In recent years, there have been a number of
pamphlets put out by various Christian organizations dealing with the origins of modern
day Halloween customs. Being a Witch myself, and a student of the ancient Celts, from whom
we get this holiday, I have found these pamphlets woefully inaccurate and poorly
researched. In an effort to correct some of this erroneous information, I have spent
several months researching the religious life of the ancient Celtic peoples and the
survivals of that religious life in modern day times. Listed below are some of the most
commonly asked questions concerning the origins and customs of Halloween. Following the
questions is a lengthy bibliography where the curious reader can go to learn more about
this holiday than space in this small pamphlet permits.
1. Where does Halloween come from?
Our modern celebration of Halloween is a
descendent of the ancient Celtic fire festival called "Samhain". The word is
pronounced "sow-ain", with "sow" rhyming with cow.
2. What does "Samhain" mean?
The Irish English dictionary published by the
Irish Texts Society defines the word as follows: "Samhain, All Hallowtide, the feast
of the dead in Pagan and Christian times, signalizing the close of harvest and the
initiation of the winter season, lasting till May, during which troops (esp. the Fiann)
were quartered. Faeries were imagined as particularly active at this season. From it the
half year is reckoned. also called Feile Moingfinne (Snow Goddess).(1) The Scottish Gaelis
Dictionary defines it as "Hallowtide. The Feast of All Soula. Sam + Fuin = end of
summer."(2) Contrary to the information published by many organizations, there is no
archaeological or literary evidence to indicate that Samhain was a deity. The Celtic Gods
of the dead were Gwynn ap Nudd for the British, and Arawn for the Welsh. The Irish did not
have a "lord of death" as such.
3. Why was the end of summer of significance
to the Celts?
The Celts were a pastoral people as opposed
to an agricultural people. The end of summer was significant to them because it meant the
time of year when the structure of their lives changed radically. The cattle were brought
down from the summer pastures in the hills and the people were gathered into the houses
for the long winter nights of story- telling and handicrafts.
4. What does it have to do with a festival of
The Celts believed that when people died,
they went to a land of eternal youth and happiness called Tir nan Og. They did not have
the concept of heaven and hell that the Christian church later brought into the land. The
dead were sometimes believed to be dwelling with the Fairy Folk, who lived in the numerous
mounds or sidhe (pron. "shee") that dotted the Irish and Scottish countryside.
Samhain was the new year to the Celts. In the Celtic belief system, turning points, such
as the time between one day and the next, the meeting of sea and shore, or the turning of
one year into the next were seen as magickal times. The turning of the year was the most
potent of these times. This was the time when the "veil between the worlds" was
at its thinnest, and the living could communicate with their beloved dead in Tir nan Og.
5. What about the aspects of "evil"
that we associate with the night today?
The Celts did not have demons and devils in
their belief system. The fairies, however, were often considered hostile and dangerous to
humans because they were seen as being resentful of men taking over their lands. On this
night, they would sometimes trick humans into becoming lost in the fairy mounds, where
they would be trapped forever. After the coming of the Christians to the Celtic lands,
certain of the folk saw the fairies as those angels who had sided neither with God or with
Lucifer in their dispute, and thus, were condemned to walk the earth until judgment
day.(3) In addition to the fairies, many humans were abroad on this night, causing
mischief. since this night belonged neither to one year or the other, Celtic folk believed
that chaos reigned and the people would engage in "horseplay and practical
jokes".(4) This served also as a final outlet for high spirits before the gloom of
winter set in.
6. What about "trick or treat"?
During the course of these hijinks, many of
the people would imitate the fairies and go from house to house begging for treats.
Failure to supply the treats would usually result in practical jokes being visited on the
owner of the house. Since the fairies were abroad on this night, an offering of food or
milk was frequently left for them on the steps of the house, so the homeowner could gain
the blessings of the "good folk" for the coming year. Many of the households
would also leave out a "dumb supper" for the spirits of the departed.(5) The
folks who were abroad in the night imitating the fairies would some- times carry turnips
carved to represent faces. This is the origin of our modern Jack-o-lantern.
7. Was this also a religious festival?
Yes. Celtic religion was very closely tied to
the Earth. Their great legends are concerned with momentous happenings which took place
around the time of Samhain. many of the great battles and legends of kings and heroes
center on this night. Many of the legends concern the promotion of fertility of the earth
and the insurance of the continuance of the lives of the people through the dark winter
8. How was the religious festival observed?
Unfortunately, we know very little about
that. W.G. Wood-Martin, in his book, "Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland"
states, "There is comparatively little trace of the religion of the Druids now
discoverable, save in the folklore of the peasantry, and the references relative to it
that occur in ancient and authentic Irish manuscripts are, as far as present appearances
go, meager and insufficient to support anything like a sound theory for full development
of the ancient religion."(6) The Druids were the priests of the Celtic peoples. They
passed on their teachings by oral tradition instead of committing them to writing, so when
they perished, most of their religious teachings were lost.
We DO know that this festival
was characterized as one of the four great "Fire Festivals" of the Celts.
Legends tell us that on this night, all the hearth fires in Ireland were extinguished, and
then re-lit from the central fire of the Druids at Tlachtga, 12 miles from the royal hill
of Tara. This fire was kindled from "need fire" which had been generated by the
friction of rubbing two sticks together as opposed to more conventional methods common in
those days.(7) The extinguishing of the fires symbolized the "dark half" of the
year, and the re-kindling from the Druidic fires was symbolic of the returning life hoped
for, and brought about through the ministrations of the priesthood.
9. What about sacrifices?
Animals were certainly killed at this time of
year. This was the time to "cull" from the herds those animals which were not
desired for breeding purposes for the next year. Most certainly, some of these would have
been done in a ritualistic manner for the use of the priesthood.
