Samhain is a Gaelic word that literally translates to “Summer’s End”. It’s pronounced as sow-en, sow-ween, and yes, for some the Americanized Sam-hain really is acceptable. The holiday reminds us that things change and that includes the words we use, how we use them and even how we say them.
For the Celts, it marks the new year and the renewal of the Wheel of Life. We remember that the only constant in the Divine Universe is that things change. How they change depends on you.
At this time of the year, it’s also a time for many to report on the History of Halloween. Most reports focus on the early Christian influences for All Hallows Eve and All Saints Day. Some really do try to explain the evolution of the early Pagan practices that evolved over time to modern secular celebrations of the scary American observances for kids and adults young at heart.
Today I read an article from one of my favorite magazines, The Old Farmer’s Almanac about the “Origins of Halloween Traditions“. It’s a nice overview article and does have some good information. But like many similar articles, it skims over the Pagan influences. I get that. A lot of people really don’t want to link the modern holiday and American celebrations with Pagans. That might anger some Pagans out there. But I approach the issue in a “pick your battles” sort of way.
Instead of getting angry and lashing out, I see these articles as good opportunities to educate people about those Pagan ways and to correct mis-information.
In this article, they left out the Norse influences that worked their way into the evolution of these early Pagan traditions. Not only throughout the world, but also in the Celtic festivals they specifically point to. But the Norse and the Norse Gods/Goddesses had a huge influence in the pagan practices of early pagan Celts and while some say there isn’t enough evidence making that link. There’s enough to at least mention the Norse.
There are some historians that believe the wearing of costumes came from the Norse as some of their deities were more widely known to appear to humans in animal form. Not that it didn’t happen in Celtic legend. But some believe it was more prominent to the Norse. A good example of this is Freya who is often depicted with her sacred animal, the cat. She even visits women who gather to honor her (the witch’s coven), in the form of a black cat. She even gives one gathering of 12 women, one of her sacred cats to create the “perfect coven”, the gathering of 13 women.
Regardless of the influence, during the Samhain celebration, the Celts wore various costumes, and danced around the bonfire at sunset on what we know as October 31st. Many of these dances told stories of local heroes and local deities. Or they played out the events that impacted the Clan or village from the passing year. They could also commemorate the cycle of the Wheel of Life to honor those who passed into the Otherworld (Land of the Dead). But these costumes were adorned for three primary reasons.
The first was to honor the dead who were allowed to rise from the Otherworld where they could visit their living loved ones. This is the part about the veil between the Otherworld and the living world is at its thinnest allowing for visitations. The Celts also believed that a soul could become trapped in the bodies of animals for various deeds, good and bad. On Samhain night these trapped souls could be released by the Lord of the Dead (Donn, the son of Milesius of he Milesians, who were a race of mortal men, not supernatural beings. The Milesians invaded Ireland and are well documented in the Lebor Gebala Erenn). There are of course conflicting stories of Donn, but in Irish mythology that’s always the case. Anyway, Donn had the ability to release these trapped souls and send them onto new incarnations as spirit in the Otherworld or into a new incarnation of the living.
Now because these entrapped souls could be freed, there was also a belief that not all of them were nice spirits. And that once they were released, they might visit havoc on the living who “done them wrong”. So a second reason for the costumes was for hiding from these malevolent ghosties.
The final representation was a method to honor the Celtic Gods and Goddesses of the harvest, fields and flocks. Giving thanks and homage to those deities who assisted the village or clan through the trials and tribulations of the previous year. And to ask for their favor during the coming year and the harsh winter months that were approaching.
In addition to leaving out the larger details behind Samhain, they also fly over the big reason behind the Catholic Church creation of All Hallow’s Eve and All Saints Day. We in the Pagan community don’t ignore that bastardization of our holidays as it was an effort to destroy these early beliefs and practices. So the Church comes along and wants to assimilate early Pagans. The best way they can see to begin the conversion into Christianity is to blur the lines between beliefs and over take the celebrations and observances. This is why their holidays are very similar to Pagan observances. Honoring the dead and the Saints is akin to honoring the dead and Deities of the Pagans. And it was a very effective campaign.
But the effort to completely stamp out these beliefs and practices failed. They lived on through family traditions and the resurrection of local cultures and regional history. Today, Samhain is considered to be the most important holiday of the year. In some circles, its second only to Yule, the real 12 days of “Christmas”.
- The History Of Samhain And the Evolution of Halloween
- Merry Samhain & Happy Halloween – 2016
- Merry Samhain & Happy Halloween – 2014
Merry Samhain and Happy Halloween