Monday, October 31, 2011

Samhain: The Origins of Halloween

31st of October, 750 BC
 Evening chases the light from the hills. Beneath the darkness, winter begins to creep, casting a sleep that will sink deeply into the land. It is the night when the veil between the worlds is thinnest. Away from the huts, sticks and branches lean together in what will become a towering blaze. The bonfire signifies light to guide the way as the people enter the dark half of the year, and it protects them from the spirits that come this night to pay a visit to their world. Tonight the ancestors walk once more among them, protecting those who follow in their footsteps. Empty places are left for them to join the living at the feast table. As the living finish the feast, even the wind though the forest seems to hush as the families gather, solemn in the cold. The only sounds are the leaves that crunch underfoot as hooded figures in dark robes step forward, torches in hand. The Druids have come to light the fire. In a moment, the celebration will begin: it is the eve of the New Year for the Ancient Celts.

We've been carving pumpkins since 1837, but carving lanterns from vegetables is a far older tradition in the UK & Ireland, where they stood by the door to ward off spirits. 

You might have heard this time of year also called Samhain, which conjures the image of witches on broomsticks. But Samhain, pronounced Sow-an, is actually an ancient Celtic holiday, celebrated over a two days. For centuries the empire of the Celts stretched from Britain to Turkey and from Spain, Germany and France to Czechoslovakia. Samhain was a time of year to honor the dead and request the spiritual protection of ancestors, valiant warriors and wise chieftains alike. It was believed that during these few days of “between” time (when the light months of summer and fall gave way to the darker months of winter), the spirits could visit our world. Masks and costumes were donned to help the living evade recognition from marauding, malevolent beings of the dead.

To some, this may sound like the stuff of fairy tales. The bonfire and the empty place at the table may seem like vestiges of a long-forgotten age. After all, it was around 1,300 years ago that Pope Gregory III declared October 31st “All Hallows Eve” and November 1st “All Saints Day”—a day to remember saints and martyrs—re-appropriating many of the Celtic pagan practices of Samhain in an effort to gain popular footing for the Catholic Church among a still largely pagan community. But what if I were to tell you that on Halloween night around the world, there is quite literally magic afoot?
A woman communes with the stones at Boscawen-Un stone circle, Summer Solstice, Cornwall, England 

A statue of Celtic sea god Manannan, Isle of Man
Here in America and around the world, despite the passage of time, or perhaps because of it, Samhain and its traditions are alive and well. In fact, on this very night, and perhaps at this very moment, somewhere in the quiet forests near Glastonbury, England, a circle of people in hooded robes are touching a torch to a fire. Somewhere in Seattle, Washington there is a mother telling her child of the people who came before. And somewhere in the hills of Scotland there are figures gathered in a Neolithic stone circle to remember their ancestors. In apartments and parks of our largest cities, in the quiet depths of our forests, in the suburbs of our modern-day world, there are those to whom this holiday marks a magical time of the year. A time when unseen spirits really do walk our world.

For these people, enchantment isn’t fiction, it’s a livable reality.

But who are these people, and why do they believe in such things long forgotten?
Moreover, what are we losing when we discount these ancient practices? When we cast aside our folklore? What might we be missing when we relegate the belief of hidden worlds and sacred ceremonies, the honoring of the seasons and the marking of the cycles of the earth to a world of make believe?

This is what I write about. This is what I love to explore. Welcome to the Faery Tale. 

Signe Pike is a former book editor and the author of Faery Tale: One Woman’s Search for Enchantment in a Modern World. Look for the paperback, on-sale now. You can visit her website at to find out more.