Samhain, which we call Halloween, All Hallows or All Saints Day, has a very ancient tradition. In Celtic countries, as in the Middle East, a day begins at sunset. Therefore, Samhain starts on All Hallows Eve or Halloween — October 31st — and continues until sunset on November 1st. Our Celtic ancestors anciently elebrated Samhain as New Year’s Day, the first day of their new year. The Norse moved New Year’s Day from Samhain to Yule. Our present-day Halloween, November 1st, was designated a feast of all the dead by a Celt, St. Odilon, in 998 CE. Later the church changed that feast to November 2nd and the November 1st celebration was assigned as a day of honor for the saints alone.
At the beginning of a new year, we tend to reflect on the year gone by and prepare for the winter to come. Of course, it is easier to reflect on the year just past if one has kept a journal. Samhain was also the time for settling old debts and reckoning up what one was owed. A part of that settling was making peace and restoring friendships.
Samhain means ‘summer’s end’. In addition to being an annual period of reflection, it is at this time of the year, when the cold breath of winter stirs the hairs on the nape of the neck, that one pauses to examine one’s own mortality. Samhain marks the beginning of the lunar Year of the Little Sun. The little sun is the moon. After Samhain, as the days grow short and nights lengthen, the moon is seen more than the sun. After the bounty of summer comes the dearth of winter and Samhain stands directly between the two.
Samhain is outside of time because it is a threshold time, one of the eight Portals of the Seasons. The laws of nature are suspended at these times. Times of change are also times of danger. As in all times of danger, the tribe gathered to support one another and to honor to their ancestors, the High and Lordly Ones.
In Ireland, the goddess of Samhain is Tlachtga (T’Lach-gah), which means ‘Thunder-bolt Wisdom Woman’. She is the Patroness of Druids and the daughter of Mog Roith, he who commands the Wheel of the Sun. The season was traditionally celebrated at the Hill of Tlachtga, now called the Hill of Ward, in Munster. There the need-fire was kindled by the druids on the first New Moon (or according to some — first Full Moon) after the Autumnal Equinox.
Another Irish Goddess, the Morrigan, is said to have mated with the Dagda, the Good God, at Samhain. Like the Cailleach, the Morrigan, is a dark face of the Goddess. She is most often seen on the battlefield, after the battle is over, in the form of a gore crow or raven, pecking the eyes of the dead. Our Celtic ancestors were very fond of war and battle, especially of hand-to-hand combat between champions. There were constant raids on neighboring cattle herds and more or less permanent border disputes between tribes. Around the fire, the bards sang songs, immortalizing the great heroes and glorifying the nobility of war. The Morrigan showed our ancestors the ugly truth about their way of life and so She was regarded with fear and horror. She is the Great Trickster Woman who shakes us up when we become complacent. She holds up the truth about ourselves before our eyes and shoves it into our faces so we cannot ignore it. For this reason, She is active at Samhain as we look back over the year gone by and examine ourselves.
In Britain and Wales, it is Cerridwen, the White Sow Goddess, who presides over Samhain. Hers is the Cauldron of Death and Rebirth. She is a goddess of transformation and re-birth. The story of Cerridwen and Taliesin is the archetypal story of shamanic initiation. We know that Cerridwen is a Death Goddess because She possesses the Cauldron of Death and Rebirth, from which and into which all life flows. Another symbol of the Death Goddess is the waning crescent moon, the sickle with which She cuts the corn. Her sickle is the precursor to the scissors with which She cuts the thread of life.
Some of the Samhain faces of the Goddess were common throughout Celtica; the Cailleach (KAL-yack) is one of these. The Cailleach is the dark face of Brighid. Her name means ‘old one’ and She is a very ancient, possibly pre- Celtic, deity. The Cailleach is the Old Woman, the Hag of Winter. Our modern Halloween witch or hag is a pale representation of Her. She controls the weather and in Scotland is called the Mountain Mother. She is the dark woman of knowledge, ugly but wise. At Samhain, the Crone
begins Her rule in the Land of Shadows. She takes the White
Rod of Power from Brighid at Samhain. As She takes it in Her hand, it becomes the Black Rod and She begins Her reign as Goddess of the Year of the Little Sun, the dark half of the year.
