Samhain in Ireland is often referred to as Hallowe’en but they are separate celebrations. Hallowe’en probably has its roots in the ancient celebration of Samhain when changing of the seasons and the dead were honoured.
What is Samhain?
Samhain (pronounced sow-en) marked the end of the bright half of the year known as ‘Beltane’ and began the dark half of the year in the Celtic New Year calendar. While the main ceremony began at sunset in the modern calendar of October 31st and continued until sunset on November 1. festivities probably began three days earlier and continued for a further three or more days.
It was an important time for the Irish druids, a time of dread and anticipation. Days got shorter and nights got longer, a sign that nature’s decay was beginning
It signalled the end of the grazing season when only breeding animals are kept, the rest were marked for slaughter. The harvest also had to be completed by this date as it was believed that any crops left out after November 1st may be spoiled by the Faeries.
The Great Fire Festival of Samhain
There are four fire festivals in ancient Irish traditions to mark the turning of the seasons. Two of the fire festivals, Samhain and Beltane, were considered to be male, while Imbolc and Lughnasadh are female. Samhain marks the beginning of the dark half of the year
The beginning of Samhain was marked by the Great Fire Festival at the hill of Tlachtga (Hill of Ward). The hill was named after a powerful druidess called Tlachtga who died giving birth to triplets, she was the daughter of Mug Ruith the druid.
The Great Fire Festival played an important role in the rituals of Samhain, it gave light and warmth for the dark days ahead.
The druids of Ireland gathered around the Great Fire to offer sacrifice to all the gods. Other fires in Ireland were extinguished and people were forbidden to kindle fires except for this great fire.
Contributions of food and other items of value were gathered and made as sacrificial offerings to the gods and the dead as appeasement at Samhain. Festivities where tribal in nature where they painted symbols on their bodies and wore charms to ward off any evil spirits that found their way from the Otherworld. The mummers we know today have their origins in this tradition.
The great fire on Tlachtga was visible from the Hill of Tara. This was a great gathering of people who honoured the dead, proclaimed laws, and festivities to entertain. It was a time of truce, all feuds set aside and disputes were settled by the Ollamhs who were high ranking people in society.
The Feast of the Dead
It’s at this time of year the link between this world and the Otherworld is at its thinnest. This allows the dead to return to this world using doors of the Sidhe so they could warm themselves amongst the living.
Great feasts were held in honour of the dead with a place set for ancestors who visited from the Otherworld. After the large supper, the untouched plate of food was placed outside for the Sidhe who were very active on this night. As shapeshifters they may have appeared as Faeries, Pookas or others unknown and unrecognisable to mortals
Celebrating the dead was of great importance which is evident from the magnificent cairns and passage tombs built across the country. Some of the cairns and tombs played a significant role during Samhain, especially Loughcrew in Oldcastle, Co Meath
On Sliabh na Calli (hill of the witch or hag), visible from Tlachtga, there are 35 cairns or passage chambers built over 5,000 years ago during Neolithic times. On the Samhain sunrise, a standing stone within one of the chambers is illuminated by the sun marking the cross-quarter days.
The Mound of Hostages at Tara
At the Hill of Tara is the Mound of Hostages, also built in Neolithic times. It’s a passage tomb with an estimated 250-500 bodies buried underneath in layers.
The dead in the mound were cremated and their ash spread on the floor and covered by stone slabs. The tomb was in use right up to the Bronze Age period. During the Samhain sunrise, the sun illuminates the inside chamber of the Mound of Hostages.
The seasonal change was often connected to death. They buried their dead and those with great importance were often buried on hilltops. The burial lasted for several days with people grieving on their passing which was followed-up with sporting events and festivities. These events became known as Óenach, a fair of a large gathering of people.
Samhain in Irish Mythology
Samhain is often mentioned in Irish Mythology with tales such as that of Aillén Mac Midgna who was a fire breathing goblin from the Otherworld and a member of Tuatha Dé Danann. Every Samhain Aillén would arrive at Tara and burn it down and he did this for 23 years until he was killed by the young Fionn Mac Cumhaill.
There are also tales of the Nemed people who feared the mysterious Fomorians who represented personifications of chaos, darkness, death, blight, and drought. The Nemed’s paid a heavy tax to the Fomorians by giving them two-thirds of all the wheat, butter and milk that was produced. This tax was paid on every Samhain at the tower of Conand on Tory Island until they fled Ireland.
There are many more events in Irish Mythology that occur during Samhain which reflects how important this time of year was to the ancient Irish.
Samhain and Hallowe’en Today
There is no doubt that our contemporary Hallowe’en celebrations originated from the ancient rituals of Samhain. The ancient traditions were gradually replaced with the arrival and spread of Christianity in Ireland. Christians treated the ancient peoples who didn’t convert to their beliefs with contempt, referred to them in derogatory terms and eventually stole the festivals, replacing them with their own holidays such as All Saints Day on November 1st and All Souls Day on November 2nd.