The Wheel of the Year Series: Samhain

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,

         Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,

Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,

         The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,

         The swallow twitt’ring from the straw-built shed,

The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,

         No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,

         Or busy housewife ply her evening care:

No children run to lisp their sire’s return,

         Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,

         Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;

How jocund did they drive their team afield!

         How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, Thomas Gray

The air is crisp and cool. Jewel-colored leaves litter the ground, crackling and scraping as the wind pushes their dry edges across the sidewalks and streets. Bright orange pumpkins sit on doorsteps, some already transformed into Jack-O-Lantern’s with faces carved into their skin. Night comes earlier now, the darkness creeping in deeper and darker than in the previous months, and twilight seems to hold an almost magical power. It is a time of darkening, a time of twilight, and a time of solitude. A time of remembering what once was and of preparing for the long winter months ahead. A time of gathering around and telling stories, some for fun and some for solemnity. And it is a time for crossing over into the worlds beyond, as the veil lifts and we feel the otherworld so close that we can almost touch it. Yes, it is that time; the time of Samhain.

Samhain is the third and final harvest festival on the Wheel of the Year, the others being Lughnasadh and Mabon. The original Gaelic festival of Samhain took place around October 31 or November 1 (on our modern calendar), and marked the beginning of winter. The festival was a time of feasting and drinking, of telling stories and of communing with those that came before. It was associated with the dead, with the otherworld, and with divining the secrets of the year to come. Modern Halloween uses many themes and customs that originated in this ancient festival, making it familiar and relatable to many practitioners who grew up outside of paganism. In this post, I’ll be looking at the origins of Samhain, some of the customs observed for the celebration, as well as its themes, correspondences and symbols, and how to celebrate this truly magickal sabbat.

History of Samhain

Although the exact origins of Samhain are unknown, it is believed to be an ancient festival that was celebrated in Ireland and Scotland. It marked the end of summer and heralded the winter to come. The most concrete references to Samhain we have are found in 10th century manuscripts, however there is evidence that the seasonal timing of the festival was important, even in Neolithic times. The Mound of the Hostages and Hill of Tara are both Neolithic era tombs which align with the sunrise on Samhain, indicating the importance of the date.

From what researchers have pieced together, the festival of Samhain was when the many tribes of an area would come together. Herds of cattle were brought in from the upper fields where they had grazed during the summer and usually a prized cow would be slaughtered and included in the feasting. It was the last big gathering before the winter halted travel, so these tribes often marked this time as the last time to trade with one another. It also marked a time of peace, as any tribal warfare was halted during Samhain and throughout the winter. There is also research that insinuates that every so often, during the Samhain gathering, the tribes would revisit their governing laws and payment systems and make changes. Because everyone was together, the festival was the perfect time to make new edicts and such.

Samhain was also a time for stories. Celtic culture was rooted in the art of oral storytelling. Not only was Samhain an ideal time for telling these important cultural stories, but many of the stories themselves take place on Samhain. Most of these stories tell of liminal spaces, open ‘doorways’, supernatural beings, otherworlds, and souls of the dead revisiting the land of the living. Some such stories are found in The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn, Colloquy of the Elders, and The Adventure of Nera. These stories include wisdom from ancestors, fairy mounds that open as portals into the otherworld on Samhain, and killer werewolves.

A custom that ties closely with this theme is that people tried not to offend the “aos sí”, a sort of mythical race of elves or fairies, on Samhain. To stay out of their way at twilight and nighttime, people would turn their clothes inside-out in hopes to trick them. The tradition of mumming and guising began in connection with these aos sí. People dressed up to protect or disguise themselves from these spirits and sometimes went door-to-door to collect offerings for them. By the 1500s, mumming or guising had become part of the Samhain celebrations. By the 1700s “mischief nights” became common, which also probably originated with the idea of spirits wreaking havoc. Instead, youths would dress up or blacken their faces with ashes from the bonfires, and threaten mischief if they weren’t given food as they went door-to-door.

Of course we cannot forget the precursor to the Jack-O-Lantern, the carved turnip. These pranksters and mummers would carve a turnip and place a light inside to light their way. In addition, people would carve them and place them in windowsills to illuminate the path for wandering spirits.

In terms of the customs practiced on Samhain, one main staple was the bonfire. It is believed that the these bonfires had special powers. The hearth fires were put out, and relit from the main bonfire as a way to banish evil. The fires symbolized the sun, and kept the darkness away during the night, and they were though to have protective powers. Some researchers say that people and animals walked between two bonfires to be cleansed.

At Samhain, people also honored the dead. It was thought that the souls of the departed would visit their former homes on this night, where families would set a place for them at the table and welcome them for the night. There was also the business of slaughtering animals for the winter. Although this would have been business as usual in ancient times, the symbols of blood, sacrifice, and death have been woven into this celebration.

