The Celtic Origins of Samhain
As Samhain approaches, my mind turns to childhood memories of costumes, candy and trick-or-treating. Even in our modern world, the rules are set aside on Halloween day. We ask for candy from strangers. We disguise ourselves and walk around both familiar and strange neighborhoods.
From where did this bizarre holiday come? What are the origins of the themes of death, the macabre and merry-making?
Modern Pagans celebrate Samhain as the third of three harvest festivals. Considered the Pagan New Year’s Day, Neo-Pagans also use this day to honor the ancestors. We often set food on our altars for loved ones who recently passed away. In the Wiccan year-long dance of the Goddess and God, Samhain celebrates the time when the God is in the underworld before His rebirth at Yule.
This festival originated as one of the four Celtic fire festivals; the other three being Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh – the four days we currently call Cross-Quarter days, Greater Sabbats or Greater High Days. In ancient Celtic times many local tribes gathered together in centralized locations, ritual centers (Jones and Pennick 90) or regional capitals for celebration, games, feasting (Rees 8) , markets, fairs and horse races.
In Ireland, the people assembled at the 5 main provinces (Green 55) , and it was a day of peace and amity, where disagreements were set aside, fighting put on hold, and even debts temporarily forgiven (Koch 147) .
Despite the fun and festivities, there was a dark side. As death features so highly in modern Halloween, Dia De Los Muertos, and even our modern Neo-Pagan Samhain, it featured just as much back them. Samhain was a harvest festival, yet it was not crops that were harvested, but animals. Samhain marked the end of the grazing season and a time when the herds were brought in from the fields. To feed all of the animals through winter used up precious food that the people needed, therefore the breeding stock was set aside, and all other animals were slaughtered (Jones and Pennick 90) .
I doubt that the ancients were any less callous about this massive slaughter of animals than we would be. Death on that scale would have affected them, and we see this effect in the other aspects of this holy day.
Custom has it that on Samhain Eve, the souls of the dead returned to visit those they knew in life. Food for the spirits of the dead was left outside or at an empty place setting at the dinner table. Doors were left open and the hearth was prepared to welcome them (Rees 90) . Even modern jack-o-lanterns started out as hollowed out turnips and gourds filled with a candle or coals – not to scare away ghost or goblins, but to welcome departed loved ones and show them the way back home.
Another way that Samhain celebrated death was that it was also a ritual mourning for the death of summer (Green 55) . The Celts thought of the year as being divided into two seasons: Winter and Summer. To the Celts, time occurred in pairs, such as Winter and Summer, night and day, and the dark half of the month and the light half of the month. Dark comes first, just as the darkness of gestation precedes birth. Thus sunset was the start of the new day, and Samhain the start of the new year (a tradition us modern Witches still hold) .
The Celts viewed these pairs of time as microcosms of the universe and time itself (Rees 88-90) . Within these pairs, the laws of time, space and the universe were held. On cusp moments (sunset and sunrise, the nights of the waning and waxing quarter moons, Samhain and Beltane) , the time when one time period has not quite ended and another has not quite begun, the normal laws of time, space and the universe were suspended.
One effect of this suspension was that the barriers between the worlds were broken. The expression one often hears is that the veils between the worlds become thin, due to it being a “boundary time.” This suspension of the “Laws of the Universe” is why the spirits of the dead can visit us (Green 55) and the living can visit the lands of the dead.
These transition periods or moments had the propensity for good or evil. It was neither lucky nor unlucky, but both. Certain acts were forbidden or thought to be unlucky if performed at sunset or sunrise, such as marriages. Yet the morning dew was thought to be restorative and cures were thought to be more potent at sunset.
This contradiction may have stemmed from the thought that these transition times held the potential for renewal and rebirth. This effect is also seen in the twice yearly extinguishing of house or hearth fires, which are then relit on Beltaine and Samhain as a symbolic cleansing.
Predictions and fortune telling were also possible on Samhain because the suspension of the laws of time allowed the boundaries between the present and the future to disappear. Again, we come back to the idea that the laws of the universe are suspended during the cusp time. Although, most predictions were concerned with figuring out whom you would marry and who would die in the coming year.
The realms of the living and dead and the past, present and future were not the only realms to mingle during boundary times. Samhain, as well as Beltane and Midsummer, saw a mingling of the worlds of fairies and humans. On Samhain night, Síd (pronounced shee) mounds were open and lost their glamour (Rees 88-90) , that protection that prevents us from seeing into them.
We can see these phenomena in the story of Finn mac Cumaill and the fairy maiden. In Síd Breg Ele, a beautiful fairy maiden lived. Only on Samhain night could she be wooed, because only then did the Síd mound open and the glamour fall away. Each time a suitor came to woo her, one person of the suitor’s party would be killed, yet no one knew how he was killed.
Finn mac Cumaill was determined to solve this mystery. He sought advice and was told to sit between that fairy mound and the neighboring one on Samhain eve. As he sat there, he saw the two hills open, saw great bonfires in each one and heard the residents in each discussing an exchange of gifts. As one man came out of the hill of the fairy maiden, Finn threw a spear into him. The faerie Finn killed was the one who was killing the suitors’ men (Rees 251) .
The interaction between men and the Síd was not limited to their mounds. In the Fionn Cycle, we hear about Tara, one of the regional capitols, which were often plagued by Síd and Fomoire attacks. During Samhain, warriors from the tribes would gather to offer protection during a time when Tara was more vulnerable. A particular goblin, Aillen mac Midhna, tried every Samhain to set fire to Tara, until Finn magicked him away (Green 20) (Rees 156) .
When placed in the context of Celtic beliefs, much of our Samhain (and Halloween) rituals make perfect sense. Death came from the slaughter of herd animals, whose spilt blood reminded us of mortality. The cusp moment when Summer has ended, but Winter has not yet begun, allowed the veils between the realms of Fairies, Man and the Dead to lift. The transition period also allowed time to stand still and the past, present and future to overlap. Added up we get costume disguises to hide from Fairies, Jack-o-lanterns to guide our dearly departed back to our door, dumb suppers and fortune telling.
But I don’t understand where the candy came from.
Green, Miranda J. Celtic Myths. Austin: University of Texas P, 1993.
Jones, Prudence and Nigel Pennick. A History of Pagan Europe. London: Routledge, 1995.
Koch, John. The Celtic Heroic Age. Andover: Celtic Studies, 2000.
Rees, Alwyn and Brinley Rees. Celtic Heritage. London: Thames and Hudson, 1961.