In this article I hope to trace the ancient Gaelic roots of what is now celebrated as Halloween, from its earliest mentions in the ancient Irish manuscripts to the holiday we know today and also focusing on the Irish traditions of the festival and the importance of feasting, guising, fires and divination. (I should add that these are two separate festivals occurring roughly the same time, but there is evidence that some of the beliefs and traditions carried forward).
Halloween, the festival we all know and love, originated (or more correctly evolved) from the ancient celtic festival of Samhain (although I should add that all the manuscripts mentioned below aren’t written until roughly the 11th Century, so it is essentially Christian monks back projecting traditions into the past. It is still interesting to note the pervasiveness of some of these beliefs being carried forward in time to our own age). This liminal time of supernatual intensity, where the veil between worlds was at its thinnest, was one of the four quarter days of the Irish calendar (Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain).
It should come as no surprise that with Samhain being a ceann féile lit. “head feast” (Owens,1990:340), that it features quite prominently in tales and traditions of Ireland. First I will look at these tales relating to Samhain
The Boyhood deeds of Finn (pge.199 CHA)
Almost everyone is familiar with the hero Finn Mac Cumhaill and his Fianna*, the roving warband. The Finn cycle or Fiannaíocht was one of the favoured styles of storytelling and a very large corpus of material relating to the fianna survives today.
*The fianna (sin.féinnid) were a real historical phenomenon where boys from the age of 14-21 would join this warband to learn military training, hunting etc from the time them left fosterage to the time they could own land.
In the Boyhood Deeds, Finn travels to the Paps of Anu ( Dá Chích Anann) on Samhain and.sits between two sídhe (otherworldly mounds). Usually, these tumuli would just appear as mounds, but we are told that the Fé Fíada was down. The Fé Fíada, was the magical barrier that prevented people from seeing the sídhe and multiple sources tell us that on Samhain this does not work and that “all sídhe are open on Samhain”. While sitting between the two Sídhe, Finn hears two men shouting across at each other, and see them inside the mounds. Here we see that there is a temporal anomaly between this world and the otherworld (a common motif in tales that we will see elsewhere) when the man shouts to the other “Is your Subhais good?”. Subhais was a type of gruel associated more with the festival of Bealtaine, the opposite end of the year. It is also mentioned that one of the men is holding a bunch of wild garlic, again illustrating that the otherworld is at the opposite time of year.
Samhain again features in the Boyhood Deeds in the section relating to Aillén Mac Midgna. This tale however takes place in the royal stronghold of Tara. Áillén emerges from the otherworld every 23 years and burns down Tara. Nobody is ever able to stop him as he uses a magical harp to send everybody to sleep. Young Finn decides he is going to put a stop to this carry on, so sets out to get a poisoned spear from Fiachaill Mac Conchinn (Tooth son of Doghead) and by placing the tip of the poisoned spear to his forehead, is able to stay awake when the other worldly music is played and is able to defeat Aillén. This tale can also be found in Acallamh na Seanorach* (Tales of the Elders of Ireland) to explain how Finn got his famous spear.
*Acallamh na Seanorach is essentially the chronological end to the finian cycle. Coilte and Oscar, the last remaining members of the fianna, who have somehow survived for centuries, meet Saint Patrick and recount many tales of old Ireland to the saint, many of which are etiological in nature.
Wooing of Etáin (CHA:146-7)
In the Wooing of Etáin we see an interesting element relating to Samhain that is mirrored elsewhere. We see what appears to be a prohibition on fighting or going to war. In this tale Oengus is trying to secure his own Brugh/Sídhe and he is advised to go to Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange) at Samhain because “ No man fears his neighbour on Samhain”. We will encounter this again below.
The Birth of Áed Sláine (CHA:272)
Here again we an indication of the festival as an important Óenach. We are told specifically that is one of the two renowned Óenach’s, Lughnasadh and Samhain. We also see another mention of the Feis and that “The men of Ireland came from all quarters for the Feis Temró at Samhain”. This tale also tells us how no laws are broken or transgressed on Samhain
Togail Bruidne Dá Derga (CHA:177-9)
Bonfires are one of the most iconic elements of the Halloween celebrations today and it’s importance to the festival is clear to see from the earliest mentions or the modern folkloric record. In The Destruction of Da Dearga’s Hostel we are told of the origin of this practice of lighting big fires. We are told how a Torc Tened (boar of a fire) was lit to give warning. This was the first beacon of Ireland and from this the customary beacon fire of Samhain followed to commemorate the destruction of the hostel.
