Samhain-Halloween Lore

Celtic Mythology

Celtic lore tells of the Fairy Gates opening, and the Lands of the Sidhe (pronounced "shee") becoming accessible. Irish heroes long dead are said to make gallant raids into the Otherworld, however, they must return to their proper resting places by the first cock crow or risk being lost forever to roam the land of living with no hope of finding rest or peace.

Like all Celtic festivals, Samhain hosted a time of family reunion and reaffirming ties of friendship and social bonds. Also, in the agricultural communities, this was the time to bring in all the live stock from the hills and slaughter those animals that would not survive pasture for the Winter. Consequently, spirits often return on this night to visit their kin and friends during the celebrations should they wish to do so; many customs revolve around the return of spirits, as you will see. It was a natural thought that the approach of winter should drive the poor, shivering, hungry ghosts from the bare fields and the leafless woodlands to the shelter of the cottage with its familiar fireside.

The Origins of Halloween

The ancient Celtic peoples who inhabited England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Brittany celebrated their New Year's Day on what would be November 1st on our calendar. The period prior to the New Year, as the year wound down, was a time to consider the mystery of human death.

It was believed that on the last night of the year the lord of death allowed the souls of the dead to return to their homes. Souls that had died in sin, and in Celtic belief imprisoned in the bodies of animals, could be released through gifts to the lord of death, including human sacrifices.

It was also thought that evil spirits, demons, ghosts; witches were also free to roam around this night and could be placated by a feast. They would also leave you alone if you dressed like them and thus appeared to be one of them.

Families would also extinguish their hearth fires on this evening to be re-lit from a common New Year's bonfire built on the hilltops, which was meant to symbolize the driving away of darkness and evil with the coming of the New Year. The jack-o-lantern as a means of scaring away evil and providing light may be a vestige of this custom.

Jack o' Lantern

In Ireland, where many Halloween traditions and stories began, the first jack-o'-lanterns weren't made of pumpkins. They were made out of rutabagas, potatoes, turnips, or even beets. There is an old Irish legend about a man named Stingy Jack who was too mean to get into heaven and had played too many tricks on the devil to go to hell. When he died, he had to walk the earth, carrying a lantern made out of a turnip with a burning coal inside.

Stingy Jack became known as "Jack of the Lantern," or "Jack-o'-lantern." From this legend came the Irish tradition of placing jack-o'-lanterns made of turnips and other vegetables in windows or by doors on Halloween. They were meant to scare away Stingy Jack and all the other spirits that are said to walk the earth on that night.

It wasn't until the tradition was brought to the United States by immigrants that pumpkins were used for jack-o'-lanterns.

Trick or Treat

From earliest times people wore masks when droughts or other disasters struck. They believed that the demons that had brought their misfortune upon them would become frightened off by the hideous masks.

Even after the festival of Samhain had merged with Halloween, Europeans felt uneasy at this time of the year. Food was stored in preparation for the winter and the house was snug and warm. The cold, envious ghosts were outside, and people who went out after dark often wore masks to keep from being recognized.

Until very recently children would dress up as ghosts and goblins to scare the neighbors, but there was no trick or treating. Around 40 years ago people began to offer treats to their costumed visitors.

The principle of costumes has been altered from ancient times. It was previously common for people to cross dress, especially in Scotland and some regions of Ireland. Today, the children compete to see how scary or cute they can be and there is no real sense of fear (except about the weirdoes that we all seek to avoid.) The reason for this odd attire can only be guessed at by using folklore and oral tradition as a basis. Within the classic tales you will find a consistent pattern of malignant spirits and ghostly hunters. I belief costumes go along with the purpose of the Jack O' Lantern, as a means of confusing and hiding from evil spirits; they wouldn't think to look for their male enemy in a dress!

American Traditions

Halloween was very popular in Victorian times, and people would often throw magnificent parties to celebrate the spirit of the season. Costume contests, and apple divinations were everywhere, and people delighted in having fun during this dreary time of year.

Greek/Roman Mythology

Ancient Rome had many, many leaders, and in 314, Constantine the Great declared that Rome was a Christian nation. But what has that to do with Halloween? Well, around November 1st, the Festival of Pomona was held. Pomona was the Goddess of Orchards and the Harvest. With the conquest of most of the known world by the Roman Empire, the Festival of Pomona was blended with many different harvest festivals, some of which created traditions that survive even today (like Trick or Treating!)

Activities of Olde

On this day people would gather early in the day since there were so many things going on. In olden times the affair would last for two or three days. Crafting included brewing Mead for the day’s festivities as well as for the winter season to come. They carved Jack-o-Lanterns to discourage negative spirits from bothering the people at the gathering. Candles were blessed for use throughout the winter, as well as blending oils for magical uses. Simples were brewed to make sure each person had a good tonic to see them through the hard days of winter.

Anything that was braided was thought to be lucky since it was binding things together and by doing that bringing the community closer together. Quilts were gathered to be finished and ladies shared their recipes for simples and for dying cloth. The men of the clan hunted for days before the gathering to insure food for everyone. Children would be sent on “Nutting” parties and they would produce that bounty to be shared by everyone.

Games of strength and chance were played by young and old alike. This was also a great time for storytelling and in this way the patterns of life were passed down from one generation to another year after year. At this time of the year we are reminded of the tribal beginnings that we have all come from and it is appropriate that we still use the basic instruments of drum and gourd, cymbal, and horns. We chant together into the night and recreate the spiral dances.

Wiccan Ways

Wiccans bid farewell to the God as he departs and prepares for rebirth at Yule. They understand that the God sacrifices himself to ensure the people's continued existence. Everything must die to be reborn, and so does this noble God. Death, however, is one factor that cannot be controlled by man, and Wiccans use this time to look back and be sure all is in order before they continue on into the New Year. If something is not well, it is lovingly sacrificed that prosperity in the New Year may be attained.

The Sun God, who was maimed by the Dark God at Lughnasadh, dies on this day, and the God of Misrule, or dark half, takes the throne. He is sometimes seen as a cruel King who shines through the Winter months but offers no warmth or comfort to the planet. The lack of warmth, combined with the breath of Cailleach Bheare, the Crone, make for the hard Winter months and the balance of Summer.

Pagan New Year

Just as Samhain ends the old year, it must begin the new. Reflection should continue during this dark time, but a growing sense of the changes to be made and the light to be sought should accompany reflection.

Samhain symbolizes both the past and the future, illuminated by the cycle of the seasons, forever linked as steps on the journey we must all make.

We must look inside ourselves for self-knowledge and for the spirit that will sustain us in life's trials. Silence is one of the keys to seeking truth, for we cannot hear the answers in the midst of this noisy world in which we walk every day, nor in the noise of holiday celebrations however joyous.

Samhain is also said to be the time when the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest, allowing us some communication with those who have departed. How befitting this is for such a time of endings and beginnings.

Reflections on death can be as instructive as the self-examinations just mentioned. When we think of those who have died, it reminds us of time passing by and of things we could have or should have done. This reminder, coupled with our lists of past and future actions, encourages us to take our New Year's resolutions far more seriously.

We know our time is limited, and most of us have much to do in our allotted time. Most of us have to make a living somehow, but death reminds us that we had better spend some of that time in pursuit of our other dreams lest they be lost in the struggle merely to survive.

~~ Source Unknown ~~