Halloween has its roots in the early Celtic festival Samhain (pronounced Saw-win). Samhain was one of the four seasonal festivals of the Gaelic people of Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. Samhain marked the beginning of winter, Imbolc the beginning of Spring, Bealtaine the beginning of summer, and Lughnasadh the beginning of Fall.
For ancient people, Samhain was a liminal time. The doorways to the Otherworld of spirits, fairies, and gods opened. Dead ancestors were celebrated. Monsters like werewolves and giants emerged from caves to take food, drink, and even human sacrifices. In Ireland, there are many tales set at Samhain where heroes would fight fairy hordes, thwart demons, and drink with ghosts.
In Irish, the spirits and faeries were call aos sí – people of the mounds. The aos sí were also ancestors, gods, and nature spirits. The aos sí lived in sacred areas, like mounds, special trees, lakes, and woods. These spirits were powerful and not entirely benevolent, so people were careful not to insult them, calling them “The Good Neighbors” or “The Fair Folk”, leaving them milk and baked goods, and, when possible, avoiding their sacred places.
Samhain, observed from the sunset of Oct 31 to the sunset of Nov 1, marks the end of Summer and beginning of Winter on the Celtic calendar. It is about halfway between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice. On Samhain, it was custom for all the fires in the village to be extinguished and then relit from a single sacred bonfire. The act of lighting the sacred bonfire cast a spell that would protect the people and their cattle from the worst effects of Winter. The smoke and the ashes were also considered protective and used in other rituals. Some folks would lie down as near to the fire as they could and let the sacred smoke wash over them. A cleansing ritual involved walking themselves and their cattle through the smoke between two bonfires. Folks would light torches from the sacred bonfire and use it to rekindle their hearth fires at home. In Scotland, people would carry the torch around their home sunwise (clockwise) for protection and blessings before bringing it in to light their hearth fire.
During the weeklong festival of Samhain, there would be great gatherings of tribes for storytelling, feasting and games. Many customs we associate with Halloween, like dressing up in costumes and going door to door for treats, may have originated in Samhain. In Ireland and Scotland, folks would go guising (dressed in disguises, maybe imitating the aos sí), collect food for the festival, and threaten to pull pranks on those who didn’t donate.
The festival of Samhain was one of the early Gaelic people’s most important festivals. It was recorded in some of the earliest Irish literature. Several Neolithic passage tombs are aligned with the Samhain sunrise, like the Hill of Tara, which holds stones decorated with swirls and circles, pottery, beads, bone bins, and the burial urns of hundreds of Bronze Age people. The Hill of Tara is also, according to lore, where the High Kings of Ireland were crowned after ritually marrying the goddess of the land, who conferred sovereignty on them.
Samhain was a festival for the dead, and for connection to the Otherworld. Folks felt more attuned to the presence of spirits, faeries, gods, and ghosts. There is a tension in Samhain between facing the things that scare us and avoiding them. Ancient peoples would make an offering to the gods or the people of the mound to appease them and gain their favor, or, at least, avoid their wrath. These offerings were both a way to face the powerful unknown and a plea to have the worst of the possible outcomes pass over them. But they were also gifts wholeheartedly given to the spirits and forces that imbue the world with magic. The unknown can be frightening, like the coming of Winter to ancient peoples, but can it also be magical? How can we connect to the magic in the unknown and let it empower us?
What can we do in the face of monsters, ghosts, and forces that are more powerful than us? We can show up as heroes in our own lives. That heroism doesn’t have to wear a cape or fight the bad guys with physical force. The hero in tales is often clever and kind-hearted, and they make their way through the darkness by being true to themselves.