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Some Call It Samhain

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On this day, costumed children will prowl the nation, masks over their faces, lust for sweet treats and mischief in their hearts. Yes, as the pumpkins, skeletons, and witches festooning people’s homes attest, it’s Halloween. Of course, this autumn holiday has deep historical roots and an aura of seriousness largely ignored by the masses. Which is too bad, because Samhain — which is still celebrated by Pagans — was and is a holiday worthy of attention.

In olden times, Samhain celebrations included bonfires.

In ancient times, Samhain, which means “summer’s end,” marked the beginning of the cold, dark days of winter. In Ireland, Wales, and other countries, this was the time for feasting and dancing around bonfires in celebration and thanksgiving for the final harvest. Samhain also presented opportunties for divination and communing with spirits. This night was the most important of three Spirit Nights. From the rituals performed and games children played, one can see the seeds of Halloween customs still in use today. The following comes from the Celtic Spirit site:

Apple Magic

At the heart of the Celtic Otherworld grows an apple tree whose fruit has magical properties. Old sagas tell of heroes crossing the western sea to find this wondrous country, known in Ireland as Emhain Abhlach, (Evan Avlach) and in Britain, Avalon. At Samhain, the apple harvest is in, and old hearthside games, such as apple-bobbing, called apple-dookin’ in Scotland, reflect the journey across water to obtain the magic apple.

Dookin’ for Apples

Place a large tub, preferably wooden, on the floor, and half fill it with water. Tumble in plenty of apples, and have one person stir them around vigorously with a long wooden spoon or rod of hazel, ash or any other sacred tree.

Each player takes their turn kneeling on the floor, trying to capture the apples with their teeth as they go bobbing around. Each gets three tries before the next person has a go. Best to wear old clothes for this one, and have a roaring fire nearby so you can dry off while eating your prize!

If you do manage to capture an apple, you might want to keep it for a divination ritual, such as this one:

The Apple and the Mirror

Before the stroke of midnight, sit in front of a mirror in a room lit only by one candle or the moon. Go into the silence, and ask a question. Cut the apple into nine pieces. With your back to the mirror, eat eight of the pieces, then throw the ninth over your left shoulder. Turn your head to look over the same shoulder, and you will see and in image or symbol in the mirror that will tell you your answer.

(When you look in the mirror, let your focus go “soft,” and allow the patterns made by the moon or candlelight and shadows to suggest forms, symbols and other dreamlike images that speak to your intuition.)

Dreaming Stones

Go to a boundary stream and with closed eyes, take from the water three stones between middle finger and thumb, saying these words as each is gathered:

I will lift the stone
As Mary lifted it for her Son,
For substance, virtue, and strength;
May this stone be in my hand
Till I reach my journey’s end.

Carry them home carefully and place them under your pillow. That night, ask for a dream that will give you guidance or a solution to a problem, and the stones will bring it for you.

Samhain is, of course, the Festival of the Dead. Halloween actually occurs on Samhain’s eve. According to Irish myths, during that night the great shield of Scathach was lowered, eradicating the barriers between the worlds and permitting the forces of chaos to invade the realms of order. In other words, spirits of the dead would become part of the material world; the souls of the dead would walk among the land of the living. This may sound creepy to you, but in ancient times, these souls were welcomed and celebrated. I find it a beautiful thought, one that makes the holiday more than an excuse for costume shops and candymakers to bring in the bucks.

So as you mark the day, I ask you to give a thought to those you have lost — they may be nearer than you think. And give thanks to the farmers who provide the bounty that fills your table. The dark time is coming and temperatures will fall: This Samhain, fill your heart with wonder and memory, respect and gratitude. After all, this world is bigger — and stranger — than we suspect, and even if we don’t see thos accompanying us on our journeys, none of us travels the road of life all alone.

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About NR Davis

  • Nancy

    It sure would help if the Celts could spell. Who would guess that “Samhain” is pronounced ‘sow-wen’?

  • Natalie,

    Thank you for this very intriguing history lesson. I enjoyed reading it.


  • Isn’t Samhain one of the Forsaken in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, too?

  • Nah, it’s a holiday, I think, Aaman. He pulled a lot of stuff from folklore, etc.

    -LM, token WoT geek

  • Nathaniel Winn

    The funny thing is that, assuming the history given is correct (which I’m sure Dave Nalle will pop in and humbug in a few minutes), the question still enters my mind whether Samhain was a religious festival.

    There are Christians who will not celebrate Halloween as Halloween, or enjoy many of its associated elements (bobbing for apples, etc.) because they feel they would be participating in “pagan” celebration.

    But through much of history there has been no distinction between religious and non-religious activity. It is within human nature to mark the passing of seasons, to reflect on the truth that we all will die some day, and to party, and that the Celts (see Dave Nalle Proviso above) did these things within their belief framework doesn’t inherently associate apples with a particular set of pagan beliefs.

  • Natalie, this is wonderful! 🙂

    My rituals include burning a slightly dried rose for each departed one (it smells wonderful and you can wave it around like a torch or sparkler) and assembling CD mixes featuring dead artists and tribute songs.

    I’m sort of glad that we Pagans are being mostly ignored by the commercialization.

  • Nancy

    Nat, give us more details: where did the carved pumpkins come from, for instance, and the trick or treating? Surely there’s a lot more?

    I shall watch “Fearless Vampire Killers” (yeah, the one with Roman Polanski & the late Sharon Tate), “Nightmare Before Christmas” (because it’s cute), & “Jaws” (still the scariest movie I know), light my pumpkins (their inside tops dusted with cinnamon to release a lovely Halloween odor when the candles heat it up), and quaff hard cider, my salute to the Celts & authentic Samhain.

  • Pumpkins – Skulls of ancestors were place around the fire at this time of year for many years in scotland before the practice was outlawed by the church. Stones and turnips repalced the skulls, pumpkins replaced the turnip.

  • Trick or Treat – food was offered to the dead at this time of year with a Dumb (silent) supper or other festive celebrations. Dressing up as ancestors (the dead) to get offerings from neighbours was part of the festivity.

  • Nancy

    What were the skulls placed around the fire for? Was this before the offeratory dinner, during, or after?

    I’d heard once before about the turnips; I guess they’re a bit of a bear to hollow out, tho, as opposed to pumpkins, so I can see why as soon as pumpkins became generally available in the 17th century, they’d become the veg of choice.

    Back to the skulls thing: were they kept around unburied by the Scots during the year, kind of like in contemporary households in New Guinea? Or did they warehouse them in crypts or somewhere during the rest of the year?