Origins of Samhain
The glorious scares and fabulous theatre of modern day Halloween find their origins in the ancient Celtic Tradition of Samhain.
This quarterly fire festival, celebrating the midpoint between the fall equinox and winter solstice served as a means to ring in the Celtic New Year. During this time, hearth fires in family homes were left to burn as harvest was gathered and celebrants joined druid priests to light a community fire. The fire that burned did so along a large wheel that used friction to spark the flames. The wheel was considered a representation of the sun, set aflame and rolled downhill to mirror the sun’s descent in the sky, honoring the transition from the lighter half of the year to the darker. This ritual, whilst marking the midpoint between fall and winter, also signified the cyclical nature of life and death.
Thus, the well-known belief of modern day Halloween persists: It is the time of year when the barrier between the physical world and the spirit world is at its thinnest.
The perceptible decline of the sun at this time of year was a source of concern for the ancient Celts, and lighting the Winter fires symbolized man’s attempts to assist the sun on its journey across the skies. The other, perhaps more spiritual, role of fire during this time was the observance of fire as a means of protection. The hearths in family homes at this time symbolized the connection between the living and ancestral spirits, as well as becoming an emblem of hope for the returning sun.
Hearth fire, communal bonfires, and large signal fires lit atop hills represented purification and renewal, their flames destroying the old and making way for the new. This lighting of flames and hoisting of torches at a time of such darkness gave rise to the idea that the Pagan Celts were honoring Mog Rúith – the sun god.
And where there is a sun god (a delicious treat), there is also a lord of darkness (damnable tricks!).
The disappearance of the sun from the skies marked the ascension of strange forces. The Lord of the underworld, untethered from the controlling sun, now walked the earth with a bounty of creatures from the land of the dead. Ghosts, fairies, and other odd beasts sought to break the thin barrier between the physical and spiritual world, and at their lead was Donn – the Lord of the Dead.
In Celtic mythology, it is said that when invaders of Ireland, known as the Miliseans, landed at the Boyne, they encountered wise Druids. These Druids in no uncertain terms told the Miliseans to return to their ships and sail away to the length of nine waves. The Milisean complied, but headed back to where they came, they were clattered by tremendous waves that sent them to the bottom of the sea. The commander of one vessel, known as Donn, was drowned along with twenty more comrades and buried off the coast of Kerry.
Thanks to his designation as being one of the first invaders to meet his death in Ireland, Donn became the God of the Dead; the Lord of the Underworld – and any other monikers you can attribute to a weary seaman. The place of his burial became known as Teach Donn (The house of Donn), and soon became identified with the other world. The Celts were fascinated with tracing their ancestry as far back as they could and often identified their earliest ancestors with the gods of their peoples. Hence, a belief arose that when they died they went to the house of their ancestor, the god of the otherworld.
The dual nature of Samhain being a celebration of light and darkness, life and death, has long infused it with a sense of transcendence. The night, for as long as its been celebrated, has been one that toes the line between looking back and forwards, and so, has earned the designation of being time held in suspense.
This idea of time being held in suspense, and the barrier between one world and the next becoming thin then gave way to grand traditions – aimed at reaching those from a time before time.
Samhain Traditions during the Celtic age placed emphasis on the importance of light, and the triumph of light against darkness.
One of the most important traditions at this time was the Tlachtga Fire Ceremony, named for the mythological figure believed to be the daughter of Mog Rúith. The tale goes that Tlachtga was once a powerful druidess, who, along with her father, travelled the world through a portal, a spinning wheel of fire, in order to gain knowledge. Tlachtga and her father studied with a man named Simon Magus – otherwise known as Simon the Sorcerer – and together the trio honed their skills and furthered their magic studies.
When enough time had passed and Mog Rúith and Simon the Sorcerer grew weary from effort, Tlachtga pressed on, becoming powerful enough to strike fear into the hearts of her contemporaries. The end of Tlachtga’s tale differs, but the sentiment remains the same, that her father and his fellow sorcerer sought to destroy the druidess. Tlachtga was dispatched at their scheming hands, and in an effort to honor her powerful ways, the hill of Tlachtga became her namesake – forever cemented as a place of druidic rituals and magical import.
The great fires that blazed upon this hill during Celtic times were ignited to honor their ancestors and celebrate unity, recognizing the importance of transformation and the resilience it took to oppose the dark forces that plagued them.
