The Celts Called It Samhain: An Essential Primer On Halloween

The Celts Called It Samhain: An Essential Primer On Halloween

To the ancient Celts, Samhain was the end of the year. Part Harvest festival, part memorial, Halloween was a very important holiday. Here’s the scoop. Image: T. Steelman

Halloween, spirits

Halloween. The word conjures up images of grinning pumpkins, costumes, bats, owls, ghosts, Witches… What do these symbols mean? What is Halloween all about? Why do we DO what we do on Halloween? What is Samhain and what does it involve?

Samhain was originally a year-end celebration.

Samhain (pronounced SOW-in) dates back to the 5th century B.C.E.  It was originally called Trenae Samma and was the Celtic celebration of the end of the harvest. For three days the Celts feasted, danced and made merry, for this was the year’s end. As such, remembrance of those who had passed on during the previous twelve months were part of the holiday. It seemed logical that, as one year ended and another began, those whom we had lost in the interim should be remembered.

Early man feared the unknown and death, and what lay beyond was the biggest unknown of all. Those who had already experienced this were thought to be able to aid or hinder the living. The trick was to gain their aid. People reasoned that if they made the spirits happy they would be safe from their wrath. In Lithuania, the last of the Celtic kingdoms to become Christianized, they did this by sacrificing animals to their God of the Dead, Zimiennik. If he accepted the sacrifice, he would keep the vengeful spirits at bay. If he did not, they might come back and wreak havoc.

Halloween was known among the Celts as Samhain.

The British Celts did not have a “Lord of Death,” as some so-called experts claim, so the holiday was not named after him — it actually means “summer’s end.” However, that name may have been derived from the Aryan God, Sammana. This name has several variants: Samuel, Samanik, Saman, Samana and the Lithuanian Zimiennik. As is the usual case with deities, one probably spawned the others as tribes spread and diversified. The instinct for such a deity came with the realization, deep in our past, that we were mortal. We came to understand, as no other animal could, that death was our ultimate fate.

The timing of this year-end bash was not arbitrary. It falls on what is known as a “joint” of the seasons — a time of transition (think New Years Eve). On these “seams,” particularly this one, the division between this world and the next became thin. The dead knew this and took advantage of it, returning to visit their earthly families. The living, in fear and awe, made the spirits welcome while trying not to attract too much attention lest they be taken along when the spirits returned to the land of the dead.

Why do we wear costumes on Halloween?

The tradition of costumes grew from disguises worn to confuse the spirits and avoid their attention. As time went by, these costumes took on additional meaning. They represented traits or influences one wished to bring into one’s life in the coming year — a bit of sympathetic magic.

Some costumes remain with us as archetypes of the holiday. The witch (symbolic of priestesses who guided the dead back to their realm), the ghost and skeleton (who remind us of our mortality) and the Fool of the Tarot (who became the ever-popular Hobo) are seen every year. Modern children who go trick-or-treating in these disguises echo the children of old who went from house to house singing and begging for “soul cakes.” In exchange for this, they promised to offer prayers for the donor’s ancestors. If they did not receive a treat, they would often play a trick on the home owners.

Honoring the dead is an important aspect of Halloween.

The disguises were not enough, though, to ensure safety on this night. Candles were lit in every room to guide the dead to their former abodes. They were also placated with food and drink. The “soul cakes,” made from oats and currants, were set out for the ghosts (from the Germanic geist, root of both ghost and guest). Wine was left for them to quench their thirst. Sometimes, a “dumb” supper was held in their honor, with both living and dead sharing the same table. The living guests remained silent in reverence for the dead, hence the “dumb” (silent) meal. The food was left out overnight for the spirits to enjoy at their leisure.

Some groups still have a Dumb Supper on Samhain. Solitary Witches will often leave a plate of food out, preferably at a crossroads, for the dead. If animals eat the food, that is considered to a successful outcome as the gods can manifest as animals. If the food is gone in the morning, it’s a good sign.

Halloween is also a fire festival and a time for divination.

In Ireland, Samhain was a fire festival. On Samhain Eve, all the fires in the district were extinguished and a huge bonfire built upon the nearest hill. The dead hearth fires were then re-lit with embers from the ceremonial bonfire. The jack-o-lantern evolved as a method of transporting these coals. These were originally a hollowed-out turnip, with the glowing embers carried inside. Eventually, faces were carved into them as another way of confusing the spirits. When the Irish emigrated to America, turnips were scarce so the pumpkin was a good substitute. As the practice spread, the jack-o-lantern took their place as a major symbol of the holiday.

Divination abounded on this night since the “veil between the worlds” was so thin. It was believed that the dead had knowledge of the future and could be persuaded to tell all if properly approached. Tarot cards were read, runes cast and scrying (water or fire gazing) was done in an attempt to gain this knowledge. Young girls would try to find out about their husbands-to-be by naming hazelnuts for each suitor and throwing them into the fire. The first one to jump out indicated the name of her intended. Or she could cut an apple into nine pieces, eat eight and throw the last over her shoulder behind her. If she turned fast enough, she would see an image of her future husband picking it up. Peeling an apple while standing before a mirror would conjure the same vision.

Other Halloween symbols.

Apples, in Celtic tradition, are symbols of the soul. As Halloween is also the time of the third and final harvest, this made them an important feature of the holiday. One of the most popular games on this day was (and still is) bobbing for apples. The barrels in which the apples floated represented the cauldron of the Goddess Cerridwen, where souls go upon death. In its original form, the game may have had a divinatory aspect. It may be that the last person who “bobbed” an apple was considered to be the first who would die in the new year. After the game was done, the players ran away “to escape the short-tailed black sow.” The sow was a reference to Cerridwen’s totem animal and earthly guise.

Spiders and their webs are symbols of the spinning of the web of life. Vampires, zombies, ghosts and the like, being undead, represent our fear of death and hope for an afterlife. Nocturnal animals like cats, owls and bats were seen as mysterious guardians of the transition between life and death, or psychopomps. To some Pagans, the pomegranate is a symbol of rebirth, as Persephone ate of it in the Underworld and returns to Earth every year. Many Witches keep a list of those who die between November 1 and Samhain, to honor them on Samhain. Personal items from family and friends who have passed on are also part of the altar, along with pictures.

Happy Halloween and Blessed Samhain!

This is the background of our modern Halloween. Since its secularization, it has been embraced as a harmless bit of fun by most people. And, unless you are a Pagan/Wiccan, that’s exactly what it is. These symbols and practices have only the meaning you give to them. Even if you do decide to take the day as it is intended, it is still no more than a day to honor our beloved dead and begin a new cycle. One thing you would not be doing is worshiping any kind of “devil.” Samhain has never been about anything like that, despite efforts to paint it as a satanic holiday. So, go ahead and embrace Halloween, for it is a reminder of our mortality and a call to rejoice in life.

Gum fosgladh dorus na gliadhna uibhe chum sith, sonas, is samchair: May the door of the coming year open for you to peace, happiness, and quiet contentment.

~Old Scots Samhain Blessing

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