Edited by Gerald Boerner
Our celebration of Halloween is closely related to many of the Celtic Samhain traditions from medieval Ireland and Scotland. These traditions relate to the use of masks, carving vegetables (gourds), and other celebrations of the fall harvest. These pagan rights were cooped by the early Catholic clerics in these countries, and they have more recently been restored as part of Druid/Wicca groups. While they have little direct applicability to the Halloween celebration in the United States, but rounds our the background on Halloween traditions covered in this series.
We will just jump into our exploration of Samhain. Some of this information is somewhat detailed, so you can skip those part that deal with specific Gaelic traditions, as you wish… GLB
These Introductory Comments are copyrighted:
Copyright©2011 — Gerald Boerner — All Rights Reserved
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Quotations Related to Samhain:
“Corn and grain, corn and grain, All that falls shall rise again.”
— Wiccan Harvest Chant
“The Celts celebrated Hallowe’en as Samhain, the Feast of the Dead, when the deceased revisited the mortal world. This Oiche na Sprideanna (Spirit Night) marked the end of summer.”
— Bridget Haggerty
“Bittersweet October. The mellow, messy, leaf-kicking, perfect pause between the opposing miseries of summer and winter.”
— Carol Bishop Hipps
“Samhain fires have continued to light up the countryside down the centuries. In some areas, ashes from these bonfires were sprinkled on surrounding fields as a form of protection. The added bonus, of course, was that the ashes improved the soil.”
— Bridget Haggerty
“At the reunion at All Hallows, when the sheep and cattle were brought back from the summer pastures, fires were lit to mark the end of the period of growth and to herald the new year. The Hallowe’en fire was used long ago to supply light and to rekindle the domestic fire. The crops would have been harvested and the turf saved by then.”
— Bridget Haggerty
“Another way to make an evil spirit release any souls held captive was to throw the dust from under your feet at it! And if you’ve ever wondered where we get the tradition of carving pumpkins, it dates back to 18th-century Ireland, when a mean and nasty blacksmith named Jack was denied entry into heaven.”
— Bridget Haggerty
“Celtic Druids dressed up to disguise themselves from the ghosts or devils roaming the land on Hallowe’en night so as to avoid being carried away. Hence the tradition of dressing up at Hallowe’en. However great the fright, nobody would really be surprised to meet with the Puca, the Black Pig, or meet up with that headless ghost, the Dullahan… or to wake in the dark of night and find the returned dead of the family seated around the kitchen hearth…”
— Bridget Haggerty
“The Romans adopted the Celtic practices as their own. But in the first century AD, Samhain was assimilated into celebrations of some of the other Roman traditions that took place in October, such as their day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple, which might explain the origin of our modern tradition of bobbing for apples on Halloween.”
— Canuckville, Useless Matter That Doesn’t Really Matter
Halloween Traditions: Samhain (Celtic Halloween)…
Samhain ("summer’s end", from sam "summer" and fuin "end") is a festival held at the end of the harvest season in Gaelic and Brythonic cultures. Principally a harvest festival, it also has aspects of a festival of the dead. It had its roots in ancient Celtic polytheism, and continued to be celebrated through medieval times, and is seen as contributing to the modern celebration of Halloween. Many scholars believe that it was the beginning of the Celtic year.
The term "Samhain" derives from the name of a month in the ancient Celtic calendar, in particular the first three nights of this month, with the festival marking the end of the summer season and the end of the harvest. Samhain was also called the Féile Moingfhinne ie "Festival of Mongfind". According to Cormac’s Glossary, Mongfind (mod.Irish spelling Mongfhionn) was a goddess the pagan Irish worshipped on Samhain. The Gaelic festival became associated with the Catholic All Souls’ Day, and appears to have influenced the secular customs now connected with Halloween. Samhain is also the name of a modern festival in various currents of Neopaganism that are based on, or inspired by, Gaelic traditions.
Samhain and an t-Samhain are also the Irish and Scottish Gaelic names of November, respectively.
