Many cultures and religions around the world celebrate in some fashion on October 31st, but what we know today as Halloween began as Samhain.
Ancient peoples were extremely superstitious and for good reason. Without science, the world is a scary and confusing place. Why did someone get sick? Probably an evil spirit or hex! Your baby won’t stop crying and you’re having difficulty forming a bond? That’s because it’s a Changeling – a fairy child left in place of the stolen human one! No one gets ill from bathing and/or drinking from this (naturally purified) spring? It must be healing magic! To the ancient Gaelic Pagans, things just happened in the natural world, without much rhyme or reason, and their rituals and superstitions gave them a sense of control.
Fall and winter were always an especially rough time, with falling temperatures, rampant sickness, and dying crops. To increase their chances of survival in the coming months, the Pagans took part in cleansing rituals and tried to appease the spirits who roamed the Earth alongside them for twenty-four hours, when the sun set on October 31st…
Pronounced “SOW-in”, because the Gaelic language makes no sense, Samhain is one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals and marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the darker half of the year. Celebrations included slaughtering livestock and preparing it for storage, bringing the cattle down from the summer pastures, and interacting with the spirit world.
People left out food, drink, and other offerings for the Aos Sí, which are the inhabitants of the coexisting spirit world. Typically they lived underground in Fairy Hills, but during this liminal time they roamed free with humans. The spirits consisted of demons, mischievous fairies, gods and goddesses, nature spirits, leprechauns, banshees, and even ancestors –and you wouldn’t want to offend them. Especially, if you’re livelihood depended on their capricious temperaments.
The idea seems whimsical now, but it was quite horrifying to people who truly believed demons, trolls, and witches were on the prowl. If someone had to venture out during Samhain, gods forbid, they disguised themselves in order blend in with the wandering spirits. Sometimes people in costumes would accept the offerings of food and drink on behalf of their ancestors. It’s clear to see how this eventually evolved into a nightly celebration of dressing up and going door to door shouting “trick-or-treat”. The tradition isn’t too far removed from the original intent either – if our candy selection satisfies the ghouls then hopefully they won’t smash our pumpkins or throw toilet paper in our trees.
Other Samhain traditions involve lighting a bonfire for protection and cleansing, placing a candle in an open westward facing window to guide the lost spirits, or slaughtering a rooster and sprinkling its blood on the threshold of your home. With the coming of Christianity, Samhain and All Hallows’ Eve combined to officially become the Halloween we know today. So whether you’re staying in and watching horror movies, taking your kiddos out for candy, or dressing up for a party – make sure you leave offerings for the things that go bump in the night, light up your Jack-o-lanterns to scare away evil spirits, and sacrifice that rooster responsibly!
Rooster stars in the history/spooky/society and culture/current events/everything show, Phone It In. She also covers the broad, daunting topic of ‘general history’ on History Lesson. Follow her on Twitter @SoBroRooster
Image courtesy of Neven Krcmarek on Unsplash!