Halloween Past & Present by Angela H. Penn ©October 2012
Samhain (pronounced Sow-en), dates back to the ancient Celts who lived 2,000 years ago, that, is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France. It is an Irish-Gaelic word meaning “summer’s end.” Samhain heralds the beginning of winter when the world starts to darken and the days are getting shorter – the ‘dark half’ of the year and the demise of the power of the sun. They also followed a lunar calendar and their celebrations began at sunset, the night before. Samhain represented the death of the summer sun god, Lugh. The Celts believed that the passage of a day began with darkness and progressed into the light. The same notion explains why winter – the season of long, dark nights – marked the beginning of the year and progressed into the lighter days of spring, summer and autumn. The 1st of November, Samhain, was the Celtic New Year, and the celebrations began at sunset of the day before, i.e. it’s Eve. (1)
Celts believed that on the night before the New Year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31st, they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the unpredictable natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.
Samhain was also a time to plant the seeds in order for them to germinate over the winter months. This period marked the end of the old and taking a general inventory of one’s life. Samhain allowed you to come to terms with your past year and leave all mistakes and/or regrets behind you in order to move on. Use the magic of this time to say good-bye to all bad habits or addictions, an old relationship, or anything else negative in your life.
What kind of rituals did Samhain involve?
According to Jenny Butler, a Ph.D. student of Béaloideas/Folklore at the University College Cork in Ire land, Samhain traditionally involved rituals of divination, the idea that this was a perceived breaking down of barriers between the human and spirit realms; communication was thought to become possible between the living and the dead. People may also have believed that they would be privy to supernatural aid or otherworldly knowledge at this time. Other rituals may have been symbolically to do with the juxtaposition of life and death. Some divinatory rituals have survived in the form of games, such as “snap-apple” and “bobbing for apples.” (2)
Samhain being the end of the final harvest of the summer meant that all apples had to be picked by the time the day’s feasting began as it was believed that the puca (pronounced “pooka” – Irish evil fairies) spat on any apples that remained on the trees, thus making them inedible.
What was the significance of lighting bonfires?
There are many reasons why bonfires might have been lit. The most practical one was for warmth as the end of October is a cold, time of the year. Around a fire is a traditional setting for storytelling sessions and the light and heat from a large fire add to the festive atmosphere. There’s an Irish custom that it is good luck to jump through the flames of a bonfire. It has been suggested that the ancient practice of lighting fires on the hills of Ireland had to do with symbolic mirroring of the light and color of the sun in the sky, in a ritual that perhaps was part of a sun-worshipping religion. (2)
Are there any sites that were significant for the celebration of Samhain?
Butler states: An example of an ancient site that was associated with the observance of the feast of Samhain was the Hill of Ward or “Tlachtga,” located near Athboy in the modern county of Meath. It is 116 meters (380 feet) high with a prehistoric ring fort on the top. There are legends that druids gathered there to light huge fires as a signal that festivities should commence. There is evidence that these great fires were lit on this hill in pre-Christian times, perhaps in order to mark the beginning of winter. The Hill of Tara, one of the most popular of the Irish heritage sites, was also a significant Samhain site in ancient times and there have been references in medieval manuscripts to Feis Teamhrach or a feast of Tara which was said to be held three days before and three days after Samhain. It is important to remember that, since we can only base our judgments on scant archaeological evidence and mythological sources, it is difficult to say with certainty what rituals occurred at ancient sites at Samhain but we do know the sites were important to the people in some way and had a religious significance. (2)
Samhain was also a festival not unlike the modern New Year’s Day in that it carried the notion of casting out the old and moving into the new. Also like modern day New Year’s Eve which we vow to quit smoking, exercise more and lose weight in the upcoming year. To our pagan ancestors it marked the end of the pastoral cycle – a time when all the crops would be gathered and stored for the long winter ahead. The livestock would be then be brought in from the fields and used for either breeding or slaughtering.
