Halloween v. Samhain

I’m always amused by Christians condemning (and wanting to ban) Halloween as Pagan, when it is, in fact, a Christian holiday. Today we usually call the last day of October ‘Halloween’, a name that comes from the Roman Catholic Church’s Feast of All Saints’ Day, celebrated on 1 November but beginning at vespers on the evening of 31 October – hence ‘All Hallows Eve’ – and then extending into All Soul’s Day on 2 November, making a three day feast of All Hallows.

The Church of Rome probably instituted the festival to displace the Pagan Roman Feast of the Lemures, during which the dark and formless spirits of the angry dead not given proper burial were propitiated. St. Augustine described them as evil and restless manes that tormented and terrified the living. [1] It was a three day festival in May. The Church supplanted this with a feast of the Christian martyrs, celebrated since the mid-fourth century CE on 13 May. The Christian feast was moved to its current November date by Pope Gregory III (731–741), [2] though the Eastern Orthodox Church of the Byzantine Tradition continues to commemorate All Saints in the spring, on the first Sunday after Pentecost. The Irish Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee (eighth or ninth century) contains a note stating that All Martyrs was on 17 April and of All Saints of Europe on 20 April. [3]

However, the end of October and the beginning of November was the time from which northern Europeans reckoned that autumn tipped into winter, with all that this implied.  Henceforth comes a time of gloom, bleakness and cold. According to the chronicles of the monk Bede (c. 673 – 735 CE), there were two seasons in Anglo-Saxon England. Summer comprised the six months during which the days are longer than the nights, and winter the others, with winter beginning at the October full moon (the Anglo-Saxons followed a lunar calendar), during the month of Winterfylleth, roughly our October.  Winterfylleth marked the beginning of the Norse Winter, when preparations for winter began and sailing ceased. According to Nigel Pennick “Long distance sailing and other summer activities also stopped on this day, as preparations for the winter took priority.[4]

It was widely believed that when winter comes, the powers of increase and the good spirits retire from the land, taking its goodness with them, which is why crops and wild fruit picked after a certain date were said to be cursed or unfit to eat. The powers of darkness, blight and bane start to emerge from the underworld to wreak havoc. In Ireland, Halloween is often called Phooka Night and after this time the Phooka fairy renders all the crops not collected unfit to eat and spoils the blackberries, while Welsh gryphons blight any crops left in the field after Halloween. [5] Wicked fairies, such as the Scottish Unseelie Court, become very active, along with the Cailleachs, hag fairies and winter witches.  This is a process that escalates throughout November and December, until the rebirth of the Sun/son at Yule/Christmas starts to send them back to the underworld.

Thus the season of danger, chaos and the world turned upside down begins. John Stow, in 1603, wrote: “These Lords beginning their rule on Alhollon Eve [Halloween], continued the same till the morrow after the Feast of the Purification, commonly called Candlemas day: In all which space there were fine and subtle disguising, Maskes and Mummeries…” [6] In the reign of Charles I. the young gentlemen of the Middle Temple (trainee lawyers) considered All Hallow Tide as the beginning of the Christmas season.[7]  Children celebrated it as Mischief Night, playing pranks such as knocking on doors and running away, hiding objects left outside, or tying door latches. [8] [9] Often they wore masks or were otherwise disguised to avoid being recognised. [10]

The three day Christian Feast of All Hallows, in combination with existing local folklore, gave rise to a variety of interesting customs, likely a curious intermingling of Christian and Pagan belief. It was widely supposed that the dead could return at Hallowmas [11] and the three days of All Hallows were certainly regarded as a time of especial supernatural activity when ghosts, spirits and witches were abroad, and particular precautions had to be taken against them. Candles were lit to ward them off and if the candle continued to burn after midnight, its possessor would be immune from the attentions of witches during the coming year. [12]  Prayers were said to shorten the time souls might be spending in Purgatory and the church bells were rung – either to comfort the dead or ward them off, depending on which source you read. Bonfires were built in churchyards to ward off spirits, according to some [13] or to light the souls out of purgatory according to others. [14] Visits to the tombs of dead relatives were made, sometimes laying flowers or pouring holy water or milk on the graves.  [15] In many places feasts were laid out for the dead, while in others, cakes and bread were baked and distributed to the poor in return for their prayers on behalf of a soul in purgatory. [16] ‘Soulers’ went from door to door in England, soliciting money or food in return for a prayer for the dead. The cakes they were given were called ‘soul cakes’ for as one rhyme had it: “A soul cake, a soul cake/have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake.[17]

