Samhain – The Myth, The Truth and the Bullcrap
So one of the big things we’re all told about Halloween is that it’s just a thinly veiled pagan holiday called “Samhain” that takes place on October 31st. The thought is that’s because that’s when the pagan Celts who did all kinds of horrible things thought the veil between this world and the next was the thinnest and all the Halloween traditions stem from the horrific things they did to each other on the 31st of October.
There are a few things I’ve found out about the Celts and their calendar that I feel need to be pointed out before getting too deeply into the traditions surrounding Samhain and which ones are actually ancient since there’s a lot of confusion surrounding the whole thing that need some clarification.
- The Celts were a vast group of more or less tribal people that inhabited a huge area that consisted of Spain, France, the British Islands, and a vast strip of land as far East as Romania. There were also some Celtic peoples in modern day Turkey. I believe the “Galatians” that Paul wrote to in the Bible were displaced Celts. They were not any sort of unified group like say the Romans, or even a semi-unified group of city states like the Greeks as far as I can tell. There are a few Celtic ethno-linguistic groups left today.
- The Celtic Calendar was a lunisolar calendar that attempted to synchronize the lunar and solar calendars. There is a bronze tablet called the “Coligny Calendar” preserved in the Gallo-Roman Museum in Lyon France that preserves how the Celts kept time.
- The Calendar starts with the month of “Samonios”. This is where the controversy starts with the whole thing. It’s always been assumed that Samonios has corresponded with the Old Irish “Samhain” but “Samon” is apparently Gaulish for “Summer”. So many scholars assumed the Celtic year started in Autumn, whereas it probably (and honestly more logically) started in the Summer. The Wikipedia entry gives the translation for “Samonios” in various Celtic languages as “midsummer” and only in Old Irish does the Samhain mean “Summer’s End” or “November”. So we might be looking down the barrel of a false cognate. In fact as you’ll see from the pronunciation of “Samhain” that’s likely the problem.
My point above is that I believe the Samhain connection to the Halloween festivals were somewhat coincidental now. It could be exactly as tradition says, that Pope wanted to supplant those festivals, but considering most Samhain traditions as we are familiar with were from Ireland and Scotland at the time, not the already extremely Catholic Holy Roman Empire, Spain (or whatever it was called in 600-900AD), Frankish Empire and England (the other formerly Celtic countries Rome stomped the crap out of before the Church came around) I somehow doubt the two Gregories moved the date to screw with a couple of minor islands. They had bigger fish to fry. So I think we can probably discount the evil Catholic Church trying to stomp out pagan traditions in Ireland by moving a holiday around at least for the time being.
Also considering “Samhain” and “Samonios” look like they were two different things to two different peoples. I tend to wonder if it was politically motivated at all, or if either Gregory even knew of the Irish/Scot traditions.
When Did Samhain Occur?
To throw another monkey wrench into some of the neo-pagan claims about the holiday I’d like to point out a few things about the calendars. The Celtic calendars were apparently not uniform. The Coligny calendar as I pointed out was a solar-lunar calendar that tried to make the lunar and solar calendars match. This is for all practical purposes, impossible. There are a lot of reasons why, which I won’t go into. If you want to find out why, a good place to start is just some basic astronomy, specifically lunar and solar cycles.
The Irish/Gaelic Calendars didn’t seem to match too heavily with the Coligny Calendar and borrows from the Julian calendar for month names. It’s generally known that the month of Samhain is the month of November and most neo-pagans celebrate Samhain on All Saints Day. This, however is a bit of a mistake. The Celts seemed to place importance on dates falling in the middle of certain solar or lunar events. That’s why we have phrases like “Midsummer’s Eve”. You might have even heard the phrase associated with Halloween even. Samhain the day was one of these days. Why you would call November 1st , “Midsummer’s Day” is probably the first thing one should thing very hard about, since it is actually “Mid-Autumn day” according to every reasonable northern hemisphere reckoning, but that’s a different debate entirely.
So if you want to calculate when Samhain falls you need to find the Fall Equinox and the Winter Solstice and find the date right in the center of the two. So here’s the dates for 2013:
Fall Equinox – September 22nd
Winter Solstice – December 21st
This is exactly 90 days. So 45 days from September 22nd is November 6th. Samhain, as far as the Solar calendar is concerned is on November 6th this year, and practically every year before and since, it only changes a little due to leap years, and only by a day or two.
Now, since the Celts wanted a lunisolar calendar, this might not be particularly true with all the Celtic tribes. From what I could gather they placed some importance on full and new moons. November 3rd is a New Moon, and just three days off from the numerically correct day. The alternative date might be November 17th, but that’s probably too far off to be right most of the time. Since most lunisolar calendars had different methods of adjustments they probably had ways to account for this as the lunar got out of sync with the solar. So by whatever addition or subtraction of a week or so that they did to make this work, Samhain would have fallen anywhere between the 3rd and the 17th of November this year.
There seems to be a lot of debate as to whether the new moon or the full moon was more important to the Celts, and likely as not it depended more on the particular tribe as there wasn’t any sort of unified “Celtic Tradition” among any of them. It just so happens the Irish Celts have survived the longest so their culture is the one that is looked too when trying to decipher the rest. Likely as not they either added a week or a month every so often to make things match up to adjust for this problem. If you want to know more just check the wikipedia page. They wouldn’t be the only culture to have come up with such a calendar.
