Monday, October 7, 2013

What's Samhain?

There's one in every crowd: someone who says, "Pfft, look at all this commercialised crap! Halloween was invented by the candy companies, just like Valentine's Day was invented by the greeting card companies." Not so fast fellow anti-consumerist skeptic! It's actually got a lot of substance to it. Here are some interesting things to consider while you drink your cocktail out of a festive plastic skull and nom your entire years' allotment of candy in one go. 


This site kinda reminds me of what the Internet was like
10+ years ago, a.k.a. when I was in the 6th grade and
really into Wicca. Source: Wiccan Universe
The dark holiday goes back a long way, and no, the Celts with whom it originated weren't witches and/or Satan worshippers, though they did tend to be druids. It was all very black metal.

Christianity was introduced to Britain by the Roman emperor Tiberius in 37 AD and presumably to Ireland, Scotland and Wales at around the same time, but it didn't have much of an effect for quite a while. For example, the ubiquitous patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick, wasn't sent to said epically brutal pagan nether-regions until 432, and though the earliest surviving records of the goings-on of Samhain date back to the 10th century, something like it probably existed long before then.

The whole reason All Hallows' Eve (followed by Hallows' Day/Hallowmas) falls when it does is - as I'm sure many would assume - so that the Christian religion could be integrated more easily into that of the pagans. The same thing happened in Mexico (and throughout Latin America); Samhain and el día de los muertos are essentially the same pre-Christian polytheistic holiday centered around the harvest and the reverence of ancestors and the recently deceased. That right there was a pretty big chunk of what people had in their lives to celebrate back then. Isn't it interesting how independent, organic beliefs were at various times quite similar in many places around the world until one religion (and some of its patriarchal predecessors) that supposedly preaches equality, understanding and brotherhood condemned, alienated and destroyed so many of them? Well, anyway.

"Samhain" (pronounced "sowen") is an interesting word etymologically in that it refers to the month of November and specifically the first, breaking down to "end of summer" in both Old Irish and Scottish Gaelic. There is some debate about this, however, because linguists really love to pick apart old mysteries to which they'll probably never know the answers, and the word may also derive from "assembly". I say some clever druids probably noticed that it covered both bases: an assembly to celebrate the end of the lighter half of the year. Bam, done.

One of the most universal aspects of Samhain celebrations - the bonfire - remains a popular Halloween tradition today. Makes sense. I mean, you're either a sensible enough adult and don't want your feet to get cold while sitting outside waiting for trick-or-treaters, or you're at that age where you don't want the night to go by without seeing something explode.
"Samhnagan", in Scottish Gaelic, were fairly common throughout what is now the U.K., but on Samhain, they would be used as part of a cleansing ritual in preparation for what many neo-pagans today consider the New Year. People would walk or even drive their animals between two adjacent bonfires to ward off evil and sickness. The leaders of Celtic tribes spent the day assessing how much food would need to be gathered and stored for the winter, which also meant slaughtering livestock, and in many cases it was believed that the bones of the slain animals (mostly cattle, the most valuable and important) were cast into the fires that night during the celebrations.


Moderately terrifying guisers.
Source: Underneath the Juniper Tree
There are many variations of this, including accounts of people jumping over fires and rocks - one to represent each person in the village - that were placed around the fires.

There was a feast the night of Samhain, and in many cases places were set for the dead and stories of their lives were told. Because this night marks the transition between the lighter and darker halves of the year, the barrier between this world and the next (or Otherworld) is said to be at its thinnest. In an attempt to confuse and fend off evil spirits that would otherwise mosey on through along with grandma and grandpa, young Scottish men began, basically, wearing masks and dressing like ghosts. They were called "guisers" (not to be confused with "geysers") and did this commonly at least as early as the 1500's. By the 1800's, kids were doing it, and going door to door and entertaining people (because by then the idea of otherworldly evil and getting rid of it weren't quite as popular) in exchange for some food or coins.

These kids carried lanterns made of hollowed-out turnips, and carving faces into rutabagas and placing them in the window with a candle inside had also been common for a while by the time the first trick-or-treaters came about.

The idea of spirits and demons transcending realms is still one of the most important aspects of these celebrations throughout the world today. Mexicans often spend the night in graveyards at the headstones of their ancestors or recently-deceased loved ones, fondly remembering them, telling stories, and bringing a broad range of offerings, from food to other things the person loved such as cigarettes and liquor. Altars are also erected in various places for this purpose.

A lovely Samhain altar. Visit the site for instructions on how to build one!
Source: Carolan Ivey Blog
Similarly, neo-pagans put out candles in front room windows and leave simple offerings of food outside to guide spirits along while simultaneously keeping them from entering the house. Apparently, with the veil between worlds being so thin, they end up wandering the streets and would get lost without this kind of guidance. People who celebrate this holiday often make resolutions for the New Year that night or the following day, much like the rest of us in the West do on the first of January. 

All kinds of games and forms of divination that are supposed to tell the future have also been common since the early days of these celebrations, including dropping an egg white into a glass of water to determine how many children you'd have. Some might be familiar with this from reading The Crucible; this is basically the same practice that got the main characters and their maid Tituba into so much trouble.


Pagan Pages: Oracles and Omens
Because apples and nuts were (and still are) tasty seasonal treats, predictions were also made using nutshells and apple peels, mostly concerning things such as who a girl's future husband would be and if they would remain together. Bobbing for apples or trying to grab them with your mouth as they hang from strings has also been common since ancient times. Romans actually brought the first apple trees to the British Isles along with Christendom, and because the seed pattern inside sort of looks like a pentagram when the apple is sliced in half, its orientation was yet another way of determining who and when someone would marry. 

The pentagram/pentacle is the universal symbol of Wicca, representing the five elements and many other things, including fertility in this context. In another highly relevant example of how Christianity has superimposed itself onto this pagan holiday, it's interesting to note that Christians once used it to represent the wounds of Jesus. And on a lighter note, apples also used to be thrown at weddings (I mean like, ow) before rice was used. 


2016 update: the festive spread I put out for Mabon, or the autumnal equinox, the holiday on the pagan calendar before Samhain. In it you can see what I'm talking about with the apples and imagine the smell of white sage, root vegetables, and nuts.


So, there you have it. If you're not a particularly festive person and you're wondering why in the hell you're dressing your boy up as Buzz Lightyear and handing Reese's Cups out to all the obnoxious neighbouhood kids who come to your door demanding free shit, chastise you for not having cooler death-themed decorations and later throw eggs at your garage door, well... I guess this covers most of it. If nothing else, it explains why there's dried pumpkin guts in your kitchen tile grout, right?

(Originally published 11.1.12)