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The Triple Demon of Samhain: An Indo-European Tale

Throughout Ireland there are tales of monsters that appear at Samhain and that must be killed by a hero. These can be shown to have an Indo-European heritage.

Three-Headed Ellen (in tEllen trechend), along with other beings of bad intent, used to emerge from the cave of Cruachan at Samhain. In Christian times this cave was considered to be a gateway to hell, and rightly so, for Ellen and his cohorts would bring destruction to the land on their visits. Eventually, however, Amairgein killed Ellen in single combat (Ross, p. 122).

Aillen Mac Midhna used to emerge from the sidhe of Finnachad every Samhain to burn Tara. He was killed by Finn with a magic spear; three jets of blood spurted from his neck after Finn beheaded him ("Colloquy with the Ancients," pp. 142-145). There is as well the tale of three ravens which came every Samhain from beneath the sea to carry off three boys from a sidhe. Caoilte and his two companions came to this sidhe for healing for Caoilte. The people of the sidhe would not, however, heal him unless he destroyed the ravens. He and his companions did this by throwing game pieces at them ("Colloquy with the Ancients," p. 250; Ross, p. 256).

Perhaps the best-known version is found in "The Second Battle of Moytura." In the battle between the Tuatha de Danaan and the Formorians, held at Samhain, Lugh of the Tuatha (who is half Formorian) kills Balor, the Formorian leader with a sling­stone. As a result,the Tuatha are able to establish their rule over Ireland.

Finally there is the story told in the Rennes Dindsenchas of Meche, son of the Morrigain. He had three hearts, each in the shape of a serpent. Now if he had been allowed to live, these snakes would have destroyed all Ireland. Fortunately he was killed by Mac Cecht, who burned his ashes and threw them into a stream, which boiled, killing all that lived in it. The time of the year at which this occurred is not specified.

What is happening in all these Irish stories? They seem to point toward a proto-Irish myth associated with Samhain. It is the story of a malevolent being or beings, who comes from outside the world (from a sidhe or over or under the sea) at Samhain and lays waste to the world. This being is triple in some form(three heads, three ravens, three hearts, three spurts of blood). He is finally destroyed by a hero who is in some sense an outsid­er as well (Amairgein, Finn, Caoilte, Lugh) with a thrown weapon (spear, sling-stone, chessmen). That this event results in a renewal of the world is not stated, but is implied; there would be little point in killing the monster otherwise.

This is a New Year's myth, and most likely a creation myth as well. It is not only an Irish myth, however; it would seem to be Proto-Indo-European. A comparison with its variants in other Indo-European cultures will illustrate this, while also showing the way to the myth's meaning.

There is, for example, the story found in the Icelandic Hrolfa Saga. A monster, Kraka, attacked King Hrolf's hall two Yules in a row. On the third Yule, the monster is killed by Bodhvarr. It is important to remember that in Norse religion Yule has many of the same connotations and rituals as Samhain.

More interesting, however, are those found in the Vedas, in the stories surrounding the great hero and warrior god Indra. His greatest deed was the killing of Vrtra, described, for in­stance, in RV 1.32; 3.31.

Now, in the beginning a clod of earth was brought to the top of the primeval ocean by a boar. There the clod started to expand. It reached a point, however, when it could not expand further because of Vrtra. This serpentine monster, whose name means "Obstruction," held the new earth back from attaining its full size. Indra, whose parentage is obscure, came from outside the world, and killed Vrtra with a thrown thunderbolt. From within the earth the creative waters (in some versions in the form of cows or maidens) flowed out, and creation continued. As a serpent, Vrtra is one of the asuras, the demons who come from Asat,"non-being." and oppose the forces of order.

The Vedas are rarely content with a single version of any story. Thus in RV 10.8 (Puhvel, p. 53) the story of Trita Aptya ("Third Watery One") is told. Together with Indra, he killed Trisiras ("Three-Headed") and took his cows. Trisiras was the son of an asura and the god Tvastr, who may have been Indra's father as well. Indra himself cut off Trisiras' heads.

