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Holidays >> Samhain
pagan sabbats samhain, celtic fire festivals, all hallows eve, guisers


Author: Half Wolf

© A. L. Folberth 1997 / HalfWolf

Permission given to reprint, copy and circulate for personal use so long as nothing whatsoever is changed. Church address and URL must remain on the copy. If this article is included as part of a book, magazine or newsletter which is intended for resale, 5 cents per word is asked to be donated to the Pagan Community Church.

Contact: write to us at
Pagan Community Church, P.O. Box 5622, Bridgeport, CT 06610

Thanks for Rev. Alicia Folberth/HalfWolf for submitting to RealMagick.

Summer is at its end and the last harvest is taken in. The cold season returns, all of
nature seems to die and the nights become long. It is the beginning of Samon, the dark
half of the year. The veil between the land of the living and the land of the dead becomes
thinnest, and their souls walk amongst us on this Spirit Night. Just as the Sun God dies
at this time to be reborn at Yule, Samhain reaffirms the belief that everything that dies
contains new life.

Samhain (pronounced Sow-en), means "summer's end" and is the most important of
the four Celtic Fire Festivals since it marks the new year. It also survives as as Nos
Galen-gaeof (Welsh as the Night of the Winter Calends), Samhna (modern Irish), Laa Houney
(Manx as Hollantide Day), Sauin, Souney, Samana, and Samhuinn. November 1st became
Christianized when St. Odilo of Cluny adopted it in 998 as All Saints/Souls Day. October
31st then became All Hallows Eve (hallowed meaning holy), which has been contracted into
our modern Halloween. The Celts began their day with sunset, and so it is celebrated on
the eve.

Perhaps of all the Pagan Sabbats, Samhain has kept more of it's original traditions
intact. With Halloween being heavily commercialized today, the wearing of masks, symbols
of the dead and "trick or treating" continues, although its original meaning has
been forgotten or misconstrued. First and foremost, Samhain has been a feast for the dead,
but is far from being an "evil" holiday. As keeping with custom, many Pagans
still choose to remember and honor those that have passed on.


Trick or Treating and mischief has long been a part of Samhain,
although now only children participate. Bands of (dis)guisers would wander mock from door
to door, mock begging as they went, dressed as the spirits of the dead so they might walk
amongst them unnoticed. If a home was thought stingy, it would bring them bad luck, and
like the spirits they might play a trick if not appeased; chimneys would be stuffed,
outhouses overturned and animals freed from their pens. Celtic laws of hospitality were
not to be violated, especially in front of their ancestors on this night.

Bonfires are an ancient part of Samhain. They were once
literally bone-fires and the smoke was thought to have purifying qualities. As with
Beltane, all fires were extinguished and then relit from the fire of the sacred flame.
This was a practice that long survived in Ireland, the bonfire being the one kindled on
the hill of Tlachtga.

Pumpkins were made popular as Jack O'Lanterns in the 1800's by
Irish immigrants who brought the festival with them to America. Originally turnips or
cabbages were carved out and candles placed inside. They were left along roads to the
cemeteries and carried by guisers. Lit candles were also placed in windows so that the
spirits of the dead might find their way.

Divination, communication with the dead and superstition have
long been a part of Samhain. At no other time of the year are visions and dreams likely to
be so potent. Many of the types of divination revolve around other symbols such as apples
and hazelnuts, and others generally have to do with death. It was, for example, a Scottish
custom to place white stones in the ashes on the hearth on Samhain night; if anyone's
stone had been disturbed, they would not live to see another year.

Apples are the Celtic Silver Bough, a fruit of the Otherworld
sacred to the Northern European Traditions. They symbolize fertility, love, wisdom and
were often used in divination. To realize the that this is a sacred fruit, one has to do
no more than to cut it crossways revealing the five pointed star; the pentacle. November
1st also coincides with the Roman festival of Pomona, a feast of ripening fruits when the
summer stores are opened for eating in the Winter.

