Samhain is an important holiday in Wicca, Druidry, and some other modern witchcraft traditions. So much has been written about this holy day that I am loathe to add anything to it. But there were a lot of questions I had: did Halloween customs really originate with Samhain? How? Did the Irish bring it over? What about this talk of it being a New Year? Is this an ancient truth or a modern construct in Wicca? And why the end of October/beginning of November? What makes this season particularly important?
Samhain means “Summer’s End,” as opposed to the holy day of Cetsamhain, or “Opposite,” that is, the opposite of Summer’s End (i.e. Summer’s Beginning). The latter we also know as Beltainne. (1). It is a Gaelic feis (festival). The name may come from a month in the Coligny Calendar which has the name of Samonios. Samonios takes place from mid-October – mid-November (possibly new moon to new moon). Samonios means “Seed Fall.” The name alludes to the time when, in Gaul (modern day France) and the other lands of the Celtic tribes saw nuts, acorns, and other seeds from trees and plants begin to fall as the trees lost leaves, preparing for Winter.
The Coligny Calendar
The Coligny Calendar that was discovered in 1897 is a bronze tablet which dates to the 2nd century C.E. The calendar was created in ancient Gaul by the Sequani tribe. It is written in 2 languages: Gaulish and Latin. This helped immensely in deciphering it. It might have been created as a result of trade and travel between Gaul, Rome, and Magna Graecia. The calendar is in the style of what is known as a parapegma. A parapegma was a type of ancient almanac: a tablet which had descriptions of weather phenomena, seasons, and star constellations. Holes were made and pegs were formed which could fit into those holes. The pegs would be moved to indicate the days of the month. Using this instrument, the pegs could be inserted days in advance to accurately predict the weather and star movements.
In the Coligny Calendar, each month begins with a set moon phase. It is lunisolar like our modern Gregorian and Julian calendars, but the Coligny has an emphasis on lunations. It has 5 months of 29 days and 7 months of 30 days. (2) In 12 months this makes for a total of 355 days. Every 2 1/2 years, a 13th additional month was added. Together this creates 2 full years of 13 months (385 days), and 3 hollow years of 12 months each (355 days). This makes the average year 367 days. A ‘day” to the Celtic tribes was from sundown to sundown. Months were divided into 2 halves: 15 days leading up the full moon, and 14 – 15 days after. Room was given for lunar cycles throughout the month.
As previously stated, Samonios is the time period between mid-October to mid-November. Now, some have conjectured that Samonios comes from “samon,” meaning “Summer,” and that the Coligny Calendar begins in April/May, Samonios located in that time period rather than November. However, little evidence has yet mounted to support this hypothesis. Another conjecture is that Samonios takes place around the Winter Solstice. The reasons are varied, but again there is little evidence to support this. Alexei Kondratiev, the late Celtic scholar and linguist, uses linguistic evidence in Celtic languages which points to Samonios being equated with the month of October/November.(3). Samonios through Giamonios (April/May) marked the dark half of the year, or Winter. Giamonios through Samonios marked the light half of the year, or Summer. (4). This demonstrates that the Celtic tribes had only two seasons.
As also previously stated, the months most likely began new moon to new moon. In the Coligny Calendar there is an interesting inscription that reads:
TRINOX[tion] SAMO[nii] SINDIV
“Three Nights of Samonios [today]”
It is thought that perhaps these three nights of Samonios correspond to three nights of Samhain.
The Dead and the Barrow Mounds
Ireland tends to be the best bet for how Samhain was celebrated. After all, it is a Gaelic festival. According to evidence, this was a time to honor one’s ancestors as a collective. Evil spirits, which would roam, were to be warded off. Sacred mounds were places where the dead were buried, and Druids would often sleep on these mounds at certain times of the year to gain ancestral knowledge and wisdom. Inhumation was the top way that the Celts buried their dead. The bodies were contracted; that is, they were places in a fetal position. (5). Some conjecture that this was purposefully done to show the dead were being “birthed” in the Otherworld. They were buried with ornaments and food. Bodies occurred at various levels in the mounds, showing that the barrows were used repeatedly. In Ireland, the most famous barrows were located at the famous hills of Tlachtga and Tara. While Tara is a famous hill, Tlachtga was the religious heart of Ireland for almost 2,000 years. (6). The festivities located here had origins in a fertility cult, but eventually were incorporated into the later Fire Festival.
A Fire Festival, a bonfire was lit on possibly the hill of Tlachtga. Bonfires were also lit throughout the land, possibly kindled by the major one on Tlachtga. All fires were extinguished to be set alight by that bonfire alone. Cattle were driven between the two fires, most likely to rid them of pests. Hollow turnips were carved which were turned into lanterns; they illuminated the processions and possibly were believed to harness the power of light against the evil spirits which roamed about. On the political capital of Tara, 12 miles away, the people gathered to hear the Druids recite the ancient laws, enact new laws, and recite the histories of the land. (7). This helped the people stay in touch with the environment and their ancestors. Grievances, debts, and disputes were judged and settled. The king also mated with a white mare, the representative of the Goddess of Sovereignty. After ritual copulation, the horse was sacrificed and dismembered.
When families settled in each evening for the 3 days Samhain was celebrated, food and offerings were left out for them. The light from the turnip lanterns guided them, but many spirits were thought to be tricksters (the fairy folk), and so venturing out past nightfall was taboo.