These stories seem to be versions of a myth in which a three-headed demon from outside the world seeks to prevent crea­tion or fertility. He is destroyed by Indra, who also comes from outside the world, with a throwing weapon. Creation then contin­ues (or fertility is restored). The Indra/Vrtra myth is the core of the Vedic New Year's rituals, making it the counterpart of my suggested Samhain myth in time as well as in structure.

I have identified, then, from opposite ends of the Indo­European world what appears to be a proto-myth describing an act of creation which was also one of renewal, being associated with the New Year. As usual, India preserves it in a ritual form, in hymns, while Ireland has turned it into mythical history. The difference between the Irish destruction version and the Vedic restriction is most likely to be explained either by the vicissi­tudes of preservation -- Irish monks had no need for a rival creation myth, but were quite willing to record battles -- or, more likely, the Irish version is simply a logical extension of the creation -- since the myth occurs yearly, the old world must be destroyed before a new one can be created.

It is important to note that the triple demon comes from outside the natural order. It is thus a force of chaos, opposed to the cosmos. Natural order (Vedic rta, Norse o/rlog, etc.) was very important to the Indo-Europeans. Much of their ritual was dedicated to its maintenance.

This order, however, is continually threatened from outside. And when it is most threatened, at liminal points such as New Year's, a champion is necessary to defend it. But this champion himself comes from outside; he is in some sense a force of chaos himself.

There may be a social meaning to this myth -- the warrior is a force for destruction who must be incorporated into society. What I wish to emphasize here, however, are the cosmological implications. Cosmos cannot last. It must always eventually crumble before the powers of chaos which chip away at it from outside and underneath. Thus the Indo-Europeans expressed their own understanding of the law of entropy. They did not see it as one-way, however, but held out a hope for the restoration of order.

Further, Cosmos is safe, and thus desirable. Chaos is dangerous, but also creative, and thus it too is desirable, if it can be properly controlled. Cosmos has dangers as well; it can become stale and rigid, and it cannot last. Fortunately, the powers of chaos can be turned to the benefits of cosmos. Cosmos' ace in the hole is the knowledge that when it falls (or is in danger of falling) a being who partakes of both chaos and cosmos will come to renew it. Cosmos thus incorporates chaos into itself, a constant source of change, and a hope for renewal in its time of greatest need.

The moment of need comes not only from the nibbling of chaos; cosmos itself gives rise to a necessity for renewal. Without the destruction of Samhain, cosmos becomes not the safe enclosure within which we might lead productive lives but a straitjacket which prevents us from moving. Chaos comes to sweep away the calcifications, and then the hero comes to recreate a secure cosmos again. The destruction is not pleasant to those who undergo it, and our sympathies are clearly on the side of the hero. Still, the hero himself has chaos in his soul.


Kuiper, F. B. J. The Basic Concept of Vedic Religion. History of Religion 15:2 (Nov., 1975), 107-120.

-----Cosmogony and Conception: A Query. History of Religion 10:1 (Aug., 1970), 91-138.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (ed. and tr.). The Rig Veda. Harmonds­worth, UK: Penguin Books, 1981.

O’Grady, Standish (ed. and tr.). The Colloquy with the Ancients. In Silva Gadelica. London: Williams and Norgate, 1892.

Puhvel, Jaan. Comparative Mythology. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press,1987.

Ross, Anne. Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967.

Stokes, Whitley (tr.) The Second Battle of Moytura (Cath Maige Turedh). Revue Celtique 12 (1891), 52-130.

-----The Rennes Dindsenchas. (tr.) Revue Celtique 15, 273-336; 419-484; 16 (1895), 31-83, 135-167, 269­-312.

Originally published in Keltria 36 (Winter, 1997), 17-18, 27.