Halloween from Pagan Ritual to Party Night
By Nicholas Rogers
Samhain and the Celtic origins of Halloween
Halloween is commonly thought to have pagan origins, even though its etymology is christian. Halloween is, quite literally, the popular derivative of All Hallow Even, or the eve of All Saints’ Day (1 November). Taken together with All Souls’ Day, which falls on 2 November, it is a time assigned in the christian calendar for honoring the saints and the newly departed. In past centuries, it was also the occasion for praying for souls in purgatory. Yet because Halloween is popularly associated with the supernatural, it is often believed to have strong pagan roots that were never eliminated by the holiday’s subsequent christianization.
Some folklorists have detected its origins in the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruit and seeds, or in the festival of the dead called Parentalia. Most typically, it has been linked to the Celtic Festival of Shamhain or Samuin (pronounced sow-an or sow-in), meaning summer’s end. In the 10th century Gaelic text Tochmarc Emire, the heroine Emer mentions samhain as the first of the four quarter days in the medieval Irish calendar. “When the summer goes to its rest”. Paired with the feast of Beltane, which celebrated the life-generating powers of the sun, samhain beckoned to winter and the dark nights ahead. It was quintessentially “an old pastoral and agricultural festival” wrote J. A. MacCulloch, “which in time came to be looked upon as affording assistance to the powers of growth in their conflict with the powers of blight.”
Not all writers agree on precisely what went on at the feast of Samhain, but many stress its elemental primitivism and it’s enduring legacy to the character of Halloween, particularly in terms of its omens, propitiations, and links to the otherworld. Although the divinatory practices associated with Halloween have long since disappeared, the holiday’s netherworld resonances are still reproduced in jack-o’-lanterns and ghoulish garb. Indeed, in recent years the supernatural qualities of Halloween have been revitalized by two opposing groups: new age pagans and the religious Right. The first have stressed the “natural uncanniness” of Halloween and its therapeutic qualities in helping people “touch the realms of myth and imagination” and “come to terms with their fears of change and death.” The christian evangelist, in contrast, have denounced its “satanism” and its glorification of evil. Some have even claimed that Halloween is “one of the four black sabbaths when witches meet to worship the devil.” Not surprisingly, they have urged school boards to ban Halloween celebrations because of the day’s flagrantly un-christian overtones.
We can dismiss the argument that Samhain was “satanic” or that in some essentials sense Halloween is a “satanic ritual”, as the Revered Pat Robertson, the founder of the christian coalition, declared in 1982.
The issue of whether or not the celebrants of Samhain appeased the gods with animal or human sacrifice is, however, more contentious. Although some of the Celtic folklore hints at sacrificial rites involving humans, the main literary evidence is denied from the classical authors of the first century before christ. These were not first hand accounts but scholarly ruminations on the beliefs, superstitions, and practices of the “barbarous peoples” north of the Alps.
The idea that the Druids engaged in human sacrifice is not implausible, although the references to their activities are frustratingly fleeting. The most detailed account of a Druidic ceremony comes from Pliny the Elder (23 or 24-70 A. D.), but it concerns the sacrifice of two white bulls on the 6th day of the moon in what was very likely a routine fertility rite rather than a special ceremony. Diodorus was especially intrigued by the Druidic practice of stabbing victims and arguing from their death-roles. “When the stricken victim has fallen,” he remarked, “they read the future of his limbs, as well as from the gushing of the blood, having learned to place confidence in an ancient and long-continued practice of observing such matters. Strabo made the same observations about divining from the “death struggle,” although he also referred to death by impalement or a arrow, even though archery was not a normal part of Celtic warfare. The Roman historian Tacitus was more graphic in his Annals. He denounced the “savage cults” of the Druids, specifically their propensity to “slake the altars with captive blood and to consult their deities by means of human entrails.
Without a doubt, the most dramatic account of human sacrifice came from the pens of Strabo, Julius Caesar, and Diodorus, all of whom referred to the huge human-like wicker structures into which living men were cast before they perished in fire. The Druids, claimed Caesar, believed, “that unless for a man’s life a man’s life be paid, the majesty of the immortal gods may not be appeased, and in public, as in private life, they observe an ordinance of sacrifices of the same kind. Others use figures of immense size, whose limbs, woven out of twigs, they fill with living men and set on fire, and the men perish in a sheet of flame.”
Two considerations should make us wary of believing that the Druids were peace loving mystics who abhorred human sacrifices. Archeological remains reveal that the northern peoples of the Roman or pre-Roman era did sacrifice humans. The piles of heads at temple sites suggest that Celtic warriors kept the crania of their opponents as trophies and perhaps as offerings to the gods. The discovery of pits in the sanctuary floor of an Irish site on the hill of Tara in County Meath, all filled with the bones of animals and humans, also suggest in Denmark and Britain point in the same direction. In the case of the “Lindow Man”, the body found on Lindow Moss South of Manchester in 1984, the victim appeared to have been struck from behind, garrotted, and bled as he was dropped into th bog. It is, of course, conjecture as to whether or not this was a ritual sacrifice, let alone a sacrifice that likely occurred at a Celtic festival, but the suggestion that human sacrifice was part of the culture of the ancient “British” peoples cannot be easily dismissed.
In fact, the pagan origins of Halloween generally flow not from this sacrificial evidence but from a different set of symbolic practices. These revolve around the notion of Samhain as a festival of the dead and as a time of supernatural intensity heralding the onset of winter.
The notion that Samhain was a festival of the dead was first popularized by Sir James Frazer in the now classic Golden Bough (1890). He wrote that “the night which marks the transition from autumn to winter seems to have been of old the time of year when the souls of the departed were supposed to revisit their old homes in order to warm themselves by the fine and to comfort themselves with the good cheer provided from them in the kitchen or the parlor by their affectionate kinfolk.
In fact, there is no hard evidence that Samhain was specifically devoted to the dead or to ancestor worship, despite claims to the contrary by some American folklorists, some of whom have presumed that the feast was devoted to Samhain, god of the dead. According to the ancient sagas, Samhain was the time when tribal people paid tribute to their conquerors and when the sidh might reveal the magnificent palaces of the gods of the underworld. Insofar as Samhain was dedicated to anyone and this is extremely conjectural, it appears to have associated with the principal god of the old Irish tradition, Euchaid Ollathair, sometimes referred to as Dagda, who in Tochmare Ethaine, or the Wooing of Etain, had ritual intercourse with three divinities, including Morrigan, the raven-goddess of war and fertility.
In marking the onset of winter, Samhain was closely associated with darkness and the supernatural. In Celtic lore, winter was the dark times of the year when “nature is asleep, summer has returned to the underworld, and the earth is desolate and inhospitable.” in Cornwall and Brittany, November was known as the dark or black month, the first of winter, in Scotland, it was called “an Dudlachd” or “gloom”. Samhain was a time of divine couplings and dark omens, a time when malignant birds emerged from the caves of Crougham to prey upon mankind, led by one monstrous three-headed vulture whose foul breath withered the crops.
As night overwhelmed day, so the supernatural abounded. In Ireland, the fe-fiada, the magic fog that rendered people invisible, was lifted on Samhain, and elves emerged from the fairy raths, erasing the boundaries between the real and otherworld. Mythic kings and heroes died on Samhain, and carousing Ulster warriors, the uliad, met their death by fire and the sword at the hands of their monster enemies. Samhain was also the occasion when the Formorians exacted tributes of grain, milk and live children from their subordinates and when malevolent gods strove unsuccessfully to burn Tara, the meeting place of the fire Irish provinces. Not all stories, of course, spoke of war and destruction, some dealt with the prospect of rebirth and the triumph of true love, including the tale of Oenghus and Caer, the prince of love and the princess of the sidh, who fell in love despite parental disapproval and fly away aw swans.
In Celtic lore, it marked the boundary between summer and winter, light and darkness.
Halloween did not take firm in North America until the 19th century.