Samhain: The Celtic Festival of the Dying Year and the New Year
Sunset at the Hill of Tara
Samhain: A Liminal Time
Samhain —a liminal time, a time of beginnings and endings and of light and dark. It is a time where the veils between worlds are the thinnest, as the light of the sun is dying in the autumn of the year and darkness reaches its every lengthening grasp across the lands. It is a time to think back over the year and to huddle together and keep safe against the powers that ride out into the mortal world on this night. This is Samhain.
The meaning of the word Samhain comes from Old Irish meaning “summer’s end” (summer = samh and end=fuin; for comparison, modern Irish’s word for summer is samhradh and Samhain is still the name for the month of November in Ireland). Celts considered sundown as the start of the day, which is why although Samhain actually falls on November the 1st, it would’ve been celebrated starting at sundown the night before, on October 31st. It is one of the four main festivals in Celtic paganism, making up the “quarter days,” the days between the equinoxes and solstices.
Customs Throughout the Celtic Lands
The festival of Samhain has many names and is celebrated differently throughout the Celtic lands. Now it is synonymous with the holiday Halloween, with older traditions becoming more modern while others have returned to their roots, and some simply being a part of the modern celebrations. As most of the legends and aspects come from Ireland, let’s start with…
Oiche Shamnha, or Night of Samhain, as it is called on the Emerald Isle. On this night, the dead and the Aos Si (also known as fairies, but for the love of everything wonderful in the world, do not call them that; rather, use an alternative such as The Shining Ones, The Fair Ones, The Gentry, and The Lords and Ladies) come out from their mounds and visit us from the Otherworld, due to the veil between the worlds being at its thinnest at Samhain. It is wise to stay indoors on Samhain, or at the very least to have travel companions, as the hosts of the Aos Si would kidnap you and take you away to their realms. Families would leave a spot at the table open so their ancestors could join them. In the case of both Otherworld visitors, gifts of food and drink would be left outside the house to appease them and quell any anger or mischief they had in store.
On Samhain, household fires would be extinguished, to be relit from a communal bonfire, in order to cleanse the house and start the year anew. The Hills of Tara and Tlachtga are particularly associated with this as locations of fire festivals. Another location linked to Samhain is Oweynagat (“cave of cats”) in County Roscommon where the hosts of the Otherworld spew forth.
Samhain holds importance in many of the Irish myths and in the Irish polytheistic religion. The Ulster Cycle mentions Samhain several times. It is the first quarter day discussed by the heroine Emer in the Tochmarc Emire. The later sagas Mesca Ulad and Serglige Con Culainn start at Samhain. The Irish hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill protects Tara from the god Aillen at Samhain. The Dagda, the Irish All-Father, has an affair with The Morrigan, the Irish goddess of battle and strife, at Samhain to ensure his victory in battle. The Morrigan is associated with Samhain on her own, as she rides out of the Sidhe of Cruachan on this night on a chariot, pulled by a one-legged horse! Darker connections occur with Donn, a Celtic god of the dead, and with Crom Cruaich, a deity with connections to ritual slaughter.
Scotland has the most in common with Ireland’s festival, with even the name, Oidhche Shamhna, being very similar (which is natural, as they are both Goidelic Gaelic languages).
Samhain’s pagan traditions are still strong in Scotland, with games of divination still being played, as divination is easier when the veil is thin. Robert Burns, the best-known poet of Scotland, wrote the poem Halloween that contains many references to pagan practices that continued as Scottish Halloween traditions well into his time. A couple of examples are that young women would peel an apple and then see what name is spelled out, as that would tell you the name of your future husband, and engaged or newlywed couples would each put a nut, sometimes given as the hazelnut, in the fire, and whether the nuts stayed together in the flames or moved apart would be an indication for their future happiness, as was if the nuts hissed and spat at each other. A more recent tradition in Scotland is to eat pork pies or sausage rolls. Due to the Witchcraft Act of 1735, it was illegal to eat pork, so when that act was ended in the 1950s, the dishes have become very popular on Halloween in Scotland.
In Gaelic lore, and especially in Scotland, the Cailleach is the divine hag who represents the winter, with her rule starting on Samhain and lasting until the first of the summer on Bealtainn. The west coast of Scotland has her washing her great plaid for three days, at which ends with the land being blanketed in snow.
In Wales it is called Nos Calan Gaeaf. The name is derived for the Latin term for the first day of the month (calends) and the Welsh term for winter. It was one of the Ysbrydnos, a day when spirits walked abroad, the other being Bealtainn. A distinct Welsh tradition is that families would place stones around a fire with their names on it. If your stone was missing in the morning, you could plan on dying that year. In Welsh lore, a spirit called Yr Hwch Ddu Gwta takes the form of a black sow and roams the countryside with a headless woman.
On the Isle of Man, Hop-tu-Naa is celebrated. As in other Celtic lands, jack-o-lanterns are carved out of turnips, called swedes by the Manx. Divination was also used at Nop-tu-Naa, in that families would scatter ashes at the door. The direction of the first footprint would determine if there was to be a death (facing out) or birth (facing in) in the house that year. The future could also be seen in dreams, by stealing your neighbor’s salt herring and eating it before going to bed. It makes one wonder who was foolish enough to leave their salt herring on display on this night!
