Celebration of Samhain

Samhain was co-opted by the early Christian Church as Halloween, or “All Hallows Eve.” Its pre-Christian origins as the Celtic Festival of the Dead are reflected in the celebration of All Souls Day on November 1. This very popular holiday started out as a way to honor the Ancestors; especially those who had died in the previous year. One legend has it that on this night all the souls of those who had died throughout the year walked the Earth for one last time, looking for friends and relatives to take with them to the Otherworld. This is the origin of Jack-o-Lanterns, which were originally carved from turnips and placed on doorsteps to frighten away evil spirits.

The practice of wearing costumes on this night began in Scotland and Ireland as “guising.” Some say that the practice of guising was done so that Ancestors and evil spirits looking for souls wouldn’t recognize friends and relatives, and so would not kidnap them and take them to the Underworld. Ancestors looking for relatives to take to the beyond with them weren’t necessarily acting out of evil motives. Some say they were just looking for companionship for the long and lonely journey.

Since much of the celebration of Samhain was assimilated by Christian celebrations, many of the traditions associated with Halloween are still honored by Druids and other Pagans at this High Day. For example, the tradition that later became trick-or-treating began in the British Isles when children would sing a prayer for the dead door-to-door in exchange for cakes.

Samhain is a time of ashes and fallen leaves. Most of the trees are bare, and the rest will be bare soon. As the Earth prepares to sleep for the winter, we enter into a contemplative period of hibernation. It is the time to honor the Goddess in her Crone aspect, especially in her role as the Reaper of Souls. The Crone is the Dark Goddess who devours the God so that she may take him into herself and give birth to him yet again at the Winter Solstice. The womb of the Goddess is also the Underworld where the dead are buried. It is in this tomb that Cernunnos, the Horned God and the physical embodiment of Nature, sleeps until being reborn with the coming spring.

Samhain is also a time for honoring our Ancestors. Ancestor Vigils are common at this holiday, as are altars to loved ones who have crossed the Rainbow Bridge into Tir Na N’Og, the Land of the Young sometimes referred to as the Otherworld. The veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is thinnest at this time of year, so it is at this time that we are best able to peer beyond the veil and call upon the wisdom of our ancient Ancestors.

Spiritual Significance of Samhain

As the Dark Goddess devours the God and takes him into herself at this time of the year, we begin to turn our energies inward and enter a period of quiet contemplation and meditation in preparation for giving birth to new ideas and inspirations later in the year. It is a time of endings and letting go of less productive ways of being and doing in preparation for beginning anew. Do the work of letting go of the past and of doing things that lead to consequences you don’t want.

Samhain is a good time of year for doing magic involving releasing past mistakes and unproductive relationships. It is also a good time to do magic concerning protection and security. It is a time for banishing, binding, and releasing. Since the veil between the worlds is thinnest in this season, many also choose to do their séances at this High Day.

A popular releasing ritual at this time of year involves writing a bad habit or weakness on a piece of parchment or other paper, and tossing it into the Samhain fire. As the ashes from the parchment rise into the sky and the ashes fall to the Earth, we banish it from our lives. This is also a good time of year to do past-life regressions and spirit contact for those who are so inclined.

Symbols of Samhain

  Samhain represents the third and final harvest of the year. As such, it symbolizes endings, and therefore new beginnings as well. Some symbols that represent endings and the final harvest would include apples, cauldrons (representing Cerridwen’s sacred cauldron of life, death and rebirth), jack-o-lanterns, black cats, skeletons and skulls, masks, and representations of the waning Moon.

Gods and Goddesses of Samhain

The Mórrígan, Phantom Queen of the Welsh Celts, is the Reaper of the Druids. In Scotland she is known as the Cailleach. It was said that if you saw the Mórrígan washing your clothes in a river on the way to battle, it meant that you were doomed to die. The Mórrígan is a psychopomp, meaning that she carries the souls of the dead to the Summerlands to be reborn.

Cerridwen, as the Crone Goddess, represents the powers of death and rebirth at this time of year, as does the Lady of the Silver Wheel, Arianrhod.

As this is the last night he will walk the Earth until rebirth, Cernunnos is also associated with this High Day, as is the Holly King, who will surrender the throne to the Oak King at the Winter Solstice.

Colors of Samhain

At this time of the year in the northern hemisphere, the leaves are exploding with colors. Colors reminiscent of this transition from an active to a dormant state would include browns, reds, deep golds, and oranges. Black, symbolizing the dark Underworld and death, would also be appropriate.

Traditions of Samhain

 A common Druid tradition at this time of year is the Ancestor Vigil. Sometimes an Ancestor Vigil is held from sunset until midnight of Samhain, and sometimes it is held from midnight of Samhain until the following dawn. The timing is a matter of personal preference. Usually an Ancestor Vigil is held by lighting candles for the Ancestors and keeping a candlelit vigil. You may set up altars to your Ancestors and decorate them with memorabilia such as photographs, personal items, or other mementoes that remind you of your Ancestors who have gone before. The Vigil is held by singing songs and chants around the fire while telling stories and remembrances of the Ancestors. Some watch for signs or listen for messages that the Ancestors have heard and responded.

As Cernunnos is the Lord of the Wild Hunt, this rite is sometimes enacted at Samhain. The Wild Hunt is a form of ritual battle against the forces of death and destruction represented by the waning Sun as we enter the dark half of the year. This is often celebrated with elaborate costumes and masks, and mock battles with padded swords. The ritual is a way to help the souls of the dead cross over the Rainbow Bridge into the Summerlands. A group chanting or singing is often held after the Wild Hunt in an effort to sing the souls home. The Wild Hunt is also a time for shamanic journeying and keeping the forces of chaos at bay through magic and ritual workings. The Wild Hunt is often enacted two times a year. One is at Beltane and the other at Samhain. While the Beltane Wild Hunt is about playful sexual union, birth, and fertility, the Samhain Wild Hunt is a more somber occasion about death and dying.

Another ancient and modern practice is leaving a plate of food on the doorstep for the Ancestors. Leaving a candle in the window or apples on the ground is said to guide them on their way. When having feasts at this time of year, one tradition is to leave out a plate at the table for a departed Ancestor, especially if she has died during the previous year. At such a feast, those at the table take turns offering reminiscences of the departed.

Traditional foods for Samhain feasts include anything from the late harvest. This could include apples, beets, gingerbread, mulled wines and ciders, dried herbs, pumpkins, squash, and turnips. Meats traditionally hunted at this time of year are also excellent Samhain fare. In the British Isles this was the time for hunting boar and slaughtering pigs, so pork is particularly appropriate.

Winter SolsticeAlban ArthanYuleRebirth
February 1ImbolcImbolcQuickening
Vernal EquinoxAlban EilerOstaraYouth
May 1BeltaneBeltaneYoung Adulthood
Summer SolsticeAlban HeruinLitha or MidsummerAdulthood
August 1LughnasadhLughnasadh or LammasMaturity
Autumnal EquinoxAlban ElvedMabonOld Age
November 1SamhainSamhainCroning