The Samhain Sabbat: A HIstory
Pronounced “Sow-Win” or “Sah-Win” Samhain is Gaelic in origin. It translates to “Summer’s End”. Appropriately named, the Celtic Year is split into two parts: the light half and the dark half. Samhain signals the start of the dark half of the year. This Sabbat also signifies the midpoint between the Autumn Equinox (the Mabon Sabbat) and the Winter Solstice (the Yule Sabbat).
The predecessor to Halloween, Samhain has been around since the 9th century. At least, that is its earliest recorded mention in literature. The Celts believed that on November 1st the dead returned to the land of the living. In preparation for the deceased’s visit, they would begin the festival on October 31 and it would last for three days and three nights.
We glean from these early texts that participation in Samhain was mandatory. Residents in the community were required to present themselves to the local rulers. Refused participation was thought to end in punishment from deities, typically manifesting as illness or death.
ROOTS AS AN AGRICULTURAL FESTIVAL
Before we get too much into the spiritual side of Samhain, let’s take a look at its foundation – agriculture. At this time of year, the Celts of Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, northern France, and Brittany took stock of the cattle from summer pasture that weren’t likely to make it through the winter months. Great feasts consisting of the meat (and any other food that spoiled easily) were consumed as a way to mark the successful harvest.
One way Samhain was celebrated was brewing mead or beer. This tradition too is rooted in agriculture as celebrators would always make their batches following the harvesting of grains.
Occuring at the midpoint between Mabon and Yule, the ancient Celts regarded Samhain as the most important fire festival of the four fire Sabbats to take place during the year. Also known as the four “Greater Sabbats” the other Sabbats are Imbolc, Beltane, and of course, Lughnasadh.
It was tradition that the hearth fires in every home be deliberately put out, after which a needfire was lit by Druid priests. A Celtic needfire is built specifically to protect and bless those surrounding it. The priests would use a wheel to light the fire as it was customary that it be built without the aid of anything but friction.
Once the needfire was lit and going, the community members would add wet wood to create smoke. Livestock were blessed using the smoke and then slaughtered/sacrificed. After all of the livestock were processed, prayers were said over the dying fire.
When that was over, the citizenry would take a flame from the bonfire back to the unlit hearths of their homes to relight the fires. It was expected of all community members to tend to the hearth fires and never allow them to burn out for fear of bad luck and losing the blessings gained at Samhain.
Another aspect of ancient Samhain that is rarely if ever talked about is the military proponent. In Ireland, holiday thrones were decorated and prepared for the commanders of armies. It was taken so seriously that if anyone were to use their weapons or commit a crime during the festivities they would be sentenced to death.
THE SPIRITUAL SIDE OF SAMHAIN
As mentioned before, the translation of Samhain is “Summer’s End”. As such, it marks the time of separation between summer and winter and therefore the light and the dark. Because of this, Samhain is what’s known as a liminal festival – it celebrates the past while looking to the future while the year is dying away.
During this time of year the veil between spiritual and physical worlds is at its thinnest. So when the normal order of things is suspended, the strange and unusual is permitted. This is what makes Samhain so special. It opens doors and passages to the Otherworld where all sorts of entities and spirits reside. It also allows for interaction between the living and the dead.
Rituals and customs born from both welcoming deceased ancestors and protecting against malicious spirits are still practiced today. From carving scary faces into pumpkins to wearing costumes and trick-or-treating, all have their roots in this ancient Sabbat.
With Samhain being a liminal festival with the boundary between worlds easily crossed, members of the Celtic supernatural race could effortlessly make their way to our plane of existence. As such, traditions were born in order to appease the Fae, ghosts, spirits, aos sí, etc. who visited.
Numerous academics propose that the aos sí are fragments of nature spirits and Pagan deities. It became customary to leave offerings on village outskirts and in the fields for the spirits in exchange for protection from death through the long winter. This protection extended to all members of the family providing the offerings and their livestock, too.
Some other customs include:
- Some Celtic people would dress up as monsters in order to avoid being kidnapped by the Fae Folk.
- Anything remaining in the fields after harvest were not touched until after November 1st as it belonged to the shapeshifting Púca.
- People would dress up as a spirit to trick the real Otherworld visitors into thinking they were one of them so they would not try to take their soul.
- Visiting spirits could disguise themselves as humans – such as a beggar – and knock on the doors of the living. If the incognito aos sí were turned away empty handed, the residents risked being haunted or cursed.
- Dumb Suppers were events held by the living who invited their ancestors to join a great feast so that families could mingle with their dearly departed. A place was set for as many ancestors were invited and no one spoke during the meal.
- Children would play games with each other in order to entertain the dead.
- In seaside villages, locals would go down to the shore and watch as one man waded into the water up to his waist. He would then pour out a cup of ale into the sea and petition Seonaidh (the God of the Sea) for blessings on the entire village.
- It was customary to stay close to or at home during the night of Samhain in order to avoid offending the aos sí. If forced to travel in the dark, people would turn their clothes inside out or carried salt and/or iron to protect themselves.
