“Be silent in that solitude,
Which is not loneliness—for then
The spirits of the dead, who stood
In life before thee, are again
In death around thee, and their will
Shall overshadow thee; be still.”
—From “Spirits of the Dead” by Edgar Allan Poe
Samhain (pronounced /ˈsɑːwɪn/ sah-win or /ˈsaʊ.ɪn/ sow-in Irish pronunciation: is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the "darker half" of the year. Traditionally, Samhain is celebrated from sunset on 31 October to sunset on 1 November, which is about halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, along with Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Similar festivals are held at the same time of year in other Celtic lands; for example the Brythonic Calan Gaeaf (in Wales), Kalan Gwav (in Cornwall), and Kalan Goañv (in Brittany).
Samhain is believed to have pagan origins and there is evidence it has been an important date since ancient times. The Mound of the Hostages, a Neolithic passage tomb at the Hill of Tara, is aligned with the Samhain sunrise.
Samhain was seen as a liminal time, when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld could more easily be crossed. This meant the Aos Sí, the 'spirits' or 'fairies', could more easily come into our world. Most scholars see the Aos Sí as remnants of the pagan gods and nature spirits.
Karlsruhe Schloss, Germany (by r.dahl)
Offerings of food and drink were left outside for them. The souls of the dead were also thought to revisit their homes seeking hospitality. Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place set at the table for them. Mumming and guising were part of the festival, and involved people going door-to-door in costume (or in disguise), often reciting verses in exchange for food. The costumes may have been a way of imitating, and disguising oneself from, the Aos Sí. Divination rituals and games were also a big part of the festival and often involved nuts and apples. In the late 19th century, Sir John Rhys and Sir James Frazer suggested that it was the "Celtic New Year", and this view has been repeated by some other scholars.
In the 9th century AD, Western Christianity shifted the date of All Saints' Day to 1 November, while 2 November later became All Souls' Day. Over time, Samhain and All Saints'/All Souls' merged to create the modern Halloween. Historians have used the name 'Samhain' to refer to Gaelic 'Halloween' customs up until the 19th century.
In Modern Irish the name is Samhain [ˈsˠaunʲ], in Scottish Gaelic Samhainn/Samhuinn [ˈsaũ.iɲ], and in Manx Gaelic Sauin. These are also the names of November in each language, shortened from Mí na Samhna (Irish), Mì na Samhna (Scottish Gaelic) and Mee Houney (Manx). The night of 31 October (Halloween) is Oíche Shamhna (Irish), Oidhche Shamhna (Scottish Gaelic) and Oie Houney (Manx), all meaning "Samhain night". 1 November, or the whole festival, may be called Lá Samhna (Irish), Là Samhna (Scottish Gaelic) and Laa Houney (Manx), all meaning "Samhain day".
These names all come from the Old Irish samain, samuin or samfuin [ˈsaṽɨnʲ] all referring to 1 November (latha na samna: 'samhain day'), and the festival and royal assembly held on that date in medieval Ireland (oenaig na samna: 'samhain assembly'). Its meaning is glossed as 'summer's end', and the frequent spelling with f suggests analysis by popular etymology as sam ('summer') and fuin ('end').
It was one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals: Samhain (~1 November), Imbolc (~1 February), Beltane (~1 May) and Lughnasadh (~1 August). Samhain and Beltane, at the witherward side of the year from each other, are thought to have been the most important.
Irish mythology tells us that Samhain was one of the four seasonal festivals of the year. The 10th-century tale Tochmarc Emire ('The Wooing of Emer') lists Samhain as the first of these four "quarter days".
In Aislinge Óengusa ('The Dream of Óengus') it is when he and his bride-to-be switch from bird to human form, and in Tochmarc Étaíne ('The Wooing of Étaín') it is the day on which Óengus claims the kingship of Brú na Bóinne.
Statue of Midir and Etain in Ardagh, Ireland
According to Irish mythology, Samhain (like Beltane) was a time when the 'doorways' to the Otherworld opened, allowing supernatural beings and the souls of the dead to come into our world; but while Beltane was a summer festival for the living, Samhain "was essentially a festival for the dead". The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn says that the sídhe (fairy mounds or portals to the Otherworld) "were always open at Samhain".
On 31 October, the locals would go down to the shore. One man would wade into the water up to his waist, where he would pour out a cup of ale and ask 'Seonaidh' ('Shoney'), whom he called "god of the sea", to bestow blessings on the Aos Sí. People also took special care not to offend the aos sí and sought to ward-off any who were out to cause mischief. They stayed near to home or, if forced to walk in the darkness, turned their clothing inside-out or carried iron or salt to keep them at bay.
The Hill of Ward (or Tlachta) in County Meath is thought to have been the site of a great Samhain gathering and bonfire; the Iron Age ringfort is said to have been where the goddess or druid Tlachta gave birth to triplets and where she later died.
As at Beltane, bonfires were lit on hilltops at Samhain and there were rituals involving them. However, by the modern era, they only seem to have been common along Scotland's Highland Line, on the Isle of Man, in north and mid Wales, and in parts of Ulster heavily settled by Scots. F. Marian McNeill says that a force-fire (or need-fire) was once the usual way of lighting them, but notes that this gradually fell out of use. Likewise, only certain kinds of wood may once have been used, but later records show that many kinds of flammable material were burnt. It is suggested that the fires were a kind of imitative or sympathetic magic – they mimicked the Sun, helping the "powers of growth" and holding back the decay and darkness of winter. They may also have served to symbolically "burn up and destroy all harmful influences". Accounts from the 18th and 19th centuries suggest that the fires (as well as their smoke and ashes) were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers.
