Halloween's Ancient Origins
How many of us really know the meaning behind Halloween? Most of us enjoy Halloween, that is with the exception of a few Religious Zealots who believe that it's devilish, and sometimes also a few overly concerned mothers. Halloween has been celebrated differently, at different times and different places. Its lore is nearly as diverse as the costumes that you see parading around on Halloween night. But Halloween has always been a bit of a mystery, and filled with contrariness and revelry, a necessary release of social tension.
Halloween is so much fun, that we almost forget it's a holiday (Holy-Day). At least the Christian Evangelists have, who claim that it is evil and demonic. The founder of the Christian Coalition, Reverend Pat Robertson even went so far as to call it a 'satanic ritual' and did his utmost to have it banned in 1982. He completely disregarded the fact that Halloween is most certainly a Christian Holiday and one of the most important ones at that.
It has been celebrated by the Christian Church for over fourteen hundred years, and is one of the six holy days of observation, when high mass is held. Sunday is also one of the six holy days of observation!
You probably know that Halloween is the 'All Saints Day' of the Christian world. Correspondingly, the following day of November 2nd, is 'All Souls Day'. This juxtaposition of days is meant to insure that the Heavenly Saints will look after the souls of the dear departed. Halloween or 'Hallowtide', as it was once known, was not always observed on the 1st of November, but a much older festival was.
Halloween inherited some of its supernatural flavor, and the tradition of bonfires from this ancient festival but surprisingly little else. Most of the customs we celebrate today, such as wearing costumes and trick-or-treating, originated in Medieval times.
Halloween and the Pre-historic Celts
Imagine what it would be like if you could travel back in time, to a time long before Halloween was celebrated on the cobbled streets of Medieval Europe. Our time machine may not be able to transport you bodily, but it will transport your mind back in time, to explore the ancient festival that Halloween historically replaced.
It is into the pre-historic world of the Celtic tribes that our journey will take us, and this is where it gets a little tricky, because the Celts did not use writing. Julius Caesar tells us that, 'They consider it improper to entrust their studies to writing'. The myths, history and tradition of the Celts, were originally recounted, and passed on by the Druidic bards, who sang their sagas at festive gatherings.
“These sagas were part of a long vernacular tradition that was written down centuries later, probably in corrupted and abbreviated form. These stories should be read as clues to the mystery of ancient lore and to the art of storytelling, rather than as straightforward evidence of social practice. “1
The Celtic tribes were the fiercest enemies of Rome, and sacked it on four occasions. Yet, much of what we know about the Celtic culture was written by the Romans. What do you think your enemies would write about you? What the Roman's did write, was generally filled with horrific tales and pernicious propaganda. As exemplified by the Hollywood film, Wicker Man, which was loosely based on Roman accounts of the Celtic celebration of Halloween, their Sahmain.
The most reliable source for us to understand the mysterious culture of the Celts, is by way of their stone age monuments and gold and silver artifacts. Even with our time machine, it is a seemingly impossible task to date the line that divides pre-historic Europe from Celtic Europe, or indeed to tell if such a line even exists. All that we can know with any surety is that the obscure origins of the Celtic tribes lays somewhere between 34,000 years ago, the age of Ireland's old mound of New Grange, and 3300 BC, marking the first construction of Stonehenge.
From Julius Caesar, we also learn that the Celts were divided into aristocratic tribes. They lived in circular houses and formed cozy communities governed by king like chieftains. We also know that their legendary festivals were held in huge rectangular halls. Some people believe that these were an early prototype of the Medieval Cathedral.
The Celtic Sagas tell us that they were a mystic Culture. Like Halloween itself, the Celts implemented between the very real world of daily practicalities and an enchanted world, filled with fairies, fey and supernatural feats. They lived their fearless lives with great zeal and fervour. The Celtic women were the most liberated women in the ancient world. They enjoyed sexual equality and thought side by side with their men in battle.
The men bought without clothes or armour. Can you imagine what they must have looked like? Their naked bodies would have been a terrifying sight. The men were completely shaven except for a moustache, and a wild mane of hair highlighted with powdered limestone. As you may have seen in Mel Gibson's movie 'Brave Heart', some of the men even dyed their bodies blue and sore amulets and huge torcs around their necks.
Halloween and the Ancient Festival of Samhain
Thousands upon thousands of years before the dawn of the Christianity, around the 1st of November, the Celtic tribes celebrated what has become Halloween. It was their Harvest Festival of Samhain (pronounced 'sow-win'). The Celtic calendar of festivals was based on cycles of nature and the agricultural year. They celebrated the Solstices and Equinoxes, as well as the Cross-Quarters in between – Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, Samhain. 2
The eight spoked wheel of the Celtic year, perpetually turns on and on. At each of its eight points, the natural rhythms of the seasons, of our personal lives, of our communities and of the heavens, come into alignment. Like nature itself “people are moved by the rhythms of the earth, its tides of ebb and flow, caused by the cycles of the sun and moon. sun's light, warmth and energy, like nature itself, we automatically draw our energies inwards in order to sustain life. ”
The Celtic Halloween – Samhain, marked the beginning of the sun's journey into the wintery underworld. The harvest was reaped, the fields lay fallow, the livestock was traditionally culled and its meat salted and smoked in readiness for the coming cold. The agricultural year had come to its end, and on Samhain, the Celtic New Year would begin.
Daylight is the summer of the seasons while nighttime correspondents to the winter. The line that divides day and night is at it's thinnest at twilight, at dawn and dusk. Samhain was the dusk of the seasons, when the sun of the old year passed away and entered into the underworld. It was the twilight season, when the veil that separates the world of the living from that of the dead and supernatural, is at its thinnest. So thin that cracks open between the worlds, allowing fairies, ghosts and other supernatural animals to enter the living world.
Samhain was a time of supernatural intensity, when an immense amount of spiritual energy poured into the world. It was a time when divinations were performed to see what the coming year had in store. It was a time of purification and a time of magic and ritual to appease the dead.
In Celtic mythology, Samhain was the day when the tribal god, the Dadha, made love with Morrigan, the raven goddess of war. You may know of Morrigan because in later ages she played the role of the evil sorceress in the legend of King Arthur.
After our brief journey back in time, some of you may be thinking, that even if Halloween is not Satanic, then Samhain sure sounds like it could be. To put the matter to rest once and for all, there is no way it could be. There is no corresponding god, angel, or any utterly evil being in the Celtic pantheon. In closing, I will once again quote from Nicholas Rogers 'extraordinary book,' Halloween – From Pagan Ritual To Party Night'-
“The belief is satanic cults blossomed only in the late medieval era when it formed part of the persecutor discipline against heretics and witches – long after the demise of Samhain.” 4
1. Rogers Nicholas, 'Halloween – From Pagan Ritual To Party Night', Pg 18, Oxford University Press
2. The Cross-Quarter festivals of the Celtic calendar.
A) Imbolc, the spring festival was celebrated on the 1st of February.
B) Beltane, the summer festival was celebrated on the 1st of May.
C) Lughnasadh, the autumn festival was celebrated on the 1st of August.
D) Samhain, the winter festival, like our Halloween, was celebrated on the eve of October 31st and the 1st of November.
3. Paterson Jacqueline, 'Tree Wisdom', Pg 83, Thorsons – Harper and Collins
4. Rogers Nicholas, 'Halloween – From Pagan Ritual To Party Night', Pg 13