Samhain: Origins, History, Traditions, and Modern Paganism

by Victoria Wheeler 

What is Samhain?

Not to be confused with Halloween, beginning the evening of October 31st, Samhain is one of eight pagan sabbats or festivals. The Samhain festival ends in the evening on November 1st.

Aligning with themes of the Day of the Dead and All Souls’ Day, Samhain is a time of remembrance and honoring the dead, as well as meditating on death and your other earthly fears.

What are the origins of Samhain?

The pronunciation of this festival’s name is saa-win, not saam-hayne—much to almost everyone’s surprise. However, this festival does not have roots in America or Great Britain; it’s Celtic.

Samhain was originally a Gaelic festival with two primary purposes: to signify the harvest season’s ending and indicate the beginning of the year’s darker half (the winter). The Celts did not rely on the winter solstice to tell them when winter began.

The festival actually began on November 1st; however, the Celtic day began at sundown rather than midnight. That’s how the tradition of starting celebrations on October 31st began.

How was Samhain traditionally celebrated?

Samhain is one of four Gaelic, cross-quarter fire festivals. Located halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, the ancient Celts considered Samhain to be the most important fire festival.

Ancient Observance of Samhain

Annually, families would allow their hearth fire to burn out on the first frost after the full moon in October. They also brought their herd animals back from grazing and completed gathering the harvest at this time.

When the fires died out, families gathered with the entire tribe to watch the Druid priests relight the sacred fire using a wheel and spindle, the wheel representing the sun.

During this time, they said prayers and made offerings and sacrifices related to the community’s needs, particularly the sacrifice of a black sheep, black sow, or cattle.

The tribe was sure to leave offerings of food and sweets at the edge of the village for faerie folk and wandering spirits, as it’s believed that the veil is thinnest on Samhain.

Victorian Observance of Samhain

During the Victorian era, there was a Welsh ritual called a Tinley. Every community member placed a stone in ashes, forming a circle after all the town fires burned out for the evening.

If someone’s stone moved overnight and was not in the same place in the morning, the community deemed them owned by the fey (faerie folk) and expected them to die within the following year.

The Welsh also lit torches and jack-o’-lanterns at the edge of walkways for two purposes: to keep witches away and to light the path for visiting ancestors wandering across the veil. They wanted the path lit so their ancestors could find the way to the door of their loved ones’ homes.

Celtic Superstition

Letting a hearth fire go out on Samhain night was considered very unlucky to the Celts. That was an omen of darker days in the coming year.

Do modern pagans recognize Samhain?

Yes, most modern pagans recognize each of the eight sabbats on the Wheel of the Year.

Many pagans honor the Wheel of the Year and use it as a calendar, along with the lunar calendar and astrology, to plan rituals and significant life events, such as weddings, important trips, the conception of a child, etc.

The Wheel of the Year

There are four sabbats on the equinoxes and solstices of the year: Yule (winter solstice), Ostara (spring equinox), Litha (summer solstice), and Mabon (autumn equinox).

In between the sabbats that take place on the year’s equinoxes and solstices are the sabbats that come from the Gaelic fire festivals: Imbolc (February 1st), Beltane (May 1st), Lughnasadh (August 1st), and Samhain (October 31st).

In the Wiccan tradition, the cross-quarter Gaelic sabbats are considered the “Greater Sabbats,” and they revere Samhain as the most important of the Greater Sabbats.

How Do Modern Pagans Observe Samhain?

Most pagans observe Samhain on October 31st, but some perform their rituals and celebrations on the full moon closest to the festival’s date. Still, others check almanacs and astrology websites on the internet to determine the exact astrological cross-quarter day.

Celebrations and observances of Samhain range from full festivals (perhaps not in 2020 due to COVID-19) to small coven gatherings, individual family celebrations, and even people having their own private observances alone.

Samhain can be a quiet, solemn occasion for many pagans, and they often view it as the most important ritual of the year. However, many pagan families with small children compromise and allow the kids to partake in Halloween festivities.

When observed at home rather than at a festival or coven gathering, Samhain traditions can often include quiet rituals, prayers, divination, and family reflection.

Still, no matter the capacity in which pagans choose to celebrate, the most important parts about observing the sabbat are honoring ancestors and practicing divination.

As paganism and witchcraft can be so incredibly unique to each individual, many people choose to create their own spells and rituals to honor this sabbat.

Magickal Correspondences of Samhain

Knowing correspondences is essential for creating your own spells and rituals. Correspondences are the magickal properties of a person, place, or thing. Tables and charts of correspondences show how different items are magickally related.

According to Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Correspondences, the following are all of Samhain’s magickal correspondences.

Solar system: Moon

Moon phase: New moon

Season: Autumn

Colors: Black, Orange

Trees: Apple, Beech, Blackthorn, Locust, Pomegranate, Willow, Witch Hazel, Yew

Herbs & Plants: Allspice, Angelica, Bittersweet, Broom, Catnip, Dittany, Garlic, Heather, Mugwort, Mullein, Patchouli, Reed, Sage

Crystals & Gems: Carnelian, Obsidian, Onyx

Magickal: Faeries

Deities: Arawn, Badb, Banba, Belanus, Cailleach Bheur, Coyote, the Dagda (November 1st), Durga, Hades, Hecate, Hel, Inanna, Ishtar, Kali, Loki, Macha, Nephthys, Odin, Pluto, Rhiannon

Animals: Bat, Boar, Cat, Cow, Dog

Issues, Intentions & Powers: Crossroads, Darkness, Death (of the god), Divination, Honor (ancestors), Introspection, the Otherworld/Underworld, Release, Visions, Wisdom (of the crone)

Samhain 2020

Due to COVID-19, organizers of many annual Samhain festivals and large yearly gatherings canceled the events for health and safety concerns. However, you have not missed out on your chance to experience a group Samhain experience.

Many organizers did not cancel their events altogether but made them virtual events instead, and many who never hosted Samhain events previously are hosting virtual events this year in light of the worldwide COVID-19 situation.

You can find events to attend online by Googling “virtual Samhain events.” A great selection of events to participate in this year populate in the top search results.

Victoria is an eclectic witch based in the Midwest who stays actively involved in the online pagan community. When she’s not writing, you can find her offering guidance to less experienced witches and moderating large witchcraft groups and forums. Follow her adventures on Twitter at @witch_imightbe

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