The Pagan History of Halloween
Samhain (pronounced Sow-en), dates back to the ancient Celts who lived 2,000 years ago. Contrary to what some believe, is not a celebra...
Samhain (pronounced Sow-en), dates back to the ancient Celts who lived 2,000 years ago. Contrary to what some believe, is not a celebration of a Celtic god of the dead. Instead, it is a Celtic word meaning "summer's end." The Celts believed that summer came to an end on October 31st and the New Year began on November 1st with the start of winter. But the Celts also followed a lunar calendar and their celebrations began at sunset the night before.
Many today see Halloween as the pagan holiday. But that's not really accurate. As the pagan holiday of Samhain is on November 1st. But their celebrations did and still do, start at sunset on October 31st, on Samhain Eve. During the day on October 31st, the fires within the home are extinguished. Often families would engage in a good "fall" cleaning to clear out the old and make way for the new. Starting the winter months with fresh and clean household items.
At sunset on October 31, clans or local villages begin the formal ceremonies of Samhain by lighting a giant bonfire. The people would gather around the fire to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. It was a method of giving the Gods and Goddesses their share of the previous years herd or crops. In addition these sacred fires were a big part of the cleansing of the old year and a method to prepare for the coming new year.
During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, and danced around the bonfire. Many of these dances told stories or played out the cycles of life and death or commemorated the cycle of Wheel of Life. These costumes were adorned for three primary reasons.
The first was to honor the dead who were allowed to rise from the Otherworld. The Celts believed that souls were set free from the land of the dead during the eve of Samhain. Those that had been trapped in the bodies of animals were released by the Lord of the Dead and sent to their new incarnations. The wearing of these costumes signified the release of these souls into the physical world.
Not all of these souls were honored and respected. Some were also feared as they would return to the physical world and destroy crops, hide livestock or 'haunt' the living who may have done them wrong. The second reason for these traditional costumes was to hide from these malevolent spirits to escape their trickery.
The final representation was a method to honor the Celtic Gods and Goddesses of the harvest, fields and flocks. Giving thanks and homage to those deities who assisted the village or clan through the trials and tribulations of the previous year. And to ask for their favor during the coming year and the harsh winter months that were approaching.
In addition to celebrations and dance, it was believed that this thin veil between the physical world and the Otherworld provided extra energy for communications between the living and the dead. With these communications, Druid Priests, and Celtic Shamans would attempted to tell the fortunes of individual people through a variety of methods. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.
These psychic readings would be conducted with a variety of divination tools. Such as throwing bones, or casting the Celtic Ogham. There is some historical evidence that additional tools of divination were also used. Most of this comes from writings recorded by Roman invaders, but there are stories of reading tea leaves, rocks and twigs, and even simple spiritual communications that today we'd call Channeling. Some historians have suggested that these early people were the first to use tiles made from wood and painted with various images which were the precursor to Tarot Cards. There's no real evidence to support this, but the 'story' of these tiles has lingered for centuries.
When the community celebration was over, each family would take a torch or burning ember from the sacred bonfire and return to their own home. The home fires that has been extinguished during the day were re-lit by the flame of the sacred bonfire to help protect the dwelling and it's inhabitants during the coming winter. These fires were kept burning night and day during the next several months. It was believed that if a home lost it's fire, tragedy and troubles would soon follow.
With the hearth fires lit, the families would place food and drink outside their doors. This was done to appease the roaming spirits who might play tricks on the family.
The Romans began to conquer the Celtic territories. By A.D. 43 they had succeeded in claiming the majority of the Celtic lands. They ruled for approximately four hundred years combining or influencing many Celtic traditional celebrations with their own. Two Roman holidays were merged with Samhain.
Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead.
Pomona's Day of Honoring, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of "bobbing" for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.
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Samhain to Halloween
With the coming of Christianity in the 800s AD, the early Church in England tried to Christianize the old Celtic festivals. Pope Boniface IV designated the 1st of November as "All Saints Day," honoring saints and martyrs. He also decreed October 31 as "All Hallows Eve", that eventually became Hallow'een.
Scholars today widely accept that the Pope was attempting to replace the earlier Celtic pagan festival with a church-sanctioned holiday. As this Christian holiday spread, the name evolved as well. Also called All-hallows Eve or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints' Day). 200 years later, in 1000 AD, the church made November 2 All Souls' Day, a day to honor the dead. It is celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints', All Saints', and All Souls' day, are called Hallowmas.