Samhain is a pagan religious festival originating from an ancient Celtic spiritual tradition. In modern times, Samhain (a Gaelic word pronounced “sow-win”) is usually celebrated from October 31 to November 1 to welcome in the harvest and usher in “the dark half of the year.” Celebrants believe that the barriers between the physical world and the spirit world break down during Samhain, allowing more interaction between humans and denizens of the Otherworld.
Ancient Celts marked Samhain as the most significant of the four quarterly fire festivals, taking place at the midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. During this time of year, hearth fires in family homes were left to burn out while the harvest was gathered.
After the harvest work was complete, celebrants joined with Druid priests to light a community fire using a wheel that would cause friction and spark flames. The wheel was considered a representation of the sun and used along with prayers. Cattle were sacrificed, and participants took a flame from the communal bonfire back to their home to relight the hearth.
Early texts present Samhain as a mandatory celebration lasting three days and three nights where the community was required to show themselves to local kings or chieftains. Failure to participate was believed to result in punishment from the gods, usually illness or death.
MYTHS OF SAMHAIN
One of the most popular Samhain stories told during the festival was of “The Second Battle of Mag Tuired,” which portrays the final conflict between the Celtic pantheon known as the Tuatha de Danann and evil oppressors known as the Fomor. The myths state that the battle unfolded over the period of Samhain.
One of the most famous Samhain-related stories is “The Adventures of Nera,” in which the hero Nera encounters a corpse and fairies, and enters into the Otherworld.
Samhain figured into the adventures of mythological Celtic hero Fionn mac Cumhaill when he faced the fire-breathing underworld dweller Aillen, who would burn down the Hall of Tara every Samhain.
Samhain also figures into another Fionn mac Cumhaill legend, where the hero is sent to the Land Beneath the Wave. As well as taking place on Samhain, it features descriptions of the hero’s holiday gatherings.
SAMHAIN IN THE MIDDLE AGES
As the Middle Ages progressed, so did the celebrations of the fire festivals. Bonfires known as Samghnagans, which were more personal Samhain fires nearer the farms, became a tradition, purportedly to protect families from fairies and witches.
Carved turnips called jack-o-lanterns began to appear, attached by strings to sticks and embedded with coal. Later Irish tradition switched to pumpkins.
In Wales, men tossed burning wood at each other in violent games and set off fireworks. In Northern England, men paraded with noisemakers.
WICCA AND SAMHAIN
A broad revival of Samhain resembling its traditional pagan form began in the 1980s with the growing popularity of Wicca.
Wicca celebration of Samhain takes on many forms, from the traditional fire ceremonies to celebrations that embrace many aspects of modern Halloween, as well as activities related to honoring nature or ancestors.
Wiccans look at Samhain as the passing of the year, and incorporate common Wiccan traditions into the celebration.
In the Druid tradition, Samhain celebrates the dead with a festival on October 31 and usually features a bonfire and communion with the dead. American pagans often hold music and dance celebrations called Witches’ Balls in proximity to Samhain.