As an uncanny period it was a time for divination and taking omens, and these were many and varied, some in fun, and some in deadly earnest.  In England, for example, Halloween was occasionally called ‘Nut Crack Night’ from the custom of taken omens from the cracking of nuts in the hearth fire. For instance, you might find out whether your sweetheart would be true by naming two nuts and seeing whether they burned together or jumped apart, or by naming the nuts for two possible partners and seeing how they burned. [18] [19] More gloomily, in Scotland, a blindfolded seeker might divine what the future had in store by reaching towards three dishes – meal for prosperity, earth for death and a net for tangled fortunes – and the first he or she touched would be their lot. [20] To ascertain who would live for another year, each person in the family filled a thimble with salt, and emptied it out in a little mound on a plate. If any heap were found fallen over by morning, the person it represented was destined to die within a year. In Scotland and on the Isle of Man, the ashes of the hearth would be smoothed over, and the next morning inspected for marks and prints, and fates deduced from them. [21]

As part of the festival of All Hallows, people, mainly children, in England went out ‘souling’ going from door to door or travelling around the local farms, singing songs in return for apples, soul cakes or ale. The practice started in the middle ages when the cakes were offered in return for prayers for those souls suffering in purgatory, but after the Protestant Reformation, which did away with the notion of purgatory, the custom became one of just giving out the cakes as gifts. [22] Sometimes, people would keep the cakes for good luck. The recipes for the cakes varied, sometimes they were made of oats, some contained currants and spices, and in some areas it was traditional to consume seed cakes during All Hallows which coincided with the end of winter wheat-seed sowing. [23] Parkin, a ginger cake, was popular in the north of England, while in Lancashire Harcake was offered to visitors on the day.[24]

As opposed to the Christian festival of Halloween on October 31st, for modern Pagans, November begins with the festival of Samhain.Samhain was one of the four quarter-festivals of the early Irish, though it was not mentioned in contemporary Scottish, Welsh or Continental literature at all. [25] The Irish word ‘Samhain’ is usually glossed as ‘summer’s end’, from sam ‘summer’ and fuin ‘end’, though others argue that it may derive from the Proto-Celtic word *samani meaning ‘assembly’, as great tribal assemblies were held on at Samhain. [26] We can speculate that with the agricultural work of the year completed, and the warring and trading season over, it would have been the time when travellers returned home to their hearths with new stories to tell and experiences to share.

 

Sadly, we don’t know how the Pagan Irish celebrated Samhain or even how they regarded it, or whether the Celts in other areas marked the occasion at all. Samhain certainly appears in many Irish stories recorded during the Christian period, and was recorded as a Pagan festival by the Christian chroniclers, but while some describe great assemblies on that date, none of them mention any religious or druidic rites (unlike the many practices attested around Beltane) though doubtless there were some. [27]

In 1890 the folklorist Sir James Frazer suggested that the feast of All Hallows was moved to the beginning of November to replace the festival of Samhain in the public mind in Celtic countries, and therefore Samhain must have been a feast of the dead. [28] However, the Church in Germany was celebrating All Saints Day on 1 November when the church in Ireland was still celebrating it on 20 April, so this is unlikely. [29]  Where known European feasts of the dead took place, whether Christian or Pagan, they were part of a spring purification to prepare for the year ahead. When the Catholic Church introduced the doctrine of purgatory, where souls spent a time of suffering before going to heaven, the medieval church did gradually instituted a three day festival of the dead called All Hallows, as it was believed that the prayers of the living could alleviate the suffering of those in purgatory.  However, this was developed in Germanic countries and only later spread to Celtic lands. [30]

The suggestion that it was the Celtic New Year dates back no earlier than 1886 and was proposed by John Rhys in his Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom, [31] who asserted that because the Celts marked their days from the evening before (as did the Saxons, Jews and Muslims amongst many others, though he didn’t mention this) they must start their year in winter, even though no contemporary classical source mentioned it. James Frazer (The Golden Bough) used Rhys’s idea to support his own theory that Samhain had been the Pagan Celtic feast of the dead. After the introduction of the Roman calendar, Samhain was certainly associated with All Hallows in Ireland.

