The Samhain holiday is more commonly known to us as Halloween. It originated in the Celtic lands of Northern Europe many centuries before the birth of Christ. Along with its sister holiday Beltane, Samhain was a major seasonal event celebrated by the Celtic people. Beltane was celebrated on May 1st and was considered to be the start of the summer season. As a winter festival, Samhain marked the day when the herds were returned to shelter after spening the warmer months grazing in the pastures.
The winter climate came quickly to Northen Europe, beginning usually in early November and lasting for almost six months. To the Celts, the first day of winter was considered the beginning of the new year, therefore Samhain was actually the Celtic New Year.
According to the pagan lunar calender, festivals were celebrated on the "eve" rather than the day, thus making October 31st the beginning of the most sacred of all Celtic holidays. On this night, it was believed that the spirits of those who had passed on during the previous year were set free to once again roam the earth. Because these spirits understood the secrets of the afterlife, predictions were more powerful on Samhain and the omens were especially clear. Druid priests considered Samhain a perfect time for divination. The family hearth fires were extinguished and relit with embers taken from the sacred community bonfires made high upon hill tops. Samhain was a night of mystical glory, when the veil that separates the living and the dead was lifted and the world was filled with the forces of magic. The ancients saw the time between Samhain and Yule (the winter solstice) as non-existing on the earthly plane.
It was referred to as "Time Which Is No Time" and was considered to be a very magical but also very dangerous period. The Feast of the Dead was laid out to both welcome the souls returning to our world and hopefully gain their favor for the coming year. Families set out food and wine so the spirits of their ancestors could refresh themselves after their long journey from the netherworld. Sweets were also set out in the hopes of appeasing any wandering spirits that may be lurking near the homes of the townspeople. Because the weaker of the returning animals were slaughtered for the great feast, Samhain was known as the festival of meat.
It was for this same reason that the Full Moon in October was often referred to as the Blood Moon. Only the most fit of the returning herds survived. These were kept alive through the winter months and returned to their grazing lands at the Summer festival of Beltane.
In order to protect themselves from mischievous spirits, the Celts dressed up in frightening disguises in the hopes that these ghosts would mistake them for one of their own and pass by without incident. It was also common for costumed Celts to parade about making loud noises in order to drive the unwelcomed spirits to the edge of town.
As the Wheel of the Year points to Samhain, the Goddess is now in her Crone aspect, while the God gives up his life to the land and passes into the Underworld. There he will stay until he is reborn once again at Yule. With him the God gathers up all who have died over the past year so they can accompany him on his journey into the Shadowlands. As with the Festival of Beltane, bonfires played a great part in the the Samhain celebrations. The Samhain bonfires were prepared during the day and lit high upon hilltops later in the evening. The huge fires were thought to consume all the miseries of the past year thus making it possible for the people to make a fresh start in the upcoming year.
The fires were also used to secure a promise from Sol not to disappear all together during the cold months ahead. The Celts hoped that the warm flames would rise tall and reach the tired sun, fully rejuvinating him. Apples and nuts were roasted in the sacred embers as part of the holiday activities.
The bonfires were very useful in the practice of divination. Marked stones were thrown into the flames, but if in the morning a particular stone could not be found, it was predicted that the owner would soon die. Horses were sacred to the sun god, and many of them were thrown into the great fires as sacrifices to Baal.
Druid priests predicted the future by reading the entrails and movements of the dying beasts. There have been stories told of criminals being placed inside of wicker cages shaped like animals and burnt alive in the fires. These tales are often said to be based on the misconceptions of Julius Caesar and have been disputed down through the years.
Shortly before the birth of Christ, the Celtic lands were invaded and conquered by the Roman armies of Julius Caesar. This brought Roman traditions into the practice of Samhain, bringing us to the story of Pomona. The feast of the Roman goddess Pomona was celebrated on November 1st. She was the goddess of the orchards and the harvest, and her feasts consisted of apples, nuts, grapes and other concord fruits. To the Romans, the apple was the symbol of love and fertility. When this was combined with the aura of divination that surrounded the Celtic Samhain, the results were an enchanting mixture of magic and romance. One Samhain ritual is to take an apple before the Sabbat begins and cut it in half. Mentally fill the two sections all of your illnesses and bad habits, then put the fruit back together and bury it in the ground. As the apple rots so too will all your misgivings. Another practice is to bury apples in the earth to feed the souls of passed ancestors while they make their journey between the two worlds.
Below are a few more examples of Halloween traditions whose beginnings can be traced to this ancient apple lore.