Aided Diarmuid Mac Cearbhaill (CHA:215)
In this tale, The Death of Diarmuid Mac Cerbhaill, the king, Diarmuid has returned from his circuit* , an annual practice that was carried out at this time of the year. Upon returning to Tara, Diarmuid hosts the Feis Temro**, showing us the importance of feasting at Samhain and due to fact that people were said to come from all corners of Ireland, shows us that this might have been an important óenach or gathering, similar to that of Lughnasadh, another important festival in the gaelic year, celebrated around the start of August (and which gives its name to the month of August in Irish).
*A circuit is where the king would go around visiting all his clients. They would have to host the king and his entire retinue for a few days, providing all the hospitality that was necessary for someone of his status. This was a requirement of becoming a client of the king and is mentioned in the Brehon Laws (you can read my article on the laws here)
**Feis Temro (‘The Feast of Tara’), a Pagan rite observed by kings of Tara to celebrate the divine nature of the kingship of Tara and to reiterate its special status in Ireland. Evidence for the celebration of Feis Temro is meagre. The annals record that it was held on a few occasions in the 5th and 6th centuries. The final and most reliable reference to the celebration of the rite records that it was held in 560 by Diarmait mac Cerbaill.
Eachtra Nerai (CHA:127)
Next is what has to be my favourite Halloween themed tale, “The Adventure of Nera”. This narration opens at another royal stronghold, Cruachan (Rathcroghan) in the feasting halls of King Aillil and the infamous Queen Medbh (Maeve). We are told, in relation to Samhain, how “the darkness and horror of that night was great and demons used always appear on that night”, a recurring theme that we will see again and again, especially when looking at modern folklore.
In the middle of the feast, the king boasts that anyone brave enough to face these horrors and tie a twig around the foot of a recently deceased prisoner on the gallows outside can have any treasure he desires. A few try to no avail as they are not able to withstand the horrors outside. Nera, not being put off by this, dons his armour and rushes outside. After attempting a few times to tie the twig, the corpse comes to life and tells him how to succeed. For this information, the corpse asks to be carried around to the nearby houses to get a drink. The corpse cannot enter the first house as a lake of fire surrounds it, owing to the fact the fire has been correctly banked down. The second can’t be entered as it is surrounded by a lake of water, owing to the fact all the waste water has been properly disposed of. It is only when they reach the third house that they are able to enter as the waste water used for washing feet has been left inside the house and enables the corpse to drink the water. He spits the remaining mouthful on the sleeping occupants of the house, killing them. This threat from wandering spirits is echoed in an account in the National Folklore Collection (hereafter NFSC) from Roscommon where we are told how “Pookas, spirits and other evil spirits roam from house to house casting evil spells on man and beast. Everyone stays in doors” (NFSC,Vol.236:113-19). In relation to the disposal of water we see differing modern accounts of what the correct procedure is such as one account (NFSC,Vol.96:366) suggests that it is unlucky to throw out water, especially suds, while another (Danaher,1972:207) states that you should shout “Seachain!” (watch out/beware)or “chughaibh an t-uisce” (the water to you”) in an effort to warn any spirts or fairies who might be around.
So, returning to tale, as Nera returns to feast, he sees the stronghold on fire (which turns out to be only a vision of what will happen in a years time, another temporal anomaly). He is able to enter into a sídhe, again due to its enchantment being down, and spend what he believes is a year there. He is given toirthe Samraid (the fruits of summer) to prove he has been in otherworld and discovers when he returns that only minutes has elapsed and is able to convince all present of the dangers that await them next year.
Lebor Gabála Éirenn (CHA:242)
This next example is chronologically the oldest mention of Samhain in this list although the earliest surviving copy dates to the 11th century. Found in Lebor Gabála Éirenn, whose stories recount the various invasion waves that inhabited and fought in Ireland. The tales list everyone from the time of Noah to the coming of the ancestors of the Gaels. We are told how 2/3 of the children, grain and milk given over each year to the fomorians as a form of tribute or sacrifice. This element no doubt fanning the flames of anti-halloween, hard line Christians who espouse the idea of human sacrifice being carried out at Samhain. The next on the list is a clear reworking of this tale.
Dinsheanchas translated means “the lore of places” and is as the name suggests, a compilation of poetic verses (Metrical dindsheanachas) and narratives (prose dindsheanachas) detailing how specific places got their name. Here we are told how Maigh Slecht (the plain of prostration) was the site of the human sacrifices of first born children each year at Samhain to the god Crom Cruach in return for milk and grain. This was said to be stopped by none other than St Patrick, the over-mythologised figure and ever-present “enemy” of paganism of early medieval Ireland (an article about the false myths of Patrick can be found here). It is quite possible this tale was reworked, like other tales, in order to fit St Patrick in as the hero, and to add to the power of his myth.
