As October turns to November, thousands of Witches, Wiccans, Druids, and other Pagans across America, Canada, Europe, and elsewhere observe the sacred time of Samhain. Samhain is a festival of the Dead. Meaning “Summer’s End” and pronounced saah-win, Samhain is a celebration of the end of the harvest and the start of the coldest half of the year. For many practitioners, Samhain also is the beginning of the spiritual new year.
As millions of children and adults participate in the fun of Halloween on the night of October 31st, few will be aware of its ancient Celtic roots in the Samhain festival. In Celtic Ireland about 2,000 years ago, Samhain was the division of the year between the lighter half (summer) and the darker half (winter). At Samhain the division between this world and the otherworld was at its thinnest, allowing spirits to pass through.
The family’s ancestors were honoured and invited home whilst harmful spirits were warded off. People wore costumes and masks to disguise themselves as harmful spirits and thus avoid harm. Bonfires and food played a large part in the festivities. The bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into a communal fire, household fires were extinguished and started again from the bonfire. Food was prepared for the living and the dead, food for the ancestors who were in no position it eat it, was ritually shared with the less well off.
The Irish emigrated to America in great numbers during the 19th century especially around the time of famine in Ireland during the 1840’s. The Irish carried their Halloween traditions to America, where today it is one of the major holidays of the year. Through time other traditions have blended into Halloween, for example the American harvest time tradition of carving pumpkins. The practice of divination – telling the future, was an important part of everyday life for the Celts and it is certain that this art formed a central part of the festivities that occurred at Samhain.
The idea that Samhain is a juncture between the two halves of the year saw it acquiring the unique status of being suspended in time – it did not belong to the old year not the new. It could be said that time stood still on this night and the implications of this were immense. During this night the natural order of life was thrown into chaos and the earthly world of the living became hopelessly entangled with the world of the dead. But the world of the dead was itself a complicated place, peopled not only by the spirits of the departed, but also with a host of gods, fairies and other creatures of uncertain nature. The unwary traveller, caught away from home on this night, could expect to encounter any one or many of these creatures and it was always advisable to stay indoors.
With the growth and spread of Christianity as the dominant religion throughout Europe, Samhain time took on Christian names and guises. All Saints’ Day or All Hallows on November 1 commemorated Christian saints and martyrs. All Souls’ Day on November 2 was a remembrance for all souls of the dead. With the coming of Christian Spaniards to Mexico, the indigenous customs of honoring the dead at this time of year mixed with Roman Catholicism and gave birth to the Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, in early November. Samhain shares the ancient spiritual practice of remembering and paying respects to the Dead with these related religious holidays of Christianity.
Samhain’s long association with death and the Dead reflects Nature’s rhythms. In many places, Samhain coincides with the end of the growing season. Vegetation dies back with killing frosts, and therefore, literally, death is in the air. This contributes to the ancient notion that at Samhain, the veil is thin between the world of the living and the realm of the Dead and this facilitates contact and communication. For those who have lost loved ones in the past year, Samhain rituals can be an opportunity to bring closure to grieving and to further adjust to their being in the Otherworld by spiritually communing with them.
For further reading:
The History Of Samhain And Halloween