Celebrating the ancient origins of Halloween and Samhain
SAN JOSE, October 20, 2017 – October 31st marks the ancient tradition of Halloween and the rituals, from dressing up like goblins and ghouls to transforming their homes into haunts. Then there is the tradition of sending the kids out to collect candy from their neighbors.
People seldom question such annual rituals; they just do them as year after year this ritual is repeated, yet few celebrants really know how this all got started. The truth is that there are several theories about the origins of Halloween, but few tangible facts.
Nevertheless, despite the lack of hard proof, it does not stop the brave from developing theories of how Halloween originated.
Developing over thousands of years, it is difficult to pinpoint an exact starting point for the more modern traditions of the holiday. One way historians or archaeologists develop their theories about ancient peoples is by using common or familiar reference points in human cultures. In that manner, it is possible to gain a bit better understanding of the origins of Halloween by using some familiar points of reference.
Samhain to Halloween – Where it all began
One popular perception today is that Halloween “evolved” from an ancient people in Ireland thousands of years ago. One of the four ancient Celtic holidays called Samhain (Sa-wain, Sah-ween, or Sah-win – depending on Irish or Gaelic pronunciations) is more than likely the closest holiday connected to the ancient origins of Halloween.
Samhain can be translated as “November” in Irish, but more specifically means “summer’s end.”
While there is little knowledge to indicate how old such a celebration is, popular theory is that it was a simple harvest festival at the end of the summer months, a time when the people would collectively prepare for the arduous winter months ahead.
For a more realistic understanding of the preparation for winter in ancient Ireland, it is important to note that many early European writers considered Ireland as a land of ice and snow. In 1992, James Romm published “The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought” exploring that ancient world.
Learned men considered Ireland the outer boundary of the civilized world. It was Julius Caesar who was the first to call Ireland by the name of “Hibernia,” which is Latin for “winterland.”
Later writers also portrayed the Emerald Isle as a land of ice and snow. This may have been a bit exaggerated due to lack of actual first-hand experience.
However, winter periods could last six full months.
In preparing for months of bitter cold, that the ancient people of Ireland would gather together at the end of the summer months and get ready for winter. Ireland lies in more northern latitudes, similar to Canada and those winters could be harsh.
Samhain was important as many who gathered could not be completely sure that they would survive the winter.
In this respect, Samhain takes on a more distinct significance within the harsh realities of life and death. Along with Beltane (celebrated on May 1st each year), these two were considered the most important Celtic holidays.
Based upon the limited archaeological evidence thus far, scholars estimate that the ancient Celtic people had likely originated in central Europe, before occupying the British Isles around the sixth century B.C. More recent scholars are attempting to explain the arrival of the Celts via some type of migration into the region.
Yet, it is not clear whether Samhain originated before or after such migrations. However, references to Samhain are found in some of the earliest Irish literature. The annual gatherings serve as a popular setting for different events in Irish mythology and folklore.
Like Beltane in spring, Samhain was understood as a time in which the boundary between the world of the living and the dead was extremely thin. One of the features of both Beltane and Samhain was the lighting of special bonfires. These were not only signal fires to gather people, but huge ritual bonfires.
Halloween gateway to the dead
In some versions of the legends linked to these holidays, the fires would serve as gateways between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
The autumn festival was a time of paying homage to those who had died in the past. The bonfires may also have bee used as a means of guiding the spirits of the recent dead into the underworld (or Otherworld). Unfortunately, that open door to the Otherworld meant that the spirits of the dead could also return.
Coming back from the world of the dead did not always yield good outcomes. If the spirits from the underworld were mean or evil, the time of the spirit visitation could be most unfortunate for the living. Some spirits were reputed to readily play pranks or unleash mean tricks upon innocent living souls.
One of the reasons that masks came into favor at such times was because people could disguise themselves as a means of protection from nasty ancestors or evil spirits. Some masks were simple and basically harmless, designed to disguise. Other masks were created to be quite scary, to frighten the daylights out of people! For much the same reasons masks are worn today, sometimes serving dual purposes.
Logically, since the Celtic people were preparing for survival during the bleak months, for those who had little stores for the winter, it would be a time of desperation. In times of failed harvests or tragedy with the flocks (such as in predators or sickness reducing the numbers of animals available as a food source), some families would be surely threatened with the likelihood of becoming the latest victims to enter the world of the dead.
Records indicate that masks were used, or costumes employed, to go and beg for food as a way of surviving another six months or longer. It is likely that pride-filled parents, not wanting it known they were struggling, would send their disguised children to beg.
These simple practices at Samhain are repeated over and over and have developed into beloved traditions. It is likely they had existed in Ireland for centuries, possibly thousands of years before the time St. Patrick walked the hills and valleys of the Emerald Isle, and likely that they were there when he went as a bishop, and they continue to exist in some similar form in the Halloween festivities around the world in this time – 3,000 or more years later!
Happy Halloween !