Friday, 4 October 2013

Samhain: history, traditions and celebrations


What is the festival of Samhain and how is it celebrated?

Samhain (pronounced sow-en) is celebrated on 31st October in the Northern hemisphere and 1st May in the southern hemisphere. The weather is getting colder and the nights are drawing in. We are reminded of the change of the seasons and the wheel turns to Samhain. Samhain is Gaelic for "summer's end, taken from the word “Samhuin,” It is also thought to take it’s name from the Gaulish Colligny calender that names October as Samonios. Samhain has been known by various alternative names: Some Celtic Wiccans and Druids call it Calan Gaeaf, Calan Gwaf, Kala-Goanv, or Nos Galan Gaeof. In Welsh, it is Nos Cyn Calan Gaual. It also is known as Oie Houney. In countries around the world it is known as ‘the Day of the dead’

At Samhain we particularly honour our ancestors as the division between our world and the spirit world is at its thinnest. Samhain was a particulary important festival In Celtic Ireland about 2,000 years ago, it was celebrated as the division of the year between the lighter half (summer) and the darker half (winter). In Pagan terms Samhain is often thought of as the start of the new year. Traditionally it was thought that the dead returning to visit their kin at Samhain and the doors to the Lands of the Sidhe (pronounced "shee") or Faery Realm were opened.

Eliade's Encyclopedia of Religion says: "The Eve and day of Samhain were characterized as a time when the barriers between the human and supernatural worlds were broken... Not a festival honoring any particular Celtic deity, Samhain acknowledged the entire spectrum of nonhuman forces that roamed the earth during that period."

Samhain marks the third and final harvest of the year. This is the time that fruit such as blackberries and apples are harvested, hence the importance of apples in Samhain and Halloween traditions. Late October was also the nut harvest for Celts, and the time for salting winter's supply of meat. The Sun God is sacrificed back to the land until the Winter Solstice, and the Crone Goddess mourns Him until His rebirth at Yule.

Ancient traditions of Samhain

In Irish lore the Tuatha de Danann arrived in Ireland on Beltane (like the people of Cesair and Partholon before them) They fought their first great battle against the Fir Bolg soon after. The major, defining battle though was the war against the loathsome Fomori, this war is described as occurring on Samhain.

A similar tale can be found in the story of the destruction of Tara. A bard of the Sidhe called Aillen mac Midgna cast a sleep-spell over the inhabitants of Tara using his timpan (like a zither) Every Samhain night for 23 years his fiery breath burnt the hall to the ground, and it had to be rebuilt over the winter. This continued until the time when the young hero Fionn Mac Cumhail, arriving for the Feast of Tara, sticks a spear through him. Another tale is that the Tuatha de Danann bring four talismans, one of which is the Great Fál or the “Stone of Knowledge.” Ancient lore tells that this stone was one of four stones positioned in the cardinal directions on Tara.
This time on the Wheel of the Year was so important to the ancient peoples of Ireland that they built a megalithic mound at the Hill of Tara to mark it’s observance.

“Inside the mound of Tara, it is dark, all 
around is the chill of pre-dawn, the only 
sounds are the sounds of breathing. Suddenly the dark chamber is illuminated by a brilliant light. It is the rising sun on one of the two most important days of the Celtic year, it is Samhain.” - Gabrielle Diana Laney

Both the story of the Tuatha de danann and Tara show the destruction of an oppressive force. It follows therefore that Samhain is seen as a time to release negative forces.

The Celts inherited extensive knowledge about the solar and lunar movements from their Neolithic predecessors in Europe. The bronze Coligny Calendar, found near Lyon, France, was more accurate than the one used by the Romans. Scholars have found that these feasts correspond closely to the solar alignments of the megalithic mounds, where Samhain, the Celtic New Year was the greatest feast marking the culmination of the Harvest Festivals.
 This structure is said to be Ireland’s Stonehenge, a 4,500-year-old structure at the Hill of Tara in Co Meath, has been re-created by archaeologists and computer-graphics experts. Monuments found at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth show the importance of Samhain and our earth’s natural rhythms and more work is taking place to try and work out the complex symbology.

To commemorate Samhain, our ancestors, the Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to celebrate. In Scotland, these bonfires were called samhnagan, and they were usually made from flammable materials like ferns, tar-barrels, and anything else that would burn. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, and attempted to tell each other's fortunes. When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires (which they had extinguished earlier that evening) from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter. Samhain was one of only two days- the other being Beltane-when it was considered correct to extinguish the "hearth fire" and then to re-light it. If your fire failed at any other time of the year, it was thought to be bad luck. It was also customary to light a new candle for the "new year".

The importance of fire and its connection to the sun is explained as follows: “The perceptible, and apparent, decline in the strength of the sun at this time of year was a source of anxiety for early man and the lighting of the Winter Fires here symbolised man’s attempt to assist the sun on its journey across the skies. Fire is the earthly counterpart of the sun and is a powerful and appropriate symbol to express man’s helplessness in the face of the overwhelming sense of the decay of nature as the winter sets in.” Tiachgta: Celtic Fire festival by by John Gilroy.

Food was usually prepared at Samhain for the living and the dead. A place was often laid for any dead loved ones.  Food prepared for the ancestors who were in no position it eat it was ritually shared with the less well off. Many people left milk and cakes called Bannock Samhain outside their door on Samhain Eve

By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the course of the four hundred years that they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain. The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of "bobbing" for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.