The royal stronghold mentioned above, Cruachan, also features in other tales in relation to Samhain. There is a cave close to the fort, that seems to be big source of the horrors and terrors found there at Samhain. Named Uaimh na gCait or cave of the cats, most likely related to story relating to a bunch of wild cats that emerged from there and were subsequently tamed by Cú Chulainn. Other horrific and terrifying creatures who emerge from her at Samhain include the three-headed beast known as the Ellen Trechen, A flock of small red birds (a colour synonymous with the otherworld) and a herd of pigs with poisonous breath that wilts and withers anything they breathe on. The war goddess, the Morrigan, is said to emerge from the cave on a chariot pulled by a one-legged horse.
In The Wooing of Emer, Emer mentions that Samhain is the first of the four quarter days and when “summer goes to rest”. This is one of the only ancient texts to mention something that even comes close to supporting the modern held idea that Samhain was in fact the Celtic new year. The truth of this “fact”, however is not as clear cut. We have no real evidence to indicate this and most of the weight behind this argument lies in a modern misunderstanding of the fact a scholar heard Scottish hogmanay songs being sung at Halloween in wales and put 2+2 together and got 5.
So, as we skip ahead in time, we will look now at the more modern celebrations of what we now know asHalloween. We will see repeating motifs and traditions echoed from the ancient traditions. The belief in the horrors and terrors of the night continued, but in many cases the fairies now take the place of the demons and spirits as antagonists. It was common for folk from neighbouring houses to gather together (NFC,Vol.106), but there was a pervasive fear of going outside late at night, especially alone. One account tells us how country people do not like to go outside on Halloween night “For the fairies do have their fliting then, and do not like to be seen or watched: and all the spirits come to meet them and help them. But, the mortal people should keep at home, or they will suffer for it! For the souls of the dead have power over all things on that one night of the year, and they hold a festival with the fairies and they drink red wine from fairy cups and dance to fairy music till the sun goes down” and also not to go out after dark because “ghosts and demons are around”(IML.7:222). If you had to step outside, there were measures one could take to stay protected. One informant told the NFC that her grandmother made oaten scones with a hole in them and put them around each child’s neck. She also rubbed salt and oats on their head (NFC, Vol.1359:139). Rubbing salt and meal on the head was also carried out by Mummers before going house to house to perform and collect food and money (the precursor to trick or treating) in Derry (O’Dowd:91) A Cross called a “parshell” was made hung on doors and byres as another form of proctection. This was two pieces of wood, roughly 7 inches in length were tied together with straw.
We also see that these spirits have the ability to enter the house as we are warned that “After raking the fire at night, don’t stay in the kitchen. It belongs to the dead” (IBID). A separate source suggests that after sweeping the hearth that a bowl of colcannon should be left out for the good people, to appease them for the coming year.(NFC,Vol.99:366). People ran the risk of being ‘led astray’ of the fair folk, such as the tale of the gentleman who was returning home late one Samhain evening.. He was passing Knocksouna: a large hill near Rath Lúirc. It gets its name from the fairies who procession around it on Halloween.. As he was passing he was forced to join the processing fairies in three rounds of the hill, before being left go (C.f O’Dowd:91,The man in the previous tale was lucky to be left go, because we are told elsewhere “Don’t go out because if you get caught up with them you will be gone for the year”) (IML:80:29).This was also the time of the year where all fruits and crops, such as potatoes, all need to be harvested by this date. Children are warned against picking berries and told that the púca, a shapeshifting trickster spirit, had spit or peed on them or that the devil had shook his club or blanket at them (NFC, Vol.1359:138).
Guising was also a main feature of going house to house begging. Today the costuming element is one of the most iconic traditions of Halloween, and kids and adults alike love dressing up and although many would associate the act of trick or treating as infantile and the domain of only young children, in the past there was no age restriction for going house to house in disguise while performing in return for food and money. Boy dressed as girl, young dressed as old and some dressed in straw outfits. Blackened faces and old veils hid their identity. We get a rather colourful account from Ballycotton, Co.Cork from the 19th century. Written in 1852 we are told how the messengers of the Muck olla (woolen pig) would go from house along the coast.. The group consisted of Youths blowing cow horns with a figure covered in a white sheet and the head of a white mare called the Láir Bháin. Poems were said at each household and the farmer would give generously (milk,eggs,wool,corn) in the fear all his luck would be taken by the Muck Olla.
