“The circle is open but unbroken, Merry meet and merry part and merry meet again.”
(Samhain, pronounced, Sow’ in, is also known as: All Saint’s Day, All Soul’s Day, All Hallow’s Eve, Halloween, Hallowe’en, Olde Style, the Great Gathering)
Samhain is the most important holiday of the Celtic calendar. It is the Celtic New Year; it is also the Wiccan New Year. Samhain and the new Celtic year actually begin at dusk on October 31, the beginning of the Celtic day. Traditionally, however, Samhain was celebrated on the full moon of October, also known as Blood Moon.
This night is the Feast of the Dead, the night of the wheel-turning year that brings us to the This Veil. The gates between the worlds stand open this night. I honour my ancestors who come to me on the whispering wind. All those who wish me well are welcomed within this circle.
Samhain is celebrated at night because darkness comes before light, because life appears in the darkness of the womb, and because the Celts observed time as proceeding from darkness to light. The Celtic day began at dusk, the beginning of the dark and cold night, and ended the following dusk, the end of a day of light and warmth. The Celtic year began with An Geamhradh, the dark Celtic winter, and ended with Am Foghar, the Celtic harvest. Samhain marks the beginning of both An Geamhradh and the new Celtic year.
During the Dark Ages, Irish monks carried the tradition and celebration to Europe. In the year 998, 31 October was adopted as a Christian festival known as All Saint’s Day, or All Soul’s Day. It came to be commonly known as, All Hallow’s Eve.
Oidhche Shamhna, the Eve of Samhain, was the most important part of Samhain. It was a night of feasting and celebration.
Villagers gathered the best of the autumn harvest and the animals that could not be kept through the winter were slaughtered and their meat salted to sustain the tribe through the winter.
The focus of each village’s festivities was a great bonfire. Villagers cast the bones of the slaughtered cattle upon the flames. (The present-day word, bonfire, comes from these “bone fires.”) With the great bonfire roaring, the villagers extinguished all other fires. Each family then solemnly lit their hearth from the one great common flame, bonding all families of the village together. In Ireland, all fires were extinguished and then re-lit from the one great fire kindled upon the hill of Tlachtga.
Fraser writes of the beauty of the bonfires in the Highlands of Scotland, which blazed on the heights:
“On the last day of autumn children gathered ferns, tar-barrels, the long thin stalks called gàinisg, and everything suitable for a bonfire. These were placed in a heap on some eminence near the house, and in the evening set fire to. The fires were called Samhnagan. There was one for each house, and it was an object of ambition who should have the biggest. Whole districts were brilliant with bonfires, and their glare across a Highland loch, and from many eminences, formed an exceedingly picturesque scene.”
In Wales, bonfires were lighted on the hills, and the people who assisted at the bonfires would wait till the last spark was out and then would suddenly take to their heels, shouting at the top of their voices, “The cropped black sow seize the hindmost!” The saying, according to Sir John Rhys, implies that originally one of the company became a victim in dead earnest. Even today, allusions to the cutty black sow are still occasionally made to frighten children.
In the Isle of Man also, another Celtic country, Hallowe’en was celebrated by the kindling of fires, accompanied with all the usual ceremonies designed to prevent the baneful influence of fairies and witches.
Feast of Death
The rituals of Samhain involve bonding with the dead. On this night, the Celts believed the doors were opened between the worlds and the paths were travelled by the spirits going back and forth on this night. This world and the Otherworld become equivalent to each other, and no barriers existed between the dead and the living, that is, the “Veil” was at its thinnest.
It is The Veil between the two worlds that Wiccans invoke when they cast the circle to worship or perform rituals; thus, on Samhain night, when the Veil is thinnest, spells are most powerful because we are closest to the spirits.
It is a time of celebration and remembering those who have parted from their earthly forms. Ghosts of old friends, grandparents, kindred from many ages enter the open doors. Now it is a time for oracles to see what will have in the year to come. Bobbing for apples, a traditional Samhain pastime, was a reference to the Celtic Emhain Abhlach, “Paradise of Apples,” where the dead, having eaten of the sacred fruit, enjoyed a blissful immortality.
Samhain is also known as the Great Gathering. Harvests of hazel nuts were gathered at this time, as were fungi for food and healing, and invoking dreams and visions. Celts used hazelnuts, symbols of wisdom, to foretell the future.
Consecrate a string of nine hazelnuts over the Samhain bonfire:
Hazelnuts, nine in a ring
By the smoke of the Samhain fire bring
Protection to this house and those within
Blessed be this charm of nuts and string.
Here the Goddess is both pregnant and the Old One, the Wise Hag. She is the ruler of the Otherworld, wherein her God/Lover rests, between evolving incarnations. She is Persephone, Queen of the Dead and the Unborn, Bringer through the Veil of Life to those to be born, and carrier through the River of Night, those who have passed from the human world. In this dark time when the Veil is the thinnest, is when knowledge and spiritual powers can pass back and forth. The Goddess will answer those who dare to ask questions.
Stones also featured prominently in Celtic divination.
In Ireland, when the fire had died down, the ashes were carefully collected in the form of a circle, and a stone was put in, near the circumference, for every person of the several families interested in the bonfire. Next morning, if any of these stones was found to be displaced or injured, the person represented by it would not live twelve months from that day.
In the northern part of Wales it used to be customary for every family to make a great bonfire called Coel Coeth on Hallowe’en. The fire was kindled on the most conspicuous spot near the house; and when it had nearly gone out every one threw into the ashes a white stone, which he had first marked. Then having said their prayers round the fire, they went to bed. Next morning, as soon as they were up, they came to search out the stones, and if any one of them was found to be missing, they had a notion that the person who threw it would die before he saw another Hallowe’en.
Reflection and Renewal
This is also the best time to make new year resolutions.
In addition to celebrating the year’s end (Samhain literally translates to “Summer’s End”), it is also a celebration of the beginning of Winter. It is now that Celts and Wiccans begin to prepare for the Son of the Goddess (Later adopted by Christianity to be the birthday of the Christian son of God) — the child born on the darkest night of Yule (the Winter Solstice), the soul-son, the Sun of Life. Samhain is a time to review the past year: one’s failures and achievements, and gains and losses: and prepare to awake cleansed and refreshed at Yule.
“When you see my power fade, and the leaves fall from the trees; when snow obliterates like death all trace of me upon the Earth, then look for me in Moon and there in the Heavens you will see the soul of me, soaring still amongst the Stars.” —Vivianne Crowley, Prayer to the Autumn Goddess
See also: The Samhain Parshell
- Aveni, A. The Book of the Year — A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays. Cambridge University Press, January 2003.
- Capanelli, P. Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life. Llwellyn Publications: 1989.
- Conway, DJ. Celtic Magic. Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, MN, 1994.
- Crowley, Vivianne. Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Millenium. HarpersCollins, Glasgow, 1996.
- Frazer, Sir James George. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, “The Fire-Festivals of Europe,” Chapter 62, MacMillan Co., New York, 1922.
- Green, M. A Witch Alone: A Practical Handbook. HarpersCollins, London, 1991.
- Personal knowledge
- Treanor, George. The Irish Heritage Group.
Article by Míchealín Daugherty.
Copyright © 2003 Ireland’s OWN.
May be reprinted with permission.
Music by CelticGhost
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Page last updated: 22 Feb 2009