October 20th 2017
Samhain (pronounced Sow-en, or Sow-ain) is the old Celtic name for Halloween – All Hallows’ Eve, which occurs on 31st October. This is a festival which is celebrated all around the globe, and a little run down of some of our cousin’s festivals also reveals something of their common themes. Of course what most of us know of Halloween has come back over the Atlantic from the United States, however, the American version has become a big melting pot of lots of different cultures that brought their own celebrations with them. Halloween is one of the pagan festivals that has its real traditional roots in the folk traditions of the United Kingdom.
If you want to learn more about Folk Traditions and the real history behind the different Pagan celebrations in the Wheel of the Year, then Professor Ronald Hutton has written a really comprehensive study of the Modern Pagan Folk festivals and their roots called Stations of the Sun which is recommended reading.
All across the British Isles, All Hallows Eve was an important celebration, as it was the last big festival before the coming of the hard winter ahead. Farmers would lay bonfires in fields to cleanse them, and the traditional foods at this time included apples, nuts, parsnips and carved turnips placed in windows to either scare the spirits away, or to welcome them in.
In Ireland - Dressing up as the spirits and going out was an old Irish tradition, which the Irish took with them to America when they emigrated in large numbers following the British colonisation of Ireland.
In Scotland – Protestantism wiped out many of the traditional folk celebrations, but where small pockets of Catholicism remained in the Highlands, some traditions were protected. There were four points of the year when homes were purified and the fires were put out, and then re-lit afresh. Here, there was a tradition for having two large bonfires which folk then walked between to ‘cleanse’ them.
In England - The tradition of the cleansing fires survived in England with the Guy Fawkes celebrations of November 5th, which took over from many of the elements of the traditional Halloween holiday.
The Veil Between the Worlds
You may hear or read about the ‘veil between the worlds’ being at its thinnest at Halloween, but what does that actually mean? Traditionally it was believed that the souls who have left the physical world would come back and wander the earth on this night, as they often do. The difference is, you would be able to see them, and they would be able to see you. This festival often celebrates the connection of love across the divide of death.
In pagan traditions, the hunter god has died again for the year, and the hag goddess lives on alone. In Ancient Greece, Persephone has rejoined Hades in the Underworld, and Demeter is now alone again for the long months of winter.
Working with your Ancestors
The fact that the veils are thinnest means that Samhain is a really good time to focus on your ancestors, and invite them in to work with you. There are many different cultures around the world which focus on ancestor work at this time. In Mexico, they celebrate the Day of The Dead, and people go out into the streets dressed as skeletons, and celebrate with a meal at home, in which they invite the ancestors to come and join them, and set an extra place for them. In Egypt, families visit the cemetery around this time and share a meal at the graveside of their departed loved ones.
One way of bringing this into your own practice is to set up an altar to your ancestors, and light candles for them. You can also hold your own family dinner – set an extra place that nobody physical sits at, invite your r ancestors to come and join you in the meal. Talk about them, share their memories amongst yourselves. And remember, your ancestors don’t necessarily have to be familial ancestors – this may also be a time when you connect with your ‘logical’ family as well as your biological one. ‘Your ancestors’ might be women that have gone ahead of you in your field of work, historical figures that you feel deeply drawn to, as well as your parents, grandparents and other blood relatives. This means that even if you don’t have a connection with your family roots, you still have ancestors to work with.
The Blood Harvest
The concept of a blood harvest sounds more scary than it actually is. Back throughout history in the British Isles, there were three harvests that happened to prepare people for the long winter months. The first was the grain Harvest, which occurred around the beginning of August, marked by the festival of Lammas. The second was the fruit harvest, when the fruit trees were harvested – apples, pears, stone fruits. The fruit was then stored, preserved as jam, or turned into cider and stored in liquid form. At the time of Halloween, the last remaining apples would fall from the trees and rot down, becoming nourishment for the earth. Similarly, it is also the time to get prepared for the coming of winter, and so the Blood Harvest would begin. The third harvest, then, was the blood harvest – the time when animals would be sent to slaughter and then preserved for the winter months by salting the meat. Samhain would be the last point of the year where you could eat fresh meat.