Samhain, Feast of the Dead

30 Oct

Festivals emphasizing death and the supernatural are common in almost all cultures. Modern Hallowe’en, for example, is influenced by and probably originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced ‘SAH-win’ or ‘SOW-in’). Around 1,000 BC the Celts – who at the time populated Ireland, Great Britain and northern France – celebrated the first day of winter as their New Year. Winter began, in the climate of northern Europe, in November. The end of summer marked radical change in the daily life of this pastoral people. The herds were brought down from the summer pastures in the hills, the best animals put to shelter, and the rest slaughtered. For the Celts, the period we now consider the end of October and start of November was a time of preparation, festival and plenty before the coming of the long winter. As agriculture became a part of their lives, harvest time also became part of the seasonal activity. This communal celebration became known as Samhain. Linguistically, the word evidently simply combines the Gaelic words sam for ‘end’ and hain for ‘summer’ i.e. end of summer. However, although the bounty of nature and the change of seasons were important aspects of Samhain, it was also a festival of the supernatural.

Samhain was the turning point of the year for a people who believed that even minor turning points – the change from one day to the next, the meeting of the sea and shore and so on – were magical. The turning of the year was the most powerful and sacred of such junctures. The worlds of the living and of the dead were very close to one another at Samhain, the veil between the two at its thinnest. The living could communicate with those who had gone beyond; the dead could visit the living. In Celtic times, the dead were not considered evil or particularly dreaded so much as consulted and honoured as ancestral spirits and guardians of the wisdom of the tribe. Celtic priests – the Druids – contacted the dead in order to divine the future and make predictions for the community. In the Hallowe’en lore of the last two centuries or so, references are made to Samhain as a deity or Celtic ‘Lord of the Dead’. There is however no evidence for such a god – the fallacy seems to have arisen in the 1770s, before improved translation of Celtic literary work and modern archaeology, and has gone on to be unquestioningly and inaccurately repeated in many sources over the years.

Although possibly later developed as post-Christian mythology, the Celts may have believed in fairies or similar magical creatures. They did not believe in demons or devils, but they may well have had these not-so-nice entities to deal with. Resentful of humans taking over the world the fairy folk were often thought to be hostile and dangerous. During the magical time of Samhain the fairies were thought to be even more powerful than usual, and it was suspected that they might lure away unsuspecting humans. These unfortunates would then be lost in the fairy mounds and trapped forever. Fairies or their kind were not the only ones causing mischief. The yearly turning point was also seen as a suspension of ordinary space and time. For order and structure to be maintained for the rest of the year, chaos would reign during Samhain. Humans indulged in cross-gender dressing, tricks and high jinks. On the practical side, such behaviour was an outlet for high spirits before the confining winter came. We know very little of Druidic religious rituals, but we do know Samhain was one of four ‘Fire Festivals’ of the Celts. Hearth fires were extinguished to symbolize the coming of the ‘dark half’ of the year, then re-lit from Druidic fires to signify the return and continuance of life – bonfires were also part of this observance.

Hallowe’en cannot really be considered a direct outgrowth of ancient Celtic practices. Other cultural elements – including various harvest festivals – eventually became part of Hallowe’en custom. Over the centuries traditions have been both correctly and incorrectly attributed to the Celts. Sometimes this has been done with an appreciation of the ancient ways. But more often cultural-centrism and historic revisionism so coloured thinking that the past was unfairly interpreted. Early Christian missionaries intentionally identified contact with the supernatural as experiences originating with the Devil and inherently evil. The Druids, since they adhered to ‘false gods’ were, therefore, worshippers of Satan. Later religious prejudice also lumped pagans in with Devil worship and the resulting misinformation has been further propitiated. As with other pre-Christian practices, Samhain was eventually absorbed by the Church. In the 8th century November 1st was fixed as the anniversary for all saints – All Saints Day (the word ‘hallow’ was used in the Middle Ages as a synonym for ‘saint’). October 31st then became All Hallows’ Eve, the evening before All Saints Day. The word Hallowe’en should, therefore, always have the apostrophe between the ‘e’s because it is a contraction of the words ‘hallow’ and ‘evening’, or ‘e’en’ to the Elizabethans (as in ‘Good e’en, good sir!’).

The old beliefs did not die out so easily, however, and just honouring saints was not enough to replace the notion of a time of year when the dead could travel the earth. Whatever its history, Hallowe’en is anything but a dead tradition. It is, perhaps, more alive and more meaningful now than ever before. The farther we’ve gotten from the magic and mystery of our past, the more we’ve come to need Hallowe’en. It’s a festival of fantasy, a celebration of otherness, the one time each year when the mundane is overturned in favour of the bizarre, and anyone can become anything they wish. At its core, Hallowe’en is a chance to confront our most primal fear – death – and attempt to control it or, at the very least, mock it. Ancient beliefs, religious meanings, a multitude of ethnic heritages, diverse occult traditions, and the continual influence of popular culture have combined to make Hallowe’en today a booming commercial industry as well as a beloved holiday.


2 Responses to “Samhain, Feast of the Dead”

  1. simon7banks October 31, 2016 at 9:59 pm #

    Very interesting. The idea of a period of enjoyable chaos of course appears in Roman tradition too, only at midwinter – another turning-point.

    You say early Christian missionaries intentionally identified contact with the supernatural as evil. Some no doubt did, but many helped traditional believers to see their old practices as reflected in Christianity: “You’re used to such-and such – well, you’ll find something similar in Christianity…”. Or they simply tried to show the old beliefs were ineffective: “You say if I cut down this tree I’ll be struck dead? OK…” Some pre-Christian religious sites became Christian ones. I wonder if the identification of non-Christian religious practice and experience with the devil isn’t mainly a much later phenomenon. After all, the heyday of witch-hunts was the late 16th to the mid 17th century, a time when agriculture was under pressure because of climatic changes and there were many other reasons for people to feel threatened and to have a tendency to find scapegoats. Of course, when Christian settlers arrived in the Americas, it was very convenient, where the locals’ populations were not so large they had to be ruled rather than persecuted, to identify their beliefs with the devil and thus excuse killing them.

    All a relief from Halloween tat, anyway!


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