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Merry Samhain! - The Beginning of the Darker Half Of The Year & Summer's End


Samhain (ˈsɑːwɪn/, /ˈsaʊ.ɪn/, or /ˈsaʊn/) is a Gaelic harvest festival held on October 31–November 1. Linked also to festivals held around the same time in other Celtic cultures, and popularised as the "Celtic New Year" from the late 19th century, following Sir John Rhys and Sir James Frazer.

As you may  have noticed on previous posts, the Celtic year was not at first regulated by the solstices and equinoxes, but by some method connected with agriculture or with the seasons. Later, the year was a lunar one, and there is some evidence of attempts at synchronising solar and lunar time. But time was mainly measured by the moon, while in all calculations night preceded day. 

Thus oidhche Samhain was the night preceding Samhain (November 1st), not the following night. The usage survives in our "sennight" and "fortnight." In early times the year had two, possibly three divisions, marking periods in pastoral or agricultural life, but it was afterwards divided into four periods, while the year began with the winter division, opening at Samhain.

The date of Samhain was associated by the Catholic Church with All Saints' Day (and later All Souls' Day) from at least the 8th century, and both the secular Gaelic and the Catholic liturgical festival have influenced the secular customs now connected with Halloween.

It was only in 835 that Louis the Pious formally installed the festival on 1 November. In this, Louis merely made official the custom of celebrating the festival on 1 November which had been spread to the continent by the Anglo-Saxon mission, suggesting that the association of All Saints with 1 November is originally due to an Insular tradition,while the earliest references to the Irish festival of Samhain are found in sources of Irish mythology compiled in the 10th century and later.


The Celtic festivals being primarily connected with agricultural and pastoral life, we find in their ritual survivals traces not only of a religious but of a magical view of things, of acts designed to assist the powers of life and growth. The proof of this will be found in a detailed examination of the surviving customs connected with them.


The Samhain Festival, beginning the Celtic year, was an important social and religious occasion. The powers of blight were beginning their ascendancy, yet the future triumph of the powers of growth was not forgotten. Probably Samhain had gathered up into itself other feasts occurring earlier or later.

Thus it bears traces of being a harvest festival, the ritual of the earlier harvest feast being transferred to the winter feast, as the Celts found themselves in lands where harvest is not gathered before late autumn. The harvest rites may, however, have been associated with threshing rather than ingathering. Samhain also contains in its ritual some of the old pastoral cults, while as a New Year feast its ritual is in great part that of all festivals of beginnings.

We had considered also it's conception as a Fire Festival. New fire was brought into each house at Samhain from the sacred bonfire,  itself probably kindled from the need-fire by the friction of pieces of wood. This preserved its purity, the purity necessary to a festival of beginnings.  The putting away of the old fires was probably connected with various rites for the expulsion of evils, which usually occur among many peoples at the New Year festival. By that process of dislocation which scattered the Samhain ritual over a wider period and gave some of it to Christmas, the kindling of the Yule log may have been originally connected with this festival.
  
Samhain, is also a festival of the dead, whose ghosts were fed at this time. A  time when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is at its thinest, a time when the spirits of loved ones can return and so a special place is set at the table for any who so wish to join the feast. Traditionaly a candle to guide the spirits of loved ones home is lit in the window and also deters any unwanted spirits and is the origins of the pumpkin or jack-o-lantern.

It is a time when witches celebrate the wild hunt and the Horned God gathers the lost souls who linger or are unwary. The Godess takes on her role as the Crone or Wise One and so we look for wisdom and guidence.

Later belief regarded the sacrifice, if sacrifice there was, as offered to the powers of evil--the black sow, unless this animal is a reminiscence of the corn-spirit in its harmful aspect. Earlier powers, whether of growth or of blight, came to be associated with Samhain as demoniac beings--the "malignant bird flocks" which blighted crops and killed animals, the Scottish devilish Samhanach which steals children, and Mongfind the banshee, to whom "women and the rabble" make petitions on Samhain eve.  Witches, evil-intentioned fairies, and the dead are believed to be  particularly active these day.

Though the sacrificial victim had come to be regarded as an offering to the powers of blight, he may once have represented a divinity of growth or, in earlier times, the corn-spirit. Such a victim was slain at harvest, and harvest is often late in northern Celtic regions, while the slaying was sometimes connected not with the harvest field, but with the later threshing. This would bring it near the Samhain festival.



Divination and forecasting the fate of the inquirer for the coming year also took place. Sometimes these were connected with the bonfire, stones placed in it showing by their appearance the fortune or misfortune awaiting their owners. 

Other rites, connected with the Calends of January as a result of dislocation, point also in this direction. In Gaul and Germany riotous processions took place with men dressed in the heads and skins of animals.  As the people ate the flesh of the slain animals sacramentally, so they clothed themselves in the skins to promote further contact with their divinity. Similar customs have been found in other Celtic districts, and these animal disguises can hardly be separated from the sacramental slaughter at Samhain.

Samhain may thus be regarded as, in origin, an old pastoral and agricultural festival, which in time came to be looked upon as affording assistance to the powers of growth in their conflict with the powers of blight. 

Perhaps some myth describing this combat may lurk behind the story of the battle of Mag-tured fought on Samhain between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomorians. While the powers of blight are triumphant in winter, the Tuatha Dea are represented as the victors, though they suffer loss and death. Perhaps this enshrines the belief in the continual triumph of life and growth over blight and decay, or it may arise from the fact that Samhain was both a time of rejoicing for the ingathered harvest, and of wailing for the coming supremacy of winter and the reign of the powers of blight.

Related Source:
"The Religion of the Ancient Celts" By J. A. MacCulloch - [1911]
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