The Dark Season of Samhain


John Isaac

Ancient Origins of Halloween

Halloween’s origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1.
This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31st they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.
In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.
To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes.
When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.
By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the course of the four hundred years that they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain.
The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple, and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of “bobbing” for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.

All Saints Day

On May 13, 609 A.D., Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome in honor of all Christian martyrs, and the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day was established in the Western church. Pope Gregory III later expanded the festival to include all saints as well as all martyrs, and moved the observance from May 13th to November 1st.
By the 9th century the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands, where it gradually blended with and supplanted the older Celtic rites. In 1000 A.D., the church would make November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. It’s widely believed today that the church was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related church-sanctioned holiday.
All Souls Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils. The All Saints Day celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day) and the night before it, the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion, began to be called All-Hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.

Halloween Comes to America

Celebration of Halloween was extremely limited in colonial New England because of the rigid Protestant belief systems there. Halloween was much more common in Maryland and the southern colonies.
As the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups as well as the American Indians meshed, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge. The first celebrations included “play parties,” public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance and sing.
Colonial Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds. By the middle of the nineteenth century, annual autumn festivities were common, but Halloween was not yet celebrated everywhere in the country.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, America was flooded with new immigrants. These new immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing the Irish potato famine helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally.


Borrowing from Irish and English traditions, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition. Young women believed that on Halloween they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings or mirrors.
In the late 1800s, there was a move in America to mold Halloween into a holiday more about community and neighborly get-togethers than about ghosts, pranks and witchcraft. At the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on games, foods of the season and festive costumes.
Parents were encouraged by newspapers and community leaders to take anything “frightening” or “grotesque” out of Halloween celebrations. Because of these efforts, Halloween lost most of its superstitious and religious overtones by the beginning of the twentieth century.

Halloween Parties

By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, but community-centered holiday, with parades and town-wide Halloween parties as the featured entertainment. Despite the best efforts of many schools and communities, vandalism began to plague some celebrations in many communities during this time.
By the 1950s, town leaders had successfully limited vandalism and Halloween had evolved into a holiday directed mainly at the young. Due to the high numbers of young children during the fifties baby boom, parties moved from town civic centers into the classroom or home, where they could be more easily accommodated.
Between 1920 and 1950, the centuries-old practice of trick-or-treating was also revived. Trick-or-treating was a relatively inexpensive way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebration. In theory, families could also prevent tricks being played on them by providing the neighborhood children with small treats.
Thus, a new American tradition was born, and it has continued to grow. Today, Americans spend an estimated $6 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday after Christmas.


Soul Cakes

The American Halloween tradition of “trick-or-treating” probably dates back to the early All Souls’ Day parades in England. During the festivities, poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives.
The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits. The practice, which was referred to as “going a-souling” was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given ale, food and money.
The tradition of dressing in costume for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots. Hundreds of years ago, winter was an uncertain and frightening time. Food supplies often ran low and, for the many people afraid of the dark, the short days of winter were full of constant worry.
On Halloween, when it was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world, people thought that they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes. To avoid being recognized by these ghosts, people would wear masks when they left their homes after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits.
On Halloween, to keep ghosts away from their houses, people would place bowls of food outside their homes to appease the ghosts and prevent them from attempting to enter.
John Isaac

Black Cats

Halloween has always been a holiday filled with mystery, magic and superstition. It began as a Celtic end-of-summer festival during which people felt especially close to deceased relatives and friends. For these friendly spirits, they set places at the dinner table, left treats on doorsteps and along the side of the road and lit candles to help loved ones find their way back to the spirit world.
Today’s Halloween ghosts are often depicted as more fearsome and malevolent, and our customs and superstitions are scarier too. We avoid crossing paths with black cats, afraid that they might bring us bad luck. This idea has its roots in the Middle Ages when many people believed that witches avoided detection by turning themselves into black cats.

