As the air grows crisp and golden leaves crunch underfoot, one of the most important festivals of the Witches’ year approaches. Samhain - also known as All Hallow’s Eve or the Feast of the Dead - heralds the Pagan new year and the arrival of darker days. It’s a time for celebrating the close of summer and preparing for the winter months ahead; a liminal in-between time when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld thins.
While Samhain is considered a traditional Gaelic festival, it’s believed to have ancient origins stretching as far back as 2000BC. Ancient monuments in Ireland and the Celtic lands align with the sunrise on Samhain - October 31st to November 1st - signalling that this day has held sacred meaning for millennia.
In modern times, ‘Halloween’ is a widespread holiday, a combination of Samhain and the Christian All Hallow’s Day. Halloween is synonymous with glowing pumpkins, horror films, buckets of candy and children running amok in quasi-frightening fancy dress. But all of these rituals have their origins in the traditional Samhain, a magical and powerful time.
During Samhain, the veil between worlds flutters open, allowing deceased loved ones and lost souls to re-visit their homes. In honour of this belief, people traditionally would offer up food and wine to the dead, or set empty places at the dining table to welcome them in. Merrymakers would dress up in animal skins or theatrical costumes in an attempt to imitate, or disguise themselves, from the visiting dead. These rituals have now translated into the modern-day ‘trick-or-treating’, where children dress up as ghosts and ghoulies and request treats from their neighbours.
But for Pagans, death is not meant to be something that’s feared or pantomimed. It’s a natural and necessary part of the cycle of life, and the dead are to be honoured. So Samhain isn’t a time of horror, but of celebration.
Samhain also has a strong connection to the natural world and signals the close of the seasonal harvest. It’s the final chance to dry herbs and salt meat for winter’s storage, and is also the perfect time for harvesting nuts. Certain plants, fruit and vegetables are associated with Samhain, such as apples (the food of the gods and the Otherworld), rosemary (a herb for remembrance), squashes and pumpkins (late harvest vegetables) and mugwort (for divination and dreaming).
Samhain is an ideal time for divination and spell-casting. The transitional nature of the season means that psychic and magical abilities are heightened. Ceremonies for releasing the ‘old’ are popular at this time, clearing the way for a fresh new season. Rituals for honouring your ancestors, animals or deities such as The Crone or The Horned God are also popular.
If you wish to decorate your altar for Samhain, think about putting up photographs of deceased loved ones; adorning it with oak leaves, apples and pumpkin lanterns; and burning herbs such as nutmeg, mint and sage. Colours traditionally associated with Samhain are black, white, orange, silver and gold.
There are certain sacred sites that are frequented at Samhain. In the Irish Boyne Valley, the Hill of Tara is the site of the Mound of Hostages, whose entrance passage is aligned with the rising sun on Samhain morning. And Tlachtga, another great hill in the Valley, was the location of the Great Fire Festival, which began on the eve of Samhain. Stonehenge in England is another popular Samhain site, a place that would have hosted many sacred rituals by the ancient community that assembled the stones. Neopagans and Wiccans flock to these sites for Samhain to gather and celebrate this important festival.
But you don’t have to venture to these sacred sites or spend lots of money on a fancy dress costume to celebrate Samhain in style. Remember that Samhain is considered the Witches’ and old Celtic New Year, meaning it’s a time for new beginnings and reflection. Cast away any negative energy or stagnation from the summer months and look ahead towards a refreshed and renewed winter season. Honour and pay tribute to your ancestors and respect the cycle of ageing and gathering wisdom. Celebrate nature and the shifting seasons, and get ready for long cold nights of magic and moonlight. And if you get trick-or-treaters ringing your doorbell, be merry and glad that the old traditions still persist and the festival of the dead has a place in our manic modern world.
From Dragonspace to you, Samhain blessings!