Samhain

The Celtic people, who lived more than 2000 years ago feared the evening of Oct. 31 more than any other day of the year. It was the eve of their festival of Samhain. Samhain was a joyful harvest festival that marked the death of the old year and the beginning of a new one. The day itself was a time for paying homage to the sun god Baal who had provided the people with the ripened grain for use in the upcoming winter. Come evening evil spirits were everywhere. Charms and spells were said to have more power on the eve of Samhain. Several rituals were performed by the Celtic priests, Druids, to appease the Lord of the Dead.

Christianity was born, and grew strong until in the fourth century after Christ, the Roman Empire Constantine declared it lawful. Within the Roman Empire, the Christian Fathers tried their hardest to stamp out all things pagan, which is what they named the older religions. However, the Celts held firmly to their Druid customs. So, the Christian church gave them new meanings and new names, and told the people that the fire rites they had previously held for the Lord of the Dead on Oct. 31 would now protect them from the Devil, the enemy of God.

In the 7th century the church celebrated All Saint’s Day in May, but by the 9th century the date had been changed to Nov. 1st. The original festival for the pagan Lord of the Dead became a festival of Christian dead. People went on expecting the arrival of ghosts on Oct. 31st. Another name for All Saint’s Day was All Hallows’ Even which was later shortened to Halloween. In the 10th century the church named Nov. 2nd as All Souls’ Day in memory of all dead souls. Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day come so close together and are so similar that in some countries they tend to merge together.

The witch is a central symbol of Halloween. The name comes from the Saxon wica, meaning wise one. When setting out for a Sabbath, witches rubbed a sacred ointment onto their skin. This gave them a feeling of flying, and if they had been fasting they felt even giddier. Some witches rode on horseback, but poor witches went on foot and carried a broom or a pole to aid in vaulting over streams. In England when new witches was initiated they were often blindfolded, smeared with flying ointment and placed on a broomstick. The ointment would confuse the mind, speed up the pulse and numb the feet. When they were told “You are flying over land and sea,” the witch took their word for it.

An Irish myth tells of a man named Stingy Jack, who one day invited the Devil to have a drink. He convinced the Devil to change into a sixpence in order to pay for the drink, but instead of paying for the drink he pocketed the sixpence beside a silver cross which prevented the Devil from changing back. Jack made a deal with the Devil before letting him free. For one year the Devil could not harrass Jack. Next Halloween the Devil met up with Jack again, and Jack made another deal with him to be left alone. Jack died within the year and was turned back from the Gates of Heaven. He went to the Gates of Hell and the Devil told him to go away, as Jack had made him promise not to claim his soul. Jack didn’t want to leave because it was dark and he couldn’t find his way. The Devil tossed Jack a glowing coal and Jack put it inside a turnip, and ever since with this Jack-O’-Lantern, Jack has been roaming the faces of this earth. Scottish children hollow out and carve large turnips and put candles in them. Irish children use turnips or potatoes. In parts of England they use large beets. When the Scotch and the Irish came to the US they found pumpkins, which of course make a perfect Jack-O’-Lantern.

The Halloween Masquerade
From earliest times people wore masks when droughts or other disasters struck. They believed that the demons who 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 recognised. Until very recently children would dress up as ghosts and goblins to scare the neighbours, but there was no trick or treating. Around 40 years ago people began to offer treats to their costumed visitors. In parts of England the poor once went to houses singing and begging for soul cakes or money. Spanish people put cakes and nuts on graves on Halloween, to bribe the evil spirits.

Samhain. All Hallows. All Hallow’s Eve. Hallow E’en. Halloween. The most magical night of the year. Exactly opposite Beltane on the wheel of the year, Halloween is Beltane’s dark twin. A night of glowing jack-o-lanterns, bobbing for apples, tricks or treats, and dressing in costume. A night of ghost stories and seances, tarot card readings and scrying with mirrors. A night of power, when the veil that separates our world from the Otherworld is at its thinnest. A ‘spirit night’, as they say in Wales.

All Hallow’s Eve is the eve of All Hallow’s Day (November 1st). And for once, even popular tradition remembers that the Eve is more important than the Day itself, the traditional celebration focusing on October 31st, beginning at sundown. And this seems only fitting for the great Celtic New Year’s festival. Not that the holiday was Celtic only. In fact, it is startling how many ancient and unconnected cultures (the Egyptians and pre-Spanish Mexicans, for example) celebrated this as a festival of the dead. But the majority of our modern traditions can be traced to the British Isles.