Halloween Matchmaking

But what about the Halloween traditions and beliefs that today’s trick-or-treaters have forgotten all about? Many of these obsolete rituals focused on the future instead of the past and the living instead of the dead.
In particular, many had to do with helping young women identify their future husbands and reassuring them that they would someday—with luck, by next Halloween—be married. In 18th-century Ireland, a matchmaking cook might bury a ring in her mashed potatoes on Halloween night, hoping to bring true love to the diner who found it.
In Scotland, fortune-tellers recommended that an eligible young woman name a hazelnut for each of her suitors and then toss the nuts into the fireplace. The nut that burned to ashes rather than popping or exploding, the story went, represented the girl’s future husband. (In some versions of this legend, the opposite was true: The nut that burned away symbolized a love that would not last.)
Another tale had it that if a young woman ate a sugary concoction made out of walnuts, hazelnuts and nutmeg before bed on Halloween night she would dream about her future husband.
Young women tossed apple-peels over their shoulders, hoping that the peels would fall on the floor in the shape of their future husbands’ initials; tried to learn about their futures by peering at egg yolks floating in a bowl of water; and stood in front of mirrors in darkened rooms, holding candles and looking over their shoulders for their husbands’ faces.
Other rituals were more competitive. At some Halloween parties, the first guest to find a burr on a chestnut-hunt would be the first to marry; at others, the first successful apple-bobber would be the first down the aisle.
Of course, whether we’re asking for romantic advice or trying to avoid seven years of bad luck, each one of these Halloween superstitions relies on the goodwill of the very same “spirits” whose presence the early Celts felt so keenly.
John Isaac