However, the one thing we know for certain is that it was considered the start of winter in Ireland. In the fifteenth or sixteenth century manuscriptTochmarc Emire, the hero Cúchulainn explains the structure of the Irish year: “For two divisions were formerly on the year, namely, summer from Beltane the first of May, and winter from Samhain to Beltane.”  [32] The Brythonic Celtic languages simply name the day the ‘first of winter’, from the Latin calend which denotes the first day of a month, so in Welsh it is  Nos Galen-Gaeaf (‘Night of the Winter Calends’), in Breton as Kala-Goañv and in Cornish Kalann Gwav. [33] It ushered in the dark and cold season, when death was close, when the spirits of blight and bane were released onto the land.

Nevertheless, as Pagans, we take our cues from the natural world, which is the manifestation of the spiritual. It is time to acknowledge the role of death, seasonally and personally, to mourn what has passed and to remember what has been. We think of all the lives that have touched ours, and the ancestors that have brought us to this place.

© Anna Franklin, October 2020

Illustration © Anna Franklin, Pagan Ways Tarot, Schiffer 2015


[1] St. Augustine, The City of God, 11.

[2] All Saints Day,” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd edition, ed. E. A. Livingstone, Oxford University Press, 1997

[3] http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/G200001/

[4] Nigel Pennick, The Pagan Book of Days, Destiny Books, Rochester, 1992

[5] Anna Franklin, The illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies, Paper Tiger, London, 2004

[6] John Stow, Survey of London, 1603, Adamant Media Corporation, 2001

[7] Clement A. Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, 1912, www.sacred-texts.com, accessed 11.9.19

[8] Brian Day, A Chronicle of Folk Customs, Hamlyn, London, 1998

[9] In some areas, this took place on the night before Halloween, or the night before Bonfire Night.

[10] Brian Day, Chronicle of Celtic Folk Customs, Hamlyn, London, 2000

[11] Nicholas Rogers, Halloween, From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002

[12] T.F.Thistleton Dyer, British Popular Customs, Past and Present, G. Bell, London, 1876

[13] Nicholas Rogers, Halloween, From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002

[14] http://www.wyrdwords.vispa.com/halloween/history/ accessed 4.10.19

[15] Nicholas Rogers, Halloween, From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002

[16] David Cressey, Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England, Oxford University Press, New York, 1997

[17] Georgina Frederica Jackson, Shropshire Folk-lore: A Sheaf of Gleanings, Trübner & Company, 1883

[18] Sharpe’s London Magazine of Entertainment and Instruction for General Reading. Volume: v.27, 1865

[19] Mary E. Blain, Games for Hallow-e’en, (1912), Historical Books Limited, 2016

[20] Ruth Edna Kelley, The Book of Hallowe’en, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co., Boston, 1919

[21] Ruth Edna Kelley, The Book of Hallowe’en, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co., Boston, 1919

[22] Brian Day, A Chronicle of Folk Customs, Hamlyn, London, 1998

[23] J. Brand, Popular Antiquities Volume 1, F.C. And J. Rivington and Others, London, 1813

[24] Brian Day, A Chronicle of Folk Customs, Hamlyn, London, 1998

[25] Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the British Isles, Blackwell, Oxford, 1991

[26] J.A. MacCulloch, The Religion of the Ancient Celts, Createspace Independent Publishing, 2018

[27] Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996

[28] James Frazer, The Golden Bough, (1890), Macmillan Press Ltd, London, 1976

[29] Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996,

[30] Ronald Hutton, Halloween? It’s more than trick or treat, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/28/halloween-more-than-trick-or-treat-origins?fbclid=IwAR13rqBx10qclv4giBmWmYstGVhsyM9GxrOxP8Q8Jo7e0_j3zBs2xsZ0o6U, accessed 5.11.19

[31] Sir John Rhys, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom, HardPress Publishing, 2012

[32] Online at https://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/emer.html, accessed 20.11.18

[33] Samhain: Season of Death and Renewal Samhain, by Alexei Kondratiev, 1997, onlne at http://www.imbas.org/articles/samhain.html, accessed 20.12.19

Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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