The Celts called it Samhain, which means ‘summer’s end’, according to their ancient two-fold division of the year, when summer ran from Beltane to Samhain and winter ran from Samhain to Beltane. (Some modern Covens echo this structure by letting the High Priest ‘rule’ the Coven beginning on Samhain, with rulership returned to the High Priestess at Beltane.) According to the later four-fold division of the year, Samhain is seen as ‘autumn’s end’ and the beginning of winter. Samhain is pronounced (depending on where you’re from) as ‘sow-in’ (in Ireland), or ‘sow-een’ (in Wales), or ‘sav-en’ (in Scotland), or (inevitably) ‘sam-hane’ (in the U.S., where we don’t speak Gaelic).

Not only is Samhain the end of autumn; it is also, more importantly, the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. Celtic New Year’s Eve, when the new year begins with the onset of the dark phase of the year, just as the new day begins at sundown. There are many representations of Celtic gods with two faces, and it surely must have been one of them who held sway over Samhain. Like his Greek counterpart Janus, he would straddle the threshold, one face turned toward the past in commemoration of those who died during the last year, and one face gazing hopefully toward the future, mystic eyes attempting to pierce the veil and divine what the coming year holds. These two themes, celebrating the dead and divining the future, are inexorably intertwined in Samhain, as they are likely to be in any New Year’s celebration.

As a feast of the dead, it was believed the dead could, if they wished, return to the land of the living for this one night, to celebrate with their family, tribe, or clan. And so the great burial mounds of Ireland (sidh mounds) were opened up, with lighted torches lining the walls, so the dead could find their way. Extra places were set at the table and food set out for any who had died that year. And there are many stories that tell of Irish heroes making raids on the Underworld while the gates of faery stood open.

As a feast of divination, this was the night par excellence for peering into the future. The reason for this has to do with the Celtic view of time. In a culture that uses a linear concept of time, like our modern one, New Year’s Eve is simply a milestone on a very long road that stretches in a straight line from birth to death. Thus, the New Year’s festival is a part of time. The ancient Celtic view of time, however, is cyclical. And in this framework, New Year’s Eve represents a point outside of time, when the natural order of the universe dissolves back into primordial chaos, preparatory to re- establishing itself in a new order. Thus, Samhain is a night that exists outside of time and hence it may be used to view any other point in time. At no other holiday is a tarot card reading, crystal reading, or tea-leaf reading so likely to succeed.

The Christian religion, with its emphasis on the ‘historical’ Christ and his act of redemption 2000 years ago, is forced into a linear view of time, where ‘seeing the future’ is an illogical proposition. In fact, from the Christian perspective, any attempt to do so is seen as inherently evil. This did not keep the medieval Church from co-opting Samhain’s other motif, commemoration of the dead. To the Church, however, it could never be a feast for all the dead, but only the blessed dead, all those hallowed (made holy) by obedience to God – thus, All Hallow’s, or Hallowmas, later All Saints and All Souls.

There are so many types of divination that are traditional to Hallowstide, it is possible to mention only a few. Girls were told to place hazel nuts along the front of the firegrate, each one to symbolize one of her suitors. She could then divine her future husband by chanting, ‘If you love me, pop and fly; if you hate me, burn and die.’ Several methods used the apple, that most popular of Halloween fruits. You should slice an apple through the equator (to reveal the five-pointed star within) and then eat it by candlelight before a mirror. Your future spouse will then appear over your shoulder. Or, peel an apple, making sure the peeling comes off in one long strand, reciting, ‘I pare this apple round and round again; / My sweetheart’s name to flourish on the plain: / I fling the unbroken paring o’er my head, / My sweetheart’s letter on the ground to read.’ Or, you might set a snail to crawl through the ashes of your hearth. The considerate little creature will then spell out the initial letter as it moves.

Perhaps the most famous icon of the holiday is the jack-o-lantern. Various authorities attribute it to either Scottish or Irish origin. However, it seems clear that it was used as a lantern by people who traveled the road this night, the scary face to frighten away spirits or faeries who might otherwise lead one astray. Set on porches and in windows, they cast the same spell of protection over the household. (The American pumpkin seems to have forever Christ and his actsuperseded the European gourd as the jack-o-lantern of choice.) Bobbing for apples may well represent the remnants of a Pagan ‘baptism’ rite called a ‘seining’, according to some writers. The water-filled tub is a latter-day Cauldron of Regeneration, into which the novice’s head is immersed. The fact that the participant in this folk game was usually blindfolded with hands tied behind the back also puts one in mind of a traditional Craft initiation ceremony.

