Some of you may remember that last year I did a post on the Celtic feast of Samhain that was a sort of experiential fiction. It was a nice experiment, but I’m not sure it conveyed information the way I would have liked, so this year I’m going to talk about the holiday in a more straightforward fashion.
Samhain (October 31 or November 1, depending on your source), was the beginning of the Celtic new year. It was also the Celtic feast of the dead. (You may see similarities between the modern Day of the Dead and even Catholic All Souls and All Saints celebrations.) It was the day when the veil between the worlds was thinnest (Beltane, May 1, is the second) and it was believed we could touch the spirit world and it could touch us. Ancestors were revered and remembered. To this day, people in the Celtic world still follow the same ritual they did 1,000 years ago: doors are left unlocked, meals are prepared for those who have passed and a light is left burning to guide the spirits to a place of warmth and welcome at the hearth fire.
But ancestors were not the only spirits abroad on Samhain. The Sidhe (also called the faerie) rode out from their hill forts, searching for mortals to beguile and lead back to their kingdom. The Pooka (or Puca) roamed the forest. This strange creature could shape-shift, but most often appeared as a black stallion with fiery golden eyes, or a hybrid animal that was part goat, horse and bull. The shake of its mane struck fear into the hearts of the Celts. All fruits or crops still on the vine on Samhain were property of the Pooka, and to disobey this unspoken agreement was to risk a great curse.
Due to the nearness of the spirits, divination was a common practice. There were many types, but apples, apple seeds, and hazelnuts were commonly used on this day, especially when asking about the all-important topics of love and health. Another common practice was for each member of the household to cast a white stone into the hearth fire. If it was moved in the ashes when the family arose the following morning, whoever cast it would not live to see the next Samhain (kind of morbid, no?).
Samhain marked the beginning of the darkest part of the year, the beginning of winter. Just as the earth went dormant, so too, did the tribe, hunkering down in the ice and cold and praying they would survive the lean days to come. Agriculturally, it was the end of the growing season. The full moon nearest to the feast was (and still is) called the “blood moon” because this is the time of year when shepherds/ranchers would slaughter part of the herd to be able to feed the animals through the sparse nights of winter. This was the last time most families would eat well until the summer harvest.
The symbol of Samhain is undoubtedly the bonfire. Not only did it dispel the evil spirits, it united the tribe. In some areas, every single fire in the whole tribe/village was rekindled from the bonfire (although the same has been said about the bonfire at Imbolc as well.) If nothing else, the bonfire served as a rallying point for the party, during which men and women ate seasonal foods and danced to keep the dark spirits at bay. Sacrifices and wishes were often thrown into the fire in the hopes of swaying the gods. Some go so far as to say animals or humans were part of this, but as you can imagine, this a subject of great controversy.
In its religious aspect, Samhain memorialized the death of the God (commonly called Cernunnos or Herne the Hunter). He is often symbolized in the King Stag, the deer whose horns would either fall off with the coming of winter or be wrenched from his head when the young stag takes over (i.e. the old year giving way to the new, just as the generations do). It was also the day of the Crone aspect of the Goddess (commonly called Cerridwen or Hecate). She is the symbol of death, she to whom all return in the end, but she is also the bringer of rebirth through her cauldron of life (do you see where the traditional image of the witch came from?). She is not to be feared, as much as venerated for her wisdom. On this day, all made their peace with the inevitability of meeting her at their death.
Here’s a Samhain meditation I think captures the Celtic nature of the feast quite well, even though it’s geared toward modern neo-pagans: “Harken Now, the Darkness Comes,” by Lark. (I’m waiting to get her permission to post in full. Until then, I’m linking to it.)
The Apple Branch by Alexei Kondratiev
The Golden Bough by James Frazer
What about you: have you ever heard of Samhain? Seen it written about in fiction set in Celtic or Arthurian times? Have you ever celebrated it? If so, how?