writer and humorist Monsignor Ronald A. Knox, writing some time in the 1960s,
suggested that there was indeed a link. We are told that the four principal festivals of
the pagan Celtic religion occurred at the mid-points half-way between the equinoxes and
the solstices. Now the first day of autumn (the equinox) falls on 21 September, and the
first day of winter (the solstice) falls on 21 December. Thus autumn is ninety-one days
long, and the mid-day of autumn is 5 November, with 45 days of autumn preceding it and
45 days of autumn following it. This (not 31 October, as some have claimed) is the
On 5 November (Guy Fawkes Day, or Gunpowder Day, or Bonfire Day), it is the custom in
many English-speaking countries to celebrate with bonfires, fireworks and gunpowder
explosions. Small effigies called "guys" are often burned or blown up with gunpowder. As
the day approaches, young persons, singly or in groups, will go about with an effigy,
usually made by taking an old suit of man's clothing, attaching a head of sewn cloth with
a face marked on it, and stuffing the whole with straw. They ask those whom they meet
(or whose doorbell they ring) for "a penny for the guy," meaning that they want money to
buy firecrackers with. I have been asked for a penny as early as the first week of
September. If you ask the reason for the holiday, you will probably be told that on 5
November 1605 Guy Fawkes was planning to blow up the Houses of Parliament, but was
caught and his plot thwarted. However, this is historically doubtful, since the
government carefully controlled the manufacture and sale of gunpowder, and many
historians think it impossible that a private citizen could obtain the required amount
without having been detected long before his purchases were complete. We turn our
attention, therefore, to the possibility of an older origin for the Day.
In many pagan societies (as we learn from Sir James Frazer's classic work, The Golden
Bough), it was customary every autumn to mourn the death of the vegetation, and to
rejoice every spring in the renewal of life. The autumn observance of the apparent death
of many plants was accompanied by the sacrifice of a human considered to represent the
Spirit of the Corn (=grain). Now, if we consider the name "Guy Fawkes," we see reasons
for regarding it as the name of a dying and rising spirit of the fields and the harvest.
"Guy" is a form of the word "gaia", meaning the Earth. "Fawkes" is a form of the word
"fox". To our ancestors, the fox was a symbol or personification of the guardian spirit
of the fields and hedgerows. Thus "Guy Fawkes" is a fitting name for the god of the
fields and harvests, a god thought to die every autumn and rise every spring.
Again, "Guy" (Latin "Gaius") is a word denoting maleness, virility, and hence
fertility, something very important to the primitive pagan tribes. The blood of the
sacrifice, sprinkled on the fields and on the livestock and on the members of the tribe,
would ensure the fruitfulness of fields and flocks and tribe during the coming year.
And "Guy" denotes the male, as in "Guys and Dolls". The same usage is found in Latin,
where at every wedding ceremony in ancient pagan Rome, the bride would say to the groom,
"Ubi tu Gaius, ego Gaia". That is, "Where you are Gaius, there I am Gaia". Gaius and
Marcus were by far the commonest of Roman forenames, but here "Gaius" is used regardless
of the actual forename of the groom, and stands for the generic male, as Gaia stands for
the generic female (or perhaps, for "Mother Earth"). We further note that "Fawkes" is a
form of the commonest English sexual verb, so that "Guy Fawkes" means: "The celestial
(or cosmic, or universal, or archetypical!) bridegroom consummates his marriage." The
dying god (or human sacrifice made in representation of the god) was thought of as
marrying Mother Earth, and fertilizing her with his blood sprinkled on the soil. We have
already noted that Guy Fawkes Day falls at the exact middle of the autumn season. It is
the basic autumn festival. And on it a man was slaughtered so that his death might
appease the gods who would otherwise wreak their vengeance upon the entire tribe.
We have a name in English for a victim who is chosen to bear the consequences of the
misdeeds of others. He is known as a "fall guy." Clearly the reference is to the "Guy"
who is ritually murdered on the middle day of the fall -- or autumn -- season. So you
see that Guy Fawkes Day is an example of paganism at its worst. It involves fertility
cults, the worship of sex, and human sacrifice--ritual murder. Do not believe anyone who
tries to tell you that it has its origins in the foiling of an attempted assassination
on 5 November 1605. This is a deceit of the Devil, a plot on his part to disguise from
Christians the true nature of the day. I call upon all who may have been involved in
this evil festival, to repent, to renounce your former errors, and to refrain from
observing Guy Fawkes Day hereafter, and to urge your family and friends to follow your
With an informed and aroused Christian populace, we can hope to stamp this thing out
once and for all.
(Note from Douglas Burbury: when discussing with Mr Kiefer about the inclusion of
this article in the Gunpowder Plot Society newsletter, Mr Kiefer informed me that his
post was a response to several postings denouncing Halloween as a wicked pagan
observance. When one leading poster remarked that Guy Fawkes Day, on the other hand, was
a patriotic celebration and had nothing wrong about it, he found the opportunity to
reply irresistible. In other words, he was pulling his opponent's leg.
However, his reason for this was as follows:
"It strikes me that how much I believe my own thesis is irrelevant to your purposes.
I have put forth a thesis, and given arguments to support it. For the truth-seeking
reader, the question is whether the arguments are sound ones and give adequate support
to the conclusion."
For this reason, I have presented Mr Kiefer's article as a humorous, alternative view
of the story of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot.).