The custom of dressing in costume and ‘trick-or-treating’ is of Celtic origin with survivals particularly strong in Scotland. However, there are some important differences from the modern version. In the first place, the custom was not relegated to children, but was actively indulged in by adults as well. Also, the ‘treat’ which was required was often one of spirits (the liquid variety). This has recently been revived by college students who go ‘trick-or-drinking’. And in ancient times, the roving bands would sing seasonal carols from house to house, making the tradition very similar to Yuletide wassailing. In fact, the custom known as ‘caroling’, now connected exclusively with mid-winter, was once practiced at all the major holidays. Finally, in Scotland at least, the tradition of dressing in costume consisted almost exclusively of cross-dressing (i.e., men dressing as women, and women as men). It seems as though ancient societies provided an opportunity for people to ‘try on’ the role of the opposite gender for one night of the year. (Although in Scotland, this is admittedly less dramatic – but more confusing – since men were in the habit of wearing skirt-like kilts anyway. Oh well.)

To Witches, Halloween is one of the four High Holidays, or Greater Sabbats, or cross-quarter days. Because it is the most important holiday of the year, it is sometimes called ‘THE Great Sabbat.’ It is an ironic fact that the newer, self-created Covens tend to use the older name of the holiday, Samhain, which they have discovered through modern research. While the older hereditary and traditional Covens often use the newer name, Halloween, which has been handed down through oral tradition within their Coven. (This is often holds true for the names of the other holidays, as well. One may often get an indication of a Coven’s antiquity by noting what names it uses for the holidays.)

With such an important holiday, Witches often hold two distinct celebrations. First, a large Halloween party for non-Craft friends, often held on the previous weekend. And second, a Coven ritual held on Halloween night itself, late enough so as not to be interrupted by trick-or-treaters. If the rituals are performed properly, there is often the feeling of invisible friends taking part in the rites. Another date which may be utilized in planning celebrations is the actual cross-quarter day, or Old Halloween, or Halloween O.S. (Old Style). This occurs when the sun has reached 15 degrees Scorpio, an astrological ‘power point’ symbolized by the Eagle. This year (1988), the date is November 6th at 10:55 pm CST, with the celebration beginning at sunset. Interestingly, this date (Old Halloween) was also appropriated by the Church as the holiday of Martinmas.

Of all the Witchcraft holidays, Halloween is the only one that still boasts anything near to popular celebration. Even though it is typically relegated to children (and the young-at-heart) and observed as an evening affair only, many of its traditions are firmly rooted in Paganism. Interestingly, some schools have recently attempted to abolish Halloween parties on the grounds that it violates the separation of state and religion. Speaking as a Pagan, I would be saddened by the success of this move, but as a supporter of the concept of religion-free public education, I fear I must concede the point. Nonetheless, it seems only right that there SHOULD be one night of the year when our minds are turned toward thoughts of the supernatural. A night when both Pagans and non-Pagans may ponder the mysteries of the Otherworld and its inhabitants. And if you are one of them, may all your jack-o’lanterns burn bright on this All Hallow’s Eve.

– by Mike Nichols


Samhain is the night when the Old King dies, and the Crone Goddess mourns him greatly during the next six weeks. The sun is at its lowest point on the horizon as measured by the ancient standing stones of Britain and Ireland, the reason the Celts chose this sabbat rather than Yule as their new year. To the ancient Celts, this holiday divided the year into two seasons, Winter and Summer. Samhain is the day on which the Celtic New Year and winter begin together, so it is a time for both beginnings and endings. It is the last of the three harvest festivals, the harvest of meat.

On this day, the veil between the worlds are thinner. The doors of the sidhe -mounds are open, and neither human nor faery need any magickal passwords to come and go. Our ancestors, the blessed dead, are more accessible, more approachable during the time of the dying of the land. Samhain is a day to commune with the dead and a celebration of the eternal cycle of reincarnation.

Rosemary (for remembrance of our ancestors), Mullein seeds (a projection for abundance), rue, calendula, sunflower petals and seeds, pumpkin seeds, turnip seeds, apple leaf, sage, mushrooms, wild ginseng, wormwood, tarragon, bay leaf, almond, hazelnut, passionflower, pine needles, nettle, garlic, hemlock cones, mandrake root

At Samhain, witches once gave one another acorns as gifts. During the Burning Times, giving someone an acorn was a secret means of telling that person you were a witch. Acorns are fruits of the oak, one of the most sacred trees to the ancient Celts. They are symbols of protection, fertility, growth, values, and friendship.

