What is Samhain?
Samhain, meaning “Summers End,” is the third and final harvest feast and festival taking place on October 31st through November the 1st, though in the Southern Hemisphere it occurs on April 30th and May 1st. It goes by many names, Halloween, Day of the Dead, Third Harvest, and Hallowtide; Samhain not only celebrates the final harvest before winter, but also celebrates lost loved ones, and the beginning of Winter. For some neopagans, Samhain is also regarded as “The Witch’s New Year.”
This post aims to help you discover the history, folklore, magic and meaning of Samhain. Learn all the important aspects of this ancient festival and how you can bring that energy into your life.
The Origins of samhain
Samhain, like many great traditions, stems from Celtic origins some time between 400 and 1100 CE. At that time Samhain is suspected to have lasted three days and three nights.
In those days, during those three days it was required that the head of household present themselves to their king or local leader. There is no specific origin to this tradition that I could find, but it was thought that to not participate in this practice was sure to result in punishment from the Gods in the coming year. This punishment was typically death or illness. In some places, it was suggested that the head of household could not put their arms to their sides for three days, could this have been inspiration for the scarecrow?
Like Lammas, this fire festival was also a “weapons free” festival at that time, anyone who drew a weapon or was caught brandishing one in any way was sentenced to death. The ancient Celts really centered their major festivals around reverie and hope, these acts of violence were unwelcome.
This does not mean however, that no respect was paid to those who had fought in battles during the light half of the year; Holiday thrones were crafted for commanders and there they would sit together and drink.
Another common practice in these days, was that villages would leave offerings outside of their villages and fields for the faeries or Sidhe so they might pass them by.
It’s worth noting that samhain has always been a holiday when the beings that were feared most come out to play. It was thought, and still is thought to be, the time of year when the veil between the underworld and our own are at its thinnest. Fae were said to be seen clearly on this night. In most communities the risk of the Sidhe coming in and stealing people or souls was a very real possibility. Thus, on Samhain, if people had to leave their home they would dress up as monsters and animals as to not be taken by the fae.
There were grand tales of these fae that still live on in Celtic communities today. Stories were shared around bonfires about The Pukah, a shapeshifter who took offerings from the fields. Other stories included the Lady Gwyn, a headless woman in white clothes who chased people wandering around at night, and the Dullahan.
The Dullahan would be a story that stood the test of time. At the time, he was called the “Gan Ceann,” but is now known as “The Headless Horseman.” It was said that he was of the darkest fae. He was robed in black, on a steed of solid black. The Dullahan was said not to be a harbinger of death, but akin to death himself. He was rumored to use a whip made from a human spine, and to wear small bones around his neck. He was said to drink from the skull of a man, and to have a wagon made entirely of bones as well. His carriage could be heard rattling through the night as he looked for wandering souls. Spooky right?
The fae however, were not the only entities roaming around on Samhain, the dead were too! Samhain hosted a big focus on departed and departing loved ones. It also gave respect to the dying of the earth as the harvest is now completed and winter is coming.
In order to honor the dead, many communities would light a community bonfire, in which they would toss dried leaves, animal bones, or personally sacred momentos from loved ones, to honor those that had passed, as well as gain favor from the Gods for the coming winter.
Overall, Samhain started with fear, but also much merriment and hope for those who had worked hard in the fields all summer and would now reap the rewards of it. Happiness and gratitude for the abundance they had created as a community was an overarching theme for the Celts. These traditions would go on to stand the test of time, and many are still believed and practiced today.
The Evolution of Samhain
The practices of the ancient Celts did not stop on the shores of England, Ireland or Scotland. They traveled far and wide across the seas to become what most of us know today as Halloween. But how did we get here?
As the Celts spread out across England and Europe, new traditions arose in new places. In medieval times, the biggest change that was seen was more respect was paid to the dead. Dumb Suppers, became commonplace. Dumb Suppers, are a practice in which meals are made for the family, and plates of food are set aside for those who have passed, and a place is left for them. Once supper had finished, hearth fires would be put out over the course of Samhain, so that the spirits of the dead would not be drawn home, but instead drawn to the light of the afterlife. After Samhain, new hearth fires would be lit using the ashes left from the community bonfire.
