Pagan Rituals? Samhain & Halloween
It’s always a good time for another round of pagan rituals! The Celtic festival of Lughnasadh has come and gone, putting on a delightful display of blitheness and bannocks and leaving us with a straight run through to the final major Celtic festival of the year: Samhain. Or what has become known in the wider world as ‘Halloween’ – from (All) Hallows’ Eve(ning).
Debate over whether the Irish term Samhain should be used in connection to the pagan symbols of Halloween, or include the various non-Celtic Halloween rituals now seen, has long raged among folklorists. As has their link to the Christian feasts of All Saints’ Day (1 November) and All Souls’ Day (2 November). The question of the true origins and purpose of these late October/early November religious and pagan rituals also provide ample arena for scholarly slugfesting.
Pagan rituals under Christian guise?
Sequestered in the shades of history, the ancient pagan rituals seem set to continue their mockery of the learned. Chambers in realms unknown drenched with the sound of laughter. Nor have the Celts helped the situation by their obtuse refusal to leave any written record on the matter. Or any other, as it happens.
Faced with this obscurity, the layman way out of the confusion has been to see all the various titles and pagan symbols as just other names for Halloween. From this viewpoint, drawing a straight line from antiquity to the present day, the pagan rituals of Samhain and those of modern day Halloween are essentially one in the same.
They stem from the same Celtic festival and the rest is just time and humans muddling everything about, as they will tend to do. And that the original Samhain rituals simply suffered a fate similar to those of Lúnasa and other pagan rituals celebrated by the Celts. Diminutized or incorporated under Christian guise, the significance of the Celtic festival was gradually upstaged by its religious counterparts.
How to pronounce Samhain
Before anyone asks, the correct Samhain pronunciation is Sau-En. Think of a pretty-eyed female specimen of Irish pork, all sated and turning in for the night.
It’s a pretty hard one to get wrong actually, how to pronounce Samhain isn’t among the most requested Irish terms. You know the ones we mean, those infamous Irish terms that look like they have a tongue-twisting 76 syllables (but really only have 2). And which are just so visually daunting to the unfamiliar that they don’t know where to start. Ah, the joys of a language never thoroughly standardized. Perhaps we should do a bit more while we’re at it..
If you want to wish someone a Happy Halloween in Ireland, you say:
Oíche Shamhna Shona Duit (roughly EE-ha How-nah Hu-nah Gwit)
Or, if you’re addressing more than one person:
Oíche Shamhna Shona Daoibh (EE-ha How-nah Hu-nah Gweave)
If you’re speaking Connemara Irish, add a ‘h’ to the D(h)uit/D(h)aoibh. If you’re just trying to not make a complete linguistic fool of yourself, consider partaking in a a pre-Samhain pronunciation Irish flag shot (for courage and oral lubrication purposes).
Then rapidly rustling the words through the back of your throat, that sweet spot where the crème de menthe has just been. Before fleeing the room in a fit of shamefaced humiliation, obviously.
Coming as they do at the end of the light half of the year, Samhain rituals mark the passing of time, pagan symbols for ending the old and beginning the new. The equivalent of New Year’s (see Note 1), the final point on the Celtic calendar, and the last of the pagan rituals to be celebrated.
Pagan symbols flooded your life during these days, from the bannocks, witch cakes and other Samhain recipes you made to various pagan rituals undertaken to appease the spirits, honor your ancestors and mark the closing of the old and the opening of the new. With the time between nightfall on 31 October and nightfall on 1 November being the portal period between the two cycles (and the two worlds).
Although celebrated these days by all manner of costumes, shiny Samhain decorations and misused pagan symbols, Halloween in Ireland was traditionally that kind of feast. Rather, the Samhain ritual was both a celebration and a time of potential harm that had to be endured. The Celtic festival where the realm of the spirits pulls right up beside the realm of the living, for to cause a bit of mayhem.
The pagan rituals of Samhain have been warped by Halloween
You held Samhain rituals with pagan symbols like a communal bonfires, stones, and some kind of sacrifice (see Note 2). You nibbled on Irish tea cake, the fruits of the final harvest, and bannock bread and other manner of witch cake. But more importantly, you cuddled your kin and kept them safe. Because you had duties to do.
If the world of the living and the world of the dead were to stay in balance, you had to throw open your home to any spare soul that might wander in. And left out bannocks for them, too, in case a belligerent ghoul should come knocking in the wee hours. What, millennia later, Hollywood has warped into a pumpkin-headed bad guy named Sam Hain or a particularly evil leprechaun.