One mystical aspect of the apple is that if you slice it in half transversely you will find the image of a five pointed star. A Halloween tradition known as "apple peeling" was a direct result of Roman apple lore. A woman would pare an apple, all the while being very careful to remove the casing in one long strip. She would then toss it over her left shoulder and the peel would land on the floor displaying the shape of the initial of the man she was destined to marry. It was said that to peel an apple at midnight on October 31st while gazing in a mirror would surely cause the face of your future husband to appear. Another way to see who would be the first to marry was to "bob for apples". Apples were floated in a basin filled with water. The first one to take a bite from the fruit using only their mouth would be the next to marry. It was also very popular to brew a strong concoction of apples, sugar and ale on October 31st, which was served as a traditional holiday drink.
One of the most famous Halloween traditions is carving a pumpkin into a Jack-O-Lantern. This custom originated in Scotland and Ireland, where large turnips or other fruits and vegetables were carved into lanterns and placed along the roadside to light the way to the harvest festivals. The term Jack-O-Lantern has been handed down to us from an old Irish legend. It seems that the town drunkard was an ill-tempered man by the name of Jack. One Halloween night, Jack had a little too much to drink in the local pub. When he was getting ready to leave for home, the Devil appeared and informed Jack that his life was coming to an end and that he had come to claim his soul. Not wanting to die, Jack asked the Devil if he would grant him the favor of having just one more drink. Feeling in a generous mood the Devil complied, but when Jack reached inside his pockets to pay the barman he found them to be empty.
Turning to the Devil he asked if he would be willing to change himself into a six pence just long enough to pay for his farewell cocktail. Once again the Devil agreed, but no sooner did he make the transformation that Jack scooped him up and placed him in a wallet marked with the shape of the cross.
The Devil demanded to be set free, but Jack would only agree if his prisoner promised to disappear and not return again before a year's time had passed. The Devil accepted the proposal and was released. Because he was very grateful for having escaped death, Jack decided to forget his wild ways and turn over a new leaf. He gave up drinking and carousing in the pubs and started to regularly attend church with his family. But unfortunately this change in personality did not last for long, and soon Jack was back to his old tricks. The year passed, and once again on Halloween night the Devil appeared to claim Jack's soul. Hoping to fool his nemesis once again, Jack beckoned the Devil to climb a near-by tree and pick for him the largest apple he could find. The Devil agreed, and when he reached the top of the branches, Jack quickly carved a cross in the truck, thus trapping the devil in it's boughs. Jack refused to release him until he promised to go away and never bother him again. Once again the Devil agreed and he was set free.
Jack's wild living finally caught up with him and it came time for him to die. Because of his drunken escapades on earth, he was refused entrance into heaven. Having nowhere else to go Jack turned to his old friend the Devil, but the rogue would have nothing to do with him, as he refused to forgive Jack for tricking him all those times in the past.
Instead, he gave Jack a lump of coal which he lit and placed inside a turnip that was carved into a lantern. With this as his only light, Jack was destined to spend eternity wandering about aimlessly, never being able to find a place to rest.
The church has done it's best to ruin the true meaning of the Festival of Samhain. For years they had attempted to fill the minds of the people with fear by surrounding this scared time with an untrue and unwarranted aura of evil. Because the masses were true to their beliefs and not easily swayed, the church was forced into coming up with another solution.
Instead of totally rejecting the so called "pagan ways", in 998 CE the church decided it would be easier to rewrite the ancient holidays from a Christian point of view. It was at this time November 2nd began to be known as All Souls Day.
According to church tradition this came about when a pilgrim returning from the Holy Land was shipwrecked on an island. There he met a hermit who claimed he had heard the cries of tormented souls coming from a flaming gorge. The pilgrim related this story to an abbot, who then declared November 2nd as a day to pray for these abandoned and tortured souls.
In the 7th century Pope Gregory III, in his attempt to convert Samhain into a Christian holiday established November 1st as the day to honor the saints of St. Peter's Church. It was at this time that the Pantheon of Rome, once a temple dedicated to the Roman gods as a whole was turned into a Christian place of worship dedicated to Mary and all those who had been martyred. Later this was changed by Pope Gregory IV to include all saints in the pantheon of the Roman Catholic Church, thus giving us All Saint's Day. The clergy urged Christians to remember the dead in prayer instead of sacrifices. In place of leaving wine and food to appease unruly spirits, the people were taught to bake little pastries called "soul cakes" to offer in exchange for blessings. These soul cakes were given to the poor and in appreciation the poor agreed to pray for the souls of their deceased family members. The village people were told to wear costumes to honor the saints, not to frighten away evil spirits.
Last but not least, the church convinced the townspeople that the bonfires they lit would be instramental in keeping the Devil away. During medievil times, All Saint's Day was known as All Hallows, hence the night before was All Hallows Eve or Halloween.
Medea's Lair Of Greek Mythology © 1999-2012.