Samhain: The Birth of Halloween
It’s Halloween today and the pumpkins have been hollowed, the sweets divided up and the outfits ready for tonight’s parties or dinners or, most important for the children, the costumes for the evening’s trick or treating. Here in our part of the world, Halloween is relatively new but since it’s summer, it’s a fun time for the parents as well as they sit outside, keeping an eye on their little ones while they honour the fruit of the vine and indulge in good old fashioned conversation.
Halloween was popularized in the United States but it’s certainly not uniquely American so to put things into perspective, I thought I’d look at the festival that really began it all: Samhain which was 2 day holiday falling at the end of the Celtic year – the 31st of October & the 1stof November. There were four seasonal festivals in this part of the world: Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh (celebrated in Ireland, Scotland & the Isle of Man) but wherever the Celts lived, there were similar festivals:
- Wales: Brythonic Calan Gaeaf
- Cornwal: Kalan Gwav
- Brittany: Kalan Goañv
It’s important to understand that the Celts were absolutely dependent on fertile land, without which they would die. Pure and simple. So, it’s understandable that they invented a host of different gods & goddesses to help them with the various aspects of getting food on their tables & fodder for their livestock; they were mindful to pray for healthy animals too because they knew they needed the skins for clothing, the meat to eat and, most importantly, because cattle were a unit of currency at one stage. good healthy stock to use as good healthy currency. If you’ve watched Braveheart you may have noticed a reference to silver coins: well, that’s just not true because there were no coins at that time & certainly no silver – cattle currency was it.
At this time the cattle were brought down from their summer pastures and many of them were slaughtered so that there would be food to eat during winter; bonfires were lit & the various rituals performed, like:
- Walking between the bonfires with the animals so everyone could be spiritually cleansed.
- Throwing the bones of the livestock that had been slaughtered into these bonfires, probably to make the gods happy; it probably also helped to alleviate the problem of rotting bones.
- Samhain was the only time of the year when a door to the so called “Otherworld” opened and the souls of the friendly dead but also dangerous ghostlike creatures would come into the world of the living; families held feasts for the souls of their dearly departed, even setting places at the table for them but, because there were dangerous beings walking around too, they had to take steps to protect themselves from the evil beings. This obviously gave rise to many, many weird & wonderful beliefs & superstitions.
- The souls of the happy dearly departed would bestow blessings on their loved ones but the souls who were murdered & unhappy would come back for revenge. Murderers must have been particularly anxious at this time of the year.
- Because they were Celts & the Celts believed in fairies, elves & goblins, it’s understandable that they believed that fairies could steal human beings & people should stay in their homes or, if they had to go out, walk in the dark (fairies couldn’t see them in the dark); a few other solutions would be to turn their clothing inside out or to carry either salt or iron (apparently fairies don’t like those).
- Food was left at the doorway of each home, again to make the fairies happy & turnip lanterns with faces carved into them were common in Scotland, Ireland and the Scottish Highlands during the 19th century; it seems that the lanterns lit the way and protected homes.
- People also wore costumes & masks to confuse the evil spirits – this was called ‘guising’ or ‘mumming’ and whilst this wasn’t the only occasion when people did this, it was particularly important when there were evil spirits walking the earth. Clearly the evil spirits weren’t very intuitive.
- The Irish liked to wear costumes when they had to go out at night & they also had something called a white mare procession (Láir Bhán) where someone would cover themselves in a white sheet, carry a decorated horse skull & lead a group of young people around (I’d feel like such a fool); they’d blow on cow horns, going from house to house & recite verses at each house in exchange for donations of food or gifts; the greater the gift you gave, the more your home would be blessed. Yeah right.
- The Welsh had a similar Grey Mare procession & yes, it’s quite probable that this custom is pagan in origin.
- Pranks were a big thing at Samhain and this is probably why it was nicknamed “Mischief Night” in some Celtic parts.
- These bonfires were lit on hilltops at Samhain but it seems this only happened in the regions were the Scots lived; they called these fires samhnagen.
- The fires were made from tar-barrels, ferns and anything else that they could get to burn. No, not people.
- John Ramsay writes that in Ochtertyre the late 18th century a ring of stones was laid round each fire to represent each person; then everyone ran round the fire with a torch, “exulting” and in the morning, the stones were examined to if any were mislaid because they believed that the person for whom it was set would not live out the year; they didn’t take into account that someone may have kicked the stones to one side while they were running around them.
- In the north of Wales & Brittany a similar custom existed and it’s quite probable that this custom is derived from the much older custom of human sacrifice. Oh well.
- In Moray an even stranger custom existed: local boys asked each house for a contribution of bonfire fuel & then lit these fires; they would place themselves on the ground as near as possible to the fire without being burned but to allow the smoke to flow over them so the rest could jump over him. They believed the smoke protected them.
- Some Gaelic communities doused their hearth fires on the night of Samhain & then relit it from the communal bonfire to bond everyone in the village together. I can only imagine the stench in those homes.
- In 17th century Ireland, the druids gathered on Tlachta every Samhain night to kindle a sacred fire and each bonfire in the country was lit from this fire and every home from the communal bonfires.
- Later, during the 19th century, the Scots carried torches of pine wood around their fields to protect them.
- To this day it is still the custom in some areas to set a place at the Samhain feast for the souls of dead kinfolk and to tell tales of one’s forebears.
Was part of the festival since ancient times and & to this day people dabble in it but Celtic Reconstructionist paganism is a whole other discussion.
ASKING FOR BLESSINGS
On the 31st of October in some parts locals who lived near a shore would task someone to wade into the water right up to his waist (must have been cold) and pour out a mug of ale to ask an ancient pagan god called Seonaidh to bless him and his community.
When Christianity arrived, the holiday simply changed but many of the customs remained; since the Catholics had a thing for the dead, it fitted right in. It may have been a way for the Church to outwit the druids and persecute them.
There are two possibilities:
- When the Scots & the Irish emigrated to North America, they took the custom with them and Halloween was born.
- Halloween originated from the English All Saints (or All Souls) custom of collecting soul cakes.