Black obsidian, smoky quartz, jet, amber, pyrite, garnet, granite, clear quartz, marble, sandstone, gold, diamond, iron, steel, ruby, hematite, brass

At Samhain, witches cast spells to keep anything negative from the past — evil, harm, corruption, greed — out of the future. Cast spells to psychically contact our deceased forebears and retrieve ancient knowledge, thus preserving the great Web that stretches through many generations of human families. — Laurie Cabot, Celebrate the Earth

Make resolutions, write them on a small piece of parchment, and burn in a candle flame, preferably a black votive candle within a cauldron on the altar.

Wear costumes that reflect what we hope or wish for in the upcoming year.

Carve a jack-o-lantern.

Make a spirit candle. This is a white candle anointed with patchouli oil. As you place it inside the jack-o-lantern, say:
With this candle and by its light
I welcome you spirits on Samhain night.

Enjoy the trick or treating of the season.

Drink apple cider warmed and spiced with cinnamon to honor the dead.

Bury an apple or pomegranate in the garden as food for spirits passing by on their way to being reborn.

Do divinations for the next year.

Set out a mute supper.

Make a mask of your shadow self.

Make a besom, or witches broom.

Make a witches cord as an expression of what you hope to manifest in the year ahead.

Find a magick wand of oak, holly, ash, rowan, birch, hazel, elm, hawthorne or willow.

Let this be the traditional time that you make candles for the coming year, infusing them with color, power, herbs, and scent depending on its purpose.

Samhain , pronounced “Sow-en”, is the Sabbat 6 months from Beltane, and the most important Sabbat. Together Beltane and Samhain cut the Witches year in half. In addition Samhain is the last of the three harvest Sabbats. This holiday is considered the Witches New Year, representing one full turn of the seasonal year. This day is a celebration of the end of the Goddess ruled Summer and marks the arrival of the God ruled Winter. The name Samhain means “Summers End”.

At one time it was believed that the ghosts of all persons who were destined to die in the coming year could be seen walking through the graveyard at midnight on Samhain. Perhaps this is because it is on this night that the veil between this and the spirit world is weakest. Many of the ghosts were thought to be of an evil nature and so for protection, jack-o-lanterns with hideous candle-lit faces were carved out of pumpkins and carried as lanterns to scare away the malevolent spirits.

Samhain is also the Celtic/Druid New Year, the beginning of the cider season, and a solemn rite and festival of the dead. At this time Witches honor deceased loved ones who have journeyed to the Summerland. It is not uncommon for the celebration to include a feast for the dead. For example in Belgium an old custom was to prepare ” Cakes for the Dead ” , small white cakes or cookies. A cake was eaten for each spirit honored with the belief that the more cakes you ate, the more the dead would bless you.

It was also customary to light a fire on the household hearth which would burn continuously until the first day of the following Spring. Huge bonfires were lit on the hilltops at sunset in honor of the old Gods and Goddesses, and to guide the souls of the dead home to their kin.

Samhain is also the time of the year for getting rid of weaknesses. On a piece of parchment write weaknesses or bad habits you would like to loose. Meditate on these weaknesses and how your life will be improved on loosing them. Then burn the parchment paper, preferably in the ritual fire, thank the Lord and Lady, and continue on with your celebration.

Traditional Pagan/Witchy foods for this holiday include Apples, Pumpkin Pie, Hazelnuts, Cakes for the Dead, Corn, Cranberry Muffins and Breads, Ale, Cider and Herbal Teas

At the family dinner you could set an empty place for those who have departed who were dear to you. In this way you both honor the departed and teach your family about how a real Witch celebrates Samhain. If you are planning on a Samhain Ritual let all participants know they can, and when they can, state aloud the name(s) of loved departed ones they wish to remember. In doing so the departed individual(s) are honored and thanked for the special way they touched the participants life. What could be more beautiful on this night when the veil between worlds is at its thinnest? At the same time the Lord and Lady should be thanked for a bountiful harvest.

Samhain, or Witches’ New Year, the Last Harvest. This holiday is known by many names. For most of the general population in the United States is is called Halloween. It is also known as: “The Feast of All Saints Day”, “All Hallows”, “Hallowe’en”, “Mischief night”, and many other names. For the Witch, it is a holiday where we honour our dead friends, relatives, ancestors, and even pets who have passed on. We remember them by putting an extra plate at the dinner table for them.

This is also the night on which the veil between our world and the spirit world is at it’s thinnest. This isn’t to say we all whip out the Ouija board and bother resting souls (most of the Pagans and Wiccans I talk to don’t have much good to say about the Ouija board. Some have never even touched it before). Some do try and contact their ancestors, but some prefer to just honour them with a prayer, and a place at the table. This is also when it is traditional to celebrate the last harvest before the falling of Winter snow.

