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• History of Samhain – October 31st

The eve of 1st November, when the Celtic winter begins, is the dark counterpart to May Eve which greets the summer. More than that, 1st November for the Celts was the beginning of winter itself, and the feast of Samhain, was their New Year’s Eve, the mysterious moments which belonged neither to past or present, to neither this world nor the Other. Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-in’, the ow rhyming with ‘cow’)is Irish Gaelic for the month of November; Samhuin, (pronounced ‘sav-en’ with the ‘n’ like ‘ni’ in ‘onion’) is Scots Gaelic for All Hallows, 1st November.

For the old pastoralists, whose herd-raising was backed by only primitive agriculture or none at all, keeping the whole herds fed through winter was simply not possible, so the minimum breeding-stock was kept alive, and the rest were slaughtered and salted – the only way, then, of preserving meat (hence, no doubt, the traditional use in magickal ritual of salt as a ‘disinfectant’ against psychic or spiritual evil). Samhain was the time when this killing and preserving was done; and it is not hard to imagine what a nervously critical occasion it was. Had the right-or enough- breeding stock been selected? And if so, would the breeding-stock survive it, or the stored meat feed the tribe through it?

Crops, too, had to all be gathered in by October 31st, and anything still unharvested was abandoned-because of the Pooka (Puca), a nocturnal, shape-changing hobgoblin who delighted in tormenting humans, was believed to spend Samhain night destroying or contaminating whatever remained unreaped. The Pooka’s favourite disguise seems to have been the shape of an ugly black horse.

Thus to the economic uncertainty was added a sense of psychic eeriness, for at the turn of the year-the old dying, the new still unborn- the Veil was very thin. The doors of the sidh-mounds were open, and on this night neither human nor fairy needed any magickal passwords to come and go. On this night, too, the spirits of dead friends sought the warmth of the Samhain fire and communion with their living kin. This was the Feile na Marbh (pronounced ‘fayluh nuh morv’), the Feast of the Dead, and also Feile Moingfhinne (pronounced ‘fayluh mong-innuh), the Feast of the White-Haired One, the Snow Goddess. It was “a partial return to the primordial chaos…..the dissolution of established order as a prelude to its recreation in a new period of time”, as Proinsias mac

Cana says in Celtic Mythology.

So Samhain was on the one hand a time of propitiation, divination and communion with the dead, and on the other, an uninhibited feast of eating, drinking and the defiant affirmation of life and fertility in the very face of the closing dark.

Propitiation, in the old days when survival was felt to depend on it, was a grim and serious affair. There can be little doubt that at one time it involved human sacrifice -of criminals saved for the purpose or, at the other end of the scale, of an ageing king; little doubt, either, that these ritual deaths were by fire, for in Celtic (and, come to that, Norse) mythology many kings and heroes die at Samhain, often in the burning house, trapped by the wiles of supernatural women. Drowning may follow the burning, as with the sixth-century Kings of Tara, Muirchertach mac Erca and Diarmait mac Cerbail.

Later, of course, the propitiatory sacrifice became symbolic, and English children still unwittingly enact this symbolism on Guy Fawkes’ Night, which has taken over from the Samhain bonfire. It is interesting that, as the failed assassinator of a king, the burned Guy, is in a sense the king’s substitute.

Echoes of the Samhain royal sacrifice may have lingered in that of animal substitutes. As there are stories in Ireland that within living memory of cockerels’ blood sprinkled in the corners of houses, inside and out on Martinmas Eve as a protective spell. Now Martinmas is 11th of November — which is 1st of November according to the old Julian calendar, a displacement that often points to the survival of a particularly unofficial custom. So this may well have originated as a Samhain practice.

In Scotland and Wales, individual family Samhain fires used to be lit; they were called Samhnagan in Scotland and Coel Coeth in Wales and were built for days ahead on the highest ground near the house. This was still a thriving custom in some districts within living memory, though by then it had become (like England’s bonfire night) mostly a children’s celebration. The habit of Halloween fires survived in Ireland and the Isle of Man, too.

Frazer, in The Golden Bough, describes several of these Scottish, Welsh and Manx survivals, and it is very interesting that, in both these and in the corresponding Beltaine fire customs which he records, there are many cases of the choosing of a sacrificial victim by lot- sometimes through distributing pieces of a newly baked cake.

The divination aspect of Samhain is understandable for two reasons. First, the psychic climate of the season is favoured it; and second, anxiety about the coming winter demanded it. Originally the Druids were “surfeited with fresh blood and meat until they became entranced and prophesied”, reading the omens for the tribe for the coming year (Cottie Burland, The Magical Arts); but in folklore survival the divination became more personal.

Halloween nuts and apples still have their divinatory aspect in popular tradition; like the nut gathering at Beltaine, their original meaning was fertility one, for Samhain, too, was a time of deliberate (and tribally purposeful) sexual freedom. This fertility ritual aspect is, as one might expect, reflected in the legends of heroes and gods.

Samhain, like the other pagan festivals, was so deeply rooted in popular tradition that Christianity had to try and take it over. The aspect of communion with the dead, and with other spirits, was Christianised with All Hallows, moved from its original date of 13th of May to 1st November, and extended to the whole Church by Pope Gregory IV in 834. But its pagan overtones remained uncomfortably alive, and in England the Reformation abolished All Hallows. It was not formally restored by the Church of England until 1928, “on the assumption that the old pagan associations of Halloween were at last really dead and forgotten; a supposition that was entirely premature” (Doreen Valiente, An ABC of Witchcraft).

One thing Samhain has always been, and still is: a lusty and wholehearted feast, a Mischief Night, the start of the reign of that same Lord of Misrule, which traditionally lasts from now until Candlemas – yet with serious undertones. It is not that we surrender to disorder bur, as Winter begins, we look ‘primordial chaos’ in the face, so that we may discern in it the seeds of a new order. By challenging it, and even laughing at it, we proclaim our faith that the God and the Goddess cannot, by their very nature, allow it to sweep us away.

Most groups would have two celebrations – an actual Samhain ritual and a Halloween event to which all, including children would be invited. So hold a party.

This is the time of the year when the Veil between the two worlds is at its thinnest. Many celebratory dinners lay some of the food aside for the ancestors. Remember they will only come if invited, not otherwise.

Samhain is one of the great festivals and also one of the most misunderstood, along with Beltaine. Some say this is probably due to the original definite sexual connotations of the two celebrations, and there is probably some truth to that. It is, without a doubt, one of the old festivals that has been the most assimilated into our present era and should be celebrated by all.

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