FROM SAMHAIN TO HALLOWEEN
After years and years of the Samhain Sabbat being observed and celebrated by the Celts, Pope Gregory I gave it Christian context. Missionaries from Rome going to England were told to convert the standing customs of non-Christians to essentially make the transition from Paganism to Christianity simpler.
Within that frame of reference, ancient Celts’ association between Samhain and dark supernatural spirits was transitioned to early medieval Christians’ belief in saints. These religious saints were celebrated for their devout religious lives while also having a supernatural facet – the performance of miracles.
After mixing the Celtic spirits with the Catholic saints, November 1st was designated All Saints Day and November 2nd (the 3rd if the 2nd fell on a Sunday) All Souls Day. However, old beliefs related to Samhain didn’t die out completely. After all, it’s pretty hard to completely switch up traditions, customs, and steadfast beliefs held by such a large group of people for such a long time. Because of this, October 31st was marked as All Hallows Day Evening. This was to be the night before all saints were revered.
This is where we get the name Halloween. All Hallows Day Evening was never really that catchy anyhow. Halloween became a time when Christians could morph Samhain’s arcane symbolism and supernatural rituals into spooky, soul-safe antics.
What would a modern Halloween look like without a jack-o’-lantern? Simply put, incomplete. Going back thousands of years, the idea of utilizing a round vegetable to portray a human face is thought to have started in Celtic culture. How it originally evolved is debatable, but some believe it may have represented the severed heads of enemies.
Over time, its connection to Samhain was spurred on by people carving scary faces into root veggies like potatoes, beets, and turnips – all readily available after the harvest. These carvings were then placed near the front entrance of homes in order to frighten malicious spirits and keep them from attacking the occupants.
Placing fire to represent the Sun in a carved vegetable that represents the harvest was done with aspirations for the harvested stores to be preserved through the dark half of the year. Without preservation of food, starvation was a very real threat to all.
THE LEGEND OF STINGY JACK
Originating in 18th-century Ireland is the Legend of Stingy Jack. He was said to be a blacksmith boozehound who loved trickery and mischief. His reputation was so vile it grew to reach the ears of Satan. Intrigued, he made moves to meet Stingy Jack. As with many myths there are lots of interpretations, however one mainstay is that Jack managed to deceive the Devil not once, but twice.
Satan sent one of his devils to act like a dead man on Stingy Jack’s path. After seeing the fake dead man, Stingy Jack came to the conclusion that his time on earth was nearing the end. He pleaded for a last request which was granted by Satan. All he wanted was one final drink before leaving the land of the living and then took Satan to the nearest pub.
THE SILVER COIN
As one drink turned into two, three, four and more, they drank the pub out. The time came to pay their tab and lo and behold, Jack had no money. He slyly flattered Satan, saying he had supernatural powers and could turn himself into a silver coin to pay the bill – and so he did. Jack double-crossed him and put Satan in his pocket instead of settling the tab. He fought to be released but there was a crucifix in Stingy Jack’s pocket as well that trapped him there.
Jack made a deal with Satan – he would release him from his pocket if he agreed to leave Jack alone for 10 years. Satan agreed.
THE APPLE TREE
10 years passed. Satan found Stingy Jack and was ready to take him to hell. However, Jack had one more request before being shuffled off the mortal coil: he asked for an apple. He used the excuse of needing sustenance to quell his hunger for the journey. There was an apple tree in proximity to where the two stood. As Satan climbed the tree to pick him an apple, four crucifixes were carved into the bark by Jack. The Devil was once again trapped.
Stingy Jack struck another bargain with Satan. To gain his freedom from the apple tree, Satan would never collect Jack’s soul. The deal was made and Stingy Jack lived out his days relishing in the safety of the trade.
STINGY JACK ROAMS THE EARTH FOR ALL TIME
All things must come to an end. As such, Stingy Jack’s alcoholism finally got the best of him. He made his way up to the Pearly Gates but upon arrival, was turned away by St. Peter. Heaven would not take the drunk degenerate. So he made his way down to Hell, where Satan making good on the deal he made with Jack, refused his entry as well.
Satan did grant Jack one last request: an ember from Hell to light his way as he roamed the world in the dark. A single piece of hot coal was given to Jack who then needed a way to carry his new gift. He found a turnip which he hollowed out to place the coal in. As legend has it, Stingy Jack’s ghost could be spotted roaming pointlessly about Ireland’s countryside.
In order to avoid Stingy Jack visiting when the veil was thinnest, each home would carve their own frightening faces into root vegetables and place them on their porch with a burning ember that resembled Jack’s own lantern.
19TH CENTURY HALLOWEEN
With a lot of customs naturally lost over time, the 19th century found Irish immigrants bringing their own traditions to the United States. With inevitable interactions between cultures, new practices began to form. Some examples of this:
- Pumpkins soon replaced Stingy Jack’s turnip as they were an indigenous food crop that grew readily in America.
- The act of mumming where mummers would dress in costume and travel door-to-door, singing songs for the deceased in exchange for Samhain cakes mimics modern day trick-or-treating.
- Where pranks were pulled and blamed on the Fae in Ireland, tricks were played and blamed on the youth in America.
The history of Samhain is deep and layered, as many Sabbats are. I hope you’ve enjoyed this post on this hallowed tradition! Bright Blessings and Merry Samhain!