Other activities may include reading the tarot cards for the new year, and other traditional Halloween things like “Trick or treating” for candy, dressing up, bobbing for apples, having a new-year party because the wheel begins to turn again. Religious significance is that our God has once again passed on to be reborn again at Yule, while the Goddess carries his fire from the sun within her womb. The plants, food, herbs, trees and flowers which are associated with samhain are chrysanthemum, wormwood, apples, pears, hazel, thistle, pomegranates, all grains, harvested fruits and nuts, the pumpkin, corn.

Darkness and whispering winds. The leaves are falling, the apples are ripe, and frost is not far off. Samhain is fast approaching and the veil between the worlds grows thinner each night. You can feel it in the air, in the night. The Otherworld draws ever closer to our world as the sunlight dwindles into twilight. The ancestors, spirits of the dead, are more accessible, more approachable, during this time of the dying of the land. A melancholy and introspective mood descends upon those who have an affinity for this chill, dark time of endings and completion, dissolution, and eventual rebirth.

Fear tastes more piquant, more exciting in the growing gloom and shadows as the trees cast off their colourful leaves and take on sinister, skeletal appearances. A scent fills the autumn air, an indescribable October smell that comes only at this time-pumpkins, apples, cinnamon, dry leaves, and beer. This is the third harvest, the last great burst of life and light before the inexorable descent of winter, and the decline of the light into the longest night of the year-Yule. But there’s still time to dance, sing, and feast in celebration of the year’s rich harvest. Bonfires, bobbing for apples, mulled cider, tricks, treats, and all manner of sweets; Hallowe’en, Samhain, has come around once again and we all must face the darkness together, in our own ways, the old ways.

Mirrors, bowls, and cards-this is a time to divine the next year’s challenges, to scary the coming year. Dreams grow more vivid as the shadows grow thicker and all the world sets about preparing for winter. Omens, signs, and portents are everywhere. This is a time for foretelling’s/ The sight is sharper, and even the rocks have something to say to those who can hear them.

Storytelling and legendary; songs, ballads and poetry; this is a season for tales and nostalgia. We share stories of the past year’s exploits and surprises over steaming mugs of rich stew, hot cocoa, or mulled wine. The whole house is filled, with the sweet aroma of baking pies and roast turkey or venison. Friends are gathered and each shares some token or symbol of their personal harvests the tasks achieved, the stories written or told,. the paintings completed, or other, things they have brought to completion during the past year. Each speaks in turn and says a short blessing. Some bum knotted cords or other images of obstacles and hindrances that have impeded them since the last Samhain. The gods and ancestors are invoked, welcomed, thanked, and offerings are made.

Candles and salt, sprigs of evergreen and old photos-this’ I is a time of quiet contemplation, remembrance, and honouring of the dead. Plates of food and mugs filled with strong drink are set out for the spirits of the Wild Hunt as gestures of respect and tokens of acknowledgement. Laughter and tears, rowdy songs and silent prayers-each remembers those who have crossed over in their own way, as befits Witches and Pagans.

Along the north wall of the dining room there is a small table prepared as an unobtrusive altar, and without preamble or fuss each person places there some small token or photograph of their dearly departed-some person or being whose memory or influence in their life still means something to them. Each person quietly lights a candle for their various dead, and then they bow their heads in a moment of silence. Memories spill forth and emotions run deep. When it is time a bell is softly chimed and all stand. A shared moment of silence is observed, and then everyone takes a turn making a toast to their chosen ancestor. The bell is sounded once more and everyone takes their place at the dining room table to partake of a feast enjoyed. in silence, each guest communing with their own spirits and remembrances.

The ancestors, the blessed dead, are honoured at Samhain as it is the time of death and dying. Whether or not the ancestors can actually attend our rites is not as important as it is to respect their contributions and the roles they played in making things what they are for us now. Everyone who has ever lived is our ancestor, including those of the Craft who have gone before us the Old Ones whose genetic legacies and spiritual heritage live on in our lineage’s, traditions, and rites. We can hear their words in our memories, we sing their songs in our rituals, we feel their words in our bones and in our blood. They are the ones who shaped our world through their dreams, their works, and their efforts. The ancestors are those who made us and our Craft, our traditions, and our world what it is today. In time, we too shall be counted among the ancestors.

We honour the ancestors at Samhain as they have honoured us in the days before we were born. and as they shall honour us in the nights ahead when we eventually cross the river to take up our place beside those who have gone before into the greatest Mystery of all.