In Scotland, She is called the Cailleach Bhera (Kallay Ver-ah). She holds Brighid prisoner in a cave on top of Ben Nevis while She blasts the Earth with cold and darkness.
The Cailleach guards the gateway to the dark half of the year. Wherever She passes the sap fails and withdraws into the roots of the trees. Animals grow sleepy and slow. Those who are so inclined go into hibernation. As for us humans, we begin to slow down also and rest from the frantic activity of summer and harvest. We spend more time indoors engaged in winter pass times and projects.
One of the oldest recorded customs of Samhain, which is no long extant, comes to us from the ancient author, Pliny. He stated that among the Celts sexually active women stained themselves blue with woad and danced naked at Samhain. This is an interesting reference because the Cailleach is blue-black. Is She also painted with woad or did the women stain themselves blue in Her honor?
The Sheela-na-Gig is another Goddess found throughout Celtica and She is a most ancient figure. The symbol of the Sheela-na-gig is the vesica piscis — vessel of the fish. This symbolic representation of the yoni of the Goddess is very ancient. The Christians adopted it to symbolize Christ about two thousand years ago.
Nevertheless, for eons, it was the symbol of the Goddess. She is depicted as a wizened old woman with a hag’s head, protruding eyes, and a small pointed chin, bearing a striking resemblance to our modern pictures of aliens except that She has the painfully prominent rib cage of a starveling or skeleton. The Sheela-na-Gig is always pictured as squatting and holding open Her yoni in grotesque invitation. She seems to say — ‘You came from my womb into this life and it is into my womb you shall return at the end of it.’ As a Death Goddess, She also presides over Samhain.
In Ireland, Crom Dubh, the Dark Bent One, is the God of Samhain. His face is the dark face of the Dagda. He is bent because He carries the heavy sheaves of the harvest on his back. He is dark because He went into the Earth to find those sheaves. His Faery mistress is Eithne, which means kernel or grain. She is the mother of Lugh. At Samhain She is the new furrow waiting for the seed while the God departs into the Deep Country and She mourns his passing. Ireland’s largest henge, erected around 2500 BCE, has one hundred thirteen megaliths. It is called the Rannach Crom Dubh or the Lios17 of Crom Dubh. The henge itself is a flat, yellow clay arena surrounded by an embankment. The Lughnasadh and Beltane sunrises are observed through the entrance. The Samhain and Imbolc sunsets rest in a notch in
the bank directly opposite the entrance. There is evidence that the annual bull was sacrificed and roasted there during Samhain.
Every year at Samhain, cattle were driven down from the hills and corralled in enclosures such as the Lios. Because the Celts did not make hay, they could not overwinter large numbers of animals. The herds were drastically culled at Samhain. Only the best breeding stock and some dairy cows were retained. Such an abundance of fresh meat meant weeks of feasting. Cattle, and particularly bulls, were sacred in the ancient world. Bulls were sacrificed to the deities. There was also a sort of reverse sacrifice, the vestiges of which survive today in the bullrings of Portugal and Spain and in the streets of Pamplona. We also see this reverse sacrifice in the bull dancer paintings from Crete. Playing with such large powerful animals was, and is, dangerous. There is always a possibility that the bull will win. Was there a ‘running of the bulls’ at the Lios? We shall probably never know but the idea is intriguing. Samhain is, even to this day, very much associated with death and images of death. In our modern world, especially in the West, we have a horror of death. We spend a great deal of energy pretending that we can overcome physical death. In fact, one may sometimes meet people who actually seem to believe that if they eat just the right foods and do exactly the right exercises they will live forever.
