Many historians feel that the greatest strength in the Celtic people lies in their collective mythos. Wading through the romanticism to find unmodified information can prove a tricky endeavor. The earliest archaeological evidence we have of the Celts rest in France and Western Germany. The Celtic people moved into Spain, Britain, and Switzerland between the fifth and first century BCE. They even ransacked Rome in 390 BCE.
The Celtic peoples celebrated four festivals called fire festivals–commonly know today as Samhain, Oimelc (Imbolc), Beltane, and Lughnasadh. Samhain (pronounced sow-in, sow rhymes with now) was the first and foremost a harvest festival relating to animal husbandry and preparations for the winter months. Fire is an element of cleaning, a vehicle of eradication, so it is not unlikely that fire would work itself into any type of religious celebration. Fire among the ancient peoples often represented an aspect of the divine.
What does the word Samhain mean? Well, we know what it doesn’t mean. There is no archeological or literary evidence of a Celtic god by the name of Samhain. This little slip of fact appears to have begum in the 1700s and continues in some misinformed publications today. The word Samhain actually means “summers end”.
So, where did this Lord of the Dead thing come in? Over time, Samhain took on a religious significance through ministrations of the Druids (the clergy of the Celt’s). Legends indicate that on Samhain all the hearth fires in Ireland were doused and then lit again from a central fire maintained by the Druids at Tlachtga. To the Celts, Samhain was a turning point from light into darkness, and it was thought that this break or fissure created easier access to their land of the dead, Tir nan Og.
We need to know a little bit about the Druids to continue with our history of Halloween. The Druids were versed in all learning and were considered to have the gift of prophecy. They functioned as judge, ambassadors, healers, and religious leaders. The Druids first named the holiday Samhain.
Copyright 1999 Llewellyn’s Witches’ Datebook Pages 24 to 29