The Irish Samhain Tradition

The Roots of Halloween in Celtic Ireland

Will the Dead Walk the Earth on Samhain?
Bernd Biege

Before Halloween was created as the spooky October holiday, Ireland celebrated Samhain. In fact, the name Samhain is still used in certain traditions and is the same word used to refer to the whole month of November in modern Irish. However, it was November 1st that was traditionally known as Samhain, which literally translates to mean the "end of summer" and is pronounced something like sow-een. This was the end of the Celtic year, the start of winter, and a time for reflection all rolled into one.

But why is Ireland's “Samhain”, November 1st, the same as “Halloween”, October 31st? The secret is in traditional Celtic calendar-lore.

Belief That From Darkness Comes Light

One of the Celtic idiosyncrasies was the concept of everything beginning in darkness, and then works its way towards the light. This means that the year started with the season of winter, and the days started at sundown of what we now see as “the previous day”. This means that, according to Celtic timekeeping, the night of October 31st was an integral part of Samhain, known as oiche shamhna or "evening of Samhain". After all, this is also reflected in the modern “Halloween”, which in itself means “All Hallow’s Evening”, and in that way is simply a precursor to November 1st as well.

The date was also very important in a much larger sense each year. Much like soltices and equinoxes, Samhain was one of the four "quarter days" of the Celtic calendar, along with Imbolc (February 1st, start of spring - also known as Saint Brigid's Day), Bealtaine (May 1st, start of summer) and Lughnasa (August 1st, start of the harvest).

In the Celtic year, Samhain marked the beginning of winter – and thus the beginning of the year as well. So you could say that Samhain was also the Celtic New Year’s Eve.

Unfortunately, we do not have any hard evidence about how the Samhain festivities were conducted in pre-Christian times. Samhain seems to have been a specifically Irish tradition and first mentioned by Christian chroniclers, though it is very likely that it existing long before they appeared and documented the tradition.

Our best guess is that feasting seems to have taken over about a week for a few days either side of the actual Samhain day. After all the eating, everything was put in order, because winter is coming!

Preparing for Winter

The Samhain preparations mainly centered around cattle and other livestock. Records suggest that all members of the herd were caught and brought into enclosures or sheds near the homestead. Animals who appeared too weak to survive the winter were slaughtered. This was not for any ritual reasons but was merely down to purely practical considerations. Their slaughter helped to fill the larder for winter.

At the same time all corn, fruits and berries had to be harvested and stored. There still is a widespread belief in Ireland that after November 1st all fruit is bewitched and thus inedible. The pooka was said to roam free at Samhain - a black, ugly horse, with red eyes, and the ability to talk. The creepy beast also had a penchant for kidnappings (if you were stupid enough to accept a ride ) and was thought to urinate on all the berry bushes (which explains why no berries were collected after Samhain). 

Communal Activities

Many legends of the legends around Samhain concern the big meetings that happened at that time.

This was the time to take stock of the current situation and decide upon future activities for the new year. Most of these gatherings took place at the Hill of Tara or on lakeshores. In general, a truce was called during this period to ensure that meetings could take place between sworn enemies and that diplomacy and social activities went as far beyond tribal and political boundaries as possible. It might have helped that all debts had to be settled in the Samhain season. 

Spiritual activities were another integral part of the feast. Traditionally all the fires were extinguished when oiche shamhna set in, making this the darkest night of the year. The fires were then re-lit, marking the start of the new year.

Tradition has it that druids lit a huge bonfire on the Hill of Tlachtga (near Athboy, County Meath) and burning torches were then carried from there to every household during the night (which would have been physical impossible but makes for a nice story).

 

We All Have to Make Sacrifices

There was more than one ritual involving fire at Samhain and the most infamous of all was the "wicker men". These were essentially a cage made from straw and wicker that roughly resembled a human form, but was then stuffed with (living) sacrificial offerings. These sacrificies included live animals, prisoners of war, or simply unpopular neighbors. The unfortunate beings were then burned to death inside the "wicker man". Don't worry - other rituals involved drowning. Happy New Celtic Year!

Before you think that Halloween is definitely the less creepy of these two related holidays, please know that these human sacrifices should not be seen as the norm. Though sacrifices were undoubtedly made, they may only have involved milk and corn spilled into the earth. And there might even have been nocturnal human activities connected to fertility rituals. It was considered a good omen if a woman became pregnant at Samhain!

The Non-Human Touch at Samhain

Back to the spooky connection: not everyone joining in the Samhain celebrations was necessarily human ... or of our world. The night from October 31st to November 1st was a time "between years" to the Celts. During this time the borders between our world and the otherworld(s) were flexible and open.

Not only the pooka was out and about. The bean sidhe (banshee) could be killed by humans during the night, fairies were visible to human eyes, the underworld palaces of the "gentry" (an Irish title for fairies) were open to come and go. Humans could drink with mighty heroes and bed their beautiful otherworldly companions ... as long as you did not make any mistakes, break any rules or violate even the most ridiculous taboo. Chance for bad luck far outweighed the chances of a good night out - so most people opted for a quiet night in, with their doors securely locked.

Last but not least, Samhain was also a time when the dead could walk the earth, communicate with the living, and call in old debts. So be careful of that knock at the door. 

"Druidic" Confusion

All this belongs to the conservative picture of Samhain, but many new age authors have added their own flourishes to this ancient feast.

Colonel Charles Valency is to blame for many inventions. In the 1770s he wrote exhaustive treatises on the origin of the "Irish race" in Armenia. Many of his writings have long been consigned to the lunatic fringe but a one Lady Jane Francesca Wilde carried his torch in the 19th century and wrote "Irish Cures, Mystic Charms and Superstitions" - which is still being cited as an authoritative work.

Samhain meanwhile mutated into All Hallows E'en and Halloween. Samhain or  Halloween is still celebrated in Ireland in various ways - complete with fortune telling and special meals.