Samhain (pronounced sow-een), or more commercially and broadly known as “Hallowe’en”. The word “Hallowe’en” is an abbreviation of ‘All Hallows Eve (evening)’. Hallow means ‘Holy’ or ‘Sacred’ and is a day in which our ancestors, loved ones who have passed away, are honoured and remembered.
Samhain takes place on the 31st October and is followed by All Saints Day (also known as ‘All Hallows Day’) which is a Christianised version on the much older, pagan celebration of Samhain. It was not observed until more recent history, as recent as the early fourth century, and takes place on November 1st. consequently followed by ‘All Souls Night, on the 2nd of November, which is share with Dia de los Muertos, a predominantly Mexican celebration which has its origins in Aztec Traditions. Diwali is also observed at this time of year. It is the five-day festival of lights, celebrated by millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains across the world. Diwali, is a festival of new beginnings and the triumph of good over evil, and light over darkness It is clear to see that this time of year is significant for celebrating, worshipping and honouring our ancestors.
The History of Honouring our Ancestors.
The practise of honouring the ancestors dates back many thousands of years. One of the oldest indications of intentional human burials, is a cave site in Spain approximately 300 thousand years ago, in the Middle Palaeolithic times. There are many other burial sites across the world that date back around 300 thousand years or so. Many of these burial sites are in caves and usually house the bones of several people or more and some of these burial places have also contained personal goods or belongings, some of which may be spiritually significant to the culture at that time.
Many scholars believe that the act, or practice, of placing goods with a person or relative that has passed away is part of the humans early spiritual development and relationship between themselves as living people, and the relationship with themselves and those around them in terms of death or passing over. Considering the practise of ceremonial, or ritual burial dates back as far as it does and developed to include personal or significant items and belongings, indicates that worshipping or honouring the bodies of their family was more than just a practical practise but a spiritual one too.
There is also some suggestion that some of our Neanderthal ancestors were part of various ceremonial tribes. Displaying varying methods of burial, attending to the body before, during and after burial that show strong ceremonial practices that were developing and sustained by particular tribes or people across the world. Some of these practices may have been influenced by practical components, such as the animals that were hunted in the local area, the climate of the area and the landscape of the area. Our British ancestors for example used earthen or stone burial mounds and chambers to house their deceased relatives, and the designs and use of the burial mounds have transformed over years and certain burial mound designs have been implied to have been used by certain localities.
All this indicates that the concern and care for our deceased relatives, and the spiritual meanings and implications of their passing and burial has had great significance for a very, very long time. It is equally important today, as our cultures across the world still celebrate, mourn and honour their ancestors.
The Origins of Samhain
Samhain is a more modern word, it comes from old Irish, which has roots in proto-indo-european ‘semo’ meaning summer. One suggestion that ‘samhain’ could mean ‘Summers End’ (‘Sam’ - Summer and ‘Fuin’ – End) however a Celtic Scholar, Whitley Stokes (1907) suggested that the root may be from ‘Samani’ meaning ‘assembly’ and French Celtic Linguist, Joseph Vendryes, further implied that the root may not be ‘Semo’ (summer) as the Celtic summer ended in August.
The Coligny Calendar (a Roman Gaul calender made in the 2nd century) began with Samonios (samon is Gaulish for summer). Some scholars argue for a summer solstice start of the year and others argue for an autumn equinox start (by association with Irish Samhain).
The entry of ‘TRINOX[tion] SAMO[nii] SINDIV’ ("three-nights of Samonios today") on the 17th of Samonios suggests that, like the Irish festival of Samhain, it lasted for three nights.
Regardless of the original etymology and meaning, it is agreed that Samhain marks the end of summer, but also the beginning of a new calendar year, and has a role as a Harvest Celebration to our European ancestors that celebrated and observed the celtic festivals. They were an agricultural people that still relied heavily on their pastoral lifestyle. Samhain would have marked the changing of season that indicated that sheepherders would need to bring their cattle down from the high ground, or high ‘lands’ for the winter.
It was also seen as one of the four major festivals of the year with many Irish tales and mythologies, stories of meetings, feasts, drinking and contests. It is also told that during this time the veil between the world of the living and the dead are at it’s thinnest. Some may refer to this as a portal, having access to other dimensions outside of our own or a ‘doorway’ between this world and the ‘Otherworld’. Where spirits, ghosts and supernatural beings can cross into our world. Equally it is said to enable us, to communicate with the ancestors, and have access to the other realms, or dimensions, but we are always warned of the trickeries of the supernatural beings that are insincere.
Other Irish tales tell of sacrifices made to the Fomorians, a supernatural race of beings that come from the sea, and later to the God Cromm Cruach, the God of fertility of the land, the ensure a bountiful harvest of grain or milk. It is said that the first born of each family would be slain in sacrifice at the stone idol of Cromm Cruach in Magh Slécht.
