Samhain: Holiday of the Dead


Samhain is probably the pagan holiday most well-known both in and outside of the pagan community.  Celebration of this holiday is not as widespread as Yule or Midsummer, which most cultures tend to celebrate, but it is rather far-reaching: Aboriginal, Anglo-Welsh, Celtic, Chinese, East Europe, Iberian, South Native Americans, Russian, Northern Teutonic, and South Pacific cultures all have a celebration of some kind for Samhain.

The word “Samhain” can be pronounced as “Sow-in”, “Sah-vin”, and “Sahm-hayn”, among others.  This particular name is usually attributed to having come from an Irish Gaelic name for “the summer’s end”, samhraidhreadh.  The day after Samhain is the Celtic New Year, and so Samhain is considered to be the new year holiday for many modern pagans (other traditions have Yule as their new year holiday).

Samhain is not only a holiday of the dead, though many people remember only that aspect.  It is also the end of the third and final harvest and a celebration of the cycle of reincarnation.  The death aspect enters in the form of remembering and communing with the dead.

In the Celtic and European tradition, Samhain is the night when the old God dies.  The Goddess, now as the Crone, mourns him for six weeks until Yule.  Ever wonder where the image of a Halloween hag stirring her cauldron came from?  The Celts believed that the Crone Goddess stirred her cauldron of souls awaiting reincarnation–and all souls returned to her cauldron of life, death, and rebirth upon the physical body’s death.  The cauldron here is a symbol of the cosmic womb from which all things are conceived and born and reborn.

Samhain has a Christian tradition as well, begun when the Church was converting and spreading the Word in the Middle Ages or so.  It began as Michaelmas, the feast day of St. Michael, but that wasn’t quite powerful enough to change peoples’ ways.  What followed was the Eve of All Saints/ALl Hallows Eve and All Saint’s Day on Nov. 1.  All the saints are honored in his holiday (obviously) and it became a very big and important holiday.

Even so, Samhain remained a lure to the masses, a very powerful and potent holiday that the Church could not stamp out kindly.  Thus, the demonization of Samhain.  The Church turned Samhain into a night overrun by evil spirits and wicked creatures that only went away when dawn broke on All Saint’s Day to the ringing of church bells.  There are some cultures that have traditions of spirits roaming, whether evil or benevolent, on Samhain night, but by this point it’s difficult to say whether those traditions were left over from an ancient culture or were influenced so heavily by the early Church.  Nevertheless, the Church did hit on one thing inadvertently–the Veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest point on Samhain eve, and it’s quite possible and probable that contact with the dead (in whatever form) is accomplished on this night.

Old customs of Samhain are many and varied.  In Ireland candles were placed in the windows to help guide earth-bound spirits on their way.  Faces were carved into vegetables and placed near windows or at the perimeters of the circle to frighten away any evil that did happen to come through.  Jack-o-lanterns followed the vegetables and candles in what is probably a combination of the two customs.  In Rome Samhain was the sacred festival of Pamona, the apple goddess, and everything was turned topsy-turvy on this day.  This is a reflection of another European idea of the Lord of Misrule, who was supposed to be a reminder that even in death there is reason to be happy.

Some ways to celebrate Samhain:

  • Make pumpkin pie
  • Carve a jack-o-lantern
  • Make a mask (to scare evil entities away)
  • Make wassail (apple punch–I believe there is alcohol in this)
  • Have a balefire aka bonfire–but only if it’s safe to do so!  Please no burns or forest fires!
  • Go trick-or-treating.
  • Create a besom (a witch’s broom) if you don’t already have one.
  • Eat apples and pomegranates.  Apples are not only harvested around this time, but they are also the fruit of life.  Pomegranates are the fruit of the dead (and really tasty).
  • Feast!
  • At the table set an extra place for the ancestors or spirits.  Give them food too, of course.  It’s always polite to thank the ancestors or spirits for joining you, if you do this tradition.

Happy Samhain!

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2 responses to “Samhain: Holiday of the Dead

  1. Pingback: Happy Samhain | A Witchy Life

  2. Awesome post! I appreciate the complexity of it and the various ideas relating to samhain you explore!

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