Samhain (pronounced sow en or Sow een) falls halfway between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice. Many witches and Pagans use the modern calendar and celebrate the festival sometime around October 31 through November 2 but others calculate the date astrologically, celebrating the festival when Scorpio is at 15 degrees (November 7, 2019.). I have also seen Samhain celebrated on the New Moon in Scorpio (October 28, 2019).
A Bit of Samhain History
2,000 years ago, the Celts ruled what is now Britain, Ireland, and Northern France. They were largely herders and farmers and, as such, they were ruled by the seasons. The winter was a time of great dread and literal darkness in that part of the world, closely associated with human death. November 1st (or thereabouts) was the end of their year. It marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of the long, cold winter. The herds were brought in and the people came together. The living, and the dead.
On this night, called Samhain (pronounced Sow-en), spirits could easily cross over between the realm of the living in the dead. Some spirits were quite welcome. Some were beloved ancestors and heroes and offerings were prepared in their honor. Some helped the Priests or Druids to perform divination about the coming season and what sort of weather or misfortunes were to be expected. Others, however, were troublesome and must be guarded against.
The people held grand parties in which whole clans participated. Large bonfires were built and those animals that were weak and not likely to make it through the winter were slaughtered and sacrificed and feasted upon. People danced and wore costumes, usually consisting of animal heads and skins, and told stories and each others’ fortunes. At the end of the celebration, people took a coal from the bonfire home to light their hearth fires to protect them in the coming season.
Samhain and Halloween
By BCE 43, the Romans had conquered most of the Celtic territory. As Romans were wont to do, they blended much of their culture with the culture that already existed in the region. Christianity had spread through much of Europe by 800 CE when Pope Boniface IV designated Nov 1st of All Saints Day, perhaps in an effort to replace the pagan festival. Later, All Souls Day was added on November 2nd. October 31st, Hallows Eve through November 2nd turned into a three-day festival in honor of the dead, which was called Hallowmas. This was celebrated by lighting bonfires, having parades and dressing up as Saints, Devils, and Angels. During the Hallowmas parades, the poor would beg for food and be given cakes in exchange for promising to pray for dead relatives. Soon, children picked up on this idea as well.
Since the first colonists in America were Protestant, Halloween wasn’t widely celebrated in Colonial America, though harvest festivals were quite common. It wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century when Irish Immigrants fleeing the potato famine of 1846 arrived that the holiday really took hold in the US.
Samhain was adopted into the Wiccan Wheel of the Year and continues to be celebrated by modern Druids and other Pagans who embrace Celtic or Northern European spiritual ancestry as well as many who identify as witches. Different traditions celebrate Samhain differently, but the theme is often that of death and decay in preparation for rebirth and future new life or the waning of the sun and acknowledging the incoming season of darkness.
For More Information
Samhain According to ADF Druidry https://www.adf.org/rituals/celtic/samhain/index.html
Samhain According to the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids https://www.druidry.org/druid-way/teaching-and-practice/druid-festivals/samhain
Samhain according to Circle Sanctuary https://www.circlesanctuary.org/index.php/celebrating-the-seasons/celebrating-samhain
Samhain According to The White Goddess Pagan Portal http://www.thewhitegoddess.co.uk/the_wheel_of_the_year/samhain.asp
Samhain according to The Religion of the Ancient Celts by J.A. MacCulloch https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/rac/rac21.htm
Samhain according to the Book of Halloween by Ruth Edna Kelley https://www.sacred-texts.com/pag/boh/boh05.htm
Some Samhain Correspondences
- Herbs- cinnamon, allspice, sage, apples, pumpkins, gourds, pomegranates, acorn/oak, hazel, nightshade, turnip, wormwood, chrysanthemum
- Food- Gingerbread, apples, pomegranates, cider, muffins, colcannon, pan de muerte, soul cakes, potato pancakes
- Gods and Goddesses – All Crone Goddesses, the Dying or Dead God, Any psychopomp, All Ancestor Spirits, Hecate, Hel, Innana, Macha, Mari, Psyche, Ishtar, Lilith, Morrigu, Rhiannon, Ceridwen, Arawn, Hades, Mannanan, Persephone, Demeter, Hades, Hermes, Dionysus
Note- Contrary to some reports, there is no God called Samhain and no evidence that such a God was ever worshiped by anyone.