Pagan, Celtic Samhain — Halloween’s Ancestor
Pagan, Celtic Samhain—Halloween’s Ancestor
In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at Samhain, the pagan Celtic celebration that preceded our modern Halloween.
Samhain, the Start of Winter
On October 31 of each year, we celebrate Halloween. Children dress up in scary costumes as ghosts, skeletons, or Darth Vader. But from whence came this strange custom? From ancient Ireland and the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced SAH-wen).
Samhain was celebrated from sunset, October 31, to sunset, November 1. It marked the end of the grazing and growing season and the beginning of winter. The crops were mature, and it was time to gather in the produce. It was also a time to bring in the herds from the fields and cull the weakest or non-breeding animals.
Time for a Great Fair?
After gathering the harvest, the clans might have some food that would spoil and not last until spring. Thus, Samhain was a good time to call a óenach (WAY-nock), one of the great harvest and feasting festivals of the ancient Irish Celts. (The subject calls for its own future post.)
A Time When the Otherworld Came Closer
But besides being a time for harvesting, gathering together, and feasting, Samhain also holds a darker meaning. Standing between the death of summer and the birth of winter, between the time of growing and the time of consuming, Samhain marked the year’s midpoint. Perhaps because of this, the druids taught that Samhain was one of only two days when the spirits of the Otherworld came closest to this world. On the nights of both Samhain and Beltane, fires were also lit on hilltops all across Ireland.
The druids believed in an eternal afterlife, and the Otherworld was the place of the dead. By some accounts, it was a grim, dark underworld, ruled by Manannán mac Lir, the sea god. Normally the boundary between this life and the next was fixed, but on the two days of Samhain, winter’s beginning, and Beltane, summer’s beginning, the boundary between worlds became porous. Then the spirits of the dead and the gods of the underworld could cross freely from their world into ours.
A Samhain Night Tale
This story comes to us from Philip Freeman’s St. Patrick of Ireland:
“In one early Irish tale, Medb and Ailill were huddled with their tribe in their feast hall on Samain night, fearful of spirits and gods roaming the land. They offered a reward to anyone who would dare to go outside and tie a twig around the foot of a dead man hanging from the gallows. All the warriors shrank in fear, but a young man named Nera volunteered to go forth. Just as Nera finished the task, the dead man nonchalantly asked him for a drink of water, which Nera gladly gave him. Then on the way back to Medb and Ailill, Nera saw the hall of his king and queen burning and a troop of Otherworld warriors marching away. He followed them into a hole in the ground where it was spring, the opposite of time in his own world. After a series of strange encounters, which included getting a fairy woman pregnant, he left the cave, only to discover that he had been living in the future and still had a chance to save his tribe in this world.”
Thus, on Samhain night, this ancient warrior traveled into the future, saw a disaster precipitated by Otherworld soldiers, and returned to his own world in time to save his people.
It was also said that at Samhain, the dead could return to this world and haunt those of the living who had wronged them. So Samhain was a time not only of harvest and feasting, but also a time of fear and trepidation.
Samhain Gave Birth to Halloween
With the coming of St. Patrick and Christianity, the importance of pagan Samhain in Ireland diminished. In 609, the Catholic church declared November 1 to be All Saints’ Day and October 31 to be All-Hallows Eve (Halloween). In this way, the church co-opted a pagan celebration. They later declared in 1000 AD that November 2 would be All Souls’ Day, a time when people could honor the dead. Samhain is thus the ancestor of our modern Halloween.
Now we can see clearly from whence came Halloween’s emphasis on goblins, skeletons, monsters, and demons, and why some today look askance at this “holiday”. For when you look into Samhain’s distant past, a dark underbelly does, indeed, hide beneath it.
Next time, we’ll look at Celtic artisans and craftsmen, Part I.
Sources for this post were: www.digitalmedievalist.com/opinionated-celtic-faqs/samain/ and Philip Freeman’s St. Patrick of Ireland.
Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, follow the link above