The myth about the “Celtic god of the dead.” Some believe he existed and is associated with Halloween and Neopagan religions like Wicca.
Wicca is a Neo-pagan, Earth-centered religion, partly based on ancient Celtic religion. Identifying Samhain as a Celtic and Wiccan “Death God” is one of the most tenacious errors often associated with Halloween and Wicca.
Most stories about the origin of Halloween correctly state that Halloween had its origins among the ancient Celts and is based on their “Feast of Samhain.” However, a writer in the 18th century incorrectly stated that Samhain was named after the Celtic “God of the Dead.” Many religious conservatives who are opposed to Halloween, Druidism, Wicca, and other Neopagan religions have picked up this belief without checking its accuracy. They have accepted it as valid. It became a nearly universal belief among conservative Protestants.
There is no historical evidence that such God ever existed. However, by the late 1990’s many secular sources such as newspapers and television programs had picked up the error and propagated it widely.
Was/is Samhain a Celtic God?
The answer is a definite maybe and no:
MAYBE: He did exist. Many Neopagan and secular sources are probably wrong. As As Isaac Bonewits writes: “Major dictionaries of Celtic Languages don’t mention any ‘Samhain’ deity…” 8 However, there is some evidence that there really was an obscure, little known character named Samhain or Sawan who played the role of a very minor hero in Celtic mythology. His main claim to fame was that Balor of the Evil Eye stole his magical cow. His existence is little known, even among Celtic historians. Note that he was a minor hero, not a major god. It is likely that he was named after the end of summer celebration rather than vice-versa.
- Many conservative Christian and secular sources are definitely wrong; there is/was no Celtic God of the Dead. The Great God Samhain appears to have been invented in the 18th century, as a God of the Dead. This happened before the ancient Celtic people and their religion were studied in detail by historians and archaeologists.
If Samhain isn’t an ancient Celtic God of the Dead, then what is Samhain really?
McBain’s Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language says that ‘Samhuinn’ (the Scottish Gaelic spelling of Samhain) means ‘summer’s end.’ The Celts observed only two seasons of the year: summer and winter. So, Samhain was celebrated at the transition from the warm to the cold season. It was their New Year’s Eve.
Samhain is pronounced “sah-van” or “sow-in” (where “ow” rhymes with “cow”). A language expert has commented that the “mh” in Samhain and Samhuin:
“… would originally have been pronounced like an “m” made without quite closing your mouth.”
At the present time, the original pronunciation is still heard. Some tighten it to a “v” sound (typical in the south) or loosen it to a “w” sound (typical in the west and, especially, the north). In “Samhain” the “w” pronunciation would be most common.” 20
Meaning of “Samhain” according to many modern-day Celtic, Druidic, Irish, Wiccan and other Neopagan individuals and groups:
They view “Samhain” as a a yearly festival with ancient roots. They do not acknowledge the existence of a God of the Dead named Samhain or a similar deity by any other name. Modern-day Wiccans and many other Neopagans celebrate Samhain as their most important Sabbat (seasonal day of celebration). It is the time when one year ends and the next begins.
A Wiccan web site “Brightest Blessings” mentions:
“Samhain (October 31), most often recognized as our New Year, is also called Ancestor Night. It represented the final harvest, when the crops were safely stored for the coming winter. As the veil between the worlds of life and death is thin on this night, we take this time to remember our beloved dead.”
W.J. Bethancourt III has an online essay which traces the God Samhain myth back to the year 1770 when Col. Charles Vallency wrote a 6 volume set of books which attempted to prove that the Irish people once came from Armenia. Samhain as a god was later picked up in a 1827 book by Godfrey Higgins. 9That book attempted to prove that the Druids originally came from India. The error might have originated in confusion over the name of Samana, an ancient Vedic/Hindu deity. Bethancourt comments:
“With modern research, archaeology and the study of the Indo-European migrations, these conclusions can be seen as the complete errors they were…”
Later, he wrote:
“Samhain’ is the name of the holiday. There is no evidence of any god or demon named ‘Samhain,’ ‘Samain,’ ‘Sam Hane,’ or however you want to vary the spelling.”
Rowan Moonstone, a Wiccan, comments:
“I’ve spent several years trying to trace the “Great God Samhain” and I have YET to find seminal sources for the same. The first reference seems to be from Col. Vallency in the 1700s and then Lady Wilde in her book ‘Mystic Charms and Superstitions’ advances the ‘Samhain, lord of the dead’ theory. Vallency, of course was before the work done on Celtic religion in either literature or archaeology.” 12
The Irish English Dictionary, published by the Irish Texts Society, defines Samhain as follows:
“Samhain, All Hallowtide, the feast of the dead in Pagan and Christian times, signalizing the close of harvest and the initiation of the winter season, lasting till May, during which troops (esp. the Fiann) were quartered.” 13
The Scottish Gaelis Dictionary similarly defines Samhain as:
“Hallowtide. The Feast of All Soula. Sam + Fuin = end of summer.” 14
J.C. Cooper, author of The Dictionary of Festivals identifies Samhain as:
“Samhain or Samhuinn: (Celtic). 31 October, Eve of 1 November, was the beginning of the Celtic year, the beginning of the season of cold, death and darkness.” 19
The meaning of Samhain according to most conservative Christians and many modern-day information sources:
The belief that the Celtic New Year festival was known as the celebration of Samhain, “the Lord of the Dead” is near universal among conservative Christian ministries, authors and web sites. They rarely cite references. This is unfortunate, because it would greatly simplify the job of tracing the myth of Samhain as a God back to its origin:
Some examples are:
Lee Carr wrote the text for a web site “Halloweenies…For kids not meanies.”She wrote:
“Druids would feast and build huge bonfires to celebrate the Sun God, and thank him for the food that the land produced. The next day, November 1st, was the Celtic New Year, and it was believed that on this day the souls of all dead people would gather together. Therefore, on Halloween, the Celts would also honor the God of the Dead, Samhain.” 5
Scottish Radiance writes about Samhain:
“The Celtics believed, that during the winter, the sun god was taken prisoner by Samhain, the Lord of the Dead and Prince of Darkness…On the eve before their new year (October 31), it was believed that Samhain called together all the dead people.” 7
An unidentified quotation, apparently from a conservative Christian source, is:
“Samhain was the name of the Druid god of the dead. The Druids were a religious order amongst the Celts. On this day (October 31), they would try to appease their lord of death.
On October 31, black-cloaked Druids bearing torches would go door to door to select humans for their New Year’s [human] sacrifice to the Lord of the Dead. In return for the child or infant, they would leave a hollowed turnip with candle light shining through the carved face.” 22