These folks are in for a nasty shock sooner or later. Historically, our paranoid fear of death is the exception and not the rule. Queen Elizabeth I, like many of her contemporaries, slept with a skull beside her bed to remind her to live well because one day she would die. Among our ancestors, witnessing death was common. The dead were not hidden away in morgues and mortuaries but laid out in their own homes surrounded by the love of their friends and relatives.
During the season of Samhain Gwynn ap Nudd leads the Wild Hunt, gathering up the souls of all those who died between Beltane and Samhain. In Brittany on La Toussaint or November Eve the Ankou, King of the Dead, and his hosts ride out to collect the souls of those who have died during the year but who have not yet passed into the Shining Country. The peoples of Brittany feel the dead are more numerous and most easily seen at Samhain. Traditionally, we visited graves in this season. Offerings of flowers, food and so forth were left for the dead to enjoy. It was the custom to bury apples for the dead and for the ancestors. This is the time of the year when we acknowledge and honor the dead and seek to communicate with them. Ancestors are invited to rituals during the Year of the Little Sun. At Samhain, they are also invited to dinner. Even today, we frequently try to contact ancestors or the recently departed. At Samhain, food offerings were made not only to the dead and the ancestors but also to the Tuatha De Danaan and other Faery Folk. If food left out overnight for the ancestors was gone the next morning it was considered a good sign, the ancestors had found the gift acceptable. You may want to honor your ancestors and those who have died in the past with a mute supper. If you have ever seen a little girl playing "tea party" with invisible friends you have observed a supper with the faerys for the Shining Folk gather in hosts around happy children playing at such things.
In Ireland hazelnuts, acorns and apples were offered to the dead. In Brittany at the La Toussaint, the feast was milk curd, crepes and cider served in high style on good white linen. Fiddlers and pipers provided music for the festive occasion. It was believed that the dead came to the table and sometimes they moved chairs or plates about. You may wish to place candles in the window to guide wandering spirits to the light. It was a custom to set candles in windows in a vigil for the dead. Just as we keep vigil for them, the ancestors also keep watch over us. The veil between the living and the dead is thinnest at Samhain. That is why at this time we remember our ancestors and all who have gone before us to dwell in the Otherworlds. These ancestors now associate with or are in the process of being transformed into divine beings. At Samhain, the door between the worlds is open.
Ivy, an evergreen symbol of eternity, was placed on graves at Samhain. The first graves in Ireland and the British Isles, long pre-dating the Celts, were Long Barrows. Long Barrows date from c. 4500 BCE and contain chambers shaped like the Great Goddess being both tomb and womb. The doors of the barrows were traditionally left open at Samhain and the doors to the Faery Hills were open in this season. This tradition may have arisen from the fact that it was the custom to place bodies in mortuary urns until the flesh was gone. Then the bones were removed and placed in a burial chamber on Samhain. In addition to being burial mounds, barrows were places of shamanic initiation. At Samhain, the clan totems were renewed. Shamans dressed as their animals and danced them to life. The ancestors were honored with feasts and bonfires. Whole tribes gathered to honor the dead and celebrate life for Samhain was also a time for weddings. You may wish to visit a cemetery on November 1st. Even if no one you know is buried near your home you can take ivy or flowers and food to the grave of a stranger with the intention that your offering of respect will enter the land of the dead in honor of all your ancestors. The importance of the agricultural cycle to the peoples of a pastoral/agricultural society can hardly be imagined today. Unless one is a farmer, dependent upon nature and the fruits of the land, one has no real point of reference from which to begin to understand our Celtic ancestors' emotional ties to their land. The Celts worked in harmony with nature. They co-operated with the Faery energies of the land, which allowed the Shining Ones to operate freely. At every season, certain rituals were performed to maintain the connection between this and other worlds and to ensure that the subtle energies continued to flow freely. Samhain is third harvest. Everything not harvested by Samhain was left in the fields for the faerys. In Ireland, the Phookas owned any crop not harvested by Samhain Eve. The Phooka has the head of a man but the body of a goat or a horse. They are mischievous faerys, rumored to injure livestock and curdle milk when they are offended. Blackberries and sloes belonged to the faerys after Samhain and no one in Western Ireland or in Cornwall would eat them after November 1st. A tradition found in two such widely removed places possibly indicates that it prevailed throughout Celtica.
