Samhain Rituals – Irish Food Traditions
It’s trendy these days to cite food, or more precisely ‘foodism’, as the new religion. Something that people can truly believe in, and which unites rather than divides. It sounds mighty quotable, but few seem to be posing the obvious follow-on question: When was it not so? The various Samhain rituals revolving around food are a good case in point, helping to induce as they do a civic unity among the community but also a broader, spiritual uniting. For ancient Celt and neopagan alike.
Admittedly, the food itself is not the actual religion. Rather Samhain ritual food played a symbolic role in the Celtic festival, providing a means of worship. Food often does.
Samhain ritual cycle
But as part of a civilization with a circular worldview, where each element of life bleeds into the next, the role and homage given to food during Celtic festivals is hard to overestimate. Samhain rituals not only had food at their heart but also intoxicated all other organ, dripping from every pore.
And on all levels.
The freshly harvested yields and the Samhain recipes concocted from them kept community, body, and mind together. Symbolically, literally, and spiritually. With work halted and feasting initiated, hardworking humans together ate the fruit of their labor. Feeding all parts of the local body, itself composed of many smaller parts. Homage offerings of food were made to the blessed nature that gives life, the living that live that life, and the dead that have lived.
As the wheel turned, each cog that nourished it received nourishment.
The final major Celtic festival of the year, these Samhain rituals saw the community, the body of the people, fed as a whole, while feeding each individual body its own right. Then, as the wheel continued to spin, all parts of that smaller human body – spirit, heart, head – were in turn fed by the flow of food and cheer taking place, and rejuvenated by the various Samhain rituals enacted.
And it was important to do so. Pagan rituals such as Samhain were natural stops on the tour of the year. Part of the ordered calendar of the hardworking human of the fields. Just as that human was part of a much larger orbit.
Everyone had their role to play. If you did so, you got what was warranted. Man, beast or spirit.
As above, so below.
All part of the even greater wheel on which the Celtic world turned.
The worldview underlying its societal structure, part of a self-contained civilization that understood its place in the even greater, galactic organism.
Cog within cog within cog, each one of them a part in a cycle long ago set in motion, and eternally spinning on.
You are born from the world of the spirits – a tragedy, having to leave that hallowed place. You live on earth, on this tangible leg of the cycle. Then you are recycled back into a realm beyond this world – to be celebrated, for you are no longer subject to the want and suffering of being human.
No matter which kind of cog you were, you had a part to play if the larger wheels and those of the Samhain ritual were to turn smoothly. And food was your grease.
Samhain rituals with meat
To a warrior society like that of the Celts, the annual Samhain rituals would have included competing against your brethren in various sporting events. Similar to the Lúnasa festival, vain neck-bearded machos attempting to outdo each other in shows of athleticism. The Celtic festival offered more variety through, and seems to have originated not from veneration of any one god or for any single part of Celtic society but rather as a kind of annual meeting for the various streams of life.
So it was that for three days before and after Samhain ‘night’ (or rather, more specifically, the hours between sundown on 31 October and sundown the next day), feasting, fire, sacrifice, games and competitions would take over a hill near you. Renowned for their cavalry and veneration of the equine, the rituals of the Celts also appear to have placed horse racing at the center of proceedings.
Pagan rituals for New Year’s?
If the early harvest festival of Lunasa was about the land, Samhain could be said to be about the beasts fed by that land. With winter beginning to howl on your doorstep, the end of October saw cattle led down from the summer pastures. It was a time to take stock. Literally so, farmer cog assessing his herd, deciding which of these smaller cogs would be slaughtered to make ends meet.
So central was meat to the Samhain celebrations that there is some debate among scholars over whether the Celtic festival actually did mark New Year’s, or rather was simply the most important date for herders. Our piece Pagan Rituals? Samhain & Halloween goes into the scholarly debate more deeply, but the ‘ultimate’ answer has been lost in the indistinct echoes of prehistory. It would, however, explain why the significance of Samhain rituals varied across what remained of the Celtic Empire.
In any case, for the Celts of Ireland, where cattle made up a significant proportion of economic output until well into the twentieth century, the Samhain ritual would surely have been the year’s most important.
