We’ve been a sucker for carving pumpkins for longer than you might think…
As the days grow darker, it’s no wonder we’re obsessed with spookiness at this time of year. Halloween encourages us to embrace our fears, to peer into the dark and thrill at what it hides. But as we stuff our faces with candy and decorate with plastic skeletons, we’re unwittingly engaging with ancient traditions — although Halloween was once very different…
“Samhain is a time when the veil dividing this world and the beyond is thin.”
If you’re friends with witches, you’ve probably heard the word “Samhain” tossed about this time of year. Now considered the Witches’ New Year — mostly thanks to Wicca and Neo-Pagan interpretations of the festival — Samhain is a different way of celebrating Halloween, complete with rituals, spells, and even games. But where did Samhain come from? And what does it mean?
Samhain, pronounced “sah-wn”, dates back to the Celtic settlement of the British Isles — although there is evidence of Neolithic festivals at this time of year, too. Neolithic burial chambers were often built so that sunrise on specific dates would fill the tomb with light. Although many are built to use the winter solstice (aka Yule), some align with Samhain — whether the Neolithic Britons called it that or not.
Most of what we know of Samhain comes from the Celts, who celebrated it as a “fire festival” that marked the beginning of the month of Samhain (November). Fire festivals are held around the world to this day, as people come together over a roaring fire, celebrating life and death and everything in between. There’s something to be said for this primal instinct to stay warm, to create light in a dark time. This time of year provokes fear, as we don’t know what lurks in the dark— and before electric lights and urbanisation, the dark was a very real danger. It’s no surprise then, that multiple different cultures use autumnal fire festivals to drive away malicious spirits that are said to gather as nightfall creeps earlier and earlier into the day.
Historians have theorised that Celts saw this as the death of the old year and the birth of the new — and yet, the traditions associated with the Winter Solstice call this into doubt. It’s possible that the Celts, and the Neolithic cultures that preceded them, didn’t have the perception of a year as one specific unit of time. Rather, their lives were ruled by the changing of the seasons in a never ending cycle.
In that way, Samhain very clearly demarcates the end of summer and beginning of winter. Specifically, it’s the last night of harvest, which is cause for celebration… before everyone settles in for the long march to spring.
Samhain Rituals & Traditions
In what would become the UK, Celtic druids would build sacred fires for Samhain, and rituals would be conducted to ward off harmful spirits. As there were many different Celtic tribes (along with native Britons and migrant Gaels), traditions varied around the British Isles. Yet, historical investigation has unearthed a few ancient practices.
To ward off the night and bring health and light into the home, torches would be carried from sacred fires around villages and homesteads. Divination was especially popular at this time of year, as people threw apple peels or scryed with bones to predict their future. Games like apple bobbing date back to these traditions. And of course, there was much feasting and merriment, with some communities continuing the festivities for multiple days!
But why were ghosts said to gather around Samhain? At the heart of all these traditions is the belief that Samhain is a time when the veil dividing this world and the beyond is thin. Ghosts, monsters, and the fae were believed to be at the peak of their power on this night. Creatures that usually hide in darkness walk the Earth, and anything trapped in other dimensions is set free. More than anything else, this belief is the root of modern Halloween.
So how would people guard against these shadowy wanderers? In addition to sacred fires, people would leave offerings of food at the thresholds of their homes, an invitation for the spirits to have their fill and walk on, with no need to come looking inside for sustenance. In some regions, people would wear masks and costumes to disguise themselves, so that spirits, monsters, and fae would recognise them as one of their own — and not whisk them away to another realm.
Because of increased fae activity, Samhain was known as “Mischief Night” (in Scotland and Ireland particularly). Youngsters would take advantage of this, playing pranks on their elders and blaming it on the faeries. A precursor to modern Halloween pranks, perhaps!
Samhain Gods & Ghosts
Many, many folk tales and fairy tales evolved from the idea that the veil is thin at this time of year. Deities associated with Samhain, in Irish mythology, are the Morrigan and Crom-Cruach. While Morrigan is known to be the threefold goddess of the dead, theories abound about Crom-Cruach. In some legends he is said to be the personification of darkness; archeological evidence points to him being a fertility god.
But Samhain wasn’t just celebrated in Ireland. Although fewer records remain, those that exist point towards other gods being associated with this festival in different regions. The Welsh Gwynn ap Nudd, the fae king, is particularly powerful during Samhain because the veil is thin, as is Arawn, ruler of the otherworld Annwn. The Celtic goddess of winter, Cailleach, starts her reign on this night — she was celebrated particularly in Scotland.
Gods aside, plenty of folk creatures have also become associated with Samhain, and later, Halloween. These include but are not limited to…
- Púca — a shape-shifting goblin appeased by harvest offerings
- Banshee — called the Beansidhe in Irish Gaelic
- Dullahan — the Headless Horseman
- Old Jack — as in Jack O’Lanterns
- The Woman in White and other similar ghosts
- Morgan le Fey, and other dark witches
And with the case of Old Jack, these folk tales weave back into traditions. According to Irish folk tales, on Samhain night Old Jack — a man so evil that hell spat him back out — would wander the Earth again, lighting his way with a burning coal inside a turnip. People would light the way for Jack by creating their own turnip lanterns. Irish migrants brought this tradition to America, but as turnips were scarce they used the abundant pumpkins instead — and so the most famous icon of Halloween was born.
While Samhain evolved over time into All Hallows’ Eve, and now Halloween, there are some that celebrate the festival’s ancient origin in its own right. Thanks to the rise of paganism and witchcraft in the mid-20th century, there was a renewed interest in Samhain. This spookiest of festivals became a pivotal part of the Wiccan/Neo-Pagan Wheel Of The Year, as constructed by Gerald Gardner and his compatriots. They led on from various historians’ theories about how ancient peoples marked the changing of the seasons with festivals like Beltane, Yule, and Samhain.
Because Samhain is a liminal time between summer and winter, light and dark, life and death, Gardner considered this festival to be perfectly suited for the witches’ new year. Many modern Samhain rituals incorporate this idea, and this festival has now become associated with other witchy deities and psychopomps, like…
- Hecate — Greek goddess of death and magic
- Persephone — Greek goddess of the Underworld
- Lilith — Christian/Jewish mother of monsters
- Hel — Norse goddess of death
- Loki — Norse god of mischief
- Anubis — Egyptian god of death
Basically, any god associated with death, magic, mischief, or monsters will be celebrated on this night!
So what is Samhain? Simply put, it’s the ancient root of Halloween, when fires were built to drive away the dark — and all the creatures it hides. No matter how much humanity changes, it seems we always had the instinct to celebrate the gathering dark by just getting as spooky as possible. So light a bonfire, bob for apples, and don’t forget to leave a plate of food out for wandering spirits this Halloween!
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