A Happy SAMHAIN to all on this day! I often cringe at using the term ‘Halloween’ because that is honestly a corruption of the original holiday. Samhain (sounds like ‘sow-when’) loosely translates as ‘first fire’ in Irish Gaelic. When the Holy Roman Empire began to Christianize us unruly Pagans under Constantine, Pagan holidays were simply re-named and re-packaged. So, Samhain became ‘All Hallow’s Eve’. Now, Halloween. This is a very popular observance in our culture, but so few know what is is really about.
Samhain is the main spiritual holiday for the ancient Celts (and for us modern pagans). It has many facets, all of which are integrated into a vibrant whole. First, it is the Celtic New Year. To the ancients, life was dependent on the harvest, the birth of livestock, the change of the seasons. This is the time past Autumn Equinox when the season begins to shift towards winter. It is the time when the last of the harvest is brought in and prepared for the winter months. It is the time when the ‘veils between worlds’ was though to be at their thinnest, and the spirits of their ancestors could be felt.
It is that liminal space of summer to winter; from light to dark; from life to death and death to life, that was such a critical perspective to the Celts. It is the awareness of BALANCE, and of perpetual cycles in nature and in ourselves, that is reflected in the hearth beliefs of the Celts (to whom I feel a tremendous connection, among other cultures) In our observance of Samhain, we honor our dead as we welcome life (in the form of giving thanks for the bounty we have labored to produce). The neverending cycle of life and death, of re-birth and re-generation from the memories of our ancestors, is the essence of Samhain.
I honor the icons of the Dagda and the Morrigan from ancient Irish folk/ myth as part of my Samhain observance. The Dagda represents the future and life- Dagda of the Cauldron of Plenty that feeds the tribes from its never-empty cauldron (this represents the harvest). The mighty Club of the Dagda could take life, but with its handle can restore life. Dagda was a ‘god’ of agriculture, fertility, strength, and protection.
The Morrigan, the Battle Crow, the Phantom Queen, represents War, Soveriegnity, and is the Chooser of the Slain- she escorts the souls of the fallen, and the dead, to the Summerlands (the Celt ‘afterlife’). She represents the ‘dead’, the balance of life. As she cares for the souls of the dead (particularly those who fall in battle and strife), she restores the cycle of death and rebirth, as one cannot exist without the other.
At this time images of skulls, skeletons, ghouls and ghosts are prevalent, and are imprinted in our collective unconscious at this time of year. We may be modern, but our deeply rooted connections to the way our ancestors perceived the balance of life and death are very much embedded into our very DNA. It isn’t just the Celts, of course, many cultures had this understanding, but this particular holiday, our Samhain, is pure Celt.
Here is what Samhain IS NOT:
1) the ‘devils’ holiday’. This is nonsense, and insulting. For one thing, there is no ‘devil’ in the belief system of a real hearth pagan. This is mostly a Judeo-Christian dynamic, not a pagan one (by the way we are not ‘anti-Christian’ contrary to what many think). Sub-human savages who play off of this ‘devil’s day’ stupidity and use this sacred holiday to enact repulsive acts such as animal sacrifice, violence, and intentionally harmful actions have nothing to do with pagans and our beliefs. I cannot and will not tolerate scumbags who do this. I put them in the same boat as imbeciles who ’embrace’ paganism and call themselves a ‘pagan’ for the express purpose of ‘pissing off those Christians’. This is childish and ignorant. These are not ‘pagans’. These are idiots.
2) ‘a culturally misappropriated stolen holiday’. Also complete fabrication. If anyone did hijack this holiday, it is the IRISH who are the victims of it. I have heard all too much of this recently: ‘whitey STOLE this holiday from the Mexican people, because it is Dia de Los Muertos, and they turned it to Halloween’. I almost hate to write about this it is so ludicrous, but I have actually heard this lately. How could an ancient culture observing this holiday thousands of years before Roman occupation, steal it from a New World civilization half way around the world? The ignorance is blinding. Yes, MesoAmerican cultures had this similiar tradition of venerating the ancestors as a holiday, in the same way that the Celts did. The Spaniards recorded this when they arrived in the New World; I’m sure some of their historians may have noted the similiarities with the ancient Celt-European traditions. The difference is this particular Meso/Aztec observance was historically done in the summer (as recorded by the Spaniards). It was moved to November to coincide with All Soul’s Day when Catholicism was imported to the New World (many thousands of years after the Celts had been observing Samhain). NOT THE SAME HOLIDAY, and done differently by different cultures. The veneration of the dead is ever-present in the Hispanic tradition (the skull and skeleton iconography is a big part of it). Now, I greatly enjoy this tradition too, and the vibrant artwork and festivities associated with it are enjoyable and very symbolic of the rich cultures we have here in Arizona. It is an important component of our cultural framework here. But, it ISN’T SAMHAIN, and no one ‘co-opted’ any holiday (though, technically, it WAS co-opted from us Pagans, but water under the bridge…..)
Today on this sacred holiday I invite you to reflect on your hopes and dreams for the New Year, and to think about your ancestors or loved ones you have lost. As we honor our dead, we bring them ‘to life’ in the form of their memories, and the knowledge and wisdom we have learned from them. As we enjoy the fruits of our harvest, we pay homage to the never-ending cycles of life and death, light and dark, and know that the more we live within that balance, and honor our place within it, we too shall exist forward- in this life and the next.
Blessed Samhain to you!