Our modern celebration of Halloween is a descendent of the ancient Celtic festival called “Samhain;” meaning Summer’s End. According to the ancient Celtic two-fold division of the year summer ran from Beltane to Samhain and winter ran from Samhain to Beltane. Samhain is pronounced (depending on where you’re from) as sow-in (in Ireland), sow-een (in Wales), sav-en (in Scotland), or (inevitably) sam-hane (in the U. S., where most wouldn’t know and don’t speak Gaelic).

The Festival is also known as Halloween, Hallowmas, All Hallow’s Eve, All Saint’s Eve, Festival of the Dead, and the Third Festival of Harvest. To Witches, Samhain is one of the four High Holidays, or Greater Sabbats.

Because it is the most important holiday of the year, it is sometimes called ‘THE’ Great Sabbat. Pagans consider Samhain the most magical night of the year. It occurs exactly opposite of Beltane on the Wheel of the Year. It is a night of glowing jack-o-lanterns, tricks or treats, and dressing in costume. A night for telling chilling ghost stories by the fire.

And a time for seances, tarot card readings and scrying with mirrors. It is upon this night, that the veil which seperates our world from the Otherworld is at its thinnest, making it a Night of Power.

Samhain signifies the end of autumn; more importantly, the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. This was the Celtic New Year’s Eve, when the new year begins with the onset of the dark phase of the year, just as the new day begins at sundown. Samhain is known as “The Feast of the Dead,” for it was believed that at this time the dead could return to the land of the living to celebrate with their family, tribe, or clan. The great burial cairns of Ireland (sidhe mounds) were opened up with lighted torches lining the walls, so the dead could find their way. Extra places were set at the table and food set out for any who had died that year. It is still customary to set an extra place at your supper table on Samhain Eve in honor of the departed.

Many divination practices were associated with Samhain. Among the most common were divinations dealing with marriage, weather, and the coming fortunes for the year. Ducking for apples was a common marriage divination. The first person to bite an apple would be the first to marry in the coming year. In Scotland, people would place stones in the ashes of the hearth before retiring for the night. Anyone whose stone had been disturbed during the night was said to be destined to die during the coming year.

Perhaps the most famous icon of the holiday is the jack -O-lantern.

Various authorities attribute it to either Scottish or Irish origin. However, it seems clear that it was used as a lantern by people who traveled the road this night, the scary face to frighten away spirits or faeries who might otherwise lead one astray. Set on porches and in windows, they cast the same spell of protection over the household.

The custom of dressing in costume and ‘trick-or-treating’ is of Celtic origin. There are some interesting differences from the modern version. In ancient days, the custom was not relegated to children, but was actively indulged in by adults as well. The ‘treat’ which was required was usually of spirits (the liquid variety). Also in ancient times, the roving bands would sing seasonal carols from house to house, making the tradition very similar to Yuletide wassailing. In fact, the custom known as ‘caroling’, now connected exclusively with Yule, was once practiced at all the major holidays.

As Witches,we observe this day as a religious festival. We consider it a memorial day for dead friends and family. It is still a night to practice various forms of divinitory arts such as scrying and rune casting. One could never hope for a better Tarot reading than on this night! Samhain is considered a time to wrap up old projects, take a good look at one’s stock in life, and consider new projects and endeavors for the coming year.

Witches often have two celebrations at this time. One for their “non-Craft” friends, which may include children and their friends. The other, celebrated afterwards or much later (the closer to midnight or after is better), would be the traditional Sabbat circle as appropriate for your tradition.

Hallowe’en, Samhuin, and Feis na Samhain, takes place on October 31 and November 1. The harvest is in, the days are noticeably shorter, and gardens and fields have been dug up or burnt. In Winnipeg this is really the beginning of winter as the first snowfall usually occurs around this time (unless there is El Niño to contend with).

Samhain (pronounced sow-in or sahv-in, NOT sam-hane) is the most important of the Wiccan Sabbats. It is one of the cross-quarter days, and is the last of the harvest festivals. This is the beginning of the winter half of the year, and a time when the veil between the worlds is very thin. The beloved dead are remembered through offerings of food, all-night vigils, and story telling. Sometimes a Dumb Supper (during which there is no talking) is celebrated, empty seats being left for the dead. The dead are invited, not compelled; to do so is pointless if the soul has reincarnated, or is rude if the person in question is having too much fun in Tír na nÓg! This is also a good time to do divinations for the coming year. This is the beginning of the tide of Recession (Samhain – Imbolg) which informs us of Death. Power recedes into the unmanifest, and power given to the Gods works best to achieve a spiritual result. Its power is negative and its word is Godhood.

