Samhain is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or ‘darker-half’ of the year. In the northern hemisphere, it is customarily held on 1st November, but with celebrations beginning on the evening of 31st October, as the Celtic day began and ended at sunset.
Halloween or Hallowe’en, also known as Hallowmass, All Hallows’ Eve, or All Saints’ Eve, is a three-day celebration observed in many countries on 31st October, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallow’s Day. It begins the observance of Allhallowtide, the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed.
Well, okay … yeah.
But before we begin … can we imagine the furore if Easter was hijacked by a bunch of loin-clothed rejects from Jesus Christ Super Star dangling from trees in the local park, because they’ve discovered some spurious regeneration connection between the New Testament story and Eostre – the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and dawn? Actually, she is only mentioned once in scholarly writings of the period – Bede, that venerable monk, stated that during Eostremonath (the old Anglo-Saxon name for April), pagan Anglo-Saxons held festivals in her honour. Two hundred years later, in his Life of Charlemagne, another monk – this time named Einhard – gives the old name for April as Ostaramonath. She is also mentioned in a number of German inscriptions, and the modern holiday of Easter – originally the name for the Spring Equinox, but later absorbed into the Paschal cycle for the Eastern Orthodox Christian resurrection holiday built around Pascha (Easter)!?
Nevertheless, this is exactly what has happened to the modern ‘celebration’ of Hallowe’en/ Samhain. Another of the old festivals – like Yule and Harvest – that the Church decided was easier to absorb into its calendar than making any further attempts at abolition. In fact, with the benefit of hindsight, we can judge the original importance of these old festivals from the degree of sanctity accorded these former pagan customs within the Church’s liturgical year. This consisted of a cycle of seasons that determined when Church feast days – including celebrations of the newly created saints – were to be observed, and which portions of Scripture were to be read. Distinct colours were used in connection with different seasons, and although the dates of the festivals may vary among the different denominations, the sequence and logic largely remains the same.
According to the Celts, Samhain was the time when the veil between this and Otherworld was believed to be at its thinnest: when the spirits of the dead could most freely mingle with the living once again. They believed the Lord of the Dead, would come that night to take up into the afterlife the souls of those who had died during that year. Like many other pagan traditions, the holiday was eventually Christianized in order to honour the dead, including those newly ‘absorbed’ saints. In its original Elder Faith form it was much more dangerous and threatening – a weird period of dread and ill-omen; a time of gloom and mourning for the dying year and the Mighty Dead.
At this time of the year, some of the Old Ways tell that certain ‘portals’ between the worlds require physically closing once they have been opened to prevent unscheduled souls being sucked through before their time. These portals must be marked with a propitiatory rite of a soul passing through before the way can be closed or the gates will remain open to trap the unsuspecting. It has been suggested that ‘dabblers’ mucking about with things they do not understand can create this type of ‘gate’ that preys on the unwary because the ‘dead’ are often hungry for life. Here we find disembodied entities, such as those of the Unseelie Court of the luchd-sidhe, who simply hate the living.
The Seelie and Unseelie Courts of Scottish fairies are a particular feature of the folklore of that country; the clear separation of the faes into good and bad groupings that are entailed is almost unique in folklore. The Unseelie Court was used to describe the darkly-inclined faere and no offence was deemed necessary to bring down their assaults. As a group (or ‘host’), they were thought to appear at night and assault travellers, often carrying them through the air, beating them, and forcing them to commit such acts as injuring cattle. In Scotland, they were seen as closely allied with witches.
As we can see there is quite a bit of dangerous stuff out there which is not so much ‘evil’ as hungry. The gates themselves aren’t evil, neither are those who open them indiscriminately – just shamefully foolish and irresponsible. This day marked the beginning of the dark, cold winter – a time of year that was often associated with human death. Which is why Celts believed that on this night – before the ‘new year’ – the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred – and dangerous! So plenty of propitiatory observations need to be performed to keep the malevolence at bay … because on this night they observed the ‘end of summer’ when it was believed ghosts of the dead returned to earth. In addition to causing trouble or damaging provisions and livestock, the people also thought the presence of these otherworld entities made it opportune for the Druids (the Celtic priesthood), to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on a volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of guidance during the long dark months to follow.
