I am writing this surrounded by the trappings of modern Hallowe’en. I had my Godson stay over the weekend with his sisters and they are of an age where ghosts, skeletons, ghouls, and witches are the order of the day. I even have a black and red cape and trident sitting next to me; some might say a very appropriate gift from the children. We ate toffee apples, carved pumpkins, and decorated the house like a witch’s grotto. It was lots of fun but it definitely wasn’t Samhain: the far older festival that Hallowe’en threatens to replace.
Samhain is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or, at least, the “darker half” of the year. Samhain is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature (from the 10th century AD) and is widely believed to have pre-Christian roots. It was celebrated from sunset on 31st October to sunset on 1st November. Along with Imbolc, Beltaine, and Lughnasadh, it makes up the four Gaelic seasonal festivals. People observed Samhain in Ireland, the Isle of Man, and parts of Scotland whereas kindred festivals were held at the same time of year in other Celtic lands; such as the Brythonic Calan Gaeaf (in Wales), Kalan Gwav (in Cornwall), and Kalan Goañv (in Brittany), all meaning ‘the beginning of winter’.
Samhain was the time of year when cattle were brought down from the summer pastures and a number slaughtered for winter stores. In our contemporary lives, the threat of winter shortage has receded and this element of the festival is all but forgotten in modern Hallowe’en. Samhain was also a liminal time when the spirits or fairies (the Gaelic sídhe, pronounced “she”) could easily cross into our world. Most scholars see the sídhe as remnants of Pagan gods and nature spirits and people left offerings of food and drink out for them, both in friendship and also to stop them making any mischief through the winter. This element of Samhain is very evident in modern Hallowe’en, although most of these supernatural elements now have a wicked or even evil aspect, following their condemnation by the medieval church. Mumming and guising were another part of the festival and involved people going door-to-door in costume (or in disguise) to recite verses in exchange for food. Hallowe’en trick or treating recalls this tradition; it is not an American invention as often thought.
There is another aspect to Samhain that is more sombre and is not reflected in Hallowe’en at all. This is honouring the ancestors. If the parting of the veil allowed spirits to pass through into our world, this also included the dead. People held feasts and invited their deceased ancestors to attend. I would argue that, until the Gaelic tradition widened its remit, this was the original reason for a festival at this time, with roots going back deep into our prehistoric past.
You may know of the Coligny calendar, a Celtic time keeping plaque found in France and probably dating to the late 2nd century AD. As the words are Celtic (despite the script being Roman) it is assumed to reflect a far older, indigenous tradition. The year (as with the Gaelic Celtic year) was divided into two with the division from summer to winter occurring at Samon[ios], which may have given rise to the word ‘Samhain’. There was a three night festival at this time (Iron Age people recorded times by nights not days), called the trinux[tion] samo[nii], the three nights of Samhain. What people did at this time of year is hard to discern from the archaeological record alone and most explanations involve superimposing later Gaelic tradition into the Iron Age past. It’s certainly likely they slaughtered stock and feasted on the surplus but I think the main focus would have been on honouring the ancestors.
The evidence for this is scant, but for a piece of little known mythology surrounding the Pleiades. From the Bronze Age, and possibly long before, people observed the movement of the stars and an embossed disc from Nebra in Germany seems to reflect the celestial skies at the start of winter. The disc shows the moon, the prow of a boat along its edge (perhaps hinting at deeper mysteries), and a star constellation that looks very similar to the Pleiades. Given its prominence, the Pleiades certainly had considerable meaning to the people using the disc. What this might be requires a little more digging.
In Western astrology, the Pleiades is associated with mourning the dead. Dr. Morse, an astrological consultant to the Saudi Royal Family, drew attention to this in his book The Living Stars. This does not seem to make much sense now (the reason for the link having been lost) but, as with all stars, the Pleiades has shifted its position over the years. During the Iron Age, the Pleiades rose to its apex in the winter skies during trinuxtion samonii, or the three nights of Samhain. If, as I think they did, Iron Age people mourned and remembered their dead at this time, then it may have given rise to the association between the Pleiades and mourning the dead. The Nebra disc shows the importance of the constellation to prehistoric people and it may have even been the marker people sought to begin their festivities. There is even folk tradition that Druids celebrated Samhain when the Pleiades were at their apex at midnight. Mourning and remembering the dead may have been the focus of the Samahin festival during the Iron Age, before the Gaelic tradition widened its remit in later years.
Strangely, while Hallowe’en now forgets about honouring the ancestors, the Christian church does not. In the 9th century, the Roman Catholic Church shifted the date of All Saints’ Day to 1st November, while 2nd November later became All Souls’ Day. This was a day for remembering the ancestors and the recently departed. It seems strange that the Church should recognise this element of Samhain but it is probably a case of the Church putting a Christian gloss on what they perceived as a Pagan tradition. Requiems for all souls still take place in churches and I shall be attending one on Sunday to honour all my ancestors who lived and died as Christians. The weekend after, I will honour my ancestors who died fighting for their country in wars (Remembrance Sunday). It is surely not a coincidence that it happens at this time of year.
In short, my Samahin will have very little to do with the start of winter (today is forecast to be the mildest October 31st for many, many years), will have little to do with slaughtering stock (although I might feast), and I am far too old for trick or treating. Instead, I shall focus my thoughts on my ancestors and all those who have gone before. My celebration will be a time of honouring them. Whether it is at a Pagan ceremony, a Christian requiem, or even a national day of remembrance, let’s make the ancestors the heart of our Samhain this year and give our thanks for their continuing presence in our lives.