Samhain: The Lowering of the Veil
Samhain, from the more ancient Irish form Samhuinn, was the most widely celebrated of the ancient Celtic festivals. It was a celebration of the harvest, of the closing of the year, and the beginning of the new year. Agriculturally, it was the time when the last fruits of the harvest were collected and stored, and the livestock were culled and quartered for the winter ahead.
The dark time of the year had many magical and mythical associations as well. Samhain was also the time when the gates of the Otherworld were thrown open, allowing the spirits of the ancestors and the Sidhe folk to mingle with the living. It was at this time that the fabled Wild Hunt, a procession of animals, fairies, and spirits, was most often said to occur.
The History of Samhain
The Gauls marked the year into just two halves, the dark or winter half being Sam or Samonios, and the light half Gam or its Latinized form, Gamonios. Like other ancient cultures, the Celts marked the beginning of a day at sunset; likewise, the year was counted as beginning in its dark half.
Caesar remarked on the practice in his writings on the Gallic Wars:
All the Gauls assert that they are descended from the god Dis, and say that this tradition has been handed down by the druids. For that reason they compute the divisions of every season, not by the number of days, but of nights; they keep birthdays and the beginnings of months and years in such an order that the day follows the night.
Samonios, the dark half of the year, was reckoned first in the Celtic calendar. The festival marking the beginning of Samonios was Samhuinn (Samhain), a three-day feast celebrated on the new moon closest to the autumnal equinox. As Beltaine marked the beginning of the summer season, Samhain marked its end. In fact, the word Samhain most likely means “summer's end” and is the current Gaelic name for the month of November. In the first-century Celtic Coligny calendar, a similar three-day festival ushered in the new year in the late autumn.
The festival now commonly referred to as Samhain has had numerous names. In Wales, it was known as Calan Gaeaf, “Winter's Eve.” In Ireland, it was Oiche Shamra, “Samhain Night,” sometimes “Pooka Night.”In Manx, it is Sauin.
The Samhain festival marked the transition between two very different seasons. The growth season was at an end, with the majority of crops long harvested. The time for festivals and tribal gatherings was coming to an end, and warfare and trade would be largely suspended until warmer weather returned. This was a last opportunity for merrymaking and celebration before a long winter confinement.
Samhain was celebrated at the cusp of the seasons, marking the end of the light and the beginning of the dark of the year. In mythical terms, the youthful aspect of the goddess Sovereignty gave way to the withered hag of winter, and the fruits and flowers of the warm season were replaced with the barren cold of winter. It was marked at Tara with a great feast, the Feis Teamrach, or “Mating of Tara,” at which the high king was symbolically mated with the goddess of sovereignty, a celebration that marked the Samhain night coupling of the Morrigan and the Dagda on the eve of the battle of Mag Tuiread.
Indeed, the Samhain was a favorite time for tribal assemblies, during which all of a tuath would gather together for feasting, games, and amusements but also to settle debts and disputes. In ancient times, great offerings would have been made at lakes, shafts, and at the entrances to the Sidhe mounds, as the denizens of the Otherworld would be particularly receptive. Horse races and other feats of strength were not uncommon at this time, a tradition going back to the earliest days of the Celtic peoples.
In the Ulster Cycle story “The Wooing of Emer,” the heroine refers to the festival of Samhain as “when summer goes to its rest.”
Samhain was considered a time of great change; it was also a time of great transparency between the world of man and the Otherworld. Samhain was a traditional time for divination and prophecy, an auspicious time for sacrifice. The transformation of the world brought about other transformations, and it was at this time one could enter the Otherworld. Celtic myth tales involving Otherworld magic often take place during Samhain, and it is at this time when Otherworld denizens made benevolent journeys or even warfare against the living. Samhain was the preferred day for beginning an adventure or setting out on a quest, especially a divine one. Many important events in Celtic mythology take place or begin at the time of Samhain. For example, it is at Samhain that Aenghus seeks to recognize his lover Caer in her swan form.
A common urban legend claims that the Samhain celebration was in honor of a ghastly god of death by the same name. Although a few minor Celtic gods have similar names, none has any connection to the Samhain festivals.
Samhain was celebrated all over Ireland and Great Britain with the lighting of sacred bonfires. As in similar rituals in the north, the Samhain fires were the first fires of the season. In a ritual that would repeat at Beltaine, all other fires would be extinguished and ritually relit from the sacred bonfires.
The bonfires themselves were inaugurated by the druids, the first according to some accounts on the hilltop of Tlachtga, where it would be easily visible from Tara. The bonfires were not the only fire rituals associated with Samhain. A popular ritual called “lating the witches” involved a solemn candlelit procession, the purpose of which was the discovery of dark magic. If a candle flickered or died out during the procession, it meant that the person carrying it was a certain victim of witches, and special precautions would be taken to protect him or her.
Other precautions would be taken as well. As the Tuatha Dé Danann were well known to roam the countryside, it was customary to leave gifts of milk and bread for them, not just on Samhain but on the other festival days as well. This customary offering was sometimes referred to as the fairy tax, honoring the ancient agreement between the Milesian Celts and the denizens of the Otherworld.