Samhain originated as a Gaelic festival. The word is from the name for the month of November. A popular translation of the word is “Summer’s end” though it could refer to an “assembly” or “gathering”. The festival kicks off the month beginning with Samhain night (October 31st) and runs through Samhain Day (November 1st). Traditionally festivals begin at sunset and end the following sunset, though some folkloric references seem to suggest that the festival lasted several days. Samhain marked the end of the farming season and the beginning of winter preparations.
To really understand Samhain in its historical context, you need to understand that the British Isles are at a latitude roughly equivalent to Alaska and Scandinavia, though they are spared the extreme cold thanks to the Gulf Stream. Countries at extreme Northern and Southern latitudes get very dark winters and in the depths of winter may see very little sun. Before electric lights, dark was very very dark and winter was a big deal. It was also the time of year when many people died. Yes, some died of cold and many starved if their winter stores were not sufficient, but diseases ran rampant in the enclosed spaces where they sheltered from the winter cold and a nice, tight house will keep out the winter wind, and keep in carbon monoxide. Winter was dark, cold, and deadly.
It is not surprising then that many cultures considered the dark of winter the ideal time for spirits of various sorts to wander about, potentially causing all sorts of problems. (In this case, both the fae and the spirits of the dead.) Samhain was considered the start of this season, the season of darkness, and of otherworldly spirits. Perhaps Samhain was the day the gates opened and they all came rushing out or perhaps they just grew bolder as the world grew darker. People prepared for the dark and cold, storing up supplies of fuel, they prepared for the months of privation by storing up food and they prepared for the wandering spirits by propitiating them and performing ceremonies to protect themselves, their homes and their livestock from them at Samhain.
The crops are in, now the herds are brought in and thinned, those chosen not to be kept (and fed on stored hay) through the winter would be processed and stored to feed the family through the winter. In the meantime, the fresh meat would taste good at the Samhain feast. It is possible, even probable, that sacrifices of various sorts were made at Samhain and at least some of the slaughtered animals would have been offered to the Gods, the dead and the fae in hopes of gaining their goodwill and protection, or satiating their appetites.
Bonfires were lit, to hold back the darkness, to cook the feast and for the revelers to gather around. People and animals would pass between them to be blessed by their light and boughs of fir or bundles of sod would be carried, smoking around the the fields to bless them. Torches kindled in the blessed bonfires would be brought back to the people’s homes to light their own fireplaces, so the entire community would spend the winter warmed by the same fire, even if in different houses. The bonfire was used for divination as well- stones placed around it to represent various members of the community were examined the day after the festivities to determine who would survive the winter, and who would not.
The tradition of dressing up in costume and going house to house probably began as a sort of ritual play, with the costumed actors representing mischievous spirits and the gifts symbolizing offerings to propitiate them. There are a few versions of this; the disguised groups usually performed a bit of entertainment in exchange for their offerings. In Southern Ireland in the 19th century, a man carrying a decorated horse’s skull (the Láir Bhán or White Mare) led the rowdy procession from farm to farm. Donations of food were accepted and good luck was guaranteed in return. (A similar custom can be seen in Wales at Midwinter.) Items collected may have been food for the feast, of fuel for the bonfires. After conversion, people went door to door singing verses and received little round soul cakes in exchange for a promise to pray for the departed.
When wandering about after dark, measures must be taken taken to protect against spirits bent on mischief, carrying salt, and iron would ward them off and wearing your clothes backward, blackening your face with soot or wearing a disguise could confuse them. Lanterns carved of vegetables (usually turnips or mangel beets) made to look like frightening faces were also carried to ward off unfriendly spirits at night. But the honored and beloved dead were invited into the houses and presented with food offerings.
After Christianization, the festival changed superficially, but the ancient roots remain. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find the “pure Pagan” even in the historical practices, since Christianity was so ubiquitous. It is perhaps a testament though to our spiritual ancestors great reverence for this particular festival that Christianity seems to have given up on Samhain and its modern descendant, Halloween, completely.
Read More Online
- The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, by Ronald Hutton
- The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy, by Ronald Hutton
- The Golden Bough, A study in Magic and Religion, by Sir James Frazer