Pagan symbols: A dying art
It is clear from what we do know that some Samhain rituals certainly involved the blood and flesh of beings. With the subjects of these sacrifices ranging from cattle to humans. As discussed in our piece on the pagan rituals linking Samhain and Halloween as its modern-day equivalent, there is evidence to suggest that the Celts did on occasion sacrifice humans in a ritual way. Whether this was done in an ad hoc manner, as part of society’s disciplinary code – to execute a criminal or unwanted element, say – or in a more systematic, ritualized way is open to debate.
In most cases, it is probable that animals played the role of sacrificial flesh, with evidence pointing to sheep or poultry as the weapons of choice for such Samhain rituals. The blood of the animal being splashed across the threshold and their flesh being eaten by the family inside.
Because, beyond the gorier visuals of slaughter and sacrifice, the acts of making the various Samhain recipes and eating them as ritual dictated were themselves the most important pagan symbols of the festival. These were the Irish food traditions that brought meaning and sustenance to your existence.
You of course thanked the gods for their favor and lauded your labor, by sharing the fruits of it with them, offering it up. But, moreover, you showed the gods just how thankful you really were – by getting stuck into some seriously tasty Irish dishes.
And never wasting a morsel.
If you killed a cow, you sacrificed some parts and used everything else. Not just because they were hard to come by, but because you were honored to be given such gifts and wanted the universe to know it. Samhain rituals involving ceremoniously burning a cowhide, with each member of the community taking a sniff of the smoke, have been noted by many commentators.
The ritual finds an unlikely modern-day counterpart in North Dublin. Where, after one quadruple vodka too many, leather-jacketed locals have been known to tip themselves into the bonfire, their equally spirited buddies breathing in the fumes during the rescue attempt.
Samhain rituals with grain
Samhain rituals that work with the flesh of the land were central to celebrations, but just like the other Celtic festivals of the year, those involving the fruit of the land were also of importance. Because the Irish food traditions that came out at Samhain were all about procedure. The process of mindfully working with and consuming all that the gods have allowed you to reap from the land.
In this way, everything you ate during this Celtic festival became kind of pagan symbols. Each dish prepared and each bite eaten took on a ritual significance, and acted as an expression of your gratitude and respect. Framed by the mirth and symbolism of the festivities, the cogs of the wheel got even smaller. Each hand or mouthful a little duty and celebration in itself.
You offered the spirits their fair share, too. Either by leaving a proportion of the crop in the earth or placing before them breads and other grain offerings. For the spirits were to feast with you, that was the point – the secret recipe of living a successful human life.
Our siblings from way back then seem to have known something which the greed and selfishness of our society suggests we have largely forgotten: You took without giving back at your peril.
Irish tea cake
Samhain recipes such as bannocks and what the world now calls Irish tea cake were central to the pagan rituals of the day. Endowed as they were with this general sense of ritual harvesting, preparing, and eating, but also as receptacles for more direct pagan symbols. Ones that had an immediate impact.
Irish tea cake, or Barmbrack, came loaded with various trinkets that the bean an tí (lady of the house) worked into the mix before baking. Whatever you found in your slice of witch cake told of what fortunes you could expect of the year ahead. Wield the coin and prepare for wealth, swallow a stick and an unhappy marriage was on the horizon. Scrape a piece of cloth out of your portion and brace yourself for but poverty in the coming twelve months.
These were traditional Irish desserts with a purpose! And in a time when superstition reigned, they may have seriously impacted your mindset. This is also a Samhain ritual that has survived to the present day, and is popular among Irish families generally – not just those treading a neopagan course. And in fact lives on in other parts of the world, notably in the Serbian bread tradition of Česnica.
Of course, in ultra modern, rational Ireland the implications of this parlor game aren’t taken too seriously these days. Which mightn’t be a bad thing everything considered – some theories point to such parlor games as being used to select who was to be ritually sacrificed during Celtic festivals!
Samhain rituals for reflection
During the days of the Samhain ritual, you interacted with your food in a kind of suspended-in-space, timeless kind of way. Or rather, in an ‘all times’ kind of way. Pan-temporal. And to help you in your transporting endeavor, each of the special Samhain recipes was your time machine.
