A Celtic View of Samhain
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Posted: October 23rd. 2011
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One of the most widely known pagan holidays is Samhain, a day that is celebrated by Wiccans, Pagans, and Druids alike. The modern Samhain has its roots in the ancient Celtic fire festival from which it gets its name, pronounced SOW-en, believed by some to mean “summer’s end”. Samhain is the Irish Gaelic name for the holiday, which is also called Samhuinn in Scottish and Calan Gaiaf in Welsh (Kondratiev, 1998) . According to the Gaulish Coligny calendar it is called Trinuoxtion Samonii, which means the “three nights of summer’s end”, indicating that the holiday was originally celebrated over a three-day period (Kondratiev, 1998) .
In modern vernacular Samhain is called Halloween, abbreviated from All Hallow’s Eve, the name given to the holiday because of it's placement near the Christian church's holiday of All Saints day, or "All Hallows". Originally the Catholic holidays that take place on and around Samhain of All Souls and All Saints days were in February having been set during the Roman feast of Feralia, but when the Church spread to the Celtic lands the dates were shifted to November.
The Celts celebrated Samhain as the ending of the old year and beginning of the new. Caesar tells us, in his writings about the Gallic War, that the Celts saw the day as well as the New Year beginning at sunset (Freeman, 2002) . This would mean that Samhain would have been celebrated starting as the sun went down on one day and continuing on to end at the next sunset. Samhain stood opposite Beltane, and as Beltane marked the beginning of summer, Samhain marked the beginning of winter; moreover as the beginning of the New Year Samhain was probably the most important holiday of the year (McNeill, 1961) .
The precise dating of Samhain is difficult to determine, as it was, like all the Celtic festivals, agrarian based, but it is likely that it would take place around what is now November as this is the time when vegetation dies and the sun is clearly waning (McNeill, 1961) . In most modern practices the date is set on October 31st, although some people still celebrate it on November 12th holding to the older date before the transition between the Julian and Gregorian calendars that shifted everything back two weeks (McNeill, 1961) .
It is the end of the harvest period, and indeed any produce not gathered in by Samhain is left in the fields (Kondratiev, 1998) . This is done because tradition holds that after Samhain night everything left in the fields belongs to the fairies; in some areas the people believed that one fairy in particular, the Púca, went out on Samhain night and claimed all the fruit that was left by urinating on it, or some say spitting on it (Estyn Evans, 1957; McNeill, 1961; Danaher, 1972) . At this time as well the herds that were put out to summer pasture at Beltane are brought back in, reuniting the herders with their families and allowing the people to decide how much stock could be kept over the winter and how much should be butchered (Estyn Evans 1957) . This was a time for settling debts, and as the last of the harvest fairs ended people would make sure that anything they owed was paid before Samhain (Danaher, 1972) . Samhain was a time that was both joyous and eerie, as it was marked by great feasts and community gatherings, but was also a time for telling ghost stories and tales of the faeries stealing people (McNeill, 1961) .
Today we continue to celebrate with this dual feeling, enjoying the atmosphere of closeness and the visitations by our dead family members, but also relishing the scariness that comes when the veil is so thin. Great bonfires would be lit just as at Beltane and Midsummer. While the Beltane fires were traditionally lit at dawn the Samhain fires were lit as the sun set as a symbol of the light surviving in the dark (McNeill, 1961) . These modern bonfires are carry-overs from the ancient Celtic time when all the fires in each home would be put out and the Druids would light a huge bonfire on a hilltop from which all the other fires would be relit (McNeill, 1961) . This practice in Ireland centered on Tara, as it was believed that what was done there would spread outward from the center (Kondratiev, 1998) . After all the fires were extinguished the Druids would light a bonfire at Tlachtga, a sacred site near the hill of Tara (Kondratiev, 1998) . Even up until the 1970’s people still regularly lighted bonfires on Samhain night in Dublin (Danaher, 1972) . .
In some areas of Ireland when the fires began to die down men and boys would scoop up still burning embers and throw them at each other, which may possibly be linked to older rituals, although the practice is dangerous (Danaher, 1972) . In Scotland the ashes from the bonfires were scattered to fertilize the fields and for protection, since it was believed that they possessed the power to drive away dangerous spirits (McNeill, 1961) . In other areas people would blacken their faces with the ashes, believing it was a protection against baneful magic (McNeill, 1961) .
Possibly the most prominent theme of Samhain was that of the thinning of the veil between the worlds. On this night the dead could return to visit the living and the fairy hills were opened, releasing all the creatures of fairy into the mortal world (Estyn Evans, 1957; McNeill, 1961) . The belief in this was so strong in rural Ireland even up to the last century that it was considered extremely bad luck not to set an extra chair at the table, put out a bowl of a special porridge, and leave the door to the home open on Samhain (Estyn Evans, 1957) . In other accounts the door should be closed but left unlocked and a bowl of fresh water left out by the hearth to welcome any returning family ghosts that choose to visit (Danaher, 1972) . In Ireland, however, it is more widely believed that November 2nd is the day when the dead return to visit (Danaher, 1972) .
