A Good Bonfire

Crooning with the Crows

Day Of The Dead

Divination at Halloween

The Elder

The Story of Dot Coming Home

Samhain History

Samhain Pouch

Samhain ritual for solitary practice

Magic of Halloween Herbs

Understanding The "Death" Tarot Card




Memories of Bonfire Nigh

Samhain or Halloween: Day of the Dead

Samhain, All Hallows’ Eve, Hallow E’en - the most magical night of the year. A night of apple bobbing, Jack-O-lanterns, trick or treat, and dressing up. Of ghost stories, seances, and fortune telling, when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest. Though not an official holiday, it has been celebrated for over 2,000 years. Its origins are rich in antiquity. Halloween, as we know it today is part Celtic pagan and part Mediaeval Christian with some Victorian gothic and some modern commercialism - all blended so completely that it’s almost impossible to tell where one leaves off and another begins.

Imagine this time of year in ancient times. Summer is over and the evenings grow long, dark and velvety. The herds have been brought down from their summer pastures. Only the best breeding stock will be kept through the winter. The rest will be slaughtered and their meat salted for the winter. The vegetables, grain and fruit are safely stored away. The hay is secured in sturdy ricks; winter fuel stacked by the hearth. The balmy skies and summer sounds have given way to cosy, warmth and bustle as the whole house-hold bakes, salts and makes preserves for the winter

Samhain celebrates the 3rd and final harvest, and is generally regarded as 'The Celtic New Year' though some historians question this, as there are no references to it, earlier than the 18th century. It certainly marked the end of summer, but may have been just one turning point in the cycle of the year. Some groups do not celebrate the New Year until Yule. Often named the "Last Harvest" or "Summer's End", it represents the cycle of death and renewal, the beginning and ending of all things in nature. Celtic months began at full moon, and the feast took place during the ‘3 nights of Samonios’ (Seed Fall or November) - the full moon nearest the midpoint between the autumn equinox and winter solstice. It begins the dark half of the year when the days shorten. At Samhain, Lugh, maimed at Lughnasadh, dies at the hand of his alter-ego, the Lord of Misrule who will shine brightly in the winter skies but give no warmth. The Celts called the time from Samhain to Imbolc (Feb 2nd) "the time of little sun". Anything left on the trees or in the fields after Samhain was considered inedible as it was ruined by the 'puka', (imps).

Samhain falls on November 1st. As with all Celtic feasts, it began the night before - 31st October, now called Halloween. The actual cross-quarter day (Old Halloween) occurs when the sun reaches 15 Scorpio. Samhain is also known as All Hallow's Eve, Hallows; Halloween, All Saints' Day (Nov 1), Hallowtide; Hallowmas (Scots), Martinmas (Nov11), Day of the Dead, Shadowfest, Third Harvest Samana, Samhuinn., and Vigil of Saman. Pronounced "SOW-in" (Ireland), SOW-een (Wales), SAV-en (Scotland) or even "SAM-haine" in some countries, Samhain means "summer’s end" and early spellings suggest sam (summer) and fuin (sunset, end). There is some argument over pronunciation. Some insist on "Sow-in"; others point out that in modern Ireland, it’s "Sam-hain".

The Romans added two of their festivals to Samhain - Feralia, for the passing of the dead, and 'Pomona', for the goddess of fruit and trees. Many Celtic customs were absorbed into Christianity, which also valued the ideas of community, family and respect for the dead. The feast of All Hallows (All Saints' Day), dedicated to the Saints, was instigated by the Christian church. Originally, it was held on 13th May, but in 837 AD, Pope Gregory III moved it to Nov 1st to coincide with Samhain. The night before, when souls were released from purgatory for 48 hours, became known as Hallow-E’en (All Hallows Eve). November 2nd became All Souls Day, when prayers were offered for the souls of the dead and those waiting in purgatory. Old Halloween became known as Martinmas. By the 13th century, Christian festivals were well established, yet old rituals persisted. Christian, Pagan and secular beliefs intertwine in celebrations from Oct 31st to Nov 5th. The Church was suspicious of pagan ways and Samhain became associated with black cats (familiars), witches, and bats (night creatures).

