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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Samhain, Feast of the Dead

Being a Brief History of Hallowe’en
Todd H. C. Fischer
Appeared in The TankArd #35 (October 2001)

The holiday we now celebrate as Hallowe’en has a long history, stretching back to the time of the Ancient Celts. For them, the evening of October 31, and morning of November 1, was the beginning of their new year. They called it Samhain (or Samhuinn, pronounced sow-en) and it was (primarily) a celebration of the dead. (In Ireland, it was Oiche Shamhna.) As the new year began with winter, a season of death, it was only natural that the Celts would honour (and ward off) those that had already passed on.

It was after Samhain that the faerie folk would depart the land, not to return until Beltane. Before leaving, the little people would cause no end of trouble, and it was considered unwise to walk alone at night, lest they take you away. Folks who had to travel would carry iron or steel to ward them off, and treats were left out for the faeries to eat.

It was also a time of divination, when futures would be forecast. Lovers would place two nuts in a fire to see if their relationship would last. If the nuts burned, it showed that they had a strong relationship; if they popped, trouble may lay ahead.

As the end of the year, many took the opportunity to take care of more earthly needs, such as hiring servants, closing accounts, paying debts and making new contracts. Many stock animals would be slaughtered, as it was difficult to keep many of them during the lean winters, and this act eventually took on ritualistic meaning. In fact, in Germany and Gaul, men would put on the slain animals’ skins as they thought this would gain them contact with the animal spirits and their deities. The animals that were kept were run through samhnagan (bonfires) as a means of purification (the smoke and heat did actually kill many parasites living in the cattle’s fur). Many people would run through the flames as well.

Originally, some people didn’t just run through the fire, they were consumed by it. Blood sacrifice was considered a fitting payment to the earth that had sustained them during the previous year. It was a contract between them and the earth. The sacrificial victims were chosen in different ways. In some places, it was the person who cut the last stalk during the harvest. In others, lots were drawn. In Wales, everyone would race down a hill yelling, “The black sow take the hindermost!” The person who lost the race was then ritually sacrificed to the Black Sow, a spirit of death, evil and cold.

Unknown to many is that Samhain was also a time of peace, when no fighting or divorce was allowed. In fact, many people got married at this time. Also, many tricks were played as it was thought that nature’s natural order was reversed. People would lead away other’s cattle, block up chimneys and through things at notable figures. (Of course, this was all likely blamed on faeries and ghosts.)

Apples and nuts played an important part in the festival. Apples were the Celtic Silver Bough, and represented the underworld, love, fertility, wisdom, and divination. It was the fruit of heaven and wise men. Hazel nuts grew from the sacred tree of the Celtic grove, and symbolized life and (like all nuts) wisdom, lovers and peace.

(A side note: many people think that the celebration of Samhain was named after Samhain, the Celtic god of the dead. This is not true. There was/is no such god.)

When the Romans invaded Celtic territories they adopted many of these practices, though they stopped the human sacrifice and replaced it with the burning of effigies. Samhain would have been celebrated right after the Roman holiday October Horse (October 15). On this day, weapons and produce were put into storage, and a two-man chariot race was held in the Campus Martinus. The near horse of the winning chariot was sacrificed to Mars, killed with a spear, and had its head and tail decorated with cakes and prominently displayed. The horse to many was a harvest/corn spirit, and this horse worship lead to the inclusion of the hobbyhorse and wicker horse in autumn celebrations.

Christianity likewise adopted Samhain, changing its name to All Saints and All Souls (November 1 and 2). October 31 was All Hallows Eve, which was eventually shortened to Hallowe’en or just Halloween. To them, the samhnagan were called pile fires, which were lit to guide the dead to heaven. Children, called soulers, would travel from house to house, singing songs and being given soul cakes. Later, parshell crosses began appearing on the doors of byres, houses and stables instead of kern babies. (A kern baby was a doll made of a sheaf from the last stalk of the harvest, which warded off evil powers.) Soulers later became guisers, who wore costumes (perhaps a throw-back to the men in animal skins) who were given nuts, apples and money. Many guisers carried a hobbyhorse.

Over time the holiday became more secular, and guisers were given any type of sweets. Apples though still play an important part of Hallowe’en, in the form of apple bobbing and cider. Many people still decorate their homes with stalks of corn and the pranks of the Celts have returned (often in the form of a threat, “Trick or treat!”).

This holiday has survived periodic attempts to stamp it out, under claims that it is ‘pagan’ and ‘satanic’. People who make such claims fail to realize that ‘pagan’ does not necessarily equal evil, nor that ‘Satanists’ have nothing to do with Halloween. Hallowe’en is a harmless holiday with only as much ‘evil’ portent as that which you give it. Hallowe’en has survived for thousands of years, and will likely be with us for thousands more.

Sources
Wilson, Jerry. The History and Customs of Halloween, 2000.

Cooper, J. C. The Dictionary of Festivals, Thorsons, San Francisco, 1995. 4-5, 44, 108-109, 160, 189-191.

(c) Todd H. C. Fischer, 2001. If interested in publishing this work, please contact the author

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