In olden-day Ireland, jack-o-lanterns would be made by hollowing out a turnip or sugar beet and carving bits out to represent facial features and would then be lit from a candle placed on the inside. The dual idea behind this may have been to at once light the way for the souls of the dead ancestors who are returning to visit the human world and to frighten off any supernatural forces that might be about on this night. Today in Ireland, people carve faces on pumpkins, which are again an American import. (2)
According to legend, the origin of the Halloween lantern can be found in the tale of a young smith called Jack O’Lantern who made a pact with the Devil during a gambling session. He managed to thwart the Devil and extracted a promise from him that he would never take his soul. When he eventually died, Jack was refused entry to heaven on account of his drunken, lewd and miserly ways. The Devil, remembering his earlier promise, also refused to allow him into hell. So Jack was condemned to roam the dark hills and lanes of Ireland for eternity. His only possessions were a turnip with a gouged out centre and a burning coal, thrown to him by the Devil. He put the coal inside the turnip to light his way through the dark countryside where he still wanders…… (3)
While doing research for this article I discovered that the origin of Halloween ‘trick or treating’ seems to have been a Druid ritual that began with the collecting of items such as eggs, apples and nuts from the homes within the village. These offerings were meant to protect people from bad luck, such as damage to crops or livestock in the next year. Tricks were played on the ones who were stingy with their offerings.
The tradition of dressing in costume for Halloween appears to have both European and Celtic origins. It was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world and people were fearful that they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes. People would wear masks when they left their homes after dark to avoid being mistaken for fellow spirits. Bowls of food would be placed outside one’s home to prevent spirits from coming in.
By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the four hundred years they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain. The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, who was the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and the incorporation of this is practiced today on Halloween. (1)
Pope Boniface IV, on May 13, 609 A.D., dedicated the Pantheon in Rome in honor of all Christian martyrs, and thus the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day was established in the Western church. When Pope Gregory III (731–741) took over he expanded the festival to include all saints and martyrs, moving the observance from May 13 to November 1. By the 9th century the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands, where it gradually blended with and supplanted the older Celtic rites. In 1000 A.D., the church would make November 2, All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. It is widely believed that the church was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday. All Souls Day was celebrated much like the Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils. The All Saints Day celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day) and the night before it. The traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion, began to be called All-hallows Eve, and eventually Halloween. (1)
The secular, commercialized holiday we know today would be barely recognizable to Halloween celebrants a century ago. Today’s Halloween ghosts are often depicted as more frightening, and our customs and superstitions are even scarier too. Children now dress in elaborate costumes, travelling door to door in pursuit of candy. We avoid crossing paths with black cats, as this may bring us bad luck. This idea originated in the middle Ages, when many people believed that witches turned themselves into cats to avoid being discovered. One superstition we have in Canada is to not walk under a ladder of any sort, at any time of year. I suspect this may be a North American superstition. At Halloween, especially, we try to avoid breaking mirrors, stepping on cracks in the road, or on the sidewalk. I have also heard that spilling salt is a bad omen from others.
What about the Halloween traditions and beliefs that today’s trick-or-treaters have forgotten all about?
Many of these rituals focused on the future and the living rather than the dead. In particular, many had to do with helping young women identify their future husbands and reassuring them that they would someday—with luck, by next Halloween—be married. In 18th-century Ireland, a matchmaking cook might bury a ring in her mashed potatoes on Halloween night, hoping to bring true love to the diner who found it. In Scotland, fortune-tellers recommended that an eligible young woman name a hazelnut for each of her suitors and then toss the nuts into the fireplace. The nut that burned to ashes rather than popping or exploding, represented the girl’s future husband. (In some versions of this legend, confusingly, the opposite was true: The nut that burned away symbolized a love that would not last.) Another tale states that if a young woman ate a sugary concoction made out of walnuts, hazelnuts and nutmeg before bed on Halloween night she would dream about her future husband. Young women tossed apple-peels over their shoulders, hoping that the peels would fall on the floor in the shape of their future husbands’ initials; tried to learn about their futures by peering at egg yolks floating in a bowl of water; and stood in front of mirrors in darkened rooms, holding candles and looking over their shoulders for their husbands’ faces. At some Halloween parties, the first guest to find a burr on a chestnut-hunt would be the first to marry; at others, the first successful apple-bobber would be the first down the aisle. (1)
While researching for this article I was delighted to find that the world’s largest Halloween party is held in Derry, which is located in Northern Ireland. Approximately 30,000 people attend this event on average, every year. Festivities are held at Guildhall Square that includes: a free concert, ghost walks and fireworks.
All Images: FreeDigitalPhotos.net
2. ARCHAEOLOGY interview with Jenny Butler Oct. 2006. asked Butler to explain the Celtic roots of Halloween and how relics of the past are understood today. Jenny Butler, a Ph.D. student of Béaloideas/Folklore at the University College Cork in Ireland.
Angela H. Penn is a free-lance writer, poet, herbalist student, animal activist, and an avid blogger who lives in Alberta, Canada. She can be found on Facebook or via her blog at https://littleburstsofinspiration.wordpress.com/.