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All Hallows Eve, by Jessica Galbreth
All Hallows Eve, by Jessica Galbreth

the ancient festival of Samhain

Halloween, the light-hearted modern festivity on Oct. 31 of ghosts and ghoulies, frights and feast, trick or treat, has much more serious (and scary!) origins in the ancient Celtic Feast of the Dead. This festival has survived, due to its connection with the archetypal energies that it evokes and due to its more recent connection with the Christian festival of All Souls, which the Church has instituted as a substitute for this pagan celebration.

All Saints' Day (November 1), also known as All Hallows' Day is followed by All Souls' Day (Nov 2), a christianized version of the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, the Feast of the Dead. The astrological pivot point for the celebration of the dead at Samhain is marked by the acronychal rising of the Pleaides ("acronychal" means "the point opposite the Sun", i.e., rising as the Sun is setting). Prayers have been said for the dead at this time since the prehistoric era. Ancient cultures timed their seasonal festivities by the stars, and the Pleaides were a major cosmic trigger across the whole of the ancient world.

It is well known that the proponents of the Christian revelation always sought to fit existing pagan celebrations into the new dispensation—a wise move, because it enabled the new religion to provide a culrural structure without disturbing established habits. The Christian theological basis for the feast is that the faithful on earth can aid the salvation of the departed souls by prayers, good deeds and especially by the sacrifice of the Mass, but the customs of Samhain are just a bit spookier!

Odin's Runes

Samhain (pronounced: "so-wuhn"), now known as Halloween, began on the night of October 31, All Hallows' Eve, because ancient days were reckoned from evening to evening, rather than from midnight to midnight as we do now – hence the prominence of festive "eve's", as in Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, Halloween, a contraction of Hallows' Even (a now archaic word for "evening") etc.

The Celtic new year began at Samhain and "though there is confusion about the name, Samhain probably means 'seeding time'. It marks a time of cold and dark when 'seeding' for the coming spring and summer becomes the theme of life. At Samhain we seed our dreams for the New Year with vision, just as we lay to rest the ghosts of the old year" [Neil Giles: Celtic Fire Festivals]. Samhain thus marks the last phase of the old year – its dying – and looks forward to the rejuvenated year. The sacred night was also a feast of the fairies, who ruled the festival, but departed thereafter for their winter retreat, not to return to our world until Beltane, the Mayday festivity which heralded the onset of summer.

Samhain Sunrise – Cairn L, Loughcrew, Co. Meath, Ireland
Go to Top Ghosts and Fairies

Because ghosts and fairies roamed the earth on this night, it was dangerous for mortals to go abroad without ritual precautions. Supernatural beings had the propensity to steal the unwary and take them away to their timeless lands, never to be seen again – or to take their souls, leaving the poor unhappy mortals lost and confused in the twilight zone. My Irish friend Ursula McLoughlin advises me that the main reason for people dressing up on Samhain (Hallowe'en) is to disguise themselves in case a confused spirit recognizes them and decides to follow them home! Halloween has thus been demonised, with the threats of the effects of the evil intent of witches and evil spirits, etc. This is not really the original pagan notion at all. The barrier between the physical and the spirit realm was thought to be thinnest on Halloween, so the potential for communication with spirits and otherworldly creatures was at its peak.

Butterfly Wings, by Boris Vallejo

In ancient Ireland, people were wont to call this mysterious and dangerous night the Vigil of Saman. Growth was at its lowest point and cold increasing, so magical bonfires were lit to encourage the sun. People would leap over them and drive cattle through the flames; even witches were burned on them in later times. Purification by fire got rid of evil influences.

Ghosts and fairies were both active. Food offerings would be left for both and it was dangerous to travel on this night for fear of being led astray by fairies; iron or steel would be carried, for the fairy folk hated anything made of iron and would avoid it at all costs.

Go Forward  Click here to read more about 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 Sunday, 16 February 2020