This is my contest entry for
's Origins of Halloween. It's also in her
Tombstones, Pentagram, Magick Sparkles and Celtic Border Brushes made by my wife
History of Samhain:
There appear to have been four major holy days celebrated by the Paleopagan Druids, possibly throughout the Celtic territories: Samhain, Oimelc, Beltane & Lughnasadh (in one set of Irish-based modern spellings). Four additional holy (or High
days (Winter Solstice or Midwinter, Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice or Midsummer, and Fall Equinox), which are based on Germanic or other Indo-European cultures, are also celebrated in the Neopagan Druid calendar, along with others based on mainstream holidays (visit the linked essay for details).
The most common practice for the calculation of Samhain, Oimelc, Beltane and Lughnasadh has been, for the last several centuries, to use the civil calendar days or eves of November 1st, February 1st, May 1st and August 1st, respectively. Since we have conflicting evidence on how the Paleopagan Druids calculated these dates, modern Neopagans just use whichever method is most convenient. This means, of course, that we arent all doing anything uniformly on any given night, which fits perfectly with the Neopagan saying that, organizing Pagans is like herding cats. It doesnt match the Evil Conspiracy theories which have us all marching to a strict drumbeat in perfect Satanic unison at all.
These four major holy days have been referred to as fire festivals for at least the last hundred years or so, because (1) to the ancient Celts, as with all the Indo-European Paleopagans, fire was a physical symbol of divinity, holiness, truth, and beauty; (2) fires play important roles in the traditional customs associated with these festivals; and (3) several early Celtic scholars called them that. Whether in Ireland or India, among the Germans or the Hittites, sacred fires were apparently kindled by the Indo-European Paleopagans on every important religious occasion. To this very day, among Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholics, you cant have a satisfying ritual without a few candles being lit of course, the Fundamentalists consider them Heathen too!
Samhain or Samhuinn is pronounced sow- (as in female pig) -en (with the neutral vowel sound) not Sam Hain because mh in the middle of an Irish word is a w sound (dont ask me why, its just Irish). Known in Modern Irish as Lá Samhna, in Welsh as Nos Galen-Gaeaf (that is, the Night of the Winter Calends
, and in Manx as Laa Houney (Hollantide Day), Sauin or Souney, Samhain is often said to have been the most important of the fire festivals, because (according to most Celtic scholars) it may have marked the Celtic New Year. At the least, Samhain was equal in importance to Beltane and shared many symbolic characteristics.
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Samhain was the original festival that the Western Christian calendar moved its All Saints Day to (Eastern Christians continue to celebrate All Saints Day in the spring, as the Roman Christians had originally). Since the Celts, like many cultures, started every day at sunset of the night before, Samhain became the evening of All Hallows (hallowed = holy = saint
which was eventually contracted into Hallow-een or the modern Halloween.
Whether it was the Celtic New Year or not, Samhain was the beginning of the Winter or Dark Half of the Year (the seasons of Geimredh=Winter and Earrach=Spring) as Beltane was the beginning of the Summer or Light Half of the Year (the seasons of Samradh=Summer and Foghamhar=Fall). The day before Samhain is the last day of summer (or the old year) and the day after Samhain is the first day of winter (or of the new year). Being between seasons or years, Samhain was (and is) considered a very magical time, when the dead walk among the living and the veils between past, present and future may be lifted in prophecy and divination.
Many important mythological events are said to have occured on that day. It was on a Samhain that the Nemedians captured the terrible Tower of Glass built by the evil Formorians; that the Tuatha De Danann later defeated the Formors once and for all; and that many other events of a dramatic or prophetic nature in Celtic myth happened. Many of these events had to do with the temporary victory of the forces of darkness over those of light, signaling the beginning of the cold and dark half of the year.
There is some evidence to indicate that three days were spent celebrating this festival. Philip Carr-Gomm, Chosen Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, speaking of both Paleopagan and Mesopagan Druids in England, had this to say about it in his Elements of the Druid Tradition:
Samhuinn, from 31 October to 2 November was a time of no-time. Celtic society, like all early societies, was highly structured and organised, everyone knew their place. But to allow that order to be psychologically comfortable, the Celts knew that there had to be a time when order and structure were abolished, when chaos could reign. And Samhuinn, was such a time. Time was abolished for the three days of this festival and people did crazy things, men dressed as women and women as men. [This happened at Beltane too IB] Farmers gates were unhinged and left in ditches, peoples horses were moved to different fields, and children would knock on neighbours doors for food and treats in a way that we still find today, in a watered-down way, in the custom of trick-or-treating on Halloween.
But behind this apparent lunacy, lay a deeper meaning. The Druids knew that these three days had a special quality about them. The veil between this world and the World of the Ancestors was drawn aside on these nights, and for those who were prepared, journeys could be made in safety to the other side. The Druid rites, therefore, were concerned with making contact with the spirits of the departed, who were seen as sources of guidance and inspiration rather than as sources of dread. The dark moon, the time when no moon can be seen in the sky, was the phase of the moon which ruled this time, because it represents a time in which our mortal sight needs to be obscured in order for us to see into the other worlds.
The dead are honoured and feasted, not as the dead, but as the living spirits of loved ones and of guardians who hold the root-wisdom of the tribe. With the coming of Christianity, this festival was turned into Halloween (31 October), All Hallows [All Saints Day] (1 November), and All Souls Day (2 November). Here we can see most clearly the way in which Christianity built on the Pagan foundations it found rooted in these isles. Not only does the purpose of the festival match with the earlier one, but even the unusual length of the festival is the same.
The Christian Church was unable to get the people to stop celebrating this holiday, so they simply sprinkled a little holy water on it and gave it new names, as they did with other Paleopagan holidays and customs. This was a form of calendrical imperialism, co-opting Paleopagan sacred times, as they had Paleopagan sacred places (most if not all of the great cathedrals of Europe were built on top of earlier Paleopagan shrines and sacred groves). So when Fundamentalists come to your local school board and try to get Halloween removed from the public schools because its a Pagan holiday, they are perfectly correct. Of course, Valentines Day/Lupercalia, Easter/Eostre, and Christmas/Yule also have many Paleopagan elements associated with their dating and/or symbols, as the Jehovahs Witnesses and others have pointed out for decades. So if we decide to rid the public schools of all holidays that have Pagan aspects to them, there wont be many left for the kids to enjoy.
I find it amusing that American teens and pre-teens seem to have instinctively expanded their seasonal celebrations to add another night before Halloween, one on which they commit various acts of harmless (or unfortunately not) vandalism, including pranks on neighbors. If we assume that All Saints Day was moved to co-opt the central day of Samhain which was associated originally with the Gods and Goddesses of the Celts, and All Souls Day was supposed to co-opt the worship of the Ancestors, then the modern Cabbage Night, Hell Night (boy does that push the Fundamentalists buttons!), or simply Mischief Night (which used to be April 30th the night before May Day in Germany theres that Beltane/Samhain connection again) would correspond to a celebration of the often mischievous Nature Spirits. This then nicely covers the Indo-European pattern of the Three Kindreds of Deities, Ancestors, and Nature Spirits.
History is taken from [link]