Saturday, September 8, 2007

Samhain: History & Lore

DATE: October 31, November 2, November 4 or when the Sun is at 15 degrees Scorpio

PLANET: Moon*, Mars

DEITIES: Crone Goddesses, Dying/Aging Gods, Sacrificial Gods, Death & Otherworld Deities, All Gods & Goddesses of Fate, Death & the Underworld, Guides & Psychopomps, Judges, Hunters


COLOR: Black, Orange , Violet*, Silver*

SYMBOLS: Cauldron, Jack o'Lantern, Mask, Balefire, Besom (broom)

ENERGY CENTER*: Brow Center: center of the head, behind the bridge of the nose - 3rd Eye


*PRIMARY FOCUS: Transformation, regeneration, honoring / communicating with the dead, divination, honoring / celebrating the harvest, preparing for Winter.

Alternate Festival Names & Translations

English : Halloween, Hallowmas
Irish Gaelic : Samhain (sow-ihn)
Oiche Shamna {Samhain Eve} (ee-huh how-nuh)

Scottish Gaelic : Samhuinn Oidhche Shamhna {Samhuinn Eve}
(sah-vin uh-ee-hyuh how-nuh)
Manx : Sauin Oie Houney {Sauin Eve} (sow-in oh-ee how-nee)
Welsh : Nox Calan Gaeaf {First Day of Winter} (noss cal-ahn gie-ahv)
Cornish : Nox Kalann-Gwav (noss cal-ahn gwahv)
Breton : Noz Kala-Goanv (noz cal-a-gwah)


In ancient times the Celts tended their herds on the hillsides and celebrated or recognized only 2 seasons - Winter & Summer. Summer was recognized as the time of toil - tending to the crops and sheep. At the end of Summer came the harvest festivals Lughnasadh, Mabon & Samhain. By the time Samhain came around the weather was starting to get much colder. Therefore there were many ways the ancient Celts were believed to have celebrated this time of transition.

The 3rd Harvest

As the crops have been completely reaped by this time, the Celts turned their attention to the livestock. So, while the first two harvest festivals focused on crops this festival focuses on the animals. There were 3 reasons for this:

1) Slaughtering Livestock. This was the accumulation of bringing the cattle down from higher pastures. Any livestock that didn't look fat enough to survive the harshness of winter would be slaughtered. So, the weaker would be sacrifices - which would feed the family throughout the winter. And with less mouths to feed, the healthier cattle had a better Chance of surviving through winter as well. Keep in mind, these were harsh times. Many people died each winter of disease or exposure. So, much of the Sabbats were focused on achieving blessings to maintain a healthy life. Therefore, the Sabbat blesses the meat and the sacrifice of the weaker animals that the stronger animals and the families could survive.

2) Purifying the living livestock. This is part of the reason for the Sabbat Fires on Samhain. The livestock that was not to be slaughtered would be lead between two huge fires. This would bless the beasts and purify them of disease. This will bolster their health and give the Gods blessings on the animals lasting through the winter. Also for the poorer farmers, it was not uncommon to have the livestock live in the home with the farmers family. In which case the Samhain fires were doubly needed to keep the family from becoming ill. {On Beltaine, the animals are again led through the fires - this time sloughing off the effects of winter}

3) The Wild Hunt. The Tenth//Eleventh moon of the year was often referred to by Native Americans (East Coast) as the Hunting Moon. Appalachian Folklore & American Wiccan and Eclectic Wiccans refer to it as the Blood Moon - based on the amount of blood spilled during the hunting season. Aside from killing off weaker livestock, this is also the traditional time common for tribes, the world round, to send out their hunting forces to stock up on food for the winter. Wild animals such as Elk & Deer are fat and fully grown, so it was the perfect time to bring home food for winter.

Thinning of the Veil

Most present day Pagans, as well as the ancients, believe the Otherworld (Spiritual Realm, Astral Planes, etc) is just beyond our perception of the world in which we live. There isn't really a wall there. (I have never found a belief system that believed that...except for the Christians Pearly Gates was the closest I've ever found) Instead of a read barrier, most humans are distracted easily. Our vision of the mundane world would be disrupted by our vision of Otherworld, so our minds tend to shy away from it - and many never consciously realize it even exists. But, our understanding of the cycle of Life and Death is very much in-your face on Samhain and Beltaine.

The hunt and harvest "death" is an in-your-face reminder of the cycle of life, it should be no surprise that the veil between the realms is celebrated as being at its weakest from October 31 - Nov 2. It could be argued that the veil is thin due to the amount of animal souls trying to cross over on a single night. But, if you take a step back from the literal, and look at the world around us as the ancient Celts must have - you'll realize it is much more difficult to differentiate between Blooming Life and Death. The leaves are 'dying', branches look more brittle and aged, migratory animals have left already - changing the landscape as well as sounds of the wilderness. Even the strength and "Life" of the Sun seems to be dying, as the sun is at its lowest and doesn't give off much warmth.

This recognition of the cycle of life is enough for the conscious mind to disregard the slight-of-hand that normally blocks the Otherworld from our mortal eyes. Therefore, it is common for present day and ancient pagans to honor their dead loved ones. As this was the closest they would get to communicating with those that had gone on before.

Ironically this is also where wearing costumes, or masks with clothing inside out first originated. As the veil is thin enough for you to communicate with ancestors, so too it must be thin for evil spirits. The ancient Celts didn't define "good and evil" but once Christianity set in, and the thinning of the veil was acknowledged by those who now believed in such beings as the devil - they became terrified of having their soul carried away by evil forces against their will. So, ironically like many of our other Sabbats, one of our most precious holidays has been transformed into fear (and commercialism) by the old misnomer of Good vs Evil.

Why was it considered the Celtic New Year?

If you think of our modern New Years celebrations, one of the most universal activities is to make New Years Resolutions. These are, presumably, based off of looking into our selves for things we would like to change. The dark half of the year (Winter) is a time for hibernation. What else is there to do but to reflect upon your life and determine things you want to improve or change. The ancients were overwhelmed with work throughout summer, so Winter was the time for introspection.

Furthermore death is but another step, a doorway leading to transformation. Winter is the greatest representation of this in the whole Wheel of the Year. That while the landscape is 'dead' the wheel will continue to turn and Spring will come bringing new 'life'. You can't get the new life of Spring without having the death of winter. You see, time is circular rather than linear - darkness is the end of the light, but it also comes before the light...the Celts love a good circular argument. Therefore, the ancients considered this the Start of the new Wheel of the Year. Now that death has occurred - all things are possible.


This is a great time for sitting around the Sabbat Fire and telling old Myth & Legends.

Obviously with the thinning if the Veil tales of mortals stumbling out of the Fae's clutches after hundreds of years are popular. As well as Ghost stories, as the spirits travel more freely on this eve.

Some wonderfully magickal stories for Samhain:

* Descent of the Goddess
* Rhiannon & Pwyll (Rhiannon was queen of the Underworld had birds whose songs restored the dead)

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