The Legend of Samhain (Halloween)

Updated: Jul 23













Oíche Shamhna

The Origins of Halloween can be traced back to the Gaelic feast of Samhain; marking the end of the harvest season and beginning of Winter. It would have been celebrated around October 31st, Halfway between the Autumn and Winter equinox. (Evidence supporting this is found in Ireland where many neolithic passage tombs are aligned with the sunrise of Samhain.) Scotland, Isle of Man and other Celtic tribes also celebrated this feast.


It was believed on this day our world and the "otherworld" (world of the dead) aligned and spirts (both friend and foe) could cross over to our world. While some beliefs speak of souls returning home in search of hospitality, other traditions were more sinister where children were dressed in costumes to hide them from or to impersonate evil spirits/fairies, while Druids lit bomb fires to ward off hostile spirits and people would burn sacrifices in the form of crops or animals to appease the Celtic deities.

When the Roman Empire conquered the Celtic regions, Samhain was merged with the Romans celebration of Feralia (A Day honoring the dead ) and Pomona (Goddess of Fruits and trees)




The Feast of All Hollows

Around the 9th century, Christians established a new feast celebrating the dead; (martyrs, saints and faithful departed) It was held in spring, and was perhaps influenced by the Roman feast of Feralia.

As Christianity spread across the Celtic world, over time traditions including Samhain blended into each other.

Around 835AD, the feast was moved to a new time of year starting October 31st and is believed one of the factors was Celtic & Germanic influence.

As the 12th century passed, the feast of All Hollows slowly spread across Europe. It wouldn't be until the 1400's that the term Allhollowtide was widely used. This three-day feast begun with All Hollows Eve (Oct 31st), followed by All Saints Day Nov 1st and All Souls Day Nov 2nd.


The feast name continued to evolve and the modern-day name "Halloween" can be traced back to around 1745. Scott's influence from "eve" too "een"

Although Catholic Colonists in Maryland and Anglican colonists in the southern states celebrated Halloween, it was the mass immigration of Scottish and Irish in the 19th century that properly established the festival in Northern America.

By the 20th century, Halloween had grown into a secular event celebrated from coast to coast. With influence from various cultures, the celebration grew into a commercialised extravaganza from parties to parades. Old traditions were revived (and modernised) Pop culture would popularise this holiday across the globe.



Traditional Customs 

Halloween is associated with spooky costumes, trick or treating, horror-themed entertainment, fireworks, and general shenanigans. However, most of these 'modern-day' customs are rooted right back to Samhain and countless other cultural traditions, making this feast one of the most diverse holidays internationally.

Check out the story behind some of the popular Halloween aspects. 




The Jack-o-lantern has become the symbol of Halloween. Although Modern traditions depict a carved out pumpkin, this fruit is relatively modern. The method of carving vegetables is not unique to the Celtic customs but can be found across the planet. However, in terms of its link with Halloween, turnips and other vegetables were carved and placed at windows or doors to ward off evil spirits.


Its influenced by the phenomenon known as will-o'-the-wisp


Bonfire

An original Samhain tradition is that of the bonfire. During Celtic times, Druids would light large bonfires on the day of Samhain to ward off evil spirits. It was believed the smoke flames and ash had protective cleansing powers. Other traditional beliefs were the fire kept away the devil, prevents the spirts from falling to earth and for divination.


Shenanigans (Mischief, pranks, etc) is noting new at Halloween, in-fact, it can be traced right back to the origins of Halloween itself. Take Halloween's most popular activity, Trick or Treat; the hint is in the name! The ancient belief of tricks by goblins and spirits who roamed the world on Halloween inflicting mischief on the living souls. Youngsters, of course, carried on this tradition with harmless pranks. However, in recent decades, those pranks have escalated to more serious anti-social behavior. In some parts, Halloween or more infamous the night before (Oct 30th) is known as Mischief Night or Devils Night



Orange and Black The use of these colours to represent Halloween date right back to the Celtic times. Black was the symbol of the dead and the death of summer. It could also be regarded as the darkness of night, considering winter is upon us and thus leading to longer darker nights. Orange represented the Autumn season. If you think about it, amber/orange is everywhere from the colour change in



Costumes on Halloween are one of the oldest traditions of the festival right back to Celtic times. It was expected to encounter ghosts and growls on the day of Samhain and to protect themselves, people would disguise themselves in the hope of blending in or go unnoticed to the spirts. Children would also be dressed in cloaks hidden in costume to protect them from the fairies.


Apple plays a big role at Halloween, either as in games like ‘bobbing for apples’, or ‘Bit the apple’ or as treats like toffy apples and some traditional love searching where an apple peel could reveal your future lover. The reason Apples are so commonly used could be simply that they are harvested in September/October so there is an abundance this time of year. However, it could also be down to the Roman feast of Feralia. the goddess of Fruit and trees. Her symbol is that of an Apple. When Roman and Celtic cultures merged, it is plausible to believe that the symbol of the goddess been worshipped would play a big role in the celebrations. Traditional Halloween Games Blog


Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an Irish treasure. The gothic horror classic tells the story of the notorious bloodsucking vampire determined to leave Transylvania to pastures new in England. Dracula’s character is heavily based on Vlad Dracula (known as Vlad the Impaler, ruler of a Romanian kingdom “Walachia”) and in many regards is considered Dracula’s Pre-vampire persona. However, Scholars believe that Stoker's inspiration for Dracula’s character wasn’t limited to the 15th century Prince. It’s believed inspiration came from his home of Dublin and perhaps an Irish vampire known as Abhartach.




Black cat superstition dates back to the Middle Ages, where they were seen as symbols of the devil. There are many superstitions like black cats been bad omens especially if one crosses your path. During the Witch hunts, many accused witches were in possession of black cats, thus, further fuelling the suspicion of black cats.



Ghosts & Ghowls

Right back to the original meaning of Halloween, was the fear of ghosts and evil spirits returning from the otherworld to wreak havoc among the living. Goblins and other fairies played a similar role in pranks and mischief and although versions exist throughout the year, its at Halloween when they are most abundant.



Barmbrack is a traditional Irish yeast bread and a traditional Halloween treat. A hybrid between a sandwich bread and a cake. The name origins from the Irish word Bairín Breac meaning speckled loaf, due to the speckle effect from the raisins. Traditionally the loaf would be baked with objects which would be used for fortune-telling.


Most popular is a ring, but originally included a coin, cloth, a pea and a stick. The object found in your slice represented a particular fortune. Finding a pea meant you would not marry that year; if you found the stick, it foretold of an unhappy marriage. Finding cloth, represented bad luck or be poor. A coin foretells good fortune or is rich; while the ring would mean wedding bells for you within the year.


Trick or treating in its modern form isn’t too far removed from the original ritual of mumming or Guising which although can be traced from various cultures around the world, was practised at Halloween Celtic times. As the fear of Halloween was the return of souls seeking hospitality, it was believed the ghosts had to be appeased with food. People (possibly children) would go do to do dressed up in costumes collecting food. The term trick or treat comes from the concept of offering food to the visiting ghosty or face a trick or prank.


Ghost Stories

Pop culture at Halloween like Classic Horror, gothic horror or modern horror is nothing new for Halloween. In fact, ghost stories and scary tales go back to the very beginning of the Celtic celebration of Halloween.



Although many of our classic horror stories from novels and movies aren't directly associated with Halloween, the theme is fitting to the festival.


Produced for Graffiti Magazine October 2019

© 2020 by Lance Kerrigan.