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Samhain, or Oí­che Shamhna in modern Irish, was probably one of the four major festivals that marked the beginning of the seasons - or Quarter Days* - in pre-Christian Ireland (Mac Cana 1968, Monaghan 2004).  The importance of this festival can be seen in the way many mythical events take place at this time (Mac Cana 1968). In more recent folklore it was a pastoral festival, when pigs were killed and cows were brought down to winter pastures (Monaghan 2004) and when It was a time of chaos, when the barries between this world and the Otherworld were less pronounced, and spirits roamed free (Mac Cana 1968) - the Irish roots of 'trick or treating', including pranks and the making and wearing of masks (Danaher 1972), can be seen as relating to the same chaotic atmosphere. It was a time of feasting, possibly related to the end of the harvest and the slaughter of animals, and of divination (Danaher 1972).

Three groups of Kindred seem to be celebrated in the surviving and recent lore around Samhain. Firstly, the festival is clearly related to the dead and the ancestors (Mac Cana 1968). Danaher (1972) describes how, in Limerick, a candle was left in the window for deceased relatives, or lanterns were lit on graves. The suggestion is that the dead may want to return on Samhain Eve, and thus a light is left to light their way home. (This tradition of a candle in the window may have shifted to Christmas - today some Irish people still leave a candle in the window on Christmas Eve, for Mary and Joseph). The tradition of leaving offerings of some kind for the ancestors, sometimes called a 'dumb supper', reflects a belief that it is not only malevolent spirits who are abroad on Samhain Eve (Monaghan 2004). However, this appears to have been a fear-filled feast, as well as a celebratory one.

Secondly, the Aes Sí, or fairies, who roamed and could steal humans at this time, for which reason people would keep away from fairy mounds on Samhain (Monaghan 2004, Danaher 1972). Danaher writes "It was called púca night and oiche na sprideanna (spirit night) because of the old people's belief that both the fairies and the ghosts of the dead were active then" (Danaher 1972 p.200). The púca was a fairy who was believed to spit on blackberries and other fruit, in parts of Ireland, and so fruit was not picked or eaten after Samhain (Danaher 1972).  Crosses, such as the rowan cross or the Parshall cross, were hung in the house to keep away malevolent spirits, along with the use of oats and salt as protective materials, and the protective power of the Samhain fire (Danaher 1972). Food offerings were left out for the Aes Sí, although Danaher (1972) notes that not everyone knew who the offerings were left for. These offerings may have been propitiatory.

There is a third group of Kindred that Irish-hearth ADF members might celebrate at this time: the gods and goddesses commemorated in Irish mythology. As Mac Cana writes, "the Celts have treated the festival of Samhain - the duration of its celebration and more especially the eve of the feast day - as a time apart which was charged with a peculiar preternatural energy, and within it they have concentrated many of their great mythic events" (1968 p.127). A number of key mythic events in Irish myth take place on Samhain, including the Battle of Mag Tuired, before which the Dagda mates with the Morrigan. These two deities, therefore, may be celebrated at Samhain. Equally, there are myths of the Cailleach, particularly in her Scottish form, that involve her rulership of this time of year. Mac Cana (1968) describes how Samhain is a time of chaos, with the order of the world dissolving before it is re-made. I relate this closely to the Cailleach. She is associated with the last sheaf of the harvest (Danaher 1972, Monaghan 2004). In Scotland, winter storms were associated with her (Monaghan 2004), and her traditional rulership of the dark half of the year may derive from a very early tradition of the birth of the winter sun's daughter as an old woman, who then grows ever younger until spring (Monaghan 2004).

I celebrate Samhain by honouring the ancestors, the Aes Sí, and the Morrigan and Cailleach Bheara. I make and hang crosses of rowan wood and create other protective charms, and I leave offerings for the ancestors. I also do divination using tarot, Ogham and more traditional methods.

*It is a little confusing that modern neopagans refer to these days as cross-quarter festivals, and call the solstices and equinoxes the quarter festivals. I prefer to use the traditional terms that were applied in Ireland, but I acknowledge the different usage of the term in ADF.


Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs. Cork: Mercier Press, 1972
Monaghan, Patricia. Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Checkmark Books, 2004.
Mac Cana, Proinsias. Celtic Mythology. London: Chancellor Press, 1968.


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Naomi J./Leithin Cluan/Sophia Catherine

July 2014

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