Mythology and Folklore

All the major festivals of the year, from Hallowe’en to Christmas and Easter – have Pagan roots. Some people may not think they’re Pagan and mentioning their root is irrelevant, but if you celebrate any of these dates, you are ostensibly celebrating a Pagan ritual. All the Christians did was roll these Pagan celebrations into their own religion several hundred years later.
Of course, the fact that the Christians did this raises its own questions, but the purpose of this article is not to address such things in-depth [though it may be more appropriate to do so at Yule]. Moreover, the purpose is to break open the hard crust of ignorance that has been formed around Samhain and Hallowe’en and to make the unknowing realize why they are celebrating this event, drawing home the importance of Samhain’s mythology and folklore, which many might think is unrelated to them, but which we carry out routines through every year. This is our history, our ancestry and part of what makes us. We should learn of it, respect it and be proud.
Samhain is primarily a celebration of harvest. The Pagans focus around three major harvest festivals in the year: Lammas the corn harvest in August, Autumn Equinox the fruit and vegetable harvest in September and Samhain, the nut and berry harvest at the end of October. Samhain is therefore a celebration of the third and final harvest of the year before the Winter proper sets in. The word Samhain is Gaelic [pronounced Sawin] and is part of Celtic tradition that has come to form part of the worldwide Pagan banner, the word itself actually meaning ‘November’ or ‘November day’ even though the true etymology stretches back as far as Sanskrit.
As with many Pagan festivals, a lot of the mythology and importance gets integrated from different parts of the world. To the Celts, 1st November was an important time of year because it was the time when the cattle that had been grazing in the pastures all summer were led back to the farmhouses and slaughtered for their meat to be preserved over Winter. The bones of the cattle were burned in bonfires which became something of a related ritual additionally.
Samhain is highly associated with death. All the crop is in, the cattle are slaughtered, plants die, leaves fall. It is the end of the land cycle of birth and growth, now we are entering into a period of widespread demise. Everything about this time of year signifies a downturn in life and an upturn in death – even the light is dying as the evenings draw in ever closer and the daylight shrinks away. Samhain is the beginning of the Dark Half of the year which lasts six months all through to Walpurgisnacht on the 30th April, after which the Light Half of the year commences at the Beltane festival on 1st May. It was seen as a time when the door to the Celtic Otherworld was most open, allowing spirits of all kinds to cross the boundary into the physical realm. It is customary on Samhain night to set an extra place at the dinner table for those ancestors who may return during the evening to visit us: in fact, honouring our ancestry is a major part of Samhain in general. Seeing as it is a time for concentrating on the dead and reflecting in the darkness, discussing our lineage and paying homage to those who bore us is vital. It is because of the link with death and darkness that the colour black is so closely associated with this time of year, as well as orange which represents the vitality within death and the colours of Autumn. Black or orange candles should be lit on Samhain in reference to this, as well as to the fact that black candles are used as a tool of protection and banishment in candle magic whereas orange is used for fertility and stimulation. Black is associated with looking back, whereas orange is related to looking forward.
Seeing as Samhain was associated with the interference and transgression of evil spirits from one spirit world to the next, it was Irish and Scottish custom to dress up as spirits in a process known as “guising” [from the word ‘disguise’] as a means of warding off other spirits. Of course, dressing up as spirits can easily encourage playing tricks and pranks, and it’s clear to see how doing one led to the other, in what is now known as trick or treating, the history of which dates as far back as the 18th century, likely merging with the English tradition of giving soul cakes to the poor on All Saints Day or the custom of going house to house collecting food and fuel for Samhain evening. Of course one of the most prevalent icons of the time of year is pumpkin carving, which is mostly thought of as being an American tradition. Far from it: the carving of pumpkins at this time of year came from the carving of turnip lanterns in 19th century Ireland and Scotland, most likely used to light peoples’ way on Samhain night and bearing grotesque faces to protect the carrier from evil spirits. As for another edible Samhain symbol, the apple, its inclusion comes about through the belief of the apple being a sacred fruit and representative of life and immortality to the Celts, apples being buried at Samhain to give food to souls waiting to be reborn.
As for the witches we spoke of, they have a long history of being associated with the time of year, primarily because of ritual gatherings at Samhain and Walpurgisnacht, the cauldron used as a symbol of the witches’ control over life and death, the cauldron shape alluding to sexuality which is such a prevalent feature of this dark festival. The black cat has always been related to the supernatural as well, a thought process which goes back to Ancient Egypt. Cats wonder at night and black cats can conceal themselves in the shadows so they were seen as the diabolical supernatural servants of evil and were even slaughtered because of it.
Samhain is a time of heightened sexual awareness and activity. The act of sex itself is extremely emotional and powerful – the seed and fruit of human beings connecting with the seed and fruit of the harvest, the power and energy raised by sex being seen as a portal through which the dead are able to return. Sexuality is intrinsically linked to witchcraft with sex magic being used for deific worship and ushering in a spiritual and mystical connection.  The birch and willow brooms were ‘ridden’ by witches through fields, the jumping height signifying how high the crop would grow the following year, the hallucinogens in the flying ointment on the broom giving the belief of real flight. Once again, we see everything returning to the harvest.
Before the arrival of the Christian missionaries, Samhain was celebrated widely by the Celts. Christians did all they could to wipe out celebration of the event but in the 7th Century, missionaries such as Pope Gregory saw the advantage of contorting the focus. He let people worship the objects they wished to so that their resolve remained intact, but he gave the worship a Christian spin so they effectively became devotees to the new religion. This tactic was massively successful in spreading Christianity and weakening the old religions, redefining the old meanings for new benefit. Seeing as All Saint’s Day traditionally falls on the 1st November, Samhain was rolled into All Hallows’ Eve and was seen as a highly spiritual time where the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest as the evil spirits fled before Saint’s Day.
With Samhain only a few days away and with the spiritual power of this event increasing, it is time to not only celebrate this intense and fascinating occasion, but also to inform ourselves further as to the history and the importance of it. The folklore of our ancestors created and defined belief systems, societies and ways of living, and the old ways are still with us now hundreds of years later. The grip of large corporations – like that of Christianity – has allowed us to literally buy into this event without consciousness, but the real reason and respect for this occasion should never be lost. This Samhain take the time to honour the evening, the rituals, the history, the mythology and your own individual ancestry. Its personal implications and applications are more than most realize. Heathen Harvest
John Isaac


Early in the evening at Samhain we begin our celebration in our village of St Buryan when local residents escort their children around the village for ‘Trick or Treating’ and visit a real Wise Woman’s cottage. We also visit the St Buryan Inn for a celebratory drink before the preparations for our private group celebration at midnight. It is indeed an active time in the spiritual and physical worlds as the Celtic year ends but it is also extremely rewarding.
I will conclude this post by wishing you all a joyous Samhain and a prosperous and successful new Celtic year. The link below has evocative music and an explanation of the season. Enjoy!

The Witch’s Sabbat – Samhain 


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