“Mumming” also became a common practice. Mumming was a practice also used to honor the dead. Children and adults alike would dress up in costumes, go door-to-door, and sing carols to the dead. Once they had finished they would receive soul cakes or breads as payment.
The fear of the fae did not disappear just yet though, as Jack O’ Lanterns became commonplace to ward off trickster spirits, specifically, a spirit called “Stingy Jack.”
Stingy Jack was said to have been a blacksmith who tricked the devil three times throughout his life. Upon his death, he was not granted entry into heaven, nor would the devil accept him due to his tricks. Although, the devil was a bit impressed by this, and took pity on jack. He provided him with a small lantern carved in a turnip so that he may wander the night for the rest of eternity between worlds. Once this myth emerged, carving turnips, gourds, and other fall vegetables became a tradition that only expanded with time.
During the 5th Century, Christianity even tried its hands at taking over Samhain. Pope Boniface attempted to do this, and did not succeed.
However, in the 9th century, Pope Gregory marked Samhain instead as “All Souls Day,” or “All Saints Day.” All Saints day would transform into the word “Halloween,” Which roughly means “Saint’s Evening.”
Around the 19th century however, we began to see a massive merge of these traditions both Christian and Celtic. As the Irish began migrating to America, they brought their traditions with them.
At this time, many of the superstitions and stories of Samhain become nothing more than legend. Trick or Treating emerges then as well, as the practice of Mumming merges with American Consumerism. Pranks also became quite regular at this time. Since the Americans did not have the same beliefs and tales of the fae to fear, they created their own fear and chaos by conducting pranks.
Samhain carried on like this for a couple of centuries, a culture mashup that ultimately resulted in a really fun holiday. Then, around the 1970s, Wicca emerged, a neopagan spiritual practice that began practicing the pagan holidays more publicly and in a more traditional way.
Celtic reconstructionists also began working really hard at this time to uncover more and more knowledge surrounding the old ways in hopes that they were not lost forever. These reconstructionists are how we know so much about the ancient practices to begin with!
Who Practices Samhain Today?
Ultimately, nearly everyone practices Samhain in some way, shape, or form. Be it in the way that Latin cultures practice the Day of the Dead, or the way the Americans have fall festivals, in some small way, Samhain is pretty mainstream.
Samhain is symbolic of the beginning of Winter in most cultures, whether it is acknowledged fully or not. For example, Halloween Occurs on October 31st, and on November 1st, many people begin decorating for Yule or Christmas. While fall is still actively in full swing, as a society we begin ushering in Winter with open arms, not unlike our ancestors.
Many Catholics might even attend Mass on Samhain, as it is “All Saints Day,” to pay their respects to lives lost throughout the year, as well as to pay patronage to the many Catholic Saints.
Most notably, Witches practice Samhain with more vigor, excitement, and appreciation than is hardly imaginable. Whether they be Wiccan, Christian, Atheist, or none of the above, Most Witches approach this holiday with open arms. As stated before, especially since the dawn of Wicca, neopagans have been getting closer to the “old ways” one Samhain at a time. This is a time of year where their spiritual beliefs are a bit more accepted, and when the supplies that they may wish to acquire are a bit more accessible. Most importantly, for many Witches, or neo-pagans in general, this is considered to be the New Year as well.
Samhain is a time when those who recognize this as the new year set their intentions and goals, as well as let go of unwanted baggage from the previous year. It’s pretty special!
Ultimately, there is something in Samhain for everyone. If not just by appreciating the beautiful foliage at this time, or carving a pumpkin there is joy and remembrance to be had on this day.
Correspondences of Samhain
As with most pagan holidays, consider what colors are out in nature, and you will find your corresponding colors. For Samhain, you’ll observe black, orange, green, dark purple, dark yellow, and browns.
Given that so much of this holiday surrounds protection (for the coming winter), honoring the gods, death, the fae, witchcraft, etcThere are countless crystals that could be used at this time. Some good ones to start with are Amethyst, Black Obsidian, Orange Calcite, Tigers Eye, Smokey Quartz, and Dragonstone. Note too, that many of these crystals have colors that correspond with the Samhain colors as well. If you are unsure, you can always start with Crystals of the right color and go deeper into their meanings from there. It can be easy to get lost in the array of crystals out there, so take it easy on yourself and just start somewhere.