People also took flames from the bonfire back to their homes. In northeastern Scotland, they carried burning fir around their fields to protect them, and on South Uist they did likewise with burning turf.
In some places, people doused their hearth fires on Samhain night. Each family then solemnly re-lit its hearth from the communal bonfire, thus bonding the families of the village together.
In the 17th century, Geoffrey Keating wrote that the druids of ancient Ireland would gather on Tlachta on Samhain night to kindle a sacred fire. From this, every bonfire in the land was lit, and from thence every home in the land relit their hearth, which had been doused that night. However, his source is unknown, and Ronald Hutton supposes that Keating had mistaken a Beltane custom for a Samhain one. Dousing the old fire and bringing in the new may have been a way of banishing evil, which was done at New Year festivals in many countries.
The belief that the souls of the dead return home on one night of the year seems to have ancient origins and is found in many cultures throughout the world.
Halloween, or Hallowe'en ( a contraction of "All Hallows’ Evening"), also known as Allhalloween, All Hallows' Eve, or All Saints' Eve, is a yearly celebration observed in a number of countries on 31 October, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows' Day. It begins the three-day observance of Allhallowtide, the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers.
Typical contemporary festive Halloween activities include trick-or-treating (or the related "guising"), attending costume parties, decorating, carving pumpkins into jack-o'-lanterns, lighting bonfires, apple bobbing and divination games, playing pranks, visiting haunted attractions, telling scary stories and watching horror films. In many parts of the world, the Christian religious observances of All Hallows' Eve, including attending church services and lighting candles on the graves of the dead, remain popular, although in other locations, these solemn customs are less pronounced in favor of a more commercial and secular celebration.
Because many Western Christian denominations encourage, although most no longer require, abstinence from meat on All Hallows' Eve, the tradition of eating certain vegetarian foods for this vigil day developed, including the consumption of apples, colcannon, cider, potato pancakes, and soul cakes.
The word Halloween or Hallowe'en dates to about 1745 and is of Christian origin. The word "Halloween" means "hallowed evening" or "holy evening". It comes from a Scottish term for All Hallows' Eve (the evening before All Hallows' Day). In Scots, the word "eve" is even, and this is contracted to e'en or een. Over time, (All) Hallow(s) E(v)en evolved into Halloween. Although the phrase "All Hallows'" is found in Old English (ealra hālgena mæssedæg, all saints mass-day), "All Hallows' Eve" is itself not seen until 1556.
It has been suggested that the carved jack-o'-lantern, a popular symbol of Halloween, originally represented the souls of the dead. On Halloween, in medieval Europe, "fires [were] lit to guide these souls on their way and deflect them from haunting honest Christian folk." Households in Austria, England and Ireland often had "candles burning in every room to guide the souls back to visit their earthly homes". These were known as "soul lights". Many Christians in mainland Europe, especially in France, believed "that once a year, on Hallowe'en, the dead of the churchyards rose for one wild, hideous carnival" known as the danse macabre, which has often been depicted in church decoration.
The rising popularity of Guy Fawkes Night (5 November) from 1605 onward, saw many Halloween traditions appropriated by that holiday instead, and Halloween's popularity waned in Britain, with the noteworthy exception of Scotland. There and in Ireland, they had been celebrating Samhain and Halloween since at least the early Middle Ages, and the Scottish kirk took a more pragmatic approach to Halloween, seeing it as important to the life cycle and rites of passage of communities and thus ensuring its survival in the country.
In France, some Christian families, on the night of All Hallows' Eve, prayed beside the graves of their loved ones, setting down dishes full of milk for them. On Halloween, in Italy, some families left a large meal out for ghosts of their passed relatives, before they departed for church services. In Spain, on this night, special pastries are baked, known as "bones of the holy" (Spanish: Huesos de Santo) and put them on the graves of the churchyard, a practice that continues to this day.
In Ireland and Scotland, the turnip has traditionally been carved during Halloween, but immigrants to North America used the native pumpkin, which is both much softer and much larger – making it easier to carve than a turnip. The American tradition of carving pumpkins is recorded in 1837 and was originally associated with harvest time in general, not becoming specifically associated with Halloween until the mid-to-late 19th century.
In England, from the medieval period, up until the 1930s, people practiced the Christian custom of souling on Halloween, which involved groups of soulers, both Protestant and Catholic, going from parish to parish, begging the rich for soul cakes, in exchange for praying for the souls of the givers and their friends. In Scotland and Ireland, guising – children disguised in costume going from door to door for food or coins – is a traditional Halloween custom, and is recorded in Scotland at Halloween in 1895 where masqueraders in disguise carrying lanterns made out of scooped out turnips, visit homes to be rewarded with cakes, fruit and money.
While the first reference to "guising" in North America occurs in 1911, another reference to ritual begging on Halloween appears, place unknown, in 1915, with a third reference in Chicago in 1920. The earliest known use in print of the term "trick or treat" appears in 1927, in the Blackie Herald Alberta, Canada.
Some games traditionally played at Halloween are forms of divination. In All Hallows' Eve celebrations during the Middle Ages, these activities historically occurred only in rural areas of medieval Europe and were only done by a "rare few" as these were considered to be "deadly serious" practices. A traditional Scottish form of divining one's future spouse is to carve an apple in one long strip, then toss the peel over one's shoulder. The peel is believed to land in the shape of the first letter of the future spouse's name.
Unmarried women were told that if they sat in a darkened room and gazed into a mirror on Halloween night, the face of their future husband would appear in the mirror.
Spending Halloween in London?
love and light