In an earlier series of posts here at the Crossroads, I discussed the history of Celtic holiday of Beltaine, also known as May Day.
Now it’s time for us to take a look at Beltaine’s counterpart – Samhain. This holiday is known to us by a number of names, most popularly as Halloween. It is also known as All Hallows Day, All Saints Day, All Souls Day, and Day of the Dead. Halloween, traditionally celebrated on October 31st, is actually All Hallow’s Eve – the night before the actual holiday itself. Yet it is on this night that we most commonly see the celebrations of the Sabbat, and even those who do not follow a Pagan Path oftentimes will turn into a honorary witch for the day, engaging in festivities that have their roots in older Pagan practices.
Once again we look at the Wheel of the Year, and the inclusion of Samhain as a part of such. As mentioned in my prior posting, Beltaine and Samhain are directly opposite of one another, six months apart – Samhain occurring on November 1 (although as mentioned above it is often celebrated the night before), and Beltaine on May 1. The names of both of these Sabbats is Gaelic: Samhain translates into “Summer’s End” and refers to the beginning of Winter, while Beltaine means “the month of May” and thus the beginning of Summer.
This suggests that the ancient Celts only celebrated two seasons – Winter and Summer. Anthropological research indicates that the Celts divided the year into two halves; a dark half known as Gaimos which was the time from Samhain to Beltaine, and a light half called Samos, occurring from Beltaine to Samhain.
So in the Celtic calendar, Winter starts not on December 21st (as indicated by the modern Gregorian calendar), but actually begins seven weeks earlier at Samhain on November 1st. The Winter Solstice in December (also known as Yule in the Pagan Wheel of the Year) is referred to as Midwinter – the halfway point between the beginning of Winter on November 1st and the beginning of Spring at Imbolc on February 1st. Indeed, in the Celtic calendar the beginnings of the seasons start not at the equinoxes and solstices as they do in the modern calendars that hang on our walls; but at the Greater Sabbats of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine, and Lughnasadh.
In my prior post about Beltaine, I mentioned how much of what we know about the early references of this Sabbat comes from an Irish glossary known as the Sanas Chormaic, which dates from the late 9th century. Interestingly, while this text has plenty to say about Beltaine, there is no mention of its winter counterpart.
Samhain is mentioned by the heroine Emer as the first of the four quarter days in the Tochmarc Emire, one of the stories in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. These stories are believed to date back to the tenth century, and possible to an older version from the 8th century. Sometimes also spelled Samain or Samuin, it was that time of the year when the livestock had been gathered in from the summer pastures, and cold season was setting in for man and beast alike.
This was a good time for the Celtic tribes to gather for a final “get-together” before hunkering down for the winter…and indeed the feis (festival) of Samhain is a favorite setting for many of these early Irish tales. In the Serglige Con Culainn – yet another story from the Ulster Cycle – it is stated that
The feis of the Ulstermen lasted the three days before Samuin and the three days after Samuin and Samuin itself. They would gather at Mag Muirthemni, and during these seven days there would be nothing but meetings and games and amusements and entertainments and eating and feasting.
Undoubtedly there were religious observances of this Sabbat as well; however, there appears to be little reliable documentation describing such. It is strongly believed that the ancient Druids gathered at a site known as Tlachtga at Samhain to kindle the sacred fires, and it was from these flames that the people from the nearby countryside would bring home hot coals to light their own domestic fires, thus ushering in the Dark Year.
Today Tlachtga is also known as the Hill of Ward, and is the site of modern-day celebrations of Samhain, thanks to the efforts of well-known Pagan leaders/authors Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone. The Hill of Ward, located in County Meath about an hour north of Dublin, is often overshadowed by its more famous sister – the Hill of Tara, twelve miles away. Nevertheless, Tlachtga has its own ancient history and should be included in any tour of the sacred sites of Pagan Ireland.