October 13, 2021

What is Samhain? A Look at the History of Halloween

By Ronald Perez
What is Samhain? A Look at the History of Halloween
The leaves are changing, the temperature is falling and everyone is gearing up for autumn’s high holy day — Halloween. We put on our costumes, some silly, some scary; children ring doorbells in search of candy and we binge-watch scary movies; it’s a time-old tradition that happens every fall like clockwork! But haven’t you wondered where it all came from? Let's open the history book and trace the traditions from the source — the Gaelic festival of Samhain. Kill the lights, burn a candle, grab a warm drink and let’s get spooky.

A Gaelic festival

In ancient times, civilizations celebrated festivals in order to appease the gods of their respective pantheons, to mark the success of hunt and harvest, and to acknowledge and welcome the changing of the seasons. In the Celtic Pagan tradition, the celebration of Samhain marked the beginning of winter and the end of the harvest season — it meant the days would soon become darker. Samhain, pronounced SAH-winn, roughly translates to “summer’s end,” and has been celebrated as far back as the 10th Century!

According to the oral traditions of Irish mythology, Samhain was one of four seasonal celebrations observed by the ancient Gaels. They believed that during this time, “doorways” to the Otherworld, a realm in which they believed deities and the deceased inhabited, would be opened. While many different interpretations of the mythological events exist, it’s generally agreed upon that Aillén, a fire-breathing goblin and musician, would emerge on Samhain every year, lure the people to sleep with his beautiful harp playing, and proceed to burn down the palace on the Hill of Tara! But one year, the mighty warrior Fionn mac Cumhail was able to resist the sleepy melodies of Aillén, slay the goblin and become the leader of his people. Celebrations ensued and the tradition became a combination of revelry and divination.

The Aos sí are never far away

In practice, Samhain was essentially a festival for the dead — it celebrated those who have passed onto the Otherworld. Ritual bonfires burned long into the night, and people ate and drank together, observing peace unto one another; amnesty was often proclaimed and mandated by rulers. The Gaels believed that, due to the doors to the Otherworld being open, the Aos sí, or spirits and fairies, could easily cross into our world. As such, the ancient Irish took special care to not disrupt or offend the Aos sí, and if they were forced to be out in the evening, people would often wear their clothing inside out or carry iron and salt to ward away the spirits! Many people set places at their table for their dearly departed friends or family, as it was believed that the dead would come home seeking hospitality. It’s noteworthy that while content souls could return in search of comfort, discontent spirits could come back in search for vengeance!

Divination rituals were also commonplace — the ancient celebrators took great care to appease the spirits of the Otherworld. The common Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples is said to have found its origins in Samhain, as apples were often associated with immortality and the Otherworld, while hazelnuts were thought to be associated with divine wisdom. In coastal areas, men would wade waist deep into the ocean, where they would pour a mug of ale into the tide — it was a sacrifice to the god of the sea. Offerings were a common practice throughout Samhain; they were used to keep spirits happy and promote good fortune for the coming winter.

All Hallow’s Eve

While carving jack-o-lanterns and bulk-buying Reese Peanut Butter Cups at Walgreens feel pretty far removed from the ancient traditions of Samhain, we can clearly trace the customs back. Historians have noted a parallel between ancient Pagan tradition and Christian influence in terms of our current celebration of Halloween, which was originally known as All Hallow’s Eve. The Gaels, Celts and Scots all practiced mumming or guising as early as the 16th Century, which is why we wear costumes and masks now! Trick-or-treating, perhaps the most important — we now provide comfort (via sugar high, of course) to our local ghouls and goblins in the neighborhood.

Plenty of symbolism left over from the rituals and traditions of the Pagan celebration are still used today in our current manifestation of Halloween. Carving a face into a gourd — seems like a very specific, strange tradition, right? Jack-o-lanterns were historically carried by mummers in order to frighten and ward off evil spirits. In fact, ancient folklore views the jack-o-lantern as a representation of a soul who has been admitted to neither heaven nor hell! Tropes from Gothic and horror literature from authors such as Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe, as well as seasonal ephemera like cornhusks from the harvest, have now come to symbolize our contemporary vision of Halloween.

Stay spooky

So, now that we’ve determined that Samhain is not just a band fronted by Glenn Danzig, we can see the clear path of how the highlight of fall came to be! You can borrow rituals from the original Samhain tradition by lighting candles in place of bonfires, giving offerings to local charities via donation and setting intentions for the changing of the seasons — especially now that we’re in the Autumnal equinox, along with the full moon on October 20th. With Halloween quickly approaching, now’s the time to balance your energy — and remember, stay spooky.