Before Halloween: There was Samhain.
By K. Victoria Smith
The ancient Celtic calendar has four major festivals: Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasa and Samhain. The spelling and pronunciation will vary by region or modern country boundaries. These festivals were agrarian-based and marked the transitions between portions of the growing seasons. Iron and Bronze Age Celts and the Druids, who ultimately became powerful leaders in the communities, had no formal calendar) or written language, for that matter) and marked the festivals by lunar cycles and the climate cycles that impacted their daily existence. For convenience, I will use the modern calendar dates to describe these festivals.
Imbolc, February 1, marked the end of winter and the beginning of spring. The translation of the word relates to ewe’s milk and the time of the birth of the new lambs. The ground began to thaw and the first flowers of spring would appear (think crocuses and snowdrops).
Beltaine, marked on May 1, was the beginning of summer, the full-out growing season. It was a time of fertility and the beginning of the Goddess’ half of the year. The light part of the day was noticeably longer than the dark.
Lughnasa, August 1 in modern times, marked the first harvest and the beginning of fall. In Gaelic Ireland, it was a time for handfasting: a trial marriage that would last for a year and a day.
But this month we celebrate, Samhain, marked on different calendars as anywhere from one to three days, depending on the region, beginning on October 31. It is the most important festival in the Druid calendar. It was the beginning of winter and the dark half of the year. It is also considered the end of the old year (growing season) and so is also the beginning of the new year. In modern times, our winter begins on the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. But think about it, this is in fact mid-winter, the tipping point for sunlight, since after that the days begin to lengthen as we approach the modern spring.
On Samhain In many areas of Ireland, two large bonfires were lit and the livestock walked between them in what was believed to be a purification ritual. As the darkness intruded tales were told of the dead ancestors and in many places it was traditional to set a place at table for them. Revelers would dress in costume and masks to confuse the mischievous or evil spirits said to roam the land. The veil between this world and the Otherworld (not heaven or hell, just other) was at its thinnest and beings could pass freely in both directions.
One of the many tales of Samhain appears in the Ulster Cycle. It is about Nera of Connacht whose bravery is tested by King Ailill. The prize offered to the men in the hall is the King’s gold-hilt sword. To pass the test the men must leave the warmth of the palace and across the open field to a gallows where two corpses still hung from the previous day. When they get there, they must tie a twig
around one man’s ankle and return. Many men try and fail, returning pale, shaken and in shame. They report that they have been harassed by demons and spirits. Nera goes to complete the task and in the process crosses over to the land of the sidhe where he remains trapped until the following Samhain.
To ward off evil spirits, people would hollow out large turnips, carve scary faces on them, place a candle inside and position them at doors and windows. Sound familiar?
During the Christianization of Ireland and the other Celtic lands, the Church in Rome moved the feasts of All Saints and All Souls from May (where they had been placed to Christianize the Roman pagan feast of the dead) to November 1 and 2. October 31 was renamed All Hallows Eve, or as we know it Halloween.
So when you are out trick-or treating or at a costume party and a cold chill comes from nowhere raising the small hairs on your neck, don’t be afraid. It is only the passage from this world to the Otherworld. Be careful you don’t make a wrong turn, remember the passage goes both ways.
To hear some “Halloween” words in the two main Irish dialects click this link: Irish sayings.com.