With the coming of Christianity in the 800s AD, the early Church in England tried to Christianize the old Celtic festivals. Christianity incorporated the honouring of the dead into the Christian calendar with ‘All Hallows Eve’ on the 31st, All Saints (All Hallows) on November 1st, followed by All Souls on November 2nd. Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints', All Saints', and All Souls' day, are called Hallowmas. Ancient traditions surrounding these festivals were very much based on the earlier Pagan beliefs.

Throughout time many traditions have blended into Halloween, for example the American harvest time tradition of carving pumpkins. 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.

The Celts regarded the human head as the ‘Seat of the Soul’ the concept of the carved pumpkin with a candle inside it as the Light shining from the Soul.  These early lanterns wer given the name Jack-o-Lantern and were often carves out of turnips rather than pumpkins. The name "Jack-O-Lantern" means "Jack of the Lantern, " and comes from an old Irish tale. Jack was a man who could enter neither heaven nor hell and was condemned to wander through the night with only a candle in a turnip for light. The story goes that Jack was a miser and when he died, he was not allowed into heaven and he also played jokes on the Devil, so he was not admitted into Hell either. He only had a small lantern to light his way and this is why he came to be called Jack-O-Lantern. It is also an old legend that candle flames that flicker on Samhain night are being touched by the spirits of dead ancestors.

Samhain was a time for celebrating your ancestors and many people visited graves of their loved ones at this time. They often brought food, holy water and flowers to decorate the graves and honour their loved ones.

The wearing of costumes and masks to ward off harmful spirits survived as Halloween customs. "Trick-or-treating" is a modern tradition that dates back to early Pagan times. The wearing of costumes is an ancient practice; villagers would dress as ghosts, to escort the spirits of the dead to the outskirts of the town at the end of the night's celebrations. It is also thought that the wearing of costumes and masks warded off harmful spirits. The wearing of these disguises was known as ‘guisng’ or ‘mumming’. Playing practical jokes was very popular at this time, the revelers dressed up and went around the towns and villages to play tricks on people.

In England on all souls day poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them pastries called "soul cakes" in return for their promise to pray for the family's dead relatives. The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits. The practice, which was referred to as "going a-souling" was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given ale, food, and money.

Divination was carried out extensively at Samhain. Divinations were often performed e to find out the identity of one's future spouse, the location of one's future home, and how many children one might have.

Samhain around the world.

The Hindu Diwali (Divali, Deepavali) Festival known as the Festival of Lights occurs about the same time as Samhain. Diwali marks the Hindu New Year just as Samhain marks the Celtic New Year, it seems possible that the two have come from similar roots.

Mexico observes a Day of the Dead (Spanish: Día de Muertos) on this day, as do other world cultures. In Mexico it is a time to celebrate with family and to remember one’s ancestors. People visit cemeteries and build altars to remember their loved ones. Even today it is national holiday with the banks and shops closing so that people may celebrate the day of the dead.

In Guatamalia they celebrate the ‘Day of the Dead’ by building and flying huge kites.

In Ecuador the Day of the Dead is particularly important to the Kichwa who make up an estimated quarter of the population. Families gather together in the community cemetery with offerings of food for a day-long remembrance of their ancestors.

In Haiti the traditions of voodoo and catholisism are combined for an all night celebration with loud music and drumming. These celebrations are supposed to waken ‘Baron Samedi’, the Loa of the dead and his family.

Celebrations in Austraila and Indonesia follow similar traditions to the Mexican day of the dead and involve visiting graves and placing flowers on them.

In the Phillipines, the holiday is called Todos los Santos (All Saints Day), Undas (from Spanish andas, or possibly honra), or Araw ng mga Patay (Day of the Dead), and is a celebration of family.

In Brittany in France people flock to the cemeteries at nightfall on Samhain to kneel, bareheaded, at the graves of their loved ones and to anoint their tombstones with holy water.

On 31 October, the locals on the Scottish island of Iona would go down to the shore. One man would wade into the water up to his waist, where he would pour out a cup of ale and ask  ‘Seonaidh’ an old pagan god – to bestow blessings on them all.

On the Isle of Man they celebrated Hop-tu-Naa on 31 October, which is a celebration of the original New Year's Eve. The term is Manx Gaelic in origin, possibly from Shogh ta'n Oie, meaning "this is the night" Children carried turnip lanterns and sang Hop-tu-naa songs. ‘Jinnie the Witch’ is a song which is still sung today.
The modern song goes as follows :
My mother's gone away
And she won't be back until the morning
Jinnie the Witch flew over the house
To fetch the stick to lather the mouse
My mother's gone away
And she won't be back until the morning
Hop-tu-Naa, Traa-la-laa

A cake was made at Hop-tu-Naa which was called Soddag Valloo or Dumb Cake, because it was made and eaten in silence.

Modern Day Samhain celebrations.

How you choose to celebrate Samhain is very much a matter of personal choice. Many traditional acts such as trick or treating, pumpkin carving and apple bobbing are fun to carry out especially if you have young children.

Samhain is also a calmer celebration when we honour the spirits of our departed loved ones. You may like to light candles, visit graves and build altars to celebrate those you have lost. Many pagan and Druid ceremonies concentrate on the importance of our departed love ones.

Samhain at the Rollright stones

Further information on celebrating Samhain may be found in my article ‘20 ways to celebrate Samhain’

Sources and further reading:
Sources: I have found my information from various sites all over the internet. Also the following books are excellent sources for wheel of the year information:
MacKillop, J, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998
Tiachgta: Celtic Fire festival by by John Gilroy.
Eliade's Encyclopedia of Religion


  1. This was so interesting...I love learning about Wicca and their celebrations, especially at Halloween and autumn~~~

  2. thanks Jan, yes it is a magical time of year with the beautiful colours of autumn all around us xx