As Samhain draws to a close for another year, it is a time to reflect on the origins of this pagan celebration and what it meant to those who, over centuries maintained the traditions and rites synonymous with this feast in Ireland.
Samhain (pronounced Sow-en) would begin at sunset on 31st October and end at sunset on 1st November, signalling the beginning of a new year. It is one of four major celebrations during the Celtic year and signifies the end of summer.
This was a time when cattle were brought in and slaughtered for the winter months, the bitter cold and poor pasture leaving farmers no choice.
The ceremonies for Samhain were intertwined – the light and dark, protections against bad spirits and misfortune and a welcome for the dead to return.
As with Beltane, at the heart of Samhain is the customary communal bonfire. The fire was a protection ritual, to purge bad fortune and influence and to defend from harm during the long hard winter.
All house fires would be quenched, the central fire the only one alight. Each family would take a burning ember from the bonfire, carried in a hollowed out turnip and use it to reignite their own hearth, instilling the same protection and cleansing into their own homes and lives.
The bones of slaughtered cattle would be cast onto the fire as an offering for a good winter and objects symbolising wishes or ailments would be thrown on the flames, individuals hoping to be cured or receive their hearts desires.
Samhain is the time of year when the curtain between our world and the next becomes so fragile that the both the fairies and the dead can take a simple step between realms.
Many of the dead were welcomed back into the family fold with open arms, a place set for returning souls to sit at the table. This was known as a Dumb Supper and all living guests were to dine in silence, listening and watching for a word or sign from their dearly departed.
The fear for celebrants was that of course malevolent spirits could also cross over as could the Devil himself. These evil entities were thought to wreak havoc on the villages by making cattle sick and bringing disease to households so ‘guising’ would be carried out as a symbolic gesture to hide from those not wanted.
A typical costume was the Láir Bhán (White Mare) which would consist of a man covered in a white cloth, carrying a horse’s skull in his hands. He would lead a group of youths from farm to farm blowing on cow horns and asking for food. Woe betide any farmer who refused for he would be cursed with bad luck for the coming year.
As well as the dead, homeowners had to contend with the fairies travelling abroad to create mischief on this most ethereal of nights. Gifts in the form of food or milk would be left on doorsteps to guarantee a fairy blessing. Anyone foolish enough to not do so would be subject to pranks by the cheeky wee folk at best and victim to a fairy curse at worst.
It was these beliefs and traditions that led us to trick or treating and costumes in today’s Halloween, so a fistful of sweets for protection from mischief and misfortune is a small price to pay don’t you think?