10. Were humans sacrificed?
Scholars are sharply divided on this account,
with about half believing that it took place and half doubting its veracity. Caesar and
Tacitus certainly tell tales of the human sacrifices of the Celts, but Nora Chadwick
points out in her book "The Celts" that "it is not without interest that
the Romans themselves had abolished human sacrifices not long before Caesar's time, and
references to the practice among various barbarian peoples have certain overtones of
There is little direct archaeological evidence relevant to Celtic
sacrifice." (8) Indeed, there is little reference to this practice in Celtic
literature either. The only surviving story echoes the story of the Minotaur in Greek
legend. The Fomorians, a race of evil giants said to inhabit portions of Ireland before
the coming of the Tuatha de Danaan, or "people of the Goddess Danu",demanded the
sacrifice of 2/3 of the corn, milk, and first born children of the Fir Bolg, or human
inhabitants of Ireland. The De Danaan ended this practice in the second battle of Moy
Tura, which incidentally took place on Samhain.
11. What other practices were associated with
Folk tradition tells us of many divination
practices associated with Samhain. Among the most common were divinations dealing with
marriage, weather, and the coming fortunes for the year. These were performed via such
methods as ducking for apples, and apple peeling. Ducking for apples was a marriage
divination. The first person to bite an apple would be the first to marry in the coming
year. Apple peeling was a divination to see how long your life would be. The longer the
unbroken apple peel, the longer your life was destined to be.(9) In Scotland, people would
place stones in the ashes of the hearth before retiring for the night. Anyone whose stone
had been disturbed during the night was said to be destined to die during the coming year.
12. How did these ancient Celtic practices
come to America?
When the potato crop in Ireland failed, many
of the Irish people, modern day descendents of the Celts, immigrated to America, bringing
with them their folk practices, which are the remnants of the Celtic festival observances.
13. We in America view this as a harvest
festival. Did the Celts also view it as such?
Yes. The Celts had 3 harvests: Aug 1, or
Lammas, was the first harvest, when the first fruits were offered to the Gods in thanks.
The Fall Equinox was the "true harvest". This was when the bulk of the crops
would be brought in. Samhain was the final harvest of the year. Anything left on the vines
or in the fields after this date was considered blasted by the fairies, or
"pu'ka", and unfit for human consumption.
14. Does anyone today celebrate Samhain as a
Yes. Many followers of various pagan
religions, such as Druids and Wiccans observe this day as a religious festival. They view
it as a memorial day for their dead friends, similar to the national holiday of Memorial
Day in May. It is still a night to practice various forms of divination concerning future
events. Also, it is considered a time to wrap up old projects, take stock of ones life,
and initiate new projects for the coming year. As the winter season is approaching, it is
a good time to do studying on research projects and also a good time to begin hand work
such as sewing, leather working, woodworking, etc. for Yule gifts later in the year.
15. Does this involve human or animal
Absolutely NOT! Hollywood to the contrary,
blood sacrifice is not practiced by modern day followers of Wicca or Druidism. There may
be some people who THINK they are practicing Wicca by performing blood sacrifices, but
this is NOT condoned by reputable practitioners of the modern day Pagan religions.
(1) Rev. Patrick Dineen, "An Irish English Dictionary" (Dublin, 1927), p. 937
(2) Malcolm MacLennan, "A Pronouncing and Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic
Language" (Aberdeen, 1979), p. 279
(3) W.G. Wood-Martin,"Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland" (Port Washington,
1902), p. 5.
(4) Kevin Danaher,"The Year in Ireland", (Cork,1972), p. 214
(5) Alwyn & Brinley Rees,"Celtic Heritage" (New York,1961), p. 90
(6) Wood-Martin, p. 249
(7) Rees & Rees, p. 90
(8) Nora Chadwick, "The Celts" (Harmondsworth,1982), p. 151
(9) Madeleine Pelner Cosman, "Medieval Holidays and Festivals," (New York,
1981), p. 81
Bord, Janet & Colin, "The Secret Country", London: Paladin Books, 1978
Chadwick, Nora, "The Celts", Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982
Coglan, Ronan, "A Dictionary of Irish Myth and Legend", Dublin,1979
Cosman, Madeleine Pelner, "Medieval Holidays and Festivals", New York: Charles
Scribner's Sons, 1981
Danaher, Kevin, "The Year in Ireland", Cork: The Mercier Press, 1972
Dineen, Rev. Patrick S.,M.A, "An Irish English Dictionary", Dublin: The Irish
texts Society, 1927
MacCana, Proinsias, "Celtic Mythology", London: The Hamlyn Publishing Group
MacLennan, Malcolm, "A Pronouncing and Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic
Language", Aberdeen: Acair and Aberdeen University Press, 1979
MacNeill, Maire', "The Festival of Lughnasa", Dublin: Comhairle Bhealoideas
Powell, T.G., E., "The Celts", New York: Thanes & Hudson,1980 Rees, Alwyn
and Brinley, "Celtic Heritage, Ancient Traditions in Ireland and Wales", New
York: Thanes & Hudson, 1961
Sharkey, John, "Celtic Mysteries", New York: Thanes and Hudson, 1975
Spence, Lewis, "British Fairy Origins", Wellingborough: Aquarian Press, 1946
Squire, Charles, "Celtic Myth & Legend, Poetry & Romance", New York:
Newcastle Publishing Co, Inc. 1975
Toulson, Shirley, "The Winter Solstice", London: Jill Norman & Hobhouse,
Wood-Martin, W.G., "Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland", Vols I & II,
Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1902 (c)
copywrite 1988, Rowan Moonstone P O Box 21058 OKC. OK 73120
Permission is granted for use by pagan groups and on pagan BBS systems. All others must
contact the author prior to use.