This is of particular interest because it may reflect the older practice of celebrating Samhain as a three-day holiday, in which case the return of the dead may have marked the final day of the celebration. In modern practice in Ireland people would light a candle for each deceased member of their family, and in some cases visit the graveyards where they were buried to clean the graves (Danaher, 1972) . Although popular imagination paints the idea of the dead returning in a negative light this is not the way the old belief was; in the old practice people didn’t fear the dead who came back to visit but saw them as protective of the living family (Danaher, 1972) . It is a very old doctrine of the Celts that the soul is immortal and passes from one life to spirit and then to another life so it would be impossible for the Celts to see Samhain as a holiday devoid of celebration (McNeill, 1961) .
Just as all the dead were free to return to earth to visit, so the realm of Faery was opened up, although it has always been a very blurry line between faeries and the dead, as it was often said that some of the dead went to live with the fairies. The denizens of fairy were most likely to be encountered now and it was said that should a person meet a fairy rade and throw the dust from under his feet at them they would be compelled to release any humans they had taken (Danaher, 1972) . This night was one of celebration and merry making, but people preferred to travel in groups, fearing that to walk alone on Samhain risked being taken forever into Faery (Danaher, 1972) . It was thought that dusk and midnight were particularly dangerous times, and that the fairy troops passed to the west side of homes, and along water ways making it best to avoid these times and places (McNeill, 1961) . It was also a long time custom to shout out beware (seachain!) or water towards you (chughaibh an t-uisce!) if one was tossing water out of the home so that any passing fairies or ghosts would be warned (Danaher, 1972) .
This is the time that all the fairy raths, or hills, open up and the inhabitants parade from one hill to the next playing music which some people claim to hear (Danaher, 1972; McNeill, 1961) Anyone who had been kidnapped to faery could be freed within the first year and a day from when they were taken, but the spells to do so were the strongest on Halloween, as we can see in the old tale of Tam Lin (McNeill, 1961) . Because the faeries were all abroad it was also the custom in many places to leave them food offerings, but unlike the plates of food left for the dead, the food offerings for faeries took the form of a rich porridge that was made and then placed in a small pit dug in the ground (Sjoestedt, 1949) .
Another feature of the celebration is divination for the year to come. One form of such divination was to observe the direction the wind was blowing at midnight, as it was believed that this would indicate the weather of the winter to come (Danaher, 1972) . In a similar way the moon, if visible, was used for divination: a clear moon meant good weather, a cloudy moon would be observed and the degree of clouding would represent the amount of rain to come, and clouds passing quickly over the moon’s face meant storms (Danaher, 1972) . Other folk divinations took on a more homely focus as, for example, two hazel nuts or walnuts could be named after a couple and then placed near each other by the edge of the fire and if the stayed together it was a good omen but if the popped or jumped apart it meant the relationship would not last (Danaher, 1972) . Apples were also used in a variety of ways, including the modern game of bobbing for apples, which could be used to tell a person’s luck in the year to come.
Another method to foretell and individual’s fortune was to blindfold them and seat them at a table in front of a certain number of plates or bowls each of which contained something different; the bowl which the person touched first indicated something about how their year would go (Danaher, 1972; McNeill, 1961) While these practices are clearly modern they are fully in the spirit of the holiday and using divination to predict the fortunes of a person, and these methods are more easily used today than some of the older ones which focused less on the individual and more on the welfare of the community. In Scotland there was a form of divination that utilized the sacred bonfire; a circle would be made from the ashes of the still smoldering fire and around this circle of ashes stones would be placed to represent the people present – in the morning should any stone be moved or damaged it indicated doom for that person (McNeill, 1961) .
Samhain is also a time in the Celtic world to give thanks for the harvest, and the bounty that had been secured to get the people through the winter. McNeill compares Samhain to saying a prayer of thanks after a meal, just as she sees Beltane as a prayer before a meal (McNeill, 1961) . In certain parts of Scotland it was the custom up to the 1600’s for the people of a town to gather and each contribute a portion of ale, which one man would then carry out into the ocean as an offering to the sea god, Shony (McNeill, 1961) . Another interesting custom is the baking of a special oatmeal cake, which would be prepared with much ceremony and then offered to a stranger (McNeill, 1961) . This may be a reflection of older customs of sharing from one’s own abundance to ensure more in the future; this is also a reflection of a similar custom from Imbolc where after the feast the remnants were offered to the poor of the community (Carmichael, 1900) . Offerings would be made during this time by tossing them into the sacred bonfires, both in thanks for blessings received and symbolizing requests the people would like granted in the new year (Kondratiev, 1998) .