The deities are in their darkest, most fearsome aspects. The God is now Lord of Death and the Underworld, keeper of the mystery of Death. Though fearsome, He is also comforter and teacher of the Dead, preparing them for their next lifetime. The Goddess is in Her aspect of Crone, the wise woman who tells uncomfortable truths. She is also the keeper of the mystery of rebirth for the God is in Her womb, waiting to be reborn. They are Primordial Chaos, containing the seeds of a new order. They challenge us to look Them in the face, and reaffirm life.

The origins of the name Samhain is not clear. It is probably cognate with Samonios (a Gaulish month name, from samon, ‘summer’), hence ‘summery’. This seems to be an odd name for the beginning of winter until you realize that Samhain is the culmination or fulfillment of summer. Later interpretations say that it is derived from sam-fuin, ‘summer’s end’. In ancient times the feast was known as Trinouxtion Samoni (Gaul) or Trenae Samhna (Ireland), translated as The Three Nights of Samhain. The name still survives in the Irish name for the month of November: Mí na Samhna.

Samhain was an important time to the ancient Celts. As a pastoral society it was the time when the herds were moved to winter pasture. Since they did not grow enough grain to feed the herd over the winter all but the selected breeding stock were killed and the meat salted. Feasts of the meat and other festive foods were held for the entire tribe, and divinations were done by the Druids who, gorging on the freshly slaughtered meat, fell into trance to forecast the coming year.

Mythologically this was the time when the Nemedians had to give tribute to the Formorii, and when the Dagda mated with the Mórrígán to ensure the Tuatha Dé Danaan defeat of the Fomorii at the Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh. In more modern times the divinations became more personal, prophesizing deaths, marriages and the like. Needfires and bonfires were also lit on this night, called Samhnagen in Scotland and Coel Coeth in Wales, built on nearby hilltops. Stones were left in the ashes, one for each family (or individual), and if a stone was discovered moved in the morning, it was believed someone in that family (or that individual) would die before next Samhain.

When talking about Samhain one fact needs to be made clear: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS THE GREAT GOD “SAM-HANE”, LORD OF THE DEAD. The druids did not worship him, nor is there any mention of him in the myths that have been translated from the Gaeilge so far. Where this misconception originated is not known, though some fundamentalist Christians, Winnipeg Free Press reporters, and authors such as Caroline Parry (in her otherwise excellent book Let’s Celebrate!) insist on spreading it. Having said that, there IS a character named Samhain mentioned in folktales collected from the Donegal area of Ireland by O’Donovan at the end of the 19th century. (Other sources are listed in the bibliography.) These folktales give a more detailed account of how Cian met Eithlinn and sired Lugh, details which do not survive in the myth cycles. (The Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh only mentions that Balor gave his daughter Eithlinn to Cian to cement an alliance between the Fomorii and the Tuatha Dé Danaan.) Here is one version:

Now it happened that there were on the mainland three brothers, namely, Kian, Sawan [sic], and Goban the Smith…. Kian had a magical cow [named Glas Gaibhnenn], whose milk was so abundant that everyone longed to posess her, and he had to keep her strictly under protection….One day Kian and Sawan had come to the forge to have some weapons made for them, bringing fine steel for that purpose. Kian went into the forge, leaving Sawan in charge of the cow. Balor now appeared on the scene, taking on himself the form of a little red-headed boy, and told Sawan that he had overheard the brothers inside the forge concocting a plan for using all the fine steel for their own swords, but common metal for that of Sawan. The latter, in a great rage, gave the cow’s halter to the boy and rushed into the forge…. Balor immediately carried off the cow, and dragged her across the sea to Tory Island [Tor Mór].1

There are at least five different versions of this folktale, with many variations of name: MacKinealy, MacCennfaelaidh (Cian); MacSamthainn, Sawan (Samhain); Gavida, Goban (Goibhniu). In none of these versions is Samhain described as a Lord of the Dead, nor is he ever mentioned again. His role within Celtic mythology is not clearly defined, though perhaps he was some sort of divine herdsman [my interpretation only!]. It is also unclear if the festival was named after the god, the god after the festival, or if the two were named after something else.

At Samhain (October 31), we say farewell to the God. This is a temporary farewell. He isn’t wrapped in eternal darkness, but readies to be reborn of the Goddess at Yule.