Samhain ritual on the rise
The stock of both the Samhain ritual and Halloween have seen a mercurial rise in recent decades, cementing their place as one of the more important pagan rituals and a major holiday for the masses. Following North America’s path, mainstream Halloween rituals translate into big business these days in most Western countries, with their reach extending further by the year.
Ask someone from Germany or Italy whether they’d even heard of Halloween twenty-five years ago. Now it’s a major night on the calendar! And the more westernized parts of Asia have been quick to follow suit.
Not too shabby considering Halloween in Ireland typically meant carving out turnips (not pumpkins) and getting chased about the place by all the dead people you’d shafted over the years. The proud and ferocious Celts thank you from beyond the grave, ultra-capitalist marketeers eager to fill the lull between back-to-school spending and the winter holidays.
Halloween rituals now global
Relating the current take on Halloween rituals to Irish of bygone times would surely be to induce but put-downs and ear boxes. In fact, even just the growth of that special March festival – the one where everyone suddenly goes a queasy green, for a period of similar length to the Halloween buzz – would have been unfathomable for many. Let alone that two major US festivities would have their origins in fair Erin’s Isle.
Add in the Irish connection to Valentine’s Day and you start to get an inkling of how successfully Irish-Americans have played their hand since becoming bona fide white in the last century. Safely embedded in the status quo, the popish horde quietly set about swarming WASP country. That’s just the Irish buzz, we guess.
And if you are going to make general the celebration of a particular culture, the charming yet indeterminable (and in some cases, terminal) condition diagnosed as ‘Irish’ makes for quite a flexible option. With a lack of fixed cultural delineation meaning the Irish identity is more inclusive than most.
Come now, my Ethiopian, Incan, Siamese queen, won’t you dance this Samhain ritual with us?
Pagan rituals and the ANTIblog as literary space
Being committed to the ANTIblog concept, we will always look to combine different fields, drawing on any elements that might help in forming new perspectives – or expanding old. To this end, below is a bardic triptych of Halloween poems, our first purely literary contribution to the Irish Buzz project. The good folk over at Every Writer run a competition each year for the best fifty-word Halloween poems, so we thought we’d give it a whirl.
Through three very different generations of Irish, the three Halloween poems approach the autumn harvest rituals in their full historical perspective. From their origins as a purely Celtic festival to what Halloween in Ireland looks like today. The fragments speak of honor, hope, and the true horror of modern Ireland.
The Samhain Trilogy
Beseechment alone flows these veins: Realm of Horror, be swept from my door another year.
I beg on humbled knee and cajole with fiery limb: Be rid, that my clan may live unterrored.
Your bidding lies executed, observe this blood drenched blade, this order obeyed.
Will you free us not?
My humble ancestors, with reverence and dread of heart, pleaded your mercy.
Yet you cease to plague, in New World as in Old.
I must honor your evil: Hallowed respite it brings.
For my living goodness depends on it.
And that of clan, tribe, culture.
Woe that it were otherwise.
Gimme that mask! Look how spooky I look: Buau waa ha ha haa. Real pagan style, like those guys in the Celtic fairy tales. Can’t wait for tonight: My brother is coming as Voldemort and Siobhán is McGonagall! How did we manage before Harry Potter? I’m telling you, it’s scary.
Note 1. The scholarly debate over whether Samhain performed this New Year’s function for the Celts is perhaps the bone of most contention. Whilst most agree that the Samhain ritual marked a pinnacle celestial point on the calendar of the ancients, many highlight the problems of aligning these calendars with those we use today (and which have one ‘new’ year point). Equidistant from each other on the lunar cycle, both Samhain and Beltane ( 1 May) seem to have been equally important pivots in the Celtic year.
It has also been suggested that rather than being an important date revered by all Celts, Samhain may have performed the role of New Year’s only for Irish Celts and others whom relied heavily on herding. Cattle were led into their winter quarters at this time of year, and brought out again when the light part of the year returned. Seen as but an important date for herders and not a broader Celtic festival, Samhain intriguingly has a direct counterpart beyond its cultural boundaries, in the feast of Walpurgisnacht still celebrated today in the traditional Germanic heartland.
Note 2. The jury is still out on whether the flesh sacrificed by the Celts was solely animal in origin or was occasionally spiced up by a bit of human hot sauce. Actually, we lie. The jury is not out, it has been bribed away off the case by the opaque nature of the distant past. Because it is highly likely that on some occasions the Celts most definitely did ritually kill certain members of the community.
However, whether this was done systematically and on a basis sanctioned by the powers and codes of Celtic society is a completely different question altogether. The execution of a banished criminal who refuses to leave but instead commits further crimes is surely akin to the criminal codes of many countries in the world today. And quite far from the concept of singling out a neighbor you’re not too fond or raising a kind of human livestock for eventual slaughter.