“2000 years ago when the land was still pagan, this was supposed to be a night when the dead, especially the evil and the wicked, were called back by the god of death. Then as that belief grew older, people spoke of the fairies and mingled it with the harvest festival. When the Christian era dawned, Óiche Shamana became Halloween” IML236:113-119
One of the most iconic and pervasive traditions of Halloween involved many forms of divination. Although these are most carried out by women trying to find out who their future husband will be, there are examples of men taking part. Sometimes the divination was employed to divine the impending death of someone in the household. Divination was also one of the strongest traditions to have made it across the pond with settlers. Mirrors, twine, foodstuffs and molten lead were the most popular implements used in this nature and some will be detailed below:
- Ball of yarn: Thrown into a lime kiln as far as it can go. When you try to wind it will not come. Call out “who holds my thread” and your future spouse is sure to call out his name. (IML.437:199-20)
- Wheat: place 2 grains on shovel, one representing you and the other your intended crush and place over the fire. If the grains remain together as they heat up,you are meant to be with the person.(IML.437:199-20)
- Eat something salty à take a glass of water to bed with you à future spouse gives you the water in dream (IML.227:476) c.f year in Ireland:202, A person who tries this confesses to a priest and the priest asks “weren’t you afraid the devil would choke you?
- Look through a mirror with the reflection of the moon in it and say: “I Cross my shoes in the form of a T, Hoping this night my true love to see, Not in his Sunday clothes nor in his gay, But in the clothes he wears everyday” (IBID)
- Peel an apple without breaking the skin and throw over shoulder. The initials seen on the floor are the initials of the future spouse (IML.7:22)
- Eat apple while looking in mirror, see husband over shoulder. As with many of these tales, we often find cautionary tales to try and dissuade people from trying these techniques. In this instance we are told how a woman uses the mirror technique and sees the man who she saw in the mirror a few weeks later on the street. She subsequently faints from the shock and never recovers, only to die days later. (IML.815:128)
- A good fire with lots of Griosach (hot ashes) was used to tell fortunes(Danaher:205) (F Vallency, Collectania De Rubis hibernicus,1774: “Nut shells are burnt and from the ashes, many strange things are foretold”) .We are not told specifically in these examples how this is done although from other sources we are told how shapes such as coffins in the ashes, if left spread out over night, would indicated a death in the following year or how footprints meant that someone would emigrate.
- If the wind blows to the south a wet winter will follow (bealoideas 6)
- Ring in Colcannon.
- Nuts: 2 nuts are named for the intended people. They nuts are then heated on shovel over the fire and placed into bucket of water. If they follow each other around, the couple was meant to be, opposite direction not meant to be. When in fire, first to burn up was to be the first to die (IML.1359:140).
- Look into mirror at 12am to see the devil (ibid:145)
- Pull a briar rooted at both ends and make into the shape of a ring à put under pillow à vision of spouse will appear in a dream (IML.80:4)
- Steal head of cabbage and tie it to someone’s door to receive a vision. (ibid)
- Comb hair without talking à roll up with a sixpence inside à wrap with handkerchief a a vision will appear in your dreams. (ibid)
- Write names on two pieces of paper of the people you want to decide between à place in bucket of water àput clay on the paper to sink it, first to rise is the person you should pursue for romance. (ibid)
- First and last spoons of colcannon from your dinner should be placed inside a stockingà don’t speak to anyone after doing it and sleep on it to see future husband in a dream.
- Put Ivy leaf in bucket of water. If hole comes someone in the house will die
- Sweep the heart well and if there are tracks in it in the morning someone will die or leave the house. (IML.80: 237)
- Get a bibleà get a widows key and place inside à tie with black ribbon and make wish à if book moves wish will come true.
- A snail placed under the bed will spell out the initials of your future husband.
- Put knots on your left garter and at each knot say:
“This knot, this knot, this knot to see,
The thing I never saw yet.
To see my love in his array
And what he walks in every day,
And what his occupation,
This night may I in my dream see.
And if my love be clad in green,
His love for me it is well seen.
And if my love be clad in grey,
His love for me is far away.
And if my love is glad in blue,
His love for me is very true”.
- Pull 9 stalks of yarrow. Peel and throw away the ninth. Do not talk and eat colcannon before going to bed. Hold one stalk and say:
“Good night, good yarrow, good night to thee!
Tell me who my true love is to be!
If his clothes I am to wear,
If his children I’m to rear.
Blithe and merry may he be
With his face turned to me.
If his clothes I’m not to wear,
If his children not to rear,
Sour and Grumach may he be
With his back turned to me!
Cut 9 stalks with a black handled knife:
“Good morrow, good morrow, my pretty fair yarrow!
I pray before this time tomorrow
You will tell me who my true love shall be.
The clothes that he wears, the name that he bears,
And the day that he will come towed me.”
“Good morrow, good morrow, fair yarrow,
And thrice good morrow to thee!
And I hope before this time tomorrow,
You will show me my true love to be.”
In the name of the devil
A number of divinations and actions are carried out “in the name of devil”. Here we often find cautionary tales to hopefully prevent you from doing them.
- Sow oats or hemp “In the name of the devil” (hereafter NOD) to know when to get married. (when it comes above ground it is time.) IML.96:366
- Wash your hair NOD and it will never grow grey or lose hair. Must remain silent
- Pull shirt 3 times against the water of a stream (convergence of 3 streams is best) in the NOD. Hang the shirt by the fire and hide and the person who is meant to marry you comes in the middle of the night and turns shirt à a folktale tells of woman who does it and the man leaves a glove behind. They get married but the whole comes to light years later when the husband finds the glove. He recounts how on that night all those years ago that a supernatural force that he could not resist forced him to go to his future wife’s house (Another tells of a ghastly injury acquired through being dragged through briars by a similar unseen force). The husband leaves and curses her in both tales. Essentially a simple ritual but dire consequences (IML.106).
- Take three bites of an apple in the NOD while looking in mirror to see husband.
- Crawl under a briar that’s rooted at both ends making a wish in NOD. Mostly people ask for luck in cards, to use piseogs to steal profit. A folktale tells of a guy asking for ability to play music. Upon completing the ritual he finds a fiddle with one string. He is unable to string it normally and only plays one song that’s identified by many people as being “ceol-sídhe”. A Priest tried to exorcise the fiddle so the musician went to France to play at court for 30 years. He played the same tune each night to great acclaim. The fiddle breaks when he dies and priest gives absolution for his soul
The Fern Seed (bealoideas 3)
This was also mentioned by Woodmartin in Traces of the elder faiths in Ireland but is found in more cases in the UK as opposed to Ireland, but this particular instance is from the Irish folklore journal, bealoideas:
Go alone before midnight to the spot where the ferns grow in the woods. Take nine plates of pewter stacked on top of each other with paper/white linen on the bottom layer. Hold these under the ferns just before midnight and the seed will drop but be careful because “so great was its enchanted power that it passed through all the plates except the last”. The seed was then folded up and carried in pocket to render people invisible, ultimately to covertly raid houses. Although beware because “All the powers of the world of darkness and evil were mustered to stop you” These horrors couldn’t touch you but yells, screams, thunders, whirlwinds and visions of friends trying to stop you will all try to thwart you. Yet again we see the same sort of imagery that we found in tales such as “The Adventures of Nera”. One tale tells how one person driven demented from this only. The priest is only able to half cure him and remained simple for the rest of his life.
N.America (Halloween: 81-89)
Next briefly to detail how the festival evolved when it transferred to America through Irish settlers. Guising and pranks remained popular (Óiche na h-aimleise/ night of the pranks had been a popular name in some areas of Ireland) were a big part of the festival by the time it transferred over and remained so in the US. The divination traditions also remained very strong also. The only tradition that failed to transfer was the “dumb supper”, leaving out an extra plate of food for the departed. Nuts and fruit, traditionally given to the disguised members of the community who went house to house, eventually made way for the candy and sweets we are now familiar with. Homemade costumes gave way to store bought masks. Focus was now almost entirely on games and divinations about love, not death. Pranks, many whom mirror those Ireland such as veg being pulled up or gates stolen, increase dramatically to the point that millions in damage was being reported across the entire US each year and there were talks of how much should be tolerated .Festivals/dances were introduced to try distract people and the holiday became more consumer driven and infantile as an attempt to eradicate the anarchic element of the festival. People still retained superstitions but the festival as a whole became more secular and non ethnic but retained some of the vestigial elements of harvest , such as the continued use of fruit and nuts in the divination rituals, but it was now predominantly for kids.
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9 thoughts on “From Ancient Samhain to Modern Halloween”
This is a brilliant resource. Thank you. I know well how much work it was as I have been doing the same just for references to my locality and the festivals, many, many, many hours. This is a wonderful well researched and well written piece that will be of use to many for a long long time. ❤
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Fascinating, and educational