The sloe is the fruit of the Blackthorn tree, which is guarded by the lunantisidhe. The lunantisidhe lives in the Blackthorn and leaves his tree only to dance in honor of the moon when it is full. They generally appear in this world in the guise of shriveled old men with long arms and teeth and they have pointed ears. Of course, in the Inworlds they are healthy, handsome male dryads. Their wizened appearance in this world is entirely due to our mistreatment of their trees. Because branches of the Blackthorn have been torn from the trees and used for many centuries for staffs or shillelaghs, the lunantisidhe have grown to dislike humankind intensely. It is worth a body’s life to cut a Blackthorn stick after Samhain. You may wish to plant a Blackthorn and by showing it honor and tending it carefully begin to re-establish good relations between our kind and lunantisidhe.
Before the discovery of Great Turtle Island, also known as North America, the turnip was a mainstay of our ancestors’ diet. Turnips, not pumpkins, were carved as jacko-lanterns at Samhain. Nuts, especially acorns and hazelnuts, and apples were gathered and stored against the coming winter. Not all of the harvest came from the land. The sea surrounds Britain, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and the Western Isles. The sea provided a rich harvest of fish and seabirds on which our ancestors depended. Seaweed was also harvested both for food and to use as fertilizer for the fields. In the Western Isles of Scotland, the islanders wassailed the sea god Shoney. At Samhain, a man was chosen to wade out into the sea with a cup of ale. He thanked Shoney for the seaweed He had sent to the island that year and asked for a rich harvest of seaweed in the coming year. This custom continued as late as 1671 on the Isle of Lewis.
As mentioned before animals were rounded up and slaughtered. In some places, sheep were made to pass through a hoop of Rowan wood for protection. In Scotland, a libation of milk, called Leac na Gruagaich or Milk of the Hairy Ones, is made at Samhain to protect both sheep and the sheep dogs, which guide and protect them. In Ireland, it was custom as late as the mid-19th century for the young women to tend the cattle all summer long. They camped out in the fields and glens and on the mountainsides. Just before Samhain, they would drive the herds back to the village. Can you imagine how glad they were to see their friends and families and how wonderful it must have seemed to sleep under their own roofs? For weeks following their return, there would be parties, dances, and merry-makings. Because absence often does make the heart grow fonder, there must have been many proposals of marriages made and accepted at this time of the year. Perhaps this is what led to Samhain becoming a time of matchmaking and marriages.
Samhain is a fire festival. Although we celebrate Samhain on November 1st, today the actual date varied from year to year in the ancient world because Samhain is a lunar festival. Samhain would have actually been celebrated on the first New Moon after the Autumnal Equinox. Some today feel that it was a Full Moon celebration. Given the custom still prevalent in some parts of Ireland and Scotland of saluting the New Moon, it is most probable that it was a New Moon celebration. You are, however, perfectly free to form your own opinion on this matter and for convenience sake, most modern Pagans simply celebrate on October 31st/November 1st.
Samhain marked the first New (or Full) Moon of Winter. We kindled bonfires on the hills. How astounding! Can you imagine a bonfire on every hill? From the Western Isles our Scots ancestors could see some of the bonfires on the eastern shore of Ireland where the custom of setting the night ablaze also prevailed. In Jersey, it was the custom to cut a log and trim the branches, dress it in old clothes and burn it at Samhain. In Scotland, they lit bonfires on the top of burial mounds or Sidhe hills. In Ireland, hearth fires were extinguished and re-lighted from the Samhain bonfires. In England, Guy Fawkes Day is a survival of Samhain. The burning of the Old Guy is a modern version of the symbolic
sacrifice of the corn king. Hearth fire traditions abound at Samhain. Originally, all hearth fires were extinguished and then re-lighted from the druid fires. Later the new fires were taken from the hearth of the local Christian priest. Even later, after the church decided that its representatives should no longer countenance this pagan practice, it became the custom that the hearth fire must be jealously guarded and not allowed to go out at Samhain. A part of this tradition was that no fire be allowed to leave the house on Samhain. On the Isle of Moray as late as 1775 bonfires were lighted in the fields to protect them during the fallow time. The Islanders walked three times around the fields with burning torches, which must have been a grand sight to see.
