People of old understood and honored the cycles of life. Today, we celebrate birth but shy away from thinking about or openly discussing death. Death takes place away from the community; we put elders in old age homes, or in hospitals. Our ancestors saw death on a daily basis, which made their understanding and openness a central part of the celebration of Samhain.
2,000 years ago in Celtic Ireland,
Samhain (pronounced Sah-win or Sow-win) was the division of the year between the light and the dark seasons (aka summer and winter). It marked the end of the Celtic year and beginning of a new one. Basically our New Years!
The division of this world and the otherworld is the thinnest today, allowing spirits to pass through. Family spirits were honored and invited and negative spirits were warded off. People wore costumes and masks to disguise themselves as harmful spirits, thus avoiding harm. Food was prepared for the living and the dead alike; thought because spirits cannot eat, it was given to the less fortunate.
The Celts believed night proceeded day, so festivities took place on the eve of Samhain. The lessening strength of the sun was apparent to early man and appealed to his anxieties; the lighting of the winter fires, the early form of sun, is a powerful symbol to represent mans helplessness in the face of decay of winter. All fires must be extinguished on this night, and could only be relit from the great flames of Tlachtga, symbolized the brief ascendance of the powers of darkness at this time.
Two hills in the Boyne Valley were associated with Samhain in Celtic Ireland, Tlachtga and Tara. Tlachtga was the location of the Great Fire Festival which begun on the eve of Samhain (Halloween). Tara was also associated with Samhain, however it was secondary to Tlachtga in this respect.
The Mound of Hostages is almost 5,000 years old, suggesting Samhain was celebrated long before the Celtic’s arrived in Ireland 2,500 years ago.
The sun has descended into the realm of the Underworld. The Lord of the Underworld, unfettered by the sun, now walked the earth traveling with other creatures untethered from their home. Ghosts, fairies and other creatures walked with him, the Lord of the Underworld, who is identified as Donn. He is from the first wave of invaders to meet his death in Ireland, when the ship he was the commander of broke into thousands of pieces. He perished along with 24 other shipmates, and was buried in a place now known as Tech Donn, or the House of Donn. This soon became associated with the underworld. The Celts were obsessed with tracing their ancestry back as far as they could, and often identified the earliest ancestors with gods of their peoples. Because of this, a belief arose that when they died they went to the house of their ancestor, the god of the underworld.
Donn is seen as a retiring god who prefers the isolation of the bleak Skelligs and remains aloof from the other gods. His name means “brown” and he is associated with the shadowy realm of the dead. A ninth century text attributes a highly significant quotation to him “To me, to my house, you shall come after your death”
Many sources say the dead gather at his house. Fisherman in the area reported strange boats passing to the island and the names of those disembarked were called out. (Not surprisingly, later Christian writers claimed that “the souls of the damned” lingered at his house before departing for hell. Aspects of his personage had been adapted by Christian writers in their portrayal of the devil.)
So, Samhain being the feast of the dead can now be tied to Donn, though its uncertain how it was incorporated. The Fires lit were in honor of the sungod. Samhain is seen as a time of no time; not of the old year or the new, the light or the dark, summer or winter. It could be said time stands still on this night; during this time the natural order was thrown into chaos, and the earthly was of living became hopelessly entangled with the world of the dead. The boundaries between a man’s land and his neighbors was a dangerous place to be on this night. Ghosts, some benign and some not, were to be found along these points, as well as bridges and crossroads. The unwary traveler, caught away from home on this night, could expect to encounter any one or more of these creatures, so it was advisable to stay indoors. Ghosts were abundant, and may or may not have been harmful to the living. Even ancestors, who you would leave food out and the fire on for, would be best to avoid at this time.
Ways to celebrate
Decorate your home/altar with seasonal imagery: leaves, pumpkins, apples oh my!
Feast of the Dead: Prepare a Samhain dinner. Include a place setting at your table for those who have passed. Add an offering of a bit of each beverage consumed and a bit of food from each plate. Invite your ancestors and other deceased loved ones to come and dine with you. To exacerbate the spook factor, dine in silence and observe as the air around you thickens, and maybe a napkin will move or a noise will be heard. After the feast place the offering for the dead in an outdoor location.
Reflect on your life over the past year (remember, this is seen as the time of new year; the dark precedes the light) Reflect on the cycle of life
Build a bonfire, and banish an old habit by burning it in the flames.
This is a great time for divination. Using tarot, runes, scrying, or any method of divination (i’ve been practicing cartomancy) to seek and reflect and ask for guidance on whats to come.
Check out how we celebrated Mabon here!