With its ghosts and ghouls, pumpkins and bonfires, and trick-or-treaters shouting BOO, Halloween is the unadulterated descendent of Samhain, the ancient Celtic festival of the dead.
Pronounced SOW (rhymes with cow) –in, the word comes from the Proto-Indo-European root word *semo- (summer), and the Proto-Celtic *samoni- (reunion, assembly). It quite literally means “an assembly to celebrate the harvest at summer’s end.”
And because the Celts were fascinated with opposites, that assembly applies to both the living and the dead.
As one of the four Celtic fire festivals, Samhain traditionally marked the onset of a season (i.e., winter), as well as the new year. The other major festivals were Imbolc (spring), Beltaine (summer), and Lughnasa (fall).
Festivities for the new year would begin on Samhain Eve, since the Celtic day began and ended at sunset.
Light and dark are the two major divisions of time—be it a day, a year, even a month if you consider moon phases. Beltaine initiates the light half of the year, and Samhain the dark; Beltaine is a festival for the living, Samhain, the dead. From light, darkness is born and from darkness, light.
The Celts revered times and places that were “in between.” Think of a shoreline, crossroads, dusk and dawn—times and places where borders dissolve, opposites exist simultaneously, and magic—inexplicable paradoxes—happens. Samhain is an “in between.” By honoring death, it honors its opposite, life, for one cannot exist without the other.
It also honors timelessness. When the veil between the divisions of time opens, chronology is irrelevant. Past, present, and future dissolve into one dimension that unites the physical world with the invisible one. Supernatural beings and souls of the dead may pass unhindered by time and space
Ghosts and Ghouls
In order to understand the characters we associate with Halloween, a quick review of mythology is helpful.
The Túatha Dé Danann (TOO-əhə də du-nən) were pre-Celtic immortals with supernatural powers. After conquering the Firbolg and Fomorri, however, they were conquered by the Celtic Milesians, who banished them underground into sídhes (sheeth dəs), or burial mounds. They became known as the aes sídhe (ays sheeth də), the people of the fairy mounds, the faeries.
Though popular lore portrays fairies as playful and delicate, faeries are not. They are elementals, similar to stereotypical ghosts rising from graveyards. When the veil between their realm and the physical world is thinnest—at Samhain—they are most active. Stunning and beneficent, or terrible and hideous, they walk among the living, exacting vengeance or providing protection—for a price.
Witches are patterned on the Morrígan, a feared Celtic deity of death and war, symbolized by the raven. A shapeshifter often associated with a cauldron, the Morrígan is also the goddess of fate. As the crone aspect of the triple goddess (along with the maiden and the mother), she represents an integral aspect of the circle of life, i.e., death.
Other Halloween monsters include:
- Dearg Due and Leanan Sidhe—Vampires
- Banshee—Wailing ghost who predicts death
- The Dullahan—Headless horseman
- Balor—One-eyed demon king
- Sluagh –Dead Irish sinners who hunt down souls
- Kelpie –Sea monster
Pumpkins and Bonfires
During the harvest festivities, livestock would be slaughtered and some of its blood sprinkled on the threshold of the house to appease the faeries.
Community bonfires, which mimicked the sun and represented purification, were ceremoniously lit and stoked with remnants of the harvest and bones of slaughtered livestock. Individual households would extinguish their hearths and re-light them from the community bonfire.
Not only was harvested food prepared for the living, it was also served to the dead, since they could cross over the thin veil to visit loved ones. Doors and windows might be left open so that the dead could enter and eat cakes that had been left for them.
Typically, people also appeased the aes sídhe with food and drink, and by leaving some crops in the ground to protect themselves and their livestock.
“Mumming” and “guising,” i.e., wearing costumes, gave way to trick-or-treating.
Irish Celts would impersonate the aes sídhe in order to protect themselves from them. Donning costumes, they went door-to-door singing songs to the dead and demanding food and other rewards in exchange for good fortune. For luck and guidance, they carried lanterns made from turnips and gourds that had been carved with grotesque faces and illuminated with fire.
Emergence of Halloween
Contrary to common belief, the Celtic culture is not indigenous to Ireland. It arrived from central Europe with the Milesians, around 500 BC.
Although the Romans conquered and subjugated the Celts throughout Europe, the Romans never made it to present-day Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Thus, the Celtic culture there has thrived as the purest form of Celticism as it was practiced 3,000 years ago, even as it merged with pre-Celtic practices.
The pre-Celts in Ireland, for example, also observed something akin to Samhain, as evidenced at the entrance passage to the Mound of the Hostages on the Hill of Tara. Like Newgrange and Stonehenge, this monument is nearly 5,000 years old; unlike the solstice observations at Newgrange and Stonehenge, the Mound of the Hostages is aligned with the rising sun at the end of October.
When St. Patrick arrived in the fifth century, he followed the formula established by the early church that if a holiday looked like a pagan festival, pagans would accept the Christian holiday and, ultimately, the God it celebrated. That’s how Christianity gradually absorbed all pagan holidays into its own mythology.
Despite the efforts of various popes to Christianize the pagans by creating “all saints” celebrations, however, the autumnal fire festivals of the dead persisted. In 741, Pope Gregory III changed the “all saints” date to November 1, to coincide with the widespread Celtic celebrations of Samhain. And in 840, Pope Gregory IV ordered the feast of “All Saints” to be celebrated universally on November 1.
This created the three-day observance known as Allhallowtide: All Hallows’ Eve (October 31), All Hallows’ Day (November 1), and All Souls’ Day (November 2). Yet instead of eliminating Samhain, its customs were solidified. This was especially true when, in the 19th-century, Irish emigrants brought Halloween with them across the ocean.
The influence of Christianity also showed up in central and southern Mexico. Día de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead” began thousands of years ago as an Aztec mid-summer harvest festival. Spanish priests intervened and moved it to November 1 so that it coincided with the Christian holiday of All Hallows Eve.
That brings us to present.
Honor the living and dead this month by opening yourself to the timeless magic of Samhain. Don a mask, grab a pumpkin, and cry—as the faeries would assert in an otherworldly warning—Fey! Beware!