The doors of the Sidhe hills stand open on Samhain. The Shining Folk cross from ‘there’ to ‘here’ quite easily. It is at Samhain that the Sidhe woman brings the apple to Conla and entices him to follow her to the Shining Country. The messenger from the daughters of Aed Abret also came to Cuchulainn on Samhain Eve to invite him to visit the Otherworld. In one Irish story, Finn sits between two faery mounds, the Paps of Anu, on Samhain. The hills open and he sees bonfires in each and the Sidhe feasting within. The King of the Sidhe in one hill sends food to the other — a roasted pig, a roasted calf and wild garlic. Here we have a menu of what our Celtic ancestors regarded as the ideal Samhain feast. Good Folk are definitely about on Samhain. It is a good idea not to throw water out windows and, if you have a cat, do keep it in all night so that it will not annoy the faerys. On Samhain Eve, even to this day, the hosts of the Tautha de Danaan appear on the Hill of Tara. They march about all night long and dance to the tunes of pipes and drums. Even for the deities and heroes, Samhain was also a time of danger. Cuchulainn dies at Samhain as does Muirchertach mac Erca (Mur-doch mac Er-ka). Because it is a threshold time, everything is fluid. Samhain is a time of trickery. It is at this time of year that Bricrui of the Bitter Tongue held his
famous feast and stirred up trouble between Cuchulainn and the Champions of Ulster and between their wives. Many stories are told of sinister hostels or inns filled with uncanny folk and misadventures that relate to the season of Samhain. Finn and the Fianna searching for food and lodging enter the Sid of Bruidin on Samhain Eve. There they are treated most brutally by a variety of ‘uncoo’ creatures. In the morning, they awaken on the outside of the Sid and find themselves weak and hungry but still alive. The forces of chaos have tricked them. In the story of the Bruiden Hostel of Da Derga, which takes place on Samhain, the forces of chaos come from the sea to conquer the land. The Hostel of Da Derga is singled out for attack and only the greatest of heroes can
survive the onslaught.
In addition to practical jokes, Samhain is the time for dares. It was custom to go out at Samhain in disguise. This was done to confuse the spirits wandering about the earth at that time. Misrule is the order of the day. We play at role reversals and engage in practical jokes. Clothes were sometimes worn inside out or backwards. Masking in the guise of game animals was a form of sympathetic magic as was guising as the Gods and Goddesses. Samhain is a good time for shape-shifting and past-life regression.
Spirit walking is definitely appropriate at this time. For example on Samhain Eve, Oengus Og takes the form of a swan to wed his true love Caer Ibormeith or Yewberry and together they fly away to his home at Newgrange. Samhain is a wonderful time for out-of-body journeys. Evans-Wentz collected an account of a County Fermanagh man who was ‘taken’ clear across the seas by the faerys at Samhain. This man was later able to confirm with his daughter that he had indeed seen her cooking at her kitchen fire in America.
In honor of the Lord and/or Lady of Misrule you may wish to play harmless pranks with your friends or dress in disguises to fool them. Do not forget that the Fair Folk also love to jest and play pranks at this time of year, be prepared. Samhain has traditionally been a time to engage in divination and storytelling. We still tell ghost stories at Halloween. Gruesome movies such as the Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street series are often shown on television or first released to the movie theatres at this time. One of the reasons for this is that as winter begins we have more leisure time. Board games and other indoor pass times charm away the long nights.