Several sites in Ireland are especially linked to Samhain. Each Samhain a host of otherworldly beings was said to emerge from Oweynagat ("cave of the cats"), at Rathcroghan in County Roscommon. The Hill of Ward (or Tlachtga) in County Meath is thought to have been the site of a great Samhain gathering and bonfire; the Iron Age ringfort is said to have been where the goddess or druid Tlachtga gave birth to triplets and where she later died.
Samhain was one of the four main festivals of the Gaelic calendar, marking the end of the summer and the harvest and beginning of winter. Samhain customs are mentioned in several medieval texts. Such as it being said that the festival of the Ulaid at Samhain lasted a week: Samhain itself, and the three days before and after. Involving great gatherings where they held meetings, feasted, drank alcohol, had bonfires and held contests. The Celts also recorded horse racing as part of their Samhain festivities. Cattle would be chosen to be slaughtered to sustain the families in the community over the winter. Bonfires would be used to symbolically represent the sun and for cleansing.
Various types of divination were observed at this time. One record states, that In 18th century Ochtertyre (Scotland), a ring of stones—one for each person—was laid round the fire, perhaps on a layer of ashes. Everyone then ran around it with a torch, "exulting". In the morning, the stones were examined and if any was mislaid it was said that the person it represented would not live out the year.
Other types of divining observed were the use of apples (that were associated with the otherworld and immortality) were used in games of apple bobbing. Hazlenuts were associated with divine wisdom and were used in love divination, two hazelnuts were roasted near a fire; one named for the person roasting them and the other for the person they desired. If the nuts jumped away from the heat, it was a bad sign, but if the nuts roasted quietly it foretold a good match.
The leaving of offerings were observed to the spirits and fairies at this time and people were careful not to offend or upset the supernatural beings in case they brought bad luck to themselves and their families. They would carry salt with them for protection or turn their clothes inside out.
Mumming and guising was a part of Samhain from at least the 16th century and was recorded in parts of Ireland, Scotland, Mann and Wales. It involved people going from house to house in costume (or in disguise), usually reciting songs or verses in exchange for food. It is suggested that it evolved from a tradition whereby people impersonated the aos sí, or the souls of the dead, and received offerings on their behalf. Impersonating these spirits or souls was also believed to protect oneself from them.
Part of this guising evolved in areas of Scotland, where young men would paint or blacken their faces pretending to be spirits, threatening mischief if they were not welcomed. Some areas carried lanterns with them and used turnips, gourds and mangle-wurzels (a type of beetroot) with carved, grotesque faces, hollowed out and illuminated from the inside by a candle.
Many of these ancient practices and traditions that were observed by our ancestors have now been capitalized and commercialised by corporations and society to what we now witness as our modern version of dressing up as scary beings, carrying or carvings jack-o-lanterns and giving out sweets and treats to the guisers to prevent mischief and bad luck.
Samhain, A Modern Festival
Despite the efforts of the Christian Religion to overlay their practices and beliefs over the native pagan practices of the British Isles, Samhain, several other festivals and their history have prevailed to exist and are still observed by modern day pagans.
As we have just looked at the evolution of Samhain, we can see where the roots of many of the modern observations come from.
However, many modern day pagans still worship, or observe Samhain in a Spiritual way.
Modern Day pagans still celebrate Samhain as a harvest festival and venerating the ancestors. Samhain is also known as a ‘cross-quarter’ day as it sits between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice.
Samhain inaugurates Winter, is the final chance to dry herbs for winter storage. Reincarnation is celebrated and note the absence of the Sun (the god), who will be reborn at Winter Solstice as the Child of Promise. Astrologically, Samhain marks the rising of the Pleiades.
The God, as Sun King is sacrificed back to the land with the seed until the Winter Solstice, and the Goddess, now as Crone, mourns Him until His rebirth at Yule. He travels the Underworld learning its wisdom. This is the time of the descent into darkness, of pre-conception, out of which new life, new ideas, will eventually emerge.
Death is always followed by rebirth and while this is the end of the old year, it is the beginning of the new year. For the Celts the day did not begin at dawn, it began at sunset, it began with darkness. Light is always born out of darkness, they are inseparable, interdependent, and necessary. Darkness is fertile with 'all potential'. With the beginning of this dark phase comes the opportunity to rest and reflect on the past and to dream of new beginnings.
Various customs are observed, newer traditions have formed as we now no longer harvest for nuts, herd and prepare cattle for winter. Some traditions remain, such as lighting bonfires, divination, apple bobbing and carving pumpkins or turnips, but instead practices such as creating an ancestor altar, with pictures and items that remind us of our loved ones who have passed and setting a ‘dummy supper’ at the table, inviting our ancestors to come and dine with us.
