As we enter this month of October let us begin by looking at the festival of Samhain.
History of Samhain.
Samhain marks one of the two great doorways of the Celtic year, for the Celts divided the year into two seasons: the light and the dark, at Beltane on May 1st and Samhain on November 1st. Some believe that Samhain was the more important festival, marking the beginning of a whole new cycle, just as the Celtic day began at night. For it was understood that in dark silence comes whisperings of new beginnings, the stirring of the seed below the ground. Whereas Beltane welcomes in the summer with joyous celebrations at dawn, the most magically potent time of this festival is November Eve, the night of October 31st, known today of course, as Halloween.
Samhain (Scots Gaelic: Samhuinn) literally means “summer's end.” In Scotland and Ireland, Halloween is known as Oíche Shamhna, while in Wales it is Nos Calan Gaeaf, the eve of the winter's calend, or first. With the rise of Christianity, Samhain was changed to Hallowmas, or All Saints' Day, to commemorate the souls of the blessed dead who had been canonized that year, so the night before became popularly known as Halloween, All Hallows Eve, or Hollantide. November 2nd became All Souls Day, when prayers were to be offered to the souls of all who the departed and those who were waiting in Purgatory for entry into Heaven. Throughout the centuries, pagan and Christian beliefs intertwined in celebrations from Oct 31st through November 5th, all of which appear both to challenge the ascendancy of the dark and to revel in its mystery.
In the country year, Samhain marked the first day of winter, when the herders led the cattle and sheep down from their summer hillside pastures to the shelter of stable and byre. The hay that would feed them during the winter must be stored in sturdy thatched ricks, tied down securely against storms. Those destined for the table were slaughtered, after being ritually devoted to the gods in pagan times. All the harvest must be gathered in -- barley, oats, wheat, turnips, and apples -- for come November, the faeries would blast every growing plant with their breath, blighting any nuts and berries remaining on the hedgerows. Peat and wood for winter fires were stacked high by the hearth. It was a joyous time of family reunion, when all members of the household worked together baking, salting meat, and making preserves for the winter feasts to come. The endless horizons of summer gave way to a warm, dim and often smoky room; the symphony of summer sounds was replaced by a counterpoint of voices, young and old, human and animal.
In early Ireland, people gathered at the ritual centres of the tribes, for Samhain was the principal calendar feast of the year. The greatest assembly was the 'Feast of Tara,' focusing on the royal seat of the High King as the heart of the sacred land, the point of conception for the New Year. In every household throughout the country, hearth-fires were extinguished. All waited for the Druids to light the new fire of the year, not at Tara, but at Tlachtga, a hill twelve miles to the north-west. It marked the burial-place of Tlachtga, daughter of the great druid Mogh Ruith, who may once have been a goddess in her own right in a former age.
At all the turning points of the Celtic year, the gods drew near to Earth at Samhain, so many sacrifices and gifts were offered up in thanksgiving for the harvest. Personal prayers in the form of objects symbolizing the wishes of supplicants or ailments to be healed were cast into the fire, and at the end of the ceremonies, brands were lit from the great fire of Tara to re-kindle all the home fires of the tribe, as at Beltane. As they received the flame that marked this time of beginnings, people surely felt a sense of the kindling of new dreams, projects and hopes for the year to come. Rituals of Samhain mirror many Halloween practices today.
Many Samhain rituals, traditions, and customs have been passed down throughout the centuries, and are still practiced in various countries on Halloween today.
As a feast of divination, this was the night for peering into the future. There are so many types of divination that are traditional to Halloween it is possible to mention only a few. Girls were told to place hazelnuts along the front of the fire grate, each one to symbolize one of her suitors. She could then divine her future husband by chanting, “If you love me, pop and fly; if you hate me, burn and die.”
Several methods used the apple, that most popular of Halloween fruits. You should slice an apple through the equator (to reveal the five-pointed star within) and then eat it by candlelight before a mirror. Your future spouse will then appear over your shoulder. Or, peel an apple, making sure the peeling comes off in one long strand, reciting, “I pare this apple round and round again, My sweetheart’s name to flourish on the plain, I fling the unbroken paring o’er my head, My sweetheart’s letter on the ground to read.” Or, you might set a snail to crawl through the ashes of your hearth. The considerate little creature will then spell out the initial letter as it moves.