The Catholic Church: Allhalowtide
Samhain is a 3 day festival, and so is the Catholic holy days of Allhallowtide. Allhallowtide includes All Saint’s Eve, All Saint’s Day, and All Soul’s Day. There is Christian history of respecting the dead and remembering them. A 4th century theologian by the name of Ephraim (later known as Ephraim the Syrian) wrote about honoring the dead and the importance of relics. He writes:
Wherefore, of those that live with God , even their very relics are not without honor. For even Elisha the prophet, after he was fallen asleep, raised up a dead man who was slain by the pirates of Syria. For his body touches the bones of Elisha, and he arose and revived. Now this would not have happened had not the body of Elisha were holy.
We could conjecture that the practice of holy relics came from pre-Christian practices of Hero cultus, and possibly it is so. However, needless to say that even if this were the case, it does not pollute Christianity with “pagan practices.” Christianity is but one religion which found its own practices verified through exegesis of the New Testament and Tanakh (Old Testament). The veneration of the dead is a near-universal practice. I believe simply that early Christians found a way to incorporate this practice into their own liturgy using their own sacred texts.
Allhallowtide was the vigil held before the actual honoring of the saints and the martyrs: All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. These were also known as the “triduum of death.” In the mid-15th century, Pope Sixtus IV extended Allhallowtide to an 8-day celebration. This was rescinded in the 1950s following Vatican II Council.
Originally, Allhallowtide was celebrated in Ireland in mid-April. (8). It was the end of the Winter season approaching the beginning of Summer, so the placement makes sense. It wasn’t transferred to November until the 11th century, when it finally moved to the late October/early November date. Interestingly enough, when the old Irish calendar was replaced by the Gregorian calendar in 1752, 12 days were dropped. This caused date confusion, moving Samhain to November 12th. This is now referred to as “Old Samhain.”
Today many in the Neopagan and modern witchcraft communities celebrate Samhain on November 1st and as the hallowed Celtic New Year. Is this true? Scholars are divided here. As mentioned earlier, many things took place at Samhain on the hill of Tlachtga. It was a time of important transition. The Winter in Ireland was harsh, and families would settle in for the entire season. Tlachtga is also famous in that the sun rises into the mound on the morning of Samhain. Obviously it was a very important festival. There were practices which seemed to follow other New Year’s festivities in other countries on Samhain: games, feasting, drinking, divination for one’s future lover, as well as dousing the old fire and reigniting the new. But still, the evidence that it is a specific New Year holy day is scant. When the Irish Revival took place in the late 19th – early 20th century, the hypothesis of Sir John Rhys as the “Celtic New Year” became prominent. So much so that in a famous film “Meet Me in St. Louis,” one of the characters on Halloween night states, “Well another year come and gone.” This was entrenched in the popular mind, and it has been repeated by authors ever since. Regardless, it is now accepted as the Neopagan New Year. More specifically, the Wiccan and Druid New Year. Not all Neopagans celebrate Samhain after all.
We’ve taken a journey from the past to the present. A lengthy blog post to be sure, but one I found important for myself as well. When writing, I am always learning new things. This helps me, as a Wiccan (among other things) to understand the holy day better. It gives me a sense of history and purpose. It allows me to question and contemplate. I don’t like accepting things “because they are that way.” It’s just not me.
Samhain seems to have always been a festival held by the Celtic tribes, although our best evidence is from the annals and myths of Ireland. It was an important occasion, marking so much activity for the political and spiritual well-being of the tribes. Today we can stop and remember our link with the land, sea, and sky around us. We can learn to embrace the dead and, yes, learn to have a healthy sense of fear for the aos sidhe (fairy folk). I’ll write about my thoughts on the fairy folk in a later blog post. For now, suffice it to say not all spirits are wings and fairy dust. There are real spirits which need to be held at bay for a variety of reasons.
The Roman Church had its own theologians which wrote on the importance of honoring the dead. Sure, it might have stemmed from the earlier Hero Cults, but borrowing has always been a religious tradition. This doesn’t make the Church corrupt, so much as what it is: a religion. Does it make it hypocritical? Sure. Especially when writers with that religious background condemn all things “pagan.” But it’s important to take into account that nothing was stolen. It merely traveled and amalgamated.
This Samhain I plan on remembering my ancestors and helping to celebrate the collective dead with my coven. I always venerate mine, but Samhain affords me the opportunity to cherish and share these things with like-minded individuals. If one thing ancient Samhain customs have taught me while writing this, it is that community is important. We are all related, and at some point your ancestors converged with mine. We need to keep this in mind. It is a time of reflection: to know where we came from. May the blessing of Samhain this season bless you and your ancestors. Remember, what is remembered lives!
(1) Nichols, M. (2010). The Witches’ Sabbats. OR: Acorn Guild Press, LLC.
(2) McCluskey, S.M. (1998). Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.
(3) Kondratiev, A. (2003). Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual. NY: Kensington Publishing Corp.
(4) Hopman, E.E. (194). A Druid’s Herbal for the Sacred Earth Year. NY: Simon and Schuster.
(5) Scott of Rothbury, A., Reverend. (1894) The Celts and Druids and Their Stories From the Earliest Times, in Twelve Chapters. North Shields, Bedford Street: W.J. Potts, Printer and Publisher.
(6) Gilroy, J. (2000). Tlachtga: Celtic Fire Festival. Glanmire, Cork Co., Ireland: Pikefield Publications.
(7) Crump, W.D. (2008). Encyclopedia of New Year’s Holidays Worldwide. NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers.
(8) Hutton, R., Prof. (1996). Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. NY: Oxford Paperbacks.