Is Samhain the origin of Halloween?

Pumpkin, courtesy of Pixabay

Eoin Meegan

Halloween is going to look very different this year in the teeth of a pandemic and with all the usual activities either cancelled or put online. So maybe it’s a good time to take a look at the origins of this annual event. Did it begin as an ancient Celtic winter festival as many believe? NewsFour investigates.

The ancient Celts divided the year into four parts around a lunar calendar. The night of the full moon following the autumnal equinox was known as ‘summer’s end’ or Samhain. (The other four were Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh.) To mark this event the Celts held a three-day festival known as the Feast of the Dead, or Féile Na Marbh.

Tlachtga is situated about 12 miles from Tara, and was the principal location for the fire festival in Ireland. Historians can date it to around 200 AD (although some put the tradition of Samhain as far back as 3000 BC).

Tlachtga was named after the Celtic goddess of death and re-birth. Here bone fires (bonfires) were lit as a way of honouring the dead, and perhaps to renew the land. It’s possible the ceremony may have included cremation of the dead too.

When the fire was extinguished the people returned to their homes and relit their own hearth fires from brands taken from the great fire, establishing a sacred bond with nature. This can be seen as the conjoining of the communal with the personal or familial, and was a deeply significant and ritualistic event in the year of the Irish Celts.

Tlachtga gave birth to three sons, Doirb, Cumma, and Muach, representing Munster, Leinster and Connacht. Clearly she was an important goddess who embodied the symbolic death and rebirth of the whole land. Samhain was a sacred time and a very important event in the Celtic calendar. Effectively it was the Celtic New Year.

Tales of ghosts and spooky things

It was said that on this night as the old world passed away and a new one was birthed the veil between the two became trans-parent, thus permitting communication to take place. The high priests of the Druids could commune with spirits to foretell events that were still to come.

Other accounts suggest that mischievous spirits, or members of the Sidhé, would cross into our world, destroy crops, and even take unsuspecting people over to the other side. The old stories tell us they were particularly prone to carrying off children. To avert this danger and frighten away these nefarious spirits the ancient Druids would dress in outlandish costumes, and make loud noises. Also, turnips were hollowed out and set in doorways with lighted candles inside for the same purpose.

The ancient Romans also held a similar festival at the end of October to commemorate the dead, known as the Feralia, followed by a day to honour Pomona, the goddess of fruits. Both festivals may have had a singular origin, but certainly after 43 AD when the Romans took over much of the Celtic territory the traditions became blurred.

With the coming of Christianity the Church retained many of the old pagan festivals by simply appropriating them into the new religion, such as renaming them after Christian saints or martyrs. In the eight century Pope Gregory III designated November 1st as All Saints Day, and kept the three-day festival. The word ‘halloween’ simply means the eve of the (Holy) day. The actual name was possibly first used by Rabbie Burns in his eponymous poem of 1785.

So, did Halloween begin with the ancient Celts?

Our bonfires may be a throw-back to the great fires of Tlachtga, halloween masks the modern grotesque garb to chase away spirits, children ‘trick or treating’ suggestive of the underlying threat of crop-destroying spirits, while the tradition of baking a cake with a ring in it – a kind of fortune telling to guess who would get married in the coming year. And the old hollowed-out turnip? the modern pumpkin of course.

However, although it’s easy to see a thread running from these ancient customs to our modern celebration, a certain amount of caution is advised. Accounts of the ancient Celts come down to us via Christian scribes, and while we owe these writers a great debt for preserving re-cords of the past, often at great danger to themselves, they often subverted the practices of pagan believers, or at least the intention behind them, to bring them into line with Christian ideology.

Undoubtedly the ancient Celts recognised, and respected, the untamed energies of nature. They may even have seen violent storms as malevolent spirits crossing the land, we’re still all too familiar with the havoc hurricanes and gales can wreak. But on no account should the Celtic practice of ‘warding off evil spirits’ be equated with the Christian ‘devil’. Also talk of malign spirits inveigling souls over to the other side sounds like an attempt to discourage communication with the dead.

Adding that children were especially in danger gives it an extra visceral twist, as well as a warning: dabble in this and you will be in trouble. The idea that the Celts indulged in human sacrifice is also probably a fabrication by those who later wanted to discredit them; as are attempts to turn Tlachtga into a scheming witch. Slight mistakes and missteps like these can give us a skewed view of our early ancestors.

So, while echoes of those ancient customs still resonate in our celebrations today, it is prob-ably more accurate to say what we celebrate on October 31st is a copy of a medieval interpretation (that’s twice removed) of the ancient Celtic rites.

It’s important to note that the Celts did not celebrate Halloween, but their own festival of the end of summer, and the dawn of the new year. From archaeological, written and oral evidence we know it was a very special time for them. It just wasn’t Halloween. What they celebrated was their own sacred rites and mysteries, which they called Samhain.

Finally, from all at NewsFour may we wish you a happy Halloween. It may be muted and low key this year but hopefully can still be enjoyed. Most important, keep yourself safe, look after your loved ones and those vulnerable, and remember to ob-serve social distance at any gatherings you may attend. Oh, and one other thing, watch out for the ghosts!

Part of this article relies on research from the American Folklore Centre, US Congress, online version.