Today, these fires are seen all around the world during Halloween and called Bonfires (or Bone Fires, for the animal bones that were set ablaze in order to ward of evil spirits). And speaking of evil spirits, we get to one of the longest standing traditions of Samhain.
Adored near and far, and obsessed upon by diehard Autumn-eers, it is of course, dressing up.
During the ancient festival of Samhain, a night that marked the transition between the seasons, the natural order of life seemed to unravel. The boundary between the realm of the living and departed became blurred, causing an intricate intermingling of these two realms. This was a world populated not only by the spirits of the deceased but also by an array of deities, fairies, and enigmatic beings.
Travelers who found themselves outside on this night were advised to exercise caution, as encounters with these otherworldly entities were highly likely. Ghostly apparitions roamed freely, some potentially benevolent while others possibly not. These latter apparitions – the unfriendly critters – would demand appeasement through ritual offerings on this night.
So long as these offerings were made, the spirits remained content and kindly, safeguarding the household. However, withholding these offerings brought about a different aspect of these spirits – ill fortune would befall the household, casting a shadow over the upcoming year. If you’re a person who’s been keeping up with the latest Halloween traditions, you will likely point at your screen and say, ‘That sounds a lot like trick or treating,’ and by god, you would be right. This tradition, the absolute best thing about modern day Halloween and something that does not get enough play at other holidays – where are the adult sized Easter bunny costumes? – has persevered as a fun obsession enjoyed around the globe (much akin to another pastime that finds its roots in Irish lore).
Say you stumble upon a great big orange face staring at you from inside a department store window come Autumn – do you run and hide, or say, ‘Hey, that’s pretty neat.’ If you belong to the latter group, that means you are most definitely not a ghost (results may vary).
The knowledge that Jack O’Lanterns were placed on Celtic windowsills as a means to ward away evil spirits is pretty commonplace. But do you know where this tradition comes from? I most certainly did not and am very excited to tell you.
It all stems from an Irish folklore legend named ‘Stingy Jack’.
Stingy Jack was a clever but deceitful blacksmith who was notorious for his cunning and dishonest ways. He was known to play tricks on others and was especially skilled at manipulating situations to his advantage. However, his behavior eventually caught up with him, and he found himself in a precarious bind.
One night, while Stingy Jack was coming home after a long and particularly stingy day, he encountered the Devil at a crossroads. In a cunning attempt to avoid his own fate, Jack managed to trick the Devil into climbing an apple tree (Devil loves apples; common knowledge). Quick-thinking Jack then carved a cross on the trunk of the tree thus preventing the Devil from descending. Jack struck a deal with the Devil: he would remove the carving and set the Devil free, but in return, the Devil would promise not to claim Jack's soul when he eventually passed away.
The Devil agreed, the years passed, and Jack’s dishonest ways continued.
Eventually, Jack died. But upon reaching the gates of Heaven, he was turned away due to his deceitful and selfish life. Seeking refuge, Jack approached the gates of Hell – but get this – the Devil kept his promise and turned him away as well.
(Mind - Blown)
Left with no place to go, Jack was condemned to roam the darkness between worlds, carrying only a hollowed-out turnip with a piece of coal to light his way. The turnip served as a lantern, and Jack became known as "Jack of the Lantern" or ‘Jack-o'-Lantern.’ People would light similar lanterns to guide their path and ward off the wandering spirit of Stingy Jack.
This practice, of turning out turnips and fitting them with a lit candle began in Ireland. But as Irish and Scottish emigrants entered the United States in the nineteenth century, they brought this tradition with them, and in scarce supply of turnips, they looked to the plentiful pumpkin instead.
Thus, pumpkin carving, curating, and artistry was born; and Stingy Jack became the man who brought a turnip to a pumpkin party.
Samhain traditions are fantastic.
Samhain Celebrations in Ireland Today
In present day Ireland, Samhain celebrations are still alive and well.
For that enchanting time at the end of October to the cusp of November, there are enough gatherings, celebrations, and festivities to set the night alight with Samhain spirit. The birthplace of Samhain and the epicenter for Celtic revelry, the Boyne Valey in County Meath leads the charge with two of the most fantastic festivals honoring Samhain.
