The word Samhain, also spelled Samhuinn,
literally translates to “Summer’s end.”
This was one of the two main festivals of the Celtic people.
The other important festival of the Celts was Beltaine.
While Beltaine celebrated the renewal of vegetation,
Samhain solemnized its decay.
the sun wanes in strength and all nature is abandoned
to the power of darkness.
The day that marked the end of summer was symbolic of death.
Samhain is the most holy night of the entire year
for those who celebrate the Old Religion.
The name of this Sabbat in Britain is NOS GALEN GAEOF
and this translates to “the night calends of winter”
and “the North calends of Death.”
Nos Galen Gaeof, or Samhain,
is sacred to the Goddess in her aspect as the Old Crone,
Goddess of Death.
It is also sacred to the God as Lord of the Wild Hunt.
In olden days,
Samhain was the time that the harvest was put away
for the long,cold winter to come.
This was a bloody time,
as people would kill off all but the absolutely necessary
breeding stock of their herds.
Otherwise, they certainly couldn’t keep them all fed
through the long winter months.
The meat was then salted to prevent it from going bad,
and this is another connection of Nos Galen Gaeof
with death and preservation.
Marion McNeil states that while Beltaine was a ‘grace before meat,’
Samhain was a ‘grace after meat.’
For the ancient people, death was not “the end.”
Death rather was simply a door to resurrection or change,
and this is the way that most witches view death today.
In folk belief, the spirits of the dead haunted the graves
in which they were buried,
and these grave sites were the main sites of the festival.
In many Hispanic countries,
grave site rites continue to be carried out
under the auspices of the Catholic Church
and their Christian-veneered festival,
Dia de Los Muertos or All Saints Day.
Offerings and sacrifices are still made to ancestral spirits,
both to remember and to pacify them.
All over Europe,
the souls of the departed were believed to visit their old homes
on the eve of Samhain to warm themselves at the fire,
and to feast on food and drink set out for them by their kin.
It’s the nicht atween the Sancts and Souls
When the bodiless gang aboot,
An’ it’s open hoose we keep the nicht
For ony that may be oot.
-George MacDonald, Halloween
Artist John Duncan tells a story which illustrates the strong belief of the older Scots in the visits of the dead on Samhain. After making false faces for each, he and group of friends visited, in fear, the house of his Uncle. This uncle had the reputation of being the strongest man on the island and also the most superstitious. The boys were afraid of being beaten over this trip, but to John’s surprise, when the Uncle opened the door and saw the frightening face, he did not start. Rather, he took John by the right hand and with deference and courtesy led him in to the fire, sat him on a bench, and sat down beside him in silence. After a time, John lifted his mask to speak to the Uncle. The Uncle gave a violent start and shrank from him. John said, “Did you not know me?” and his blood was froze, in turn, when the Uncle stammered, “I -- though -- you were -- a dead-- man!”
Not only the souls of the departed flew about on Samhain,
a complete upheaval of all the denizens of the underworld
were released for the night to work their work on any humans they encountered.
Amy Murray, in Father Allan’s Island, writes
“At the mouth of the night, between daylight and dark,
came abroad ill things to meet, from out of earth,
from out the air, from out the water, and the Underworld...”
In the Highlands, mothers still warn their children:
Hallowe’en will come, will come,
Witchcraft will be set a-going,
Fairies will be at full speed,
Running in every pass,
Avoid the road, children, children!
Samhain was the great flitting time of the fairies,
who moved in procession from one fairy-hill to another
to the music of bells and elf-horns.
It was believed that those who had been snatched to fairyland
might be recovered within a year and a day,
but the spell for their recovery was potent only on Samhain.
It was also believed that it was possible
in the hours between sunset and cock-crow to gain admission to a fairy hill.
A person must go alone, go around the fairy hill nine times,
widdershins, at which time a door would be opened.
After dark on Samhain, witches flew through the air on brooms,
sailed in egg-shells, or galloped along the road on cats
transformed into coal-black steeds, on their way to the Festival.
People were sure to smash all egg shells on Samhain,
so witches could not use them for transport.
A fragment of the traditional rallying-song
of the Nithsdale and Galloway witches has been preserved:
When the grey owlet has three times hooed,
And the old cat has three times mewed,
And the toad yowled three times in the wood
And the moon cowers behind the thin cloud,
When the stars have crept deep in the snow,
Then is the time to Sabbat we go!
Up, horses! Up horses! Up horses all!
Heed the White Lady and Dark Lord’s call!
The bonfires which are kindled at dawn on Beltaine
were kindled at dusk on Samhain.
These fires were lit to combat the power of darkness which was now ascendant.
In some districts, when the fire was smouldering low,
the ashes were collected and laid in the form of a circle.
Round the circumference a stone was placed for each person present.
If before morning any stone was moved,
it meant that the person it represented was doomed to die
before next Samhain.
Down to the middle of the nineteenth century,
farmers would circumambulate their farms and fields with blazing torches.
These were lit at the Samhain fire and passed out to servants
who went slowly around at equal distance clockwise.
These rites, which used to be performed by grown men
are now performed by children,
and the wooden poles have been substituted
by blazing rolls of rag tied on long wires.
In the old days, no metal would have been permitted.
Libations to the sea were made at Samhain.
