Samhain - Calendar of Revelry and Sacred Days

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Calendar of Revelry and Sacred Days

Pronounced “Sow’en.” Corresponds in time to Halloween.

Samhain translates prosaically as “summer’s end.” It marks the end of the light half of the Celtic year and the beginning of the dark half. The border between years is distinguished by the lack of the border between worlds.

The notion of the year being split into dark and bright halves isn’t limited to Celtic areas. In Russia, for instance, the dark half of the year belongs to the spirits. It’s the perfect time for story-telling, magic, and divination, culminating with May Day.

The Celtic New Year begins at nightfall on October 31st—the beginning of the Gaulish month Samonios, the first month of the year. The veil between realms may be penetrated. Barrow wights, ghosts, fairies, and other spirits roam through the night. According to Irish tradition, the barrows and mounds where the fairies dwell open up on Samhain so that the fairies can come out to revel. And so, what kind of spirit-working witch would wish to stay home, at least unless she was occupied by rituals there?

Although modern Halloween celebrations and Neo-Pagan Samhain are based largely upon traditions of Ireland and Britain, there is no reason not to think that similar commemorations didn’t exist throughout Celtic-influenced Europe, if only because the Church felt it important enough to create the Feast of All Saints to substitute for these concurrent festivals of the dead. It is a Breton custom to pour libations over gravestones and tombs at this time.

Metaphysics aside, Samhain was also an ancient Celtic pastoral festivity. It signaled the end of the grazing season, when only breeding stock was set aside from the end-of-the-year slaughter. The harvest was brought in at this time. There is an Irish superstition that crops left out after November 1st would be spoiled by the fairies. (Although perhaps this camouflages an older belief that crops left out after November 1st belonged to the fairies and hence were no longer safe to be touched.)

This may have been a time of sacrifice for the Irish Druids. Some suggest that human sacrifice may once have occurred at this time but there’s no way of currently knowing whether that was ever true or whether that information is based on attempts to defame and discredit the Druids. Horses were also once allegedly sacrificed.

According to legend, the Irish deities the Dagda and the Morrigan consummate their relationship today to ensure the fertility of land, people, and animals for the year to come. The Dagda, “the good god,” is the tribal father god; the Morrigan, “the phantom queen,” is often described as a “battle goddess” although that only hints at her powers. She begins the Great Rite in the form of an old hag but is rejuvenated by the union, regaining her youth and beauty.

A false suggestion is frequently made that the holiday is named in honor of a deity named Samhain. There is no such deity, however a French statuette identifies Cernunos, the horned Celtic deity with the Roman deity Dis, Lord of the Underworld. It’s possible that he was worshipped at Samhain.