Samhain

Posted on October 31, 2009

Tonight, at sunset begins a ancient tradition that began thousands of years ago with the Celtic people.  It is called Samhain, (pronounced Sow-en).  It is one of the Celtic high holy days, and actually is November 1.  Since the Celts used a lunar calendar however, the celebrations always begins at sunset on the eve of the day.  Samhain’s name is derived from the Celtic word meaning simply ‘summers end’.  It was seen as the end of the light part of the year and the beginning of the darker days of winter.  

It is also considered to be the Celtic New Year – the days of darkness following the death of the  God Lugh on the previous sabbat, Lughnasadh which would be followed by the days of light to  come with the beginning of Yule in December.  In fact, the orange and black colors are symbolic of the darkness and the light to come.   Lugh is a Celtic hero also known as the Sun God . He is the solar deity of the Irish Tuatha de Danaan, the Celtic Faeries.  Lugh was schooled in the arts, crafts, magikal ways.   He was born with magikal gifts, which reportedly come from the ‘Land of the Living’ to Tuatha. He is most often seen wearing red as his representation as the Sun or Fire God.

During the day of October 31 people were busy cleaning their homes prior to the advent of winter, or the dark days and preparing for the time ahead.  They extinguished all of the fires in the home.  At sunset, a large  bonfire would be lit.  It is said that the bones of animals that had been slaughtered for the winter to come were thrown into the fires ( hence bone-fires) and that the word ‘bonfire’ actually derived from that.The burning of crops and the bonfires not only were a way to honor the gods and goddesses for a good harvest and invoke their blessings for the year ahead, but were seen as a way to cleanse all of the old year and prepare for the new.

During the celebration, the Celts, who were usually a very structured folk, danced around the fires and wore costumes.  Many of the dances played out the cycles of life and death or commemorated the Wheel of Life.  The Celts believed that during Samhain, the veil between this world and the ‘Otherworld’ was at it’s thinnest and it was possible for the spirits of those departed to return to commune with those still on earth.  Part of the celebration involved honoring those dead – even ancestors – by laying places for them at the tables and leaving food outside to be eaten by those living neighbors and visitors as well as those departed.  Time was always set aside for those to quiet themselves and be receptive to messages of advice from those departed.  They did not try to invoke the spirits, only be quiet and listen for them.  Part of the reason for costume wearing was to appear as a spirit rather than a human so as not to be recognized,  in case one had wronged any of the departed and they attempt to retaliate at this time.   

There was also the custom of peeling apples and throwing the peel over your shoulder.  It was said that one could, from the way the peel landed, divine the initial of your future spouse.  Whereas we now carve pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns, the Celts carved turnips and potatoes and placed a candle inside them, then put them into the window to light the way for the spirits who would be wandering the earth this night as well as to scare away any spirits with evil intents.  Druid priests and Celtic Shamans would attempt to tell the fortunes of celebrants by throwing of the runes.  When the community celebration was over, each family would take burning embers from the sacred fire to re-light the fires in their homes.  These fires were to be kept burning at least for the next several months through the winter.  If they went out, it foretold back luck or tragedy to come upon the household.

So tonight, make some time to entertain yourselves and try out some of the other traditions from Samhain.  Build a bonfire outside and dance around it.  Be sure to leave some time to commune with the spirits of those gone before . . . if yer very quiet and listen, perhaps you may hear . . . the voice.


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