Samhain – the Real Halloween
Halloween is a great time of year – not only does it herald the autumn/winter season, it’s a great time for family fun too with costumes, trick or treating and pumpkin carving. Not many people realise, however, that Halloween has its origins in an ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain. You’d be surprised at how many elements of our typical Halloween celebrations stretch back thousands of years to Celtic times; even the aforementioned trick or treating and costumes! We decided to do some research into Samhain to see what other similarities we could find…
Origins of Samhain
Celtic life revolved around the concept of dark and light. Their year was divided into a dark half and a light half, and the turnover into each was marked with celebrations in the form of two major festivals; Bealtaine and Samhain. Samhain, obviously, was the celebration for the dark half of the year, and is usually translated as meaning ‘summer’s end’. A 24-hour festival from sunset on October 31st to sunset on November 1st was held to say goodbye to the light and welcome the dark – it was considered more important than Bealtaine (and another two lesser festivals known as Imbolc and Lughnasadh) as the dark half of the year was more dangerous and more likely to be sorrowful. The Celts also believed that during this 24 hour period the dead were able to move between the realm of the living and their own, so it was important not to do anything to disrespect them or the consequences would not be good.
Samhain was celebrated by not just the Irish celts, but their Scottish and Manx counterparts too as well as various slightly amended versions in Wales and Brittany. It makes an appearance in some of the oldest written records of Ireland, dating back to the 10th century, but it began long before that. Experts believe that it is likely to have started when the Celts were pastoral people. Their lives would have revolved around summer and winter; summer for growing crops and breeding animals, winter for harvesting and hibernating. The end of October would also have been the time when trade and warfare ceased until the weather improved again, so it was a significant time of year for many reasons. It was often chosen to have important tribal gatherings on the date, and was regularly used as the starting point for myths and legends.
Two hills in the Boyne Valley are particularly associated with Samhain; Tiachtga and Tara, with Tiachtga being the more important one. It was the location of the Great Fire festival, the biggest in the surrounding area by a long stretch. When the great fire at Tiachtga was lit, it was a signal that all was well and other fires could be built. It also marked the start of the massive feast. Tara was also considered significant however as the Mound of Hostages near the top of the hill was aligned with the rising sun around that time of year.
Festival of the Dead
During Samhain the division between the world of the living and the dead was said to be at its thinnest, along otherworldly spirits (both good and evil) to pass freely in and out between the two realms. This made things somewhat tricky for the living Celts, because they wanted to welcome back their loved ones while also warding off evils spirits at the same time.
The sunset to sunset period was said to be ‘between years’ – or in other words, time stood still for a day, so literally anything could happen. The various mythological creatures and spirits in Irish folklore such as the banshee, pooka and of course, the fairies, were all very active around this time. Legend has it that if a human caught a Banshee during Samhain, they could kill her so she never inflicted her misery on another human ever again. The underworld homes of the fairies, and the fairies themselves, were fully visible to humans, and humans were fully able to interact with them; but if they did anything offensive, disrespectful, or broke any rules, they would cross over into the ‘other’ world and never be allowed to return. The walking dead also had the power to communicate with the living and call in old debts. Crossroads, bridges, boundaries between neighbouring land, and of course burial places where crossing points for the spirits to go between worlds. For that reason, many people opted to stay inside and be scared instead of venturing out.
What happened during Samhain?
Most of the activities during Samhain were based around fire and the dead, which doesn’t sound very celebratory! All fires in homes were extinguished and a central bonfire was built in each community. The fire was deemed to have protective and healing powers, and was the centre of the festival. Anyone who wanted to bring this purity to their own homes must then light their fire with flames from the bonfire. There were various rituals involved with the bonfire, including animal sacrifice, music and dancing. Some accounts mention that two fires were built side by side, with people walking in between them and leading their cattle through too as a cleansing ritual. The bones of slaughtered cattle were also thrown onto the fire, as well as ‘wicker men’ – food, bones or even animals (or perhaps even humans) encased in wicker cages.
The other main aspect of the celebrations was a huge feast, which took place over more than one day either side of the festival day itself. It was an excellent opportunity to get rid of perishable foods before the winter set in, and since it was usually a time when masses of people came together for important gatherings, it made sense to have a feast either way! Samhain was an extremely busy time for the pastoral Celts, who would need to bring their cows back from pasture for the winter, choose which ones to slaughter for food, and prepare for harvesting. So by the time all of that was done, a nice hot meal was no doubt all they wanted. A certain amount of food and a place at the table was set aside for any dead family members who decided to return to their homes for the feast – all the entrances to a home would have been left open so that the spirits could enter and leave as they wished. The food for the dead was not to be touched by human hand between the sunset to sunset periods as this was considered a horrific sacrilege and meant that the perpetrator would be a hungry spirit after their death, forever banned from the Samhain feast.
There were lots of other peculiar customs that went on during Samhain too. The Celts were ever fearful of fairies, and since they were more powerful than ever during Samhain, offerings of food were left outside their houses to make sure they stayed in a good mood. It was also common for people to disguise themselves with masks and different clothes so that the fairies would find it difficult to tell people apart if they decided to steal some souls. As part of the celebrations, the disguised people would go from house to house singing in return for a small token of food; if the homeowner was not obliging, they threatened to cause all kinds of mischief in the vein of an evil spirit descending on the house – sounds a bit like trick or treating, doesn’t it?
As well as disguising themselves with masks, pranksters would carry around lanterns made from hollowed out vegetables such as turnips, both to light their way and for protection (those evil spirits and fairies had no mercy). They would often carve grotesque faces on their lanterns to make them look like demons to passersby. Children and adults alike would partake in various activities to keep the dead entertained, including a review of the events of the past year so that the dead would continue to take an interest in the affairs of the living, and several child’s games associated with the ritual practices.
Samhain was also a time for settling debts, both with the dead and the living. A general armistice was observed and discussions and friendly competitions were held between tribes that would otherwise never interact with each other outside of the battlefield.
Various divination rituals took place among people at the festival, usually using food. The peel of an apple would be thrown over a person’s shoulder and its shape examined to divine the first letter of the name of that person’s future spouse. The behaviour of nuts on a fire determined the fate of a couple; if the nuts stuck together when cooking, so would the couple. Egg whites dropped into water could foretell the number of future children they would have. Crows flying in different formations determined various things, and there were multiple other little rituals too. For the most part these probably weren’t taken too seriously, and were more so meant as fun than anything else.
After the bonfires had died out, the ashes left behind were considered sacred, and people from the surrounding settlements would take some to scatter on their land to bring a good harvest. The ashes did in fact improve the soil regardless, so this was one belief that came true every year!
How did Samhain become Halloween?
Samhain and the other Celtic festivals became ‘Christianised’ once religion came to Ireland. Christians wanted to do whatever they could to eliminate pagan rituals and spread their faith across the island, so Samhain, the festival of the dead, was re-branded as the festival of all saints and martyrs, or All Saints Day. Originally held in March, the Pope of the day transferred it to November 1st to ‘incorporate’ the pagan festival. Although people adapted the new festival as their own, the folk traditions and customs associated with Samhain still persisted for many centuries – some of them even lasted right up until the present day!