A very ancient form of divination was practiced at Samhain. It involved lying on a faery hill and studying the clouds for omens of what was to come in the new year. Water and fire scrying are also traditionally practiced at this time. Divination was especially popular among young people who were not yet married. Unmarried lads and lasses would go blindfolded into a cabbage patch at Samhain and pull up cabbage by the roots. If earth adhered to the roots that meant good fortune. The taste of the cabbage indicated the nature of the future spouse. If the cabbage was bitter, the future spouse would have a bitter nature and so forth. The shape and condition of the plant also foretold what sort of person the spouse would be.
At Samhain, young people might gather to bake the Dumb Cake. Each would bring an egg, some meal or flour, salt, and water. The Dumb Cake was prepared in the following manner. First, the eggs were carefully blown and the contents placed in a large bowl. Then the empty shells were used to measure the flour or meal, the salt, and the water. One eggshell full of each was added to the bowl. Each bachelor and maiden then took a turn stirring the mixture. The mess was placed on the fire so that it would get sooty as it cooked. Each young person turned the cake. Then they divided the Dumb Cake equally among themselves, each tearing a piece off in turn. Returning to their several homes they each placed the cake under their pillows in the belief that it would cause them to dream of their future spouse. The entire ritual had to be done in absolute silence, hence the name ‘Dumb Cake’. If anyone spoke, laughed, or allowed even the slightest sound to pass his or her lips the entire spell was ruined and had to be done again. The whole exercise sounds very much like a wonderful excuse for flirtation and it is not surprising that after the party was over many a lad and lass did dream of their future spouse.
In the area around Aberdeen, Scotland, it was the custom for a young woman who was desirous of gaining information regarding her future spouse to go into a plowed field. She made her way over two ridges and, lying full length upon the earth, placed her ear against the ground in the furrow between the third and fourth ridges. Whatever she heard would indicate the occupation of her future spouse. Knocking would indicate a carpenter, music a piper or fiddler, and so forth. One cannot help but wonder how ancient this custom was. It seems to be an excellent form of divination when seeking the answer to any number of questions.
The most delightful tradition of this sort was the divination of the clew or ball of yarn. A maiden would take a ball of yarn and go out into the night on Samhain to some uninhabited structure such as a kiln or barn. Once there she would tie one end of the yarn to her wrist and toss the clew into the structure. Then she would begin to wind the ball up again. If the yarn caught, she cried out, "Who holds?" It was believed that the voice of her future spouse would answer her from the darkness or that he, himself, would appear. It does not take much imagination to realize that if the custom was well known an enterprising young man might easily place himself where he would be likely to catch the clew of whatever girl he fancied and use the tradition as an opportunity to declare his love.
In a similar custom, a maiden would wash her shift or petticoat, turn it inside out and place it on a thorn bush to dry. Then she would observe from hiding to see which young man would come and turn it right-side out for he would be her future mate. Again, one can imagine a romantic youth, hoping to gain the heart of his true love, making a point of hanging about a local thorn bush at Samhain. And what of the half-clothed maiden? Did she, much to the swain’s delight, step out of hiding to claim her shift once he had turned it? Finally, if you want to see the face of your future spouse, stand before a mirror combing your hair with one hand and eating an apple held in the other. You will almost certainly see the face of your true love looking over your shoulder.
The beginning of winter was often a time of great anxiety concerning the harsh months to come, especially if the harvest had been poor. During times of dearth, it was often the very young and the elderly who were most liable to suffer. Because of this, there were many forms of divination practiced at Samhain that were aimed at discovering if all the members of the community were going to survive the winter. One custom, found in many places throughout Britain, Scotland and Wales, was the divination of stones. Each member of a community placed their distinguishing mark on a stone. After the Samhain bonfire burned down the stones were placed in the ashes and left there overnight. In the morning, each person searched to find their stone and anyone who could not find it was marked to die before the next Samhain.
On Samhain day, if you catch a falling leaf before it touches the earth your wish will be granted. There are many worse ways of spending Samhain day than in chasing falling leaves.