In its most common form it was seen as an agrarian festival held to placate the Ancestors, to propitiate any malevolent forces; to please the gods (and those ‘saints’ who replaced them), and as a clear distinction between the joys of harvest and the hardships of approaching winter:
As current Chief Druid, Eimear Burke (OBOD) commented: “There’s that notion now that Samhain marks the beginning of the Celtic New Year. Think of all the people that have invaded us. We, Irish people are not Celtic, there are no generic markers. But the Celts when they came, did leave their culture – including music, stories and languages – and their festivals. On this night [Samhain] the Calleach (the Crone) comes to strip the leaves from the trees to quicken the decay of the flesh of the year, so that it may feed the new life to come. We can also ask her to take the unwanted aspects of our personal year away, so that these too, might be transformed.” [Irish Country Living]
To commemorate the ‘new year’ and the first day of winter, there were enormous sacred bonfires; it was the time when the night became longer than the day, the last apples were picked, and the year began again with its dark, winter half. When the Earth rests it is sometimes called Trinoux Samonia, or ‘Three Nights of the End of Summer’. Originally a Druid festival, it was observed on either day (31st October/1st November) as the Celts measured the day from sunset to sunset. In the Celtic seasonal tale, The Wasting Sickness of Cuchulainn, it was observed for a total of seven days – three before and three after the feast of Samhain – marking the dangers of Otherworld at that time of the year.
“There is a marked danger of venturing too far into Otherworld. There is the risk of trespassing upon someone else’s ‘turf’ and getting lost. There is the risk that the dead will not let you go; that someone was not ready to leave life and will like yours all too greatly. There is the risk of wandering too far from your body, since to go that far into Otherworld to reach the lands of the dead, one may lose all awareness of the body’s physical surroundings. If something were to happen, there would be no way of knowing,” warns Ronnie Ellis, formerly taibhsearan for his clan.
In the Sacred Order of the Elder Faith, it is the time when Otherworld entities can mix freely with humans, when the liminal space between the two, is easily traversed. The displacement of the natural laws of time and place means that there is a ‘crossing over’ when all kinds of boisterous behaviour can be indulged in – which is seen as an offering of life-energy to replenish the dying year. Food was provided for the dead but these were not the grand feasts of harvest-time and Beltaine, since these were not celebratory gatherings but observances of propitiation in order to avert the anger or malevolence of the old gods. Turnips, apples and apple cider, mulled wines, gourds, nuts, beef, pork, poultry, ale – the Samhain recipes concocted from the harvest brought the community together and the Celts ate the fruits of their labours, told stories and tried to predict their fortunes in the future.
Needless to say, in early Celtic tradition, Samhain was closely associated with burial mounds, or cairns, which were also believed to be entrances to the Otherworld. In a Gaelic example in Fortingall, a samhnag was built on a mound known as Carn nam Marbh, ‘The Mound of the Dead’ – local lore has it that the mound contained the bodies of plague victims but is, in fact, a Bronze Age tumulus. A stone, known as the Clach a' Phaigh, ‘the Plague Stone’, crowned the mound and once the bonfire was lit, the participants would join hands and dance around it, both deosil and widdershins. As the blaze waned, the younger participants would take part in leaping over the flame. No guisers or mummers appeared in this particular tradition as the bonfire was the sole centre of attention. In the Highlands, after sunset, many of the youth carried a blazing torch and walked the boundaries of their farms in order to protect the family from the faeries and other malevolent forces. New fire, kindled from the sacred communal blaze, was then brought into each house where it was kept burning for the rest of the year.
Otherworld entities and malevolent forces were free to walk the land at night, causing mischief. Samhain was seen as a time when the future could most easily be predicted, and was a favoured time among Druids for ritual fortune-telling. As in other major Celtic Festivals, Samhain was a gateway, a transition from one season to the next, and, because in Elder Faith belief at the heart of every gateway is a paradox. The threshold is literally between two worlds but is, in itself, in neither/and or in both at the same time. Thus Samhain belonged to both Summer and Winter ... and to neither. It is the gateway to winter, and a magical time of passage between the seasons.
As in many pastoral societies, winter was regarded with a mixture of anticipation and dread. Samhain was the last gasp of summer ... a time of uninhibited feasting and dancing. It was a time of release; a time to let go of all unwanted baggage, fears and attitudes, just as the trees let go of their leaves. So the lives of men parallel the sacred cycles of nature.
To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to their deities. During the festival, the participants wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted divination. When the festival was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier in the day, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.
Púca is one of Ireland’s newest festivals and celebrates Ireland as the original home of Hallowe’en, which began as an ancient tradition over 2,000 years ago; as a time for in-gathering and storytelling, as darkness turns to light and the shape-shifting spirits roam the land. Through the spectacular nights at Púca Festival, they salute the Hallowe’en spirits through folklore, food, myth and music reopening the pathways of reflection and celebration carved out over a millennia ago, and lighting up the night sky with awe-inspiring and unearthly illuminations. Púca has been developed by Fáilte Ireland as a three-day vibrant and contemporary festival, strongly rooted in tradition with a programme of events centred around spectacle, music and food (inspired by the harvest at the time of Samhain and the Púca (Irish for spirit/ghost) a creature of Celtic folklore.