Spiritually, we can observe the connections between our ancestors and ourselves. It is typically a time to begin inner transformation and deep healing work, withdrawing into ourselves as the sun withdraws its light and warmth from us. The shorter days, longer nights and cold weather allows us to set aside more time for ourselves. To give thanks for what the year has brought us, and to nurture what we have gained, as well as recognising that in this part of the yearly cycle, and the cycle within ourselves, it allows us to develop a relationship with aspects of ourselves that need nurturing. So, that when the wheel of the year turns again and the sun returns, we are rested, nurtured and transformed to begin again with fresh sight and wisdom to set new goals, with the tools we have gained from our inner work, to achieve them.
Setting a Samhain or Ancestor Altar Many pagans, and non-pagans, that observe Samhain (or aspects of Samhain) like to create a sacred space or altar where they can place items of significance or represent meaning to them. Traditionally a Samhain altar is decorated with autumnal colours as well as black. Nuts such as hazelnuts can be placed on the altar, pumpkins, turnips and maybe a picture of a Deity they worship and their ancestors. An altar is unique to each person and their beliefs. For some the items on the altar, or the Deity represented on the altar may be chosen to assist them with any inner healing or transformative spiritual work they may be working on at this time. Some may choose to have an altar that is strictly for the ancestors, with pictures of their loved ones, images or items that are associated with them and light incense to carry their prayers to them or place offerings or gifts to them
Often the deity Hecate is honoured during Samhain. Hecate is a Greek goddess of the night, magic, witchcraft, divination and mysticism. She is said to be a stern and serious deity. Her power, wisdom and magic are vast and effervescent. She teaches us to go into the dark places within ourselves, that shadow self and the place were trauma and pain resides so that we can heal and return with our own power, sovereignty and wisdom.
Divination Due to the veil between the realms being at it’s thinnest at this time, Divining can be more intense and powerful to those who practise, with deeper wisdom, insights and connections coming to the practitioner. Tarot or oracle reading, Runes, stone or bone readings. Tea readings, palmistry and scrying are just a handful of ways to divine.
Ritual Fire Using fire in magic, or spiritual practises is an ancient tradition and is used in several celebrations or festivals. It represents the light and the warmth of the sun. it can be used for protection, erasing mistakes, banishing negativity. Symbolically extinguishing a fire and then creating a new fire to represent the past and the future, new beginnings. Lighting a procession of torches to guide ancestors or placing a light on the windowsill, and burning incense as an offering or prayer. You can also light a candle within a cauldron (or similar) for protection and transformation.
Meditation for those who meditate, themes and focus are usually directed towards changes, transition, endings and beginnings, passage, return, mortality and reincarnation, chaos leading to reorder. Releasing the old: bad habits and toxic relationships, illness, failure and poverty; everything you do not want to carry into the new year. Settle debts, make amends or restitution if needed, as well as, spells for prosperity and security for you and your family.
MOON PHASE: Waning
GODDESSES: Crone, all crone goddesses, Cerridwen, Hecate, Hel, Oya, the Morrigan, Lilith, Kali, Ishtar, Arianrhod, Rhiannon, Tlazoteotl, Nephthys, Persephone, Beansidhe (Banshee), Inanna, Baba Yaga, Isis, Pomona and Cailleach Beara (Brigid's crone aspect), who is reborn this night.
GODS: Osiris, the Horned God, Herne the Hunter, Cernunnos, Anubis, Odin, Bran, death gods, dying and rising gods.
INCENSE: Copal, sandalwood, mastic resin, benzoin, sweetgrass, wormwood: to get the sight, to see the spirits of the returning dead.
CANDLES: New candles for the new year: black, orange, autumn colors, or black candles for the Lord and the old year, white candles for the Lady and the new year.
TOOLS: Besom, to sweep out the old year and any negativity it had. Cauldron, for transformation. Divination tools.
PLANT: Pumpkin, apple, grain, pomegranate, mugwort, wormwood, Dittany of Crete, acorn, oak leaf, gourds, root vegetables, rosemary (for remembrance).
STONE: Obsidian, carnelian, onyx, smoky quartz, jet, bloodstone.
ANIMAL: Bat, black cat, owl, snake.
ALTAR DECORATIONS: Autumn leaves, fall flowers, pomegranates, apples, pumpkins, ears of corn, sprays of grain, corn dollies, gourds, nuts, seeds, acorns, chestnuts and images of ancestors are all appropriate. Use whatever is in season where you live, whatever feels right and looks good to you.
FOOD: Gingerbread, freshly roasted nuts, nut breads, anything made with apples or pumpkin, meat (especially bacon), doughnuts, popcorn, cakes with lucky tokens in them, and red foods because the ancients held them sacred to the dead. DRINK: Mead, apple cider, mulled cider, mulled wine.
CELEBRATE: Masks, costumes, trick-or-treating, feasting and partying to defy the coming darkness (bob for apples, roast nuts, pop popcorn), harvest feasts, rituals to honour the dead. © Hannah Norris | Keystone Crystals LTD