Divination was also a big part of Samhain. There was a divination ritual which involved laying stones, each representing a specific person, around the bonfire. When the fire had burnt out, the stones were examined and their future was told based on certain outcomes. Apples, which we know are associated with the otherworld, and hazelnuts, were used in many rituals. Apple bobbing was a form of divination, as was peeling an apple and throwing the peel over one’s shoulder. The letter formed by the peel was said to reveal the first letter of the person’s future partner. Another fun form of divination was to bake a cake or loaf of bread with items like a coin or ring inside. These items were said to tell the future for the person who got them – a ring symbolized marriage or engagement for example.

Themes of Samhain

As with all of the sabbats on the wheel of the year, the themes can be found by meditating on the energies of that time of year. As we’ve already seen, Samhain is associated with the following themes:

  • Death/Dying
  • Sacrifice
  • Ancestors
  • Mischief
  • Guising/costuming
  • Preparing for the dark times ahead
  • The otherworld/otherworld spirits
  • Stories/traditions
  • Divination

Symbols of Samhain

Symbols associated with Samhain are:

  • Bones-skulls, skeletons, etc.
  • Otherworldly creatures
  • Black animals – cats, crows
  • Cauldrons
  • Bonfires
  • Cemeteries
  • Costumes/mummers guising
  • Carved turnip/pumpkin/apples
  • Crossroads/liminal spaces

Correspondences of Samhain

Some of the correspondences for are:

Stones: Obsidian, bloodstone, smoky quarts, onyx, fossils

Colors: Orange, black, gold, white, silver, dark red/maroon

Herbs: rosemary, sage, pomegranate, sandalwood, patchouli, wormwood, mugwort

Foods & Drinks: Apples, pumpkins, cider, root veggies, potatoes, stew, beef…

Magick: Harvest rituals, rituals or connecting to the ‘Dark Mother’ goddesses such as Hecate, Persephone, or Morrigan. Any kind of divination. Banishing or protection spells. Communing with the dead. Gaining clarity. Exploring past lives. Death/endings/letting go.

Ways to Celebrate Samhain

As modern witches and pagans, we have to find new ways to celebrate the Sabbats. Surprisingly, it is really fun and easy to come up with ways to celebrate that honor Samhain and also fit into our busy lives. As with all magickal practices it is the intention that counts. If you are able to center in on the energies of Samhain by meditating on its themes, colors, stones, and other correspondences, you don’t need a flashy ritual (although there’s nothing wrong with it if you want to do one!) to celebrate.

Here are some celebration ideas. I’ve made them as simple as possible, so you can add on your own touches as your practice allows.

  • Go crazy with décor! Seriously. Samhain is one of the sabbats that has really strong ties to the secular Halloween. Most Halloween decor is based on symbols and themes of this celebration, so now is the time to take advantage of that, especially if you are in the broom closest.
  • Create your own ritual involving a ‘veil’. This could be a simple setup where you hang a sheer curtain in a room or hallway and walk through it to symbolize moving into a sacred or otherworld space. A nice touch to add some deeper feeling to a Samhain ritual
  • Take a trip to a liminal space (cemetery (if allowed), forest, bridge or just under a tree) and practice some sort of scrying or divination. Really cool if you can do it at twilight.
  • Have a bonfire (or firepit). Tell stories, eat, practice divination while sitting around it. Maybe even light a candle insight from the flames to mimic the Samhain ritual.
  • Have a dumb supper for your ancestors, or one in particular.
  • Simply practice divination of any kind. One idea is my Samhain tarot spread. (I also have an ancestor spread and a shadow work spread).
  • Look at old family pictures (with others or by yourself). Tell family stories.
  • Go on a nature walk – again especially if you can go at twilight or dawn
  • Carve pumpkins or turnips with the origins in mind
  • Do a meditation where you let yourself imagine you are at an ancient Samhain festival OR where you travel down a crossroads into the otherworld
  • Commune with spirits however you choose
  • Drink some tea with a piece of barmbrack (recipe below). I offer this Samhain Blend with pomegranate, sage, black tea, and star anise.

Samhain Recipe

Although there are many fun recipes for Samhain, I wanted to go traditional for this one. As I mentioned in the history above, one of the Samhain customs was to bake a loaf of cake or bread with trinkets inside that would foretell what was to come for the recipient. The traditional Irish bread was called barmbrack or “speckled bread”, and its roots go back to druidic tradition. This recipe for barmbrack is from Gemma from Bigger Bolder Baking (I really love her channel and recipe for two-ingredient ice cream…). She is actually Irish, and this recipe is from her very Irish mother. The link talks about the history of the bread and how it ties into Samhain, so I thought it was a perfect fit. It’s not too hard to make and even gives a few suggestions of items you can put into the bread =)

Traditional Irish Barmbrack

Happy Samhain!

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