These were recipes made especially only at this feast, which you ate with gusto in this crowning moment of high spirits and celebration. While not forgetting to reflect upon where the food came from. Its entire process from to sprout to mouth
…that which was also your process! For through the grace of the gods and hard toil, you and those around you had brought this blessed food into existence.
The Samhain recipes which you’ve baked for the occasion, be they scones, bannock bread or Irish tea cake thus bring forth a sense of gratitude and solace. Just that little bit of ease and security, allowing you as they do a brief glimpse into your role in the grand scheme. Although the world you inhabit is one of great volatility and forces you cannot comprehend, nor hope to battle, fear not. For you are part of that strength, not merely at its mercy.
It must be so, look at all you’ve produced!
That which you now ingest did on so many wet mornings and dull afternoons ingest the labor and consciousness you brought to it. What a long time ago that seems! And here you now sit, with these fruits, at your ease, completely in the now. Yet looking onto it once again, to tell you of a future which you cannot yet see.
Your Irish toil in Irish fields brought about grain for Irish baking, now you ended this leg of the relationship with respect and a heart open to hearing in which direction you may be led. And the direction which your community as a larger organism would head, as the reflection and divination of course took place as a communal activity.
More Irish baking divination came in the form of the particular bannocks prepared during the Samhain ritual. The calendar saw four major Celtic festivals during the year, with each calling for a certain bannock recipe. And like scoffing cheese before bedtime, the Samhain bread – made from oats and containing a fair amount of salt – ensured that the unmarried had lively dreams to divine.
But only if you ate these plain little pagan symbols in a manner that reflected the proper ritual: last thing at night, in three bites and followed by heading to bed in total silence. Nor were you were to drink any fluids afterwards, leaving it to your future husband or wife to come to you in your dreams, bearing an offering that would quench the flame of longing inside you.
Bannock bread variations
As a folk ritual, variations in the procedure are naturally seen in different parts. Some have the unmarried women in the family bake this witch cake an hour before midnight on Halloween night, imprinting their initials into the bannock bread. As the witching hour on the most witchy night of the year approached, a silhouette would appear to tell of who would marry.
The communal aspect of these Samhain rituals is ever present and is perhaps exemplified in another variation, where a group of girls would work the bannock bread together. Doing so in silence, for to reflect and listen to any signs or spirits that may manifest, they then waited for the bannock to bake.
Once the open fire had dinged and the bannock was done, the unwedded women broke it into pieces and went to bed. Maintaining complete silence throughout, until the next morning, when the teasing and backbiting could begin in earnest. Each sleeping with their piece of the bannock bread under their pillow.
Pagan rituals as the origin of Trick or Treat
Marking a liminal time of the year, where the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead was its thinnest, all manner of ghoulish antics could take place between dusk on 31 October and dusk on 1 November. It is within the mayhem that the origins of our modern origins of Trick or Treat appear to lie.
Guising was another very specific Samhain ritual, typically involving the gathering of donations or hospitality, through receiving charity or being served traditional bannocks, cakes or Irish drinks. It is cited as one of the more likely origins of the costumed Trick or Treating seen at Halloween today.
During the course of Samhain festivities, the spirit of a family member deceased may well take the opportunity to pay a visit to their old home. And of course it was better for the household to receive a blessing than risk a curse, so only the utmost hospitality was to be laid before these visitors from beyond.
Playing their part in helping to ward off evil spirits, or just pragmatically engaging the general mayhem of the Halloween portal, Irish or Scottish Guisers dressed in disguise – wearing garish masks or their faces paints from the ashes of the bonfire – would go from door to door, calling for hospitality.
The act had a counterpart in other parts of the Celtic Isles where it was called mumming, but the lengths to which either tradition went seems to have varied across the region. From what might be called ‘soft guising’ – a child is rewarded with cake, nuts and apples for performing a party piece on your doorstep. To a posse of hooded locals calling into your farm and insisting you pay the spirits (of winter/the dead) their fair portion of produce. Sometimes accompanied by a mock-up horse of death for the householder to feed, should they favor appeasement over certain misfortune.