Bobbing for apples was actually a custom the Celts inherited from the Romans when conquered by the Roman Empire. Romans honoured the harvest god, Pomona, and because the apple was a venerated fruit, many rituals revolved around it. The Celts simply incorporated bobbing for apples, a divination game that originated with the Romans, into Samhain tradition.
Bobbing for apples may well represent the remnants of a Pagan “baptism” rite called a seining, according to some writers. The water-filled tub is a latter-day Cauldron of Regeneration, into which the novice’s head is immersed. The fact that the participant in this folk game was usually blindfolded with hands tied behind the back also puts one in mind of a traditional Craft initiation ceremony.
Bobbing for apples was a game of divination. Single girls looking for a mate would carve their initials onto an apple then put it into a bucket of water. Young men would take it in turns to ‘bob’ for an apple, the one they chose had the initials of their intended carved upon it.
Carving Jack O'Lanterns was a custom practiced by Irish children during Samhain. Using a potato or turnip, they would carve out an image and place a candle inside to pay tribute to Jack, an Irish villain so amoral that he was rejected by both god and devil. Legend says that Jack wandered the world, looking for a place to rest, finding it only in a carved-out vegetable. Later, when the Irish emigrated to America, pumpkins were used instead.
Some traditions say that the carved-out pumpkin originated from a Celtic practice of putting an antecedent's skull outside of their home during Samhain. Others say that the Jack O'Lantern was used to ward off evil spirits which were brought forth on All Hallows Eve.
Halloween masks and costumes originated from the Celtic belief that on Samhain, while restless and often evil spirits crossed the thin void from the spirit world, a mask would make the wearer unrecognizable from these ghosts. Druidic rites also involved the wearing of masks, often made of animal’s skins, as the wearers told fortunes and practiced other divination rituals.
Christian Influence over Samhain.
As Christianity spread throughout the Celtic regions, an attempt was made to remove the pagan influences of this holiday and replace them instead with a Christian-sanctioned one. To this end, Pope Boniface IV renamed Samhain, which fell on November 1, to All Saints Day, as a day to honour dead saints. October 31 began to be called All Hallows Eve; this eventually evolved into "Halloween."
Attributed to St. Odilo in the 7th century, the Catholic Church declared November 2 as All Soul's Day, which honours the dead whom had failed to make it to heaven; it's believed these souls were instead held in purgatory. This Christian celebration of the day of the dead has many similarities to Samhain rituals, such as the wearing of masks, parades of ghosts and skeletons, and special food offerings to the dead.
The old ways never really die they simply transform. The Samhain fires continued to blaze down the centuries and the customs of the dead are still practiced today within Irish culture. How many times have you seen a long line of black cars following the hearse and it is still considered to be extremely bad luck to break this solemn procession? Shops and businesses will still close their doors and turn off the lights until the dead pass by and the bell of the church sounds its mournful toll. Here in Westport it is our tradition to walk behind the hearse as it does a last lap of the town; we follow the ‘Covie/Donor’ (Westport man/woman) to the edge of town as a last mark of respect. It’s our way of saying “see yer cove”. You visit a cemetery to find offerings of flowers, and candles and it is this communion between living and dead that shows how connected we all are by the true language of spirit.
You can hear Death in the cry of the crow or the screech of the owl, the shadow of Death forever waits within the edge of darkness just beyond the firelight. His touch lightly caressing your shoulder when you think no one is there. His cold breath sending a shiver up your spine, the hairs on your neck stand up. Death is always there, always watching and waiting and his enduring presence is a constant reminder that we all have an appointment to keep and he eagerly waits that time. Death will continue to walk with us, to capture our imagination and to take us by the hand as he leads us on a journey of mystery and wonder to the land beyond the veil. At Samhain bonfires will light up the skies in many parts of Ireland. Whatever the reason, there will probably always be a human need to make fires against the winters dark and these fires will act as beacons guiding our ancestors home. May the blessings of Samhain light up your life.