The end of summer held much significance to the Celts. The Celts were a pastoral people as opposed to an agricultural people. The end of summer was significant to them because it meant the time of year when the structure of their lives changed radically. The cattle were brought down from the summer pastures in the hills, and the people were gathered into the houses for the long winter nights of story-telling and handicrafts.
The Celts believed that when people died, they went to a land of eternal youth and happiness called Tir nan Og. They did not have the concept of heaven and hell that the Christian church later brought into the land. The dead were sometimes believed to be dwelling with the Fairy Folk, who lived in the numerous mounds, or sidhe, (pronounced "shee" or "sh-thee") that dotted the Irish and Scottish countryside. Samhain was the new year to the Celts. In the Celtic belief system, turning points, such as the time between one day and the next, the meeting of sea and shore, or the turning of one year into the next were seen as magickal times. The turning of the year was the most potent of these times. This was the time when the "veil between the worlds" was at its thinnest, and the living could communicate with their beloved dead in Tir nan Og.
What about the aspects of "evil" that we associate with the night today? The Celts did not have demons and devils in their belief system. The fairies, however, were often considered hostile and dangerous to humans because they were seen as being resentful of man taking over their land. On this night, they would sometimes trick humans into becoming lost in the fairy mounds, where they would be trapped forever. After the coming of the Christians to the Celtic lands, certain folks saw the fairies as those angels who had sided neither with God or with Lucifer in their dispute, and thus were condemned to walk the earth until judgment day. In addition to the fairies, many humans were abroad on this night, causing mischief. Since this night belonged neither to one year or the other, Celtic folk believed that chaos reigned, and the people would engage in "horseplay and practical jokes". This also served as the final outlet for high spirits before the gloom of winter set in.
What about "trick or treat"? During the course of these hijinks, many of the people would imitate the fairies and go from house to house begging for treats. Failure to supply the treats would usually result in practical jokes being visited on the owner of the house. Since the fairies were abroad on this night, an offering of food or milk was frequently left for them on the steps of the house, so the homeowner could gain the blessing of the "good folk" for the coming year. Many of the households would also leave out a "dumb supper" for the spirits of the departed. The folks who were abroad in the night imitating the fairies would sometimes carry turnips carved to represent faces. This is the origin of our modern Jack-o-Lantern.
Was there any special significance of cats to the Celts? According to Katherine Briggs in Nine Lives: Cats in Folklore, the Celts associated cats with the Cailleach Bheur, or Blue Hag of Winter. "She was a nature Goddess, who herded the deer as her cattle. The touch of her staff drove the leaves off the trees and brought snow and harsh weather." Dr. Anne Ross addresses the use of divine animals in her book Pagan Celtic Britain and has this to say about cats: "Cats do not play a large role in Celtic mythology ... the evidence for the cat as an important cult animal in Celtic mythology is slight." She cites as supporting evidence, the lack of archeological artifacts and the literary references in surviving works of mythology.
Samhain was/is also a religious festival. Celtic religion was very closely tied to the Earth. Their great legends are concerned with momentous happenings which took place around the time of Samhain. Many of the great battles and legends of kings and heroes center on this night. Many of the legends concern the promotion of fertility of the earth and the insurance of the continuance of the lives of the people through the dark winter season.
Unfortunately, we know very little about the religious customs. W. G. Wood-Martin, in his book, Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland, states, "There is comparatively little trace of the religion of the Druids now discoverable, save in the folklore of the peasantry, and the references relative to it that occur in ancient and authentic Irish manuscripts are, as far as present appearances go, meager and insufficient to support anything like a sound theory for full development of the ancient religion." The Druids were priests of the Celtic peoples. They passed on their teachings by oral tradition instead of committing them to writing, so when they perished, most of their religious teachings were lost. We do know that this festival was characterized as one of the four great "Fire Festivals" of the Celts. Legends tell us that on this night, all the hearth fires in Ireland were extinguished and then relit from the central fire of the Druids at Tlachtga, 12 miles from the royal hill of Tara. This fire was kindled from "need fire" which had been generated by the friction of rubbing two sticks together, as opposed to more conventional methods (such as the flint-and-steel method) common in those days. The extinguishing of the fires symbolized the "dark half" of the year, and the rekindling from the Druidic fires was symbolic of the returning life hoped for, and brought about through the ministrations of the priesthood.