If we were still using the Julian Calendar it would have been shifted over about 13 days, though it would have fallen during the same time of year as far as the seasons are concerned. If we were still using the Julian calender the correct date for Samhain this year would be something like October 24th as far as I can figure because of the 13 day shift. Keep in mind that it’s the same day, just that the calendar is shifted in relation to Catholic Easter somewhat. It just throws the “November 1st is Samhain” into question. Hilariously, if the British Empire hadn’t converted to the Gregorian Calender right before the U.S. gained independence, it’s likely the U.S. wouldn’t use the same calender much less the same measuring system as the rest of the world. Can you imagine convincing Americans to change their calender just because come Pope said so? Heck, the Russians and Greeks didn’t until the 20th century.
So first off you need to know how to pronounce Samhain. The best pronunciation I’ve heard is “Sow-ahn”. It’s old Irish so just ignore all the letters and listen to how someone pronounces it. The ‘mh’ makes a ‘w’ sound. Why? I have no idea. British translators probably. If it were American or French translators it would be written “Sowan” or “Souin”. The word itself means “Summer’s End” or it could also mean something like “Assembly”.
The other thing is that, as any farmer can tell you, harvest is well done and over by the end of October so it’s not a harvest festival. It was a bigger deal to herdsmen by the first part of November. It was basically when you moved your livestock to the winter pastures, figured out which ones needed to be graduated to hamburgers, and take stock of your food supplies for the onset of winter.
So your churches doing some stupid “Harvest Festival” instead of Halloween or All Saints party are ignorant at best, and stupid at worst.
The familiar dressing up in costume on Halloween may come from the Samhain tradition of “guising”. People would dress up in costumes or just masks as a way to befuddle the spirits that were supposed to be about on Samhain. This was fairly common in the Scottish highlands, parts of Ireland, Wales, and Mann (according to Wikipedia). Sometimes this was done in Ireland when they went around to collect for the Samhain feast and for a white mare procession after the 19th century.
We have stuff written about the Celts that date back to 40 BC (or so) written by such people as Julius Caesar, Pliny the Elder, Lucan, and their contemporaries. Their festivals and traditions are well documented with varying degrees of reliability and none of the truly ancient stuff talks about the costumes that I can find. One would think Julius Caesar would have mentioned the odd tradition of running around dressed like a demon for no clear reason. So this “ancient” Samhain tradition might only be about five or six hundred years old.
What I can find an ancient reference to is fire. On Samhan night in the Scottish Highlands they’d make a ring of stones, one stone for each man involved, I don’t know, and light a humongous bonfire. This is where some of the anti-Halloween propaganda comes from. The thought is that if a stone were mislaid that person wouldn’t live through the year, and might recall an earlier tradition where people were actually sacrificed on Samhain night. One interesting part of this would be that boys in some places would go to different houses collecting donations for the bonfires.
This is where we get into some very skeptical territory. See, the accounts we have of druidic/celtic human sacrifice don’t actually come from the Catholic church like some neo-pagan people claim. See, the Church didn’t wipe the druids out, Rome did a fine job of that. We don’t really know much about them at all. Most of our documentation on them comes from Julius Caesar himself (funny how he keeps coming up in my research on this). He needed a way to justify his war with the Gauls to the Roman Senate so he did what a lot of people do to horrify people, he claimed the druidic religious leaders of the Celts practiced human sacrifice, which was something that horrified the Romans. We don’t actually have any real evidence that they did this, and he conveniently doesn’t mention them ever again. Julius got his war, and human sacrifice has been attributed to Samhain tradition, probably mistakenly, ever since. Some of them might have been head hunters, but practitioners of extensive ritual human sacrifice they were not.
One thing you read about in American history class in school is the old Halloween parties. People would gather at houses and play games. Bobbing for apples and things like that. The other thing they would do was play divination games. Women would drop egg whites in water and the shapes that formed would show children or their future husband. This very practice was what was shown getting some of the women in trouble during the Salem witch trials of the 1600’s. Other divination games included mirrors, tossing apple cores over the shoulder, and reading tea leaves in the bottom of cups I’m sure. This sort of thing does go back to ancient times.
This is one of those traditions that may or may not actually be pagan. I was always told jack-o-lanterns were set out or carried around to ward off evil spirits or fairies but some people seem to think that this, like trick or treating, might actually be an entirely christian tradition. The original jack-o-lanterns were made from turnips and might have represented the souls of the dead in purgatory (remember a big part of the Hallowmas traditions was praying for the Church Penitent).
This might not be an ancient Samhain tradition either. Apparently part of the All Saints traditions from the Church was the concept of giving children “Soul Cakes” or sending them out souling to gather said “soul cakes”. Apparently they’d go door to door and collect them. This could have also come from the boys being sent door to door gathering firewood donations for the bonfires. I don’t see why this has to be a pagan or christian tradition at all. Seems like most every culture’s holidays involve either giving children candy or some kind or sending children out to gather stuff for the celebration.
It’s not entirely certain whether much of the demonizing of Halloween is anti-Catholic propaganda or not. I tend to think it’s a bit of both. Current tradition has it that the various Popes instituted Hallowmas when they did to get rid of or supplant Samhain. This has morphed into the holiday being absorbed, and then outright ‘devil worship’ by the Catholic Church, probably to covert people away from Catholicism to Protestantism. This was done with Easter, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the same tactic wasn’t used with Hallowmas.
As you can see with Samhain the celebrations weren’t really about the same thing. Hallowmas is a Christian celebration of the dead, and those who have gone before. Some other religions have some analogous traditions. Most of those are New World traditions. The Celtic traditions have a lot more to do with end of Fall festivals. From what I can tell the American Thanksgiving celebration has a bit more in common with Samhain than the Christian Hallowmas at least in intent.