As we come into the darker half of the year our lives turn inwards. The weather cools off, the days grow shorter, and life slows down. Winter is just around the corner. As the veil between the worlds grows thin, many will commune with their ancestors and seek to divine their future for the coming year. Still others will celebrate this date at the end of October as Halloween. This date is one of, if not the, most sacred on the whole wheel of the year and also the most popular.
Thus Samhain, in a sense, needs no introduction. Yet every holiday has a history. Unlike Mabon, Samhain is not an entirely modern creation. Its roots are complex and include both ancient pagan and Christian elements. In Irish culture Samhain was traditionally held to be the beginning of winter and the end of the harvest. Cattle would be brought back from their pastures, with some being slaughtered 1. Many Pagans still celebrate it with the same spirit.
The story familiar to most people goes as follows. Samhain, and its modern variant Halloween, developed from the Celtic festival marking the beginning of winter. This was a time of feasting, celebration and bonfires. It was also the Celtic New Year. At this time the world of the dead was closest to that of the living and so it was a good time for communing with spirts and ancestors for guidance and advice. Later, Christianity took over this celebration and transformed it into All Hallows Day. The old ways survived under the guise of All Hallows Eve, now known as Halloween 2.
Some parts of that contain elements of truth. As noted above, Samhain was the traditional beginning of winter in Irish culture. There is mention in early literature of it being one of four quarter days. With war and trading over for the year this would have been a good time for tribal gatherings 3.
At the same time, there is also evidence that our ancestors saw Samhain as being particularly associated with spirits. Traditions held that anything not harvested was to be left in the field and claimed by the Fairies. The dead could return to visit the living and Fairy hills would open with their inhabitants wandering about the world on Samhain night 4. This was most certainly a time when the forces of the spirit world must be guarded against 5.
Yet not all parts of the popular story are accurate. For one, there is no evidence that the Celts celebrated Samhain as the start of the New Year. The idea originated with philologist Sir John Rhys who developed it by observing contemporary folklore. However historical evidence for this is lacking, partly due to the fact that writing came to Ireland (and Wales) along with the Roman calendar. Thus all surviving records show the year beginning in January or March instead of November. Possibly the two existed side by side, but it is impossible to be certain 6.
There is also no evidence that Samhain was a Celtic feast of the dead. As with the assertion that it was the date of the Celtic New Year, this notion has a more modern origin as well. The ultimate source is Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough. He came to it by working backwards from the fact that November 1 was declared to be a festival of the dead by the Catholic Church. In truth, however, no evidence exists that the feast of All Hallows had any Celtic origins. The earliest records show that in fact the holiday was originally celebrated on April 20th and did not involve honoring the dead until later. Thus the true origins of the date of this festival are a mystery 7.
The same is true of the notion that Samhain was a Celtic Fire Festival. This idea too was popularized by Frazer. The issue is not that nobody ever burned a fire on October 31. Some references are recorded to bonfires on that date, but they were only recorded relatively recently. Furthermore they were not universal. In fact there is no evidence that bonfires were widespread in Celtic areas of the British Isles 8.
So our ancestors did not practice Samhain the way we do. The beginning of November was certainly an important festival although it was neither connected to the dead nor the beginning of the year 9. Given that, as was noted at Mabon, the modern pagan calendar only dates from the 20th century, it should not be surprising that there are significant differences between ancient and current practice. Holidays, like everything else, change over time. What matters is the meaning we draw from them.
And for many of us that meaning is in the changing of the seasons. The harvest, both literal and metaphorical has been gathered. Whether we like it or not, what we have now must last through the winter. Most people today are not tied to the land and so the beginning of winter is perhaps less scary. Yet the days are growing darker and colder. Now is not the time to begin new endeavors, but to take stock of the old and to evaluate the progress made over the course of the previous year.
In many ways Samhain is the inverse of Beltane. Not only does it sit on the opposite side of the calendar, but it is a festival of the dead and is thus a counterpoint to Beltane’s celebration of youth and life. Now is the time when spirits roam. Thus Samhain represents the chance to look through the eyes of the deceased and see the world, not from our limited mortal perspective, but from the impartial perspective of the dead 10.
Modern society views death as an aberration, the ultimate end of all things. Yet on Samhain we see that it is just another transformation. Just as the God must die before he is reborn and the Earth must grieve through the dark of the year before returning to life again, we must all go through a similar journey. At Samhain we acknowledge this and commune with those who have already taken it. This is thus a time to honor our ancestors 11.
Yet October 31st is also celebrated as Halloween. It is a complex holiday with both pagan and Christian roots which cannot now be disentangled from one another 12. Halloween is related to Samhain in so far as the pagan festival may have influenced modern practice. However the popular imagery comes from many sources 13. But one must wonder about the best way to relate it to Samhain. The most fun way is to simply embrace it. Indeed if one has young children that will not likely be a matter of choice.
Halloween points to one important fact about Samhain: its dual nature. On the one hand we honor our ancestors. Yet now is also a time to celebrate. The harvest is over, but the planting has not yet begun. The road ahead will be dark and afford plenty of time to rest. Thus Samhain is the last chance to bask in our abundance. Ahead lays the long road of winter and the arduous trail of planting and growing. Feasting is therefore most certainly an appropriate option, especially if one has a garden 14.
But there are other opportunities as well. As with all things there should be a balance and so the celebration of the end of the harvest should also be tempered with introspection. At the year’s end we consider where we have come and what the next twelve months will bring. One can meditate on those very questions. A simple idea would be to sit in silent contemplation, pondering what life has brought. Doing so can be disconcerting to those who have not done so before; the sound of silence can be deafening. However there is great wisdom in freeing oneself from the distractions of the world.
One can also perform rituals for the dead or divination. The latter can take the form of tarot cards or runes. The former can take a great many forms. One can invite deceased loved ones to visit for a while, for instance 15. This is sometimes known as a dumb supper, where one sets a place at the table for the deceased and sits in silence inviting them to join. Those feeling more adventurous may wish to perform meditations or visualization exercises to attempt to more fully communicate with their ancestors 16. As with all activities, the most important thing is to be safe and enjoy oneself. Samhain is a time for honoring the dead. It would not do to join them on this night due to one’s own carelessness.
And so the wheel of the year turns ever on. The sun has set, darkening the road ahead. The days have been growing continually darker since Litha. Now is a time for rest and contemplation as well as perhaps one final celebration. The nights ahead will be long and cold. And yet just over the horizon is a glimmer of hope. For the dark times cannot last forever.
River Loneruner is an active member of Hecate's Cauldron's Inner Circle and a second year student of the Temple Tradition.
1 “Samhain”; Peg Aloi, “You Call It Hallowe’en... We Call It Samhain.”
2 Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 359–360.
3 Ibid., 361.
4 Morgan, “A Celtic View of Samhain.”
5 Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 369.
6 Ibid., 362.
7 Ibid., 364.
8 Ibid., 366–68.
9 Ibid., 369.
10 Kissing Wind Mabigonia Thriceborn, “Beltane and Samhain: Reflections of Life and Death.”
11 Sorbus, “A Meditation on Samhain: How Lucky You Are.”
12 Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 383.
13 “Halloween - Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.”
14 Peg Aloi, “You Call It Hallowe’en... We Call It Samhain.”