Animals were certainly killed at this time of year. This was the time to "cull" from the herds those animals which were not desired for breeding purposes for the next year. Most certainly, some of these would have been done in a ritual manner for the use of the priesthood. Scholars are sharply divided on whether or not humans were sacrificed, with about half believing that it took place and half doubting its veracity. Caesar and Tacitus certainly tell tales of the human sacrifices of the Celts, but Nora Chadwick points out in her book, "The Celts", that "it is not without interest that the Romans themselves had abolished human sacrifice not long before Caesar's time, and references to the practice among various barbarian peoples have certain overtones of self-righteousness. There is little direct archaeological evidence relevant to Celtic sacrifice." Indeed, there is little reference to this practice in Celtic literature. The only surviving story echoes the tale of the Minotaur in Greek legend: the Fomorians, a race of evil giants said to inhabit portions of Ireland before the coming of the Tuatha de Danaan ("people of the Goddess Danu"), demanded the sacrifice of 2/3 of the corn, milk, and first born children of the Fir Bolg, or human inhabitants of Ireland. The de Danaan ended this practice in the second battle of Moy Tura, which incidentally, took place on Samhain. It should be noted, however, that this story appears in only one (relatively modern) manuscript from Irish literature, and that manuscript, the "Dinnsenchus", is known to be a collection of fables. According to P. W. Joyce in Vol. 2 of his Social History of Ancient Ireland, "Scattered everywhere through our ancient literature, both secular and ecclesiastical, we find abundant descriptions and details of the rites and superstitions of the pagan Irish; and in no place - with this single exception - do we find a word or hint pointing to human sacrifice to pagan gods or idols."
Folk tradition tells us of many divination practices associated with Samhain. Among the most common were divinations dealing with marriage, weather, and the coming fortunes for the year. These were performed via such methods as ducking for apples and apple peeling. Ducking for apples was a marriage divination. The first person to bite an apple would be the first to marry in the coming year. Apple peeling was a divination to see how long your life would be. The longer the unbroken apple peel, the longer your life was destined to be. In Scotland, people would place stones in the ashes of the hearth before retiring for the night. Anyone whose stone had been disturbed during the night was said to be destined to die during the coming year.
When the potato crop in Ireland failed, many of the Irish people, modern descendants of the Celts, immigrated to America, bringing with them their folk practices, which were remnants of the Celtic festival observances. We in America view this as a harvest festival. Did the Celts also view it as such? Yes. The Celts had three harvests. August 1, or Lammas, was the first harvest, when the first fruits were offered to the Gods in thanks. The Fall equinox was the true harvest. This was when the bulk of the crops would be brought in. Samhain was the final harvest of the year. Anything left on the vines or in the fields after this date was considered blasted by the fairies ("pu'ka") and unfit for human consumption.
followers of various ancient religions, such as Druidism and Wicca, observe
this day as a religious festival. They view it as a memorial day for their
dead friends and family, much as Memorial Day in May, and other such
observances around the world. It is still a night to practice various forms
of divination concerning future events. It is also considered a time to
wrap up old projects, take stock of one's life, and initiate new projects
for the coming year. As the winter season is approaching, it is a good
time to do studying on research projects. It is also a good time to begin
hand work such as sewing, leather working, woodworking, etc., for Yule
gifts later in the year. And while "satanists" are using this holiday as
their own, this is certainly not the only example of a holiday (or even
religious symbols) being "borrowed" from an older religion by a newer one.
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