Certain agricultural traditions surround the Púca – a creature associated with the Goidelic harvest festival, when the last of the crops are brought in. Anything remaining in the fields is considered ‘puka’, or fairy-blasted, and hence inedible. In some locales, reapers leave a small share of the crop, the ‘púca’s share’, to placate the hungry creature. Nonetheless, 1st November is the púca’s day, and one day of the year when it can be expected to behave civilly. In some regions, the Púca is spoken of with considerably more respect than fear; if treated with deference, it may actually be beneficial to those who encounter it.
The Púca is a creature of the mountains and hills, and in those regions, there are stories of it appearing on November Day and providing prophecies and warnings to those who consult it.
Considered to be bringers both of good and bad fortune, they could help or hinder rural and marine communities. Púcaí can have dark or white fur or hair. The creatures were said to be shape-changers, which could take the appearance of horses, goats, cats, dogs, and hares. They may also take human form, which includes various animal features, such as ears or a tail. The Púca has counterparts throughout the Celtic cultures of Northwest Europe. For instance, in Welsh mythology, it is named the pwca and in Cornish the bucca.
By 43AD, the Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic lands. And in the course of the 400 years of suppression, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic observances of Samhain. The first was Feralia – a day in October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead; the second was the day to honour Pomona, a Roman goddess and a festival held in her honour in early November probably influenced the development of the modern Hallowe’en. Pomona was associated with abundance, the harvest and fruit, especially apples and nuts.
On 13th May 609AD, Pope Boniface re-dedicated the Pantheon – the most preserved and influential building of ancient Rome as a temple dedicated to all the gods of pagan Rome – in honour of all Christian martyrs, and the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day was established in the Western church calendar. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III later expanded the festival to include all saints as well as all martyrs, and moved the observance from 13th May to 1st November.
Many of our current Hallowe’en traditions have their roots in the Middle Ages when people would dress in costumes intended to scare away any dark spirits that happened to be wandering about. Bells were rung, and there were processions and bonfires to scare away malevolent witches, ghosts, and evil spirits. Children and the poor went door to door, offering prayers for the household’s deceased relatives in exchange for small ‘soul’ cakes.
By the 9th century, the influence of Christianity had spread into the Celtic lands, where it gradually blended with and supplanted older pagan rites. In 1000AD the church decreed 2nd November to be All Souls’ Day – a day to honour the dead. It is widely believed today that the church was attempting to replace the Celtic festivals with related, church-sanctioned holy days.
All Souls’ Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades and dressing up in costumes depicting saints, angels and devils. The celebration was called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English meaning Alholowmesse, meaning All Saints’ Day), and the night before it – the traditional night of Samhain – began to be called All-Hallows-Eve and eventually – Hallowe’en.
The rigid Protestant belief systems in colonial New England severely restricted Hallowe’en celebrations, with the exception of Maryland and the southern colonies. As the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups and the Native Americans converged, a distinctly American version of Hallowe’en began to develop. The first celebrations included ‘play parties’, which were public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbours would share ghost stories, and tell each other’s fortunes among the dancing and singing.
Colonial festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds. And by the middle of the 19th century, annual autumnal festivities were common – but Hallowe’en had not yet spread everywhere in the country. In the second half of the 19th century, America was flooded with new immigrants and these new people, especially the millions of Irish fleeing the ‘potato famine’, helped to spread the celebration of Hallowe’en as a national festivity. Over time, it gradually evolved into a day of fun activities like trick-or-treating, carving jack-o-lanterns, in-gatherings, wearing costumes and eating special treats. [americaslibrary.gov]
In the United States today, Halloween is big business: The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans spent over six billion dollars on candy, costumes and ghoulish decor during a recent holiday and it is now a commercial feast for candy producers and pumpkin farmers. In the 19th century, Irish and Scottish immigrants in America began to revive the old traditions – with more of an emphasis on trick-or-treating than religious introspection – and more than 150 million consumers participated in the modern American iteration of Halloween. An estimated 65% of Americans will celebrate Halloween or participate in Halloween activities this year, with 66% of those consumers planning to give out candy, 52% planning to decorate their homes and 44% planning to carve a pumpkin. Total spending in 2021 was expected to reach $10.1 billion, with the average consumer planning to spend $102.74 on decorations, candy, costumes and more.
