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Gothique, by Jessica Galbreth

the ancient festival of Samhain [part 2]

Samhain in those ancient days was very much a time of chaos and the reversal of normal order. This led to a plague of trickery: the blocking of chimneys, leading off of cattle, throwing cabbage at notables and so on. The hearth had to be swept clean and a fire kept burning for the dead. It was also a season for divination and the reading of omens, such as placing two nuts in the fire as a test for lovers: burning steadily denoted constancy, popping meant inconstancy. Rites varied from one region to another.

Churchmen described it as a night of magic charms and divinations, reading the future with witches' mirrors and nutshell ashes, ducking for apples in tubs of water (representing soul-symbols in the Cauldron of Regeneration) and other objectionable rites. Even today, it is said that a girl who peels an apple before a mirror on Halloween will see the image of her future husband in the glass.

Christian authorities wrote of Halloween, "Many other superstitious ceremonies, the remains of Druidism, are observed on this holiday, which will never be eradicated while the name of Saman is permitted to remain" (yet the name of the pagan deity remains in the Bible as Samuel, from the Semitic Sammael, the same underworld god).

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Of course the original divinations were oracular utterances by the ancestral dead, who came up from their tombs on Halloween, sometimes bringing gifts to the children of their living descendants. In Sicilian Halloween tradition, "the dead relations have become the good fairies of the little ones." Similar customs are observed at Christmas.

In Lithuania, the last European country to accept Christianity, the pagans celebrated their New Year feast at Halloween, sacrificing domestic animals to their god Zimiennik (Samanik; Samana). If the Lord of the Underworld accepted the offering on behalf of all the dead, the spirits were satisfied and would refrain from doing harm. If not adequately propitiated, they might descend on the world as vengeful ghosts, led by demons and "witches" (priestesses) who summoned them.

Witches and ghosts are still associated with Halloween, together with such soul-symbols as owls, bats, and cats. The pagan idea used to be that crucial joints between the seasons opened cracks in the fabric of space-time, allowing contact between the ghost-world and the mortal one.

Apples and nuts associated with Samhain and Halloween were also connected with the ancient Roman festival of Pomona, on the first of November, a feast of the ripening of the fruits and a time when the summer stores were opened for winter consumption. The apple was the Celtic Silver Bough and the fruit of the otherworld, symbolizing love, fertility, wisdom and divination; the fruit of heaven and of wise men. The hazel was the sacred tree of the Celtic groves and, like all nuts, represented hidden wisdom, lovers and peace. As the Tree of Life, it grew in Avalon by the sacred pool.

Click here to read the final part of our fascinating article on Halloween!

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Halloween: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | All Hallows Eve | Celtic Fire Festivals

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This page was last modified on Saturday, 12 December 2015