The Gaulish calendar appears to have divided the year into two halves: the ‘dark’ half, beginning with the month Samonios (the October/November lunation), and the ‘light’ half, beginning with the month Giamonios (the April/May lunation). The entire year may have been considered as beginning with the ‘dark’ half, so that the beginning of Samonios may be considered the Celtic New Year’s Day. The celebration of New Year itself may have taken place during the ‘three nights of Samonios’ (Gaulish trinux[tion] samo[nii]), the beginning of the lunar cycle which fell nearest to the midpoint between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. The lunations marking the middle of each half-year may also have been marked by specific festivals. The Coligny calendar marks the mid-summer moon (see Lughnasadh), but omits the mid-winter one (see Imbolc). The seasons are not oriented at the solar year, viz. solstice and equinox, so the mid-summer festival would fall considerably later than summer solstice, around 1 August (Lughnasadh). It appears that the calendar was designed to align the lunations with the agricultural cycle of vegetation, and that the exact astrological position of the Sun at that time was considered less important.
Samain or Samuin was the name of the feis or festival at the beginning of winter observed in medieval Ireland. It is attested in Old Irish literature beginning in the 10th century. The festival marked the end of the season for trade and warfare and was an ideal date for tribal assemblies, where the local kings gathered their people. These gatherings in turn are a popular setting for early Irish tales.
Association with All Saints
The fixing of the feast of All Saints on its current date of 1 November is attributed to Pope Gregory III (731–741), but from the testimony of Pseudo-Bede it is known that 1 November was already associated with All Saints in Great Britain by the beginning of the 8th century. The Roman Catholic festival of All Saints is known to have been introduced in the early 7th century, on the occasion of the dedication of the Pantheon as a church, but on the continent, it was celebrated on 13 May throughout the 7th and 8th centuries. It was only in 835 that Louis the Pious formally installed the festival on 1 November. In this, Louis merely made official the custom of celebrating the festival on 1 November which had been spread to the continent by the Anglo-Saxon mission, suggesting that the association of All Saints with 1 November is originally due to an Insular tradition. However, as Ronald Hutton points out, the willingness of James Frazer to trace the association further to pre-Christian Celtic polytheism is misguided because the testimony of Óengus of Tallaght (d. ca. 824) makes clear that the early medieval church in Ireland celebrated the feast of All Saints on 20 April. The earliest associations of 1 November with All Saints are thus found in 8th century sources of Northwestern Europe (Anglo-Saxon and German), while the earliest references to the Irish festival of Samhain are found in sources of Irish mythology compiled in the 10th century and later.
References in Irish Mythology
The Ulster Cycle contains many references to Samhain. The 10th-century Tochmarc Emire, Samhain is the first of the four "quarter days" of the year mentioned by the heroine Emer. Many of the adventures and campaigns undertaken by the characters therein begin at the Samhain Night feast. One such tale is Echtra Nerai (‘The Adventure of Nera’) concerning one Nera from Connacht who undergoes a test of bravery put forth by King Ailill. The prize is the king’s own gold-hilted sword. The terms hold that a man must leave the warmth and safety of the hall and pass through the night to a gallows where two prisoners had been hanged the day before, tie a twig around one man’s ankle, and return. Others had been thwarted by the demons and spirits that harassed them as they attempted the task, quickly coming back to Ailill’s hall in shame. Nera goes on to complete the task and eventually infiltrates the sídhe where he remains trapped until next Samhain. Taking etymology into consideration, it is interesting to note that the word for summer expressed in the Echtra Nerai is samraid.
The other cycles feature Samhain as well. The Cath Maige Tuireadh (Battle of Mag Tuired) takes place on Samhain. The deities Morrígan and Dagda meet and have sex before the battle against the Fomorians; in this way the Morrígan acts as a sovereignty figure and gives the victory to The Dagda’s people, the Tuatha Dé Danann.
The tale The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn includes an important scene at Samhain. The young Fionn Mac Cumhail visits Tara where Aillen the Burner, one of the Tuatha Dé Danann, puts everyone to sleep at Samhain and burns the place. Through his ingenuity Fionn is able to stay awake and slays Aillen, and is given his rightful place as head of the fianna.
The idea that the time of Samhain in Old Irish literature is considered a time of unusual supernatural power, or particularly associated with the "Celtic Otherworld" is due to Jeffrey Gantz and others. Ronald Hutton criticizes this conclusion as unfounded; he argues that the assembly of royalty and warriors on Samhain may simply present an ideal setting for the exposition of such tales in the same way that many tales of Arthurian Romance are set at courtly gatherings of Christmas or Pentecoste.