The first is the Púca Festival. Held in Athboy and Trim in County Meath, the Púca Festival brings together artists, seanchaí storytellers, and traditional musicians to uplift Irish spirits for four days and five nights in raucous fashion. The Púca Festival town of Athboy, steeped in Halloween tradition, holds historical significance as the site of Tlachtga or The Hill of Ward, one of the prominent gathering places for Samhain celebrations. On Monday, October 31st, visitors can partake in the 'Coming of Samhain' festivities at The Hill of Ward, a major ceremonial enclosure and an early Samhain site, where the five ancient provinces of Ireland will be symbolically reunited in flame for a spiritual and historical retelling of the original Halloween story.
In the heritage town of Trim and its picturesque castle grounds, a series of five supernatural nights will unfold, featuring music, comedy, and Halloween spectacles, including the grand opening procession scheduled for Saturday, October 28th, designed to kick off the festival with flair. This innovative procession will seamlessly blend elements of outdoor theater, street performance, and music, creating a lively celebration that draws inspiration from Samhain lore, the natural world, ancestral traditions, and the encroaching darkness. As daylight gives way to night and the veil between worlds thins, the festival promises to conjure visions of otherworldly, shape-shifting spirits on their ethereal journey through the very birthplace of Halloween.
And if one were to find themselves in Meath during this time of year, and felt the urge to seek out a gastronomic treat, the Samhain Festival of Food and Culture, has you covered. This multiday event, taking place once Púca Festival is finished, champions Irish produce and producers, showcasing the very best of the Irish gastronomic landscape. From food safaris and cooking demonstrations to farm tours and workshops for children, the Samhain Festival of Food and Culture puts good times first, allowing children and adults alike to indulge in (my) most anticipated part of Halloween - the delicious food.
These celebrations are fabulous options for any person visiting or based in Ireland. But should one find themselves on either side of the Emerald Isle, and be in search of a good time, there are still more options to explore.
In Dublin, the Bram Stoker Festival has reigned supreme.
The Bram Stoker Festival celebrates the enduring legacy of one of Ireland's most iconic writers. Entering its tenth year, the festival draws inspiration from the author’s life, literary creations, and the Dublin of his era. This enchanting combination of the gothic, supernatural, and Victorian acts as the perfect backdrop for outdoor circus performances in dark, foreboding forests, nightclub comedy shows, choral ensembles in dimly lit libraries, and food tours featuring custom menus.
The festival has hosted elaborate banquets in sacred crypts, taken over cathedrals, parks, and squares, and entertained thousands of Dubliners and visitors with parades, fire gardens, and illuminated water-based installations. It has also delved into Stoker's literary impact, exploring everything from his life and the city he called home to his role as a critic. In addition, it has delighted young festivalgoers with kid-friendly discos, workshops, face-painting, performances, and more at Stokerland and beyond.
From one side of Ireland to the next, Samhain spirit does not dim, as the Aboo Festival in Galway brings haunted glee to the East Coast.
The Aboo Festival is the culmination of many wonderous events during the week of Samhain, and one of the most awe inspiring is the Macnas Parade. Macnas giant creations and sculptural images, pyrotechnics, bespoke costumes, and epic performances to live and original music push Samhain spirits to soaring heights. Those in attendance will be brought on a journey by Macnas conjuring up a magical-realist world brimming with fizzing light, infusing the streets with spices and aromas, wafting and roaming around dense dark corners that rise to meet the transcendental and magical. This mesmerizing experience is sure to leave a lasting impression, and while the grand showmanship of Macnas Parade provides a tremendous Samhain crescendo, there are still more intimate activities to consider.
In Galway, Samhain is still alive and well, even in the little things. Such events as Spooky Wooky at the Burren Nature Sanctuary are a great opportunity for loved ones to come together and indulge in quaint celebration. Other such events like a ghoulish Treasure Hunt at Bridget’s Garden and Halloween Treat at Turoe Farm are perfect occasions for families and those wanting to experience the outdoors during one of the most atmospheric times of year.
Ghouls and goblins are pre-tty great, but getting lost in the history and folklore of our modern traditions imbues each celebration with a magical touch. If there was one thing to take from reading this article it would be to find out all you can about stalwart traditions – because grounding theatre in truth makes the crescendo all the more enjoyable.