Samhain is the Wiccan New Year, one of the four High Holidays. It is often called ‘The Great Sabbat’. The Goddess manifests as the Crone: the keeper of wisdom and mysteries, and the God as the Horned Hunter; Lord of Death. Earth prepares for her winter sleep, to await the light and warmth of spring. Some covens echo this by having the high priest rule the dark half of the year until the high priestess resumes at Beltane. In the Scottish Highlands the Crone was personified as 'Cailleach Bheur' - the blue-faced hag - Queen of winter who turned to stone at Beltane but was reborn every Samhain, to bring the winter and protect animals through the cold. She struck the ground with her hammer, and froze it hard until Imbolc.

The Celts divided their year into two halves: light and dark. The light half began at Beltane (May 1st) and the dark half at Samhain. They understood the opposing aspects of dark/light, cold/warm, death/life long before the concept of yin and yang came to the Western world. In the dark the seeds of new beginnings stir, so their days began at sun-down and the most potent time of this festival is the night of October 31st - Halloween. It’s time to let go of the old and look ahead to the new. Past, present and future meet to mark the primordial mystery - the end of the growth cycle and the promise of rebirth. Families feasted and there were stories, games and divinations. A black sheep may be sacrificed in memory of those who had died that year and cake would be thrown against the door to avert famine.

Samhain is a fire festival. Feasts were held and bonfires lit across the country to warm friendly spirits and ward off evil ones. (See the short article on "A Good Bonfire" for more on the Samhain fire).

Since ancient times, people have remembered departed loved ones at Samhain. It’s one of the ‘spirit-nights’, when the laws of time and space are temporarily suspended. The worlds join and the spirits of the dead and those yet unborn walk among the living and visit their earthly homes. At Samhain, souls of the recently deceased begin their journey to the Summerlands (or other-world). Communicating with them is easy as they pass through this world seeking warmth and comfort before they leave. Folks hoped to gain guidance for the coming year through commune with their ancestors, spirit guides and guardians at Samhain. They lit candles at the graves of loved ones, made offerings of food and built bonfires to light the souls on their way (and perhaps keep them at bay). It was a time of spirituality, of divination - and of fear - when ghosts, fairies, and demons roamed. Some hold that the time between Samhain and Yule does not even exist on the Earthly plane. This "time out of time" was very magical - and very dangerous - and we celebrate it with joy and reverence. Traditionally the doors to Faery Land are opened. Travelling alone in the countryside on this night wasn’t advised for fear of the Sidhe (pronounced "Shee"), who play pranks on humans. It was customary to leave a milk and barley offering for them Some believe the Sidhe are the spirits of the dead. Men could visit the other world while the gates were open, but all must return to their proper places by cockcrow. Many diverse cultures (Egyptians, early Mexicans, etc.) held a Feast of the Dead. Mexican families light candles at the graves of their loved ones, lay out special feasts for them, and stay all night. In Ireland, burial mounds were opened, and the walls lined with torches, so the dead could find their way. Candles were lit in windows to guide them home, windows and doors were left unlocked to allow entry, and extra places were set at the table and the hearth for visiting ancestors. Entertainment was provided in their honour. At the stroke of midnight - the hour the dead visited - all were silent in respect. If a candle flame flickers on Halloween, it is being touched by spirits.

Treats were offered to appease roaming spirits. Many still leave milk and cakes on their doorsteps to gain their favour for the coming year. Apples were buried along roadsides for spirits who were lost or had no one to provide for them. Turnips were carved out to look like protective spirits. In Spain people would place cakes and nuts on graves to bribe the devil. In Belgium kids begged for money to buy cakes. Each eaten cake relieved the suffering of a soul.

Samhain was a great time for divination and magic as the veil between the worlds was at its thinnest and one could hope for a clear view of the future. Even the Druids cast fortunes on this night. Our view of time is linear. Events are milestones on a road that stretches in a straight line from birth to death. The Celtic view of time, was cyclical. Samhain was a point outside time, when the natural order of the universe dissolved into chaos before re-establishing itself. So Samhain could be used as a point from which to view any other point in time.

