Samhain: Celtic Festival (pronounced sow-win)
Dates: Oct 31st – Nov 1st
Observed by: Gaels, Modern Pagans, Wiccans
Practices: Bonfire, Sacrifices, Divination, Feasting
Herbs and Plants: Allspice, Oak Leaves, Cinnamon, Mugwort, Rosemary
Samhain is an ancient Celtic festival that is still celebrated by many Pagans today. It originated as a festival that was observed by the the Celts from southern Ireland, through the Isle of Mann, and into Northern Scotland. These Celts were known as the Gaels. Samhain began as a celebration to mark the end of the harvest season and the slaughter of cattle. The veils between the material world and the Otherworld were thought to be the thinnest during this time, which allowed the Aos Sí, faeries, souls of ancestors, and other beings to cross over into the physical world.
Samhain is thought to be derived from the Proto-Celtic word semo-, meaning summer. Thus, Samhain may mean “summers end”. Others suggest that it may be derived from the word samani-, meaning assembly.
The Christian church would later appropriate this holiday as All Saint’s Day.
Samhain was generally celebrated, in part, with the creation of large bonfires. Sacrifices were given as offerings in these fires. It was also common for Druids to cast the bones of recently slaughtered livestock into the flames. This is thought to be from where the term bonfire (i.e. bone fire) originates.
Revelers would often light small flames from the large bonfires. They would bring these offshoot flames to their homes and fields as a way to convey the banishing of evil and protection to their personal spaces.
Since the veils were thought to be especially thin during Samhain, it was common to leave offerings of food and drink for spirits; generally those of ancestors or beings that may have been in the area. However, special care had to be taken to ensure that mischievous spirits were warded off. Divination was also common during this time period. There are many examples from historical records that range from roasting hazelnuts to chasing crows and observing their flight patterns.
Around the 16th century people began to celebrate Samhain with a practice known as “guising”. This involved people dressing as otherworldly beings and supernatural entities, reciting songs or stories, and receiving offerings of food in exchange. Guising is almost certainly the origin of the modern day practice of trick or treating.
Samhain was thought to be a time of danger and sacrifice. For the modern Neo-Celt, we should think of it as a time of introspection via divination, respect of the ancestors (not necessarily those related by blood), and the observation of natural cycles.
Suggested practices may include:
– Holding a bonfire.
– Taking a meditative walk in nature.
– Building an ancestral altar.
– Holding a feast for your friends, family, and those in need.
– Providing offerings of food to local fauna.
It is not enough that we are ecological in our spirituality and intentions. We must also be ecological in our actions. Meditate on things that you can do related to Samhain which will contribute to improving your local ecology.
For example, I have prepared a large batch of bone broth that some friends and I will be enjoying around our Samhain bonfire. We will cast these bones into the fire, respecting and revering the nourishment these animals have given us. We will then spread the ash, along with the charred bones and wood (which are potent fertilizers), around our gardens and fields to ensure their protection and strengthen their yields next year. Through this ritual we build a sense of community; we nourish our bodies with an ancient superfood; we connect spiritually with the Earth; and we materially improve the ecology around us.
Corn has been shucked,
grain has been threshed,
herbs have been hung to dry.
Grapes have been pressed,
potatoes have been dug,
beans have been shelled and canned.
It is the harvest season,
and food is ready for winter.
We will eat, and we will live,
and we will be grateful.
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