Samhain: The Celtic Origins of Halloween
I have always loved Halloween. Every year as a child I would relish the chance to dress up with my friends and go trick or treating. When I got older I loved Halloween sleep-overs and parties where you could watch scary films, tell spooky stories and eat too many sweets. Halloween has always been a fun holiday for me. However, I was always curious about the origins of the festival. It seems somewhat out-of-place to have a celebration focussing on ghouls, ghosts and scary things. The Celtic origins of Halloween not only reveal some explanations about the history of the festival but also how cultural practices and myths have survived even in the face of suppression. In this article, I trace back some of the Celtic origins of Halloween and explore their endurance and connection to our current celebrations.
The origins of Halloween are usually traced back to the Celtic festival of Samhain (which is still celebrated by some to this day!) Pronounced SAH-win, this was a Pagan Celtic festival usually celebrated after the harvest period. It was typically celebrated from 31st October to 1st November. It was one of 4 quarterly fire festivals. In order to celebrate Samhain, the druids would build large bonfires, the Celts would wear costumes made from animal skin and a large communal feast was held. Perhaps the element of costume-wearing for Halloween may be traced back to this ancient practice? But that’s just my own speculation!
However, it wasn’t just seen as a celebration, participation in the festival was mandatory. Those who failed to participate in it were seen as dishonouring the gods and could expect retribution through illness or even death. It was spiritually important as well as having a military element to it, as the commanders of soldiers were often honoured with holiday thrones.
Ghouls, Ghosts and Traditions
My favourite part of Halloween has always been the ghost stories. The chills you get down your spine, your heart racing and the terror of a really good ghost story just cannot be beaten! This is another key element of Halloween that seems to find its roots in Celtic tradition.
Samhain saw many ghouls, ghosts and fairies make appearances as this was the time where the Celts believed that the veil between this world and beyond was at its thinnest. In the time of Pagan Ireland (before the Christian conversion of Ireland) there were many stories of ghosts and mystical creatures that were associated with Samhain. Some of them may be familiar as their stories have been retold throughout history. One example of this is the story of the headless horseman. The horseman is probably most famously known through Washington Irving’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. However, despite this incantation being set in New York, the origins of this classic Halloween tale of a horseman riding around with his head tucked under his arm, calling out the names of those who are doomed to die, is based on the Celtic figure of the Dullahan.
According to WB Yeats, the famous Irish Poet and writer, the Dullahan is: “An omen that sometimes accompanies the banshee is the coach-a-bower (cóiste bodhar) - an immense black coach, mounted by a coffin and drawn by headless horses driven by a Dullahan. It will go rumbling to your door, and if you open it, according to Croker, a basin of blood will be thrown in your face.” (description found in: ‘Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry’ first published in 1888) He was supposedly based on the figure of Crom Dubh, a Pagan fertility God.
Another ghoul of Celtic Samhain is Púca. A shape-shifting creature that can either bring fortune or misery for people it encounters. It is supposedly a creature of mischief that can be controlled if the person it encounters is wearing riding spurs.
A somewhat similar Pagan creature related to Samhain was the figure of Aillén mac Midgna. A figure from mythology who could both play music beautiful enough to put humans to sleep and powerful enough to shoot fire from his mouth and burn the capital of Tara to the ground. Every year it would be rebuilt for 23 years until the hero Fionn mac Cumhaill (pronounced Finn MacCool) managed to defeat it.
Another connection to the current celebrations of Halloween is seen in the medieval practices of the Dumb Supper. This was a tradition that saw the living celebrate their dead ancestors through a feast. The living would cook extra meals and ‘invite’ the dead to join them. During this time they would inform them of what had happened during the year, children would perform for them and fortunes would often be told. In fact, this was often a time when young women would try to divine the identity of their future husbands. Often during the course of the night, they would leave windows and doors open so that the dead could come in and eat cakes left for them. It seems that ideas surrounding food, feasts, costumes and offerings can all trace their roots back to this Pagan Festival.
What is the importance of this?
While it may seem that some of the intrigues into the history of the origins of Halloween is simply curiosity, there is also some greater importance to it as well. Story-telling has been an important element of many cultures for thousands of years. Stories and myths connect diasporas to their homeland or connect people to their cultural past. This is important especially for Ireland due to the occupation by the British. The British attempt to suppress the Irish language (Gaeilge) and culture led to a movement to protect many of these stories and elements of culture from vanishing forever. It is definitely interesting to see that despite the attempts to disconnect Ireland from its Pagan roots, the spread of Halloween and many of the practices, stories and elements of the festival have continued and spread all over the world!