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For the Celts, from whom the name and many customs of this Sabbat are borrowed, Samhain was something of a dark mirror to Beltane—a counterpart of sorts which sits directly opposite the Wheel.
Once again, it was time to move the cattle, only now they were brought back to their winter pastures. The ritual bonfires and great gatherings that celebrated fertility in May were now a recognition of the abundance manifested throughout the light half of the year.
This was the time to gather the last harvest of the apples and nuts, and to select the animals that would be slaughtered to feed the people for the coming months. The meat would be salted and stored for the winter, and the bones from the Samhain feast were thrown upon the fires as offerings to secure good fortune for the next season’s cattle. (This tradition gives us the word “bonfire”—“bone + fire.”) The gatherings at Samhain were festive affairs, as people danced, drank, feasted, and traded goods for the last time before winter kept everyone close to home. It was clearly an important time, as many key tales in early Irish mythology occur at Samhain.
As the first day of winter and the beginning of the dark half of the year, Samhain was, like its Beltane counterpart, a time of open passageways between the world of the living and the Otherworld, or world of the spirit. However, whereas Beltane focused on summer and the bursting forth of life that warmth and sunshine bring, Samhain was an acknowledgment of the cold, the dying back of the Earth, and the dead themselves who have gone before us.
Samhain Eve was, like Beltane Eve, a time of heightened activity on the part of the Aos Sí, or faeries, who were said to be extra mischievous now. These supernatural beings were to be steered clear of, to the extent that people avoided being out of doors on this night. If they had to leave home, they would carry iron or salt to discourage the Aos Sí from coming near. It was also believed that the Aos Sí needed to be appeased in order to ensure that the family and its livestock survived the coming winter, so offerings of food and drink were left for the faeries outside the door of the house.
With the Otherworld so easily accessible, Samhain was also a time for honoring the dead, who were thought to wander about and visit their family homes, seeking a warm welcome and a meal. The Samhain feast always included a place at the tablereserved for the ancestors, and room was also left for them by the hearth. To make sure their loved ones could find their way, a single candle was lit in each window of the house. People also left apples along the roadsides for spirits who had no living relatives to welcome them.
In general, it was believed that the dead, like the Aos Sí, had to be appeased at this time or misfortune might fall upon the family. However, blessings could be bestowed by appreciative departed souls as well. This belief in the need to placate the dead is found in ancient cultures around the world, and is seen most explicitly today in the Mexican Day of the Dead, which begins on October 31 and has roots in both European and Aztec cultures.
Since the spirit world was so readily accessible at Samhain, divination was a popular activity during the festival. Many different forms were practiced, often to discover information about future marriages or deaths. People’s names were marked on stones which were then thrown into the bonfire. These would be plucked from the ashes the next day and “read” according to the condition they were in. Crows and other birds were counted as they passed in the sky, with their number or direction being assigned specific meanings. Apples and nuts were often used in divination games. One popular activity was peeling an apple in one unbroken strip, casting the peel onto the floor, and reading the shape to find the first letter of the name of one’s future spouse.
Another tradition evolved into what we now know as “bobbing for apples.” In Celtic mythology, the apple was associated with immortality and the Otherworld. Hazelnuts were associated with divine wisdom, and were chewed by Druids in Scottish myths in order to gain prophecies.
There are many aspects of our modern Halloween celebrations that have their roots in Samhain customs. The fear of faeries and spirits roaming the night led our Celtic ancestors to disguise themselves in white, as if to blend in with the ghosts, or wear costumes made of straw to confuse them. This evolved into the tradition of “guising,” in which people dressed in disguise to represent the spirits of the night and travelled from house to house collecting gifts of apples, nuts and other food for the Samhain feast.
In Scotland in particular, it was common for those imitating the mischievous faeries to play pranks on their neighbors, especially if they did not receive an offering from the household. These original “trick-or-treaters” carried lanterns made from hollowed-out turnips, which were often carved with frightening faces to either represent or ward off evil spirits. The lanterns were also left on windowsills or doorsteps to protect the home on Samhain Eve, a custom which later evolved into our modern “jack-o-lanterns.”
Other symbols of Halloween which may have originated with the Celts include the skull and the skeleton. The skull was revered by Celtic warriors as the house of the soul and the seat of one’s power, and it is thought that skulls were used as oracles. Skeleton imagery, seen particularly in Day of the Dead celebrations, is traced by some back to ancient Europe.
A classic symbol of Halloween is, of course, the Witch and all of her associated imagery—the broom, the cauldron and the black cat. Of course, this link stems from the misguided fear of “evil witches” promoted by the Christian Church in later centuries, but nonetheless it can be attributed to the connection that these shamanic practitioners had to the world of spirit.
There’s a nice bit of irony here, in that Samhain—the “Witch’s holiday”— seems to be the one that the Church just couldn’t stamp out. For although November 1 was converted to “All Saints’ Day,” the old pagan trappings of the original festival remain alive and well, even in mainstream culture.