Gaelic Folklore (Scotland and Ireland)
The Samhain celebrations have survived in several guises as a festival dedicated to the harvest and the dead. In Ireland and Scotland, the Féile na Marbh "festival of the dead" is the name of All Souls’, a church festival introduced on the eve of All Saints in the 11th century.
The night of Samhain, in Irish, Oíche Samhna and Scots Gaelic, Oidhche Samhna, is one of the principal festivals of the Celtic calendar, and falls on the October 31. It represents the final harvest. In modern Ireland and Scotland, the name by which Halloween is known in the Gaelic language is still Oíche/Oidhche Samhna. It is still the custom in some areas to set a place for the dead at the Samhain feast, and to tell tales of the ancestors on that night.
Traditionally, Samhain was time to take stock of the herds and grain supplies, and decide which animals would need to be slaughtered in order for the people and livestock to survive the winter. This custom is still observed by many who farm and raise livestock because it is when meat will keep since the freeze has come and also since summer grass is gone and free foraging is no longer possible.
Bonfires played a large part in the festivities celebrated down through the last several centuries, and up through the present day in some rural areas of the Celtic nations and the diaspora. Villagers were said to have cast the bones of the slaughtered cattle upon the flames. In the pre-Christian Gaelic world, cattle were the primary unit of currency and the center of agricultural and pastoral life. Samhain was the traditional time for slaughter, for preparing stores of meat and grain to last through the coming winter.
With the bonfire ablaze, the villagers extinguished all other fires. Each family then solemnly lit its hearth from the common flame, thus bonding the families of the village together. Often two bonfires would be built side by side, and the people would walk between the fires as a ritual of purification. Sometimes the cattle and other livestock would be driven between the fires, as well.
The Gaelic custom of wearing costumes and masks was an attempt to copy the evil spirits or ward them off. In Scotland the dead were impersonated by young men with masked, veiled or blackened faces, dressed in white. Candle lanterns (Gaelic: samhnag), carved from turnips, were part of the traditional festival. Large turnips were hollowed out, carved with faces, placed in windows to ward off evil spirits.
Guisers — men in disguise — were prevalent in the 16th century in the Scottish countryside. Children going door to door "guising" (or "Galoshin" on the south bank of the lower Clyde) in costumes and masks, carrying turnip lanterns, offering entertainment of various sorts in return for food or coins, was traditional in the 19th century and continued well into the 20th century. At the time of mass transatlantic Irish and Scottish immigration, which popularized Halloween in North America, Halloween in Ireland and Scotland had a strong tradition of guising and pranks.
Divination is a common folkloric practice that has also survived in rural areas. The most common uses were to determine the identity of one’s future spouse, the location of one’s future home, and how many children a person might have. Seasonal foods such as apples and nuts were often employed in these rituals. Apples were peeled, the peel tossed over the shoulder, and its shape examined to see if it formed the first letter of the future spouse’s name. Nuts were roasted on the hearth and their movements interpreted – if the nuts stayed together, so would the couple. Egg whites were dropped in a glass of water, and the shapes foretold the number of future children. Children would also chase crows and divine some of these things from how many birds appeared or the direction the birds flew.
A connection of the medieval feis of Samhain with pre-Christian traditions was drawn by the "notoriously unreliable" Geoffrey Keating (d. 1644), who claimed that the druids of Ireland would assemble on the night of Samhain to kindle a sacred fire. Ronald Hutton notes that while medieval Irish authors do attribute a historical pagan significance to the Beltane festival, they are silent in this respect in regard to Samhain, apparently because no tradition of pagan ritual had survived into the Christian period. Hutton supposes that Keating’s account may be due to a confusion of a tradition pertaining to Beltane.
Its description as "Celtic New Year" was popularised in 18th century literature. From this usage in the Romanticist Celtic Revival, Samhain is still popularly regarded as the "Celtic New Year" in the contemporary Celtic cultures, both in the Six Celtic Nations and the diaspora. For instance, the contemporary calendars produced by the Celtic League begin and end at Samhain.
Samhain is observed by various Neopagans in various ways. As forms of Neopaganism can differ widely in both their origins and practices, these representations can vary considerably despite the shared name. Some Neopagans have elaborate rituals to honor the dead, and the deities who are associated with the dead in their particular culture or tradition. Some celebrate in a manner as close as possible to how the Ancient Celts and Living Celtic cultures have maintained the traditions, while others observe the holiday with rituals culled from numerous other unrelated sources, Celtic culture being only one of the sources used.
Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans tend to celebrate Samhain on the date of first frost, or when the last of the harvest is in and the ground is dry enough to have a bonfire. Like other Reconstructionist traditions, Celtic Reconstructionists place emphasis on historical accuracy, and base their celebrations and rituals on traditional lore from the living Celtic cultures, as well as research into the older beliefs of the polytheistic Celts. At bonfire rituals, some observe the old tradition of building two bonfires, which celebrants and livestock then walk or dance between as a ritual of purification.
According to Celtic lore, Samhain is a time when the boundaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead become thinner, allowing spirits and other supernatural entities to pass between the worlds to socialize with humans. It is the time of the year when ancestors and other departed souls are especially honored. Though Celtic Reconstructionists make offerings to the spirits at all times of the year, Samhain in particular is a time when more elaborate offerings are made to specific ancestors. Often a meal will be prepared of favorite foods of the family’s and community’s beloved dead, a place set for them at the table, and traditional songs, poetry and dances performed to entertain them. A door or window may be opened to the west and the beloved dead specifically invited to attend. Many leave a candle or other light burning in a western window to guide the dead home. Divination for the coming year is often done, whether in all solemnity or as games for the children. The more mystically inclined may also see this as a time for deeply communing with the deities, especially those whom the lore mentions as being particularly connected with this festival.
Samhain is one of the eight annual festivals, often referred to as ‘Sabbats’, observed as part of the Wiccan Wheel of the Year. It is considered by most Wiccans to be the most important of the four ‘greater Sabbats’. It is generally observed on October 31 in the Northern Hemisphere, starting at sundown. Samhain is considered by some Wiccans as a time to celebrate the lives of those who have passed on, and it often involves paying respect to ancestors, family members, elders of the faith, friends, pets and other loved ones who have died. In some rituals the spirits of the departed are invited to attend the festivities. It is seen as a festival of darkness, which is balanced at the opposite point of the wheel by the spring festival of Beltane, which Wiccans celebrate as a festival of light and fertility.
In parts of western Brittany, Samhain is still heralded by the baking of kornigou, cakes baked in the shape of antlers to commemorate the god of winter shedding his ‘cuckold’ horns as he returns to his kingdom in the Otherworld. The Romans identified Samhain with their own feast of the dead, the Lemuria. This, however, was observed in the days leading up to May 13. With Christianization, the festival in November (not the Roman festival in May) became All Hallows’ Day on November 1 followed by All Souls’ Day, on November 2. Over time, the night of October 31 came to be called All Hallow’s Eve, and the remnants festival dedicated to the dead eventually morphed into the secular holiday known as Halloween.
The Welsh equivalent of this holiday is called Nos Galan Gaeaf (see Calan Gaeaf). As with Samhain, this marks the beginning of the dark half of the year and it officially begins at sunset on the 31st.
Isle of Man
The Manx celebrate Hop-tu-Naa, which is a celebration of the original New Year’s Eve. The term is Manx Gaelic in origin, deriving from Shogh ta’n Oie, meaning "this is the night". Traditionally, children dress as scary beings, carry turnips rather than pumpkins and sing an Anglicized version of Jinnie the Witch. They go from house to house asking for sweets or money.
“The custom of trick-or-treating is thought to have originated not with the Irish Celts, but with a ninth-century European custom called souling. On November 2, All Souls Day, early Christians would walk from village to village begging for "soul cakes," made out of square pieces of bread with currants. The more soul cakes the beggars would receive, the more prayers they would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors. At the time, it was believed that the dead remained in limbo for a time after death, and that prayer, even by strangers, could expedite a soul’s passage to heaven.”
— Canuckville, Useless Matter That Doesn’t Really Matter
Please take time to further explore more about Halloween, Samhain, All Saints, and Celtic Calendar by accessing the Wikipedia articles referenced below. In most cases, the text in the body of this post has been selectively excerpted from the articles; footnotes and hyperlinks have been removed for readability…
Background information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Wikipedia: All Saints…
Wikipedia: Celtic Calendar…
Best Quotes: Samhain Quotes…
Other Posts on related Topics:
Prof. Boerner’s Exploration: Happy Halloween…
Prof. Boerner’s Exploration: Halloween Celebrations: Samhain…