History of Samhain

What is Samhain?:
Samhain is known by most folks as Halloween, but for Wiccans and Pagans it's considered a Sabbat to honor the ancestors who came before us. It's a good time to contact the spirit world with a seance, because it's the time when the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest.
Myths and Misconceptions:
Contrary to a popular Internet-based (and Chick Tract-encouraged) rumor, Samhain was not the name of some ancient Celtic god of death, or of anything else, for that matter. Religious scholars agree that the word Samhain (pronounced "sow-en") comes from the Gaelic “Samhuin,” but they’re divided on whether it means the end or beginning of summer. After all, when summer is ending here on earth, it’s just beginning in the Underworld. Samhain actually refers to the daylight portion of the holiday, on November 1st.
All Hallow Mass:

Around the eighth century or so, the Catholic Church decided to use November 1st as All Saints Day. This was actually a pretty smart move on their part – the local pagans were already celebrating that day anyway, so it made sense to use it as a church holiday. All Saints’ became the festival to honor any saint who didn’t already have a day of his or her own. The mass which was said on All Saints’ was called Allhallowmas – the mass of all those who are hallowed. The night before naturally became known as All Hallows Eve, and eventually morphed into what we call Halloween.
The Witch's New Year:

Sunset on Samhain is the beginning of the Celtic New Year. The old year has passed, the harvest has been gathered, cattle and sheep have been brought in from the fields, and the leaves have fallen from the trees. The earth slowly begins to die around us.

This is a good time for us to look at wrapping up the old and preparing for the new in our lives. Think about the things you did in the last twelve months. Have you left anything unresolved? If so, now is the time to wrap things up. Once you’ve gotten all that unfinished stuff cleared away, and out of your life, then you can begin looking towards the next year.

Honoring the Ancestors:

For some of us, Samhain is when we honor our ancestors who came before us. If you’ve ever done genealogy research, or if you’ve had a loved one die in the past year, this is the perfect night to celebrate their memory. If we’re fortunate, they will return to communicate with us from beyond the veil, and offer advice, protection and guidance for the upcoming year.

If you want to celebrate Samhain in the Celtic tradition, spread the festivities out over three consecutive days. You can hold a ritual and feast each night. Be flexible, though, so you can work around trick-or-treating schedules!