It is likely that the modern practice of Halloween trick or treating comes from older Celtic practices, called guising. In County Cork into the 19th century there was a practice of that involved a small procession led by someone dressed as a white mare that would go door to door asking for tolls and singing (Estyn Evans, 1957; Danaher, 1972) . In some parts of modern Ireland it is still the practice of trick or treating children to chant “Help the Halloween party! Any apples or nuts?” (Danaher, 1972) . This request for apples or nuts is almost certainly a reflection of older traditions, as apples are strongly connected to the Otherworld and the Hazel was a symbol of occult wisdom (McNeill, 1961) .
All through Scotland it was the custom of groups of boys to go out disguised and travel from door to rood asking for money or treats, often while singing or chanting (McNeill, 1961) . The practice slowly switched to children going out dressed in masks and carrying torches who would repeat chants like “Hallowe’en! A nicht o’ tine! A can’le in a custock!” (Halloween! A night of fire! A candle in a holder!) or “Heigh ho for Halloween, when the fairies a’ are seen, some black and some green, heigh ho for Halloween!” (McNeill, 1961) . Both of these chants reflect the older practices of the pagan holiday in referring to fire and to the fairies being abroad.
Finally, Samhain was also connected, as where all the fire festivals to some degree, to blessing activities and making charms to bless, draw luck, and protect in the year to come. In Ireland it was a custom to make a charm very similar to the solar cross of St. Brighid which would be hung on the wall over the inside of the door to ward off all bad luck and harm in the year to come (Danaher, 1972) . Infants and children would be sprinkled with blessed water and a piece of iron or a cold ember from the fire was placed under their bed to protect them; in other areas a mix of oatmeal and salt is dabbed on the child’s forehead (Danaher, 1972) . In Scotland, even up until the 1850’s, people would go out on Samhain and make torches from wood or heather and these would be lit from the sacred fire (originally the Druidic fires and later the bonfires lit at home) ; these torches would be carried around the boundary of the home sun-wise by the family to bless the place (McNeill, 1961) .
There are a few specific deities associated with Samhain, which vary by area. In Scotland, many believe that it is at Samhain that Brighid turns over control of the year to the Cailleach, who rules then until Imbolc (McNeill, 1961) . The Cailleach is in many ways the spirit of winter and of the cold weather, who controls the storms, so her rule during this time of year makes sense. For some people who follow the Tuatha de Danann of Ireland Samhain may be a period to honor the Dagda and the Morrigan , who in mythology were said to have joined together on this date. Indeed many important events occur on Samhain in Irish mythology.
In modern practice, there are many ways to incorporate these Celtic traditions, whether you are solitary or celebrate in a group. I recommend celebrating the secular Halloween first, as it is firmly rooted in the ancient practice of guising. Go to a place you consider sacred and create sacred space as you normally would, then call whatever gods and spirits you feel appropriate for the rite. During the rite itself offers should be made to the Gods in thanks and to ask for their continued blessing, and porridge may be offered to the faeries. Afterwards you could have a bonfire after putting out any other fires and turning off all the lights, but even if that’s not possible, a symbolic bonfire could be made, perhaps in a cauldron, or a large candle lit. Put out all the lights and then relight your sacred fire for the new year and then small offerings can be made to the fire, both in thanks and with requests for the year to come.
One practice that I and several friends use that reflects the old idea of lighting candles for the dead is to carve the names of all those we care about who have passed onto a candle and then light it during ritual in their honor. Different methods of divination can be done, either based on traditional methods or more modern ones, to see what the year to come might bring. When the rite is done you can either pick up the candle or light a candle or small torch from the ritual fire and walk around your yard or ritual area, clockwise, carrying it to bless the space for the year to come. Then you or your group should have a potluck feast; it might be nice if everyone contributed a dish that held some significance for him or her or was a family recipe. Portions of this should be set aside for the visiting dead who should be as welcome to attend as the living members. After the feast this plate can be left on the table for the dead, and the candle in their honor can be left burning, if it is safe to do so. When the celebration is over ashes can be taken from the ritual fire and kept as a protective charm for the year to come.
Carmichael, A., (1900) . Carmina Gadelica , volume 1.
Danaher, K., (1972) . The Year in Ireland. Mercier Press
Estyn Evans, E., (1957) . Irish folk Ways. Routledge and Kegan Paul
Freeman, P., (2002) War, Women, and Druids. University of Texas Press
Kondratiev, A., (1998) . The Apple Branch: a path to Celtic Ritual. Citadel Press.
McNeill, F., (1961) . The Silver Bough, volume 3: Halloween to Yule. Stuart Titles Limited.
Sjoestedt, M., (1949) Celtic Gods and Heroes. Dover Publications
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