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Samain: Folk Origins of Halloween

Exploring Celtic Traditions, Folklore, and Conceptions of the Otherworld --

as related to Samain, the "Halloween" holiday

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I’ve always loved American Halloween (I jump at any opportunity to dress up in costume, so a dedicated day to getting creative with our clothing is a count me IN!). Many of us are vaguely aware of Halloween's connections to European folk traditions. Over the past decade, I've gone deeper to understand these connections, learning about the ancestral practices and celebrations through the study of Irish mythology and folklore (my matrilineal side of the family). These extend far beyond what we now think of as the current geographic location of Ireland. The expansiveness of Celtic/Gaelic practices can be understood to have existed throughout much of continental Europe, far more widespread than pop culture that limits and equates the Celts and the early Irish.

Samain is the Old Irish name for the cross-quarter festival taking place on October 31 and November 1, including the days/fortnights before and after. You might see this day more commonly spelled as Samhain, the Modern Irish version. In Celtic/Gaelic society, time was counted by nights instead of by days (in other words, the date as we think of it began at night). Some scholars believe that Samain was effectively the Celtic new year. It was an important date for the Celts, marking the transition between seasons and serving as a supernatural liminal, or in-between, in time and space. More specifically, Samain was a time where the supernatural was believed to be most present, including the dead, witches, and fairies (yes, fairies!). The barriers that usually existed between our world and the Otherworld were lifted. For me, this connects directly to the phrases often associated with the supernatural in popular culture, such as “the thinning of the veil.”

It’s important to note that in our contemporary understanding of Celtic/Gaelic traditions like this holiday, we don’t have exact details; rather, we have fragments of the traditions that have survived through folk practices and through the literature. We don’t have texts that come directly from those like the Druids who led ritual festivities; oral tradition was paramount to these leaders who used memorization of poetry to pass down their many traditions. Many scholars remark on the intentionality of this Druidic approach, which upholds the importance of these traditions and also keeps them private; it appears writing in these societies was used more for record keeping, rather than for remembering things of sacred importance.

Instead, most of the written records came from outside observers like Julius Caesar, who spent many years fighting with and conquering the Gauls throughout Europe, and others in Greek and Roman antiquity. Alternatively, In later years after the coming of Christianity, writers were often clergymen or other elites who looked down upon these traditions; they were recorded as an evil contrast to the deeds of the saints. An interesting example of this appears in Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, which reads "Today I interpose all these powers between myself and every harsh pitiless power which may come against my body and my soul: against the spells of women and smiths and druids, against every knowledge which harms a man’s body and Soul....” (translated in Carey ‘Faeth Fiada: Patrick’s Breastplate’ King of Mysteries, p. 133). These three groups - women, blacksmiths, and druids, were clearly referenced as being magical, alongside other professions like bards and poets. It was surprising to me to realize that legal texts often give us insights into the way people in society thought about and understood different supernatural elements of society (including magic spells and charms).

From the literature, it’s difficult and perhaps impossible to know *exactly* what the Celts thought of the Otherworld. In fact, one constant seems to be that it’s full of paradoxes and realities outside of our modern understandings of temporal and material time and space, and there are some different layers to what we know about these beliefs. For example, there are stories of visiting the graves of important and wise people, whose spirits were believed to be tied to that physical place; at the same time, there were also stories that indicated a belief in reincarnation. We do know that the concept of the boundary held great importance when it came to sacred time and space; this included physical space and geographic boundaries like the edge of a water source, roads and bridges between territories, or the edge of a property, as well as time boundaries like the moments where night and day turn into each other, or when seasons change and transition to another time of year. One thing we know for certain is that at these boundaries, the Celts believed Samain to be a time of Otherworldly importance, serving as a liminal space of vulnerability to the supernatural. As a result, Samain brought about practices for protection, divination, and honoring, often involving fire, as well as avoidance of certain activities.

Beyond the liminal space that was the time of Samain itself, there were features of Celtic lore that created connections between our world and the Otherworld. The síd (plural: síde) were physical hills or mounds in our world that served as dwellings of fairies and supernatural being. These were openings or portals to the Otherworld. As described in The Boyhood Deeds of Finn (trans. J. Carey; CHA p. 199): “The síde of Ireland were always open at Samain, for at Samain no concealment could be upon the síde.” On Samain, we experience a fading away of boundaries between our world and the Otherworld, and interaction with the síd or supernatural beings was something to be cautious about. As referenced in The Adventures of Nera, “Now the darkness and horror of that night were great, and demons always used to appear on that night.” These tales teach us that the Otherworld does not experience time the same way as our world. Several days in the Otherworld could be mere minutes in our world, and, conversely a night in the Otherworld could be a whole year in our world. There are many other stories that show the complexities and inconsistencies of otherworldly time. In conjunction with the stories, the name Samain offers some interesting insight in and of itself. The root of Samain corresponds to the meaning summer, which is at first encounter quite strange given its timing in November. However, this makes more sense when considering that many folks believe that Samain and the holiday exactly six months after it (May 1) mark the two halves and main transitions of the Celtic year. The festival on May 1, known commonly as Beltaine, was also called Cétamon (cét + samain), which would mean “first Samain” or “beginning of summer.” The use of this language again at Samain could indicate that the Otherworld’s timing and space were, in some ways, considered the opposite of our world. In fact, in many stories such as The Adventure of Nera, a protagonist who has entered the síd or Otherworld can prove that he has been in a different time and space by bringing back to our world fruits of summer that would otherwise be unavailable.

My own reflections and curiosities about Samain are related to work in the spiritual and psychological realms of consciousness and psyche. Samain is a time where the boundaries between our world and the Otherworld fade away. While we can’t know for certain what the Celts believed, it’s not far-fetched to think of the Otherworld as a realm that can be reached by shifts in our own perceptions or consciousness, accessible through different ritual practices, places, times of year, and times of day. The supernatural is always here around us, despite us experiencing it as being concealed or hidden, aside from these liminal moments like Samain. Rather than material limitations, connection to the Otherworld may be something that comes from our own perception. Shifts in consciousness are what may truly “thin the veil.”

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