Samhain (a Gaelic word pronounced “sow-win”) is also known as Halloween, or Hallowmas, marked the Celtic New Year, the end of summer, and the end of the harvest season. Samhain is a pagan religious festival originating from an ancient Celtic spiritual tradition. It is usually celebrated from October 31 to November 1 to welcome in the harvest and usher in “the dark half of the year.” Celebrants believe that the barriers between the physical world and the spirit world break down during Samhain, allowing more interaction between humans and denizens of the Otherworld. October 31 Samhain/Mid-Fall: underworld journey, ancestor spirits—Hallowmas/Halloween (Euro-American), All Souls Day (Christian), Sukkoth (Jewish Harvest). Goddess Festivals: Baba Yaga (Russian), Inanna (Sumer), Hecate (Greek).
A broad revival of Samhain resembling its traditional pagan form began in the 1980s with the growing popularity of Wicca. Wicca celebration of Samhain takes on many forms, from the traditional fire ceremonies to celebrations that embrace many aspects of modern Halloween, as well as activities related to honoring nature or ancestors. Wiccans look at Samhain as the passing of the year, and incorporate common Wiccan traditions into the celebration.
In the Druid tradition, Samhain celebrates the dead with a festival on October 31 and usually features a bonfire and communion with the dead. American pagans often hold music and dance celebrations called Witches’ Balls in proximity to Samhain.
The tradition of “dumb supper” began during this time, in which food was consumed by celebrants but only after inviting ancestors to join in, giving the families a chance to interact with the spirits until they left following dinner. Children would play games to entertain the dead, while adults would update the dead on the past year’s news. That night, doors and windows might be left open for the dead to come in and eat cakes that had been left for them.
Samhain Traditions and Myths Around the World
Halloween (Euro-American): Celebrated in many countries around the world, it often involves dressing up as other creatures or things and galivanting around the neighborhoods. Costume parties are prevalent along with feasts celebrating community and ancestors.
All Souls Day (Christian): Known as the Day of the Dead, traditionally celebrating the day after Samhain on November 1st. It is a day of prayer and remembrance for souls who have passed.
Baba Yaga (Russian): Crone Forest witch famous for living in her hut on chicken legs as support. A matriarchal figure, often seen as a grandmother
forest witch. She is known as many things, a villain, a gatekeeper to the underworld and guide through the forest. She has
Inanna (Sumer): An ancient Mesopotamian goddess of war and love. One of Inanna's heroic stories is that of her travels to the underworld to meet her sister Ereshkigal. She passes through the seven gates of the underworld, leaving one physical item she is wearing off, arriving clad at the final gate. Her sister kills her in the underworld, though her friend above sends two ungendered beings in to speak to Ereshkigal and mourn with her. Ereshkigal revives Inanna, though unable to return to Earth the way she came, a substitute had to be found. Inanna and her husband each spend half the year in the underworld, one marking the Springtime the other heralding in the Fall. The poem of Inanna traveling to the underworld is one of the oldest poems in the world dating back to 3500 B.C. and 1900 B.C.
Hecate (Greek): Goddess of Magic, witchcraft, the moon and guardian of the crossroads. She is also a gatekeeper to the spirit world. Land Beneath the Wave. As well as taking place on Samhain, it features descriptions of the hero’s holiday gatherings.
Samhain Merges with Halloween
Neither new holiday did away with the pagan aspects of the celebration. October 31 became known as All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, and contained much of the traditional pagan practices before being adopted in 19th-century America through Irish immigrants bringing their traditions across the ocean. Trick-or-treating is said to have been derived from ancient Irish and Scottish practices in the nights leading up to Samhain. In Ireland, mumming was the practice of putting on costumes, going door-to-door and singing songs to the dead. Cakes were given as payment. Halloween pranks also have a tradition in Samhain, though in the ancient celebration, tricks were typically blamed on fairies.
Samhain Rituals and How to Celebrate Samhain
Create an Ancestor Altar
- Cloth or veil to lay over your altar area. You can choose the favorite color of your loved one, or take inspiration from the season with fall colors. Blacks, greys, oranges, reds, yellows or stark white as the snow.
- Candles, to light the way and focus your energy.
- If you have them, add items given to you by your ancestors.
- Add photos!
-Food in some cultures is the most important part of their altar. Bake bread for the spirits or cook your ancestor's favorite meal or secret recipe. Remember to leave a slice on the altar for the night.
Once your altar is made, you can honor your ancestors with a ritual. This can be a guided meditation or a simple ceremony of lighting the candles. It's important to remember your ancestors during this time. Sing their favorite songs, and tell stories that live close to your heart.
Storytelling is a long-held tradition and Samhain draws our minds farther back in time. Celebrate Samhain by doing some historical digging into your local area, are there any famous ghosts or haunted houses? This is also a good time to remember whose land this was before you. Learn the native history of your land, retell their stories and those who cultivated your town. Remembering those who have paved the way for you is is a ceremony in and of itself. Look back at your own family’s history? Who were the ancient matriarchs of your family and what are their stories?
Visit a Cemetery
Visit and tend the gravesites of loved ones or strangers. Bring gifts such as stones, flowers, or keepsakes to adorn the cemetery site. Offerings to the dead is upheld in many cultures across time, especially on Samhain!