Are you wondering what Samhain is about, and why we’d want to tour cemeteries and boneyards and hear stories of ghosts of those long departed?
Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-in’) is halfway between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice. It’s a Gaelic festival marking the last of the Harvest festivals and leads a quiet time moving toward Winter.
Samhain is believed to have Celtic pagan origins and there is evidence it has been an important date since ancient times. The Mound of the Hostages, a Neolithicpassage tomb at the Hill of Tara, is aligned with the Samhain sunrise. It is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature and many important events in Irish mythology happen or begin on Samhain. It was the time when cattle were brought back down from the summer pastures and when livestock were slaughtered for the winter. As at Beltane, special bonfires were lit. These were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers and there were rituals involving them. Like Beltane, Samhain was seen as a liminaltime, when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld could more easily be crossed.
This meant the Aos Sí, the ‘spirits’ or ‘fairies‘, could more easily come into our world. Most scholars see the Aos Sí as remnants of the pagan gods and nature spirits. At Samhain, it was believed that the Aos Sí needed to be propitiated to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter. Offerings of food and drink were left outside for them. The souls of the dead were also thought to revisit their homes seeking hospitality. Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place set at the table for them. Mumming and guising were part of the festival, and involved people going door-to-door in costume (or in disguise), often reciting verses in exchange for food. The costumes may have been a way of imitating, and disguising oneself from, the Aos Sí. Divination rituals and games were also a big part of the festival and often involved nuts and apples. In the late 19th century, Sir John Rhys and Sir James Frazer suggested that it was the “Celtic New Year”, and this view has been repeated by some other scholars.
In the 9th century AD, Western Christianity shifted the date of All Saints’ Day to 1 November, while 2 November later became All Souls’ Day. Over time, Samhain and All Saints’/All Souls’ merged to create the modern Halloween. Historians have used the name ‘Samhain’ to refer to Gaelic ‘Halloween’ customs up until the 19th century.
Since the later 20th century, Celtic neopagans and Wiccans have observed Samhain, or something based on it, as a religious holiday. Neopagans in the Southern Hemisphere often celebrate Samhain at the other end of the year (about 1 May).
The experience of Samhain in Australia is quite different than you might expect in England, Ireland, Wales or Scotland. For many, me included, the days leading up to April 30th are just as poignant, specifically ANZAC Day on 25th April.
So what do we do at this time of year in Australia?
- We honour our dead, our long departed ancestors and personally, in our family, we also remember all soldiers who have served, who continue to serve and those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.
- Personally I attend Dawn Service on ANZAC Day every year.
- On Samhain, depending on my plans, I attend a ritual circle with friends and we host a ritual and afterwards we feast to remember our dead and prepare for Winter.
- This year, I will be visiting a local boneyard on the night when the veil is thin.
If you’re setting up an altar to honour the spirit of Samhain, you might want to consider adding a photo of one your ancestors who has passed, and perhaps lighting a candle for them. Leave food and drink out for them as well. This should not be consumed later on, rather offered to the earth the next morning.