Trick-or-treat is part of the tradition of wassailing, associated with major Celtic festivals. "Begging" food goes back to mummers and guisers, and particularly to the practice of "souling" during the 9th century. On All Souls Day, beggars (and later children) knocked doors in search of "soul cakes" in return for prayers to speed the souls of dead relatives heavenward. Going door-to-door to collect bread, cheese, apples, nuts or liquor for the Samhain feast included adults as well as children. If offerings of food weren’t left for dead ancestors, the unhappy spirits would cause mischief or harm. Druid priests of Muck Olla begged farmers for food or money for their temples. If a farmer refused, the god, Muck, would burn his barn or make his animals disappear. Hence, the notion of "trick or treat". Costumes and masks were used for protection on this, the one day when spirits were able to freely walk the earth. So as not to be recognized by the spirits, folks would wear masks and misleading clothes. They dressed in white so the spirits would mistake them for ghosts, and cross-dressed to fool the sidhe. The disguised villagers escorted the spirits to the edge of town, after the celebration.

Soul cakes were offered for the souls of the dead, often containing tokens - a coin for fortune, a button to stay unwed, a wishbone for your heart's desire, a ring for marriage or a pea for poverty.

Scottish fishermen would wade into the sea at Samhain and pour ale into the water for the 'Shoney' - a sea serpent-like being, to ensure a good catch for the coming year.

To catch a falling leaf before it touches the ground on Samhain ensures good luck and health for the coming winter If animals were ill on Halloween, the farmer would spit on them to ward off evil spirits.

On the morning of Nov 1st throw a silver coin through the front door. It must remain where it falls for financial luck.

The tradition of carved Jack-o’-lanterns may have come from the Celtic practice of placing of ancestors' skulls outside their doors at this time. Travellers used the scary-faced lanterns to ward off evil spirits and faeries. In porches and windows, they protected the home. In an old Irish tale, "Jack" was a drunkard and practical joker who tricked Satan into climbing a tree, and carved a cross in the trunk to trap him there. Jack agreed to let him down only if the devil would promise never to tempt him again, When he died, Jack was barred from heaven as a drunken lout and remembered by the devil, who refused to have him in hell. He was a damned soul, condemned to wander eternity looking for a resting-place with only a hot ember from the devil to light his way, which he carried in a hollowed out turnip, called a bogie. Others believe Jack-O-Lantern was another name for will-o'-the-wisp, a mischievous spirit who lures night travellers into bogs or marshes with a light. Called marsh gas by scientific types, this small flame moving in the dark must have been terrifying. Jack O' Lanterns used to be made from turnips, but pumpkins are much easier to carve and seem to have forever replaced them - except on the Isle of Man, where they still use turnips and call the night 'Hop To Naa'.

The traditional ways of celebrating Halloween are well known and widely used. Use lots of black, orange, white and silver. Decorate with gourds, apples, black cats, cauldrons, Jack o’ lanterns and besoms. Flora includes oak leaves, broom, and deadly nightshade. For incense choose heliotrope, rosemary, lavender, eucalyptus, sandalwood, jasmine, frankincense, orange and rose. All black stones are appropriate, especially obsidian or jet. For the feast, a dish of Colcannon, (mashed potato, cabbage and onion with melted butter) was favoured. Boxty bread, made from mashed potatoes and flour was also popular, as were Barm Brack, cream pancakes, apple cakes, nuts and blackberry pie. Other traditional foods include turnips, apples, nuts, mulled wine, beef, pork and poultry.

Leave some fruits out for the fairies to ensure good fortune in the next year. Bob for apples; make Jack o’ lanterns and set up an altar with a lit candle and offerings for your ancestors. Set a place at your table for spirit friends. Make Barm Brack put items wrapped in wax paper into it. If someone finds a ring in their cake they will be next to be wed. A thimble means spinserhood, a button, bachelorhood, and a matchstick means your husband will beat you. A pea or rag are for poverty, bean or coin for wealth and a tiny doll means many children. A religious medal indicates holy orders.

Inner Work: Past memories meet future hopes. We remember our ancestors, and reflect on our own mortality. It’s time to end old projects and plant the seeds of new ones. Take stock of your life. Review and accept your past year; leave all mistakes and regrets behind, and move on. Look to the future. Quit a bad habit, addiction, a bad relationship, or anything else negative. Weak animals that were unlikely to survive the winter were slaughtered Eliminate your own weaknesses - write them onto bits of paper then burn them..

Beneath a modern cloak, ancient rituals are evident in our practices at Halloween.

By Sylvia Richards October 2009