Cups of ale as well as barrels were carried to the sea
along with petitions for good harvest and health in the coming year.
Guising is done by adults and children alike,
although it is mostly done by children, as in the United States.
As soon as it is dark, children go door to door in costume,
and are rewarded with apples, nuts, and copper coins.
These guisers are representative of the spirits which are about on this night,
and the rewards are to pacify these little “spirits”
so they’ll pass by your house uneventfully!
Turnips are hollowed out, fitted with a candle, and carried as a lantern.
The pumpkin jack-o-lantern is a New-World copy!
Pranks are played by youngsters, in emulation of the mischievous spirits that the forbearers feared. Thee was no end to the tricks played. Doors were blocked with carts, ploughs and carts carried off and hidden, gates taken off hinges and thrown into a neighboring ditch or pond, horses led from stables and left in fields a few miles away. Malicious mischief was barred. Neighbors who didn’t resent such tricks were seldom bothered with.
There was no fun in running off with something that belonged to someone who just didn’t care. But those who took the lads’ pranks badly had extra attention the following year. Two oppressors not on speaking terms gave a heaven-sent opportunity for the mixing up of cart-wheels, axles, ploughs, and socks, which it took the owners weeks to unravel.
Divination was an important part of the Samhain Rites. Children born on Samhain were believed to be gifted with the Second Sight. Apples and hazel-nuts played a conspicuous part in divination rites. To the early Celts, the hazel was the source and symbol of wisdom while the apple was the talisman that admitted a favored mortal to the Otherworld.
Their are two main Apple Rites - Ordeal by Water and Ordeal by Fire. The act of going through water to obtain apples is probably the survival of a Druidic rite symbolizing the passing through water to Annwn, Avalon, or Apple-land, the Land of the Immortals. The Ordeal by Water survives in Dooking for Aipples. A large wooden tub half-filled with water stands in the middle of the floor. In this is tumbled a pile of red-cheeked apples. The master of ceremonies has a wand which keeps the apples in constant motion. The idea is to kneel by the tub and try to seize an apple in your teeth without the aid of your hands. After 3 attempts, the next person tries. A captured apple belongs to the capturer, and is to eat or to use for another divination rite.
The Ordeal by Fire is known as The Aipple and the Can’le. Take a small rod of wood, suspend it horizontally from the ceiling by a cord and when fairly balanced, fix a lighted candle at one end and an apple at the opposite point. Set the rod to spinning. The idea is to bite the apple without singeing your hair! Today, the fire is usually eliminated, the apple alone being suspended from the ceiling on a cord and swung to and fro.
Paring the Apple should be performed on the stroke of twelve. Pare the apple carefully so the skin comes off in one long piece. As the clock strikes twelve, swing the paring three times round your head without breaking it, then fling it over your left shoulder. The shape it assumes will be the initial of your future partner. If the paring breaks, no marriage for you in the next year!
Burning the Nuts takes place round the fireside. Take two nuts and place them on a red ember, naming one nut after yourself and one after the object of your affection. If you are ill-matched, the nuts will fret and fume, and the faithless one will jump away. If you are true lovers, they will burn steadily side by side until reduced to ashes.
Other games include The Three Luggies, The Hidden Charms, The Salt Herring, The Sauty Bannock, The Twelve Candles, Egg-Casting, Melting the Lead, The Written Wish, Siftin’ Siller, Pulling the Kail-Runt, Throwing the Shoe, Winnowing the Corn, Sowing the Hemp Seed, The Kail Runt, The three Ears of Corn, Fadomin da Skroo, Circling the Rick, Pulling the corn Stalk, Biting the Cart, Turning the Divots, Sod Rite, Willow Wand Rite, A Water Rite, Knitting the Knot, The Dreaming Stones, Win’ing the blue Clue, Riddling the Keys, Dipping the Sark Sleeve, and The Summons of Death. You may read the details of these in MacNeil’s Volume III of The Silver Bough.
As McNeil says, all of these ploys are but the shadowy survivals of the solemn rites of a bygone age, when our forefathers celebrated the beginning of a new year with sacrifice and purification by fire, fertility rites, divination, and reverence for the dead.
Those who still practice the Old Religion find fun and comfort
in many of these old rites.
This year, spend some time telling stories of the Ancestors.
Help children to realize the connection they have by blood
to the people in these pictures.
Honor those ancestors
by placing their photographs on a special altar
during the month of October.
Carve jack-o-lanterns for the doorstep.
Invite the neighborhood to a party
complete with masks, apples, tarot readings, ouija board,
and of course, a BONFIRE!
Have the oldest woman in the household dress up as the Crone,
and have her bless each individual.
Speak the names of those who have passed through the veil
in the past year,
and place a special candle for them
in the Cauldron of Transformation
so their soul will rest peacefully until their return.
Set a chair by the door so the spirits can rest when they come to visit.
Have a ritual “dumb supper” where everyone eats without talking
and a place is set for the beloved dead.
Leave the doors open until midnight so the spirits can enter as they will.
Fill a barrel with water and apples
and let people take their turn at “dooking!”
Roast hazelnuts in the fire.
Cut an apple in two
and let everyone ponder
the star of the Mother that resides within,
the symbol of hope and wisdom that is beloved by so many tribes.
Most important of all, have a safe and happy Samhain!