The actual formula of these Trick or Treat-style rituals is further blurred by the practice of Souling. Where during these late October/early November festivities ending on All Souls’ Day (2 Nov.), the poor would go from door to door begging for alms.
On being given scones baked for this express purpose, ‘soul cakes’, the receiver would show their gratitude by offering up prayers for the house. The practice still exists in a few Catholic countries today, most notably Portugal and the Philippines, where children dress in white (as souls) and perform this kind of Christian trick or treating.
Whilst it may blur the line on the origins of Trick or Treating, the souling ritual doesn’t necessarily contradict a Samhain origin for the tradition. As it is likely that the Christian tradition emerged out of those Samhain rituals preceding it.
However, a key difference between souling and soft guising compared to modern trick or treating is that it all seemed to be a very orderly affair, with little mischief involved. You rocked up to a neighbor’s door and sang a song or recited a poem, or simply appealed to their charity. There was no demand placed on the house, it was more like making a Christmas courtesy call, with your tongue issuing carols rather than curses.
But perhaps all the various Samhain rituals, be they religious or pagan in origin, are part of the same general process.
Beyond a Celtic festival
Indeed, recent decades have seen some folklorists point to both the Christian and pagan rituals as themselves being located in a wider arc of human tradition: goodwill. In this reading, the coming of winter simply marked the beginning of hard times and thus the beginning of a longer begging season. Where those without might expect to beg their way through and those with expected to be begged.
However, even this brings us back to the point of providing hospitality, and the harder versions of guising seen in Ireland and Scotland.
The manner in which Halloween came to be widely observed in the US, through Irish and Scottish immigrant communities retaining customs from the old country in the new, must also be taken into account. As should the fact that very particular Irish food traditions appear in the global Halloween that exists today, accompanied by the rough and ready style of Halloween in Ireland. Considering this, Gaelic origins are the likely candidate for Trick or Treat as the pranking performance the world has come to know.
Halloween in Ireland
Because it makes sense. Come Halloween in Ireland, guisers may have cordially requested vittles, but more likely, with their identity concealed by masks, they demanded them. Or simply entered your home and let you wait on them hand and foot. And if you, the host, were playing your role correctly, you did so. What’s more, if those in costume were living up to their role, they in no way expressed gratitude for your hospitality.
In this way, members of the community symbolically played the part of those spirits of winter and the deceased who might enter your home – so that the spirits didn’t have to. Thereby enabling the host to pay their dues, by fulfilling their role in the pantomime.
Poitin and bannocks
At all other times of the year, Celtic custom of course dictated a show of hospitality – to not do so was to bring great shame upon your house. But as part of Samhain rituals, this meant shunning any fears of harm or want and throwing the doors to your home wide open – to all beings, living or dead. Whoever might wander in was to be treated with utmost respect and offered poitín and bannock bread.
And even after all had gone to bed, bannocks or other Samhain foods were to be left out for any spirits that may still roam. A ‘dumb supper’ set out on the dining table or outside the front door. Samhain decorations and altars would’ve also been set up for the occasion. All in an effort to honor the dead and appease the gods that be, so that the inhabitants of the village – human and beast alike – would live through the impending winter.
In a time when protecting you and yours was of the highest priority, this pagan ritual of exposing your home carried with it a deep sense of gratitude for what is passed, of renewal in the present, and hope for the future. And brings to mind lines from a poet at the other end of the Celtic DNA trail, the great Persian mystic Jalaluddin Rumi:
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Samhain rituals with fruit
Fruits such as apples also played a central role in Samhain rituals, with these late harvests holding significance as pagan symbols. Indeed, the symbolic weight of apples is a particularly heavy one. Because for the Celts apples bore association with the realm of the spirits.
The apple is also one of the trees that Celtic mythology has as marking the border between the world of the living and that of the spirits, making it especially pertinent to Samhain rituals. This is also one of the reasons why hazelnuts played a role in the pagan rituals held at this time of year.