As one of the four major sabbats, Samhain is closely connected to each of the elements. However, The energy and spirit of Samhain is closely tied to that of water though. There are mountains of folklore dedicated to the correlation between the afterlife and water. It makes sense that water would play such a crucial role here.
That being said, this is also a fire festival, and the warmth and light of the fire is meant to guide us onwards through the winter, and keep us safe from wandering fae.
Nonetheless, pay close mind to what element(s) you feel most connected to at this time. Samhain is a time in the year when our intuition is most aroused, so take some time to look within yourself and find your own connections to the day.
Just like with the other harvest festivals, what is being harvested at this time is crucial to the symbolic plants at the time. During Samhain, this includes pumpkins, apples, acorns, pomegranates, and rowan berries.
The herbs for Samhain are much like you’d expect. Herbs like cinnamon, star anise, rosemary, mugwort, and tobacco leaves.
While many flowers are beginning to say goodbye until the spring, Chrysanthemums and Marigolds are going quite strong in the fall. They can be seen in hues of yellow and orange, and have their own magickal properties too.
Oak trees and apple trees have always been close to the hearts of the druids at this time, both for their bounty and symbolism in folklore. Here, you can delve into the folklore of crabapple, as well as ways to use this underappreciated fall fruit to honor our ancestors during the Autumn season. Magical Crabapple: The Folklore & How To Use This Underappreciated Fruit
This will come as no surprise, but the animals that are relevant to Samhain are bats, cats, wolves, owls, and bears. Each of these creatures either has an association with death, spirit, intuition, or wisdom, and together they truly embody the spirit of Samhain.
If you have Patron or Matron Gods, Samhain is a great time to connect with them. However, Gods and Goddesses who deal in death, dying, harvest, autumn, agriculture, and the sun, are all great deities to choose from. Some great examples are Demeter, Cerridwen, Dionysus, Hecate, Lilith, Hades and Persephony, Hestia, and Hermes.
As you have learned, the things that go bump in the night are key components to Samhain. At this time, you might leave offerings for the fae, or tell tales of classical beasts. These may include Ghosts, Vampires, and werewolves. You could even deep dive into Celtic lore about the Morrigan, the Dullahans, The Pukah, and other wandering fae and spirits.
There is no shortage of symbols or tools at this time. Candles, bones, besoms(brooms), mirrors, bonfires, jack o’lanterns, altars, the Scythe, the Athame, straw man(scarecrows for those of us in America), leaves, nuts and acorns. All of these things can be used as symbolic decor, or as tools in your craft.
You can do many types of magick on Samhain. Given its history, and that it is currently revered as a “New Year,” it is a great time for setting intentions, divination, protections, working with the fae, cleansing, ancestral magick, glamour spells, and whatever else you see fit. Ultimately, as stated, you should take some time to consider what Samhain means to you, and base your traditions off of that.
Ways to Celebrate Samhain
Doing a formal ritual at this time is a great idea, casting a circle, leaving offerings, singing to your ancestors or Gods, are all great things on Samhain. If you want to feel more connected with your ancestors, try this simple Samhain ritual to honor them! A Simple Samhain Ritual to Honor Our Ancestors
Take some time to consider how you would like to move forward from where you are in your life right now. Are there things you need to let go of? Do you need to re-do your wards and protections?
Center your focus on these intents.
Regardless, some great “styles” of spellwork at this time would be Candle Magick, Fire Magick, Water Magick, Creating Amulets or Talismans, making powerful root tinctures or herbal tea blends for the winter, and any kind of Hearth Magick.
The veil between worlds is thin, and intuition is high. There is possibly no better time to do Divination. If you have been wanting to give it a try, this is your chance. Using bones, runes, pendulums, tarot, tea leaves, palm reading, or scrying, are all good divination techniques.
If you have never tried Pyromancy, divination by fire, I’d suggest that one as a great one to start on Samhain.
Caution is advised however; do not be afraid to practice divination, but do be mindful that the veil is thin and many spirits lurk about. Be sure to place yourself in a circle, or wear protection charms when doing divination. If you do intend to engage with Ouija boards or traditional Seances, please do your research on them before commencing.
