Samhain – pronounced “sow – inn” and known presently as Halloween – is celebrated from sunset to sunset on 31st October to 1st November. It is the most important Fire Festival or Sabbat on the ancient Wheel of The Year calendar.
“Samhain” has been variously translated as “first frost” or “Summer’s end”: opposing suggestions with the same meaning. It is the name for November in ancient and modern Gaelic.
Samhain lies between The Autumn Equinox and The Winter Solstice. It marks the death of the year and the end of the annual agricultural cycle. Many ancient cultures throughout The Western Hemisphere regarded Samhain as their New Year’s Eve.
Samhain is the third and final harvest on The Wheel of The Year calendar. After Lughnasadh (grain and cereals) and Modron (fruit and vegetables) herding communities drove livestock back from Summer pasture to be housed or slaughtered for winter, furthering the festival’s associations with death. The eighth century scholar, Bede refers to November as the “blood month”.
According to ancient beliefs the mythic courtship of a god and goddess symbolised the eternal rotation of seasons. At Samhain the Goddess, in her crone or hag aspect, midwifes the waning or sacrificed God into the Underworld where he will journey until his rebirth at Yule with the promise of Spring.
Crone Goddesses, such as Celtic Ceridwen and Greek Hecate, ease transitions and guard borders and crossroads. They are keepers of arcane wisdom and herbal lore who are associated with broomsticks (for cleansing thresholds) and cauldrons (for brewing natural medicines). Halloween “witches” are a modern remnant of this frequently misunderstood ancient archetype.
Sexy Halloween witches owe their style to The Morrígan, the Gaelic Dark Mother or Raven Goddess who presides over death and battle – akin to the Scandinavian Valkyries. At Samhain The Morrígan mates with The Dagda (the Gaelic All-Father) to bring creation from chaos.
Samhain is considered a liminal time; when the veil between the mortal and the preternatural realms – the living and the dead – is at its thinnest. Ancestors are remembered and honoured with a variety of worldwide customs that continue to this day, such as the Mexican Dia de Los Meurtos or Day of The Dead.
Costuming for Halloween is an ancient tradition with many possible origins and purposes. Celebrants may have daubed themselves with ash from ritual bonfires or disguised themselves to confuse, deter or even consort with mischievous otherworldly creatures before parading from house to house to collect donations for the Samhain feast: the likely origin of trick or treating.
It wouldn’t be Samhain without a pumpkin lantern. The gourd was the first domesticated plant species and has been used for carving for thousands of years. Pumpkin lamps were carved with fearsome faces as festival decorations; to light parades and repel unwelcome spirits. Jack o’ Lantern was another name for will-o’-the-wisp; strange but naturally occurring flares of marsh gas. Jack o’ Lantern evolved into a folkloric hero who tricks The Devil in a variety of tales. Barred from the afterlife he roams the world forever, carrying a single ember from the fires of Hell in his pumpkin lamp.