Many customs and superstitions surround the apple.
If eaten on Samhain, apple an would bring a dream of a future lover, and gave rise to
people competing to take bites when "Bobbing for Apples". They might also see
their future spouse's initial in an apple peel, depending on its shape upon landing when
thrown over the shoulder. In Wales, apples are buried in the ground for those who have
passed on, so the departed might enjoy them on the other side.

Hazel nuts are also associated with Samhain. The hazel is a
sacred tree of the groves and is said to grow on the Isle of Avalon as the "Tree of
Life". The nuts themselves represent love, peace and hidden knowledge. Two nuts
burned together at Samhain may foretell whether a couple shall remain true to one another.
This practice may stem from the legend of the Well of Connla which exists under the sea;
it is said a hazel tree with nine nuts hangs over it that are able to awaken love when

The Otherworld

Samhain is seen as being a time when the dead have power over the living and walk amongst
them with as this is a "day between times". With oncoming of the cold and
potential food shortages, winter was something to be feared. Offerings of bread and milk
were left out for the sidhe, the faeries, who the dead join in the otherworld. They were
never entirely seen to be benign, but capable of harming the living if slighted and were
therefore treated with respect. All food left in the fields after Samhain was considered
to have been "spat upon" or contaminated by the Puka - a warning that anything
left unclaimed was the property of the sidhe. "Dumb suppers" are also eaten in
silence, out of respect for the dead, since they cannot speak. Ancestors and loved ones
were invited, doors unlocked and a separate place would be set for them at the table;
complete with food and drink.

This is the night of "The Wild Hunt" led by the Lord
of the otherworld. He is known as Arawn or Gwynn ap Nudd. He would collect the souls of
the dead who had passed away during the year and hunted with his white hounds the unlucky
ones who had done evil during their lifetimes. This bridge between the two worlds also
shows itself with the "hobby horse" that often accompanied the guisers; the
"night mare" who bears away the souls of the dead across her back.


Storytelling was an important part of Samhain and many legends
of kings and heroes are associated with it. It is at this time the Battle of Magh Tuireadh
took place, the great battle when the Tuatha de Danaan defeated the Formorians. The story,
"The Intoxication of the Ulsterman", where Cuchulainn led a drunken company
across Ireland, occurs on Samhain; it was also later to be the day of his death. Many
other stories tell of links to the otherworld; such as the death of hero Muirchertach
brought about by his sidhe wife.

The Cailleach

On Samhain, the last sheaf of grain was cut and dressed up as an elderly woman, known as
the "Carlin". This is the Cailleach (meaning old woman), the underworld goddess
Cerridwen, who guards her magick cauldron of rebirth. She has become distorted by modern
Halloween which portrays her as a grotesque hag; the "witch" we were taught to
fear as children. Like her Greek equivalent Hecate, she represents sacred knowledge,
wisdom and the moon in its waning phase.

Her animal is the sow and is usually represented as white, but with the idea of Celtic
duality, she may be represented at this time of year as black. When the Samhain bonfire
died out, people would run down the hill shouting, "May the Black Sow seize the
hindmost!"; possibly an allusion to the sacrifices that may have once been connected
with this day.

In Rome, boys would play a game that also represented the Crone at this time of year. It's
symbolism was that of the Maiden and Crone; the Maiden let loose a lamb and the Crone a
Dragon. The lamb defeated the dragon, but then the Crone would release a lion who overcame
the lamb, and in doing so the Crone was left to reign over the season of darkness.

So this Samhain, light an candle in your window, place photos on your altar and leave out
an extra setting for an unseen visitor. Use the time to remember those that have crossed
over to Summerland. They'll be watching.


Call of the Horned Piper,

Nigel Aldcroft Jackson

Celebrating the Southern Seasons, Juliet Batten

Celtic Heritage,

Alwyn and Brinley Rees

The Celtic Tradition,

Caitlin Matthews

The Dictionary of Festivals,

J. C. Cooper

Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Peter Ellis

Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom, Caitlin and John Matthews

Life and Death of a Druid Prince, Ann Ross and Don Robins

IThe Magic Arts in Celtic Britain, Lewis Spence

The Magickal Year,

Diana Ferguson

The Real Origins of Halloween,

1996 Article, Isaac Bonewits

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