Samhain is a pagan religious festival originating from an ancient Celtic spiritual tradition. In modern times, Samhain (a Gaelic word pronounced “sow-win”) is usually celebrated from October 31 to November 1 to welcome in the harvest and usher in “the dark half of the year.” Celebrants believe that the barriers between the physical world and the spirit world break down during Samhain, allowing more interaction between humans and denizens of the Otherworld.
Ancient Celts marked Samhain as the most significant of the four quarterly fire festivals, taking place at the midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. During this time of year, hearth fires in family homes were left to burn out while the harvest was gathered.
After the harvest work was complete, celebrants joined with Druid priests to light a community fire using a wheel that would cause friction and spark flames. The wheel was considered a representation of the sun and used along with prayers. Cattle were sacrificed, and participants took a flame from the communal bonfire back to their home to relight the hearth.
Early texts present Samhain as a mandatory celebration lasting three days and three nights where the community was required to show themselves to local kings or chieftains. Failure to participate was believed to result in punishment from the gods, usually illness or death.
There was also a military aspect to Samhain in Ireland, with holiday thrones prepared for commanders of soldiers. Anyone who committed a crime or used their weapons during the celebration faced a death sentence.
Some documents mention six days of drinking alcohol to excess, typically mead or beer, along with gluttonous feasts.
Because the Celts believed that the barrier between worlds was breachable during Samhain, they prepared offerings that were left outside villages and fields for fairies, or Sidhs.
It was expected that ancestors might cross over during this time as well, and Celts would dress as animals and monsters so that fairies were not tempted to kidnap them.
Some specific monsters were associated with the mythology surrounding Samhain, including a shape-shifting creature called a Pukah that receives harvest offerings from the field. The Lady Gwyn is a headless woman dressed in white who chases night wanderers and was accompanied by a black pig.
The Dullahan sometimes appeared as impish creatures, sometimes headless men on horses who carried their heads. Riding flame-eyed horses, their appearance was a death omen to anyone who encountered them.
A group of hunters known as the Faery Host might also haunt Samhain and kidnap people. Similar are the Sluagh, who would come from the west to enter houses and steal souls.
Myths of Samhain
One of the most popular Samhain stories told during the festival was of “The Second Battle of Mag Tuired,” which portrays the final conflict between the Celtic pantheon known as the Tuatha de Danann and evil oppressors known as the Fomor. The myths state that the battle unfolded over the period of Samhain.
One of the most famous Samhain-related stories is “The Adventures of Nera,” in which the hero Nera encounters a corpse and fairies, and enters into the Otherworld.
Samhain figured into the adventures of mythological Celtic hero Fionn mac Cumhaill when he faced the fire-breathing underworld dweller Aillen, who would burn down the Hall of Tara every Samhain.
Samhain also figures into another Fionn mac Cumhaill legend, where the hero is sent to the Land Beneath the Wave. As well as taking place on Samhain, it features descriptions of the hero’s holiday gatherings.
Samhain in the Middle Ages
As the Middle Ages progressed, so did the celebrations of the fire festivals. Bonfires known as Samghnagans, which were more personal Samhain fires nearer the farms, became a tradition, purportedly to protect families from fairies and witches.
Carved turnips called Jack-o-lanterns began to appear, attached by strings to sticks and embedded with coal. Later Irish tradition switched to pumpkins.
In Wales, men tossed burning wood at each other in violent games and set off fireworks. In Northern England, men paraded with noisemakers.
The tradition of “dumb supper” began during this time, in which food was consumed by celebrants but only after inviting ancestors to join in, giving the families a chance to interact with the spirits until they left following dinner.
Children would play games to entertain the dead, while adults would update the dead on the past year’s news. That night, doors and windows might be left open for the dead to come in and eat cakes that had been left for them.
As Christianity gained a foothold in pagan communities, church leaders attempted to reframe Samhain as a Christian celebration.
The first attempt was by Pope Boniface in the 5th century. He moved the celebration to May 13 and specified it as a day celebrating saints and martyrs. The fire festivals of October and November, however, did not end with this decree.
In the 9th century, Pope Gregory moved the celebration back to the time of the fire festivals, but declared it All Saints’ Day, on November 1. All Souls’ Day would follow on November 2.
Neither new holiday did away with the pagan aspects of the celebration. October 31 became known as All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, and contained much of the traditional pagan practices before being adopted in 19th-century America through Irish immigrants bringing their traditions across the ocean.
Trick-or-treating is said to have been derived from ancient Irish and Scottish practices in the nights leading up to Samhain. In Ireland, mumming was the practice of putting on costumes, going door-to-door and singing songs to the dead. Cakes were given as payment.
Halloween pranks also have a tradition in Samhain, though in the ancient celebration, tricks were typically blamed on fairies.
Wicca and Samhain
A broad revival of Samhain resembling its traditional pagan form began in the 1980s with the growing popularity of Wicca.
Wicca celebration of Samhain takes on many forms, from the traditional fire ceremonies to celebrations that embrace many aspects of modern Halloween, as well as activities related to honoring nature or ancestors.
Wiccans look at Samhain as the passing of the year, and incorporate common Wiccan traditions into the celebration.
In the Druid tradition, Samhain celebrates the dead with a festival on October 31 and usually features a bonfire and communion with the dead. American pagans often hold music and dance celebrations called Witches’ Balls in proximity to Samhain.
Pagans who embrace Celtic traditions with the intent of reintroducing them faithfully into modern paganism are called Celtic Reconstructionists.
In this tradition, Samhain is called Oiche Shamnhna and celebrates the mating between Tuatha de Danaan gods Dagda and River Unis. Celtic Reconstructionists celebrate by placing juniper decorations around their homes and creating an altar for the dead where a feast is held in honor of deceased loved ones.
Samhain: Rituals, Recipes and Lore for Halloween. Diana Rajchel.
The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween. Jean Markale.
Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween. Lisa Morton.
Celtic Gods and Heroes. Marie-Louise Sjoestedt.