The druids did not leave written records, but rather used an oral tradition that entailed decades of training. Because of that, and of the Romans’ ability to culturally ensnare those they’ve conquered or accepted, there are no extant records of any rituals, let alone Samhain rituals. Fortunately, that does not stop modern pagans from celebrating the festival with their own rituals. Celtic Reconstructionists, Neo-pagans, and Wiccans all have their own styles for creating rituals, but for Samhain they typically involve an acknowledgement that the summer is ending and the new year is beginning as it grows ever darker. From that point, the rituals can diverge greatly, even within style of religion.
Many reconstructionists will use a Celtic language in the ritual to create a closer bond to their past. A blog by Celtic Reconstructionist Erynn, called Searching for Imbas (imbas being an Old Irish word for poetic inspiration) maintains excellent academic standards while still allowing her to be inspired in bringing the ancient into the modern. Here is the first part of her Samhain ritual, which also includes an ancestral altar, in which she uses the Scottish language.
Scél lem dúib
Ro faith sam
Ro cleth cruth
Ro gab gnáth
Gáeth ard úar
Gair a rrith
Ro gab úacht
É mo scél
I have tidings for you
The stag bells
Summer has gone
Wind is high and cold
The sun is low
Its course is short
The sea runs strongly
Bracken is very red
Its shape has been hidden
The call of the barnacle-goose
Has become unusual
Cold has seized
The wings of birds
Season of ice
These are my tidings
Many of the Wiccan rituals follow similar trends in wording, albeit in English, but also invoke beings other than Celtic deities, including the Winter/Holly King and the Great Mother. The About Pagan-Wiccan (paganwiccan.about.com) and Patheos (patheos.com) webpages tend to have many authors who share their rituals. The Samhain ritual by Patti Wigington at the About page is quite poetic, both in the flow of their wording and imagery. For Patti’s ritual, she uses a Samhain altar and makes straw figures of the Winter King and the Goddess as a crone. Here is an excerpt from her ritual:
Summer is gone, winter is coming.
We have planted and
we have watched the garden grow,
we have weeded,
and we have gathered the harvest.
Now it is at its end.
Naturally, many Samhain rituals incorporate ancestral aspects, as well. As mentioned above, an ancestor altar may be made. Parts of the ritual may call to the ancestors, in order to acknowledge their presence, as we have already discussed their proximity at this time of the year, with offerings of alcohol and toasts offered. Fire is another important aspect in Samhain rituals, with the use of bonfires or candles.
Colcannon is a traditional Irish dish served at Halloween, which is the modern version of Samhain. Small coins were sometimes hidden in the dish for children to find. It was also used as a divination tool for young women to find whom they would marry.
- 1 lb. parsnips
- 1 lb. potatoes
- 1 lb. kale
- 1 cup whole milk
- 4 tbsp. butter
- Salt and pepper
- Clean and peel the potatoes and parsnips.
- Put them in a pan of cold water with a pinch of salt and bring to a boil.
- Once cooked, pour off the water.
- While the potatoes and parsnips are cooking, bring a pot of salted water to boil and place the kale leaves (after having removed the center) in the pot, cooking until tender.
- Once everything has finished, but is still warm, bring the milk to boil.
- Add the kale to the potatoes and parsnip mixture, then beat in boiling milk, using enough to make it fluffy.
- Add butter and seasonings, then serve with more butter melting in the middle of the dish.
Barmbrack (an Anglicized version of the Irish bairin breac) is an Irish bread, made with dried fruit, traditionally baked on Samhain, although of course it can be made at any time. At Samhain, objects are wrapped up and hidden in the cake mixture, to be found while eating (seems like a bad idea before dentists were common!), such as a wedding ring for marriage luck, a coin for wealth, a pea for poverty, a thimble for spinsterhood.
- 3.5 cups flour
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon mixed spice
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
- ¾ oz. yeast
- ½ cup fine sugar
- 1 cup warm milk
- 1 egg
- 1 cup golden raisins
- 1 cup red raisins
- 1/3 cup candied fruit of your choice
- For the glaze, you’ll also need 1 tbsp. sugar and 2 tbsp. water or milk
- Mix flour, spices, and salt.
- Rub in the butter.
- Mix the yeast with 1 teaspoon of sugar and 1 teaspoon of milk and leave until it bubbles and rises.
- Add the rest of the sugar and mix.
- Add the rest of the milk and the egg to the yeast, mixing gently.
- Add the yeast mixture to the flour mixture, mixing gently.
- Knead well until stiff but pliable.
- Add in the dried and candied fruits, mixing gently but well.
- Knead the dough well for three minutes.
- Divide into two portions and add to two 7-inch, greased loaf pans, adding the special items if desired.
- Cover with a cloth and let rise for one hour.
- Bake in a 350 degree F oven for about an hour (should become golden on top and make sure it is fully cooked).
- For the glaze, mix the sugar in the milk or water and brush over the loaves, putting them back in the oven for 2–3 minutes.
- Take the loaves out of the oven and cool on cooling trays.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this foray into Samhain. There is so much more, that it would take its own entire volume to fit it all in, and that’s even before we get to Halloween! Slainte for now!
For further reading and items used in the creation of this article:
- Dr. Jenny Butler has done extensive research into Irish neo-paganism and has written extensively on Samhain, such as Neo-Pagan Celebrations of Samhain.
- The authors Carolyn Emerick and Pollyanna Jones have written on this topic
- The Gaelic Otherworld (John Campbell and Ronald Black)
- The Celts (Nora Chadwick)
- The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries (Walter Evans-Wentz)
- The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy (Ronald Hutton)
- The Religion of the Ancient Celts (J. A. MacCulloch)
© 2015 James Slaven