Halloween and Samhain

Most historians agree that the first trace of what we call Halloween comes from Samhain (pronounced a “sah-win” by the few pagans I know and “sow-in” via the dictionary).  Some people have told me that they object because it comes from Samhain and they have the mistaken idea that Samhain was an Irish or Scottish goddess of the dead or some such.  There were a couple of Celtic gods of the dead, none of them were Samhain.  For the Brits, it was Gwynn ap Nudd.  For the Welsh it was Arawn.  So far as I’ve been able to find, the Irish and the Scottish didn’t have a god or goddess of death.  And, before it’s brought up, a Banshee is not a goddess of death.  They were messengers from the faerie mounds and omens of death.  Now, I could be wrong and the Irish and Scottish peoples may have had a lord or lady of death, and if I am, please let me know.  I love learning about mythology.

Since people brought up the whole goddess bit, thought that I would check to see how the Irish and the Scottish actually defined the word and the holiday.  According to the Irish English dictionary published by the Irish Texts Society, the word Samhain is defined as follows:

“Samhain, All Hallowtide, the feast of the dead in ancient Pagan and Christian times, signalizing the close of harvest and the initiation of the winter season, lasting till May, during which troops (especially the Fiann) we quartered.  Faeries were imagined as particularly active at this season.  From it, the half year is reckoned.  Also called Feile Moingfinne (Snow Goddess).”

According to Malcom MacLennan (a Scot), it’s defined as follows: “Hallowtide.  The Feast of All Souls.  Sam + Fuin = end of summer.”

Basically, these definitions simply tell you that it was a time for the warriors to be quartered and where they believed trouble was possibly more afoot.  Keep in mind, with the whole Snow Goddess bit and the faerie bit, that ancient peoples looked to explain the world around them in much the same way we do today.  The only difference is that we have science and they had mythology.  Some day, probably much of our science will be proved wrong and we will look like the silly people grasping for straws because we do not understand what our descendants do.  That’s the nature of human history.

From what I’ve found, Samhain was the Celtic New Year and people believed that the spirits of the dead were closer to the living on this day and that those who had passed away the previous year roamed the earth on this night.  There were also three major harvests: the first harvest, the one on the equinox, and the final harvest.  Samhain is the final harvest.  After Samhain,  all remaining crops were considered blasted by the faeries (meaning, they were rotten and no longer good for human consumption).  Which means that Samhain is a “harvest festival.”  Now, remember, this whole series of posts started because I’m confused about why calling something a “Harvest Festival” rather than “Halloween” (for which the name is actually a Christian shortening–we’ll get into that more on another day) makes it more Christian.  If Samhain is a harvest festival, how does redubbing Halloween as “Harvest Festival” make it more Christian?

Today, we mark the beginnings of seasons on equinoxes or solstices, but in the ancient world, those days actually marked the middle of a season.  31 October marked the line between fall harvest season and winter.  If you think ofAutumn as a time for harvesting life-giving food, you can think of 31 October as marking the line between life and death or plenty versus scarcity of food.  Winter is the time, due to lack of food and cold temperatures, that the Celts associated the most with death (something that we still do today in our poetry and often in movies).   To me, this makes sense in pre-industrial times because people were more likely to starve in the winter or freeze without grocery stores and heating.  Now, sometime in the first century A.D., the Romans showed up where the Celts lived and they brought along their own festivals and traditions for that time of the year, namely a harvest festival honouring Poloma, the goddess of fruit, and Feralia, the festival to honour the dead.  To me, it seems that this day often marked a major change for ancient societies and considering the slow spread of Christianity at this point, it’s not surprising that it wasn’t Christianized in the first century.

Sources for the dictionaries:

Dineen, Rev. Patrick. “An Irish English Dictionary” (Dublin, 1927), p. 937
 MacLennan, Malcolm. “A Pronouncing and Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language” (Aberdeen, 1979), p. 279

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: