Samhain might be the most recognizable Pagan holiday. It stems from a Gaelic festival celebrating the final harvest and beginning of the dark half of the year.
Today, some countries observe it as a secular holiday for dressing up, causing mischief, and going from house to house to get treats.
Samhain (pronounced “sau-in”) is perhaps most analogous to the modern-day New Year’s, though this is up for debate. It’s one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals, and takes place from October 31st to November 1st.
This holiday marks the very end of the harvest season, and the beginning of the colder, darker time of the year. It’s also when the veil between worlds is said to be at its thinnest, and many modern celebrations of Halloween stem from traditional attempts to guide or appease spirits.
Origins & History
Unfortunately, Samhain’s earliest origins were not recorded. It comes from a people with a strong oral tradition, and many of their songs, poems, and stories were lost to time.
We do know that some tombs from the Neolithic era are aligned with the point of sunrise at Samhain. What early literature remains mentions Samhain as a time of parties, feasting, bonfires, and sacrifice.
This time of year was when cattle were led back from where they were pastured during the summer. At this point, herders would slaughter their surplus in order to ensure that they had enough meat throughout the winter, and enough fodder to maintain their herds.
Since the boundary between this world and the invisible realms is at its thinnest, people would also give offerings of food and drink to appease spirits (traditionally the fae) and make sure that their animals and communities made it safely through winter.
Many of the traditions of Samhain survive in modern celebrations today. It’s thought that dressing up in disguises was a way of protecting oneself from troublesome spirits, and disguised mummers would go from house to house to exchange songs and poetry for food and drink.
Some scholars draw parallels between this and the actions of the fae — the disguised people would go to homes and demand offerings. If they didn’t get them, they’d play pranks on the owners, like malevolent spirits.
Households would even conduct special suppers, setting a place at their tables for dead loved ones. These survive in the completely silent “dumb suppers” observed today.
The original jack-o-lanterns were carved from turnips, and used as lanterns for disguised mummers and placed in windows to serve as protection from evil spirits.
Samhain is believed to be a powerful time for divination. In one area of Scotland, people would set a circle of stones around a bonfire and celebrate around them. In the morning, if any of the stones were found to be out of place, it was believed to be an omen of death for the individual represented by that stone.
Love divination was common, too. Apples are a seasonal food, and apples and hazelnuts are traditional divinatory objects. One method involved peeling an apple in one continuous piece, then throwing the whole peel over the shoulder without looking. When it landed, it was believed to form the first letter of the thrower’s true love’s name.
The most prevalent piece of folklore is the existence of the fae. Their origins are disputed — some scholars indicate that they’re the remains of Neolithic nature deities, while others draw parallels between the fae and ancient forms of ancestor worship.
Samhain was one of the times when these spirits could walk the world freely, and most rituals and traditions revolve around making sure they’re kept happy and peaceful. This would ensure that they didn’t cause any problems for people.
By extension, Samhain is also a time for honoring the dead. It’s believed that this time of year is when the spirits of the deceased are allowed to return to their families for one night.
Samhain’s symbols are unmistakable. Fires, jack-o-lanterns, skulls, and scary masks are all traditional symbols that have survived to the modern day. Traditional colors include orange, black, gold, and brown, all of which have their own meanings:
- Orange is representative of the fruits of the last harvest, the changing leaves, and the flames of the bonfire. Magically, it represents creativity and joy.
- Black is associated with death, but is also used for banishing and protecting against evil.
- Gold represents success and prosperity, and its shine also symbolizes the flames of the bonfire. Some types of fae, like the dullahan, were believed to be repelled by gold.
- Brown is associated with the changing leaves, grounding, and sustenance. It’s also often used in animal magic, and many Samhain traditions stem from protecting animals from injuries, illness, and starvation during winter.
Many modern Samhain rituals also involve protective stones, like jet, onyx, obsidian, and tiger’s eye.
Herbs & Plants
Herbs and plants for Samhain have traditionally included ones that would be in season around that time, like grain, apples, gourds, turnips, hazelnuts, and autumn leaves. Others include:
- Dittany of Crete, which is often burned in incense to help spirits manifest in the smoke.
- Mullein. Called the “hag’s taper,” stalks of mature mullein were often dipped in wax and used as torches.
- Common sage is frequently used in seasonal food. It’s also associated with protection and healing from grief, and is considered a very valuable and versatile medicinal plant.
- Chrysanthemums, which are associated with fire, the sun, and burial rituals.
- Fumitory, an herb which both resembles smoke from a distance, and is burned to repel evil spirits.
- Mandrake, a traditional witch’s herb, is used for protection. Whole mandrake roots were regarded as valuable, and even passed down through families as heirlooms. One Germanic tradition involves bathing the whole mandrake root in wine or brandy, then sprinkling the “bathwater” around one’s property as a protective ward.
In general, Samhain herbs tend to be divinatory, protective, used to placate or communicate with spirits, or associated with burial and the dead. If you don’t live in an area where these herbs are endemic or easily grown, you can substitute local, seasonal plants that share these properties.
See also: Best Herbs For Divination.
Samhain celebrations have a lot in common with modern Halloween festivities. People frequently gather around bonfires, or dress up to go trick-or-treating. Apple bobbing and other traditional games still exist, too.
Modern Pagans generally add a more spiritual emphasis to their celebrations. They may host a “dumb supper,” which involves setting a place for deceased loved ones at the dinner table, and conducting the entire meal in silence. They may also leave offerings of food, incense, beverages, and flowers on ancestor altars.
This is generally a powerful time for performing divination and protective magic. It’s also a time of giving thanks for all that the harvest has provided. Dishes made with meats, grains, apples, nuts, and other seasonal foods feature prominently.
Samhain is one of the major sacred days for Wiccans and other Pagans who draw from Gaelic traditions. It’s a time for giving thanks, acknowledging departed loved ones, making offerings to the land and spirits of nature, and seeking protection from the dangers of winter.