Samhain, also known as November Eve, Feast of the Dead, Feast of Apples, Hallows, All Hallows and Hallowe’en, once marked the time of sacrifice. In some places this was the time when animals were slaughtered to ensure food throughout the depths of Winter. The God – identified with the animals – fell as well to ensure our continuing existence.

Samhain is a time of reflection, of looking back over the last year, of coming to terms with the one phenomenon of life over which we have no control – death. The Craft feel that on this night the separation between the physical and spiritual realities is thin. Witches remember their ancestors and all those who have gone before. After Samhain, Witches celebrate Yule, and so the Wheel of the Year is complete.

Surely there are mysteries buried here. Why is the God the son and then the lover of the Goddess? This isn’t incest, this is symbolism. In this agricultural story (one of many Craft myths) the everchanging fertility of the Earth is represented by the Goddess and God. This myth speaks of the mysteries of birth, death and rebirth. It celebrates the wondrous aspects and beautiful effects of love, and honours women who perpetuate our species. It also points out the very real dependence that humans have on the Earth, the Sun and the Moon and of the effects of the seasons on our daily lives.

To agricultural peoples, the major thrust of this myth cycle is the production of food through the interplay between the Goddess and God. Food – without which we would all die – is intimately connected with the deities. Indeed, Witches see food as yet another manifestation of divine energy. And so, by observing the Sabbats, Witches attune themselves to the Earth and to the deities. They reaffirm their Earth roots. Performing rituals on the nights of the Full Moon also strengthens their connections with the Goddess in particular.

Now is the time of year in which we pass from light into darkness, symbolized by the death of the God of the sun. At this time, the spirits may roam the Earth along with the living, and the Goddess is in her crone aspect.

Seasonal items should decorate the Altar. Grains, gourds, and dried flowers are appropriate. Some extras you might want to lay out are things like apples, tarot cards, runes, hazel nuts, divination wands, a plate of food to be left outside for wandering spirits, and corn bread or a pomegranate in place of crescent cakes. One thing I would suggest is a yellow candle with a sun painted on it. This represents the dying God. The Altar cloth is black, the Altar candles should be red and black.

Cast the sacred circle. Invoke the God and the Goddess. After this is done, light the God candle. Say: “On this night when the dead once more walk freely among the living, we pass into darkness and do so willingly, for we know that it is simply the turning of the wheel. We give thanks to the God and the Goddess for the bounty that They have provided us over the summer.

On this night , the Lord of the Hunt, the Lord of the Sun passes away from us. We realize, however, that it is simply the cycle of life, and we wait for that time when the Sun will once more be born of the moon. As this candle represents the Lord of the Sun, so does it’s blowing out represent the passing of the Lord of the Sun.” Having said this, extinguish the God candle. This candle is not to be lit again until Yule. Now is the time to invoke the crone aspect of the Goddess by saying: “Goddess of the stars and of the waning moon, Goddess of magic and wisdom, whisper in my ear whatever you may and trust that the knowledge will be wisely used. Lend your power to my spells and rituals and trust that they will result in no harm to any of your creatures, great or small.”

Now is the time for any magic or seasonal activities which you had planned to perform this evening. Any magic, and things such as drumming and chanting, carving apples or pumpkins, divination with the Tarot, runes, wands, hazelnuts, or a pendulum, or scrying in fire, smoke or water. After any such business is done with, hold the simple feast. Then you may banish the sacred circle.. Take the offering dish outside, and bury the offerings in the earth. Remember to leave a plate of food outside for wandering spirits.

It is the wise Witch who celebrates on the Sabbats and Esbats, for these are times of real as well as symbolic power. Honouring them in some fashion is an integral part of Witchcraft.

Samhain – Oct. 31 (eve), Nov. 1
All Saints Day – November 1
All Souls (Mexico) – November 2
Old November Eve (Scotland) – Nov. 10
Martinmas – November 11
Sun Sign: Scorpio
Moon sign: Leo (Oct.31, Nov.1)
Moon Phase: Last Quarter

Bibliography
(1)”Power of the Witch” By Laurie Cabot and (2)”To Ride A Silver Broomstick” By Silver RavenWolf
Curtin, J.(ed.), Hero Tales Of Ireland*
Ellis, P.E.,A Dictionary of Irish Mythology
Farrar, J., & Farrar, S.,A Witches’ Bible Compleat
MacCrossan, T., The Sacred Cauldron
Rees, A., & Rees, B., Celtic Heritage*
Rhys, J., Hibbert Lectures (1886)*
Rolleston, T.W., Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race*
New Millenium Farmer’s 1999 Almanac
1T.W. Rolleston, Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race (London, UK: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., 1927), pp. 110-111.

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