Samhain's History
Samhain (pronounced Sow-en), dates back to the ancient Celts who lived 2,000 years ago. Contrary to what some believe, is not a celebration of a Celtic god of the dead. Instead, it is a Celtic word meaning "summer's end." The Celts believed that summer came to an end on October 31st and the New Year began on November 1st with the start of winter. But the Celts also followed a lunar calendar and their celebrations began at sunset the night before.
Many today see Halloween as the pagan holiday. But that's not really accurate. As the pagan holiday of Samhain is on November 1st. But their celebrations did and still do, start at sunset on October 31st, on Samhain Eve. During the day on October 31st, the fires within the home are extinguished. Often families would engage in a good "fall" cleaning to clear out the old and make way for the new. Starting the winter months with fresh and clean household items.
At sunset on October 31, clans or local villages begin the formal ceremonies of Samhain by lighting a giant bonfire. The people would gather around the fire to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. It was a method of giving the Gods and Goddesses their share of the previous years herd or crops. In addition these sacred fires were a big part of the cleansing of the old year and a method to prepare for the coming new year.
During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, and danced around the bonfire. Many of these dances told stories or played out the cycles of life and death or commemorated the cycle of Wheel of Life. These costumes were adorned for three primary reasons.
The first was to honor the dead who were allowed to rise from the Otherworld. The Celts believed that souls were set free from the land of the dead during the eve of Samhain. Those that had been trapped in the bodies of animals were released by the Lord of the Dead and sent to their new incarnations. The wearing of these costumes signified the release of these souls into the physical world.
Not all of these souls were honored and respected. Some were also feared as they would return to the physical world and destroy crops, hide livestock or 'haunt' the living who may have done them wrong. The second reason for these traditional costumes was to hide from these malevolent spirits to escape their trickery.
The final representation was a method to honor the Celtic Gods and Goddesses of the harvest, fields and flocks. Giving thanks and homage to those deities who assisted the village or clan through the trials and tribulations of the previous year. And to ask for their favor during the coming year and the harsh winter months that were approaching.
In addition to celebrations and dance, it was believed that this thin veil between the physical world and the Otherworld provided extra energy for communications between the living and the dead. With these communications, Druid Priests, and Celtic Shamans would attempted to tell the fortunes of individual people through a variety of methods. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.
These psychic readings would be conducted with a variety of divination tools. Such as throwing bones, or casting the Celtic Ogham. There is some historical evidence that additional tools of divination were also used. Most of this comes from writings recorded by Roman invaders, but there are stories of reading tea leaves, rocks and twigs, and even simple spiritual communications that today we'd call Channeling. Some historians have suggested that these early people were the first to use tiles made from wood and painted with various images which were the precursor to Tarot Cards. There's no real evidence to support this, but the 'story' of these tiles has lingered for centuries.
When the community celebration was over, each family would take a torch or burning ember from the sacred bonfire and return to their own home. The home fires that has been extinguished during the day were re-lit by the flame of the sacred bonfire to help protect the dwelling and it's inhabitants during the coming winter. These fires were kept burning night and day during the next several months. It was believed that if a home lost it's fire, tragedy and troubles would soon follow.
With the hearth fires lit, the families would place food and drink outside their doors. This was done to appease the roaming spirits who might play tricks on the family.
The Romans began to conquer the Celtic territories. By A.D. 43 they had succeeded in claiming the majority of the Celtic lands. They ruled for approximately four hundred years combining or influencing many Celtic traditional celebrations with their own. Two Roman holidays were merged with Samhain.
  1. Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead.
  2. Pomona's Day of Honoring, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of "bobbing" for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.
Samhain to Halloween
With the coming of Christianity in the 800s AD, the early Church in England tried to Christianize the old Celtic festivals. Pope Boniface IV designated the 1st of November as "All Saints Day," honoring saints and martyrs. He also decreed October 31 as "All Hallows Eve", that eventually became Hallow'een.
Scholars today widely accept that the Pope was attempting to replace the earlier Celtic pagan festival with a church-sanctioned holiday. As this Christian holiday spread, the name evolved as well. Also called All-hallows Eve or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints' Day). 200 years later, in 1000 AD, the church made November 2 All Souls' Day, a day to honor the dead. It is celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints', All Saints', and All Souls' day, are called Hallowmas.
November 1st or May 13th?
Some people confuse Samhain being originally celebrated in May with other pagan and early Christian holidays.
Samhain comes from the Gaelic word samain. "Sam" - summer and "fuin" - end. It literally means Summer's End. The early Irish and Brythonic cultures believed the year was divided in half. The dark half and the light half. Samhain marked the end of the light half and the beginning of the Celtic new year or the dark half.
According to Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia (1979 Vol 12 p 152), The Druids originated the holiday. It was a celebration of Saman Lord of the Dead who was the God of Evil Spirits. There is some debate about this origination as the Druids were not the only, or the first spiritual pagans of Ireland.
Some of the earliest archaeological evidence of the Celts come from their trade routes with the Greeks. Their culture can be followed with great precision from the 5th Century BC through the La Tène culture. From these early records with the Greeks we know of some of their great festivals and in particular one of their biggest Samhain the new years festival. Certainly we can gain information from Julius Caesar who wrote extensively about the Gauls during his invasion campaigns in Ireland during 4th Century BC. Eventually Rome is sacked by the Celts in 3rd Century BC, around 390BC. The Romans in general wrote of their warlike inhabitants and many of their barbaric celebrations. Which included Samhain.
In most if not all of these accounts, Samhain is immersed in blood and sacrifice. Often in the earliest of times, those sacrifices were human. One Greek account states these early Celts sacrificed prisoners captured during a battle during their New Years festival of Samhain. In The History and Origins of Druidism by Lewis Spencer writes about the Druids stating they burned their victims in holy fire which had to be consecrated by a Druid priest.
The confusion of May to November 1st probably comes from the Christians and pagan Roman festivals. The Roman Empire was a pagan culture. During their reign they held many pagan festivals and celebrations, one being the Feast of the Lemures on May 13th. During this time malevolent and restless spirits of the dead were appeased and festival participants would attempt to gain the favor of the spirits. The feast covered a three day period that honored "all the dead" with food, drink and sacrifice.
At the same time Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs. This was celebrated in the west from May 13, 609 to 610. Pope Gregory III (731–741) during an oratory in St. Peter's for the relics "of the holy apostles and of all saints, martyrs and confessors, of all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world", moved All Saints Day to November 1.
This is further confused by the early Irish churches who did not celebrate All Hallows Day in November or May, but rather in early spring on April 20th during the Felire of Oengus and the Martyrology of Talaght. A festival of All Saints was already widely celebrated in the days of Charlemagne in November. But it took a decree at the insistence of Pope Gregory IV to all the bishops, that the celebration be confirmed on November 1st.
These early similar celebrations come together around 835AD. The Roman pagan festival is over taken by the early Church, the Irish Church conforms it's celebrations with Rome, and everyone seems to move their day of the dead to coincide with early Irish pagans and their celebration of Samhain on November 1st.
There's no doubt, however, that the Irish festival of Samhain has always been at the end of summer on November 1st, and has been one of the prominent harvest festivals for Celtic pagans from the past and the present.


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