The ancient origins of Halloween
S is for Samhain
Pronounced similar to "sow-wen." (With "sow" like a female pig.) There is a lot of discussion about the "right" way to pronounce it, mostly explained by slight regional differences across the British Isles.
It's definitely not Sam Hane, Supernatural. Ugh, I know y'all had writers who knew that pronunciation was wrong, which makes it A Choice.
Now, let's get one thing clear from the start. Samhain is not Halloween. The former is a religious holy day while the latter is a secular, commercial holiday. But I, in my totally non-Pagan capacity (2023 update: okay somewhat pagan capacity), see the two as similar to religious/secular celebrations of Christmas. (Noting the fact that secular Christmas itself has roots in paganism)
They share a common origin, and modern pagan celebrations of Samhain are also quite different from those performed thousands of years ago. So are they the same? Of course not. But Halloween owes its existence and many of its traditions to early Samhain.
It's impossible to put an exact date on the beginnings of Samhain. But it's old.
It's older than Christmas. It's older than Passover. It's even older than many other new year celebrations. It’s age rivals that of Diwali (like Samhain, another new year celebration) - which is usually credited as the oldest holiday still widely celebrated.
Samhain originated in Ireland and was celebrated by the Celts, but there’s reason to believe it was celebrated by the earliest inhabitants of the island even before the Celtic people arrived. It is celebrated at approximately the midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice, and marks the end of summer and the harvest and is the beginning of a new year. Along with Beltane on the opposite side of the calendar, it’s one of the times of the year when the veil separating the worlds is at its thinnest.
Photo by Dan Roizer on Unsplash
Most of the traditions we now associate with secular Halloween are hundreds of years old, and originated in old Celtic traditions surrounding Samhain:
Masks and costumes are long-associated with Samhain. Some say that the costumes are meant to confuse evil spirits. If they think you’re one of them hopefully they’ll pass you by. Others say that guising is just a fun way to get into a bit of mischief - the fact that the mischief-makers were unrecognizable was just a bonus.
The original Celtic carvings were not from pumpkins - a new world fruit - but rather turnips. They were placed to scare away evil spirits. This sounds really adorably spoopy and if it didn’t sound so painful to hollow out a turnip enough to place an ember inside I would totally do it.
Even trick-or-treating may be traced back to Samhain, with families setting out food for their ancestors and people going door-to-door for donations.
Much like Dia de Muertos, I don't feel comfortable sharing the celebrations and customs of modern Pagans, as I'm not really one myself. I'd rather direct traffic to actual pagans!
Many people think of paganism as being something ancient and long since eradicated, but, in the United States, it's actually one of the fastest growing religious groups, following "unaffiliated."
Paganism is an umbrella term that encompasses many different belief systems. Most people are aware of Wicca, but that's just one approach to modern paganism. Some of these religions celebrate Samhain and others do not. For obvious reasons, I’ll focus on the former below:
- Humanistic Paganism describes the importance of Samhain and quotes several other pagan voices as well.
- Ways to celebrate Samhain from Circle Sanctuary.
- Lipstick and Quartz goes into much of the history as I did above but also some advice for manifesting. (my note: What does it mean that I want to dress like Jessie from Team Rocket? Am I just craving the chance to catch a Pikachu? To denounce the evils of truth and love? To become a sensational actress? To run around with a zillion giant robots despite being broke? answer: All of the above)
- At The Wild Hunt, author Storm Faerywolf discusses the significance to him of Samhain and Halloween as a queer pagan.
- In the Southern Hemisphere they celebrate Beltane at this time of the year, and Samhain during their fall season, in May, as explained on the Other Side (can I note how perfect a blog name this is for an Australian pagan given how much emphasis is placed on the northern hemisphere when it comes to things like the Wheel of the Year?)