Samhain and the pagan roots of Halloween

A traditional Samhain turnip lantern
The origins of our modern Halloween can be traced back over 2,000 years to the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain

It’s that time of the year when carved out pumpkins adorn window ledges and houses are decorated with all kinds of creatures of the night. Children dress up in scary costumes before heading towards their neighbour’s front door and declaring ‘trick or treat’ in the hope of securing some sugary goodies. It is of course the time of Halloween, a celebration marked across the globe on the night of 31 October.

The origins of our modern Halloween can be traced back over 2,000 years to the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-in’), traditionally celebrated on 1 November. The Celts lived across a large area from Britain and Ireland to northern France. They were a farming and agricultural people whose year was defined by the growing seasons.

The word Samhain translates as ‘summer’s end’ and the festival marked the changing of the seasons when the harvest was over and winter was beginning. The celebration was one of four major festivals on the Celtic calendar, along with Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasa. If Beltane was a summer festival for the living, Samhain was very much an autumnal festival for the dead.

With the luscious green world around them gradually being replaced with the colour brown, the coldest months of the year lay ahead and the Ancient Celts associated this period of transition with death. With nature dying around them, the Celts believed the boundary between our world and the Otherworld was at its thinnest during this time.

Souls of the dead, known as the Aos Sí (pronounced ‘Ees Shee’), were freed from the land of the dead on the night before Samhain, October 31. The spirits crossed over into our world to roam the earth once again. It was believed that the ghosts, who were feared and respected in equal measure, needed to be appeased if the people were to survive the coming winter.

A giant bonfire was lit and crops and animals were burnt as sacrifices to them, whilst people left food and drink outside their homes for the Aos Sí. Tables were also laid inside people’s homes with places left for the spirits to come dine with them. This was known as a ‘Dumb Supper’, the dumb referring to silence as family members prayed to their ancestors who now supposedly joined them around the table.

Afterwards, the unconsumed food left for the spirits would often be given to those less fortunate in the village. People would knock on doors and ask for any leftovers, supposedly creating the early practice of trick-or-treating.

It was custom to dress up in costume during the festival as a way of both honouring the good spirits and hiding from the malevolent ones. For example, if someone you didn’t get on with had just passed away, you’d wear a mask so their revengeful spirit couldn’t find you.

The festival was compulsory for all; those who didn’t participate risked angering the gods and village officials. The importance of Samhain cannot be understated, for the Celts believed the occasion dictated the outcome of the coming months. If the gods were unhappy with you they wouldn’t bless the village or its harvest.

Amongst the feasting and drinking, people gathered to tell tales and stories about heroes and gods. Many famous tales in Irish mythology happened on Samhain including The Second Battle of Mag Tuired and The Adventures of Nera. The former sees the gods of the Celtic pantheon known as the Tuatha de Danann clash with their supernatural enemies called the Fomorians; the battle takes place over Samhain. The latter sees warrior Nera accept a challenge from the king during Samhain, which takes him to the Otherworld. Nera is shown a dark vision of what is to come, allowing the hero time to warn the king to prevent the prophecy from coming true.

This theme of divination runs through Samhain. With the doorway open to the Otherworld during the festival, it was a time when druid priests communicated with the dead in the hope of making predictions for the future. As long as the prophecies were good, the people were provided with a well-needed source of comfort with the long, dark winter lying in wait.

According to the myths and legends surrounding Samhain, it wasn’t just ghosts who roamed the land during this time but also a variety of creatures and monsters. One was a shape-shifting creature called Púca, who often kidnapped children. Although it could take the shape of a multitude of animals from cats to cows, it often appeared in the form of a dark horse with luminescent golden eyes. To keep your house safe, harvest offerings were left far away from the village to appease Púca and prevent it from coming close to your family.

Depicted as a vengeful headless woman dressed in white, The Lady Gwyn and her black pig chased anyone caught wandering around at night during Samhain. Continuing the headless theme, The Dullahan rode on the back of a flame-eyed black horse whilst holding his decapitated head in his hands. Using a human spine as a whip and pulling a wagon made of human bone and tissue, The Dullahan was said to be an omen of death. If he stopped riding near your home it meant someone nearby would die. He’d call out their name and in doing so summon the soul from the person marked for death; the body would then drop to the ground dead.

When the festival was over, people re-lit their hearth fires (which they'd previously extinguished on Samhain night) with embers taken from the giant communal fire. Not only was this act a way of banishing evil and protecting the home for the coming winter, but it also bonded the community together with the fire in every house lit from the same source.

As Christianity spread, the early Church in England began to Christianise the old Celtic festivals. All Saints’ Day (or All Hallows’ Day) was officially switched in the 9th Century AD from 13 May to 1 November, the same day as Samhain. The night before became All Hallows’ Eve, later shortened to Halloween. Some of the Celtic pagan traditions were kept or merged as a way of easing the conversion process.