Samhain: Hope in the Midst of Fear and Darkness
Before a new beginning, all must end. Darkness comes before the light of dawn. Death can lead to growth and new life. Boundaries become porous. Past, present, and future merge and time ceases to exist. Samhain, the ancient Celtic festival, the origin of the modern holiday of Halloween, embraces these ideas. While All Hallows’ Eve has its origin in Samhain, the two celebrations are not the same. Halloween is a fun time devoted to dressing up, partying, going trick-or-treating, and eating too much candy. The feast of Samhain included some fun activities too but, primarily, it was a holy day (three days in fact) with mandatory attendance at communal rituals. The consequence for not showing up? Punishment from the gods. Samhain was a celebration but it also was a scary time with potential threats from both the natural and supernatural worlds.
Cause for Celebration
Samhain celebrated the harvest. The year-long hard work of sowing had paid off. Crops were gathered in and it was time to let loose and party. A communal bonfire was lit. A bull was sacrificed and thrown on the fire. People brought a portion of their harvest (fruits, vegetables, grains) to offer too. In other words, the community had a barbeque. Prayers were offered. Gods were thanked for the bountiful harvest and petitioned to keep the community safe from malignant forces. A fervent prayer went up to let the sun return in the spring. Overall, though, there was joy and fun. People dressed in disguises and played games, especially those involving foretelling the future. Those born during the year were officially welcomed into the community. And there was peace. At least there was supposed to be. Weapons were banned at the Samhain celebration. In Ireland, anyone who brought a weapon to the festival was executed. This, naturally, provided entertainment for everyone else. When the party was over for the night, each family returned home with a gift: a torch lit from the communal bonfire. This take-home present was vitally important.
Causes for Concern
The Celts associated darkness with malign forces. They also believed that light dispelled evil. Bringing a bit of the sanctified communal fire home with them meant that they could protect themselves, their family, their home and livestock from evil. And evil was on its way. At Samhain (starting at sunset on October 31st), the boundary between this world and the Otherworld became so thin that residents of the Otherworld spilled into this one. That meant that faeries, ghosts, and other beings roamed free. Some were benign, even well-meaning, but others were not. For example, the Sluagh Sidhe, a collective with skeletal bodies and bat-like wings, flew around, seeking human souls to enslave forever. The Dullahan, a headless horseman / grim reaper rode through the streets, throwing a bucket of blood in the faces of those who dared to look at him, and causing dread since, wherever he stopped, someone died. While people today might not understand why the Celts worried about little faeries running loose, it might help to know that both the Sluagh Sidhe and the Dullahan are faeries.
Even the more typical version of the Good People, such as the Trooping Faeries (in Ireland) or the Seeley Court (in Scotland) who mostly spent their time partying, drinking, and ignoring humans, could be dangerous. They had a reputation for kidnapping humans on Samhain. Then there were the solitary faeries who were almost always dangerous. These included Red Cap, who got his name from his habit of dipping his hat in his victims’ blood, and the Puca, who would sneak up behind those traveling after sunset, pick them up, and throw them into ditches. Staying indoors near the fire was the safest thing to do. But even that wouldn’t necessarily protect you. The Clurican, a prankster cousin of Leprechauns, lives in cellars. His hobbies are getting drunk, wrecking furniture and dishes, stealing farm animals and riding them all over the countryside. The Puca doesn't confine himself to dark streets either. He could show up in your front yard, calling you out by name or, as a shapeshifter, knock on your door, disguised as an ugly goblin, and demand a share of your harvest.
Ghosts were out and about at Samhain as well. Celts believed that, when a person died, his or her soul went to the Otherworld. At Samhain, the soul returned. Honoring the ancestors was an important part of Celtic culture so their ghosts were actually invited back. Food, especially cakes, were made to welcome them in. A chair was placed next to the fire so the ancestors could rest after their journey from the Otherworld. But not all ghosts were friendly. Souls who had passed during the year could come back to settle unfinished business. That could be something as pleasant as giving a goodbye kiss to a loved one. Or it could mean exacting revenge on a neighbor. Celts often dressed up and masked at Samhain to keep their identities hidden. But ghosts didn’t just go home for a visit or seek out a specific person for revenge. Some just hung out in the in-between places, such as crossroads, bridges, and boundary lines. And just like living people who hang out in lonely, dark places, they could be dangerous. So, on Samhain, avoiding these ‘tween places was a wise idea. As was staying out of graveyards. Some Celts, though, felt that going into a cemetery in order to see a ghost was part of the fun of Samhain. And some of them may have regretted that decision.
The Big In-Between
Samhain itself was a ‘tween space. It was a time between an ending and a beginning. The Celtic year was divided into a light and a dark half. Samhain began the dark half as the days got shorter and the nights got longer. It also ended the Celtic year and began the new year. Just as the veil between this world and the other thinned at Samhain, divisions of time also faded. Past, present, and future came together and, it was thought, time stopped during Samhain. This made it, to the Celtic mind, an intensely magical period. Druids felt it was the best time for divination. Everyday Celts agreed and used everyday things, such as apples, hazelnut shells, lavender, and mirrors, to try to find out about the possible success of their romantic relationships, the identity of their future spouses, and the length of their lives.
Because Samhain marks the end of the year, the beginning of the winter, and the journey into darkness as well as a time honoring the ancestors, a principle theme of the feast day is death. But it’s important to understand that, for the Celts, death was another birth. In fact the Celts had midwives for death who helped aid the soul’s passage to the Otherworld. Life, to the Celts, is an eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Going into the long cold dark of winter was anxiety producing for the Celts. Would the harvest be enough to sustain the family until Spring? Would the fire ward off cold and evil? Would charms and prayers be enough to keep everyone safe from the respiratory illnesses that came with the cold damp? Nevertheless, the Celts also had hope they would survive, that the gods would send the sun back and along with it, warmth, light, and the new life of Spring. Samhain is about fear, darkness, and death, but it is equally about hope and a belief in life following death.
This year, 2020, has been one of death and darkness. It is easy to despair. But this November 1st, take inspiration from the ancient Celts and take hope. Life and new life will follow this dark, cold winter.
Happy Samhain and Happy New Year!
Thanks for reading the post. If you enjoyed it, please LIKE and SHARE it. If you'd like to receive it each week for FREE, SUBSCRIBE by clicking the "Sign Up" button in the upper right corner of the post.
Slan go foil!
Dying to be a writer but not sure how to start? Let me mentor you in the art and skill of creative writing. Click here for details.