Otherwise, enjoy the wonders and joy of divination. It is a powerful tool in any witch’s arsenal, and can be greatly comforting.
Autumn is packed full of charming activities, and Samhain is a great chance to do them, or even all October long. Go on a nature walk to see the foliage, carve jack o’ lanterns, go pumpkin picking or apple picking. Take a hayride, go to a fall festival, feast on candies, breads, and autumn fruits. You could even visit a haunted house, yes it counts! Your ancestors likely scared each other with tales, stories and pranks of the beasts that roamed the night, it doesn’t have to “just be a haunted house,” it can be a connection to your ancestors as well. Need more ideas? We have an entire list of 20 ideas right here! 20 Inspiring Fall Activities to Make the Most of the Season
Speaking of ancestors, you might choose to host a Dumb Supper, or visit loved ones at their grave sites leaving small tokens. Put together an ancestral altar for them as well. This can be healing for both you, and them, and a really beautiful peace in your home. You can choose to leave it up just for Samhain, or all year long!
In reference to the year ahead, you could also set a new intention for the coming year each day of the month, or even host a party wherein you all set your resolutions. Be it your coven, or just your friends, this can be very fun, and provide hope through the cold months.
Doing crafts is a great way to connect with the old ways. Although our ancestors may have weaved baskets or sewn winter clothes (if you can do those things this is a great time), you may choose to create DIY Samhain decor. If you enjoy making jewlery this is a great time to craft a protection amulet, if you like writing this is a wonderful time for poetry. Whatever type of creativity moves you, do it! You might write your intentions on paper and create a decorative paper chain, you might make candles or soaps with Autumn Herbs and crystals.
This would also be a pleasant time to make a wand if you feel inclined to do so. As leaves fall from their trees, many twigs and small branches do as well. Look for them in nature, and bring them home. Be sure to thank the tree or the Earth for these tools. Once home, you can decorate them with acorns, crystals, colored ribbons, or even small rhinestones, whatever you think would make a beautiful wand.
You could also use these fallen twigs and pine leaves to create your own besom or broom. You can then hang it in your home and replace it the following year. Besoms are symbols of protection, banishing negativity, abundance, and for some, fertility. You can add sticks of cinnamon in the base to reap the benefits of it as well. You can make them in a practical size, or if you have children they can make mini-besoms of their own!
Another great fall craft is to make waxed leaves. The process of waxing them is simple but acts to preserve the beautiful leaves so they may be enjoyed all year without losing their color. Learn more here: How to Make Waxed Leaves for Fall Crafts
Like most great holidays, food is a huge factor. Soups are specifically great because it is symbolic of stirring a cauldron. As you add ingredients, you can set your intentions and stir them in and say an incantation if you’d like.
Being that the harvest has just ended, it is also a wonderful time for breads, cakes, and sweets as well. You might want to make some traditional soul cakes as an offering to our ancestors.
For more modern foods, you may try making a butternut squash pie or grilling slices of pumpkin!
Nothing says Autumn quite like Apple cider right? Just like with soups, apple cider can be very magickal. Apples, welcome love, abundance, and health. Cinnamon welcomes prosperity. Nutmeg invites money, health, and loyalty; and Star Anise enhances intuition and protection. Serving fresh apple cider to your family or friends, will not only create joy, but it will protect and provide for them in the coming year. It also makes your house smell fantastic, and who hates that?
With pumpkins also being a traditional symbol of the Autumn season, you might want to give Pumpkin Spice Moon Milk a try. It uses many of the same spices of apple cider with the addition of other anti-inflammatory spices as well.
Samhain and You
Samhain takes place at a beautiful time of year, and is a wonderful opportunity to get together with friends and family before the hustle and bustle of the holidays. Need ideas? Read the article Autumn Season: 8 Tips for Hosting a Magical Fall Gathering for lots of inspiration.
Take time this Samhain to respect your dead loved ones, and the ancestors that came before you. Try a new form of divination, and do things that bring you joy. Be sure to trust your intuition this Samhain, and let it guide you anew into the New Year.
May your Samhain be Magickal, and your Winter be blessed.
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