What is Samhain?

Samhain is one of my favorite holidays.  Even when I was little and it was still Halloween to me, it was such fun.  Dressing up was my favorite part.  Little did I know I was taking part in an ancient tradition. 

Historically, Samhain is one of four Celtic holidays and was probably equivalent to a Celtic New Year (Mac an tSaoir).  It falls on the eve of November 1st and is nowadays traditionally celebrated as Halloween on October 31st.   The celebration is associated with fire, the end of the harvest season, certain mythological events, and the dead.  In Irish Gaelic, Samhain is the name for November and translates to “summer’s end.” The communal fires were extinguished and then relit (Mac an tSaoir). The final crops were harvested and preparations for the winter were underway.  Any crops left on the vine after the 1st of November were considered to have been tainted by the Pooka and were not to be eaten (Mac an tSaoir).  The herds were brought back from their summer fields for the winter.  The sick or weaker cows were slain for consumption and preservation.  The healthy cattle were driven through the bonfires to instill protection and health (Mac an tSaoir).

On Samhain, the veil between the worlds is said to be thin.  I feel this is a reference to the cloak of Manannan Mac Lir.  In Irish mythology, he uses his cloak to separate Fand, his wife, from Cú Chulainn.  Symbolically speaking, Manannan separates the Otherworld from the mortal world.  On Samhain, the veil is thin and creatures from the Otherworld, including the dead, can return to the mortal world for a visit.  In regards to the Gods in Ireland, Samhain was the time when the Dagda mated with the Sovereignty Goddess, the Morrigan, to ensure the victory of the Tuatha de Danann over the Fomorians.  Samhain was also associated with the Cailleach, a hag-like Goddess with the power of cold and ice (Mac an tSaoir).  She is said to conquer the land until summer returns with Beltaine or, in some myths, Imbolc.

To the Celts, death was not something to be feared.  They believed in an Otherworld where life continued in some way (Mac an tSaoir).  The ancestors were honored and even depended upon.  On Samhain, homes were opened wide so that the ancestors could return.  Offerings of food and drink were left for the dead, and the ancestors were entertained with music, dance, and games (Mac an tSaoir).

Some of our modern Halloween traditions derive directly from Samhain.  Jack-o-Lanterns were once carved turnips.  These were believed to be protective charms (Mac an tSaoir). Our custom of dressing in costumes comes from Samhain existing as a time of misrule.  It was a time between time, a transition between the summer and the winter, and so chaos ruled the night.  Along with the dancing and games, some people cross-dressed.

Other cultures were celebrating the coming of winter or the dead around October as well.  According to the Ásatrú Alliance, winter begins on the “[Saturday] between the 11th and 17th” and is a celebration of the harvest and the fertility spirits responsible for the bounty received.  The celebration especially honors Freya.  Libations and offerings are given to her and her female followers, the Disir.  The Greeks celebrated a holiday called Thesmophoria that was associated with the grieving Demeter.  According to the Britannica Online Encyclopedia, it was celebrated by married women who underwent chastity and purification ceremonies throughout the duration of the festival.  Thesmophoria involved throwing pigs into a chasm where they were killed by snakes.  The remains were brought up by the women to be used as a fertilizer for the fields.  The whole ritual seems to be about agriculture, as with the Celtic and Germanic tribes, and the dead due to Persephone, Demeter’s daughter, becoming the queen of the dead in Greek mythology.

Following an Irish hearth culture, I’ve embraced Samhain.  Although I continue to carve jack-o-lanterns and dress in costumes, I’ve added the tradition of making a meal for my ancestors.  I also do a ritual each Samhain to both acknowledge the ancestors, and honor the Dagda and the Morrigan.  Following the rituals are feasts to celebrate the bounty of the summer.  In the future, I hope to incorporate some food preservation into my Samhain celebrations so that I not only celebrate the end of summer, but prepare for and anticipate the coming of winter.

It should be easy for me to continue celebrating Samhain each year and incorporate the traditions into my family.  Although my fiancé is not Pagan, he adores Samhain and looks forward to it as much as I do.  I’m sure the joy will be infused into our children.  I hope to carve pumpkins and turnips with them, enjoy the harvest, dress in costume, and honor the dead with them as a family.

How I Celebrated in 2007

This holiday was spent with my boyfriend, Ron.  We couldn’t go to Muin Mound to celebrate, so we had a little celebration at my home.  The night started with us visiting some relatives. We then carved turnips rather than pumpkins to connect to our Irish ancestors and their Samhain traditions.  I then gathered material for the ritual.

We celebrated Samhain on October 31, 2007.  The ritual began at 8:00 pm and was held in my bedroom as it was becoming quite cold outside and we didn’t have warm clothing out. Next year, I would like to be better prepared so that we can worship out of doors.  My room is cramped and the ferrets we keep in there are sometimes noisy, but they are nature spirits so their presence can’t be too bad!

I lead the rite, and it went well, I think.  I use the ritual formula suggested by ADF and Skip Ellison, but may take things a bit out of order, or I omit things that are unnecessary for a two-person ritual.  For instance, we didn’t do a processional.  We also didn’t chant as neither of us are great singers and are therefore uncomfortable.  We instead began with a two powers meditation.  I’ve found it very relaxing and mood inducing.  Once we were done, I called to the gatekeeper, Manannan Mac Lir.  After offering him some Guinness, I opened the gates and called to the Kindreds.  I realize, now, that I did not make offerings to the fire, well, and tree.  I should probably do that in my next ritual.

The deities honored were An Dagda and the Morrigan.  I took the opportunity to tell the story of their mating on this occasion.  I think my boyfriend enjoyed that element. Following the praise of the Gods, we partook in a very simple toast and boast before thanking the Kindreds and closing the gates.  No omens were taken as I do not yet feel comfortable doing so.

I thought the ritual went well.  My confidence grows each time I lead one.  I no longer feel embarrassed.  I wasn’t as rigid either and allowed for a bit of fun.  I believe that the Gods should be treated with respect, but they do have a sense of humor.  I think my boyfriend also appreciated that as it allowed him to enjoy the ritual as a fun activity rather than a chore.  I think the gaiety of the ritual was also partly because of An Dagda.  I believe him to be a humorous deity who likes to have fun with his tribe.

After the main ritual, we put a plate of food out for the ancestors.  This was hard for the rest of my family to understand, but it was important to me to honor my ancestors.  More than any year past, I feel very connected to them.  Samhain was a great occasion to express my gratitude to them and my hope that our relationship will continue to grow.


Published by M. A. Phillips

An author and Druid living in Northern NY.

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