These celebrations might have their roots in the ancient Celtic festival, Samhain, which marked the beginning of winter but little remains of the need for propitiatory gestures to keep bad luck/evil at bay. Hallowe’en has retained its spiritual and macabre nature through many centuries, thanks to traditions like ‘souling’, where the poor would beg for pastries on All Souls Day in exchange for prayers for deceased relatives. Our forebears believed that the night before Samhain, spirits from the other world came and destroyed vegetation with their breath, leaving the land barren for winter. People would leave food and wine on their doorsteps to appease the spirits, and wear masks when they left the house to blend in with them. Eventually, the fundamental pagan traditions were co-opted by the Christian church and this Ancestor-based observance fell by the wayside.
Around the world, however, many cultures have festivals intended to honour the dead. Like Samhain, some of them are linked to the change of seasons and the harvest, while others mirror the influence of Christianity, spread by missionaries throughout the world. But although many feature jubilant celebrations replete with dancing and music, they’re meant first and foremost as a way to honour dead relatives and ancestors, and should be approached with respect. [National Geographic]
In the Coven of the Scales, where we follow the old Julian calendar in traditional British witchcraft, since Old Samhain conveniently aligns with Armistice Day that is commemorated every year on 11th November to mark the armistice signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany at Compiègne, France, at 5:45 am for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front of World War I, which took effect at eleven in the morning – the ‘eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month’ of 1918. But, according to Thomas R. Gowenlock, an intelligence officer with the U.S. First Division, shelling from both sides continued for the rest of the day, ending only at nightfall
The first Armistice Day observance was held at Buckingham Palace, commencing with King George V hosting a ‘Banquet in Honour of the President of the French Republic’ during the evening hours of 10th November 1919. The first official Armistice Day events were subsequently held in the grounds of Buckingham Palace on the morning of 11th November 1919, which included a two-minute silence as a mark of respect for those who died in the war and those left behind. After the end of World War II, most member states of the Commonwealth of Nations, followed the earlier example of Canada and adopted the name Remembrance Day. Other countries also changed the name of the holiday just prior to or after World War II, to honour veterans of that and subsequent conflicts.
Needless to say, for us this is an extremely sombre observation which has no place for frivolous role-playing and festivities. In Coven of the Scales, we observe Old Samhain/Calan Gaeof on the 11th November so that it can coincide with modern Remembrance Day and, as the time to remember our war dead and the Ancestors – today we wear our poppy with pride. Never more so does kindred call to kindred, blood call to blood … because the most powerful energy on which an Old Craft practitioner can call is that of our ‘Ancestors’, who represent our culture, traditions, heritage, lineage and antecedents; they trace the long march of history that our predecessors have taken under the aegis of the Elder Faith.
In other words, our dead are always with us and when we channel that rejuvenating power into the Coven’s mindset, we are imbuing the group and its members with the strength and magical energy of all those centuries of ancestral influence. In fact, these are the ancestral properties we call upon to consolidate the energy required in spell-casting and invocation, rather than what others may see as the beneficence of deities, angels or spirits. And, we re-affirm this allegiance to this sacred past each time – and to each other – whenever we perform a seasonal rite that includes the breaking of bread and taking of salt – either singly or in a group.
The Ancestors act as Coven guardians and also channel the god-power in a two-way conduit, for it would be too hazardous to allow a direct current to pass between supplicant and benefactor. This shield can also act as a safety-barrier for any deific displeasure we may inadvertently attract by behaving inappropriately, i.e. ignoring or disobeying the ‘rules’. It guards us from infiltration by outsiders who would infiltrate our ranks in order to acquire secret information or cause damage. And, it warns when our own are wavering and likely to fall prey to indiscretion and flattery. It also means that once we are permanently linked to this power, we don’t even have to think about it in order to tap into it. This is what it means to be an Old Craft witch [Round About the Cauldron Go …]
So … modern Hallowe’en celebrations and Samhain rituals in America and the UK have very little in common – though both occasions often call for large gatherings. Modern Wiccans and other pagans (Wicca is a subset of paganism; Druids are another example) of all stripes have kept the festivities alive, adapting their Samhain traditions to suit the contemporary pagan community. These days, Samhain is celebrated with more much mischief but (hopefully) it still remains a time imbued, powerful spirituality. Nevertheless, it is often unwise to attempt to combine participants from both traditions since this can lead to offence on both sides.
Hallowmas, Samhain & All That by Melusine Draco and published by ignotus books uk : ISBN 978 1 80302 514 8 : Pages 104 : UK£6.85 : Arcanum series No 11: Order direct from https://www.feedaread.com/books/Halloween-Samhain-and-all-that.aspx