So hallowed were apple trees for the Celts that it was a pretty serious crime to cut one down or damage it in any way, representing as it did a sacred source of food for the community. The communal, organic element of the apple and apple trees as pagan symbols is further heightened in the Irish case, where many of the indigenous varieties spring from seed rather than requiring cuttings (see Note 1). It is also surely no coincidence that our very first Irish Buzz post ever chose as its topic the Celtic culture-rooted issue of bores harping on about apple pie tarts.
Parlor game fun
And our second post ever? A parlor game involving Irish apple cake (and a plea to not assault your coffee and cake afternoon host with a pastry fork).
The most popular parlor games played as part of Samhain rituals also involve apples. One sees you tying an apple to the end of a string and hanging it in a doorway. Children then take turns to bite the apple, as it inevitably meanders this way and that.
Another apple parlor game traditionally played at this time is the pneumonia-inducing Bobbing for Apples. You get out that old porter beer barrel granddad polished off decades ago and fill it with water. Chuck in a few apples and tell the children to go fetch, canine-style: teeth only. That one is so infuriating you usually end up just dying for an apple and grabbing it with your hand. Disqualifying yourself in the process.
If you’ve kids, Halloween in Ireland still sees even the more archaic parlor games making an appearance.
And perhaps this is an opportune place to tie up our examination of the Celtic wheel and the Samhain rituals held at the cusp. Little growing beings dipping their round heads into a circular tub, in search of sacred globes of food.
Irish food traditions or those of the human tribe?
Whether we realize it or not, the power of food runs deep in all of us. Built by layer upon layer of food rituals undertaken by our ancestors, developing in us genetic capacity and respect for engaging with what we grow, harvest, cook and consume. And the wonder and playful, creative joy therein.
Just like the thrilled tots bobbing for apples, food can excite and unite. And if it helps us stop the fragmentation, long may it be touted as a religion for all ages. One gets the feeling though, that to truly regain this pure, sprightly connection, it may first be necessary to discard much of the finery and etiquette we humans have espoused in more recent epochs. Or at the very least stop telling our children not to play with their food.
Other names for Halloween
Postscript 1. There tends to be confusion over how to pronounce Samhain and the Celtic festival’s overlap with Halloween and the various Christian holidays (All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day) taking place at the end of October/early November each year. The precise linkage is a complex one and we would direct the reader to our piece Pagan Rituals? Samhain & Halloween rather than diving back into the debate. Suffice to say here that, in a very approximate sense, these are all other names for Halloween.
But what might be useful to include here is a guide to the correct Samhain pronunciation and how to wish someone a Happy Samhain in Irish. As people not knowing how to pronounce Samhain has resulted in a variety of terms being bandied about. From ‘Salmon’ to what is surely the name of a steelworker in Pittsburgh or Cleveland – Sam Hayne.
Postscript 2. The proper Samhain pronunciation is actually quite simple: roughly Sau-En. Should you want to add how to pronounce Samhain to your cerebral data bank, we suggest using a little bit of Irish food imagery to lock it in. Just think of a pretty lump of female Irish bacon moseying in from the yard at twilight.
The sow turns in for the night.
As Irish terms go, the Samhain pronunciation is more visually taxing than anything else. As opposed to being visually taxing and requiring guttural gut-wrenching to say correctly.
If you’re celebrating Halloween in Ireland, or reenacting Samhain rituals elsewhere in the world, you may also want to wish someone a Happy Samhain/Halloween as Gaeilge:
Oíche Shamhna Shona Duit (transliterated in English phonetics as EE-ha How-nah Hu-nah Gwit).
Or, if you’re addressing more than one person, you can say:
Oíche Shamhna Shona Daoibh (roughly EE-ha How-nah Hu-nah Gweave).
Note 1. An orchard in Co. Clare maintained by the Irish Seed Savers Association has a world record 33 varieties of these self-rooting Irish apple trees. Alongside examples of the over 170 varieties of apple native to Ireland.
Indeed, trees in Ireland generally seem to play a far more symbolic role than in other European societies. In certain cases, there is a particular, romantic reason for this, as with the ancient population of the unique Irish strawberry tree – courageously clinging on to life, long after her continental counterparts have given up the fight. But for most, their importance, their ‘virtue’ even, is simply taken as a given. Long-term run-off from a Celtic society, perhaps.