Category Archives: Samhain

Celebrating Samhain

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For Wiccans and other Pagans, Samhain is very much rooted in the ancient Celtic traditions. It is often described as the night when “the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest,” and many choose to honor their ancestors and other departed loved ones at this time. Food and drink are left out for any wandering spirits, and many Witches seek communication with the Other Side.

We do not fear mischief or retribution from the dead, as we know our ancestors don’t mean us harm, but we do honor and respect their presence. The Wiccan belief in reincarnation is also meditated upon at Samhain, as we recognize that the life/death/rebirth cycle applies to all living beings. We know that we do not return to the Other Side permanently, but rest and enjoy ourselves there until we’re ready to be reborn into the physical world.

Samhain is a key occasion for divination of all kinds, including scrying, Tarot, runes and I-Ching, as well as various uses of apples. For those who work with the faeries, this is definitely an important night to leave offerings for them!

In many traditions, Samhain is also considered the start of the new year, as it is believed that the Celtic year began on the evening of October 31st. Scholars disagree about whether there is sufficient evidence for this, but Samhain is listed in Irish medieval literature as the first of the four cross-quarter day festivals, so the association has stuck.

Whether your tradition considers the year to begin now or at Yule, however, Samhain is an excellent time to reflect on your life and any changes you wish to make during the year ahead. This is the time in between death and new life, as the Crone/Mother Goddess waits for the God to be reborn.

What in your personal world do you wish to allow to die, and what new developments would you like to give birth to? What has ended that you need to fully let go of in order to make room for the new?

Coven rituals at Samhain are often held outdoors, at night, around a sacred bonfire. The coven members may focus on letting go of bad habits and other unwanted energies, symbolically releasing them into the fire to be transformed. Other ritual themes may include bidding farewell to the Old God, tapping into the wisdom of the Crone, and formally honoring the dead.

And of course, any Wiccans who practice spellwork are certain to do so on this night, the most potent time of the entire year for magic! Any type of work is bound to be effective, but in keeping with the themes of this Sabbat, goals related to banishing, releasing, and strengthening your psychic abilities are especially appropriate.

On your Samhain altar, include photographs or mementos from deceased loved ones and light a votive candle specifically for them. Since this is the Sabbat most associated with Witchcraft, include symbols like cauldrons, besoms (ritual brooms), and pentacles, even if you don’t necessarily work with these tools regularly. As always, seasonal decorations of all kinds are key, but try to include a pumpkin if you can—carved and illuminated if possible!

Finally, be sure to give your sacred space a very thorough sweeping before beginning any ritual or spellwork. As you clean, visualize all unwanted energies and influences from the past year being swept away and out of your life.

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Samhain Correspondences

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Colors: black, orange, rust, bronze, brown, grey, silver, gold
Stones: jet, obsidian, onyx, smoky quartz, all other black stones, bloodstone, carnelian
Herbs: mugwort, wormwood, valerian, rosemary, sage, catnip, broom, oak leaves, witch hazel, angelica, deadly nightshade*, mandrake*
Flowers: marigold, chrysanthemums, sunflower, goldenrod, Russian sage, pansies
Incense: nutmeg, mint, sage, copal, myrrh, clove, heather, heliotrope, benzoin, sweetgrass, sandalwood
Altar decorations/symbols: oak leaves and other fallen leaves, pomegranates, pumpkins, squashes, gourds, photos or other tokens of deceased loved ones, acorns, Indian corn, besom, cauldron
Foods: pumpkins, pomegranates, apples, all root vegetables and autumn/winter squashes, all nuts, breads, beans, apple cider, mulled cider, ale, herbal teas

*These herbs are highly toxic and should be used with care in spellwork only. Do not ingest!

Spirits and Symbols

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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.

Samhain

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Northern Hemisphere: October 31 or November 1
Southern Hemisphere: April 30 or May 1
Pronounced: SOW-in, SAH-vin, or SOW-een
Themes: death, rebirth, divination, honoring ancestors, introspection, benign mischief, revelry
Also known as: Samhuin, Oidhche Shamhna, Halloween, Third Harvest, Day of the Dead, Feast of the Dead (Félie Na Marbh), Shadowfest, Ancestor Night, Feile Moingfinne (Snow Goddess), Winter Nights, Old Hallowmas, Calan Gaeaf

Of all the Sabbats, Samhain is considered to be the most powerful and important to Wiccans and other Witches, with many intense energies at play. This is when we honor the Death element of the life/death/rebirth cycle that forms the basis of the Wheel of the Year and all of Nature as we know it.

Wiccans understand that the death stage of the cycle is actually the most potent, as it is here that all potential for new life resides, waiting to be manifested into specific form.

Therefore, Samhain is the most fitting time for reflecting on our lives, looking back over the past year and identifying any circumstances or patterns of behavior we would like to allow to die, in order to make room for the new when the growing season begins again. By letting go of our old selves, we can move into the winter months ahead with clarity and acceptance of the ever-turning wheel of life and death.

The name “Samhain” has been translated from the Old Irish as “summer’s end,” and this date marked the beginning of the dark half of the year in the ancient Celtic world. This is the third and final harvest festival, the time to stock the root cellars with the last of the winter squashes, turnips, beets and other root vegetables, and to dry the last of the magical and medicinal herbs for winter storage. The fields are now empty of their crops, the once-green meadow grasses are dying back to gold and brown, and the leaves have peaked and fallen, leaving the trees bare and stark against the greying skies. The chill in the air that began with Mabon is now here to stay, and the weakened Sun gives barely a passing glance for a few short hours before descending again below the horizon.

Indeed, it can seem as if the world is dying at this time. But this feeling is alleviated by the gratitude we express for all the abundance of the past year, and the knowledge that the light will return again, as is promised by the Wheel. The perpetual life/death/rebirth cycle is characterized by both the God and the Goddess at Samhain.

In his Sun aspect, the God has aged considerably since Mabon. His power is nearly gone, and he descends into the Underworld, leaving the Earth to the darkness of winter. As the Horned God, or the God of the Hunt, he is a fully matured stag who gives his life so his people can survive the coming barren season. Wiccans say farewell to the God at this Sabbat, thanking him for fulfilling his life-sustaining roles over the past year and expressing faith that he will return, reborn, at Yule. In many traditions, the Goddess is said to be mourning the God at this time, yet she too knows that he will return, as she is now in her wise Crone aspect. From the aged Crone we learn that death is part of life, that the old must be released in order for us to learn, grow, and birth new manifestations.

It is interesting that the Goddess herself never dies, since the Earth remains steadily present throughout the year, no matter where the Sun may be. Yet she represents death and life simultaneously—she is both Crone and mother-to-be of the new God.